Archive for November, 2011

A few days late on my holiday tale, but here it is and featuring (of course) Doctor Holiday…

Pilgrim’s Progress

Beautiful and brown, plump and glistening, fragrant and juicy—the turkey sat steaming on the dingy table that dominated what little open space the kitchen of the apartment offered. Two adults and five children were tightly arrayed around it, each with their plates, half of them cracked or chipped. Each with their utensils, few of which matched. Each with their concerns at the man looming over their table with a two-tined fork and a dull butcher knife at the ready—a wanderer with a reputation as terrible as it was heroic.

A man whose face hid behind brown cloth bandages but whose chest declared his identity all too well, with the electronic screen he wore over his torso, with images of turkeys and Pilgrims and Native Americans and dancing letters that spelled out “Happy Thanksgiving” over and over again.

He’d insisted they all gather together at the table, even though any other Thanksgiving Day—or most meals they shared, for that matter—would have had some of them seated in the living room eating at the coffee table just to allow for more comfort. They were, after all, a family of seven in a two-bedroom apartment. But Doctor Holiday had said, with firm insistence, that family was important, and togetherness was the key to making it through.

The matriarch of this tightly knit clan, Rosie, couldn’t shake the feeling that they were gathered for a convenient slaughter, though so far all the transhuman had done was come bearing an uncooked turkey and an electric roasting pan, and then began preparing it, urging her to put away the deli-style turkey breast she had planned to heat up and offering her occasional advice about the sweet potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese and gravy that she was cooking—once the turkey was well enough along for the rest of the preparations to commence.

Her husband, Marty, had already devised in his head twice a dozen ways to attempt—and likely fail—to subdue or kill Doctor Holiday, or at least give his children and wife time to flee. And yet the most threatening thing the man had done thus far was pick up an old butcher knife that was going to be hard-pressed to cut the delicious-looking turkey and was more likely to simply yank off hunks of it.

The children ranged from blasé to nervous, though most of them had, after hours of Doctor Holiday telling stories, singing and joking with them, become used to him, like some years-unseen uncle come to visit. Blanca had already drawn the transhuman two pictures—one of a turkey in a field and one of Pilgrims and Natives cooking together—and Can had showed off his small but treasured collection of action figures at least three times. Only 14-year-old Gracie still maintained a mostly wary demeanor—and seemed to have her eyes on the door to their abode as often as she did the drawer where the steak knives lay.

Doctor Holiday began to cut the meat, and the knife slid through it with scalpel-like precision, thin and perfect slices falling into a quickly growing pile. Rosie wondered if the transhuman were using some kind of telekinesis, and couldn’t help but worry for a moment what such a power might look like flaying her children in front of her eyes. Marty considered the possibility that Doctor Holiday might have some metal-manipulation powers that had sharpened the knife, and his fears for their children’s flesh were much the same as his wife’s—fleeting but vivid.

But no blood was shed by this frightening man who had made an unannounced pilgrimage to their tiny home. Just the juices of the turkey dripping into the platter on which it sat. Doctor Holiday made a plate for each of them, and finally one for himself—the smallest helping of all—and sat cross-legged on the floor. It was a wholly ludicrous sight for a man of such imposing physique and dangerous reputation to be holding a small plate in his lap and sitting like a Kindergartner next to their table, but it largely broke the remaining tension. Only for Marty did the imagery make him a bit more anxious, fearing that it was some trick or that it would be the innocent harbinger to Doctor Holiday losing his shit and slaughtering them.

Still, he thought, it made things nicer to see his family finally at ease. Someone had to keep watch, though.

After several minutes, Doctor Holiday cleared his throat, and began to speak solemnly.

“You know, Thanksgiving has gotten a bad rap in recent years,” he said. “So many people focus on the bloodshed and destruction of the Indians, and make people feel guilty for celebrating this day, but that wasn’t how it started. It’s not what Thanksgiving is really about.”

He paused to put a spoonful of sugary, buttery sweet potato in his mouth and chewed contemplatively. For a moment, Gracie considered correcting him about his use of the term “Indian” but shut her mouth almost as soon as it had opened, thinking better of it.

“The native people weren’t persecuted at first,” he continued. “Oh, I’m not saying the Pilgrims were saints or that they didn’t do some bad things probably, but they were a small group fleeing to a new land. There was plenty of room for them. It’s when others followed and land needed to be stolen from the Native Americans who had occupied it for so long that the true evil came out.”

“We shouldn’t white-wash the past, but I think we should all remember not to make demons of all the white people and angels of all the red-skinned ones,” Doctor Holiday said. “The brown and tan ones shouldn’t be pigeonholed, either. We all have evil and good in us. Sometimes at the same time.”

You would know, wouldn’t you? Marty thought, and then wondered if he should pity, hate or fear the man in his small home. Perhaps all three.

“Look at your parents,” Doctor Holiday said, pointing to each in turn with his fork, one of its tines bent. “There are some who would call them leeches. Or make them out to be the bad guys because they’re on public assistance. It doesn’t matter that they both want jobs and are willing to work. They are seen as the enemy. There are liberals, too, who would call your dad evil for taking a hand or a belt to some of your asses, even though we all know you’ve deserved most of those whacks—though, I’m sure,  there are times his frustrations in life made him go too far.”

Marty swallowed hard, and wasn’t certain if it was a little bit of shame for those times he’d been a bit rough or if it was fear that Doctor Holiday was here to exact some overblown punishment on a father who sometimes spanked his children or smacked them on the back of their skulls with the heel of his palm.

“And you’ve all done bad things, haven’t you?” Doctor Holiday said. “But you’re mostly good people. I wish I could say the same of myself. I wish I could say the same of a lot of people I visit on the holidays.”

The transhuman cleared his plate and brought it to the sink, he rinsed it off, set it aside, and reached into a pocket, pulling out a huge roll of money. He placed it into Rosie’s hand.

“You have bills to pay, and Christmas is coming,” he said. “I think you know which comes first, but this will cover both for a while. Be thankful for your family, and be hopeful for work to carry you forward when that roll is long gone. Thanks for having me as your guest. But I have to go now. You can keep the roasting pan. I won’t need it. I doubt I’ll be having a personality suited for cooking when I’m wandering into someone’s life for Hanukkah or Christmas or whatever.”

