A screen focuses on a smiling young newswoman.
"As the year comes to an end, we have a report of one group of scientists who will not be watching the ball drop at Times Square tonight. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a team of graduate students representing five countries and a diversity of academic fields including artificial intelligence, linguistics, mythology, music, and physics are preparing an experiment to test the bizarre theory that an object can be indirectly manipulated by use of a symbolic representation."
"Whoa, Janet, I think you lost me," says another reporter.
"I think I’ve even lost myself, Ken. Let’s see if the interview done earlier today with Professor Jenkins can make this any clearer."
The screen cuts to the image of a man in his late thirties with short brown hair and a neatly trimmed brown goatee.
"The use of a symbolic language to represent an object has been going on for thousands of years - first in spoken and written languages, and then in music and math, and more recently, in computer programming. In those cases the link between the symbol and the object is one of meaning. You say the word ‘chair’ and the person listening understands that what you mean is a piece of furniture that people sit on. What’s new is that we think it is possible to establish a second link that is one of form instead of meaning. In such a system, any change that was made to the symbol would be reflected in the object itself as well. For example, let’s say that I could describe a chair with an equation. Then I add some number to the equation. Would the actual chair get bigger? If our theory proves correct, the answer would be yes."
The screen cuts back to a shot of the two news anchors looking at each other with bemused expressions on their faces.
"Maybe they can add a few numbers to my salary while they’re at it!" said Ken.
"That sounds like Voodoo economics to me," replied Janet.
Both of the anchors laugh for a second then the screen closes in on Janet’s face as it returns to an expression of cheerful professionalism.
"Now let’s check in on our colleague on the ground in Las Vegas where the celebration is just about to get under way..."
The screen cuts to a shot of a man with a microphone standing in front of a crowd.
"Hi Janet! This is Tom Aguilar reporting to you live from the strip in Las Vegas where things just keep heating up. The party scene behind me, one of many in this part of the city tonight, has gone from excited mingling to boisterous celebration as the hour of midnight and the new year have approached. We've even seen a few celeb-"
He is cut off as the screen jerks back to the newsroom where a tense looking Janet has one hand to her ear piece.
"Ladies and gentlemen this is a special report from News Seven. I have just been informed that some sort of explosion has occurred at the location of our last story, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. The blast occurred just moments ago at approximately 11:50pm eastern time. We do not yet know whether or not this was a terrorist event. I repeat, an explosion took place on the MIT campus just moments ago. We do not know what may have caused this explosion. We have a report that emergency vehicles are just now arriving on the scene. We also do not know at this time how many people may have been hurt. Certainly, we can hope that few people remained on the campus at this hour on New Year's Eve."
She pauses for half a second with her hand on her ear piece again.
"Ladies and gentlemen, a News Seven camera crew that was still in the area has arrived on the scene, and we are now going to go to them live."
The screen jumps to an image of a brick building with large sections of the outer wall completely missing. From inside the wrecked building, a group of figures becomes visible, coughing and picking their way through debris as they move towards the camera. One of them, a young woman in a white lab coat hurries towards the camera.
"Miss," says a News Seven reporter, "are you all alright? What can you tell us about what just happened here?"
"We did it," she says, then bends at the waist and coughs.
"Can you repeat that Miss? What did you do?"
"We made the chair bigger. We linked the actual chair directly to a symbolic
"Can you tell us, did the experiment cause the explosion, Miss?"
"I'm not sure. Something went wrong. I...I saw the light bending and then the chair increased its mass right in front of us - it was so amazing - and then...and then the blast just came out of nowhere."
The camera zooms out to take in more of the ruined building. A heavy load of dust still hangs in the air all around.
"Ladies and gentlemen if you've just joined us, we are reporting to you live from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where some sort of explosion has only just occurred about five minutes ago."
The picture is marred for a moment by a ripple of interference that runs across it.
"The police and emergency vehicles are-"
The screen cuts to a view of both reporters. Ken is holding his head in his hands, rocking back and forth.
"Ken, are you okay?"
"AAAAAAH!" he yells, raising his head towards the ceiling.
"Oh - oh my god!"
Ken's face begins to change, his skin darkening to grey, his features becoming sunken, his eyes turning a bright yellow. He opens his mouth to scream again, and his tongue is black.
