Interlude: Consumed

A man quickly figures out why he’s being pursued, leading him to realize he was already dead.

“There he is!” The man in the black suit pointed at the hapless businessman. Black Suit’s partner whistled shrilly. Three more agents emerged out of the crowds and moved towards the businessman.

“I don’t know what the hell I did!” The businessman put his hands in the air. One of the agents fired off two shots. The man screamed in fear and ran off into the alley behind him.

He pulled his tie loose as he ran. He was too old, or at least too fat, to be running like this. He slunk into an adjacent alley and hunkered down, breathing hard.

He wiped sweat from his brow and grimaced. He rolled up his right sleeve and scratched fervently at the raised red patch on his arm. “This fucking rash,” he said under his breath.

He whipped his head up at the sound of approaching footfalls. He struggled to his feet and threw himself down the side alley. Somebody yelled out behind him. “There he is!” Several shots zinged by on either side of him.

“I didn’t do anything! Leave me alone!” The agents answered with more bullets. “I’m gonna die.” He gritted his teeth and pushed the heel of his hand into his chest.

His throat was on fire, and so was his arm. He coughed violently. He spared a look behind him. The men in black were gone. He instinctively pushed himself up against one of the walls in the alley.

The businessman gasped as he stared at his arm. the red had spread across most of his forearm and was quickly creeping upwards. A blue-green substance was weeping from where he had scratched it earlier.

“FREEZE! Federal agents!” He turned about. They must have routed him. He stumbled backwards.

“Why are you trying to kill me!” One of the agents shot. The other cursed and followed suit. The businessman took off running the way he had came.

A car pulled into his view from the main alley. The driver laid on his horn at the gaggle of agents running from the opposite direction. The businessman leaped onto the hood and cleared the car with a second leap.

He turned around, eyes wide. “How in the hell…” More gunfire pushed the thought away. He turned and ran, coughing as he went.

The first agent turned to his partner. “We’re running out of time.”

The other man nodded. He pulled out a radio and squeezed the button on the side. “We’re gonna need that chopper after all.”

The businessman squinted at the rays coming from the lowering sun. It was getting harder to think clearly. He dashed out of the alley and into the middle of a busy street.

An SUV dug its nose into the ground, tires squealing indignantly. The businessman half-screamed, half-howled at the woman behind the wheel. She screamed at the sight of him.

He looked down. His shirt looked puffed out. Something lumpy underneath it pushed at the the sweat-soaked fabric. He tore the shirt open with red, cracked fingers. His chest was a mess of green sores and blue fungus.

The businessman slowly lifted his head. “Please. Help me.” The plea came out as more of a gurgle than anything intelligible.

The woman screamed again. She accelerated the SUV backwards, crashing into the car stopped behind her. He ran off into another alley, car horns blaring behind him.

He hid behind a dumpster. He looked at his deformed body and began to sob. He looked up at the sound of an approaching helicopter.

The aircraft loomed over the building he was leaning against. A blinding-white spotlight flooded the alley with daylight. It quickly found the crouching man.

He stood, his contorted face twisting further as he screamed out in rage. He turned and ran, much faster than he should have been able to. The twitching spotlight followed his progress. The nose of the helicopter dipped as the pilot pursued his target.

The businessmonster ran into a small, abandoned parking lot. He whipped his head around, looking for a place to hide away. A number of agents flooded in from two adjacent alleys.

“Holy shit! Shoot him! SHOOT HIM!” A hail of gunfire rained down on the hapless man. He gurgled, howling in pain as a number of rounds found their mark in his torso. He half-ran, half-shambled into a shed built against the wall on one side of the lot.

A dozen agents pressed in on the shed, guns drawn. Police sirens and roaring engines signaled the arrival of back-up. All eyes returned to the shed. A deep, shuddering growl came from within.

The walls of the shed shook as the man-turned-monster thrashed about inside. There came one final, inhuman scream. Silence settled over the scene as the newly-arrived police units came to a stop behind the agents.

BOOM. The door to the shed banged hard into the side of the building. It crunched to a stop, ripped halfway off of its hinges. Glowing green eyes stared menacingly out of the shadows that lay within. The creature inside growled lowly, menacingly.

The twisted monster leaped from his hiding place, screaming and gurgling. The agents and police officers responded by raining gunfire down on the hapless creature. Round after round dug into the ragged mixture of tortured skin, fungus, and infected tissue.

The monster took a few more sluggish steps before dropping to its knees. Its eyes found the first agent and stared at him with pain and sorrow. The green light slowly faded. The creature slumped to the ground.

Some of the agents started to approach it. The first agent cried out. “NO! Stay back! Get the hell back…”

It was too late. The body of the mutated man swelled and bloated. The carcass suddenly yielded to the pressure, sending out a dusty white cloud of spores.

