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Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Issue 33: Myths and Monsters

Edited by Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Smashwords Edition
Copyright 2011 Shousetsu Bang*Bang

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Shousetsu Bang*Bang Issue 33 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Based on a work at http://shousetsubangbang.com

Table of contents

The Conquests of Dr. Victor Alazon, by Kikuchi Makoto (菊池 誠)

Tourniquet, by atarashii merle (新思メルル),

illustrated by lihsa

The Heart of the City, by Dr. Noh

The Stone Fox and the Bloody Hands, by shukyou (主教) and Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)

Stealer of Hearts, by Kim Chee (沈菜),

illustrated by keelain

The Unicorn Man, by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ)

El Presidio Rides North, by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ),

illustrated by neomeruru

Worse Than Rats, by Noel Oliver

Bright Mouths, by shukyou (主教),

illustrated by detonate

nothing under my skin but light, by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)

The Painted Face, by Amai Tonken (甘い とんけん),

illustrated by Amai Tonken (甘い とんけん)

The Soldier and the Sea, by yabamena

Unidentified Friendship Objective, by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲),

illustrated by olukemi

Consumed, by Meame Kannouteki (目飴 官能的)

The Emperor’s New Handmaid, by hcolleen and Osoimaru

Altair, by Yamanashi Moe (山梨もえ),

illustrated by carbonidiot

The Small Door, by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池)

The Lonely God, by Ozawa Ayaka (小澤綾香),

illustrated by Oishii Yumi

Possession, by Yume Arashi (夢 嵐)

Love Will Tear Us Apart (or, The Modern Pygmalion), by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)

———

Close Your Curtains, by The Winter Cynic

Menashe, by Bluejuice (青液)

Front cover by sukiyakii

Edited and published by the Shousetsu Bang*Bang editorial staff. Read more about this issue at http://www.shousetsubangbang.com/wiki/index.php?title=Issue_33

The Conquests of Dr. Victor Alazon

by Kikuchi Makoto (菊池 誠)

“My laboratory assistant?”

Dr. Victor Alazon – Technician of the Shadowed Corpse, rightful resident mad scientist of Egova, and the greatest scientific mind of his generation (perhaps of any generation) – stared down at the tow-headed boy who had shown up on his doorstep.

That alone was a noteworthy event. When one lives in a gloomy castle atop a hill that is prone to thunderstorms, visitors rarely stop by for tea and cakes. In point of fact, Victor had not received a single guest in the six years since he inherited Duskspark Castle.

But even this boy had not shown up for tea and cakes. He had come seeking employment.

“Yes, Dr. Alazon,” the boy said. He nodded, the very picture of earnestness. “I know that I’m unworthy of such an honor, but … but I had to ask! If there was even the slightest chance…”

“I can understand that,” Victor allowed. Now that he thought of it, he was surprised that a barrage of such requests did not fill his every waking moment. He supposed that the vast majority of people were too intimidated by his greatness even to ask. “Unfortunately I am far too busy to train an assistant right now. I’m in the middle of plotting the defeat of my mortal enemy, the insidious Dr. Marsden Eiron.”

Victor’s teeth ground down on the last syllable of that hateful name. That shameless upstart had insinuated himself into Egova a year ago, setting up a laboratory on the opposite side of town. Not a proper laboratory, of course. It was not a castle. It did not even sit upon a hill! It was little more than a townhouse, though admittedly its imposing stone walls were surmounted by spikes of wrought iron.

“But I could save you time, Dr. Alazon. I’ll handle any menial tasks so that you’ll be free to plot Dr. Eiron’s demise.” The boy blinked shining, golden eyes up at Victor.

That did put rather a different spin on things. Besides, Victor had never had an assistant before. The idea intrigued him. The boy displayed an acceptable understanding of Victor’s genius, at the very least.

“What is your name, boy?”

“Ah! Yes. I’m Colin.” The boy bowed low, his shock of hair swaying. “Forgive me for not telling you sooner. It’s just such an honor to meet you, Dr. Alazon. I completely forgot. I am very sorry if I caused any offense.”

“Very well, Colin.” Victor swept his lab coat back. A peal of thunder shook the castle’s foundations. “I, Dr. Victor Alazon, shall hire you on a provisional basis.”

“Whaaa…”

Colin stared agape at the flickering image projected on the wall: a mummy head, goat hind legs, a kiln body, and four monkey arms. He staggered back a step, the back of his upturned head colliding with Victor’s chest.

“Has the creative genius of the design left you speechless?” Victor asked, putting his hands on the boy’s shoulders to steady him. “Well, I can hardly blame you for that. This is the monster that will cut down the perfidious Dr. Eiron, after all.”

“Of– of course it is! This is such a masterwork, no one could stand against its might. You’re amazing, Doctor!”

“Indeed. Well, it’s about time I got to work.”

“Eh?” Colin looked back over his shoulder. “What do you mean?”

Victor paused in the middle of pulling on a pair of thick, black gloves. “What do I mean? I’m going to begin construction on the legs, of course.”

“But isn’t that what you hired me to do, Doctor? After all, it’s a mad scientist’s job to dream up incredible plans, while the assistant does the grunt work of putting together the actual body parts and such.”

“Ah … ah! Yes. Excellent answer, Colin.” Victor cleared his throat and swept his right arm into the air, placing his left hand over his chest. “It seems you are indeed worthy to serve as an assistant to Dr. Victor Alazon!”

“So you were testing my aptitude as an assistant? Amazing! Just what I’d expect from you, Doctor.”

“Indeed. Now, to work!”

It seemed that Colin’s memory was rather poor, as he set to work constructing a set of kraken tentacles instead of goat legs. His eyesight must have been equally poor because Victor’s blueprint remained projected onto the wall. Victor considered pointing out the error, but the boy was so intent on his work that it seemed cruel.

No matter. Victor’s monster possessed such terrifying power that a minor mistake would have no effect on its ability to destroy Dr. Eiron. He strolled over to the operating table to check on his assistant’s progress.

The boy’s hands were steady, perhaps even steadier than Victor’s. At least, Colin did not need to stop every minute or so to pick out crooked sutures, and every one of his staples ended up in the right place the first time.

