Friday, May 10, 2013

Comeback Road Chapter 11 (2/2)

(This is an excerpt from my novel, Comeback Road. Click to learn more, including how to read the whole thing.)

It's dark and silent where I wake up. Am I in a coffin? I think sooner or later everyone wakes up in a dark strange place and wonders if they were accidentally presumed dead, put into a coffin and buried alive. I stretch out my arms and don't find a lid above me, so I breathe a sigh of relief and start feeling my way around.

I’m lying on a couch. I'm dizzy, but I get up and begin to inch my way across the cement floor. I can see a dim line of light beneath a door and realize I'm in a basement.

I try to walk towards the light but my foot catches on something and I end up crashing over something big, metal and spikey. I can feel my fingers jammed in between little wires. Bicycle spokes? This basement is a death-trap.

Christine must have put me down here. She's the last thing I remember from the show. I remember getting in her car, then nothing. Why the hell would she stick me in her basement? God, maybe she never intended for me to get out of here. Maybe she's upstairs sharpening her knives, knowing I'll never be able to find my way out of this bicycle-filled hell. I drag myself over the pile of bikes, moving towards the door. I catch my clothes in the pedals and get caught on the filthy chains.

I make it over the bikes and crawl on my hands and knees toward the light, finally finding the bottom of the stairs. As I reach the door I hear muffled music and laughter from elsewhere in the house. Christine must have other lunatics with her, preparing to sacrifice me to their pagan god. Hopefully they are putting on leather and vinyl bondage gear to perform their cruel acts. Somehow being disemboweled by insane groupies would be easier to take if they were sexily dressed.

I open the door and peak into the kitchen. The place looks dirty and poorly maintained. I look at the clock on the stove. It's four o'clock in the morning. Pizza boxes are stacked on the table. I flip the top one open. It's empty. The bastards.

The voices are coming from the living room. I take a look around the corner and see several young people sitting on the couches and the floor. The table in the middle of the room is stacked with beer bottles and cups.

One guy sees me. “Holy shit!” he screams, throwing beer on the girl next to him. When he screams, all the girls scream, then laugh. They turn around and see me standing there.

I walk into the room. "Okay," I say. "Who are you, and where the hell am I?"

The guy who screamed answers me. "Dude, what happened to your nose? Man, you scared the shit out of me."

"Not my problem, Mary," I tell him. "Blame whoever kidnapped me and stuck me in the basement. One more time, where am I?"

"Christine brought you," says one of the girls on the floor. "We thought you would want to sleep, so we took you to the basement where it's quiet."

"Kidnapping, unlawful confinement," I say. "Where's Christine?"

"Right there," they say, pointing to a girl curled up at the end of the couch. I didn't recognize her because of the hood pulled over her head.

"What is she, passed out? She brings me here and then passes out? Fuck, where's the phone? I've got to get out of here."

"The phone's been disconnected," the girl on the floor says. "Somebody give him a cell."

I get a phone from one of the wasters. I pull the number for Wayne’s cell out of my wallet and call. There’s no answer. I call again and someone picks up. It's Dave, the slightly vacant bass player from Machine Within A Machine.

"Dave. It's Terry."

"Oh, Terry," he says sleepily. "Where are you?"

"At some house. I passed out and some chick kidnapped me. Can someone pick me up?"

"Dude, we're all sleeping. We couldn't find you, so we just went to crash."

"Is Jason there?"

"Yeah, he's sleeping. Everybody's sleeping. We're not gonna come get you now man. You disappeared on us. Deal with it."

"Don't make this out to be my fault. I got hit in the head with a bottle."

"Well, you left with the girl, didn't you? If you want to get laid after the show that's fine, but don't expect us to pick you up in the middle of the night. Call in the morning."

"All right," I say. "Oh, Dave?"


"Your band wants to replace you." I snap the phone shut. "Asshole," I mutter. I turn back to the group of drunks.

"Okay kids," I tell them. "I'm here for the night. Is there somewhere besides the dungeon where I can crash?"

