The Devil’s Heart

The first rule of survival: Stay Calm.

My shipmates shot me out of Davy Jones’ Airlock. It’s a horribly contrived concept coined by delusional psychopaths who believe they are space-age pirates.

Who am I kidding? They are pirates. And mutineers. And they stole my spaceship. At least they extended me the courtesy of landing on a rock before ejecting me.

The holographic ocular display, HOD, is flashing red. Thirty minutes of oxygen left in my cylinders. There’s no vegetation. The radiation levels are rising. The sun crests the horizon and blisters the left side of my face. I order the suit to lower the shade and the visor silvers, protecting my skin.

Don’t panic. My heart is beating, thumping the reminder. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.

#

The second rule of survival: Define Your Priorities.

Oxygen. Must find oxygen. I conclude that I must be on an asteroid. Air is much more important than hydration for now because my suit will convert all of my biological waste, sweat, urine, and feces, into purified water. But if I don’t find food, then this will cease. Considering my last meal was four hours ago, and assuming that I find oxygen, my bodily waste will keep me alive for at least three more days. After three days the inhospitable environment and lack of resources will reduce my body into a dry husk.

I remind myself. Don’t panic. Stay calm.

The ground beneath my feet shudders. Fissures open up around me, and a brackish liquid is expelled into the air. I shield myself from the mist, wiping the putrid mess from my visor.

There’s a hellish pit formed three hundred feet down from the rocky ledge I stand upon. It is dark, but it is shelter. Clumsily I scuttle down the cliff to investigate how viable this cave will be as a shelter.

I remind myself of the rule of three, repeating it in my mind. Steam is jettisoned out of the dark cave. Where there is steam there is water, and where there is water there is oxygen.

You can survive for three hours without warmth, I remind myself.

You can survive three days without water.

Three weeks without food.

The HOD blinks. Five minutes of oxygen remaining. The cave is still so far below.

You can survive three minutes without air, I say aloud.

Three seconds without blood.

Three months without human company.

I chuckle at the last one, streams of sweat and tears running down my cheeks. They itch from the blisters. My throat constricts. My air supply is reported in seconds remaining.

A steam jet almost topples me as I pull the bulk of my weight into the cave. Condensation beads on my visor, and HOD informs me of rising oxygen levels as I penetrate the darkness of the cave deeper and deeper.

The walls of the cave glisten with the light of my torch. The temperature is hospitable enough that I remove my helmet. This subterranean world is like a sauna, but I am okay with this. The more water around, the longer I will survive. My suit will process the water dripping from the ceiling, purify it, and I will live.

The humidity soothes my throat. I take deep draughts of air into my lungs. For the first time in the last thirty minutes I feel hopeful.

#

The third rule of survival: Tackle the Priorities in Order of Importance.

Oxygen? Check.

Shelter? Check.

Water? Check.

Food remains, as does escape. The chances of escape from this asteroid are slim to none. Radiation levels are lower below the surface, but still significant enough that it may kill me if I’m stuck here for over a week. There is no flora or fauna to speak of. I can survive three weeks without food.

I turn my mind to escape.

My vacc suit feels restricting, but works effectively to purify the humid air of the cavern. There’s oxygen, but you can’t trust it’s the only thing you’re breathing.

Even hell has ice cubes, I lie to myself, so I check communications in my HOD. Not even a blip. There’s not even static. Just an eerie silence.

Looting through the pockets of my suit there’s a mashed up body temperature chocolate protein bar. My crew weren’t a very hygienic bunch. I unscrew my helmet again, and shove it in my mouth. I imagine it’s Halloween candy.

#

At night, when I close my eyes, I see her.

“Daddy?” the static in my communicator gurgles.

“Hello? Hello?” I call back into the comm. No answer. I don’t even have a daughter.

#

Three days.

My sanity is reaching its limits. Three months without human company is the statistic, so three days should be nothing. I dream of my mortality.

“Daddy?”

I don’t even call out to the phantom voice anymore. It plagues my final days on this rock. I’m alone. Completely alone.

A shadow dances across the cavern wall. Tiny footsteps retreat down a fissure I hadn’t yet explored. Weaponless, I grab a stone and skulk after it.

The rock pulses as I touch it. No matter how deep I travel into the fissure, the shadow is always out of reach. I hear the giggling in my communicator, the little girl. I must meet her. Why is she here? Does she have a way out?

The wall kicks back when I lay my hand on it. This is making no sense at all. The walls are spongy, and growing more damp. The pulse is growing louder, assaulting my ears with every beat. Finally I see why.

A red stone the size of an escape pod lies in a chamber with red and blue veins covering it like greasy spider webs. The large boulder is pulsating with each beat, the asteroid’s heart.

“You found me,” the shadow of the little girl is monstrous against the far wall.

“You led me here.” My grip tightens on the stone in my hand. “What are you?”

“Thing of flesh does not understand.”

The statement was confusing, and the tone lay somewhere between explaining it to itself and amusement. The beating heart beats stronger, faster.

“Take me home.”

“Earth. Earth?”

I hesitate for a moment. How does such a monstrosity know where I was born?

“For what purpose, thing of stone?”

“To feed,” the voice reverberates through my mind.

A high pitched ringing floors me. The room spins and the shadows swirl around me. My priorities have changed. I know I cannot escape here. I know that this monster reads my thoughts.

Radiation levels are skyrocketing. I claw my way forward, closer to the devil’s heart. The HOD has identified the source and leads me blind through the senseless ringing and ceaseless pounding.

The stone heart strikes my fist, my forearm feels bruised and shattered. The ringing grows louder, shadows encroach on my periphery. The room is a tunnel as I strike at the heart again, the stone beating back on me.

I will not die before I take this thing’s heart.

Riding the heart is like being on the back of a bucking bronco. My face flies forward and strikes it, the glass in my helmet shattering and lacerating my face. My body cannot take much more of this abuse. I rip my helmet off and strike at the stone again. And again. And again.

This devil will not reach Earth.

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Speed Bump!

Looks like I hit a speed bump… Or a speed cat… In the road. And my only internet connection is my cell phone.

