Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kicking and Screaming Into the Digital Age-Article

First, they came for the movies, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a filmmaker…

30 years ago, the movie industry was abuzz with the innovation of the VHS recorder. This invention made it possible for people around the world to see movies in the comfort of their own homes, tape television shows for later viewing, and allowed for the beginnings of a true independent movie scene. People in rural areas and in the great expanses of the Midwest that rarely got a chance to see movies first-run in their town could now buy or rent the tape, and many of the great filmmakers of today would’ve never been able to start cutting their teeth at so early an age without the companion VHS camera as well as allowing Joe American a far easier and cost-effective way of recording home movies. And I don’t need to tell you that without the VHS boom the adult film industry would be a much different thing today.

Of course, the consumer quickly realized the movies could be easily copied. Yes, it was a pain to hook up two VCR’s and dub from one to the other, and it took at least as long as the movie itself to make a single copy. The tapes were bulky and took up huge amounts of space, and their quality diminished over multiple viewings. But still, it was the start of real home entertainment. It was also the start of the entertainment industry’s long love/hate relationship with in-home technology. Who hasn’t scoffed at the various Interpol and FBI warnings still with us today about copying and displaying copyrighted material? Who among us, if it wasn’t actually us, didn’t have an uncle or a cousin that had whole walls devoted to copied VHS movies? Yes, there were a few arrests here and there, but those were mostly from the ones that tried to sell their bootlegs at flea markets and sidewalk blankets. Most movies that were copied came from the booming video rental business, and the big movie companies and distributors were somewhat mollified by considering the tapes were at least bought by the rental businesses in the first place.

Then, they came for the games, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a gamer…

When I was a youngster, I had and loved my little Commodore 64 PC (the 128 was for pretentious snobs). In the days before the big Nintendo 64 boom, my little Commodore was the premier game system. I also had a few buddies that had a few buddies that knew a few people (anybody remember the “Basement Boys”? If you do, then you’re an old fuck like me) that could get you any game you wanted. I had boxes and boxes filled with pirated games and really thought nothing of it. I played “Wasteland” with bunches of back-up floppy discs (kids, look that one up) so I always had ammo caches to run back to. I played “Pirates!” into the wee hours of the morning and lost myself in Skara Brae with just my warrior monk to face the hoards. Life was good, and though I didn’t realize it, I was part of the problem. Every pirated game I had was that much less going to the creators and companies that paid big money to produce and market them. Coupled with the ease of pirating these floppy-based products, it was no wonder when the Japanese cartridge-based evolution came to be that the game companies virtually abandoned the floppy market in favor of producing for the much harder to pirate game systems.

Then, they came for the music, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a musician

Many years ago, when Napster was still a borderline-illegal file sharing peer-to-peer network, the music industry freaked out. And rightly so. Music lovers said they were tired of having to purchase entire albums just to get the one song they liked. They were fed up with the rising costs of CDs and, at the time, cassette tapes. They were sick of hearing about the massive profits the big labels were making off a few cents worth of plastic and silicon. They wanted to be able to put together their own albums and create their own soundtracks and playlists. The MP3 was the answer to all their woes. Now, only one person need buy an album and download it into their computer. The rest would go to Napster, Kazaa or other similar sites and “share” with the rest. The argument; it wasn’t illegal since no money changed hands. It was just friends numbering in the millions “sharing” copyrighted material with other friends numbering in the millions.

Then the lawsuits and the arrests started. The FBI busted in on a few high-profile users with literally hundreds of thousands of songs stashed away on their hard drives. The industry scrambled to keep up with technology of their own, from greater copy-protection methods on their physical media and what would eventually become today’s DRM (digital rights management). Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, became the most hated man among these file-share music fans because he was one of the earliest and loudest opponents of free music sharing. Imagine, the nerve of artists and labels actually wanting to make a profit from their work when the people wanted to pay only in the coin that any artist should value; attention. Eventually, the labels and independents alike learned they would have to play ball on the new digital field, reluctantly embracing the new technology themselves. Napster went legit and artists and labels formed unholy alliances with them as well as Kazaa, Amazon and even Wal Mart (yes, Wal Mart has a huge mp3 online operation) to distribute their music to the digital age. Individual songs, whole albums and literally millions of bits and bytes of content flooded the online market for pennies on the dollar. This was still good news for digital music fans, though they now grumbled about paying $.99 for a song, and it was “okay” news for labels and artists who were at least now getting something where before they got nothing. It has also allowed many lesser-known musicians to gain access to wider markets through the comparatively inexpensive uploading and transaction technologies.

But the revolution was not without its casualties. Concept albums are virtually impossible to sell now with the ala carte mp3 concept. What label or artist wants to put the effort into that kind of endeavor when the individual songs will be cherry-picked and the artist’s meaning will be completely lost? One of the joys of physical media was finding the “hidden track” or other bonus goody. That, too, is pretty much a moot point now as well. And though the technology has allowed lesser-known musicians wider distribution by self-publishing through their own sites or through sites specifically catering to “new music” fans, it means these acts will rarely get picked up by the larger labels and become true professional musicians able to quit their day jobs and focus on their art. We all know the concept of the “starving artist”, and we all know musicians that say the integrity of their music is the only thing that matters to them. We also know that, with limited exceptions, neither of those groups would turn down a big-label contract, either.

And then they came for the writers, and there was no one left to speak out for me…

Kindle, Nook, e-Reader… no matter the format, the digital book is here to stay. Just as musicians and labels were forced to accept the digital revolution, writers and publishers are now faced with changing or dying. Brick-and-mortar bookstores selling ink-and-paper books are closing faster than video rental stores. You can get any book you want shipped right to your door if you’re the type that needs to feel the pages between your fingers, and the rush is on to convert every book known to man to the digital formats.

But wait, you’re likely saying to yourself, don’t the benefits outweigh the losses? Digital books are far cheaper than their dead-tree counterparts, not to mention more eco-friendly. They’re more convenient to the reader, and literally hundreds of them can be stored in the physical space occupied by your average coffee table book, or less. People that normally couldn’t afford to buy more than a few books a month can now buy dozens for the same money, not to mention the very nature of e-publishing has allowed for an explosion of hungry writers no longer confined by the narrow guidelines of publishers and editors to get their work out there to the masses.

Yes, yes to all those things and likely more. However, there’s a downside to all this; a big downside.

First, writers and e-publishers are now facing the same threats to our intellectual properties and copyright ownership as the music industry faced. Unfortunately, the copy protection technology used for mp3 today doesn’t have as strong a counterpart for our text-based work. For an example, Tony Faville, author of “The Kings of the Dead”, discovered quite on accident that his entire novel was being shared via torrent. His novel has since been picked up by a traditional publishing company, making him a good example of both sides of the e-publishing coin. He put his book out as a self-published work and gained enough traction from his excellent reviews to get placement with a traditional publisher. However, had the torrent gone on longer and the book reached a saturation point for free there would’ve been no benefit for a regular publisher to pick up the work. Why would they go through the trouble and expense when there were so many freeloaders that now have no reason to buy the book?

Second, the publisher eliminates much of their upfront expenses of days gone by (i.e. advance printing in the hopes the physical books will sell, expensive transportation and distribution etc) and really only has to concern themselves with the occasional P.O.D. (print on demand) orders and promoting the product. Many publishers simply contract out their remaining duties to other companies (Lulu, Amazon etc) yet still take their 50-75% cut of the net profits for doing, essentially, nothing.

Third, a lot of exclusively e-publishers either charge for editing services or simply rely on the author to self-edit. In so doing, they are failing in one of their traditional capacities; that of working with their authors through the editing process to the benefit of both sides. The publisher has such a low level of capital risk with e-publishing they are now far more willing to just throw a bunch of shit against the wall and see what sticks. Editing and quality control often suffer since the publisher really has no monetary stake at risk. So what if a book they publish is actually pretty crappy and doesn’t sell? Aside from some bandwidth they have nothing invested in it. Even the advertising is virtually always done on the web through banner and link shares and the publisher’s website and Facebook, which as you know are either free or cost comparatively little.

I have read a few e-books that, while the stories were quite good, the hand of an experienced editor could’ve made them great. Part of the publishing experience, especially for an up-and-coming writer, is working with their editor. Many authors need the unbiased eyes of an editor, someone not so close to the work that they regard it as one of their children. Additionally, and I fully include myself in this, not every author is a scholar. My “toolbox” (as Stephen King calls it) is pretty-well tricked out and organized, if I do say so myself. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the dreaded adverb or grammatical mistake. With many e-publishers now unwilling to invest in editing services on the front end for their authors to fine-tune their works, some authors that truly deserve a shot at becoming professional writers can develop a bad reputation for sloppy work through their self-edited e-books. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, such as Jennifer Melzer’s (nee Hudock) fine author-edited “The Goblin Market”, but she has the rare double-threat of not only knowing how to create a story but also how to properly display it to the reader. But in many other cases I can see an author publishing through one of the start-up, self-edit or pay-edit e-publishers tarnishing their image before they even establish it through poor editing skills.

I’m not saying these things didn’t happen in the ink-and-paper days. There are still traditional publishers that charge reading fees, “office fees” and even editing fees. But these publishers still at some point have to make the financial investment to print and advertise the book and, in some cases, pay an advance to the author before book #1 gets sold. They aren’t going to spend the money upfront unless they’ve got a reasonable chance of selling the damn thing to the people. This creates a de facto quality control of sorts, separating the hobby writers from the real aspiring professionals. Now, I know what some of you are saying to this; the old way only means the same trite, overdone bullshit just keeps getting printed because they know it will sell. On that, you’d be right to a degree, but that mindset is often what made blockbusters. If your stuff was way different than the norm but a publisher thought it was good enough to risk putting it out, you knew you had something there.

