My Broken Electronic Companion

You were ever
so smooth;
my fingers ran across
your flawless face,
gnosis unlocked
with a gentle touch.

But time, o time,
the perfect butcher
of perfection,
went to work with
grim precision,
stress and strain
the twin tools
that crease and furrow.

In an instant
you fell to the ground,
you shattered
and fractured,
a web of destruction,
frozen lightening.

I feel the splinters
and my touch evokes
pain as you struggle
to function
beneath my fingers;
you are broken.

Using you causes
me pain and yet I
don’t abandon you—
yet.

One does not easily
discard that which
has been so useful
for so long. You will
be replaced but it
will never be the same.

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Lament of the Lone Guardsman

(This is Warhammer 40k fan fiction. Everything other than the main character and his unit is copyright of Games Workshop, used without their permission but hopefully with their indulgence.)

The recording transcribed here was collected during the recovery of bodies in the aftermath of a campaign against the ork corsairs in Segmentum Pacificus, during which the 401st Purganto was overrun and massacred. The speaker has been identified from remains in the destroyed bunker as Sgt. Pard Geram, who had been with the 401st for ten standard years. It is not clear why he recorded this, but it serves as his last words.

“All the others are dead or missing. I woke up and Kerath, who’d been on watch, was gone. What happened to him I can’t say but these damn greenskins can be sneaky bastards when they want. Why they left me I can’t imagine. Or maybe I can. Anyone who thinks orks are stupid hasn’t battled against them. They want me to suffer…

“I’m not done yet, you miserable green murderous bastards!


(Incoming artillery shells can be heard)


“Hear that?


“That’s our own artillery turned against us.The greenskins overran a Basilisk position a few days ago, looted the guns and turned them against us. They’re miserable shots. They like the noise of the big guns. More likely to blow themselves up than anything else… though at this point a stray shell dropping on my head might not be the worst thing.


“It doesn’t matter anymore though, does it? Maybe it never did. I’ve put in my time and done it with whatever sad attempt at pride a man like me could muster. I’ve come to believe that humanity is a shit stain upon the galaxy. I wish I’d been born and died on one of those backward, out of the way planets and remained ignorant of the rest of the galaxy.


“They tell us we serve the Emperor of all humankind, who sacrificed himself to save us from Chaos Undivided, or the green hordes, even from ourselves.They tell us we are the first line of defense against xenos and heretics and chaos and things that go bump in the night… the hammer of the Imperium, the Emperor’s fist!

“This the damned priests would have us believe. They should save their lies for the new recruits, who need inspiration to give up their lives for the greater glory of the Golden Throne. Words are nothing more than a thin veil drawn across the truth: we are nothing more than barely armored and lightly armed meat bags, commanded by idiots who feed us into the grinder by the millions. We are shot, burnt, exploded and torn to pieces by every horror the galaxy has to offer. No victory but death, or so they say.

“If you you’ve been in the Guard and survived with your limbs and sanity intact then you were likely in the Munitorum and I don’t have the spit to spare for you.

“I’ve seen entire regiments of new recruits decimated before they had a chance to reload. I’ve seen whole worlds burnt to a crisp. I’ve killed the servants of the archenemy, xenos, and things I can’t begin to describe or explain across worlds beyond my ability to recall.

“My body is broken. My lungs were grown in a vat as a replacement for the damage done while fighting a bunch of heretics on some industrial hive world. I’ve been stitched back together by the chirugeons more times than I can remember.

“And for what… the glory of the Imperium?

“I don’t know much about this galaxy. I sleep, eat and shit and if I’m lucky I get to fuck a Guard provided whore when I’m not slaughtering the enemies of the Emperor. I was born to serve and it’s likely I’m going to die on this shithole of a planet.


“What happens after that is like the rest of my life: out of my control, no matter what the Ecclesiarchy priests tell us. Any afterlife can go fuck itself. A seat at the Emperor’s table? I think any reasonable soldier would know that’s a lie and who in their right mind would want to eat with a ten-thousand year old corpse?


“Commissar Vindlu would shoot me on the spot if she merely suspected I was thinking this, much less said it aloud and that’s just the way it is. There is no doubt she would quite enjoy blowing my brains out, after all the trouble I’ve given her. Even the life debt she owes me would be conveniently forgotten. Order must be maintained. I would not be missed, no matter how many scars prove my worth.


“It doesn’t matter now though, does it? I’ll be dead before dawn, shredded by the next wave of those bastard greenskins. How much ammunition is left… I’ve got one fully charged cell and a couple of frags. I’ve got my knives but I can tell you it’s about as easy to knife an orc to death as it is to eat the crap they feed us without gagging… but I’ll go down killing because we don’t roll over and die without a fight. Not in the 401st we don’t.


