Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking for the writing of D.A. Madigan?

Here you go:





ENDGAME When Webster Madison awakens at the far end of the universe in the super powered fantasy body he'd always wished he had, he was thrilled... until he learned that the price for his power would be his participation in a deadly alien game that could cost him not only his new avatar-form, but also his sanity, or even his life.

Now Webster and thirty other transformed roleplaying gamers from Earth find themselves enmeshed as living chess pieces in a contest whose rules they cannot comprehend, and where every move can result in sudden, horrible, grisly death, while the alien overlords responsible for their transformations test their new champions, often to destruction.

Those transformed human champions who survive these trials will be sent on a mysterious mission even more hazardous than the game itself, with an enormous reward waiting at the end for those who finally win through. Or so they are all told... but Webster suspects that in a world where no one is what they appear to be, nothing they have been told is the truth, either... and if he cannot somehow determine actuality from illusion in this dangerous labyrinth of perilous power, neither Webster nor any of his fellow super powered pawns will make it through to the ENDGAME...

For an exciting excerpt from D.A. Madigan's ENDGAME, click here!


EARTHQUEST When Webster Madison, Hired Gun is dumped at the other end of the galaxy from Earth by treacherous aliens, he must fight his way back home across the hostile stars. Hijacking a ship full of slaves, he successfully leads the human cargo in rebellion against the crew and embarks on a career as an interstellar buccaneer and liberator of the oppressed.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Sam Curtis is using his newly found superpowers to reshape the world in his own twisted image. Should Webster somehow manage to set foot once more on his native planet, he will find himself walking into a deadly trap elaborately planned and set by his deadliest foe...

For an exciting excerpt from EARTHQUEST by D.A. Madigan, click here!

THE FEAR MASTERS In the late 21st Century, the Global Union has mostly united mankind and brought lasting peace to the surface of the Earth... until the dead start rising from their graves to attack the living. Across the globe, panic and terror cause chaos to erupt, civilization to crumble, and humanity itself to totter on the very brink of extinction.

Only three members of the Global Union's top secret Science Sector have any inkling of what is actually going on. Now they must undertake a perilous journey into the airless depths of outer space and beyond the borders of death itself in a last ditch attempt to save humanity from the evil alien Fear Masters that seek our utter, final destruction.

Can two tough as nails secret agents and a beautiful, brilliant super-scientist 'git 'er done'?

For an exciting excerpt from THE FEAR MASTERS by D.A. Madigan, click here!


TIME WATCH When Jim, a thirty something bachelor geek with no life outside the pages of his favorite SF books, comes across a wrist watch that allows him to travel in time, he immediately sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream by traveling through time to assemble the greatest collection of mint condition Silver Age superhero comics in human history.

But in the future, the secret agency known as Time Watch isn't pleased that one of their devices has fallen into the hands of an outsider, and they are ready, willing, able, and eager to do whatever it takes, up to an including kill Jim, to get their watch back.

As Jim flees from his pursuers across time and space, he quickly realizes that he may well be the human race's only hope for avoiding extinction at the hands of the insidious alien intelligence that wants humanity, ALL of humanity, dead... and Jim is now the only living human being who knows the truth.

Armed only with his wits, his time watch, and the aid of a beautiful female personal computer from the 22nd Century, Jim must avoid his pursuers and somehow thwart the genocidal agenda of an ancient, immortal, unearthly collective mind that seeks to bring all human history to a most final termination.

For an exciting excerpt from TIME WATCH by D.A. Madigan, click here!

WARREN'S WORLD It's 1983 in New Sparta, NY, and Warren Dawson is beloved by everyone... his friends, his family, even random strangers on the street. Everybody loves Warren and wants to make him happy. The TVs only show his favorite programs, the radios only play his favorite songs, the movie theaters always have his favorite movies. And, naturally, all the women are beautiful, and all of them love Warren unreservedly and uninhibitedly...

When Warren's best friend Jimmy starts to notice just how strange the reality he and all his friends inhabit truly is, he becomes a threat to the odd, timelost Utopia that Warren has so carefully constructed around them all.

Which sets the stage for a final, epic battle between Warren Dawson and his closest friends. Utilizing powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, Jimmy and his buddies must go to war with a man who would be God, to settle the final fate of the entire human race... and every living inhabitant of WARREN'S WORLD...

For an exciting excerpt from WARREN'S WORLD by D.A. Madigan, click here!



ZAP FORCE Welcome to Sparta City, circa 1995, where seven super-powered teenagers fight for their lives and their freedom against covert cabals of ancient, evil immortals who yearn to outfit them all with high tech alien mind control slave collars – or low tech earthly bodybags, whichever works.

Yes, here in Sparta City, it’s the neurotically networked 90s as they never really were, a time and a place when centuries old evildoers scheme, conspire, machinate and manipulate, while teenage superheroes leap, flip in midair, hurl lightning bolts, cast illusions, punch, kick, fly at supersonic speeds, kick ass, take names, and generally blow stuff up real good.

Seven stalwart students at Sparta University, inadvertently given unique and insane ultrapowers by an exotic on-campus psychology experiment gone horribly awry, and now avidly sought after as super-powered slaves by every other secret super society on the planet -- this is Zap Force. And this is their story.

For an exciting excerpt from ZAP FORCE: ROYAL BLOOD by D.A. Madigan, click here!



UNIVERSAL MAINTENANCE When Dean Nydecker is asked to become a Universal Agent and help save humanity across the Multiverse, he jumps at the chance and instantly finds himself over his head and out of his depth, inundated in more outrageous action, otherworldly adventure, and inter-dimensional intrigue than he could shake a Tech Level 30 plasma rifle at!

Genetically optimized and mentally inducted with dozens of useful skills, Dean should easily be equal to his first assignment-a seemingly simple mission to recover the ka-pod of a deceased fellow agent.

But nothing is what it seems, either on the seemingly backwards Earth Dean is dispatched to, or within the ranks of Universal Maintenance itself. It will take everything Dean has, all his new abilities combined with his own native wits and courage, to emerge alive from the baffling and lethal labyrinth that is Universal Maintenance style office politics.


For an exciting excerpt from UNIVERSAL MAINTENANCE by D.A. Madigan, click here!

...IN THE EARLY MORNING RAIN

Not a novel, not a dream, not an imaginary story, but instead, the sad sad tale of what happens when the Least Militarily Inclined Geek In The Universe goes briefly insane and signs up for Army Basic Training! See how I, and everyone else in my training company, had to suffer...





For an excerpt from IN THE EARLY MORNING RAIN by D.A. Madigan, click here!


Don't have a Kindle, but want to enjoy the work of D.A. Madigan from the comfort of your own computerized device? Just click on that PayPal link and send $5 per novel to docnebula01@juno.com, along with a message specifying which novels you are ordering, the format you'd like them in, and the email address to send them to, and you'll receive your very own electronic copy within 24 hours of the payment processing!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

IN THE EARLY MORNING RAIN (excerpt)

IN THE EARLY MORNING RAIN:

A Military Memoir By The Worst Infantry Trainee In The History of Mankind

INTRODUCTION:

I can't, right now, remember my arrival at Fort Benning, GA in March of 1985 for Infantry Basic Training. I had been recruited by the Army National Guard unit in Syracuse, NY, although my lack of aptitude for or proficiency at anything vaguely military was phenomenal. And I should have known better. But at that point in my life, I felt at a dead end, unappreciated, and was chafing for some vast, transformational experience that would kickstart my existence and help me move toward some more fulfilling destiny, and I guess I figured what the hell. The military had been a vital, life altering crucible for many before me, and I seemed to be otherwise trapped, so why not?

I'd find out why not.

Still, as I say, I can't remember actually arriving at Benning. I remember bits and pieces of the plane rides down there, of the Atlanta airport, and I remember quite well the first barracks I was put up in, with a bunch of other equally uneasy new recruits, still in our civilian clothes and civilian haircuts, thinking that the way the reception sergeant had chivvied and herded us around that afternoon and evening was kind of brusque and rude, and wondering how much worse it would get. Wondering if this would, indeed, be some major turning point for my life, or just turn out to be a prodigious, incomprehensible mistake.

I believe, the morning of that first full day there, they actually got us up at six a.m. I'm sure that whenever they got us up, other guys in my intake group grumbled about it being too early, and I wasn't thrilled about it, either, but even then, I was pretty sure that actually being allowed to sleep until six a.m. wasn't something we should get used to.

I clearly remember how quickly hierarchies seemed to be set up in the process... not just regarding the actual rank structure, but how fine and distinct the gradations between intake groups immediately became. Guys who were three days or so ahead of us, but who already had their uniforms and equipment and Army haircuts, seemed infinitely more experienced and knowledgeable in the lore of the system than I did. (This was to remain a constant throughout my training, as I would infrequently come into contact with training groups farther along in their cycles than I was, and to me, they always seemed like ancient, weary veterans, sophisticated and informed by a dreadfully won acumen of just how things worked, footsore and world weary travelers of a dreadful road that still lay before me, and that I myself would inevitably have to traverse myself, whether I wanted to or not.)

In fact, it's worth noting at this point that one's 'willingness' to be in the military is really only valid as a moral argument, once one arrives and military indoctrination begins. Sure, there is no draft and we were all volunteers. Yet we were all also, nearly to a man, completely unaware of the realities of what we were getting into when we signed that piece of paper and took that oath. We'd seen a few movies at that point and thought we understood, if only vaguely, the mysteries of drill and discipline. We felt we had a grasp on what would be expected of us, and obviously, we all felt we could handle it; we all knew other guys, whom we considered peers, who had gone through it and survived.

And none of us, not one, had even the slightest real idea what we would be going through, and none of us, not one, would have stayed past the first week of real Basic Training if we'd been allowed to quit.

