The fly on the wall

(I am thinking of this as the opening to a series of science fiction stories revolving around humanity’s first wars in space. Fair warning, lots of rough language and discussion of sexual slavery involved.)

“AHHHHHHHH!!!”

After all the effort she’d put into riding him, ‘Angela’ was happy the fat bastard had finally managed to get his rocks off. She tightened the right muscles, let an inarticulate moan out, trying her best to fake the orgasm he no doubt wanted to believe he’d given her. All she really wanted was a shower, but instead, she made herself lie atop his sweating carcass like a satisfied lover.

Her efforts to satisfy her customer were rewarded by him throwing a flabby arm around her before kissing her forehead. “Thanks, Angela, that was great, like usual. You sure know how to make an old man feel good.”

“No, sweetie, it’s you who know how to make a woman feel good. That was the best sex I’ve had in a long time.”

From the way his arm tightened around her, ‘Angela’ knew the fat idiot must believe at least some of what she’d said. If she was lucky, he might tip her some cash on top of what he’d paid the agency for her visit. That was the whole reason for engaging in the charade. Now, she had to get out of his apartment so she could get ready for her next appointment.

Angela pushed herself upright, swung her leg over, and stopped to remove the spent condom. She hated disposing of the filthy thing, but like sucking and fucking, it was part of her job as a prostitute. For all her disgust, she slapped a smile on her face as she feigned examining it. “Wow, sweetie, you shot a lot. I’m glad you had this on, or I’d be on the ‘nine month count-down’.”

Her john actually smile, like he was pleased by the thought. “That might not be so bad. My wife doesn’t want any more kids, and ours are nothing but spoiled brats. How about it, would you be willing to let me make one with you?”

Did this moron really think she wanted him to fuck his kid into her? Not a chance in hell! She fought the wave of disgust that swept over her and smiled wider. “But what would happen with your wife? And what about your career? It’s a tempting idea, but I don’t want you to ruin your life to give me such pleasure.”

His face scrunched in, reminding ‘Angela’ less of a man thinking than someone struggling to take a shit. “Well, there is that…I guess I just got caught up in the moment, baby. Thanks for thinking that through for me.”

“Any time. Wouldn’t want the best member of the Colony Board of Governors to lose his job over me now, would I?” ‘Angela’ slipped backwards off the bed and walked into the spacious bathroom attached to the bedroom, closing the door behind her. That a moron like that could be trusted to help govern one of the biggest of Earth’s orbital colonies never ceased to amaze her. She relieved her bladder, dropping the tied-off rubber in before flushing all the waste away. Supposedly condoms sold on the colony were biodegradable, so flushing one shouldn’t raise any flags. Not that she really cared. After all, his name on the lease to this space, not hers, so any official repercussions wouldn’t land on her.

The shower she stepped into was nearly as large as her apartment. It also didn’t have the five minute limit on water usage the shower she shared with ten other people in her block did. Just as well, because she spent more time than that under the stinging-hot spray, sluicing the lingering stink of her customer away. She had never understood why some people stank even fresh from a shower, while others barely registered to her nose after hours of hard labor. Whatever the reason, ‘Big Bill’ Hannity smelled like something long-dead, even fresh from a shower, and “Angela’ was happy when she could no longer caught his sent on her.

She let herself take a moment to luxuriate in the pulsing jet setting the shower offered. Letting the spray play over her slender body was close to heavenly after all the exercise she’d put in making Bill cum. But even with the sort of luxurious allowances a suite like this had, there was a limit to how much water she could use. Part of the wall changed to a screen, displaying a countdown to the point where the system would start charging extra. ‘Angela’ allowed herself one final splurge on Bill’s tab: she washed her short hair using some of the expensive shampoo his wife normally used.

Done, she thumped the water cut-off bar, and the intelligence controlling the shower took over, bringing a warm swirl of dry air up around her while it sucked every drop of water from the surfaces and the air that dried her. All the showers on the colony did this. Water being something that had to be harvested in far more distant portions of the Sol system, the colony’s life support systems wasted none of it. At her apartment, the shower often dried her in air colder than the surroundings.

Her skin dry, she stepped out to face a portion of the wall that had been programmed to become a mirror. ‘Angela’ had no memory of her parents, no memories earlier than growing up in a refugee camp in war-torn Thailand. So she had no notion of how she came to possess her dark skin, nor a face one of her clients had said looked fit for a Chinese goddess. It had been more john bullshit, but as she looked at her reflection, with it’s small nose and up-tilted eyes, the thought occurred to her that perhaps this is what her mother had looked like. Or maybe her face was just some random chance, as so many other of the poor living on Mike-Lima Forty-One, as everyone called the ML4-1 colony.

‘Angela’ gave her head a shake, ran her fingers through her hair to get it roughly going the same way, and pulled on one of the robes stacked outside the shower. She’d love to comb her hair, but “Big Bill” had strict rules things like that. Outside of the stall, hair and other things her body might shed weren’t automatically collected. And while his wife might not notice a few stray skin cells that didn’t be long to her, a single unfamiliar black hair among the bottle-blond hairs already littering her brush would be a dead give-away. Bill didn’t even like her using the robes, but she knew well that if she came out of the bathroom naked, the old goat would pester her for ‘another shot’, and she’d had enough of fucking him. So she’d accept the dirty look for wearing the robe and make sure to toss it into Bill’s automated laundry system before she left.

The door was hardly a crack open, but the stranger’s voice was loud enough to be understood. “Bill, what the fuck do you expect me to do? I’m head of security for the colony, but we both know the real power lies with the corporate security teams. I’ve got twenty guys who are supposed to police a population of over two hundred thousand. The smallest private security force has three hundred members, and most of them are ex-military. My force is just a joke, and we both know it’s that way because the colony founders wanted it that way. So what am I supposed to do about your ‘threatened violent take-over’?”

Every time ‘Big Bill’ talked around her, he strove to sound decisive, in control. But she heard none of that as he replied. No, if anything, he sounded like a street hustler who’d found out they accidentally conned one of the ‘Founding Families’. “Juan, you don’t understand. These people are dangerous! I mean yeah, I took their money, and accepted their support to win my place on the board…but I never, ever thought they’d go through with this bat-shit crazy plan of theirs. Hell, if they carry out their plan, you’re going to be taking a space walk without a suit on, and so will a lot of other folks. These fuckers are insane, seriously insane. They think the Founding Families made a mistake when they allowed what they call ‘non-European mud creatures’ onto the colony. These assholes are talking about spacing everyone who doesn’t fit their idea of a ‘proper’ citizen. That, or reducing them to outright slaves, even they can’t make up their minds on that point.” Bill stopped talking, whether to catch his breath or gather his thoughts ‘Angela’ didn’t know, but the person he was talking to cut him off.

“Bill, if you’re serious, why the fuck did you call me? Why not contact the head of the Paulus family? Or the O’Hannlon’s senior? I mean if someone needs to know this, it’s the household heads who sit on the Founder’s Council. They have the authority to take control of the private security firms in an emergency, not me.”

“You don’t get it, do you Juan? Some of them are involved in this….and I’ve got no fucking clue who is and who isn’t involved. So what do you think happens to me if I complain to the wrong person?Think they’re going to just sit back and wait for me to find someone who will act? I’d be dead before the end of the day, that’s what would happen.”

There was a long silence, long enough that ‘Angela’ began to suspect the conversation was over. It wasn’t. “All right, Bill, then you should contact the Earth government. Lay it all out. Even if you don’t know anything more than the person you’re in contact with, they can get troops, or peace keepers, or whatever the fuck they want to call them out here to stop this from happening. As a member of the Colony Board of Governors, you should have enough juice to get someone to listen to you.”

Big Bill didn’t respond right away, and ‘Angela’ knew why. The fat son of a bitch is trying to figure out an angle that won’t just leave him in power, but that will get him more power. She had to get out of the apartment, fast. But her clothes were lying by the front door, where Bill had forced her to strip for him. And she could neither get to them without whomever he was talking to seeing her in their holo-imager, nor avoid them getting a good enough look to ID her later. Her brain was scrambling around, looking for a solution, when Bill finally spoke.

“All right, but I can’t just send the message through my official account. I’m pretty sure they’re monitoring it. So I’ll contact a guy I know in the Communications branch and arrange for him to send it out under his ID. He’s got enough reason to communicate with the Earth government that it shouldn’t draw attention. Hopefully nobody will notice if he forwards a message for me to the Security Chief at the UN Colony Administrator’s office.”

“Fine, whatever. Just keep your head down, and quit getting in bed with murdering sleaze, for fuck’s sake!” The double-chime of a disconnected holo-call told her it was safe to come out, but ‘Angela’ waited for a count of fifty before fully opening the door. She found Bill sitting on the end of the bed in his boxers looking like he’d landed in a mine field with no map of how to get out. She stopped for a second to kiss the top of his bald head.

