Welcome back to Runaway Writings: the home of all your creative writing and artistic needs!
This week we bring you the latest from Steven Mace. His continued additions for the site make for ever more wonderful reading. The latest chapter from Epiphany launches today along with the superhero comedy Unlimited Shelf Life and the science fiction horror Planet of the Dead!
Also, The Perfect Apocalypse continues as a new player enters the fray and spells doom for our unlikely duo!
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Planet of the Dead
by Steven Mace
There is a planet named Pelion in the Orion star system that is mostly inhabitable but rich in important minerals and fuels, hence the mining colonies which dot its bleak, cratered landscape. Orbiting Pelion there are seven moons, each one even more inhospitable than the planet below. Crags of dry, cold rock form jagged, uneven surfaces that rise up into high ridges and dizzying pinnacles before sloping down into vast, pitiless empty plains that stretch for seemingly endless lunar miles. Orbiting the seventh moon, Ludacris, there is a way station for space travellers, colonists, traders and miners in mid-transit between employment contracts on various mining planets.
The official name for the way station was Xanadu 9247, a dry technical moniker that had been assigned by some naming droid in an administrative office somewhere deep within a neon-lit capital city in the Terran Empire. It was the usual standard naming format of a romantic Terran name or word combined with a random number, so that the original name could be re-used for countless millions of other locations in the known universe. For the beings that often frequented the way station Xanadu 9247, and even those who were merely first-time visitors, the place was known simply as ‘Xan’.
‘Xan’ had plenty to offer the passing inter-galactic traveller: luxurious guest rooms, countless storage bays for space-craft, and of course plenty of entertainments and a wide variety of pastimes. There were virtual reality chambers with a choice to be participant or non-participant and which were notorious for their addictive allure and the potential hazard of becoming…too immersed. Indeed, there were cautionary tales of those who became so obsessed with their artificial existence within the chambers that they could no longer distinguish between reality and fiction, and were left psychologically and emotionally connected to the fantasy worlds that had been created. Such people had to be forcibly removed once they tried to abandon their real lives, and they would duly be required to spend periods in reality-adjustment rehabilitation. Occasionally, certain individuals- permanently maladjusted virtual addicts- were left completely unable to function outside their personal artificial world.
For those that liked their pleasures to be more visceral there were indoor games, nightclubs, bars, card schools, strip clubs and an unprecedented selection of male, female, bi-gender and flux-gender whores from around the universe. They were of all races, species, ancestries and descriptions and catered for any possible preference, taste or fetish their potential clients held.
Johnny Volta was not averse to any of the entertainments that were on offer at Xan with the purpose of killing time for the weary space traveller or miner on leave. Indeed, on the occasions that he found himself upon Xan with the purpose of refuelling or socialising, he had partaken of all of them. On this particular occasion, he was playing the card game Zentil, a popular pastime across numerous worlds. The game was played with cards of frosted blue glass, each inscribed with a symbol, or rune. The players competed to win another type of card: the V-card, which was the standard currency of the Terran Empire. He was playing the game against three other beings: a Hladorean merchant who possessed the sensitive snout, prominent whiskers and smooth tusks of his race; a Lacrean miner- a humanoid male from Lacrea, which was a Terran colony; and a Varsi, a small brown intelligent upright mammal-like creature with four limbs, in humanoid fashion, from the Varsi homeworld.
Johnny was losing, and quite badly- but he was preparing a trick that was quite literally up his sleeve. He kept spare Zentil cards on his person for occasions such as this, which he was prepared to use when he required specific cards to improve his hand.
The Hladorean laid a fantastic card down on the table at which they all sat in one of Xan’s busy social bar areas. It was the Keretan, the Plinth card. Johnny knew that in order to counter it he would need a card that he did not have in his legitimate hand. Otherwise, he was out of the game, and about to make another momentous loss. To counter a Plinth he would need the Titan card. Fortunately he had that card up his sleeve, and right now he was trying to work it down along his arm through the material of his black shirt without his fellow players noticing what he was up to.
“Nicely played, nicely played”, Johnny said to the Hladorean, mainly to distract him and buy more time. “You must be feeling confident. That’s a strong card.”
The Lacrean coughed. “Come on, Johnny. Hurry up and play.”
The Titan was almost at his wrist. Just a few more seconds, and he would have it out of his shirt cuff and be able to surreptitiously switch it with another card in his hand. However, a bitter twist of Fate intervened. The Hladorean, fidgeting from his impatience, knocked his considerable frame against the side of the table. The tables on Xan had been designed with humanoids in mind, rather than the greater mass of the average Hladorean. The table was jolted significantly enough to knock both of Johnny’s wrists, and send all of his cards spilling out on to the table, including –most visibly- the Titan card that he had been secretly and illegally attempting to extract from his shirt cuff.
The Lacrean player had been about to admonish the Hladorean for his clumsiness in revealing Johnny’s hand and spoiling the game, when he noticed that Johnny had an extra card: eight, rather than seven. Even if he had been able to dismiss the sight of a card slipping from Johnny’s sleeve as a trick of the eye, the presence of an extra card spilled upon the table confirmed his suspicion that Johnny had been attempting to cheat, an action revealed unwittingly by the Hladorean’s blunder.
“Hey!” the Lacrean said. “What the…?”
“That’s an extra card”, the Hladorean said, grunting to Johnny Volta in the Terran language. “You had an extra card up your sleeve all along.”
Johnny stood up from the table and put his arms up defensively. “Hey come on, guys. I don’t know how that got there. Let’s call it quits, eh? Take my money, it’s a dead game.”
“Why, you cheating…!” the Lacrean was moving menacingly toward Johnny from the opposite side of the table. His behaviour had caught the attention of one of the helmeted Guards in dark blue uniform and body armour who monitored the Xan recreation spaces for signs of trouble. He was watching them carefully from where he stood near one of the gleaming metallic balconies that overlooked the vast entertainments forecourt.
“Leave him”, the Hladorean growled, placing a furred paw upon the Lacrean’s shoulder. “It will cause a scene and get me banned from Xan. Just take the credits.” The Hladorean swept a generous share of V-cards that had been piled upon the table in its vast grasp before walking away.
“Yeah, you ain’t worth it, pal”, the Lacrean spat bitterly toward Johnny, before piling a tall tower of V-cards into the space between his hands and also walking away, pausing only to aim a poisonous glance over his shoulder at Johnny as he did so. For its part, the Varsi merely made a strange spluttering noise before uttering something in its own squeaking language. It stood up on its hind legs, picked up the remaining V-cards, and also strutted away. Satisfied that there would be no trouble like it had anticipated, the Guard’s gaze lingered upon Johnny for several more seconds before it finally turned away.
Johnny let out a sigh of relief and stepped forward to pluck his white Geth-skin jacket- which he had removed during the game- off the back of his chair. As he did so, he heard a low chuckle behind him.
“Same old Johnny Volta”, a low, amused-sounding voice said. “Same old cheat, same old loser.”
Johnny spun around. Leaning against the metallic frame of the bar as he was served by a Shantrelian waitress was a man that Johnny recognised: the tall, well-built frame of Max Hutchison. Max was a Terran in his mid-thirties with short brown hair and a prominent jaw-line. He possessed a vivid pink scar on his cheek from some fire-fight or common brawl he’d got caught up in, sometime in his distant past. He wore a dark black sleeveless jacket over a white shirt, frayed denim trousers and heavy brown boots made of a strong material, hennen, from a distant Terran colony. Max was a Salvager, just like Johnny Volta was, although they were rivals. Whereas Johnny worked for the Vendaker Bounty & Salvage Agency, Hutchison was freelance. He had used to work for the same Agency as Johnny, but he had fallen out with Johnny’s boss and the owner of the entire operation, Mortius Vendaker. Johnny didn’t know the true cause of the feud despite the many rumours going round (the most oft-repeated was that Max had slept with Mortius’ nubile young wife) but he had heard that after going freelance Max was raking in the V-cards, by all accounts. Johnny had experienced numerous encounters with Max in the past, clashes over salvage and space-treasures, and unfortunately for him Max had come out on top more often than not. That was not the only reason that Johnny cared little for him, but it was the primary one. He also knew that the feeling was mutual.
“What’s it got to do with you?” Johnny replied weakly.
“The extra card up your sleeve”, Max said, grinning at him. “Oldest trick in the book, Johnny! Mind you, you’re not exactly known for your imagination, are you?”
“Screw you, Max”, Johnny replied, shrugging himself into his jacket. He made to stroll away across the platform of the recreation area.
“Better luck next time, Johnny!” Max called after him, raising a glass of blue Luridian juice in a mock toast before guffawing with laughter. “Here’s to better fortune and future prosperity!”
Max Hutchison’s presence in the recreation zone had put Johnny in a bad mood and he no longer felt a strong urge to relax and continue his stay on Xan. After a brief conversation with one of the Transport Monitors on his communicator, he discovered that his Agency-issue space shuttle was fully refuelled and ready for take off whenever he wished. He had planned to spend at least another twenty-four Terran hours on Xan but after his encounter with Hutchison he now decided to accelerate his departure from the way station.
He’d had an urgent alert on his communicator which had come through over an hour earlier during his card game with the aliens, which indicated that his boss Mortius Vendaker wished to urgently speak with him. He had been ignoring it as he’d wanted to make the most of his brief vacation period on Xan, but now he thought that he might as well take the communication from Vendaker.
He waited until he was back in the shuttle and had clearance for launch from Xan flight control, before he switched on his Telecaster screen in the shuttle cockpit. Vendaker’s name was flashing on the incoming call screen, and Johnny deliberately let him wait a little longer before pressing ‘RECEIVE’. Johnny didn’t quite possess the same kind of dislike for Vendaker that he did for Max Hutchison – fat old Mortius was his boss, after all- but it was close.
“Hello boss”, Johnny said. “What’s up?”
The bloated face of Vendaker had appeared on the screen, lined with slight interference and distortion from the many light years between his location and Xan. It was powerful technology, but solar flares and other natural space phenomena were prone to disrupting communications. Vendaker had been looking in a sideways direction from the camera, in the middle of a conversation with someone off-screen. His pointed aquiline nose was prominent in the slightly distorted view, lending him a patrician’s gravitas that his personality did not deserve. Johnny Volta’s sudden acceptance of his transmission had obviously taken him unawares. “One moment, Volta”, Vendaker said to him, giving the young salvager a taste of his own medicine.
The transmission clicked off, and an ‘On Hold’ message appeared on the screen. Johnny quietly cursed Vendaker under his breath. At least it gave him a chance to navigate properly out of Xan’s shuttle bays, giving the process proper care and attention.
He had just exited Xan’s gravity field when his telecaster screen flickered into life again. Mortius Vendaker was framed there, his small beady eyes fixed upon Johnny with perhaps a discernable flicker of wry amusement present in them. “Volta. How good of you to finally respond to my message.” Vendaker’s tone was dripping with sarcasm. “How was your little period of R & R on Xan?”
“Oh you know. Much needed downtime and all that.” Johnny was busy at the controls of his ship as he swept her away from Xan and into general orbit around Ludacris. “Always nice at the start but it gets boring after a while. What do you want, boss?”
“I’ve got a proposal for you, Volta”, Vendaker told him. “It’s a mission for you, and it’s a dangerous one. Pull it off, and you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams, even after splitting the profits with me. You could even retire from the Agency on the back of this.”
“Okay, sounds great”, Johnny replied, unperturbed. The thought of being able to stick it to Vendaker was an enticing one, being rich was even more alluring. However, he was immediately suspicious. Something was not quite right here- he was hardly one of Vendaker’s favourites so he couldn’t quite work out why his boss had contacted him. “If it’s such a great mission, how come you are touting it to me and one of the more experienced salvagers hasn’t snapped it up?”
