Their Eyes Cannot See

My ancestors weep for me. I feel their disdain traveling down through the years. I have a form perfected for killing, the ideal combination of stealth and power, and I spend my days sunning myself on a soft floor. The humans honor me with food and drink and a warm place to sleep, and in exchange I protect them from the things they do not have eyes to see.

I perch at the top of the stairs, carefully watching the darkness below. My humans are unaware. For a long time I thought them stupid. They lumber about their places of wood and rock with no grace or subtlety, and they do nothing to protect themselves. They have no tall grass and precious few high perches. Everything is either soft or hard with them.

There are the usual sounds: the wind rattles the domicile they have occupied, the wood creaks and moans in the darkness. In the distance, one of their large metal creatures roars as it rumbles past. The tiny human snores above me, wrapped in layers thick as clouds. But that is not what I am listening for tonight. Tonight, I focus on the world below.

The air shifts slightly and a small thrill rushes down my spine. My whiskers twitch. I resist the urge to pounce, to use the stairs to my natural advantage. I am small and old, but still mighty. Still the descendant of kings.

A small tentacle reaches up from the darkness below. It eases its way along the wall, leaving a thick trail behind it. The tentacle is not important. It is a distraction, nothing more. The rest of the thing seeps up through the floor. It thinks to be a sly creature, but I am patient. I have fed and I do not need to sleep tonight.

The smell is foul and angry. For a moment, I wonder how the humans do not notice it, even now as they sleep. It is all that I can do not to hiss and spit as it assaults my nose. The male groans, a deep rumble of sound in the night. I want them to wake up and see the world around them. I know, deep inside, that this will not happen.

They will call me a silly cat. I have wrestled with creatures beyond their understanding mere feet from where they hunched on their soft cushions. They do not see me fighting to defend them, to stop their small one from being carried into the darkness below forever. They smile at me, instead. They make jokes as my fur falls out. They shoo me away when they should be offering me more delicious food.

My anger and frustration builds. I know that I will need all of it to defeat the creature below. I did not choose to live over a cave of monsters, but I will honor those before me and protect the ones that have no way of protecting themselves.

It is forming now. A blob of teeth and fleshy bits oozing up through the cracks in the floor. If it becomes much larger, I will not have a chance. I leap, covering the distance with a hiss. It squishes below my paws and we roll across the hard rock.

The creature roars and slaps at me with its tentacles. But I feel young again, practically a kitten. I pounce and dodge, then pounce again, forcing it back into the shadows. Its blood is bitter on my tongue. It is all mouths and skin, unseeing and unsmelling. A force of anger that fills the air around it with its stink.

It changes tactics now. It cannot retreat into the cracks in the ground or go up the stairs. It tries to fold over on me, smother me inside a deep pink embrace before it sucks the marrow from my bones. Every fold of skin that I tear away is rapidly replaced with another.

I am a fury of claws and teeth. The flesh that surrounds me grows slow. It weakens. The creature collapses to the cold ground with a shudder. I spit the blood on the floor and watch as it melts away. My humans will never know it was there. I urinate to clear the smell and mark my victory in the cave below their house.

It is a long journey back up the stairs. I am tired beyond my years. I still must clean myself before the humans awaken. Even if they cannot see the blood of the creature on me, they will still be unsettled by its presence. The sky lightens in the distance, and I allow myself a brief purr.

Tonight I have honored my ancestors. A small fire still glows in the domicile, and I settle myself in front of it and begin cleaning. Tomorrow I shall sleep and be rewarded with the fuzzy mouse and food from a can. I will fight the next monster that comes, and the one after that, because that is the way of things.

I am Lanicat. This is my domicile and these are my humans. No creature will harm them while I live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our Love Ends Worlds

It was a perfectly average room. The doors and windows were set so that neither dominated the off-white walls. The furniture, all done in tasteful oak, was arranged just so to keep maintain the balance around it.

The alien perched on the edge of the couch cushion, staring at Ezra with a slight air of impatience. Depending on the angle, it sometimes looked like a man, other times looked like a woman. Occasionally, the features would blur in a sort of mosaic before reasserting themselves into a combination of the two.

It wore a three piece suit. No matter how it rearranged itself it was always wearing this suit. Sometimes, the suit blue, sometimes it was grey. Once there was a bowler hat, but a few minutes later, it turned into a trilby.

“You see, Ezra,” they said, “this is the third time we’ve had to do this now, and frankly, we can’t afford to do it a fourth.”

Ezra draped himself across the chair. His clothing stayed consistent, as it had for the last five years. He favored anything in some shade of black. Jeans, shoes, shirt, hair. All black. He nodded, not because he agreed with them, but more because he wanted them to know he was listening. The speech felt vaguely familiar.

