Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Embassy of Shadows (Monster/Frankenstein) Chapter 1

Henry had been having that dream again.  He'd been having a variation of it for years.  Even though he'd been out of college for more than a decade, he was right back there again.  However a psychologist would have interpreted it, whatever the supposed anxiety, all Henry knew was that in the dream, in this long sequence of dreams, he was missing classes.  In real life, Henry had only ever missed one class, and it was entirely on purpose.  In the dream, in the series of them, for one reason or another, he missed not one but a whole series of them, and not just one subject but two of them, for a whole semester.  A whole semester and somehow he couldn't remember to attend those classes, even though he knew it was happening.  Never mind that he knew he had graduated, in the middle of this odd nightmare (odd indeed to call something he seemed to be fine with, or merely anxious about, a nightmare), and that there was in fact no ill-effect to missing those classes.

Was there?  Was there in fact something Henry had missed?  In real life?  The more he had this dream, in its seeming endless variations, or the mere fact that the thought kept coming back to his unconscious mind, he couldn't help but think so.

He woke up in what would have been a strange place, if he hadn't been there for the past few weeks already.  Henry referred to it as the Embassy, but his purpose there was more like schooling than diplomacy.  (Maybe that was why the dream was there again.)  He was there to gain knowledge, for a job, to attend what was in effect a series of seminars, to acquaint himself with the responsibilities of a position he had recently attained.  It was important he attend, because it was equally important that Henry retain this job, which was otherwise not something he had been good at since leaving college.  For one reason or another, he had never gotten a job relevant to what he had studied.  He could recite a litany of reasons, but none of them were important at the moment.  For now, he had to concentrate.

Or try his best, at any rate.  Except for those dreams.  They managed to get him reflecting after all, not about his troubled job history, but his personal one.  Henry was aware that there were people who made hobbies of studying their genealogy, and he had always been fascinated, too, but until recently had never taken the time to investigate his own family history.  This is to say, his mother had, and had sent him the results, just an outline, really.  He'd spent some time looking through it, looking for a particular name.  Part of the family legend, which was to say the only part of its past that had ever taken any real shape, was an ancestor with a peculiar name, from the old country, that at times Henry had struggled to remember.

Now, for convenience sake, I will take you out of this story for a moment and explain something.  This is a reality where Victor Frankenstein was not a character conjured by Mary Shelley nearly two centuries ago, but rather a real man, whose work was not publicized in the pages of a classic work of literature, but existed in the fringes of society, a memory suited to religious zealots and certain descendants.  Such as Henry, if he would only remember.

Remember is what he was in the act of doing that very moment.  The Embassy had a bookstore he was already in the habit of visiting frequently.  With the vague memory of a name, he found himself scanning the shelves, because he knew at the very least that the name was not unfamiliar in some circles, and that it had been enshrined, recently, within those circles for having achieved some note of distinction.

And there it was: Victor Frankenstein.  An odd name, Henry thought.  His own surname being Grenoville, "Frankenstein" was nothing but a relic of the past to him, something distant relatives carried with them.  The man he'd discovered was in truth a novelty, nothing more.  He paid for the book and was on his way again, hoping to accomplish whatever it was the day's events were supposed to, pesky dreams aside.

What bothered him more than dreams or half-remembered ancestors was Henry's boss, the one who had sent him to the Embassy, a man he had never met.  The man's reputation, however, was fearsome.  Those who had seen him in the flesh reported to Henry of a gruesome, fearful visage, an ugly brute hardly belied in personality with a soft wit.  Yet Henry was forced to follow this man's instructions.  He was already given to resentment.  After years of doing what he had to do to get by, Henry longed to follow his dreams.  (Different ones, you understand.)

Hardly looking where he was going, his thoughts, as always, lost in a jumble, Henry, as this rarely happened to him despite his usual state, ran into someone.  He looked up, embarrassed, ready to apologize, when he found himself staring into the very figure of his colleagues' undisputed nightmares.

"You're a...," Henry stammered.

"A monster," the man said matter-of-factly.  "That I am.  We have much to talk about, young Mr. Grenoville.  I'm afraid you'll be missing your obligations today."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "Wonderland"

"It's not every day you meet the girl you're going to marry."

"Do you use this routine a lot with women?"

"No.  Never before and never again."


The old man, Curzon, was on his deathbed, and he intended to die with two secrets.  The first, he hoped, would prove harmless, once his successor, Jadzia, found out: that he was flunked her out of the initiate program because he loved her.  That one didn't matter because she had gotten back in anyway, and was in the process of accepting the Dax symbiont as the old man struggled with his final thoughts.

The second secret was worse.  Far worse.

It had started so innocently, with friends.  The old man had been very good at making friends.  These friends in particular were Klingons, with whom he had eventually formed a blood oath, so close was their bond.  They weren't the problem.  One of them, Kang, introduced him to the Klingon who was.  Ja'rod.  Unofficially, everyone knew him as the Klingon who sold out his own people to the Romulans.  Well, not everyone.  But certainly his Klingons friends.  And the old man himself.

Ja'rod wanted a simple thing.  He requested that the old man make a new friend, a human, a young Starfleet officer.  He suggested that it would be of immense benefit to the Klingons, but refused to explain further.  The old man didn't think much of it, did as requested.  The young Starfleet officer turned out to be exactly the kind of friend the old man liked, warm and trusting.  To the old man's regret, too trusting.

Eventually, the old man asked Kang what was so important about the young Starfleet officer.  Kang replied, Nothing much at all.  It was his girlfriend.  Her father had done important work for Starfleet, and he had passed it on to her.  She was so easy to overlook, a contractor, never interested in joining Starfleet itself.  In the eyes of some Klingons, human civilians were pointless.  But not this one.  She was developing what could be turned into a great tactical advantage, an array capable of locating the enemy no matter where they might hide.  Officially, Kang acknowledged, Klingons and the Federation were at peace.  Unofficially, it was the policy of any true Klingon to view this relationship with suspicion, and prepare for war.

It wasn't himself or the other members of the blood pact, who viewed things that way, Kang hastened to insist.  It was Ja'rod.  The old man began to wonder.

The day Ja'rod came to see him a second time, the old man nearly turned him away.  What do you want? he asked sharply.  The Klingon ignored him.  He told the old man that it was time to suggest to the young Starfleet officer that he accept posting to a starship, one that took families aboard.  What difference could that possibly make? the old man asked.  The young Starfleet officer had previously been engaged, happily, in building starships.  The old man, besides, liked having him around.  So he pressed the issue further.  Ja'rod replied, War is coming to Starfleet.  Not through the Klingons.  I have heard from...acquaintances that there is a new threat.  Starfleet will foolishly welcome this fight.

The old man at last realized what had happened.  He had been asked to watch over the career of the young Starfleet officer, to form a relationship with him, so that he could help steer its course, if necessary.  He had overlooked the girlfriend, who might be looking after her.  Apparently they had failed.  And now he was being asked to sacrifice them both.  The conclusion was implicit.  He didn't know who this new enemy was, but he knew the days were now numbered.

He thrust himself into his work.  This in part was how he became involved in the initiate program to begin with, and so his first secret, his first sin, was intertwined with his second.  When the news of the Borg invasion spread, he realized that the inevitable was now upon him.  He would have to witness the end of something innocent.  Something he wished, all of a sudden, to have known, better than he had ever allowed himself.

He waited patiently for the news.  The battle took place and was over virtually in an instant.  An entire fleet was obliterated.  The old man was certain he'd lost both of them, the young Starfleet officer and the woman who in the meantime had become his wife, and the mother of his child.  So that a whole family would have been sacrificed to the old man's vanity.

Months previous, he had heard in disgust that Ja'rod had been able to put the blame for the other disaster he'd allowed to happen on someone else.  This time, the guilty party wouldn't be Ja'rod after all.  It would be the old man.  Who began to accept that.

