Chapter 1. Great Day In The Morning
I woke up feeling, all things considered, pretty damn good.
I stretched a little in bed and rolled back and forth, enjoying the way the mattress felt underneath me. My futon had never been this comfortable before. At first I assumed I must have slept remarkably well the previous night. A feeling of warm contentment and general physical wellbeing seemed to suffuse me utterly. Honestly, it was damned near blissful.
So, this had to be Saturday morning, right? No workday weekday wake up could possibly feel like this...
Except that, dimly, I could recall watching NYPD BLUE last night... couldn't I? Andy and Bobby had had that case where they got into a fender bender with a guy who turned out to be a terrorist… huh... And Channel 33 showed the syndicated cop shows on Tuesday night… that meant this should be Wednesday... And that meant, if I was waking up feeling this well rested, I had to be seriously late for work.
Having worked that all the way through, I opened my eyes in a bit of a panic... and found myself someplace entirely strange.
"Well, shit," I said, scrambling up on my elbows in what turned out to be a rather larger, and considerably more comfortable, bed than the futon I usually slept on. A single light, feathery soft, silky coverlet of some sort slid down off my naked body as I pushed myself up, and I felt the pillows behind me... whatever they were... seem to almost reposition themselves to support my new posture. It would have been a scary and sinister feeling, if it hadn't been so overwhelmingly, luxuriously comfortable. "GodDAMN," I profaned yet again, as I looked around me in wonder.
The room was proportional to the bed, which is to say, large. Mostly empty; off to my left, the wall I was apparently leaning against was interrupted by glass-paned double doors which faced east... or west... or, screw it, whichever direction the sun was currently shining from, as bright, rich, buttery rafters of sunlight were pouring at an angle through them and splashing into a golden yellow rectangle on the floor.
Beyond this rich swath of bright warmth, I could dimly see a darker doorway with what looked to be a red brick, arched frame running around it, leading into a cool, shadowy room that had within it vague shapes and distant gleams putting me in mind of a bathroom.
Off to the right side of that doorway was a tall, rather antique looking chest of... I was guessing... cedarwood drawers. That wall continued on for another fifteen feet or so and met the wall opposite me at a right angle.
In that particular wall, about five feet out from the corner was a broad open doorway with a genuine by God hanging beaded curtain in it, the beads of randomly varying sizes, colors, cutting styles - some were faceted, some oval, some smoothly round - and consistencies - some were dull, some gleamed reflectively, some seemed made of a transparent substance.
On the other side of the beaded doorway... this one was framed in what looked like fretted stone pillars leading straight up, without fuss, to a straight across, punctilious upper beam... there was six foot tall, oval, bronze framed, rather old fashioned looking mirror on the wall, which, as it happened, was directly across from the left corner of the bed (as I was in the center of the bed, and the bed was vast, I couldn't see myself in it).
I normally put my beds in a corner of the room so I have walls on two sides of me; this one was pushed up against one wall (behind me) but on the right side of me there was about four feet of empty space between me and the wall on that side... which unlike the other walls in the room, was made of some sort of dull, dry, reddish brown, carefully cut and fitted together rectangular stone blocks, with three tall, narrow slit windows in it through which I could see thin slats of bright blue sky.
Immediately to the left of the bed was a small stone table, with rounded corners chiseled into various shapes taken from nature... a bunch of grapes, a pumpkin, a pinecone... whatever the corner furthest away from me was, I couldn't make it out. Folded up on the table was what looked like a small pile of black and red silk.
Other than what I've described, the room was featureless. I'd never been there, or any place remotely like it, in my life.
Glancing back over at the table, I realized I wasn't seeing the one item that has been beside every bed or couch or sleeping bag or mattress tossed into the corner of a porch I've ever laid down to go to sleep on since the age of 6 or so... my glasses. And as soon as I realized that, I also realized I was seeing perfectly... better than perfectly... I was seeing sharp details at an impossible distance, even with fully corrected vision, and more than that, I was seeing things in richer color and greater depth across a broader spectrum of hues than I'd ever experienced before.
I was hearing more broadly and deeply, too... a regular, repeated whishing sound that had to be waves on a beach, somewhere off beyond those glass doors and the arrow slit windows. A very faint, distant murmur, as if of voices. A sort of fuzzy, muted rustling I couldn't place. My own pulse, slow and regular.
