1. GingerCoffee
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    Past Contest Submissions CLOSED for Short Story Contest (153) - Theme: "alternative histories/realities"

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Short Story Contest Archives' started by GingerCoffee, Apr 14, 2014.

    Short Story Contest 153
    Submissions & Details Thread
    Theme: "alternative histories/realities" courtesy of @davidm.

    Submissions will be open for 2 weeks.


    IMPORTANT: PLEASE READ!

    If you wish to enter the contest please send your story via 'A Conversation' (aka a PM) to me to enter the story via this thread. Don't post the story here directly or it will not be counted as entered into the contest. This is to ensure anonymity, and to make this contest fairer for all - having each story judged based on their merits.

    This contest is open to all writingforums.org members, newbies and the established alike. At the deadline I will collate all entries and put them forward for voting in a separate thread. The winning entry will be stickied until the next competition winner. As always, the winner may also PM me to request the theme of the subsequent contest if he/she wishes.

    Theme is courtesy of our last contest winner. Any interpretation is valid. Entries do not have to follow the themes explicitly, but off-topic entries may not be entered into the voting.

    Word limit: 500-3000 words
    Deadline for entries: Sunday the 27th of April, 2014 1700 (5:00 pm) US Pacific time

    There is a 10% word-limit leniency at both ends of the scale. Please try to stick within the limit. Any piece outside of the suggested limit may not be entered into the voting.

    If we reach 25 entries, the maximum number of stories for any one contest, I will consider splitting the contest into two. Only one entry per contest per contestant is permitted.

    Try to make all your entries complete and have an ending rather than be an extract from a larger one and please try to stick to the topic. Any piece seemingly outside of the topic will be dealt with in a piece by piece basis to decide its legitimacy for the contest.

    A story entered into the contest may not be one that has been posted anywhere on the internet, not just anywhere on this site. A story may not be posted for review until the contest ends, but authors may seek critiques after voting closes for the contest. Members may also not repost a story anywhere, or bring attention to the contest in any way, until the voting has closed.

    I believe with the new board software, italics and bolding are preserved when I copy/paste, but justification is not. If I have to do too much by hand to restore the entry to its entered formatting, I reserve the right to ask the author to adjust the formatting.

    Please remember to give your piece a title and give its word count in brackets at the top of your story.

    If there are any questions, please send me a PM (Conversation). After the entries close, posting in the thread is open for comments.

    ***And thanks to even more long hours put in by our very special mod/member @Wreybies, winners are now awarded with olympic style medals displayed under their avatars.

    Thanks, and good luck!

    **New information: If you wish to edit your story after you've submitted it, send the newer version to me in your 'conversation'. I will replace it one time with the edited version if submitted before voting has begun.**

    THE FOLLOWING SUBMISSIONS ARE NOT MINE, MERELY ENTERED BY ME ON BEHALF OF THE AUTHORS.
     
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2014
  2. GingerCoffee
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    Line X, the Sideway Express [~ 3,000 words]

    This happened back in the '70s, before the New York City got cleaned up. Today, everything is out in the open. There are no mysteries, no dark corners, nothing strange or shocking to discover. Today if you find yourself in the confusing tangle of streets of the West Village and abruptly turn left rather than right, you won't be swallowed up by a black hole, as you might have been back then, and zapped into a totally different reality zone with massive, life-changing implications for good or ill. Adventure!

    Instead, you'll find yourself on the same street you just left: you'll see the same Starbucks, the same sanitized sushi emporium, the same designer clothes boutique, the same generic Irish bar, the same damned Duane Reade drugstore. Same same same. The wild horse of New York has been broken and saddled by the filthy rich. Gentrification, it's called. The city has gained the world, but lost its soul.

    Or maybe I've just grown old.

    But back then ...

    I lived in a grungy, dirt-cheap cold-water flat in the Bowery, which in the late '70s was skid row. I was a drummer for an early punk rock band called Dark Enlightenment, and we did gigs at (the now-extinct, alas) CBGB's. We did coke and toke, got drunk, ran riot. The city was dark, an open sore, a bleeding wound. It brimmed with mystery and malice. Danger. Death. To ride the graffiti-savaged subway was to put your life at risk. After dark the whores crawled out of the woodwork, not just in the Bowery, but in the Village, in the Meatpacking District (now nicely known as the Lower West Side), in Times Square, in Little Italy, in the neighborhood now pretentiously known as SoHo. (Hell, today even venerable Hell's Kitchen has been renamed "Clinton" by the real-estate rapists.) President Ford had lately told the city, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, to "Drop Dead," as the famous tabloid headline put it. Back then was like living through the sack of Rome. We loved it. For us, young and indestructible, rents were affordable, food was cheap and the sky the limit.

    "Have you ever ridden the sideway before, Denny?"

    This was Spy speaking. He heard voices in his head, he said, and saw things that others could not. That is why we called him Spy. He spied on alternate realities. He had been the lead guitarist in our band until his sickness silenced his strums. He lost his meager job and stopped paying rent on his little Bowery walkup, a few blocks from mine, and got evicted and now he was a street person. I offered to let him crash at my pad until he got back on his feet, but he declined. He said that he preferred the streets.

    "Of course I've ridden the subway, Spy. You think I can afford a taxi?"

    "No, dude, not the subway. The sideway."

    I was treating him to lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall chop suey joint. Cockroaches scrambled over the formica tabletop as with our chopsticks we attacked rancid noodles and rice. This was long before the health Nazis required restaurants to post letter grades in their windows attesting to their cleanliness.

    "The sideway," I echoed. I looked at him pityingly, though who was I to pity anyone? I wore a mohawk, and a leather jacket with the name of our band stitched across the back of it over the image of a manically grinning Jesus sexually mounting a cross. I had so many piercings in my face that I looked as if I had been attacked by a staple gun. But although I looked weird, he looked like hell. He had let his black hair grow to his shoulders, and it was oily from a prolonged lack of a rendezvous with shampoo. His eyes were hollow, his cheeks sunken, and he compulsively plucked at his long, frazzled beard with bony fingers, the nails caked with dirt. He had lost a lot of weight and his shirt hung on him like a tent on a pole. He stabbed at his meal with the chopsticks, but when he lifted the food to his mouth it fell back to the plate.

    "What's the sideway, Spy?"

    "I don't know. But I found a sideway stop south of Houston Street. I took a wrong turn and there it was. It was just like a subway, the stairs going underground, but the sign said "Sideway, Line X." I went down the steps but a locked iron gate shuttered the entrance."

    This is what I mean about how the city has changed. Back then it seemed that whenever you rounded a corner, you discovered something new with the potential to change your life. Today you just find another Starbucks. In this case, though, I thought that Spy was more confused than usual.

    "You just misread," I said as he finished his food with his hands and then lifted the plate to his tongue to lap up the juices. "The sign said Subway, not Sideway. And there is no Line X in New York."

    The plate clattered back on the formica and the cockroaches fled in terror.

    "No." He was adamant. "It was a sideway, and it said, "Line X."

    I didn't see him for many months after that.

    Our band broke up, and I drifted on to other things: Odd jobs. I got a girlfriend, broke up with her, got another, and she broke up with me. The girlfriends always involved lots of cocaine, alcohol and fighting. I hooked up as a drummer with another band and then it broke up too and I began wondering what I was going to do with my life. One day, looking down at my drumsticks, they reminded me of the chopsticks and my lunch with Spy. I wondered what had happened to him. Who or what was he spying on now?

    This was in the spring of '78 and I was on a street corner, drumming for money. I had a hat set out and it was discouragingly low on coins, a single dollar bill among them. Somebody had nonchalantly let it flutter down into the hat and I felt a flush of anger, like some whore getting paid cheap. By this time I was an anarchist and wore a leather jacket with the big A sewn into the back. I dreamed of revolution, of blowing shit up. As I looked down at my drumsticks like chopsticks, a shadow drifted over my drums. When I looked up, I saw Spy looking down.

    At first I didn't recognize him. He had cleaned up his act. In fact he looked like another face in the crowd: clean-shaven, close-cropped haircut (dyed blond), khaki trousers, tan jacket. He had put on weight.

    "Spy? Is that really you?"

    "I've been riding the sideway," he said. "Line X, the Sideway Express. I guess the first time I stumbled upon it, it wasn't during operating hours. That's why it was shuttered."

    "What the hell are you talking about, dude?" Then I recalled our conversation.

    "The sideway is exactly like the subway, Denny, only it's … different."

    I waited.

    "The subway takes you to different places, at later times, in New York. The sideway, on the other hand, takes you to different versions of New York, each at the same time. Each stop is a different version of the city, and the world. And there are plenty of stops, even on the express line. I suppose if I ever find the local line, there'll be more stops still. Look, I've made a map of the sideway system, as best as I understand it so far."

