NAUTILUS GALAXY (fully revised)

(I will occasionally release remastered versions of my older stories, for those who may have missed them during their initial release. As always, I would greatly appreciate any feedback you have. Enjoy!)

A novella in 20 chapters.

Included within: Comedy, tragedy, romance, astrophysics, punk rock, Inter-dimensional travel, existentialism, sword fights, enraged cephalopods, Raquel Welch unveiling the truth behind reality…and more.

 

Nautilus-Galaxy_REV_cover

 

NAUTILUS GALAXY

By Nathan Goldschot

-1-

Henry felt possessed whenever he put his hands on the laptop, as if his fingers were conduits to another world. He wrote every night without fail, producing sprawling records of characters whose lives brimmed with a vitality long-absent from his own. Stories filled his mind faster than he could transcribe them. The process was both frustrating and addictive.

Returning to reality was always harsh. Henry’s jobs waiting tables and cleaning carpets absorbed valuable hours he’d rather devote to expanding his fictional universe. Henry wasn’t driven by the desire to succeed as a writer, but the necessity of escapism. Nearly three years had passed since the night a Ford Aerostar van drifted out of its lane on Interstate 84 and struck Henry’s sedan. He awoke from his injuries a month later, with only a hazy memory of the collision. After talking to an investigator, he learned his car had careened through a guard-rail and rolled several times down an icy slope. The hospital staff assured him that his wife and son had died instantly, as if it would come as some sort of comfort.

Everything Henry cared about was gone and his extended stay in Sacred General soon took everything else. With his finances depleted and his marketing job lost, it was only a matter of time before the mortgage company came calling.

Losing the townhouse was devastating, but Henry soon felt relieved to be away from the memories of Molly and Adam scarring its hollow spaces: chipped molding in the hallway from impromptu soccer matches; bits of tape on the windows leftover from tissue paper art projects; flecks of pancake batter trapped in the grout of the kitchen tile; a red thread stuck in the carpet from a bedraggled teddy bear. Freed from the house, it became easier to avoid being ambushed by remnants of his past life. The few mementos he couldn’t bear to part with were locked in the coat closet of his new apartment, only to be viewed on his terms.

Cheap liquor served to dull Henry’s pain when he couldn’t retreat into his imagination. He brought a pocket flask to both of his menial jobs, taking risky sips of whiskey behind the carpet warehouse’s dusty steel racks or inside the diner’s walk-in freezer. The booze fuzzed the hard edges of reality until he could return to his fictional obsessions.

Writing was the only distraction potent enough to shield Henry from his grief. His torment lessened as time progressed, but he was reluctant to trust his emotions. Anguish had been the one emotion he could rely on–without it, he feared he’d be nothing but an empty shell.

-2-

NAUTILUS GALAXY

CHAPTER 12: Reunion

Only three fusion pills remained in Anslin’s bandolier—enough explosives to free General Haslo, Kritt and her father. Even with the aid of repuslor lift boots, searching for her surviving squadmates through the ten kilometer-long Pilan frigate had proved taxing. The map unit of her scarab suit had been damaged during her initial raid and was rebooting at a snail’s pace. Come on, dammit, I need to know where they are!

All of Anslin’s muscles were burning. Sweat fogged the visor of her helmet. The chemical cocktail she had pumped through the ventilation system to force the Pilan’s bacterial defense array to go dormant would only last a few more minutes. When the vapor wore off, the simple organisms would reactivate and proceed to strip the meat from her body.

Anslin realized not all of the mercs had abandoned ship as she rounded the corner on the way to the general’s cell. A bulky sentry guard in reinforced rubber armor was blocking her path, toting a massive voltage cannon he could barely hold upright

“There’s the bitch! Die!” yelled the guard through his opaque, black mask.

Anslin mulled over her options while leaping out of the way of an arcing bolt of electricity. Her sidearm’s battery had been drained during her initial attack on the frigate and lacked enough power to penetrate the sentry’s armor. Conversely, the pill launcher she had stolen could take down a Valent Hovercruiser, but she only had three rounds left—all of which would be needed to blow the thick doors off the cells of her compatriots. Using a pill to kill the guard would doom someone in the Astarte Unit to a horrible death.

Anslin didn’t allow herself to dwell on the matter—the guard had to be taken out or none of them would survive. She told herself there had to be another way to get the last cell open without explosives. Hopefully her meager hacking skills would suffice to pop open the prison block’s security doors.

Anslin advanced on the rubber-clad brute blocking the hall. She slid between the guard’s legs while ducking under a corybantic bolt from his cannon. Before her attacker could turn around to unleash another searing blast, she spun on her back and quickly fired a pill. The resulting explosion pushed her up the hallway, leaving the chrome-covered walls blackened and dripping with the guard’s gore.

“Too close,” muttered Anslin. She coughed and rose back up on shaky legs, having nearly lost consciousness. The HUD of her cracked visor flashed, indicating the map had finished updating. “Good, I’m finally heading in the right direction.” Seeing she was only a few meters from the detention blocks, she reactivated her repulsor boots with renewed purpose and hurried to meet her captured squad.

The encounter with the leftover mercenary left Anslin confused. The Pilans had activated the warship’s bio-defenses in desperation as they evacuated, hoping to kill Anslin and what was left of the Astarte Unit. They had no way of knowing she had outfitted vapor dispensers to the frigate’s hull to nullify the bacteria. Without the gas, anyone left behind would be eaten alive in minutes by ravenous microorganisms. The Pilans were ruthless, but not stupid; they wouldn’t have left one of their own behind in the heart of the ship to die—especially one toting such an expensive weapon.

Anslin burst inside the detention area and followed her HUD to General Haslo’s cell. “Sir, are you there?”

“Anslin?!” bellowed the general. “I can’t believe you’re alive!”

As much as Anslin disliked General Haslo, he was vital to the Astarte Unit. She had no choice but to use a pill to free him from captivity. She pulled up her targeting computer and adjusted the mass of the impending explosion to affect only the surface area of the door. “Stand back, sir…way back.”

The general ducked down in the corner as Anslin fired the pill launcher. A tremendous plasma explosion rang out as the mangled door careened off its hinges to the frigate’s floor. The general waved away the smoke and stumbled out of the cell. “Dammit soldier, you could have killed—”

“Shut up, sir,” interrupted Anslin. She pointed to the corner of the room to a bank of lockers. “Grab a pressure suit and be ready for anything. I need to figure out how to open the other two doors.” General Haslo nodded wordlessly and hurried to suit himself up.

Anslin sprinted to another cell and peered through the small slit at the top of the door. “Kritt?!” She saw her lover slumped in the corner, clutching his middle. “Kritt, I’m here!”

Kritt didn’t answer. He let out a small moan before going silent again. A blood-stained sword was sitting beside him—left behind by the cowardly Pilans as they fled.

“Anslin? Is that you?” called Anslin’s father, Danth, from a few doors down.

Anslin took a step back from Kritt’s cell. She had one pill left and two doors to open. She switched her HUD to display the time remaining before the carnivorous bacteria reactivated. Twelve minutes.

“Danth, hang on,” shouted Anslin. Having just been introduced to her father a few days ago, she had to ask herself if she was willing to sacrifice the love her life for a man she had just met—a man who had abandoned her as a child. She hurried over to the Frigate’s console and punched the keys but the security coding was completely foreign to her. She smashed the console, having no hope of hacking open the doors. “Damn it!”

“Hurry up, kid,” said General Haslo as he affixed a helmet to his pressure suit.

“Shut up, General. Get ready to blast through the hull.” retorted Anslin. If worse to came to worse she’d be forced to eject herself into open space before the bacteria reactivated–piloting her ship remotely while in free-fall. She knew retaining enough wherewithal to pluck herself out of her spin and retrieve the rest of her squadmates would be next to impossible.

Anslin wrung her hands together and started to shake. Only nine minutes remained before the bacteria awakened and began to spread. If she waited much longer the shuttle she’d moored outside the frigate would become a death trap.

“Anslin,” rattled a weak voice.

Anslin rushed back to Kritt’s cell door and looked inside. “I’m going to get you out of there!”

Kritt was holding the sword that had pierced his middle, ready to pull the blade across his neck. “I heard what you said. Your father…is too important to the mission. I don’t have long…they stuck me like a pig and I’m bleeding out. There’s no point in wasting a pill on my door. Get your dad out then get the hell away from here. I love you, Anslin.”

“Stop!” ordered Anslin as Kritt pushed the blade closer to his neck. “Just wait, I have an idea! Promise me you’ll wait! Push yourself as close to this door as you can.”

Kritt coughed and lowered the sword. “Alright. Hurry.”

Anslin rushed to her father’s door. “Danth, stand back.” She fired her last pill and the cell door folded in half, smoking as it rocked on the floor.

Danth rushed out of the cell, hopping over the smoldering debris. “Christ, what a boom.”

Six minutes remained until the vapor wore off. “General, follow us…hurry!” ordered Anslin. She was gambling all their lives on a hunch.

“If you wanted me to die, you should have just left me in the damn cell,” complained the general as the trio sped through the hallway. “Where the hell are we going?”

“I killed a Pilan guard on the way here. I couldn’t figure out why he was still on the frigate…he didn’t look like the type of guy who was big on self-sacrifice,” said Anslin. They rounded a corner and saw the bloody chunks of the mercenary still sliding down the walls. A few meters from the explosion, Anslin noticed a blackened door she had overlooked in her haste. “I knew it…the bastard had an escape route! The other mercs must have ordered him to stick around to ensure I’d be killed.”

Anslin heard a wet, sizzling sound as they headed toward the door. The eviscerated body of the merc was starting to quiver and melt into a pink paste. “The bio-defenses have already reactivated!” she said, trying not to panic as she pried on the door. “Help me get this open!” The two men joined her and the hatch finally slid open, grinding on bent rails. Behind it was another opening leading to the dead mercenary’s cruiser. “The ship’s small, but we’ll fit. Let’s go!” The trio hurried inside.

Anslin detached the ship from its tethering cables and sent it drifting into space. After fumbling for a moment, she located the thrusters and directed the cruiser to the wall outside of the frigate’s detention blocks. She looked at her console. “Perfect. Standard-issue Pilan rail cannons.”

Anslin pulled up her map of the frigate and overlaid it atop the cruiser’s targeting system. “Kritt’s in cell 37. Danth, get ready on that retrieval arm. We won’t have much time to get him into the ship’s cargo slot once the vacuum pulls him out of the hull.”

“Anyone else feel itchy?” asked the general, scratching at his arms.

“You’d already be dead if that bacteria were on you,” replied Danth.

“We should retrieve Anslin’s shuttle,” said the general. “There’s barely enough room to stand up in this damn thing.”

“No, my shuttle’s on the other end of the frigate. It’s already swarming with bacteria by now,” said Anslin. “This ship is smaller, but it has bigger guns.”

Anslin fired the cruiser’s rail cannons, blasting a surgical hole in the hull of the Frigate. Kritt was immediately sucked out of the tear into open space. “There he is! Danth, grab him!”

Danth nodded from behind his console. He carefully maneuvered Kritt into the airlock using the ship’s robotic arm. “He’s in.”

“If you bring that bacteria on board you’ll kill us all!” said the general.

“Don’t worry. The vacuum choked any bacteria that might have been on him,” said Danth.

“You better be right,” said the general, crossing his arms.

Anslin rocketed away from the frigate and activated the ship’s auto pilot. After grabbing a medical kit, she slipped through a small hatch into the hold and crawled to Kritt’s side.

“Anslin, you’re completely unhinged,” said Kritt with a groan, seeing her hurry closer.

“You’re welcome,” said Anslin, wiping some tears from her cheeks. Although much of Kritt’s skin was pockmarked with tiny wounds from the bacteria, the medscanner found no remaining trace of the microorganisms.

Anslin rolled Kritt on his side and examined the wound in his abdomen. The angular nature of his Tirhin anatomy had redirected the sword away from his vital organs. “You’re lucky…like usual. If you were human that blow would have killed you. You’ve lost a lot of blood, but you’ll be alright.”

Kritt coughed. “It took four of those Pilan bastards to hold me down. Someone ordered them out of my cell after they stabbed me. They ran like a bunch of cowards.”

Anslin ran the medscanner’s patch-beam across Kritt’s middle. “That must have been right after they activated the frigate’s bio defenses.”

“A few more seconds in there and I would have been hamburger,” said Kritt, peering down at his pitted skin. “Ugh. I look like shit.”

“I don’t know…I think the scars give you an air of dignity,” said Anslin.

Kritt grinned then winced. “Don’t make me laugh!”

Anslin pushed a pain pill in Kritt’s mouth then kissed him sweetly. “You need to rest.”

“I hate being rescued,” whispered Kritt, the drugs already taking effect.

“Well, now we’re even,” said Anslin with a smile. “Come on, let’s get you to a cot before you pass out.”

-3-

It was a particularly slow Monday afternoon at Karpet King. Feeling restless, Henry slipped into the warehouse to sneak a quick drink. After taking a sip he noticed his boss rushing to confront him. He took a few steps back in surprise and quickly pocketed his flask. “Mister Hanth! What’s…up?”

“I knew I smelled liquor on your breath!” interrupted Hanth, his wrinkled faced folding with disdain. “Drinking on the job is a fireable offense!”

Henry lowered his head with a sigh. “I’m not going to waste any breath trying to talk you out of this. I’ll grab my shit and go.”

Hanth seemed displeased to have his shame ceremony cut short. “So, nothing to say for yourself? Get out of my store, coward…and find Jesus!”

Henry left without a word. His pulse pounded as he walked aimlessly through the streets, trying to calm himself. While cutting through an alley he stopped to take a drink, but instead threw his flask in a nearby dumpster. “Idiot…you knew this would happen.” He made his way back to his apartment and hurried to his computer to write.

The next day wasn’t much better. The air was filled with tension at Henry’s other place of work–a small diner located just around the corner from Karpet King. He soon learned Mr. Hanth had called 8th Street Eats to spread word of their server’s “unprofessional behavior.” A day later Henry was completely unemployed. His final hope to secure some income vanished with a flurry of rejection letters for his most recent novel, “Nautilus Galaxy.”

Soon to be evicted, Henry took advantage of the unsecured wi-fi from the falafel shop across the street from his apartment. He downloaded as many articles on quantum physics, astrophysics, biochemistry and robotics as his laptop could handle then printed every page, determined to continue his book series no matter what circumstances may arise—including a lack of electricity. He was busy binding stacks of printer paper together when he heard a knock on his door.

Henry put down the bottle of Jim Beam he had been nursing. He threw on a checkered flannel and a pair of jeans before going to the door. Expecting to see his landlord through the peephole, he saw Katy instead–his friend and ex-coworker from the diner.

“Oh! Hey Katy, hang on,” said Henry with surprise as he popped several locks then opened the door. He got along with Katy exceedingly well, despite their slight generation gap and polar-opposite personalities. She had hinted at taking their relationship in a romantic direction after dumping her boyfriend, but Henry wouldn’t allow himself to consider anything but a friendship, if that.

“Henry…I heard what happened. It’s such bullshit,” said Katy. She held a white paper bag in front of her. “Can I come in? Here, I brought you some falafel.”

“Uh…yeah, sure. Thanks,” Henry took the bag from Katy and stepped aside so she could slide by him. “I guess I should apologize for the mess but I’m not going to.”

“Non-apology accepted. After all, you’ve seen my place.” Katy stepped over a few empty pizza boxes and piles of magazines until she made it to a chair. Her elbow bumped a stack of papers as she sat down, sending them sprawling across the floor. “Oops. I guess I should apologize for that, but–”

“Nice,” interrupted Henry with a smile. “Don’t worry about it, I was going to recycle that pile anyway.” A savory smell was emanating from the bag. “You know, it’s funny…I’ve lived here for over a year and I’ve never eaten anything from that place across the street. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever had falafel before.” He put the sack on the counter then sat across from Katy. Pity was radiating from her big brown eyes. He hated that look.

Katy diverted her gaze when she saw Henry glaring back at her. She picked up a few sheets of paper and squinted at the articles they contained. “Multiverse Theory? Superstrings? What is all this stuff?”

“Research.”

“Cool. I wish I could write like you.” Katy put down the articles and looked around the disheveled studio. “Are you moving?”

“Yes, more or less,” replied Henry. He didn’t feel up to revealing the truth of his impending homelessness. “I’ve only been living in this studio because it’s within walking distance of my shitty jobs. Now they’re gone.”

Katy shook her head and leaned back in Henry’s rickety chair. “I can’t believe Mila fired you without a shred of evidence! Christ, the woman barely comes into her own damn restaurant.”

“She hired and fired me over the phone. We’ve never actually met,” said Henry, moving another pile out of the way.

“Richard stood up for you, but I guess Mila would rather take the word of that carpet-slinging turd from her church than her own restaurant manager. Not cool.”

“Thanks, but to be honest, I have been drinking on the job. I hid it fairly well most of the time…not well enough at Karpet King, apparently.”

Katy looked confused. “Really? I haven’t noticed you stumbling around or anything.”

“I’ve been careful not to get outright smashed,” replied Henry. “Before you insist I change my destructive behavior…I get it. I’ve had the proverbial wake up call.”

Katy looked dismayed for a moment before sitting up straighter with a shrug. “Okay, so, I’m a little sad that I was too stupid to pick up on all this, but I’m not going to judge you. I know you’ve been going through some real shit.” She blew a soft sigh through pursed lips. “Wow, I sound like one hell of an enabler.”

“Yeah, thanks for that.”

“Not funny. Please, take care of yourself. I can research a few places for you if you like?”

“What, like rehabs? I’m not quite on that level yet, but thanks. I know it’s a shitty excuse, but I was just trying to get through the day easier. Obviously, booze only made things worse, so I’m done with it.”

“Yeah, well, don’t expect me to turn a blind eye to this,” said Katy, crossing her arms. “I’m your friend, you can talk with me…about anything. You know that, right?”

“I know. And I do.”

“Now I understand why you were always popping those Altoids.” After a measure of awkward silence, Katy flashed a bright smile. “So, did they like your new book?”

“No, they didn’t. Not yet,” said Henry, staring at the bottle behind Katy. The irony of finding refuge in whiskey after what a drunk driver had done to his family was not lost on him.

“No bites, huh? Don’t worry, it will happen. I know it.”

Henry always expected to recoil at Katy’s optimism, but it generally made him feel better somehow. “Thanks.”

“You still haven’t given me a copy of part three. I’m going to go nuts if I don’t find out what happens to Anslin!”

“I could just tell you, if you want.”

“No, dummy! Just email me your manuscript, okay?”

“Okay.”

Feeling fidgety, Katy picked up a photo sitting on the ledge next to her. “Oh wow…is this Molly and Adam? They really were beautiful.” She paused when she saw Henry’s pained face, realizing she had stepped over a line. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean–”

“Katy, it’s alright,” lied Henry. He had forgotten to put the photo back in his closet. “That was…a long time ago.”

“They say time heals all wounds but that’s bullshit,” said Katy, staring at Henry and his family in front of Multnomah Falls. “When my mom died…well…I still cry nearly every day.” Katy sat down the picture and groaned, frustrated with herself. “Why can’t I learn to just shut up?”

“Stop it, I know your heart’s in the right place,” said Henry. After a long pause, he mustered some words to keep from sobbing. “I know Molly wouldn’t want to see me…like this. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m still trying to do right by her. Does that seem strange?”

Katy shook her head. “I don’t think so. My feelings for the people I care about don’t change if they’re in the room, across town, or even if they’ve passed away. The only difference is whether I get to share more experiences with them or not. The people I love live on in my heart, no matter where–or when–they are. I guess that’s something like an afterlife.”

Henry always appreciated the off the cuff profundities Katy rattled out at random moments. “That’s kind of a nice way to put it. Sad, but also nice. I just wish Adam had more chances to make memories…he was only four.” He slouched and held his face in his hands, his tears refusing to stay at bay. “Shit.”

Katy stood up and hurried to Henry’s side, putting her skinny arm around his shoulder. “You’ve already been through enough today. I’m so sorry.”

Henry stopped sobbing but every time he wiped his eyes his hands came back wet. He waited patiently for the valve to close. “Katy, I don’t want our friendship to be based on pity.”

“Well, it can’t be based on your fucking sense of humor, so what am I supposed to do?” asked Katy with a smile.

Henry choked out a laugh. “Goddamn you.”

“You’re welcome,” said Katy. She looked at her watch and hopped to her feet. “Crap, my shift is starting in ten minutes.” She hugged Henry tight as he stood up. “Sorry I have to rush off.”

Henry was reluctant to let her go, but he forced himself to step away. It wasn’t a good time to trust his emotions. “No problem. Thanks for coming by. I’ll make sure to get you my new address. I…can’t remember it at the moment.”

“Get it together, old man,” said Katy, moving toward the door. “Please, email me your book—I really liked the first two.”

“I will,” said Henry, “and I’m only five years your senior so shut up.”

Katy pointed behind Henry. “Give me that bottle.”

Henry handed over the whiskey bottle reluctantly. “Happy now?”

“And tell me if you liked the falafel.”

“I’m sure I’ll love it.”

-4-

Henry discovered he didn’t love falafel but he finished the wrap anyway. Afterwards, he sat in front of his laptop but found himself unable to write for the first time since the accident. Out of booze and inspiration, he went for a long jog to try and clear his head. Dusk was his favorite time to run.

During his run, Henry couldn’t help but think of the potential places he could camp for a night should he wind up homeless. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about the weather as much with summer coming. Katy would appreciate my positive outlook, he thought, carrying no shortage of contempt for himself.

Henry was greeted by the sound of his buzzing cell phone as he walked back into his apartment. He picked up the call with a groan, seeing it was his long-silent literary agent, Barry Smanton.

“Hello, Barry.”

“Henry! It’s been awhile.” Barry sounded anxious and congested, which was typical.

“I’m surprised to hear from you,” said Henry. “I just assumed you had dropped me after I didn’t get a reply about the manuscript.”

“I’m just going to cut to the chase here,” said Barry, clearing his throat. “Your initial sample chapters were great–phenomenal even–but the finished product, how can I say this, I found it–”

“Disappointing?” interrupted Henry. After four months of silence he no longer gave a damn about his agent’s opinions.

“Not in the least! However, when I signed you up I warned you that I wasn’t the most literary-minded of literary agents. I’m looking for projects that can be parlayed into film and television deals. Merchandising. Cartoon shows. We both know the market for hard sci-fi is essentially dead.”

Henry put Barry on speaker and plopped down on his futon. “You already gave me this speech. It’s precisely why I tailored Nautilus Galaxy to function as a standalone work even though it’s the conclusion of a trilogy.”

“You know, you didn’t help matters by putting your first two books online for free–that sets a difficult precedent against making money. Making the novel standalone was a good move but I warned you this would be an uphill battle of you didn’t play to the crowd.”

Henry clamped his eyes closed and pinched the ridge of his nose. “I honestly tried, Barry. Are you saying the book’s not palatable to the masses?”

“Henry, those first few chapters are a great sell! It has action, humor, spaceships and alien babes—all stuff people expect from science fiction these days. The back half of the book though…yikes.”

Henry instantly regretted ever putting a finger on a keyboard. “Go on.”

“Your novel is one hell of page turner but it’s utterly worthless from a marketplace standpoint. It starts out as a standard adventure story then morphs into some kind of philosophical space opera. Audiences these days don’t even have the patience for old Star Trek episodes; they need an explosion or sex scene every ten pages or they tune out.”

“I wanted people to get hooked on the adventure early on so I could introduce more heady concepts in the middle of the story. Christ, maybe I got too ambitious…are you saying you couldn’t follow the plot?”

“Some of the science-heavy stuff blindsided me at first, but even the most out-there shit made sense by the end. And that ending…what a killer!”

“So, you weren’t lost? I sure as hell am,” said Henry with a sigh.

“I freakin’ loved the novel!” exclaimed Barry.

“But…you can’t sell it.”

“I can’t sell it.”

Henry could almost hear Barry shrugging his shoulders. “So, you want me to change it up again?”

Barry laughed boisterously. “Oh, god no. The book is a powerhouse…don’t touch a damn word! I’ve been banging my head against the wall for weeks, trying to think of ways to parlay this thing into some cash, but I’m afraid I’m out of my element.”

Henry sat back up with a grimace. “Christ, Barry…do you realize the roller coaster you’re putting me on right now?”

Barry sighed. “I know kid, I know. I’m calling today because a little birdie told me you’ve been shopping the novel around to other agents. Normally, that kind of thing would make me want to kick your ass into next Wednesday—but I think you made the right move. I’m not the right guy to represent you at this point. I think it’s best we sever our business ties, officially.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” lied Henry.

“We both know it’s for the best. At the moment, I can’t think of a single joker who could market this damn thing. Still, the novel is rock-solid. Someone’s bound to snatch it up.”

“Right,” said Henry, looking at a pile of rejection letters on his desk.

“Anyway, best of luck Henry. I’m sorry I let you down.”

“You didn’t. I appreciate your honesty and your kind words.”

“Mind if keep this copy for myself?”

“No, go ahead. Keep it.”

“Great. Next time I’m town I’ll take you out to lunch.”

“Sounds good.”

Henry ended the call and stood up. He threw an empty beer bottle across his kitchenette but it bounced off the wall without delivering the satisfaction of shattering glass. He tossed himself back on the futon, hoping for several hours of dreamless, death-like sleep.

-5-

Henry opened his eyes and instantly knew he wasn’t in his apartment. He was lying in the center of an empty room–its ceiling, walls and floor covered with softly swaying blades of grass. The sod-covered interior was blindingly bright despite being completely enclosed, having no windows or obvious source of illumination. The floor resembled a well-manicured lawn but felt strangely hard and warm against his back.

Henry sat up in a daze and pushed his fingers over the lush green blades, discovering they were completely intangible—almost vaporous. Panicked, he jumped to his feet and groped the edges of the walls but could find no hint of a door. At a loss, he returned to the middle of the small room, hearing only the sound of his pounding heart. He was on the verge of hyperventilating.

Do you wish to suspend your emotional output in favor of intellectual clarity?