My sense of smell seemed equally enhanced. Where normally I suspect I'd have smelled little in the room except dry, somewhat dusty stone and a slight smell that was more a warmth than an odor wafting around the bed, now I became aware of a richly textured mosaic of aromas in the air around me. Flaring my nostrils, I took a larger sniff and could feel it; almost see it, a criss crossing quiltwork of currents and countercurrents in the air around me, carrying various different subtle scents from various different directions.
Through the open windows, and more faintly, the closed glass doors, I could smell salt walter with an underscent of something dry and alkaloid; from the shadowy room, I could smell wet stone, a faint aroma of rust, a pleasant scent of soap, and fresh water... all associations that, to my provincial late 20th Century American mind, said 'bathroom'.
I realized I had no idea how I knew all these things, but I did.
I slid my legs off the side of the bed... and stopped short, having caught sight of my reflection in the oval of mirror on the wall next to the beaded doorway.
When I'd gone to sleep, I'd been... well... myself... medium height for my time and culture (just under six foot tall), heavyset (a few pounds over 250, pretty much all of the excess being laziness and poor diet derived flab), doughy arms and legs and belly with no discernable muscle definition, a fat face I distracted attention from with a well trimmed goatee, long brown hair well past my shoulders that I usually pulled back into a ponytail, but not while I was sleeping.
Now... well... I looked different.
My hair and beard looked much the same as I remembered, although the touch of grey in my goatee seemed to be gone. My face was thinner and somewhat younger appearing than I'd seen it since, oh, my late teens, although for all the youthfulness of its appearance, I could still see something around my eyes that seemed markedly different from how I remembered looking at 19. My body had been entirely transformed into something I barely recognized - sleek and muscular, narrow waisted, deep chested, and broad shouldered, with beautiful definition along the ridges of my abdomen and the smooth, hard curves of my deltoids and upper biceps.
My skin seemed almost translucent and I could clearly see the tracery of my surface veins underneath, a look I'd only really noticed before on Bruce Lee and in Paul Gulacy drawings of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, which I'd been told usually denotes almost no body fat at all.
I looked like I could win a fist fight with Xena. In fact, I looked like a frickin superhero... albeit one with my face. Thinned down and with a more distinct jawline than I'd seen in fifteen years or so... but still, definitely my face. That was my irritating little smart ass grin, absolutely.
Glancing down, I noticed that my naughty bits apparently hadn't gone through any similarly enhancing transformation... oh, well. They'd been adequate to their tasks heretofore, although it had been quite a while since those tasks had included anything except urination and masturbation.
It was no damned wonder I felt so amazingly good, if this was the body I was wearing now. I glanced at the mirror again although I didn't have to; I found my visual memory was such that I could just as easily review the mental image I still had of my reflected image in detail. Yes, my eyes were still brown.
I slid silently to my feet with an easy, effortless, quiet grace I'd either never experienced before in my life or, if I'd ever enjoyed it at some point in my childhood, had long since forgotten. Strange bedroom, idealized body, sounds of the ocean outside... if this was alien abduction, they should market it better; someone was missing out on a fortune in admission fees.
"Your new appearance pleases you," a dry, cold, yet oddly familiar voice said to me.
I whipped around like a scared cat and saw, standing at the foot of my bed with a big smirk on his face, one of those short, ugly, swollen headed alien freakazoids from the original STAR TREK pilot movie... you know, the ones that kept trapping Christopher Pike in various realistic mental illusions.
"Oh, you gotta be shittin' me," I groaned. "Do I look like a lost Starfleet Captain to you?"
"This image is a mental projection," Big Head said drily. "It is to give you a familiar..."
"Image, visual reference point, context, whatever," I said. I reached out, snatched up the folded red and black cloth from the bedside table, realized it was a black silk robe with red trim - the most I'd been hoping for was a towel - shook it out, and put it on. "Fucking nasty little alien peeping tom is what you are, buddy. Not to be cliché, but where the hell am I?"
"Your modesty forces you to cover yourself in the presence of one you know to be only an illusory façade and surmise to be alien?" Big Head said, in exactly that 'what a cool lab rat we have here' tone he always used on Pike in the pilot. "How fascinating."
