Sunday, March 4, 2012

Issue Ten, Volume Three

From the Desk of the Editor;
Hello and welcome to the science fiction and fantasy edition of Larks Fiction Magazine! In this issue we explore the worlds of the Never-Was!
Thank you to our supporters on Smashwords. Sales of January and February have exceeded expectations. If you have not seen them yetcheck them soon.
We are currently in great need of poetry. If you or someone you know is looking for somewhere to submit to send some our way.
I hope you enjoy this issue and thank you for reading.
Daniel J. Pool
LFM Editor

A Little Trouble
Kieran Woodhall
“By Aratutr’s fire, what have you done?”
I froze in mid-step; my eyes quickly scanned the room. The upturned wooden table, its legs turned skyward. The bottles that had once called the table home now lay shattered against the floor, their oddly coloured concoctions soaking into the freshly mad paper carpet. The paper that made the carpet had once belonged to the now destroyed library that had sat on the shelves of the bookcase in the corner. My eyes moved to the other side of the room, to the scorched and blackened stone wall. The empty ingredients shelf, its contents littered over the floor. My eyes quickly glanced over the headless chicken that hung from the stone rafters. I caught a glimpse of a shadow disappearing into the darker edges of the stone ceiling.
I turned full circle to face professor Ledwick. The professor was a short fellow with a large head, much of which was taken up by his white bushy beard. His beard was long enough to almost be his equivalent in size, although that wasn’t exactly a difficult task. His large owl like eyes were staring down his long beak of a nose at me, while his pointed ears poked through his thinning snowy hair and over the top of his head.
“Well?” Despite his wrinkled face his voice was young with only a hint of the dry papery sound of age.
“I can explain, I swear.”
“Really?” one bushy white eyebrow rose the considerable length of his head. “Everything?”
“Including the headless chicken?”
“And be completely blameless.” I opened my mouth to speak but he beat me to it. “Without lying.”
“Well now you’re just being unreasonable.”
The old man smiled at me like a granddad would smile at his amusing grandchildren.
“Let’s have it then, before age claims both of us.”
I took in a deep breath in preparation for my long explanation. Unfortunately at the same time that I opened my mouth to take a breath is the same time that an unnoticed berblic cone, that had somehow become heated, released its foul smelling fog.
The foul stench of krul dung, rotten eggs, troll’s sweat and the faint aroma of strawberries, clung to my nostrils and filled my mouth. The smell was potent enough that I could taste each individual smell; I should also point out that I can’t stand the taste of strawberries. My eyes watered as I gagged on the disgusting smell, my gagging caused more of the revolting smelling vapours to clog my lungs. The professor watched me while he used his sleeve to cover his mouth and nose, whether to protect them from the smell or to hide his smirk I couldn’t tell.
With watery eyes, I ran past the professor, past the small but cosy rooms until I got outside. Once I was out in the fresh country air I began taking deep breaths and coughing up the thick smog that fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes. The professor followed me out at a slower pace, laughing.
“Well that was certainly interesting.” He patted me on the back in an attempt to clear my lungs. “Now are you going to explain how exactly all of that happened?”
I waited until the last of the fog hit the floor before speaking. “Well when I was cleaning the rafters I accidently disturbed a mischief goblin.”
The professor laughed a deep laugh that rose from the very bottom of a man’s belly. After a few seconds he stopped laughing and gave me a bemused look.
“You really expect me to believe that a mischief goblin caused all that? Give me some credit boy I know about mischief goblins and they wouldn’t do that, they wouldn’t find any fun it that.” He paused. “Unless… what did you say to it?”
It was my time to pause but I knew I had to face it. “I sort of called it short and then it got angry.”
“By the Gods boy! You got a mischief goblin angry? Are you aware how hard it is to get rid of an angry mischief goblin?”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry.”
The professor shook his head but his mouth was still turned up at the corners in a half-hearted smile.
“If there ever was a son of Lisron you are it.”
I smiled myself at that. I had always taken being called the son of the God of trouble as a compliment.
The End for Now
About the Author:
My name is Kieran Woodhall and I’m a sixth form student currently living in Northampton. One of the more interesting subjects is psychology; I’m especially interested in studying dreams. A lot of my writing inspiration comes to me at night when I’m walking my dog, a miniature schnauzer.

Innocent Bystanders
by Alexander Bryant
*Ring* *Ring* *Ring* *Ring* *Ring*
“Mediatron. Happy 3:32 and twenty seconds. State your name.”
“Mary! Mary Pickman! Please help me!”
“State the location and nature of the disturbance.”
“I’m at a Burger Me and Fry downtown. Two of them are here, they’re right here! One ripped the roof off and threw it at the other one. Everyone ran, but –.”
“We have you at the intersection of Howard and Philips. Is this correct?”
“Oh God!”
“Ms. Pickman? Ms. Pickman?”
“Yes! I’m here! Yes, Howard and, whatever. Everyone else got away but I can’t move: the street is molten lava! I’m in the walk-in cooler. I need help now!”
“Please remain calm, we will send aid. This call is being recorded for quality assurance and also to create a legally binding contract. Ms. Mary Celine Pickman: do you by making and participating in this call and/or responding to our text messages and/or to any Internet, intranet or mindnet transmission by us consent to transfer all publishing rights for any and all interviews, multimedia presentations, television or netcasts, streaming or transmission radio, animation and other common forms of mediatainment as laid out in SR3345-900-2018A, presented or preserved –  ma’am, please stop screaming, I am nearly finished – preserved in digital or analog form for the duration of our involvement in the relocation of either or all of the entities currently assaulting or causing public nuisance to your person, property or relations?
“YES! Please help! They’re destroying everything! Wait, where-. What happened to the lights?? Oh no, the glass is alive. The glass! Oh God!”