He paused, and looked around as his hand hovered above their doorknob. “You know, I’ve punished people in houses that two dozen or more of these apartments would fit in who didn’t deserve to live in such splendor, much less own something so big,” his voice taking a sharp edge. “I’ve helped people with less than you have who deserve the sun and the moon.”

Rosie shivered and Marty tensed, but no attack came.

“Just be thankful and remember that you love each other. You won’t always be together. You won’t always all be alive. Enjoy and appreciate family, as it grows and when it doesn’t.”

He left them then, and Rosie looked at the roll of money for a long time, wondering where it had come from, before she handed it to Marty and gently urged the kids to eat before the food got cold.

* * *

Doctor Holiday opened the door of a larger apartment  in a neighboring building to check on the person he had visited earlier in the day—what had been the third stop on his pilgrimage.

The man was still dead, but that was to be expected. Entirely too much blood was pooled on the floor and splattering the walls, and Doctor Holiday sighed with regret.

The man was a dealer of death—meth, crack, heroin and skeez—but had he entered that business out of a callous disregard for human life and dignity or had it been what he thought was his only choice? Did he have children or parents he was helping to support, or was he a greedy bastard with no desire to do something positive with his life?

Too late to know now. Doctor Holiday would only retain his awareness for a little over another five hours, and he had no interest in wasting time finding out what he likely couldn’t learn even if he had five days. The man was dead, and there was nothing to be done about it. At least his money had gone to a good place.

Still, I was too harsh when I killed him. I should have made it quick with a snapped neck. No need to rip out his tongue and tear off a few body parts and let him bleed out.

After that, he slipped into a local department store—closed for the holiday—that had supplied him with the roasting pan, and he left some money and a note in the manager’s office to make up for that theft. He did the same at the grocery store where he had illicitly acquired the turkey.

He looked around at the neighborhood—one of the poorer and more desperate ones in New Judah—and sighed heavily, rubbing at his rumbling belly. He really hadn’t eaten much, but he hadn’t wanted to sour the rest of the holiday for Rosie and Marty and their kids with his lingering presence.

So he wandered, certain that another opportunity for him to be thankful would arise.

Perhaps I’ll even run into someone like Query or Mad Dash or Solstice and have the dinner companionship of some transhuman peers.

He walked for an hour or more, until he emerged into a better neighborhood and saw the Caped Cuisiner restaurant across the street. It was open today, as it was every day of the year, 24 hours a day, with its mix of plainly clad patrons and costumed ones.

How many of those in costume were actually transhuman? he wondered, and then spied no less than three Doctor Holidays inside, two of them eating together and the other one at the counter.

Thankful indeed. I know which of us is the real one, but it will still be nice to have some turkey and gravy and fixings with people I can blend in with, even if two of them are several inches too short to pass for me and one of them is potbellied.

He stepped inside to enjoy Thanksgiving with three of himself, and to have, for once, the conversations with himself outside his own head.

_____________________________

Image of Doctor Holiday adapted from a drawing of the Unknown Soldier; character copyright DC Comics.

There are many differences between good writers and great writers, and I think that one of the things that can really make the difference is this: Great writers are often willing to be murderers.

This is something I’m trying to keep in mind lately, and to which I am trying to reconcile myself. Not that I’m a great writer, mind you…or maybe I am and the world just doesn’t know it (if I can paraphrase the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:12, “I’m not saying I’ve attained the goal, but I’m sure working hard to strive for reaching it”). In any case, I’m not full of myself and declaring myself a full evolved fiction writer…but I see myself achieving now an important step along the path.

Oh, you’re still stuck on the “great writers need to be murderers” thing?

That’s probably for the best. It was my main point, after all, and I should get back to it.

If I want to be a great writer, there is a good chance I’m going to have to become a stone-cold killer.

Well, maybe not “stone-cold,” since there’s a good chance I’ll feel remorse. But I’m going to have to kill, I think. I don’t mean someone who deserves it, either. I mean that I am going to have to take the life of an innocent, or at the very least a good person who doesn’t deserve me snatching away his or her life.

The fact that the first of my victims…and those who may follow and mark my bloody path…will be fictional doesn’t really spare me from pain and guilt.

It may not seem like much to many of you that I will likely kill in my stories. Hell, I already have, many times. But what I’m talking about is looking a character in the eye with whom I have a strong connection, and likely readers do as well, and telling that person that he or she is done for.

But this isn’t an easy thing. Chances are, if I have a character in a novel or long-running serial whom I have spent time developing, I probably like that character, regardless of his or her moral compass. I might even love that character. And because I created that individual with love, there are probably readers who will have an investment in the character as well.

Still, I’ll have to kill some of these people. I will have to force myself not to save them when their times come. I will have to resist the urge to bring them back to life (unless it serves a specific plotline to do so, and how many plotlines of mine are realistically going to hinge on rising from the dead?). I will have to endure what might be a backlash from my own readers, whom I also love.

This is a hard thing.

But I’ve seen in novels and movies that the best writers do, from time to time, take a beloved character who deserves a happy ending…and they kill him or her. It’s happened more than once in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin, on which the cable series “Game of Thrones” is based. I saw anguished posting by people on Twitter when that series aired this past season and a noble character who had quickly grown on viewers got axed early, just like in the novels. I saw it in the movie “Serenity,” that sort of closed the Joss Whedon television series “Firefly” (which was cancelled way too early) and involved the death of a character I don’t think anyone would have expected…or wanted…to perish.

I know. All this drama, and I haven’t even done it yet. But in the on-hiatus novel-writing project I have over at my Holy Sh!+ blog and the stuff here, which will continue even after “The Gathering Storm” reaches its conclusion, there are characters I love who are going to die. Some I don’t know yet are going to die, and it will come as a shock to me first, and perhaps to you later. For other characters, some of them in my ongoing “Cleansed By Fire” novel and at least one here in the world of the Whethermen, I know that death is approaching.

But I have to be willing to kill. If I want my stories to matter and if I want my worlds to have meaning, not all characters’ stories can have happy endings. And for that I apologize, in advance.

To them and to you.

