Neisha sighed. Already a minute after she entered the school bus life had given its first sign of the day of being against her, as it always did. The predictability of her life never failed.
The bus ride took only seven minutes, but the minutes felt like hours because of Shannon, who was pestering her life by pinching her or calling her names. She could not believe that she had once been in love with him. Maybe she should have said yes when he had asked her for a date two months ago? He'd been a pain ever since she had turned him down.
She sighed again, and almost choked as she felt the pain in the back of her head as Shannon pulled her hair. A lonely tear rolled down her frail cheek. "How childish," she thought while fighting her desire to hit him. One day he would regret being so unkind to her. One day...
Her thoughts trailed to the letter she had spent all day writing yesterday. Jeremy's letter. She kept it next to her heart, keeping it warm. She'd written the address on the envelope gracefully and sealed it with a soft kiss, and had selected beautiful stamps for it, with flowers and birds on them. She knew he would write her a reply the day he got it, as he always did. Dozens of letters, and even more brief phone calls had been exchanged between them since Jeremy had moved to Europe three months earlier. They had been going steady for almost a year, and both intended to make it much longer. Neisha knew that Jeremy was her only friend.
All her life Neisha had been lonely. In her world, nobody but Jeremy had ever cared about her, and that care was the key to her love.
Jeremy was special of himself. As long as Neisha could remember, the girls of her class had been dreaming about him. But in spite of his merry appearance, he had no friends before he got to know Neisha. He knew how to hide his loneliness. But Neisha knew. She had found out the first time he had asked her out. He told her it had taken him all summer to build up the courage to do so.
He took her walking in the park on that beautiful August day. It was warm and cloudless, and the frail ring he gave her carried the warmth of that day in it. Neisha still wore it.
The daydream faded away as Janie, one of the girls of her class, shook her shoulder. Her kind face looked down at Neisha. "Are you going to sit here all day?" Ignoring the friendly sarcasm of the question, Neisha slowly grabbed her bag and followed Janie out of the bus.
This was her greatest fear. She had a tendency to dump into some sort of trouble every day. Some punks had a tendency to bully her whenever they met her, but what she really hated was being asked questions in class. No matter what happened, she managed to make a fool of herself one way or another, and there was no-one to comfort her any longer.
The rain of the night had left the asphalt wet and slippery, and as Neisha left the bus she slipped on the wet ground. Fighting to keep on her feet, she felt Janie's firm hand on her arm. Her face almost cerise she uttered a quick word of gratitude, and looked around to see if anybody else had seen her slip. The school yard was void of people save themselves. A swift glance on her watch confirmed her suspicion: They were late again.
The first period went unusually smooth. The subject was History, one of her favourites. Ever since her early childhood it'd been her special interest, and this came in very handy as the teacher bombarded her with tons of questions. A sparkle of confidence was lit in her as she unerringly brought forth reply after reply, and she felt great when the teacher moved on to question Thomas.
Speaking out loud in class was usually an exercise in stuttering and embarrassment to Neisha, but when she got something right, the triumph was so much bigger. She smiled inward at herself as the story of religious trouble and witches was cast upon the rest of the class. She dutifully made some notes as the teacher spoke on at the blackboard, but the only legible thing she produced was a single word, written at least a dozen times. Jeremy. The letter was still next to her heart, providing warmth. The only warmth in her entire existence.
The corridors of her High School were too long. Neisha never had enough time to get from room to room during the five minute break between classes. She had to run down the stairs to get to English class at a quarter to nine, and already knew she was going to be late.
With a sizeable bunch of books in her left hand, she entered the last corridor and collided with a medium-sized young boy wearing a leather jacket, worn-out jeans and a pair of gloomy shades. She cursed her bad luck long before their books hit the floor. Those shades were the trademark of one of the hall gangs that haunted the corridors. She only caught one short glimpse of his face before she bent down to pick up all her books, and cursed herself for being in such a hurry.
She had collided with a boy she knew as Mark. He was of her age, and had been in her parallel class for seven years, but she only knew him as the leader of The Shades. He was alone.
"Well, what have we here?" The penetrating voice was colder than ice, and he regarded her with an expressionless face from behind the shades. "A peach in a hurry?" Neisha froze, her face turned away from him. Peach?
"Listen, I, I, I'm sorry I hit you like that." Her thoughts were as scattered as her books as she desperately sought a way out of this delicate situation.
"Now you listen!" As she heard his voice, Neisha turned towards him, felt like she was facing her own doom. But she had not anticipated the reaction she caused.
It was Mark's turn to freeze. He lowered the hand he had pointed accusingly at her, and paled noticeably.
"Neish?" He gave her a hand and helped her up. This unexpected gesture bewildered her. When he bent down and quickly picked up her books, the confusion only grew.
"Tell me, how is Jeremy doing in his new home?" The tone of his voice had changed, and was now silent and comfortable. He handed over her books, and smiled apologetically at her.
Neisha couldn't see his eyes, and couldn't make up her mind on whether it was a fake smile or not. She had never known that Mark and Jeremy had known each other, and Jeremy had loathed all the problem youngsters who gathered into gangs.
The school bell interrupted her train of thoughts as she was just about to tell Mark that Jeremy was doing fine.
"You had better get to class in time," Mark said, and hesitated before he continued. "Can we meet in the canteen at noon?" It was a proposal she would usually have turned down.
"Huh? I mean, yes, why not?" She could see a poorly hidden grin on Mark's face as he turned away with a quick nod and ran to get to his class.
Behind him, Neisha stood bewildered. She didn't know what is was that had made her accept the unusual invitation. Noon. That would be during lunch break. As she slowly walked the ten yards to her English class it struck her. Mark had used her nickname. Only her father and Jeremy had ever called her "Neish".
Neisha suffered herself through English class with Jeremy on her mind all the time. There were no connections between him and Mark that she knew of, and the mystery tormented her. She rejected the thought of adding a few lines in her letter to Jeremy because she had already sealed it shut, and couldn't do anything but wait. Her preoccupation irritated the teacher a bit, but not as much as the feeling of not knowing that something irritated her. She wanted to know what the connection was. And she would make Mark tell her!
Only four rooms away, Mark regretted the impetuous invitation he had offered Neisha. It had been a brash thing to do, but he could not back out now. A quick glance at some of his fellow members of The Shades revealed that they knew about it. Mark already had too many problems, but this one felt like a yoke around his neck.
Totally ignoring the Spanish teacher, he sat down with paper and a pen, and started writing the words he had been thinking of for too long now. He had always been in love with Neisha, and now was the time to show it. But how?
"Miss Morrison, will you please pay attention?"
The cutting voice of her teacher tore Neisha out of her thoughts in time to see the other students leaving the room. Flushing, she picked up her things and walked out of the room, embarrassed.
Neisha again found herself running through the corridors towards her locker. This time, though, she was careful to avoid incidents like the one of the previous recess. She needed to find out where she had to be the following hour, and as she was searching for a schedule in the mess of her locker she missed Jeremy more than ever. He always knew where she had to be, and followed her there before he had to get to his own class. Would Mark do that? Neisha omitted the question as she found her schedule under a book.
The Literature classes were not too bad. Neisha was able to get her mind off the appointment with Mark and concentrated on doing the assignments. What she didn't was that Mark, sitting in the adjacent room, could not get his mind off her. He was trying to write down his feelings, but the words did not come out right. This whole deal was getting on his nerves as the idea hit him. Things suddenly seemed to fit, and Mark quickly produced the keywords he needed. Then the six lines were in his mind, and he smiled.
After what felt like days of torment to Neisha, the Literature class was finally over at five to twelve, and the recess she had been waiting for was there. Walking steadily down the now almost empty corridors towards the canteen, Neisha saw that the "Corner of Shadows", as the students had nicknamed the junction where The Shades were usually found, was void of people. But the corridor between the junction and the canteen was not.
Shannon was in trouble. Three guys were standing around him in a semi-circle. Neisha knew very well what that meant.
"Where's our five bucks?" The three guys standing around Shannon looked at him with a threatening glare. Neisha walked past as if she saw nothing. She heard Shannon swallow hard.
"Why should I give you five bucks?" For a moment, Neisha admired his courage.
"Does survival ring a bell?" Shannon gave in to the brutality of the answer and picked up a fiver from his pocket. His face looked weary, and Neisha registered that he was very pale. Pity replaced her hate for him as she saw his hooked back move away from her.
The set of stairs on the right side of the hall and the entrance area on the left side gave the canteen a shape closely resembling the letter "H". Two lines of supporting pillars ran down the mid-aisle of the room, and a large number of tables were spread about on both sides, most of them occupied.
At their usual table near the stairs, Mark was trying to get rid of his gang. Even in the darkness of the corner, all of them wore the characteristic shades. For the first time, the guys refused to do what he told them to. He gave it another shot.
"Guys, I don't care where you go or what you do, just get off my back!" Nobody moved.
"The boss is having a date, and won't let us witness it." It was one of the youngest kids who spoke.
"That's right," Mark replied smoothly. "Any of you want to argue with me about it?" The calmness of his voice carried a threat in it. Thought he couldn't see their eyes in the shadows, Mark knew that they would have respect in them. Nobody replied.
"No?" Still nothing.
"Then get lost." With an inward sigh of relief Mark watched the gang dissolve around him, and a minute later he was sitting alone at the table. Surprised, he noticed that he was sweating.
In the corridor above the stairs Neisha was standing next to the mailbox with Jeremy's letter in her hand. She hesitated a moment before she decisively put the letter in the mailbox and strolled with self-confident steps down the stairs.
Mark rose as he saw her coming near the table. With a slight bow and a warm smile he invited her to sit down, and then removed his shades before she accepted his invitation.
"And they said chivalry was dead?" Neisha deliberately chose the chair facing Mark and sat down. She felt eyes staring at her, and ignored them. But she could not ignore Mark's eyes.
They were a warm green, and shone at her like beautiful emeralds from heaven. It was the first time she had ever seen Mark's eyes, and they made him handsome!
"Glad you could make it," he said, still smiling friendly.
"I'm glad you asked me," Neisha replied truthfully. She had been spending most lunch breaks alone since Jeremy had moved. Although she was often bored, she got along. But this was exciting. And Mark's eyes were beyond belief.
"I like your new hairdo," he commented as he was regarding her carefully. Was that an admiring look he had? Neisha cast a glance at his hair and suppressed a smile. It was cut way too short and stood to all sides. She offered a short and cold "thanks". Quite unaffected, Mark picked up a cup of coffee Neisha had not noticed before and sipped at it.
"Tell me," he said after a short while, "How's Jeremy doing over there?" Picking up a brown lunch-bag he added "Aren't you going to have lunch?" His face spoke of honest interest and curiosity, and Neisha elaborately picked up her own.
"Well," she said as she chewed lazily, "He is doing fine." That was what he told her on the phone and in all the letters. His new school sucked, but he'd made many friends already. "He hates the language they speak, though."
"That's understandable." Mark made a recognizing nod.
"Why did you ask?" Neisha decided to start asking questions. On the other side of the table, Mark grimaced lightly.
"Jeremy and I go way back," he started. Neisha urged him to tell more, but Mark shook his head. "It's a long time ago, and doesn't matter anymore." As Neisha remained silent, Mark decided it was time to change subject.
"Are you good at solving riddles?" Neisha again found herself being torn out of her daydreaming. Mark repeated the question.
"Not much." Neisha pondered on the question a while. She used to love all sorts of riddles when she was a child. Years ago. There was one she remembered at once. In the darkness of room it seemed appropriate, and she wanted to test Mark.
In the window she sat weeping
and with each tear her life went seeping
Mark immediately knew the correct answer. "It's a burning candle on a sill. It was a beautiful rhyme." Neisha felt a strange surge run through her as their eyes met again. His stare was inviting and seductive. And challenging. He came up with another riddle.
I'm often held, yet rarely touched
I'm always wet, yet never rust
I'm sometimes wagged and sometimes bit
To use me well, you must have wit
"What is this?" Neisha demanded, "Some sort of competition?" She felt silly sitting there doing word-puzzles like that.
"You might say that," Mark replied, smiling. "Want to know what you might win?" It wasn't meant to be insulting, but Mark almost bit his tongue off the second he said it. Neisha ignored him.
"Tongue," she said sharply. "The answer is tongue. Now you think of this one!" She began to remember the hard ones.
There's someone that I'm always near
Yet in the dark I disappear
To this one only am I loyal
Though in his wake I'm doomed to toil
He feels me not (we always touch)
If I were lost, he'd not lose much
And now I come to my surprise
For you are he - but who am I?
"Ouch, that one is tougher." The admission came easier than he'd thought it would, in spite of a sting in his side from his pride.
"...he'd not lose much," he said thoughtfully and had some more coffee. Some fascinating reflections in the dark fluid caught his eyes as he put the cup down. He glimpsed up, and noticed the blue sky outside. The small windows high up on the wall spread fragile beams of light throughout the room, but still the corner in which they were sitting lay in darkness. The rain showers had obviously ended while he hadn't been paying attention. Mark though that the canteen looked much better in decent light. It was overcrowded by now, but he barely noticed the people. They ignored him, and thus he ignored them. A few seconds went by, and as he realized he was not getting any closer to the solution of the riddle, quiet panic struck him.
The Freshmen at the neighboring table rose to leave, and some of the older students standing impatiently at one pillar immediately moved to occupy it. Their faces stood out from the shadows in the background, luminously flooded in sunshine. The dancing movements their shadows made along the floor caught Mark's attention.
"My shadow," he whispered thoughtfully. "That's the answer." The relief in his voice was easy to hear and made Neisha smile. She'd been very close. The uneasiness she had felt disappeared.
"I have only got one more," Mark said. "It is not a true riddle, though. It's a confession." He tried to put forth a smile, but it ended up a strangely distorted grin. Neisha narrowed her eyes and tilted her head a bit, suspicion once again growing in her.
"Well then get on with it." A confession? She caught Mark's eyes for a moment, and wished she hadn't. They were intense and poured impressions into her own.
Mark took his eyes off her and inhaled deeply. As he closed his eyes he pleaded himself not to lose courage. And begun.
Five words of passion, with honesty to blame
Directed by my valor I swallow all my shame
Determined to solemnity, a feeling very true
My words are also sober: I truly do love you
She sat mute for a long while with her mouth half open. Shocked, she stared unbelievingly at him. Of all possible words he could have uttered, these were the ones she had expected the least. The air suddenly seemed hard to breathe for both of them. Mark focused on the table, and felt that he was blushing with embarrassment.
To Neisha, the shock was complete. Words failed her as she tried to regain self-control. She thought of the letter, and closed her eyes.
"I love Jeremy." The sentence hung in the air a while. On their left they heard laughter in the distance.
"I am aware of that." Their eyes did not meet. The chance to end years of unreciprocated feelings meant a lot to Mark, but now he regretted that he had even invited her. He decided to give it his best shot.
"But he is far away." His sympathetic tone made Neisha look into his eyes again. For a brief moment they just sat there, looking indecisively at each other. Neisha studied him carefully, and was not surprised to find herself attracted to him. Only Jeremy had ever appeared handsome to her, but Mark was perhaps even more so when he wasn't hiding his eyes behind a pair of shades.
Their eyes met, and she felt his thoughts. An image of a spring picnic her class had made a long time ago flashed in front of her as if they were inside Mark's eyes, and she recalled him sitting close to her. Then the sixth grade school ball was there, and she was dancing with a boy from seventh grade. And Mark was standing at the entrance, looking at her shyly. The basketball game she'd watched with her friends the same month back then, with Mark just a few feet away. A series of image flashed by, and she recognized them all. They were the only times she'd ever looked directly at Mark, and she saw them in his eyes.
"That long?" she asked with sincere disbelief in her voice. "You have been in love with me that long?" Mark nodded his head a bit, an almost bitter expression on his face.
"I don't want to rush you, though," he added quickly. "Your good relationship to Jeremy is the last thing in the world I'd like to see ruined." His upper lips trembled as he continued. "But please don't turn me down until you have thought about it." Neisha could see that he was on the verge of bursting into tears.
The angry noise of the school bell signalled that recess was already over. Neisha glimpsed at her wrist watch and then put her hands into her lap.
"I need some time," she finally said, and Mark smiled.
"We should get going," he said, "this time without bursting into each other." Under the table he took gently hold of her hands and held them in his own. "Neisha," he began, but was interrupted.
"We have no time for this," Neisha said and pulled free from him with ease. "At least I have to get to class." She moved her chair away from the table, and began to rise in the same instant as her chair was being snatched away from under her.
Only Mark's quick reactions kept her from falling as her balance disappeared along with the chair. He thrust himself up and seized Neisha's arm as she tumbled towards the table, and cast a vicious glance over her shoulder.
It was only by sheer coincidence that Shannon had seen Neisha at the corner table as he was leaving for class. He'd not even cared to see who she was sitting with before he had decided to pull her chair away. It was an impulsive act, provoked by the feelings she had hurt when she turned him down eight weeks earlier. She simply rejected him without even looking twice at him, and that had made him feel lonely. He wanted revenge, and came just in time to yank her chair away. He'd smiled then, as she struggled to stay on her feet, but the moment of triumph ended as he saw Mark jump up to give Neisha a hand. His smile vanished.
Neisha whirled around and faced him, only to be ignored. Shannon stared past her shoulders as he slowly backed down the aisle with uneasy steps. Mark beheld the despicable sight with a cold stare, and put on his shades as he walked slowly around the table.
"Mark!" Neisha grabbed his right arm when he moved past her, and he turned towards her, his eyes hid behind a pair of pitch black glasses.
"Leave Shannon alone," she commanded. "Our enmity has nothing to do with you, and he doesn't deserve your rancour." She cast one last look at Shannon, who was still backing away from her, turned around, and ran into the nearest corridor.
Mark was detained by her words, as she knew he'd be. He looked in surprise at her diminishing back in the corridor, and knew she meant what she had said, but he had never heard the authority in her voice before. Grinning at himself, he turned back towards the spot where Shannon had been standing and faced a void area. With the sole exception of himself the canteen was empty. With a thin shrug he left the canteen, still smiling at Neisha's outburst of authority. Yes, they did have something in common.
To keep her mind off the upheaval of her emotions, Neisha spent the rest of the day concentrating on her school work. Even though she hated Spanish and Psychology, she couldn't care less. Riddles and poems urged through her mind, but were kept at a distance by the uncanny preoccupation. Even Jeremy was not on her mind.
This sudden interest she took of the subjects came as a positive surprise to her teachers. After months of avoiding questions, she now volunteered to answer anything, and never failed to concoct a correct answer. Because it kept her mind off Mark she enjoyed it herself, too.
It was not until she was on the school bus heading for home that she thought of Jeremy again. The yellow scrap-metal bus tried its very best to shake her brains out of place, and failed.
Neisha felt she had learned a lot. Life educated her better that school ever would, and the school of life had also given her some homework. She would have to phone Jeremy when the time difference didn't matter, and was already thinking of what to tell him.
These thoughts consumed her as the bus went turbulently down the uneven roads of the suburban town, and when Shannon touched her shoulder softly she jumped in her seat. He looked embarrassed at her from the seat behind her. Every time she had to confront him in the bus she wished she'd had a car, but she felt relaxed about him now.
"I...", he began, and stopped. She gave him a friendly smile and looked at him.
"I just wanted to say that I am sorry about bugging you so much lately." He looked down guiltily. "I thought I had a reason to do so, but I was wrong." He still didn't want to face her stare, and his eyes fixed at the window. They were almost alone.
"And I'd also like to thank you for stopping Mark from giving me a hard time at school today." He could see her smile reflected at him in the window, and turned towards her.
"That's the most adult thing I've ever heard you say," she said with a radiant warmth in her voice. "Of course I forgive you."
With a relieved sigh he smiled back at her. Catching an impulse, she went on.
"Would you like to come over to my place later on today and talk about it?" The question caught him by surprise, but he cheered up and smiled ever wider.
"Of course I would." He glanced at his watch and though about it for a second. "At five?" he asked.
"Five will be fine." They shared a smile before Shannon left the bus, and only two minutes later, Neisha walked up the garden path from the road to her mother's house with her heart in her throat and the thought of Jeremy racing through her head. She lingered a second after she'd unlocked and opened the door, and took a deep breath with her back towards the door, thinking things over.
She walked into the kitchen to look up Mark's number. An instant later, her fingers were already dialing the number while she was on her way to the telephone. The hall mirror reflected her delicate face and thin body as she passed it, and she beheld her own reflection with new eyes for a moment. She had never been popular with the boys, and had used to believe that it was her outlook they didn't like. Maybe it wasn't so, after all.
With renewed confidence she walked on towards the phone. She had two boys to let down, and an unexpected date to prepare...
Somewhere in the universe there's a planet. You probably won't find it even on the best of galactic maps, but it suffices to know it exists. It is called Sucatraps, located at approximately 92 million light years' distance from what will probably be best known to you as the planet Earth. Like Earth, with which it shares most of its types of vegetation, animal life and climate, it is quite small. Its only large city and main capital is Eceerg.
Although Sucatraps might be unknown to the best galactic maps, its reputation isn't. As a matter of fact it is a planet shrouded in legend and myth, the rumoured location of the six known universes' best Assassins & Terrorists Academy. Hidden Sucatrapsian vassals are thought to covertly seek out and kidnap male babies they consider likely to succeed at the academy. Mothers throughout the multiverse are known to hide from common view young boys that are apt to violence or that have developed a rather good physique.
Sucatraps used to be ruled by a king called Drahcir. When his wife gave birth to a male triplet instead of the usual girls, he got the idea that his offspring might eventually cast him off his Royal Throne. Like Cronus, the Greek god of old, he killed and devoured them. His wife, Adnarim the Beautiful - like Cronus' wife Rhea - managed to hide from him an unexpected fourth child, a horribly frail and feeble baby, almost too small to remain alive. This son and Royal Heir, Elmer, was raised on a farm just outside Eceerg, receiving all the love a trustworthy peasant's widow had to bestow. Drahcir never knew about Elmer, not even when he died without an heir, leaving Sucratraps behind in the turmoil of succession.
Elmer, whom his foster mother called Cronos, based on that Greek god, never quite became the trained killer that any other Sucatrapsian male would be made into. She taught him to the best of her ability, and fed him a lot of fresh food, vegetables, milk and Marmite. Despite his positively frail babyhood, he soon grew to be a naturally strong and healthy youngster. He even did his first killing at the age of fourteen, when he sat down on his foster mum's cat.
When he had reached sixteen and his foster mother chastized him for coming home after nine one evening, he decided he had to run away. Sucatraps was no planet for him, anyway. There wasn't enough action. He hitched a ride on some sort of interstellar craft and disappeared into the distant universe, looking for work. If all else failed, he could always become a hired gun.
Through many jobs he eventually became an Airborne Ranger. It has been tough, but not enough so to his liking. He resigned after helping to kill that darned Ayatollah Mokheiny, and went back to what he rather affectionately tended to refer to as 'home' - a cockroach-ridden room he rented in a semi-dilapidated building.
There he just sat, sat and watched TV, watched TV and sat, and read the occasional newspaper. Time passed at an agonizingly slow speed. At times he'd go out and check for job vacancies. He usually came back depressed. There weren't any ads in the papers either; nobody wanted any mercenaries and there seemed little demand for lean mean fighting machines nowadays. The world was just too goddamn peaceful.
Until, one day, he got a letter. It had a note attached, requesting him to pay shortage mail costs plus a significant fine. Thirty dollars twentyfive. For a letter? He examined the stamp, marked 'nonvalid' by a zealous mail man. It was bescribbled with a writing only he understood. It was Sucatrapsian. Heaven knew how it had got there. Cronos went a bit pale around the nose as he hastily opened the envelope, tossing away the note.
He recognized his foster mother's handwriting. He had to swallow to keep something down.
"My dear bunny," Cronos read aloud, "How are you? I am very well, thank you, but at the moment in Eceerg Main Prison, too, and destined to be hung when the moons are full if you don't do something soon. Your mother, Adnarim the Beautiful, has also been captured, as has the girl you always professed to love."
Loucynda. No. Not her. Not her of all people. Who did they think they were? He continued reading.
"I am afraid Drahcir's replacement, Saurus, insists upon us being killed in some slow and agonizing way unless you hand yourself over to him to be killed in our stead. You know, dear, he seems to have found out about you and he's rather reluctant to have to leave his throne and his power if one day you might decide to come back and claim what's yours by birthright. Please come and get yourself killed, sugarpie, or else we'll be history. This Saurus character seems to enjoy all of this. I think he's serious."
Cronos stared at the ceiling for a couple of minutes, and on it he imagined the faces of those he loved, now rotting away in some Sucatrapsian dungeon, 92 million light years away. His foster mother had raised him for over fifteen years, had cared for him and loved him like...well...like her cat. His mother was certainly one of the most beautiful woman unknown to mankind, and his heart missed a beat at the sheer though of Loucynda being in jail as well. She was far too refined - and her nails far too meticulously manicured - to be submitted to the rigours of prison. He ground his teeth and smashed his fist on a small chair, which disintegrated.
It would last a bit more than four days before all the moons would be full again, he reckoned. He phoned the A-Team, had them build a Subuniversal Wooferflooper (with built-in antenna and CD player), and took for the stars that same night. Ninetysix hours left. Travelling much faster than the speed of light (the A-Team has several patents on post-lightspeed travelling), Cronos was scheduled to arrive at Sucatraps early next morning.
He decreased velocity when orbiting the small planet. Again, he had to swallow something as he saw the globe he had not seen for such a long time. Memories of sunsets with Loucynda came back to him quite vividly, as did memories of his dear mother, heavenly orgies, and a dead cat.
What was that thing in the sky? At first, he mistook it for a Golden Eagle, but on second sight it seemed more like another spaceship. After a couple of seconds it had disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared.
He put his Subuniversal Wooferflooper (including the built-in antenna and CD player) down behind a couple of bushes and disembarked. He was going to show king Saurus hell!
But first he had to get into the castle.
He remembered him and his friends (girls, mostly) playing in the passages under the castle in his childhood days. Back then, these passages and tunnels were a secret known only by a few explorative children. He wondered if king Saurus had in the mean time gained knowledge of them. If he didn't, then this would probably be the best way to enter the castle. If he did...well...time would tell.
He came to the castle unscathed, and indeed found the lower passages and tunnels with ease. He removed some bushes that blocked one of the entrances he knew of old, and was glad to find it only partly collapsed. He took for granted the dozens of spider webs and the many plants now firmly settled in the entrance and entered.
Like he could have foretold, it was pitch dark. He used to know the way blindfolded but wasn't too sure now. When he came to a stairway after having walked into a few walls too many, his nose was bleeding and his hands ached. He cursed below his breath and fumbled his way up the stairs. He froze for a moment. Did he hear footsteps following him? When he stopped to listen more intently there was only silence, but when he moved again the sounds appeared like forgotten echoes in lost sand.
He came into a room that, judging by even more cobwebs everywhere and some objects lying around covered by a layer of dust that would drive any half-decent mother crazy, was obviously just as forgotten as the staircase. There were some old wooden chairs, the skeleton of an old warrior and some broken toys. Cronos wondered how the warrior had died and, indeed, if he had died in this room. He moved closer and saw an enormous battle axe partly hidden behind the corpse. He bent over to take the axe when, suddenly, about twenty darts crashed over his head and into the opposite wall. With his hearing aid forgotten he didn't even hear them. He felt quite safe.
He stood erect again after taking the weapon from the dead warrior's grasp and looked around. He wondered where all those small darts in the wall had suddenly come from. His wonder lasted only a moment, for he was trained to fight, not to think.
He opened the door. It made a hell of a noise that was quite deafening even to those wearing hearing aids forgotten somewhere on another planet. He looked at the door threateningly. It wisely decided to refrain from making any more sound as it was pushed open further.
Cronos spied into an empty hallway. Nothing moved. There were some pretty scary drawings hanging on the walls. Warchild crept out of the forgotten room slowly. When he closed it behind him, suddenly realising he might have put to good use the wariors' helmet, he found the door having mysteriously (and meticulously) locked itself.
Maybe the forgotten room wasn't half as forgotten as he considered it to be - nor were the tunnels, probably. For a moment, it occurred to him he was trapped. His fighting instincts quickly suppressed this mental action, however, all according to his training.
He carefully proceeded into the depths of the castle when suddenly he came across a sign that read "DUNGEONS; NOT THAT WAY". The arrow pointed right into a door that was hospitably ajar.
"Aaah!" Cronos cried, loud and triumphant, "they must think me a fool!"
With this exclamation he dashed through the door opening into what he reckoned to be a dungeon, menacingly swaying the heavy duty battle axe above his head. If his loved ones were here, they'd be safe before they could blink their eyes and say "Please Cronos, get yourself off my feet".
"Click," said a latch. The door that had been ajar in such a hospitable way had quite suddenly closed and locked itself mysteriously (and, indeed, meticulously).
A mental process took over. He was trapped. He looked around him. There were no exits, which he was quite able not to see in the dim light that was cast into the room through a small window meticulously (though not at all mysteriously) barred by some pretty thick steel grating.
"Great," he thought, but not for long.
Warchild had been in the damp prison cell - for indeed it was one, including a few rats thrown in for good measure - a couple of hours when he heard soft steps outside. They stopped for a moment right in front of his cell door, and that moment it seemed as though hands were touching the solid wooden door. One more moment and the steps continued, fading. Some more moments later he heard steps again, as well as the sound of suits of armour, this time of many men. Someone stopped in front of the dungeon door and turned a key in its lock. Cronos hid the battle axe in his pants, as good a place as any.
The door opened and in stepped someone who Cronos reckoned to be king Saurus. He had never laid eyes on the man before, but what with him having a tail and a T-shirt with "REX" written on it, even Cronos couldn't be all too far off.
The king looked disgusted when he inquired, "Are you glad to see me or is that a battle-axe in your pants?"
Cronos didn't heed the question and instead insisted upon knowing what would happen to him now he was taken prisoner.
"Of course, you will be killed," the king replied, rolling his eyes, "after which you will be hung by the neck until you're tender enough to be eaten."
Cronos felt a lump in his throat. This didn't seem right. The good guys were supposed to win, and he was pretty sure he wasn't the bad guy.
The king continued, "We have transported the ones you've come to rescue to a place to the south of my castle - beyond the Valley of the Dead."
The last words were pronounced as if by a madman who knows he's won. Cronos didn't like it.
"Over my dead body!" Cronos cried as he uncovered the enormous battle axe, finding no time to further contemplate the stupidity of the phrase, and started to hack and slash around him. King Saurus ended up with a torn "REX" T-Shirt and five decapitated guards before Cronos succeeded in barging through the door and dashing off into the hallway.
Why the heck had he left all his killer gadgets at home?
He had hardly been free for half a minute when, from all corners so it seemed, strange beings cast themselves upon him. They varied from small bats to vaguely familiar and very smelly little flying animals. They seemed intent on ejaculating the wastes of their metabolic systems on the mercenary annex gun.
In the way movie stars often produce rather handy but hitherto useless things from their pockets, Warchild took from a peg from one, put it securely on his nose, breathed as little as possible and dashed further. All the time he still wielded the mighty battle axe. Many a beast dropped dead around him, forming pools of blood through which he waded. They seemed not to relent, each corner he took releasing upon him new hordes. Just when he was about to give up - an option he had never found necessary to contemplate so far - he saw light at the far end of a corridor.
Light! Light meant freedom or, at least, a place where these nasty monsters would perhaps no longer be around. The stench was doing good attempts at entering his pegged nostrils, a fact that irritated him and clouded his judgment.
He came closer and closer to the light, which indeed was a door standing wide open and leading into the open air. This was almost too good.
He looked back into the seemingly bottomless darkness of the tunnel. Was it his imagination or did he hear someone else in there, someone else who was also fighting the hordes? Whatever might be, it wasn't important, as opposed to his life and that of the women he loved.
When he came outside he wanted to embrace the light. The creatures shunned it, seeming mortally afraid of it. They licked their fangs as if they had just lost a month's worth of food, which they probably had.
Once his eyes grew used to the sun, its light revealed the Valley of the Dead of which King Saurus had spoken. Stretching far beyond the limits of sight there was only the southern desert of Sucatraps; a vast area that was only covered with dry sand and solitary monoliths.
According to legend, this was where the young Sucatrapsian boys became men. They simply got dumped in the middle of the Valley and basically had to get out all on their own. Most didn't make it, but those who did had passed their final exam. Cronos thought about the possibility of accidentally encountering one. They were highly trained assassins that would probably see in him a welcome change to their regular diet of raw desert rat and even more unspeakable things. He basically had to take care to eat instead of being eaten. Shouldn't be altogether that much of a big deal, now he came to think of it.
He looked at the nearest monolith with a certain amount of awe. They made him think of totempoles that Indians on earth used to worship. Its face looked fearsome and a large red tongue hung from its mouth. He knew some of them were boodytraps. Not too friendly a place having to cross in such a short time.
Short time? Holy cow! He would never have enough time to cross the Valley of the Dead within the day or two that were still left before the moons were full!
The sound of a vehicle behind him made the thought of a faster way to get to the other side dawn upon him. He hid behind the ghastly monolith and saw a sandswooper closing in at quite a dazzling speed. When it was about twenty feet from him, he jumped from behind the monolith and was totally run over by the thing. It bumped wildly in the air, throwing its two occupants off and leaving Cronos lying on the ground for a couple of moments, dazzled. The two occupants of the sandswooper were struck unconscious by the crash, but Cronos seemed only to have hurt his shin bone (the same one around which a large black American car had folded itself some time earlier). He looked at it painfully. He cursed, as usual.
When his shinbone seemed to have recovered sufficiently from the pain throbbing through it, Cronos got up and boarded the dented vehicle. Its controls were still intact and looked rather much like those of the average low budget British Leyland car. He wondered who had been so insane as to mimic the other. He headed south.
He didn't heed the reflection in his rear view mirror of someone clad entirely in white who stumbled out of the castle. His life and those of the women he loved were still more important. He had no time to rescue others - as if he ever did!
He had driven for about two hours through the Valley of the Dead, carefully evading all those monoliths and shooting frightful creatures of the night, when he opened the glove compartment. Apart from the usual stuff that one tends to find in glove compartments - sunglasses, detailed maps and strike schedules of the London underground and suppositories - he found a sealed letter of which the seal was broken.
"CONFIDENTIAL" was written on it in large Nairobi-beige capitals.
An inquisitive kind of person, Warchild opened the envelope to read the letter contained in it.
"Distract Elmer son of Drahcir son of Naj son of Tsirhc son of Sutrebuh son of wotsisname - stop -," Cronos read aloud to himself, "make sure he doesn't go back to castle - stop - hostages still held there - stop - annihilate subject when moons are full."
It took about a minute for the meaning to penetrate his mind. A record-breaking speed.
"The bastards!" he cried, turning the sandswooper around with a handbrake turn. They still held his loved-ones in bondage and, what was worse, they had lured him into going the wrong way! One of these days they'd push him too far. Even so, he'd fallen for it. Maybe, had he used his mind (which he hadn't and wasn't supposed to), he wouldn't have taken the bait. Now he came to think of it, his escape from the castle had been too easy.
On his way back to the castle, a break-neck velocity venture, he could barely avoid crashing into another sandswooper carrying someone who, at least so it seemed in the haze of highest humanly possible sandswooper speed, wore white clothes.
In reasonably less than two hours (which is quite breathtakingly remarkable what with him running out of gas half-way) he arrived back outside the castle. Nobody expected him, the bridge over the moat was closed. He had the element of surprise, but be that as it may he would first have to get in.
He cursed once more, not exactly below his breath now. He could drive a sandswooper and fly a subuniversal wooferflooper. He could squeeze himself into an East-German car and ride any mother-in-law. But swimming, that he couldn't.
Lucky for him, a gigantic Golden Eagle at that instant found it opportune to land almost next to him. The bird eyed him with suspicion. Cronos eyed it with suspicion, too. If Golden Eagles had the ability to turn red of embarrassment, this one would have. It had peculiar marks on its wings.
Cronos carefully moved closer to the Eagle, that shook its feathers as though it couldn't care less - but still keeping an eye on the mercenary annex hired gun. When Cronos came a too close, however, the Eagle leapt into the sky and beat its wings in the hot desert wind. Cronos was still fast enough and thought he grabbed the enormous bird by its paws just before it lifted off. Actually, however, the bird had grabbed him and it now carried Warchild to its offspring, on a nest deep in the innards of the castle.
Although it got him across the moat, what to do once he was dumped on an enormous Eagle's Nest, about to be preyed upon by some eager and very hungry young but no doubt dangerous Golden Eagles?
It made him think of a Richard Burton WW II movie he once saw.
After a short and quite hazardous flight, Cronos was rather unceremonially dumped on a nest that was constructed of wood, bits of iron and fragments of human bones. His nose was penetrated by the pong of Eagle dung. He shook his head. He had no time to get agitated about the offensive stench, for he saw three ugly and rather big young birds coming towards him with their beaks opened wide so that he could see tonsils, uvula, and the frightening red colour of their throats.
"Time for some defensive transactions," he murmured, and did his best to act like he was the Golden Eagle that had just flown off again in search for more food.
The small creatures, stupid though they may have seemed even to someone of Warchild's intelligence, didn't buy it. Instead, they started gnawing on a leg and seemed to find a certain pleasure in pulling out small strands of hair from there.
"OK. In that case, it's time for some offensive actions," Cronos murmured, now visibly agitated. There was only one thing left for him to do. He released upon them his Ronald Reagan impression.
"You ain't seen nothin' yet!" he said, with as much fake feeling as he could put in it. The birds stopped gnawing and eyed him suspiciously.
"Well...shred the proof!" Cronos continued. They stepped back uncertainly.
"I have never seen Ollie before in my life!" he now intoned as convincingly as possible. The birds retreated for now. They were hungry, but they weren't suicidal. Cronos had bought valuable seconds.
"Help me! Help me!" he heard a familiar young woman's voice yell.
"Oh, sugarpie! Bunny dear!" he heard another voice, croaking with age, mere seconds later.
"Elmer!" he heard a third voice cry.
He looked around frantically, trying to determine where the voices were coming. He then realized they came from below. The Golden Eagle had sought to build its nest on top of a dungeon where his loved ones appeared to be kept prisoner. An excellent guard.
He looked above him and became concerned. Above the nest - and the dungeon - an enormous boulder hung on a rope. Should it break, even Cronos saw it would shatter both utterly. Through a small barred window in the damp and dark hall he could see the young moons of Sucatraps. Both of them were almost full.
He leapt off the nest athletically and started examining the door. It was a very solid one, the same kind that had kept him locked some hours earlier. No chance of getting through that one, unless...
He could hear the women crying inside - they were very eager to be rescued, and thought they already were.
"Loucynda," Cronos whispered excitedly, "give me one of your hair pins!"
"But that will ruin my coup, darling," he heard her inside, after some thought, hesitant.
"Damn it, Loucynda! DO IT!" Warchild said with more force.
After some seconds, a hair pin was pushed under the door. Cronos grabbed it, folded it in some arcane way and started to attempt to pick the lock. Sweat was becoming visible on his forehead.
There was a "click".
Bestial laughter suddenly filled the hall. Cronos looked up and saw the silhouette of someone standing on a stone balcony, about thirty feet above him. The figure standing there had a tail.
As it stepped forward, Cronos saw the "REX" logo on a torn T-shirt. There was no mistaking who that was. He was too pre-occupied being aghast that his lower jaw hung foolishly.
"YES!" he heard the king cry out triumphantly, the voice echoeing, "YES!! My time has come! Here and now I will establish my power once and for all!"
More bestial laughter echoed through the hall as king Saurus unsheathed his sword. There was a rope. The sword moved to it as if in slow-motion. Cronos' eyes followed the rope. The enormous boulder was attached to it.
Four archers had their arrows pointed at Cronos' heart. There wasn't a thing he could do. He was going to die and the only comfort would be that he would arrive in the world of the Dead with the three women he loved most. He faced death with pride in his eyes. He unbuttoned his shirt, displaying his chest. He wasn't afraid to die. His time was bound to come one day anyway, and this wasn't even the worst of deaths now he came to think of it.
The women in the cell started to cry hysterically. They seemed to think of death in quite a different way.
"Har! Har! Haha!" laughed king Saurus. The sword touched the rope. It began eating through it, which went rather easier than Cronos had expected. That surely was one very sharp sword.
He climbed back onto the Eagle's Nest. This way at least he'd go first.
The two moons were full now. Their powerless light shone on the defeated figure of the battered mercenary annex hired gun. The young Eagles seemed the only ones still afraid of this strange man that used to talk about paper shredders.
Below them, the women still cried hysterically, frantically, desperately...
"I will keep on loving you, Cronos!" he heard Loucynda cry.
"Farewell, honeypie..." he thought he heard his foster mother croak.
"See you beyond, Elmer..." his real mother sighed.
At that precise moment a syringe flew through the air and, with almost surgical precision, hit king Saurus right in the posterior. He faltered. The razor-sharp blade dropped from his grasp. For a moment he looked around in disbelief, then keeled over and fell down on the harsh stone floor, thirty feet below.
"Thud," it went. Deader than a Dodo.
The archers looked at each other and decided to leg it. This was surely no place to hang around for peace-loving dudes like them.
Cronos, quite oblivious of what had happened, still stood on (and in) the Eagle's Nest, eyes closed. His chest was thrust forward proudly, his hands keeping his shirt aside so it wouldn't be stained by the blood gushing from his torso should the arrows pierce him.
The women now found out that Cronos had already succeeded in opening the lock (the "click", remember?) and ran out into the hall. Their cries of hysteria were replaced by cries of happiness. There barely was a difference.
Cronos opened his eyes to see the body on the ground, a syringe labelled "Cyanide" dangling in one of the king's buttocks. He saw the women crying happy hysterical cries and he also saw someone else, dressed in white.
It was another woman, a nurse, and she looked like an identical twin of Gloria Estefan. For a moment, he looked her right in the eyes. That sure was one hell of a lady. He muttered something in gratitude, after which she left promptly. "Ambulor Eight Hospital of the Very Very Splattered" was written on the back of her white uniform, in blood-red writing like that is generally used in cheap horror film logos.
"Hey!" he cried into the darkness of the hallway in which she had gone. His voice lacked strength. She had vanished, anyway. He climbed down, immediately to be assailed by women.
"Oh...Cronos!" Loucynda sighed, kissing her hero firmly on the cheek.
"Swell job, bunny dear," his foster mum croaked, patting him on the back.
His mother just hugged him tight and said nothing. They held each other for seconds. Warmth flowed from her body to his.
"Mother, there is so much I have longed to say for all this time," he wanted to say, but his voice seemed to cling to his throat and instead he said, "Okay". He patted her back as gently as he could. She suppressed a cringe.
Loucynda waited until this emotional gathering had passed its climax, or at least what she considered its climax, after which she interrupted.
"Did you bring the keys?" she inquired.
"The keys?" Cronos replied.
"The keys," she acknowledged. She pulled down her skirt with a look in her eyes as though it would surely explain everything. He beheld a large belt of leather and metal strapped around her waist. There was a sturdy, rusty lock located hanging between her legs, and two others - equally sturdy and quite rusty - on each side on her hips.
Her chastity belt. He remembered having put it on her when he left Sucatraps, now almost six years ago. He also remembered having lost the key somewhere on a vague planet somewhere in a vague milkyway on a vague edge of the galaxy.
"Ooops." Cronos sighed.
Original written September 1989. Rehashed March and May 1994.
Another day at the office over with, Colin had decided to settle down with a good book. The year before, he had had installed a 'real fire.' As he had said at the time, "It gives the place a homely look - with a log fire blazing merrily away in the living room, you can really believe that your home is an impregnable fortress, gallantly keeping the elements at bay whether you be sleeping or awake." Colin smiled to himself, as he often did at these moments, and gave thanks that his wife had taken Jason, the two year-old, to her parents for the weekend. A long, pleasant and - above all - quiet weekend stretched out before him as he lowered his body into the comfy armchair by the fire. Colin shifted slightly, to get as comfortable as possible, then adjusted the table lamp to just the right angle before picking up the book and beginning to read...
Just as the hero was about to decapitate the gargantuan nine-headed beast, Colin's attention was diverted by the sound of someone moving around in the next room. "Strange, there's nobody home. Maybe Karen had to come back early," Colin said to himself. "God, I hope not - I think I'd prefer burglars!" The middle-aged civil servant hoisted his bulk from the chair and wandered into the other room to investigate, pausing only to procure a poker from beside the fire. "Just in case..."
"Odd," thought Colin as he approached the door. the sounds from within had started to collect into words. Speech. In a very strange accent, but - nonetheless - English. He slowly opened the door and, poker brandished at the ready, strode into the room. "Who are you, and what are you doing in my home?" Hardly an original line, but then nobody awards points for creativity at these moments.
Colin stopped. There were four people in the kitchen. Three of them were arguing over the toaster, while the fourth - a tall, and rather attractive, blonde woman - looked on. Deliberately and carefully, the blonde turned to face Colin.
"We come in peace." she stated, simply. It looked like cliches were to be the order of the day. Was this some kind of joke? She didn't look to Colin like she was joking but, nonetheless, her words - and that weird accent!
Colin hesitated a moment, then: "Do you, now? Do you usually 'come in peace' by breaking into someone's house, and ransacking their possessions?"
"I must apologise for my friends. They are being, perhaps, a little...over zealous..." The three, dressed - as was the blonde woman - in brown, discoloured rags and bereft of shoes, now seemed to be in the throes of a disagreement over whose turn it was to drink from the cold water tap. The blonde followed Colin's gaze, looked at her friends then returned her stare to the house's owner. She shrugged.
"Perhaps I should explain myself," she continued.
"Yes, I think maybe you ought to!" snapped Colin, who now looked on, bemused as the strange blonde's three companions had a fight over the contents of the icebox.
Unperturbed, the blonde introduced herself as, "Just call me 'Alice.'" and went on to describe how she and her three companions were refugees from Colin's own future.
"Oh. Of course," burst in Colin,"I had somebody from the twenty-fifth century for tea last week. Why didn't you say so? Perhaps you would like a quick cup of coffee, before going back to battle daleks or take a spin around Saturn's moons?" His voice cracked, as he shrieked, "Do you think I was born yesterday? You come in here, argue about who gets what in my home then expect me to believe any cock and bull story you care to spin about being time travellers? Well, you're not time travellers!"
"How can you be so sure?" broke in the blonde, Alice, smoothly.
Surprised by the simple audacity of the question, Colin was momentarily nonplussed, before spluttering: "Well, for one thing, time travellers would be better dressed!"
"Look, just hear me out, then - if you still don't believe me - we'll leave you. Okay?"
No, it's not bloody okay! Get out now, or I'll call the police!"
"We're not going. I am not going. Not until you've at least heard us out." Colin sighed. He'd had a wonderfully peaceful weekend planned, and it seemed to be falling apart about his ears. But he resigned himself to hearing Alice's story, and led her - followed by her retinue - into the living room, where he settled down in his comfy chair and awaited the tale. At least there would be some entertainment - if only he could find the popcorn...
"Picture it: North America, ravaged by war and plagued - yes, literally plagued - by disease. The Statue of Liberty toppled like a house of cards, the remains used by destitutes as stepping stones across the Hudson. The Capitol's roof destroyed, caved in by the backwash from an atomic blast. The Golden Gate Bridge no longer capable of supporting the weight even of an anorexic ant. The United States now disunited, and battling amongst themselves for what remains of the spoils of war, while Mexico and Canada, themselves war-torn lands, sit on the sidelines, occassionally swooping, vulture-like, on the carcasses of shattered principalities. Picture it, if you can. That is the world I - we - left behind. And, unless we can do something - unless we can convince you to help us - then the war which began the nightmare will come to pass. And The United States will be destroyed, along with the rest of the world."
Colin, mouth gaping, stared a moment at Alice. Then, taking ahold of himself, shook his head as if to clear Alice's description from his mind. "You're serious." It was a statement, not a question, but Alice nodded nonetheless. Colin picked up the 'phone and dialled, carefully: 9...1...1.
"Hello, emergency services? I'd like a - what the Hell..? What? Oh, never mind..." He put the 'phone down, replacing the receiver in its cradle with all the care of a raw-egg juggler. Emulating the studied patience and concentration of a Zen master, Colin watched the receiver settle in its bed before looking up to check what had so startled him a moment before. It was still there. Or, rather, they were still there. The original group of four had multiplied to eight while Colin was watching. Nobody had entered the room - not by conventional means, anyway. Yet four people had...appeared. Colin was, to say the least, mildly surprised.
The four newcomers were dressed far more smartly than the first arrivals. Perhaps they came from a different time period. Colin caught the thought. Time travellers? Well, let's face it - either the second group teleported in, which is impossible, or they arrived via a time machine, which is impossible. The difference lay in the fact that they claimed the latter. And so the pendulum of decision hung in that direction, for the moment.
Colin looked the latest group over. The clothes were definately plusher than Alice's band - they wore loose-fitting robes, after the fashion of Ancient Roman togas - each robe being a single solid block of a bright colour: red, blue, green and...a tall, statuesque brunette wore a white 'toga.'
That brunette turned to look at Colin, as he gasped in astonishment. Alice! The two Alices noticed each other then - and paused to look one another over. Ragged Alice was the first to speak: "You dyed your hair. It doesn't suit you."
"Who are you? No - don't answer that," began the be-toga'ed Alice, "I know who you are - you're me. But how? And why do you have such goddawful clothing? Are you Me, from my future? If so, why are you here?"
"I was about to ask you the same things. Since I have no memory of having been you - and you seem to have none of having been me - perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me why you are here?"
"You know as well as I why I'm here - your presence indicates that your research has led you to the same conclusion to which mine led me. This is a junction point. To be more precise, this man is a junction point. His actions can start, or prevent, a world war."
Colin burst in, "What are you two talking about? I'm no world leader - how can I start off Armageddon? I'm just a government clerk. I'm good at my job, sure. But that's as far as it goes."
The trampesque Alice broke into Colin's monotribe: "Tomorrow, a memo will cross your desk marked 'SFF-524G/Q.' If you fail to pass it on, the Pentagon will be unaware of a small, but significant, item of information. This ignorance will lead to a breakdown in communications and then, gradually, to a small conflict between states within what you know as the United States of America. As further states join the dispute, so the conflict will escalate until those states which currently maintain a nuclear arsenal - in the name of the National Defence - use them on those regions which they view as enemies. The automated defence computers will register a first strike on US soil, and launch a counter-attack - against the Eastern Bloc. The resulting conflict destroys most Life on Earth."
"My God," Colin breathed, "For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost...Well, I must ensure that I don't lose that memo! Will that make things alright? Will that stop the war?"
"We think so," began The war-torn Alice, "But, just to be sure..."
"Wait," blurted the more refined Alice, "Think this through. Sure, there will be no war. But - well, perhaps I'd better tell you why I am here...
"In my history, which seems to be different from yours," she gestured in the other Alice's direction, "the memo got through. There was no war, and consequently no massive investment in research - How long from now is your war due to begin, if the memo fails to get through?" The question was directed at the other Alice.
"Twenty-four years before the opening of hostilities, One hundred and sixteen years before the first atomic weapon is used. Why?"
"Just a thought. Don't you realise that mankind needs this war? If there is no war, then there is no impetous to survive - to live. War means money poured into research - defence systems, weapons systems, computers, space. No war, no research. No research, no advancement. In short, stagnation. The human race will reach its demise gradually, through apathy. Nobody caring enough to do anything anymore. The world ending, to borrow one of your phrases," she nods at Colin, "Not with a bang, but a whimper."
Colin, half out of his chair, sank slowly back until he felt the cushions enveloping his body, moulding to his shape. "So," he said, eventually, "If I send this memo through, then - according to you," he pointed at the second Alice, "there will be no war, and the human race will bore itself to death. If, on the other hand, I withhold this memo, then you say," He pointed at the ragged, and now rather pensive, first Alice, "that there will come a world war which will destroy the human race. Whichever I choose, the human race doesn't seem to stand a chance."
Alice one's brow furrowed, as she thought furiously. Turning to the rather flashily dressed Alice two, she said, "I've been thinking. Maybe a war would be a good idea, after all - at least then we go out with a bang - a light show which aliens might point to in their skies. A kind of last funeral pyre for mankind."
The second Alice considered this a moment, before saying, "No, I think no war would be better - after all, humans might recover from this period of apathy, you know..."
"No - war would be a good idea, we can re-build the world..."
"Uh uh. No war is better: that way, there's no need to rebuild!"
Colin broke in, laughing, "Ladies! Ladies!" he shouted, "You've both done a rapid volte-face, have you not? Why is this?" He silenced their explanations with a wave of his hand, "No, don't bother to lie - I can see it in your faces. You've both realised what has just become clear to me. If you had succeeded in your original mission, then my future would be altered. Your future would cease to exist: you would no longer be 'real'. Instead, your counterpart - the woman you are arguing with at the moment - would be in the 'true' future. However, now your pleas are not so much for the human race - that seems doomed either way - but for your own existence."
The women looked sheepish. Colin was correct, and all of them knew it. Walking across the room, Colin replaced the poker - which he found he was still gripping in his right hand - in the stand beside the fire. He turned from the flames and, with a wry smile, stated,
"Well, I will toss a coin to decide which future shall come about. Does that seem reasonable to each of you?" The women nodded. Reluctantly, they nodded. Colin took a quarter from his trouser pocket, then flipped it: "Heads, war; tails, peace." Even raggedy Alice's companions stopped bickering over a toga, previously belonging to a now-unconscious cohort of the other Alice, long enough to watch the coin come down. It span in the air, glinting brightly in the flames of Colin's real fire like a single phoenix feather before hurtling toward the carpet, and - as it landed - nobody in that room dared draw breath.
The coin landed on its edge.
"Well," came a familiar voice from the corner of the room, "It seems the human race has a chance after all."
Written April 1990.
Cronos Warchild, mercenary annex hired gun, sat in his chair holding the evening paper. A dim light shrouded his being into what seemed to be ominous mystery. Everything seemed to be quite normal.
The fact that Cronos held the newspaper upside down, however, suggested that at least something was not entirely normal. Some careful observation would reveal that his eyes were not, as may have been expected, aimed at the newspaper. Not even at the cartoons.
Yet more detailed observation would reveal that his eyes weren't aimed at anything, unfocused at something that seemed to be beyond the paper, perhaps even beyond his vision.
Sounds were coming from the kitchen. The sounds were anything but unusual - the sound of cutlery and the metal of pans and the burning of gas on which someone was apparently preparing a meal. The only other sound was that of the clock that slowly ticked its way in another corner of the room. Since the dim light near the chair didn't suffice to shed light upon that corner, it is beyond any means to specify what kind of clock it was, but the sounds indicated that it was one of the standing type. A big one with slow, heavy beats. The kind that you would expect to stop working when its owner dies.
It tolled eight.
The sounds of cutlery in the kitchen ceased and there seemed to be what could not be mistaken for anything but a "thud" followed by a muffled cry.
Another very careful observation would reveal that there was nobody sitting in the chair near the dim light any more. A paper lay there as if it had been abandoned in haste. Which, to tell the truth, was exactly the case.
A sound, loud and penetrating, could be heard. And then a second.
Two large holes seemed to have appeared in the chair quite spontaneously.
"Shit!" a silhouette spat. It held a smoking .45 in its hand and could be seen standing in the kitchen door. Its eyes gleamed eeriely and glanced around, frightened.
Another sound broke the silence - this time a soft one, the kind usually caused by something very small flying through the air at great velocity. At the end there was a "plop", the kind that tends to be caused by an object hitting flesh - and penetrating it.
The eyes rolled, went dull, filled with something red, and the silhouette sighed to the floor. Light from the kitchen falling on the face revealed a small black hole in the forehead from which poured a dark fluid. In it sat a tiny dagger.
Cronos came from his hiding place to pull his dagger from the lifeless body of the assassin. He cleaned the blade on the man's shirt, after which he inserted it in a sheath that was hidden within one of his trousers legs.
In the kitchen an old woman, probably in her late eighties, regained consciousness, caressing carefully a bump on the back of her head.
"What happened?" she asked no one in particular. Cronos was about to concoct a story that would explain all this when more questions assailed him.
"Who am I? Who are you? Who is he? Why am I? What's the time?"
"It's time to get ill," Cronos grunted and knocked the old woman out cold with a massive pound of his rather square and equally massive fist. He believed a well-aimed knock on someone's head was always better than having to come up with a most elaborate explanation.
Cronos Warchild, let's face it, is a primitive being, primarily trained to fight and not to think. Predictably, he was never taught how to treat amnesia in the case of female housemaids roaming in their late eighties. He assumed hitting her hard would have the same effect it had on his enemies, i.e. put her out of her misery.
He does not, I repeat NOT, hate female housemaids in their late eighties who suffer amnesia - nor ANY females, ANY housemaids, ANY people in their late eighties, or ANY people suffering amnesia (should any of these read this).
Let the story continue!
He directed his attention back to the unfortunately deceased person that was soiling the kitchen floor tiles with his blood. The colour didn't quite match the orange of these tiles, Warchild was shocked to establish. He searched the assassin's pockets and found a piece of paper. Apart from the fact that it was wrinkled, its primary feature was some writing on it. Although Cronos was as much a reader as he was a physician, he was still able to decypher some of what was scribbled on it. Enough to know what was happening, anyway, or at least to think he knew what was happening.
"20:00 h. Kill Cronos Warchild," he read aloud. He lifted his eyebrows.
"21:00 h. Report at ASP." He lifted his eyebrows even more, on the verge of them popping off. It didn't make a lot of sense to him.
He searched another of the body's pockets and found some ID that revealed to him that he was called Spondulix, from a planet of which the name was beyond interpretation. Further pocket examination revealed an Alien Safari Promotions Inc. brochure, a draft ticket for an examination on Venusian Accountancy and 200 Thanatopian credits as well as a brief user manual for a device called a 'Compact Universal Nuclear Teleporter'.
"Hmmm..." he said.
"Hmmmm..." he said, with some more feeling.
The female housemaid in her late eighties regained consciousness again - or at least her moaning and moving seemed to indicate her joining waking sentiency. This drew Cronos' attention off the dead man and the puzzling pocket contents.
"Winston? Where are you?" the woman asked with a powerless voice that seemed to utter each word more like a sigh, "Winston? Winston?! Are you sure you will go on 'till the end? Are you sure you'll never surrender? And can't you ever stop smoking those blimmin' smelly cigars?"
As Warchild was not aware of the fact that the old woman had been Mrs. Winston Churchill in an earlier life (nor was he aware of the distant possibility of reincarnation or, for that matter, of anything pertaining Winston Churchill, the Battle of Britain or even the entire happening of any World Wars), he once more had his rather squarely built, massive fist connect to the woman's head. Before she passed out again she muttered something about the invasion of Sicily and something called Mussolini, something Cronos reckoned has something to do with noodles.
Cronos read most of the ASP brochure, which presented not a little difficulty to him. When he finished he suddenly noticed something gleaming on the dead man's hand.
At first sight, it was a very cheap brass ring. At second sight, it still was. On the inside was a small button, as if designed for a thumb to press. He took it off the deceased's hands and tried it on himself. In spite of the fact that his hands were much bigger and his finger much thicker than the corpse's, the ring seemed to fit like it was forged especially for him. Really weird.
He pressed the little button on it.
He found himself laying on a bed. The bed was tidily made, and the distinct odour was that of ether. He immediately recognized this place. It was the only place he feared, the place he loathed even more than dog's excrements stuck under his shoe or hair on a bar of soap.
The Ambulor Eight Hospital of the Very Very Splattered.
He now also recognized a nurse sitting in the far corner of the room, reading a cheap James Hamilton doctor novel. She didn't seem to notice him and instead seemed to be absorbed truly by whichever female kissing whichever doctor at whichever hospital.
A graphic Warchild's state of health was located above his bed. It was shaped like a mountain range ending in a negative peak stretching beyond the lower limits of the paper. The line was continued on the wall, but it seemed the doctor responsible for the graph had given up the attempt when eventually the floor was reached. A wreath of lilies was nonchalantly draped on the chair to the right side of the bed, to which a thin banner stating "Bye, Honeypie" was attached.
He was dressed in white pyjamas but was glad to discover that he was still wearing the ring. It seemed some kind of Teleportation device, and a very compact one at that!
He pressed the little button once more.
He was knee-deep in what he thought was mud.
Of course he was wrong. He was trained to fight and not to think. It was quicksand.
He discovered his error quickly, when the depth started to tug at his legs slowly but certainly, sucking them into the dark abyss that could only mean death. He already saw his entire life flashing by him in the moments that passed before he was entirely submerged in the murderous trap. Most of it was bloody, or gory, or both. He closed his eyes and held his breath. Then, suddenly, he opened his eyes and saw a man clad in a black robe, wielding an enormous scythe. He made beckoning gestures at Warchild, crying, "COME. COME. LET GO. COME."
Cronos shook his head, filling eyes and ears with mud. He was dying. Suffocating. There was no doubt about it.
He tried to locate his right hand and felt something like panic surge up inside of him when he couldn't find it. He regained his senses when he found it was quite impossible to grasp a right hand with one's right hand. He tried with his left one and succeeded. There was a cheap brass ring on one of the digits.
He pressed its little button.
He stood upright, shaking his head in wonder at what once again seemed to have happened. He was afraid to open his eyes, fearing what he might have teleported himself to this time. He gathered a tremendous amount of courage, opening them nonetheless. Fear could be suppressed. He did.
There was nothing around him but a restaurant and some people eating in it.
First thing he could actually distinguish in focus was a sign hanging above a stage, on which was a name reminding him of a chocolate bar.
Next, he saw an excited couple of beings talking about time, past, present and perfect with a waiter. There was a man dressed in pyjamas, another man dressed in what appeared to be normal clothes, a woman, and a man that had something distinctly odd about him. No mistaking it. Two heads. Weird.
Apart from the aforementioned gathering of humans that continued talking quite agitatedly to the aforementioned waiter, Warchild saw some people clad in white robes chanting about a Great White Handkerchief, and a big fat man dressed in black leather sitting at a table. The latter didn't look at all happy and didn't utter as much as a sigh.
Cronos was startled to hear someone speaking close to him.
"Good evening, sir," something that had been a green blur (but that now was a waiter) asked him while trying to suppress a cough and looking rather disapprovingly, "do you have a reservation?"
"Reservation?" Warchild said weakly, and decided to give a go at pressing the little button once more.
Just before he left the time and space of Milliways, he thought he heard the waiter ask: "Can't I at least get you interested in ordering one of our quite excellent Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters?"
He thought he sensed nothing but the distinct smell of a forest.
And, for once, Warchild indeed appeared to be right. He seemed to have forgotten all about sensing the sweating horse right in front of him, though. It was black like the night, black to such extent that it seemed even to be an obscure, very dark schade of the utterly blackest black.
Cronos stood aghast, gazing at the horse. Not only was it black, it was also very big. On top of that, its eyes radiated with what seemed hot, red malice.
He had never felt any fear for animals as long as they didn't happen to be mice. He was stunned by the fear this animal seemed capable of arousing.
He looked up and saw a shape sitting on top of the black horse, dressed in an equally black robe. From the hollowness of its cape, only two red eyes seemed to glow with what seemed uncannily like hot, red malice.
The shape on the horse did not seem te be interested in him, didn't even notice him. Instead it watched intently a group of beings that Cronos now also saw: Four rather tiny creatures with hair on their feet, a large man that was constantly fussing around with what seemed to be a hearing aid, a dwarf with a long beard, another dwarf, and an elf. The latter two seemed to be constantly arguing about something, and one of the creatures with the hairy feet was wearing something very similar to his own ring. The only difference, Cronos noticed aghast, was that it seemed golden instead of cheap brass. To Warchild's satisfaction, however, he also noticed that the other ring didn't have any buttons on it.
The creature atop the horse seemed very intent on getting that gold ring.
When the black rider turned his steed to attack the harmless group of beings, Cronos lost interest and pressed the little button on his Compact Universal Nuclear Teleporter.
When he opened his eyes again, he thought he wouldn't mind a single bit of dog's faeces whether or not he was going to like what he would see. If he wouldn't, he would simply press his ring again to vanish to another time, another location. But after he opened his eyes he was quite shocked, to say the least, at the fact that the digit of his finger that had formerly worn a cheap brass ring was now almost offensively nude. He had, in some way or another, succeeded in dislocating the ring.
Anyway, now he thought of it, the brief manual he had found in one of what's-his-name's pockets had mentioned something like, "Mini-reactor power lasts for a maximum of five to six nuclear teleportations only. Replacement reactors only for sale on Thanatopia. Please dispose of old reactors properly, and preferably do not litter locations where future cities might be built. Do not dispose of improperly when environmentalists are watching, either."
An often-used synonym for an animal's excrements passed his lips.
He looked up from his naked finger and found he was standing in front of what seemed to be a traveller's agency. In large coruscating letters he read "Alien Safari Promotions" above the shop-window. This couldn't be coincidence. The small print of the "Alien Safari Promotions" brochure sprang back to his mind vividly.
"Alien Safari Promotions Inc. can accept no responsibility whatsoever for any accidents that may occur on our holidays, nor for any loss of limbs, eyes, internal organs or any other parts of the body. Travel is entirely at the customer's own enormous risk. It is not possible to arrange insurance for any of these holidays."
A smile wrought itself upon his lips. There were few things that could seem more appealing to a mercenary annex hired gun who wanted to keep up his skills and achieve some decent training. He remembered more from the brochure. If he'd fail on one of those space safaris, he'd die. It would become a holiday his loved ones wouldn't forget. And nobody had yet returned.
He realised he didn't actually have any loved ones apart from some people far away whom he hadn't seen in quite a while and probably wouldn't ever.
He stepped into the shop.
Original written September/October 1989. Rehashed March and May 1994.