It was a perfectly ordinary summer's day.
Perfectly ordinary, of course, except for the fact that it was exceptionally warm, clothes clung to bodies, sweat formed beads on foreheads, and armpits really stank awfully.
Er...quite ordinary, thus.
I came in from the balcony. I always liked sitting on the balcony. It's one that's built on the north side, so it's got a nice temperature as long as the sun doesn't shine on it - the latter usually only happens during the early evening hours.
I came into the kitchen and opened the fridge for a refreshing bit of Coke to quench my thirst. I put the bottle to my mouth and took a large swig.
It was then that I saw them for the first time.
Little black flies with quivering wings that seemed to stroll leisurely and slowly across the ceiling. Two of them.
I burped, took something to hit them with and hit them. I got a piece of paper to get the red blood stain off the ceiling, after which I put back the Coke bottle and got back outside.
The sun had yet to appear at the north side of the flat, so the temperature was still bearable. The weather made me refrain from reading any stuff other than comics. Some kinds of weather probably have not been designed with heavy reading in mind, and I estimated this kind of hot, oppressive weather to be one of those.
Besides, comics are a lot of fun to read, too, even though they may not stimulate the mind or imagination a lot.
Who cares? It's warm, the wind barely blows, a blanket of damp heat perpetually caresses you. Comics are fine. Reading "Lord of the Rings" would cause you to faint due to the physical exercise involved in keeping it at eyes' level.
Barely an hour later, when the sun slowly but certainly started to appear on the north side of the appartment, I decided to head for cover inside.
I opened the fridge to get some Coke again. I took a swig, causing my eyes to wander across the ceiling again.
Damn. Two more of those particularly nasty arthropods.
Could this be some kind of plague we got on our hands?
I decided to examine them from a somewhat closer distance. I knew my dad had a book about insects at home, and I guessed I could give him a description accurate enough for him to find the species in that book. At least then I would know something about their habits, food preference and actual degree of danger, if any, to humans.
They were about half a centimetre long and pitch black. Not black like a blackened end, or not even black the way regular flies are intensely black, but a kind of black that made your eyes want to look away because of lack of valid impulses. I did not have the impression I was merely looking at a black fly - it was more like looking at the ceiling with a patch of black hole with wings on it.
The wings, now I mention them, where quite different from regular flies' wings, too. They were transparent, but they were attached to the body by what seemed like a little arm, a more solid and sturdier part of extrement that was designed to do a task far more taxing than just moving those fragile wings with the odd black patterns across them.
I looked one of the flies right in the eyes. It had stretched its hind 'legs' so that it was tilted towards me. It was then that I felt a very odd sensation. I felt as if the fly could actually see me. And not only did I feel like it could see me - a gripping feeling around my guts told me the fly knew I was a threat, as if it said "F*@k off, you big oaf" in a telepathic language.
Ordinary flies are stupid. Try to hit them and they will fly like a raving madman in a raving mad chopper, trying to crash through the nearest available window which they can't.
This patch of black hole with wings on it did no such thing. It seemed to look straight at me, or even through me, and it menacingly quivered with its wings, like a bird or a butterfly that tries to look bigger to scare off an enemy.
Feeling this about a silly fly made me feel nauseous.
I grabbed something with which to hit them and hit them. I took a bit of paper to clear away the patch of red blood, threw it away, put the Coke bottle back in the fridge and called my dad so he could have a look at his insect book.
I could have predicted this. The book didn't mention anything like them. My description had been too poor or the book too superficial. Either way, I still didn't know. It might be some kind of mutant insect that ate humans.
No. That was a positively ridiculous assumption. I normally regard myself as a rather sensible person with enough in the brains department, and I was startled to notice me making such ridiculous assumptions.
But these flies did have red blood. The colour of the blood is caused by haemoglobin, the stuff that transports oxygen through the veins from the lungs to all the bits of the body. Insects don't use their blood to transport oxygen. They only use it to transport food. Oxygen is distributed by an intricate network of trachea, air channels that flow from multiple little openings in their skins to the relevant bits of their body.
Then why did these flies have red blood? I knew gnats seemed to have red blood, but that was actually the blood they had sucked from humans or other animals.
This unmistakably implied that these little flies with their menacingly quivering wings sucked animals' blood, too. I didn't like that conclusion. It made me urge to make silly assumptions that in turn lead me to think I was being stupid.
I looked at the ceiling. No new ones had appeared, even though the phone call and the making of silly assumptions had taken up its fair share of time.
They had probably flown in through the kitchen door that had been open all day. As the door was closed now, they couldn't enter any more.
Yes. That thought was a whole lot more consoling that the previous ones. Consoling enough to get to bed and fall asleep quite quickly, without ever waking up of having strange nightmares involving little black holes with wings on 'em that sucked blood.
Next day started off like an ordinary, albeit particularly damp and hot, summer's day usually does. The first rays of the morning's sun were already hot on the face as I opened my eyes to the new day.
Before doing anything else, I had to satisfy my curiosity: Would there be any new flies in the kitchen? Whereas my sleep had not been interrupted by any flies (or even gnats), my being awake was immediately haunted by them.
I opened the kitchen door. Slowly. If there were any there, I didn't want to arouse them which might cause them to fly to other locations in the house.
Three little black dots that moved slowly across the ceiling confirmed the dark sense of foreboding I had had ever since I got woken up by the sun's warmth.
I went closer. They were the same kind I had seen yesterday. They walked around with slowly quivering wings, although they could not normally have sensed my presence yet. I got something with which to hit them.
The problem was that they were somewhat apart now. I couldn't possibly get them in one blow. I discovered I was afraid, which immediately urged my subconsciousness to inform me of the fact that I was being stupid again.
There is something very odd about people. They are not afraid of ordinary flies because they know they don't bite or something. They are not afraid of a large Saint Bernhard dog because of that very same reason. But people are afraid of wasps. Wasps are hardly bigger than flies but they can sting. People are afraid of a rabid pitbull, even though it's lots smaller than a Saint Bernhard.
I didn't know what this fly could do. It looked menacing enough to be able to do something vicious, and I didn't particularly want to find out what it might be that it could do. For all I knew it was something unimaginable that was far worse than what any wasp could get up to.
I was being silly. Very much. I decided to hit them with the thing I had fetched for that purpose.
I got two in one blow. The third one kind of fell to the ground, but halfway down it started to fly. I jumped off the chair I had been standing on, not caring about the red stains on the ceiling.
The thing with which I had hit the other flies fell from my hand.
The fly didn't fly like an ordinary fly. It seemed not to be used to using its wings for doing anything else rather than quivering them. It flew very awkwardly, as if deciding upon another course every few wing beats. It reminded me of a rather clumsy bat.
A bloodsucking bat. A vampire! Raaah!
This rather upsetting analogy caused me to duck quickly, causing the black threat to my temporary sanity to miss my head by a couple of inches, so that it could fly a bit further and settle itself on the opposite kitchen wall, close to the door that I had left open.
I was being very stupid. I needed to convince myself of that fact or I was going to perform some irrational behaviour pretty soon.
I walked, no, I stalked up to the dratted little creature. It seemed to be panting, for its body rose and sank regularly with the approximate speed of my own breathing. Its wings still quivered menacingly. There was no way to see its deep black eyes in its deep black body, but I knew it was looking at me. It was looking at me angrily, for I had disturbed its morning peace and killed two of its fellows - possibly even two of its brothers.
I was being stupid again. Very.
I turned around to get the thing with which I had killed its brothers, only to turn around and stare at a rather empty piece of wall that had just before been occupied by something black, small and menacing.
Instinctively I ducked, suppressing signals of my brain that told me I was now beyond the stages of simply being stupid. I wielded the thing with which I could hit it, carefully scanning each square inch of the kitchen for the presence of something dark.
I did not have any problems finding something dark.
Two black things had appeared on the ceiling, as though out of nothing. It was then that I noticed a small hole in the ceiling. It was one of those lowered ceilings of wood, with about two or three inches' space between it and the actual roof. Out of the little hole, even as I looked, another black thing came.
I left the kitchen, brushed my teeth and took a shower, after which I went to the local supermarket to get whatever they stocked to get rid of insects. Unfortunately, it seemed that more people had been having problems with insects lately as the insect sprays and repellents were all gone. All I could do was get a couple of fly traps - those long, sticky pieces of paper one pins to ceilings where stupid flies die horrible, slow, cruel deaths.