(This is one part of a kind of thematic dual-post. For the “other part,” click here and visit my Holy Sh!+ from Deacon Blue blog)

On Guard

Posted: November 12, 2011 in Single-run ("One off") Stories
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He studied the man in the mirror and found him wanting.

Pathetic. Clueless. Lost.

A situation made all the more poignant by the fact the man in the mirror was himself.

Oscar “Ozzie” Banner pursed his lips, squared his shoulders and then adjusted his dark tie. He tucked in the loose portion of his light blue polyester shirt into the front of his pants. Then straightened his navy blue coat and rubbed out a slight smudge on his badge.

Another day of serving and protecting the hundreds and sometimes thousands of people who passed through his jurisdiction.

Another pointless, soul-crushing day that might very well be his last.

Especially if the executive director of the museum laid off any more “old timers” like himself in favor of those damned transhumans.

* * *

“It’s not fair; it just isn’t,” Ozzie muttered at lunch in the underground food court of the New Judah Museum of Anthropological and Contemporary Art—whatever else he might hate about the place, at least he had a choice of four different cuisines on those days he decided not to bring his own.

“Fair? It isn’t even legal,” responded Angie LaCrosse, who was the next-oldest security guard after Ozzie and similarly stuck in a low-ranking role while most of the guards who’d been serving half as long or less had progressed to mid-level or supervisory roles. “It’s discrimination. They aren’t supposed to hire on the basis of genetics, but look—nearly half of the guards here are transhumans, and transhumans are maybe one out of ten folks of the population, right?”

Speaking through a mouth full of spicy felafel—the doctor had told him to lay off the meat and eggs a couple years ago and he mostly listened—Ozzie corrected her. “A little over half of the guards are transhuman now. But what the hell can we do? Management will just say they’re hiring based on qualifications. They’ve been thinning the ranks of us norms by firing us over bullcrap, and they hardly ever write up any of the damn mutant shits unless they’re being insubordinate or something.”

“Should have moved to bank security or even mall security before the economy tanked,” came Angie’s rueful reply. “Or for that matter, when we first saw they were favoring transhumans and before all the other people who got laid off from museums and jewelry stores starting snatching up those other security gigs.”

“What’s the point?” Ozzie said. “You think the banks or malls are gonna be any safer for job security?”

“Yeah,” Angie said. “I do. We have precious art here at MACA that can be sold on the global market for millions in some cases, even without the really old, famous pieces of European art like the Institute of Art has. Banks deal with money and can always make better vaults or automated systems the keep the amount of cash that’s in the open low, and it’s cheaper than loading up on trans guards. Our shit has to be in the open and accessible to the public. Jewelry stores have a similar problem as us—they need to display their stuff. Malls aren’t attractive enough for a transhuman to commit a crime—not enough payoff, too many people all around, yada-yada.”

“Well, too late even if you’re right. We’re getting old and since they were willing to take pay cuts in so many cases to get work, the best norm security folks are already in the banks and malls—or the warehouses for that matter. No chance for old-timers like you and me. We’ll be lucky if we can get jobs cleaning up the city parks.”

“We just gotta work harder to make sure we don’t get cut,” Angie noted. “They have to keep enough norms around to keep the equal opportunity employment folks off their necks. I know we’re going nowhere salary-wise here, but we are still here. I know the trans folks kinda talk shit about us and aren’t all that friendly to us norms, but at least we have jobs. We just need to not lose ’em.”

“Maybe we’ll be able to catch a shift together and foil some dangerous transhuman together like Kev did a few months ago,” Ozzie said, ending his words with a sigh. “Certainly did wonders for him at review time.”

“Yeah, keep living in Fantasy Land, Ozzie,” she snorted.

* * *

Their conversation in the food court some seven weeks earlier was still fresh enough in his mind that Ozzie felt positively prescient now.

Normal protocol was to see if an intruder could be contained within eight minutes from the point they were identified by visual or electronic means. If not, someone called the police, whose response time was between three and five minutes. The idea was that, ideally, the museum’s security detail could apprehend the intruder with little or no damage to the museum’s exhibits.

It made sense. The museum gave them plenty of training average security guards didn’t receive, and they knew the facility better than the police did. But at the same time, they couldn’t expect to handle every bit of trouble on their own.

So, there was a 10- to 12-minute window. Normally.

They were almost eight minutes into that window, and no one would be calling the police, as all the electronic systems had been compromised—the computers that controlled the cameras, motion detectors and even the museum’s telephone system—were all stubbornly refusing to heed Ozzie, Angie or Kevin—or the other two members of the night shift.

Our intruder is a Cyber at the very least, and a good one, Ozzie fretted as he and Angie moved through the semi-darkened halls of the museum, heading toward the intruder’s last-known position. On the bright side, we still have our radios to communicate with each other.

The intruder had been smart enough to direct the museum’s computer system to generate a ton of interference on cellphone bands, so the guards couldn’t call the police from their smart phones, but the museum still used the more old-style two-way radios for communications within the facility.

The intruder either didn’t know that, or didn’t know what frequencies to disrupt for those—or how to disrupt them.

As soon as the five members of the security detail on duty had realized that, someone had suggested going outside to get out of the interference zone and call the cops, but Kevin had nixed that idea. He was a junior supervisor and without a security head around, he was in charge.

His rationale was that there were only five of them on duty. Two people would need to be in place to intercept the intruder if he or she tried to head to either the front or back entrances, and being outside would be the poorest vantage point from which to watch out for such an escape.

That leaves three of us, Ozzie considered, and Kev insisted that me and Angie need to try to flush the intruder out and take him down—or her—while he coordinates us and stays in a central spot to watch in case the perp slips past us.

There was a little thrill in the notion of him and Angie being on their own and not having the police barge in, but it was a gamble. If it paid off, they’d all look good. Kevin would come out smelling the sweetest if this worked, because he was running the show. But, Ozzie realized, he and Angie would reap some huge rewards, too, for being the ones to actually capture a transhuman perp.

That would be something, Ozzie thought. Kev is transhuman, with Charm and Sensor powers. One of the guys watching for an escape attempt is a strong Reflector and weak Attractor. Me and Angie are just two norms who can prove we still have what it takes.

