Ep 01: Green Fire and Cold Skin

As I ran for the fire, I shook my wrist to feel the familiar weight of the watch my big brother had given me for my eighteenth birthday.          

We’d been getting ready to go out. Dad was downstairs yelling that he had the car running and we were wasting gas, Mom was in the kitchen, messing with … something. I can’t remember what. Dan was leaning in my doorway, watching me struggle with my tie. He was already living in Nova City by this time, a long way from the Indiana cornfield where we’d both grown up.  But that was only the smallest part of how drastically his life had recently changed, not that I knew about any of that yet.         

 He finally got tired of watching me struggle and intervened, taking my tie away, slipping it around his own neck to form a perfect Windsor, and then putting it around mine again to pull knot it – really tightly – around my neck.  He took a step back from me to get a good look, and gave a quick nod of approval.  “Before we leave, I wanted to give you something,” he said.         

“What?”         

“Here.” He pulled a box from the inner pocket of his blazer and held it out to me. 

“But .. This is so sudden.”         

“Just open it, asswipe.”         

I did. It was a watch with a silver-white face, numbers etched into the surface, not stamped or painted on. The band was gold, inlaid with an intricate working of some other, finer metal that also ringed the face. “Wow.” Was all I could say. And I meant it. I’d never had anything this nice in my life.         

“This is going to sound weird,” Dan stammered, looking almost embarrassed for some reason I could not fathom.  But he was forceful as well, as if there was much more he wanted to tell me. “I had this specially made. And when I leave tomorrow, well … if you’re ever in really big trouble, if you ever need help, and I’m talking ‘oh, shit! I’m going to die!’ kind of help, you can push down on that ring around the edge, and I will be there.”         

“What are you talking about? Is this like a walkie-talkie or something? I already have your cel phone number.” I made a move to press the ring to see what would happen, but he stopped me.

“Not now, you idiot! Tell you what: tomorrow night at midnight, go out to the edge of the woods and press it. You’ll see what happens.”         

“Whatever,” I said. “But thanks, man. This is … this is really nice.”         

“Only the best for my little bro,” he said, and then he did the most alarming thing he’d done yet; he hugged me. And I actually hugged him back. We made sure to do that manly back-clap thing when we broke apart at another holler from dad coming from the bottom of the stairs.         

I would find out the next day exactly what he’d been talking about. But I was remembering this as I felt the heat from the hospital blaze, wondering if this could qualify as “oh, shit! I am going to die!” kind of trouble. I could handle it for now; I’d grown up just a little since then.         

Of course, once we’d watched Dan streak away from the museum, Laura had wanted me to take Chloe so she could get down to the scene and do her job. I reminded her that I also had a job to do, but we were rescued by Claire, who, of course, wanted her two best people on the story, and so volunteered her husband, Ben, to watch Chloe in their apartment. Reluctantly—because she was Laura and not anything to do with Ben—Laura agreed. Claire and Laura went to put Sadie and Chloe in the car, which was how I was able to hop on my scooter (what?) and head downtown.         

 I got some incredible shots of the fire. I know that’s really not the most important thing, but it was important to me. I stood just behind the safety line, far enough away to be out of the way of the emergency response vehicles, but not so far away that I couldn’t feel the heat singeing my eyebrows and blistering the skin between them. There was a crowd of robed and wheel-chaired patients being cared for in the parking lot across the street, waiting for evacuation vehicles to pick them up. I was really glad to see that whatever this blast was, it had not taken out the side of the hospital that faced Regent Street, which was where pediatrics and maternity were housed. Of course, that didn’t help the people on this side, which faced Conway.         

Laura arrived not long after I did. She ignored me, and stomped off to find the fire chief on scene. The flames reflected on her red dress and sleak black hair must have made her seem some kind of interrogation demon, some Kali of the information age. The chief got no relief until Ray Blanchard, Nova City’s chief of emergency services, showed up. He was fresh from the gala, so Laura’s first question was, of course, “Why did it take you so long to get here?”         

It was about that time I noticed a gap in the line; I knew that, as a responsible photojournalist – newspaper policy and all rules of common-sense and self-preservation be damned – could not help but slip my way through. I didn’t need the deposit back on this tux, anyway.          

With an explosion like this, most people expect the building to look blasted out, with chunks of steel and plaster and other types of debris knocked away from the building, scattered and cast out. I’d taken enough pictures in disaster zones to know that it usually wasn’t like that. Oh sure, there were some flaming bits thrust away from the main body of the hospital, but for the most part, it just looked like one whole side of it had just caved in upon itself, a black and red hole inside a white-washed clamshell.          

My dark jacket helped me blend into bthe shadows on the other side of the blast and I was able to get a couple of really good shots.         

<yellow-lime jacked rescue worker laying a small body on top of a stretcher>         

 <now-dim hospital sign, reading, EMERG, rest of it nothing but jagged, shattered plastic>         

<upper half of an older man’s body sticking out from underneath a pile of melted plastic and twisted steel, what could be a melted i.d. tag lying on the ground close to his ear>   

<bearded face of a burly fireman screaming at me to get my fucking ass back behind the fucking line with the rest of the fucking press>         

 I decided not to argue with the man, and not just because he probably could have bench-pressed me and was angry enough to do much worse. But I only went far enough away that he couldn’t see where I was going, so I wasn’t quite behind the line when he returned his attention to the actual, you know, saving of the people.  For a second I actually felt a little bad that I wasn’t there for the same reason he was. I tell myself that I do this for my art, or for the public good, but deep down I know it’s just because I want the front page shot. Yes, my parents raised me better than that, but I try to only feel bad about it for a couple of seconds at a time.          

 A flash streaked by overhead, and I looked up, expecting it to be Dan up there, carrying someone away from the blast (probably a nun. Holding newborn triplets.) But it was just a helicopter shining a light down on the scene.          

 But where was Dan, anyway? Not to mention Lady Peace, or Bellerophon. They were kind of hard to miss, usually. This was the kind of thing The Light Brigade dropped everything to show up to, so why didn’t I see them here?         

I should have realized then exactly what that meant, but I didn’t. I figured there was just more going on that I understood, and that Dan would tell me all about it later.         

Half of that statement was certainly true.         

“Oh, God! Oh, God! Help me!” I heard the cry coming from a slid-down stack of rubble nearby. I sounded like a woman’s voice, and since I am not a complete vulture, I let my camera dangle around my neck and leaned down to search for its source.         

Broken stacks of concrete and plaster came away easily in my hands, revealing a vaguely human form beneath them. An arm reached through a twisted nest of rebar mesh and grabbed at my scrambling hand. It was cold, and surprisingly strong, and it pulled me down against the jagged pieces.         

Metal poked into my cheek – was the skin tearing? – and I yanked myself away to shift the mess, pulling debris off of I could so that I could see. It was a middle-aged woman, dressed in a ripped-up pantsuit and a white coat. The stethoscope around her neck was twisted and hooked on one of the pieces I’d shifted away from her.         

“Help me … help!” she gurgled and writhed beneath by kneeling form.          

 “Hey! Over here!” I jumped to my feet and hopped up and down with my arms in the air to get the attention of the actual rescue workers, but since I’d done such a good job of getting away from the authorities, no one saw me. So I bent down again and asked, in as loud a voice as I could muster without shouting in her face, “Are you all right?”         

Yes, it was a stupid question. She’d just had half of a hospital fall on her, of course she wasn’t all right. But the strength with which she’d pulled on me…Christ! Maybe it was an adrenaline thing. Still, there was a strange ashen pallor to her face, one I could see in the intermittent light that hit us both, and deep purple-black rings around her eyes, which were closed as she thrashed about. If she had the strength for this, why didn’t she just get up? Was it shock? It’s probably a good thing rescuing people isn’t part of my regular job.    

“Ma’am—just lie back down, ok?” I said. “I’ll get you some help.”         

 “No help, no help,” she cried out, and then she opened her eyes. They were bloody and crusted with a  milky film, but from within them burned a green fire that had consumed both pupil and iris.         

Oh shit. I’d seen this before. This woman was as dead as dead got; she just didn’t know it yet.         

