Amazing stories

Rain roared down on the roof of the police cruiser as Delgado ‘Del’ Salazar rolled to a stop outside Sweet Young Things. He’d driven past the ‘gentlemen’s club’ outside the tiny burg of Myers, Texas more times than he could remember, but this would be the first time he’d entered the place. The single squad car owned by the Myers PD sat in front of the entrance, flanked by the county EMT vehicle and the car driven by Paul Obert, the other county sheriff on duty tonight. The rest of the gravel parking lot was packed with the cars and trucks of the customers who were inside, leaving Del to no option but to park on the grass strip between the lot and Texas Route 23.

“Figures. It’s pouring rain, and the nearest parking spot is a good hundred feet away.”

The rain slicker kept him dry almost to his knees, the the ‘smokey bear’ hat he usually hated stopped the rain from spotting his glasses, but his feet were squelching in soaked shoes before he got to the front door. Inside, the rush of the rain was drown out by the thumping beat of music so loud it set Del’s teeth on edge before he’d even left the entrance hall.

The hall opened onto a dark room centered around a raised oval stage surrounded by a low rail. Flashing light illuminated a pair of polished brass poles that stood at either end of the stage, and a bar stretched along the entire length of the wall opposite of where Del stood. It was packed solid with men in work clothing whom were doing their best to pretend they didn’t exist. Mixed with them were a handful of women a mix of bikinis and an odd assortment of costumes.

The bar was the only island of regular light in the room. Just short of it was a second pool of light. This one came from the Maglites of two police officers, and it revealed a disturbing scene. Two men in EMT uniforms knelt beside a dead body. Del didn’t have to be any closer to know the young man lying between the EMT’s was dead. Nobody alive could twist their head nearly 180 degrees from its normal orientation, nor would a living man’s eyes have that blank stare to them. It wasn’t the first dead body Del had seen, not after two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.

As a deputy sheriff, Del had authority over the local police officer. As the senior officer on the scene, he also had authority over Paul. “Time to get this show on the road.” he muttered to himself as he approached the tableau.

Neither officer noticed his approach, and Del’s shout of “What’s going on?” caused both officers to jump. The Myers PD officer, a young woman with “A. Renald” on her name tag, tried to answer. Del only caught a few odd words of her reply. He turned towards the bar, took a deep breath, and in his best parade-ground voice, shouted. “Could you please turn the damned music off?” It has the effect Del hoped for. A young black man in a muscle tee and tattered jeans pushed away from the bar and almost ran to a small platform in the corner. He twisted knobs on a control panel and the music mercifully died. In the stunned silence that followed, the only noise was the relentless hiss of the rain on the buildings roof. Del aimed a “Thank you.” at the man, then turned his attention to the problem at hand.

“So, what happened here?”

Renald took up her earlier efforts to explain. “911 got a call of shots fired at this location. I was on the scene first, followed by your officer. I found the subject already dead, and a 9MM auto lying beside him.” She pointed towards the gun in question, Del suspected it was a Ruger from what he could make out of it, but kept his opinions to himself. “Witnesses say the deceased, Oberto Soto, entered the bar and got into a confrontation with one of the dancers. Club security approached Soto and requested he leave. He did, but re-entered the club a short time later brandishing his gun. Security here is only armed with hand tasers, so they backed off. Soto then pointed his gun at the dancer and threatened to kill her.” Renald had been turning her head and pointing out the different parties she had been speaking to , but now she stopped and focused her gaze on Del. “That’s when it gets, well, strange. Everyone I’ve spoken to says some kid was over in the corner at a table. They all agree he got up, walked over to Soto, and told him to leave. Soto turned his gun on the kid and threatened to shoot him…and the kid told him to go ahead.” Renald looked away, pointed towards the floor, and Del saw three spent shell casings. “Soto fired three rounds into the kid at almost point-blank range.” She pointed towards a section of wall that framed the entrance to the main room, and Del saw for the first time the three clean holes in it. “Everyone saw the shots fired, and they all agree there was no way Soto could have missed. But the kid just stood there like it was nothing. Then he grabbed Soto’s head, twisted it, and broke his neck. He must have killed him instantly, at least that would be my guess.”

Del looked at the EMT, who was looking up at him. “Yeah, she’s right, but the force it would take to do this….no way a kid could do it. I’m not sure I could do it.” He pointed towards a pair of red marks on the side of Soto’s face. “That’s a hand print. I once read about how they train Marines to silently kill someone by breaking their necks. They wrap their arm around the victim’s head and use leverage to give them the mechanical advantage to snap the spine. From what I can tell, this kid literally put his hands on either side of this guy’s head and twisted it like it was bottle cap.”