* * *

As Kevin had guessed—possibly aided by his Charm powers but certainly armed as well with a thorough knowledge of the value of their current exhibits—the perp’s target was the visiting collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. The exhibit was exclusive to MACA, and Ozzie half-suspected that the director of the museum had brought along a transhuman with some Psi or Primal powers for the negotiations with the Egyptians—it wasn’t like them to let previously undisplayed treasures like this out of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The guy was working fast to collect artifacts. He probably figured all the security people were flying blind right now but he didn’t want to waste time. So, Ozzie and Angie managed to sneak into a good position. If both of them took aim with their taser guns, at least one of them should nail him and take him down, Ozzie figured, and he made a couple quick hand motions to indicate that to Angie.

She nodded, but then a strange look crossed her face. For a split-second, she looked confused—perhaps even a little panicked. Then, suddenly, she was vaulting from behind their cover, drawing full attention to herself as she charged the transhuman thief.

Two things happened at once, only one of which surprised Ozzie.

The thief pulled out a gun with frightening speed, confirming Ozzie’s assumption that, thanks to Murphy’s Law, the guy would probably have something more than just Cyber powers. He was probably some kind of Speedster or Agile—maybe a little of both.

The second thing was that even as he realized he should provide Angie with covering fire from his 9mm pistol or take a shot with the taser, Ozzie did nothing at all. He knew he needed to—in fact, he wanted to—but as much as his higher brain functions screamed to act, something more basic and primal held him back.

There was the dull, harsh sound of the thief’s pistol popping off a single round that caught Angie perfectly just above her sternum at the base of the throat—just above the edge of the protection her vest would have provided from a shot by any other random gun-wielding jackass. The bullet came out from between her shoulder blades with a splash of crimson.

Then, just as suddenly as Angie had freaked, Ozzie had frozen and the thief had fired, Kevin appeared from the shadows and fired off one shot from his taser pistol. The perp went rigid, shook, and dropped to the ground.

At the same time, Ozzie felt the awful compulsion for inaction leave him, and rushed to Angie’s side.

* * *

The feeling of success and triumph had a bitter aftertaste for Kevin Lewis. Angie was in critical condition and on her way to the hospital. That shouldn’t have happened. Advancing his reputation so he could nail a more senior spot in MACA’s security department wasn’t supposed to have come at such a high cost.

Still, how could I have known the bastard would have such unnatural shooting skills? He knew they had vests and aimed his shot to avoid the body armor, Kevin considered. A headshot would have been easier, but maybe the intention had been to possibly avoid murdering a guard—or maybe he was just a show-off.

In any case, it meant Angie might die. All Kevin had wanted was to distract the perp and discredit Ozzie and possibly Angie, so he could save the day. Easy enough with the Primal powers he kept secret—his ability to affect fight-or-flight instincts. The plan had been simple: Send Angie into an unreasoning urge to attack the perp and make Ozzie look like a coward—or at least indecisive—by keeping him from intervening.

Controlling two people like that is hard enough; there was no way I could have made the perp cower too, though it would have made it easier and safer for me if I had. There’s nothing more I could have done, and by not being able to affect the perp that put me at risk, too, right? So it’s not like I wasn’t in harm’s way, too.

It was going to suck if Angie died or ended up with some spinal injury, but the small comfort that it couldn’t be traced to him gave Kevin some measure of mental and emotional balance.

Until Ozzie had caught his eyes.

And Kevin saw.

Saw the calculation and consideration in the older security guard’s eyes. Ozzie must have been trying to figure out why Angie would rush the perp, and why he couldn’t bring himself to back her up. He’d realized that it likely wouldn’t have been the thief, because the thief wouldn’t have known they were there.

And if he had, why would he incite rage in one of his opponents?

Ozzie knew.

Suspected, at least.

There’s a good chance no one would believe him even if he shares his theory, Kevin considered. On the other hand, someone might listen rather than think he was just trying to cover his own ass with some lame excuse about being mentally influenced by a transhuman co-worker.

Kevin groaned inwardly, not having expected Ozzie to figure things out and realize an outside influence was at work. He’d underestimated the man’s intelligence.

So while the police were questioning Ozzie, Kevin made his way over to MACA’s security director, who had arrived minutes earlier to assess the situation and deal with the police. Kevin told him that Ozzie’s freeze-up was a matter of serious concern and that maybe his weekend shifts should be cancelled and the man suspended from duty until the top brass at MACA could talk on Monday during normal business hours and sort out what to do—then bring Ozzie back early or mid-week to discuss his fate as an employee of the museum.

The director agreed—it wasn’t as if he wanted to lose his weekend dealing with any more shit—and Kevin could now sigh inwardly with relief instead of silently groaning.

Time. What I need is time. And now I have it.

* * *

Ozzie had benefited and suffered from the past day or so. Suffered because he was on suspension and in limbo, with no idea what was going to happen. On the other hand, he’d had time to sort things out, and no matter how hard he tried, nothing made sense except that Kev had been behind things somehow. He probably hadn’t orchestrated the theft, but he’d planned to be crowned the hero for thwarting it, and now Ozzie wondered if the man’s thwarting of that other transhuman months earlier had also been rigged to make him look better—after all, his partner that night had reportedly hesitated when things got hot and heavy.

At least in that case, the guard who was with Kev didn’t end up getting hurt or being made to look all bad, Ozzie fumed. But then again, all he’d needed to do then was use his powers to make the perp hesitate. He must want Angie or me or both of us off the staff. Get rid of the senior folks who might get in the way of his aspirations later.

Ozzie couldn’t imagine for the life of him what kind of problems he or Angie would have caused Kevin, who was already ahead of them on the career track, but people who cheat and steal weren’t any smarter than the average person—and sometimes stupider—so it was probably just ignorance and paranoia at work, he assumed.

Unfortunately, he noted mentally, Kevin’s misguided plans might cost Angie her life, and Ozzie his job.

But I’m going to let everyone know what I suspect. Even if I lose my job, I’ll make sure Kev is undermined if not fired himself.

Sighing, Ozzie came to a halt at the street corner, and pushed the crosswalk button, wishing he were at the diner already enjoying a fried pork chop—fuck “doctor’s orders.” He could do nothing until Monday at the earliest, and maybe Tuesday or Wednesday. He looked up at the half-cloudy skies and tried to find symbolic hope up there that the weather could turn either way with regard to his job—he wasn’t doomed yet.

