Wednesday, August 29, 2018

ELEVEN: SHIFT




OLIVER HAD NEVER BEFORE experienced so much pain in his entire life. It was as if an inch thick steel rod had been pushed through one temple and out the other. He thrashed and he writhed in the chair, straining against his bonds, wanting nothing more than the embrace of death if only to make the pain stop. But he could not escape his torture.

He could only suffer.

But then…

SHIFT

They drove through downtown Garrison with the windows down. The cool spring air kept the sweat from hanging out too long on his brow. Nine year old Oliver sat in the back of the old station wagon doing his best imitation of a statue. His father, he could tell, was angry. Silence was always best when his father’s anger was up. Not that he’d harm Oliver, that was never a worry. But words sometimes hurt the same as an open palm or a closed fist.

Oliver, the cause of his father’s foul mood, stared out the window, watching Garrison pass by outside. Less than an hour earlier he’d been at school doing his best to chuck a basket ball into the high hoop on the playground. It was then that his stomach had decided that it no longer wished to deal with the breakfast Oliver had eaten in the school cafeteria. One spectacular oral expulsion later and Oliver had been taken to see the school nurse. From that point all that was left was to call his mother. It was his father, however, that had come to fetch him. Oliver’s family, at the time, had just the one car, which his father used to get back and forth from work.

So really, when the nurse had called his mother, she in turn had called his father and had asked him to leave work to get the boy. Oliver, sitting on the bench outside the office hadn’t witnessed any of this, but he’d been around long enough to know how it all worked. Based on historical events, his father would have been more than happy to do what his mother had asked. His father always did what was asked of him, provided the request had come from Oliver’s mother, and he would always do so with a smile on his face. A smile that only masked the man’s true feelings. But his father would never complain to his mother.

“I could be fired you know,” his father said as they slowed to a stop at a red light. The First National Bank of Garrison slid into view outside Oliver’s window. “I’m the most junior lawyer at the firm, I can’t just leave in the middle of the day like this. Sure, Mr. Holt said he understood, but he’ll remember this whenever I’m up for Partner, I can guarantee you that.”

No, his father never complained to his mother.

It was then, as Oliver tried not to sigh, that the front of the bank exploded before his eyes. He screamed and shrank back, instinctively throwing an arm up to shield his face as debris rained down on the old station wagon. His father cursed.

Alarm bells blared as a man dressed like a bear stepped from the smoking hole that used to be the bank’s front wall. He carried with him a large black duffel bag in his left hand, and some sort of glowing white rod in the right. The man in the bear suit turned pointed the rod at the bank and a bar of white light shot out of the end of it. Another explosion sounded from somewhere inside the bank and Oliver could see that the man was laughing.

Oliver had always prided himself on keeping up to date on all the new Mighties in Garrison, both the good and the bad. In fact, hadn’t he been the one to form the Mighty Men, the single best Mighty Fan club in the entire fourth grade? But he didn’t recognize this bear-garbed villain.

Traffic wasn’t moving, police sirens screamed in the distance, and Oliver pressed his nose against the door window, hoping to catch a little of the action.

“Get down, Ollie,” his father said from the floor of the front seat. “You could get hurt.”

Oliver ignored his father, who chose to remain on the floor rather than pull Oliver to ‘safety’.

Then the Mighties arrived.

The first one on the scene was Lady V. She was a favorite of Oliver’s simply because he’d never seen her back down from a fight. She wore a blue leotard festooned with the American stars and stripes. She kept her hair rolled into a tight bun on the top of her head, which Oliver, even at nine, could see was the only practical way to go into battle, if you chose to keep your hair long.

Lady V didn’t waste any time and with one swing of her fist the bear man was on the ground.

“Cool!” Oliver said.

That was when the second Mighty arrived. He wore a red body suit with a blue cape, blue boots, and blue gloves. On his chest was the letter ‘M’ in yellow. He dropped from the sky and quickly took in the situation. He could see that Lady V had everything well in hand and so walked among the cars, stopping at each one to speak quickly to the driver, a calming smile on his strong face.

