Artifice Comics Presents…
BENTO BOX #16
[Adrian J. Watts, Robbie Lizhini, Jason S. Kenney *]and[ Jacob Milnestein*]
The moral rights of Adrian J. Watts, Robbie Lizhini, Jason S. Kenney and Jacob Milnestein to be identified as the Authors of this Work have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2016 by
This version published by smashwords 9781310838590
Editor-in-Chief Jason S. Kenney
Cover design © Rowan Cota 2015
[_Atlantic City _]& [_Pacific City _]© Jacob Milnestein 2015
Mr. Pleasant © Adrian J. Watts 2015
Remote Reflections: A Bluecoat Story © Robbie Lizhini 2015
[_Post Modern: Changes _]© Jason S. Kenney 2015
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used factiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
&Atlantic City& by Jacob Milnestein
&Mr. Pleasant& by Adrian. J Watts
&Remote Reflections: A Bluecoat Story&[_ by Robbie Lizhini_]
&Post Modern:& &Changes &by Jason S. Kenney
&Pacific City& by Jacob Milnestein
The sentence ended abruptly, the coffee slipping from her hands, a wash of latte against the beige carpet, the blue sky glimpsed behind the smudges adorning the window.
She stood with the coffee growing darker upon the carpet, the faint aroma of Pike Place, the richness of another city invading the closeted space of the cramped apartment as a tremble ran through her legs.
Shirt untucked, coarse sweater and corduroy pants, Molly Tildën stood before the television set and watched the scrolling text at the bottom of the screen, the same blue sky as the one that filled the space outside of her uncleaned windows present beneath the clouds of pixelated grey smoke on the screen.
She shook her head slowly from side to side, mouthing that same word again and again. 7:45 in the morning – that was a song, a quiet part of her brain registered, a part of her brain she didn’t need to hear from right now – and on the screen before her there was smoke and cloud and blue sky and something was happening in the world that she didn’t understand.
She dropped onto the couch, the warm coffee soaking into her socks, frilly lace around the ankles, Howard had always said it made her look like a little girl, but she didn’t give a fuck what Howard thought anymore, not since he had moved to LA and left her behind in the middle of nowhere.
Why had she given up smoking? she asked herself. She shouldn’t have given up smoking. If this was a book then right now she’d be casting around for a pack of cigarettes that wasn’t there and this wasn’t a book anyway, she reminded herself, this was real life.
She felt a tremble run through her, her legs feeling as if they might give way even though she was now firmly placed on the frayed edge of the couch.
The ticker tape commentary continued to scroll along the bottom of the screen, the smoke beginning to clear slightly. In the corner of the screen was a blonde woman with a microphone in a little insert box, she hadn’t noticed her before but she was talking.
‘—ling for WNN—’ On the screen, the woman turned and looked over her shoulder. ‘—can’t get close to the scene of what was… what was… oh, Jesus Christ—’
On the screen, amidst the reams of smoke, the endless clouds, there were figures standing in the sky.
Wedged between the arm of the couch and the cushion, her phone began to vibrate furiously.
Without thinking, without looking, she reached for it, sliding her thumb against the screen. A querulous voice began to tremble close to her ear, an assortment of words she didn’t understand, couldn’t understand.
It took her a moment, a fleeting glance as she pulled the phone away from her ear and frowned at the screen before returning it, to register who was calling.
“Mom?” she said, her eyes fixed on the television set. “Mom, yeah, I can’t talk. I can’t talk right now. I need to… I need to phone work.”
She hung up and then sat there for a moment longer, staring at the screen, watching the incredulous expression the blonde woman wore, watching the smoke as the wind caught it and warped it, twisting it in patterns, revealing details of the figures standing in the sky.
They wore costumes, she realised, old style costumes, the kind people had worn fifteen years ago.
Not people, they weren’t people anymore. They were assigned human at birth, but didn’t consider themselves human. They had taken offense at being considered human, had built an artificial island in the Pacific Ocean, made a home on the remaining ruins of the moon.
She pushed her thumb to the screen of her phone again, found the office number in her contacts without taking her eyes from the television and dialled, lifting the phone to her ear once more.
There was a dial tone, a long bleat, a slow silence, and repeat, then the click of connection, a tiny gesture that made her part of the world once again.
She could see them on the screen now, the image was still pixelated, still distorted, the events happening so suddenly that she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing.
They were familiar, she thought, the costumes, she had seen them before somewhere… except that they weren’t like costumes now, not with so many of them, they were more like uniforms.
Amidst the smoke and cloud there were easily five or six of them, each of them with their hair cropped close to their heads.
