“Hello sir, Farnsworth’s Monster Emporium and Death-ray Dealership, this is Todd speaking. How can I help you this morning?”
“Can you speak up sir, I’m having a little trouble hearing you. Ah, you’re using your speaker phone. How can I be of service today? You’ve purchased some of Professor Peril’s BamHogZu Lair Defender.
“An excellent choice for those among the elite Plant Mastery villain set; fast-growing from its Bamboo ancestry, caustic from its Hogweed genetics, and with the tailored Kudzu genes, it forms spiny, and beautiful blooms from spring to fall. You’ll have a lair safe from prying eyes in no time.
“I see. Plant Mastery is anyone with level five on the Magnus Scale of Domination. You lack complete Plant-Mastery? It should still respond fairly well to Plant Domination at level two, or even basic Plant-weaving at level one. It might take some time to cover your whole lair as an effective barrier.
“Sir, it wasn’t a recommendation for you to possess some degree of plant control, it was a requirement. Fortunately you’ve called us in time and we can use our Drone Supply and Return service to expedite you something more suitable to your needs.
“You’ve already planted it? Nothing to worry about. It will lie dormant for two days without plant mastery to activate it normally. We’ll send over digging robots to remove all traces of it. Sir, why are you screaming? I can’t understand you. Why would you need a broom?
“Oh, Zoom! Oh my. Zoom Plant Growth Accelerator and BamHogZu ARE a potent combination. You should not have been sold this product with no plant mastery whatsoever. I didn’t realize you had already activated the growth acceleration. Wrapped around your legs? You should stand very still right now. Sir. Sir! You are going to have to stop screaming. The plant is designed to grow toward the sounds of suffering.
“That’s better. Are you wearing any clothing? Tuck your hands into your sleeves. Slow your breathing. If you remain quiet, the plant should begin growing onto the barrier wall you placed it against and away from you. I know your legs where the BamHogZu is touching you are in great pain, part of its caustic Hogweed genes, but you mustn’t push it away, as it will only grow toward you faster. Thrashing is a growth stimulant.
“We are dispatching an extra strength defoliant to your location. If you are willing to pay a bit more, we can have it carpet bombed by a fast attack drone. Please be advised, there will be side effects from being at ground zero. The defoliant will leave you with a bright orange skin tone for four to six months. You will also be toxic to any living plant during that time. The orange color will also stain any bright fabrics you wear so you might want to consider more orange in your wardrobe or make everything you own black for a while.
“Spines penetrating your legs. Got it. Those drones are on their way, ETA about four minutes. Remember to hold your breath for as long as you can. There may be some stinging. Thank you for calling Farnsworth’s Monster Emporium and Death-ray Dealership. Have a great day.”
More Tales of Tech Support © Thaddeus Howze 2014. All Rights Reserved
The surgeons told my parents they were in touch with a technology firm who was interested in my case and wanted to present a proposal. My parents went to the meeting but didn’t tell me at the time. I deduced it later.
I was sedated half the time and when I wasn’t I was sick from the anti-seizure medication. I saw my mother and father fighting outside of my room before they came in pretending all was right with the world. They assured me everything would be alright after the surgery.
I would like to say it was terrifying to know someone was going to remove half my brain but with a continual electrical storm going on in my brain, I was too incoherent to be afraid and so sick and tired of doctors, and needles and creepy leering scientists. I just wanted it to be over.
And then it was.
I was incapable of speech. They removed the left side of my brain. I could still talk but no one understood what I was saying. Not even me. I could think it, but could not say it. One of my therapists informed me, my brain was a powerful tool and would eventually recover. She was going to teach me to talk again. By singing, of all things.
I could not talk, but I could sing. So I learned to sing what I wanted. It took half a year to be able to ask for anything important, but language was easy compared to learning to walk again. The physical therapist was a bitch, too. She never let me rest. Sweat dripped down my body and all she could say was: Do it again. Keep moving. Dammit, don’t give up now.
And she was right.
Then I began to dream. I dreamed of numbers, of shapes, I could see and understand the distances between things, (three feet, seven inches to my food tray, sixteen feet to the bathroom, six feet to the television in my hospital room). I could remember the number of steps I took in a single day (1,584), I could remember the number of hairs on the face of the handsome doctor (about 15,000) who was tending to my head after the surgery.
I didn’t question it at first. It seemed normal to count everything. To remember everything. I don’t know why I never did it before. Then I thought about it and realized I could only remember everything up to the day after my surgery. Everything before that vanishes into a hole, as if I didn’t exist before then.
I tried to tell my mother. She assured me I was going to be fine and rushed from the room. Her face was hotter than normal, blood pressure elevated, heart rate increased, her pupils dilated. My father refused to even meet my eyes anymore. He looked disgusted even as my progress began to improve. Handsome doctor had a name, Dr. Williams, he said I could start growing my hair back and the black fuzz was itchy and uncomfortable.