And then he surged forward into the street.

For a split-second, Ozzie had the confused sensation that he had to run from some threat—with no apparent threat anywhere—and then there was just his life slamming into a wall that scattered all coherent thought to the four winds.

Later, he’d discover that it was actually a Hyundai slamming into him and his body tumbling end over end across the windshield, then the roof, then the trunk. Finally, the asphalt of the street and blackness in his head darker than the street itself.

* * *

“Man, you look like shit,” Kevin said, tying a “Get Well” balloon to one of the chairs in the hospital room. “But I hear that you’re doing pretty well, the broken hip and a few bruises aside. Angie’s doing good now. Probably need to take an early retirement package, though—maybe some light disability benefits. Some minor voice damage and some neurological thing in her right arm—a tingle or weakness or something. Sorry to hear about your suspension, by the way.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you are,” Ozzie grumbled. “I’ll be back to work soon, though. Don’t you worry.”

“I don’t know, man,” Kevin responded. “You might just want to take a severance package and take your chances out in the work-hunting world.”

“Why do you think that?” Ozzie said, smirking.

“Because if you don’t take that route, your guilt over freezing up at the museum may cause you to walk out in front of a speeding bus next time instead of a little car.”

Ozzie’s self-satisfied smile vanished. Kevin remained silent, looking hard at the man in the hospital bed.

To be honest, I don’t know if I could do that, Kevin considered, since it was hard enough to bring myself to put you in front of a relatively slow-moving car. Then again, it’s a shitty job market and if it comes down to you or my wife and kids…

“You made me cross…in front…” Ozzie muttered. “Oh, God.”

“Nothing personal, but you’re a stubborn old dude…”

“You,” Ozzie began, his voice gaining force. “You nig—”

“Hey!” Kevin cut him off, one finger pointed at him like the barrel of the gun that had taken down Angie. “Don’t make this a racial thing. Don’t. Once upon a time, in your dad’s time and your grand-dad’s, it was white privilege. Now it ain’t about skin color as much. It’s about something more real and meaningful: genes. My genes are better than your genes. You’re old and you’re not trans. That’s a combo that makes you obsolete.”

“You’re just gonna fuck me over?”

“Look, life is hard. Sorry that you get to be the coward in this story, but you do. Look on the bright side. Angie may look like she made a rash move, but she still gets credit for helping to take down the perp, so they’ll treat her right as they push her out. Plus, her injury was work-related, so worker’s comp’s got her hospital bills covered. She’ll come out right as rain in the end.”

“And because I look suicidal or stupid, I get to pay out of pocket, and I end up fired. Sweet, Kev. That’s real nice of you.”

Kevin looked away and frowned—almost seemed to wince. Then looked Ozzie in the eyes again and shrugged.

“Ozzie, it’s a rough world out there, and we gotta look out for ourselves and our families,” Kevin said as he walked toward the door and turned his back on the older man. “It’s evolution, and you’re on the losing side.”

At the door, Kevin paused and looked back at Ozzie one last time. “Survival of the fittest, man. Survival of the fittest.”

All Hollows

Posted: November 1, 2011 in Single-run ("One off") Stories
Tags:

Bugs me that I’m getting this Halloween-themed tale up more than a day-and-half later than I intended, but oh well…
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All Hollows

Clarity.

Or something like it.

He had no idea when last he had felt that sensation filling his mind, but it had been a long time, certainly. Since the time before he lost his self and came to wander the United States as a man divided. A transhuman fractured. A shell filled with demons and angels; gentlemen and scoundrels.

Still, despite a sense of clarity, he didn’t know his name.

Oh, he knew the name others had given him, and it was all he had to hold to for a consistent identity.

Doctor Holiday.

So this clarity he felt now wasn’t knowledge. His old self had not been unearthed. But there was a peace inside him—a calm that he had probably only known before emerging as Doctor Holiday. He knew that many different “selves” lived in this brain, not a one of them so far the personality that had existed before Doctor Holiday was created by…

…by…

…them…

…government men. Real doctors—physicians and scientists.

He felt a surge of anger. A rush of betrayal. There was, inside him, a feeling that payback was due. But in his current personality, revenge wasn’t his goal. He wanted understanding. He had awoken with no other purpose than wondering who he was and seeking answers.

Taking stock of his surroundings, he realized he was in the back of a semi trailer—though there was no movement or bumping to suggest the vehicle was in motion. The digital display he usually carried—that covered his chest and announced the latest holiday that had awoken him—was several feet away. Image of ghosts, witches, monsters and candy scrolled across the display, along with the words Halloween is Here! and Happy All Hallows Eve!

He lifted his fingers to his face, and realized with a shock that the strips of cloth bandages that normally hid his visage were gone. He turned around completely, and saw them lying in a pile just behind him.

This realization was as startling as the silence in his mind. Normally, he knew, a personality awoke in full control of the body with some set of transhuman powers, but it was never alone inside its head. The others always whispered in the background. They were a multitude that made their presence quietly known, even if they had no influence. But they were all silent now.

He could sense the hundreds of places in this shared mind where they lived, but those other selves were purposely quiet or they slumbered. For all intents and purposes, those mental cells were empty.

So many hollow places, on All Hallows Eve.

* * *

Exiting the semi trailer nearly an hour ago hadn’t given him any more understanding of where he was or even who he was supposed to be right now. It was in an empty lot, with no cab attached to it. No corporate markings. No Department of Transportation number. No license plates. Nothing but what he had left there—all the normal trappings of Doctor Holiday.

His first instinct was that he needed to find a mirror.

With his face revealed, and no inhibition in place about looking upon it, he could gain his first clue to whom he had been before he became Doctor Holiday. It took a while, but he found a large gas station with an attached greasy spoon-style diner. No one gave him a second glance. Just another guy in jeans, long sleeve cotton shirt, and hiking boots.

With as casual a gait as he could manage, he headed for the bathroom.

There was a face in the mirrored glass before him, but no revelation about his name. He continued to stare, though, into his own eyes. Brown, like the little werewolf scampering across the digital chest display at one point when he was still in the trailer.

Display.