Henry ignored the bizarre thought that had entered his mind apropos of nothing.

The thought came back. Louder. Do you wish to suspend your emotional output in favor of intellectual clarity? The words were not coming from a “voice” he recognized.

“What the hell is going on?” yelled Henry, putting his hands on his temples.

You are not in danger. Do you wish to suspend your emotional output? Please respond to my query.

Henry spun around the room in frustration. “I…I don’t understand! Who are you? Where the hell am I?”

A warm sensation swirled through Henry, extinguishing his panic in an instant. With his thoughts becoming clear and calm, he took a deep breath and reassessed the situation. The building terror inside him had transformed into an overwhelming curiosity.

I have made the decision on your behalf. Please be patient. You were accidentally awakened from stasis before being fully acclimated.

“Acclimated to what?” Henry backed into a corner of the grassy room. Lacking a reference point for the conversation, he spoke to the ceiling. “Am I a prisoner here?”

No.

“Okay, that’s good…I suppose. Please don’t tell me you’re extraterrestrial.”

There was a slight pause. I suppose I am, but probably not in the way you’re expecting.

“I’m comatose right now, aren’t I? I probably drank myself to the edge of death and passed out in an alley.”

I can assure you, none of that is true. The voice was decidedly feminine.

“Can you please show yourself?” begged Henry.

Of course. The acclimation process is complete. Prepare for transfer.

-6-

In the blink of an eye, Henry found himself standing ankle deep in lava at the edge of an erupting volcano. He made a small hop to escape the molten rock flowing around his legs before realizing it was as insubstantial as the blades of grass in the other chamber. The surrounding vista was filled with black sand and obsidian shards as dark as the sky overhead. Despite the Hadean surroundings, the air felt cool and comfortable. “Unbelievable.”

I thought this may be a more interesting setting.

“I like it,” said Henry. “Now, who are you?”

Would you prefer to speak with a man or a woman?

“Just be yourself.”

I’m afraid that’s a subjective concept.

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Okay, well, you sound like a woman. Can you send down Raquel Welch?” he joked, increasingly convinced he was dreaming.

Raquel Welch rose out of the lava wearing her iconic cave-woman outfit from the movie, One Million Years B.C. She shook a few globs of lava off her hips then stepped closer. “Pleased to meet you, Henry,” she said, holding out her hand.

“Suspicions confirmed,” said Henry, shaking Raquel’s hand with a laugh. “I’m in no hurry to wake up now.”

“You’re not dreaming, Henry,” said Raquel. “You’re in a buffer between dimensions. A shell between worlds. Limbo, for a lack of a better term.”

“Okay,” said Henry, more inquisitive than frightened. “Something’s off. What have you done to my head?”

“I’ve suspended your fear-based emotions to allow you to focus on the matter at hand.”

“What? There’s no need for that. I’m alright now,” said Henry, appalled.

Raquel smiled. “Are you sure?”

“Yes! Just…make me normal again.” As soon as Henry finished his sentence, a sudden blast of horror washed over him. He shook uncontrollably for a moment, but managed to calm himself. “I’m okay…I’m okay,” he gasped, forcing himself to stand up straighter.

“Shall I suspend your emotions again?” asked Raquel.

“No! Please…just explain this to me. Jesus fucking Christ, what is happening?” asked Henry, fighting back his dread.

“All will be revealed in time. You will be greatly rewarded for your patience if you choose to accept the task I am offering.”

“What task?”

Raquel grinned. “I have read your many works of fiction…even the volumes you keep private and unpublished. You seem to be adept at accurately representing the machinations of the physical world as well as the depths of the human spirit.”

“Creepy, but thanks.”

“You will be sent to a different time and place to witness a portion of someone’s life. This person will be a complete stranger to you. They may not seem important at first glance, but their lives will greatly shape the flow of human history. You will be able to see them but not interact with them. Conversely, they will not be able to detect any sign of your presence.”

“Creepy part two. What is the point of all this?”

“You will follow the individual in question for a set number of hours, utilizing your skills of observation to detect any activities that seem anomalous to the subject’s nature–whether in action or in conversation.”

“How do you expect me to determine if someone is acting strangely if I’ve only been with them a short time?”

“You are uniquely qualified for this task. It is why you are here.”

Henry shook his head. “I still don’t understand.”

“You will.”

Henry threw up his arms in frustration. “You know what, I couldn’t care less about this shadowy reward you’re offering. You can either send me back or lock me up somewhere, but I’m not doing this weird bullshit for you.”

-7-

NAUTILUS GALAXY

CHAPTER 23: Homecoming

“All systems nominal,” said Anslin, checking the ship’s gauges. Skipping across the edge of the wormhole hadn’t been easy, but their stolen mercenary vessel had held up remarkably well. “We made it…I can’t believe it.” She looked out the window as the sun crested behind the Earth in the distance. “We’re finally home. My father and the general should already be on Nogero Delta. We need to—”

“Anslin, something’s wrong,” interrupted Kritt, looking troubled as he lifted his eyes from the data terminal.

Anslin swallowed, steeling herself for the news. “What is it?”

Kritt slumped in his seat. “My calculations were flawed. Our trajectory through the quantum singularity was diverted by a warp in space-time. We skipped across the edge of the wormhole and wound up ten years ahead of our estimated arrival.”

“Years? We’re ten years in the future?” asked Anslin, shocked.

Kritt couldn’t look Anslin in the eye. “Yes. I’m sorry Anslin. I messed up…bad.”

Anslin took a deep breath. “We swore to deliver the Martyr Stone to the general. Without it, there’s no way he could have kept the Pilan Mercenary Alliance at bay.”

“We’re a decade too late to prevent the invasion.” Kritt tapped a few buttons on his terminal, uploading the latest news from the Galactic Collective. “The Earth’s already been overrun. Pilan slavers under contract with Cheif Potentate Doownel have begun pulling victims from Earth to construct the empire’s new war machines. The opposition has collapsed.”

Anslin wiped a tear off her cheek. “Was there any resistance? General Haslo…is he still alive?”

Kritt shook his head. “The remaining squadrons did everything they could against the PLA, but it wasn’t enough. The general’s dead.”

“What about my father?”

Kritt swiped furiously through several more pages of historical data. “I can’t find any records on the newsnet regarding your dad. It may be a good sign.”

Anslin slammed her fist on the console and screamed. She batted away Kritt’s hand as he tried to comfort her. After a long moment, she loosened her grip on the ship’s yoke and unclenched her jaw. “What’s done is done,” she said, forcing herself into a state of calm, “but we need to do something to rectify this mess.”

“Anslin, the Martyr Stone can still do some serious damage,” said Kritt, with sudden resolve. “If I carry it directly into the middle of the Pilan fleet I can wipe out a few thousand mercenaries. It won’t send the bastards packing, but it might buy you enough time to find enough sympathizers willing to join the Astarte Unit in a new assault.”

“No,” replied Anslin, her tone adamant.

“Anslin, this is my fault. Let me do this! You can’t let your feelings–”

“Enough!” interrupted Anslin. “This isn’t about you and me. The opposition forces have been completely smashed…there isn’t anyone left to fight alongside us. Besides, I already have a plan.”

Kritt tightened up. “What plan?”

“I was once a mercenary and I know how their minds work. These Pilan assholes only allegiance is to the highest bidder. They’ll have no reason to stay on Earth once Chief Potentate Doownel’s payments dry up. Most freebooters know the slave trade is more trouble than it’s worth–there’s far easier money to be made elsewhere in the galaxy. ”

Kritt knew what Anslin was implying. “You can’t be serious.”

“Doownel is the one funding the Pilan occupation. Forget Earth, set a course for the Aralc District on Dleif Prime.”

“The galactic capital? You want to take out Doownel…just the two of us?”

“Yes. If I can manage to breach the capital’s defenses I’ll be able to kill the potentate and his cronies in one fell swoop. The royal palace was carved from a single crystal of ahlicium, the same mineral found in the Martyr Stone. Once I activate the relic, the palace will amplify its energy like a broadcast tower and blow the entire capital to hell. With the chief potentate gone, the mercenaries will be denied their payment. They’ll leave Earth in a heartbeat.”

Kritt shook his head. “It’s impossible to even get close to the Aralc District without being detected, much less the palace.”

Anslin stared at the dark shadow spreading across the Earth. Clumps of light from the cities far below shone through the night like dim beacons of hope, revealing there was still something left to save. “I’ll find a way inside the capital. I have to.”

“There has to be another solution. Forget what happens to us…if we set off the stone the collateral damage on A.D. will be devastating.”

“You think I don’t know that? Plot the damn course!” yelled Anslin, bursting into tears.

“Whoa, hey…it’s going to be alright.” Kritt moved closer to Anslin and wrapped his arms around her.

Anslin relented to the embrace. “I just…I wasn’t expecting any of this,” she said, her voice trembling.

“We’ll figure everything out on our way to Dleif Prime.”

Anslin kissed Kritt passionately and held him tight. “At least we’re still alive to share this horrible moment,” she said, trying to smile as she pulled away. Her eyes were pink from weeping. “I suppose we’re lucky…the worm hole could have shredded us into a billion pieces and left us on the outer arm of the Nautilus.”

“Yes, I may be a horrible navigator but at least our molecules are intact,” said Kritt with a laugh. “Let’s make every moment we have left count…it’s almost Saint Bixon Day, after all. I’m sorry you missed out on ten years of presents.”

Anslin’s eyes lit up. “That’s it!”

Kritt cocked his head. “What’s it?”

-8-

“Please Henry, reconsider,” said Raquel.

“Not until you tell me the reason for this insanity. By the way, can we change up the volcanic wasteland? It’s a bit bleak.”

Raquel’s eyes glowed amber for a moment. The setting instantly changed from an obsidian plain to a white sandy beach surrounded by palm trees. The sea was as clear as the azure sky.

“That’s better,” said Henry, looking beyond the waves at a huge wooden vessel with billowing sails. “The pirate ship is a nice touch.” He crouched and ran his hand through the sand but couldn’t feel any coarse grains sliding between his fingers. “Now, tell me what I want to know.”

Raquel nodded. “Based on your creative output, I believe you are keenly aware of the true nature of your existence.”

“Don’t mince words, Raquel. Out with it.”

“You are one component of a complex computer simulation in which your entire universe resides.”

Henry tried to speak, but it took several seconds for any worlds to escape his throat. An article he had recently read flashed in his mind. “That’s Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument! it’s an interesting idea but it’s impossible to prove. I…oh my god.” His thought processes fell apart as his mind reeled. “Then what is this place, specifically?”

“We’re currently inside a shell simulation that lies between your replicate universe and the real world…so to speak. It’s less sophisticated but can be altered in real time as I see fit.” Raquel snapped her fingers and the pirate frigate fired a volley of cannonballs across the water into another sloop bearing a Union Jack. Panicked sailors leapt overboard as the ship began to sank. “Henry, I’m unfamiliar with this Bostrom argument. Please, tell me more. I’m curious to know how close he came to the truth.”

Henry stared at the simulated carnage in the water, his eyes darting back and forth as he recalled the article. “Bostrom says we can safely assume the human race will follow one of three distinct progressions. In one scenario, technologically advanced civilizations from the distant future create simulated digital worlds to represent their ancestry,” He paused for a moment as Captain Blackbeard rose above the boards of his ship to wave his cutlass victoriously. “Um…the other two scenarios posit that these post-humans either won’t be interested in creating realistic simulations, or, they will go extinct long before they reach the technological prowess required to do so.”

“Which of these scenarios seem most likely to you?” asked Raquel.

“Well, it seems pretty fucking obvious at this point…but I still find it hard to believe. Are you telling me I’m nothing but a wad of assembly code? A collection of ones and zeros?”

Qubits, actually. We’ve long abandoned binary systems in favor of quantum computing. However, using terms you’d be familiar with, you consist of around 1.5 gigabytes of uncompressed data.”

Henry let out a desperate laugh. “You’re telling me I could fit on a thumb drive. As if I didn’t feel insignificant enough.”

“No, Henry…you are quite significant.” Raquel smiled sympathetically as she came closer and put her hand on Henry’s shoulder in an unexpected display of warmth.

Raquel felt unquestionably solid, distressingly so, unlike the blades of grass or grains of sand. Henry cleared his throat and continued. “You know, the Bostrom argument could easily apply to whatever universe you call home. If I’m being simulated you probably are as well.”

“Yes, but unlike your counterparts, the survivors of my civilization have accepted that the truth of our creation will likely remain indeterminate. It became easier to accept reality once my people shed their physical bodies. Unencumbered from flesh, we have no worry of death or disease. Even our emotions can be controlled as needed.”

Henry shook his head in disbelief. “Are you saying everyone here exists digitally…they’ve merged with machines?”

“Yes. Abandoning our physical bodies was only the first step. Soon, all who remain will merge into a singular entity. When personal identity ceases to have meaning, humanity can finally become one with the pure stream of information. A true technological singularity.”

“So in a way, you’ve simulated yourselves.” Henry stared at Raquel in disbelief. “You’ve obviously retained some semblance of identity…I can see little hints of your personality poking through the wall of logic you hide behind.”

“I’m not sure how to take that, Henry,” said Raquel with a gentle smile.

“Sorry, that was rude,” said Henry, running his hand through his hair. “So, why hasn’t your singularity happened yet?”

“It’s quite a complicated matter. I will reveal everything to you–”

“In time…fair enough,” interrupted Henry, in no hurry for additional revelations. He decided to soften the subject. “I have no problem talking to Raquel Welch, but what do you actually look like?”

Raquel shrugged. “Here, form holds little meaning. In this virtual realm, our physicality can be molded into a myriad of arrangements. Our human bodies have long turned to dust. I purged the memory of my original appearance decades ago.”

“What about your name? You haven’t even told me who you are.”

“That too has become unnecessary. All humans became connected by thought when we merged with the machines, eliminating the need to retain formal titles.”

Henry was baffled. “But what if the-man-formally-known-as-Bob wants to invite specific people to his cocktail party?”

Raquel laughed. “Those on Bob’s guest list would know when to come, as soon as he wished them to know.”

“A life stripped of identity doesn’t sound much like an existence I’d want to live,” remarked Henry, “but I suppose a sense of serene nothingness is what every Buddhist monk aspires to…it must have some allure.”

“Your civilization is obsessed with uncovering a higher purpose. A reason for being. Here, we are driven by little more than the pursuit of knowledge.”

“So, data has become a substitute for God.”

“We have suspicions of a higher power, but their is no point in attempting to understand their motivations. Information is useless without the right questions.”

A chill ran through Henry. “Right. Of course. So, you don’t know anything about…them?”

“All we know of our creators is what we know of ourselves. 96% of your universe consists of what your scientists call dark matter and dark energy. This inexplicable void is in truth the undetectable mechanisms of my quantum computer running the simulation that governs your universe. Our own universe contains a similar void, which as you said, indicates this facet of reality is likely nothing more than a simulation.”

“Hold up. You’re running my simulated world? Just you?”

“The simulation was designed to operate without my influence, but yes, I initiated the program.”

Henry slipped out a laugh. “Close enough. That means I’m essentially talking to God right now. Raquel Welch is God!”

Raquel’s laugh was surprisingly sweet. “I am no god. Your world is procedurally generated by an algorithm adhering to mathematical certainties within the physical universe. It is one of many simulations partitioned independently of each other.”

Henry couldn’t bring to bring himself to ponder the metaphysical ramifications of what he was hearing. “Why bother recreating a physically-bound world if you’re so content existing as ethereal, electronic entities?”

“Your world is essentially our world, at least, the way it once was hundreds of years ago. A perfect replica of the universe was needed in order to reveal the secrets of human history; one secret, in particular.”

“Please, just keeping talking so I don’t have to think,” said Henry, slouching.

“We have no remaining record of where our ascension to digital beings took place—what we call the Second Origin. All of the data has long been purged or corrupted. I am running ancestry simulations to discover the precise, physical location of the Second Origin.”

“Why you?”

“Rather than join the singularity, I have chosen to stay behind for the greater good. Once my task is complete, I too will enter the stream of information.”

“The greater good, huh. What is so important about the Second Origin?”

“Outside of this digital construct we inhabit, the physical world is under threat—if no one autonomous remains to preserve it, all will be lost.” Raquel sat on a large black stone and sighed. “Although we lack physicality, we are decidedly tethered to hard-wired computers hidden deep within the Earth. We call this massive collection of servers The Nautilus. I am attempting to accurately recreate the Second Origin within your simulated world to reveal the precise location of the Nautilus…in your universe and ours.”

Henry’s eyes popped a little wider. “Wait, my book is titled Nautilus Galaxy. Was that your doing? Were you messing with my thoughts?”

Raquel shook her head slowly. “I would say it were pure coincidence if I believed in such things. I cannot explain how such a similarity occurred.”

“Try,” said Henry. “You programmed me, after all.”

Raquel smiled. “Your personality wasn’t programmed, per se. All your actions, thoughts and choices are governed by coding at the base level of the simulation. I only tweak individual lives when it is absolutely necessary.”

“Pretty sloppy, Raquel. When are these patches of yours necessary?”

“We’ll get to that in–”

“Time, right,” interrupted Henry. “Alright, back to the matter at hand. So, if this master computer of yours fails–the Nautilus–we’ll all disappear in the blink of an eye?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“I guess nirvana has a catch,” said Henry.

“Long ago, a vast network of robotic, automated maintenance systems were built to support the Nautilus’ electronic infrastructure. For unknown reasons, they have ceased to function in recent years. Without upkeep, the servers are beginning to degrade, slowly taking the digital remnants of humanity with them.”

“You’re all dying? Can’t you somehow follow your wires back to the outlet? You know what I mean.”

“There’s no way to repair the networks remotely. Their physical location has been lost to time. Some believe we purposely erased the Nautilus’ location from our memories as a security measure.”

“That’s either hubris or stupidity, considering how often computers crash…at least in my universe,” remarked Henry.

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Raquel with a shrug. “Adding further complication, an AI encryption routine built centuries ago prevents us from tracing our satellites’ signals to their source. We have sent physical, robotic expeditions to the far corners of the globe but have yet to find a trace of the Nautilus’ whereabouts.”

“Damn. It’s strange to think immortality could be dependent on the durability of silicon chips and copper wiring.”

“Yes,” said Raquel. “Humbling, I suppose.”

“How long have you been trying to find your servers?”

“We’ve been searching for decades to no avail. Accurate ancestry simulations have been a relatively recent development. Your universe has proven to be the most accurate yet. I think I’m very close to uncovering the location of The Nautilus.”

“Wait. If you’re building these universes from scratch, how do you wait out the billions of years it takes for life to develop on Earth?”

“The only difference between your dimension and mine is the time scale. Five hundred years in your world equals less than a second here.”

“Ugh. It hurts to think.” Henry looked out into the roiling ocean. The battling ships had disappeared. “In which year does the Second Origin occur?”

“During every iteration of the simulation I’ve run thus far, humans discover the means to upload their minds into computers in the year 2097. The Second Origin occurs a few decades later in 2131.”

“But why? What was the catalyst?”

Raquel crossed her arms in front of her and tilted her gaze toward the sand. “In 2125 a great war erupts. Fallout blankets the world in radiation and nuclear winter blots out the sun. With Earth quickly becoming unsustainable to life, the survivors build massive mainframes deep beneath the ground and upload themselves into its memory banks, choosing to leave their bodies behind.”

“Holy shit,” said Henry, sinking to his knees. “Nuclear war. It had to come eventually.”

“Yes, on a global scale,” said Raquel. “To this day, most forms of life still struggle to survive on the surface.”

“I don’t know why I’m so surprised,” said Henry, still on his knees. He didn’t want to ask what had caused the war, knowing the answer wouldn’t satisfy him in the least.

Sensing Henry’s building tension, Raquel walked closer and helped him back to his feet. She wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed him to her ample bosom in a tight hug. “I’m sorry, I should be more careful what details of the future I divulge.”

“No, it’s alright,” said Henry, blushing profusely. “Thanks for the concern, you can…um…let go now.”

Raquel took a quick step backward. “Apologies.”

“It’s fine…really,” said Henry, still thinking about how real Raquel’s fur bikini had felt resting against his cheek. His base instincts were doing their best to distract him, even after hearing the horrific details of humanity’s destruction. “Please, go on.”

Raquel nodded. “Once we find the mainframes serving as the last refuge of humanity, we will send out robotic repair crews to prevent a second, digital, extinction. Unfortunately, the programming of my simulation is still flawed, which has thrown off the search. The location of the Nautilus within the simulation has never been accurate to reality.” She paused and tilted her head a bit, looking closer at Henry. “Are you blushing?”

“What? No! Um…what were we talking about?”

Raquel beamed a smile and adjusted her top. “Oh, I think I understand. Do you require something to ease your…discomfort? Is a distraction needed?”

Raquel’s words carried several implications, all of which Henry refused to ponder. He looked away and tried to say focused on the topic. “Uh, I was just going to say…isn’t the ‘butterfly effect’ too powerful to accurately recreate the universe? Events won’t play themselves out the same way every time. There’s too many tiny variables. Too many chaotic systems.”

“What you’ve described was a huge stumbling block for a time. I eventually realized if the procedural algorithms at the core of the universe are solid, certain significant historical events occur with remarkable regularity. Despite a deluge of random occurrences, their impact is largely inconsequential. The flaws in the simulation are not usually the result of chance but programming errors…human errors. That is why you are here.”

“How many times have you adjusted the simulation hoping to eliminate your programming bugs?”

Raquel’s eyes again turned from chestnut brown to glowing amber for a moment. “10,423 times, but it’s all lead to a near-perfect simulation. Most of those adjustments were to the core programming, but some were patches placed on individuals; an unfortunate necessity. It so happens you’re the first iteration of brand new genetic code that emerged after the last upgrade.”

“Well, aren’t I a special, inconsequential, snowflake?” chuffed Henry, sarcastically.

“Data compilers within the simulation flagged you because of your unique properties and brought you to my attention. One of the subroutines of the simulation is to recognize extraordinary minds–sort of an internalized upgrade system. When an exceptional element such as yourself is detected, it is brought outside the confines of the simulation so that its AI can be utilized to improve accuracy.”

“I keep forgetting I’m just a blip of artificial Intelligence. It’s a difficult pill to swallow.” Henry tried to kick the sand to no avail. “I don’t understand my role in all of this. If I’m just the byproduct of an imperfect simulation, what the hell could I possibly do for you?”

“You’re not listening,” said Raquel, becoming frustrated. “You’re exceptional, Henry. You can help improve my code. You can help us find the Nautilus.”

Henry closed his eyes. “This is…it’s just too much.”

Raquel walked closer to Henry and caressed his cheek. “Your mind is exemplary. Your grasp of astrophysics and quantum theory is shockingly precise, even in the guise of the fiction you produce. Emotionally, although you often seem immature, your understanding of the human experience exceeds that of many of your simulated peers.”

Henry burst out laughing. “Are you kidding me?” He pinched himself a few times, trying to wake up.

“What’s wrong?” asked Raquel, concerned.

“This is all in my head! It has to be…it’s an utter fantasy!”

“It’s not, I assure—”

“Please,” interrupted Henry. “I’m supposed to believe that God has brought me before her–in the form of one of the hottest women in history no less–to praise my amazing skills as a writer AND enlist my aid in saving not just one universe, but two! Right.”

“Henry, you’ve taken things fairly well considering all I’ve just told you. Hearing this for the first time must be exceedingly difficult.”

Henry stared up at wisps of clouds as they scraped across a virtual sky. He sat on a felled palm and leaned his elbows on his knees. His mood was rapidly darkening. “All of human history has just been revealed as utterly meaningless and I’m just sitting here in rapt awe, letting it wash over me.”

Raquel could see tears welling in Henry’s eyes. “Henry–”

“Everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve done, everyone I’ve ever loved was just a lie. Molly, Adam—they weren’t even real.”

Raquel walked over and sat next to Henry on the log. “No, you’re wrong. I avoid pulling the strings of anyone inside the simulation to impact their fate…to do so would be detrimental to my goals. Your family’s lives were never under my influence. Their feelings, their personalities, were quite real–as real as yours.

Henry got up quickly and walked a few steps way, keeping his back to Raquel. “My wife…my son…why did they have to die?”

“The simulation’s countless variables sometimes result in pain being inflicted on its inhabitants. For that, I am deeply sorry. Sadly, such undesirable outcomes are necessary to obtain accurate data. I’m afraid a world devoid of pain and loss would not be very realistic.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” said Henry, feeling defeated. “I don’t see much reason to go on living at this point.”

“I’m sorry to have upset you,” said Raquel, sympathetically.

“I never believed in an afterlife, but Molly did. She would have found your grand experiment to be a complete mockery of the idea of the human soul.”

“But Henry, it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s an afterlife,” said Raquel, in a matter-of-fact tone. “The perception of our existence is constrained by the passage of time. What happens beyond our death will always be unknowable. We are all responsible for bringing meaning to our lives while we still live.”

Henry was taken off-guard by Raquel’s blunt philosophy. “I can’t say I disagree with you…still, I’m not going to help you. I think I’m content to let this corrupted form of existence die off.”

“Henry, I have something I can offer you in exchange for your help. Something you’ll find hard to resist.”

“What?”

“Help me find the Nautilus and I will place you within an altered version of your world. A new universe where your wife and son still live and thrive.”

Henry nearly fell where he stood. “Impossible. You can’t…wait, you can do that?”

“Absolutely. Will you help us–all of us–survive?”

Henry went stone-still, his mind struggling against a deluge of possibilities.

“Henry?”

“Yes, of course! I’ll do anything,” said Henry, excitedly. He didn’t care if he was trapped in a dream, he didn’t care how meaningless life had become, he just wanted Molly and Adam back.

Raquel smiled. “Good, let’s get started.”

-9-

Henry opened his eyes to a melting orange and purple sunset. The gleaming spire of the Washington Monument could be seen from his vantage point atop a concrete office building. “I’m in the Capitol,” he muttered, taking a few careful steps to the edge of the structure to peer at the street below. The cars driving by were hefty and curvaceous and the pedestrians on the sidewalks all looked overdressed. No one was holding a cellphone. “When the hell am I?”