“At least I won’t have to see the inside of that filthy troop ship again. That almost makes dying down here in the muck worthwhile.


“Here comes the damn artillery again. By the Throne how I wish they’d do whatever it is they’re going to do. I can’t raise anyone on the vox. I don’t even know if the lines are still intact. My last orders were to hold to the last and so I hold. I am the last…”


(The recording ends abruptly.)

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Learning to draw… again

A couple of days ago as I ambled up and down the aisles of our local grocery store, nodding to the other under-employed free-lance writers pushing their carts, I turned up the aisle that has periodicals on one side and children’s toys on the other.

I wanted the latest issue of Wired but that’s a magazine Wegmans only carries-wait for it-periodically (well, it was amusing to me) and this was one of those times that I couldn’t find it among the wide variety of magazines about guns, cars, guns, and guns.

I turned my cart around and started toward the guns-I mean soup-aisle… and stopped.

Wegmans is a grocery store so naturally art supplies are underrepresented. There is one small section no more than a few feet wide and heavily populated by a variety of guns-pens I mean, pens-and down at the bottom of the section were a few desultory bits of multi colored poster board and a drawing tablet: specifically, the UCreate 40 Sheet Artist Book of Medium Weight Drawing Paper.

Hmm.

I picked it up and flipped back the piss-yellow cover (the color of ART! I said to myself) and felt the paper. It was cheap crap, the kind of paper made from recycled detritus kicked out of waste management sites, bleached with some ungodly toxic chemical combination and packaged up for the artist in all of us.

Still.

I used to draw. Actually, I used to draw a lot. Both my parents are artists. I took every art class there was. I thought, at one point, that I had progressed from “that’s crap” to “that’s marginally better crap than the usual crap”. Specifically I enjoyed the fine art of cartooning. I did take a painting studio one time but the teacher and I came to the mutual conclusion that I was using up gesso and canvas that actual painters would need and that I should go make to making doodles on paper.

I hadn’t doodled on paper in quite a while. For reasons I can’t fully explain or understand, I simply put down the pens at some point in my life and didn’t pick them up again. It’s not like I was no longer interested. I still read comics. I still appreciate art, even the doodles. I can’t even put it into words, even now, when that is exactly what this post is about.

But recently I’d been in contact with my cousin-once-removed. She is an artist. She is a very good artist. As I flipped through pictures of her projects, I saw something in her lines and crosshatching that reminded me of my own scratchings. And I began to wonder why I’d put the pens down in the first place.

I tossed the drawing tablet into my cart.

A week or two passed since that momentary lapse of reason. I opened up the tablet and stared at the  blank page. A blank page used to excite me! Oh, the possibilities! What couldn’t I do? I was only ever bound by my imagination and questionable level of talent. But now I simply stared at the blankness and saw… nothing. No cartoon faces popped into my head. No fantastic, otherworldly landscapes popped into my head. I picked up my pen, a very normal Uniball Impact 207 with a nice medium-thick flow of ink. A whole past life of art teachers and lessons and endless hours spent bent over wooden tables flashed through me. I once knew this craft. I was once considered an “artist” of sorts.

I drew a line. That’s a good place to start. I could have started with just a point, but I was living large. One line. It looked… okay. I wasn’t hating it. It wasn’t straight, but my hand apparently remembered enough to start and finish a line. I drew a few more lines and put the pen down. Whoa nelly. Don’t get too crazy. Okay. Try a circle. It wasn’t horrible! It sure wasn’t “art” but then again, it was more than I’d been doing over the last ten years. I tried some crosshatching. Ooo, I could still do that. Trembling, I drew a cartoon face: eyes, nose, a mouth, added some eyebrows. It was crap, but then again, I was used to that. I was in my comfort zone. Back to the crap, I said to myself.

But I grinned when I said it. And drew another line that turned into a swirl and as the pen moved over the face of paper I was creating again and that was a pretty special feeling. This cheap paper and this expressionless pen, this was my gateway back into a world I’d put behind me for too long.

I’m back, ya bastards. Look out.

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All That Mattered

I met a young woman in a dream
Someone I’d known many years ago;
We were in a library,
Walls covered with fantastic books,
Artwork strange yet sublime,
And because this was my dream:
T-shirts with Opus the Penguin.

She had a book in front of her,
A scholarly work she had written.
As we talked I leafed through it:
Ancient cultures, snake gods and jaguars,
Stairs to nowhere
And the people who climb them.
I read a passage aloud:
Dense and scholarly but also
Infused with wit and charm.