    He snatched from his pants pocket a crumpled, greasy sheet of paper that reminded me of his former greasy and bedraggled incarnation, and handed it to me. I smoothed it out and took a look. With a pencil, he had made a crabbed, baroque, incredibly detailed and monomaniacal drawing of densely interlocking lines and circles that I guess were meant to indicate sideway lines and stops. I remember once looking at the art of the insane in a book. This drawing reminded me of that art.

    I looked up at him in terror, and realized that I had wasted my life. I handed him back his paper, and he restored it to his pocket.

    He peered down at my forlorn hat with the single dollar bill in it, draped over the miserly pocket change. A moment later another bill drifted down, and I snatched it up. Five American dollars, but the face on the bill was not that of Lincoln. It was an engraving of a full-faced man with slicked-back hair and a Hitler mustache smoking a corncob pipe and staring back at me with steely psychotic conviction.

    "A different Lincoln," Spy said helpfully. "George Lincoln Rockwell. The founder of the American Nazi Party, and the 35th president of the United States, elected in 1960 instead of Kennedy." My eyes crawled over the bill and I saw swastikas on it.

    "That's from one of the sideway stops in which the Nazis won World War II and the United States converted to fascism."

    "Spy, the voices, the visions. The hallucinations."

    "No hallucinations," he cut me off angrily. I wondered who had made this counterfeit monstrosity and why. While staring in baffled revulsion at the imprimatur of a swastika upon which an American eagle perched, I heard him say: "There are no visions, no voices, no hallucinations. Everything is real. The sideway takes you there. To all the different realities. The sideway trains travel in a previously unknown time dimension, the second dimension of time. It takes you to different versions of the same moment." I found nothing to say in response to this insanity, though I admired his imagination.

    "New York under the Nazis is spic-and-span, but boring," he said ruefully. Thinking now of him saying that then, I have to laugh. I wonder if the Nazis made restaurants put letter grades in the windows to attest to their cleanliness, the way they do now in New York. Then I heard him say something about how New York City's Jews had to wear six-pointed stars tattooed into their foreheads, along with bar codes, and I got sick. I crumpled up the counterfeit bill and hurled it back up at him. It bounced off his chest and fell to the sidewalk. A light breeze pushed it into a moving forest of feet. Sooner or later someone would find it. What would he or she think?

    "All our lives," he said, looking down searchingly at me, his hands composed in his pockets, as I, cross-legged on the sidewalk behind my drums, peered up at him, my knees sticking out of holes in my jeans, "have been in rebellion against what's real. But this --" he took his hands out of his pockets and stretched them upward and outward at ruinous late-'70s New York City, and he weirdly resembled Nixon flashing his double-V for victory gesture -- "isn't all that there is. You just have to find your own reality. Find it, and fit in."

    "Get help, Spy." My gaze settled on his shoes. They were nice shoes, with Swastika tassels. He said: "They treat me well, there. Because I'm white. Sure, I had to clean myself up, to fit in. But it's not a nice place. You can't wear a mohawk there, for one thing. They'd shoot you. But there are other, different places, depending on where you get off. There's a place where there's no city at all, just Indians wandering the woods, as they did centuries ago. There's a stop where whole city is Oriental, the architecture completely different, everything unimaginable. Skyscraper pagodas, a giant twin-faced buddha where the twin towers exist in our own Lower Manhattan. There's a place where…" a man can fly over mountains and hills. And he don't need an airplane or some kind of engine, and he never will.

    The drumsticks slipped from my feeble fingers and clattered to the pavement. When I looked up again, Spy was gone. I wondered if he had ever been there at all, and then fear cut my gut as I wondered: Is schizophrenia contagious?

    ***

    That was then, this is now. 2014. I never saw Spy again, after that chance encounter on the street. I was young then, and now I'm old.

    We live in a world in which the sane envy the insane. By that I mean: to be sane is to be lucid, to be clear-headed, and to see the world the way that it really is, a house of horrors. The people you see around you who are happy and normal and content, who laugh and sing and marry and churn out babies, are insane. Yet they are to be envied. It's best to march through the flames while pretending you are swimming in the water. In the water, you can't feel the fire.

    Spy, I came to think, was not insane, but too sane. In his extreme sanity he mentally invented a multiplicity of worlds and tried out living in them to escape this world, which is not, as Leibniz had it, the best of all possible worlds, but arguably the worst of them. Though perhaps not as bad as a world in which George Lincoln Rockwell was president. I often think of Spy, and wonder what final stop he got off at, on his sideway train. Or maybe his train, instead of coming in, just crashed.

    And me?

    Someone once wrote about the banality of evil. But the converse is equally horrific: the evil of banality. After my youthful pseudo-rebellion, my spiky mohawk, my Dark Enlightenment band, my black leather jacket with Jesus mounting a cross and later a different black leather jacket with the anarchist A sewn into it, I just kind of drifted: a burn-out case, surrendering to what Henry Miller called "the stagnant flux." I married x and later y and got divorced from both. Never had kids. I held some ordinary blue-collar jobs and then a few office jobs. I got fat and bald. I obeyed, but never assimilated. A few years ago I had a mild heart attack. I live alone in a tiny rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side, and receive disability payments and a small pension. I have an inoffensive pet dog, not too big. Every night, like most everyone else, I watch television and wait for tomorrow to start. We kill time until it kills us.

    This morning I had to run an errand south of Houston Street, at a government office involving my disability eligibility. I tottered along with a cane and shambled to the subway stop, the No. 6 train at 68th and Lex. I thought about how the subway trains, unlike Spy's imaginary sideway trains, take you from here to there, from earlier to later, but always in the same world. I watched with contempt as the people on the train stared down at their cellphones, thumbs racing over them and wires in their ears. Ginsburg had prophetically warned us about these deformities way back in the '50s.

    At the bleak bureaucratic office warren, with folding chairs and sullen people slumped in them waiting for their numbers to be called, this dirty, ill-lighted place, I had to sign a paper on the dotted line. The wan clerk, a mousy woman, looked at me speculatively as I stared down in terror at the line, for incredibly I had forgotten who I was. Our eyes met. Then I noticed that she was wearing swastika earrings. I broke out in a cold sweat and she pursed her lips and demanded in an authoritarian tone of voice that I sign my name "or be purged." Tremblingly, I bit the tip of my finger until I drew blood. Then I signed with my fingertip, in blood, X on the dotted line. Line X.

    On the Sideway Express.

    Turning slowly sideways, I perceived with horror a woman slumped in one of the folding chairs. She had a six-pointed star tattooed upon her forehead, along with a bar code. She had no eyes, just hollow sockets. An unsmiling, stick-thin, round-eyed deadly earnest girl in a drab shift dress who must have been a granddaughter attended her, holding grandma's hand and compulsively patting it. Grandma's fingers were missing. I pissed my pants.

    My final illusions shattered, I staggered out the door awestruck into a city that I no longer recognized, but which I was seeing for the first time. Then I saw it. Yes, it was south of Houston Street, as Spy had said so long ago, in a cat's cradle of streets and when I made a wrong turn, it wasn't a Starbucks that I saw.

    When I went down the steps, the entrance was shuttered with an iron gate, and a padlock. But there was a sign on the gate that announced operating hours. It would open the next morning, bright and early.

    I hurried back up the steps and made a mental note of where I was, even took out a scrap of paper from my pocket and made a detailed map with a pencil. Then I walked home, where I killed my dog. It was a mercy killing. Tomorrow I'll set the place on fire before leaving for good. I won't even pack a bag.

    Even in old age, maybe it's not too late to escape. Anything is better than this, the worst of all possible worlds. Tomorrow I'll find out what else is possible, or real. I'll try to find my stop, my redress.

    On Line X, the Sideway Express.
     
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  3. GingerCoffee
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    Dreamscape [2997]


    Beverly

    “Hello?” I say into the midnight fog. It surrounds me like a cool, silky blanket. “A-a-are you here?” I sound tentative. Good; that’s good. It’s better than desperate. Nobody likes desperate.

    I listen for Evan’s voice, but there’s only silence. My heart is leaping and twirling beneath my sternum, beating so strongly, I feel it in my fingertips. I’m certain he’ll hear it. I blush under the dark sky, embarrassed that my body reveals how much I want to see him. “I brought it… just like you asked.” I say more urgently, blushing again. I sound too anxious. No man likes anxious. I reach for the calm inside me. “Evan? It’s me, Beverly.” I pause for a moment, then, “I said I brought it!”Too loud, but I can’t help myself.

    Still, silence.

    I stand there, red faced and fidgeting with the small brown bottle in my hands, trying to relax my grip. I’d been clutching it tightly, thumbing over the rubber tip of the eye-dropper. I turn the bottle over to look at the label; Liquid Sublingual Melatonin, it reads. It’s orange flavored with a delicious syrupy sweetness that brings my tongue to life. Food of the gods… for me, that’s what it is.

