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Authors: Kevin Long

Ice Cream and Venom

BOOK: Ice Cream and Venom
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Ice Cream and Venom
Copyright 2011 by Kevin Long

 

All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reprinted or reproduced—except for brief quotations in printed reviews—without prior permission from the author or the publisher.

 

Cover Image—"Big Impact" by Don Davis, used by permission

 

We encourage reader participation—if you have a not-for-profit project or adaptation of a story in this collection, please contact us at
[email protected]

and we will be happy to work with you.

 

Published by Republibot Books, a division of the Republibot Partnership.

This book is essentially shareware, written by a starving amateur author and it represents more than a year's worth of time and energy. You are under no obligation to purchase it, but *if* you liked it, please tell your friends. If feel it's worth something, please go by
my Amazon e-book page

and purchase a legal copy for just a few bucks. Thanks.

Table of Contents

 

Introduction

graph-definition>

Superheroes are Gay

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Internal Bleeder

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The Man Who Would Not Be King

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Just Moments Before The End Of The Age

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Dog Days

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The Truth About Lions And Lambs

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Little Note Nor Long Remember

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Afterward

 

Introduction

It's funny. You spend your whole life daydreaming about publishing a book, and what you'll name it, and what picture they'll use on the jacket (The one of me looking all dignified, shaking hands with the president, or the one of me in the hot tub surrounded by all those half-naked chicks? Or the one with the Mohawk?), and who you'll thank in the acknowledgements, and what the introduction will be like, and then, when the manuscript is actually
really
ready to go, you can't think of a thing. All those decades of daydreaming, and then you go blank. It hardly seems fair.

In any event, welcome to my anthology, of which (hopefully) is the first in a long series. My first published book as well. These seven stories were written between October of 2007 and May of 2010, and they represent a huge leap forward in my literary style, which most of you won't care a whit about, so I won't bore you with it here.

There are many, many people who deserve public gratitude for their help while I was cranking out these stories:

First and foremost, I'd like to thank God for giving me the talent and inspiration, and eventually letting me figure out how to develop it.

Secondly, I'd like to thank my family: Thanks to my parents for their decades of very real support and love, and their faith in me even when it was clear they didn't quite get what I was raving on about. Mom, Dad, everything good about me comes entirely from you. Anything bad about me is entirely of my own invention. The entire English language has not enough words to adequately praise my glorious wife for all she's done before, during, and after the writing of these stories. She is, without hyperbole, the best person I've ever met, and her faith in me makes me a better person as well. Thanks and love also to my son, who actually seems to enjoy my endless rambles while I'm sorting out plots and whatnot. I have a great family, and I thank God for them every day.

I'd like to thank Tessa Dick, Chip Haynes and Dave Teach for their very supportive comments suggestions. Special thanks to Ian Sutherland for decades of entirely-unsubstantiated belief in me, and Ben Fuller for perpetuating the baseless myth that I'm talented and/or funny. Dave and Ian wrestled my manuscript into book form, and you wouldn’t be reading it if not for them.

I’d also like to single out Gerald Himmelein for editing the story "Dog Days."  He’s a professional journalist, and on the short list of my best friends in the world. At one point he was going to edit the whole book, but owing to some aggressive idiocy on my part, I ended up screwing him out of that, and endangering our friendship. I’d like to publicly apologize for that. It was entirely my fault, Gerald, and I’m sorry. 

Thanks to Professor Rita Kronos, who first taught me how to work around some of my learning disabilities, and thereby opened up a whole world of new abilities.

An extreme debt of gratitude goes out to Marilyn Arroyo: She's been my friend for twenty years, even when I clearly didn't deserve it, and she didn't strangle or otherwise murder me when I clearly
did
deserve it. Lynn, thank you.

Special thanks to Harlan Ellison for taking hours and hours out of his busy schedule to answer my stupid questions over the course of several months. He didn't know I was an SF-writer wannabe, we never discussed that at all, but he gave me a lot to chew on, and that informed the shape of some of the later stories in this collection. He also spent quite a bit of his own time trying to get a nonfiction piece I wrote published
and
make sure I got paid for it. Ultimately it didn't work out, but not for lack of trying on his part. Who else would do such a thing for a nobody like me? No one. He is a mensch among menschen.