I came back home minutes later.
I had had visions of the entire place crammed with little black flies by now, but fortunately this turned out to have been a figment of my over-active imagination.
I cursed as I discovered I had left the kitchen door open before I left. I went into it, looked at the ceiling and saw no more flies.
The lack of their presence somehow seemed more startling than their actual presence had been.
I climbed the chair again and attached two fly traps to the sides of the window that was closest to the ceiling part with the little hole in it.
It didn't take much of my imagination to think of dozens of little black holes with wings on them to roam in the space between the actual ceiling and the lowered wooden bit. The little hole was as dark as the creatures themselves.
It was large enough to stick my little finger in. Something weird inside my mind told me to try it, but I could suppress the urge. What's the use of sticking your finger into a wasps' nest? I eyed the hole conspicuously, waiting until some of the little flies would come out.
The thought of intelligence in these nasty little insects dawned upon me again. I had felt them seeing me as a threat. I had sensed awe when one of these creatures tried to scare me off by stretching its hind extrements and quivering its wings menacingly.
And I had seen red blood.
The image of dark red spots on the ceiling and the conclusions I had attached to it made me feel sick in the stomach. I could blink my eyes as much as I wanted. Each time I closed them I saw the dark redness on the insides of my eyelids.
"Damn! I am being stupid!" I cursed to myself.
The only answer to this statement, apart from the echo that came back from the appartment buildings on the other side of the green, was a little black thing crawling from the hole.
It walked directly to the bit of the ceiling adjacent the window where I had attached the fly traps. It seemed to examine the chord on which a fly trap hung, quivering with its wings as if it was probing the air for something. It walked slowly around the chord, then left it be and did like all of them usually did: It started walking rather aimlessly across the ceiling, seeming to shift its goal at every few centimetres. Regularly, it would stand still and intensify the quivering of its wings, as if listening, or touching. Sensing something.
I started to sweat a bit. I wasn't sure whether this was because of the heat or because of the fear I somehow felt for these little insects I didn't know anything about.
The fly started walking quicker. Another fly would have flown to wherever it wanted to go, but this one just walked. The quivering of the wings with the black patterns on them quickened even more, as if the thing sensed it came closer to a target - an intensifying of the scent it seemed to be searching the source of.
It was smelling me. It had caught the scent of sweat. It had caught the smell of fear.
The quivering now nearly caused it to fly in its particular, awkward way. It stretched its hind 'legs' again when it was precisely above me on the ceiling.
I didn't dare move. I was afraid it might see me and lurch for me or something. I was rooted to the spot, and I was determined only to move when...
The little insect started to fly and descended.
I moved quickly, ducking. My mind no longer sent signals that I was being stupid, and this alarmed me even more than the actual fly descending upon me.
During my quick movement, however, I had lost track of where it was. I looked around. It was nowhere to be seen. I got scared shitless when an itch manifested itself on my arm - but it was only a hair suddenly finding it necessary to get erect.
It had found ways of vanishing, much in the way its fellows, or brothers, had done during my short visit to the supermarket to get the fly traps.
Only this one had not disappeared from the kitchen. It had merely disappeared from sight which I found out mere seconds later when I felt a stinging pain in my throat. I grabbed for the foul beast, nearly choking myself, but I was too late. I could see it fly off in its awkward way in the direction of the little hole. Within a matter of two or three seconds it had disappeared in it.
There was blood on my hands, which could only bring me to one conclusion: The arthropod had bitten me. It hadn't stung like a gnat would - it had actually bitten. More blood was appearing from a little wound.
I went to the bathroom to have a look at the bite.
First thing I saw wasn't the blood. First thing I saw was that my complexion had paled almost to grey - as if I was a corpse or something. I flexed my fingers. They still moved fine, so there wasn't any rigor mortis.
I was being very silly. I knew I was, but somehow I couldn't care anymore.
Then I looked at the bite. It was minute on all accounts, but its edge was of purest black, and with each heart beat a little trickle of blood pulsated out of it.
I had never been capable of facing my own blood.
When I came round, I immediately felt there were a lot of reasons to pass out again. My skin seemed to feel as if it was pulsating at various locations on my face, neck and back.
Carefully, I felt with my fingers. I felt something tough, a bit like a wart, at the spot where I had been bitten a short while ago. Bleeding had stopped, but the little wound still felt wet and slightly sticky, like a wound that is in the latest stages of producing the bitter, yellow blood suppuration fluid known as pus. The edge of the little wound was the bit that felt tough, almost like the edge of charred flesh.
I erected myself and found myself looking at my own mirror image. A mirror image with about two dozen little wounds on neck and face. I didn't need to have a look at my back. The slightly uncomfortable, pulsating feeling told me there were at least another dozen there.
A sudden feeling of dull nausea becrept by stomach.
Obviously, a couple of dozen of the little buggers had had a go at me while I was out cold, or perhaps a few of them had had a genuine feast.
I ran to the toilet and vomited. It seemed like long minutes before finally my stomach felt it was empty enough. The feeling of nausea persisted, however. It seemed to find a limitless source of energy from whatever those nasty insects had injected in me.
I thought about calling the doctor.
No. I was probably exaggerating. It would all be gone by tomorrow, like gnats' bites. The feeling in my stomach worsened, and extended itself to my lower abdomen and head.
I had to vomit again.
It seemed as if I had ended up in a perpetuum sequence of being sick. Each time when I thought about what had happened to me, I felt my gullet starting to work backwards. Bending over the toilet, looking at what I had vomited earlier, did the rest - quite effectively.
Was this nature's way of getting even with me after I had tortured and killed ants and stick insects during my childhood?
I mustered all my power, flushed the toilet and got up. I felt awfully dizzy, and I was afraid I'd run into something and break a leg if I didn't lay down quickly.
I fell on the bed and passed out again.
Dozens of dark little spots hurled themselves down at me, seeking a bite out of this big lump of meat that lay prostrate on the bed. It was as if the clouds turned into flies, crashing down like a torrent of rain that was alive. Alive, hungry, and pitch black. I felt them bite, but I was too weak to react. I felt them suck blood, but to my mind it was as if they sucked my very life force away. I became more weak and frail by the minute. There would not be a lot more than bones and skin left in a couple of minutes if these creatures continued like that, but I felt too limp to move, too tired to get rid of all these parasites that preyed on my body. I wanted to shout but couldn't. Opening my mouth merely resulted in those damn insects getting a go at the soft inside of my oral cavity.
My lips got stuck. Exploded into a load of blood, pus and mucus. I was no longer capable of closing my mouth. My teeth fell out as the flesh got torn, eaten, bitten, stung. So much for brushing your teeth twice a day. I felt the first batch of 'em enter my digestive system. I was helpless. I was doomed to die. They would feast on my innards, get off totally on the fresh blood in my heart and lungs.
"No, God damn! No! I don't deserve to die!"
I was bathing in sweat as I awoke from this nightmare. Outside, darkness had fallen already. The room still echoed the scream I had uttered.
I felt my neck and face.
Part of this nightmare was real. Sticky, with edges like burned flesh.
It must have been morning when I woke up again. I wish I could tell I felt refreshed, but I didn't.
Nor did I need to touch the spots - I could feel they were still there. They pulsated like one's head seems to throb with every heartbeat after running. The morning seemed real, everything seemed real. But the spots didn't. Was I still locked in some kind of horrific nightmare?
The sound of kids playing outside tore me out of this line of thought. I had never had nightmares that payed enough attention to detail for me to hear kids playing outside in the summer sun. This was reality. Reality, and then you die.
I crawled out of bed. I was feeling like a dry version of a wet towel, but at least I could walk. At least my body seemed to have been able to get to grips with the spots - something my mind hadn't yet.
I felt a morbid desire to look in the mirror. It's a bit like when you have a headache. Shake your head to see if it's still there, if it still hurts. It usually does, effectively increasing it a bit. Pull a scab to see if the wound has healed. Curse at the blood when it hasn't.
I looked, and was startled.
The spots had grown. Not much, but enough for me to notice. Each one of them now occupied a somewhat bigger part of my skin, but they also seemed to have grown out of my body. Like warts. Black, shining warts with crumbly edges where they seemed to have appeared from under the very skin, like volcanoes erupting in infinite slow motion.
I moved closer to the mirror.
There were things moving in the warts.