He learned that the young Starfleet officer had survived after all, him and his son as well.  But the woman had died.  The old man watched as his friend spiraled into despair, the core of his being having been ripped away from him.  With relief, the old man noticed that he was dying.  And Jadzia had just re-entered the program.

This would not be redemption.  He spent what little time he had left learning the suppression of memories.  Not all of them.  Just the ones that mattered.  He noted with some irony that Jadzia had also entered Starfleet.  He wondered, he hoped, that she would meet the friend he had betrayed.  That she could be for him everything that the old man had failed to be.  Had pretended to be.  But hadn't been.

On his deathbed, he wanted to be able to tell his friend what had happened.  But some things are better left unsaid.  He died wordlessly.


"Are you going to tell me your name?"

"Oh.  Ben Sisko.  I just graduated from Starfleet Academy.  I'm waiting for my first posting."

"Ah, a junior officer."


"My mother warned me to watch out for junior officers."

"Your mother is going to adore me."

"You're awfully sure of yourself."

Monday, May 4, 2015

A to Z Reflections - This One Is Not a Lie (And That's Not a Lie, Either) (Seriously)

I had absolutely no intention of doing this one when April began.  I didn't even start on the first day.  On the second day I knocked out two Lies, and then participated on-schedule the rest of the month.  I was surprised to discover that people actually liked this nonsense.  So I thank you.

The only problem in all this is that readers who check in ever again will probably expect more of the same kind of material.  This blog has a relatively long history, and at no point was there anything else like A to Z Lies on it.  In fact, there really was no humor at all previously.  But I've long wanted to be a humor writer.  So this was a step in the right direction, and I thank everyone who checked in, said they liked it, and didn't notice how awful some of it was (at least they didn't say how awful some of it was, and for that, I thank you twice over), not even the time I mentioned the horrible abominations of wood made out of adorable animals (this occurred in the previous post).

(Horrible Abominations would make a great name for a rock band.)

(That's a line I've been stealing from Dave Barry for years.  This is not a lie.)

(Dave Barry is a genius.)

(That wasn't a lie, either.)

(Here's a lie: We don't ride zebras only because we don't know if we should be riding the white or black parts.)

(The preceding lie is a tribute to my mother.)

(I miss her greatly.)

(The end.)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A to Z Lies: Zebrawood (The Final Lie) (The Preceding Was Another Lie)

Noun.  Wood callously and magically made out of zebra (if you'd have thought of it first, you'd have done it, too).

As in: The trip to the zoo was extremely profitable for Gary's zebrawood project.

(His giraffewood project, alas, is still only in the theoretical stages, but rest assured, koalawood and pandawood are a go!)

(Literally billions of people are shuddering in unison due to today's particular nonsense.)

(I don't blame them.)

(That's another lie.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A to Z Lies: Yardage

Noun.  What historians will know our era as (i.e. the Yard Age), owing to our curious predilection for obsessively curating...yards.

As in: [Distinguished historian, whom we will call Captain Julio for no compelling reason, speaking] "We have long suspected that the yardage was determined not by humans but by their canine overlords."

(Officially, the dogs let the dogs out.  Yo.  So sayeth Captain Julio.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A to Z Lies: X-ray

Noun.  Someone who used to be named Ray.

As in: He's an X-ray; as far as I'm concerned, he's no more, he has ceased to be!

Monday, April 27, 2015

A to Z Lies: Wetback

Noun.  A person having...a wet back.

(Why did you even need that one explained?)

As in: After competing, swimmers transmogrify into wetbacks.

(Before you criticize me, yes, this is also technically, officially a derogatory term.  And having an Olympic high diver who happens to be from Mexico represent today's word...Yeah.  Consider this a reclamation.)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A to Z Lies: Verjuice

Noun.  Juice made from vers.  (Don't ask what vers are, however.)

As in: Uh, I had some verjuice.


Friday, April 24, 2015

A to Z Lies: Upland

Verb.  In the event of gravity reversing, this is what physics dictates occurs; literally, you fall upward.

As in: It's a little known fact that Superman always uplands.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A to Z Lies: Triphammer

Noun.  A hammer you use to trip people.

As in: Tommy badly wanted a triphammer for Christmas, but his parents knew better, because they knew how poorly he played with others.

(Thor uses triphammers all the time, by the way.  They don't show this in the movies or the comics, but he totally does.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A to Z Lies: Springbok

Verb.  To break a bok out of jail.

(I have no what a bok is; just go with it.)

As in: Every time you springbok, an angel dusts its wings.

(Angels wings are incredibly dusty, on account of all the angel dust Tinkerbell keeps sprinkling on them.  She just doesn't get it.)

(Perhaps Tinkerbell is a bok.)


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A to Z Lies: Rumba

Noun.  The dance of an inebriated individual.

As in: Jack Sparrow really knows how to rumba.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A to Z Lies: Quadrille

Noun.  A drill that for some reason has four bits permanently attached.

As in: I was spending some quality time in the workshop, but everything went wrong the minute I tried using that ridiculously inconvenient quadrille (I mean, who designs these things anyway, the French; well, that would certainly explain the otherwise pointless "e" at the end, right?).

(Also, under no circumstances should you dance while holding a quadrille.  Bad things happen, folks.)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A to Z Lies: Pyrex

Noun.  The king of pies.

As in: A full-on peanut butter pie would absolutely be the pyrex.

(Also, peanut butter: It's the best ingredient in anything.  It's also acceptable as the only ingredient.)

Friday, April 17, 2015

A to Z Lies: Ostrogoth

Proper noun.  A subset of society that has been ostracized.

As in: [Fill-in-the-blank]s have long been ostrogoths.

(Sorry.  This one's not particularly funny.)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A to Z Lies: Nirvana

Noun.  Something that smells like teen spirit.

As in: I don't want to go anywhere near that room; it reeks of nirvana.

(Sorry.  Some of these just write themselves.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A to Z: Moron

Adjective.  used to describe someone who is generally considered to be on-point.

As in: Expect to see a lot of moron politicians during the next round of elections.


(I feel compelled to further elucidate this one: "moron" in this case as in "more on."  Also, "moron.")

(Yeah, this one this still a groaner.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A to Z Lies: Live

Noun.  The number five in a society that does not have the letter "f."

As in: There were live days of the week among the Knockolls.

(Also, the Knockolls are prone in general for language that seems to have no grammatical integrity.  They are frequently inbred, however, and often forum.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

A to Z Lies: Koodoo

Noun.  An expletive of the Star Wars alien species Dug.  Not to be confused with "poodoo."

As in: "You're Jedi koodoo," Sebulba said.

("Oh yeah?  You're a poopy head," Yoda replied.)

("Also," Yoda continued, "why am I even talking to you, and would it have been so difficult to use my distinctive speech pattern in forming either response?")

("Yes," Sebulba said.  And then bit the head off his snack.)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A to Z Lies: Joule

Noun.  This is literally a misspelling of "jewel."  Yeah.

As in: My nephew references "joules" in one of the pieces of schoolwork littering his room.  (Of course it was endearing.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

A to Z Lies: Inroad

Noun.  A road within a road.

As in: Only Jack Sparrow, in full forum state, could successfully locate an inroad.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A to Z Lies: Heptagon

Noun.  A square that is actually cool.

As in: Bill Nye is definitely heptagon.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A to Z Lies: Goo

Proper Noun.  This is the name a little white cat will use at some point in the future.
See also: Boo.  Woo.  Amanda.

As in: Goo is one of three finalists sitting in front of the jury at the end of Survivor next season.

(She will not win.)

I'm sorry, I should apologize:


Goo is one of three finalists sitting in front of the jury at the end of Survivor next season.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A to Z Lies: Forum

Adjective.  To have declared one's alcoholic preferences squarely in favor of rum.