I closed the book and looked at her
No different now then she’d ever been.

“What do you want?” she asked
“All I ever wanted was you,” I said
She laughed and shook her head
“You don’t even know me, not really;
You’re in love with the idea of me
And you always have been.”

She wrote a note to me on the flyleaf
In a language I couldn’t read
But it wasn’t important;
I understood the sentiment
And at that moment that was
All that mattered.

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The Necron of Texas

(Authors note: this is a piece of Warhammer 40K fan fiction, and is completely unauthorized. The characters are mine but everything else is from Games Workshop and used without permission. I wrote this because I love their universe and had a story idea that seemed to fit into it.)

“What do you mean, he’s dead?”

Bob Plante squinted at phone. “Not trying to be a smart ass here, Nick, but I’m not sure how you don’t understand what I just said. Oscar is dead. One of my cowpokes was out looking for lost calves and came across his body way out on the backside of my land.”

“That don’t make no sense, Bob. I saw Oscar last week, and there wasn’t nothing wrong with him other than his usual tin-foil hat weirdness.”

“I’m telling you there is something wrong with him: he ain’t breathing, he ain’t moving, and his heart, well, it ain’t pumping blood around in his fat clogged arteries! If that ain’t dead, I’m not sure what is. Now get off your fat ass and come take a look!”

Sherriff Nick Palmer sighed and pushed his chair backward with a grunt. “Alright, Lil’ Britches, no need to toss around insults. Is the body still there?”

“Don’t call me that, you know I hate it when you call me that.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I didn’t move it the body. After the last time, I ain’t hauling no more dead bodies. You comin’ out here or what? And you’d best drive your truck.”

“Yeah, okay, I’ll head out that way. Gimme a minute.” Sheriff Palmer hung up the phone. “Dolores!”

“Yes, Sheriff?”

“I’m taking the four by four out to Bob Plante’s place so he can show me something. Route any business that comes in to Deputy Mason.”

“Is this about Oscar?”

“I’m not even going to ask why you know anything about that.” He grabbed a key ring and hitched up his pants; his wife had been feeding him oatmeal in the morning instead of the usual bacon, eggs, sausage gravy, biscuit and coffee and he was a little less confined around the waist then he had been in years.

Bob Plante was a decent type and not given to hysterics; Nick had known him since they were kids. Bob had inherited his land from his father when Old Man Plante went out drinking one night and wrapped his truck around a telephone pole. It was a good drive out of Pale Oak to get to the Plante place and it was almost lunch time by the time he got there. The house was at the end of a long dirt driveway; Bob was waiting for him when he pulled up. Nick lowered the passenger side window.

“How you doin’, Bob?”

“As good as can be, I guess. How ‘bout you, Nick?”

“Awright I guess. Sorry to hear about Oscar though.”

“Yeah, it don’t make no sense.”

“Well jump in the cab, let’s go see what’s what.”

Bob climbed into the truck and they headed out. After bouncing down a few miles of dirt roads, Bob pointed to the right, where a couple of tire tracks diverged from the road.

“It’s down that aways.”

Nick shifted into four wheel drive and pushed the truck through the underbrush. A cloud of dust sprang up behind them. Bob guided him with a grunt and point in one direction or another for another few miles.

“What the hell was Oscar doing way out here?” Nick asked.

Bob shrugged. “I dunno. Okay, stop the truck, we’re close.”

They got out of the truck and Bob took the lead, pushing through low mesquite trees and scrub brush. Nick saw something up ahead; something white and long on the ground.

“We put a tarp over him just to keep the birds off.”

Nick nodded. “Who all has been here?”

“Just me and my guy. You know Jersey Ted?”

“Naw. Heard of him though.”

“Yeah, he’s the one who found him.”

“Is he really from Jersey?”

“So he claims. Rides like he was born in the saddle though.”

Nick approached the body, taking his time and studying the ground. Hoof prints and boot marks scuffed the dirt around the tarp. He walked around in a circle, trying to pick out what direction Oscar had been headed or where he’d come from, but he found no tracks of the dead man. Nick gazed in every direction and shook his head. There was nothing except the distant Davis Mountains. He knelt down and pulled the tarp back, then pulled on a pair of gloves and rolled him over.

“There ain’t a mark on him,” he said. “Heart attack, maybe? Aneurysm?”

“If you say so, I guess.”

“I’d sure like to know what he was doing out here, though. I can’t tell where he come from or where he was going. It’s like he was dropped here from a helicopter. What’s out that way, beyond your ranch?”

