There I am, floating on tufts of technomantic flying equations, letting the magic surge through my veins. There I am, floating above some older, twencen-looking city, watching loads of people walk to and fro on the old concrete sidewalks with the weeds popping out. There I am, above all the cars and streetlights and smog and tar and windows and brick.
There I am, above the peaceful little old-style town, enjoying the scenery.
I’m watching as my hands start surging with unholy energy without my consent. I’m watching as I start unleashing energy bombs with mystic chainsaws into throngs of unsuspecting people.
I’m trying to stop myself. I’m trying so shocking hard, but my hands….they’re just moving on their own. I’m watching as they unleash another wave, decapitating five policemen and three bizsuits in the blink of an eye.
My heart’s pounding. Pounding worse and worse by the second. I have to stop myself.
I whisper technomantic equations to lock my body in place. Instead I blast a hole through a kid and melt out the brain cavity of his mom.
I yell and shout and rage against myself. Doesn’t stop me from causing a pile-up.
“Stop, Litany!” I shout at myself. I plead for the Bone Machine to help restrain me, but its not there. For the first time in my life, somehow, I’m without the other magicians.
My eyes water and my teeth clench. The survivors of my onslaught are running away, staying close to their loved ones as they mad dash it out of my line of sight. I want to tell them that I’m trying. I’m trying so hard to stop myself from murdering them all.
I feel my body initiate a vector spell that sends a Septa bus careening into a host of nuns and schoolchildren. I cringe as their blood spills out from under the wreck.
I watch in horror as my body swoops down to the stampede, randomly snapping the necks of terrified citizens trying so desperately to live.
I’m killing them. I’m killing everyone.
I won’t stop until they’re dead.
Oh God, oh god, oh god, oh god…
I can feel my body smiling and shrieking with pleasure at the screams. My eyes widen as I gesture forcefully, blood-red geometric symbols orbiting my arms like tornadoes of barbed wire. The spell activates, the energies coalesce and suddenly a hundred sewer mains explode, flames bursting out of the holes and enveloping any souls too close to the explosions. The city shudders.
I try to cry, to sob, to rip out my hair with the anger and anguish I’m feeling, but my body has other plans. It’s making buildings collapse on crowds. It’s making sewer lids spin like discs into people’s spines, snapping them instantly. It’s causing trucks and cars to crash into gasoline stations and scorch entire street blocks.
I watch myself dig into my black jacket, and feel the gun in my hand. The Alphaglock, Model Twelve.
I beg myself not to do it, and am rewarded with the sound of a man’s skull being perforated.
No reason. No reason for any of this.
Shock it all…
I’m weeping, I’m sobbing, and I’m desperately trying to aim the Alphaglock at my own head. I’m praying for nothing but the sweet blackness of death…
But I’m not stopping my assault. The gun bucks and kicks in my hand, spitting acid and bullets onto people without mercy. Their flesh sizzles and melts, their skin peels off in strips as they scream and scream and choke on their bloodied, raw throats. They cry, they weep.
God help me.
I can’t do anything to stop myself.
Without warning, more columns of flame explode from beneath the streets and the entire city quakes in a thrall of seismic shudders. The ground splinters and cracks along deep fault lines. Dozens of people fall to their deaths in the fissures.
The buildings seem to rise at jagged, uneven angles – as if they’d been built on a balloon and now that balloon was expanding and growing bigger – ready to burst at any moment. I can feel myself laughing as I bob weightless on the smoggy air, unaffected by the quakes. I want to sob. I’m trying so hard to sob, but I can only laugh as the city is swallowed into the Earth, hundreds of shouts and cries silenced forever by the heavy rocks.
No more screams.
No more shouts.
Thunder bellows as I launch myself out of my bed, screaming at the top of my lungs.
I can hear my heart in my ears for the entire seventeen years it takes for it to stop pounding. I’m soaked from head to toe, drenched in sweat. My hair’s clinging wetly to the back of my neck and my eyes are dripping with tears.