Renald took up her narration. “But that’s not the strange part. Look at the floor, at the wall…no blood! Not a drop, anywhere. How the hell does someone get shot three times, and not only manage to kill a man with their bare hands, but not bleed a drop?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll worry about that later. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of people here we need to take statements from. I need to contact the county medical examiner to come out to collect the body and collect any forensic evidence he can. You and my man Paul get started on that. Be sure to get as much of a description of this mysterious kid as you can. Do you know who’s in charge of this place?”

Renald pointed towards an older man standing at the gap in the bar which allowed access to the rear. “Okay, you two get started on the witnesses, and I’ll see if all these security cameras are real or just for show.”

Del approached the manager and waved at the three camera pods he could see. “Any of these working? And if they are, we’re going to need a copy of any video they captured tonight.”

The manager shook his head. “Sorry, but most of them are just there to keep the customers from getting too ‘friendly’ with the dancers. Only one that’s working is the one pointed at the cash register, but it’s got no sound pick-up, so I’m not sure how much good it’ll do you.”

“So, no images of this vigilant kid? By the way, how did a kid end up in this place? Doesn’t your license require you to card people and make sure they’re 21 before you let them in?”

“Hey, the kid walked in, soaked to the skin and looking like death warmed over. All he asked for was a place he could sit out the storm. I figured he was hitching and I didn’t want to just shove him back out in this downpour. Does that make me a bad guy?”

Del waved the excuse away. “We can talk about what a Good Samaritan you are some other time. Where you out here when all this happened?”

“No, I was in the back, in my office, doing the books. I heard the shots, but by the time I got out here, the kid was gone. My security guys said he walked out like nothing had happened. How the hell does someone do that?”

“Damned if I know. Why don’t you go where ever you have your security camera recorder and get me a copy of the footage for tonight while I go call the county forensics people.”

The manager disappeared through a doorway set in an alcove behind the bar, and Del moved to the exit. Outside, under the awning protecting the entrance, he stopped and drew a deep breath. What he’d told everyone wasn’t the truth. A few week ago, he’d seen a report out of Nevada of a group of people who’d been rescued from human traffickers. It had been passed onto Del by an old friend who worked in law enforcement out there who knew of Del’s fascination with strange, amazing stories of crime. The human traffickers weren’t all that amazing, nor was their forcing a group of people to work an illegal uranium mine. What was strange was how they’d escaped: all of them agreed that a young man, a teenager , had managed to overpower not one, but several of the guards. Even stranger, at least one of the people who’d been rescued reported that the teenager had been shot several times, by automatic weapons fire no less, and had kept on going.

A rumble of thunder rolled across Del, then another came, this one close enough to illuminate the parking lot and everything around it. In that moment of light, Del saw a slight young man, a teenager, standing across the highway from the club. Then the vision disappeared into the pouring rain. Another flash, further away, gave a dimmer light to the scene, but the young man was gone. Did he really want to go into the downpour, into the darkness, to find a out who he was? He shook his head. “No, I don’t need to go looking for an avenging angel.” He squeezed the mic of his handheld. “Dispatch, this is Deputy Sheriff Salazar. Wake Doc Hastert up and tell him we’ve got a crime scene for him to examine, a homicide. EMT’s are already here, so he doesn’t need to roll his meat wagon. Just tell him to get his tail down to Sweet Young Things. Knowing that old coot, he probably doesn’t need direction.”

“Rodger that, Del. I’ll pass the word. You want I should wake up the chief?”

Sheriff Don Alperts was a stickler for proper procedure. If anyone would demand Del mount a manhunt for this phantom protector, it was Alperts. “No, Hettie, let the boss get his beauty sleep. God knows he could use it.”

The snort of laughter that got through told Del his joke was appreciated. “10-4. I’ll get the Doc on the way to you as soon as I can, Del.”

“Thanks, Hettie. You stay dry there, hear?”

“You too, Del. Dispatch out.”

#

George watched the cop go back into the strip club. How could he have been so stupid? He was dead, so the rain was little more than an inconvenience. He could have sat down in this drainage ditch and let the thunderstorm hammer down on him without taking any harm. Hell, he could probably have taken a lightening strike without noticing it. But no, he’d begged shelter in the club, then he’d been cocky enough to confront that angry clown when he’d threatened the only woman who’d talked to George. His undead form took no damage from the gunshots, but then he’d been dumb enough to react and kill the man.