"AAAAAAAAAAAH!" he yells, and suddenly the image disappears. A News Seven studio logo appears over a blue screen, and a recorded voice begins speaking.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the News Seven studios are experiencing temporary technical difficulties. We apologize for this inconvenience. Please stand by..."
Two years later to the day...
A dark haired man in an old brown leather coat over black pants and a black shirt sat at the bar, drinking a beer and reading a newspaper. He turned the page carefully, struggling for a precision of feeling with fingers incased in leather work gloves. His left hand started to lift his glass for another drink, and stopped an inch from his mouth. He frowned, his forehead creasing along deep, familiar lines.
"What's in the paper?" asked the bartender, a young woman with a long red ponytail wearing a green t-shirt and jeans. Mark looked up and saw her watching him while she polished glasses.
"There's a retrospective piece about the Jenkins trial," he said.
"Oh yeah," she said, "I should have guessed. It's hard to believe that it's been two years."
"Yeah, it feels more like forever," he said and took a long drink. She raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything. A customer walked in, and she went to take his order while Mark got back to reading the article. After a while, she came back over.
"Did you see anyone change?" she asked. "...on New Year's Eve, I mean."
He looked up, his eyes narrowed as he studied her expression.
"Yeah, I saw someone."
"What happened?" she asked.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then he tapped his finger on the article.
"It says it all right here. In that experiment at MIT they wanted to change a physical object by linking it directly to symbolic language. The experiment worked - that damned chair doubled in size, but it set off some kind of chain reaction. Random connections between meaning and form started occurring. A small number of people scattered around the world began to change physically. If they wanted to help others, maybe they started to glow with a soft light, or their features became more sculpted and pristine, but if they liked hurting people, their bodies became harder, stronger, sharper, more capable of dealing with others they way they really wanted to. The mathematicians said the only way to explain who changed and who didn't had something to do with chaos theory. It was only a small percentage of the population, but for those that did, whatever sort of meaning they had found in life became written in their flesh." He stared at the beer in his glass, watching it distort the dim light.
"That was Jenkin's version of what happened," said the girl. "If you believe the military, Jenkins was a terrorist that unleashed a new kind of bomb - one designed to rearrange things on a quantum level."
"Yeah, and if you believe the Church, he's a witch, what he did to that chair amounts to black magic, and his coming heralds the end of days," he said.
"Is that what you believe, Father?" she asked. His right hand jerked up to the empty place where his white collar used to be. He turned his head slowly in her direction. She was about five feet, six inches tall, the red in her hair looked creative rather than natural, and her left eyebrow had a thin gold loop through it. The green t-shirt she was wearing had a cartoon picture of a man with two heads and the words "Zaphod for President" printed on it. Her expression was open and curious, but not hostile.
"I'm not a priest anymore," he said and kicked back the rest of his beer in one gulp.
"I guess not," she said. "Want another one?"
"No thanks." He slid the empty glass forward, then turned and headed for the door.
Outside, the cold air moved in short gusts of wind that pushed against Mark first one way and then another, as if the city itself was breathing around him. He cut through the alley between the bar and the building next to it, heading for the bus stop on the opposite side of the block. There was a time when he would have avoided alleys, but now he just couldn't bring himself to care.
He had only a moment to recognize the sound of running steps behind him, and then someone slammed into his right shoulder, sending him sprawling into the dirty snow at his feet. He looked up and saw the back of man with dark curly hair running toward the street.
I shape appeared at the end of the alley, a giant, gorilla like shape, and the man slid to a halt and turned back towards Mark. He tried to start running again, but the huge thing was faster than him. It took two leaping strides into the alley and slammed a meaty fist into the man's back, sending him flying at an angle towards the wall. His body slammed against it, bounced off, and fell down into the snow behind Mark.
Mark stared at the creature. It looked sort of like a huge man, but its arms were too long for its body, like a gorilla's.
From behind him, Mark heard the man say a prayer in Arabic. The creature heard it too, and it grinned nastily, wetting its lips with its tongue. Mark shuttered in revulsion.
The creature took another step forward, and Mark pushed himself up, standing between it and the fallen man. The creature's gaze shifted to him, and it sniffed, breathing in his scent.
