December 11th ...The annual Hudson River Booze and Boobs Cruise was something of a local institution, a three hour boat ride from the port of Albany to the city of Troy and back again. The cruise offered a buffet, a bar and more exotic dancers than you could shake a money clip at. Ostensibly this low grade bacchanalia was a way for Richie Upton, the owner of Scorpio's Exotic Lounge and other sleezy establishments, to raise money for the less fortunate. It was the kind of event that brought greasy ‘philanthropists’ from all across the tri-city area.
There had been other boats in the past but for the last five years the JT Allen had been the ship of choice. It was a three deck cruise ship, the lower two decks were enclosed with central air and tinted windows. The owners of the ship knew what kind of debauchery was taking place on all three of those decks but were more than willing to look the other way.
After all, there was money enough for everyone; the owners, the caterers, the dancers, and Richie Upton’s bosses in the Polish Mafia. Sadly they never seemed to have any money left over for the poor unfortunate souls they were supposedly trying to help.
As you can imagine, after each of these cruises there was public outrage, municipal embarrassment and condoms washing up on shore for weeks. The forces of decency would rally and vow to put an end to the Hudson River Booze and Boobs Cruise, but no one really thought the party would ever stop.
However on this night the party did stop, it was stopped forever...
THE NIGHT BLOGGER:
A Season In Hell
Al Bruno III
...I was drunk, seasick and horny. It was almost ten thirty at night and I believed I was the only person on the open air upper deck of the JT Allen. It was thirty degrees, just cold enough to make me feel like I might either sober up or pass out. The party raged on beneath me.
And yes I do mean raged. The booze and the boobs had done their ugly work making some of the male attendees aggressive and demanding. The bouncers had their hands full and they had begun deputizing members of the ships crew to keep what was supposed to be a nice charitable orgy from degenerating into an orgy of manslaughter and sexual assaults. The more I thought about the things going on down there, the more sick to my stomach I felt.
My cousin Roy was the DJ for this event and he’d gotten me a free ticket. I almost didn’t go. My nights of being Roy’s chauffeur had left me feeling exhausted, vaguely alcoholic and full of self-loathing.
Lack of sleep, unlimited free drinks and nightly prepaid peenie whackings will do that to a guy.
I stared woozily up at the sky, there were no clouds, just bright stars and a brighter moon. I found myself wishing it would snow, wishing a blanket of white would cover me, this boat, this city, everything. I wanted... I wanted to feel cleansed. I wanted to know what the fuck I was doing with my life.
There was a crash to my right, I turned around expecting to see another partier in search of fresh air or an original place to throw up.
What I saw was a partier all right, he staggered along the guard rail; his face, his throat and his gut had all been torn away. Air whistled through his ragged neck, a loosened eye rolled and jostled against an exposed cheekbone. Entrails, reeking and bloody, brimmed from his belly, slithering down to his feet.
“Sorree...” he gasped, “ahm sorreee...”
Then something brought him down, a lean canine shape.
I heard the bites that killed the already dying man. The loud snaps of a powerful jaw followed by grunts that might have been from effort or from pleasure. My every muscle was locked in place, I was utterly terrified but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was fascinated too.
Oh fuck! I thought, Oh fuck!
The thing chomped and swallowed while I ever so slowly retrieved my smartphone and snapped a few pictures.
Click: A paw immersed in a shallow puddle of blood.
But the paw wasn't right, it was clumped and gnarled like an old branch. Something about it made my skin crawl.
Click: A long arching back, a supine torso covered with hair but not thick with it. Its hindquarters were hunched, its shoulders were sagging, its blunt muzzle was buried deep in the torso of the dead man.
Like the paw, the entirety of the creature's body was hard to look at. At one glance it brought to mind a sickly or deformed beast and with another it made you think of a child clumsily play-acting at being an animal.
Click: Closer now, zooming in. There were traces of what might be bruises or war paint along its throat. The jawline was distended and monstrous looking, the ear was pert and seashell like. With one eye it looked directly into the camera.
Without warning the thing loosed a long keening howl. When it howled I screamed.
I don’t remember running. I don’t remember running at all. I do remember falling down the stairs and landing with a thud onto the main deck. The smallest of the seven bouncers on duty, a pair of guys named Adam and Phil, helped me to my feet. They ushered me over to a chair at an empty table and got me a glass of water. Cousin Roy’s twenty minute Lord’s of Acid megamix was throbbing from the speakers. No wonder no one had heard the nightmare going on upstairs. “Aren’t you Roy’s cousin?” Adam asked, “What happened?”
“Someone is hurt.” I pointed, “Up on the deck. There’s blood.”
What else did you expect me to say? That I’d seen a monster? I know better than that and so should you.
Phil went upstairs to check, I looked around the room. That thing, that whatever it was, could be anywhere now. If it moved on all fours it could slink between the tables and be on me before I could so much as piss myself.
That made me concentrate on my surroundings all the more but I saw no monsters, just table after table of empty, lonely and broken men and the single mothers, runaways and other lost girls trying to feign interest in what they had to say.
