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Last Stand

by J. B. Hogan

“Outworld” appeared
in issue 198.
Part 2 and part 3
appear in this issue.
part 1 of 3

Stephen White is a lumpy, likeable guy with a good job, good friends, a pretty girl to long for, and a mostly boring small town life. Boring that is, until from out of the blue he develops a surprising and often terrifying ability to travel in time and space.

Quickly and without warning, he may find himself in the middle of a band of berserking Civil War-era outlaw raiders, lined up for execution with Fyodor Doestoevski in a St. Petersburg Square, or staring down the rifle barrels of modern-day poachers in Africa. Stephen’s adventures take him anywhere, any time.

Through it all, he is precariously balanced between confusion and understanding, between action and passivity. He has no idea what the next journey will hold for him but he is certain that it’s coming, and that it will, as always, catch him off guard. All Stephen can do is ride out this storm to wherever and whenever it may take him. It’s his new world, his new reality; he’s just going to have to get used to it.

“Have you read that book I gave you?” Tom Harris asked. He was visiting Stephen White’s cubicle in the bullpen area where they worked for Animatec, a startup computer graphics and animation company headquartered in Nevada, Missouri.

“Huh?” Stephen grunted. He was running a brief, animated segment of a program designed to show operators how to maintain a huge, industrial-strength printer.

“The book I gave you,” Tom repeated, giving Stephen a poke in the back, “you big nerd.”

“Don’t call me a ner...” Stephen began just as Lisa Backman’s head popped over the top of his cubicle. Lisa worked next to Stephen, a fact that both thrilled and painfully agitated him, in that he carried a mostly under-wraps, unrequited affection for his lovely co-worker.

“Who’s a nerd?” the pretty programmer asked. “Not one of you two specimens of American manhood?” Lisa laughed happily at her little joke.

“Get back to work,” Tom kidded her back, “and don’t be callin’ my pal Stephen a nerd, either.”

“I believe,” Lisa said dramatically, “that I included both of you slackers in my statement — of fact, I might add.”

“Oh, yeah,” Stephen said by way of pithy retort.

He liked the idea of being called a slacker way better than being called a nerd, and he definitely liked being lumped in with Tom who was tall, muscular, and good-looking where he, Stephen, was thick, soft, and not exactly a Brad Pitt look-alike.

“I’m taking a regularly scheduled break,” Tom insisted, playing the scene out for all it was worth, “and my colleague and I were discussing our latest journey into the literary world.”

“Oh, brother,” Lisa snickered. “What a load.”

“We were,” Stephen insisted.

“Comic books don’t count,” Lisa laughed.

“Puh-lease,” Tom said.

“It wasn’t a comic book,” Stephen said, not quite staying with the general humor of the conversation.

“You don’t mean that book I loaned you,” Lisa asked Tom, “the big one?”

“Yes,” Tom answered, “the big one with all the words in it.” That line did make Stephen giggle.

“Easy, mister,” Lisa told Stephen, to his delight. Any second of Lisa’s radiant attention directed at him, no matter if good, bad, or indifferent, was like mother’s milk to a baby.

“I didn’t say anything,” Stephen said, smiling. He took the opportunity to gaze longingly at Lisa. She was so pretty he almost sighed out loud.

“You better not, buddy,” Lisa acted tough with Stephen.

“Oh, gosh,” he feigned fear.

“It’s not such a bad book,” Tom brought them back to the subject.

“Not much of a title,” Lisa said.

“I don’t know,” Stephen ventured.

“Watch it, buster,” Lisa faux-threatened Stephen again. He laughed out loud. Pretty, smart, cute, cool, witty — ah, Lisa had it all.

“Yeah,” Tom countered, “what’s wrong with the title?”

“Just doesn’t do much for me,” Lisa said.

“Well,” Tom shrugged his shoulders, “anyway. How far are you into it?” he asked Stephen.

“Probably two-thirds, three-quarters of the way,” Stephen answered.

“Whoops,” Lisa suddenly said, disappearing back into her cubicle.

“What?” Stephen wondered.

“Mr. Wade,” Tom said boldly, as Stephen’s primary supervisor walked up to the cubicle. Stephen busied himself by re-running the printer animation program.

“Gentlemen,” Wade said.

Bob Wade was actually a pretty good supervisor. He didn’t really hassle the young people who worked for him. He only asked that they get their work done on schedule and that it be done with quality. A few minutes goofing off at work did not bother him any. Most of his charges did not know that.

“Catch you later, Stephen,” Tom said, turning to go back to his own cubicle.

“You don’t have to run off, Tom,” Wade said.

“Naw,” Tom replied, “I better get back to it. Got some subroutines to check out.”

“Alright,” Wade said, “but don’t leave just because I came in.”

“Oh, no,” Tom lied, “that wasn’t it. I had to get back anyway.”

“Alright,” Wade told him.

Tom hustled off. Stephen kept running his little animation as if he didn’t know his supervisor was right behind him, which he did — big time.

“How’s it going, Stephen?” Wade asked after a moment’s pause.

“Huh?” Stephen said, acting surprised that Wade was right behind him. “Oh, hi, Bob.”

“The animation looks pretty good,” Wade commented, watching the little show for about the third or fourth time as it ran on Stephen’s monitor.

“Yeah,” Stephen said. “We’re getting there.”

“Think you’ll have your part completed by Wednesday’s run-through?” Wade asked.

“Yes, sir,” Stephen answered. “No problem.”

“Alright, then,” Wade said. “I’ll leave you to it.”