Victor’s brow furrowed for a moment at this unexpected discovery. Then he shrugged, supposing it was only natural. The grunt work of constructing body parts belonged to laboratory assistants, after all. It made sense that they would possess a somewhat higher degree of dexterity to make up for their total lack of creative genius.

Satisfied, Victor wandered off to make a pot of coffee for Colin.

A few days later, Victor decided that it was time to start on the arms. Colin ended up working on a mechanical spider arm, but Victor supposed that eight arachnid arms were the rough equivalent of four monkey ones.

The arms were more complicated than the tentacles had been. Victor supposed that Colin would need an hour or two to complete the first one. Working so intently for that long would leave the boy tired and hungry, so Victor – thoughtful employer that he was – decided to have dinner waiting for him.

“Let’s see…” he muttered, tying on an apron and looking through the ice box and the pantry.

He pulled out rasher of bacon, a chicken, and a bulb of garlic. Then he lifted a large bowl down from the cupboard and filled it with carrots, pearl onions, and mushrooms. While the bacon crisped on the stove, he set about jointing the chicken and smiled to himself.

As a child, he had gone through a brief phase when he had toyed with the idea of becoming a professional chef. He had made a tall hat out of white paper and used a bath towel for an apron. His mother’s scalpels had been his kitchen knives, while a pair of his father’s anatomical models had served for sous chefs. True, he had never managed anything more complicated than a fruit salad, but still, it had been fun.

A quarter of a century of life had grounded him, though. When one inherits a gloomy castle atop a hill that is prone to thunderstorms, one finds that one’s options are rather limited.

After he had replaced the bacon with the floured chicken pieces and browned them well, he added the vegetables and gave them a good sautéing. They released a rich, earthy scent as they softened. Taking a warming breath of them, Victor removed them from the heat, added a small glass of brandy, then tipped the pan back toward the flames to ignite the fumes.

The brandy burned high and bright. No matter how many times Victor did that, it always gave him a thrill of satisfaction. The fire died a moment later, however, and he stirred in some wine and broth, then a handful of herbs, before covering the the whole affair and leaving it to simmer.

Colin was still engrossed in his task when Victor went down to the laboratory to check on him. One spindly leg stood propped against the wall as he worked on the next. Though they seemed to shine pure black at first glance, a change in angle revealed glinting patches of silver. It reminded Victor of snowflake obsidian. He was unsure whether it served a practical or aesthetic purpose.

Pulling a chair over to an empty operating table, Victor sketched out possible designs for his next monster. Perhaps a dark knight body atop a pair of chicken legs? The head would need to be something like a shark or bear, which meant scythe arms.

Victor was shading in the city block through which his monster would rampage when a groaning sigh drew his attention back to Colin. The boy leaned back on his stool, stretching his arms and back as far as they would go. Then he rolled his shoulders and happened to spot Victor.

“That’s three done, Doctor,” he said, beaming.

“Really?” Victor blinked in surprise. “My timing is even better than I thought. Dinner should be ready right about now.”

“Eh? Dinner? I thought…. Aren’t I going to pick it up in town, like usual?”

“No need. I thought you would be tired from today’s menial labors, so I took it upon myself to prepare this evening’s meal.” He paused for a moment to allow the weight of his kindness to ensconce itself in Colin’s mind.

Colin’s response, however, proved less than sufficiently grateful. He continued to stare at Victor and made no move to leave his stool.

Victor frowned. “I assure you, while the food is indeed of the highest quality, such a thing is the essence of simplicity for a man of my talents, so you needn’t worry about having put me to so much trouble.”

“Ah… Oh! Yes, of course. I was only thinking that I’m unworthy to eat food prepared by Dr. Alazon’s own hands. Perhaps I should just eat in town, after all.”

“I suppose you have a point,” Victor said, mollified, “but it’s too much for me to eat on my own. Being consumed by a laboratory assistant is a little less wasteful than ending up in the garbage pile.”

While Colin waited in the dining hall, Victor scooped their portions into shallow porcelain bowls, topping them with crumbled bacon and a generous sprinkle of fresh parsley. As he carried the food into the hall, he noticed Colin looking quite peaked as he twisted the edge of the tablecloth between his hands.

The boy’s expression grew even more amused when Victor set the bowls down. Forgetting to thank Victor, Colin carved a morsel of chicken and brought it to his mouth.

His eyebrows shot up. “This is good,” he said. He took another bite. “It’s…. This is really good.”

Victor took a seat across from Colin and said, “Naturally.” But he felt an inexplicable warmth blossom in his chest and spread out through his limbs. He could not understand – Colin’s praise had been so measured as to be insulting. Even so, Victor found it difficult to stop smiling as they ate together.

“Tell me, boy,” he said, pouring himself a glass of wine, “have you considered studying mad science at university?”

Colin gave him a quizzical look. “It wasn’t an option at first,” he said slowly. “My family didn’t have that kind of money. I did take a custodial job at Tournesol, though.”

“Ah, Tournesol! The very same university that has the honor of being my alma mater.”

“I thought it might be, Doctor. They have an Alazon Hall, don’t they? When did you graduate?”

“Six years ago. The professors were so astounded by my genius that they awarded me a diploma and the title of Technician of the Shadowed Corpse after I had completed only one-eighth of the coursework.”

“Oh. That’s…. That’s very impressive.”

“Indeed,” Victor said, nodding. “But what about you, my boy? Did you manage to glean any grains of knowledge during your employment in those hallowed halls?”

“A bit. They granted me access to the library, so I’d often bring books with me and study in the laboratories after I had finished cleaning up and sterilizing the equipment. One of the professors – Dr. Cranston – happened to find my notes one day, and she recommended me for a scholarship. Thanks to her, I was able to enroll-”

Colin cut himself off. Victor instantly apprehended the cause of his hesitation.

“It’s all right,” he said, gesturing for Colin to continue. “True, my own life and exploits are by far more interesting, but I am willing to hear your story.”

“I was able to enroll in the, ah, in the laboratory assistants’ training course.”

“That would explain your modest level of competence. Strange, though.” Victor swirled his wine and said, “I didn’t realize Tournesol had a laboratory assistants’ training course.”

“I’m sure you had more important things to focus on, Doctor.”

“Very true. So, you’ve graduated from this course, I take it? Impressive, for one so young.”

“Eh?” Colin blinked. “It’s an honor, of course, to be complimented by Dr. Victor Alazon, but I graduated at twenty-six.”