I wasn't paying much attention to the idiot. Under the robe was more stuff... a coiled up leather belt with a heavy metal clasp, and a pair of neatly folded, yellowish-brown gloves that looked like rough leather.
"Hmm hmmmmmm," I said, picking up the belt and letting it unroll between my hands. The leather was supple, sturdy and tough, obviously well oiled and cared for, worked and filigreed in an elaborate, seemingly non representational pattern of intertwining, almost floral looking runic designs.
"Pretty," I said.
The buckle was heavy indeed, probably weighing a pound or more; even with my new strength, it had a weighty solidity in my hand. It was crafted of some slickly smooth silvery metal of a duller, darker shade between true silver and iron, and shaped into a modified ankh symbol I immediately recognized as the hooked cross emblazoned on every album cover ever put out by 1970s guitar rock legends Blue Oyster Cult.
Which, of course, meant I knew exactly what was going on, here... except Big Head didn't look at all like anyone from my friend Jeff's BOC based roleplaying campaign in which I'd played a heroic and intrinsic part for years back in and just after college.
And Jeff had been dead since 1993.
I sighed and turned back to Big Head. "Okay, what's the haps here, O Master of the Mind? Is this all some mental illusion or what?"
He smirked evilly at me. "This is no illusion, human. You are what you appear to be, and this is a real place, albeit far removed from the fields you know."
"Dude, you need a dialogue coach," I said. "Or a quick rewrite from Quentin Tarantino. Your lines just blow."
I pulled the gloves on, suspecting what they were. Flexing my fingers in them, I found they were so light and supple I was barely aware I had them on. They reminded me of Sam's description of 'agent's gloves' in PUPPET MASTERS... so soft he could feel a dime and call heads or tails in pitch darkness. I wasn't sure about the 'stirring boiling acid' part, though.
I turned, pointed a finger at Big Head, then abruptly shaped my hand as if I were holding a pistol and willed it to be so. Sure enough, a gigantic Old West Colt .45 revolver appeared in my hand, pointing straight at the evil dwarf.
He regarded me blandly. "Yes," he said, "you see that you have been regenerated into an avatar of your idealized fantasy icon, a character you portrayed for years in an imaginary game construct in your youth. You see we have also provided you with the accoutrements used by you in that role."
I smiled. "Yep," I said. I pulled the trigger. The gun made a muffled barking sound and bucked slightly in my hand. Something like a burst of green New Year's Eve streamers without the confetti flew straight through Big Head and exploded in curling emerald papyrus-like strips against the wall behind where he was standing, crumpling to the stone floor and curling up again, looking like a discarded, oversized pom pom.
Big Head looked disgusted with me. "I am here, as with all your Chosen Companions, to see you property accoutered and give your basic orientation. I shall warn you now that although you have been Chosen, the final cull is not yet finished. You are, and will continue to be, tested. Failure in any regard will result in your rejection as a final Companion." He glanced behind him, then added drily, "Such foolish displays seem unlikely to reflect well on you."
I sighed, twirled the gun - Lady Logan, a magical weapon the idea for which Jeff and I had stolen from a popular SF novel of the 1970s - on my finger, let the butt snap back into my palm... then clenched my fingers and sent it back into the mystic limbo accessed by the gloves.
"Of course, you at least showed the common sense not to fire one of your homing rounds," he admitted, with an even wider than usual smirk. Lady Logan, like the weapons carried in the book I referred to, fires six different types of charges - an entanglement cartridge like the one I'd just shot at Big Head, that would wrap itself around any solid target it hit; an explosive round, an incindiery round that tended to make anything it hit burst into flames, a charge that exploded in a cloud of knockout gas, a shotgun-like cartridge of razor sharp pellets with a nasty spread cone, and, last but not least, a bullet that zeroed in on a target's body heat and, when it hit, burned out the central nervous system with a burst of focused electricity.
I'd always thought that last bullet was rather unlikely as a piece of technology - a bullet, after all, is just a ballistic missile hurled along a mostly straight line trajectory (as gradually deformed by any gravity fields it experiences) by a channeled explosive charge.
While I imagine some sort of homing package could be built into something that small, and I'll even go along with the electrical charge that burns out a central nervous system, I nonetheless have difficulty grasping how a tiny little piece of... whatever... can alter its imparted vector in flight without some sort of self contained propulsion apparatus... and when you start talking about building a guidance system, lethal taser charge, and thruster jets into a package the size of a .45 slug, I stop listening.