    I’ve been taking Melatonin for years. Insomnia has plagued me since the accident. You would think lack of mobility would mean a more rested and restful person. But being in this wheelchair has created a constant undercurrent; a loud, antsy hum in my body that never goes to sleep. It keeps my mind from sleeping, as well.

    The melatonin doesn’t always work, but most nights – if I catch the window just right, am in bed before the drowsiness hits – I can get a decent few hours. The best part? Sometimes it makes me dream. Dreams make me feel like I’m going somewhere. I like that.

    The kind I was used to buying worked well, but this brand is different, beyond it's wonderful taste. How I came to find it was odd, though; from a webpage I got diverted to while placing my regular order with my online pharmacy. That had never happened before.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have risked buying from an unfamiliar website. But the webpage struck me; a rolling river surrounded by weeping willows - something I wished I could see.

    I clicked ‘buy now’.

    When it arrived, its label was the same image from the website; a flowing river flanked by trees. The water seemed real; shining, glimmering… beckoning. I wasn’t finished yet with the last bottle, but this felt like a sign. I went to my bedroom, grabbed the old one, and threw it away.

    And that night, snuggled in my flannel, I placed those first drops of orange-nectar under my tongue - and something incredible happened.

    It took me away.

    Maybe it was driven by wishful thinking born of severe loneliness, my mind’s need to see something – anything - other than the same four walls that surround me day after day. Or was it desperation creating a vehicle for release, just before my mind embraced madness? I don’t know, and probably never will.

    Whatever the reason - it took me to the river and weeping willows, and has taken me there every night since. And in this magical place - I am standing; I’m graced with two strong, powerful legs. It feels like paradise; paradise for a whole me.

    This bottle of orange sweetness is my doorway to here – this place where Evan lives.


    ***


    Evan

    I feel badly. I asked her to bring me the magic bottle, knowing I’d have to see her again in order to get it. But I can’t bring myself to come out. I’m grateful for the fog, the moonless night, the tree’s overflowing branches that conceal me.

    I almost reveal myself when I hear my name, but something stops me. It’s her voice; there’s something in it, under it, all over it. It makes me feel guilty.

    I know how she feels about me; what these nights mean to her. I’m no idiot. Without her having told me, I already know her life, how alone she is – how lonesome they ALL always are. But fixing them – easing their pain – it’s not my responsibility. At least, it shouldn’t be.

    But still; that burden is laid at my feet.

    My arrival comes by way of the bottle. But not just any bottle. I’m bound to that which helps one sleep - remedies in liquid form. There have been many. Then, ten years ago, I became bound to this thing called Melatonin.

    At their first dose, as soon as they begin to drift - I magically appear, like a performer pushed onto the stage, against their will. I have no control over which bottle I’m sent to, who it’s meant for, or how long my time with them will last. But it is, always to a lonely, heartbroken woman, desperate for love, with little to live for.

    In the beginning I was sensitive to their feelings. But my compassion is exhausted. I cannot bring myself to care anymore about them or their lives. It’s too much. I’m used up. All I feel now is anger. In fact; a white hot fury simmers constantly beneath my phony, gentle façade. It has been there for a long time.

    For more years than I can count, this has been my curse, my only existence.

    My worst fear has been that my fractured life would go on forever, endlessly trapped in purgatory. But something Beverly said three nights ago has stayed with me. I don’t know why I never thought of it myself – why I allowed myself to be dragged from person to person, imprisoned, enslaved. But stupidly, I have.

    What she said was so simple – so obvious. “I so wish you could try it!” she told me. She wished I could drink from her magical bottle so that I might be transported to my own private paradise, the way she has been. It was a kindness; a gesture she wanted to share with someone she was beginning to love. But even as she said it, she didn’t believe it possible.

    A week ago, I wouldn’t have believed it either. But that has changed.

    It’s changed because last week she brought something here with her. Something from her world; the world outside of mine, here in the dreamscape. I didn’t know it was possible.

    She’d been talking about her upbringing; where she grew up, her favorite childhood places, beloved family pets. She spoke of a collie, Heddy, and how smart she was; as smart as that collie, Lassie, on TV, she’d said, smiling. She became teary eyed while sharing stories of how she spent her days on their Iowa farm…a little girl and her dog.

    The night after, she pulled something from her pocket; something she wanted to show me. It was a picture of a twelve year Beverly, lying in the bed of an old, wooden wagon, reading a Nancy Drew book. Her free hand was resting on Heddy, napping beside her. It was lovely and bittersweet, evoking something in me I hadn’t felt in a very long time.

    It filled me with longing… a longing for myself, for anything that was me. I was robbed of it so long ago; I’d forgotten how all of this even began. I might have stored it away intentionally; something too painful to remember. But seeing Beverly’s picture lifted the veil on my past; the moments just before my life and future were kidnapped. Until that picture, I believed that memory was lost forever.


    ~~~


    It’s summertime, 1848. I am twenty one, a young man - my whole life ahead of me. I lay beside the river (this same river I would later be tied to), lounging in the grass, looking up at the cloudless Virginia sky. I fondle a gold coin - the first I’ve ever seen or held. A stolen, not earned coin.

    I absently watch as a red tail hawk circles above me, smiling a little at the thought of the bird-of-prey hunting the unlucky and careless.

    I’m lost in thought; imagining the years to come. I leave for California in two days, eager to make my fortune in gold. My riches are coming, I’m sure of it! And I won’t stop until I have it.

    I don’t notice the hawk has stopped circling. I don’t see it land in the weeping willow’s branches or feel its beady eyes focus on me. In fact, I’d completely forgotten about it when the ginger haired woman comes toward me from the woods. I sit up, but inside I’m certain that I’m dreaming; sure that I’ve fallen asleep and have wandered into a wishful dream; something that takes a turn when she begins to speak.

    “Hello, Evan.”

    Her voice is liquid and air. It folds around me like a lustrous mist. I hear it in front and behind me – in the rumbling of the river. It’s too big, too powerful – even in its gentleness. It frightens me.And how does she know my name?

    “What do you see in the life laid out before you?” she asks. Her tone holds weight, authority. It commands the attention of the water, the trees, the soil and rock. It seems to fill up and come from all that surrounds us.

    Though she asks a simple question, I feel there is no right answer. Something about her demeanor, the sharpness of her gaze, reaches inside, scratching at my deepest secrets, exposing them, baring them to the world; secrets I would never share. My inner self stands up, angry and bold; offended that she would dare find her way to those secrets. They’re mine.

    “I see success.” I say defiantly.

    “From where will your success come?”

    “From me, of course.” I say simply. I’m proud of my ambition, my determination. My hunger for better things is my strength, the god of my world.

    “At what cost will you achieve this success?”

    “At all costs. There’s nothing I will not do.” It’s the truth, and my pride is full in having said so.

    “If something were to stand in your way?”

    “I would knock it down.” My answers are true, my resolve, sound.

    “And if someone were to stand in your way?” Her eyes narrow. I pause, wondering if I should think before I speak. But I don’t; I am too full of myself.

    The same!” Although it’s the truth, I regret the words as soon as they leave my mouth.

    “Your pride is great,” she sighs.

    I don’t know what this means. It’s true; it is great; and I am proud even of that. My pride has pride.

    But why is she telling me this? I stare at her, puzzled, realizing that her eyes have changed. The jade green they’d been has become light brown. Her hair that was a luxurious auburn is suddenly streaked with bright grays and rich browns. Her chin recedes, her cheeks flatten, and her nose… it grows, becoming pointier. And at its end - a pronounced hook. Before the transformation is complete, she says one last thing.

    “It is done.”

    I don’t know how I know it, but I am doomed. I search around me, frantic – should I hide, should I run? Where would I go? A blast of air hits me as I look back, but all I see are the edges of red feathers flying into the trees.

    And then, all at once, it is night and I am here; by this river, with these trees, engulfed in perpetual night. A place where the sad souls and I will meet; those in need of companionship, hope – those needing someone to love.

    In the beginning, I didn’t know why I was imprisoned here; what she saw in me that was so twisted, so warped and vile she couldn’t allow me to remain in my world. But after one hundred and sixty years - I came to understand.

    It is my penance; the price for my pride.

    Perhaps she saw what I would become, the lengths I would go to attain what I wanted. What it would cost others for me to achieve the success I believed I deserved. Maybe lives would have been lost – innocent lives – had I stayed.

    Maybe she was right to do it. I’ll never know.

    What I do know is that I’ve been a prisoner long enough. I’ve paid more than I owed for my arrogance. And I am unwilling to stay here if there’s a way out; a door to somewhere else –anywhere else. I will go any place that isn’t here, by this river, with these trees.

    I pray that Beverly’s magical bottle is that door.