(When I say 'none of us', I am exercising a deliberate poetry, because in point of fact, there was one fellow in my intake group who knew more or less exactly what he was in for, because he had deserted from the Marines, and for some idiotic reason, had joined the Army under a false name, perhaps thinking he wouldn't get caught and could have a chance to start over. He honestly seemed to like the military, or at least, he seemed to prefer it to whatever else he'd had. It took them a few weeks to process his fingerprints, but eventually, they figured out who he was and took him away. As with anything else in the military, though, it happened inefficiently, and he was under company arrest and assigned to work details and CQ duty for a few weeks before they finally came and got him. On one occasion, when I was doing my laundry, I overheard him talking to another guy, and I remember him saying plaintively "Yeah, I don't know what guys complain about. This isn't that bad." For me, it was plenty bad, and going to get worse, but still, it was a relief to hear someone say that.)

'Volunteering' for the military, for the vast majority, is an act of utter ignorance, encouraged by recruiters with quotas who are very aware that if they tell you what you're really in for (systematic anti-humanistic degradation and humiliation designed to break down most overt, learned behaviors, and virtually all sense of individual identity not connected with your military unit, in order to replace them with the sort of ingrained discipline necessary to turn the product of a civilized society into, not simply a killer, but a trained, focused killer who would, hopefully, kill only on command and in the 'appropriate' context), you won't sign up. The system is equally aware that the vast majority of young sheep herded into it by recruiters want no actual part of the actual military; therefore, they make it extraordinarily difficult to back out of what you will have, almost as a matter of course, foolishly and unwisely decided to embark on, and will quickly come to see as a colossal error in judgement.

And so it was that, played like a violin by a maestro of a recruiter, I found myself in a barracks in Georgia, still in my civilian clothes, bemused by the thought that military food wasn't really as bad as I'd been led to believe and awed by guys a few days further along in their own cycles, who already had the uniforms, the equipment, and the haircuts. Although they knew barely more than I did (the couple I'd seen around the induction barracks were, at that point, waiting a few days to be assigned to a training company) they seemed nearly lordly in their apparently far greater experience.

However, the military moves fast, except when it doesn't move at all, and before the end of that first full day, we'd all been crammed into a bus and taken off for mass inoculations. While being moved around, our induction sergeant tried to instill in us a little basic sense of marching and formation, but without any of the murderous, vicious haranguing, verbal abuse, and quick disciplining through push ups and other humiliating physical tortures that would be used to enforce obedience and punish errors once we arrived at our training platoon. I tried to listen, and when it seemed tolerated, to ask questions, as I was feeling desperately insecure and grasping after any kind of reassurance that additional knowledge might have brought me. However, everyone who might actually know something about what was in store for me was vague, which I found maddening at the time, but looking back now, can see simply came from the fact that I had no vocabulary in common with the people I was asking my questions of. They couldn't tell me what it would be like in any adequate way; you could only really describe it to someone who had been there... or at least, that would have been the problem of the average non-articulate Army soldier. Clearly, I hope to do better.

There was also the fact that, even had anyone described clearly what I was in for, it would only have scared the shit out of me. Much later on, while my company was running through a particular obstacle course on a rather swampy, muddy training range, one of the drill sergeants (not one of my platoon's) who had generally shown himself to be comparatively friendly and accessible, and who apparently chose that moment to resent the fact that many of the recruits in his platoon seemed to perceive him that way, dropped everyone in his eyeshot, in ankle deep mud, for an apparently endless series of pushups. "You people seem to have mistaken me for someone who cares about you," he bellowed out over the chaotic, bobbing, panting array of shoulders, helmets, and asses in mucky camouflage. "I'm not your mama. I don't love you."

That attitude is a typical one, or at least, it was, when I went through Army Infantry Basic Training. It's obviously and honestly not true, of course. Most drill sergeants are relatively decent human beings and, just as in the movies, they do tend to form some sort of bond with their recruits. It's human, and you can't help it. (Some drill sergeants, on the other hand, are genuine sonsofbitches and a few are out and out psychotics, but in my experience, they're in the minority.) However, they're taught to act cold and uncaring, so that when they threaten you with imminent bodily harm, curse at you, tell you you're worthless, and act as if they're about to kill you with their bare hands, you'll believe it, and be motivated by their scorn, and their anger, and their contempt.

Beyond that, being a drill sergeant means being cruel, and for most human beings, cruelty is part of our nature. Compassion, empathy, kindness, consideration... the notion that other people have feelings too that are just as important as ours... these are things that seem to be, for the most part, learned social responses and behaviors. Babies don't feel them, and a child who isn't taught to feel love and gentleness and kindness fairly early often won't learn at all. On the other hand, no one seems to need to teach even the youngest kids to be cruel and mean; that seems to be something that simply comes naturally. I suppose this is all a product of the essential and inescapable solitude and loneliness of the individual human condition, but whatever the case may be, the vast majority of human beings have cruelty and mean spiritedness somewhere within them... and when one is a drill sergeant, one is not merely allowed, but actually encouraged, to be an utterly evil prick. In fact, one is told that in this particular context, being an utterly evil prick is more than simply one's job, but one's duty, and that in fact, by being an utterly evil prick, one is not only serving the abstract concept of one's country and one's military branch, but you're also actually helping the poor schmucks you're being a complete bastard to.

I mean, you can't beat that deal with a stick... you get to be a total asswipe, all day, every day, to a bunch of hapless twits who are utterly dependent on you... and you get to feel proud of yourself for it, too.

The best drill sergeants I knew... Sgt. Dennis, Sgt. Aguirre, Sgt. Lozano... seemed to be able to rise above it, and although they certainly simulated uncaring brutality well, there was an ephemeral line I felt they never crossed, and I never got the feeling that they truly relished and reveled in their power to humiliate and their authority to degrade. Deep down inside them, I felt, they still retained a certain respect for the innate humanity and dignity of their charges. They did what they had to do, and I'm sure they felt justified in doing it; I have no doubt they thought it was their duty, and would someday even save the lives of some of the men they trained.

I'm sure the worst drill sergeants I saw there... Sgt. Robbins, a truly vicious prick in Fourth Platoon named Sgt. Collins, and others whose names I can't remember right now... told themselves the same things. But those guys also undeniably enjoyed their authority and they liked making people crawl in a way that Dennis, Aguirre, Lozano, and most likely Sgt. Laffey, our company's Senior Drill Sergeant, and Captain Lambert, our Company Commander, simply didn't have in them.

Yet enjoy it or not, a drill sergeants job was to establish and keep authority through brutality, an utter lack of empathy, and a constantly maintained façade of ferocious contempt and vitriolic hostility. In some, the façade was thinner than in others, but they all had to do it, and would do it, and did do it... otherwise, they wouldn't have been there.

All of which means that, if any induction sergeant early on in the process had had the capacity to clearly articulate what lay ahead for the group of saps and chumps he was in charge of for a few days of outfitting and initial orientation, he still most likely wouldn't... for the good and simple reason that it's terrifying. Basic Training is at its most fundamental level a season in hell, and a primary element of that hellish experience lies in the fact that the authority figures you are given no choice but to rely upon expend an enormous amount of energy behaving as if they not only don't care about you, but on many occasions, actually despise you and would like nothing better than to see you suffering or dead. And some of them mean it, too.

Much later, Sgt. Aguirre, who was a drill sergeant for Third Platoon, after I'd been through weeks of training, would confide to me in an off guard moment, "There's a reason for everything we do". While I doubt that that's true... or if there is, the reasons are things most drill sergeants don't even know... I'm sure that there is indeed a reason why drill sergeants are trained to behave at all times as if the only emotions they feel for the confused young men suddenly thrust into their care are scorn and disgust. In fact, I'm sure there are many reasons, some of which I've already mentioned. Nonetheless, it's a terrifying thing, to suddenly find yourself in an utterly alien place, surrounded by people you don't know, and where the authority figure you are forced to trust and rely on tells you every day, through explicit words and implicit behavior, that he thinks you're worthless and wishes you were dead.

To me, memory is rarely a linear thing for very long, but generally functions as an associative mosaic. Therefore, since I don't have anything like a journal from this time period, and have mercifully forgotten many details of my Basic Training, this account of my season in hell, undergoing Army Infantry Basic Training as a member of Second Platoon, Company C, Sixth Battalion, First Infantry Training Brigade, at Fort Benning, GA, will be meandering and disjointed, as I move from one topic to another, writing everything interesting I can think of on each. That's how I remember my time there; as a patchwork quilt of vivid images and emotional snapshots, and as a seemingly endless, suffocating nightmare. Hopefully, I'll be able to convey at least the essence of the experience to any readers this account may one day have.

One last note: the Army experience does not so much embrace profanity and vulgarity as it is simply immersed completely in it; words like 'fuck' and 'shit' and 'goddam' and various sexually charged insults like 'cocksucker' and 'motherfucker' are as inescapable in nearly every spoken sentence in Basic Training as they are in any fifth grade public school boy's lavatory. Therefore, I've chosen to include such language in this account. There may be members of my potential audience who will be shocked and even offended by this. If so, don't read any further.

Universal Maintenance (excerpt)

WORLD 214, SYRACUSE, NEW YORK

Dean glanced at his watch; like everything else about him, it was cheap, shabby, and in need of a good cleaning. Dean had bought it for $30 five years before; he'd had to have the battery changed twice and the crystal replaced once since then. The current crystal was almost too scratched to see through; it was probably getting along towards time for a new one- but Dean could still make out what time it was if he tried, and to Dean, function was far more important than style. Not to mention the fact that the five dollars he'd spend having a new crystal put on could be far better spent at a bookstore or in a movie theater.

It was ten minutes of three in the afternoon. Dean's appointment was at three; as always when he had an appointment, he had left his apartment a good 40 minutes early. Partof this was because Dean had a horror of being late; he was always convinced that, if he showed up even a minute after he had agreed to, people would leave without him, or, at the very least, refuse to see him. The other part was boredom; Dean had put off leaving for as long as he could, but finally, simply couldn't make himself sit around the apartment waiting any more.