The men fell back, shielding their eyes and coughing uncontrollably. They waved their hands in the air, eyes watering. They began to look from one to another with dread-filled faces as the reality of their situation set in.

“Bongo two-niner, containment failed. Contagion released.” The helicopter pilot slowly circled the scene below, shaking his head as he went.

“Roger, Bongo two-niner. Flee the area. Incoming military hardware.”

“Confirmed.” He looked away, raising the helicopter up and away from the area. “Poor bastards.”

The helicopter circled back around several blocks away and hovered. The sound of an approaching jet swept over the city. Moments later a surface-to-ground missile flared towards the contamination site.

An enormous explosion rocked the surrounding buildings. A chorus of car alarms raised their voices into the twilight as the detonation lit up the area. The military aircraft rocketed over the kill-zone a moment later.

The helicopter pilot steered his aircraft back over the area. A large crater had taken the place of the parking lot that had been there only moments before. The shaking spotlight zoomed about the destruction.

“Bongo two-niner, area is secured.”

“Roger, Bongo two-niner. Return to base for debrief.”

“Gladly.” The helicopter pilot lifted the aircraft high above the city and angled it towards the nearby military base.

A badly wounded agent watched it go with his one good eye. He spit out a wad of blood and started shuffling towards the alley from which the businessman had come. He scratched absently at the back of his neck as he went.

Interlude: Return to Aleria

The bittersweet story of a washed up, middle-aged man yearning for a world he lost so long ago.

The shabbily-dressed man shuffled down the quiet midnight streets, the city having found its bed some time ago. He tossed the remains of his extended nightcap into a trashcan. He self-consciously rubbed at his belly and sighed.

He stared down the length of empty street before him. Was this who he was, now? Fat, half bald, an alcoholic, presumably homeless now. He rubbed the coin in his coat pocket and started walking again.

It was so hard to remember the brighter times, now. He’d been a brilliant lawyer, very respected in his time. Like so many, he had become a victim of his own success.

He celebrated that success with drugs and alcohol. It changed him over a number of years. He garnered a sense of overzealous importance. It masked the growing discontent that had silently crept into his mind one night. It grew and festered there, hidden by booze and money.

So he had tried to return.

He had received a coin years ago from his grandfather. It looked like any other half-dollar. His grandfather told him it was no such thing.

The grandfather had told him wonderful tales of the adventures he had gone on in another world when he was younger. This coin, he said, was matched to a key in that world that acted as a gateway. With it, his grandson could visit this same wonderful place.

The man passed away a short while later. The young man hadn’t given it any more thought until one boring Summer afternoon. He sat at the end of a blind alley, turning the coin over in his hand, thinking of his grandfather.  He flipped it up into the air.

When it landed in his hand, he found himself sitting in a wide-open field. Everything his grandfather had told him was true. Here, before his unbelieving eyes, was all the evidence he’d ever need.

What followed was an epic tale in and of itself. In this reality, the fair kingdom of Aleria was ruled by King Michael, but he had become deathly ill. His son, Prince Aaron, believed it to be the work of the wicked Count Errol.

He soon found that a prophecy held that a young one from a faraway land would come to save them all. He reluctantly embraced this proposed fate and agreed to help the people of Aleria. The prophecy held true, and the Count’s plans were thwarted.

The king, deeply grateful and dutifully impressed with the young man’s abilities, offered for him to live in the kingdom as one of his loyal knights. This he did… for a time. He soon found himself missing the life he had left behind.

He returned to our world to find that not but a day had passed since he had first left months ago. He would feel a yearning to return to Aleria from time to time. One flip of the coin in this nondescript alley…

The middle-aged version of that young man stood at the mouth of that very alley. It had been so long since he’d visited this place. He had been in the last weeks of his senior year in high school.

He’d recently learned that he’d been accepted to a prestigious law school. With the last of his childhood fading, and his adult life racing toward him, he had decided it was a perfect time to escape this world for a while.

Except this time the coin failed to work.

He stood there, staring dumbly at the coin, unsure of why its magic remained quiet. He went home deeply worried for his friends in that distant land. He would return a number of times, increasingly faint hope tingling in the pit of his stomach. The coin never worked again.

It had sat in the top drawer of the bureau in his bedroom for years afterward, slowly forgotten, cold and lifeless. He pressed on with college and began his life as a newly-minted adult. The memories of his young exploits slowly faded from his mind.

Only recently had he rediscovered the coin. Memories of Aleria raced back into his mind the moment he picked it out of its hiding spot. He found it while he was packing his things. He’d just separated from his third wife.

Things had quickly gone downhill from there in the form of countless bottles and pills. The man shuffled to the end of the alley and sat down roughly on the damp ground. It had been so many years. He pulled out the coin and turned it over and over in his hand.

That old familiar tingling returned to his gut, spurred in part by the exhilaration he felt at the idea of returning to Aleria. He flipped the coin skyward. He watched it flip high into the air and back down into the palm of his hand.

The sky remained dark. The alley stubbornly refused to dissipate.

The man bowed his head and began to sob. This was it. There was no more hope. He pulled a pistol from his other pocket. Still sobbing, he placed it to his head.

The gun clattered to the ground. He balled his fist and pushed it hard into his burning chest. Even now, would he be denied what he wanted? His eyes watered from the pain spreading from his chest to his left arm.

“Enough of it, Trevor! Hail and get off of your ass!”

The man… Trevor… looked up at the robed man looming over him in the dark. “Help me… I’m having… heart attack.” He fought to spit the words out.

The man above him waved a dismissive hand. “Bah! Of course you are. You poisoned your heart with the sickness of this land years ago.”

The robes of the man swung aside, revealing a gnarled wooden staff. He stabbed at the ground beside Trevor, who yelped. The amber stone at the top of the staff shimmered.

The staff glowed bright yellow. Crackling yellow energy arced from the stone to Trevor’s chest. The robed man returned the staff to its former position. “Now, I say! Get off of this forsaken ground! Aleria needs you.”

“Aleria…” Trevor looked up, fresh tears in his eyes. “Tyrion!”

“At least your eyes are still working.”

Trevor scratched and pulled his way to his feet. “The coin! It stopped working years ago.”

“Aye! I told you! You became too poisoned to use its magic. That’s why I came of my own accord. But I warn ye… if you return with me, never again will you see this wretched, filthy world.”

Trevor shook his head. “I have nothing here. Please… please take me back.”

The wizard considered him for a moment, his gaze burning into Trevor’s own eyes. “I can see the pain. Desperation. You are sick, child…” He nodded. “Come forth with me, Trevor of Earth! Stay close, now.”

Trevor followed closely behind the wizard. The brick walls on either side of them began to change. Bits of mold and fungus erupted from between the bricks and spread. The concrete underneath their feet gave way to earth and grass.

The gray sky above brightened into one of a brilliant blue-green hue. The sun glared in Trevor’s eyes. When he blinked it out, he found the two of them walking across the fields outside the kingdom of Aleria.

The wizard Tyrion turned to see what his charge thought of the sudden change of scenery. Trevor looked back at him with a face decades younger than his years and smiled. Tears of joy filled his eyes.

Tyrion nodded, his own eyes growing moist. “There you are, lad. Welcome home… now and forever.”


Both the hunter and the hunted are not what they first appear to be.

The dark-haired woman worked with amazing precision. She calmly picked through the shelf of jewelry before her even as the security alarm screamed in her ears. She looked towards one corner of the store, brushing a lock of hair from her inquisitive face.

A black figure peered back at her from beneath a hooded sweatshirt. The figure held up a gloved hand and extended three fingers. The sound of sirens drifted in through the storefront. Two of the fingers fell away.

The woman nodded. She shifted her priority to securing the satchel she had been filling with stolen goods. She looked up as she slid the satchel over her shoulder.

Tires squealed on the pavement outside. The light-bar on the police car painted the walls of the jewelry store red and blue. The hooded figure nodded. “It’s time. Go.”

Both the dark-haired woman and hooded stranger ran silently to the back of the store. Flashlight beams cuts into the murk inside the store a moment too late. The two thieves cut into the alley that ran along the building.

At least one of the police anticipated just such a move. “FREEZE! New Wave PD!” Another officer joined him, leveling his plasma pistol.

The woman looked at the hooded figure, who nodded. The figure ran into the night as the woman turned her own plasma pistol on the police and opened fire. One brilliant yellow blast of energy hit the first officer, dropping him immediately.

The woman ran off down the alley, quickly gaining speed. Yellow bursts of energy from the other officer’s pistol chased after her, but never found their target. “Damn!”

The officer made to chase after her, but was caught short. “STOP!” A man in a black trench coat and sunglasses stepped up behind him. He held up a badge. “I’ll handle this. Stay back.”

The officer nodded numbly and stepped aside. The trench-coated man stepped forward scanning to the back of the alley. A black blur rounded the corner. He broke into a dead-run in the direction the young woman had traveled.

He reached the end of the of alley. All three directions were empty. The man stopped and listened. Footfalls pattered to his left. He turned and sprinted down the side alley.

The trench-coated man erupted into the middle of a quiet street. A quick sweep revealed he was alone. He took off his sunglasses, revealing eyes with faintly-glowing turquoise irises.

The Synthetic officer scanned the street. A lone tabby cat mewed on the corner of North Avenue. He raised his sight higher. A vagrant sitting on the steps of a fire escape saluted him with one finger.

He ignored the gesture and looked higher. His eyes flitted from one rooftop to the next, straining to pick up on any heat signatures. There… A bobbing head.

“Nimble little thing…” The officer ran into the alley adjacent to the building and ran up to where the vagrant was. He leaped into the air and grabbed the hand rail of the fire escape.

He pulled himself up and over. The vagrant scrambled back against the building, a wild look in his eyes. “Pardon,” the officer said as he slid past.

He continued up the stairs, going from landing to landing. Yellow blasts of energy greeted him as he crested the top of the building. He returned fire and ducked back down.

There was no return fire. The officer peeked back up cautiously and scanned the roof of the other building. Clear. He hopped onto the hand rail of the fire escape and leaped.

The Synthetic easily cleared the gap, landing on the roof of the far building with hardly a noise. He quickly found his pistol and held it out in front of him. Three quick bursts of plasma fire headed his way.

One blast found its way through his open trench coat as he turned. He snapped back and fired at a ghostly shadow sprinting across the rooftop. “Don’t make me kill you!”

The figure dropped below the roof-line on the far side of the building. “Of course.” The officer sighed, dropping back into a sprint.

He dropped to one knee at the edge of the building and looked over. Nothing. He looked along the alley below and followed it out to the street.

“There you are.” The officer swung over the side of the fire escape. He let himself drop level by level, grabbing each hand rail in turn as he fell.

He ran into the middle of the street and scanned his surroundings. The woman ran down yet another alley. He shook his head and ran.

The woman stood waiting for him at the far end of the alley. Her hands remained at her side. She was not holding her weapon. “Give it up, robot.”

The Synthetic officer’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not making things any easier for yourself, ma’am.”

“Ma’am? How polite. Are you going to ask me to ‘please come here’?”

The officer shrugged. “Would it help?”

“Not today, I’m afraid.” She disappeared around the corner.

“Oh, come on, lady!” The officer chased after her once more.

He turned the corner onto the street and looked in the direction the woman had run. He spotted her nearly a block away. “That’s impossible, unless…”

“Give up, robot!” She ran down another alley.

The officer beared down and ran with superhuman speed. The wind whistled past his ears. He rounded the corner and ran into a parked car.

He dented in the front end and caved the hood. The Synthetic allowed himself to roll up and over the car and kept running. The alarm went off. A balding man in a white wife-beater leaned out a window. “HEY, YOU!”

“New Wave PD!” the officer shouted, even as he accelerated away.

He burst onto another street. This time, yellow plasma blasts greeted him. He turned and fired blindly, barely missing the woman. She disappeared into another alley.

The officer turned to pursue. He made it about halfway before plasma shots landed on either side of him. They came from somewhere behind him. “What, the…”

He turned to find the woman half a block behind him. He fired back, missing her by a wide margin. She flashed him a smile and a wink before disappearing behind a building.

“All right, what’s going on…” The officer retreated to the middle of the street and attempted to look in all directions at once.

A shrill whistle came from the top of the building in front of him. There was the dark-haired woman, smiling down from above. “Wonderful evening, isn’t it?”

“You’re a Synthetic! You have to be!”

“I don’t have to be anything, but I assure you that I am not a Synthetic. Now her…” She pointed down.

The officer lowered his gaze just in time to see the woman, the same woman, drop down right in front of him. “Hello, robot.”

He raised his plasma pistol. The woman expertly kicked it from his hand, making it discharge into a nearby wall as it spun through the air. She punched him twice in the chest, then aimed for his chin.

The officer caught the fist and squeezed. The woman did not flinch, but punched him in the face with her other fist. The officer returned the favor.

The skin tore slightly where he had hit. Titanium glittered underneath it in the streetlight. “There’s the Synthetic.”

“Here I am.” The woman went at him with a series of successful punches and kicks. The officer backed up rapidly. He needed time to respond, but also to scan for the real target.

She was gone. He zeroed back in on the Synthetic. He ran at her. She braced for the hit and rolled him onto the ground.

He followed the roll to where his pistol lay on the ground. He snatched it up and popped up on one knee. He turned and fired, but the woman was gone. He scrambled back to the end of the alley.

She was already halfway down the block. A shrill whistle came from the opposite direction. He turned to see the real woman boarding a city bus.

She blew him a kiss before pulling the hood of her black sweatshirt back over her head. He whipped back around the other way. The Synthetic woman was gone from sight.

“Damn it!” The officer angrily kicked a can across the street. Someone inside an apartment building shouted at him to shut the hell up.

He sighed, rubbing at his chin. “The boss ain’t going to like this one bit.”