Victor choked on his wine. “Twenty-six? How old are you now?”

“Twenty-eight. How old did you think I was, Doctor?”

“Ahh,” Victor said, dabbing a napkin to his chin. “So you were twenty-eight, after all. I thought for a moment that I had miscalculated.”

“Surely not!” said Colin.

He held a fist to his mouth, and his eyes gleamed. A moment later he burst into helpless laughter. Victor did not understand what Colin could have found so amusing, but he soon found himself laughing along anyway. It was a pleasant feeling.

“I wish I had known, though,” Victor said, wiping a tear from his eye as the last of their laughter died down. “You could have taken my place.”

“Taken your place?”

“At Tournesol. My own natural genius is such that I had no need of training. It could have done you a lot of good, though. I think you might have made a decent mad scientist.”

“You know….” Colin said, his expression turning contemplative. “You aren’t quite what I had imagined.”

“What do you mean?”

“Hmm. I’m not sure how to explain it.”

“Perhaps it’s because I’m even more astoundingly brilliant than the rumors say,” Victor humbly suggested.

Colin smiled and said, “Yes, of course. That must be it. You’re so good with words, Doctor!”

Colin finished the last of the spider arms at the end of the week. He spent the next few days running around town and the nearby moor, gathering components for the remaining two body parts. Meanwhile, Victor wandered around the castle, looking for something to do.

While having an assistant was convenient, it did leave one with a great deal of free time. Victor spent most of it down in the lab, sketching out monsters and waiting for Colin to come home for meals.

The fourth day found him working on a monster that had a pirate head, zombie legs, a ninja body, and robot arms. Well, that was how it started out, at least. Victor realized that, at some point, it had morphed into a restaurant.

Victor blinked down at it for a moment. Then he shrugged and added a bit of crosshatching to the grapevine arbor that sheltered the outdoor dining area. Once he had put the finishing touches on the wine cellar, he sketched out a rectangle in the corner and wrote Menu at the top.

Just as he finished the desserts list, the lab door swung open. Victor looked up to see Colin struggling under the weight of an overstuffed burlap sack. Setting his sketchbook aside, Victor bounded up the stairs to take the sack from him.

“You seem to have gathered quite a lot of components for a simple mummy head and a kiln body,” Victor said as he carried the bag down to the supply shelves.

“Hm?” Colin paused in the middle of sorting leech brains into four different jars. “Oh! Yes, well. Unlike you, Dr. Alazon, I know my first few attempts will fail, so I made sure to get extra.”

Perhaps Colin’s errands had left him overtired because he spent the rest of the night constructing a crocodile head. Still, Victor supposed that was close enough, and he went upstairs to prepare sugared strawberries for their dessert omelets.

The real difficulty came after Colin finished the monster’s body (a gorilla, as it happened). Now he needed to install the heart. It would take hours as opposed to the days required to construct the body parts, but unlike construction, a cardiac installation must take place all at once.

Victor strapped the body to the central operating table, then laid out the scalpels, forceps, clamps, bolts, sponges, soldering irons, scissors, tubing, raspatories, vein strippers, screwdrivers, electroshock wands, tunnelers, passers, needles, wire cutters, and rib shears on the instrument table. After double-checking the instruments, Victor helped Colin into a surgical gown, and the installation commenced.

The main difficulty of a cardiac installation were the heart’s prehensile arteries and veins. (Or was it atria and ventricles? Victor always had difficulty keeping them straight at university.) They had a nasty tendency to wind themselves around the ribs in an attempt to pull the heart back out of the chest. They would also grab any instruments that came within reach. That included whatever tool the mad scientist was using at the moment. The process was a little like a cross between installing a battery and boiling a live octopus.

While Colin secured the first four bolts with his right hand, he used the electroshock wand in his left to shock the heart’s tentacles into docility. Meanwhile, Victor operated a second wand to catch any tentacles that Colin could not get to in time.

After the first three hours, Colin had enough of the tentacles sutured, cauterized, and soldered in place that he could handle the rest of the electroshocking on his own. Victor contented himself to wipe Colin’s brow and hand him the required tools.

Colin sewed the monster’s chest closed fifteen hours later. Once he had bolted the chest plate in place, he staggered back from the operating table and toward the stairs. His foot slipped on the first step, and Victor had to lunge to catch his elbow before he could crack his skull on the stone floor.

He tried to support Colin the rest of the way up, but Colin proved too unsteady on his feet. After a moment’s deliberation, Victor swept his arm behind Colin’s knees and lifted him up. Colin did not seem to notice. In fact, when Victor looked down, he saw that Colin was already deep in slumber, his cheek pressed against Victor’s chest.

Victor cleared his throat and climbed the stairs. It was a long way to Colin’s room, up on the third floor, but fortunately, he was as light as he looked. Once he had deposited Colin in his bed, however, Victor found himself confronted by a new problem.

Exhausted though he was, Victor doubted that Colin could sleep comfortably, still dressed as he was in his daytime clothes. So Victor undressed him and slipped a nightshirt over his head. He worked in the dark and kept his face turned away for the sake of Colin’s modesty. This had the unfortunate side effect of Victor’s hands brushing once or twice against those very … areas that he so thoughtfully kept himself from seeing.

Calling the smell of half-rotted crocodile kidneys to mind took care of any unwanted consequences, as it usually did. That difficulty managed, Victor closed Colin’s door behind him and headed off to his own room.

Colin did not awaken until late afternoon the next day, but the moment he did, he swept down into the laboratory to stitch the monster together. He then positioned the electrodes and hooked them all into the lightning tower. After he and Victor had double-checked the connections, Colin nodded, and Victor threw the switch.

Victor took a deep breath and bellowed, “Ooh-hoo-WA-ha-ha-ha-ha-HAA!” It was quite a good laugh, perhaps his best yet. All the same, he felt a bit disappointed.

Nothing much happened. No sparking flares. No blue-violet arcs of electricity. A bone-deep thrumming hummed throughout the laboratory, but that was all.

“What went wrong?” Victor asked, staring forlornly up at the lightning tower.

“I rewired the system to make the energy transfer more efficient,” Colin said, “just as you instructed me to do, Doctor.”