“Ms. Pickman?” The operator scans her board. “Communication terminated by caller after verbal contract established. Hard copy receipt of request for assistance and verbal assent sent via email, text and netcatcher to addresses of caller. Presuming she is still alive, standard 24 hour burn time implemented. Activation of IB units commencing. Reporters dispatched for standard type B featurette, 5:PM same day news cycle expected. Estimated 11% profit to loss.
Plaster trickles down onto my old paper ‘zine, but it’s not a problem yet.
THOOMP. The fake fridge squeals, plastic china rattles. Alarm bells now, twenty stories below. I take a breath . . . yeah OK, nothing yet . . . back to CybArena Illustrated.
Steady trembling kicks in. I know from experience - hell, I feel it in my DNA - that this one’s gonna be big.
My ears emit a little *pop* like the cartoon coyote realizing there isn't any more cliff and the scenery outside my window falls up. This building, me included, is going down, twenty-eight stories down, collapsing with about fifteen of us inside.
I hope this works out.
Drywall, wood, dust, flying cups, spinning couch, chair and head on same vector goddam that hurt! metal and mortar and is that . . . the DISHWASHER?
Seein’ stars now and still down goin’ down. This were a full G, I’d be done, an IHOP pancake of the week: Cadaver Cake with real wood poking out at seventeen succulent angles and that's not raspberry syrup, kids! I could use the Field to protect myself but – nah, I’m gonna ride this one, the suit should be enough. What a guy. What a bull-riding stud hombre Marlboro man.
Smack into the ground’s fist. Lights out.
Later, a trickle of gypsum.
I’m still alive. Still conscious even. Thanks to the suit.
It has to work, every time, or we’re was. Always seems to, though. Because of those suits, we can treat the disasters they throw at us like rides at Disneyland. Gotta hand it to those engineers.
It's dark and I can’t move right now, and I’m pinned under something. Gives me time to wonder which one it is, what’s the cause and effect this time? Other IBs tell me it’s just their violent nature, but I dunno. Somethin’s been different these past few months.
More sirens. I hear machinery, digging, and finally they’re here, IB33 and IB102, Shaman and Dillon, their suits projecting paramedic outfits. They fish me out. The Swarm is right behind them.
“Bob Deepvox reporting live at the scene of another building collapse, the work of –.”
“Shelley Headtilt reporting to you from devastation: this time the ‘Ton Hotel. Captured on film is none other than –.”
I writhe in fake agony, catch the eyes of the IBs. They nod. I nod. Another day’s secret kept.
My name is Charlie Decker. I work for the Federal government, and I am an Innocent Bystander.
“How you doing, Chaz?” Shaman mutters once we’re out of sight.
“Scrapes, bruises. My wrist on the landing. Nothing major. Where are they?” I ask.
“Went underground. IB99’s got it.”
Soda McIntyre, our new subway operator, been here about a year. One of the more dangerous assignments. Jesus, I hope nothing happens to her – she owes me money.
“Who was it?” I ask.
“Broken Land. Started with a code 44.”
Hurling a car. Typically a temper tantrum: either side could run a code 44 though only Brand Good will pony up for the damage. Not that it mattered. “Then what?”
“Code 54. Coupl’a 39s and that’s when Sparkle showed.”
“Sparkle and Flare.”
“No, just Sparkle.”
Sparkle alone. Huh, he usually – no, make that always – traveled with that Flare guy, both of them costumed in . . . well, I guess they’re a fun pair if you like that sort of thing. But that’s another one missing, another super not showing up. Half of ‘em ain’t been seen in months. Where the hell are they all going?
“Broken Land,” Shaman continues, “spots Sparkle, tosses a roof from that burger joint at him, original caller inside, she’s OK by the way. Anyway, he stops what he’s doing. Just stops. Hypnopompic. They stare at each other and then Sparkle said something that Broken Land nodded to.”
“Yeah. Obtuse.”
Shaman liked to try out words.
“Well what did he say?”
“I don’t know. They were moribund.”
He wasn’t that great at it.
They were pretty quiet, he says. I’m trying to imagine this. “So a Brand Good shows up to confront a Brand Evil,” I say because I need to be clear here, “who is busy wrapping buses around streetlights, and they have a quiet chat? When have you ever seen that?”
Shaman shakes his big black bald head. “We’ll get it on the remix.”
“What happened next?” I ask.
“Broken Land does his rock-shoveling thing, dives under what’s left of the street. Sparkle flies down the hole he leaves behind him. De novo.”
“And play passes to Soda.”
“Well, we’d better get down there.”
Shaman’s shaking his head.
“Why not?”
He points up without looking up.
“God dammit in a gumball,” I may have muttered.
It’s the Net, and it’s coming down.
“I hate that thing,” says Dillon.
“Is this really necessary?” I yell into my watch.
Pleasant dreams, Bystanders, the device crackles back.
Goddamned supers. What’ve they done now to warrant a Net?
It hisses as it settles. It’s the same sound the alien made in that old movie with Sigourney Weaver. Like being smothered by bees, and afterward . . .
They say cigarettes are nails in the coffin. This is the pillow inside.
Brand Good and Brand Evil.
It started off almost like a game: superheroes (they were called back then) squaring off against their nemeses, so-called supervillains. Plots, betrayals, drama – noisy and unbelievably expensive, they had to be wiped out or at least reined in. But how? They’ve got all the powers. They can fly, survive in outer space, toxic underarm sweat. We normals can’t melt buildings with our hypothalamus – we’re squirrels to these titans. And they don’t pay taxes, either. So how are we not living as their slaves? Is it protection from B.G., uh, Brand Good, you might ask? Heroes stepping in to right the wrongs and defend the innocent?
Nope. Not even close.