“Well, sweetie, I got to get going. Want to set up another visit now, or would you rather wait until you know you’ll have the free time?”

Bill didn’t respond right away, and when he did, he didn’t raise his head to meet her eyes. “No, I think I’ll wait. Looks like I’m gonna be busy for a while, so until things get a little less hectic, let’s just leave it open.” ‘Angela thought that might be it, but Bill stood, walked over to the night stand, and pulled a couple of bills at random from his wallet. “This is for being extra nice today, baby. I appreciate the effort. You take care now, hear?” And with that, he headed for the bathroom, no doubt to shower too. ‘Angela’ looked at the bills, and nearly fainted when she saw they were two hundred new-dollar bills. It was nearly as much as Bill had paid for her to come, and she was getting all of this in cash that the agency couldn’t get a cut of. She folded the bills before stuff them into the purse she carried. Not a bad hour’s work.

Dressed and out the door, ‘Angela’ became the anonymous Prostitute #3094 from the Heavenly Body’s Entertainment Corporation. The transparent dress she was forced to wear while working left no doubt what she did for a living. She was thankful no one was in the corridor. She’d become almost inured to the mix of lecherous stares of the men, and open hostility of the women, that followed her and every other prostitute who worked on Mike Lima Forth-One. Almost was the operative word. Just like she almost made enough to pay off the debt colony officials held over her for allowing her to enter the colony as a refugee. That she hadn’t had any choice about whether or not she came didn’t matter to Mike Lima’a officialdom. No, people who couldn’t afford to buy a place on the colony were required to work off any and all costs associated with them coming to the colony. So even a ten year old, half-starved Thai refugee who ‘d been stuffed into the orbital elevator car against her will had to cover the cost of allowing her to enter the Mike Lima economy.

And there’d been no charity even before then. Back when she was still Lee Bik, she’d temporarily gotten into an orphanage. But charities had to have money, and the orphanage fed the majority of it’s kids by selling cute ones to pedophiles. Bik’s first taste of sex was being raped by some white sex tourist. She still remember he stank far worse the Big Bill, and to an eight year old’s eyes and body, how he’d had a tree trunk sprouting between his legs. Half a dozen more encounters just like that proved to Bik that the orphanage was worse then the streets. But street whores were something devoutly Buddhist Thailand wanted to make a thing of the past. Bik had been picked up in one of the sweeps the Thai military ran through the streets of Bangkok. As a child, she got slightly better treatment than the older street girls, but the UN-run refugee camp hadn’t been a paradise. Bik had stayed alive fucking the older boys in exchange for extra food.

Then the day had come when the loudspeakers blared an announcement in Thai, Chinese and half a dozen other languages ordering the residents to assemble at the camp’s central square. There, she had undergone a quick medical exam and been shunted to one side of the square with most of the other children and young adults. The old, the sick, and a few Bik knew to be involved in the camp’s thriving criminal underworld, they had gone to the other side of the square. Those with Bik had gone to Sumatra to be stuffed like cattle into one of the cargo pods going up the orbital elevator. Random chance decided that she ended up here.

She slipped out the same discrete side door she’d used before, and found the usually deserted alley occupied. That occupant caused her to pause. He was a muscle-bound, pale-skinned monster, easily head-and-shoulders taller than her. Like a few white men, he shaved his head clean, but unlike most, his head gleamed like he’d polished it. But none of that was what brought her to a stop. No, what stopped her in her tracks was the look of complete contempt he aimed at her. He looked at her like he was watching a strange dog take a shit in front of him. Anxious to be away from that hostile stare, she turned her back on him and headed towards the street.

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The disappearance.

“Okay, remember, I’ll count to ten, then I’ll come find you! Ready….start! One….two…”

My eyes are closed, but I hear my children run off, laughing as they go. In a single-floored ranch like ours, it’s not hard to tell which way they’re going. I hear Kevin and Lisa’s footsteps echo as they dash down the hall.

“three….four….five…”

The muffle screech of a hinge in need of oiling tells me they’ve gone into the room they share. I hear murmured words, too indistinct to make out, and know they’re trying to figure out where they’ll hide.

“six….seven…..eight….”

The slight rasping noise of a sliding door opening and closing lets me know they’re hiding in their closet. Now, to make a show of finding them.

“nine….ten….ready or not, here I come!”

I make sure to be as loud as I can as I make my mock search of the house, opening doors and calling out as I wander around. “Where can they be? Those kids have gotten too good at hiding for me!” I hear them giggling as I fling their door open. “Could they be in here?” The closet take up most of one wall opposite their beds, and I hear Kevin hushing Lisa as I approach it. My fingers slip into the recesses on the opposing sliding doors and I slide them aside with a shout of “Found you!”

But there’s nobody in the closet, there’s nothing in the closet.

All of Lisa’s dresses, her tops, Kevin’s jeans and the pile of dirty clothing he insists on leaving in the closet….all of it is gone. The entire space is empty, not even an errant sock lies on the floor. But as I stand there, stunned by the sudden change, I hear them. They’re still giggling like they’ve put one over on Mommy for once and managed to hide from her.

I slap the back wall, push against it at different spots hoping that somewhere there’s a hidden door, some trick that’s allowing my children to hide not just themselves but all the clothing I know they have from me. But the wall is solid, as is the floor when I stomp on it in the vain hope of finding a trap door.

“Kevin! Lisa! Do you hear me! Come out this instant!”

There is no answer beyond more giggles, and I begin to panic. Could I have been mistaken and they hid in the master bedroom? I go out the door, thrust open the door to the room my husband and I sleep in, and begin searching.

Nothing. They’re not in our closet, nor in the bathroom adjoining our room. Could they be under our bed? On hands and knees, I peer into the dim space under our king-sized bed, and see nothing but a few dust bunnies in need of cleaning up.

Could they be under their beds?

I hadn’t thought of such a possibility, sure as I was that they’d hidden in their closet, but now I rush back to look. I find nothing, not even the favorite well-worn teddy bear Lisa keeps hidden under her bed so it is close at hand on stormy nights. But even as I look, I can hear my children laughing quietly, and quite close at hand.

“Kevin! Lisa! This is not funny! Come out at once!” Nothing, just the same occasional murmur of gleeful giggles. “Do you hear me? I said come out!”

But they don’t come out, they don’t suddenly pop up to bask in their joy at having frightened their mother. I cross the hall, intent on going through the small bathroom the children use. It has the same fixtures, right down to the slight crack in the glazing on the sink, but it is empty of anything personal. The children’s toothbrushes, the battered stainless steel comb Kevin inherited from his grandfather, even Lisa’s collection of hair clips, all of it is gone.

I search the rest of the house, panic tightening my chest as every attempt to find Kevin and Lisa proves fruitless. There is no place for them to hide in our back yard, but I look anyway. Again, nothing.

Now, the panic is all-consuming, a thing that has swallowed me, an ocean that threatens to drown me. I call 911.

“Carswell’s Corner 911, please state the nature of the emergency.”

“It’s my children! They’ve gone missing, disappeared!”

“Where did you last see your children, miss?”

“In my kitchen. I was playing hide and seek with them, and they’re not here. I’ve been through the whole house, I’ve searched every room, and I can’t find them anywhere!”

A moment of silence, then the disembodied voice comes back. “Miss, I’m showing you’re location as 127 Wolff Road, is that correct?”

“Yes, yes, that’s where I live! Please, can you get someone here to help me find my children?”

“Yes, miss, I’ve dispatched a car, they should be there shortly. Please stay on the line until they arrive miss.”

“Yes, of course, anything, just get them here to help me search!”

Another, longer moment of silence, then I hear a car, driving fast, coming up the road. The engine noise drops, the screech of tires stopping fast, and I see flashing lights out the front window. “Miss, officers should be in front of your house now. Can you open the door for them?”

I rush to the front door, yank it open, and a pair of men in uniform are waiting. One is older, tall and slender, his hair going gray. The other is short and heavy set, his dark hair buzz-cut short. Neither of them look happy. I don’t care if they’re happy or not.

“Officers, I’m glad you got here so quickly. I need your help. My children have managed to find a hiding place in the house that I can’t find. I need you to help me get them out.”

The younger man looks disgusted, like he’d just heard someone tell the biggest lie of all time. The older man just looks sad as he speaks to me.

“Mrs. Sanchez, how many more times are we going to have to come here? We’ve searched your house more times than I can remember, with you right behind us. Every time, we’ve never found any kids, and that’s because you’ve never had any kids!” He scrubs a hand over his face and shakes his head. “I’ve told you before, if you keep calling us, we’re going to arrest you for filing a false police report. I’m not going to do that this time….but this is your last warning. If I, or any other officer, have to come here again, you’re going to go to jail. Now, have I made myself clear?”