When Wade left, Stephen sighed deeply, but he went back to work focusing on getting his part of the program done on schedule just like he always did. He made a couple of quick fixes to his part of the animation and was ready to run it again when Lisa popped up in her cubicle again.

“Nerd,” she teased Stephen, laughing happily and naturally in the way that Stephen loved to hear, “slacker nerd.”

“Go away,” Stephen told her, acting serious, but of course he wasn’t. As far as he was concerned, Lisa could hang around and tease him every second of every day.

Later, after work, Stephen did what he always did to unwind after a busy day on the job: read books or magazines, watch TV or videos, eat. Since earlier that day he and Lisa and Tom had talked about the big sci-fi book they were passing among themselves, he read several small chapters from it. New Columbia it was called, by a new, not very well known author. After reading for awhile, Stephen decided to switch entertainment gears and put a DVD into the combination player that sat next to his big TV.

Son of the Morning Star,” he read from the DVD label, “that’ll do.”

About midway into the film, Stephen began to get hungry. Leaving the movie running, he went into the kitchen to get a snack.

“Popcorn sounds good,” he said out loud.

Reaching into a box filled with packets, he tossed one of them into his microwave, tapped in the cooking time on the display and pressed Start. In no time the corn was popping.

“Need a little butter,” Stephen said happily, going around the kitchen looking for anything he might want to add to the corn. “A little salt... no, I’ll use this stuff Lisa bought for me up in Kansas City. ‘Health food salt substitute,’” he read from the label. “That’s the ticket.”

When the popcorn was done, Stephen took it out of the microwave, its fresh odor filling the small apartment. He inhaled deeply of its pleasant aroma. Then, in a little pan he took out of a utensil drawer, he melted some of the butter he’d found and poured it over the corn. Next, he freely doused the buttery mixture with the herbal salt substitute Lisa had brought him.

He tasted a sample. “Tastes a little funny,” he said to himself, “but it’s good enough for government work.”

Back in the living room, the movie was nearing its climactic scenes and Stephen plopped down on the couch to munch and watch the rest of the action-packed flick. While the images flickered on the screen, he shoveled the popcorn in, downing the entire packet, interrupting the process only with occasional drinks to get the salty snack down his throat.

As the movie went on, Stephen began to get drowsy. His eyes felt heavy and he kept drifting off. He got progressively more tired and after about ten more minutes he was out. The popcorn packet, with a couple of pieces of popped corn and a handful of kernels left, slowly but steadily slid out of his hand, finally dropping to the carpet beside the couch.

* * *

Stephen bounced awake. He opened his eyes slowly to harsh, bright sunlight. He was in some kind of vehicle, a vehicle lurching wildly over rough, open terrain. The first thing he saw, when his eyes adjusted to the light, was a patch on the shirt of a very strangely dressed young man next to whom he sat. Eradicators, the patch read: To Judge and Protect. What the heck was that? Stephen wondered. Where is this? Where am I?

He looked out the window of the vehicle and saw that he was in a low desert environment: sparse shrubs; sandy, bumpy soil; tufts of rough grass sticking out in clumps; a few trees scattered here and there. There was a road over which the vehicles were passing, but it was not much more than a horse trail. Definitely four-wheel drive terrain.

Bringing his attention back to the interior of the vehicle, Stephen checked out its other occupants, none of whom seemed to notice him at all. The driver was a powerful-looking man, maybe in his thirties, with wide shoulders and muscular arms. Two thick, strong hands controlled the steering wheel.

In the shotgun seat was another man who looked like he might be a twin of the driver, built almost exactly like him, with the same wide shoulders and muscles everywhere. The younger man in back with Stephen was even bigger than the two in front. He looked to be maybe no more than twenty years old and was so muscled up Stephen figured him for a weightlifter or bodybuilder. All three of the men wore the same odd but familiar-looking uniforms.

The uniforms were made of a thick, reddish leather and covered the shoulders, chest and stomach of the men. Each of them wore a separate kilt-like pair of short pants, also made of the tough, reddish leather.

Roman soldiers, Stephen realized, these guys are dressed like Roman soldiers. How weird is that? If they were soldiers, which Stephen now surmised, the one riding shotgun must’ve been the highest-ranking, because he had a silver bar on his shoulders that looked like an officer’s rank Stephen had seen in an almanac once. He also had the same patch as the young guy in back, and Stephen assumed the driver would be wearing one as well.

These guys looked like hard-core military. There would be no variation among their uniforms except for rank. The driver must’ve been some kind of high-ranking non-com, Stephen surmised from the several stripes on a small patch worn on his shoulders, while the young one had only two stripes on his insignia. Whatever rank they held individually, as a group they appeared to be a combat-hardened, spit and polish bunch.

Stephen also noticed, above the windshield between the two men up front, a sticker that backed up the patches he saw on the front seat rider and the kid beside him. This one seemed to be an attempt at both building esprit de corps and some kind of humor.

Erads, the sticker declared: Cleaning up the Garbage — One Shitcit at a Time.

From the looks of the men in the vehicle, Stephen figured laughter wasn’t one of their main occupations, and he also figured that the last thing in whatever kind of world this was that a person would want to be was whatever a “shitcit” was.

Then he remembered the other dream, one he’d had not long ago when he’d gotten sick or whatever it was out in the desert south of Tucson. There had been a young kid and another guy staked out on the desert by a group of stranger berserkers. The boy had talked about Erads and other odd people Stephen had never heard of before.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan

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