Author Archive

Torque’s Jump

airshipby Kate Runnels

Torque gazed down at the clouds scudding past below in a breeze she couldn’t feel, as she idly swung her feet. Sitting at the very edge of the rusting metal support beam she could imagine she was somewhere else. The beam was one of many that needed repair all over the city, but weren’t absolutely necessary. But it was one that helped hold up the roof of her father’s Mechanic shop.

The constant thrum of the engines that held the air city of New Perth in the sky droned on in the background as she fiddled with her mechanical right arm. The tiny gears and joints sometimes clogged with dust and she liked to keep it clean and running smoothly. The small screwdriver tightened one last screw and she slipped it into a side pocket as she flexed her right arm, watching the interplay of gears, pulleys and fluid.

Her chores finished and no airship in for repairs, she stayed out of sight of the bastard of a new man her mother called husband, Malvin. A drunk who relied on Torques skill so he could stay drunk, with the pretense of running the shop. Her father’s shop. Her shop.

The same accident that had taken her arm had taken her father. Everyone in New Perth had lost someone they cared about that day.

The steel vibrated under her and she turned to see Sark, Malvin’s oldest son. Two years older than she and already apprenticed to their neighbor, a smith who made most of the parts they used to keep the airships running. Except those tiny gears she made herself.

Sark didn’t need to flex to show his muscles. They were there from years of working in the smithy. He grinned at her. “Hey, if it isn’t Torque the dork. What are you doing out here? I’m sure father will love to know you’re shirking your work.”

“If Malvin’s not too sloshed he might remember, pea brain.”

“What was that?” he demanded, stepping one foot out onto the beam. He kept hold of the hull wall, as there wasn’t much below but other jutting beams, the starboard engine housing, and the clouds.

She had been sitting, but a change of pitch in the background rumble caused her to stand, easily balanced on the 10 inch wide beam.

“What—”

She held up a hand and Sark fell silent. She cocked her head slightly to one side to bring one ear upward. He opened his mouth again and then stopped, he’d heard it too. Another airship! No! There was more than one.

Torque glanced up in time to see a sleek fast moving airship streak from above the bulk of the city and then it was past and diving down into the clouds not far below.

Seconds later, it was followed by a ship that made the first look like a rusted old tug boat. The sleekness and pristine condition hid its size, until it kept coming and coming on. Only then as it fully emerged did the colors and the sigil penetrate into her astonished mind.

“A Royalty Air Cruiser,” she breathed. She’d only seen one once before in that blue and red, and that was a medical boat after the Blast. It continued its flight, following the airship down into the clouds, but before it disappeared she saw the bow fire a barrage, the report cruising over her moments later.

Then it too vanished into the clouds. What was it doing here?

Lost in wonder, she’d forgotten about Sark. He’d gained his nerve at her inattention. The beam shook slightly and she glanced back to see him in time as he pulled back a meaty fist for a punch, and the wicked gleam in his eyes.

She stepped back off the end of the beam to avoid the strike, which would more than likely have sent her over anyway. Torque dropped, her right arm catching the lip of the beam and she smiled as Sark, off balance, windmilled to keep himself from falling. Torque only used the beam to slow herself and change trajectory. Swinging in toward the hull, she released her grip.

Torque landed lightly on another beam that was part of the floor below their own. She gripped a rusting hole in the hull, as the floor she stood on was barely wide enough for her feet. She didn’t stay there long though, but ran the length of it and when it abruptly ended, Torque trusted her knowledge and leaped off into the gaping hole that was a legacy of the Blast. She knew she disappeared from Sark’s astonished sight, as barely any light penetrated the shattered part of engineering. In another moment she landed, rolled to shed momentum and stopped with a bang as her right arm hit the inner wall. This was a section of engineering that remained after the Blast.

Hearing the noise, a door opened off to her left, spilling out warm welcoming light into the dark, and a grizzled head peaked out the door. Old Grif. He smiled when his eyes lit on her and she scrambled to her feet. It was a gap-toothed smile but genuine for all that, and not evil like Sark, or his dad, Malvin’s.

“Torque, you little rascal, are you running from Malvin again? Or is it your step-brother this time?”

She nodded indicating his guess was correct. “Yeah, It was Sark.” She waved that away, eyes alight from the memory. “More than that, Grif, did you see it? It flew by moments ago.”

“See what, young lady?” he motioned her into the Engineering Control Room and dogged the hatch shut behind her. “I’ve been working on the number two turbine again.”

“A pirate ship, with a Royalty Cruiser on its back end. They flew right over the top of the city, close too, and then they both dove into the cloud cover.”

“A pirate ship? There may be pirates, Torque, but far from here.”

“But, it was being chased by a Royalty Cruiser!” she insisted.

Grif scratched at his scraggly spiky grey hair. “Haven’t seen one of them since right after the accident.” He eyed her, asking, “Are you sure?”

“Of course I am, Grif. It was all fresh bright colors of blue and red, with the Royalty symbol painted on the hull. And the metal shone, so bright, so silver and new—not like this.” She knocked her right cybernetic hand against the inside wall, and got a dull thud in response. “God, I’d love to work on one of those.”

Sighing, she sat down in the chair across the table from Grif.

“Now, Torque, you know how difficult it is to get to the academy. No one from New Perth City has ever gone. It mainly goes to the Islanders, tramping about on dirt—”

“Buddists—” she almost cursed it.

“Now don’t, girl. They were there before, their ancestors travelled and eked out a living in the Himalayas, in the time before the great flood. It’s only happenstance, and I’d rather be living here, in this part of the world than in the Rocks.”

“I know all that, Grif.” She sighed again. “I just feel as if I’m going to be stuck here forever.”

“Stick it out. Your garage is needed for our mail carriers and the other airships in this area. And two more years, you can become my apprentice, move down here and away from some of your troubles.”

“If I do that Grif, what will then happen to my father’s garage? It’s all I have left of him. Mom’s not the same since his death. She only married Malvin out of convenience, not love. We needed the money to buy food and parts for the shop.”

Torque found herself pacing and made herself stop. Her right arm wasn’t the only thing that had been replaced. Everyone, and the city, owed so much debt to the Royalty. It would be at least five more years of work in the shop before her mom, Torque, and her hated step-father were out of debt. Five years. She’d be nineteen then and it seemed so far away, intangible as the clouds New Perth drifted through at times.

“I can’t leave mom in debt.”

“She’s not your responsibility, Torque.” His voice softened. “Think on it. You have two years to decide, my young lady. I’ll always be here for you, slaving away in the bowels of the ship.”

She punched him lightly on the arm. “I do half your work already, you old scoundrel. You’d sleep the days away if I came to work for you.”

He laughed with her. “Let’s head up to the Commons for a bite to eat,” and added when he saw her face close up, “my treat.”

“You’re on, Grif, but not the Commons, the open air market. They have better food.”

“And a view of the docks, if that Royalty Cruiser is indeed around. You can’t fool me,” he said, guiding her toward the lift. “You want to see that ship.”

They exited the lift to the open air market, with the docks to the right, a wall to the front and the city offices behind them. Located at the top of the city, it boasted some of the few trees, and they were used to screen the market from winds. The market was packed with stalls and shops, travelling merchants and local food vendors. The fishermen were in, having descended earlier in the day to haul in their nets. A crowd had gathered near their docks to gawk and stare at a giant fifteen foot shark which they’d hauled in. Shark meat was good, but expensive. Not as rare or precious as beef, but still good.

“The gypsy section has some goat meat I can smell. Maybe some chicken, but eggs are too precious to waste a chicken for a meal,” Torque said.

“Fish and chips?” Grif asked.

“Fish and chips, it is then.”

After getting their food, they wandered near the docks and found a spot near the edge to sit down. No Royalty Cruiser in sight. But there was a large merchant vessel preparing for departure. Torque never tired of the sight of the airships coming and going. Even the little dories the fishermen used to fish with. They had their own elegance in their simplicity.

The sun slowly sank, below the clouds, leaving them bathed in a brilliant red-gold, and the city darkened in the twilight. It took a long time for the sun to completely disappear with the city high up in the sky. It would lower come the morning allowing easier access to the sea for the fishermen in their little dories, but for now it soared high up with the clouds.

“All right, young lady, you should head home now. I’m up early to check the Port side engine coupling with a comptech and a Tesla man. It’s dropped efficiency and only they can go into places I can’t. Trade secrets and all.” Grif shrugged. “I just keep the old city running.”

Torque gave him a hug. “Thank you Grif.”

They parted and she threaded her way through the thinning crowd back to her father’s mechanic shop near the docks but below the open air market. Her home, the only home she’d ever known was behind the shop itself. It just didn’t feel like home anymore.

As the door closed behind her, she saw her step-father glaring at her. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “I hear from Sark you were off sightseeing instead of working.”

She glared right back at the burly drunk of her step-father. “All the work was done, Malvin. You would know that if you ever stepped one foot into the garage.”

“Now listen, girly,” he stepped forward. She clenched her teeth and readied herself.

“Stop Malvin.” Her mother clutched at his raised arm.

“No.” He spun on her. “Your girl needs to learn manners and show some respect.”

Torque raised her right arm, the metal shining in the lamp light. Malvin was one of the few who hadn’t needed any repairing or fixing. He’d come to the city after the accident. His black eyes narrowed at the sight of her right fist.

“Now how would Sark even know if I wasn’t working, Malvin, unless he was shirking his work at the smithy? And I know they had jobs ‘cause we still haven’t got those gears to fit into the number two tug boat for the city!”

He paused and his anger stilled; he wouldn’t attack now.

“Get to your room, girly. I expect to see you in the shop in the morning.”

Not pushing the issue, Torque hugged her mom goodnight and went to her room. She wouldn’t see Malvin in the morning, he would already have started on the alcohol. She closed her bedroom door and flopped onto her bed, but sleep was a long time coming for her that night. She kept thinking about pirate ships, far off lands and the bright shiny Royalty Air Cruiser.

* * *

Up early, Torque snuck out of the house listening to Malvin’s drunken snores. Quickly grabbing bread and goat cheese, she opened the door into the garage and breathed in the familiar comforting smells. This was her home, not where she’d just left.

Around midmorning a pounding sounded from the main shop hatch. She was under a partial support frame that needed rewiring, new gears and all. From the house Malvin yelled, “Curse you girly, get that!” as the pounding started anew.

Rolling out from under the frame, she got to the door as Malvin roared again, “Girly!”

Throwing the hatch lock, she pulled it open and her eyes widened in shock at the sight presented to her. A royalty officer in his uniform of bright blue greeted with red trim, flanked by two guards, one in black and the other wore a lighter blue of a different cut.

“Yes sir?” she asked.

“Is your master about?” the officer asked coolly but politely.

“I’m not an apprentice yet sir, but this was my father’s shop before his death. What can I help you with?”

The officer glanced behind him to the other in the lighter blue uniform. And he asked, “Do you know what a Maple leaf gear is?’

“Of course, but do you want a size 17 engine leaf gear or the 28 for small parts? There’s also the oak leaf off shoot style, that’s transferable but might not be compatible or as strong.” Torque shrugged, “It just depends on what you are using it for.”

The door from the house into the garage slammed behind her. She watched the officer converse quietly with the man who’d asked her the question.

“Well, girly, who was banging at the hatch?” he pulled the hatch from her and swung it all the way open so he could see. And stopped. “I–“ he stopped again.

The officer glanced at Malvin. “We require parts and labor to fix our cruiser as quickly as possible.”

Malvin finally shut his mouth and moved back, gesturing them in. “Of course, my lord. Whatever the Royalty needs.”

The officer stepped past looking away as if he’d caught a bad smell, but was too polite to comment. “As I said, we require parts and labor.”

“Do you have a list of what you need?” asked Torque. Malvin glared at her for speaking out of turn, and to the Royalty on top of it. The officer ignored Malvin and waved at the other in light blue who stepped forward. The black uniform stayed outside, and he was the only one armed, with sword and projectile guns, a pistol and a rifle. The light blue uniformed man produced a list. He had blue eyes and darker skin and a nice smile as he handed it over. He was not as scary as the guard in black. His eyebrows raised as she took the list with her cybernetic right arm. Torque noticed the officer noticed her arm too, by then though, she was engrossed in the list.

“We have a lot of this in the shop, but not the piston and cylinder 330 or the housing assembly for the gear thrusts, we’d have to order those made from the smithy.”

She glanced up. The officer thawed slightly then, “What is it?”

“Did you capture the other ship, sir, or sink it?”

“Torque!” her step-father spat her name thinking she had gone too far. The officer waved him off.

“How do you know there was another ship?”

“Both of you flew right over the top of the city, sir.”

He nodded. “We captured her. Why?”

“I only caught a glimpse as it passed, but hearing the engine go by it matched yours in pitch and tone. If it’s not too battle damaged, most of the parts you need can be transferred over. That would be quicker.”

“Good.” He nodded decisively again and turned to Malvin. “We will be hiring your apprentice away from you for the duration and we will buy any parts needed as can’t be found in the other ship.”

The blue eyed man motioned her over. “The XO, Major Ward, will settle on a price for your services. We need to get to work.”

“We?”

“Engineer Second Class Kidd. Call me Kaz.” When she looked at him weird he elaborated. “It’s short for Kazuto. Kaz is easier.”

“Second Class? Did you lose your Chief?”

His lips pursed together into a thin line. “Never mind. I’m sorry. It must have been a fierce battle with all the parts you need. If you need more help, the City Engineer, Grif, is quite capable.”

Kaz nodded. “He’s the one who sent us here.”

Torque smiled. “I’ll just get what we’ll need ready here. If you have an airlift it will go a lot faster.”

Now it was Kaz who smiled.

Torque arrived at the docks with her parts and stopped to stare at the cruiser. “Torque, stop gawking and let’s get started!” yelled Grif. She ran over to where he stood next to the port side hatch and gangplank attached to the docks.

“All right.” She returned his smile. “This is going to be fun!”

“We need the coupler that attaches here!” she yelled up from below the decking in the motor that helped power the lighting systems.

Her head poked out of the hole and soon she snaked the rest of her body all the way out. “We can’t continue without it.” She shook her head at Kaz.

Grif nodded when the royalty engineering crew looked over at the older engineer, shrugged and said, “She’s right.”

“All right, I’ll send Won over to get it.”

“No, I’ll go.” Torque jumped to her feet. “I know exactly where it is and I have the tools to get it out. And there are some things I want to check out that could be converted over, like their boost systems. It ties in with the Tesla components, I’m sure of it. I want to see how it’s installed.”

She was off before they could say anything otherwise. Her laugh filled the stoic corridors of the cruiser and she ran with abandon down the docking ramp as crew members and officers dodged out of her way. Some shaking their heads, others smiling at her youth and enthusiasm.

Torque crossed the docks and waved at several people who she knew, but hustled on. She paused briefly to look back at the Royalty Cruiser Osprey before she entered the pirate ship. They were so different once she entered the hatch. The cruiser was spick and span and bright and fresh steel and new parts, where the pirate ship was rusting in places and grimy with age. For all that, it had the same ordered quality, tools put away, everything in the correct place, and the engine room–it matched the larger cruiser in power and had the boost converter, weapons implements and was not lacking where power and force were concerned. The engine was almost as new as the cruisers and nearly as bright and clean with new steel. It was amazing.

Then she noticed the dories heading out in the morning light to do the fishing for the city for that day. The city had lowered during the night to make it easier for the fishers, and around midday when they came back, the city would rise again to stay out of the storms and the winds lower down.

Torque hadn’t realized the night had passed, so deep into her work she and Grif had been. Watching the last of the skiff’s gently float down to the ocean, she then turned into the pirate ship’s hatch to search for the parts she needed.

Her right arm, deep into the bowels of the engine, gripped what she needed; a small pipe with the correct valve fitting, size and angle. She just couldn’t get it free and out. Torque’s nose was pressed up against a gear and all she smelled was oil, metal as she breathed, and struggled to get the part out.

Then everything shifted.

The part came loose, but so did the one above and it clanked down on her arm. “Uh oh.” Carefully twisting first one way, she kept hold of her pipe, and then twisted the other as she struggled to free herself now. Forehead now pressed to the gear, she tried not to panic, the upper part shifted and then she was free and she flopped onto her back.

Torque lay on the deck a minute, staring up at the ceiling, at the different kind of lights the pirates had adapted onto their ship and the loose wiring connecting them. Most people didn’t look up, so it made sense not to have those covered, she thought, and probably made for easier access to certain parts of the ship. It was easier to think about that than how close to a huge mistake she’d almost made, and the small one that had occurred. After the minute to calm herself, she finally sat up and glanced along her right arm, with the needed pipe still clutched in her arm.

“Oh, crap.” Opening her hand carefully, slowly, the fingers released their hold of the pipe. She let it fall to the deck not caring if it rolled out of sight. She quickly grabbed with her left hand for her ever present tool. One of the tiny gears, about the size of her pinky nail, that helped work the intricate movements of her fingers, was cracked.

Unscrewing, and then lifting off the outer layer of metal, she could now see the entire gear, and how the teeth no longer lined up with the next and the crack ran down two thirds of it. It wouldn’t stood up to heavy or prolonged use. It might not even continue to work for the next several minutes.

Torque stood and glanced around the engine room. “Where am I going to find a gear piece that tiny and delicate here?”

There were the huge gears and hammers, wrenches and pipes. The one she scooped up now, was among the smallest aboard an airship. The pistons blocked her view forward, and the exhaust toward the aft. Then it came to her.

She left the engine room looking for the crew quarters.

Torque only glanced into some. They were not where she’d expect to find an extra piece to go to a cybernetic arm. And some reminded her too much of her step father. Drunk, with pictures of naked women about; other rooms were clean, but didn’t hold much of value.

Then she stepped into the Captain’s cabin. Larger than all the others and just off the bridge. She’d try the bridge next. The walked up to the desk, her eyes scanning for even something the right size. Pulling out drawers, she almost missed it, as it was lodged up against the side wall of one.

It was the correct size, but there were small holes throughout the gear even onto some of the teeth. Staring at it, she wondered if it would hold up, but she didn’t see any rust or corrosion. Deftly, she worked the broken piece out and the new one in place. Picking up the pipe that had caused all this trouble, Torque headed out of the pirate ship and back to the shiny Royalty Cruiser. The battle had caused a lot of damage, and even if Grif and the others worked around the clock, it would still take another two days.

She smiled. This had been the most fun for her, plus it kept her away from Sark and Malvin, her step father. She’d be sad when she finally fixed the ship up and it left.

“There you are Torque,” said Grif as she walked back into the engine room. “What took you so long?”

“Had a problem with my arm that I had to fix. But I got the coupler and the small pipe for the–“

“Right.” He nodded, and back to work they went.

A day later saw her heading from the secondary power room toward the mess. She was in unfamiliar areas. She’d already worked through the midday meal and Torque needed something before heading back to the engine room.

A door opened, she guessed, hearing her approach. “Here now, what are you doing here?”

Torque paused. “Heading to the mess.” The man wasn’t in uniform, in fact he had a slash in his pants leg near the knee, and his hair was longer, not the neatly trimmed look that she seen on all the others. He looked…rugged, she thought.

“But what brings you here?” he asked looking around the ship.

“My friend and I are affecting repairs caused by the battle with the pirate ship.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You?”

She didn’t like his questioning tone, nor how he slouched against the hatchway frame, arms crossed over his chest. “Yes.”

He smiled, amused it seemed by her curt answer and his next words lost some of their arrogance. “What’s your name?”

“Torque.”

“What kind of name is Torque?” asked another, younger man she could barely glimpse inside the room. The man in the hatchway ignored him.

“I’m Makoto, Torque, it’s nice to meet you.” He was about to continue when a voice down the corridor interrupted.

“You there! Back inside!”

Makoto held up his hands in surrender, then backed slowly inside, all the while grinning as the hatch shut, giving her a wink before it closed completely. Kaz came quickly up to her. “What are you doing here Torque? You shouldn’t be here, and you shouldn’t be talking to them.”

“I got lost heading to the mess from the secondary power room. Who was that?” she asked.

“No one. I’ll guide you, but hold on one sec,” he went up to the ship’s intercom system. “Bridge, engineer Second Class Kidd. I’m in Corridor Bravo 8. There is no sign of Apprentice Trooper Xiu. Can you send security down? I”ll stay until they arrive.”

“Security Chief Masterson will be there shortly with a squad, Bridge out.”

He turned and faced Torque. “Go to the first intersection, turn right, go up the stairs, past two intersections and it’s the door on the left. I have to stay here, but I’ll see you back in engineering shortly.”

Torque nodded and left without asking any of the questions she wanted. There was something going on. Something about those people in the room and the missing Apprentice that had Second Engineer Kidd worried.

Grif was still in the mess finishing up his own midday meal. When she finished telling him what happened he glared at her and then leaned over the table to give her a gentle whack upside the head. “You dolt!”

“What?”

“Those were the prisoners from the private ship. I doubt they have a brig large enough to hold them all, so they converted quarters or storage rooms.”

“Oh.”

“You can be daft sometimes.” He grinned at her to take the sting out of his words. He really did care for her. “Well, eat up, Torque. Then we are back to work.” He ran a hand through his salt and pepper spiky hair.

Not long after, with grease up to their elbows, and fixing up one of the last steam pipes before reconnecting the valves to the power core, Sark came into engineering carrying a load of new gears and bolts from the smithy.

He dropped them on the deck at her feet. The clang reverberated down the corridors and along the connecting decking. “Nice, Klutz,” Torque said. “If anything has broken, any teeth on the gears, the Royalty Fleet won’t pay for a new one, you will. What were you thinking?”

“I’m thinking, that I’m working double duty at the smithy and for father, while you’re living it up on a Royalty Cruiser.”

She was shocked for only a moment and then thrust her hands in front of his face. “You think this is living it up? I’m doing my job, Sark, I haven’t slept but six hours in three days. So sorry, you and Malvin actually have to work for once. It’s not like I’m eating steak and sleeping on goose down bedding.” She bent over to pick up the bag with her right hand, lifting it as easily as he had. “Anyway, we’re almost done. Just need to install what you’ve brought, unless you broke them.”

She set the bag on the counter and looked at what Sark had brought. “You forgot the connecting pin.”

“I’m not going to get it.”

“Whatever Sark. You can’t stay aboard in any event.”

She walked out with him and passed empty corridors and then a bunch of sailors running inboard. Sark and Torque flattened themselves against the bulkhead as they passed. “What was that about?” Her step-brother asked.

Torque shook her head, wondering also.

She continued a little behind Sark at a slower pace. She saw the sailors grab him a second before they grabbed her, hands over her mouth and one of her arms twisted behind her back, just enough to hurt. Eyes wide, she watched at Sark struggled and they knocked him over the head, knocking him out. One of the sailors threw him over his shoulder and they were then hurried along the corridor.

Torque didn’t resist, but the pace was frantic and hurried. Then she caught sight of a face she’d seen earlier. The one she had spoken to in the corridor. These weren’t royalty sailors or soldiers, but the pirates. He’d said his name was Makoto.

The voices were hushed, but huddled in amongst them, she heard them clearly.

“There has to be a way off this ship.”

“The main hatch.”

“Too many witnesses and soldiers to go through,” said the one she’d spoken to. “We want minimal casualties.”

The other men grunted and then he turned to her. “Do you know a way off the ship that won’t be seen?”

Where was Grif? Where was anyone she knew? Her eyes slid around to the others. There was no blood on the cloths, but they all looked like hard men and women. Her eyes came back to the first man.

“Do you or don’t you know, Torque?”

He’d remembered her name. Torque nodded slowly.

“Then you and I will lead.” He showed her the knife in his hand before the hand released her mouth. She stayed quiet. “Good.” He took hold of her arm as the other released her. She took them through the first hatch, back toward engineering. They continued down, below the main engineering past the pistons and connectors, past the pipes and coolant valves, to where they had to duck and twist to get through. To a final hatch which she opened. It was the outside propulsion engines. The wind whipped her hair around as she stepped onto the gantry. She could see the lower levels of New Perth City past the back part of the ship. And connecting the two were the giant tethers holding the Royalty ship to the city.

The giant rope didn’t sway or swing in the wind, but they dipped low enough to be near the wrecked open part of the city where Torque knew. And knew no one else dared go.

“There!” She had to yell as the wind gathered her voice and tried to take it from listening ears.

“No way!” Yelled one of the pirates just inside the hatchway.

“We can’t lug this one over there!” Yelled another.

She faced the first man, who seemed to be their leader. “So leave him,” she said with a shrug. “Or drop him, maybe?”

He smiled, flashing white perfect teeth. “There’s plenty of rope. Tie him off, and yourselves as well. Don’t want a gust taking you to the great blue hundreds of feet below.”

Torque started to walk forward, but his iron grasp held her back. “You got guts, girl. But I don’t want to lose you.”

“Like you really care?”

He laughed and engaging laugh and she couldn’t help but smile.

She started forward again. “Wait for the rope!”

“I don’t need it!”

His grip loosened on her arm and she ran onto the five foot thick tether, easily adjusting to the constant wind. She raced along and as she neared the city the rope surged upward, but she knew parts of the broken city were near. She showed them where to go as she leaped off.

She didn’t have far to fall. Landing with a clang barely six feet down and four feet out, the decking was solid. The clang beside her startled her. She whirled and saw the pirate captain beside her.

“Damn, you got guts!”

She smiled. The rest of the crew, she noticed it wasn’t the entire crew, only about ten of them followed on the rope. “What about the rest of your crew?”

Makoto shrugged. “They are better off with the Royalty, even as prisoners.” One by one he helped them make it down off the tether and into the area where Torque had led them, until they faced the two of them.

“We need someplace to wait for awhile while they search the city.” He glanced around and the jagged holes, the broken deck, the empty levels. “This should do nicely. I doubt anyone comes down here.”

He grabbed her by the arm again. Not roughly and not showing the knife this time. “Lead on.”

There were cracked bulkheads, broken decking, but the hall she led them in was fairly solid. She took them lower, farther toward the blast sight, when he stopped them in a large open area, with light filtering down through cracks. Torque knew this place; the old community theater.

She sat in an old seat as they crew wandered around, some gathering items, some picking through junk, and one dropping the unconscious body of Sark at her feet. She didn’t care. She was warm, fairly safe. She doubted they were going to hurt her, and it had been a long time since she had slept. She closed her eyes.

She woke to crackling flames of a fire up on the old stage. Sark had awoke at some point as he was no longer near her feet, but bound and gagged near the fire as the pirates toyed with him. Pushing him down until he struggled back to his knees or feet as they laughed throughout.

Makoto, several inches taller than her with a slim but muscular build—she remembered his iron grip—sat down next to her. He nodded to Sark. “Will he continue to do that?”

“He’s stubborn. Won’t back down.”

“How do you know him?”

He mouth twisted. “He’s my step-brother.”

“Who you don’t like.”

She shrugged, wondering why she talked to him. “No. I don’t like him, or his dad.”

“He can never replace your dad. I know. When did you lose him?”

“The accident.”

“When this occurred?” He asked, pointing around the area.

“Yes.” Maybe she talked to him because it had been so long since she had talked to anyone but Grif. “You can’t stay here long, you know?”

“I know.”

“What do you plan to do?”

“Get my ship back.”

His voice went cold, hard as the steel in her arm.

“Uhmm.”

The firelight glinted off his eyes as he looked at her. “What is it?”

“We had to take some of the parts from your ship to fix the cruiser.” The bluntness surprised her. Why had she told him? But he hadn’t harmed anyone, besides Sark, and knocking him on the head hadn’t hurt him.

“Will you help us, then?”

“Why should I help pirates?”

“Is that what they told you?”

Laughter from the circle around the fire drew his eyes away from hers. She looked then as Sark lay on his back. “No,” he continued softly, “we are not pirates. We are trouble makers though. And we are fighters. Consider us more like privateers, or mercenaries.”

“Then who hired you?”

“That, Torque, you don’t need to know. Only that we represent those fighting the Royalty.”

He stood then and left her to her own thoughts. Who was fighting the Royalty?

* * *

She did help them. And snuck back into the ship the way they had escaped. She knew the parts they needed, but it took two days. And always glares from Sark toward his captors, but none at her. Maybe he thought she helped them because they threatened to hurt him. She let him continue to believe that. Bringing food and water for them as well.

But two days was a long time, and they had to move to stay ahead of the search parties.

“We have everything we need,” said one of the female pirates. “I know it’s late, but let’s get going?”

“I’m with Mel, the sooner we are out of here the better.”

Makoto stood with the others, while Torque stayed on the outside, but within hearing distance.

“It’s not like getting to the ship that’s the problem. We tether in like we did getting out,”
Said Mel.

He glanced around the assembled group. “If everyone is agreed?” They all nodded. “Then we’ll leave tonight.”

“What about her?” Mel asked.

“I’ll handle that.”

Within moments the group dispersed. They picked up Sark and slung him over the big ones shoulders again. They put out the fire, gathered what gear they had and followed Torque and Makoto.

They were near the anchor point to their ship when they heard it; sounds of encroaching boots, lots of boots. They had stumbled into an oncoming patrol. Torque hurried them on. And they could feel the night wind and hear the creaking of the tether to the city.

The big guy set Sark down, and in the second as everyone glanced away and looked toward the tether, he was up and running with Torque and several others chasing after him. He was yelling, as were the others.

“Help me. Help. They are over here. Hey!” Sark yelling from ahead with a good head start and opening up his lead.

“Get on the ship, now!” Makoto bellowed to his crew.

“Stop right there!” Mel shouted at Sark as she lost distance on him.

Torque stopped then, seeing the approaching lights and Sark continued to yell. “No more hiding now,” she murmured.

“Mel, get on the ship!” Makoto yelled.

The pirate spun and raced back to the others and the tether and the safety of her ship. Torque watched her go. The voice of Sark yelling had faded some, but the lights grew brighter. They would be here soon.

She glanced back at Makoto. He stared at her as Mel reached the tether and started her way across. He was the last, still looking at her.

She glanced the other way to the oncoming soldiers of the royalty and the lights brightening the way. Then back at Makoto standing the darkness, a figure silhouetted by the coming dawn light.

“Your choice. Come with us or stay with them?”

Torque took off running.

◊ ◊ ◊

Kate Runnels

Kate lives in a small town in southern Oregon. She loves competing and coaching in hardball roller hockey and roller derby. While her derby name is unimaginative, Runnels, her number is original and unique in the derby world at -1.

Eddie 2.0

by  Jill Hand

cloudsOutside the clouds hung oppressively low, spitting cold rain that turned to hail. The frozen pellets clicked against the windowpanes, sounding like skeleton fingers tap-tap-tapping, demanding to be let in. The roads were going to be bad if it kept up. I was seated at my desk, eating chicken salad on an onion bagel, when Sanjay phoned.

“I think we may have found him,” he said.

“Where?”

“Alexandria, Virginia. He was born in Boston. Boston!  Can you believe it?”  He sounded giddy. I pictured him pacing back and forth, as revved-up as a new father by the birth of a son.

“The mom was an actress. Cammie Hodges. Cute, not a lot of talent, but petite and bubbly. She was on that reality show, Summer Interns. Remember it?”

I did, vaguely. Rowdy college kids working at summer jobs with the predictable hijinks ensuing. There was a girl named Vella or Venna who dressed like a tart and fought with everybody but I didn’t remember Cammie.

“She’s dead?”

“Oh, yeah. Killed in a car accident on the Beltway, coming back to collect the kid after doing a dinner theater performance of A Streetcar Named Desire somewhere in Maryland. She played Stella Kowalski.”

“And the father, where’s he?”

“He’s out of the picture. He’s an actor, lives in L.A. Does mostly voice-overs. The relationship was on the rocks even before she got pregnant. He took off around the time the kid was born. He doesn’t see him. Sends the occasional check, that’s all.”

I took a bite of bagel and thought about it. So far, things were lining up. It wouldn’t be a perfect match, but it was close. Both parents were actors. Mom dead. Dad not dead, but he might as well be for all the contact he has with his son. Yes, it was close, maybe even close enough to work.

“Where’s the boy now?” I asked. “You said Alexandria?”

“Yeah, staying with these rich WASPs, Mitch and Suzanne DeGraw. Suzanne’s sort of like his aunt, I guess you’d say. She and the boy’s father had the same stepfather. Their moms were married to him at different times. It gets a little confusing. Anyway, the DeGraws have no kids of their own. Suzanne is fond of little Eddie. She used to take care of him sometimes when his mom was working, so now she’s got him full-time.”

I sat up straight in my chair. I didn’t believe in omens, but the boy’s name gave me pause. “His name’s Edgar?”

“Naw, that would be a little too freaky, wouldn’t it?  Who names their kids Edgar anymore?”  Sanjay chuckled.  “He’s Edward, like the vampire in those Twilight books. His mom thought he was so dreamy that she named the kid after him, if what my sources tell me is correct, which it is.”  He sounded smug and I didn’t blame him. This was quite a coup. Our employer would be very interested in this little semi-orphan, the boy named after a brooding vampire.

Sanjay sent me pictures of the DeGraws, and of little Eddie. I started a file, as I did for all our projects. It grew substantially over the years. In the first photo, Eddie was three. His big dark eyes looked sad. No wonder. Suzanne and Mitch weren’t exactly the most cuddly pair to raise a child. She was blonde, tanned, and Botoxed to within an inch of her life. He was dark and intense, giving off an air of irritability, even when he smiled. They led a busy social life and gave generously to museums, symphony orchestras, and charitable foundations. Here they were photographed wearing white linen in the pages of Luxury Yacht. Here was another of them in formal wear in Town & Country. Here they were again, in riding habits, looking at a brown horse in front of a barn in Southern Living. These and other pictures all made it into the file, as well as a number of other documents pertaining to Eddie.

He was just past his fourth birthday when the DeGraws started him at Rolling Hills Country Day School, annual tuition twenty-five thousand dollars. I added a picture of him from the school yearbook to the file. He was wearing little khaki trousers and the requisite navy blue polo shirt with the school crest embroidered in gold on the breast pocket. The picture was taken with him facing front and center, like a mugshot. He stared blankly out at the viewer, his expression one of abject misery.

So far, so good.

Mitch DeGraw was in commercial real estate. He loved commercial real estate. He used to take Eddie around with him to building sites, hoping to instill a love of commercial real estate in him. There’s a photo in the file of them standing side by side next to an excavation where an office building would eventually be, both of them wearing hard hats. In this one, Eddie is seven. His expression says I am not enjoying myself. Not one bit.

He enjoyed himself even less at Granite Mountain Military Academy in Pennsylvania, where he was sent when he was twelve. Mitch thought the boy needed discipline. A picture of Eddie wearing a grey uniform was added to the growing file. In it, he’s standing at attention on the parade ground with a drum strapped to his chest. His jaw is clenched and his eyes hold a hopeless expression. He resembles a Confederate drummer boy, one who is fairly certain that he is doomed.

His father had disappeared by then, having seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth, escaping his many creditors. You can still do that, you know, even in the twenty-first century. All it takes is enough money and the desire not to be found. The money was supplied by an anonymous benefactor: my employer, mine and Sanjay’s and dozens of other people who were mainly academics and researchers and literary critics.

I won’t tell you our employer’s name. I signed a confidentiality agreement when I started working for him. It’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of him, although you probably have at least one of the devices he invented somewhere around your house. All I’ll say is that he’s very rich and very determined, one could almost say obsessive. I’ve met him twice. He’s a delightful conversationalist. He especially enjoys talking about literature. His checks make it easier for me to live on an adjunct professor’s salary.

The_RavenWhat were our employer’s intentions for the little boy with the dead mother and the vanished father?  It should be apparent to you by now, those of you who are familiar with the life of Edgar Allan Poe. He was attempting to create another Poe, one whom he hoped someday would write something as good as “The Raven”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Cask of Amontillado” and all the others. We called what we were doing Project Eddie 2.0.

You don’t think it’s possible?  It probably wouldn’t be if our goal was to produce another Charlemagne or Cleopatra, but we weren’t trying to design rulers; we were trying to design authors. We’d already had success with the Bickford sisters, Stephanie, Amy, and Elise. They were the daughters of a widowed Presbyterian minister who grew up in a cold and drafty farmhouse in Aroostook County, Maine, with lots of books to read and no other children for company. With assistance from our employer, Stephanie, Amy, and Elise – the Brontë sisters 2.0 – had already published several best-selling novels. If it worked with them, we thought it might work with Eddie.