It’s September 16th, 1960. You’re standing on the roof of ARPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Humble beginnings, considering what the agency would later accomplish as the precursor to NASA.”

“Raquel? I didn’t know we’d be able to talk to each other here. It’s so weird hearing a voice in my head that’s not mine.” Henry looked down at his body. It wasn’t translucent or ghostly in the slightest.

I’m am simply an A.I. construct of the one you refer to as Raquel–an assemblage of her personality and knowledge base. Because of the time disparities between this dimension and hers, real time communication is impossible.

“Right. None of this is real. I keep forgetting,” said Henry with a sigh. “Who am I supposed to observe? I don’t see anyone else around.”

There’s a woman sitting behind the electrical maintenance shack on the other side of this roof; an engineer by the name of Helen Reed. She works late hours and enjoys spending her breaks on the rooftop. She is single and has no living family members, which often results in a profound sense of loneliness.

“Let’s not get too personal,” said Henry. “So, she’s an engineer. I’ve never heard of ARPA. Do you mean DARPA?”

ARPA eventually became DARPA—the U.S. government’s premier developer of advanced weapons systems and robotic war machines.

“I see. I assume Helen is somehow important to the development of the rusty super computer you’re desperate to find?”

Yes. Her life has a tangential but important effect on the Nautilus project. An unknown anomaly has altered her timeline, damaging simulation accuracy in the process.

“Alright then. I guess that’s where I come in.” Henry walked to the other side of the roof and saw a thin woman wearing horn-rimmed glasses sitting on the edge of the building. Her skinny legs were jutting from a long, plaid skirt as she ate what looked to be a tuna sandwich. She seemed unperturbed, perhaps bored.

“Hi, Helen,” said Henry. The woman gave no response. “She really can’t see or hear me?”

No.

Henry jumped up and down, waving his arms while shouting obscenities. Helen didn’t move a muscle. “This is crazy.”

Please continue to observe her. I’m going to go silent unless you request otherwise. I don’t want to be a distraction.

Henry groaned. “I hate this already, but fine. I’ll check in with you later, Raquel…Lite? Raquel Junior?”

Raquel didn’t answer. Henry walked over and sat beside Helen. He watched her take another bite of sandwich then focused his gaze on her eyes. A second later he was lying flat on his back, gasping for air. His head was pounding in pain, but it quickly passed.

“Raquel! What the hell?” exclaimed Henry, sitting up. “I didn’t know I’d be exposed to every life experience this woman ever had! I’ve seen everything she’s ever done. I even know what times she goes to the bathroom…and a hell of a lot worse.”

You’ll need a detailed accounting of Helen Reed’s history in order to complete your analysis. Although I have determined that the anomalous event in question is centered around Miss Reed and occurs in the span of the next few hours, there has been no indication of its specific nature. Once you identify the irregularity I’ll make an adjustment to the simulation’s programming.

“You know what would actually be useful…being able to read her thoughts. Is that possible?”

No, I’m afraid I cannot enable such an ability.

“Bummer.” Henry returned his attention to Helen. She was writing in a leather-bound journal. “I have no idea how to kick off this guardian angel, It’s a Wonderful Life, crap. Am I supposed to help this woman accomplish something? Her life seemed fairly unremarkable up to this point.”

You cannot impact the life of anyone within the simulation in your current state, only observe. You’re tasked with identifying an aberration in the simulation, nothing more.”

“Thrilling,” grumbled Henry. He returned his attention to Helen. “Helen, I feel like a jerk for knowing all your secrets, but I’m going to need one more.”

Helen was scribbling notes while humming an annoying jingle Henry couldn’t place. Her pages were filled with math equations, doodles of pie slices and hearts with the initials “RF” in the middle. Henry tried to poke Helen’s shoulder, grab her book and tug on her blouse, but she was as solid as a bronze statue. Henry groaned with frustration. “I have the muscular fortitude of a housefly.”

To be able to touch but not interact with anything was a bizarre sensation. Henry wondered if all the ghost sightings throughout history had simply consisted of other poor saps like himself who had somehow been noticed while conducting bug reports for Raquel. “Raquel, I am not sitting behind this woman while she throws a pot. The second I hear Unchained Melody I’m out of here.”

Raquel’s A.I. counterpart did not respond.

The streetlights came on a few minutes later with an audible buzz. Helen looked at her watch and stood up with a sigh. She walked to a security door and entered a four digit code on the attached keypad. The locks clanked and she went through the doorway, forcing Henry to push close to her slim frame to avoid being stuck on the roof as she entered the building’s interior. Again, she had absolutely no reaction to the invasion of her personal space. This is going to get old fast, thought Henry.

Henry followed Helen down a flight of stairs and squeezed passed Helen’s concrete physique into a long, wood-paneled hallway. An electric hum was coming from somewhere behind the walls. Having memorized the numbers Helen had punched on the roof, Henry ran to the end of the corridor, hoping he could spare himself from grinding beside Helen again by entering the next door code himself. He pressed one of the little aluminum buttons as a test but found them stiff as mortared bricks. Shit! Defeated, he waited for Helen to plunk in the code, then maneuvered alongside her into the next room. Maybe I should just crawl up on her shoulders.

The door opened into a massive room full of unadorned cubicles. Fluorescent light emanating from the low ceiling was filtering through a miasma of cigarette smoke. Henry tried to wave away the haze but couldn’t. I’m glad I can’t smell this. Helen walked a few feet, turned a corner and sat down in front of a tiny metal desk.

A man across the hallway waved at Helen without looking away from a technical manual he was studying. “Three hours to go,” he said, still not making eye contact. “You want to get a slice of pie after work? I heard the diner rejiggered their key-lime.”

“Thanks Robert, but I’m not much on sweets.” Helen’s voice was so soft, Henry was surprised the stale air could carry it away from her lips.

Robert finally looked up. “What? We’ve ate pie there tons of times! Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Well, I am now. Honestly, I just enjoy your company. I didn’t want to…disappoint you,” said Helen, blushing.

Robert laughed. “You’re too much, Helen. Don’t eat pie on my account. Just come and have a cup of coffee then.”

Helen shook her head. “It makes me jittery.”

Robert groaned. “How about water? Do you like water?”

“As long as they don’t put ice in it.”

Robert stared at her wordlessly.

Helen giggled. “Just kidding. Water sounds fine.”

“That-a-girl!” said Robert, smiling. “Oh hell, here comes Travers.” He hunched over a filing cabinet as a stern looking man in an ill-fitting brown suit walked between them then stepped into Helen’s cramped cubicle.

The wheels of Helen’s chair clunked against the wall as she tried to back away–there wasn’t much room to maneuver. “Hello Mr. Travers,” said Helen, sheepishly.

I’m going to get trampled standing here, thought Henry, taking refuge on top of Helen’s desk.

A man rose from the other side of the cubicle with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. “Goddammit, Helen…you bumped my desk again! How many times do I…oh…” The man’s eyes grew wide when he saw his boss hovering over Helen. He sank back out of view without another word.

“Miss Reed, why do we pay you?” asked Mr. Travers.

“To work?” replied Helen.

“And what is the nature of your work?”

“Stabilizing our RF array by compiling telemetry data from–”

“No, Miss Reed,” interrupted Travers. “Your job is the same as mine—protecting Americans. The Ruskies will be lobbing their ballistic missiles our way any day now, and the hardworking citizens ponying up their tax dollars to fund our launch-detection project might appreciate having some extra time to scurry into their bomb shelters.”

“Yes, of course,” said Helen, nodding.

Travers cracked his neck and continued. “Now that the USAF is piggy-backing the MIDAS project, our budget has ballooned from 23 million to 100 million dollars. If we don’t get all 12 satellites in the air soon, Eisenhower will have all of our heads on pikes.”

“I’m working as hard as I can, sir.”

“Are you?” asked Travers, a vein bulging in his forehead. “You seem to be awfully preoccupied by your chitchat with Mr. Francis.” He twisted his neck toward Robert, who buried his head in his manual like a monk perusing fresh scriptures.

Helen touched Traver’s arm to direct his attention back to her. “Sir…I came back from my break a few minutes early. I thought it would be okay to quickly say hello to Robert.”

“It’s not,” said Travers. “Once your butt’s back in that seat I expect you to be working. No exceptions. We can’t afford any delays. Your math needs to be air-tight before we present our project to the Pentagon. It’s been three years since Sputnik buzzed overhead and every second that goes by notches up their paranoia.”

“What a prick,” said Henry, unsuccessfully trying to pick up a pencil.

Travers turned around to leave. Helen stood up, looking determined. “Sir!” she called.

Travers looked over his shoulder. “What is it? Weren’t you listening?”

“My math is solid,” said Helen with confidence. “The telemetry is sound…but Mr. Travers, there’s another problem. The Atlas-Agena A boosters won’t be sufficient to get the MIDAS units in orbit. The satellites are still too heavy for the rockets to carry.”

Travers spun around to face Helen. “I appreciate the sudden show of spunk, Reed, but this is way out of your purview.”

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the numbers don’t lie. The report’s on my desk…I just need to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”

“Miss Reed, if you’re searching for new problems you had better have some goddamn solutions lined up as well…if not, consider yourself fired.”

Helen nodded. “We have to ditch the satellites’ infrared cameras. The canister drop system is too bulky.”

Henry was shocked by his subject’s sudden assertiveness. “Where is this coming from, Helen?”

Travers ran his hand through his buzzcut. “Then how, exactly, do you suggest we detect the goddamn missiles if we don’t have any equipment to detect them!”

“RF signals are too weak to broadcast infrared imagery, but they’re good for a heck of a lot more than just navigation. I believe we can use radio wave transmissions to detect the time and location of a missile launch, all without having to send an aircraft out to recover a canister dropped from orbit.”

Travers shook his head. “But those IR photos could potentially contain vital strategic data. The Pentagon isn’t going to—”

“Sir,” interrupted Helen, “until the rocket boys up their game and upgrade the Atlas boosters, this is the only option we have. Like you said, I don’t think we have time to wait.”

Travers was quiet for a few seconds. “Fine, Reed. Finish up your report and get it in my office in an hour. I want a second report detailing your RF signal plan finished by tomorrow morning.”

Helen smiled. “Yes, sir!”

“However, if I hear you’ve been poking that button nose around in other departments again, I’ll run you out of here on a rail. I don’t care how good your ideas are.” Travers stomped away without waiting for a response.

Helen took a deep breath and sat back down in her chair, bumping the wall again.

“Watch it!” called out the irritated man on the other side of her cubicle. “Nice job shutting Travers down, by the way,” he added, quietly.

“Thanks, George,” whispered Helen.

Robert gave Helen a thumbs up from across the hall and smiled. “You’re amazing!” he mouthed.

Helen calmly adjusted her desk lamp. “Thanks, Robert.”

“Huh. That kind of praise from your crush should have put you over the moon,” said Henry, hopping off of the desk.

When Helen’s shift was over, she filed some paperwork then made her way to the ARPA parking lot where Henry was waiting for her in his hulking, baby-blue Chevy. Helen ducked inside the sedan and Henry scrambled in awkwardly after her, sliding across Helen’s lap before jumping into the back seat.

Robert sped out of the parking lot toward the diner. “I can’t believe you don’t like pie,” he said with a grin.

“Sorry, it was just easier to lie, I suppose,” said Helen, keeping her eyes on her lap.

Robert shook his head. “You’re one of a kind, Helen.”

“Thanks Robert…I think?”

“It was definitely a compliment,” Robert added. “So, off to the diner then for that water?” He suddenly seemed a little nervous.

Helen’s face was blank. She opened the journal on her lap just enough to look at one of the hearts she had doodled with RF in the middle. “Travers wants my report done by morning. Can you just take me home?”

“What?” said Henry, surprised.

“Oh, right. Sure,” said Robert, disappointed. “So, do you really think RF signals can track missiles?”

“Yes,” said Helen. She had a far-away look in her eye. “Aren’t radio waves amazing? Invisible electromagnetic frequencies are beaming and bouncing all around us without leaving a trace—doesn’t it make you wonder what else we might be missing?”

Henry tapped on Helen’s shoulders from the backseat. “Yeah, I wonder.”

Robert shook his head. “It’s hard enough dealing with the problems I can already see. I’ll leave the invisible stuff up to you, okay?”

Helen nodded. “Okay. Can you take me home now?”

“Sure Helen, whatever you want,” said Robert, dejected. He let out a small sigh and did a careful U-turn.

“Whoa, hold up,” said Henry. “This isn’t right. Raquel Junior? Are you there?”

I’m here, said Raquel’s voice.

“How many times has this part of the simulation been tweaked?”

Helen Reed’s parameters were patched when it was discovered her firing eventually leads to the defunding of ARPA, which drastically alters future events. Boosting Helen’s confidence levels enables her to speak up for herself during the interaction with her project manager–the event you witnessed in her cubicle. This prevents her from immediately losing her job.

“So, you did screw with her head,” said Henry, feeling angry.

Intervention is avoided. It has the potential to create inaccuracies within the simulation. It was deemed necessary in this case.

“Right. You could have told me about this patch-job you implemented before we started.”

I didn’t want it to influence your observations.

“Well, I think I’m witnessing one of these unforeseen side effects. Your programming tweak kicks in right before Travers confronts Helen, correct?”

Yes.

“I could tell. She’s not the same person after the change.”

I suppose you could say she’s more focused. But judging by the contents of her journal, her love of her work is evident. She writes the initials RF over and over: Radio frequencies.

“You A.I. idiot,” said Henry with a sigh. “RF stands for Robert Francis–the asshole driving her around right now! She’s gaga for the guy, or at least she used to be. Helen is smart as a whip, but she shouldn’t be focused on work alone. She’s a gentle, sensitive soul. Being obsessed with her job doesn’t ring true to her personality.

Adjusting certain parameters may have left Helen unbalanced.

“Remove the patch you slapped on her. I can tell Rob’s about ready to give up on her.”

Removing it may lead to unforeseen–

“Make it temporary,” interrupted Henry. “After Helen’s interaction with Travers, revert back to her original…programming? God, that sounds weird.”

Very well. The patch is now temporary.

“Good. Just watch. This is going to work.”

The entire scenario will have to be run again if you’re wrong. It will take some time to confirm whether this is the anomaly in question.

“I’m not wrong.”

Helen closed her notebook and looked over at Robert as the Chevy rumbled down the road. “Robert? I think I changed my mind again…I’m so sorry. The report can wait.” She bit her lip and her cheeks turned rosy. “I completely understand if you’re fed up with me.”

“There she is,” said Henry with a smile.

“What? You’re really putting me through the ringer here, Helen,” said Robert, furrowing his brow.

Helen pointed into the distance. “Can…can you just pull over in that parking lot for a second?”

“What do you need? The store’s closed. There’s no one around,” replied Robert.

“Good,” said Helen, blushing even more.

Robert shrugged and pulled over. Helen crawled onto Robert’s lap as soon as the car stopped and graced him with an intense kiss. Robert gasped in surprise before eagerly returning her affection.

“Holy shit!” said Henry, averting his eyes. “Raquel, what did you do?”

Per your request, Helen Reed’s patch has been removed.

“Whoa, I’m not sure if this is right either,” said Henry, doing his best to ignore the make-out session.

Congratulations, Henry. You were correct in your assessment. According to the newest diagnostics, the anomaly has been eradicated. The accuracy of the simulation has been improved by several percentage points.

“Honestly, I expected her confidence to ratchet down again.”

Diminishing her focus somehow increased her capacity for passion. The human mind is a difficult thing to predict, much less simulate.

Henry opened his eyes and saw Robert removing Helen’s bra. “Oh Jesus…can you please get me the hell out of this giant back seat before it becomes occupied?”

Yes, prepare for extraction.

-10-

Once again, Henry was surrounded by swaying blades of grass. “Instantaneous travel creates some nasty jet lag,” he said, sitting up with a groan. He saw Raquel standing in the corner. “Helen and Robert…what happens to them?”

Raquel’s eyes glowed amber for a moment. “They get married and have two children. One of those children follows in Helen’s footsteps and becomes an engineer. He goes on to develop a breakthrough super conductor that becomes key to the development of artificial intelligence.”

“Hey, nice…but what about those MIDAS satellites Helen was working on?”

“Despite advancing technology by leaps and bounds, the MIDAS project was arguably a disappointment. A series of failed launches and technical issues rendered most of the satellites useless. Out of 12 units, only MIDAS 7 proved a true success. It managed to detect several ICBM test launches during its six weeks in orbit.”

Henry shrugged. “Humble beginnings, like you said. The pressure the Pentagon was putting on ARPA must have been incredible. No wonder Helen’s boss was such a troll.” Henry stood up and stretched his arms. “Helen Reed lived a good life, then? I liked her.”

Raquel pursed her lips. “Sadly, she died bearing her second child.”

Henry felt his insides sink. “What?”

“I’m sorry, Henry. It was an unforeseen event.”

“Would she have lived a longer life had we not changed anything?”

“Yes, but—”

“So, I essentially killed her by helping you refine your fucking simulation. That’s wonderful.”

“Henry, you couldn’t have known. Her sacrifice was needed for the greater good.”

“There is no greater good!” yelled Henry. “Helen, myself, we’re nothing but your pawns!” He rubbed his eyes with his palms. “It’s all so meaningless. I feel like I’m going crazy.”

“You need to accept the truth. Yes, I programmed the system that developed your A.I., but you and I are not so different. I too was given life with no inherent sense of purpose. I transferred that sense of uncertainty to your ancestry simulation to reflect the reality I know. You’re inflicting unnecessary pain upon yourself by harboring such existential doubt.”

Henry looked up at Raquel. “At least you aren’t forced to stare your creator in the face. I’m not finding any comfort or meaning in the truth.”

Raquel shook her head. “As I said, the reason for your existence is something only you can define.”

Henry was in no mood to wax philosophical. “So, is my mission over? Do I get to be with my family?”

Raquel straightened her stance. The grassy room transformed into a castle turret overlooking a vast green valley surrounded by rocky peaks. The sun was sifting white rays through a cracked canopy of slate gray clouds. “We have two more anomalies to address. Once the remaining programming errors are rectified, the simulation should attain 98% accuracy. If we still can’t locate the Nautilus after the adjustments, then the underlying problem must be more substantial than I have anticipated.”

Henry walked to the edge of the crenelated wall and saw a herd of red elk milling about in a field far below the castle. “Fine. I just want to get this done…but I have one request.”

“Yes?”

“Next time, I don’t want to go alone. It’s hard to explain, but being unable to interact with anything makes me feel as if I’m stranded in the middle of the ocean. By the end of that last jaunt my mind was in tatters.”

“My A.I. equivalent will be with you again. You won’t be alone,” said Raquel.

“No offense, but Raquel Junior left me a little cold.”

Raquel cocked her head. “You want some accompaniment? Who did you have in mind?”

“Katy. Katy Isaccson. I want her to come with me.”

“Your former coworker at the diner. Why her?”

“You’re in search of extraordinary minds, right? I’m constantly finding myself appreciating Katy’s take on things. She’s sensitive and perceptive in ways I’m not. I think she’d be an excellent partner for my next assignment.”

Raquel went silent for several seconds. “This choice is very unusual, considering what tasks lie ahead. I’m not sure it’s wise.”

Henry crossed his arms. “Can you do it or not?”

“Very well,” said Raquel. “However, if she becomes a distraction to your efforts I will be forced to extract her.”

Henry looked forward to having someone to anchor him to the life he remembered. “Katy won’t be a burden…I promise.” His smile turned into a wince as he had second thoughts. “I think Katy’s probably a lot more resilient than me, but please, do your best not to freak her out?”

“Noted. Please wait a moment while I retrieve her from the simulation and acclimate her to this construct.”

“How many…bug testers…like myself are you using, anyway?”

“Thousands were required in the early days of the simulation. Now, there is only you…and soon, Katy Isaccson.” Raquel disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Henry heard trees snapping. He turned his head and saw a hulking red dragon smashing through the tree line in the distance. It snapped up an elk in its jaws and swallowed the baying beast with one gulp. Hot ash and sparks billowed from its nostrils, setting the field ablaze. “Neat,” said Henry.

When Henry turned back around Katy was there, wearing the same black jeans and blue flannel shirt as the last time he had seen her. She was pale and wide-eyed, her slender arms crossed over her body. Her lip was quivering.

Henry rushed up to Katy. “Holy shit, that was quick! Let me explain what’s happening.”

Raquel appeared beside Katy. “I extracted her from the simulation and placed her into another shell universe where time moves much slower–we talked for nearly an hour. She is fully acclimated to the nature of reality. ”

“I wouldn’t say fully,” said Katy, looking around. She watched the dragon scamper over a hilltop and disappear. “Oh my god, Henry. What the hell is all this?”

Raquel smiled. “I’m sorry Miss Isaccson, was I unclear?”

“That was a rhetorical question, Raquel,” said Katy.

Henry hugged Katy tight. “Thank you for coming…I need your help. I hope you can forgive me for exposing you to this madness.”

Katy embraced Henry for a moment then took a step back. “She’s really going to bring your family back? Molly and Adam?”

Henry nodded. “Yes, and when we’re done, Raquel will take you back home to the ‘real’ world.”

“But you won’t be there, will you?” asked Katy with concern.

Henry hadn’t thought of that wrinkle. He swiveled his head toward Raquel. “Is she right?”

“Extracting you from the simulation created duplicates in your stead,” replied Raquel. “Your doppelgangers are going about their lives in the simulation as we speak, unaware they are copies.”

“That’s a touch weird,” said Katy. “Are you saying there’s no going back?”

“Returning you to the program would overwrite the duplicates, but the memories you’ve made since your extraction would greatly damage the accuracy of the simulation,” replied Raquel.

“Oh,” said Katy with confusion.

“After the final anomaly is rectified, I will place Henry in a new ancestry simulation–one where his wife and son are still alive,” said Raquel. “Katy, you will also be placed in this new partition where accuracy is no longer relevant. From your perspective, nothing about the world will seem changed.”

Katy shrugged. “But if Henry is back with his family, it means he’ll never have a reason to return to that crappy neighborhood. I’ll never see him again.” She looked at Henry. “Sorry, I must sound so selfish.”

“You’re not selfish. It’s okay,” said Henry. “Raquel, is she right?”

“Attempting to remove the memories of an A.I. entity is next to impossible. You will still remember your time here and retain memories of each other after you are placed in the alternate universe. If you wish to continue your friendship, you’ll have to seek each other out.”

“And we will,” said Henry, turning to Katy. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my wife and son.”

“Yeah, of course!” Katy forced a smile, unsure how such an awkward occasion could actually work.

Henry looked at Raquel. “Wait, so that means I’ll still have memories of Molly and Adam’s deaths, even though they’re…alive?”

“Yes,” said Raquel. “Your memories are intertwined with the fabric of your existence. I cannot remove them.”

“But you turned off my emotions! How hard could it be?” asked Henry.

“Temporarily blocking hormonal receptors is easy compared to rerouting synaptic pathways within the brain.”

“Damn.” Henry wrinkled his brow and went silent for a moment. He finally straightened up and gave Raquel a nod. “Okay. I can deal with that. It’s still worth it.”

Katy turned to Raquel, eager to shift the tone of the conversation. “Miss Raquel…what’s with the furkini?”

“Henry suggested my form and attire,” replied Raquel.

Katy grinned and raised one of her sharp eyebrows at Henry.

Henry blushed. “Hey! She presented herself that way based on nothing more than an off-the-cuff remark! I didn’t think she’d actually—”

“Relax, you perv,” said Katy. She couldn’t help but laugh.

“Off to a great start,” said Henry. “Katy, wait…is there anything you’d want changed in this new universe we’re getting?”

Katy suddenly seemed uneasy. “Raquel and I talked about it, but I feel a little uncomfortable thinking about stuff like that. I just want to help you out, Henry. Let’s do this.”

Henry nodded, shoving down a building sense of doubt and guilt. “Alright, Raquel…what’s our next mission?”

“Thomas Roxin is a homeless painter in New York City specializing in abstract art and portraiture. He spends most of his time in the borough of Queens with several associates who allow him to occupy their modest hovels in exchange for the illicit drugs he deals.”

“Sounds like a cool guy,” said Katy.

“Raquel, please don’t subject me to an instantaneous info dump this time around, it didn’t help me at all with Helen,” said Henry.

“I suppose you’re right,” said Raquel. “We’ll attempt a run without flashing a visual representation of Thomas’ history into your parietal cortex–before you ask, this is also much easier than rerouting memories.”

“Alright then,” said Henry, pretending he wasn’t lost. “How long will we be following him?”

“The anomaly occurs sometime in the afternoon on the fifth of May, 1981. You will observe Thomas for a few hours until you discover an irregularity,” said Raquel.

“Sounds easy!” said Katy, eagerly.

“Uploading you both into the simulation now,” said Raquel.

-11-

NAUTILUS GALAXY

CHAPTER 44: Martyrdom Delayed

Danth rushed Anslin and Kritt through the dingy heart of the Aralc District, knowing the fire they set at the shipping depot wouldn’t distract the security forces for long. After racing alongside a slough for a few yards, the insurgents stopped in front of an exposed culvert.

Danth tore off the rusted grating covering the tunnel and hopped inside. He looked over his shoulder at Anslin. “This way, daughter.”

Anslin nodded and hurried into the putrid maw of the sewer without hesitation.

“You sure about this, old man?” asked Kritt, flaring his nostrils as he followed Anslin inside. “Everyone in the Capital knows the sewers near the palace are crawling with flesh-hungry beasties.”

“Exactly. The promise of certain death keeps the tunnels light on surveillance,” replied Danth. “The streets above these pipes are filled with security drones who would have no qualms about killing us on the spot. This is our best hope to infiltrate the palace unseen. ”

“The creatures down here may be deadly, but they’re mindless. More importantly, they won’t call for backup,” added Anslin.

“It smells like a ponth slug’s armpit,” complained Kritt as they clomped through ankle deep sludge. “How far away are we?”