    ***


    Beverly

    I’m worried now. Evan never takes this long to come to me. I’m tempted to call out again, but don’t want to sound too needy. I’ll wait here, just another few minutes – then perhaps I’ll go and look for him.

    Or maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe there’s a good reason he’s not here.

    Besides; he told me that it’s forbidden – that I’m not allowed to walk through this land because it’s not meant for my kind. I can stay only here; at the river. I don’t know why that is – but I should trust him. I have to. I’ve fallen in love with him, after all.

    I haven’t loved anyone in a long time… a very long time, maybe ever. Not like this, anyway. Evan woke something up in me that goes beyond feeling whole; beyond the completeness of having legs to stand on. For the first time since they were ground into mincemeat by that red SUV, I have hope in my heart. Hope that the act of loving Evan has given me.

    It’s something, I realize suddenly, that’s bigger than my feelings for Evan. Because he isn’t a man, not really. Not one I can touch, have breakfast with, make love to. Not even someone that can wheel me out into the world, the real world - away from my private prison.

    In this place, for me he is real. But I know I can never be with him. I have no freedom in his world, and he can’t join me in mine. We have no future. Perhaps he realized that. Maybe that’s why he isn’t here now.

    I feel suddenly calmer. It’s good to feel calm. Calm is control, and that is the opposite of desperate and needy.
    And it dawns on me; his absence has somehow fortified me. I feel full to the brink with gratitude; for what these nights with him have meant, how they’ve changed me. I want to tell him, make him see. I can never repay him for this.

    But I can do this one thing he’s asks; give him my miracle bottle that has transported me to this place… to my paradise, to him.

    Yes; I am calm now.

    “Evan,” I say softly. “I brought the bottle you wanted. I’ll leave it here, under our tree. I hope it takes you…” I pause, unsure, “…wherever you want to go.”

    Maybe there’s a paradise waiting for him, too.

    “Thank you,” I say. “I love you,” I tell him. “Goodbye, Evan.”

    And then I do what I always do when it’s time for me to return to my world; I walk with my strong, powerful legs into the river. And by the time I reach the other side – I’m home, in my bed, and it is morning.

    I climb into my chair and wheel over to the window. For the first time in years, I open the blinds and let the morning sunshine fill the room.

    It’s a new day, and I’m alive to live it.



    ***


    Evan

    I watch Beverly walk into the river; see her disappear on the other side. Her words… they moved me. They thawed something inside that I didn’t know was frozen. No one has ever said those things to me before. They’ve expressed love, they always express love – but it’s usually linked to desperation, a clingy need to own me, claim me. No one has ever thanked me, gained strength from me.

    No one has ever left of their own free will, either - to return to their real life. I find I admire her. I respect her. She was worth my time.

    Oddly, beautifully; the seething anger that has consumed me over these years begins to dissolve.

    I walk toward the tree and see the bottle leaning against the trunk. I pick it up, surprised by the smoothness of the glass. It’s been so long since I’ve held anything like this. I fumble with its top, unfamiliar with how it works. Finally, it twists off. I tip the bottle to my lips and citrusy sweetness coats my tongue. It tastes like heaven.

    I move to the river’s edge and lie in the grass, gazing up at the moon. For the first time since my imprisonment, I can appreciate the peacefulness of the night, the sway of the weeping willows’ branches, the sparkle of starlight dancing across the water’s surface.

    After a while I close my eyes. I don’t remember falling asleep, or the moment when my world changed.

    But all of the sudden - I see daylight.

    It’s a summer day and I’m lounging beside the river, looking up into a cloudless Virginia sky. I watch as a red tail hawk circles above me, its wings stretched wide. The raptor’s high pitched screech fills the air, reverberating through my chest. It then folds in its wings, and like a bullet – it nose dives straight for me.

    I see the feet reach down, the talons extending. Then I watch as it expertly snatches a fish from the water, and then swoop up into the air, soaring into the sunlight.

    And I lie there - imagining the years to come.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
  4. GingerCoffee
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    The Declaration [2266 words]

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are not created equal, that only a select few are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…

    “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, Negroes must mutually pledge to free White Americans their Lives, their Fortunes and what little Honor they may or may not have.”
    - United States Declaration of Independence, 1779
    “Amadi! Clear that up!”
    Amadi gathered up the broken plate and carried it through to the kitchen, throwing the pieces into the garbage. He went back through to the family room, looking at his Master but saying nothing.

    Robert Thompson looked right back, and his eyes burned like glowing-red coals.
    “This is not good, Amadi. Not good at all.”

    Still Amadi did not utter a word. He just blinked.

    “Say something, boy,” Robert spat. “Say something or I’ll whip you.”

    “I’m sorry, Master. It will not happen again.”

    “You’re damn right it won’t happen again, you clumsy fool.” He brought out a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and lit one up. His eyes wandered up and down his slave, as if examining an animal on a market day. “Hold out your hand, Amadi.”

    Amadi held out his hand. He desperately wished someone was home besides his Master.

    “You know, Amadi, I could kill you for what you just did. For smashing that plate right in front of my eyes, as if my property doesn’t even matter to you. But you’re my property too. So tell me something: do you matter to you?”

    Amadi hesitated, then nodded his head.

    “It’s good that you understand, boy,” he said. “When you have a lapse in concentration like that, it reminds me that you’re nothing more than a dog. An ugly, disgusting knuckle-dragger. And I should stab this cigarette right through your hand.” He sniffed. “But I won’t. Not this time.”

    “Thank you, Master,” said Amadi, his bottom lip quivering.

    “Get outta here, now. I want to watch some ESPN. Go and take a break. Take a dump. I don’t care. Just go.” He flicked a disinterested hand at him and turned toward the large flat-screen TV.

    And Amadi did go, as fast as he could. His legs were long, and he was tall, and it took him no time at all to reach the front door and exit the house. The dust kicked back at him as his bare feet pounded the earth, and it stung his eyes. But it didn’t matter. He had some time to relax, and most of all, he had time to see Lisa.

    He crossed the rough track and hopped the wooden fence, then let his legs do the rest – and he flew across the fields and beneath the blue-blue sky. It didn’t take him long to reach the shed, just inside the woods. It was cooler there, and Amadi could feel the sweat sticking to his white shirt. A dozen leaves descended softly to the floor around him, all manner of colours dancing in front of his eyes. And there stood the shed where she stayed: a wooden cabin shaded beneath an overhanging tree, its branches thick and protective. Amadi breathed in slowly. He walked up the wooden steps and knocked on the door. Seven times. Their secret knock.

    It flew open.

    The girl he saw there was as beautiful as could be, with blonde curly hair running down her back like a waterfall of sunshine, and her dazzling blue eyes only a shade darker than the sky he’d run beneath. Amadi grinned his wide grin, and she grinned right back.

    “I thought you wouldn’t be coming today,” she said softly.

    “Your father said I could take a break.”

    “Really? That’s not like him.”

    “I broke one of his plates. He got mad.”

    Lisa laughed heartily. “Good! It’s about time he realised everything he owns won’t last.”

    Amadi looked at her, and they leaned in close. He could smell her breath; he guessed she’d been eating strawberries that morning.

    “It’s a lovely day,” Lisa whispered. “Fancy a walk outside?”

    “Sure,” he replied, “as long as it’s with you.”

    They ran into the warm sunshine. It was so good to be out. The wheat stalks were swaying quietly in the breeze, and the same breeze washed over Lisa’s face. Amadi copied her, spreading his arms wide and looking upwards, closing his eyes. It felt so good to be with her, to hold her when the hard times came, and to have her hold him. Two races, separated by pieces of documentation but brought together through love. The sun kept shining upon them, shining and shining…

    Amadi!”

    Amadi collapsed to the ground just from hearing the voice. He knew who it was. Lisa knew who it was. And both of them were dead.

    “How dare you touch my daughter again, Amadi! How dare you!” cried Robert Thomson. Even from across the field, his voice carried, and so did the scarlet colour of his face. “I brought her all the way out here so she wouldn’t be touched by filth like you, and you go and visit her again anyway. Like a pig. Like a fat Negro pig.”

    He came closer. Lisa grabbed Amadi’s hand and pulled him up.

    Robert pointed. “And don’t you think you’re getting away from this lightly either, good girl. This sort of behaviour demands at least three lashes. Even five, if I have to. You see what I’m doing, Amadi? I’m having to punish my own daughter, because you can’t keep your thing in those underpants of yours. You can’t stand the fact that all the women you’re actually authorised to touch are as ugly as sin!”

    The sun rolled behind the clouds. It no longer shined. Amadi tried to stand his ground, but he couldn’t. He took a step back as Robert flew at him in a rage, landing a blow to his jaw. The single step back became a stumble, and a fall.