Well, he supposed they'd have a waiting room upstairs. Besides, being early was usually something that impressed a prospective employer... or so Dean had read, anyway.

And then, there was Ms. Neumann. She had one of the world's sexiest phone voices; Dean was more than a little curious as to how well her appearance measured up to it. Of course, Dean told himself ruefully, nobody sounds fat over the phone... and he'd had several experiences with telephone dating services to prove it. Although, to be fair, some of the women involved could well have said the same thing about him.

At the thought of Ms. Neumann, Dean shifted uncomfortably. He'd been uncertain of just what kind of dress was expected for this interview, and had been too shy to ask on the phone... after all, weren't real professionals simply supposed to know these things? Dean often felt that he'd missed an essential class in high school in which several Important Things About Adult Life had been taught. Other people always seemed to know these things; Dean felt like an idiot for asking about them. Finally, he'd taken out a decent pair of slacks and an okay blue office shirt. He'd considered a tie, and decided against it; Dean's general rule was, when in doubt, ditch the tie. The same rule applied to dress shoes; Dean's one pair was from his Army dress uniform. They shone like black mirrors, but were godawful uncomfortable. Dean settled for a pair of black sneakers, reasoning that most of his temporary bosses over the past several years had never noticed them, so why should these people?

Dean had worried about the blue shirt; for interviews, he'd heard, one should generally dress as conservatively as possible, which meant, for men, a white shirt. But Dean knew that white shirts made him look even fatter than he was, and the tone of the recruitment letter had been pretty informal... Dean decided to go with the blue, which at least wouldn't accentuate his surplus poundage.

Dean opened the front door and went in.

Ten minutes later, Dean found himself sitting in a wonderfully comfortable chair in a brightly lit conference room with an opened can of Coke II on the gorgeous walnut table in front of him. The table had - five, six, seven - eight chairs around it, four on either side, all of them as sumptious and comfortable in appearance as Dean's. He'd been met as soon as he opened the door into Suite 600 by a startlingly attractive woman, faintly Oriental in appearance, who'd pleasantly introduced herself as Celeste Neumann, Regional Field Recruiter. She'd welcomed him by name, shaken his hand warmly, and then taken his arm lightly and guided him through the front office and into this room, where she'd told him to please be comfortable; Martin Zwingli would be with him immediately. Then she'd asked him if he'd like anything to drink, and brought him the can of Coke II within seconds of his asking for it. Dean's head was whirling with new images.

Although Celeste had moved him very quickly (albeit with no outward signs of haste) through the front office, Dean had still caught a glimpse of a desk that had been loaded down with state of the art computer equipment. He wasn't sure, but he thought he'd spotted a bulky cubical device in one corner that looked for all the world like a sophisticated photocopier with a fax attachment on the top. Celeste's perfume had been delightfully distracting. Dean couldn't help noticing, as she walked beside him, the way her shining reddish-black hair had been piled up on top of her head. Dean idly wondered just how long it would fall on her when let down, and wistfully wished he could find out.

A door across the room - not the one Dean had been ushered in by - opened, and a man whom Dean immediately assumed must be Martin Zwingli came through it. His hands were empty, which Dean found surprising, but then realized he'd probably have Celeste bring in anything he needed - although, on the other hand, Dean had somehow got the distinct impression that Celeste was a great deal more than a simple receptionist-secretary.

The man came around the table and extended his hand. "Martin Zwingli, Executive Field Recruiter for Universal Maintenance. I'm very pleased you could come, Mr. Nydecker."

Dean clumsily stood up, put the Coke can down, and shook hands. Zwingli's grip was very firm, and his hands were completely dry, as opposed to Dean's, which were coated with nervous sweat and condensation from the cold soda can. "Dean Nydecker," he stammered. "It wasn't - I mean, it was no problem to come. I mean..."

Martin let go of his hand and walked around to the other side of the table. "Yes, Mr. Nydecker," he said, pulling out a chair and sitting down, "we understand you are currently...ah... between employment opportunities, as it were. Although, in all honesty, I'd like to think that we'd still be having this meeting even if you currently had regular employment." Zwingli phrased himself in a way that made Dean expect a fruity British accent, but his speech was actually utterly uninflected.

"Well..." Dean wasn't sure what to say, so instead he busied himself sitting back down, pulling his chair up to the table, picking up the Coke can again, and then nervously replacing it on the table.

"Your letter was - interesting. I mean, sure, I'd have probably..." He trailed off uncertainly.

Zwingli looked at Dean with bright appraisal over the table. Dean, not having anything else to do, took another sip from the Coke can and looked back at him over it.

Zwingli is a short man; shorter than Dean, who at five foot ten inches is exactly average height for his time and culture. Zwingli is very dark, dark enough to be Hispanic, although his other features do not suggest this. His hair is a deep brown, worn straight with a part on the left in a very short, almost military cut. His features are sharp; a pointed nose and jutting cheekbones give him a very alert, almost hawklike air. His eyes are a light, metallic blue, and his ears are very flat to his head, so much so that even his short hair cuts off any view of them when his face is looked at directly from the front. His chin is outthrust and comes to a blunt point. For that meeting, he was wearing a business suit of some light blue shiny material. There was something odd about the cut of it, but Dean had never paid much attention to men's fashions. Something about the lapels, maybe...

For his part, Zwingli saw a male Caucasian with very bland, nondescript facial features. Dean at that time was wearing a full beard; he'd put on so much weight over the past two years that his face had gotten unpleasantly chubby, and the beard helped disguise that. Dean was then almost 60 pounds over his best weight, and had pretty much given up on trying to lose any of it... Dean hated exercise, and dieting would have meant living without virtually every food Dean found to be worth eating, especially pepperoni pizza. Dean had brown hair of an indeterminate shade; his beard was slightly darker, with flecks of red in it. Dean's normal posture, when he was alone, was a sprawled, comfortable bonelessness; at that meeting, however, he had assumed the stance more normal to him at that time when he knew he was being observed, a hunched, slopeshouldered, much more protective position.

Finally, Dean replaced the soda can on the polished tabletop and smiled nervously. "So," he said, "I guess from your letter that you guys want me to smuggle drugs?"

Zwingli stared at Dean for a moment. His face was expressionless, but Dean had the feeling he was dumbfounded.

After a few seconds, Dean said, "That was a joke."

Martin looked visibly relieved. "Ah," he said. "Yes. Celeste told me you have quite a sense of humor." He shook his head slightly. "I'm afraid... well, I thought that perhaps I might have actually, in some way, implied, in my letter..."

"Oh, no," Dean said, feeling much better for having managed to somehow take the initiative in the conversation. "No, there wasn't anything like that. Although, I have to say, I'm utterly bewildered as to exactly what you want... I mean, what it is you people do here."

"Well!" Martin exclaimed, smiling broadly. Dean could tell he was relieved to be back on familiar ground. No sense of humor at all, Dean reflected sadly. "Well, yes, Mr. Nydecker."

"Please," Dean said, feeling somewhat more sure of himself, "call me Dean."

"Ah!" Martin looked delighted. "And you must call me Martin. Now, then. As to what Universal Maintenance does. Well. That will take some explaining."

Here comes the sales pitch, Dean thought ruefully to himself.

"It would be best," Martin said, "to show you, rather than tell you." He raised his voice slightly, and spoke a phrase Dean didn't understand. The lights in the room immediately dimmed; a second later, a softly glowing object appeared, floating above the center of the table.

Dean started back in his chair and looked around. He couldn't see any sort of projecting apparatus; nor, for that matter, were there any apertures in the walls for an image to be projected from. And, in any case, there was no screen - the image, object, whatever, was just hovering there, giving off a soft, silvery luminescence.

"It's a three dimensional image, Dean," Martin said, rather patronizingly. "We use them as a visual aid."

Dean looked at him. "I've never seen anything like it before," he replied. "What do you use, lasers?"

Martin smiled, again, very patronizingly. "It's a technology I'm sure you're not acquainted with. It... well, think of it as a sort of projected computer animation."

Dean wasn't at all sure he liked the tone in Zwingli's voice, but what the hell; this was getting interesting. He looked at the image. It appeared to be a cluster of silvery, glowing spheres, of varying sizes, although none were more than, say, four times larger than anyother. They looked for all the world like a huge bunch of grapes, although there seemed to be nothing connecting them... no, that wasn't quite true. When Dean looked closely, he could see that the spheres all touched each other slightly; their outer hemispheres intersected. There were an uncountable number of spheres in the cluster.

Martin solemnly intoned, "There are 12,843 Earths. And none of them are real."

Dean dragged his eyes away from the image and stared at Martin across the table. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Martin looked taken aback. "It's a standard opening to my orientation lecture. It - I mean, I had a very good copywriter... It's always been very effective. Most people find it dramatic and intriguing."

Dean snorted expressively. "It sounds silly. Twelve thousand, eight hundred and something Earths, and none of them are real? And then you tell me you're Napoleon, right?"

Martin half closed his eyes. "Napoleon..." he murmured. His eyes opened. "Oh, yes... a famous historical military figure, commonly associated with psychological disfunctions having to do with personal identity." He paused, then looked angry as the meaning of Dean's remark sank in. "No, of course not. I'm not even from this Earth. Why would I think I'm Napoleon?"

Dean's face went blank. Now, if he were a sensible person, this would be the point where he excused himself and left. Quickly. Shouting "Help! Loons! Dangerous babbling loons! Help!" as soon as he was outside.

But he'd never claimed to be all that sensible.

"So," he said, trying to sound casual, "which Earth are you from, Martin?"

This was definitely getting interesting...

Martin, with an obvious effort, regained his composure. He spoke another phrase Dean couldn't understand. One of the spheres in the image began to glow a soft metallic pink.

"I," Martin said stiffly, "am from that Earth." He spoke another nonsense phrase. Halfway across the floating cluster, another, rather smaller, sphere began to glow, this time a crisp powder blue. "That," he said, somewhat more calmly, "is the Earth we are on now - your native world. Which we designate as World 214."