Actually, that wasn’t true. Whatever this woman was, whoever she had been, was gone now. Spectros had her. He’d killed her and made her his thrall.         

Spectros had, at one point, been just an ordinary Russian mobster until he’d made a deal with the devil (or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The details were sketchy) and been given the power to kill people and bring them back as his zombie-slave things. It was a decidedly unpretty process. He’d tried this once before. That time he poisoned his rival’s entire organization at the godfather’s granddaughter’s wedding, and put them in the front line on a war against this city. The Light Brigade had stopped it. Well, mostly Dan and Mysteria, really. I, of course, had taken pictures.         

Had Spectros bombed the hospital so he could make thralls out of everyone there? That made no sense.         

But here this woman was. Dr. Tanya Dillard, so it said on her name-tage. A Spectros thrall.         

A Spectros thrall rising to her feet and throwing herself at me. I fell back, narrowly missing the grip of her preternaturally strong fingers. And I’ll even admit to giving a little girly scream as I felt hands coming from behind, gripping my shoulders to hold me in place.         

 I twisted, but couldn’t get a look at my new attacker.         I decided that this was definitely an “oh-shit-I’m-gonna-die” Emergency.

Somehow in my twisting, I was able to bring my hand up in front of my face. This accomplished two things. First, it kept my eyes from being scratched out by the good doctor Dillard. Second, I was able to bring my watch up against my face. Since I douldn’t get my other hand free, I pressed the watch’s face, and, more importantly, its slightly raised silver ring, against my forehead.         

The first time I had done this, I waited, like Dan said. He left the morning after he gave me the watch, making sure that I remembered his instructions. Nova city was a day’s worth of plane rides from Tranerville, Indiana, so I had no idea what Dan was going to do when I pushed on that watch.          

But that night, at midnight, I made sure mom and dad were truly asleep, and the  I went outside and hiked out to the back 40, where the woods crept into our property. With only Dan’s old hound, Rascal, for company, I stood on a little knoll, looked up at the white moon in the clear dark sky, and pushed down on the watch.         

It lit up with a silver-gold light, the face awash in color, the numbers burning. The metal warmed on my skin, but did not burn me. Rascal barked at the sudden light, and I looked around quickly, making sure I was completely alone.          

 Of course, that meant that I wasn’t really within reach of an ambulance if this thing blew my arm off, either, so I wasn’t sure how much a comfort my solitude was.         

Just over my head, a thin sliver of light appear, lengthening and then splitting as a hole ripped in the sky, and a man-shaped streak of light burst through. It hovered in front of me and took just a few seconds to dim to a level of luminosity that I could actually see its form.         

 “Hey there, little bro,” It said. Rascal barked again, his hind legs throwing him off of the ground in what was almost a reverse-kangaroo position.          

“Ok, so here’s the thing,” Dan said as his face appeared from the middle of the glow. He was wearing his  worked-metal armor that seems so familiar now, but then looked like something in one of my old fantasy comics. As reimagined by Stanley Kubrick. This first time I saw him he wasn’t wearing the helm that normally hides his face.  “You’ve heard the stories coming out of Nova City, about the Sun Knight. The golden warrior?”         

 “The ones you told me were just stupid urban legends?”         

“Yeah. Those.”         

“That’s you?”         

He shrugged again. And then he told me the story of how he was trying to break his first big story (competing with Laura, of course) about a strange object that had fallen from the sky to crash into Nova City’s port district. He’d found someone to sneak him in to a top-secret holding facility where government researchers were soon to arrive and take the thing to area 51. And he’d seen the artifact. He’d touched it, and as he’d touched it, centuries of memories had downloaded themselves into his mind, and he knew the history of a legion of deep-space knights who protected worlds using focused energy shields, such as were generated by this glowing, golden artifact. The artifact had chosen him to wield it, and bonded with him right there.         

And now he could fly, absorb and expel energy, and rip holes in space-time he could use to teleport. Yes, really.         

And I was the first person to know that secret.  “You’re about to go into the big, bad world, little brother. And I just wanted you to  know that I was there for you.”         

“This from the guy who used to hold me down so he could fart in my face?”         

“Hey, you never know what might happen.”         

And every time since that first time, every time I’ve pushed that button, Dan has always been there. He’s the one who came and got me out of the slave pens in hell. He practically ripped me out of a T-Rex’s teeth during the timequake. He rescued me when the Crimnorians took me up beyond the atmosphere and spaced me.  He’d always lived up to his promise.         

 I felt the familiar click of the watch and pulled it away so I could see it light up, see realized that bright promise of rescue.          

And for a second, I did.         

But then the light was gone, cut off in mid-flash. Not fading, but going to black all the same.  Not even the second hand moved.         

“Dan?” I couldn’t help but cry out, as I felt my legs kicked out from under me. Some cold, dead weight wrapped itself around my neck, and yanked me down as the fire-eyed zombie doctor leapt onto my chest, her neatly manicured nails tearing into my eyes.

Advertisements

Ep 0 : The Last Time I Saw Sunshine

The hand reached up from the top of its pedestal, grasping at something no one could see in the space above it. I couldn’t remember what it was that it had been reaching for, probably some alien control device or maybe it was just doing that whole reaching and shouting thing hat some of the more hysterical of the bad guys did when all their plans came to an end. I raised my camera to my eyes and snapped a picture. I think this was the second picture I’d taken of this particular stone hand.

The first time it had still been attached to the time-traveling warlord who’d unleashed the timequake on Nova City before Bellerophon got a past version of Medusa to actually help us out and turn Baron Tesseract to stone.         

Fortunately, Sir Solstice and Lady Peace had been able to get the Engine Chronotica to set everything back to the way it was supposed to be, otherwise, well, we’d still be tramping to work every day with the gladiators and the Neanderthals, and the suffragettes. Which would have done nothing to lower Nova City’s already sky-high insurance premiums.           Still, the sight of this hand here, on display, made me wonder what had happened to the rest of Tesseract’s body. He’d been intact the last time I’d seen him. Some numbnuts on the clean-up crew must have dropped him. The hand was probably all that was left.          

As I snapped a second pic, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see my big brother, Dan. He wasn’t grinning at me, exactly, but he was definitely amused at something.         

“So, what happened here?” I asked him, and I told him my own theory.         

 He was here, as was I, to cover the sneak preview of the opening of Nova City Museum’s newest exhibition, New Worlds, New Disasters, which featured artifacts and photographs of several of the weird catastrophes the city had endured over the past decade or so. There was the timequake, Dr. Nu-quarkian’s shrinking ray which had created different sized zones in the city, the Crimnorian invasion, and my personal favorite, the time the city had been taken by Abaddon, the demon king, and sent to hell – yes, the actual Hell – for a week’s vacation.          

I still had the chattel-brand on my ass. Don’t ask. 

“I think they’re selling pieces of Tesseract on ebay,” Dan said.

I stepped to the side and got a picture of one of the city councilwomen in front of the huge photo of one of the dinosaurs that had marched through downtown. It wasn’t life-size, but it was pretty damn close. Was this the same T-Rex that had eaten the police commissioner? To be honest, I was just a little upset that they hadn’t used one of my photographs for the exhibit. Mine were much better. They’d won awards, after all. Also, mine were much gorier, which might have explained it.         

“Where’s Laura?” I asked. Usually, she would have been here hours before either of us and exposed three or four underhanded deals and named the mayor as a secret zombie-slave of Spectros. Before appetizers were served. Ok, that was an exaggeration, but she really is that good.         

“She must still be waiting for the sitter,” Dan said. “She was supposed to meet me here half an hour ago. She was looking forward to her first night back in real society.”         

“Like she didn’t nearly deliver Chloe on the steps of the courthouse.”         

“Then she took six months off. She’s going stir-crazy.”         

“Yeah, well. I’m sure that’s true.”         

Dan cast one nervous look around and, seeing Claire, our editor at the Globe Daily, patted my shoulder one more time and strode off in her direction. Knowing Claire was here, I made a show of getting good shots of the Crimnorian lander that was hanging in the gallery space above our heads.         