I’ll still get the hundred stories done. I’ll be posting two stories each on Monday and Tuesday. Stay tuned!

A Fistful of Rope

When the Grim Reaper comes knocking you better have a large bottle of rye and a fistful of chain. One hand to numb the pain the other to hold onto your miserable life long enough for the dark prince to let go of your soul.

My classmates are sheep. The five of us are learning how to rock climb. I’m rusty, but the instructor is confident that our class can lead some basic routes in Eleven Mile Canyon.

The rusty van we’re crammed in shudders to a halt at the base of Turret Dome. A four hundred foot lump of rock with a slab missing, forming a perfect upside down V.

“Sheesh, we’re going to climb that?” I say, trying to sound as sheepish as the rest of them.

Don, the player who hooked up with Mary the buxom blonde, hits me on the shoulder and patronizes me to impress the peppy little bitch. “Don’t tell me you’re scared now?”

“Donny angel!” her high pitched whine hurts my ears. “Jake’s not scared of anything. You saw him in the gym.”

Don puffed out his chest, “Sure you aren’t talking about me, babe?”

Our instructor, Mister Milo Parrish, is busy at the base of the rock organizing equipment while we goof off.

The other two, Miles and Rachel are the quietest of the bunch. They’re married and tend to stick to themselves. He’s a vice president of a bank in Aspen and she’s an accountant. Don and Mary’s occupations are even less thrilling. He sells propane and lies about his daddy’s trust fund, and she house sits for a living.

It warms me inside that one of them is going to die today.

“Jake!” Mio calls out. “You’re comfortable at five-tens, so you’re going to be following me. The rest of you, who wants to learn to lead today?”

Donny Angel acts confident and eager while Mary offers to follow him. The married couple say they’re fine with following today, and that they’ll give trad climbing a shot next trip.

Parrish looks disappointed but proceeds to explain how nuts, cams, and quick draws work. Nothing he explains is new to me, but I ask a question or two so they think I’m new to this.

“And this little device,” he pulls out a six inch piece of black metal with hooks on either side. “I call it the nut grabber.”

They laugh. I smile, but my eyes roll. Experienced climbers have heard that one about a thousand times. It’s like that stupid math joke about pies being square.

“No really, it’s called a nut tool. I wasn’t meaning to make anyone blush. Jake, you’ll be using this to remove any nuts I place on the way up.”

Mary raises her hand. The perfect school girl.

“Yes, Mary?”

“Um… how long will this take to climb?”

He wheels around and looks up the rock. The trees whisper as a cool morning breeze blows through the branches.

“I think we’ll be done by five o’clock. Four if we’re fast.”

“And where do we eat lunch?” the husband asks.

Milo points to where the two massive cracks join, the apex of the upside down V. There’s a tiny cave up there, and the plan is to dangle from the cave with two hundred feet of air below us while we chow on the submarine sandwiches stowed in our packs.

The ascent wasn’t difficult. I followed Milo closely, and removed the cams and nuts with care. The climb was trivial, but a good break from the monotony of the gym in Salida.

I was careful to keep my distance from Donny Angel and Mary. Every time she climbed to his position he fished for a kiss. If they didn’t learn to keep their hands on the rope, and off each other, somebody was going to die.

The sun was at its highest point in the summer sky, beating down hard when I pulled myself into the cave. Milo yanked hard on the back of my harness and clipped me into the three carabiner system he’d engineered. A thin lip of rock was all I had to rest my heels on. Gravity was now our enemy.

“What do you think, Jake? Should we order pizza?”

A sedan on the dusty highway below slowed down to watch our party climb the rock. They waved from the edge of the creek as they took pictures. Milo smiled and waved back.

He took over belaying Donny Angel and Mary so I could eat. When I got a mouthful of mustard and pastrami he got chatty in his usual way.

“You have good form. Where’d you learn to climb?”

“Me? From you.”

“No, no, no,” he shook his head smiling, “I know a climber when I see one.”

Donny was dead weight on the end of the rope. He slid down a few feet, Milo caught him and shouted down the rock directing him where he could get a hand hold. With his back exposed, I drew my knife.

“A mutual friend. Climbed with you at Turkey Rock.”

With all of his belaying effort he couldn’t look back.

“This is about Jane isn’t it?” Milo wasn’t as stupid as I thought. “I never meant for her to die. I warned her—”

“Tut-tut,” I said, my knife across the anchor rope holding not only him, but Donny Angel and Mary. “When death’s involved, no warning is good enough.”

I cut the rope, but not before he clipped one of his quick draws into my harness. I gasped, and dropped my knife. He plunged the nut tool into my guts, and pulled.

When the Grim Reaper comes knocking you better have a large bottle of rye and a fistful of chain. All I had was a fistful of rope, and my hand wrapped around Milo’s throat. When he cut my harness the Reaper was two hundred feet below, arms open, waiting to catch me.

Midnight Run

There’s that time on the road in the wee hours of the morning where you’re the needle caught between slumber and wakefulness, and the road sings to you. The time between pickup and delivery is so tight, and the clients pay so little that you skimp on tipping the waitress at Denny’s, and skimp on finishing your meal. You’re poor and outta time.

Cliff stood on the curb across the Denny’s parking lot, stretching his aching back muscles. The last five hundred miles had given him spasms.

He watched as the big red rig with the flaming paint job pulled up. The faux road kill raccoon in the grill had less fuzz on its face than he did.

“You topped off yer tank?” was all his older brother asked. His thick tattooed arm hung out of the window as he looked down on him. “You put that butt out b’fore you get yer ass in here. Don’t need your stink in the cab.”

Cliff ground the stub of his cigarette into the curb and hoisted his fat self into the passenger seat molded into the curvature of his buttocks. Bobby was holding a beer out for him before he got comfortable. At this point he’d drink anything to wash the taste of Moons Over My Hammy out of his mouth.

“Moons Over My Hammy,” Bobby played with the bill of his Budweiser ball cap as he whistled. “That’s ’bout thousand calories I heard. Doctors recommend a two thousand calorie diet so that means you could eat two of those, and you don’t need no more.”

