The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Berserker􀀀


By Lou Antonelli

My football-scarred ass was floating on a neat little maglev plate in a sonic􀀀
whirlpool. I was just beginning to relax. I had to fill two piss pouches that􀀀
day, the regular daily doping test, which was only going through the􀀀
motions, of course, as well as a second one to show that the regen nanites I􀀀
had taken for my ACL tear had washed out.􀀀
Everyone cheated. You were expected to. Those regen nanites I took􀀀
for the ACL tear--yeah, the ones Doc gave me washed out, but I pumped in􀀀
some silicon ones gray-marketed from Vilnus. I got them from a trainer.􀀀
Those little Lithuanian buggers didn’t react to anything. Of course, I’ll􀀀
probably never get rid of them. I’ll be pissing out sand when I’m old. If I􀀀
live that long.􀀀
Brad Carlisle sidled up to me and bent down. “The Hillman is going􀀀
berserk tomorrow,” he said quietly.􀀀
I didn’t turn my head. “How do you know?”􀀀
“I heard him tell Coach we’re sure to win.”􀀀
“Shit.”􀀀
The Hillman. That was his nickname, because of his name as well􀀀
as because he was as big as a hill. Hylton Hawkins had been a defensive􀀀
lineman with the Cowboys for ten years--a long damn time in pro ball,􀀀
especially when you’re constantly being doped with nutraceuticals, nano-􀀀
particles and gm-protein supplements. It took a toll.􀀀
The Hillman was really sort of dumb and sweet; he was just a big􀀀
East Texas country kid out of Texas College in Tyler. For years after he hit􀀀
the big time he threw away his money on drugs, whores and cars. Of course,􀀀
team owner Joe Jenkins got a cut of it all. It was Jenkins who spread the􀀀
money around to pay off the police and the media. And it was Jenkins who􀀀
sent the word down that a berserker payoff was available.􀀀
4􀀀
Not that it was very common, or people might have wised up. Even􀀀
as corrupt as the U.S. and especially Texas was, you couldn’t pay someone􀀀
to go berserk very often.􀀀
The summer of ’27 we were a tight race in the west division with the􀀀
Raiders. Oakland was coming to town for the second-to-last game of the􀀀
season and everyone knew it was an important one. Tuesday that week􀀀
Coach said it was a “must win”. We all knew what that meant. That was the􀀀
code.􀀀
I thought we could win anyhow, so I didn’t give it much thought.􀀀
Then Carlisle dropped me the word.􀀀
He slipped away as quickly as he came. I muttered under my breath.􀀀
“Oh, Hillman.”􀀀
Three years earlier he had met a nice gal and married. He really􀀀
settled down, in every way. Had his mook block the drug dealers, stopped􀀀
going to the titty bars. Christ, he traded in the candy apple red Viper for a􀀀
fuel cell SUV.􀀀
Last year they had a sweet baby girl. His wife brought her to the􀀀
sidelines during training camp. Adorable little booger.􀀀
I’ll never have any kids. I went to a Big Ten school. The steroids I􀀀
took in college turned my cojones to stone. In the big leagues you didn’t get􀀀
anything as crude as steroids--unless and until you went berserk.􀀀
The news from Carlisle hit me like a horse dose of respirocytes.􀀀
Goddamn, why didn’t I think of it? Hylton has squandered millions over the􀀀
years. Even from the nosebleed seats you could see he was struggling this􀀀
season. His pro career was coming to a close--and he had a wife and a􀀀
daughter he probably couldn’t provide for in the future.􀀀
I was a strong safety slash corner back. The shit I took to do my job􀀀
would probably make me hobble and wheeze by the time I was 60. That was􀀀
the trade-off for being a pro. A big lineman like The Hillman--he’d proba-􀀀
bly be in an augmented wheelchair by the time he was 45.􀀀
Well, now he’d never have that problem.􀀀
I must have looked stunned when I got out of the whirlpool and went􀀀
over to the physical therapist doing rubdowns.􀀀
He rubbed his mech-gloved hands over my calves and thighs.􀀀
“Marcos, man, you look puny.”􀀀
Nanites are supposed to be too small to cause an immune reaction,􀀀
but the silicon jobbers from Vilnus didn’t seem to know that. Between the􀀀
nanites and the bad news, I was sweating like a hog.􀀀
I faked a smile. “I had to give two UA samples this morning. I feel􀀀
squeezed like a lemon. Sometimes it’s awfully disconvenient, as Coach􀀀
would say.”􀀀
Berserker􀀀 5􀀀
The trainer laughed. “You’ll bounce back soon enough.”􀀀
Hylton was already on the field by the time I was suited up. I􀀀
slapped his shoulder pads as I ran by. He didn’t turn or acknowledge me.􀀀
With those carbon nanotube plates, he might not have even felt it.􀀀
He was subdued and held back somewhat from the other players􀀀
during practice. There wasn’t much of the normal macho chatter and􀀀
cussing, and what there was sounded tinny. I think the word had begun to􀀀
spread. The grunt trainers and second stringers might have􀀀thought we were􀀀
all concentrating on the next day’s game. In a way, we were.􀀀
The locker room bullshit and bragging seemed forced. A few of the􀀀
players hailed Hylton as they walked by; he only grunted or said “hey” in􀀀
that squeaky voice of his. He showered and dressed quickly. He didn’t look􀀀
to the right or the left. He looked down, and then walked out.􀀀
A few of us shot glances at each other. We really couldn’t say􀀀
anything that might get back to Jenkins. I just shook my head a little.􀀀
“Goddamn Jenkins.” I thought.􀀀
Running a pro football franchise was a big business. In an evil way,􀀀
he was real smart. He made millions, but spread a lot around. The league􀀀
and the officials were kept happy.􀀀
You know, by then, some people had begun to wonder why we were􀀀
still using cash in the U.S. If you ever saw an official pick up a fat envelope􀀀
before a game, you would have known why. No smart chips in cash.􀀀
I was doing well myself. I had a big ice machine that rattled the􀀀
bridge over the condensation canal as I pulled out of the parking lot.􀀀
That year the canal was almost overflowing all summer as the􀀀
cooling towers sucked the moisture from the domed stadium. Welcome to􀀀
the Texas Tropics. And God bless Houston, the poor bastards. I paid a fat􀀀
fee for the right to drive that internal combustion engine. It was worth it to􀀀
hear the roar and watch people turn as I rumbled down the streets in North􀀀
Dallas.􀀀
Other players lived in the gated community. Carlisle was one of􀀀
them, and I banged on his door as soon as I got out of my car.􀀀
“You went straight home, too, I see.”􀀀
“I guess I’m like you, I don’t feel like going out tonight.”􀀀
“Where’s Melissa?”􀀀
“She’s off with some friends at the Galleria.”􀀀
We sat down with some microbrews.􀀀
“You know, when I was in high school and a player would drop􀀀
dead, I thought it was like they said, stress, you know, and the strain of pro􀀀
ball.”􀀀
OG’s Speculative 6􀀀 Fiction􀀀
“It’s not like it’s common,” said Brad. “Hard for the public to see a􀀀
pattern. John Tomachevski with the Pats two years ago--from what I heard,􀀀
he really did have a aneurysm.”􀀀
“Yeah, but was it caused by drugs, anyhow?”􀀀
“Welcome to the Big Leagues. The point is, he didn’t go berserk.”􀀀
For the past few years, once or twice a season, a player had died􀀀
either after being stricken on the field or in the locker room. When I was a􀀀
rookie out of college, I thought it was the drugs and the stress, too.􀀀
“I’ve only been on the team a few years. I’ve never seen this happen􀀀
with the ‘Boys.”􀀀Brad smiled a thin smile as he wagged his beer bottle.􀀀
“Yeah, well. Money talks and bullshit walks. The Hillman wants his wife􀀀
and kid cared for.”􀀀
“You think she knows?”􀀀
“What do you think?”􀀀
“What will she think after the game?”􀀀
"She’ll probably think he took one hit too many.” He stared down􀀀
the long neck of his bottle. “At least, that’s what she’ll be told.”􀀀
Brad was an offensive lineman. The calcium-carrying nanocrystals􀀀
he took for his bones had begun to affect his face. When he looked serious,􀀀
it looked like a mask.􀀀
I stood up and looked out the window. “Do you think it’s really􀀀
his idea?”􀀀
“He probably thinks so. I’m sure Jenkins somehow dropped him a􀀀
hint. Maybe he read the􀀀News􀀀 on Sunday. You saw that story about J.J.􀀀
Jervinis.”􀀀
“J.J. was in a fight in a bar."􀀀
“Yeah, well, I'm sure Jenkins knew about his contract."􀀀
“You don’t think he’d arrange for somebody to beat J.J. up?” Brad􀀀
took a long swig. “Well?”􀀀
J.J. left the team the year before, banged up and broken after􀀀
spending years on the line. He was killing the pain the previous Saturday􀀀
night when he got in some kind of fight in a West End bar. The beating left􀀀
him brain dead.􀀀
Usually people go years before passing away and having their􀀀
organs harvested.􀀀
“Everyone knew he signed that organ contract so he’d have some􀀀
money for himself and his wife,” Brad continued. “But he only collected a􀀀
few months. Hardly got anything at all. His wife’s screwed now.”􀀀
“What do you think it would take to take J.J. down in a fair fight?”􀀀
he asked bitterly. “It was obviously a set-up.” Also, J.J. didn’t read the fine􀀀
print. The company he signed with exercised its option once he was on life􀀀
Berserker􀀀 7􀀀
support. Instead of pumping him full of hyper-accelerated regen nanites,􀀀
they parted him out.􀀀
“Shit, you think Jenkins would do that just to drop a hint to The􀀀
Hillman?”􀀀
“Hey, he’s not the sharpest guy in the world, but he knows what’s􀀀
coming at the end of the season,” he said. “He sees someone like J.J. push􀀀
off and leave his woman high and dry, and then a day or two later, a􀀀
berserker bonus is hanging out there. A sure ten million dollars.”􀀀
Something about quoting an actual dollar figure startled me. “Is that􀀀
the going rate?”􀀀
Brad flipped open another bottle. “From what I hear.”􀀀
“I wonder if he knows how much his wife and baby girl will miss􀀀
him?”􀀀
“I think he sees it as a self-sacrifice, which it is.”􀀀
The sun was setting over Dallas. The late afternoon monsoon rain-􀀀
bow was fading into the orange twilight.􀀀
“You know, what pisses me off the most is that we can’t say􀀀
anything,” I said. “You know what a businessman like Jenkins would do.”􀀀
Brad shook his head in a short jerky kind of way. “There’s not much􀀀
guys like us can do.”􀀀
He took a really long swig. “We’re just twenty first century gladia-􀀀
tors. Sometimes, you win, sometimes they drag you out by your heels.”􀀀
“Yeah, well the gladiators were forced to do it. Or they did it for the􀀀
glory. We do it for the money.”􀀀
Brad gave a bitter chuckle and raised his bottle in a mock salute.􀀀
“God bless America!”􀀀
I could tell how he was dealing with his feelings, so I left him to􀀀
soak and slouched over to my apartment. I kept the TV on flat as I watched􀀀
the news and sports; I wasn’t keen to have the sports AI’s jumping across􀀀
