Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Darkness Falls -- A Cliff Hanger Adventure



Working the biplanes controls with the practiced ease only possible from a former flying ace, Cliff Hanger pointed to the hilltop farm ahead.

Cote? Are you sure thats the place? Cliff yelled over the roar of the aeroplanes engine.

Cliffs younger brother struggled to keep the map open against the buffeting wind and yelled back, If the little bit Beth managed to say over the telephone before she was cut off is correct, then thats the place!

Giving Cote a thumbs up signal, Cliff was about to turn back toward the hill when he saw the other aircraft. Swooping down out of the sun and the clouds came half a dozen black-painted aeroplanes. Minions of the evil Doctor Darkness!

As he went into a barrel roll, Cliff hollered, Doctor Darkness has sent us an unwelcoming party. Hang on, little brother!

Machine guns chattered from the pursuing aeroplanes as Cliff dived, climbed and rolled, putting on such a flying exhibition as had not been seen since he last flew his Spad on combat missions during the Great War. But back then he had machine guns of his own and could take the fight to the enemy. Now, he could only play this airborne game of dodge-ball and hope to reach the farm before one of the dark doctors minions got lucky. Even as that thought flitted through his mind, the gods of chance turned against Cliff. A stream of bullets stitched the little aeroplanes fuselage, the last one plowing into the engine!

On the hilltop below, Beth Key, plucky reporter for the Denver Sentinel, cried out in dismay as black smoke sprouted from Cliffs aeroplane. At the same moment, it began rapidly losing altitude.

Bwa ha ha ha ha ha! crowed Doctor Darkness. So much for the Hanger boys! Your precious Cliff and his little brother Cote are doomed! Doomed! Now nothing stands between me and the power I deserve!Looking directly into Beths eyes, Doctor Darkness added, And the woman I desire!

Struggling in the evil mans steely grip, Beth declared, My heart belongs to Cliff and will for as long as he lives!

Turning back to the plummeting aeroplane, Doctor Darkness said, Which should not be very much longer, Miss Key. Not much longer at all!

Even as he spoke, the little aeroplane seemed to pull out of its dive, leveling off. Beths hopes lifted as Cliff fought to land the mortally wounded craft. But just as it looked as if Cliff had the aeroplane under control, skimming the ground at terrible speed, it flew into the farms big, abandoned barn. Seconds later, an explosion rocked the hilltop and the barn burst into flames!

Beth stared at the burning barn in stunned horror as Doctor Darkness cackled beside her.  Beth cried, ”You evil fiend!"

"Now, my dear Beth," the dastardly doctor said, "is that any way to talk to your husband-to-be?"

Doctor Darkness grabbed Beth and pulled her into his arms.  His lascivious lips pressed against hers.  The revolted reporter kicked Doctor Darkness in the shins, following it with a roundhouse right to the jaw.

"Keep your pathetic paws off of me!" Beth cried, raising her fists and taking a pugilist's stance.

"Foolish female, your fists have sealed your fate!  It's the Mind Manipulator for you," spat Doctor Darkness.  "You'll be quite my willing and eager slave in a matter of minutes!"

Seeing two of his minions approaching, the leering leader waved them over.  "Take Miss Key to the airship and prepare her for a mental maladjustment!"

Crack!  Doctor Darkness reeled from the punch of one of his minions.

"Did you notice how I drove through the punch, Beth?" a familiar voice asked.  "You still need to work on that!"

"Cliff!" Beth cried, her face lighting up with joy as she threw her arms him.

"Curse you, Hanger!" Doctor Darkness said, struggling to his feet.  "You should be dead!"

Cote Hanger stepped up next to his brother, picking hay from his hair, "Then you shouldn't leave piles of hay in your abandoned barns, Doctor Dumbness!  Jumping into the hay was a piece of cake compared to some of the stunts we did in during our barnstorming days!"

Sensing a great ending to the story she would write for her newspaper, Beth pulled out her notebook and pencil.  Stepping toward Doctor Darkness, she asked, "Once again the Hanger brothers have foiled your nefarious plans, Doctor Darkness.  Do you have any last words before they take you to jail?"

"Yes, Miss Key, I do.  Always have an ace up your sleeve!"  The devious doctor grabbed Beth, pulled a snub-nosed revolver from his pocket, and put it to the lovely lady's head.  "Back off, Hanger boys, or the ace reporter will be an ex-reporter!"

Knowing Beth's life hung in the balance, Cliff backed away.  "This isn't over, you malicious miscreant!  I'll pursue you to the ends of the earth to save Beth!"

Backing into the farmhouse, Doctor Darkness laughed, "You deluded dolt!  One minute under my Mind Manipulator and Miss Key will forget all about you!"

The farmhouse door slammed shut, cutting off Beth's protests.

"Now what, Cliff?" asked Cote.

"Evil doesn't have a long attention span," Cliff said.  "Give it a count of five, Cote, then we hit the door,"

Cliff held his hand up, counting down on his fingers.  At zero, the brothers lowered their shoulders and charged into the door.  Unable to stand against their righteousness might, the door crashed open!  The brothers sped through the little house, but the evil man and his beautiful hostage were nowhere to be found!

"Golly, Cliff, they can't have just disappeared!" Cote exclaimed.

"Look for a trap door," Cliff ordered.  "Doctor Darkness must have a lair inside the hill!"