The display reminded him…of…that…

He could see himself—his hands, at least—in his mind. Working. Fiddling. Tinkering with circuits and wires. The display. He had built it himself. Not in the lab where Doctor Holiday was born but later, after his escape. Later, before his full awareness began to emerge only on holidays. There was a brief, shining time when he had been almost his original self. When he must have sensed what was coming. When he prepared by making and programming the chest display.

He probably hadn’t known his name then, either. He wondered, though, given that he was skilled and intelligent, whether he had guessed back then someone in the news media might think of the holiday connection to his appearances and think of the “Doc Holliday” of the Old West legends and combine the two in his unsolicited transhuman name. Probably not, as there was nothing of the digital display nor the wrappings that normally covered his face that hinted at Western history or folklore.

But now he realized that he had skills beyond the transhuman powers. He must have been an engineer, or programmer—perhaps a scientist of some sort.

There was no name to go with that memory, just as there was no name to go with his first view of his own face unbandaged. Such a plain face. A short mustache and beard. Brown to match his eyes, but with gray streaks here and there. Short hair, just a little curly, of a similar hue. A square jaw and broad forehead. Narrow lips. An everyman.

But in that memory of making the digital display, coming upon him anew, another image.

Of etching a number and a name inside the casing of the device.

His damaged mind had given him moments of clarity today, and freedom to explore himself.

On this day of Halloween, when so many people donned masks, he was finally unmasked.

To remain inconspicuous, he forced himself to go out and order some food, paying with the cash in his pocket from who-knew-where. He had eaten as quickly as he could without looking panicky or suspicious, and then he had walked briskly out of the diner. When he thought he was fully out of sight of any onlookers, he broke into a full run toward where the cargo trailer sat, wishing he had Speedster powers and enhanced stamina in this incarnation of Doctor Holiday.

* * *

He had gotten back to the trailer thoroughly winded, dehydrated and almost ready to vomit, wondering how he was going to open the casing of the digital display, and then feeling around in his pockets. In one of them was a Swiss army knife, with two different screwdriver tools.

At least I won’t have to give myself a heart attack running at full speed in circles trying to find a hardware store, he thought as he went to work.

When he got it open, he tipped it to where his memories said the etched characters were.

A name with a number. But not his name.

1031 Autumn Road.

An address.

A clue perhaps to why the many facets of his mind had unilaterally agreed that none of them would be let out except during a holiday.

Because it was beginning to look like he had lived on a street practically named after one—or knew someone who lived there.

He was going to visit 1031 Autumn Road on October 31—Happy Goddamn Halloween.

Doctor Holiday hoped like hell it was in a town nearby, because he figured chances were slim the legion of personalities that made up his mind were going to give him more than this one day of freedom to investigate who he was.

Those many hollow, quiet places would fill up again, and the voices would shout him down to silence and inaction.

Until the next holiday and the next personality and next set of powers.

* * *

He sprinted back to the gas station and diner in the hopes it would still be old-fashioned enough to have a phone booth outside with a phone book in it.

It wasn’t.

However, once he had bought some water and drank it down to keep from passing out, he did find a small bank of pay phones for the truckers who came through, probably—those who didn’t have cell phones or didn’t have national calling plans for them or perhaps who had let their batteries run down.

Or for the occasional oddball tourist who still used one.

Or the wayward transhuman from time to time, trying to figure out who he was.

Flipping through one of the phone books there, chained to a kiosk, the unmasked Doctor Holiday discovered that he wasn’t in the middle of nowhere as the landscape had thus far suggested—just on the ass end of a modest-sized city near a major interstate highway.

A quick call to 411 let him know there was an Autumn Road in that city. Based on the address of the random business on that street that the operator had given him, it was likely that the address 1031 existed somewhere along its length.

He picked up the phone again and called himself a cab.

* * *

Per his request, the taxi driver dropped him off at the very same business that had given him his reference-point address on Autumn Road after the 411 call. Doctor Holiday put on the sunglasses and hat he had purchased at the gas station while awaiting the cab, and looked around. Autumn road was a mix of commercial and residential structures, though mostly residential along this stretch. The business he was in front of was an accounting and law office. Nearby was a small convenience store and across the street a second-hand shop and an insurance agent. Everything else that he noticed for two blocks was apartment buildings, a couple small condo complexes and a half-dozen or so single-family homes.

As he moved cautiously but not too slowly, Doctor Holiday went to the side of the street with the even-numbered addresses, walked a bit, and discovered that 1031 was one of those single-family homes.

House.

Home.

Not just any home. Even from across the streets and several doors down, he could feel the emotional warmth of it. This had been his home. Whether childhood home long ago or as an adult more recently, he couldn’t be certain. But there were memories in his head of children. Of a kind woman who was their mother. His wife and their children? His own mother and his sibling? Something else? There were no distinct faces he could attach to these memories any more than he could attach names—but he felt them.

There were no obvious signs that the house was being observed, but he remained leery. He might not remember who he was, or even the facility where his powers emerged, but he had access to every memory of every emergence of a Doctor Holiday personality. He remembered this body fleeing a secret government facility with the use of Speedster powers—a wild retreat so confused and panicky that he had no idea where he was running nor remembrance of the location he had fled. He remembered that it was a little over nine years ago, on Independence Day 2001, and that this was Halloween 2010 today.

Given how powerful he was as Doctor Holiday, regardless of what personality was in control, he imagined the government forces behind his creation would like him back. After nine years, they might not be watching his home as closely, but chances were they would keep tabs on it somehow, just in case some memory led him back here.

He wasn’t sure what he might do when he got to the front door, but that was his destination, once he was sure none of the cars on the street were occupied by potential government agents. Hands in his coat pockets, head lowered slightly, he proceeded to the front door.

The name on the mailbox was “Jansen.” It did not feel familiar to him. The small front lawn was recently mowed and raked, with only a scattering of fall leaves upon it. The planters outside the front windows were empty of any life—just soil in them. The curtains were closed at every window. No decorations for Halloween or even fall-themed ones. There were a couple hooks in the porch roof above the front deck, but nothing hanging from them. No wind chimes. No decorations.

No welcome mat. No decoration hanging from the nail in the front door, just above the old brass knocker.