An acute feeling of intense nausea struck.
Living things were presents in what seemed like partly transparent cocoons partly encased in my body. They reminded me of almost mature frogs' eggs I had once seen floating in a pond. These warts, however, looked like infinitely evil versions of those frogs' eggs, deeply blackened.
And that wasn't just me being silly, stupid, or lacking sense.
The warts itched, especially the ones on my chin. I scratched one of them. Carefully at first, but soon more intense as the itch increased and begged for more intense ministrations. With a sickening 'pop' it burst and a tiny, black, maggot-like thing dropped out of the torn wart into the sink. Pus seeped from the opening in my skin. In the mirror I could see exposed flesh where the wart had been. The itch had transformed itself to pain, a pain that seemed to echo through my jaw, and concentrate somewhere in the middle of my head, creating quite a headache.
I looked at the maggot in the sink. Like the creatures that had brought it forth, it looked like a tiny black hole. The difference was that it didn't yet have the quivering wings and that it was worm-like in shape, and wet. It seemed to suck at the sink like a leech.
The thought that many of these horrible little creatures were located on my body worsened the feeling gnawing my stomach.
I turned away from the mirror.
At least I wasn't turning into a fly myself. Wouldn't that have been quite an awful cliche? The lack of cliche didn't make me feel better though.
I had to get out. Out of this place where it all had started. To assure myself that this was no nightmare I sinmply had to get out. Gauge peoples' reactions. What would the neighbours say?
Holding the latch, doubts entered my mind. Wasn't I just heading for things I would not like? People that would look at me, horrified. Children that would run away, screaming and crying. A cast-out of society. A freak-out of nature. A helpless case.
I'd probably have to be put down. These maggots might not remain that small. They might grow and devour my flesh and innards. Once released onto the unsuspecting world, they might invoke damnation on mankind. The earth would belong to them. It sounded like a bad H.G. Wells book.
I was just in time to notice I was emotionally spiralling downwards again. I had to stop these thought before I would do something to myself that society and posterity would frown upon forever. Some way or another, I had already walked to the kitchen and taken a meat knife from a drawer.
I startled, dropping the knife on the ground. It clattered, tearing me from my thoughts for a few moments.
The damn warts started itching again. I couldn't refrain from scratching. Just for a short time. Stop before it starts hurting, but I continued.
Pain. Feeling of pus oozing from wounds. Little crawly things dropping down my neck and back. A maggot fell on my leg. It attached itself. Mutely I saw the flesh around it turn black, dry and crumbly as if scorched. I forgot to feel the pain of the maggot digging into flesh until I saw blood pulsate from the little hole through which it was apparently eating itself.
Existence felt like nill. What was I to do? I saw the knife. It had a sharp point. I could cut the warts off. Yes. That seemed to be the only solution. Intense pain on my back and neck told me the other slimy, crawly creatures had found ways, too, to attach themselves to me, slowly but surely eating inwards. Would they get to my nerves too?
The pain was excruciating, like a dozen red-hot knitting needles slowly being stung into my body.
I grabbed the knife and sat down, trying hard to block out the pain. I cried out when I inserted the point into the wound where the first maggot had burrowed. Blood started to flow more plentiful. There it was. I cut the vile creature out of my flesh and threw it away. The pain wasn't lessening.
How was I going to remove them from my back? I'd never succeed. Damn! I paniced. "Don't panic". How absurd. The one that was digging in my neck would have to be next. I went to the mirror, afraid of what I might see.
My complexion had turned even more grey, like a dead man's. For all I knew, I could already be a corpse. But I moved. I breathed. I felt pain, lots of it. I bled, too. A lot.
I inserted the knife point into my neck, where the other maggot seemed to be eating its way inward. I had to be careful. It was damn near the carotid artery. No. The maggot seemed to have caught the scent of the vein. It shifted its direction. Damn! I had to be quick. Quick and careful. Impossible. And what about my back? I flinched as the pain there suddenly grew beyond endurance. Had one of those damn maggots entered the vertebrae? The flinch caused the knife to dive into my neck, slashing through the artery.
It dropped from my hand as I saw myself in the mirror. It looked like some cheap horror movie. With each heartbeat, blood gushed from my neck. I felt my life flow down my shirt, down my trousers, in my shoes. I think I wet my pants.
I didn't even try to stop it. Mutely, I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I saw myself grow even more pale. All of me seemed pale, except for the dark red that kept appearing, in regular beats. At least the pain was bearable now. It was getting less and less. The world seemed to turn around, even smile at me.
I was getting a bit sleepy. First silly, then stupid. Reality. Sleepy.
Leaving a trail of blood and gore, I stumbled to the kitchen. I felt weak. Someone was crying outside, but it might have been a child playing.
In the kitchen, I looked up to the small opening in the ceiling. I smiled at something that looked like a little black hole with quivering wings.
It stretched its hind legs threateningly, a movement that my mind associated with the eerie hissing of a rattle snake's tail.
"You won," I muttered.
I fell forward onto the stone kitchen floor, probably splitting open my skull in the process. But that was no longer my concern, rather that of the people who would have to clean up the mess.
Original written July/August 1991. Rehashed February 1994. Previously published in the Utrecht University English faculty magazine "Quill" (October 1991). The insects were real.
Sometimes it's quiet in the Tavern. Irritatingly quiet. No fights. No interesting people. Nothing much happens for days on end. At times such as these I often add to my journal.
What to write about this time?
Now, what tale had I heard recently that was worth remembering in this journal? Perhaps the tale of how I came to work here in the Tavern at the Edge of Nowhere? Nah! How my hair went white? Nah! There must be something more interesting than that load of baloney?
Nothing interesting had happened for weeks. The last good tale that I had heard was the story of how a scientist by the name of Richard Thrum had lost his head and lived to tell the tale. His head had been turned into a superconductor and he had ended up becoming a permanent feature of the Tavern. His silvery-looking head now sits on a shelf above the mirror at the back of the bar.
The only way to communicate with him was through a gadget unimaginatively know as a psionic device. This device looked like a silvery locket and was currently hung about my thick neck. It's been a good talking point for customers. They spot it. Ask what it is. That gives me an excuse to talk for a while.
I'd already written Richard's story up in the journal, so no help there. I bet he's got plenty of other tales to tell? Unfortunately, Richard Thrum had not let out so much as a psionic squeak in the month that his head had been here.
The device definitely worked. It allows the wearer to read or project their own thoughts into the mind of others. I've never tried to use it to read minds. Alburt Greshin gave me Richard's head, the psionic device and warned me about reading minds. It's never pleasant so don't do it. He is a telepathic detective, so he should know what he is talking about. The psionic device is great for shutting up noisy drunks or stopping fights. A few carefully chosen words at extremely high volume broadcast straight into the offenders mind work wonders. Yesterday it allowed me to see a ghost.
Perhaps I could use that tale to fill up some room in my journal? Nah! Hardly worthy of a few paragraphs. There wasn't really any story there. The ghost and his companion seemed to be of low intelligence and were unwilling to talk about much.
One of them was a typical hippy looking guy about twenty years old. He had long mousey hair, a short beard and plastic glasses. He carried a sort of briefcase and wore a woolly jumper. Decidedly odd! His manner and dress were suggestive of the last century. Maybe about 1990.
The other guy was clean shaven and very pale. He was dressed in a white boiler or ship suit with white shoes. Not just white, but sparkling white. His hair was pure white, just like mine, and he had no eyebrows. He was very unhappy looking. Decidedly odder! It was impossible to tell which time period he was from.
Their mannerisms were rather strange.
"Remember to use plenty of eye contact." said the pale guy.
"Can I have a coke please?" said the hippy putting his case on the bar as he stared at me.
"Sure. Don't scratch the bar with that thing will you?" I said.
"There's no sharp edges on it." said the hippy.
"Don't be a wimp. Ask for a beer! Not too much eye contact." said the pale guy.
"Make that a beer." said the hippy, looking away.
"Any particular type?" I asked.
"Don't mumble. Be positive. When in doubt let the barman choose." said the pale guy.
"Surprise me." said the hippy.
"Good one." said pale face.
"One beer coming up," I said.
"Be communicative. Don't wait. Introduce yourself. You know who you are and he can't be allowed to forget it." said pale face.
"My name is Brian Jones. I'm from 1991."
"Tony Wheelbough. From any time you want." I gave the hippy his beer and turned to the pale guy. "You want a drink smiler?"
