On lateness, and the end of the year

Okay, okay, settle down.  Let’s have a nice, easy press conference, okay?  God, my head is still killing me.  That’s off the record.  Don’t write that down.

Okay, you.  Go.

“Sir, where was the post scheduled for Monday?”

Right.  I’ll be honest with you, here.  I’m on vacation for the end of the year, so I left it off until Sunday or so.  I was going to write a post on Sunday evening – even had the idea all planned out – and then I felt a queasiness starting in my gut.

Long story short, let’s just say that I should probably lay off the homemade Hollandaise sauce for a while.  You get me?

Salmonella.  Nausea, vomiting, spewing liquid out of both ends at once.  Really not a pleasant time.  Nothing like sitting on the john, pants around your ankles, clutching a garbage can to your chest as you try and catch all of the-

-well, it was pretty bad.  I’ll leave it at that.  Next question.

“If this is Wednesday’s post, isn’t this a bit of a cop-out?”

Yeah, I suppose so, but hey, I just had food poisoning.  Suck it.

Besides, there will probably be one up for Friday.  Maybe.  Aren’t you lot supposed to be off visiting friends and family, enjoying yourselves, instead of harping on a blog?

“What’s in store for next year, sir?  And I love your work, by the way!”

Thank you!  Those are some kind words, imaginary reporter I’m voicing.

This next year will hold a few changes for Missing Brains!  I’m looking to do the following:

1. Complete the 52 book challenge – that is, read 52 books a year!  That comes down to one a week.  And to keep myself motivated on that, Monday’s post will often be a short review of one of the recently completed books.

2. Not only do I want to write more Angels posts, but I’m going to be shaping them together into a collection!  Expect to see more stories, including some with a unifying arc that connects the different stories together.  Coming soon to Amazon!

3. Plenty of posts about science fiction!

So stay tuned, as this blog enters its SECOND FULL YEAR of existence, providing mostly regular updates, assuming I don’t get poisoned again!

Advertisements

A Superhero’s Betrayal, Part III

This story begins here.

The explosion erupted out of the compound like a gout of flame, a huge, rising, massive pillar of fire bursting up from Hell itself.  The heat and energy signature of the explosion registered even on the satellites orbiting the compound, far above.

Military troops had been positioned outside the compound, waiting for the signal from Captain Electric to move in.  Unfortunately, they were far too close to the explosion’s epicenter to escape.

Most of the troops, heavy armor units, were vaporized where they stood, the metal chassis of the hulking machines melting into slagged piles of annihilated metal.  At least the troops inside the machines died instantly, their bodies flash-fried into little more than ash…

Out further, several other units had been en route to the site when the explosion went off.  They were far enough away to escape certain death, although the shock wave swept across them, forcing vehicles to swerve off the road or be sent tumbling by the raw power pouring out.

The world, understandably, went into shock.

It took quite a while before the details of what had happened at the center of that explosion were made clear, at least to the few individuals with high enough security clearance to access the restricted files.

The signature of the power release was mapped to the central core unit of PowerPlug, the sidekick to Captain Electric.  The man carried around a nuclear fusion battery on his back; it was understandable that the thing would experience a catastrophic meltdown at some point.

Unfortunately, Captain Electric, one of the world’s foremost superheroes, was also believed to have perished in the explosion.  He and his sidekick were fighting against Dr. Hazard, a brilliant but disturbed individual who put his created robots to many malicious uses.

Both the hero and his sidekick were given full military funerals with all honors bestowed upon them – even though there were no bodies to bury.

But just after the explosion went off, the site was abandoned – there were no vehicles close enough to reach the epicenter that had survived the blast.  Choppers were immediately scrambled, but it took them nearly an hour to reach ground zero.

And thus, no one  saw as, about five minutes after the initial blast turned the compound into rubble, the rocks shifted slightly, moving aside.

Slowly, a gloved arm pulled itself up out of the rubble, clearing a path up to the sunlight as the dust settled back down.

The arm hauled itself up, clearing the way for the rest of the body to appear.  A man, bruised and battered but very much alive, crawled out, blinking in the cloudy sunlight.

It was hard for the man to rise to his feet; he suspected that he’d broken several ribs, and possibly one of his arms as well, from how his left arm dangled down uselessly at his side.

But he managed to climb to his feet, and limped slowly away from the center of the explosion.

There were still patches of the man’s costume sticking to his figure.  The outfit had been all but destroyed by the fury of the eruption, but it held together and did its job long enough to protect the figure within.

On the back of the torn, tattered suit, the shape of a lightning bolt was still faintly visible.

