Altar To An Unknown God
A small space craft cut its way through the expanse of the cosmos. Small that is in comparison with the surrounding cosmic environment. In truth the ship was large enough to house a crew of six.
The craft itself wasn't entirely remarkable. It was a drab white wedge shaped hunk of engineering with two thrusters or, more simply, rocket boosters on its rear. There were others just like it and they were slowly being phased out for newer models.
What was remarkable about the craft was actually its mission. A new celestial body had been discovered by the Copernicus 9, a deep space telescope that had replaced the decommissioned Hubble Telescope. Like always it created a buzz to rival the liveliest beehives. So now six intrepid astronauts sat on the edge of their seats as the craft came closer to the shadowy sphere of interest.
The crew themselves were a hodge podge. In the left row of seats sat Herbert Quinones, the part Latino part Canadian pilot. Next was Jorge Yang, a youthful athletic former track star whose family immigrated from Japan in the late 2040's. He gave up rushing toward finish lines to rush to the stars even if it was as the ship's mechanic and he was darn good at his job. Completing the scene was Eve Jackson. Of all the women available for the mission, why did they have to be stuck with her? She was,to put it nicely, a shrew and she couldn't be tamed. For now she was remaining silent and everyone was grateful.
That brings us to the right row's first occupant, Kimberly Masters. If Eve was a shrew then Kimberly was a virago. Her tomboyish nature was reflected by her short brown hair. She had a love of adventure and getting her hands dirty. She was one to play GI Joes while the other girls her age played with Barbies. Everyone enjoyed her company. Her and Eve were as dissimilar as the Mona Lisa and a kinetic sculpture.
Behind her sat Dustin Stevens, an African American from Shreveport, Louisiana originally. He had a jovial personality and a love of sports, women, and Southern cooking.
Lastly was Jack Wallace, a man descended from a thousand warriors from Scandinavians to Native Americans. He was most happy with his Irish roots. He was average in most every way and was content with it. He and Quinones were the only two creationists aboard the shop Quinones being Catholic while Wallace swung in the way of non-denominational protestant. Regardless of all their differences the crew got along well together except for Jackson. She was determined to be antagonistic toward anyone with a Y chromosome. For that matter anyone with an X chromosome was subject to her wrath as well if they didn't see things from her view point.
As they neared X247, the planet in question Jackson finally spoke. "Oh my…"
"What is it?" asked Wallace but only because he was the closest to her.
She pointed out the window. "The Stars they just seem to vanish near the planet!"
Sure enough all around the planet was a giant ring of inkinesss as if all the stars were being deflected away from the planet on all sides. "Holy crap you're right!" exclaimed Dustin.
"Of course I'm right!" she snapped.
"Keep your tits on, Eve. No one was trying to disprove you. The sight is just shocking is all." This came from the pilot who'd had just about all he could stand from her during the trip.
"Maybe they all went supernova," speculated Yang.
Jack Wallace scratched his beard in quiet thought. Something wasn't sitting well all of a sudden.
The pilot announced they were going to land & Wallace who served as defacto commander reminded everyone of their objective. "All right we land, take some photos, make minimal contact with the natives if there are any and then get the heck back to Earth with our findings."
"I wish we could have sent a probe down." said Stevens.
"That's been done remember? It malfunctioned though and only sent back pictures of blackness," answered Wallace.
"So we are the probe." Stated Kimberly.
Helmets were donned and firearms were prepared. All astronauts carried them now after a nasty incident ten years prior with a rival nation's space agency and some hostile aliens. Those newsreels were seared into everyone's memories like a cattle brand. Of course Eve refused to carry one. She pulled her long purple hair into a bun and put on her helmet, dropping obscene language as she did so to the point of annoying Stevens who was not beyond dropping eff bombs himself.
At last the crew landed and departed from the craft. "Strange, said Wallace the gravity is equal to that on Earth."
"That's really what is concerning you, Jack," Kimberly asked, "Look around us. It's pitch black. There's no sun, no moon, no stars.
Sure enough the only lights came from the ship. "No wonder the probe only sent back blank images." stated Yang.
"Who's doing what?" asked Kimberly.
"First off, Eve, scan the atmosphere."
"One step ahead of the men like always. Oh, and you'll have to keep the helmets on. This planet has a very thin atmosphere and it's not compatible with human biology."
"Ok," said Jack, "Quinones, Yang, I want you two here with the ship. I'm getting some creepy vibes of this planet and I don't want to lose our pilot and mechanic. Also if you could set up the artificial lighting we packed that would be helpful."
"Right away!" Yang said.
"You're not afraid of the dark are you?" Herbert quoted Vin Diesel, wearing a grin that was barely visible beneath his helmet.
"All right the rest of you are with me," commanded Jack.
The crew turned the built in lights on their helmets and Kimberly strapped the high-res camera around her neck. As the quartet made to leave the landing sight Wallace felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to face Herbert. "Should I pray, Senor Wallace? "
"Yes, that would be a very good idea."
"This is a lonely planet," Dustin commented. "It might be a good place for Eve to start a race of Amazons away from us men."
"Blow it out of your butt, Stevens." Jackson replied.
"Everybody shut up!" ordered Wallace with agression that was uncharacteristic for him. "Look here!"
The crew had gone on a few yards from the craft. In front of them rose a structure illuminated in the glow their head lamps. It was the height of a two story house. The edifice was bulit from stone. "Should we let the other guys know about this." asked Dustin.
Wallace turned and looked a few yards to his right. The two men were already setting up the lights around the ship. "Not yet they're doing their job. Let's do ours. Kimberly looked down at her feet. "Dead grass!" she exclaimed.
"That means at one time this planet was evolved to sustain some form of life," Dustin pointed out, "I wonder what could have happened to it."
Wallace looked up at the void that should have been a firmament. "It became a dead planet."
His observation was made with such an ominous coldness that even the hard nosed Eve shuddered.
"Should we go inside? asked Dustin.
"Yes,"said Jack." I only pray we're not about to open Pandora's box."