“Nothing to worry about sir,” he said through the open window to Oliver’s father, who was still cowering on the floor. “We’ll have you and your boy on your way soon.”

Then he turned his gaze to Oliver and his smile grew even broader.

“You working hard in school, son?” he asked.

“Yes sir,” Oliver said.

“Keeping the grades up?”

“Yes sir,” Oliver said. “A’s and B’s.”

“Good man,” the Mighty said. “You keep that up and you might be president one day.”

He smiled once again and moved on to the next car.

Oliver fell back in the seat, his illness all but forgotten. After all, it wasn’t every day that you got to speak with Captain Might.

SHIFT

His mother screamed, jolting Oliver out of his daydream. The two were walking up Fifth toward his mom’s beauty parlor. She’d brought him along because Kirk’s Komics was right next door and she knew he could spend all day there much less the time it would take to get her hair done. Oliver had never had a better babysitter than Kirk’s Komics.

He’d been thinking of the five dollars in his pocket and adding up how many comics that would buy him. In the end he came up with seven, maybe eight. He wasn’t sure how much the tax would be, so maybe seven would be a safer bet. Seven comics. Hopefully the new Captain Might would be out.

That was when his mom had screamed.

He looked up to see a man running from them with something in his hand.

“My purse!” his mom shouted to the world. “That man took my purse! Somebody stop him!”

Oliver thought for a moment that he could catch the guy, he wasn’t the fastest boy in the sixth grade, but then again, he wasn’t the slowest. But before he could get his legs to move, a Mighty in red, blue, and yellow dropped from the sky and placed himself in the purse snatcher’s path.

The thief, who had been running for all it was worth, slammed headlong into the unmovable Mighty, his face smashing into the yellow ‘M’ on the broad chest.

The Mighty then took the purse from the thief and glided gently over to Oliver and his mother.

“Here’s your purse, ma’am,” he said, handing it over to her.

“Captain Might!” Oliver said, bouncing on his toes.

“Hello, young man,” Captain Might said and the reached out to ruffle the boy’s hair. “Staying out of trouble?”

SHIFT

His palms were sweating. He adjusted the collar of the tuxedo for the hundredth time that night. He gazed across the table at his prom date in her gloriously plump dress and three thoughts flew through his head.

I can’t believe I’m actually going to the prom with Elyse Blake, was the first. This was followed quickly by: She’s beautiful. And then came the inevitable: Maybe Bruce’s Barbecue wasn’t the best place to take a prom date.

The two sat at the table in silence as they ate. Oliver would steal the occasional glance at the Elyse, looking up from his plate of ribs to see her looking back at him. They would both smile, turn red, and their eyes would drop back to their respective plates.

“My dad made sure the station wagon had a full tank for tonight,” Oliver said.

“Oh,” Elyse said, smiling. “That’s good. Of course, the school gymnasium is just a few miles away.”

“Yeah,” Oliver said, pushing the fries around on his plate.

“Did you watch the press conference yesterday?”

“Yeah,” Oliver said, looking her in the eye for the first time that night. “I can’t believe it’s real.”

“I know, right?” her gaze just as intense. “Captain Might retired. I keep waiting for the punchline. You know, they say that Garrison was a regular sin city before Captain Might. People were afraid to leave their houses the crime was so bad.”

“What are we going to do?” Oliver said. “There’s always been a Captain Might. I mean, I can’t imagine a Garrison without him.”

SHIFT

It was Forever that had sealed the deal.

The band Kiss had recorded many ballads in their long career, Beth being the most recognized, but when the DJ played Forever, Oliver just couldn’t help himself.

And so, under the sparkling light of the mirrored ball, in the middle of the West Garrison High Senior Prom dance floor, in front of all his fellow students, Oliver Jordan leaned in and kissed Elyse Blake for the first time.

SHIFT





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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

TEN: AN ICY LUMP




ELYSE JORDAN PACED A groove in her kitchen floor. She checked the clock, checked her phone, then checked the clock again. She’d been at it for thirty minutes now. It was over an hour past midnight and Oliver, her husband, wasn’t home.