At that moment, both men were thrown from their feet as the farm house shook, rumbled, and started tilting to one side.  As Cliff slid toward one wall, his hands scrabbled to find something to cling to.  His fingertips caught on something poking out in the middle of the floor.  It was the trap door!

As he pulled the hidden hatch open, Cliff called. "Cote!  Can you reach my foot and climb up here?  I've got a feeling we have to get through this door or Beth will be lost forever!"

Cote, an experienced mountain climber, soon joined his brother at the opening in the floor.  The two men gaped at the sight before them.  The roar of powerful engines rattled the house as a huge aeroplane, its wing and the eight engines mounted on the wing were rotated to face up.  The mammoth craft was slowly lifting straight up!

Cliff shook off his admiration of the amazing aeroplane, reminding himself that Beth was counting on him.  "Come on, little brother.  We've got an aeroplane to catch!"

So saying, Cliff pulled himself up onto the now-vertical lip of the trap door then launched himself at the rising aeroplane's horizontal stabilizer.  Landing in a crouch, Cliff steadied himself by grabbing the vertical stabilizer.  With a thump, Cote landed next to him.

"We've got to get to the cockpit!" Cliff had to yell to be heard over the engines.

Cote nodded and the two brothers set off across the curving fuselage.  Cliff silently thanked the Lord for the years they spent wing walking in the aerial show owned and operated by Beth's father.  Without that experience, they'd surely plummet to their deaths!  Instead, mere moments passed before they were standing above the rear cargo hatch.

The stronger of the two, Cliff braced himself and lowered his brother head first toward the hatch.  Only the narrowness of the tapering fuselage made it possible for Cote to reach the handle, but reach it he did!  Seconds later, the two determined men were inside the aeroplane.

"It's time we gave Doctor Darkness the what for!" Cliff said, striding purposefully toward the cockpit.

"Dang right, big brother!" Cote said, pounding his fist into palm.

Cliff pushed through the hatch from the cargo compartment to the vast passenger compartment.  Expecting row after row of seats, Cliff was again surprised at the dastardly doctor's inventiveness.  Strange machinery lined the walls, colorful lights flashed, levers and knobs were everywhere, and the whir of spinning gears filled the compartment.

Astounding as the sight was, Cliff's eyes were drawn inexorably to the front of the aeroplane, where Beth struggled futilely as Doctor Darkness strapped her into a chair.  Wires ran from the machinery to the chair and then to an ominous metal helmet hung above Beth's head!

Cliff sprang forward like a sprinter coming out of the starting blocks!  At the sound of pounding feet, Doctor Darkness spun around and raised his snub-nosed revolver.  Beth's hands were strapped to the chair arms, but her feet were still free.  Seeing the foul villain drawing a bead on the man she loved, Beth kicked him in the back of the knee.

Doctor Darkness's knee buckled and his shot went wide.  He never got a chance to take a second shot, as Cliff's haymaker lifted the emissary of evil off his feet and sent him flying backward!  Cote arrived just in time to kick the revolver away from the doctor's reaching hand.

Doctor Darkness scrambled away from the Hanger brothers.  "No!  How can my brilliant plans be foiled by simpletons such as the two of you?"

"It's simple -- good always triumphs over evil!" Cliff said. starting to remove the straps holding Beth to the chair.

"This is no triumph for you, Hanger," Doctor Darkness snarled.  "Merely a setback for me!"

With that, the doctor snatched a parachute hanging nearby and wrenched open the forward hatch.  Looking over his shoulder, the doctor said, "You will be mine, Beth Key!  So swears Doctor Darkness!"

"Don't jump!" Cliff cried.

But the warning came too late.  With the wings rotated vertically, the maniacal mastermind leaped into the nearest propellor!  Beth buried her head into Cliff's chest as bits of Doctor Darkness splattered against the outer fuselage.

"Yuck!" Cote said as he shut the forward hatch.  "That guy goes all to pieces when loses."

Chuckling at his own joke, Cote looked into the cockpit.  "Hey Cliff, there's some kind of machine flying this aeroplane!"

When Cliff didn't reply, Cote looked back.  Beth had her arms wrapped around Cliff's neck and was kissing Cliff soundly.  To Cote's eye, Cliff looked to be giving as good as he got.

"I'll just figure out how to fly this thing on my own, okay?"

When no answer came, Cote smiled and made his way to the cockpit.  "Thought so." 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Box Full of Smarts

This story is part of my regular storytelling repertoire. It's based on a Slavic tale but about half of it is original material created by me.

Once there was a village whose citizens did not have a spare brain cell among the lot of them. They were known far and wide for their silly solutions to everyday problems. How silly were their solutions?

They planted boiled potatoes in their fields to save cooking time after the harvest. They wash their dishes before eating to save time after dinner. Once they even tied a rope to an island and tried to pull it closer to their harbor to protect it from storms. Yes, they were truly village full of noodleheads!

But after years and years of being laughed at and called noodleheads by all the villages around them, the villagers got fed up with it. A village meeting was called to decide how to become smarter.

“Everyone keeps telling us we all have tiny brains,” one man said, “so let’s crack open all our heads, take out all the little brains and stuff them inside one head. That person will have lots of brains and can make all our decisions for us!”

“No,“ said another, “that would be too much work. There’s an easier way. Smart people are said to be sharp as a tack. All we have to do is push tacks up our noses and into our brains. Then we’ll all be sharp as tacks, too!”

“No wonder everyone calls us noodleheads,” said the oldest and wisest man in the village. “Those are silly ideas! Why go to all that trouble when we can just send someone to the big market in the city to buy us a box of smarts?”