As in: Jack Sparrow, forum, stumbled across the decks of his ship, a condition that naturally had nothing to do with the status of the waters on which it floated, but rather the liquid floating around in him.

(No, let's try that again.)

(Naturally, I blame James Bond.)

Jack Sparrow is known as a forum man.  (To clarify, this is most certainly not to be confused with the quality of his conversation.)

(Yeah, I'm not making this one much easier, am I?)

Owing to his forum state, Jack Sparrow believed it was appropriate to be discussing philosophy with a crab.

(Anyway, you get it.)

Monday, April 6, 2015

A to Z Lies: Enterprise

Noun.  The gift you receive for entering a contest.

As in: I was the worst one at the audition but they still gave me an enterprise.  (The only downside is that it was Simon Cowell recording his reaction for my answering service.  "That was without a doubt the worst rendition of a cat screeching I've ever heard.  And I've been to Paula's house.")

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A to Z Lies: Doleful

Adjective.  To have eaten Bob Dole.

As in: Bill Clinton won the '96 election mostly because he was doleful.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A-to-Z Lies: Cardiology

Noun.  The study of card games.

As in: James Bond specializes in cardiology (among other things.)

(Oh wait, that's a poor example.  Here's another:)

James Bond practices his cardiology skills a lot.

(That's pretty bad, too.  Here's another attempt:)

When he isn't hitting on women or shooting people or drinking martinis (shaken, not stirred) or using cool spy gadgets or whatever it is he does at parties otherwise (also, James Bond is generally a terrible party guest; seriously, you would probably hate him in real life), James Bond excels at cardiology.

(Nailed it.)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A-to-Z Lies: Balsamic

Adjective.  Used to describe something that is comparable to balsam.

As in: That iPod is not particularly balsamic.

A-to-Z Lies: Amplitude

Verb.  To amplify tudes.

As in: I amplitude all the time.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Old Man

The old man Tim has seen in town for years turns out to be incredibly important.

Years back, when Tim was still hanging out with the Mystique crew, a bunch of happy little conservative literary rebels (if such people can ever be called something besides the mainstream), he had the distinct impression, upon graduation, that his life was at a crossroads, in which he could attempt to stick around with them and find out where that led, or split off and create a far more hazardous destiny.  The part of him that wondered where the happy little conservative literary rebels (if such people can ever be called something besides the mainstream) knew there was a mystery waiting to be explained in that direction.

By the time he's learned the old man's secret, Tim understands that he might have found out years earlier if he'd just gone that way.

All of this makes sense, I swear.  This is to say, Tim found out that the old man may in fact have been God, and that when the old man dies, the whole of existence goes with him.  It's a starling, instantly sobering thought, one that occupies Tim, as all his deepest thoughts do, for quite some time, becoming an obsession that constantly threatens to consume him whole.

It doesn't matter how little Tim actually thought of the Mystique crew, that bunch of happy little conservative literary rebels (if such people can ever be called something besides the mainstream).  Even though these were the years in which he took his first tentative steps into the breathing world of letters, Tim suspected immediately that his friends were all frauds, worse than the pretenders who wasted everyone's time in class.  He knew he'd never know personally anyone who was a great writer, certainly not from those years.

When the recriminations came, later, among a crew of still less-talented writers, backbiting, backstabbing, egomaniacs sure of their own divinity, he observed with irony how none of them considered for a moment that there was such an individual as the old man in the world.

And how would they have reacted?  Just as if it were the end of the world.  How appropriate, surely?  Tim spends most of his days now wondering when the old man will die, and what will happen when he does.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Monkey Flip: NOVA 2014 Recap

In February of 2014, Boo Moritat wins Ring of Gold's annual Super 8 tournament.  The honor is tarnished by the fact that none of his fellow competitors ever amount to anything, other than their association with the superstar who will one day be known as BM Pro, a name he assumes, while still in RoG, a year later.  Everyone who knows him calls him Boo.  He's significant because in 2018, Boo will be Alex Helton's World Famous opponent once both have emerged on the grand stage of World Pro Wrestling.

Alex will have a different name, too, if you remember: Alex Dane.  But that is another lifetime, compared to 2014.  In this year, Alex is still competing for Colt Carson's NOVA.  In some ways, the whole year is a huge step backward for his career, at least as he initially views it.  It's also hugely significant.

Like everyone else in the locker room, Alex dreads January's pay-per-view, Idolwild, the second such card in the promotion's short history.  For the second year running, it is a chance for NOVA to introduce new faces to its fans, and not just any faces, but significant ones, who have already made their names elsewhere, big names.  Names like Mondo Joe and Manny Cruz, two wildly respected wrestlers, as well as Ivan Pulig, once hyped as best in the world, and Red Hook, one of the fiercest hardcore attractions in the business, still around and fast becoming a staple.  If that weren't enough, there's Oz Hedges making his company debut.  In the main event.  Booked to defeat NOVA champion Ian Maust.

Surely more than enough to make Alex feel uneasy.  He seeks reassurance from his pal Scott, who's scheduled to face Pulig on the card.  It's at this time Alex realizes something else, that Scott perhaps has greater potential than him, too, and that now will be the moment everyone realizes it.  To most of the boys, Scott Peavy is just another member of NOVA's roster, an original from its earliest days.  He's always been a little larger, the rare indy wrestler in the six foot range, not yet having developed muscle to convert his bulk, perhaps a little slower in the learning curve.  To Alex, he's been a loyal friend from the start, and that will never change.  But with increased learning potential, if any of them will ever leave NOVA behind and become a star somewhere else, it's beginning to look like it will be Scott.

Scott, whom some in the locker room have already nicknamed "The Beast," a name that will become his official moniker in WPW.  That's years in the future, though.  Alex can't know that he and Scott will headline World Famous together.  For now, he has another contender in mind.  Jealousy.

And a great deal of insecurity, something he's been dealing with for the past year already.  At Idolwild, he defends his kendo championship against Gabe Parkman, who by October has captured a new NOVA honor, the stretcher title, the most grueling one possible.  Carson pulls him aside just before the match is to begin and lets him know.  It's the only time all evening Alex feels at all significant.

By March, his worries begin to feel validated when Alex is pulled aside again, in advance of the Pink Mist card, and told he will drop his belt to Cruz, who by the same card next year will have completed his transition to becoming known as Proof and therefore solidifying what NOVA has helped define as a bold new era in his career.  Already an established standout in New World Wrestling, the second biggest promotion after WPW, this is certainly a notable development.  What is Alex doing, meanwhile?  Losing to Pulig at Fluid Karma the next month.  He's becoming enhancement talent.  He makes others look good.  Sure, it's an honor to be put in the ring with that level of talent.  But his ego wants more.  He wants his own career to shine.  At this point, that's looking less and less likely.

For the Smokin' Aces card in May, Alex is told his willingness to put the bigger names over will be rewarded.  He will be in a tag team with Adam Hayes, one of the standouts of the '90s in the American Championship Wrestling scene along with Joey Williams, who went on to bigger and better things.  Who knows?  Maybe he'll get a similar rub from Hayes, who used to be known for a rich man gimmick.  As with any tag team match in NOVA, it's for the tornado championship, and the one who gets the pin also wins the title, to be held with a different partner each defense.  Alex will be getting the pin.

From Scott's experience, this is one of those things about NOVA that sounds and looks good, but is really as much of a back-handed compliment as can be given by Carson.  It's exciting for the fans, but the most thankless spot of all the featured roles in the promotion.  Scott hated his three months with the belt.  They'll both like the title a lot more in 2015, because they will share several months with it.  But for now?  June's Alpha Dog card is a nightmare.  They're on opposite sides.  It's more evident than ever before how needlessly chaotic the tornado championship is as a concept.  It's the worst kind of gimmick.  Yet by July and August, when Alex teams with Ian Maust, he changes his tune.