They both looked at each other uneasily and then stared at me.
"What?" said pale face quietly.
"What do you want to drink?"
"You can see me?" he sounded really surprise.
"No. I'm just guessing. What do you want to drink? Are you a loony? And I don't mean someone who lives on the moon!"
I'm like that. Insult someone with a smile, a joke, the right type of tone in your voice and they will usually be put at ease. It's very rare that it doesn't work. Sometimes they just punch you.
"No, I'm not a loony. I was Victor Torus. I'm a ghost."
You would expect that Victor and Brian would be interesting to talk to. Wrong! They were DEAD boring (he, he). Victor didn't want to tell his story. All he would say was that he was teaching Brian how to be assertive (he's a bloody rotten teacher if you ask me). Hence the odd conversation. He didn't know anyone other than Brian could see him. Victor was haunting him.
How interesting! Could they elaborate? No they couldn't!
Getting either of them to talk was like pulling teeth with rubber tweezers; time-consuming and pointless. Eventually, in sheer desperation I asked what the briefcase was for. This was pay dirt. Extremely boring pay dirt I grant you, but pay dirt nevertheless.
The briefcase was in fact a portable computer. Brian was a writer. Seconds after learning this, the computer was opened and powered up. The thing was so antiquated that it had a real keyboard. I pressed a few keys experimentally. Mmm, nice! First time that I'd used a solid keyboard in years.
A badge below the tacky green screen proclaimed STACY. How nice! My own computer didn't have a name. If it did, it would probably be something boring like Freda or Susan.
Brian was unbelievably enthusiastic about this old-fashioned box of delights. I decided to try and spoil his day by showing him my computer.
This was also my opportunity to do what I consider myself to do best. Introduce unusual stories into mundane conversations. What to talk about and how to connect the theme to computers? Oh yes, the Builders!
I was given a universal format organiser over a year ago by a short furry customer who I did a favour for. Four human teenagers from Mars somewhere in the 2090's got stranded here on this planet (there is no official name for it yet) where the complex know as the Edge Of Nowhere is built. I gave them use of one of the bars space/time vehicles to help them back to their own time and planet.
Their guardian was a talking dog called Daisy. She gave me that organiser because it was of no use to her because she was herself a supercomputer. Her computer brain was interfaced with the dog brain with the hope that the organic part of the linked brains would enable her to develop free will. She did develop free will and had quite a rude personality. Within minutes of meeting her, she called me "tubs" and swore at me several times. I took an immediate liking to her. That's another story for another day. Wonder how things worked out for her?
The name "universal format organiser" doesn't give away the fact that the thing is the one of the most advanced pocket computers in any of the known universes. It is manufactured by a group of silicon-based beings known as the Builders.
It's the same shape as a credit card only it's about half an inch thick. In the centre is an inch square sliding cover. Moving this turns it on. Beneath the sliding cover is the holographic projector used to produce the appearance of a full sized desktop computer.
The holographic keyboard works by detecting the capacitance that your finger makes as it enters the holograms field. The computer then works out which key you are using. It's extremely difficult to learn to use this kind of keyboard. You can't touch-type with it and there is no key click.
The monitor is also a hologram. It's rather odd looking to see a perfectly rectangular screen with no perceivable thickness floating in the air above the computer. The screen, when set to its maximum width, can be three feet across. I've set the one on this computer to roughly 15 inches across.
Sound is supplied through sympathetic resonance. Put simply, this means that the whole computer vibrates and the nearby surroundings pick this up and convert it into sound. Well, that's not really how it works, but it's a close enough analogy for this little black duck.
I don't like this sympathetic resonance nonsense at all! If the surface the computer is placed on is smooth, the vibration makes it slide about. It's always falling off of the bar when I'm not looking. Fortunately, the hologram automatically compensates and remains where it is. The computer has to be moved several feet before the hologram goes with it.
There are no sockets on it at all. All input/output is by direct piped magnetic induction. This is why it is known as the universal format organiser (or more commonly as a UF organiser). It can intelligently work out the storage method used to store any type of magnetic/atomic storage. It will even read and write to old fashioned floppy disks without touching them. Just let the computer know where the disk is and it does the rest provided that it is within a few feet of it.
I'm reliably informed, a little known side effect of this means that the computer is also an expert at picking electronic locks. I've never tried it, but I'm assure it works.
Software? It writes its own to suit your needs. Memory? Don't know. It can't be measured accurately. Well, not by me. If you ask it, it will give a meaningless number something along the lines of 10 to the power 898650357 or some such drivel. It then has the cheek to add the word approximately. All this memory fits onto a single memory crystal the size of my thumbnail. It uses something known as molecular switching to store the data. I haven't got a clue what that means. It's a very big memory that's all I know. Probably bigger than the human brain. It always has current running through it, so when you switch the computer on, it's always doing whatever it was it was doing the last time that you used it. Because of this, there is no need to have hard disk units. If the current failed, the memory would freeze. You could remove the memory crystal and pop it into a new computer. Funnily enough, the memory crystal is human-built. Invented about 2050. It was never designed to be able to access more than a few thousand giga-bytes, but that's the Builders for you! They often make other beings' technology do things it was never designed to do. Indeed, this is what enginners the Universe over constantly do.
I haven't a clue about the power source. It's not atomic or gravic that's for sure. The Builder duplicator doesn't work with those sort of materials.
The duplicator is the reason why someone like me can own such a powerful computer. The duplicator will reproduce nearly anything as long as it's less than 30 pounds in weight. Don't ask me why that limit exists. The duplicator itself takes up a space the size of a small factory and needs a reactor to power it. Its own parts are too big and heavy to copy itself.
The Builders were themselves originaly the construct of another race.
Two thousand years ago the Abcronxuddlern were highly advanced in two areas. Genetics was just a hobby. Killing was their main interest. They were masters of war. The development of space travel didn't interest them much. It interfered with the day-to-day running of the wars.
The Builders looked like large blobs of protoplasm only because that's what they were (still are). Giant-sized amoeboid like creatures whose ability to extrude themselves into other shapes made them tool users who didn't need tools. Well, not many anyway.
If a Builder was too small, it would eat and ingest rocks until it was big enough for the job. If it was too big, tell it so and it would divide into two or more individuals. They didn't know their own life spans because, although they were often killed whilst working, not a single creature had ever been known to die a natural death.
You have probably guessed by now, the Builders were designed as slaves. Their three goals in life were to learn, work and obey. They were programmed workaholics and they loved it.
Perhaps because they were fashioned out of silicon compounds rather than carbon, their brains were unstable producing a high degree of eccentric behaviour. Sometimes they behaved like full blown lunatics. To say they had psychological problems is an understatement. They could give lessons to fruit cakes.
One of the Builders developed the theory for nuclear weapons. Rumours that such things were possible was enough for Builders everywhere. Having built them the Abcronxuddlern had to use them.
At that time, the population of the planet was roughly 2 billion adult Abcronxuddlern and a couple of million Builders.
Two weeks after the theory of nuclear destruction went abroad, there was 10 Builders for every Abcronxuddlern on the planet. Builders are virtually immune to radiation. Their chromosomes are just too big to be affected by radiation. It took a very extreme heat or cold to even annoy them. Life on the planet was now practically non-existent.
The Abcronxuddlern learned nothing by this. Small groups of survivors sprang up and declared war with tooth, claw and club on other small groups of survivors. The Builders did learn a lesson from this, for it was their nature to do so. They were not going to stand for this type of behaviour any longer.
First things first. They re-designed their own genetic structure and created a second race of Builders with complete free will who were capable of sticking two extruded fingers up at anyone that ordered them about.
The Abcronxuddlern were rounded up and sent to camps for re-educating. This did not work. After nearly a hundred years of failure, the Builder's decided to get heavy and kick protoplasm. The Abcronxuddlern were genetically altered so that their offspring would be less aggressive. The new breed developed something very desirable. A moral code. The old breed died out eventually. Rumours crop up now and then about how some of the bad seed survived, but no one really believes a word of it.
By this time, the Builders had discovered ways to muck about with space and time. Effectively, faster than light travel was possible. They finished re-building the planet's natural environment, deprived the Abcronxuddlern of all technology and went off singly or in pairs to learn about the universe. Wherever they went, civilisation followed.