Supers need an audience, a fact they grokked even before we did.
They got it, too. Internet. Serial movies. Homecast. Every fight got HoloFaced and GlobeTubed. We learned from that, and then they did: fighting left little time for biopics, Ghosttext deals, and Teen Wired articles. Americans ate up their stories, not their battles (and also not – this kinda surprised everyone – their abilities which really only clicked with the basement virgin set). Their lives became our entertainment and their causes plot of the week. Sure they fought each other but that was the hard route: injuries, shredded costumes, wear and tear on equipment and always the possibility of losing right there live on the six o’clock news.
Constant exposure to them, and some self-delusion, made us think after a while that we knew them. But of course we didn’t. We never did. No normal knows these freaks well, but the media brought us close to what we thought was them and so they became. Even with those super-egos, they conformed, and they were protected in that way for a while. But how long is it going to take an Iguana Avenger – scales, yellow eyes and ugh, that tongue – to switch to Brand Evil? The Swarm was pretty hard on IggyA, his handle on that rapcast he recorded, when he was working for Brand Good. ‘Course, now he’s got inner turmoil with the whole fighting his former friends thing, so he’s once more in the entertainment headlines; his star’s headin’ back to skyward.
But it’s not just appearance that nudges a super to one moral path or the other. Truth be told, Iguana Avenger’s looks and unique hygiene aren’t that far from those of everyone’s favorite pin-up girl, Outrageous Pompom, the super-cheerleader married to Captain Awesome. None of them look good, not even her, close up. Their powers come from chemical spills, mutation, radiation, machine implants. We can spot it immediately and it’s mostly repulsive. Think those heaving breasts on Princess XX are soft? Skin that can turn away bullets doesn’t shine right and sure as hell won’t feel right to the baby soft touch of a normal. And what do you suppose Mint Mentalito traded away for telekinesis and his famous Binaca breath? More than hair, that’s for sure, in that over-sized crown. His super suit mainly holds up his Blue Ribbon at the Fair cranium. Duraform’s chiseled features really are chiseled, and anyway you know chicks: who’s gonna put up with flaming feet on the bathroom rug? You think this guy can go to a bar or catch a Tri-D with athlete’s foot from Hell’s seventh circle?
So even with levitation and neutrino rays, it’s a freak underneath. We know it, they know it. That’s the way of things. It’s why there is so much Brand Evil around these days, I guess: most of ‘em are former B.G.s that have simply been alive for a while. Some got lucky on the non-lethal-odor-of-normal-size-and-correct-number-of-eyes draw and can be idolized for a while by the masses, but even they fade from the spotlight eventually. That’s why they adviser up, plotting schemes and setting machinations in motion, not for one side or the other of the moral coin but to figure out how best to use, and be used by, Mediatron. For example, there’s Queen Lavalicious and Quantum Mechanic. They started off as supervillains before their current stint in Brand Good. A couple of clever feeds on the ‘tron and their publicized switch went viral. Pretty transparent: when they were bad, they were never bad enough. And their agents are the best.
Maybe the supers brought their A game, but we had the upper hand all along: we have what they desperately crave and can’t get anywhere else. So there was an agreement, a deal inked between Feds and supers: stay in The City and be fully covered by Mediatron.
We won. They stopped being real.
Hurray for us.
The debriefing’s almost worse than the Net. For me there is only one word for the epic fights that crash meteoric heroes against hellspawn villains of the netherworld, and that is paperwork. You wouldn’t believe the trees I gotta kill every time The Black Pharaoh (Nyarphafflestep? Nearmelaughnstuff? What’s his name again?) decides to flood The City with creeping black goo and Catwoman from the Moon has to stuff it right back down his six throats.
Chief’s talking to everyone now. Something connected to this latest incident. Projector on, lights out.
“This,” he begins, his mouth working a perpetually unlit cigar around gum, bits of chewing tobacco, remaining teeth and an inert but still razor-sharp tongue, “this is a close up a’ what we got in the subway af’er IB99 called in the Net. I’ll run it from when Sparkle encounters Broken Land.”
The movie zooms in and now I can hear that conversation Shaman was telling me about.
Sparkle: “You’re in the spotlight, evil-doer. I’m the curtain dropping on your malefic one-act!”
Broken Land (visibly trying to sort Sparkle’s words): “Wha–?”
Sparkle (in a lower tone): “You can’t win.”
Broken Land: “None of us can.”
Sparkle (after a pause): “Yeah. I know. That’s show business, Ms. Temple.”
Broken Land: “You come with me. I show you something different.”
Chief pauses the vid.
“Think they know?” I ask.
“Bout the IB’s?” says Chief. “Dunno. But jus’ keep it in mind as you watch the rest o’ this.”
He resumes the vid. A Stealthed Mobile Eye – SME – follows them down. Maybe Broken Land notices something because a spinning rock flies back behind him and terminates the feed. Another SME picks them up at a tunnel junction.
“Looks like they never ran into Soda,” I say.
“Nope. They took a path pretty conspicuously around her location in the subway. Broken Land tunneled like a son of a bitch. That creature was on a mission – never seen him move so much stone.” He points to another screen with a representation of the mantle underneath The City. “Headin’ for some kind a’ low density area underground, somthin’ we've wanted to investigate for some time but we been so busy this year.”
I notice that Soda’s not here among us. “Where is 99?”
“We don’t know. She wasn’t there and her Homeband was turned off.”
“Are we sending anyone out for her?”
“Nope. She’s all right. She’s prob’ly just layin’ low.”
The game goes like this: they never kill one another and rarely kill us. Not sure why on the first point: maybe they’re unable to or there’s some sort of code that even Brand Evil follows. On the second, well, why would you eliminate your audience?