“Jimmy?” she said, her voice trembling as she heard the sound of the office. “Jimmy, what’s happening there?”
There were shouts in the distance, phones ringing, machines spewing paper, frantic noises of people and technology.
The ticker tape continued to roll along the bottom of the screen, the blonde woman in her little box in the corner of the screen looking frantic and worried.
She blinked furiously and at last found that she could read the words, or at least some of them.
“Jimmy?” she said again. “Jimmy, can you talk to me please? What’s happening?”
… terrorist action…
She knew that costume, she knew what that meant, she thought suddenly.
“Jimmy,” she said, tears in her eyes. “Jimmy, I really need to hear from you..”
White and red, a burning yellow circle in the middle of the chest.
“Jimmy!” she sobbed.
White and red, a burning yellow circle in the middle of the chest, five of them standing in the clouds, standing in the smoke above the hole in the ground.
[_Atlantic City… destroyed… whole city… wiped from the surface of the planet… terrorist action… Atlantic City… _]
[_ ]“[_Jimmy]!” she called out again.
From the other end of the phone, a voice suddenly spoke, panicked and frantic.
‘We’re at war,’ he whispered. ‘America is at war.’
Adrian J. Watts
The Rose Diner on Pleasantville’s south side rarely had more than half a dozen customers at a time.
Rosie, the owner-manager, liked it that way. For her, it wasn’t all about money; she considered the happiness and enjoyment of her customers to be far more important.
It had been that way since she first moved to Pleasantville eighteen months earlier. A settlement from a car accident meant that Rosie and her husband, Gerard, could live a more than comfortable life – but when they did move from their home on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin, even the hustle and bustle of New Jersey wasn’t enough to satisfy the lifelong waitress. She used part of her settlement to open her own diner in one of Pleasantville’s poorest areas.
At first, the decision led to a lot of fighting between Rose and her husband, but that had ended abruptly when a second car accident took his life. Initially heartbroken, Rose found that the diner and its regular patrons helped her move on more quickly than she would have thought possible – and none helped more than Mort.
Mort was Mortimer Pleasant, and Rose loved to watch him. He came to the diner at the same time every day – 11:58am – and left at the same time every day – 12:14pm. He ordered the same meal, and sat in the same seat at the same booth. He was always smiling, and always happy to lend an ear and offer some kind words. Rose suspected he came to the diner not for the food, but for the people
– just as she did.
But Mort had been gone for the past week, on a trip to neighbouring Atlantic City. Rose had never picked Mort for a gambler – quite the opposite – but she assumed everyone had a vice of some sort.
He was due back that day, and Rose resolved to get to know Mort better; perhaps as well as she had known Gerard.
At exactly 11:58am the door swung open and the strapping form and beaming face of Mortimer
Pleasant strode confidently in. As always, he was dressed in a perfectly-tailored business suit, with perfectly-polished shoes and perfectly-combed, jet-black hair. He nodded to Rosie as she poured coffee for a customer near the door and walked straight to his usual seat.
Rosie returned to the counter and refilled her coffee pot in preparation for taking it over to Mort, but just as she rounded the corner at the end of the counter, she was interrupted.
“Mort!” called another regular customer, who was sitting at the far end of the counter. “You’re back!”
“Morning, Dave,” Mort replied, flashing the other customer a broad smile.
Dave picked up his breakfast – scrambled eggs, two rashers of bacon, and a takeaway cup of coffee
– and moved to Mort’s table. Mort’s table was a small one, intended for a lone customer or a couple, and Dave’s breakfast took over most of it. Mort didn’t seem to mind, though. He just kept smiling, and maintaining eye contact with his fellow customer.
“So, how was Atlantic City?” Dave asked.
Rosie had thought it impossible, but Mort’s smile broadened even further, and his eyes took on a bright sparkle she had never seen before. Mortimer Pleasant, the nicest, pleasantest man in the world, seemed nicer than ever.
“It was great, Dave,” Mort replied. “I hit the jackpot.”
At those words, Rosie’s face mimicked that of her customer. If she had needed another reason to replace Gerard, now she had one. To get to know Mort she might even invest a bit more of her own money… and buy a car that wasn’t so prone to accidents every time she tampered with the brakes.
At 12:14pm, Mortimer Pleasant said goodbye to Dave, paid Rosie (and gave her a generous tip, as always) and began the short walk back to his car. He hummed joyfully as he made his way down the street, but stopped to smile at the parking metre attendant checking the reading on the unit next to his car.
“Oh! Hello, Mr Pasczeuk!” the attendant said.
“What?!” Mortimer ejaculated in surprise. “I’m – Cheryl?”