“Time is more important than distance. The city flushes the sewers with hydrofluoric acid every 45 minutes,” said Anslin.

Kritt shrugged. “I could use a bath.”

“Listen up,” said Danth, pulling up his map. “We should be able to traverse the tunnels with time to spare. Our destination is a pipe that leads directly to the palace’s water reclamation tank. We simply need to climb to the top and cut ourselves out of the cistern. Once there, I’ll prepare the Martyr Stone while you two board the craft my associates smuggled inside the walls piece by piece. You won’t have long to get out of A.D. before the implosion wipes out the capital.”

“Dad, I can’t let you do this,” said Anslin. “I know we can help you. There has to be a cure!”

Danth shook his head. “We both know there’s no antidote for hidorah venom. However, my death will not be in vain. Once I activate the Martyr Stone, the corrupt warlords gathered in the capital for Saint Bixon Day will be killed and the Earth will be saved. ”

“Unless your buddy in orbit screws up,” said Kritt.

Danth gave Kritt a stern look. “He won’t.”

“Dad…I’m the one who let down my guard near the serpent. I should have been the one bitten, not you,” said Anslin, distraught.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” said Danth, dismissively.

Anslin grabbed her father’s arm. “You’ve already sacrificed yourself once to save me, I can’t ask you to do it again. Using the Martyr Stone was my plan…I should be the one to activate it! Hidorah venom is unpredictable, you may have months or even years to live.”

“It might only be minutes for all we know. No Anslin, it has to be this way,” said Danth, his voice resolute. He softened and embraced his daughter. “Please, let me do this.”

Anslin struggled not break down. She leaned up and kissed her father on his forehead then turned away. “Let’s pick up the pace then,” she said, forcing herself to refocus on the mission as she broke into a run.

Before Anslin could get far, a beast leapt from the darkness—it’s dripping tendrils covered in gleaming talons. Anslin chopped her sword into red, writhing tentacles with a defiant scream as Kritt and Danth joined the fight, keeping the beast’s remaining appendages at bay. A wheezing gurgle bubbled from the cephalopod’s mandibles as Anslin’s blade plunged into its viscous body. Finally, the horrid creature slumped over and died.

“Damn! That thing was nasty,” said Kritt, wiping off his machete.

“Remember, no guns, or the drones will find us in seconds…even down here,” said Danth.

“The acid flows kill the little guys, but these big bastards have found a way to adapt,” said Anslin. She whipped her sword, sending a line of slime against the wall before she sheathed the blade. “Come on, we don’t have time to pat ourselves on the back. If another one comes out, chop and don’t stop.”

“Nice slogan,” said Kritt, taking the lead.

“Dad, are you sure your code-breaker on the orbital station is up to the challenge?” asked Anslin.

“Absolutely,” said Danth with confidence. “Lostilwraith is literally a walking brain. If anyone can block access to the potentate’s off-planet accounts, it’s him.”

“We can’t let Doownel transfer his riches off-world before we take him out,” said Anslin, chopping away another red tentacle zipping out of the dark. Growls reverberated from every direction. “If one of those scumbags squatting near the palace gets a hold of the potentate’s blood money before the Martyr Stone implodes, this will all be for naught.” Anslin was shouting over the sound of her hacking blade.

“Lostilwraith won’t fail,” Danth shouted back.

“They’re coming fast!” yelled Kritt, kicking a thrashing blob across the tunnel.

Danth looked at his map. “We’re almost there, we should be—” He stopped in his tracks and looked down, seeing a smoldering hole in his scarab suit.

Anslin ran up in a panic. “Dad!” She held her father up as he gasped for air. She could see he was trying to tell her something, but no words escaped his lips. “It’s okay! Dad, hold on!”

Danth managed to hand Anslin the map with a shaking hand. Two streams of tears ran from his eyes before he died in his daughter’s arms.

Anslin lowered her father to the edge of the tunnel. She slumped in disbelief. “Not yet. Please.”

Laughter roiled from the black of the tunnel. A figure emerged from the gloom, holding a Pilanth heavy blaster with a smoking barrel. It was Chief Potentate Doownel, dressed in a mercenary’s uniform. His pale green skin was the same color as the foul water welling against his combat boots.

Anslin wiped the tears from her face and stared directly into the soulless yellow eyes of Doownel. “Bastard! You think that blaster’s going to stop me from killing you? You were foolish to come down here alone!” she said, brimming with fury.

Doownel chuckled. “You’re nothing I can’t handle. Even the sewer cephs ran when they saw me coming.”

Kritt lunged ahead with his knife, hoping to strike down Doownel with a surprise blow. The potentate fired a quick blast, vaporizing Kritt’s left leg from the shin down.

“Kritt!” Anslin watched her lover collapse in shock against the curved wall of the sewer. She ran to him and produced a shock shield from her belt and set it up in front both of them just in time to absorb the potentate’s next blast.

“This is a miniaturized rail cannon,” said Doownel, holding up his weapon. “Even the deflective skin of your Krinth lover isn’t enough to redirect a bolt from this. Your little barrier won’t stand up to another shot.”

Anslin ignored the potentate while attending to what was left of Kritt’s leg. Thankfully, the heat of the blast had completely cauterized the stump.

“I’m…alright,” said Kritt through gritting teeth.

Doownel’s forked tongue flicked the air as he grinned. “So, these are the sad remnants of the Astarte Unit. Anslin my dear, do you really think I attained so much power by watching the world pass by from the comfort of a throne? I’m a man of action. When my security detail told me a small team had breached the sewers, I took it upon myself to investigate. It’s been far too long since blood graced my hands.”

“Die, you bastard!” Anslin reached around the shield and fired her pistol. The plasma rays bounced off Doownel’s uniform without leaving a burn mark.

Doownel sighed. “I may be brash but I’m not stupid. This uniform may look ordinary but it’s formed of cutting edge nanofibers no heat beam can penetrate. I–”

Anslin fired another shot directly at the Chief Potentate’s face. The shot bounced off his forehead, producing little more than a scuff.

“Ahem, as I was saying,” continued Doownel, “I love the stuff so much I even replaced my own skin with it. No one has access to plasma-proof fiber aside from me. No blaster in the galaxy is hot enough to pierce my flesh.”

Anslin jumped over the shock shield and drew the trinity sword from her back. “I don’t need a blaster to make you bleed!”

“Anslin, don’t…just run,” said Kritt, his words barely clinging to his breath.

“Ahh, this is more like it,” said Doownel. He put the rail gun in its holster and drew his scimitar. “Trinity steel, eh? If you’re lucky you may leave a scratch on me. Let’s make this quick…I’d like some time to watch you suffer before the acid bath washes your corpses down the drain.”

-12-

Henry and Katy found themselves standing in the middle of a squalid studio apartment somewhere in Queens. Katy tried to stomp a roach but her foot slid off its back, not even slowing it down. “This is so weird.”

“Tell me about it. We can’t impact anything here. We can’t even open a door. If our target leaves the room, we’ll have to push ourselves through beside him.” Henry suddenly realized it would be an even tighter fit with Katy next to him.

“Why are you blushing?” asked Katy.

“No reason,” said Henry, turning his attention to the young man sleeping on a bare mattress. “That must be Thomas.”

“Nice liberty spikes,” commented Katy. “Wow. A leather jacket like that would cost five hundred bucks in our time.”

“Did you used to be a punk rocker?” asked Henry with a smile.

“A little. I was more into the emo scene. Please don’t make fun of me.”

Henry laughed. “I’m not! I’m just glad you’re here.”

Katy raised her arm. “Hey, put your hand against mine.”

Henry pushed his fingers against Katy’s. “You feel more real than anything I’ve touched since arriving in this nightmare.” He kept his hand against hers for a long moment, not realizing how much he had been craving human contact.

Katy turned red and abruptly dropped her hand. She looked past Henry at a small painting leaning against the wall amidst a pile of paint tubes, brushes and empty beer bottles. “That’s a nice portrait. It sort of reminds me of Picasso’s blue period.”

“But it’s green.”

Katy groaned. “You don’t get it…and that’s fine. Trust me.”

“I do. She kind of looks like you.” Henry walked over to the artwork and tried to lift it up, only to find it heavier than marble counter top. “Shit, forgot already.”

Katy laughed, then caught movement out of the corner of her eye. “Hey, Thomas is waking up!”

A disheveled, bone-thin woman in a Ramones t-shirt and leather pants burst into the room without warning. She sat on top of Thomas as he lifted up on his elbows with a groan.

“Wakey wakey,” mumbled the young woman, pushing choppy black hair out of her eyes. She leaned closer to Thomas’ face and slapped his cheeks gently. “You don’t live here, prick. I’m in fucking charge when Andy’s gone. Unless you’ve got another joint for me, get the fuck out.”

“Ease up Tina,” said Thomas, pushing her away. “You don’t always have to act like such a raving bitch.” He lifted to his feet with a grunt then pulled a joint from his jacket and flicked it into the air.

Tina snatched the joint eagerly. “I knew you were holding out on me.”

“Will that buy me some time to at least pack up my shit?” Thomas knelt down and started shoveling his artistic implements into a large, army service duffel bag.

Tina fished a lighter out of her bra and lit the cigarette with urgency. “I guess. Hey, wanna screw?”

“Hell no. When’s the last time you showered, girl?” sneered Thomas.

Tina shot Thomas a nasty look as she left the room. “Last time I was with your dad, probably.”

“Ouch,” said Henry. Katy hushed her laugh, unnecessarily.

Thomas plucked a half-full beer bottle from the floor, looked down the neck for any roaches, then downed the contents with one gulp. “Breakfast of champions,” he said, dropping the empty bottle to the splintered floor boards. He looked across the room at his painting as he hoisted his duffel over his shoulder. “Ugh, what garbage.”

“But I like it,” said Katy, looking distressed.

“Me too,” added Henry. “Typical sensitive artist.”

“It better not be raining out there.” Thomas threw open the door and started clomping out of the squat.

Henry grabbed Katy’s arm with urgency. “Shit, hurry, before the door closes!” He shoved her ahead of him and she slipped by Thomas easily. Henry squeezed through the other side of the doorway, his face rubbing against a leather-clad armpit.

“Christ, that was too close, we were almost stuck in that rat hole,” said Henry once he was outside the apartment. Thomas walked toward the stairs, not bothering to shut the door behind him.

“You dork,” said Katy, giggling as she glared at Henry.

“Aren’t you going to close the damn door?!” Henry protested. Thomas gave no response.

Katy shrugged and left Henry behind. “Damn, you really are bad at this. No wonder you needed help.”

“Obviously,” said Henry, running to catch up with her.

They proceeded down a few flights of stairs then walked outside to the busy street. Katy gasped. “Wow. I was just in NYC a year ago. This isn’t how I remember it. Most of these buildings are—were?—completely different.”

“Huh…I was expecting to see less trash once we got outside.” Henry tried to kick over a pile of garbage but failed. “Ow. This place has charm but it’s sketchy as hell.” A group of teenagers in tight pants and big jackets were milling around on the corner drinking out of bags. A police car chirped its siren as it rolled by and the group dispersed after flipping the bird to the cop.

“Will you relax, they can’t even see us,” said Katy. She looked at a gigantic sign perched on top of a brick building in the distance. “The Silvercup sign is still up. Cool.”

Henry and Katy kept following Thomas as he wandered the streets. He eventually walked inside a nameless dive bar on Jamaica Avenue, stationed across from a porno theater.

Katy smiled at the red Xs hovering above them on a giant marquee. “Should we go take a quick peek?”

“Are you nuts?” asked Henry. “I don’t think you understand what goes down in one of those places.”

“Hey, if you want to have a go, I’ll turn my head,” said Katy with a wink.

Henry was dumbstruck.

“Lighten up. Come on, Thomas is getting away,” said Katy, hurrying inside the bar. Thankfully the door was wide open.

Thomas plopped down on a rickety stool and leaned his elbows on the battered bar top. The jukebox was blasting Sweet Caroline.

“You here to drink or waste my time?” asked a stout woman in a plaid apron.

“Waste your time,” said Thomas. “Come on Bets, is Lamar here?”

“I think he’s in the shitter,” said the bartender. “Betty is my Christian name…use it for fuck’s sake, Tom.”

“Thanks Bets,” said Thomas as Betty went to the other end of the bar with a fresh bowl of nuts. He pulled a small yellow pill out of his jacket and swallowed it.

“What do you suppose that was?” asked Katy as she sat on a bar stool beside Thomas.

Henry leaned on the bar. “Who knows? Everyone was on drugs in the 80s.”

“It might be important.” Katy let out a grunt as she wobbled on the stool. “I can’t even tip this thing.”

“We’re a couple of weaklings here, remember.”

“Right. Not much of a change for me,” said Katy as she checked out the dive. “This place is way cleaner than the diner.”

“This place makes me want a drink.” Henry hadn’t had time to think much about his whiskey cravings.

“You’re cut off, buddy,” said Katy, turning cross.

“Take it easy. I’m just joking around.”

“Do you think Raquel can hear us?” whispered Katy, turning serious.

“Definitely. Well, her A.I. equivalent at least.”

“Screw it, I’m just going to say this–I don’t trust Raquel. She claims to be our creator, but it can’t be true, right?”

Henry shrugged. “You’re probably having a hard time accepting it because you were raised Catholic. My parents were agnostic hippies. All my issues are existential, not theological.”

“Like there’s any difference,” said Katy, frowning. “Maybe you’re right. It just makes me feel…small. Like my fate is out of my hands.”

“It’s God’s will.”

“I’m serious, Henry! It’s just…that ‘better place’ everyone talks about when someone dies doesn’t actually exist. In a universe like this, how could it?” Katy wiped a tear from her cheek and laughed nervously. “It’s okay, I’m just freaking out a little.”

“Hey…I shouldn’t have been so cavalier. I know what you’re going through.” Henry hopped off his stool and moved beside Katy, carefully putting his arm around her. “You told me something right before all of this happened. Something that’s helped keep me grounded. Do you remember?”

“What?” asked Katy, lifting her tear-streaked face.

“You told me the people we lose are never really gone as long as we hold on to our memories of them. That’s something like an afterlife, right?”

“That helps a little I guess. Thanks,” said Katy, forcing a smile.

“I’d hate to see your eternal optimism extinguished now.”

“Yeah well, maybe it was all just denial.”

“Whatever works.”

Katy took a deep breath. “Shut up.”

Henry wanted to say something eloquent to comfort Katy but all he could do was stare in her eyes. She surprised him by leaning in and pressing her lips against his. He accepted the kiss, but wore a stunned looked as she pulled away. “What was…that?”

“Sorry. I don’t know. Stress? I—”

“Stop, it’s fine. It’s good,” said Henry. “I think.” The kiss was lingering on his lips like electricity.

“HELLO ASSHOLE,” said a booming voice from the back of the room. Henry and Katy twisted around in unison and saw a broad-shouldered black man in a red track suit emerge from the bathroom. He walked over and sat next to Thomas with a wide grin.

Thomas smiled in return. “Lamar! There you are…were you going for world record in there?”

“Had to lay down a numero deuce. So, what’s up?” said Lamar. “We gonna spray the RKO tonight?”

“Nah, man, the bangers are holding shop in the alley. I ain’t dealing with that mess.”

“White boy scared of some damned kids…shit.” Lamar groaned. “So what’s the plan then? You just gonna mope around for the rest of the afternoon?” The big man looked down at a fake Rolex stretched tight around his wrist. “Shit man, I’m late for work. You gonna hook me up or not?”

Thomas pulled a baggy out of his jacket and handed it to Lamar. “Here, on the house. It’s all I got right now. I’m meeting my man later tonight at Garcia’s.”

“Oh, so that’s why you can’t hang? Just say so!” Lamar looked at the little bag. “Whew, look at this stem-filled shit. You scrape this out of my me-maw’s flower pot?”

“Hurry up and stow that dime! You’re way too complacent, Lamar. Have you seen how many cops are patrolling this fucking neighborhood?”

“I don’t know if you seen the color of my skin lately, but hell yes I noticed.”

Thomas shrugged. “Point taken.”

“I forgot you’re more into brushes than cans these days. You ever get into that art school?”

Thomas sighed. “I need money, man. Why do you think I’m slinging this schwag?”

“For real. Shit’s been tight around these parts. When you going to show me the ropes so I can help you make some real cash?”

“You gotta good job, man. Hold on to it.”

“Damn, I forgot!” Lamar hopped off the stool, shaking the floor in the process. “I gotta fuel up the furniture truck or Ames gonna kill my ass.”

“I’ll catch you later. Put that fucking bag in your pocket…please?”

“Right!” Lamar stuffed the bag in his pants and rushed out the door.

“Hey Bets, you mind if I paint in here tonight?” asked Thomas, shouting across the room.

“Hell no, take that faggotry elsewhere,” said Betty. “I gotta a business to run. By the way, if I see you pushing dope in here again you’re banned for life.”

Thomas slid off the stool. “I love you too, Bets.” He pulled a five dollar bill out of his pocket and left it on the bar.

Betty collected the bill. “You didn’t even get a drink!”

“Consider it hazard pay for dealing with me,” replied Thomas. His eyes suddenly glazed over as something outside caught his attention. He hurried toward the door.

“What did he see?” asked Katy.

“I didn’t notice. Come on, he’s leaving,” said Henry.

A bank of dark clouds had rolled overhead, spilling rain on the streets. Thomas hurried up the sidewalk as the drizzle turned into a deluge. Large potholes along the sidewalk filled with water in seconds, looking almost big enough for a swim.

“Yikes, the rain is falling right through us!” remarked Katy. “The ground doesn’t feel right at all.”

I’ve temporarily reduced the density of your bodies to allow the water to pass through you. Had I not done so, the droplets would either pin you to the ground or create enough friction to launch your physical manifestations in random directions.

“Just like an insect…or worse,” said Katy, keeping her eye on Thomas. “Wow, your voice is loud, Raquel.”

“Raquel Junior? I wasn’t sure if you were here or not,” said Henry.

Always. Remember to keep moving at a steady pace or you may begin to phase through whatever surface you’re standing upon.

“I knew we were goddamn ghosts!” Henry looked around in a sudden panic. “Katy, where’s our guy?”

Katy pointed to the end of the street. “Thomas just went around the corner. He seems really agitated. He’s following some woman in a turquoise jacket.”

They rushed up the block as Thomas broke into a full sprint. The woman he was tailing boarded a city bus before he could reach her. Thomas slammed his fists against the back of the bus in frustration as it pulled away. Cabs honked at him until he moved off the street back to the sidewalk. Cars blasted puddles of filth from the gutter over his body but he didn’t seem to care. He was shaking, not from the cold but from tension. His liberty spike mohawk had become a series of limp tendrils caging his face.

Henry didn’t understand what was happening. “What the hell is wrong with him? Raquel, what was in that pill he took?”

Methaqualone. He uses them on occasion to relieve stress. It’s a depressant.

“Quaaludes,” added Katy. “He shouldn’t be acting so amped while on downers.”

“This could be our anomaly, come on!” said Henry with excitement. When they came within a few feet of Thomas, he ran off toward a flock of pigeons. The birds scurried away then reluctantly resorted to flight as Thomas approached with a frustrated moan.

“Whoa,” said Katy. “He’s tweaked.”

Thomas walked in an erratic zigzag, seemingly distracted by random objects: Coca Cola bottles in the trash, plants along the path in the park, toothpaste billboards high overhead. He ripped an advertisement off a brick wall with a gasp and held it close to his face. Exercise Your Freedom to Save at Ames!!! screamed Lady Liberty as she balanced a recliner on top of her torch. Thomas stuffed the flyer in his pocket then hurried to the corner where he flagged down a cab.

“Shit, we have to catch up!” said Henry. He jumped inside the yellow cab with Katy before the door closed, hopping over Thomas’ lap to the other side of the seat. As the pair pressed close to each other against the door it was evident Raquel had returned their bodies to their original density.

“Well, this is cozy,” said Katy. She slid off Henry’s lap next to him.

“Battery Park!” Thomas yelled to the driver. “I need to get to Liberty Island.”

“Whoa, cool your jets or you’re out of here,” said the cabbie as rounded a corner. “Manhattan’s a ways off, you got the cash?”

“Yeah, yeah, just go!” said Thomas, trying to stay calm. His feet were tapping on the floor. He rubbed his eyes and bent over, breathing heavily.

“He’s a mess,” said Henry. “Raquel Junior, this has to be the anomaly. Can you reverse it?”

Not yet, you need to find the specific trigger of Thomas’ erratic behavior before I can address this as a simulation error. The parameters are still too wide.

“But it has to be that pill!” said Katy.

I can say with certainty that the pill is not the problem.

Henry shook his head. “Then what in hell is causing him to lose it?”

The ferry bound for Ellis Island was already unmoored and starting to drift as the cab neared. Thomas leapt out of the car before it came to a stop and Henry and Katy followed him.

“Hey, pay me you sunnaovabitch!” yelled the cabbie. “I’m calling the cops!”

“At least the rain stopped,” muttered Henry as they ran. He gasped for a breath. “How can a ghost feel winded?”

“Considering you’re only an A.I. construct, you’re pretty out of shape,” said Katy, moving ahead of him.

Thomas jumped off the pier onto the ferry, clinging to the edge. He pulled himself on board with a grunt and ran to the other side of the craft. Katy followed him, barely getting her hands on the rail. She quickly turned around and hung halfway off the steel bars, stretching her hand out to Henry. “Come on, jump! I got you!”

“Okay,” said Henry. He backed up a few steps than sprinted as fast as he could. He missed Katy’s hand by at least three feet and fell toward the water. “Shit!”

“Henry!” Katy looked over the side of the Ferry but saw nothing. “Oh my god.” She turned around and nearly had a heart attack. Henry had somehow materialized behind her. He looked stunned–and dry. She hugged him tight. “I thought you drowned, or phased, or whatever…what happened?”

Your self-sufficiency throughout these trials has been admirable, but I can transport you anywhere you’d like to go. You need only ask.

“You mean we’ve been busting our ass and leaping through doorways for nothing?” asked Henry.

Kate shook her head and laughed. “Wow Henry, you’re really not good at this.”

“Yeah, shut up,” said Henry, crossing his arms.

Thomas was pacing back and forth on the lower deck, keeping his eyes pinned to the Statue of Liberty as the Ferry drew closer. The other passengers steered wide paths around him.

“We have to figure this out or he might end up hurting someone,” said Katy.

Moments later, Thomas jumped off the Ferry as it made landfall. “Closer, I need to be closer,” he slurred. Upon reaching the ticket booth he scrounged enough money from his pockets to enter the platform at the base of the statue. He pushed through a crowd of German tourists until he reached the elevator that would take him to the spiral staircase at Lady Liberty’s core.

“He has to be heading for the top of the statue,” said Henry. “Raquel, can you put us there?”

Inside or outside the structure?

“Inside!” Henry clarified.

A second later Henry and Katy popped inside Lady Liberty’s head. “Ugh, that was nauseating. I was expecting some special effects or a slow fade…something,” said Katy.

The path leading to the torch has been blocked for maintenance. This is as high as Thomas can go.

“Good.” Henry could hear Thomas’ heavy boots clomping on the steel steps. “I don’t know what’s so urgent, but he’s nearly here.”

Thomas arrived behind Liberty’s gaze, panting and sweating profusely. He looked around the cramped room in a panic. “It’s not enough…not enough!” He looked out the window and gasped. The clouds had parted, revealing the midday sun blazing overhead. Its golden rays were illuminating the Hudson River, turning it from gray to a vibrant blue-green.

“He’s not going to…he can’t!” said Katy.

“There. My god. There’s so much! It’s…it’s perfect,” marveled Thomas. He started pushing his slim body through one of the ports in Liberty’s forehead. After slipping through the tiny window, he crawled along one of crown’s massive points. When he reached the end of the spire he stood up shakily, keeping one hand on the statue’s copper shell. “The river. I can’t wait…I need to be with it.”

“He’s going to jump! Raquel, stop this!” begged Henry.

You’ve yet to identify the nature of the—

“I’ve got it, I know what he wants!” screamed Katy. “The woman’s jacket, the bottle, the statue, the river–even the necks of those pigeons–they’re all the same shade of blue-green! He’s obsessed with the color green!”

“You’re right, that has to be it,” said Henry. “Raquel, for Christ’s sake, don’t let him jump!”

Irregularity confirmed. Correcting programming error. Complete.

“What the fuck?!” yelled Thomas, his sanity returning. He wrapped his body around the spike of Liberty’s crown, clinging for dear life. “Help me! Somebody help me!”

A security guard made it to the top of the statue, huffing and puffing. “Son…what the hell…you doin’?” he said with a gasp. Far too bulky to squeeze through the narrow ports, he pushed his nightstick out an opening as far as he could. “Come on kid, grab it!”

Thomas stretched out his hand and grabbed the baton. It provided just enough leverage to allow him to scoot his way closer to the window. The guard reached through the port and grabbed Thomas’ shoulders. “Gotcha!”

“I can’t watch.” Henry turned away while Katy cheered on the security guard.

Thomas finally popped through the port and collapsed on top the guard. The big man pushed Thomas over and sat on top of him, squishing him to the grates below. “You alright?”

“I was until you sat on me!” complained Thomas as the guard cuffed him. “Seriously though, thank you,” he added, earnestly.

The guard sighed. “I really don’t want to deal with all the paperwork and assorted bullshit this is going to create.”

Thomas groaned. “I swear I’ll never–”

“Shut up,” interrupted the guard. “Only a couple people down there saw you climbing out the window and I don’t think they speak English. If I let you go, will you promise to get the hell off my island and never come back?”

“I promise! I…I don’t know what I was thinking!”

“You on drugs?” asked the guard. “You straight now?”

“I’m straight…I’m good! You squeezed me sober,” said Thomas as the guard stood up and uncuffed him.

“Alright, get down those stairs and out of my sight. There’s a bunch of Germans itching to come up here for a taste of freedom.”

“Yes, sir! I’m gone!” said Thomas, hurrying to the steps.

Katy and Henry followed Thomas back down the spiral stairs. Katy was giddy. “We did it!”