“How much in this here Bud?”

Bobby rubbed his stubble. His eyes glazed over momentarily while he did exhaustive calculations in his head.

“Don’t rightly know,” he said. “Maybe ’bout two hundred?”

Cliff studied the bottle for a moment, spinning it in his hand. He jabbed the label with his finger.

“Well I’ll be! Its right there, brother. One-hundred-forty-five. I s’pose I can live on two Moons Over My Hammy, a Budweiser, and a handful of taters!”

Bobby swatted his brother, who huddled against the door, until his hat fell off.

“I’m serious! Cliff, you’re going to kill yerself eating that crap. Doctor Phil don’t lie.”

“Oh, gracious me! Not our good friend Doctor Phil!” he cried mockingly, his hand laid upon his forehead like a southern belle in distress. “This ain’t gonna kill me. Ol’ Doc Phil don’t give a damn, Bobby.”

Reaching over to the radio, Bobby began playing with the dial looking for the latest in late night talk radio. At this hour most talked about UFO’s and government mind control.

“You sew yer dirty mouth shut. Don’t you be dissing Doctor Phil.”

“Doctor Phil don’t care,” he repeated, sucking down another gulp of Bud. Foam ran down his chin, quickly mopped up by his sleeve and the collar of his shirt. “Just like Doctor Laura Lessthanburger—”

“Schlessinger!”

Less-than-burgers don’t give a flying hoot. Remember when you called her? ‘Bout Jinny.”

Bobby scrunched face up, his nose twisted, and his jaw jutting out. This was what Cliff was good at. Pushing his brother’s buttons. He edged closer to Bobby, lowering his voice and sharpening his words.

“You ask her what Jinny’s problem is and what she say to you?”

Bobby kept his eyes on the highway. His knuckles turning white as his thick hands clenched the steering wheel.

“That there radio doctor told you that you ain’t treatin’ Jinny right. That you have’ta give up the truckin’ business and that’s that. What you think’a that?”

“Doctors can’t always be right,” he muttered.

“How’s Jinny? She doing good, brother? Or she doing another man?”

Bobby’s hand shot out like the crack of a whip, his knuckles finding home across the bridge of his little brother’s nose. Cliff yowled in pain.

“That’s for disrespectin’ Jinny!” Bobby shook his finger in his face. “You through disrespectin’ Jinny?”

Huh-guh,” Cliff managed to say as he shoved tissues up his nose. “Jinny’s alright in my book, Bobby. You know that.”

“You gotta keep that smart mouth shut. That’s what momma always said. She always told me, ‘Bobby, your brother can’t keep his smart mouth shut. You look after him when I’m gone. Hear?'”

“I hear, I hear,” he said, using the door to hold himself up. “I miss momma sometimes.”

They sat in the cab for the next hour hardly saying a word. One couldn’t sleep because he was driving while the other couldn’t sleep because of the stabbing pain in his nose. The miles flew by as they avoided further conversation.

“So,” Cliff began after seeing they were nearing El Paso, “Medical delivery?”

Bobby nodded.

Cliff rolled his eyes, “I don’t like medical. Places give me the heebeegeebees.”

“Heck, I just thought you were lazy not coming an’ all.”

Shrugging, he replied, “Hungry and hung over more like. What is it anyway?”

“Don’t know don’t care. They just needed arr-tick-yoo-late-ed lorry with a refrigerator unit.”

Cliff laughed, “Arr-tick-yoo-late-ed lorry? Can’t these rich folks say ‘truck’ anymore?”

His eyes rolled toward the side mirror. He cursed at the flashing red and blue. A siren bleeped and blipped at them.

“Dagnabit, we got some fuzz on us.”

Likewise, Bobby cursed as he peered into his side mirror. It was random stops like this that really ate into the runs. It wasn’t uncommon to get harassed by bored state troopers.

The officer walked up beside the truck, shining the light up into Bobby’s face.

“License and registration,” he called out. “And sir, I’d like you to exit the vehicle.”

Both of them crawled through the driver’s side door and stood beside the truck while the trooper’s partner ran their licenses. Ten minutes later he returned their documents.

“Manifest?” the officer looked the manifest up and down and asked. “What’s neco… nicko… son I can’t even pronounce this. What are you carrying?”

“Medical supplies. Sir, I got one hour to make a two hours run.”

The trooper handed the manifest back.

“Trucks’ve been smuggling people from Nogales lately. You smuggling illegals, son?”

“No sir,” Bobby said.

Cliff followed with, “We ain’t seen no illegals.”

“Let’s have a look in the trailer. Open her up.”

As Bobby fumbled with his keys he began explaining to the officer, “It’s a cooler unit, sir. We don’t want nothing to spoil.”

“It’ll just be a moment. Hurry it up and you can be on your way.”

Bobby turned the lock and took one handle while Cliff took the other. For a brief moment Cliff paused, looking his brother in the eye with the silent question, “What’s in the truck?”

The doors were thrown back revealing the cold insides of the dark trailer. Plumes of white mist fell out of the back. Immediately the officers approached with their flashlights.

The first thing they noticed were the sickly thin gray legs. The greenish flesh of the naked cargo. Slack-jawed men and women with peeled back lips and clawed fingertips slowly turned toward them.

“Whoa, Bobby. What is this?”

“You! Stay right there!” the officer yelled. They had their guns on the two truckers.

The officer’s partner spoke up first. “These don’t look like no illegals. What are they?”

Before he could answer they awakened. The macabre cargo leapt out of the truck and the officers opened fire on the two dozen creatures biting at their eyes and gnawing at their throats.

At three o’clock in the morning outside of El Paso only the coyotes heard their screams.

Clear Skies

Three wars off-world. Medals for bravery, honor, and courage under fire. A year in a military hospital on the moon. And now? Now he was forced to police civilians on this dust bowl.

Colonel Atkins splashed water on his face. The cold water washed away the tattered remnants of a nightmare full of doctors, needles, and blades. Black bags hung heavy beneath his eyes as a reminder of his injuries, and the side effects of modern medicine.

The puckered scar of an old wound grimaced back at him. He felt the edges of the wound, inflicted from a spray of bullets that nearly ended his life.