“A whole lot of nothing, as far as I know. Some of it is government land I guess.”

“Uh-huh. Them bastards will claim to own anything. Didn’t they used to do military stuff out this way? Tank maneuvers and such.”

“Not for a while now.”

Nick stood up and blew out his cheeks. “He didn’t have no water on him. You didn’t find anything else around, no backpack or nothing?”

“I’d’ve told you if I did. Jersey Ted said he was just like this when he rode up; all he did was check to see if he was alive then rode right back to the house and told me.”

“I’m gonna have to talk to Jersey Ted, just to keep it all on the up and up. Okay then. Let me take some pictures and such, just on the off chance there’s more to this than it looks like.”

He walked back to the truck to get his camera. He hadn’t known Oscar real well, but he was a nice enough guy, kept to himself and didn’t cause a butt load of trouble. Pale Oak had its fair share of people who could kick up a fuss: roughnecks from the nearby fracking sites, cowboys blowing off steam, even the kids from town could get rowdy given enough hooch. Oscar hadn’t been like that, just a hardworking dude who listened to too much Alex Jones and believed all kinds of wild ass things about lizard men and mind control; not quite a tin-foil hat type, but close to it.

Nick opened the truck door and bent in for the camera but stopped and straightened up. He turned around slowly and scanned all around. There was nothing in his line of sight but what he expected to see but he couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. After a minute he shrugged and gathered up the camera.

Bob squatted on the ground and stood up when Nick came back. “After I get done here, let’s wrap him up in the tarp and put him in the back of the truck,” Nick said. Bob nodded but didn’t look too thrilled. “Don’t worry, it won’t be like last time, if that’s what’s got you squirrely.”

“Naw, it ain’t that, Nick. Just got a weird feeling that someone has got eyeballs on us.”

“Yeah? Me too. But there ain’t nowhere to hide out here.”

“Uh-huh. I know. Still…” Bob turned around in a circle. “Probably nothing.”

“Let’s not make this any worse than it is, how ‘bout that.” Nick documented the scene but there wasn’t much to indicate a crime had been committed, though the location of the body was unusual. They wrapped Oscar’s remains in the tarp and carried it over to the truck.

“What are you going to do with him?”

Nick shrugged. “Procedure in a case like this says I gotta contact the Justice of the Peace, old Art Lindsey, who can declare him dead. I’d like to see an autopsy but it won’t happen unless Lindsey thinks there’s been a crime, and the nearest medical examiner office is over in Odessa. I sure do want to know what killed our man here, though. He didn’t have no relatives that you know of, did he?”

“Not around here, not that I heard him ever talk about.”

“Me neither. Alright, let’s go then.”

A WEEK LATER, Dolores transferred a call back into Nick’s office.

“Sheriff Palmer,” he said.

“Sheriff, this is Dr. Sadler. I’m the medical examiner here in Odessa.”

“How you doin’, doc?”

“Can’t complain. We finished the autopsy on that body you brought by the other day. I’m sending you the report to you and the JP now but I thought a courtesy call was in order given the circumstances.”

“Great. What was the cause of death?” There was a long pause. “Doc? You still there?”

“I’m here, Sheriff. I’m trying to figure out the best way to say this.” Another pause. “I’ve been at this job for long enough to have seen a little bit of everything. But this is a first for me. There were two injuries, both internal. The pulmonary artery, the superior and inferior vena cava, the aorta and the pulmonary veins were all severed. Very neat, very clean. Breastbone, ribs, everything is intact, and no marks on the chest or back.”

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“His heart was cut out of him, only on the inside. That’s not even the strange part.”

Nick sat up in his chair. “Go on.”

“In his brain, there is a hole, wide at the bottom and narrowing to a point, like a spike had been driven right through his head. Only the skull is completely intact, the skin is intact, there is no indication of an entry point for something big enough to cause that kind of damage.”

“That’s… unusual, doc.”

“Unusual… right, okay, we’ll call it that. I read your report. He was alone out in the middle of the desert?”

“From what I could tell, yeah. What could cause that kind of injury?”

“I was hoping you could shed some light on that for me, because I sure as hell don’t know. I’ve called in the M.E. from El Paso, I want her to take a look at this. Can we keep the body here until she comes by?”

“Yeah, I don’t see why not at this point. I found a distant relative but they basically said they didn’t want anything to do with it.”

“That’s a shame. Why do people do that? It’s disrespectful.”

“Sure it is. I guess they don’t wanna pay the expenses.”

“YOU’VE READ THE report from the medical examiner?” Art Lindsey put his boots up on his desk and leaned back.

