Artifice Comics Presents…
BENTO BOX #18
[Adrian J. Watts, Michael Franzoni, Greg Rosa *]and[ Jacob Milnestein*]
The moral rights of Adrian J. Watts, Michael Franzoni, Greg Rosa 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 Shakespir
Editor-in-Chief Jason S. Kenney
Cover design © Adrian J. Watts 2016
[_Lilac Crotalinae _]© Adrian J. Watts 2016
Fathers and Suns © Jacob Milnestein 2016
[_The Murderess and the Wanderer _]© Michael Franzoni 2015 – 2016
[_Libre Para Luchar: Masques _]© Greg Rosa 2016
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.
&Lilac CrotaLinae& by Adrian J. Watts
&The Murderess and the Wanderer& by Michael Franzoni
&Libre Para Luchar: Masques &by Greg Rosa _ _
&Fathers and Suns &by Jacob Milnestein
Adrian J. Watts
Two of them.
One next to me – big, strong, looks like a fight.
One across from me—small, thin, no challenge at all.
The woman sat on one side of the table, shackled at her wrists and ankles, with a silver-grey blouse and hot pink leggings. Her brown hair was up in a high ponytail, save for one bang, streaked with pink and white.
No, wait—three. The one near the door. Another danger. But not too many. If I can just—
“Again: what is your name, and how did you get in here?” the small, thin man on the other side of the table asked.
“Argon Viper. Number one-nine-nine-six. Freelance Warh—” she began.
“Enough!” the man snapped. “We have been doing this for hours. This organisation you mention, this tiger man—they don’t exist. The building you claimed was your base of operations—your handler, Agent Melhuish? We are in that building right now, right here at Canary Wharf, and there [_is no Agent Melhuish. _]So tell me again: what are you doing here?”
“Argon Viper. Number one—”
“Oh, just shut up,” the man said, rubbing his forehead. “I’ve had enough of this.” He turned to the man on the other side of the table. “Let’s go. Maybe Fait will have better luck.”
The two men rose from their chairs and made their way to the door. As they passed the third man, the small, thin one said: “Watch her, Sinclair. Once Fait gets here you’ll be relieved for the night. If this one tries anything, take her out.” The two men left, leaving only the third man, Sinclair, to keep the woman contained.
The woman smiled.
“Take me out? Unlikely.”
Sinclair smiled back.
“It won’t come to that, will it, Argon?” he asked. He began to make his way towards her. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small, black key.
He crouched beside her and reached for the shackles at her ankles. With one swift, fluid movement, Argon Viper swung her leg to the side, striking the man’s nose with the side of her knee. He fell backward, but did not release his hold on the key.
“What the hell?!” he cried out. “I’m trying to help.”
Argon Viper smirked.
“We only have a few minutes before Fait Accompli arrives from across town. You [_don’t _]want to be here when that happens. Let me unshackle you, and we’ll get out of here!”
Argon Viper began to shake her head, then paused.
“Your accent, you’re American. What are you doing here?”
“Freeing you, if you’d just let me!”
Sinclair smiled. “Because, believe it or not, I believe you. I’ve also travelled between worlds. I didn’t have a say in the matter, but I think I’ve met someone who works like one of those mystical keys you mentioned. I might be able to help you, and you _]might be able to help [_me.”
“Master. Not mystical,” Argon Viper said. “Go on, then.”
Sinclair moved forward and quickly unlocked Argon Viper’s shackles. She threw them aside and hurried for the door.
“Where’s my vek-pac?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Sinclair replied. “Right now we just need to focus on getting out of here.”
He joined her at the door, unlocked it, and led her through to a long grey corridor. It was deserted, as he knew it would be. The building was a safe house, built under Canary Wharf and surrounded by water. It was used for only the most secret operations of the UK government and its associated organisations and had no permanent staff. As far as Sinclair knew, only he and his two handlers – the men sent there to detain and question Argon Viper – were the only people there.