The doors opened perhaps a little too easily. The group went inside and found themselves in a windowless corridor lit by mysterious stones in sconces like candles. The yellow glow was so brilliant that the lamps on the helmets became unnecessary. "Kimberly, how is your Uncle doing?"asked the leader for the sake of breaking up the deathly silence.
"He's doing better, Jack. The new medication is helping him with out all the nasty side effects."
"I think that's underselling that pharmaceutical monstrosity considering you had to pull the gun barrel out of his mouth."
You know those people who butt in where they are not needed or wanted and act like some holier than thou paladin slaying dragons that are really just iguanas? Guess who was one of those people. Yep, Eve Jackson.
The woman huffily replied, "How dare you talk about suicide that way?"
"Because it's true," responded Kimberly hoping to defuse the situation. "The war really messed up my uncle. The meds didn't help any."
Nothing more was said on the topic. Wallace was getting more and more on edge. Stevens took him by the arm and walked a few steps ahead of the ladies were they could talk privately. "Jack, you know I don't go in for all that spiritual mumbo jumbo of yours but I'd like to know some more about those bad vibes of yours."
"It's hard to describe. It's less spiritual and more instinctual. Something unfriendly dwells somewhere in this planet's shadows. It's malevolent but not demonic per say. The feeling I'm getting is like being in a jungle with a tiger nearby."
"In other words, Jack, we've entered the lair of an apex predator."
"Something like that."
The corridor seemed to go on forever but the curious stones lit the way. Soon wierd frescos and glyphs revealed the unintelligible history of a civilization long since vanished. The pictures depicted a people that had slender bodies and tall rectangular heads.
"The life of this planet evolved strangely but they seemed to have built a civilization not unlike ancient Earth. They have water craft in some of the pictures and what appears to be hunting parties are shown in others." This was said by Kimberly in awe.
Even though the glyphs were unreadable and the paintings on the walls were on a artistic level just above Egyptian hieroglyphs the story was clear and the planet had apparently once teemed with all sorts of fantastic flora and fauna.
"I'm sure Preacher Man over there would make an argument for his so called intelligent design." said Eve in a rude manner.
Wallace didn't want to give her the satisfaction so he said simply," It is all very strange."
Everyone took notice of a sudden headache not caused by the shrew. Toxins were ruled out because of the recycled air inside the helmets. Despite the malady the four astronauts pushed onward.
At last the crew came to Large room. On either side were passages leading off into other directions. In the center of this room was sort of raised pedistal. From the ceiling hung a large cousin to the torch stones as the astronauts called them now. It shone with dazzling radiance. The walls here were covered with more of the strange images.
Eve looked around. "Well, I say we should split up and and explore these other passages."
"No," protested the leader,"We stick together."
The woman put her hands on her hips and responded, "Why? So you men can take credit for something a woman might discover? Typical!"
"Blast it all, Eve Jackson! There's something off about this whole place. I don't know what it is but until we can find out everyone here is going to follow my orders regardless of anatomical make up!"
"I will not be ordered around by a–"
"Fine! Do what you want."
With that heated exchange at an end the woman left to explore the corridor to the her left. Her haughty footfalls echoed in the spooky silence that she left behind her. "Kimberly go with her. There's safety in numbers. Don't let her take too long either. I've got a gut feeling we shouldn't stick around longer than we have to," commanded Jack Wallace.
With a cock of her rifle Kimberly nodded her head and departed after Eve. "That's a fine woman. If I wasn't already married she'd be at the top of my list, man."
No sooner had Stevens spoke then he was signaled to be quiet by Wallace. "Come in Yang, Quinones, over!" Static. "Look guys, I want you to stay on the ship. We are in some sort of building.
"We're not going to stick around here any longer than we have to. Again, I want you guys to stay on the ship. In fact, get the engines fired up. Do you read over?" Static.
"Answer me dammit!" As a Christian Jack Wallace was not given to profanity so his companion knew he was in a poor state of mind.
"Calm down, brother the stone walls are probably interfering with the signal is all."
The astronaut took a deep breath.
"Yeah, you're probably right."
To lighten the mood Dustin said, "You know it amazes me we grew up in the same region of the same state and we only met two years ago."
"That's not really unusual, Stevens. Besides I spent most of my time around Ruston."
The men resolved themselves to waiting for the females. "This room looks empty; I wonder what it's for." Stated the Shreveport native.
The men looked at the paintings the images showed the natives looking up at what was supposed to be the sky. Behind an orange disk that the two assumed to be the sun was a larger circle with squiggles coming off it.
"Wonder what those mean," Stevens pondered tracing his finger across them.
"Sun beams maybe. Perhaps they worshipped the sun." replied Wallace.
"I don't think so because look here."
The man indicated the next image which clearly represented night. The circle with the squiggly line this time was drawn almost like Pac Man. It seemed to be eating a star. The subsequent image showed the people of the planet looking up that mysterious glyph except this time it was surrounded by smaller versions with the same lanky bodies as the aliens.
"Those things almost look like…." Dustin couldn't bring himself to finish. It was to wild to speculate.
"I know exactly what they they look like," Jack said grimly,"except without out the wings and reptilian body. All at once this whole planet is something out of H.P. Lovecraft's wet dreams."
"But what is this building for?"
"There!" exclaimed Jack as he pointed a finger to the center painting just above the pedestal. It showed an alien laying on a platform. The outline around the grisly image was in the shape of the building they stood in now. "This place was a temple. We're in the sanctuary,"concluded Wallace, "What's more is this pedestal was probably an altar."
"And that god that ate the sun is our apex predator."
"Yeah, and now that we know what happened to the stars. Let's get out of here."
"But we still don't know what happened to the people." Dustin pointed out with his curiosity piqued now.
"It is better that way."
Just then a bloodcurdling scream reverberated through the derelict temple. It had come from Kimberly and it was flowed by multiple gunshots then nothing. Wallace & Stevens ran down that corridor. The headaches had worsened. Now it felt like something was trying to split open their skull to slip inside.