“Well…” Vendaker paused, obviously wondering how to phrase his reply. “There is a very high element of risk with this one. It is highly dangerous, and there’s a big probability you might not come back from it. A lot of the other guys and gals have turned it down, and to be honest I suspect that you will too. It’s one of those that will either make your career, or end it all prematurely. I’m not sure why I’m even asking you, it’s just out of courtesy really- I don’t think you’re up to it.”
“What exactly is the job?” Johnny asked impatiently.
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the Adroxinus dynasty from the Trapidian homeworld…no? Anyway, their Ambassador Fergal Josinian was travelling between Trapidia and Adrea on a Trapidian shuttle, and he was carrying a very precious and important artefact with him, an ancient heirloom of the Adroxinians that is sacred to the people of that planet. It’s also worth an incredible amount on the black market. I’m talking countless piles of V-cards stretching miles upon miles in height, and taller than Neon City apartment blocks. It’s that big, Johnny.”
“You paint a wonderful picture, boss”, Johnny said with a smile. “Go on.”
“Unfortunately our Ambassador met with a nasty little accident”, Vendaker said. “His shuttle in which he was carrying the artefact collided with a Hladorean space-freighter. Josinian’s shuttle took serious damage and they had to crash land. They entered the atmosphere of a nearby planet.”
Vendaker had paused in his explanation, so Johnny spoke up again. “Two questions: what exactly is this valuable artefact? Secondly, what’s the issue with the planet and the shuttle crash? Why is it so dangerous to retrieve the artefact and how does anyone know it is still intact? It could have been burned to dust in the planet’s atmosphere when they crash-landed.”
“The Adroxinians on Trapidia are in mourning”, Vendaker said. “The artefact is a sceptre of some sorts, a symbol of the ruling dynasty’s power and the Emperor’s authority. The Adroxinians have some kind of tracking technology fixed on the device, and they say it’s still intact on the surface of the planet where the Ambassador’s shuttle crashed. They have its exact location, as it is still beaming out a signal. It’s also believed to have…certain attributes. Supernatural powers, it’s been said.”
Johnny laughed. “A magic wand?”
Vendaker grinned. “Precisely! Superstitious nonsense, of course. We’re more interested in the price it will fetch.” Vendaker’s smile disappeared and he took on a grave expression. “As for your second question as to why there’s a problem regarding retrieving the artefact from the surface of the planet…well, it’s a huge problem actually.”
“Poisonous atmosphere?” Johnny interrupted. “I’ve got droids and drones for that.”
“Not quite”, Vendaker said quietly. “The Ambassador’s ship crash-landed on Nekros, of all places.”
Johnny’s blood ran cold. Suddenly he realised why Vendaker had been unable to persuade any of the other salvagers at the Agency to do what appeared to be a simple job. The artefact was on Nekros.
“This is not good”, he said quietly. “Not good at all.”
“I take it you don’t want to take the job?”
Johnny was silent. Going to the surface of Nekros was an act that was fraught with danger. Anyone who attempted it blindly and expected to leave unscathed was a fool. The other salvagers were obviously not fools, and had sensibly turned the job down, despite the incredible rewards on offer. Johnny was more hesitant about turning it down- not because he had a death wish, but because he needed to make a name for himself in this business, and he knew that he badly needed the money. Max Hutchison’s taunts at the bar in Xan were still fresh in his mind, and they had stung him deeply after his bungled attempt to cheat at the card game. If he successfully pulled this one off, then Max would be eating his words for the rest of his days. “Do we have precise co-ordinates for the location of the artefact?” he asked Vendaker. “I know the Adroxinians do, but do we? And what happens when they know the artefact has been removed from the surface of the planet? They’ll know someone’s taken it, won’t they? Even if I get off Nekros safe and sound, that’s another risk.”
“I can transmit the exact co-ordinates of the artefact to your ship’s navigation system”, Vendaker said with a twinkle in his eye. “We have our resources and our methods as you know! Adroxinian communications are quite easy to eavesdrop on. After that, you’re on your own. If you take up the mission, Johnny, you’ll have to find out exactly how the artefact works and turn off that tracking device. You’re absolutely right, once you leave Nekros’ atmosphere you’ll soon have an entire Adroxinian fleet after you. Assuming you get that far, of course. Also assuming that you accept the mission- so am I correct in thinking that you actually want to take it on?”
Johnny hesitated. Once he said yes to Vendaker, there was no going back. He would be in breach of his contract and he would be released from the agency’s employment. It took him a few moments to carefully weigh everything up, before he realised that he had always been a gambler, even when the odds were stacked against him. This was a challenge that, foolish or not, was too great for him to resist. This was the big one where he would prove himself, and do what the more experienced salvagers had not dared to attempt. “I’ll do it”, he said.
Vendaker grinned. “Never knew you had it in you”, he said. “I’m sending you the information we have from the Adroxinians. Is your shuttle fully equipped? You have droids, weapons, and explosives? Excellent. Good luck, Johnny. To be honest you’ll need it, but I really hope for all our sakes we pull this one off.”
“Sure boss”, Johnny said. “Don’t worry, in three Terran solar cycles, I’ll be back in Neon City. I’ll be handing in my notice and retiring to a tropical planet somewhere.”
“Hope you’re right”, Vendaker answered, although Johnny thought that he did not look convinced. He cut the transmission.
When Vendaker had first mentioned Nekros, an icy cold trickle had run down Johnny Volta’s spine and goose pimples had sprung out upon the surface of his skin. Nekros. The name itself was cursed, a notorious place of the damned, a dreaded world. It was the planet of the dead.
Once it had been a pleasant, beautiful planet named Vitalus. The atmosphere was very similar to Terra, and initially it had been easy for the Terrans to colonise during the third phase of expansion from the home-world. The early settlers specialised in environmental science and built environmental bubbles and gardens upon the lush, verdant lands of the planet. Vitalus had deep winding rivers that snaked through its plains and valleys and it also had lakes, seas and oceans, green fields, forests and tropical jungles. Overall, Vitalus had possessed an abundantly rich fertile landscape and thriving natural environment, and scenic countryside that resembled Terra in its youth, before the ecological damage that had been done to that planet by previous selfish generations.
As decades past, some of the colonists on Vitalus began to specialise in science and work on experiments specific to the requirements of the Terran Empire. Laboratories and experimental facilities were built on Vitalus in addition to the living colonies that had sprouted there, these secret facilities were ostensibly for medical research but also for the benefit of developing strange new weapons that would help the Terran Empire in its many wars and conflicts which were taking place throughout the galaxies of the known universe as the Empire expanded outward and encountered new civilisations.
One day, something went wrong.
by Steven Mace
“A what?” Thea asked, baffled, wiping her nose.
“What the hell is a Screecher?!” Clyde demanded to know, staring at the blood on his hands and pinching his nose.
Dr Elliott had rushed to a nearby table, upon which was a small case. She picked it up and went to the small boy who was being cradled by the woman, presumably his mother. After she had ushered away the annoyed crowd, she opened up the case and took out a needle. At the sight of it, the mother began to cry but did not pull her child away. Jane Elliott knelt down beside them and injected the boy with the needle.
The small crowd that had gathered now disintegrated, moving toward their respective cubicles and the bathrooms- probably to find tissues and cloths to wipe their noses clean of blood. Clyde had found a roll of tissue on the doctor’s table and took a considerable amount before handing the roll for Thea to take her share. After briefly comforting the mother and the boy (who now seemed unconscious), Dr Elliott returned to them and cleaned her own nose with the tissue. She had bled from her own nose quite profusely, staining her white coat, and Thea noticed that it had got worse in proximity to the small boy. Now however, everyone’s nose bleeds had dissipated.
“What was all that about?” Clyde asked the doctor, frowning.
“Oh. No, you might not know what a Screecher is.” Dr Elliott turned to give them both a serious stare through her glasses. “They’re basically mutants. They’re children whose brains have been altered by the aftershock.”
Thea stared at her. Dr Elliott’s words had brought back echoes from things she’d heard at the facility…
“What just happened was…well, in times of stress, like seeing strangers, these children send out a telepathic shockwave. It’s almost like a distress signal, but unless you’re telepathic, you won’t pick it up. It physically manifests itself in the form of a nosebleed.” Thea and Clyde listened to her intently. “It’s happened here several times, obviously people get frustrated about it but the child can’t help it. It’s a response to fear or anxiety. They call these mutants ‘Screechers’. It’s not nice to experience but…there are worse mutants out there.” Dr.Elliott did not elaborate.
“I’ve never heard of anything like that”, Clyde said. Thea thought she had heard something about it, in her past, but said nothing.
Dr Elliott nodded, and for a moment seemed distant. Then she brightened and said to them: “We have some spare space for you, if you’d like. I can find you a free bed and living space here. We’re not full, by any means. We also provide food, from a cafeteria, for all the refugees that are here.”
“That would be nice”, Thea replied, smiling at her. “It was such good fortune to find a safe place here. We’re very grateful.”
“Just as long as you don’t put us near a Screecher kid”, Clyde said quietly. Thea quickly elbowed him in the ribs. If Dr.Elliott had heard his words or noticed Thea’s reaction, she did not show it.
As they walked past the boy that Dr Elliott had called a ‘Screecher’, Thea looked at him more closely where he slept in his sobbing mother’s arms. The woman was dark-haired, and perhaps Latin in origin, but the boy had white hair. His skin was pale too, and Thea realised that he was probably an Albino. She felt sorry for him, as his mutation meant he was destined to be regarded as a freak all his life. Despite the experiments that had been done to her at the facility, at least she looked and acted normally.
As they walked through the hall of people, some refugees stared openly at Thea and Clyde, some gave them a casual glance as they passed and some ignored them completely. Eventually Dr Elliott led them to an empty living area with an empty bed. She smiled at them and indicated that they could drop their things there.
“Do make yourselves at home”, she said smiling. “The robots can bring you some fresh things to wear. I’ll notify them. ”
“Thanks”, Clyde and Thea said, almost in unison. Amused, Thea wondered how the doctor ‘notified the robots’. Dr Elliott turned as if to walk away, and then lingered. She turned back to them with a coy smile on her face.
“May I ask you something?” she said.
Clyde had already sat down on the edge of the bed provided in the living space. “What’s that? Go ahead.”
“Are you two a couple?”
Thea laughed and Clyde smiled. “No. We’re partners in crime…circumstances have thrown us together”, Clyde told her.
Dr Elliott blinked and then laughed in response. “I see. Partners in crime it is. Good luck then, and welcome to Safe Haven.” With that, she turned and walked away. As Thea busied herself, arranging their things, Clyde watched the doctor as she went away from them, her heels clicking on the hall floor as she walked. He stared at her long legs and stockings, visible underneath the hem of her white coat. She was attractive, he thought, more attractive than the scientists he’d known at the facility.
The robots brought them some fresh clothes as promised. They were ill-fitting, but Thea and Clyde were grateful for something else to wear. Their current clothes only reminded them of the facility. Both of them went behind a changing screen to dress in their new outfits. Both of them had been given orange jumpsuits.
Half an hour later, Clyde and Thea were startled by an alarm in the refugee hall that suddenly began ringing, drilling into their ears. It resonated throughout the hall. They looked at each other in astonishment, feeling anxious. Was there some kind of danger? Everyone around them suddenly started to get up and make their way out. Clyde peered down the aisle and saw that people were heading toward two large double doors near the centre of the hall.
Clyde caught the arm of a man who was passing. “Hey, where is everyone going?” he asked.
The man looked surprised. “To the cafeteria”, he said. “It’s twelve o’clock. It’s lunchtime.”
Feeling somewhat foolish, Clyde released the arm of the startled man and let him go. He turned to look at Thea, who relaxed and smiled back at him.
“Grub time”, Clyde said, grinning.
The cafeteria was another vast hallway within the structure that adjoined the refugees’ living hall. Everyone queued to be served food by robots behind counters at one end. Thea and Clyde joined the queue and waited patiently. As they were one of the last to enter, it took over half an hour to be served. There was not much diversity on offer. They were served potatoes, peas and chicken with gravy. It was the same meal that everyone received. Clyde wondered if everyone got the same meal every day, or if there was any kind of variety.