She had tried his phone the last time just ten minutes ago. She hadn’t gotten so much as a ring. Instead it had gone straight to voicemail as if he had turned the phone off. Her emotions went from anger to fear to worry to panic and then started all over again.

It was unlike Oliver to be late, and on the rare occasions he’d had to be, he’d always called. But not tonight.

That didn’t sit well with Elyse. Something had to be wrong.

Elyse had been twelve when she’d first met a thirteen year old Oliver Jordan. His family had moved in across the street the summer before her Seventh Grade year at Walter Wayne Junior High. He had been an awkward boy; she’d seen that right away. She remembered sitting on her porch those many times that summer and watching him shoot baskets in his driveway. Looking back she had to admit that he’d spent more time missing the basket and chasing the ball down the driveway then he did actually scoring any points, but he’d always given it a hundred percent, she could at least give him that much. But watching him out there every day, he had seemed such a lonely boy. He had no brothers and no sisters, just his mother and father, and she’d never seen much of either back then.

His father had spent most of his time at the office working nonstop at the law firm of West and Allen. His mother, well, she had been out a lot too, spending the loads of money his father made. She’d shopped often, and had spent most of her time at an upscale beauty parlor in the city where she would get manicures, pedicures, and spa treatments. At least, that’s what she’d recalled overhearing her Mom telling her Dad on more than one occasion.

Oliver had lived across the street for most of the summer before the two of them had even so much as talked. That day had come in the middle of one of the worst thunderstorms Garrison had seen in generations. Tornadoes—plural—had been sighted on the ground near their suburb and her Dad had shuffled Elyse, her Mom, and her three younger sisters into the basement where they all had huddled around a battery powered radio. Her Dad had been passing out granola bars from their emergency kit when the doorbell rang.

“What the?” her Dad had said, standing on the stairs to the basement. “That’s the doorbell.”

She smiled at the thought. Her Dad had always had the uncanny ability to state the obvious at every opportunity.

She’d been afraid when her Dad had left the basement to get the door. There could have been all sorts of horrible weather-related type injuries that might have befallen him, and each one had blown through her head as she had waited at the bottom of the steps with her Mom and sisters.

But it had been just moments later when he’d returned, and he had not been alone. Following closely behind had been that awkward boy from across the street: Oliver Jordan.

She smiled again as she recalled how embarrassed he had looked, his eyes locked to the ground as he and her Dad had entered the basement.

“Who’s this, Frank?” her Mom had asked.

“Family, this is young Oliver Jordan.” He’d held his arm out to the boy as if the kid was a prize on the Price is Right. “The Jordan’s are the new family that moved into the old Flannigan place across the street.” Again with the obvious. “He’s going to ride out the storm with us.”

It was then, she remembered, that her Dad took her Mom aside to talk as Oliver stood there, still looking at the floor.

Elyse had shuffled closer to hear what the two were saying.

“He was all alone over there,” her Dad said. “His father is at work and his mother is out.”

“Out?” her Mom cocked an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” her Dad said, a look of disappointed judgement crossing his face. “Shopping. The boy looked more than scared when I’d answered the door.”

At that, her Mom had taken Oliver in hand and made him feel at home. From that point on, the boy had become a regular at the Blake homestead. Dinners, movie nights, and birthday parties, Oliver had always been there.

To Elyse, Oliver had started out as a major annoyance in her life. Eventually, that annoyance had turned to friendship, which in turn had become something more in High School when Oliver had screwed up his courage and asked her to the Prom. Up to that moment, she hadn’t even realized that she had been harboring her own secret feelings for Oliver Jordan. But when they had kissed on the dance floor that night... Well, the word ‘skyrockets’ comes to mind whenever she thinks back on it.

The memory of that kiss brought her another smile as she made her fifty-third circuit of the kitchen. Then her gaze found the phone and the warm feelings of memory quickly turned back into anger.