    He was kicked, mainly in the stomach. Lisa screamed at her father to stop, to have Amadi explain what was going on. Amadi scrunched up his face and waited for the next blow, but it did not come. When he dared to open his eyes, he saw his Master standing over him.

    “Up,” he said. “Now.”

    Amadi stood.

    “I love my daughter, and I listened to her screams for me to stop kicking you.” His face had returned to its normal colour, as if nothing had even happened. “You have a few sentences to explain why you’ve decided to do this unforgivable thing. Are you ready, boy?”

    Amadi glanced at Lisa, who nodded. He nodded too.

    “Very well,” Robert said. “Off you go.”

    “As you know, Master, you have caught me and your daughter before,” he began, his throat feeling like a dry, cracked pipe. “But that is exactly why you caught us, Sir. We cannot hide our love for each other. It is too real. Do you love the United States, Sir?”

    Robert Thomson let out a demeaning chuckle. “Of course I do, boy. Undeniably so.”

    “And that is the same love I have for Lisa. Undying, unfaltering, honourable, and loyal. I would never let anything harm her.”

    “Nor I for America,” Robert Thompson interjected, “which is why I brought this.”

    Amadi’s eyes widened as he saw the gun. Lisa screamed.

    “Oh Daddy no…”

    “Oh Daddy yes!” Robert exclaimed. “You see, boy, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass on a stick what you said just now. You know why? Because you’re a Negro. Your opinion doesn’t matter. You said you’d let nothing harm my daughter. Well, I have the same unwavering love for my country, and I’m damn proud to be one of its citizens. The United States Declaration of Independence states that Negroes are not created equal to us white folk, and I wholeheartedly agree.”

    “Daddy!” Lisa cried. “You don’t mean that. Stop it.”

    He looked at her and tilted his head sweetly. “Oh, but I do mean it, m’darlin’. I mean it good. While you were out on your break just now, Amadi, I turned on ESPN, just like I said I would. And you know what I found? I found blacks. I saw your kind, in all its animalistic immorality. You’re immoral to us, to America. You’re bringing harm to the country, and so,” said Robert, turning off the safety switch on the gun, “I have to get rid of what’s causing this place real harm.”

    Before Amadi could reply, a rush of blonde dazzled his sight, and the next thing he knew, he saw his girlfriend attack her father. She was relentless – biting, chewing, kicking, slapping, and by the time Robert had her under control, he was looking a little worse for wear, with a bloody bite mark on his bare arm and a bail mark scratching across his cheek. Still, he was victorious: she was in a chokehold, just loose enough to let her breathe, but no more.

    “You, my dear,” her father breathed into her ear,” are going to have a little chat with me once I’m done with your boyfriend here. Are you ready to watch him die?”

    Amadi ran. His legs were fast, and he was tall. It would take him no time at all to reach the end of the–

    CRACK!

    He heard the gunshot before he felt the pain. He dropped to the ground and clutched his leg in agony as father and daughter came rushing over. Robert was shaking his head.

    “They always run,” he tutted. “Can’t you just die like a good little animal?”

    Amadi spat on the man’s shoes. He was his Master no more.

    “I guess not,” Mr Thompson said. “Still, you’re here now, and that’s what matters. Lisa, dear, get up off the floor. Please, stop kissing a creature like that; it’s not nice. Rise, Lisa, as we sing our national anthem.”

    Amadi watched in horror as his girlfriend stood, blonde hair now limp and tired, and mouthed the word ‘sorry’ before quietly singing along with her father. This is how he would die, then. At least he experienced love, and that he experienced it with someone who realised equality mattered greatly. She was only singing to keep her father from choking her again, and who could blame her for that? No, she was a great girl, and he would miss her. And he would miss the sky and the sun, which he ran beneath every day.


    “No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave…”


    Was the grave such a bad thing? There was rest there, and rest was good. He’d been a slave all his life, bound to his Master. Well now he was bowing to a new Master, one who could offer this rest: the Master of death. Amadi smiled at Lisa, and she stopped singing – her father was too invested in the words to notice. Her tears fell like drops of dew in the morning. She was so beautiful. Not because of her features, not because she was white, but because she was equal. Amadi knew that he was equal with her, and that was a comfort greater than any sun’s light.


    “Oh, thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
    Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
    Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
    Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
    Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
    And this be our motto: "In God is our trust":
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
    O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”


    Robert Thompson sang the anthem with great gusto – that much Amadi could give him. But he sang each and every word staring down at him, his features sullen and dark; his grip on the gun tightened until his knuckles turned white.

    “Ah,” he said, “I do love our anthem. I am in a good mood now, Amadi, so is there anything you wish to say?”

    And Amadi did say something, right at the very top of his lungs. “I declare my love for Lisa, your daughter, and I declare that one day equality will happen! I know it!”

    One final, hard stare.

    “Goodbye, negro.”

    A shot.

    Amadi dropped down, dead.

    Lisa wailed.

    Robert wrapped his arms around her. “Calm down, Lisa, calm down. I know that was difficult to watch, but it’s for your own good.” He rested his fingers under her chin and lifted her head to the sky and breathed in deeply. “Our God is great, you know,” he said. “Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. Conquer we must, when our cause it is just. Do, you see, Lisa honey? Our cause is just.”

    He let go of her and she collapsed to the ground, hugging Amadi’s body. Her tears soaked his white shirt and her chest heaved. Robert looked down at the bloody leg and mutilated face and smiled. He brought his hand to his heart.

    “God bless America.”



    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights…

    “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

    - The True United States Declaration of Independence, 1779​
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    Oxygen [1,854 words]

    Brian stood near the corner of yet another abandoned house, binoculars in hand, peering at the structure a half a mile away. The wind was light, but dirt and dust whipped around, making him uncomfortable. Some got in his mouth; dehydrated, it took nearly a minute to work up enough saliva to spit it out. Out of masks, he pulled the bandana up from around his neck and covered his face.

    When he was a kid, this would have been considered a perfect summer day. Sunny with a temperature hovering around eighty-five, he would have spent the early part of the morning playing baseball or basketball, stop for a lunch break and then gather at the Wilson’s house to hang out in their tree house and then take a quick dip just before dinner.

    Now, he didn’t even know if it was summer. Felt like it, but he supposed it could technically still be spring, late May or maybe early June. It had been at least a couple of months since the last snow, but here in Michigan that didn’t mean much.

    It wasn’t that long ago that he still knew the day and date despite the futility. September 9th, 2012 – the day he last saw a living animal. Since then, he gradually lost track of the days, then weeks and finally months.

    Moving around the edge of the house, he leaned against the structure and took in his surroundings. Despite the decades-long progression, the lack of anything living – animals, plants and grass, humans – was jarring. Once-manicured lawns had been replaced by patches of dirt and dust and clay. Rotted out husks of oak and maple trees littered the broken street. Most of the houses were in such disrepair that he imagined they were abandoned long ago, though some were in good enough shape that they had probably been transformed into tombs, the corpses of their starved owners locked away inside.

    One house in particular caught his eye. Looking past the missing siding and collapsed porch, he could see the old white and red color scheme of the mid-sized Colonial. He grew up in a similarly styled house, though this one was larger and had more windows.

    He closed his eyes and thought back to when he was a young boy. Despite living in that house for nearly twenty years, he only had one vivid memory of being there. It was from January 28th, 1986 - the day all of this started, the beginning of the end for mankind.

    Home from school with a severe case of the flu, he managed to drag himself out of bed and crawl to the family room, plopping down on the old red La-Z-Boy couch. Wrapped in three blankets and with a bucket on his lap, he excitedly watched the launch of the space shuttle Challenger.

    Deeply interested in all things space, he had been looking forward to this for months. He knew everything there was to know about the astronauts – seven in total, including a school teacher – and the mission. Officially titled STS-51-L, it was to observe and analyze Halley’s Comet via the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy, also called the Halley’s Comet Experiment Deployable (HCED). That was a fancy way of saying send out a satellite, take a few pictures and gather some readings.

    The launch went off without a hitch. After watching the coverage, he drug himself back to bed and slept until the next morning, awakening only to use the bathroom. The flu peaked over the next couple of days but eventually he recovered, finally feeling good enough to leave the house on Saturday, the same day the Challenger returned to earth.

    Unfortunately, it didn’t return alone. Something not of this world came back with it, something that would lead to the end of life on this planet.

    Shaking himself from the reverie, he stepped back around the corner and once again raised the binoculars. His position was slightly elevated compared to the structure, giving him a good view of its layout. Perfectly square, it was made out of an odd combination of blocks, bricks and wood and looked to have some sort of courtyard in the middle. Real construction had ceased in the late nineties, but this building didn’t look to be more than a couple of years old.

    Focusing on the windows, he looked for movement. Five minutes passed, then ten. Nothing, of course. Other than the two raiders he disposed of sometime in the fall, he hadn’t seen another human in over a year. As far as he knew, he might be the last one left.