Silently, filled with raging determination, the man staggered away.

Any observer, looking into the man’s eyes, would have turned away and shuddered.  Those eyes burned with an unhinged, deranged fire.

The man was filled with a red-hot determination.

He was not done with this world yet.

A Superhero’s Betrayal, Part II

Continued from Part I, here.

“Captain…” I felt paralyzed, unable to move, unable to think.  This couldn’t happen.  My own mentor, my oldest and strongest friend, the pillar of my entire life – he had just turned against everything we’d believed in, everything we had fought for over the last two decades.

The Cap didn’t even glance at me.  Instead, he turned around to look at the screens behind Dr. Hazard.  “We need to minimize human loss.”  His voice was distant, cold…

“I’m doing my best to avoid any unnecessary loss,” the supervillain responded.  “We’re mainly targeting the structural components, setting off alarms whenever possible.  Most people should have time to escape.  And the backup systems will kick in as soon as my bots have constructed them.”

“Good, good,” the Cap nodded.  “And the armed forces outside this compound-“

“Not a problem.  I’ve already dispatched legions out to stop them from storming the building before I’ve sent out the signal.”

I shook my head, abandoned and left alone as the two men discussed their new plan.  Tears weren’t just welling up in my eyes, now – they were tracing their way down my face, over the fabric hood I wore to conceal my identity, dripping down onto my armor panels and then tracing paths down to the floor.

My oldest friend, the one man I relied on as a pillar of morality.  He couldn’t think this way, couldn’t give up.

But he had.

And now, there was no one left.  No one to turn to, no one to save the world.

No.

The only one left… was me.

I couldn’t be the sidekick any more.

For once in my life, for the first – and last – time, I had to be the hero.

Slowly, I started forward, walking across the chamber.  I could hear the Kill-Bots drawing very close, now, and knew that they’d be in the chamber in moments.  And without the Cap’s help, I couldn’t fight them off.  I tried to be surreptitious as i punched the one code I’d hoped to never use into my wrist-mounted control panel on my armor suit.

As I drew in close to the two men, Cap glanced up at me.  “Harry,” he said, his voice filled with all that old emotion, the love I knew he felt for me.  “Come, my friend.  This is the right thing to do.”

“No, Cap.”  My voice was choked with emotion, with tears.  “It’s wrong.  Please, we can’t do this.  It’s not our place.”

“It can be our place.”  Hazard stepped up alongside Cap, reaching out and putting one gloved hand on the superhero’s shoulder.  “Don’t you see, PowerPlug?  We have the chance to help humanity, to do more for our race than we’ve accomplished in the last hundred years!  To save ourselves!”

I shook my head, looking down so they wouldn’t see my eyes.  “No.  I can’t.”

“Then I’m sorry, my old friend.”  The Cap’s voice sounded wistful, but he still held that ring of conviction.  I’d heard that ringing in his voice when he spoke about saving every life, when he spoke about defending the world against villains like Hazard.

This would be the last time I heard that voice.

“I’m sorry too,” I said.

Perhaps something there, in my voice, gave it away.  Hazard was already turning away, but the Cap looked up, saw into my true mind.

Behind his half-face mask, I saw his eyes go wide, his hand come up to reach for me.  I didn’t know what he would have done, whether he would have just grabbed me, tried to stop me, or if he would have delivered the killing electrical blow.

But he was too late.

My finger pushed down on the button on my wrist.

And for just a moment, as my power source melted down and went critical, catalyzing an explosion that would wipe this entire facility – and everything within a quarter mile – off the map, I saw the man’s eyes.

My mentor’s eyes.

They looked almost… peaceful.

To be concluded!

A Superhero’s Betrayal, Part I

I kept my eyes on the passage behind us, my heart pounding in my ears.  We’d managed to defeat all of the Kill-Bots we’d encountered so far, but I knew that Dr. Hazard always kept reinforcements.

We didn’t have long before they arrived, and we’d find ourselves under fire – and in this open chamber, there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to take shelter…

“Boss, we need to hurry!” I called out, the concern clear in my voice.

But my boss, mentor, and all-around hero had other concerns.

“Captain Electric!  And his little errand boy, PowerPlug!”  The voice, filled with deep, booming menace, rolled out around the chamber.  I glanced back again and saw the supervillain himself, Dr. Hazard, step forward, out from behind the main power console.

“Dr. Hazard,” my mentor, Captain Electric, growled in return.  “Haven’t you learned that you’ll never win with these nefarious deeds?”

I half expected the villainous Doctor to not even respond, but to open fire immediately on my hero.  The man was certifiably insane, after all!  But instead, he simply spread his arms wide, grinning down at the hero facing him.