“It’s not that we disapprove, it’s just that your relationship with William is…”

“Amazing?” Ezra offered. “Dynamic? Inspirational?”

“We would use the word ‘catastrophic’,” the alien said. They fiddled with their cuff link nervously, and rested a thin hand on the arm of the couch.

“Well, I guess we’ll have to disagree on that,” Ezra said. “Anyway, I have an Algebra test in the morning, so y’know, can I leave?”

He picked some lint off of his pant leg and flicked it on the carpet. The room shimmered for a brief second as the floor heated up. There was a brief puff of smoke when the lint ignited, but then the room returned to normal.

“This is not a mater of disagreement. Every time we reset things, you and William find a way to get together. The first time, your planet was almost consumed in a nuclear conflagration that would have eliminated the species.”

“Guess you’re still working on that one,” Ezra muttered.

“Yes, it’s an ongoing problem,” the alien replied while consulting their notes. “It says here the second time, your planet would have been destroyed by an environmental catastrophe. A chain of volcanoes erupting all at once, apparently.”

Ezra shrugged. “What, were you on vacation that week?”

“The nebulae in the Andromeda Galaxy were especially nice,” they replied.

“So what is it this time,” Ezra asked. He was upside down in the chair now, his legs hanging over the back while his hair hung to the floor. “Did my boyfriend and I make the sun go supernova? Or somehow cause a meteor to crash into the planet?”

“No, nothing like that,” the alien adjusted their posture to sit a little more upright. “On September 17, 2018, assuming circumstances go unchanged, a plague will wipe out all life on the planet.”

“Seems fair,” Ezra said. “So how does this work? You reset things again, and just hope that this time I don’t meet Will and everything stays normal?”

“We’ve run some numbers,” the alien said, handing over a sheet of paper. It was covered with formulas and some scribbled alien letters. Ezra nodded like he understood it. “The odds of planetary demise decrease by 99% if you and William never meet.”

“But I love him,” Ezra replied, crumpling the paper up into a ball and tossing it onto the floor where it began to smolder quietly. “He loves me. Have you run the numbers on that? On actually finding someone who loves you?”

The alien shook their head. “We had not thought to run those numbers, no.”

“The odds are astronomical,” Ezra said. He waved his fingers in the air a little to illustrate the point.

Now the alien smiled. These were terms they were more familiar with. “We have studied your popular culture,” they said. “While it is a unique phenomenon, love does appear to be a relatively common condition of your species. If nothing else, you can always love a fish in one of your many seas. That is a thing that humans do, from my understanding.”

Ezra ran his fingers through his hair and wondered if Will was having any better luck with his alien. He didn’t doubt that they were telling him the truth. This conversation felt vaguely familiar, and given that he and Will had been zapped out of a heavy make-out session onto some kind of spaceship, he wasn’t really in a position to assume they were full of shit.

“Okay, so let’s say we agree to this. You reset the world and Will and I go on to live our lives. What’s to stop us from meeting up without knowing it? We live in the same part of the world, and it sounds like we’ve gotten together every other time you’ve reset things.”

“We have developed a clever plan,” the alien said with a grin that was equal parts smug and deranged. “It required permission and everything.”

“I can’t wait to hear it,” Ezra said, trying not to think of Will’s blue eyes or the wispy facial hair that he kept trying to grow out.

The alien tented their fingers in what was clearly a practiced gesture. “We will allow both you and William to retain your memories, so that you know to stay away from one another. Circumstances will be adjusted to put you in different parts of the world so that you will not be in close proximity. As long as you do not interact with each other, your world will be safe.”

“Or the world ends?” Ezra asked. “Everything gets destroyed?”

The alien nodded eagerly and leaned forward. They looked a little like a praying mantis, Ezra thought, the way their hands were folded together in front of them.

“No,” he said, after a small pause to look like he had given it some thought. “I don’t think so.”

“Mr. Guerra, I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation here. All of human life, including both you and William, would be wiped out.”

Ezra shook his head. He was sitting upright in the chair now, chewing on his thumbnail. “I don’t care about that,” he said.

“Do you know how people die during a plague?” the alien asked. “Slowly and painfully. Do you really want to do that to William? Even if you don’t have each other, you’ll still be alive. And there’s always the fish!”

Ezra sat forward in his chair and wished he had a cigarette. He was a kid from Reseda. He was supposed to be working at McDonald’s and buying shitty weed from Eric Wilson, or getting drunk on his mom’s wine with Will out at the park.

He thought about Will and felt his heart break a little. The way he had to chew each bite of food a even number of times. Or the face he made when he had a headache but refused to take medication for it. How he pronounced the word “hamburger”. All the little things that annoyed the hell out of Ezra, and made him love Will even more than he thought possible. How could he watch him die? Maybe this was the right thing. But if that was the case, why the hell did it feel so wrong?