Finally, thanks to all the people who really matter: Heather Silvia, Mike Heavener, Lance Tracy, Patrick Hughes, Lt. Col. Frank Twait (Retired), Bob Allen, Republibot 2.0, Curiosity Valentine, Republibot 1.0, Paula Tabor, Ben Burrock, and Richard "Neorandomizer" Anderson, simply for being my friends.

Superheroes are Gay

"Do you remember comic books?"

They all look at me with dog-like confusion. It's irritating. At fifty one, I'm far and away the oldest person in the group of refugees, but because of my age—and hence my education—they all look at me as if I'm some kind of sage, when in fact I'm just a laid off insurance adjuster from Dahlonega, Georgia. Most of them are dead-eyed kids, but even the older ones—in their thirties—have a strange, sneering kind of ignorance. On the one hand, they seem to think it's amazing that I know things like who the sixteenth president of the United States was, or what a dinosaur is, but on the other hand they clearly feel all of that knowledge is pretty useless. I can't argue that they're wrong, even if I thought they were. Six months ago, I would have maintained that they were a bunch of runny-nosed troglodytes, but now I find I'm gradually coming around to their view. I'm unquestionably the last human being alive who knows how to drive a car, but since there are no more working cars, what does it matter?

There were fifty or sixty refugees—it was hard to keep an exact count, some kept running off, some kept dying, some stragglers kept showing up from one place or another, so the number was continually in flux, up and down unpredictably. The overwhelming trend was down, though. When we started off, there had been a thousand of us, there had been a hundred left this morning. Bad stuff had gone down. Bad stuff always goes down, and consequently the number of refugees correspondingly went down. Blacknight found it difficult to keep track of their numbers, and if he couldn't, with his amazing detective's brain, then what chance do I have? Of course that's just justification. In actual fact, I'm too depressed to keep a count. What's the point? The numbers will almost certainly be smaller come the dawn, smaller still come the following dusk, yet even still smaller should anyone survive to next light.

We're on the raggedy edge here. For all I know—and I know a hell of a lot about these things—the refugees and I are the last human beings on planet earth.

We're holed up in a very large comic book store in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. Judging from the architecture and the beyond-ample parking outside, I'm assuming this place used to be a car dealership, and a fairly ritzy one, but I have no solid memory of it. Strange. I can remember the Irish pub just a few blocks up street, I remember the techno goth club across the same street, I once got mugged a few blocks south of here, I used to be here a lot, but no memory of the comic book shop, or the car lot that must have preceded it.

One of the refugees comes up to me with an arms full of copies of "Barely Concealed Nipples" back issues, some Richie Riches, and "Stutz Bearcat, Frontier Lawman" comics, and looks at me questioningly. His mother—I think—is with him, looking blankly ahead, with the fifty-mission stare the last of our race have all developed. More like a hundred-mission stare, if I'm honest. I look at her—she's not that much younger than me, maybe forty? Forty-one? Why the hell isn't she explaining this to the kid?

I ask the question again, slightly differently, "You remember Comic Books, don't you?" More stares. I look to the mother, "You remember these things, right?" She just shrugs and walks off, leaving me to explain it to her illiterate son.

Where to begin?

"Comic books: A form of literature quite popular in the 20th century in America, England, and Japan, somewhat less so elsewhere. Declining steadily in popularity since the last decade of that century, but still capable of supporting niche market since..."

That was the blind kid. I'd taken to calling him "Homer," and he'd taken to responding as if it was really his name. He wasn't blind when we started out a couple weeks ago, but he'd lost both his eyes in a firefight up near Kennesaw Mountain, and had been entirely dependent upon us since. Blacknight had sewed up his eyelids to prevent infection, but he still wore his glasses, though the lenses were shattered. It was a deliberately disturbing image, apropos for the end of the world. He was probably the last literate ten year old in the world, but lacking eyes, it did him no good.