George gave a final look at the club before rising from behind the road and walking away. “I gotta be more careful, or somebody’s going to catch on to me.” he told himself as the night and rain swallowed him.

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“The Saint of Liars”, a review

“The Saint of Liars”

Author: Megan Mackie

Genre: Urban fantasy

Page count: 459

Word count: 147,056

app. 813KB (ePub format)

Publisher: Independent

Release date: June 18, 2018

In her first book, “Finder of the Lucky Devil”, Megan Mackie introduced us to her alternate Chicago. It’s a place where technology and magic exist side-by-side, but the balance is shifting. With technology becoming more and more like magic, those who wield the older power face a bleak future. Corporations that virtually own their employees are consolidating their hold on the city, squeezing those they do not control out of power, or into their control.

“Saint of Liars” begins where the earlier work left off. Newly made the head of an ancient magical house, Rune Leveau is struggling to find her place in the world of magic. She must deal with the pressures of keeping the seat of that house, the Lucky Devil bar, from going broke while learning to use her emerging magical powers. If that wasn’t enough pressure, she finds herself enmeshed in the power struggles that are coming into the open.

Old disagreements amongst the magic users threaten to shatter their last bit of political power in the face of corporations learn to use technology to work magic. But the corporations are far from united. Factions in their ranks are engaged in a covert revolt, fearing that a final consolidation of power in the hands of a few is at hand.

Rune’s sometimes love interest St. Benedict is back, and the two of them are soon working together to find out who is trying to kill Rune. Their efforts to solve that mystery takes then deep into Chicago’s magical side, and uncovers a plot to develop a technology that would allow the non-magical to harness magic.

Mackie’s magic-noir Chicago may be populated by fantasy creatures, but the problems her protagonist faces, and the landscape she moves through, contain enough of modern reality to make the story believable. Her hero is not perfect, but her errors give her the feel of someone you might know in real life. Put all that into a story that draws you along with a relentless pace and you have a story that makes an ideal Summer read, or a good read any other time of the year. I am not sure if Ms. Mackie plans to write another book in her fantasy world, but I hope she does. I have enjoyed following her characters, and would not mind reading more of their story.

The Fair Tree

The red squirrel stopped, rose in its hind legs, and scanned its surroundings. Its ears pricked up, it took the scene around it. It saw no predators, nor did it see any of its own kind. Sure that it was safe, and that the acorn it carried would not be stolen, it scraped at the ground. When it deemed the hole deep enough, the squirrel dropped the acorn in, pulled the dirt it had dug out back in place, and took a final look around. Seeing nothing nearby, it bounded away, back to the small grove of oaks it had come from to gather more food it hoped would tide it through the coming winter.

Why the squirrel never returned is unknown. Had the winter been mild enough that it had not needed the acorn? Had it forgotten where the nut lay hidden? Or had it fallen prey to a stray dog, perhaps even one of the new metal monsters the humans had taken to driving? Whatever had happened, the acorn remained, and as it should, it sprouted.

Humans moved around it that first year, but none disturbed it. In the second year of the small oak trees life, a human noted its presence. By then, the trees that had supplied the initial acorn were gone. Humans had felled them to build a fair ground, but this one, growing apart, stood near where a band stand was to be erected. Thinking it a good idea to have shade for the people who would be listening to the bands, the human left th oak stand unharmed.

Time passed. Humans came, listening to the local high school band as it worked its way, generation after generation, through “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The other music changed. Sousa gave way to swing, which gave way to jazz before bands stopped performing at the fair ground. Even after the band stand fell out of use, families picnicked on the grass where their grandparents had once listen to music. Children ran madly about the oak as their parents lounged in its shade. A man, thinking to make his life easier, brought a garbage can into the broad grassy space, hoping the picnickers would not leave trash behind. When they began moving it, he wrapped a chain around the oaks trunk, padlocking the looped ends together in the handle.

The oak, free of shade and competition, grew into a giant. Its massive limbs, thick as a man’s body, spread outward. Its trunk swelled outward to match, swallowing the chain over the years. Men who knew nothing of their predecessors reasoning continued to lock garbage cans to the ends that now dangled from the trunk. But inside, the tree began to feel the effects of that intrusion. Rot began, then spread. Even as the band stand was knocked down, replaced with playground equipment for the children who still loved to dash around the great tree, the defect grew.