“I get to keep my memories?” Ezra asked.

The alien leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee. “You’ll remember every last second of it,” they said.

“Do Will and I get to say good-bye?”

“I suppose that can be arranged, but I don’t know how necessary–”

“It’s very necessary,” Ezra interrupted.

The alien got up and led him out the door. Ezra followed them down a hall made of smooth metal. There were no doors or windows, and it appeared to stretch endlessly into the distance. After a few minutes, he saw another alien approaching, with Will behind them.

The aliens nodded at each other and the other one left, wandering back down the hallway. Ezra took one look at Will and knew there was no way he could go through with it. When Will pulled him in for a long kiss, they pressed their foreheads together.

“Hey babe,” Ezra said. “How was your afternoon?”

Will laughed and brushed tears from his cheeks. “I guess we’re supposed to save the world,” he said.

Ezra smiled. They held each other for awhile before the alien cleared their throat. “It’s time,” they said. “Have you made your decision?”

“No deal,” Ezra said. “Send us back.”

The alien nodded with a smile, before the realization of what Ezra said had sunk in. “You can’t be serious.”

“You said it yourself, we keep finding a way to get together. If I can’t be with Will, then I might as well be dead.” Ezra shrugged, and grabbed Will’s hand. “At least we’ll be together when the world ends.”

There was a moment of silence. “This can’t be right,” the alien said. “We’ve put so much work in. Millions of years. You have to take the deal.”

“No,” Will said, squeezing Ezra’s hand tightly. “We don’t.”

“I don’t want to live apart from each other,” Ezra said. “At least we can die together.”

The alien glared at both of them and walked off muttering something about humans and how they didn’t need their permission. Ezra and Will stood in the middle of the hall, holding hands and waiting.

“Now what?” Will asked.

“I guess they send us back, and we wait for the world to end.”

“I don’t want to die,” Will replied in a quiet voice.

The walls began to pulse a little around them, the flash growing stronger every time. Ezra pulled Will in close and kissed him. “I don’t either. But we’ll find each other, wherever we end up. No matter what happens, I’ll always be with you.”

“I love you,” Will whispered. They both closed their eyes, holding each other tighter as the pulses of light grew brighter.

Ezra could feel the light burning his eyes even through the closed lids. “I love you, too,” he said. “And that’s what they don’t understand. They’ve reset time three times to keep us apart, and it still didn’t work. That’s how strong our love is. A little thing like dying isn’t going to make a difference.”

The light was inside Ezra’s head and for a second he felt peaceful. When it faded he opened his eyes, and he was sitting on a beach on Florida, watching the sun set. Some kids were playing in the surf a few feet away. He had a thought bouncing around his head, but couldn’t quite place what it was. Something about making a difference.

The waves rolled up around his feet as the sun sank into the west. He felt sad. The sky was still the color of an old bruise, bits of purple and yellow mixed together. Something was missing, and it pissed him off. Like an itch he couldn’t quite scratch.

Ezra walked back up the beach towards the house. His parents were both working tonight, so he had the place to himself. Maybe there’d be something there that would help him remember what he was missing. Maybe something would explain why he felt a sudden urge to go to California.

I’ll Make You Famous

It wasn’t that hard to get the gun. The plan was simple. Wait outside the hotel at 2 pm. Point the gun. Shoot. Roger might even get away with it. All he’d have to do is walk away. He was good at that.

Wearing a coat on a 90 degree day was a bad idea. His hands were sweating. Carey Winters stood outside the hotel, smoking a cigarette. Roger slid a finger over the trigger. Be casual. That part was important. He wasn’t even sure if he was aiming at the right place.

In his statement to the police, there were only two sentences that officers could make out: “All I wanted was a cup of coffee” and “I’ll make you famous”. The rest was gibberish.

If he hadn’t stopped at the cafe that morning, Roger’s life probably would have been different. When the barista got his order wrong, he sat at a table and sulked rather than complain. While he was composing a Twitter rant about the lack of standards in the service industry, someone sat down at his table.

He had tried to ignore them. It was a small cafe, and sometimes it was hard to find seats. But they wouldn’t go away. Finally he looked up into the face of a middle-aged man with slicked back hair and stubble that was on the lighter side of grey.

“Do you want to be famous?” the man asked, drumming his fingers on the table’s edge.

Roger looked up. “What kind of question is that?”

“A really important one,” the man said. He looked familiar. A little puffy around the edges, maybe, but definitely someone Roger felt he was supposed to know. “So are you in?”

“What do I have to do?” Roger asked. “It’s not weird sex stuff, is it? Because I don’t really go in for that.”

“I need you to kill me,” the man said.