And, finally, there’s the e-market itself. The explosion of self-published authors means a market flooded with all manner and level of literature. On the surface, we can say “good for them!” It’s now easier than ever for a writer to put their work out there and build a readership. The problem with it being so comparatively easy to do is that the market is overloaded. How does a self-published writer compete in this sudden mass market? Well, through their pricing of course. This is a boon to the e-book consumer as they can now load up their digital reader with dozens of books for anywhere from $.99 to $1.99 each. Yes, folks, that’s less than a dollar in many cases. Unless you already have a “name” or your book is through a traditional publisher that is offering your work in digital form, if you price your book at anything higher than that your sales will show it. Remember mp3’s from a few paragraphs ago? They typically sell for $.99, too. That’s a 3 minute song for the same price as a 50-80,000 word or higher novel or anthology. Without the editing and monetary risk safeguards of traditional publishing the market is flooded with the really good, the really bad and the really ugly, and the only way to compete is to rock-bottom the price. This is great for the hobby writer, but for the scribe that either is trying to or would like to make writing their career it just won’t cut it. A lot of professional writers are doing both traditional publishing and e-publishing at the same time. This can and does work well, but few of them got their break in traditional publishing from their self-publishing. Yes, I know, you can probably tick off two or three just while sitting there reading this, but compare this to the overall number of self-publishing writers and the number remains small.

I’m also not saying self-publishing is a bad thing in and of itself. I plan on dabbling in it myself in the near future. But I’ve also been through the publishing grinder and have a very healthy rejection folder that forced me to get better at the craft I love so. I had to improve or my work wouldn’t see the light past the editor’s desk lamp. Writers need to start small, and yes, a writer’s work needs to be judged by a critical and sometimes harsh eye. I worry that young and/or inexperienced writers that have real talent will completely forego the traditional experiences of working through the magazines, the small-press publications, hunting for representation and the many, many rejection letters that both thicken their hides and force them to get better. I worry they will elect the quick-and-easy self-publishing, self-edit route only to find their work doesn’t sell or worse some trolls tear them apart in some 140 character review or comment section, forever dampening their love of the art and destroying their confidence in a public forum instead of the constructive destruction offered up in relative privacy by the wielders of the red pencils. I also worry that the technology protecting our intellectual properties and copyrights just hasn’t kept up with the technology to distribute them, and there are few writers out there with the financial means to keep a lawyer on retainer for when they discover their work has been pirated or is washing down a torrent all through the world wide web.

Until the ability to protect ourselves catches up with our ability to distribute ourselves, self-publishing will be a dangerous game for any of us to play. I’m not saying “don’t do it”, I’m simply saying if you’re going to do it, do it well and do it carefully. The world has changed for us, both writers and readers alike. You readers out there need to do your part as well. Don’t support free torrents unless it’s specifically stated the author supports it as well. Don’t give your friends your log-in and password to your e-book accounts so they can read for free the books you’ve bought. Every time you do, you take food from the author’s mouth and reduce his ability, drive and confidence to create more art for your enjoyment. If you liked an e-book, take a moment and leave a comment or review about it. Those comments are often the only real advertising some up-and-coming writers can afford. Come on, he sold you the damn thing for less than $2 in most cases, the least you can do is leave a little feedback, right?

In closing this thing out, let me assure you I’m not some pro-corporate guy, nor am I some sort of snob elitist when it comes to scribbling. I’m just a guy struggling to get his words out there the same as a lot of other folks with as much or more talent than me. But I’ve also been playing this game long enough to maintain a healthy suspicion and skepticism of a barely-controlled distribution medium. I have had two different experiences with my writing, one in the digital arena and one with a shady ink-and-paper publisher, that have taught me hard lessons about signing away my babies. I won’t be fooled again, and as I navigate these new self-publishing waters I’ll be sure to pop back up here and give you updates as to my experiences in this new age. You may not like what I have to say, but you can be sure it will be the truth of things as I know it. So, until then, just write damn it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Go Forth, And Sin No More - Fiction

Hello once again, Constant and Casual Reader, and welcome back to my head. For those of you with faith, do you believe that all sin can be absolved? Do you believe in the power of forgiveness and atonement? For the mortals among us, this can usually be achieved through a few "Hail Mary's", some painful discourse with those sinned against and a few bucks in a collection plate. But what happens when something not-so mortal wants to repent? I give you "Go Forth, And Sin No More". I hope you enjoy. - Author

The truck stop diner was nearly deserted. It was Christmas Eve, and most of the road warriors would either be taking advantage of the equally deserted interstates or heading home to be with their families. But there were those stalwart few who had neither home nor family, whose life was and always would be the road. These little places served as the only family and home many of them would admit to, so they stayed open throughout to give them just some small feel of home.

But John Amos was not a son of the road but a son of God. He was a balding, middle–aged man that couldn’t believe he was sitting here instead of leading his parish in Christmas Eve services. He'd turned that duty over to his younger assistant and had couched it as a chance for the younger to get a taste of how maddening the preparations and the service itself could be. Father Amos’ church was small by many standards, but he’d never let the size of the congregation dictate the importance of the service. He’d never missed a Christmas mass, even through his bout with the flu a few years before. It would take an act of God to make him miss any of it. But then, he was here after all, wasn’t he?

Father Amos stirred his coffee and thought back to the vision he’d had just a week before. He'd just gotten off the phone with the florist to arrange for the poinsettias that would decorate the foyer leading into the sanctuary when his office filled with a bright, warm light. Too startled to speak he could only watch as the glow intensified just a few feet from his desk and slowly took on the shape of a man. The rest of the room faded away, leaving only the gently–glowing man before him. He was incredibly tall, well–made, and as naked as the day he was born. It took several moments before Father Amos realized the huge gossamer wings that stood out from his shoulders. At that he fell from his chair in supplication and made the sign of the cross reverently against his head and chest.

“Do not kneel before me, Servant of the Lord,” the angel said, for it that was the only thing he could be. “I am not your master, though we serve the same One.” Just remembering the angel and his sweet voice caused Amos's heart to stir with joy. He'd never had such a vision in nearly 20 years with the Church. But he had always believed and had always carried the faith both in his words and heart. It was a vindication for him; real, tangible proof that not only was there a God but that He had not forgotten Man.

Amos had tried to speak but found the words simply would not come. What could one such as he have to say to an angel? He remembered the angel’s perfect, warm, loving smile. But he also remembered the angel’s eyes. With his body and face such perfect, unblemished specimens, Amos would've expected a pair of equally bright, warm eyes. Instead, he had no eyes of any color beneath his lids. Where the colors and whites should have been was nothing but small, black voids. While disconcerting, the sight wasn’t enough to reduce his awe in the presence of the holy creature.

“Rise and take heart, Father John Amos," the angel said. "In recognition of your constant faith and loyalty I come as a herald, to give you a most important labor. On the celebrated eve of the birth of the Son, you will meet with a man named Morté. Once one of pure evil, he has seen the light and love that is our Lord and Master and seeks asylum and absolution from those he once served. Meet with him and bear witness to his confession, and know that the ear of the Lord shall ride at your shoulder. Take strength in that, Father Amos. You may need it for the trials ahead. You will find him on that night near to hand, in a place that never sleeps and feeds those on their own journeys. Go with God, Father Amos.”

With those words the angel had disappeared. Amos kneeled there on his office floor for nearly an hour in prayer. His knees finally protesting, he had gotten up and looked around. The office seemed dimmer than it ever had now that the light from the herald was gone. But while Father Amos was a spiritual and faithful man, he was also a rational one. For a moment, he started to doubt that what he had seen was nothing more than a vision. Perhaps he had been working too hard trying to prepare for Christmas. He'd walked to the spot where the angel had appeared to him. There on the floor was a single, perfect white feather.

Amos fingered the edges on that same feather as he sat in the barely–clean booth, trying to decide if this was merely a test of faith. He had told Father James, his apprentice, that he'd promised to make rounds at a local hospital on Christmas Eve and he simply couldn’t be in both places at once. It wasn’t necessarily a lie since he had gone earlier in the day to fulfill his obligations. Amos only hoped that whatever it was he had been sent here to do could be accomplished quickly. If he hurried he might even make the midnight mass.

Without knowing who or what to look for, or even if he was truly in the right place, Amos sat and sipped at the too–strong coffee and waited. He'd been there for an hour now and had finally decided to order a piece of pie when the door open behind him. A moment later he felt the weight of a body move into the booth behind him. Amos stuttered as he finished ordering his slice of lemon pie as a dark weight settled squarely on his shoulders. He got through his order and watched the swirling black coffee as it poured into his cup like the feeling that poured into his gut. For good or ill, Father Amos knew he'd found the right place. And, the right person.

The waitress moved to the next booth and asked the stranger for his order. Amos heard the man's order for ice water and the waitress's that he couldn’t take up space even in the deserted dining room for only water. Then he heard the distinct sound of a crisp, new bill being peeled from a wallet and overheard the man tell her to keep the change. With his booth rental secured, both man and priest waited for their orders. The man’s voice was perfectly pitched with absolutely no trace of an accent. Without any other reason the priest felt it was the single darkest, most ominous voice he'd ever heard. The man seated to his back practically reeked of evil. Father Amos had never experienced anything like it before. His breath came in shallow bursts as he tried to calm himself from fleeing from the site. No. He had been sent here to do something; something obviously very important and with the will of God Himself. How could Amos run from that duty now?

The waitress came back to the pair and went to Amos first. She set down his pie with one hand and carried a tray with a large pitcher of ice water and a tall glass in the other. Amos listened to the tinkling of the ice as the man poured his glass full. He could just hear the man swallow, his own ears being so close to the man’s throat, then a long, satisfying sigh. That sigh grated across his nerves like a rasp.

“It really is true, Father Amos. We really do want this.” the man said without turning around. “I do so appreciate you meeting with me tonight. I must admit, though; when I am in your world I usually insist on far better accommodations. Being the holiday and all I decided that this would have to do. Besides. This is the closest I could come to a confessional on such short notice.”