The Abcronxuddlern, left to there own devices, re-built their civilisation in less than a thousand years. They are still too aggressive for their own good, but they have not tried genocide again. How high the masters of war have fallen. Today, Abcronxuddlern are regarded as the Pit Bulls of the known Universe.
If you ever meet a Builder you are unbelievably lucky and may end up disgustingly rich. Daisy didn't tell me the story of the Builders. It is etched into the computer's memory and cannot be removed.
I told Brian all this and more. He listened closely and made a few notes. When I told him about the my computer I demonstrated each point. When I finished talking about the Builders, I left him to potter about with the UF organiser whilst I tried to talk to Victor for a while.
"I suppose that you're a ghost writer?" I joked.
"No." said Victor.
"Been dead long?"
"How did you die?"
"Brian killed me."
"You feel like talking about it?"
A ghost of few words was Victor. And then later...
"Your hair is white?" said Victor.
"Yes." I said.
"Yet your eyebrows are jet black?"
"Do you dye it?"
"No!" I said rather rudely.
"Oh! I didn't mean to offend! I was just making conversation."
Just making conversation! Can you believe it? He actualy said that to me! Time for revenge.
"I don't feel like talking about it." I said and walked away.
In disgust I wandered off to polish the Wurlitzer. What sort of song whould offend a ghost and a hippy? Maybe that old CD thing by Frank Zappa's daughter? That offends everybody! Press a few buttons, turn up the volumn and the sickening vocals of "Valley Girl" rang out. How many repeats? 10. He, he!
They both left on the fourth repeat. If they ever come in again, I'll get their story even if I have to drug them to do it. How'd you drug a ghost?
That was yesterday. I suppose that I might as well write it up. Nothing else interesting has happened around here. They might come back and I can always add a bit to the story when I find out a bit more about them.
I put my computer on the bar and turned it on. Strange? The file manager is open? That hippy must have been using it. Let's take a look in the log and see what he was doing....
WHAT? He's been copying files! That speccy swine has actually stolen some of my journal!
(c) Bryan H. Joyce
Original written January 1992. Last rehash August 1992. Final editing February 1994.
It had been a rainy afternoon, and the air was smelling clean and pure. The street was wet. The sun was shining weakly through thin clouds, and the birds seemed to rejoice life now that it was dry again.
A lonely man dressed in a U.S. army jacket walked slowly along the road, sticking up his thumb at every passing car. None of them stopped for him, but he seemed to have reconciled him with that a long time ago.
A town was looming up in the distance. Finally, he would be able to eat and drink something after having wandered through dense forests for over two days. He welcomed the sheer thought of once again being in the civilised world, even though he hadn't particularly liked the civilised world in recent years.
He sighed deeply, readjusting his rucksack. He looked at a squad car that came nearer and passed him in the opposite direction.
The car turned around and came back to him again.
"Good afternoon," a police officer said after having wound down the window, "can I perhaps be of any assistance to you?"
The man in the U.S. army jacket stood still for a moment and looked at the officer with raised eyebrows.
"Can I perhaps be of any assistance?" the man repeated.
The wanderer shook his head.
"Where are you going?" the Police officer inquired.
The wanderer seemed in deep thought for a moment, then said: "North."
His voice sounded worn, and had something threatening yet innocent.
"Get in the car," the Police man proposed, "I'll take you to the north town exit."
The man in the U.S. army jacket got in, uttering nothing but a muffled grunt of approval.
"This is quite a quiet little town, really," the officer said after he had driven for a couple of moments, "there's nothing going on that you would like."
The wanderer looked at the Police officer and once again raised his eyebrows.
"It's actually quite a dull town. But the problem is that we don't mind it being dull and quiet. And I am paid to keep it that way. Do you understand?"
The wanderer didn't say anything or even nod. They both sat silent until the officer halted the car, about a mile north of town.
"Here it is," the officer said, adding "You're welcome" when he noticed that the man in the green U.S. army jacket wasn't about to say anything.
The wanderer got out; the Police car turned around and went back to town.
The Police officer was pretty pleased with himself. Another potential threat to rest and peace in his community was got rid of.
Until he looked in his rear view mirror. The bum was walking towards town again.
He turned his car around rapidly and stopped before the man. He wound down the window again.
"What do you think you're doing?" he said to the man. Some irritation could be heard in his voice now. "I thought you were going north. Didn't I tell you that our town is nothing for you?"
The wanderer looked blankly at the officer, obviously not thinking for one moment to heed the public servant's remarks.
He walked on.
"Well I'll be..." the Police officer said, put his car in reverse and stopped again in front of the man wearing the tattered old green jacket.
"Didn't I tell you to turn around, and to avoid this town?"
When the wanderer moved to walk on, the Police officer got out of the car, obviously quite excited.
"Please put your hands on the car and spread your legs, mister. Now, please." He helped the wanderer assuming the required position and searched him.
"Ah!" he said triumphantly when he found an enormous knife on the wanderer's belt.
"You're under arrest for carrying a concealed weapon! You have the right to remain silent. If you give up the right to remain silent, everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you don't have an attorney we will appoint one for you." While saying this, he clicked handcuffs on the other man's wrists. He pushed him in the back, got behind the wheel himself and drove to the Police station.
"We don't like people like you around our town," the Police officer said gravely, "especially not when they're carrying huge knives. What do you use it for?"
"Hunting." the wanderer replied.
"Ha! What do you hunt then? Elephants?" the Police officer obviously thought this to be a pretty funny remark and laughed.
"Why do you pick on me? I didn't do anything." the wanderer asked. He sounded beaten, tired.
There was a moment of silence.
"What did you say?" the officer asked.
"Why you pick on me. I haven't done anything to you."
"We don't like your type of guy around here." He pulled over the car at the Police station and got out. He got the man in the U.S. army jacket out of the car, too, and guided him inside.
The wanderer was put down for questioning at a desk.
"Here's another wanderer, Mitch," the first Police officer said, "he carried a concealed weapon and resisted arrest."
He put the enormous knife on the table.
"Says he uses it for hunting." the first Police officer said before he left.
"Please state your full name, mister," the second officer said. He sat behind his typewriter, ready to type it down.
The wanderer didn't say anything. Just looked around him uncomfortably.
"Look," the officer said, "we've got methods for guys like you. If you don't tell us all we want to know, we'll get it out of you anyway. The hard way." He showed his teeth, and beat his truncheon menacingly on his other hand.
"You'd better believe him," a younger Police officer with light red hair who happened to overhear the conversation said, "he can beat it out of you all right!"
The wanderer now looked around him a bit more uncomfortably. "Your name please!" the officer repeated.
Still, the man in the green army jacket didn't even utter as much as a disapproving grunt.
The Police officer raised from his seat and went to stand behind the man that was now looking most uncomfortably around him. He seemed to shiver for a moment, as if he was thinking back of something horrible that had happened to him years ago.
"Well, let's see if our friend here wants to say something...NOW!," the officer said, suddenly holding the truncheon to the wanderer's throat, pulling quite unsubtly. The wanderer tried to pull it off but didn't succeed. He grunted more loudly now.
"Ah!" the officer said when he saw an army ID plate hanging around the suspect's neck. He tried to grab it, but then the wanderer suddenly took the officer's hand and held it tight.
"You do that..." whispered the officer, "...and you'll see your brains splattered all over the desk." He held a gun to the wanderer's head.
The man in the green U.S. army jacket released his grip. The Police officer tore off the army ID.
"Warchild, Cronos J.," he read aloud, "Hmmm...."
He turned around to the desk where the younger officer with the red hair sat and said: "Can you check out Warchild, Cronos J.?"
The younger officer nodded and typed in something on his computer terminal.
The first officer came back again and said that the wanderer would need a bath before he would be put in a cell.
"You're filthy, Cronos J.," the second officer said, "you hear what the boss said. You need a bath. Well, let's give you a bath!" A sadistic smile could be seen on his face.
Warchild was brought downstairs for a bath by Mitch and the younger officer with the light red hair. Bath? A cleanup anyway, for all that he saw down there was a hose.
"Take off your clothes," the officer commanded, pointing to a place where the clothes could be put with his truncheon. When Warchild didn't start to do anything even remotely looking like taking off his clothes, a threatening movement with the clubbing device made him do so anyway. "Crikey!" the young officer sighed when he saw huge scars on Warchild's body, "what has he been through?!" Mitch didn't seem to be impressed much. "We must give him a bath," he only said, "well, give him a bath!" The younger officer took the hose and turned it on. Water sprouted from it hard and landed on Warchild's body. "Be sure to get him behind the ears!" Mitch yelled, laughing. Some minutes later, Warchild was thought to be clean enough. Now, he only still needed to be shaved.