"Shut up, Homer," I said.

We hunted around, and found a large display room with no external windows full of adult comics, so I started scooping the things off the racks and piled 'em up on the floor. We started a fire with them when I was reasonably sure no one outside could see it, but you can never be entirely certain what they'll see or won't notice. Some of the bastards have infrared vision—in which case we're screwed—others can only see the visible spectrum, others can see the EM band, and presumably could track us by the electrochemical impulses in our own brains—well, my brain and Homer's brain anyway. The refugees don't seem to be thinking a whole lot—it is irrational madness to risk a fire, but I learned a thing or three from our benefactor before he died in my arms this morning. The fire is needed because inside each of us there's a savage afraid of monsters in the night, from back when our species began. Now, here, at the end of history, when there really are monsters in the night, the fire has some kind of psychological effect—funny word, psychological. I might be the last human who knows what it means—on the primitive part of our brains. It calms us, it makes us feel safe, and that tiny bit of hope is enough to offset the danger it brings. Or so said Blacknight.

Of course he's dead now, so what the hell does he know?

Homer is yammering on about comics as an art form to people whose education is almost nil, and who are too hungry from starvation to make out half of what he's saying. He's going on about the 21st century popularity of the Western comic, and the Pirate comic, and the Time Traveling Naked Chick Detective comic. It annoys me.

"When I was a kid, comics were synonymous with superheroes," I say, with no particular emphasis in my voice, just a matter of fact. That shuts everybody up. Nobody wants to talk about superheroes any more. I pick a couple of the brighter dullards for guards, and tell the rest to go bed down for the night. Sleep deprived and exhausted, most of them have no trouble. Me, I can't nod off, so I walk around the outer rooms in the shop, using the light in my wristwatch to look at some of the comics on the shelves.

They're messes, of course. Low quality paper left to molder on the shelves for ten or fifteen years, however long it's been. Some of them have covers that have faded entirely to white from the sun in the outside windows. I check the dates on the few books that don't crumble to dust at my touch. The most recent one I find is thirteen years ago. I run it through my mental calendar, and am a bit surprised this place was able to make a go of it for such a long time. When the humans were shipped out of Atlanta, it was probably shut down then, or maybe it was kept running by our replacements afterwards? Who can tell, but it almost undoubtedly was the last comic shop east of the Rockies. I didn't even realize they were still publishing comics by that point, frankly. I leaf though a few looking for information, but then I realize that I don't know what I'm looking for. I wouldn't recognize a British or Japanese imprint if it bit me on my disturbingly hairless ass. I note what I take to be foreign slang in a couple of 'em, though.

In what probably was a lunchroom, in what was definitely a refrigerator, I find a box full of pristine, bagged 20th century comics, preserved in the relatively airless environment. Superman, Wolverine, X-Men, Justice League, Marshall Law, something called "Radioactive Man," and others. Someone's time capsule of personal shame, hidden here to preserve it for the future, in the hopes that someone who can appreciate it will properly enshrine it. In a moment of extremely directed rage, I carefully take them all out of their bags and put them back in the box, and then piss all over them. I'd gladly further profane them by defecating on them as well, but I'm much too malnourished for that, and I can't really remember the last time I took a squat clearly. Must have been days ago. I carefully put the top back on the crate, and return it to the long dead fridge.

Nobody much wants to talk about heroes anymore.

* * *

There was a time when "Comic Books" was more or less synonymous with "Super Heroes." I was never much in to that, though. I read lots of comics as a kid: Richie Rich, Archie, Chip n' Dale, your basic Gold Key crap. I had a stack of 'em a couple feet high. I got older, and started getting "Weird Tales of Space" and "Fightin' World War II Commandos" and stuff like that. When I was exposed to superhero comics at all—at summer day camp while waiting for my folks, or on the porch of my grandparent's house where one of my cousins had misplaced 'em—I solidly disliked them. Particularly Marvel. I hated Marvel. The artwork was crap, the coloring was lurid, the stories were incomprehensibly mired in their own backstory. DC was better in that their artwork generally made an effort to look like the actual things they were trying to represent, and their stories were generally actual stories, but 'better' only brought them up to take-it-or-leave-it level in my eyes.