“Oh, good work!” Victor put a fist to his chin and nodded. “I, uh, I didn’t realize that you would be so conscientious about your duties.”

He expected Colin to bask in the glow of his praise, but Colin had crossed the room to check the monitors.

“Because the monster is so powerful, it will take a full day to charge, Doctor,” he said. He turned a few dials, flicked a number of switches, and pressed one of the blue buttons on the top row of the control panel. “We’ll have to wait until tomorrow afternoon to charge Dr. Eiron’s laboratory.”

“Well, that’s fine. I suppose we could both use some time to relax.”

Colin looked back over his shoulder, his expression wistful. “Perhaps we could pass the time talking about your accomplishments, Doctor?”

Victor graciously assented. They stopped by the kitchen to pick up the trays of petits fours glacés Victor had made that morning, and Victor brewed a pot of Earl Grey.

Carrying everything out to the western greenhouse, they settled at the small wrought iron table beside the central fountain. While Colin poured for them both, Victor laced his fingers under his chin and thought back over his previous experiments.

“There was Dinsdale,” he said. “Volcano head, lobster arms, and panzer body, so I gave him skeleton legs to keep from sacrificing speed and agility.”

“How did that work out?”

“Too well,” Victor said, giving his head a rueful shake. “Dinsdale made it two steps before tipping forward. He kept running, though, so he ended up going in circles on the floor.” Victor used his fingers to mimic the monster’s frantic motions, and Colin’s laughter mingled with the patter of the fountain. “By the time his energy drained, he had bored through the stone and a good way into the earth. Alas, the natural laws so jealously guard their thrones from the ambitious ingenuity of the human mind.”

Colin rested his chin in his hand. “And? What came after Dinsdale?”

“Ximinez. Clown head, tombstone body, unicorn legs. Her bat wings were her charm point.”

“Bat wings?”

“Mm.” Victor nodded, reaching for a petit four.

“And? Did it fly?”

“What are you saying, Colin? Of course Ximinez flew. She flew, but….” Victor popped the petit four into his mouth and chewed moodily. “She kept banging her head on the ceiling until it broke. Her head, I mean. Well, she shattered sixteen of the lights too. I had to replace them all.”

“But the bat wings worked,” Colin said, pulling a notepad and pen from his vest pocket. “They made a monster fly! I’ve never even considered that possibility. What components did you use?”

“I used a dinosaur skeleton as the base. The secondary components were – let me think – a gorgon’s scale, some death cherries, battery acid, jumper cables, fairy dust, and a couple of amethysts.”

“…fairy dust, two amethysts,” Colin muttered as he scribbled on the notepad. “Swapping in doll’s eyes for the death cherries would increase stability, and I could increase stamina by adding a raven’s beak, the light of the full moon, and, hm…. Oh! A Weston cell! It would need a high-intelligence, low-power head to balance things out, though. A jack-o’-lantern, perhaps. Or a Venus Flytrap.”

“Oh, r-right.” Victor sat up straight, waved his hand, and cleared his throat. “That’s what I thought too. Well! Perhaps that will be our next monster.”

Colin stopped writing and looked up. “Our next monster…”

“The diabolical Dr. Eiron is but one obstacle on our road to glory, Colin. We have an entire world to conquer!”

Colin smiled rather stiffly. “Of course,” he said, plucking a petit four from the top tray. He nibbled a corner, and his eyes widened. “Is this cherry amaretto?”

“Indeed.”

“It tastes so much brighter than usual. Where do you get these recipes, anyway? I don’t remember seeing any cookbooks.”

“I found a stack of cards in one of the kitchen drawers. I assume they were my great-aunt’s.”

“This was her castle, then?”

Victor nodded and sipped his tea. “Before one of her experiments ate her. Well, the recipe I found called for apricots, but I prefer cherries.” He gave Colin a proud smile. “I tried just cherry and vanilla at first, but something was missing. So I tried a few other flavors before settling on almonds – toasted slivers as well as the liqueur. That overpowered the cherries, though, so I drizzled warm preserves over the cakes and added just a bit of Kirsch to the fondant. It took a few tries to get the balance right.”

“It was worth the effort,” Colin said, taking another. “Have you ever considered opening a shop? Or a restaurant?”

“Ah, no. Not seriously. I have a greater responsibility to science, after all.”

Victor could not even begin to imagine why, but Colin looked … sympathetic. He reached a hand halfway across the table before dropping it again. Then he took a deep breath and placed it over Victor’s.

“It’s difficult, isn’t it?” Colin murmured, not meeting Victor’s eyes. “Being an Alazon, I mean.”

Victor hesitated a moment. Then he swallowed hard and said, “Perhaps for someone of lesser faculties.” The sentence felt unfinished, lacking his usual verbal flair, but his thoughts felt strangely muddled.

Perhaps it was because Colin seemed to lack his usual effervescence. He laughed softly, his fingers trailing over Victor’s knuckles as he pulled his hand away.

“I should have expected as much from you, Doctor,” he said.

A thought struck Victor, and he perked up. “Perhaps I could run a small business on the side, though.”

Now that he had a laboratory assistant, building a monster required very little investment of time on his part. A food cart during the lunch hour would be merest child’s play to one such as Victor. Or, perhaps, he could design a monster to use for a home delivery service.

“Well, I can’t wait to see what brilliance you have in mind.”

Colin pushed his chair back and circled the table. Before Victor knew what was happening, Colin had bent down to kiss him.

Though stunned for a moment, Victor’s mind processed this information and produced an explanation with its customary celerity: Colin had been overwhelmed by the stories of Victor’s greatness, and little wonder. Surely anyone would fall for him, under such circumstances.

Be that as it may, Victor still felt a twinge of guilt for having plunged Colin – however inadvertently – into such a deep state of infatuation. Perhaps he ought to have lied just a bit, in order to downplay his astonishing accomplishments. That pricked his sense of honor, though. Being a specimen of human perfection was not without its difficulties.

Well, this had probably been inevitable no matter what he had done. Greatness had a way of shining through, and his unconscious magnetism could not be denied.

Colin started to pull away, clearly convinced that his own unworthiness had led to rejection. Victor could not allow this to stand. Such a rejection would shatter Colin’s heart. He might end up wandering alone from town to town, composing deep and mournful poetry about his unrequited love. Victor did not think that he – in his boundless mercy and … magnanitude? magnanimity? magnanimousness? … in his boundless mercy and generosity – could bear that guilt.