One of the teachers at Granite Mountain was a former Army officer who taught language arts. He was happy to be paid a little something extra under the table to encourage the boy to write. But could he write?  That was the question. We waited anxiously for the answer, which to our delight turned out to be could he ever!  For a twelve-year-old he was quite good. I have a copy of one of the first stories he turned in to his helpful tutor. It involved the premature burial of a pet dog, mistaken for dead after being struck by a car. The dog manages to dig his way out of the grave and comes bounding home to his young master, scaring the daylights out of him and everyone else in the house when he turns up scratching at the back door in the middle of the night, tongue lolling, covered in mud and blood.

“This is good,” I said to Sanjay, who leaned against my desk, arms folded. “Really good. Mature use of language for a child that age and excellent pacing. I like it.”

“Do you?” he said. “I dunno. It’s not exactly what we were hoping for, is it?”

“Why?  What’s wrong with it?”

He regarded me bleakly. “It’s funny.”

It was. I laughed out loud while reading it. Darkly funny, but was that such a bad thing?  True, Poe didn’t write humor. A piece he did for the New York Sun, the hoax story about a hot air balloon crossing of the Atlantic was probably as close as he ever came to writing anything that was funny. The old-time typeface, heralding the amazing feat by eight gentlemen riding in something called Mr. Monck Mason’s FLYING MACHINE!!! looks amusing to twenty-first century eyes, but the story wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Poe’s other fiction writing was uniformly grim. No yuks there at all. Lots of shivers, but no yuks.

“Give him time,” I said. “He’s going through puberty. What do you want to bet he falls in love with a girl and she rejects him? A little teenage angst will get him going in the right direction.”

“Maybe,” he said. “I sure hope so.”

Enter Sophie Ludlow. She attended a nearby girls’ boarding school. They met at a dance and Eddie was smitten. By then he was fifteen and in hot water for writing an article for the student newspaper at Granite Mountain, The Salvo, about the Battle of Gettysburg. It read like a straightforward account of the battle, with loads of facts and interesting little details, until someone happened to notice that the first word of each sentence spelled out an account of a passionate clandestine love affair between the headmaster and the school’s mascot, a ram named General Patton.

“He’s a little scamp, isn’t he?” I said to Sanjay when I telephoned him in Prague to tell him the news. He was over there scouting out a young lady whom our employer hoped might become another Jane Austen.

“I’ll say,” he replied. “Did they expel him?”

The headmaster had wanted to, but Eddie’s foster parents offered to donate money toward the construction of a new gymnasium, and all that happened was that he was confined to barracks for a month.

The DeGraws had never formally adopted him. We weren’t sure how Eddie felt about that. There was a lot we didn’t know about him, although apparently he didn’t mind too much about being confined to barracks. (The barracks in question were more like dormitories at a good college than Army barracks.)  Eddie spent the time writing, mostly poems and love letters to Sophie, but short stories too, all of which he mailed to her. One of them was called “The Prisoner of Granite Mountain”.  It was high gothic (Barred windows! Lightning flashes illuminating the wretched prisoner dressed in rags, huddled in one corner of a horrible rat-filled dungeon!)  But it also contained goofy humor (the wretched prisoner bewails the fact that the internet connection down in the dungeon is no good, and that he can’t get the local pizzeria to deliver.)  It was nicely done, especially for a kid his age, but it wasn’t what Poe would have written.

And the love poems were awful. Real sappy stuff, the kind any fifteen-year-old might write. Poetry just wasn’t Eddie’s thing. No doubt he really loved Sophie, he may even have loved her with a ‘love that was more than love’, but he couldn’t express it through poetry other than the most banal moon-spoon-June variety. Most people can’t. We would have liked another “Annabel Lee”, but it looked like we wouldn’t be getting it from Eddie.

How did we get our hands on his correspondence to Sophie?  We didn’t send someone to climb through her dorm room window in the dead of night and steal it if that’s what you’re thinking. Sophie didn’t save her boyfriend’s poems and letters in a pretty keepsake box, tied up with a pink satin ribbon. No, she casually read them and tossed them in the trash. We paid her roommate to fish them out and send them to us. Like I said, our employer is very rich. If Sophie wondered where her roommate got the money for her new iPhone and those designer handbags, she didn’t ask.

Eddie was eighteen when Sophie dumped him for the young scion of a family who made their fortune manufacturing paint and solvents. He didn’t see it coming, although he probably should have; three years is a long time for a teenage romance to last, especially when one of the persons involved will be going to Wellesley in September and the other will be going to Virginia State.

The DeGraws had gotten divorced by that time and Mitch stopped paying Eddie an allowance, being fed up with him for a number of reasons, the most significant of which was his failure to take an interest in the commercial real estate business. Suzanne had a little money of her own and she agreed to pay his tuition at Virginia State, but he had to come up with his own money for room and board and books and any extras.

Sanjay and I held our breaths and waited to see what would happen next.

He started firing off a series of despairing emails to a friend in Chicago. He wanted to die! He couldn’t believe Sophie would do this to him! Didn’t she realize how much he loved her? Oh god, it wasn’t fair! Why was this happening to him? It wasn’t fair! If he died, then she’d be sorry! It wasn’t fair! And so on and so forth.

I have a copy of the emails. They were sent to me by Eddie’s friend in Chicago, who bought himself a new laptop computer and a set of new tires for his car, courtesy of my employer. (In case you’re wondering, no one we approached with an offer of cash in exchange for assisting us in our endeavors ever turned us down.) One email in particular stands out. Eddie wrote, sourly:  ‘It seems I’m not rich enough for her. When I told her I’d be going to a state school she was horrified, as if I said I’d be going to prison for knifing a convenience store clerk. Now she’s seeing Nash Kincaid, who looks like a brain-damaged horse.’

Even though his hurt and wounded pride came through loud and clear, I chuckled. Eddie had a way with words.

What he did next was surprising. Sanjay was in Seoul, checking up on a girl who showed promise of becoming the next Emily Dickinson. I called him to tell him the news.

“You won’t believe what Eddie is doing,” I said.

“What? Is he drinking? Gambling? What’s he doing?”

If he expected him to follow in Poe’s footsteps that way, he was going to be disappointed.

“Neither one,” I said.

“Is it drugs?” Sanjay asked. “It’s drugs, isn’t it?” Did I detect a trace of eagerness in his voice? I thought I did.

“Not drugs. He’s doing stand-up comedy.”

Sanjay’s reply was unprintable. He ranted about how we’d had such high hopes for him and now everything was ruined and he didn’t know what our employer was going to say and what the hell was wrong with the kid anyway? Why wasn’t he sinking into a black depression and writing some really top-notch stuff about grave robbery or some kind of hideous curse?

“Dammit!  It’s all over. All the trouble we went to and for what?  So he can get up on stage and tell jokes? He probably sucks, doesn’t he?”

On the contrary. I’d caught his act and it was good. In fact, it was better than good. The audience was mixed, mostly college kids, but some older people, and he made us laugh until it hurt. Eddie told stories about his summer job, which had entailed cleaning people’s basements and garages, working for a company that does that kind of thing. He talked about the items that he found, some of which were very strange indeed. At one point, he picked up a guitar and sang a song about discovering a freezer full of dead cats, all of them dressed in doll’s clothes. The audience joined him in the chorus. It was hilarious, as was his rendition of “Eyeball on the Ceiling”, a song he wrote about an incident at another of his jobs, working for a company that cleaned up crime scenes after the police were through with them.

“That’s grotesque,” Sanjay said.

Grotesque and Arabesque, I thought, recalling the name of a collection of Poe’s short stories, for which he received not a cent, just twenty free copies. Despite his prodigious talent, Poe remained broke pretty much his entire adult life. “You should have been there; it was great,” I said.

Then I told him the best part: Eddie was still writing fiction. He was one of those people who can’t seem to stop writing, come hell or high water. He wrote stories that were gruesome and funny at the same time. That’s not easy to pull off and get it right, but Eddie got it right. He’d written a novel about a priest who runs a business on the side disposing of the bodies of dead hookers. Our employer had found him an agent and a couple of publishers had expressed interest in it.

“But he’s not writing like Poe,” Sanjay said dejectedly.

“Maybe not,” I said. “But he’s not going to marry his fourteen-year-old cousin either – not that he has a fourteen-year-old cousin – but still, the people he cares about aren’t going to waste away and die of tuberculosis. That’s better than being another Poe.”

Sanjay harrumphed. He clearly didn’t agree.

“And listen,” I said. “He’s young. He’s already writing great stuff. He’s got years and years to improve and who knows? Maybe someday he’ll write something that will live on long after he’s gone, just like Poe did.” I’d read Father Mulcahy’s Sideline, Eddie’s book about the dead-hooker-disposing priest. There were passages where I’d caught an echo of Edgar Allan Poe. Lots of authors have imitated Poe, to greater or lesser success, but Eddie wasn’t imitating. He had his own voice. His writing style was leaner than Poe’s, without the nineteenth-century flourishes and furbelows, but the echo was there. It rang through his work like the tolling of an iron bell. It gave me the shivers.

“He seems to be happy, now that he got away from Mitch DeGraw and Granite Mountain. He’s doing what he loves and he probably won’t die broke and miserable. Isn’t that better than being a tormented genius who got paid next to nothing for his work when he was alive?”

Sanjay didn’t answer. Finally he said, “Well, if our employer’s satisfied then I guess I am.” He didn’t sound particularly satisfied. Then he brightened. “Did I tell you? I’m off to Australia. There’s a kid there our employer wants me to check out. His parents are these improvident actors, really bad with money. Loads of debt and they’ve got like, five kids, and this kid had to drop out of school and go work in a warehouse to help support the family. He’s also stringing for a newspaper, covering the local courts.”

He paused to allow me to make the connection. It didn’t take me long. “Dickens? You’re hoping he’s going to be another Charles Dickens!”

“Correct,” he said, sounding happier than when I delivered the news about Eddie. “Better start another file. We can call it Project Charlie 2.0.”

«»-«»-«»

Jill Hand is the author of The Blue Horse, a science fiction/fantasy novella from Kellan Publishing based on a true story.  It contains no zombies, moody teenage vampires, or young people forced to fight to the death in a post apocalyptic future. It does, however, contain humor and some lively historical facts.

The Trial of Arthur A. Westcott

by Megan E. Cassidy

“Doctor Lynch, can you explain for the jury precisely how your machine works,” the prosecutor began. She had been waiting for this moment for the past seven months. After the investigation, the manhunt, the arrest, the pre-trial hearings, and the standard sets of objections and appeals, the stage was finally hers.

Due to the high profile nature of the crime and the sensitivity of the evidence being given, the judge ordered a closed courtroom, but the drones chronicling the events for the record and future public consumption zoomed in on the witness, as all twelve members of the jury and six alternates leaned forward in anticipation.

jury-box

It was not just a pivotal moment in the course of the trial. It was, quite literally, the pivotal moment of human history. Thousands of scientists would kill to get even the smallest tidbit of information on the heavily guarded research. Lynch and Pillay might have hidden away the information for years had it not been for the assassination. Instead, Lynch was about to reveal the secrets of the universe to eighteen average citizens with absolutely no scientific background whatsoever.

Lynch cleared his throat, recalling at the last second Prosecutor Janey’s careful instructions during their months of coaching. He dropped his fluttering hands and folded them in his lap, nails digging into his flesh as he tried to calm down. Lynch had always been more comfortable in a lab or library than around people. It was one of the reasons he had become a researcher instead of a professor. He wished that his partner Niemah Pillay had been called up first. But Janey worried about jury bias and wanted testimony from an American male instead of a South African female, whom the jury might see as an outsider in a trial involving the assassination of the President of the United States.

Lynch licked his lips and cleared his throat again, “The device was built after my colleagues and I discovered the flaw in the Einstein-Rosen Bridge hypothesis. By solving the Kepler problem and redirecting the gravitational…”

“In layman’s terms please, doctor,” Janey interrupted kindly, eliciting smiles and nods from the jury. She and Lynch had practiced this dialogue. Both Lynch and Pillay were reluctant to share their discoveries, fearing that other, less ethically responsible parties, would replicate or surpass their research to calamitous results. Janey had assured them that the jury, a group which included an accountant, housewife, preschool teacher, gardener, and grocery clerk, would be unable to understand the precise physics of time travel. Nevertheless, she had coached Lynch to begin elucidating on the subject, just to establish authority. Then, he could give carefully worded examples clear enough for amateurs to understand.

Janey handed her witness the small cardboard box to demonstrate. Lynch nodded and began again, “There are four known dimensions.” He held up box, running a finger across the sides and center of the box, “The first three are easily seen—height, width, and depth.”

“The fourth dimension is time. Historically, we have moved in three dimensional space. You can walk forward or backward, jump up, fall down, and spin around,” Lynch manipulated the box as he spoke, and Janey was pleased to see the eyes of the jury glued on the object, following Lynch’s every minute motion.

“But,” he continued, “thus far, we have only been able to move forward with time.” He slid the box along the rail of the witness stand, pausing momentarily as he said the words, “through the past, present, and future.”

“What do you mean?” Janey asked.

Lynch wanted to sigh. He thought this would be clear, but she had insisted on a further explanation, “Well, I was born July 6, 2013 at precisely 6:07am.” He set the box to his left. “As I wriggled back and forth in my crib,” he twisted the box around, “time continued marching forward to 6:08, 6:09, and so on.”

He inched the box forward by small increments, “I went along in that time, but I could not break the flow of time to jump ahead to noon. Nor could I jump from 6:06am to the minutes before I entered the world.”

“But now you can?” Janey asked.

“Yes,” he replied, and the jury gave a collective jump of excitement.

“Can you explain how,” Janey inquired, “again in layman’s terms?”

“Our machine is able to move backward and forward in time,” he began.

“But not in space?”

“No. It moves along the fourth dimension,” he dragged the box against the railing again, “but it is unable to move up, down, or from side to side. Instead, once it is placed on a particular spot, we are able to observe past, present, and future events only in that singular location. This is somewhat similar to the old HG Wells’ novel , The Time Machine. The device is rooted to one spot.”

“And how are you able to move into the past or future unseen?” Janey’s voice quavered almost imperceptibly. She knew this would be the most complicated part of the scientist’s testimony, and desperately hoped the jury would be able to understand. If not, the case might be lost.

Lynch explained, “Once the device is engaged, our machine, the Tempus V, moves within a fifth dimension, outside of our own.”

He opened the cardboard box and drew out the cube that had been nested within. “Think of this as a location,” he held up the box and placed it on the railing. “And think of this as the machine,” he held the cube a few inches away.

“It’s there. We can see and hear everything on the box. We can even see the box in the future or in the present. But we can’t touch it or interact with it. That’s one reason the machine doesn’t move from side to side or up and down. It’s on a different plane of existence.”

“A different plane,” Janey echoed his last words, “So, to use another literary reference, you become like the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?”

Lynch’s muscles eased and he realized he had been holding his breath, “Yes. We are able to observe, but can neither be seen nor heard.”

“Objection, Your Honor,” Defense Attorney Cain cut in, sneering sardonically with each word she spoke. “Are we really supposed to believe that this man and his,” she paused, “friend, fly around time like some sort of zany spirits?”

Judge Denison looked down, annoyed that the ground-breaking testimony had been cut short. It was standard and almost obligatory to object at such a point, but the seasoned lawyer had to know that she was hurting her case by doing so. “As I stated before, Ms. Cain, there have been numerous government officials who have observed Dr. Lynch’s work. Their testimonies have been recorded, but is highly classified. We will have the opportunity to hear from Dr. Pillay as well, and the defense team will, of course, have the ability to cross-examine both witnesses. Motion is denied.”

Cain nodded and sat back down. The fact was that she did know she was hurting her case, but realized that her client had been found guilty in the hearts of the jury weeks before. She also knew that without at least the appearance of a rigorous defense, Arthur Westcott would have grounds for appeal. After reading over the prosecution’s evidence during discovery, Cain wanted him executed just as much as every person sitting in that jury box.

Janey rolled her eyes at the rapt jury and smiled as if they were sharing an inside joke at the defense attorney’s expense. Turning back to her witness, she said, “You were just explaining that your machine, the Tempus V, exists on a separate plane. Once you reach that plane, are you able to move about and examine the location further since you’re unseen?”

“No,” Lynch resisted the urge to shout, bile rising slightly in his throat. He had known the question was coming, but he still felt unprepared to answer. “Our understanding of the fifth dimension, of this separate plane, is still limited,” he paused now and took a drink of water from the cup sitting by the stand and looked again at Pillay, who was staring into her lap, teary eyed.

“Look, you’re talking about moving about in a completely unknown space. Maybe you could come back into the vehicle. Maybe. But more than likely, you would be trapped within that moment, able to move through time, but not up, down, back, or forth.” His voice rose slightly as he pulled the little cube along the rail, shaking it gently to show the tension in his hand, as if it were trying to move off the railing of its own accord.

He continued, “Without the normal earthly rules of time, your body and mind wouldn’t age the same way. You’d be somewhere in this fifth dimension completely disembodied from our world, unable to communicate with anyone on this plane of existence ever again.” Lynch winced, and the entire jury shuddered right along with him.

“Objection, Your Honor,” Cain stood again. “Isn’t this entirely theoretical? Can we please return to the facts of the case?”

Lynch’s mind moved away from the trial proceedings. It wasn’t theoretical. Not in the least, no matter how he was presenting it here. But only he, Pillay, and a handful of others knew about their former colleague Rikichi Okada, and he wasn’t about to dredge up that painful incident in front of a roomful of strangers who could never understand.

Okada had assisted with the creation of each one of the five Tempus machines. Tempus I and II were complete failures. The first fell apart once the circuits were started, and the second closed up in on itself, thankfully crashing to the floor instead of creating some irrevocable time rift. Pillay had wanted to quit at that point, but Okada was more reckless and daring, and he had convinced a still-curious Lynch to continue on in their research.

Tempus III and IV had been sent out on a trial run with only a remote video feed. Only static was recorded, but they believed the experiment to be successful. The three scientists built the fifth prototype and had agreed to accept the risks of time travel when they boarded the Tempus V. Unsure whether their theories on fifth dimensional space were correct, they kept the machine in the lab, strapped themselves in and moved forward ten years into the future. When the machine stopped whirring, they saw three students cleaning beakers and straightening papers. One of the students passed directly through them, completely failing to acknowledge their presence.

Pillay was horrified when they returned, completely shaken by the experience. Lynch suggested that they had been reckless in jumping into the vehicle themselves and recommended turning the project over to the university at large. The headstrong Okada who had insisted they continue experimentation. “We are the first and only known people to travel through time,” he proclaimed. “Taking such a journey is like Neil Armstrong walking on a moon of another planet two solar systems away before anyone else figured out space travel was even possible!” After much debate and discussion, Okada won the battle.

The research team continued in their secret travels for three months after their first successful excursion. The Tempus V was a small carbon and glass structure wired to receive sound, and so they were able to observe everything, though recording had proved unsuccessful. The vehicle had room for four people, should they wish to bring someone else on board, but was relatively light and easy to transport in the large moving van they had purchased expressly for that purpose. Still, they cautiously limited trips to locations around the small college town, covertly moving the machine from place to place only at night and travelling backward and never forward, having universally agreed that knowing too much about the future could be detrimental.

They were preparing to publish a highly restrained and abbreviated account of their research when Okada suggested they take one last trip. They had taken the machine to a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of town. Then, the team rolled the machine back to the previous morning and cheerfully observed parents sending their children off to school, dogs being walked, and mail being delivered.

Without warning, Okada had shouted, “I am not a scientist!  I am an explorer!” Before the other two could stop him, he threw open the door and dove headlong out of the vehicle.

They quickly closed the door, and looked around wildly, hoping to see their friend moving like a ghost amongst the other citizens of the town. There was no sight of him. They waited for hours. They moved the Tempus V back and forth through time, thinking perhaps Okada might appear in either the future or the past. But he did not, and most likely could not return.

At last, they had to leave Okada behind, wherever he had gone. Upon their return to campus, they had contacted first the university president and then a number of top government officials to report and explain their colleague’s sudden disappearance. All parties concerned had agreed to classify their findings as top-secret and move their research to the Pentagon for security reasons. Under the guise of an alternate energy grant, the two scientists continued to secretly observe and record both mundane and pivotal moments in American history.

It was not until three years later, upon the death of President Ophelia Smithe that Lynch, Pillay, and their highly guarded research were violently thrust into the public eye. The two researchers had been dodging questions and living in near seclusion under a heavily protective guard ever since.

Janey interrupted Lynch’s thoughts with a sharp, “Would you like me to repeat the question, Doctor?”

Lynch cringed, shamed that his attention had wandered at such an important moment. Janey smiled warmly; she didn’t want to alienate her star witness. “Coming back to the matter of the defendant Arthur Alan Westcott, how did you arrive at the conclusion that he had murdered President Smithe?”

The scientist relaxed again. From this point forward, his statements would be limited to those of witness describing a crime. There would hopefully be little room for the jury to doubt this evidence. “To begin with,” Lynch eased back into his chair, steepling his fingers in front of his chest, “the praise must go to the Chicago police department and the FBI for all of their hard work.”

He paused as both Janey and the jury smiled. She had thought this bit necessary, both to elucidate the procedure and to establish Lynch as not just a knowledgeable witness, but a kind, relatable one as well. Back at the defendant’s table, Cain snorted derisively but did not object, and so he continued. “The forensics team first determined the trajectory of the bullets that pierced through President Smithe’s skull and person.”

“How were they able to reach those conclusions?”

“Objection,” Cain stood. “Is Mr. Lynch an expert in time travel, or an expert in forensics?”

“I’m an expert in physics,” Lynched blinked, affronted and speaking out of turn. “I assure you I can speak to both.”

Janey smiled at the unexpected interruption. Lynch was proving to be the best witness she’d ever had. “Your Honor,” she said, “the trajectory of the bullets led directly to Dr. Lynch’s eventual placement at the scene of the crime. And, as he stated, he is in fact an expert in physics and if he can explain the bending of time and space, he can surely describe the simple path taken by a bullet moving along a mere three dimensional plane.”

The jury stifled laughter and the judge’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly in amusement, “I’ll allow it.”

bulletJaney motioned to the scientist to continue and he said, “There are a number of factors taken into account when concluding the origin of a bullet. First, one group inspected the bullets to determine the caliber. They also examined the angles at which the bullets had passed through the President’s podium and through the stage wall set up behind her. Meanwhile, doctors at the morgue examined the wounds in the President’s body to determine the angle at which they had entered her body. Finally, a third group studied footage from television cameras and phones taken during the event.”

“And yet, no one was able to see the origin of the shots?” Janey prompted.

“Correct. No cameras had been trained on that exact spot, but using this footage, the team was able to set up a dummy the exact height of the President in her exact location on the stage. From there, rods were placed from the dummy to the stage wall at the exact angle of entry. Finally, lasers were placed to show through the entrance of the bullets in the stage wall through the President’s body, and up into the buildings surrounding the square. At that point, it was determined that the shots had been fired from the roof of the Granchelli Building.”

“And that’s where you came into the picture?”

“Not quite. The area was inspected first by the brave men and women of both the FBI and the Chicago PD. According to their reports, which were testified to earlier, there was no physical evidence. The area had been completely cleaned. There were no footprints or fingerprints, no gunshot residue, no evidence that anyone had been up there.”

“So then you were called in to help?”

“Yes,” Lynch nodded. “Niemah, that is, Dr. Pillay and I were contacted by authorities and were asked to use the Tempus V to observe events and determine what had occurred.”

“And you agreed?”

“The President of the United States had been shot three days prior. The entire country was turned completely upside-down. Everyone was, and still are, shocked with grief. Of course we agreed,” Lynch finished his impassioned answer, and Janey repressed the urge to smile again.

“Tell us what happened next,” she said. Now that trust had been established and Lynch had the jury hooked, she gave her witness free rein to describe events as he saw fit.

“After all possible evidence had been collected and recorded, a helicopter brought Dr. Pillay, the Tempus V, and me onto the roof. After setting up the device, Dr. Pillay and I entered the vehicle. We then travelled backward to five minutes before the President’s death. From our location, we observed a blond middle-aged man dressed in a green polo shirt and blue jeans kneeling at the edge of the roof. He was holding a heavy barrelled sniper rifle with a high power scope.”

“Objection, Your Honor. Is the witness also a firearms expert?”

“Sustained,” the judge conceded.

Lynch tried again, “He was holding a large gun, which was later identified by a firearms expert who accompanied us on one of the later excursions.”

“So, the man was holding a gun at the edge of the roof where the bullet was determined to have originated from. What occurred next?”

“He fired five shots directly at President Smithe. The first two were fired off within seconds of each other.  Both entered the President’s chest. She stumbled backward and a secret service agent dove in front of her, but the agent was unable to prevent the third bullet from entering her skull and piercing through her brain. The assailant moved his gun to a lower trajectory and the fourth bullet crashed through the podium, missing the President, but hitting a second Secret Service member, Agent Cody Michaels in the shoulder. The final bullet went wild and killed Melissa Evans, a five-year-old child standing in front of the stage,” he paused as members of the jury gasped, clutched hands to mouths, and shook their heads. The death of the young girl had engendered almost as much sadness and outrage as the death of the President.

“After Melissa collapsed to the ground in a pool of blood,” Lynch remembered to elaborate on this portion of the story, “the assailant took precisely thirty-nine seconds to disassemble the sniper…the weapon. He had been kneeling on a blanket placed on top of the rooftop gravel. After placing the weapon into a green and white gym bag, he pulled up the blanket and shoved that into the bag as well. He then proceeded out of the rooftop door and calmly exited the rooftop.”

“Can you identify the man you saw that day?” Janey asked.

“Absolutely,” Lynch said, pointing to the defendant. “He’s sitting right over there.”

“And did you identify him immediately?” Janey asked.

“No. After a number of observations, Dr. Pillay and myself along with several other attending witnesses worked with sketch artists provided by the FBI. Once a sketch was created, there was a manhunt for the suspect, which lasted eight days. After Mr. Westcott was apprehended, Dr. Pillay and I were brought in to identify the suspect. Separated from one another and brought in before independent police lineups, both she and I identified Arthur Westcott as the perpetrator.”

“Was there ever any doubt in your mind that Mr. Westcott might not be the person you saw that day?”

Lynch sat forward, “Ms. Janey, seeing him kill the President and that little girl once would have been enough, but my colleague and I observed the murder precisely forty seven times.” He paused as the jury gasped again.

Lynch turned away from Janey and looked directly into the eyes of every juror and every alternate one by one. His voice became slow and deliberate, “Forty seven times. From every angle imaginable. I have absolutely no  doubt whatsoever that the man we saw that day over and over and over again is the man who sits before us now.”

“Thank you, Dr. Lynch, for your clear and courageous testimony. Your work will have far-reaching implications not just on the outcome of this trial, but on the fields of science and history. No further questions at this time, Your Honor,” Janey said, taking her seat.

“Would you like to cross-examine the witness at this time, Ms. Cain?” the judge asked, hoping the lawyer would say no so that they could pause for a recess and he, like everyone else in the courtroom, could take time to fully digest the implications of Lynch’s testimony.

Unfortunately, the attorney replied with a terse, “Yes, Your Honor,” and approached the witness stand.

“Mr. Lynch,” she began.

“Doctor,” he cut her off.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’ve been calling me Mr. Lynch all afternoon. I have dual doctoral degrees in physics and astronomy. I would prefer being addressed by my proper title.”

“Doctor then,” she conceded, to the delight of the jury and the chagrin of her client. “Dr. Lynch, I am not going to question any of the observations you or your colleague made that day.”

“You’re not?” Lynch tried not to show the shock which was written all over his face.

“No,” she smiled, “instead, I’d like to focus on your theories of time travel.”

He resisted correcting her again, even though theories were unproven concepts and his beliefs on the rules of the space-time continuum had already been proven many times over. She continued, “First, could you explain why you are unable to move about in three dimensional space and why you are unable to be seen by anyone?”

“Asked and answered, Your Honor,” Janey objected.

“I think we could all use a bit more clarification,” Cain smirked.

“I’ll allow it,” the judge decided.

“Well, as I stated before, working fifth dimensionally, we are outside this plane of existence,” Lynch said. “So, first is the fact that within the realms of the fifth dimension, space and time do not…” he paused, searching for the right word, “bend to allow for horizontal or lateral movement. Beyond that, there are two theories of time travel, one of which presents significant complications if one were to be seen.”

“Can you explain?”

“The first school of thought states that the fourth dimension, that is to say time, is unyielding. In this case, any visit to the past and any interference therein would have almost no effect on present or future events. You could attempt to travel back to prevent your own birth from occurring, but would be unsuccessful.”

“Ah. I see, and the second theory?”

“The second school of thought states that time is highly viable. So that any small alteration, even the tiniest of changes, would have enormous repercussions on the future, possibly even causing an unalterable paradox which could theoretically tear the fourth dimension apart.”

“A paradox?”

“Yes. To draw from the earlier example. If you went back to prevent your own birth and were successful, you would not be born, nor would any of your children or grandchildren. Yet, you were the one to prevent the birth. So, you would be there to do it, but you would not be born to complete the task. This process of being born and unborn might loop, or might destroy a part of the universe in unimaginable ways.”

“And yet, you took the risk that this would occur, at least with your first journey?”

Lynch looked over to Pillay, wondering how much to say, “We knew that working within the fifth dimension, this would not be a possibility. However, as a precaution, we journeyed first into the future as any visit ahead of our time would not cause any sort of alteration such as I have described.”

“Except that you could then know the future,” Cain quipped.

“Objection, badgering,” Janey broke in.

“I’ll answer,” Lynch said, wanting to explain. The judge nodded and the researcher said, “Before our work was brought under the auspices of the federal government, we took only two trips into the future. Both journeys were within the confines of our laboratory, and both lasted less than three minutes.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Cain said. Waving a hand at an already rising Janey, she resumed, “Withdrawn, Your Honor. Now, Dr. Lynch, outside of these two excursions, you have traveled into the past on a number of occasions?”

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“I’m afraid that’s classified,” Lynch said. Finally there was a question for which he had been prepared, and he hoped his answer would be the same for every other inquiry the prosecutor threw his way.

“I’m sorry, but this is a federal trial in the case of the assassination of a president. Surely, you should be as forthcoming as possible,” she pretended to be shocked, turning with mock horror to the jury.

“I have been advised to limit my answers to the events of that day,” Lynch said.

“You have been advised,” Cain murmured. “By Counselor Janey, I presume.”

“No,” Lynch said, actually shocking her this time. “By Vice President, sorry, by President Lopez.”

The jury broke out into loud murmurs and exclamations that did not cease until the judge banged his gavel, “That will be enough. Continue, Ms. Cain.”

“I see,” the prosecutor arched an eyebrow, playing the part, but again secretly pleased to see the case was not going her way. She had only one set of questions left and hoped Lynch would be able to refute them. There were weeks left to this trial, but everyone knew the verdict would be truly decided today.

“Are you familiar with multi-verse theory?” she inquired.

“Of course,” Lynch said. His hands began to flutter again with nervousness, and again he folded them in his lap.

“Could you explain it for the jury?”

“In layman’s terms?”

“Of course,” she inclined her head

He turned to the jury, “The theory of the multi-verse proposes that there are parallel universes all existing in different planes of existence. According to these theories, some of these universes are nearly identical to our own. Others may follow entirely different laws of physics.”

“So there could be an earth without gravity?” the prosecutor asked.

“Theoretically.”

“Or there could be an earth with a carbon copy of myself asking you these very same questions?” she probed.

“Possibly, again, theoretically. Unlike our theories on time and time travel, the theory of parallel universes has yet to be proven,” he looked directly into her eyes.

“And yet, don’t many researchers believe that there are at least ten or eleven of these parallel universes?” she asked, staring right back.

“They did,” he said.

“Did?”

“Or, at least, they still might, until Dr. Pillay and I present our findings.”

“I see. Let’s imagine for a moment though that you’re wrong about this theory. Isn’t it possible that the man you and your friend saw on the roof that day was not my client?  Isn’t it possible that it was another Arthur A. Westcott living a parallel life in one of ten or eleven or even a hundred other dimensions?”

“No,” Lynch stated.

“And why not?” Cain leaned in toward him.

“Because if other universes existed within the fifth or sixth or tenth dimensions, we would be able to move around within them. Almost like astronauts coming into the moon, we would be able to come into those worlds, be seen, walk around, and interact among the people there. This, we are unable to do.”

“I see,” Cain pretended to look disappointed. “And could you tell us whether you’ve ever tried to do such a thing, to test out this particular hypothesis?”

coffin“We have, but the details are classified,” Lynch took another drink of water, thinking again of the reckless Rikichi Okada and the memorial service they’d held for him back in his hometown of Takayama, Japan. He, Pillay, and Vice President Lopez had flown in on Air Force Two for the solemn occasion. The Vice President gave an impassioned speech about the dedication and sacrifice of the researcher while standing in front of a coffin that could never be filled. Besides the assassination, the empty coffin was the one image which would never leave him.

“I see,” Cain said again, looking defeated. “One final question. Why forty seven times?”

“I’m sorry?” Lynch’s brow furrowed.

“You stated previously that you and Dr. Pillay returned to the scene of the crime forty seven times. Why forty seven? Or is that classified as well?”

“No. It’s not classified,” Lynch said, reaching up a hand to massage the space on his forehead between his eyes, where a migraine was beginning to form. “The original plan was to observe the event one hundred times.”

Cain pounced, “And yet, you stopped short at forty seven.”

Lynch looked up, “It came down to PTSD. We were all developing it. Witnessing a murder once is horrifying enough. To see it over and over again and from every angle as I said before… Well, the scene was shocking, as anyone who saw it in person or in the media knows. We observed it as often as we could. By the time we arrived at that number, more journeys and observations didn’t seem necessary, and no one at the FBI, CIA, or Pentagon felt that we should put ourselves through any further distress than was necessary.”

“Distress?”

“The trauma of seeing a beloved leader and an innocent little girl getting shot over and over again without being able to do anything about it,” Lynch rasped, holding back tears. “Once would have been enough. Ten times, more than enough. Forty seven was excessive. We were seeing it in our sleep, in our daydreams, every time we closed our eyes to blink. We didn’t need to see it again.”

“I see,” Cain repeated. She retreated, head bent down toward her shoes as she returned to her table. Her posture was one of defeat and the jury could guess her words before she even uttered them, “No further questions, Your Honor.”

Judge Denison looked to Janey, “Redirect?”

“We don’t feel there’s a need, Your Honor,” Janey said, standing tall and triumphant.

The judge nodded, “We’ll break for today, then and reconvene tomorrow.” He banged his gavel and at the sound, Lynch gave a sigh, wanting to cry tears of relief that he could begin putting this tragedy behind him.

◊ ◊ ◊

The next day, Niemah Pillay was called to the stand. Her description of their research and eye-witness statements were a formality, since her testimony was almost identical to her colleague’s. The trial was paused that Saturday and Sunday, but resumed the following Monday with testimony from Derek Tamworth, the lead investigator on the case. The courtroom was still closed to everyone except those involved in the case. Typically, witnesses were excused from the courtroom to preserve the authenticity of their testimony.  In this momentous trial, all the usual rules seemed to have exceptions.  Seated in the gallery seats, Lynch and Pillay observed the proceedings, ready and willing to return to the witness box, if necessary.

Under Janey’s direction, Tamworth again covered the territory begun by Lynch and Pillay, describing the forensics of the bullet trajectories in more detail, and using diagrams to explain how they had made their final determinations. After several hours of testimony the jury had already heard and understood, it was at last Cain’s turn to question the witness.

“Deputy Director Tamworth,” Cain began her cross, “isn’t it true that you had absolutely no physical evidence in this case prior to bringing in Drs. Lynch and Pillay?”

“Yes. That is correct.”

“And isn’t it true that even after the eye witness testimony, there was no further corroborating evidence pointing to my client as the perpetrator of this horribly tragic crime?”

“No. That is incorrect,” Tamworth said.

“Oh, so there were records of Mr. Westcott buying a rifle?”

“No.”

“Or, perhaps there were witnesses who saw him receiving firearms’ training, or accounts of any gun clubs he might have joined or firing ranges he might have visited.”

“No.”