The walls were well lit but devoid of markings. The men had guns at the ready they called to Eve and Kimberly but silence was the sole answer they received. Soon they made it. At their feet was the smashed camera. Kimberly's rifle lay on the cold stone floor as well; all the bullets had been spent. A mangled helmet completed the aftermath.
They spotted the forms of the two women ahead they called out again and were greeted by a sight that chilled the blood. The bodies were those of the ladies but their heads had been morphed into a mass of fleshy tendrils! The heads opened like a flower revealing a singular eye there in. The pounding in their skulls became language, intelligent language like English.
The words spoken telepathically were thus: "Join with the one who is many. Join with the many who are one. Praise the Eater of Stars!"
The mind of the Christian astronaut reeled under the psionic blasphemy that assaulted him. He let out an angry cry and opened fire on the mutants. They reeled back beneath the assault, the bullet holes sealed leaving the tattered fabric as the only trace of them.
The message was repeated, "Join with the one who is many Join with the many who are one. Praise the Eater of Stars!"
Dustin dropped his gun and ripped off his helmet. He screamed in agony and then his head twisted and contorted in unnatural and nightmarish ways until he had become one of these creatures.
Jack turned and fled down the hallway. "My Father in heaven, protect me this day from these abominations!"
He fled as fast the confines of his suit would allow, wondering why the Eves of the world always had to eat from the forbidden tree and bring everyone crashing down with them.
He at last was out outside but the beings who were once his friends had followed him repeating the telepathic message over and over. Two more octopus headed figures approached him from the ship. He realized they were the mechanic and the pilot. From the shadows stalked more of the creatures.
They joined in with their psionic voices as well. They'd been lurking in the stygian corners of this dead planet and had come to greet their brethren.
Wallace literally sprayed and prayed as he fought his way to the ship. Once inside he turned on the engines and took off. Looking out the cockpits window he saw a mangled and twisted pile of metallic scrap. He realized it was the probe. The ship must have landed on it.
The lone survivor of the failed mission would have probably been driven to insanity if he'd seen the ancient creature that rose above the temple calling thecongregation of its bipedal counterparts to it. But he didn't. He was already leaving the nightmare planet and Its ancient and unknown god far behind
Warning: the following account contains mentions of suicide. There, there's your trigger warning; if you're still with me after that I will put down the facts not as I see them but as they occurred. First of all, I'm a private dick. I mean that in the old fashioned sense that I'm a detective. Now that your mind has been hurled from the gutter and back on to the pavement. Here's how it went down.
I was in my office in some back alley in the squalor of the city. Having tired of pitching playing cards into my hat I was hard at work reading a newspaper article. Yes, that's right; I still read a newspaper. Trust me when I say it's more fulfilling than scrolling on a device. I digress.
The article that had my attention was a report on a suicide. The subject was a prominent businessman. In fact I had worked a case for him about three years prior. Good man. He'll go unnamed out of respect. But he was a family man . His business was flourishing. And so far as I knew he was a happy man. I guess you don't really know folks though. Three years ago I solved the case he brought to me and now he'd done the high dive of a roof.
His was only one a recent string suicides. Males and females. They'd all been in their late twenties and well into their fifties. Every instinct told me something wasn't right but I couldn't put my finger on it's pulse. Suicide while tragic isn't unusual in and of itself. This however was a scale of self destruction I'd only seen in lemmings.
I tried to lose myself in the funny pages but I could only see the cynicism. The strips had been written with. Tossing aside the paper I opened up my file cabinet and rummaged through the records. Finding the deceased man's address I closed up shop for the day and drove to his home in the suburbs.
The family's wealth was not reflected in their house. It was a single story home with a small backyard surrounded by a picket fence whose pristine white coat of paint would make Tom Sawyer proud. The roof consisted of aging shingles and the garage was large enough for two cars that I knew from a previous visit here were both late models and far from BMW and Cadillac.
I knocked on the door and after a few seconds the widow answered the door. She was lovely but the mental image I had retained no longer matched what was in front of me. Her hair had been cut short at some point and her countenance bore all the signs of grief and sleepless nights. “Yes,can I help you?” She asked in a voice that told me she thought I was about to offer a visit to my cult.
Suddenly the light of recognition flashed inside the sad eyes. “Detective Johnson? What are you doing here? Come in.”
Once I sat down on the Laz E Boy sofa she went to the kitchen and returned with two glasses of water. She sat across from me in her husband's recliner. Last time I had been here it was in celebration of a case cracked. Now I was paying respects to a life shattered. “I'm honestly surprised to see you,” she commented, “I didn't think you even remembered us.”
“I remember all my cases ma'am. It was only a matter of finding your address in my records. “
“What brought you here anyway?”
“read about your husband's death in the paper. I wanted to offer you my condolences.”
I'm quite sure what processes fired off in the auburn framed head of hers put she blurted out details. He'd become withdrawn and depressed. He kept going on and on about how he missed the old days. And he talked about his childhood more than usual. Then two days ago. He brought it all to an end.
I dipped my head, let her cry, and then I took my leave. I don't do emotions very well. To keep this account moving right along. I had a chance to talk with a friend I had in the police department. I had many friends among the cops(I had many enemies too). My pal was telling me about a new kind of drug they were trying to get off the street.
“It's the most confounded thing,” he gripped in between bites of cheese danish, “We can't find the dealers, the users all end up dead somehow and the drug barely leaves a trace in their system and what is there is nothing we've ever seen before.”
I listened while he rattled on. Then he said to me: “I know you have some shall we say less than upstanding citizens in your network. You can get places we can't. I was hoping you could help in that capacity. “
“I'd need a starting point, “ I answered with my characteristic bluntness.
He sketched something down in a notebook. Once he finished he handed me the paper. I saw a symbol. It was a loop made of three arrows almost like the symbol for recycling. In the center was a series of words.
“ This was on the packets that we assume contained the drug.” Whoever is putting this stuff out this their insignia.”
“Like ecstasy dealers.”
I studied the symbol latching onto the words in the center of the loop. “Once and Future.”
“What?” exclaimed my friend. Puzzled.
“The phrase is Latin for Once and Future.”
“How do you know?”