Still, he wasn’t surprised when he heard a loud clanking noise around a corner, at the end of the corridor. A moment later a large, black figure emerged. A figure that appeared to have wings.
“Boss!” it called out.
“Chojin!” Sinclair called back. “We’re here. Did you secure the exit?”
“Sure did,” the figure replied. As Sinclair and Argon Viper approached, it became clear what the figure actually was; a six-feet-tall humanoid robot with large, jet-like wings sticking out from its back.
“Argon Viper, meet Chojin Robo,” Sinclair said. “I’ll only be able to take you so far. He’ll take you the rest of the way. But for now, we need to focus on getting out of here. The building itself may be deserted, but the UKXD have eyes everywhere else.”
From further down the corridor, in the direction from which Chojin Robo had come, the group heard a loud cough.
“We also have eyes here, Sinclair,” a voice said. The trio ran around the corner and saw, standing halfway down the corridor, the same small man from the interrogation room. Behind him stood half a dozen men in thick Kevlar armour, each carrying a long rifle.
“Did you think you could come here, giving off the energy signals that you do, with a [_clearly forged ID, _]and we wouldn’t notice? We assumed you had something to do with this woman, we just didn’t know what. We will know soon, though.”
“Chojin…!” Sinclair shouted.
The robot nodded and grabbed Argon Viper. It ran down the corridor from which Argon Viper and Sinclair had come, dragging the woman behind it.
“Stop!” she shouted. “We must fight!”
“No way, babe,” Chojin Robo replied. “My orders are to get out of here. We’ve got a man on the outside. He’s going to help you get home!”
They reached the end of the corridor, and were confronted with a thick, steel wall.
“Can you swim?” Chojin Robo asked.
“Of course!” Argon Viper replied.
“Can you hold your breath for long?”
“Of course!” Argon Viper replied.
“Good. And you look strong, so you’ll be holding me. Henshin!”
Before Argon Viper’s eyes, the human-sized robot began to transform. Its wings seemed to flare outward as its body contracted into one solid, thick rectangle. Along the top of the rectangle, from the robot’s upper back, protruded what looked like a very small cockpit. From beneath the wings emerged two long handles, which Argon Viper instinctively grabbed.
“Ace Bazooka!” the device exclaimed. From the ‘cockpit’ emerged a beam of red light. The air crackled around it as it struck the metal wall and, within moments, a hole had emerged. A hole through which water rapidly poured.
The device transformed back into its humanoid form, but the wings remained outstretched. As the water quickly pooled around her knees, Argon Viper watched as the robot’s wings flipped backwards—they now ran along its body, like the wings on the side of a jet.
“Hold your breath, lady!” Chojin Robo shouted. It stood behind her and placed its arms through hers, hugging her from behind. It leaped through the hole it had created and swam forcefully, upwards. Still, it was almost a minute before they broke the surface of the water – almost too long for Argon Viper to hold her breath. As she felt cool air touch her face she took a deep breath – a painful breath, as her lungs expanded.
Chojin Robo pulled her across to nearest bank, where Argon Viper saw another man standing. Like the men inside the underground facility he wore thick, black Kevlar armour and carried a long rifle.
As Chojin Robo lifted Argon Viper up onto the bank, the man quickly approached. Despite being sodden and bedraggled, Argon Viper was not slow—she lunged forward and grabbed the man’s rifle, which he released in surprise. Lithely, she swung the weapon around, using it to strike the man’s ankles from behind. He stumbled forward, and in another quick movement, Argon Viper swung the butt of the rifle up, hitting the man hard in the groin. He fell backwards, groaning.
“Goddammit, robot!” he exclaimed. Like Sinclair, he had an American accent. “I knew helping Damien would end in trouble!”
He let out a loud groan.
“You work with Sinclair?” Argon Viper asked. “Even so, I don’t know I can trust you. Or him.” She glanced at Chojin Robo. “The robot, though, I trust. It’s like a walking vek-pac.” Argon Viper stepped forward, so she was standing directly over the man.