It took a bit of squinting for Roger to realize where he recognized him. This guy was one of those boy band kids back in the day. The “dangerous” one, in that vaguely non-threatening way that they all had. Corey? Justin?

“You’re Carey Winters,” Roger said, the name coming to him all at once. “Yeah! You guys had that song! I remember you!”

“Jesus, man,” Carey said, looking around nervously. “Not so loud.”

They both sat at the table, waiting to see if someone else would recognize Carey. Finally, Roger said, “Nah.Why would I want to spend the rest of my life in jail?”

“What are you stupid? You only go to jail if you get caught,” Carey said. “But even then, think of the interviews and the book rights. You’ll be famous and that counts for a lot.”

“Okay.” Roger wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box, but even he knew that didn’t make a lot of sense. “Why do you want to die so bad? Your life can’t be that terrible.”

Carey laughed a little. “There are two things you’re not allowed to do when you’re a celebrity: get fat or get old. I’m a little too much of both. But if I die, people will remember me the way I was. And they’ll remember you, too. You have a family?”

“Not really, no.”

“That’s good!” he said, a little too enthusiastically. “I mean, there’s nobody that’ll be hurt by this. You don’t have kids to worry about.”

“What about you? You have kids?” Roger didn’t like the way this was headed, but it was the only thing he could think to say.

“Yeah,” Carey sighed. “A teenage son that hates me, and a daughter who doesn’t know who I am. But, see, this will change things. I’ll be a legend. Like Elvis!”

Music echoed in Roger’s ears. Love Me Tender playing on his mother’s stereo, the baritone voice filling the spaces in the living room. Watching his parents slow dance, swaying to the music. He smiled a little. It was a nice thought.

“What do I have to do?” Roger asked.

Carey had laid out the plan for him. Even though it was simple, they went over it until the words lost all meaning to Roger. Get a gun. Be at the hotel at 2pm on the dot. Point and shoot. Of course, the plan didn’t account for his shaking hands, or the taste of vomit in the back of his throat. He watched Carey exhale smoke, and realized that the only way to make sure he didn’t miss was to get close.

It was a bit of a shock when Carey punched him in the jaw. The gun went off, but Roger didn’t really know where he’d aimed it. He caught another punch in the ear while he was trying to figure it out. Now, people were shouting. Flashes of light going off everywhere.

Roger wanted to run, to push his way out of the crowd. He thought about shooting the gun, not at anyone in particular, but just in the air. Just to clear some space.

People piled on top of him, pinning him to the ground. Someone kicked him in the ribs. The gun was gone, lost somewhere in the scuffle. By the time the police arrived, he could barely breathe. Metal cuffs were slapped on his wrist. Carey stood in front of the hotel, staring soulfully into the cameras that surrounded him. He must have called them in advance. Roger felt even dumber.

“I just feel so sorry for that man,” Carey said. “I can’t imagine what he must be going through to want to take another person’s life like that.”

Roger sat in the back of the cop car feeling sorry for himself, watching Carey smile and talk about maybe going on tour again. “I’ll make you famous,” he whispered to himself, as they pulled off into the night.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

In Your Eyes

SPOKANE, WA. – According to the press release, Orbital Optics was founded in 2017 by Douglas Chandler to provide ocular prosthetics for war veterans and the super wealthy. With the advent of nanotechnology, their product became more affordable and more advanced. What started as a niche market soon became a full blown fashion trend, with celebrities and athletes lining up to get their eyes replaced.

As of this writing, over twenty million Americans have some form of ocular enhancement. The potential for military and police applications alone have made the Department of Defense one of the company’s largest clients. Douglas Chandler has since become a billionaire and a recluse, with his only public appearance in the last few years at a charity event where Orbital donated new eyes to thousands of impoverished children.

What many people saw as a worthy philanthropic goal, friendsAlbert Truong, Eddie Wallingford, and Timothy Leighton saw as a fun way to pass a Saturday night. “The first retinal implants went online at midnight on February 23, 2025,” Albert tells me as he lights a cigarette. Shaking his head, he adds, “Eddie had us inside the feed at 12:01.”

Over the next year, they used their access to Orbital’s implants to watch thousands of feeds from unsuspecting customers. At the time, the primary customers were elderly men and women whose doctors had managed to convince them that this new technology was safe and effective. There was even a night vision mode to help with driving after dark. Nobody would have guessed that three kids from Topeka were watching everything.

“Most of it was pretty boring,” Albert says with a shrug. “Especially the early feeds which didn’t have the best quality. It was a lot of people watching TV or reading books.”

They developed a sizeable audience shortly after they started broadcasting the feeds on private channels. An audience that was willing to pay for a look into other people’s lives. The first week alone, their feed had over 100,000 unique views from around the globe.