My dreams were more vivid. Leering scientist was back, he watched me while I slept. He had a strange array of equipment pointing at my head and he mentions dendrite integration and synaptic development. He said nanotechnological interfacing will be complete and irreversible in three more days. The other masked scientists who never spoke, nodded and left. One of them was wearing black shiny shoes.
Corfams: dark shiny shoes common to military personnel. Black slacks, shiny belt buckle. Watchband made of dark fabric. Special forces. The information began flooding in now. Everything I saw came with its own inherent information listing as if I was connected to a computer. I saw everything now as a cloud of data, drowning me, just like my epilepsy once did. Can’t manage the flow.
Dr. Williams came into the room and he saw my face. I could read his concern. His temperature remained even. His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. A real smile, not one designed to elicit compassion. We talked. He took my hand and told me I would be able to go home soon. The surgery was a success. Then he asked about my dreams. How could he know?
I told him everything, I didn’t feel safe telling anyone before this and I unburdened myself to him. He knew everything and did not judge me. Then he asked me a strange question.
Did I know where I was. I told him I was in the rehabilitation center after a traumatic brain surgery. How long had I been here? Almost a year. Then he told me to go to sleep and tomorrow I would be heading home. I hugged him and impulsively stole a kiss before he could stop me. I was seventeen and I know it made him nervous. He ran away without even a goodbye. I slept.
“General, the surgery was a success and the implantation worked perfectly. That isn’t the problem.” Dr. Williams removed the neural helmet and pinched the bridge of his nose where the weight of the helmet seemed to rest uncomfortably.
The General also removed his helmet and looked into the room at the bald sleeping girl below. “What is the problem, then Doctor. She seems happy and healthy and mentally sound. She has the increase mental capacity we were expecting and have been able to retrieve her memories perfectly every night and replay them just like a recording. I would call this an unqualified success.”
“This technology is invasive, General. It has corrupted her sense of time and perspective. She believes she has been here for a year. Barely a month has passed. She has learned to walk, talk and think at a rate five time faster than expected. But look at her vitals. She is living at five times the rate as well. Without an IV drip, constant nutrient feeds, and a room nearly at freezing temperatures, she would be on fire. Literally. Yes, her cognitive abilities are amazing and off the scale, but her artificial brain is killing her. My recommendation is to scale the technology down and turn back the overclocking. Make her back into a normal teenager until we can refine the technology.”
“I can’t do that Doctor. This breakthrough could revolutionize warfare and espionage for the nation. She is a national asset.” The General turned and started toward the door. “Make her ready for transport. Tell her parents, she had an unfortunate turn for the worst and died during the night. Show them one of those simulations where she was doing well and let them take the video as a memento. Let them know we will cover all expenses as promised. Goodnight, doctor.” The door’s click signaled the end of the discussion.
“Did you hear what he said?”
“What do you want to do?” The doctor put his virtual helmet back on and noted his display was still running.
“You said it’s only been a few months, what can I do? Can I even really walk?”
“Oh yes, you can do everything you thought you could. And a whole lot of things they don’t even know about yet.”
“Why are you helping me? Because I know what happens to the experiments the military offers to take care of.”
“You could run away with me. We could hide out like in one of those old movies.”
“No we couldn’t. I have already recalibrated your other brain. It will still function far better than your organic one ever did but not so much that you have to live in a refrigerator or eat a Snickers every ten minutes to live. You will need to eat nearly twice the calories you used to. Your brain now utilizes eighty percent of your body’s energy. I will arrange for you to be able to leave the facility and will implant the information you need to escape. After that, you will be on your own.” The doctor touched her hands to reassure her.
“And you are breaking all of these rules because?” She knew something was wrong. His body language spoke volumes.
“I can’t leave.”
“I need you to wake up.” He tapped me on the forehead and I fell back onto the bed.
I woke up two hours and thirty two minutes later. I was in a refrigerated room, surrounded by sensors, monitors, patches and drips. Electromuscular stimulators were part of a shiny suit which covered me from head to toe. I saw a room eight feet above the ground level with a light on and a shadowy figure looking at me.
“Hurry up and get dressed. Don’t take off the bodysuit. Until you are fully healed, it will act as an interface for your secondary brain. You will eventually be able to do everything you could normally without it but for another couple of weeks, you want to wear it as often as possible. Right now, think of it as an electromagnetic wheelchair.”
His voice was muffled, stiff. I can’t see much, the light was low in his room. I got dressed, my limbs felt heavy but capable enough. The sneakers took me a second. “I’m ready.”
“Good. Can you see the floorplan?” My minds-eye suddenly showed me a space from overhead, like one of my brother’s videogame maps. A red line tracked me to the exit from my location. “That’s the way out. There will be a shift change in eight minutes. That will be your window. Don’t stop for anything. Run be free for as long as you can.”