As Mortimer looked more closely, he realised that he recognised the attendant. Her name was
Cheryl Jacobs, and normally she worked near Mortimer’s own workplace on the opposite side of town. He didn’t expect to see her near the diner. It wasn’t part of his plan.
“Pleasant…” he mumbled.
“What?” Cheryl asked.
“Pleasant,” he mumbled again, a little louder. “My name is Pleasant! MORTIMER PLEASANT!”
He stomped past the shocked woman, climbed inside his car, and sped off.
Mortimer rushed through his front door and slammed it closed behind him. He leaned against it, panting heavily, and hastily threw off his suit jacket. Underneath it, his shirt was stained in several locations with sweat. He hadn’t anticipated bumping into someone from his “other” life, someone who could destabilise his careful planning. He had been working too long, and too carefully, for anyone to ruin it now.
He took a few deep breaths to compose himself and, leaving his jacket on the hallway floor, made his way downstairs to his basement. There, a light flickered irregularly and a sour, metallic smell reached his nostrils. He breathed it in deeply.
He didn’t like his basement. His house – the portion above ground – was kept meticulously clean and orderly. Unfortunately, the purpose to which he put his basement made it impossible to keep the subterranean area as neat as he would like. Dark stains covered portions of the concrete floor and walls, but it was the smell that disturbed him the most.
He walked to one corner where the light shone brightly and consistently, unlike the flickering bulbs elsewhere in the room. It was his favourite corner. It was the neatest, and tidiest… and where he kept his recent winnings.
On two metal chairs, with bolts drilled through their forearms to anchor them to the seatbacks, were two young people. Each clad in skintight red and white material, with a solid yellow orb decorating their chests, with short, dark hair. Their sexes had been hard to determine – with androgynous looks and strong, lean bodies, it was hard to distinguish one’s tight breasts from the other’s firm pectoral muscles. Only on very close examination was Mortimer able to make a judgement about their sex, and that spoke nothing of their gender; but they were as close an approximation of a male and a female as he expected to find among their kind.
Several tubes ran from gaping wounds, to which they were attached with thick fish hooks, to several tubes on a bench nearby. Both had particularly wide tubes running into their mouths through openings cut into their cheeks, and the man also had one protruding from the space between his legs, although his tattered clothing obscured what it was ultimately connected to.
“You just keep on paying out, don’t you?” he said. His broad smile was gone, replaced with a sneer.
The two Millennials slowly raised their heads, but with their blood-matted hair partially covering their eyes, no-one could know if they saw the electric drills before they felt them. Thick, dark blood oozed from fresh wounds as Mortimer put the drills down and reached for a pair of blood-stained gloves.
“This time, we’re going to try it from the inside out,” he said. He reached for the obscured tube, and as the perceived male Millennial let loose a scream – muffled by the endoscopic tube stuffed down his throat – Mortimer’s sneer was again replaced with a broad grin.
This was his plan… and it was all working out so pleasantly.
A Bluecoat Story
I sit quietly on my haunches, looking through a pair of micro binoculars. I lean over the Donut King’s squat roof, to get a view of the alleyway yawning through Echo Park like a festering wound. The thumping of dance music rattles my perch. It’s too distorted to make out more than its rich synthesized bass. But my focus is on the squat warehouse across the thoroughfare. It’s called the Keystone. In the ‘20’s Chaplin, Lloyd, and Arbuckle made films there. Though for most of its life it was a manufacturing plant for paper bags. Ten years ago, it was bought for dirt cheap and transformed for a third time. Now it’s a nightclub my target spends too much time at. It’s almost 2am—last call for alcohol.
The night is hot, and stuffy, making it hard to breathe. Lifting my pill-white mask to the bridge of my nose didn’t seem to help much. The thick and heavy air, just doesn’t contain nearly enough substance to fill my lungs the way it should. I don’t gulp air though, that’s a pointless exercise. It wastes energy and takes the focus away from the streets of Los Angeles below. I take slow gradual breaths. It’s something we all learn in this city, not to waste what little we are given.
I’ve been sitting here watching, for almost an hour. I expected him out much later than 2am, but I didn’[_ t want to miss him. The target is a well- known postmodern ganger called Christopher ‘][_Sorbo’][_ Kull. I don’_][_t expect him to be happy to see me. But I have a few questions, regarding a lab break-in at UCLA. _]
Along with the beakers and Bunsen burners, the culprits also nicked some experimental fibre samples. Normally this isn’t my kind of gig. But I’[_ m led to believe that despite the data storage potential, they are extremely unstable -- a time bomb ready to rid LA of some prime real estate. So I sit above the flat stretch of shadow and grime, waiting for my tenacity to pay off. And it does, in spades. _]
The clattering of high heels against cracked asphalt and pitch, silence Bluecoat’s thoughts. He shifts his attentions to the edge of the alley. A silhouetted form walks erratically from a swinging backdoor. Its thin arms swing a chocolate leather clutch, trying its best to walk straight despite the obvious intoxication.