All the people were sat on long benches eating. The hall looked like one of the old prison dining rooms, in keeping with the orange jumpsuits that the robots had given them to wear. As they wandered around, looking for spare seats while carrying their trays, Clyde glanced around for Dr Elliott but he couldn’t see her. Finally, he and Thea took seats next to a thin, balding man with a crooked nose who was perhaps in his early sixties, and a slightly overweight thirtyish looking man with thinning black hair.
Clyde and Thea were hungry, and they were more interested in food than conversation. They had been sat there for a few minutes, and then the younger man –who had been casting curious glances toward them- decided to introduce himself.
“Hi”, he said. “I’m Paulie. You guys are new, aren’t you?”
As his mouth was full, Clyde nodded. “Yeah. We only arrived today”, he said finally.
“So what’s your back story?” Paulie asked. “Where you from?”
“Home town was destroyed”, Thea lied. She gave Clyde a meaningful look.
“Yeah, been wandering coast to coast since”, Clyde said uncertainly.
“Jesus!” Paulie seemed surprised. “It’s a miracle you guys survived. There are some nasty mutants out there. I’m telling you, really nasty things. You’re lucky to be alive. You’re safe here though.”
“How safe is anybody, anywhere?” The new speaker was a much younger man with light brown-coloured hair, sat several seats away. He’d evidently been eavesdropping on the conversation.
“This place is as safe as anywhere can be now”, Paulie replied, speaking loudly so that the man with light brown hair could hear him. Clyde glanced down the table and briefly made eye contact with the man who had spoken, but that man said nothing more. Clyde looked at Paulie questioningly.
“That’s Elijah”, Paulie whispered. “Strange kid. I’d avoid him, if I were you.”
As Clyde sliced into one of his potatoes with his knife, he thought that he’d be avoiding most of their fellow refugees for now. He didn’t need to look at Thea to know she was probably thinking exactly the same thing…
The Perfect Apocalypse
Unseen Prophet/Invisible Enemy
by Rob Richardson
It was hard not to be curious as to their motives.
I had tracked them since their emergence from the Grand Central Gateway. I had been warned to stay away from the gaping chasms and tunnels that led to The Below since I was a child but I had no need to fear them now.
They were nothing but abandoned passages to ignorance and fear. To a world that had been left behind centuries ago.
The couple had some sort of dispute and it was apparent that they did not fully trust one another. That was a mistake. Those that surfaced from The Below rarely survived in The Above. You needed all the allies you could get – you needed someone to watch you back. If you couldn’t trust your companion to do that then you were fucked.
That word always made me laugh. The Old Speech was rough and harsh sounding but it was often the most descriptive and reliable. Plus, it rolled off the tongue so easily.
I had watched them for four days now, they had barely traveled ten miles. In fact on the second day, they had circled the perimeter of the previous nights camp. Even the most expert of survivalists could become lost in this unforgiving jungle. They were yet to encounter any of the horrors that dwelt within it.
But they would. And soon.
They were headed toward a Hulk encampment. When those beasts decided to hunt it was time for the jungle to shut down. Everything, and I do mean everything, went to ground. The Hulks though – a by-product of the scientists at CERN opening infinite doorways to other universes – could tear acres of this terrain open and would readily feast on deadly Rag-Deer or Ghost Wolf for several days before ending their onslaught.
How do I know about the truth about CERN? I’m the only one who does.
I was once a girl of the Y’Xanshi tribe. We were nomadic but stuck to the boundaries of the exotic terrain that had once been North America. My father was the Chief’s Third Spearman. It wasn’t an honour as such but it did mean we ate before most of the others in the clan.
We traveled game trails, losing much of our number to the Rag-Deer. Our main sport was Justsi Lizards which were integral to our well-being. We used their skin for clothing and shelter, their bones as weapons and their meat for sustenance.
One day, our paths crossed that with the marauding Hulks. The immense red-furred behemoths ripped through the treeline, hurling and crushing those I had loved, grown up and broke bread with. The ate my father quickly before glaring in my direction and pushing through the undergrowth as I fled.
I came across an ancient, scientific compound. The facility had once been owned by the United States military but ran under the guise of a pharmaceutical company called Life Cine. And life it did indeed hold.
I dodged incoming boulders and logs that were thrown at me from the creatures that were pursuing me. For them it had become more of a game. They wanted me dead now for sport. It was not about feeding anymore.
I fell through a crumbling wall in the facility and into a pool of silver liquid. I frantically tried to escape the fluid-filled pit but I was unable to reach the edge. The Hulks were baring down on me now. It was drown or be torn limb from limb. I began to panic and the world turned black.
As I came round, sub-dermal processors whirred into life. My eyes shone with a renewed brightness and I could sense new things. Around me lay the corpses of the animals that had led the chase. They were torn apart, savaged even.
There was a stabbing pain in my head. Something wanted access to my thoughts. So I let it.
The SUIT (Sub-dermal Utilitarian Infiltrator Technology) had bonded with me at a genetic level. It knew everything about the world after CERN. It could tell me about the world before CERN. It gave me strength, agility, heightened senses and the power to camouflage with my environment. I was the most powerful being on the planet. The top of the food chain.
SUIT told me that I was The One.
I had to protect the world from those who sort to change it. SUIT and I were survivors and this world befit us.
Looking at the pair who bickered and argued below my hidden position, my decision was made for me.
To spare them the horror of this world I had to kill them.
by Steven Mace
“My father built this place”, Dr Elliott told them as they followed her down an empty corridor, her heels clicking on the polished tiled floor. Julio had run on ahead. “He always saw it as a refuge for the victims of the war, a place where the poor and the sick could come. He loved this lake, and he loved the church here too. He also loved the town, before it was flattened by missiles.”
“There was a town here?” Clyde asked, with curiosity.
“Oh yes.” Dr Elliott smiled sweetly, as if remembering happier times. “I grew up here, as a little girl.”
Thea smiled. She had taken a liking to Dr.Elliott, who was not that much older than herself she thought. The woman was in her mid-twenties perhaps? Although Thea suspected though that they’d had quite different upbringings. Jane Elliott was friendly but sounded like a woman who remembered the world before the cataclysm. Thea only remembered the pain and frustration of a life in a cage, shut away in the facility with no real family. The only friends she’d had were the nurses and tutors who were employed to look after her and the nicer scientists. That was probably another reason that she liked Dr Elliott, the fact that she seemed to be a nice scientist and reminded her of happier times at the facility.
“Who was your father?” Clyde asked.
Dr Elliott hesitated. “He was one of the scientists who warned against the war…he knew about the possibilities of terrible destruction that the government’s awful weapons would unleash…”
They had reached the end of the echoing corridor, and Dr Elliott now swung open a heavy door. Immediately they were met by the sound of people talking and laughter, the sound of a large community. They could hear the sound of children’s voices.
Thea and Clyde found themselves standing in a vast hall. The space was divided up into cubicles with beds and cupboards, living space separated by makeshift screens. Clyde and Thea could see that most of the cubicles were occupied by families. There were makeshift kitchens and bedrooms that were hidden from view. Children ran in the aisles and corridors between each cubicle. There were doorways leading out of the hall marked ‘male’ and ‘female’ and which Thea realised were bathrooms beyond the walls of the main hall, where people could go to for privacy, outside the community area and far away from their living cubicle.
Those people that were closest to the main entrance saw them enter and stared with open curiosity at the man and woman accompanying Dr Elliott. Thea and Clyde could see families of different colour and creeds occupying the living space. Thea thought she glimpsed Julio further down the hall beyond several other people, running across the aisle. The place was noisy and energetic, and despite having all the appearances of a refugee camp, seemed a light-hearted and happy place.
The sense of idyllic, communal happiness lasted only for a moment. Suddenly Thea glanced at Clyde and saw blood trickling from his nose. Shocked, she was about to tell him when she tasted the familiar metallic, dull taste of blood on her own lips. She raised her fingers to her nose to touch her upper lip and took it away to see. Her fingers were covered in blood as well. She looked at Dr Elliott in horror and saw that blood was trickling from her small delicate nose too.
“Oh my god”, Thea said. “What’s happening?” Around them other people’s noses were also bleeding. It seemed to be affecting everybody. Some people were angry, shouting and pointing fingers. Their target was a frightened dark-haired woman occupying a nearby cubicle, whose nose was also streaming blood and held a small boy in her arms, rocking him backwards and forwards.
“I’m so sorry”, Jane Elliott said to Thea and Clyde, wiping her nose with a bloody handkerchief. “We have a Screecher here.”
by Steven Mace
There was a small lake below, nestled in a valley. Beyond the lake, the hills rose up again, forming a bowl-shape around the valley perimeter. Beside the lake an impressive old church had been built in a European Gothic style, which had evidently fallen into some disrepair. Despite that, it was still a magnificent construction- built from stone that had blackened with the effects of time and damage, perhaps from fire. A huge pointed spire rose up from the top of the church tower. Clyde guessed that the entire structure – including the tower’s spire- was about two hundred feet tall.
More pertinently, next to the church there was a circular tarmac area, which looked like a launch and landing pad for a helicopter. And next to that, there was a large grey metallic building. Sunlight reflected off the surface, dazzling Thea and Clyde when they focused their eyes upon it. Blinking, Clyde shaded his eyes. He turned to make eye contact with Thea. He was smiling.
“Well”, she said quietly. “You were right.”
She still felt cautious. They had no indication of what was down there, no real idea of how things worked out here in the outside world. If there were people there, they could be associates of the military and scientific people at the facility that they had escaped from. In contrast, Clyde was elated by the discovery. She could see he wanted to go down there and meet whoever inhabited the buildings there.
As he began to make the descending route down to the lakeside, Thea hung back. Moments later, he realised that he was clambering alone down the steep slope. He turned back to look at her, shading his eyes against the sun.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“We don’t know who is down there”, she said. “We don’t know who these people are.”
“They’re our only chance”, he told her firmly. “That’s what they are.”
“What if they’re not friendly? What if they send us back to the facility?”
“Well, if you want you can stay up here and worry about that. You can try and get some food and water. I’m going down there.” Clyde turned away from her and continued walking. “Good luck with that. Or you can follow me.”
“Arrogant bastard!” Thea muttered under her breath. Then, audibly to Clyde: “Wait! I’m coming!” She began to scramble down the slope after him.
It took them fifteen minutes to descend the heights and reach the flatter ground of the lakeside. They walked slowly toward the silver-grey building, the shadow of the enormous church looming over them. It was completely silent, and so far they had seen no sign of life.
“Do you think there are people here?” Thea asked. “Or do you think this place is abandoned?”
“There are people here”, Clyde said. “Look.” Thea looked in the direction of where he was pointing, and saw a small Hispanic-looking child crouching in the entrance to the church some fifty metres away, watching them carefully. Thea resisted the temptation to call out, and instead met his curious stare with her own.
Clyde looked as if he was going to walk to the church to speak to the boy, but at that moment their attention was caught by something else. They heard a small whirring noise, like that generated by a machine. They were coming close to the large silver-grey windowless building, and exactly at that point something came around the perimeter of the building and into their view. It was a something, rather than a someone. It looked like a metallic, electronic creation of some sort, a robot perhaps. They had seen similar devices used at the facility. The frame was humanoid in nature, with what looked like a radar or sensor atop the ‘head’. The main body, or torso, of the machine was set upon a wheeled platform, which allowed it to move. The machine stopped abruptly, and after a few moments, began to move in their direction. Thea threw an anxious glance at Clyde.
Just as Clyde was wishing he had a weapon of some sort, the machine stopped moving. Almost at the same time, a door opened in the side of the silver-grey building. Thea and Clyde had not noticed the outline of the door upon the surface of the wall until now.