Still, it happens that one of us is hurt pretty bad or slain, sometimes not by accident. There have been reports of the intentional murdering of normals. In the past these have always been pinned on one or another B.E. but now we’re not so sure. There are supers out there, we’re beginning to uncover, not so simple of mind and morals.
And that pretty well sucks.
Our whole operation relies on them noticing that we’re there and ignoring it, treating us like things, important things to be sure, especially in the case of camera crews. That’s what we need to be for it to work: generic interchangeable objects. It’s the key. But what if they’re starting to catch on? What if they realize they aren’t endangering anyone anymore?
What if they want to be real again?
The second SME manages to stay with them a while, following miles through the freshly-hewn tunnel.
“That’s running deep, baked Nietzsche deep,” says Shaman. “Can the Net get down there?” Chief shakes his head. “Huh. So it knocked us offline but let them keep going.”
The SME draws up to a black amorphous thing blocking the passage. Doesn’t seem like there’s a way through for anything larger than a terrier.
“Dunno where that came from,” says Chief. “The supers went right by it, but when our SME tried to get past, it couldn’t. Ran a mats analysis on it – sucker is organic, even alive, this far down. Might be Deep Tree. We sent it back up lookin’ for a tunnel branch, a side passage or something, but we never found one.” The cigar completes its seventeenth lap and stops. “So  you guys get to go down there.”
That meant suiting up.
It meant confrontation.
It’s how IBs get killed.
We’ve got two suits: Encounter and Hero, or ‘the suit’ and ‘the armor’. The first is for riding out collapsing buildings, tornadoes and of course maintaining the disguise. They’re on my Like list. But the Hero suits are, if you’re wondering what the pinnacle of human technology and a near-infinite budget can muster, weak.
Meant to approximate superpowers and provide rudimentary defenses for normals, they are bulky, under-powered, slow, too heavy, and smell like a frightened android’s underwear. Still, they did one thing right: each is modular so you can mix and match their supposed abilities.
Before you climb into either armor, you have to take some drugs, poisonous elixirs that burn away years of your life. My paycheck ain’t large because of my good looks or the falling structures I’m still inside of or even my working relationship as pin to Brand E. bowling balls. It’s because of the drugs. You’re an IB, you’re in it for the whole ride: you get paid yer money, you takes yer fragastan, phenol ultramenophine, and of course yer cyclosoporastaferimone – that is, yer reds, yer blues and yer glowing spheres – when directed.
It’s a good idea to be pretty drunk first.
When I’m finished retching, our quartermaster always gets the same order from me: “Gimme the Rom, LGM, Squidie, and OP 5.”
Most suits have the Rom pack – short for Romulans, you know, cloaking – built into it. Eats the juice but worth it. The heavy weapon mods make it impossible to use, but I never take any of the big guns — they’re all designed for ‘suicide by super’ as far as I’m concerned. The LGM, or Little Green Men because of what the thing makes you look like, is an advanced sensor array that sees or hears pretty goddamn near anything and at good range. I get Squiddie, too: a weird gun that fires these tentacled things that stick and squeeze. Gives me an opportunity to hear the B.E.s’ ongoing anthropological studies of normals’ filthiest language, and that makes me happy. I’ve only needed it twice while Posing, that is, being the Innocent Bystander. Both times were against supers that were going to do real harm to themselves and others. In exploratory mode like this, though, I’ve used it half a dozen times.
OP 5 is one of the nine Option Packs: Swiss Army knives of gadgets, some serious, some little more than gags from your local magic shop. The idea is to tack a few seconds on to the presumed end of your short life should you ever piss off a super in an enclosed space.
Everyone also gets a stunner that would drop a charging hippo — this is barely adequate — a few environmental defenses, a basic comm pack, computer and some detectors.
Take drugs, vomit, suit up. Ready for action. Shaman’s got BFG again. I make a note to compose something suitable to his widow. BFG is the biggest gun we have, about even with anything the supers are shooting from their eyeballs or fingertips or whatever other energized orifice they light up. It only comes on OP9, the armor pack. You get three shots, four if you aren’t interested in moving anywhere afterward, and then it’s an hour of recharge just to turn the fog lights back on.
IB4, an engineer named Mark (as in ‘marking your target’ as he’s told us many times) is all stealth and sensors like me, but his weapon of choice is a grenade launcher that he’s modified to fire programmable rounds. I never know what’s going to come out of that thing. Few are lethal (on supers, almost none can be without splitting atoms): grenades that stick or a gas or a stun field or reflective aluminum dust or webs or nets or a swarm of miniature flying pigs. He was an accountant before joining the Agency. A goddamned accountant. Just goes to show what a change in surroundings will do for a guy.
IBπ, that is, IB314, loves the supers. She worked with them a long time ago when they were called Empowered Deviations, or emdevs, and now spends all her off-work time collecting their action figures, magazines, buttons, fan crap, interviews on special-edition PicPods and cereal boxes for every single one of them (and while we’re on it: goddamn, but I would like to eat a bowl of any kind of crispies without Smoldering Dahlia or The Cleanerator sending me a carefully tailored marketing message with my moo every morning). Cassie, that’s her off-work name, is our oldest team member. She’s smart but not in a real useful way. Has Asperger’s, I think. Interesting lunch room . . . well I was going to say ‘chats’ but they’re not. They’re monologues rich in histories that didn’t happen and mathematical formulas that people tell me don’t work. But she knows more about the supers than the Agency does. Some of that information is not exactly tactically valuable, like what brand of brass polish Phreaking Ephreat prefers on his lamps and that Mother Gaia uses only organic, locally-produced lightning bolts. Anyway, she is always OP1: packs of tranquilizers, some spy gear, and some charisma enhancers for the whack-job stalker on the go.