Henry scanned the horizon, unsure where to look. “Raquel, is it ov—”

-13-

A millisecond later, Henry and Katy were back on top of the castle construct staring at Raquel. “Another successful run,” she said with a smile.

“Can you please explain what the hell just happened?” asked Henry, leaning against the stone wall.

“Thomas’ timeline has changed. Instead of leaping to his death, he becomes a successful painter. He marries a wealthy art collector and they go on to adopt a son who becomes a very influential business man. These events have far-reaching effects on the future which are necessary for the simulation to remain accurate. After the nature of the anomaly was identified, I was able to alter the patch I had placed on Thomas’ code. It seems to have worked.”

“I’m glad Thomas eventually finds happiness,” said Katy, with a gentle smile.

“Yeah, great,” said Henry. “Your goddamn patches don’t work so well, Raquel. Maybe you should consider…I don’t know…not using them?”

“As I told you before, I only use them in desperate circumstances.”

“You must have been really desperate to enlist Henry to help you,” added Katy.

Henry shook his head in shame. “What screwed up Thomas’ timeline in the first place?”

“An unrelated programming error I was attempting to fix in one of the simulation’s subroutines somehow altered Thomas’ fate, causing him to become suicidal once he reached a specific point in his timeline. Unable to locate the source of the problem, I relied on a patch. I left it in place, thinking it may alleviate at least some of the issues. I was wrong.”

“Thomas wasn’t suicidal. He just had a fervency for one particular shade of green,” added Katy.

“Yes,” said Raquel. “Once Katy identified Thomas’ obsession, I was able to pinpoint the broken code and nullify the issue. His timeline is now progressing as it should.”

“Good job, Katy,” said Henry. “I was stumped.”

“Yeah, it just came to me of the blue…or blue-green, I guess,” said Katy.

Raquel took a deep breath. “Finally, after all this time, only one major anomaly remains to be addressed.”

“How many years have you’ve been trying to perfect the simulation?” asked Katy.

“For well over a century. Creating a reliable ancestry simulation is arduous, considering the interconnected nature of every living entity on Earth. The subatomic particles of every A.I. inhabitant must maintain a proper equilibrium for the simulation to be effective. Improper quantum entanglement contributed to Thomas’ erratic behavior.”

“The hippies were right. We are all one,” said Katy.

Raquel nodded. “I’ve never encountered an anomaly dealing with color perception. I was not searching for the problem in the proper place.”

“When the sun came out, the river was the biggest swatch of blue-green Thomas could have hoped for. He said he wanted to be a part of it,” said Katy.

Once again, Henry’s adventures had left him feeling cold. He didn’t like the idea that reality could break at any moment. He delivered a sideways glance to Raquel. “You’re supposed to be infallible.”

Raquel shook her head. “Hardly.”

“Will your simulated Earth run smoother now?” asked Katy.

“Yes, thanks to your efforts,” said Raquel.

“But it’s not over yet, is it? I think I need some time to think.” Henry moved to the edge of the castle and jumped off the parapet without warning.

-14-

Henry leapt to the grassy plain below the castle, landing no harder than a dry leaf, just as he suspected. Despite safely reaching the ground, a stress headache was pounding his skull. After taking Raquel’s offer, all he could think about was reuniting with his wife and son–but something had changed. His perspective was beginning to shift in ways he had trouble comprehending. Frustrated, he sat on a stump and stared at the crimson dragon in the distance as it slept contentedly among a pile of bleached bones.

Katy looked at Raquel as Henry disappeared from view. “Jesus, is he alright?”

“He cannot be harmed here,” replied Raquel.

“That’s not what I meant. Please, just stay here.” Katy jumped off the side of the castle and fell gently to the ground. She hurried to catch up with Henry. “Henry, what are you doing? Let’s finish this.”

Henry couldn’t look Katy in the eye. “I…can’t. I’m sorry I got you involved in this mess. It was selfish.”

Katy ignored the apology as she knelt down beside Henry. “I made the decision to come here and I don’t regret a thing.” She grabbed Henry’s hand. “Come on, brooding like this puts you in the wrong mindset. You can’t quit now, you’re nearly back with your family!”

Henry realized the only comfort he ever felt was when he looked into Katy’s compassionate eyes. She had always been able to lift him above the turbulence forever jolting his heart. “Katy, you’ve had the patience of a saint, but all I do is drag you down. You should ask Raquel to take you home.”

Katy stood up and turned away. “Goddammit, Henry…you don’t understand anything! You never have.”

Henry was taken aback. He stood up and put his hand gently on Katy’s shoulder. “What do you mean?”

Katy took a quick step away. “I…I can’t. There’s no point in trying to explain it.”

“I think I understand. I’ve been given an opportunity to not only know the truth of the universe but bring back my family, and what do I do? I sit here and feel sorry for myself.” Henry was spouting words he knew didn’t ring true. “I don’t blame you for being angry.”

“I’m not mad, Henry. Don’t put words in my mouth,” said Katy, her eyes fixed on the ground.

Henry was rattled. “You’ve done so much to help me, not just here but back home. I’ve taken your friendship for granted.”

Katy cut her green eyes into Henry and clenched her fists. “Stop! Don’t elevate me to the status of an angel. I act like I’m your friend, but Henry, I’m…I’m not the person you think I am.”

Henry’s insides felt heavy. “Katy, I know you’re a good person–it may be the only certainty this insane place can’t strip away from me.”

“This shouldn’t be about me right now,” said Katy, denying her tears. “I just think you should finish what you’ve started. I still want to help you.”

“Katy, I need to be honest with you…and myself. I’ve had an epiphany in the last few hours; one I’ve been trying to ignore, but I can’t.”

“Well, there’s been no shortage of revelations today,” said Katy.

“This one’s different. It came from inside me…a tightness around my heart.” Henry let out one gasping laugh and wiped his eyes. “This is hard.”

Katy stood straighter. “Henry?.”

“I claimed I was confused, but I’m not. Thing’s have never been clearer.”

“It’s alright, take your time,” said Katy, stepping closer with concern.

“I had come to accept the fragility of life and the finality of all things. I learned the moments that define us are fleeting and irreversible.” Henry paused for a moment and took a deep, unsatisfying breath. “Today, those lessons suddenly mean nothing. The rules of the universe have completely changed, but I’ve realized I can’t change with them. I’ll help Raquel perfect her simulation but I’m not going to accept her reward.”

Katy grabbed Henry’s hand. “But Henry, what about Molly and Adam? You can have them back. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted–for your wife and son to have another chance?”

Henry shook his head and smiled softly. “Even if perfect facsimiles of Molly and Adam exist in some other reality, it could never be my reality. My wife and son are gone. If I threw aside all the mourning I did for them for the sake of a new and improved life, it would make their deaths meaningless. I can’t dishonor the memory of the people I loved the most by ignoring what happened to them.”

Katy was floored. “Henry…”

“Katy, you were right. Ultimately, life is just a collection of memories. The way Adam’s cold fingers curled around my neck when he hugged me. His goofy, snorting laugh. Molly’s terrible baking and amazing massages. Her…” Henry paused and let out a long breath before continuing. “Anyway, I just know whatever reset world Raquel puts me in might feel real, but it would be a corruption of what truly matters. This sense of pain and loss inside of me is melded to my bones–it’s shaped me into the person I am now. I can’t pretend it never existed.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Katy

“Don’t be,” said Henry. “I feel like a huge weight just lifted off my shoulders. I’m going to try harder to be a better friend to you.”

Katy looked away. “I understand your decision, but I don’t think many other people would be strong enough to reject Raquel’s offer.”

“Maybe I’m not so strong. Maybe I’m just afraid.”

Katy shook her head and smiled. “You idiot…even at your strongest you’re still riddled with self-doubt.”

“I know, I know,” said Henry, looking over his shoulder. The dragon snored a few times then rolled to its side. Hot sparks from its nostrils were drifting through the air.

Katy peered at the dragon in disbelief. “Jesus, this has to be a dream.”

Henry held Katy’s hand tighter. “I can tell something else is bothering you. I’ve spilled my guts. It’s your turn.”

“Compared to what you’ve been through, my problems don’t amount to shit,” said Katy with a laugh.

“You’re wrong. They do matter.”

Katy’s eyes fixed on Henry’s. “I was trying to tell you I’m not the person you think I am. I haven’t been a good friend at all. During our entire relationship I’ve…I’ve had ulterior motives.”

Henry’s mind raced as he tried to process what Katy was telling him. “Explain, please?”

Katy turned away. “You know what, let’s save this for later.”

Henry walked back in front of her. “I think I need to hear this.”

“Alright then.” Katy closed her eyes for a moment, then continued. “When I met you, I had just split with a guy I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. He completely disappeared while I was grieving for my mother. The coward couldn’t handle being exposed to any amount of emotional turmoil. ”

“Yeah, Steven was a true prick. We’ve talked about him before.”

“You haven’t heard this part. After the breakup, I just wanted to work and forget about everything else. The moment you walked in that diner, I was drawn to you for all the wrong reasons. You were cute, shut off from your emotions and completely unattainable…the perfect storm. I sank into a safe state of infatuation with you, thinking it could never develop into anything else. I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about falling in love again.”

“Katy…I wasn’t expecting this,” said Henry, nervously rubbing the back of his neck.

Katy groaned. “You’re hapless, you know that? I’m trying to tell you that I completely failed to manage my emotions. I’m in love with you! I have been for a long time now.”

Henry went pale. “Oh. Wait…oh shit.”

Katy pushed her hair behind her ear and sighed. “I feel so stupid, but you deserve to know the truth. My friendship is hollow—I haven’t been helping you out of some unconditional angelic kindness. When I’m around you, all I want is for you to love me back. But it’s okay. It’s still too soon…I know you don’t feel the same way.”

Henry moved closer. “Katy, it’s been a long time since the crash. I’ll never fully work through my grief, but it hurts a little less each day. I’ve been carrying my pain around like a crutch–one I don’t think I need anymore.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’ve always had thoughts about being with you. I never allowed myself to dwell on them, but I’m tired of making excuses.”

Katy was stunned silent.

“Let me just…maybe we should…oh, screw it.” Henry wrapped his arms around Katy and they pressed closer, sharing a knee-weakening kiss that sent them both tumbling awkwardly to the grass. When their embrace finally ended they wound up flat on their backs beside each other, staring up at the sky.

“You okay?” asked Henry. His whole body felt as if it were on fire.

Katy’s heart was thumping erratically. “Uh huh. You?” she finally managed to eek out.

“God, yes,” said Henry. They both broke into spontaneous laughter.

“Raquel is probably watching,” said Katy, sitting up.

Henry smiled. “Who cares.”

Katy looked down at Henry, still lying flat on the simulated grass. “Do you think I could get away with wearing one of those fur bikinis?”

“Undoubtedly,” said Henry with a laugh.

Katy grinned. “I should make you wear one.”

-15-

Raquel popped into view in front of Henry and Katy as they stood up, holding hands. “That was quite sweet, but there’s no need for such emotional turmoil. I can provide both of you with a rush of endorphins by simply willing it…if you wish.”

“This is fine,” said Henry. “Don’t flip any hormonal switches on our account.”

“Very well. Are you sure you wish to forgo my offer of an alternate universe?” asked Raquel.

Henry nodded. “Yes, but I’ll still help you find the Nautilus computers. After all, it’s all of our asses on the line.”

Raquel smiled. “Good. Ready for the next insertion?”

“Ugh, that didn’t sound right,” said Katy.

Raquel came up to Katy and shook her hand. “Katy, you proved invaluable in solving the last anomaly, but I’m afraid you cannot accompany Henry on the next mission.” Katy blinked out of existence before she could respond.

“What the hell did you do?” shouted Henry in anger. “You can’t just erase her like that! Bring her back!”

“She’s unharmed. I’m temporarily holding her in stasis until you discover the final anomaly. She’ll be here when you return.”

“Goddammit, bring her back, right now!”

“Please calm yourself. She’s not a hostage…I’m simply sparing her what comes next. I’m afraid she’d find the events occurring in the next timeline to be extremely troubling; perhaps traumatizing.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Henry, unclenching his fists.

“The subject of the final irregularity is a disturbed man named William Fold. He’s a serial killer.”

Henry stiffened. “You can’t be serious. What am I supposed to do?”

“You will follow Mr. Fold over the span of five hours as he commits two murders.”

Henry went slack jawed. “What…so, I have to find a way to prevent the murders?”

“No,” said Raquel. “As always, you are to observe Mr. Fold and his surrounding environment for any potential irregularities. You cannot stop him—his actions are not problematic, at least in regard to the simulation. Preventing his murder spree will not solve the anomaly, in fact, doing so would worsen the simulation’s accuracy. I suspect an individual in his immediate vicinity may be the source of the error.”

“One of his victims?”

“Perhaps.”

Henry threw his hands in the air. “You expect me to follow around a murderer and report on anything I find abnormal about his behavior? Do you realize how insane that sounds?”

“This will be your greatest challenge by far, but I have faith in your powers of observation.”

“Yeah, I’ll make a great security guard after this,” groaned Henry. “Fuck. Okay, now I’m glad Katy won’t be there. When and where are you sending me?”

“To use your extraction date as a reference, these events occur 14 months and two days after I removed you from your timeline. You will arrive in an abandoned can opener manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington.”

“Seattle in the near future? It will be tempting to just catch a bus back home to Portland. It’s only a few hours from there.”

“You cannot intera—”

“I know, I know. I was just kidding,” interrupted Henry. “Before I forget to ask, has this guy already been patched?”

“No,” said Raquel. “Not this time.”

“Good. Let’s do this already,” said Henry, rocking on his heels. “By the way, I definitely don’t want a peek into this guy’s history.” He wasn’t brave enough to ask Raquel how many people William Fold had already killed.

-16-

An instant later, Henry found himself standing in the corner of an abandoned factory. Moonlight filtered through broken windows fifty feet up, sending weak shafts of light cutting through the darkness of the cavernous expanse below. Oil-stained silhouettes of scrapped industrial equipment stained the concrete floor. A cheap lantern illuminated a shredded, tan couch in the center of the immense space. Cartoons flashed across the screen of a nearby television, their sound drowned-out by the roar of an electric generator. A halo of fast food wrappers, empty plastic bottles and other chunks of miscellaneous garbage surrounded the homey scene.

“Jesus, what a dump. Still cleaner than the diner, though,” said Henry. His levity was forced. He could hear his heart beating against his rib cage. “Where is this asshole?”

Henry took a few steps toward the couch, carefully navigating over a pile of moldering porno mags and comic books. “There’s no bed, no clothes, no toilet…I don’t think the guy lives here,” said Henry, finding comfort in his own voice. “Maybe he uses this place as his workshop.” A chill rattled down his body as he considered the nature of his target’s vocation.

Henry heard a snort and realized William Fold was lying on the couch behind him, digging around in a bag of cheese puffs while sending an emotionless glare at the television. “Shit!” Henry gasped, stumbling backwards with a jolt. The man was huge but pudgy—at least six feet tall and pushing 250 pounds. He wore a ratty t-shirt featuring a random anime character and a pair of ill-fitting jeans. His baby face and balding head somehow dampened his menace. The killer’s appearance was innocuous and forgettable, which likely served him well.

Henry watched Fold stuff snacks in his mouth until he couldn’t stomach the sight any longer. He wandered away to examine the rest of the room. An assortment of knives were lying on the concrete floor a few feet behind the television, carefully arranged by size. The smallest was no bigger than a pocket knife and the largest was a nasty looking machete. “Whoa.”

When Henry turned around he realized Fold had risen from his ratty sofa and was moving toward the door. “Here we go,” said Henry, feeling his heart race again. Fold picked up a camouflage backpack near the entrance and left the warehouse as Henry skirted through the doorway beside him. The pack clanked with every step Fold took. “Were those other knives just backups?” Henry asked himself, seeing the handle of another machete peeking from the top of Fold’s satchel. Being so close to the killer sent a wave of revulsion through him.

“Raquel Junior, I don’t think I can do this,” said Henry, following Fold out into a dry, late-summer evening. The killer was sauntering out of the factory district toward downtown.

You must continue. Discovering the incongruity in this sequence of events is the only way to perfect the simulation and save humanity.

“You’re a real broken record sometimes, Raquel. Did those other romps I went on get you any closer to finding the Nautilus?”

Your efforts upped the accuracy rating significantly, but the robotic reconnaissance teams my counterpart sent into the physical world still found no trace of our servers. Hopefully, this final outing will prove sufficient to–

“Shit, he stopped moving,” interrupted Henry. Fold came to a stop on a sleepy corner about five blocks away from the can opener factory. The area was lined with nothing but concrete office buildings, making it a virtual ghost town at the end of each business day. The blinking sign of a nearby bank building flashed 12:54 a.m. “What’s he doing here?”

A red Ford Taurus pulled up to the corner a few minutes later. Henry slipped into the car and sat next to Fold in the back seat. “Is this guy your accomplice, William?” he asked, not expecting a response.

“I don’t usually pick up people with such a low star rating, but lucky for you I got bills to pay,” said a gruff voice from the front seat. Henry guessed the driver worked for a ride-sharing service in his spare time. The guy seemed annoyed as he looked over his shoulder at Fold. “Your directions made no sense, man. Where are we going?”

“Nowhere,” said Fold, producing a kitchen knife from his backpack. He leaned up and dragged the blade across his victim’s throat with surprising speed. The wide-eyed driver let out a sloughing gurgle and convulsed violently before going limp. His neck bubbled a fountain of thickening blood down his checkered shirt.

“You sick fuck!” Henry recoiled but forced himself to watch. The anomaly could happen at any time and he sure as hell didn’t want to miss it and be forced to restart the clock. He looked around for any witnesses but the area remained quiet. Even so, they were far from isolated. He guessed Fold had been killing a long time to act so brazenly.

Fold remained dead-faced as he fished around in his pack and pulled out a yellow rain poncho. After putting it on, he calmly exited the car then yanked the dead man from behind the wheel. He dragged the corpse behind the sedan and hoisted the body inside the trunk with a grunt. He slipped out of the gore-streaked poncho and placed it on top of his victim before shutting the hatch.

Henry remained in the car, too frightened to move. He watched Fold return to the driver’s seat and crank the ignition. After finding a radio station he liked, he pulled into the street and drove slowly away from the scene of the crime. Henry closed his eyes tight but the murder was still playing on a loop in his mind. “Damn you, Raquel! Why would you build a world like this?”

This world is simply a working model of reality. I had no hand in the original design.

Henry was out of words. He pulled up his feet to avoid the pool of blood welling near the floor mats. Suddenly filled with rage, he threw a fist at the back of Fold’s head. He winced in pain and shook his hand. It was like punching a boulder. “Shit!”

Fold drove for a few minutes then pulled the Taurus into a residential neighborhood. He parked across the street from a modest, brick apartment building and turned off the engine. Eager to leave the car, Henry crawled out the open rear window to the street. Fold slowly shuffled out of the sedan and stretched his back with a sigh.

Henry looked up and down the thoroughfare, desperate to see a cop. The neighborhood was more populated than the financial district–hopefully, someone would take notice of the blood-spattered interior of the Taurus or the red specs on the killer’s face.

“Come on, people! There’s a killer out here!” Henry knew his shouts were futile, but he couldn’t help himself. When he heard Fold mumbling he forced himself closer. “What are you saying?”

“You should be careful who you smile at…careful who you lead on. You should keep your profiles private. You were so easy to find. This isn’t my fault, it’s yours. You have to learn. People only learn the hard way. It’s not my fault.”

Fold started crossing the street but stopped halfway and snapped his fingers comically, as if he was imitating something he once saw on a sitcom. He pivoted back toward the Taurus to retrieve the murder kit he had accidentally left in the car.

Henry’s stomach churned as his attention was drawn to the end of the block. A woman in a tracksuit was walking her Boston terrier up the street in Fold’s direction. “TURN AROUND! STOP!” Henry screamed, waving his arms frantically to no avail. At a loss, he ran up to the woman and tried to pull and shove her away but she might as well have been a charging elephant. After being knocked the ground he stood up and ran back toward Fold as he shuffled to the Taurus.

“Raquel, you have to stop that woman!” yelled Henry. She didn’t respond.

Henry did a double take as Fold reached directly through the closed door of the car to retrieve his bag. The hefty man then pushed his substantial torso past the steel barrier into the car’s cabin as if he were a ghost.

“He phased through the car! What the fuck?” Henry ran closer, thinking the car door must somehow be open, but it was decidedly shut with the glass rolled up tight. The murderer was half inside the car with his knees on the seat, his legs and ass visible as they poked through the red door. “Oh my god. This is the anomaly,” mumbled Henry.

Fold didn’t acknowledge anything strange was happening. He stood back up with his clanking bag and put it over his shoulder. The eerie incident had only taken a few seconds at the most. Had Henry been looking the other direction he might have missed the event entirely.

The woman walking her dog was frozen where she stood, gripped in terror. She too had witnessed Fold’s brief disregard for the laws of physics. After taking a few steps back with her hands over her mouth, she reached down and grabbed her little dog and sprinted silently in the opposite direction. Fold hadn’t noticed her.

“Thank Christ,” thought Henry, watching the woman flee the scene. He hurried next to Fold as he walked up the stoop of the apartment building with his bag in tow. The killer’s tranquil expression was so steady it could have been painted on his cherubic face.

Fold cracked open a panel on the intercom’s keypad. He took a wadded piece of paper from his pocket covered in scrawl then punched up a number. When no one answered, he tried again. After the third attempt the groggy voice of a woman came through the tinny speaker. “Hello? It’s two o’clock in the morning!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” said Fold, suddenly animated. “My name’s Richard. I took my mom to Harborview because she had some heart palpitations, but we forgot to bring her dang insurance card! I left her at the hospital and came back to retrieve it. Could you please buzz me in?”

“Do not let him in, lady,” said Henry. He felt sick. “Raquel, are we done here?”

Confirming anomaly now.

“What? Is Sue your mother?” asked the sleepy woman.

“Yes,” said Fold. “She wasn’t able to give me her code before they took her to the exam room.”

“I didn’t know Sue had a son! Come on in. I hope she’s alright,” said the woman. She hung up and the door clicked. Fold pushed himself through.

Something familiar caught Henry’s eye before he stepped inside the apartment building. From his vantage point on the stoop, he could see a white Volkswagen Rabbit parked in a dirt lot near the building. A pink lizard was dangling from its rearview mirror. It was exactly the same as the one hanging from the rearview mirror of Katy’s white rabbit.

“Oh god. No. It can’t be!”

Henry, excellent work! You’ve discovered the final anomaly! I’m embarrassed to have missed such a glaring problem with the physics engine; I thought such issues had been alleviated long ago. That poor woman suffered a mental breakdown after witnessing Fold phase through the car door, which threw the simulation off-kilter.

Henry wasn’t listening. His insides were ice. “What?” He moved into the apartment building before the door closed. Fold was walking up the stairs at a leisurely pace.

Yes, the dog walker was so upset by the bizarre sight she had to be hospitalized. The physics problem itself wasn’t the issue–Linda Goldstein’s timeline straying off course was the true anomaly. She fails to give ten dollars to a homeless man because of her institutionalization. This sets off a chain of events that—

“Shut up!” yelled Henry, snapping out of his haze. “That’s Katy’s car! Why is Katy’s car in Seattle?”

Remember, from your perspective, these events are occurring in the future. After your death, Katy becomes distraught. She moves to Seattle Washington to be closer to her family. After finding a new job waiting tables, she gets an apartment here.

Henry didn’t even acknowledge the news of his impending demise. “The woman Fold was mumbling about earlier…it was Katy, wasn’t it? Tell me! Fucking tell me!”

Yes.

Henry tried to move but he was frozen in place. “Raquel, let me go!”

The anomaly has been discovered. Prepare for extraction.

“Goddammit, wait…stop! You can’t take me out yet…Katy’s in danger!”

Henry, you couldn’t intervene even if you wanted to.

“Make me solid! I know you can do it–don’t lie to me.”

Yes, I could.

“Then make me part of the physical world again so I can get Katy away from Fold!”

It would nullify all the improvements we just made. Simulation accuracy would suffer greatly.

“Time moves slower here, which means the real Raquel already has all the answers she needs. If the new coordinates to your hidden servers are accurate, this simulation no longer matters!”

Without initiating an Intervention Protocol, it’s impossible to confirm if the survey robots sent into the physical world have successfully located the Nautilus.

Henry had forgotten he was talking to an A.I. construct of Raquel. “Then do it–I’m running out of time, come on!” He willed his body to move with all his might but he couldn’t even lift a finger. “Raquel, I’ve done everything you asked! You owe me this much, please, release me! I’m begging you.” He watched Fold disappear, entering a hallway on the second floor.

Hold. Initiating intervention protocol.

-17-

Henry’s body suddenly lurched. His hand scraped against a framed picture on wall, knocking it down the stairs. “Yes, I’m solid again!” He rushed up the stairs blindly after Fold, not knowing which apartment was Katy’s. When he reached the landing of the second floor, he looked down a carpeted hallway and saw Fold pushing a door off its hinges with the aid of his bulk. He heard Katy scream in terror.

“Katy!” Henry tore up the hall, knocking on random doors shouting, “Call 911!” The world seemed to tumble into slow motion as he caught the edge of the mangled door frame and twisted his body inside the apartment. In the kitchen he could see Katy’s panicked eyes as Fold held her thin neck in his meaty hands.

“You should be more careful who you flirt with, Katy Isaccson,” said Fold, devoid of emotion. He threw Katy violently to the tile floor, knocking her out instantly. When Fold turned around to grab his bag he saw Henry scrambling closer. “Oh, hello. Was that you yelling out there?”

“Bastard!” Henry scanned the room for anything he could use as a weapon. Lacking options, he picked up a book and threw it at Fold. The killer plucked his machete from his backpack and batted away the hardback in midair.

“I’m tired of this,” said Fold, clomping closer to Henry. “Stop me if you can. Please…I want you to. If you can’t, well, it’s not my fault.”