Engines roared outside, the sound shaking the foundation of his basement studio. He finished drying his face as he stared up through the cracked gutter window into a ring of blue sky. A trail of black smoke penetrated the temporary reprieve from the constant barrage of mud and dust.

“Enjoy it while you got it,” his voice was low, guttural.

By the time he had crossed town to the Skrill the skies had closed up again. A brown-black wall of dust enveloped the city. The humidity from an overabundance of sweat and pollution congealed the storm into a drizzle of soot and grime.

Inside at last, Atkins took out his handkerchief only to find the raining filth had soaked it, rendering it useless. He preferred his work in the street, so his desk was useless as well, except that he kept spare handkerchiefs and facemasks.

“Atkins!” his commander’s voice was thundered over the tiny silver intercom next to his computer. “The shrink’s saying you’re late.”

Every damn week. Five long years.

“Then that pasty freak can kiss my ass. I’m busy.”

“My office,” the speaker cracked. “Now.”

The door was unlocked. Atkins was all too familiar with the small metal room and the small metal desk behind which a much larger man huddled. If he had a sense of humor he’d laugh, but since the only sense he had was ire he simply smirked. This didn’t please Commander Platt in the least.

“Four years, and the order is simple. You have weekly appointments with a vetted shrink. Damnit, put that cigarette out!”

“Or what?” he exhaled. One breath was all it took to cloud the little room.

Platt tore the cigarette out of his mouth, smashing it out on a yellow sticky note, and promptly tossed it in the trashcan.

“Let’s reflect on how this goes every Wednesday,” he stood up, matching Atkins’ height. “I’m going to say go. You’re going to say no. I remind you the high-ups handed this order to me the moment they banished you here. You say you’ve seen the shrink too many years and you’re fed up. And then I say—”

“You say cooperating is the best chance I got to get on one of those ships heading off-world,” Atkins interrupted with the same argument that he suddenly realize they had every week. Déjà vu.

The commander calmed down. His usual gruff voice softened.

“Atkins, it is only an hour. Then you can be a good little soldier and do something useful out there.”

It was true. He hated the pasty little freak. Doctor Shelly was a thin little man who hadn’t seen a day of combat in his life. For an hour each week they’d sit across from one another, and he’d share what he dreamt or what he felt and Shelly would tap the edge of his spectacles as if in thought, his beard twitching every so often like the whiskers of a sickly cat.

What bugged him most was his attire. The man was immaculate. He wore blue striped shirts and cotton pants held up by brown suspenders. Never once did he ever observe a spec of filth on the doctor from the perpetual storms. Either the man lived in the Skrill or he had a secret way to travel outside of headquarters.

Personality-wise, Shelley was calm and collected. That was why his nervous, twitchy habits were off-putting during today’s session.

“Colonel… A-Atkins is it?” he stammered, clearing his throat. He coughed a few times trying to unearth an object was firmly wedged in his esophagus.

“The same Atkins you see every week, doc,” he said, and reached into his pocket for another cigarette.

“Yes, so it would seem,” he mused, and pulled the cigarette out of Atkins’ hand. If it happened again he was going to punch somebody.

For several minutes they sat across from each other. The normally chatty doctor was as silent as a grave.

“This is normally when you ask me questions,” he said, trying to break the doctor out of his thought. “So ask.”

“This is normally when you share something about yourself,” the doctor replied. “Have you noticed anything strange lately?”

“Strange how?”

“I don’t know. Things out of the ordinary.”

Atkins shrugged. “Blue sky today, before the storm came in. Not an ordinary occurrence.”

“Was it familiar?”

“It looked like blue sky. I’ve seen it before.”

Shelley hastily scribbled in his notepad with a golf pencil. Why did they still call it a golf pencil when nobody played golf? Normally they recorded the sessions. The small silver recording device was nowhere to be seen.

“Have you heard the same conversations over and over?”

“No,” he answered, then shook his head. “Sure. Me and Platt always have the same damn argument before I come in here each week. Same exact argument, and I give in and I end up being your guinea pig for an hour. Annoying if you ask me.”

Shelley tilted his face down, staring at Atkins from above his glasses. “The same argument? Every time?”

“Listen doc. I don’t like being here, and honestly after being in three wars I don’t make out well sitting in one place for too long. I’m leaving.”

“Before you leave, Colonel, tell me. How old are you?”

Atkins stopped for a moment, confused. It was easy to figure out how old you were. You needed to do the math and…

“Ain’t that in your file?”

“How old are you?”

He thought for a moment and answered, “Twenty-nine. Thirty-one?”

“Little young for a colonel, isn’t it?”

“What are you getting at doc?” he was suddenly defensive. “I proved myself. Three bloody wars.”

“Yes, but what were these three different wars you are talking about? Tell me what kind of man gets into three wars in ten years. What wars?”

These were pointless questions becoming more pointless. There were gunshots. There were bullet wounds. He was the only one to survive the ambush on the third moon of Icarus. The screaming. The year in the hospital. Eating rats in the foxholes.

“What does that matter? There’s wars all over off-world.”

The doctor pressed on, “Who with?”

All of that pain and misery, and he couldn’t even recall who he had been fighting all those years. He scratched the back of his head as he stared out the window with those small black eyes behind the dark black circles.

Shelley pushed his glasses back up on his nose.

“Colonel, I might know how to help you.”

“Why can’t I remember who I was fighting?”

Shelley was scribbling in his notebook again. He tore out a page and handed it to him. He gently squeezed his shoulder.

“As I’ve tried telling you before, you are suffering from an acute case of PTSD. Relaxation is key, with of course some minor prescriptions. I believe in Under Town you should sample this tea.”

Tea? He wanted to get his memory back. Not that it was gone, it was full of holes and he never realized it. Thanks for the revelation, Doc.

Under Town was what it sounded like. It was the city beneath the city. Earthquakes, the swansong of a dying world, had leveled sections of the city decades ago. In response, the survivors rebuilt the city on top of the old bones, leaving sections like this as dirty shelters. Over time Under Town was born, the ant hill of humanity.