“Are you Morté? What are you?” Father Amos managed to ask, his voice heavy and soft. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t think he could face the man if he tried.

“Me? Just another face in the crowd, Father Amos. Just another lost soul in a world chock full of them. You see them everyday, you just don’t realize it,” Morte said.

“No…not like you…you…you’re…”

Pure evil? It is all right, Father. Not but a few decades ago I would have not only agreed with you but would have thanked you for the compliment. Of course, I would have disemboweled you soon afterwards. But always with respect and never with malice, though I will say I took a great deal of pride in my work. Some would even say joy, if there truly is such a concept.”

They fell silent for a moment as ice clinked against glass. Morté poured another and shifted his position slightly. Amos heard a soft, rushing sound and smelled acrid smoke as he lit a thin, brown cigarette. Amos had never smelled such pungent tobacco before, nor had he heard the rasp of a match or even a lighter. He shivered slightly as his mind’s eye pictured the cigarette flaring to life on its own.

“Why are you here? And why am I? Is this a trick?” Amos asked. He tried to pick up a fork for the psychological comfort of a weapon but his trembling hands did nothing more than cause the fork to clatter to the floor.

“No trick, Father Amos. I am beyond that now, though if this were some kind of trick I daresay it would have been initiated with far more grace and aplomb. I was never sloppy in my work. As to why you are here, I would have thought you would have been told that already.”

Amos thought back to his vision. The angel had said asylum and absolution. But what of either of these things could he offer to such a… man… here, in this place? And would he even if he could? “You seek that which is not mine to give,” Amos said finally.

“But there you are wrong, Father Amos. It is indeed yours to give by the word of the Lord and Master himself, held through the millennia and wrapped steeply in your ritual and mythos. On earth, as it is in Heaven… isn’t that how that goes, father?”

The quote mixed his fear with not a small touch of anger. To hear such from Morté brinked on blaspheme. He still wasn’t sure what Morté was, but whatever he was couldn’t be one of the Lord’s children. “What would you know of it?” Amos shot back. His hands had stopped shaking. “What would you know of the word of God? What would you know of His works?”

“I know far more than you, priest. Far more. I know secrets of this world… of your God… of your existence that would drive you mad for the thinking. And I have been privy to more of His works than you could ever conceive. I know your God, because He is also mine. Even Lucifer must bend his knee if the Lord and Master wills it, though never willingly. And that is really the crux of why I am here, and why you are here… ultimately why everyone is where they are and does what they do.”

Amos was admittedly confused. The surreal situation was made all the more difficult since he could not see Morté. Then again, perhaps it was better that they not face each other. “I still don’t understand what this has to do with me.”

“Ah… the human finally comes out of the priest! What is it about your race that makes you believe everything must revolve around you, eh? Where does this grand sense of self come from that makes you think every single event that transpires around you must have you as its catalyst? Though you consider yourselves the height of all living things, you are, simply, not. There are things in the mortal world that are as far above you as you are above cattle. Many of them treat you the same way as well, whether you realize it or not.” Morte emptied his drink then poured another from the rapidly–emptying pitcher. “You are here because of me… and for me.”

Hands shaking once more, Amos picked up his tepid coffee and sipped at it to wet his dry mouth. “Then… what is it you're asking of me? You know any request from one such as you carries with it sin just in the speaking…”

“I do not seek to stain your soul, priest. You have been sent here for this purpose. I do not believe the Lord and Master would hold you to account since it is by His design that you occupy that very seat. I have done some seeking within myself over the course of the last few decades, and I have found something quite… remarkable. I have found that my heart does not truly lie in service to the Undermaster. I came to realize many of the things I had done in his service, and in all fairness thoroughly enjoyed at the time, over the course of the millennia had begun to weigh heavily upon me. I developed what you may consider a conscience of sorts. This sort of thing is frowned upon in my circles, I’m sure you understand.”

“No… I don’t…”

“Let us be frank, Father Amos. I am what you believe. Unlike many other bastard servants of the Undermaster I was born a demon unto his service. I have known no other life unlike the damned souls that populate Hell. Those had the free will to live their lives as they saw fit and to reap the rewards of their actions. Those of us born into this life, into the Pact, have little choice in our lives. Our will is limited to what we have been tasked. For most, this is enough. The power of Hell and the knowledge that you are one of the most powerful creatures to ever walk the world is a powerful aphrodisiac, Father. But alas, I am defective. A broken demon, as it were.”

“A broken demon? What sort of nonsense is that?” Amos almost turned around save for the warning hiss from Morté.

“Please father… we must preserve the sanctity of the confessional.”

“Confessional?” Amos said bewildered, though he didn’t turn around.

“I cannot tread upon hallowed ground, father. I seek absolution to purge my sins and throw myself upon the mercy of the Church. I seek to confess my sins so that they may be forgiven and that I may finally find peace. I have found that I cannot live like this any longer.”

Amos sat quietly as the words bounced back and forth between his ears. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, couldn’t even believe that this was happening. “You are a demon? A self professed, real demon?”


“And you want me to hear your confession?”

“Yes.” Morté answered. “Of all the priests in the world, Michael, you send me to a dense one…” he added, mumbling.

“This is highly… unusual…”

“Unusual? It’s bloody unheard of!” Morté almost shouted, then checked himself. “Thus is why there is also a certain… urgency… present in all this. My desire to leave the service of the Undermaster has become known. There are those that see it as, well, let us say bad publicity for one such as me to do this. I am hunted, Father Amos. I am persecuted for abandoning service to the Undermaster, Lucifer, Beelzebub… whatever name you may give him… your enemy and now mine. His agents seek me, other demons that will be far less cordial than I. If they find me and return me to Hell I will never again have the chance to shrug off the bonds that tie me. You are a man of the cloth, Father Amos. But more importantly, you are a good man. A man that I think would not consign one to the Pits if there was anything that could be done to save them.”

“You're serious about this?”

“Deadly so.”

“And if I do this… if I hear your sins and grant absolution, then what? Will you live your life according to His word and law? Will you truly go forth and sin no more?”

“For what remains of it, yes, Father. Even if I am successful that does not mean the agents of the Undermaster will allow me to live. They will still come for me, if for nothing other than the principle of the thing. Demons do not simply defect, Father Amos. They exist, or they do not. Time grows short, Father. Will you do this as I have asked?”

Amos folded his hands on the table and closed his eyes. He shuddered to think of the kinds of sin that one such as Morté must carry in his soul. Just the thought of what he may hear chilled him to the bone. He weighed his options. The demon had nothing more than a bit of sport at his expense to gain from the exercise if he were not sincere, and Morté was surely what he claimed to be. Amos could feel the evil emanating from the booth behind him as surely as if Morté had hit him over the head with a brick. His summons had come on the wings of an angel, further proof there were those that desired him to carry through. But through it all, and for all the good it did him, Morté had basically been right. Amos had never denied anyone that sought the comfort of the confessional. He had heard confession from murderers and crack whores from a stint he served as a prison priest. Those stories had been enough to make him lose sleep at night when he was younger, and a few of them still haunted him to this day. Amos sighed and pushed the slice of pie away from him, all thoughts of making the midnight mass gone.

“Speak, my childe…” Amos said in the practiced, modulated tone. It was a voice designed to comfort to those seeking confession. Here, it served more to comfort him than his subject. A small attempt to normalize an abnormal situation.

“Bless me, Father, for I have truly sinned…” Morté began. “I have never sought the release of Confession, father, and for that I am remiss. I have committed every sin known to both man and God, and do not know where it is that I should begin.”

“At the beginning, my childe… where else?” The stock line he used with ne’er –do–wells or teenage girls that felt guilty for fooling around seemed less appropriate in these circumstances, but it seemed the right thing to say.

“Father, I doubt we have that kind of time.”

“If you seek absolution of a sin, you must confess it.”

“As you wish, Father.”

Amos blinked into the sudden, strong light. It was a bright day and high summer if the sudden heat was any indication. He was standing on a field of sand and surrounded by thousands of screaming people. Trumpets blared as the sudden thunder of hooves filled his ears and shook the soles off his feet.

“Ah! Roma!” Morté sighed. He was standing back to back with Amos in the center of the arena. “Can’t you just smell the excitement, father?”

Amos looked to each side and found a chariot bearing down on them from both directions. His legs froze with fear as the horses barreled towards them. “Morté… Morté!” Amos raised his hands over his head as the chariot to his right barreled through them, veering just in time to avoid a crash and allowing the gladiators to attack each other as they careened past. Amos looked down at his shaking hands and almost turned completely around to face the sinner.

“They can’t see, hear or harm you, Father. Look! Over there, by the gates!”

Amos looked across the field through the heat waves rising from the hot sand and saw a young man dressed in the armor of the emperor with a long whip lashing another man dressed in rags. “My first assignment outside of Hell. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I possessed a man that trained lions for the Circus… and one of the first to gleefully release the beasts in my charge on the Christians the emperor chose to persecute. This was still the days where the Undermaster would whisper to lords and kings and potentates in their beds, making them believe it was the voice of the Lord and Master commanding them.” The past Morté whipped the slave several more times before he finally pulled a long lever on the wall. Two different gates opened across the field from each other. From one spilled a group of ragged men with long beards and wild hair stumbling and squinting up into the unfamiliar sun. The men stayed together and came onto the field warily as the crowd hissed and hurled insults and offal into the arena. A chorus of great roars came from the gloom behind the other gate, followed by three full-grown lions bursting from the nether regions of the coliseum. The crowd went wild as the bewildered men screamed and tried to run.