the room at me. The old pro, Dale Hammond, was live and real, though, and􀀀
holding forth.􀀀
“The Cowboys’ game tomorrow against the Raiders is an important􀀀
one, but both teams are in the playoffs. The only thing to be decided is who􀀀
plays against whom, and for Dallas, whether they can put the hurt on a􀀀
tough Oakland team which will try to keep them from making it out of the􀀀
division.”􀀀
“It’s an important game, a big game, but let’s get past the hype,” he􀀀
continued. “Nobody needs to go berserk, if you know what I mean. Cool􀀀
heads will prevail.”􀀀
I sat up like a shot. “Goddamn, he knows!”􀀀
“Troy!’ I shouted. My mook came on.􀀀
OG’s Speculative 8􀀀 Fiction􀀀
“Yes, most worthy buster of butts?”􀀀
“I need an e-mail to Dale Hammond. Just say, ‘I saw your report on􀀀
the 10 o'clock news. Hylton Hawkins is a player to watch in the Oakland􀀀
game.’’’􀀀
“Do you want to send this as ‘anonymous?’’’􀀀
I thought hard for a few seconds. I guess it was time to be a standup􀀀
man. “No. Fuck Jenkins. Use my proper name. Marcos B. Taylor.”􀀀
“Yes, sir. Sent.”􀀀
I know it wasn’t much, but it was something. If anything came􀀀
down, well, shit, I could make a dash for the Pacifica Republic. That would􀀀
be funny--I might even play for Oakland.􀀀
I thought about Hylton as I drifted off to sleep listening to my restful􀀀
playlist coming through my audio chip. I saw the face of his wife and􀀀
daughter, who would not have a husband and father tomorrow night.􀀀
I thought about what Brad had said. “Yeah, bread and circuses,” I􀀀
thought. “Beer and football.” I rolled over. “Let’s not forget about drugs􀀀
and nanites,” and after the endorphins kicked in, I slept.􀀀
#􀀀
I saw the video bots buzzing around under the dome like vultures as􀀀
I looked out the runway. I had to wait my􀀀turn as we all were dosed with􀀀
our protein/calcium supplement. I didn’t see Hylton at all; he was in a back􀀀
room probably being prepped like an Aztec sacrifice.􀀀
The supplement was supposed to be simple gm-proteins and miner-􀀀
als; we knew Jenkins, as well as all the other owners, paid off the league to􀀀
look the other way. It was a witch’s brew of nanoparticles and crystals that􀀀
looked as ugly as swamp water and tasted worse; we bitterly called it􀀀
Nanorade.􀀀
The linemen on both sides of the ball also got a shot of respiro-􀀀
cyctes, to carry extra oxygen in their bloodstream during the game. One of􀀀
the few things they dosed us with that was actually harmless, but still illegal.􀀀
It was given under the guise of a vitamin shot.􀀀
I was on the sideline when Hylton came out right before kickoff.􀀀
They obviously didn’t want him talking to anyone. I saw the head trainer􀀀
wave a little hand-held device alongside his helmet. He was disabling his􀀀
MEMS chip so the medical staff wouldn’t get an accurate reading of his􀀀
vitals during the game. The doctor had to be in on this, too, for it to work.􀀀
I took my place for the opening kickoff. From behind I could see􀀀
Hylton and could tell everything was ready to kick in. The Hillman looked􀀀
like he was ready to take off like a rocket. In addition to our normal􀀀
Berserker􀀀 9􀀀
pre-game preps, he was now full of nanites to increase his muscle metabo-􀀀
lism, along with others carrying steroids. He also probably was pumped a􀀀
few gallons of enhanced methamphetamines. His metabolism sped up to the􀀀
point that I could almost see the heat coming off his helmet.􀀀
He probably had a normally lethal dose of nutraceuticals to fuel all􀀀
this, and probably some narcotic happy juice for good measure. I just caught􀀀
out of the corner of my eye his wife with their daughter on her knee sitting􀀀
in the third or fourth row on the fifty yard line.􀀀
The other corner back took the ball and sprinted up the field as􀀀
Hylton cleared a swath. He batted and banged away the Oakland line and􀀀
secondary like so many toy soldiers. Our runner tripped over his own feet􀀀
at midfield because he was running so fast.􀀀
On the next down, Oakland made a line shift. One of their largest􀀀
linemen, Dexter Ward, lined up opposite Hylton. I thought, “poor chump,􀀀
he doesn’t know what he’s in for.”􀀀
On the next play, the pair hit squarely. The stadium almost shook.􀀀
The play stacked up in the middle.􀀀
I couldn’t figure out what happened. I looked over to Brad on the􀀀
sidelines. His eyes just got real wide. I guess he got a better view from􀀀
where he was. Then it hit me.􀀀
I hadn’t cussed like that since when I was in college and realized􀀀
what the steroids had done to me.􀀀
That had never happened before, two players at the same time.􀀀
Oakland had a player going berserk, too.􀀀
I learned later the progression of the nanites and other drugs was􀀀
accelerated by the increase in a player’s metabolism and adrenaline as the􀀀
game progressed--but normally a player went a few quarters before he got􀀀
real sick, because he was batting away his opponents.􀀀
Now with two equally enhanced and aggressive players facing each􀀀
other, they quickly went out of control. After a couple of downs, our􀀀
quarterback was shouting at Hylton in the huddle, who couldn’t hear􀀀
because of the blood rushing in his ears. The Oakland QB was screaming at􀀀
Ward, too.􀀀
You could tell from the hush that fell over the stadium that the fans􀀀
knew what had happened. All the players, both on the Dallas and Oakland􀀀
teams, were stunned and weak-kneed. To see a player go berserk was bad􀀀
enough. To see two players killing each other on the 50-yard line was a􀀀
horror show.􀀀
The pair began to hit each other so violently blood splattered on􀀀
other players, who began to shrink away, afraid of being infected by the􀀀
OG’s Speculative 10􀀀 Fiction􀀀
raging nanites. The refs looked like they were trying to walk backwards out􀀀
the stadium.􀀀
And neither team was scoring.􀀀
After a punting the ball back and forth a couple of times, neither QB􀀀
could keep either lineman in the huddle. They paced the line of scrimmage􀀀
and groaned like animals.􀀀
At the seven-minute mark of that first quarter, the pair hit each other􀀀
so hard and evenly they both bounced back three or four feet from the line􀀀
of scrimmage. The ref’s whistle was futile. They shouted and went after􀀀
each other.􀀀
Ward landed a crushing blow on Hylton’s head that crushed the top􀀀
of his helmet. Hylton’s simultaneous blow, to the side of Ward’s helmet,􀀀
obviously broke his neck.􀀀
It was over.􀀀
Ward was dead, but Hylton was still breathing, and now the medical􀀀
staff had to go through the motions of trying to help him. Jenkins mean-􀀀
while had come down from his sky box and, as he so often did, put on a􀀀
show of fake concern over the injured player.􀀀
The doctors and trainers were mumbling and looking at each other.􀀀
Hylton began to convulse.􀀀
Jenkins stood next to Doc. “Can’t you do something for the boy?”􀀀
he shouted. For the record.􀀀
He looked down and over at Hylton. In one gigantic spasm,􀀀
Hylton’s back arched in a violent thrust and the contents of his stomach􀀀
erupted all over Jenkins.􀀀
Hylton’s body relaxed and as his head turned sideways blood ran􀀀
out onto the artificial turf and towards Jenkins, who stood there with puke􀀀
all over his face and suit. You could see him raise his hands like he was􀀀
ready to scream, but then he saw Doc’s face and he froze.􀀀
Doc saw Jenkins had aspirated some of the vomit. A trainer dumped􀀀
a water bottle over Jenkins’ head. Another began to wipe his face with a􀀀
towel. Coach spun Jenkins around and told him to run towards the locker􀀀
room, and then shoved him ahead of him as he ran.􀀀
Brad came up to me as everyone stood there stunned. We listened􀀀
as the ref called off the game.􀀀
Brad took off his helmet. “Can you believe this?”􀀀
I thought I heard a baby crying in the stands.􀀀
I looked towards the runway where Jenkins disappeared, and said􀀀
the most hateful thing I ever have said in my life.􀀀
“I hope he dies, too.”􀀀
I meant it.􀀀
Berserker􀀀 11􀀀
#􀀀
Hammond went live after the game, and bless his artificial heart,􀀀
laid it on the line. Some of the other sportscasters still couldn’t get over their􀀀
fear of Jenkins and they hemmed and hawed and babbled from the sidelines.􀀀
Hammond was live and livid. Everyone who saw it remembers it. I􀀀
was ten feet away.􀀀
“Two wrongs don’t make a right, but it does make it over,” he􀀀
declaimed as he began.􀀀
When he was done and the lights went off, he muttered, “The suits􀀀
can have me fired, but I don’t care.”􀀀
I went over to him. “We hold these goofs to be self-evident. There’s􀀀
no turning back.”􀀀
“Thanks for the e-mail, Marcos.” He smiled. “You confirmed what􀀀
I suspected.”􀀀
“You didn’t know, for sure?”􀀀
“No, not really, but with my experience, I had a real good hunch.􀀀
Actually, I was more sure of Dexter. There is much more freedom in􀀀
Pacifica and I have good sources in the Bay Area.” He threw his bag over􀀀
his shoulder. “In fact, I feel a trip to the West Coast coming on. I have a jet􀀀
at Addison Airport.”􀀀
He turned away.􀀀
“Hey, you old sports hound, can I come?”􀀀
He smiled a crooked smile. “What do you plan to do out there?”􀀀
I threw my helmet to the sidelines.􀀀
“Defect.”􀀀
#􀀀
I was still wearing my uniform when we arrived in California. On􀀀
the way to the hotel we watched the video as a representative of the Pacifica􀀀
Council met the Oakland team at the airport. The coach was quickly in jail,􀀀
the owner in France.􀀀
Reforms haven’t moved as quickly in the U.S. That’s why I have􀀀
welcomed the opportunity to testify before this congressional committee. I􀀀
think every intelligent and honest person in the U.S. supports the nanotech􀀀
legislation proposed by the Administration. Although I am no longer a U.S.􀀀
citizen, I urge its passage, and I hope my first-hand account of Bloody􀀀
Monday has been enlightening.􀀀
OG’s Speculative 12􀀀 Fiction􀀀
I hope you understand my reasons for not coming in person. There􀀀
are still people like Joe Jenkins in the U.S. ready with bucks and bribes. I􀀀
think I’ll stay put in Pacifica for the time being.􀀀
Jenkins hasn’t died, yet. They’ve been trying to purge the nanites, I􀀀
understand. Apparently he’s little more than a zombie . Mrs. Hawkins and􀀀
her daughter received a $50 million settlement from the court-ordered sale􀀀
of the team.􀀀
Because of the reforms enacted by Pacifica after Bloody Monday, I􀀀
have enjoyed playing football for the Raiders. I know the abuses in the U.S.􀀀
are disappearing. Let’s finish the job.􀀀
#􀀀
Sometimes I have nightmares. Nightmares neural-interface chips􀀀
can’t control. I see a metal box designed to hold ashes, sitting on a mantel􀀀
in a home in North Dallas. It’s late at night, and there’s not a sound.􀀀
I can see the box move just a little. And I hear it groan􀀀
Berserker