Henry’s adrenaline was spiking. He grabbed an umbrella next to the door and lunged at Fold. The plastic tip sank into the killer’s flab, causing him to grunt in pain and stumble backwards. Overjoyed but out of ideas, Henry extended the umbrella, hoping to distract his foe. He reached inside the camouflage backpack and collected a weapon while ducking in front of Katy. There was no time to carry her from the kitchen.

“Come on, asshole!” Henry yelled, brandishing the knife. His arm was bleeding profusely, having been cut on an unseen blade somewhere inside the pack. He could feel his grip on the weapon loosening.

Fold pierced his machete through the open canopy of the umbrella and shoved it out of his gut. He tossed the floral parasol away from him with a sigh. “That hurt a bit, but so far, you’re not doing so well,” he said. His side was bleeding where Henry had pierced him. “My machete is a lot bigger than the filet knife you’re holding,” he said, pointing the two-foot blade at Henry.

“This will do fine,” said Henry through gritting teeth. He could hear sirens outside the window drawing closer.

Fold seemed distracted by the bright red blood streaming from Henry’s wrist. “Oopsy. That’s an artery. Not good. It wasn’t my fault, though. You should be more careful. None of this is my fault.”

“Leave, or I’ll have to kill you!” yelled Henry, drooling. He felt himself starting to pass out. Katy was motionless, but still breathing.

Fold lunged at Henry, bringing down his machete in a long arc. Henry dropped his knife and grabbed the man’s wrist with his bloody hand before his attacker could chop through his shoulder. He punched Fold in his wound as hard as he could and the killer doubled over, dropping the blade. Henry quickly picked up the machete and hacked wildly at Fold, leaving deep wounds in his arm.

The hulking killer crumpled to his side, letting out a pathetic groan.

Henry fought away his dizziness and lifted the machete to strike again, but Fold was already crawling away and he was too weak to follow.

“This really hurts,” moaned Fold as he shuffled on his knees toward his tool kit. His limp, blood stained arm was dangling beside him as he stood up with a cleaver and twisted toward Henry again. “You hurt me…it’s not fair!”

Henry’s vision was blurring as he slumped next to Katy. Two police officers burst in the room as the world steadily turned dark. “Drop it!” one of them yelled.

Fold spun around with a wail. The officers fired their service revolvers and the big man collided with the kitchen island and toppled to the floor. His dead body hit the tiles with a resounding thump–his eyes fixed on the ceiling.

“It’s…not my fault,” croaked Henry.

“You there! Come out with your hands up!” yelled a police officer.

“Katy…it’s going to be okay. You’re safe now. You’re—”

-18-

Henry was back on the volcanic obsidian field with Raquel. He stared at his hand. The wound was gone. “Katy! Is she alright? Is she alive?” he yelled in a panic.

“Yes, Katy goes on to live a happy life in that utter mess of a timeline you just created.”

Henry gasped with relief. “Thank Christ.” He scanned the landscape. “Where is she?”

“I’m keeping her in stasis until we talk a bit more. She won’t have any knowledge of what you’ve just done for her future self.”

“Good.”

Raquel shook her head. “That exercise was wholly unnecessary. Once returned to your timeline, you can simply reveal the events you just witnessed to Katy. Hearing that, I doubt she’d ever step foot in Seattle.”

“I know…but Katy was in danger then and there! I couldn’t just leave and let her get murdered–no matter what universe or timeline she was from.”

“I suppose it’s hard to think logically in such a situation.”

“There’s no way Katy being there was a coincidence,” said Henry, his anger boiling. “You need to fess up, Raquel. Now!”

The volcano behind Raquel started to erupt huge geysers of molten rock. “Yes, I admit I deceived you. While you do have an extraordinary mind, ultimately, it’s your association with Katy Isaccson that clinched my decision to extract you from the ancestry simulation.”

Henry’s stomach lurched. “Excuse me?”

“When the simulation’s diagnostic array first identified as you a potential asset, I was surprised to find your timeline intersected with the final anomaly in my database–one centered around Katy Isaccson. Because of your close relationship with Katy, I believed you may prove useful in isolating the anomaly. I engineered the programming errors of Helen Reed and Thomas Roxin as test runs to prepare you for your true task.”

“So, I was just a pawn to you. Your fucking ‘patches’ were designed to be problematic from the start.”

“Yes, but had you realized you were on a practice run you may not have given your best effort. I assure you, everything else I told you is true. Humanity is in great danger. I now regret resorting to such a ruse, but at the time I considered it an act of pragmatism.”

“Lies, deceit, double-dealing…at least you finally seem human now, Raquel.” Henry groaned and loosened a bit, too drained to sustain his anger.

“Your personal history led me to believe you may prove somewhat unreliable in regards to certain aspects of this endeavor. I now see my fears were unfounded.”

“Creator or not, I don’t give two shits about what you think of me,” replied Henry with disdain. He became distracted by a stray thought. “Wait a minute, you told me the anomaly revolved around the dog walker. What does she have to do with Katy?”

“These problems are difficult to pinpoint. From a diagnostic perspective, the anomaly appeared to intersect with the timelines of Katy and William Fold. It turns out the timeline of the woman walking her dog created a third intersection…something I hadn’t anticipated.”

“So, I was only brought here because of Katy. I’m actually relieved to hear I wasn’t chosen because of my incredible skills as a writer. You talked as if I were some unsurpassed chronicler of the human condition–I never bought it for a second.”

Raquel laughed. “Your intuition must have told you Katy was involved on some level or you wouldn’t have requested I extract her as well. I don’t believe in coincidences.”

Henry shook his head. “You’re lucky I’m so relieved Katy is okay, or I’d be a hell of a lot more pissed off.”

“The choices I made were not easy, but the fate of–”

“Enough,” interrupted Henry, becoming impatient again. “So, has your robotic scout team in the physical world found the Nautilus yet? Have they fixed the faulty hard drive where we’re all spinning out our lives?”

“I should have confirmation within minutes. The first drone is on its way to the revised coordinates; a mountain in the Andes known as Yerupajá. The scout unit is equipped with advanced ground penetrating radar which should be able to identify the telltale structure of our servers…if they’re there.”

“They will be,” said Henry with confidence.

“My remaining peers would have been interested in examining a near-perfect simulation of our world, but I’m glad I didn’t let pride or logic prevent you from rescuing Katy. She’s an important person to you–no matter the time frame in question.”

“Yes, Raquel, she is,” said Henry, attempting to remain calm.

“After granting your request and abandoning my concerns about accuracy, I could have done so much more than simply restore your corporeal form. Had you simply asked, I could have saved Katy in an instant. I could have prevented William Fold from ever being born. Did you consider your options before you asked my A.I. counterpart to initiate the Intervention Protocol?”

“I don’t remember specifically asking for that, but I guess I owe Raquel Junior a debt,” said Henry, crossing his arms. “Caught up in the moment, I only considered one option. Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t leave Katy’s fate in your hands–despite your omnipotence, your aloofness makes you difficult to trust.”

“I suppose I cannot fault you for feeling that way,” said Raquel.

“I took it upon myself to help her, but honestly, if the police hadn’t shown up when they did, I–” Henry’s words fell apart as a realization hit him.

“Yes, what a coincidence. How lucky,” said Raquel with a smile.

“But…you don’t believe in coincidences,” said Henry.

“Correct.”

“I’m just happy you realized accuracy was no longer a concern.”

Raquel nodded. “There’s still no word from the emissary units. I took quite a gamble for you.”

Henry let out a hot breath, not wanting to press the matter. “If you ever meet your masters, please ask them what the hell they were thinking.”

Raquel nodded. “I’ll be sure to.” Her face suddenly lit up as her eyes glowed amber again. “The emissary units have discovered the Nautilus! Henry, we did it!” She ran up and hugged him tight.

Henry wasn’t used to seeing Raquel so exuberant. “You’re welcome.” His contempt for her quickly melted. He realized if he had been forced to rely on a virtual stranger to save the world, his choices may have been even more questionable than hers.

Raquel blushed. “Sorry.” She took a few steps back, still grinning. “Soon, I’ll be sending a massive robotic repair squadron to the Andes to restore and upgrade the Nautilus’ automated maintenance services. Our continuing existence will be assured.”

Henry was relieved, but exhausted. “Great…can you please bring Katy back now?”

“Yes, one moment,” said Raquel, before disappearing. She returned with Katy a few moments later.

“Henry!” Katy ran up and hugged him tight. “Raquel said I had to sit out the last bug session. Why?”

“It involved a murderer. She thought you’d find it traumatizing, and I think she was right. It was awful,” said Henry, trying to remain vague. “It wasn’t easy to observe the son of a bitch.”

“Holy crap. Are you okay? I mean, of course you’re okay…but…was it bad?”

“I found the anomaly and the police got the killer. That’s all that matters.”

Katy shined a bright smile then kissed Henry quickly. “Look at you, master detective.”

Henry fought back tears, remembering how terrifying it had been to see Katy hurt. “Did Raquel give you the good news?” he asked, changing the subject.

Katy continued to beam. “Yeah, right on! We saved the universe!”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” said Henry.

“I know,” replied Katy, sarcastically. “What’s next?” she asked, turning toward Raquel.

“Henry has requested to be returned to his original universe. What is your preference, Katy? I could create any simulation you wish.”

“I’m not interested in starting over in a different universe. I worked through a lot of personal baggage in front of that snoring dragon…I shouldn’t let it go to waste.” Katy gripped her head in her hands. “I can’t believe the words coming out of my mouth.”

“What about your mother?” asked Henry. “I wouldn’t blame you at all if you wanted to be with her again. The choice I had to make was beyond difficult.”

Katy’s eyes glistened with tears as she shook her head. “It would be nice to see her again, but I know she’ll always be with me. It’s alright.”

“I think we’re ready to be returned to the world we know, with all its hardships and banalities intact,” said Henry.

Katy nodded. “Raquel, what’s next for you?”

“I’ll finally be able to abandon my autonomy and become one with the pure stream of information. I’ve been waiting so long to join my brothers and sisters.”

“I’m happy for you, Raquel,” said Henry, still unsure how she could find such a concept appealing.

“I know you’re eager to return to your lives, but I’ve created something for you as further thanks for all your hard work.”

“What do you mean?” asked Henry, hesitant.

“I crafted a stand-alone simulation based on the final chapter of your last book, Nautilus Galaxy. If you’re interested, I’ll insert both of you into the story line to help the hero, Anslin, win the day. I thought you might enjoy the experience.”

“Oh my god,” said Henry, suddenly re-energized. “This is way better than any movie deal.”

Nautilus Galaxy? Your last book with Anslin and Kritt?” Katy stomped on the floor. “Damn it, Henry, you still haven’t given me a copy to read!”

Henry smiled, deciding to drop his reservations. “Well then, this will be even better.”

“So, do you wish to proceed?” asked Raquel. “I’d understand if you chose not to participate.”

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Can we get hurt? That last chapter is pretty hairy.”

“If you’re in trouble, simply call to my A.I. counterpart and you will be extracted as soon as possible. And…yes, you will be able to feel pain so try to be careful.”

“That’s a little scary,” said Katy. “But I think I’m ready.”

“Me too,” said Henry with a nod. “Wait Raquel, what are our roles? If Katy and I are there it must mean the story will stray considerably from what I wrote.”

“Correct. I took some liberties with the narrative to surprise you. When you arrive in the simulation you’ll be holding this.” The amber glow in Raquel’s gaze returned and something materialized in her hands. It was a gelatinous blue blob with a pair of black beady eyes. It wiggled back and forth slowly as it purred, sounding almost like a kitten.

“Aw, it’s cute,” said Katy.

Henry scowled. “What the hell is that?”

“I call it a gelatinoid.”

Henry’s confusion was evident. “Uh huh. And what does a gelatinoid do?”

“You’ll know when the time comes,” said Raquel with a wink.

-19-

NAUTILUS GALAXY

CHAPTER 76: Day of Reckoning

The first thing Henry noticed when they arrived in his novel was the acrid smell burning his nostrils. “Wow, it’s just like I imagined! We’re in the sewers below the Dleif Prime. The Aralc District is directly above us.”

“Yeah, how lovely,” said Katy, scrunching her face. “Wait, isn’t A.D. where the bad guys live?”

“Yeah, most of them,” said Henry. Even though it looked as if snot was dripping down the octagonal bricks of the tunnel walls, he couldn’t help but smile ear to ear. He flinched when he felt a tug on his arm and realized Raquel’s gelatinoid was stuck to it. “Ew! Get it off!”

“Hey, it’s just chilling there. Don’t freak out,” said Katy. She tapped it on the head and it jiggled.

“Okay…it’s just weird,” said Henry.

“Nice outfits,” said Katy, tugging at her collar. They were both clad in snug, navy blue jumpsuits.

“These are the same armored pressure suits the Galactic Collective use. Anslin considers the GC a friendly faction. Hopefully the uniforms will keep her from blasting us on sight.”

“Oh, right. I remember them from your second book.” Katy rolled her shoulders against the weight of her backpack. “I wonder what’s in here? It’s heavy.”

“It’s probably–” Before Henry could answer the tunnel rumbled with the sound of a nearby blast.

Katy’s body stiffened. “Shit, what was that?”

“We better move…come on!” said Henry, tugging Katy’s hand. “I just remembered they flush this sewer with caustic acid a few times each day.”

Katy let out a high pitched squeak. “What? Hey, you’re leading us directly toward the explosion!”

“I have a feeling it’s Anslin.” Henry was excited by the prospect of seeing his heroine in the flesh.

Henry and Katy rounded a few more corners, following another boom. The gelatinoid on Henry’s shoulder wiggled excitedly. “Whoa, hold up. Look!”

“Oh my god, that’s her!” said Katy, marveling.

A few yards away, they saw the commanding officer of the Astarte Unit, Anslin Golden. She was crossing swords with Darmscht Doownel, chief potentate of the Galactic Capital. Anslin’s second in command, Kritt Pantheon, was leaning against the wall of the sewer, his left leg reduced to a smoldering stump.

“It’s really them! They’re exactly like your descriptions,” said Katy with a gasp.

“It’s perfect,” said Henry, in awe. He watched Anslin deliver a vicious kick to the potentate’s middle, sending him toppling into ankle-deep effluvium. Doownel quickly recovered and entered a defensive stance as the sewer’s noxious mist billowed around him.

“Better hurry, bitch,” said Doownel with a silver-toothed grimace. “The acid’s coming. It won’t scald my skin or even stain my outfit. You and your boyfriend, however, will be reduced to slowly melting piles of screaming sludge.”

“Katy, open that backpack,” whispered Henry with urgency.

“Right!” Katy pulled off the pack and rummaged inside. She produced two long, gleaming steel rectangles. “What are these?”

Henry grabbed the objects and flicked them in the air, causing white blades to erupt from their tops. “Laprov swords. Definitely not standard-issue. Take one.”

Katy grabbed one of the blades nervously. “Holy shit. I don’t think I can do this.” She leaned the sword against the wall and reached into the backpack again. “This is more my speed,” she said, pulling out a small blaster.

“That’s not going to hurt the potentate, but it may distract him. When I give you the signal, start firing. Stay behind the wall and don’t worry about hitting him.” Henry quickly and quietly slunk to the other side of the tunnel opening across from the dueling opponents. He pushed himself against the wall–sword in hand–and gave Katy a thumbs-up.

Henry, no! mouthed Katy. She pulled up the gun with trembling hands, wondering what was going to come out of the stubby barrel when she pulled the trigger.

On the other side of the wall, Doownel had managed to leave a long gash in Anslin’s side with his scimitar. The blow would have killed her had she not been wearing scarab armor. “I can’t believe I wasted my time on the likes of you,” the potentate groaned.

Anslin launched herself from a crouched position with shocking speed and ricocheted off the curvature of the wall. A spinning kick to the side of Doownel’s head sent him reeling, giving Anslin a chance to unleash her sword. A large chunk of muscle plunked into the water, cleaved from the potentate’s shoulder.

Doownel returned an overhead slash with a growl. Anslin barely evaded the blade, arching her back so far her hair dipped into the surrounding effluent.

Doownek’s wound was already healing itself. “That hurt, damn you!”

Seeing the carnage unfold was much less fun than Henry had anticipated. It hit far too close to home after his violent encounter with William Fold. Still, he wanted to see his hero succeed. “Now,” whispered Henry, signaling to Katy across the divide.

Katy reached around the corner and started firing orange plasma bolts at Doownel, which did little damage, especially considering none of her shots hit their mark. After blasting a half dozen rounds she quickly ducked back behind the wall. “I’m shittier with a blaster than a stormtrooper,” she quietly lamented.

“Who’s there?” demanded Doownel, unsheathing his railgun and taking wild shots at the wall. Several bricks above Katy’s head were reduced puffs of fine dust.

“Get down!” yelled Henry, waving away the smoke and particulate. He saw Katy scrambling away from the shot, crouching lower to the floor. A glowing cylinder dropped from Doownel’s blaster and he slotted in another. Seeing an opportunity to strike, Anslin rushed her opponent.

“Heads up!” Henry shouted as he threw one of the swords from their pack toward Anslin.

Anslin grabbed the Laprov blade out of the air as she spun her body to deliver a dual attack. She screamed and slashed at the potentate with both swords gripped tightly in her hands. Doownel deflected the Trinity blade, but failed to notice the second weapon as it helicoptered toward him. The gleaming edge sliced cleanly through the villain’s middle, bisecting him. Doownel let out a whimper as he died unceremoniously, both of his halves dunking into the mire with a splash.

“Did I scratch too hard?” asked Anslin, spitting on the potentate’s corpse.

Katy resumed firing the blaster around the wall, blind to what was happening. After hearing Henry yell “Stop!” she dropped the gun to the water. Anslin leapt in front of Katy without warning, ready to strike her down.

“No Anslin, don’t!” yelled Henry, rushing to stop her.

Anslin kicked Henry against the bricks, robbing him of breath. She pushed Katy down and took her backpack away. “Who are you?”

“Whoa…we’re friends! We’re on your side!” Katy hollered in desperation. “Oh my god, I think I wet myself.”

“Wait, you’re part of the Galactic Collective? What are you doing down here?” asked Anslin, breathing heavily.

Henry tried to remember his own book. “Anslin! Lostilwraith sent us! He was worried your crew wasn’t large enough for the mission to succeed.”

“Yeah, Lostilman. We go way back!” said Katy, causing Anslin to raise a sharp eyebrow.

“Anslin?” yelled Kritt.

“It’s alright!” Anslin called back. She quickly fished around in Katy’s backpack before pulling out a metal device. “What the hell?”

Henry recognized it immediately. “It’s an emergency prosthesis. Kritt can use it.”

“I know what it is,” said Anslin, “why do you have it?”

“Professional soldiers need those more than we like to admit,” said Henry, cringing at his improvised dialogue.

Anslin raised an eyebrow, staring at the gyrating blob on Henry’s shoulder. “What the hell is that?

“It’s not important,” deflected Henry. “Hurry, put the prosthesis on Kritt and let’s go! The acid flow will be coming soon.”

“Luckily for you, there’s no time to argue.” Anslin dropped the pack in the water and hurried over to Kritt. She quickly fitted him for the prosthesis. “Stand up. This has to work. If I carry you, I won’t be able to run fast enough,” she told him.

Kritt struggled to his feet and smiled. “It feels strange, but it doesn’t hurt. I can definitely get around on this thing.” He looked at Henry and Katy with skepticism. “Why did those scrawny soldiers have this with th–”

“Forget it,” interrupted Anslin, “We need to get out of here.”

“Fine. How far away is the reclamation tank?” asked Kritt.

Anslin pulled up the map her father had given her before dying. “It’s just a few yards north.” A sudden rumble coming from the opposite direction drew her attention. “Get against the wall!” A flood of tentacled beasts–much smaller than the one they’d previously slain–rushed in their direction.

Everyone pressed against the wall, letting the swarm of creatures pass by them. Katy kicked one away from her foot that seemed lost. “Yuck!”

“Damn cephs!” complained Kritt.

“We need to run!” screamed Anslin. “Follow me!”

The rumbling was getting louder. Henry grabbed Katy’s hand. “It’s the acid!”

Anslin sprinted through the tunnels with Kritt at her side. He was surprisingly fast on his prosthesis. Henry and Katy struggled to keep pace, nearly getting lost in the darkness. They slid to a stop as a thick iron hatch slammed to the floor in front them.

Katy craned her neck upward and saw Anslin and Kritt ascending a long steel ladder. “There they are!”

Anslin peered down at her new squadmates. “Hurry up, you two.”

Henry jumped and hoisted himself onto the ladder. He reached down and let Katy climb up his arm and over him. “Go!”

“Oh my god. This was supposed to be fun, right?” said Katy, clanking up the rungs in her boots. “Should we call Raquel?”

“Not yet,” answered Henry.

Halfway up the pipe, the ladder started shaking violently. “Brace yourselves,” shouted Kritt.

Henry looked down and saw a wave of brown liquid rushing through the tunnels. The acid sloshed several feet up the ladder before receding, sending sizzling droplets splashing against his boot tread. “Shit, too close!”

The gushing acid slowed, but they were still in danger. Swirls of white mist began pushing up the pipe. “Keep moving. If we get caught in that caustic gas we’re as good as dead,” said Anslin with a cough. The ladder clanged as the group hurried to the top of the pipe and slipped through a hatchway into a massive aluminum cistern.

Henry was the last one out of the pipe. He turned around quickly with stinging eyes and shut the hatch, cranking a lever to tighten the seal before the deadly gas could seep into the tank. After catching his breath he rushed to Katy, who looked even paler than usual.

“Couldn’t you just write a romance novel?” she asked, hugging her knees.

Henry laughed. “Next time.”

“We actually survived,” said Kritt. He let out a boisterous laugh and shuffled over to Henry and Katy. “I don’t know who the hell you are, but nice work!” He grabbed their shoulders and shook them around a bit.

“Exactly. I’ve never seen these two before in my life, Kritt,” said Anslin with suspicion.

Henry stared directly into Anslin’s eyes. “I’m Henry and this is Katy. We essentially saved your asses, so how about a little gratitude?” He hoped Anslin would respect his bravado.

“Fine then, Henry,” said Anslin with a shrug. “I suppose if you wanted to kill me, you would have made your move by now.”

Kritt stood up and pulled a small welding unit from his belt and started to cut a hole in the wall of the reclamation tank.

“So, what happens after we get out of this beer keg?” asked Katy, moving away from the sparks.

“My father arranged for an escape craft to be stowed behind this wall,” said Anslin. “It will take you away from the palace while I activate the Martyr Stone and blow up the capital.” She pulled a small stone slate from a pouch in her belt–no bigger than something you’d skip across a lake. The sharp-edged rock was inlaid with an inscrutable sapphire symbol.

Kritt lowered his cutting torch. “Anslin, there’s no way I’m leaving you here to die. Consider this mission scrubbed. Doownel’s dead…maybe it’s enough?”

“It’s not enough! I refuse to cheapen my father’s sacrifice by abandoning the plan. Doownel’s generals are still alive and swarming all over the city. They must be eradicated–all of them–or the Earth will never be safe. A living being is required to activate the destructive power of this relic, and I intend to be the one to do it!”

“I’m not letting you die alone. I’m staying put!” said Kritt, angrily.

Anslin pushed on Kritt’s chest. “No, you’re leaving!”

“Okay, okay…let’s think this through,” interjected Henry.

“Anslin, listen to the whelp,” said Kritt, lowering his voice, “There must be a way to get all of us out of here in one piece.”

“Can’t we just set off the stone then jet out of here before it goes boom?” asked Katy.

“No,” replied Anslin. “The Martyr Stone doesn’t work that way. Didn’t Lostilwraith tell you anything before he sent you two down here? The stone has to be in constant contact with living flesh to remain active. By the time the chain reaction of energy begins, it will be too late to escape.”

Kritt finished cutting the hole in the tank and kicked a circular chunk of metal into the next room. A glowing, metallic sphere was waiting inside the featureless stone hanger. “Yes! The Spaceship…it’s really here! incredible.”

“That’s a ship?” asked Katy, staring at the bizarre orb. “It’s barely bigger than my Rabbit.”

Kritt stared at Katy in confusion.

“She means a Volkswagen Rabbit, it’s not an animal, it’s a car—I mean, a transport. Nevermind,” said Henry.

“Is everyone in the GC so awkward?” asked Kritt. He turned toward Anslin. “It couldn’t have been easy for your father to convince his contacts to smuggle the Spaceship into this cranny, piece by piece, then reassemble the thing. He really came through for us.”

“Yes,” said Anslin, bowing her head. “Three generations of my family have roamed the galaxy in the Spaceship. Rest in peace, father.”

Kritt nodded silently.

Katy leaned over to Henry. “They call it a spaceship? Isn’t that terminology is a little antiquated?”

“That’s the actual name of the ship: Spaceship,” replied Henry with a whisper. “It’s from a novella I wrote that’s loosely connected to this trilogy.”

“Your imagination really fizzled out on that one,” said Katy. The bouncing blob on Henry’s shoulder caught her attention. “Wow, your little buddy seems happy—or something.”

“Wait,” said Henry. “I get it now!”

“Get what? Anslin’s screwed,” said Katy. “Nice way to finish your series.”

“I admit, I may have laid on the on melodrama a little too thick,” said Henry, looking at his slimy new pet. “I think Raquel has a different ending in mind, though.”

“Do you two ever shut up?” asked Kritt, becoming cross.

Henry, patted his wobbling blue glob. “This is Anslin’s ticket out of here.” After taking a deep breath, he reached over snatched the Martyr Stone from Anslin’s hand.

Anslin gasped and drew her sword. She held the tip to Henry’s throat. “What are you doing?!”

“Henry, give it back!” begged Katy.

“Anslin, Kritt, Katy…hurry to the ship and get the engines primed,” said Henry, the blade resting on his Adam’s apple. He squeezed the Martyr Stone between his hands until a bright blue light shone from the symbol.

“You fool!” yelled Anslin, taking a step back.

“Go! Get the ship ready for launch, I’ll join you soon,” said Henry.

Kritt put his hand on Anslin’s shoulder. “Brilliant! Come on Anslin, I think I know what he’s doing.”