“I watched scores of men die like this, Father Amos. More than watch as I typically had an active part in their deaths. These were devout men, men that believed in God. I’m sure they were also good fathers and sons and husbands as well. But do you know one thing that I never saw here, father? I never saw a single one throw himself down and renounce his faith, even with the impending doom of the lion’s maw. Perhaps even here I began to see the power of faith Man held in the Lord and Master. Of course, I would not have admitted that to myself back then. Mostly, I saw them as fools, sacrificing themselves for something they could not see or hear or even feel. But you are a learned man, Father. I wouldn’t bore you with the details of the time.”

Amos watched in horror as two lions fell upon the same man. They tore into him and devoured his entrails while he screamed and prayed through the bubbling blood that poured from his mouth. Through it all, Amos never heard anything but praise for their God. Amos slammed his eyes shut and nearly screamed as the cries of the dying men filled his ears. Suddenly, all was still and quiet. The air turned chill and carried a hint of wood smoke.

The priest opened his eyes and found himself by a wide, rushing stream. Several dozen men, women and children stood silently on the opposite bank. They were dressed mostly in blacks and browns with only a grey shawl or cloak amongst them. In the distance he could hear a woman’s muffled screams.

“Morté… where are we…”

“Ssshhh! You’ll miss the best part. Watch… there I am.” Amos looked up to the top of a small hill that led down to the opposite bank just as an incredibly tall, thin man crested it and started down the other side. Moments later, two men with a bound and gagged woman between them followed down the hill and joined the other man on the bank. Amos looked into the tall man’s eyes. The man stared back for several long moments, almost as if he knew Amos was there. There was a pure, malicious evil in the man’s eyes. It took no guessing to deduce which of the somberly–clad people across the stream was Morté. He stared more closely and saw the trappings of a man of God on the past Morté.

“I thought you said you couldn’t stand on hallowed ground? How did you come to play the part of a minister?”

“I showed up in town one day and claimed to be their new preacher, as they called me. Of course, since I had slain the real thing on the road a day before and assumed his form they had little cause to doubt me. They had just built their little hovel they called a church, and as my first official duty I was called upon to sanctify it. The rubes worshipped at an altar given over to the Undermaster for nearly 20 years without ever realizing it. Quite a feather in my cap at the time. I also introduced the concept of witch trials to this sleepy little burgh. It was all the rage in Salem, you see. Quite a stroke, really. With each innocent led to slaughter they believed not only in God but in the power of the Undermaster as well. With the proper theatrics, these poor, simple bastards could be led to believe their own mothers danced with the Devil and dunk them in the waters accordingly. If I’m not mistaken, this one I tried to convert to the Undermaster myself. Green eyes and red hair are rare, Father Amos. The Undermaster especially prizes anything rare in his service.” Amos could tell by his voice that Morté had turned around to face the back of his head, but he was determined not to break the ritual of confession, even in this most unorthodox case.

Amos listened as the past Morté said a few words and gave the conditions by which the young girl would be judged as well as the specific charges she faced. Suspected fornication with the Devil was not a matter taken lightly in this day and age, regardless of the ridiculousness of the evidence at hand. Green froth started to leak out from around the girl’s gag as her eyes went wide with pure terror. “A bit of the theatrics on my part, I’m sorry to say. There are certain weeds available in the bogs around the area that froth and foam when in contact with human saliva. A liberal dose on the gag and the excitement of the day made for a rather potent visual effect, don’t you think, Father Amos?”

The people gasped and backed away as the girl started thrashed about, throwing the green froth this way and that. At a nod from the preacher the men at arms threw her into the ice–cold autumn waters. After she'd completely submerged, several of the onlookers became bolder and stepped closer to the water and peered in, trying to see the accused. After several minutes of intense silence, the girl did not surface. The past Morté declared her a witch and announced that she had, in fact, admitted her sins before the trial and would go on to her final reward free of the devil’s influence.

“Barbaric… absolutely barbaric,” Amos whispered. “Why didn’t she float?”

“Lead weights sewn into her cloak. That, and her hands and feet bound with three days of fasting makes a body virtually unable to gather the strength to swim or even tread water. I doubt she felt much of anything though, the water had to be near to freezing. More like as not she went into shock as soon as her head was submerged and the water gripped her heart in ice.”

“You do not sound at all repentant, Morté. The act of confession is hollow if you do not recognize the sin and harm caused by your transgressions.”

“Oh, but I do, father. I realize the pain and grief I have caused and the sheer volume of souls that now resides in Hell due to the direct course of my actions. Do not think I boast of these deeds. I rather explain them so that you not only grasp the seriousness of my former depravity but also so that you can see how easily humanity can be misled by the simplest of tactics. The agents of the Undermaster are everywhere, Father Amos. I am merely attempting to give insight into their methods so that you may recognize them if you should happen upon them.”

“I know of the duplicity of your master, Morté,” Amos said.

Former master, father. Former.”

“I guess that is what I am to decide though, isn’t it? If you are truly repentant, that is.”

“Your Master knows full-well that I am repentant at the very least, Father Amos.”

“Yes,” Amos said softly, a sudden light of understanding suddenly filling his mind. “On earth as it is in heaven, isn’t that what you quoted earlier, Morté? I see now. You must still be absolved of your sins the same as anyone else. If I do not grant you absolution you cannot enter Heaven, no matter whom or what you may know,” Amos’ words were cut off as he was hit with a sudden, sharp chemical stench.

The world around Father Amos suddenly went dark as the impression of walls and ceiling came up around him. He closed his eyes as a sickly nausea slid across his stomach. When it passed, he opened his eyes and found himself in a dark corner of a large room. There were several tables and even cages that ran in an orderly row down the center of the room, each with a few bright lights mounted on a moveable arm above them. These lights were the only ones in the place. The chemical smell pervaded everything and made him somewhat light–headed. Along with the chemical smell though, he got the impression of other scents around him. Sweat and blood and fear mixed with the chemical tang so thickly Amos could taste them. He nearly choked on his first full breath and made every effort to breath shallow and through his mouth. “Where are we?” he managed to gag out.

“Buchwalden, Auschwitz, Treblinka… all the same, really. One of any number of places the Nazis founded for their research. Here the masters of the Third Reich sought to reinvent Man into the little dictator’s version of perfection. Ironic, really, considering that the little weasel himself would have been one of the first to be exterminated under his doctrine of Aryan perfection.”

A tall, thin man dressed in a perfectly–tailored grey military uniform with two others in white lab coats trailing behind came into the room through a door lost in darkness and into the light from the first table. They spoke in low, murmuring voices and poured over a chart that hung from the side of the table.

“You would be the military man, I assume?”

“Correct, Father. I oversaw not only the extermination of thousands but also the depravity in the guise of science you see around you. With each death and experiment, I pulled all those that found the blood of the Chosen People on their hands into their own private Hell, both on earth and in their proper reward. It is utterly astounding the level of faith some humans place in mortal rule, to the point those they support can seem to be a god themselves. Oh, but I was not the only one. Just one of several, to be sure. But I made sure that each had a heart as dark and foul as my own before I was done with them.”

The man on the table was covered with a thin sheet. One of the white–coated men pulled the sheet away to reveal a human face that had been stripped of its flesh. The subject on the table still breathed but was in such obvious pain he couldn’t even gather the breath to scream. Amos winced as the past Morté jammed a pencil into the mass of muscle on the tortured man’s cheek. This time the man did scream, a hoarse, harsh sound that rattled every nerve in the priest’s body. The body jerked and the man even managed to lift his head from the table. But he must have been strapped well beneath the sheet, keeping him from moving off the table.

“Why do you show me these things, Morté? Why not simply tell me of them? You must know that actually seeing your sins enacted before my eyes and hearing your passionless narration lends no credence to your claims to seek absolution.”

“Aside from my flair for the dramatic? I show you these things so you may see what ultimately turned me against all that I have held dear for eons. In fact, it was my time spent in that accursed uniform that started my revelation and revulsion to the things I had been a party to and supported throughout the ages. These men did not need me to turn them towards the service of the Undermaster. They did quite well with that on their own. I daresay they even taught me a trick or two about the torture of not only the human body but of the mind as well.”
The men had moved on past the next table to a cage built to nearly human proportion. The past Morté rapped on the cage with his uniform crop and held his ground as a woman more animal than human ran at the bars. The doctors stepped back several paces as the officer laughed at them out loud.

“Human genetics are so easily manipulated once you learn the simplest of their secrets. The Reich knew decades before anyone else about such things. You people really are one of the simplest constructs ever made by the Lord and Master. You’d never see any mortal able to manipulate demon or fey in such a way.”

“You still don't seem as repulsed as you claim to have been.” Amos pointed out as the past Morté laughed and jabbed his crop between the bars and poked the raging woman in the forehead.

“On the contrary. I could not reveal the level of my discontent in front of these. You see, there were many others of my ilk operating at this time in your history and on both sides. Don’t believe that your vaunted United States or the other Allied powers had a corner on the market of either good or evil. If I were to have revealed my state of mind at the time it would have been reported to others and I would have been hunted from that day forth. I would not have survived long enough to sit with you now. But it was at this time that I initiated contact with holier powers about my eventual intentions to leave the service of the Undermaster. The stakes were high for both sides at this time in history and it was decided that, for good or ill, it was far too delicate a time for such a thing. So, I was forced to wait.” The thing in the cage screeched, a sound like nails on a chalkboard as it suddenly rammed itself into the cage with an arm extended between the bars. Long, chipped yet sharp nails raked past Morté’s left cheek and left deep, ragged and bloody furrows across it. He stepped back quickly and raised his crop out of reflex, then lowered it and put a gloved hand to his face.

“Serves you right,” Amos mumbled. The whitecoats produced long, black sticks from a side table and rushed toward the cage. Blue arcs of electricity jumped from the prongs at the ends of the weapons. But instead of jamming them into the cage and the pitiful beast beyond they were stopped short as the riding crop swung in a vicious arc and caught them both across the chest. They flew back and crashed into the table behind them, ending up on the floor at past-Morté’s feet. Confused, the priest watched as Morté reached down and took a ring of keys from the belt of one of the doctors. Amos could see the face clearly now, the same face that had graced the laughing Roman centurion and then the fire-and-brimstone preacher centuries later. The ragged wounds on his face bled forcefully beneath his glove, leaving the front of his uniform a shocking red in contrast to the drab grey and black. Morte selected a key from the ring and unlocked the cage. Without hesitation, he swung the cage door wide and stood off to the side. Morté whispered to the beast, and though Amos couldn’t hear those words uttered more than half a century before he could see they had a calming effect on the tortured soul within. It slipped past him nervously and out of the cage, looking over its shoulder only once as it screeched and ran for the door.

“You let her go. Why?”

“I told you, priest, I simply couldn’t bear to see her held like that any longer. She knew from previous encounters that to lash out like that would mean severe punishment. And yet she found the strength and bravery to attack, to show us though we had broken her body we could not break her spirit. In that moment, I knew that there was hope if I could only keep my strength and bide my time. With such hope, faith and luck, perhaps someone else from an unexpected corner would come along and release me from my own Hell as I did for her.”

Amos watched as the past Morté stepped into the cage and gripped two of the bars. With no visible effort he pulled, bending them until they made a passage large enough for a human to fit. Then, he hit himself smartly with the end of his crop on his right temple. Of course the blow had no true effect on the demon. But the human shell he inhabited produced a bleeding and nasty head wound that for him would amount to mere theatrics. Then he lay down opposite the doctors and waited to be discovered.

“Your vaunted theatrical talents again?” Amos asked.

“I could ill afford to let these humans think I was anything other than what I appeared to be, Father.”

“And what of that poor woman? What became of her?”

“Unfortunately, she never made it out of the compound. She did reach the fence though and managed to kill almost a dozen guards on her way. After my human commanders learned of the security breach they shut down all such testing and experiments permanently. If word got out through loose–lipped guards that such monstrosities were running about there would be a great deal to explain to history. This was in the waning years of the war, when most sensible people realized the Fuhrer had finished his descent into madness. With defeat imminent, no one involved wanted to have to explain to the Allies the atrocities they had committed in the name of science. The ovens and chambers would be enough to defend against. There would be no defense for such things as the woman.”

The world went dark and the nausea slipped over Father Amos once more. “After my time in the Reich, I took a long sabbatical. I needed to make sure what I had felt before was not merely a passing thing. I traveled your world in many guises. Where I would usually do this with a possessed body, this time I created one from my own power. This meant I was limited and could be harmed as any other body could be, to an extent. My point in this was to try and experience your world from your perspective. I wanted to see, hear, even feel your world as one of you.”

“To what end?” Father Amos said into the still void around him. “You were still immortal and the spawn of Hell. You could never feel the same way that humans do. You would always know that any problem that came about could be handled far more easily by one such as you than by any mortal.”

“Ah! That is where you are wrong, Father Amos. I placed a geis on myself that limited my power more than even my physical body did for a score of your years. True, I could not die in the conventional sense. But I was still be able to suffer the same ailments and feel the same things as any human. My thought was that if I turned out to be an evil and unscrupulous human, then my emotional state could only be described as a passing thing. A quirk, if you will. But, if my time spent as a mortal showed I had the inclination to morality and all the trappings valued so highly in the race then I would never be able to return to the service of the Undermaster with, well, a clean conscience, if you will.”

Several images slid by, only a minute or so spent with each one. Always placed behind the past Mortés’, Father Amos watched as a veritable slide show of the demon’s time spent on earth slipped past. He saw Morté in Berlin as columns of American and British armor trundle down the streets accompanied by the cheers of the people. He was there when the demon made a point to visit many of the landmarks of Europe, most still showing the after–effects of the war all around them. Amos watched as Morté marveled at the collected works of human art in museums across Europe. In their side conversations, he learned art and music more than anything had laid the groundwork for many of his human leanings. Such things had few examples in his home world. Those that did exist invariably involved either the activities or the pure psyche of a demon, something that no human should ever be forced to see.

Seasons flew by. He watched as Morté spent time with Tibetan monks and other Eastern mystics. He was there when Morté lived in Ireland for a year and became one of the most famous patrons to three different pubs. Morte had wisely left a good metabolism for his human form, it seemed. He watched as Morté lived a decade in the span of minutes. But it was not all for the good. Amos saw Morté get robbed and beaten. He watched as Morte stepped in to stop the same thing from happening to a young woman in Poland just a few months later and receive a beating that would have killed a normal man for his trouble. He was there when Morté received life–threatening injuries from a fall as he helped rebuild a war–torn hospital in Italy and almost sympathized with the demon as he dealt with pain far greater than any he had been dealt in his previous misadventures. But through it all, Morté did nothing that seemed even remotely on par with his demonic nature, though he was sure that the demon wasn’t showing him everything that had occurred.

Almost as if he sensed the priest’s unanswered question, images of Morté the thief slid past them. First stealing bread then money from merchants and street vendors in Paris. Morté explained he had to commit such acts to prove to himself he was indeed a changed being. He even subjected Amos to a violent rape scene involving the man–demon and what appeared to be a prostitute in London. Though he did physical harm to her for several moments he backed away with obvious self–loathing in the end. Morte had even offered to turn himself in, but the young woman didn’t want such attention. It didn’t stop her from taking the several pound notes he offered her by way of apology, though. Amos had been prepared to dismiss the entire thing as nothing more than a creation, to fool him into believing the demon to be a better creature than he was, that he was greater than the sum of his being. But if he was anything, Father Amos believed himself an excellent judge of character and an even greater judge of the truth. He was almost ready to believe the demon was what he claimed. Almost.

The year was 1962. He could tell as much by peering over the past Morté’s shoulder as he read a newspaper at a sunlit street café. The paper was in Italian, though he wasn’t sure where in the country they were. A truly stunning woman sat down at a table nearby, causing Morté to gaze at her over the edge of his paper. After a moment, the paper and cappuccino were forgotten. He didn’t need to see Morté’s face to know he had been smitten.

“It was bound to happen, wasn’t it?” the current Morté asked from somewhere behind him. “It’s not as if I hadn’t known the touch of a woman in my years as a mortal. But up to this point it had more been to experience the sensation of the physical act.” Morte sighed and fell silent as the two watched his past for nearly a minute. “Theresa Aldozza…” he said reverently in a breathy whisper. “There was never a more perfect woman then or since, nor will there ever be.”

The young lady in question had all the best attributes of her stock. Long, thick black hair pulled back just enough to keep it from nuisance. Her eyes were large and dark and seemed to laugh of their own accord. The baggy, heavy sweater she wore did little to disguise her near–perfect form as she scanned a newspaper of her own and sipped on her coffee. Past and present Morté could do little else but stare. After more than a minute the woman seemed to feel his stare and looked back at him with her clear, laughing eyes. She smiled slightly and nodded at him then went back to her paper. After several more minutes of torture for poor Morté she signaled for a waiter, paid her check and left. All the Mortés’ could do was stare after her. “She was absolutely perfect. And playful.” Morté said more to himself than to the priest as if he had forgotten that Amos was with him. They watched as the past Morté got up from his table and walked to where she had sat. There on her discarded newspaper was a matchbook from a local establishment.

The scene suddenly changed to a lively Italian bistro. It was night now as they watched Morté walk into the dining room and look around. There at a quiet table near the back sat the lovely Theresa, quite alone but with a table set for two.

“I was completely and totally smitten,” Morté said from behind him. “I remember this night as if it were yesterday. I remember that I considered waiting for awhile, to make sure the whole thing wasn’t a fluke, that she wasn’t waiting for her escort for the evening. But then, it has never been in my nature to wait, human or otherwise.”

Past Morté squared his shoulders and walked slowly across the busy dining room and to the lady’s table. Amos didn’t need to hear the conversation to know she'd fully expected him to come that night. Her eyes and equally laughing smile were all he needed to see to prove that out.

“Theresa was everything to me, Father,” Morté said as the world slipped into darkness. This time though, the nausea stayed at bay. Perhaps it was the demon’s thoughts and feelings that had affected him before. It was obvious by his voice he was happy to relive these particular memories. “Perfection in flesh. But not just her physical beauty, Father. No. She had a beautiful mind and a spiritual soul. If it was possible, we believed we had found our soul mates, if that concept does not sound so ridiculously romantic and sappy.”

“I don’t believe so. I have long held there is someone for everyone that deems to look.” Amos added.

“Ah, but Father Amos… I mean no offense but a man of the cloth could never possibly understand such a strong yet delicate bond between a man and a woman.”

“But you are not a man. Even there.”

“Yes. You are right, of course,” Morté said darkly. Then brighter, “Most of the time I spent with Theresa, I forgot about my past, about what I truly was. My only thought was spending time with her and making her as happy as she had made me.”

Light filtered back into Amos’ world. They found themselves standing in a church. Morté and Theresa stood at the altar before a priest and a packed house, taking their vows as husband and wife. “I thought you couldn’t stand on holy ground?” Father Amos said.

“Oh, I can’t. Not without great pain at any rate. I am barely conscious as you see me before the altar. I remember it took every ounce of my being not to cry out, to fall writhing to the ground. But church rites were very important to my Theresa. How could I deny her that? I believe that I had lived as a human so long the effects were not as devastating as they could have been, that I had perhaps grown more accustomed to such things. At any rate, we were married. I can’t begin to describe how truly special that day was.”

The light faded back to the void then slipped back again as many small images flickered past. The two of them living, laughing, and loving. A small cottage with a garden behind, large dinners with what Amos could only guess was with her family and a host of other times and places. “I’m sorry, Father. But it is my way to only remember the best of times when I was with her, for I truly believe that we had no ill ones. At least, not until the end.”

The light faded again, followed by the strongest feeling of discomfort Amos had experienced yet. He winced through it and put a hand to his stomach as the bile rose up in his throat.

“My twenty years came and went far too quickly, Father Amos,” Morté said from the void. His voice was deep and hollow, almost what one would expect to hear from a demon. Amos shivered at that and fought down his gorge as the feeling subsided. “In truth, I often forgot everything about my true nature. The only real reminder was when Theresa and I discussed children. I had included sterility in my personal geis. It is possible under the right conditions for human and demon to mate, and I did not wish to unleash such a beast on the world. It was the only thing she wanted that I could not give, and it pained me to no end that I could not provide something so simple that any man should be able to give to his wife.”

Morte's voice though still void took on an odd, quivering quality. If Amos didn’t know better he would've believed the demon was crying. “If nothing else, I applaud your foresight in making sure that none of your spawn came into the world,” Amos said more roughly than he had intended.

“You have every right to believe or disbelieve my sincerity, Father. After all, I am borne of Hell. Who is to say I am not lying to you even now? Yes… I understand, Father. I would look upon the reverse situation with as jaundiced an eye, to be sure.” More scenes of their lives together flashed by. It seemed the couple lived an idyllic life with little to trouble them. “Her father maintained a small winery that had survived the war. We both worked there; her in the small shop and me in the vineyards. Our cottage was on the grounds as well, a wedding gift from her father. He was a very proud and intelligent man and quickly earned my respect. Even in my true form I doubt I could ever have been moved to harm him.”


“Devout. I professed to the religion but usually found ways to avoid Mass by being in the vines. The few times I went were… trying at best. Ironic, isn’t it? Or perhaps a great joke by the Lord and Master that my one true mortal love would be one of His own followers. Who’s to say?”

“So, what happened?”

“As with all good things, it ended.” The slideshow of images abruptly halted. Amos found himself in their small cottage. Morté was sitting on a small sofa before a roaring fire, his darling Theresa fast asleep couched against his shoulder. Morté sipped a glass of wine and watched the fire. The flames suddenly leaped and danced, shooting a few feet from the hearth and forming the figure of a man. As the flames died away another demon stood, skin still smoldering from his entrance. “Valklasha…” both Mortés’ hissed.

“Koroshinklas… or should I call you Morté?” the demon said with a sneer. His skin was as red as the flames that bore him, with cloven hooves and long horns that jutted straight out from his forehead. Though only Morté’s memory, the thing’s voice still made the priest’s knees weak. “Your ‘holiday’ is at an end. The Undermaster has called for your return.” The demon looked around the room and laughed. “With so much you could have done, you wasted your time like this?”

Slowly, their voices faded away from Amos’ ears. “Why can’t I hear the two of you anymore and why is it that Theresa hasn’t woken up?”

“There are things being said that are best not heard by mortal ears. Many names and times were discussed. Names are powerful things, Father Amos, especially the true name of a demon. It is best that you not hear much of this exchange.”

“Then what is happening?”

“Valk' was sent to retrieve me. I had not realized that my time with Theresa was at an end. We argued, the very nature of us keeping our words from Theresa’s sleeping ears. I told him I was not ready to return,” Morté stopped short his reminiscing when the demon produced a flaming scroll and offered it to his remembered self.

“And that?”

“My official orders to destroy all trace of my mortal life and return to my expected duties.” Past Morté gently moved Theresa from his shoulder and lay her down on the sofa then turned back to the demon. He took the burning parchment, read it slowly and then continued to argue with the demon. “I had been ordered to slay Theresa and her entire family and lay waste to the vineyard and grounds, more a show to my loyalty to the Undermaster than any fear of detection. And here, Father Amos, I will profess that I actually considered it. But only for a moment. Even if it would not have been Theresa, I knew in my heart that I could not comply, that I could not slay those whose only crime was their ill–fortune to have welcomed me into their hearts and lives.”

Suddenly, past Morté’s body exploded into white–hot flames. Amos’ vision blurred as he tried to watch the metamorphosis from man to demon. While both were obviously born of the eternal flames, Morté seemed far more dignified and graceful in his true form, if such a thing could be said. His skin was far darker, the color of blood, and his horns arced back in the style of an antelope and black as coal. He sported no tail as the other did but was built far more powerfully. The fire in the hearth reacted with explosive, almost joyous force as the two infernal creatures locked in combat.

The two exchanged blows that would have felled most adult trees as the flames in the hearth left their boundaries and rushed across the carpeted floor. Within moments the entire room was in flames. The other demon’s attentions occupied, the spell he must have laid on Theresa died away. Amos watched as she shot up from the couch, her screams lost in the roar of the fire as it reached the ceiling.

“We fought for only a few moments, until I realized the danger in which I had placed Theresa. I tried to reach her, but with my mind so distracted Valk’ was able to keep me from aiding her.” Amos threw up his arms out of instinct as a large beam burned free of its moorings high in the ceiling and crashed through him, its other end landing squarely on Theresa. He crossed himself and mumbled a prayer as the burning timber crushed her under its weight, her screams forever gone from the world. Amos’ vision went black as a feeling even darker slid across his soul. He was feeling the emotions of the demon now through his memories, and though Amos was far from a stranger to the pain of others this was something far different. He almost felt as if it were his own life that had been extinguished.

“I killed Theresa that night. Not directly, but I might as well have crushed the life from her with my hands as what happened.” Morté’s voice was thick and filled with pain. There was no doubt the demon was being truthful. Amos knew genuine emotion, and what he felt from him was as great as or greater than any other he had ever experienced. It was honest, real, searing and filled with agony. “I could have resurrected her, you know. But what she would have been forced to become would have been anathema to everything that she had held so dear. Though I would have moved heaven and earth to restore her to my side, I would not allow my selfishness to damn her soul to Hell along with mine.”

“And what happened to the other demon, this Valk’?”

“I killed him,” Morté said this so plainly that Amos wasn’t sure he heard him. “Yes, Father, it is possible to kill a demon. If you know how. And oh! How I know those secrets. As I said, I am powerful even for one of my own kind, and Valk’ was no match for me. Once my geis lifted I had access to my full power and fury. And I am not ashamed to say I used every ounce of it and thoroughly enjoyed his destruction. But this is another story whose details are best left to the imagination and not the ears of mortals.”

Amos looked down just as the waitress filled his cup. His hands were balled into fists and it took several seconds for him to stretch his fingers and get blood to flow through them again.

“Father, are you okay?” the waitress asked him. “You’re as white as a sheet.”

“What? Oh, yes… I’m fine. Just getting over the flu.” As she walked away Amos heard ice clink against glass from the booth behind him.

“I would have confessed more, father, but I fear that my pursuers are near. I can feel them.”

“I think that will be enough.” A sudden, stabbing pain shot through Amos’ head. He gripped the side of the table for a moment until the feeling subsided. How long had their journey through the demon’s memories lasted? He checked the clock and found that less than fifteen minutes had passed since he last noted the time before Morté sat down. Amos rubbed his temple slowly with his free hand and sipped his coffee.

“And what of it all, father?”

“You have lived a sinful life and worked directly as one of the devil’s own children. But I do respect the time you spent as a man, and I think you have experienced enough pain to be sympathetic to those you have harmed. Still, this does not atone for sin, only that you have faced it and recognized the agony and heartache you caused over the years.” He sipped his coffee again and realized he still had hold of the table. “I would say it is a good start.”

“Father Amos, I have no time for starts. They will be coming for me soon. If they catch me, they will take me back with them to hell.”

Amos contemplated his coffee then checked the time again. He could still make the midnight mass if he hurried. “This is far too grave a decision for me to make alone. Come with me to the church. If you can pass the threshold and enter the house of God, I will accept that as a sign of His forgiveness of your sin. Then together we can seek out how best you can atone.”

“If you insist.”

Both men stood and slowly turned to face each other for the first time in their current place in history. Of course, the demon’s human visage would be timeless. He looked just as he had when in the guise of the holy man sending the young woman to her watery grave. Except for one glaring, almost shocking exception; his cold, hard aquiline features were marred by four long scars down his cheek.

“You seem surprised, Father.”

“I would have thought you would be able to make those scars disappear.”

“I could do that quite easily, Father. I consider them a reminder of the things I have done. It is more a testament to Theresa than me that she fell in love with me despite the marks.” Morté pulled two fifties from his pocket and laid one each on their tables. “You will have to drive. I took alternate means.” Demon and priest left the diner, got in Amos’ car and drove off into the night. Neither saw the long, black and lightless sedan that eased soundlessly onto the road behind them.


The trip to the church ha dbeen a silent one with priest and demon each lost in their own thoughts. They parked and walked up the stone stairs to the church doors where they paused as Morté readied himself.

“Do you feel anything?” Amos asked.

“Dread… nervousness… but no pain.”

The sound of several car doors opening and closing turned their attentions back to the deserted Christmas Eve street. Five men dressed in black suits and sunglasses stood at the base of the stairs staring up at them.

“Morté,” one of them said, his voice as deep and resonating as the other demonic examples Amos had heard through the night. “You have led us on quite a chase. We have spent more than forty years in search of you. It is time to return. Come quietly.”

Amos suddenly grasped his chest. It was as if a vice had tightened around his heart. He gasped for air and fell against the doors. Morté cast a worried glance at him then looked back to the hunters.

“No,” Morte said simply and reached out a hand to steady the priest.

“Our patience is at an end. You will come with us. Now.”

Amos grasped the door handle and let his weight swing the tall door open. Morté gripped the priest’s arm tightly out of reflex and the falling priest’s weight pulled him through the open door. The pair fell into the foyer to a chorus of howls and hissing. Morté kept his feet and managed to shut the door behind them. Organ music wafted out from the sanctuary as Amos got to his feet and took several deep breaths.

“Father Amos, are you well?”

“Yes,” Amos whispered. “Their power obviously stops at the door.” They stood for a moment while Amos caught his breath. “But the real question is, are you well?”