“Speaking of which… where is it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man groaned.
Argon Viper pressed the barrel of the rifle against the man’s temple.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “Where. Is. It?”
Before Chojin Robo could stop her, Argon Viper squeezed the trigger.
The Murderess and the Wanderer
How right that it should end here, she thought, with the moon high in the sky and the rhythmic pulse of the dark water lapping against the sand and stone. There was a sense of tranquility and serenity, knowing the road had been traveled, that the journey was now over. The shard of rock felt heavy in her hand, and her fingers flexed around it, tightening their grip on the sharp edges. “Our story should have ended in Pacific City, Wanderer. We have no more business, you and I. Move along. I won’t warn you again.”
Across the sand, he stood silent and still, staring at her with eyes that were strangely reminiscent of her own, the eyes of a killer. He was disguised behind a stranger’s face, something he’d picked up from a stray dreamer’s wanderings. When he spoke next, his tone oscillated briefly before locking in on a pitch, as he searched for the voice that matched this body. “I wish to help you.”
“You should have thought about that years ago.”
“I was a different… person… back then. So were you. Our attempts at reconciliation would not have been possible.”
She shook her head. “There is no reconciliation for us. I had the chance to complete my mission, and your interference robbed me of that chance. Now, I’ll never get it.”
He tilted his head to the right, but his expression remained stoic and disconnected, almost alien. “I was a hero. It was my job to save those lives —no matter how guilty they may have been. The public persona does not separate vengeance from murder. It knows only the danger. A hero must always strive to protect the public. That is what I learned from the Millennium Man and from the other heroes of Pacific. But you—you are not a hero. Nor would I call you a villain. Reckless and violent though you are, your motives were justifiable, even if your action were not.”
“And now we’re going to make it all better?” Her grip tightened once more, and the rock disintegrated into dust. “There are no happy endings for people like me, and now, there’s no closure, either. How do you plan on fixing that?”
“Now, we find a new way of living. And we both learn to live with our sins and begin to make amends.”
Libre Para Luchar
I. The Three Lessons Billy Learned
THE FIRST LESSON BILLY LEARNED WAS WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE.
Billy was fucking around when he was in class, like he usually was doing. Well this one time he messed around and took it too far. He turned his mask around in class and sat backwards in his chair while the teacher was writing something on the board. When she turned around and faced the class something weird happened.
Now Mrs Camarreri was a really nice teacher, cool, nice, but strong. One time I saw her smack a student right in the face right there in class. We were all expecting that he would tell his parents, but nothing ever came of it. It was like the kid knew he had been acting like a jerk, and maybe she crossed the line, but maybe so had he—so why get anybody in trouble? It was like that. Like you could respect her and even kinda dig on her a little bit, too, you know? I mean, we’re talking about a woman who would have been in her early to mid-twenties—ancient when you’re in fourth grade, but looking at it with an adult’s perspective, it takes on a different cast.
Anyway, Mrs Camarreri turns around and faces the class, and whatever openness and kindness you could read into her expressions, were done away with in an instant. Her mouth did this funny little thing. It was like a twist in the comer, like she was literally sipping her mouth shut, and whatever warmth, whatever compassion, were neatly put away. And whatever titters had been flitting around the room were stifled. Instead of being companions in on the gag, we became a different set of witnesses. All our eyes were on Billy. Instead we became his accusers. His punishers. There was an awkwardness, an eerie pallid silence. I don’t know how to describe it. He was clowning around and it was funny and then it suddenly wasn’t, like really wasn’t. And there was this, it was like a transfer of power. We were in on his judgment.
Miss Camerreri turned back to the board. She didn’t say a word.
Billy quickly straightened up his face and sat the right way and we didn’t say a word. And unlike with the kid who had been smacked we knew that this was not the end of it.
When they announced a few days later that Billy’s prolonged absence had been caused by an accident in the home and that he would be back shortly, we knew.