The first superhero comic I can remember reading was when I was six or seven years old. Some kid—undoubtedly dead now—had some dumbass Marvel comic that he shared with me while we were waiting for the school bus. It was about a guy with a high-tech glove that could change matter from one sort to another. He hugged his mother without turning it off first, and she turned to dust or water or something. It scared me in the way you can only really get scared when you're in first or second grade.

"What do you think?" He asked me when I handed it back to him.

"Superheroes are gay," I said, trying to hide my fear under a veneer of derision. It was my first-ever assessment on the genre, my 'first word' on the subject, if you will. I haven't seen too much to make me change my opinion in the lifetime since. The kid beat the crap out of me, and I can still remember the pain. It's funny. I can remember my first beating from—gosh—forty-four years ago, but I've got no conscious memory of the walloping I took just yesterday.

I was a senior in high school when Marvel went bankrupt, and was purchased by DC. They ran a yearlong Maxi-series about someone called "The MacGuffin" whose actions resulted in the history of both universes being folded together as one. I could not have cared less. I was 23 or so when my friend Ian forced me to read them all, and I gradually began to warm up to the superhero comics, and the DCM in general. Not a huge mania for me, but I followed Green Lantern along, I enjoyed "The Syncretist," I had every issue ever written of "The Tick" (Which wasn't DCM, but you know what I mean), and JL-T was kinda fun. Even still, all of them—excepting The Tick—would take a back seat to "Lost In Space: The Next Generation," which I claimed to read for the stories, but it was mostly for the good girl art, and Freddy Fortune, a hilariously dirty knockoff of "Richie Rich," and "Flaming Carrot" and stuff like that. I just never connected with superhero comics the way others did.

It was about ten years later when the first real-life superheroes started showing up.

* * *

The sun comes up to find me slumped awkwardly over a cash register. There's a bag full of hardback books I've selected from the shelves next to me. I can hear a beautiful, alien music playing, which causes my empty bowels to clench in fear: Clarion is somewhere about. Her disturbing combination of massive super-violence and high opera is bad, bad news indeed, particularly now that we've lost our protector. I see a contrail in the pale blue distance above the charred ruins of downtown. It could be Uberlord or Superjunge, or Fille de Pouvoir or one of the other heavy-hitting fliers, if so, it's really disastrous. Or it could just be some also-ran like Flitter or Skythe, who can't do much more than fly. Either way, they're looking for us in the wrong part of town, so if we play it safe, we might have a chance. I note absently that the sun is rising from the east, and not the south, which means that some damn fool or another shifted the earth's orbit again. The gods get bored, I suppose. Or perhaps they're prone to drunken dares. Or maybe they're just showing off, trying to get laid. Who really understands them?

No one has said it, but in the absence of Blacknight, I'm the leader. I don't want the job, but I did take it seriously in the twelve or so hours I'd had it. No one asks to be Commander Adama, no one asks to be Moses, but it's not like you can refuse the mantle when it descends upon you. I make my way in to the central room, and start rousing everyone, including the guards, who are of course asleep anyway. I haul out my bag full of food pills—one of Professor Retroactive's inventions from a decade ago, intended to end world hunger; He'd gotten the idea while watching a 1930s SF movie—and I pass one out to everyone. I don't bother to count our numbers, but I see that one of the refugees has bled to death in the night, a victim of yesterday's suppertime dust-up with Vox Inhumana in which he lost a leg. I smile—actually, I don't smile, I haven't felt my expression change in days, I don't have the energy or hope, but I feel some little pang in my head that's somewhat related to humor—at the knowledge that though Blacknight is dead, at least he gutted Vox like a trout as his last act. The story of the human race would have ended then and there, but Blacknight bought us another page or two. Maybe, if I'm very, very lucky, I can buy us another chapter.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? The story of the human race is already over and done. This is denouement. A coda at best, a footnote at worst.