At ten o'clock in the morning I call again and get Wayne. He gives the phone to Jason. I explain what happened and tell him the address of the house.

There are young passed out all over the house. I see Christine still sleeping on the couch. I touch her on the shoulder and she takes a deep breath. She slowly blinks her eyes open and looks up at me. "Oh," she says. "Terry. Are you okay?"

"Why the hell did you bring me here?" I ask her.

She rubs her eyes. "You passed out in my car," she says. "I was worried, so I brought you here."

"Why didn't you just go back in the bar and tell my friends?"

"I thought they would be mad," she says with a yawn. "Are you mad?"

"You kidnapped me," I say. "Yes, I'm a little bit mad."

Half and hour later the maroon van The Clutch Dogs rented pulls up in front of the house. It's grey and raining out when I stumble down the front steps and get in the back of the van, slumping next to a pile of drum gear. Jason's driving.

"Hey there, sunshine," he says. "Bang some groupies?"

"No, I got fucking kidnapped," I tell him. "I slept on a pile of rusty bicycles. Fuck, what a way to start a tour."

"Well, you didn't miss much last night, unless you count Mark here making out with some blonde." He punches the Scottish drummer in the shoulder. "Didn't you, Mark? Cheating on poor sweet Sarah, aren't you?"

Mark looks awful, slumping down into the passenger seat. He looks like blended shit shaped into a person. "Aye, ah, I had a wee bit much to drink last night, aye?"

Jason turns around and looks at my face. "That looks awful," he says. "You've got two black eyes. Did you clean that thing this morning?"

"No," I say. "Let's get going. What is it? Four hours to North Bay?"

"Give or take," Jason says. He puts the van in drive and we start moving. "Are you ready for the good news? We sold like, like sixteen discs last night."

"Really?" We brought one hundred copies of a six track disc we made from the tape of our performance at The Strathmore Hotel. The costs of making them went onto my already-stretched credit cards, so I'm desperate to sell copies.

"Yeah," Jason says. "We sold more than Machine did. I think Wayne was pissed."

"How come we outsold them?" I ask. "Did they put on a crappy show?"

"None of them got hit in the face with a bottle," croaks Mark. "We totally upstaged them, mate."

"Hmm. Maybe I should get hit every night."

"Do you know what was weird this morning?" Jason says. "I think the guys from Machine were fighting."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"I don’t know. Dave seemed all pissed off and kept arguing with everybody. I don't know what his problem is."

I think about what I told him last night. "No. I don't know either."


(This is an excerpt from my novel, Comeback Road. Click to learn more, including how to read the whole thing.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Comeback Road Chapter 11 (1/2)

(This is an excerpt from my novel, Comeback Road. Click to learn more, including how to read the whole thing.)

I'm lying on my back with the dim awareness that I'm supposed to be doing something. I'm not in bed. I don't know where I am and there's a terrible pain in my head. A voice is shouting something, but there's so much other noise it's hard to make it out. Then I understand, the voice is shouting my name.

"Terry! Terry man! Are you okay? Terry! Wake up!"

I try to open my eyes, but a stinging pain prevents me. I blink them open and shut, but I can't see anything. Everything is all hazy and black.

"I'm blind," I murmur.

"You're not blind. You've got blood in your eyes."

Those words are familiar. Where have I heard them before? Reservoir Dogs. Tim Roth tells one of the other bank robbers, you're not blind. You've got blood in your eyes.

"Are you okay? Can you sit up?"

The voice does not belong to Tim Roth. I know the voice. It belongs to Jason, my guitar player. He grabs my neck and shoulder and helps me sit up, but I still can't open my eyes.

"Jason man, I can't see. Where am I?"

"Jesus, Terry, we're on stage! We're in Barrie, at a gig. Can you get up?"

There is chaotic noise in the background, like a brawl.

"Can you grab me a towel or something? Everything is all black. What happened?"