Back in my own room, in the mansion I’ve mentally sculpted from the Dream Zone.
Jesus shocking Christ, that was horrible.
My throat’s dry as hell. I’m too terrified to do anything but whisper what I’ve learned. “A dream. That was just another horrible, rancid, shocked-up little dream…”
My eyes start to water. My stomach suddenly tightens up under my black tank top.
“But that doesn’t change a goddamned thing.” I wince in a yelping growl, and what passed for composure falls away in an instant. I pull my knees up to my chest and bury my sobbing face into them, rolling up into a ball and hiding from the world.
I start heaving pretty hard, and I’m worried I might start vomiting all over my bed sheets.
“I’m a murderer.” I choke out. “I’m nothing but a shocking murderer.”
Shot of whiskey, down the hatch.
It burns going down, just like the two before it.
I’m sitting there, reclining at the mini-bar I’ve manufactured in the Nerve Centre of my Dream Zone mansion, turning the empty shot glass over and over in my hand. The Bone Machine – a collection of three millennia’s worth of dead magicians whose re-animated skulls hang bonded to my nervous system – floats quietly around me.
For once in my life, the mother shockers are all quiet and I can’t even enjoy it. I’ve got too much other shit on my mind.
I yawn suddenly, violently. I lazily blow a streak of grey hair out of my face and rest my head on the hand that isn’t concerned with the shot glass.
I killed a town full of people
A whole shocking town full of innocent people.
Just because I shocked up some spell.
One shocking little spell.
It was just supposed to put them all to sleep. Just supposed to make them all take a quick nap so I could rescue some shmuck without getting shot to pieces by a few dozen cops packing a small army’s worth of nine millimeters and shotguns.
Oh, it put them to sleep, alright…
And the night terrors they had made them start attacking the very same town they were supposed to be protecting.
Sleepwalkers with shotguns. And I was too tapped out on magic to reverse my mistake.
The whole shocking town…
All my fault.
“Did anyone tell you that you look pretty goddamned hot in that outfit?”
My eyes flare up angrily.
I know he didn’t just say what I think he said.
And yet, the football coach’s skull is staring at me, practically devouring me with his empty eye sockets.
I came to the mini-bar right from the bedroom, not bothering to change out of the black tank top or the black thong clutched to my bottom. Thing is, my top doesn’t really allow much modesty in the chest area. Especially considering the angle he’s looking at me with…
Horny dead little bastard. He must have a death wish tonight.
Without a word, I grab his shocking skull, holding it there with my left hand as I shove the shot glass into his hollowed eye socket with my right. With a huff, I release his floating skull, which resumes its orbit around my mystical aura. Only now he’s up one monocle.
“Jesus Christ, Kirkpatrick! Lighten up.” the mothershocker yells at me through my thoughts. I don’t respond. I’m not playing his stupid shocking games today. Some of the other skulls snicker as they watch the football coach trying to work the problem of getting the shot glass out of his eye without any hands. He continues the bitchfest. “Get this out of my damn eye!”
I lick my lips, ignoring him completely. I’m not in the mood for our usual back-and-forth. I’m busy focusing my attention on spawning myself some more alcohol.
The Dream Zone is a truly ingenious little sub-dimension that the Bone Machine has found. In this realm, if you think of anything, it suddenly becomes reality.
That’s how I sculpted this trippy little mansion, and the trippy little mini-bar I’m sitting at right now. That’s also how suddenly, without warning, another shot glass appears in my hand, full of 80 proof whiskey and ready to do some work on my brain cells.
I down it gladly.
“Get this damn shot glass out of my eye cavity!” The football coach cuts into my reverie. “I mean it, Kirkpatrick!”
I grab at his skull, and shove the new shot glass into the other empty eye socket. Very colorful language results.
The rest of the Bone Machine chatters nervously as I create yet another full shot glass from the back corners of my mind. I pout tiredly, taking a long hard look at the bubbling helping of goldenrod liquid clinging thickly to the glass. I’m about to chuck the whole mess down into my awaiting throat when one of the floating skulls, a Russian scientist by the name of Dr. Maksim Sidorov, floats in-between me and the sweet nectar in my hand that’s about to make me pass out and finally get the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in a week. Naturally, I’m a bit cranky by the bold move.
“Get the hell out of my face, Doc!” I yell at him very graciously.
“You must stop this.” He tells me. I feel the concern in his voice. “You must be strong. Now, more than ever.”
“Litany, girl.” The Voodoo Priestess. Both skulls are in front of me now, bobbing up and down lightly. “This ain’t doing you any good. We need to talk about what happened back in Paradise City. We can all help you work through it, but you must let us in, child.”
I roll my eyes, smiling slightly as the football coach’s orbit around my body brings his shot-glass-eyed skull back into view. “I’m not kidding around, Kirkpatrick. Get them out NOW!”
“Serves you right for lookin’ down my shirt.” I toast my whiskey glass in his direction, whip my head way back and shove the alcohol into my throat like water. Maksim and the Priestess are seething in frustration at me when I bring my head back up, and I notice they seem to be floating a bit choppier than they were a minute ago. I wonder if they’ve just changed their orbits for a second until I notice the mini-bar sloping off at a really, really exaggerated angle. Looks like the shots have started working.
I begin fantasizing about yet another full shot glass when the scientist starts up in my head again. “You must stop feeling sorry for yourself.” I giggle lightly at his Russian accent. He gets frustrated almost immediately. “Litany, you must pull yourself together. We need your help, Litany. We need you to be strong. You are our only conduit to the living world. You are the only one who can prevent the misuse of the occulttech on the physical plane.”
“When I’m not killing hundreds of people for no good reason…” I mutter to myself, twisting the still-empty shot glass in my fingers.
The Voodoo Priestess jumps in. “What happened in Paradise City was a terrible, terrible tragedy. But it was an accident. An accident. You didn’t intend to hurt anyone. In fact, you were trying to save a man’s life. And you succeeded.”
“Yeah. And then he thanked me by running away when I needed his help stopping everyone from killing each other.” I say.
“He was injured, young one. Very badly.” She counters.
“And it really wasn’t his problem anyway, Kirkpatrick.” The football coach says frankly. I roll my eyes with irritation. “It was yours. Your fumbled spell was not his fault.”
“Thanks.” I say in a tone that means ‘go shock yourself’.
“Call it like I see it.” He imparts. “Now seriously, get the damned shot glasses out of my eyes.”
I show off my smile and one of my favorite fingers. I can tell he likes it from all the swearing coming out of that flapping white mandible of his.
“You acted in self-defense, girl.” The Priestess, again. Repeating the same old stream like a looped vid-recording. “They would have killed you had you not activated that spell. They would have killed you both.”
“Would that’ve been so bad?” I say with a belch, staring down another shot glass. Filled with rum and coke this time. “Two lives? Two lives to save hundreds? Two measly, worthless little lives. Would that have been so bad?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” The coach says pointedly. “Tell me you’re kidding, Kirkpatrick. Cripes, friggin’ girl has no idea how lucky she is to be alive, and the beauty of it is she doesn’t even APPRECIATE it!”
“They never do.” The Priestess murmurs as I hear the sad sighs of a few dozen floating skulls. Rotters’re starting to make me cranky. Or maybe it’s the alcohol lighting its lovely little fires in my veins.
“Oh don’t you start, don’t you start, don’t you even start!” I yell at the top of my lungs at the whole bloody lot of them. “I killed a shocking city full of people. A city! Tell me you guys haven’t done something that shocking stupid!”
The Machine stops right in its tracks. To its credit, it’s trying very hard to come up with something that tops the horror I did to that city, but they can’t even come close.
Then the football coach drops a chart-topper.
“I let a bunch of eighteen-year-old sorceresses chain me to a table and kill me as a sacrifice to their dark god, Dormammu.”
I burst out laughing. It doesn’t help that a healthy amount of the skulls in orbit around me start to chuckle, despite their obvious attempts to keep a straight-face.
“What? It seemed pretty kinky at the time.”
More laughter. My gut’s on fire from all the howling I’m doing.
God, I’m so drunk.
“Bloody hell, man.” I say with a tearful grin. “I meant stupid-horrible. Not stupid-funny.”
“I know, I know.” The coach speaks in a tone that’s suddenly changed from comedy to regret. The room’s gotten a little wobbly, but I’m still sober enough to know that regret’s a new one for him. My ears perk up all on their own. “The stupid-horrible part happened a ways before that.”
“Naturally.” I replied quite smart-assedly. “Do tell.”
“Her name was Debbie.” He begins in a tone I would almost call wistful. “She and I were the typical college couple. I was the popular, all-star quarter-back. And damned handsome, if I do say so myself. She, of course, had been the captain of the cheerleading squad since she was like, seven. And she was the most beautiful woman you’ll ever meet. Blonde hair, great smile, eyes like shining gemstones.
“We’d been dating since we’d been in middle school. We’d been first ones in our class to lose their virginity to the other. We were practically engaged by the time we graduated. I guess you could say we were like that couple in the movies – or holo-vids or whatever the hell they’re called in this century – except for one difference.
“I loved her with every fiber of my being.”
I hold down a snicker.
“It’s true, Kirkpatrick. We didn’t date because she was the ‘hottest’ cheerleader on the squad, or because I was the ‘hunkiest’ dude on the team. Even though we kind of were. Aw hell, who am I kidding? Of course we were. But that wasn’t why we were a couple. Nobody believed that the two of us loved each other. I mean, really loved each other. Do you know anything about that, Kirkpatrick?”
“I don’t think you know anything about that.” I sneer at him.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so. Anyway, she and I were what you could call soul mates.”
“Did you just say soul mates?” I drag out the word and gesture mockingly with my hands. Shyeah, that’s right. The sex-fiend flirting with pedophilia has just used the term “soul mate”. Cue laugh track.
“Yeah, that’s right. I said soul mates.” His tone’s gotten pissy. He’s getting all defensive now. “Yeah, I believe in that sort of thing, you know. Nothing wrong with that. Debbie was meant for me, just as I was meant for her. She loved me as much as I loved her. At least, that’s what I’d thought at the time…”
I take a sip of the beer I just imagined up in a glass mug. A delicious lot of foam coats my mouth as I take the glass away, and I lick the bubbly moustache clean with one swoop of my tongue. The football coach talks and talks, and I nod my head and roll my eyes.
“I would have killed for Debs. I would have died for her. Gladly, I might add. I’m telling you, Kirkpatrick…she was the one. I loved her with all my heart.
“I guess…maybe…I didn’t tell her that enough, you know. You girls like being told that kind of stuff from time to time, am I right? I guess I focused too much of my energy on my new coaching gig.
“See, I was pushing twenty-five, out of college and really struggling to find a job to support Debs and me. And most of my friends on the team had become fat, drunken losers working minimum wage. So when I lucked out on a coaching position at my old high school, I felt like I was finally getting somewhere in life. I guess, being back with a team of jokers that were just like buddies in high school…it reminded me of the glory days. Back when things were simple and life was easy. I was like a big brother to those guys. When I wasn’t having the practice sessions on the field, I was inviting the boys over to dinner. When we weren’t sneaking liquor from the store, we were…well, we were doing the same things I did with my team in high school. Going to parties, goofing off, horsing around…
“At first, my new wife was excited for me. The job, the money…everything was finally going our way. But then, I was spending too much time with the boys, trying to re-live my past, and not enough time with my Debbie. She tried to make me see what I was doing, but I ignored her.
“I lost the woman I loved because I was being a nostalgic dumbass, trying to live my life over again. I don’t know if you know what it feels like when you come home to an dark apartment, looking for your beautiful lover. And find nothing but single note left laying out on the table. And the only thing you’ve got left to think about is the fact that it didn’t need to happen like that way - if only you‘d been paying more attention to the game. That, Litany, is stupid-horrible.”
I am genuinely in shock. The football coach, a hapless romantic?
What next? Me being sober?
Don’t worry, that won’t happen anytime soon.
Still, I can’t believe that this testosterone freak ever had a romantic side. I can’t believe he loved someone like that. With his heart and soul, like it should be. Not with his groin.
At least, I think he did. He seems sincere. Would he have a reason to lie about something like that?
My interest piqued, I listen on.
“After she left, I felt…empty. So…empty…inside, you know? Like, even worse than your favorite team losing the Superbowl by one stinkin’ point. Worse than getting sacked. Worse than…than I don’t know what. It’s the worst feeling in the world, believe me. It’s like you can’t breathe, anymore. Can’t think, can’t function.
“So after a few weeks of drinking and feelin’ sorry for myself, I decided I needed to fill that empty space inside myself. And for the next ten years of my life, I buried myself in women and alcohol, in one-night-stands and relationships-going-nowhere. The football field became my home, and my team my family. I was pushing thirty when I started dating the cheerleaders. In secret, of course. But everyone knew what I was doing anyway. The teenage girls…some of them really went for a guy who they thought was more experienced in the ways of the world. Some of them, it really turned on.
“After these years I been dead, I realized I’d been trying to re-capture that magic all those years ago. All those cheerleaders, with the short skirts and the shirts that showed off the goods…they all reminded me of Debbie. Sleeping with them all…it was an attempt to get back that piece of myself I’d lost. You wouldn’t understand, Kirkpatrick.”
I mouth something very not nice in his direction.
“Anyway, that was the biggest and worst mistake of my life…letting her get away.
“And yet, if I hadn’t done that, I never would have met those sorceresses in their freshmen year and learned the ways of the mystic arts. I’ve seen some of the most amazing things in this universe thanks to them, despite the fact that they killed me years later. But I’d give it all up, Kirkpatrick. All of it. All of this. Just to make things right with my girl.”
His voice is strained - a tortured, haunting howl of a man whose heart has been ripped asunder. I’m just about speechless.
“Coach…I had no idea…”
His skull snaps in my direction suddenly, and I can all but see the embarrassment in his face. His tone quickly goes back to that armored testosterone-exterior we all love to hate.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m dead. She’s dead. It’s all done with.” He sighs sadly. “I’ll never be able to make up for what I did to Debs. Not now. But you can make up for what you’ve done. I mean, don’t you realize, Kirkpatrick, how lucky that makes you?”
Before I can finish a sentence, I hear a mournful melody from the rest of the Machine.
Seems he just opened up the floodgates.
And the guiltfest begins.
The Voodoo Priestess goes first, and she tells me her name is Madame Renee Girard. She migrated with her husband and daughter from France in the early thirties – ahem, the early nineteen-thirties – to settle in America. But the same night she was practicing her Voodoo powers in the woodlands of Louisiana, her family was slain by vandals in bedsheets. She never got to say goodbye.
The murderers were never caught. She tells me that even though everyone that lived around that time is now dead and gone, she’d give almost anything to find out exactly who committed those unspeakable crimes, and why they’d felt the need to take her family away from her.
I think of the SHIELD agents that killed my mentor, and I can just about feel her heartache.
I nurse my beer a bit more as the Russian Scientist steps up to the plate.
Dr. Maksim Sidorov tells me a bit more about his life in that thick Russian accent of his. He was a well-respected scientist who worked as a big-brain for the Stalingrad Science Conglomerate think tank during the 2020’s.
While researching areas of quantum physics no one had ever researched before – something far beneath the sub-atomic – he discovered the link between the particle science of quantum physics and the actual practices of the occulttech. He was, as far as he knows, the first man to definitively link science with sorcery.
And he was shunned by the Russian scientific community like he’d been skunk in heat. As he delved further into his science, totally obsessed with learning how to manipulate occulttechnology with technological means, his life fell to shit.
The think tank gave him a pink slip despite all the evidence he’d amassed about his theories. “Budget cutbacks” they’d told him, though no one else was feeling the corporate snip-snaps except for him and him alone. Obvious black sheep syndrome.
As his passion for the art surged, the arguments with his wife about his newfound discovery surged as well. In the end, she left him with nothing but a messy divorce and trashed memories of times long gone. The irony of the thing, he says to me, is that his wife’s name, Dina, translates to mean “faith”.
After twenty years of practicing in abandoned warehouses and slums, he was killed by a souped-up Sentinel robot during the Great Purge of the twenty-forties. His last memory – before his resurrection as a talking skull – was of how he missed his Dina, and how sorry he was that he’d never get her back.
“Man, you were alive back durin’ the Purge?” I ask him.
“Yes.” He says back to me.
“Howcum you never tol’ me?” I slur out through the whiskey and the rum and coke I downed half and hour ago.
“It is not a happy memory.” He says quietly.
The pain in his voice sobers me up for a very long moment. I nod silently.
Alejandro the Greater tells me his own short tale about his worst enemy, Viloxx the Contagion, wiping out his entire hometown with a whisper filled with plague. His voice bursts with his usual swagger and bombastic language, and I laugh until I hear the part about Viloxx killing him during the re-match. Even though the beast was banished to another dimension, Alejandro regrets not being able to bring the toxic bastard to justice.
Others come up to the plate with their own tales of heartache and woe. Their voices sound very, very far away from me. The room’s still spinning, and I put my head down every once in awhile to keep from tipping off my barstool. Regardless, I still hear their stories. I still feel the clench in my gut when they get to the end of them.
I’d had no idea, some of the heartache these guys and gals had gone through. No idea.
And yet, even as they chide me for not being grateful of the life still left in me, I remind them that I am still a multiple-murderer hundreds of times over. They execute people for that sort of thing.
“Doesn’t matter if it wassh n’accident,” the alcohol speaks for me. “I dun’t deserve to suck back breath after what I let happen there, in Paradise.”
I’m on the verge of tears, afraid I’ll start upchucking into my own beer mug.
And then I hear the one voice I haven’t heard all evening.
The Zen Master.
“Litany.” He says. “You are not the only one guilty of straying from the path.”
“What p-path…?” I ask.
“The Path to Enlightenment. The Path to Nirvana. The Path to Ultimate Truth and Understanding.”
“Nirvana...like th-the Cult of Nirvana? The music cult?”
“Nirvana has nothing to do with music.” He says to me very matter-of-factly. It makes me snicker. “Nirvana, is the attainment of ultimate enlightenment. Nirvana, is the end of all suffering. Buddhists believe that suffering is the way of life, and that only by living a noble, moderated life can we achieve this total end of suffering. Taking life, by accident or by design, is unconscionable to a Zen Buddhist.
“I was called Ma Jaio Xi. Many centuries ago I lived in a monastery in Eastern China high on a mountaintop with my fellow Buddhists. We lived in peace for many years in silent prayer and contemplation of the Noble Eightfold Path. In our quest for spiritual enlightenment and ultimate understanding, we immersed ourselves in the mystical and technomystical arts.
“During my meditation late one evening, I was touched by a black entity whose name I dare not speak aloud. It called to me, trying to tempt me into granting it access to this dimension. Naturally, I refused, sensing the harm it would try to do to others. It then tried to force its way in - through the mental link it had created with me.
“The…incantation…I used to push it back destroyed the monastery and those slumbering within it. The lives of everyone I knew were extinguished in an instant.
“It was my ignorance, my haste in using a spell which I did not fully understand, which led me to straying from my path. Just as your haste to use a spell which you did not fully understand, led you to straying from yours.”
He pauses and for a long moment, I’m left spellbound.
The Zen Master, whom I had thought knew just about everything about the craft, had made the same kind of mistake I made. Only his mistake cost him the lives of his dearest friends in the world. The lives of everyone he’d ever known.
I didn’t think anyone in the Bone Machine understood what I was going through. And the Zen Master, I wish I could pronounce his name, understood everything.
His actions ended up getting a hundred of his friends killed, and yet he never spent a second feeling sorry for himself.
Here I am, trying to drink away my sorrows.
“What c’n I do?” I ask him simply.
“You can resign yourself to fully study the craft of technomancy and learn everything you can about its secrets, so that you never again repeat the mistakes you made in ignorance. Just as I did centuries ago.”
“Why are you bothering to impart knowledge upon this dreadfully useless miscreant, Jaio Xi?” The harsh words scald my senses as I turn my blurry vision to one of the angrier skulls surrounding me. Her name’s Megan Forrester, British playwright-turned-technomantic. Oh, and by the way, she’s a bitch. “She’ll only let you down as she has that charming little city.”
“It was nothing but a mistake, allowing the girl access to our knowledge.” My head starts to spin as someone else, I think his name is Bartholomew the Elder, spits nothing but viciousness at my direction. “And even letting John Flanel take the reins of The Metal-Scream was a foolish proposition.”
“Don’tchu ever talk about John that way!” I burst out like an atom bomb, letting violent purple flames dance along my outstretched finger. Suddenly, the magic dies down all on its own as I collapse onto the countertop, the spinning of the room finally taking its toll. I let out a massive belch and feel a singing foulness trying to come back up from my stomach.
“Oh, is the girl speaking now? How mundane.” Megan the Bitch blurts out. I’d kill her if she wasn’t already dead.
“She’s. Drunk. Again.” The Triumvirate, a pair of triplets whose souls had accidentally been merged together into one Siamese horror-show, says in a sort of unison, the pitch of their voices changing with each word. I’ve had nightmares less disturbing than this. “She. Feels. Guilty. For. The. Death. Of. Paradise. City. As. She. Should. Her. Place. Is. Not. With. The. Machine.”
“Wholly agreed.” Megan, Queen of the Bitches, grumbles.
I want to fight back, I really do. But I’m barely conscious as it is. I can’t fight back. Not yet.
But that’s not the worst of it.
It’s the nagging feeling I’m getting in my gut – other than the alcohol stewing. It’s the feeling that keeps saying…
--what if they’re right?
What if I don’t deserve the Machine?
What if the world’s better off without Litany Kirkpatrick in the Metalscream seat?
Then, the last person in the world I’d ever expect springs to my defense.
“First of all, you shmucks, Paradise City was a really screwed up place. You remember how they tried to kill a guy for using techno-magic? Kirkpatrick was just trying to save his life.” The football coach fights back. For once in my life, I’m glad he’s a crazy, testosterone-dependent freak.
“Oh, that man was using magic on them without their consent, you brute.” Queen Bitch yawns with her bleached mandible. “The little man was hardly innocent of any wrongdoing.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think he deserved to die, do you?” The football coach growls. “Could’a been you they were trying to stone.”
“Regardless. The. Sleep. Spell. Was. Mis-applied. And. A. City. Of. Innocents. Died. We. Should. Wait. Until. Litany. Expires. To. Find. A. More. Worthy. Host.”
“Have you never made a mistake before?” Renee, the Voodoo Priestess, counters. The Triumvirate shifts its skulls around uncomfortably, glowing pink and red before returning to their natural goldenrod glows.
“Of. Course. We. Have. However. None. As. Evil. As. Her. Destruction. Of. The. City.”
“Surely, she deserves a second chance?”
“Pish-posh. Of course not.” Megan says in that condescending tone of hers. “And don’t call her Shirley.”
