This is raw first draft. Some chapters may not be safe to read at work. See chapter one for other disclaimers.
Clean water is hard to find here. The loose stuff just drifts around in little spheres, most no bigger than ball bearings. I found an orb the size of a baseball last week and felt like I’d found gold. Except, gold’s easy to find here. Bars, coins, rings, chains and sometimes just little nuggets.
If I could melt it all down I’d have enough to build a throne. I’d be Midas, king of this world. Dying of thirst.
Why didn’t I drink more water?
Homes of the Heroes
Ap wanted to be discrete. He couldn’t just ask Simpson to cut and paste him into Detroit. Ap had no ties at all to the city, no reason to go there. If it was true that Servant had once been the meta-human drug lord known as ogre, how high did this secret go? Did Simpson know? Did Katrina Knowbokov, who bankrolled the whole operation? Whose toes was he stepping on in pursuing the truth?
The irony was, he had a damn teleportation belt, and the one thing the geniuses here hadn’t figured out how to do was to make it teleport him anywhere. Not that he was ungrateful. The restore application had worked beautifully, resetting his body to the exact condition it had been a week ago, when he’d done his last back up scan. From now on he was doing those scans daily.
In the end he’d had Simpson send him to Chicago. He’d mentioned a few touristy things he planned to do with his time off. Simpson seemed to buy the cover story. Unlike comic book heroes who always seemed to work pro bono, members of the covenant were paid a healthy salary, so he’d made reservations at the Peninsula Chicago, the fanciest hotel he’d ever stayed at, not that he intended to actually stay there. Instead, he checked in, removed the space machine transponder unit from his belt, and plugged it into the bathroom outlet to charge. He put his cell phone into the same outlet. Without these, he was no longer transmitting real time data revealing his location. He now had his privacy, but he was also now working without a safety net. He didn’t even have an internet connection. He was so used to the streams of data in his retinal display that he felt off balance, half blind and stupid, as he went down to the lobby to meet the courier bringing him his rental car.
Once he got behind the wheel of the car, the sensation was even worse. He’d never driven before he got dematerialized. He’d gotten his drivers license only a month ago, and this had been with his retinal display providing every answer on the written test. His actual hours logged behind a wheel were less than twenty, and this mostly around Katrina Knowbokov’s private island, where there were fewer than twenty cars, total.
So, to pull out into Chicago traffic and drive seven hours down congested interstate to reach Detroit was a bit of a challenge, to say the least. By the time he reached his destination, he felt as burned out and rattled as he had after his confrontation with Pit Geek.
The Detroit Cube was in the middle of a nice part, surrounded by older homes that had been gentrified. Just a decade ago, this had been the worst part of town, a little feudal kingdom where Ogre’s gang had been the only law. But, after Rail Blade had trapped and presumably killed Ogre by sealing him in the cube in a battle that flattened seven blocks of rat-infested hovels, the Knowbokov foundation had given the city grants to build a park around the thirty foot steel cube. There were uglier works of municipal art than this.
The park was nearly empty by the time Ap arrived. It was windy and cold and right on the edge of sunset. Except for bundled up man walking his dog, no one else was anywhere near the cube.
Since he had no internet, Ap had already downloaded the three programs he wanted to try into his belt.
“Magnavision mode,” he said. Then, he stuck a two pound molybdenum magnet on the south face of the cube and walked around to the north. The rust brown cube now glowed green. In theory, the earth’s own magnetic field flowing through the cube would interfere with the magnet on the far side and his retinas would be able to spot anomalies. And, he could see, very, very faintly, a blob near the center of the cube. But what did that mean? Was he looking at a man sealed in the cube? Or was he looking at a hollow space?
“Well, that didn’t work,” he said, walking back to the magnet. He tried to pull it off. It may have well been welded on.
“Double density mode,” he said. His arms and chest burned as the muscle fibers packed within them suddenly doubled number. Even with the added strength, he had to put his shoulder against the cube for leverage as he pried the magnet free.
Ap looked around, making certain no one had watched his struggles. Satisfied that he was alone, he whispered, “Ultrasound mode.”
Suddenly, he heard the babble of every conversation taking place in the houses surrounding the park. He heard the chuff chuff chuff of the dogwalker’s pants legs rubbing together from a hundred yards away. From every direction came the rumble of traffic.
He was grateful there was no one near enough to see him since he now had four ears. The two he’d been born with were now long, stretched out, and forward facing. Two smaller ones in a similar bat shape thrust up from his temples like horns. He pressed his face to the cube and rapped it with his knuckles.
It wasn’t quite right to say that he could see the middle of the cube. His mind was no flooded with sensory data that he didn’t possess the vocabulary to describe. It was nothing like hospital ultrasounds, where a computer converted sound into light. But, he was confident in what he was hearing. If he understood the vibration patterns, the middle of the cube was hollow. What’s more, there was a shaft extending down to the ground.
“End ultrasound mode,” he said.