Speaking of going, we gotta head, and for this location there’s only one mode of transport. The Agency’s got civilian, stealth and war versions of sea, air and ground transports, but underground means Snakey.
The Snake is a quantum-state-flux something or other piece of apparently left-over super, or possibly even alien, biotech machinery that Chinese scientists found on their last trip to the moon (IBπ says she found it first, along with a young girl, and that they were the ones who activated it, but I’m pretty sure her story isn’t true because it was ON THE FUCKING MOON). Anyway, it had been endlessly burrowing – the wrong word but I’ll get to that in a sec –  back and forth from pole to pole. They disabled it or captured it or somehow brought it back, and we got wind of it. We actually got our hands on it by getting Snakey in trade for some Mediatron buy-in. So now China can join the ranks of moneyed empires selling us our own politicians.
Snakey moves by sliding through the spaces between atoms. I always thought atoms were, you know, pretty tight. You go to put your fist through a wall and there’s, well, wall there. Solids don't move through solids, they break through, and people know this. But what's happening, according to Cassie, is that the little electrons popping around an atom’s solid center are pushing against one another, and their cumulative repulsion creates the noodles we masticate when slurping soba. So solid isn’t: it's just electromagnetic unfriendliness. Somehow Snake coils past the repulsion through this empty space.
The Chinese tried taking Snake apart to see what made it tick, but when they opened it up expecting circuits, they got glop. Now those parts of it – near the end of the tail and another patch under the front right port hole – don't really work all that reliably anymore, thanks to their tinkering. And there’s a patch in the center on the back and another under the left front port hole that also don’t reliably function because our scientists tried the same damned thing.
It’s cramped, it smells, it’s slow and for some reason doesn’t turn to starboard during peak sunspot activity, but it is the best we’ve got for plunging into the planet.
Our team assembles: four plus a hovering utility bot named Sikorsky. Turkish dance music that Shaman picked out is on the speakers, Snake’s powered up, no sunspots this week, we head down.
Traveling in a quantum-state-flux vehicle is exactly like getting off a plane in Amsterdam from Tokyo or maybe Mars, heading for the nearest “coffee house” and downing a couple of Simka’s Satyrday Special Special Space Cakes baked with whatever pharmaceuticals were lying around from last night’s rave, sold to you by someone with less flesh on his skull than metal from his ten thousand piercings. It makes the nightmares in the Net seem like wet dreams. The only good thing I can say about it is that it takes our minds off of what we’re doing here in the first place: miles underground to face children with nuclear weapons.
IBπ is whistling her own little tune, probably something the blind idiot flutists orbiting Azathoth play.
Snakey slides by or through whatever the tunnel obstruction was. It’s about to nose past another one a mile or so further down when everything goes to hell: lights dim, servos – whatever they are – screech.
The Snake has no sensors of any kind that anyone has been able to figure out, so Sikorsky drives, his suite of electronic eyes peering into the near future. Sikorsky was the one that stood on the brakes, figuratively speaking since he has no legs or feet, and the one whose mother – according to Shaman’s polluted stream of abuse – villainously spawned the incompetent, and incontinent robot hovering above the driver’s seat.
We uncouple him – can’t seem to call our little hoverbot an it – and send him outside while we fire up our suits’ tie-ins to his array. He shows us the reason for the hard halt: twenty feet more and we plunge into an abyss.
“Parsimonious,” amends Shaman, no trace of a grudge left in his voice. That’s all Shaman: a pressure cooker with Tourette’s. Take him off the burner and he serves up warm creamy soup for everyone.
A few minutes of the little copter buzzing around out there and we have a 3D picture.
We’re on a ledge poking into an underground cavern, some three-quarters of the way to the top. The expanse before us is filled with enormous shining domes atop gleaming structures that reach down into the darkness.
I can’t avoid hoping-praying-wishing that down here it was just possible that our being deep in the Earth’s crust, along with our precautions and stealth equipment, has shielded us from detection, can keep us cogitating in a positive manner that death wasn’t waiting for us in the immediate space-time continuum.
It would also allow us to keep mind-blanking fear at bay.
It’s a whole other story that I don’t have time to tell why special forces or some other military team isn’t down here, folks who have balls for brains and I mean that respectfully, but the short version is that we can’t trust ‘em: too many of the supers – particularly Brand Evil – started out as commandos. That personality type is what created about a third of them in the first place.
“Eh? Arhhgfff-!”
IB4 collapses holding his leg. His suit starts ripping, equipment denting and shorting before our very eyes. A hole in Snake’s roof explodes open and IB4 is sucked out. With a scream cut short, IBπ is vacuumed out with him.
Shaman and I start hitting buttons and rattling off commands to our suits’ computers – defenses, cloaking, weapons, sensors coming online – when he is picked up in mid-air and spun around bouncing off the ship’s interior until his armor gives, suit totaled and his brain, pudding. He drops to the floor in a heap.
My scanner sees nothing weird, but Sikorsky’s sensors, tied into my suit, detect anomalies all over the place, as if the math governing everything was trying out its first ‘shroom. Seconds later Sikorsky’s feed goes dead and I hear what sounds like a hundred million dollar trash can lid clatter to the ground outside.
I’m next. I’m next. I’m next. I’m next.
ROM pack is vibrating and I can see the distortion field around my gloves, so I have that going for me at least. As quiet as I can manage while mewling with terror, I move to a service hatch at the back of the transport – don’t need to be bounding out the main doors – and open it up. I place my noisy suit weapons on stand-by so the cloak is more effective and wriggle out of Snake. If I can get away, bring back help, just even see what was going on . . .
“What the–,” I probably whispered as I got outside.