“Yeah, I read it, all right. I still don’t know what to make of that.”

“Clearly that man didn’t die of natural causes, Sheriff.”

“There ain’t nothing natural about it, no. But there wasn’t anything to indicate it had been anything but natural causes. I was surprised when I heard you were sending the body up to Odessa.”

“You been Sheriff around here what, about ten years now?”

“’Bout that, yeah.”

“So the last time one of these happened was before you were on the force.”

“The last time?”

Art Lindsey took his feet down off the desk. “I’m gonna have to ask that what I say next remains confidential, you understand? I ain’t fucking around here, Nick.”

Nick Palmer nodded.

“You remember a gal named Tracy Hedges? She would have been about your age now.”

“Uh, yeah, I think I went to school with her. She died a while back. Overdose on black tar heroin, wasn’t it?”

“That’s the story we put out, yeah, sure enough. She was more of a pot and booze gal, but it was easy enough to plant the black tar story, folks knew she was a partier and had a wild side. Found her body not far from where you plucked up Oscar. Only she looked like she’s been in a fight for her life; clothing ripped all up, slashed and shredded all to hell. So of course it looked like a crime, and I ordered an autopsy. They said she wouldn’t have bled to death from the wounds on her body but what killed her was a big ‘ol hole in her brain and her heart cut to pieces.”

“Jesus Christ. Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“I can’t tell you so don’t ask.”

“Then why are you telling me now?”

Art shrugged. “I don’t know nothing Nick; but I was told that if this happened again I could tell the current Sheriff. And it appears we’ve had another one.”

“But there was an investigation?”

“Of course there was. It came up with nothing. No weapon, no suspects, and no motive.”

“Any idea why she was out there, at least? That’s what’s been troubling me about Oscar, there was no reason for him to be so far out. He didn’t wander around in the desert; hell he didn’t even like cows. There’s nothing out there but mesquite and tumbleweeds.”

Lindsey leaned forward and put his forearms on the desk. “Yeah, I know. She kept a journal, hand written, not on her computer. We went over everything. She was an insightful and self-perceptive young woman and wrote very well considering her educational status was fluid after high school, but there wasn’t anything too unusual in there until we got to the entries a couple of weeks before she died.” He got up and walked over to the wall safe behind his desk. “I was allowed to make photocopies of some of the pages before it all got taken away.” He opened the safe and pulled out a few sheets of paper. “See what you make of this.”

Nick took the papers and started to read. After a few minutes he looked up and met Lindsey’s eye. “I’m not sure I understand. She said she felt like something called to her? Something out there in the desert?”

“Yes sir, that’s what it says. She was compelled to go out there. Unfortunately she got herself carved up before she could tell anyone what she did or didn’t find. Though I tend to believe she found… well, something.”

Nick handed the papers back. “I don’t know, Art. This don’t seem like much more than some lady smoking a bunch of dope and getting paranoid.”

“You were just out there. Notice anything unusual?”

“Aw what’re you tryin’ to do, spook me? There wasn’t nothing out there for miles and miles. I didn’t see no jackalopes or little green men chopping up cows or lizard people…” he trailed off and rubbed his chin.

Art stared at him. “Except…?”

“Oh, it wasn’t nothing. I just got the feeling someone was watching me. But damn Art, I did three combat tours in Iraq, I always feel like someone is watching me.”

“Uh-huh, yeah,” Lindsey nodded, “I got that feeling too. And I won’t go back out there anymore if I can help it. When you called in the other day about Oscar and said where you found him, I was sure glad to hear you’d brought the body back into town.”

Nick sat back and laughed. “Fuckin’-A, Art! What’re we doing here except scaring ourselves? It ain’t even Halloween yet.”

Lindsey put the sheaf of papers back in the safe and closed it. “Just let me know if you find something.”

SHERIFF PALMER PULLED his truck to a stop in front of his house. He looked at the three black SUV’s parked in his driveway and leaned his forehead against the steering wheel. This kind of thing would only stoke the tin-foil hat brigade. They’d be flooding their Twitter feeds with endlessly spiraling conspiracy theories.

“Honey, I’m home,” he said as he walked through the front door. Donna looked up from where she sat on the couch, sandwiched between two men—in black suits, of course—who were doing fair imitations of granite slabs masquerading as men in black suits.

“We’re in here,” she said. “All of us are in here.”

Nick kept his hand far away from the gun at his hip. “I’m just going to take a stab in the dark here and guess you’re from the government.”

“And we’re here to help,” said the man who stood with his back to him. “You can call me Mr. Lamb.”

“That’s a code name of some kind?”