Recent upgrades to the Orbital implants have included the ability to customize eye color, and for the more affluent clients, night vision and telescopic add-ons. There are rumors of audio recording capabilities as well. Twenty million cameras around the country, all constantly recording their environment.

A spokesperson for Orbital insists that the expensive upgrades are only in the test phase, and that the night vision and telescopic features are to help older clients who may struggle with driving at night or who need glasses.

“It wasn’t even the stuff that you’d think would sell. There were a lot of things, like weddings or kids’ soccer games that brought in a ton of money. Half the time, when there was sex or fighting, you couldn’t really see what was happening anyway.”

For several months, Orbital denied the hacking, assuring customers that their security was unbreachable. It wasn’t until footage was released from the implants of an Orbital board member that things changed.

Now they’re promising to prosecute anyone involved to the fullest extent of the law. Truong doesn’t seem worried about seeing the inside of a jail cell. He has far larger concerns. Eddie Wallingford died in a car accident two years ago. Timothy Leighton committed suicide six months later.

According to Truong, none of this is a coincidence. “If Orbital wanted us in jail, we’d be there already. It’s not like any of us were in hiding. But they’re afraid of what might come out.”

Orbital’s system was always intended to exploited. Records obtained by Truong show plans to sell the biometric and unique ID data to a subsidiary, allowing them to advertise directly to users. Some implant recipients have already confirmed that this is occurring.

Internal emails taken directly from Orbital’s servers suggest that several government agencies have also demonstrated interest in access to the feeds. A quick search into Orbital’s past confirms that they were kept afloat in the early years by government contracts. The company got its start by providing micro security cameras for the military and many intelligence agencies.

“How does a company that size, that handles sensitive materials have unsecure networks? No way should a bunch of kids have been able to get in those feeds,” Truong said.

He doesn’t believe that Orbital’s plans will stop with surveillance. “They’re only a few updates away from controlling what you see. What if they decide the camera doesn’t need to see a particular individual? Someone could shoot a person in cold blood in the street and nobody would be able to see it.”

While his concerns may sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, the leaked information has raised serious questions among US Senators. California Senator Rufus Wynne has already begun work on a bill to limit what can be recorded, and what penalties Orbital executives may face for the invasion of privacy.

In a press release, Orbital CEO Shannon Carson stated that “Orbital has not committed any crime. The use of ocular implants to record the actions of our customers is solely due to malware implanted by the individuals who distributed those recordings in the first place.”

Truong insists the Senate bill won’t actually do anything to fix the problem that already exists in the hardware of the devices. “Rufus Wynne accepted campaign donations from six Orbital board members,” he said. “At this point, public outrage is the only thing that will get this changed.”

He remains pessimistic about his chances of seeing change in Orbital’s policies. Currently living in a non-extradition country, he’s seen the company roll its implants out on an international scale. Implant trials have already begun in Great Britain, France and Germany, with Japan and Australia waiting.

“Pretty soon,” he said, “everyone will have a camera in them whether they want one or not. Privacy is going to be a thing of the past.”

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Soft Spot

The first thing Susan noticed when she woke up was the piercing wail of her alarm.

“It’s not fair,” she mumbled, clutching her aching skull. Bethany had been up half the night moaning about her own headache, the last thing Susan needed was a matching migraine of her own. She slapped at the alarm and sat up on the edge of the bed. The floor wobbled and the bathroom suddenly seemed miles away.

Bethany was still curled up on her side of the bed. Her thick red curls stood out against the white sheets, even in the darkness. Susan gave her wife a hard poke in the shoulder. Bethany would sleep all morning if you let her, and then bitch about running late.

“Get up,” she said. “If I have to suffer through this, so do you.”

Once she made it to the shower, Susan slowly turned up the heat while she cleaned herself. Only a small turn of the knob each time until she adjusted to the heat. Then she’d turn it up a little more. Once it was just shy of scalding, she held her head under the hot water, and gritted her teeth. Quickly turning the dial back the other way, she gasped as freezing water ran down her face.

“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck! God fucking dammit!” she sputtered when she could finally breathe again. Her dad had taught her that technique years ago for migraines. It was supposed to be better than any medication. Faster, too. When she stepped out of the shower on shaky legs she felt a little bit better.

The bedroom was still dark when she walked back in. There was a faint musty smell to the air, and Bethany still lay on her side facing the wall. When Susan pulled up the blinds the bright light made her wince. Squinting out at a slate gray sky, her headache came rushing back.

She sat down on the bed and grabbed Bethany’s shoulder. “Hey, I’m gonna call in today. I think I caught your migraine.”

Bethany didn’t make a sound.

Susan gave a gentle tug on her hair. “Baby, you awake?”