"Don't interrupt the fun," it said.
"I know what you are," said Mark. "You're a Bully. There were a lot of you hit by the change. Your kind has always loved picking on people smaller than you. I bet that the only thing that's ever had any meaning for you is that the strong pick on the weak. When the change hit you and made you like this, it must have been like a dream come true, right? Now everyone is smaller than you. I bet you revel in the fear that you see in other people's expressions."
"Out of the way, little man," it said, and pushed him hard to the side. Mark fell to the ground, and the Bully walked right past him. It picked up the man with the curly hair with one hand on the upper part of each arm.
Then it began to pull.
The man screamed. Mark stood up, and faced the Bully's back. He looked down at his hands for a second, and then he grabbed the ends of both gloves with his teeth and yanked them off. Underneath, hard, green scales covered his arms all the way down to fingers that ended in sharp talons. Throwing himself foward, Mark plunged his fingers down into the Bully's back. It threw its head back and roared in suprize and pain. Mark pulled his legs up, letting all of his weight sit for a moment in his fingers as if he was hanging from a ledge. The Bully dropped the other man, and then reached back and grabbed Mark with both hands. It yanked him upward twice. The first time, Mark kept his grip in its back, and it yelled with the pain. On the second yank, Mark's fingers came free, and with a great grunt of effort, the Bully hoisted Mark over its head and threw him through the air.
There was a moment, when Mark was flying through the alley, that seemed to stretch out longer than it should have. He saw in his mind's eye the Bully behind him, roaring its anger. He saw the man on the ground, head bowed in prayer. And he saw himself, falling through empty space, green arms outstretched.
Those scaly, clawed arms were his shame. They showed the world the bit of monster inside of him. They had made it clear both to his parishioners and to himself how a part of him wanted to make the questions stop. The problem was not that Mark hadn't understood what the Church's official answers were. It was that deep down he knew that he didn't agree with them, and it was his parishioner's questions that pushed him to confront all of the lies that he had been telling to himself for years. He hated that feeling of self doubt - hated it so much that a part of him had wanted to grab them and make the questions stop.
When the change found him, that had been the part that it had brought out - that simmering anger that was really just despair in disguise.
The moment ended, and Mark was falling through the air again. He thought for an instant that he saw the bartender running into the alley from the direction he had come. Then he hit the ground, rolled, and blacked out.
When he came to, he was propped up in a chair in the bar. The bartender was leaning over him, pressing a damp cloth against his forehead.
"You saved that man's life is what happened. Don't you remember?"
"The Bully didn't get him?"
"Nope. Bullys don't like it when you stand up to them. You wounded him enough that he ran off."
"Ouch," he said, as she touched a spot on his left temple.
"Yeah, you've got a bit a bruise there."
He reached up to probe it with his fingers, and then jerked himself upright in panic.
"My gloves? Where are my gloves?"
"Calm down. They're right here," she said, pulling them from her back pocket.
He snatched them from her and tried to tug them on, but his hands were shaking, and he kept getting his talons caught on the glove's leather. His eyes started to tear up. He stared at a point in the distance, willing himself to calm down while he got the gloves the rest of the way on.
"You know, you should consider yourself a hero."
"Ha!" he said, and the pressure behind his eyes started building again.
"I'm serious. What else would you call it when someone selflessly risks their life for a stranger?"
"I just wound up in the middle of it. That's all." Mark glanced around the empty bar. "What happened to that guy?"
She glanced towards the bar.
"His name is Falim. He's hiding in the back."
"Did you call the police?"
"I offered to, but Falim said that last time the cops wouldn't help him."
"'Last time?' Does that mean he's been attacked like this before?"
"According to him, that was the third time."
"Why does that Bully want to kill him so bad?"
"It's not just that Bully. He said the first attacker looked like a wolf, and the second was a girl with some kind of tentacles."
Mark's eyes widened.
"How did he get away from them?"
"He made it onto a bus when the wolf was chasing him. He ran from the girl with the tentacles to a police station, but they gave him the third degree. Apparently, he has the same last name as someone on the terrorist watch list. The cops almost didn't let him leave."