“HEY!” a voice shouts through the yawning door. “DON’T WALK AWAY FROM ME!” The second body throws itself through the rusting portal, rushing into the alley.
The escaping shadow, throws a look over its thin shoulder. The street lights catching wisps of platinum blonde hair glittering across a sun-kissed shoulder framed by the tight fabric of a blue chiffon dress.
“Go back inside, Chris your fans are waiting,” her voice seemed to catch in her throat as she spoke.
“SHUT UP,” the second, and much larger form said. It strode determined after the blond. “Those girls don’t mean anything, Cindy.” The grinding voice shouted, blistering the yellowed concrete of the parallel buildings.
“Fuck off,” the blonde said turning her head over her shoulder again.
The larger silhouette abruptly stopped as though he was stung by those words. “Goddamn it, why do you have to be like that?” He asked, in a much lower, pleading voice. “Why do you always want to see the bad side?” The large man grunted almost theatrically as he brought the tips of his hands to his temples.
Bluecoat could only watch as a rusting dumpster suddenly sprung to life. Its metal body creaked, firing from the east wall. It moved like a missile towards the blond. She leaped backwards, instinctively, as fear shot through her mind.
“Jesus Christ,” she said flabbergasted. Her wide eyes stared at the dumpster that had almost collided with her. “What is wrong with you?”
The larger form lunged towards the tawny blond. ‘Chris’ was at her back in an instant. He lashed out with a hand gripping her small shoulder. “What’s wrong with me?” the larger man asked, spinning her body towards him.
The blonde stood petrified. She stared at the large man who loomed over her. He was nearly seven feet tall, wearing a white ribbed tank top that stretched over his barrel chest like a second skin. “ What -IS- wrong with you? ” the man yelled, his sandy brown face contorting in anger. He released her shoulder pushing her. She stumbled backwards, her red Mary Janes skidding across the abused pavement. She fell hard on her backside.
Bluecoat had seen enough. Gripping the fringe of his white mask he drew it over his face. The blue luchador-like designs lined-up with the silhouette of his face. He dropped down from the roof in a single movement. Loose gravel and masonry glittered after him like pixie dust. The tightly compacted movements were so quick, to the human eye, it would have appeared he’d fallen over the edge.
Sitting still on her bruised ass, the blonde looked up at her angered boyfriend. Her face wrenched in terror. Her black eyeliner bled down her richly tanned face. “I’m sorry, Chris… I didn’t mean…”
Sorbo’s thick face frowned, shaking noticeably as he looked at her.”Why are you always like this huh? Why do you always bring me to this Place?”
“I didn’t… I’m sorry…” she repeated, but her last words were cut off as a dark blue boot darted over her boyfriend’s massive shoulder. The toes collided with his jaw. The impact sounded like a clap as thick bone hit finely adroit toes.
Sorbo’s center of gravity wasn’t ready for the sudden kinetic force. He felt his hips twist involuntarily as his foot left the ground. His body spun like an NFL ball before colliding into the grime coated concrete wall. The massive body sent hairline fractures running through the alley wall.
Cindy brought her hand up to her mouth as her boyfriend’s massive shoulder slammed into the wall. Crumbles of rocks dribbled down to the pavement as he tried to move. He shook his head, trying to clear his rattled thoughts. “Can you save this lover’s spat for later, mi amigo?” The masked newcomer asked as he turned his head to the massive post-human who had gripped the wall to straighten his posture.
Bluecoat slammed his right forearm against the man’s neck. The force pushed the resident oxygen out of his lungs. The vigilante pulled him down the wall, the big man’s knees hitting the cracked concrete to meet his eye level. You broke into UCLA last night.”
“So what, you trying to arrest me?” the large man asked, as he struggled. His eyes grew wide, veins rising across his temples. “Good luck with that… sidekick.” His voice bellowed unevenly illustrating the concentration he was exhibiting.
The blue dumpster behind the fallen girl began to shake. Bluecoat frowned under his mask. The hinges on the dumpster shattered like glass.
The dented blue metal lid whirled through the air, as though an invisible string had pulled it with incredible strength. Bluecoat shifted his left hip ever so slightly. His left arm curled over his shoulder in a single snapping action. Strong fingers catching the metal lid like a vice grip.
“Those days are long gone—the Citizen is dead. And the rules have changed,” the vigilante said flinging the dented lid to the ground in a metallic crunch.