Where was that man?

She figured that Oliver had let the battery on his phone run down. Again. Oliver was always forgetting to plug that thing in. He must have stopped to bring home food, a late night snack, and was stuck in line at the drive-thru at whatever fast food place he had chosen.

This was the logical answer. It had happened only once since Oliver had started working nights, but that didn’t meant that it couldn’t happen again.

Of course, he could also be hung up because of a battle between Mighties. That happens often enough these days that their countless battles are included in the morning traffic report. She just wished he would call. Of course if Mighties are involved, there could always be collateral damage. That thought alone brought her emotional pendulum swinging back to fear.

The fear, the worry, and the panic, it had all originated from the same place: The Unknown.

While there was the logical side of her brain telling her that her fast food theory was probably the right one, the icy lump in the pit in her stomach had been threatening to take control.

What if something had actually happened to Oliver? Bad things happen to people all the time. What if he’d been mugged? Carjacked? Assaulted? Murdered?!

Her logical side took up a defensive position and fought the icy lump back. But still, she couldn’t manage to stop herself from pacing.

If only he would just walk through the door, that embarrassed smile on his face, apologizing the moment he walked in, a logical explanation for his lateness falling from his mouth before he could put down the greasy bag of burgers from Burger Buddy. She would be angry at him, but she would forgive him at the same time. She would forgive him just because he was alive, and because she loved him. If only he would just walk through the door.

That’s when the doorbell rang.

She froze.

The doorbell? She thought. At One in the morning?

That could only mean something bad. She couldn’t move. Ice filled her veins and kept her in place. The doorbell rang again, followed by a rapid and forceful knocking on the door. That got her moving.

“Who is it?” she called out from the front room.

“Garrison PD, ma’am,” said the voice from the other side of the door. “Please open up.”

She looked out through the peep hole and saw a man and woman on her stoop. They both wore suits, and each held a badge up for her to see.

Detectives.

Not good at all.

She slid the chain lock open, disengaged the deadbolt, and opened the door.

“Are you Elyse Jordan,” the female detective said.

“Yes.”

“May we come in?” the male detective said.

“I’m sorry,” Elyse said. “What is this about?”

“Mrs. Jordan, I apologize,” the female detective said. “I’m detective Pryor, and this is Detective Dwonch. We’d like to talk to you about your husband.”

“Oliver?” Panic got hold of her and she shook. “What’s wrong?”

“Could we come in please, Mrs. Jordan?”

“What has happened to my husband!?”

Detectives Pryor and Dwonch gave each other a knowing look before Pryor spoke. “Mrs. Jordan, I’m sorry, but we don’t really know.”





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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

NINE: THE PERFECT PHYSICAL SPECIMEN




OLIVER OPENED HIS EYES and found himself floating weightless in a world of blue, the color of a cloudless sky. It was if he flew, but could see nothing beneath him but the same blue expanse. It stretched all around him like an endless sea of nothing.

Yet, as he turned, he could see a figure there beside him, unmoving with closed eyes. A bearded man with no mustache. He wore a body suit of black, skin-tight fabric that covered every inch of him but his head and hands. The man was taller than Oliver and didn’t seem to have an ounce of fat on him, only muscle. He was, Oliver surmised, the perfect physical specimen.

There was something familiar about the man, though Oliver couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. He’d never seen the man before in his life. Or had he? In a dream perhaps?

Whoever he was, Oliver couldn't help but stare as the man floated along beside him. His only movements were the rise and fall of his sculpted chest.

After what felt like an eternity, Oliver tore his eyes from the man and tried to focus on anything beyond him, but there was nothing else out there to see among the blue. The sheer emptiness of it all was enough to make Oliver feel a bit twitchy. It was an understandable feeling being among such an expanse. It forced oneself to realize how small they are in an ever expanding universe.

A few years ago, Oliver’s wife, Elyse, had rented a video for the two of them to watch together. It was a movie made by a British comedy troupe back in the 80’s. It had been about the meaning of life. Oliver liked it alright, not as much as his wife, but it had its moments. In the movie a man steps out of a refrigerator and sings a song about the Universe, how incredibly big it is, and our place in it.