"That's three changed that have tried to attack him in the last two days. Does he know why?"
"I don't think so."
Outside, someone tried to open the door.
"Don't worry, I locked it. The owner will be pissed, but maybe we can open up later and still catch some of the New Year's Eve crowds.
It occurred to Mark then that he did not even know her name.
"My name is Mark."
She smiled at him.
"Doesn't that mean star in Spanish?"
"Yeah, my parents were linguists."
"Did they -
Something hit the door hard. They looked at each other, and then they both stood facing the door.
"Three changed attacks since yesterday?" she said, raising her eyebrow.
"Monsters - call them monsters. That's what they are," he said, looking at his gloved hands for the millionth time.
"And I think we're about to meet number four," he said. "What should we do?"
"What would Buffy do?" she said, and reached over the bar, coming back up with a baseball bat.
The wood around the handle broke, and the door burst open. It was getting dark
outside, and they couldn't see anything for a second. Then three figures, two men and one woman, all in suits, came walking in. Their skin was grey - the color of ash, but their eyes were yellow like egg yoke. They were thin - gaunt even. The one in the front, a man who must have been in his late forties when the change hit him, closed his eyes and sniffed the air.
"The back," it said in a sigh. "He's in the back."
All three of them started walking forward.
Estrella ran up to the one in the lead, and swung the bat right into the side of its head. It spun completely around with the force of the blow, and then it turned towards her and snarled. She leaped back the few feet that she had run across to where Mark was still standing uncertainly, his hands in fists in front of him.
"Shit," she said. "This isn't going to work. I'm not really a Buffy anyway." She dropped the bat. "I'm more like Willow." Mark blinked at her. Although he'd never seen the show, he had gotten the first reference, but the second -
Suddenly there was a humming sound from Estrella like an amplifier being switched on. Then she started speaking fast - really fast. She was eating up words like a dragster eats up road, and with each phrase, her body jerked a little from side to side. Mark heard bits of Latin, something that sounded tonal like Vietnamese, and something Germanic. He even caught some math phrases like "X to the power of Y" and "root theta."
The monsters were halfway to the back now, walking at an angle past the two of them. She lifted her arm and pointed at each of them in turn. When the one in front took his next step, his feet slipped out from under him. He fell backwards into the other two, and all three of them went down. They tried to get back up, but it was like they had fallen on ice. Their hands and feet just slid out from under them as soon as they touched the floor.
"Come on," Estrella yelled, grabbing Mark's hand and racing for the door to the back room. Mark followed with his mouth hanging open, confused about what he had just witnessed. Estrella flung open the door in the back corner and pulled them through. Inside was a room that served as kitchen, storage and office all in one. Falim was standing in the middle, eyes with deep circles under them regarding them with worry. He held an empty wine bottle by the neck like a club in his right hand.
"More?" he asked, a thick accent on the word.
"Yep!" said Estrella, bolting the door behind her. "We've got about half a minute before that spell wears off."
"Spell?" said Mark. "What do you mean? What happened out there?"
"I'll explain in a minute. First help me move these."
She jogged to the back wall, and started shoving boxes of alcohol out of the way. Mark and Falim hurried over to help. When the boxes were moved all that was revealed was an area of plain red brick - no secret door, as Mark had hoped. He was about to ask what they were going to do next, when Estrella pulled a piece of chalk from her pocket, and started writing on the wall.
It looked almost like computer code, Mark realized after she had written a few lines - except she jumped between alphabets with each symbol that she drew. It took her about twenty seconds to finish, and the whole time they could hear hisses and snarls coming from the other side of the door. When she lifted her chalk for the last time, there was another one of those humming noises filling the air.
"Close your eyes," she said.
THUMP. The monsters were at the door again.
Mark closed his eyes and felt her shove him hard towards the wall. He raised his arms up to protect his face from the impact, but he never felt it. Instead of being stopped by the wall, he kept going. He had a second to register the cold outside air and the sound of the traffic before he slipped and fell into dirty snow for the third time that day.
He opened his eyes and saw that he was on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the building from where the fight with the Bully had taken place. A moment later, Falim fell through the wall with his eyes closed, tripped over Mark's legs, and toppled down on top of him. By the time they got themselves separated, Estrella was standing outside with them. She looked around, her brow wrinkled and her eyes narrowed, but there was no one else on the street.