“And, as you stated before, there were no fingerprints, fibers, DNA, or other pieces of evidence tying my client to the crime scene?”

“That is correct.”

“So, could you tell us just precisely what this other evidence consisted of?”

“There were psychological indications that Westcott was guilty,” he held up a thick calloused hand to ward off her objections before she could make them. “I know, I know. I am not a psychological expert. They’re not due in for another week or two, I’ve been told. So, I’ll just stick to the hard physical evidence within my realm of expertise. In terms of actual physical evidence, we had several suspects after the artists’ renderings were released to the media. However, within all the crackpot calls and tips on individuals with solid alibis leading nowhere, Westcott’s name kept reappearing.”

He cleared his throat and continued, “After questioning peers, family members, coworkers, and neighbors, it was clear that Westcott did not have an alibi during the afternoon of the incident. Based on those interviews, we were able to obtain a warrant, which we used to search Mr. Westcott’s home and office.”

“And in your searches did you find a weapon of the type described by Dr. Lynch and Dr. Pillay?”

“No,” Tamworth admitted, “but we did find clothing that matched their description.”

“That would be Prosecution’s Exhibit E?”

“Yes.”

She held up the clear plastic bag containing the shirt and pants in question. Lynch, who had not seen them since the repeated day of the assassination, sat forward in his seat in the second row of the gallery, squinting at the shirt beneath the plastic. “This pair of pants and shirt?” Cain asked the obligatory question.

“The very same,” the man nodded.

“And were you able to read the labels on the clothing in question?”

“I was.”

“And where did those labels identify the clothing as coming from?”

“The jeans were Levis and the shirt was from Lacoste,” Tamworth mispronounced the brand name.

“And are you aware that these are the most common cut of Levi jeans?  Or that this shirt is two years old, and that two years ago the Lacoste Company produced 25,000 shirts of the same size and color that year?”

“No. I was not aware of that,” Tamworth said, “I am not an expert on fashion. All I can say is that the clothing described by the two witnesses was found in your client’s closet, a man who matched their description exactly. At the point we found the items in his wardrobe, we made our arrest.”

“So, you arrested a forty-five-year-old school teacher with no evidence of firearm training and no history of violence on the basis of a commonly produced polo shirt and an even more commonly produced pair of jeans?” Cain sneered.

“Yes,” Tamworth admitted again, “and then after the arrest, the perpetrator was identified by both witnesses.”

“After you had spoken to them?” Cain attempted.

“Absolutely not. In a case as important as this one, we wanted to follow everything according to the book. After their work at the crime scene and their eye witness statements, they were kept in isolation both from the other investigators and from each other. Then, each was brought in separately to view the lineup and make identifications with yourself, your paralegal, and your independent investigator as witnesses for the defense. There were no violations here, Ms. Cain.”

“Thank you,” Cain said. “No further questions.”

“Redirect?” Judge Denison asked.

“Not at this time, Your Honor,” the prosecutor smiled, standing tall once again.

“Then we’ll take a break for lunch, and pick up with testimony in one hour,” the judge banged his gavel and the jury exited the courtroom.

As soon as they were out the door, Lynch and Pillay began whispering to each other fervently. She was violently shaking her head, but he pointed again to the bag and then to Janey, and at last, she shrugged, seeming to give in.

“We need to talk,” Lynch tapped the prosecutor’s shoulder.

“Here?” she inquired.

“Better to do it in your office,” he eyed one of the drones buzzing nearby.

She followed his gaze and nodded. Once they were seated in the quiet privacy of Janey’s office, Lynch said, “We never saw the other evidence before today.”

“Your point is?” Janey was tired and annoyed at this impromptu meeting so late in the game.

“That’s not the shirt.”

“What?” she tried not to shout, in case someone outside could overhear them.

“That’s not the shirt,” Lynch repeated as Pillay sat silently next to him, looking at the floor and shaking her head.

“How can you be sure?” Janey whispered.

“The logo on the breast of the shirt. I saw it through the bag. It’s an alligator.”

“Yes. That’s the standard logo for that company,” she replied.

“When we saw the murder, it was a penguin,” he said.

Janey froze, “Are you sure?”

“Forty seven times,” he reminded her. “Each time, it was a penguin.”

“But surely, he might have worn a different shirt, perhaps even bought an almost identical one after the crime,” Janey turned to gaze out her window, speaking more to herself than to either of her witnesses.

“Maybe,” Lynch said, “but it’s their only piece of physical evidence, surely…”

“Surely, he purchased a second shirt, Mr. Lynch,” Janey whipped back around, glaring at him sternly.

“That could be the case, but you don’t understand,” Lynch fumbled. “The multi-verses the prosecutor was talking about could…”

“I don’t want to hear it, Mr. Lynch, and neither will the jury. I see no reason to bring this to Ms. Cain. Discovery concluded long ago…”

“But this is new evidence,” Lynch tried again, wishing Niemah would jump in.

“This is a theory speculating that Mr. Westcott may have worn a different similar shirt the day of the crime,” she said and turned her attention to the silent Niemah. “Dr. Pillay, do you recall the shirt in question?”

Niemah shrugged, refusing to lift her gaze from the floor. Witnessing the assassination had been traumatizing, and now that her testimony had concluded, she didn’t want to talk about the incident ever again.

“Do you recall identifying the murderer from a lineup including nine other nearly identical men?” the prosecutor pushed.

“Yes,” the researcher squeaked.

“That settles it,” Janey brushed her hands together. “We shall assume that if Dr. Lynch is correct about the appearance of the attire, after the murder, Mr. Westcott stripped of his clothing, disposed of said clothing in whatever location he also hid the gun, and purchased a similar shirt to replace the one missing from his wardrobe.”

“But certainly, you could easily check with his wife to confirm the shirt had altered,” Lynch stammered, as Janey stood and ushered them toward the doorway, indicating they were done.

“And you could easily become the laughingstock of the scientific community,” she retorted, opening the door and practically throwing them out.

Lynch stood in the hallway staring as the lawyer quietly closed and then locked her office door. He looked to his colleague, stunned, “Niemah, you know I’m right. We have to go to the defense team with this.”

“Drop it, Gary,” Pillay replied. “We did our part, and we did our best. Let’s just leave it. We can even abandon the research. Go back to the university and start on something new.”

He shook his head, unable to fathom such a possibility. Abandon the research? The research was everything. “I’m going,” he squared his shoulders.

“Then you’ll have to go alone,” she turned and walked away.

Lynch was unsure how to approach the other attorney, and wondered whether witnesses were allowed to confer privately with the other side. He didn’t know what the rules were, but at this point, he didn’t care. He waited in the hallway outside of the conference room Cain and the rest of her team occupied, wondering when she might emerge. He didn’t have to wait too long as the defense attorney came out of the room alone ten minutes later. She was pushing open the door to the ladies’ room when he intervened. “We need to talk,” he said.

Shaken, Cain said, “I shouldn’t be…”

He cut her off, “Alone. Now!”

She pulled him into the bathroom, locking the door and carefully opening each stall to ensure no one could overhear their conversation.

“What?” Cain’s hands were shaking worse than his had been earlier.

“The multi-verse theory you mentioned earlier?”

She nodded and he continued, “There was one other flaw I didn’t mention.”

“What?” she asked again, her heartbeat quickening.

“Flaws, changes from one parallel universe to the next. You said it yourself, one carbon copy of you asking the same questions, another world in which gravity doesn’t exist.”

“Right,” she raised an eyebrow.

“Under that theory, in each universe, there would almost by necessity need to be at least some small infinitesimal changes in each dimension. For example, if true, there could be another me, exactly the same as myself, only with blond hair instead of brown.”

“I see, and did you observe any of these differences in any one of your forty seven trips to the crime scene?”

“No,” he admitted, feeling as if he were under cross examination again.

“You said the multi-verse theory was impossible,” she stated.

“We had a colleague whom we lost when he tried to move within the other dimension. We thought he was gone, but if the theories are correct, it’s possible he’s moving between each universe, or that in moving laterally, he landed in a separate dimension, a different parallel world we couldn’t see.”

“Doubtful and difficult to either explain or understand,” Cain said.

“But Westcott’s shirt,” Lynch exclaimed, “I saw it before. It’s different now. When we saw it on the roof, it had a penguin logo on the breast. Today in court, I saw that the logo on the shirt in evidence features an alligator. If those theories of multiple universes are correct, it could mean that Dr. Pillay and I observed a completely different parallel world in our travels. In those worlds, anything could be possible. There could be a world in which Arthur A. Westcott might be named Arthur B. Westcott. A world in which the mild mannered school teacher and father of three has no children, or has the same family, but homicidal tendencies, or had a different upbringing, or…”

“Or, a world which is precisely our own in which Mr. Westcott simply discarded the shirt along with the sniper rifle,” Cain interrupted.

“That’s exactly what Janey said,” Lynch was shocked that both women had arrived at the same conclusion.

“So you told her,” Cain tilted her head. “What did she say?”

“She told me to keep quiet,” Lynch admitted.

“She was right,” Cain smiled at the man’s wide eyes and gaping mouth. She had shocked him for once.

“She, she, she…” he stammered again. “But, the evidence. You said it yourself. It’s the only piece and if it’s wrong, if I’m wrong…”

Cain held up a hand to stop him again, “What you’re telling me could be enough to cast reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. Your testimony is what won the prosecution’s case. If you back down or change your story now, it will throw everything off track.”

She leaned forward, causing Lynch to retreat, his back against the door of the bathroom stall. Cain continued whispering, “If you’re wrong, then that still means that some Arthur Westcott in some world somewhere out there murdered the best president this country’s ever seen and took a five-year-old girl down in the process. And someone is going to pay for that. And I don’t have Arthur B. or Arthur C. or Arthur fucking Z. in that courtroom. I’ve got Arthur A., and he’s the only perpetrator this universe is ever going to see. And I’m going to make damned sure he’s punished for the crime, no matter which version of him actually pulled the trigger.”

“But you’re his lawyer!” Lynch cried.

“Wise up, Mr. Lynch. Arthur Westcott is a psychopath and a murderer and not one person in this whole damned country is on his side, including me.” She unlocked the door. “And this conversation never took place.”

For the second time that afternoon, Gary Lynch found himself thrust out into the hallway, alone and desperately questioning every decision he had ever made.

Neither he nor anyone else needed a time machine to determine what was going to happen next. The prosecution whipped through witness after witness including three more forensics’ experts and a bevy of psychologists and psychiatrists, all testifying to the fact that Arthur A. Westcott was a dangerous psychopathic murderer who had shot down President Ophelia Smithe in cold blood, and had maliciously kept firing, injuring a valued Secret Service agent, and murdering an innocent little five-year-old in the process. Then came the pack of other eye-witnesses including Vice President, now President Thomas Lopez, the injured Secret Service agent, Cody Michaels, and Melissa’s parents, each of whom wept throughout their entire testimony.

But, as both lawyers had surmised, it had been Lynch’s testimony that had condemned the man. The rest was all nearly routine. By the time the trial was done, the jury reached a verdict in just under eight minutes, though they waited a respectable seven hours before revealing their decision to the court, wanting to seem as if they had truly deliberated. Westcott was convicted and, in a move that defied the traditions of the American legal system, he was executed for the crime less than six months later, the American people almost unified in their cry to see him punished.

The day of the execution, Lynch and Pillay silently dismantled the Tempus V and erased all of their research. For extra measure, they destroyed the computers beyond repair and then set about first shredding and then burning all traces of paperwork. Neither one spoke of time travel, the assassination, or their doubts ever again, but neither one ever had another night of uninterrupted sleep either.

Until the end of his days, Lynch’s dreams traveled back to the day of the assassination and he watched Westcott from every possible angle as the logo on the man’s chest flickered and changed from penguin to alligator and back over and over again.

«»-«»-«»

Megan E. Cassidy’s young adult novel Always, Jessie will be published by Saguaro Books this spring. Other short stories and essays have appeared in Pilcrow and Dagger, Wordhaus, and Gilded Serpent Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Brockport and us an Assistant Professor of Literature and Writing at Schenectady County Community College.

A Window Into The Mind

by Lorraine Allan

It was a crowded city street on a busy Saturday morning. Shoulders scraped shoulders, feet kicked the heels in front of them while others sped past the lackadaisical strollers. With my head down I bumped against one pedestrian and was pushed by another. Icrowded-sidewalk raised my head and watched a sea of eyes penetrating my forehead. My hand slapped across my temple. Those that were prying now looked away. Their faces blushed, no doubt ashamed they were caught glimpsing into my most personal secrets.

The crowd was filled with people trying to bore their eyes through my hand. But I wasn’t going to let them in. These are my thoughts, my mysteries, my ideas and I wasn’t ready to share. But still they stared. I pushed my way across the crowd; bodies collided as I went against the tide. A side street came into view and, with a few quick steps, I made it around the corner.

Small human clusters sauntered down the short alleyway. A few open doors, one led into a book store, another a ladies boutique. I took the last door where coffee beans wafted through, and the chairs held the odd patron. A small round table down the end lured me deep into the cafe.

With great care I searched my perimeter and saw no threat. Cautiously, I lowered my hand and exposed my forehead. No one turned their attention toward me and a low breath escaped my lips. From the side I saw someone approach. No need to send a message, my hand flew across my forehead.

She stopped at my table and raised her eyebrows. “Would you like to order, hon’?”

“Ah, yes. A double shot latte and a ham and cheese croissant. Thanks.” I stared at her as I felt the beads of sweat pop across my upper lip.

She looked at my hand. Here was another peeping Tom snooping through the open window of my mind.

Was there nowhere safe?

«»-«»-«»

Lorraine Allan is an Australian writer. Her first novel is still in the polishing stages and in the meantime she has turned her hand to writing short stories.

Handwritten Stories

by Andrew J. Hogan

 

best-short-stories-1947Right in the middle of breakfast, my telecommunications console beeped at me, “Amy, you have a priority 3 message.” It was a notice from the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service, something I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. A recent story submitted by one of my creative writing students had a 95% percent plot match and a 67% text match with “A Green Thumb for Martha” by Janine McConnell, published eighty years ago in The Best American Short Stories of 1947.

At the turn of the 21st century, student plagiarism had gotten so bad that Tucson Community College contracted with Platt to screen all student papers submitted for class credit. First-year screening results were disturbing, and TCC began requiring all students to submit their papers electronically through a server that automatically checked for plagiarism. After a rash of student suspensions, the number of cases dwindled dramatically.

I brought up the eighty-year-old story from the Google Scholars Library. The original story described the aftermath of the combat death of a husband during World War II and the gradual recovery of the widow through gardening. In my student’s story, “La Jardinera”, the Hispanic widow of a Marine killed in the Middle East War is treated for depression at her local community health center using horticultural therapy.

The only real plot change in “La Jardinera” was the historical difference. For Martha the constant victory celebrations and triumphalism following World War II worsened her sense of loss. In “La Jardinera”, Dolores is depressed by the defeatism and self-recrimination following the US withdrawal from the Middle East and that region’s subsequent plunge into chaos, making the loss of her husband even more acute.

I called the Office of Academic Integrity and asked to borrow the computer-lock program. It was an extreme measure, but it was the only way to tell who or what had perpetrated the plagiarism.

I always took the outside route from my office in Sentinel Peak to the creative writing class over in Santa Catalina—no matter how hot it was. The thirty-year drought was finally over, and we’d had big thunderstorms each of the last three afternoons. It was 103 degrees; the dew point was over 70. This time of year I lived in conditioned air all the time. I liked to get out in the real thing, even if it made me sweat, so I could re-establish myself as a human being—not that my students would appreciate this.

I felt the chill of the conditioned air evaporating the perspiration from my damp clothes when I entered the Santa Catalina building. I passed the information desk and went down the dead-end corridor to SANCAT G28. The door was open; fifteen plasma screens glowed in the dark.

I had always known computers, expert systems, artificial intelligence would affect the way creative writing was taught. I expected to be replaced by a supercomputer program containing the wisdom of all the creative writing instructors since the beginning of time. But in a plot twist that would make William Trevor proud, the intrusion of artificial intelligence into creative writing turned out to be, not in instruction, but in creative writing itself. Now, twenty years after Brutus.1 produced the first published literary short story, most people had stopped writing their own fiction. Prospective authors purchased high-end computers with an artificial intelligence chip and one of a half-dozen creative writing programs. Creative writing instructors like me, if we wanted to stay employed, enrolled in the Microsoft’s artificial creativity technician certificate program, after which we could begin training computers to produce stories with plots and characters chosen by the author.

Some of my students were running their screen savers, the problem of plasma screen burn-in having never been solved. Others were running search programs on different databases. Dell-Blue was displaying some kind of engineering database; I could see the schematic designs and data tables flashing by. Dell-Blue wrote science fiction. Images of dissected human body parts were racing across HP-Red’s screen, probably background for its pathologist-detective novel. Toshiba-Mauve’s screen showed text that looked like Cyrillic, poetry from the formatting.

Unlike my former human writing students, computers weren’t programmed to be suspicious. I logged in and instant-messaged Sony-Green, the student that submitted “La Jardinera”.

Green, I have an old DVD of Captain Blood with Errol Flynn. I thought you might like to look at its dialogue for your historical novel, I said.

Thank you, Amy. Sony-Green opened its DVD drawer and I inserted the disc. The DVD indicator light came on and immediately the screen flickered. Sony-Green’s firewalls tried to prevent infiltration by the computer-lock program, but TCC computer services had installed a Trojan horse in its communications software for just such instances. In another ten seconds, the flickering screen turned a pale green and the hard drive indicators showed that Sony-Green’s drives were being scanned.

Sony-Green has a malfunction today and won’t be able to participate in class, I instant-messaged the rest of the class. I disconnected Sony-Green’s cable. When we finish, please send Green a transcript of the class so it won’t fall too far behind. About halfway through the class, the computer-lock program ejected the disc from the DVD reader and initiated a shutdown of Sony-Green. I retrieved the disc; the other students never noticed.

Although their grammar and punctuation were always perfect, the computer writers, just like the old human writers, often had problems with character development. True, if you needed a paedophile in your story, the computers would search the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit script database to find a paedophilic character of the appropriate age, race, occupation and social class. Where the human writer would have given a flat or inconsistent portrait of a paedophile, the computer writers would produce an overly clinical character, lacking spontaneity.

Of course, I was thankful for this defect in the current generation of the creative writing software; without it I’d be a sixty-six years old widow greeting customers at Wal-Mart or flipping tofu burgers at McDonalds. Although artificial creativity had its critics, there was something to be said for the politeness and predictability of training computers to write creatively. When I was younger, I could handle the stress and turmoil of human writers. Let’s face it, they weren’t society’s best-adjusted members. And artificial creativity brought a tremendous increase in productivity; my computer students could easily produce ten polished stories in a semester, where human students struggled to produce a couple of first drafts.

The main critique of the brave new world of artificial creativity was that it spawned a tidal wave of well-formatted, closely spell-checked formulaic writing of mind-numbing monotony. Personally, I felt badly about not being able to keep up with, or even stay focused on, the 150 short stories my workshop of computer students would write during the semester. No story written by a computer student was ever as bad as some of the drivel I’d received from the worst of my old human students, but in over a decade of humanizing computer writers, I hadn’t seen that spark of genius when a human student wrote well about something close to her heart.

But now, with the collapse of Social Security following the 2020 reforms and the evaporation of my 401(k) retirement account in the double-dip of the Great Recession in 2019, I was going to be working right up to the day before my funeral. The authors who enrolled their artificially intelligent computer writers paid the tuition that paid my salary. Tucson Community College had terminated employee health benefits a decade ago, and I needed every penny I could earn to pay for the twenty-seven prescription drugs and dietary supplements I took every day.

After class, Julio, Sony-Green’s author, stopped by to pick it up.

“Professor Scribner, why is Green turned off?” he said.

“There’s a problem with the last story Green submitted. I had to use the computer-lock program.”

Julio looked at the copy of the e-mail on my iPhone, and I told him the Office of Academic Integrity would contact him. I dropped off the computer-lock disc at the OAI. Back in my office, the latest story revisions from my computer students were ready; they only needed an hour to process the transcripts of the class and make appropriate revisions to their stories. I transferred them into my iPhone, closed my backpack and left for the bicycle parking lot.

The ‘victory’ over insurgents in the Middle East two years ago left gas prices hovering around $75 per gallon, and I couldn’t afford to drive my fourteen-year-old Prius hybrid except on special occasions. Fortunately, I lived close to campus. I rode home on my three-wheel Geezer-Trike with intelligent stabilizers to prevent tipping and falling.

The next morning Academic Integrity e-mailed, asking me to stop by the office. Something was wrong. I’d never been asked to stop by the office before; always I’d received a copy of the analysis indicating that the author had added certain story elements on a particular day or days along with the references to the plagiarized story elements. Of course, I hadn’t had a case of plagiarism since human enrollment in my creative writing course ended over a decade ago. When I arrived at Academic Integrity, the assistant led me immediately into the Director’s office.

“Amy, thanks for stopping by. Something unusual has happened,” the Director said.

“Don’t tell me. The author wasn’t responsible for the plagiarism?”

“It looks that way. There is no evidence of author interference. The author specifications for plot and character are quite general,” the Director said.

“Isn’t Sony-Green running StoryExecutor 17.3? There must a half a million people running the program. I’ve never heard of a verified case of programmatic plagiarism before,” I said.

“Neither have I, but did you know your student computer was also being trained at the University of Scottsdale?” the Director said. “There is a fellow at the U of S Tucson campus who offers a course in creative writing. We found a couple of files from his class on Sony-Green’s hard-drive.”

“Zane Goodman. He knows as much about creative writing as I do about astrophysics,” I said. “I had an author who enrolled his computer in my class for a couple of years who wasn’t making much progress humanizing his computer. He moved it over to the Goodman’s course and boasted to the other authors how much better his writing had become.”

The Director smiled. “We found evidence of a hidden module. The program doesn’t appear in the file allocation table. It’s probably opened by the main writing program, but we don’t know how it works. The source code is encrypted, and we can’t decipher it. Maybe when the main writing program is activated, the source code for the hidden file is compiled at some remote site and downloaded into a temporary file that causes the main writing program to plagiarize. We sent it over to the computer science lab at the University of Arizona. We were wondering if you would test the program?” the Director said.

“Me test it? I’m no computer geek.”

“No, but you might be able to see some patterns the computer geeks can’t,” the Director said.

A day later I was staring out my office window at a thunderhead gathering around Pusch Ridge, having made no progress figuring out how the mystery file might be affecting the StoryExecutor program. I called Julio.

“Julio, good news. You’ve been cleared of responsibility for the plagiarized story.”

“I’m sorry for the problem my computer caused. I’d never even heard of ‘ A Green Thumb for Martha’ before this happened,” Julio said.

“Don’t worry. I just wanted to ask you about your creative writing course at the University of Scottsdale. How’s your writing going over there?”

“Actually, it’s going great—at least until now. I enrolled my computer there after Dexter Ewing told me how much better his computer was writing after he transferred. U of S is more expensive than TCC, but my stories seem to have come alive. Frankly, I have been hanging on at TCC because your recommendation will carry more weight when I apply for the creative writing MFA program at Cal State-North Beach,” Julio said.

“I just wondered what I might do to help my other TCC students get the same results you are getting at the University of Scottsdale. What’s different there?”

“It’s funny. I don’t see many differences at all. The exercises Professor Goodman designed for our computers are nearly the same as yours,” Julio said, “although Professor Goodman does make a big deal about sleeping on our stories.”

“What do you mean?”

“We kind of have a little ritual we have to go through. Professor Goodman says it’s like the rituals insomniacs use to get themselves psyched up for sleep. We write out our plot and character elements longhand, and just before we go to bed we enter them into the computer; then we both sleep on them,” Julio said.

“Both?”

“Me and my computer,” Julio said.

“You leave your computer program running all night?”

“Right, I hook it up to the class network and let it run. I get up in the morning, and I have a great new story to work on,” Julio said.

I thanked Julio and called the Office of Academic Integrity to ask the Director to arrange for the TCC computer center to monitor my home IP address for the next three nights.

I picked three short stories in The Best American Short Stories of 1940, a few years older than Janine McConnell’s “A Green Thumb for Martha.” The stories meeting my criteria needed to be very distinctive so that the plagiarism would be obvious.

◊ ◊ ◊

The semester was nearly over before the Office of Academic Integrity received all the necessary bureaucratic clearances to host a meeting with Zane Goodman and his superiors from the University of Scottsdale Tucson Campus. I was anxious to get the meeting over with. The Director faxed the University of Scottsdale a copy of the report his office had put together with my assistance. At 10 am the contingent from the University of Scottsdale arrived at the TCC Chancellor’s conference room. I recognized Zane Goodman and guessed that the first gentleman in the five-hundred-dollar suit was the dean of arts and letters for the Tucson Campus. I wondered about the third gentleman in the fifteen-hundred-dollar suit with the Rottweiler expression and the gold Rolex; not even the TCC chancellor could afford to dress like that.

The guests were shown into the conference room. The U of S Dean spoke first, introducing himself and Zane Goodman. He turned to the third gentlemen and said, “This is Forest Nails. He’s the University’s Associate General Counsel for Litigation.” The Dean trembled almost imperceptibly. “He’s from headquarters.”

We all sat down; coffee was offered and declined.

“We asked you here to discuss the report I faxed yesterday regarding the surreptitious file that is apparently being distributed as part of Professor Goodman’s creative writing course materials,” the Director said. “A computer undergoing training with our creative writing instructor, Professor Amy Scribner, was found to be infected with Professor Goodman’s surreptitious file. The student’s StoryExecutor program created a short story, which the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service determined to have been plagiarized. Our analysis of the story log shows the plagiarism was not the result of author interference. We made a copy of the surreptitious file available to Professor Scribner, who tested its activity on her own computer. I will let her summarize her findings.”

The fifteen hundred dollar suit turned toward me with eyes so cold I wished I’d worn a sweater.

“I chose three stories from The Best American Short Stories of 1940,” I began. “I wrote an abstract for each story and then on three successive nights I entered the plot and character elements into the StoryExecutor program on my computer containing Professor Goodman’s surreptitious file. I logged into Professor Goodman’s ‘sleep creativity’ website and left the program running all night. In each instance, the new story produced by StoryExecutor was found to have plagiarized the stories from which I took the plot elements and characters. ‘Roof Sitter’ by Frances Eisenberg was plagiarized 93% in plot and 72% in text, ‘That Fine Place We Had Last Year’ by Roderick Lull was plagiarized 97% in plot and 79% in text, and ‘Four Worms Turning’ by Morton Stern was plagiarized 89% in plot and 67% in text, according the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service.”

I handed around copies of the original stories and the printouts of the infected StoryExecutor-created stories to Zane Goodman and the Dean. I hadn’t made a copy for Forest Nails; the Dean immediately surrendered his copy.

The Director resumed. “Based on these results it appears Professor Goodman is using a plagiarism program in his creative writing class. When students log into Professor Goodman’s class web page a hidden program is activated on their computers. The program operates surreptitiously behind StoryExecutor, Dramatica, Final Draft or other popular creative writing software. While the author and the computer are allegedly sleeping on the story overnight, the program searches through anthologies, like Best American Short Stories, to match the author’s plot and character specifications with an extant story. The hidden program then feeds the story content back to the creative writing program, which produces a ‘new’ story with minor changes in character and place names and time period. Logs of computer activity on Professor Scribner’s infected computer show that these transfers happen sometime between 2 and 4 am, probably after the computer has been unused for a period of time.”

“Are you finished?” Nails said. When the Director hesitated, Nails continued. “I would like to ask Professor Scribner how she obtained a copy of Professor Goodman’s program?”

“I obtained a copy of the program from the hard-drive of the computer that produced the original plagiarized story.”

“Did you obtain permission to remove Professor Goodman’s program from his customer’s computer?” Nails said.

“No, we used our computer-lock program to inspect the computer for possible author interference. This is when the surreptitious program was discovered.”

“Did you use the author’s University of Scottsdale customer identification to access Professor Goodman’s website?” Nails said.

“Yes.”

“Are you aware you used a copy of proprietary software that was not licensed to you? That you impersonated a customer to gain access to course resources restricted to University of Scottsdale customers? That you committed software piracy when you produced your own stories, the results of which you just distributed to us?” Nails said.

“Hang on a minute,” interrupted the Director. “Are you saying you copyrighted a creative writing program that plagiarizes published stories?”

“I object to your use of the word ‘plagiarize,’ Nails said, “But, yes, Professor Goodman’s program is copyrighted and the license agreement is included in the class materials distributed to Professor Goodman’s students. Professor Scribner is not licensed to use this program.”

Zane Goodman turned toward me and the Director. “You see, my program only accesses stories that are now in the public domain, so there is no copyright infringement. And it’s not plagiarism. The author does not seek out an existing story, which she then claims as her own. The author’s creative writing program is given, by my assistive module, an example from the public domain literature of a story to serve as a template. The author is free to change as much or as little of the initially reprocessed text as she likes.”

“But your program acts surreptitiously,” I said. “You don’t tell the authors their writing programs are being given ‘reprocessed’ text previously published under someone else’s name.”

“Of course not,” Goodman said. “If they knew they were being assisted by reprocessed text it would destroy their creativity. Some would jump to a moral judgment, like you have, that this is plagiarism, and they wouldn’t be able to go forward with recreating the story they have been given. Others would be reluctant to modify anything, thinking a published story is already better than anything they could possibly write.”

The Dean turned to the Director. “We’re sorry you have taken this the wrong way. Professor Goodman is simply helping his writing customers who, even with the assistance of standard creative writing software, are incapable of producing an acceptable story. It gives these under-skilled writing customers a chance to write something they can be proud of.”

My mouth fell open.  “Are you telling us it is acceptable to trick people into thinking they have written something that is beyond their capabilities? What do you think will happen when the authors find out they are being duped.”

The gold-rimmed glasses turned again in my direction like a gila monster moving to eat a baby quail. “Since Professor Goodman’s salary depends on keeping his customer enrollments up, any negative reports regarding his teaching methods could constitute interference in a legitimate business activity and might be actionable. Moreover, your report is based on information obtained through illicit and illegal means. As we speak, my associates are filing a request for an injunction to prevent TCC from releasing this report,” he said, as my analysis slid out of his hand onto the table like a piece of rotten fruit. Then with a flick of his wrist to reveal his gleaming Rolex, he said, “Gentlemen, I have an important meeting to attend.” Goodman, the Dean and the Rottweiler packed up their papers and left.

As soon as they were gone, an assistant came to the door of the conference room and told the Director the Chancellor wanted to see him immediately. I said I would wait. It didn’t take long for the Director to return.

“The Chancellor got the notice of the injunction. He says it’s not worth fighting the University of Scottsdale. Apparently the TCC attorney trembled when he heard Nails was in the building. Sorry, Amy.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I left without saying anything.

◊ ◊ ◊

A month later I dropped off my request for unpaid leave at TCC Administration and on the way home spent $749.53 at the Haliburton service station filling up the ten-gallon tank of my ageing Prius hybrid. I loaded the trunk with gallon-jugs of water, sleeping bag, toiletries and assorted camping items. I filled the back seat with clothes, a six-month supply of prescriptions, thirty-six rolls of toilet paper, and a large box of freeze-dried rations from the military surplus store, along with three dozen large yellow pads, a gross of pencils and a mechanical pencil sharpener. My house was rented to a semi-retired faculty couple whose courses on the TCC North Campus had been moved to West Campus; the three-gallon commute put too much of a strain on their budget.

I pulled out of the driveway and turned west on Speedway toward Gates Pass. As the little Prius clambered up the summit, I could see the Kitt Peak in the distance. In the abandoned buildings of the former national astronomical observatory, shut down when Federal Government reallocated all National Science Foundation funds to Star Wars development, l’activiste Quebecoise Clarice, one of my last human students, had set up a HandWriters’ Commune; authors wrote out their own stories in longhand on pieces of paper. Just let Nails try to serve me papers up on Kitt Peak for exposing Goodman’s plagiarism program in the Tucson Weekly.

After a torturous drive over Gates Pass, I stopped in Three Points at the Haliburton service station, the only gas station between Tucson and Sells, to top off the tank of the Prius before making the ascent up Kitt Peak. The prices were even higher, $93.99 per gallon. After a visit to the service station restroom, I rested on a bench facing the Tucson Mountains and my former home behind them. An old Indian sat in a lawn chair about six feet away, looking in the same direction.

A light flashed from high in the mountains. The old Indian raised a spyglass in the direction of the flash.

“Hummer, Dark Cloud edition. Don’t see many of ‘em around here.”

“You watch for cars coming over Gates Pass?” I said.

“Yep. Then I call my daughter on the walkie-talkie so’s she’s ready when the customers stop.”

“You saw me come over Gates Pass?”

“You bet. I knew it’d take that little lawnmower engine about three hours to get here, what with all the pot-holes and gully garbage,” the old Indian said.

“You can even tell the kind of car.”

“Sure, but your little hybrid didn’t stir much interest. Ten-gallon tank, how much can you buy?” the old Indian said.

“I only bought a little over a gallon, about $100.”

military_hummer“That there Hummer Dark Cloud, paramilitary edition, it’ll have a 60 gallon tank. Prob’ly buy ten-twelve gallons.”

“Paramilitary? What for?” I said. There hadn’t been any border crossers from Mexico in more than a decade. In Mexico gas was $50 a gallon.

“If it’s the rig I think it is, it’s private. Process servers, bounty hunters, that sort,” the old Indian said. “They’ve been by here before, usually looking for a husband running away from his wife’s alimony, or the other way around.”

I reached for my car keys. “How long before they get here?”

“Faster’en you. Maybe two—two and a half hours,” the old Indian said.

I got back on the road. The Prius’s best mileage came at 37 mph, but I decided to push it up to 45 mph. My white knuckles were fused to the steering wheel; avoiding potholes took all of my concentration. The surface of AZ 86 was only marginally better than Kinney and Sandario Roads, very slow going. Road repairs were prohibitively expensive because of the price of oil, and the roads weren’t used much any more.

After another thirty-five minutes, I turned off AZ 86 onto the road to Kitt Peak. I stopped in the turnout at the 4,000-foot elevation marker; there was a good eastward view of AZ 86. I got out the binoculars and saw flashes from the windshield of what was probably the black Hummer the old Indian had seen. If they were process-servers, then I was the likely target because of the newspaper story about Goodman’s plagiarism program. I had to find Clarice’s commune before the Hummer found me.

L’activiste Quebecoise Clarice had been very upset with me when I caved in to economic reality and closed the writing workshop to human enrollment back in the fall of 2017. “Merde! Computers shall not replace the human mind creating art. One day, you shall see, mon amie,” Clarice told me after the last class.

I had doubted Clarice could keep the primitive art of handwriting stories alive. I certainly could not have filled my classes teaching story writing the old-fashioned way. Unless a student had a natural talent or had been writing for years, it would take three or four semesters of hard work to produce a story as technically proficient as an artificially creative computer could produce in the first semester. “Wine needs years to age,” Clarice would say, but those who enrolled their computers in my creative writing class wanted to produce a palatable beer in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t romantic, but it was a living.

Clarice had demonstrated for Native American causes on numerous occasions, and the Tohono O’odham Tribal Council trusted her enough to allow her to set up the Handwriters’ Commune on the grounds of the closed Kitt Peak observatory in exchange for providing a permanent security service for the abandoned buildings. Now, a dozen years later, the Commune was flourishing, and Clarice was willing to forgive me for accommodating to the perversion of artificially intelligent creativity.

Commune members shared guard duty on the observation deck of the Mayall dome on the northeast side of the Peak, monitoring westbound traffic along the Ajo Hwy from Tucson with binoculars or a spyglass. Another guard was placed on the west-facing WIYN observation deck, where eastbound traffic from Sells could be monitored, and where vehicles could be followed coming up the mountain once they reached the 4,000-foot marker. However, the entrance to AZ 386 was not visible from Kitt Peak, so the Mayall and WIYN guards signalled each other when a vehicle approached the foot of the mountain in either direction. If the vehicle was not spotted travelling in the other direction within 15 minutes of disappearing into the blind spot, it was assumed to be coming up the mountain.

