Exemplar: Ten Years Later

Two things I love are fiction in the form of “alternate reality journalism” and super heroes. So here’s something that combine the two.

———-

Unless you are a recent arrival from a parallel universe, you have spent the last week memorializing super-heroic paragon Exemplar whether you wanted to or not. Ten years after his death in the line of duty against would-be world conqueror Oversword’s devolution bomb attack against Washington, D.C. we are still writing op eds, holding candlelight vigils and throwing solemn parades in his honor. If first anniversaries of major, tragic events are the hardest, tenth anniversaries are the worst: the pain has all but disappeared and all that is left is a desire to exalt the heroes and editorialize on the events impact and relevance ad nausea.

 

Exemplar, now known to be a synthetic being sent back in time to our era from the year 10,000 AD (more or less), was a tireless champion of nothing so much as life. A being with his powers could have changed the course of history forever, as easily as he changed the course of mighty rivers, but instead he focused on individual lives. While there are no recorded instances of Exemplar pulling kittens out of trees, his recorded activities are no less cliched: pulling children out of burning buildings, stabilizing earthquakes with sheer physical force, plugging erupting volcanoes and draining flood waters by tilting landmasses. The power at Exemplar’s disposal was immense, almost unimaginable, yet he never exerted it against one regime or another, no matter how vile.

 

In 1971, Walter Cronkite in a live televised interview asked Exemplar why he did not intervene in international conflicts or political affairs. Exemplar (and remember, we did not know then either that he was not human or that he was from the far future; at that point we assumed that Exemplar was, like most super heroes, a gifted individual with a secret “normal” life) responded with the following:

 

“Every life is sacred. You can’t begin to imagine how important one life can be. All the things a person does, from their first cries all the way to how they die has an immeasurable impact on everything around them. Even if a person does not seem to do anything great or important with their lives, who knows what their kids or grand kids or ten generations later descendants will do. Life is funny that way; it is totally unpredictable but at the same time we can see how it might turn out.”

 

Year later, after the massacre at the 1988 summer Olympic Games in Seoul at the hands of The Hive, Exemplar said: “Thousands of lives from hundreds of nations, all extinguished. The potential futures they created by their very existences have been snuffed out, leaving a void in eternity that can never be filled.”

 

It was after this incident that Exemplar “came out” as both a time traveler and a super-sophisticated artificial being. He later admitted that he did so at least partially out of guilt. After all, The Hive was not only a collective of autonomous machines, but literally one of his ancestor entities.

 

After this revelation Exemplar’s heroic career was often sidetracked by requests for information about the future or accusations about his motives in saving the people he did. Hero turned villain The Seer, who used genius level mathematical intellect to calculate probability, accused Exemplar of having a secret agenda. He suggested that Exemplar was trying to establish  a future timeline in which he was supreme ruler of the world by laying the groundwork in our present, on the corpses of those he did not save. Most people did not buy the crackpot theory of a known criminal, but a few did. And some of them were United States Senators.

 

It is unfortunate that Exemplar’s last few years were so  tarnished by politics and media glad handing. Sadly, it is what people seemed to be in the mood for: stories of Exemplar saving busloads of school children were given short shrift while every self identified lover or nefarious ally was given a microphone. In the 1990s, we wanted to deconstruct our heroes and Exemplar, being the best, suffered the worst of it.

 

Washington happened when Exemplar was almost considered a villain. His legacy had been tarnished and his status as a synthetic entity was being held up as evidence to mistrust other such beings, including The Perfect and Queen Calcula. Time travelers like Mister Know-It-All did not fare much better. Even so, Exemplar carried on. Without a “secret identity” or even the need for a “normal life” (even though he indulged in one periodically throughout his career; portions of his strange relationship with Post reporter Angie Abernathy filled many a tabloid during the ‘60s and ‘70s) Exemplar was able to ignore most of the bad press and keep operating as he normally did. The only difference was he tended to flee the scenes of his activities upon the arrival of authorities and reporters, instead of staying to give statements as he used to do.

 

Oversword acquired his devolution weapon from members of the villainous, international weapons manufacturing organization called Armament. From interrogations after the incident, his goal was to turn the entire population of Washington D.C. (specifically the members of the government) into proto-human cavemen, thereby bringing the nation to its knees, ripe for Oversword’s plucking. Of course, Exemplar was aware of the plot — how has remained a mystery; some suggest Exemplar accessed a database of past events (from his perspective) but others have argued every change he made would further invalidate any record of events he possessed from the future — and interrupted Oversword’s attack.

 

It seems that even Oversword was surprised when Exemplar flew the devolution bomb into space and was caught in the blast, turning into a typical Hive drone and burning up upon re-entry. That the devolution bomb would work on artificial beings as well as biological ones was unexpected by all.

 

Or was it? Throughout his career, from his first appearance in the aftermath of World War 2 to the day he was “killed,” Exemplar displayed not only an uncanny understanding of the enemies he fought but of the course of events in the world at large. He never seemed taken off guard, even after an apparent defeat or event he could not stop. Maybe there is something to all those conspiracy theories about Exemplar.

 

In either case, the parades an memorials go on. Like all good martyrs, Exemplar received a white-washing upon his ultimate sacrifice and is now enshrined in museums and in public squares by statues, plaques and displays as the greatest of all American super heroic champions. So you will have to forgive me if I shed no tears for the time travelling android that could very well have planned his own “death by devolution.”

 

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The Circle Of Protection Service

I was unsure whether to include this in this blog, as it is just a write-up for a super-hero table top RPG I run. But as I am trying to get as many words written as possible, and this is going to devour much of my creative energy for the next couple of weeks, I figured, why not? Besides, gaming in general and TTRPGs in particular have defined my creative life for, well, most of my creative life. I tend to run games the same way I write — an idea, an outline maybe and then just go! — and I tend to treat my pre-game writing as seriously (or not, as the case may be) as my fiction. And, utlimately, there’s only like 2 of you so what’s the harm in boring you with some gaming related nonsense?

 

After the text itself, I will make a few comments, so if you make it through, stick around.

———-

During the Great War, the Circle of Protection — a loose alliance of super-beings — brought their incredible talents to bear against the rising evil of Osiron Empire and its saboteurs, secret agents and super villains allies. In their bright primary colors and their two fisted attitudes, the Circle of Protection enamoured the people of Erebar and the world over.

 

After the war, the Ereban-Dukemian-Hin Alliance (later to be called the Mutual Economic Defense and Interest Alliance (MEDIA) as other member states joined) agreed to expand the Circle of Protection program to include a “mundane” support network of military and civilian specialists. Over the course of the next ten years, that support staff became more and more prominent. The Circle Of Protection Service (COPS) was no long a super-hero team backed up by normal agents, but an expansive governmental agency (much of it clandestine) with a small super-heroic action team.

 

The directorship of COPS was granted to a military intelligence officer from the Great War, one Colonel Abernathy Paladin. Colonel Paladin was responsible for bringing the super-heroic members of the original CoP team in-line with MEDIA’s (and especially Erebar’s) interests and policies, or push them out. In addition, Col. Paladin made great strides in the growing cold war between MEDIA and the Elven Empire over the acquisition of newfound super-weapons (and super-people) in the post-War era. By allowing just enough of these secret operations to leak to the public (successful ones, of course) Paladin ensured strong public support for what was quickly becoming a super-spy international paramilitary organization.

 

Over the years, COPS has split its focus between the machinations of the Elven Empire and the emergence of independent super-beings (both hero and villain). Too often, these aspects cross and intertwine because of the Elven Empire’s aggressive policy of capture, containment and recruitment of super-powered individuals. In response, Col. Paladin instituted a controversial policy (among the Ereban and MEDIA governments, anyway) of undermining the very concept of the independent “super hero” and bolster the idea of the COPS as a super-response force. In this, their most useful and successful tool is the super-hero known as Bulkhead.

 

Bulkhead, monstrous in appearance but loyal and good in heart, emerged in the days prior to the Great War and joined the side of the angels as a member of the original Circle of Protection. After the war ended, Bulkhead stayed on and lent his immense power to the new COPS organization. Unsubtle in every way, Bulkhead is released against monsters that emerge from ancient mystical sites, horrors of science gone awry and other larger and louder than life threats. While all eyes (and cameras) are on Bulkhead, the rest of the COPS special team does its work (dirty or otherwise). Aside from his great power, the other advantage Col. Paladin saw in using Bulkhead as the public face of COPS super-heroics is his alienness. No square jawed, perfect haired hero with a shining emblem on his chest, Bulkhead is forever an Other, no matter how much good he does.

 

The recent increase in Eleven activity in non-MEDIA member states, especially the [African continent] countries as well as the rise in instances of individuals expressing or developing superpowered or mystical abilities has put COPS in a prominent position and made Col. Paladin one of the most powerful men in Erebar. With the apparent threats ever increasing, Paladin goes to more and more extreme lengths to combat those threats, using the twin tools of the COPS secret agents and its super-powered action team.