    “Okay Brian, time to approach,” he said to himself to break the silence. The silence, that’s what got to him the most. The complete lack of sound was frightening, depressing and sometimes disorientating. No birds chirping, cars driving or airplanes flying over head. No hum of machines or idle chatter of passerby’s, no wind whipping through trees or canned laugh tracks from sitcoms. The only noises he ever heard were caused by his own movement, his own footsteps, and his own voice.

    Dropping to one knee, he removed his backpack and unzipped the outer pouch. After packing away the binoculars, he opened an inner compartment and removed his Glock G19, making sure it was loaded in the process. Was the gun necessary? He had no desire or intention of starting a fight if someone lived in the structure. And if someone attacked him? Die at the hand of a person today or by starvation next week, what was the difference? He ejected the round from the chamber and put the gun away, strapped the backpack back on and headed toward the structure.

    It didn’t take him long cover the distance to the unknown building. Plotting various stealth strategies for approach, he pitched all of them, walked up to the door and knocked. No answer.

    He knocked again, longer and louder. Still no answer.

    After waiting a ten count, he used his fist to bang on the door. No response.

    Another ten count, then he tried the knob. The door was unlocked and opened inward easily and quietly; someone had oiled the hinges recently.

    Stepping inside, he gently closed the door behind him and gave his eyes time to adjust to the dark interior. This side of the house consisted of one large room, full of furniture – couches, chairs, tables, even a futon – and various books and magazines. The dirt and grime that came to define houses in this era was absent and everything was neat and tidy, another sign of habitation.

    But he barely noticed any of that; he was too busy staring straight ahead, through another window to the courtyard. Blinking a few times to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating, he slowly walked across the room, bumping into a table and almost falling in the process. He reached the glass and shut his eyes tight, once more not believing what he was seeing. He opened his eyes and gasped; it was still there.

    A garden. Big, about the size of a two car garage. Other than the small, green tomatoes on vines right in front of him, he didn’t recognize what was growing but all of it was green and lush. How was this possible?

    The life form – it wasn’t a bacteria or virus, he wasn’t sure if anyone had ever correctly classified it – that the Challenger brought back fed on plants. Shortly after it landed at the Kennedy Space Center, the vegetation on Merritt Island started showing signs of distress. Within a couple of months, all plant life within a half-mile radius of the landing site was dead.

    It didn’t take long for NASA to figure out what was happening, but it didn’t matter. Whatever came back with the shuttle was indestructible, impervious to extreme temperatures, to chemicals and antibiotics and everything else. Even worse, it seemed to grow stronger, to work faster when hit with water. That it didn’t affect humans or animals didn’t matter; with all plant life becoming extinct, other life forms would soon follow.

    The organism had become airborne and waterborne, had attached itself to people and their clothes. Within months, cases were reported in Europe, Asia and Africa. There was no way to stop it or even slow it down. It took awhile – almost thirty years – but the destruction was now complete. As far as he knew, a plant or tree didn’t exist anywhere in the world.

    Except here, in this garden. How? An answer came from behind him.

    “Nobody thought about the oxygen.”

    Brian didn’t even turn, still too stunned by the appearance of the garden. Instead, he just spoke. “What?”

    “Oxygen. The little buggers from space need oxygen. My guess is they were dormant in space, then came alive when they entered our atmosphere. They take oxygen from our air and from our water, that’s how they live.”

    Brian finally tore his eyes from the greenness of the courtyard and turned toward the voice, immediately wishing he hadn’t.

    What stood before him was a man in name only. Tall and incredibly skinny, his skin hung off him like a suit that was three sizes too big. Red sores covered his hairless, almost-albino skin. The couple of teeth he had left were gray and chipped, and his eyes were starting to lose their pigment, transitioning to a milky white.

    “When you cut the oxygen off, they go dormant again. And when they go dormant, they get all sticky and conglomerate, so much so you can actually see them. If you can see them, you can filter them out. It took me a long time – a long time – to build this place, to build an air-tight room, to gather enough nitrogen tanks to replace the air in the room, to find the right way to filter them out…there were a lot of failures along the way. A lot of failures. But in there,” he said while pointing to the courtyard, “is our first batch of crops. Finally.”

    Brian turned back toward the garden, placing his hands on the window. Crops. Food. Most importantly, hope.

    Was this a viable long-term strategy for more than a few people? Was it a case of too-little, too-late? He didn’t know or care, for the first time in years he had hope. His bottom lip started to quiver and tears welled in his eyes. Before he knew it, his chest started heaving and he broke into heavy sobs, leaning his head against the glass and audibly wailing. Compared to the normal silence, the noise was piercing. So much so that he didn’t hear the man come up behind him.

    “Unfortunately for you,” the stranger said, “the crops won’t be ready for a few weeks. And my family and I still need to eat, you see. And since there are no other plants or animals…well, I’m sure you understand.”

    Confused, Brian looked up just in time to see a reflection of an axe coming toward his neck.
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    The Vampire of Time [2268 words]


    To whomever receives this document, I beg of you not to dismiss it as a prank or the work of a crank. Not only do your future and mine depend upon your action, but our pasts do too. You will note that although this missive dates from 1667, it is written in a style of English very different from that time. It is modern English from my time stream, which may or not match modern English as you know it. However, it's consistency will show its validity. More importantly, it contains a hologram. Although I expect such to be commonplace by the time this is read, they are most certainly anachronistic in 1667.

    My name is Maria Bellard. I was the Regius Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge. It was there that I led promising research based on quantum physics. It would be hard for me to explain the details without understanding the theoretical underpinnings and nomenclature in your time stream, but in essence it would allow an object, whether animate or inanimate, to exist in two places at once. That may sound like nonsense, but I have seen and experienced the effect myself many times.

    By the year that I know as 2017, I was famous the world over for my work, and the promise of what it could lead to in future. It was then that I was approached by a stranger, someone I had never heard of. Giving his name as the bizarre sounding Doctor Ambrosio Twenty-Seven Wen, I at first took him for a member of the press. However, his immense scientific knowledge, including mastery of fields beyond what I believed to be known, soon convinced me otherwise.

    Perhaps I should describe him now, since you will need to know what he looks like in order to apprehend him. I have enclosed a hologram of him, but I fear that the picture must be matched by words to do it justice. For one thing, I could not determine his ethnicity. He appeared to be a mix of every race on Earth, as well as some not known to me. This could well be the case, because I believe that he hails from far in a different future.

    Also, he is physically perfect. Everything about him speaks of health and vitality, without a single blotch to mar his skin. I believe that this is due to a mixture of genetic engineering and healthcare far more advanced that any I have ever seen.

    Once I came to realise his scientific ability, he began to help me with my work. Suddenly I was able to make rapid progress in areas that had hindered me for many long years. Ambrosio's brain soaked up the details of the project like a sponge. However, there was a cloud on the horizon – the military became interested in my work, which necessitated everybody having background checks. Ambrosio confessed to me that he would fail any such check. He told me that before he went away, he would show me something that would vastly enlarge my vision of science. Never were truer words spoken!

    By this time I had come to trust him, fool that I was, and so I went to his home, a barge upon the Bourbon Canal. There he showed me things that I could scare believe: an anti-gravity field; intelligent nano-robots; a material slenderer than a human hair that I could neither bend nor break; these and so many other wonders left me speechless.

    Then Amrosio offered to show me something far more impressive still. Eagerly I awaited as he worked a piece of equipment, scarcely daring to guess what would come next. Finally, he depressed a button and immediately the outside light failed. Telling me to follow, he left the barge.

    It had been mid-afternoon when I had entered the barge, so it should still have been light and warm in the early evening of that balmy Summer's day in 2017. However, I was greeted by a sky as black as pitch, and temperatures that put me in mind of Winter rather than Summer. Had Ambrosio affected the season? Had I passed out for some hours? Although those things sound fanciful, they would be nothing compared to the truth.

    I quickly realised that we were hundreds of miles from Cambridge, in Paris. As I reached this conclusion and stood mouth agape, Ambrosio, ever keen to show off, told me that the movement in spatial dimensions was nothing compared to the movement in the dimension of time. I had once mentioned to him that I had been unable to celebrate the passing of the millennium because of a bout of flu. At the time he had responded with the strange remark that he “rarely missed it”. Now I came to understand what he meant. It was now New Year's Eve 2000 once more! I spent that evening listening entranced as Ambrosio told me of some of the times and places he has visited, from ancient Egypt to the asteroid cities of the far future. Indeed, he hinted that that was where he came from, a city known as Nagbead, which he described as one of the neo-democracies, whatever that might mean.