“I read a lot. It's from King Arthur stories. You know, the once and future king. “
So that's how I got involved in police business. That would soon become my business.
A young woman of college age came to see me. She was lean, her hair was the color of a raven, and she was clad in a white t-shirt, cut of jeans, and flip flops. The times I got any clients her age were unicorn rare. So I took immediate interest. “What can I do for you?” I inquired.
“My name is Tiffany. My brother's missing. Has been since last night.”
Well this was odd. “Tiffany, we do have a police department here. Why didn't you tell them?”
Her voice was raised now to a slightly higher level. It was obvious I'd miffed her. “I did Mr. Johnson, but they wouldn't do anything because it hasn't been a full 24 hours yet.”
“Ok. Still, why come to me? You'd better tell me everything.”
She sat down and launched into her story. Her brother attended the university here in the city. He was supposed to have met up with friends out in the country last night when she hadn't heard from him she had texted them and called them and learned he never showed up. She decided to come to me out of concern, impatience and a desire to preserve her sibling's sterling reputation. She didn't want people getting the wrong idea about him if they saw cops crawling everywhere. Made sense.
“Tiffany I don't normally take skip trace type work but for you I'll do it.”
I drove out to the campus. It took some coaxing from Res Life and the campus 5-0 but I got into her brother's dorm. All I had to dowas flash my credentials and assure it was a simple matter of indulging a concerned sister nothing more. That is honestly what I thought I was doing. Then came the investigation of the dorm room. I was small with a closet one bed and a desk. The TV sat on top of a mini-fridge. And a busty vivacious blonde with perfect breasts protruding through a yellow bikini stared at me from the wall above the bed. So it would seem the good little boy scout has his vices like anybody else.
Any illusions I may have had about the simplicity of this job vanished when I discovered a plastic wrapper with a loop of three arrows and Latin words sitting beside a slip of paper. Half naked females weren't this kid’s only vice after all. Using some tweezers from the bathroom and a sandwich bag I pocketed my clues.
Once I left the college I phoned Tiffany. It was the weekend so she was prompt in answering. “I need to know where your brother was headed and how to get there. A description of his vehicle would also be helpful.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Honestly I found a clue. I can't get into details but I found something the cops would need to know about.” I can't sit on it for too long. I may have to call in my friends from the Force.”
“Do what you have to, Detective.” she said, barely masking the disappointment in her voice.
A few minutes later I received complete directions to the friends’ weekend getaway and a photo of her brother's car where the plate was in view. He was a handsome young man and it would have been a shame if something happened to him.
Now comes the part of the story I have no desire to drag out. Neither do I enjoy having to retell it. I found the car. Up in the woods between the city and the local where Jake was supposed to meet up with his friends. He never made it. The car was hidden from the view of all but a well trained observer. Its driver was skewered on a tree branch. The investigation was out of my hands now. I turned over the wrapper to the detectives I knew.
The investigation of the crash concluded it was another suicide. Tiffany would never contact me again except to pay my fee which I had discounted for her. I really hate my job sometimes.
I scrolled through my phone one day and found the picture I'd taken of the paper I'd found in Jake's dorm. On it was written the following: That which has been is now;and that which is to be has already been; and God requires that which is past. The sprawling seemed biblical in nature. I drove to a place I hadn't been in a long time to talk with someone I hadn't seen in a while.
The Reverend and I sat on a pew looking at the painting of the Holy Mother. “What do you make of it Padre?”
“It's from Ecclesiasties.”
“That book King Solomon wrote when he figured out 700 hundred wives was to depressing to handle?”
“Something like that. Perhaps it has something to do with that symbol on the drugs.”
“You know about that?”
“Johnson, you're not the only person with a badge that comes here seeking guidance. “
I got up and made to leave. “Thanks, Padre. You've been a huge help.”
“An answer to prayer, right?”
“I don't recall praying. “
“Perhaps not verbally but the silent prayers are often. The loudest.”
It was time to shake bushes and bust balls. My contacts were going to find me some answers whether they wanted to or not.
It was Friday night at Joe B's a bar so seedy you could grow plants in. You had your normal colorful cast of characters. The fifty year old lesbian waitress passed out some of the stoutest drinks on Earth. Behind the counter stood the bartender. His name was not Joe B; it was Franklin. His mood shifted from jovial to crabby depending on the day of the week, the weather patterns, and other arbitrary factors. Tonight he was positively grouchy.
None of those people were my concern though. I sat at a table under a blue neon sign advertised some sort of beer. On the other side of the table was Finnigan, one of my contacts. In the grand scheme of the universe he was a gnat. He was a junkie and he was currently displaying several withdrawal symptoms. “You're back on the stuff, Finney. That disappoints me. We had a deal.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Bull crap. Finney you look like you ain't had a fix in at least two days.”
“Did you come down here bust my chops?”
I took a deep breath. Finnigan had gotten hooked again. He knew the bargain we'd reached. I kept him out of the slammer and he stayed clean. “No, Finnigan. I need information and you can help I believe. I don't give a frick what drug you're on. I probably know already. “What I do care about is a new one circulating around. It's become a problem for me and the cops.”
“What is it?”
I showed him the sketch. His beady eyes grew large and he made a move to leave. “I gotta go I just remembered someth– “
I drew my pistol on him beneath the table. “It's gonna be hard to walk out of here with your legs blown out from under you. That’ll bring the popo and then they'll find out you're doing drugs and you'll tell them what you know anyway. “
“You're bluffing, Johnson. You wouldn't risk losing your private detective license. “
“Go ahead and test theory. It'd be worth it. This job's lousy anyway because I have to rub elbows with the likes of you.”
Finnigan saw reason and plopped his rump back in his seat. “Good,” I responded, “Now you tell me what you know about this symbol and I'll forget that you're on the stuff again.”
“It's called Reminisce; it's a new super drug. It comes looking like a gumball but can be crushe and snorted or chugged down with your choice beverage.”
“How does it work? Why are no traces left in the user's system?”
“I can't tell you that. All I can tell you is that it has something to do with memories.”