Maust was the first big name that caused him to panic.  Maust was the NWW guy who looked like he diminished everyone else around him, in an instant, and the first outsider who was given an immediate push at the top.  Yet the more Alex got to know him, the more he realized how humble Maust really is.  It's Maust who campaigned for this early deviation from the tornado title norm, allowing the same tag team partners to stick together for more than one match.  He's the one who whispers into Alex's ear: "You've got big things in your future."

Does Alex even believe him?  For two months he does.  Their matches against Oliver Pine and Oscar Guerrera are among the most highly-praised in the whole industry that year.  They're a definitive turning point.  The steel cage rematch in August's Three Rules card is one of only three matches that evening.  It's given all the time it needs to shine.  That evening, Alex doesn't feel like he's part of a gimmick at all.  He really does feel as if he's being taken seriously.

At the third Unleashed card, the annual celebration of NOVA's debut, he's back in the kendo title hunt, but he's going against Scott.  It's the first time a wrestling commentator calls Scott "The Beast" on the air.  They tear the house down.  They do so again on the Cold Snap card in October, as part of a tournament.  Alex doesn't mind putting Scott over at all.  His pal ends up in the quarterfinals against Maust, who helps Parkman claim the inaugural stretcher championship in the finals.

When Scott receives a main event match on the Thriller card the next month, Alex could not be more proud.  His fears from earlier in the year look childish now.  He's teamed with Pine in a tornado title match the same night, going opposite Guerrera and Damian Goch, who's the next person to whisper in Alex's ear: "I'm doing it to honor the matches you guys had with the Beast.  You guys are creating history."  At December's Sudden Impact, Goch has a match with Scott.  Alex has the night off.

He's not at all concerned about his future.


From a concept developed by Patrick Staight...

Stephen Hawking is supposed to have said, “If time travel were possible, we would have been overrun by tourists from the future by now.”

Even if he had, he would have been inaccurate.  I know because I’ve done it myself.  My name is Ajax, and my life was ruined by time travel.  Let me explain.

When I was a girl, all I ever wanted to do was follow in the footsteps of my father, the scientist.  I never saw him.  From the moment I learned what he did, I became hopelessly fascinated.  I wanted to know what he knew.  And when I learned his specialty was physics, and that his focus was time travel…suddenly the whole world opened up to me.

The whole world, and its whole history.

One day he disappeared, and I dedicated my life to finding him.  Worst mistake I ever made?  I learned a terrible secret.  After learning how it was done, and making a few innocent test runs, I learned that something out there doesn’t like people traveling through time.

My entire body was disintegrated in a moment.  The monster called itself Tempos, and it was a monster that considered itself a god.  Whatever it was, it used a neutron bomb to do it.

But I came back.  I was rebuilt, piece by piece, with a new body.  I had become a robot.  When I woke up, I became aware of the switching post Times Past for the first time.  Sitting in front of me was another time traveler I’d met on one of the test runs, a man who called himself the Buccaneer.

You’ll excuse me if I admit here that I was madly in love with him.

“Takes some getting used to,” he said.  I might have imagined one or more of us looking soulfully into the other’s eyes at this point, perhaps a romantic glint in his.  “Don’t worry.  It happens to all of us.  I’ve made a living looting the past.  I never thought I’d become a collector’s item myself.  Where I come from, they don’t have robots yet.  The future never seems to show up, does it?”

“At least we have time travel, right?” I said awkwardly.

“Yeah,” he said.  “They call me the Buccaneer.  We all have nicknames.  Here at Times Past, it’s a way to get by, forget about our troubles.  Exactly how Father Time wants it.”

“Father Time?”

“The proprietor,” the Buccaneer said.  “We call him that because he’s the oldest time traveler any of us has ever met.  This place is kind of like his retirement.  Guess he couldn’t get sentimental about anywhere he’d gone, had to create something new.”

“Who else is here?”

“The Duchess and Shooter, currently,” the Buccaneer said.  “You won’t like the Duchess.  You’ll think Shooter is crazy, just like everyone else.  He’s one of those nuts who tried to figure out how Kennedy died.  Ask him about it.  Heh.”

“And we’re all…”

“Robots?  Yeah,” the Buccaneer said.  “Sooner or later, everyone gets swept up in whatever game Tempos is playing, that cold, indifferent bastard, reorganizing the universe, or something.  The worst part is, if anyone ever managed to have a conversation with him, the consensus is all he’d say is, ‘Nothing personal.’  The rest of us take it pretty personally.  You can forgive an attention to an original body.  Nothing tastes right anymore.”

“Speaking of which…”

“Father Time has a great menu,” the Buccaneer said.  “You can count on that.  He knows how tough we time travelers have it.  I bet you’re hungry.  But you’ll see what I mean.”

After we’d made our way to the common area, passing portraits in the halls of every conceivable era, with Father Time at various ages in all of them, I saw the other guests for the first time.  The Duchess was beautiful in a way that could really make a girl feel inadequate.  The truth was, because of my intense devotion to the cause, I’d let other things slip my attention.  I was always one of the proverbial never been kissed types.  Maybe that was another reason why I fell so hard for the Buccaneer…

I figured she’d never had to work a day in her life, a real story of royalty in all its comfort.  Couldn’t wait to learn her story.  Shooter, on the other hand, was far less impressive.  He looked every bit the snot-nosed kid, all wild red hair and crazy eyes.  I could imagine a lifetime of never being taken seriously.  Having learned what his goal had been already, I didn’t have much trouble reaching such conclusions…

“Darling, please do take a seat,” the Duchess said, or possibly cooed in the Buccaneer’s direction.  Fortunately, he didn’t seem to notice.  “The view is exquisite.”

I confess I hadn’t even noticed, but decided to take her word for it until I glanced through one of the many expansive windows that lined the lounge in Times Past.  What I saw was breathtaking, as if all of time was streaking past us in golden sparks of memory more blinding that a million suns.  Fortunately, Father Time seems to have conceived of some dimming technology.  All time travelers know the importance of eyewear.

“Hey kid,” I couldn’t resist, looking over at Shooter, who sat at the far end of the empty bar, “tell us who did it.”

“Ah,” Shooter stammered, “y-you wouldn’t believe it!”

“Fine then,” the Buccaneer offered cordially, “at least tell us what you used to believe.  What set you on your mad quest?”

“Don’t be offended, boy,” the Duchess said.  “We were all on mad quests.  It’s the nature of our little hobby.”

“And yours?” I asked.

“If you believe it, I’m the only one who knew about the robotic bodies,” the Duchess said.

“She was an old woman when she set out,” the Buccaneer whispered to me.

The Duchess seemed to have heard him.  “Yes, my dashing friend.  I was old.  You go to the past to grow younger, darling.  Isn’t it obvious?”

“Does Father Time ever show up?” I asked.

“No one’s ever tending the bar,” Shooter said, “if that’s what you mean.”

“Are you even old enough to drink?” I asked.

“I’m plenty old!  No one takes me seriously,” Shooter said.  “Usually you get to choose your nickname.  I didn’t get to.”

“Word is, you logged the fewest hours in time before ending up here,” the Buccaneer said.

“You’re still…just a pup,” the Duchess said.

You could tell, coming from her, Shooter took that remark as a slap across the face.  He was probably what she was used to, another fawning male, hopelessly in love with her.  I found myself relating, actually.

“You’ll find a lot of petty jealousies in our line of work,” someone said behind me.  It was Father Time.  I recognized him immediately from the portraits.  There seemed to have been an obvious gap from the last one to his current state.  He looked frail, but confident.  His voice was as strong as ever, but his eyes were sunken.  No doubt about it, though: among a group of eccentrics, our host was the most eccentric of us all.  I couldn’t tell where any of the fashions he’d cobbled together had come from.