Bluecoat crumpled the left hand into a fist. The cold knuckles pressing into Sorbo’s firm abdomen. A snapping crack of electricity shot from the gloved fist. A short electric pulse like a Taser sent a scorching heat of pain running up the man’s body.
“SHIT!” Sorbo bellowed trying to press further into the wall with little avail. “What was that?”
“You should have used your powers better,” Bluecoat goaded him, pressing his forearm tighter against his throat. “Now, tell me about last night.”
“Seriously, that’s what this is about?”
“Oow… damn.” He shook his head, “What’s in it for you?”
“You guys grabbed something I’d like to see returned.”
“Then you might be pissing up the wrong tree, sidekick. It was just lab equipment. Crazy thing it was, to be honest. Not sure what the guy got out of it.”
“Guy?” Bluecoat asked. “Who was this guy?”
“An old grampa, long white hair so thin it was almost transparent. Wore a full on grey striped suit like the kind you’d find in Mad Men. Called him, the Doctor. He was offering $50,000 half up front. So we didn’t bother with questions.”
“So you’re telling me I’m looking for a Time Lord?”
“I don’t know what he was. Weird thing was after we pulled the gig, he let us keep everything and then paid the other half of our bill.”
“He let you keep EVERYTHING?” Bluecoat asked, sounding incredulous.
“Mostly, yes. Only thing he took was some carpet samples.”
“Carpet samples? Are you fucking with me?” Bluecoat asked, letting his left fist spark again.
“Ow… Oww… I’m telling the truth. It was these little squares of cloth. I don’t know why he only took that. The beakers themselves can fetch a bit of coin.
“Hmmm,” Bluecoat said letting the idea rake against his mind. “These carpet samples you’re talking about, were they orange?”
“Come to think of it, like that… light peach, maybe orange. Color was kind of strange, bright coloured I didn’t think people decorated their house like that.”
Bluecoat nodded in an affirmation. What Sorbo described, and what he was given by the professor didn’t link up. He knew the samples were supposed to be an orange like color but that’s where the similarities ended. Was he mistaken, was Sorbo wrong, or had the professor lied to him? “Where can I find this Doctor?”
“Beats the hell out of me, like I said I don’t know anything about him.”
“And you didn’t ask questions?”
“Look, man, we were being offered 50,000 as long as he wasn’t a cop I’d not care if he was the Mother Teresa.”
Suddenly, Bluecoat’s belt began to vibrate, the pouch rumbling into his left hipbone. “Shit,” he sighed. “Okay, forget we had this conversation.” He let go of Sorbo’s throat. The man’s face tightened up at the freedom.
“Like I’d say anything, man.” His face began to quiver; his light brown skin began to shake. Thick branches of veins began to run across his scalp. “Unless I…”
Bluecoat spun on his heel lashing his right arm from his side. His knuckles slammed into the large man’s face, with the power of a sledge hammer. Sorbo’s eyelids closed on impact. His body slowly slid to the ground, crumpling into a fleshy heap.
“You too,” he said looking at the terrified girl. He reached to his left air silhouetted in the spandex mask. A quick digital sound chirped. He heard the pop as the earpiece activated
“[_El Agente Guariez,” _]Bluecoat said into the ear piece. He easily shifted from his English interrogation of the ganger, into the Americanized Spanish he talked to the detective with. [You have something for me?]
[I might…] Guariez said through the speaker. His gruff voice seemed almost like a whisper. His tongue stumbled on every vowel. “[_Que ah, es y…” _]He seemed to drop off for a moment, as though his mind was struggling like Sorbo’s had been earlier. [You’re… Uhh looking into the UCLA break in you said]
“Si.” He admitted, [but I’m not sure my lead is going to work out.]
[That’s doesn’t sound too promising, what is your next.. move?]
“Ralph,” Bluecoat said shifting to English, his voice growing much deeper and concerned. “I appreciate it, but you didn’t call me about the break in.”
[You’re right, I needed someone to talk to. Did you hear about New Jersey?]
[I heard there was an explosion a few hours ago. Atlantic City was it? I’m not really sure what happened.]
[I really don’t know, myself, the news is slow coming in.] Bluecoat could hear the detective sniffing between sentences. [Thing is, Marissa had just gone there for work. Her source was in Atlantic City. ]
[Your daughter….] Bluecoat said. He didn’t know Marrissa personally, but he’d heard quite a lot about the young journalist, through Guariez. [She’s a tough girl, though.]
[Yeah she is. I just wish I could do something.]
[I don’t know how I can help…]
[ I got to focus on something, sitting on my hands isn’t going to do anyone favors. Maybe we could talk over your case?]