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On a Spiritual Plain

The deadline for The Hugo Awards nominations is March 10. My story, "On a Spiritual Plain", which was published in issue No. 2 of Sci-Phi Journal last year, is on the Sad Puppies recommended reading slate. Here is is:

---

The alien cleric gestured for us to come closer.  I pressed my back up against his bulk, and drew my knees under my chin.  "Thank you," I said simply.

Around us, the various clan groups were drawing together--their masses the only thing breaking the gray monotony of the planet’s polar plain.  Ymilans on pilgrimage traditionally slept clustered together--including ghosts of the dead.  The spirit of Joe McDonald stared at Dergec and me, still somewhat uncomfortable by what was going on.  I beckoned to him. "C'mon, Joe, you're with us," I said.

The ghost of the dead human scooted over to us.   He sidled up beside me, his back against the Ymilan cleric.  Dergec became dormant--Ymilans really don't sleep in the human sense--and I eventually began to drift off myself.   Joe didn’t move.  I didn’t know if he was asleep.  Do the dead sleep?   Can the dead sleep?

#

Compared to Earth, Ymilas has an energetic planetary core, and the planet has a very strong magnetic field.   Its ionosphere is constantly permeated with brilliant auroras.

The planet, however, is spectacularly bereft of minerals useful to Terrans, and there would be no reason to visit it, except for it being near a wormhole.

Some Terrans also find the Ymilans interesting.

Unlike Earth, Ymilas has only one sentient life form.  The Ymilans have a low-tech highly-ritualized culture.  Their religion is genuinely unique because the living and the spirits of the dead coexist side by side.

Dergec is the chief cleric of the continent where our Terran base is located.  After my posting there as Base Chaplain, we spoke frequently and found a surprising amount of common ground.   The Ymilans believe--as do many Terran religions--that each individual has a spark of an eternal extra-dimensional over-arching consciousness that is imbued in each of them at birth and ultimately returns to a higher dimensional plane when the physical form is no longer viable.

I told him we call it the “soul”.

They also know--I won’t say believe because the evidence was obvious on Ymilas--that while alive we develop an electromagnetic imprint as a result of the experiences of life that survives after death.  I told Dergec an ancient Terran religion had the same belief, and in fact built elaborate pyramids and tombs filled with personal belongings to keep those spirits happy.

The ancient Egyptians called that type of a spirit the “Ba”.  The Ymilans call them Helpful Ancestors, and they are considered part of one’s extended family.

I explained Earth’s weak magnetic field apparently allows most of our spirits to dissipate, “Although there were many cultures on Earth that believed their ancestors were a part of their everyday lives," I said.  "But you couldn't interact with them."

 "But are you sure of that?" said Dergec, with the Ymilan equivalent of a smile. “Don’t you have a type of literature called The Ghost Story?”

He was smart as well as wise.

#

This first Terran base had less than 50 people.  Because of the isolation and sparse conditions, it was traditional for the Service to “suggest” a posting to the planet.

Although most people went along with being “volunteered”, after the suggestion was made I agreed willingly.  I was single and so nobody else had to suffer with me; I thought it would be worthwhile experience for a young Methodist minister.

Dergec was always polite if not a little bit bemused when I peppered him with questions. "A mutant race like yours asks a lot of simple questions," he said.

The Ymilans were comfortable being a race with both physical and spiritual members and had evolved with sensory organs that could both detect and communicate with their spiritual world.  When Dergec learned of humans' inabilities in that regard, he was compassionate.

One thing I had noticed in passing was that I never heard of an Ymilan extended family of the dead going back more than six generations.  I made a mental note to ask Dergec why these ancestral houses didn't extend back farther.

That "note" was the first thing I thought of when Joe McDonald's ghost appeared to me.

#

Joe was an average Service "grunt”, just another face under the dome.   He never had come to me for any counseling or help--until after he died.

I had been updating my sermonblog when I heard the base emergency siren.  I ran out and saw a large shipping container swaying back and forth from a crane, a body lying on the floor beneath.

Apparently Joe took a left when he should have taken a right and walked just close enough to the edge of the container as it was being swung around that it clipped him.  The sharp corner punctured his helmet and crushed in his temple.  The light was gone from his eyes by the time I reached him.
His base file did not indicate any religious preference.

That night, I noticed the lights flicker briefly in my quarters--not terribly uncommon, our shielding constantly battled to protect our tech from the strong Ymilan magnetic field.  I did think it strange, though, that the lights flickered from white to blue, and back to white again.

During the next few minutes I got the strangest crawling or burning sensation on my skin.  Despite its violent climate--or perhaps because of it--Ymilas does not lack for water.  I thought it would help to take a nice, hot shower.

When I left the bathroom, gusts of steam poured into my bedroom--and I saw Joe.

He gestured, looking alternately angry and scared.  Despite the fact I was speaking to a ghost, his look of discomfort and anxiety was so pronounced my natural pastoral reaction was to put him at ease.  “It’s OK, Joe, I’ll help you any way I can.  Stay here with me.”

I commed the base Commander.   "A quick question," I asked.   "Was Joe McDonald the first human die on Ymilas?"

"Why yes, he was. Why do you ask?"

"He's here in my quarters.  He's become his own Helpful Ancestor."

The Commander cursed, then asked "What do we do now?"

"I don' know about 'we'," I said, "but I have some counseling to do, and then I call Dergec."

I turned off my lights, and as I hoped, Joe appeared as a dimly lit apparition, as ghosts do on Earth.
I determined--through questions on my part and nods and gestures on his--that he understood his spirit was somehow trapped.  "Did you ever see the container?" I asked.

He shook his head vigorously, looking very sad.

"Did you look at your death?"  He nodded, slowly.
I commed Dergec,  and explained what happened.  "I will be there as soon as I can," he said.

I spoke to Joe again. “We will get through this. I know on Earth, when we die, the soul leaves the body and moves on to the afterlife.  Things are different here, but my friend the Ymilan priest will help us.”
Joe made a gesture of helplessness.  “It’s my job to deal with spiritual matters, thanks for coming to me,” I said.  “We will get through this together.”

My port signaled. "That must be Dergec."

The Ymilan was far too large to enter my quarters.  I stepped outside, assuming Joe followed me, as there was no way I could see him as we stepped into the light.

Dergec looked to the side of me and addressed Joe directly. "What is your name, my friend?"   He paused for a moment, then replied, "Your proper name is Joseph, then?"

I realized Dergec could speak directly to Joe, just as he could to his own ancestors. Despite the fact I listened to a one-sided conversation, I could tell Joe was relieved to be able to make himself easily understood.

"I understand your discomfort, your people do not exist this way," said Dergec to Joe.
"Can you help Joe to move on?" I asked Dergec.

Then with a start, I remembered that "mental note" I had made to myself.

 "Sir," I said, using an untranslatable word that is an extreme Ymilan honorific, "I have observed that your Helpful Ancestors do not go back many generations." I paused.  "Is there a way for them to move on?"

“Since when I first learned about the spiritual nature of your people,” he said, “I knew this day would come.”

#

Our lone base on Ymilas is located near the equator, where the electrical storms are the weakest.   The planet's magnetosphere dips down at the poles.  It was Dergec who suggested using the specially shielded segway for my own protection.

The Commander raised her voice.  "You want to take a Faraday segway on what?"

 "A pilgrimage, Ma’am."

"Why?  Whose idea is this?"

"Monsignor Dergec," I said, using the closest human word to the Ymilan title.  "We need to make a pilgrimage to the north polar plain so the soul of Joe McDonald can move on.  We have no idea how the ground level magnetic field at the pole would affect an unshielded human.”

"I have one Faraday segway, if you wreck it, we won’t have another one for months, until it is requisitioned, approved and shipped.”

"Bureaucracy is your problem,” I snapped.  “Do you want a haunted base?”

On cue, her case folder slid off his desk and slammed on the floor.  The Commander jumped up from her seat.  "I felt something on the back of my neck!"

I sighed. "Do you believe my ghost story or not?"

She began to type on her desktop.  "Take your segway, take the Ymilan, take Joe, get out of here.  I don't want to hear any more about this."

Dergec was waiting outside. "Did you get what you needed?"

"Yes, despite a little reluctance from the Commander.”

"Joseph accompanied you."

"I know, the Commander's hemming and hawing infuriated him enough that he was able to manifest himself a bit."

"I have noticed that human emotions generate spiritual turmoil," said Dergec.

"I'm a little angry myself," I said. "But that won't help things."

Dergec turned around and plodded off.  "Let us begin our journey.”

#

The Ymilans have well-worn trails to the polar region where the magnetic field bends down to the surface.  There the Helpful Ancestors can dissipate.

The Ymilan pilgrimage trails loop and wind, because they need to avoid serious fault zones, another result of that active planetary core.

Dergec said the journey would take 12 Terran days.  Like everyone in the colonial Service, I maintained Earth days.  Ymilas’ sun had contracted in the distant past, and the planet's orbit has adjusted as a result.  It was that gravitational disturbance that had shifted its core into such an active state.

We were joined by other clan groups along the way.  Dergec led the way, and Joe, of course, had no trouble keeping up.  I brought up the rear of our little group, my treads grinding along the slate gray landscape.  There were caravanserais at regular distances.  Clusters of pilgrims gathered and parted along the way.