"Come on, we have to find a cab." She helped them up, and then set off at a near run across the street.
The cab let them off at the edge of the club district. The streets had been closed off from car traffic to give the New Year's Eve crowd space to spill into from the doors of the over-crowded bars and clubs. Estrella grabbed their hands and then pulled them along through the drunken throng. It was slow going, but they only had to make it about a block before Estrella pointed at a cafe built inside of an old warehouse right next to the train tracks that were no longer in use. Inside, the music was pouring out through the cafe speakers at maximum levels in order to drown out the party noise. It was something down tempo with a female lead that had a dark quality to her voice - Mark didn't recognize it. They walked towards the back, through a narrow hallway that passed the kitchen. Estrella made no attempt to sneak past the staff, and they responded by pointedly looking at other things. The hallway ended at a back door, but just before that was an alcove with a payphone and a curtain that could be drawn across it from floor to ceiling. Estrella looked back the way they had come, then shoved them both inside and drew the curtain shut.
"Where are we?" asked Mark.
"We are going to someplace safe," answered Estrella. "Look, I know I haven't explained anything yet. Just hang in there. Things are about to become blatantly obvious." For the third time tonight, Mark heard that hum like an amplifier being switched on. Estrella said a few short sentences in that weird mix of languages, and then she took both of their arms and stepped forward through the wall.
This time, Mark was a little more prepared. He didn't stumble when he found himself on an iron stairwell high up inside of a vast room. It was a minor victory for him and Falim considering how weak-kneed they both felt afterwards.
"Remember that experiment that they were doing at MIT that caused the change?" Estrella said to them. "We've been continuing on with the research a bit."
Two or three dozen people stared up at them from tables, sofas, and boxes scattered about. Above their heads, suspended in the air was a twisting, bending, multicolored glob of glowing liquid. It pulsed with the beats of the music that played almost as loudly as it had in the cafe - only here it was hard rock with some electronic influences. Mark stared at it. Beside him, he heard Falim say something softly in Arabic. He glanced at the man whose life had been turned inside out in the last two days. Falim rubbed at his tired eyes with both hands, then looked again, his mouth hanging about halfway open.
"Come on," said Estrella.
The three of them walked slowly down the iron stairwell and started winding their way through to the other end of the room. Even without the huge, floating ball of liquid overhead Mark would still have been staring. They passed two pale, freckled guys that looked like brothers working on laptops while sitting on a carpet that was floating two feet above the floor. They looked up from their typing long enough to glare at Mark and Falim for a couple of seconds. A young black woman with her hair in little spikes, was working with a large sketch pad in her lap. She lifted her hand from the paper, and Mark saw that the tip of each finger was glowing a different color. He glanced to his right and saw an Asian guy with long hair watching them. He stuck a cigarette between his lips and inhaled while he typed something on his laptop, and then he took the cigarette back out with his right hand and exhaled out of his nose. The smoke arranged itself in the air in front of him, forming the letters "WTF U LOOKING @?" Estrella chuckled when she saw it. All the while the music pulsed and the colored liquid twisted and turned in the air overhead.
"Don't be offended by them," Estrella said. "They're naturally suspicious of strangers."
"Who are they?" asked Mark.
"Well, the name's kind of still in dispute. There's a fairly large minority voting for 'Uber Magi,' and for a while there was some posting online about 'Neo Jedi,' but I also read that someone in Washington has coined the term 'Reality Hackers' for anyone messing with Jenkins's research. Basically, we're just people with a strong sense of curiosity. As a group, we're pretty much fascinated by figuring out how to do something - especially things no one else knows how to do. Before Jenkins and his team conducted the MIT experiment one of his grad students posted notes about the theory they were working on onto her personal blog on the internet. Afterwards, the government came in and confiscated everything to do with the project, but the hosting server had backups of everyone's blogs on a separate hard drive. Someone found it, and we've been studying it ever since."
Ahead of them was an old couch covered with paint stains and a coffee table made out of plywood set atop two wooden crates. Estrella motioned to it, and they sat down.
"Can you do anything, then?" asked Mark.
"Hah! No, it takes a lot of time to work out how to do even the most basic stuff. You have to have a good ear for languages and a pretty high level math background to make sense of the symbolic language that's being used." Estrella tugged on her pony tail and frowned in thought. "I don't think that you could ever affect someone's soul, but other than that...in theory, anything physical, any form, can be changed."
Falim held up his pointer finger.
"'Form dissolves, but wisdom remains.' That's from Rumi."
"Are you Persian?" Mark asked.
"No, I just like Rumi." The corners of his eyes wrinkled in what was the closest expression to a smile that he had made all day.
"We'll be safe here, for a while. There is literally no door into this room. You have to know the hack to be able to get in." Estrella leaned back into the corner of the couch and propped her feet up on the table.
"Falim, those things in the bar were the fourth attack on you in two days. I don't know why the changed are after you-"
Mark saw her eyes shift to him for a second. He felt his face heat up, and then he cursed himself for reacting as if he was guilty as well. But you are, he thought. You're guilt is written in your flesh.
" -but it doesn't look like they've given up yet. Can you tell us anything else about why they might be attacking you."
Falim looked away from them.
"It's because of my name," he said. Then he turned and looked at them. There was anger in his eyes at first and then frustration and finally just sadness.
"Three days ago, I was walking to work when a maroon van pulled up beside me. Two men came out of nowhere from the other direction and shoved me into it. There was a man inside. He said that I must tell him all that I knew about the terrorists. I said that I did not know any terrorists. He pointed to a paper with a picture of an Arab and a name. 'This is your last name,' he said. I told him that it was a mistake. It is not the same family. He did not listen. He took out a woman's perfume bottle, and sprayed me with it. 'When you get tired of running, call the FBI or the police and tell them where your friends are hiding. But hurry, before someone gets hurt,' he said. Then they pushed me out of the van onto the street. I didn't know what to think. I mean, I live and work here. I am not a terrorist. Why would I be running from anything?" He leaned forward with his head in his hands and his elbows propped on his knees.
"Now I understand what they meant," he said.
"This is good," said Estrella.
They stared at her.
"I mean no, that really sucks, but it's good that you told us this. We can work with this."
"What do you mean?" asked Mark.
"They sprayed him with something in that van. Mark, do you remember what those monsters did when they first walked into the bar?"
"They sniffed the air!"
"When we were in the alley, I'm pretty sure the Bully sniffed the air as well," he said.
"Pheromones! They must have developed a pheromone that attracts the changed to you as if you were prey."
"But," Mark began, "why can't...I mean I should, uh, be able to smell him, but I can't." He folded his gloved hands in his lap and frowned at a point over their shoulders. Estrella placed a hand on top of his, and he flinched.
"Because you didn't change completely. I read once that there's a structure in the nose that mice have that allows certain scents to act on their brains like a hormone, but that same structure is dormant in the human nose because it lost its nerve connection to our brains at some point in the past. Maybe those who changed completely reconnected those nerves, but that couldn't have happened to you because only your hands were affected."
Estrella leaned closer to him. The light glinted off of the gold ring in her eyebrow.
"Your past only describes you at that point in time. What makes you who you are in the present are your choices right now. Take today, for example. This afternoon you jumped on the back of a monster three times your size in order to save a man you had never met."
She squeezed his hand, then leaned back into the couch cushions again.
"Now about that van..."
They found it less than two blocks away from the crowded party district. It was parked, but its windshield was defrosted and the light layer of snow on the hoods of the other parked cars was absent from this one. Mark and Estrella peered at it from their hiding place on top of the roof of a nearby building. They had left Falim behind, until the Reality Hackers could work out a way to counteract whatever he had been sprayed with. Estrella consulted a map in front of her with a tiny glowing red light on it.
"This is it. We're lucky that the guy is still in there or the spell wouldn't have been able to find the right van." They crouched down low enough to be out of site from the van.
"Okay, here's the deal. I've never actually done what I'm going to try before. It's going to take me longer and I'm going to have to concentrate a lot on it. If I screw it up or stop in the middle, things could go really wrong."
"How wrong?" he asked.
"Like MIT two years ago."
"Whoa. Are you sure we should do this?"