Is he insane? I remember my children. The hours I spent in labor before Kevin came out. How Lisa had always been sick as a baby, but had grown to be a force of nature. I remember every time they fell. Every scrape on their knees. Every day home from school for a fever. Everything. ”But officer….”

He didn’t give me the chance to finish. “I don’t want to hear it again. I mean it. We’re going now. Your husband should be home soon, so you can tell that poor sorry bastard all about it. God knows how he puts up with someone as crazy as you.”

And that was it. He turned and walked away, his young partner giving me a final, sickened stare before following him. They weren’t going to help. They didn’t care. They thought I was insane, people who believed something as crazy as me never having any children. I close the door knowing I’ll have no help.

I have to find them. I have to. I can hear their giggles, but where are they?

Wait…what?

I open the door again. My door is stained wood, but not this door. It’s red, and not some calm brick red either. No, it’s a bright, almost garish red, the sort most people would call ‘fire-engine red’ I hate red, especially bright reds. Did some vandal paint it this hideous color?

Then I look closer, and see the wear around the door knob. The scratched paint near the lock. There are scuff marks at the bottom, some of them old enough to have started fading.

What is happening here?

 

A vision of the future?

Paullus Lucius Decimus reclined on the cheap mattress in his rented room and watched the prostitute undress. Modern America had many things his native Rome had never had, but as an immortal, one thing he missed was brothels. He’d lost his virginity in one, and as a legionnaire, he’d frequented the brothels around Roman frontier forts rather than trust a local woman to not slit his throat as he slept. Now, rather than being able to go somewhere that he knew women were available, he was forced onto the seedier parts of the Internet in hopes of satisfying his sexual needs.

After discovering, in the disastrous aftermath of Teutoburg, that he was immortal, Paullus had refrained from long-term relationships out of self-preservation. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to trust a woman to keep his secret. No, many men he’d known had gone mad with grief after loosing a wife of lover, and Paullus knew his heart was no stronger than theirs. But no matter how many centuries passed, his desire for sexual release did not diminish.

So here he was, marveling at how like all those other prostitutes this one was. Her lips wore a smile that never entered her eyes, she told the same old lie about how ‘big’ his manhood was, and like every other prostitute, promised him she’d ‘show him a good time’. The sex itself was a series of mechanical acts interspersed with more lies about how ‘good’ he was in bed, what an ‘incredible’ lover he was, and when Paullus achieved climax, her theatrical exhibit of pleasure at the same moment was no more convincing than any of the others he’d seen.

Her job done, Tina, as she called herself, peeled the condom off his member and moved to throw it in the wastebasket beside. She stopped in mid-movement, her eyes fixed on Paullus’ diary. He’d left it open on the stand next to his bed, having no reason to suspect a random prostitute could read Latin. This one clearly did.

Latine loqueris?” she asked in a Latin that might have come from a patrician’s mouth and not a whore’s.

Maybe it was the shock of hearing his native tongue in such an unexpected situation that caused Paullus to blurt out “Facio, ita.”, but he collected himself before continuing in English “And how do you come to speak Latin?”

She gave him a smile, a real if wary one. “I studied Roman history in college, and knowing Latin was pretty much a requirement for accessing the original texts. You can only learn so much from someone’s translation. If you can read the original, in the original language, you can almost hear the writer speaking to you. How about you?” She pointed towards the diary. “This Latin’s not quite classic, it’s more like colloquial Latin. Only a few scholars can read that, let alone write as fluently as you do. Where did you pick it up?”

Damn, she would know the difference! Paullus had begun to suspect that Professor Upton knew his knowledge of Latin was far too extensive to put down to parental hectoring. That was one of the reasons he’d been happy to finish translating her cache of letters he himself had written before the final battle of the XIX Legion. How could he explain to this woman, who clearly knew his knowledge was uncommon? Better to change the subject. “You studied Roman history in college? How did you…?”

She finished the question for him. “How did a classic student end up a prostitute, a whore? You don’t have to be polite, I’ve been called worse. I came from a poor family, and scholarships only go so far. So I needed to raise some extra cash, and believe me, working a part-time job for minimum wage isn’t a good way to make ends meet, not and study. A girl I knew told me she ‘dated’ a guy and steered me to one of those sites where rich old guys go to find a ‘sweet young thing’ they can ‘financially assist’.” She even raised her hands to emphasis that she was quoting some standard line. “Well, I learned pretty quickly that the only reason most of those guys were willing to ‘assist’ me was if I’d ‘assist’ them in their desire to get laid.” She shrugged, and gave him a cynical smile he’d seen from far too many prostitutes. “So I could either have sex with some random guy and get paid for it, or I could starve. Not a hard choice. Problem is, once you get started, it’s hard to stop. You get used to having the extra cash, to not worrying whether you’ll have something eat or not. After a while, I started paying more attention to keeping my ‘friends’ happy than to my course work. I went from a GPA of 3.8 to 1.3. When my adviser told me to either get serious about my classes or I’d flunk out, I decided to drop out and go into prostitution full-time.” She smiled again, perhaps the first honest smile he’d seen on her face since she’d walked in the door. “What can I say? It isn’t always easy. I’ve had a couple customers decide they wanted to do the rough stuff with me, which I never do, no matter how much men offer me. The few who tried learned real fast that my cop dad taught his little girl how to defend herself. One idiot thought he’d be my pimp. I left him screaming on the floor with a nice compound fracture of the lower arm. No one’s been dumb enough to try that again.” Her eyes move back to Paullus’ diary. “And none of that explains how you know one of the less common dialects of Latin. So, care to spill, or should I just speculate?”

Time to fall back on the lie he’d told Professor Upton. “My father was a classics professor, my mother was a linguist. Between them, I learned the rudiments of around twenty languages. As for why I use that language, I always liked colloquial Latin because the cuss words are so very inventive.”

Tina laughed at that. “Yes, it is pretty good for insulting people, isn’t it?” Then, she looked at Paullus, at the web of scars that covered his body. “For a guy who’s smart enough to learn twenty languages, you’ve sure been injured a lot.” She tossed the spent condom in the garbage, then sat on the bed. “Modern medicine’s good, but these scars look like they’re from wounds that should have killed you. So either you were special forces, or you’re both the luckiest and unluckiest man alive to suffer these injuries and be close enough to care to keep you from dying. Which is it?”

Several centuries before, Paullus had killed a man who’d witnessed him surviving an attack by a huge brown bear in what was now the Kamchatka Peninsula. He’d seen too much of the attack to believe that Paullus was just lucky, but his fate had been sealed when started talking about how interested the local Koryak chieftain would be in a man who couldn’t be killed by a bear. Would he be forced to send this woman to the afterlife to spare himself the unwanted attention of modern society? Perhaps sensing he wasn’t going to answer, she settled her fate with her next words.

“Well, it’s not like we’re besties or anything like that. You don’t owe me an answer.” She dressed without wasted effort, scooped up the envelope holding the price of her company, and leafed through the bills with the practiced speed of someone who had done the task many times before. Satisfied that he hadn’t shorted her, she walked to the door.

“You’ve got my number, and I’ll be around for the next couple of weeks, so give me a call if you want another date. Di conservent te D. L. Paullus.” and she was gone, leaving Paullus to wonder how she’d managed to extract his name from one brief glance at his diary. He picked up the book and saw his name was nowhere on the pages she could have read. But on the stand, a coin winked at him. It must have been under the book because he was sure he hadn’t seen it when he picked it up. The bronze coin had the familiar weight and shape of a sestertius, and Augustus’ profile could still be made out. So how had a prostitute come to possess a two thousand year old coin that looked as if it had been minted only a few years before? Could she be like him, an immortal hiding in the shadows of modern society? He flipped the coin, caught it on the fall, and looked at the door.

“I think, Tina, you and I need to talk, and soon.”

The Prophesy Tree

I’d been on this trail for over two decades, but now, I had hope my search would be over.

The start of my voyage had been a line in my great-grandmother’s diary. She’d been a Highlands girl who’d gone to London to work in the war effort, the First World War that is. It had been just a single, cryptic line: “Just like the Tree said I would, I met Justin at Paddington Station.” Justin had been great-grans one true love, and he had died at the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. My grandfather had been born in November 1918, just short of a month after his father had died. With a child and the war effort winding down, great-gran had taken employment with a rich American family living in London. When they went home, they took their maid/governess with them. That’s how I came to be an American.

Now, I was back in the land that had given birth to my great-grandmother, sitting in a pub not far from where she’d been born. The King’s Head felt like a place that had existed since time began. There was dirt ground into every crack in the worn-smooth half-timbers sticking out of the plastered walls. No one smoked, but generations of smokers had flooded the fiber of the place with their fumes, leaving the air still smelling faintly of them. One who had added to that nicotine stench sat across from me.