“You are wrong.” That powerful Russian accent. Dr. Sidorov. So glad to hear it. “Everyone deserves a second chance. The girl has learned her lesson. She will rise to the challenge. You’ll see.”
“All I see is a simpering drunk ready to die of alcohol poisoning.” Megan says.
They all go at it for a time. I lay there, on the counter, listening to the dead men and women arguing over me. I hear the laundry-list of charges that the Triumvirate, Megan the Bitch, Barty-Bart and others bring upon me. But more importantly, I hear the coach, the priestess, and the scientist arguing passionately on my behalf.
I never knew how glad I’d be to have them in my corner.
I crack a smile.
Thank you so much, you guys.
Eventually, the arguments die down. The opposing camp knows it’s been defeated. Tail tucked between their legs, they skirt off never admitting outright that they’d been beaten. Seems I’ve gotten a bit of a reprieve. Seems the consensus says I’m worthy of a second chance after all, despite what’s happened.
By this time, I’m feeling much better. Emptying the contents of my stomach into a wastebasket helped a lot. Even the wobbling phase is over, now.
I smile and talk with the more reasonable members of the Bone Machine about the intricacies of the technomantic art. We stay up late into the night discussing some of the things I can do to hone my craft, and keep another Paradise from ever happening again.
But the time comes when I can’t procrastinate it any longer. I’ve gotta get some sleep.
I think up something light to end the night with: Mike’s Hard Cocoa. A modest mixture of light beer molecularly-bonded to a steaming cup of hot cocoa. I toast to the Machine.
And as I do, I swear I can see the others sitting around the bar back in their original bodies, toasting back at me.
Kenneth Montgomery, the golden-haired pack of muscle they called a football coach back in the day. Sitting in his parka with a whistle ‘round his neck, toasting back to me with a bottle of Yuengling. I nod at him, returning the gesture gladly.
Renee Girard, the Voodoo Priestess. An older-woman clad in her silk robes and ceremonial necklaces. She toasts a cup of wine with a sweet smile and eyes that shine with wisdom. I mirror her gesture and return the grin.
Dr. Maksim Sidorov, the scientist, with his ashen gray hair and the beard hidden behind a red scarf and a black overcoat. He toasts a shining cup of premium Vodka at me, and I toast right back.
May Chiao…Mai Xiou…uh, the Zen Master. As a Buddhist, his beliefs go against the imbibing of mind-altering substances, and unfortunately this includes alcohol. He’s standing off to the side, near the corner of the Nerve Centre, smile thin and wide, clad in fine sixteenth-century robes. He nods his head while keeping his kind, knowing eyes on me. I smile sweetly at him and toast my cup in his direction.
Alejandro the Greater, the boastful, the prideful. He grabs a cup of mead and toasts it to me, gesturing his arms out to the entirety of the Dream Zone, a reminder of how he was responsible for finding this place in the first place. Silent bragging of course, but I expect as much from him. With a wink, I toast my cup.
Perhaps all I’m seeing is five sets of drunken hallucinations, and that I’m alone at the mini-bar.
Or perhaps these phantoms at the bar are tricks of the light, brought on at the intersection between the bizarre neon blue overhead lighting I’ve got wired to the Nerve Centre of my mansion and the deep navy shadows that surround the stools at the bar.
Or, perhaps they are alive again. Perhaps in the sharing of our separate pains, we helped bring about new life within each of us, literal or otherwise. Perhaps they are all reborn, in this bizarre Dream Dimension in which they find themselves, minus the fractures on their souls which have held them in bondage all those years. Perhaps they, like I, are now free.
But their disembodied skulls still encircle me with that burning yellow aura the Bone Machine emits – they’re not alive.
Then again, they’re not exactly dead either.
All five of us down our poisons at once. As the liquid cascades down my throat, it is no longer the first depressing step on the road to drunken escape – rather it is a promise of a new beginning.