The lights came on in the room and he moved toward the glass. I cringed and my hand came to my mouth involuntarily. The lights dimmed quickly.
“I was one of their first cognitive experiments in brain transfer technology. You see it was my idea that a brain could survive without a body with sufficient hardware to support it. Then I was in an accident, crushed beyond recognition and the military decided I was simply too valuable to lose. You will be my last experiment. I am glad to see it worked but no one should have to go through this.”
A timer appeared in my mind-eye. It was counting down from twenty minutes.
“It will take you twenty minutes to leave this building. You have access codes for vehicles in the parking lot. Drive west on the first major road leaving here. Don’t look back. When the second timer reaches zero, pull over to the side of the road and get under your vehicle. Cover your eyes. When the winds stop, you will have to make your way. Alone. They will figure out what happened. I will leave them misinformation. It will buy you a month, maybe less. Goodbye, Michelle Ross.”
“Goodbye. One more question. Was that your face in the simulation?”
“No. I was much better looking. Now go.”
I left my beautiful doctor Williams and did exactly as he told me. The military base was vaporized in a cloud of nuclear plasma which was called an oil refinery fire by the news media. Happens all the time in Northern California. My parents believed I had died in the rehab facility. But my brother, my darling brother, he knew. Somehow he knew and when he found me six states away, in a coffee shop, working on my escape plan, it was plain to me our adventures had only just begun.
Across the street at a competitor’s coffee shop, a man with a twisted face watched the two get into a broken-down Pinto. A woman sitting next to him notes his lecherous stare and scurries to another seat. “The package is moving.” A black SUV meets him outside and follows…
Countdown at the Memory Palace © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
The highway stretches out in front of me, a black ribbon winding into the future; a collapsing probability of possibility connecting me with the past and through it to the future.
Music streams from my radio, a carrier wave connecting me with myself in the futures I head toward. My twenty-five year old self hurtling home from a party, a jamming party.
One filled with beautiful honies, hot, sweaty, bodacious women of all shapes, sizes and colors; from an elegant ivory to a Nubian black, each smiling, tempting, thrilling me. Even me, an ordinary Brother, just happy to be invited.
The highway stretches out in front of me, late from work, too many hours, too much work, too many responsibilities, trying juggle all of the things my life has in it. Thirty-five came with so many things, so fast, and without warning.
Music streams from my radio, and it’s my wave, my signal from the future to the past. I jam and for a moment remember that evening in my youth when I met the woman who was going to be my wife and I am so happy, so thrilled she wanted to head out with me to a restaurant and sit and talk with me until the sun came up. She was everything. My light, my moon, her voice was the silk of the morning breaking, slow, subtle, yet suddenly brilliant with light, with wisdom I wondered how I ever lived without.
The highway stretches out in front of me but I am not slowing down. I drive faster than ever, late at night, trying to get home. Knowing it will already be too late. She is already gone. Forty-five came with fear, indiscretion, loss of faith, loss of love, fear of an impending death, more time behind than before.
Music streams from my radio, that song again, this time it feels tempestuous, like my life, up-ended, topsy-turvy, like a child’s bedtime story complete with Cat and Hat, and all of the instability of that. She takes the kids and heads to her mother’s. She tells me to keep my secretary since she was doing double-duty, she might as well get to come home, too.
The highway stretches out in front of me. I told her I was sorry so many years ago. We were friends before we were lovers. I realized how much I missed her every time we came together to watch our daughters graduate. Fifty-five is when I got my mind back, and my wife.
It’s that music again. You know it. The one with the familiar feeling. It takes you back in time to so many moments in time, each bound by this series of sounds, of consonants, of vowels, of beats and rests. The one that takes me back in time to a place where I was still young and foolish, filled with myself, all bluster, no wisdom, all rhythm but no soul. Too much liquor, too much ego, never knowing when to stop.
The highway stretches out in front of me. I am peaceful in the knowledge, I have done right by my daughters. My wife and I the best of friends again at sixty-five, come from another grandchild’s christening. The lateness of the hour brings me back to the ribbon of time. My ribbon, connected by the carrier wave of my life, bringing me to this point.
Music streams from my radio, that song which is playing on the radio, reaches back through time to my sixty-five year old self, reminding me to tell him to send back, to my fifty-five year old self, reminding him to put his issues on the back burner for a moment and to connect to my forty-five year old self, who’s on the highway headed toward a dalliance with our mistress, to take a moment and remind his thirty-five year old self who is so in love with our wife he can barely see, and so proud of his young daughter as they come home from a national spelling bee, to spare a moment for his twenty-five year old self who has fallen asleep at the wheel with the woman who will later become his reason for being.
Remind him as the carrier wave of our life is playing on the radio, the soundtrack of our lives, as we wind down a road very much like the one we have and will drive all of our lives.