“You can buy that in the market?” asked the first man.

“They’ve got everything else at the market,” the old man answered, “why not smarts, too?”

So it was decided. The villagers gathered all their extra gold, gave it to the three strongest men in the village and sent them off to the city to buy a box of smarts. The three men left bright and early the next morning and walked half the day to reach the city. When they got to there, they went directly to the market and approached the first merchant.

“We want to buy a box of smarts,” they told the merchant.

Puzzled, the merchant asked, “A box of what?”

“Smarts!” they answered. “We want to stop being fools and sillies and noodleheads and need a box of smarts to do that.”

Seeing that they were serious, the merchant laughed, “I can sell you a bunch of carrots or bushel of corn, but I don’t have a box of smarts!”

The three men went to the next merchant and once again asked to buy a box of smarts. That merchant told them, “I can sell you pig’s brains. They taste yummy in scrambled eggs but they won’t make you any smarter!”

And so it went for the three men. Each merchant they asked laughed at them then offered to sell them something else. Then they finally came to a merchant who was not as honest as all the rest.

“A box of smarts?” he asked. “Those are rare and very expensive. Will you be able to afford it?”

“Um,” said one of the fools, “will 426 pieces of gold be enough?”

Barely able to hide his smile, the merchant replied, “Well, I usually sell a box of smarts for 500 pieces of gold, but you seem like such nice fellows that I’ll sell it to you for your 426 pieces.”

“Gosh, thanks mister!” said one of the noodleheads.

“Think nothing of it, my good man,” said the merchant. “You be here first thing tomorrow morning and I’ll have a box of smarts for you. Don’t forget to bring your money!”

Happy to have found what they needed, the three men agreed to meet the merchant the next morning and went off to sleep. The merchant, meanwhile, got a nice, sturdy wooden box, caught a mouse and sealed it in the box.

The next morning, the three fools returned to the merchant to buy the box of smarts. The merchant brought out the box with the mouse in it and placed it before the men. Inside the box, the mouse was scampering about, making all sorts of noise.

“What’s that noise?” the men asked.

“That?” said the merchant. “Why, that’s all the smarts trying to get out of the box! You must be very careful not to let it out. So don’t open the box until you get back to your village and are ready to start being smart!”

Handing over their 426 pieces of gold, the noodleheads promised they wouldn’t open the box until they got home. Pleased with themselves, they started walking back to their village. Pleased with himself, the merchant closed his shop and moved to another city.

It was mid afternoon when the three men got back to their village. Holding the box carefully, they called for everyone to gather in the village meeting hall.

“Once everyone is there,” they said, “we’ll open the box and we’ll all get smart!”

Soon the meeting hall was filled with everyone from village. Everyone was excited and looking forward to becoming smart.

The mayor took charge of the box and ordered the doors and windows shut. “We don’t want the smarts to get away before we can all catch some!”

Soon the meeting hall was sealed shut. With a grand gesture, the mayor opened the box to let the smarts out.

Everyone waited for a minute, expecting to feel something.

“Well,” asked a villager, “are we smart yet?”

“I don’t know,” replied the mayor. Turning to the three men who had bought the box, he asked, “Are you sure the box was full of smarts when you bought it?”

“Sure,” they said. “We could hear it scrabbling around in the box trying to get out!”

“Ah,” said the mayor, “after all of that scrabbling around the smarts must be too tired to come out of the box! I’ll just dump it out on the table and everyone can come up and get a piece of smarts for themselves.”

The mayor turned the box over and out came the mouse! The mouse tried to run but the mayor called out, “The mouse has eaten all the smarts! Catch it! Catch it!”

The villagers may have been noodleheads but they could move fast. One of the village boys quickly caught the mouse and, at the mayor’s direction, put the mouse back in the box.

“Now how are we going to get smart?” wailed the mayor.

“I know,” said one man, “we can each eat a little bit of the mouse! Then we’ll each get a little bit of the smarts the mouse ate.”

“That’s silly,” said another man. “The mouse is too small to cut into that many pieces! We should make a soup out of the mouse and all eat some. Then we’ll get smart!”

“You’re all fools and noodleheads!” said the oldest and wisest man in the village. “Why go to all that trouble when we’ve got the world’s smartest mouse right here in this box! We can just let the mouse make all our decisions for us!”

Everyone agreed that was a wonderful idea. And to this day, the mouse lives in a splendid cage with two boxes attached to each side of the cage. One box has “Yes” written on it and other has “No” written on it. Whenever the villagers have to make an important decision, they open the doors from the cage to the two boxes, ask their question and wait for the mouse to go to one of their boxes.

They’re still a bunch of silly noodleheads, but the mouse would prefer it if you don’t tell them that!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lodging a Complaint

This is my entry in the Friday Challenge for this week. The challenge: Write no more than 1000 words using this photo as inspiration.



Gentlemen:

I am writing to express my most bitter disappointment in your company's services. When one considers the high cost of said services, one expects to receive the very best; especially when your brochure offers that exact proclamation. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I contracted with your agent on my home world for the Barbarian Bonanza; an extended stay on an undeveloped world with no knowledge of galactic civilization. I was assured my butlebot, J33V32, would be allowed to accompany me on my adventure. J33V32 was kitted out with the latest in holographic projection technology -- all at my expense, mind you -- and we were on our way.