“Welcome, my dear,” he continued, taking my hand like a gentleman.  I was embarrassed.  Mostly, though, I wondered why the Buccaneer hadn’t already done something similar.  Different times.

“You’ll excuse our host,” the Buccaneer said.  I heard a note of jealousy in his voice.  “He’s always taking liberties.”

“As is my right,” Father Time said.  “At any rate, make yourself at home.  You’ll find the bar will present whatever you like to you.

“Shooter here was just telling us who killed Kennedy,” the Duchess said.

“That old story,” Father Time said.

“Is there any other kind?” the Buccaneer said.

“Some of us have other ideas,” I said.

“Good for you,” the Duchess said.

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Shooter said.

“You’ll forgive natural curiosity,” the Duchess said.

“Said  the cat,” the Buccaneer said.

“I prefer lynx,” the Duchess said.

“You really want to know?” Shooter said.

“Like murder,” the Duchess said.

“Surely we have better topics in mind,” Father Time said.  “Have you had a tour yet?”

“I was just about to do that,” the Buccaneer said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Besides stealing things, rescuing damsels in distress is what I do,” the Buccaneer said.

“Honey, we’re all in distress,” the Duchess said.  At some point she had conjured a cocktail for herself, and it was obvious that Shooter was trying to figure out how.  Father Time stood off to the side looking innocent.

“If you’ll follow me,” the Buccaneer said.

“Of course,” I said.  I wasn’t sorry to leave that room.

“I’m sorry,” the Buccaneer said as soon as we were alone, down another corridor with more of Father Time’s portraits.

“You don’t have to apologize.  It’s not your fault.”

“We’re all judged by the company we keep,” the Buccaneer said.  “Or at least, that’s what my mother used to say.”

“Do you ever miss her?”

“That was a long time ago,” the Buccaneer said.  “I prefer to look forward.”

“But you loot the past, don’t you?”

“Technicalities,” the Buccaneer said.  Everything valuable is eventually lost in time anyway.  You should see the Colossus of Rhodes.  And who I got it for.  That was an adventure.  In some ways, it was all downhill from there.”

“I’m sure you’ve kept yourself busy.”

“Always,” the Buccaneer said.  “So to speak.  You’ll like this room.”

He maneuvered me into a space filled with…well, I didn’t really know what I was looking at.

“Father Time lets me store things I haven’t managed to fence yet,” the Buccaneer said.

“You have been busy.”

“Odd,” the Buccaneer said.

“Oh?  This I’ve got to see.”

“I know the exact contents of this room.  Or, I should.  I mean, who else puts things in here?”

“If we assume correctly…”

“Exactly,” the Buccaneer said.  He was looking at a cabinet, and when he’d opened it, even though his back was to me, I knew he’d registered a shock.

“You…you shouldn’t see this,” the Buccaneer said.

“What is it?”

“I’m telling you, you don’t want to know,” the Buccaneer said.  After a moment, he seemed to have rethought.  “It’s a body.”

He stood paralyzed, at any rate.  He wasn’t about to stop me.  I went to have a look for myself.  He was right.  And what was more, I recognized it.  I started to cry immediately.

“You know who it is,” the Buccaneer said.  He placed an arm around me.  Such was my state that I didn’t register it at first.

“It’s my father,” I said in a small voice.

I could smell the Duchess before either of us saw her.  The Buccaneer turned around first.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Same as you…after a manner,” the Duchess said.  “You weren’t supposed to find it so quickly.  After all the trouble we went to find a distraction for you.”

“Nothing happens by accident,” the Buccaneer said, beginning to realize what was going on.  He threw something at the Duchess, a powdery substance.  It blinded her long enough for us to escape.

We went running down corridors.  Now the portraits seemed to be taunting us, a new sneer on Father Time’s faces.

We nearly collided with Shooter, who was sniveling in a corner.  “You found out, didn’t you?” he said.

“Come on!” the Buccaneer said, grabbing Shooter by the arm as we continued on our way.  Now the corridors began to take on a disorienting effect.  I could swear the portraits were repeating themselves.  Of course we ended up back in the lobby.

The Duchess was somehow right behind us.  “It never makes sense to run,” she said.  “Why does anyone ever do that?”

“Instinct,” Shooter said.

“Humor us, will you boy?” the Duchess said.  “Who killed Kennedy?”

Shooter looked so nervous, I felt sorry for him.  He looked all around him wildly, and when he couldn’t take it any longer, he threw up his arms and shouted, “It was Oswald!”

“Obviously,” the Duchess said.

“Leave him alone,” the Buccaneer said.

“This is insane,” I said.

“Insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different outcome,” the Duchess said.  “This is semantics.  You didn’t think a place like this could exist innocently, did you?”

“Father Time’s in on it,” I said.

“We have to get out of here,” the Buccaneer said.  “All of us.”

Shooter was sobbing now.  Even the Duchess started to look uncomfortable.  “Oh, grow up,” she said.

“That’s all I ever wanted,” Shooter said.

“Then you shouldn’t have accepted the job,” the Duchess said.  “What?  You didn’t know?  Our boy is the one who did it.  Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?  A time traveler shot John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“It was a setup all along,” the Buccaneer said.

“Pick up your gun and shoot,” the Duchess said.

I didn’t want to believe she was addressing Shooter until the composition of his face changed, and he reached for the gun I had only just realized was strapped to his thigh the whole time, like some long-ago gunslinger.  He shot the Buccaneer pointblank.

“Excellent,” the voice of Father Time sounded from behind me once again.  “It’s time we all reveal ourselves, isn’t it?

He looked different, somehow, than he had previously.  Not younger, but certainly more confident.  It was the most startling transformation yet.

“You killed him…” I said.

“You saw Shooter…” Father Time said.

“My father,” I said.  “You’re behind everything.  In fact, let’s call you by a different name, shall we?  Tempos.  I knew I’d seen you before.  We all did, just before you killed us.”

“Congratulations,” Father Time said.  He had grown larger.

“All this time,” I said, “I’ve been grappling with doubt.  I wondered if I was really still me, in this new body, the one you made for me.  Maybe that explains the Duchess, Shooter.  Maybe it doesn’t.  But whatever it is you want, you’re not getting me too.”

“My dear, that is entirely out of your control,” Father Time said.  The walls of Times Past fell away from us.  We were now in the middle of the multiverse.  Just as I had always found it, it felt exactly like a barren wasteland.  I had been a fool all along.

“You forgot one thing, though,” I said.

“Oh?  What’s that?” Father Time said.

“We’re time travelers,” I said.

I escaped into thin air.

I could barely hold myself together.  I knew the Buccaneer’s body remained within that treacherous hive, but there was no chance of bringing it with me.  Where could I go?  I had no idea where Father Time had come from, if he had ever been human at all.  As Tempos, he was some kind of god.  At any rate, he was more experienced than me, than any of us.

I wanted desperately to go home, but I knew from past experience that time travel doesn’t allow that.  You can never go back to the same place twice, not even home.  It’s the curse all time travelers think they can live with.

Then I remembered a way around that.  I could go into my own past, or more specifically, my father’s…

I felt myself materialize at the front door of the house where I had grown up.  I pushed open a squeaky gate, one my mother said my father had always intended to fix.  He never did, of course.  Apparently the gate was another thing that had a long, frustrated history in my family.

I was able to walk right inside.  We’d always left the door unlocked.  No one seemed to be home, but I knew better.  I crept down the stairs to the basement, where the laboratory was.  He was standing there with his back to me, completely oblivious, lost in his work, as always.

“Dad,” I whispered.

He turned around immediately.  He was younger than I’d ever seen him.

“Do I know…?” he said, but then reconsidered.  “Ajax.  Somehow I knew you’d always come.”