“Who's pushing the stuff?”
“No clue, buuut I maaay know someone who knows the guy who knows the guy. I could set up a meeting. “
“You do that Finney and I'll leave you alone.”
“Fine, but I'm putting my neck out here you know.
“Buster, you did the day you started buying crud to pump through your system from two bit mooks.”
Ol’ Finney would have shut up tighter than a clam if he knew I was working with the police. I didn't like being neck deep in their work but I was cozy with some of the detectives especially the two working this drug racket. It was worth it if I could bring Tiffany some closure and, if my growing suspicions were true, a certain widow as well.
I went to the department with everything I'd learned. The next a message from Finney was shoved through the mail slot of the empty room next to my office. This was a measure I had copied from The Shadow, a fictional crime fighting detective after I received a package that made a ticking sound. That was ten years ago. Funny the stuff that sticks with you. Memories. It has something to do with memories. That echoed in my brain. The looping arrows, the Latin phrasing, answers married to more questions.
It was late afternoon two days later when I met with a man who looked like a beatnik clad in a leather jacket that was past its prime. Sunglasses hid his eyes but still he looked like he could talk the wool off a sheep. He greeted me with an outstretched hand and a smile that any crooked preacher would envy. “Say you must be the friend that Finnigan wanted me to meet.”
“Yeah, that's me.”
So we walked into the viper’s den which reeked of stale cigarettes, old booze and other aromas I'd rather not trace the origins of. “You don't mind the pat down do you?”
“No,” I replied confidently, “I have nothing to hide.”
The frisking was done by two muscular dudes named Tom and Jerry. Right like I'd believe that. One of the two found my credentials. “HEY, he's a frigging badge!”
Lester the beat nik scowled behind his shades. Say, what is this? You a freaking narc?”
“Calm down, boys. Look at my credentials. I'm strictly in the private sector. “
They combed them over. “It's true boss. He's one of those private gumshoes.”
Lester was still on edge and grilled me like a steak. “What brings someone like you here, Johnson?”
“My job's crappy. I was told yall had something that could make all those bad feelings go away!”
“Yeah, I know just the stuff you mean.”
With that I was escorted to a wooden table in the center of the restaurant. At this point I should clarify that it was deserted except for the goons and myself. I took a seat. One the six goons retreated into a back room leaving the rest of us in an awkward silence.
Moments later the lackey returned and deposited a blue object in a plastic wrapper upon which was the logo now all too familiar to me. With not a word spoken he opened the plastic & let the drug roll toward me a little. Then without warning WHACK. Another thug smashed the thing into a powder with a hammer. The one who brought it to the table blew it in my face. I blinked. I found this all to be extremely bemusing. Then it happened.
My mind began to wander. Happy thoughts from my past and memories previously stashed away. So I had a sense of not sitting at the table but walking through each memory as it came in rapid succession. I forgot all else. I had a vague sense of something strange at the back of my skull and then falling. I did not care. It did not matter because I suddenly fell into a warm, delicious sleep filled with reflection of the past and the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia.
When I regained consciousness I was in the back of a car. These hoods clearly hadn't gone for the cliche approach and stuffed me in the trunk. They probably thought I'd still be under the influence of Reminisce and I feigned stupor while the goons up front talk. “How are we going to do him, lester?” Asked one with a gravelly voice.
Lester, the beatnik wannabe, was the driver. He answered, I told you one to the brain pan through the temple. Make it look like he offed his own self like the others.``
They'd damned themselves and didn't even know it. While still pretending to be in the Twilight Zone I attempted to work loose the bonds around my wrists. Once that was done. Undid the ones around my ankles by the time the other occupants of the car realized I had regained my senses I was on them like a tiger. A firm elbow to the front of the neck rendered the slab of muscle in the passenger seat out cold.
Lester pulled out a gun. The scumbags had the sense enough to relieve me of mine. I grabbed his gun hand, flung it up! The fracturing of the wrist and the profanity was drowned by the bullets puncturing the roof. His hand now useless I wrestled with the steering wheel and was bedlam as the car went wild and flipped over just as I dove out the driver side window.
Once that nightmare ended. A very lacerated Lester pulled himself from the mangled wreck that was his car. He took two steps and collapsed onto the asphalt of the lobby stretch of road heading to who knows where. A car passed and the rest is history.
The sirens blared and the lights flashed and soon I was telling this very portion of the story to the police detectives. They were happy to have a link in the chain. “I'll be darn!” Exclaimed James Munday. “A drug that traps people in their memories. What was that like?”
“In truth it was wonderful even when the memories were painful. It was weaponized nostalgia. A drug made into an even more potent one. You could escape into the past and totally blot out the present. It leaves wanting more. And even I'm left with a feeling I don't much like.”
“That would explain the suicides I guess. Are you going to be OK, Johnson?”
“No, but that's just life.”
Lester pulled through his injuries and gave up his cronies including the two men above him. The feds even got involved and came down hard. I learned two important things from this. One: visit the past but don't stay too long. Two: stay the heck out of police work next time.
The Clergy’s Escort
Two figures charted a path through the blistering land. They couldn't have been more different if they'd come from separate planets. One was a rotund jovial fellow in the stereotypical trappings of a minister. Was he protestant or Catholic? It no longer mattered; things had ceased to matter decades ago.
The other figure was dour and brooding. He wore a sand crusted leather jacket and matching pants and boots. The outfit was adorned with studded spikes and on the toes of his boots and tips of his gloves were spiked plates.
A sword,a homemade rapier with a spiked handguard rested on his left hip. Slung across his back was an old sawed off shotgun. One arm of the jacket was torn off revealing an arm marked with dueling scars. A similar X shaped scar was on his forehead and if his gater had been pulled down another would have been revealed on his lips. He looked out at the windswept path ahead through green, round goggles.
His brown hair was covered in sand and dust. This mysterious figure was the Sandslayer. For years he had been the scourge of the bandits and mutant creatures that roamed the post nuclear hellscape. He made his main living as an armed escort.
The two men had been discussing religion in which they had different opinions.