I should have known disaster was in the offing when I was informed J33V32 would be transported to the planet's surface separately. Alas, my usual optimistic outlook did not allow suspicions of disaster to spoil my mood. I must commend the young gentlemen who took me down to this barbaric planet and into a city called London.

Ah, London! It certainly lived up to its billing; loud, its streets crawling with ground transports of all sizes and shapes, a mixture of odors filling the air and teeming millions of these humans scurrying about on primitive errands of all kinds. I was shown to such a primitive abode about which I complained at once. Imagine my surprise when I was told a human would consider my accommodations luxurious! It was all quite deliciously barbaric, indeed! After such a fine start, it was quite a shock to discover J33V32 had been lost in descent!

It seems one your company's robotic shuttles lost its direction thingie and crashed on the other side of the planet! When one of your young gentlemen told me of this, I insisted we leave immediately to fetch my butlebot as I intended to dress for a night on the town. The same young gentleman then told me the most astonishing thing. Traveling to the other side of the planet would require time. Not just hours, not even days, but weeks of travel by something called rail and ship and rail again and then, then by riding some sort of native creature! Yet I stood firm and insisted we leave forthwith to fetch J33V32.

Meanwhile, J33V32 had come through the crash of your shuttle without a scratch. However, as I later learned, the extraordinarily expensive holographic projection device was rendered inoperable. J33V32 had no way to blend in with the barbarian natives when they discovered him wandering the countryside. Fortunately, I keep J33V32 thoroughly up-to-date and his creative circuits were firing wonderfully. As this band of banditos -- that is what J33V32 called them -- gazed upon his visage askance and wondered aloud what he was, clever J33V32 told them he was from Australia. I gather this "Australia" is one of the countries on earth. Having never seen an Australian before, the banditos took him before their fearsome leader, a gentleman by the name of Pancho Villa.

This Villa chappy seems to be some sort of revolutionary in his country. Of course, J33V32 has the full range of bodyguard programming, which he used to great effect before Mr. Villa. In short order, J33V32 was riding and raiding with the banditos. I am given to understand they were greatly impressed with the quantity of alcoholic beverages J33V32 could consume without suffering any impairment. With his mechanical muscles, he also proved quite adept at something called "rolling a cigar."

While I suffered seasickness in a cramped cabin on a floating hotel, my butlebot was leading charges against government soldiers and passing out supplies to starving villagers. While I was attempting to find some fleeting comfort on a "rail car" -- a mode of transportation that involves far too much heat, smoke and dirt for any civilized man -- J33V32 was sitting around actual open flames at night exchanging tales of derring-do with his fellow banditos. While I was swaying back and forth upon a great beast called a "horse," well, in all honesty, J33V32 was also riding a horse.

I was certainly not my in my traditionally sunny disposition when we encountered these same banditos. Of course, we had no way of knowing J33V32 was with them. The barbarians shrugged non-comprehension at our attempts to communicate. Under the threat of immediate violence, they led us to their camp. Upon entering the camp, I espied my butlebot at once. As soon as J33V32 heard his master's voice, he took up his traditional position at my side.

These banditos were none too keen to lose their new chum, I can tell you! It required an exchange of some local precious metal by the young gentlemen from your company before this Pancho Villa agreed to our departure. By the time we had completed our return passage, my Barbarian Bonanza vacation was nearly over.

It is for this reason I write to you. Gentlemen, I insist you allow me to stay on this planet in the city of London until I have discovered the joys and excitement awaiting me. You may retrieve me up on your next visit to this planet. All of this will be done at your expense, of course.

I am sending this message with the two young gentlemen who were of such assistance in retrieving J33V32. Why, they even fixed his holographic projection device! Unlike the rest of your company's services, their services were invaluable. I have tipped them most generously.

Gentlemen, until your return voyage, I remain yours,

Bertram W. Wooster

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

What follows is the truth. Really.

It all started the day school got out for the summer. I came home like normal, handed my report card to Mom and then went into my room to play video games.

"Hello, Mike," someone said as I shut the door.

Surprised, I looked up to see who had spoken. I saw myself leaning against the door to my room. I closed my eyes then looked again. Yep, it was me. Had Mom put a mirror on the back of my door? Nope, no mirror. Too weird!

"Who are you?" I asked.

"I'm you," my double said, "sort of, anyway."

"Sort of?"

"I'm your summer stand-in," he said.

"Why do I need a stand-in?" I asked.

"Because you're getting your wish," the double replied. "You're going to finally have an exciting summer!"

Before I could say anything else, my double pointed something like a TV remote control at me and pushed a button. My quiet room vanished and I found myself waist deep in the ocean, the sound of gunfire all around me. I was surrounded by guys a lot older than me, all carrying M1 rifles and wearing green uniforms and struggling through the water toward the beach. I checked myself out and found a green uniform and an M1 gripped tightly in my hands.

D-Day? I was storming the beach at Normandy? What the hell?

I pushed my way through the water, trying to hide behind some of the other guys. That worked until all the guys around me had been shot. I was so scared I wet my pants, not that anyone would notice. I was trying to figure out what to do when something hit me hard in the chest. Looking down, I saw a red stain spreading out fast. I couldn't stand up any more. I was-

I was suddenly somewhere else. I was wearing something really heavy, holding something really heavy and had something blocking a lot of my vision. Looking left and right, I saw armored hoplite warriors. The one on my right, a much older man, grinned at me.

"Don't worry, boy," he said, "we can handle this Persian scum! Keep your shield up, thrust low and hard. You'll be fine."