[Sure… yeah man… regular place?]
Jason S. Kenney
Blinding light. Even when he closed his eyes it still tore through.
And then it was dark.
And then he was falling.
He hit a slope and tumbled, rolling with debris down, down, down, a race to the bottom of a hole that seemed to go on forever.
He hit bottom with a cry of pain quickly muffled by dirt and rocks and remains as it filled the bottom of the crater that once was Pacific City.
He fought his way up. There was no other option. He clawed at the dirt and debris and ignored the pain in his body, his lungs, the dirt filling every open area.
Keep going up.
Endless dirt and darkness and pain and tightness and he wanted to scream but he couldn’t.
He should be dead.
After everything he should be dead.
After an eternity, his hand broke free and grabbed at the edge of the world. He dragged himself up and out and fell face first back to the ground, coughing and hacking and choking for air.
He tried to blink his eyes clear, empty the dirt from his vision, but the world remained dark.
He pushed himself to his hands and his feet, his fingers digging in the loose earth, his right hand wrapping tightly around something that poked at his hand.
He paused his movement, considered it, lowered his head to the ground and clenched his teeth.
It found him.
Inevitably, it had found him.
And that meant his friend was dead.
Jeffery Carter inhaled sharply, lifted his head, reared back and screamed at the heavens as an angel laughed in his mind.
And then the water rushed in.
He opened his eyes to darkness broken by pinpricks of white.
“So you’re awake.”
Carter didn’t move, staying on his back and staring at the sky. He felt warmth beside him, the crackle of a fire breaking the otherwise silent night.
He tried to speak but his throat was dry and his voice came out as an unintelligible croak.
Carter turned to see a man offering a bottle his way. The man’s features were worn, his silver hair glistening even in the firelight. Carter rolled onto his side and took the bottle, taking a swig without question and immediately regretting it. Carter nearly dropped the bottle as he gagged, holding it back out as he coughed from the burn in the back of his throat.
It was water. But it was boiling hot.
“Jesus…” Carter hacked as the man took the bottle back. The man studied the bottle and its contents, shaking his head as if in disappointment before setting it aside.
“Guess I’ll have to let it cool.” Charlie Winters stared into the fire while Carter slowly pushed himself up right. Everything hurt. He moved into a sitting position and put his head in his hands, crammed his eyes shut and took a deep breath.
“It’s over,” Carter said.
Winters nodded though Carter couldn’t see it, and kept his eyes on the fire. “Yes.”
Carter opened his eyes and saw the scarab dangling from the chain around his neck. He wrapped his hand around it, ripped the chain from his neck and tossed the thing into the fire.
Winters snickered. “You know that’s not going to do anything, right?”
“I know,” Carter said, watching as flames licked the metal.
“I guess that means Vicky’s dead?”
Carter nodded. The two sat silent, watching the scarab begin to glow from the heat.
“I suppose that should make me happy,” Winters said with a sigh.
“She killed your wife.”
“I know, but that was then.”
“Who won?” Carter finally asked.
“The good guys.”
“Who were the good guys?”
Winters gave a short laugh and nodded. “Fair enough.”
“The Imperial Magistrate?”
Carter nodded. “Where’s Manly?”
“I don’t know.”
“I really don’t know.”
“I’m going to find him, you know.”
“And then what?”
Carter wasn’t sure so he just sat there.
“Everything’s changed now,” Winters said.
“That’s an understatement.”
“It’s only beginning. Have you felt it yet?” Carter looked to Winters who was staring into his hands, looking for an answer there. “A spark…”
“I felt a hell of a lot more than a spark.”
Winters reached out and grabbed Carter’s wrist, his hand burning into Carter’s arm.
Carter didn’t pull away, just looked from his arm to Winters and the sad look on his face.
“Everything’s changed,” Winters said again.
Jeffery Carter cursed under his breath as he got the towel around his waist and threw the bathroom door open.
Of course she’d call when he was in the shower.
He stopped as soon as he was out the door, his ringing phone in the hands of a man who was staring at it with an amused look on his face. Carter assumed he was a man, but his figures were more boyish, tall, lanky, but generally plain.
“Rick Astley?” the “man” asked, looking to Carter from behind his domino mask. “Are you seriously Rick Rolling yourself?”
Carter tightened his grip on the towel and surveyed the others.
Five in total, all of a similar look, though their build varied slightly. Almost as if they were aiming for a gender neutral look. Two on the other side of the living room, two to his left, the one with the phone to his right.
All dressed the same: tight latex white outfits with a sunburst on the chest, black domino masks on their faces.
The “man” held the phone out. “You want to answer it?” His voice was light, almost lazy and uninterested.