“You’ll have to tell me sometime how you chose my name,” I said.  I was crying again, but the hairs on his wooly beard were sopping up the tears as he embraced me.

“There’s no, ah, time at the moment,” he said.

“There’s always time,” I said.

“That’s my girl,” he said.  “Now, tell me why you’ve come.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” I said, taking a step back.  “I’ve made a real mess of things.”

“I think we both know that I started it,” he said.

When I didn’t reply right away he added, “I see.  I suppose I never get around to telling you how dangerous our little game really is.

“No, you don’t,” I said.  “But I forgive you.  It doesn’t matter.  We have another chance.”

“There’s always another chance,” we said in unison, and then for another moment nothing’s said.

“Tell me how it happens,” he said.

“I don’t know how, but I know who,” I said.

“I think I do, too,” he said.

“How could you…?” I said.  “But you know everything, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” he said.  “What kind of a father would I be if I didn’t?  No, my problem is that I didn’t get around to telling you.  Sooner or later, all time travelers meet him, in one form or another.  I met him almost immediately, which he told me at the time was rare.  I took that as an honor.  Now I suspect that he was jealous.  He’d never met someone who mastered it sooner than he did.”

“Arrogant prick,” I said.

“I don’t get around to explain language to you either, I see,” he said.  “But it’s okay.  Doesn’t matter.  You’re here because you want to know if there’s any possible way to prevent it.  What happens.”

“If anyone knew…” I said.

“I appreciate your faith in me,” he said.  “Lord knows I couldn’t have made it easy.”

“What matters now is that we still have a chance to set things right,” I said.

“I’m glad we have this opportunity to talk shop,” he said.  “A time traveler’s life can be lonely.  But you understand that now, don’t you?”

“I met someone,” I said.

“A boy,” he said.

“A man,” I said, blushing.

“You will have to tell me all about him,” he said.  “Although, I think I know who.  I hope it works out.”

“That’s one of the things that needs fixing,” I said.

“I see,” he said.  “Time consumes everything, in the end.”

“But not before we get to see it,” I said.

“There’s no other reason to do what we do, is there?” he said.

“I’m glad I got to see you today,” I said.

“Me too,” he said.  “Let’s get to work.”

We talked strategy throughout the night, but neither of us grew tired, as if, yeah, we didn’t even notice the passage of time.  Finally, we both agreed on the most…ironic way to solve our problems.

We clutched hands and shimmered into the multiverse, and before we knew it we were standing in a different laboratory entirely, Father Time’s.  He looked decades younger, far younger than in any of the portraits in the halls of Times Past.

“Hey Tempos,” my father said.

“What?  How did you find me?” Father Time said, looking around in alarm.  It struck me that he looked much like Shooter.

“It’s not hard to figure out,” my father said.

“Once you master it, it’s not really so difficult,” I said.  “But you never do master it, do you?”

“I have no idea what you’re…” Father Time said.  “Of course.  So it’s come to this.  A paradox.  I should have known.”

“You’re the one who first called it the multiverse,” my father said.

In the blink of an eye, the Duchess and Shooter were at Father Time’s side, the ones I’d left behind at Times Past, probably from the exact moment I’d left, when the shift first occurred to him.

Shooter looked more confident.  “Now we’ll see who’s pathetic,” he said.

I didn’t know what he was talking about until something in my head clicked, though not in a good way.  I could feel Father Time’s programming begin to set in.

“You wondered who killed your father,” the Duchess said.  She walked brazenly toward my father and planted a sultry kiss on his lips.  It was a disgusting display.

“I know all about you,” my father said.  “Sycophant.”

“In your dreams,” the Duchess said.

I heard them speaking through a fog.  I felt my hand reaching out for the gun Shooter was offering me.

“Bastard!” I said.  “Don’t make me do this!”

“It seems I already have,” Father Time said.  “No time like the present.”

“Honey, it’s okay,” my father said.

I was crying, shaking, but my hands remained steady.  The gun was pointed straight at his head.

“I don’t understand,” my father said.  “She hasn’t even been born yet.  She has to know who I am.”

“You change things, I change things,” Father Time said.  “Or aren’t you a master of time?”

“You never change time,” Shooter said, but rather where you are in time.  Different realities.  It took me a long time to appreciate that.”

“But somewhere you’re still responsible for the assassination,” the Duchess said.  “Perhaps everywhere.  We’ll never know, will we?”

“Let’s be nice,” Father Time said.

“I can’t decide which of you is more contemptible,” another voice said.  I realized that it was the Buccaneer.  “The funny thing about all this is that none of you even remembered I was still out there.  I’m kind of offended, actually.”

I was still crying, but now I found myself smiling, too.  I felt horribly awkward, worse than ever before.  Of course, I was still pointing a gun at my father.

“Who…?” Father Time said.

“The man who first gave you the idea,” the Buccaneer said.  “I’m not the only thief here.  You stole this whole idea from me.”

“Stole…?” Shooter said.

“Before you get any ideas…” the Buccaneer said.  “It seems I’m addressing more than one problem with that statement.  Let me help.”

I felt the gun being taken away from me.  I wanted to kiss him, but I still wasn’t in control of my body.

“To be clear, our friend Tempos here corrupted the gift I gave him,” the Buccaneer said.

Before he could continue, suddenly the room exploded in blinding light.  When it cleared, there were dozens of Father Times in the lab, all of them recognizable from the portraits I’d seen in Times Past.  But each of them was equally impotent, as the Buccaneer was about to explain.

“Tempos here is unique,” he said.  “He can’t time travel at the moment, and all of his…duplicates know that, because if he did, he would destroy all of us, including himself.  The great Father Time comes from the past.  He truly is the oldest of us all.  It’s a shameful little secret of his.  He never would have known about time travel at all if I hadn’t made the mistake of visiting him.  You see, I have the misfortune of calling him my grandfather.  Growing up, I’d heard all these stories about him, but as time went on, I began to forget them.  And I didn’t want to ask again.  After a while, storytellers do get tired of repeating themselves.  So I decided to see for myself.  You see, like the rest of you I had figured out the secret of time travel for myself.  The rest of us, I should say, besides Tempos.  He was just a writer, as it turned out, the first of the storytellers in our family, but one who never had the fortune of anyone outside the family hearing his stories.  I suppose it drove him crazy.  I felt sorry for him.  I gave him a souvenir.  I warned him what would happen if he tried to use it.”

“And at the moment, that’s all he has, isn’t it?” the Duchess said.  For the first time, she seemed almost respectable, one of the good guys.  Almost.

“It bothers you,” my father said to Father Time.  “You spent a lot of time trying to make your own.  And none of your…friends can help you.”

“And you’re here before I succeed!” Father Time said.

“That’s the general idea,” the Buccaneer said.  “But how did you know?”

“My father is a master of time travel,” I said.  I could feel my body beginning to return control to me.  “He figured it all out first.”

“Damn you,” Father Time said.

“That’s the idea,” the Buccaneer said.

You can imagine for yourself how the rest of the scene plays out.  Except there’s no happy ending.  I’m still in this robotic body, after all.  I will forever have to remain…vigilant.  Father Time may be gone, but his legacy remains.

Fortunately for me, I have a little help these days.

The Tarnished Age: Unsafe at Any Speed

From the Tarnished Age concept developed by Brennan Thompson...

He was looking at his costume. It was now several months since he’d run away from home. Such was the state of Lero Lawler’s mind that he found no great pleasure from the thought of running away from anything. He wanted to leave his whole life behind, and yet there was the costume. It was the only clothing he had. Despite the usual ideas of glamour associated with superhero costumes, his was not looking its best, both a combination of the fact that he’d been wearing it nonstop for so long and because he was terrible at the special ability that had given him cause to wear it.