“No, that’s actually my name. Thomas Lamb, Office of Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

“I’m pretty sure that particular agency doesn’t exist, Mr. Lamb.”

“We like to operate on the down low, so to speak.”

“I’m sure you do. So you mind telling me why you’re in my living room, besides frightening my wife half to death?”

Mr. Lamb waved at the man-mountains. “Boys, go make us some tea.” They stood up and moved with unbelievable grace into the kitchen. Donna jumped up and followed after them. “We need to talk, Sherriff Palmer.”

Nick found that it was hard to focus on Mr. Lamb. Every time he looked at his face, he found he wanted to look somewhere else. His impression was that his visitor was a large man, but beyond that he was sort of a blank space in Nick’s living room. Rather than feeling worried about this odd phenomenon, Nick got what he could only describe as a warm fuzzy from the man.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“It’s about that man you found out in the desert. The one with the unusual cause of death.”

“Well, I guess I didn’t think you’d come all the way out to West Texas to chat about the weather.”

Mr. Lamb nodded. “True, Sheriff. By now you’ve gotten two pieces of information: a report from the medical examiner and a peek into a dead woman’s diary.”

“You’re the person Art was told not to tell me about.”

“Guilty, Sheriff.”

“I’m not putting those two pieces of information together. Why were those two people out there and what happened to them? The diary seemed to suggest she was drawn to the area, but there ain’t nothing out there.”

“There isn’t, not on the surface.”

“What’s below the surface, then?”

“That’s not an easy question to answer. Ah, there’s our tea.” The two man-mountains came out of the kitchen, trailed by a nervous Donna. One of them had a tea tray in his massive hands. “Thank you, boys.” Mr. Lamb poured three cups and passed them around. “Of all the advancements in human society, cultivation of tea leaves has to be one of the best.” He sipped. “Don’t you agree, Donna?”

Donna shrugged and nodded. “If you say so.”

“Sheriff, we’re going to finish our tea, and then we’re going for a little drive.”

IT WAS WELL after dark when the three SUV’s pulled to a stop near where Nick had parked when he retrieved Oscar’s body. Mr. Lamb supervised as his men unloaded their weapons and set up a perimeter around the trucks; then he asked Nick to follow him. The two men walked away from the trucks and into the scrub desert.

“I don’t get it,” Nick said. “If there’s some sort of danger out here, why are we leaving the perimeter?”

Mr. Lamb chuckled. “That’s mainly for show. Those boys wouldn’t stand a chance. But it makes them feel useful.”

“What are we dealing with here, Mr. Lamb? Drug cartels? Human traffic?”

“Not exactly, no. Here, put these on.” He handed Nick a pair of what looked like night vision googles.

Nick adjusted them on his head and powered them up. The barren landscape snapped into focus, but unlike the green filtered light he was used to, it was more much more natural, almost like daylight. “Whoa. Where’d you get these?”

“I made some modifications to the design,” Mr. Lamb said. “In particular, they allow you to see things that are phase shifted. Look around. Tell me if you see anything unusual.”

Nick scanned the area. There was nothing except…

“What the hell is that?”

Out in the desert, something moved. From a distance, it was difficult to say exactly what it was. It floated just over the top of the dirt and brush, moving with precise motions, very smooth and almost graceful. Nick caught a glimpse of green, high up where a head would have been.

“There’s no word for them in English, not really,” Mr. Lamb said. “They are old, old on a scale you couldn’t possibly comprehend.”

“It’s not… from around here,” Nick whispered.

“In a way it is, but in another way, not even close. This—construct—isn’t even one of them. What you see out there is a robot, you could say, primarily used as a repair unit and occasionally a sentry. This one has perhaps gone a bit rogue, some breakdown in programming. Or perhaps not, as they do not operate on any level we can understand. It may be doing exactly what it is programmed to do.”

Nick watched as it flicked around. He could now see what claw-like appendages and a long segmented tail that ended in a wicked barbed spike. “Repair… repair what?”

“A facility: a tomb long since buried by shifting sands and time. They are in what you might call stasis and have been like that for a very, very long time; and will continue to be like that for even longer. The energy that it takes to keep them suspended in time, to mask their presence and shield them from discovery seeps out and has an unintentional effect on certain—sensitive—people. They are drawn to it and if they get too close, they risk running into one of those—you might call it a wraith, for lack of a better term.”

“Why can’t I see it without these?”

“It has the ability to shift out of phase with reality; they can pass through solid matter as if it doesn’t exist; useful when it needs to repair something buried deep within the superstructure. They can stay shifted indefinitely, from what I can tell, like this one is now. But the part that is important for you to understand is that they can also shift parts of them back into reality; like a pincer near the heart or a tail spike in the brain.”