It was a sound he typically heard out of a scarab.
Carter took it, answered it, and put the phone to his ear.
“You have company, Mister Carter,” said the voice on the other end.
“I can see that, Nancy,” said Carter, eyeing the others, all of them staring at him except for one to his left who angrily surveyed the apartment. The other was big and seemed amused, and that worried Carter. One across the room looked nervous. The other just had her arms crossed and eyes narrowed. The one who had given him his phone was smug. Carter figured this one was the leader.
“They’re probably there concerning Atlantic City.”
“What about Atlantic City?” Carter asked and the one who handed him the phone nodded, as if anticipating the topic. The others exchanged glances, but otherwise waited.
And Nancy Meyers told him about Atlantic City.
“Thank you, Nancy,” Carter said and he hung up without waiting for a response.
His eyes went from each person in the room, left to right, as they all seemed to be waiting. The last one, the one who had handed him the phone, was the first to speak.
“You probably have questions.”
“Yeah,” Carter said, one hand on his towel, the other holding the phone out to the leader who hesitated and then reached for it.
Carter flicked it toward its face and the man-child flinched, but not nearly as much as it did when Carter smashed the palm of his hand into his nose.
Carter stepped to his left and pivoted, bringing a foot up and around and into the angry one’s jaw, continuing his spin and removing the towel from his waist as he spun it tight and pulled behind the big one, looping the towel around his neck and cutting his legs from under him, planting a foot in his back as the big guy hit the ground, leaving him gagging.
Leader held up a free hand toward the others who had started to move forward but stopped. It shifted to hold off the angry one.
“We’re not here to fight you,” leader said, one hand holding a bleeding nose.
“I am,” said the angry one as he rubbed his throat.
“Then what do you want?” Carter said, pressing slightly into the big one’s back, the towel tightening around his neck. “Be quick.”
The angry one scoffed. “Or what?”
“Stop it,” said the nervous one across the room, woman’s voice, familiar.
“He won’t do anything,” the angry one replied. “Bush doesn’t kill.”
“Carter does,” said the other, a woman, a smirk playing on her lips.
“Mister Carter, please.” The nervous girl’s eyes pleaded. Carter had seen those eyes before. Years ago. And it clicked.
“We are Millennials,” said the leader. “And we’re not here as enemies.” Carter looked to him, leader still holding his nose with one hand, the other up. “Scout’s honor.”
Carter loosened his grip on one end of the towel and pulled it from around the big one’s neck, pushing him to the ground as he stepped back and wrapped it back around his waist.
The big one rose rubbing his throat but smiling. “I like him,” he said with a Russian accent.
“What do you want?” Carter asked as he stepped back and tried to keep them all in his field of vision, but keeping his eyes on the one he’d called ‘Ash.’
“We were not responsible for Atlantic City,” said the leader. “But the actions of…” he paused, “others are an internal matter and will be resolved as such.”
“Others? Other Millennials?”
“We will take care them. We’ve come to ask you not to interfere. Any investigation or effort to involve yourself in what comes next will be at a great cost for yourself and those you love.”
“I don’t do threats.”
“And neither do we. But out of respect for you and your relationship with the First we wanted to warn you.”
“Millennium Man,” leader clarified and that got Carter’s attention. “You served with him.” The angry one scoffed but the leader continued, “But that distinction will only go so far.”
“We should go,” said the smirking one as she backed toward the door to the balcony and slid it open. “There’s a lot to do.”
The leader looked to the angry one and nodded his head toward the balcony. He glared at Carter as he walked by and to the door, followed by the big guy who was still smiling.
“We should do this again!” he said loudly.
“We won’t,” said the leader. “Not if you listen to us, Mister Carter.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Please,” said the nervous girl, Ash. “Don’t.”
“Come,” said the leader as he walked past her. She hesitated then followed, the five each stepping onto the balcony and then into the air, rising into the sky.
The smirking girl was the last one to go. “I’m a big fan of your work, Jeffery. Please don’t make an enemy of us.”
“That seems to be up to you guys.”
“No, it isn’t.”
She rose after the other four, leaving Jeffery standing in his apartment wet and seething.
Everything had changed.
On York Road, the street lamps provided illumination over the pavement like the backwash of color from a television set in a lonely living room. She shivered in the cold, wrapping her arms around her chest, pulling the weight of her pea coat about her.
Age 19, Molly Tildën had been at university for barely a handful of months when the dread British winter had set in. Everyone told her it would be colder in London, and yet she hadn’t quite been able to really comprehend just how cold it actually would be before she had found herself alone in the city, struggling to make sense of British money or odd spellings, drinking too much at house parties, and living in the liminal weirdness of her university dormitory.