    The next day I asked him countless questions about his work and time travel. He told me that he considered himself only one part scientist and two parts applied historian. I asked him about paradoxes, such as the famous Grandmother Paradox, where a time traveller could travel back to before the birth of her parents, and then kill her own grandmother. If such a thing happened, then the time traveller could never be born, and so never travel back in time.

    Ambrosio explained two things. One was that it was near-impossible to change the past; there never was a New Year's Eve in 2000 which didn't feature the two of us talking in Paris. That takes care of the Moth Effect, where even a single flap of a moth's wings could change the future and potentially cause hurricanes in future. The second was that even if we did change the past, perhaps by travelling to 1952 and killing the infamous dictator Eilish Hogan and saving millions from the world wars, then we and the time travel device would still exist in 1952. We would not pop out of existence, or cause a paradox. I know now that the first of those things was a lie. Oh, naïve, trusting me, to believe such a man.

    The next stop in our journey was 1910, where I saw the physicists of the day come up with the so-called Amsterdam Interpretation for Quantum Theory. For a scientist like me to meet the legends of a century before was unbelievable. I actually got to talk to Gunnarr Loke and Kathlyn Fern! If only my younger self had known that such would happen. Perhaps I could tell her if we travelled to my past!

    But that was not all. Many were the historic moments that we saw. I will not tell more details of our travels, since either they will appear cribbed from a history book, or gibberish about people and events that never occurred in your history. But I cannot resist telling you that we stood amongst the crowd in London on that historic day in 1834 as the prime minister of England surrendered to King Louis XXIII.

    Our trips to other times were always towards the past, never the future. Oh, if only I had recognised that trend and realised what was happening. And always, Ambrosio asked for more and more details of my work. Each vista on history had me spilling the beans on my most closely guarded secrets, while his nefarious brain stored away every detail.

    Finally, we arrived in 1665, into a time stream that you should recognise as your own. There we met and befriended a student known as Isaac Newton. I vaguely knew of him as a minor figure in the history of philosophy. However, Ambrosio thought that he had potential as a scientist. So we three talked and talked through many a long day, and Newton took our hints and ideas and ran with them. To watch a genius invent Calculus and solve Gravitation for the first time in his history was a privilege.

    On weekend, Ambrosio took me on a coach journey to London. Plague had visited the land, and I became infected. Fortunately, Ambrosio had medical technology upon his barge that could cure me. How I remember that long coach ride to Lincolnshire while my body began to shut down, each bump in the road causing me agony, and no innkeeper willing to let me stay a night in a bed, even when Ambrosio offered gold or diamonds.

    Once back at the barge, a cure was effected and I became a convalescent, afraid to show myself in case anybody saw my recovery from an incurable disease. This was a time when witchcraft was still believed in. Ambrosio, who I believe to be immune to disease, continued to spend time with Isaac. It was while I was left alone that I discovered his diary. It was in a computer system that Ambrosio did not think that I could use, but which I had surreptitiously watched him utilise. The use of it required a scan of his eyeball, but I was able to create one with his medical equipment and a stray hair for his genetic code.

    As I read his tale, I realised the true horror of his existence. He was not the inventor of time travel, but rather a thief who had stolen the device from its true inventor. It was, however, easy for him to travel back a few years and claim that it was all his own work. But fear now gnawed him. What if someone did unto him as he had done unto that other? So he travelled further back in time, so that none knew of time travel, and the technology did not exist to reinvent it.

    At that point he began travelling through history, enjoying sights and cultures that we can only dream of. When he went forwards in time, he would sometimes find interesting new ideas, that were not on his original time stream. He would always steal the best scientific ideas and keep them for his own uses. The future was never the same twice for him.

    Eventually, he got around to wondering whether other cultures would have had even more divergent ideas if they had come to dominate history. So he tried altering the time stream on purpose, so that now Carthage lost the Punic Wars, or perhaps he would seed a new religion. The events always resulted in new ideas, and more importantly, the same people never occurred again in future history – even if their parents met in alternative time streams, they produced different gametes. This constant rearrangement of history and its population led to different progress and cultures, and gave more and more new sciences to Ambrosio, including the ability to undo the damage caused by ageing and to speak all languages. He was easily able to accumulate great material wealth while he raised and obliterated civilizations by the thousands.

    Many scientists were befriended by Ambrosio. Some he would fill with new ideas, to see what they would make of them. Others he would take on trips through time, stealing their ideas and leaving them stranded in another era. It was not hard to see myself as merely the next in a long line.

    What was I to do? I was too weak to face him, who had unknown weapons at his disposal. I saw that he intended to jump forward again to 2014, to see what his work on Isaac had accomplished. I fled the barge with some of Ambrosio's diamonds. Hiding amongst the common people I heard that the fiend had offered a large reward for me, naming me a thief. I faked my death by drowning, then slipped away to Norway, where I spent two years working as a washer-woman.

    Finally I returned to England, to discover that Ambrosio had left, either spatially or more likely by travelling forward in time. Had he gone back to the future in his time machine, this doctor who had done this time and time again? From his diary I doubted that he would take the safe option and immediately travel back in time to destroy me. At least not until he saw the outcome of his latest meddling in time.

    And so I leave this document with my lawyers, with instructions that it be delivered to the authorities in 2014. If he is not stopped then at some point he will change our past, and all of us will be lost. Not even killed in the strictest sense, since we would never have been born.

    But even as a I write this, a cold fear gnaws at my stomach. For what if we succeed and stop this man who feeds on all possible futures? Will some other person not eventually arise who will also use time travel for this purpose? Are we doomed to extinction by this method whatever we do against Ambrosio? I do not know. I only know that we must strive to survive, even against power such as this. Perhaps we are guaranteed to win, for if not then I would no longer exist to write this.

    Ah, these paradoxes twist my thoughts into spirals that go nowhere. Do not let them stop you. You must try.
     
  7. GingerCoffee
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    The Cult of Pacodon [2,550 words]

    Spiders. No one would disagree that spiders had been major beneficiaries of the blasts. Swathes of land spattered with dank, deserted buildings into which to scuttle, a food base that was never under threat in the insect-plagued eternal summer, and best of all, they could outclimb the rats. That said, this one’s time was up.

    The button clicked down and butane shot towards the spark, whooshing into flame. The tall, thin man in the dark grey expensive suit crouched down and inspected the writhing creature in the burning web. Satisfied that its legs at least were now useless and it would still be there to be cleaned up by the night shift, the man in the suit turned towards his single guest, but not before letting his finger sweep up a single strand of web, trailing it slowly before his disapproving eyes.

    “You see, Frank. There are always stray threads around, and that’s why we need people like you. To take care of the housekeeping. Here in corporate government, we like things to be clean. We like things to be tidy.” Sitting down in his plush GovCorp leather chair, Senator Harker clasped his bony hands together and looked his guest square in the eyes.

    “That’s why we need people like you, Frank”, he repeated. “Goddamnit, man! Who’d have thought time travel would be so damn messy? I mean, we knew it would be messy, but this? Ever see a time travel flick from the twentieth century, Frank? No? Well, this is what happens. Fellow goes back in time, he changes the past, and the present gets changed because the past is different. Another fellow has to go back in time to stop it. Simple, right? And when is life ever that simple? Christ, now we’ve got our best white coats – our top scientists – talking about all these event bubbles and causal knots that have been created all over space-time, with these goddamned probability tendrils everywhere”.

    The corporate senator snatched a sheet of paper from his desk, glared at it contemptuously, and read:

    “Pepedon tendril confirmed in nine of ten thousand reachbacks. Weak but very sticky. Long enough to reach to present day. Given stickiness coefficient, I’d recommend…” Scowling, the senator screwed up the note and tossed it aside. The lean, haggard face was still for a few moments, showing its sixty years of age, but then it snarled back into action.

    “Frank, what they mean is that there’s about a 0.1% chance of this happening but if it does we’re fucked. Sticky tendrils, for Christ’s sake!” He stared at his guest for a few seconds more, then stood up abruptly. “Come here, Frank. I want to show you something.”

    The senator led the younger, fit-looking man to the big, plate-glass window that took up the entire northern side of the office. He nodded down to his left. White villas backed onto cool blue pools; the setting sun cast long shadows over wide green lawns.

    “That where you live, Frank?”

    “Yes, sir.” Dark eyes set in a strong-jawed, olive-skinned face followed the older man’s gaze.

    “And do you like living there?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    The old suited man grunted with satisfaction. “And would you like to live out there?” He cast his eyes outward, beyond the tall, grey, razor-edged fence, beyond the towers with the red-tinged, IR-enabled searchlights beginning to probe into the encroaching twilight.

    The two men regarded a barren wasteland dotted with dilapidated tin shacks. Squinting, Frank could make out ant-like dots roaming the desolate wilderness for food, water, whatever they could find.

    “No, sir.”