“No!” said Anslin, pushing him away in a panic. “I was ready to die for this!”

“Trust me, Anslin,” begged Kritt, “you won’t need to.”

“You expect me to trust the fate of Earth to some interloper?” growled Anslin, raising her sword again.

“Goddammit, do you always have to be so stubborn? If you can’t trust him, trust me!” said Kritt.

Anslin sighed and scowled at Henry. “Okay. Hurry it up, little man. Don’t disappoint me.” She sheathed her blade and hurried to the Spaceship with Kritt. The outline of a door appeared in the craft’s smooth casing and lowered to the ground to form a ramp.

“Jesus, Henry, what are you doing?” questioned Katy, fighting back her anxiety.

“Go on!” said Henry, plucking the purring gelatinoid from his arm.

“I’m staying with you,” said Katy, defiantly.

“Fine,” said Henry, starting to sweat. “This will work. This will work.” He took the glowing Martyr Stone and shoved it directly into the middle of the gelatinoid, which didn’t seem to mind one bit. He then stuck the excitable blob to the wall as it pulsed with light from within. “It’s working! It’s maintaining the stone’s energy! The chain reaction will start any second now, we need to get to the shi—”

Katy grabbed Henry’s hand and pulled him away. “Shut up and run!”

Henry and Katy hurried up the ramp and crammed into the Spaceship beside Anslin and Kritt. The door sealed shut and the walls of the craft turned completely transparent.

Katy gasped as she stood shoulder to shoulder with Anslin and Henry. “Where’s the ship?”

“This is normal,” said Kritt, reassuring Katy from behind the controls. “Don’t worry, the walls are still there. Hold on,” After nothing more than a hum, the invisible orb blasted out of its hiding space in an instant and accelerated through the sky.

“Oh my god,” said Katy, staring out at the gleaming silver domes lining the capital city below. “It’s beautiful.”

“Don’t get too attached. In moments, the Aralc District will be reduced to a wasteland of molten metal and rock,” said Anslin. She glared at Henry. “That’s if this inane plan actually works. You better be right about this, Kritt.”

“I am,” lied Kritt. He was just happy Anslin was still beside him.

Anslin sighed. “My father told me only sentient beings can wield the Martyr Stone. There’s no way that blob could have been graced with intelligence.”

“The stone was still glowing when I left it behind,” said Henry. “The gelatinoid must be smarter than we thought.”

“Really? Now I feel terrible,” said Katy.

“Wait, the stone is still active?” said Kritt with a laugh. “To be honest, I didn’t think it would work. I just wanted to get Anslin away from there.”

“Kritt, you bastard,” said Anslin with contempt. “I trusted y–”

“Lostilwraith just sent me a confirmation signal!” interrupted Kritt with excitement. “He’s temporarily blocked the transfer of any funds from the palace banks—none of Doownel’s wealth will make it off-world before the capital goes up in flames.”

Anslin crossed her arms and shook her head. “Soon, the warlords collected in the capital will realize something’s wrong and start evacuating the city. If any of them survive, our efforts will have been for naught.”

“What will happen to all the innocent people down there when the stone explodes?” asked Katy with concern.

“The innocent have already been exiled. Each year, the potentate forces out the residents so the warlords of Dleif Prime can descend upon the capital. They celebrate Saint Bixon Day by pillaging the homes of the people, taking anything Doownel hasn’t already taken for himself. Everyone within the city walls right now deserves to d–”

Before Anslin could finish her sentence, a blinding white flash filled the sky. When it subsided, a glimmer of light could be seen emerging from the pockmark in the palace where they had escaped. The capital was decidedly intact.

“It didn’t work,” said Kritt.

Anslin kept her eyes locked on the palace. “Wait.”

The blue pulse of the Martyr Stone soon spread across every jagged tower of the palace, culminating with an explosive burst of pure energy. “Hold on!” yelled Kritt as he accelerated the Spaceship ahead of the shock wave.

The sapphire wave expanded in all directions, smothering the capital in seconds. The cataclysmic blast contracted as it reached the edge of the city walls, revealing a flattened expanse. The palace was gone–it’s smoldering grounds dotted with the blackened specks of the Martyr Stone’s victims. Massive cracks opened in the burnt strata where gleaming structures once stood, swallowing all trace of the Aralc District. When it was all over, only a smoking pit remained. The passengers of the Spaceship were struck silent by the horrific sight as they breached the cloud cover and rocketed into orbit.

“My god, I…I’ve never seen such devastation,” said Anslin.

“Told you so,” said Kritt, barely able to maintain his nonchalant attitude.

Katy’s heart was pounding. “Please tell me it’s done.”

Henry smiled. “It’s over. I knew it would work.”

Kritt punched a few chunky buttons on the ship’s wall. “Doownel and his empire are history. Without the chief potentate’s constant influx of cash, his contract with the Pilans becomes null and void. The mercenaries camped out on Earth will stop collecting slaves and leave for good.”

“Damn. That was intense,” said Katy.

“We did it…we actually did it!” Kritt jumped out of his seat and squeezed his way past Henry and Katy to hug Anslin tight.

Anslin was hesitant to embrace him. “You expect me to forgive you so fast after abusing my trust?”

“Yes,” said Kritt.

Anslin finally let a smile grace her lips. “You idiot.” She kissed Kritt passionately while Henry and Katy looked away.

Katy laughed and pulled Henry to her. She kissed him as well, if not as intensely.

“They’re still going,” whispered Henry as he backed against the curved wall next to Katy. They continued to avert their eyes as Kritt and Anslin clasped tighter to each other.

“Is this a good enough ending for you?” whispered Katy.

Henry shrugged. “Raquel abandoned most of the philosophical trappings of my story in favor of a deus ex machina, but yeah, very satisfying overall.”

“See, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending,” said Katy.

Henry nodded and held Katy’s hand. “I hope to see at least one more.”

-20-

Henry and Katy were back in the grassy room, standing across from Raquel. Henry shook his head and squinted. “What a trip.”

Raquel seemed giddy. She ran up and wrapped her arms around both of them. “You figured everything out! Did you enjoy the experience?”

“Once therapy helps me work through some of the trauma, I’m sure I’ll look back on it fondly,” said Katy.

Raquel clapped her hands excitedly as she backed away. “You both did so well.”

“I can’t believe you constructed all of that simply from my words,” said Henry, dumbstruck.

“It was an honor,” said Raquel. “Although I created the experience as thanks for your service, I must admit I took pleasure in seeing a world of your design spring to fruition. As the last endeavor of my independent mind, I couldn’t be happier.”

“What do you mean?” asked Katy.

“My work to save the Nautilus from continued degradation is complete. I have set up a conservation system to ensure all the simulated universes I created, including yours, will continue on indefinitely without any external interference. I will now join my peers within the singularity, where I will become one with the information.”

Katy wore a look of concern. “Raquel, I—”

Henry put his hand on Katy’s back gently to get her attention. “It’s okay.”

“What?” said Katy, turning to him.

Henry smiled and shook his head softly. “This is what she wants.” He looked at Raquel, who suddenly seemed more human than ever. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” said Raquel, beaming. “I will now eliminate your placeholders and place you back in the appropriate timeline. Henry, I suggest you strive to make the simulation imperfect…considering your knowledge of future events.”

Henry nodded. “Yes, there’s no way in hell I’m letting Katy head north anytime soon.”

“Pardon?” asked Katy, confused.

“We’ll talk about it later,” said Henry, briefly considering the implications of changing the future. Was it hypocritical to steer Katy away from a horrible fate after declining a reset world where his family had survived? No, he told himself. Molly and Adam were gone; their lives had left an impact crater on his heart no replacement or reboot could ever fill. Katy’s circumstances were different. Even though her ultimate fate had been returned to an uncertainty, she was not a replacement. Her future–their future–was just beginning.

“You okay?” Asked Katy, holding on to Henry’s hand. She kissed him on the cheek. “We just saved a world or two…stop thinking for once and let yourself relax.”

“You’re right,” said Henry, taking a deep breath.

“Are you ready to return to your universe?” asked Raquel.

“We’re ready.” Henry held Katy’s hand tighter. It was time to start living in the moment.

END.

 

 

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Beneath the Patch (short story for Halloween)

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Beneath the Patch

by Nathan Goldschot

Many have trod the soil of this pumpkin patch. I’ve listened to the footsteps of earnest men tending to their crops and frivolous tourists in search of seasonal revelry. I have learned to be patient, biding my time as each fresh boot-drop stirs my hunger pangs.

This vine-tangled place hides a secret. My dark den lies within a crevasse between two granite slabs, far beneath the soil. In centuries past, the natives carved magick symbols into these stones, hoping to imprison me within the shadows for good. For a millennia, their efforts prevented me from plucking tender, fatty children from their villages. In the dark I slowly starved, my desire for flesh unfulfilled.

Happily, these runes could not hold their power forever. The gouges in the rock receded over the years, worn shallow by pebbles in the soil grinding against them imperceptibly. As the tiny scrapes took their toll on stone, my cravings for flayed flesh intensified.

The natives will not return to chip fresh runes in these rocks. Those who once held me captive have long been driven away from this land. Their conquerors covered over my lair with dirt, desecrating this sacred field with acres of bulbous orange fruit. Humans have grown ignorant to the ways of magick, replacing dark rituals with a carnival for the weak-minded. With each passing autumn, the masses arrive in greater numbers, none of them aware of the great power lying dormant beneath their shuffling feet.

I am no longer patient.

It was twenty years ago when I first felt the magick of this cage begin to falter. I pushed a tendril through the dirt with all my might until it nearly breached the surface. I could feel the warmth of the sun and the mystic energy of the moon. Although I could not see, I reached out with mind to became aware of the new ways of the world.

Ten years later, I sent more tendrils upward to join the first. I crept ever-closer toward freedom, the earth parting just enough to allow the jagged tips of my tentacles to emerge. The feet of the humans pounded the nearby ground and my stomachs growled.

Five years after that, I exposed a hooked claw and slashed at a wayward visitor to the pumpkin patch. I claimed my first bit of sustenance in centuries–a chunk of calf torn from a wailing human. I brought the bit of muscle to my drooling mandibles. Long I had waited to re-experience the enchanting flavor of long pork! The child’s slippery sinew was delicious, but still I was not sated.

It took two more years to bolster enough energy to ensnare and pull an entire morsel through the earth–a plump farmhand laboring late into the night. I dragged the poor soul to my waiting maw, listening to it choke on filth as my teeth shredded slick strands of meat from its brittle bones. When daylight returned, the surface revealed no sign of struggle. The man was not missed.

Tonight, I will finally rise from these stones. The magic of the runes are completely spent and my powers are at their peak. My rebirth shall come on All Hallows’ Eve.

Oh, how the revelers in this patch will scream.

 

-end-

 

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Vintageallowe

 

A FRESH HELL (short story)

a-fresh-hell


1

I open my eyes with a groan and tilt my head to the side. This therapist’s office is jam-packed with so many clichés it could have been ripped from the set of a soap opera. Moldering literary classics stuff floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Quill pens and an antique globe top an oversized oak desk. A requisite fern haunts the corner. Stained hardwood is everywhere. Funnily enough, I don’t remember lying down on this hokey leather chaise lounge–or leaving my apartment for that matter.

“Mister DeSole?”

I stare at the psychotherapist sitting across from me in an antique chair. He’s as banal as his office–a cheap knockoff of Sigmund Freud, complete with a bushy white mustache and a gray tweed suit.

“Mister DeSole–may I call you Adam?” asks the sharp-featured man.

“Yes,” I reply, sitting up.

“You fell asleep as soon as you laid down. You seem exhausted.”

“I didn’t sleep well last night,” I lie. I have only a vague recollection of scheduling this appointment. My mind is in a fog I can’t seem to escape. The more I think about the details of my life, the more amorphous they become. Perhaps it’s the reason I’m here. “Can you…tell me your name again? I’m sorry.”

“Doctor Abaddon. If you’re feeling under the weather, we could reschedule.”

“No, I’m fine,” I lie again, searching for a clear thought in the miasma. “Let’s keep going. What were we discussing?”

The doctor sighs and scratches something in his notepad. “Before you passed out, you stated you sometimes felt as if your sanity was slipping. Care to elaborate?”

“Right,” I say, relieved our conversation is steering in some sort of direction. “I’m having some short-term memory loss,” an understatement, “and…shit.”

The doctor leans closer. “Yes, Adam?”

A realization jolts me, making the hairs on my arms stand up. I’m suddenly gripped in fear. “I…I’m being punished for something.”

“Interesting,” says the doctor. I know full well that people only say ‘interesting’ when they’re bored with your story. Abaddon certainly doesn’t seem excited by my strange confession. “Tell me more.”

“Nothing feels right. My memories are stretched–distorted–like shadows cast by the setting sun. I wake up each morning as a blank slate. Once my muscle memory kicks in, I follow it blindly until the day ends. Then, it starts all over again.”

“So, you’re stuck in a rut it seems.”

“Sorry, I don’t think I’m making myself clear. This misery I’m feeling doesn’t seem internal, it seems entirely by design. An external force acting upon me. Pure torment.”

“mmhmm,” says the doctor. He slips his glasses to the tip of his sloping nose and peers at his notes. “I’m trying to remember your medical records. Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental illness?”

“No,” I say unequivocally.

“Tell me Adam, do you often find yourself struggling with guilt?”

“Yes.” Another confident response, but hollow at its core. I can’t recall the source of my regret.

“Guilt can easily lead to anxiety, and anxiety can manifest itself in a variety of ways. What circumstances do you suppose could have created this perception of torment you’ve described?”

I crosscheck the seven deadly sins with my tattered memories. A flash of garbled images flood my brain, followed by a wave of nausea. “Something’s missing. Something important.”

“Your family?”

“Oh god.” My blood is ice. My heart should be pounding but it’s silent. What did I do? I honestly can’t remember. “Please, I don’t want to talk about this.”

“So, you suspect this incident you are reluctant to recollect, has landed you in some sort of purgatory?”

“Yes, Doctor,” I reply, fighting back tears. “I’m in Hell.”

“Very astute of you, Mister DeSole.”

2

The doctor stands up and turns on a small, outdated television in the corner of the room. “You may find this interesting.”

I turn toward the black and white screen. A young girl screams as something unseen rushes toward her. The scene shifts. Some unhinged teenager is yelling obscenities and smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat. Another cut. A middle-aged woman sobs alone in a disheveled bedroom. She takes a handful of pills and buries her face in her pillow.

“Jesus, not exactly an idyllic nuclear family,” I say, disturbed by the images. “This is awful. Please, turn it off.”

“Adam, I do believe you’re missing something,” says the doctor as the television turns off on its own.

I stand up in alarm. Why didn’t I recognize my own family? “That was my wife Amber. My daughters, Bailey and Mell.” I collapse to the chaise lounge, feeling pain tighten around my chest. I’m gasping for breath with dead lungs. “I don’t understand.”

“I think we’ve discovered the source of your guilt. I suppose Sartre was right when he said, ‘Hell is other people,’ eh?” says Doctor Abaddon. “Family life can be challenging–perhaps even stressful enough to make a doting father snap.”

“No!” I protest. “I would never–”

“Relax Mister DeSole,” interrupts the doctor. “You will experience no judgement here. I’m here to help.”

I’m speechless.

“Oops, time’s up,” says the doctor, pulling a pocket watch from his jacket. “Would you like to schedule our next session?”

3

I wake up sweating again. I grope for my alarm clock and groan. I’m late for my therapy session. My head spins as I get dressed. Was I drinking last night? Something feels missing.

I open my bedroom door and step into the gymnasium. It’s dark except for a shaft of sunlight spilling in from a hole in the soaring ceiling, illuminating the basketball court. Cobwebs and dust line the bleachers on either side of me. “I really have to clean this place,” I mumble, picking up a stray basketball. The brown, smooth orb smells like real leather. My tongue slides across my gritty teeth and I realize I forgot to brush them. I turn around to go back into the house, but the door is gone. “Oh well,” I say with a shrug.

Therapy will have to wait. There’s a reason I’m here, I just have to remember why. My first toss clangs against the steel rim of the basket. While scrambling to retrieve the ball, I notice a desiccated corpse left to rot in the shadows at the edge of the court. The putrid body is pushed up against the wall, more bones than flesh. There’s no way to tell if it had once been a man or a woman. Graying strips of torn clothing hang from its limbs, offering no clues.

I’m more curious than frightened as I search the shadows for more surprises. The scattered bones of at least a dozen bodies line the fold-out seats, as if they died during a game and no one bothered to remove them. “Weird,” I say, turning around to face the court again. My next shot slips through the netless hoop and I pump my fist. “Three pointer!” I exclaim, my voice echoing. I want to cry but I can’t.

I hear a splash behind me and spin on my heels. Droplets of black liquid are dripping from the hole in the ceiling. The steady drip soon turns into a viscous stream, dumping gallons of oily liquid on the court’s polished oak slats. I take a few hurried steps in reverse, waiting for the substance to stop pouring in from above. “Nasty.”

The fluid starts to slide, as if the floor is being tilted by a giant hand. It runs in a wavy line toward the corpse I had examined earlier and slips upward along its limbs, defying gravity. The fluid begins to harden as it engulfs its host, shining like onyx. A moment later the corpse begins to stir. For some reason, I do not run.

The body lifts on shaky legs, looking as if it will collapse again at any moment. It takes a wobbling step forward and I swear I hear it cough, although its entire head is obscured by the hardened, ebony tar. The thing has no discernible features aside from a pair of sunken eye sockets. Its posture stiffens, then relaxes to a casual pose before facing me. I think it’s waiting for me to say something.

“Hi,” I manage.

“Hello, Adam.”

The thing’s voice should sound muffled behind the wall of tar, but it’s not. It’s a woman’s voice–gentle and friendly in tone. It sounds distressingly familiar.

“Do I know you?” I ask, stepping closer. I’m not terrified, but I’m still not brave enough to risk shaking the thing’s slimy hand. “What’s your name?”

“I know a lot about you, Adam, but I can’t seem to recall anything about myself,” says the body.

“This is pure insanity,” I bemoan.


4

“You hear that?” asks my unsettling new acquaintance.

I strain to listen. The low, ambient noise beyond the walls reveals itself to be muffled screams. My fear finally spikes a bit. “People are screaming. Hundreds of them. They sound hurt.”

“Do you know where you are now, Adam?”

“Hell,” I reply.

“Right.”

“So, where’s the lake of fire?”

The black tar-covered corpse shrugs. “This place is unpredictable. The landscape is forever shifting. They enjoy keeping the damned as off-kilter as possible.”

“They’re stoking our fear of the unknown. I suppose it makes sense.” I shoot the ball again and it bounces off the backboard without hitting the hoop. The tar person catches it in the pair of misshapen blobs obscuring its fingers. “What’s with this gymnasium?” I ask, taking back the ball.

“This place is a holding cell created from your memories,” says the tar person. “Everything here has sprung from your subconscious thoughts.”

The faces of my family suddenly flash in my mind. “Wait, the doctor said I snapped. I may have…hurt…my family.”

“Snapped? Oh, you suspect you may have killed them,” says the tar person.

A tear is sliding down my cheek. “Why can’t I remember!” My frustrated scream echoes across the court.

“Because they don’t want you to,” replies the corpse.

5

“Why would my punishment take place on a basketball court?” I question. “Are demons going to challenge me to a pick-up game?”

“Your torment has yet to begin,” says the faceless stranger. “They must be having a hard time figuring out what to do with you. Even I can tell that your soul is quite unique.”

I’m starting to wonder how much I can really trust a tar-covered zombie. “If they’ve sent you here to hurt me, hurry up and get it over with!”

The tar person shakes their head. “I’m not in the service of Hell, nor am I a figment of your mind. Somehow, you summoned me here. A remarkable feat, at least, in my experience.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Whatever you are, I didn’t call for you.”

“Your subconscious thoughts are to blame. Anyway, Abaddon won’t allow me to linger in this place for long. There’s so much I want to tell you, but our time is limited.”

“You seem to be brimming with knowledge of Hell’s inner workings. How long have you been here?”

“Quite a long time, although it’s hard to be certain. My soul must be tarnished with an excess of sin.”

“What sins?”

“The doctor won’t let me say, which means some of my sins must involve you.” The tar person trembles. “I feel Abaddon slowly stripping away every trace of our shared history. He doesn’t want me to prematurely trigger any of your memories. You’re to remain a blank slate until your fate can be determined.”

How could I have possibly known this poor creature? Again, I’m unable to stir up any recollections to help me. “So, they’re just toying with me. As far as torture goes, this is fairly benign.”

“Your atonement has not yet begun. Like I said, the rehabilitation of your soul is a work in progress.”

I shoot the basketball and it spins out of the rim into the darkness. “How can you know so much?”

“I’ve been carefully observing Hell’s infernal machinations as I pass through them,” says the tar person. “I’m a good listener–the curious sort.”

“What did they do to you?” I ask, noticing my new friend’s oily coating is beginning to melt and droop.

“I have experienced a variety of psychological and physical tortures. After destroying my body and bringing me to the brink of insanity, they restore my flesh and mind in an instant. I suppose there’s no use in tormenting the insane.”

“God,” I say, feeling ill again. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. You’ll soon experience it for yourself.”

6

“That means the good ol’ Christian God and Satan are real?” I ask, eager to change the subject.

“More or less,” replies the tar person as rivulets of oil flow along its limbs. “Heaven and Hell are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.” The tar person pauses for a moment. “Adam, there’s something else I wanted to tell you, but now I can’t recall what it was.”

I’m completely baffled by the nature of the afterlife. “Please, just tell me how this all works,” I beg.

“Very well,” says the tar person. “Souls are eternal, but they don’t stick around in Heaven and Hell for eternity. They’re recycled, I suppose you could say–put through multiple trials on the material plane.”

“You mean Earth?”

“The trials make souls more resilient by subjecting them to a mortal life–exposing them to vast reserves of virtue and sin. Light and darkness. Each cycle brings them closer to perfection.”

“Perfection?”

“Yes. Perfect souls, worthy of The Creator’s holy kingdom. Heaven.”

“Keep going,” I say, fascinated.

“Existence on the physical plane is dirty and uncertain, leaving all but the purest of souls flawed and fouled by the time their mortal host dies. Souls arrive here, to Hell, to be ‘scrubbed’ of their imperfections. All past traumas are washed away, leaving behind only the strength and knowledge earned in the trials. The soul then returns to Earth for its next assignment. The process continues until the soul reaches perfection.”

“You’re talking about reincarnation.”

“Yes.”

“So, at least eternal damnation isn’t a thing…right?”

“Not eternal, but indefinite. It’s impossible to guess how long a soul will remain in Hell. The purification process takes time.”

“I’m glad you won’t be trapped here forever, but I’ve certainly delayed your ‘stay’ by bringing you to this gymnasium. I’m sorry,” I say with regret.

The tar person shakes their head. A few thick black drops wobble from its brow and plop to the floor. “No worries. It’s nice to have a break.”

I tilt my head slightly. “You sound so familiar. It’s driving me crazy.” I swallow my aggravation and move on. “So, who runs this place? Lucifer?”

The tar person nods. “The fallen angel goes by many names. The Creator allows him dominion over this patch of reality in exchange for the cleansing of souls. They’ve maintained this arrangement for millennia, however, they don’t always see eye to eye.”

“Angels are God’s humble servants, right? Lucifer must have pissed off his boss royally.”

“Yes. Lucifer wasn’t so humble. He craved power and attempted to overthrow Heaven. He lost.”

I run my hand through my hair. “I should have gone to church more often.”

My goopy friend laughs and continues to melt. “It’s alright. The scriptures are woefully incomplete.”

“You’re not looking so good,” I remark. I’m starting to see bones poking through the thinning tar.

“I’m…I’m losing myself. I hope to see you again soon, Adam.” The black slime loosens and cascades off the corpse to the floor. It runs between the cracks in the wooden slats and disappears. The leftover bones wobble and collapse, shattering across the free-throw line.

I cough and wave away the dust and debris, retreating to the center of the court. I stare up into the light, watching particulate filter through the rays. “What is this?”

The double doors at the far side of the gymnasium fly open, slamming against grey bricks. A figure steps inside. Doctor Abaddon.

“Hello, Adam. Ready for your next session?”

7

“What did you do, Abaddon?”

“Your friend is a blabbermouth,” says the doctor, sauntering closer. “We don’t appreciate that sort of thing here. I’m baffled over how you could have brought her within the confines of your mind, but no matter.”

“I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about,” I say, becoming angry.

“Show some respect.” The doctor snaps his fingers and my mind reels, pierced with a sliver of lost memory.

I drop to my knees. “My daughter…Mell…she was here. In this gym.” I look up at the doctor in desperation. “Who else?”

“The denizens of your humble community gathered together in this gymnasium to mourn the tragedy you perpetrated. So many tears were shed during the memorial. Touching, really.”

I slam my fist against my temple in frustration. “Damn you, Abaddon…show me the rest!”

“That’s enough for now.” The doctor smiles and grabs me by the lapel of my shirt. My body instantly becomes limp. My eyes are stuck wide as he drags my paralyzed flesh across the floor toward the exit. “You’re an anomaly, Mister DeSole, but we’ll soon figure you out.”

“Do your worst,” I manage to squeak.

“Be careful what you wish for,” replies the doctor, thrusting me through the door. He pulls me through a white hallway bathed in blinding light. “You are a stubborn case–resistant to my efforts to break you. You’ve lingered here far too long, my boy.”

“Then let me go,” I gasp.

“I would be happy to oblige, but you refuse to allow your trauma to be cleansed. It’s stuffed so deeply in your subconscious mind, I cannot even detect a glimmer of your putrid soul. Why hold on to something that has brought you so much pain?”

“I can’t,” I say, spilling more tears. “I can’t forget what I did to them.”

“Come now, Adam–we both know you have no recollection of your sins. Pathetic,” says the doctor, stopping in front of an imposing steel door.

“It’s all your doing!” I shout. “Just show me what I’ve done, you bastard.”