Jamie Smith’s withered hand occasionally twitched towards his shirt pocket before pulling away, like he was reaching for a pack of ‘fags’, as he’d called them when he first sat down to talk to me. According to him, he’d quit smoking decades ago, but the habitual motions were still there as he sat, trying to answer my question without actually saying anything.

“Och, aye, everyone’s heard of Annag MacRae and how she went over to America. Banavie’s sent many a young lad and lass out into the world, and she was one of many who left the Highlands duing the Great War. But the last of her family died, oh, twenty years ago. I could show ye her father’s stone, and the rest of the family, at the church, but that’s all there is to see here Yank.”

I wasn’t about to let him avoid my question. “But why did she leave Banavie? You say everyone’s heard of her leaving, so why is it that one young woman leaving a small town like this is remembered?”

Jamie’s eyes, which had darted everywhere while he was talking to me, became even more determined not to look my way. “Ah, well, old stories like that get handed down….”

“But why? What was so special about my great-grandmother?”

That did it. Jamie started sliding towards the end of the bench he was sitting on opposite me, sliding away so he could get out of the small booth we shared. “I’m sorry, but I’ve to be going now. It’s good to see someone who’s family came from here return, but…”

I’d seen Jamie’s eyes following every tray full of drinks that passed us, so I decided to play my trump card. “I’m sorry, my manners are slipping. I haven’t offered to ‘stand you a pint’. I think that’s how you say offer to buy someone a drink over here, isn’t it?”

It worked. Jamie stopped trying to get out of the booth and moved back in front of me. “Well, if you’re willing to buy me a drink, I’d be happy to have it. But I’d much rather a wee drop a’ whiskey than a pint, if that’s all right with you.”

If it got the old man to open up, I’d have bought him a case of whiskey. “Of course, and you being the local expert, I’ll let you pick a good whiskey for both of us.”

#

Jamie upended the whiskey bottle, the last few drops making tiny rings on the surface of the amber liquid that filled his glass to the brim. He sat it down with exaggerated care, slowly took up his glass, and cocked it ever so slightly towards me. “Ta yer health, sir!” he said, as he had at the beginning of every glass before. Now, his words were badly slurred and his accent more pronounced. That he was still upright amazed me. I was nursing my second glass of Ben Nevis Blue Label, and my head was starting to spin. The rest of the bottle, plus a pair of ‘tots’ he’d drunk before I ordered the bottle, were all inside Jamie. But he raised the glass to his lips with hands as steady as mine, and drank a third of the glass in one slow swallow. When he lowered it, I made one final try at getting him to talk.

“So, Jamie, you were going to tell me about my great-grandmother…”
Bleary eyes fixed mine. “I was not! Why would I tell a Yank about the…” Jamie stopped, blushing and clearly flustered that he’d nearly said something he wasn’t supposed to. I decided to press my luck and see if I could bluff him.

“You were going to tell me about The Tree, the one that told my great-grandmother about the man she’d marry. So why don’t you start?”

Those blood-shot eyes widened, then narrowed. “Och, you’re jokin’. No outsider knows about The Tree.”

“But I do! My great-grandmother wrote about it in her diary, about how it told her she would meet the love of her life in London, at Paddington Station. All I’m asking for is a chance to go there, see The Tree, and maybe offer thanks for setting my ancestor on the right path. Is that wrong?”

Jamie’s eyes narrowed to thin strips, and I began to suspect he might have seen through my bluff. Then he shook his head and took another, deeper drink of whiskey before answering me. “Tha’ silly chit, writin’ somethin’ like tha’ down. No one outside of Banavie is ever supposed ta know ’bout the Prophesy Tree.”

So my guess was right. But he still hadn’t told me anything about the actual tree. Time to press it to the limit. “Well, she did, and I know about the Prophesy Tree. Would you be willing to take me there, so I can pay respects for my dead great-grandmother?”

That got a reaction from Jamie, not the one I’d expected. His eyes widened, and he recoiled like I’d just pulled a gun on him. “No, not in a million years!” He relaxed slightly and leaned forward to close the distance between us. I did the same, and he muttered. “”Sides, I dinna know where th’ tree is. Only ol’ MacGilleain knows where tis, an’ I don’ think ye kin get ‘im to tell ye.”

Jamie leaned back, glass in hand again, and drained its contents in a gulp. He placed it on the table like it were made of spun smoke, then with a drunken grin, pitched forward, unconscious before his face hit the wood between us. None of the other patrons seemed surprised by this, so I settled my tab, asked the bartender to arrange for Jamie to be taken home, and adjourned to my bed and breakfast.

How was I going to find someone based on their last name, even in a small town like this? My smart phone, when I queried it, came back with several people who had that name, but none of them lived in Banavie. One, though, did live nearby, and when I asked for directions to his house, I found it located in a small valley not far from the base of Ben Nevis. The map showed a road leading up to it, but based on the driving I’d done to date, that tiny, crooked yellow ribbon couldn’t be much more than a pave goat path. “Not something you should be tackling half drunk.” I told myself as I kicked off my shoes and lay down.

I’d planned to get undressed and take a shower before going to bed the night before. The rising late Summer Sun, slanting through my window, woke me. My head felt like a group of tiny men with huge hammers were inside it, trying desperately to beat their way out. The taste in my mouth was indescribable, like what I imagine having a herd of Highland cattle driven across your tongue might taste like. About the only plus was that my stomach showed no signs of rebelling, one of things I liked least about getting drunk.

Last nights clothing off, I got under the shower head and didn’t mind the time it took the water to warm. The initial icy downpour helped wake me the rest of the way up, and brought back what I’d learned the night before. Now, I had to find out of the MacGilleain my phone had found was the same one Jamie had hinted at. I scrubbed myself down, letting my mouth fill with water from the shower a couple of times to help rinse some of the foulness out of it. “Time I got ready to face the next stage of my search.”

#

The road that climbed away from the A82 was almost as bad as I’d imagined it to be. It wasn’t a paved goat path, but a single lane road, a narrow strip of pavement that followed a tortuous path through the bleakly beautiful Scottish hills. Here was not a place to take your eyes off the road to consult a phone for directions, so I was reduced to listening to the annoying voice telling me what to do.

“In fifty meter, turn left. In ten meters, turn right.”

No roads lead off the one I followed, making all those directions redundant. “To borrow the English line, would you sod off!” I growl at the senseless hunk of electronics. It ignores me, so I do what I can to tune it out. The road begins to climb, its back and forth rambling giving way a series of sweeping climbs up steep rocky hillsides, each one ending in a hair-pin turn. The sky begins to change as well. When I’d left Banavie, nothing beyond a scattering of clouds marred an otherwise perfect day. Now, with the mountains growing around me, the clouds joined into an uninterrupted deck of dark gray. Another turn, and the first raindrop spatters down on my windshield. It soon has plenty of company. The rain grows in intensity, becoming an unbroken sheet of that blocks out everything beyond a few hundred feet ahead. And still the road climbs.

I’m in the middle of nowhere, driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road with increasingly bad visibility. Is there another car coming down this narrow path? A moment’s break in the rain, and I find myself hoping there isn’t. Below me, just inches from the door, I have a view down the hill. I can see the road I’ve been climbing, a light snakelike path among the streaming rocks, and there is nothing to stop me from going over the edge. Opposite that terrifying view is a rough rock wall, a vertical slab of stone where the hillside has been carved away to make the road, and it is not much farther away than the drop. The rain closes about me, bringing both comfort and fear, and I continue my drive.

The rock wall grows lower, then drops away as I make a final turn onto a level space that stretches out of sight in the downpour. The road arrows into the center of that space, and I follow it, glad that I have encountered no other traffic. But now, my phone has gone silent, its annoying verbal barrage is no more. I slow to a stop and pick it up. It couldn’t be the battery, not with it plugged into the car. The screen shows the winding path I had come up, but according to it, I had yet to finish the climb. I tap the screen, and nothing happens. Closing the app, then opening it again brings the voice back, but now all it says is “Updating GPS, please wait.” over and over.

Outside, there is a final torrential rush of rain before it fades to drizzle. The road has climbed high enough that clouds surround me, leaving me as blind to my surroundings as when the rain poured down. My phone still complains that it can’t update its GPS system, and I decide to continue without it. I keep my speed low, for while there is no deadly drop-off, stout dry stone walls now outline the road, leaving little room to dodge oncoming traffic. The ground seems flat, but my inner ear insists I am driving up a slope. And the road continues on, with no diversions or branches.

A shape, indistinct, appears out of the mist, and I slow in hope of a house, of some sign of other humans. What I see was a house, but is no more. Rough stone walls rise from rank weeds. No trace of a roof remains. Empty holes, where once windows stood, flank a doorway that, incongruously, still holds a dark red door. I roll past the gap in the stone wall before that door and continue on, glad to put the desolate scene behind me.