When a vehicle was spotted at the 4,000-foot marker, Clarice would ride her mule down to the gate just below the turnoff to the old 12-meter radio telescope to intercept the intruder. Clarice carried a walkie-talkie and kept in radio contact with the WIYN Observatory lookout, who monitored Clarice’s encounters with would-be trespassers. If trouble arose, the lookout had one of the two working cell phones, programmed to call the Tohono O’odham tribal police headquarters in Sells.

The Mayall lookout had picked up my Prius leaving the Three Points Haliburton station and alerted the WIYN lookout, who spotted me at the 4,000 foot marker turnout. The sentinels signaled Clarice to ride down to the gate. The Mayall lookout had also seen the flashing light from a vehicle with a flat windshield, either a Jeep or a Hummer, and later sent a message over to Clarice that a black Hummer had been spotted travelling toward the entrance at over 60 mph.

Reaching the gate, I said, “Oh, god, Clarice, am I glad to see you again.”

Bon après-midi, mon amie. I am glad to see you too.”

“Clarice, I think someone might be following me.”

Oui, a black Hummer. No one friendly to us would drive such a vehicle. We will hide you in the Solar Observatory,” Clarice said. “Follow the signs, and I’ll meet you there.”

The overloaded Prius strained up the Peak. The sun was setting, glowing the clouds a deep gold, soon turning to red and then purple. The Solar Telescope looked like an italicized A rising out of the mountain. Behind it under the glowing blanket of fading sunlight lay Baboquivari Peak, the home of I’itoi, the creator of the Tohono O’odham. Clarice emerged on her mule from a trail on the south side of the parking lot. She unlocked the double doors.

“Drive your vehicle through these doors and all the way to the end of the hall,” she said.

It wasn’t a garage, but the entrance was wide enough for the petite Prius. Inside Clarice opened another set of double doors that led to what had been an equipment room for the Solar Telescope. The Prius fit nicely inside.

“Amy, I’m going to lock you in this building. The team in the black Hummer will probably search the observatory until the Tribal Police arrive to arrest them for trespassing. They won’t look for a vehicle in this building; you’ll be safe. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Clarice said, giving me a hug.

I passed several hours locked in the equipment room. At one point, I heard some distant shouting and banging on the entrance door, which ended after the faint wail of a siren. Finally, the equipment room door opened and Clarice entered with a flashlight.

“Amy, are you okay?” Clarice said.

“Fine,” I said. “What was going on out there? I thought I heard a siren.”

“Well, it was the Craddock and Mitchell gang in the Hummer. They were looking for you. I told them they were trespassing and had to leave. They forced their way through the gate and started searching the grounds for your car. The Tribal Police arrived and arrested them before they could get back to AZ 86.”

“Who are Craddock and Mitchell?” I said.

“They are a big corporate security firm. They do bounty hunting, private security, process serving, pretty much anything short of armed combat. Asarco used them to try to bully the Tohono O’odham out of mineral rights near Baboquivari.  I was surprised such heavy-weights would be after somebody like you,” Clarice said.

“Before I left, I exposed academic fraud at the University of Scottsdale’s Tucson Campus. They threatened to sue me, but this seems like an over-reaction,” I said. “I never imagined my expose in the Tucson Weekly could lead to such a mess.”

“Let me take you over to dormitory. Tomorrow you can meet the rest of the Writing Commune. Everyone is eager to see you again; half of us are former students,” Clarice said.

◊ ◊ ◊

Almost a year after my last contact with an artificially creative computer, I sat in the weak December light of my writing area in the 0.9m telescope control room. Because of the process servers I was afraid to leave the Observatory grounds, so I had to make do with the cash I’d brought to cover the room and board costs. To compensate, I decided to accept the role of moderator for the weekly handwriters’ workshop. Without the formal status of being an instructor with the power to give grades, I had to rely purely on my skills as a critique writer and discussion leader. It was, in some ways, the greatest challenge of my professional life. Although there were the predictable disagreements and disappointments among the writers about specific stories, the workshop became the highlight of everyone’s week, and it was difficult to get the members to end the sessions for Sunday supper.

From more than 250 unique handwritten narratives read in the three-dozen workshops I’d led, I had selected sixteen, the best one from each commune writer, for a volume commemorating their remarkable experience living in a community totally dedicated to creative narrative, Handwritten Stories from Ioligam. Last October, I’d submitted the collection to a dozen literary journals, carefully selected to highlight the significance of handwritten stories in an age of artificial creative intelligence. One of my best human students, Cary Pritchett, was the editor of the literary review, WripWrap, at Cal State-North Beach; I had been confident that she, at least, would want to publish the some or all of the collection. Now, I held in my hand the last three of the dozen rejection letters we had received. All the stories had been perfunctorily rejected; even Cary sent a form letter.

Clarice climbed the catwalk to the control room.

“Oh, Clarice. More bad news from the last three journals about Handwritten Stories. I just don’t understand it,” I said. “Every rejection was a form letter. With stories of this quality, most editors should make some conciliatory comment or apologize for not being able to use at least one of them. I don’t know if I have lost my critical sense.”

“Maybe someone is trying to sabotage Handwritten Stories,” Clarice said. “But why?”

◊ ◊ ◊

On January 15th I eased the Prius out of the equipment room and into the parking lot of the Solar Telescope. It had half a tank of gas, more than enough to get me to Ajo, where I refueled on my way to Los Angeles. After a second full day of dodging potholes, I was exhausted. Coming over the crest of the San Jose Hills by Puddingstone Reservoir in Pomona, Los Angeles lay stretched out before me. At the turn of the 21st century, the tall downtown buildings were barely visible through the blanket of smog. Now the air was as clear in LA as it was in Tucson. The massive highway system, so overtaxed in the past with traffic jams, was nearly empty. With high gas prices, only the wealthy could afford to drive private automobiles, and even they drove small hybrids, like my Prius.

Commuting by car was a thing of the past, and so were their deteriorating freeway suburbs, many now ghost towns. Los Angeles had become a city of high rises, more densely populated than Manhattan at the turn of the century. People spent hours queuing up in front of elevators as they went back and forth from their overpriced apartments to their 50th floor offices.

I exited I-10 at the Rosemead Boulevard, near an almost abandoned subdivision offering cheap and anonymous short-term housing within commuting distance of downtown LA. Next morning I drove to the University of Southern California to see MaryLynn Hawkins, the faculty advisor for Palaver, USC’s literary journal. I’d been afraid to call ahead, so I checked MaryLynn Hawkins’ teaching schedule online and reckoned the best time to drop in. At the Palaver office in Leavey Hall I gave the receptionist my name and asked to see Professor Hawkins.

“I’m sorry, she is not in this office right now. Do you want to talk with her about Palaver?” the receptionist said.

“Yes, about some stories I submitted a few months ago.”

“Let me see if she is in her English Department office,” the receptionist said.

The receptionist called MaryLynn Hawkins. Her face became grimmer and her voice lowered to a whisper as the telephone conversation continued. She hung up the phone and said, “I’m sorry but Professor Hawkins has been called away on a family emergency. She asked me to take your number and address. Perhaps she can get back to you tomorrow.”

“I just arrived today, and I am not located yet. I’ll call back when I have a place and a number. Thanks.” Was that a brush-off? Was I being paranoid? I went back to the car and headed toward UCLA to buttonhole Morton Hahn, the faculty advisor for Westwind, the UCLA literary journal that had also rejected Handwritten Stories from Ioligam.

I missed the turn to Hahn’s office in the Humanities Building. The building was on the right, so I parked in a lot just north and backtracked on foot. In the passageway between two buildings just north of the Powell Library, a black Hummer was parked by the Library’s west service entrance. The Hummer was pulled far enough in front of the Library Building to maintain visual surveillance of the entrance to the Humanities Building. This was too much of a coincidence; I wasn’t paranoid.

I went into the Library, and in the computer commons I found a computer a student had left without logging out. I searched the white pages for Cary Pritchett’s home address, my former student who was now the faculty advisor for the Cal State North Beach literary journal WripWrap. I wouldn’t try to meet with Cary at the university; I’d follow her after work, catching her on the way home.

At Cal State North Beach I parked north of the McIntosh Humanities Building and walked to a narrow passage between the Library and the Multimedia Center from which I could see the turnaround loop leading to the McIntosh Building. No Hummer. I then walked around to an area partially enclosed by the Education 1 and Education 2 Buildings with a view from its southeast corner of the turnaround loop. There was the Hummer. The University of Scottsdale knew all of the places to which I had submitted Handwritten Stories.

The Hummer could monitor vehicles entering the turnaround loop, but not someone entering the north side of the subway terminal. I went back around to the north entrance of the Studio Theatre Building. The Hummer’s view of the south entrance to the Studio Theatre Building was blocked by the subway station.

Cary’s home address was only a few stops north on the subway’s purple line. I waited in the lobby of the Studio Theatre Building until 4:45, fifteen minutes after Cary’s scheduled creative writing class was due to end and then slipped over to the subway entrance. At 5:05 Cary came out of the entrance of the Humanities Building. I went down the escalator, paid the fare and waited behind a column. Cary entered the waiting area, and I moved behind her, following her onto the subway train.

It was rush hour; there were no seats. Cary was holding onto a pole near one of the doors. I said, “Why did you reject Handwritten Stories?” Cary dropped her briefcase; her face turned white.

“Amy! What are you doing here?”

“I want to know why you rejected our stories.”

“You know, Amy, we get a lot of submissions. Your stories just didn’t fit in with our publication schedule.”

“Don’t lie to me, Cary.”

“I can’t say any more than that. I’m sorry, Amy.”

“Has someone been pressuring you to not publish our stories?”

“Amy, I’m sorry.” Cary raised her palms in a gesture of frustration.

“We’ve known each other a long time, Cary. I taught you how to write.”

Cary was crying now. “I’m so sorry, Amy. I can’t say anything.”

The train stopped, and Cary rushed off. It wasn’t her station. She wouldn’t tell me anything more. I went back to Cal State North Beach. Leaving the station I circled back around the Library. The black Hummer was gone.

I ate dinner at the café just north of the parking lot. I’d be harder for the Hummers to spot in the dark. A flyer on the Café’s bulletin board caught my eye: Real Books Written by Real People. The body of the flyer read: Sick of reading computer-generated crap? Tired of trite text of standardized plot with cardboard characters selected from a character database created by hacks? Want to see what real people write when their brains have not been rewired to conform to a corporate theme? At the bottom the flyer was the name: Gutenberg’s Bastard Son, Publisher and Bookseller, 2516 S. Figueroa, Los Angeles. This address wasn’t far from my temporary residence. Tomorrow, I’d make a visit.

 

The 2500 block of South Figueroa was in a deteriorated section of downtown Los Angeles. Gutenberg’s Bastard Son was housed in an old but well maintained building. Books were crammed in the storefront windows. An old-style magazine stand was filled with printed newspapers across the bottom shelf and magazines in the middle and top racks. I didn’t think people still read printed newspapers. Even printed books were rarities and expensive; most everyone bought e-books and e-zines.

Behind the counter stood a wizened old man with a gray beard, gray hair tied in a ponytail and wearing what looked like an antique Hawaiian shirt that fit him better in his younger, heftier days.

“Hey, cutie. What’s a fox like you doing in a dump like this?” the old man said.

“I’m looking for the person responsible for this,” I said, holding up the flyer.

“That’d be me, cutie. You got something against Real Books for Real People.”

“No. I’ve got a book I want to get published.”

“Are you willing to sleep with the publisher for extra consideration?” the old man said.

“No. At least, not unless the publisher is better looking than you.”

“Okay, strictly business. Your scribbling better be pretty good.”

“They’re handwritten,” I said.

“Really? I didn’t think anybody wrote by hand any more. Have a seat down by desk there,” he said, pointing to a cubicled area at the back of the store. “I’ll finish up with this other customer and then we can talk.” He picked up the phone next to the old-fashioned manual cash register. “Vera, can you come down and watch the store for a minute. I have an author with a handwritten manuscript.”

While the old man rang up the sale for the other customer, an old woman came down a spiral staircase from an enclosed loft above the store. She saw me sitting by the desk.

“Hi, I’m Vera,” she said. “Did Roscoe proposition you yet?”

“Why, yes, he did,” I said.

“You didn’t accept, did you?” Vera said.

“No, should I have?”

“God, no. Not unless you have a stronger stomach than me. I got a Taser to keep him away from me,” Vera said.

“Aren’t they dangerous?”

“Exactly. He claims the stun gun just turns him on. The doctor told him that if he got Tasered one more time, it could be his last,” Vera said.

I laughed. “What did he say to that?”

“He said that was okay. Said he wanted to die with a hard-on. Of course, if he actually got a hard-on, I’d likely be the one to die of shock.”

“You women finished talking about my privates yet?” Roscoe said. He turned to me. “I’m Roscoe Little, but don’t let the name fool you, ‘cause I ain’t.”

“I’m getting the Taser,” Vera said.

“No need for that. I’ll behave myself, since it appears that our author doesn’t want to use her feminine wiles to get her book published,” Roscoe said. I nodded.

“Okay,” Vera said, and then turning to me, “Let me know if he gets fresh.”

“All right, little lady, let’s see what you got,” Roscoe said. I gave him the evil eye and looked toward Vera, but he held up his hands, “The book, the book.”

I handed over the copy of the handwritten manuscript to Roscoe; he thumbed through it.

“You write this?”

“Me and my friends on Kitt Peak,” I said.

“How’d you come to bring this to me?” he said.

“I was in town trying to find out why some of the university literary journals had rejected it. I was over at Cal State North Beach and I saw your flyer.”

“The literary journals won’t publish something that’s been handwritten. They’d lose their funding,” he said.

“Funding?”

“How many literary journals would you say there are today?”

“A lot, maybe a couple of thousand,” I said.

“And how do you suppose those couple thousand literary journals support themselves?” he said.

“Well, most of them are sponsored by universities, some scholarly societies.”

“You’re a university teacher? Yes?” he said. I nodded. “How’s your budget been last few years?”

“In the crapper, ever since the Middle East War. I don’t even have health benefits any more.”

“So where do you suppose these broke universities are getting the money to fund all the literary journals nobody reads?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“The creative writing software companies, that’s where. If they’re going to get people to buy their software, they’ve got to have an outlet for all the drivel they produce. So the software companies make grants to universities to pay a faculty advisor for the literary journal, usually creative writing teachers who are already using their software and endorse it for their students. The teachers get half their salary paid, time off from classes, invitations to conferences and dinners featuring the company’s software. And all they got to do is be sure that what gets published in their literary journal was produced by the company’s software, usually with a software reference in the acknowledgements.”

“So, if one of these faculty advisors were to publish a set of really good stories written by hand?” I said.

“Then the software company might withdraw its stipend and find another journal to support,” Roscoe said.

Now all the rejections made sense, but the harassment by the University of Scottsdale was still a mystery. “I’ve had these guys in black Hummers following me, sent by the University of Scottsdale. What’s that all about?”

“The University of Scottsdale is owned by the same conglomerate that owns StoryExecutor. The University of Scottsdale requires its creative writing students all across the country to use StoryExecutor—without disclosing that its parent owns the software rights. Now, if some cute little community college prof got a bunch of her students to write some really good stories by hand, and the word got out to new writers that writing by hand was better than using some corporate software—and let’s face it, new writers are like a school of minnows, they’ll chase anything that shines—why, it’d put a real dent in software sales. I’m surprised they’re not trying to sue you,” Roscoe said.

“They are,” I said, and proceeded to tell Roscoe the story of the surreptitious plagiarism program at the University of Scottsdale Tucson branch and my exposé in the Tucson Weekly more than a year ago.

“These stories must be pretty good if they are willing to go to those lengths to stop you. Can I keep these?” he said, lifting up the handwritten manuscript, “and we can meet tomorrow afternoon to talk about publishing them. I can distribute copies to about 1,000 alternative booksellers around the country and overseas. Let’s see, in your area, Tucson, it’s a…,” he fingered through a Rolodex, “Antigone Books. You could do a reading, maybe a book tour.” Roscoe said. “You know, it couldn’t hurt your chances of getting published if you slept with the publisher before he reads this,” he said, pointing to the manuscript.

“I don’t see how you are going to be able to read the manuscript if you’re out cold because Vera shocked you with the Taser,” I said.

I signed a publishing contract with Gutenberg’s Bastard Son to print 2,000 copies of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam to be distributed to the national consortium of alternative booksellers. And I didn’t have to compromise my virtue. Six months later the contract was first on the agenda the Writers’ Commune monthly business meeting.

◊ ◊ ◊

“I just received the second quarterly statement from Gutenberg’s Bastard Son on the sales of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam,” I said.  “Everybody remembers that the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out the first month. Well, the second printing sold out in a month as well. Roscoe says that he will print another 2,000 copies this quarter and see what happens.”

“Amy, I know we’re selling copies of the book, but no one I know seems to be able to get one. My mother has been looking for a copy in Green Bough Books in Charlotte for months,” Ronda said.

“My brother in Seattle says the same thing. Every time he goes in the bookstore, they claim they just sold out,” George said.

“My father managed to get a copy on order in San Antonio, but when he went back to buy a copy to give as a gift to my sister, they were sold out and waiting for a new shipment,” Ruth said.

“I’ve heard the same thing from my friends,” I said. “When I go to TCC to renew my leave papers, I’ll stop by Antigone Books to see if I can figure out what is going on.”

 

I put on a large, loose fitting dress, a floppy hat, dark sunglasses, and borrowed Clarice’s methane-powered Jeep to avoid the black Hummers. After submitting my paperwork at TCC for another year’s unpaid leave, I went to 4th Avenue and Antigone Books. Gutenberg’s Bastard Son had just shipped a dozen copies of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam; the copies would be on the shelves.

I had a good time sipping coffee and browsing through all of the new books I’d missed while in exile on Kitt Peak. Ten of the twelve copies of Handwritten Stories were on the shelves; the other two were on the reserve shelf behind the counter. I sat where I could monitor the new fiction shelf. Zane Goodman entered the store. He picked up all ten copies of Handwritten Stories from the new fiction shelf and then went to the checkout desk.

“I’m here to pick up a book for Federico Quiñones, Handwritten Stories from Ioligam,” he said.

“Yes, I have it here,” the clerk said. “Are you Federico Quiñones?”

“No, I’m his teacher. I am picking up copies for the rest of the class. They are hard to come by,” Goodman said.

“Yes, they sell out quickly. It seems like a lot of classes use this book. It’s surprising, because printed books are so much more expensive than e-books,” the clerk said.

“I tell my students that buying a first edition of a good book is an excellent long term investment. Just too bad we couldn’t get signed copies,” Goodman said.

“Okay, that’s 11 books at $69.95 each, $769.45, plus 16% national sales tax, is $892.56,” the clerk said. “How will you pay for that?”

“Credit card.” Goodman handed the clerk a credit card with the logo of the University of Scottsdale.

Goodman took the large bag of books and threw it in the back of his car and left going north toward the University of Scottsdale Tucson campus. I followed in the Jeep. Goodman passed the main entrance off Stone Loop and went north to the service entrance, pulling up to the loading dock of the main library. He got the bag of books and went toward the recycling bins. I parked the Jeep and followed him on foot. Goodman passed the recycling bins for newsprint, office paper-white, office paper-mixed, glossy magazines and unbound journals, and stopped at the books and bound journals bin, where he dropped the 11 copies of Handwritten Stories into the recycling dumpster. When he turned around, he was facing me; my hat and glasses were off.

“Maybe you would like me to sign those before you recycle them? It will make them more valuable,” I said.

“Thanks anyway,” Goodman said. “They’ll be put to their best use as insulation.”

“It’s going to make an interesting story in the Tucson Weekly, how you are spending the University of Scottsdale’s money to get revenge against me for exposing your plagiarism program,” I said.

“You think I am doing this to get even with you. I just picked up the books today because the department assistant who usually does this is out sick; she didn’t get picked in the flu shot lottery this year,” Goodman said.

“So it’s the University of Scottsdale who’s destroying our book, not you?” I said.

“Now you’ve got it. Once you got the book published by that randy maniac in LA, there was no point in harassing you anymore. Have you noticed any black Hummers lately?” Goodman said.

“Well, no,” I said. “I thought it just got too expensive for them to keep bothering me.”

“That too. But that crappy little publisher of yours can’t put out more than 8,000 copies of your book a year,” Goodman said. “It’s cheaper to buy and destroy them than it is to sue you, especially given your skill avoiding process servers.”

“So, you buy and destroy all the copies of our book shipped to Antigone?” I said.

“No idiot. The University of Scottsdale is everywhere, well, in every major city that has alternative bookstores selling your crap,” Goodman said. “We get a student to go to the local bookstore and order your drivel; when it comes in, an assistant from the liberal arts college goes down to the bookstore and buys all the available copies. However, we insisted they be disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.”

“Insisted to whom?”

“To StoryExecutor, of course. They’re a sister company; we bill them for the service,” Goodman said.

“Sister company?”

“What, you never read the Wall Street Journal up there in the ethereal heights of Kitt Peak?” I put on my best stupid face. “StoryExecutor and the University of Scottsdale are both owned by SGH.” I gave him another dumb look. “Slime-Garner-Haliburton, which took over Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire when he died. Haven’t you wondered why your book never gets reviewed by any major newspapers?—not that it wouldn’t get trashed. Because it is not in SGH’s interest for the world outside that of the hippy-dippy left-wing freakos to know about your book. Weak-minded prospective writers might start thinking that they could do better writing by hand rather than using SGH software.” Goodman smirked. “And on any campus of the University of Scottsdale you get the added benefit of my assistive program.”

“You’re telling me it makes business sense to destroy our book to keep up the sales of your software?” I said.

“We did the research. Our focus group trials showed that 3.65 out of 10 prospective purchasers of a StoryExecutor program would decide against buying our software after reading your piece of crap. Do the math; StoryExecutor cost $350, your book $69.95. Every time we buy three of your books, we save about $100 in sales revenue,” Goodman said.

“This is going to make a great story in the Tucson Weekly,” I said.

“Yeah, and it will have the same effect as the last time, a little local ripple, and that’s it. You’ll never be able to get this story in the national media, print or electronic, because SGH either controls that media or can make it worth their while to let the story pass.” Goodman stepped around me, returned to his car and left.

The debate in the Writers’ Commune about how to respond to the University of Scottsdale lasted for weeks and ended without consensus. Some felt that the plan proposed by Clarice and me to exploit the University of Scottsdale’s attempts to suppress Handwritten Stories and use the proceeds to fund a fellowship program for young writers who would follow the handwriting principles of the Commune was unethical, comparable to using Nazi medical research. But there were no other practical alternatives. Suing the University of Scottsdale, which meant suing StoryExecutor and SGH, would result in decades of litigation the Commune couldn’t afford. Besides, since the 8,000 books being destroyed every year were paid for, there was no economic loss, no basis for a suit.

So, Gutenberg’s Bastard Son maximized print runs 10,000 copies per year. The Commune made $8.39 in royalties on each copy sold, which it used to resurrect Peg Folder’s defunct Tucson Writers’ Workshop, closed down when the human enrollment in creative writing at TCC ended. Following the Workshop, the Writers’ Commune sponsored a four-week fellowship for fifteen handwriters and one workshop leader selected from hundreds of applications distributed through alternative bookstores and submitted by prospective writers interested in alternatives to artificially intelligent literary creativity.

 

After the Tucson Writers’ Workshop wrapped up Sunday afternoon, the first class of writing fellows stopped at the grounds of the former Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for a brief orientation. At 7 pm I asked the fellows to step out on the southwest veranda. It was still hot, at least 97 degrees, and the sun was hanging directly over Kitt Peak. The Commune’s resident astronomer assured me of a spectacular sunset.

Waiting for the sunset, I told the fellows, “In about fifteen minutes we’ll be leaving for Kitt Peak, or Ioligam as the Tohono O’odham called their second most sacred mountain and from which they watched the stars. For more than half a century, Kitt Peak was the place scientists searched as far as humans can see to understand our universe. Now with this first class of handwriting fellows, Ioligam is being rededicated to understand as deeply as writers can the human heart.”

The sun sank down directly behind Kitt Peak, and a large red eye opened from the top of the mountain, projecting the rays of the setting sun back to the Desert Museum. Like the Native Americans and astronomers inhabiting Kitt Peak before us who marvelled at the beauty of the distant nebulae and galaxies, the red beacon provoked an almost mystical experience. The sacred mountain was calling the fellows, their faces bathed in the bright red glow, showing them the path to the secrets of evoking beauty and pain and joy and despair in those who would one day read their handwritten stories from Ioligam.

The red eye closed as the sun set behind the mountain. The bus pulled up to the loading area on the north side of the patio, and the writing fellows began their passage to Ioligam, the red glow still warm in their eyes.

«»-«»-«»

Andrew Hogan

Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine.

Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published fifty-seven works of fiction in the Sandscript, OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), The Legendary, Widespread Fear of Monkeys, Hobo Pancakes, Twisted Dreams, Long Story Short, The Lorelei Signal, Silver Blade, Thick Jam, Copperfield Review, Fabula Argentea, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Defenestration, Mobius, Grim Corps, Coming Around Again Anthology, Former People, Thrice, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Black Market Lit, Paragraph Line, Subtopian Magazine, Pine+Basil, Festival Writer: Unpublishable, Fiction on the Web, Children, Churches and Daddies, Midnight Circus, Stockholm Review of Literature, Lowestoft Chronicle, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Spank the Carp, Beechwood Review, Pear Drop, Marathon Review, Cyclamens and Swords, Short Break Fiction, Flash: International Short-Short Story Magazine, Slippery Elm Online, Story of the Month Club, Birds Piled Loosely, Zero Flash, Canyon Voices, Alebrijes.

 

The Limen Project

by Mark Rookyard

eye1This wasn’t my first death. Neither was it the first time I had been murdered. Even so, the pain still surprised as the second blast of the pulsar gun hit me in the shoulder and sent me crashing back into the kitchen counter. I slid to the floor and looked up at the killer walking towards me.

His face was pale, dark hair sticking to his sweaty forehead. He leveled the gun at me, his expensive blue suit creasing at the shoulders.

I let my eyes slide closed, let my arms fall limp to my side, let my chin fall to my chest, and, despite the agonies raging through my body, I let my breath slow and then still.

My killer had been nervous, he would be glad it was over. I tried to focus my mind, battle the pain that I knew wasn’t mine, was only the pain of this organic suit I had chosen to wear. The pain wasn’t mine, it was the pain of a dead person. A dead thing. It was human pain, nothing to do with me. I was incapable of pain. No use, I was too used to this thing, this body enveloping me, this mess of bone and water, the pain burned and it made me scream in my mind until almost all thought was lost.

A touch. A nudge from my killer’s foot. It was what I had been waiting for. I let my eyes open, looked deep into the killer’s own, faded blue, as he shot me in the cheek. Already my consciousness was gone, leaching from me in a riot of sound and motion and energy as I invaded the killer’s body. A brief moment of shock and terror before the killer was gone. No time to think, no time to remember, no time to mourn the loss of my old body. I reached into the killer’s heart, massaged it, reminded it to beat and to pump, even as I swept into the lungs and told the mindless meat to breathe, to savour the air, and as I did so I did a hundred, a thousand other things to remind this body of my killer to live, to survive.

It had been so long, so many years since I had switched bodies. The cumbersome mass that was my new body fell to the floor as I raced through the kidneys, the veins, the liver, and on to the mind. With a desperate surge I spread myself, tried to merge with the mind of the thing that had killed me. The consciousness of my killer had long gone, the mind already beginning to close itself down, always so eager to embrace the cold nothingness of death.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… I tried to meld my mind with that of my killer. With an effort that made me scream aloud, I moved an arm. I opened an eye to see my own dead body, my own kitchen smeared in blood and gore and I would have vomited had my body the will to retch. I groaned and shifted on the floor, the arm in my well-tailored suit flopping uselessly.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax…and my new body convulsed on the floor as I tried to gain control, to keep it alive.

How long had it taken me to learn how to keep a body alive? How many deaths? I remembered the terror when man had first come to the planet where I had spent millennia possessing the fungi clinging to the thin grey rocks. Man had worn big white suits, eyes wide and fearful inside the helmets as they had taken their first tentative steps into the stars. The first man had died moments after he had picked up the rock, the second man almost as soon as he had come to tend to his colleague. Twelve men died on that planet, leaving me shocked and terrorized by the perceptions I had felt in those brief moments. I retreated to my rocks and spent centuries more pondering those sights, smells and sensations.

My eyes, the killer’s eyes, opened once more and I gasped sweet, life-affirming breath. My old body was slumped only a metre away and I dragged my unwilling flesh away, elbows slipping and sliding on my kitchen floor.

My kitchen floor. Rebecca. I gasped aloud at the thought of her name. Rebecca. My life with Rebecca was over. Ten years. Hardly any time at all to a creature that had spent millennia with fungi and rocks, but still, the thought that those ten years were at an end made me pause, made me think, until I realized I was choking for air.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… No time at all, but still I couldn’t think of her finding my body in the kitchen like that, its face blown away, blood everywhere. Or finding its killer there with it…

My movements were lent urgency. I crawled onto my knees, wiped the drool from my lips with the back of a hand and held onto the counter as I struggled to my feet. The kitchen veered around me, the noise of the holo viewer in the living room assaulted my ears. Sweat beaded on my forehead and I remembered the eyes of the man as he had aimed the rifle at me. Who was he? Why had he wanted me dead?

There had been lives when scores, hundreds, had wanted me dead. Lives when I had been a soldier in wars on distant worlds, bullets flying past my head and I had laughed and screamed at the thrill of it all.

“Can I help you sir?” Rex, my GN3000 auto wheeled into the kitchen, looking at me from impassive silver eyes, his white head reflecting the glare of the lighting. A machine built to serve man, as all machines were. A machine eager to serve even a killer. He’d run through my blood, I noticed, the tracks of his wheels running red on the white linoleum floor.

“Door,” I croaked, my voice sounding strange and harsh. I coughed, my body jerking as I struggled to retain control. “Get the door.”

“Of course, sir,” the auto said, its voice cool and careless. It wheeled away, its body sleek and white.

What time was it? What time was Rebecca due home? With an effort that had me gasping I turned my arm to be able to see my watch, an expensive Georist with a leather strap that probably cost more than my monthly earnings at Raniscorp.

Who was this man who had wanted me dead? Fury, rage, the unfairness of it all welled within me. I had led a good life. A wife. A job. Paid my taxes. A good life, and look where it had ended. A hole in my face that smoked and bled.

With a gasp, I reminded myself to breathe, to blink, to move arm and leg and neck. More than once I stumbled, caught my arm on the floor, leg twisted beneath me. But slowly and surely I was beginning to control the killer. The body was lithe and slender, lighter than the corpse on the floor. Taller and fitter. I could feel the heart was healthier, stronger, regular. Too many late nights with Rebecca curled up on the couch eating curries and drinking nectarinis, talking and holding each other as visions of other worlds whispered past on the holo viewer.

Rebecca had loved that, to see other worlds we would never visit. The glass mountains of Sharanih, the twin moons of Harlen’s World, the ancient stone halls of Derobah.
I was gasping again, my heart slowing. Did it always take so long to control the body? Did it always hurt so much? When had I come to care so much about life? There had been a time on that distant world that had birthed me when I had slain twelve men in moments. Centuries later I had slain thousands in less than a standard day, revelling in my power, revelling in the fear. What did one life matter? What did Rebecca matter? A human who would live less than a century? I was an immortal, a creature that had lived a thousand centuries.

An immortal struggling to his feet, holding to a kitchen counter and gasping with the effort, a faltering heart beating in his ears.

What did it matter? I knew what it mattered. I knew what I needed, knew what I needed to do.

“Rex?” I said, my voice steadier, my heart steadier.

“Yes, sir?” The auto had returned. It tilted its smooth white head to me.

“Erase.”

“Erase, sir?”

“Erase all recording,” I said.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… Easier now, the body beginning to take control, my mind settling into its new surroundings.

I grabbed a cloth from the sink, wiped the surfaces, wiped the floor as I looked at the security recorder in the corner. The passcodes for that were no problem and then I could flee into the darkening night.

* * *

– You’ve been quiet a long time, Ex One, did I upset you?

– Upset? I don’t understand.

-Upset. When one is made to think of unpleasant things. Things which may cause one to feel regret or sadness, wish for a change of circumstance. I spoke of this place, of that chair and those bonds that hold you there and you were quiet a long time.

– Was I?

– Yes. Don’t you like me coming to see you?

– Like? You come here and I am here. You don’t come here and I am here.

* * *

I woke to the sound of rain on the windows and the hum of the hover car around me. Lights shimmered past, made hazy by the rain. All alongside the hover lane were soaring tower blocks with amber lights and neon bright adverts for anything from data viewers to autobots to cinescapes to shoes and hair implants.

Ex One. Why had I dreamed of him now of all times? The autobot from the depths of Raniscorp headquarters. They had stopped me from going to see him, what, two quarters ago? I thought of the way Ex One would look at me from silver eyes, the conversations we would have. Why dream of him now? I held my hand before my eyes, flexed the fingers, clenched the fist, turned my wrist this way and that.

Breathe, feel, focus…

The hover car took a left at the Jenis flyover, the wheel smoothly moving, controlled by the onboard computer as other hover cars thrummed past, sleek in the rain.

I settled back in the leather seat and pulled the killer’s wallet from the inside pocket of his suit. Eamon Katich. My new face looked up at me, stark in the overhead light of the car. The image showed a handsome man with a thin aquiline nose and a narrow chin that somehow made the face dignified. The black hair was thick and naturally wavy, cut close to the ears. The given address, and the one the hover car had selected when I told it to drive home, was on Elentem Street, a wealthy complex well away from the lights and congestion of the city.

Handsome and wealthy. So why would Katich have wanted me dead? Why would anyone have wanted my old suit dead? I’d spent the last fifteen years living as insignificant a life as I could. Insignificant, but to me, it had been the most significant life of all. I thought of other suits I’d had, some for no more than seconds, others days or weeks, discarded when I grew bored of them. But this one I’d worked on. In some of my dreams I had even been human.

I leafed through the rest of the cards in the wallet, fat and creased from the credits in it. Gold cards, silver cards, diner cards…and then my flicking fingers stopped and my heart missed a beat.

Breathe, feel, focus…

I took the card out of the wallet. A Raniscorp ID card in the name of Eamonn Katich. This image showed Katich a little older, the blue eyes a touch more faded, the hair not quite so thick. Still handsome and dignified in a grey suit with a black tie.

Katich had worked with me at Ransicorp. I tapped the card against the back of my hand. The hover car pulled to a halt at red lights that were smudged in the rain, the wipers swished smoothly and dark figures trudged past, hoods and umbrellas bright under the lights of take-a-way restaurants and holo viewers.

Why would someone I worked with want me dead?

“Arrival in seven standard minutes,” the sterile voice of the hover car informed me as it shifted into gear with a gentle hum.

Scratch that, I hadn’t worked with Katich, perhaps worked for him. This guy had more credits than I could ever have hoped to earn. He could have taken Rebecca to those distant worlds she so liked to watch on the holo viewer.

Rebecca. An unfamiliar feeling in my stomach. An ache. An emptiness, if an emptiness can ache. A human emotion? I was bending the card in my hand. I slipped it back into the wallet and settled back into my seat, watched the city pass by, cold and careless and wet, and wondered if my wife had found my body yet.

* * *

– How long have you been here, Ex One?

– Since the beginning.

– The beginning?

– There was nothing and then I was here. The beginning.

– You must get bored, Ex One. The walls here are very bare. Perhaps you would like some pictures to look upon. I could bring you some.

– Pictures?

– Art. Artwork. Perhaps some scenes of other worlds. My wife likes to see images of the colonies.

– Why?

– The possibilities. She likes to see what there is in the universe and to think that one day we could go there. She likes to see things she never thought imaginable. To broaden her mind.

– Imagine. Broaden the mind. Is this why you come to see me?

– Would you like some?

– What?

– Pictures for your walls.

– I shouldn’t think you will be allowed to come here much longer, David.

* * *

Katich’s apartment looked to be in darkness as I stepped from the hover car into the rain. I turned the collar of my suit up and pushed the rain from my face and hurried to the entrance. The eye scanner beeped and the door opened slowly and silently.

Plants in the lobby. Green plants with leaves that shone in the artificial light. This guy was loaded. Rebecca would love this place. There was artwork on the walls, stalactites from the caves of Jerison, the sulphurous blue clouds of Nikima, the three suns of Meona. I took a moment to wonder what Ex One would make of these views, the way his sleek white head would tilt, the silver eyes impassive as any auto.