Oliver couldn’t help but hum the tune aloud as he floated in the blue. The notes drifted off to die among the nothingness.

He turned to the man beside him, hoping that having at least one focal point for his eyes to lock onto would keep him from going insane. But, as he turned to face the man, he found that the man’s eyes were open and were staring right back.

Oliver blinked.

The man beside him didn’t move.

Suddenly a light began to shine from each of the man’s eyes like a pair of tiny headlights. The lights grew brighter until Oliver had to throw an arm over his face to protect his own eyes.

Everything turned white.

Then he woke and found that he’d traded one nightmare for another.

Oliver sat strapped to a chair, the bonds made of metal, cold and unforgiving. He could see cables and wires coming out of him in various places. Something encased the top of his head. Like the bonds that held his wrists and ankles, it too had the cold feel of metal, and it squeezed his head like a hat two sizes too small.

He could turn his head enough to see his reflection in a large monitor on the wall to his left. The thing on his head looked like a metal bowl with dozens of wires and cables jutting out of it. They were connected to a bank of controls under the monitor.

The room he found himself in was all metal and blinking lights, everything the color of something his cat might have choked up, if he’d owned a cat.

And all about him; checking wires, pushing buttons, fiddling with knobs, and shining bright lights into his eyes, were a half dozen robots. Each looked just like the other except for a strange symbol painted on each of the robot’s heads.

The robots were the same color as everything else in the room. They were long, lank, boxy in shape, and walked on two legs.

A strange electronic buzzing filled the room and Oliver realized with some surprise that the robots were talking to each other. He was even more surprised to realize that he understood what they said.

“His vitals are good,” one said.

“Yes,” said another. “He survived the stasis ray.”

One of the robots approached Oliver and began checking the wires coming from the backs of his hands.

“Let me go,” Oliver said to it. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I shouldn’t be here.”

The robot ignored him.

Oliver was drawn to the symbol on the robot’s forehead. Was it a number four?

“Please,” Oliver tried again. “Can you at least tell me where I am?”

The robot looked him in the eyes and for a moment Oliver could see the lenses that covered the thing’s ocular cavities rotate and move, like a camera focusing in on a subject. It held his gaze for only a moment and then walked away.

Oliver struggled against his bonds, but they held him fast.

“Tell the General that the human is ready,” Number Four said as another—the number One was on his forehead—scurried away through a door that slid open with a hiss just like in all those Science Fiction movies.

“The General?” Oliver said, his face breaking out in a cold sweat. “Ruin.”

He thrashed about in the chair, but it was to no avail. He wasn’t going anywhere, but that wasn’t going to stop him from trying.

Moments later the door slid open with another hiss, and the General entered the room. He was no longer the hulking creature he’d been out in the Pizza Dude parking lot, the one that had thrown him around like we was stuffed with cotton. He entered in the tall, skinny form he’d worn when he’d first approached Oliver what felt like hundreds of years ago.

“Are you comfortable?” Ruin said. He looked down at Oliver and smiled. It was the smile that caused Oliver’s blood to freeze in his veins.

“Let me go,” Oliver said, his voice wavering through trembling lips. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“What’s happening is that I am going to use this device to peer deep inside that primitive brain of yours.” He tapped the metal bowl on the top of Oliver’s head, the sound rang through his skull.

“What?” Oliver was at a loss.

“We, that is, I, hope to find something in there.” he tapped the device again. “Something that I can use to... ” He paused as if searching for the word. “Encourage a transformation out of you.”

“I’ve told you,” Oliver said, tears streaming down his face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Some crazy old guy gave me a ring is all; I don’t know how to transform.”

“We shall see,” the General said. Then, turning to the robots, “Start the machine.”

First, there was silence. He could see the General talking and the numbered robots buzzing about, but it was if he was watching the television with the mute engaged.

The silence lasted only a moment.

Next came the pain.