Billy indeed came back a few weeks later. He looked fine.
And nobody said a word.
THE SECOND LESSON BILLY LEARNED WAS A SIMPLE LESSON IN MATH.
By then he was working for one of the big firms. His hair was shorter. He had settled down into a comfortable little routine. He was relatively competent at his job. Still didn’t take things too seriously.
He had a particular style, did Billy. Slovenly. He never dared pull a prank like he did at Miss Camarerri’s class, but was none too careful about his appearance. He had just turned in a quarterly report, which, after some time and considerable effort, he thought had turned out rather well. He was looking at his calendar and generally taking a moment’s breather when he was snapped out of his reverie by a message to come into the VP’s office. He pressed his lips together.
“Another unscheduled meeting. Figures.”
He sighed, fixed his collar, picked up his pad and marched over.
In the office was his manager, the JVP, and a couple of older guys he felt he should recognize, but didn’t. One thing he knew for sure. If he was the low man on the totem pole, they were the entire totem pole. He looked around. No other team members. Pupils enlarged to nearly cover the entirety of his hazel eyes. Bit his lip.
“Sit down,” said one of the gray haired gents. “Billy do you know why we’re here?”
“I’m afraid not. Was there a memo?
“It’s not about the report, Billy. It’s about you.”
“What? Me? Why? What about me?”
“I’m afraid it’s about your behavior, son. It’s about who you want to be.”
Another old man chimed in. “Look at you. You shirt is out, you face is all out of place. He stopped, seeming to need to get himself together for a moment. “There are parts of you peeking out that I do not want to see and honestly shouldn’t have to.”
“We shouldn’t and don’t put up with slovenly behavior here, Billy.”
“Young man, do you understand our meaning?”
Billy sat up a little straighter in his chair. “Ye-yes. I do.”
“Good. Now. What do you have to say for yourself?”
The lesson Billy learned had a lot to with proportions. And Billy learned that there was a lot of different ways to get beaten up.
THE THIRD LESSON BILLY LEARNED WAS ABOUT PRIDE.
He had been on the lookout and had had a feeling about this one. By then we were friends again. And anyway he spotted this kid, liked to walk around, be by himself.
You know the type.
So he ducked out of sight, followed this kid until the kid thought he was maybe by himself. It was in this little like underpass I guess you would call it? But not like for cars, like under where people would walk? Almost like in that story where the troll was supposed to live. You know that one? Where he would snatch up people walking alone unawares on the bridge? Anyway. Like that. So this kid, it was in the pit of summer, I get that, and the masks can, if you’ll excuse my vulgarity, be a little uncomfortable. But you don’t loosen the strings and make to take it off even halfway when you’re in public. Only at home. And even then only when necessary. I mean, if everybody did it, where would we be then? Where would society be then? Tell me that.
So Billy kept an eye out and the next time this kid goes down to the underpass in the park, we’re waiting for him. As soon as he has his arms up and unties the strings, Billy tackles him from the side, and we’re on him. And that first kick to the kidneys feels so agonizingly good.
And the third lesson Billy learns is that there are more ways than one to get out the aggression of getting beaten up on all your life. And it’s better to be part of the pride that takes down the strays, than one of the hunted.
Fathers and Suns
At first he imagined he heard the sound in the garage.
He laid there in bed, in the dark, pretending he hadn’t heard anything, pretending that everything was okay, that there was no reason to get up, until finally the sound came again; the muffled sound of footsteps in the garage that sat next to the bedroom, the movement of someone in the dead of night rooting through the assorted garbage of old car parts, garden tools, and out-of-date pots of paint.
A thrill of fear ran through him, a thrill of excitement.
Quietly, and with some protest, he rose from his bed, taking out the shotgun from the cabinet where it had slowly gathered dust these past few years since he had lost the passion for shooting rabbits in the woods that surrounded his home.
Gently, he tiptoed through the dark of the house, his shadow long against the faded wallpaper in the bright moonlight, the shotgun held trembling in his grasp, and he was reminded of some old cartoon that he had watched he was a child at his grandmother’s house.