“Captain, I’ve thought long and hard since our last conversation,” Dr. Hazard boomed out, his voice projecting out from beneath the deep, shadowed hood and mask that he always wore.  We’d never seen the villain’s face.  “And you know what I’ve realized?”

And then, to my shock and amazement, the man reached up and pulled that mask away.

“I’ve realized that you’re right,” he announced, as we both stared up at him.

Of course, Cap was faster on the uptake than me.  That’s why he’s the hero, after all, and I’m the sidekick – and I’m okay with that!  It’s his genius that let him build his gadgets to give him control over the power of electricity.  I’m just grateful that he shared them with me.

But even though Cap responded before me, he was definitely thrown.  “Hazard, what are you talking about?” he called out.

“My bots!” Hazard returned, running one hand through his hair.  He was surprisingly young, I couldn’t help noticing.  And with that mask gone, he didn’t look like a villain.

He almost looked like a hero.

“My bots that I’ve spread out around the world!” Hazard went on, gesturing at the massive electronic screen behind him.  “I’m not out to destroy humanity, Captain – I want to help it!”

“Don’t listen to him, Cap!” I shouted out, hearing the tell-tale sound of clinking Kill-Bots coming closer in the corridors.

But the Cap had his head cocked to one side, confused.  “Help it how?” he asked.

“We can do so much, we have so much potential!” Hazard replied, his voice straining with emotion.  “Just think of all the amazing things that we’ve created!  But so much of humanity has grown fat and lazy, relying on these older inventions, not thinking of the future.

“If we truly want to save our planet, to keep on advancing, we must leave behind the past!” Hazard finished, waving his hand up at the screen.  “Coal plants, whaling ships, all of these archaic remnants of our vicious past – we don’t need them!  Only once they are gone can we look forward to our future!”

I waited for Cap’s rebuttal, but he didn’t say anything.  I glanced at him, and he looked stunned by this announcement.  “Hazard, you’re insane!” I shouted back, since my hero was thinking of something else.  Undoubtedly, the man was formulating a plan.  “You’re going to kill millions!”

“But I won’t!” the villain shouted back at me.  “Sure, a few will die – but my bots will not just destroy the old, but build newer, more advanced technology in their place!  It’s an upgrade for the whole world!”

“You’re insane!” I yelled, expecting Cap to support me.

But instead, his voice was low, quiet.

“He’s right.”

What?

I spun around, staring at the man, my hero and mentor, my jaw dropping open.  “Cap, what the hell are you talking about?”

“He’s right,” the Captain repeated, his voice a little stronger now.  “All this time, all these years – Harry, I’ve always fought for humanity, but where has it gotten us?”

“Where has it gotten us??”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  “Cap, we’ve saved the world a dozen times over!”

“And yet, it hasn’t changed!” Hazard chimed in.  “Every time you save the world, it doesn’t get better – it just reverts to its same old, uncaring ways!  We still inflict pain on each other, destroy the planet beneath us, because there’s no one looking forward!”

I stared in shock and betrayal as the Captain nodded along with this.  “I’ve always thought that we would correct our course, take the right path,” he said quietly, almost to himself.  “But it’s been twenty years, and that still hasn’t happened.”

“And it never will,” Hazard finished.  “Not without our help.”

As soon as Dr. Hazard had appeared, the Captain had raised his arms, bolts of electricity crackling at their ends, ready to arc out from his power gloves.  But now, he relaxed, lowering those arms, and the electricity faded away.

With their crackling gone, silence filled the chamber.

I couldn’t believe this was happening.  “Cap, you can’t give up, can’t turn to the dark side!” I shouted out at the man.  I blinked furiously, feeling little drops of water welling up at the corners of my eyes.

“Is it the dark side, though?” the man asked me, his voice still calm, sounding as if he was conversing about the weather.  “Come on, Harry!  We’ve fought for years, and yet nothing changes!”

“That’s a good thing!” I cried out, imploring the man to see sense.

But Cap just shook his head, looking down at the floor.  “No, Harry.”  His voice was barely above a whisper.  “It’s bad.

“We aren’t saving the world, my old friend.  We’re holding it back.”

And then, as I watched, my vision growing cloudy from tears, the Captain stepped forward, to stand beside Dr. Hazard.

Not as his enemy.

As his ally.

To be continued…

The Angels: Tough Love

Sitting at the table in the cafe, I did my best to take slow, full breaths.  Don’t hyperventilate, I told myself.  This isn’t a huge deal.