"I admire your ability to hold on to your faith,Padre but I just can't. I'm not saying I don't believe in God, but look around you! Nothing went down the way Revelations said it was supposed to!"
It was perhaps a valid argument but the minister gave the Sandslayer his perspective. "That book is cryptic. It's that way for a reason. Maybe this is indeed part of the events it foretold, maybe they still have yet to transpire."
His escort grunted. Then said, "I'll tell you this: the people who live in that giant domed city I'm taking you to, those sorry bottom feeders who prosper in their high-tech decadence while we try not drink water tainted by decades old fallout, they're enough antichrist for me!"
"On that, Sandslayer, we can both agree."
By the time night had fallen the duo had rendezvoused with a quartet of soldiers from the domed city. Imposing figures were these in their tan body armor and red tactical goggles covering their eyes. The six of them were gathered around a fire. In this post nuclear desolation no night animals were to be heard. If they were your life expectancy was now zero. The soldiers set up a parameter for a patrol while the minister and his escort sat at the fire talking as it was dying down to so many orange embers.
"Tell me something about yourself, Sandslayer." asked the clergyman.
So the leather clad bane of mutants and desperados launched into his tale. "I was born after the Reaper’s Fire had devastated everything. Life was hard in the wastes but we did okay. Then one day I became a man at the age of only six. My father took up arms and went to one of the supply drops. He was torn to shreds and never came home.
"In the wake of his passing I busted my balls trying to protect and provide for my mother and I. You ain't going to like what comes next, Padre. I eventually learned the identity of the aftermather who slew my father. I journeyed to his home on the outskirts of a mud hole of a town. I took my father's shotgun, the one I still carry and used it to blow that monster's head off.
"I grabbed whatever supplies I could from his shack and brought them back home. As the years went on and I saw more crap I decided to do something about it. I trained my butt off in various arts of combat. I vowed if there was a hell and your God wasn't doing anything to protect us from it's denizens then I would. I've been sending mutant creatures and crazed cultists there for years since."
Neither of them said anything after that for a long time. Then a lusty oath and the staccato of a blaster rifle brought an end to the quiet. Three of the four soldiers came sprinting over to the bivouac and surrounded the duo. Then a green scaly hand plunged up from the ground, grabbed one of the soldiers by his ankle and dragged him screaming into the sands. The remaining two pepperd the ground with blaster fire until they too were snatched.
The Sandslayer already knew who the unseen enemy was and drew his sawed off and fired into the sand just a reptilian appendage made itself visible. Green blood splattered everywhere and a horrible scream filled the night air.
The minister yelled,"Have the demons of hell come up to drag us to the throne of their infernal master?"
"You're not far off, " replied the escort, keeping the firearm at the ready, "They're reptoids. It's hard to say if they were once lizards or humans but now they're just a lotta ugly!"
One sprang up in all of its terrible glory and was blown in half by the warrior. Two others soon followed. Not wanting to waste precious ammo he drew his rapier and sliced the razor tooth head of one of the others and ran another through.
Two more grabbed him from behind and he judo flipped them over his shoulder and pulverized them with his spiked gauntlets! In the aftermath he stood over the butchered corpses of the lesser creatures,covered in green blood and fresh sand. The minister looked like he'd woken up from a nightmare.
"This is terrible. These foul creatures…"
"You don't get out much do you, Padre."
"No. The only reason I'm even headed to the dome is because I'm kin to an official whose daughter is sick."
"I have been wondering about that. You're probably better off. This place ain't fit for softer people like you."
The next day the duo made it to the walled entrance of the domed utopia. Two guards eyed the Sandslayer and held their guns in a manner to tell him he wasn't welcome inside. No one from the wasteland was except by invitation and that was only extended to medics & clergymen such as the fellow he'd been traveling with.
"What happened to the others?" asked one of the sentries.
The Sandslayer responded,"They couldn't handle the excitement."
The minister explained further. Then the brooding wanderer of the desert accepted his pay and turned his back to the edifice he despised. He didn't expect to see the clergyman again. Most stayed behind in the city. Then again life especially in this wasteland was full of surprises.
In Sickness and In Health
She was radiant; no other word seemed to capture her essence and even this seemed to fall short. She was his world. She, the petite blonde goddess with eyes like a clear summer sky got the best of everything, not because she demanded but merely because her husband wanted her to have it when it was with in their means.
He stayed at home writing for a living. She worked a well paid 9 to 5 job. She brought home the bacon as he churned out prose and comic book scripts.
Writers block would be pushed through as he attended to keeping their abode tidy. His wife had enough worries without having to clean house as well.
This arrangement at first gnawed at the author's old fashioned sensibilities like a dog teething away on a rawhide bone but she wouldn't see him cast aside his passion for the written word just maintain a "traditional" household.
Compromise and communication are keys to a happy marriage so he sat at his computer churning out yarns of interstellar barbarians and super-powered champions of the innocent. At first it took five tries and a few rewrites but he even had a best seller. He used some of the money of that much alluded tome to purchase a robot vacume for his love. Her gift to him for that literary achievement had been something more carnal and the details of that blissful night will not printed here.
Conflicts were resolved as quickly as possible,Bills were paid, compromises were reached, and the woman was pampered perhaps to excess by her husband, but nothing is ever perfect.
A tumultuous storm formed over the sunny relationship. It wasn't infidelity or financial strain. No it was medical. The goddess was not immortal. She had cardiovascular issues and soon her days were numbered.
His world seemed to crash down around him. The edifices of happiness he built for his wife stomped into oblivion by an unstoppable kaiju.
His hopelessness soon bled onto the page. Novels, and short fiction became darker and more rage filled and violent and in his comic book universe his superman analog made a brutal final stand against a foe he could night beat.
At last the doctors bore their tidings as they've done since the Black Plague.
His wife, his everything would need a heart transplant. He fell to his knees and bellowed "For the love of God give her mine!"
Mr. Jeff Gruber lay on the side walk below in a pool of his own blood having fell head first from the window of third story apartment. Framed in the window was a man who could have passed as the twin brother to the corpses on the side walk! As Jeff Gruber looked the body below he wondered: if you kill the parallel universe counterpart of yourself is it murder or suicide?