I looked in front of me for the first time. Not fifty yards away, a whole lot of men were advancing on us. They gave a terrifying cry and rushed at us!

Off to my left, someone called out, "Brace!"

The human wave hit us, driving us backward. Then I felt a shield against my back, pushing me in the other direction.

"Now, boy, thrust!" the old man next to me yelled.

It was so loud I could barely hear him, but I did what he told me to do. I thrust with my right arm as hard as I could. It was strange, feeling the point push through light armor and pierce flesh. The man before me convulsed and screamed and blood splattered and I thought I was going to be sick. Then that man was down and another took his place.

I thrust again and again and again and again. The screaming, the blood, the horror went on and on until I was numb to it. My arms ached from holding the shield and thrusting. My legs throbbed from pushing and pushing. I didn't think I could hold out much longer when suddenly the Persians retreated.

"Front line," a voice called out, "drop back for rest and water!"

I turned to grin at the old man next to me, ready to tell him I'd made it. I didn't recognize the man standing next to me.

"What happened to-" I began.

The man shook his head. "He dines with the gods tonight."

Suddenly feeling empty, I turned away.

And everything changed again.

I was in a village of some kind. If the movies I've watched are at all accurate, it was a European village. I was pulling something heavy, like a big hand cart. I turned to see what I was pulling and wished I hadn't. It was a big hand cart that was full of dead bodies; men, women, even children. A man was walking out of a hovel carrying a small bundle. The man's eyes looked dead, even if he wasn't. When he put the bundle on the pile of bodies, I saw why.

It was a baby.

I realized all the bodies were covered with large, oozing sores. The plague! Oh, God, I was in a plague infested village! I started to back away from the cart but felt a hand press against my back.

"It's all right, boy," a horse voice said. "You get used to it after a while. Just think of them as a load of wood. And don't touch them."

Suddenly, he began coughing. I thought he was going to cough up a lung, it went on so long.

"Damn," he said quietly. "Looks like you're going to be handling the cart on your own soon."

We dragged the cart through the village and my horror grew with each step. There were so few people for such a large village, and most of them looked half dead from exhaustion. Finally, we dragged the cart out of the village and dumped -- there's no other word for it -- the bodies in a mass grave.

As we were pulling the cart back toward the village, I started to cough.

"I take it all back!" I cried. "I don't want an exciting summer! I want to clean my room and mow the lawn and wash the cars! Please, God, let me be bored again!"

And just like that, I was back in my room. I wasn't coughing or shot in the chest or wearing armor. I was just sitting in my room, looking at my double.

"Did you have a good time?" he asked.

"No! I spent the entire time I was gone terrified and horrified and sure I was about to die!" I said. "I most definitely did not have a good time!"

My double smiled, "Good. It seems you learned something while you were gone."

"Um, how long was I gone?" I asked. It had felt like forever.

The double looked at his watch and answered, "Six minutes."

"Six-? So I've got all of my summer vacation left?"

My double nodded.

"Thank you, God!" I said and reached for my iPod.

There was a knock at the door and my double vanished. Mom poked her head into the room.

"Your father wants you to mow the lawn before you do anything else today," she said.

"Aw, Mom!"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Gift

I cannot walk on water. I cannot raise the dead. I cannot feed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes. I am not the second coming of the Christ, though there are many who refuse to believe me because of what I can do. I can cure the sick. I can make the blind see. I can make the crippled walk.

Jane and I were in Africa, though I forget which country. I can never keep them straight anyway. We'd been in the village for four days. One more day should be enough to complete the healing. One more day, then on to the next village and its people and their wretched conditions.

I was just finishing up for the day when we saw the cloud of dust from an approaching truck. In this area, trucks are to be feared. On rare occasions, they bring supplies or people like me, wishing to help the villagers. More often, they bring thugs from the local warlord or, worse, soldiers from the government.

The villagers gathered their children and hid in their huts. Jane and I went to our hut as well. While Jane checked her guns, I watched the approaching truck.

"Here," Jane said, tossing me a pistol. "Turn the safety off."

I smiled as I flicked the safety off and shoved the gun in my front pocket. Jane never trusts me to remember basic gun safety. "I do know how to handle a gun, dear."

"If by 'handle' you mean 'shoot yourself' then I guess you do," she replied.

"Jane, you know I can't shoot well enough to hit anyone else," I said.

Outside, the truck had stopped. Five heavily armed men piled out. One fired a couple of shots into the air.

"We are looking for the healer!" he shouted. "We know he is here. Bring him to us!"

"Stay here and cover me," I said to Jane, then walked out the door.

The men all turned toward me, covering me with their guns as I approached. The one who had called me out was speaking, but I ignored him. I'd been through this same thing in other villages. I knew what to expect. It was always the same. There was a gun battle. The warlord was badly wounded and would only survive if I healed him. There would be threats against the villagers if I failed, yada yada yada. Yes, I knew this scene all too well.

But this time I was wrong. In the back of the truck, blankets had been piled to make a kind of nest. Lying in the nest was woman holding an infant. The woman was obviously in pain, probably dying. The infant wasn't doing too well, either. A large, powerful looking man was cradling the woman's head in his lap. I recognized him, of course. He was the local warlord.

He looked at me, his eyes shining, and said, "Healer, you must help my wife and my son! You must heal them! If you do not, my men will raze this vil-"

Climbing into the back of the truck, I said, "Stop with the threats. If you know enough to bring your family here, you know I will heal them."