He shoved his hands into his jacket pocket and pulled up his hood. The sun had gone down, and the wind was knifing right through him. He wandered around the park until he found a manhole cover. If he’d been online, he could have walked into the cube in his ghost mode. But, he couldn’t do it without GPS. The second he stepped into the cube he’d be completely blind. Hell, even if he had been online, his signal would almost certainly be cut off the second he stepped inside. So, he’d have to do this the hard way.
In Double Density mode, he shoved his fingers into the manhole cover and pulled it aside. A dank smell of rot wafted up from the hole. Ap paused. What was he really expecting to learn by going down there?
But, he hadn’t come all this way to turn back now. Activating the LED flashlight on his belt buckle, he climbed down the ladder, into a concrete tunnel about six feet high and eight feet across. To his relief, the drain was practically dry save for a foot long trickle of moist sludge at the very center.
The shaft seemed to run on a course that led it under the cube. So, he followed it, and right where he judged the center of the cube to be, he found that the roof was a different color than the rest of the tunnel. It wasn’t exactly new, but it was definitely newer than the rest of the tunnel.
He switched to camcorder mode and began to record the areas of the tunnel where new concrete met old. It wasn’t he most exciting evidence he could have collected, but he felt like he should leave with at least something.
Satisfied he’d done all he could, Ap turned back toward the entrance.
The tunnel suddenly turned bright as his belt light reflected against something pure white.
Ap started to speak, but a beefy hand clamped over his mouth and picked him up, slamming him back into the concrete wall. Servant stood before him, his eyes narrowed into little slits.
“So now you know the truth,” said Servant. “Happy?”
Ap couldn’t answer.
“Ogre was a killer,” said Servant. “Worse than a killer. He would have made a skinny thing like you into his bitch. You’d have begged for death when he was done with you.”
Ap reached for his belt. Apparently, Servant was under the impression that he could only activate his powers with voice commands. While that was convenient in the heat of battle, he also had a keypad on his belt, and his best modes saved as hotkeys.
Servant suddenly fell forward, his hand hitting concrete, as Ap entered ghost mode.
“I’ve read about you,” Ap said. “You’re as bad as the people we’re hunting. Worse!”
“Pit Geek and Sundancer are terrorists,” said Servant. “I hardly think running a gang makes me worse.”
“Your gang wars killed hundreds. Most of them kids! And who knows how many thousands of people died from the poison you were peddling.”
“The only reason we were selling drugs is that weak little punks like you were willing to get on your knees in front of a stranger in order to get the money to pay us for another hit. You can’t condemn the supply when you were part of the demand.”
“I never killed anyone,” said Ap.
“Everyone kills somebody,” said Servant. “You think your parents weren’t dying knowing what you were doing out there on the streets?”
“This isn’t about me,” said Ap. “My record’s clean. As far as the state is concerned, the crimes I committed as a kid are paid for.”
“And you think I haven’t paid for my crimes?” asked Servant. “Rail Blade locked me in a metal cube for three damn months! There’s no prison in the world where a man is locked up so he can’t move, can’t see, can’t breathe or shit or piss. I thought I was dead. I thought I was in hell! Trapped with nothing but my memories. I thought I’d been in hell for centuries when Rail Blade yanked me out so that her dad could autopsy me. They were both surprised as hell when I woke up.” He shook his head, like he was shaking away bad memories. “I was too.”
“Fine,” said Ap. “You had three bad months. In a court of law, you’d be executed. Three months a joke.”
“I didn’t find it funny,” said Servant. He looked up at the ceiling, a haunted look in his eyes as he gazed at his former tomb. “I meant what I said about thinking I was in hell. My momma… she was a good woman. Used to take me to church. I can’t blame her for not making sure I understood the consequences of my action. I’d been warned about hell, told to repent and give my life to Jesus.”
He looked Ap squarely in the face and said, “I know you don’t believe me, but Ogre really did die in that cube up there. The person that woke up under Dr. Know’s scalpel was a new man. Rail Blade wasn’t happy, but Dr. Know said he believed in second chances. I was just a kid, then, only thirteen.”
“You were only thirteen when you ran the meanest gang in Detroit?”
Servant shrugged. “I was big for my age. Big and stupid. Dr. Know arranged for me to get back in school. It wasn’t easy catching up, but I made it through high school. I was in my second year of college before Katrina Knowbokov approached me about joining the Covenant. This is my chance to make up for the bad things I did in my old life.”
Ap sighed. “Fine. I guess… I understand second chances.”
“Then we’re cool?” asked Servant.
“For now,” said Ap. “I probably would have taken this better if you’d just trusted me from the start and not turn this into some kind of mystery.”
“Do you really think the world would accept me if they knew my past?”
“Well,” said Ap.
“What if they knew yours?”
Ap crossed his arms. “If stuff comes out, I’ll deal with it.”
“You’re on a good team for keeping secrets,” said Servant. “Mrs. Knowbokov is pretty good at stopping reporters who snoop around into our real identities.”