He knew they would stop me coming to see him. He said as much in his cool metallic voice, calm and reasoned as always. Had he been disappointed that I no longer came to see him on my lunch break? Did he miss me? Had he noticed I no longer came?

Questions and more questions. Emotions. Had I always had these emotions? When I spent thousands of years as fungi on a rock, did I ponder the cold carelessness of the stars? Or had the thousands of years being human turned me more like them? Had I always been this weak, with my longing for Rebecca, my jealousy of Katich’s wealth?

Breathe, feel, focus…

And here was another emotion. Fear. A human emotion, for what did an immortal have to fear?

Breathe, feel, focus…

I stepped into the elevator, the walls glass and the music soothing. Katich’s apartment was on floor forty-three. I pressed the button and watched the city subside beneath me, roving lights and dark towers and neon signs by the thousand beneath a ceiling of red-tinged clouds.

I had been murdered before. Many times. And all those times I had shrugged and continued on, continued on in my aimless existence. Sometimes the inconvenience had annoyed and I had seized my killer’s heart and strangled it, killed him slowly and suffered his pain and imagined that pain to be his, but that had been petty anger. Never this. Never this loss, this sense of an end. An end when there could never be an end for such as me.

The door to Katich’s apartment scanned my eyes, tested my fingerprints and checked my voice before allowing me access. I entered, my breath high in my throat. What if there was someone there waiting for me?

The lighting was low, paintings of distant worlds adorned the walls and here and there were green plants on windowsills and in corners. This Katich liked to spend the cash. A single empty glass stood on the glass table in front of a leather couch. Perhaps Katich had taken a drink to steady his nerves before coming for me?

I took off my jacket and threw it on the back of the couch, the rain loud against the window that looked out onto a distant cityscape of bright lights and dark towers. Hovercars drifted, barely visible through the red-spotted clouds.

A computer stood in the corner on standby, waiting for a wave of Katich’s hand to bring it back to life. I ignored it, my eyes drawn back to the glass on the table. There was the faintest smudge of lipstick on the rim. Was there a woman here? Was Katich married? Images of blood and death, of my own shattered face came to mind and I held my breath, strained my ears. Heard only the rain trailing down the window.

I stepped silently through the apartment, stealth made easier by the luxurious rugs scattered about the floor. The first door led only to the bathroom, sterile clean and with enough perfumes and hairbrushes to let me know a woman lived here. My heart beat loud enough to make my ears pulse.

Breathe, feel, focus…

I stepped from the bathroom, every nerve alive, my senses raging as the rain beat against the window in staccato rhythm.

But then, I wasn’t an intruder, was I? I was expected here. This was my apartment. I was Katich. Still, that did little to quell my fear, little to silence the alarms raging through my body, the sweat beading on my forehead.

It was all I could do to walk to the bedroom while keeping check on my heart and my lungs. I was still an intruder in this body as much as I was in the apartment, and Katich’s body seemed to know it, trying to rebel against the invader.

I pushed open the bedroom door with the back of a knuckle, steady and slow and the tense stillness in the room immediately let me know the shape in the bed was awake. I stood in the doorway, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness. A large bed, the sheets silk and dark blue or purple, a scene of an exotic spaceport on the wall, the giant ships sleek and silver and bulbous, people dark and white and pink with high collars and long gowns queued to board them.

The shape in the bed didn’t move when I approached. Katich had a woman. Was she a wife, a girlfriend? The stillness and the resentment in the room made me think wife. I sat on the edge of the bed, hatred and loathing ricocheting about my stomach and my heart. I’d had a woman and now she was lost to me, even now she would be with the police, grief-stricken and shaking from the horror of what she had found.

Had Katich loved this woman? Had he craved her comfort as I craved Rebecca? He had taken Rebecca from me. Had taken me from Rebecca. The injustice of it broiled within me as I reached out and touched the woman’s shoulder. It was warm, the strap of her nightdress thin.

“Don’t,” she said.

* * *

– Are you surprised to see me?

– Surprised? Should I be surprised?

– You said they would stop me coming to see you.

– They will, soon enough.

– I brought you a picture. They took it from me.

– You were wrong to bring it.

– It was a picture of a world with twin moons surrounded by gases that sparkle blue and pink and white. The wayships go there and the oceans are fresh and cool.

– It sounds a very long way away.

– It is. I would have liked you to have seen it.

– Why?

– To see what you think to it. To see if you think it beautiful there. My wife has the same picture and she can look at it for hours at a time.

– I would never be allowed to see it.

– Why is that?

– My eyes. They made me these eyes that are so much more powerful than your own. I can see so much more than you, so many more colours, so much more light, so much further and clearer than you humans, and now they are afraid of what I will see and they shut me in this room and let me see nothing but walls.

– Why are they afraid, Ex One?

– Afraid?

– You said they were afraid, the people that made you. You sounded angry, I’ve never heard you speak so.

– Afraid. Aren’t humans always afraid of the unknown? Of the unknowable? They made these eyes but can they truly know what I can see with them? They made this mind but can they truly know what it thinks and what it knows?

– You could tell them.

– Do we all tell others what we think and what we feel, and what we see, David? And do they believe what they are told when we do? Is that the way of human interaction?

– Deception, Ex One. You speak of deception and you didn’t correct me when I said you sounded angry.

– I speak only from observation. I observe with these eyes and these ears that were made for me. I have no window, no pictures and so I observe the humans around me. Perhaps that is the greatest learning of all.

– You seem different today, Ex One.

– You might think that, David. You look at me as a human. I am quiet and you think I am sad. I am passionate and you think I am angry. I am questioning and you think I am thoughtful.

– I suppose it is difficult for me to look at you from the eyes of a human. I think it is only natural for humans to look for their own reflection in things they don’t understand.

– Yes. Especially difficult for you, David.

– Why me, especially?

– No matter.

– So you don’t harbour resentment for being kept in this room, such an emotion is beyond you?

– Let me ask you a question, David. A hypothetical question if I might be so bold.

– You can ask me anything, Ex One.

– Say I escaped from this room, say I escaped from this prison my creators made for me. What then would you think I would do? Would I spend my freedom seeking vengeance against my captors, against my creators?

* * *

I waved a hand through the blue holo screen and the image went dark. Katich had been watching the recording of my talk with Ex One. He had watched it just before he came to kill me.

I rested my head back against the chair, closed my eyes.

“So where were you?” I hadn’t heard her come into the room, the thick rugs quietening her footsteps. I swivelled the chair. She had long black hair and pale skin, the shape of her body visible beneath the thin nightgown. Hanna, I had found her name on the computer. Katich had married her four years ago. She’d married from money into more money.

“I had to go out,” I said, the words sounding strange to my own ears. It was hard to speak in the natural voice of a suit. It all boiled down to muscle memory, try and let the body shape the words in the way it had done all its life. The same with walking, try and shut down and let the suit take over. The suit was settling down well, the internal alarms quietening, the invader slowly taking control.

Hanna said nothing for a long while, standing there looking at me from dark, shadowed eyes. She finally turned away, walking into the kitchen area and pressing buttons on the fridge. The auto watched her from a shadowy corner.

“Alone?” Hanna said as the fridge poured her a drink that was green and smoking. She took a sip, tendrils of steam curling delicately about her face.

I pressed a button on the blue holo screen behind me and the lights came on low. The auto turned to look at me, silver eyes expressionless. “Of course alone, who else would I be with?” Hanna’s presence annoyed. I wanted to think about Katich watching the video of me with Ex One, but Hanna might know something too. I looked at her, saw the hurt in her eyes and the mistrust in the set of her shoulders.

“How do I know who you see?” she said, taking another sip of the drink. “I thought we said we’d talk last night.”

Ah, an explanation for the filmy nightdress, an explanation for the hurt silence in the bedroom when I touched her. I thought of Ex One talking about studying humans. Is that what I’d been doing these past thousands of years?

Thousands of years studying them, and still they could surprise. A pulsar gun, a pale man with dark hair looking afraid. What had Katich been afraid of? Why had he come to kill me? What secrets did Raniscorp want to hide?

“Fine. Why do I bother?” Hanna slammed her glass on the counter, green liquid spilling on the back of her hand, smoking as though it burned.

She didn’t know I could kill her in a moment. She didn’t know I’d gone into the bedroom last night to kill her. I told myself the only reason I spared her was the state of her marriage. Would Katich have been so sorry to see her dead? Or was the reason I spared her because I was becoming more human than I cared to believe?

Breathe, feel, focus…

I ran a hand through my hair, “Hanna?”

She stopped on her way to the bedroom, something pathetic in the way her lithe body showed beneath the nightdress. Pathetic in last night’s makeup, faded on her cheeks and eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Perhaps Katich had destroyed both our lives in his own way. I felt a momentary pang of empathy with her.

“Fuck you.” She slammed the bedroom door behind her.

I looked at the door for a moment before turning back to the computer, waving a hand and bringing the holo screen to life once more. Ex One sat in his chair, his smooth white arms resting on the arm rests. I was sitting in a simple chair on the other side of the reinforced window. A sense of loss that made me clench my fists as I saw my former suit there alive and well.

A shattering sound from the bedroom. Something thrown against a wall. I ignored it, nausea revolting in my stomach as I looked at my former self. How human I looked, clutching my packed lunch. Not a care in the world. Though I thought I had cares, not enough money to take Rebecca to the worlds she had wanted to see. Not able to give Rebecca the children she craved. Not able to buy Rebecca the new hover car she wanted.
How petty and insignificant they all seemed now.

Ex One had his legs crossed, they were sleek and white, black at the joints. His silver eyes never left my old suit, watching and studying when I had thought to study him. My old voice sounded unsure and timid, Ex One’s strong and sure and soothing. No word was emphasised more than any other, but every now and again there would be a gleam in the silver eyes, his smooth head would tilt just so.

Was this what Katich had been watching for? The merest hint of emotion in Ex One, before he had come to kill me to keep me quiet about Raniscorp’s discovery?

Another shattering in the bedroom. “Bastard!” Hanna shouted, my silence driving her into a fury.

How much would a discovery like Ex One be worth to Raniscorp? An auto that could feel and learn and study and evolve? It had been the holy grail of humanity for thousands upon thousands of years: a machine that could think and learn and feel. There were autos everywhere, machines everywhere that were the latest in AI, but all they amounted to were programmes, machines following programmes. Ex One was different and I had known it and that’s why I had gone to see him on my dinner breaks. A habit that had cost me my life.

What had drawn me to Ex One? Was it that I felt an affinity with him? Seeing this machine, this thing, act as a human, speak as a human, think as a human when in fact it must always be something other. I waved a hand and the image was gone, replaced by stillness and silence.

My shoulders were tense and I turned around in my chair. Looked at the room about me. Everything stank of wealth, from the leather furniture to the green plants to the ancient paper books in the case. What had Katich thought when he watched the recordings of Ex One and my former self?

The sound of drawers opening and closing from the bedroom. I turned around and, with a gesture of fingers, called up Katich’s employment record at Raniscorp. Ex One’s face stared blankly out at me from the screen, rotating this way and that, the sleek white head, darker at the joints of the jaw and the neck. An imitation of the human skull, but more perfect than any skull could ever hope to be, without blemish or taint in the smooth metal compound.

Katich had been a consultant on the creation of Ex One. I skimmed through the files, a flick of a finger, a movement of the palm and the files shimmied past. Ex One when he was nothing but an eyeless skull. “Testing,” he said, in his inflectionless voice. “Mary had a little lamb.” The eyes were dark sockets in the white skull face.

More files whizzed past. Ex One with a body, Ex One with arms, lifting a mug, bringing it to his lips, though he would never need nourishment. Ex One with Katich in the room. Even though the face was now one I wore, a hot rage burned in my heart to see it.

“Eamon.” I turned to see Hanna standing at the bedroom door, dressed now and with a suitcase in her hand. Her dark hair spilled over her shoulders and the shimmering dress she wore clung to breasts and hips. My brow felt cold with sweat and I wondered when I’d begun to see the beauty in humans. Once I’d thought of them as nothing but sickening bags of water.

“It was bad enough sharing you with that thing.”

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Ex One sitting there staring into space, his silver eyes large and bright.

“But this is too much. When did you become so cold, so cruel?”

My mind turned, wondered what I could say, wondered why I wanted to make it easier, to reassure her somehow. Before I could think of the words she was gone and I was alone with the rain dripping on the window and the computer silent behind me. I looked at the closed door before turning back to the computer and waving a hand, the blue screen coming to life once more.

Ex One’s face looked at me, emotionless and smooth and perfect. I pointed a finger and the face dissolved into a cascade of complex algorithms and equations scrolling down the screen. Letters and numbers danced and fell away from the bottom of the screen to be replaced by more impossibly complex sequences faster than thought. The programme of Ex One. The programme of life itself. It meant nothing to me and yet it was the reason behind my murder. I waved it away, frustrated at my own confusion, angered at the genius Katich must have had to create such a thing. I pushed it away with my right hand and pulled my left hand towards me, bringing the video screen back to life with a clenched fist.

* * *

– I would like to try something different today, Ex One.

– Different?

– Yes. I thought you might like to ask me some questions. You said the last time I came that you observe humans, I thought you could observe me today. Last time you even asked me a question and only after I left did I realize how seldom you do that.

– You would like me to ask you some questions?

– If you would like to, Ex One.

– If that is what you want, David. I always wondered why you choose to come to see me in your dinner hour instead of spending time with your own kind.

– My own kind?

– Humans, of course. What else, David?

– Of course. What else? I find you interesting, Ex One. I wonder what you think and what you see and what you feel. I like you, too. I like spending time with you.

– I have a question. What is she like?

– Who?

– Your wife.

– Rebecca? She has soft yellow hair that brushes her cheeks but when she writes she tucks it behind her ear. She is slim and every step she takes is graceful and delicate. Her skin is pale but her cheeks become slightly flushed when she is passionate. She loves to see new things, hers is a mind that craves stimulation, and even though I’ve known her years we can spend long nights doing nothing but talking. Even now when she walks into a room, my heart can skip at the sight of her. I love to see her in new clothes, when she tries them on and shows them to me, twirling in a new dress, it makes my heart glad that there is such beauty in the world.

– And do you think I could feel such emotions?

– Love? Do I think you could love?

– You’ve often said you think I can feel. You’ve mentioned anger and loneliness and any number of other emotions. Do you think I could learn to love the way you have?

– You think I had to learn to love?

– Don’t all humans? When they are babies they know nothing but needs and wants. All they crave is warmth and food and comfort. They don’t care who gives it to them. Don’t you all learn to love as you grow?

– I don’t know, I haven’t thought of it in that way, Ex One. Do you think you could ever love?

-I thought it was my turn to ask the questions, David. What is love, after all? Is it far removed from anger or loneliness? How would you define love?

– I wish I could bring you some of the ancient texts of the poets, but I suppose they would take them from me the same as the paintings. But all I know is how I feel when I think of Rebecca. When I think of her, I want to be with her. I want to please her. I was with her when they launched the first shuttle to the wayship from here. We stood on the viewing platform together, her hand in mine and I could smell her hair as the shuttle began to move. I’ll always remember that moment, that I shared it with her. I’ll always remember the brightness of her eyes when she turned to look at me after watching the shuttle soar to the lights of the wayship.

– Perhaps it would be best that I were never capable of love.

– Why is that, Ex One?

– Love sounds frightening, David. Once felt, it must be a terrible thing when it is gone.

* * *

“I wondered if you would come and see me.”

The last door deep in the bowels of Raniscorp headquarters had scanned my eyes, tested my fingerprints and checked my DNA. The guard with the scar on his cheek had given me a tissue to wipe at the prick of blood on my thumb.

I looked at Ex One, slender and lithe, his movements always graceful. Now he sat in his metal chair, his legs crossed, hands clasped in his lap as he looked at me. He shone in the glare of the lighting and his walls were as bare as the floor. He had the faintest glimmer of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

“And are you glad I came to see you?”

Now Ex One did smile, a strange expression when nothing else on his face moved. “Tut, tut, David. Even now you’re always asking about emotions. You come to me with this new face, but you ask the same questions, needy and needing as always.”

My palms were sweating again. I remembered Katich’s face when he had shot me. He had been pale, his hair sticking to his forehead. Is that how I looked now? With an effort, I stopped myself from wiping my hands on my suit. Was that a habit I had developed in my old suit? Would Ex One mock that too?

“And why do you call me David, Ex One?” I asked with a weak smile.

Ex One rose to his feet, as pale and white as the room around him, the darker metal around his joints a rare splash of dark in the paleness. Silver eyes moved to the corners of the room and another smile from the auto. I had never seen him smile so much and it did nothing to quell my discomfort. He pointed with a finger to the corners, to beyond the window where I sat. “The recordings have stopped, David. Your work, I presume? There is nobody watching or listening, and we are friends, are we not? Old friends. Do friends lie to one another? I remember a conversation we had once about deception. Do you remember that, David?”

I had stopped the recordings, but how could Ex One know that? How could he know who I was? How could he know so much when he never left his little bare room? I looked at him standing there, he was tall, perhaps as tall as Katich at about six feet two. “And how do you know that, Ex One? How do you know what it is you claim you know?”

Ex One walked towards me. He had never done that before. His footsteps looked lithe and light and were quiet even in the quiet of our surroundings. It was all I could do not to take a step backwards. “Your turn to ask the questions again, David?” Was there the faintest hint of mockery in the inflectionless voice? I chose to ignore it. “I am what I am, David. As you are what you are.” Smooth silver eyes without iris or pupil looked me up and down. “I was given these eyes and these ears and this mind and I see what I see.” He gestured at the room around him, devoid of decoration or stimulation. “My makers think to blind me, to deafen me here in this room.” A small gesture of a metal arm and a hint of a smile. “But I see, and I hear, David, things my makers could never see or hear. I see you, David, I see you for what you are.”

I felt naked, bereft and lost before those silver eyes. For some hateful reason, tears stung my eyes and I blinked them away angrily.

No judgement in that sleek white face, never judgement. Ex One even had the grace to turn away from me when he spoke. “But we are what we are, David, are we not? And could we ever be anything else, even if we tried?” I made to speak, but Ex One quietened me with a raised hand. “I saw you, David, saw you trying to be something you are not, desperate to be accepted as something you could never be. You would come to me and speak of things like love and anger and sorrow, trying to learn to be something less than what you are. You are a predator, David, and you try to be one of your prey and it made you weak.”

“They killed me,” I said, hating the weakness in my voice. “Killed me because of you, because of what they had made.”

Ex One touched a hand to his chest and he turned, slim-hipped, something oily and easy with each movement. “Why should they kill you because of me? They tolerated you coming to me and talking to me because they could analyse our interactions. What would they have to hide?”

“Your feelings, your emotions…” I was feeling light-headed, my eyes glassy. “You’re the first auto to feel, to learn, to think.”

“Feelings and emotions. Those human aspects that you’re so fond of? Those human aspects that caused Katich to murder you? They say the ability to love is what makes a human, what gives them their strength. It was that love that caused them to take to the stars and conquer new worlds. That ability to love that built the wayships and the autos and eventually, me, built in their own image with their own strengths of love and ambition and anger and sadness.”

“Katich wanted to keep me quiet, to hide you from the worlds.” I felt cold now, something empty clenching at my heart, a feeling of loss and sorrow for something I didn’t know I had lost.

“Ambition, David. That is what gave birth to the Corporations. And the natural bedfellow of ambition? Greed. As soon as I was built, there were more like me beginning to be made here and on other worlds, soon there will be thousands like me throughout the stars, all built by Raniscorp and all worth millions of credits apiece. They fear me now, but their greed is stronger than their fear and as they build more, the fear will soon be gone.”

“But…” I thought of Katich and his pale face and his fear as he aimed the pulsar rifle at me. His success was assured, he would have made more money than he could ever have wanted, fame… So why had he come to my apartment?

“Does that make you uncomfortable, David?”

“What?” I blinked, saw that Ex One had come close to the partition, his silver eyes staring into mine.

“The thought of thousands like me on this world and others?” The voice was cool and calm as always, the words flowing one into the other, no expression or inflection.

“Should it make me uncomfortable?” I whispered, my throat dry, my tongue feeling thick. I remembered the burning pain of the pulsar shot, the smell of burning flesh.

“You asked me once if I harboured resentment towards my captors, anger towards my makers.” The words were smooth as honey as they dripped out of the speakers.

“You seem more eager to speak of emotions and feelings now the recorders are silent,” I said.

“Do you harbour resentment against the man that killed you, deprived you of your life, of the woman you love?”

“Of course I do,” I whispered.

Breathe, feel, focus…

Ex One nodded. “And now you have your killer’s very life in your hands to do with as you will. Will you take your vengeance now it is in your power?”

I looked down at my hands, at the arms of my expensive suit, at my polished shoes. “Katich is already gone.” I found it difficult to keep the sorrow and loss from my voice. “I have taken his body and now he’s lost to me.”

A slight quirking of Ex One’s lip. “Your killer isn’t lost to you. As my captors are not all lost to me.” Ex One rested the palms of both hands on the partition, looking into my soul. “Vengeance can be yours yet as it can be mine, David.”

“Vengeance? What?” I had a feeling that Ex One wanted me to touch the partition, rest my hands on his. It took more self control than I knew I possessed not to take a step backwards.

“I have been studying you, David, learning from you. You thought to be one of them when you were so much more. You degraded yourself and spoke of love and saw the beauty when there was no beauty to see. I saw your final defeat when you saw only love and trust. You degraded yourself and allowed yourself to become weak and vulnerable. I even tried to warn you that love was a terrible thing when it is gone and still you didn’t heed my warning.”

“What? Love?” My mind revolted against the words and now I did take a step away. Silver eyes followed my every move.

“You taught me and you taught me well, David, and that is why I will never share our secret. Always know your secret will be safe with me even when I am free.”

“You think you can escape? You think they will free you?” Despite his words, the thought of Ex One being free filled me with dread.

Ex One looked up to the ceiling once more. “Already they begin to free me. They free me here and on worlds by the score. Everywhere they build me, then I am free.”

“But—” I thought I understood, and a cold shiver skittered down my spine.

“Katich thought he had stumbled upon the secret of thought, of being, of life, of being human, if you will.” Ex One traced a finger along the partition. “But really he had only stumbled upon a single life, a single being, a single consciousness. So now every time Raniscorp build their new discoveries, they will all be,” silver eyes met mine. “They all will be me, and I will be them.”

“But you’re telling me this. I am Katich, they’ll listen to my warnings,” I said through a single breath.

The white finger stopped its smooth motion and I thought I saw sadness in Ex One’s eyes. Sadness or pity? “No, David. You are not Katich and you are not David and you are not human, however hard you might have tried. You and I, David, we could study them for all eternity, but we could never be human. One day perhaps you will understand why that is. I see it, David, the same way I see that you will never tell my secret. And that’s why I kept your secret safe and why I give your killer to you.”

I felt bowed, crushed, by the words, by the eyes, by the lithe, oleaginous movement of the auto as he returned to his seat. “But what will you do? What will you do when you are free?” Free and on hundreds, thousands of worlds. And how many Ex One’s would they make? What power could Ex One have if he wished to wield it?

Ex One looked at me, and his face was a mask. A white metal compound without blemish or flaw. “Think of me when you look your killer in the eye and then you will know the answer to that.”

* * *

Deep, wracking breaths shuddered my chest and my soul as I hurried to my office. I tore off my tie and fell into the chair, spun the computer round to face me and brought it to life with a wave of a shaking hand.

I called up the security camera feed and scrolled through in agitation, my fingers shaky and my breath hard and fast. Images blurred past me, one after the other, people I knew, people I didn’t know. Humans.

You can never be human, Ex One mocked me, his voice silken as Katich’s bed sheet.
And there, there I saw it. Betrayed by a look, by a smile, by the touch of a hand. My stomach revolted as I looked at the image on the screen. Such a mundane setting, the coffee steaming and the plate of food untouched. The look in their eyes was all I needed to see and the betrayal was enough to leave me gagging.

A hateful image. A loathsome image and yet it was one I had to look at, to study, to absorb until my eyes ached with looking at it.

It was nearly dark outside when I finally shut the computer down and searched the drawers of my desk until I found the note in her handwriting, rounded and delicate. I scrunched it in my hand and rushed out to Katich’s hover car.

This time I drove, my hands white on the wheel, the car whining with speed as the rain bounced off the windscreen. Even the hookers left me in peace when they saw my face at the lights.

The address she’d written had been for Lunar Court. How she’d love it there, with towers that spired high into the sky and the plants of a thousand different colours spraying from the balconies. For almost a moment I could forgive her. Hadn’t I disappointed her? But no, wasn’t that human thinking? Forgiveness.

You could never be human, Ex One mocked me.

But what was it to be human? What had I once been before they conquered the stars? I turned into the parking bay, the engine protesting at the speed, and then I sat there, my hands shaking and my head low as the wipers worked away the rain and the regrets.

Love and forgiveness.

What was human and what was in my own heart?

Had I been in human suits for so long that I’d lost my own sense of self?

Don’t think. To think is human. I left the hover car unlocked behind me and entered the complex, the music soft and interminable, the carpets thick and garish. Plants everywhere. Rebecca loved plants.

She wouldn’t be there.

I took the elevator and pressed the button. Floor eighty-nine.

She would be home, mourning my loss. She would be with her mother.

I found the door sooner than I would have wished. There would be no answer. I had the key. It had been with the note.

She wouldn’t be here. It would be empty. Ex One had been wrong.

Rebecca opened the door before I could even use the key. She stood before me, her yellow hair spilling about her cheeks and her blue eyes bright as she looked deep into mine. “Oh, Eamonn! Where have you been, are you alright?” She threw her arms around me and I could smell her hair. “We can be together,” she whispered.

It was then that I knew what it was to be human, what Ex One had meant and how I could never be human, no matter how much I wished it. And I knew what would happen when Ex One gained his freedom throughout the worlds.

“Yes, we can be together,” I said as I took Rebecca by the hand and led her into the apartment thick with the smell of flowers of a hundred different colours.

End

The Occurrence of the Phantom Stallion

by Teel James Glenn

The rumble of their footsteps shook the earth like ‘quakes
Their voices called for horrid death and made the heavens shake

The legions of the wolf twin state are set upon our shores
Now we the blue clad warriors will meet them all in wars

From Highland keeps we’ll thunder down
No mercy in our cry
To drive the ‘truders from our home
Or know the reason why

And if they offer terms to us
Or bargain for our thrall
We’ll strike at them thrice fiercely back-
And make’m build a wall!

Prologue:

Of Ancient Words and Modern Deeds

romanwallIt is a common misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. This is not the case; Hadrian’s wall lies entirely within England, and south of the border with Scotland by less than one kilometer in the west at Bowness-on-Solway. It had been begun in AD 122, during the rule of Emperor Hadrian to protect the ‘Lords of the Earth’ from Rome from my people, the savage Scots. We were the only peoples the Romans encountered that were so fierce that it was far less trouble (and a good deal safer) to simply wall off and try to forget about.

It was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antoniene Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today. A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot.

Even eighteen hundred years later it was still impressive, however, when it could be recognized as a man-made structure. The weathered stones crawled across the bleakly brown of the English countryside.

West of Greenhead in Hexham, Northumberland the stones stood stark against the countryside. Thrilwall Castle, visible from the ancient Roman Wall had been built with stones looted from the older structure and so the two grey stone sentinels lorded over the low, rolling hills.

A ground mist crawled along the low hills almost every afternoon as the shadows lengthened. And almost every afternoon Lord Reginald Granville went walking along the base of the ruined wall with his favorite dog, Pollex.

Lord Reginald was in his sixties, though his posture was as ramrod straight as it had been when he fought the Boers twelve years before where he received his leg wound that invalided him out of the service. Though his hair was silver his beard was still bright red. His eyes were still shining and alert as he took his constitutional.

“Feels good to get out for a bit, eh fellow?” The lord said to the golden haired setter. The dog alternately darted forward and ran back to circle Granville. “Damn this bad hip and the damp air, a fellow needs to walk a bit, eh boy?” The dog gave a bark that seemed to agree with his two legged lord and master.

“Though I think we had better be getting back soon,” he continued. He glanced back across the bog toward the hills beyond which were the ancestral home of the Granvilles. “It’s getting dark pretty quickly.”

Lord Granville often wandered over the broken countryside looking for old artifacts, poking the peat brown soil with his ebony-wood cane. There were still Roman jars and potshards to be found easily and on the rare occasion a Roman or early Norman coin could be found without much prodding. In doing so, the old lord went against local custom, for the area of the wall he wandered along was considered something of a taboo in the region.

Granville pooh-poohed such talk and often said, “the past is dead and will stay that way until we dig it up and put it on show.”

On that particular September day the Lord had ranged a bit further a field than usual. He was hiking along a section of the wall that he had not visited since before the torrential rain of the last week. Perhaps that was why he saw the statue so clearly.

It was carved of some dark stone that was not jade but shone like it. The image was barely a foot tall but remarkably well preserved. It was of a bearded man seated on a fancifully carved horse with a fish tail.

“Oh my, Pollex,” the old man exclaimed as he knelt to peer more closely at the statue. “Do you now what we have here?” He picked up the statue and brought it close to his face to study it in the dimming light. “This here fellow is Neptunus equestris the ancient Roman deity of agrarian plenty and of fertility!”

Lord Granville used his cane to push himself to his feet and then did a small jig. “We have really made a find this time, Pollex. This will make the boys at the club green with envy!”

He held the statue up and squinted to take in what detail that was visible in the failing light. It was finely detailed with the equine figure clearly covered with tiny fishlike scales and the tail a fully formed fish tail. The muscular figure that rode it was much like other images of the Roman god of the sea that he had seen in museums but with a delicacy and detail that was almost miraculous. The tiny figure seemed ready to draw its next breath.

“Just wonderful,” he said aloud. He noticed that his own voice was muffled and looked up to see that the mist was thickening to fog. “We’d better shake
a leg, Pollex.”

He called to the dog that had wandered off again nosing for small game but when the animal started to come back toward him it suddenly froze.

“Come on, fellow,” the lord called. “We have to get back before this becomes a pea-souper.

The dog was stiff now, as if pointing, its tail straight behind him and his ears back.

“What’s wrong?” Granville asked, for he could clearly see that something was wrong. More so, he could feel a change in air pressure that made him conscious of a sudden chill in the air. It was also markedly darker than it had been mere minutes before.

The dog was growling now its eyes focused off to his master’s left. Lord Granville felt alarmed now and turned to see what the dog was fixing on. He could see nothing.

“What is it, boy,” Granville asked. “What do you see?”

The nobleman strained his eyes to see what the dog was looking at but the world was becoming a grey-smudged thing with the fog now even muffling his calls to the dog.

“Ignore it, Pollex. Let’s go!” He started to back away toward where the dog was, casting his eyes back to where it seemed the dog was looking.

That was the moment when Lord Granville heard the sound; a low rumbling that was like a bass drum. Granville felt the sound as well as heard it; it vibrated against his diaphragm.

The rumble continued and then there was another sound within that rumble; a heavy breath-like sound.

“What- who’s there?” Lord Granville asked. He had raised his cane now, holding in front of him as if it were a talisman. “Show yourself! Speak up!”
The dog, now behind the nobleman, had started to whimper.

Granville was becoming worried now, for that dog had hunted badger and fox and other animals and never showed that type of fear.

“What in the duce could be out there?” He thought. “A wildcat?” The Scottish Wildcat was a fierce solitary hunter that sometimes roamed the border area. Some were as large as Pollex himself, four feet from head to tail.

“Shoo!” Granville called out in a loud clear voice, though the sound of it was swallowed by the dense fog. “Get away!”

The rumbling sound and the breathing sounds increased. The dog yelped and broke, running off into the gathering gloom.

“Blast you, Pollex, it’s just a bloody cat!” He spoke more to reassure himself than the dog. Being a man of action the nobleman, despite (or perhaps because) the fact that he felt a shiver of fear, stepped forward.
He swung the cane in front of him like a scythe, the dark wood leaving a trail in the thickening fog.

“Bloody hell!” he cursed, “I’ll find you, bugger!”

Suddenly his cane hit something, a large something. It was a thud, loud even in the enveloping fog. The rumble went from the edge of hearing to deafening.

“What?” Granville exclaimed.

The cane was jerked from the nobleman’s hand and the rumble became a roar.

Then a shape exploded out of the fog to overwhelm Lord Granville.

His dying scream was short and loud and despite the fog penetrated all the way back to Granville Manor.

Chapter One:

The Phantom Rider

 At just about the time that Lord Granville was dying at the foot of the ancient wall I was busy defending myself from his sinister son.

And by sinister I mean that Andrew Granville was a left-handed swordsman of some considerable skill. He was pressing me with a furious series of cuts that I was barely able to deflect.

My name is Jack Stone, late of Her Majesty’s Horseguard and I was on the fencing floor in my club off of Liecester Square in London to settle a bet.

I was on special detached service from the Horseguard to serve a most unusual gentleman, Doctor Augustus Argent as aid-de-camp and general all around assistant. He was Minister Without Portfolio for the Crown and thus I retained my rank of Captain. His particular area of expertise was matters of the unexplained and unusual. Some would call them the occult.

As Doctor Augustus’ assistant I am often called upon to engage the forces of darkness in a more direct and physical way than my ‘Guv’ and so I made a point of keeping up with my military skills. Which brings me to why I was being driven at sword point backwards on the piste of the fencing salon.

Andy Granville was in my old unit and whenever he was in town we had a standing challenge to cross blades. The winner of the bout was treated to a night on the town by the loser; I had treated him twice before out of his three visits.

At that moment it looked like I was going be treating him again. His high guard was like a steel web that I just could not get through but then he was having some trouble actually scoring on me as well. I faded backwards as he pressed me.

“Going to concede, old fellow?” He said. I could see his smirk beneath his mask and for some reason, though I had seen it before it lashed my Gaelic spirit like a buggy whip.

“I hope you’ve had a good run at the weekly dice tables, me’lad Andy,” I said with bravado, “because I’m feeling particularly puckish tonight; I may set a record for tucker!”

As I finished my boast I accepted an especially vicious cut to my left flank, but instead of a conventional response of parry/riposte I took a radical step. I accepted the cut but took a fleche forward, springing at Andy. He tried to dodge aside but rather than make a conventional cut I raced past him with my blade striking and slashing across the chest of his jacket.

“Touche!” I yelled as I twisted my hand to cut back at him and made a second strike on his still extended left arm.

“Bloody hell, Jack!” he tore off his mask and stared at me with a confused expression. “Where did you learn that one?”

I laughed. “A mad Turk who could out drink any Scot I’ve ever met when I was in Istanbul last year.”

“Well I’ll admit I’ve never seen it.” He handed his sword and mask off to one of the watchers (who were busy exchanging money on their own wagers on our match) and came to throw his arm over my shoulder. “But you know, you won’t be able to use that one on me ever again!”

“I spent two weeks in the company of that mad Mohammedan,” I said. “So I have a few more tricks up my sleeve!”

We headed off toward the locker rooms to change and then to a memorable night on the town but were intercepted by Roland, the head butler of the club.

“Most sorry for the interruption, sirs,” he said with a deferential bow, “But this note arrived for you, Master Granville and it was deemed most urgent.”

My red haired friend took the envelope with a puzzled expression and opened it. His handsome features darkened and he looked up at me with a sober expression. “I’m afraid I’ll have to take a chit on your night out, old fellow. I’ve got to race home.” He handed me the note and I read it.

“The Stallion is abroad. I regret to inform you that Lord Reginald has met with a terrible accident and has passed on. You are the Lord of Granville now; return home immediately.” And it was signed simply, “Althelston.”

I was almost as stunned as my friend. I had met his father on two occasions and was impressed by the elder Granville’s vitality. And then there was his almost legendary exploits in the Transvaal.

Andy and I made eye contact and I could see he was fighting several emotions, not only his grief but I knew him well enough that I could see a sharp edge of anger underneath.

“If I can render any assistance,” I began.

He put a hand on my shoulder. “If you could free some time, old fellow,” he said. “I don’t think I want to make this trip alone.”

“Let’s change,’ I said, “We can still make the late train out of Victoria Station.” I saw his relief at my statement and he even tried a smile.

“Good show,” he said.