The drizzle stops, and while the fog remains thick, I catch an occasional hint of what is around me. Steep, rocky slopes rise on either hand to disappear into the clouds. A swift stream rushes down, swirling below the road as it passes over a stone bridge with a weathered stone plaque bearing the date of 1823. A group of dirty white shapes stand in the grass beyond the wall, sheep grazing in this damp and dismal place, but no sheppard accompanies them. And the road continues on.

My mind begins to wander. My great-grandmother had written many times of her homeland. She had described the mist-shrouded mountains, but her words had made them feel like home. For me, who had grown up on the flat plains of the Midwest, they were an alien landscape, almost a scene from a nightmare. She had longed to see her native Highlands again, while I wanted nothing more than to find what I was looking for and get away from them.

The opening in the stone wall appeared and disappeared as I drove past it like the wall blinked. I step on the brakes, and the car skids, slewing to the left before coming to a stop. Reversing, I come before it. A pair of rough upright stones frame an opening hardly more than the width of the subcompact I’m in. Beyond it is a rutted path thick with weeds. There is no house visible, just the trail that disappears into the mist, but I know this is the path I must follow. How I know this I can’t say, but my heart tells me this is the path I must follow. I work the car around, line up, and drive through those gateposts with fractions to spare.

“Well, I was wondering when I’d end up on a paved goat path. Now, I’m on an unpaved one.” Telling myself that, with the weeds scrap the undercarriage, does nothing to improve my confidence that I’ll make it to where ever this road leads. At least there are no walls hemming me in, giving me hope that if I meet someone coming down this rutted excuse for a road, I’ll be able to get out of their way, A dark shape ahead resolves itself into a boulder the size of a garden shed, and the road jogs left to avoid it. It doesn’t go back in its original direction, but continues up an increasingly steep slope. The road becomes rougher, the ruts deeper. I hear a louder scrap from the underside of the car and know it’s not weeds hitting. No, it’s the central crown of the road, rising to the point where I’m barely clearing it, and ahead, things are worse.

I stop and get out to examine the ground around the road. Uphill, it feels solid, but downhill, my foot tries to sink in as soon as I put my weight on it. “Oh well, at least there’s enough room for me to get turned around on the solid side of the road.” I walk ahead and find my suspicions are correct. There are places where the crown of the road rises above the path by a distance that’s halfway to my knees. So I can get turned around and go back, but I can’t go forward, at least not in the car. But I still feel the impulse to follow this road, and rather than listen to reason, I decide to listen to my heart. The car humps across the crown as I crank the steering wheel all the way around and give it some gas. Three back-and-forth cuts and I’ve got it parked on the grassy shoulder facing downhill. I kill the engine, put the parking brake and emergency blinkers on before lock up.

The air is chilly, and seems to close around me like only a really dense fog does. I make my way to the road, my shoes soaking through from the dew on the grass. Down the hill, the weeds in the center of the road are sheered off inches from the ground. Uphill, beyond where they are beaten down by my turning around, they rise to my waist. No vehicle could come this way, not even a military Hummer, without leaving some sign of its passing. Yet I know without question that what I seek is at the end of this road. So I walk, through the fog that swirls around me, climbing ever higher, and wondering how far I will go before reaching my destination.

Long before I see it, I hear the rush and gurgle of water grow on my right. In the stark, silence-shrouded landscape, the sound of the normal world is welcome. Another dark shape grows before me, revealing itself to be a rock abutment, a bare heel of the surrounding hill that rises before me like a head-high cliff. Before it, the road bends again, a right turn far beyond a right angle. Now, the water does not rush, it roars. The rock fades into the mist, then returns. Before me, close beside the road, it rises in a vertical wall that disappears into the fog. A stream, strong with the recent rain, pours down, making a gray curtain that half covers the road. No way around it, not with the ground dropping away on the downhill side at an angle near vertical. All my surety that I was right were for this?

“So, this is what I came to find? A fucking gray rainbow on the side of a fucking Scottish hill?”

My words come back at me, a muffled echo from the rock before me, and I feel ashamed of myself. Great-grandmother walked this very road, and I have yet to complete the journey she succeeded in making. I walk towards the falling water and find the road continues beyond. I also see that provisions for those afoot have been made. A line of mossy, flat-topped stones rise from the stream feet from the drop-off, spaced to make a dry-footed crossing possible. I take them, one careful step at a time, feeling my feet shift with every movement. The fall is beside me, spray for it sprinkling, then running, down my neck.

A final step, and I’m across. The rock face the stream runs down drops back, a narrow beak of stone thrust from the hill behind it. Here the grass on the uphill slope ends at a stand of trees, huge shapes that peek through the fog and look as though they have stood since the hill arose. Is this what I seek? Does the tree my great-grandmother mentioned stand before me? No, I feel the same pull that has drawn me up this road. It is ahead of me, the thing I am looking for.

The road is no more, now it is nothing but a rough path through the grass and heather. Below me, the hill drops away less steeply, and my path no longer rises. The darkness begins to fade, and detail grow clearer, the fog begins to thin. I see a low structure ahead, but this is no rotting shell of a house. Whitewashed stone walls rise to a thick thatched roof. Windows, one with a candle burning behind it, fill their allotted openings. Smoke drifts towards me from the chimney, and I catch a whiff of earthiness born on the breeze. The door is black, an unadorned surface that might as well be a portal unto eternal night. It opens, allowing a thin stream of light to illuminate the flagstone walk leading to it, and through it steps a man. He is tall, stooping to pass through the low door, and while he carries a heavy wooden cane, his steps are firm and sure. His white hair is long and done in a single ponytail, the beard that hides most of his lower face is cropped short. None of that would be out of place in any of the Scottish towns I have passed through, but what would is his dress. He looks like someone fresh from central casting, a Highlander of ages past. A tartan cape, one I mistake for all black but as he comes closer I see is actually shot through with fine lines of yellow and green, covers his shoulders. He wears a loosely ruffled shirt over a kilt of the same dark tartan pattern, and white socks, or hose, rise to his knees from heavy square-toed shoes. Our eyes are the same height, and as his fix on me, and I feel as though he is looking inside me, not at me. He smiles, holds out his hand, and addresses me.

Beannachdan, coigreach, agus fàilte.”

I take his hand, and find his grip firm. Umm, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you. Do you speak English?”

I feel like an idiot even as I speak, but the smile never fades. “Och, I can, but I ha’ hopes ye might know the Scottish. Ah well, I won’t ask what brings ye here. You were drawn here, weren’t ye?”

“No, I came here because of something I read in a diary.”

His eyes narrow slightly, and I know he can see I’m not telling the whole truth. “Oh, tha’s wha set you on the road, but tha’s not wha drew you here, is it? I’ll wager you didn’t read how to get here in tha’ diary, nor did it keep ye going when it looked like ye’d walked inta th’ middle of nowhere. Am I wrong?”

“No, you’re not. But how…”

The man gives me a sly wink. “You were touched by th’ Tree, weren’t you? Not you, precisely, but someone in your past.”

I nod, suddenly unsure of what I’ve walked into. He lets go of my hand and turns towards the house. “Well, come inside so ye can tell me the story in the dry. Fog like this only thins out when th rain’s about to come pouring down. So let’s sit someplace warm while ye tell me everything.”

I follow him up the walk, lowering my head as does to avoid the low door sill. Up close, the door is not plain. Upon it is an ornate knocker in the shape of a tree. Made of dull iron, the leafy boughs form an anchor plate, tapering down to a pair arms that are split above their joining with the trunk by hinges. The trunk hangs down to end in a spread of roots that serves as the handle. No rust defaces the mechanism, but the impression is of great age, as though it has hung here as long as the giant trees I glimpsed earlier. The inside of the house is warm and welcoming after my walk, and there is no sign of modern technology anywhere. The sole source of warmth is the fireplace, and it gives off no more than a dull light. A pair of candles flank a high-backed chair, a small pool of illumination in a room filled with shadows. It is into that chair that my host settles. He waves towards a small table.

Bring a chair, an’ sit yerself down by th fire. There’s more peat in th basket, feel free to throw nother sod on th fire if ye‘re feeling th chill.”

The chairs about the table are straight-backed, their wood grown dark with age, made smooth by use. I draw one to the fireside, see wickerwork basket sized for a large family filled with shaggy brown bricks, and pick one up. It is surprisingly light, and as it crumbles in my hand, the scent from the smoke outside rises to greet me. I lay it atop others already on the grate and settle myself facing the old man. He watches me, waiting, it seems, for me to speak. So I oblige him.

“You said the tree draws those who have been touched by it to them. What did you mean?”

He leans towards me, eyes locked on me. “Aye, a good first question. Those th tree favors with vision are forever linked to it, as are those who’s lives spring from that connection.” He tilts his head, first to one side, then the other, before nodding. “Ye‘re Annag MacRae child, aren’t you?” I kin see her in your eyes, and the shape of yer nose.