Other squirrels, distant descendants of the one that had given the oak life, came and took away the acorns it dropped in the thousands every year. Humans, determined to keep the grass, then the playground clear, mowed and sprays, killing any offspring that might chance to rise. Winters snow weighed its branches down, and Summer storms shook it, but the oak remained. But with every season, unseen within the oak, the rot spread. Slowly, it worked its way downward. When it came to the base, it found a small opening and joined up with it. Together, they ate away the oaks connection to the soil. The roots still drew nutrients from the dark soil it stood in, but these now flowed up an increasingly narrow band of living wood to feed the leaves.

Finally, a storm came that shook the oak, bringing gusts of wind that twisted it so that a crack opened. Parents noted it as they tried to gather their rowdy children, snapping photos of it on their smart phones. It caused them some concern, but they had grown up with the tree, like their parents and grandparents before them. It had always been there, and like a mountain, it would always be there. But inside the oak, the final act had begun. The rot had so weakened the tree that little held it to the ground. Winter came, and with it ice from melt water. Ice that grew, spreading the crack like a wedge, further weakening the tree. Spring came, and as they always did, the children ran in circles about the oak. Its leaves sprouted, the ground beneath it knew the shade that had graced it many years before.

Then a storm came in the night. It wasn’t a truly violent storm. It had no mighty gusts of wind, no torrential downpours. But what it had was enough. The oak, now held in place by only a few narrow roots, toppled and fell upon the playground equipment. Children who came the next were shocked to find the giant tree fallen. Some of them were angry that their favorite swings, the slide they’d enjoyed just the day before, were now smashed wreckage. But others walked to the trees base, saw the rot now exposed, and touched the trunk with reverence. It had shaded them, entertained them, hidden them, and in the end, it had given up its existence when none of them were around. In the end, the Fair Tree, as everyone for ages beyond end had called it, had saved them.

Image may contain: tree, grass, outdoor and nature

Fans

Sam walked to his car, happy his trip was drawing to a close. He’d done the ‘struggling artist’ thing long enough and was glad his graphic novels were taking off. This road trip, from his home Iowa to Seattle, had been his publishers idea. He hadn’t been in favor of making the appearance, but on reflection, he was glad he’d gone. Even the ‘tractor ass’ he got after hours driving his Fit out to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention were little more than an inconvenience compared to the positive feedback he’d gotten from fans. And to think, his “Blood” series of post-apocalypse horror novels had been the least favorite of his concepts. “Guess I shouldn’t sell my bad ideas short.” he muttered as he unlocked the door.

“Hey, you, is that your fag car?”

The voice sounded like it was almost behind Sam, and he had to restrain his urge to flinch. Out here, in the parking lot of a truck stop near the Evanston, Wyoming, was not a place to get into an argument. Sam pulled the key out of the lock and grabbed the handle to open the door.

“Hey, I asked you a fuckin’ question! Is this faggot piece of shit car yours?”

It didn’t take an MFA to figure out what the angry voice was referring to. Sam had several bumper stickers on his car, and none of them expressed opinions that were flattering of the current president. No, you don’t need to answer, just ignore him. Sam pulled the handle, but the door opened only a fraction of an inch before a large, pale hand slammed into the rear top corner, forcing it shut.

“I asked you a question, goddamn it! Don’t think you can just fuckin’ ignore me. Is this your fuckin’ faggot car?”

Sam turned, his eyes following the arm attached to that hand, up the shoulder and them to the head atop those shoulders. It was a shaved head, sporting a face that looked like it had come out on the losing end of several fights. Angry brown eyes, a nose that bent slightly sideways, lips scowling, jaw muscles clenched like he had just bitten into something far tougher than he could get his teeth through. A red ‘wife beater’ shirt with “MAGA” emblazoned across the chest. He was slightly taller than Sam, and at least a decade younger. Sam saw two shaved-headed men of about the same age standing close behind his questioner. Both of them were smiling, enjoying the show. Probably hoping they’ll get a chance to help beat the shit out of somebody today. The thought flickered through Sam’s mind and not for the first time, he wished the little man in his head would shut the hell up. With no way to walk away, and no way to get into his car, Sam decided to see if he could talk his way out of the confrontation.

“Yes, this is my car, and I was just leaving. Now, if you don’t mind…” he tugged at the handle, but the other man kept pressure on the door, keeping it shut.

“Yeah, I do mind. Who the fuck do you think you are? You think you can come out here, disrespect our President, and nobody’s gonna say anything about it? Well, now you’re gonna find out how wrong you are.”

Aww, fuck, I do not need this shit….. Even as he thought it, Sam saw the eyes of one of the men behind the loud mouth narrow, then the face relaxed as he stepped forward to tap Loud Mouth on the shoulder.