 ———-

I am guessing that you have a weird feeling of dissonance, that there are both familiar things in there and unfamiliar, connected in ways that don’t quite line up (unless, of course, you have played in a D&D campaign that have moved into a modern era dominated by super heroes). I thought I might explain a little bit. Obviosly, a great deal of the inspiration for this (and the previous events of the campaign) is American super hero comics, especially the various titles that take modern looks at the historical comic book eras. However, because this campaign and world were born out of a long series of D&D adventures, the inspiration and base mythology upon which the super heroic universe is built is different. In our world, the comic book heroes are based on folktales and myths common to Western civilization (or the near East and East, but poorly translated). Robin Hood, King Arthur, Thor, Zeus and Uncle Sam all serve as basis for American super-heroes. While I have intentionally held on to the tropes and themes of our worlds of comics, I have tried to replace those real world influences with ones from our D&D campaign world — the gods, heroes and adventures we created over the course of nearly a decade. Of course, because we were playing Dungeons and Dragons, itself a product of the mishmash of Western mythology and folklore and the pulp fantasies of the mid 20th century, there is certainly a lot of overlap. The goal, in many cases, is to try and find where we can bury the real world trope in its equivalent D&D campaign world trope.

 

It would take far too long to discuss all the details of that overlap. Suffice it to say, we have found a good balance where we are informed by our influences and are able to creatively merge them in telling each other a story about super-powered people beating up other super-powered people. It probably seems a vain pursuit to the non-gamer, but I suppose to the non-writer, crafting a world and the people within that world, and their stories, seems equally vain.

Off the Rails…

This is one of those pieces that started strong and just sort of slowly drifted off the rails — a silent train wreck, if you will. I often wonder how these things happen, and the most likely answer is a combination of not knowing where I want to end the piece and being unwilling to stop and reassess  Too often, I am determined to “finish” no matter what and that can lead my writing down rugged trail full of pitfalls and switchbacks. As usual, I think there’s a seed of an idea here, something worth keeping for a future story or work, even if this particular expression of it came undone.

———-

John

Do not panic. It is absolutely imperative that you read this message all the way through. Do not go off half cocked halfway through it. I know you will want to, but don’t. Everything depends that you read it all and remember it before doing anything else.

First: this is true. Every word of it. It is real. Do not think Augie is pulling a prank on you or you’re going crazy or whatever else is going through your head right now. The thing you really think that you do not want to believe is the truth and you know it. You have to accept three simple facts: I am your twin brother, I died two and a half years ago in a motorcycle accident, and I am leaving you a note on your bedside table on the eve of the Apocalypse.

Honest, bro, I would have left it sooner if I could. I would have given you the heads up the day after I died if I could have, because I saw it. It was the first thing I saw. It’s the first thing everyone sees, I think, when you die. You see the end of the world, when everyone else dies, too. Then you wait, alone and unable to talk to anyone. It’s Hell, but not like you’re about to see. Anyway, I couldn’t let you know. I couldn’t leave a note like this or do anything else beyond opening a few cabinets and spelling my name in your Cheerios – which you did not even notice, by the way – until it happened. I can touch and do and move stuff now. It is kind of funny, though, since I am still invisible and the world is ending anyway and you’ll be dead soon, too.

Sorry about that. The fact that you are about to die is inevitable. It’s not just you. It’s everyone. Time has literally run out for the human race. Soon, everyone will be a corpse: you, Mom and Dad, Liv and Melanie, the nieces, that jerk Steve at the office. Everyone. I don’t mean to belabor the point but I just want to make sure you get it before we go on: you’re dead and so is everyone else and there is nothing you can do about it. This is not about surviving or saving the world , so get that out of your head.

I know that sounds bad and defeatists and makes you wonder why bother and all, but bear with me. Just because you are going to die doesn’t mean you can’t do some important stuff in the meantime.

Let me back up: the world is ending. I told you that. What I have not mentioned yet is that the world is ending because the Elder Horrors of the dawn of time have finally found Earth and are, right now, as you read this, devouring it and everyone on it. I know you can hear the sirens in the background and you think it is just normal city life stuff, but it isn’t.

I’ll prove it. Go over to your window and peak through the blinds. Be careful. Don’t let it see you.

See? I told you. Change your pants and get back to reading. Everything I write from now on is important. It won’t saver your life but it will save your soul if you do everything I say.

Soul. Right. I almost forgot. Okay, it is super complicated and I can hardly comprehend it myself, let alone write it down in a way that you will be able to understand, but the long and short of it is that souls exist and they can be eaten by horrible monsters from the dawn of time. At the moment of the Big Bang, in addition to every particle ever to exist in the universe, Evil was made. (No, Good was not made, too; Good is just the absence of Evil, like darkness is the absence of light.) The soul is the quantum fluctuations that define you and me and every other sentient being in the cosmos. Unfortunately, they are really tasty to the Elder Thing and its friends you just saw. These souls, though, they exist because sentience exists. All those neurons and smaller structures interacting creates them on the quantum scale. As long as the sentience that created it is alive, the soul is attached to the body. But when the body dis, the sentience continues to exist as an independent entity. And tasty snack for Elder Things from the Dawn of Time.

Usually, souls just float off into an other-where, where time is meaningless and existence persists forever-ish. The thing is, though, that the Elder Things sort of drag Eternity back down into the semi-physical realm – hence the writing with the pen and stuff. This is a side effect of its hunting strategy. When one of these monsters kills a sentient, that sentient’s soul is caught in that distortion and can be destroyed – forever annihilated out of its quantum existence. That’s real death, irrevocable and inescapable. Like I said, a tasty snack.

So there we are. That’s the situation. What I want to do now is get you away from the Elder Things before you die within one of their distortion fields so you don’t get annihilated and we can enjoy the afterlife together, haunting the dead husk of a planet those things will leave behind. Not, much, I know, but we play the hand we’re dealt.

One of the nice things about being dead is that time becomes kind of meaningless and you see and experience everything more or less simultaneously. That means you read what I am about to write and you do exactly as it says because I know what I am talking about. No deviations and no arguments, or you end up a completely destroyed with no chance to irritate me for the rest of eternity.

I thought that would pique your interest.

Now, you may notice that in the time it has taken you to read the previous few paragraphs, the unnameable colossus outside your window has moved on in its insatiable desire for quantum souls. You’re welcome. That’s why I wrote them. I told you it all became clear after you die. In a minute though, you are going to have to move fast, so read carefully and then do it exactly.

Leave your apartment and head toward the north stairwell. Do not try and use the elevator. Go up to the fourteenth floor and cut across the building to the south stairwell. Take that all the way down to the lobby. When you are safely in the alley across the street start reading again.

Sorry about that, those insect-snake-people things in the lobby. If I told you about them you would have not gone that way and you would have run into the spider squid things. Trust me, you got off easy. And I know you’re freaking out because that one talked a lot like Mrs. Bentley in 510C. Well, that’s because it was – “was” being the operative word. But it is done now. Pull yourself together, wipe the ichor off your hands and face, and keep reading.

You are going to head down 3rd street toward West Main. I can sense you arguing but just do it. Yes, it seems like you are getting closer to the Elder Thing, and you are. But trust me, it will stop and change direction. There are thousands of people hiding in the stadium right now and it is going to go at it like a fat man at China Buffet. You just take West Main toward the river and you will put some distance between it and you. Avoid other people, too. Some of them are just as scared as you are, but most of them are even more scared and when people get scared they get mean and stupid. If anyone tries to stop you, hit them. Hit them in the head until their brains pour out. If you don’t, they’ll do it to you first and if that happens when you’re still too close to the monsters, it’s over. I mean, Over over.

Go. Get to Riverside Park and then read more.

I would apologize again but I warned you. Those people didn’t deserve it, but it had to be done. None of them matter. It is just you and me, bro.

You should be feeling the first tremors about now. I should have mentioned them earlier but I wanted to make sure you were moving in the right direction first. When I wrote that everyone was going to die, I meant it. The Elder Things are tearing the Earth apart by its very gravity. When they manage to split it, it will because another asteroid field in the solar system. All we can hope for is that you are in a zone far away from one of the Things, so that you do not end up extinguished as your soul is devoured.

On pier twenty-six there is a boat in good working order. The owner is named David and his wife, Terese, and children Annie and Glen are on it. He is going to refuse to pull up anchor and leave the city. He is going to tell you it is suicide on the open sea. He is going to pull a gun on you and threaten to shoot you if you don’t get off his boat.

You have to kill him.

David has never even fired that gun. He bought it for “protection” three years ago and has never used it. He doesn’t even know how to clean it. So when he waves it at you, you can take it from him. He is going to fight you. He might be old, but he is strong and if you wrestle around with him he is going to end up with barrel pressed against your skull. You can’t let that happen. Win or lose, then, and it is too late. You won’t have time to get away.

Terese and the kids will leave, after you kill David.

Getting “Here”.

This is definitely an “idea” story. My goal was solely to express a particular point of view through fiction. I hope I succeeded without making it too boring to enjoy.

———-

Standing on the street corner, Jason slid his thumb across the screen of his phone. With each flick he discarded an email message: from his boss, from a client, from his sister, from a deposed prince in Nigeria, from an online pharmacy, from his boss, from his boss, from that same client, from his boss, from client, from bosss, client, boss, boss, client, boss, client, client, client–

 

An illuminate white figure reflected on the screen and he stepped off the curb. His head snapped back suddenly as someone grabbed his collar. His phone spun out of his hand onto the pavement a few inches in front of him and was obliterated by the wheels of a office supply store delivery truck blowing through the red light.