A woman stepped out and began to walk toward them, her heels clicking on the concrete surface that surrounded the perimeter of the building and adjoined the circular tarmac pad. She was a tall, slim woman with dark brown hair tied back in a bun, and wearing glasses with prominent brown frames. Thea was alarmed at her attire. She wore a red blouse and a very tight grey pencil skirt with an open long white coat. It was the way that female scientists at the facility might dress, which worried Thea. Immediately the thought came to her that this woman could be an associate of the doctors who monitored them at the facility. Thea threw a nervous glance at Clyde but he was impassive for the moment, giving nothing away.
As this woman drew closer to them, Thea realised that she would be extremely attractive if it were not for the unflattering glasses and the hair tied back so severely. Even as she was, she was a very attractive, intelligent looking woman. As she drew close to them, she smiled at them in greeting and Thea relaxed a little.
“Hello”, she said. “It’s unusual for us to receive visitors.” She was well-spoken, in keeping with her appearance.
“I suppose it must be”, Clyde said dryly. He glanced at the building and the church behind them. “What is this place?” he asked.
“I apologise”, the woman replied. “You must be confused. This is Haven, or Safe Haven as we like to call it. It’s a place for refugees. I’m Dr Jane Elliott. And you two are…?”
“Doctor?” Clyde gasped. He and Thea exchanged alarmed glances. “Do you know…a Dr Walton? Do you know…The Director?”
Dr Elliott frowned, lines creasing her unblemished forehead. She was evidently bemused by their reaction, unless she was a fine actress. “No, I don’t believe I do…who are you? Where are you from?”
Thea and Clyde looked at each other. Thea willed him to speak. When he didn’t, she decided she would be the one to take the plunge and reveal their identities. “We’re from…the facility. They made experiments on us there. I’m Thea Van Brandt, and this is Clyde Baxter.”
Dr Jane Elliott smiled. “Wherever you have come from, you’re very welcome here, I assure you. We take in all kinds of waifs and strays. I’m very glad to have you here. I don’t have anything to do with any of the government institutions or installations that have been set up in the ruins of our country.” There was a note of bitterness in her final remark.
Clyde relaxed and gave Thea a satisfied grin. “That’s wonderful to hear. I’m so glad we found you.” His relief was palpable.
Dr Elliott was distracted by something behind them. She was frowning and peering over Clyde’s shoulder. “Julio! Julio, come here. The service ended ages ago, what are you doing out here?”
The small Hispanic boy that they’d seen hovering near the archway entrance of the church was now loitering behind them. At Dr Elliott’s words he ran to her and buried his face shyly in her white coat, leaning against her hip. Laughing, she took his hand and began to lead him toward the door that she had previously come from. “Follow me”, she said over her shoulder to Thea and Clyde. Thea saw that Jane Elliott’s gaze had been travelling down to the clothes that they were wearing and she had noticed how dusty and battered they were. “You can wash and we’ll find you something to eat- perhaps some fresh clothes.” Delighted by this seemingly wonderful stroke of good fortune, Thea and Clyde followed the doctor inside.
I’m a horror, fantasy, magic realism, speculative fiction and thriller writer with literary pretensions. I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since reading 2000AD comics as a kid. I have always been a huge fan of comics and fiction in all formats.
My main influences are Tanith Lee, Ursula Le Guin, George R R Martin, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Iain M Banks, Philip K Dick and Thomas Pynchon. I write short stories and I am working on several novels. I have already self-published some of my first completed work.
I have a personal blog here: http://stevemace.blogspot.com/
and I’m on Twitter and Facebook: http://twitter.com/MaceBookspace and http://www.facebook.com/pages/Steve-Mace/114497238566314
by Steven Mace
Clyde drove for hours. The landscape did not change. It was endless flat, bleak, yellow desert. Occasionally they passed a rusting illegible sign, or an old battered vehicle that had been untouched for years, abandoned by the side of the road.
Thea continued to anxiously scan the view behind them and the horizons for signs of life, and for any sign of pursuit. Still there was no sign of pursuit as the landscape remained empty, and yet it was a hollow comfort. Although the thought had not crossed Thea’s mind, Clyde was worried about something else. He had his eye on the fuel gauge. They didn’t have much gas left. He thought they had maybe fifty miles left, not much more than that. After that, they’d have no choice about what to do. They’d have to get out and walk.
Eventually, the landscape started to change. In the distance, Clyde saw rolling hills. His hopes began to rise. He could see trees populating the hills and rising up from the previously dry, arid and barren earth. It meant there was water here. If there was water, there could be civilisation of some kind.
Thea made a sudden noise- a sharp intake of breath. At first, Clyde thought she was merely responding also to what he had seen, but she anxiously waved a hand at him and pointed somewhere to their left. While glancing back to check the road, Clyde leaned down and peered in the direction that Thea was pointing to.
In the sky, there was something. It was minute- only a small black dot- but there was definitely something out there.Clydesaid nothing, but he knew it was probably a helicopter. It could be from the facility, and also it might not be, but they couldn’t take any chances. Clyde looked toward the hills in the distance and pressed his foot on the accelerator, pushing the car almost to its maximum capacity.
“Did you see it? It could be them”, Thea was saying. “What are we going to do?”
“You see those hills?” Clyde pointed in front of them. “You see the trees? There are a lot of trees there, which might give us some cover. We’ll go there and abandon the car there. Then we’ll carry on by foot. I don’t know what’s there but it’ll give us the best chance of hiding, rather than being out in the open in these desert plains. What do you say?”
“Yeah…but…how far away is that?” Thea squinted into the distance, and then glanced to her left and up at the sky again to try and check for the object in the sky. “How long will it take us? You think we’ll make it in time?”
“Let’s find out”, Clyde said. The car was speeding so fast that the wind caught his short brown hair and flicked it wildly. The car engine hummed as he pushed the accelerator down further.
They reached the hills within fifteen minutes.Clyderan the car off the road on to the rocky desert ground beneath the foothills, jolting them both as he braked to a halt. It took them five more minutes to gather up their things: backpacks with spare clothes and water bottles, and blankets. All the while they glanced up at the sky and listened for the sound of machines, but thankfully they heard nothing. When they thought they had collected everything that they had brought with them, Clyde gestured for Thea to follow him and begin their ascent into the hills. Then, abruptly, he paused.
“Wait”, he said to her. She glanced back at him, puzzled.
He took out a cloth and went back to the car. He opened the door on the driver’s side carefully, using his shirt sleeve. As Thea watched, he wiped down the door handles and then the steering wheel. Then he closed the door shut – again using his sleeve so his skin didn’t make contact- and did the same with the car’s trunk at the back. Then he ran back to join her.
Thea brushed back rogue strands of her blonde hair and raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“You know the technology they have”, he told her. “I don’t want them to find the car and realise that we travelled in it, and abandoned it here. It might slow them down in terms of finding us.”
“Dr Morgan could tell them it’s one of his cars.”
“Well…it’s worth covering our tracks as best we can.”
Keeping her concerns at the back of her mind, Thea followed Clyde as they made their ascent into the hills. The land was not as dry here, and the trees became more frequent. There was definitely a water source here somewhere. They constantly checked the skies and listened for sounds, but there was nothing. Everything was silent, aside from the sound of their breathing and the crunching of their boots in the dry dust.
Suddenly they came to a ridge. There they paused, staring down at the scene below them. Thea didn’t know whether to feel a sense of relief, or fear at being faced with the unknown. They had finally found civilisation.
The Perfect Apocalypse
Stain of Scarlet in the Long Ago
by Maria Selke
A faint buzz of grow lamps fills the air. A solitary scientist, clad in the white coat that is the mark of laboratories everywhere, slips into the room. Humming softly to herself, she tugs on her long brown braid as she approaches a single robust plant. The clusters of alabaster blossoms and succulent leaves are a stark contrast to the dozens of yellowed, wilting plants that surround it.
“Greetings, my darling” she whispers to the plant. “Let’s get you ready for the real set of tests, shall we?”
Grasping the base of the plant gently, she upends the pot and taps the bottom gently. Suddenly, her hand jerks back and the plant drops onto the countertop, shattering the pot.
“Dammit!” she exclaims. “When did you grow thorns, my lovely?” Her hand leaps to her mouth as she sucks on her fingers while looking down at the plant. Several drops of her blood glisten brightly against the deep green of the thorns on the stem. As she watches, the drops appear to be sucked into the stem of the plant itself.
“Well now, that’s strange.” She murmurs to herself. Quickly and efficiently, and with no more lost blood, she divides the plant into three sections.
One pot, filled with sand, she places into a chamber with blazing heat lamps. A second pot, filled with thick clay soil, she places into dark chamber with swirling gases. The third plant, without a pot at all, she slips into an aquarium. It floats for a moment before sinking into the silt at the bottom of the tank.
Slowly she shuffles through the room, gazing sadly at many shelves filled with dying plant life.
“This better work,” she whispers, “because we are running out of time.”
As she closes the door to the lab behind her, a small bubble escapes from the tank. If she had returned to the plants at that moment, she would have seen the alabaster blossoms changing. From the base of each blossom a blush of color crept toward the tips. Moments later, not a single white flower remained. In their place were lush, scarlet blossoms.
By Steven Mace
Clyde impatiently drummed his knuckles on the dashboard of the car. “Come on, come on!” he muttered in agitation as he scanned the map he’d rested on the steering wheel for directions on where to go. They had reached a crossroads. In front of them, the desert stretched out into the distance, a flat and empty yellow landscape. Dust billowed around the car from Clyde’s action of slamming on the brakes seconds before.
Thea looked back over her shoulder, through the rear window of the car, back in the direction from where they had come. She saw nothing. She flicked a glance upward, to check for any aerial activity. The lack of any movement behind them did nothing to assuage her anxiety.
“Okay, left turn.” Clyde hit the accelerator and the car roared down the dusty, worn, potholed motorway. The engine did not sound in good health, and Thea wondered how far it would take them before it finally gave up the ghost. It had not taken Dr Walton long to sound the alert and send most of the base’s troops in pursuit of them.
“So where are we going?” she asked Clyde, not for the first time.
He gave her an irritable grunt in reply, exasperated.
“If they send helicopters after us, they’ll spot us in no time”, Thea had told him anxiously. “We’re sitting ducks out here.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” he’d snapped at her. He had changed gears, angrily pulling at the gear-stick in his frustration. “We need to find shelter, dump the car, and hide. That’s what we’re going to do. First, we’re going to get as far away from that place as we possibly can.”
So here they were, hurtling down an ancient motorway in an antique vehicle, worn and scarred from years of war and disuse, with bullet holes in the front and back windscreen.
“You don’t know where we’re going”, she said, after several minutes of silence and anxious watching of the horizon and the skies. It was not uttered as a question, but rather as a flat statement of fact.
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not.” She took a sip from her water bottle. “We’re as good as dead anyway.”
The first thing she remembered of her childhood was the Tube. That was what they placed you in when they wanted you to go to sleep. It was also where they made sure you got the vitamins and the nutrients that your body needed. Her earliest memories were of the scientists, prodding and probing, attaching things. Of course, there were also the things she hated most – the needles. Sometimes the scientists injected them with drugs when they were awake. But mostly, she thought, they did it when they were asleep. As a child, she’d thrown tantrums and become agitated when she’d seen a needle. They’d always had to sedate her. As the years had gone by, they’d always put the drugs and the other chemicals in her system while she was sleeping.
She didn’t think that Dr Morgan was an unpleasant man. She’d known him all her life and he had always been kind to her. Sometimes, she thought that he had sad eyes. She knew he didn’t always like what he had to do. Dr Walton on the other hand, was a cold man with no discernible conscience. He had empty, dead eyes that were distorted by his thick lens spectacles. He had always kept his distance, particularly from the children, who he clearly despised. Thea knew that, whatever happened, he’d always be loyal to the Programme. Ultimately, Dr Walton would always be loyal to the Director and to himself.