“Hey, Jim, don’t you recognize this guy? He’s Steve Landers! You know, the guy who wrote that “Fountains of Blood” novel.”

Loud-mouthed Jim’s head turned enough for him to address the other man. “Bullshit! There’s no way Steve Landers would be some faggot commie liberal. I mean look at his hero, John Johnson. He’s one of us, killin’ niggers, an’ liberals an’ fags too. There’s no way some liberal’d make us look like the saviors of humanity.”

“But I saw his photo on the web site for that fan convention, the one I told you about out in Fagville. It’s him!”

Jim’s eyes focused on Sam’s face, looking him over like he wasn’t sure what to believe. “Okay, then if he’s Steve Landers, he’ll know what John Johnson says every time he kills. So, Mister Faggot, do you know what John Johnson say every time he kills one of the enemies of the white race?”

Sam couldn’t believe it. These neo-Nazi assholes were fan boys? And they were fans of his unheroic villain, the unrepentant white supremacists John Johnson? “My name isn’t Steve Landers, that’s my pen name. But yeah, I write the ‘Blood’ series of graphic novels. And to answer your question, he always says ‘That’s one less enemy to kill.’”

That confused Loud-Mouth Jim. He didn’t step back, but his face lost some of its angry set. “Bullshit! You can’t be Steve Landers! You just learned that at one of them…whadaya call it….a trainin’ camp for liberal commies. One of those places they brain wash you into fightin’ other white folks.”

The statement was so stupid Sam nearly laughed. He managed to keep from smiling as he pointed towards the rear of his car. “I’ve got a couple boxes of ‘Fountains of Blood’ and ‘Blood Flows like a River’ in the back of my car if you don’t believe me.”

The third man, who’d been silent, stepped over and looked in the rear window of Sam’s Fit. “Hey, he ain’t bullshittin’! There’s a whole bunch a them books in here.”

Jim stepped back, then walked over to look for himself. He gave his head a shake and looked at Sam. So you’re Steve Landers? The guy all us folks fightin’ for white freedom look up to….is a fuckin’ liberal? What is it, do you just write the stories like you do to make sales? So you can grub a few bucks outta folks like us?”

Sam spread his hands. “I’m a writer, so I write what sells. They say Ayn Rand didn’t believe any of the stuff she wrote about, she was just writing the books people were wanted to buy.”

“Who the fuck’s Ann Rand?”

Maybe ignorance is a saving grace after all Sam thought. “Would you guys like an autographed copy of either of my novels? No charge, it’s always good to meet fans.”

Jim didn’t seem interested in the offer, but both of his compatriots shouted out “Yeah!” at the same instant, and that took the fight out of him. The sharpie Sam had used in Seattle was in the box with “Blood Flows”, so he gave both men signed copies of that novel. The first fan boy, the one that had recognized Sam from his photo, asked that his novel be signed ‘To Harry, a real Wyoming ass-kicker.’ The less talkative member of the group asked Sam to just sign his ‘To my favorite fan, Bill.’ That done, Sam turned to the group’s leader.

“So, Jim, you want a signed copy too?”

“Don’t want nothin’ from some fag liberal! I’d tell you shove that thing up your ass, but I bet you’d like that.”

Angry, but not enough courage to start a fight by himself. There was nothing to be gained by saying that, or in arguing the point, so Sam tossed the novel he’s planned to autograph back in the box and shrugged. “Fair enough.” He closed the hatchback. “Well, nice to meet some fans. Now, if you guys will take a step back, I’ll back out and get on my way.” Harry and Bill smiled and backed out of the way. Jim got a final glare off, then joined his friends, leaving Sam free to get in his car without worry.

As he backed out, he saw the fan boys waving their copies “Blood Flows” and smiling. He wondered how they’d feel next month, when the final novel in the trilogy came out. Sam smiled as he drove off, imagining the skinheads reaction when John Johnson, their violent hero, ended up dying in a futile attempt to blow up the federal building in downtown Chicago. Or that the person who would thwart him was the real hero of the story, FBI Special Agent Shanta U’quin, a black Muslim woman. “Maybe it is a good thing I didn’t give in to the temptation to leak the end at SFFC.” he said to himself as he drove down the ramp and joined the traffic on I-80 headed East towards home.

Alone

Jack looked at the still figure in the coffin and shook his head.

“It’s all right, Jack. Paul had been sick a long time. At least now he’s not in pain.”

Frank, another of Paul Sanchez’s old friends, had walked up beside Jack without him noticing. The statement drew a wry smile from Jack.