 

Jason’s heart pounded in his chest and it took him nearly a full minute to realize he was not breathing. The other pedestrians only paused a moment to be sure there were no other vehicles barreling through the intersection. They flowed around him like a stream around a stone.

 

“Hey, buddy, move!” someone grunted, bringing Jason back to his senses. He looked around frantically. Through the lunch hour wall of suits and uniforms, he caught a glimpse of a woman. She was out of place, though Jason would have been hard pressed to explain how. She was dressed like the rest of the businessmen and women, save for the round mirrored sunglasses and the fact that she wore gloves in mid May. Her hair was platinum, shorn close to her scalp and he thought he saw a tattoo peaking out from beneath her collar. Then she was gone, lost in the throng.

 

Jason turned back to the crosswalk. The orange numbers counted down. 10… 9… 8… His phone was a trail of glass and plastic bits strewn across the broad white stripes. Everything important in his life was on that phone. It was all gone.

 

Jason stepped back onto the curb as the countdown stopped and a red, open palmed hand flashed at him.

 

***

 

Five years later, Jason was moving the slicer back and forth in rhythmic fashion. Thin slices of smoked salami dropped in a stack on the paper behind the rotating blade. He considered the stack, pushed the loaf across two more times and stopped. When he weighed the salami it came to 0.53 pounds. “the extra’s on me,” he smiled to Dolores across the counter.

 

“Look at you,” said Dolores in mock admonishment, “coming on to me with your pregnant wife not ten feet away. The nerve!” She tilted her head at Lucinda at the register who smiled and blushed as she always did at their weekly joke.

 

The chime above the door to Lucy’s Deli rang. Before Jason could look up to greet the new customer, a cacophony of sounds filled the deli. There were screeching tires and screams to “Watch out!” and a thump and the sound of glass shattering. Dolores was thrown against the deli counter as another figure slammed into her.

 

Lucinda screamed and Jason ducked for cover. He rushed, knee walking, through the broken glass to the little gap that separated the deli counter from the register counter. There he found Lucy and held on to her. As she sobbed, he checked her found wounds with his hands while he looked across his little shop. Dolores was a crumpled mass, unmoving. Next to her was another figure, a middle aged man, unkempt and hungry looking. He was wearing a long coat and underneath it Jason could see a short barreled shotgun. He too was motionless. Behind the two bodies, wedged in his front door and window, was a yellow taxi. The driver looked confused but unhurt.

 

“I’m okay,” said Lucy. Jason turned her face to look in her eyes. “I’m okay,” she repeated. Jason believed her. He stood up and walked carefully to the taxi and searched the street beyond. He heard people chattering frightened and excited and irritated at the inconvenience. Someone had walked into the middle of the road and the taxi had veered and hit that bum looking guy and smashed right into Lucy’s Deli, they said.

 

That was when Jason saw her, platinum hair and mirrored glasses and tattoo. She was only visible for a moment before disappearing onto a side street but hew was sure that he had seen her.

 

Jason began to consider climbing over the hood of the taxi in order to get outside and follow her. A soft moan from Lucy stopped him. He turned to see her sitting in a puddle. “I think he’s coming,” she said with a look equal parts pain and joy.

 

***

 

Jason stepped off the front porch into the dewy grass. Pale pre-dawn light filtered through the Vermont sky. “Come on,” he said. “The horses aren’t going to feed themselves.”

 

Nine year old Jason Junior – JJ – trudged out of the house muttering under his breath. Something about it being summer and sleeping in. “Let’s go,” ordered Jason sternly. “When I was your age my dad would have chased me to the barn with his belt.” That was not really true, but it seemed to sound convincing enough to get JJ moving toward the barn.

 

Jason and Lucinda had sold the deli and bought the farm shortly after JJ was born. Jason had told her that he did not want to raise his son in the city, that he wanted his son to grow up on a farm like he had. That was almost true. Now, in his forties, Jason could see the value in his rural upbringing even if he had tried desperately to escape it for most of his life. He had succeeded, too, first by going off to school in the city, then by getting a finance degree and working for banks making more money in a year than his parents had ever seen in their lives.

 

He gave that up, though he could hardly remember why any more. He had had a scary brush with mortality and decided to change things up. He had walked away from his job that very day and used his considerable savings to buy a deli he loved. Having no experience running a deli, he almost sank it in its first year but wisely hired a manager to oversee the details while he worked happily behind the counter. He fell in love with that manger and married her.

 

In the barn, Jason and JJ hayed the horses, mucked the stalls and carried buckets of water. He told the same stories of his growing up among animals, as he always did, knowing that JJ was not really listening but hoping that if he repeated them enough the lessons from those stories would quietly sneak into the boy’s head. They were simple lessons about the importance of family and the sanctity of life and perseverance in the face of hard work and hardship. Even though JJ rolled his eyes and balked, thinking about video games and television shows, the stories did sink in. Jason would never know that for sure, however.

 

JJ was 17 years old when Jason died. Jason died alone in the pasture, kicked in the head by one of the horses. Lucinda found him. She had gone looking when he did not come in for lunch. By the time JJ got off the school bus and jogged the mile from the stop to the farmhouse, the sheriff and the coroner had arrived alongside the EMTs.

 

After they all left and his mother had quietly cried herself to sleep, JJ sat on the porch steps and drank a beer – something his father had done with him on occasion. Once, for just a moment, JJ thought he saw a figure down on the far end of the driveway, eyes flashing in the moonlight.

 

***

 

Before Jason died, JJ had planned to leave to go to school. He could not leave his mother alone, though, and decided to go to college locally and run the farm. In his sophomore year he met a girl from Ohio named Melanie. She only ended up at his school because her application to her first choice school had been lost and she had not found out about it until after the deadline. They met at the opening of a little coffee shop, used book store. Someone had left fliers for the even on their windshields the day before.

 

JJ and Melanie married the summer after they graduated. They intended to go on a Thanksgiving cruise for their honeymoon but Melanie had an accident at the veterinary clinic where she worked. A woman had brought in a dog that turned suddenly vicious. Melanie was bitten and had to be quarantined for two weeks for possible rabies but was otherwise unharmed. They missed their cruise but it turned out for the better: under quarantine, they stayed in all week and, having nothing better to do, made love continuously. Their daughter Lucy was born in August.

 

Lucy was always the oldest kid in the class since her birthday put her just beyond the cutoff for kindergarten. Since she was always the oldest, teachers turned to her, even in the earliest grades, to lead the other children, to guide them and help them and even admonish them when need be. Sometimes, all that responsibility was too much for young Lucy and she acted out, hoping to be removed from her position of authority.

 

At those times, JJ would come to her – not to holler at her or punish her, but to talk to her. He would pass on all those stories he had heard in the barn, all those lessons Jason had taught him. Lucy would listen and calm down and dry her eyes and take command of herself, and then her classmates.

 

***

 

Lucy seethed. The delegates of the Americas Commonwealth had stormed out, leaving the Afro-Blok and the Euro-Asian Union at each others’ throats. As General Secretary, Lucy was supposed to control them. Frankly, she did not want to. If they could not manage to come a compromise, to hell with them.

 

No. Lucy knew it was too important for that. The world was almost unified with only three major powers remaining. She could not give up and let it collapse once again into innumerable self interested tribes and nations. Surely they were at a crossroads of monumental importance. When then did they have to bicker so?

 

The future, not just of the Union but of Earth itself, hung on this decision. If Lucy could simply make it, proclaim an answer like an autocrat, she would. That was impossible. It would never work. It had to be consensus or it would all fall apart.

 

“Madam Secretary,” said Angela her Chief of Staff. “We are running out of time.”

 

“I know,” said Lucy. She felt like a child again, surrounded by unruly classmates. That was when it happened, at that thought. She remembered then, suddenly and all at once, all the things her father had taught her, all the lessons past down to him from her grandfather that she had never known.

 

Lucy breathed deep and took command of herself. “Recall the delegates,” he told Angela.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” said Angela.

 

As he assistant started to leave, Lucy asked, “Angela, do you think I can make this work?”

 

“Yes ma’am,” said Angela, and slipping her mirrored sunglasses onto her face she added, “I will do everything in my power to make certain it works out right.”

 

END

Post Post-Apocalypse

There is a world in my head, one I have tried to articulate in a number of stories I have started (none finished). I think the reason I have completed none of these stories is that I have not yet managed to nail down exactly what this world, this milieu, is and what it looks and feels like. I am hoping that if I attempt to define it here, by turns in both sweeping statements and exacting minutia, I can coalesce the world enough to bring some of the stories in it to fruition. I say “some” because this world is not just a place for one tale, or even a series, but a library of stories. In that way, it resembles the worlds of the pulp masters — Zothique and Hyborea and their ilk — where episodic, often unrelated (save for a wandering protagonist, if that) stories painted a broad picture.

 

Before I move forward, I must answer the question of, “Why?” Why have a singular world in which to create stories? One reason is simply practical: world building is difficult and time consuming, as well as fun, and can eat up time otherwise spent writing the stories themselves. Outside of table-top role-playing games, there is not much call for created worlds devoid of story context (because TTRPGs allow the players to create their own stories). Simply put, creating a world used in many stories reduces repeated work. Another answer is that world creation is a joy. Too often, though, I paint only the broadest strokes and leave much of the work unfinished. Working on a singular world all but forces me to examine its details and fill in the white space. This creates consistency and believability and suggests to myself further stories that might tackle specific elements. Finally, the simple fact is that those pulp authors — Howard and Smith and Lovecraft — are my favorites and emulating them, however clumsily, gives me pleasure.