I note that Deadpan is elderly again. That's problematic. Deadpan was a street-level hero, just like Blacknight: no powers, but unbelievably good acrobatic skills. Blacknight was all about hand-to-hand combat and spooky-good detective skills. He had openly patterned his superhero persona on the comic book character Batman—well, duh—and he was our leader. Deadpan had equally good acrobatic skills, but was a for-suck detective. He was kind of the moral consciousness of superherodom, though, master of underhanded sarcasm, and his own self-invented fighting style, an odd cross between Kendo, Fencing, and Juggling. It was his out-of-the-box thought processes that had kept us one step ahead of the Supers during our long, slow retreat over the past few months. Were it not for him, we'd have gone extinct long ago.

Mister Bryghtsyde caught him a month in to our exodus. Bryghtsyde had always been fond of erratic and unpredictable stochastic logical constructs, so of course he wanted to experiment on Deadpan. Blacknight made sure we'd escaped, then insisted he go back to rescue 'Pan. I went with him, leaving Toliver in charge of the refugees. There were still around 900 of us at that point. We hitched a hypertube to the planet Eschatelon, rescued our friend against all odds to the contrary, and made our way home again. The whole adventure took less than a week, but by the time we got back, there were only 500 refugees left.

Our victory was hollow. Bryghtsyde did something to Deadpan, some kind of experiment. The result was that our friend aged down to a newborn baby state, then up to doddering senescence, then back again, about every 17 hours or so. What kind of sick game is that? A week later, while we were skirting past the outskirts of the futuristic wonderworld that used to be Rugby, North Dakota, Bryghtsyde walked right up to Blacknight—no idea how he got there, or knew where we were or anything like that—and politely explained in that sonorous-yet-menacing voice of his that what he'd done to our friend was an act of mercy. Then he let us go. No idea why. Pawns in some larger game that the superheroes and the gods are playing amongst themselves, or just some sick concept of mercy from a destroyer god who's only approximately human shaped, and has no empathy at all? It's unfathomable. Don't ask questions you can't answer, just keep walking.

Note that I've said 'gods' and 'superheroes,' as if there's some kind of difference. There isn't.

I ask the lady who leads Homer by the hand if she can lead Deadpan too, but she can't, he's too damn old. In a bit he'll start de-aging again. Eventually he'll be a baby, and I can carry him myself, but for now he's too bulky and frail. We lost our stretcher a couple days ago, so we lose a lot of time trying to make a new one out of a door, but it's dry-rotted through, and when we put 'Pan on it, the old man breaks through and falls three feet to the floor, landing painfully and crying like a toddler in an ancient man's body. Which, of course, is exactly what he is. There's nothing left of his mind. I scoop his head and shoulders up in to my arms, and he calms down a bit. I shoot him up with some Feelgood, and he calms down more. His ancient face looks at me, his yellow, cataract-covered eyes as wide as a baby. He reaches out and touches my face like a newborn, and coos. A streamer of drool comes out of his toothless mouth. It's sick and wrong. I force myself to smile and look calm. I fight my revulsion, and conjure up images of my own long dead son when he was a baby.

"There there," I say, "Who's a good baby? You are! You are! Yes you are, yes you are, you're so good!" I pinch his sagging, leathery cheek and he giggles and crows, and I tell the others to find a better door.

Someone, Ivan I think, complains about this, and says we should just leave him behind. I think about killing him for bringing it up. I've been hanging out with the two best fighters in the known history of our species for quite a while now, so I've picked up a few things. I could easily do it.

Instead, without meeting his eyes, I say, "That's two strikes, Ivan." He backs away apologetically, frightened. Deservedly frightened.

After everyone's finished their pill food rations—swallowed dry, since there's no water around—I head out in to the lobby, and look around. Convinced it's safe, I turn around and yell back in to the inner room for everyone to file out, it's safe. Then I turn around and...

Remember when I was speculating about who the flyer was I saw in the distance? It was Superjunge. Damn, but he's fast! In the time it took me to turn around and yell two sentences, he flew up silently behind me, and landed. I turn around to find him staring right at me, his face an inch from mine.

BOOK: Ice Cream and Venom
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