Nightfall came. Clyde stopped the car by the side of the deteriorated road and they sat there in the dark together for several minutes. It took a while for Thea to actually register that they had stopped, as she had been so pre-occupied by her thoughts and memories. She looked at him questioningly, squinting at his features in the gloom and trying to read his expression.
“Why have we stopped?” she asked.
“I can’t put the headlights on. Travelling in the dark like this, they’ll spot us easily. We have to wait it out until dawn.”
“But what if they come?” Thea asked incredulously, staring at him. “You’ll give them the opportunity to catch up with us.”
“We’ll find somewhere”, Clyde said firmly. “But…we’ll find somewhere tomorrow. We can’t travel now, Thea. Because of the lights. They’ll find us much more quickly. We should get some sleep. Wait it out.”
“Clyde, what if we don’t find somewhere?” Thea said anxiously. She looked out of the car. She could see nothing, only the blue sky at the edge of the horizon, and darkness.
Despite his answer, he did not sound convinced. Thea gazed at him, feeling deeply concerned and wondering how this was destined to end.
“You should get some sleep”, he told her. “I can sleep here. You can have the back seat. Take one of the blankets.”
Thea glanced at the back seat of the car. She knew it was an old car and so it was dusty back there. She knew that the car hadn’t been cleaned properly despite being preserved by Dr Morgan. It was a whole world away from the comfortable cell at the facility. Still, she had no choice. She sighed and clambered into the back of the car. She took one of the covers they’d hurriedly brought with them, and covered herself with it. Then she lay back and closed her eyes. She had not expected to fall asleep that quickly, but she was more tired than she cared to admit. It had been a frenetic and incomprehensible day, the culmination of all their carefully-arranged plans for escape. It did not take long before natural sleep came.
When she awoke, it was still dark.
“Shhhh”, Clyde said. He was leaning over her, crouched in the space between the front and back seats. For a shocking moment, she thought he was trying to be intimate with her, and she was about to push him away. Then she realised something was happening outside. There was light coming from somewhere, casting beams across the interior of the vehicle.
She propped her head up and looked out of the car window. To her relief, the source of the light was not close. In the distance she could see lights flashing, like incredibly bright stars, moving on the horizon. It was impossible to tell how far away they were.
“What is that?” she whispered.
“I don’t know” Clyde replied softly, “But I’m glad we stopped moving. I started seeing them ten minutes ago. They’re probably vehicles of some kind. From the Facility, I’m sure of it. I think they’re looking for us.”
Thea caught her breath. “Then we should get moving too.”
“No. Let’s take our chances. The car lights will completely give us away. If they come down this road, then they must come down it. We don’t move until dawn.”
“Clyde…how…what do you think will happen? Do you think we can find somewhere to hide out here?” Her wide, questioning eyes met his.
“I’ve heard stories”, Clyde said evenly. “I don’t how reliable they are, but I heard them from people I trusted, who saw the outside. I heard that there were settlements out here. I even heard that they had technology and medicine in these places. If they do, then we might be able to survive.”
“I hope so.” Thea watched the ominous lights on the horizon for a little longer. After a while, she lay her head back down on the seat again, and offered a silent prayer to whichever God had forsaken them.
Clyde fell asleep too. He dreamed of the children, all together in the laboratory. They are all asked by a scientist in a white coat to lie down. Then the clouds of smoke start to fill the room. It smells funny, not like normal smoke, and Clyde realises that it is gas. It has a chemical quality. It’s too late to panic because he feels strangely relaxed. He can’t move his muscles. He is frozen and everyone else is lying on the floor. That’s when another man in a white coat enters the room, with a needle.
Suddenly Clyde realises that he can move. Strength has returned to his body and he can move his muscles. He jumps up and runs past the scientist with the needle, through a door. He’s running down a sterile, white corridor lit by florescent lighting. He runs into an empty room and slams the door shut. It’s a dead end, there is nowhere to go. He watches the door handle turn slowly and holds his breath. The door opens, and two helmeted soldiers in uniform look into the room. They are carrying guns. They look straight at him…and through him. They close the door. He must have become invisible, because they didn’t see him. He tests his theory by walking out into the corridor. It’s true. He passes soldiers and scientists and all cannot see him. He is the invisible boy, and he can go anywhere he likes. He goes into a stairwell. Two scientists- a doctor and a laboratory technician- are standing there talking. They still cannot see him, but they pause and stare at the door opening by itself. It bangs shut, and they look like they have seen a ghost. He creeps down the stairwell. At the bottom of the stairs there is a boy from the laboratory experiment, standing silently and all by himself with his hands by his side. Clyde cannot look at his face, doesn’t want to look, because he is horribly disfigured….
When Thea awoke again, she saw clear blue sky through the car window. For a moment, she did not know where she was. She was used to seeing the plain white ceiling of the laboratory or her room in the facility, like she had done for every day all of her life. Then she finally got her bearings for where she was, and it all came flooding back to her.
She sat up, and wondered where Clyde was. She was the only one in the car. Then she saw him. He was stood by the side of the road several yards away from the vehicle, closely examining the map he’d taken with them. He was sipping a drink from a small flask.
He looked up at her when she got out of the car, yawning and stretching. Her limbs were stiff from her cramped sleeping posture during the night, forced to be spent in the car.
“Do you want something to drink?” he asked. “I have some water, in another flask.”
“Please.” She was only too aware that her throat was dry and she felt parched. The thought made her worry about what they would do further down the line of their journey for food and water. She tucked a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear and gratefully accepted the flask Clyde gave her.
“I have some bread too”, he said.
Thea was hungry, so the offer was impossible for her to refuse. As she chewed on the bread, she thought about the breakfasts she used to have at the facility: cereals, yoghurts, toast, fruits and meats as a selection to eat from. Did she feel a pang of regret? Surely she did not, after all that had happened and the risks they had taken. She put all thoughts of the facility out of her mind, and focused on what Clyde was saying.
“I think we should carry on”, he said. “We’ll find somewhere today where there are people who can help us. I’m sure of it.”
Welcome to 2012 – the year of new beginnings and possibly the most final of endings!
As you can all see, The Perfect Apocalypse is following along nicely as Maria Selke gives us her interpretation of the landscape above ground, Michelle Lloyd and Arch take our heroine deeper into the bewildering environment and Jason Schiely puts up some more beautiful cover and concept art.
Hope you are all OK and, more importantly, reading, writing and drawing hard as this year is the year the Runaways make their stand. 2012 is going to be the year that Runaway Writings brings the conclusion to many of last years storylines but gives birth to many more sagas – limited only by your imagination!
More than ever do we want YOU to join our project! Whether you’re an artist, a writer or even a musician, Runaway has a place for you. It couldn’t be simpler to join our project. Read through our work, pick up a story strand you like and lets us know that you’d like to get involved in the next chapter. Comment below one of our posts or DM us on either Facebook or Twitter. Check out our Mission Statement for more!
What are you waiting for?
The clock is ticking…
Aeryn Soma Above
by Jason Schiely
Aeryn Soma Above from the latest collaborative project The Perfect Apocalypse by Jason Schiely
The Perfect Apocalypse
by Michelle Lloyd
Aeryn had heard many fantastical tales of Sunlight. She had heard of its’ brightness and its warmth. She had heard tell of how it could burn your skin to a bright red, and how it could burn your eyes to look directly at it. She had also heard tell of how it could bring life – or deny life.
As she pushed open the heavy metal door to the outside, she gasped at the intensity of the light. But the sudden warmth of it caressed her like a gentle touch, and she found herself turning her face up to greet it. She had never felt anything like it, not even an artificial duplicate of the sensation. She could smell something foreign to her, but it was strong, and somehow it automatically spoke to her of freshness and of life.
“What is that smell, Arthur Watchman?” She breathed in wonder. Mentor Watchman seemed mildly amused as he watched her initial reactions.
“Oh.” Aeryn smiled slowly. “They smell wonderful. Like….light, and air, and life.” Aeryn put one hand out towards a thick vine, touching it with her fingertips. It was moist beneath her touch, and slightly rough.
“There used to be buildings here, in the Long Ago. Now there is barely rubble.” Mentor Watchman commented. “The world has reclaimed itself from the humans. We were always the intruders in the Above. Some say that the world has simply been restored to its’ natural state.”
Aeryn released a small burst of joyous laughter at the feel of a sudden breeze on her face. It played with her hair and teased her skin, making the leaves of the trees whisper secrets before it died away.
She ran over to a nearby tree, a large tree with thick branches. She dropped her supply bag and jumped up and grasped the bottom branch, pulling herself up. The bark was rough beneath her palms, and even though she’d never climbed before it was something that she knew how to do from instinct. It was as though something primal had been awoken in her, some sixth sense that told her body what to do. Her limbs flexed and worked as she continued to climb, all the way to the top.
The top branch swayed ever so slightly beneath her feet as she looked around. She felt the bark against her back, gently grasping her clothes. There were treetops as far as she could see, a lush carpet of rustling green. The mountains were to the north, capped with snow and jutting up angrily against the horizon.
Aeryn drank in the sight for a few minutes before making her way back down, using the roughness of the bark to control her descent. The leaves of the jungle floor rustled beneath her feet as she dropped lightly back to the ground.
Even though it had only been two minutes, if that, Aeryn knew in her heart that she could never return to the Below. Not after seeing the energy and abandon of the Above. She knew, instantly and completely, that she was one with this place. “I am home, Arthur Watchman.” She laughed again, something which she had never done in her life before coming to the surface. “I am home.”
Mentor Watchman was looking at her strangely, with some sort of mixture of disbelief and wonder. “He was right. The Soothsayer was right. I never would have believed it, but….he was right.”
“You speak in riddles, Arthur Watchman. I dislike riddles.”
“Never mind, it’s not important. So Aeryn Soma, I must assume that you came up here with a plan, and a direction. Lead, and I will follow.”
“South.” Aeryn spoke without thinking, and yet somehow she knew it was right. “We must go south.”
“South?” Mentor Watchman looked at her sceptically. “Forgive me, but…the Hulks of the jungle. I have heard tell they are mighty fierce, and that they will remove the flesh from a man.”
“Go back to the Below with the People of the Shade, Arthur Watchman. Go back home and hide beneath your bed like a quivering child.” Aeryn challenged.
“I will do no such thing, child.”
“Then leave your bleating at the door, for I will have none of it.” Aeryn picked up her supply bag and shouldered it, heading into the thickest part of the jungle.
The night sounds of the jungle were so unlike the daytime that Aeryn would have sworn she was on a different world. She could now hear the larger nocturnal animals calling to one another, in hunger and in lust. Even the plants and trees made a different sound, a more enigmatic and sensual sound.
As Aeryn walked back to the campfire with dead branches for fuel, she could hear the smaller animals around her feet, moving and chattering, but she felt threatened by none of them.
Arthur Watchman was waiting for her. She was still confused about why he was even here. His manner and purpose were too delicate for the Above. He had no connection with this world, and no obvious desire to be here. She sensed from him a deeper motive, but was unsure of what it was. All she knew was that her trust was something which needed to be earned – and he had thus far done little to earn it.
Aeryn sat opposite Mentor Watchman at the campfire, making her perch on a fallen tree. The flames warmed her skin, countering the cool night air.
“I cannot fathom something, Aeryn Soma.” Mentor Watchman began as she sat down. “I have taught you to be a hunter. With the training you have you could have killed any animal in this jungle, large or small. Yet you provided vegetation for supper.”
“And what have the animals of this jungle, large or small, ever done to deserve my killing them? You would have me sully my blade with the blood of an innocent creature just to fill your belly. If you wish such a thing on your conscience, Arthur Watchman, then foul your own weapon to do it.”
“I was curious as to your motives.”
“And I am curious as to yours.” Aeryn countered.
“What do you mean by that?”
Aeryn tossed two branches onto the fire, watching the flames lick at them before slowly consuming them. “The Soothsayer would have you betray me, for motives you have yet to explain in a satisfactory manner. I have no evidence that you will not do his bidding and slit my throat in my sleep.”