The younger officer took a razor-blade from a cupboard, as well as some foam. Warchild got a blank look in his eyes as he saw the man come nearer with the blade. Flashes of old memories battered through his brain; memories of ancient tortures, exploding ships, and pain. A lot of pain. His eyes betrayed panic.
"Keep quiet, Cronos J.," said the younger officer, "I wouldn't want to slit your throat with this!"
"Just do it!" Mitch grumbled while holding Cronos tight to his seat, "he's tough enough. Shave him. Dry!"
The blank look in Cronos' eyes disappeared and was replaced by a small flame - a flame of fear mixed with rage. He saw the blade coming nearer to his face...
Mitch saw the rage in Cronos' eyes, but saw it too late...
Mitch woke up, bathing in sweat and turning on the light. Next to him, his wife woke up, too.
"Mitch, darling, what happened?" she asked with concern in her voice.
Mitch panted and couldn't answer for a while.
"I think I had a nightmare, sugar, but it's nothing. Go to sleep again."
He turned out the light.
A couple of minutes later, they were fast asleep again. This time, Mitch dreamed of promotion, women and money.
Behind the bedroom door, a burglar sighed very deep. For a moment he thought he had been discovered, but he was still quite safe. He was a broad and rather tall man. He wore a grim face and a U.S. army jacket.
Original written spring 1989. Rehashed February 1994. I would not normally have included this as it's a bit of a rip-off (A BIT?!) but I wanted to do all the Warchild stories I've written so far in proper chronological sequence.
Dallon sat slowly down upon the rock he had taken to be his seat this longest night. The coldness rose from the stone sending a chill throughout his entire body. His hand fell to his sword, sheathed in his belt. He loosened it and it fell to the ground.
Slowly he surveyed the horizon, his eyes barely moving as he took in the entire vista of his existence. He had never been outside the boundaries of what he could now see and he knew that he never would. Stories abounded of far-off lands, of magical and mystical creatures, of heroes and evil warlocks who could cleave great rifts in the ground with a single wave of a hand. Perhaps they were true. Perhaps not.
The sun was starting to set. Unnatural colours bounded across the sky, the clouds a landscape in themselves, infinitely more beautiful than the land as it was now, grey, barren, marks of death and pestilence everywhere for all to see - no matter how often the survivors turned their heads, trying in desperation to avert their gaze from the memories of the disasters that had befallen them, a new tombstone to their civilisation would come into sight.
Here, high on a mountain top, Dallon sat, surveying what had once been a thriving town, his town, where he was born, where he married, where his son was born, where his bride and child had died, leaving him alone. Alone. If only it was just his family. Countless others had died when the first wave had struck, a great wall of water, a mountain of doom racing out of the east, sweeping away all they had built, all they had known. A few survived, those who were in the hills, and they were here still.
The impossibly strong wind buffetted against Dallon, trying to remove him from his seat, but he sat firm. His long, dark hair blew back from his face, bringing a clarity of thought that he would much rather be without. It wouldn't be long now.
The sun hung low in the sky, reluctant to set, as if floating on the tumultuous sea before him. A huge crack of lightning split the sky apart but there was no rain. The moon glowed serenely through the chaos, as if gloating from its position of calm and order, seeking the appropriate gap in the clouds through which to watch, ghoulishly enjoying the suffering of those who were to witness the end.
And then there was the second moon. The moon that had been in the sky since early summer, growing in size as the terror of the people increased, doubling as thousands died in the wave, and doubling again as the survivors buried their loved ones. The ones that were found. Dallon had thought for one hopeful, but brief moment that as the people lost all that was theirs to lose it would cease growing, deprived of it's food, but as despair grew into resignation, so the harbinger in the sky grew too.
Those who were left had come to the mountain and sheltered from the storms in the caves of their ancestors, their primitive drawings still visible in the rockface. Countless generations had died here, their bones still buried under this generation's feet. One more would join them tonight. Some would watch as their world was torn apart, others would cower in the caves, praying for some miracle, hoping beyond hope that averting their eyes would avert the catastophe. Others had already died, or gone missing, of their own choosing.
The new moon now hung over the ocean, many times larger than the sun. As he stared at its brilliant surface, Dallon imagined he could see oceans upon it, continents, trees, rivers, cities, mountaintops. Mountaintops where people such as he were sitting, looking back at him, anger and bitterness in their eyes, sorrow seeping out in their teardrops, unimagineable sadness gripping their heart. Except that the sadness was all too imagineable.
The wind was increasing now. Before long he would no longer be able to hold his vantage point. But no, this monster had taken everything he had ever known and there was no way that it would now deprive him of his final stand. Reaching down to his side, Dallon sought the handle of his sword. His fingertips struck metal and his hand gripped the hilt with iron determination. Rising to his feet, he held the sword above his head in one last gesture of defiance and sank the blade deep into the ground before him.
As the wind continued to grow and rain like pebbles thrashed down around him, he gribbed the sword with all his might, Dallon screamed at the storm, drawing energy from the depths of his soul, but his voice went unheard above the roar of the apocalypse. With a final surge, he forced his eyes open one last time to see that which was his executioner carry out the sentence. The moon filled the sky before him and, the instant before it hit, breaking the planet in two, Dallon was sure that he saw people on its surface, their faces frozen in one final, voiceless scream.
It has been Tough. Really Tough and, indeed, "Tough" with a capital T.
When Cronos Warchild, mercenary annex hired gun, had first read a leaflet with prerequisites of applicants for the Ranger course, it was love at first sight. He immediately knew that he would finally be able to put into practise everything he had worked for at the local gym.
"You must be in top physical condition," the leaflet had read, "able to do at least 50 push-ups, 60 sit-ups, and run two miles in under 15 minutes. You must have passed the Combat Water Survival Test, which means that you can walk blindfolded off a 3-meter diving board, and swim 15 metres in full combat gear. You must be qualified in marksmanship, first aid, camouflage, orienteering, and construction of observation posts and defensive positions. You must be confident of your own skills and abilities, and ready and eager to improve them."
A smile appeared on his lips as he remembered the pamphlet. Reality had even been worse, and the four training phases had been Tough, Tough indeed. But he had been through worse, though some of his old injuries (especially the ones he sustained when trying out a breathtaking trapeze act once) were regularly playing tricks on him.
But now he was ready. He had now joined the exclusive fraternity of those who wear the unobtrusive patch reading "Ranger".
Unobtrusive indeed. Was this what he had gone through hell for? Just a small piece of cloth with some characters knitted on it.
Tomorrow he had to check in at Fort Benning at 0900 hours. There was some kind of job to do in some godforsaken country in the Middle East. None of his team had yet received their mission briefing, but rumours spoke that they were to perform a quick assault to a country called Inar where they were to abduct or assassinate the spiritual leader, Mokheiny.
He walked the streets, thinking about what might happen there. He was kinda enthusiastic and particularly looking forward to tomorrow's assignment. Finally, he would be able to wield a gun again, which he hadn't been asked to do since he was set out to kill that ridiculous detective, Eddie-what-was-his-name.
He crossed a busy street and totally neglected the fact that it was 5 PM and that everybody was trying to get home from work as fast as possible; a time when even the entire New York police preferred to say indoors and try not to miss tomorrow's weather forecast.
A car crashed into his left leg: A Black Pontiac Trans-Am. It must have driven at least 50 mph. For about pi nano-seconds, Cronos thought he was dead. When he opened his eyes, he discovered that he was standing upright with a black car folded partly around his shin bone, and he thought he was surrounded by Angels chanting songs of peace and bliss. But either he wasn't, or the Angels' reportoire had changed considerably; he only heard swearing curses. The Angels looked at bit like New York citizens, too; citizens looking for a thrill and the sight of fresh blood and/or a heavily mutilated body.
When Warchild realised that A) He was not dead, B) People did not seem to discover any fatal injuries on him, C) The driver of the Trans-Am was swearing like mad, and D) Aforementioned driver was swaying a sturdy jack and looking threateningly in his direction, he decided that it was time to bring some of his training in practise.