The other Ymilans were fascinated to see the first humans on a pilgrimage.  It is an accepted part of their life and society and they accepted our participation with great equanimity.  Dergec spoke often to Joe, who seemed “talkative” enough in his current state.

During one stop, Dergec said some Ymilans expressed something akin to admiration for Joe and myself.  "They are proud of you," he said.  "They say humans are finally Ymilans now."

Of course, I couldn’t see Joe, but it was usually obvious from Dergec's "body language"--a strange term considering how different Ymilans are from humans--where Joe was.  I spoke to Joe whenever I could, and when necessary, Dergec repeated Joe's side of the conversation.

I noticed about the halfway point that Dergec's interactions with Joe began to diminish. "Joseph is speaking with Helpful Ancestors now,” said Dergec.

“Is he away from us?” I asked.

“Yes, he is with that clan over there,” he said gesturing.

“Why does a Helpful Ancestor finally decide to make the journey?" I asked him.

"The closest word in your language would be futility," said Dergec.  "Our term might be translated as understanding that your role in the material world is over.”

I took the opportunity to ask a question.  “Does he realize that this trip means extinction,” I said. “That his soul has already flown, he is just a ghost?”

“No.  That is something you must work out amongst yourselves,” said Dergec.  “It is not proper for me to interfere in the spiritual matters of another species.”

“Your Helpful Ancestors don’t seem to mind trekking towards dissipation,” I said.

“We are a mature race,” he said.  “I would be cautious is discussing it with Joseph, though.”
"How is Joe taking the attention from the Helpful Ancestors?"

"I believe he is enjoying it," said the wise cleric. “He did not receive much attention from his own kind in life."

The severity and frequency of the electrical storms increased as we neared the Ymilan pole.  I monitored and inspected my Faraday segway more than ever.  The pilgrimage route meandered through a landscape of diminishing hills until, on the 11th day we hiked over a ridge and saw--nothing.

"It is another day's journey across flatlands to the Temple of Release," said Dergec.

As our caravan of pilgrims marched across the plain, we began to line up abreast of each other.   Despite the many dissimilarities between the two planets, one thing Ymilas has in common with Earth is a tilted axis, and therefore seasons--as well as long polar days.

This was the depth of the polar night, and the dark grayness of the sky matched the cold gray slate that made up the polar plain.  In the darkness I could now see all the Helpful Ancestors as well as Joe.  He marched near Dergec and me, but within a cluster of the Ymilan ancestors.

It was obvious he was in a position of honor amongst them, but when everyone stopped for the "night", all the Ymilans went back to their individual clan groups, which is why Joe was left alone and off to the side when Dergec and I stopped to sleep.

There was no indication of any danger so I slipped out of the Faraday cabin and sat down as Dergec gestured for me to come closer.  Joe looked at me.

"C'mon, Joe, you're with us."

Joe nudged himself between Dergec and me, and stopped moving,  I didn’t know if he was asleep.
“Do the dead sleep?  Can the dead sleep?”  I repeated to myself.

Dergec turned his head to me.  I didn’t realize I had spoken out loud.

"He sleeps the sleep of the dead,” said Dergec. “You would call it meditation. His mind is empty."
Dergec settled down into his posture of dormancy and I drifted off to sleep myself on that dark plain with the spirits of the alien dead--and one man.

#

Dergec stirred himself and I clamped myself in the cabin of the segway.

“We will be there soon,” he said to us.

He turned aside and spoke to Joe.  “Are you at peace, my brother?”

I could tell from Dergec’s body language Joe answered in the affirmative.  “It is well, then,” said Dergec. “Let us finish.”

As the long parallel line moved forward towards the unseen destination, I noticed the general grayness began to brighten.  After a while, I instinctively looked up.  There, high in the sky, was a glowing grayish green vortex of auroral light.  Dergec turned as Joe had obviously spoken to him.  “Yes, the Temple of Release is directly below it.”

I knew the polar magnetic vortex would be the location of the weakness in the magnetic field that would allow Joe’s “Ba” to dissipate, but I had no idea it would be visible.

“It looks like the eye of God,” I thought.

As the polar night began begin to imperceptibly brighten because of the glow, I soon was unable to tell where Joe was among us.

A few hours later, the plain was clearly lit by the glow of the “Eye” and I realized the previously uninterrupted flatness of the landscape was broken now by something rising directly ahead of us in the distance.

As we approached I saw it was an obviously artificial structure, and as we neared even closer, I saw it consisted of an enormous circle of upright blocks with the dimensional ratio of 1: 4: 9--the Golden Mean.  The lintels were of the same dimensions, and it was with a shock I realized that, except for the size and preciseness, the structure was essentially of the same design of Stonehenge back on Earth.
The actual size was the biggest distinction.  Although it was hard to judge at first, as we approached I saw the structure was more than 1,000 Terran feet high.

As we neared it, the various Ymilan clans began to bunch up as they would have to pass through the openings.  Dergec turned to Joe.  “This is the point of no return,” he said.

I turned in the same direction as Dergec.  “Are you okay with this, friend?  You ready to go home?”
There was a pause, and then Dergec said “He is fearful, but ready.”  He paused and continued.  “Joseph said he wants you to know he appreciates your kindness, but he knows nothing awaits him.  He learned the true nature of the pilgrimage from the Helpful Ancestors.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t...”

“He says it is good, he realizes there is nothing left for him here, and he would rather be nothing than a ghost on a strange world,” said Dergec.  “He said the others have given him courage.  He hopes his immortal soul has already reached your heaven.”

“I know it has, Joe,” I said, my voice cracking a bit.  “I have faith in that, that’s my job. To have faith.”

“Joe says he likes that,” said Dergec.

The other Ymilans on either side of us began to move forward.  “Let us go, then,” said Dergec.
We passed between a pair of giant uprights and passed inside the circle.  There was nothing there but another caravanserai.

I turned to Dergec.  “What happens next?”

“Nothing,” he said. “He is gone. They are all gone.”

“What!  That’s it?”

“There is no ceremony, if that is what you mean,” he said.  “The composition of these stones provides the shielding necessary to allow the dissipation.”

He turned to me.  “I’m sorry, I forget your people put a great deal of stock in theater and rituals, which is to be expected in such an immature race.  We take this process for granted.”

“So what do we do now?”

“We stop and rest and sleep, and then begin the trip home,” said Dergec.

#

When I was back at the base and I filed my report with the Commander. “This opens up a whole new issue in the Colonial Relations Division.”

“Yes, but  it was inevitable, if we stay on this planet,” I said.

“Well, you’ve done well as the lone chaplain on a base with many different religions,” she said. “This is just another issue you have to finesse.”

“For the time being, let’s not file a report,” I said.  “If this problem arises again, I’ll deal with it  personally.”

“Of course, all religion is personal,” she said.  “And I don’t want anything to leave the base that will bring bureaucrats down to us.”

She paused.  “And speaking of leaving the base, where is your condition report of the Faraday segway?  Is it back in inventory?”

#

Raju Bopardikar was not a grunt, but a low-level clerk in the transportation office.  He was drunk off his butt one night in the rec bar when he started hitting on a pretty Brazilian girl, whose boyfriend didn’t take kindly to his attentions, and was just as drunk as Raju--and a lot meaner.

The jealous boyfriend had a knife hidden in his boot, and before anyone could do anything, he slashed Raju across the abdomen.  Everyone grabbed the attacker, but his deep cut severed Raju’s abdominal aortic artery, and he bled out in a few minutes.

When I heard what had happened, I checked the base records, and then called up a copy of the Bhagavata Purana and read it until Raju appeared in my quarters.

I had to speak to Raju like anyone who is in deep shock, and with great patience explained the process I had gone through with Joe.

As I was counseling him, Dergec commed me.  “I learned of another death,” he said. “Can I help?”

“I think we can handle this ourselves,” I said, nodding to Raju.  “You don’t have to come on the pilgrimage.  Raju is one of us, and we can take care of ourselves.”

“I will assist in any way you need,” he said.

“Thank you, friend,” I said, “but we will make this journey ourselves.”

I turned to Raju.  “I know the way.”


-The End-

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"The Cookie Crumbles"

Originally published in the ConDFW XIV program book, Feb. 13, 2015.