“You will watch your tongue, child.” Mentor Watchman’s tone was even, yet somehow dangerous. This was the man who had taught her how to handle a blade. This was the man she thought that soft duties had destroyed. She saw now that he was not destroyed – only buried and forgotten. “If I were to take your life, Aeryn Soma, it would be while you were awake and facing me. And you would know why.”
“Forgive me, mentor. I did not mean to accuse you of dishonour. But I would know why our Father would wish me dead.”
“Why?” Mentor Watchman repeated. His smiled as though I were a brainless, naive creature. “Because you would destroy all he has built up. If the People of the Shade saw or heard of your love of the trees and the sunlight and the Above – he would lose his disciples. For what is a Leader without those who follow? You are The One, Aeryn Soma. And nothing is more dangerous to him than that.”
“Then I can never return to the Below.”
“Would you wish to?”
“No. After I find Katsura and see her safely back to the Below, I will make my life here.”
“As I suspected you would, Aeryn Soma. As far as the Soothsayer is concerned, I will have fulfilled his request and you will be dead. But as for the actual act? I have no quarrel with you. Let someone who does bury their blade into your heart.”
Aeryn considered her mentor for a long moment, weighing his words against her own knowledge and judgement. “Very well, Arthur Watchman. I accept your explanations, and I wish you good night.” Aeryn stood up, brushing herself off before finding an appropriate place to settle for the night. She stretched out on the forest floor, settling amongst the leaves and foliage.
“Good night, Aeryn Soma. Sleep well, for tomorrow will bring new challenges for us both.”
The Perfect Apocalypse
Scratching The Surface
Arthur crept in the shadows attempting to keep watch on Aeryn. She had already begun her climb up the Grand Staircase toward the faint light in the expanse above. The Soothsayer’s Warchief watched her ascend slowly, almost as if she was more nervous than she had led on. A warrior she may be, but hardly the heart of a lion. The stairs were a rusted metal, flaking in some parts with hints of its original form in others. They rose eight steps, plateaued and turned to the left, rose another eight steps, plateaued and turned to the left, and repeated the process for six flights in all. Aeryn had made it almost five flights before feeling the unease of being followed or watched. Her hand raced to the hilt of her blade in anticipation of a blindsided attack.
Arthur gazed in amusement as she seemed to jerk right and left, look up and down, anticipating an unsuspecting spy.
“Show yourself, fool!” Soma cursed at the echo from her shout that reverberated off the cavern-esque walls. After a few moments she took a deep breath and reassured herself she could continue her ascension. No sooner had Aeryn regained her composure only to be spooked once again.
“The surface is not what you think.” Arthur immediately evaded the incoming blade, fully aware of Soma’s abilities. “You might not be so successful hitting me, since, well; you know…I mentored you.” The blade caught a piece of the wall, snagging a mess-like fabric and tearing through a cylindrical banister.
“The Soothsayer sent his watchdog to check up on me? How remarkably expected.”
“He believes that I do his bidding, but we all do what we have to in order to survive. Put the sword away, you can stop playing the ‘hero’ now.” Slowly Aeryn’s massive blade made it back into its sheath. “Ah, waiting for an explanation? I forget how outspoken you are sometimes.” Arthur looked her over awaiting her to regain her calm. “Before you tried to carve me up I mentioned how different the surface actually is from what you’ve been told.”
“You’ve been to the surface?” A befuddled expression came over Aeryn’s stoic face.
A wry smile came over the Warchief while he continued with his story. “You heard the great and powerful Soothsayer mention that nobody goes up willingly. Well…who do you think he sends up unwillingly? He’s not going to send diplomats or couriers or even traders to the top. No, no, no. His best blade should be able to handle whatever is above.”
“I beg to differ.” Aeryn interjected insulted by his claims as “best blade”.
“Ah, yes, you are the best blade now. Terribly sorry for the confusion. To the point, no one has seen the top more than I. Thus, who better to chaperone you than CERN’s most loyal and trustworthy soldier?”
“No one has seen it more than you? Others have been up there?” Again, confusion flushed over Soma’s fierce features.
“It’s really quite amazing how well we have kept the ‘People of the Shade’ in the dark. Do you really believe the blabbering of a filthy, old man? And yes, he really does reek. Primarily of sewage and wet leather, trust me. The man is simply telling the people what he wants them to hear. And blindly, the people depict it as fact. The old seer is undoubtedly a ‘soothsayer’ but not the ‘all-knowing’. You see, the prophecy is exactly the reason we are underground in the first place. Our beloved master saw the outside world decay around us and deemed himself fit to lead a civilization. Very inspiring words convinced all of those you see below to heed everything that senile clairvoyant spews.”
“Why do you speak this way? You degrade our father and speak of treachery.”
“No, silly girl. Not treachery. His intentions were noble. He wanted to shield humankind from the devastation that was happening above. Our beloved Soothsayer wanted to start over, begin anew down here until the surface was ready for us to once again roam. I want you to be ready girl. When you come to the top of this staircase I want you to understand just what exactly we will encounter.”
Arthur began past her and up the stairs. Still she stood there, unsure if she was enraged or intrigued. Perhaps it was both. What could the Soothsayer possibly gain from folktales and fiction? She began after Arthur, hurrying to catch up.
“If our leader speaks lies, what is truly wandering up above?”
Watchman continued climbing, within steps of the dim light coming from the surface. He finally came to a halt at the top of the Grand Staircase and waited for Aeryn to join him.
“You wonder what is out there, girl. The rest of the world.”
The Perfect Apocalypse
Scarlet Blossoms in the Long Ago
by Maria Selke
A slow trickle of murky water drips from a rusty pipe into a small lake with slimy algae coating the surface. In the distance, a squat gray building mars the landscape. At the water’s edge nearest the pipe a small bush grows, rooted in a mound of ash. Scarlet blossoms release a hauntingly sweet aroma. Several vines have grown into the water, and the submerged blooms are swarmed by small fish nibbling. At the opposite shore, the slime is thick, and it has congealed around a floating bass.
Small gusts of wind lift puffs of the ash, scattering them into the distance.
In a silent glade, scarlet blossoms are being nibbled by a trembling fawn. The bush grows entwined with a fresh doe’s carcass. A drift of ash at the base mingles with a puddle of Mt. Dew spilled from a litter of cans.
Nearby, a glimpse into the shadows reveals a pair of wolves creeping near the fawn. One crouches lower, lower, then pounces.
A snarl, a flash of sharp white teeth, a splash of blood drips into the dirt.
A lone wolf darts away from the carnage, while the fawn rips into her kill.
I’m a girl with a thirst for words – I always have been. I’m passionate about precision; seeking just the “right word” to make my points.
I wrote up a storm in elementary and middle school. I wrote in high school. (Please, though, don’t ask me to show you anything I wrote. The little I remember of my writing from those times is hysterically embarrassing.) I wrote on and off through college, and on and off in my adult life. I even wrote a few things I’m really quite proud of. Maybe someday I’ll share.
Currently, though, I’m a lapsed writer. I’m all “grownup” now, and that means adult responsibilities. Kids, job, dealing with the house… all of these things have been gobbling up my time. I teach gifted students in elementary school, which is a little bit like herding cats. I love it, though, and can’t imagine doing anything else right now. I come home to two kids of my own – little boys who also need a lot of my time! I’m married to my high school sweetheart – happily married for almost 19 years. Yes, such things do happen outside of the movies. The things that tend to drop off my “to do” list are housework and writing. Ah, priorities.
I’ve recently started writing some reviews of books and comics. The really creative stuff, though, hasn’t been happening. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to have found Runaway Writers. Promising to write for someone else – giving myself a deadline – hopefully those things will get me to put my “butt in chair” (Thanks go to Jane Yolen for that amazing advice, which I hardly ever follow). Thanks for the welcome, and poke me if I get lax, please?
Hello again folks!
It’s been a while since our last adventure at Runaway Writings but GAUNTLET is still going ahead. Our resident artist is indulging her passion as we speak to adapt the superhero adventure into the first issue of a comic book – exciting times indeed!
Speaking of artists, Runaway is proud to welcome Jason Schiely onto the team. Read on for Jason’s Bio for more about him and then check out the awesome teaser art he did for our latest collaborative project – The Perfect Apocalypse!
This latest sci-fi/fantasy/post-apocalyptic epic is now on it’s second chapter, fantastically crafted by our veteran wordsmith Michelle Lloyd. The adventure begins but is the surface world more dangerous than the one below? Read on for more…
Remember, it couldn’t be simpler to join the Runaway writing/artistic team. Just comment below the post, send a DM via Twitter or a message on Facebook to let us know you’re interested and we’ll email you with all the necessary details. Have a look at our Mission Statement for more.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
The Perfect Apocalypse
by Michelle Lloyd
Aeryn Soma paused, one arm in her jacket. She’d been so close to freedom. So close to a stealthy escape. Now she would have to do the one thing she hated the most.
She’d have to converse.
“I have an early start.”
“Then you’re still going ahead with this foolish notion of surfacing?”
“I fail to see what could have occurred to make you believe I had changed my mind.”
“Me.” Alex Logan sat up in bed, watching her. “Us.”
“A warrior doesn’t allow themselves the luxury of emotional distractions.”
“But last night…”
“Was a brief physical diversion.” Aeryn finished putting her jacket on.
“That’s it, you just…go. After months of stringing me along, we finally…and you just go.”
“You got what you wished from our liaison. As did I.”
Believing the conversation to be concluded, Aeryn headed for the door.
“And when you come back?” Aeryn felt a surge of impatience go though her as she turned back to him. Alex had swung his legs over the side of the bed and he had a frown on his face. “What then? Do I pretend we don’t know each other, that this never happened?”
“If you wish. I have no embarrassment over what has occurred. Sexual intercourse is an effective way of relieving tension and inducing a state of relaxation. Your penis has been most useful, and I thank you.” Aeryn pulled the bedroom door open. “I wish you well in your life’s journey.”
“Go to Hell.”
“Only to the surface, Alexander Logan. But perhaps they are one and the same.”
Aeryn inspected her blade carefully. There was a dull spot near the hilt, so she began to meticulously polish it again. A year of physical and mental training had finally prepared her for the journey she would embark on.
Several people had now tried to stop her. Friends, family, brief diversions such as Alexander Logan. But she would not be swayed. She knew what to expect, she had spent a long time preparing herself for it, and now it was finally time.
Katsura had disappeared a little over a year ago. Katsura’s family had adopted her when Aeryn’s own family had died, and Katsura was her adopted sister. Aeryn’s is vice=like grip childhood friend – and only friend – had last been seen near the Grand Stairway to the outside. Katsura had always explored further than she should, strayed closer to the surface than Aeryn used to be comfortable with.
It used to be a game of chicken, when they were children. Who would dare to stray furthest from the Trax? Who would dare to go up more stairs? Who would dare to touch the doorway that led to outside?
Katsura had always won.
Perhaps Katsura was dead. Perhaps she had only survived a few moments outside. Perhaps the Hulks, the Panthers, or the Unknowable Beasts of theWesternDeserthad killed and consumed her instantly, or days or weeks later.
But Aeryn had to know.
She owed it to Katsura to find out.
Because for Aeryn going home would mean one more night of looking at the haunted expressions on the faces of her adoptive parents.
When Aeryn was finished polishing the sword she inspected her own handiwork. Satisfied, she slipped it into the hand-made sheath on her belt. She was ready.
But first, there was one more duty to attend to.
“I would entreat you one last time, Aeryn Soma. This is foolishness.” The Soothsayer spoke earnestly. Aeryn knew that there was a reason behind the Soothsayer’s sudden request for a private assembly, but she was willing to indulge his request. For now. She was knelt before him respectfully.
“It must be done, Soothsayer. For my family.”
“None of us have ventured willingly to the outside before, Aeryn Soma. There is no way of knowing what awaits you.”