"You got hit with a beer bottle." Someone holds a wet towel to my face and I grasp it, wiping my face clean. With my fingers I can feel the rough edge of a cut across the bridge of my nose.

"Lean back," I hear an unfamiliar voice say. "I'm going to pour some water over your face."

I do as I'm told and icy water splashes across my face. I wipe my eyes with the towel and blink. I can see murky shapes. With repeated blinking they sharpen into the faces of Jason and Mark and a few other people I assume to be bar staff. Harsh stage lights glare down on me.

The sound of the brawl dies down. I suppose whoever was fighting and tossing bottles must have been thrown out. The bar has a hum to it though. Everyone wants to know if the guy with the split face is okay. Is the poor baby all right? Maybe they're wondering if poor baby is going to get up and finish the show.

"I'm okay," I say. "Let's play."

"Are you kidding?" Jason asks in a shaky voice. "You want to keep playing?"

"Yeah." I grasp at the people around me and they help me to my feet. There's a cheer from the crowd, like when an injured player at a sporting event walks off the field under his own power. I blink into the lights and look out at the crowd. I don't recognize the bar. It's not a huge place, but the room is full. My head spins a little and I stagger back a step to gain my balance. Everything is mixed up. I look down at my feet, where the set list is taped to the hardwood floor of the stage. I have no idea if we had played any songs or if we had played them all.

"Jason, what song are we on?"

"Oh, this isn't cool, man. You need to see a doctor."

"C'mon, just tell me what song we're on."

"Um, we were playing 'End of Us' when you got hit, but seriously, let's forget it."

I wave the bar staff off the stage and adjust my mike stand. I look at Mark. He reluctantly gets back behind his drums. He looks wide-eyed and nervous.

"Ready?" I ask him.

"Sure, Terry, but we don't have to, you know?"

"Let's just start with the next song. 'Rough Go.'"

We start playing. I can here shouting from Jason. I look back at him. He's screaming something. I step towards him so I can hear him better.

"You're playing the wrong song!" he screams. I listen hard to what he and Mark are playing and I try to correct what I'm doing. When I think I've got it right I step up to the mike and begin singing, "Even after I've reached the end/ Even after you're gone…"

Jason screams at me. I look at him and I can make out "Wrong words! Wrong song!"

I look back out the crowd. They are standing open-mouthed, staring up at me. I lick my lips and taste the sickening flavor of iron. I look down at my hands thumping at the strings of my bass. My white t-shirt is splattered with red. Blood continues to drip from my nose and down off my chin.

I don't bother with singing. I keep banging out notes and Jason and Mark, faithful soldiers of rock that they are, continue playing along. "Hey," I say into the mike. "If someone would come up and wipe off my face, I would appreciate it."

Some chick climbs up onto the stage. She looks like a punk-pop chick, with long blonde hair a tight band t-shirt, plaid school-girl skirt and the whole bit. She picks the towel up off the floor and cleans off my bloody face. I try to stay in time with the band, keeping up with the changes while she drags the bloody towel over the jagged cut between my eyes. She drops the towel back onto the floor, does a pose for the crowd and hops off the stage to a big cheer.

"Thanks baby," I say into the mike, and she blows me a kiss. "You boys ready?" I say, and look back at Mark and Jason. We reach the chorus and I jump in screaming "Rough go! Why do you always give me such a rough go?" I think I'm singing the right part. Jason doesn't scream and tell me I'm wrong, so I sing it through and we bring the song to a finish.

According to the set list we have six songs to go, but looking at the names of the songs I can't remember how any of them start.

"Okay kiddies," I say to the audience. "I think we're going to cut this a bit short. We'll leave you with one last tune. This is called 'Sweet Leaf.'" It's not on the set list, but it's one we know and that I can remember. We hit it and play through, managing to keep it together. I stumble with the vocals, but we make it through to the end and get a big cheer. People clap and whistle, not so much because we played a great set but because they witnessed an unexpected and entertaining spectacle. That, and people love to see some jerk overcome adversity. And yeah, I think a bottle to the face classifies as adversity.