I gave the woman an encouraging smile and gestured toward the baby. She held him out to me and I took him into my arms. As soon as I touched him, I knew the child's problem. His lungs had not fully cleared. He was slowly suffocating. It took but a thought and the boy's lungs were clear while mine, suddenly, were not. As the boy let out his first cry, my gift cleared my lungs before I could even cough.

Placing the boy back in his mother's arms, I took her hand. She had internal bleeding and would bleed to death within the next few minutes. Back when Jane and I still lived in the States, I would have had no idea how to treat the mother. It was her uterus that was bleeding. I couldn't simply transfer her wound to myself and let myself heal because I don't have a uterus. But this kind of injury is all too common here in Africa. I've long since learned to transfer and heal women's wounds such as this. It takes more concentration for the transfer, that's all. Thirty seconds later, it was done.

"The boy is healthy, now. Feed him and he'll be fine," I told the warlord. "Your wife will need to rest for several days, but she'll be fine as well. She can feed the child, but someone should handle diapers for her until her strength returns."

I stood and climbed out of the truck, leaving the warlord staring at his wife and child in wonder.

"So, the stories are true," he said. "You truly are a healer."

"Yes," I replied, turning back to my hut, "the stories are true."

"I thank you for the lives of my family," the warlord said, "but I cannot let a man of such obvious value leave. From now on, you work for me, healer."

Damn, we were back on script again. Reaching into my pocket, I gripped the pistol Jane had given me.

"You're hardly the first man to try this," I said. "You won't be any more successful than the others. Your wife and son will live. Be happy with that and leave while you still can."

The warlord laughed without humor, barking quick orders to his men. "You are a healer, not a warrior. You will do as I say."

Two of the warlord's men grabbed my arms and started pushing me toward the trucks. Dammit, I hate what was about to come next! Gritting my teeth, I pulled the trigger of the pistol in my pocket. Pain flared as the bullet blasted into and through my thigh, cutting through my femoral artery. Despite the pain, it was second nature to transfer my wound to the man on my right. He dropped to the ground, blood pumping from the leg wound, my gift to him.

From behind me, I heard Jane's rifle fire and a man near the truck dropped. The man holding my left arm hadn't figured out what was happening. Tightening his grip on my arm, he hustled me toward the truck. I fired the pistol again and suddenly he had the leg wound I had given to myself.

By that time, Jane had fired twice more. All of the warlord's men were down, either already dead or bleeding to death from the leg wounds I had transferred to them. The warlord was shocked.

"You can still take your family and leave," I told him.

"No!" the warlord screamed, leaping out of the truck. "You will heal my men! You will come with me!"

The fool. He still thought he could win. Yet, by leaving the truck, he ensured Jane could shoot at him without the possibility of hitting the woman or the child. He grabbed me from behind, spun around to face my hut and pointed a pistol at my head.

"Stop shooting!" he yelled. "Stop shooting or I will kill the healer!"

"You're already a dead man," I told him, "you just haven't fallen down yet."

I heard the crack of Jane's rifle and felt the bullet enter my chest at the same time. The rifle bullet passed through me and into the warlord. I probably didn't have to transfer my wound to him as well, but I always play it safe. The arm around my throat went slack and warlord dropped to the ground.

As the light faded from his eyes, I turned back to the truck. The warlord's wife was staring, eyes wide, terrified.

"I did not want to orphan the boy on his birthday," I told her, "but his father gave me no other option. Someone from the village will drive you back to your home. You will tell your husband's men what happened here. You will tell them that they will allow the villager to keep the truck and return here safely. You will tell them to leave this village alone. You will tell them they will face my wrath if they do not obey."

The warlord's men would do as I said. They always do. By this time tomorrow the stories will have me reaching inside men and crushing the life out of them. Superstition is still a powerful force here, after all.

Besides, it's the truth.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Declaration

Written for the Friday Challenge. Short version: What if the French and Spanish had successfully invaded England during the American Revolution, as they attempted to do in 1779 (failing miserably)? What would North America look like today?

Charles Gordon had just finished reviewing the document as his limo pulled up in front of the Department of State building. Gathering the document and recent intelligence reports into his briefcase, Gordon strode to the door. His assistant, Tony, was already there. Together they strode toward the car as the driver opened the rear door.

"Is it true, sir?" Tony asked.

"Is what true, Tony?" Gordon replied, though he already knew the answer.

"That French troops are massing just across the Mississippi, sir," Tony replied. "And that the Spanish navy is staging war games in the Gulf of New Spain."

"Hell, Tony, I thought all you youngsters were, um, what's the word? Inline?"

"Online," Tony corrected.

"Oh, right. Online. Never can manage to remember that one. Don't know why," Gordon muttered as he slid into the back seat of the car. He waited until Tony got in on the other side of the car. "Isn't all of that information available online? That's the hallmark of that new Internet thing, immediate access to news?"

"Well, yes sir, it is," Tony agreed, "but a whole lot of the stuff you find online is just ridiculous. There's no control, so people can post the most outlandish things without any concern whether it's true or not."

"So, this brave new online world is no different than the TV news programs? Ha!" Gordon said.

"I wouldn't go that far, sir," Tony said. "None of the TV news programs are claiming our European colonies are going to declare their independence, but it's all over the Drudge Report. I didn't think Drudge was gullible enough to buy that foolishness!"

"Hmph," replied Gordon.

"It is foolishness, isn't it?"

Gordon stared out his window, not speaking.

"Sir?" Tony asked, his voice laced with just a touch of unease.

Gordon sighed, "You might as well know, Tony, since it'll be all over the news tomorrow. Yes, our European colonies are attempting to break away, to declare their independence. They see all the trouble we're having over here, what with the Napoleon of New France rattling his saber and trying to claim Quebec from us yet again. They see the President of New Spain backing the Napoleon's power grab and see Spanish troops moving into northern California, probably in the hopes of grabbing Oregon and Washington while we're busy dealing with the French."

"What?" Tony exclaimed. "No one is reporting that bit about California! Not even Drudge!

"Well, good. Apparently the CIA can still keep one or two secrets!" Gordon said. "Anyway, the colonies see this as their big chance. They figure we'll be too busy dealing with the really important issues on the home front to keep them in line."

"Look at what happened the last time we go involved in a war in Europe," Gordon continued. "Ever since we spent the decade of the '40s in the whole German quagmire, the public just isn't willing to put American lives on the line in Europe any more."

"Maybe it would have been better if the founding fathers had just returned England, France and Spain to their original governments," Tony said.

"Really, Tony, you should know better than to give voice to that revisionist claptrap!" Gordon said. "They do teach American history in the schools these days, don't they?"

"Well," Tony said, "they teach a version of it, I guess."

"Let me guess, the version where the United States should have stayed neutral when France and Spain attacked England in 1779?" Gordon asked. "The version where the United States should have refused King George's offer to grant American independence in return for sending troops to help defend England?"

"That's part of it, sir," Tony answered. "They also say that, having helped defend England, General Washington should not have helped the British conquer France and Spain. And then, when the British turned on him in the end, how he should have either surrendered or retreated back to America."

"What kind of idiots are in charge of the schools, now?" Gordon demanded. "Any fool would know that Washington couldn't sail back here without abandoning most of his men! Washington was much too honorable a man to ever do that!"

"I know that, sir," Tony began, "but some people claim he was power hungry and-"

"What a load of rubbish!" Gordon declared. "Washington did what any real man would do in his situation; he defied the British and fought back! I only wish I could have been around to see King George's face when the American troops marched into London three years later! Wouldn't have minded seeing old George dance on the end of that rope, either, when Washington hanged the old bastard for his treachery! Let me tell you-"

"Sorry, sir," Tony interrupted, happy to change the subject, "but we're here."

"What? Oh, yes, so we are," Gordon said as the limo pulled up to the White House.

Minutes later, Gordon was ushered into the Oval Office.

"Mr. President," Gordon said, formally.

"Charles," the President replied, equally formally. "Have you got it?"

"Yes, sir," Gordon replied, pulling the document out of his briefcase. "It's right here."

The President glanced at the document, "They really did it, didn't they?"

"Yes, sir. Cheeky bastards, if you'll pardon me, sir," Gordon growled.

"It'll score points with the public, you know," the President said, rubbing his temples. "And the opposition is going to kill us with it."

"That was the first thing that crossed my mind, sir," Gordon answered.

There was a knock at the door. "Enter," called the President.

A White House staff member entered, holding a newspaper. "You wanted to be notified if a special edition of the Post was released, Mr. President."

"Yes, Bob," the President sighed. "Have they got the story?"

"I think so, Mr. President," Bob answered. "I haven't been privy to-"

"Is the text of the European declaration included?" the President asked. Seeing Bob nod, the President added, "What does it say?"

Clearing his throat, Bob began, "When in the course of human events..."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I, Lex Luthor

Written for the Friday Challenge due July 16. The challenge is to take a well known story and turn it on its head; make the good guy bad or the bad guy good.

It is liberating to write your own obituary, to be the man who writes words that will announce your death to the world. It's something I would recommend to you in person, were I still alive to do so. Of course, far more people are going actually read my obituary than yours, so it's of the utmost importance that my obituary says what must be said.

Let's get the obligatory personal history out of the way so I can move on the important part of this obituary. I was born into poverty in the worst slum in Metropolis. My father was an abusive alcoholic who had little education and even less intellect. My mother must have been intelligent at one time but my father had beaten that out of her before I was born. I learned quickly to avoid my father and to never display my vast intelligence around him. Unfortunately, Miss Perkins, my first school teacher did not know my father.

I still remember her showing up at the door late one afternoon, her face shining with suppressed excitement as my mother let her into our tiny apartment. Miss Perkins told my parents how bright I was and how much I had already learned before even entering her class. She never noticed my father's face going red as she told of the IQ tests she had given me. She never noticed my mother shrinking into the corner as she told them my IQ was just over 200. She never noticed me sidling toward the apartment door as she told them I was probably twice as smart as anyone in the class. She never noticed my father grinding his teeth as she told them I should probably skip straight to the fifth grade. She smiled as she told this to my father, who was 13 before he ever made it to the fifth grade.

As soon as she was out the door, my father visited Hell on my mother and me, Hell as he had never visited on us before. As he chased me around the apartment, as his fists pummeled me, as his feet lashed out at me, I swore I would never been like him. I swore I would never be a stupid, unthinking brute. I swore I would use my brains to make my way in the world.

Of course, my father was hardly the only anti-intellectual I ran across during my childhood. As an advanced student, I was regularly in classes filled with children several years older than myself. They would struggle with subjects I found absurdly easy. They would always know who had ruined the curve on the latest test, usually because some clueless teacher had held my test score up as an example of true scholarship. And they would always be waiting for me in the hallway, the bathroom or the gym, trying to do with their fists what they could not do with their brains -- claim superiority to me.

Of course, I graduated at the top of my high school class. Not that it was much of a challenge. I was thirteen and set on having the last laugh. Instead of the typical valedictorian speech, I issued a warning to my "fellow" classmates. I told them their days of lording over me were finished. They laughed. I smiled and was about to offer an example. That's when the principal's hand landed on my shoulder and I was pulled away from the microphone. In a voice that carried throughout the auditorium, he proclaimed my speech was over. Grabbing his tie, I pulled him down to my level and spoke softly for a few seconds. The principal's face went pale and I went back to the microphone. No, I'm not going to tell you what I said to the principal. I told him I would only reveal my knowledge if I was not allowed to continue my speech and I always keep my word.

This time I spoke to an absolutely quiet audience. This time, I had a predator's smile as I pointed out my greatest nemesis in the school. He was, of course, a football player. Big, strong, stupid. And a five star football recruit for a college powerhouse. All he needed was a halfway decent score on his latest attempt to pass the SAT and he was set. You should have seen his face when I announced that he had threatened me physically if I didn't take the SAT for him. You should have seen his face when I announced I had recorded all of his threats. You should have seen his face when I announced that I had sent those recordings to major newspapers and the NCAA. You should have seen his face twisted with rage as he charged at me. You should have seen his face as I dropped him in his tracks with a stun gun of my own design. As he lay twitching on the floor, I calmly turned and strode from the auditorium. I never looked back.

At this point, you probably think I've become exactly what I despised; a bully, albeit one who used his brain rather than his brawn. And you would be right. For the next several years, I was consumed by the need to get revenge on those who wronged me. And I succeeded in every case, yet my revenge was hollow. There was no challenge in this pursuit and little satisfaction in attaining it. Enlightenment finally came, however. I cast aside my goals of petty revenge and chose, instead, to work for the benefit of all humanity. Since that moment, I have spent my entire life pursuing that goal.

Even from the grave, I can hear the snorts of disbelief at this claim. Lex Luthor, the arch villain, working to benefit humanity? This is the final proof that, in life, I was insane, right? Wrong!

Every state in this country has at least one school for academically gifted founded and supported by the Luthor Foundation. Every hospital in the country has several major medical devices designed, manufactured and sold at cost by Luthor Industries. I could go on -- quite extensively -- but I know why none of you will believe me. Because of him. Because of Superman.

When Superman first appeared on the scene, I was as excited to see him as any of you. Imagine, an alien from an advanced civilization right here on earth! Just think of what he could teach us! Just think of what we could accomplish with his advanced intellect to guide us! Just think of what he could accomplish all by himself! Oh, the possibilities were endless! I decided then and there to put all of the vast resources of Luthor Industries at Superman's disposal. Together, we would design a better future for all of mankind! Together, we would discover mankind's true potential!

Alas, my dream for a better world had one fatal flaw. That flaw was Superman, himself. Rather than devote himself to intellectual pursuits that would have saved millions and benefited billions, Superman chose to devote himself to physical pursuits that saved a mere handful. Rather than design a new and better world, Superman chose to fight to preserve the world we already had.

Devastated, I was forced to see the truth about Superman. I had envisioned a god among men, leading all of us -- even me -- in pursuit of knowledge. Faced with the choice between brains and brawn, Superman chose brawn. Instead of the ultimate intellect, Superman chose to be the ultimate jock.

Oh, he's a nice jock, certainly. He's always saving the innocent and helping the helpless. He never dunked a nerd's head in the toilet or gave him a wedgie. But that doesn't make him any less of a jock.

Superman uses his body to shield people from bullets and everyone cheers. I used my brain to create Lexar; a thin, flexible, bulletproof cloth used by our military and police forces around the country. No one notices.

Superman flies and people are amazed. I design a small, inexpensive jet pack and fly, too. People are unimpressed.

In every way, Superman has come to personify this country's love of the physical and disdain of the intellectual. With Superman leading our research efforts, it's entirely possible we could have cured cancer or HIV or heart disease or even the common cold! With Superman leading our research efforts... Well, we'll never know what could have happened because the big guy with the cape chose the physical over the intellectual.

I could have accepted many things from Superman, but not that. I could not accept a being who could have shown the world the value of knowledge, the value of science, the value of technology but chose, instead, to show the world the value of big muscles. I could not accept a being who had so much to offer yet gave so little.

That is why I made the destruction of Superman my life's work. I dedicated myself to the proposition that brains were mightier than brawn. I dedicated myself to proving that a determined, intelligent man could defeat an alien god who had chosen to live among us.

I lost the company I spent my life building to this pursuit. I lost my fortune to this pursuit. At times, I lost my freedom to this pursuit. And, now, I've lost my life to this pursuit. But it will not have been in vain if just a few of you rise above the vast flock of human sheep to stand where I stood. My sacrifices will have been worth all they cost me, if just a handful of you rise to take my place.

Superman, you have won this round, but it was only the first round. Humanity has some fight left in them yet. Humanity has a few champions who will take up my torch. Someday, Superman, those who follow will succeed where I have failed. Someday, Superman, you will regret your foolish infatuation with your physique. Someday, Superman, you will wish you had expanded your intellect. Someday, Superman, mankind will destroy you.

And then I will know peace.