It was torn around the knees, for one thing. Everyone expects that a speedster will simply know exactly what to do, that they will somehow have the instincts. For Lero at least, that just wasn’t the case. He thought bitterly how it was common for people to acknowledge the difficulties of learning to fly, but those same people wouldn’t give him an inch, and “those people” were his own family, and those of the whole speedster community. And everyone else.

A speedster does more than run really fast. Being a speedster is more than simply picking a direction and avoiding obstacles. Given enough practice, a speedster can vibrate past even those, but beginners are expected to learn the art of dodging. It also helps in a fight. Yet Lero had far more basic problems than that. He had a mortal struggle with the idea of momentum itself. He didn’t know how to stop. Every time he did, he left the speedster equivalent of skid marks, and that’s to say he left large stretches of land, or whatever surface he happened to be on, imprinted with tangible evidence that he’d covered that territory.

Now, speedsters have a certain amount of physical tenacity. Beyond the metabolism that accelerates their caloric intake and regulated body type, which also gives them incredible resilience, most surfaces touched while in the act of running aren’t affected by them, the rapidity of movement canceling out their presence. Except when drag is introduced. And drag is introduced with panic, uncertainty. Like any machine, all the parts work in concert when everything works the way it’s supposed to. When the machine doesn’t work, that’s when you notice just how intricate the whole thing is.

All of which is to say, Lero was a speedster who did not function properly. It wasn’t psychological, so far as he was aware anyway, pressure to live up to the family legacy. When you’re born with an ability, that means it comes naturally to you. Lero was born as a speedster. And yet, no amount of training or encouragement or experience ever seemed to change the fact that he just wasn’t any good. It began to occur to him that even gifts you’re born with don’t always mean that you’re meant to depend on them. For a speedster born into a family of speedsters, this would be a hard thing to explain.

That’s why he ran away. It was just easier.

That is, it would have been if he had had some kind of backup plan. He’d spent the preceding months scraping by, which was not so unusual in the grand scope of things. The Great Depression, despite the best efforts of President Roosevelt, still affected most of the country. The rest of the world was busy dealing with the emerging crisis instigated by Nazis and imperial Japanese interests. Lero looked at his ragged costume and saw a reflection of just how screwed up everything really was. But he still wanted to figure out how to fit in so that it wasn’t so depressing.

That was how he met Oscar Ovila, who called himself Outcast in the same way most people knew Lero as Mach. He found Oscar in an alley, sitting on a mountain of trash bags that were not filled with trash at all but treasures, and not in the sense that he’d liberally renamed someone else’s trash. When they had known each other a few days, Oscar showed Lero the contents of just one bag. It was art. Lero had no idea how he’d gotten it, because he recognized the work of Picasso, just as anyone would have. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d expect to find in an alleyway. The thing was, Lero recognized an opportunity. Oscar mentioned that there were more, or more accurately had once been more, until a thief had stolen the rest of them. What Oscar didn’t know was that it was Lero who had taken them. This was well before he’d met Oscar himself. When you stumble across priceless works of art and they’re not hanging in a museum or some rich person’s home, chances are they’re more than just misplaced. He’d put them someplace secure.

He couldn’t just tell Oscar that, however. He didn’t know how Oscar had ended up with the art in the first place, and he didn’t know how much he could trust him. These were at least reason enough to help Oscar in his own efforts to retrieve his ambiguous treasure, though. Beyond everything else, Lero desperately wanted someone who understood him, and Oscar had proven as likely a candidate as anyone.

Oscar’s first instinct was to contact members of the superhero community. This proved difficult, as he was not known as Outcast for just any reason. For this reason, Lero volunteered the names of certain speedsters he knew, not from his family, but certainly those they would know well. The first was Blue Streak, who happened to be visiting Centennial City, where he was working on a case with the Allied Avenger, tracking down a Nazi spy.

“If you ask me, it’s a waste of my time,” the speedster told them. “Hitler doesn’t seem so bad. That’s what a lot of us are saying. Those who oppose him are simply scared of the future. Just between us, I think they’re scared of all of us. Rumor has it that he has a speedster of his own.”

“Who else are you including in this estimation?” Lero found himself asking. He was horrified.

“You know, guys like Dash, Brisk, Fleet,” Blue Streak continued. “I’m pretty sure you can include Rapid in that number. But then some of us think he’s one of the German speedsters as it is. You can’t tell under that mask of his. And he never speaks.”

“You never know,” Oscar said.

“The Allied Avenger is an idiot,” Blue Streak said. “He works alone, if you can believe it. British fool. Takes frequent breaks for tea.”

Lero saw that this particular avenue was a waste of time, and even as an imperfect speedster he shared that trait; that much he could sympathize with Blue Streak. He’d never liked him anyway, not even when he overheard him speaking ill about his parents, Pronto and Presto. Perhaps that was the reason why Lero decided to talk with someone from the family next. Oscar had no objections, even though by Lero’s own account his contacts were proving fruitless.

It was his younger sister Hairtrigger that Lero turned to, as always. She was the only one who seemed to understand him. “They’re all worried about you,” she said.

“That’s what they’d say,” Lero replied. “I’m sure Breakneck has been the most vocal, but then she’s always been. How’s Mom taking it?”

“Not well,” Hairtrigger said. “You’re hurting all of us.”

“I wonder how much Hypersonic has noticed,” Lero said. “Or Supersonic.”

“You’ve got an inferiority complex,” Hairtrigger suggested.

“Maybe,” Lero said. “Listen, please tell me the family doesn’t think Hitler is anything but an evil bastard.”

“You should know that already,” Hairtrigger said. “Of course we know what he is. If we could do it without becoming enemies of our own country, we’d join the fight against him today.”

“Suppose I told you that there are already some of us that have done that,” Lero said. “I’m helping a friend track down stolen Nazi loot. Which was itself stolen. Would you know anything about that?”

“Not me,” Hairtrigger said. “Maybe Dad, or one of your imposing brothers. Listen, please come home.”

“I can’t do that right now,” Lero said. If he could, he would have run away right there and then, disappeared, insofar as one speedster can do so against another. “You know I love you. Please don’t tell them you saw me.”

He rejoined Oscar elsewhere, in a diner, where his friend was enjoying a cup of tea.

“It seemed appropriate,” Oscar said. “Was it hard, seeing your sister like that? At any rate, we’re getting nowhere. I’d ask if that was tough for a speedster, but I know you better than that.”

“Just like I could ask if you had any useful contacts we could exploit,” Lero said. “But that would be equally pointless. I guess I’d say that seeing her was hard in the sense that it only makes it harder.”

“Now you know,” Oscar said. “The people you know can always make things worse. But they can also make it better. You just never know.”

“What made you think I could help make things better for you?”

“They say the devil you know is better than the one you don’t,” Oscar said. “Let’s just say that I differ on a lot of philosophical points. You can’t disappoint me until you do. Everyone I knew already has.”

“I’m sorry,” Lero said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Oscar said. “If there was anything you could do about that, I wouldn’t be talking to you. Better to try and reclaim my treasure. That’s all I care about.”

Centennial City can be a lot like Oscar’s definition of familiarity. It can be your biggest friend, or your worst enemy. For that reason, they determined that it wouldn’t be necessary to look anywhere else. Lero suggested that Blue Streak might still be useful, given that he and the Allied Avenger were admittedly tracking a Nazi spy. He was finding it increasingly difficult to continue lying to Oscar, but their relationship was built on mutual need, something the visit with his sister had only confirmed. Even if he didn’t share the exact sentiments, Lero found that Oscar’s ideas were helping him process his complicated feelings toward his family.

The spy went by the name Doctor Teutonic. He had come to America on the pretense of sharing secrets of the international superhero community. There were those who had embraced his arrival, and those who remained skeptical. Lero remembered how his parents scoffed at the idea of welcoming a German of any stripe into the city, until he himself reminded them of Einstein, who surely could not be rejected on such a basis. Doctor Teutonic was no Einstein, but Lero found it difficult to reject him on the basis of his nationality. The man he now knew as a spy was more than capable of providing reasons all on his own.