How would this man know what my great-grandmother looked like? There’s not a single photo of her in our whole family. “No, I’m her great-grand child. Annie is the name she’s remembered by, and she’s been dead nearly a hundred years now.”

The old man leans back, shaking his head. “A hundred years? Och, has it been so long in th world outside? But no mind. The Tree’s drawn you back, as it does everone.”

Wait, wait, are you trying to tell me you knew Annie? That’s impossible! You might be old, but there’s no way you’re that old.”

But the old man smiles at me as he nods. “Aye, you’re right…I wa a hundred years old a’fore Annag’s fathers-father wa even a hope in his father’s heart. Ive been here been far beyond all their lives, and until time itself stops, I will remain here.”

Are you telling me you’re immortal?”

The smile grows sly. “Ah, not ‘immortal’, at least not at first. I was a young man when I first touched The Tree and it granted me my sole vision. It showed me this house, this wee glen, and it showed me myself as I am now. I knew the moment I had the vision that I would see this place, and that here I would live far beyond the span of mortal men.”

Now I was confused. “You said the Tree ‘showed’ you this place…but isn’t the Tree here?”

“Oh, it is, yes, right here, not far from us at all.”

“Then how could it have shown you this place if it’s already here?”

The old man threw his head back and let out a laugh that shook the candle flames on either side of him. He continued, until with a slap to his knobby bare knee, he wiped his eyes and spoke to me again. “The Tree’s here because I brought it here, ye young fool. De I have ta spell it out for ya?”

But it’s not here! I saw the only trees, yet the feeling that drew me here drew me beyond them. So where is this mystical Tree?”

The old man rolls up first one sleeve, then the other. The arms under them are pocked with white scars, ranging from snowy freckles near his wrist to larger, ugly circles and lines farther up. “I earned each o’ these, at me own forge. I wa’ considered th’ best smith in all the glens, and one night I wa’ woke by a sound like thunder, but there wa’ never a drop o’ rain. Th’ next day, my laird came round. He had a black rock th’ size o’ me head, an’ said it’d felled a yew tree a’fore his house. He thought it were iron, and he wanted me to make it into a sword. He thought anything tha could cleave a yew could do th’ same to a man.” He shakes his head, eyes unfocused. “The MacLoed he wa’, an’ he wa’ a man o’ blood. I knew before I touched it tha’ MacLoed would use th sword I made ta start a feud wi’ one a’ the neighborin’ clans. He were ne’er happy wi’ just the few glens he ruled. His father wa’ wi’ The Bruce, an’ MacLoed always thought his father should’a been given more when The Bruce came to th’ throne. Then he laid it in me hands, an’ I saw it. My future. Bu’ I knew I could’na just walk away from the like of MacLoed. So I promised him a sword, an’ I made one too…just not fra’ his precious rock. He took’t ta raidin’, an’ one o’ th’ Campbell clan cut him down like a stalk o’ rye.”

The pieces dropped into place, and I looked towards the front door of the cottage. “So the Tree is…”

“Aye, it’s me knocker. I thought it fittin’ ta turn it inta a tree, wha’ wi’ it havin’ felled one. Those as ha’ the courage ha’ come here since, to speak ta me, thinkin’ I know where th’ tree is. Th’ Tree decides, or maybe Fate, who’re blessed with a vision. If they’re ta ha’ a vision, they use th’ knocker; if not, they beat on the door ’til I tell’em ta sod off.”

It made an almost cruel sort of sense, but I was left with a singular question. “But that doesn’t explain how you’ve lived all this time. My great-grandmother lived a long life for her time, but she barely passed the biblical ‘three-score-and-ten’. What’s kept you alive all this time?”

I dinna know. I think time runs a bit different in this glen. Ta me, it feels like Annag wa’ here just a few days ago. I know th’ trees near ne’er drop their leaves, bu’ when I came here ta build me cot, they acted like normal trees. Maybe me Tree does som’thin’ ta time.” He stops, looks me over again. “Ye’ve ne’er asked ta touch it, I see. Why is tha’, I wonder.”

Now that the puzzle was solved, now that I knew what had taken my ancestor away from here native land, I found myself uneasy. Not just with the idea that a piece of meteorite might have the power to grant a person a vision of their future, but with this entire house and everything about it. Especially the ancient man in front of me. He continues to watch me, waiting in silence for what I will say, what I will do, next. And all I want to do is run. I want away from this place, from this timeless man and this piece of Scotland that feels frozen in time.

I…just wanted to find out why my ancestor ended up in America, what drove her to leave her home. And I have.” I stand far quicker than I’d intended, the panic in the back of my mind taking hold, driving my impulse to fly from this cottage. I fight down the urge to run for the door. “Thank you for your help, and for your hospitality, but I’ve taken enough of your time. Good day, Mr. MacGilleain.” I don’t offer him my hand, I walk to the door as swiftly as I can without breaking into a run.

Outside, the sky is clear and the Sun has set. Both the flags and grass are dry, the latter with that dusty coating that speaks of a long period of dry weather. But it had all been damp when I’d entered the cottage. I strike the path down the hill, only to find that the waterfall is now little more than a trickle over the upper rock face. Below it, the stream bed shows fresh growth, as though the surrounding vegetation has taken sudden advantage of the lack of flowing water to expand into the stream bed. A single, none-too-long step carries me across the stream without the need for the stepping stone, and I let myself break into a trot, hoping to escape this place.

In the fading light, the weeds in the middle of the road look wilted, as though they have endured a long drought. I make the turn that carries the road downhill, but when I reach the spot where I am sure I left the car, I find nothing. I keep going, sure I will find it eventually, but I don’t. As the last light is leaving the midnight blue sky, I come to the road. It is strange, not the tarmac I remember driving, but an absolutely smooth surface like a continuous sheet of gray plastic. It’s miles to the A82, so far I’m not sure I could cover the distance if I pushed myself through the night. I’m tempted to sit down and wait for a passing car, but waiting for a ride on this deserted stretch of road seems like the definition of a forlorn hope. And more than anything, I want away from here. So I begin walking down the middle of the road, sure that I’ll see, or at least hear, any vehicle before it become a hazard. The Moon begins to rise, casting a pale light over the scenery around me. Then I hear something. I whistling sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It seems to be behind me, but what it is, I can’t tell. It grows stronger, like it were approaching, but I see no lights, not a sign of a vehicle approaching. Then, I catch a glint of moonlight reflecting off something. Another, closer, and as my mind begins to realize something is coming down the road at me, a dark shape appears. I have a moment to marvel at how fast, and how silently, it is moving, then I feel it hit me. There is a moment’s pain, then it disappears and I am left to marvel at how the starry sky seems to wheel over me before I hit the ground, and all sense leaves me.

#

Ian knew he should have had his pod’s onboard sensors fixed, but the malfunctioning ones were only for night-time use, and he rarely drove after dark. So here he was, stopped in the dark, sitting in the middle of the glide-road between Banavie and Torcastle because he’d run late leaving Torcastle. Without the radar and other navigation sensors, the pod hadn’t detected…whatever the hell it was Ian had hit. But did he really want to get out and see what he’d run into. Modern paint carried taggers, so the farmer who’d lost a sheep would know who’s pod had killed it. And because he’d left the scene of an accident involving destruction of property, Ian would face charges. Worse, his pod would be inspected, and when it was found he’d been operating it without all the safety equipment working, his problems would get exponentially worse.

Open access port.” he commanded, and the pod obeyed, letting in the cool outside air. There was a torch under the seat, and he withdrew it before examining the front. Ian blessed his luck that there weren’t any pieces of sheep or any other animal smeared across the leading edge, then began retracing the pod’s path. Maglev vehicles could stop quickly, and Ian had gone only a few steps before he saw the shoe. It was an old-fashioned one, something he remembered his father favoring known as a ‘trainer’. It was in the middle of the road, and Ian’s blood ran cold. Had he struck a person? Pods were supposed to be designed to cue in on humans and do everything possible to keep from hitting them. But what if more than just his radar and front lights were malfunctioning?

Ian swept his torch beam around, hoping against hope that he would see nothing. What he did see, when the beam of light played across it, looked like a bundle of old clothing thrown against the dry stone wall beside the road. Then he saw the blood, and his stomach betrayed him. Doubling over, he heaved, then again, and supper came spewing out his mouth. Another clinch of muscles, and more of his stomach’s contents splattered on the guideway. A third time, and all that came out was a thin stream of foul-tasting liquid. Ian spit, trying to get the taste out of his mouth, then raised his wrist to his mouth. “Call the police, emergency number.” The phone/browser/tracker sputtered, ticeshen replied. “Calling emergency services.” The double-chirp of the phone ringing came clear in the still night air, then the too polite female voice of an automated system answered. “This is Torcastle Emergency Services, how may I help you?”

I need to speak to an officer.”