“How does she stop it?”
“I kill most of them,” said Servant.
“That’s a joke,” said the big man. “The boss lady is richer than Oprah. She buys people’s silence.”
“Right,” said Ap.
“So, you drove here?” said Servant.
“Yeah,” said Ap. “It was kind of a nightmare.”
“I love driving,” said Servant. “You want a partner for a road trip back to Chicago?”
“Why not?” said Ap. He began walking back up the tunnel toward the manhole cover. His thoughts were churning. Servant seemed sincere. And Ap was committed to the belief that people could turn their lives around. The one thing that Ap still worried about was that Servant seemed to crediting God for his conversion. Ap didn’t believe in God. He’d changed because he’d found the strength inside himself to change. Servant had changed to try to get into the good graces of a mythical being. Would his conversion hold if something shook his faith?
They’d come to L.A. since the Pangeans had an embassy here, but Pit had another agenda. They were a day early for their meeting. They’d made good time across the desert in their stolen Sebring. They’d put the top down and Sunday had spent most of the trip stretched out with her seat back, her eyes shielded by a comically large pair of dark sunglasses, lightly snoring. They’d stolen new clothes from a Goodwill in Kentucky and Sunday had picked up the garish pink sunglasses and asked, “Who’d wear something like this?” She’d popped them on her face. “They look like something a female fugitive in a bad movie would wear to hide her identity.” And then she’d worn them pretty much non-stop since they’d been on the road.
It wasn’t just the glasses that made her look like a different woman. Despite her brief fling as a biker in a leather halter top, for most of the years Pit had known Sunday, she’d dressed rather conservatively. She didn’t show a lot of skin, and usually wore muted colors. But, she was now dressed in a short pink sundress with spaghetti strap shoulders. Her legs were mostly bare.
“I really need to even up the color with a tan,” she’d explained.
Pit wondered if she was trying to dress like the kind of woman that Pit used to associate with. He wanted to tell her it wasn’t necessary, but, on the other hand, he was the last person on earth to tell anyone anything about clothes.
He was a little worried about how much she was sleeping. Admittedly, he was keeping her up half the night. She had good reason to be worn out. But, ever since he’d brought her back to life, she’d been sleeping at least twelve hours a day. She seemed okay when she was awake, and she said she’d never felt better in her life, but he wondered if she was keeping something from him.
Right now, however, she was awake. They were driving around Hollywood with a black and white Xeroxed map with fancy letters at the top that read, “Homes of the Heroes of the Old West.” Luckily, it wasn’t just heroes on the list of about a hundred names on the back. Frank Macey, the Stick-Em-Up Kid was on the list at number 48.
The pulled up in front of a squat beige bungalow in a run down neighborhood.
“914” said Sunday, squinting at the numbers on the door. “This is it.”
Pit stared at the small house. There was a wooden fence hiding the back yard. A few sunflowers peeked over the top.
“Look familiar?” she asked.
It did look familiar. But it looked familiar because they’d stopped at a Kinko’s in Lexington and read everything they could find on the internet about Frank Macey. He’d was pretty sure there had been a black and white photo of Macey standing in front of this house.
He knew, without knowing why he knew, that the house had once been painted the same yellow as the sunflowers. There hadn’t been a fence. The living room had wooden floors and there had been a big black and white rug.
Had he lived here?
Was he Frank Macey? The kid in the red tights had been right. With his new face, he was a dead ringer for the actor. Macey had been a recurring bad guy in the Dallas Smith, Texas Ranger franchise. He’d appeared in over thirty films. But, the series ended in 1942, when the actor who played Dallas Smith had joined the army and died handling a live hand-grenade before he ever got out of boot camp. Macey had appeared in a handful of films after this, never again in a western, but always playing a gangster or some other kind of thug. He’d also gained a reputation for showing up to work drunk.
He’d wound up working for the L.A. sanitation department, driving a garbage truck.
And in 1954, both he and the truck had simply vanished.
Pit’s earliest memories bubbled up at the tail end of the 1950s.
“I said, look familiar?” Sunday asked after he’d stared in silence at the house for two minutes.
“Naw,” he whispered. “I mean, yeah, a little. But not what I was wantin’. No flood of memories. I thought I’d feel like I was waking up.”
Sunday leaned back in her seat. “I haven’t felt wide awake in three days,” she said.
“You’ve been sleeping a lot.”
“It’s your fault,” she said. “You keep me up half the night, and when you finally do settle down, you steal the covers.”
“We’re lucky I ain’t eaten one yet.”
“You’ve eaten blankets?”
“Used to eat all kinds of stuff when I was sleeping. Ain’t done it in years, though. Once I dreamed I was eating a big marshmallow. When I woke up my pillow was gone.”
Sunday groaned. “That joke stopped being funny in kindergarten.”
Pit scratched his head. “What joke?”
Welcome to my worlds!
I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!