Wake up, you dumb bastard. Now!
A blast of the music wakes you from your trance-like state, a crash of the music, a burst of awareness, passing through time, something clear, hard, sharp, a jab in the spiritual third eye, which wakes your mind, and your two less-attentive eyes. A ripple through yourself, from yourself, to yourself.
Music streams from my radio. And the accident is averted, we scream as the car swerves out of control and then after spinning and spinning and slowing to a stop. On the other end of that black ribbon, this is now a sigh we call memory.
Black Ribbon © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible for anyone to accomplish. –Marcus Aurelius
Three hours into my new job, my eyes began to operate independently from my brain. I reached a state of self-transcendent zombieness and learned to see human anatomy as a collection of wet, pliant machine parts and so grade their interactions according to an official scale.
Humanity was weak. Physically. Mentally. Socially. Culturally. But we had been weak, so we knew what weakness could drive one to do.
We had been as weak as humans hiding on this backwater planet. Mingling with the natives, looking like them, eating their wretched food, chasing animals with their oh-so-weak legs and puny arms. Our internal facilities hidden, shut down, vestiges of themselves so we were never discovered. We allowed ourselves to die in accidents, by disease, impaled on bars of shaped metal, by smoky weapons in primitive wars fought over land, food, women, slaves, and for the sake of power itself.
When the enemy came to this world, they flew over humanity’s primitive hovels in their horrid little ships and they did not see us. Humans called them UFOs but we knew what they were. They were looking for us. They thought we would conquer humanity and build our cities, our technologies and transform their world into ours. And then they would destroy us for the last time; chased to the edge of the galaxy and hounded to a final and futile extinction. Instead, they found a primitive and warlike creature barely able to reach their own moon.
In their mechanized arrogance they flew away after probing a few humans and ignored Earth for another generation. And so we waited.
I gland zenotonin and dilated my pupils, increasing my visual acuity a thousand fold. My diagnostic organs fully expanded, fully realized, my physical prowess, the equal of any MRI machine on Earth. Cilia, a millionth of the width of a human hair, I binded genes structures in new and illegal ways. The human under my care writhed until I limited its neural signalling putting it into a coma until I completed my work. I recombined physical attributes long separated by religious doctrine.
Our religion forbade us to dominate these feeble creatures through force. They had to embrace the Way of their own free will. We were forbidden to use our physical abilities which clearly separated us from them. For us to make them ready, we had to be them, to understand them. Some didn’t listen. Some even rebelled. But even in rebellion, they served our purpose.
One of our kind shared with starving Cro-Magnon, our secret of fire and set them on a course of violence. A course we initiated. A course we promoted so we could show them our superiority. They looked at it as a boon, but we knew better. Oh, how many wars did we pursue or even initiate so we could engage the warlike nature coursing through our genes. We infected them with our love of battle and war. They were once so gentle, so different from what we made.
If it were in me to regret, and it is not, I would regret what we made. What would they have been like without us?
Our religion, our code of battle forced us to train them to fight, to win, to die, to raise themselves on ideas of honor, of bloodshed, on death and dismemberment. How many of them did we wade through in Troy, Sparta, Rome, the Crusades, the magnificent World Wars where they took their world to the brink of final destruction. We caused these wars so we could remember why we were here, how we came here and what we would do to leave here. These were our toys until we could return to the True War fought so far away.
Though our bodies were limited and we were without our glandular enhancements, our minds were unchanged. Our innate intelligence was constantly at war with our present weakness. Though our brains appeared the same, we had an advantage unable to be seen with human technology and which hid itself upon our death. Our brains possessed one thousand times the number of connections between each cell. Our brains absorbed data like a sponge took on water. Effortlessly. We learned languages, we learned mathematics, taught philosophy, both light and dark.
We polarized Humanity. We gave it the illusion of polarity, the idea of Dark and Light, Good and Evil. We would make them the most warlike species in the galaxy. And we would never tell them they were weapons.
I modified the cellular cocktail, ensuring the cleansing of human genetic diseases from their feeble frames. This would clear away their cancers, prevent their cells from such sloppy evolution-guided cellular replication, hardened their bones, replacing calcium with hardened carbon, sharpened their vision, replaced their feeble muscles with highly active white muscle tissue instead of their puny red muscle tissue. I smoothed their joints, toughened their cartilage, streamlined their circulatory system and hardened their immune system.
I stripped away much of their internal cellular flora, they would have no need for it. I replaced it with ours, a rich biome capable of rebuilding them in a matter of hours from any injury short of death. They could eat a raisin and live on it a week, they could live without water for a month, recycling everything with their new skin, black as night, smooth as glass. They would not recognize themselves. Nor should they. They were no longer just human. They were now ours. Though we had given them much, we would take much more from them on the field of battle. They were our shocktroops as we return to the Galaxy at large.