It had its advantages. The mud storms didn’t rain down on you. That was a big plus, but scarcely outweighed the drawbacks of Under Town. Higher crime. More pollution. Eternal darkness.

As Atkins wandered through the mazelike ruin the lights flickered. He paused for a moment, his eye focused on a gang of kids at the other side of the corridor. It was when the lights went out that you didn’t know what hit you. His hand tightened on his service pistol. Nobody was stupid enough to assault a law enforcer, but he was in plain clothes.

The lights flickered once more, growing dimmer and dimmer until one above his head popped. The rest of the corridor was brightly lit again. The kids were laughing at how he jumped.

Three levels below, he stood in front of a plain red and orange sign for Sleepy Time Teas. Sure enough, that’s what the doc wrote. Why this place?

Who was my mother? He asked himself. Mary Atkins.

Who was my father? Major Benjamin Atkins.

Where I was first stationed after boot?

The name was on the tip of his tongue, and disappearing fast. He opened his mouth thinking a mock pronunciation would save it from oblivion.

He closed his mouth.

“Medal of honor for saving a platoon from enemy bombardment in Helios III,” he muttered. “Silver Cross for courage under enemy fire. Wounded. Spent one year in bed under the knife for seven surgeries.”

But for the life of him he couldn’t remember what battle he had been wounded in, who he had been fighting, and what the specifics were of the surgeries.

The bell above the door jingled as he entered. The tiny room was heavy with the aroma of tea leaves, and humid with water vapor. A pot whistled as he approached the desk. A long-limbed man with long dirty hair reached over from his magazine and move the stout white kettle to a cold burner.

“Didja come here for something?” he asked, wiping at a dark smudge on his nose, only to spread it across his face.

He stopped when Atkins dropped the prescription in front of him. The man coughed and studied it for a moment.

“Red flower and lavender. Chicory, huh,” he looked up at Atkins. “The doc’s good man, ain’t he?”

“If you say so. You really make tea out of this stuff?”

He chuckled, shaking his head, “I would if I could. No such thing as chicory anymore. Never had it in my life. Extinct for thirty-five years at least. The doc has something else in mind.”

Convinced Shelley had set a trap for him, his hand tightened on his pistol. The man pushed a strand of dirty hair out of his face, eyes resting on Atkins’ hip.

“Memory loss, ain’t it?”

His grip relaxed.

“How’s that any of your goddam business?”

“It’s true, ain’t it?”

“I was laid up for a year,” he growled. “It was the drugs. Anesthesia side effects, most like. Maybe even bad tea.”

The man reached over to the steaming kettle, nodding with his response. He refreshed his mug with fresh brew.

“Aye, it was drugs, but it weren’t anesthesia.” He sat there for a moment blowing over the top of his tea to cool it. “If you leave the heater, I’ve got what you need.”

Still can’t remember my childhood. Can’t remember my mother’s maiden name. What was my third medal awarded to me for?

He needed answers. He didn’t need a gun.

The chamber in the back of the tea house was large enough for a basketball game. A chair was raised in the center of it like the grinning assistant of a mad dentist. The cushions where in tatters, falling off of the seat like rotten meat.

The man skipped ahead and pulled the mechanical arm from the ceiling above, positioning it close to the chair. He loosened the straps on the arm rests.

“You expect me to sit in that thing?”

“Yep,” he said, “And you will.”

“Bull crap,” Atkins cursed. “Why would I do that? You strap me down and there’s no telling what you’re going to do to me.”

The man turned, leaning against the chair. He brushed his long dirty hair out of his face. One hot breath blew his bangs drifting through the air.

“What’s your mother’s maiden name?”

“What does that—”

“Earliest childhood memory? How old were you when you first realized you liked girls?”

Atkins shook his head. They were all on the tip of his tongue, but quickly evaporated. He cupped his temple as if it would keep these ethereal memories from escaping.

“You and me? They mess with our minds. See that over there?”

He looked to the end of the room. There were crimson vials lined up on a shelf. Unlabeled.

“Those there, pal, is what they use to program us.”

“…They?”

“The Enforcers,” he said as if it were obvious.

“I’m an enforcer, and you’re chock full of bull shit. I should arrest you.”

The man flailed about flamboyantly with his long gangly arms as he explained further.

“And that’s the crux of it! They reprogram us, and they reprogram themselves. There’s an entire operation out there, man and you… we are blind to it. This here,” he slapped the chair. “Is loaded up with a little concoction I developed to wash us of this mind juice.”

Every week at the psyche office they administered drugs to him for his condition. But today they didn’t give him a dose.

“Alright you little roach,” he said. “Why should I believe this?”

“Because Doctor Shelley met you for the first time today,” he spoke quickly so he couldn’t be refuted. “The doc’s note said that, a code of sorts between us. Tell me, what was the best meal you had last week?”

Atkins was feeling lonely in this room. Abandoned in a maze. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t remember meals much.”

“You live in an apartment?”

“Yes.”

“What does your landlord look like?”

“Military foots the bill.”

“Your neighbors. Male or female or both?”

“Both,” he said cautiously. “I suppose. I think.”

He patted the chair invitingly. “You need what’s in this chair if you are going to remember your true memories. Please, trust me.”

The straps were tight on his wrists. His knee ached, but was buckled down. A mouth guard was removed from its plastic wrapper and fit tight in his mouth, depressing his tongue.

“The man out there controlling us can’t program everything in us, as you are now aware. But for the holes he makes us accepting little sheep. We usually don’t care. But you and me? You and Doctor Shelley? We make you question enough to realize you got a problem.”

He toggled a couple switches on the other side of the mechanical arm. A mask was on the end to cover he eyes. He pushed it against Atkins’ face.

“The first step, man, is always to realize you got a problem.”

With that, he kicked a pedal below the chair and pulled a long cord out of it like he was starting a lawnmower. The lights dimmed. A couple popped as he eagerly watched the green monitor.

The chair shuddered and his cup of tea danced off of the edge, shattering on the floor. His eyes widened, realizing his mistake.