At some point, without anyone noticing, a ramshackle caravan from Middle Ages Transylvania has pulled up alongside Snake and set up camp there. Somehow it also scooped up, propped up, and wrapped up in blankets my blasted workmates like they were on a field of dandelions ready to break out guitars and sing Kumbaya. Old pots and filthy pans are strewn about, scarves and mandolins and broken wagon wheels and did I mention the woman playing an accordion next to a campfire?
“You’re here!” she cries delightedly looking directly into my eyes, my supposedly cloaked and invisible eyes on my supposedly cloaked and invisible face. She rouses herself from half a decrepit chair and commences capering on her heels. Doors on garishly painted creaking wood cars start opening and supers are looking out: Broken Ground and Sparkle, Bloody Mask of Annihilation from uh, Brand Good, weirdly, and “The” The Eye Creature (don’t ask). The unintelligible undead spokesman for B.E., Storm Thrum Thrumm, is here too, loading up pointy weapons of toasted marshmallow destruction near a campfire at the back. They are all silent while this woman – familiar to me somehow – does her little dance.
Since there isn’t a pair of eyes here not staring right at me, I deactivate the cloak but keep everything else humming on stand-by. I may be able to fire a squiddie, re-cloak, race off the cliff and hit the suspensor coils at perfect intervals all the way down to break my fall. Once there, I can pilot a shuttle they doubtless have waiting somewhere – or one o’ those, whatchamacallit, flying thingies, a Pegasus, yeah, why not? – back to the surface finding the secret passage leading to the Agency's most heavily-guarded area where, once the gang recognizes me and makes good my escape, a toasted sandwich and three glasses of Johnny Walker neat await.
IB33 starts to moan. Alive, thank God, though it takes the initiative out of me. Maybe thank God for that, too. All of the IBs are moving now. They look stunned and damaged but not dead. That is, they don’t look reanimated or any witchey shenanigans like that: they seem to be cautiously weighing what life has to offer them right now, just as I am.
IBπ blurts out: “Gee. Meaningless Destiny!” And that’s where I recognize the old woman.
Or is it?
We’re all mouthing words at one another now:
“You OK?”
“Yeah. Off-Brand!”
“Meaningless D.”
“The Genera.”
“We’re totally froobed.”
Right there in front of us, the well-known Voice of the mysterious Off-Brand, a rarely-seen coalition that fights both sides. Meaningless Destiny, the only member of the Generas – as they’re also known in some parts of the world – ever to be seen on national webcasts. And here she is, in rags, singing and traipsing like the matriarch of a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion.
Off-Brand. This alone would be justification for the Net. They have no known honor code; they give no speeches. Their individual members, save for a couple of names, are not in our database. There is no predicting any of their kind.
Some supers tire of the battleground and find jobs outside The City. Swoop is a professional photographer. I’ve seen his ‘pegs, they’re pretty cool. Chupacabra runs a free-range organic goat meat restaurant: goat milk, goat cheese, goat cheesecake and goat-on-the-cob. We know who and where they are; they’ve become something approaching civil service workers as far as Mediatron’s concerned. They don’t fight anymore.
Genera aren’t retired, aren’t unplugged. But they also don’t use The City: they fight outside. Their leader is rumored to be someone named the Adversary. No one knows if that’s a he or a she or neither or both. Could be the Greek god Adonis, could be a tweedy little German guy in chaps and a monocle. One thing is common knowledge: Off-Brand might be the only supers truly interested in running the world.
It’s an ambition normally associated with Brand Evil, a mistake a lot of people make. But B.E. doesn’t really want to rule the planet. Oh sure, they say they do, but that’s just PR. More than most of ‘em can picture the situation five years down the road after their successful world conquering. The big R towers over them in their nightmares: Responsibilities. Yeah, you’ve minted your own coin, you’ve got the women (or whatever) and headlines and the one-raised-arm salute from your black-booted minions, but then what? Assassins attacking every day during every meal – wouldn’t it be great to just wake up and enjoy a bowl of Phrooty Doops? – which means round-the-clock security, expensive hologram IDs for ugly henchmen, checkpoints, body guards and dinner parties. Your loyal subjects are idiots and draw penises wherever your face is posted on your new public buildings and now you have to spend millions of Dark Bucks in a city-wide cleanup project just to get rid of that shit. And committees, and treaties, and talk talk talk talk talk, always talking! Nothing gets done and it’s the only way anything gets done. You need to host committees on economics. Gone is the scheming, the squads of hand-picked teams tightly executing your evil schemes, the carefree destruction. Now it’s just insurance and having an HR department and obligations.
But Off-Brand may actually want all that because they wouldn’t have to do any of it. Their flunkies would be the world’s governments, the normals, and no one would know. That’s the difference: no one would know. Maybe it’s happened already.
Then again, perhaps they’re just scouring the cosmos for the best curry. Can’t tell with them, and that’s a lot of their power.
Brand Good, by the way, is in it for the adulation. There are a couple of innocents among them who really do buy the Justice with Compassion line, but overall B.G. isn’t materially any better or any worse than B.E.
“Pull up a rock,” says Meaningless Destiny, motioning us to rickety stools and actual granite. “Charlie, wriggle all nervous-like right here.” She winks.
It’s that gesture that does it.
A wink is a friendly thing, something an uncle tosses off to a fond nephew. It isn’t supposed to be menacing. But I’ve seen that wink before, quite a lot actually, and it didn’t belong to the pupil-less creature of power gamboling in front of us now: it belonged to someone else, someone close to me.
I look over at the other Bystanders but I seem to be the only one who recognizes Soda McIntyre under that dancing fortune teller outfit. Or maybe IB99 was the costume.
“What’s your game tonight, S-, Meaningless Destiny?” I say, hearkening back to a dozen poker nights of declining population since she always seemed to win.