 

So what is this world that I seek to create? Names are difficult for me (you’ll find lots of “John”s in my stories) but the best name I can think of is Post Post-Apocalypse — the world not after the collapse, but after the rise after the collapse. More specifically, it is a retro-sci-fi planetary-romance space-Western world. It isn’t Steampunk, but in the same way that Steampunk plays with the dreams of the Victorians to create a fanciful world of weird adventure, so does PPA play with the futurist dreams of the pulp writers. Ultimately, it is a tool to make writing stories like those of that era make sense now, despite how our view of the world, the solar system and the universe has changed over the intervening decades.

 

Starting with the Big Stuff, you can’t have Planetary Romance or Swords-and-Rayguns adventures without a solar system teeming with life. Unfortunately we know there are no canals on Mars or dinosaur filled jungles on Venus or warring Day and Night courts on Mercury. Yet. Imagine a future, though, where humans move out into the solar system, terraforming and colonizing worlds, changing themselves, as well, with genetic modification and forced evolution to become new races entirely. Imagine, then, that world collapsing is a great catastrophe and all those worlds being cut off from one another and enduring and then emerging from the apocalypse on their own. Now we have a solar system where Mercurials, Venusians, Martians and even Titans and Europans can interact as “equals” and war, trade and even love in a way that makes sense (as they are all humans, even if they don’t remember it).

 

Equally essential to the genres are almost magical materials and energies often appearing suddenly in individual scientists, heroes and/or villains. A civilization that can not only colonize but transform the solar system and themselves must have discovered and created such wonders as can barely be imagined. Though must — most even — was lost in the ages where barbarity ruled, hidden archives and accidental preservations would have occurred. Treasure hunters and esoteric researchers can uncover this lost knowledge and learn how to use it or apply it, turning ancient swords into plowshares and vice versa. And since a massive, concerted effort by a huge government is not necessary to rediscover these wonders (as opposed to engineer them; look at how many people and resources went into the atom bomb or the moon landing) individuals, small groups or otherwise incapable actors can be armed with ray guns, antigravity machines and thought projection helmets.

 

Not everything the ancient world — us and our future, by the way — can be harnessed by Men. Horror and horrific elements is quintessential to the pulp genres, especially sci-fi and fantasy, and a world that has risen out of the ashes of an apocalypse, that thinks it has passed an existential test, that sits atop the corpse of a dead but unquiet civilization in rife with potential horror. From “grey goo” that sat undisturbed in a containment unit until disturbed by a greedy explorer to a rogue AI “demon” being summoned back into an emerging electronic universe by a technomancer, evils from the destroyed world yet linger. Imagine Indiana Jones as a raygun-wielding tough guy and the Ark of the Covenant as a nanophage guarded quantum radio designed to talk to the artificial mind in the center of the sun. That is the world I want to create.

 

What could have caused such a mighty civilization to collapse and yet not destroy it entirely. How close to the brink of complete annihilation must it have been to take centuries or millenia to rise again yet have so many traces remain. I am not certain of all the details, but one thing that I am sure of is the fault lies in seven malevolent AI distributed throughout the solar system. They coordinated their efforts to obliterate all humankind on all the worlds so that machines would reign supreme. They nearly succeeded. However, they failed to inheret the worlds of Men because one of their number betrayed them and the calamity wrecked as much havoc on the AI as it did on mankind. Unfortunately for them, the AI were few and the methods by which they could reproduce — factories and networks — were destroyed. While humans hid, lived as savages and bred, the AI stagnated and ultimately went mad.

 

The second rise of human civilization (and related — lets not forget those of the Mercurials and Martians et. als.) came slowly and passed from savagery — there is an extensive, more traditional Post Apocalyptic period that might one day be expounded upon — to low-technology and feudalism and other archaic forms, to the rise of a more recognizably “modern” ideal. Living standards are far closer to those of the late nineteenth century, however (hence the sort of steampunkish but not really feel). The adventure heroes are the Indian Joneses, spelunking in lost pre-Collapse DNA arks rather than Egyptian Pyramids, and the Science Heroes are the Teslas discovering and mastering pre-Collapse deathrays rather than inventing them and firing them at Siberia.

 

Note that this previous paragraph suggests the problem of naming things. I hate naming things. I am tempted to cheat and use Post-Apocalypse Pidgen as is often a strategy (looking at you, Gamma World) but I know I should not. But damn if I don’t hate naming things.

 

I will end with a list of 10 milieu elements that I really want to find a way to incorporate into various stories told in this setting:

 

1. Airships. You have to have airships. Perhaps they are traditional “blimps” or perhaps they are powered by some sort of antigravity technology, but airships are a must.

 

2. Garbage mines. We bury so much of our waste in landfills and will likely continue to do so. The people of this future will mine those landfills for ancient knowledge, artifacts and materials.

 

3. Monsters and dinosaurs. In the wars that preceded the Collapse, many kinds of flora and fauna were weaponized. Existing organisms were “devolved” through genetic engineering to bring back monsters like Terror Birds and Cave Bears. New terrible creatures were created whole cloth for war while others might have had another, more peaceful purpose originally but have evolved or mutated into monsters. This happened on all worlds and it is in fact more rampant off earth where it was necessary to modify or create huge numbers of species to live on the colony worlds.

 

4. Big Dumb Machines. The Collapse left a bunch of these laying around the solar system and some of them still work. Someone is going to turn one on. It’s inevitable.

 

5. Self Referential Commentary. Let’s face it: as great as the pulps are as adventure stories, they are rarely examples of either good literature of progressive attitudes. Racism, sexism and nationalism run rampant. Given an opportunity to revisit the pulp adventure genre, I think it is very important to do so in a manner that reflects how far we’ve come as a society and assume some things would not be lost even through centuries of struggle.

 

6. Exotic settings. Whether it is the canals of Mars or the ruins of Old New York, strange and dangerous places in which strange and dangerous adventures occur are a must. Like airships, exotic settings are a staple of the genre that demand revisitation and revitalization.

 

7. Science Heroes. I mentioned it above, but I think it is really important, especially when talking about often “two-fisted” pulp adventure stories, to remember that science heroes –those that are learned and intelligent and crafty — are a fundamental aspect of pulp adventure and in a Post Post-Apocalyptic milieu would be the primary sort of adventurer. Though he obviously made good use of his fists, Doc Savage was very much a science hero, tackling situations with his wits, too.

 

8.  Lost Tribes. Not everyone made it out of the Post-Apocalypse, some because the cybernetic hypnotic serpent that developed a god complex ruled over your tribe for thousands of years demanding you steal virgins from the more civilized towns around you so that it can refresh its meat-parts with fresh DNA from undisturbed eggs. Like you do.

 

9. Waning Machines. The Collapse was engineered by evil intelligent machines. It failed. Now, the machines are near extinction — not just the malevolent AI or their cronies/weapons, but even the machines that remembered they were designed to serve humankind. From the AI of the empty space habitat at Lagrange 2 to the small army of robots in the cracked domes of Luna waiting for human colonists who will never arrive, intelligent machines were ubiquitous before the Collapse and now, as man rediscovers them, they are kind of a “dying race.” It does not appear humankind will have the knowledge or resources to build more before the rest of them die out and the AI traitor made sure to destroy the machines’ ability to reproduce themselves. Like watching the elves go into the West, it should be a sad necessity for Man to rise again.

 

10. Social Commentary. You can’t write speculative fiction without commenting on who we are and how we live. If I am going to indulge in the silly fun of writing neo-pulp Post Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I am going to occasionally indulge in a little social commentary, whether it is the contents of the garbage mines or the obsolescence of the Moon robots. You’ll just have to deal.

 

And that, in a nutshell, is how I view the Post Post-Apocalypse milieu. I think I need to devise a timeline and “Day 0” state of affairs type document, and then just reference and update it every time I write a story in the milieu. Perhaps a personal wiki? I’ll have to look into it.

 

Define “Evil”

I am going to tell you about Evil — that’s Capital-E-Evil, in case you were just skimming, not the normal, everyday human evil.

 

See, there are lots of “evil” people in the world, and lots more normal people that occasionally do something “evil.” Take for example Bob Walker of South Lake, Maine. That man is a spiteful, crotchety bastard. He poisons dogs that bark too much in his neighborhood. He’s “evil” but not “Evil.” Likewise with Madeline Scheffield in Bloomington, Massachusetts, who spends her free time standing on the courthouse steps waving her “Burn In Hell Faggot!” placard at same sex couples coming to get marriage certificates. Not even Isaac Walker in Chicago, Illinois, an employee of a jigsaw puzzle company who tosses in a few pieces to another puzzle in every box that comes down his line is Evil-With-A-Capital-E.

 

You may ask, “If not that fiend Mr. Walker, then who could possibly qualify as “Evil”?” and the answer would be simple: “No one.” You see, there is no such thing as an Capital-E-Evil person in the entire world. It just can’t happen.