Nick shivered. “Nothing like that can exist. It just can’t.”

“And yet there it is.”

Nick watched as it drifted about, aimless and random. “It killed Oscar and the girl. From inside?”

“Yes. It did so without malice or evil intent. It was merely doing exactly as designed. Which is admirable, in a way, though I doubt that is any comfort to you.”

“No, Mr. Lamb, it sure as hell is not. How long have you known about these things? What are they? Communists? Aliens? Alien communists?”

“They were here long before our bipedal ancestors stumbled out the trees. There’s no name for them that you would recognize, but if I had to call them something, I suppose Necrons would suffice.”

“Necrons… necro? As in, death?”

“Yes, Sheriff Palmer. They are deathless and they are death to any planet they touch.”

“And you’re… you’re protecting them?”

“Not in the least! But I am protecting us from them, to the best of my ability.”

“What the hell, Mr. Lamb? If you know about these things, why ain’t you doing something about it? Why don’t you dig on down in there and root that shit out?”

Mr. Lamb laughed softly. “That would be a mistake, at least at this point in time. We couldn’t hope to match them with any weapons on this planet, though a well-placed thermonuclear warhead could slow them down a bit. Maybe. So we bide our time.”

“Mr. Lamb… who are you?”

“I’m just a concerned citizen of the world, Sheriff.”

“Why do I not believe that?”

“Nick Palmer, there are things on this world and beyond you couldn’t possibly fathom. Much of what is out there,” he gestured up to the sky, “is not friendly or nice and doesn’t want to be our friend. But for now, at this moment of this particular timeline, we are in a place of relative safety. It will not always be so. Threats—such as this one—must be managed as they arise.” He chuckled. “Or in this case, don’t arise, if we’re lucky.”

“You think this is funny?”

“A sense of humor is an admirable human trait, Sheriff. It would serve you well to cultivate one.”

Nick Palmer watched the alien thing roam the desert. Its movements were so strange, so different from anything he’d ever seen, it brought on a paralyzing fear. He removed the headgear and handed it back to Mr. Lamb. “I can’t look at it anymore,” he spit. “Why doesn’t it come toward us? Why isn’t it attacking?”

“I couldn’t begin to tell you. I’ve never come close to understanding them. From what I have learned, the Necrons were once not much different than us. But their gods betrayed them, and that is something that must never happen to us, Nick Palmer.”

“What will happen here, then?”

“I don’t exactly know,” the man said and smiled. “Isn’t that exciting?”

“You’re one strange dude, Mr. Lamb.”

Mr. Lamb nodded. “Yes, well, perhaps I am.” He put a hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder and Nick felt—rather than saw—Mr. Lamb’s eyes upon him. “Your part in this will be small, Nick Palmer, but nonetheless important. You are not going to remember me, or what happened here tonight or what you saw, because no one—no human—should be forced to bear that knowledge before its time. What you will remember is that this section of the desert is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs; you’ll do your best to keep people away from here. And when you pass your shield to the next Sheriff, if they have similar issues, I’ll come back. I’ll come back again and again, for as long as it takes. You have my word on that. If you understand, say yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Very good. Let’s get you home, then.” Mr. Lamb raised his hand and passed it over the back and side of Nick’s head. Nick slumped, first to his knees and then all the way down to the ground. Mr. Lamb bent down and picked up the big man as if he weighed nothing and slung him over his shoulder. With one last glance out into the desert, he turned on his heel and carried Nick back to the black SUV’s.  “We’re done here for now, boys,” Mr. Lamb said and waved them back into the trucks. He took one last look out across the West Texas desert. “I’ll be back for you,” he whispered.  “And when I do, I’ll complete the job I started thousands of years ago.”

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The Ultimate Promotion Telethon

(Quick note: this was part of my master’s thesis several years ago. It never quite lived up to it’s potential but I still find it amusing.)

Outside the studio, protesters were lined up three deep against the barricades, chanting, praying, and waving hand lettered signs. The ruckus could barely be heard through the studio walls. Inside, the television lights made halos burst in Cliff Fontaine’s eyes if he looked into them. Three big cameras were on the floor; there seemed to be black wire snaking everywhere.

“Are we safe in here?” someone asked the floor manager, who’d just walked up, his headset wrapped around his neck. He glanced at the clipboard in his hand and waved in the general direction of the outside.

“Those idiots haven’t gotten past those doors in ten years, kid. You’re safer in here than you would be out there, that’s for sure. Forget about those savages; let’s have some fun tonight. Alright, all you phone monkeys, gather around here!”