The machine had never been built for a case this severe. Most people he had helped had at most three levels of memories implanted in them. God knows why that amount was even necessary, even for Big Brother to control a single person. He watched as Atkins’ layers of memories were analyzed, evaluated, and climbing to a dozen. Two dozen. Three dozen.

The machine seized. Several screws fell out of it, clattering across the floor. When the mechanical arm was removed Atkins saw a dozen enforcers had seized the room, his brothers at arms.

Commander Platt was leaning over him, slapping his cheeks.

“Wake up, Colonel. Wake up.”

The world was washed away. He felt like he could see the blank canvas behind the painting.

“What’s going on?”

The world was an aquarium. He felt like puking. It spun about him, the chair his rollercoaster.

“You. You’re what’s going on. You found this illegal device, and we came in when you called for reinforcements.”

“Who… I never called for reinforcements,” he said weakly. New memories, real or fake, began rolling through his mind. “I was programmed to remember lies.”

“Now, now. Breathe Colonel. That’s the side effects of the machine talking.”

Memories of being cut open on the table. They turn up the anesthesia. The only wounds he has are those inflicted upon him by the medical staff, and his jailers.

“Then why don’t you untie me?”

Commander Platt smiled like cats do with canaries.

“I’ve already made the call. You were compromised. Processing will be here any minute now.”

“Why were you experimenting on me?” he struggled against the straps.

It was years. Years he was in the hospital. Imprisoned and experimented on. Drugged.

“Because everyone wants to live forever, Atkins,” his commander spoke as if he were educating a child. “You should have died on Helios III, and you didn’t. I’m not sure if it were God or the Devil who kept you alive but those wounds would bury a normal man.”

The bolt holding his wrist strap snapped. He snatched Platt’s gun out of his holster and held it on his commanding officer.

“I’m nobody’s guinea pig!”

“Think of what you’re doing,” Platt spat back at him, eyes fierce. The rifles of a dozen officers were cocked and trained on him. Fingers were firmly on the trigger, ready to shoot. “You shoot me, and they’ll shoot, and you’ll live.”

“That’s some fantasy world you live in.”

“Think about it!”

Years of surgeries. A gunshot. He falls. Another shot. He falls. A thousand memories of explosions and gunfire and him falling. Doctors. More doctors.

Immeasurable agony.

“Those memories coming back are your memories. We programmed you so you wouldn’t remember the surgeries. We programmed you so you could work the drugs out of your system.”

Atkins glanced at the small mirror to the side. Those black bags under his eyes. They were from years of drugs and side effects. Nobody else in the force had those black bags under their eyes.

He looked from face to face. Not a single enforcer had those black bags under their eyes.

He held the gun to his head. A painful lump formed in his throat. Tears blinded him.

“Don’t be stupid,” Platt said. “If I’m right, you won’t die. If you’re right, then you die and I don’t think you have the heart for it.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Atkins, we’ve dealt with Doctor Shelley and his… friend. Let us reprogram you and you won’t have to deal with all of that pain. It’ll be like waking up this morning all over again.”

He remembered the blue skies this morning. The brief respite from the mud and rain. He remembered that rocket shooting high into the atmosphere and the murky clouds moving in to erase all clarity.

He handed Platt the gun.

The storm always won.

Yellow Jacket

Receiving packages always felt like Christmas Day to me, but not today. Last night I was too hung over from the night before that to stay up through the entirety of the public lottery. All I could remember was the opening ceremony where they explained the implications of the lottery, and fell asleep before they announced this quarter’s first yellow jacket.

There was a noise. A knock at my door. I stirred, and wiped away a tendril of drool connecting me to the puddle on my couch. Scooby Doo was on the television eating Shaggy’s record breaking submarine sandwich before the poor slob could get a single bite.

I slammed my face against the peephole. It was seven o’clock on a goddam Saturday morning. True, I didn’t have a job. But I still enjoyed my Saturday mornings.

Nobody was beyond the peephole, and nobody was in the hall when I unchained, unlatched, and threw open the door.

Only the bundle at my feet. A round package wrapped in shiny brown paper, tied together with yellow twine.

No return address.

No shipping address.

Only my name, and a skeletal drawing of an insect. The yellow jacket.

I had to feel my pants to make sure I didn’t shit myself. A chill lanced through my body and refused to leave. The muscles in my neck tightened to the point I thought my neck was going to splinter like rotted wood.

Did they announce my name last night? Why would they pick a loser like me?

Trembling, I shut the door.

What might have been five minutes on the couch might have been five hours. The implications of the yellow jacket package was insane. Never in my life had I ever been selected for this ‘civic duty’ as they called it.

“Jimbo! It’s Eddy, man. Let me in!”

Eddy’s knock was like thunder in my ears. I shouted at him that the door was open. It caught on the chain. Damnit. Today was getting better and better.

“Dude!” Eddy’s lips were through the crack in the open door. “Did you see this package out here?”

Last year a guy I knew at work won the lottery. Shy and timid Ken Thursby. He wasn’t a bad kid at all. He took the brunt of many a joke, all in good fun. But when his name was announced on the lottery everyone called in sick. Everyone but me.

I liked Ken, though we didn’t talk much. That morning I was sitting in my cubicle with a cup of French Vanilla instant coffee from the machine. It tasted like motor oil.

As I scraped the chemical aftertaste from my tongue I remember looking up to see Ken standing before me in the telltale yellow trench coat. The barrel of a government issued semi-automatic pistol pointed straight between my eyes. He was shaking.

“Hi Ken,” I swallowed hard, thinking I picked a hell of a day not to call in sick. Tears were rolling down his cheeks.

“I didn’t want to find you here, Jim,” the kid said. “But somebody has to die for my pain.”

Eddy finally gave me enough berth to close the door, and unlatch the chain.

“Did you see the package?” Eddy was overly excited.

“Eddy, do you have any sense of self-preservation?” I chided him, ignoring the package in the hall. “Nobody talks to a yellow jacket. Not even his friends or family talk to him after winning the lottery.”

He was busy scratching at a red zit on the end of his nose. Eddy’s shirt was two sizes too small giving me a front row view of his sagging stomach and the abyss that was his bellybutton.