And make no mistake dear readers, I was very much a part of this scene. Sure, I didn’t pay for my ‘sessions’ with Kiki, Bunny, Charisma and Suzie but don’t think that absolves me of anything. I could have been a gentleman, I could have told Roy to take a damn cab but instead I got laid every night by women that would never tell me their real names. Women I was treating with no more thought than a handful of tissues.
Suddenly I was being manhandled to my feet and dragged up the stairs by the bouncers. They didn’t look amused at all.
It seemed darker now but that might have just been the beginnings of the alcohol poisoning I had been courting all night. The Patroon Island bridge was looming up ahead. No one was more surprised than me when I suddenly threw up all over the bouncer’s shoes. “Aw God Damn it!” Adam hissed.
“Never mind that,” Phil pulled me over to the far railing.
Of course there was no body. There was plenty of blood but no body.
“Now,” Adam said, “what the Hell happened up here?”
As far as interrogations go the one I got from the two bouncers wasn’t all that bad. I told them what they expected to hear and insisted we had to turn the boat around and call the police.
Phil looked at me like I’d just beamed down from the Starship Peckerhead, “Are you outta your mind?”
“Someone might have fallen overboard!” I said, “We gotta get help.”
“All that happened is someone fell and hit their head,” Phil glared, “head wounds bleed a lot. Poor sap probably wandered back downstairs. Hell, maybe he’s getting another peenie whacking.”
“That doesn’t even make sense! Think about what--” I stopped talking when I felt a meaty hand on my right buttock, “Hey that’s my wallet!”
“Mr. Upton doesn’t need the police or any kind of trouble,” Adam rooted around until he found my driver’s license. He pocketed it, “So you keep your mouth shut or we’ll find you and make you sorry.”
“I’m already sorry” I snatched my wallet back, “you guys are making a big mistake.”
They crossed their arms in unison. Phil said, “We’re professionals, we don’t make mistakes.”
“Oh please,” I rolled my eyes, “this isn’t Roadhouse. Can’t you see we’re all in danger?”
“Well... Well...” I self consciously adjusted my straw fedora, “I haven’t been one hundred percent up front with you guys.”
“Oh?” Phil stepped closer.
“I saw something else... It attacked the guy... The guy that isn't here now...”
So I told them everything, the whole story and I cringed with every word. When I was finished Adam asked, “Are you saying you saw a werewolf?”
“Hey now!” I raised my hands, “I did not use the 'W-word'.”
“But that's what you mean right?” Adam continued, “You're saying you saw a monster eat somebody.”
I snapped my fingers and reached in my jacket, “Hold on. I snapped a picture of it...”
Adam and Phil stared at the pictures for almost a minute; then they exchanged glances and Adam threw my smartphone into the Hudson River.
“Hey!” I shouted, “What did you do that for?”
“The rules said no recording devices allowed on the boat?” Phil said, “You remember that?”
“I think we’re beyond such concerns now,” I tried to match him glare for glare but that isn’t easy when your line of sight is roughly equal to a guy’s pectoral muscles. “We should be worried about the werewolf!”
The two bouncers started laughing. Adam gave me a shove, “Werewolf? All I saw was some naked hippie chick.”
“Yeah, you know all hairy and shit.”
I facepalmed, “Oh sweet lord.”
“All I gotta say is you better stay out of trouble for the rest of this trip or you’re gonna get a tasering.”
With that I was alone on the upper deck again. A hippie chick? I thought to myself, Was he for real?
He probably was, when faced with the preternatural most people default back to their most comfortable frame of reference. I guess Adam had a thing for hirsute ladies.
Part of me wanted to leave these idiots to their fate. What would happen if I literally jumped ship we got close? Could I make it to shore? I could probably make it, I’d dealt with worse than hypothermia in my life.
But that would mean leaving Cousin Roy, and Kiki and the other girls to a fate they didn’t deserve. I had to do something, so I decided to present my case to the captain of the JT Allen. He might take me seriously.
Sure, and daisies might grow out of my ears.
Sighing with resignation I headed up the stairs to the bridge. I rehearsed the lie I was going to tell in my head, editing out any details that might arouse suspicion or laughter. I was so focused on this that I almost didn’t notice when my hand came up from the railing wet and red.
Oh no. Oh no...
I froze in place and thought about turning back but after a moment of self-hatred I started up the stairs again. But a little more slowly and quietly this time. There was a small fire extinguisher in a case on the wall. I ripped it free.
The engines of the boat thrummed, the waves lapped and splashed against the hull. I could hear the sounds of laughter and the pound of the music down below. The stars began to pale as the lights of the patroon island bridge grew larger and the flash of headlights passing across it became brighter and brighter.
The door at the top of the stairs was a sliding metal affair, it looked very secure, too bad it was wide open. There was blood on the walls and the instrument panels, there were bits of the bridge crew smeared around the floor. A bit of the captain here, a bit of the first mate there, a bit of something unrecognizable in the corner.
I walked into the room; I wasn’t hoping to find survivors, I was hoping to find the radio so I could call for help. I could hear hissing static nearby, the handset had been ripped out and the controls had been smashed.