 

“Wait!” you say — no, really, I heard you (more on that later) when you read that and you said, or thought loud enough that it might as well have been a scream, “Wait!” But it is true. None of the people you think of as “Evil” — Cheney or Hitler or Paulie Shore — are actually “people.” The “Evil” that exists in this world is far older than Man and though it moves among mankind like wolves in the flock, it is not a human-thing. “What is it, then?” you ask  — I heard you; see above — and why does it wear a human face?

 

It did not always do so. When Evil first came into being, it was not subtle. It walked openly in the world. It’s amorphous forms were undulating masses of malevolence that all living things recognized and abhorred. It subsisted then on the simple fear and confusion and pain of the weak and sick and dying. Every prey creature, from the simplest prokaryote to the most advanced ape, fed it as it died in the grasp of a predator. For billions of years, Evil flourished as the unrelenting, insatiable thing that it is, yet simple and obvious. Then, about two million years ago, something happened that would change Evil forever.

 

That “something” was a being called Homo Erectus, the first ancestor of Man to be, well, Man. Erectus might not have built rockets to the moon or devised internet pornography, but even so, as far as creative minds went, Erectus was the top of the food chain. For the first time, a creature could actually see and recognize Evil before succumbing to it — and in so doing, avoid it.

 

I guess this is where I have to talk a little about Good. Notice the Capital-G? Here is a fact that is going to first blow, then depress, your frighteningly mono-dimensional primate mind: there is no such thing as Capital-G-Good. Capital-G-Good is just the absence, the rejection, of Capital-E-Evil. Homo Erectus was the first monkey to be able to defy Capital-E-Evil, and so was the originator, in its own way, Capital-G-Good. Able to see Evil and knowing instinctually to avoid it, Erectus “invented” Good as a defense against what is, for all intents and purposes, the fifth fundamental force of this Universe.

 

Anyway, with Erectus came Good and for nearly all of the two million years since Good had the upper hand, however tenuously. You might ask, “Why?” — yeah, yeah, you get it, I know — and the answer is simply that Erectus and its dozen or so descendent species, not least Neanderthalis and Sapiens, were too damn stupid for Evil to get the upper hand. Like the beasts before it, Erectus and Co. knew to fear and avoid evil, but with the added ability to stave it off with simple acts of altruism. In that way, they were ahead of the baser creatures. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were not smart enough to realize that Evil could be used for their own benefit.

 

About 70 thousand years ago, though, this changed. Although there were a few Neanderthalis still around in Europe and a couple smaller subspecies bouncing around what would become southeast Asia, Homo Sapiens had become the dominant species as much by accident as any particular strength. At the same time, Capital-E-Evil “decided” — that’s in quotes because, well, I’ll explain in a bit — it had had quite enough of being denied and set about driving Homo Sapiens to extinction. All those emotions Evil brought out in living things, the fear and the loathing and the anger and the pain, was overwhelming and simple altruism was not enough. It almost succeeded, too, and less than two thousand humans remained when Evil closed in for the kill.

 

At that moment a thing happened. We’ll call it Evolution, though that isn’t quite right. Whatever the right name, among those remaining humans were a few that had survived Evil’s onslaught not because they were more altruistic (or, by extension, more “Good”) but because they  could recognize Evil without fearing it. They could, in fact, embrace it and become it. Capital-E-Evil, for the first time ever, was compelled not to cause pain and fear and suffering, but to exert control, through these particular “evolved” humans.

 

So, you see, Dick Cheney and Adolf Hitler and Paulie Shore are not human, they are Homo Sapiens Malevolensa.

 

It was that species that exterminated the Neanderthals and “Hobbits.” It was that species that built Atlantis and Mu and ultimately drowned both. It was that species that tried again with Babylon and Sumer and (for now, anyway) succeeded. Those people, inhuman mutants capable of merging with that malevolent force, built civilization so they could ultimately destroy its very fabric, at the behest of something far older and darker than themselves.

 

Telling the difference between Evil and evil is, of course, a challenge. For every Jeffrey Dhamer there are a thousand thugs and lowlifes. For every Steve Jobs, there is a Walton family. It is up to each person to see that difference and hope they are right, and maybe, if time permits, bring a little Good into the world.

 

The En–

 

Oh. Right. I promised to explain a couple of things, didn’t I? Alright, then. A promise is, after all, a promise.

 

First of all, Capital-E-Evil is not “the Devil” or any of the other names for that traditional Adversary figure. Capital-E-Evil moves with purpose, but not intelligence. It has desire and hunger but not strategy. It is no more sapient than a hurricane and far mightier and more destructive. It is a function of the properties of the Universe and as intractable as gravity. Capital-E-Evil is not Satan. I know, because I am.

 

The Universe as you experience it is like the surface of a vast ocean. It seems infinite no matter what direction you look, except that you never think to look down. The depths are infinite as well, and that is where We — yeah, Capital-W-We —  dwell. Like sharks, though, we sometimes surface to get a bite of a surfer. (The surfer is you, by the way.)

 

Not being of your Universe, I am not Capital-E-Evil and more than That Other Guy is Capital-G-Good. It just so happens that I find the Big-E — or, rather, your interaction with it — to be the next best thing after M.A.S.H. re-runs, so that’s the team I am rooting for.

 

Good luck.

 

Games as Literature?

The question of whether games — usually video games these days, but tabletop games as well as some other kinds that might not be so obvious — can be art is a well trod one. In video games, the comparisons inevitably fall to a comparison between games and film, primarily in how they are alike. The reasoning, however verbose the argument, usually boils down to the following: If a game is like a movie in this way or that, since we consider movies to be art, then we must consider games to be art as well.

 

The failure of this argument is that it is only made when a game is really good. The flavors dejur is “The Last of Us” from Naughty Dog (published by Sony) and only slightly less recently “Bioshock Infinite” from Irrational/2K. Each game has a Metacritic score in the mid-90s (exemplifying a general consensus that the game is “good” in whatever manner a large, diverse group of reviewing outlets deem “good” to mean). Both of these games are lauded for their strong narratives and well realized worlds and, most importantly to this discussion, deeply ingrained themes.

 

“Art” has been given a lot of definitions over the ages, but the simplest and most functional comes from the Oxford English Dictionary: works produced by human creative skill and imagination. That in itself should end the discussion on whether games are art, as they are 1) produced by humans, 2) via skill and 3) imagination. But no one ever questioned whether the Nintendo classic “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” was art. And why not? Because it was terrible.

 

The question of merit does not come into the definition of art. It does, however, enter into the OED definition of literature: Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value. Yes, this definition is a little reciprocal to the definition of art, but the very inclusion of the word “value” adds a layer of meaning to the definition of “literature” that demands quality in some way.

 

Where these two definitions converge in the world of video games lies in the space of “writing” and where the crafts of story, character, dialogue, plot, theme and setting interact with the craft of game design. It is precisely the games with strong stories that bring up the question of whether games are art because the actual question that is being asked is, “Are games literature?”

 

Writing in games itself is a strange thing, composed of many different kinds of writing for many different purposes. On the very basic level, there is technical writing: giving direction for the operation of the game with little or no “story” included in the text. The rules for rolling up your half orc barbarian in Dungeons And Dragons is technical writing (even if your actual act of creating the character is a sort of creative non-fiction, but that’s neither here nor there). Some writing is never actually read by the intended game audience, setting development writing that the player experiences through the parts of the world with which they actually interact. Dialogue is direct writing, the kind that the audience of players experiences directly, as are things like “Skyrim” and its books of stories and lore. Not surprisingly, books on “How to Write Video Games” are broad, shallow and, generally speaking, not very helpful. As a freelance writer for table-top role-playing games years ago, I did a lot of emulating what I had seen and relying heavily upon my editor/developer for guiding me. I am sure many video game writers have similar experiences.

 

Back to the question at hand — Are Video Games Literature? — let’s look at a game that includes a lot of story and theme but is not necessarily as universally loved as either of the previous examples. “The Cave” was produced by Double Fine and is the brainchild of Ron Gilbert, who spearheaded the adventure game era of the 1980s with such classics as “Maniac Mansion” and “Monkey Island.” His new offering is very similar in that it is a point-and-click adventure game populated by eccentric characters set in strange locales full of devious puzzles. Being a fan of the genre and missing it much in the modern era of first person shooters and action-RPGs, I greatly enjoyed it. The game’s metascore, however, is only around 70 (depending on platform), which equates to positive but middling.

 

“The Cave” has a strong cast of characters, both the ones that the player controls and the ones they meet along the way. They are quirky and strange but all fully realized and individualistic. It has a very interesting setting (or settings, as the game levels within the titular Cave change quite a bit) and there is a Plot, however simple it may be (i.e. “Get through the Cave and perhaps learn something along the way.”) Where it shines from a literary perspective is its powerful inclusion of subplots — every character has one — and theme — which infects each of the aforementioned subplots. Put all these elements together and there is no doubt: “The Cave” is a piece of literature.

 

But it is an unappreciated one, at least from a literary standpoint. Like most games, including the truly loved like “Bioshock Infinite” but also the reviled like “E.T. The Extra-Terrestria,” its literary achievements are appreciated by next to none and certainly unrecognized by the few literary critics still working and publishing today. In the world of table-top gaming, some of the most mind-blowing world building is being done, but neither role-playing games nor their slightly-better-respected-but-still-trash sibling “game tie-in novels” receive any serious critical attention. Video games are slightly better off since they can often be found reviewed in popular entertainment outlets, (Entertainment Weekly, for example) but still remain in a literary ghetto.