He passed by the couch, still decorated in last night’s empties, the pizza box stained with grease, faded picture of a large Italian man with a bushy moustache.
It’s rabbit season.
In silence, he came to the door to the garage, struggling to keep the shotgun level, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
For the longest moment he simply stood there, trembling in the shadows despite the relative warmth of the night —and then, with a tremendous effort, he lifted his leg and kicked the door open, bursting into the garage and swinging the gun around to cover all angles, blinking furiously in the light.
He blinked again, trying to adjust to the light, and then slowly he saw the intruder, standing by the old pick-up truck, right hand open, a ball of burning light hovering just above the palm.
Cold sweat trickled down his back.
“S-Sam?” he murmured.
He knew that such an entrance would have guaranteed his demise; he knew that if it was anyone else he would be dead.
The figure by the truck smiled gently, dark hazel eyes beneath a fringe of brown hair.
“Hey, Dad,” came the answer.
He swallowed hard, lowering the shotgun.
“I-I thought you were gone,” he murmured, “thought I’d never see you again.”
Sam shrugged, looking slightly sheepish, and in the light, he could make out the details in the other’s appearance, the faint remainder of acne around his nose, the messy hair that never looked right no matter how much it was combed.
“I’m not supposed to be here.”
He swallowed hard.
“W-Why did you come back?” he asked.
There was silence for a moment between them.
“I remembered something,” Sam answered, nodded at the open door of the truck, the old stereo and its forgotten collection of cassette tapes; tapes they had played back in happier days on long drives into town. “Something that reminded me of you.”
He felt tears in his eyes, felt his lips dry as he tried to form the words.
“My boy,” he whispered.
Sam’s expression changed, not hurt, not sadness, something he couldn’t understand.
“I’m not your boy, dad. Not anymore.”
He felt something like anger rising up inside him.
“You’re my son,” he protested, “you’ll always be my son.”
A look of frustration rose and fell upon the other’s face, anger peaking and fading, confusion and sadness rushing to fill the void.
“Have you ever felt that you weren’t like other people?”
He tried to laugh it off.
“I always knew you were different, son,” he spoke the term once more without thinking, only realizing that it seemed wildly inappropriate now when Sam winched at its usage.
He looked away.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said at last, “maybe I am getting all this wrong.”
Sam said nothing, standing stoic in the light projected, and then with a sigh, the old man reached around the other, leaning into the truck and fishing around in the glove compartment until he brought out a dusty bottle of bourbon.
“You wanna sit on the porch for a while?”
Sam looked hesitant, worried almost, then shrugged.
“Sure. Why not?”
The light of the stars above them highlighted the cracks in the wood between the boards.
Sam hadn’t thought much about the old house since they left; they hadn’t thought about the time they had spent there as a child, about chasing their dog through the wild, endless fields, about coming home crying on the school bus —about that first flicker of light they had conjured in their hand before they had ever known how important such a gesture was.
“Do you miss it?” their father asked, taking a swig from the bottle as they sat on the porch, looking out over the corn fields.
Sam shook their head.
“No,” they replied, then added, “maybe.”
There was a momentary silence between them, the chirp of crickets in the moonlight, the slosh of the liquor in the bottle as their father lifted it to his lips once again.
“I miss mom,” Sam ventured after a while.
Again, their father drank, a longer, more determined swig this time.
“So do I,” he replied as he lowered the bottle, “every day.”
“I…” they faltered, their brow creased in a frown, “I think I could have saved Mom… if I’d known then what I know now…”
Their father shook his head sadly.
“G-d’s will, Sam.” He paused, then looked over at his erstwhile child. “Though looking at you all grown up now and wearing that fancy costume, I’m guessing there’s not much difference between you and He in what you can and can’t do.”
Sam lowered their eyes, looking down at the cassette tape they still held in their long, thin fingers.