Morté suddenly remembered where he was then started to laugh. “I don’t feel anything, Father! No pain! Nothing!”

“Nothing?” Amos said cautiously.

“Nothing except the Lord and Master,” Morté corrected himself, his tone far more solemn. Amos smiled at the demon then cast a worried glance at the entryway to the sanctuary.

“They’ll be letting out soon. We’ll go to my office…” A heavy knock on the door cut off his words. The two exchanged worried glances. Amos pushed Morté away from the door and opened it just enough to see out. One of the hunters stood a few feet from the door.

“This does not concern you, priest. Give us the demon. Now.”

“He… he is under the protection of the Lord and has been granted sanctuary in His house. You hold no power here, demon,” Amos said.

“I hold no power in this House devoted to the protection of the weak of mind and heart, Father Amos. In this you are correct. But I am not without means.” The demon turned and walked down the stone steps and out of his sight. Curious, Amos opened the door wider and looked down the steps toward the street. The trunk of the car was open now and one of the demons was distributing wicked–looking rifles as well as several smaller items that could only be grenades.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Amos called out. Flames suddenly erupted across the stairs and ran out of sight in both directions. Amos threw up an arm and took a step back as the flames climbed higher than a man.

“Let us see how much value you place on the traitor, Father. In exactly ten seconds, my associates are going to throw several grenades through your beautiful stained glass and into the throng of your pathetic congregation. Those that do not perish in the explosion and try to escape must then pass through the flames. And, should any survive that, we will exterminate them like the pitiful insects they are.” The demon’s voice rang through the flames and screeched in his ears, all pretense at any sort of human modulation gone. It was as if the words were being etched on his brain rather than heard. Amos glanced back nervously at the sanctuary and then back to Morté.


“I heard him, Father,” Morté cut in. “The choice is clear, then.”

“What? After all this? After the years of running? You’re going to give up just like that? They’ll kill you!”

“No Father, they will not kill me. Killing me now only means they will chance losing my essence, my soul, to other masters. If they take me alive they will return me to Hell. That is their goal. And make no mistake, they will do exactly as he has said. The lives of your people mean nothing to them. I cannot allow any more to die because of me.”

“But… you came so far…”

Morté walked past Amos and into the open doorway. “Yes, Father. I have. But if it is to end this way, it is worth it. Perhaps this is my penance then, Father?” He looked out into the flames and chuckled. “Delicious in its irony, isn’t it? I confess my sins and have apparently been welcomed into the House of the Lord. But the penance for the sins that brought me to its very door will be the denial of the salvation I have so desperately sought. So what of it, Father Amos? Will you grant me absolution?”

Amos stepped to him and reached out, placing a hand on his forehead. He said a small blessing and crossed himself, then stepped back.

“Father? Will you do me one thing? When you get... there… will you tell Theresa I am sorry for all that I caused her? And, please, tell her that I did try.” A tear slid down Morte's face with more threatening to follow. He wiped the back of a hand across his eyes.

Amos nodded slowly and stepped into the doorway as Morté stepped through it. He turned his head to the side and gasped.

“I never knew just how hot the flames could be,” Morte said.

A sudden inspiration struck the priest like the proverbial lightning bolt. Morté had entered holy ground. He had cried and he could feel the searing heat of the flames borne of Hell; things no demon should ever be capable of feeling.

“Wait,” Amos said. As Morté turned to face him, Amos plucked a tall, heavy candlestick from a table in the foyer and struck Morte squarely across the face. The once-demon stumbled but didn’t fall. He looked at Amos, confused and in pain. Before Morte could utter another word, Amos reached out and dragged him back into the church and onto the floor. Father Amos raised the bloodied candlestick over his head in both hands then brought it down savagely on Morte’s neck. Blood and a garbled cry burst from Morte's mouth as Amos hit him again and again. His throat nearly crushed and gasping for air through blood–stained lips, Morte stared wildly at the suddenly insane priest with a silent plea to his obvious question.

“You live now! You’re not a demon anymore. You were granted absolution and life… gifts only the Lord can give and only the Lord can take away. Go, my childe… go and sin no more,” Father Amos said. With all the strength he had remaining, the priest grabbed Morté and rolled him through the open door and directly into the flames. Morté didn’t even scream as the flames lapped at him, searing him and granting him a nearly–painless death.

As soon as the body was in the flames the collected demons outside shrieked in a cacophony louder than the roar of the conflagration. The flames died away quickly, but not quick enough to leave more of Morté’s body than a few charred bits of flesh and bone. Amos stood just outside the door and looked down at the demons. Each had their weapons trained on him, a sickly red glow coming from behind their dark glasses.

“You have been denied your prize, foul creatures. Leave now and stop defiling this house of God with your presence!” Father Amos roared at them.

“You have no idea what you toy with, priest!”

“Morté’s soul is for the Lord Jesus Christ to judge now. He is as far from the clutches of you and your masters as I am from you.”

“Do not be so sure, priest.” The sound of sirens suddenly filled the night around them. Someone must have seen the flames or heard the racket the demons had made.

“We must go!” another of them hissed at the speaker.

No! The priest must be made to pay! I will not be denied!”

“And if we are discovered? What of it then? We only have writ for Morté and any standing with him. Morté is dead. No one on earth stands with him now! We must go else we violate the Pact!”

The speaker howled in rage and threw his weapon against the sidewalk, shattering it in his hatred. He made an exaggerated motion and the rest of them quickly climbed into the car. “I will see you again, priest. This is not over!” he said as he climbed in after his fellows. The driver didn’t even wait until his door was closed to speed off into the night.

Amos released the breath he had been holding and stepped to Morté’s charred remains. He kneeled and said a small prayer over where the body had been then went back inside just as the first wave of his congregation began to file out. Amos blocked the main doors with his body and directed them around to the side doors just as the fire trucks screeched to a halt in front of the church. He told them that there had been an accident outside and the authorities had requested they all exit from the rear of the building and avoid the front. It wasn’t a complete lie, he just didn’t tell them whose authority had requested it. Father James came out to wish his flock a merry Christmas and was met by Amos.

“Father Amos, what’s going on?” the younger priest asked.

“A funny thing happened on the way to mass…” Father Amos quipped as James went and opened the front door. He saw several firemen and paramedics examining the charred remains and nearly lost his gorge.

“What the…”

“I’ll handle this, Father James. Just make sure that none of the congregation comes out this way.”

“But, Father Amos… what happened?”

“Remind me sometime, and I’ll tell you. Suffice it to say that the Lord does, indeed, work in his own mysterious ways.”

Thanks for reading, and, just write damn it. - Author

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"A Proper Gremlin" - Fiction

Hello to Constant Reader and New Reader alike. I know, I know; no new fiction got posted last week. You have my most humble apologies, but be assured I'm not resting on my laurels. As you can see from my last post, "What's Up?", I'm quite the busy boy in getting many shorter pieces together for two different projects of new fiction for you, and it's taking up quite a bit of my time. Please, bear with me.

I would like to invite any of you that practice this craft to submit a short story for guest-posting right here on my blog. I would prefer hobby authors or those that have little to no publishing history to submit something. You won't make any money, but you will get a goodly amount of exposure if I do say so myself and you will of course still own your story. If interested, drop me a line at ericrlowther (at) yahoo (dot) com. Make sure to put the words "blog story" in the subject line, and I hope to hear from you soon.

In the meantime, I give you "A Proper Gremlin". I hope you enjoy. - Author

Grippik threw down his spanner and scratched his nearly bald, green pate. Human machines were so incredibly, needlessly complicated. He itched at a particularly nasty mole and chewed on a pencil as he examined his last modification. He'd been working on it for several hours and still couldn’t deduce the actual use the humans had for it. It was comprised of so many different elements and pieces that seemed to have no real intimate connection to the other. Grippik could only assume the various parts made up the whole in such a way that he just couldn’t fathom. Humans were like that, though. They always had to make things so complicated. But that was what made studying their inventions and machines so rewarding. Gremlin machines were rather straight-forward with their technology. One only had to trace a rope to a pulley or a lever to a cog to gain an almost immediate understanding of the machine’s purpose and intent. But humans liked to be tricky and show off their intelligence and opposable thumbs, something the gremlins lacked.

Gremlins had developed a nasty reputation over the centuries in human climes. Those that believed they even existed thought of them as nothing more than pranksters and vile vandals. In truth, most gremlins had no real cause to damage or even destroy human machines and technology. Most involved themselves with the stuff out of insatiable curiosity as to the workings of their machines or in reverse engineering so that the secrets of the humans could be applied to gremlin technology. True, there were those gremlins that took great pleasure in destroying human machines or causing them to operate outside of their designs, but these were looked down upon by any proper gremlin. Just because you couldn’t understand a thing or your own creations didn’t work quite right was no reason to take out your jealousy on the works of others. And the more Grippik looked at the machine he was in, the more it looked like a gremlin invention gone horribly wrong.

He'd tried tracing the various wires that ran throughout the thing but they ended in junctions and parts that Grippik's brain simply couldn't fathom their purpose. He'd pulled and changed the positon of wires and gadgets and all manner of parts and bits throughout the machine then put them back again and he was still no closer to solving its mysteries. He'd even tried disconnecting one of the many energy cells the creator had installed and still failed to create any noticeable effect on the machine as a whole. Grippik wrapped his fingers around a thick wire and felt the energy within. But the power wasn’t moving, just lying dormant in the line. Grippik guessed that where that energy would go would finally reveal what purpose of the machine. And to find that, he would have to go even deeper into the works.

While Grippik envied the physical size and incredibly useful thumbs of the humans, being able to reduce yourself to only a few millimeters in size and the ability to make your body intangible certainly had its benefits, especially when a reverse-engineering project went awry. His ability to shift his physical body to the ethereal and have his spirit remain in the mortal world had saved him from crushing gears and great blasts of energy more than once when delving into human equipment. For all their grand technology it was amazingly easy to cause one of their machines to function outside of their design parameters.