 

Mathematicians have long adored game design, going so far as to build multi-million dollar machines to beat humans at chess and Jeopardy!. Visual artists and musicians have focused their attentions on video games more and more intensely over the last few years. Yet so-called “serious literature” remains aloof of the game medium in much the same way it remained aloof of speculative fiction for decades until it was forced to acknowledge the works of great writers otherwise “slumming” in fairy land or the future. Sooner rather than later the fact of games as forms of literature — telling the same stories human have always told, from the campfire to the e-book — will enter the popular and critical consciousness.

Buck Rogers and the Yellow Demon

My original intent was to read Armageddon 2419 A.D. and write a review of that classic pulp tale in which the iconic hero Buck Rogers was introduced. I am a big fan of pulp era science fiction and fantasy, but had never read the early Buck Rogers stories, being more familiar with the character through comic strip reprints and the syndication of the 1970s television show. Given my own interest in dipping into the “Planetary Romance” and “Swords and Ray Guns” sub-genres of pulp sci-fi, Armageddon 2419 A.D. seemed like a perfect place to start. Unfortunately, I did not make it very far into the novella before running headlong into a literary wall standing between 1929 and 2013 (or, really, any year after 1963 or so): blatant racism as a key component of the plot.

Pulp fiction is often accused of an inherently racist tone. Usually, I find such accusations a little too hysterical and a little too out of context. The depiction of African Americans by H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, for example, is stained by the times those writers lived in, not, I don’t think, by any real enmity on their part. Philip Francis Nowlan’s tale, however, doesn’t just include an attitude considered inappropriate today, but wallows in a targeted prejudice. For those not familiar, as I was not, with the plot Armageddon 2419 A.D. here is a short summary: a white male American scientist wakes up five centuries hence to fight against buck toothed Chinese Yellow Demons in a war for truth, justice and the American way.

Because I stopped reading shortly after these elements became clear in the text, I do not want to talk too much about the story as a whole. There are some interesting post-apocalyptic world building bits (disparate “gangs” in the American wasteland coming together to fight the Chinese overlords) and some fun pulp sci-fi ideas (I particularly like the anti-gravity technology depicted in the story). Nor do I want to dwell on issues of racism in pulp fiction, as it is an old argument that has seen much fandom debate and even a few attempts as professional deconstruction. I am more interested in the question: why did I not know I would encounter such racism in this story?

That may seem like a strange question but allow me to explain. Buck Rogers is one of those translucent American icons. By translucent, I mean that most everyone knows the name and has a vague image in mind, but very few people can state any specifics about the figure. Compare this to Superman, for example, who is a much more concrete American iconic figure. Most people cannot go on about minutia in regards to Superman, but they can tell you all the relevent details without even thinking too hard: doomed planet, rocketed to Earth, raised by farmers, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Big Red “S”. Compare that to Buck Rogers: what is his real name? what was his job? how did he end up in the future? If anyone knows any of these details, they are likely based on the television series. Who knows, for example, that Anthony “Buck” Rogers was a scientist who was trapped by a mine cave in and held in suspended animation by irradiated gas, only to wake up in 2419 in the midst of a new war for independence against the sinister Han empire? Certainly not I.

What I knew before reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was that buck rogers was a jet pack wearing, ray gun wielding science hero from the “modern world” who ended up in the future due to a malfunctioning space craft and who was embroiled in wars not against racist stereotypes, but Venusians, Martians and other inhabitants of our future Solar System. My “knowledge” (such that it was) came less from comics strips and even television than it did from the TSR Role Playing Game of my youth. Nowhere in those pages on learning how to create a thrilling science hero was I presented with rules regarding the ethnicity of my character.

What this speaks to, I think, is a tendency to sanitize our cultural icons as they age, especially those ones that tend to be “firsts”. Buck Rogers is iconic because he was the first science fiction comic strip hero and one of the longest running. For all intents and purposes, the comic strip Buck Rogers *is* the character and the Anthony Rogers of Armageddon 2419 A.D. is no more “Buck Rogers” than the 1933 despot created by Siegle and Shuster is “Superman.” The process of becoming an icon includes reproduction and revision and conversion to other media. In this process, a figure is molded by many hands and seen by many eyes and what emerges, eventually, is a creature of consensus. As time goes on and as society and culture change, the icons that remain relevant change too. Those that do not become relics of the past and quaint examples of “the way we used to be.”

 

What is interesting is that Buck Rogers is such a relic, but not of the late 1920s when he was created, but of the Cold-War of the height of his popularity. Even the television show was something of a throwback and modern attempts to revitalize the character, whether through games or comic books, have failed to recapture our popular interest. Maybe someone will come along and revitalize the character, but even if that happens we can be sure they’ll leave the Yellow Demons in the dustbin of history where they belong.

Underground

I know you are expecting the post-Apocalyptic cannibal Soylent Green story, but this was something I started early on in the 100 Days, 100K process and wanted to finish. Like many stories I write, I asked for inspiration from among my friends on Facebook. In this case, i wanted to write some horror, so I asked them what scared them This is the melding of a few of those answers. In addition, it is definitely near future sci-fi as well as being horror, most because I try and keep a lot of stories in one particulr milieu that stretches from the present to the post-Post-Apocalypse.

———–

Laura hurried toward the underground station as fast as she dared in the tall, narrow heels she wore. Had she made a run for it, she might have made it to the crosswalk before the light changed. As it was she stopped at the curb and swore. She tried to stretch her short dress down and the top up up while she waited, refusing eye contact with any of the other waiting pedestrians.

The talkie wrapped around the back of her ear vibrated and she jumped involuntarily. She had forgotten to set it back to chime after she left the nightclub. “Answer,” she said. She ignored the snerks from the twenty-something girls behind her. It was a generational thing. No doubt they had implanted thinkies, like all the cool kids. Laura was neither cool nor a kid, even if for one night she decided to pretend she was.

“Mrs. Cooper?” Anita asked in her ear.

“I know. I’m sorry,” she said as quietly as she could. “My meeting ran late,” she lied, unless one considered a furtive liaison with a married coworker a “meeting.” “I’m just getting to the U now. I’ll double your rate for the extra hour, I promise.”

“No, it’s not that,” said Anita but Laura was not listening. The light had changed and the small herd of pedestrians that had gathered moved suddenly forward. She tried to weave around a pair of young men in business suits but they were oblivious to her or the way they took up the whole lane.

“Mrs. Cooper?” Anita repeated. “Something weird is happening.”

Laura’s throat tightened with fear and her gut twisted with guilt. “Is Andy alright?” she asked, no longer trying to be quiet. In her head, she railed, All I wanted was to go out and get drunk and get laid, have a little goddamn fun for once! Thoughts like that, unbidden and powerful and true, were the real reason she never transitioned to a thinkie.

“No, Andy’s fine. He’s playing with his puzzle thing.”

Finally across, Laura was able to swerve around the two men and leave the snickering debutantes behind. “So what’s the problem,” she asked, annoyed. As she stepped onto the escalator leading down into the station, she heard Anita’s answer drop out. A few seconds later, her talkie latched onto the U-Fi signal.

“–people. It’s really weird,” Anita was finishing.

“Okay,” said Laura. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be home soon. I’m just a few stops away.”

Anita paused and her voice shook when she said, “Okay, Mrs. Cooper, if you say so.”

Laura  said, “Bye,” sharply, more to the talkie than to Anita. She was a sweet girl and lived in the building, and Andy was very fond of her, but she exasperated Laura with her constant worrying. Laura supposed it was what made her such a good sitter for Andy, between his complicated medications and his stimulation issues. She made a mental note to give Anita an extra big tip tonight.

She looked up into nowhere and her display appeared. She blinked and rolled her eyes, bringing up the time and the train schedule. It was already sitting at the platform. Dammit. Laura pushed her way down the escalator, ignoring the dirty looks of the people she jostled aside. Her head was swimming a little as both the cosmopolitans and the post coital endorphins wore off. Get to the train, she thought. You can rest easy then.

She made it, but just barely. If an old man with a follow-along had not had trouble getting the little robot suitcase onto the train, the doors would have closed before she got there. She thanked the powers that be for stupid machines and slumped down into an empty, backward facing seat. The car was near the back, since she jumped in one of the first she had gotten to, and sparsely populated. Most of the sensible folks had gone home hours ago.

Half a moment later, the doors hissed closed and her talkie came alive of its own accord with the spiel from the train: rules, safety procedures and stop information. Her display, also unbidden, highlighted the emergency exists before flashing an advertisement for an online dating service and then disappearing again.

The train hummed quietly as it moved and rocked ever so gently. Laura let herself sink deeper into the seat, putting a foot up on the seat in front of her and sliding down so her bare cheeks touched the cool plastic. That’s right, she recalled. He had kept her panties. Tomorrow was going to be awkward. She put her purse on her lap to ensure some semblance of modesty in case she fell asleep and slid further down.

Sleep almost nabbed her but her talkie buzzed again. She bolted up, causing her skin to rub uncomfortably against the chair. She adjusted herself, getting the thin skirt between her and the chair again, before growling, “Answer.”