A roar and a ripping sensation and I was thrown forward. Pain bloomed up the right side of my back, the kind of pain that always proceeds an unhealthy amount of blood loss.
Terror and adrenaline kept me on my feet. I spun around swinging the fire extinguisher. Metal struck bone. Teeth clattered to the floor.
I brought the fire extinguisher back around again for another swing. Another ugly crunch of bone, my attacker- the creature- the werewolf went down.
And thank God for that because the torn skin and muscle of my back was screaming now.
No time to rest, I thought, Finish this. Could I really crush the thing’s skull? If it really was a werewolf shouldn’t I be looking for something made of silver? I stood over it, saw it thrashing half-heartedly.
Finish this! It was more than a thought now, it was a primal instinct.Grunting at the pain I raised the fire extinguisher above my head.
And that was when the boat crashed into the Patroon Island Bridge...
...you must know the rest, it was the news story of the year; the JT Allen striking the Patroon Island bridge and capsizing. Five dead, including the captain and bridge crew, two missing. Millions of dollars in structural damage to one of the main routes from Albany to Rensselaer. A full fledged boat rescue in the middle of the night and the scene was made all the more insane because my cousin Roy started blasting The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald over the sound system before he abandoned the DJ’s booth.
The wound on my back was a deep one, stitches couldn’t close it, they had to use surgical staples. I see an epic scar in my future. I also see a long wait at the DMV to get my driver’s license back since Adam was among the dead.
When I think about what happened I think about Tyke the elephant.
Stay with me on this, I’m going somewhere.
In 1994 during a performance of the Circus International in Honolulu, Hawaii Tyke went berserk killed her trainer and ran wild through the streets. Twelve people were injured and eventually Tyke was brought down in a hail of gunfire.
I think about that poor animal, snatched away from anything remotely resembling a normal life, abused and forced to perform for the amusement of others. I think I can understand why she did what she did and I bet you can too.
Fact: Among the injured was a dancer named Bunny. Investigations revealed that she was a fifteen year old illegal immigrant that had been smuggled into the country from Armenia and forced to work as a dancer and a prostitute.
Fact: Further investigations revealed that several girls working at Scorpio’s and other businesses associated with Richie Upton were in the same situation as Bunny.
Fact: Richie Upton is in a lot of fucking trouble and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Fact: Despite having a broken jaw, dislocated shoulder and shattered clavicle Bunny disappeared from the hospital shortly after her identity was discovered and hasn’t been seen since. The authorities suspect Richie Upton’s associates had something to do with it but I’m not so sure.
I don’t know exactly who or what the ironically named ‘Bunny’ was but I think I can understand why she did what she did and I bet you can too.
Science had long ago replaced the faith of Professor Mercer Conrad’s childhood. With no prayers to comfort him he could only whisper scraps from his latest thesis to keep madness at bay. “...in order to pursue my examination of the convergence of post millennial social degeneration and economic disruption...” he said, “...I will approach the subjects directly and establish a dialogue...”
The pit they had thrown him into was eight feet deep and barely a yard across. It had been dug out of the concrete sub-basement of a half-completed house. Serrated ridges were carved into the walls of the pit and the simple act of moving was enough to cut bare flesh to ribbons. A thick iron lattice had been placed over the mouth of the pit and was bolted down. When Mercer shook the bars they didn’t even rattle.
Somewhere a halogen lamp blazed, it cast dark, sharply defined silhouettes along the walls and ceiling of the sub-basement. From his vantage point in the pit Mercer watched the fate of his friends and co-workers unfold like grotesque shadow-plays that ended when the puppets were reduced to scraps.
There were other pits nearby, most were empty but not all. A shape drifted past, the cloaked shaman was about to choose a new victim.
“Hey!” Mercer shouted, “Please talk to me!”
But there was no answer, none of his captors had spoken a word this night. They had committed each of their atrocities in silence.
Mercer said, “...in times of social and economic despair religiosity inevitably takes hold of the general public but in this era of skepticism and spiritual nihilism those impulses have become...”
The clang of a nearby gate being flipped open startled him into silence. Then there were the familiar grunts and cries as another one of sacrifice was dragged away.
What would it be? Flaying or spikes? Or perhaps something far worse. Mercer cursed his foolishness. Where others had seen unsolved mysteries and unreported disappearances he had only seen right-wing fear-mongering and urban myth-cycles.
His teaching assistant Farkas had tried to warn him but Farkas had been the first sacrifice. They had let him keep his tongue and he had shrieked and begged until his voice became the choking gurgles of a half-drowned man.
“...legends that spread over social networks, so-called evidence that is nothing more than here-say and poorly doctored photographs...” Mercer breathed, “...they are the embodiment of middle class fears, the terror that a lost job or economic setback will throw them down amongst...”
A cry rose up and dwindled. There was a sound that reminded Mercer of celery stalks being torn from the root.
A week ago Mercer had convinced a group of friends and students to join him in Las Vegas for what he had promised would be a ‘working holiday’. They would spend a few days enjoying the sights and the shows, then they would head off to Vantage Acres with digital cameras and notebooks.
The cloaked shaman drifted past again. Mercer called out, “Listen to me! People know where we are!”
That was a lie, both he and his captors knew it, but wasn’t that all part of the ceremony? Weren’t sacrifices supposed to beg?
“...the recent wave of foreclosures have left the city of Las Vegas with one of the highest concentrations of empty houses. Pools have become stagnant breeding grounds for biting insects. Vermin infestations are common as are encroachments from larger animals like bobcats and coyotes but rumors abound that human beings are responsible for the most terrible...”
Mercer heard the sound of someone blubbering, then a struggle and a brief chase. The chase ended with the muffled ringing of metal pipes crashing down on soft flesh.
At first Mercer and his friends had found exactly what they were looking for, downtrodden families living in forgotten homes, foraging for food in the garbage of the financially solvent and stealing what they needed from local stores. As wildlife slowly reclaimed the abandoned neighborhoods some families and clans had begun hunting and trapping.
A crowd of strangers had approached Mercer and his friends shortly after sundown. He had marveled at their piercings and their warpaint and most of all how young they were. Most were little more than teenagers in dirty designer clothes but some of the older ones wore faded military fatigues with the insignias torn away. Farkas and the others had wanted to retreat but Mercer made them stand their ground. He needed to speak to these people, to understand and explicate them. His conversation was rambling and one sided as he had tried to draw them out by talking about class warfare and economic angst.
“... they are called many things such as Urban Headhunters, White Savages and, most often, the Pilgrims. Supposedly they roam the countryside snatching up unwary children and stealing wi-fi. What truth is there behind the terrible legends that have sprung up around them? There are...”
The shaman passed by again, rough fabric trailing across the bars of the pit. Mercer grabbed at the hem of the dark robe and caught it in his bloodied fingertips. He held tight.
There was a soft tear as the cloaked figure stumbled and turned back. The face beneath the cloak was bespectacled and cherubic, it stared indifferently at him.
“Talk to me!” Mercer demanded, even now he was sure that if he could just establish a dialogue he could save himself and his career, “Please. Just say something.”
The cloaked shaman paused thoughtfully, then spoke with a soft, sickly voice, “You're next.”
…“Are you just going to sulk or do you want to dance?” She stood before him with her hand outstretched and no pity in her eyes.
No one else at the homecoming dance even noticed them as they made their way out onto the floor, half giggling half blushing.
Not that anyone would have cared anyway…
It was a modest sized ballroom in a medium sized hotel. Middle aged people dressed in crisp clothes wandered through the tables, all hugs, smiles and handshakes. The open bar was seeing a lot of action, the buffet not so much. It was the 25th high school reunion and everyone was giggling over how much everyone had changed; who got fat, who got thin, who got rich and who got weird. Randy Carter stood near the back of the room, watching it all, hoping someone would notice him but unable to make the first move.
It was like old times again.
When the dance was over Randy told her he didn't know what to say, she jut kissed him on the cheek and told him to stay out of trouble.
Randy knew he was a fool to think she would ever be here, but he had to take the chance, he so wanted to see her again. He watched David Reed strutting around with his hair plugs and trophy bride and there was Terri Smith in a dress that was three inches too short and two sizes too small. The Vice Principal Mr. Martinoli was there, almost 80 years old but still recognizable, Randy was sure for a moment the old man had noticed him but it was just that he had been lingering near the rest rooms.
Everyone said she was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, that she was headed for a bad end but ever since that dance Randy had been in love with Joyce Maynard.
She never wore makeup and she never wore dresses, even at the homecoming dance she had been wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Sure all the other boys appreciated the sight of her curves but none of them dared go near- she might be a junior but she dated college guys. All the other girls said so.
All these faces, some familiar some rendered unrecognizable by years or botox; Randy felt nothing at the sight of them. He just watched as his former classmates as they were overwhelmed with nostalgia or longing. Did any of them even remember him? Was he even a subject of conversation? There was a half- abandoned drink on a nearby table, Randy had half a mind to grab it and fling it into the 'Welcome Alumni' banner.
What would they have to say about Randy Carter then?
She didn't forget him after that night, when she passed him in the hall she wasn't afraid to make eye contact and flash him a little smile. On days that happened Randy was walking on air for the rest of the day.
As the seasons rolled on Joyce would disappear for weeks at a time, once or twice for suspensions and then there was the week she was hospitalized. What was she hospitalized for? Depending on which rumor you believed it was either a drug overdose or an abortion but the last time Randy saw her he would learn the real story.
When the buffet closed the began to play all the songs from the old days, people began to filter on to the dance floor; old flames sharing slow dances while their spouses waited on the sidelines. It wasn't even midnight yet but many of the Alumni were drunk and maudlin rehashing the same old stories again and again. Randy wished he could have joined in with them but what kind of stories would he have to share? He had spent so much of his time with his nose pressed in a book in anticipation of college, then in college in anticipation of his career. He made partner at his law firm when he was in his twenties, he was divorced by the time he was thirty-five and then along came a heart attack at forty one, in truth he had expected that as well, but not quite so soon.
And through it all he held on to those memories of Joyce, the only thing in his life that had ever been unexpected.
Even at seventeen he had a paper route; he was always industrious like that, always saving his money for law school in case his plans for a scholarship fell through. This had been his route for years but he never knew she lived on it, not until that frosty March morning. She was just coming home when she noticed him riding past on his bike, she called him over and they talked for a while about this last semester of high school. Joyce would be 18 this summer and she told him should couldn't wait to move on, she wasn't even going to bother with graduation ceremonies. She told him once she took her last exam she wouldn't be caught dead in that damn school.
It got colder and she invited him in for breakfast – there was no sign of her parents and all she had to offer him was soda and pop tarts. How could he refuse?
Conversation went round and round until he mentioned her most recent absence from school, he knew the rumors but he was curious to know the truth.
So she told him- it had been an appendectomy, then laughingly she had stood up shown him her scar. She dared him touch it, and he did.
Then in a moment of madness he kissed her.
And she kissed him back.
Before he knew it they were in her bed pulling at each others clothes. He was so excited and terrified, he even told her he didn’t know what to do so she showed him, guided him. They moved slowly cherishing every moment.
They both knew in their heart of hearts this would never happen again.
By 2 AM and the party had broken up and from the way some of his former classmates were acting Randy wouldn't be surprised if a few marriages might have gotten broken up as well. Randy was still there feeling disappointed and bitter, feeling like he'd wasted his time and effort to be here.
And it hadn't been easy to get away from home to be here, it had been more than a struggle but he had been determined.
All this effort for nothing but it had been worth the chance hadn't it?
He paused at the bulletin board that showed pictures of all the people that couldn’t be there, or didn’t care to be. Beside that were the pictures of the faces that could never be there.
One picture was a melancholy tribute to Joyce Maynard; mentioning how she had died young but not that she had died of a drug overdose weeks after graduation.
And beside that was Randy Carter dead of a heart attack at 42. He wondered to himself where they had gotten the picture of him from and how death could be so lonely, how he had even gone unnoticed by eternity itself.
Suddenly there was a voice behind him, “Are you just going to sulk or do you want to dance?”
She stood before him with her hand outstretched and no pity in her eyes.
There was no one there to notice them as they made their way out onto the floor, half giggling half blushing.
When they hoisted me up from the bottom of the well, I almost found myself mourning the silence and the darkness. The wooden cross I had been lashed to had long since rotted away but the weighted chains were still about my limbs. They rattled as my long dormant limbs shuddered and flexed; with each blink of my eyes my vision returned and became more precise.
There were four people in the basement of the abandoned Georgetown manor. The two closest to me were a tall woman and a little man. They wore pale blue hospital gowns, caps and surgical masks that puffed in and out with every word or breath. Rubber gloves covered their hands and thick, brown-stained aprons with pockets that hung heavy with the tools of their trade. They looked me over with clinical fascination and spoke as though I was some kind of long lost heirloom.
Which I suppose I am.
The two men near the door were tall, detached and statue still, they both had handguns hidden beneath their black suits. I recognized them as Agents of the Pharos project immediately but all that meant was that they were just new breeds of a very old kind of dog.
They always think I am helpless.
I let them examine me for a time, poking and prodding but all the while I could feel the trembling in my limbs weakening. An hour into the assessment put them to the test.
Rust and time had left my bonds weakened, with a single motion I pulled my right arm free. Links of rusted steel scattered everywhere, clattering on the floor and bouncing off the walls. The woman shouted, her surgical mask puffing out comically. My hands tore into the soft flesh of the little man's throat. Robbed of his voice he could only beg for mercy with his eyes.
And how he begged!
I tightened my grip feeling the blood well up around my fingertips. With a final pull the cartilage snapped and came away. I let the man’s body fall to the cellar floor, all the while leering at the woman.
The two Pharos Agents drew their weapons and fired. The woman was caught in the crossfire; bullets tore through her flesh to bury themselves in mine.
So many years, so many bullets.
Pulling free of the last of the chains I raised myself up to my full height. One of them bellowed for me to surrender. I made swift work of them, bending their bodies and twisting their limbs. I let one of them twitch for a while as I tried to assess what fresh surprises this new administration might have in store for me.
Then I made my way to the top of the stairs. The door was locked but it tore off the hinges easily enough.
A figure greeted me at the top of the landing; a tall, slump shouldered figure, with thick mismatched arms and undersized legs.
The head atop those massive shoulders was dracocephalic; with small close-set eyes, a nose broken beyond all hope of healing and a cruel line of a mouth. Everywhere there were scars, making the brutish figure seem as tattered and threadbare as the clothes it wore. Miss-set bones jutted at odd angles; thick, rope like veins bulged against yellowed skin.
Bringing both fists down I smashed the full length mirror; the monstrous image fragmented and collapsed in on itself. Broken glass cracked under my bare feet as I moved through interior of the empty house. I could still remember the expensive furniture that had once crowded every room and the elegant oil paintings that hung on every wall. Now was only dust. I felt myself begin to laugh.
Once a great and learned man lived here, a noted historian and a mediocre mystic; he had believed he could make a civilized being of me, that he could make me manageable with his soothing words and opiates. I toyed with him for months, aping the results he wanted, telling him just what he expected to hear. Then one day he came home to find I had escaped my bonds, dismembered his sons, smashed his wife's skull to fragments and raped his daughter.
How she squirmed beneath me as I whispered to her the secrets only I knew. The knowledge drove her mad…
The expression on his face however was mine and mine alone and I still treasured it. I like to think he might have tried to kill me had there not been Agents of the Pharos project there with him that day. No agent of any administration would ever allow me to come to harm; I can never truly be punished, merely imprisoned until I am needed again.
And I will always be needed, that is my power.
Laughter echoing off the bare walls I headed out into the dusk, keeping out of sight as best I could. The air was warm but heavy with the odor of chemicals. Cars moved in an orderly procession down the streets, lampposts flickered to life, and citizens walked to and fro, enjoying the summer weather. I marveled at how much Sussex County could change in less than a decade, at how much one nation could change.
My mouth watered at the thought of what other wonders might be waiting for me but I knew I had to move carefully. By now my captors would be aware I had escaped once more and they would be desperate in their panic.
They have to be subtle, afraid to let anyone know there are still giants in the Earth.
Concealing myself until I had the full cover of night I spent an hour searching until I found a man with proportions near to mine. He was jogging, his respiration steady his expression vacant. I dragged him off the street and killed him bloodlessly.
It felt good to have clean clothes against my skin, especially clothes that stretched so easily to accommodate my frame. I found my way to the railroad tracks and followed them south.
Hours and miles passed with ease but I knew that soon the constellation of Lyra would be in ascendance and I would be helpless. I needed security, and I needed nourishment. Opportunity presented itself in the form of a house just off the main road. I kicked in the front door, surprising the family gathered around the television set.
I am always hungry, even now.
The patriarch of the family challenged me. I struck him and felt his ribs splinter. Blood spilled from his mouth, staining my new clothes. His wife and four children screamed as one. I subdued them easily, crippling them but making sure they stayed alive.
I ate the patriarch, starting with the soft entrails and working my way to the marrow. His wife and children begged and pleaded but their cries only sweetened the meal. It had been too long since I had last eaten but it had been well worth the wait; this new generation of citizens had been raised like veal, protected and sheltered.
Even raw, the meat falls right off the bones.
With that sanguine desire sated I demonstrated my gratitude by teaching the woman the secret of how to foretell the future from spilled entrails.
By her third child she found the trick of it.
Clad in an ill-fitting suit and heavy jacket I left the house behind. I followed the tracks again until I found a train yard. I didn’t see any guards or fences so I climbed into the first abandoned cattle car I could find.
Even with the shadows drawn in close I couldn’t fully relax, a fluttering nameless suspicion nagged at me. I picked idly at the fresh bullet wounds while waiting for the stars to be right. Having tried to ascertain my future, I naturally found my thoughts returning to my past.
My life began under the stars, in 1784 in an open air laboratory designed and built by Thomas Jefferson. He was working from Ben Franklin's notes and those notes in turn were stolen from the royal mystics of France. Franklin had refused to aid in my creation; the memories of his own disastrous experiments still haunted him.
Thomas Jefferson did not work alone that night however. A series of ever more dangerous setbacks led him to commission Jedediah Orne to assist him in his endeavors. Orne was only too happy to visit the young nation and aid in translating and supplementing Jefferson’s incomplete transcription of The Talos Formulae. Jefferson was determined that the new fledgling nation would have an avatar on par with the articulate, wise and beautiful creatures that had advised the royalty of the world since the age of antiquity.
Orne however was determined to put some of his own more radical theories to the test.
No ash and copper wire for him! Or for me.
My original body was that of a long forgotten Egyptian Lord, shriveled and grayish but perfectly preserved. Once he had been a god king but grave robbers had ransacked his tomb and sold his remains as a curio. Jedediah Orne worked tirelessly in Jefferson’s laboratory, using The Talos Formulae more as a guideline than a gospel. Runes were carved beneath the mummy’s tongue, at the bottoms of his feet and most importantly on the underside of his skull. Where mechanical contrivances and ash had been called for, Orne used the flesh of the recently dead in combinations specifically chosen to create sorcerous fission.
The heart of a patriot. The blood of one a native. The brain of a traitor.
I came to life in a haze of alchemical smoke. Terrified and confused I kicked my way free of my glass womb. At first the cool air was an agony to my lungs. My muscles struggled to raise my misshapen head. Jedediah Orne rolled me on my back so his audience could gaze down upon me. My first sight was Vega at its zenith; its bluish white light filling my mind with knowledge and mysteries. Twelve of the nation's founding fathers stared down at me and I instantly knew their histories and potentials; I even knew how they might die.
The President of the United States in Congress Assembled, Richard Henry Lee, asked me a question. I wanted nothing more than to curse him but I was helpless. I had to answer in full.
The low drone of a helicopter startled me from my reminiscing, it sounded close. A spotlight swept over the train car, shafts of light insinuating between the gaps in the walls and the open doorway. I heard shouting voices and the barking of dogs.
I climbed up onto the train car’s roof and spied a dozen police officers and dogs moving in. The spotlight found me and an amplified voice ordered me to surrender. These were ordinary officers of the law and I wondered how much they had been warned to expect by the Agents of Project Pharos.
An animal sound stirring in my throat, I leapt down into the midst of them. The sight of me gave them pause but they kept coming, confident in their training and body armor. One leapt at me and I slapped him in the side of the face with all my strength. The snap of his neck sounded like gunfire.
A second one struck me across the knees with a baton, I caught him easily. My thumbs found his eye sockets, his head split apart like an overripe fruit. The high pitched keening of his voice panicked the dogs and slowed the other police officers’ approach.
The amplified voice from the helicopter cursed me, promising revenge. They released the dogs; the two beasts leapt as one, their teeth sinking into my forearms. Their eyes were small and frenzied with terror. I grabbed one of the dogs by its collar and tore it free not caring that a mouthful of my flesh came away with it.
I hurled the yelping animal at the helicopter. The spotlight shattered, the aircraft twisted in mid-air, fighting to stay aloft. The second dog let go and slunk away.
A high-powered rifle shot pierced my back, knocking the wind from me. I turned to see a woman, a Pharos Agent, methodically taking aim again. Another bullet caught me in the meat of my leg. I stumbled for her but the surviving police surrounded me.
They clubbed me, landing blow after blow. I fell to my knees clawing at my attackers. I knew if I could just get ahold of one of them I could take a hostage, I could bargain and delay.
Then Vega was at its zenith and my mind was on fire. I could only whimper as the rune carved into the underside of my skull reacted to the starlight. My mind is flooded with knowledge, everything I should know, everything I could know.
…allies that can become enemies… pragmatic motives… …enemies that might become allies… the Monarchs drawing ever closer to the world… …clever idealism… economic probabilities… …empty dogmas... …the dark gods still in hiding, waiting and playing at oracles. Does one of them see me now? …technological dreams… …cannibalistic nationalism… …emerging heroes and familiar scapegoats…
…and politics, always politics…
And then I knew how they had found me. I reached to the back of my skull, to the nest of scars and cysts and plucked out the tracking chip.
It took six of them to hold me down as I writhed, my mind boiling with stolen wisdom. The woman approached me, her rifle abandoned for a long bladed knife and in a moment I know her name and I knew what she had suffered what had been done to her. She hamstrung me with practiced efficiency.
The helicopter landed somewhere nearby. I tried to raise myself up with my arms and crawl away only to be brought back down again.
They manacled me with heavy chains, my arms and legs bound behind my back. A steel bar was jammed into my screaming mouth. I wanted to curse them, I wanted to tell them what they truly served and how little it meant.
Then a man with graying hair and a sour expression approached me, he was holding a syringe. Ridiculously over the din of the chaos he tried to speak to me of reassurances, promising me that it would all be all right. He even dared to call me Citizen Aslingan.
That name is a sick joke. A veritable slur. Do you know your Old English?
The hypodermic descended in a slow deliberate arc, burying itself in the corner of my eye, where an ordinary man might have a tear duct.
The drugs took hold and I slipped into fugue full of new memories and old dreams.
“Citizen Aslingan… all hail Citizen Aslingan… the Soul of a new nation…”
Of course you must understand now that I was unlike any other of my kind. The others had been built from known mystical and alchemical principals by nations at the height of their power.
The line began with giant Talos, made from bronze; he stood guard of the kingdom of Minos. The conquering Greeks brought Talos’ remains to wise Daedalus and he used what he discovered to create the nine clockwork muses, whose wisdom led a nation and whose beauty inspired a generation of artists. The Egyptians stole Daedalus’ notes and used them to create stoic Ptah, who would defend their empire for generations until he fled before the coming Romans, losing himself in the shadowy Husk Worlds. The world-conquering Romans had their own copy of what was now called The Talos Formulae and used it to birth Quirinus; so perfect in his features that his was frequently mistaken for a living man.
Quirinus’ fortunes would ebb and flow with those of the empire, some Caesars would take his council, some tried to have him killed, some took him in their beds. Mongol raiders captured him and studied him until they learned the secret of his creation. From that knowledge they created artificial concubines that served the emperors and Mandarins of China. The secret found its way to the wizards of that land and they used it to create the blasphemous Song of Tian-gou.
With the fall of Rome the secret of our creation was lost to the West. While it is true that Muslim scholars had copies of both The Song of Tian-gou and The Talos Formulae, there is no record of either ever being used. The same held true for Hebrew scholars.
It fell to Gerbert of Aurilliac to rediscover the secrets long lost. He created Meridiana from the purest bronze and last remaining sketch of the muse of hymns. Her wisdom guided him until he became Pope, then in an act of contrition he had her melted down in 1003. He died shortly afterwards.
Like a living thing the secret traveled to Britain where Gog and Magog were created to defend the city of London. By the time of the Renaissance each nation had its own avatar. In France there was a near perfect copy of Meridiana called Luxuria who never spoke but always taught. In Portugal winged Esibraeus sat at the side of kings. In Italy Demodocus spoke only in song but his advice was always correct.
By the year of my creation they all still lived but their faculties had begun to dwindle; Gog and Magog had become reclusive, Esibraeus had lost the ability to fly, Demodocus had gone blind. Did the fortunes of a nation dwindle with their avatar or did the avatar falter when a kingdom fell to disrepair?
The powers of this nation are all too aware of that question, which is why they never stopped trying to improve me, melioration upon melioration. Piece by piece the body of the old Pharaoh was stripped away and fine American flesh was put in its place.
This arm belonged to the assassin John Wilkes Booth. These legs came from an unnecessary amputation performed on a valiant soldier. Here and there are bits of slaves and madmen.
They have tried to make me handsome but my little excursions always leave such scars. They have tried to make me obedient with drugs, bribes and chains but they are always too careful. I am actually surprised they dared to put a tracking chip at the base of my neck.
When I awoke I found myself chained to a metal gurney, legs bound together arms outstretched.
How we Americans love our crucifixions!
A nest of machines clustered around me, measuring heart rate and brainwave activity. If you were to look at them you would see that they meet no human criterion. IVs and catheters pass fluids to and from me, bright lights shone in my eyes. My skull still rung with the roar of information the mystical circuit gave me. At that moment I was the most well informed being in the nation, perhaps the world. But even without that wisdom I would have been able to guess that I would not be able to escape this chamber easily. There were no visible windows, and a single air-lock like doorway.
The man that had called me by my old name was there and I could see now that his hair was more blonde than gray but that he carried himself like a man ten years his senior. I knew his name now just as I knew that he lead the Pharos Project as his father had before him.
And he knew that I could tell him how his father truly died. That I could tell him why there was a closed casket. He had only to ask.
He offered me a draught of water. I accepted. He took a damp cloth, held it far over my mouth and squeezed out a few drops. I wanted to ask him if he understood the symbolism of Project Pharos’ name.
He wanted to ask. He needed to ask. But he didn’t dare.
Everyone stopped what they doing at the hiss of the vault door opening. Two Pharos agents in dark suits, practically twins to the ones I had killed earlier in the day, walked into the room; a small, middle-aged man followed them. The agents of Project immediately began fawning over him, full of salutations, apologies and compliments. The President of the United States waves them off.
He wasn’t there to speak to them.
He was there to see me, but I could tell he’d rather be anywhere else. I disgusted him but he knew I would only truthfully answer the questions of the nation’s leader.
Like every other President in the last quarter century, he looked like a substitute pallbearer. His eyes were dull and collusive, his skin soft and pink. When he spoke his voice had an effected rural twang, “You stirred up a lot of trouble for us.”
“Mr. President.” I replied, “I serve at your pleasure."
“My pleasure would be that you stopped acting like a beast and started acting like a man. The trouble you’ve caused this administration… Witnesses have to be quieted down. Explanations created. You think that kind of stuff is easy?”
“I have my appetites. We all do.”
“When I read the reports about you – ”
“What do you want to know?” I cracked a smile, “Why did you have them pull me up out of that well?”
The President bristled, “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“I know who I’m taking to.” I said, “And I know what you need. Ask your questions and stop trying to scold me like I am one of your errant children.”
For a moment he just scowled at me, and then he pulled a sheaf of index cards and a pen from his suit pocket and asked his questions. His administration wanted advice on finances and diplomacy; how best to reverse the current recession and how best to navigate the current brewing conflicts simmering around the world. He wanted to know which of his political allies was plotting against him and which of his enemies he could trust. His last question was about his wife’s fidelity.
The questions have changed so little in over two centuries.
When it was over the President thanked me, but from the expression on his face I could tell that he immediately regretted it. He slipped the cards back into his pocket, I glimpsed the notes he had taken; his handwriting was scrawling and child-like.
“Is it back to the well for me now Mr. President?” I asked.
“No.” He shook his head, but his eyes were already on the door, “You’ll stay here. Special Agent Wight has some ideas about what to do with you.”
“Really?” I tried to watch him but the bonds and the drugs kept me from doing more than turning my head.
“Of course.” The President said, “There have been advances in science that even you would be amazed at. I'm sure you can be rehabilitated.”
I started laughing then, my voice mad and booming. The President flinched at the sound as Pharos Agents ushered him out the door. The gurney shook with my hysterics, the chains rattled. Special Agent Wight was ready with another of his syringes and injected an opiate directly into my IV tube.
The weeks became months, I could hear them as they performed fresh miracles upon me. Stem cells and skin grafts, bone marrow transplants and gene therapy; they re-sculpted me as though I were made of clay. They thought that if I ceased to look like a monster I would cease to be a monster.
Then all I had to do was wait for them to become trusting, to become complacent. This latest escape was the easiest of all.
If I am careful it will take them years to find me again, if ever. Perhaps even now I am reading the newspaper over your shoulder and as I decide whether or not to allow you to live I cannot help but chuckle at what has become of your nation now that its Presidents finally have to think for themselves.