“You just going to leave it in the hall?”

I found the remote control hidden below a weeks-old pizza box, and changed the channel to not-Scooby-Doo.

“Remember Ken Thursby?”

“Thurby?” he asked, laughing at the clever nickname he taunted the kid with years ago. The taunting never stopped with a name. One time Eddy had begun repeating everything the kid said in a robot fashion, like he was a Furby. Another time the kid came to his desk and found Eddy had pinned his picture on a Furby, with a penis drawn on it. The name ‘Thurby’ tattooed across it.

“He held a gun on me two years ago, when he won the lottery. Had the yellow jacket and everything. You know what he did?”

“Yea,” Eddy smirked, then broke into chuckle. “The kid was a joke, Jimbo.”

“The kid blew his own brains out in front of me rather than kill me! Jesus, Eddy. If you were there he might have shot you instead.”

“Open the package before somebody takes it. I want to see what’s inside, man!”

“Nobody’s going to take it. It’s illegal for anyone other than me to take the package and that’s all there is to it. They can’t force me to kill anyone.” I sat back on the couch, kicking my feet up on the coffee table. “Today I sit in place watching cartoons. I’ll sit here all week until my civic duty is over.”

The package flew through the air, landing on my stomach. Damn thing almost knocked the wind out of me.

“Jesus! It’s illegal for you to touch it!”

Eddy was sitting in the recliner, elbows on his knees like a child eagerly waiting for a birthday present.

“They aren’t forcing you to kill anybody,” he said to me, excited. “The Yellow Jacket Lottery is simply a way to enforce the golden rule.”

I eyed him suspiciously.

“I don’t recall the Golden Rule being ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or you’ll get shot.'”

Reluctantly, I tore the brown paper package open. There was the yellow jacket, my armor and my privilege, a trench coat that made it illegal for anyone to attack me or defend themselves from my wrath if I chose this day to be their last. This yellow jacket put the fear in those that had wronged me, and made me one of the most feared people in the city for the next week.

Wrapped inside of the jacket was the familiar pistol that had nearly ended my life two years earlier.

“That’s so cool!” I wished I had Eddy’s excitement. God forbid he ever win this barbaric lottery. “Who you going to bump off?”

“Jesus!” I cursed aloud. “Eddy I’m not killing anyone. I don’t dislike anyone.”

“No one at all?”

“Not enough to kill them. What makes this right, anyhow?”

He held a finger up in my face, cell phone quickly in his ear. “Hello?” For a moment he listened intently, then retreated to my kitchen to finish the call.

Was there anyone I thought the world was better off without? There was the guy at the convenience store that gave me hell for not having exact change when buying my morning coffee. Not a reason to kill him.

Three months ago my ex cheated on me for a big shot stockbroker. Sure, I could shoot him and according to law I could not be arrested. But was she even worth it? No, not at all. I might even have said I’d wanted to hurt her, but kill her? That wasn’t me.

“You really don’t know anybody the world would be better off without?” Eddy asked from the kitchen, as he hugged his cell phone on his chest.

“No,” I shrugged. “Nobody I’d want dead.”

“What if you came across a man that beat his wife?”

That was a strange statement coming from Eddy. He was serious at this moment, and no longer as obnoxious as when he’d first come in my door.

“I don’t know. I’d call the police?”

“Police aren’t always effective, Jimbo.”

I laid back on the couch, hand on my forehead. If he kept this up I was going to get a migraine. Then he showed me the picture.

A woman old enough to be my mother was lying in a hospital bed. He mouth was forced shut by the neck brace, and kept shut by wire. Her eyes were swollen to the point that she couldn’t see.

“Jesus.”

“Jimbo, He ain’t helping her. Only you can help her.”

It scared me when he was so serious. This was the first time I’d ever seen tears in his eyes.

“Her husband did this?”

Eddy bit his lip, “My uncle.”

“You never told me.”

“I—” he scratched at the zit on his nose once more. “Family secrets and all, Jimbo. Police never did nothing to help her out. That was the hospital calling.”

“Bullshit!” I said. “You’re pulling my leg.”

“I’m serious! Swear on my mother’s grave this is true. This is her sister, and her husband gets drunk almost every night and beats the living shit out of her.”

I wrapped the yellow jacket up in the brown paper as best as I could. It was a sloppy job, but it worked enough to toss it back in the corner of the room.

“Please, Jimbo.”

I tore the cell phone out of his hand and flashed him the picture. “Anyone can have a picture. Prove it to me.”

Eddy nodded, “Bring your jacket. She’s at Saint Elizabeth’s.”

I dislike hospitals. Everyone’s either sick or dying in them. I hugged the sloppily rewrapped parcel to my chest as a nurse directed us down a long white antiseptic corridor. Large red letters were painted above a door, “Intensive Care Unit.”

Another nurse escorted us to the room with the woman from the picture. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She really could have been my mother. The hiss of oxygen filled the room between pings of the heart monitor.

Eddy placed a hand on my shoulder.

“I know,” he said. “Jesus.”

And he immediately sat beside her, stroking her hand in his. Her eyelids fluttered, but never opened.

“When I was a kid,” Eddy began, “I remember my cousin’s birthday party at their place in Green Hills. She was seven years old with a black eye. My parents told me to hug her, and I remember her screaming out in pain. Her ribs, you see? She said she fell down the basement stairs. Even my aunt here kept to the story. But you know what I knew?”

I shook my head.

“The basement door was always locked tight. They had a latch at the top that was always thrown, back when they childproofed it. She had bruises on her neck,” he said. “Now she’s bruised all over ain’t she?”

We sat silently, taking in the whirr, buzz, and beep of the machines keeping her alive. The package wasn’t feeling so heavy in my arms anymore. What kind of monster does this to his family?

“Where is your cousin now?” I asked.

“Eddy?” an old man entered the room carrying a cup of hospital coffee.

“Jesus, Jimbo that’s him!”

I can’t remember what happened next. Not exactly anyway. I held the gun in my hand, and I remember the cup of coffee hitting the tile floor before he did.