“Nonetheless, it must be done.”
“Rise, Aeryn Soma.”
Aeryn got to her feet obediently. The Soothsayer was holding a small carved box out towards her.
“If you would do this, you would do it prepared. Do not open this until a time of dire need, and I would warn you – do not use it lightly. It could be your salvation. Or your undoing.”
“I thank you, Soothsayer.” Aeryn accepted the box. It was light in her gasp, and the surface was cool and smooth.
“May the wind be at your back, Aeryn Soma.”
The Soothsayer watched Aeryn leave the grand chamber, and listened to her footsteps receding. He beckoned for his aide Arthur to come closer. Arthur moved as he always did, swiftly yet soundlessly, almost seeming to glide across the floor.
“What is your opinion, Arthur Watchman?”
“I am uncertain, Soothsayer.”
“I believe she may be The One.”
“She may, Soothsayer. Or she may not last five minutes on the outside.”
The Soothsayer rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “But you agree is it possible?”
“I do concede that there is a strong possibility.” Arthur accepted.
“That is a risk we can ill afford. Have her tracked, Arthur Watchman.”
“And if it comes to light she is The One?”
“Then have her killed.”
The Perfect Apocalypse
The End is only the Beginning…
by Rob Richardson
“Brothers and sisters, pray reverence for this day.” The Soothsayer stood in the centre of Grand Central Hall, resplendent in the furs and armour of ancient warriors now dulled by the passage of time.
The Soothsayer himself was an aged creature, his longevity unknown. A huge beard draped from his chin to the ground, his flesh graying as much as his hair and his form almost skeletal.
His eyes shone a perfect green which betrayed his nature. They were more alive than anything they had ever seen.
This man had truly lived.
The Calling of The Day was an ancient tradition in which The Soothsayer told the account of the End of Times; the day man had ended his own reign on the surface and been forced to retreat underground. It was a story that many travelled from miles around to hear. They used the tunnels that had once carried Taraynes – immense machines of steel that ran on Trax and transported men from all destinations to Grand Central Hall – but only the Trax remained to lead the way.
Stalagmites and stalactites erupted from the floor of the Hall and hung from it’s ceiling. They concealed statues of ancient gods that man had once worshiped, Gods that were older than CERN himself. If you looked long enough into the darkness you could make out the ruins of the Tyme Taybel – it’s function was lost to the People of the Shade.
Men and women shuffled into the hall and stood shoulder to shoulder, pushed tightly together to listen to The Soothsayers tale.
“It was on this day, in ancient times, that CERN called to the heavens.” The Soothsayer began. He waved his staff, made from an unknown material – could it have been the fabled wood they wondered? – above the heads of the masses. It held a yellow element at it’s point that glimmered faintly in the shadows.
“Man wished to become gods. They searched for god in the very matter of Eden but when they awoke CERN, they awoke the greatest god of all.
“A gateway opened that allowed unknown creatures and beasts enter Eden. CERN wished to punish man for his transgressions.”
Children in the crowd hid behind their parents thinking of the horrors that lived above ground.
“The world changed in a day. CERN forced the plants and animals to grow and take back the habitat man has stolen from them. He unleashed Edens own protectors back onto the land to arrest control and we were forced below, our only protection from the forces of nature above.”
There was a deathly silence throughout the immense cavern.
“But it is prophecy that we WILL take our home back. The Hulks in the southern jungles, The Monkey King and his army on the eastern plains, the Panthers in the northern snow fields and the monstrosities who have no name in the western desert shall all fall when SHE arrives to save us!”
There was a rapturous applause and a stomping of feet so loud that the hall felt as if it’s very foundations were about to fall.
“Mark my words, People of the Shade, SHE will be born to save us and mankind shall rise again!”
Prepare for the Apocalypse…
Marvel at the exclusive teaser by the latest Runaway Jason Schiely for our new and exciting collaborative project…
Hey there fellow Runaways!
Sorry I’ve not been in touch for a while but due to a crazy amount of banging my head against the floor and a little know event known as the DC Relaunch (what could that possibly be about?), I’ve been a bit snowed under.
That’s not to mean Runaway hasn’t been sky-rocketing off on it’s own!
We’ve had the awesome reveal in the last chapter of Batman: Question the Punchline by fellow writer DAMM. Get back there and check it out! The revelations came thick and fast and were more shocking than ever anticipated. We wait with baited breath for more…
DAMM has also posted many reviews and poetry to keep us going.
GAUNTLET is also progressing well, as is a TOP SECRET PROJECT we have in store for you!
Keep reading and let us know what you think!
Shock and Awe
“Henry Jones…Harbinger? I thought he was dead.”
I gave into the deceit with a wry smile. They knew I was keeping something, but I was quite proud of myself.
“Abbie, spill it already.” Marionette was growing impatient. I understood and I certainly knew that this run around was going to get us nowhere. We were to work as a team and to do that we needed to trust each other. We were already down one big man and his woman was on the verge of death, and now Marionette was bleeding out of the gunshot wound to her shoulder. This couldn’t go on much longer.
“Come on, let’s go, I’ll explain it all once we’re inside.” I unlocked the door to my office. Behind the mountains of clutter and bullshit I had something resembling a desk. In that desk was a key, a key to a safe behind more clutter and bullshit in the corner of the room. In that safe, I had a nice collection of, well, ‘acquired’ goods. As I got into the safe I passed out several vials of Corpquik.
“Corpquik?” Savage asked puzzled.
“Unless you want Volition to bleed out, break the vial over the wounds and save her!”
Savage, being the only one with any medical skills, quickly did as he was asked and snapped the tiny vial over the worst wound where her neck met her shoulder. The blood congealed so rapidly and her breathing normalized. Savage looked on with awe and then back to Abbie. Once he realized what was happening he decided he’d question the issue after the healing occurred.
“Wait, before you snap off another one, remove the bullets. Unless you’re trying to make her suffer.” I didn’t really know what I was talking about, I had never been a nurse or practiced any kind of medicine. I read the manual and that was the extent of it. Well that and some common sense. While Savage attended to Volition, now lying on the desk in obvious pain, alive but in pain, I was attending to Marionette’s shoulder.
“Abbie, if you don’t start explaining real soon-“
“Ok, ok…what do you want to know about first? The healing agent or Jones?”
“Jones!” Savage and Marionette yelled in unison.
“Alright, easy. Remember how this whole thing started a few months back? Hank’s daughter Nancy came to me asking for help. Well, as it turns out it was more than a standard kidnapping. Either of you know what Harbinger even does?”
I gave them a look and both looked on with curious gazes waiting for me to continue.
“Alright then, what is a Harbinger?”
“Fuck, Abbie, enough with the games! Just tell us what we’re into.” Marionette used her good arm to swat me in the back. Savage had just one more bullet to remove from Volition.
“A harbinger is an omen, a precursor to the future. Henry Jones was one of the very few Metas able to look into the future. By having him on their side, Smith could utilize Jones as a way to see how operations would go. How to work an angle, how to strategize…the MRC was going to be able to steer the ship in the direction they wanted. Once Nancy informed me of him missing, he had already been ‘working’ for the MRC for months. See, Smith had Harbinger contained; so locked down nobody was getting near him without wiping Smith’s ass first. So, I went undercover.”
“You mean to tell us you worked for these limey bastards?” Savage’s attention diverted from Volition for a second to give his unapproving glance my way.
“I had too Joe, don’t interrupt. See, when I went to the MRC looking for employment I knew my kid brother was already in their service. I had to dodge him just as much as the rest of the operation so my time with the company was…well…brief. I managed to see how it worked, what their game plan was. Then I found Harbinger. He was stowed away like a wet towel, thrown in with other ‘talented’ Metas being tortured or exploited. There was another Meta connected to Jones. Jason Wylde aka Wyldecard. Apparently, he lived out his usefulness as a two-bit hoodlum and felt he was better suited to help the MRC. I can still see his enjoyment in torturing Jones when he refused to give them the answers they wanted.”
“All well and good Abbs, but how did you avoid Slice?” Marionette couldn’t see how I could outsmart my ‘oh-so-deceptive’ little brother.
“That’s my favorite part of the story. Slice tracks, yes? I track as well, right? But how can someone track when their powers are nullified? See, there was another man being used to keep some powers at bay and leave others undeterred. I don’t think he was helping voluntarily either, but my mission was Jones so that’s where my focus was. Slice was never in house; he was always on duty, given his tasks on the go. All I had to do was wait until Wyldecard let his guard down and release Harbinger from his chains. Again, not as easy as it sounds. Luckily, that guy who nulled powers was able to unlock whatever force was keeping Jones against his will. And like that, I was able to leave Jones in hand.”
By now, Savage had finished attending Volition’s wounds. Volition was now resting on the desk, probably passed out from the pain. Savage seemingly had no side effects from the vial and continued looking on dismissively.
“That’s it? No alarms, no witnesses. This guy just helped you get Jones out and nobody raised so much as an eyebrow?”
“Joseph, have a little faith.”
“Oh, I have faith. I just find this little story a little too…far-fetched.”
“You’re still keeping something from us Abbie. Don’t make me phase into you to find out what’s going on in there.”
“I hate working with clever teammates. Fine. When ‘Nullifier’ came to help, he wasn’t alone. Nullifier called him Excalibur.”
“Do you know who that is?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Fuck woman, he’s only London’s greatest superhero. He’s saved the world on countless occasions and up until a few months ago he was found dead.”
“You know I don’t watch the news. This guy definitely wasn’t dead and helped release Jones and escorted our escape. He mentioned he wasn’t there for Jones, but rather Wyldecard and whatever the MRC was planning.”
“This if bloody unreal. You saw Excalibur, he helped you escape, and now you have Jones holed up somewhere?”
“Listen, Excalibur told me he’d been looking into the eradication of Metas for months. Apparently, he faked his own death before they could get the jump on him.” They both shook their heads in disbelief. A new voice came from doorway. It was Henry Jones.
“She speaks the truth. I heard everything. Excalibur needs our help.”
Question the Punchline
Walter Kovacs Loft
Hidden Room behind Refrigerator
I bitch slap the Batman.
The next time I remember Pamela and Joker and close the fist, I aim for the gut. When he finally awakens, his anger is obvious but it’s not about the slaps or the punch. He heard Booster. My God. He didn’t know. Adrian, I may have underestimated how sick you are. You KNEW Birdman was going to be there but not Booster. You were going to feed the girls to the Man-Owl. Test them in your own sick way. What a risk too! When they are to play such an important part of your plan and still you are so supremely cocky you just KNEW it would work out. No wonder Brien hates you. Eel that he is he has a case when it comes to you Adrian.
But there are a couple OTHER things I need to knows so screw your surprise and your sense of betrayal and answer me, “Where is the Kryptonian? Where is Dr. Metropolis?” I ask without tone inflection or emotion. “Where is Clark Kent?” He physically gasps his shock and I lose it a little. ”That’s not an answer, well in a way it IS!” I kick him in the ribs knowing soon he is going to be free.
Let’s face it he always gets out, He’s freaking Batman.
So I kick him HARD in the face and I see those 2 of those beautiful teeth on that smarmy mouth clink like ice on the marble tile. “You thought I couldn’t figure that out, huh!? Thought ol’ Crazy Red Robin would skip over the obvious?” I pull him close which we both know is stupid but it makes me dangerous too. I show him the DNAcid. “Your dad was a hundred percent Shaper you are at least 50%, now is it the Birdman or the Martian? Who has the big blue bomb Adrian?” I am nearly hoarse from yelling.
When he speaks I nearly lose my bowels and hate him for it.
“In moments dad will have the Kryptonian, he already has Jason and is en route to the little pow wow you called. But I’m not going. I am going to lay right here. Then, when I am ready, when the plan has moved on I am going to finish this.”