The Trans-Am driver was an enormously sized feller, with a chest width that most people would have considered to be a proper total body length. The guy must have weighed at least 270 pounds. Warchild wasn't particularly small and light either, but this dude made him look like his foster mum's piano teacher.
He decided to wait and see what the gigantic guy was up to. For this, Cronos didn't have to wait long. The guy lifted the jack above his head and made movements that would surely end up with the connection of solid steel to solid human skull bone.
Warchild's reaction was swift and sure. He stepped aside carefully, which made sure that the piece of solid steel got connected to the Trans-Am's hood.
Devious dude: "Grooowwll!"
Warchild: "Watch yourself; that's bad for your throat!"
Silly stooge: "Grooowwll!!"
Warchild, stepping aside once more: "?"
Trans-Am's front windshield: "Rinkeldekinkel!"
Malignant macho: "GROOOWWLL!"
Warchild: "Tsk, tsk..."
Furious fool: "GROOOWWLL!!"
Warchild, stepping aside even once more: "Sigh..."
Trans-Am's roof: "Crash! (Crucial collapse)"
"It's about time for some defensive transactions," Warchild muttered to himself. The next second, he beheaded the wild weirdo with one of his fingernails.
Warchild's fingernail: "Swooosh?"
Mutant madman: "Waddoyouthink you're do...Glop."
Mutant madman's body: "Thump."
Jack (after hanging in the air for a while, not quite aware of what happened, and least of all of the laws of gravity): "Dang!"
Cronos looked around the people that stood around the scene. Most of them looked deathly pale now, and some of them could be seen having trouble to keep their afternoon coffee'n'sandwiches inside.
"Step aside please," he said as he left the crowd to continue on his way, "and can someone perhaps call a mortician? Thank you. I have a plane to catch."
He left the story for the moment.
Original written late spring or early summer 1989. Rehashed February 1994.
A bird of many colours flew up as Cronos Warchild put his foot on the soft, damp jungle soil. He startled, used his ABC-M-7 flamethrower and transformed it into a heavily overdone piece of poultry that dropped down without any of the grace it had formerly possessed.
He looked around as if he had just now performed a deed requiring considerable heroism. A grin that wrinkled his lips made his expression complete.
He adjusted his helmet, carefully scanning the bushes for signs that might indicate that he was discovered by the enemy. Yet he did not see any enemy soldiers suddenly popping out, nor was he able to distinguish the sharp forms or flashes of weaponry between the bushes.
He wasn't actually sure whether he regretted this fact or not. Some killing was bound to keep him awake a lot longer than that old coffee in his canteen or the long green leaves he found at times and used to chew.
It had been eight days ago now since he had left Saigon airport, on his search for the lost son of a wealthy American industrialist, which was thought still to be a POW since the Vietnam war.
"Fifteenthousand," the concerned father had said, "half up front." Well, it wasn't much but you had to do something to maintain a certain lifestyle these days - he was usually turned down when applying for regular jobs due to his devastating lack of intelligence and the rather rude way in which he usually tended to express himself.
Then again, maybe he shouldn't have insisted upon trying to get submitted to the Salvation Army all that time.
The Salvation Army was probably capable of supplying him with a far more interesting job rather than this one. Okay, it payed slightly better, but except for obliterating a couple of gnats that bothered him regularly and setting fire to the occasional bird, nothing had happened thus far.
So it was understandable that Warchild kind of rejoiced when he finally noticed soldiers on the road ahead of him. And these weren't just soldiers - they were none other than enemy personnel.
Finally, some decent killing to do. Killing that he was paid for, that is.
He cried one of his battle cries (a rather ridiculous one he had one day heard in a movie about Japanese suicidal squads) and commenced attack.
The Vietcong soldiers were rather caught by surprise, and within seconds they were reduced to undeterminable heaps of smouldering limbs, bowels, bones and weaponry.
As he blew the smoke off the barrel of the massive weapon, another smile wrinkled his lips that could not be mistaken for anything other than pure satisfaction. Added to that, he chuckled slightly.
He adjusted his helmet, and again scanned the bushes for more soldiers to exterminate.
Pity. There weren't any.
But the fact that he had ran into a whole bundle of them proved nothing other than good luck for the future. He could almost smell more enemies now, so he guessed that the POW camp was probably not bound to be far off, either.
He walked in a steady but somewhat faster pace deeper into the jungle, anticipating massive mayhem, oblivious onslaught and colossal killings.
Original written July 1989. Rehashed February 1994.
Below you will find a little thing called "Holy Wars" that I wrote on the day the allied forces started Operation "Desert Storm". I wrote it just because I felt frightened and concerned back then. It was January 17th 1991.
The Eve of the War
When I woke up it was about half past one at night. My waking up was caused by a car hooting irregularly. At certain intervals, the hooting stopped and the amplified sound of a female's voice could be heard, echoing through the empty streets against the silent houses of Gütersloh, Germany.
"Warning! Warning!..." I could hear when I strained my ears. The rest of whatever she must have said got lost somewhere on the way. The hooting of the car, slowly disappearing in the night, indicated that I would probably not be getting a chance at hearing it again.
I got out of bed. It was very cold, but my shivering was primarily caused by something entirely different: A sense of foreboding, a subconscious feeling that something was happening or about to happen. Something bad.
I recalled a television program that had been on two days before; a program in which a German journalist had interviewed Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein, who refused to tell anything about whether he did or did not have any nuclear weapons at his disposal. A documentary earlier that evening had elaborated about possible global consequences of a war in the Gulf. "Once the Kuwaitian oil wells are ablaze," its narrator had told, "it will take about 1 year to put out their fires, which are lit by billions and billions of tons of raw oil. The result of the smoke of this blaze will be 20 years of global darkness, and highly acid rain all over the world."
In other words, it would get to be pretty damn cold.
I had never before thought of 'war' as something I could be the victim of; 'war' was something that happened in Vietnam, Central America or the Middle East, which couldn't possibly cause any problems to me personally, nor to anyone I was likely to know. Everything was simply too far away.
Now, I suddenly found 'war' something I could almost feel despite its enormous distance. The world suddenly turned out to be much too small after all.
I went over to Thorsten, one of three of my colleagues that live in the same house as me during weekdays. There was still light in his room, and he turned out to have returned not long ago from some extra work at our company. On his radio, the British Forces Broadcasting Service was softly playing typical mid-night moody music, and when I told Thorsten what I suspected he said he had not heard any cars hooting. There hadn't been any newsflashes on the radio, either.
So I went back to bed, only to be stirred mere minutes later by drumming noises from outside.
Dark thoughts flashed through my head as I put on some clothes and went onto the balcony, shivering, trying to find out what was going on.
Something was happening. That was certain. But what? And, should it be something really bad, would I ever see my loved one again? Why was there no air-raid alarm? I was surprised at the fact that I already thought all these things. After all, the Gulf was very far away and there would most probably be no reason for concern whatsoever.
A crowd of two or three dozen people walked through the streets up to the market square, which I could see from the balcony. They were carrying pots and pans, which they constantly beat on with assorted cutlery. Their faces were grim. They didn't speak, not even chant slogans or something.
The car I had heard earlier now also came driving through the street. The hooting was still repeated now and again, but the female's voice was now replaced by what seemed to be a radio broadcast.
It spoke of bombing raids on Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. It spoke of American B-52 bombers and Flak. It sounded exactly like the kind of broadcastings actors listen to in WW II movies when they hear that the allied nations have just declared war upon Germany.
The Gulf War had begun.
Thorsten now also came. He was only wearing pyjamas, so he was shivering even more. Michael, another colleague, also came out. He looked very sleepy, and was mostly swearing about the noise. Unlike me, he appeared not to be even the slightest bit concerned. Thorsten's worries seemed to be somewhere between Michael's and mine.
A police car had now appeared on the square, soon accompanied by another. Some police officers started to talk or discuss with the people on the square. The beating sounds had ceased.
We went into the living room and turned on the television. On two German stations, direct reports about the Gulf War could be received. Two American journalists (who'll probably get the Pullitzer prize for this - if they get out alive) were broadcasting from a hotel in the centre of Baghdad. They spoke of "enormous explosions" towards the south, and of a "shuddering sound we have heard before only during the launch of a Space Shuttle".
As it turned out, the "liberation of Kuwait" had begun at some minutes past midnight CET as B-52 bombers started to unload their deadly load on specific targets in and around Baghdad.