Dean nodded, his mouth puckered into an understanding moue. "Mmmmm. Very nice." This guy was definitely out there in the Twilight Zone somewhere, but it was certainly an interesting psychosis. And the special effects were great. "What number is your world, Martin?"

"My native world's number is 8437," Martin replied, sitting back and making a visible effort to relax. "Not that it matters, for purposes of this discussion. Now..."

Dean interrupted. "Your world is bigger than mine," he pointed out, gesturing with a cocked index finger and thumb in a way reminiscent of a child playing gunslinger. "Is that why it has a higher number? And what does the size mean... is your Earth really, actually, larger than my Earth?"

Martin looked bewildered. "Well, the relative numbers are assigned sequentially, by the - mechanisms - that hold everything in... well... in sequence. As for the sizes - our Earths are the same size; in fact, they're geographically very similar, although in social and cultural detail, they are quite different. Nonetheless, your universe is considerably smaller than mine."

At that, Dean looked impressed. "No kidding? What, this universe has only sixty bazillion galaxies, and yours has, say, seventy bazillion?"

Martin looked rather annoyed. "Your universe," he said, somewhat snidely, "doesn't have ANY galaxies. Your universe stops about half a light year outside the orbit of theplanet you people call Pluto. My universe, as you say, contains many, many galaxies;" - Dean could almost see Martin shuddering as he consciously refrained from repeating the word 'bazillions' - "yours contains nothing but this small solar system. The remainder of the heavens that you people see are just artificially projected images."

It would have been a staggering concept, if Dean hadn't already come across it in Behind The Walls of Terra. Still, he thought about it for a long moment. "Okay. What did you mean when you said that none of these universes is real?"

Martin smiled again, obviously happy to have returned to his previous theme. "Very well. Um... yes. There was only one natural universe, one primal, quantum, timeline. Singular and grand, one unified focus of ordered, structured reality cut through the chaos of probability and uncertainty like -"

A searchlight slicing through the fog, Dean mentally finished.

" - a beam of coherent photons, slicing through a foggy night," Martin exclaimed. "Untold epochs ago... millions, perhaps billions of years ago - a race arose to sentience in this primal, quantum, singular timeline. They were the first. They were the finest. They were alone, and unafraid, and undaunted by the huge, empty continuum that swept off to infinity around them. They mastered the laws of their universe to a degree that you, and even I, would find incomprehensible. They -" Martin was rolling his eyes now, and gesturing grandly with his hands, and Dean was having a hard time controlling his laughter. But at that, he had to interrupt.

"'You, and even I?'"

Martin ignored him. "They learned the secret of instantaneous travel, and explored the entire length and breadth of their universe."

Dean sighed and said, "If their universe swept off to infinity all around them, how could they explore the entire length and breadth of it? I mean, it would just keep going..."

Dean wasn't sure, but he suspected Martin's face was getting a bit darker. "Never mind," Martin said in a dangerously low tone. "They just did. They explored the whole universe, and found no other sentient life forms."

Dean frowned melodramatically and held up one hand, forefinger extended, as if spearing one particular aspect of Martin's words. Martin sighed and gestured him to speak.

"So, were these Prime Timer guys -"

Martin gasped in apparent horror. "They are known," he intoned, rather stuffily, Dean thought, "as the Primal Ones."

"I'll just bet they are," Dean replied briskly. "So, these Prime Timers - were they, like, lizard guys, or floating ameoba people, or disembodied energy critters, or horrible slimy multitentacled abominations from the outer dark, or what?"

Martin closed his eyes and massaged his scalp ever so gently. "They were," he said,quietly, "humans. Like us."

Dean's eyes widened. "Okay, okay, I know what comes next."

Martin opened his eyes and looked at Dean, a vaguely scornful smile playing at thecorners of his lips. "Oh, really?"

"Yes, really," Dean said. "They had this enormous war. It was so huge, and they were so incredibly powerful, that they laid their entire universe to waste."

Martin looked dumbfounded. His hand was still in his hair, but he seemed to be unaware of it.

"Then," Dean went on, "they had to find somewhere else to live. Now, there were no other universes to escape to, but these Prime Timers were pretty much gods, and could do whatever they wanted, so they created new universes. Little ones. In bubbles." Dean gestured to the silvery cluster of spheres hanging above the table. "Probably some kind of quantum cloning deal. Then they all moved into these universes. Probably, each one of them made one for himself, and ruled it like a God."

Martin looked beyond dumbfounded, he looked devastated. His hand sank to the tabletop unnoticed. "How... how do you know all this?"

"And," Dean went on, a trifle smugly, "all of our legends and myths about gods doing battle and destroying the world and recreating it can be traced back to this time period."

Martin looked as if he were going to cry. Dean took pity on him. "Obviously," he said, in a consoling tone, "they don't have science fiction on your World."

"Science fiction?" Martin repeated.

"Sure," Dean said. "Hell, that's an old plot. Zelazney uses it a lot. Philip Jose Farmer does too."

ZAP FORCE (excerpt)

Graffiti found spraypainted on the side of Sparta University’s Dawne Hall, March 11, 1994:

Tesla Girl Tesla Girl

I’m in love with Tesla Girl

Bartholomew 'Barley' Keppler sat stiffly in front of one of the comm-console's many videoscreens. He couldn't really sit any other way; paralyzed from the neck down, his torso was kept upright in his motorized wheelchair by a rigid body brace that looked more like a medieval torture cage than a piece of modern medical apparatus. His head was cocked off to one side and his uncombed, greasy hair fell in lank waves to his left shoulder. The thick, black rimmed glasses perched precariously on his nose distorted his bright blue eyes and nearly hid the glint of manic intelligence in them.

The videoscreen in front of him was alive with oddly angular Japanese animation. As he watched, one of the characters pointed stiffly and shouted to another, "Blast him, Ray! Blast him with power!!" Knowing it would annoy Albert, Barley loudly echoed the line -- not in his natural voice, which he rarely used, but telepathically.

"BLAST HIM, RAY!" he screeched mentally (taking care not to let either of the girls receive him; they were at that moment fighting Wargs, and he didn't want to distract them), "BLAST HIM WITH POWER!"

Albert looked over at him impassively. "Barley, are you keeping track of Robin and Claire?"

"Of course, O Fearless Leader," Barley projected in reply, nodding his head jerkily. "They're... let's see... ooooh, Claire's scared; the Wargs both dodged and one's right on top... nope, Robin got it... oh, now Claire's really mad... She's gonna cook it... yow, Albert, remind me never to get her that pissed off at me."

Albert rose to his feet, rested his hands on the table, then sank back down into his chair again. "Should I go out there? Some of the vehicles in the hangar might get me there in time -- "

A sudden loud crash from the videoscreen brought Barley's head snapping around again. The villain had dodged, letting Blaster-Master's eyebeam detonate an enormous gasoline tank. "Man oh man," Barley breathed. "How come we never fight bad guys in the middle of a field of oil tanks?"

"Something to do with our sanity, I think," Albert replied coolly. "Barley, are the girls --"

Barley bit down hard on the mouthpiece he used to control his wheelchair and it spun rapidly in a circle; one of his gestures of exasperation. "They're hunky-dory, Boss! All the Wargs are dead dead dead! Uh..." He stopped and concentrated a moment. His facial expression became slack, then he grimaced. In a much quieter mental tone, he continued, "Shit, boss. I can't pick up Jeremy at all any more."

Albert closed his eyes. "I thought you said you lost contact with him a few minutes ago due to this psionic interference."

"The interference made it impossible for me to maintain contact with more than one person in the area at a time," Barley agreed. "I gotta concentrate real hard just to do that much. But I could still get Jeremy if I tried. I switched to Claire a few minutes ago to keep track of them and now I can't find Jeremy anywhere."

Albert's voice became very soft. "So he's dead?"

Barley spun his wheelchair around frantically, three full revolutions. "No way! No way! No way! He's gotta be just 'ported outta my range! Shitfire, Albert, the Baron ain't gonna kill Jeremy -- he wants us all alive!"

Albert nodded; that much, at least, was true. Baron Samedi, like every other so called Monarch, very much wanted the eight of them intact and functional -- as newly created superhumans, they were considered desirable acquisitions by all the elder paranormal clans - Royal Houses, as they called themselves - in existence. The Samedis had actually had them all, once; Barley and Rusty, working together, had fried the high tech psionic interface that was sapping their wills and they'd made their escape, wreaking complete havoc on the Samedi's headquarters complex in the process. Now, apparently, the Samedis were making a move again, months sooner than Rusty's most pessimistic predictions. Albert sat there, and tried very hard to think clearly and coherently. After a few seconds, he said tiredly, "Call everyone in. We need to meet and besides, I want all of us in one place for the time being."

Albert Schmidt did not look even remotely Teutonic; if anything, he looked Mediterranean -- medium height, stocky build, straight black, shiny hair that looked as if someone had painted it on his round-domed cranium... he'd once written in his journal that if he flunked out of college, he could always go to Hollywood and find work playing Mussolini in World War II movies. He had a pronounced widow's peak, his nose was broad and peasantish, his eyes narrow and naturally dark-ringed. His face fell of its own accord into a worried expression, and although he deliberately stayed clean shaven to combat it, he knew he looked years older than his actual age of 20. He thought it was a rotten break; he would have had no problem buying beer, but since he didn't drink at all, that was no benefit to him.

His habitual stillness also made him seem much older than his true age; unlike most people, he had virtually no body language, and almost never made extraneous gestures. It was not an affected trait but a completely natural one, and he would have given it up if he could have, since he'd been made aware on several occasions that it bothered most people deeply. If he kept his eyes closed for any length of time while others were in the room, they usually had an overwhelming temptation to check him for a pulse.