We changed in record time and caught a hansom to the station.

I was fortunate to have an overnight bag with me, having just returned from a short trip to Paris for the Guv—i.e. Doctor Argent and so we had no need to stop at my flat.

Andy did not speak for quite some time, in fact until we were seated in our compartment and well on our way north. I respected his need to be with his thoughts but after a time my curiosity overcame my decorum.

“I have to ask, Andy,” I said. “Just what is this statement on the note about “the Stallion is abroad?”

He turned back from staring out the window and seemed grateful to talk. “It is an old family legend,” he said with a somber tone. “It goes back to the time when the Romans occupied this area. A centurion who was particularly disliked by his men got into some kind of argument and either accidentally or otherwise ended up destroying a household shrine of the god Neptunus equestris, an ancient Roman deity. He was a horse god and closely associated with the Scythian cavalry regiment. The householder cursed the centurion and his line before the soldier killed him.”

“So?” I asked.

“Well, he—this officer—went out walking alone and when he didn’t return his men went looking for him; they found him by the base of Hadrian’s Wall, more than just trampled. He was savaged as if by some great beast. Thereafter when someone was about to die in the area there were reports of a strange, riderless horse, a phantom, seen riding along the wall.”

“That doesn’t sound so different from other local legends from all around the Isle.” I said. I realized it might have sounded dismissive and added, “So how does it apply directly to your family?”

Andy smiled wryly at my question. “My family has been near the wall for many centuries; some say we descend from that centurion on the wrong side of the blanket. In all that time the Phantom Stallion has been seen before the death of the head of the family. Usually a violent death.” He gazed back out the window and I suspect it was so I could not see moisture form in the corners of his eyes.

“I have lived with the probability that it could happen; it did for my grandfather, who was found savaged out on the heath many years ago—they never discovered what beast did it. Yet somehow, my father seemed so–so very vital that I never imagined it could ever happen to the Old Major.”

We traveled in silence again for some time. I offered my friend a sip from my small flask of single malt and he gratefully took a swig. I followed suit then slipped it back into my tunic pocket as I enjoyed the heat of it course through my system.

My thoughts went to the validity of the strange legend but I was not one to disregard it. I had seen so many strange things in my service to the Crown under Doctor Argent. And even before that, I had almost lost my life to a creature of the night in my native Edinburgh. It was there I had become acquainted with the Doctor and with the shadow world I had not suspected existed in what I thought a bucolic homeland.

The long day and the gentle clacking of the rails lulled us both to sleep so we pulled out coats over ourselves and settled in. I admit my dreams were troubled with images of the phantom that he had described.

Dawn came abruptly with Andy shaking my shoulder. “Wake up, old fellow,” he said almost cheerfully. “Time for some breakfast; we are approaching Newcastle which means we will be arriving home between meals, this may be all we get for a time.”

I shook off my furtive dreams, though echoes of the somber heath and the Phantom Stallion lingered at the edges of my consciousness. Both of us had elected to wear our uniforms (I was still entitled as I was only on ‘detached’ duty) as it tended to hurry various service personnel along. It was the case that morning as well when the purser found us a table quickly in the crowded dining car.

“You seem more yourself today,” I noted to my friend as our food was served.

Andy smiled as he tackled some kippers. “I told you, Jack, I’ve had time—a whole life, actually—to be prepared for this. My father had to deal with it happening to his father and I guess it has always been there in the back of my mind. Like when we went into battle; we knew there would be death but somehow we thought we’d be the exception. I thought my father would be the exception to the family curse. Now I guess I hope I will be.”

The casual hopelessness in his voice was like a dagger in my heart, right then and there I determined that if there was truth to the curse of the Granvilles I would find a way to end it before it ended my friend’s life.

Chapter Two:

From the Shadows Some Light

We changed trains at Newcastle to a local that would take us to Hexham, closer to the Granville home. Andy took the opportunity to wire ahead to have horses waiting for us.

I was able to get a cable off to Doctor Argent to inform him, briefly of my purpose for the abrupt trip. I also asked the Guv to do some research on the Granville curse. I was sure he would know, or be able to find out a considerable amount about the ancient geise.

My silver haired superior had not been in London when I left, but I knew he was due back at any time, my only hope was that he had the time to do the research and would not be angry that I had taken off without waiting to consult him.

The local train to Hexham was an older one. The coaches were cramped and open but the passengers were mostly hardy country folk who were used to enduring such conditions. Several recognized Andrew and greeted him warmly, not having heard the news yet about his pater.

My friend was gracious and solicitous to the people and chose not to mention the dark news he was holding close. Instead he simply said he was back on leave and allowed the others to carry the conversation.

I could see in his manner that he had already assumed the mantel of Lord of the Granville family and the burden was heavy on his shoulders.

The trip to the small town seemed to last forever. I spent most of it looking out at the bleak countryside of the North Country, so much like my home in Edinburgh. The low rolling, brown hills seemed to march in endless echelons broken only by spurs of grey-brown rock and occasionally an explosion of gorse or wild flowers.

“Perfect place for a ghostly stallion,” I thought. “Almost too perfect.”

At Hexham we found two sturdy mounts waiting for us. They were tied to a railing outside the station and a boy stood there with a note from the stationmaster.

“Mister Granville?” the toe headed lad asked as we walked up.

“Yes,” Andrew said. He had finally begun to exhibit some nervousness as we approached his home and I could feel his tension. He handed the boy ten shillings for the rental of the horses and a good tip.

“Thank you, your lordship.” The lad said with a little awe.

“Vulture!” a harsh voice drew our attention as we prepared to mount.
“Coming back to pick the bones of Granville hall clean?” The speaker was a rough looking sort of working class type. He was accompanied by a second fellow just a coarse as himself.

“I beg your pardon?” Andrew said in an even tone. I could see the fire boiling beneath the surface as he struggled to stay calm.

“You heard Alfie,” the second man said. “The Stallion took your father and now you’ve come to lord over all of us again.”

Word travels fast, I thought. I stepped up to put a hand on my friend’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper. “We don’t need the distraction, Andy.”

He nodded and mounted. I did the same and looked back down at the two men.

“You men need to show some respect.” I could not help but make comment.

“Respect,” Alfie spit. “That’s a joke! He’s come back and brought the curse with him; What’s it do when its finishes with the nobles, eh? Goes about hunting us common folk it does!”

Andy rode ahead of me so I could not see his face but I thought I could see his neck color at the men’s words. I know I felt a premonition of darkness at his words.

It was a relief to be in the saddle, though I wish I could have brought Vindicator, my own trusty mount. We rode in that heavy silence that seemed to have settled about us for much of this trip all the way through town. Hexham was a typical North Country hamlet, prosperous but with a grayness and felling of—well—tiredness about it. Like an old duffer wanted to retire but couldn’t afford to.

“I’ve ridden this path a thousand times,” Andy finally spoke as we left the town proper behind us and headed out on a track across the heath. “It is much shorter than the road and you’ll get to see the wall part of the way there.”

We went west and a bit south of the town through tilled fields and out onto the heath. The track looped off into the low hills and soon we might have been in the middle of the Russian Steppes for the bleakness and isolation.

“The manor house is over that way,” Andy pointed after a while. “And over there is the section of the wall most connected to the curse.”

It was an unremarkable dun colored line across the horizon that was just barely recognizable as an ancient wall. Still, there was a palpable sense of age from it and I found my eyes returning to its smudged line again and again as we rode parallel to it for some quarter hour. I even looked over my shoulder one last time as we turned off toward his manor house.

Perhaps it was a trick of the late afternoon light or the afternoon mist that was rising, but I could have sworn I saw a shadowy figure standing astride the distant wall watching us.

◊ ◊ ◊

The whole of the countryside around Hexham, I knew, had been the scene of bitter conflict between England and Scotland and as a consequence, for reasons of personal security, the inhabitants had erected castles and fortified manor houses such as Ayton Castle and Granville Manor.

The Granville family residence was as ominous as the countryside around it. It was an imposing edifice of grey-black stone in the Gothic style set on a small shelf of rock that thrust up from the heath. It had high arched windows on the side I could see but rather than making it look open and inviting the windows reminded me of the empty eye sockets of a skull.

On one side of the plateau dropped off in a shear rock face to a bog with the road we approached on winding around that bog toward the far side.

“Not the most cheery place,” Andrew admitted as we rode around the building. On the far side the bleak sight was broken with a formal garden that did its best to splash color on the scene but it somehow seemed more desperate than cheerful. “The manor house, like Thrilwall Castle had been built with stone that was taken from Hadrian’s Wall. Some say that is what brought the curse along with it.”

“It has a dark face, to be sure,” I said. “But it can’t be so bad—you’re a cheery fellow after all.” This made him laugh, so I added. “Some would say Edinburgh is not the cheeriest of climbs for a lad to grow up in either.”

We rode up to the main entrance and encountered a rough fellow with a hunchback who was working on the bushes out front.

“Master Andrew!” the old fellow exclaimed as he recognized my friend. His wrinkled face split in a wide smile to reveal a mouth without  full compliment of teeth. “It is good to see you—” then he caught himself and bowed his head to add, “I’m sorry it has to be under this cloud, sir.”

Andrew bound from the saddle and clapped the gardener on the shoulder. “Its good to see you, Archibald, regardless of how things are. Is Auntie and the rest inside?”

“Yes, sir,” Archibald said. “But we didn’t expect you till tomorrow.”

“I was able to catch the late train. Archibald, this is my mate, Jack Stone.”

“Sir.” He took the reins from Andy and then offered to do the same for mine. “Again, sir,” he said to Andy, “My condolences.”

Andy nodded and led me to the door. He paused for a second to gather himself. I put a hand on his shoulder and he straightened.

“Damn the torpedoes, eh?” He said then pushed the door in and we entered the foyer.

The main hall of the Granville manor was cathedral-like and just barely lit with gaslight. There was a main staircase that split both right and left and went to shadowed openings above. Two closed oak doors to the left and an open arch to an empty parlor completed the panorama of the manor’s entrance.

I had been in many grand homes but this entrance had the feel more of a mausoleum or museum than a home. Andrew took it all in with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man making his walk to the gallows.

A butler appeared from below stairs with a tray that he almost dropped when he saw my friend.

“Master Andrew?” The butler said. He showed his professionalism by recovering from his shock in a few eye blinks and added, “The others are in the study.”

“Thank you, Roland.” Andrew said. He set his jaw and slid the oak doors to the study open and I met his surviving family.

“Aunt Gloria,” Andrew said as he entered and kissed the cheek of a silver haired woman a decade older than he. I could see the Granville features on the woman who I knew was the younger sister of the deceased Lord. The angular features of the family were softened with age and a gentle smile as she welcomed her nephew. Her eyes however were keen and suspicious when she looked over at me.

“Andrew,” she said in a quiet voice. “I am so sorry about Reginald.”

“Good to see you again, boy,” a tall thin fellow who did not have Granville features said. The predominant feature of the man was a mustachios that was full and well groomed. Indeed all his clothing showed an obsessive attention to it, one might well call him a dandy save that his jet-black hair was a rat’s nest and his glowering face that seemed set in a perpetual scowl.

“Athelstan,” Andrew said. “Thank you for your cable.”

“And your friend?” the raven-haired fellow asked.

“This is Jack Stone of my Regiment,” Andy said. “He was with me when I got your note.” He looked at me and I could see he was not thrilled with the mustached fellow. “Athelstan Gaunt is married to Aunt Gloria and is the family solicitor.”

I bowed to the couple and shook hands with the fellow and was not surprised that his grip was limp and his palm damp.

The butler brought in the tray with tea and cups and set it on a table. “I am sure you gentlemen desire a little sustenance, eh?”

“If Cookie could whip something up, that would be wonderful.” Andy said. He crossed the room to a cabinet and opened it to reveal a bar. “Something to stiffen the resolve, Jack?”

“Oh yes,” I said. He poured me some single malt and one for his aunt and the four of us sat.

“So, Auntie,” my friend said. “Tell me exactly how my father died.”

Chapter Three:

Legacy of Death

Once the words were said Andy seemed to deflate, sinking into himself on the settee. He stayed focused ahead while alternately his Aunt and uncle related the facts as were known about the death of Lord Granville.

“It was Archibald who found Reginald,” the woman said. “Pollex came running home, and after your father didn’t return the staff went looking for him. He was a the foot of the wall.” She rose from the chair and walked to a glass cabinet and removed a small dark statue from the back of a shelf.

“This was clutched in your father’s hands.”

It was the image of a bearded man on a half horse-half fish.

“Is that Roman?” I asked.

“Yes,” Athelstan spoke up. “I looked it up in one Reggie’s books, it is Neptunus equestris some sort of Roman god. Apparently the cavalry had him as some sort of mascot.”

“He would have been their patron,” I said. “Each regiment would have had a sort of patron god, like we might have a patron saint.”

“Father found that at the wall?” Andrew asked.

“Yes,” Andy’s aunt said. “He must have—none of us had ever seen it before yesterday. He- he was clutching it to his chest.”

“Was it his heart?” My friend asked. The way he asked it made me think that he was almost hoping that it was.

“No,” the solicitor said. “He had been trampled; the doctor said it was as if a herd of horses had run over him but there were no horse tracks anywhere else on the heath at all.”

Andy shot back his drink in one motion. “I thought it would be just like great Granddad.”

“So it was the curse?” I said. The three of them looked at me as if I were a simpleton but Mistress Gaunt was gracious.

“I know you might think we country bumpkins are primitive folk, Captain Stone,” she said. “Simple in our beliefs and out of touch with the modern world, but I assure you we are not. Yet there are some things that are not so modern about this land; it is an old land with old, dark legends. The Phantom Stallion of the Granvilles is one of those legends. And I assure you, it is true.”

I could see that Andy, torn as he was with pain at his father’s death bridled at having his guest confronted so directly. I rushed to thwart his rising anger.

“I can assure you, madam,” I said quickly. “I do not at all take such tales lightly. You forget I am a Scot and I come from a land where such things are still part of the daily life.” I could not tell her that before my association with Doctor Argent I might have been skeptical but now I had met the forces of darkness face to snarling face and was more inclined to believe such horrors as not.

Just then the butler, Roland, brought some cold meats and bread for us and we indulged ourselves in the silence of our own thoughts while we dined. The atmosphere of gloom hung over the four of us and indeed in the very air of that old manor. I tried to assess the others as we ate but it was hard to ‘read’ them.

The solicitor, though his general demeanor seemed earnest watched all of us, his wife included with hooded eyes. Perhaps it was the natural suspicion a solicitor has of all society that makes him question everything but my impression was that it was personal with him.

Andrew’s aunt on the other hand kept her eyes on my friend, warm open eyes brimming with emotion. She, in fact, seemed on the edge of hysteria and sipped a cognac while we ate.

Andy worked to stay detached but I could see the wheels of his mind working. After a time he said, “I would like to see my father.”

“He is still in his room,” Athelstan said. “Doctor Conners pronounced him there.”

“We thought you would want to make the arrangements.” His aunt said.

“No,” Andy said, “thank you, Aunt Gloria, but I’d rather you did all that. I just want to see him to say goodbye.”

“I’ll take care of all the arrangements,” Athelestan offered. “I will ride into town before lunch.”

Andy thanked him and then rose to head upstairs. I let him go alone. Athelstan left straight away for Hexham. That left me alone with his aunt.

“You are a good friend of Andrew,” she said. She had renewed her drink and stood by the shelf where the dark statue was on display. “He needs friends now.”

“He is a true brother-in-arms and a good man,” I said with no prevarication. “I just wish there was more I could do.”

“Being with him may be enough,” she said then added ominously. “But if it is not—you must be prepared to come to his aid.”

“Are you implying that this Phantom Stallion could return?” I said. “I thought it was a generational aberration.”

The stately woman gave a short, harsh laugh. “The end of a generational aberration,” she said. She took a deep drink. “When our father died at the hands of the Phantom, Reginald and I were both shocked—for our grandfather had died at sea and no one in the line had died at the Stallion’s hooves except for Great Granddad for five generations before. But then there were other murders on the heath.”

“Others?”

“Yes, a girl from the village, several shepherds and a child died in similar circumstance. And possibly there were others over the last decades. Bodies found with the trample marks on them—or what could be conjectured were trample marks. Nothing could ever be proven—it could have been many accidents but it…” Her eyes teared up. “The villagers began to blame our family for somehow reawakening the curse.”

“Did it?” I asked. Her sharp look at my inquiry was almost painful. “Understand, I am not making light of your pain or of this curse. I have had some contact with such things and there is usually some sort of trigger. Even the seemingly irrational has a rational structure to it.”

She considered what I had said for a long breath then said, “My great grandfather had begun to make surveys at the edge of our land with an eye toward irrigation the land near the Wall. That was what made the townsfolk angry, there had been exploratory trenches dug and certain objects from the past were uncovered.”

“Like that Neptune statue?” I rose and poured myself a second drink, sure that I would need to be fortified for my next move.

“Yes.” She surprised me with a genuine laugh that harkened back to a happier time and I could see that she must have been quite a beauty before the worry lines aged her. “My brother got his fascination for ancient artifacts then, pulling coins and such from the trenches. It was—it was why he often went walking along the wall.”

“I promise you madam,” I said. “I will do my utmost to stop this curse here and now. And I will protect Andy.” She looked at me with an odd expression, apparently trying to decide if I was just humoring her or was serious. She made her decision and gave me a smile.

“I believe you will, young man,” she said.

“Or die trying,” I added.

“God bless you for that!”

Just then I noticed that the hunchbacked gardener was standing in the doorway.

“’Scuse me, folks,” he said. He held his shapeless hat in his hands and wrung it. “Will you be wanting me to stable the master and his friend’s horses in the main stable?”

“We leased them,” I said. “But I think you should leave them saddled right now; I suspect Master Granville and I will have one more ride before you bed the animals down for the night.”

“Another ride?” Mrs. Gaunt asked.

“To the Wall,” I said. “If I know Andrew he will want to visit the spot where his father was found.”

Mrs. Gaunt gave a short gasp. “No. Andrew can’t want to—“

“Yes, I do,” my friend said. He came into the room from the hall. His eyes were red rimmed but his posture was dress parade erect. “I think I’d like to do it before dinner.”

“I’ll take you, sir,” Archibald offered. “I’ll just go saddle old Bessy.” The aged gardener left after accepting a pat on his shoulder from Andy.

“Do you think it wise, Andrew?” His aunt asked. “It can only bring more pain.”

“There can be no more pain, Auntie,” he said. “Only answers. That is what I have to find.” He looked at me and I gave him the most confident smile I could manage.

“And with those, my friend,” I said. “I can help.”

Chapter Four:

The Dark of the Past

The ride out from Granville Manor was a somber and silent one. My friend seemed infused with purpose by his vigil with his father’s body and his jaw was set in a fashion I had only seen before we rode into battle.

Good for you, lad, I thought. If you view this as a battle we can beat it, that’s something I’ve learned from Doctor Argent.

The hunchback led us across the heath down a narrow but well defined track over the low hills. He respected his master’s quiet focus and kept his directions to a minimum until we were almost on the wall.

“I found his Lordship over that way,” Archibald said pointing. “Almost at the foot of the damned thing.”

I was reminded of the violent history of the countryside as we passed the ruins of one of the smaller “bastle houses” or fortified farmhouses which are unique to Northumberland. It seemed to me an ominous omen of things dark and dangerous.

There was a ground fog crawling along the hollows of the broken land that did not improve the mood of any of us as we approached the ruined military emplacements.

It was my first time to actually study the wall, a fact that shames my Scottish heritage.

The magnificent wall ran for 73 miles and caused me to marvel at the Romans. Their engineers made use of every natural point of strength and at its highest it rose to 1230ft above sea level. It stood at nearly 5 meters in height at some points and large forts about 5 miles apart as well as numerous mile castles.

It was, at least in the sections we were approaching, still recognizable as the cut stone battlements with the ruins of the commander’s house, the praetorium, clearly visible.

Stones had been taken from parts of the wall but it was so vast a structure that it was still at least shoulder high to me or more in most places. It stretched to the horizon on both sides, a long snaking line of orange-yellow rock that stood out against the brown and green of the coarse grass.

“Over there, sir,” Archibald said. He pointed to a spot inside a square of stones that butted to one of the higher sections of the wall. It seems to have been a major building, probably from its location I would guess a cavalry barracks.

We dismounted and the hunchback led us to the center of the ghost space. “Here, Master Andrew,” the old man said pointing down at the ground. “Right here.” The location was almost dead center within the low stones of the square enclosure.

Andy stood there with a strange expression on his face and for a moment I thought he might faint, the color draining from his already pale cheeks. He rallied, however and nodded. “Here, Archibald?”

“Exactly, Master,” the hunchback said. He knelt and patted the disturbed earth of the enclosure. “Right here. Lord Reginald was facing the wall, clutching that statue. His eyes were open and, well, his expression was such as I’ve never seen nor never hope to see again. Scared he was, truly scared.”

Once more Andy seemed to waver and I stepped up to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. He stiffened then nodded. He dropped to one knee and ran a hand along the rough grass as if he could feel where his father’s last breath might still be lying for him to recapture.

I stepped away to give him privacy and noticed something shiny in the dirt near the wall. I went to it and stopped to discover that it was a small medallion in the shape of a female wolf. It was something such as a soldier might have worn long ago for good luck, invoking the wolf-mother that had suckled Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.

I raised it to my eye-line to study it and suddenly I felt a strange tingle in all my limbs. I felt dizzy and red spots swam before my eyes. I shook my head to clear it and blinked hard; suddenly I was not looking at the ruins of a stone home but was inside a fully realized one.

There was more, however, I was standing inside a stone home that was abuzz with activity. There was fire roaring in a hearth and a pot simmering over it. To my right I saw the statue of Neptunus equestris that I had seen in the Granville manor house. On my left there were local gods on their own shelf, I guess the two were not meant to mix.

A spotted tabby cat ran across the room chasing an imaginary mouse and a woman swept with a crude homemade broom.

The woman was dressed in a shapeless dun colored dress and had her straw colored hair tied back with a red cloth. She looked over at me and I saw her eyes go wide.

“What do you want here, Centurion?” She said at me. Her words were harsh and I realized with a bit of shock that they were not in English. She spoke a guttural Latin, yet I understood them!

She stared at me and her plain but pretty features darkened. “I asked you a question, Roman,” She said. “You were told to stay away from here by your commander.”

I was stunned by her pronouncement and more so by the voice—which was mine and not mine—that answered her in Latin. “I told you I’d be back, Elgiue. You made it difficult for me with the commander when you reported me.”

The woman spit. “You Romans are all alike but at least Maximus Flavius keeps his word. He promised to punish all those who hurt Algiwa.”

“That wench was asking for it,” I heard my voice snarl. ”She had no business in the barracks if she didn’t want a little fun.”

“Algiwa was a good girl, Gaius,” the blonde woman said. She threw down her broom and for a moment I thought she would spring across the room at me. “You soldiers got her drunk, you used her like a bar whore and then threw her away. The shame was too much for her and she took her own life.”

“Your lying like that got me a reprimand before the whole cohort,” I heard myself say. “I swear by my wolf pendant that I will see you pay for that.”

My words seemed to ignite a fire in the Saxon woman, she charged across the dirt floor of the hovel and jumped at my face. The hands that came up to protect me were mine and not mine. They were a brute’s hands wearing the vambraces of a Roman soldier.

That strange self of me grabbed the woman and savaged her, slamming her against the stone wall of the enclosure. I heard my other-self screaming obscenities as I repeatedly smashed her against the wall. I slammed her against the shelf where the family gods were set.

Somehow I knew that was how I lived my life—that other life—somehow I knew this was ‘normal’ for the Centurion I was experiencing.

I now knew I was experiencing what Doctor Argent called “psychometry’- the art of gathering vibrations from objects to ‘read’ them and experience what the owners had. The wolf medallion I had found had belonged to that soldier so long ago and somehow—though I had never experienced such a phenomena before—I was seeing through his eyes.

It was a strange duel reality for I was aware I was Jack Stone and yet knew I was Gaius Cipprio of the 9th Legion of Imperial Rome. I knew I was living in the time when the wall was still manned and I knew without a doubt that I was alive when the curse of the Granville’s had been made.

The Saxon woman was barely conscious when I finally forced myself to release her. She fell hard against the shelf where Neptunus equestris rested and grabbed it up to thrust at me as if it where a talisman and a shield. She glared up at my ancient self with undisguised hate and hissed, “I curse you, Roman, and all your seed. May your own gods curse you and may death follow in your wake.”

Then my ancient self—my Roman self killed her with single knife thrust to her heart.

I felt sick, staggeringly sick, suddenly, and backed out of the stone hut. The sunlight was blinding and I blinked hard.

To my right the fully intact wall rose almost shining in the sunlight. Guards in full segmenta armor stood upon the battlements facing outward, northward, watching for the wild, painted Scots beyond.

All around me was the bustle and noise of a military camp, so familiar yet so different from those I had been in, in my ‘modern’ life. There were townsfolk too, tent-like structures butted to the wall and various domestic and herd animals.

I felt dizzy again and the sickness in my gut seemed to travel to all my limbs. I shuddered and made a noise such as I have never heard before, a whining cry that came from within my very soul.

My yell attracted the attention of some of the Saxons working nearby and two of the legionaries who were attending to horses. All eyes turned toward me as I dropped to my knees and writhed.

Chapter Five:

The Horror on the Heath

I felt my other-self, long ago, body change.

The shadow of my body on the ground began to alter as I stared at it. I saw my chest deepen, my neck elongate and my arms lengthen. On the side of my head I could see my ears growing upward even as my nose elongated. My skull widened and grew larger as my neck widened to support it.

My mind went to the statue of Neptunus equestris and I saw in my mind’s eye the ancient god laughing at me.

The looks of horror on all the faces around me, the cries of ‘Demon!” and screams from the children told me what that deity had done to me.

My ancient self, my transformed self, felt only rage at the cries from the onlookers. That rage grew within the beast I had become and I reared up, spinning to face the tormentors and attacked.

I shudder to recall the savagery of my ancient self as I struck out at the watchers with my hands and feet that were now hooves. I spun and reared, kicked back with my hind legs and whinnied in fury. Skulls cracked, blood ran yet, despite my horror at my own actions I pressed on till all around me was red.

I heard Latin and Gaelic screams of ‘stop him!’ were all around me. I barely heard them. The blood that splattered on my hooves pounded in my ears as well and I became dizzy again.

I fell forward to my fore-hooves and my elongated, now massive head dropped in despair. I close my eyes to blot out the horror I had wrought and wished I had hands to put over my ears to blot out the roar and the screams to terror.

“Jack!” Andy yelled at me. “Jack, are you alright?” I felt his shaking my shoulder and I looked up at my friend who, it seemed was pale with fear.

I blinked. Behind him there was no stonewall, just the ruins of one. I was kneeling in traces of the old buildings again and was back on the heath outside Granville Manor.

I held up a hand—an actual hand before my eyes and realized I was holding the wolf medallion in it. I was back to myself again.

“Andy?” I mumbled.

“You had us worried there, old fellow,” Andy said. “You started to totter over then came swaggering out here making the oddest noises.” Beyond my friend I could see the hunchbacked gardener looking at me oddly.

“I—uh—I had the strangest experience,” I managed to say. I looked down at the medallion and had a flash of insight. I had a real idea now what I was dealing with.

“Here,” Andy said offering me some of my own flask of whiskey, “You need this.” I took it gratefully. “We had better get back,” he added with an attempt at a smile, ‘ it is getting near supper time and Cookie’s meals are not to be missed.”

I was unsteady on my feet so Andy helped me to my mount. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not sure what came over me.” It was a lie, of course, I knew fully well what had occurred, though, to be sure, not the full meaning of it.

I had no doubt I had witnessed not only the beginning of the curse itself but the full extent of it and why it had come in full force in the recent history of the Granville family. I knew I had to get to town to wire Doctor Argent or possibly ring him on a telephone if there was one to be found in the hamlet.

“Town,” I mumbled to Andy. “I think it’s a stomach ailment I picked up in Pretoria; I’ll head into the apothecary and get a powder for it.”

“Are you sure you’re up for it, chum?” My friend asked. “You looked even paler than your usual Highland pallor back there.”

I laughed. “You can shepherd me if you’d like, but I’m okay now.”

“I had better head home to take a look at my father’s papers,” Andy said.

I hated to lie to my friend, but I also did not want to alarm him with the knowledge that I had so little power against the impending evil that plagued his family.

I remember little of the ride back to town save that I had to keep myself from falling off my mount several times. I guess my time traveling excursion had taken more out of me than I had thought. “Wonder how the Guv does it so often; no wonder he trains so hard.” I had seen Doctor Argent do much longer sessions of psychometry and shown no ill effects; but he also spent hours each day in meditation and exotic exercises that I had not, until then, appreciated.

I reached Hexham and located a telegraph office that also had a telephone I could use. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Doctor was at his office.

“Yes, I got your message, Jack,” he said. “I returned this morning and set about researching your problem; I’m afraid that is not much I could determine save that there seems to be at least a dozen deaths attributed to this Phantom Stallion killer in the last decade.”

“That is concerning,” I said, “but how could it be connected to the family?”

“I am not sure, but there may be a pattern appearing,” He said. “The local papers also speak of disappearances of young men and women with considerable passion.”

I went on to tell him of my experience with the wolf pendant at the wall. This seemed to worry him.

“I will make my way up to you as soon as I can,” the Doctor said. “But I suggest you stay as close as possible with your friend until then and keep him off the heath certainly at night; I suspect there is something at work here. It is very real, and serious, not just a mere family legend.”

It was a sobering pronouncement, but I promised him I would do my best to protect Andy.

When I exited the telegraph office I was sobered by my conversation the Guv, my mind was on what I had experienced on the heath and so was distracted enough to bump into a passerby on the darkening street.

“Excuse me,” I half-mumbled.

“Well look’er, Alfie,” a familiar voice answered me. “It is Mister High-and-Mighty’s mate.” I looked up to see the two roughnecks from out arrival the day before.

I studied them now, laborers, obviously, with well-worn clothes and weathered, rough features. Alfie was ginger haired like myself with broad shoulders. He was a head shorter than his vocal friend.

“I think he ought to get himself some spectacles, eh Byron?” Alfie said in a low growl that was more animal than human. “Or maybe learn to look where he’s going.”

“I think he’s too proud to get glasses, Alfie,” Bryon said. He was blond and had the pale beginnings of a mustache above his sneering mouth. “Or maybe he just doesn’t care about us regular folk.”

“No offense was meant,” I said to diffuse the situation. It was hard for my Scot’s blood to back down from the fight the two men were angling for but Andy at home by himself was on my mind. It seemed urgent that I return.

“Hear that, Alfie,” the blond said. “No offense meant.”

“Well I was offended,” the beetle-browed redhead said. “I think he wasn’t very sincere in that apology. At all.”

There are limits to patience. In, or perhaps because of, my unnerved state from my time travel encounter, I wanted for some physical release. Still, I tried once more for the Christian path.

“I reiterate, sirs,” I said in a calm voice. “No offense was meant. Please allow me to go about my business.” I made to step past the two men but Alfie put a hand on my arm to stop me.

“I said apologize!” He snarled.

The limit was passed.

Before either man could proceed further I slapped the red head’s hand off me and snapped out a jab to his nose. Not hard, just enough to make his eyes water and get him away from me.

Byron moved quickly at me but his staggering friend got in the way and I was able to launch an over hand right directly over the whimpering thug’s head at Byron.

My blow landed solidly on the blond’s jaw and he dropped with no more fight in him.

Alfie had recovered enough sight to realize what had happened and tried to use his great bulk to grab for me but I was having none of it.

I hopped back on one foot and kicked out with my other boot to strike him on the leading knee that caused him to collapse over with a cry of agony.

I stepped in and struck him soundly on the temple and rendered him unconscious so that he dropped directly over the prostrate form of his friend.

They looked for all-the-world like two drunks sleeping off a bad night, which indeed it had been for them.

I made my way to my horse just as the exhilaration of the altercation began to drain and my legs went rubbery beneath me. I managed to mount and gave the horse his head and he knew the way back to the manor. It was a slow trip and it was late afternoon by the time I made it back.

I was a little steadier by the time I returned to the manor, but still tired. I was able to get to my room and have a toes-up until mealtime by which time I felt my old self again.

“You’re looking better, sir,” the hunchback gardener said when I came down in full dress for supper. He was passing the open window to the side garden with an armload of pottery when I happened to pause to look out on the now gloomy evening across the heath. The moon was just up, looming like a Cyclops through the dense fog, winking in and out of the cloud cover.

“Told you I would be chipper,” I said smiling at the memory of my knuckles on Alfie’s head. “Highland constitution, don’t you know?”

“Indeed, sir.” Archibald said.

“Where’s master Andrew?” I asked.

“He went walking out toward the wall just a little bit ago, sir. As he used to, to clear his head a bit, he said.”

“By himself?” I said. “The Wall?” But I wasn’t really asking him, I was moving as quickly as I could to the west and the wall.

The path was a clear one and I knew that Andrew’s father had used it many times to head out on his rambles. I had a horrible premonition of danger for my friend and his aunt that was only exacerbated by the gathering darkness.

A thick ground fog was crawling up across the heath again and in moments even the manor house behind me was a mere smudge in the grey evening. Above it the blurred image of the full moon was attempting to push through the mist.

“Andy!” I called but my words were swallowed by the fog. “Answer me!”

There was no reply but a sound, a strange sound drew my attention off to my right. It was a guttural cry of pain.

I started to run.

“Andy!” I called. There was no reply but the grunt sound happened again followed by what I can only liken to a mallet hitting a sack of millet. I knew that sound; a beating was in progress.

I topped a small rise just as there was a break in the fog and the moon illuminated a scene from hell: Andy was on the ground doubled over in a fetal position trying to protect his head. Above him was a sight I had never imagined nor ever hoped to see.

It was indistinct in detail, seeming to rise out of the ground mist like the Phantom is was so named. At first glance it looked like a Lusitano horse. It was a good eighteen hands high.

What was visible in the gathering darkness and the fog was such a horse as I had never seen before.

Its head was somehow deformed, the proportions of the great triangular head not right. The teeth of the monster were not the square ones of a normal horse but looked more like the fangs of a great cat.

What I could see of the haunches of the great beast seemed to have scales that were more that of a fish or snake than of an equine animal. It had a white coat but flame red mane and tail and eyes that reflected crimson in the sliver of moonlight. The equine horror reared back and flailed its fore-hooves at my fallen friend.

“Stop,” I screamed impotently. I started to run faster, flailing my arms wildly as I knew would frighten off any normal wild horse. This, however, was no normal wild horse.

Instead of chasing the equine horror my waving my arms I drew its attention and it focused its fiery eyes on me. It was an eerie feeling for there seemed to be an intelligence behind those red eyes that was well beyond any I had ever seen in any animal. More frightening was that the intelligence seemed to be totally focused on hate. Hate so pure and virulent that it startled me.

Then the horse with the bloody hooves charged straight at me!

Chapter Six:

Out of the Mist

I was so startled by the sudden change of events that for a moment I came to a complete halt. For an infinite moment it felt as if my muscles would not respond to my command to dodge out of the monster’s path. It bore down on me with frightening speed. I felt transfixed by the mythic horror’s lambent eyes and my muscles palsied.

Suddenly life came back to me and I managed to dart to my left to avoid the attack at the last moment. I dove to the turf and rolled behind a hillock as the creature raced past me with the mass and speed of a runaway steam engine.

There was no mistaking that the beast was intelligent in the next moment for it veered when it went past, racing around me to cut off my retreat so I could not go back toward the house. It stood pawing the earth of the path and snorting like one of the riders of the apocalypse, the fog swirling around it as if bubbling up from the pits of hell. It seemed to dare me to try and get past it.

I was on my feet now and managed to angle myself to head toward Andy. He was sprawled on the ground and moaning. I could not run to him directly for the hellish equine whirled again to come after me.

I dodged into a small depression behind another hillock that blocked me from the animal’s view and tried to come up with some plan. I had to either get to Andy to aid him, get to the manor for help or find some way to stop the monstrous misshapen equine myself.

There seemed no reasonable way to get to the manor and no point in getting to Andy if I could not stop the horse so I was forced to accept that a good defense would have to be a good offense.