Oliver tried to scream, wanted to scream, needed to scream.

But all he could do was cry.





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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

EIGHT: REUNION




ELSEWHERE IN GARRISON, IN a room hidden from view—a room so secret that only three in the entire world knew of its existence—deep within a bank of monitors and controls, a red light began to blink in unison with a low, steady beeping that sounded throughout the space.

It was not a large room, nor was it small. It was round with high, domed ceilings. It held computers, tables, and lab equipment such as microscopes, test tubes, Bunsen burners, and centrifuges. Packed as it was with such equipment, there was still space enough for a dark automobile under an even darker tarp with a motorcycle at its side.

A door opened at one end of the room, light spilling in like an invading army. The overhead lights, which operated on motion control, switched on as a man entered the room.

The man was tall and lanky, yet stooped, with snow white hair and a thick mustache which drooped down over each side of his face, practically hiding the mouth beneath. He wore a dark suit which cost more than the gross national product of most small countries, and he walked with a cane. Yet, as stooped as he was, and despite the use of the cane, the man moved with such natural grace that any gymnast worth their salt, having spent no more then a few seconds with the man, would have given up all hope of gold medals and would have gone, henceforth, to the nearest fast food joint to beg for a position grilling burgers.

The man approached the blinking red light and sat in a chair before a small keyboard. He typed at a few buttons and a number of things happened in rapid succession. The small red light stopped blinking, the steady beeping ceased, a low hum sounded from somewhere deep within the room, and the wall which circled the entire room switched on, glowing with its own inner light.

On the wall screen, just before the old man in the chair, another old man appeared. He dwarfed the man in the chair, his head and shoulders taking up space along most of the wall before the chair.

“Peter Pembleton,” said the man in the chair. His accent was British, crisp and proper like a member of the Royal Family. “It’s been a long time, old friend. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I gave Oliver the ring.”

“You did what!?” The aristocrat fled to be replaced by something a bit less dignifying. “Are you barking?”.

“We talked about this already, Gerald. It should come as no surprise.”

“No, you talked, I listened. I never thought you were serious, Peter. A pizza delivery boy? Have you finally gone senile?”

“He’s a good man, Gerald. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he knows what’s right. He was the right choice.”

“He’s a Normal, Peter.”

“So was I. So were you. You’re letting your prejudices show, Gerald.”

“There are better candidates to get the ring, Peter. More deserving candidates”

“I’m not having this argument with you again, Gerald. Oliver has the ring now. It’s his choice what to do with it.”

“So you’re calling to gloat?” Gerald said.

“No,” said Peter. “I called because I need your help.”

“Well you can forget it,” said Gerald. “If you think I’m helping you with this farce then you’re definitely off your chump.”

“He needs you Gerald,” Peter said. “He has no idea what the ring even is. Not really.”

“That’s on you, Peter. Not me. If he destroys half the city trying to figure the damn thing out then you’re the one responsible.”

“Gerald—”

“Why don’t you teach him?”

“You know why,” Peter said. “I can’t be a part of that world anymore. Not after Cecilia.”

Gerald had no reply. He only frowned, his mustache drooping even further.

“Gerald,” Peter said. “Please.”

It was at this moment that another light began blinking in time with a soft alarm.

“That’s an alert,” Peter said.

“I know what it is,” Gerald barked back. He clacked away at the keyboard and a small window opened up on the wall screen just below Peter’s chin.

In the small window was the face of a costumed hero. Power Surge. He was talking but Gerald couldn’t hear what was being said.

“But I thought you quit all this—”

“Shut up,” Gerald cut him off as he increased the volume.

“…telling you it was him,” said Power Surge.

“How is that possible?” another voice said.

“Is that Walter?” Peter said. “Are you tapping into his system?”

“I’m trying to listen,” said Gerald. “Shut it or I shut you off.”

“…after he died,” continued the other voice, Walter, through the hacked feed. “Why would he return?”

“I don’t know,” said Power Surge. “He was attacking a Normal outside the Pizza Dude. I tried to intervene but he took me out like I was nothing.”