    Senator Harker pursed his lips in a sign of grim satisfaction. “That’s where ninety-seven per cent of the world lives now, Frank. On the outside. Way the world is now, there simply isn’t enough stuff to go around. There just isn’t. We gotta look after our own, Frank. And one of those ninety seven per cent somehow made his way back in time to meddle about, and we just gotta clean it up.”

    “Ever heard of Pacodon, Frank?” The younger man’s eyebrows raised a little as he shook his head. The senator strode back to his desk and waved his hand at his screen. There was an almost inaudible click and a chant began to echo around the plush office.

    “Pacodon! Pacodon! Pacodon! Paco---”

    Senator Harker snapped his hand at the screen and the sound ceased. “From what the scientists tell me, Frank, this is the stickiest tendril we’ve ever detected. That’s how we got our hands on this audio fragment.”

    “The cult of Pacodon”, he spat. “Apparently it’s a possible event that sprouted about forty years ago. The white coats tell me they were some rebels trying to build a time weaver of their very own. Planned to go back to before the blasts. Aimed to stop the war from having happened at all.”

    “Problem is, Frank, where would we all be now if the war had never happened? White coats tell me that an event change on that scale would have a ninety-one per cent chance of impacting our own existences, as the tendrils...Jesus! Goddamned scientists and their goddamned bullshit tech speak. All I gotta know is that you’re the best damn time agent we have. All you gotta know is that you gotta go back and wipe them out before they can meddle around in time. This goddamned Cult of Pacodon perishes by your hand.”

    ***

    The flashes of light were so hypnotic as to be distracting if you weren’t careful. Francisco Jiménez Díaz, however, closed his eyes and focused on the countdown in his own head. He’d been back enough times to know how to time it.

    The instant after the pulsing stopped, Frank opened his eyes. He cursed as he saw that most of the sun’s red disk was already below the horizon. They were always hungriest at dusk…

    He pulled the ripcord. Feeling the satisfactory tug of the paraglider’s uplift, his eyes started to adjust to his surroundings. Even with the smartgoggles, though, he couldn’t see the ground right away.

    Weaving through time was not an exact science, and ever since the very first agents had been sent back, they’d generally missed their targets by a few metres as well as a few days. This was a sizeable problem if you materialised above the ground and a deadly one if you were below it. Now everyone was sent back a thousand meters above sea level. The winds could be a problem, but not as big a problem as materializing in the same space-time as solid rock.

    The only problem was, the more time he had to think, the more he thought about the rats.

    The time weaver had sent him back to five years after the blasts, where his flexible, fabric suit would keep him safe from the radiation but not from its consequences.

    Not from its spawn.

    As humanity had desperately struggled to survive amidst the tatters of a broken civilisation, and the radiation had taken survival of the fittest to ever more brutal levels, the rats had grown and grown. With nine billion dead humans on the planet, the mutated rodents had had as much food as they wanted – as long as they could stop other rats from getting their razor-sharp teeth on it first. Now that the food supply was drying up, they were vicious as hell.

    Not only that, but they had begun to hunt in more and more organised packs. And worse still…

    Now Frank could make out the ground. He was directly over what had been a rich neighbourhood. Big, open houses with big, open lawns. They were no good to him. He looked around and spotted a poorer district to his south. Pulling gently on his left line, he swung away from the setting sun in a wide circle, aiming roughly towards three tower blocks.

    This was the worst period to go back to. Agriculture was dead, cannibalism was rife and rats were everywhere. Cannibalism was rife because it was better than eating the rats. It was hardly surprising that a group of so-called rebels had been willing to go back in time to stop it having happened.

    Of course, it was even less surprising that GovCorp was so keen to stop them. Since when had the privileged given a damn about the welfare of the masses as long as things were cosy for the elite and fortunate few?

    Frank gave his right line a little tug and squinted ahead to his landing spot. All seemed well. The wind was blowing towards him at around five miles per hour, making for an easy landing. He could see a good thirty yards of clear space. All he’d have to do was climb down to a top-level apartment before any of them could make it up from the street. Unless…

    Was that a flash of grey from behind the ventilation shaft? Were they up there already? Time stopped as he hung in the air. Then he saw them. First to emerge was a quivering snout, then a pair came out together, sniffing around. They looked to be almost three feet long. At least they hadn’t seen him yet. With the wind direction as it was, they couldn’t have smelled him either.

    They heard his landing, though. Urgent squeaks filled the air as he sought to untangle himself from the paraglider at the same time as drawing his flamer. Before he knew it, dozens of the grey brutes were seething and squeaking their way towards him. Aiming away from the glider’s cords, he shot out a burst of flame and the squeaks turned to agonized squeals. Frank sought to keep them at bay by retreating and passing the jet in a wide arc back and forth in front of him. They would find a way around, though. They always found a way around. He needed to get off the roof, and fast.

    There! A sturdy-looking radio mast to his left. With his left hand, he unclipped one end of the rope from his belt and moved towards it. The rodents seemed to sense his imminent escape and redoubled their efforts, one making it past the flames before he kicked it away with a heavy thud.

    He needed to take his eyes off the writhing grey horde for a split second when he clipped the rope to the mast, which is how he got bitten. Cursing, and not bothering to take out his pistol, he dropped the flamethrower, picked the canopy up under his arm and leapt straight off the building just as a second rat locked its powerful jaws onto his left calf. Half a second later, the wire tautened and he slammed back into the tower block. The first rat fell groundwards with the impact, its teeth ripping a chunk of Frank’s flesh with it. But the second still had its needle-like teeth embedded into his leg, its deadly saliva running down to his foot as the pink tail whipped back and forth. Gritting his teeth, the agent unholstered his pistol, aimed carefully, and with two quick shots, sent the revolting creature plunging down to the concrete below.

    There he was, dangling fifty metres above the ground in relative safety. He took a couple of breaths and looked through the nearest window. An empty bedroom: perfect. He smashed the glass with the butt of his gun and pulled himself through the frame as the squeaks mounted above him.

    Dropping to the filthy floor, Frank hauled the cords and canopy through the window towards him, praying that it wouldn’t get caught. He could see rustling in the canvas, but a couple of them he could deal with easily. A final tug and the paraglider was in the bedroom with him. He stumbled out to the hall and slammed the bedroom door behind him, relieved to see it had been reinforced with steel. They could bite through that, but not in one night.

    ***

    In broad daylight, Frank found it easy enough to make it through the near-empty streets. The rodents were largely nocturnal, thank God, and their big, hair-covered bodies had a tendency to overheat in the brutal early afternoon sun. With every step, his legs ached from the previous day’s wounds, and he was immensely grateful for the booster vaccine that he had received before leaving from the future. The real peril, beyond even their monstrous size and vicious, pack behaviour, was the deadly plague that the giant rodents carried. After the initial catastrophe of the blasts, the disease was what had wiped out all but a few hundred million of the human race.

    Frank thought back to Senator Harker in his plush office. The tiny minority that held the power would do anything to keep it. Never mind the miserable existences eked out by ninety-seven per cent of the human race; as long as those in the upper echelons of GovCorp had their lavish mansions, their slave girls and their expensive toys, they were content.

    Frank reached an intersection and paused, studying the map that would take him to the headquarters of the so-called Cult of Pacodon. Five blocks to go. The Cult of Pacodon. Frank chuckled as he turned the phrase over in his mind.

    Executing his plan without being discovered by GovCorp had been no formality, but his position as their most trusted time agent had facilitated matters considerably. His previous trip had taken him nine years further back – forty-nine years before the future from which he had just departed – and he had been able to set things up nicely.

    He was now in sight of his target – a church forsaken by followers who felt they had been forsaken by God. Among the equipment in his backpack was the explosive device that the odious Senator Harker had given him to wipe out the cult. Frank had no intention of using it for its original purpose, but it would prove useful in the struggle to come. He reached the door of the church and knocked three times, then once, then three times, then twice.

    After half a minute he heard heavy bolts being drawn back, followed by a grating creak as the weighty door swung slowly open. A short, dark-haired Latino squinted in the face of the glare of the outside world.

    “Don Francisco. Is it really you? You look exactly the same.”

    “And you look nine years older, Marco. That’s how time travel works!”

    “Did…did you bring it?”

    “Yes”, said Frank. “I have the final component we need to assemble a time weaver. Soon we can go back and see if we can prevent this sorry mess from ever having taken place.”

    “Don Francisco, I don’t know how to thank…”

    “Please, call me Paco. Fortunately, that damn fool senator has no idea about our Latin nicknames, but you should know better, amigo.” He smiled and clapped his companion on the shoulder.

    Marco, unable to contain his excitement, shouted back into the church: “He has it! Don Paco has brought the time phaser.” At this, two women in military gear stepped gingerly out from behind the altar, while others emerged from their left. All around him, people began to chant.

    “Don Paco! Don Paco! Don Paco! Don…”
     

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