Of course, with Grippik this kind of result was always on cause of accident. But it was those design flaws inherent in most every human machine that allowed other, more unsavory gremlins to cause a great deal of damage. Grippik didn't personally know any of his kind that had ever been physically caught, and that was a good thing. He'd seen some human designs that only existed to cause great pain and destruction and would hate to have a human designer create a machine to inflict that kind of punishment on a gremlin. Humans seemed to have a great propensity for causing damage and killing each other with their technology, things anathema to most gremlins. With a sigh, he shrunk to his smallest size and started climbing along the thick bundles of wires in search of the termination point of the main power supply.

Grippik hadn’t been working long when the whole machine started moving, and none too gently. He could hear rough human voices booming around him and the whine of other machinery outside his own. He was being moved somewhere. The thing finally stopped moving, allowing him to continue his work. The relative peace and quiet lasted for little more than an hour before a great explosion of sound and vibration caused him to send his body into the ether out of reflex and he was again being moved. After a time, the feeling of motion fell away, leaving only the constant, booming drone. Grippik brought his physical body back to the mortal world and poked his head outside the machine’s exterior case to find only intense darkness that his small miner–style hat couldn’t cut. Not knowing where he was or what was around, Grippik elected to stay within the machine and continue his work.


It took nearly an hour, but Grippik was finally able to keep the roaring from tickling the thick tufts of course hair in his ears. He'd made some progress in the machine, though, and had finally traced the power to a large screen. Humans were notorious for wanting to see how their machines were working without actually going into them, something that a gremlin engineer would never truly understand. Why create such an intricate device and not take the great pleasure in watching it work from the inside? But he knew the practical reasons that humans had to rely on such complicated diagnostics and he almost pitied them for not being able to take such a level of pride in their creations from within as the gremlins' inherent abilities allowed them to do. Grippik put such thoughts aside for the present and studied the readout. If he was to present his paper to the Society and justify his time spent in the mortal world he would need to get to it. Their next meeting was less than a week away and he'd yet to discern what function this machine served.

Grippik examined his sketch pad and tried to complete a flow chart of the power lines he'd been tracing. They were a literal maze that shot this way and that and branched off in the oddest of directions. He found that the live wire ran into the readout and several other wires that appeared to be designed to conduit power ran away from it to other appliances within the machine. The readout contained several representations of the number characters humans used. One of the numbers kept changing. He counted several cycles and found that for every tenth change, the number beside it would change, and after every hundredth change the one beside that would change. So, at least one part of the device measured time. Grippik jotted this significant finding in his notes and continued his study. He traced one of the wires leading away from the readout to the lower portion of the machine and was immediately struck by a harsh, chemical smell. Just like humans; they couldn’t merely rely on technology or machinery, they had to mix alchemy into the picture. While the timekeeping function was a significant find, it also complicated matters even more. He'd been around human machines enough to know that anytime they mixed alchemy and power there was a great chance for the reverse engineering process would fail in a spectacular fashion.

Grippik traced the original wire back and found the main power source. Humans were great believers in the harnessing of energy into chunks of lead and copper. He applauded their ingenuity in finding a use for the otherwise neuter elements even while he scratched his head and examined the bundle of wires running from it. Grabbing several lines he felt along the wires and found two that had power within them. He grabbed hold of one and tugged on it till it came loose in a shower of tiny sparks. Grippik patted out the flames that had erupted in his single shock of white hair and grimaced. It would take weeks to grow back. Wouldn’t he just look a sight at the Society’s presentation? But still, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d sacrificed a little piece of himself for his work. Satisfied that the power had been cut off from the chemicals, Grippik went back to his work. He could always plug it back in when he was done.

The smell of singed hair followed Grippik as he crawled through the machine’s works. He'd gotten so used to the roaring noises outside the machine that he barely noticed when they changed in pitch and vibration. He went immaterial as the volume increased and he felt a sudden falling sensation. This lasted for several moments until the world around him bounced and screeched. If he hadn’t been in the ether he would've been thrown about the machine. Grippik waited until the feeling of motion stopped and the sounds died down to a respectable roar. Bringing his body back to the material world, he gathered his notes and sat down on the readout. The interruptions hadn’t helped and he’d lost his train of thought.

The sudden movement of the whole machine threw him off the readout and onto the floor. He cursed himself for not paying attention and again sent his body into the ethers. The ghostly image of the gremlin rubbed the growing knot on his forehead and waited for the machine to come to a stop. How could the Society expect an exhaustive report? No engineer, gremlin or otherwise, could conduct proper research under such conditions! Of course, the humans wouldn’t know he was inside, but the whole idea of science being manhandled in such a way discouraged Grippik to no end. He could feel various types of movement and had to wait several minutes before the thing steadied in its shifting. It was still in motion but had now fallen into a much gentler and steadier rhythm. The noise level had died away considerably but now his sensitive ears could hear a multitude of human voices all around him. The cacaphony was no more pleasant than the droning roar had been, but at least it was at a lesser volume.

Grippik dared poke his transparent head out of the machine and found he was moving in circles. The place was common to those where humans tended to congregate. Great artificial lights played overhead while hundreds of them moved this way and that. He was surrounded by dozens of other cases in various shapes and sizes that seemed to be waiting for seemingly random humans to come along and pluck them up. There were humans of both sexes and a wide range of ages, sizes and colors. Grippik had never seen so many different ones mingling together, or even such a place, before. He only wished his sociologically–inclined brother, Gronk, were here. He could have a thesis made from this place in just a few hours. But Gronk had always been the black sheep of the family for disowning any interest in machines and technology and had become quite hard to find. Last Grippik had heard, his intrepid brother was studying the Yeti in their natural habitat elsewhere in the mortal world.

Suddenly, a dark hand reached down and picked up the machine. Grippik thought of disembarking, but then another thought occurred to him. Since conditions surrounding the machine were obviously not conducive to proper research, perhaps the humans could show him the machine’s intent. If he knew that, he could apply it to his notes and make enough sense of it so as not to be laughed from the Society's presentation floor. Grippik stayed ethereal and rode along with the machine. The human carried it throughout the large structure while Grippik watched other humans move in great waves before and after him. How many of them were there, anyway? Their reproduction rate was extraordinary, but he had no idea there could be so many of them with a purpose to be in the same place at the same time like this.

The human finally carried Grippik and the machine into the night air. Truth be told it'd been rather hot and stuffy in the machine, but if Grippik brought his physical body back from the ethers now he ran the risk of detection. He would have to suffer through. After several minutes, one of the humans’ transportation devices pulled up beside them. He'd always marveled at such machines, but they were simply far too complex for one gremlin alone to catalog and study. He shuddered when he thought of old Frippo, his great–grandfather and the gremlin heralded as one of the greatest minds the race had ever produced. Frippo had tried to study some of the internal works of those machines and just couldn’t help but turn himself material once inside. A great metal rod had squashed him into his raw materials in an instant. The gremlins would have to wait till the humans made a glass one before further study could be done safely.

The human carrying the machine got into the vehicle and it sped away. There were two other men in the contraption similar in appearance to the one that carried him. Their speech was quick, excited and very animated. They seemed to be arguing about something. The human that carried him shifted the machine on his lap and started to work the latches on it’s case. That’s when Grippik realized he'd neglected to reconnect the power supply. Not wanting to be seen as one of those engineers that destroyed frustrating technology, Grippik went back into the case and turned material. Tracing the lines back to the power supply he found the wire he'd disconnected, but it was too late. He could see thin strands of light creeping through some of the less–solid seams and knew the human would be looking at the blank diagnostic readout.

The human uttered what could only be a curse as he discovered the dead readout. Grippik shoved the wire back into the slot where he'd pulled it from, but the energy felt different than before. When he'd pulled the wire the energy had merely been stored in it, content to sit and hum with no real direction or purpose. Now though the energy sung through the line, completing the complex circuits that humans took great pleasure in forcing electricity to achieve. Grippik hurriedly climbed back through the works and became intangible just as he breached the top of the machine then stood on the readout and waited to hear the human laughter and congratulations as their machine came back to life.

But instead of the sounds of joy, he heard the humans making a great commotion. He looked up with invisible eyes and saw the human that held the machine turn as white as a unicorn, his mouth open and quivering. Could they see him? He looked down at his own body and made sure he was still immaterial and caught sight of the readout. Grippik watched as the last few numeral symbols flickered away on their countdown. There was only one symbol left and it was changing almost as fast as he could recognize them.


The mortal world suddenly turned into the sun. Grippik's sensitive ears picked up the hum of the electricity and the chemical smell almost instantly. He frowned and stayed in place as the speeding vehicle suddenly erupted in flames and noise. In his immaterial form the explosion couldn’t harm him, so Grippik elected to stay in the heart of the inferno for later inclusion in his notes. He would have to find another machine to work with for his presentation at the Society. He simply couldn’t use this one. It would be the same as a dozen other reports from dozens of his other colleagues. Just one more reverse–engineering project gone wrong.


“In our top story, a car exploded on the bypass just outside of JFK airport late last night. The driver and two passengers were found dead in the wreckage. Formal identification has not been made but according to sources one of the passengers may have been Mushaif Ossalami, a known terrorist that has spent nearly a decade on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Airport security cameras and passenger lists indicate that Ossalami, traveling under an assumed name, had just debarked from a flight originating in London…”

The television suddenly flickered then died in a shower of sparks from the rear cover. A man in a suit and tie flinched away from the sparks as the television mounted over his head at the airport gate uttered its last. He gathered his things quickly and moved several seats away. No point in alerting anyone. He was sure someone would be along to repair the machine soon enough. No matter how far technology went, it seemed that no one could ever get all the bugs out.

Thanks for reading, and, just write damn it... - Author