Right now he and Barley were in the large chamber they all thought of as the main meeting room, mostly because it was right down the hall from the elevator (two doors down on the left, right past the kitchen), had a big shiny mahagony table in it (forty feet long and twelve feet wide; most of them tended to cluster at the far end, but there was room to spread out when tensions were high), was just across from the big gymnasium (weights, parallel bars, uneven bars, overhead horizontal ladder, gymnast's horse, swimming pool, rings, climbing ropes, punching bags, pegboards, and a lot of other things no one knew the names of), contained a large communications console (phones, viewphones -- although whenever they got a call on one of them it was bad news, since only Royals had that technology -- radio, TV -- with over 1000 channels supplied by a hidden satellite dish -- computer with fax-modem & scanner, separate fax machine, and many many more communications devices that none of them but Rusty even pretended to understand), and in the corner of the room nearest the connecting door into the kitchen (containing a huge walk in freezer stocked with enough food to feed an army for a century, and enough junk food to kill that same army three times over), there was a den-like grouping of low-slung, black-leather-and-chrome Bauhaus style furniture, arranged around an 14'x20' wall screen TV with built in tape deck, CD player, and VCR. Cementing the room's enduring popularity was walnut paneling (that slid aside in strategic areas to reveal more computer stations, from which any area of the complex, and many areas of the campus, could be circumspectly monitored), a luxuriously thick carpet (which, amazingly enough, seemed to conceal no secrets, other than the mysterious property that kept it perpetually clean), and 14 wonderfully decadent chrome and leather swivel chairs lining each side of the long central table. (The chairs were mounted on apparently frictionless casters and could be easily rolled over to the various hidden monitor stations when need arose.) The lighting came from muted ceiling panels, the ceiling itself was a spacious 12 feet in height, and although Albert secretly felt the room was a very sterile one that would be vastly improved by a few potted plants and a working fireplace, nonetheless, it seemed that the chamber's very lack of individual stylizing made it generally agreeable to all. Barley had declared that the room was exactly what every superhero team needed, and gone on to lament that the table didn't have a big, cartoon lightning bolt running down the center of it -- and despite those comments (most of the other members found Barley's constant comic book references annoying; Robin and Jason heaped open and virulent derision on them), the room had still become, by common unspoken consent, their 'main' gathering place.

When they gathered at all, which wasn’t very often… in fact, it was absolutely no more often than absolutely necessary. Which everyone thought had been happening far too often, lately…

Albert had rushed down here from his corner suite on the 7th floor of Dawne Hall ten minutes before, when Barley had first apprised him that Jeremy was being stalked out at Kirby Field House. He'd been issuing orders on the way to the elevator, after listening to Barley's quick reports on the locations of all the other Zs ("Sandy's in a bar on Lee Street; lemme see... no, Boss, we don't wanna interrupt her right this second... Claire's in the Doll House talking on the phone to her mother in Quebec... Robin's sittin' through one of Druger's boring Biology lectures in the HBC auditorium...") and of course, with Jason gone and Jeremy the one being ambushed, available resources had pretty much been limited to Robin and Claire. He could have had Robin swing over to Dawne Hall to pick him up, too, but it would have cost extra time -- Claire's sorority house (which all of them except Claire called the Doll House) was pretty much in a straight line between Robin's class and Kirby Field House, while Dawne Hall was in the opposite direction. Albert ached to be out there in the field, but the extra couple of minutes might make an enormous difference to Jeremy. So he'd made the tough decision, sent Robin to pick up Claire, and hurried down here, where he could monitor everything and maybe, in an emergency, jump in one of the dozen or so futuristic vehicles they'd found in the complex (he'd puzzled out the controls -- he devoutly hoped -- on four of them) and speed out there to help.

As it had turned out, his presence wouldn't have made much of a difference, as the girls had apparently handled the three Wargs by themselves. On the other hand, having Robin come get him, too, apparently wouldn't have hurt any, since Jeremy had almost certainly already been missing by the time they arrived. Overall, it seemed he'd made as good a call as possible; the Samedis had just out-maneuvered him.

God damn it, this time he was going to assign everyone a partner whether they liked it or not -- if Jeremy had had backup with him, he might not have been missing now.

Or the team might be down two members instead of one, he thought glumly to himself. Well, three instead of two, since you had to count Jason. But you couldn't think that way; the team was all they had between them and capture by any one of a dozen Royal Houses. It had been a serious mistake allowing people to move around individually, regardless of their virulently stated personal preferences. He couldn't afford to make any more mistakes like that, and the others couldn't afford to continue indulging their own stupid little whims, either.

On the communications console a red light began flashing on and off beneath one of the viewscreens. Barley was sitting right next to it, but the slackness of his features and the unfocused way his eyes were staring behind his thick, black rimmed glasses told Albert that he was busy monitoring one of the others (or, for all Albert knew, all of the others simultaneously). With no expression on his face, Albert pushed off from the table, letting his chair roll through the deep pile of the carpet and thud to a halt in front of the console. The lens cover was down on the videophone's camera pickup; since Albert wasn't in costume, he left it down. Baron Samedi probably knew what they all looked like without masks, but other Royals didn't, and anyway, it never hurt to be cautious.

"Zap Force, Gallant speaking," Albert said, and although he felt more than a little ridiculous using Barley's code names for the group and himself, he had to admit it sounded at least a little more professional than "Hi, this is Albert".

"My dear chap," came a deep, fulsome voice out of the console's speakers. Albert immediately recognized the reverbating baritone with the upper crust British accent just slightly spiced with the rhythms of Jamaica. The image on the screen was that of a shaven-headed, moon faced black man of very African features, with a broad, blindingly white smile that exaggerated the expression of malevolent good cheer written large on his handsome and expressive face. An ivory stud earring, artfully carved into the shape of a skull, gleamed in one earlobe.

"Baron Samedi," Albert said calmly. "I hope you're well?" Actually, Albert would not have been at all displeased to be told that the Baron had contracted rectal cancer, but he'd been raised to be polite, and he'd long since discovered that most Royalty valued courtesy highly -- the emptier, more hypocritical, and more elegantly worded it was, the better.

"Positively smashing, old tick," the Baron said, his eyes glittering coldly above his expansive smirk. "And I trust you and all the other dear little Zap Forcers are in the pink of health? Heh, heh."

"As far as I know," Albert said cautiously. "I do seem to be having some trouble keeping track of all of us lately... although you probably don't know anything about that."

The Baron laughed, a rolling crescendo of mirth that reminded Albert of waves rumbling into a particularly stony beach. "Ah, you tickle me as always, old horse." 'Horse' actually sounded like 'hawss' in the Baron's mouth; once again, Albert found himself wondering just how much of the Baron's absurd speech patterns were a deliberate sham -- did he actually talk that way in private? But he was going on... "Yas, I'm afraid I must admit to some culpability in your regrettable misplacement of that dapper young African-American... whatever do you call him? Bulwark? Buttress? Fortress? Figurehead? Heh, heh."

"Rampart," Albert replied levelly. "But I'm pretty sure you remember anyway... you've probably got it stenciled on his collar already."

The Baron rolled his eyes in mock horror. "My dear Gallant, what an appalling boor you must think me. I assure you, I would never dream of preparing your collars without consulting you first as to their appearance and general style." His face became suffused with sinister good humor once more. "After all, old stick, you will be wearing them for a considerable period. Heh heh."

Since the start of the call one of the other screens had been filled with constantly changing lines of textual gibberish; now, abruptly, it blanked. Just as abruptly, three sentences silently printed themselves across it: GOT THE PENDAJO, BOSS. HE'S JACKED INTO A FIBER OPTICS LINE THAT RUNS UNDER BEN FRANKLIN PLAZA IN PHILADELPHIA. HIS OWN CABLE IS ABOUT 300 YARDS LONG AND HIS SIGNAL IS ACTUALLY ORIGINATING FROM ABOUT 200 FEET DOWN AND 1750 YARDS NORTHWEST OF THERE.

Albert didn't allow his expression to vary, but below the range of the video pickup, he quickly typed a question. To the Baron, he said, "So, you have Jeremy. Do you want us to ransom him? We could probably come up with some good stuff to trade..."

The Baron's face became grave. "Don't speak to me like a fool, young man. I'm well aware that your obnoxious little disembodied ghost of an engineer -- Mainframe, yes? -- has already traced where this call is coming from. Do you think he'd ever have come close to being successful if it were not my explicit will? Heh, heh."

Albert nodded. "Gotcha. My apologies. So, you grab Jeremy, then call me up to gloat, knowing I'll trace the call, and fairly soon, we come charging in like the 8th Cavalry and bang, you've got everybody. That's the plan?"

The Baron broke once more into a broad smile. "Of course! The seven of you, charging gloriously to the rescue, banners flying, trumpets all a-tootle... what a splendid spectacle you'll make; I really just can't wait to see it. Shall we say, tomorrow afternoon, two-ish? I really do want to spruce the place up a bit... beat the rugs, hose down the slaves... or is it the other way 'round?... have the chefs put together a special banquet; you know, that sort of thing. And I'm sure you and your little friends have your own preparations to make, as well..."

Albert shook his head slightly. "We sincerely appreciate the invitation, Baron, but we really couldn't impose. However, if we do happen to be in the neighborhood in the near future, we'll be sure to drop by."

The Baron looked aggrieved. "Well, dear boy, if you insist on a surprise visit... still, of course, you're always welcome." His voice dropped to a stage whisper. "But if you don't mind, could you use the front door this time? I'll leave it open. Those gaping holes you children left in the walls after your last visit were the very devil to repair."

Albert reached for the disconnect switch. "Give my regards to the Baroness," he said.

"And hers to you," Baron Samedi replied smoothly. "Until later, then?"

Albert nodded and cut the connection.He glanced at the screen showing Rusty's prior communication regarding the origin of the Baron's call. Underneath it, his own question blinked -- IS THE BARON LYING ABOUT ANYTHING?

And beneath that, Rusty's reply: IF HE IS, HE'S GOOD ENOUGH TO FOOL THE VOICE STRESS MONITORS, BOSS.

So, the Samedis had Jeremy, which was bad. And since the Baron had referred to the seven of them coming to the rescue, and his inflection hadn't shown the slightest variance, they didn't have Jason... which wasn't really good, since it would have been nice to know exactly where Jason was right now, and if it had turned out that the Samedis had him, it would mean he was almost certainly still alive. Moreover, if Jason and Jeremy were being held in the same place, they could neatly combine two rescues in one trip.

Put that off to the side, now. Jeremy was the current problem; the Samedis had him, Zap Force had to get him back... and fairly quickly, before those two ancient schemers had a chance to use their deadly combination of psionics and alien technology to completely brainwash him.

Oh, yes, and in addition to all of that, it would be nice if they could all survive the attempt, too.

"Definitely a 'three pipe problem', Fearless Leader," Barley suddenly chimed in. "Too bad you don't smoke, huh?"

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

WARREN'S WORLD (excerpt)

SEPTEMBER 23, 1983 - WARREN'S HOUSE, 11:35 P.M.

A humanoid creature, 12 feet tall, composed of some dense looking, bluish black, rubbery substance, stalked down the hall towards the group of superhuman intruders. Its jewel-like eyes flashed red in its otherwise featureless, clearly artificial visage. Huge three fingered fists clenched at the end of sculpted, massive, dark and gleaming arms. The polished linoleum of the hallway beneath the figure's dense, thudding feet seemed to tremble as it approached.

Dave's character, Captain Jack Thunder, stared in wonder at the awful approaching apparition.

(Dave himself looked in mild shock across the table at Warren, who was D.M.ing tonight.)

"What the fuck is that?" Captain Thunder cried out.

Night Vision, the black clad man in the battle harness festooned with futuristic gimmicks and weapons, dropped the unconscious ACE (Augmented Cybernetic Elite) agent whose body he'd been searching and yanked his Mark VII pulser rifle off his back.

("Okay, Warren, I drop the creep I'm searching and draw my rifle again. If that thing comes within twenty feet of us, I'm gonna blast it," snarled Rick, Night Vision's long time player.)

("Roll a d20 and don't fumble," Warren said back. Rick obligingly rolled, and not getting a 1, advised Warren "No problem.")

"This isn't fair!" Blue Blazer said, sounding rather put upon, as her player Leslie fixed Warren with an affronted glare from the armchair she was sitting in over by his smaller bookshelf. "We just had a big fight! We won!"

(Leslie's fingers slipped and she dropped the old, battered paperback copy of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE she'd been skimming on to the pinewood floorboards with a thump. "Shit, I'm sorry, Warren," she said, suddenly contrite, knowing how mad Warren could get when someone mistreated one of his books.)

Purple Haze gestured and a square of purple mist seemed to condense out of the air around the rapidly stalking Whatever It Was, congealing into a solid rectangle of purple substance.

("I encase him in a purple rectangle, Warren," Jimmy said, picking up percentile dice and rolling them. "Uh... 76?"

"Fine," Warren said idly, "the rectangle forms, no problem." Behind his notebook, he rolled a set of his own dice.)

Barely breaking step, the midnight blue construct flexed its arms and legs, sending shards of shattered purple material flying everywhere.

"Shit!" Purple Haze said. "I'm runnin'!"

("Warren, where's the nearest exit sign in the opposite direction from that fucking thing?" Jimmy demanded.

Warren rolled dice again behind his notebook. "Sorry, Jimmy," he said, after a second, "the only exit sign you see is at the end of the hall, behind the critter.")

Mindstar closed her electric blue eyes and furrowed her brow in concentration.

("Warren," Ellie said earnestly, "I try to read its mind and see if it has any thoughts I can influence."

Dave groaned. "Just use your telekinesis, Ellie. It's a robot. It's not going to have thoughts."

"Let her run her own character," Warren advised. "Ellie, roll percentile and add it to your Telepathy rating."

"Um," Ellie said, looking at her dice. "Um... percentiles are the which ones again..."

"D10s or D20s," Jimmy said. "You need two different colors, one for the tens, the other for the ones..."

Jimmy reached forward and nudged a red d10 and a white d20 out of Ellie's pile of mostly borrowed dice. "These two," he said. "Call red high."

"Oh, okay, I remember now," Ellie said. She picked up both dice and rolled them. "92! And my Telepathy rating is a 34, so..."

Warren rolled dice behind his notebook, then looked up. "Sorry, Ellie... you detect no thoughts at all in the approaching creature."

Dave sighed. "Told you."

Ellie looked disappointed. "Okay, but now I can still use my Telekinesis, right...?"

"Write down your Energy Point expenditure for the Telepathy you used," Warren reminded her dryly. "You have to keep track of your Energy Points."

"That's why I said to use your Telekinesis FIRST," Dave expostulated. "Now you don't have as much energy to... oh, never mind." He turned to Rick. "Just shoot the fucking thing, Rick.")

"Shoot it," Captain Thunder snapped out gravely to Night Vision.

Obligingly, the black clad cyber-knight brought his energy weapon up to his shoulder, sighted, and fired.

("I'm giving it 4 dice of Energy Blast, Warren, just to see how it likes that, aiming for the head," Rick said.

"Roll percentile and add it to your Weapon Attack rating," Warren said.

Rick rolled, did some mental math, and said "Unless its damn head has a target rating higher than a hundred, I hit it by a lot.")

A ruby red beam of seemingly solid light momentarily connected the barrel of Night Vision's futuristic rifle with the near-featureless 'face' of the artificial being. The beam simply seemed to be absorbed into the dark substance of the creature's head without effect.

("Roll your damage," Warren said crisply.

Rick rolled 4 d10s and added them up. "23 points," he said. "Remember, that's an enhanced particle beam. If it has any Special Energy Defenses, my beam ignores them."

Warren turned a couple of pages in his notebook. After a few seconds, he said, "Sorry, Rick... the beam seems to absorbed into its face without any noticeable effect. It's still coming."

"Well THAT sucks," Rick said.)

"Blue Blazer, Night Vision," Captain Thunder rapped out crisply, "pour every erg of energy you can into it. I've got an idea."

("Les, Rick, hit it with everything you've got, I want to try something, Warren," Dave said, eyes gleaming, "where's the closest fire extinguisher?"

Warren sighed. Another brilliant Dave idea. "Roll... um... a d30, you want less than your luck," Warren said.

"A d THIRTY?" Dave exclaimed, sounding put upon, knowing full well his character's Luck was only 14, and he'd have less than a 50% chance of succeeding in that roll. "Come on, a d30 is ridiculous! This is an office building! What, it's the only office building in New York not in compliance with State fire codes? Make it a d20, I mean, let's not be stupid about this."

Warren looked at Dave placidly from behind his notebook. "Your Luck is a 14," he said. He rolled a die behind his notebook. "Sorry. The closest fire extinguisher is back down the hall, behind the approaching creature."

Dave's face flushed. "I can roll my own damn dice," he started to expostulate.)

A crackling halo of blue tinged ethereal flames sprang into being around Blue Blazer, blasting outward from the area of her head in a shimmering cobalt bolt towards the rapidly nearing monster. Night Vision, having dialed up his pulser rifle's energy output, fired again, a searing red beam spearing outwards towards the creature as well.

("Uh, I'm firing on the damn thing again, Warren," Rick said. "Full charge, 10 dice, in the chest." He rolled percentile. "Uh... 86 total... that should hit."

"I blast it too, Warren," Leslie said, still sounding annoyed at the necessity. "Um..." She looked down at her character sheet, one purple painted nail tapping her Energy Point column. "12... no, hell, 15 dice of Energy Blast." She looked through her dice, then said "Rickie, can I roll your percentiles, I put mine away."

"Don't call me Rickie," Rick growled, pushing his percentile dice over to her.

"Oh, get over yourself," Leslie said, picking up the dice and rolling them. "Um... 57... plus... what... my Attack Value is 7, so..."

"64," Warren said. "Don't forget your skill levels at Energy Blast and the Accuracy modifier of the attack itself... that's +5 for the Skill Levels and another +5 for the Accuracy modifier, which is 74 total." Leslie just looked at him attentively. Warren sighed. "You should write this down, Leslie," he chided her. "I'm not going to keep reminding you of this stuff."

Leslie pouted... but picked up a pencil stub and obediently scribbled something on her character sheet.)

Both beams, the crackling blue and the tight pulsing red, struck the onrushing giant full on in the chest... and were swallowed up within it. A faint pinkish glow could be seen radiating around the edges of the dark giant's body now, and its rapid rush forward slowed as it leaned into the pulsating blasts of energy emanating from the two superhuman adventurers.

Captain Thunder's eyes narrowed. He had originally planned to employ a fire extinguisher, but the closest one was on the other side of the enemy artifact... as the powers that be would have it. But... he turned to Purple Haze. "Those things you create out of your purple energy," he said. "You control whether they're solid or liquid, right?"

("Jimmy, you can control the state of the purple stuff you make, so you should be able to control what temperature it comes into existence at, right?")

Purple Haze focused again, from his frantic search for a retreat. "Uh, sure," he said.

"Can you control their temperature, too? Could you encase that robot or whatever it is, right now, in a solid, supercold straightjacket?" Thunder's eyes sparkled. Obviously, the humanoid device was designed to absorb energy attacks, but the glow around it indicated it had already reached and exceeded the amount of energy it could store and was radiating the excess away. If he could suddenly crash cool it...!

Purple Haze looked... intrigued. "I... I don't know," he murmured.

("Uh..." Jimmy looked puzzled, then glanced narrowly at Warren. "I

never gave that any thought. Can I create my purple energy constructs at any temperature I want, Warren?"

Warren ran his tongue around under his lower lip, something he did while thinking. "Purple Haze is an auto and bicycle repairman and general tinker, right?" Jimmy had specified this when he set up the character, so Purple Haze would know how intricate mechanisms worked and could thus duplicate them with the strange mental energy field he controlled.

"Yeah," Jimmy sighed, already knowing where this was going.

Warren said, "I've let you create purple liquids before, although normally the stuff you make is solid. I've never given any thought to the actual temperature of the stuff, but if physical law applies, then the liquid form of a substance that is normally solid at room temperature should be very hot, like molten stone. And we haven't defined it that way, right?"

"Right," Jimmy agreed. "Actually, temperature has to do with the speed that the molecules of a substance are traveling... the faster they travel, the more distance there is between them, and therefore, the less dense the material is."

Warren nodded. "Which means that your purple stuff is basically just a mental construct that you create as a solid or a liquid, whichever you desire, and which does not seem to be subject to the normal laws of physics."

Dave said, "Which means that now that I've suggested it, he should be able to create energy constructs of any temperature he wants, just by thinking about it."

Warren shrugged. "Not necessarily. We've simply established that his 'purple stuff' is a mentally generated solid material amenable to his own psychokinetic manipulation. Like ectoplasm. It may not be possible for it to vary from the ambient temperature of the environment it is created in. We simply don't know." He paused and continued to run his tongue around under his lower lip, making it bulge in and out.

"Dice roll?" Dave suggested, doing a pretty good job of keeping the hope and interest out of his voice, but not his eyes, which were bright at the thought of the possibilities if Jimmy's powers could be expanded to include these new parameters.

Jimmy's own features were just as carefully schooled to blandness as he looked at Warren.

Warren smiled inwardly. The old Warren... the previous Warren, back in the good old days... would have doubtless already been bullied by Dave's charm and Jimmy's obstinacy into letting the character redefine his powers this way, and then had to suffer over the next few months of RPG sessions as Jimmy, egged on by Dave, continued to push the envelope, using his newly expanded powers to create not only boiling purple lava, supercooled purple ice, and superheated purple steam at will, but also starting to explore various other physical properties of the purple mental substance - like, say, the pressure the substance was under when it was created, which would allow him to fairly quickly cause massive explosions in any confined space pretty much at will, among other things.

The old Warren was so whipped that there wouldn't even have been a question of a dice roll to settle the matter; Dave and Jimmy would just have teamed up to spout some plausible sounding, over-Warren's-head bullshit about physical properties and molar numbers and atomic weights and god knows what all, and Purple Haze would have become an unbalanced godlike entity who could basically do anything he wanted to do and deal with any conceivable situation that might come up with little difficulty.

Players loved to play characters like that, or they thought they did. Actually, they got bored playing characters like that very quickly, as there is nothing more boring than constant instant gratification and a lack of periodic frustration. It's like playing a pinball game where the ball can never drop.

And, meanwhile, the presence of the character would have made it impossible for anyone else to have fun, too, because there was no longer any sort of credible challenge for any group the character was in, and no one else ever got to do anything, either.

It was gratifying to see how much things had changed, that he wasn't simply being trampled underneath the bulldozer wills of Dave and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy.

All that passed through Warren's mind in less than half a second, objectively. (As much as objectivity had any meaning in that context, anyway.)

"No," he said, finally. "Maybe if Purple Haze was a molecular physicist, I'd let him make a Willpower roll to try to do it. As it is, no."

Dave and Jeff immediately started protesting both at once. Warren sighed and held up one hand. "Okay," he said. "As usual, I run this game on the One Appeal System, and I'll hear you guys out since you obviously don't agree with my decision. But in this case, I'm going to explain my reasoning first, so you can see where I'm coming from."

Warren thought to himself, with some wry amusement, that all of this yammer yammer yammer was taking place in the maybe two or three seconds it would have taken the giant android to turn the corner at the end of the long hall the adventuring party was in and close with them. But he kept his amusement off his face and out of his voice. "First," he said, "yes. The purple stuff that Jimmy creates... excuse me, that Jimmy's character, Purple Haze, creates..." Warren always tried to speak very very specifically and accurately at times like this, "...should indeed be mainly controlled by his own volition. The fact that the purple stuff stays at room temperature, even when in different physical states like solid and liquid, is a fairly clear indication that in effect, the purple matter is mainly a mental projection, a sort of psychokinetic ectoplasm, whose shape and discrete form is controlled by Jimmy's... Purple Haze's... will. I can accept the argument that Purple Haze just never thought of altering its temperature before. I can accept that now that someone else has suggested it, he should be able to at least attempt to control other aspects of the energy manifestation beyond simply shape and physical state, like temperature. So you don't have to make those arguments; I'm already persuaded by them. In point of fact, since the 'purple stuff' already defies conventional physical law governing the creation and destruction of energy and mass, there's no reason it couldn't materialize with more inherent energy... like heat... or less, as a supercold mass, or fluid, or even gas."

Dave sat back, looking pleased. Jimmy, eternally more paranoid, narrowed his eyes and looked wary.

Warren went on. "However, this is one of the rare cases when I'm going to say that I don't care. I generally try to be an impartial referee, and simply make whatever decisions and arbitrations have to be made as fairly as possible, based on my own knowledge as to how things actually work, and when I don't know, I do tend to put things on a fair and open dice roll. But I'm not going to do that this time, because, frankly, if Purple Haze gains the ability to alter, at will, the various physical and chemical properties of the mental energy he constructs imaginary but solid artifacts out of..."

"It will make him too powerful?" Dave openly sneered.

Warren sighed exasperatedly. "You say that like it's immaterial, or like according to the Constitution, it's inadmissible in this court of law."

Dave folded his arms over his thin chest and looked disapproving. "Well," he said rather loftily, "I don't think that's something a gamemaster should think about when making decisions, no. I don't think it's fair. Players shouldn't be penalized based on how powerful their characters might turn out to be."

Warren wanted to roll his eyes, as he remembered long ago conversations, in a previous time, when Dave had not only refused to let Warren run a character he'd created named Warstar because the character was too powerful and would unbalance the adventuring party, but had managed to persuade all the other game referees in their group to blackball Warstar on the same grounds, also. But all that was past, and as far as the group here was concerned, had never happened anyway. Still, it was amusing.

"Dave," Warren said patiently, "I have to take it into consideration. What does every player in a fantasy roleplaying game want? They want to be invincible and invulnerable, to have the perfect power or ability to deal effectively with any obstacle or difficulty that arises, to be able to triumph over all adversity and to always be the leader, the hero, the Big Star. That's what everyone wants out of a roleplaying game..." Warren paused. "Hell," he went on, after a second, "it's what everyone wants out of life." He gave a strange little smile that was gone in an instant. " But," he said, gesturing around the table, "first, if everyone got that, they'd be bored. Suppose I told you guys that I'd decided never to kill another one of your characters; that somehow, no matter what happened, my RPG would from now on be just like comic books, and something would always save you at the last second. Think about it. Would you all enjoy the RPG as much? Or would it get boring?"

Everyone looked thoughtful at that. "Second," Warren continued, "even if, say, one person might not be bored running a nearly all powerful character with vast abilities that would be useful in virtually any situation, I guarantee you that everyone else in the group would get tired of it real fast. Attacked by a giant android? Purple Haze washes it out of the building with a flood of boiling purple lava. Toxic gas filling the room? Purple Haze pushes it back with a purple mist he creates that has a higher internal pressure than the surrounding atmosphere. Attacked by 50 ACE agents? Purple Haze inundates them in high pressure, superheated purple steam. What are the rest of you going to do? Carry his golf clubs? I can't challenge him with any reasonable opponents or obstacles, and anything I come up with that would give him a hard time, will kill all of you."

Warren shook his head. "It's not just bad game mastering to allow it, it's bad writing. It's the kind of thing a really lousy comics writer would script into an issue to solve some plot problem, and then be stuck with forever. Sorry, I'm not allowing it. I probably shouldn't have allowed Purple Haze to create both liquid and solid versions of the purple substance in the past, but I have, so I'll let that go. But I'm not letting him start trying to control the temperature or other physical properties of his purple stuff."

Dave looked disgusted. "Well, if you're just not going to allow it, there isn't any argument I can make," he said. "But I think you're being unfair. I don't..."

Dave stopped and put his hands to his forehead, massaging as if he had a headache, eyes closed. "Jesus," he murmured. "Oh Jesus Christ."

His eyes opened again, brown and crackling with anger... and yet, at the same time, almost agonizingly weary. "You fucking nobody," he said, glaring at Warren in obvious hatred. "You've got some fucking nerve lecturing ME on bad writing. I've got three goddam Eisner Awards..."

They'd all seen Dave's strange fits of incoherent irrationality before, but still, they were always upsetting. Fortunately, this one didn't last long... maybe five or six minutes, during which Dave started in (as usual) by cursing out Warren and calling him all sorts of awful, incomprehensible things, and then progressed to looking around at everyone else in the room and rambling insanely at them, too.

None of them could ever really remember clearly what Dave said during these episodes. Strange, senseless, hallucinatory stuff, about the calendar, and his career, and his awards, and something to do with some utterly delusional wife and child... hell, Dave didn't even have a girlfriend at the moment. Nobody could ever follow what he said. But whenever he had one of his fits, if Warren was in the room, Dave always screamed abuse at him.

Sometimes, at the end, he'd cry. Those were always the worst.

This time, fortunately, he didn't; he just ran down, finally letting his head slump into his hands in despair. "You never listen to me, you never listen, damn it, Ellie... all of you..."

He closed his eyes.

A few seconds later, he opened them again, and looked around. Rick had his arms comfortingly around Ellie, who was looking at Dave with her lower lip trembling and tears in her eyes (Ellie was, of all of them, the most easily upset). Leslie, who back in high school had dated Dave for several years, had gotten up and taken Warren's hand and was holding it tightly. Normally, her boyfriend and informal fiance Brian would have comforted her, but Brian had ROTC drill early in the morning, so he'd left at 10 p.m. that evening. Jimmy was just staring at Dave, drumming his fingers nervously on the table.

"Oh shit," Dave said, weakly, his voice hoarse and raspy from all the shouting he'd done. "Did I... did I freak out again?" He looked upset.

"Yeah, dude," Jimmy said, commiseratingly. "You got your pills?"

Dave fumbled in his shirt pocket, shaking fingers bringing out a narrow yellow plastic pill bottle with a round white plastic childproof cap. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "But I'd'a swore I took one this morning... I'm sure I did..."

"Obviously," Warren said quietly, "they don't have your medication balanced right yet, Dave. I saw you take a pill this morning at breakfast... we were working on that plot for the SCARLET CYCLONE mini series, remember?"

Dave had fumbled the cap off and now, trying to shake a single small white pill onto his palm, had managed to spill most of the bottle. Pills clattered onto the table and the floor. "Fuck!" Dave swore, miserably. His eyes were bright with unshed tears.

Jimmy immediately knelt down and started sweeping the pills into his palm with the fingers of his other hand. "No problemo, Dave-meister," he said. "No sweat. Don't worry about it. It's copacetic. Chill."

Leslie let go of Warren's hand and walked over to Dave, slipping her arms around his shoulders. "It's okay, Davie," she said, her voice low and comforting. "It's not your fault. It's all right."

"Shit," Dave said again, blinking. He hated to cry period, but especially in front of other people.

"She's right, Dave, it's not your fault, man," Rick said. Everyone else immediately chimed in agreement.

"We understand, Dave," Warren said solemnly. "I mean, honestly, it's not like it affects our feelings for you." He paused. "I mean, we all know you're a gigantic asshole, fits or no fits."

Everybody laughed at that, maybe a little too heartily, but Dave joined in too. "Fuck you, Dawson," he said, after the chuckles had died out.

"Not on the best day of your life," Warren responded, pertly.

"No," Dave agreed, his voice regaining at least a ghost of its former cockiness, to everyone's relief, "probably that would be the worst."

They all laughed again, in relief as much as good humor.

"Yeah, look," Warren said. "I'm going to call it a night. It's getting late anyway." This was a considerate fiction; it was barely midnight and they often played until sun up... but clearly, Dave needed some rest, and it wouldn't be much fun to play without him.

So the game broke up. People chattered idly while gathering their stuff up, Leslie sticking close to Dave and touching him frequently, just to comfort him. Warren wandered out to the top of the stairs with them (he lived for the most part alone in an ostensibly four bedroom apartment at the top of the two story converted house and rented out the lower floor, another four bedroom apartment, to various college students) to say good night.

As Dave and Leslie started down the stairs, Warren leaned down to squeeze Dave's shoulder briefly. "Be cool," he said.

Dave looked up and grinned. "Cooler than you, and don't get gay with me," he said.

Ellie was hugging Rick, then leaning up to kiss him good night affectionately. The kiss went on for a few seconds while Warren watched, smiling with benign patience. "See you tomorrow," she said, then glanced over at Warren. "Right?"

Warren had just then turned to go back in, leaving the upper door open; now he stopped and thought a sec. "Yeah, probably," he said, after a minute. "Laurie might come over tomorrow afternoon."

"Cool," Rick said, kissing his girlfriend lingeringly one more time and squeezing her ass through her jeans, making her giggle. "Have a good night, baby." He turned and started downstairs. "Hey, you guys, wait up!"

Ellie waved until Rick was through the door and had closed it behind him. "You want me to go down and lock it, Warren?" she asked, her voice serious and eager to please.

Warren came up behind her, slipped his arms around her waist, kissed her hair at the back of her head, then leaned in to kiss and nibble her neck. Ellie reached down to her waist with a happy little purr and covered Warren's hands with hers and squeezed them, letting her eyes flutter closed. She sighed, leaning her head back against Warren's shoulder as his mouth worked gently where the column of her neck swept down to her deltoid muscles. "Nah," he said, in between nibbles, "I heard the lock click when Rick closed it." His hands slipped out from under hers, moved up to her shoulders, and turned her to face him. "But," he murmured, nibbling the tip of her nose, "if you really want to go down..." His hands pushed down suggestively on her shoulders.

Ellie giggled and sank to her knees in front of him. "You really love it when I do this, don't you, Warren?" she asked him, fingers deftly unsnapping and unzipping his jeans.

Warren smiled down at her and ran his fingers through her hair on either side of her head, lightly stroking her ears. "Don't you like doing it, baby?"

Ellie had fished him out into the open air know with the dexterous movements of long practice and was leaning forward, her mouth busy. After a few wet seconds, she pulled her head back and looked up at Warren earnestly. "Well, I love making you happy, of course, Warren," she said with utmost sincerity. "But I hardly ever do this for Rick."

Warren cupped her chin gently and stroked her now moist lips with his thumb. Ellie moaned in her throat and closed her eyes. "But you love me more than you love Rick, sweetie," he said, quietly.

Ellie's tongue came out and licked Warren's thumb. "Yes, of course I do," she agreed breathily, her eyes meeting his for a moment. Then she leaned back in and resumed her previous ministrations.

Several rhythmic, well moistened minutes later, Warren gasped and his hands tightened on Ellie's steadily bobbing head. Ellie moaned happily and, as Warren had first coached her (she couldn't remember how long ago now) kept moving her head steadily, and concentrated on the simple act of swallowing.

Finally, Warren gently pushed her head back, bent his knees, and suddenly swept Ellie up in his arms without apparent effort. She giggled and slid her arms around his neck and put her head back docilely to be kissed. Their mouths met and fused for a long time, their tongues exploring deeply, Warren's arms holding her like a small child, as strong and steady as a statue's.

After the kiss, Warren said, quietly, "Thank you."

Ellie giggled and wriggled in his arms happily, like a puppy. "My pleasure. Blowjobs at the top of the stairs are a specialty of the house, sir."

Warren kissed her again, this time on the tip of the nose, and then carried Ellie back into the living room, through the dining room where the game session had been, through the kitchen, and into the small back bedroom where he slept. Ellie was alternating kissing his neck and upper chest where it was bare in the V from his shirt collar with happy little mmmm sounds. His big brass bed seemed even bigger in the tiny room, but Warren liked it best out of all the rooms used as bedrooms in the flat; it got the best morning sunlight through its one window and was handy to the back stairs which led up to the big attic he used as an exercise room and work area.

Now he lay Ellie down on the neatly made bedspread, kneeling next to her and kissing her again. Ellie kissed him back eagerly and openly, and Warren reflected, as she sucked and nibbled happily on his tongue, that he slept with women who were more sexually proficient than Ellie... Leslie was technically a better and more versatile kisser, for example... but what Ellie lacked in technique, she made up for in willingness and open, unmanipulative affection. She was such a sweetie. Rick was a lucky guy... well... he would be, if they were ever going to actually get married.

Warren put that thought away firmly as the kiss deepened, his hands moving over Ellie's wriggling body, unbuttoning her plaid cotton shirt, slipping it down her arms as the two of them playfully tried to undress each other without letting their tongues out of each other's mouths. Ellie was happy, Rick was happy... all Warren's friends were happy. The world was perfect. That was all that mattered.

On the sidewalk, a block up towards the apartment Jimmy shared with Brian and Leslie, the four friends walked quietly together. After another block, Dave and Rick would peel off, Dave to head for his own apartment on Dale Street, Rick to walk over to the house he and Ellie rented together. They were quiet, but it was a mostly cheerful quiet. No one wanted to talk about Dave's fit, least of all Dave.

"Sleeping alone tonight, huh?" Dave said to Rick, finally. He sounded almost guilty, most likely because he knew Warren was usually more considerate than that. Since Brian had already gone to bed early, most likely Leslie would have stayed with Warren tonight... but then Dave had had his fit. Of course, Leslie wasn't going to sleep with Dave tonight, that was long over, and she wouldn't cheat on Brian that way, but... well, it had probably changed Warren's plans, seeing that Dave needed company. "Sorry about that, guy."

Rick waved his hand. "Oh, please," he said. "Ellie would probably have been asleep as soon as we got home anyway... besides, it's not like... I mean, you know. It's Warren."

All four of them nodded. Rick was no more jealous or concerned than Brian would have been if Leslie had spent the night with Warren... which she did, once or twice a week, generally. Hell. It was Warren. You couldn't be upset about it. Dave knew that. He himself wasn't seeing anyone right now, but his girlfriends in the past had all slept with Warren on occasion. In fact, one of his exes still visited Warren every once in a while; she always said hi to Dave while she was in town. Didn't bother him a bit.

You just couldn't be jealous of Warren, he was too good a friend to everyone.

"You guys want to come over? Watch a video or play Magic or something?" Rick yawned. "I mean, I could go to bed, but..." He shrugged. "I've got a new set of BUFFY tapes."

There was a moment's hesitation. For just a second, everyone there felt vaguely disquieted for some reason. The impulse came and went too quickly for any of them to grasp; all they knew was, the suggestion felt slightly... improper... like it always did, when someone suggested the group get together in part or in whole, without all of them there.

But they all knew Warren was with Ellie, and doubtless they were both having a good time... so that was fine.

"Sure," Leslie said, holding hands with Dave, rubbing her head against his shoulder. "You guys want to play strip poker?"

"Oh, please," Rick and Dave groaned in unison. It wasn't that they didn't want to; it was just that Leslie never actually would.

"Damn, I was only kidding, guys," Leslie said.

"Teasing is the word," Rick said. "For that, I'm gonna play my Blue deck on you."

"Oh, shit, not that Control Magic/Counterspell/Unsummon thing," Leslie complained. "Please don't. I'll be nice."

"Let's just watch a video," Dave said. "Magic takes too much thought. My brain hurts."

"I'm going to head on back," Jimmy said suddenly. "I'm pretty beat."

They tried to talk him out of it... everyone loved having Jimmy around, him and his weird sense of humor... but he was adamant.

So, at the next corner, three of them turned right, one turned left. Everyone called out good night, and the two groups parted.