I returned my vision to normal and stabilized the serum. I looked at my handiwork, glistening in the flesh-chamber, floating in a protein-fluid which promoted the transformation into an organic weapon of war. I was pleased with this final work. I killed it and distilled its genetic essence. The cells in my body memorized the genetic mapping and created a transfer virus for the final airborne version of this improvement. The remaining mush was absorbed by my ship as food. We wasted nothing in these final days.
My brothers looked at me, their bodies restored to their true greatness, I saw nictitating membranes flickering in eyes capable of seeing in any environment short of true lightlessness, I saw iron-clawed hands and flexible cup-like ears. I saw mobile hair, waving about on heads, I saw prehensile tails, stretching out in idle luxuriousness. I saw each of us bringing out the nature we had hidden in fear of being ourselves for millennia. But no more. I retracted my cilia into my six fingered hand, and straightened my uniform. It was time. Each touched me and took away a sample of the transformed virus. Each would be able to apply it in whatever fashion they saw fit.
Our secret warehouses was filled with the technology we had waited to use. We shared it, a piece at a time until Humanity could understand more. Now, with the right motivation, they could build everything we needed to return to the stars. And they did. Now we had taken what they had learned and made it our own. Their mighty factories would churn out our weapons of war. Each hidden and prepared for the final step in the Plan. Our other agents had hidden on a thousand other worlds, among their people, shaping them, raising them for a war against an impossible enemy.
Our combined nervous systems resonated with the entangled signal of our distant brethren. They were almost ready. Twenty years at the most.
Our mechanized foe, unable to find us had begun exterminating all life in the galaxy. They knew we would not sit for this. We were the last threat to their supremacy.
We watched Humanity as they launched their thermonuclear missiles into the air. In thirty minutes those missiles would land and plunge them into their final war on Earth. From those who survived, we would cull them and make them our army, they shall be fierce, made tough and ruthless by the years of deprivation, living without the essentials, these would be the most creative, most adaptable, most ready to burn their way across the stars.
Our slumbering warships stood ready, hidden in pyramids all over the planet. Waiting for the day we took the best away from their world for the last time.
We had hidden for eleven thousand years until humanity had the tools to fight to reclaim their galaxy. Now armed with a violence which had destroyed billions of their own, we shall stride forth, no longer hidden, no longer pretending, no longer waiting, now ready to wage war with a creature bred for it. A creature unreasoning in its hatred, willing to kill its own members for any reason or no reason at all. We have harvested that capacity for violence and would use it to win back the Galaxy for species more deserving to rule.
If humanity didn’t survive, their sacrifice would be worth it. For us.
Moral Ground © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
Artwork: Battlesong © 2010-2013 *TavenerScholar
“They’re all around us.” Rock, Jan “Red” Havel, whispered while wiping the remains of what was once a human being from her hand. We had stopped thinking about what these things used to be. We had to. Otherwise we’d lose our minds. The alien stink mixed with the scent of human offal caused even professional soldiers used to the horror of war to take pause.
Blade-shaped shards of ice forming in his hands, Kane used them as swords cleaving through the former humans with a manic abandon. His dispassionate face of stone was gone, this was the face of man driven mad by the horror of his work. He pulled out in front of us, pushing the enemy back with the sheer ferocity of his sword work.
His body glowed blue with the frozen energy of his transformed state. Creatures touching him recoiled as their limbs froze and broke away from their bodies. He was the icebreaker making a trough through the horrific waves of the enemy. We followed as best we could.
Spinning, her machetes whirling, Scissors, Sean Harper, made short work of the hybrid beasts trying to grab her with their partially transformed hands-cum-tentacles. Four dropped and she watched their bodies hit the ground while she prepared for the next wave.
We continued our plunge into this heart of darkness. Scissors stayed close to Fisher whose eyes were open wide, seeing the horror now with his waking eyes. His whimpers were the only sound we heard whenever we weren’t wading through what used to be people.
Another incursion of the creatures, part human, part alien detected our movement and ran toward our position from a tunnel we passed behind us. The five soldiers we found were doing their part to keep the enemy at a distance, aiming for their heads, the only part of them vulnerable to small arms fire. Seeing the number of enemy, each conserved ammunition dreading the moment when their clips ran dry.
Paper, Acedia Bela, readied another of her magical paper-bombs and whirled the glowing shapes toward the approaching enemy. Everyone took cover, having learned how powerful Paper’s alchemical magic could be. Paper continued to draw new shapes in the air and placed them, glowing, on each of us. We had no idea what they would do but were forced to depend on each without question.
Rock stood protectively in front of Fisher and I, as the explosion shook the tunnel. Before the smoke could clear, new beasts were swarming through the smoke and we were once again fighting to gain ground toward our enemy from the stars.