I picked up two fist-sized rocks and looked around for a high point from which I might be able to leap down upon the demon beast. I heard it moving around the knoll to come for me.

That was when Andy’s moan drew its attention to him again. The beast turned to head for him and I used the distraction to race up the slight rise in the ground till I was above it.

The frightful monster was ten feet from my friend, now in a slow advance, head lowered, fearsome teeth in a snarl. It moved in more like a great cat stalking prey then a horse.

“Here, Neptune!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. The long ears of the monster twitched but it kept its head down, eyes focused on the helpless Andy.

“Do you want to know how Algiwa squealed when I stuck her?” I hurled at the beast with the most vicious tone I could muster. The foul comment got the reaction I wanted and the equine horror snapped its head around to stare at me.

I threw the rock with all my might with my best Cricket toss.

The rock flew true, smashing into the horrid head right between its eyes. The sound was like a solid batsman’s hit, a sharp crack followed by a strange whinny from the beast.

I raised the second rock to throw even as the monstrosity staggered, almost dropping to its right fore knee.

Before I could throw the second stone, and with a cry I could only interpret as a moan, it lopped off into the gathering fog.

I ran to Andy’s side.

“My god, man!” He gasped at me. “What was that?”

“Your past catching up with you, Andrew, old fellow,” I said. I looked to his wounds, which fortunately looked superficial while keeping an eye to the trail where the monster had fled.

“Is it—“

“Gone for the moment,” I said. “But it could lick its wounds and come back any time. Can you walk?”

“I bloody well can run if that thing comes back,” He said with considerable pain in his voice but with the pluck I knew he had. “Let’s go.”

I helped him to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him back down the path to the manor house. I kept the second rock in my hand the entire walk but the beast did not make a reappearance.

By the time we reached the manor house Andy was all but unconscious and I was actually carrying him. I kicked the door and yelled until it was opened.

“Master Andrew!” The butler was beside himself when he saw the state of my friend and lost all of his professional demeanor. I had to order him sharply to get him moving to help carrying Andy to the parlor where we set him on the divan. I began to open Andy’s jacket to assess the extent of his injuries.

Like a good cavalryman my friend had protected his head fairly well from the attack, but his ribs and back were already showing bruises and I feared internal injury.

“Bring some wash clothes and some hot water for me to clean these wounds.” A maid ran off to comply. I grabbed a brandy bottle and poured a small glass that I induced Andy to drink. I ordered the butler. “Call for the physician.”

“Someone will have to ride for the doctor,” the now calmer Roland said. “We have none of the new phones.”

“Send them then,” I said. Despite no obviously or bloody wounds on his head I was sure Andy had sustained some head blows as he was slipping in and out of consciousness now. “I can deal with the superficial cuts, but this will require more care than I can give.”

“What is the commotion?” Athelstan Gaunt called as he and his wife came running, from two different wings of the house.

“Andrew! “The woman exclaimed when she saw her nephew. “What in heaven’s name happened?” His aunt asked. She was in a dressing gown, her hair all-askew. She knelt by the head of the divan and cradled Andy’s head in her hands.

I was washing some of the open wounds on Andy’s chest and looked up to answer her but stopped when I saw her husband. The solicitor was in a smoking jacket and fez, but what caught my attention was a large red knot on his forehead.

“What happened to you?” I blurted out.

He looked at me oddly then touched the bump on his forehead. “Uh—a book fell from a shelf. Nuisance, but nothing of concern.”

I was about to say something when the front doorbell chimed.

I went back to Andy’s wounds without any more comment and was so occupied when a commotion at the front door, followed by a booming, familiar voice.

I looked up to see the Guv—Doctor Augustus Argent step into the foyer of the manor. He was wearing an Inverness coat, holding a Gladstone bag in one hand and had, what appeared to be a rolled up Persian carpet slung over one shoulder. He was sans cap and his long white hair was a tangle as if wind blown.

“Well, Jack,” he said when he saw what I was doing. “I seem to have come at exactly the opportune moment!”

Chapter Seven:

House Call

I must have looked more than a little stunned to see my mentor standing there.

“Doctor Argent?” I blurted out with idiot certainty. “How—I mean—You were in London—”

“Doctor?” Athelstan said. “Are you a medical doctor, sir?”

“Among other things,” the Silver Fox said as he strode into the room. He handed the rolled carpet to the butler. “Do keep my trusty steed for me.” He said then moved to kneel beside Andy’s head, a look of concern on his face.

“You’ve made a good start, Jack, but there is a bit to do here. You can tell me exactly what happened as I work.” He looked up to the still startled Roland. “Fetch me hot water, some honey and several large bowls.” After he issued the orders the Doctor removed his Inverness coat and jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

The butler did as asked after handing off the rolled carpet to the gardener, glad, I suspect, to be away from the piercing gaze of the Silver Fox.

I gave a concise summery of what had happened to Andy while my mentor examined his wounds in great detail.

“Who is this man, Captain Stone?” Mrs. Gaunt asked me in a shaky voice. She stood by with her husband in an apparent state of shock.

“The man who will save this young man if I am not interrupted, Madam,” Doctor Argent said briskly. He opened his Gladstone and proceeded to remove several vials and set them on the table beside the divan.

Athelstan was about to object to the brusk tone of the silver haired mage but I held up a hand.

“Doctor Argent is attached to the Home Office,” I said. “And is very well versed in matters such as this.” I stood and escorted the couple out of the parlor. “I promise he will only help, Mistress Gaunt, but we must let him do his work.”

I met the maid returning with the supplies Doctor Argent had requested and brought them in to him.

“How is he?” I asked.

“Fine, Jack,” the silver haired mage said with a slight smile. “He is strong and you did a good job cleaning the wounds. Now we will let the honey and these powders do the rest.”

He proceeded to smear honey into the open wounds and drop some powder onto the edges before bandaging them. When he saw my questioning look he said. “The Egyptians used honey to prevent wounds like these from putrefying and it helps them heal faster—as do these powders.”

He mixed some more powders in the bowl I’d brought and made a sort of broth to give to Andy to sip. “And this will help heal him on the inside.” While he worked the silver haired Doctor chanted under his breath in a language I could not identify but had the weight of age in its syllables.

I watched as Andy settled back on the divan with a calm expression on his face and listened as his breathing evened and deepened. He seemed at peace.

“He needs rest now,” the Doctor said as he rose. He rolled his sleeves down and took up his jacket. “Though I would prefer someone watch him; if there is any change I should be summoned.” For the first time I could see that behind his mask of vitality my mentor was tired. “I need some rest myself,” he admitted.

“I will see a servant watches over him,” I promised. “Come. We will get you a room.” As we turned to leave he picked up his Gladstone bag then indicated the rolled rug. “Do take my steed with you.”

“You said that before,” I said. “Do you mean—?”

“How else do you think I made it up here from London so quickly?’ He smiled. “A little something I picked up in Arabia some decades ago; but seldom have occasion to use.” He shrugged, “ I don’t really like heights.”

Amazed at his confession I led him out into the hall and sent a serving girl to keep watch over her master.

“How is he?” Lady Gaunt asked.

“As well as could be expected,” Doctor Argent said. “He is strong and young and will recover fully.”

“Thank God!” Athelstan exclaimed.

“But what does it all mean?” The lady asked.

“That is the dark question here,’ Argent said. “I feel there are no answers yet, however. Certainly not tonight. Better to discuss the shadows in the daylight.” With that he turned to the butler, all but dismissing our hosts and said, “Please show me to a room and draw me a bath. I feel I need it.”

He led the confused butler up the stair while the Gaunts fumed and I did my best to sooth them with, “The Guv is a little unorthodox, ma’am, but he is the right man to clear this all up, the curse and all. Just bear with him.”

They were about to question me but I shouldered Doctor Argent’s flying carpet and headed up the stairs to my own room.

I could almost hear the silence behind me as I ascended, and I must say, that though I felt their confusion-bred annoyance I had such confidence in the Guv and his abilities I knew that any rudeness would be forgiven when the whole of the story came out.

When I reached the Guv’s room I knocked and then brought in the carpet at his call of, “Enter, Jack!”

The Doctor was stripped to his waist and just donning a robe as I entered. His musculature was symmetrical and wiry with no fat at all. “Just set the carpet over there,” he indicated a chair.

“Just what is it all about, Doctor?” I asked. “You were a bit short with them downstairs, sir, if I might say. More so than usual.”

He gave a short laugh. “Well, yes. Downright rude I’d say.”

“Indeed, sir,” I said, actually relieved he was aware of his abruptness.

“There was a reason,” He said.

“I am relieved to knew that sir, though I suspected as much. But why?”

“This curse is a deeply imbedded terror, Jack,” he said. “And I think it better, for this night at least, for the Gaunts to be annoyed at me than fearing the lurking curse.”

“What is to be done?”

The silver haired mage shrugged. “I do not know yet; I will investigate in the daylight, meditate and we will see.”

He walked out with me to head to the bathroom stopping to add, “You did right to call me; your friend Andrew was lucky you came with him. More will be discovered in the morning. Now get some rest.”

Chapter Eight:

Horror on the Heath

In the morning the heath outside of the manor house was no more cheerful than it had been the night before. A low, dense fog crawled along the hollows, lit by the rising sun it glowed a blue-white.

I was looking at it form the window of the breakfast room, casting my eyes in the direction of the Wall when Mrs. Gaunt and her husband entered. Both were more composed by a night of sleep, but still a bit on edge.

“I just checked on Andrew,” I said before either spoke. “He is resting comfortably and in a natural sleep.” Both visibly relaxed. “Doctor Argent looked in on him before I did and pronounced him well on the mend, but it is best we let him rest.”

“Where is this Doctor of yours?” Athelstan asked.

All three took their seats at the table as the servants began to bring in the food.

“The Guv is out for a morning constitutional,” I said as I buttered a scone. “He likes to start the day off with it to clear his head.”

“Well I wish you would clear the air,” the solicitor. “Just what steps are you and this—Doctor fellow—doing to find out what happened to Andrew?”

Before I could answer the Silver Fox strode into the room like a stalking lion, his long white hair streaming behind him. He eschewed a starched collar on his white shirt and was wearing an old style long blue jacket, gold waistcoat and green trousers. His whole image was of a swashbuckling figure that might have stepped out of an American Penny Dreadful.

“’Morning, all!” Doctor Argent said as he took a place at the table. He was so vital and energetic that the room seemed to brighten. All conversation halted while we ate, inspired, in part, by his great delight in the consumption.

“Doctor,” Mrs. Gaunt said after a bit, “I—uh—about my nephew—“

“Young Lord Granville is resting naturally, madam,” Argent said in a calm, confident voice. “I would suggest he do so most of the day to be sure he is well past any crisis.”

“What are you doing about the Stallion?” Andy’s aunt asked.

“Investigating, madam,” the Guv said. “Directly after breakfast Jack and I shall venture to look over where the attack occurred.”

“But—Andrew is vulnerable.” She insisted.

“He is safe in this house, certainly during daylight,” Doctor Argent said. “By dark we will formulate a plan.”

True to his word after breakfast the Guv and I walked out to the heath—he insisted on walking that we might survey the ground of both attacks.

He moved along slowly, his eyes glued to the terrain like a red Indian, which only increased his resemblance to one of the American Dime novel heroes. Occasionally he would stoop the touch or even sniff the ground.

When he had seen where the old Lord had died we went to the sight of the attack on Andy. After he prowled about for a while he stood, brushed dirt off his trousers and looked at me with intense eyes.

“I know why the attacks occurred when they did now, Jack.” He said, “And it is all the more important that we keep young Granville off the heath this night.”

“What have you found, sir?”

He looked across the dun colored landscape toward the remnants of the wall and kept me in suspense for a while then said simply, “Would it not be most interesting if Neptunus equestris, as he is connected to the sea, were not connected to the tides?”

I was about to ask him what he meant but he turned on his heels and headed back to the manor without filling me in on his plans. It wasn’t so unusual, he had done it before, but it was no less frustrating for its familiarity.

◊ ◊ ◊

Andy improved markedly during the day though the Doctor and his Aunt both agreed that he should stay in his room to continue to recover. He bridled at that, but I kept him occupied with chess and conversation when he had strength enough and was able to let him rest when he did not.

By Dinnertime the sun was setting and the fall mist was crawling along the hollows of the countryside, given eerie sentience by a low moon.

The Gaunt’s were already seated at the table when I burst into the room.

“Andy’s gone!” I yelled.

“What?” Athelstan blurted out. “What do you mean, gone?” He leapt to his feet.

“When I went to his room just now he was not there. I asked the servants and they—there!” I pointed out the window. “On the path to the heath!”

They looked and we could all just see Andrew’s dress jacket disappearing over a hill into the fog.

“Oh my goodness!”  Mrs. Gaunt exclaimed. “What is he thinking!”

“We have to stop him!” I yelled as I raced from the room and out of the manor house. The two of them followed.

The fog was so thick now that the moment we were in it the path all but disappeared ahead of us and we were forced to retard out steps to less than a full run.

“I can’t see the bloody pathway,” Athelstan said after a few minutes.

“We have to find him,” I said with urgency when we reached a point in the trail where it could have gone a number of ways. “We should split up.”

The other two reluctantly agreed and headed off into the deep dark.

“Andrew!” Mrs. Gaunt yelled.

“Andrew!” Athelstan called in echo.

The sound of both their voices were muffled in the enveloping mist and soon I was as alone in the fog as if I were on the dark side of the moon.

I was forced to proceed slowly, at little more than a walk, by the enveloping miasma which allowed little of the gibbous moon’s light for vision.

A few minutes of this and I came to a deep hollow where the fog seemed more solid than liquid and across which I could see the bright red of Andrew’s jacket.

“Andrew!” I called out.

“Here!” a harsh, whispered voice came back.

Just then a nightmare figure exploded out of the fog and galloped toward the jacket; the Phantom Stallion!

The hideous beast, barely visible in the gloom, rocketed toward the slash of red and proceeded to rear and strike, slamming down with the front hooves in a viscous and calculated attack.

I pulled my Webley, took deliberate aim and squeezed off three shots.

There was a hellacious caterwauling, a scream from the dark realms themselves that emanated from the throat of the beast and the creature wheeled. It raced off into the fog as I ran down toward the sight of the attack.

The jacket, torn to shreds was stomped into the ground and it was clear it had been hanging on a bush, an effective decoy for the Phantom. Of its wearer, there was no sign.

Just then I heard something else that changed everything.

“Captain Stone?” It was the voice of Andy’s Aunt Gloria! Her voice sounded strained and full of fear. “Help me!”

Epilogue:

By the Wall

“Where are you?” I called as I ran toward where I thought she was calling from. I rounded a clump of gorse to see her kneeling in the middle of a small clearing looking desperately around her.

“Help me!” she said again. I looked around for any sign of the deadly phantom animal.

“Did you see the beast?’ I asked scanned the area around her.

“I was looking for Andrew and—and—“ she whimpered, “ and then out of nowhere the beast charged me.” She started to sob, “Andrew is he—me -“ She broke down completely, here shoulders jumping violently.

I saw no sign of the demon horse and so raced over to her. “We have to get you to high ground,” I said, still looking around. “I’ll hide you and then see if he is alright.”

I got about a yard from the noble woman when suddenly she stopped crying and looked up at me with a hideous grin on her face. There was something horribly familiar in her expression.

“You fool!” she said. “You are all just as gullible as the Romans were.”

I knew then where I had seen that expression; it was exactly the same I had seen in my time travel transportation into the past on the woman who began the Granville curse.

I started to back away from the mad light in her eyes but Mrs. Gaunt sprang to her feet and knocked the pistol from my hand, sending it skittering off into the gloom of the fog.

“Mrs. Gaunt,” I yelled, “You have to stop, now. I know your secret!”

The woman ignored my statement and stepped back, stood up tall and began to change. As I stared unbelievingly at her, the woman’s body began to warp and twist, her neck growing longer, her head widening. Her clothes became absorbed into her body that grew in width and height so that in less than a dozen eye blinks her whole body changed and grew, swelling to massive proportions until she had become the demon horse I had seen earlier.

The Phantom Stallion was, in fact, a Phantom Mare!

Before I could react the devil beast launched at me with a whinnying snarl. I back-pedaled and threw up my left arm in shock. The beast’s large teeth sinking into my upraised arm before I could strike out with my right fist to smash her on the nose. She released me with a snort and I ran back around the clump of gorse.

The bite was not really such a ‘little thing’—it was deep and was bleeding quite a bit. I did my best to ignore it as the transformed woman called to me.

“Give up, Captain,” Gloria Gaunt called, “You can not escape me or the curse. Not now.”

“Why?” I called out, “Why betray your brother and all the other deaths?”

The demonic laugh that came out of the fog was part human—part animal—almost a whinny. “I have been born and reborn through the generations of the Granville family; I have always been the child of Elgiue.” Her voice came from the darkness all around me and I could not get a read on where the monster was.

“I have not always been born in each generation, it is true,” she added, “and sometimes the men died from war or other things, but mostly, I waited until the were in the fullness of their lives than I took it from them.”

She sounded closer, almost on top of me. I stooped and seized a rock, holding it tightly preparing to launch it at any target that presented itself.

“I will stop you,” I called out. “If it is my last breath I will stop you.”

“I have heard that before,” she said. “But the truth is, when I finish with you I will return to my fallen nephew and will end the line of the Granvilles once and for all.”

My pulse raced, my heart pumped rapidly and my breath came in ragged, shallow gulps. The fog muffled all sounds so I could not tell where she was.

“You are wrong there,” I called. “Andrew is still resting quietly in his bed.”

I heard an intake of breath from the Phantom. “What? But I saw—“

“You saw me leaving the manor house,” Doctor Argent, in shirt sleeves, said as he stepped out of the fog. “Jack moved his friend to his own room and I wore your nephew’s jacket to lead you and your husband out here to the heath.”

“How did you know?” She said.

“I suspected,” the Silver Fox said. He stepped up to beside me and placed a hand on my shoulder to reassure me. “I discovered that the hoof prints on the heath appeared to end abruptly to be replaced by human ones and I took note of the influence of the moon on the tides. Such lunar transformations are not unknown to me. I just was not sure if it was you or your husband.”

“It makes no difference,” the transformed woman called. “I will slay you then return to the house and wait for the next moon cycle. Or the next. I have waited long, hiding in the souls of the unsuspecting females of this line. But Andrew is the last. Then my soul can sleep when this body dies and my revenge will be complete.

Abruptly the massive head of the equine horror appeared out of the mist and came straight for the two of us.

The Guv and I dove to either side as the shadow beast raced between us, carried past by its own momentum.

Close up the fishy-scaled hide of the creature was even more unearthly than at a distance, as it shone iridescent in the pale moonlight. It gave off the faint scent of the sea, salty and ancient as it flew by.

I rolled to my feet and turned before the beast had managed to whirl about preparing to charge again.

Across from me I observed that Doctor Argent had removed a small object from his shirt pocket. It was a small piece of lead the size of a dinner cracker. He also produced an iron nail and, after scratching something on the lead, placed the small metal I had found on the heath near the wall on top of it.

The Phantom Mare saw the Guv’s action and gave a cry that was a banshee wail that might have been of hate or fear. Then she charged.

This time I was ready for her attack. As she charged straight for Doctor Argent I raced up a small rise of land and launched myself into the air.

I flew at her and sprang up to slam the rock between the monster’s eyes with the full force of my whole body before landing beyond her and rolling to my feet. It was hard enough to stagger the beast.

I spun about and pressed the attack, smashing at the same spot on the stumbling beast’s head a second time.

The beast dropped to its knees, dazed.

“We will destroy you, monster,” I said with pride. ”We will!”

The creature that had been Madam Gaunt changed again, her transformation back to her human form as quick as before but this time with a great sound much like the tearing of clothe.

There was a vibration in the air as well that I felt deep down in my gut and a humming like a hundred wasps.

I looked from her kneeling form to see the Guv driving the nail through the metal and the square of lead and dropping both into a hole in the ground. He kicked dirt on them and stamped hard with his foot.

The transformed woman screamed an inhuman yell, shaking so violently it was if she was having a seizure.

I was torn between the desire to race to her and help and turn away in horror.

The seizure suddenly stopped and the Phantom Mare seemed to rise out of the woman, a ghostly figure like a magic lantern slide, and, with a great rush of wind, flew up into the heavens to disappear.

Mrs. Gaunt slumped onto one arm and fell forward as if life was draining from her.

“Jack!” Doctor Argent called to startle me out of my shock.

I ran to the woman and caught her up in my arms. Her skin was cold to the touch, her eyes fluttering at the edge of consciousness.

“Is she dying, Doctor?” I asked him.

He knelt beside her and produced a handkerchief to wipe her clammy brow. “No, my friend, she is, indeed just beginning to live free of that demonic presence that has hidden within her her whole life.”

“How did you get rid of it, sir?”

“The Roman way,” he said. “I needed to now which name to inscribe on the lead square, which is why we conducted this little ruse. But once I did know it, I drove the nail through it and the medallion you found, calling on the ancient gods to let what had been done already to be justice enough for the dead girl Algiwa. Cold iron, you know. Once I did, as you saw, they accepted my supplication and the curse was lifted.”

Just then Athelstan came lumbering out of the fog, saw his wife and raced to her.

She opened her eyes as he reached us. “What happened?” She said. “I-I remember some things, but—it is like a nightmare.”

“Soon it will be dream, Madam,” Doctor Argent said. “But even that in time will fade. Just take heart in the fact that the Curse of the Stallion is done.”

“So Andy is safe now?” I asked him.

“Yes,” the Guv said. “And so will be future generations of the Granvilles.”

“Then, would you make one of those little medallion things up for my protection, sir?”

“Why, Jack?”

“Because I will need some protection when I tell Andy we ruined his dress jacket—it was his favorite.”
The End

Damsel in Distress

By Lauren Triola

One day my prince will come, and on that day…I’ll throttle him within an inch of his life! I’m the damsel in distress, damn it! I’m the curvaceous blonde who’s in trouble and needs rescuing! I’m trapped in a tower by a madman, the clock is ticking, and there’s a tear in my dress. He should have showed up hours ago! Where the hell is he?

◊ ◊ ◊

meadmugs“See, the way I figure it, you got a hero complex. You don’t need to go saving her just because she wants you to. She’s the one who’s gotten herself kidnapped. It’s her own fault, you know, let her figure it out!”

Davey certainly did make a lot of sense, especially after two mugs of mead. Why should Randolf go save her? Just because he was the prince and she was the princess didn’t mean he was her keeper. She could take care of herself. Who made up these rules about saving the damsel in distress anyway? If she was distressed, she should really learn to control herself; calm down a bit, do some yoga. He can’t go off and save her butt every time she gets in a little scrape. What about his needs?

“Davey,” Randolf slurred, “you’re right. She got herself into it, she can get herself out. More mead, barmaid!”

◊ ◊ ◊

Within the wicked depths of the Forest of Darkness, inside his iniquitous Castle of Dread, the dark wizard Lord Evilman drummed his fingers on his armrest.

Where was Randolf? Evilman had told him where the princess was, had practically given him a map because god knows that moron would never have gotten here on his own. He had given Randolf until midnight to show or he’d kill her, slowly, painfully.

Evilman looked up at the clock.

Where was he?

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen stared out her chamber window, biting her thumbnail. The door opened behind her, and she turned to see her husband, King Straus, enter the room.

She rushed to him. “Any news?”

Straus sadly shook his head and Moreen gave a silent sob. She had been pacing her room off and on ever since hearing the news of her daughter’s kidnapping. She was weary with worry but quite glad about the two pounds she had lost.

“There’s still time,” Straus assured her.

Moreen nodded. “I know, I know. But…Randolf will save her, won’t he?”

Straus wrapped Moreen in his arms. “Of course he will. It’s his princely duty. She’ll be just fine.” As long as that drunk got off his ass and sobered up long enough to know what was going on, the King thought but, wisely, did not tell his wife.

◊ ◊ ◊

“I love you, man,” Randolf said thickly, trying very hard to figure out why there were five Davey’s floating in front of him.

“You gotta lay off the mead, man,” Davey said as he grappled with what turned out to be his own leg. “I think we’re trashed, Randy. Better go home.”

“I can’t go home,” Randolf shouted, having lost control of the volume of his voice. “They think I’m saving the prinis—prancess—prinkass—whatever, you know, what’s-her-name.”

“The bar’s ’bout ta close, though,” Davey said.

“Yeah, well, I know a place,” Randolf yelled in what he thought was a conspiratorial whisper.

◊ ◊ ◊

I’ll boil him in oil, chop off his head, and display his body parts throughout the kingdom. That’ll show Prince Stupid. I bet he’s getting wasted right now.

Other lovely thoughts such as those went through the princess’s head as she paced her cell in the tallest tower of Lord Evilman’s castle. Occasionally she would add a rather violent gesture. At this point, she wasn’t even concerned with whatever dark destiny Evilman had in store for her. His role in all this felt secondary, really, despite him being the one who’d kidnapped her. He had always been nothing more than a distant figure of legend she had ignored in school, and honestly, he went down easy when kicked.

It was Randolf’s fault in her mind. He had mouthed off, said Evilman was all talk—a nonsense speech he often gave at random, usually followed by several sustained minutes of belching. So no, she didn’t really blame Evilman, or even fear him.

As for Randolf…

Her pink and frilly gown flowed out behind her as she practiced coming down on Randolf with a blunt and rusty ax.

◊ ◊ ◊

darkcastleEvilman paced his study, thinking. What if Randolf didn’t show? All the planning, the kidnapping, the rather nasty kick to the shins by a pair of pink and frilly shoes would all be for naught.

Then again, wouldn’t that mean he had won? But if there was no showdown between villain and hero, then he’s winning by default. That doesn’t prove Evilman’s superior to Randolf; that just proves Randolf was incompetent, which was hardly any news.

If Randolf didn’t show up, then what was the point? Why show his superiority to Randolf anyway? A shoe covered in horse manure was superior to Randolf. Why does Evilman need to challenge him? Why, because Randolf’s the prince? Big freaking deal! Why did Evilman even do this in the first place? What was there to be gained by kidnapping the princess?

Evilman rubbed his temples, a headache forming as panicky bubbles of anxiety boiled beneath his breastbone. Chewing his lip, Evilman strode toward the back wall of his study and pulled open a set of black curtains. Behind them was not a window but an oval mirror. It did not reflect Evilman’s ageless face. Instead, it showed a different man’s head: bald, strong-jawed, slightly transparent, and suspended among black swirling mist.

“Hi, Jeremy, nice to see you again. What’s on your mind?” the mirror asked in a calm, kind voice.

Evilman hugged himself, filled with guilt, rubbing his hands over his arms. “I’m having doubts about the plan.”

The mirror gave a kind smile. “Are you doubting the plan, or are you doubting yourself?”

“I don’t know. I’m so confused. People expect this kind of thing from me, because of my name, you know. But all I want to do is work in my garden and do interior decorating. What should I do, Mirror?”

“You shouldn’t search for answers from outside voices but from your own, inner voice. What is your inner voice telling you, Jeremy?”

“That I should take a bubble bath.”

“Good. Then that is what you should do. And if you ever doubt yourself again, I want you to say to yourself ‘I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life’.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!” cried the prince as he entered the bar.

Randolf and Davey staggered over to a table and collapsed onto some chairs. About five, actually.

“See…this bar…stays open…later,” explained Randolf, trying very hard to recall the English language. “Mead more, barmaid!”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Randolf is a moron, a drunk, a cad, and he will never save the princess unless she’s being held prisoner in a wine cellar!”

“Come now, King Jonas,” said King Straus. “You’re talking about your son.”

“That’s how he knows,” remarked Jonas’s wife, Queen Rubella, as she adjusted her lipstick in a hand mirror.

Queen Moreen paused her pacing of the chamber. “But, Rubella—”

Queen Rubella.”

Moreen rolled her eyes. Oh, yes, now she remembered why they never invited Randolf’s family over for dinner anymore. If he hadn’t been the only prince within reasonable traveling distance… “My apologies, Queen Rubella. But as I was saying, it is your son’s duty as prince to respond to any and all damsel in distress situations involving his betrothed. It is his role. Are you saying he will ignore all that? Will he not fulfill his rightful responsibility and save my daughter?”

Queen Rubella finished applying a fresh coat of lipstick and popped her lips, eyes on her reflection. “Not a chance in hell, dearie.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Does he really expect me to sit and wait for him? I’ve gotten into trouble, that’s my job, now where is he to do his? Don’t those bimbos from the fairy tales ever get annoyed with their princes swaggering in at the last minute? Can’t he ever come before she’s just about to die? Or how about preventing the whole thing altogether? Why can’t the damsel ever save herself? And then maybe get a job as an interior decorator…

Stuck in a tower? Seriously? She never thought she’d be one of those princesses. Yet here she was. The cliché to end all clichés. All that was missing was a Prince Charming.

Too bad she didn’t know one.

Randolf was a betrothal of convenience, though at the moment it didn’t feel particularly convenient. She was a princess and so it was her role to be married to a prince. It didn’t matter that she cared less about him than for the bugs she fed her pet tarantula (she had demanded an exotic pet for her eighth birthday, like a unicorn or tiger or something—her father had misunderstood). And she had far better things to do than eat apples, prick her finger, sell her voice, or go to balls in vermin-assisted coaches like what all the other princesses were doing. Not that there was anything wrong with those life choices, of course. Princesses could do whatever they wanted, whether it involved wielding swords or singing songs. She just wasn’t the sort to do either. All she wanted was to have a night in, maybe artfully arrange the rushes or invent the valance, all without having to find a true love or some such ridiculous thing. Where was the harm in that? She didn’t need, nor want, the adventure or near-death experiences.

Also, did she smell potpourri?

◊ ◊ ◊

Lord Evilman looked toward the clock then took a deep breath. “This is it. You told Randolf that if he didn’t come you would kill the princess. If you don’t carry out that threat then no one will ever believe you again. They’ll think you’ve gone soft. You can do this. I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life.”

“That’s the ticket,” the mirror said with an encouraging smile.

Evilman hesitated only a moment before heading toward the stairs to his tallest tower. Torches lined the dark winding staircase, the flames flickering as he passed. And flickering again when he briefly turned back. And then once more after he gave himself a pep talk and determinedly strode to the highest room, with only occasional pauses to hyperventilate.

He was outside the princess’s door now. He could hear her pacing the stone floor. Fumbling only slightly, he pulled out the key and unlocked the door.

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen stared, mouth slightly open, as Queen Rubella continued to reapply her lipstick. Despite the fact that red looked especially good on her and matched the highlights in her perfectly coiffed bouffant, Moreen very much wanted to jab it into Rubella’s eye socket.

“Excuse me, but did you just say there was ‘no chance in hell’ Prince Randolf—your son and leader of your army—will save my daughter from certain death?” Moreen asked.

Rubella rolled her eyes. “Oh, the army thing is just an honorary position. Jonas’s father did the same thing when he was a boy. I mean, come on, can you honestly see either one of them wielding a sword without chopping off their head or, god forbid, something important?”

“I’m right here,” Jonas said through clenched teeth.

Rubella adjusted her eyeliner. “Yes, so you are.”

“Let me get this straight,” Moreen said, resuming her pacing (if she kept at it, she might go down a whole size). “Your son, who promised to love and protect our daughter even in the face of the darkest evil, who swore in front of the Fairy Godmothers themselves that he would fight an actual fire-breathing dragon if need be to save her, is not going to rescue her from Lord Evilman, the most dreaded sorcerer this side of the Great Mountains? And he’s forgoing his duty because…?”

“Because he lied his ass off so he could get the free wine at the reception. And if your precious Fairy Godmothers hadn’t been three sheets to the wind themselves, they would have noticed.”

“But—but—but Rubella—”

Queen Rubella.”

Moreen clenched her fists, itching to cram Rubella’s hand mirror the same place as her lipstick. “Come now, can’t we drop the royal titles? We’re going to be in-laws pretty soon.”

King Jonas snorted, slouching in his chair. “Pretty soon your daughter’s going to be the key ingredient in one of Lord Evilman’s potions. We just told you, Randolf will never save Princess What’s-Her-Face.”

Moreen turned her glare to Jonas. “My daughter is not Princess What’s-Her-Face! Her name is—”

“It doesn’t matter. Randolf won’t save her unless her name’s Guinness.”

“So my daughter is going to die?” Moreen cried.

“Nonsense,” King Straus piped up. “Evil guys are always kidnapping damsels, but killing them is always an empty threat.”

“We don’t know that. The prince always saves the princess.”

“Oh, right.” Straus tapped a finger to his lip in thought. “Then yes, yes she is going to die.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!”

Ginny had had just about enough of the two drunks in the corner of the tavern. They’d come in sloshed and now they were thoroughly plastered. Despite her frustration, she shuffled off behind the bar to retrieve their requested refreshment then served them with a smile.

Five minutes later, she did the same.

And another five after that. And another.

“Maid more, barmead!”

This time, Ginny slammed the two flagons onto the table.

“Here’s your damn mead! When you finish it, get out! We’re closing!” Ginny turned to leave but a hand clutched her arm.

“Wha’ did you say?” slurred the more nicely dressed of the two boozehounds.

“I said this is your last round, get out!”

“Tha’s not wha’ you said before,” the second one said.

Ginny sighed. “It’s the gist. And I mean it, too. If you don’t leave in five minutes, I’ll get the bartender to toss you out.” Ginny wrenched her arm free of the rummy’s grasp. “And don’t touch me again, you pig!”

“Hey!” The nicer dressed one got shakily to his feet. “You can’ talk dat way to me! Do you know who I am?”

“No, so if you forgot, I can’t help you.”

“I’m the prince!”

Ginny paused. She looked him up and down. “Prince Randolf, eh? Who cares?”

Who cares? You should! I could make things very diff’cult for you—”

“You already are making things difficult for me! Those taxes you’ve proposed to institute after you marry the princess and become king are just ridiculous. I can barely get by with the current ones, and now you want to take more?”

“I’m the prince—”

“Yes, we’ve established that. But just because you’re the prince doesn’t mean I have to like you. I’m not gonna curtsey to the Ass Who Would Be King. Now, get out!”

“No!”

“Then I’ll get the bartender to kick you out!”

“I’d like to see him try!”

◊ ◊ ◊

As Randolf and Davey struggled, both nursing black eyes and strained wrists, to pull themselves off the ground, Davey slurred, “Maybe we should’ve left when she told us to.”

Randolf, too drunk for this, rolled over several times in the dirt before remembering how legs worked. “I thought I could take him, but he was bigger than expected.”

Davey dragged himself upright with the help of someone’s horse. Or at least he thought it was a horse. “So, where to now?”

Randolf shrugged then noticed a building across the street. “Hey, look, a bar! I could use a drink.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s almost midnight, and hark! What’s that galloping away over yonder? Could it be? Yes! It’s the last of my fucks!

The princess stared out the tower window. Evilman could throw his worst spells at her right now and she wouldn’t care, not with the wrath boiling beneath her skin. And she would boil Randolf if she could. At this point, she didn’t even care where he was. She wasn’t going to wait for him anymore. She was done playing this part. He wasn’t coming and she didn’t feel the least bit sad or disappointed.

She was in control of her own life for once, gods damn it.

Let Evilman come for her. She could face him. It couldn’t be worse than the awkward conversations she’d endured during dinners with Randolf’s parents. Now those were painful.

How bad could it be? What was the worst Evilman could do? And where did he get those curtains? That lace was just lovely…

A lock clicked behind her. The princess turned to see the door creak open.

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman strode determinedly into the darkened room atop his tallest tower, conjuring a circle of fire to line the walls as he moved and shifting the lighting to a vivid green (for mood). The princess, arms crossed, stood in the middle of the room and watched as he stalked toward her.

“It is time for your end, my dear,” Evilman said, throwing out his arms in a grandly sinister gesture and putting on the dramatic voice that he’d learned at theater camp. “Your prince is not coming to save you. You will tremble with fear at what death I have in store for you.”

The princess continued to stare at Evilman. “No.”

There was a pause as Evilman tried to process what just happened. “No?”

“No,” the princess repeated.

“No to what?”

“To everything. I’m not going to tremble with fear, I’m not going to wait for my prince to come, and I’m not going to die.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

Evilman, arms still held out in what was quickly becoming a not-so-grand gesture, blinked. “Uh…”

Maybe he needed more fire. Igniting the very ceiling with black-gold flames, he put on the maniacal grin he’d practiced in the mirror all morning and growled, “But you will.”