People in London were weird, she had decided fairly early on. British people in general were weird, oddly out of step with things she had taken for granted back home.
No one liked the same music as her. When people here spoke about [_garage _]music, they meant something different to the music her parents had played when she was a child.
Of course, she had heard that British people were weird, but she hadn’t expected them to be so – she shrugged to herself, as if engaged in some kind of silent conversation – so provincial.
If she had to hear that Cheeky Song again, or another crooning Daniel Bedingfield ballad, or even those two Russian girls singing about pretending to be lesbians, she was pretty sure she would scream.
Again she shivered in the cold, glancing over her shoulder for the bus. There was supposed to be a new bus along this route, a 24 hour one, she had been told, one that only started in February. She tried to remember what it was, and then, as she approached the iron bridge, she glanced over the street to squint at the numbers on the bus sign.
390. That’s what it was, the 390.
She turned again to look behind her. The road remained silent.
With a sudden frenzy that startled her, the old cell phone her mother had given her before she moved away rattled into life, buzzing furiously in the folds of the lining, demanding attention.
She pulled out the smooth grey-blue plastic phone from her pocket, the faded letters above the screen now reading N-KIA instead the full manufacturer name.
She glared at it in horror. Why was it making this noise at 3am on a Saturday night? Why was it ringing so loudly?
And then, upon the LCD screen, she saw the simple caller ID.
Hesitantly, she lifted the old faded plastic to her ear.
“Mom?” she asked, looking ahead at the darkened street, the bobbing glow of the lamps, the silent road.
On the pavement, the heels of her shoes clattered loudly, the cold touch of the wind lifting her coat, revealing the hem of her dress and the ladder in her tights.
Her handbag was heavy in the crook of her arm as she held the phone to her ear, hearing her mother’s urgent voice, the sudden frantic tone, the volume at which she spoke.
“Which city?” she asked, suddenly conscious of her voice in the dark. “In Australia? No, mom. No, that’s like…” she paused, looking up, hearing voices.
It’s cold, she thinks, it’s cold and she is shivering, and beneath her coat she had on only a cheap Topshop dress on and a pair of tights, and she was lonely and small in the world, and everyone was so much louder, so much drunker than her.
“It’s a long way away,” she said, her voice dropping, and suddenly full of fear, her eyes wide.
The streets were free of movement, and yet there were voices and shadows, the sound of cans being knocked over, of men talking loudly.
“It’s somewhere else,” she said, “it’s not here.”
Briefly she thought that everyone born male should have to live like this once, to know what it feels like, to know what it is to be threatened in places you once felt were yours; to have the world taken away, to be powerless in the chill of night; to be scared of shadows and voices just because you were alone.
“A whole city?” she asked.
Suddenly there were so many people she was carrying with her now; so many bits of her that now belonged to other hearts, so many echoes of them in the way that she moved in the dark and humid heat of nightclubs, the glitter and eyeliner smears on her face.
But how could she think of a whole city when she was just one person?
She shook her head.
“I-I don’t know it,” she said in the dark. “I never heard of it.”
She thought about where all those people were, she thought about what had happened to them, and then she thought that the world is unforgiving and full of ghosts now.
Her mother continued to talk into the cold air and she didn’t listen but was grateful of the noise, the distraction.
In the dark, in the echo of the voices of other people, in the space between the dead of night and the dawn, the world suddenly seemed a smaller place.
THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT EMILY, BY EMILY
by JACOB MILNESTEIN
The first time I saw her, like not in one of those god-awful videos they show endlessly on VH-1, was at my dad’[s house during some big Thanksgiving celebration. My dad sort of came out of nowhere and told us we were going to be celebrating Thanksgiving this year and I was all like, _]what the hell have I got to be thankful for?[ But, as is kind of the case in our family, my questions were conveniently brushed aside._]
Atlantic City has been destroyed. Almost a decade after the loss of Earth's first and foremost superhero, an entire city has been destroyed by a superhuman cult; they wear his costume, his sigil burnt into the fabric of their uniforms - and yet they are unlike him, difficult to read, their language ambiguous, their manner alien. No longer identifying as human, they are secretive and silent, standing at the divide between the past and the future. And the only person who might have the answers as to where they came from does not want to be involved... not even when they arrive unbidden in his apartment. In the tradition of classic '90s superhero comics by Claremont and Byrne, Bento Box #16 features stories by Jason S. Kenney (Love Amongst Strangers: Twisted), Robbie Lizhini (Presidential Pulp), and Adrian J. Watts (Guardian Force Roboman) in a new era for speculative shared universe superhero fiction.