I hop off the side of the stage and there's a member of the bar staff right there with a clean wet towel which he immediately applies to my bleeding nose. Unable to see, I follow him as he leads me to a chair and sits me down.

"You might need some stitches there, dude," he says.

"Don't worry about that now," I say. "What the hell happened, anyway?"

"Some guys started fighting at the back of the crowd and somebody chucked a bottle. Just bad luck it caught you, I guess."

I feel a hand on my shoulder. "Nice one, Terry," I hear a female voice say.


She slaps my shoulder. "No, it's Gina. Jesus, are you brain damaged now?"

The first thing that crosses my mind is Gina, right, I slept with her. It was pretty good, too. I was good. I was good in the sack. She came twice. Also, I remember with more clarity where I am. I'm on tour with The Clutch Dogs, opening for Machine Within A Machine. I wonder if Gina thinks scars are sexy.

"Yeah, maybe I am brain damaged," I tell her. "At the very least I must have a concussion. I can't remember any of my kid's names."

"Jesus, you've got kids? How many?"

I pull the towel away from my face, look at the blood and press it back into place. "Let's see, how many kids do I have? Three, four, six, seven, um, none. So I guess I'm not brain damaged after all."

"Don't be so sure."

I hear another voice. It’s Wayne. "Terry, we'll help get your gear packed up. You just relax, okay?"

"Don't need to tell me twice." I look around. There is a semi-circle of kids around the chair where I'm sitting, all staring at me. "Oh, Jesus," I say and put the towel back up to my face. I ask the guy from the bar to get me a beer and silently wonder if I can make it through the rest of the night with the towel covering my face so I don't have to talk to anyone about how it feels to get clocked with a bottle half way through a song.

Punters come up asking if I'm okay. I nod and tell everyone I'm fine, but I don't take the towel from my face. Why not? Shame, I guess. I don't want people to see what a bleeder I am.

Some girl pulls a chair up next to me. She puts her arm around me and tries to take the towel. She wants to play Florence Nightingale, I guess.

"I'm cool," I say. "I've got it."

"It's okay," she says. "It's me, Christine."

The name is not familiar, but I let go of the towel and let her hold it. She keeps it against my face for a few seconds and then pulls it away, saying "Let me have a look. There, it's not too bad. You've stopped bleeding I think."

I look at her. She's mid-twenties, chubby-cute and somewhat familiar, but really I have no idea who she is. Maybe I talked to her earlier. My short-term memory is shot.

My beer shows up, and I take a long drink. I know that alcohol slows your blood's ability to form clots and so drinking is stupid when your nose is cut open, but my face hurts like hell and I hope for some pain relief. I'm sure if I have got a concussion, beer can only make things worse, but I can always blame the concussion for making me stupid enough to drink.

I look up at the stage. Jason and Mark are taking apart the drums, and the guys from Machine are lugging their gear up. I feel like a dick for not helping, and I start to get up. 'Christine,' grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me back down.

"No, no," she says. "You need to sit. Just rest here."

I turn on her with an angry look. "Do I even know you?"

Her smile drops. "We talked before you played."

"That doesn’t make you my doctor," I say. Grabbing my beer, I get up and lurch onto the stage. Mark is hefting the bass drum and I give him and hand with it.

"All right, Terry?" he asks.

"No, my head feels messed up," I say. "This might sound like a stupid question, but where are we staying tonight? I have no idea."

"The bar owner set us up at some guy's house," he says. "You really don't remember? Maybe you're like, seriously hurt."

"I'm fine, I'm fine. I just don't want to hang around here all night."

"We're not going to the house until after the bar closes. We've got a bit of a wait."

"Christ." I look back to where I was sitting. Christine is still there, watching me. Fair enough. If I have to hang around for a few hours I might as well let a girl dote on me. I stroll back over and sit down.

She half-turns away and says nothing. I see. I hurt her feelings. God. Chicks.

"You want a beer?" I ask her.

She turns back around. "Maybe later," she says. "Do you want to go outside and smoke a joint before the next band starts?"

I don't remember hearing about the effects of marijuana on concussions. Even though I'm fairly certain the effects are negative, I get up and follow her out. What's the worst that could happen? Permanent memory loss, motor skill damage, mild retardation. No one would even notice the difference.

We walk a block to her car and get in. She produces a joint from her purse, sparks it up, and we pass it back and forth. We talk while we smoke, but I'm not sure what we're talking about. I think at some point she puts her hand on my leg, but that's about the same time that I pass out.

To be continued....
(This is an excerpt from my novel, Comeback Road. Click to learn more, including how to read the whole thing.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

One Hundred Seventy-Four

We woke up in early morning sunshine, lying naked in fields of green grass. There was a distant sound, a sort of distorted metallic throbbing. I stood up and looked around. The sound was the surf crashing on the distant shore.

End City was gone. Where it stood, running on for endless miles in all direction, there was only gently rolling plains and grass and scattered trees, all leading down to the shore. As far as we could see there was no evidence of human civilization. There only six adults and a girl: John, Sissy, the four fighters and I. Whatever monstrosity Klang had eventually mutated into was gone. So were the bodies of Beth and Edgar Bonmeyer and the three men from National Industry and Finance.

There was teeming life, however. The sky was full of birds, and grazing animals dotted the horizon, casually nibbling the foliage. Were these the citizens of End City? Was this what became of them when the Reality Effect touched them? Perhaps. The Machine itself was gone, and so was the technology that brought us from our own world.

We all stood, facing each other without shame, alone and naked in a brand new world. I would have expected anger from the fighters; rage that by opening the Reality Machine I had taken away their chance to return to the home that they couldn't even remember. Instead, there was just stunned silence from everyone. We stood together. Tears rolled down our cheeks as we tried to comprehend the life that now lay ahead for us.

The history of mankind would start again with us. We would make tools with rocks and sticks and scratch out our food from the dirt. We would wander and try to meet others like us. We would take care of each other. We would build.

* * *

Two seasons later I stand on top of the hill, surveying our territory. Below in the valley are the huts our group has built as shelter from the elements. Winter will be coming on soon, and we'll have to see if the crude structures will keep us safe. If not, we will migrate south to warmer climes.

There are more of us now. As the doomsday seekers expected, not every person was changed or wiped away by the Effect. Of the teeming millions that lived in End City, eleven individuals found us, and together we have built our village.

John acts as father-figure to Sissy, and also spends hours each day with the girl from his thoughts, who has given herself the name Jane. They talk at length, trying to discover how they knew about each other, and what their connection was in the world before this one. Like all of us, they are taking things very slowly, as they try to understand who they are and what their place is in the world.

We call our village The Beginning. It has a tribal feel that appeals to me. We work hard to feed ourselves, but the whole scene is idyllic. We work and then we rest and enjoy each other's company.

Every night around sunset I climb to the top of the nearby hill and look over the land, from the great plains down to the coast. I watch and wait, hoping that maybe one day Beth will come walking over the horizon, drifting back into my life. So far she has not appeared, and I work all day in silence wondering about the mystery girl who died so many times right in front of me. I think about her, but I do not speak of her. I would rather not have the moment of her death at the hands of my fellow villagers become a discussion point.

At night we huddle around fires and tell each other stories of our own making. Some of us feel it is a sad scene, as it is the last remains of a once dominant society that put its fingerprints on every corner of the world. Other think it is hopeful, since we can look forward to a new future. I think it is all part of a cycle. Just as Beth died and came back to life over and over again, the world continues to get second chances. Every end is also a new beginning.

The End.

One Hundred Seventy-Three

The hissing and thumping of the pipes and hoses comes to a sudden stop. There is a deep, resonating groan. Even the sound of the fighters in grey smashing at the safety window halts as they stop to listen. It is the sound of tearing steel from deep underground, the ripping and rending of firmly rooted machinery. The Reality Machine has grown larger and larger as it affected itself; who knows how deep into the ground it has dug itself?

There is a final smash as the window gives way. The warriors striving to stop the machine will be here in moments. Will they kill me? Maybe. But they won't stop the machine. I hear their boots clatter up the hallway, and soon they are there, facing me. John's girl, whose name I have not yet learned, leads the way.

Before she can speak there is a jarring thump that makes the floor move beneath our feet. We grab for the walls. There is more noise from below, deep booming sounds coming up to us.

"What have you done?" screams the girl, gripping heavy black hoses running along the wall.

"You'll see soon enough," I say. There is another thump and we are shaken again. We fall to the floor and my head swims with vertigo. I have the sudden feeling that we are being carried upwards. There is groaning and clanging all around us, and the room begins to grow in dimensions, the walls pushing out and the ceiling soaring above. I look over my shoulder at the concentric circles of steel shielding The Reality Machine.

The outermost circle begins to move outward, allowing thin light to escape from inside. Each circle in turn, one by one, begins growing and narrowing and moving out, and soon light floods the chamber. As the light pours out, the shifting of the shape and size of the building increases.

There are screams of fear from the warriors down the hall as we are thrown violently about, the floor heaving beneath us. The ceiling splits open to reveal another ceiling, which splits open to reveal more ceilings, again and again. The walls break down, segment and reconfigure as the whole building morphs. And the heart of the machine, right there with us, reaches skyward, rising from deep below the monstrous building to finally emerge through one last false ceiling to face the blackened night sky.

As the last ceiling breaks away we see the new reality: End City boils as it shifts and changes at hyperactive speed. Lighting lashes the shifting peaks. We find ourselves rising higher and higher. The Machine's shielding, those last shining steel circles, disappear before blinding white light that affects all it touches. The Reality Effect reaches all of the sky and the earth, and although we, as visitors from another world, are not affected, End City is.

The Effect reaches its climax and we fall, the building and the machine itself dissolving beneath us. We tumble down through the failing Matrix of What Is, landing safe and unconscious in What Could Be.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One Hundred Seventy-Two

What do you expect to see when you look into the heart of a doomsday machine? I've never thought about it. Maybe I had before arriving in this world, but I've been too busy running ever since to think much about I would actually find when I arrived at The Reality Machine.

I look in through the safety window. It's dim inside, illuminated by red warning lights. It is full of pipes and hoses, and there is a passageway in toward a dark center.

There is a blast from behind me. The fighters in grey overalls are blasting at the safety glass of the first door with their shotguns, trying to get through, but the glass holds strong. Enraged at their impotence, them blast again and again, and then begin hammering at the locked door with the sawed-off wooden stocks of their weapons. They scream and shout, but I block it out.

I look at the handle of the door in front of me. When the ninja touched it, he transformed into a giant lizard, but I am not from this world. Moving my lips, I say to myself, Nothing will happen to you. You are not from this world. I hold my breath and grip the handle.

A jolt of energy runs up my arm like a vibration, but nothing happens. I turn the handle and push open the door, stepping inside the machine. There is the musty smell of dust and grease, and the rumble and hiss of steam through pipes. I walk forward into the channel of ducts and hoses. There is a dark stretch, and then I arrive in a small chamber. The wall facing me looks like a massive vault, with concentric circles of steel wrapping together to hold in whatever science and technology is creating the Reality Effect: pulling the chaotic potential out of everything in its path, and then eventually returning it to some simplified form of nature.

In front of the vault-wall is a desk with a computer sitting on it. The cords from the computer run into the vault-wall. There is a ratty old office chair. I pull it out from the desk and sit down. The computer is boxy and yellow with a built-in keyboard of fat black keys. I strike the space bar and the monitor lights up, green letters appearing on the black screen.

On the monitor I see the heading "Options." Bellow is a list of three: Reports, Operations, and Systems. I go into Reports, and quickly read: the operation of the machine is 96 percent complete. It will take eighteen more hours to finish, but only fifteen minutes to reach the point of no return.

I back out and enter Operations. There are a few simple options: continue, stop, or reverse. "As simple as driving a car," I mumble. There is a final option: open. I'm not sure what this one means, although I have my suspicions.

There is a rumble from down the tunnel behind me. There is the sound of renewed gunfire, and the cracking of glass. The gunfire ceases, and pounding begins. The safety window has been compromised. I know it will only take them moments to force their way through the damage glass and unlock the door. I left the second door unlocked.

They will stop the machine; that is certain. They will return the world to its former state, with corruption, pollution, overcrowding, destruction and pain. Maybe it's best that way. It will give the people of this world a chance to try and solve their problems the right way, even if that way is slow and difficult. Even if it requires sacrifice and care.

A phrase wanders through my mind, something from somewhere in my own world, a home I can't remember. "You can't go home again." You can't go home again. You can't go home again.

I choose a command. The computer asks: "Are you sure? Y/N" I press a final button and wait.

One Hundred Seventy-One

There is a moment of awkward silence, broken at last by the ninja. Bloodied and beaten from fighting the wolf-bear-man defenders, he slumps toward to door leading to the core of the machine. His cowl concealing his features, he turns and gives us a withering stare of judgment. He opens the first door and steps into the antechamber. We watch through the safety glass as he waits for the door behind him to close.

We all watch in silence as he turns and puts his hand on the handle leading into the core. He does not manage to open the door. As soon as he touches the handle the Reality Effect touches him, and he undergoes a gruesome transformation, his clothing tearing away as he changes from one animal into another, feathers into fur, bones bending into new shapes and features stretching and adjusting. At last he falls to the floor and we lose sight of him.

One of the men in grey overalls approaches and opens the door. The ninja, in his new form of a great grey lizard, lazily slithers out.

"It's no good," says Edgar Bonmeyer from his place on the floor. "Someone from this world will never make it through."

"Who's going?" asks John's girl. "Someone has to get in there and stop this thing."

"Why?" I ask. "Why should we fix the problems these people brought on themselves? Maybe this world needs a good do-over."

"Are you crazy?" she asks. "How do you know we can really survive all this? And how are we supposed to get home?"

We agreed to come, I think to myself. Maybe we don't get to go home. I step toward the door. "Okay," I tell them. "I'll go in there. I'll stop the machine."

"No," she says. "John may think you're a good guy, but I don't trust you. Ben," she says to the member of the overall gang standing at the entrance to the core, "you and I will go in."

"No," John says. "I don't want you to go in. It's too risky."

They begin to argue and shout. The overall squad, Klang and the members of National Industry and Finance all try to make themselves heard. Beth catches my eye, and she gestures with her head toward the door. Her meaning is clear: Go, Bill. This is your duty.

I move toward the door. One of the overall squad reaches for me and Beth kicks a leg out, tripping him. Everyone bursts into action, fighting and wrestling, while I struggle to get to the door. I get the door open and squeeze through, slamming and locking it behind me. I hear the blast of a shotgun and turn back, looking through the window into the room.
Beth is there, holding her belly. She took a shot to the gut, and blood spills out between her fingers. She stumbles to the door and slumps against the window, streaking the glass with her bloody hand.

"This is it, Bill," she says. I can barely hear her.

"Will I see you again?"

"Maybe," she says. "I don't know." She begins to slip, sliding down to the floor. "Don't let them tell you what to do," she whispers, and drops to the ground out of my view.

I look up into the room. One of the men in overalls tries to open the door, but it's firmly locked. They stare at me in rage, and I stare back, weary of all the fear and anger and death. I look at John. He looks scared and ashamed. I look at Sissy. She has tears in her eyes. I give her a wink.

Edgar Bonmeyer is now staring up at the ceiling with glassy eyes. Maybe he is dead. I don't really care either way. Klang has continued to mutate, and is now barely recognizable. They don't matter anymore. Their roles have expired. Their part in this is finished. I turn my back on them and look into the core of The Reality Machine.

Monday, April 29, 2013

One Hundred Seventy

The man called Troubadour leads me through darkened halls, taking a long tour through the inner workings of the gigantic building. He pauses at some corners, touching his chin and thinking. "The place keeps changing," he says. "It's difficult to keep track..."

We arrive at the outer control room. It's dominated by anachronistic looking computers lining the walls to the left and the right, blinking and glowing with buttons and dials. Through a windowed door is an antechamber, and then a second door leading directly to the machine.

"The machine is in there," Troubadour says. "It's shielded, but enough radiation still leaks out to cause all the destruction that we've seen. You can't control anything from out here. There has been too much sabotage. You need to go inside."

I walk along the banks of computers, running a finger along chunky black keyboards. Spools of paper hang from the printers.

"Time is a factor here, Mister Vaughan," Troubadour says.

"What did you call me?"

"That is your name, isn't it? Daniel Vaughan."

"Yeah, I guess it is. No one's really called me that here though."

There is a clatter from behind and the sound of footsteps. I grab Troubadour and hold him between me and the door, the gun up, ready for whatever might come through. It is the two men from National Industry and Finance, carrying between them the limp form of Edgar Bonmeyer.

Troubadour and I watch silently as they lay their leader down on the floor. His face is pale, and a spot of blood shows on his lower lip. The two men open his jacket, and a scarlet splotch of blood is there on his belly. Probably shot by a musket. I let go of Troubadour and kneel down by Edgar Bonmeyer. He opens his eyes to look up at me.

"You are not innocent in all this, are you?" I ask. "This machine was created by your people."

"Not by my wishes," he croaks. He coughs, and then manages to speak. "I am a pawn in this, like everyone else. No matter how much higher you go, you only find more pawns. The systems have become autonomous. Now there are only pawns, answering to corporations and agencies. No one has any power any more. No people, only policy. And pawns."

"Bullshit," I say. "People are responsible for this. People's decisions. People's actions. Including yours."

He winces, not at my words, but at his wound. The National Industry and Finance men exchange worried looks, but look to the doorway when they hear more footsteps. A ninja steps in, battered and bloody, his tunic torn from his body and his torso covered in bloody claw-marks.

The ninja is followed by Klang, and I am speechless when I see him. The Reality Effect has touched him, and he has mutated ridiculously. A rack of antlers have sprouted from his bald head, and a long reptilian tail has torn out the back of his pants. He no longer holds a gun, as both of his hands have changed into the huge claws of a crustacean.

I give a gasping laugh in surprise when I see him, and he gives me a knife-eyed look. "Hello, Bill," he says, flexing his claws open and shut. "Change of plans. You're going to try and reverse the effects of the device after all."

"Sure, now that it will save your ass, right?"

"We all have to do what's best for ourselves."

"That's what got you lunatics in this mess."

Klang suddenly screams and drops to one knee in agony. There is a ripping sound and leathery wings grow out from his back. They stretch and flap twice, and Klang regains control, standing up and facing me. "Get in there, Bill. Stop the machine."

I look at the door into the machine. I have to make a decision. There is a blast of gunfire from down the hall, and more people storm the control room. This time it is the team of combatants I had seen on the catwalks dressed in grey overalls. Three men and a woman, all toting shotgun sawed off at the barrel and the stock. Beth, John and Sissy follow them in.

They level their weapons at us all, but John quickly tells them to hold their fire. "It's him!" he shouts to the grey-clothed fighters. "It's Bill! Don't shoot!" He pushes through their ranks, and puts his hands on my shoulders. "Bill, they're like us! They were brought from our own world to try and stop the machine!" He turns and points to the woman, a young lady with her hair pulled back into a curly blonde pony-tail. "She's the one, Bill. She's the one I kept thinking of. And she was thinking about me, too! We must have known each other in the other world."

She nods to me. "Hello," she says.