A nervous flutter in his belly. A quick, panicky feeling of compression in his chest. And then he pressed the doorbell button.

The buzzing noise echoed back to him. He waited, and no one came to answer it. He pressed it again. Same result.

He made his way around the back of the house, and let himself into the tiny backyard through a chain-link fence gate. No lock; just a little metal latch. The leaves were thicker here, but still probably recently raked. There was no barbecue there—neither a hibachi nor a small Coleman grill nor a larger gas grill. No bikes. No sign of anyone using it or kids playing in the area. As with the window planters in front, a small garden existed back here, but nothing was growing there now but a few weak-looking weeds.

He looked at the back door. He didn’t want to bust the door in or break a window, even though he figured he could do it without attracting attention. Ideally, if the people who created him weren’t watching the house right now, he wanted to get in and out without leaving any sign of his presence.

Besides, I don’t even know what powers I have in this incarnation, he thought, or whether they’ll protect me well. So often, until they are needed, the mind won’t reveal them to the personality in charge.

He paused. Turned. Strode away from the back door and to the tiny, empty garden plot in one corner. He lifted up one of the bricks bordering it, and found a plastic film-wrapped key. He replaced the brick, unwrapped the key and stuffed the plastic wrap in one pocket.

This will never work. The locks will have been changed, by the government or the new owner.

He put the key into the deadbolt lock on the back door and turned it. It resisted for just long enough to give him a panicked paralytic feeling in his chest. Then a click. A door opened thanks to a random memory and an unchanged lock.

Nine years is a long enough time for a lock to be unchanged, but within believability, he thought. This wasn’t my childhood home. It was mine. There is probably no way a key would remain and a lock there to fit it from a place going back to my childhood. I’m at least 35 from what I see in the mirror, and perhaps in my mid-40s. The children and woman I feel in my few memories of this place were mine.

The question that haunted him, though, was whether they still lived here. And if they did, why did the name Jansen feel so unfamiliar? His wife’s maiden name, perhaps? Or was there a new man in her life? A new marriage?

Nine years is a long time, he reminded himself.

Entering the house, the feelings of familiarity and warmth he had sensed from outside wavered and threatened to vanish entirely. There was a wrongness here. He wandered for several minutes through the rooms wondering why it felt so wrong. It was more than just changes. It was more than just the fact things obviously were not exactly what they had been nine years ago—that was something he would have expected.

The problem was that so many things were the same.

He could feel it. Even without names in his mind to attach the wife and children of his past, and even without foreknowledge of how his home had once been decorated, he could feel that this place was preserved. It was the household equivalent of a fly caught in amber.

There were only three places that feeling didn’t reign. The kitchen had been used. It hadn’t changed much, but it had been used recently and semi-regularly. The living room seemed sterile and little-used, though, as did most of the bedrooms. The main bathroom had new toiletries and was clearly being used by someone. The dining room had likely not seen guests in years, though. One bedroom had slightly rumpled sheets and a recent novel on the bedside stand—though how he knew it was recent, Doctor Holiday didn’t know.

Someone stayed here, but didn’t live here.

His home was still under observation. And at least one observer stayed here at times. Maybe every day.

But not now.

Not right now, anyway.

For a moment, he considered fleeing. But he had come too far; this was perhaps his only chance to find out who he was. Then he wondered if it were wise to stay here too long, lying in wait for the person who watched his home from inside—after all, when Halloween ended so too would the awareness in this body, most likely. It would return to a more automaton-like state and wander until the next holiday; appear in some other place.

Unwilling to lose time in an internal debate, Doctor Holiday instead started opening desk drawers and closet doors. He began to look for clues to his identity, not knowing how much—or how little—time he had.

Over the next hour or so, he found photos of himself with people he had once apparently loved but now could not name. He found jewelry and clothing that were clearly part of his previous life, but had no context for them. He found books that he could remember the plots of, but didn’t know if he had ever enjoyed them.

But in all the searching, he found not one document or trace of evidence about his name, or the names of his family. No diplomas. No checkbooks. No driver’s licenses or passports. No bills. Nothing.

And then a click.

His heart seemed to stop. For a moment, he thought a gun had been cocked but then he realized it was the front door. A key turning. A lock releasing. A door opening.

He walked calmly toward that sound—a grim resolve filling him.

He stopped in the dining room, which at one end opened into the foyer of the house.

When the stranger entered through the front door, Doctor Holiday said, simply, “What are you doing in my house?”

The man who had entered, wearing simple slacks, sensible shoes, denim shirt, light jacket—and just the barest hint of a shoulder rig under one arm beneath that jacket—was startled for a moment, then returned to equilibrium.

“Well, it’s nice to see that with just under three months left on this assignment, my yearlong stint here is the one to finally produce results,” the man said.

“Where is my family?” Doctor Holiday demanded.

“I’m sure you have many questions, but I need…”

The man’s words were cut off when Doctor Holiday surged forward, wrapped one large hand around his throat, and slammed him against a wall.

“I don’t care what you need,” Doctor Holiday said, but his hand relaxed to let the stranger breathe. “What I need is what matters. I need to know who I am.”

“Let’s start with who I am. Special Agent Jansen. Nice to make your acquaintance. Seventh of a string of residents here since you left. One of your renters, I suppose, technically—though I doubt a dime of rent has made its way into any of your old bank accounts.”

“Awfully glib for a government agent,” Doctor Holiday said. “Are you trying to provoke me? Or del…”

Doctor Holiday’s mind expanded—filled the neighborhood—brought him back thoughts that couldn’t be read exactly, but gave him a sense of intent and numbers.

“How many? How many people are out there gathering, positioning and waiting to attack? How much time do I have?”

“Your time was up when you walked in here, Doctor Ke…Holiday. There are hidden cameras all over. I do actually spend most nights here, but today, I got my first visitor—you—and we had time to prepare while you were rooting around the place. You need to surrender. It’s over, Doctor Holiday.”

“You did a great job of acting surprised. All to buy a few extra seconds—all to let everyone get into position. All to let people watch and listen to me before they make a final move,” Doctor Holiday said. “Right?”