“Oh, ohh, my game, my game. Oh, IB86, my game is an old one, played with pretty cards like always, but this variant is called Illuminate. Guess how you win! You control all the face cards,” and she drops to a stage whisper, “while they’re still in everyone else’s hands.” She cackles. “Not like your game, no, no, not at all. You play Whack-A-Mole and you're verrrry good, I mean terrible! Terrible at it. Ha ha! So, are you going to sit with us or . . . not?” Her playfulness develops a cold front, and the other supers stiffen. “Maybe, to be polite, take off the OP suits, eh?”
Five supers and a Genera calling the shots. I thought about signaling for a fast, hard strike followed by a quick retreat, reasoning that if we worked together, were smart and lucky, there would just be a chance that relatives would have something recognizable like a singed kidney or a nostril to bury at our closed-casket funerals.
I began stripping down. The others followed.
Man, do I hate to take off that suit. First of all, I physically hate it: the whole tedious process is like slowly peeling off an adult bear. But it also makes me feel naked. Down here, without protection, I’m a mouse under a launch pad.
“Caliginous,” mumbles Shaman.
“Were you ever Geena ‘Soda’ McIntyre?” I ask several minutes of grunting later. Bloody Mask hands me a stick and a marshmallow. The other IBs snap their attention to us.
“No, but ah played one on T.V. Feel a little betrayed, mon ami?”
“A bit, gotta say.”
“Well, that’s too bad. But you won’t be suffering much longer. None a ya will.”
“You took us out of our suits so you could kill us more quickly?”
She looks shocked. “What kind of talk is that? I’m not gonna keeeel you. No, my dears, you aren’t going away, sad to say; we are. What do you think all a’ them shinies down there are for?” She motions to the cavern.
“You, you’re leaving?” asks IBπ.
“On a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around what she was really saying. Part of it was the Southern dialect she kept dropping into and out of: it sounded like she was trying out lines in a half-remembered accent, kinda how Soda talked, I guess, but not really.
But the rest of it, the message. No supers? Who would people idolize? What would happen to Mediatron? What, come to that, would going happen to the free world? Brand adulation is most of the economy.
IB4 disappears, and it looks like he meant to. The camp is frozen for a heartbeat.
These red pills we take make us a little aggressive. I blame them, and the recent claim from the Genera that we would all live, for what happened next. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, Mark’s a little nuts.
IB4 had somehow been able to keep a cloaking device on his body, powered and in stand-by mode. No idea how as it’s pretty bulky. The cloak doesn’t make you completely invisible: it bends light around so that you seem fuzzy, all background-y, so he is pretty obvious sprinting towards Snake. Flare is after him and nearly has him – it was gonna be over that quick – until like a gazelle IB4 turns on a dime, his feet flaring with light, and I realize that he managed to hide yet another gadget, the Bolter. He zips to the cliff and –
“Mark!” screams IBπ.
If he had the cloak and the Bolter hidden, maybe he managed something like a null-g belt?
“Ah-ah-ahhh,” says the being who was Soda McIntyre. To that point, she had not reacted at all. But with a poke of her finger in the air, IB4 reappears, stripped down to his shorts, pulled up at the campfire, tea cup in hand, panting.
The fire crackles. A spark pops. Somewhere a wind chime rings.
Mark right now is Plato’s archetype of a perfect deer in front of perfect headlights. Meaningless Destiny smiles.
“Bardacious,” whispers Shaman. “So your power is –?”
“Oh goody gumdrops, IB33!” Meaningless Destiny exclaims. “You want to brand me. So, what do I do? Not, what is my philosophy, what was it like for me as a child, or where do I keep my eyeballs? No, what is my power, my category? How can ah be classified?” She adopts a deep faux game-show announcer voice: “Well, Bob, our newest contestant is Meaningless Destiny. She can rearrange near-past events to form different outcomes as long as they could physically have occurred. She may not destroy causality or inhibit quantum entanglement but otherwise this member of the Off-Brand can do pretty darn near whatever she wants, Bob! Let’s welcome Meaningless D, interior decorator in the house of Time!”
Where did they come from, these powers, these supers? Yeah, a fair amount are toxins and radiation, but not all of them. And anyway why did heroes with strange abilities show up in ancient times, skip about a hundred generations and pop up here again? Remember the Greek heroes, the Norse gods? Then nothing for centuries save for the stories people hung on to from back when. Were they replaced by angels and demons? If so, who were these angels and what was in the demons' wallets? Seems hard to believe they were all myths and that none were re-tellings. Historians are starting to agree, which means there have been supers among us all along.
IBπ talks about chaos and Laws of Thermodynamics and how it would be impossible for so many humans to inherit powers that perfectly aligned with their biology such that Broken Land wouldn’t have stone lungs and die, Sparkle wouldn't develop every cancer known to science and die, Phaser Four-Eyes wouldn’t be able to see or hear or think with force beams coming out of his . . . well, you get the picture. They cannot get these powers through evolution, ‘least that's what IBπ says: “The necessary resistances to their own unique physiologies require a hundred million years to evolve which they have not had. Evolution does not select a single individual within whom to suddenly blossom a never-before-seen, fully-realized new ability from nothing.”
So they must be engineered. If that’s true, they must be here for a specific reason which implies a purpose which means someone is getting a paycheck.
But if so, then what about the Muffin Man?
His official moniker – the logo on his stationary – is Steam Punk. A ‘peg producer for sub-talent cyberteen nobodies, his alter ego sports an array of minor abilities that feature steam. But here’s the catch: his powers only activate after he has made and eaten a batch of muffins. Not any muffins, mind you: he has to make them from scratch, none of that pre-mixed stuff in a box, and he has to down them while they’re still hot and fresh from the oven.
That’s not engineering, that’s a punchline.
“Don’t think that’s my only trick, Bystander,” Meaningless Destiny continues. “Let’s talk about y’all. We sent ‘em into your societies as archtypes, guides to show you what wrong and right look like, since many a ya are forgetting. But clever children as you are, you came up with the Brands, the only way y’all could control them. You need to survive, no fault there. But you commoditized intelligent beings, ruined ‘em. That’s a no-no.” Again the waving finger and we collectively hold our breath, but this time reality moves ahead without unscheduled changes. “Well, I guess this batch didn’t work out. You may have accidentally rendered us a favor: you gave us time to build these,” her fingers sweep across the rocket field. “So despite your crimes, we may owe you for allowing a good test run, my normal playmates.”
IB4 speaks up, his wits if not his clothes collected: “So you’re all leaving? Why not just stick around and conquer us?”
“They might have, accidentally, thanks to your appalling short-sightedness, but we have other plans for both of you.”
“They?” I ask. “You aren’t supers?”
“Not the way the Agency classifies, no. Not at all.” I see that IBπ is also shaking her head.
“I don’t understand,” I say, looking at how docile the other supers appeared, not reacting to her words, and that was weird: hyper-sensitive, volatile supers whose egos were the only things larger than their lives and they seemed at rest, like dogs at owner’s feet. “Are you their masters?” I ask and brace for destruction or at least Olympian umbrage, but nothing comes.
“You can think of them as our pets.” My jaw must have dropped because she explains, “Remember, Charlie, what you said to Soda on the second day at the Agency? You said, resumes are worse than worthless because they cram people’s stories into straight little garden rows with square little tags and people aren’t like that. Empowered Deviations are that, right now. I can understand why you’re confused: you got all the defective ones, and was y’all who brokes ‘em! Ha ha! So we are resettin’ the game. In another century or so maybe you’ll see supers again. But the next time we’ll be prepared.”
“Prepared for what?”
A sweet mocking smile. “Your evil,” she says.
Mark again: “How long have you tampered with us to create them?” He points at the supers in the background.
“Enough time, darlings, enough time.”
“Don’t go,” IB314 whispers.
“Cassandra.” Meaningless Destiny’s eyes become normal, the deep green of Geena “Soda” McIntyre once more. “You, I will miss.” She presses her forehead to Cassie’s tear-streaked cheek. “So much.” It’s such an intimate scene, I realize suddenly that these two have known one another for much longer than Soda has been here.
Meaningless Destiny comes over to me next and smiles up at me. It’s an impish grin that takes years off of her, and I see for a sec a young girl. “You too, Charlie. Your fatalism, it’s so charming, you have no idea.” And then her pupils are once again covered by glow: “Back to the surface, kids. Play your corporate and government overlords right, and you’ll be rich and famous.” She waves. “Bye now!”
And with no transition, we are in our OP suits, sitting inside Snakey, no hole in the roof, ‘natch, traveling back up to the surface. Reality turned the page to the last chapter.
All over the vid, in every country that carried the Feed, which was every country with electricity, there they were, the shots of the massive domed rockets, hundreds of them ascending past the stratosphere. *pop pop* *fooom* they were all blowing apart into colored streamers.
“Redacted,” whispers Shaman.
“Not us, right?” Mark asks and I nod: we had nothing but nukes that could zap those mega-arks, and anyway it was pretty obvious they were exploding from inside.
IBπ is on her knees, crying as she stares up at the blossoming sky.
“Probably a few made it, pi.” She looks up at me. “On account of their being supers and all, right?”
But the Genera didn’t seem to me like the sort of group to leave anything to chance.
How did they do it? Did they talk Mint Mentalito, Smarm Lord, Inconvenience, the New Hampshire Darkmagics and all the rest into deep freeze? Or maybe they put them into an atomized state and dispersed them when they blew the rockets? Maybe the supers are all dead already and these ships exploding are an exclamation point or some kind of statement. One thing was for sure if I understood that conversation: there wouldn’t be any Off-Brand aboard.
Off-Brand. Guess we’ll have to change that name: there’s only one Brand now and they don’t seem like they want to play ball; they seem to prefer Fizbin.
*thoom* *fweeeeeeeeee*
The supers, gone. The Brands, eliminated. This is like television going away, or beer disappearing. This will be the end of entertainment, the end of civilization.
Maybe we can work with the unplugged, those supers that have melted back into the grid like Swoop. Or are they scheduled for termination, too? Better check on that.
*thoop* *fooom*  *cracklecracklecrackle*
The machinery of the trillion dollar idolization industry just got a wrench attached to an antimatter bomb thrown into it. There’ll be a hundred thousand people out of work next week, a million more next month.
Who will we worship?
What did she say before we left? Play your corporate and government overlords right, and you’ll be rich and famous.
I finger my OP controls, look around at The City, glance at IB33.
“Maybe they can be replaced.”
I watch a smile grow on Shaman’s face.
“I never liked ‘em anyways,” he says. “Prima donnas.”
“How does ‘Skean Dhu’ sound to you?” I ask, jerking my thumb at my chest. “It means ‘black blade’ in Gaelic.”
He laughs. “Not really your style, Chaz, is it?”
“Well what are you picking?”
“Ready? ‘Tendentious.’ Eh? Eh?”
“Yeah, how ‘bout ‘Boomer’?”
“Boomer.” He thinks about it. “Yeah. I like the symmetry of all the rounded characters.” He laughs. “Business cards, books, movies, posters – the name matters. They knew that.”
“Gonna be like cowboys and Indians, hey?”
“Always was, Charlie. Always was . . . .”
– END –
About the Author:
Alexander Bryant is the author of Colder, the first book in his the Lovecraft-inspired Tamelin Light trilogy. He spent seven years producing this, his first novel. Look for the second book of the Tamelin Light trilogy March 2013. In his spare time he is a computer and network tech with hobbies that span the sciences.

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