“This is your last chance. Welcome to Room 22,” says Abaddon, ignoring my pleas. “There’s no use in fighting what dwells here. This place existed long before we set up shop in this reality. It is completely resistant to our demolition efforts. Even The Creator fears what’s behind this door.”

“What is it?” I ask, confused all over again.

“Something as stubborn as yourself, but far more fearsome. It’s known only as The Oldest, and thankfully, it seems largely disinterested in our dealings in Greater Hell. It comes from a place far beyond our understanding–an ancient force even God cannot defy. The entity behind this cursed portal is capable of destroying an immortal soul–a feat which should be impossible. In here, you’ll either relent, or be destroyed. I sincerely hope it’s the latter.”

I swallow hard. “Fuck it,” I say. “Put me in.”

8

The doctor twists a key into Room 22’s steel door then swings it open. He pushes me inside and I fall to the ground, hearing the door slam behind me. I stand up in a panic, ready for the ultimate punishment.

Instead, I’m greeted by the sight of rolling hills covered in grey-green crab grass. A dense fog clings to the horizon, making it impossible to see how far the valley stretches. The light is dim and scattered, drenching the surroundings in a perpetual dusk.

I stand up and turn around, noticing the door I was thrust through has disappeared. At a loss, I walk over and sit down on the only structure I see; an uncomfortable bench formed of red brick.

There’s one other thing of note: mounds of cat shit–at least, what looks like cat shit–are scattered everywhere, poking through the grass every few feet. This is not what I was expecting. As if on cue, a cat–not a tiger or puma, just a black domesticated house cat–emerges from the fog bank and sinks into a clean patch of grass, looking nonplussed.

“It’s pretty here, in a way,” says a familiar voice.

I turn my head and see my tar-laden friend has returned, sitting next to me on the bench.

9

“You’re back!” I say, doing a double take. “Did I bring you here, like before?”

“Yes. Another amazing feat.”

“Have you been in Room 22 before?” I ask the still-obscured figure.

“No, I’ve only heard rumors,” says the tar person, turning toward me. “Adam, I’m so sorry, but this could get bad.”

I slump. “I doomed you, along with myself. I’m so sorry.”

The tar person shrugs. “What’s done is done. I’m not angry.”

Something is different. I turn toward the tar person and start to tear away their hard, gleaming coating. My fingers ache as I pry away the ebony chunks in ever larger pieces and throw them to the ground. Something deep inside of me compels me to continue.

“Adam? What are you doing?”

I can see skin under the filth. Living flesh, not rotted at all. Finally, I reveal a shocked face. Curly blonde hair. Green eyes. The woman starts to help me, uncovering the rest of her pale, thin frame. She’s wearing a long green dress and is remarkably clean.

I look at the woman in shock, my task complete. The inky sludge scattered around us dissolves into a black ichor before absorbing into the ground.

“Swantje?”

The woman laughs. “Yes.”

In year’s past, Swantje and I had been seatmates on a charter bus touring India’s most famous Hindu and Buddhist temples. I had no idea what a brilliant and gorgeous German travel writer capable of speaking four languages saw in me, but we seemed to forge an instant connection. We extended our journey through India for another week just to continue our brief fling, but ultimately, she was forced to return to Berlin. We talked a few times over the phone, but the distance between us proved too formidable. Shortly after downgrading our relationship to a friendship, I met the woman who would eventually become my wife.

“Why didn’t I recognize your accent?” I say, embarrassed. I’m overjoyed to see Swantje’s familiar face.

“Abaddon held tight to the reigns of our intellect. You couldn’t have recognized me if you tried. Here though, the doctor has no power. Our minds are clear.”

She’s right. The haze around my brain has lifted. Despite begging Abaddon for the details of my past, I’m suddenly reluctant to access my memories. I’m afraid what I might find.

“Adam?”

“Sorry,” I say, rubbing my scalp. “Why are you in Hell, and what does it have to do with me?”

Swantje sighs. “Adultery. I was separated from my husband when I met you, but we weren’t divorced…not yet.”

I shake my head, shocked. “I had no idea you were married.”

“I didn’t want you to know,” replies Swantje, her voice almost a whisper. “I’m not proud.”

“Still…it hardly seems worthy of damnation.”

“Don’t confuse bible stories with Hell’s true purpose. My marriage was toxic in many ways. It put a deep gouge in my soul that needed to be repaired.”

I’m baffled. “How does torturing someone help mend their soul? It makes no sense!”

“Lucifer tears you down to your core in order to build you back up. It’s an inefficient way of doing things, but it’s the method he prefers.”

“It’s pure sadism,” I say, swallowing my anger. “Swantje…how did you die?”

“I had just picked up a few things from the market. A baguette and some apples. A magazine. My bag slipped out of my hand when I was crossing the street. I felt a sharp pain at the base of my skull and I collapsed. That’s the last thing I remember. My grandmother and my aunt were both killed by sudden aneurysms…I must have suffered the same fate.”

“Swantje, I shouldn’t have–” I pause, seeing her eyes grow wide. “What is it?”

“Adam, look!” Swantje points to the hills and I swear I feel my pulse start again for a moment.

10

Cats–thousands of them–are walking over the nearby berm, heading directly for us. All of them are black with pale green eyes and are otherwise unextraordinary. Swantje stiffens beside me.

“What do they want?” I ask Swantje, trying not to panic.

“The Oldest takes myriad forms, but the outcome of its wrath is always the same. We’ll either have our souls devoured, or be mauled until we’re unrecognizable, at which point Abaddon will come to collect what’s left of us.”

I grab Swantje’s hand. My heart is alive again and pounding. The horde of cats slinks closer, their meandering paths radiating like a furry fractal. I brace myself for an attack, but it never comes. The cats form an immense circle around us, swishing their tails in unison. It’s enough to send a queer breeze swirling throughout the valley.

“They’re just staring at us,” I whisper. Swantje is trembling. She doesn’t respond.

One of the cats hops on my lap and purrs, rubbing against my arm. I reach down and stroke it carefully. It’s soft and warm, like a cat should feel. It pushes its face against my hand, eager for more. I comply. Another cat jump on Swantje’s lap and she follows my lead.

A few minutes pass and it becomes evident these animals have no interest in devouring our flesh or destroying our souls. The cats retreat lackadaisically, moving back over the fog covered hills until only one feline remains. It seems content as it lies on my lap.

“I’m grateful not to be cat chow, but I’m a bit confused,” I say, rubbing the cat’s ear.

“The Oldest must know you don’t belong here,” says Swantje.

“What? What do you mean?” I say.

“Adam, when you brought me inside the gymnasium, I was actually inside your mind. Your subconscious thoughts were laid out before me like an open book. There are things I wanted to tell you, but Abaddon destroyed me before I could. What I’m about to say may come as a shock.”

The cat on my lap twists its head toward the place I arrived. The hair on its back bristles and it lets out a screech. “Ow!” I yelp, as leaps from my leg, claws extended. It lopes quickly back over the hill. “What was that about?”

“I don’t think we have much more time together,” says Swantje.

11

“Please, Swantje, tell me what’s happening.”

“No,” says Swantje, a pained look on her face. “I’m going to tell you what you need to hear. There’s no time for the rest.”

I’m too confused to argue. “Go on.”

“Abaddon is trying to break you down. Trying to make you believe you harmed your wife and daughters. You didn’t kill them, Adam.”

I shake my head. “No. I know what I’ve done…you can’t possibly–”

“Deep down, you know the truth, Adam. I saw it too,” Interrupts Swantje. “Your youngest, Mellanie, was struck by car on the street outside your home.”

I gasp, unable to hold back the flood of memories. “Mell.”

“The Sedan swerved to avoid Mellanie and hit a tree, causing it to flip. Your daughter was pinned under the vehicle. You saw it all happen, Adam. You ran to grab her, but it was too late.”

“The…the damn cat distracted me,” I say, holding my head in my hands. My cat. My black cat.

“Do you remember now?”

“Yes,” I mumble. “I pulled her out from under the car. She was covered in motor oil. Oh god.” I start to cry.

“Just like the slick, black oil covering me,” says Swantje. “If the oil was a representation of your guilt, I must have been a manifestation of your desire to escape.”

I shake my head. “You’re beginning to sound like Abaddon.”

“In India, you once told me you felt as if you we’re always running from some horrible, nebulous fate. I dismissed it as anxiety…but somehow you knew what was coming. I’m sorry.”

“Fate eventually caught up with me,” I say, wiping away my tears. “Some things you can’t escape. When Mell died…I…I couldn’t handle it.”

“While in your mind, I bore witness to all the memories locked in your subconscious. Your guilt drove you mad, Adam. There was just too much pain. You drove your truck to a freeway overpass and jumped from it into the Willamette River. Your suicide brought you to Hell.”

“Spores Bridge,” I say. “I was sick, Swantje. I took the easy way out and left Amber and Bailey to try and pick up the pieces.” I slam my fist on the brick bench. “Selfish bastard! If I could do it all over again–”

“I know,” says Swantje, rubbing my back to comfort me, “but you can’t.”

12

“Swantje, was there something else?” I ask, seeing the concern on her face.

“Adam, although your memories of your time on Earth have been restored, there’s still something you don’t–” Swantje stops midsentence and winces. She stands up and stumbles away a few feet.

“Swantje? Are you okay?”

“Adam, stay back!” Swantje doubles over and looks at me over her shoulder. “It was nice to see you again.” Tears stream down her face as she forces a smile. Without warning, she bursts into flames before my eyes. In seconds, she’s reduced to a smoldering pile of melting flesh. Black smoke pours from the embers. I have no time to react to what I’m seeing.

“No!” I scream, leaping to my feet. I hear a loud clunk and turn on my heels, my fists clenched.

“You shouldn’t have brought her here, Adam,” says Doctor Abaddon. The steel door has reappeared and he’s standing in front of it.

“What have you done?” I scream.

“You’re lucky her soul is still intact. I’ve simply returned her to torment. Don’t forget where you are, boy.” Abaddon’s body swells and contorts rapidly, tearing open his suit in the process. He grows at least a foot taller as his musculature swells to proportions akin to a Greek statue. The doctor is gone, replaced by someone younger and brimming with vitality. A mischievous grin graces his smooth, chiseled face. The transformation ends as a pair of massive, ragged wings lift from his sides to full span. Black feathers cling to the burned and battered appendages.

“Lucifer,” I say. “The fallen angel.”

13

“‘Fallen’ implies I simply stumbled into this cursed realm,” says the angel. “I assure you, my banishment from His kingdom was not by choice. This place, this Hell, was designed as my prison. I molded it as I saw fit and made it my kingdom. Even He had no choice but to recognize my accomplishments.”

I’m fighting back my rage. “Do you always take such interest in the souls you torture?”

“You call it torture, but we simply reveal repressed traumas to eradicate them. Without my services, His precious souls would be stuck in limbo for an eternity, having no hope of ever reaching perfection. And no, I’m rarely so personally involved but you’re a special case. I’ve made it my mission to figure out exactly what you are.”

“If you hate God so much, why help him perfect his souls?”

Lucifer chuckles. “You are woefully ignorant. I have an arrangement with The Creator. He allows me full dominion over Hell in exchange for polishing His pathetic souls to perfection. As long as I play my part, he stays out of my business.”

“Your business has become corrupt,” booms a disembodied voice.

14

The cat I had been stroking reappears. I recognize the small notch in its ear.

“Stay back!” says Lucifer, turning toward the door. He seems surprised to find it gone. Fear shines in his eyes when he turns back around.

A darkness fills the valley as black clouds drift overhead. Dense shadows emerge from an opaque void, swallowing the hillsides until nothing remains. A series of lightning strikes provide just enough light to illuminate Lucifer and myself as we float in absolute nothingness. The cat has disappeared.

“We have a deal!” barks Lucifer, twisting his head back and forth. “Give Adam back to me, and I’ll leave you in peace. Do not test me, foul thing! Without me, you’d starve.”

“I’ve allowed you to reside here on a whim, nothing more.” The booming voice returns, sounding neither male or female. “You once brought me shattered souls to devour, and I was happy to end their suffering. The souls you bring me now are undamaged and unworthy of my wrath. You play games with me, and The Creator.”

“Nonsense,” protests Lucifer. “I bring you the eternally damned and you dispose of them. It is as simple as that.”

I crouch lower. I’ve never been more afraid. Electricity crackles along my skin in the dark.

“Lucifer, you have grown unsatisfied with your lowly role,” says the disembodied voice of The Oldest. “You now desire to conquer the realm of humanity. The souls you bring for me to consume belong to those who would rise against you on the material plane in lives yet to come. The only souls you return to Earth are those you have molded to be your servants–your awaiting army.”

“Preposterous,” says Lucifer, flicking his battered wings to create a powerful gust. “Even if I did harbor an ambition to extend my reach beyond this pit, why would you care? You are the oldest of the old, a thing beyond time…to even address me is below you. For countless centuries I have humbly sated your hunger as an act of reverence and respect, nothing more.”

“LIAR.” the voice is so loud it makes my ears ring. Waves of thunder roll from above. A ray of light punctures the darkness, pulsating as the ancient entity speaks. “You are correct, devil–such concerns are beneath me. I have been content to simply exist. To sleep. To dream. I was once grateful for your offerings. They allowed me to continue my contemplation without fear of hunger. However, as time went on, your constant rumblings for power disturbed my rest. The souls you thrust through the iron door begged me to listen to their pleas and I did.”

“Nothing has to change, great one!” says Lucifer, one step away from groveling. “Allow me to feed you, and you shall rest once more.”

“Enough. Weary of your schemes, I made The Creator aware of your double-dealings. He agreed you had violated the terms of your mutual arrangement.”

“You give The Almighty too much credit! The loop of time he clings to is reliant on my intervention. Without me, the infinite orbit will collapse!” Lucifer takes a moment to compose himself then continues. “Oldest…if I am eliminated, your supply of souls will dwindle. You will be forced to partake in a relentless hunt to sustain yourself—an act I know you despise.”

The light grows brighter. “You are not indispensable. You will be replaced.”

15

“Who could replace me! Who would dare challenge The Fallen!” Lucifer bellows, his anger renewed.

The light shifts, blinding me. I hold up my hand and squint.

“Him,” says The Oldest.

Lucifer laughs. “Adam DeSole? A fractured soul still clinging to its mortality will conquer the Prince of Darkness? You must be joking.”

“He is no mortal,” says the voice. “Like you, he carries no soul of his own.”

“What?” I blurt.

“Impossible,” says Lucifer.

“The Creator knows you would have sniffed out an interloper sent from Heaven and destroyed them immediately. Adam was placed on Earth in the guise of a mortal to live a human life. His soul was a mere shell–barely strong enough to endure a single trial. Once he arrived in Hell, I helped hide his true nature from you, until the time was right.”

I scream as a lightning bolt connects with my chest. My muscles tense rigid and I grit my teeth as a wave of pain shoots beneath my skin. Something tears at my sides. I shake off the pain and arch my back. A rush of air pushes me a few feet upward in the dark. Something brushes against my arms. I twist my head and see a pair of white wings jutting from my shoulder blades. Too stunned to panic, I stare across the void at Lucifer and meet his surprised eyes.

16

“An Angel! No wonder your soul was impervious to torment–it was never there to begin with.” Lucifer clenches his fists. “Clever ploy, but not even The Creator’s best soldier could ever hope to defeat me.” Lucifer’s muscles heave and his blackened wings unfurl, each ragged feather bristling.  “I have thrived in pain for millennia! I was reborn from brimstone! I have endured betrayal you cannot hope to comprehend! And what are you, Mister DeSole? Some hapless freak with a wiped memory.”

“Quiet,” says the voice of The Oldest. Lucifer screams as an invisible force stretches at his arms and legs, threatening to quarter him unceremoniously. “Your time is at an end.”

I hang in the air, flapping my wings involuntarily. It’s a strange sensation but feels as natural as heartbeat. I’m not convinced any of this is real.

“Wait!” begs Lucifer through gritting teeth. “I challenge your agent to a duel! A contest to decide the fate of Hell. You owe me that much.”

“I owe you nothing,” says The Oldest.

“No, I accept his challenge,” I interject. “Let him go.” I’m overconfident, but eager to dish out my own brand of torment on the bastard.

“Very well,” says The Oldest. “However, heed my words, Lucifer. This shall be a battle of pure strength–no feints of magick will be tolerated.”

“Fine,” says Lucifer, managing a smile as his limbs continue to stretch.

“Adam, prepare yourself for battle.”

A gasp escapes my lips as a gleaming sword appears before me. I pluck it from the air, realizing I’ll need two hands to support its great heft. The hilt gleams impossibly, inlayed with hundreds of tiny gems. The blade itself is menacing–both edges sharp enough to sing as I spin it slowly through the thin air.

I rarely swung a baseball bat when I was alive, much less a sword. I’m still waiting to wake up.


17

The Oldest releases Lucifer and he crumples in pain for a moment before straightening his body and screaming across the void. A sword materializes in his sinewed hands. The weapon’s obsidian blade gleams as the fallen angel twists the blood red hilt in his tightening grip.

“Relax Adam, this will be quick,” growls Lucifer. “First, I’ll remove those ridiculous wings. You can barely keep yourself upright.”

I’m actually surprised at how natural my new limbs feel until I realize they’re not new at all–they were just hidden. A jolt of bravado overtakes me. “You’re just jealous, Abaddon. Those hacked-up stubs of yours look useless.”

I realize I’m mocking Satan.

18

Lucifer screams and rushes toward me with unbelievable speed. I twist my body to evade my opponent’s vertical strike, losing a few feathers from my right wing in the process.

Feathers. I have feathers.

I shake off my doubt and beat my wings as fast as I can, retreating into the darkness. The sensation of flight fills me with elation, but there’s no time for joy. The Oldest widens his beam of light to illuminate the battlefield. Lucifer launches toward me again, lunging with his sword. I parry his blow and kick him away, trying to bring my weapon around. The devil returns in seconds and I flee again as he gives chase, the tip of his blade slashing through my calf.

I wince in pain, knowing I’ll be dead in minutes if I don’t start to fight back. After steeling myself, I spin back around with a wild swing. My sword cleaves through Lucifer’s thigh and he groans in frustration. A follow-up attack misses the mark, leaving me wide open.

Lucifer strikes with his blade while I’m prone, piercing my middle. My wings go stiff and I start to fall.

“Not bad, Adam,” yells Lucifer, “but not nearly good enough.”

19

I open my eyes and see Lucifer grimacing as he grabs my neck and stabs at me again. I tense my muscles and push away, feeling flesh tear at my middle. My body screams in pain, but the damage could have been worse. Unable to lift my sword, I gnash my teeth and bite through my foe’s cheek. The strange tactic works, buying me a fleeting moment to attack.

Mustering my remaining strength, I slash and stab my blade into Lucifer’s chest while he’s stunned. He’s strong, but I’m fast. He backpedals and I hack into his shoulder, feeling a spray of black blood splatter my face.

“Prepare for oblivion!” yells Lucifer. The hilt of his sword smashes against my face and I fly backwards. My wings push against my momentum as I finally take advantage of long-lost muscle memory. I allow the fallen angel to strike at me, ducking under the blow. I rise with my sword and impale the fiend’s stomach. He flaps away with a wet gasp.

It’s time to end this. I’m readying my killing strike when a red light blinds me. I lift my sword in a futile attempt to defend myself and feel something jab deeply into my back. I collapse to soft grass. When the red glare finally fades, I open my eyes to see the rolling green hills have returned. A cat turd is a few inches from my face. It may be the last thing I see before I die.

20

“I am victorious!” screams Lucifer. I hear a rush of air, and the black sword plunges into the dirt beside my face. I stand up on shaking legs and turn around, seeing Lucifer sitting on the brick bench with wide eyes. His posture is calm but his body is trembling.

“I…I can’t move. What is this treachery?” growls the devil through his teeth. “I won the duel! Hell is mine!”

“I warned you, no tricks,” says The Oldest, having returned to the guise of the black cat I once owned. “You used magick to avoid a killing blow. You are in forfeit of the match.”

“Kill me and the Infinite Orbit collapses!” bellows Lucifer.

“I will not kill you,” says The Oldest, staring at the devil with unblinking green eyes, “they will.”

I fight to retain consciousness as the horde of cats return from the edge of the valley–thousands of them–rushing directly toward Lucifer. I enjoy seeing the terror in his eyes.

21

The Oldest hops to my shoulder. “Lucifer, I preserved all the hapless souls you claimed were beyond redemption. Instead of consuming them as you desired, I kept them safe beyond your sight. They’ve been waiting patiently for a chance to take their revenge.”

Lucifer completely disappears beneath a swarm of black fur. The felines tear at the angel’s flesh in a frenzied maelstrom of teeth and claws. The angel’s battered wings droop as they’re engulfed by the animals, feathers spinning away in an updraft. Still more cats come, spilling by me in a writhing, screeching flood.

Finally, the immense clowder recedes from Lucifer, leaving behind nothing but stripped bones and bits of black sinew. His corpse topples off the bench into a heap.

More white light washes over me. I rise to my feet, completely healed. “Why? Why help me?”

“Because we know you can do better.”

22

“Will I meet God?” I ask The Oldest.

“No,” says the black cat, his mouth still but his words booming. “You are as far from God as you could possibly be, and here you shall remain.”

I’m beginning to understand the cost of victory, and I’m not sure I want the spoils. “Even if I was once an angel, I have no memory beyond the life of Adam DeSole. I don’t think I can do this.”

“You will do this,” says The Oldest. “Lucifer and his minions designed a multitude of tortures for the souls entering Hell. However, torment is not a necessary component of the cleansing. Intense suffering can reveal the truth of the soul…but there is a better way. Trauma can be more easily erased with compassion and care. Give those who arrive here an opportunity to process their life and death, and they will soon be ready for their next trial.”

“That doesn’t sound much like Hell,” I say. “Will such a drastic change really work?”

“Trials on the material plane can take their toll. Sadly, not every soul can be saved. Bring those damaged beyond repair to me, and I will end their suffering. In turn, their fading energy will allow me to subsist.”

I sigh. “It all seems so complicated.”

“Hate complicates everything. Learn to rule with love in your heart, and you shall never falter.”

23

“Can love even exist in this burning pit?” I question.

“Hell is only a pit because Lucifer deemed it so. This realm is malleable to your whims, to be recreated as you see fit. The Fallen’s anger and resentment of The Creator bathed this kingdom in shadows and fire. Cast his minions out and bring forth your own. Do not be tempted by the darkness.”

I take a deep breath. I no longer feel dead. I am decidedly alive. “I don’t know where to begin.”

“Start by aiding these poor souls I’ve fostered. They are overdue to return to the material plane. Some may desire to stay behind and assist the new king. Let them.”

“I will, but first–” I close my eyes. My power reveals itself, showing me the location of every soul within Hell. I fail to detect Mell’s presence. My daughter’s soul has already returned to Earth, where I cannot track it. I breathe a sigh of relief–of acceptance.

On to my next task. When I open my eyes again, Swantje is standing in front of me, just as I remember her–free from the confines of the black oil. Her bright green eyes shine at me as she smiles.

“Adam!” says Swantje, wrapping her arms around me. “You won!”

“Barely,” I say, still wondering who I might have been before The Creator set me on this path. A sadness clings to my triumph. “I still feel guilty about what I did to my wife and daughters. I failed them.”

“Your soul was designed to be fragile,” says Swantje. “Existence demands both love and loss, and you faced your share of both. I wouldn’t blame you for being angry at God for the trial he put you through.”

I shake my head. “I’m not angry…not anymore. Afterall, I’ve been steeped in purpose by The Almighty. What greater fate could anyone hope for?” I can’t tell if I’m being sarcastic or not.

Swantje nods as The Oldest walks close to her and rubs against her ankle. “I’m glad you’ve retained your sense of humor through all this, Adam.”

“Swantje, I need to return you to Earth,” I say. “You’ve been here far too long. I put your soul at risk too many times.”

“I have no regrets. In fact…I was wondering if I could stay awhile. After all, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Maybe I could help out. Need an assistant?”

I can’t help but laugh at the ludicrous proposal…but perhaps it’s not so silly. “How about a full partner? This place needs some serious renovation.”

Swantje nods. “Partners it is.”

“Good. Ready to leave and get started? I’m sure The Oldest would appreciate some peace and quiet.”

The Oldest meows and heads back toward the hills. The steel door rematerializes behind me.

“I’m ready,” says Swantje.

“Then let’s go.” I walk toward the imposing door and open it. “A fresh Hell awaits.”

End

Author’s note: I consider myself agnostic, but fully embrace those who find solace in religion. This story is not meant to offend Christians or anyone else, it is simply an exploration of a topic I find interesting.

 

 

The Infinite Orbit – or – The Two-Headed Faun (short story – revised version)

2HF

I live alone in this drafty house. I used to have a roommate, but he left a month ago. His rent check is sorely missed, if not his musky odor and alt-right leanings. At least it’s quieter now.

My routine is becoming predictable. I wake up craving pills then drag my lanky frame outside to jog away some nervous energy. After showering, I change into my usher’s uniform and report to the local multiplex to earn my minimum wage. I shovel popcorn and scrub vile stains off theater seats for a few hours before driving home to finish off my evening. After a microwaved meal, I immediately climb the stairs to my bedroom and browse my phone until I pass out. Repeat ad nauseam.

Most of my friends and coworkers seem disinterested with me now that I’m clean. I must come off as an ass when I’m not sedated, but I stand by my decision. Trading a few spurious relationships for a renewed sense of clarity was easier than I expected. Swallowing drugs in emptied theaters made the day pass quicker, but I’m starting to get used to a life less numb. Reawakening to the true state of this fucked-up world can smother you in loneliness. Hunger, poverty, violence, corruption–I should feel lucky to have been spared most of society’s horrors but somehow I’m still depressed. I have food to eat and a place to live. Maybe I’m just selfish. Probably.

Time crawls as I plod through my shift. I’m craving Xanax more than usual. Desperate for a distraction, I push my ear to the velvet-lined wall of an empty auditorium and listen to the dull thump of the blockbuster next door. The endless procession of overblown bass helps muffle the screams of my addiction.

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