“It’s over, Doctor Holiday,” Agent Jansen repeated. “They’ll gas both of us, so I’m not going to be much of a hostage. You can calmly surrender and get a nice shot in the arm that will make you go night-night pleasantly, and then wake up in a safe new place, or you can go down choking and coughing, and still end up in a safe new place.”

“Just a couple problems with that plan, Agent Jansen,” Doctor Holiday responded.

“And what would those be?”

“First, you almost said my name before, and it wasn’t ‘Holiday,’ which tells me you know something about me. Second, we’re not even in the house anymore. And we haven’t been for the past five hours.”

* * *

With a suddenness that filled him with vertigo and almost made him retch, Agent Jansen’s world changed from a sedate but well-decorated dining room into a stark and mostly empty semi trailer.

“That was a long walk, and having to alter your perceptions the whole way didn’t help one bit,” Doctor Holiday said. “I finally had to give up and get a cab for the last several miles because my brain was about to skip town on me. I have a raging headache right now, and some anger issues. So I’ll need you to cooperate, for your own good as well as mine. Who am I?”

Agent Jansen remained silent.

“We’ve been in this trailer for nearly 40 minutes before I let you see reality again, Jansen. If your friends had any way to track you or any idea where I had gone, they’d be here already. What is my name?”

Agent Jansen shook his head slowly, but said nothing.

And then Jansen’s world changed again. A place of fire and blades, acid and thorns, ice and needles. It went on for hours, and then the world of the trailer returned.

“About…damn…time…you came to your senses…and…let me out of that,” Agent Jansen said, his words heavy and strained. “Now, let’s talk about your surrender, before anyone really gets hurt.”

“Jansen, what you just went through only took up about 10 seconds in real time. I can rinse and repeat until you lose your mind, and still have time before nightfall to catch a movie,” Doctor Holiday said. “What is my name? That’s where I want to start. Who am I?”

“I can’t…”

Doctor Holiday didn’t let him finish, plunging his mind instead into a place where a multitude of insects feasted on his flesh, inside and out, and it grew back as fast as it was consumed. It went on long enough that Agent Jansen figured his body had been eaten a dozen times over. The confines of the trailer returned as his reality, and he screamed at first when it did.

“This is making my head hurt even worse, Jansen,” Doctor Holiday noted. “Next time I can give you day’s worth of being peeled apart slowly with razor blades and vegetable peelers before you and your exposed under-flesh are rolled around in fields of salt. The worse I hurt, and the longer you make me wait, the more it sparks my imagination. I  don’t feel any pity for you. I sense you really like your work, and your work seems to involve fucking me over and making my family disappear.”

“Kelly!” Agent Jansen blurted out. “Robert Matthew Kelly, Ph.D. That’s who you are!”

“That’s a start. But it’s just a name and a degree. It’s not who I am. Start talking.”

“There’s nothing to say. That’s all I fucking know,” Agent Jansen said. “I know plenty about Doctor Holiday, but I know next to nothing about Dr. Kelly. I have your name; I’ve given it back to you. Let me go. Or better yet, give yourself up. You’re a menace to society.”

“I’d be less a menace if people like you hadn’t created me.”

“How do you know you weren’t a willing guinea pig, Kelly?”

Doctor Holiday—still processing the notion of being a Dr. Kelly—paused at that, then met Agent Jansen’s eyes. “Maybe so. Maybe not. But there’s still a house full of keepsakes and none of the family members that belong to them. I don’t think my wife and children simply left without the photo albums and the rest, Jansen. That’s not what people do. Tell me where they are! Tell me the rest of who I am!”

“I don’t know a damn…”

Agonies and nightmares. Pain and humiliation. Fear and loathing. Piled one upon the other for a day or more. At least in Jansen’s mind.

When the real world returned, Agent Jansen returned to it with a sudden onslaught of sobbing. It took a half hour for him to regain any kind of composure, and Doctor Holiday said, “The rest of my history, and the location of my family. Or I spend from now until the end of Halloween sending you through the equivalent of years of torment the likes of which no amount of torture porn could ever hope to match.”

“Dr. Kelly—or Doctor Holiday—whichever you like…better,” Agent Jansen panted, “I don’t…know anything more…than what I’ve told you.”

At the hard and angry glare from Doctor Holiday’s eyes, Agent Jansen cried out, “I swear! The only other thing I know is you came from something called the Genesis One Lab, and I don’t know fuck-all where it is. You can send me on a few more visits through hell in my mind and it won’t change anything. I don’t know anything more than what I’ve told you, and if my bosses find out you even know that much from me I’m screwed beyond all recognition. It won’t change anything if you fuck-start my mind some more—I just don’t know any more.”

“Thanks for the support, and the suggestion. I like it.”

And Doctor Holiday plunged Agent Jansen into several more hells. Over and over. Questioning Jansen after each visit.

No matter what he had said to Jansen, though, Doctor Holiday didn’t like doing it one bit.

It hurt. It made his head feel like it would explode at any moment.

But worse, it made him feel dirty. Everywhere. Inside and out. He felt filthy and depraved down to his very cellular structure.

But he kept doing it until he was sure Agent Jansen was telling the truth.

At the end of it all, Doctor Holiday still didn’t know anything more than his former name and the place of his rebirth as a genetic monster.

* * *

The bandages were once again wrapped around his head and the digital display reattached by its belts, straps and buckled to his upper torso. No doubt when he entered his upcoming fugue state, his body would have done all that by rote anyway, but it felt right to do it himself. The hollows in his mind would soon refill with voices, some to praise him for his treatment of Agent Jansen. Others to chastise him. Still others to say nothing.

He’d been given a day to find himself. He’d found more than he’d expected, even if it wasn’t all that he desired. He’d seen his home and his family—even if the latter was in photographs alone. He’d found his name, and perhaps another personality would follow that lead on another holiday.

In the process, though, he’d also found out how much a horror he was, and he wasn’t sure whether to blame himself, or the kind of people who were like Jansen and had created him.

At 11:58 p.m. Halloween night, Doctor Holiday began walking.

Away from from the trailer.

Away from the man whimpering inside it.

Away from the vestiges of his former home.

He walked away as Dr. Robert M. Kelly. And as Doctor Holiday. Wondering which was more real.

Two minutes later, he was nothing again. A body on autopilot awaiting the promise of Thanksgiving Day.