“Americans amuse me,” the German said. “You boast of yourselves as one of the greatest countries in the world, and yet the biggest impact you’ve had lately is to ruin the fortunes of countless countries, and you prefer to isolate yourself from state affairs.”

Lero and Oscar stood there, astonished at Doctor Teutonic’s words, but Blue Streak appeared unfazed. They had gathered at one of Centennial City’s main shipping wharfs, and were attempting to speak casually together. It didn’t take Lero long to decide this was another waste of his time. He waited for the earliest opportunity, and quickly begged himself off. In his mind, Lero was traveling back to the period just after leaving his family behind for the first time, before Oscar, when he met the orphan known as Banks.

Here was a girl, younger than Lero, perhaps thirteen, who had clearly been living on the streets most of her life, who had been abandoned but somehow made the most of it. It was Banks who first told Lero about Oscar, about the art. She was a scrapper, who had every reason to be as cynical about her fortunes as Doctor Teutonic was about the whole country, and yet Banks exhibited a force of will that took Lero aback from the moment he met her.

“Don’t let appearances fool you,” she said. “And don’t trust the Outcast. He’s not what he seems, and he’ll betray you in a heartbeat.”

Should Lero be worrying now? Blue Streak appeared to be in Doctor Teutonic’s back pocket, but might Oscar also be leaning in that direction? How else had he gotten his hands on the art in the first place?

When Lero ambled back to the wharf, he knew immediately that it had been a mistake to leave. Oscar was staring at him, and Blue Streak looked smug. “I’ve just been told something very troubling, Lero,” Oscar said. “If I were to ask my good friend Nadir about my art, what do you suppose he’d tell me?”

Lero knew that Nadir was part of Oscar’s tenuous network, though someone they hadn’t visited because he wasn’t always reliable to look after his own best interests. Lero knew Nadir because it was Nadir who’d told Banks about the art, and Nadir knew about it because he was the one who first suggested that it shouldn’t be in Oscar’s possession, much less in the hands of Nazis.

“Never mind about that, though,” Oscar continued. “I’ve also been informed of something that might interest you a little more personally. Your mother is experiencing a problem with containment. Your sister didn’t tell you that, did she?”

Containment for speedsters meant their body’s ability to regulate itself. If what Oscar was telling him was true, this was very bad news. It was completely different from Lero’s own problems. It was a fatal diagnosis. His mom had very little time left to live.

“Who told you this?” he demanded.

“Don’t trust the messenger?” Blue Streak sneered. Doctor Teutonic remained at a discreet distance, while Oscar stood nearby, looking abashed. “What’s the matter, you didn’t know? Pronto was always good, but she was never that good. Teutonic says he could help her. His people have been conducting experiments, with the goal of eventually eliminating such degenerative diseases from our kind. Isn’t that good news? Puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it?”

Not as far as Lero was concerned. Insensate to the known consequences, he dashed off at his fullest speed, leaving the whole party behind. He traveled loops around the city, ignoring the damage he caused along the way, not even worrying about how or when he was going to stop. He suddenly wondered if he was ever going to. His mind was racing. There was a very good reason for Teutonic to care so much about his mom’s condition. The end result, the end of her life, would coincide with a perfect burst of speed, uncontrolled, a breach of space and time itself. He must already know where that would lead. That had been the real reason for the German’s activities. Lero scoured the archives of the local paper, whipping through page upon page and creating a maelstrom around him, until he found the article he was looking for, something about the Manhattan Project and Einstein’s visit to Centennial City a year earlier.

Lero had no idea what this Manhattan Project was, and he suspected that Teutonic didn’t either, but that the real purpose of his visit was to find out, and steal its secrets. He’d merely used Blue Streak, and by extension Oscar, to advance this goal. And he would use Lero’s mom to complete it. He must have already determined that the end of her life would give him exactly this opportunity. Was there some vital clue in the papers? Lero couldn’t bring himself to look. He had already wasted enough time. He now headed back in the direction of home.

The more Lero thought of his mom, the more he blamed himself for her condition. His body was aching all over, and yet he ignored it. He kept calling himself names. He called himself selfish and stupid, immature, impulsive. He was running faster than he had ever gone. He hadn’t stopped since the wharf.

He ran around the family’s home several times. Teutonic was already there. The air blazed with an energy Lero knew was connected to the end of his mother’s life. She was causing a breach in reality, and he wondered if his presence, all the running he himself was doing, only intensified the effect. Yet he couldn’t stop. He didn’t trust himself. He sped into the house, and saw everything in chaos. There were bodies all over the place. His dad, and his brothers and sisters, they appeared to be alive, but unconscious, whether from something Teutonic had done or from the concussive waves emanating from Pronto, who was phasing in and out of the living room. The German spy was clutching Oscar’s art. Somehow he’d found it. Perhaps the art had always been the key, an anchor to the past.

Whatever the Manhattan Project was, there was no way Lero could allow Teutonic to interfere with it. What stopped him now from acting was a different kind of agony, extreme remorse at having been away while his mom’s life ebbed away from her. He asked himself if he’d known before leaving, if there had been some sign.

There was only one thing he could do now. He raced off with the bodies of his family, and cleared the nearby homes as well. When he stopped, when he finally came to a halt, the result would be catastrophic. He had to make sure the area was clear.

He picked up speed. He pushed himself past all levels of endurance. There was a sonic boom that rattled the whole earth, but he doubted that Teutonic noticed. There were so many questions he wanted to ask the German. When this was over, he wondered what would happen next.

The effort of stopping had always been something Lero feared. He knew how badly he handled it under the best of circumstances, when he only traveled short distances, for only seconds at a time. He’d been running for nearly an hour, in perpetual motion in one fashion or another since it first occurred to him the true scope of the crisis.

He could feel his mom’s life radiating, leaking away from her. He drew strength from this. He was more afraid of losing her than what would happen when he stopped.

And so, for the first time in his life, Lero Lawler, who had done everything in his power to separate himself from the identity of Mach, found himself in control of his speed. In an instant, he was standing in front of his mom, no longer moving so much as a muscle. Only a tear broke his sudden inertia.

But there were consequences. The whirlpool he’d created, amplified by his mother’s condition, created another boom. The grace period Lero experienced for the first time, a heartbeat between the speedster’s actions and their effect on the world around them, ended. The house exploded around them.

Lero had saved the art, but he’d left Teutonic behind. The German spy’s atoms scattered in an instant.

He wasn’t sure what to think of that. He couldn’t begin to say why he hadn’t spirited Teutonic away as well, like he had so many others. In the immediate moment, Lero wasn’t thinking of Teutonic at all, but rather of his mom, whose body also vanished, but for different reasons entirely. Like so many other speedsters before her, Pronto was now part of the greater force that gave all of them their abilities.

Lero never ran again.

He walked up behind Oscar, who was back in one of Centennial City’s many alleyways. “Did you know?”

Oscar didn’t react at first. “I could ask you the same question. You never stopped to wonder if I might have had a reason to steal that art, did you? But we both know you knew. You were the one who took it all away from me. You never trusted me for a moment.”

“Should I have?”

“I guess we’ll never know.” Oscar looked away. He had a forlorn expression on his face. “She’s dead, isn’t she? We all felt it. Blue Streak left right away. Listen, I’m sorry, kid. But it’s not the end of the world. You’ll see.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Not as easy as you’d think,” Oscar said. He started to shuffle off, but then turned around. “We’ll figure this out. Let’s get you something else to wear. Take this whole day off of you.”

Lero hesitated, but only for a moment. It felt like an eternity to him. Then he went to join his friend.