Gone are the Sages
He sat on the edge of the low cliff that made up the shoreline. He stared deeply almost brooding into the yellows and oranges of the sunset that silhouetted the land in the distance. So lost in his thoughts he was that the lush green carpet of grass beneath his feet went unnoticed.
The young man's rumination was interrupted by the arrival of the brunette. The sea breeze teased her hair and the low hanging hems of her gossamer dress with a white kirtle beneath.
She placed a hand on his shoulder and he knew her touch though he never stopped looking at the horizon. "What is on your mind?" She asked with concern.
He answered, "The men, the old men whom I sat and talked with are far behind me now. They are few and fewer still are the young ones like us who want to sit and glean their storied wisdom. I guess they can't be blamed. We all thought we had more time."
"Time for what?" asked the maiden
"Everything," he said, placing such emphasis on the compound word that it almost sounded snappy, "There is business I left unfinished. Now the great unseen hourglass is counting down."
Silence reigned supreme in that space broken only by the lapping waves and seabirds.
"Yes, but something better will come about once the sands reach the bottom," the girl said.
"I know," said her male companion,"And I hold on to that, hope for it even. Nevertheless I still wished I had not seen the passing of the Sages."
Nothing else was said. The girl departed leaving him to stare into the sunset.
A hexagonal,gold coin, one of numerous galactic currencies, spiraled into the air and landed in the palm of a hand clad in a black glove. This had gone on for a half hour as he sat at his selected table.
He was a scruffy looking character with black hair grown out so that it touched the middle portion of his neck. His skin was bronzed and red from life among the elements.
The face told much about him as well. Hard lines did it bear, wrinkles in their infancy. He was most likely in his 40's or late thirties– at least by our measurements of age– and he sure looked the part. His eyes were dark brown and ever alert. His nose was hawklike. This was a man of mystery who was not to be trifled with.
The duster upon his shoulders was the same hue as his hair and gloves. It as well as the silver body armor and brown pants were covered in dust accumulated over a long journey that would end here one way or another.
The stranger's eyes had sized up the interior of the cafe upon his entrance. He made it one of his life's goals not to cross the brutox seated at the booth a few feet behind him. They were a race composed of rock hard bodies of brown, toad-like skin, a gorilla shaped head, four arms and a real nasty attitude.
The only other occupants were a spindly alien from a species he'd never come across and the proprietors of the cafe,an elf-like race that aged slower than normal humans.
The daughters of the elves had taken seats on either side of the stranger. He tolerated this. He knew backwater towns on this planet saw little action and he must have appeared to these dames as one the romantic heroes from one of those mushy stories they liked to read. In truth he was anything but.
He currently put the coin in his duster pocket and sipped some more swill and waited like a hawk. He'd been asked the usual questions and gave vague answers. He was named Orthson–not an alias- and he was from out of town.
When asked whom he was waiting for he jerked his right thumb to a wanted poster on the wall by his table. It read as follows:
For armed robbery, assault, and flight to avoid prosecution.
5,000 frend reward.
Dead or alive.
Along with this information was a photo of a human male who looked like a long haired caricature of a shady reverend or a turkey buzzard from our planet. At this time it should be pointed out that frend was a type of currency and a very valuable one.
" Ah," said Ma."You must be one of those bounty hunter types."
He smiled content to let her think that. He was actually on a mission of vengeance. Pax, who did very little to live up to that last name, which was derived from an ancient Terran word that means peace, had wronged the stranger's sister and he saw within the system a way to have his cake and eat it too! He'd turn over the slimebag to the authorities and live with the satisfaction of knowing he'd done so. Jeremiah Pax would rot in a galactic prison delivered there by the hands of Angie Orthson's brother.
"What makes you think he's going to come here?" asked the Pa.
"Well Sir, I've studied this varmint for a mighty long while. He don't do the smart thing and get lost in crowds.
"He thinks his chances are better in little places like this one which only makes him stick out like…"
Instead of a sore thumb he used a for more course and colorful simile which caused the womenfolk to blush like a dance hall floozy and the Pa to scowl.
"Sorry, folks, I forget myself now and again," the stranger apologized quickly.
The awkward silence that followed for an eternity after that was broken by the entrance of another customer, Pax. He glanced around the cafe & smirked at his wanted poster. He looked just like the photo but now with dark circles under his eyes and sickness that emphasized his vulture-like characteristics. Yes, he looked like a man that was losing a fight with his conscience.
Suddenly he spotted his sworn adversary staring at him with the smile a cat gives before consuming a bird.
The girls had rejoined their parents. It's a good thing because Jeremiah Pax drew his blaster from its holster and fired. He missed. Orthson whipped out his own one eyed dog and let it bark.
The smell of ozone filled the air and smokey specters danced across the cafe. The other patrons stood in shock and awe even the brutox.
The stranger was still standing. Jeremiah Pax was not.
"That was intense," said Ma, but I guess being a bounty hunter you get used to it."
"Never said I was a bounty hunter," the stranger replied as he grabbed the collar of Pax's jacket and drug the loathsome carcass to the sheriff.
Up In Smoke
It was a desperate gamble. I had to pick the right circumstances but there was so much to choose from. I could stop any number assassinations from John Lennon to John F. Kennedy.
Whatever I chose I knew the possibility of this being a one way trip. Project Paradox was risky anyway. Altering history just to see the effects? There were so many things that could wrong I have no time to list them here. Ironic, isn't it ,that I have no time.
I picked a doosy. There was one atrocity in particular I wanted to stop and for that I had to travel back France in a time of great conflict. I was going to stop the death of Joan of Arc. Foolish me. The moment I appeared out of nowhere to plead her case they assumed I was some sorcerer or the devil she was in league with. I'm sending this account back through the time gate hoping it reaches the proper destination. The only thing I changed was the number of people burned at the stake that day.
Strange Rites on Rudax 1
Like a knife through butter the craft entered the atmosphere of Rudax 1, a large planet that was comprised of a continent sized city and smaller land masses devoted to the agroarts.