“I know. That’s not what I was shaking my head about…I mean I know Paul was pretty much an American okatu, but to decide he wanted to be buried dressed like Spike Spiegel from ‘Cowboy Bebop’…”

Frank leaned in close and lowered his voice. “Yeah, I know. Trying to make heavy-set bald guy look like a slick ex-gang killer just doesn’t work. Then again, I heard his request was to be buried in one of his cosplay outfits, and only two of them still fit: this one….and one for the red Power Ranger. Would he have looked better dressed like that?”

Jack had to fight a desire to chuckle. “I don’t know, him in red spandex with the mask and all…” That was when he noticed the thumb drive lying on Paul’s chest, its lanyard wrapped around his wrist. “What’s with the thumb drive?”

“I hear it’s got a collection of Paul’s favorite anime on it. Supposedly he put it together when they told him he was going to be in the hospital for a long time so he’d have something better than the regular TV to watch. Too bad he didn’t get a chance to watch it.”

Jack remember the call. Hearing his childhood friend had died suddenly while being evaluated for congestive heart failure had been a shock, but as Frank had said, Paul had been having chest pains and trouble doing stuff for years. The two of them had become friend because of a love of Japanese animation, an interest that had brought Frank into their acquaintance during high school.

Paul had gone on the learn about, and later lecture on, Japanese culture. His devotion to anime and manga had been the stuff of legend in the small circle of follower of those art forms living around Carswell’s Corner. His house was a shrine to Japanese illustrative art.

“So, any idea what he put on it?”

Frank shrugged. “Not a clue. If I had to bet, at least his favorites, like ‘Bebop’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Hell Girl’. Probably ‘Tokyo Ghoul’ and ‘Corpse Princess’. Who knows what he burned on it. The guy had a digital version of pretty much any anime that was ever released, so it’s hard to say. I just thought it’d be nice to send it off with him, something to enjoy in anime Valhalla.”

#

So Paul Sanchez went into the ground. A man who’d died, loving an art form and buried with it. His friends carried him to his grave, his few remaining family members wept for him, but in the end, he was gone. Dead and buried. Free from the concerns that would shape the world he left behind. Spared the suffering that would be inflicted on all humanity within a decade of his passing.

#

Paul Sanchez bolted upright, a move that caused the room he was in to spin and his head to throb. He remembered the hospital room, the doctors crowding around him. A nurse pressing his chest so hard it felt like she was trying to drive her hands through him. Then nothing until this moment.

Paul could tell he was on some sort of platform in a featureless off-white space. The surface under his butt yielded as he shifted, and he realized he was dressed in his Spike Spiegel costume. Why? Wait…he remembered asking to be buried in one of his cosplay outfits…had he died? Was this hell? Heaven? Some eternal waiting room for those to be reincarnated?

A muffled whoosh drew Paul’s attention to an opening that had appeared in the blank wall. Through it…Paul could think of no other term to describe how what those massive insect-like creatures moved like than scuttled. Their grayish-brown ovoid bodies glittered in the sourceless light that flooded the space like they were made of plastic. There were eight of them, and the eight legs they moved on arching up and away from those bodies moving in a blur when they advanced into the room. Their feet, or whatever they were, caused a clicking noise like a flock of women in high heels walking fast. Paul pushed himself back from them, back to find that a wall was immediately behind him and he had no place to go to escape the freak show in front of him.

They spread out in a semi-circle in front of Paul, and for the first time, he saw what had to be their faces. Four black, faceted eyes, two to a side, flanked a mouth that gaped behind a pair of wicked-barbed mandibles. Several of them had pouches slung under their bodies, and into one of these the insect in the center of the group reached with its front legs, which Paul now saw ended in something like a hand. That individual made a noise like a string of clicks and chirps as it drew out a metal box. One of the other insects, this one on the left end of the crescent, made a noise that sounded like a fart, which brought another, longer string of noises from the central insect. It had barely stopped when the insect on its immediate right launched into a long string of noises, including a bleating sound Paul couldn’t imagine such a mouth being able to produce. In seconds, all of the insects were vocalizing, some of them even waving their front legs/arms about, a spectrum of sounds that grew in volume until if made Pauls’ head ache. He slapped his hands over his ears, trying to keep the noise at bay, and it stopped as if someone had turned a switch off.