---

The supermarket door opened automatically with a rush of cool air and gusts of cigarette smoke.  The bag boy had his cigarette tilted at a business-like angle, like the prow of a ship cutting through the sea, as he carried groceries for an old lady.
Ray’s drove into the parking lot and saw the array of the cars that belonged to “the usual suspects” lined up in front of the supermarket – a collection of large sedans: Cadillacs, Lincolns, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and such.  Every day, a regular cast of retirees met there to sip coffee, smoke cigarettes, and swap lies.
Ray nudged his compact into a parking space under the shade of a large spreading tree.
There were some teenagers loitering nearby.  One boy held a sack of sugar cookies; another was eating from a pack of sugar wafers.  One Goth-looking girl was licking off the top of a marshmallow biscuit cookie.
Ray went down an aisle and found the shelves where the cookies were.  He was going to get himself some of those big fat double-stuffed Romeo cookies.
Warning signs and posters hung from each shelf: 
“You must provide proof of ID that you are over 18 when you purchase sugar cookies.”
“Don’t be an enabler— don’t purchase cookies for the underage.”
One poster depicted a graveyard with especially wide grave plots:
“Waistlines aren’t the only things that are expanding because of America’s deadly love of cookies.”
He walked up to the express checkout register.  The cashier tapped her cigarette and set it in down in an ashtray.  
“I don’t want to blow smoke in your face,” she said with a smile.
“That’s okay,” the old man said with a chuckle.  “If these cookies get any more expensive I’ll probably have to start smoking myself.”
He gestured to all the packs of cigarettes in the aisle leading up to the cash register as the cashier scanned his package. 
“That’ll be $15.99,” the cashier said.
He grimaced. “They’re more expensive than ever,” he said.
“It’s almost all tax,” said the cashier. “You could get a dozen packs of cigarettes for the same price.”
Behind them on the wall was a poster that showed a mother holding a plate of cookies for her children.  But their shadows silhouetted a scene of drug addicts shooting up.
“Don’t be a cookie pusher!”  It said. “Cookies are as bad as narcotics.”
Underneath the grisly scene it said in red letters:
 “The Surgeon General has determined that quitting cookies at any time will lead to improved health.”
As Ray walked away he saw two old friends smoking and chatting in the food court.  They waved him over.
“I see you’re getting your fix,” said Antonio.
Ray walked over and pulled up an empty chair. 
“I will as long as I can,” he said.  “They’re  not illegal yet.”
“You should start smoking,” said Sol.  “It’s cheaper and better for your health.”
“Putting all that smoke in your lungs will eventually give you cancer,” said Ray.
“Bah,” said Antonio. “That’s never been proven.”
Another man walked up.  “Mind if I join you fellows?”  
They all nodded and he pulled up a chair. He reached across the table to shake hands.  “My name Dan, Dan Jackson.”
“You new in town?” asked Sol.
“I’m visiting my son,” he said.
Ray dangled the plastic package of cream-filled chocolate wafer cookies in the air and made a plea for sympathy and support. “They’re telling me I should lay off the cookies and start smoking like everybody else.”
“That sugar is ruining your teeth, clogging your arteries, and softening your brain,” said Antonio
Dan rubbed his chin the back of his hand and looked at Antonio. “You shouldn’t just repeat what the FDA says.  It’s all bullshit you know.”
“That cookies are bad for you?” asked Ray.
“Too much of anything is bad for you,” said Dan. “Cigarettes are bad for you, too.  The difference is that the government is fighting cookies but not cigarettes.”
Dan looked at them.  “I’ve eaten cookies in moderation all my life.  How old do you think I am?”
Ray squinted at him.  “I’ll guess 68.”
Dan smiled.  “You know, I had a wax paper bag of chocolate chip cookies my mom mailed to me when I hit the beach on D-Day,” he said.  “I should’ve eaten them earlier.   By the time I opened the bag two days later, they were all crushed to crumbs.”
“Holy crap!” said Sol.  “You were in the war?”
“Sure was,” said Dan. “I’m not 68, I’m 88.  And all the stuff the government says about how bad cookies are for you is bullshit.  It’s a scam.”
“What do you mean, a scam?” said Ray.  “Who’s pulling the scam?”
The old veteran leaned back in his chair.  “I was a lieutenant in the war,” he said.  “Afterwards, I went to work for the company owned by my colonel.  It was a heavy equipment manufacturing plant in Indiana.  I became his right-hand man, and worked for him for 40 years.”
He looked around at the three retirees.  “You’ve heard of how President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address about the growing power of the ‘military/industrial complex?’ All the country’s manufacturing had been brought under government control during World War II.  What people didn’t know is that a private group took the reins, as it were, after the war, and dictated products and prices afterwards.   Big manufacturing companies, like the one I worked for, had to answer to a secret roundtable of powerful businessmen. They call themselves the Consortium. You couldn’t do anything without clearing it with the Consortium.”
He reached over and took a couple of Ray’s cookies. “The Colonel wasn’t even supposed to let anybody know, but we were pretty close, and one night, when we were drinking by ourselves in the office, he started talking about it.  He said he hated the whole situation but you couldn’t cross the Consortium, they could make life hell for you.”
“That’s what Eisenhower was talking about in his farewell address,” he continued. “The Consortium was fixing production and prices in all the heavy manufacturing industries by the end of the ‘50s.”
“But what’s this got to do with cigarettes and cookies?” asked Ray.
“The Colonel had a brother who didn’t stay in the family business, but went to work for the American Biscuit Company -- or as everyone knows it, Ambisco.  One night late in 1963 I found the Colonel drunk in his office.  He was also really weepy.
He said, ‘We shouldn’t have gone along. It’s all our fault.  Now they have control of everything.’”
“What did he mean by that?” asked Ray.
“He said his brother told him the Consortium had taken over control of all the other large businesses in the country,” said Dan. “Not just the manufacturers.  But Ambisco wouldn’t go along, and a handful of bakeries stuck by them.  He said they defied the Consortium and said people weren’t going to kick their cookie habit.  The company president - he had been a big Democratic donor - supposedly went and told President Kennedy himself about it.”
“What did President Kennedy say?” asked Sol.
“The Colonel’s brother didn’t know, Kennedy was assassinated within a few days,” said Dan.  “It was early the next year that the Surgeon General presented his report on “Snack Cookies and Health” and called for the heavy regulation of the industry.  Ambisco’s been fighting it ever since.”
“It has nothing to do with obesity or bad teeth or hyperactivity.  Ambisco and a few others have been the only companies to buck the total control and coordination of the American economy by the Consortium,” said the old veteran.
“That’s hard to swallow, pardon the pun,” said Antonio as he took a puff of his menthol cigarette.
“Twenty years ago, just before he died, the Colonel told me that one of the last things his brother said before he passed away was that life is just a crapshoot, and it could’ve been someone else who took the brunt of being taught a lesson by the Consortium,” said Dan. “Apparently, when the Consortium gathered up the leaders of the one hundred largest companies in the country and told him that they would have to clear all the prices, policies and production decisions through them, it was the tobacco companies that pushed back at first.  Just like Ambisco, they thought they had too much public support to be threatened.  But they changed their minds, which left Ambisco and the other cookie companies out there on a limb by themselves.”
He popped a Romeo cookie in his mouth.  “That’s why sugar cookies are taxed so heavily and come with all those health warnings, while cigarettes are ninety cents a pack and everybody smokes,” said Dan.  “It’s all a racket.  Most of everything on the shelves over there would cost a fraction of what it does if the Consortium didn’t fix prices. The campaign against cookies isn’t about health, it’s about control.”
“Have you ever heard of ‘conspiracy theories’?” asked Sol.
Dan smiled wistfully.  “It isn’t a theory if it’s true,” he said.  He stood up.  “In any case, it really doesn’t make any difference, there’s nothing anyone can do.”
“How long are you going to be in town?” asked Ray.
“I’m heading back up to Philadelphia tomorrow,” said Dan.
“Where does your son live?” asked Antonio.
“He doesn’t,” said Dan.  “I came down for his funeral.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Ray.
“He was 56, died of lung cancer,” said Dan.  “He smoked since he was a teenager.”
As he walked away, Ray got up and took him by the elbow.  
“Hey, is what all you said true?  About price fixing and the Consortium and all?”
“I’m too old to give a damn any more,” said Dan.  “My wife, may she rest in peace, made me vow never to speak a word of what I was told.  And my only son is dead now.”
“Have you ever told anyone before?”
“No, I haven’t even thought about it in years,” said Dan.  “What you said when I sat down, about how they were picking on you, struck a chord, and it all spilled out.”
They looked at each other, and with a nod, Dan walked away.
Ray returned to his companions.  “Do you believe all that happy horseshit?” asked Antonio.
“He was at Normandy, he just buried his own son, at his age, too, why the hell would he lie?” asked Sol.
Ray gave them a look that stopped the conversation, and Antonio and Sol went back to smoking.  A few minutes later, they heard what sounded like the gunning of an engine, followed by the screeching of tires – and screams.
All three men rose and walked towards the front of the store.  They could see a cluster of people in the street.  
Ray went outside and angled for a view.
“The SUV never stopped!” said one bystander.
“It was a hit and run,” explained another.
A police car pulled up.  As the people parted, Ray could see Dan’s crumpled body on the pavement.
Ray stared, and took a few steps backwards before turning around and stepping back onto sidewalk.
“You were just talking to him, weren’t you?”
Ray focused and realized a man standing next to him was talking to him.  He turned and saw a young man with a square jaw and wrap-around sunglasses.
“Yeah, he was just in town for his son’s funeral, never met him before in my life,” said Ray. “Poor bastard.  He was a World War II vet, too.”
The young man turned to him.  “What did he talk about?”
Ray froze for a second.
“A crazy conspiracy theory,” he said.  “He was very old and he was just rambling.  We humored him, I guess he was lonely and needed someone to talk to.”
He ran his fingers through his silver hair.  “I’m shaking,” he said to the young man as he looked at the scene.  “I need something to settle my nerves.  Can I bum a cigarette?”
“Sure,” said the young man, as he reached in a pocket. “Need a light, too?”
“No, I have a lighter in my pocket.  Thanks, though,” he said as he took the cigarette and stuck it in his mouth. “I’m going home to get a drink.”
He turned and walked down the sidewalk, cupping his hand and pretending to light a cigarette. After he went around the corner, he tossed the cigarette away and ducked down an alley behind the supermarket to make sure he wasn’t being followed.
When he got home, he sat down at his computer and opened an internet browser.  He opened his email.
Very carefully, with two fingers, he began:
“You ever hear the expression, ‘That’s how the cookie crumbles?”  I want to tell you a story a man told me 20 minutes ago.
“He’s dead now...”

-The End-

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Damascus Interrupted

"Damascus Interrupted" was originally published in Phantasmororium, Sept. 2012.

---

Singh knocked on the door of the bedchamber of the High Priestess’s daughter.  “My honored Miss, we need to get underway.”
Mariam White finished combing her long blond hair.  She took a step back and looked at herself in the mirror. In a month she would be celebrating her 16th birthday; her presentation in the temple would be one of the year’s highlights in the small town.
She cinched the strap around her books, spun around and was out the door. Her personal valet, Mahendra Singh, had already stepped back and caught the door as it swung violently open. He had been a retainer of the family for 20 years and the personal attendant of the heiress for 15--he knew her habits well.
Mariam settled in her seat as the Sikh assumed his place behind the wheel and drove around the circular driveway and towards the nearby highway that led into Dallas.
Mariam waved to her mother, who stood with a cup of tea and waved back with one hand from the verandah.  As the SUV drove out of sight, the High Priestess of Cedar Valley walked back to the dining room, where her consort was reading the *Dallas Times-Herald* and enjoying an old-fashioned clove-scented cigarette.
"Well, she's off again," said Marguerite White.  "I hate it they have to leave so early each morning."
"Well, dearest," Reymond replied, "we are fortunate we can afford such a good school."
"I know.  I just hate that she goes so far away each day."
"Better to stay out of Cedar Valley, sometimes, if you know what I mean."
Marguerite did know what Reymond meant.  When she just a little older than Mariam, she nearly died when another family attempted to depose her mother and usurp the succession.  The dart only grazed her cheek, but she was bedridden for two weeks.  The servant who took the dart in the neck died instantly.
Marguerite felt the almost-invisible scar on her cheek and worried about her daughter.  "You don't think there is any serious danger right now, do you dear?"  She sat down across the dining room table from Reymond, who folded his paper and looked at her seriously.
"With the growth the city is having, our share of the offerings grows every day.  I'm sure someone's thinking of a strike against us.  That’s why we are always on our guard."
"The Wilsons have been trying to gain position ever since they moved here from the city," said Marguerite. "You know Marta Wilson wants to be High Priestess."
"Well, look at it from their perspective.  Their community changed and their temple lost its adherents.  This is a free country.  You can't tell people where to live."
"But why did she pick Cedar Valley?"
"Marta is a clever woman.  She probably realized the city was growing and holds the potential for great prosperity."
"Now you're sounding like a priest of Mammon," Marguerite snorted.
"Just being realistic.  Your mother suffered two coups, the second essentially successful.  And we have only one daughter."
She looked at him with concern as he continued.  "Don't worry, with my extensive network of stooges and spies, and the reliable servants we have in the household, I don't think we have anything to worry about."
"My mother didn't see it coming," Marguerite said with a frown.
"Your mother was the High Priestess in a tiny Tejas town of only 300 people.  She thought she knew everybody, and she was careless.  You need to thank Magna Mater in your shrine every night that she survived that second attempt until you came of age and assumed the mantle and robes.  You came within seven days of losing the succession."
Reymond rose and picked up his briefcase from beside the dining room table.  "These last few years we have seen a big improvement in security and surveillance technology."  He made a reassuring gesture as he turned to head out the door.  "Don't worry, we have a good position, and I don't intend to lose it.”
Marguerite rose to give him a kiss and straighten his lapel.  "You're a smart man. That's why we were matched."
"Flattery will get you somewhere.  We'll decide where tonight," he said with a smile.
Reymond's driver, an elderly Karaite, waited outside in a plum-colored Buick.  Marguerite shook her head as she closed the door and thought, "I'll never get used to that color."
#