So he caught Colin’s arm, just below his shoulder. This took Colin by surprise (understandable, given the superhuman speed with which Victor was able to move), and he staggered forward half a step, only just keeping himself from tumbling into Victor’s lap. Victor felt Colin’s bicep tense under his fingers, as though he had found himself on the wrong end of an electroshock wand.

“Doctor?” Colin said, his breath warm against Victor’s cheek.

Victor stayed as he was, his temple in barest contact with Colin’s. Then, slowly, he turned his head, until their lips were aligned once more, though not quite touching. Colin’s breaths shallowed, then stopped altogether. Victor took that as a sign to close the last remaining distance between them.

Colin made a small, surprised sound against Victor’s mouth, and he braced his free hand on Victor’s shoulder, as though to push himself away. Then, suddenly, he was leaning into Victor’s shoulder instead, his lips parting to deepen the kiss. Victor released Colin’s arm and embraced his waist instead.

He had not meant to draw Colin closer – he only wondered how it might feel, and the curiosity of his genius demanded data. But Colin shifted forward, up onto the chair, his knees coming to rest on either side of Victor’s thighs, so that he was almost but not quite sitting in Victor’s lap. Both of his hands came up to cup Victor’s jaw as they kissed, the calloused tips of his fingers caressing Victor’s throat with surprising strength.

Then Colin’s tongue somehow slipped out of his own mouth and into Victor’s. Sadly, it seemed that he was new to kissing, and therefore had little control over himself. It was not an unpleasant sensation, though, to have Colin’s tongue running hot and smooth over his own. To avoid embarrassing Colin over his faux pas, Victor kindly allowed his own tongue to slip past Colin’s lips in return, to glide over the roof of Colin’s mouth, then back to trace the inside of his lip.

Colin moaned, settling his weight on Victor’s lap and pressing closer. His boldness amazed Victor. While he knew that countless others must have fallen for him over the years, they had all been too intimidated to act on their adoration. Colin, by contrast, showed no such reservations.

Victor decided that his altruism as an employer must have accounted for the dissolution of the natural barriers between them. What else could explain the eager way Colin’s hand slipped between them and–

Oh.

Gasping, Victor broke the kiss, his head falling back involuntarily. His hips, too, acted of their own accord, and jerked up to meet that light touch. It was likely he would have jumped right out of the chair, had Colin’s weight not been holding him in place.

That warm, clever hand pulled away at once, leaving Victor dazed and bereft. He opened his eyes to find Colin gazing down at him, his expression clouded.

“What– What’s the matter, Colin?”

“This is…” Colin frowned. His hands trailed over Victor’s shoulders, where they clenched and unclenched in Victor’s lab coat. “You want this, right?”

“What?” Victor blinked. He took a deep breath and said, “What are you asking?” His head felt a bit fuzzy, so he shook it clear (or as clear as it would go, under the circumstances), and realization dawned. “Ah! I see. Yes, I can understand why you would feel insecure, but put your mind at ease. Despite my vastly superior sexual prowess, you need not fear–”

Colin smiled, a little wry, and leaned in to close his mouth back over Victor’s, cutting his kindhearted assurances short.

Such an impertinent interruption would have rankled a lesser man, but Victor understood that Colin had to act quickly, lest he lose his nerve a second time. So Victor brought one hand up to cradle the small of Colin’s back while the other traced over the trembling flex of Colin’s thigh, and allowed the infraction to pass without comment.

Besides, it was easy to ignore Colin’s impropriety when his hand had found its way back to the front of Victor’s pants, moving more insistently this time. His fingers described the outline of the growing bulge that lay within, somehow locating the most sensitive spots, even through the thick wool.

“Still with me, Doctor?” Colin breathed. “I’m so hard for you right now, it hurts.”

Victor licked his lips – inadvertently licking Colin’s in the process – and said, “Yes. Yes, yes, Colin. Please.”

Colin groaned and shifted again, hooking his right leg over the chair’s back leg, then twining his left with Victor’s. Thus braced, he bent his head to Victor’s throat, kissing and nipping as he ground their hips together. Victor panted and rocked up to meet his thrusts, his hands fisting in the fabric of Colin’s vest.

The edges of the chair bit into the backs of Victor’s calves, into his shoulders. He could discern the delicately textured surface of the metal, even through his clothes. Well, that came as little surprise – he had always possessed senses that far exceeded those of ordinary people. But they seemed even more heightened than usual right now, attuned to the slightest stimulus.

Which was quite all right by him as they allowed him to relish the heat of Colin’s breath at the hollow of his throat, the lingering taste of bergamot and Kirsch on Colin’s tongue, the frantic, unsteady rhythm of Colin’s heart, and the shared heat and hardness trapped between them.

All at once, it became too much to bear. Colin seemed to sense that because the gentle caresses of his hand on Victor’s length turned into hard strokes, and he murmured, “Yes, like that. Just like that. Let me feel you.”

Weak and gasping, Victor pushed up into those strong, slender fingers, Colin’s name spilling from his lips again and again. Colin stilled for a few breathless moments. He traced gentle kisses over Victor’s jaw while stars winked behind Victor’s eyelids.

Blowing out a long sigh, Victor forced his hands to release Colin’s vest so he could knead the straining muscles of his shoulders instead. He felt a shiver run beneath his fingertips, and Colin started to move again – jerkier than before, less controlled. Victor slid one hand up to massage Colin’s scalp, and Colin murmured something in his ear.

What he said, Victor could not be sure, because at the same time, Colin curled in on him, his body going rigid even as he melted at Victor’s touch.

Then his hands tightened on Victor’s shoulder and nape with a strength that belied his frame, and he gasped, “Shit!”

Victor raised his eyebrows. Somehow, that one curse came as a greater surprise than anything else had done.

Colin disentangled himself and turned around. Still sitting on Victor’s lap, he pulled his left knee up to his chest and dug his thumbs into his thigh. “Cramp,” he said through gritted teeth.

Smiling, Victor reached around him and shooed his hands away. “Stretch out your leg,” he said. As Colin complied, Victor rubbed the wayward muscle first with the heels of his palms, then his fingertips.