“What’s it all about, Sam?” their father asked after another swig. “What’s this island you all went to?”
Sam lifted their head to the moonlight, a look of sudden, uncontainable excitement on their face.
“We built it,” they answered, and gestured with one free hand. “We built it off our own backs, with our hands.”
They turned to look at their father, smiling broadly.
“I helped make something, dad,” they laughed, “me, the kid who was always terrible with cars and farm machinery, I helped build something. It was… it was…”
Their voice trailed off.
Their father nodded.
“Say it,” he said quietly.
“It was… the closest I’ve ever felt to being like you; to being good enough for you.”
In that instant, Sam felt their father age, felt the years suddenly catch up and smother him.
“I’m sorry I was no good, back when you were a b—” he stopped, then corrected himself, “back when you were a kid.”
Following Sam’s gaze, he too lifted his head to bathe in the moonlight.
“I’m sorry I was a rotten father, Sam.”
Sam shook their head.
“You’re weren’t,” they answered softly, “you just didn’t understand.”
“I could have tried more,” he protested.
Sam nodded, not arguing.
“So could I.”
Their fingers tightened around the tape in their palm.
“I should go.”
Silence, another swig.
“Will you come back?” their father asked.
Slowly, they turned their head.
“Yes,” they said, no doubt in their voice. “Yes, I will. When everything is fixed, I’ll come back.”
They stood up, stepping off the porch and rising into the air —and then paused suddenly, turning to look back over their shoulder.
“Just because I’m not your son, doesn’t mean you’re not my dad,” they said softly.
And then a moment later, they were gone, a sun as bright as any distant star in the night sky.
A[*drian J. Watts *]is an author from Melbourne, Australia. Primarily writing tokusatsu-themed fiction, Adrian has also dabbled in more general superhero fiction, as well as crime and non-fiction. Adrian loves [_Super Sentai _]and [_Kamen Rider _]and thinks AkaRed is the greatest guy ever.
The author of the novels The Burning Lands and The Infinite Eye, Greg Rosa has also been a soldier, poet, musician, graphic artist, and programmer. As a writer, his work has appeared in anthologies from Pro Se, Artifice Comics, and Space Buggy Press, among others.
M[*ichael Franzoni *]wants you to keep those lobstrocities away from his trigger fingers.
J[*acob Milnestein *]hates you.
[_“Loco rides with loco,” Virgil chided. “You could have hung back in Tombstone, Jim. Or ridden onto Tucson with Stillwell.” _]
Filled to the brim with tales both wild and weird, PSYCHOBILLY is a homage to the genre tropes of the Western as depicted on television and in print. Collecting together stories of wandering national deities, corrupt mansions, unspeakable underground horrors, and pacts with the Devil himself, this volume celebrates the stoic steadfastness of lawmen and outlaws in the face of the arcane and the obscene.
Featuring the work of Greg Rosa (Dreamer’s Syndrome: New World Navigation), Adrian J. Watts (Guardian Force Roboman), Matthew Cavazos (Ars Magna: Talisman), Tommy Hancock (YesterYear), Jason S. Kenney (Bush43 Vol. 1: Oh, the Lameity) and PSYCHOPOMP stalwarts, C.S. Roberts (Faux Past) and John Brown, this collection is the latest in a series of speculative works from Mysteria Press recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison.
"Instead of being companions in on the gag, we became a different set of witnesses. All our eyes were on Billy. Instead we became his accusers." In a world where everyone wears a mask, how great a crime is it to reveal one's naked face? From a darkened interrogation cell beneath Canary Wharf to the classrooms of a society, BENTO BOX explores the meaning of masks and identity, the line between the persona we adopt for values of justice and the person our families know us as. Featuring the work of Greg Rosa (Dreamerâ€™s Syndrome: New World Navigation), Adrian J. Watts (Guardian Force Roboman), and Artifice Comics stalwart, Michael Franzoni, this collection is the latest in a series of mini-anthologies from Artifice Comics recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison.