BEFORE the fangs of the creature had torn off Manuel’s head, he had been having a very good night with his companions, Jesse and Mitch.
The three had decided to take the plunge and go after Gehenna-3 without any backup. They worked up the courage to drive the fifty miles from Tiburon Key to Gehenna-3, the old city, the high-tech city of fifty thousand skyscrapers full of archaic neon green lights that reached up to the cloud covered stars, hoping to grab what they could amidst the ruins of the old civilization.
Manuel thought he was being a man for once- taking what needed to be taken, then returning to the bars and shops of Tiburon Key like a titan made out of money. They heard from the few Network salvagers working legally in the old city of the incredible and expensive things lying amidst the dark corridors, the blown out lobbies, the toppled towers of the old city. Expensive things that could be sold back on Earth for thousands of dollars.
The three made the unauthorized journey by driving a rickety old Ford Econoline van to the alien city sometime after 2 a.m., still feeling the effects of the two vodka shots each had taken to keep their courage up. Their supplies included a case of warm Busch beer, three pistols, three flashlights, and three large SpongeBob Squarepants backpacks they stole out of a charity box for poor Ni-Perchta who lived in the walled village a key north of Tiburon Key. The three had no ori-batons on them. They had no real plan. They were having fun.
The first stop, after turning into the dark and wet streets of the ancient city still lit up by old green and orange street lights that could never be shut off, was a shop; a small building in front of a toppled tower broken into three separate chunks some hundreds of years ago. Manuel entered the shop first, waving his cheap red plastic flashlight around. Mitch came next and then Jesse.
The shop was full of odd glass pods that contained decaying skeletons. A 3-D hologram of a topless woman with bright green eyes appeared out of one corner of the shop, making Jesse scream like a girl. The hologram woman passed through a large cobweb, leaving it intact.
Manuel hee-hawed like a donkey, “You afraid of tits, bro? You afraid of all that?”
Mitch, a gangly looking white kid with glasses, didn’t say anything, having been as scared as Jesse.
Jesse yelped back at Manuel, his skinny frame shaking. “No! Look she’s talking at me in whatever that is- I’m surprised, that’s all, man! Come on it’s spooky as shit out here! Thought she could’ve been a zombie and shit. You know? I get bit and then I get shot in the head because I got bit and shit=.”
Mitch shrugged. “He’s right, Manuel. Her appearance was disconcerting.”
“See? Disconcerting.” Jesse said. “I’ll use that next time. That’s a good word.”
Manuel took out his gun and fired into the hologram woman. A loud bang and a single brass shell flew out of the gun, landing on the piles of broken glass inside the shop. “The bitch can’t die so what are we going to do, huh?” Manuel said. “It’s a hologram, bro.”
The topless woman with bright green eyes continued to speak to them in something that sounded like a mix of Japanese and Russian to their uninitiated ears. The hologram then started to repeat itself. The sound of an electronic hiss and a few popping noises from somewhere trumpeted the hologram’s disappearance into the ether. Jesse breathed a sigh of relief. “Sick weirdo people man. Vampire shit.” Jesse spit onto the ground. “My mom wouldn’t like me doing this, man. We should wrap this up.”
Mitch pointed to something behind a long marble counter in the far corner and lit it up with a flashlight.
Manuel, being the most muscled and toughest looking one with his tattoos, took the lead. Rubbing his bald head, Manuel hopped over the counter and peered at the box in the corner.
“Oh shit. Look at the man Mitch here with his four eyes. Dog’s got a good eye. Stasis box.”
“Bro, we just made eight thousand bucks. Easy.” Manuel said.
Mitch and Jesse shuffled over and took a look over the side of the counter.
“Stasis box.” Mitch said. Seen one before. You can put a bottle of cold Coors in there and five months later, it’ll come out the same way- ice cold. You put a baloney sandwich in there and it’ll be just as fresh twelve years from now.”
Manuel slapped his hand against large black metal box that had an odd green glow coming from its “seams”. “This is a good night.”
Mitch pushed his glasses back up his nose. “We going to open this and see what’s inside?”
Manuel and Jesse looked at each other. “You can open it, man, you can, but stuff sometimes hides in there. My friend’s friend, Bill? Right, he opened it up and one of those land squid things came out and started choking him and shit. It was terrible. His girlfriend had a miscarriage ‘cuz she got so scared. True story, man.” Jesse pulled his beanie cap around his ears. “Man, being off-world is weird, huh?”
Manuel made a “oh, whatever” motion with his hands. Taking a deep breath, Manuel moved next to the box. He put his flashlight on the counter, where it rolled a little toward the edge. “Bro, why did you have to tell me that story? You guys, take your guns out and just point at the box.” Manuel commanded.
Mitch took out his gun slowly and so did Jesse. Mitch cocked his gun and after a moment, Jesse remembered to do the same.
“On three.” Manuel said, sweat beading up on his bald head.
“I really hope there isn’t something in there.” Mitch whispered.
Manuel and Jesse looked at him.
“Don’t jinx it, man!” Jesse said, pulling his black beanie cap down further around his ears.
“One.” Manuel said.
Mitch muttered a brief prayer in his head. Jesse couldn’t keep his mouth closed.
“Do you really want to open it here?” Jesse blurted out. “What if something comes out and rips your head off?”
Manuel shook his head, thinking God wouldn’t want him to die like that. He went to Church every other Sunday. He was good with God and wasn’t a bad guy. “Only time I’ll have the courage, bro. And three!”
Mitch was confused and Jesse yelped a little as Manuel slammed open the box. The top banged against the marble floor with a clang, cracking the floor a little under its pointed corner.
“Shit!” Manuel said, standing quickly, looking through a green and blue fog that poured out of the stasis box.
Mitch and Jesse said nothing.
“Ori-baton! This one had an ori-baton inside! Oh my god, bros, jackpot, holy shit, not bad!” Manuel said.
Taking the ori-baton out of the box, Manuel found it to be collapsed. He snapped it out and telescoped it to reveal one dark blue orichalcum stone embedded into its silver hilt. The stone had been cut into the arrow shaped Sagittarius astrology symbol. There were other places to add other orichalcum stones but this particular baton didn’t have anything else.
Manuel remembered what he’d briefly learned at the mine back in Tiburon Key. A small flame came out of the end of the baton, brought about by Manuel’s thought processes. “Why everyone comes here to The Oberon.” Manuel mused. “This is a very good night, bros.”
Manuel, Jesse and Mitch loaded the box into the back of the running Econoline van. Manuel felt good about himself. Despite the ominous atmosphere of the city, Manuel was very happy and excited. It felt to him as if he were in a film, a film where he was the star making the discovery of something unknown and very important, like Harrison Ford or Nicholas Cage in one of their adventure movies. He imagined in the end of his adventure film he would come out on top, so for a moment he forgot what he was in real life- just another poor miner who spent precious hours of his life behind dangerous and old machinery in some dingy mine constantly filled with the blue light of orichalcum still stuck into the rock.
“Shit was so easy, bro. Really. Everyone’s like oh shit, you gotta get this, you gotta that, you gotta, you gotta… Why do you need all that weaponry and radiation suits and other crap? Really? Why do you, bro? What’s here? We walk into a shop- a random shop, first stop, ain’t nothing bro. Nighthawkin’ ain’t nothing.” Manuel popped open a can of Busch and chugged it, his large bicep flexing as he stood outside the back of the van that was spewing out fumes.
Skinny Jesse tried to do the same and spit out some of his beer and then wiped his mouth with a goofy grin. Mitch, sitting on the floor of the open van, popped his beer open, took a sip, and set it down.
The three listened to the nothing that was within the city. A warm wind blew between the skyscrapers with a lonely howl. The smell of moisture and rot permeated everything. Empty streets lit by half-glowing lights stretched in every direction.
They listened to the oldies coming from Radio Oberon (at a very low volume, just in case the planes were overhead).
Mitch finally spoke. “There’s possible irradiated areas and some of the creatures-“
“Bullshit, man. They say that to keep us little people out. Network says you need to be licensed- bullshit. Nighthawks say you got to be armed to the teeth at night- bullshit.” Jesse said, scratching himself and drinking his beer. “They make up stuff, you know? It’s like how they, the Government, say you piss in the pool, they’ll be like, uh, uh, a black cloud around you, you know, like the piss interacts with the water and then the life guards will be like, oh, what the fuck? Like something that indicates you’re pissing in the community pool? But guess what man, I’ve pissed in five community pools, and that’s never, ever happened, even though they warned me man. Signs, people. They warned me.”
Mitch and Manuel looked at each other.
“Bro, I will never, ever go swimming with you.” Manuel said.
Mitch nodded. “I agree, if I ever went, uh, swimming with you.”
Jesse looked at Mitch and Manuel, suddenly very concerned. “You know I was joking, right? Guys? You feel me, though, right?”
Manuel nodded. “Yeah. It’s like when cops put an empty patrol car next to the freeways to slow people down- but if you know there’s nothing backing up, like, the threat, you can just do what you want, right?”
Mitch ignored what Jesse and Manuel said. He opened the stasis box, unleashing the blue fog and took out the orichalcum baton.
“This ori-baton, how much we talking?” He telescoped the baton out.
Manuel jumped. “Watch that shit, bro. You could just think something and burn my face off.”
Mitch muttered an apology.
“That and the box- we just made $20,000 in one night. Bro, we’ll be living like Kings for a weekend in T.K.” Manuel said, popping open another beer. He loved the nighttime air.
The three had the entire evening ahead of them, before the dawn showed up and with it the official Network salvagers that prowled the streets looking for items for re-sell back on Earth. It was a slow race against the clock, a race Manuel enjoyed. He regretted not bringing any pot with him. That would’ve been a good way to end the evening- bunch of rich items to sell and a joint to smoke watching the sunrise over the dead futuristic city.
Manuel looked down the street to see one building, a grandiose something carved out of black stone and metal.
“That’s our next stop.” He pointed to the building, over a hundred stories tall. It was a black monster of glass and glowing green lights. Strange advertisements played of regular people devouring gray skinned Ni-Perchta forced to wear disturbing Greek Chorus like masks played on the side of the skyscrapers next to it.
Mitch got out of the back of the van to look to where Manuel was pointing.
Manuel thought the evening could only get better. $20,000 accumulated in only two hours of work- and one hour and forty-five minutes of that being just the drive over to Gehenna-3 from Tiburon Key. Shit, at this rate, they could get enough to retire on before the dawn patrol headed into the city.
“This is a very good night.” Manuel said to himself. He thought of Cassie, his rich girlfriend back in T.K. and the look on her face when he brought home a van full of goodies for trade. She wanted to leave her father’s family but that girl- she wouldn’t do it unless Manuel had the cash on hand. Her father wasn’t going to part with a dime even though he actually liked Manuel. To a point. But with the way this evening was turning out, and what with the portal still open, they might even be able to go back home to Norwalk, surprise his parents maybe, party with old friends…
With the van’s running lights partially illuminating the three friends, they stepped into the lobby of that grandiose something. They now stalked around the lobby of a skyscraper left open to the elements of The Oberon. Manuel waved his cheap red plastic flashlight around the lobby, looking for something amidst the clutter and the dust. Mitch and Jesse did the same, following behind him timidly. All were scared, though Manuel didn’t show it at all, putting on a very, very tough front for the other two.
Three cheap pistols they bought off the bartender Joe Rhodesia were their only protection, besides the newly found ancient ori-baton they could barely use.
The lobby was football field large and its roof was twenty stories high. In the high corners of the lobby, octopus like creatures with a single blanket like wing hung upside down in silence.
To Manuel’s ill-educated mind, they were inside the front part of what looked to be a temple with a large hall that reached deep into the dark interior of the cavernous building. Manuel was wrong about this. Large statues of women in cloaks and of winged creatures with many arms and many faces surrounded each side of the lobby, peering at the three with pupil less eyes. Each of the three’s footfalls could be heard with an echoing boom as they spread out, searching for something of interest that could potentially make them a rich hero back home.
The sound of something scurrying put Manuel’s nerves on edge. The sound was too loud- something more than a rat or a cat that had managed to survive in the old city.
“This is- I think this is a temple. If it is, maybe they haven’t-” Manuel said loudly. He, for a lack of a better description, was ignorant as shit about where he was.
“Shush, there’s something moving around towards the back.”
Mitch waved his flashlight towards the back of the large lobby. Three sets of eyes watched the flashlight’s beam waltz over the stone and marble of the back area of the lobby. For just a second the beam illuminated a terrible sculpture—a bearded human head, fire flashing from its eyes, a half-man, half-snake creature with viper coils for the lower half of its armored body.
Manuel’s happiness almost leaked out of him, but returned when he thought of himself bringing home a batch of unknown trophies to Cassie, and seeing her light up with joy at the news they could quit The Oberon and return to California. Still, he saw the silhouette of the statue in the corner of his eye, and so he could no longer feel the rush that he had been feeling for most of the night. His legs felt wooden and his tongue was dry.
“Mummy, bro?” Manuel asked, but Mitch hushed him.
Gun barrels from cheap pistols were raised in anticipation of whatever made the increasingly loud scurrying noise. It set nerves and itchy trigger fingers on edge. Jesse made an odd yipping sound.
The thing appeared from a dark corner of the lobby, a gnarled and withered grey ghoul, six feet tall with wisps of white and black hair trailing from its ravaged skull. Two green eyes as bright as green traffic lights bore right through to the back of Manuel’s skull, frightening him terribly.
The thing, perhaps fifty yards away, charged, and the rags it still carried on its emaciated frame flapped around it like ancient flags.
Manuel did what anyone would when seeing such a terrible old creature – he shot it to pieces, emptying his gun into the thing.
The other friends had been too stunned to pull their triggers. As the smell of cordite wafted over the scene and the gun smoke emptied out of the barrel, they laughed nervously. Jesse let out a yell of victory, a victory that he had very little to do with.
“Oh man!” Jesse grabbed his balls. “Oh man!”
“Good shooting.” Mitch shook a little as he cleaned his glasses. “Good shooting.”
Manuel, stunned and pleased, walked over to crumpled thing on the marble stone floor. With one arm shot off and part of its jaw missing from the gunfire, its eyes now coal black instead of green; the creature was most sincerely dead, though the shot off arm clenched and unclenched its fist over and over again.
Kicking the old zombie with a steel-toed boot, Manuel took a deep breath, inhaling the thing’s ancient odor. It smelled like it had been held up in some underground shelter for hundreds of years.
“Stinks, bro. Oh god.” Manuel wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Oh god.”
“So that’s- that’s an ante-ante bellum, uh…” Jesse said, also touching the thing a little with his boot while covering it with his own gun as he tried to breath out of his mouth and not through his nose. The three flashlights bathed the old thing in man-made light.
“Antediluvian. It’s an Antediluvian person. Was an Antediluvian person. Christ, bro.” Manuel said carefully, having spent a good two hours in the library of Town Center on Friday night to familiarize himself with some of the limited; Network approved literature on the subject of the old cities. “Like, human, but like a vampire, now a zombie- if it had bit one of us, we’d go crazy and want to uh, drink blood, bro. Right Mitch? You know this stuff better, right?”
Mitch breathed deep. “I know, I know. I’ve seen ‘em. I- Thank god it didn’t. Do you-would there be anymore?”
Manuel rubbed his chin with the tip of his gun. He jumped at the sting of the hot metal. “Shit, I don’t know. Gehenna-3, this city, is supposed to be listed as an open and clear city, the Solomon’s University book said so, bro. The numbers of these guys still hanging around is supposed to be really, really low. That’s probably just it, bro.”
Jesse piped in. “I was so ready to shoot it man, I was just ready to pow, pow, pow its ass and you beat me. Good job Manuel.”
“Thanks Jesse.” Manuel said.
Jesse took a deep breath and laughed. “Shit’s crazy, man.”
Manuel grinned. “Jeez that was a scary rush. Can you ‘magine doing this every night… Bro…” The sound of horns interrupted Manuel, as if dark angels were announcing the approach of their ungodly master. The horns lasted for a good minute. The octopus like animals in the high rafters woke and flew out of the lobby in a straight line, something they hadn’t even done with the exchange of gunfire. They flew away into the cloud-covered night.
All three froze. No one said anything for a long time.
“That- that was scarier.” Jesse said, wiping sweat from his brow.
“The hell was-“ Miguel said.
The light from their flashlights dimmed a little, and then died one after another. Without the running lights of their vans still giving some weak illumination and the seven moons of The Oberon sky peeking through the lobby’s skylights and blown out windows, the three would be in total darkness, as the nearest working streetlight was a block away- a rarity in the dead city still teeming with old light. They tried to get their lights back on by slapping the ends.
The sound of great and quickly moving footfalls came from wherever the Antediluvian “mummy” had come from- the great hall that was at the other end of the lobby. It was very far away now, but getting closer and closer. Manuel thought of a shadowy monster coming towards them, Mitch thought of the Devil perhaps reaching into this world and making his presence finally known. Jesse thought of a crazy King Kong thing with yellow and sharp teeth, ready to get nuts on all of them.
“Anyone- who’s got the baton? Who’s got it?” Manuel whispered, as he tucked his gun away into his belt.
Mitch snapped out the baton with a snick.
“Be careful man, that thing is a thousand years old. It could blow or something-“ Jesse said.
They heard an odd, whale like noise, a sort of laugh, a sort of metallic moan, a sort of huffing, all rolled into one.
“It’s not an animal, is it?” Mitch asked.
No one said anything. At the end of the tip of Mitch’s baton, a small flame came out, as if the baton was one long lighter.
“Let’s go.” Mitch backed up slowly, but tripped over something as he did so, falling and landing with his right thigh onto something sharp.
Manuel spun to see Mitch on the floor. The flame at the end of the baton expanded to a foot in length for a moment and then puffed out.
Manuel and Jesse ran up to him, picking him off the floor. A sharp and short, and very new looking hook the size of a shoe, stuck out of his right thigh. Mitch hissed with pain, and thought of infections at first but the hook looked too clean, too brand new, so then he thought maybe not.
“The fuck-“ Mitch squeaked out. Jesse hit his flashlight a couple of times. The light came on for a moment and Jesse saw something they’d missed in the dark on their way in. The flashlight died again, this time for good.
“Solomon’s House stuff- someone’s been here, guys-“ Manuel pointed out as Jesse lifted Mitch off the floor with a struggle. There was some yellow caution tape left on the floor that clearly said “SH University Expedition”.
Mitch cursed. “Goddamn- what the fuck is this fucking thing? What is this? A fucking hook? Why is this here? Why?” Mitch’s voice rose two octaves higher.
The other two grabbed Mitch and helped him hop forward, the hook still stuck out of his leg, which now dribbled blood onto the stone floor, making tiny red pools onto the dirty and dusty marble. The loud footfalls were rushing forward. The three managed to angle back to the van, going as fast as they could. Mitch dropped his dead flashlight in the process. There was a loud cough and snort, and ash fell down from somewhere, covering the three men in gray soot. The laughing whale sound chortled out again, making them rush forward even faster.
Manuel and Jesse literally threw the injured Mitch into the van through the side door, knocking him into the stasis box they had found.
They jumped into the van after him, Manuel rushing to the driver’s side and snapping his seat belt on for whatever reason, Jesse in the passenger seat, both looking as if they had been plastered with gray ashes when the interior dome light turned on.
Just as Manuel started to drive, they heard the odd whale like sound again, now horrifyingly close. It deafened them for a moment and something slammed into the side of the van with the force of a cruise missile, knocking it into the air, where it spun end over end and landed hard, roof first onto a now waterless fountain piece on the other side of the broken street. The landing smashed Jesse, skewering him as the stainless steel fountain piece punctured through the passenger side roof of the old van and into his body.
Blood and other parts from Jesse had gotten onto Manuel. He futilely brushed it off his body and his clothes with both hands. Crazily he thought of the scene in “Pulp Fiction” when John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson picked blood and brains off themselves after Travolta had accidentally shot the black kid in the face.
“Mitch- Mitch you still-“ Manuel tried to turn around and see if Mitch was still alive. Mitch lay on the roof of the van still breathing, his eyes wide open. The hook was still his leg but it looked like it had twisted a bit, ripping further into his thigh.
“Yeah, yeah, we should go, let’s go, let’s go.” Mitch croaked out. A tear leaked down his cheek. His glasses were still on, miraculously, though one lens was cracked.
Manuel managed to unhook himself from his seatbelt, but heard the ghostly whale like sound that hurt his ears, followed by a breathy snuffle. Upside down, landing on his face for a moment as he tried to wiggle out, he then felt something slimy, cold and clammy grab his right arm and wrench his body through the open driver side window. It took three painful tries before Manuel managed to get dragged out of the window. He felt one shoulder dislocate and his right side was numb, scratched and bleeding.
Up and up Manuel went, his eyes opening and shutting as he saw himself lifted straight up into the night air by whatever had grabbed him. He dared not look up as he felt the thing’s hot breath on his neck and heard its constant groan.
Soon Manuel was thirty feet up, forty feet up, one hundred- the thing dragged him past the highest levels of one of the nearby skyscrapers. Glass shattered as the thing crawled up the side of the building, its claws or paws or whatever, hooked into the old windows and broke the glass, as it used every old window it could grab as a hold.
Manuel saw skeletons of the dead lying about the broken balconies of the old city and within the damaged and wind swept interiors of the skyscrapers with their decayed furniture and toppled pillars. Odd vending machines still offering snacks and goods in holographic detail popped alive as they sensed his presence.
Now he was maybe five or six hundred feet up. The Ford Econoline van seemed to be the size of child’s toy from this height. For a moment, Manuel felt himself fall as the thing let go, only to scoop him up again. The creature and Manuel were now almost at the top of the skyscraper.
Manuel thought only of Cassie and of the first time he met her in the meager seconds he had left. He felt the creature’s large but dull fangs sink into this throat, tearing at his neck and then ending his life in one short white burst of incredible pain. The creature cried out in triumph.
That odd whale-howl echoed off the empty buildings in the old city, making rats and cats and other animals scurry into their burrows and their nests in instinctual fright.
Mitch, the last surviving companion, managed to army crawl out from the wreckage of the Ford and onto the broken street, the hook still in his leg. Heart racing and head pounding from the strain, he tried to gauge where he was in the midst of that necropolis, holding the hook with one shaking hand. He wondered, just briefly, how he ended up here. A flood of memories came back, reminding him in patches of clarity. Just as he was lost in his own pain-filled thoughts, a White Maserati Coupe, something that shouldn’t be seen in such a place, appeared at the end of one street, engine revving.
THIRTEEN LIGHT YEARS AWAY, THREE WEEKS EARLIER.
MITCH Early sat in the near dark of his bare bedroom full of brown moving boxes, seething with anger as he looked upon the well-lit screen of his laptop and perused his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page.
There was she was of course, newly single, having broken up with Mitch ten calendar days ago at a Starbucks, different from the one he worked, ending a relationship that had been going on since high school. There was she was, at the Templeton Vineyard, the chief competitor to his father’s Early Winery, the one competitor that gained the most since his father’s winery was bankrupt and being shut down, a soon to be empty bank own piece of property now.
There she was, a beautiful, tanned brunette, sipping Templeton wine (which she legally couldn’t drink) with John Templeton, a young man her and Mitch’s age that Mitch thought to be a homosexual, under a bright and wide and blue Temecula, California sky. And there she was on Facebook, mentioning him. Posing next to him. She never did the same for Mitch. She told Mitch that she didn’t want her folks to know. She said they were strict about dating.
Comment for the picture: “Celebrating with JT!” The next picture showed her, JT and her folks and his folks sitting together at a table in front of the rows upon rows of wine grape vines that stretched to the horizon. Comment for the picture: “Introducing JT to my parents!”
It’s been ten days, Mitch thought. They’ve been together how long and this- Mitch thought of a word that rhymed with maggot- was going out with his girl now? Mitch adjusted his glasses and ran his hand through bushy black hair. She moved on that fast? Wasn’t there an unsaid rule about this? Especially in relationships lasting so many years?
Ten days. She’s move on quickly, Mitch Early thought. He snapped the laptop shut with a click, leaving himself in the complete darkness of his room.
The next morning Mitch got into his boxy and old black 1989 Volvo. He ignored his bone skinny mother, who helped his frail and unhealthy looking father put boxes into the back of their pickup truck with the aid of a couple of gray and white skinned Ni-Perchta workers; true born and bred aliens that had come to Earth for work. Tall and skinny, human looking but with platinum hair and pointed ears, they worked the vineyard for amounts that the previous old illegal immigrants would have laughed at. They were going back home soon, their passes having expired along with the winery.
“Mitch!” She called out as he started up the car and drove off under the wide blue and cloud covered sky, kicking up a rooster tail of dust behind the car. “We have to be out by six-“
He barely heard her over the engine of the Volvo. Mitch still wore the same clothes from yesterday, having not slept one bit during the night.
The Volvo passed by the Early Winery sign, a big wooden sign on the side of Rancho California Road. A large black and orange square stating “Closed” covered part of it, and a smaller white and blue bank sign stating “For Sale” was put into the dirt in front of it, listing a number one could call if interested.
A few miles down the road and at another Winery’s restaurant, Mitch met the man of the hour, Cooper Bullock, a Tom Cruise clone with Tom Cruise’s mix of good looks and lack of height. Cooper Bullock, who graduated three years ahead of Mitch, welcomed him over to his outside set table with a wave of his manicured hand. Cooper had already started eating his Kobe beef burger, a sloppy red mess of meat. A bottle of red wine was already set out, despite it being 11:00am.
“So you thought about it? My little deal?” Cooper said, smiling behind a pair of expensive Ray Ban aviator shades that reflected the vineyards behind Mitch.
Mitch nodded. Cooper poured himself a glass of wine and slugged down half of it. “Well shit, son. This is quite the opportunity you are embarking on. Your passport all in order and everything?”
Cooper smiled. “Look it’s the easiest thing- I just need a guy who’s done bookkeeping. You know it because you used to do it at your own winery and I trust you, man. That’s what you need out there- you know, trust, off-world. Plus, look at as an adventure, you know? A quiet little one, right, not one where you are left dying on a sidewalk somewhere trying to figure out how you got there, but a little adventure. A nice quiet one.”
Mitch swallowed. “Sure. I mean, Hemingway went out and got experiences like this. You know, traveling and all. I was reading his biography and-”
Cooper snickered. “Well if doing the books for my restaurant in The Oberon is considered a Hemingway adventure, yeah sure.”
Mitch looked hurt.
“I kid, Jesus. Stop looking like I’m your fifty year old gym teacher and I just exposed myself to you.”
“Tiburon Key is interesting. I read about it.” Mitch said, looking over Cooper’s shoulder to the clouds and the bright blue Temecula sky behind him.
“Near the Super Sargasso. Yes, indeed. Shipwrecks from out of time show up- there was a Galleon from the 15th century deposited on a reef nearby when I left. Fucking Spaniard lost in space was still on board last I heard, usually there ain’t anyone alive on those things, you know? But sorry, we don’t do anything that cool like retrieving ships lost in time or even salvaging or mining. Our co-op just does barbecue and the beer for T.K and we got competition up the asshole. Still, you’ll meet a million interesting characters. And all those desperate young professional women. How’s what’s her vagina, uh…” Cooper took another sip of wine.
“Becky. We broke up.” Mitch said.
“Sorry. Just can’t trust a Becky. It’s a fact. Want some wine?”
Mitch looked around to see if there was a waiter or somebody to spot him. He was under aged by a year. “Sure.”
Mitch took a sip, made a face. “Don’t like it.”
“Because you’re a faggot.” Cooper said, taking back the wine glass.
Mitch snorted. “That’s nice. Haven’t changed at all since high school, huh Coop?”
Cooper smiled. “Just my ego and bank account’s gotten larger. You’ll see once you get off-world. Even the accountants make a lot more money than you think. Everything is a little different out in The Oberon. Meet you at the Office tonight? Little, little celebration?”
Mitch shrugged. “First time to see the Office. Why not?”
Cooper handed Mitch his business card. “Black Rain Restaurant and Bar Co-Op.” An odd thunderbolt symbol was embossed onto the white business card. “That’s how you can get into the Office.”
Mitch spent the rest of the day trying not to think of anything too deeply. He just packed up boxes that would be moved by his parent’s pickup, box and boxes that would be put into public storage, sweating through the unseasonably warm day under the Temecula sun. Towards the end of it, he sat down with his father on one of their old picnic tables that had been laid out for tourists who had come by in groups to taste their wines.
His father, Bryan, sat on the picnic table looking out at all the vineyards that had once been his and his Dad’s before that. Bryan breathed deeply, coughed, coughed some more, and then had to use a napkin to cover up his hacking.
“You alright, Dad?” Mitch sat down next to him.
“Okay.” His father replied.
“Just okay.” Bryan patted Mitch on the shoulder. “Acting up a bit today.” He shook his head. “You know, this was something I wanted to- to give to Michael. And to you to, of course. Something to pass down to my two sons.”
Mitch bit his lip, noticing the focus on Michael, his older brother. “How is Michael? I know he called last night.”
“Michael is doing good. Wellington Brothers is doing good. Making good amounts of money, too. Michael’s in Singapore this week doing some deal for the Off-World Network and some manufacturers out in Asia. He may break a million this year in salary. A million after taxes, mind you.”
“Exciting.” Mitch said. A gust of wind blew from somewhere, letting him smell the grass and the hay from all around. “It’s sad to go.”
“It’s business.” Bryan said. “It’s just business. This is how capitalism works. Some people win, some people lose, and we are on the wrong side of things.” Bryan patted Mitch’s hand with his own liver spotted one that still had a small bandage from where they had to run an IV line into it. “You are only a loser though if you quit playing the game. Remember.” He started to cough again, racking out his lungs. It’s a shame though. Too bad Michael can’t come through now. He says it’s a bad investment for him to make. I don’t blame him. He’s- he’s cool, calculating- he acts, uh, thoughtfully. He’ll buy this place back when the moment is right.”
Mitch wanted to throw up. Michael was cheap – cheap, cheap, cheap. He could bail them all out in one smooth motion, save the day, but his older brother wouldn’t. And the hell of the thing was, Mitch’s parents knew this. Knew this. Michael had told them flat out he wouldn’t bail them out. Instead of resenting it, his parents understood.
Mitch adjusted his glasses. “I’m sure he will.”
Bryan smiled. “He will. He’s the smartest one of out of us, you know that? You know, the only one of our family to make the history books so far is your great great grandfather, Jubal Early. But I think Michael could be the second.”
Bryan grimaced. “I know what you are going to say.”
“Jubal Early was a white supremacist traitor who tried to burn Washington, D.C. to the ground during the civil war. I think we should just ignore that and not use that as, uh, something to shoot for-”
Bryan Early rolled his red eyes. “I thought I knew what you were going to say. That’s not what I mean. The point is to- the point I’m trying to make is that our family- is our family is meant for- for bigger things. We almost had it here. Almost. Now things are downhill.”
Bryan looked over his Winery, seeing the forever-closed doors of the barn section that had once sold wine bottles and knick-knacks to tourists, to the forever-closed doors of the wine processing building and the small adobe building that contained a small restaurant. Their house that sat nearby, a three-story picturesque and white Victorian style home, would be the bank’s as well by midnight.
“I don’t think that’s what’s life is about, Dad. Trying to reach for something more. I mean, what about just living life, you know…”
Bryan shook his head. “Michael would understand. Life is about living to the fullest. The only way you can do that- is by, by earning wealth. Sad but true fact. And you have to do everything you can to make that happen.” He said under his breath, before starting to cough again.
Mitch looked at his father, skinny, shirt too big for him, his once tanned face know a sort of yellowish pale. “You want some water, Dad?”
His father shook his head. “No, no I’m fine. Just needed to sit.”
Mitch’s mother came by, wiping her hands, asking for Mitch’s assistance with the last couple of boxes. Mitch looked over his shoulder, seeing his father sitting on the picnic table, a premature wreck of a man, an almost skeleton. His father sat, drumming his fingers against the tabletop, thinking to himself. Mitch’s heart sunk a little. His old man- the winery meant everything to him. And now it was being taken away, probably right before he died. It burned Mitch inside as he thought of it.
By 6 p.m., the move was over. Most of the stuff they had as a family was in storage. The little things left over were being pulled out and placed around a small apartment- a little two-bedroom upstairs apartment about a few blocks away from the Indian Casino. It smelt faintly of cat piss and its carpet was a deep and ugly green that contrasted badly with the brown walls of the apartment home. It clashed with the expensive furniture brought in from their old house. Mitch’s father sat on the couch breathing from an oxygen tank while his mother prepared something for them to eat. Del Taco probably, maybe Taco Bell. Something cheap.
Mitch sat on the floor Indian style in his now much smaller room overlooking the apartment’s parking lot. As he took his yearbooks from one of the boxes, he stumbled onto some pictures of him and Becky from back in high school. Awkward couple we were, he thought – Mitch towered over her in most of the shots, and never smiled in any of the photos while she plastered a huge shit-eating grin over her face. It was the two of them at the beach, at Disneyland, at Big Bear snowboarding. Mitch belatedly realized that Becky had the same exact look on her face. Mitch took out two of them, looked at them back and forth.
“How did I never notice?“ He said aloud. He chucked the photos into a metal wastebasket next to him. “Bitch.”
Mitch got up to tell his parents he’d be out for a while.
PARKING next the red neon sign of “The Office”, Mitch got out of the Volvo just as a cold breeze kicked in, blowing in from the direction of a vineyard. Another open and operating vineyard, Mitch mused. A billboard across the street was lit up:
The stylized symbol of the Off-World Network, the blue and white circles overlapping each other, took up the rest of the billboard’s space.
The two-story structure that presented itself as a Gentleman’s Club had a few cars outside; locals indulging in a bit of strip club action. A white Maserati Coupe was parked in a VIP section next to the back door that was cordoned off by a red rope. It sat by next to a black Mercedes Van. The Maserati and the Van were the only two cars worthy of such placement.
Mitch looked at the two fat bouncers the size of boulders flanking the back door of the club. The black one asked him for his ID and Mitch took out Cooper’s business card.
The bouncer looked to his white counterpart, who had one of the secret service style earpieces in his ear. The white one nodded and the black one opened the door.
Mitch stepped inside, and was enveloped in thumping techno music and the smell of too much perfume mixed with sweat and the stench of cigarettes smoked a long time ago. A blonde girl was already up on stage, pole dancing, breasts exposed, ass shaking.
“Ho boy.” Mitch said.
He’d never been in such a place before. Never in his life. Women barely older than him and others closer to his mom’s age walked around customers in string bikinis or Daisy Dukes, offering lap dances, twenty bucks a pop. Young guys grouped together and creepy older guys (who were probably registered sex offenders) by themselves milled around the open show room. It was dark except for strands of purple and pink light. A bar in the center of the showroom served drinks. According to the neon chalkboard, it was two dollars for anything that was a well drink.
Cooper appeared in front of Mitch like a crazed djinn. He rubbed his nose like crazy, and handed Mitch a drink.
“Come on! Come on down! You’re the next contestant friend! Back to the VIP section friendo!” Cooper slapped Mitch on the back. A tall brunette with epic sized breasts grabbed Cooper’s arm and a petite Asian girl in a leather bikini clung to Mitch.
“Just a couple of friends I made. This is Dazzle-“ Cooper indicated the brunette- “and Dawn. Dawn is in law school and Dazzle don’t give a shit about the law, right Dazzle?”
Mitch said hello, pushing his glasses up his nose. The girls said hello back, smiling, and led them both up a stairway.
Cooper and Mitch and a couple of older guys in suits hung out in the upstairs VIP section overlooking the showroom. Each man had his own private dancer.
Mitch sipped what he found to be a Jack and Coke as Cooper rambled. He could barely pay attention to what Cooper was talking about as the Asian girl slowly ground herself against his lap.
“So I’m taking it that this nigga right here is down for an off-world vacation, that’s what I’m talking about, right? That’s why you are here, you are signing up?”
“I already told you I was.” Mitch said.
“You tell your folks?” Cooper said, easily ignoring his own error. Mitch nodded. “It’ll work itself out.”
Cooper kicked his legs out, causing Dazzle to topple to the floor. She decided to sit next to him on the purple leather couch.
“That’s my nigga! We gots to celebrate my friend-“ Cooper took out his wallet and threw a couple of hundreds at Mitch, who grabbed the bills as they floated down to the floor.
“That wasn’t for you. There is more to come, believe you me now. That was for Dawn. Dawn, please escort Mitch to the Very, Very Important People room.” Cooper winked at Dawn, who then took the two hundreds out of Mitch’s hand and let him away from the VIP room.
Mitch looked back at Cooper. “What’s- what is Dawn and me going to do in the Very, Very Important People Room?”
Dawn grabbed his arm, whispered in his ear.
“Oh shit- that’s-“ Mitch looked at Cooper who made a shooing gesture to Mitch and Dawn the stripper.
“Cooper Bullock approves this blowjob! AmIright?” Cooper snapped.
Mitch frowned. “Cooper Bullock approves this blowjob. Yep.”
The two older men in suits looked at each other and then to Cooper.
“The fuck you looking at?! You cops? You cops? You ain’t cops you just a couple of goddamn men! And this is a strip club, what the hell do you think happens here? Places like this are goddamn thunder dome. We live in an age of sail not of engines, my friends.” Cooper rambled at them. They ignored him and went back to their own conversation with their own strippers.
“Hey- I wonder if you can shape shift into a giant tit.” Cooper said to Dawn who giggled on cue.
“Wha?” Mitch said.
COOPER was talking with Dazzle and laughing when Mitch came out five minutes later.
“Wha-I’m, I’m confused here.” Mitch said.
Dawn came back a moment later, tying her leather bikini top. The other two guys in suits had apparently left before Mitch got out his room.
Cooper ordered up a bottle of Cristal and poured Mitch a foaming glass. Cooper looked at the two strippers. “Busy bees buzz off now!”
“Strippers don’t deserve Cristal. Rule number one of staying rich.” Cooper said, staring at Mitch.
The girls shrugged and left. Mitch laughed nervously. “What’s- why are you talking like that?”
“I’m coked up as shit, my friend. Here. Got some-“ Cooper brought a Ziploc baggie full of white powder out of his board shorts and laid it on the table. “Wanna try it? It’s the bees knees my friend. Off-World this is legal. Alcohol isn’t. Funny off-world ain’t it?”
Mitch looked at the powder and shook his head. “Jesus.”
“Ain’t real.” Cooper said, dead serious, pouring a little bit of the powder onto the glass table top in front of them and then using a rolled hundred dollar bill to snort up the line he had just made with a straight razor he produced from his other pocket.
“What?” Mitch said.
“Jesus. Ain’t real.” Cooper said. “Whoo! Anyway. Business.”
Cooper picked up his glass of Cristal and bumped it against Mitch’s. Mitch got the hint and took a sip. It was chilled, refreshing, dry and sweet.
“Money my friend. We can get lots of money out there. Off-world. All under the seven moon sky. We just need to stick together though at the restaurant. I got a pretty good crew out there of guys and girls- some our age, some a little bit younger. Thing- thing is- it’s a sad place. There’s not a lot of trust going around. We’ve known each other since…” Cooper grew contemplative and then started to laugh after a moment.
“Children?” Mitch sipped his Cristal. “This beats out the Wine.”
“Children? I don’t fuck children.” Cooper laughed. “You wanna go back in there and finish the work with Dawn? She isn’t a child she’s going to law school. That’s an extra three hundred- I got five k on me, all cash.”
“And so do you. Co-op signup bonus I’m authorized to give by the group.” He handed over an envelope to Mitch.
“Enjoy joy.” Cooper leaned back on the couch, rubbing his nose.
Mitch grinned in confusion and opened the envelope. All hundreds. “Sign on bonus. So how’re you and Becky doing? You going to think she’ll be cool with all this?”
Mitch sucked his teeth for a second, remembering he had just explained this to Cooper. “She’s fine with whatever I do now.”
“Oh, then you have to do a line. One little line my friend-“ Cooper looked around the VIP area- no one paid attention to them. He poured out some of the powder and made another line haphazardly.
“One little line, sweet Jesus, one little line…” Cooper laughed again. “You only live once, right? YOLO, motherfucker! You gotta try out everything in life, right?” He gave Mitch a freshly rolled up hundred dollar bill.
Mitch thought about it. Just like the Network said, Adventure and a new life await you.
He took the rolled up bill and looked around, did the line, felt the rush and blinked over and over again for a good minute.
“Ho boy.” He said.
Cooper kicked his legs out again, laughing like an animal. “Oh, Massachusetts!”
“Bring back those strippers.” Mitch said, taking off his glasses and cleaning them. “Is this why people do drugs? This uh, feeling?” He tapped own knee with his hand. “Shit. Wow.”
“Dawn and Dazzle? Or a new lineup?” Cooper asked.
Mitch shrugged. “Whatever you want. Good to be working with you, my friend.”
Cooper put out his hand and shook Mitch’s. “Good to be working with you, too.”
Coked out of his mind, Mitch made back to the Very, Very Important People Room with Dazzle this time instead of Dawn. Dazzle, the brunette, was with him.
Mitch mumbled something about epic tits.
“Honey, who you want me to be?”
Mitch replied way too quickly. “Anything just don’t call me late for dinner!” Mitch frowned, realizing the absurdity of what he just said.
“I got something here.” Dazzle said, her voice low. She pulled out a small orichalcum baton, with one blue stone shaped in the symbol of the Cancer astrology sign. Mitch thought it looked like the number sixty-nine and he felt giddy.
“Who do you want me to be?” Dazzle said.
Mitch shrugged. Telescoping out the baton and pointing it at herself, Dazzle changed into the actress, Scarlett Johansson.
“Oh god.” Mitch said.
“Or how about-“ Dazzle changed into the singer Beyoncé.
“Oh man.” Mitch said.
Dazzle shook her head and then changed into Ryan Gosling.
“Oh god, oh man.” Mitch said.
“No one has to know, baby.” Dazzle said.
“Sandra Bullock? Like from when she was in Demolition Man? She was hot in that. Not that she’s not hot now, but that was like twenty years ago and she was…” Mitch said.
Dazzle frowned in her Ryan Gosling form and then changed into Sandra Bullock.
“That’s… That’s sort of her now. But oh god, oh man… You can’t actually change into a giant pair of tits, can you? Cooper said something…”
Sandra Bullock frowned.
Cooper and Mitch stumbled out of the club, kicked out around 2:40am. The fat white bouncer led them to Cooper’s Maserati. Mitch got into the driver side and Cooper into the passenger side.
“Hold on.” Cooper said. Looking through the back seat of his car, Cooper grabbed a plastic packet full of items. “You got a passport, right? From when you went to Europe?”
“Yeah, I- my head hurts man.” Mitch said, cleaning his glasses, dropping them into his lap, and then forgetting about them. “Yeah, yeah, cocaine. Yeah. That’ll- shit yeah.”
Cooper handed him the packet. “All the paperwork for joining the co-op. Remember- remember this- you’re married. They only let married people go out. Don’t ask why. You’ll meet your wife, Bobbi. New rules. And other shit. I’ll be on the Duke of Liverpool- it’s got first shot at the portal this time around. You’ll go on the Queen Mary after me. I’ll be a week ahead so I can setup things. End of the line is Tiburon Key. All you need to know is in this packet.” Cooper belched long and hard.
“Now drunk drive yourself home.” Cooper said. “You okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m just jittery as shit.” Mitch picked up his glasses. “Just jittery. Wait, did you say marriage?”
“That’s the cocaine. Now go.” Cooper said slowly. “I’ll be leaving town tonight.”
“In your condition?” Mitch said, concerned, shifting in the driver’s seat.
“I’ve had worse.” Cooper said. “I got two lives, not just one.” He winked.
Mitch and Cooper shook hands in the dark inside of the Maserati.
Mitch stepped out and found his Volvo. The engine did a weird stutter as he pulled backwards but he ignored it.
Driving the Volvo back to him and his parents’ new place, he felt the Volvo weirdly start to shimmy. Mitch tried to correct where the car was going but it shifted back and forth; the wheel no longer his to control. “What-?”
Mitch was frightened. He tried to brake but the car kept lurching forward. He took his hands away from the wheel and his feet away from the pedals. The car seemed to speed up.
A face- a digitized face, a hologram, a 3-D specter came out of the dashboard. It was a nervous man with moustache.
“I’m- Is this working- Oh. Cooper. Cooper Bullock. I’m sorry but we’ve had to terminate our relationship, I’m really, really sorry but, I guess you’re about to well, and well… I’m sorry. It’s nothing personal. But the investment is over. Turn it off.” The nervous man with a moustache’s disembodied face disappeared.
A massive oak tree was off near one field. Mitch could see it in the pale light of the moon. There it was, yards ahead, alone, thick as a castle. The Volvo was angling for it.
His heart started to beat fast. His palms sweated. He was going seventy-five miles per hour.
The wheel turned so the car drove off onto the shoulder. It sped faster, the tree came closer and closer, and Mitch jammed his foot down on the brake. He screamed.
Mitch didn’t remember the impact at all. Under the light of the moon, he was in a field, covered in his own blood, coughing terribly. His chest didn’t seem to want to work at all. His hands and face had a million cuts on them and he couldn’t stop shaking.
Mitch tried to say something but blood gurgled out of his mouth as he lay there in the field. Oh god. Oh god please do not let me die please do not let me die please please. Let me live please and I’ll-I’ll do something I’ll do something for others and my family and I’ll make up for my life and anything bad I’ve ever done- Mitch’s mind sputtered out prayers and thoughts in rapid fire as it tried to deal with what he had just done.
Mitch saw a light – white at first, but then turning green. A man was above him. Pointing a baton at his head.
Flecks of green light swarmed all over Mitch. Flashes of white crossed his vision as if someone was popping off camera flashes near his face. In a moment he was still very, very damp from his own blood but at peace. A feeling of relaxation, something like an after sex sort of glow, poured through his body.
Mitch sat up, seeing Cooper put away his orichalcum baton.
“Close one. Been another minute…” Copper said, shaking his head. Cooper looked like he just saw a ghost. “What the hell happened, man? Jesus that was freaky…?”
“Miracle.” Mitch said, looking over all the blood soaking his clothes. “No. What the hell was that? There was a head- a man talking…”
Cooper helped Mitch to his feet. To his somewhat embarrassment Mitch noticed his jeans and shirt were ripped.
“Right. It’s the ori in the baton here; I’m probably just seeing things. You get healed, you can sometimes hallucinate.” Mitch said to himself, standing in the dark field lit now not just by the moonlight but by the Maserati’s headlights.
“This is your luckiest day on Earth.” Cooper said, breathing heavy. He looked every which way, as though trying to spot something.
Mitch, who realized that half his glasses were somehow missing, blinked. “Yes. I don’t want to- I don’t want to miss out, on anything.”
Cooper laughed and wiped his mouth. “I- I followed you because you couldn’t handle your shit man. You couldn’t handle your shit- I was thinking that. I guess. That was crazy.”
Cooper brought Mitch over to the Maserati. “You’ve been drinking and doing shit so- so let’s get the hell out of here before the police come.” Cooper said.
Mitch noticed that Cooper took out a small pistol as well, but he was too stunned by the accident to think much about it.
“Did something happen?” Mitch said. “Did something happen to my car right- I mean did somebody do something to my car-there was head, a hologram, talking and…”
Cooper swallowed nervously, looking around. “That’s some orichacum hangover. Miracle is what happened. I was going to go some other direction and just drive away and see you later but look at that. Look at that. You know, this could all have ended very ugly.” Cooper rubbed his nose, looking scared.
Mitch coughed and turned to see the wreckage of the Volvo, which was wrapped nicely around that oak tree. Smoke came from the engine. Something dripped onto the ground, Mitch could hear it.
“Miracle you showed up. Yeah.” Mitch replied.
Cooper put away the pistol and the baton. “Crazy shit can happen like that- like those Prius or whatever the fuck problems happened back a few years- you know where the accelerator got stuck? It could happen. It definitely could happen. Really.”
“My parents are going to be- Christ, they’ll be mad. They’ll be so angry.” Mitch started to weep. “God what a couple of days. What a couple of days.”
Cooper put an arm around him. “Hey, hey. Nothing like that.”
They got into the Maserati, and drove back to Mitch’s place.
Mitch took a closer look at the car. It screamed wealth and speed.
“Just picked it up. All vacuum tube technology inside- I can bring it into The Oberon just fine.” Cooper said.
Mitch really took the vehicle in. “N-nice car. How much-?”
Cooper smiled. “Isn’t that low class to ask? You’re looking about 170.”
Mitch rubbed his nose under his glasses and sniffled. “How can you afford it?”
“Drugs and pimping out teenagers, you nosey piece of shit.” The car had that new car smell of fresh plastic and leather, Mitch now noticed. Crap techno played at a low volume.
COOPER drove quickly down the long country roads on the outskirts of town, blowing through a stop sign at one point.
“Best car I ever had in my entire life. Believe me friend. I just picked it up yesterday and all I’ve been doing is driving this pussy magnet all around. Making rounds.”
“Why do you sound sober now?” Mitch rubbed his temples.
“I’m not.” Cooper said.
Mitch leaned his head back, suddenly shaking all over. “Should we call the cops?” “Already did.” Cooper replied.
“Good, because my Dad, my Dad would be worried. A shock like that could, you know…”
“He’s sick? Like badly sick?” Cooper whispered.
“Mitch- you know how crazy the Oberon is, right? You know we dig up stuff that’s science fiction, right?”
“Right.” Mitch said, looking at Cooper in earnest.
“It’s rare and its expensive as hell to find- but there are things out there- and I’ve seen two since I went out there- cure-alls they call ‘em. You’ve heard of them, right?” Mitch recalled hearing something on the news about them. Really rare stuff. The Government would buy them at five million a pop so they could de-construct them and put them back together, supposedly. They were out there, somewhere in the old cities of the Oberon.
“Well, they do cure everything. Everything. If they can ever figure out how to mass-produce them- it won’t be just serious injuries that will be a thing of the past. Disease could be too. And you come with me and we find one…” Cooper said in seriousness. “It could happen. They found two in Gehenna-3, this city next to where I’m at- and they always find those things in threes. Anything could happen out there. The Oberon is a place to make a killing in, you know? We have a restaurant co-op but…”
With only the sound of the engine purring away, Mitch stared for a long time at Cooper. “I see.”
“Sometimes we do more than, uh, restaurant stuff. I’ll, uh, just leave that, uh, out there. Stuff that can be difficult to live with. I’ll just leave that. We’ll talk in T.K.”
Mitch said nothing further, thinking about that damn odd head popping through his car’s dashboard. Hallucination, not hologram. Must’ve been that.
Returning back to his parents’ new little home, he found the small TV still on at a normal volume and his father’s oxygen tank tipped over. A glass was on the floor. A puddle of water could be seen even in the deep and ugly green carpet.
A yellow post-it note on television said simply “Hospital.”
Mitch’s heart start to beat terribly as his mind scavenged through his memories to try to find what exact hospital his father would be admitted to. Inland Valley, his memory told him.
Mitch picked up the wall phone that was in the kitchen and dialed 411. “Inland Valley, please.”
He couldn’t stop his heavy breathing even if he wanted to.
“Uh, uh, Admissions. I need to…”
Mitch spent the night at the hospital, watching his father roughly breathe in his hospital bed, his skin and features looking terribly white and as thin as paper. It was well after visitor’s hours but no one seemed desperate to enforce the rules. His father had some sort of complication and he had ended up spending the night there. For observation, Mitch and his mother were told. Observation that would cost them dearly. His father had no insurance, having lost it when he had lost the business itself. They were too proud to go on government assistance.
Mitch and his mother talked downstairs in the fluorescent-lit cafeteria, having coffee. The time said 3:35am. His mother bought coffee, after trying out three different credit cards to pay for it.
She idly tore a paper napkin into little pieces as she sipped her stale coffee and talked of bills and more bills to be paid. “Your father was underwater for a long time, Mitch. A long time. He, he wanted to save the business, save the winery, keep it going and he- he just got very deep underwater. And now that he’s sick.” She left the ripped napkin on the table.
“That’s it. Unless there’s a miracle. But sometimes there is. Sometimes there is.”
“Why doesn’t Michael step in, Mom? Why doesn’t he-”
“Michael doesn’t need to step in. Something will come up. Something always does. We don’t have to beg.”
Mitch took off his glasses to rub his eyes for a long while. “Something always does.” He nodded. “Sure.”
“You’ll be leaving for The Oberon tomorrow.” His mother said.
“Yes. I got into an accident. Tonight. The car’s totaled.”
His mother paled. “It’s your car. Your one and only car. What happened?”
“You gonna ask if I’m okay?”
“It’s apparent that you are, Mitch. We have to be realists.”
Mitch let out a big sigh. “Yes. I have no idea. The car broke down, went out of control. I have no idea. It’s wrecked past Rancho California.”
Mitch’s mother picked up a new napkin and started ripping again. “One more thing, hmmm. One more thing. And then you’ll be gone.”
“Dad said…” Mitch leaned back in his chair. “We already did this conversation, so are we done? That’s it, right?”
She nodded. “Yeah, we are done.”
Mitch stood, feeling a rage that had building for some time leak out like pus oozing out of a wound. “Can Michael intervene now to fix our crazy lives? Can my brother jump in? Will Michael jump in now? Or are we waiting on the miracle?”
He left his mother to sit there, mute. As he walked into the cool night air, Mitch put his glasses back on and crossed the Inland Valley hospital parking lot. The stars were out in all their splendor- little white diamonds rolled out against a black cloth. Off-World, The Oberon- that was one little white diamond. Thirteen light years they said? Thirteen light years away from the Earth, supposedly. Nothing could take you there unless you went through the portal in the Pacific.
Mitch saw Cooper Bullock out of the corner of his eye. Cooper just waved as he stood next to his Maserati.
“You looking out for me, Coop? What are you doing here?”
Cooper shrugged. “I always look out for my friends, man.”
Mitch noticed he was sweating terribly and looked more keyed up and jumpier than ever before.
Cooper spoke before Mitch had a chance to say a word.
“Heard about that bitch, Becky. I was talking to- forget his name, that teacher we had, looked like Dustin Hoffman. Said Becky dumped your ass for John Templeton. Yeah-ouch.”
Mitch adjusted his glasses and frowned. “How would Mr. Cohen know that?”
Cooper kicked an empty soda cup and shrugged. “Facebook, man. Everyone’s on that shit. Everyone can read between the lines.”
“Everybody knows.” Mitch bit his lip.
“Templeton. Jeez, what a catch.” Cooper put a slightly bloody hand on Mitch.
Mitch jumped back. “Christ, what is that?”
“You. It’s you. Back at the tree. The cops come talk to you, yet?”
Mitch remembered that they should have. “No. No. What kind of town is this?”
Cooper chuckled. “A good one. No one’s coming. I straightened it out. Come on. Wanna give you- well, I’ll give it to you officially when you join the co-op. Come on.”
Cooper took Mitch out toward the Templeton Winery, stopped the car, shut it off and then stepped out under the stars looking grim. The monument sign of Templeton Winery was visible far off past the fields, lit up at night.
Mitch and Cooper stood on the opposite end of the Winery, on a dirt road next to rows upon rows of wine grapes that would be in time picked by Ni-Perchta guest workers.
“What we doing here, Coop?” Mitch whispered. He could see the table in front of the rows upon rows of wine grape vines where his former girlfriend and John Templeton had taken that Facebook picture. The one with both sets of parents because they were announcing that fucking wedding.
“Mitch, I do a lot of things off-world you might be surprised about. Some of these things are illegal. Sometimes by American law. Sometimes by Witch-Lord custom. Whatever.” Cooper handed Mitch what looked to be at first a collapse police baton he produced out of one his baggy pockets. “Whip it out.”
Mitch snorted. “That sounded sort of-”
Mitch obeyed, realizing somewhat dumbly that it was an orichalcum baton like the one Cooper had been carrying around. Embedded into the handle were three blue stones, orichalcum, cut into astrological signs. Arrow shaped Sagittarius, snake like Leo, and wavy Aquarius. The metal telescoping ori-baton was made in Singapore, it said. Aquarius meant it could heal disease, Sagittarius meant you could create fire, and Aquarius meant you could heal any injuries not caused by disease.
“Triple power ones are illegal on Earth. But whatever. I’ll take it back and make sure you get it off-world.”
“Look, Mitch, the point of this late night exercise- this little excursion out to Templeton’s, is that I got to know if you’re gonna be the man. Just like me. I didn’t want to do this here; I wanted to do it at T.K. But I think- yeah I’m good with the vibrations on this one.”
Mitch wasn’t following. He just waived the baton around absently, having only seen a few up close.
Cooper frowned. “Stop that. Jesus, you’ll probably take our faces off. No. Here’s the deal. You want to be in, really all the fucking way in, you have to prove it. Nothing too morally bad, this isn’t some South Central gangland shit. But you gotta prove you got no problem smashing the law into bits, friend.”
Mitch looked to the fields. He caught a chill wind that blew in from the west, making the vines rustle in the dark.
“Fuck Templeton, right? We never liked that guy anyway. Drove your family into the fuckin’ poorhouse, scooped up Becky for desert.”
Mitch nodded, looking over the fields. He ground his teeth a little, thinking and not saying anything for a good while.
“I ain’t saying you should harm him, but you know, if his- sorry his family’s business, had an unexpected fire in the fields? Just saying. You do this, I know you’re game.”
Mitch thought about what could happen and a small puff of flame came out of the end of the baton.
“Shit-sorry…” Mitch said.
Cooper waived it off. “That asshole ever do you any favors, huh? Or Becky in the end? You know what I learned from The Oberon, Mitch? Eat or be eaten, you know what I mean? There’s nothing and nobody looking out for you. Not the government, not family, nobody. Rules are only what you follow, not what they sent on down. Now what we do out there, we follow our own rules and we make a shit load of money and we push down anyone who decides to fuck with us in the slightest. Burn the fields, Mitch.”
Mitch blinked twice, looking over the fields again. He knew how much that harvest could be worth. If it all caught on fire- the fields were bone dry right now. Templeton would be up the creek, big time. Insurance rates were sky high now so there was even the off chance that might have skipped out on it. A lot of Wineries did. When his family’s winery started to go downhill, insurance was one of the first things jettisoned.
“Mitch, make your-“ Cooper started to say.
Mitch pointed the baton. “Tell me how.”
“Just point at it and think of fire, the way you want it to come out. Really put some anger behind it. It takes a while to really get it the way you want to.”
Mitch nodded. He lifted the baton up, pointing it at the fields.
A small voice said that this might be a tad unfair to the Templetons. That he hadn’t thought about it all the way through. That he was doing something wrong. A lifetime of feelings and thoughts spun through the universe of his own mind.
A louder voice said “Fuck ‘em, fuck all of ‘em.” Mitch followed the louder voice.
A stream of fire burst from the end of the baton, startling Cooper. The fields went up in flames, just as Mitch thought they would. Tinder dry vines burst into hot orange flame that licked the night sky.
Cooper got into the car without saying a word. So did Mitch as the flames roared and crackled just a few yards away from them. The Maserati spun gravel and pulled out.
After a while, as they drove away from the scene and heard the fire trucks in the distance, Cooper said. “So now I trust you, not one hundred percent, but one hundred and ten now. We look out for each other, out in The Oberon, right?”
Mitch, feeling a little sick, agreed.
The next morning, after the flames were brought under control, John Templeton looked out over the fields, ready to cry. He tried to talk to his father about it but his Dad didn’t say one word for a long time. Of course, the fire was deliberate, the firemen said. Maybe orichalcum was used.
John walked amongst the smoldering field and stopped once he saw something he was would be shocked for the rest of his life to see.
Stepping between the burnt and blackened rows, John nearly tripped as he stumbled over something stuck under the ground.
It was a hand, its flesh as burned and as blackened as the vines, sticking out of the black powdery dirt of the vineyard’s field.
After an hour, John Templeton was told that the police had discovered two bodies, two men, under just a few inches of dirty. Deputy Charlie Olson, who was an old friend of John’s dad, in a hush hush sort of way, said that the only thing he knew was that they found something VERY interesting on the two of them that he had to just share. “Off-World Network Intelligence ID markers, implanted in their palms. Off-world tech. Cooperation Bureau boys. Off-world spooks and spies. This has government conspiracy written all over it.” Olson’s nasal voice was low. He stood in Templeton’s living room with his khaki uniform on. “You got JFK and the fake moon landings happening in your backyard. FBI is all over it. The agent thought the fields burning may have been a, a, sort of side effect of trying to cook the bodies, make ‘em unidentifiable.”
Despite Charlie Olson’s excitement, John Templeton didn’t feel very up for any more discussion. His father told them that the insurance had expired three days ago and he hadn’t had a chance to renew.
John Templeton thought for a long time that night who would want to do this, as he lay next to Becky. One person came to mind, but his brain couldn’t totally wrap the reality behind it. Mitch Early? No. This was like Olson said. Government conspiracy stuff.
Maserati and Monster
Mitch, the last surviving companion, managed to sit on top of a broken bench, remembering that night. There was no one coming out to save him from this wreck, this time. This time would be the end. As he heard the odd whale call, he began to hobble away from the scene as best he could, looking up to the stars, regretting certain actions he took to get this point. Now he sat under the gaze of multiple moons and the empty visages of the skyscrapers.
He heard a car’s engine somewhere off in the distance. A powerful engine, all by itself. The white Maserati came around the corner, its driver invisible.
It didn’t make sense to Mitch. Cooper Bullock had been dead for a good couple of weeks now. He’d been to the damn funeral.
The Maserati pulled up at high speed, enveloping him in its headlights. Mitch had his baton out again, telescoped out fully and ready to go. A small little flame burned from its end.
The car stopped, its engine rumbling for a good moment. A girl stepped out; tall, taller than Mitch, short blonde hair.
“Jesus, I thought you’d be dumb enough to do this. All of the rest of us at the restaurant thought the same too. You owe me big time, motherfucker, you know that? I’m the only one who cared about finding you. I’m the only one that said, hey if Mitch is stupid enough to go out there with those two mining assholes, hey, I think somebody should stop him. I should be at home in the pool sipping a Sling-”
The whale call boomed out again.
The girl saw that Mitch still had the hook inside his leg.
“Shit, Mitch, what is that?”
He hobbled on over to the passenger side of the Maserati.
“I want this night to be over with. I’m going back to Earth,” he mumbled, before trying to sit in the passenger side seat. He screeched a little as the hook brushed the seat’s exterior.
The girl looked in horror and then got the car in gear. “What happened, you were attacked?”
“Shit yes, Bobbi.” Mitch said, breathing heavily. “No, well, Jesus, let’s just-”
The creature descended in mid-air, showcasing itself to Mitch and Bobbi perfectly in that lit up street of Gehenna-3. Landing with a dull thud in front of the Maserati, Bobbi was forced to slam the brakes with a curse.
The thing was an odd monster, a mess of tentacles streaming from its puckered and gray face full of yellow fangs along with two very long black tentacles that came out the sides of its scaled body held up by two thin legs ending in razor sharp claws. The two black tentacles had orbs dotting their one side, which began to light up like a series of powerful white spotlights when the tentacles stretched out straight from its sides.
The whale call burst forth.
“Should have stayed home.” Mitch said, before the creature lurched forward.
Join Forbes’ Newsletter!