“You’re sure it was him?” Walter asked.

“Look, I may not have been around at the time, I was just a kid,” said Power Surge. “But I watched it live just like everyone else. And they play the footage every year on the anniversary. It was General Ruin alright.”

“General Ruin!?” Peter said.

“Attacking a Normal outside the Pizza Dude,” Gerald said, closing the small window down. “Oliver?”

“Who else?” Peter said. Gerald could see the worry in his eyes. “It’s too soon. He’s not ready.” Peter turned those worried eyes onto Gerald.

Gerald sighed.

“Fine,” Gerald said. “I’ll help him. If it isn’t already too late."





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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

SEVEN: PAIN

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OLIVER WOKE, BROKEN AND bleeding, lying amongst shattered glass and shards of wood. A deep pain beat at him as he sat up, and he fought with a clouded mind to identify his surroundings. What little he could make out swam in and out of focus like a cheap camera. He could see tables and chairs, booths, a counter, and no less than seven penguins. The Dude, he was in the Pizza Dude.

He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. The penguins disappeared, the Dude remained. Across from where he sat should be the Dude’s front window, but instead was only an open hole to the outside world. Oliver surmised that he had gone through it. That would account for the glass... and the penguins.

The General stepped through the opening that was once a window, his bucket-sized boots crushing the fallen glass beneath them. Oliver tried to move but nothing worked the way it should. Oliver tried to move, put some space between himself and the General, but all he could manage was to wet his pants.

“Look,” Oliver said, finding it a struggle to even form the words. “I can’t help you. I don’t know how this stupid ring works.”

“So weak you humans are,” the General said, moving ever closer. “So frail, so delicate. I often forget just what your kind is made up of.”

“Frogs and snails and puppy dog tails?” Oliver’s voice sounded distant and faint to his own ears. He hoped that the General had heard his comeback because he didn’t think he’d have the strength to repeat it.

“You attempt humor in the face of fear.”

“Do I?” Good, the General had heard him.

But before Oliver could say another word, before he could even think, the General moved, snatching him up by the neck, and slapped Oliver across the face with the back of his skillet of a hand. Oliver’s head rocked back violently, and he nearly blacked out.

“Your ring is capable of many great and powerful feats.” The General held his right hand up, showing off his own ring.

“Like mine,” the General continued, “it has the ability to give you considerable strength.”

A bright light enveloped Oliver. It wrapped around him and brought him warmth. Warmth and... comfort? But then his skin crawled. It squirmed like thousands of worms slithering along his body, and Oliver could feel his injuries—the broken bones, the split lip, the bruises—mending and healing. He could feel the strength returning to him.

“What did you do to me?”

“As I said,” the General smiled, “Our rings have many abilities. One is the ability to heal—yourself as well as others.”

“You healed me? Why?”

“I’ve given you back just enough to stay conscious.”

“How? I don’t understand,” Oliver struggled in the General’s grasp.

“The ring, human. The ring is an object of great power. Use it. Use the ring and show me your full potential.”

“Why!?” Oliver couldn’t take much more. He continued his struggles, throwing in a kick now and then. It was like kicking a boulder. “Why do you want me to use the ring!? What do you think is going to happen!?”

“Where did you get the ring?” the General shook him. “Who gave it to you?”

“Ronald Reagan!”

The General hit him again and Oliver felt his jaw shatter. A scream of pain cut short as he choked on his own teeth and blood.

“Is this what you want, human?” the General said. “To die here, like this? For what? A principle?”

No, that’s not at all what Oliver wanted. But he didn’t want to give in to this creature either. What if the General tracked the ring back to Mr. Pembleton? He was just a helpless old man. Oliver wouldn’t be able to live with himself. Besides, he’d passed two kidney stones in three years, next to that this pain was nothing.

“This will never end for you, human. I’ve lived for thousands of your Earth years and I will live for thousands more. I can take you onto my ship and we can continue this cycle for as long as it takes in the darkness of space.”

The General smiled as the healing light crept over Oliver, repairing his jaw, replacing his shattered teeth. Oliver spit and gasped for breath.

“How long will it take, human?” The General said. “How long to break you? A week? A month? A year? I have the patience. Do you?”

Oliver decided that no, he did not.

“Fine!” Oliver shouted. “You want to know where I got this damn ring!? I got it as a tip!”

“A tip?” the General pulled him in close. “I don’t understand.”

“I delivered a pizza to a guy tonight,” Oliver sighed. “He gave me the ring as a tip.”

“What is a tip?”

“A tip! You know, gratuity. Like a bonus or a reward for bringing the pizza all the way out to the house.”

The General furrowed his brow.

“So you conveyed sustenance to another human residence, and in return they present to you a ring of the Tal’Might as a token of gratitude?”

“Tall might?” Oliver said. “I don’t know what you mean by tall might, but yeah, I delivered the pizza and he gave me the ring.”

“You expect me to believe this, this... fabrication?” The General shook him again. “Do not lie to me, human filth!”

“I’m not lying!” Oliver screamed as the giant shook him. “I’m telling the truth! Honest!”

The General sighed, covered his face with a hand, and let Oliver drop to the ground.

“It matters not how you came to possess the ring,” the General turned and walked away.

“Then why—” Oliver fought for breath as he stood. “Why do you keep asking me about it?”

“It’s sad really,” the General said, his back to Oliver. He chuckled. “So sad that you have been given such power, yet you have no understanding of how to use it.”

Oliver grabbed at a shard of glass from the ground near him and threw it as hard as he could; ignoring the gash it left in the palm of his hand. It struck the General in the back of the head. But the shard bounced harmlessly away.

“What do you want from me!?” Oliver screamed, his tears making trails in the dust on his face.

“I want the ring,” the General said, his voice soft, almost pleading. “I... need, your ring.” The General paced. “I’ve been waiting all this time, waiting and watching, and now at last I have been given my chance. That ring will be mine.”

“Then take it!” Oliver stood. “It’s yours! Just leave me alone!”

The General laughed. “If only it were that simple.” He stopped pacing and stood once more with his back to Oliver, his head cocked to the sky, to the stars.

“It is. Just take it.”

“Your ring was not made for me, for my people. It cannot be given to me, it must be taken.”

“Then take it!”

The General spun to face him, anger and rage on his face. “I can’t! Not while you are like this! You must become that which the ring needs you to be!”

“I can’t,” Oliver wept. “I don’t know how.”

The General only stared at him, a thoughtful look upon his face. Then Oliver could hear the sound of sirens in the distance.

The police.

Oliver began to cry once again, but this time from relief. He was sure there was nothing the police would be able to do against this monster, but if they were on their way it could only mean that—but his thought was interrupted when a blast of energy slammed into the General.

Oliver nearly cheered as the blast sent the General sailing into wreckage that was the Pizza Dude.

“You okay, buddy?” He stood over Oliver, his savior. He was all crackling green energy that sizzled and popped beneath the man’s containment suit.

“Power Surge,” Oliver said, rising. “Thank God, that thing was going to kill me—” he was interrupted as a large chunk of masonry took Power Surge in the face, knocking the hero onto his back.

Oliver dropped once again to the rubble strewn ground as the General jumped between him and the man made of pure energy.

“Stay down, fool," the General said. “You can still walk away from this.”

Power Surge, Oliver could see, was not about to give up. The hero rose. But the General was quicker, and with three great strides was on top of him, hammering the Mighty back to the earth with a powerful fist.

Power Surge groaned and the General kicked him in the head, once, twice, until the hero went limp and silent.

Then, turning back to Oliver, the General closed the distance between them in a blink.

“We must go before another of your so-called heroes arrive,” the General said. “I have neither the time, nor the inclination for a drawn out battle.”

The General held something up to Oliver’s face. Before Oliver could see what it was an invisible needle of energy pierced his skull and, as he looked up into the General’s horrible face, everything went dark.





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