Marguerite smoked a cigarette from the pack Reymond had left behind as she thought.  The suburban development in Cedar Valley was not an accident; Reymond was an imaginative real estate developer. He set it up so Mammon Mart built across the highway from the Magna Mater Temple Courtyard Mall.  And with Reymond at work and Mariam at school today, Marguerite was going to go shopping.
Her driver, Michael, was a Christian; like many of the temple leaders in the Cult of Magna Mater, the White Family used members of the small so-called "ethical" sects as household servants.
     They drove by the Christian eglesia on the way to the Temple Mall that morning.  Reymond's real estate skills had been extended even to the smaller sects when he helped bring in this Temple Court development, and he enticed them--Sikhs, Christians, and Karaites--to locate along the same stretch of frontage road.
From what she knew of the Christians, their leader had been an executed political prisoner.  But their symbol--and the statue that graced the lawn of their small colonnaded temple--was of a shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders.
At the corner of the service road entrance to the mall, a statue of a bare-breasted woman in tight orange shorts held up a platter of barbecued chicken wings in one hand and a large foaming mug of beer in the other.  A bit unseemly, through Marguerite, but Harlott’s Hot Wings was one of Reymond's more creative joint ventures--to get the cults of Epicurus, Dionysus and Isis under one roof; food, drink and sex all served up together.  Something for everybody.
They pulled into the parking lot.  "I have a lot of shopping to do today, Michael, so I will be a while.  If you would like, you can go over to your 'eglesia' and I'll call you.”
"Thank you, ma'am."  The burly man smiled and touched his cap.
Although small by Dallas standards, the Cedar Valley Temple Courtyard Mall had two long wings bisected by a pool. She entered Penelope's Odyssey, the fashion store that anchored one of the wings.
#
It was two hours later when, laden with bags and boxes, she emerged and walked past the fountain in the center of the mall.  A small ceremonial Temple of Mammon sat in the center of the fountain.  As at most Temple Courts, there was no priest on duty, but an acolyte sat with his small rake and bucket and collected the coins occasionally.  Marguerite tossed a large silver thaler directly into the boy’s bucket.  He nodded appreciatively.
She realized how large and clumsy her load was when she reached outside, and she reached into her handbag for her cell phone to call Michael.  She cursed when she realized there were two inside. Michael didn’t have his own phone and she had forgotten to give him one before he left
She called the office of the eglesia, but there was no answer, which didn't surprise her.  A small sect such as the Christians couldn't afford a full-time staff.
A security monk came up and asked if she needed help.  "It's no trouble at all ma'am.  We can get someone to take you to the eglesia in a golf cart."
"I’m very grateful," said Marguerite.
The monk smiled graciously. "Just consider it a small courtesy from Mammon to Magna Mater.”
A novice monk helped load up the shopping and drove Marguerite across the parking to the back of the eglesia.  After a few knocks a handsome young man, who said he was the sexton, answered and then helped carry her bags and packages inside.  Yes, he knew Michael, he said; Michael was praying in the sanctuary.
The young man apologized for there being no one to answer the phone, but the office was only staffed sporadically.  "I hope you don't mind if we don't disturb Michael until he's done praying," said the young man.  "I think he's doing the Stations of the Cross."
"I wouldn't think of it.  Just let him know I'm here when he finishes."  And indeed, she was happy to sit down in a plush chair in the foyer, out of the hot Texas summer sun.
     Good breeding decreed she would not disturb anyone at prayer--even a member of such an insignificant sect as the Christians.
She flipped through a small brochure she found on the table beside her; one of those slick little trifolds that pass for mass media in such small groups.
She was always confused how the Christians considered themselves worshippers of only one God when the sect's founder, Yeshua ben Jossi, claimed to be the Son of God.  "Doesn't that make at least two gods?" she wondered.
The main scenes of Yeshua's life were depicted in the brochure, including his ignominious death as a Roman prisoner. The Christians took their name from an old Greek word meaning "The Anointed One," because they felt Yeshua was anointed to redeem humanity.
Marguerite was nonplussed to read that the Christians claimed Yeshua rose from the dead, and he would return again.  That was almost 2,000 years ago.
     “And still no Yeshua,” she thought.  "He is certainly in no rush."
For five generations, the White Family had borne the honor of yielding the incense to Magna Mater at the Temple of the Earth Mother Goddess in Cedar Valley, ever since the first European settlers had come to Tejas.
Marguerite almost felt a pang of pity at the thought of a good but simple man such as Michael being misled by such unworldly mumbo-jumbo.
The brochure depicted the later history of the cult itself, after Yeshua "rose into heaven" on a cloud.  Marguerite read this part carefully because she knew nothing about how they had survived to the modern day.
She knew 2,000 years ago there had been a time of great religious agitation in the Roman Empire, but she didn't realize how confused it had been.  The Gnostics, the Essenes, the Samaritans, the Karaites, the followers of John the Baptist and the Christians all splintered from the ancient Hebrew religion as the Romans suppressed the Hebrews while consolidating their hold on the Middle East.
The Hebrews were finally eradicated as part of the general housecleaning the Romans undertook when they smashed the Mohammedan heresy hundreds of years later.  A handful of Karaites, Baptists and Samaritans remained, along with the Christians, just happy to be alive.
The story of what the Christians see as the pivotal event in the early history of their group gave Marguerite some insight into why Christians such as Michael were so kindly and cheerful.
     It was a story she was completely unfamiliar with.
In the first decades after the "ascension" of their founder, a man named Saul of Tarsus took it upon himself to exterminate the Christians on behalf of the Hebrew hierarchy.  He roamed the Middle East leaving dead Christians in his wake.  The Christians cried to their god for relief, and one day, while traveling on the road to commit another bloodbath, Saul was whipped from the back of his donkey by a whirlwind.
The great persecutor of the Christian Church died of a broken neck in the dust on the road to Damascus, his latest persecution finally and fatally interrupted.
     Ever since that miraculous deliverance from their tormentor, Christians have been grateful for every new day, Marguerite realized.
     "The power of positive thinking," she noted to herself. "They think they can survive and so they have survived.  Thank the Great Mother we have never had to deal with any such persecution.”
She heard a small cry and looked up from the brochure to see Michael had come through the doors of the sanctuary.  He was startled and puzzled at the same time, and when Marguerite explained, he tried to take the blame: "I should have remembered to ask for the phone."
"Don't be silly," she said. "I told you to leave and you did.  It's not your fault."
After a few more moments of hand wringing, Michael gracefully gave in to her assertions, cheerfully loaded her bags and boxes into the trunk and quickly hugged the neck of the Armenian sexton before they left.
     To avoid traffic, he took a shortcut out the back of the Temple Courtyard Mall, and through a rather shabby street where some of the less desirable temples were located, including the beer and wine temple operated by the Cult of Bacchus, the cheap pornographic video store run by the upstart Cult of Lola Montez, and the medical 'clinic' for the Cult of Moloch.
Marguerite cringed as they passed the 'clinic.'  Human sacrifice had faded away from almost all Old World religions, but followers of Moloch had kept the practice alive.  Their modern version performed abortions and offered the unborn children as sacrifices on their altar.
When they arrived home, she sent Michael ahead to get Singh so the two of them could carry in the bags and boxes themselves.
Michael was gone a good ten minutes before impatience overtook Marguerite.  She got out of the car and started up the steps of the verandah.  She heard a shuffling sound from behind the door as she reached for the knob.  She pushed the door open to go inside, but then realized there was somebody behind it.
She stepped back and was shocked to see the door swing open and Michael stagger out.  His eyes were glazed and he made a gurgling sound as he clutched his throat with bloody fingers.  He wore a dark shirt, but she saw it was damp.  Then she realized it was soaked in blood.
His throat had been slit.  He fell to his knees and then fell over sideways on the porch at her feet. A thin spray of blood flew in a semicircle across the wooden verandah.
She would have screamed but the sound of the trumpet blast froze her in place.  She spun around and thought for a second to run, but the Druids were already in place to prevent her escape.  She heard the music getting louder and louder as cymbals, cornets, tubas and trombones all picked up the beat.
She leaned over to look around the corner of the house where the music was coming from.  The Druids shifted but did not move otherwise; they knew she could never get by them. She just wanted to see.
The procession came into view as they rounded the corner. As it passed behind bushes, she saw a silk parasol bobbing up and down.  Then the first person in that parade came into view around the corner, and she was assured she had been betrayed.
Leading the procession, the Black Magic Voudoun Priest wore a top hat and tails, a sash and a big smile as he sashayed along the gravel driveway.  He was a priest of a cult the Negroes had evolved when they were taken as servants to the New World, a religion that combined elements of their native religion with that of the white man.
     "His demeanor is joyful at the anticipation of your liberation from the toils of this world. He brings death," said the cult's sacred writings.
Cars stopped in the street as the occupants watched the spectacle.  Everyone enjoyed watching a ritual sacrifice.
Behind him, the jazz band played a high-stepping tune, and members of the Temple of Baron Samedi danced with a sprightly step.
She was relieved to see, as the dancers moved forward and parted, a stunned Reymond in silver chains.  He must have put up quite a fight; he was badly bruised, but she knew he had not betrayed her.  Behind Reymond and his captors walked a dark man she didn't recognize until he looked her in the eyes.  He was bareheaded now and shaven; quite a change from the way she last saw him.
It was Singh.
     She knew what was to come and went limp but the Druids on either side grabbed her roughly by the arms and held her up to watch the procession.
She could see dust two Druids holding a golden bowl, a receptacle for the sacrifice of her head and heart.  The High Druid of Dallas, who would perform the sacrifice, held a silver dagger horizontally in front of him.
Behind them was Wilson Family, Marta Wilson in the lead, smug in her seriousness, holding a second golden bowl in which already rested a bloody, blonde-haired scalp, next to Mariam’s still-warm heart.
Marguerite’s scream was literally cut short by a bright sliver flash.