The tightness in Colin’s thigh gradually relaxed, and he settled back against Victor’s chest. Victor continued his ministrations long after they ceased to be necessary. The fountain continued to murmur soothingly beside them.

“Thank you,” Colin said, reaching back to comb idle fingers through Victor’s hair. “You’re … you’re a very kind person, Dr. Alazon.”

One part of Victor worried that he had now ruined Colin for all other lovers. Another, more vocal part of him pointed out that there were far worse fates. Satisfied, he wrapped his arms around Colin’s chest and nuzzled his ear. “Indeed,” he said.

The next morning, Victor opened his eyes to see Colin already awake and watching him, his gaze regretful. Horrified, Victor bolted upright and waved his hands around.

“Colin! I’m so sorry. Are you– Should we not have–”

Apparently, Victor had not, in fact, chosen the right course the previous afternoon. A moment of rejection would surely have been better than this. As far as he could remember, this was the first mistake he had ever made. He disliked the tension is created in his stomach.

Even as Victor floundered for something more to say, however, Colin leaned up to kiss him on the forehead.

“No,” Colin said. “It’s not that. I’m just a little worried about the attack on Dr. Eiron’s laboratory. If … things don’t go well. That’s all.”

Now Victor was thoroughly bewildered. How could the attack go any way but well? They would use the monster that Dr. Victor Alazon had designed himself. Then he reasoned that this was Colin’s first mad science battle. It was only natural that he would feel nervous.

They went down into the laboratory after lunch, and Victor switched off the connection to the lightning tower. The monster stirred beneath the sheet, and Victor threw his hands into the air, his laughter ricocheting up to the vaulted ceiling.

“Yes! Rise!” he intoned. “Rise, my creation! Rise, Dennis Moore!”

Colin’s lips twitched. “Dennis Moore?”

“Of course. Don’t you think she looks like a Dennis Moore?”

She?”

Colin’s nervousness must have been catching because Victor felt a twinge of concern as they led Dennis Moore across the drawbridge. None of Victor’s previous creations had ever made it quite as far as this. Well, unless one counted Orbiter-5, who had crashed through the wall and drowned himself in the moat. (Clearly, Victor had made him too intelligent, and the weight of his understanding had driven him to suicide.)

These concerns vanished, however, as Dennis Moore slithered through the cobbled avenues of Egova. She glided just a bit ahead of Colin, as though she already knew the way to Eiron’s laboratory. Some townspeople stood and gaped at their passing. Others slammed doors behind them as they darted inside. A small group of schoolchildren – just recently freed by the bell – followed at a safe distance, pointing and chattering.

Their voices died down as they reached the other side of town, and Dennis Moore lurched forward to charge the monster that stood guarding Eiron’s gate. It was big enough to fill the driveway, and its mechanical bull head snorted and bellowed as Dennis Moore drew near. A mighty pair of troll arms pounded its werewolf chest, and five sharply pointed clockwork feet shattered the cobblestones to gravel.

The schoolchildren scattered and fled as Colin called, “Crushing Bite!”

Dennis Moore dove and caught two of the guard monster’s legs between her powerful jaws. She chomped down, and the legs crunched and twisted, littering the street with bright brass gears and springs. The guard retaliated by slamming a fist into her side, breaking three of her spider arms.

“Self-Repair!” Colin shouted, followed by, “Spin Kick!”

The remaining five spider arms burst into a flurry of activity, rebuilding the three that had been damaged. Meanwhile, Dennis Moore’s tentacles blurred in a Catherine wheel whirl and sliced one of the troll arms cleanly off.

The guard monster bellowed again, its remaining legs pawing the ruined street. Then it lowered its horns at Dennis Moore and charged. She slithered to one side as the guard hurtled past.

“Now! Finish it with an Iron Maiden!”

Dennis Moore slid behind the still-charging guard and brought all eight arms together in a shattering embrace that pierced right through the werewolf torso. The guard monster vibrated for a few moments, steam hissing from its seams. Then it exploded in a shower of sparks and a splatter of coolant, its disparate parts flying in all directions.

Victor turned toward Colin, bursting with victory. “You see, Colin? No creation of the fiendish Dr. Eiron can stand against the might of Dennis Moore!”

But Colin had already disappeared up the driveway and into Eiron’s lab. Dennis Moore followed close on his heels, and the heavy gate slammed itself shut behind them.

Several long moments passed as Victor stood dumbfounded. He gaped up at the townhouse, his arms dangling at his sides and coolant running over his shoes in azure rivulets.

Suddenly, the townhouse began to click and whir like a clock preparing to strike the hour. A slender cannon rose from the central chimney, aimed at the sky. A steam whistle shrieked, and something shot from the cannon’s mouth.

It vanished from sight before Victor could make out what it was. Then, just as abruptly, it plummeted back toward the earth – stopping just short of the broken cobbles before Victor’s feet – and bobbed back up again.

Up close, Victor could see that it was a monitor with a propeller affixed to its top. It hovered in front of Victor’s face, dipping and darting like a giant dragonfly.

The screen flared to life, and Victor saw Colin. He was wearing a white lab coat, and a large pair of magnifying goggles sat atop his tousled head.

“Thank you for your help, Dr. Alazon,” Colin said, pulling on a pair of large, black gloves. “I do apologize for the ruse.”

He gestured, and the monitor swiveled so that the sweep of his arm took in the steaming remnants of the guard monster.

“You see, I programmed that monster with an intelligence that was unusually high for a mechanical bull head. Unfortunately, that caused the monster to think it stupid that it should have to take orders from me. As a result, it rebelled and took control of my laboratory instead. Naturally, it takes a monster to fight a monster, but I couldn’t very well build another without a lab. So I took the liberty of borrowing yours for a while. I will, of course, be happy to reimburse you for the cost of the components.”

Victor tipped his head to one side. “What?”

“Ah.” Colin’s impassive expression slipped just a bit. “And for the use of your equipment as well. You may name whatever price you think is fair.”

“Um … Colin?”

“No. It’s Marsden, actually. Marsden Eiron.” Colin put a gloved hand to his chest. “I am Dr. Marsden Eiron.”

Victor’s eyes widened. He moved his right foot back a step and swept his left hand into the air. The monitor ducked back to avoid the accusatory thrust of his index finger.

“You!” Victor bellowed. “You are my sworn enemy!”

“Yes, I suppose.”

“A villainous interloper! A treacherous pretender to the title of Egova’s resident mad scientist! A nefarious lout who lacks any sense of architectural aesthetics! And you … you lied to me?”

Victor faltered on the last bit. He was finding it difficult to catch his breath – his chest burned, and his throat constricted. His eyes stung as he tried to focus on the monitor. Of course. Colin… Eiron must has released some sort of poisonous gas. It was just like the fiend to use such an underhanded method. Victor clenched his fists and set his jaw. He must not allow Eiron to defeat him here!

“I do apologize for that,” Eiron said, and his voice sounded rather unsteady too.

Perhaps a bit of the poison gas had leaked into his lab on its way outside. Served him right. Victor expected that sort of shoddy craftsmanship from an indolent cad like Eiron.

Eiron cleared his throat and said, “But after all! Of all the mad scientists in the world, I knew that only Dr. Victor Alazon could pose a threat to me. Therefore I felt it necessary to lure you to my side. Unfortunately, my plan failed. Be…cause you proved far too clever to fall for it!” Eiron nodded and put a hand to his forehead. “And so I decided to return to my own laboratory in defeat. Do not rest on your laurels just yet, though, for I mean to plot a new scheme that will bring you down for good!”

“Hmm, I see.”

The pain in Victor’s chest eased a bit. Well, that was no surprise. He possessed an immune system many times stronger than that of an ordinary human being. Something as minor as poisonous gas could do little more than delay him for a moment or two. Eiron seemed somewhat recovered as well. Most likely he kept an antidote close to hand.

As he thought the situation over, however, Victor could come to only one conclusion. Having managed to deceive Victor – even for the briefest of moments – Eiron must have been the second most brilliant person in the world. And in that case….

“Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to team up?” Victor said. “You may not be anywhere near my equal in intelligence, but you’re still far above any other mad scientist on this planet. If we teamed up, no force could stand against us! You see the evidence of that scattered about this very street, for you could never have reclaimed your laboratory without the use of my terrifyingly super-powered Dennis Moore!”

“Yes, that’s true,” Eiron said, his expression brightening. “Brilliant, Dr. Alazon!”

“Indeed.” Victor put a fist to his chin and nodded. Then he opened one eye and cast a critical glance at Eiron’s townhouse. “You will, of course, have to move into Duskspark Castle, which is rather better defended and equipped than your … laboratory.”

Eiron smiled softly. “Dennis Moore and I will start packing right away, then.”

“I shall assist you,” Victor said. He swept his lab coat behind him and strode toward the gates, which swung obediently open to admit him.

Tourniquet

by atarashii merle (新思メルル)
illustrated by lihsa

Sam had always thought he’d be doing something more thematically appropriate when the dead started coming back to life. Like walking through a graveyard, or getting trapped in a mall, or even waking up in a hospital after the apocalypse had already happened — that was a popular one. He thought it would at least happen at night, or during a storm, or maybe in a deep, atmospheric fog. Instead, it’s three o’clock on a brilliant July afternoon, and he’s trying to get his hand down his boyfriend’s pants.

“Boys, come out here, something’s happening on the news,” says Emmett’s mother, through a door that had been closed for good reason.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” mutters Emmett, shifting a little under Sam’s weight. “She has, like, the worst timing ever.”

Sam grins and kisses him instead of moving, running his hands through Emmett’s army-buzzed hair.

“Seriously, come on. She’ll come in here,” Emmett says, a little less sure but still maddeningly resolute. His hand slides between their chests, unsticking them where the summer heat has melded their skin together. The backs of his knuckles brush lightly against the tented front of Sam’s jeans, then pull away.

Sam nips down to worry Emmett’s lip between his teeth. “Fine,” he says, muffled as he peppers Emm’s face with short kisses, over the column of his throat, into the flexing dip of his collar as he moves to roll away. “Later, though,” he says, then flops over on his back to watch with amusement as Emmett’s self-conscious gaze follows his line of his body, skin dark from the summer sun already.

“Yeah, later,” replies Emmett, pulling his t-shirt over his head to hide the way his face lights up, still a little ashamed. Still a little new, as fragile as an eggshell after it’s been cracked. Sam reaches out for his hand and turns it to kiss his palm. Like he knows what he’s doing, either.

They file into the living room a few minutes later, imagining themselves inconspicuous as they stand a family-safe distance apart. The room is dark, too masculine for a house with four women in it: the ghost of fathers past. Emmett’s mom and three sisters are already there and clutching each other on the couch. Sam feels his stomach do a little flip, the kind you get when you’ve just realized you’re asleep, and you’ve dreamed up something you’re horrified came from your own brain.

THE DEAD COME TO LIFE, reads the television news channel headline.

“–has released a report detailing the spread of the phenomenon,” says the anchorwoman, looking more earnestly concerned than usual. “Though initial studies of this unknown and highly contagious illness have been inconclusive, the CDC’s plan of action is similar to that for viral outbreaks. The public is advised to stay indoors, avoid contact with the infected, and report all new incidences to the hotline on your screen–”

Behind the hotline, the network plays shaky footage of a crowd forming around a small group of ashen-looking infected. The crowd stands frozen, cow-like in their curiosity and too slow to move, as the infected moan like dying things and lurch into them. The camera jerks wildly, screams distorting the sound feed.

The video changes to a man in a suit, addressing the camera before a cloud of anxious-looking scientists. “We’re asking for the public’s help in gathering as much information as possible. If you or your loved ones experience pain localized to recent wounds, fever, cramps, vomiting, or aches after coming into contact with someone who may be ill, please call the CDC hotline as soon as possible.”

“Have there been any deaths from the disease?” someone off-camera asks.

“I’m sorry, what?” asks the man in the suit, face pinched tight and looking like the wrong side of a long day.

“Has anyone died from this mystery illness?”

A babble of voices on and off camera threaten to drown out the man’s next words: “The numbers are still unclear. Previous we reported what appeared to be deaths from the disease. However, these patients seemed to enter, and recover from, what we believe to be… to be a… a death-like state. Er, physical recovery, that is, with diminished mental capacity, and still highly contagious. It’s still unclear–”

“Is this a joke?” Emmett asks.

Mrs. Dawson-Baxter shakes her head without saying a word. She is clutching a tissue in her hands and staring at the television even as the channel starts in on amateur videos: broken windows, screaming, cars on fire, glassy-eyed people shuffling through the streets.

“It’s on all the channels,” says Emmett’s youngest sister, cell phone open in hand but the screen dark, forgotten for a while. “On Twitter, too.”

“Oh,” says Sam, and the room goes quiet and tense again as everyone watches the television as if committing it to memory.

Emmett’s hand finds Sam’s and squeezes. Sam clenches back just as hard, almost afraid to turn and look at Emmett, at the expression he would find there, at the sharp military-approved haircut he’d worn since enlisting in the Reserves before their graduating year.

“I’m going to fight zombies,” Emmett breathes, barely loud enough for Sam to hear.

Sam swallows, watching stock footage of troop deployment play on CNN. “Me too,” he promises.

The next few months are not as bad as expected. Informed by decades of zombie movies and primed by influenza hysteria, the world proves surprisingly well-equipped to deal with an actual undead crisis.

Airplanes and highways close almost immediately, stopping the spread of the disease and keeping it contained even in the big commuter cities where the threat would have been most dire. The CDC issues multiple timely warnings. The news continues to repeat safety tips and evacuation information. People turn themselves in to the authorities rather than linger with their loved ones and put them in danger. The military quarantines the worst hit areas, and their barricades become fences, to eventually become concrete walls. The infection is contained before it becomes a true pandemic, hidden away from the public in tidy little islands of dead city centres.

Unlike any story ever told about the pandemic that would take down civilization, this one simply… doesn’t. Never let it be said the human race is anything but resilient.

The irony machine grinds into motion. Soon, pretty girls are posting zombie-inspired make-up tips on YouTube, joining amateur video of self-styled samurai wading into slow-moving hordes with mall-bought swords and frat boys in Hummers careening down the streets with baseball bats. A few people try to seek shelter in malls or pubs, and meet with varying degrees of success. The ‘pray for the undead’ movement comes and goes on the wind of a wildly successful charity auction.

The world survives, the news cycle continues as it always does. Gradually the attention of the world focuses on other things, other tragedies. Another oil well erupts in the Caribbean, and in the winter a Middle Eastern regime has some sort of cataclysmic meltdown — Sam knows he should care more, but it’s on the news while Emmett is packing for deployment so he doesn’t much remember the name or the details.

Deployment. It sounds so strange, and then Sam feels guilty for finding it so strange — like, how could the undead still be a threat if they hadn’t been a trending topic for weeks? But people had died in those quarantined areas by the thousands. And they had come back to life, just as numerous. The barricades protected the rest of the world, but behind those walls the undying still choked the streets, and it was a grim task to set soldiers to flushing them out and reclaiming the cities for humans.

So, Emmett goes off to war. He laughs at the phrase, and at Sam’s pantomiming the army girlfriends in the old movies they’d watched together. He isn’t even leaving the country, how could it even be war, it’s practically a video game — but under the laugh, a brittle anxiety keeps them both too taut. Emmett’s mom and sisters fill the spaces in their conversation with tears and smiles and awkward laughter, smoothing over the ways they’re too afraid to touch, to kiss goodbye in the parking lot of the army depot where three yellow buses wait to spirit the reservists away.

Emmett’s face is pale and solemn behind glass, distorted by distance and the foreign feeling of tears Sam can’t let come to the surface. As the bus pulls away he looks at the bright morning sky filled with cheerful little tufts of pollen, feeling frustrated and ambivalently angry at a world that steadfastly refuses to recognize the gravity of his situation.

Inside, the recruiting officer asks him if he’s sure. He thinks of Emmett and says he’s sure enough.

Thirteen weeks of Basic Training teach him quite a bit. Like: while the physical entrance requirements look no worse than gym class, their purpose is to lure you into a false sense of security. Like: it’s possible to pull literally every muscle in your body and still find a way to hurt yourself even more.

How to shoot something in the head from five hundred meters away. How to choke down two thousand calories of lasagna in one sitting while someone is yelling at you. Troop movements. How to find good cover. Multiple impressive but increasingly paranoid ways to enter a house. How to shower in a room full of naked men without getting an erection. How to drink a truly astounding amount of beer and still manage to make muster the next morning. How to miss someone so badly it makes you physically ill.

At night he turns his identity tag over in his hands, feeling the neat, punched out letters now familiar under his fingers: S J GALLAGHER, NRE, AB/POS, CDN FORCES CDN. He thinks of Emmett, of his hands, his sweet smile and the way he flushes when Sam needles him. His solemn face when they put his good-for-nothing father in the ground, and the way he only cried when they were alone afterwards.

Sam graduates Basic in acceptable standing but with exemplary marksmanship, a skill he attributes to far too many hours playing Resident Evil with Emmett. After an additional five weeks of intensive training he qualifies for a sniper position, and shocks his parents by requesting a transfer to the west coast — to Emmett’s last known base — rather than the more local quarantined zone. His mother goes on a tirade more Japanese than English. His dad, who had already given Sam the awkward ‘look what I found in your browser history’ talk, just gives him a knowing look. His transfer is approved, and a few weeks after graduation he’s on his own bus to the front, to Emmett.

Travelling from southern Ontario to the Vancouver containment zone is an overly complex affair, involving first a bus, then an airplane, then another airplane, and finally another bus. The last leg is longer than it should have been because the previous regional army base had long since been overrun. The new transfers fly into a residential airport well past the suburbs and board a refurbished school bus to take them the rest of the way.

Sam spends the entire trip in and out of a fitful sleep, finding the novelty of military travel worn off after the first few interminable transfers. Still, the late summer sun is only just beginning its descent by the time the bus rumbles up the forest highway to the new base, a collection of buildings that used to be an international college. It’s ringed on all sides by tall trees, and the previous chain link fence around the periphery is supplemented by a second, taller fence that looks electrified. A deep trench rings the base even further, a further precaution even this far out from the quarantined zone.

He doesn’t expect it to be so easy to track down his erstwhile boyfriend, but surprisingly it’s the easiest thing to happen for him a long while. They’re barely off the buses and past the guarded gate of the base before a familiar-looking face holding up the brickwork makes Sam stop in his tracks and cause a minor foot traffic collision behind him.


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