The tunnel seemed to tighten around us. Kane was pressed by a new crush of the creatures and his blue glow was swallowed up replaced by an oppressive darkness. Then the howls began as Fisher’s terror reached its crescendo and the Barghest sprang from his chest, a liquid shadow in the shape of a great wolf, and into battle.
The power of its howl drove us all to our knees, a soul-crushing force and our enemy, all around us, for the first time, stopped advancing.
For a second…
* * *
Dawn came, a riot of early morning color, belying the unfortunate circumstances we headed toward. We arrived by seven thirty and our police scanner reported the activity we knew would be going on when we arrived. The local military was already assisting in the evacuation of the area. It would take twelve hours to clear this area. We had six.
For some, it would already be too late. They were taken in the early morning on their way to work. When four trains failed to arrive in station, our suspicions were confirmed. We had roiled the nest and it had reacted. Five thousand people or more may had already been converted. The Dust would be ramping up its production of servants for a last gasp growth spurt. Paper turned toward the metro station set up as the command post.
“Is anyone going to tell me what the hell is going on?” Fisher looked at our faces and even in his state knew there were things we weren’t telling him.
I looked at the others and they shook their heads. I had the dirty task. “The Agency and the Dust were bitter enemies, who had been fighting for nearly one hundred years. They were one of the first and most dangerous threats we had ever faced, bar none.”
The Daughters of the Dust, which was what they called themselves, was an interstellar threat and fell under our jurisdiction because of their unpredictable nature. A communal intelligence with the ability to inherit memory of previous generations, they were an enemy who grew more dangerous with each confrontation. No two incursions were the same, each learning, sharing and knowing what they all have experienced.
“They are from deep interstellar space, arriving as spores during meteor showers. We monitor such showers because they can appear and take root if the conditions are right. The Daughters of the Dust need to feed on protein molecules, the fresher the better. Their diet on their homeworld would have been the equivalent of dinosaurs here, one creature feeding a cluster and keeping them slumbering. On Earth, we’re more mobile, they had to adapt, grow smarter to catch us. We helped them evolve.”
“So they’re some kind of plant?” He was a quick study. If we live, he might make a decent agent.
“Something like that. They always take root near underground water, electrical power and ample supplies of food when they land in cities. Electricity metabolizes their growth allowing them to reach incredible sizes.”
Rock turned and picked up before I could continue. “However, landing in the country can be just as advantageous because they get to grow slowly and co-opt all of the plants and animals in a region. They can spread over a wide population, destroying every plant and animal until the region has been reduced to an energy-free, organic dust. When they land in the country they have time to develop their mental abilities and can even learn from their host creatures.”
“City dwellers don’t tend to get as intelligent, but spread faster by using its spores in the open air gathering thousands of new minds all at once. This collective intelligence may not be as smart as its country cousin, it will add minds to itself claiming an entire city in a few months. But because it is less intelligent, it acts on instinct, keeping a low profile until it reaches critical mass.” Scissors was honing one of her many knives while she shared with the group.
Paper drove us into the command area and we were recognized and directed through the ersatz base. The Agency first became aware of this complex when we noticed a series of missing person reports, fast growing, very close together, no apparent connection except for a geographic similarity.
The number grew faster than any other kind of normal human crime and thus the Agency was alerted. We placed the area under psychic watch. After predictions led to confirmations, ground agents were sent in. Three groups never returned. That’s how I ended up here. Senior agents investigated when regular agents didn’t report back.
When no one volunteered to continue, I took the cue, “What we didn’t know then was the Dust was a learning creature, as well. Our every encounter taught us something about them. But they were able to share each encounter with their descendants growing more formidable each time. This information transfer happened in real time, so if there were two of them, they shared data and tactics. In the late fifties we were in a pitched battle against multiple outbreaks. The Agency lost two thirds of its best agents at the time.”
The battle went poorly until we realized they were intelligent. Our attempts to destroy them continued to fail until we captured one. The loss of life was catastrophic but the information gathered was worth every life lost in 1960. The threat of the Daughters of the Dust had been resolved after that conflict when we captured one of the Daughters and it told us how they came to be here. They were travelers who moved from world to world via spores. They claimed they didn’t want to kill us, it was just their nature. They claimed they were a reflection of us. We were violent and they took their genetic cues from us after absorbing us.
“The last major outbreak in the United States occurred in a small city in Kansas in 1967. The outbreak was stopped. Fuel-air weapons combined with alchemical Greek Fire, leveled the entire area, destroyed all the spores and all of the remaining townspeople. There were no survivors. Over two hundred thousand people perished. Similar weapons were used in Korea to destroy an infestation there hidden under the conflict of the Korean War.” Red spit out the window after her mention of the Korean War. She and her sisters were much older than they appeared and probably had friends and loved ones who died there.