However, Jeff liked the idea and made it work in his game through the simple expedient of not thinking about it too much, i.e., 'magic', so I assumed it worked the same way here. And as I'd learned in Jeff's game once and only once, one does not fire a body heat seeking bullet (however it works) in a restricted chamber if you are the only living creature there. ('I' learned this in an imaginary battle against tattoo vampires, and no, you don't want to know what they are, but they don't have body heat.)
Beyond the homer bullet, Lady Logan flat out defies conventional physics in other ways, as she somehow manufactures her own ammunition, and I select which sort of charge to fire through sheer mental effort. And, one last point we very specifically kept from the original book - she's set to my fingerprints. No one else can fire her, or even pull her trigger.
So I ignored Big Head's smirk and repeated, "Where am I? And don't give me that 'far from the fields you know' crap. If you're here to orient me, then orient me, goddam it."
Big Head crossed his tiny little arms rather petulantly on his tiny little chest. "The data will be of little value to you, but in fact, you and your fellow Chosen are on your native world, but on a parallel timeline in which animal lifeforms higher than a protozoa have yet to evolve. We constructed this facility as a place for your orientation and further testing, prior to your embarkation on your true mission."
"Um hmmm," I said. I fingered the robe I was wearing with my gloved hands. I knew what the belt, and more importantly, the belt buckle, were, along with the gloves, obviously. About the only item that was missing was...
I looked down at my arms, clad in the billowing red trimmed black silk half sleeves of the robe, and with the same sort of mental effort I'd made to 'draw' Lady Logan from the storage dimension within my gloves, I 'willed' myself to be wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK t-shirt, an old, ratty green cable knit sweater, and a grease stiffened, ancient denim jacket with a random pattern of battery acid holes in the left shoulder... my Webster Madison, Hired Gun outfit.
The robe shimmered and abruptly, with a not unpleasant, silky smooth shifting sensation on my skin, morphed into the outfit I'd imagined. "Yes!" I said exultantly. "I've got my presto change-o suit, too!"
The suit, which could shift at its wearer's will into any reasonable article or outfit of clothing, had been a gift from... yes, I know how it sounds... the patron deity of Jeff's RPG, the Blue Oyster. Lady Logan had also been a gift from that particularly weird divine entity, as had the gloves of holding, as had the belt and belt buckle that was the last item on the bedside table.
As I now had jeans with belt-loops, I picked up the belt with its heavy metal buckle and threaded it into place around my waist, finally hooking the clasp firmly. A warm, surging rush of physical power and confidence went through me as I did so. The belt buckle's specific attribute was apparently fully functional, as well. I smiled.
I extended my arm, flexed my fingers, and concentrated again, calling up another memory. This time what appeared in my empty grip was a heavy, black metal, two handed pommel with very little guard, the haft itself wrapped with rough, well tanned sharkskin strips for a solid, no-slip grip. Protruding from this pommel was a five foot length of dark, double edged metal about three inches across, inlaid with four different deeply chiseled runes running up the central length of the blade.
The sword was heavy; heavier than it should have been, I somehow knew, if it had simply been composed of the finest, most densely layered stainless steel ever forged by mortal man. Of course, it wasn't; it was forged of obsidium, a mythical alloy composed of meteorite iron, powdered diamond, sea salt, and starlight, cooled once in dragon's blood and reforged, cooled a second time in the heart of a hurricane; and the third time, after the final forging, in a pool of perfect water.
Or so the legends said. In Jeff's campaign, I'd taken it as spoils from the dead body of the Champion of Chaos, after I kicked his scrofulous ass and saved the universe (a relatively small and limited universe, granted) for the good and noble Forces of Order. It was called the Elemental Blade, and I had named it Vastator, which I recalled reading in some science fiction book was Latin for 'destroyer'. (I was young and pretentious then. Sue me.) It possessed frankly preposterous powers, and I honestly thought Jeff had made an appalling mistake as a Game Master in letting me have such an enormously powerful weapon.