Thick red curls came loose in her fingers. Susan jerked her hand back, pulling a large chunk of hair with her. The back of Bethany’s head was bald and smooth. The smell in the air grew stronger, sickly and sweet. Unable to stop herself, Susan reached out and poked the back of Bethany’s head with her finger.

It squished inwards, leaving a dent a few centimeters deep. Susan tried to scream. It caught somewhere in her chest and only came out as a thin squeak. She shook Bethany’s arm harder, trying to get her to wake up.

The dent grew deeper. The back of Bethany’s head began to collapse like an old pumpkin. As more hair fell out, the skull disintegrated a little faster. Susan clutched at the hair, trying to push it back onto the large divot that formed where her finger had been.

She froze in place, watching helplessly as Bethany’s head fell in on itself with a sigh. Strands of red hair covered the bed. There was nothing left of the face, except a few teeth poking out of a ruined jawline. Even that was falling apart quickly.

Crawling backwards, Susan tumbled off the side of the bed and kicked at it with her feet. She brushed mindlessly at the red hairs on her sleeves and pants, as though that might stop the same thing from happening to her. All she could do is whimper in the corner of her room.

With tentative fingers she reached up and pressed the back of her skull. She tugged gently at the roots of her hair, probing for any weak points. The pain in her head came roaring back. Black spots flashed in front of her eyes. For a second, she felt the skin on the back of her head give a little bit.

“It’s just in your mind,” she whispered to herself. “It’s all a bad dream. You’re going to wake up and everything will be fine.”

A few small strands of her own hair floated down around her shoulders. She reached back up with a sob, trying to press them back into her head, where the soft spot was already growing. The pain grew worse, pulsing through her head.

“I want to wake up. Please, let me wake up.”

The hair was falling faster, coming out in clumps. For a brief moment, Susan felt a searing pain shoot through her head. Then everything went dark. The last thing she saw was her own dark black hair entwined with one of Bethany’s red ones. A smile that nobody would ever see crossed her lips.

 

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Side Effects

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

Her heartbeat is ringing out as clear as a bell. I leap through the air, traveling a hundred feet with every jump. My back and knees are never going to forgive me for this, but there’s no way she’d survive if I tried to run her in at this speed. She’d be killed by the wind shear before we made it two blocks, and suffocate well before we reached the hospital.

I’m on the rooftops now. It only took a few minutes to get here from outside the city, but it might as well have been forever. My hands are slick with her blood. She clutches at me with surprisingly strong fingers. Normally, her nails would be digging into my skin. But for the next five minutes it’s hard as a rock.

I pray that’s enough time.

The trouble with a city like this is that all the damn buildings and traffic get in the way. If I didn’t care about collateral damage, I could bounce straight to the hospital, flattening cars and knocking down walls on the way. But there are people in those cars, and people on the sidewalks under those buildings. It doesn’t make sense to save one life if I’m killing a few dozen others, no matter what my intentions are.

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

It’s like a metronome, ticking her life away. I try keeping a mental count in my head while also dodging and weaving my way around innocent people. A few quick bursts of speed as I run get me through the worst of the downtown traffic.

She’s stopped scratching at my face now. Instead, her hands are wrapped around my neck. Her fingers are freezing. I try to tell myself that it’s the cold air rushing past. Or maybe the rain. The last thing I want to think about is the truth: that this woman is going to die in my arms if I don’t go faster.

I’m starting to feel her weight more. She wasn’t terribly heavy when I grabbed her from the car accident out in the suburbs. I know you’re not supposed to move someone. I know that. But she was going to die if I didn’t. I took a calculated risk.

It’s not like I’m new at this. As near as I can tell, my record is around two hundred lives saved in one night. Each pill only gives me twelve hours. Then I’m normal again. No super speed or super strength. No more enhanced hearing or vision. Just me, with my shitty retail job and tiny little apartment.

Lubdublubdublubdublubdublubdub

Her heart’s beating faster. I’m losing her. Moving faster now, running up walls and zipping around people. Moving so fast the rest of the world stands still. I try to keep her tucked in against my body, telling myself that a missing finger or toe is better than her dying.

My mind runs back over that first night. When I spent my first few hours dicking around in a junkyard. Picking up cars and tossing them like they weighed nothing. Trying to run up walls. It was supposed to be a clinical study. Try out a new drug, earn a couple hundred bucks. Easy money.

Instead I got powers. The first thing I did, once Dr. Porter explained what had happened to me, was steal three bottles. Then I got the hell out of there. Sitting around while a bunch of guys in lab coats poked and prodded me suddenly didn’t sound all that appealing.

“One pill, twelve hours,” Dr Porter said. It’s the only thing I really remember before I raced out the door. They weren’t pissed enough to come looking for me, so I’m hoping that somewhere he’s approving. Hopefully he didn’t get fired.

LubdublubdblbdbLubdubLub–

The woman in my arms is shaking. I can see the hospital just up the street from us. We’re going to make it. Her eyes flutter and for a second she smiles. She knows I’m going to save her. We can make it. I duck my head down and run faster. There are a lot of cameras outside hospitals, and I don’t wear a mask or a gaudy costume. The plan is to jump and then land near the entrance. Set her down and take off again fast enough that they can’t identify me.

The shaking is getting worse. I try to write it off as cold, or maybe a reaction to the run. That’s happened before. This is different. It’s hard to hold on to her. My legs tense, and I jump, watching the ground push away from us. There’s maybe thirty seconds left before the pill wears off. I shouldn’t need more than five.

It isn’t until I hit the ground that I realize I can’t hear her heart beat. For a moment, I almost stop moving. I lay her down outside the hospital and close her eyes before taking off again. Behind me, I hear the shout as someone finds her laying there.

Maybe they can still save her life. I won’t have any way to know, really. It’s not like I can stroll up to the hospital and ask about her.

My legs are giving out now. I can’t hear the chatter of pilots flying planes above me. Or see the radio signals flashing through the sky. My own heart begins to beat faster, almost in mockery of the woman I left at the hospital.

I slow to a jog and then a walk. Everything hurts. The seconds tick by on my watch, the last bits of power fading away. I took three bottles from the lab. That’s ninety pills. It comes out to almost 1000 hours. You can save a lot of lives in that span of time.

Ducking into a park, I practically fall onto a bench. I sit there for a while blinking back tears. For a few months, I got to be special. I saw amazing things. Bullets frozen in mid-air. I once hit a guy so hard that the dude’s tooth wound up embedded in a wall. I’ve pulled kids from burning buildings and took the keys away from drunk drivers before the ignition in the car could turn over.

I don’t know if I’m crying for the woman or myself. Or maybe it’s just the realization that no matter how many people I save, there’s always one more that needs it. And I won’t be able to do that anymore.

Sometimes I think about returning to the lab. Maybe finding Dr. Porter again and seeing what options they have for me. But they’d probably just keep trying to find a way to recreate the effects. If I wasn’t a supervillain before, being treated as a lab rat would make me one pretty damn quick.

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

My heart’s beating steadily in my chest. I drag myself off the bench and start walking towards home. There’s a little bit of blood on my shirt, but not so much that you’d notice. If anyone asks, I’ll say I had a nosebleed. People shove past me on the sidewalk, stepping off curbs in front of drivers who slam on their brakes and lay on their horns. I keep my head down and keep walking. I’ve got work in the morning, and they don’t give you time off for superheroics.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Pariah

Fabian rapped delicately on the door. The wood was warped and rotted in places. Anything more than a gentle knock would probably take it off the hinges entirely. After waiting the requisite five minutes, he nudged it open with his foot and stepped into the dark room.

The air was thick and musty. It had the stink of many lives worn into a tiny space, the odor of secret meetings and unwashed passion. Most of all, it smelled of loneliness.

He’d learned a long time ago not to open the blinds. It wasn’t that the man he came to see hated the light or anything, Fabian just didn’t want to be seen in his company. So he kept his visits to the hour just after the sun came up, when most of the village still slept below, except for the poor kids out tilling fields.

In one hand he carried a basket of food. Mostly stale bread and some rotten vegetables from the hog pile. Sometimes, he would sneak meat from the kitchen, even though he knew he’d catch a beating for it if his mother ever noticed.

There was a loud grunt from one corner of the room as the man rose from the pile of rags that he slept in. Some were fashioned into a sort of robe that trailed behind him. He scratched himself and shuffled over to the table where Fabian was failing to hide his disgust.

“You look like your father,” the man muttered, brushing dishwater grey hair out of his face and settling onto the chair. Fabian pushed the basket across the table, not wanting to lean in and risk smelling any more of the man than he had to.

“You always say that,” Fabian said.

“It never gets any less true.” The man grinned around a mouthful of bread. He brushed crumbs and dust from the table with a wrinkled hand, then nodded to the basket. “What, you couldn’t pack in some pig shit along with the rest of the slop?”

“If you don’t want it–”

The man swept the basket into his arms before Fabian could finish his sentence. His chest heaved with the exertion and for a moment Fabian wondered if a hard shove wouldn’t put him out of everyone’s misery.

“We had an arrangement,” Fabian said. “I bring you food, you tell me about him. It’s been months and you haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know.”

“Why should I tell?” the man asked. He squinted at Fabian and pointed a bent finger in his direction. “Could be you get what you want, and then you forget about me. Leave me here to starve.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Fabian said after a long pause. “You’re the only one left who knew him.”

“You could ask your mother,” the man said, leaning back in his chair and setting the basket aside. “I’m sure the hogswife would tell you all you wanted to know about him.”

“She’d only tell me the good things.” Fabian stared down at his hands. He felt the man’s eyes traveling over him and tried not to cry.

“You don’t want the good things?”

Fabian shook his head. Swallowing back tears he said, “I just want the truth.”

The man had been shoveling a handful of moldy strawberries into his mouth, and began to choke on them. Juice dribbled down his chin onto the table. In the dim light, it almost looked like blood.

“What’s that then?” he asked with a wheeze. “The truth? Just words. Words that only mean something if you believe them. Why shouldn’t your mother say nice things about your father? He was nice to her. Treated her like a fuckin’ princess.”

This was the most that the man had ever spoken of Fabian’s father beyond little hints. Fabian’s mouth went dry and he tried to swallow back his anticipation. Maybe this was the moment he’d been waiting for. The reason he risked bringing all of this food every morning.

“You want the truth? Out there, it’s the truth that I’m a coward. I left my best friend to die on a hill of mud and shit and bodies to save my own skin. Made a widow of his wife and left his son without a father because I was scared. Of course I was scared. I was twenty years old. Doesn’t make the rest of it true.”

“So you didn’t leave him to die?” Fabian asked. His voice was raw and excited. Each word caught in his throat on its way out. Maybe his father hadn’t been killed defending the gate after all. Maybe he was out in the wilderness somewhere, unable to get back.

There was a long pause. The man pushed the basket to the edge of the table, leaving it to teeter on the edge for a second before he pulled it in enough to save it.

“The last thing I saw, as they closed the gate, was your father’s face,” he finally said. “He was more alive than I’d ever seen him. Hair streaming in the wind, laughing like a mad thing out of the stories. ‘Come and fight,’ he’d yelled. ‘There’s plenty for everyone!’”

Fabian’s hands shook as he gripped the table. He hadn’t even realized he’d grabbed on to it. Struggling to keep his voice steady, he managed to say the words he’d been afraid to speak for months. “He’s still alive, then. I always knew somehow he would have made it.”

“No,” the man said with a bitter laugh. “Gods no, son. When they found your father’s body it was days later. He’d been trampled by a horde of stinking Frontiersmen, pinned up against the wall. The only way they were even able to identify him was the birthmark on his neck.”

“My father was a great warrior,” Fabian sputtered. “I don’t care how many Frontiersmen there were.”

“Spoken like an ignorant boy,” the man said. He leaned in closer. “You ever seen one of them up close? They’re all tangled beards and crooked teeth. Red hair, like yours, but knotted and matted from living out in the woods. Blades almost as dull as their brains.”

He went back to eating the strawberries, smacking his lips while Fabian tried not to vomit. “They’re not civilized like you and me,” he added around a mouthful of food.

“I don’t understand,” Fabian said, staring at the man across the table. “If he was alive when you saw him, why do they call you a coward?”

“Your father led the charge against two thousand angry Frontiersmen,” the man said. “Fifty men against two thousand. He was my best friend. Hell, he was the best man I ever knew. And when I told them to close the gates behind him it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

Fabian started to speak, but couldn’t find the words. He wanted to make the man stop talking. Shut him up. But it flowed out of him now, the words coming in a thick and steady stream.

“There’s your truth. I saved this worthless fucking town from being wiped out. But the truth says I deserved to lose my name. To be exiled from my family on the edge of the wilderness and forced to eat rotten food brought to me by a kid who looks so much like my friend that it hurts. To be reminded every week about the choice that I made.”

Before he even knew what he was doing, Fabian had thrown the table aside and slammed the man up against the wall. The room shook. For a second, he wondered if it would come down on top of them. The man stared down at him with that same smile on his face.

“That was the same look he gave me when the gates swung shut,” he said through croaking laughter.

It took all of Fabian’s strength to release him. Tears ran down his cheeks as he walked to the door, although he couldn’t say when he’d started crying. He was standing on the porch when the man called out to him.

“Will you be here next week?”

Biting back fear and revulsion, Fabian looked at the small shack. The wind was already blowing through the crack they’d made in the wall. The man was eating the food off of the dirt floor now, scrabbling through rotten vegetables and old meat. He imagined his father’s body, crushed and trampled and bit back a scream.

“Do you have other stories to tell?” he asked the man, not sure if he actually wanted an answer.

“I do.” the man said. “True stories, if you want them.”

“Then I’ll see you next week,” Fabian said, his voice breaking on the last word. He walked out into the morning light towards home, where his father’s sword hung on the mantle. He had pigs to feed, and his mother would be waking soon.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.