Did you say need to speak to an officer?”
Ian fought the desire to scream at the phone. “Yes, I need to speak to an officer. I’ve had an accident on the Banavie-Torcastle secondary guideway…I think I might have struck a pedestrian.”

There was a silence, then a loud click followed by a bored voice. “This is Constable Owens. Did you say you’d struck a pedestrian?”

Yes, officer, I did…and I think he might killed them.”

The voice, when it replied, had not a trace of boredom in it. “I have your location and your identity entered, so if you attempt to flee, you’ll be regarded as a wanted fugitive in a felony criminal act. I’ve dispatched one of our patrol pods, it should be there momentarily. While we wait, I need you to answer a few questions.”

The questions were what Ian had expected: What had he been doing at the time of the accident? Had he overridden the pod’s safety protocols? Had he been aware that operating a pod with faulty sensors was a punishable offense? Constable Owens was telling him the time he faced for the charges hed already admitted to when Ian spotted the flashing blue lights of the patrol pod boring through the night. Like all other emergency service vehicles, the patrol pod wasn’t bound by the speed limits other vehicles were. Ian felt the pressure wave it generated buffet him as the craft came to a stop a scant two meters from him. Its access panel opened, and a young woman climbed out, adjusting the archaic but still regulation hat on her head as she approached him.

I’m Patrol Officer Morris. I take it you’re Ian Ivers?”

Yes, Officer. The man I struck is over there. I haven’t approached him, but I haven’t heard him move. Is he dead?”

I don’t know, but for now, I’m placing you under arrest for vehicular manslaughter. Please turn away from me and put your hands behind your back.”

Ian did as he was told and felt the cold metal of the restraints close around his wrists. “By law, I must warn you that if you attempt to flee, the restraints will deliver a shock strong enough to disable you if you exceed five meters distance from me. I must also warn you that I can activate the shock system if I feel you are acting in a threatening manner. Do you understand these warnings?”

Yes, officer, but if I’d intended to flee, why would I have called emergency services?”

I can’t speculate as to your actions or motives, sir, I’m just here to gather facts.” Her tracker had a small torch in it, and she shone this towards where Ian knew the body lay. When she found it, she extinguished the light and spoke into her tracker. “This is Officer Theresa Morris, ID 772, requesting the dispatch of a crime scene unit to my GPS location. Vehicular manslaughter, one victim.” She tapped the face of the tracker, then did it again. “Victim either does not have a tracker, or the unit was damaged in the accident. I shall make a preliminary examination to try to get an ID, so tell the technicians they’ll have to screen for my DNA on the victim. Stand by, Central.”

Ian watched the officer as she turned her light back on and approached the still form. In the quiet night air, he could hear everything she said to her listening colleagues. “Victim does not appear to be wearing a tracker, and there is no evidence of one near the body.” He saw her reach out and pull the body over, then saw her let it fall back. “Face is too badly damaged to use for recognition purposes. I will search the body for any identifying marks or distinctive items.”

The silence stretched longer this time as the officer searched the body. She stopped at a bulge in the rear trouser pocket. “Central, the victim is carrying an old-fashioned wallet.” She opened it and began rifling through its contents. “Victim has paper money, old-fashioned English pound notes! There’s an ID of some sort here, give me a second to extract it.”

Ian could understand the surprise. Scotland had declared independence from England twenty years ago, and even in England, nobody used physical money anymore. Where had this man come from? He got part of his answer as the officer read the ID she’d found.

The victim has what looks like an old-fashioned American state drivers license, dated as issued in 2019. It was issued by the state of Iowa, in the name of Paul Armando Sanchez, who resided at 328 South Central Street, in the city of Carswells Corner.”

For the first time, the tracker squawked out a reply. “Repeat, did you say your victim was carrying the identification of Paul Armando Sanchez?”

Yes sir, and while his face is a bit too much of a mess to make an ID from the photo, the description on the license matches the body. Why do you ask?”

Because, Officer Morris, you may have solved a missing person case that’s been on the books for over 60 years. Mr. Sanchez was reported missing in 2019, and his rental car was found less than a kilometer from your current coordinates. I wonder where the old boy’s been hiding all these years…and how a man that old could have stumbled into a guideway in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.”

Ian had gotten a good enough look at the body to know the dead man wasn’t much older than he was. Officer Morris clearly felt the same way.

Central, I don’t know who this is, but it can’t possibly be a man who’d be, what, at least 98 years old. The victim appears to be a man in his early thirties, if dressed a bit oddly.”

What do you mean? Describe how the victim is dressed.”

The light played over Sanchez’s still form. “White, I think they called them polo shirts, blue jeans that look as though they’re less than a year old and black laced cloth shoes…didn’t they used to call them ‘trainers’?”

The voice from Central did not respond immediately, but when it did, Ian could hear the anger in it. “Officer Morris, have you been reading the case file on this disappearance?”

No,sir, I haven’t!”

There was a sigh from the tracker. “Then maybe you can explain how your description is a words-for-word match to the description given by the last person to see Mr. Sanchez alive. Never mind. Just stay there, guard your prisoner, and hope the lab techs can sort out how a man can be missing all this time and not age a day.”

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.

Visits with ourselves

Paul wasn’t aware of anyone as he walked down the sidewalk under an inky night sky until the hand grabbed his arm. The fingers dug into his flesh with enough force to make him wince, and there was enough strength in the arm connected to it to spin him around fast enough to leave him dizzy. He found himself facing a shadowy figure outlined by the streetlight behind it. Then the other hand, balled into a fist, slammed into his mid-section. The air whooshed out of his lungs, and Paul folded before sinking to his knees. Then something that felt like a sledge hammer hit the side of his head, and the night seemed to light up like lightening had struck nearby.

His head rang, but through it, Paul heard a voice yelling at him. “You stupid bastard! How the hell could you be that fuckin’ stupid?” He forced his head up, and found he found himself able to resolve details of the face in front of him. The features, the overly-sharp nose, the scar on the chin…it was his face, older and more wrinkled, but it was him.

“Yeah, I’m you, and I’m here to tell you how much you’re about to fuck your life up. You just tried to talk to Nancy Corbett, didn’t you? And you didn’t have the guts to tell her how you feel, did you?” Older him gave a disgusted head shake, then grabbed Paul by the collar. “You have to go back and talk to her, now. If you don’t, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”

None of it made sense. How could an older version of him be here, now, telling him all this? Paul opened his mouth, found his jaw hurt, and realized he could taste blood. Did I bite my tongue, or did that last hit knock a tooth loose? He spit, trying to clear his mouth, then focused on the man in front if him. Older Paul had none of the flab he’d feared he would develop. If anything, the version of himself looked like he was in better shape than the current him. But the older him had no more patience than he did. He shook Paul until his vision blurred, then leaned forward to yell in his face.

“Hey, did you hear me, or did I hit you hard enough to knock what little sense I had loose?”

Paul spit again, shook his own head, the focused on the man in front of him. “I heard you the first time, damn it! I’m just having a hard time figuring out how an older version of me could be smacking me around.”

Older Paul let go of his collar and stepped back. “Well, your brain might almost be working if you’re wondering about that. Remembering all those science fiction stories about time travel are you? Wondering how this can happen, a clear temporal paradox? Well, it’s not hard.” He held out his left arm and pulled back the sleeve of a rather ordinary looking jacket to reveal what looked like a large wrist digital watch on an extremely ugly band. “This got me here, and as far as the paradox part…well, let me worry about what happens after we finish talking.”

“You got here because you’re willing to wear the biggest, ugliest digital watch ever made? Seriously?”

That drew a sharp, disgusted look from older Paul. “No, you fucking idiot. I got here because this thing is the controller for a time machine built by the lab I work at.”

That perked current Paul’s interest up. “So I manage to get a job in a big-time research lab, do I? Nice to know all my interest in science fiction and stuff was worth something.”

Older Paul snorted. “Yeah, right. You got a job at a big-time physics lab all right, but you’re not a scientist, you’re a janitor, moron! You never did have the willpower to concentrate on the real science enough to keep your grades up. So you took a bunch of different odd jobs until you managed to land a job vacuuming offices and swabbing toilets in Teller National Physics Lab. The real scientists treat us like a tame monkey, but I was smart enough to understand what they were working on. So I stole the controller and used their machine to come back in time.”

“Wait, you got a job in a research facility, and you find out they’re building a time machine…and all you can think to do use it to come back in time to tell me to confess my feelings to a girl? And you call me as moron.”