Cliff, along with all the other people manning the phone bank, leaned in.

“It’s a long night, and kind of stressful once things get going, so take it easy. We’ve got drinks and snacks available and subs if you need a bathroom break. It’s okay to look at the camera once in a while, just give a nice smile and don’t stop talking. Remember it’s a telethon, it’s all about keeping those donations flowing so look happy, look positive; remember we’re saving someone’s life tonight. Or killing them. So let’s have fun, okay?” He waited for some sort of response. “Hello? Mouth-breathers? We’re having fun tonight, OKAY?”

“OKAY!” the young man seated next to Cliff shouted. His eyes were flashing enough wattage to make Cliff wonder if he’d already dipped into the cosmic cookie jar. “Twenty-four straight hours, dude, I’m so ready for this! You ready for this, huh?”

Cliff didn’t answer. He looked at the black desk phone in front of him and then swung his head around to take in the whole scene. He’d watched the Temple of Harmonious Change Ultimate Promotion Telethon on TV as a kid but now he was behind the scenes. It was exciting and a little bewildering.

Cliff was Green Level 1, having just been hired by the Temple. All GL1 employees were required to work a twenty-four hour shift during the annual fundraising event. That seemed a bit extreme at first until it was explained that they’d be earning standard time and a half after the first eight hours and then double time for the last twelve. That kind of cash shut down any objections; as a twenty-one year old community college dropout, Cliff would do just about anything for a paycheck, even work the phone bank.

Just off the set to Cliff’s right the three employees eligible for the Ultimate Promotion were getting some last minute instructions from the floor manager. Standing near them was a man in a dazzling suit who nodded and smiled at everyone who walked by; he was the CEO of the Temple of Harmonious Change, Charles Stroud. As usual, he’d be the MC during the telethon.

The three lucky employees of the Temple who had been chosen for this honor were dressed according to Temple Dress Code, Casual Friday Style. Stroud turned and motioned towards the three as the floor director finished with them and walked away, muttering into his headset. The three employees huddled with the CEO for possibly the last time; Cliff wondered what he was telling them. Tonight, one of them might be eligible for the Ultimate Promotion and translate to a new and better reality. It was a great honor to be chosen to be one of the three up for the Promotion; Cliff felt a tinge of envy as he watched them prepare.

He knew the process from watching it on TV before; between comedians, live bands, and variety acts Charles Stroud would beg and wheedle and plead for donations to save the lives of his employees.

Not that there was anything wrong with them; they weren’t terminally ill, or in need of an organ transplant. They were, however, willing to kill themselves on live TV by downing a deadly cocktail if the fundraising goals weren’t met.

It was extreme, it was outrageous, it was exactly the kind of thing people couldn’t stop watching, whether they wanted to admit it or not. It raised mad amounts of money for the Temple, despite the highly questionable moral and legal nature of the whole affair. There were numerous court cases pending, accusations of coercion, protracted legal battles with equally determined armies of lawyers on both sides, cease and desist motions approved and denied, and yet every year the show managed to go on.

It was a testament, Charles Stroud would say, to the generous nature of the public that there hadn’t been a single Ultimate Promotion in four years because the financial goals had been met. And when the numbers weren’t met, the consequences were pretty much unforgettable.

Outside, the protesters raised even more racket.

“PLACES, people,” the director screeched as he ran across the set motioning frantically in all directions at once. The candidates moved quickly onto the set and assumed their seats. Charles Stroud stood on his mark beneath the lights, watching the floor manager counting down to zero.

It was time.

“In five… four…”

“This is intense!” whispered the guy with the exploding eyeballs next to Cliff. The house band kicked in, the lights came up on the three Temple employees—looking slightly nervous but smiling gamely—and Charles launched into the first hour of what was known throughout Texas as the Suicide Telethon.

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Reflecting on a Chance Meeting

At the diner this morning
Over coffee and such
I talked with a man filled
With fear of what he didn’t know.

I sensed that in some ways
We were more or less the same
Though our monsters took on
Different forms.

What are these days we spend
Like coins dropped in a fountain
Each one precious and yet forgotten
By the time the ripples reach the edge.

What are we with our scurry here
And there across the face of the clock
Chasing the hands that tell the time
The story finished before it began.

We are the flash in the darkness
Here and gone again
A quiver, a sigh, a blink of an eye
A memory never remembered.

Grandeur is our illusion
Our understanding confusion
Neither here nor there
Creating sense in the void.

What are these days we shuffle
Away and fill with pretense
Fabricated to hold back the dark
Just beyond the edge of the flame.

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