The ship was shaped like an arrowhead within for wings jutting out of both sides. Affixed to the wing tips were solar cells in the form of acute triangles, the tips pointing straight ahead of the craft.
Inside the cockpit which was wrapped in a latticework of metal, sat the lone pilot of this single man freighter. He grunted as the crowded spaceport came into view. If he wasn't so worn out from the month he'd spent on this job he wouldn't even have bothered landing on Rudax 1.
He smoked the occasional cigar and could swear with the best of them if pushed to that point but he still lived something of a moral code. That code had led him to pass up several lucrative smuggling jobs and it was that selfsame code that balked at the decadence found in these large city planets.
The pilot rubbed his eyes and looked briefly behind his captain's chair at the cramped space where he kept his freight. It was empty. There was nothing there except for the stains of grease and various unnamed fluids from hauls past.
He'd converted the large storage unit in the starboard bulkhead into his sleeping quarters which consisted of one soiled bed and a picture of an old flame that had left him with the taste of unrequited love.
One more night here and he'd be heading home for the month he had off.
The ship docked and was inspected and soon the pilot was asleep. It must have been about the early morning hours by the measure of time upon Rudax 1. The sky was a creamy orange and the port was silent as a tomb. The pilot climbed out of bed and cast a quick look at a nearby Chrono reader. It was the day when worship of the Light Lord was worshiped all across the galaxy. A man of this faith himself, the pilot threw on his leather jacket,exited his freighter, and sat out to find a holy place. Passing the port side of his ship he gave one the solar cells–the point of which now faced towards the sky in the landing position – a customary pat.
How long he'd walked down the bustling street pacing humanity in all its space bred forms when a particular edifice demanded his attention. A golden dome at the top that was wrapped in a holographic banner that flashed the name, Church of the Holy Light in all the galactic languages. The congregation seemed to be filing in. They all wore hooded mantels of deeply colored silk, almost black but somewhat purple as well.
He walked up the entrance and was halted by a person clad in this manner with a theatrical mask on their face. The faux smile seemed positively bizarre in a setting such as this.
"Do you wish to worship us today?" asked the strange figure in an almost robotic tone.
"Yes," replied the pilot.
The man had been holding a stack of the masks and handed one to the pilot.
"We require those who enter to wear one of these."
He put on the face covering with a faux smile like all the others. He took his place among the crowd. The music started with some ancient hymn from a long dead bird. It was beautiful. The dim lights, the artificial smoke, all of it created an ambiance that sat off every chemical in the brain designed to make you feel like a million bucks. The head clergyman spoke in between songs. "Yes, everybody. The Light Lord is gracing us with his presence. Can you not feel it? He is here in all his glory!"
Was he? To the pilot something was different. This didn't feel like the time he'd say with members of the faith face to face having discussion about that galaxy's theology nor the times he'd spent on wilderness planets in the quiet of nature. In those times he'd almost heard the whispers of the divine melody that brought all into existence.
Aside from the display before him and the theater masks something else was noticeable. From the moment he'd walked through the door the pilot's nostrils had met with a pungent floral aroma. He'd been to many holy places but never had he encountered a copious amount of flowers.
Sometime before the clergyman gave his sermon he stepped out to relieve himself. On his way to the men's room he passed by dozens of flowers. There was a mystery here. Whatever was going on in this place was not genuine. He planned to quietly slip out the door.
So caught up in these thoughts and the perfume of the flowers which was making him dizzy that he bumped into a member of the congregation that was walking down the velvet corridor. The mask was knocked off that person's face and in that moment the pilot let out a startled cry.
Staring back at him was a face marred unspeakably by decay. The sudden commotion had interrupted the services and the crowd had come to see what was the matter.
"He's a dead walker! exclaimed the pilot. They all removed their own masks. They stood revealed as the zombies they were. Now he understood the purpose of the flowers to mask the stench. He threw his own mask off and bolted for the door. He ran through the streets weaving and pushing his way through the denizens of the port city. There was no life in that chapel on living death shrouded in ritual and theatrics.
Do android wolves dream of killing electric sheep?
Gazing over the sight of the carnage I down another swallow of liquid gold. Doctor says I'll drink myself right into the grave. We're all dying. In fact it's death brought me here.
Gaston Leroux is best known for writing that novel about the disfigured man who terrorizes the Paris Opera House. Here's a fun fact: He wrote a detective story about an impossible murder committed in a closed room. That's what this was accept the room was an entire city going to hell.
The perp had struck again this time they left two vics. Both in lab coats. This person was a ghost. They left nothing for forensics and remained unidentified in an age were intsant identification technology made both things impossible.
My partner scans the cadavers withs II contacts lenses. I don't wear any because I don't trust them. He reads off their info while my bottle forms bullet points for each category.
Metaphorically speaking I have a blood hound nose. Every dick should have one. If they don't they need to shuffle off to Buffalo. There had be something logical to this crime spree. This guy or gal killed in droves and left no trace of anything. That nose of mine was picking up a sent I didn't know what it was but it was getting stronger.
My easy chair embraced me like a lover. It was nice to have something to come home to after another long day in the year 2030. Some more liver poisoning goodness and I begin to go over the facts I had sniffing with that snoz I've already mentioned. Something was here I knew it.
A trip to the coroner revealed both of the scientists that perished had implants in their brains for listening to music. Talk about having a song stuck in your head.
Just about everyone these days had a one of those implants unless you're an old fogie like myself. Each of the murder victims had one. In each case they seemed burnt out. It was odd but didn't stick out to me at the time. Not until now.
The word ghost smacked me up side the head like an iron skillet. The killer was in fact a ghost. That was why there was not so much as blood splatter at any of the scenes.
I began formulating the solution. The perp was a hacker all they had to do was tap into the music implants and overload them boom instant high tech death. But why? Perhaps he wanted to prove a point. Maybe he was an anarchist. Who knows why they did it?
I could only hope the department would buy my theory. But even if they did how could we possibly catch him? That thought necessitated another pint glass of my choice beverage.