For all its deceptive weight, I found I could handle it easily one handed, striking a fencer's stance and running through a full thrust-parry-slash-parry-flourish-slash-bind-thrust series in the mirror. My wrist wasn't even tired at the end of the sequence, nor was my arm trembling. I knew how much Vastator weighed (although, honestly, I don't think that was anything Jeff had ever told me, it just seemed to be more of this information I 'just knew'), and if I could handle it as easily as this, I was pretty goddam strong.
Of course, if I were really Webster Madison, Hired Gun, and not just Webster Madison, aging fat fanboy geek, then I would be pretty goddam strong. The Hired Gun, as the appointed protector of humanity, is what Jeff referred to as an 'avatar of the Race', meaning anything any human could do, I could do... and my natural mental and physical capacities were mystically amplified three fold. In other words, take the Olympic record holders in every athletic category and multiply their greatest feats of strength, speed, agility, stamina, and accuracy by three and you had the basic bodily abilities of the Hired Gun.
I flourished one more time with the magical bastard sword, then flexed my fingers and willed it back into my gloves' mystical holding dimension.
I sat down on the edge of my bed and fixed Big Head with a glare. "Okay. Let me see if I have this straight so far. Your race, the Big Headed Bastards of Betelgeuse 17, has snatched up a whole bunch of folks, including me, in order to go on some mysterious mission. You've transformed me, and, probably, the rest of them, into... what?"
"We merely used our highly evolved mentalities," Big Head said testily, "to harness the nascent capacities of your own sentient minds to transform the energy of your physical bodies into forms compatible with your most deeply held desires. To accomplish this it was necessary for us to isolate members of your race with the most well developed active imaginations, who had closely and strongly identified with a particular fantasy projection figure."
"You..." I paused, and thought about it. "You grabbed a bunch of geeks, in other words, turned them into their fantasy heroes, and set them down here."
He flicked his gnomelike fingers dismissively. "As you wish."
I shook my head and smiled sourly. "And now you think we're going to go whipping off across the universe and fulfill some wildly unlikely and probably insanely dangerous quest for you, right? This plot sucks." I stopped for a second and made a clicking noise with my tongue. "So, what do we get out of it? What's our big reward for saving the universe, or finding the Holy Grail, or whatever?"
I leaned back against the wall and put my cowboy-booted feet up on the bed. Big Head, to give him credit, didn't even notice. He did, however, seem to be getting exasperated with me in general. "In the first place," he said, sounding like he was starting to be annoyed, "as I have already stated, testing continues, and our final group of Companions has not been selected. If you fail any of our further tests, you will be returned to your normal space-time locus in such a way as to believe this to be all nothing more than a lurid dream. Assuming, of course, that you survive your failure, which is unlikely."
"Oh, great," I said. "You haul us to some alien world against our wills, and then you test us to destruction? You're real nice. I'll bet there is no actual mission; you guys just get your kicks running rats through mazes until they die."
"There is a mission," he said, now definitely sounding aggravated, "and it is very important, or else we would not be expending such vast amounts of mental energy on the recruitment of a team of suitable representatives. As to the potential lethality of our tests, that is regrettable, but the mission itself as you surmise will be highly dangerous and our testing must be in earnest. While death will, of course, always equate to failure, that is not to say that it will be inevitable. Furthermore, one of the purposes in this orientation is to secure the permission of the sentients we have chosen before we subject you to any actual danger. If you wish, we will now return you to your natural space-time locus..."
"Under such circumstances as I will think this is all merely a lurid dream," I said. "Yeah, yeah. Anyone accept that deal yet?"
His big ugly gnomish face creased into his usual unpleasant smirk. "We had anticipated that such an offer would be met with universal refusal by the group we had Chosen," he said smugly. "So far these anticipations have proven accurate." He regarded with mocking solicitousness. "Do you wish to be returned to your native space-time locus at this point?"
"Dickweed," I told him, cheerfully. "I should say 'yes' just to watch you have an aneurysm."
He cocked his head over to one side and narrowed his eyes at me. "You would not," he stated. "Our analysis of your basic personality matrix states that you would never willing return to your conventional existence when offered an opportunity at self actualization and what you think of as 'adventure' in a context where you wield superhuman attributes at an unearned level of competence."
"Adventure," I quoted mournfully, "is somebody else in deep shit a long, long way away." I glared at him again. "And, by the way, you can bite me."