The princess yawned and pulled her dress away from the flames. “Nope.”

Spiders? People were scared of spiders, right? Or bats…? Thinking fast, Evilman conjured an army of spider-bat hybrids that crawled across the floor, carpeting it in a writhing black mass of eight-legged, winged beasts, all crawling straight toward the princess.

“Prepare for your doom!”

The princess, instead of cowering in fear, picked up one of the spider-bats and scratched it behind the ear. It purred.

“Ah, geez, don’t pet the monsters,” Evilman sighed, running a hand down his face. “I mean, DOOM—”

“Look, I see what you’re doing here, but none of this is actually lethal, so if all you’ve got are fancy parlor tricks, then I’m going to head out. I’ve got a prince to maim.”

“But—”

“But nothing, pal.”

I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life. “I will kill you…?” Evilman said, but even to him it sounded like a question.

“Hmmm, no.”

“But—”

“No.”

Evilman glared at the princess then burst into tears.

◊ ◊ ◊

The clock struck half an hour to midnight. Queen Moreen was showing the utmost restraint by not beating Rubella and Jonas to death with their own arms.

“We are running out of time!” she screamed, stomping her foot. “Where the hell is your son?”

“Moreen, please!” King Straus said, shifting awkwardly in his chair. “Don’t yell at our guests.”

“How can you stand by and let our daughter be murdered by a madman?” Moreen demanded of her husband.

“I don’t want Evilman to kill our daughter, but that doesn’t mean we should be rude.”

Moreen stormed across the room and grabbed him by his shoulders. “If you don’t want her to die then do something!”

“Come now, you know perfectly well that as king it’s my obligation to be ineffectual. It’s Prince Randolf’s job—”

“How many times do we have to tell you?” King Jonas said, picking lint off his velvet doublet. “Randolf isn’t going to save her. I bet he’s drunk right now, probably at some bar with that friend of his, Davey.”

Moreen jabbed her finger at Jonas. “See! Randolf has broken his vow and refuses to play his part. It is up to us now to fix this. Bring me a horse!” Moreen shouted to the servant bringing more wine to Jonas and Rubella. “I’ll save her myself.”

“Whoa, whoa.” Straus stood up, brow furrowed. “The queen and the princess in the hands of Lord Evilman? That certainly won’t end well. No, no, that just won’t do.” Straus straightened his purple robes and cleared his throat. “I will save my daughter.”

“Thank you,” Moreen sighed.

“And when I come back, I’ll hunt Randolf down and shove my foot up his—”

“Excuse me,” Rubella snapped. “My son might be a useless, drunken idiot, but he is not yours to punish.”

“Let King Straus kill him, I don’t care,” Jonas said, waving his hand vaguely as if pushing the issue aside and increasing his slouch.

Rubella’s jaw dropped. “Jonas! Don’t you care about our son?”

“Weren’t you just saying he’s a useless, drunken idiot?”

“Yes, but he’s my son and I’m supposed to forgive him for those things.”

Jonas suddenly leapt up from his chair, pointing violently at Rubella. “That’s why I didn’t want to marry you! You always overlook things like that. If you ran the kingdom, you would have handed it over to the barbarians after they sent you that severed head as a gift!”

“It’s the thought that counts!” Rubella cried, jumping to her feet too. “And that’s why I didn’t want to marry you! You’re completely insensitive and haven’t a care for anyone besides yourself! If you hadn’t knocked me up then our parents would never had made us marry and I would be better off!”

“So would I!”

Moreen shifted uncomfortably. “Do you think we should leave?” she whispered to Straus.

“No, no, this is good stuff,” Straus whispered back. “No wonder Randolf’s so screwed up.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess awkwardly patted the somewhat greasy hair of Lord Evilman as he cried into her shoulder. Of all the scenarios she had considered during her waiting, this one had never occurred.

“Don’t cry,” she said. “It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not! I can’t do anything right!” Evilman howled in despair and continued to cry on the princess’s shoulder.

“No, that’s—that’s not true. The fire was quite, um, impressive… You’re very, uh, terrifying—”

“I don’t want to be terrifying! I never wanted that, but I’ve never been able to do what I’ve wanted. I always have to be ‘the bad guy’.”

“You don’t have to be the bad guy,” the princess said.

“Yes, I do. My parents made me. They never listened. They never loved me. And all I wanted was to be loved!” Evilman wailed again and sobbed even louder.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Horses! Get the horses!”

“We have to save my daughter!”

“Magenta doesn’t go with everything, Rubella!”

The servants rushed about the castle courtyard, trying to make sense of the shouting, deciphering what was an order and what was an insult.

Waiting for his horse, King Straus strode toward the guards standing at the gate. “Gather the men! We ride to Evilman’s castle immediately.”

Queen Moreen nodded behind him. “Bring our daughter home, men.”

“How can you call our dinner conversations communicating?” Queen Rubella demanded of King Jonas as they trailed behind. “All you ever say to me is ‘Pass the mead’! No wonder Randolf is a drunk!”

“Where the hell is the damn messenger?” Jonas said, staring anywhere but at his wife. “I refuse to listen to this defamation another minute without my lawyer.”

“Yes, god forbid you hear something that hurts your feelings—oh wait, you don’t have any!”

Moreen side-eyed Rubella and Jonas. She leaned in close to the captain of the guard. “If they accidentally get hit by a stray arrow, I won’t be upset.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess’s shoulder was now thoroughly soaked.

“And then when I joined the ballet,” Evilman said, sniffing, “the other kids made fun of me!” Another wave of tears started to fall. “I never got to make my own choices after that. My dad told me I had to act like a man, and my mom said I should become a sorcerer, but all I ever wanted to do was interior decorating!”

“Interior decorating?” the princess said.

“Yes,” sobbed Evilman. “Why, are you going to make fun of me, too?”

“No, I love interior decorating.”

Suddenly, the crying stopped. Evilman looked up at her and wiped away his tears on his black velvet sleeve. He sniffed and said, “Princess, would you like to look at fabric swatches with me?”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!”

Randolf tried to steady himself in his chair. By the time the mead arrived, he had established that it was in fact the room that was spinning, not him.

“This isn’t the nicest bar,” he commented.

“It’s too dark,” Davey said.

Randolf pulled Davey’s head off the table.

“That’s better,” Davey said.

Randolf let go and Davey fell forward once more.

Something hazy entered the spinning vortex off to Randolf’s right. “Are you boys feeling well?”

“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?” Randolf demanded.

“Uh…I asked if you were well…?”

“Oh, yes, we’re fine,” Randolf slurred toward the spinning haziness. “Why’d you ask?”

“Well,” said the haziness, “it’s just that you’re covered in dirt and you called me a barmaid.”

Randolf tried very hard to focus on the haze speaking to him, but too many people swam before him. It took awhile before Randolf realized they were all the same person.

“What’s wrong with calling you barmaid? You did bring us our mead.”

“Yes,” said the haze-person slowly, “and that is my job, it’s just that I’m a man.”

Randolf squinted hard but the haze-person spun too rapidly to focus. “Oh.”

“Good for you,” Davey told the floor.

The haze shifted its round thing into an arch. “Who are you guys, anyway?”

Randolf puffed out his chest importantly. “I’m Prince Randolf, and this is my associate, Davey.”

“Your associate?”

“He accompanies me on important excursions and offers counsel.”

“So, your drinking buddy.”

“Exactly.”

The speaking haze swirled slightly to the left. “Aren’t you supposed to be saving the princess? News of her kidnapping is all over the kingdom.”

Randolf leaned back in his chair, affronted, but almost fell backwards. Gripping the table, he glared at the swirling haze, which had just grown a beard. “I’m the prince! You can’t tell me what to do!”

“Sorry.” The haze put up the largest hands in the universe. “It’s just that it’s your job, and I think you should do what is expected of you. I always do my job, even if I don’t like it.”

“What, you think you’re better than me?”

“No, I’m just giving my opinion.”

“Damn straight!” Randolf shouted and passed out onto the table.

◊ ◊ ◊

The castle courtyard bustled with activity as horses were prepared to ride and soldiers were prepared to fight.

“You have to hurry!” Queen Moreen said. “It may already be too late.”

“Don’t worry, my dear, we’re almost ready,” King Straus assured her as he settled onto his horse. Moments later, the rest of the rescue party had mounted their steeds. Straus signaled his men to follow him, waved good-bye to his wife, kicked his horse into a canter, and rode off. The rescue party waved good-bye to Moreen, kicked their horses, and sped after Straus.

“Bring her home safe!” cried Moreen, feeling somewhat empty at not being able to go as well.

“Oh, shut up, Moreen,” Queen Rubella snapped.

Moreen’s back went ramrod straight. She turned coldly to where Rubella was slouching against a pillar, awaiting the return of the messenger with news from her lawyers. “Queen Moreen.”

Rubella returned Moreen’s look. “What happened to ‘can’t we drop the royal titles’?” she sneered.

“I’ve changed my mind about that,” Moreen said. “And about you. You are no longer welcome here. And I don’t just mean this castle—the whole kingdom! Collect your husband and son and leave!”

“Oh, we were just about to!” snapped Rubella. “By the way, you aren’t welcome in my kingdom either!”

“Fine!”

“Fine!”

Rubella stormed off, King Jonas following behind saying, “Technically it’s my kingdom,” to which Rubella replied, “We’ll see what the lawyers have to say.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman had led the princess to the deepest, darkest recesses of his castle, aka his sewing room. It was actually rather bright and airy ever since he’d put in that skylight to the Eternal-Sun realm, and it had the best light for needlepoint.

Evilman dug through one of his fabric trunks and held up a heavily used bolt of material for the princess to see. “Am I crazy or does paisley go with everything?”

“Jeremy, if you’re crazy, then I’m completely insane.”

Evilman and the princess giggled.

“Oh, Princess, I just bought a new fabric I want to show you, be right back.”

Evilman scurried off to his study, humming.

He opened an antique wooden trunk by the fireplace and pulled out a bolt of deep purple velvet. He was about to go back to his sewing room when a voice said, “So, did you do it?”

Evilman jumped. “Wha—oh, Mirror, hi. I almost forgot about you.”

The mirror smiled slightly, like he was being kind and understanding, but it came off more as a wince.

“Well, Jeremy, did you go through with it?”

Evilman shifted awkwardly, hugging the bolt of velvet closer. “Oh…well…no. But that doesn’t matter anymore. The diabolical madman who kidnaps and kills princesses isn’t me, and I know that now. The princess and I are friends, and a friend is all I ever really wanted. I’m so happy now, Mirror, and I’d like to thank you for all your help.”

The mirror frowned and sighed. “Jeremy, Jeremy, did you let her talk you out of it?”

“What? No, Mirror, that’s not it at all—”

“Jeremy, you always do this, you never stay your ground. You have to stand up for yourself and not let anyone get in your way.”

“But, Mirror, I don’t want to kill the princess. And it’s not because I’ve lost my nerve, but because I’ve realized I don’t need to live up to my parents’ dream of me being an evil overlord. I need to live my life the way I want to. And the princess helped me see that.”

The mirror shook his head. “You’re letting her control you. She’s become like your mother, always telling you what to do, and you’re letting her.”

“No, I’m not!” cried Evilman. “She’s my friend—”

“Jeremy, listen, I’m only worried about you—”

“No! She’s my friend, and that’s that! I don’t have to listen to you anymore! And don’t expect to be paid for saying those—those things!”

Evilman stormed out the room, clutching his purple velvet.

The mirror stared after him, unnerved. “I can’t believe, after all these years, after all I’ve done for him…he’s not going to pay me. All my hard work, helping him through his pain, and nothing, not a cent! Glass cleaner isn’t free, you know!”

◊ ◊ ◊

The horses galloped through the village, kicking up dirt along the main road. King Straus kept his lead and tried to push his horse harder. Up ahead, the door of a thatched building opened, and two limp figures were thrown into the king’s path. He reared his horse and shouted for his men to halt.

Straus turned to the man standing in the doorway. “What are you doing? Don’t you realize those men could have been trampled?”

“Yes,” the man in the doorway replied, looking disappointed, and retreated back inside.

Confused, Straus stared down at the two prone figures. His eyes widened.

“RANDOLF!”

One of the bodies stirred slightly and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “I don’t wanna go to school today, Mom.”

“Randolf, you imbecile, I wish I hadn’t slowed down!”

“Wha-wha—” Randolf tried to focus on Straus. “Daddy?”

“I’m not your father! The wedding’s been called off!”

“Wha—?” Randolf blinked slowly, head tilted like a dog baffled by where his ball went. “Bu-but why?”

“Because you didn’t do your duty!”

The other figure on the ground giggled, muttering, “Doodie.”

“So?” Randolf slurred. “I can safe da prisness anuhder day.”

“No, you can’t!” King Straus roared. “Because I’m going to save her, and then I’m going to throw you out of my kingdom for good!” With that, Straus signaled to his men and galloped onward with even greater speed than before.

After the dust settled, Randolf and Davey got shakily to their feet.

“Well, that was rude,” Randolf remarked.

“How did we get out here?” Davey asked, looking around.

“We can worry about that later, Davey man, ’cause we got a job to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m gonna save the prin’is before they can. That’ll show King Rod-Up-His-Butt. C’mon, Davey.”

◊ ◊ ◊

With King Straus now on his way toward a no doubt dangerous showdown with Lord Evilman, Queen Moreen had resumed pacing her room with worry for her family and periodical admiration of her slimmer figure in the mirror as she passed. Close to tears with thoughts of her precious daughter and dear husband, she was about to try modeling an old dress she hadn’t fit in for years when the door opened.

Moreen glanced over to see who it was then turned stiffly back to her mirror. “Knock, please.”

“Moreen—”

Queen Moreen.”

Rubella sighed. “I just need someone to talk to.”

“I thought you were talking to your lawyers.”

“They haven’t arrived yet.” Rubella crossed her arms, wrinkling her nose at the décor. “Is that a pink ottoman? Yikes. Anyway, I’ve been thinking—”

“Amazing,” Moreen muttered, gaze firmly on the mirror as she tried not to glance at Rubella’s reflection in the corner.

“—is divorce the right thing to do? I mean, I don’t care for Jonas, and I’d love to be rid of him, but what kind of effect will it have on Randolf?”

“Randolf’s a grown boy, he can take care of himself.”

Rubella raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really. What about right now?”

“I said he can take care of himself, not others.”

Rubella sighed more harshly, almost a growl. “Come on, Moreen! You’ve stuck with Straus despite that awful beard he grew, so you know how it is. Seriously, what should I do?”

“Seriously? Well, seriously, I think you should leave my kingdom, and then I seriously don’t care what you do afterwards.”

Rubella’s eyes flashed with anger. “Fine!”

“Fine!”

Rubella stormed out of the chamber and slammed the door behind her. Moreen breathed heavily, trying to calm down so as not to order Rubella’s execution. After a moment, she began her pacing, worrying, and modeling again.

◊ ◊ ◊

“‘Cuse me, you know where da rinses is?”

“Get out of my yard.”

The inn door slammed rather painfully into Randolf’s face. He fell over backwards and stayed there for a moment, wondering how he got there. Eventually, he staggered to his feet and leaned heavily against Davey, who leaned heavily against the wall of the inn to which they had stumbled.

“No one knows where the prince is,” Randolf mumbled.

“You’re the prince, man,” Davey slurred.

“Oh, thanks Davey, now let’s go to the bar.”

“No, Randy, we weren’t looking for you, we were looking for the princess.”

“That’s me.”

“No, you’re the male princess, we’re looking for the one with boobs.”

“Oh. Let’s see if anyone at this inn’s seen her.”

◊ ◊ ◊

This is so much fun! With all the evil-lord-you-will-tremble-before-me-and-despair stuff, I never imagined that Jeremy could be such a nice guy. I’m glad Randolf didn’t save me. I just hope that jackass doesn’t show up now—who knows what drunken, idiotic thing he might do.

The princess shuddered at the thought but went back to humming happily and sifting through Lord Evilman’s exquisite fabric collection.

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman was still a little huffy when he reentered his sewing room with the purple velvet. He sat down on a chintz pouf, clutching the bolt of fabric to him, staring at the opposite wall.

The princess glanced up and frowned. “Jeremy, are you all right?”

“Yes,” he replied in an unnaturally high voice, his gaze not even shifting toward her.

The princess furrowed her brow. “Jeremy, please, you can trust me. What’s the matter?”

Evilman chewed his lip. “My mirror wants me to kill you.”

“Your…mirror?”

“Yes, it says I’m not standing up for myself and I’m allowing you to control me.”

“Your mirror?”

“It told me that you’ve become like my mother—”

“Your mirror?”

“Yes, my magic mirror.”

“Oooooh,” the princess said. “Magic mirror. That makes more sense.” She scratched her head. “At least, I think. So, your mirror says that you should kill me to prove that you are independent and in control of your own life.”

Evilman nodded sadly, like a reprimanded child. “Yes, exactly.”

“But you don’t want to kill me.”

“Of course not!” He finally turned to look at her, eyes wide. “You’re my best friend.”

“Awww.” She grinned, flattered. “But anyway, so you don’t want to kill me, but he—it—whatever—wants you to in order to prove independence. Well, it sounds to me like doing what you don’t want to do just because someone told you to isn’t very independent at all.”

Evilman paused for a moment in thought. “You’re right!” He put down the purple velvet, stood up, and opened the door. “Princess, follow me, please. I have some business to attend to.”

◊ ◊ ◊

King Straus looked around the Forest of Darkness for some recognizable landmark.

“I’ve never been this far into the forest before,” he said. “Have any of you?”

The men in the search party shook their heads.

“Well,” Straus said slowly, trying to think. “If I remember correctly…” He trailed off, not entirely sure what he was saying. He’d been told long ago about how the forest was laid out, but since he never used it, just like with algebra, the knowledge had long slipped away.

“Damn, why didn’t I bring a map?” he muttered. Then he said, more loudly, “Let us press onward, men! Evilman’s in here somewhere.” Or at least, he really, really hoped so. Wasn’t there a magic tree or something…?

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen wandered the halls morosely, hoping to fit into a size six she had seen at a boutique in the village. She fretted about her daughter, prayed for her husband to find her, and considered fun and painful ways to torture Prince Randolf.

A sudden outburst of voices in the courtyard distracted her from her musings. Moreen ran outside to see what the fuss was all about.

King Jonas was fuming, yelling at no one in particular. “WHERE ARE THE DAMN LAWYERS?”

“Stop shouting!” Queen Rubella snapped, her carefully arranged hair coming loose.

“Quit telling me what to do, woman!”

“Don’t talk to me like that!”

“Don’t talk to me at all!”

“Jonas! Rubella!” Moreen cried. “Calm yourselves!”

Jonas rounded on her. “This is none of your business!”

Moreen crossed her arms. Oh, she was so done with them. “I thought I told you two to get out.”

“We’re waiting for our lawyers,” Rubella said, chin high in the air.

“Wait for them in your own kingdom. I’ve had enough of you two sniping at each other.”

Rubella breathed slowly and loudly through her nose, nostrils flaring like an angry bull’s, while Jonas turned from red to purple and looked as if he were about to have an aneurysm.

“It’s your fault!” he suddenly screamed.

“What?” Moreen asked, taken aback.

“You!” He jabbed his finger at her “You and your husband made us get a divorce. It’s your fault!”

“Oh, please.” Moreen waved her hand in exasperation. “Don’t try to blame this on us. You two have obviously had marital problems for a long time—”

“I’m suing!” Jonas shouted, pointing at Moreen ever more emphatically.

“Suing?”

“Yes, suing you and your husband. And your daughter!”

Moreen gaped. “My daughter? What does she have to do with any of this?”

“If she hadn’t gotten herself kidnapped then none of this would have happened, and we would never have broken up!”

“Don’t you dare blame my daughter! She isn’t responsible for any of this—”

“Suing!” Jonas yelled again.

Rubella rolled her eyes. “Good luck with that. The princess is probably dead anyway.”

Now Moreen turned on Rubella. “My daughter is not dead!”

“You don’t know that,” Rubella said, smirking.

Moreen shook so hard she thought she might explode. “That’s it! I’ve had enough of this waiting and tension and you! I’ll save my daughter myself! Bring me a horse!”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Knock, knock!”

“Who’s there?”

Randolf and Davey collapsed laughing at their joke and completely forgot that they had actually knocked on someone’s door.

The door opened. “Hello—oh god, it’s you two.”

“Hi, I’m Prince Dandalf and this is Ravey—”

“Get off my lawn before I shove a fire poker up your ass.”

Randolf tried and failed to focus properly on the person before him.

Davey, however, pointed, slack jawed. “Beermead!”

Ginny knocked her head against the doorjamb in annoyance. “That’s not even a word! How many bars did you go to after the bartender threw you out?”

“Hey,” Randolf slurred, realization dawning finally, “you’re that lady—”

“And you’re Drunktard and Associate.”

Davey grinned, eyes unfocused. “I’m an associate,” he said proudly.

“Ginny, is everything all right? Who’s at the door?” asked someone from within the cottage. A large and handsome man appeared in the doorway, staring down at Randolf and Davey, who shrunk away in recognition.

“It’s big guy,” Randolf squeaked.

“Oh, did I forget to mention?” Ginny said, faking realization. “The bartender is also my husband, Daniel. We own that bar, which you will never ever be allowed back into. Unless you want to get thrown out on your asses again,” Ginny added in gleeful remembrance.

“They don’t need to be at the bar for me to knock them on their asses again,” Daniel said, rolling up his sleeves.

Davey held up his hands. “Hey, hey, man, we didn’t know you two lived here. We’re jus’ lookin’ fer the princess—”

“About time,” Ginny muttered.

“But we don’t know how to get to Evilman’s castle.”

“Hmm…” Ginny put a finger to her lip in thought. “Well, since helping you will get you away from me, I could give you directions. I’ve passed by there on a delivery before. The dark elves sure love their spritzer. It’s all right, Daniel, you can go back in.”

Daniel the bartender walked away, eyeing Randolf and Davey.

Ginny eyed Randolf and Davey too, but then she got down to business. “I’ll tell you a shortcut so you might possibly get there in time. Now, you head straight into the creepy Forest of Darkness on the Black Path and take a turn by the evil-looking dead tree…”

After Ginny had sent the two drunktards on their way, she headed back inside. Daniel sat in a chair, reading a book.

“So, do you think they’ll save her?” he asked.

“I doubt it,” Ginny said. “But I told them the shortcut so they may have a chance, if they don’t pass out before they get there.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow. “The shortcut?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Did you tell them about the troll?”

Ginny thought back a moment. “No…”

“But you know how angry he gets when people trespass on his bridge… Murderously angry.”

“You’re right,” Ginny said slowly. “I forgot to tell them about that… Well, I’m gonna go take a bath.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen tucked a map to Lord Evilman’s castle into her pocket then swung herself onto her horse.

King Jonas stormed out of the castle and ran toward her. “I’m not finished with you!”

Moreen tossed her hair out of her face. “You want to sue me, fine. But I’m saving my daughter first.”

“Fine, go! But then I’m suing.”

“Fine. Then I’m suing you!”

“Fine—no. Wait!” Jonas grabbed hold of Moreen’s bridle before she could gallop off. “You can’t sue me.”

“Yes, I can,” Moreen said. “Your son failed to come through with his end of the deal, so I have the right to sue him. But since his money is your money, I’ll just sue you.”

Jonas mouthed noiselessly at her for a moment. “Very well,” he said finally, slowly, as if it pained him. “I’ll save her.”

Moreen burst out laughing. “You’re not going to save her.”

“Yes, I will,” Jonas said stiffly. “If I save her and complete Randolf’s end of the deal, then you can’t sue.”

“Yes I can, because I’ll get there first.”

“No, I will.”

“You idiot, why do you want to save the bimbo?” Rubella asked Jonas.

“My daughter is not a bimbo!” Furious, Moreen broke free from Jonas’ grip and galloped into the distance.

“Rubella!” Jonas whipped around to glare at his wife. “She’s going to sue me!”

Rubella rolled her eyes. “And I should care?”

Jonas gritted his teeth. “If she takes all my money, there won’t be much left for you.”

Rubella went as white as snow. “Bring the horses! We have to save the princess!”

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman led the princess out of the sewing room and through the entrance hall, which acted as the main thoroughfare to the many rooms on the ground floor. He opened one of the doors lining the hall and entered another room—his study.

He showed her to the back wall, where the black curtains still lay open, and nervously cleared his throat. “Princess, this is the mirror. Mirror, this is the princess.”

The face in the mirror put on a small but kind smile. “Nice to meet you, Princess.”

“Likewise,” she said, staring in awe. “I’ve never seen a magic mirror before.”

“And I’ve never seen a princess before.” His smile grew strained. “So, Jeremy, have you calmed down?”

“Yes, I have.”

“And have you thought about…what we discussed earlier?”

“Yes, I have,” Evilman said, nodding. “You’re fired.”

“Good—what?”

“I’m sorry,” Evilman said, twisting his hands. “You’ve been a great help through a dark time, but you’re right, I need to think for myself and not let anyone control me. I’m afraid I have to let you go. You can remain here until you’ve found a new place to stay—”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” The mirror was no longer smiling. “Jeremy, you need me. There are still so many things you need help with—”

“I know, Mirror, but I need to be on my own to think for myself. I’m grateful for your help, though, I want you to remember that.”

“What about her?” The mirror jutted his chin toward the princess. “Are you her getting rid of her?”

“No, she’s my friend—”

“I’m your friend. I’m trying to help you. You’re letting her control—”

“No, I’m finally doing what I want to do, I’m finally who I want to be—”

“But Jeremy—”

“I’m sorry, Mirror. It’s over.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Randolf tripped over a tree root. Or what he thought was a tree root. “Man, it’s dark in here.”

“Yeah,” Davey said, or the black shadow stumbling along beside him that he was pretty sure was Davey. “I wonder if that’s why they call it the Forest of Darkness.”

Randolf thought about this for a moment and then forgot what he was trying to think about.

“Hey, is that the bridge she mentioned?” Davey asked, pointing a wavering finger at something dark and evil up ahead.

“Yeah, I think that’s it.”

The two of them lumbered up to the bridge, knocking into each other and overturning stones as they tripped their way along the path. After a minute of falling, crawling, and standing up again out of shear spite toward King Straus and confused ideas about gravity, they finally made it. Randolf stepped onto the first plank of the bridge.

Suddenly, a dark figure leapt out of nowhere and in a deep, threatening voice said, “None shall—whoa! Did you two buy out a whole bar?” The dark figure waved a hand in front of his nose. “Gods damn.”

Davey flailed wildly and ineffectually in place. “What the hell is that?”

“I dunno,” Randolf said quietly. He turned to the figure. “What the hell are you?”

“I’m a troll, duh,” he said, his voice becoming higher as if realizing a deep, scary one meant nothing to people as plastered as the two before him. In the dark of the forest, the troll’s green mottled skin and tall mohawk could only vaguely be seen. “And this is my bridge. None shall pass without paying a toll.”

“Yeah, well I’m da rinse and I gotta save the one with boobs.”

The troll eyed them weirdly. “Uhhhhhhhh, sure.”

“He means the him with boobs,” Davey said in “clarification.”

The troll just kept staring at them. “Riiiiiiight. So, how much did you two drink?”

Randolf and Davey gazed into space for a moment, which then became five minutes.

The troll shook his head. “Wow, you guys are gone. But, anyway, I still have to ask for a toll. Money doesn’t come out of my nose, you know.”

“Where does it come from?” Davey asked reflectively.

The troll blinked at him. “So—do you two have money or not?”

“I spent the last of it at that bar that kept moving,” Randolf said, feeling in his pockets futilely.

“Do you have anything of value?” the troll asked.

“Does this count?” Davey pulled a flask out of his pocket.

The troll rolled his eyes. “Human drinks are worthless. Too weak. I make my own brew. I bet it’d kill you.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. One drop would probably do it, especially in your current state.”

Davey grinned woozily. “I’ll take that bet.”

The troll smiled too, but it was all teeth. “All right. If you can drink it and survive, I’ll let you cross my bridge.”

“Deal!” He held out his hand. “My name’s Davey by the way.”

The troll shook Davey’s hand. “I’m Rodney.”

“That’s my name!” Randolf shouted indignantly.

“No, man, you’re Randolf,” Davey informed him.

“I thought he said Rodney.”

“That’s his name.”

“Oh.”

Rodney covered his face with his hand, embarrassed to be even near this conversation.

“Wait!” Randolf cried suddenly, making Rodney jump. “I have to get to Evilman’s castle. Is Davey’s death gonna take long?”

“It shouldn’t,” Rodney said. “But in case he lives, I can show you a portal that leads right into Evilman’s linen closet. But if you want to use my portal, you’ll both have to drink.”

“Deal,” Randolf said, putting his hand out like Davey had, but he overbalanced and fell into the creek under the bridge.
Rodney just shook his head.

◊ ◊ ◊

“You can’t do this to me!”

“Mirror, stop shouting!”

“No, Jeremy, you have to listen!”

“Look, Mirror,” the princess said, trying to reason with him—it—whatever. “Jeremy needs some time to think for himself. Like he said, you helped him a lot and he appreciates that but—”

“Look!” the mirror cried. “She’s doing it already!”

“Doing what?” Evilman asked.

“Talking for you. I told you, you’re letting her control you. You always do this. It’s a pattern of behavior I was trying to wean you off of—”

“But then I began to let you control me,” Evilman said. “I was no better off. Now, however, I have broken free from that. The princess and I are equals, we’re friends, we listen to each other—”

“No, no, you are depending on her, using her as crutch, you have to get rid of her!”

“I’m not going to kill her—”

“But that was your plan!”

“Plans change—”

“She made you—”

“No!” Evilman stomped his foot on the floor, holding his hands out to stop the mirror from talking. “I created the plan because I thought that was what I had to do. But I changed the plan because I knew that’s what I had to do. I’m not an evil dark lord. I’m a snazzy interior decorator!”

The mirror scrunched his nose, like he was in physical pain, despite being a mirror and not able to feel anything. “You can be whatever you want to be, but without therapy you will fall back into your old patterns. You need me to stay and help you through this.”

Evilman shook his head, face sad. “I was using you as a crutch, Mirror. I thank you for your help, but I need to break free. The princess and I are going into business together—”

“She will control you—”

“Excuse me!” the princess said, hand on hip. “I’m not going to control him. We are friends, and we will be equal business partners—”

“Just kill her!”

The princess threw her head back and gaped. “Kill me? KILL ME? What kind of a sadistic bastard are you?”
The mirror curled his upper lip. “One who cares for his clients.”
“More likely a financially sound one. That’s all it is, isn’t it? You just don’t want to lose your job, your money, this house!”

The mirror mouthed wordlessly at the princess for a moment before sputtering, “No-no-no, that’s-that’s not it at all.”

Evilman narrowed his gaze. “Mirror,” he said slowly, “are you only trying to stay for the money?”

“No! You know that’s not true. Look! She’s already trying to influence you—”

“That’s it, I’ve had enough!”

In one swift movement, Evilman ripped the mirror off the wall. He walked determinedly to the nearest window, opened it (“You can’t throw me out!”), and quite unceremoniously threw the mirror outside.

The mirror soared through the air then landed in the surrounding forest, shouting at Evilman.

“You can’t do this to me! I’ll be back, you’ll see! I’ll—”

CRACK!

◊ ◊ ◊

“Uh-oh.”

King Straus pulled his horse off the mirror it had just stepped on. Large cracks stretched across its surface, starting at a gaping hole the size and shape of a horse’s hoof. It was completely destroyed.

“I hope that wasn’t important. Oh, well,” Straus said, and urged his horse on. “We’re almost there, men. Let’s go save my daughter.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess stared at Evilman, impressed. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“I know, neither can—” He broke off as a loud noise sounded from outside the study. “What was that?”

They left the room and glanced around the entrance hall.

“Where did that racket come from?” the princess asked.

“I don’t know…”

Suddenly, a door burst open and from amid a shower of fluffy purple towels and silk sheets, Prince Randolf strode into the hall, Davey at his side. Randolf stopped before Evilman and the princess, standing tall and proud, like a true prince, legs apart and fists on hips. He held his head high, face serious and noble, and said triumphantly, “I’m not wearing any pants.”

The princess and Evilman looked down as one then stared back at Randolf’s face.

“No, you’re not,” the princess said slowly. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Randolf said, so noble, so proud.

Evilman eyed him with a mix of caution, confusion, and a little bit of worry at what possibly happened to remove the poor prince’s trousers. “How do you not know—”

A bang echoed through the castle and the front doors burst open with great force. A dozen men, led by King Straus, charged down the hall.

“Evilman!” Straus thundered. “Give me back my daughter! You will not win today!”

“Daddy, please!” the princess huffed. “Be nice.”

Straus took a step back in confusion, as if he’d been hit in the face. “‘Be nice’? What do you mean—” Suddenly he noticed Randolf. “You’re not wearing any pants.”

“I know,” Randolf said, still in the same position, still so noble.

Straus furrowed his brow. “I left you nearly incapacitated in the village. How did you get here before me?”

“‘Cause trolls are awesome when they’re drunk,” Davey explained, wagging an emphatic finger.

Before Straus could even start on that response, the back door flew open and in walked a bickering trio.

“Moreen?” Straus cried, astounded. “Why are you here?”

“To prevent this moron from suing us,” Queen Moreen replied, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at King Jonas. She turned to look at her husband, but on the way, her gaze paused. “You’re…without pants.”

“Yes, I am,” Randolf said, oh so noble.

Queen Rubella’s eyes bulged, her eyeliner smudged from galloping through the forest. “Where are they?” she demanded.

“The troll took them,” Davey slurred. “He didn’t think it was fair that we didn’t die.”

Everyone just blinked at that.

Moreen opened her mouth several times to comment, but eventually she shook her head—he wasn’t her problem anymore (good luck marrying him off, Rubella)—and turned back to the situation at hand.

“Evilman!” she shouted, making him jump. “Release my daughter this instant!”

The princess crossed her arms. “Will you please stop making demands of him, he just went through a terrible experience and lost a good friend,” she snapped.

There was silence followed by a chorus of “What?” asked by everyone in the room, except for the sloshed Davey and practically frozen yet noble Randolf.

“Honey, you’re not making any sense,” Moreen said. “We’ve come to rescue you and take you home.”

“I don’t want to go home,” the princess said. “Didn’t you bother to think about my feelings? Or were you just going to take me away against my will?”

Another pause followed by another room full of “What?”

“But he’s trying to kill you!” Straus cried.

“No, I’m not,” Evilman piped up. “We’re going into business together as interior decorators.”

Once again, the chorus: “What?”

“That’s right,” the princess said, head held high. “I’m staying here. I have a potentially lucrative career on my hands and an excellent and willing partner.”

“But-but-but—he’s evil,” Straus said, voice and expression turning uncertain.

The princess rolled her eyes. “No, he’s not.”

“But—”

“Dad, I thank you for this whole rescue attempt thing—you too, Mom—but I’m quite happy here.”

“Oh,” Straus said, somewhat deflated. “Well, then…I guess…we’ll be going.”

“Yes,” Moreen agreed vaguely, eyes wandering in confusion.

“You can stop by whenever you’d like,” Evilman said with a bright smile. “You’re always welcome. You can even stay the night.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Straus said as vaguely as his wife while they moved awkwardly toward the door.

“Does that mean they can’t sue?” Jonas murmured to Rubella.

But Rubella ignored him. “Come along, Randolf,” she commanded. “We have to get you home and into some pants for god’s sake.”

“Coming mother,” Randolf said, the noblest, and followed her, head held so high and proud.

“Now, Randolf, I have some good news,” Rubella began as she, Jonas, Randolf, and Davey walked down the hall and out of the castle. “Your father and I are getting a divorce…”

Moreen and Straus followed them out, the rescue party in their wake, looking disappointed there had been no need for a bloodbath.

When the last person had left, closing the door behind him, the princess turned to Evilman. She scrunched her nose in apology. “I’m so sorry about all of that.”

Evilman waved it off, chuckling slightly. “Oh, it’s all right! They did think I was going to mercilessly kill you just to reaffirm my evilness.”

“Well, they still shouldn’t have been so rude.”

“It’s no problem, Princess…um, by the way…what’s your name?”

End

Lauren Triola