"Don't worry. We take this risk every time we try out a brand new hack, and we haven't had another MIT yet!"
Mark frowned, but didn't say anything. Estrella sat right up next to the edge of the building so that she could see the van. She consulted a notebook for half a minute, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Mark heard that electric humming noise start up in the air around him. Then she started speaking - quietly and much slower than she had at the bar. Mark peaked at the van below, but there was no sign of movement.
Suddenly, their hiding place was illuminated by a circle of bright light. Mark spun and saw a man with a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other aiming both at them.
"Put your hands out in front of you and stand up slowly!"
Mark held his hands out and stood up. Beside him, Estrella remained seated, staring at the van and talking slowly.
"I said, hands out and stand up, now!"
"She can't stop talking," Mark said.
"You, shut up. Your lady friend has three seconds to do what I said, or I'm gonna put a hole right through the back of her head."
"No, you don't understand-"
"If she stops it could cause an explosion, it-"
"Look, just give her a minute. We won't move from here. We'll-"
Mark dove towards him. The muzzle of the gun flashed. The sound was like a giant hammer pounding the world. Mark felt something slam into his left hand, and the impact spun him around like a tether ball. Behind him, Estrella screamed the last word in a voice that went higher and higher in pitch, until the only way that Mark could tell she had stopped was the sudden lessening of the pain in his ears. The windows of the van shattered, and inside the vehicle a man screamed as the perfume sprayer exploded drenching him in its liquid contents. The light that had illuminated them went out as the flashlight bulb exploded as well. Estrella spun around and lifted a hand towards the man with the gun. She started speaking again but this time much faster. The man dropped the broken flashlight and took aim at her silhouette. Suddenly, the roof beneath him became wispy and insubstantial. He fired his pistol, but the shot went wild as he dropped straight down into the building below.
Estrella leapt to Mark's side.
"Mark! Can you hear me?"
He opened his eyes and saw Estrella's stricken face above him. Then it seemed to shrink like he was falling down a hole until finally everything was dark.
A few days later, Mark walked into the bar. It was a lot busier than before, and he had to squeeze into the last open seat, trying carefully not to move the arm that was strapped across his middle. Estrella smiled when she saw him. She was in the middle of delivering a round of drinks to a table, but as soon as she had finished, she came over and gave him a kiss on the cheek, for which he drew envious stares from the other guys at the bar.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
"Pretty good. The doctor had to reset my shoulder after the dislocation, but the good thing was the, uh," he glanced around, "special, extra hard conditioning I had on my arms and hands deflected the shot. It burned a hell of a line along my palm, though."
"You did a good thing, Mark."
"I was just, you know, in the middle of things at the right time," he said.
"No. You made a choice and took a big risk for me and everyone else. I owe you, and I got a little something as a down payment on that." She reached under the bar and pulled out a silver and black gift bag stuffed with tissue paper. Mark reached inside of it and pulled out a boxed set of DVDs.
"It's the first season of a show called Angel. It's about a guy who used to be evil that takes up fighting monsters and protecting others as a path to redemption. I think you'll like it!"
"Thanks. I'll check it out. Can I get a beer?"
"Don't they have you on some kind of pain medication?"
"Oh yeah." He grinned and she smiled back.
"Hit the road, pal. Go home and watch the pilot episode. When you're feeling better, come back by. Maybe we'll slay something evil." The guy on Mark's right side raised an eyebrow at them.
"We'll do that."
Mark stood back up slowly, grabbed the gift bag with his good hand, and headed for the door.
"Hey Mark!" Estella shouted at him just as he was about to leave.
He turned back to face her.
"I know!" he shouted back before she could say anything else. "It's the choices you make in the present!"
She gave him a thumbs up sign, and he turned and walked out into the snowy, dirty, monster-infested, and secretly magical city.
posted by D @ 11:41 PM
I love stories - especially speculative fiction, and I named this blog Brief Glimpses of Somewhere Else because I think of each story as a window into another world.
If this is your first time here, I recommend "Legacies" and "The Great Puzzle", both of which were nominated for a 2006 Parsec Award. You can also find "Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart" as well as "Late Shift at the Souleater" in the podcast anthology Voices: New Media Fiction available at podiobooks.com.
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