Like Hell! He wants me to carry him, wear myself out. He wants to see me in action pick up clues from my behavior. I do the insane and cut the lines. I sheath the DNAcid. Then I turn around and walk out. He doesn’t try a thing. No need to. It all ends in the abandoned R and D facility that houses the family. A facility that belonged to a dead friend. There could be more of those tonight.
Soon we will all be home. Poor Jason. Poor Selina and Dinah. There is no winning for them today. The Batman has his army, I have mine, and Inque hers as well. Eddie Blake Veidt IS an army. Bruce Wayne is very dangerous. But no one is asking the Question? Why are they fighting over Clark Kent? Why are the most determined men on earth obsessed with the man who became Dr. Metropolis?
I jump into Destiny and take her for a high stakes spin. Booster is not gonna believe this. Then it hits me and I pull the car over. The logic descends in cold waves followed by what is left of reason as I finally see what has always been there.
Eddie Veidt is my father too.
I scream under my erased face and race toward the portal buried in a Deadman’s stronghold.
Walter Kovacs Loft
Hidden Room behind Refrigerator
The Studebaker squealed all the way down the block. He had gotten under his skin, Adrian Viedt smiled. A horrible thing not unlike his half-brother with a mouth it was all intent and gritty will - not amusement. Like a surgeon of renown the Batman thrust his hand into his chest plate. He took the psi-com – the scrambled secure one – and spoke into the micro-spoon end. “Murmur wake up and remain supine. Now we get to the meat of this. Listen carefully…”
As the Batman gave his instructions, Eddie Viedt, the Last Martian listened in with his mind and stole all of the secrets of the Bat and began to twist a new approach in his landing. Under the psi-shields Batman knew this and put Jason Todd on the altar like Abraham did Isaac, waiting for a cosmic act of God to swoop in and save him. Batman would be that act. At least that is what he told himself while the Birdman watched from a submarine in the Hudson River.
Batman knew this too.
Eddie “Blake” Veidt lit a cheroot, careful not to get to close to the flame and set Jason Todd’s feigning body down on the roof of Edward Brand Nigma’s long abandoned stronghold and waited to hear the teleporter fire up. Then he said, “look kid, I know you are fakin’, I am a freaking telepath and I heard my son tell you a thing or two. So stop fakin or I will wake you up inside your mind…painfully. Good,” murmur flashes open blazing angry eyes. “Now eat your pills little mime, you have missed two meals and I need you at full strength if you are going to help me keep my family from killing each other.”
Murmur defiantly “smiled” and presented the spectacle of battle called eating for the Martian. He was pleasantly surprised to see the patriarch of the Batfamily cringe physically as he beat back Pamelas poison fingers. He was glad he could eat. The poison was starting to wear on him and the anti-toxin in his food made him feel better.
But there was another reason.
Batman had in his “instructions” specifically said in that overbearing asshole voice “No food, No drink just get the job done Jason.” OK two codes buried post hypnotically (the only defense against a telepath for if it is buried deep enough with triggers then the telepath won’t be actively looking for it,) First “no food no drink” as it was said understanding came but not in his mind. It was reactionary, instinct and the second “Jason” the bat never breaks protocol in the field unless he wants to for a reason. This time the reason was this. Inside the capsules of food and anti-toxin is a chemical secretion that keeps all telepaths out. It is an impervious chemical psi-shield (thanks Batman and Palmer and Ivo) with no known meta/alien counter measure.
Yeah he knew what was in the pills, all that and a small dose of shapegel.
He ingests a small dose in the hopes of someday having his mouth and voice back. 3 small doses ingested so as not to lose his mind. Yeah the bat told me, because he actually wants to fix it. Not because he actually cares about me but he must fix it, he thinks. But to get the fingers out of his face he will become a shaper. Slowly and measured but he was not willing to go insane. Too much of that already he thinks.
Eddie Veidt screams in frustration, “NO! What did you do to your mind? I can’t see anything! Damn you Adrian! You are going to kill us all!” With that he moves to subdue Jason. The coded hypnosis kicks in and Murmur, faster than anyone even dreamed he could move – faster than even the Question, reaches inside his black coat retrieves, cracks and ignites the Red Robin Rotisserie. The RRR was designed by Ted Kord (rest his soul) and was basically a long flare that shot burning plasma and napalm in short knife sharp projectiles with a small charge buried within. It was nasty and very lethal. That is why the Bat banned it and confiscated it from Red Robin. Then he gave it to Jason the day after the Question raped his face with his dead girlfriends poison fingers.
Three of these hit Eddie “Blake” Veidt in the chest and exploded. The smell of burning alien and plastic filled the rooftop and the sound was deafening. There alone on the Deadman’s roof the Martian Manhunter, father of the Batman, the Question and the Joker – creator of the worlds most conflicted family expired. With no plans realized and no more threats. Jason had finished what Brien O’Hara tried to do 7 years ago and started this whole mess. He had killed the most messed up SOB on the planet (Thanks Batman and Question and Joker) He was just a burning green pile of still burning goo. The accelerant would burn till no organic DNA would fuel it. There was no coming back. So Jason followed his training tapped the comm in the fingernail of Pam’s ring finger still sporting the 6yr old wedding band. He had left that for Wally’s benefit.
“Is it done?” Two taps for yes. “Get inside and wait for me. Keep an eye on Wally. He is YOUR primary responsibility from here on out. YOU are now responsible for him AND what happens to him it is finally time to make your choice, soldier. I am counting on you Jason. Batman out.”
Time/Space Portal Receiving Area
Deck 2/Platform 5
Abandoned Riddler Operations Center
Booster Gold who is Alfred, but not really Alfred, was not smiling when he crossed into the room of rusty grey metal walls adorned with purple drapes where clearly windows should have been. He was nauseous. He was flabbergasted.
In his mind he could not understand why a time traveling machine was doing either.
A flabbergasted nauseous time traveling machine he decided was not good. Booster’s mind then started to break it down; first as thought then as data. For make no mistake that was Booster gold in there but also Alfred. The failsafe Question called for took the real Alfred and thru magic spell he got from Zatanna Spectre for a price to high. There was no extraction but he would live. It was not supposed to take its initiation on the first night however and he was pretty sure after 5 years the longer he stayed in the more likely he was going to stay in. But what Wally had said over the communicator shook him to the core. Adrian had been keeping the secret of Wally’s siring his whole time with Wally.
Lied to them all.
It changed everything.
It turned his “noble” mission to out of control ego. It changed the night at Arkham and if the computer he shared residence was right had more to do with Questions face (or lack of) than Joker did. And it made Joker the first victim. But the real world breaker of a revelation was that Adrian is – NO always has been working with Eddie Veidt – and that Eddie Veidt has played them all like fools and it might be too late to stop him. As the girls follow him out of the portal room to meet Question in the Interrogation Station two flights down he realizes that his new body – The Amazo Paradigm Project Android – may not be done on time. Ivo was a hell of a scientist but in the future he was a TV technology salesman.
But something else was REALLY troubling the once happy go lucky, now sullen Booster Gold.
Tonight for the first time in 5 years Booster killed a man. Or rather he killed a Man-Owl, and Booster was nauseous from his weakness of character. He knew both Bats and Question would say it was “unavoidable” but he wasn’t sure. Both of his old friends had lost it to some degree, Bats in his misguided plans and Question in his hurt feeling driven revenge. It was at this moment Booster sent his silent untraceable message, and started making plans of his own.
Someone had to save them.
Booster reckoned – according to history (at least when he left) – it would be him.
And his friend.
Question literally rages into the room. His stride is huffy but taught and dangerous, and the eyes Booster thinks, are too revealing about what is about to happen.
“Catgirl and Batgirl!” He is nearly bellowing and he doesn’t realize it. “Hit the showers, get some food and fast – no chit chat we roll as soon as booster is in his new body.”
They move as directed. He is nearly foaming at the skin Booster thinks in a joke he can’t help and things are about to explode. This time the Question IS the question. Booster floated toward Ivo’s lab and Wally says, “Uh-uh, Booster this way” He points to the elevator. “We moved him down to the cloning prison. Your new body is..complicated. The APP was flawed so we injected some of your human DNA into the project. You will look like you but will be a cybernetic hybrid. At least you can eat in public.” He sighs.
Booster “sees” Wally’s mind blazing hot in his wild eyes and recognizes desperation in a cold remote sense. He feels The Question’s pulse rate as a binary grid, he hears his blood pressure as music and there is so much inner alarm Booster Gold is stunned silent. Alfred inside him was concerned for his “boy” and momentarily assumed control. This also was not a good development because as the robo-butler did an old protocol (from Eddie Veidt?!) exploded in the gold bots shell and one though remained – destroy the Question! At the same time a giant KRA-THOOM from the roof echoed like a sick dying twin and Wally Kovac’s did a terrible thing.
He “smiled” with the skin on his face and said “Rotisserie! The bastard kept it and gave it to the brat. Get the kids Booster, we’ve got company. Don’t tell ‘em who it is Gold, not a Murmur.”
Abandoned and Destroyed Kord Industries
Main ShapeGel Chamber
Sally Jupiter O’Hara Wayne, mother of Joker catatonic, assaulted and withering away suddenly screamed and was none of those things – just really angry.
Angry at Eddie Veidt for magically and chemically imprisoning her a vegetable for 20years and then dying before she could kill that cheating ex-husband of hers. The madder she got the more her thoughts got “loud”, the Wonder Twins screamed and the Joker laughed in shocked surprise and fear and even the mighty Inque – Lois Lane Wayne, mother of Batman and Bruce Wayne and the very first person twisted in J’onn J’onzz’ twisted experiment squirmed a little. But this was only after he pulled her from the Planet had his way with her mind and kidnapped the Kryptonian (Clark!) and it wasn’t enough.
Nor was it enough to kill the man she left him for, it wasn’t enough to put Bruce in that cage for 10 years, no to finish it he started in motion the plan to run the ShapeGel Generator and now one or all of those dumb boys will! But now her family was strong and healthy, the Greenie was dead and the boys were on their way. Oh delicious. Something else she picked up on as she morphed for the first time in year into her white alien form.
Sally Jupiter O’Hara Wayne was a White Martian, once a foolish rebel in love whose foolishness destroyed Mars peoples –No! J’onn! It was J’onn! What she noticed in her mind scans was that Inque was EXTREMELY displeased. With a suave stride she said, “There, there Lois we are STILL using your plan. Now Joker just has an ace up his sleeve and you have a sister.” The Martian monstrosity gently nudged Inque’s mind and recoiled in horror!
It seems Batman’s psi-shields were painful to her kind and all of a sudden minds were dropping out one by one. She was mind blind in a room of psychopath Shapers and there was worse news. Someone had to have been blocking that information.
From her mind.
One of these “offspring’” is a hidden psi.
They were on her like jackals; Inque a black blanket against air found purchase and with suffocating strength on the alien’s legs and she morphed out and turned around into a mind assault of the highest order.
It crippled her.
Put her on her knees.
Then the laughter of the deep voids of Limbo started – Oh no, Joker was excited!
She was frozen in terror by the hidden mind flayer wedged deep in the cracks. Between a boiler and a pipe was a one foot diameter gleaming scarab, Ted Kord manipulated the end of Mrs. Sally Jupiter as Joker cackled and started the flame thrower. When it was over he wiped their minds. He was after all the most powerful telepath on the planet. Not even Batman could find him.
Both the matriarch and the patriarch of this sick family are now dead and soon the world will make a whole lot more sense, thinks the Blue Beetle. Then he activates the comm buried in his metal body and skitters off into the shadows to wait for the end of it all.
On a submarine, the one man in the world you did not want to mess with was enraged! Bruce Wayne watched his mother kill Joker’s mom (his strongest ally) and saw the Beetle on the cam. The monitor was still blinking in alarm from the monitor of “dad’ who sadly was also now expired.
“Fools! What have you all done?!” With a sad deliberate will – not unlike his brother – Bruce Wayne released Dr. Metropolis and the world trembled forever at his wrath.