I mean, I was finally meeting, in person, the girl I’d been chatting with online for six months, and this was my only chance to make a good first impression in person.  This was the girl that I’d been pinning all my hopes on, that I was pretty sure I was falling in love with.  And now, I was going to see her in person for the very first time.

But hey, no pressure.

I looked down at the empty table.  Should I order a cup of coffee?  I felt jittery already, but I also wanted something in my hands, something that I could sip at to take my mind off of the rapidly approaching future.  I couldn’t even decide this.

The door to the cafe opened with a jingle, and I glanced up.  Was this her?  She’d said that she was going to wear a red bobble hat, she’d messaged me.

But no, the man who stepped inside the cafe wasn’t wearing anything on his hair.  He was, however, wearing what looked vaguely like a cross between a robe and a toga, all white cloth.  I frowned a little.  That was strange.

But the strangeness didn’t stop there.

The stranger glanced around after stepping inside, spotted me, and gave me a head nod, as if he recognized me!  As I watched in shock and confusion, he cut his way through all the tables towards me, his eyes focused on me.

“Ugh, you look ridiculous,” the man said to me as he plopped down in the chair opposite mine at the little table.

I blinked, feeling totally confused.  I didn’t even know this man, although something about him looked slightly familiar.  I had that sort of impression, like when I see someone who reminds me of a dream.  “Um, excuse me, but I’m waiting for someone,” I said, wishing that this guy would vanish.

“Yeah, yeah, Juliette sixteen, or whatever,” the man replied to me, waving one hand vaguely in my direction in a brush-off gesture.  “As if that’s going to work out.”

Who the hell was this?  And how did he know the screen name of my date?  “Excuse me,” I said again, this time trying to inject some more strength into my voice.  “But really, I don’t know you, and I am meeting-“

“The whole thing’s a crock of shit, you know that?” the man interrupted me, turning to stare at me.  As his eyes locked on mine, I felt my voice cut off.  I’d never seen such brilliant blue irises before.  “I mean, I was doing just fine smiting evil, all of that, and then next thing I know, I’m pulled and stuck in the guardian division!  And now I’m burdened with you sad sack, as if I didn’t have enough problems of my own.”

What?  “Hey, I’m not a-“

“Yes, you are,” the man replied, waving a hand at me again.  “I mean, come on, dude!  Just look at you.  Hey, can we get some service over here?” he called out to a nearby waitress, snapping his fingers in the air.  What a jerk, I thought to myself.

The waitress turned and made her way over, a frown on her face as she glared at the man who had summoned her in such a degrading manner.  “What?” she asked, shifting her glare back and forth.  I felt a bit hurt.  I hadn’t done anything wrong!  I didn’t even know this guy!

“Cup of coffee, seven creams, seven sugars,” the guy told her.  He immediately returned his attention back to me, acting as if the waitress had ceased to exist.  “But seriously, just look at you!  You’re what, twenty-nine now?”

“Twenty-eight!” I replied, not sure why I was answering him.

“And you’ve got a dead-end job, no girl, and no friends,” the man picked up as if I hadn’t spoken.  “Seriously, dude.  You’re about two more cats away from getting the Lifetime Loser award.”

“Who the hell are you to-“

The man flapped his hand again at me, rolling his eyes.  “And not especially fast on the uptake, either,” he said.  “Here, maybe this will finally make it clear.”

The man bent over, rustling around in a pocket of his robe, as I felt my hands squeeze into fists.  How dare this stranger come over and just start insulting me-

But then, the man pulled something out of his pocket, and I felt my mouth drop open as my thoughts cut off mid-train.

He was holding a glowing ring, about the size of a dessert plate.

And as I watched, he hung this glowing ring in thin air over his head, where it bobbed up and down, supported by nothing.

I couldn’t speak, but still tried.  “You’re- you’re a- you’re an-” I tried, stammering.

“Yeah, yeah, angel, holy power, all that shit,” the man replied, rolling his eyes again.  “Where the hell is that coffee?”

As I blinked and felt my mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water, the man’s coffee arrived, the waitress slamming it down on the table so hard it spilled a little.  “There,” she told him, before stalking off.

Finally, I managed to regain my voice.  “You’re an angel!  But I didn’t think that they existed!” I got out.

“Well, they do,” the man told me, taking a sip of his coffee and grimacing.  “Ugh, spit.  Like I wouldn’t notice.  And for whatever sins I committed, I’m now stuck as yours.”

“Mine?  Like a guardian angel?”

“Yeah, just like that,” he said, taking another sip.  “And ordinarily I’d just let you wallow in sadness, but you’re about to make a major screw-up, so I figured I was obligated to step in.”