#

All of Cedar Valley heard of the coup at the Earth Mother Goddess cult by the end of day, including the young Armenian sexton at the eglesia.  He knelt before an icon and prayed for the soul of the faithful Michael--and also for the souls of Marguerite and Mariam White.
"I know you are the one true God and love us, for you sent your son to die for our sins," he prayed as he concluded.  "The pagan Gods make their children die for them."
He put away his mop and broom, and locked the door as the darkness descended and the parking lot lights flickered on at the mall.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Barsoom Billy"

Originally published in Science Fiction Trails, No. 9 All Martian Spectacular Fall 2012

---

The gunfighter stuck a boot forward so as to block the stranger’s path.  “Where you from, son?” he snarled as he spat chewing tobacco juice at the stranger’s feet.
The stranger turned and tilted his head, and looked the gunfighter in the eye from under his brim.  “Barsoom,” he said evenly.
The gunfighter’s gaze froze.  The stranger’s skin was an even light brown--“high yaller” as you would say of Negroes--and his eyes were bright yellow, like a school-girl’s ribbon.
“Ne--Nev--Never heard of it.”  The desperado stammered, taken aback at the stranger’s appearance.
His henchman, who was turned away to watch their back, asked--in a much less aggressive tone, “So what’s your name, tenderfoot?”   When there was no immediate reply, he turned and then gasped.
“Billy,” said the stranger, rather plainly.
The henchman’s mouth hung open.  The gunfighter couldn’t break the gaze of the stranger, who finally turned his head away and looked down at the gunfighter’s boot blocking his progress.
The gunfighter snapped his boot back.  “We--we--we don’t want any trouble,” sputtered the henchman.
The stranger continued walking down the plank sidewalk.
“What was that?” asked the henchman.
“I don’t know, but I saw ‘kill’ in his eyes,” said the gunfighter.  “Let’s vamoose. Someone is fixin’ to get kilt here in Cedar Gulch, and I don’t want it to be us’ns.”
The two desperados quickly crossed the street.
Billy walked around the corner, having never looked back, and crossed the street on the next block to Cazale’s Cantina.   His head was lowered as he pulled open the heavy oaken door. There was a pile of well-thumbed dime novels stacked on a table near the door, close enough to be read by sunlight.
Billy walked over and looked over the garish covers.  A very thin smile appeared as he saw a pulp magazine that touted a tale about Buffalo Bill--his namesake, as it were.  He pulled up a chair and sat down, turning the pages with his thumb.  The bartender emerged from behind his palisade of a bar and walked over.
“Afternoon, stranger,” said the bartender as Billy looked up.  “What will it be?
“Do you have any good red wine?” asked Billy. 
“As a matter of fact, I do,” said the bartender.   “I have a barrel of the best Zinfandel just arrived from California.”
 “A large one, then,” said Billy, tossing a shiny silver dollar on the table.  “Keep the change.”.
The bartender returned with a large tin cup of red wine, which he set before Billy.  “Never seen you here before,” he said, with a fake smile.
“Just passing through,” said Billy, as he made eye contact.
The bartender saw his bright yellow eyes and gulped.  “Yep,” he said slowly.  “You’re not from ‘round here.”
Some of the Cedar Gulch “girls” were at a nearby table, playing cut throat poker.  A stunning brunette turned to look at Billy.  She saw from behind he was well-groomed and neatly dressed in new but simple clothes which had just begun to acquire Nevada dust.
“This fella looks interesting,” she said, getting up.
“He’s all yours,” said another, “he looks like a quadroon.”
Hepzibah walked over to the stranger.  “If you need someone to show you Cedar Gulch, cowboy, I can help you.”
She raised an eyebrow as she saw the startled look on the bartender’s face.  Billy was looking down at his wine and didn’t notice either expression.
She cocked her head and carried on with her next move.  “What’s your name, cowpoke?”
She laid a hand on his upper arm from behind.
The bartender stepped back in alarm as Hepzibah stiffened as if she was being electrocuted.  Billy turned around in his and threw her hand off.
Hepzibah relaxed into a normal posture and then focused her gaze on Billy.
“Barsoom sha kundala unos ta, Ka-nacht!”   She intoned.
“You have the gift of second sight,” said Billy
“I’m the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter,” said Hepzibah, slipping back into English.
Billy turned back around and drained his wine.  He stood up and extended his hand.  “You can show me the town now,” he said to Hepzibah.  She took his hand.
The pair walked out into the lengthening shadows.
“Damn!”  The bartender muttered as he slid the silver dollar into his cash box.  He walked to the door and propped it open with his boot to watch them as they walked away.
Just then, Billy and Hepzibah turned as they heard a commotion.  A small group of drunken cowboys who had just left the largest saloon in Cedar Gulch, Hell’s Half Acre, staggered around the end of the block, whooping it up and shooting into the air.
The man in the lead stopped and stared at Billy as he belched and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.  “Look, fellows, we have us a tenderfoot.”
Billy turned to face the half dozen men.  “He looks like he wants a fight,” said another.
Billy took a step towards them.  “You gentlemen should go home and get a good night’s sleep. You will feel better in the morning.”
The hoots and catcalls exploded.  “Gentlemen!”
The leader smiled at Billy.  “We’s having too much fun.”
He waved his gun in the air.  “And we ain’t no gentlemen.”
“Be careful,” Hepzibah hissed in Billy’s ear as she clutched the back of his shoulder. “You can’t take on six men.”
Billy put his hands atop his holsters.  “I think you men need to dispose of your weapons, before you are hurt.”
“Is that a threat?” the leader snarled.
“No, sir, a warning.”
“Are you sassing me?”
Billy half turned his head and side mouthed to Hepzibah.  “What does that mean?”
The leader leveled his gun.
The people looking on from the sidewalks and windows heard a quick “BRAP-P-P-P-P-P!” sound, and the drunken cowboys all dropped to the ground in quick succession.
Billy put one gun back in its holster as he turned to Hepzibah.   “Let’s depart, there are supplies I need to assemble.”
“As you say, Ka-nacht.”
The couple walked off towards Billy’s horse tethered across the street.
The gunfighter and his henchman--Pete and Cisco--had watched the massacre from the shadows of an alley.  “My God!” muttered Cisco.
“I tol’ you I saw kill in his eyes,” said Pete.  “Now, let’s skedaddle outta town.”
They watched from the deep shadows as Billy, with Hepzibah clutching him from behind, rode past the alley and towards the outskirts of Cedar Gulch.
“He’s come a long way for a reason, I reckon,” said Pete. “And I aim to find out what that is. Nobody moves in this town without giving me a cut!”
They walked into the street, and Pete clutched Cisco.  “Tell Heintz I want a report when  he knows sumthing.”
Cisco nodded and went on across the street where the bartender stood in the door.  The bartender leaned over as he listened to Cisco, then looked across to Pete, and nodded.

#

Cisco drained his beer.  Pete looked at him crossly.
“Still nothing new?” he asked.
“No, Heintz says after they picked up the mining tools and tinned grub, they never came back to town,” said Cisco.  “Nobody has either of them for two weeks.”
Pete scratched the stubble on his chin.  “I don’t know where the yellow-eyed stranger was from, but I cain’t believe Hepzibah just up and left like that.”
The doors of Hell’s Half Acre swung and Heintz looked around quickly.  Some of the denizens commented on his being out of place.
The large Dutchman saw Pete and Cisco and walked over rapidly.  “News, finally!” he gasped.  “Joe at the mercantile said Hepzibah just left, with a supply of rope and other supplies.”
He plunked himself down in an empty seat.   “He said it looks like they plan to travel.  He asked Hepzibah where she had been, and she said holed up a mine in Eagle Pass.”
Pete slapped the table.  “The old Foster Mine!”
Pete looked hard at Heintz.  “Are you sure?   That mine played out years ago”
“Joe said it there no doubt it, she said they stayed at the old superintendents shack.”
Pete reached into a pocket and pulled out a gold Eagle. He dropped it into Heintz’ chubby palm.  “That’s what I needed to know,” said Pete.  “Now, git!”
Heintz rose and sped off with surprising speed for someone of his girth.
Pete turned to Cisco.  “I knew someone who’d come to town and look like he’d kill the first man he meets must have some serious business,” he said, “and I want to learn what it is.”
Cisco shrank back a bit.  “Those eyes!”
“The sumbitch is a furriner, that’s all,” said Pete.  “He caught us unawares.”
Cisco brightened a bit.  “You always said, men only want two things, women and money, and he’s got a woman.”
Pete tapped Cisco on the side of his head with a forefinger.  “Now you’re thinking. He must know where there’s a lost lode.”
“We fixin’ to go to Eagle Pass?”
Pete squinted at the setting sun.   “First thing in the morning.”

#

Pete and Cisco crouched behind a low rise that overlooked the entrance to the old Foster Mine.  Smoke rose from the tin smokestack of the old superintendent’s cabin.
“That’s queer, they ain’t stirred all morning,” said Cisco.
“I suppose they’re packing,” said Pete.  “The wagon looks like it is all ready.”
They heard the cabin door creak open, and Hepzibah came our wearing a gingham dress and bonnet.  
“They are ready to hitch up and leave,” said Pete.
She walked around the cabin to the rain barrel.  She flipped open the lid and dipped in a large pitcher.
She turned as she slammed down the lid, and sniffed the air--like a hound.  She frowned and ran quickly back into the cabin.
Cisco looked at Pete, who had a puzzled look.  “I think we’re made,” said Cisco.
“But how?” asked Pete.
The cabin door slammed twice; after the second time, Billy walked around the corner.
He cupped his hands and shouted at the ridge.   “Gentlemen!  Come out, I know you’re there!”
Hepzibah walked up behind Billy.  “Sharing one body with you has given me some of your Martian craft,” she said.  “I smelled them out.”
“Please don’t use the Earth name,” whispered Billy, “for my sake.”
Pete stood up, both guns drawn, and began to advance.   “We don’t want no trouble from you!  We want what you’ve mined.” Cisco followed.
Billy looked at the pair of outlaws impassively.  “You’re welcome to take as much of my mineral as you want, for what good it is to you,” he said.
Pete walked in an arc around Billy and Hepzibah, towards the loaded wagon, with his guns pointed at them.  Finally, as he reached the wagon, Pete waved a six gun towards Cisco. “Git over here and see what’s in the boxes.”
Cisco nodded and went over to the wagon.  He pulled off the canvas, and saw the boxes were nailed shut.
“There’s a crowbar on the floorboard,” said Billy.
“You’re being very cooperative,” said Pete sarcastically.
“There’s no silver in the boxes,” said Billy.
“Looks like he’s right,” said Cisco, peering into a box.  “Nothing here but crumbly black clay.”
Billy began to walk towards Pete.  “It’s called pitchblende.”
“You stay right there, you devil or demon or whatever you is,” said Pete, sticking out his six-shooters.
“I’m just as human as you are, just from a very different and distant land,” said Billy.  “I need that ore for, how would you put it, my steamship’s boiler.”
Cisco was pawing through another box.  He turned toward Billy.  “Huh?”
“I was on a long voyage when I was starwashed....”
“Shipwrecked!” blurted Hepzibah.
“Yes, shipwrecked, and my steamship, as it is, needs a particular kind of ‘coal’.  I can refine this ore to make more of the fuel I need,” said Billy.  It’s called uranium.”
“There’s no silver left in the mine,” said Hepzibah.  “Only this ore.  And it’s no good to you.”
Pete looked at Billy.  “If it’s worth something to you, it’s worth something to someone else, and I’m still taking it.”
“You mean to commit theft?” asked Billy. There was just a hint of a rise in tone at the end of the question.
“And shoot the pair of you.  I saw you quick draw in town, but you made your last mistake, stepping out without your shooting irons,” said Pete.  He began to squeeze the trigger.
It appeared as if a handful of dust had been thrown in the air.  Cisco blinked, and then looked down as the dust settled to see Pete, his neck obviously broken.
Billy walked to each side of the twitching corpse and kicked the guns from its hands.
Billy looked at Cisco, who realized the dust was thrown up because Billy had advanced on Pete so quickly he threw up a dust trail.
“Please!” Cisco begged as Billy looked at him.
“Where I come from, any public declaration of an intent to commit a crime allows the instant application of the death penalty,” said Billy.
“You had better git, Cisco, right quick,” snarled Hepzibah.
Billy raised a hand. “Wait, don’t be so hasty.  He is obviously an inborn servant.”
Billy walked over to where Cisco leaned on the wagon.  “If you help us get this wagonload safely to Texas, I will reward you.”
Billy turned to Hepzibah.  “It’s a long journey.  We could use help.”
Cisco was almost in tears.  “Whatever you want Mister Barsoom!”
“See, he’s not sub-intelligent, simply subservient,” said Billy to Hepzibah.   “He remembers Barsoom.  He may be of service.”
“As you say, Ka-nacht,” said Hepzibah.
“You can ride in the back and protect the boxes,” said Billy to Cisco.
“I’ll go gab the bags and finish filling the canteen like we planned,” said Hepzibah, as she turned and walked back to the cabin.
Billy looked at Cisco. “Have you ever been to Texas?”
“Yes, I was reared there!  I grew up in Mineral Wells.  I came out years ago for the Comstock Strike.”
“We will go to Texas, and spend at least the winter while I refine my ore. Then I can retrieve my ship and set sail back to my home. I t is called Barsoom.”
“Never heard of it, but I ain’t got no education.”
“My people settled a faraway colony many, many years ago, just like your people have come to Nevada.  The weather and land were much the same, except that over time, the rain stopped entirely,” said Billy. “Over many years, we have drifted back to Earth, but it is a long voyage, and takes many months.”
“I came to set up a homestead for my family here in the United States,” he continued, “but as I said, I was shipwrecked.   I need to return to Barsoom and bring my family back with me.”
“Is Barsoom farther than India or China?”
“Much farther.”
“I always thought it would be good to go back to Texas.  Can you take me to Barsoom? I’ll earn my keep and go straight once and for all!”
“Sounds like a grand plan,” said Billy as stuck out his hand.
The pair shook.  “You won’t be sorry, Mister Barsoom Billy.  You’ll know Cisco Burroughs will always ride shotgun for you!”
#
Billy looked through a spy glass towards the Indian encampment.
“I had thought your government had cleared away the aborigines to make way for settlers,” he said to Cisco.
“There ain’t no settlers way out here, the nearest city is over 200 miles back towards Mexico,” said Cisco.
Hepzibath squinted.  “It looks like they’ve made an altar in front of your craft.”
“They have,” said Billy.  “Even as primitive as they are, they are still the long-lost children of the Aztlans, who were friends of my people, also, before the great war and deluge.  They probably recognize some of the insignia and markings.”
“How do you plan to get your craft back?” asked Hepzibah.
Billy turned to Cisco.  “Go back in the wagon and get me a stave, some twine, a burlap sack and some of that boot blacking.”
Cisco set off as he was told.
“What do you plan, Ka-nacht?”
“You will see in a moment.”
Cisco returned with the materials, and kept watch at the edge of the cliff as Billy retreated under the shade of a rock and began whittling.
Hepzibah spoke up after a few minutes.  “You’re making a doll?”
“A ka-cheen of my ka-nacht,” said Billy. “A symbol of my people. I believe they will recognize it.”
When he was through, he advanced to Cisco. “I will go down unarmed, so as not to alarm them,” he said. He started down and after checking the layout of the encampment from behind a boulder, stepped out and uttered a strange cry.
The Apaches turned and started to whoop, but all stopped when they saw the Thunderbird Kachina doll he held at arm’s length. Billy raised his right arm and pointed to the sky, uttering a peaceful greeting in Old High Aztlan.
The Indians all prostrated themselves, face buried in the red desert sand. Billy could tell from their postures and body paint which one was the chief. He stepped over to him.
“Do you have any English?”
The man shook his face back and forth in the sand.
A brave spoke, face still buried. “I speak English.”
“Rise, then, I need a translator.”
When the brave saw Billy’s complexion and eyes, his eyes grew wide. “You are one of the Anasazi gods!”
“My people were the Anasazi, although I am not a god. It is good to know the children of our allies the Aztlans still remember our alliance.”
Billy called out to Cisco and Hepzibah, and they emerged from the rocks at the base of the cliff. “These people are also my allies,” said Billy.
He spoke to the brave. “Tell the others to rise.”
When all the braves were upright, Billy spoke to the translator. “Tell your people I am grateful for the protection of my star craft. I plan to return to the stars with it.”
There were loud gasps. “I need to prepare my fuel, and I must camp here for some months,” Billy continued. “I will reward your people if they serve me.”
There were nods all around. Billy turned and intoned the ancient Aztlan/Anasazi Oath of Fealty. “Hul laorra ballo, ka-necht!”
Somehow, they all knew the response and shouted back, “Ka-necht!”
Billy turned to Cisco, and nodded towards the translator.  “You two get acquainted, and get the wagon unloaded so we can set up camp.”

#

“We couldn’t have done it without the help of your Indian friends,” said Cisco.
Hepzibah smiled and looked up from her knitting.  “I can’t believe they found enough wood to keep those kettles boiling all winter.  I think some of them went halfway to Panama to get good wood for you.”
“I thought you were crazy when you bought those big kettles in El Paso,” said Cisco.
“Desperate, perhaps, but not crazy as you say,” said Billy.  “It’s taken months, but I think I have enough fissionable material to ignite the drive of my craft.” He faced the translator. “Once I get up high enough, I can kick on the inertial drive and fly off the Earth’s rotation like a skipping stone.”
The Indian puzzled and then raised his eyebrows. “Then you plan to return to the Gods!”
Billy smiled.  “Yes, Winnetou, but I will return with members of my tribe, and then I hope we all may live together.”
Billy put his hand on Winnetou’s shoulder.  “Go tell your brothers, we prepare for my rise to the stars!”
Winnetou whooped, turned and ran off.
Hepzibah smiled and continued to knit. “You really should give them something in return for their aid all winter.”
“I will give them my son, as a hostage,” said Billy.
Cisco gasped. “You ain’t taking Hepzibah!?”
“We talked about this, Cis, I’m too far along to travel,” said Hepzibah. “Billy and I are in agreement.”
“I will return in two Earth years in a larger craft with other family members and my other wives,” said Billy.
“Damn, I didn’t know Mars people wuz Mormons!” said Cisco.
Billy and Hepzibah laughed.
Billy reached over into a kettle and drew out a black wooden spoon.  “I will give them a real gift, the light of the ‘gods’.” He leaned over into the shadows where the spoon glowed.  “The residue of Element 88 will impress them for some time to come.”
“But what am I supposed to do while you’re gone, boss?” asked Cisco.
“Stay with Hepzibah and after the child is born, wait a year and then rendezvous with me. I expect you and Winnetou to take them to where I will arrive, where I intended to alight all along.”
“Yes, I remember, you were only 300 miles short when your ship broke down,” said Cisco.  “Must have been frusterating.”
“Yes, but then again, that is where my clan’s old land grant is located, the land grant my ancestor received for service to the Aztlans in the war. It was valueless then because of the Raman occupiers, but they are long gone.”
He looked out across the desert valley.  “And I doubt the Americans care about settlers in such a desolate location.”
Hepzibah smiled at Billy. “You have a very terran sentimental streak, ka-nacht, to want to return to the old homestead.”
Cisco nodded. “Billy’s right, though, there’s lots of nuthin’ in East New Mexico.”
Hepzibah rose and walked over to Billy. She rubbed her big belly against his side. “What did your clan call the place, so many years ago?”
“It was a beautiful and green plain, with fruit trees and gardens,” said Billy, “before the fire storms flew.”
He grimaced. “It was called ‘varadasartesia’”
“What does that mean?” asked Cisco.
“It’s what you call a beautiful garden of roses with a deep well at the center,” said Billy.
“I will wait for you there, and we will make the desert bloom again,” said Hepzibah.
“I’ll meet you there, too, boss, and I’ll help you build up a ranch,” said Cisco.
Billy smiled. “Thank you, my wife and my servant, you have been good to me. With the gods’ forbearance, we will all meet together and start a new home.”
“We will put up a sign when we arrive, as we wait for you,” said Hepzibah, “and restore its name again.”
Billy snorted.  “Not what he said, better translate it.”
Hepzibah clasped Billy. “We’ll call it Rose Well, then.”
Cisco clapped and rubbed his hands.  “Rose Well, New Mexico! I already like the sound of it!”

[The End}