Codename: Operation Desert Storm. It sounded like a Microprose simulation game, but this was one that had a bit too much of a reality factor.
I was somewhat relieved to hear that the Iraqis had not yet really defended themselves - so at least there were no nuclear missiles heading anywhere, and the oil wells were not yet ablaze.
I headed back for bed again. Although my sleep was restless, I arose from my bed the next morning, refreshed.
The first day of Operation Desert Storm. January 17th 1991.
I turned on the television again. Just like I had thought and anticipated, it still featured continuous covering of the Gulf War. There had been little allied casualties, and indeed only 2 of 1500 planes seemed to have been shot down - both and English and an American. More complete information was lacking, however, so basically anything could have happened.
Iraq was thought to have launched rockets, but apart from the fact that a Saoudi Arabian oil tanker and a couple of oil riggs in the Gulf were supposed to have been shot at, there had been no defensive transactions. Hussein had called upon the Iraqi people to aid the defence. The Kuwait government in exile had called upon their citizens to aid the attack and the underground resistance. All the world's leaders had reacted with horror at president Bush' initiative to attack.
Outside, in the streets, a couple of hundred people were demonstrating against the war. Most of them were youths; a large amount of them was still carrying school bags, which filled me with doubt as to their intentions for joining this demonstration. "No war for oil" was one of the slogans readable on some of the white sheets they were carrying with them.
They gathered on the market square. More came.
As it was Thursday, I had to go to work as usual. I had problems concentrating there. Each hour, I anxiously went to listen to the radio with a couple of other colleagues, where I heard the scarce bits of news about the Gulf War. The United States Navy had been activated to liberate Kuwait. Their ships had bombarded stretches of coast that were now used by special landing vessels to ooze loads of marines on the land, where vicious combat was held with Iraqi ground troops and artillery who had suddenly popped up from everywhere.
Iwo Jima, the 1991 version. The first casualties of this war.
As the hours progressed, the mood of the news bulletin readers seemed to become more and more dreary. In the afternoon, they started to sound as if they had just returned from Baghdad themselves where they had personally witnessed the direst of possible sufferings. The meaningful pauses between individual news bulletin items became longer and longer. Suddenly internal affairs and international economic problems seemed no longer to exist. They only spoke of the war.
Then, in the four o'clock BBC news bulletin, it was said that several oil wells had been hit - they were aflame sky-high, and there was no holding the fire that spread from well to well in a fearsome chain reaction. Eye witnesses spoke of huge bulks of thick, black smoke, crouching upwards into the sky, on their way to signal eternal devastation.
Black smoke. Enormous amounts.
My heart froze. A wild beating appeared in my throat; sweat on my forehead. I felt a kind of fear I had never felt before; a kind of desolate, desperate fear. The fear that tells you that you're going to lose everything you've built up in your life. A fear that tells you everybody is going to lose everything they've built up.
No matter where you would go, no matter what you would do, it would get you. There was no way out. The cliche was true: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
I looked outside. The sky was clear blue and the bright sun shone desperately, as if in an attempt to enchant the gloomy faces of the people walking through the streets. Bit it did not succeed in enchanting the faces, nor could it gladden any hearts.
It was the first cold week of the winter; it was to be the longest of winters.
I decided to withdraw some money from the bank. Get some canned food or something. Anything. Stuff my car trunk full with it and then head home, head for Holland.
Would she have heard the news? Probably not, as she would have called me at work immediately.
Why hadn't I called her yet myself?
Although it was very hard for me to resist getting out on the double to get some canned food knowing that more people would probably already have the same idea, I found myself dialling her phone number.
Nobody answered the phone, though, so I guessed she wasn't home. Or maybe Holland was hit by the black smoke already? No. That was a ridiculous assumption, and I quickly dismissed the thought. She was probably still at University.
There were queues at the super market. Now already! It seemed as if a hundred people were running around in it, desperately seeking for whatever kind of storable food they could take home. It was the kind of scene where one would expect children to be trampled upon, but there didn't seem to be any at all.
Only just before, I had cherished the thought that everything was just a bad dream. In a couple of minutes the alarm clock would ring and I would wake up in a world without war. A world without the threat of this toxic black fume. But the lack of children's cries, the grim silent determination on people faces, somehow made everything much more real. I realised this was no nightmare. This was reality.
I got my hands on some canned meat and beans. It was remarkable how self-centered people can suddenly become. The same men and women that had but months earlier been celebrating German Unification Day together now had eager looks in their eyes, scanning their surroundings for things they could buy - or steal. It was not important what the others could get their hands on. Only they themselves mattered. Survival of the fittest in its most savage form.
There didn't seem to be any more storable food left, so I quickly queued up.
Two police officers suddenly entered the super market through the rear entry. The flashing of their car's blue lights threw on the doorpost behind them the disembodied shadows of people outside, scurrying along. Apparently, they had been summoned by a member of super market personnel to prevent people from looting, or worse. For some people, the arrival of these law enforcement officers merely increased their tension and fear.
But, curiously, all I could think of was Miranda. Miranda, and the black smoke.
If this darkest of fumes would block the sunlight out, resulting the earth to get cooled off too much, there would very likely not be much time left. Every fibre in my body ached with a desire, no, an obsession, to spend every precious minute left of my life with her near me.
As I carried the goods to my car, I noticed myself looking up in the air, paranoid, at each sound that could possibly be interpreted as some kind of fighter plane, or a rocket. There were no fighter planes in the air at all - nor had their been any during all of the morning and afternoon. As a matter of fact, I found the emptiness of the air eerily discomforting. There was an active Royal Air Force base close to Gütersloh.
German roads are notorious for their Friday afternoon traffic jams, but that early Thursday evening it seemed as if every German wanted to enjoy a long weekend on a Dutch beach - I got caught in what can only be described as a mass exodus westward.
The sun set slowly, dipping the country in the darkness of the night. Tomorrow, it would rise again in all its pale mid-winter glory - but everybody in the traffic jam knew that the day on which the sun may be setting for the final time was nearing, as if by an unstoppable force.
It was past midnight when I finally arrived at my home town, physically and mentally battered by the journey that had been slow, long, and highly uncomfortable. The stream of cars on the highway simply didn't seem to relent, and it kept on doing so even during the very early morning hours, when I came home and could finally hold my loved one in my arms.
We didn't bother watching any more news programs on the television, and went to bed. There, we drifted off into the proverbial deep, dreamless sleep.
Six Weeks Later
Then the dark clouds came.
They seemed to have appeared overnight at the southeast horizon. They were still far off, or they seemed so, yet their danger seemed to be palpable even at this distance. As I saw the dark masses, black and impenetrable, with the pale sun shining still barely above them, my heart froze again for a second - followed by my pulse beating rapidly and my temples throbbing. I had knows this would happen, but somehow I had maintained a shred of home. I felt its flame dying inside me. Through the open window we could already feel a chiller breeze. The air below the clouds was black with rain.
This was it. Science had not been able to avert this global catastrophe caused by politics and religion. Even now, and for many months to come, the flaming rage of the Middle East oil wells, distant though it was, would feed this ominous and all-encompassing cloud of darkness that would envelop the entire earth before long, plunging it into the devastation of a new ice age.
We beheld the dark clouds in resolved silence, holding each other firmly as if we truly believed our love could send the darkness back to where it had come from, back to the womb of the earth, back to the hell of the war that had sent it forth.
The wind could be seen tearing at their dark tops, sending ahead narrow streaks of dark filth as if tempting us, playing with our fear like a cat would with a dead bird.
The little square in front of our flat, normally filled with children playing, was now completely empty except for a tattered glove that someone must have lost. Windows were closed. No bicycles or cars could be seen on the empty streets.
And the dark clouds just came nearer. There was no thunder or lightning. Just dark clouds, raining acid. The way the clouds came slowly closer was like seeing a train crash into you in slow motion, with the sound turned off.
For a while a rainbow appeared, fragile and beautiful under the absolute darkness of the clouds.
It was getting very cold. We closed the window. The rainbow had disappeared.
At just past noon, the rain became clearly audible. It lashed at the houses on the other side of the highway that ran behind the appartment buildings at the other end of the square. They were sometimes partly obscured from sight by the torrent.
We embraced each other even more tightly, but we both couldn't help to shiver.
Then the sun disappeared.
Original written January 1991. Rehashed March 1994.