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Also, check out Unknown Transmission for the other half of the story.

Via Crucis

May 1st, 2013

If you've never bee on the business end of an angry mob, I don't really recommend it. It's loud, frightening, and you tend to pee your pants a little. Okay, a lot.

Whatever Michael had told these people, it resonated. After Ivan and the other guards shoved me out onto the carrier deck, I was met by a throng of howling faces and screaming fists. I was knocked sideways at the onset, down to my knees, where I was met by a parade of snap-kicks and elbows. My blood splattered on the deck like so much modern art.

Voices called out in a barrage of languages, most of which I didn't understand. I did pick out the occasional "Kill him!" in English, which I found oddly comforting. Another kick to the head, a couple to the balls, and I was laid out flat.

Someone got ahold of my shirt and yanked hard, tearing it from my body. The collar caught at my neck and suddenly I was being wrenched upright by the jugular. I hadn't been able to breathe much at that point anyway, but the extra lack of blood flow really made the world spin. Another kick to the balls and I pretty much lost it. Shit went real dark for two or three seconds, then there was a sudden flash of red light and the shirt was off. My vision slammed back into place just in time to greet a hurling, whistling fist, followed a solid crack, announcing the destruction of my nose.

There was a lot of shouting by the guards, mostly Korean, with a bit of Soviet Ivan in the mix. I wasn't sure if I'd gone into shock, or if the crowd had let up, but for some reason fresh pains stopped arriving and my brain got a chance to start cataloging the damage. It wasn't happy.

Consciousness came in intervals, just bits and flashes: a pair of boots, a cloud, a green door, a baton, and good, solid, throbbing pain all over me, everywhere.

Suddenly, I realized that I was being dragged by the arm pits. My legs were somewhere behind me, thumping along like a couple of obedient dogs. The crowd had fanned out. Korean uniforms had formed a barrier, waving their hands and guns around to keep the savages at bay. They dragged me along the deck for I don't know how long, then we thumped up a flight of stairs, which my brain indignantly reported had destroyed my kneecaps. I told brain to hold all my calls until further notice.

Then, there was a face. A Michael Telders face.

"Well, hello there," A Michael Telders' face said.

"I said no calls, Brain."

[I'm afraid he insisted], Brain said.

"Fine, goddammit. But I'm gonna remember this, asshole."

[Patching him though], Brain replied.

A seemingly disembodied hand slapped me repeatedly on the cheek. "You still alive, Wayne old boy? I wouldn't want you to miss the big finale."

I guess I'd only been using my right eye. When I tried my left, there was a squishy sound, and 220 volts of scorching hot agony shot straight through my head and exploded down my spine to my toes.

"Oh that looks like it hurts.," Telders said. "You might not want to use that eye anymore. Like, ever."

Someone chuckled somewhere in the distance.

"Anyway, it's time to get up, Wayney-poo. Time to shine!"

Someone said something that I couldn't make out.

"In his condition? Not long, I'd guess," Telders replied. "Okay, here we go."

I was lifted up. We were high above the carrier deck, atop a platform, like a dais, towering over the swarming crowd below. Telders raised his hands and the crowd went nuts.

"We had this especially made for you," Telders said. He motioned for the guards to spin me around. A tall, metal pole had been erected on the platform, and affixed to he pole, was a large, iron cross.

Telders gestured to Ivan, who came forward and took me into his arms. He grinned, then turned me around and pressed me against the cold metal of the cross. He leaned against me with his left shoulder and placed my left arm along the horizontal beam of the cross. Holding it in place, he snapped a steel handcuff around my left wrist. Spikes on the inside of the cuff pierced my flesh. "This is worst way to die," he said, snapping the other cuff on my right wrist. One of the spikes cracked a bone and a bolt of fire shot up my arm. "And yet, is too good for you."

Ivan took his hands away and let the cuffs take my weight. I screamed in agony.

"Hurts?" Ivan said with a smirk. He bent down, crossed my ankles, and snapped another cuff around my legs. The spikes stabbed in, and I instinctively dropped my weight to relieve the pressure on my wrists. Razor-like pain shot up my legs.

Ivan stood up and looked me in the eye. "Right side up, you die of heart attack." He grabbed the left side of the cross and pulled. My view spun sideways as the cross turned. My weight briefly shifted to my right wrist, then fully on both wrists as the cross locked in place, upside down. Ivan knelt down and tapped me on the forehead. "Upside down your brain explode from inside."

Ivan patted me on the shoulder, then moved away. An upside down Telders came into view. Michael winked, then turned to face the crowd. He raised his hands into the air.

"It is the day of reckoning!" he shouted.

The crowd went nuts.

Guest Of Honor

April 13th, 2013

I wasn't aware of how much time had past between Makabe's departure and Telder's arrival, but it could have been days. After so much time in the dark, the sudden blast of overhead lights drilled into my eyes.

Telders was alone.

"Hey, hey, hey," Michael said, ducking his head under the door frame as he entered. He was bright-eyed and cheery, and wore a fine, tailored black suit with a solid yellow tie. "What do you think, huh, Robertson?" he asked, turning around with his arms out to show off the suit. "Not a bad look for the post-apocalypse, huh?"

I sat on one of the top bunks with my back against the corner, squinting against the brightness. I said nothing.

Telders peered into my cell and tilted his head back and forth, pretending to get a read on me. "What's up, Wayne?" he said. He frowned and waved his hand. "Earth to Wayne Robertson...."

"Hi Michael."

"There he is!" Telders grinned. "Hah, I thought for a second you were ignoring me. How's it going, buddy?"

"Doing just fine," I said, unmoving. "Have you come to let me out of my cage, Michael?"

"Hah! Always the comedian. Hilarious, Robertson. Really." Suddenly his eyes lit up. "Oh, hey! Come on down here and check this out. You're gonna love this." He lifted a clear plastic bag to eye level and nodded sideways at it. Inside was what looked like a scrap of metal.

"You bring me a present?"

"Kinda sorta. Come on down from there and you can check it out."

"I'm fine where I am," I said.

Telders nodded and mocked a look of defeat. "You're still upset about the thumb. I can tell. No sense in hiding it."

I regarded the bandage that covered my missing digit. "Hadn't thought about it."

"Oh? Then you won't mind if I get Ivan in here to take a finger or two? Or... would you like to show some manners and come see what I've brought you?"

I gave Michael a hard stare, then slid off the edge of the bunk.

"Great! Now, what I've got in my little bag..." he said, pointing at the metal, "...is no ordinary chunk of aluminum. Care to guess why?"

I sighed and looked away. "Dazzle me."

Telders chuckled. "I like that. 'Dazzle me.' You're a funny guy, Robertson. Well, prepare to be dazzled, then, because this bit of aluminum is part of the housing from a freaking cruise missile. And we're not talking your every day, run of the mill Tom Cruise missile. Oh, no no no. This baby is advanced. The science team ran it through all their best equipment and they don't know what to make of it. It's smaller and faster than anything they've ever seen. They even think it might have had some kind of anti-grav propulsion. Pretty far out, huh?"

"Sure."

"I'm glad you agree, Wayne. And that's not even the best part. Do you know what they found on this little scrap of metal?"

I stared at him and slowly shook my head.

Michael widened his eyes and said with a spooky voice, "A viiiiirus."

I bit my lip. Telders took note of it and smirked. "I know, right? And there was a ton of it on here. Like, really a lot." He laughed. "I bet you can guess which virus it was, huh?"

"I have an idea."

"You bet you do. You were on a first name basis with this sucker. Only, it didn't seem to kill you, like everyone else—did it?"

"No."

"And you have no idea why."

"No."

"But you've got a pretty good idea who does, though, don't you? Advanced weaponry, killer-alien-zombie virus... sounds like that Spegg thing has been pretty busy."

"That Spegg thing may or may not be responsible, but I had nothing to do with it."

Telders nodded.

I eyed him suspiciously. "But..."

"But... it doesn't fucking matter! It only matters what they think," he said, pointing upward, presumably toward everyone on the ship.

I shook my head. "What did you tell them, Michael?"

Telders grinned sheepishly.

"Let me guess. You painted me as some kind of super-genius with a grudge against society. I grew up in a broken home, then quietly did my time at Yale, where people who knew me would describe me as "strange", or "a loner type". Then, after I graduated, I went to Antarctica, to a remote station where I slowly lost my mind. Mad from the cold and the isolation, and hell-bent on punishing those I deemed responsible, I created a hideous bio-weapon and an advanced delivery system to distribute it to the masses. Something like that?"

"The details are a little off, but you've got the gist of it."

"Nothing unites the people like a common enemy."

"You said it. And you wouldn't believe how desperate they are for your blood. Most people lost everyone they knew. Families, wives, husbands, babies. They are seriously pissed. And I've been holding little rallies up on deck to encourage it. Last night we burned you in effigy."

"Sounds like a blast."

"Oh, we have fun. How about you drop by tonight and meet everyone?" He checked his watch. "Say... eight o'clock?"

"Something tells me I don't have a choice."

"Yeah. I guess it's kind of mandatory," he shrugged. "We've got the whole thing planned out. Torches, pitchforks... the whole shebang. You're the guest of honor, Wayne."

I calmly regarded my old friend. "Telders, when I get off this boat—"

"You'll die on this boat," he sneered. "And probably sooner than you think." Michael turned and called out: "Guards!"

The outer door swung open. Ivan, the savage who ripped off my thumb, the African guard in dark-green fatigues, and two Korean soliders stepped into the room with heavy weapons and hard expressions carved on their faces.

"Uh oh," Telders said, turning around. "Somebody's ready to party."

He fished a key out of his pocket slid it into the lock.

Slow Drip

April 12th, 2013

Makabe stood above me and let out a deep breath. "I am sorry to hear that you won't accept my friendship, Wayne. I know the next few days will be difficult for you. I don't condone the taking of any life, regardless of the crime. But if it's any consolation, perhaps this death sentence—this terrible thing—will bring the last of us together and help us rebuild the world."

I slowly got to my knees. I drew my hand under my nose, painting a broad, red streak of blood over my knuckles. I turned and leveled my eyes at him. "Get out."

Makabe nodded and gathered his things. He closed the cell door, offered me a reluctant glance, then knocked on the outer door for the guard. The heavy, iron door swung open. An African guard dressed in dark-green fatigues looked in and glared at me. After Makabe was gone, the guard gave me the finger, spat on the floor, then slammed the door. A moment later the light flicked off and I was shrouded in darkness.

I stayed on my knees for a while, letting blood drip out of my nose, listening to the ship groan as it plowed through the waves toward the bottom of the world. My knees burned, but I stayed in that position, unmoving, somehow reveling in the discomfort.

Pain had become a constant companion in the past few months. I'd been beaten, experimented on, starved, drugged, frozen, dumped into frigid seas, infected, and had my thumb savagely ripped off. Short of being drawn and quartered, I doubted there was any kind of pain I could be subjected to that I wasn't already intensely familiar with. But it wasn't all bad. Starvation I could do without, but the beatings I'd grown accustomed to. Brutal, reoccurring pain really opens your eyes. It focuses the mind. If you feel good for too long, things start to lose their meaning. You get bored. You lose purpose.

Pain fixes that.

I let the pain from my jaw, my back, and my ribs wash over me. I welcomed it in, and let it go, time and time again. Blood continued its slow drip from my nose, softly tapping the floor. I counted the drips as they grew fewer and farther between. A steady tap every two seconds became somewhere between two and three. Then four seconds. Five....

I sat back on my hands and stared into the darkness. Wonderful, black nothingness. No shape, no color, no depth—just pure, caged absence... patiently waiting to get out and roll over everything.

I raised my hands in front of my chest and gave it a push.

Friends

April 6th, 2013

"I need to get out of here," I said, standing up. "Give me your keys, Makabe."

Makabe got to his feet and backed away. "I'm sorry, I only have keys to your cell. You know that." He pointed behind him. "A guard has to let me out of the room."

I snarled at the young Japanese man. He calmly stared back, his big, black eyes wide, and round.

"But I wouldn't let you out even if I could," he added.

I sniffed. "You think I'm some kind of monster? Is that what Michael is saying?"

"I don't think you're some kind of monster, Wayne. But I know you've done some horrible things. Everyone in Japan knows about the Nisshin Maru. Murdering those sailors is reason enough to keep you locked up, even without the other things Mr. Telders has told us."

"I didn't kill those people. Yumi murdered them and pinned the whole thing on me."

"Yumi?" Makabe shook his head. "I'm afraid that's not possible, Wayne. Utsunomiya Yumi was locked in a safe room with ten other people while the rest of the crew were brutally slaughtered."

"No. She was with me every step of the way. She helped me escape, she showed me where they kept the weapons, and she led the way through the ship's corridors. She may have been in a safe room, but she was with me as well."

Makabe was silent for a moment. He pursed his lips, thinking. "Mr. Telders did speak to that," he finally said.

I rolled my eyes. "What."

"He said that you often spoke to someone who wasn't there. He said that there may have been others, but you spoke directly to someone named Yumi. Not once, but often."

I turned and kicked the metal bed behind me. Of course I knew it was the truth. But when I knew Yumi she was as real to me as Makabe, Telders, and the cell that confined me. I slammed my first into the frame of the top bunk. A sharp sting of pain shot up my arm. It felt good.

I heard Makabe take a step toward me. "Do you still see her?" he asked.

"Not anymore," I said, without turning around. "I sent them away."

"Them? There were more?"

"Two others. Spegg, a monster—and Wayne, a little boy."

"Spegg."

"Yes, Spegg. A transgenic—"

"A half-fish, half man from the future who sent you messages through a hole in the sky?"

I turned and frowned at Makabe. "No. A figment based on a half-fish, half-man from the future who sent me messages through a hole in the sky."

Makabe licked his lips. "So, this... other Spegg. Is he real to you?"

I balled up my fists and growled.

"Do you still see him? This other one?"

"The real Spegg is in Antarctica," I sneered. "I don't see him now because he isn't a figment of my imagination, and I'm not in Antarctica."

Makabe cocked his head. "Mr. Telders says—"

I lurched forward and grabbed Makabe by the neck, slamming him into the cell bars. "I don't care what Mr. Telders says," I hissed. "How about I snap your goddamn neck, then the guard's, and then slaughter Mr. Telders and everyone else on this ship, just like I did before?"

Makabe's huge eyes bulged. "Way...ne," he said, laboring to speak. "I don't... want... to hurt you."

I grinned. "That's good. Because there's zero chance of—"

Makabe's elbow shot up and connected with my chin. Light flashed before my eyes, a space opened up in front of me, and I collided with the cell bars. I felt my legs kick out from under me, then another bright light announced the arrival of the floor. Makabe dug his knee into my back.

"I'm sorry, Wayne," he spoke into my ear, wrenching my left arm behind my back. "I like you very much. And I would very much like to help you. But I'm afraid there's nothing I can do about your present situation. And if Mr. Telders gets his way, when we reach Antarctica you will be sentenced to death not only for the murder of those aboard the Nisshin Maru, but for the slaughter of every man, woman, and child who died in the nuclear attacks. Not to mention the horrific virus that followed."

"I had nothing to do with the war, or the virus."

"Mr. Telders believes otherwise. In fact, he believes you inoculated yourself before releasing the virus into the population, which is why you are the only one who is known to have recovered from the sickness."

I let out a sigh. Makabe released some of the pressure on my arm.

"I really don't want to see you suffer, Wayne. Considering what I've learned about you, I doubt you've ever had a true friend. A real one. And I would like to show you what that's like before... well, before it's too late."

I turned my head to look at Makabe. He looked relaxed, and his dark eyes were calm and inviting.

"What do you say, Wayne? Can I be your friend?"

A vision of Antartica flashed in my mind. Snow fell in clumps on the fresh bodies of the baby LMO we called Einstein, and my faithful Husky, Buzz. Spegg stared at me, framed by the giant metal dishes of Station151's massive radio telescope array. His words echoed in my head: We are wound together. My life and your life.

"Wayne?"

I looked at Makabe and growled: "I already have a friend, Chikushou."

WWJBD?

March 27th, 2013

Makabe returned several times over the next few days to oversee my recovery. Not only had I lost my right thumb, but I'd suffered a concussion, three broken ribs, and loads of internal bruising. He plied me with Ibuprofen and vegetable soup, and even managed to bring in a bucket of hot water, soap, and a fresh towel so I could have a somewhat proper bath. Makabe was taller than the average Japanese, but still an inch or two shorter than me. He was in his early thirties and had choppy, black hair, light skin, and unusually prominent cheekbones that made him look both distinguished and somehow alien all at once. He asked few questions, but spoke constantly—and in fluent English.

He wasn't technically a physician, he told me, but he'd attended medical school at Kyoto University for nearly three years. He'd chosen to drop out to take care of his ailing mother, working odd jobs as an electrician and carpenter to pay the bills. He'd studied Aikido in his youth, enjoyed American rock 'n' roll, and dreamed of playing baseball for the Hanshin Tigers.

He talked a lot.

Today he was talking about the American TV show "24" as he took my vitals, checked my stitches, and flashed pen lights in my eyes. He'd seen season one, two, three, and just finished the first episode of season 4.

"I can't believe Jack Bauer got fired from CTU," he said, pressing a stethoscope against my chest. "But Chloe O'Brian is still there. I think she can help him get back in. He has to get back in!"

I opened mouth.

"No, no! Don't tell me what happens," he said.

"I've never seen it," I said, shaking my head. "I wouldn't know."

"What?!" he said, his mouth agape. "You've never seen 24?"

"Not... no."

"You don't know who Jack Bauer is?"

"I know he's Kiefer Sutherland."

Makabe cocked his head and sniffed. "Wow. You are missing out. Seriously." He leaned forward. "Cough, please."

I coughed.

He pursed his lips. "Well, you're not out of the woods yet. But you're healing quickly."

I relaxed into a slump. "Any luck finding my thumb?"

Makabe shook his head. "I think Mr. Telders is keeping it as a souvenir."

"Lovely," I growled. "Know if he's planning on harvesting any other momentos?"

"I wouldn't know." He cocked an eyebrow. "I hope not."

"Any idea what he's planning? Why he's keeping me in here? What's the word on the street?"

"I don't know. He's been pretty busy."

"Busy how?"

"Oh, meetings, you know. Planning. That kind... of thing...." He trailed off, stuffing the stethoscope into his black bag. "Rallies," he mumbled.

I straightened up. "What'd you say? Rallies?"

Makabe took a breath and nodded. "Every night on the carrier deck, right at sunset. Attendance is mandatory."

"What... he forces everyone to show up?"

"Well, Mr. Telders doesn't. His security teams handle that. But I wouldn't call it 'force', per se. They just knock on the door and say it's time to go."

"And if you don't?"

"I haven't resisted."

"Hmm." I sat back in my bunk and propped my back against the wall. My right hand started throbbing. I poked at the bandage. "So, what does he talk about at these rallies?" I asked.

"Not much. This and that. Rebuilding society. That kind of thing."

"What else?"

"I dunno."

I leaned forward and stared Makabe in the eye. "Mak, you're being evasive. Tell me what Telders talks about."

He looked down. Dark shadows underscored his big cheekbones.

"You. He talks about you."

Hard Pressed

March 22nd, 2013

When I sat up on my bunk and saw Telders staring at me through the prison bars with cold, vacant eyes, I felt a sharp tremor in my chest.

I almost didn't recognize him.

"What is this?" I said.

"Get up," Michael replied, his voice heavy and even.

I swallowed. Next to him, stood Ivan, a muscular, skin-headed Russian wearing nothing but a pair of bluejeans and a Soviet-style hammer and sickle tattoo on his left breast. Ivan grinned as he toyed with a pair of heavy, red pliers, flipping them around like a giant, toothy butterfly knife.

"Hey, hey, Michael," I said, standing up. "You don't need to do this."

"Let's go, Robertson" he said flatly.

"What, you're gonna torture me? Really?"

Michael looked at the Russian.

"I do torture," Ivan said. "I put on... how you say? Good show?"

"A good show?" I looked at Michael. "Seriously, man? This isn't you."

"Don't make this harder than it needs to be, Robertson."

"What do you want to know? I'm not hiding anything. I already told you what happened in Antarctica. You even said you believed me!"

"Enough," he growled. "Approach the door, turn around, and put your hands through the opening."

I raised my hands. "Fuck that."

"Don't make us come in there and get you, Wayne. I'm want to be reasonable, but you're testing my patience."

"No, this is exactly the opposite of wanting to be reasonable. I'm trying to be reasonable. You're being a dick."

Telders scratched his chin. "Alright. I warned you."

Ivan sneered in delight as Michael fished the key to the cell out of his front pocket.

I shuffled backward, scanning the cell for a weapon. I snatched the chopsticks from my empty plate and held them out like daggers.

The cell door swung open and Ivan rushed in, working the pliers with a sound like chattering teeth.

I felt my body stiffen. "No!" I screamed, and lashed out with the chopsticks, aiming for the Russian's bulging eyeballs. Ivan laughed, easily parrying my attack. He spun me around and wrenched my right arm behind my back, then pummeled me in the spine with his left fist.

Suddenly I was falling. On the way to the floor my head careened off one of the metal bunks, drawing a stripe of blood over my eyes. I slammed onto the cold tile, and Ivan piled on, digging his knee into the small of my back. He delivered a flurry of powerful blows so punishing that I repeatedly rebounded off the floor, taking hard damage from both directions.

"You learn to obey, yes?" Ivan hissed in my ear. He yanked my right thumb backward and closed the pliers around it.

"Don't do this! Michael, what the hell are you doing?" I yelled.

"Shhh," Ivan said. "You will feel little pinch."

The teeth of the pliers bit into my thumb. I screamed out in pain. Ivan jabbed me in the ribs and cackled as he squeezed harder. The bone cracked with a sudden snap, and I howled, begging Michael to make it stop. Ivan grabbed me under the chin and lifted it up so Michael could see.

"Nice?" Ivan said proudly. "Good show?"

With a cold stare, Telders nodded.

"Good," Ivan said, slapping me on the cheek. "Mike, you want I take his thumb?"

"What?! No! Please!" I screamed. "I'll tell you whatever you want! Everything! Anything!"

"I know, Robertson," Michael said. "I already know you'll tell me anything. That's not the point."

"Then what's the point!?"

Michael bent down and looked me in the eye. "The world's gone, Wayne. The few people on these ships are all who're left of the human race. They're tired, they're scared; they're angry. They're desperate for someone to blame. And as far as I can tell you're the closest someone I can find who fits that description."

"But you don't have to—"

"These people need a leader, buddy. And let's face it, I need to be loved. It's a natural fit. Sucks that you have to suffer like this, but you have to admit, suffering is kind of your thing. In a weird way, I think you enjoy it."

"I'll fucking kill you, Telders."

Michael stood up, then nodded to Ivan. "Take it off".

"No!"

The Russian laughed and let go of my head. I saw a flash of light, then the pliers bit in again. Their teeth crushed what was left of the bone, then they started sawing and tearing away at my flesh, yanking the tendons and the nerves out of my hand. The pain was so intense that I started to black out. I was still screaming, I guess, but I didn't feel like it was me anymore. Just some stranger's deep, hollow agony. Just nothing, really. And then total darkness for a while. I don't even know how long.

 

***

"Wayne?"

"Wayne?"

A match struck in the air. I squeezed my eyes shut.

"Sorry. I didn't want to turn on the overheads."

The brightness seemed to fade and I opened my eyes slightly. A hand was cupping the light. After my eyes adjusted, the face of a man I didn't recognize ebbed into view. He slowly brought his hand away from the match.

"Can you see?"

I tried to answer. "Umh, I—"

"That's okay. Don't waste your energy." He brushed the hair out of my eyes with cool fingers. "I'm going to take care of you." He lit a candle with the match, then shook it out. He set the candle aside. Long shadows from the cell bars danced in the light.

"Who are you?" I whispered.

"Just relax. I'm going to give you something for the pain, okay?"

I nodded sluggishly.

"You're going to feel a slight pinch."

I felt nothing.

"Alright, that'll numb your hand so I can sew you up."

I heard a bag's zipper and the sounds of things being taken out.

"Just a few minutes and you'll be right as rain."

"Wait. Who are you?" I asked again.

"I'm Dr. Shinobazu," he said.

"Hi, Dr... um."

He laughed softly. "It's okay. You can just call me Makabe."

Lucid In The Sky With Diamonds

March 16th, 2013

I ate for a while in the darkness then set my plate on the floor and stretched out on the top bunk. My cell smelled heavily of fermented cabbage and garlic, but somewhere underneath that was a hint of bleach and shoe polish. I could hear footsteps all around, the hum of the ship's engines, and the occasional groan of the vessel as we headed out to open water.

I laid in bed trying to pick out shapes in the darkness, until the noises around me morphed into less sensible things, as they often do when I'm falling asleep.

I found myself in an old, bustling marketplace, teeming with shoppers haggling for colorful, handmade things swinging on crooked, iron hooks. To my right, the boy Wayne stood at my side, his hand firmly gripping mine. The boy Wayne was younger than I remembered, but bright-eyed, and ready for adventure. It was a big day for us. We were searching for a way into the giant maze that led to a dark, stony castle on distant hilltop. No one had ever made it through the maze, or so we had heard, those who'd dared try, were never seen in the town again. But the boy Wayne and I were determined to conquer the maze, and dead-set on unraveling the mysteries of the dark castle. We only needed to find the way in.

We followed the flagstone path, past cloaked hawkers and swarms of excited shoppers, seeking out the elusive door to the maze, but every turn seemed to take us further and further away from our goal. We took a right and it became a left. We asked a vendor for directions and he couldn't speak. We tried to get to higher ground but the clouds rolled in and obscured our view. I tried to think but I got distracted. What were we looking for again? At long last, I realized what was happening. I stopped and turned to the boy Wayne.

"I know what's going on," I told him. "I know why nothing makes sense."

The boy Wayne looked at me, perplexed.

I bent down and whispered so no one else could hear. "We're in a dream."

The boy Wayne nodded his head slowly.

I rubbed my hands together. "And now that we know this, we can do whatever we want. We don't need to conquer the maze."

"What do you mean?" the boy Wayne asked.

"We can just fly over it," I said. "Like this." I imagined us taking flight, floating over the maze, and landing in front of the castle doors. And suddenly we were there, high atop the hill, far above the sprawling maze and the distant marketplace.

"I like this," the boy Wayne said, spinning around. "I like this a lot. What should we do now?"

"Well, I kind of don't care about some dirty castle anymore," I said. "Let's go into space."

The boy nodded excitedly, and we were suddenly screaming past Saturn, and off to distant worlds, rocketing through black holes and peeking in on quasars with big radio telescopes for ears. The boy Wayne was cold, so I imagined us a couple of big, comfy sweaters to ward off the chill of space.

When we were tired of that, I decided to take the boy to Antarctica. We flew through a crackling rift in space-time and exploded out of the sky above Alexander Island. But when we'd landed we found my old stomping grounds in ruin. The Array was mangled. The warehouse was burned to the ground. The station was dilapidated, having succumbed to the harsh Antarctic weather. We approached the station slowly, and I opened the door. It creaked and snapped off its hinges and collapsed in a drift of snow.

"What happened here?" the boy Wayne asked.

"I don't know, boy Wayne."

"Well can't you imagine it right as rain?"

I squinted and tried to focus. "I try but nothing works."

The boy Wayne frowned. "Are we still in a dream?"

"I'm not sure anymore."

Suddenly the door slammed behind us. I spun around to find that it had jumped back on its hinges and was securely in place.

"Did you do that?" I asked boy Wayne.

"No," he said, pointing. "They did."

I turned. We were standing in an elegant ballroom. Everyone was there. Telders, and Dr. Alfieri were sharing a toast. Captain Moriyama, Yumi, Takeshi, Kenichi were seated at one of the big, round tables sharing tapas. Yumi speared one with her katana. The rest of the Nisshin Maru crew, all healthy and fit, stared on and smiled. Even Kenji Ashida, the yokozuna ranked zombie sumo wrestler (and his head!) was there, spinning platters. He smiled and knocked on his skull to prove I hadn't really sliced it off, then dropped the needle on Bon Jovi's "It's My Life."

"We thought you'd never make it, Chikushou."

I turned to find Spegg dressed in a tuxedo and tails, grinning ear to ear. Einstein was at his side. The transgenic seal hooted with joy. Buzz trotted in and barked and twirled around, wagging his tail.

"Buzz!"

My husky leapt into my arms and licked my face. "Who's a good Buzz?" I said, laughing.

Spegg started clapping. He started slowly, then everyone joined in. The sound of applause grew louder and louder until the entire ballroom roared.

"Good job, Chikushou," Spegg said, popping a maraschino cherry into his mouth. "You're finally home."

My chin trembled and I felt the tears coming on. Boy Wayne took my hand. "Those are good tears, right big Wayne?"

"That's right, boy. Good tears. Great tears." I set Buzz down and wiped my eyes. I stared out at all my friends and raised my fist as high as I could. "God bless you all!"

"It's time for your interview," the boy Wayne said.

"What's that?"

"It's time for your interview."

I looked at the boy. "What interview?"

"Wake up, asshole," he said. "You're sobbing like a little girl."

I frowned at him. "Boy Wayne, what has gotten into you?"

"Wake up, mother fucker," he said. Suddenly the boy Wayne vanished I was jerked awake by a splash of cold water.

I sat up in my bunk to find Michael Telders and large, shirtless man standing outside my cell.

"This is Ivan," Michael said, gesturing with his thumb. "He'll be conducting your interview."

Ivan grinned and twirled a pair of silver pliers around his fingers. "We make friends, yes?"

Brig

March 12th, 2013

The brig on the South Korean carrier was little more than an angular enclosure contained in a larger, white room devoid of any furnishings or implements, save a garbage can and small first aid kit affixed to the opposite wall. Inside the cell were four bunks, one toilet, and a small metal desk with rounded corners which jutted out about six inches from the wall. Between the pairs of bunks was a big, circular mirror like the ones used in retail stores for loss prevention.

I glimpsed my reflection as Telders guided me into the cell. I was covered in mud, my clothes were soiled, and my hair was matted and full of debris. I barely recognized myself.

I sat down on one of the low bunks and released my grip on my dinner plate.

"I can't believe you carried that all the way down here without dropping it. Pretty impressive," Telders said. He slammed the cell door behind me and shrugged. "I was going to give you this one if you did, actually."

"You're a saint."

"Guess you don't need it now," he added, and dumped the plate in the trash.

I winced. It'd been days since I'd had a proper meal. I could have easily eaten both servings, and then some.

"Come over here and turn around. I'll uncuff you."

I stood up and turned, inserting my wrists through a slot in the bars.

"Don't I get a proper shower?" I said as he worked a key into the handcuffs.

"I'll send in someone with a hose."

"Wonderful."

The cuffs came off one at a time.

"Eat up, buddy," Telders smirked, pocketing the handcuffs. "You're gonna need your energy."

"Energy for what?" I said, rubbing my wrists.

"For the interview of course."

"What interview? I've already told you everything."

Telders stared at me with his dark, sunken eyes. "Psychotic ramblings are hardly a proper substitution for a thorough account of events, Robertson. We will take a full statement, so when we arrive at the station we'll know exactly what may or may not be waiting for us."

"We will? Who is we?"

"Oh, I dunno. Both South and North Korean military are well represented on this ship. I'm sure there's someone on board who has experience with these things."

I folded my arms. "Why does it sound like I'm about to be interrogated?"

"Call it what you like," Telders said, then turned to leave.

"Wait," I shouted, grabbing the cell bars. "Where are you going?"

"Oh sorry I can't stay and chat. I'm dining at Captain Stubing's table this evening." Michael smiled and shut off the lights. "Don't stay up too late."

"Wait!"

The outer door slammed, and I was engulfed in darkness.

"Telders!"

Bolshoi Blonde

March 11th, 2013

Michael ushered me down several flights of stairs, along a well lit corridor, and into a galley at the bottom of the carrier. The room was packed with a mixed crowd of survivors, mostly Japanese and Korean, but there was a big table crowded with hungry Eastern Europeans, and another with a Jamaican contingent near the back. A short Korean woman with a giant mole on her ear presided over the winding chow line, spooning out red and yellow globs from stainless steel bins. I wrinkled my nose.

"Hope you like kim-chee," Telders said.

"What, you gonna spoon feed me?" I replied, wrestling with my cuffs.

Michael grimaced. "Keep talking and you'll eat with your face."

"C'mon, this is ridiculous. Everyone is staring. Just take these damn things off."

"Yah, I don't think so," Telders laughed. "I release you and the next thing I know you'll be running around swording everyone and screaming about time travelling fish."

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"I'm happier for it."

The line moved and Telders nudged me forward. I sighed and scanned the room again.

A group of South Korean soliders and a tall, very thin, blonde woman were seated at a round table near the exit. The soldiers seemed clean and in good spirits, chattering and chopsticking bits of fish and cabbage into their mouths, but the girl had obviously been through hell. Her hair was wrecked with mud and twigs, her face spattered with filth, and she wore a shredded cocktail dress splotched with gruesome, dark stains. A tear on the dress's left breast had been covered with duct tape. The woman stared lifelessly over the crowd, making no attempt to acknowledge her food, nor the men seated around her. I followed her gaze to a blank spot on the far wall, then looked back. Her eyes slowly moved my way. They settled on me, paused, then slid back without the slightest hint of emotion. One of the soliders next to her took note and shot me a hard look.

"Already making friends, are we?" Telders grinned.

I glared at him.

"You know, you'd probably have better luck with the mole lady," he continued, nodding at the woman behind the counter. "Though honestly, that's still probably kind of a long-shot."

"Whatever."

"Aww." The line moved again and Michael gave me a shove. "Seriously, though, I'd keep my eyes off blondie if I were you."

"And why is that?" I growled.

"You don't know?"

"Know what?"

"Ugh, Robertson, you're such a philistine. That's Kseniya."

I blinked.

Michael stared at me, clearly disappointed. "Kseniya Sakharov? The world-famous ballerina? Bolshoi Theatre? Ring any bells? No?"

I shook my head.

Telders rolled his eyes. "Well just keep on gawking at her if you wanna get your face yanked out of your ass. Those SK's aren't infantry, they're special warfare."

"Well what the hell is she doing with them?"

"I don't know, dumbass, why don't you go ask?"

"Maybe I will."

"Maybe later," Michael said, pushing me toward the counter. "We're up."

Telders rattled off something in Korean to the mole lady. She nodded, then spooned a few heaps of vegetables and fish onto two silver plates and slid them across the counter. He thanked her, then smiled at me.

"Okay, turn around," he said, rotating his index finger.

"Christ, finally," I said, turning my back to him. "These cuffs are fucking killing me."

"Alright, then," he said. "Now if you drop this plate I'm not getting you another one."

"What?"

Telders pushed the edge of the plate into my palms. "Grab it with your thumbs. Real tight now. Hah. That looks uncomfortable."

"Son of a bitch," I said, gripping the plate behind my back. "You're a right son of a bitch, you know that?"

"I try," he said, stuffing a pair of silver chopsticks into my front pocket. He slapped me on the back. "Now let's go find you a nice, dark cell to curl up in."

Pinioned

March 10th, 2013

Our Chinook settled on the deck of the South Korean carrier as an engorged crimson sun set behind Tokyo's darkening skyline. Men, women, and children were on crowded on the deck, watching as thick columns of smoke rose from the blushing city.

A Korean guard armed with an AK-47 approached our helicopter, ducking the wind, and gestured for us to get out. The caged zombie howled as he approached. Telders lobbed an empty canteen at the cage. "Fuck off, you."

The zombie growled in response and slammed his head against the bars of the cage.

Michael slapped me on the back. "Alright, hang back for a moment, Robertson," he said.

"What's going on?" I said.

"It's cool. Just hang back," he repeated, and got out.

Telders had a few indistinguishable words with the soldier, then pointed directly at me. The guard nodded and handed him a pair of silver handcuffs. The pilot looked back from the cockpit and mockingly pressed his wrists together.

"Goddamnit," I mumbled.

"Alright, Robertson," Telders said, climbing back in. "Assume the position."

"This really isn't necessary, is it? C'mon, Michael, we're friends, right?" I started to get up.

Telders stiff-armed me in the chest and grabbed me under the jaw. "We were friends, Wayne. And we can be again... if you cooperate."

I shook free from his grip. "This is ridiculous. You're not cuffing me."

"Turn around."

I glared at him. "Go to hell."

The North Korean with the NY baseball cap drew a pistol and leveled it at my head.

Michael nodded at the soldier and smiled. "You first."

"Christ." I said, turning my back to him.

Telders wrenched my arms backward and clasped the handcuffs on my wrists. The steel bit into my flesh. "Not so goddamn tight!" I shrieked.

"A lot more substantial than those zip-ties, huh Robertson? Though, I must admit that was a pretty good trick you pulled back in Hokkaido. You'll have to teach me that sometime."

"Oh I'll teach you, alright."

Telders laughed. "You've got spunk, Wayne. I'll give you that." He nodded at the Koreans. The soldier in the cap holstered his pistol and hefted a green duffelbag over his shoulders. The others followed suit and began climbing out of the chopper. "Let's find you a nice place to relax, shall we?" he said, and yanked me out onto the deck.

"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief," a voice shouted. "The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare."

I scanned the crowd for the source and spied a tall European man dressed in clerics with an open bible in his left hand, and making the sign of benediction with his right.

The priest locked eyes with me. "The end times are upon us," he said, hurrying over. "Do you have Christ, sinner?"

"Get bent," Telders said, shouldering past him.

"This is serious!" the priest warned. "The day is coming when human pride will be ended and human arrogance destroyed! On that day the Lord Almighty will humble everyone who is proud and conceited. He will level the high mountains and hills. He will sink even the largest and most beautiful ships. Human pride will be ended, and human arrogance will be destroyed!"

There was a horrible noise from the helicopter, screaming, and the sound of clattering metal. A crew of men in bio-suits were off-loading the caged zombie, poking at it with cattle prods.

Telders grinned at the priest. "I'll tell you what," he said, reaching for his Beretta. "You and me go in that cage. You take your precious bible and I'll take this." Telders cocked his pistol dramatically. "Then we'll see who gets saved."

The priest straightened up. "But the end times are upon us!" he repeated.

"Yeah, you said that," Telders barked. He grabbed the bible out of the priest's hands and skipped it across the deck. "Now scram!"

The priest gasped and went running after it.

"Those bible thumpers never give up, do they?" Telders said, shoving me forward. "How about you, Robertson? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart?"

"Not Christ," I mumbled.

Michael scowled at me. "I don't even want to know." He pushed me through the crowd until he found a thick, steel door that led into the ship.

Telders escorted me inside and slammed the door behind us.

Zombie X-ing

April 15th, 2012

Zombie X-ing

"We're all gonna die!" I screamed, waking to the sound of gunfire.

The Koreans erupted into laughter, then continued firing their guns out the window. My head pounded. A swollen lump where the pilot had cold-cocked me throbbed at my right temple. BANG. BANG. BANG. Every shot was like sushi knives stabbing my eyes.

"Out of the way, Robertson," Telders said with his mouth half-full of sandwich. It was the first time I'd seen his face since I left the brownstone. He pushed me back into the seat, then stuck his pistol out the window and emptied the clip. "Three down! That's par!" he yelled.

I groaned. "What the hell are you doing, Telders?".

"Playing zombie golf," he said. "What's it look like?"

I craned my neck to see the familiar features of the Shibuya crossing not five hundred feet below. A mass of undead–tens of thousands of them–were crowded in the intersection, piled on each other, all meat and crooked necks and shoulders.

"Telders, I've got HUGE fucking headache right now, so would you mind refraining from shooting guns next to my face?!"

Michael scowled. He reached into his jacket pocket, then handed me a little airplane bottle of Japanese whiskey.

"No thanks," I said, and tossed it onto the floor.

"Pussy."

The Koreans continued to fire as the pilots circled over the crossing.

"Get the one standing on that dog statue!" Telders yelled. The Korean with the NY Yankees hat spun around in his seat and fired his M-60 out the door.

"Hah! Yeah!" Telders cheered. "Nobody stands on Hachiko in my town!"

As Michael was cheering the death of things that were already technically dead, the words "ZOMBIE" and "CAGE" entered my mind, as if they bore some great significance to my current situation. I glanced around the helicopter cabin. A square, steel cage was situated in the port-side corner. A crouched zombie glared at me from within. It reached through the bars with crooked fingers and howled.

I jumped. "What the hell is that thing doing here?!"

Telders looked over his shoulder quizzically. He pointed his thumb at the zombie. "Oh, him?"

"Yes, HIM."

He shrugged. "The Koreans want to dissect him once we reach the carrier."

"Right. Of course. Wait... carrier? What carrier?"

"Carrier, a couple of destroyers, frigates... we've got a whole South Korean armada out in Tokyo Bay. They're all going to join us for the hunt."

"What hunt?"

"The hunt for your little friend, Robertson."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh come on, Telders. I was just bullshitting you about that Spegg business. You're not seriously planning sailing to Antarctica are you?"

Telders grabbed my shoulder and smiled. "Oh I definitely am, Mikey. And you're gonna lead me right to the bastard."

I bit my lip.

Michael grinned and ruffled my hair. "Oh come on, now... it'll be fun!"

The gunfire stopped. The Koreans chattered for a moment, then the pilot banked left and hit the throttle.

"Looks like they're out of ammo," Michael said. He waved his hand at the crowds of undead below. He looked back at me then took my hand and moved it side to side. "Say goodbye to Tokyo, Michael."

I glared at him, then fell back in my seat and watched Shibuya disappear from sight. As we flew overland toward Tokyo Bay, it became clear just how widespread the the virus was. The infected were everywhere. Every street corner, every roof on every building, every park, every school playground–they had completely taken over. It was a real horror, for sure. But I must admit, it felt a little romantic at the same time. Not the lovey-dovey kind of way of course, but just the raw savagery of it all gave me pause--like a brutal clash between two opposing clans on some misty Scottish highland... the sound of broadswords clattering and horses rearing up as pikes run them through and battle axes severing arms and heads... all the while ghostly bagpipes droning on and on. I felt a little sad that we were leaving, but more excited about what the future would hold.

"There's our ride," Michael said, pointing out the window.

The helicopter rolled left and I caught my first glimpse of the fleet of South Korean ships that would lead me back home. The chopper leveled out, setting up for approach, and the pilot made a radio call.

Telders was right. Antarctica was the only safe place from the virus. But at least the infection offered a quick death. The things waiting on the other side of our voyage wouldn't be so kind.

To most.

J-Pop

April 7th, 2012

The helicopter, an old Japanese Chinook, came to rest in the dry rice field and half a dozen North Koreans spilled out. Loud, Japanese pop music was screaming from the speakers. The Koreans were still clad in their military uniforms, but it was clear they'd mentally defected. Their coats were unbuttoned and hanging open and they were all either smoking or pulling on bottles of sake, or both. The obviously very inebriated group cheered and pointed at the pieces of the zombie they'd obliterated from the air. One of them, the tallest of the group, picked up the NY Yankees hat that the zombie had been wearing and put it on his friend. He happily accepted it and I think he yelled "America", which set the whole lot of them laughing and cheering even louder. The pilot stumbled out after the rest of them, still wearing his headset, and fired a couple of rounds from this pistol into the air. The group went dead silent, but after they realized who'd fired the shots, they all bent over laughing, and one of them had sake coming out of his nose. The pilot immediately joined in the revelry, whooping, and pulling on a flask.

"What the hell have you got us into, Telders?" I said.

"Just act natural and they won't kill you." Michael raised his hands in the air and started whooping and hollering along with the rest of them. Someone handed him a bottle and he lifted his mask for a pull.

"Mi-kul Jack-son!" a Korean soldier screamed and slapped Michael on the back.

The pilot staggered over to me and extended a bottle of Suntory.

"No thank you," I said.

"Uwhat?" the pilot yelled over the noise of the group.

I waved my hands back and forth. "No thank you," I yelled back.

He narrowed his eyes.

"I don't want any of that crap," I said, pointing.

The pilot growled something in Korean, drew his revolver, and swung. A bright light flashed before my eyes.

Get Yer Ears On

April 6th, 2012

A helicopter appeared over the jagged Yūbari mountains as Telders ushered me around the base of the temple. We stopped in a dry rice field on the opposite side.

"Check it out," Michael said. An undead wearing nothing more than a pair of tighty whities and a New York Yankees baseball cap was stumbling around in the field. Michael racked his shotgun. "This one doesn't even seem to know we're here."

Telders raised the shotgun.

"Wait," I said. "What's he after?"

The zombie had shambled over to a patch of rice. It moaned a bit, then reached down and pulled out a dirty chunk of flesh out of the muck.

"What is that?" Telders said.

I shook my head.

The undead licked the bit of flesh, as if to clean it, then pressed it against his head.

I swallowed. "I think that's his ear."

Whatever it was, it slid off his face and dropped into the field. The zombie moaned despairingly, then rummaged after it.

"Ugh," Telders said. "This is pathetic." He raised his gun again.

I held up my hand. "Hold on. Let him be. He's not hurting anyone."

"Shut it, Robertson." Telders took aim.

"He's just lost his ear, man. Don't kill him."

"What, you want me to wait until he finds his ear before I put this bastard down?"

"I dunno," I shrugged. "Look at him. He's different. Have you ever seen one of them act like that?"

"He's not a 'he', Robertson. He's–it's–a savage undead who will spread this disease to every living thing it can get its gaping maw on."

The sound of the helicopter was growing louder. Telders looked to the sky. "We gotta go. I'm putting this thing out of its misery."

"No!" I tried to grab the shotgun out of Telder's hands, but he was too quick. He turned it on me. "You got a real suspicious attitude toward these monsters, Robertson."

I raised my hands. "It's not that. It just feels wrong, killing this one."

The zombie howled. Michael and I both turned our heads at the same time. Arms flailing, the thing shot toward us.

"Still feel wrong, asshole?" Telders asked.

"Not as much."

Michael raised the shotgun, but before he could fire, a sudden rat-a-tat erupted from the skies. A torrent of gunfire ripped into zombie, spraying putrid, black tissue all over everything.

Michael looked to the sky, his mask dripping with goo, and extended his middle finger at a smiling gunner perched in the open door of the helicopter. The gunner waved.

"Fucking North Koreans," Telders muttered.

Dead Weight

October 22nd, 2011

I got to my feet, all the while glaring at Michael and the stupid grin he was undoubtedly wearing behind his ghastly chemical mask. The headless zombie laid motionless in the street in a pool of brains and black muck, like an oil spill at a hamburger factory. A sudden, sharp pain struck me in the chest, like a giant rivet through my sternum—the expression of an intense contempt for a man whom I used to call a friend.

How I wished that I had shot him when I had the chance. God, I wished I had. But no... even if I'd pulled the trigger, nothing would have happened. Telders had given me an empty weapon. The bastard had managed to rob me of even the option of regret.

I hated him.

And there he was, pointing his smoking sawed-off shotgun at the headless sumo zombie corpse lying in the street. "Not bad, eh?" He said.

"You asshole. You gave me a weapon to defend myself, and you knew it was empty," I hissed.

Telders tapped his chin. "Oh, did I forget to load that?"

"Goddamn right you son of a bitch."

"Settle down, Robertson. There's no way in hell I was about to give a loaded weapon to someone who'd looked like ground pork only a couple hours before."

"I'm not a zombie."

"Well I know that now. Your little brawl with Ashida-kun made that perfectly clear."

"What?"

"Not what... who. Kenji Ashida is (or was) a goddamn yokozuna ranked sumo. One of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the sport." Telders glanced at the filthy, shredded corpse on the ground. "He's kind of let himself go lately, though. Sad."

My mouth dropped open a little. "You make me sick, Telders."

"I have that effect on a lot of people."

"Whatever." I took a step toward Michael and stared him in the eye. "I passed the stupid test, jackass. And completely unarmed, too. No thanks to you."

Telders shrugged.

I continued. "So now I'm gonna get a shower and a change of clothes. And after that I want some real bullets for that shotgun and then we're going to part ways for the last time."

"Alright. Well, I'm sorry, Wayne," he said, drumming his fingers on the barrel of his shotgun. "But you're just too unpredictable to trust with a deadly weapon. I'm afraid you'll have to remain my prisoner until such time that I've deemed you stable."

I clenched my fists. "What?!"

"Sorry, man. That's the way it's gotta be. And I'm the one with the gun, so..."

But his gun was empty. At that very moment he was vulnerable. And he only had a tiny little barrier between him and the zombie virus. All I had to do was sever his breathing tube, or unmask him even for a second and he'd probably be dead within the hour. Then maybe he'd go full zombie and I'd get the chance to kill him again.

The giant shamoji was lying just a few inches from my feet. Without a further thought, I bent over, snatched it, and swung.

Telders ducked. Of course he did. He ducked it perfectly, like he'd seen it coming since the day we'd met. It was just a little bob of the head, maybe a slight weave, and my shamoji sailed over his head. I'd been so cocksure that I'd completely thrown myself off balance. And before I'd time to recover, Michael had me dead to rights.

He nudged me in the ear with his other gun. The Beretta. "Give it up, Robertson," he said. "I'm the hero of this story. Not you."

"The hell you are," I said.

"Shut up and drop the spoon."

"It's a shamoji," I growled.

Telders smacked me in the ear with the gun. "It's gonna be a suppository if you don't follow directions!"

"Christ, fine." I pitched the shamoji into the little stream on the side of the road. A little orange and white koi fish darted away from the splash.

"Now sit down. We're gonna have a little chat." He shoved me on my ass, then grabbed a chair from the cafe. He turned it around and sat down backwards.

My pants, my shoes, everything I had was covered in blood and filth.

Michael leaned forward in the chair, adjusting the long black hose that connected the little cylindrical filter to his chemical mask. He let out a long, heavy sigh, then cleared his throat. "Alright, Robertson," he said. "I've been thinking about this. Quite a bit actually. You know...." Telders glanced around the town for a moment. Finally he said, "You told me one hell of a story before you left the brownstone."

Surprised, I looked up.

"Something about alien fish people landing their pods in Antarctica, causing all kinds of havoc, and then somehow launching the nukes that started World War Three."

I felt my nose wrinkle. "Yeah and you didn't believe a word of it."

Telders unconsciously rapped the barrel of his 9mm on the back of the chair. "Wayne, I've seen the world go from your fairly normal bullshit, to a completely insane fucked nightmare, in just a matter of weeks. Our homes have been wiped off the map. Everyone we know is dead. North America, Europe, western civilization as we know it has been burned to a crisp. But you know what? I was coping with that. Asia was still more or less intact, and I have to admit, I'd caught a bit of the yellow fever if you know what I mean."

I closed my eyes and shook my head.

Michael ignored my show of disgust and continued. "But I woke up one morning and found my girlfriend outside chewing on the corpse of one of my guards. And then she wanted to chew on me. And not in a good way." Telders narrowed his eyes. "I killed her, Wayne. I shot Yuki in the head, just like this loser," he said, pointing his gun at what remained of the famous sumo wrestler Kenji Ashida.

"But I got lucky," he continued. "I knew something was wrong. I had several boxes of these suits so I put one on and I handed the rest out to my guards. Some of them were already infected. We put them down. The others survived. That's when I came for you. Everywhere I went I found these crazed, half-dead, undead, whatever you want to call them zombie mother bastards trying to infect every living thing thing they see."

I threw up my hands. "Blah, blah, blah. What's your point, Telders?"

"My point, Robertson, is that I'm starting to wonder if that story you told me might have some truth to it. Especially after watching your dead, rotten, tattered corpse spontaneously and magically heal itself in a matter of hours. If what you say that fish person did to you is true—"

"Spegg."

"What?"

"Spegg. Spegg was the name of the fish person. Er, transgenic. That's what he called himself. Transgenic."

"Fine. Spegg the transgenic. If what you say Spegg did to you is true, the imprisonment and the drugs he injected you with, then that might explain your immunity to this virus."

I cocked my head. "Wait, you think Spegg is responsible for the zombie outbreak as well?"

Telders stood up and tossed the chair away. "Robertson, I don't even know if Spegg is a real or just a madman's fantasy, but I do know that the world has gone full retard, and if there's the slightest chance that what you've told me is the truth, then I'm going to find this son of a bitch and gut him."

My heart jumped at the thought. "Is that right?" I said with a stunted breath.

A nod of the head was his only reply.

"I see."

"I'm counting on you to lead me to him."

"What?"

"You heard me." Telders walked over to a patch of brush on the side of the road and pulled out his duffle bag. He opened it and removed an old-style walkie-talkie. He keyed the button and spoke into it: "We're ready to go."

Static followed, then a scratchy voice replied: "Ah deh suh."

"What was that?" I asked.

Telders turned away from me and stuffed the walkie-talkie back into the bag. "The Koreans."

A chill shot up my spine. "Where are we going?"

Michael heaved the duffel bag over his shoulder and turned around. "Like I said... we're going fishing."

Telders is a Dick

October 18th, 2011

Telders is a Dick

My head hurt. Hmm. It really hurt. But why? I wondered. I meditated on that while a giant mitarashi dango danced the rhumba against a backdrop of bright, whirling lights.

Wake up, Robertson, it said in a serious tone. The music crescendoed and it did a fancy spin to match the rhythm.

I raised my eyebrows at the warm, delicious pastry. "What did you just say, giant mitarashi-dango?"

I said, you should open your eyes.

"What?" I asked, raising my hands. "Why should I do that? I'll miss the show."

Forget the show, Wayne. There's more important things to think about right now.

"Oh yeah? Like what, specifically?"

The mitarashi dango bent down and met my eyes. "Like avoiding getting eaten."

"Oh."

Yeah.

"Alright. If you put it that way," I replied with a weak sigh. I waved goodbye to the dancing balls of tasty dough and forced my eyes to open.

A very large zombie who looked like he'd had his eyes baked out of his head lumbered into view.

Oh, right. Him.

The sumo roared and raised his giant foot in an effort to stamp out my face.

I rolled up onto my hands and knees, barely escaping his thunderous foot as it slammed into the asphalt. That seemed to disappoint him: the zombie didn't have much of a face left, but what features he did have twisted into an ugly, mangled scowl.

I scrambled to my feet. The zombie howled again, then barreled forward, bits of rent flesh and fatty tissue trailing behind him. The giant heaved a Volkswagen-sized arm at my face. I moved, barely ducking his strike, then spun around and threw a roundhouse kick at his knee. The zombie grunted, completely unaffected, then pivoted around and grazed me with the back of his fist. If he'd taken his time to square it up, I would probably been launched back into mitarashi dango-land, but as it was, I was only knocked off balance.

When I'd recovered my footing I noticed the Mossberg lying on the pastry counter, suddenly well within reach. I smirked at the rotten corpse. "Sorry dude." I flew through the front door and leaped over the counter, snatching the shotgun mid-air.

The sumo crashed through the entryway behind me, knocking over a rack of teacups. I turned and raised the Mossberg to my chin. "Time to shed a few pounds," I said, flipping off the safety. I pulled the stock against my arm and squeezed the trigger.

A shotgun is a powerful thing. Really powerful. You never really realize just how powerful a thing it is until you've seen it liquify a target at point blank range. It's truly an awe-inspiring sight.

Or, so I've heard.

The shotgun clicked, the sound of the firing pin snapping forward and finding exactly nothing in the chamber.

"Oh, what the hell is this?" I whined.

The zombie slammed against the counter. The sound of splintering wood and breaking glass roared in my ears.

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" I screamed, frantically racking the gun in the shower of debris. Again I raised the barrel to the sumo's face, which was now just inches away, and squeezed.

Click.

"Telders, you bastard!" I screamed. "You gave me an empty gun!"

The zombie slapped the Mossberg out of my hands and waded into the rubble between us.

"Heel!" I yelled, tossing boxes of brightly colored pastries at the encroaching savage. I turned and hopped over the back counter, then swung around the east wall of the shop, scanning the racks for anything sharp and pointy. The zombie swatted a cash register and sent it flying into a rack of aprons just over my shoulder.

"Fucking Telders!" I cried, grabbing a bottle of sake from a shelf. I flung it at the zombie's head but it arched wide and exploded on the opposite wall. "Son of a bitch!"

The sumo upended an island behind the counter and sent it flying sideways. At the same time a kitchen knife tumbled out of the chaos and hit the floor, skittering to a stop just inches from my feet.

"Well well well," I said, snagging the blade. I immediately leaped forward and plunged the knife into the zombie's right eye. He jerked back, arms flailing, as a spray of oily, black liquid spewed from the wound.

"Ack!" I yelled, ducking out of the way of the soupy ejecta.

I wasn't far from the door. I clambered over a fallen shelf, tossing random kitchenware over my shoulder. I hit a patch of glass and skated past the main window before coming to rest against the front door. I jerked my head around. The zombie, who hadn't bothered to remove the knife from his eye socket, seemed more intent on killing me than ever. He backed up to the rear end of the counter, then with a grunt, sprinted forward. And as if everything was suddenly playing out in slow motion, I watched as the undead sumo vaulted over the counter and floated through the air, a cloud of softly tinkling glass orbiting his gigantic frame. I stood paralyzed, a hollow "fuuuuuu" slowly escaping my mouth.

The sumo slammed back to Earth in real-time, the white tile floor crackling into a giant spider web under his weight. He straightened up, rivulets of black goo flowing out of its eye, and roared like an wild animal.

"Oh bloody hell," I breathed.

I turned and ran.

Outside, I scanned the town for options. Across the road was the café, and to the left, the shamoji shop. Beyond that, a few unremarkable stores, and further on, atop the hill, the Buddhist temple where Telders was hiding out. Fucking Telders.

The ground shook as the zombie lumbered out of the store after me.

I backed up, trying to put together some semblance of a plan. I edged toward the café's outdoor display case—the one filled with plastic food—and gestured to him. "Okay, c'mon asshole," I said, slowly stepping back. "Let's go!"

The sumo grunted and sniffed like a seething bull. I took one last step toward the display case, reaching back, to make sure I had enough room. The zombie broke into a sprint. "Come on!" I yelled. Then, at the very last possible moment, when I could smell the rotten flesh on his breath, I turned, pirouetting out of his path. The zombie slammed into the display case with a deafening crash. Plastic chicken teriyakis, colorful vinyl sushis, and tiny cups of simulated puddings went flying amid a shower of glass.

I frantically backed up on my hands and feet.

The sumo didn't move. He stayed there in a slump, his head buried well inside the display case. Putrid, black visera slopped out of a fresh gash in his abdomen.

"That it?" I said, getting to my feet. I laughed a little. "That all you got?" I picked up a bowl of plastic noodles and lobbed it at him. They caromed off his back into the little stream on the side of the road. He didn't move. "I guess so," I said, crouching down for a breath.

"Jesus," I said to myself. "What a fucking night—"

A sudden, ear-splitting screech of twisting metal rang out. I stood up with a gasp. The sumo lurched backward, ripping the display case into halves.

"Oh my Christ. Are you kidding me?"

The two pieces fell into twisted heaps at his side.

"TELDERS!" I screamed at the top of my voice "You fucking asshole!"

The zombie limped forward, his knees shredded from the collision, strips of rotten flesh literally dragging on the ground. He tried to scream, but his neck had been opened by the glass, and more of the dark yuck just gurgled out.

I swiveled around, searching for a weapon. Something. Anything.

Finally, something caught my eye. I darted over to the shamoji shop and wrenched the four foot, teak rice paddle out of the open air display case. I grinned. The oversized wooden spatula felt like a goddamn battle axe in my hands.

I turned around and nodded at the steadily approaching zombie. "Oh yeah," I said, tightening my grip on the huge shamoji. "Bring it on, ass face!"

The zombie moved closer, staggering. It was a complete wreck: its neck was broken and cranked to the side, the kitchen knife was still protruding from one of its eyes, its knees were wobbling, and globs of fatty tissue and stripped flesh were hanging from its frame like dozens of exploded, oatmeal filled balloons. Zombie or not, I was amazed that it was even moving.

I cocked the big rice paddle on its edge.

The zombie took its final step.

"Sayonara," I whispered.

BOOM!

Something exploded and I suddenly found myself flat on my ass in the middle of the street. I quickly sat up. The zombie, now headless, buckled, then collapsed sideways onto the road with a ka-thump.

"What the fucking hell?!" I screamed.

Stepping out from behind the shamoji shop in his camouflage hazmat suit, Michael Telders struck a pose. In his hands he held a smoking, sawed-off shotgun. He slung it over his shoulder and snickered behind his chemical mask. "Sorry, Robertson, couldn't resist."

The Crow

October 15th, 2011

A lone jungle crow in a copse of larch trees loosed a resonant caw, somehow embellishing the silence that followed the ringing of the temple's gong. I breathed quietly, studying the shadows. It was going be dark in an hour. I had to get this over with and find shelter, fast.

"Let's go!" I screamed, hunched over the barrel of the Mossberg.

Nothing. The bird called out again. I squinted at the treetops. It was perched on the highest branch of the tallest larch, swaying in the gentle wind. He cocked his head and danced a little two-step jig. Cau-cau-cau, it said.

I waved the barrel of the shotgun at it and sneered. "Fuckoff fuckoff fuckoff," I said, mocking his a throaty, hollow voice.

Cau-cau, it retorted.

I shook my head, walking past the shamoji world headquarters. Next door I found a little pastry shop. I stuck my nose in the door.

"Bring out your dead," I said in a sing-song voice.

No response. A tray of not so fresh mitarashi dango was lying on the counter. I licked my lips. I shrugged and plucked one of the sweet, sticky balls of dough off its wooden skewer. I checked the room for zombies again, then popped it in my mouth.

"Hrm, not bad," I said aloud. "A little tough, but palatable. Definitely palatable."

After another quick glance over my shoulder, I set the Mossberg on the counter and grabbed a couple of skewers. It'd been a while since I ate. The last thing I had was some fucking root from somewhere in the middle of the forest. I filled my mouth with the pastries faster than I could swallow them, then shuffled over to a refrigerator and snatched a cold bottle of green tea.

Cau-cau-cau, the crow called from outside.

"Shuffup," I said, my mouth packed with the sweet dough. I upended the bottle and drank.

Cau-cau!

"Ugh," I garbled, gulping the tea. Once my mouth was clear I walked outside and lobbed the half-empty bottle of tea at the crow. "Shut yer beak!" I yelled. The bottle sailed wide of his perch, then vanished into a field of rice with a thump. The crow chattered in response.

"Hilarious," I said. I looked around for something else to throw.

Cau! Cau! it screeched.

"Yeah, yeah, " I said, scooping up a handful of gravel.

Cau! Cau! Cau! Cau! Cau! Cau! Cau! Cau! the crow bellowed.

"What the fuck is wrong with—"

Suddenly I felt a breath of hot air on my neck and smelled the stench of putrid flesh wafting from behind. Uh oh.

I spun around. There, towering over me was a giant, bloodied stump of a man, larger than any Japanese I'd ever seen. His flesh hung in ribbons from his waist. Clumps of oatmeal-like fat peeked through his numerous wounds. He wore nothing, save a swath of thick, blood-stained underwear. Like a giant diaper. Like something a fucking sumo wrestler would wear.

"Oh crap," I said weakly.

I shifted my gaze past the sumo zombie to the countertop in the pastry shop where my Mossberg was resting. Idiot.

The crow called out: Cau! Cau! Cau!

I scowled at the bird. "Shut up you fu—"

Something eclipsed the sun. I saw a flash of light, my jaw bobbled, and the little Japanese town rolled sideways.

Some Serious Shamoji

October 14th, 2011

While I was waiting for Telders to ring the zombie gong I took a moment to survey the little town whose name I still hadn't learned. It was one of those simple, one street villages with a dozen little gravel roads that forked off into a small groups of modest homes. The road began at the top of a slight incline on the east side of town, guarded by two giant boulders that had the Japanese characters for fire () and water () carved into the stone. Little streams no wider than a couple of feet on both sides flanked the road and ran the length of the town, which wasn't far—perhaps no longer than half a mile. Beyond that, the road quickly thinned out into something resembling dirt or gravel, then wandered off to the west, giving way to the distant, snow-capped peaks of the Yūbari mountains.

A few doors down was a cozy looking restaurant with a rolling, glass display case parked outside that featured delicious looking plastic replicas of their menu items. Across the road was a general store with a giant, wooden shamoji (those serving paddles for rice) hanging in an open-air window. It was probably four feet in length and looked like it was made out of polished teak wood. There were many more rice paddles hanging about, though none so impressive. They others came in a variety of plastics and wood—some plain, some beautifully hand-painted with lush, pastoral scenes, while others were a little more kitschy and mass-produced, plastered with cartoonish samurais, Hello Kittys, and wide-eyed manga characters I didn't recognize. It looked like the shamjoi HQ of the world. There was even a pile of T-shirts with the picture of the giant paddle emblazoned on the front. I peeked inside the store.

Shamoji everywhere. And a bloodied corpse slumped over the register.

I guess I had tuned out the horror show for a moment. But with that, all the bullshit came screaming back into place. I shambled back outside. Splayed under benches, lying face first in the streams, or collapsed in the middle of the street... men, women, children... their purses and shopping bags and lunch boxes strewn about, inches from their mangled, diseased hands. Death was everywhere. And the air was ripe with its smell.

I clenched my teeth and hugged my shotgun, fueled by a sudden rage to blow the head off of anything that moved.

"Ring the fucking gong," I growled.

And then, as if Telders had magically heard me whisper the order, the brassy Buddhist gong at the top of the hill came alive in doubles: GONG-GONG, GONG-GONG, GONG-GONG, summoning any, and all, able-bodied zombies into battle.

"Alright," I said, turning around, scanning the shadows and the storefronts for the undead.... "Come get me you fucking retards."

Mossberg

October 10th, 2011

Mossberg

I would have preferred it if Telders had shot me dead right there in the mud. That would have been good. A fine ending to a false start.

But there was that thing again. That dark certainty on the other side. I was literally going to Hell. Suddenly being led by gunpoint into the center of zombie central didn't seem so bad.

Telders poked me in the back with the barrel of his gun. "Take this road," he said.

Michael seemed different. He wasn't his usual, jovial, cigar-smoking, womanizing, to hell with the consequences, asshole self. He was a little more... like me. A little damaged. Dangerous.

I had to stay focused. One wrong move and he could easily take me out. If things didn't go well I had to be able to take him first. After all, God may give him a pass. Probably not, but at least it wasn't a sure thing.

He stopped and pointed at an abandoned Buddhist temple at the top of a hill. A narrow path snaked up to the main building.

"There's a giant gong in the sanctuary," he said. "I'm going to head up there and ring the fuck out of it. That should get their attention."

"And then what?"

"And then I observe what happens from a safe vantage point."

"I'm not sure I like that plan."

"Well, it was your idea, Robertson."

I dug my heel into the mud. "Yeah, but I didn't suggest lingering out in the open without any way to defend myself. Those things will attack. And I need a weapon if I'm going to survive."

"I think you'll be alright."

"I'm not the fucking zombie king, Michael."

Telders growled. "Maybe you are, maybe you aren't. But you've gotten weird, Robertson," he said, stabbing his finger into my chest. "First you slaughter all those bastards on the Nisshin Maru. That was fucked up, but I was able to see past it. Then suddenly you're spewing crap about talking fish from future timelines who landed their space pods in Antarctica and started World War Three? I mean, come on. I've heard some crazy shit in my time, Wayne... maybe even dropped a little acid... but that's some far out fucking shit."

"I'll admit it's a little implausible."

"It's bat-shit crazy, Robertson!" Telders said, throwing his hands wildly into the air. "But even then I gave you a pass because I could only imagine what being locked away in fucking Antarctica for six months would do to a man." He shook his head. "But now. Now I track you down to this shit-hole and find your ass dead and rotten in front of that fucking house, and then, just as I'm about to bury you, I literally watch you go from hamburger to regular walkin' talkin' Wayne Robertson in a matter of hours. I mean, don't take this the wrong way, man, but I think you got the Devil in you."

I cringed. "Yah."

"Yah," he laughed incredulously. Michael looked up toward the Buddhist temple for a moment. Finally, he said: "Alright, Robertson. Whatever. You have a right to defend yourself." He unzipped his duffle bag and fished out something wrapped in a large, white cloth. "This is a Mossberg 500. It's a shotgun."

"I know what it is."

"Good." Telders pumped the fore-stock. "It's loaded. And the safety's on, so don't forget to turn that shit off when things heat up."

"Alright," I said, taking the shotgun. It was remarkably light. I remember wondering why he'd been using a peashooter against the zombies instead of a fucking shotgun, but I didn't worry myself about it for too long. I'm an idiot sometimes.

"Alright" he replied, reaching for his duffle bag.

Suddenly I realized that I had a clear shot at the back of his head. A click of the safety button would be his only warning. So easy. I could end this charade for good. I licked my lips.

"Good luck, Robertson," he said, zipping the bag.

I tightened my grip on the Mossberg. This could be your only chance.

Telders heaved the bag over his shoulder.

KILL HIM.

"Later," Telders said, slapping me on the shoulder.

"Uh, yah," I mumbled. KILL HIM!

Michael paused, smirking... then turned and headed up the hill.

What Lurks

October 10th, 2011

There is a darkness that lurks inside all of us. It's there, whether you've met it or not.... And if you're lucky, it'll stay put.

This isn't the evil you see in the movies, or the fallen angels you hear about in Sunday school. This isn't the psycho-killer wandering the streets at night in clownface.

This isn't entertainment.

This is loss. This is the empty thing that remains when your dream is gone, and you've... just. given. up.

This is the look in the eyes of the hopeless. That hollow, black, thousand-yard stare. The one that makes mothers hurry their children away.

It lacks hope. It lacks a dream. And it doesn't even know what it means to care about another human being.

I dare you to say its name.

Right as Rain

October 5th, 2011

A long black tube snaked from the chin of hazmat's Soviet style "death head" mask into the folds of his camouflage NBC suit. The equipment made his voice sound harsh and brassy.

"I said, turn around, get on your knees," he repeated.

"Yeah, yeah, I heard you," I said, turning away. "Any chance you'd like to tell me why you're doing this?"

Hazmat cleared his throat. "You're a threat," he said.

"If you say so. You're the one with the gun." I clasped my hands together and let him do his thing. He cinched the zip tie up very tightly, which was good. I still had a few tricks up my sleeve.

"Okay," he said, testing the bind. "Remember, this is for your own protection. Do everything I tell you and you'll live through this."

"Uh huh. And what happens if another one of those zombies comes shambling around, wanting to get its brains on, huh? What then, hazmat?"

"If that happens then you do exactly what I tell you."

"And I get to live."

"Precisely," he said, then reached down to collect his duffle bag.

You know, before the shit hit the fan in Antarctica, I had a high-speed satellite modem, and a ton of down time. Needless to say, I watched a lot of videos on the internet. And not the kind you're thinking, either. One video I remember discussed a little known trick for escaping zip-tie cuffs. Apparently, if you apply just the right amount of force at exactly the right spot, they'll snap like a twig. Being out there all alone, I never really had a chance to practice it, but I was pretty sure I could do it.

So, when hazmat was distracted with his bag, I bent my knees, leaned forward, and lifted my arms. I said something cool like, "Well, I've kind of got this problem with being told what to do," then slammed my wrists against my tailbone. The clasp instantly broke in half with a snap!

That got hazmat's attention. He wheeled around, but it was too late—I was already swinging. As if things were suddenly in slow-motion, I could see his eyes widen behind his mask. The duffle bag fell out of his hands, dreamily falling to the ground, as my sweet, surprise haymaker sailed through the air, poised for an epic K.O. It felt awesome.

But then hazmat did something that made me feel not so awesome. He plunged forward into this fucking crazy Jujitsu or Capoeira defensive pose, raising his crooked, left arm up to the side of his head. At the same time he went to his chest holster with the other hand and fingered his pistol. My strike landed against his raised arm with a loud, but ineffective thud. A split second later, the butt of his black 92FS was careening off my left temple. There was a flash of white light and I was abruptly sucking mud at the bastard's feet.

"Okay, that hurt," I spat.

Hazmat guffawed. I kid you not. He let out the biggest, brassiest, most dramatic guffaw you ever heard. "Pretty good trick, Wayne," he said. "You know, you're a smart guy. But you never could fight."

"What? How do you know my name? Who the hell are you?" I growled.

The man in the hazmat suit crossed his arms. I swear I could see a pompous grin behind his mask. He didn't say a word.

And then it dawned on me. Of course. Who else would it be out here in the middle of Japan fragging the undead with a state of the art NBC suit and a jug full of liquid zombie remover?

"Jesus Christ, Telders."

I heard a amused "hmph" from inside the mask.

I sat up in the mud. "What's the deal, man? What's with the cuffs and the scary suit? We're friends, right? Right?"

Michael Telders fished a smartphone out of his pocket and fumbled with it, struggling to operate the device with his chemical gloves on.

"Hell of a time to update your Facebook status," I said.

He handed me the phone. "That was you 24 hours ago."

What I saw did not look human. It was a photo of something that actually looked a lot like the thing he'd just riddled with bullets and doused with acidy milk. It had the same scooped out flesh, the same pattern of exposed bone. And just like the other one, it was impossible to tell if it was male or female, much less human.

"What is this shit, Mike? This isn't me," I said, tossing the phone back to him.

"Look at your clothes," Telders said, holding up the phone. "You were like this when I found you. I was just about to milk your ass so you didn't have to go through that zombie phase, or whatever the hell it is, but unlike anyone else, you started showing signs of recovery. The lesions started disappearing. You grew new flesh. Your body started rebuilding itself. It was the craziest fucking thing I've ever seen. And now look at you. Right as rain."

"Okay, that's good, right? So why the handcuffs and all the you do exactly as I say bullshit?"

"Because it's not right. You should be dead. You didn't turn like the others, Wayne. And it's not just this town, it's the whole goddamn country. Maybe the entire world is infected. Everyone. Everyone except you."

I raised my hands. "So?"

"So you're a threat. I don't even know if it's really you in there Wayne. Like I said: You. Died. I saw it. And then the whole thing just ran in reverse. It's not natural. For all I know you're the fucking zombie king."

"That'd be an odd turn of events."

"Well I'm not risking it."

"Well I'm not going anywhere at gunpoint. So you're going to either have to leave me here to fend for myself... or kill me."

Telders growled frustratedly.

I continued: "And if I truly am the king of all zombies, which sounds awesome, by the way, killing me would probably ruffle the locals' feathers a bit, don't you think?"

"I think their feathers are already sufficiently ruffled."

"Probably a good point."

"Yeah, I should probably just kill you."

"What!?"

"Well, I mean, I don't see any other options." Telders drew the slide back on his 9mm. "Can't leave you here."

"Wait, wait! Okay, h-how about this?"

Telders folded his arms.

"Zombies typically kill anything that's alive, right? I mean, that's their M.O., right? Kill all living things, eat brains?"

"No, Wayne. Whatever has infected the human race has made them hyper-aggressive and hellbent on spreading the virus through physical contact. That is all. I've never seen one of them eating anything, much less somebody's brains. I mean, they can barely function, how do you expect them to crack open a skull? That's a hard thing to do, even with tools."

"Huh. I never thought of that."

"That it?" Telder said, flicking off the Beretta's safety.

"Wait! Never mind the brains." I licked my lips. "Okay. Have you ever seen two of these zombie things attacking each other?"

"No. From what I've seen they leave each other alone. I think they almost try to avoid each other."

"Great. So if we were to—and I can't believe I'm saying this—use me as bait to draw one of them out..."

"Go on...."

"...and the zombie attacked me. That'd mean I wasn't one of them, right? That I recovered just because I have really good genes or something?"

Telders stroked the black tube attached to his gas mask, pensively, as if it were a beard. "Interesting. You know, I would like to see that."

I scowled at him. "You've got a dark side, Telders."

"No, no, no. Sounds like a fantastic experiment, Wayne. And if the undead do get to you, we already know you're immune, right?"

"I guess so."

"Sold." Michael holstered his Beretta. "Alright Robertson, let's go find you a zombie."

Hazmat

October 3rd, 2011

If you've never woken up from a near-death experience to a man in a hazmat suit with a gun at your head, well, you haven't lived.

I was lying on my side, a few meters from the edge of a small crater where there should have been a modest Japanese home, a home I had recently been inside.

"So it looks like we've got a problem," the hazmat suit said in a muted, rubbery voice. He nodded at the pistol in his right hand, as if I hadn't noticed.

I had no idea what I had been through, but whatever it was, things seemed to have improved. Last I'd checked, my face was covered in lesions and my entire body was succumbing to a frighteningly efficient viral assault. I barely remember collapsing out in the yard, but I do recall being fairly certain that I was a dead man.

But now... I ran my fingers over my face. Normal. I had no pain, no aches, no soreness... not even a headache. It didn't make sense.

But, hell, I wasn't complaining. I'd beat it, for whatever reason. Though, the guy with the gun in my face didn't seem like he shared my excitement.

"No problem here, man," I said, flashing him an innocent smile.

Hazmat narrowed his eyes.

Suddenly, there was a low, guttural moan from somewhere nearby. I think hazmat guy heard it even before I had, because he was already up and waving the gun around. I took the opportunity to start scooting backward. Looked like a pretty good chance to avoid the whole death thing again.

Then, across the street, an odd figure appeared from behind a big heap of Japanese rubble. It was in bad shape. And not the "need to catch up on my Pilates classes" kind of shape, either. Its flesh looked like it had been removed—in little scoops... perhaps with a hot spoon or a really sharp melon baller. Spots of bone were visible all over its skull and down its arms and legs, giving its body a grotesque, almost whittled appearance. Its eyes were missing, part of its left arm just kind of hung there unmoving, disconnected, and its head was permanently cocked to the left side.

Because of the sheer damage the individual had taken, it was impossible to tell if it was a man or a woman. But whatever horrible thing had happened it, he or she didn't have any business being out of bed. Or, above ground for that matter.

Nevertheless, judging from its increasingly intense and angry moaning, it didn't appear that the fucker was going to listen to reason.

"Jesus Christ," I whispered.

"Shh!" Hazmat guy insisted, but as soon as the thing heard our voices, it perked up, shrieked, and bolted straight for us.

"Holy shit, kill that thing!" I screamed.

Without a word, hazmat snapped the trigger back on his handgun and cooly fired two shots into the thing's chest. The monster recoiled from the shots, staggering, but it recovered almost immediately and within seconds it was headed for us again.

"Damn they're getting stronger," Hazmat said with a seriously inappropriate lack of tension in his voice. He ejected the clip, snapped in a fresh one, chambered the first round, then unloaded ten rounds into the oncoming horror. The thing flinched with each shot, a spray of blood exploding behind it, but refused to back down, and didn't, until Hazmat grimaced and put the final five rounds into its knees. Even then, it just laid there, howling, refusing to die.

A spent clip dropped from hazmat's pistol and clattered on a broken flagstone. He installed a fresh one, then holstered the weapon. There was a nearby duffel bag that he went to and removed a white jug with a red "X" painted on the side. He casually strolled over to the creature on the ground, then poured the milky white contents of the jug onto its head. He watched, unmoving, as the thing shrieked and convulsed, the white shit burning through what little flesh it had left. Hazmat didn't turn his head until it had stopped flinching. Then he capped the empty jug and returned it to his bag.

I swallowed. "So... it take it that's our problem?"

"Part of it." Hazmat turned around holding a translucent zip tie. "Turn around, get on your knees, and put your hands behind your back."

Purgatorio

October 1st, 2011

I guess the Lord doesn't have much of a sense of humor. Moments after my angry tirade, I was struck with such a withering blast of pain that I was unable to stay conscious for more than a few moments.

A big, black darkness set in, and for a time there was nothing. It was impossible to tell how long it lasted. Could have been seconds, could have been days. Eventually, my consciousness returned, and somewhere along the way a strange vision appeared before my eyes:

I bore witness to five massive, concentric rings laid upon on a barren, wintery landscape. Like a giant game of Skee-Ball, each ring was separated from the other by a high, insurmountable wall. No ladders, bridges, or tunnels allowed passage between the rings. The walls were unusual, for they were not ordinary, solid walls—they appeared to be forged from darkness itself, save a curious silvery sheen that played upon the surface, a meandering layer of gas or fluid that almost seemed to be patrolling the wall's perimeter. On occasion I thought I spied a figure or a face emerge from the wall, but it was gone as quickly as it came, and I found myself doubting whether it had ever been there at all.

The vision shifted and I had a closer look within the walls of the outermost ring: a vast, circular space populated by dirty, disheveled people, many of whom were shouting at one another, savagely beating weaker inhabitants, or hidden in the shadows, working crooked needles into their arms. Piles of dead lay frozen in small piles at nearly every turn.

The people seemed to fear the wall. They kept a healthy distance, at least fifteen or twenty feet, and averted their eyes as they passed. Momentarily I saw why: the snow near the wall's edge was splattered with red and black, stained the color of blood and darkness.

The vision shifted again, this time zeroing in on a spot where a bedraggled little boy, bundled in a patchwork of old clothing, was playing on a rope swing tied to a rusty overhead pipe. The child, maybe six or seven years old, was singing a variation on a familiar tune:

Rings around the center
Wayne's eternal winter
Slashes... slashes...
We all bleed out.

The child suddenly looked up. His eyes were burnt out of his head.

I awoke with a start.

Deus Ex

September 29th, 2011

God is an Asshole.

I've had a lot of time to think about it, and that's my conclusion. Normally I'd follow that up with something like: "...if He's even real", but that tunnel to Hell was pretty convincing. And, yes, while I didn't see God Himself, I witnessed the dark side, and that's enough for me.

God's exists, and he's a Right Bastard.

"Why would I say such things?" you ask. Well, what do you think would have happened to me if I hadn't escaped and returned to Earth for round two?

Eternal Damnation, folks.

And for what?

"C'mon, Wayne," you add, "you did some pretty heinous shit. How can you expect to behave that way and not be punished in the fires of Hell?"

Okay, okay, I know, I killed a bunch of people. Boo hoo. I did that. But were those murders really so unjustified? And was it really me committing them? I mean, Yumi did most of the bad shit on the boat, right? Just because she was a figment of my imagination doesn't automatically make it my fault does it?

You roll your eyes. "Uh, kinda."

Well... you're an idiot. And I don't mean that in a bad way. It's really not your fault. That's the way God made you. He wanted you to be an idiot. And he wanted me to be delusional and murderous. That was His Plan.

"But free will, Wayne! What about free will!?"

Yeah, yeah. Look, if God is supposed to be perfect and God is supposed to be Love, capital "L", why is he so fucking hellbent on creating imperfect beings capable of doing horrible shit? Is it because he gets off on sending his creations to hell when they screw up? If He really wanted to create a bunch of people and just had to give them free will, and on top of all that He Loved them like crazy, don't you think he'd give everyone a fucking pass after they died? Don't you think he'd be all like "Sorry, everyone, this was all kind of a big experiment, and I knew what I was getting into, so forget all that shit and enjoy an eternity of peace?"

Nope. That's not the deal. We screw up and it's off to the inferno. You thought you lived a perfect life, and you did a lot of good, and you genuinely cared for people, BUT, remember that one "goddammit" you whispered in fifth grade that you thought no one heard? Well, God heard it, and that hiccup bought you a first-class ticket to the shit storm, buddy. Tough luck.

I dunno. Maybe God would appreciate it if I helped him clean up the mess down here. Maybe if I acted more like Him, He'd give me a second look the next time I kick the bucket. I could do that. I could totally do what He does. It's a pretty simple recipe, actually. All you have to do is:

  1. Create a flawed system
  2. Expect the impossible
  3. Torture everyone who breaks the rules

Oh, and don't forget to outsource #3 to the biggest dick you know so you don't look like the bad guy.

Asshole.

The Darkness Before Dawn

September 27th, 2011

The Darkness Before Dawn

The sound of footsteps. Things being dragged across the ground. Someone coughing. Voices. I couldn't see a damn thing. Just blurry, white, whiteness. Where the hell was I?

My body felt like rubber and broken glass. When I tried to move I felt a kind of disorderly numbness that probably should have been excruciating, given the number of things that seemed out of place. But, fortunately I'd been spared the pain for the moment.

There were other noises. Distant, thunderous blasts, and sharper reports that were obviously much closer. Footsteps were all around me.

I heard my name, followed by a rush of syllables that blew past by my ears in a breezy, metallic, echo—distant and alien—as if I were wearing one of those old-timey diving helmets.

"Wayne, something something echo something echo echo."

I tried concentrating on the words—really focusing—but it didn't help.

"Who's there?" I tried to say. To me, my voice was hollow and remote. That, combined with the fact that I couldn't actually feel my mouth, my tongue, or my throat, forced me to imagine forming the words, hoping that they were at the very least intelligible. "Who's that?"

A flurry of nauseating sounds were offered in reply. The blurry, white nothingness that was the limit of my vision, was temporarily interrupted by a blurry, dark nothingness. A passing cloud? A person looming overhead?

And then, much louder, as if someone were screaming in my ear: "Something something echoey something something!"

I understood nothing. But, I was at least able to make out the tone. It was a familiar voice... I believed I knew the person who was trying to speak to me.

I tried again: "What is your name?"

"Something Somethinrrss!"

"What? Who?"

"Something! Srrrlders!"

Michael?

A sudden crack! like a clap of thunder reverberated in my ears. Even in my near deaf state, it was deafening. My ears started to ring.

I called out: "You there?!"

No response.

I screamed it again, as loud as I could, or at least as loud as I could imagine.

For all I knew, I was face down in the mud.

I called out again and again. Over and over. But the voice, and the footsteps, never came back.

I was alone again.

The Child is Grown, The Dream is Gone

September 23rd, 2011

The Child is Grown, The Dream is Gone

Most things make sense. Most things are reasonable, normal, run of the mill phenomena, and they roll on by as they should—day after day—with little or no fanfare whatsoever. The sun goes up, the sun goes down. Coffee in the morning, tea at night. Or maybe it's a muffin in the morning, and a Twix in the bath.

Whatever your routine, it all makes perfectly good sense. Most of the time.

But sometimes... sometimes you stumble over one of those things that doesn't quite fit so neatly into a box. Or a crate. Or a marmot....

These oddball things are the Edge Cases: the whispers in the hall at night, that sudden urge to take a different route to work, that marmot staring at you through the window....

Sometimes they come in pairs. Other times in threes. Or in my case, by the shit-load. In fact, nearly everything that's happened to me since I intercepted that humble little signal in that tiny sliver of the universe, has been one of those things: time travelling, transgenic fish; inter-dimensional man hunts; an imaginary "friend" assisting me in the wholesale slaughter of good, decent fishermen; a rabid virus tearing through my flesh like so many microscopic piranhas; and to top it all off, a near-death experience in probably well-deserved fashion.

But frankly, as fun as all that shit was (read:sarcasm), I think I'm growing a little fucking tired of it. Maybe it was the whole dying thing. Who knows. Who cares? Whatever it was, I'm here to tell you... Shit's about to get Real.

---

I opened my eyes.

Spegg, Yumi, and the boy stood, hands joined, at the foot of my bed.

Spegg was smiling like an asshole.

"I thought you'd never wake up, Wayney-Wayne!" Spegg said, dangling a clear plastic bag over my bed. It was filled with thousands of little black things that buzzed and shrieked when he shook it. "We had to yank these little bastards out of you one by one by one. It was a real mess!"

The boy nodded in agreement and pointed at the bag. "Thems things were eatin' you aaall up," said the boy. "I was a powerful scared. A powerful scared!"

I frowned at him.

Yumi laid a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder, then tapped the handle of her sword, which she had strapped to her left hip. "Ain't nothin' but a thang."

"We brought you some Fla·Vor·Ice," Spegg said excitedly. "Do you like Fla·Vor·Ice in bed, Wayney?"

The boy nodded his head even faster. "Yeah he does! I knows he does!"

I narrowed my eyes at Spegg. "No. No, Spegg. I don't like Fla·Vor·Ice in bed. I don't like Fla·Vor·Ice out of bed."

"How about in a chair!?" The boy howled.

"No. I don't like Fla·Vor·Ice in a chair. I don't like Fla·Vor·Ice anywhere."

"Woo. This sounds like fun," Spegg said, licking his lips.

Yumi suddenly drew her sword and pointed the blade at my face. The boy yelped. "Sounds like someone's a little ingrateful," Yumi growled.

I took a breath. "Ungrateful."

"What?" Yumi said.

"Ungrateful. You said ingrateful. Ingrateful is not a word. It's ungrateful. Ungrateful."

"Ungrateful," she repeated.

The boy nodded. Spegg looked at me nervously, then back at Yumi, then back at me.

"Sorry," Yumi said, sheathing her sword. "My English... it no good."

"What now, then, Wayney?" Spegg said, tossing the packet of Fla·Vor·Ice over his shoulder.

I eyed the leather straps binding my hands and feet. "Hrm. How about playing a game? You like games, Spegg."

"Boy do I!" Spegg shrieked.

"Oh oh oh, I like games!" The boy said.

"Okay, here's the game," I said. "See these leather straps?"

Spegg nodded solemnly. "Them's fer your protection, Wayney."

"That's right," I replied. "But the crazy thing is, guys, is that these mother-fucking straps that are holding me down? They aren't even real!"

Yumi rolled her eyes.

Suddenly, the straps vanished.

The boy let out a gasp.

"He's a witch!" Spegg screamed.

Yumi went for her sword, but found nothing but an empty sheath. Her mouth dropped open.

"Ah ah ah!" I said, shaking my finger at her. I slid out of bed, wielding her katana.

"Whoooa. It's like the Matrix," said the boy.

I nodded to him. "Kind of. But instead of a giant computer program that millions of people are simultaneously and unwittingly plugged into so that evil robots can harvest their bio-energy, it's just one guy with an ass-load of mental problems."

"Oh," the body replied despondently, kicking the bed post. He took a deep breath, then looked up. "Wayne?"

"Yeah, boy?"

"Am I? Am I part of the ass-load of menchal problems?"

I grinned. "I'm afraid so, kid. 'Fraid so."

"Oh." A tear escaped his left eye.

"Look, you're making him cry!" Yumi sneered. "You're bad man!"

"And youuuu have a sword sticking out of your chest!"

"What? Are? Nani? Kore nani???? Itaiiiii!"

Yumi pawed at her katana, which was suddenly embedded up to the hilt in her chest. She fell to her knees. Yumi looked at me, her eyes tortured, then whispered with her last breath, "I always loved you, Wayne Robertson." Then she collapsed sideways and slowly faded away.

"All right, WAYNE!" Spegg said, clapping his big, gray hands together. "Finally we got rid of the skirt! Now do the sword thing to the kid, and let's boogie!"

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Spegg."

"What?"

"You're a fish, Spegg."

Spegg's tone grew serious. "Well, not exactly, Wayne. While, yes, a majority of my DNA is based on a number of hybrid, highly specialized fish, I am also human. In fact, at my core, I am a transgenic—"

"No, Spegg. You're a fish."

He laughed nervously. "N-no really, I'm not."

"You are."

"No, Waynege." Spegg said, his voice suddenly garbed. "Aahhhne? Ahhhhnh?"

Spegg's head started to flatten. It was as if it were a bulbous, gray balloon, suddenly losing it's air. His arms and legs began to shrivel, his eyes parted and moved to the sides of his head.

"Aahahghhg! Ahahghaghgh!" Spegg howled as he grew smaller and smaller. Soon his voice was lost entirely. Spegg's body, only a quarter of it's original size, toppled over onto the ground and started to flop around as it shrunk even further. Eventually, Spegg was just a fish.

The boy looked down at the fish and grinned sheepishly.

I smiled at him. "Go ahead," I said.

A look of glee crossed the boy's face, then he snatched the fish from the ground and shoveled it into his mouth.

"Good boy," I said.

The boy chewed and chewed. "Soo guph!" He said, his mouth completely full of Spegg.

I stared out the window, listening to the boy chew. The sun was coming up. A helicopter appeared over the horizon. I thought I recognized....

"Is it time for me to go now too?" The boy said, interrupting my thought.

I turned back to the boy and nodded. "Yes boy," I told him. "Go and never come out again. Not ever, no matter what you see, no matter what you hear."

"I understand," said the boy. He threw his arms around me and squeezed. "Hey Wayne?"

"Yes boy?"

"Earlier when we were all talking and I said I knew you liked Fla·Vor·Ice? Well, I actually knew you didn't like Fla·Vor·Ice. I was just saying that."

I laughed. "I know, boy. I know you were. Fla·Vor·Ice is gross."

The boy gave me one last, tearful nod, then like a thunderclap, slammed against my chest, knocking me several feet backward into a side table.

It took me a moment to catch my breath. Gasping, I looked around the empty hospital room. No machines. No doctors. No doors. Just a solitary window overlooking a barren, morning landscape. The helicopter was getting closer. I shrugged and closed my eyes. I floated around in there until the sound of the helicopter blades filled my ears. Suddenly, they stopped. It was quiet again.

Then, a pair of hurried footsteps. Anxious voices.

A Pound of Flesh

September 13th, 2011

The pain was nothing compared to the horror of seeing my welted, lesioned face in the mirror. Whatever virus or flesh eating bacteria or hell on Earth that had consumed that tiny Japanese town had spread to me. The skin on my cheeks where the woman's blood had spattered had turned viscous, like jelly, sagging and sloughing off in clumps. Bits of dead flesh were stuck under my fingernails where I had scratched my face.

I ran. I don't know where I intended to go, but I wanted to get as far away from the source of this disease as humanly possible.

I made it as far as the front lawn. I tumbled over a short, stone pagoda and fell into a rock garden just a few meters from the dead woman in the fountain. Her bare knees sticking out of the water was the last thing I saw before my vision went. I screamed as I felt my eyes liquify, and the flesh all over my body tear open, almost crackling, as if little bugs were chewing their way out.

The last thing I remember was the sound of my own voice, a hollow cascade of moans, each less pronounced than the last, growing shorter and shorter, softer and quieter, until even that failed, and there was nothing but darkness. And moments later, nothing whatsoever.

---

We've all heard stories of near death experiences. Tales of one's consciousness rising up from the body, hovering over an operating table, or some bloody scene on the side of a highway, up and up, into the unknown, as images of one's life flash before the eyes. Then inevitably one will pass into the long, swirling tunnel, as feelings of peace settle in, drifting toward the light, where a crowd of dead friends and loved ones wait with open arms. Time and time again we hear these tales, from those who turned back at the last moment, or were wrenched from death by the shock of a defibrillator.

All very pleasant.

Well that's not always how it goes. Rarely do we hear of the other kind of tunnel, that swirling vortex of spiraling wraiths, where the only light at the end is the flickering tongues of hellfire. Seldom is retold the crowds of decayed, howling monsters waiting for the unlucky ones at the end of that mess of hell, dying for a taste of your soul. At least I'd never heard those stories. I guess that's the tunnel you don't come back from.

Most of the time.

The beasts' gaping mouths twisted into horrific, angry scowls as my passage through the tunnel suddenly reversed. Sharp flashes of swirling red lighting and thunder claps exploded around me, then the hideous, whirling vortex suddenly vanished to a fiery red dot.

"We've got him back," someone said.

Ex Situ

April 30th, 2011

ex situ

My face had started to itch. I left the stream and ran into a nearby house. In the bathroom a body, an old woman, naked except for her underwear, lay slumped over the bath with snake-like lesions criss-crossing her back and thighs. Everything else was just red and black welts, except for deep, black abscess on her heel that showed through to the bone. My face was burning.

I turned away from the body, my back to the mirror, knelt down under the sink, and put my hands over my face. Maybe I wasn't sick. Maybe I was just paranoid. Maybe I was just sunburned. Could be anything. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. The bathroom smelled good. Like soap and cherry blossoms. It was a wonderful smell. I inhaled again and again, savoring it. I looked up. The pipes under the sink were wet with condensation, tiny beads of water formed on the shiny metal. I reached out and touched them, let the drops puddle on my fingertips and slide down into my palm. There was a little raised, red welt just below my thumb. Probably nothing.

Underneath the sink there was a big yellow jug of soap with a white cap. It was only half-screwed on. Globs of congealed soap clung to the rim just below the lid. I pinched off a bit and massaged it with my fingers, then smelled it. It, too, smelled like cherry-blossoms. The jug had a nice label. The brand name was written in bold, black typeface across the front of the label, and some smaller Japanese words were printed just below. Cartoon soap bubbles were drawn on the label and bits of foam were stuck to some of the characters. I felt my heart pounding as I stared at it.

I itched my face and screamed.

Love of the Masses

April 29th, 2011

Love Of The Masses

The girl fell, almost in slow motion, her head wrenched sideways, her fine black hair disheveled, matted, blood-stained. Her eyes were still, almost serene, as she fell. They had a far-away look to them, a look of finality, closure perhaps. She shut them just before she hit the ground. She didn't move again.

I stood before her, that poor soul, that wretched creature, rent from the inside-out by some vicious, invisible horror. She'd been very pretty. Perhaps that was her mother over there in the fountain, or her father under the blanket on the lawn.

I dropped the stick, just let it go, aware of the infected blood on my face, the coppery taste of it in my mouth.

In a daze, I shambled over to the stream and splashed some water on my face. I don't know why. A futile thing. Probably the last futile thing I'd ever do. I sat there for a while and just stared at my hands. A dead koi floated by, tail first, riddled with abscesses. A splendid, gorgeous creature in life. No more. Whatever this disease was, it was in me now. I could feel it breeding, chewing on my cells. Making babies.

So this is how it ends. Have at it, you bastards.

Twilight of the Mortal

February 27th, 2011

Twilight of the Mortal

I reach the town just before sundown, strolling in on a dirt road, scored by what looks like hundreds of years of carts and oxen. In the center of town there is a narrow, two meter wide stream that runs parallel with an intersecting road, then bends sharply around a corner past a couple of well stocked fruit stands and a row of rectangular homes with thick, thatched roofs that hang precariously over the walls of the houses like so many hay bales.

I stop in front of one of the stands and grab a satsuma. "Hello?" I say, digging my fingernail into the orange peel. "Konnichiwa?"

No answer.

I walk a little further, peeling and pitching the rinds into the little stream. "Anyone here?"

The fruit is good—fresh, and has a little bite to it. Overall, quite satisfying, especially after a long day of hiking with no water and only a small amount of bamboo. I call out again, but it appears the town is deserted. Weird.

Surely they wouldn't just leave their fruit carts unattended, and their doors? I walk up to one of the thatched roof homes and pound out "shave and a haircut." The door swings open before I can finish: shave and a creeeeeak.

I'm hit with a sudden, wretched stench. Gagging, I pull my shirt over my nose and step inside. "Hello?" I say, the hardwood floors groaning underfoot. I turn to the right and follow the hall, past empty rooms and open shoji screens. The smell thickens as I near the end of the hallway. The door at the end is closed, and I stop to breathe. I don't really want to know what is behind door #3. I'm pretty sure there's only one thing that can smell that bad, and I'm not eager to find out. I'm starting to throw up, anyway. I can't take it. I run outside and a little cement buddha watches me vomit in the rock garden.

I'm wiping my mouth on the edge of my hand when I see the leg. It, and its owner are partially submerged in a shallow pool of water, a fountain. A pair of wooden sandals lie nearby. Her exposed feet are pocked with sores, as are her arms, and her left cheek, neck, and ear. The rest of her is hidden in the water. She doesn't smell yet.

Something bad happened here.

I leave the dead girl in the fountain and run to the next house. The smell is even worse there, and there are bodies in the front yard. One of them is covered by a blanket. Another lies nearby in gloves and an apron, riddled with sores, just like her neighbor.

They're all like that. No one was spared: men, women... children. All dead, and all infected with some kind of terrible flesh eating disease. It looks like it happened fast. They didn't even have time to bury their dead.

I'm on the steps of a small temple, standing over a dead man and his wife when I hear it. "YOU!" Something strikes me on the head, hard enough to knock me over on top of the corpses. "It's YOU!"

I roll over to find what looks like one of the corpses standing above me, sneering, pointing. My ears are ringing. She's covered in sores. She has a giant stick in her hands, gripped like a sword. I can't tell how old she is, maybe twenties, thirties. She's in bad shape. One of her eyes is only half open, bleeding, and the other looks like it has burst or been punctured. She's naked, no underwear or anything, and there's literally almost no white flesh left on her body. It's so infested with sores.

She lifts the stick above her head and I scamper backwards. "YOU!" She yells again, the stick slicing through the air.

"Yes, okay, it's me!" I say, struggling to get to my feet. "The American from the Nisshin Maru, right? Is that what you're thinking?"

"You bringed this!" She screams, hurling the stick at me.

I easily dance away. "No, I didn't bring this, I don't even know what this is! Are there more of you? Are you the last one alive? What happened here?"

"No ENGLISH!" The woman barks.

"Okay, okay, look, I want to help you. Help? Tsuku? What is it? Tsukun? Is that the Japanese word for Help?

She's not getting it. Blood gurgles in her throat. She lunges for me, her arms outstretched.

I don't have a choice. Whatever she has, I don't want it. I dodge her attack, scoop up the heavy stick, and as she comes back around, I swing for the fences.

Warm blood sprays me in the face.

Chessboards

February 20th, 2011

Chessboards

I know very little about wilderness survival, but my young companion artfully points out a nest of bamboo shoots and we have a small meal just before noon. The boy is generous and eats very little, insisting that I take the lion's share so I will have the energy to guide us through the forest and into town. There is a small stream nearby and we have a nice drink together before moving on.

As we rest I catch Yumi peeking down from the clouds, watching, her furrowed eyebrows turning to a giant katana that breaks apart into millions of throwing stars that silently dissipate into space. She's frustrated.

Suddenly the boy points out a Stellar’s sea eagle perched in a tree above our heads, an awesome (in the truest sense of the word), gigantic black and white raptor. Even at a distance I'm stunned by its size. His claws remind me of those giant orange-peel crane grabs they use to pick up massive piles of scrap metal. Claws that could latch on to puppies or toddlers, or the random unprotected adult-sized head.

I reach for a stone and hurl it at the bird.

"It's not right to kill eagles," the boy says, as my projectile falls so short of the Stellar that he doesn't even flinch.

"That thing's the size of a bus. What if he snagged you by the back of the head and dropped you into a giant nest full of hungry baby raptors?"

"I'm not scared of him. He looks like a nice bird."

"Speak for yourself," I say, and lob another rock into the trees.

"You know what frightens me?"

"What's that, boy?"

"Him." The boy points at the top of the tallest conifers in the forest. There, crouched on the very highest bough, the branch sagging under his weight, is our old friend, Spegg. When he sees us looking, he hisses, then leaps into a Mongolian oak, catapulting himself further along into the forest until he's out of sight, the vanishing sound of snapping tree branches echoing in his wake.

"Oh, don't worry about him," I say, putting my arm around the boy. "He can't hurt you. I've told him to stay away.

The boy frowns. "Do you think he'll obey you?"

"He has to."

"Why?"

I have to think about that one for a moment. It's clearly a lie. Spegg does what he wants, but I haven't known him to be dangerous. At least not this one. Real life Spegg is a different story. "I don't know," I tell the boy. "But you're safe with me."

The boy looks up at me and brushes away a tear. "Wayne?"

I crouch down and use my thumbs to wipe away his tears. "What's wrong, buddy?"

"Please don't make me go inside-out again."

"Inside-out? You mean when I'm busy and you have to go away?"

"Yes. Please don't make me go away again."

"Oh, buddy, why not?" I brush the hair out of his face and soften my tone. "You know, we all have to go inside-out. I go to sleep, and you go to your place. It's good for you."

"It's dark there."

I smile. "It's dark when I go to sleep, too."

"But does the fish man scream at you when you go inside-out?"

"What?"

"The fish man in the trees. He's always there when you send me away. He says mean things to me."

"Wait, Spegg talks to you when you're not here? What the hell does he say?"

"He says," the boy sniffs, "he says that he's going to hurt me bad. He says he's going to kill me. Sometimes he doesn't say anything at all. He just stands over me and screams."

I pull the boy into my arms. How the fuck is that even possible?

"It's okay," I tell him. "I'll handle Spegg. He won't hurt you, he can't hurt you. I promise."

"And he says that you told him to do it."

"Oh God, no," I say, shaking my head. I pull the boy closer. He whimpers and shakes. I pat him on the back, trying to comfort the boy. "Shhhh. It's okay. It's okay. Shhhh. I would never hurt you, Wayne."