I heard Laura before I saw her. “Oh, Wes, thank God!” She was in front of me when I lowered the camera. And so was Chloe, reaching out to me, looking not just a little bit alarmed, in her mother’s outstretched hands.         

“I thought you—“ I protested, but she cut me off.         

“Hold Chloe for a while, there’s someone I need to find,” she said, and shoved the baby once more at my face. I dropped my camera and let it dangle on the strap around my neck, and took my little niece—and goddaughter—in my arms. “I know, I know,” Laura continued without prompting. “But the sitter showed up and seemed a little … a little off, I guess and I thought ‘what better way to get at us than through Chloe, and what if this woman was replaced with some evil robot-clone thing’ and I just couldn’t leave her and I couldn’t stay away either, so I brought her with me.”         

“Um…” was all I could say to that.         

“Five minutes. That’s all. I promise.” She spun away from me in her slinky red dress and vanished into the crowd that had gathered around the little bar area. Not coincidentally, the mayor was there, his arm around his fourth wife (third while in office). I couldn’t remember her name, but around the newsroom we just referred to her as “boob job.”         

Chloe gurgled and reached up to touch my face, and for a minute the thought flashed across my mind: how can Laura be sure I haven’t been replaced by some evil robot clone-thing?  It was just the kind of city we lived in.         

I watched as Dan intercepted her on her path and gently pulled her away from the crowd. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and then pointed toward me—well, she probably actually pointed toward Chloe—and bounced off him in the direction of her prey.         

“And that’s why she wins the awards,” Dan said. He was holding a drink in each hand. He handed one to me and he took his daughter from my arms.         

“Thanks,” I said, lifting the drink to my lips. “I bet this was for Laura, though?”          “Something like that.”         

Chloe reached up at the ship hanging overhead. “Oh, no, Chlo. Not a toy. Definitely not a toy.”         

“You know,” I said. “This whole thing is just a little creepy. I mean, these things that happened…people actually died. All this stuff here, it’s like we’re at disaster Disneyland.”         

“People deal with things in different ways,” Dan replied. “It feels very strange now to look at some of this stuff. Stuff we—“ Looking around, he realized that there were a lot of people standing around within earshot, so he ended with “well, you know. But I guess … this stuff here? It’s powerless now. It can’t hurt us. We made sure of it. So, really, this exhibit can be here to remind people that they’re safe from all of it now.”         

“Until the next thing, I guess.” Chloe had grabbed hold of Dan’s black tie and she unraveled it with one great yank, giggling at it as it came free in her hand. “Stay away from mine, kid.” I told her. “I had a hard enough time getting it tied as it is.”         

“Here, take her back,” Dan said. “I’m going to need a minute if I’m going to re-tie this stupid thing.”         

“Oh, here,” cut in Laura’s voice. “The mayor ran away, the big baby.” While I held Chloe, Laura grabbed Dan by the shoulders and centered him in front of her. She tied his bowtie for him, and then tiptoed-up to plant a kiss on his cheek. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close for a real one.         

Chloe and I stepped back. “Guys? Small child and little brother present. And we’d like to register and official ‘eww’.”         

“Shut up,” Dan said, releasing his wife. “I’ve got my lady at my side for the first time in a long time, not to mention my best girl.” He took Chloe from me again, and she looked back at me with a weary expression, tired of being tossed back and forth, I was sure.  “Seriously, though … honey? You know I had the sitter checked out, right? She was someone Claire recommended, and I even had Derek Trent run her file with the NCIB.”         

“I know, I know,” Laura sighed, blushing, and ruffled Chloe’s thatch of dark hair. “I just couldn’t, ok?”         

“That’s ok,” he said, and planted a kiss on both their heads.         

I decided that they didn’t need me hanging around anymore, and stepped off to get pictures of the rest of the exhibition.  I wandered through the gathered Nova City nobility (sprinkled with a few working chumps like me) who’d been invited to this “Exclusive V.I.P. event. There were a lot of the paper’s staff here, including the two other staff photographers. There were only three of us now since Claire had issued a digital camera to every one of the reporters. I wondered what shots the others were getting and whose would end up on the front page.         

And then I saw it. Someone on the museum staff had actually managed to get the Crimnorian image projector—the one that had made it seem as if the moon itself was crashing into the city so they could take advantage of the mass panic—to work for them. Standing in the middle of the gallery was a projection, three times larger than life, of the one other unifying theme the exhibition had besides calamity, salvation.         

It was The Light Brigade. Sir Solstice in his golden, glowing armor standing shoulder-to—shoulder (sort of. It had to be said, he was just a little shorter) with Lady Peace, in her white suit and flaming red cape. Her red hair hair blending into her cape as they both flapped in an absent wind. ON the other side of, and slightly behind, Lady Peace was Bellerophon in his hammered leather armor which left his legs and arms mostly bare. One hand reached up to stroke the mane of Pegasus, whose pristine, winged form provided the backdrop for the scene. Mirroring Bellerophon on the other side of Sir Solstice was Mysteria in her purple robes, her hood pulled up to shadow the dark skin of her face. Crouched in front of them all was Scorpyon in his dark red and black insectoid form, ready to spring forward and sting. Of all of them, only Mysteria had been looking at the camera.         

Yes, the museum could be forgiven for ignoring my extensive portfolio of dinosaur photography, since they had used my photo to make this.         

That moment of contact I’d had with Mysteria through the lens as I’d taken the picture almost scared me because I’d realized that of all of them, she was probably the most powerful. She’d just brought an antire city single-handedly back from hell, after all. But her eyes, they may have been fierce, but they had also been kind.          

I put my camera down and just looked at the piece for a few long moments, the fingers of my right hand absently moving to feel my left wrist, and the gold watch that was around it, the gold watch that when I twisted the face a certain way, would come alive with liquid light, and summon the help of my big brother, whose effigy stood in the middle of this projection.         

As I was standing there, probably with my fool mouth hanging open, my attention was diverted by a slight commotion just behind me. A little girl –couldn’t have much older than four or five, was running toward the statue, ignoring the fact that she was wearing a dress to dart past the mostly black-clad knees of the people between her and the holo-statue. She stopped when she reached its base, jumped a couple of times, then hopped up on her tippie-toes to allow the hem of Lady Peace’s cape to flap around her fingers.          

I knelt and took a series of pictures at different light settings just so I could be as sure as possible to get a shot that included both the girl and the hologram.          

I looked up at the arrival of the father, who’d chased after his daughter while also trying not to knock down any of the V.I.P.’s. The little girl definitely had the advantage in this race.  It was Ben, Claire’s husband, which meant this little girl had to be Sadie.         

“She’s really gotten big,” I said, pretending to have recognized her all along.         

“Yep.” Ben snatched her back. “Careful honey, I don’t think you’re meant to touch that.”         

“I don’t think she’ll hurt it,” I said. Ben just gave me a wry grin as I silently congratulated myself for having the foresight to take this picture of the boss’s daughter.         

Space had started to clear out around us, and as I looked around, I saw that everyone was pressing to the windows on the other side of the hall, and the great windows that looked down upon the city.         

Ben’s popped eyebrow asked me what was going on, but I could only shake my head. How would I have known? I followed the crowd, and in another few seconds Laura was at my side. Chloe whined at the commotion.         

I’m not a very tall guy, so it was hard to see over the heads of some of the tuxedoed linebackers that were in front of me. What I could see was an orange glow lighting a plume of black smoke that vanished against the dark sky as it rose high enough to leave the city lights.         

“That’s … where is that coming from?” Came the shouts around me.         

“That’s the hospital!” someone called out. “Oh my God!”         

I looked at Laura and then around the gallery.         

“Already gone,” Laura said, her sudden grip tight on my arm.         

I looked back at the sky. Suddenly there was a streak of sunlight against the black and the smoke. It hovered for just a second, during which I could see just the barest outline of an armored human figure, and then it streaked away, toward this new crisis. My big brother, Sir Solstice, the Sun Knight.         

How was I to know that was the last time I would see him?

Launch date!

Episode one of Mere MOrtals will be debuting April 1st!.

Episode 0 will be up by March 10th.

After Ep 01, there will be a new Ep up every 2 weeks.