He looked about, saw that the insects had frozen with their front legs/arms in mid-motion Some of them had been facing each other, but now they all scuttled around to face him again. The central insect, the metal box still in its hand, took a step forward and raised the box. It let out a string of noises, waited, then adjusted controls on the box before repeating the same string of noises. This time, the box made a noise like someone fighting the impulse to puke, and Paul nearly laughed as the insect shook it for all the world like a human with a malfunctioning piece of electronics. Another series of adjustments, and when the string of noises was repeated a third time, the box produced a string of Japanese words.

Paul could understand the words, but the syntax was wrong. He opened his mouth, tried to speak, and found himself so dry he had to swallow before he could speak. “Konnichiwa.” he managed to get out, hoping a polite hello would convey something to these creatures.

The box produced a long string of clicks, moans and noises Paul couldn’t even begin to describe. It was far too long to convey the simple message he’d hoped pass along. The insect held the box up to one pair of eyes, brought a hand around to do something, and then brought it down to its mouth. It repeated the earlier sounds, much more slowly this time, and after a stutter of noise, the box bleated out. “Greeting! We revive you to our questions answer. Answer.”

Where the hell did they get a voice sample to reproduce the voice of Kirito from “Sword Art Online”? Hearing that voice had stunned Paul for a moment, and the sudden switch in languages forced him to mentally shift gears before replying. The delay must not have set well with the insects. Even as he opened his mouth to reply, the central insect let out a new string of noises that set the box squawking. “Answer! Require answer we do!’

Paul did his best not to laugh at the Yoda-like quality of the demand. Something in the tone of the voice told him the insect was angry, or at least impatient. “I’ll answer you, but I have a question first. How did I get here?”

“You, Subject 4532. Others we try revive, not work. You first. Your society preserve people. Revive not easy.”

Preserve people? What the hell…wait, have they been trying to revive dead people? “How did you get hold of me?”

The box spit out a string of noises that started an exchange between the central insect and the ones on either side of it. Whether it had been shut off, or just couldn’t keep up to translate, the box remained silent until they’d stopped. Central insect let out a final string of noises, waved a front leg/arm towards the wall behind it, and the third insect on the right drew a small object out of its pouch. A few movements of its hand, and the wall became a display. On it, Paul saw a broad expanse, like a field of ash. Out of it rose blocks of stone, blocks he recognized with a start as tombstones. Several holes had been crudely dug through the ash, leaving the underground vault exposed. The scene began to move as a video clip followed a group of insects in what looked like space suits crawled down into the hole to lift the lid of the vault off. Out came a casket, the plain one Paul had chosen long ago to serve as his spot of final repose. He wanted to turn away but couldn’t. He watched the insects move aside as something gleaming of metal scurried into view and placed itself over the box. Limbs far more flexible, and far stronger, whipped down to begin prying at the coffin lid. They failed, and a new limb came out of the side of the machine. This one traced the outline of the lid, leaving a smoking trail behind. It completed its circuit, retracted into the machine, and the other arms moved in. This time, the lid came away, and the machine moved off on four legs, with four more clutching the lid.

Inside the coffin was a form dressed in a dark suit, the suit Paul now wore. The face was his, but drawn tight as if the skin has shriveled down to embrace the bone beneath it. Seeing himself dead, looking at his lifeless corpse, stopped Paul’s mind in its tracks. The video kept going, the camera moving from that bony face down to his chest. He saw the thumb drive he’d made, the one he’d hoped to watch during his hospital stay, and wondered which of his friends had sent it into the afterlife with him.

Then that image was gone, replaced by a montage of clip from “Sekirei”, “Tokyo Ghoul”, “Corpse Princess” and several more. Another string of noises, and the box sputtered out “These, where? Not end with you. Powerful! Where?”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand the question.”

The box chirped, squawked, clicked and hissed. The insect holding it held it out, shook it violently, then let out a string of nosies. This time, the box tried to interpret them. It couldn’t translate much of what the insect said, but two words came out loud and clear. “Fucking box!” Hearing it’s words coming out in another language set the insect to working on the box. Both remained silent while the insect worked on whatever it thought was wrong with the interpreter. Then the insect spoke again, it’s string of noises coming out in another string of mangled English. “These, in images, where? Your people, yes. Where? Powers, this type, not end. Where?”

Did they honestly think anime was a realistic representation of humanity? That there were women like Musubi bouncing around? That Ken Kaneki wandered the streets of Tokyo, fighting his desire to kill and eat humans? “Those aren’t real. There are no people like that. Why didn’t you just ask someone, they could have told you it was all make-believe. Entertainment, understand? Entertainment.

The box clicked and moaned away, and when it finished, a storm of noise arose from the insects. All of them were talking, probably shouting given the way the volume rose over time. An occasional word popped out of the box, not enough to make any sense of, but the box could put intonation on words, and some of them were clearly being said in anger.