“Screw-up?”  I had no idea what the man was talking about.  “Wait, am I going to bomb this date?”

The angel’s eyes widened slightly at me.  “Bomb it?” he repeated incredulously.  “Hell no!  You’re bombing it right now by showing up!  You ought to be running away as fast as those wimpy little legs of yours can carry you!”

“This is a mistake?”

The angel glared at me.  “And this is why I hate being a guardian,” he announced to the world in general.  “Yes, it’s a mistake!  She’s crazy!  Cuckoo!  A freaking loony!”  He raised one finger up and swirled it around his head to illustrate what he meant.

“What?  But she seems perfect!”  I didn’t know what to think.  On one hand, this guy had a halo, that was true.  But I’d been chatting with Juliette for months!

The angel held up fingers as he ticked off reasons.  “She’s got just as dead-end of a job as you,” he called off.  “She’s got three cats.  Seriously, three.  She’s gonna be as crazy as her mom is, and will drag you into the fights.  And she’s really just trying to get you to buy her stuff.”

I shook my head.  “I can’t believe it!” I repeated, feeling flabbergasted.

The angel sighed, but then stood up.  “Fine, fine,” he said.  “Here, come on.  We’re going out to find you a real girl.”

Not sure what to think, I let the other man pull me up to his feet.  “Hey, pay for my coffee,” he told me, heading for the door.  “I’ll meet you outside.”

I did as he requested, handing a few dollars over to the stone-faced waitress and whispering “sorry” to her.  I then hurried out of the cafe, trying to catch up to the man in the robe, now standing outside on the sidewalk and glaring around at the world as if it had personally pissed him off.

“Come on, now,” he grunted at me, starting off down the sidewalk.  “If I’m stuck with you as my client, I’ll at least try and solve some of these problems quickly.  The sooner I get you back on track, the sooner I can get out of here and back to smiting, where I belong.”

I did as he requested, tagging along a half-step behind him, but I still felt as though I had to say something.  “You’re a real asshole, you know that?” I told the angel, trying to keep up.

He just shrugged and kept walking.  “At least I get things done,” he told me.  “Now, come on!  And really, we ought to get you a dog.  Girls like a guy with a dog.”

As we walked away from the cafe, a short, pale, bespectacled girl with a furry red bobble cap made her way towards the door, trying to brush cat hair off of her hand-knit sweater and furtively glancing around, as if she thought someone was following her, sweat stains marking her armpits…

The Portal

I woke up, my head aching even more than usual.  “Ugh,” I announced, eloquently informing the world that I had returned to consciousness.

I tried to open my eyes, but they were still half-crusted shut from whatever I’d been up to the last night.  I only managed to get them half-open, and saw that I was someplace dim.  I reached up with one arm to wipe them free of the crusty debris-

-but my arm didn’t move.

Wait a minute.  I blinked a few times, trying to clear my vision.  Slowly, still swirling a little and making me feel dizzy, the world swam back into shaky focus.

I was sitting up, I realized, in a chair that definitely did not have any padding.  My muscles were crying out from various areas, suggesting that I’d been here for a while.  I gave my arms another tug, but they still didn’t move.

I looked down at them, and saw thick metal straps locked around my wrists, holding them in place.  I gave my arms another tug, and saw them rattle against those steel bracelets, but the cuffs on my arms didn’t budge.

I still felt woozy and half-conscious, but it was starting to sink into my mind that something was wrong.  I didn’t remember coming here, and I definitely didn’t remember being locked up for anything.

My legs had similar shackles down around the ankles.  I tried to jerk my whole body, but the chair didn’t budge – it must be bolted down to the floor, I realized.  This was not good at all.

I could feel my panic level rising.  I pulled my head up, staring around at my current location.  What the hell was going on?

I appeared to be alone, inside a room of some sort.  My initial impression of dimness was correct – there was a single bulb hanging down from the ceiling above my head, casting a yellow illumination over everything, but there was no other light in the room.  The walls were featureless and gray, just like the floor.  I felt as though I was entombed inside a block of concrete.

I opened my mouth, feeling my tongue rasp, dry and swollen, against my teeth.  “Hello?” I called out, my voice sounding somewhere between a croak and a squeak.  “Is anyone there?”

My voice echoed dully around the room, but there was no response.  And as I tilted my head around, I realized something else that made fear shoot deep into my heart:

There was no door in or out of the room.

Now, I was definitely scared.  What the hell had happened last night?  I tried to cast my mind back, but it felt as though it was stuffed with cotton.  I very vaguely remembered heading out to the bars, a typical Friday night, but everything after that dissolved into abstract color.

I was still trying to recall what had happened when I suddenly heard a click, and felt the pressure around my wrists and ankles stop.  I looked down, and saw that the clamps around my wrists and ankles had opened.

Cautiously, I stood up, reaching around to massage at where the steel had bit into my wrists.  “Hello?”  I called out again, but again received no response.

I heard a hiss behind me, and spun around.  On the wall behind me, a slab of the concrete had slid aside, revealing a passage leading out of the room.

I paused, but there didn’t seem to be any other choice.  I took a minute to hold up my middle finger in the air before heading through the passage.  I couldn’t see any cameras, but they had to be watching from somewhere, right?

Cautiously, I made my way down the revealed hallway, the walls and floor the same color and texture as the room where I’d awoken.  I could see another light glowing at the far end, but I had no idea what to expect.

What I found, when I stepped into the next room, was a doorway.

The doorway was mounted on a plinth in the middle of the room, raised up about half a step from the rest of the floor.  There was no door in the doorway, but it looked as though someone had stretched a white, shimmering sheet across the open rectangle.

There was also, I noticed, no other way in or out of the room.

With nothing else to do, I advanced slowly on the doorframe, examining it.  It looked quite ordinary, aside from that rippling whiteness that filled it.  I reached out and carefully extended a finger towards that whiteness.

As I made contact with it, I felt absolutely nothing; it was like trying to touch air.  But when I tilted my head to peer around the frame, I saw nothing on the other side.

My finger wasn’t appearing!

I drew back, confused.  My head was still killing me!  What was I supposed to do, step through?

But on the other hand, I didn’t seem to have anything else to do – and there was no sign of anyone stepping in to give me instructions.

I took a deep breath, braced myself, and stepped up to the doorway.  “I hope this is what you want,” I announced out loud, and then let my breath out in a slow whoosh.

And then I stepped through the doorway.

For a moment, nothing happened in the room.  It was all still, aside from the shimmering, rippling motion of the whiteness in the doorframe.

And then, a man came stumbling out the other side of the doorframe.

This was, at first glance, not the same man who had stepped into the opening a moment earlier.  He had a thick beard covering most of his face, and his hair was a shock of white.  His hands were covered in wrinkles, and he seemed to be missing several fingers.  He stood with a hunched, bent back, and looked about to snap like a twig at any second.

He stared around at the room, his eyes wide but unbelieving.  “No!  Not again!” he screamed out, as his whole face dropped open in horrified recognition.

The old, withered man took a step or two forward, but then let out a last sound, somewhere between a gasp and a scream, and collapsed forward, down onto the floor.

For several minutes, he just lay there, not moving.

After it was clear that the man was dead, another door opened, and two men in white protective suits, hoods, and booties stepped into the room.  They hurried forward to the man, scooped up his limp and lifeless body, and hauled it towards the door.  On the other side, they casually dropped the body down a chute built into the wall.

Before the door closed, the sound of a blaring intercom could be heard from the far side.  “Bring in the next volunteer,” the voice called out with a crackle of static.

The door closed.

The Recruitment

Storm looked up through half-closed, hooded eyes as the scientist in front of him babbled on, his words spilling out of him like the rushing flow of a half-dammed stream.

“This is absolutely insane!” he kept on saying, as if this somehow contributed to the conversation.  “To have amassed this many samples of the triple helix fragments – why, it’s totally unheard of!  Just imagine what sort of discoveries we can make with this!”

Storm didn’t need to hear any of this, but he let the scientist keep on babbling.  Instead of listening to the words, he instead half-tuned them out, focusing rather on the man himself…

The man, Dr. Bailard, looked a lot like a typical scientist, Storm thought to himself.  He was dressed in jeans and a blazer instead of the classic white lab coat, but if Storm closed his eyes a little further, the white coat seemed to appear in place.  The man wore a pair of thick black plastic-rimmed glasses, and he kept reaching up to adjust these as he babbled on.  He was gesturing wildly, threatening to knock over the cup of coffee that sat, abandoned, on the table in front of him.

He hardly looked like a Nobel prize winner in biology, Storm kept on thinking, but he kept that thought to himself.

“To have this much, all from different chromosomal regions, why, it’s never before been assembled!” Bailard was insisting now.  “There’s almost enough to reconstruct the entire original sample, and from that, well, there are so many discoveries that we could make!”

The man glanced down at his hands, as if he was trying to reassure himself that this was real.  “We could trace the number of accumulated mutations to see when this insertion first occurred,” he was saying now, almost shaking with anticipation.  “We can see whether we have overlap on the sections, suggesting that multiple copies of these genes originally existed.  We can test the stability, look at what genes are encoded for in ancestral versus current DNA.  So many options!”

As he listed these wild possibilities, Storm nodded, even though he didn’t plan on pursuing any of them.  Best not to pop the scientist’s bubble quite yet – at least, not until Bailard had signed with them.

The discovery of the triple helix DNA that had excited this scientist so had only occurred a few years ago, as genomic sequencing technology continued to advance in speed and drop in price.  Scientists, Dr. Bailard among them, had been astounded to discover, and then subsequently announce, that some humans possessed short stretches of “triple helix” DNA, where their DNA structure consisted of three chains of bases, rather than just two.  These triple helix structures were unusually stable – and even more enticingly, appeared to be scattered across the genome, in different areas in different people.

For scientists like Dr. Bailard, each of these triple-helix areas had been an area of intense focus and study, somewhere to focus all of their attention.

But for other interests, such as those that Storm represented, these sequences were just small pieces of a much bigger puzzle.

Storm knew that his organization wasn’t the only group that had immediately focused on these triple helixes.  That’s why he had worked quickly, spending millions of dollars to acquire samples, and millions more to keep his acquisitions secret.

But now, he needed a mind to work on pulling out the answers that his patrons sought.

Quietly, of course.

“Yes, Dr. Bailard, the whole thing is quite astounding,” Storm cut in smoothly, interrupting the scientist mid-soliloquy.  “But we need a bright mind to help us analyze this data.  We’re hoping that you’ll be that person we seek.”

Dr. Bailard’s mouth gaped open for a moment before the scientist regained enough control to close it.  “Why, of course!” he gasped.  “I earned the Nobel for discovering this strange hidden secret in our genes, but the chance to work on it more?  I’d give my right arm for it!”

Once again, the man took off on the list of different benefits that could arise from further investigation into triple-helix DNA.  And once again, Storm tuned him out.  None of that mattered.

Storm’s employers, his patrons, had been quite clear on this.

They wanted to get their hands on a full reconstruction of the triple helix genome, the original, complete structure and sequence.

They wanted it first, and they wanted to make sure that no one else could access it.

Finally, Dr. Bailard was winding down, and Storm stood up from his side of the conference table.  “Then we have an agreement?” he asked, leaning forward.  “We will have to get your signature for some non-disclosure agreements, of course, but those are little more than formalities.”

“Oh yes, yes!” the man across the table said, eagerly grabbing Storm’s hand and pumping it up and down.  “I want to get started right away!”

Storm’s mind flicked back to the bottom left drawer of his desk, back in his office.  That was the drawer that was sealed with a biometric lock, coded to his DNA signature.  There was no triple helix DNA in that signature, Storm knew.  He was a bit relieved to know that he didn’t have any of his own project inside him.

Inside that drawer, Storm knew, rested a sleek, black pistol, loaded with a full clip and with an attached silencer.

Dr. Bailard was indispensable to the project – up until the full genomic sequence was assembled.  But after that point, Storm knew what his patrons would ask of him next.

Secrecy was paramount.

"I just don’t like her!"

“So what, you just don’t like her?  There’s no reason why?”

“No, there’s a reason.  I mean, I have a reason for not liking her!  I’m not just some sort of psychopath that goes around not liking people for no reason.”

“Evidently.”

“Gimme a chance, man!”

“Okay, fine.  Why don’t you like her?”

“Well, it’s a stupid reason.  But she just, well, she talks to one person too much.”

“…”

“You’re giving me that look again.”

“Because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Um.  Okay.  Let me try a different way.  Do you ever have a conversation with a group of five friends?  You all face each other, talk to everyone else in the group, project your voice so everyone can hear, you know.  All of that.”

“Sure…?”

“Well, have you ever had someone in that group of five friends that can’t seem to understand that it’s more than a two-person conversation?  She’ll look only at you when she’s talking, even if you’re standing next to her, doesn’t address anyone else, and is quiet.  As soon as she says something, it’s clearly to you, so you have to respond.  And then she responds to you before anyone else can get a word in.”

“So she cuts out the other people in the conversation.”

“Yeah, exactly.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t like this girl.”

“…That’s a really stupid reason.”

“I told you!  But she’s also a long talker, too.  Which makes it all even more agonizing.”

“Okay, you’ve lost me again.  Long talker?”

“She talks too long.”

“Still lost.”

“If I asked you whether you’d eaten yet this morning, what would you say?”

“…yes?  I had a bagel for breakfast.”

“But this girl, man, she’d go on to tell me all about the bagel, and how it was different from her normal morning bagel, and how she almost didn’t eat one but then remembered that we had class and she didn’t want to be hungry!  She just keeps going!”