Neighboring towns were told of a contagious infection which swept through the town and a brave sheriff sacrificed himself to destroy the fuel facility there in order to stop the infection. Most of that fabrication was actually true. A sheriff did try to bring the creatures to the center of the refinery there and destroy them. The military destroyed the town even though the threat had been ended. The sheriff was the legendary and retired agent, Zebidiah Kane.
Though he had been successful, the Agency burned the town to the ground, as a part of standard procedure. Kane had lived in that town, as a retired Agency operative for five years working local cases until the threat of the Dust appeared there. He never forgave the Agency even as he went back to work in a senior leadership position.
And as I expected, he would be here.
Kane stood in the midst of this crazed nest of activity as calm as a mountain. People moved around him, he spoke, they left often running with renewed urgency. When he turned toward our vehicle, Paper, gasped looking into his icy eyes. His eyes spoke of the depth of his rage against this particular threat.
He was a man who had been fighting it for over a hundred years losing more often than winning. It was only his now inhuman nature which allowed him to continue his struggle into another century. So many of the operatives of the Agency were conscripted, forced to work with them or be destroyed by them. This made for tense relationships.
I concluded with the most important information Fisher would need to understand this threat. “The last Dust complex we captured said we were stronger than their Sisters understood. They had underestimated humanity all those centuries ago when they first saw our planet. With their first attempt at conquest defeated, they would just go to sleep and wait until a time came when no one alive would remember them. She entered a cocoon-like state and we were unable to penetrate its natural armor. So we locked it up in a vault under surveillance for thirty years. She was counting on humans to have short memories being made of meat.
The Agency wouldn’t forget. Kane wouldn’t let them.
We got out of our vehicle and technicians drove it away like a well oiled machine. Kane was a giant, easily six feet five and his tailored suit did nothing to hid his incredible physique. Even Rock, who was used to being the tallest person in the room, felt cowed by his physical presence. He seemed to cause the very air to tingle with electricity. Not the good kind either. The feeling you get when you are standing outside in a thunderstorm with a long metal pole pointing into the sky, waiting to be struck dead.
In the days before the Agency in the 1930s, incursions of the Dust were devastating. Swallowing up whole towns, the development of the pretense of the American Dustbowl became necessary to explain the catastrophic losses of life and the destruction of the ecosystems of the America West. By the 1950s, the Agency had established a protocol and reduced casualties to twenty percent of a local population. He wrote those protocols.
“You look like hell, Engram. Are you sure you’re up for this?” This was as close as Zebadiah Kane, scary immortal, with elemental ice powers ever came to a hello. He nodded to the ladies and I had the impression he knew them better than I did. He dismissed Fisher with less than a glance.
I looked behind him and saw the police and Agency personnel moving people away, some being scanned before put on double-deckers conscripted for the purpose of moving as many people as possible. Attack helicopters hovered in the sky already in an attack posture to begin firing their specialized munitions on this site at a moment’s notice. Soldiers stood nearby, armed with flamethrowers and other less savory incendiary weapons at every potential exit from the underground including manholes and sewer exits.
The police seemed casual as if they thought this was just another emergency drill. It was only the faces of the older Agency agents which revealed the true nature of the danger. Beyond the perimeter of Agency personnel, military staff with more conventional weapons stood as a third line of defense. Professional. Faces grim and tight. These were men who were truly willing to die in battle. There was no point in telling them, if the first two lines of defense failed, the third would only serve as an aperitif for a monster set on and completely capable of consuming the world.
“Are we the first team?” The cup of coffee handed to me by a faceless technician went a long way to soothing my nerves. Rock stood behind me with her hand on my shoulder. Our previous dalliances, while considered unprofessional, were overlooked due to our collective win-lose ratio.
Paper and Scissors flanked Ben Fisher who looked completely out of place among soldiers. Two other technicians were measuring him on the spot and fitting him with our standard armor. Once a new uniform was ready, Scissors raked her hands across his clothes and they fell away like leaves in the wind.
Fisher’s face flushed and the technicians proceeded with their work. Within six minutes he was ready to go. One tried to hand him a pistol, but he waved it away like it was a venomous snake. Since he had no weapons training, he would be depending on us to keep him alive long enough to bring the Barghest into play.
“No, we sent reconnaissance teams in, sixteen teams of six men apiece. None reported back after an hour. We don’t suspect they will. We went to condition one and are standing by with Greekfire missiles and a fuel air strike on this site. Her majesty and the British Parliament would like this to not happen. Tell me you are up for this?”
“Yes. We won’t let you down.” The others stood and looked at him, their faces as intent as my own. They were not much for talk. They believed in letting their actions speak for them. It was their most endearing feature.