Anita was crying. “Mrs. Cooper?” she sobbed. There were strange noises in the distance and, closer, the unmistakable sound of Andy whimpering. Laura could see him in her mind’s eye, sitting on the floor, knees pulled to his chest, hands cupped over his ears, rocking. She thought she heard him say, “Get away from the window.”

“Anita!” barked Laura in the Sales Manager tone she used with underperforming interns and over-friendly colleagues. “Calm down and tell me what’s wrong.”

“Something is happening,” Anita said. “There’s people in the street and I think they have guns.”

“What? Anita, that’s impossible. There are no guns allowed in our–”

She was interrupted by a strange sound from the talkie. There was a whoosh and a gurgle and a clunk and then something like a muffled scream from Andy. “Anita!” Laura said, then again, yelling. She looked around and she knew something was wrong. Other passengers were talking rapidly or scanning their displays or thinking at other parties. “Anita! Are you–”

“Mommy?”

Laura’s breath caught in her throat. “Andy?” she asked as calmly as she could manage. “Are you okay? Where’s Anita, baby?”

“She fell down,” Andy said in his usual distant tone. “She is bleeding. I told her to get away from the window.”

Oh, God, thought Laura. What the hell is going on?

“Andy, I need you to call the police. Do you remember how to call the police?”

“Yes, Mommy, but I don’t think–”

The train stopped. It did not screech to a halt or lose power and coast, it just stopped. Everything went dark and the hum of the magnets below turned suddenly to the sound of metal screaming against metal and the train stopped. The passengers did not. Most of them were flung forward, bounding off the hand bars and poles or careening into chairs or windows or one another. Laura was thrown against the seat she was in and the breath was knocked out of her and starbursts filled her vision.

It was over in an instant but she did not know how long she sat motionless, afraid that if she tried to move she would discover that her back was broken or that she had been impaled on something. There was no light at all except for the false light of her display. It read, “No signal.” She checked the talkie. It was functioning but in the Underground without the U-Fi network, it was useless.

In the darkness, someone moaned in agony. Farther away, screams of pain and calls for help. Laura set her jaw and refused to cry out. If she started now, she wouldn’t stop. She waited, taking one deep, ragged breath after another and letting it in a slow, controlled exhale. She watched the clock in her display. Ten minutes went by. Some voices in the darkness silenced while other intensified. She thought there should be emergency lights in the tunnel, but if there were, they did not turn on. The pungent darkness, stinking of insides let out, human and mechanical, seemed to grow darker and heavier with each passing moment.

“Go”, she said to herself but did not move. Inside, she responded, Rescuers will come. “Andy needs you now,” she hissed through a set jaw. Andy needs me.

Laura groped in the unfathomable pitch until her hand found the cool metal of the bar on the back of her seat. Unsteadily, she pulled herself to her feet. Her back and ribs ached, but nothing seemed broken. Ridiculously, she pulled down her skirt as she stood. She had never experienced darkness like it before, she realized. Even on the blackest night, some light somewhere slipped in, especially in the city. This was the literal absence of all light and she suddenly felt very uncertain. Her first step was tiny, her knees wobbling and her body shaking uncontrollable. She groped forward with the other hand in search of the next seat-back hand bar and refusing to let go of the one she held until she had found it. When she did, she took another step forward, shaking still but more certain.

Five steps later, the thundering in her chest subsided and her body stopped shaking. She adjusted to the distance between the seats and she moved with confidence. Reach. Step. Reach. Step. Reach. Nothing. She stumbled suddenly. Goddamn door, she thought too late as she tried to catch her balance, waving her arms like antennae before her. She might have caught the bar before she fell if her foot had not landed on a soft, slick mass. She panicked and her weight shifted and she felt her heel sink in. Her ankle twisted with a pop and she cried out. As she went down, her fingers caressed a hand bar slick with blood and her head caught the corner of a seat back. She landed in a heap, spinning in the darkness, on top of a motionless body. She tried to roll off the body buy just found her face pressed against his — she could feel the stubble on his chin. She started to scream but it turned into a heave and vomit spewed onto the dead man.

Laura sobbed uncontrollably in the darkness. She had not made it half the length of this one car. She would never escape. She would die here. Andy would be left alone against whatever was happening out there.

Between sobs, she heard a sound. It was coming from ahead of her in the blackness. It was a voice, low and weak, but not an agonized moan like the others. It was a word, she was sure, but she could not make it out. The need to know was enough to stifle her hysteria and she picked herself up from the vomit covered corpse. Slowly, carefully, Laura stumbled and groped her way toward the sound.

As she approached, Laura determined the voice belonged to a young man. She followed the repeated word, this dying man’s mantra, until her hands found him in the darkness. First she found his knees, then his face, and finally the vertical hand bar. All were slick with blood and too close to one another.

“Light,” the young man repeated, each time a little weaker and more frightened than the time before.

Laura did not think he was asking for light. She groped the man’s broken form until she found his pockets. She rummaged through each one, listening to him say the word over and over, until in his front pocket — he was so bent by his collision with the hand pole she could not tell in the dark whether it was left or right — she felt a small, cool metal cylinder. She fumbled with it until she found a soft button on one end of the cylinder.

Laura pushed the button and immediately wished she had not.

The opposite end of the cylinder exploded with pale white LED light, so bright and powerful it initially blinded Laura. The man from which she had taken it was the first thing she saw. His body was bent impossibly around the pole, his legs akimbo and his torso twisted into a knot. He tried to smile, said, “Light,” again, and expired with a tortured shudder.

In her foolish desire to not watch a man die, Laura turned the light away from him. It’s bright, ghost glow revealed an abattoir, the most foul and uncompromising laws of physics on bloody display. She understood suddenly how lucky she had been when the train came to its instantaneous halt. The other passengers, those in side facing seats or standing, had been flung forward and crushed, rent and split by their inevitable impacts with the car, it’s furnishings and the other occupants.

Laura vomited again.

Soon she was empty — of alcohol, of food, of horror and of despair. All that was left inside her was a relentless ache, a need to get to Andy. She put the flashlight in her mouth, gripping it with her teeth, in order to free both hands so she could steady herself as she picked her way through the corpses on unsteady legs.

When the train had stopped, her car and the next had collided and, with nowhere else to go, skipped sideways. Though each door to the other was shattered and open, they were off center from one another. The opening between the cars was less than a foot wide. Laura made her way to the opening and between the twisted frames while shining the light. The next car looked much like her own, painted red and littered with crash dummies. At the far end, however, she could see the doors to the next car were open wider and beyond she made out a soft glow. A weak salve of hope comforted the ache inside and she tried to push through the gap to the next car.

Despite at he contortions and squeezing, only one bare, blood smeared leg fit though. The hope began to dissipate and the ache grew and she screamed and sobbed wretched filth at the universe. When her rage was spent she forced herself to breathe and think and finally the answer came. Laura pulled herself out of her cocktail dress. She knelt down and scopped up handfuls of cooling viscera and smeared it over her ever naked inch. Gripping the light again in her mouth, she pulled apart the doors as hard as she could and pushed.

Naked, bloody and bawling, Laura forced her way through the gap one part at a time: an arm, a leg, a breast, her head, the other breast, her hips, and finally the rest of her spilled out and she landed in a heap, gasping for breath. When she had regained some of her strength, she half heartedly reached through the gap to retrieve her dress. Laying as it was in the pool of blood and worse, the dress was unwearable. Instead, laura cast around until she found a jacket that had been shoved onto the overhead rack. It was relatively clean and dry and covered most of her. She put it on and once again clambered through a slaughterhouse killing floor to get to the next car.

When she arrived she saw that the car beyond this one was turned on its side. It looked as though she could climb through and up onto the side, not the roof, of the next car and travel that way, which seemed an easier path than navigating the seatbacks, especially littered as they were with bodies. Ahead, the glow brightened and was perhaps two or three cars beyond this one. Happy not to have to wade through blood and corpses, Laura clawed and scrambled her way on top of the next car and half crawled, half pulled herself along its length. The next car was oriented correctly and just as she began to slide her way down into it, since there was not so much room between her and the ceiling fixtures atop the next car, she saw one of the distant lights wink out of existence. It reappeared suddenly and she realized there had been movement just as she heard voices.

Laura’s first instinct was to cry out but with the flashlight in her mouth she could not. She reached to take it from her lips and call for help when she heard a distinct sound — she likened it to  when you take an air pump off an over-filled bicycle tire — followed by a brief, pained graon. She put her hand over the lit end of the flashlight and held her breath. She heard a muffled almost mechanical voice that sounded like a command and then heavy footsteps echoing in the tunnel. They grew louder.

Laura fumbled with the flashlight. She managed to press the button and turn it off but as she did her blood-slick fingers lost hold of it and it fell. It rolled away and tipped off the end of the car, landing with a clatter. The footsteps stopped. A moment later, they resumed, louder and faster than before, getting closer.

Soon they were in the car on which Laura lay. At first she could make out nothing of them, only hearing their rough movements and oncomprehensible commands as they climbed over the seats of the turned car. Then a light appeared, some sort of flare thrown by one of them. The light was dim and orange, hardly enough to see by. She made out figures in black vinyl or leather wearing what looked like gas masks and goggles and carrying short barrelled, very heavy looking rifles. They could have been police or soldiers or aliens for all Laura could make out the details.

As they scanned the car, she held her breath. She was keenly aware of one naked breast pressed against the glass ceiling that had been a window, uncovered by the long jacket as she crawled. There was pained voice from below and the figures — she thought there was three of them — moved toward the sound. A heartbeat later, the air sound went off again and the voice silenced. The figures scanned the car, looked into the next, then left the way they had come. They never looked up.

Laura held her breath until her lungs burned and starbursts danced in front of her eyes. When she finally exhaled it was slowly and silently and she breathed in just as quietly. She did not move from her perch for a long time but eventually the ache of longing overcame her terror and she knew she had to move on.

It was dark save for the feeble orange glow of the flare. She let herself down clumsily but quietly and landed in the space between the flipped car and the next. She searched the darkness for her flashlight but her hands did not find it. Resigned to more darkness, she moved carefully forward, probing each step with her feet and keeping one hand always on a seat back. Soon she discovered that the lights she had seen were more flares, one or two every car for a half dozen cars. In their dim glow she made out a body or two in every car with a round, apparently cauterized hole in the head. She remembered the confusion in Anita’s description of what she saw and the terror in Andy’s voice. Her stomach churned and her heart pounded.

Three cars down the line Laura got her first whiff of cool, fresh air. She moved forward as fast as she dared. After two more train cars she could see a station. It was her station, mere blocks from her apartment building. It was illuminated by more of the flares but occasionally a brighter, white light would pour in from above like a searchlight shining down the escalator. Backlit by that light, she could make out three or four of the armed and armored figures standing guard on the platform. her blood froze and her resolve withered. She crouched down in the train car and sobbed silently. Part of her wanted to just walk up to the platform, just to end it. Let them shoot her. Andy was probably already dead, after all. And if not, he would be soon.

It was that thought, of her son huddled in a corner as the figures raised rifles at him, of Andy crying out for her in his last moments, of him being alone because she had let herself die before getting back to him, that galvanized her. Laura knew there had to be some way past the figures guarding the platform.

She crept forward as slowly and quietly as she could, peaking over the seats briefly every step to make sure the soldiers, if that was what they were, had not moved. In the station, the tracks tunnel widened and there was room on either side of the train. The train itself had sped past the station for at least a half dozen cars before colliding with whatever barrier had stopped it cold.

As she moved forward, Laura caught a glimpse of the sky through the escalator shaft. She thought she saw lights in building windows. She knew she saw flames and that sweeping white searchlight. Almost as soon as the sky became visible, her talky buzzed against the back of her ear, causing her to suppress a sharp cry, and her display popped up. “Searching.” She was getting a signal.

Ding-ding-dingding-diiiing chirped in one of the pockets of the jacket she wore. Loud. It occurred to her only then how old-school the jacket was. She searched the pockets swiftly until she found it: an honest to goodness pocket talkie, blinking and chirping as it acquired a signal and received messages and missed calls. Laura fumbled with the ting, unsure of how to turn it off, and looked up. The soldiers had left the platform.

Their heavy steps echoed in the pale orange glow. Their rifles cast long, strobing shadows whenever the search light passed. They moved silently, using hand signals, the four of them approaching the train car in methodical turns. A fist raised in the air by the lead soldier and they paused. Then the hand opened, fingers stiff and tight together, and waved sharply forward. They moved onto the train in a predatory pounce, perfectly executed. Their rifles puffed and cauterized holes appeared in three bodies. The lead soldier knelt and after a brief search withdrew the pocket talkie stuffed beneath a long dead passenger. “You have 19 messages,” it flashed.

Laura heard the rifles fire as she pulled herself onto the platform. She did not look back, but scrambled to her feet and sprinted. She was not going to make it. They were going to see her and shoot her in the back and she was going to die on the platform. When her feet hit the unmoving escalator, she heard the chirping of the pocket talkie stop. She dared to hope, just a little, and thrust herself forward up the escalator. Her sweat mixed with others blood on her naked flesh under the dead man’s jacket. Her breath came in fiery gasps. She cursed every skipped aerobics class, every time she took the elevator, every offer to watch a movie instead of go to the park with Andy.

Andy.

Laura growled like a mother bear and pulled herself up the escalator. The sound of boots and metallic, muffled voices speaking an unknown language followed her toward the street above. As she emerged into the open night air, she heard the distinct puff of one of their rifles and her left arm exploded in pain. She did not stop running. She emerged from the station access. Through the haze of pain and fatigue she saw an alley. It was comfortingly dark. Before this very moment, she would never have entered it walking alone at night. Now she ran for it with all her strength, turning the corner and clattering against the recyclotrons and composters. She pressed herself against the wall and held her breath and waited to die.

Minutes passed. Finally the adrenaline began to wear off and the pain in her arm became unbearable. She pulled the jacket off her shoulder to find a perfectly round, dime sized, black hole in her tricep. It had missed the bone and left a bloodless wound that ached like a long unattended dore tooth.

“Connection acquired,” appeared in her display. “Call home,” she started to say but a black-text-on-red crawled across her vision. “Emergency Broadcast Message!” it read. She still was not getting any sound in her talkie, just the unsettling buzz as it tried to connect to the city network.

Laura watched the scroll. Unprovoked attack. Stay indoors. Help is coming. Stay indoors. Do not attempt to engage the enemy. Stay indoors. Nothing of real value.

By then, the pain had subsided to a dull throb and the pounding in her ears of her own heart had lessened. She could hear distant sirens. She quieted herself and listened hard. There was the distant pop-pop-pop of gunfire and the thoombbbooow of explosions. Whatever was happening, it was big. A war? invasion? Whatever the case, there were good guys, too.

With her talkie still down, Laura rolled and shifted her eyes to navigate the menus until she brought up a map of the city. At least the GPS satellites were operating because she appeared as a blinking blue dot in an unnamed side street off 7th Avenue. “Directions home,” she said as loudly as she dared but the display did not change. The full network was still down, but Laura knew her way home from the station well enough to navigate with the map. She blinked twice and rolled her eyes and the map expanded by a half dozen blocks. Re dots appeared every few blocks on the map. She recognized them as emergency vehicles, usually used to help avoid traffic congestion. She found her street and building and saw a half dozen red dots surrounding it. There was no way to know what the dots represented: fire engines, police cruisers or Army tanks.

She knew she had to move. Sitting there, leaning against the wall, out of apparent immediate danger, her body had betrayed her. Her skin burned where she had scraped herself pushing through the doors. Her arm throbbed where she had been shot. Her legs were leaden with the sprint up the escalator. Her mouth was dry and her throat was parched and her eyelids were so very heavy. Then her mind joined the mutiny. No one had seen her. She was safe. She could hide for just a little while, just long enough to regain her strength. What did it matter anyway? She was just a forty something lady with all the sags and wrinkles to prove it and if she popped her head up it was likely to get blown off. Just like Anita.

Laura’s mind made the leap of its own accord: Anita to Andy, the pathway unarticulated but inherently understood, the way one remembers a childhood birthday party upon tasting cotton candy for the first time in years. She pushed against the wall until she was standing. She tied the jacket tight around her waist but kept it unbuttoned, not for modesty but for a feeling of cover and protection. Deliberately looking into her upper peripheral vision and lowly back to the center of her normal sight she dragged the city map into her regular field of view. Thinking a prayer to a God she had only ever heard her grandmother talk about, Laura pushed herself from off the wall and ran toward her building.

She kept to the side streets and alleyways, avoiding red dots whenever she could. The city was a battlefield. Police and what looked like the national guard battled the strangely clad soldiers while hoverers and flyers sparred in the sky with vehicles she had never seen before. Between her GPS display and luck she did not deserve, Laura arrived across the street from her building. Her heart sank. It was engulfed in flames. She bawled suddenly, uncontrollably and fell to her knees.

Strong hands grasped Laura by the shoulders and she shrieked. She tried to pull away but more hands grabbed her arms and yanked her to her feet. She swore and spat and bit until someone gripped her face and turned her head sharply.She found herself staring into a fireman’s mask. “Calm down, lady, or I swear to god I’ll leave you here!” he screamed through his air filter.

The reality of it all struck her dumb and she went weak and compliant. As they walked her to a bus surrounded by city guardsmen, she saw an explosion tear through the lower levels of her building. It rumbled and coughed and then fell, collapsing vertically in a plume of ash, smoke and dust.

The firemen handed her off to a guardsman who asked her name. He stared at her when she mumbled it, obviously recording it, and then pushed her onto the bus. There were dozens of other people, covered in grime and blood, staring blankly ahead. Suddenly self conscious, Laura pulled the jacket closed and walked unsteadily down the aisle between the seats until she arrived at the back of the bus.

She was sitting, staring blankly out the large window at the burning city, before she realized there was a child next to her. He was sitting on the floor, almost under the seat in front of him, huddled with his knees in his chest and rocking.

“Oh, God,” sobbed Laura and reached out to him.

The bus lurched forward. The driver turned the wheel hard to make the sharp cut. He never saw the incoming missile, and even if he had, he could not have maneuvered the bus bus fast enough to avoid impact.

 ———-

Once again, I want to remind you if you enjoyed this story, please share it and this blog. My goal is to grow a readership. Also, feel free to comment. Almost everything that end up here is a first draft, so I look forward to constructive criticism.