“Okay.  Got it.  Long talker.  Plus what, single focuser?”

“Yeah.  Single focuser, long talker.  Deadly combination.”

“That’s still a stupid reason.”

Do Computers Speak to Angels?

As soon as I saw the angel stagger into the shop, his wide grin almost totally hidden behind the huge, bulky computer monitor in his arms, I had to hold in a sigh.  This wasn’t going to be fun…

Barely able to even walk with his arms full of outdated electronics, the angel finally managed to reach one of the side tables, where he deposited his load with a crash.  I did have to admit, I was impressed he made it without tripping over the hem of his own robe.

After making sure that my employee had the front counter under control, I stepped out from behind the espresso machine and made my way over to the beaming angel.  I sized him up as I drew closer, looking for those tell-tale little details that reveal rank.

No flaming sword at his hip, so he wasn’t a guardian.  The halo had a slight pinkish hue to its glow, which said cherubim.  A crease along the back of his robe, as if a rectangular quiver usually rested there, further supported this hypothesis.

“So, what have we got here, um…” I always had trouble telling the cherubs apart.

“Galafim,” the angel filled in my waiting silence without rancor.  “Isn’t it amazing?  The latest technology!  You humans are amazing at creating these devices!”

This time, I couldn’t fully hold back my sigh as the cherub plopped down in his seat and eagerly began fiddling with the buttons on the front of the monitor.  This wasn’t the first time that an angel had brought some dilapidated piece of electronics into my coffee shop, insisting that he was “riding the wave of the future.”

First, there had been the whole “text-to-speech” incident.

I don’t even know how the poor angel managed to enable that function, but they all leapt up in shock, and a couple of the angels had their flaming swords drawn by the time I made it over, waving my hands and shouting “No, no, no!” over and over at the top of my lungs.

“The infernal adding machine is possessed!” thundered an especially feisty seraph as his blade burst into flaming life above his head.

“No, no!” I insisted, not even thinking as I rushed in between the smiting being and his target.  “It’s just a setting to help people with eyesight issues!  Here, I’ll turn it off!”

It took a few minutes of messing around in the machine’s settings menu, but I finally managed to turn off the text-to-speech function.  Compounding the matter was the issue that the angel had also somehow managed to invert the color scheme, changing it to a blend of neon lime and purple.  It was also surprisingly tough to work with angry angels holding swords peering in over my shoulder.

After that, I considered banning all electronics from my coffee shop.  But the angels promised to be good, and like a fool, I believed them.

Now, as I watched this angel poke and prod at his clunky monitor, I shook my head to myself.  I really should have known better…

Containment Failure

I was walking down the hallway when it happened.

I felt my phone buzz in my pocket.  No noise, of course – I knew better than to leave the volume on.  Countless infiltrations had taught me the power of silence.

I withdrew the slim, black rectangle from my pocket, glancing down at the lit screen.  I made sure to keep the backlight turned all the way down, just bright enough to read the words on the screen/

There were only two.

“Containment failure.”

I dropped the phone back into my pocket, immediately looking up and around.  If I’d received the message, that meant that the breach had to be nearby.  I knew that I’d only have a minute or two, maybe less, to locate the crack.

It had only been a few months since I’d been recruited, but I felt as though I’d been waiting all my life for this moment.

My eyes flicked around the corridor, searching for that little glitch in the system, that tiny little point of wrongness.  It didn’t take long to spot it, right at about shoulder height on the wall beside me.

To anyone else, the breach wouldn’t have looked like anything more than a minor crack in the wall, little more than a hairline fissure.  But they wouldn’t have gotten up close enough to put their eye to the crack, to see the tiny beams of light radiating out from inside.

That was what I was looking for.

I took a half-step back, judging the distance to the wall.  I bounced on my toes a couple of times, shifting my weight back and forth.  And then, with a slow exhale, I swung my leg up and around in a spinning kick.

My foot made contact squarely with the crack in the wall-

-and the wall shattered out into chunks of plaster, new cracks spiderwebbing out in a radial pattern.

I rushed forward, yanking at the loose chunks of concrete, hauling them out of the way.  It took a couple more blows before it was fully open, but finally, the crack had widened enough.

I took a step back, sucking in one last breath, trying to calm my racing heart.  This was it.  The moment I’d been waiting for, the moment I felt as though I had been waiting for my entire life.

“Let’s see what’s beyond this bubble,” I muttered to myself as I tried to think calm thoughts.

And then I leaned forward, pushing myself into – and through – the crack.

Into the light…