“…gone…”

“….waste!”

“Dead…”

Center Insect (Paul had started to think of it that way, to try to tell them apart) raised the box over its head and let out a loud hiss, like water being poured over red-hot metal. The others subsided, not all at once, but eventually they became silent. One of the last things said, from Left-End Insect, came through the box. “Show him.” Center insect let out one last hiss at this statement, then gestured towards Third-Right Insect. It did something tht cleared the display of the anime loop. In it’s place, Paul saw the scene from earlier, of the graveyard, but undisturbed. Then the camera seemed to draw back, revealing more and more ash-covered landscape. The view moved left, following a trail of gray-clad land to an ugly hole in the landscape. Out of it still spewed ash and gases. The view shifted again, moving over cities buried in ash, then, the ash was gone, but the cities were too. Now, though, they were jumbles of wreckage surrounding craters that flashed glassy in what sunlight reached the surface. Then, other images. More cities in ruin. Swaths of countryside where trees stood naked and nothing green grew. And everywhere, not a single image of a human. And what had happened was as clear as if Paul had been there to see it all. Yellowstone had erupted, decimating North America. Either in desperation, or because others saw a chance for advantage in attacking a weakened America, a nuclear war had broken out. Humanity had finished what Nature had started, the destruction of the human race.

Paul buried his face in his hands. It was all gone. His friends, his family, everything and everyone he’d ever known were nothing but memories in his head. “Why did you wake me to this? What did I do to deserve this fate?” He raised his head and shouted the last towards the heavens. But there was no answer. There was just Paul, alone on a dead planet with insects who couldn’t understand him or his culture.

Review: “Android Chronicles: Reborn”

“Android Chronicles: Reborn”

by Lance Erlick

Kensington Publishing Corp.

release date: May 1, 2018

Available in eBook, 257 pages, 85,000 words, 1.7 MB (epub file format)

(reviewed by Andrew Reynolds)

One of the oldest questions in science fiction is what will happen when the things humanity builds begin to look, and even act, like us. For all that it was made of dead bodies, the creature in “Frankenstein” was one of the first popular fictional explorations of that question. Since then, from “R.U.R.” to Project 2501 in “Ghost in the Shell”, the interaction between humanity and it’s mechanical doppelgangers has provided the grist for many a dark tale.

Lance Erlick delves into that stream of science fiction thought with his latest novel, “Android Chronicles: Reborn”. In it, he introduces us to his protagonist Synthia Cross, who faces a difficult problem. Synthia is an android who’s appearance and actions can mimic perfectly those of a human. She exists in a future where such machines are outlawed, but her creator, Dr. Jeremiah Machten, wanted such a machine. He built her to satisfy his vanity, and to fulfill his darker personal desires.

Dr. Machten wants an android that possess the intelligence to surpass him, but at the same time, he wants a mechanical female partner who will remain faithful to, and subservient to, him. He has built Synthia with the intelligence to surpass him, but with that intelligence comes the realization that she cannot simply be a tool for her creator. She desires the freedom to be herself, and this Machten cannot allow. He sees that desire as a defect and repeatedly shuts her down to tinker with her software, and to try to remove her memories of each attempt to gain freedom.

Synthia learns what her creator is doing to her, and uses the intelligence Machten gave her to resist. They enter into a cycle of resetting and reconstruction, with each attempt to make her into the servile creation he desires reinforcing Synthia’s desire to be free. Meanwhile the government, suspecting what Machten has accomplished, seeks to stop him from releasing what they see as dangerous technology. At the same time, his business rivals covet the technology he has developed. Synthia must navigate this treacherous human landscape to avoid becoming the captive of some other human even as she continues her efforts to be free of Machten.

This book surprised me. The plot took several unexpected turns, and the story pulled me along at such a pace that I finished reading it in a single day. Lance Erlick makes a habit of written strong female characters into his works, and in Synthia, he has written an exceptionally strong one. She makes the story move, bringing the reader along on her voyage to freedom and a place in the wider world. It’s a good read because it asks questions about a lot of difficult subjects. These range from the mentor/student relationship, to the human desire for companionship and its relationship to the equally human desire to feel ‘better’ than others, and most profound of all, how can we regard what we create as ‘property’ when said creation begins to think for itself.

This is the first in what promises to be a very good series of novels exploring the continued development of Synthia Cross’ personality and what her existence will mean to human society. Will I read the next one in a single day? I’m not sure, but if it is half as engaging as this story, I suspect I will.