Older Paul drew back his hand and took a swing at younger Paul, who got his own hand up to block the blow. The two men glared at each other, dark brown eyes staring into dark brown eyes until the older one blinked. “All right, fine. It wasn’t just for that I came back. You have to understand how not telling her how you feel will effect you…and more important, you have to understand not speaking will effect Nancy.” Older Paul shook his head, clearly disgusted with his own failure. “What happens to you is simple: When you don’t tell Nancy you love her, you convince yourself that there’s some other woman out there, waiting for you. The next woman you’re interested is happy to use to to make her real boyfriend jealous, but she doesn’t give a shit about you. After her, you manage to fall for one women who either doesn’t like you ‘that way’, or or who just plain aren’t interested in you at all. You end up alone, wishing you had someone in your life.” The face of the older version of him twisted like he’d bitten into some bitter fruit, and his eyes fixed on him again. “But Nancy, what happens to her is far worse. She ends up marrying Jim Unger. You remember him, don’t you? The rumor was that Nancy’s father forced Jim to marry her, that he’d gotten her pregnant or something. Whatever happened, they had a couple of kids while Jim moved from being a drop-dead drunk to a violent drunk.” The older man closed his eyes, shook his head, and Paul could see tears streaming down his cheeks. “I was getting off work when our sister Lena called me. She lived next door to them, and saw the cops come after someone had tried to contact Nancy. They found the whole family dead. Jim had evidently beaten Nancy to death, then killed their kids before hanging himself.” The other Paul drew a shaky breath before continuing. “I guess I should be glad he had the decency to kill himself, because when I heard, all I wanted to do was kill him. But you’ve got the chance to stop all that. Tell her how you feel, tell her you love her. Keep her away from Jim, no matter what.”

The time machine controller blinked a bright red, and the older version of Paul stepped back. “That’s the signal I was hoping for. It means I don’t have a time line to go back to, that I’ve changed the future enough to remove myself from existence. That’s how I planned this. It’s okay if this version of me doesn’t exist in the future, as long as Nancy lives. Now, go save her. It’s time for me to leave, forever.”

The other Paul seemed to glow, a light that spread from his center outward becoming so bright the younger Paul was forced to shut his eyes. Even then, he could see the light, shining through his eyelids, outlining the veins in them blue against a scarlet-pink background. Then the light was gone. Paul opened his eyes, blinking away tears from the final assault on his vision, to find himself temporarily night blind. As his vision returned to normal, he saw nothing remained of his other self. It would have been as if he had been visited by some strange dream if his jaw and midsection didn’t still hurt.

Paul stood, straightening slowly in deference to muscles that still complained, and brushed his knees off. “Well, I guess I have something I need to do.” he muttered to himself as he walked back to Nancy’s house. He was glad it wasn’t a long walk, but once he was again at her front door, Paul wondered if he could actually admit his feelings. Or even if her should. Then he thought of the girl he knew, a kind soul always willing to listen to him or anyone else, dead at the hands of an abusive husband, and his resolve hardened. He was raising his hand to press the doorbell when he heard the muffled scream on the other side of the door.

Paul threw himself at the massive door and was amazed when it burst open like the frame was made of cardboard. Another scream, louder, echoed through the house. “No! Get off me! Help, someone, help me!” The scream was followed by an audible crack, like someone was being back-handed, and Paul saw an arm rise above the sofa that sat with its back to him. “You want another one, bitch? Scream again, and you’ll get more than just a slap.” The voice was slurred, but he knew who’s voice it was, it was Jim Unger’s. Paul ran towards the sofa, but he wasn’t fast enough to stop the arm from sweeping down to deliver another blow. “Ow! What was that for, I didn’t do anything?” Then Paul was there to see the arm start to rise again and grab it.

Nancy was stretched out on the sofa, and Jim was straddling her waist. Nancy’s top was lying open, and her skirt was bunched up under Jim, who turned his head to stare at Paul. “Hey, Paul, whatca doing here? Me an Nancy here was just getting’ ready ta have a little fun.” Jim turned to glare down at Nancy. “I been goin’ out with this bitch for three months now, an she still ain’t willin’ ta put out. Can you believe that? I mean she invites me over, tells me her folks ain’t gonna be back for a couple hours. Then when I want to have some fun, she’s sayin’ no. What the fuck’s with that?”

Nancy reached up to touch Jim’s face, like she expected that to make him start thinking. “Jim, I just want to wait! I’m Catholic, so I can’t take birth control. I don’t want to get pregnant now, before we even graduate from high school. It’s only another month.”

Jim’s focus shifted back to the girl on the couch. “Yeah, that’s what ya been tellin’ me since we started goin’ out. Tellin’ me how much you love me an all…won’t even suck her man’s dick! Some real love there, leavin’ me wit blue balls ever time we go out! Tell ya what, you don’t want ta have sex, fine. Go find some other guy ta tease, bitch! I don’t need ta wait, plenty a girls willin’ ta fuck me!”

Jim stood on the sofa, an unsteady position when sober, but drunk as he was, he would have fallen over if Paul wasn’t holding his arm. His attention came back to Paul. He looked like he’d forgotten he was there. Then his eyes focused, and he gave his arm a shake. “So, Paulie ol’ friend, whatcha doing here? Still sniffin’ around after my girl are ya? Well, you can have her! I’m tired of waitin’ for Miss Proper here to figure out a man’s got needs. Gonna go fuck me someone like Lori Lewis…yeah, she’s a good slut, bet she won’t complain when I ask for some.”

He shook his arm again, and Paul let go, disgusted with his now former friend. The loss of support caused Jim to stumble off the sofa, and Paul was amazed he managed to stay upright. He did, and managed to come to something approaching an indignant stance with his fists balled on his hips as he looked first at Paul, then down at Nancy. “Yeah, you can have her, I’m done waitin’. Go on, date this guy. He’s too scared to yank his own plank, let alone ask a girl to do it for him. You two are a perfect match, both a ya so scared a sex you can’t even think about it, let alone do it.” He stopped, body swaying, then belched loudly before puking.

Stomach clenching, Paul turned away, wishing he were somewhere else, or that Jim were. He heard movement, then Nancy spoke. “Jim, sit down. I’ll go get the mop and clean up. Paul, why don’t you go home, things will be better if you’re not around making Jim angry.”

“You want me to go home? Hell, not five minutes ago, he was trying to rape you! Now you want me to go home because I’m making him angry?”

“It’s all right, we were just having a misunderstanding, weren’t we Jim?”

Jim’s had bent forward until his head was nearly between his knees, but on hearing Nancy speak, it came up. “No, we weren’t havin’ no misunderstandin’, I was fixin’ to walk out the door and leave you with this prim-an-proper asshole here.”

Nancy dropped to a knee in front of him, causing Jim’s eyes to focus on her. “It was a misunderstanding, Jim. I didn’t mean what I said…we can talk about this after Paul’s gone.” Her head swiveled around to fix on him. “I told you to leave, Paul, so go. My boyfriend and I need to talk about things that don’t concern you. Just get out and let us deal with this.”

Jim’s face tilted down for a moment to take in the scene before him, then rose again so he could leer at Paul. “You heard the lady, get lost. We’re gonna make up now, cause she’s gonna show me just how much she love me, ain’t ya babe?” His eyes and attention focused on Nancy as he unzipped his jeans. “Now, come on over here and show me you know how to do more wit that mouth a yours than talk. Time for you to show me some real love.”

Paul watched as the girl he’d been in love with forever literally crawled over to his former best friend and take hold of his dick. He couldn’t take his eyes off the scene, even as she opened her mouth and stuffed it into her mouth. Only when she began to bob her head back and forth did he turn away, sure now that there was no point in him being there. She would do whatever Jim told her to, no matter how degrading. He couldn’t save her from herself.

Jim had evidently beaten Nancy to death, then killed their kids before hanging himself.”

The words echoed in his head, the haunted words of a man who had given his live to change the past. There was small bronze statue standing on the table next to the sofa, some long-forgotten hero immortalized by a second-rate sculptor. Paul grabbed it by the shoulders and advanced on Jim. He was so fixed on his pleasure, and Nancy on satisfying him, that neither of them noticed Paul until he slammed it into the back of Jim’s head. He hadn’t been sure what would happen when it hit, but the spray of blood and brains as Jim’s skull shattered left little doubt he’d done what he intended to do.

His lifeless body pitched forward, knocking Nancy down. She pushed herself out from under him, and only then discovered why he’d fallen. “Jim! Wake up, wake up! You can’t be dead.” Then she stared at Paul, her eyes focusing in on the statue he still held in his hand. “Why? Were you so jealous of us you couldn’t let me be with the man I loved? Did you honestly think I could love you? Why?

Paul had no answers he could give her, at least none that would make sense. How could he tell her he was ready to spend the rest of his life in prison so she wouldn’t marry a drunken asshole who’d beat her and their kids to death some day? He couldn’t, but at least he’d spared her that fate. He dropped the statue, walked to the phone, and dialed the police. Nancy was sobbing over the dead body of the man she loved as he spoke to the dispatcher, telling how he’d just killed his best friend. He made no excuse when they arrested him, and offered no defense at his trial.

He had none,. He’d done what needed doing, it was as simple as that.