Hospital staff ran in, and stopped when they saw the yellow jacket in my hands. I was beyond reproach. I could not be held responsible for my actions. What I did was justice in the eyes of the law.

“That’s for what you did to your wife,” I rubbed the tears out of my eyes with the heel of my hand.

A nurse looked up at me, shaking her head, “She was in an automobile accident on her way to see him.”

“What?”

“She visits her husband in the cancer ward every single day.”

Eddy’s laugh filled the room.

“Holy shit! You actually did it!” he laughed more, hand over his mouth, his eyes shining. I turned the gun on him.

“What did you make me do?!”

“Ain’t a bullet a lot better than dying of cancer? You did that asshole a favor.”

Ken Thursby. Two years ago he came into my office with the worst intentions but he was his own man. He had a conscience.

Ken Thursby. That innocent kid had it right all along.

Today was Eddy’s last day. And it was my last day as well.

The Guardian

Superheroes don’t exist. My parents told me so, and adults are always right.

The other children would be playing kick ball or tag and I’d huddle away behind the play yard reading my copy of Justice Friends or World of Heroes. I loved superheroes.

My father, wanting what’s best for me I suppose, sat next to me at the breakfast table, me with my nose buried deep in a comic book. When I didn’t respond, he peeled the comic out of my hand.

“Son,” he said as he pushed my bacon waffle breakfast in front of me, prepared by the Instant Waffler from Pryce Unlimited, “if you’re going to read, read a newspaper. You can’t live in this fantasy world forever.”

I hated the newspaper. It was full of crime and violence and nobody did anything about it. Nobody.

Then he showed up.

The front page had changed from Pryce Unlimited’s latest mergers to pictures of criminals tied up on the front steps of city hall. Thumb drives were hung around each culprit’s neck containing video and material evidence of their crimes. City officials had no choice but to follow through with arrests.

The newspapers dubbed the vigilante “The Guardian,” and after the first blurry picture of him all us kids had t-shirts with his face printed on them.

I climbed out on the fire escape nightly hoping to catch a glimpse of the Guardian. Some nights it would get too cold to watch from the rooftops. But one winter night, as my parents scolded me for staying out in the cold for so long with my “obsession” I saw him.

The kids at school would never believe me, but I didn’t care. I ran across the roof. I slid down another fire escape and landed in a dumpster.

Panting, I scurried down another alley and caught a glimpse of him at the edge of the Jefferson Street Bridge. He scanned the street with his one yellow eye, but didn’t see me huddled behind a big blue mailbox.

The moonlight glinted off of his metal armor. His mask reflected the snow and the streetlight above. Green goo seeped from a fresh wound in his stomach. Then he jumped.

When I got there he was gone. There was only the sound of water and the refuse flowing out of the sewer drainage pipe directly below. Could he?

The pipe smelled, but I reeked as well after the dive I took in that dumpster. I lowered myself into the pipe, barely catching the edge.

The only visible light was the glowing green goo that had been seeping from the Guardian’s wound. I was sure he needed help.

I wandered around the mazelike tunnels following the thick luminescent goo. Inside was a large garage lit by flickering fluorescent lights.

“Bah!” a man with frazzled gray hair and aviator goggles was hovering over the Guardian. “Stupid, stupid, stupid Milo. Got yourself hurt again, eh?”

He had a pair of pliers in his hands, struggling to peel back the armor. There was the cold snap of metal, and his curses filling the garage and he sucked on his bleeding thumb. The Guardian remained motionless on the table.

I held my breath. This man scared me. I turned to scuttle back down the sewers when he called to me.

“Boy, you going to just sit there or are you going to help?”

For a second I wondered if he was talking to me.

Then he looked up at me. “Get your ass down that ladder. If you turn back you’re going to get lost and we’ll be seeing ‘Dead Boy Found in Sewers’ on the front page.”

Quickly, I began descending the ladder as he continued muttering about being found in the sewers.

“Parents at a loss,” he mumbled, “My little boy would never go in the sewers. He had straight A’s. He was such a lovely child. Oh, he was too young to have been lost so soon. Rubbish!”

I looked up at him, almost crying. He was like a mad scientist out of my comic books and I thought he was going to eat me. Or turn me into a robot slave. Or…

“Do you know who I am, boy?” he glowered. He was shorter than most adults I knew.

“I… I do…”

“Well spit it out. Who am I?”

“M-Maximillian P-Pryce.”

“Excellent,” he exclaimed, “Not as stupid as you look. Are ya?”

He followed my eyes. The green goo was pooling on the table, dribbling onto the floor. The old man grimaced.

“Is he going to die?”

He sniffed at my suggestion.

“He was never alive. Never really. I made him.”

“At Pryce Unlimited?”

He lifted the pliers at me like he was going to plunge them into my face. Chest heaving, he held back, and cursed some more.

“Pryce Unlimited?” he crowed. “What do you know about Pryce Unlimited?”

Timidly, I shrugged, “They make everything.”

They make everything?” he said in a nasally voice, mocking me. “The board used me and my inventions. Named the company after me. They stole everything!” He kicked a bucket of parts across the floor while I shielded myself from his temper. “My inventions have destroyed this city, hear me?” He kicked another bucket. “Genetic monstrosities! Addictive medicines! Weapons! Long range communicators and targeting systems! I’ve ruined the world with my ambition!”

I waited until he was done punctuating each item with flying debris. “But I like your Instant Waffler.”

Hand on chin he nodded, and smiled after several moments. “I like that one too.”

I took a few steps toward the Guardian, laid out on the table. The closer I got, the more the acrid smell of burnt metal could be tasted in my throat.

“I-Is he going to be alright?”

“What’s your name boy?” he asked, then shook his head. “Forget it. Your name is ‘Igor’ until I say otherwise.” He clapped the pliers on the Guardian’s head, letting out a loud clang. “No, Igor, he’s kaput.”

Suddenly I was sad.

“I suppose that’s okay,” I said. “My dad tells me there’s no such thing as superheroes.”

I don’t know what came over the old man. He got really quiet, and then laid a black gloved hand on my shoulder.

“Well then Igor, how’d you like to help make one?”