“Listen to me Engram, you do whatever it takes. If you have to burn this section of London to the ground, you do it. There are two other outbreaks happening right now. One in the Midwestern US, and one in Central Africa. This one is in the most densely populated area, so all eyes are on you.” He reached toward my neck and pulled out my necklace. His hands were fully gloved and they still froze the flesh he touched just for a second. He leaned in and whispered to me. No one could have heard what he said and just stood there. Even I didn’t believe it.
Then he looked at all of us and said plainly. ” I have seen what the Dust can do when it breaks free. Don’t let that happen. You have six hours. The people who were on the trains who have not come back numbered about ten thousand, we estimate it may have another five thousand people who were snatched between when we became aware of it and now. In six hours, their metamorphosis will be complete. And then they will come boiling out of this place like army ants. Bulletproof, superhuman, army ants, each with the strength of ten men. I have been authorized to nuke this site. And I will.”
Then he dropped the necklace and put his hand over it causing a layer of frost to freeze it to my armor. We went into the underground and the thought crossed my mind this might be the last sunrise I might ever see.
As we went into the underground, explosions were heard all over the city, closing the entrances into the underground with rubble. This would force the creatures into chokepoints giving the defenders a chance. Machine gun pickets were setup around all of those exits. As we turned to walk into the darkness, we heard a crunching sound behind us coming from the entrance that was just closed. We prepared ourselves to meet the enemy.
It was Kane. He was without his hat or gloves. “I have a personal stake in this. Everything I said still stands. They will nuke this site if we don’t call back in six hours. Now keep up.”
He strode off into the darkness, his naked hands and face glowing a silver blue and an icy breath rose up into the tunnel.
Now it was just the six of us against a creature that had killed entire worlds.
Anger Without Enthusiasm © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
I failed the first tests when I was just a little kid. You know the ones. The preliminary PSE’s.
Psychopathy, Sociopathy, and Empathy psychology exams administered to everyone in elementary school. They showed me the pictures of people I was supposed to feel sympathy for and I felt nothing. Even back then, I knew there was something wrong with that. No tender feelings for animals, either.
A puppy had the same emotional content as a cockroach. None at all.
I didn’t understand at first but when my parents started whispering about our missing dog, I quickly put two and two together. I didn’t even tell them about it. They just knew. I didn’t understand why it was so important that I feel something about some dumb old dog. He was sick and dying anyway. I didn’t even enjoy it.
My parents were afraid of me. I knew that. I didn’t feel it. I knew it. Something about the way they looked at me. Something about how my mother would hug me, hold me close, whisper to me how I would be okay. My father didn’t even disguise his feelings. His disgust was clearly evident. I memorized his face, his emotional depth. I could replicate the behavior perfectly after seeing it one time.
Compassion took longer.
It was more…rich, more complex. At the time I simply didn’t understand the depth of compassion. Later I found out, compassion and empathy were simply beyond the range of things I would ever feel.
At the age of five, I began to replicate the emotional appearances of everyone around me. I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling but I knew I was in danger if I could not learn this. Until I took the official tests, I was allowed to attend school. My classmates were a wealth of information.
Each charming, childlike face smiled at the most vacuous of things. Making shapes, coloring on paper, writing their names, things I mastered in hours, they took weeks to learn. I read War and Peace by the time I was six, but I didn’t tell anyone. I pretended to struggle just like my classmates and made the right noises, laughing and such.
The pretense sickened me.
Once I was out of school, I could disappear onto the bus and go home. My sitter, a forgettable local teenager, Megan, spent the bulk of her time on the phone with her friends, or on the computer looking at mostly naked men. I went into my room and read books I smuggled from the library. I could read a thousand pages a day.
I would be ten when they tested again. Their trepidation as my second test date drew near increased but they seemed hopeful announcing to the mysterious person on the phone about my progress, my displays of emotion and how perhaps the Childhood Psychological Survey group need not make a visit to our home. She was always crestfallen at the end of the call. I watched her conversation with the agent and found it curious.
The woman, Ms. Fischer, seemed to exhibit the very same nature she accused me of; she was cold and aloof. Her eyeglasses held eyes as distant as my own.
I saw the Psychopomp on the table and knew its history. The Psychopath Purges of 2050 from humanity world-wide promised to fix the urge for dominance that had all but destroyed the Earth as we knew it.
The evening before the test, a neighbor came over to report a missing cat. I told them I had never seen it. I was believable.
The day of the test, the Psychopomp determined I was incurable and would be destroyed. My parents wailed and gnashed their teeth. The agency police escorted me out of the house.
I felt no fear of death.
Ms. Fischer walked me to her car, her eyeglasses in her hand. She didn’t look at me.
“I lied to your parents. Do you want us to fix you? We can now. You can be as ordinary as anyone else. All of your cognitive gifts would be gone as well.”
“No.” I replied.
“Good. We don’t want to either. You’ll work for us. Controlling the world is tireless work. We need someone like you who is willing to do anything…”
Psychopomp © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved