July 2010


Suddenly there were armed men all around, machine pistols emerging from nondescript coats and from beneath rain slickers.

A van pulled up and the door slid open. “Get in!” one of the men said, leveling the business end of his heater at May. “Now!”

She glanced at me; my saucer-like eyes and blank expression probably weren’t all that reassuring. A moment later, I was being shoved out of the way as she was bundled into the waiting van.

Seeing her in that situation, I felt my hands close into fists. I’d been talking about making a change, becoming more assertive, taking risks. Hell, I’d been thinking about jumping off a bridge or at least threatening to do it.

Here was my chance to do both at once.

I leapt into the van and took a seat next to her. “Hey, asshole, we don’t want you!” the person in the passenger seat said. “Get out!”

“Make me,” I growled.

Suddenly a jet-black Glock was pressed to my forehead. “I said out!”

I folded my arms.

“If he wants to come, let him come!” the driver shouted. “All the same to me. Just get that door closed!”

The door slammed shut. Acceleration forced everyone back in their seats, and the passenger pulled off his ski mask. It was Austin, the man from the embassy. “No room for sightseers on this trip, buddy. Now that you’re playing, you’re playing for keeps.

I could feel May’s hand tighten around my wrist. Whatever horrible fate was in store for her, at least she wouldn’t have to go alone.

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Hollister had a Sphynx for a secretary; she was filing her long claws–red not from blood but from polish–with an emery board. She glanced up at me through heavy rouge and a delicately coiffed perm.

“I need to see Mr. Hollister at once,” I said, withdrawing the Smith & Wesson from my shoulder holster. “Here’s my heater.”

“I talk, but I do not speak my mind,” she said with a nasal twang–a Brooklyn sphynx. “I hear words, but I do not listen to thoughts. When I wake, all see me. When I sleep, all hear me. Many heads are on my shoulders. Many hands are at my feet. The strongest steel cannot break my visage. But the softest whisper can destroy me. What am I?”

I sighed. Sphynxes love their riddling talk–it’s a cultural thing, I suppose–which is why they’re in such demand as bouncers and secretaries. Easy enough for someone who doesn’t want to be disturbed to have their sphynx riddle all comers, even though it’s technically illegal. These days they’ll just turn you away for a wrong answer, mostly. But in the old days, and in some dark alleys now as the scuttlebutt has it, they’d strangle and eat you. Hell, their name comes from the old Greek word for ‘strangler.’ Same root as ‘sphincter,’ too; appropriate, since I’d yet to meet a sphynx who wasn’t an asshole.

“An actor,” I said. “Can I go in now?” Teddy Roosevelt loved that one, and a lot of the dimmer or less imaginative sphynxes used it. But you don’t get to be where–or what–I am without knowing all the old sphynxy standbys.

A red claw descended on the intercom. “Someone to see you, Mr. Hollister.”

Perry tugged nervously at his collar as the ad ran on the screen. “Pifvip: for when you want to get the most out of your life.”

“Wonderful, just wonderful,” the Old Woman said after the cartoon cloud floated away on a bed of octagonal violet pills and the gentle new age music stopped. “First-rate ad copy as always, Bernard.”

Bernard flashed his expensive caps and bridgework, unnaturally white and–scuttlebutt had it–impregnated with trace amounts of uranium for that natural glow. “You’re too kind.”

“Perry! You look like you’ve swallowed a scorpion over there,” the Old Woman said. “Isn’t it about time you told us about the results of the test?”

“W-well, as we reported last month, there were no side effects detected in the initial double-blind study…”

“Excellent! Let’s call the lobbyists and get FDA approval before everything starts getting sanctimonious in an election year.”

“But,” Perry continued, “there were some…irregularities…later on.”

“What sort of irregularities?” the Old Woman asked icily.

“Well, it turns out that Pifvip has a tendency to build up in fatty tissues and…uh…interact with some other medications to form unwanted compounds,” Perry said, feeling his shirt begin to ride up as he became slick with sweat. “Hallucinogenic compounds, actually, when combined with acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, and a number of other common over-the-counters.”

The Old Woman raised an eyebrow. “How bad?”

“Many extended study participants reported being harassed by an entity they called the Cigar Goblin, which urged them to burn things,” Perry said. “Others reported that elemental creatures in their milkshakes were trying to suck them into a dimension of ‘lactose doom.’ One in particular was troubled by a persistent fear that the overhead lights were uncoiled ‘Elder Snails’ that would invade her brain while she slept and force her to attend night classes.”

“Anime is just too weird for me, man,” Caleb said. “It’s like seeing regular Saturday morning cartoons ground up and regurgitated by someone’s really twisted subconscious.”

“How d’you ever expect to be taken seriously as a geek with that attitude?” Sean replied. “Here, we’ll get you started on something easy and non-threatening.” He began rummaging through the stack of pastel-colored keepcases.

“No, really, let’s just watch something-”

“Here, how about Dimensional Galactic Rogue Outlaw Roku?” said Sean, blindly waving the case. “It’s about a schoolgirl who’s last in a long line of Galaxy Warriors and has to fight off the Tentacleoids while going through Ariabachi High. Also she reverts to a jellylike omnigel when she’s angry or stressed.”

Caleb bit his lip. “Uh…no.”

“Okay, okay, we can try Bio Sword Arc Unlimited. It’s based on the legend of Joan of Arc, except in modern-day Kunioshi Prefecture. Junior high student Jan’nu Daruku is touched by the kami Hachiman and granted the power to shape her limbs into weapons to fight an invasion of mutant deep-sea squid roused by nuclear testing.”

“I’m sensing a pattern here,” Caleb sighed. “No.”

“What pattern? Those are totally different shows!” Sean snorted incredulously. “Fine, we’ll go super-basic: Initial Ghost Priestess Salvation. Yuki Tanaka learns that she’s the reincarnation of Kamakura period empress Fujiwara, and the only one who can save her classmates from the return of the subterranean cephalopodal elder race that cause the collapse of the shogunate.”

“You might not be familiar with cordyceps unilateralis, the ‘zombie ant fungus,'” Dr. Donovan said. “In nature, it affects the behavior of ants, causing them to climb to an optimal spore dispersal point while the fungus devours them from the inside.”

Senator Chandler made a face. “I hope that’s not what you’re showing us large-scale,” she said. “I’m fairly certain there’s a Geneva something against things like that.”

“Oh no. We’ve improved on it quite a bit. We can engineer the spores to produce an incredible range of complex behaviors in their hosts, after which they’re broken down and excreted. Say hello to cordyceps unilateralis candida.”

Donovan opened the shades, revealing a second group of rhesus monkeys–this one playing Texas hold’em poker.

The projector stuttered for a moment as the projectionist changed reels. After a moment of distortion, the newsreel began to flicker on the silver screen.

“Central City News Corporation presents: News on Parade!” the announcer intoned, sounding to all the world like an overeager color commentator at Central Stadium.

“Crime Watch! Be on the lookout for these notorious gangsters, hoodlums, and criminals! Report any sightings to the theater management or the nearest CCPD dispatcher! Remember, these vile persons may be in the theater alongside you!”

“That’ll be the day,” Günter muttered.

A man appeared, sneering into the mugshot camera. “Rex Fuzzgaze, the thought-stealer! This diabolical Liverpudlian sorcerer has perfected the subtle art of mind control, impressing others with his gaze and using them for his nefarious purposes! Do not approach!”

Günter snorted. “Needs to see a barber about those eyebrows.”

An unassuming-looking businessman, well-groomed, holding his card with no clear expression. “Pendleton Carvey, the mad mechanical genius! His nefarious automata held up the Central Reserve just last week! Wanted dead or dying!”

“Probably didn’t have enough to occupy his mind during his day job,” Günter opined.

A woman, very pretty except for deeply sunken eyes and stringy hair. “Macha DeVries, the mutant mistress of ghouls! An accident at a university labs has placed her in a state of living death with command over the recently deceased! Won’t be taken alive!”

“Hmph,” said Günter. “I don’t believe that one for a moment. Too fantastic.”

“You’re right about that,” his seat neighbor croaked, stretching a pale, bony hand into her bucket of popcorn. “The camera adds at least ten pounds.”

“This is boring, Dad. Who cares about girls so much they’d go to war over one?”

I lowered my copy of The Big Book of Greek Mythology, sensing a crack in my plan to give Sean a classical education through the medium of bedtime stories.

“W-well, Helen was really just an excuse for Agamemnon to send an army to Troy,” I said.

“Armies are boring,” Sean sighed with a cynicism unbecoming a 7-year-old. “Uncle Dave’s in the army.”

This wouldn’t do. “Well, the army was just an excuse too,” I said, groping about for something to grab his attention. “They were really just…just androids, to make sure no one suspected.”

Sean perked up a bit. “Suspected what?”

“Suspected that…uh, that Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus had superpowers. Agamemnon had…super-strength. Achilles was invincible. Odysseus could shoot lasers out of his eyes.”

“So they had a bunch of robots around so no one would wonder how they beat up all the bad guys all by themselves,” Sean said. “But how’d the war last 10 years?”

“Uh…the Trojans had robots too,” I said, trying to recall plot bits from Sean’s cartoons. “Lots of ’em. And superpowers. Priam could mind-control. Hector had super-speed. Paris had mutant healing factor.”

“Hmm…” Sean said.

“And Helen was a cyborg,” I said quickly. “The Trojans weren’t just in love with her, they wanted to use her technology to make an invincible army.”

“Wow! What happened next, Dad?”

I turned the page, hoping that what he was about to hear wouldn’t warp his appreciation of the classics too much.

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