Okay, I admit it: I sort of cheated this week. The story this week was partially written already, but I had put it back into storage for reasons I no longer remember. That, and it’s a sequel to a previously written short story, so I have to include both of them for it to make sense. The upshot of all this is that you get two stories instead of one. I shall now post the first one, because it’s getting to be extremely trying to type with my dominant index finger mummified in gauze and tape:
by H. M. Snow
Astonished, Steve pulled himself up straighter. From the moment he had taken his seat, he barely had raised his eyes, but now his hopelessness melted away in surprise. His fidgeting fingers contracted around the topmost button of his second-hand suit coat. “What?” he blurted. As if to punctuate this exclamation, the button popped off, arced through the air, and clattered against the smooth hardwood floor.
“How soon can you start?” The interviewer behind the desk beamed at him, ignoring the button’s flight. “You’re exactly what we at the Wildeman Foundation want for our team!” His glassy blue eyes tracked Steve’s movements with a fixed, almost sightless stare, inconsistent with the energy and expression of his gestures.
“Wait… You read my résumé… and you liked it?”
“Loved it, Steve—you don’t mind if I call you Steve? You see, Steve, you’re an everyman. You’ve worked as a… let’s see…” The interviewer picked up the résumé. His odd blue eyes fixed on the sheet. For an instant, a chance reflection made those eyes flash with pale light. “Waiter, retail clerk, custodian, research volunteer. No degree, no profession …”
Steve flinched at this summary of his existence. “And…?”
“See? You’re the perfect everyman! Your work experiences, your life experiences—all of it makes you ideal. You’ll be a real asset to the team.” The man pushed back his leather chair.
Steve rose likewise. “I’m hired?” The minimalist décor reflected his face in a dozen gleaming surfaces. Each reflection showed a plain man in his mid-twenties, with stunned brown eyes gazing out from under a disheveled shock of brown hair. In build, he fell between tall and short, his frame neither thin nor plump. His face showed no striking intelligence. In fact, in his astonishment, Steve appeared rather more foolish at that moment than he deserved.
“If you want the job, it’s yours.”
“But—but—what is the job?”
“You read the ad: ‘Help wanted, no experience necessary. Training, lodging, and meals provided. Some personal risk involved,’” quoted the man. “Wrote it myself. Snappy. Bright. Gets the idea across in only a few words. Just a couple questions, Steve, before I show you around the old place. First: would you consider yourself a man of nervous disposition?”
Steve blinked. “No.”
“Excellent! Are you a family man, Steve?”
“Ah, well, that’s probably for the best.”
As the man pushed open a set of swinging doors, Steve blurted after him, “Um, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Did I forget? Sorry. I’m Waldo. Like the picture-hunt book.”
“Waldo,” Steve repeated.
“That’s right.” Waldo led him with springy tread down a long, unmarked corridor. On the other side of a second pair of swinging doors, Waldo called out, “Morning, Tom. Morning, Banji.” He waved cheerily at a man seated at a desk on the left. “This is Steve. He’s new.”
“Morning, Steve.” The pallid, graying man lifted eyes that burned like two candle flames. His right-hand fingers ceased entering numbers on a calculator. Then he turned his head and twisted his shoulders aside to reveal a second head, this one belonging to a man of African descent, craning as if looking backward over the first man’s shoulder. “Good to meet you,” said the second head, also with orange candle-flame eyes. A second desk faced away from the corridor, and a second pair of arms had paused in the midst of tapping a sheaf of papers into a neat stack. The dual man returned to his original pose so both sides could return to work.
“That… that… that was…” gibbered Steve as he trotted after Waldo.
“I know,” said Waldo brightly. “Until I started working here, I’d never seen an actuary before, either. Tom and Banji came to us from a research facility the government shut down. Unethical experimentation, I heard. But don’t worry—the radiation should have worn off by now, so they’re safe to be out of the vault. Morning, Ricky!” He tapped on a window in passing.
Steve gawked into the lab on the other side of the window. A broad, blank face framed by thick horns sat on a pair of burly shoulders clad in a white lab coat. A thick, three-fingered hand gave a preoccupied wave; the other hand held a glistening serpent’s coils.
“Milking time,” continued Waldo. “Never distract Ricky at milking time. Let’s see who’s in the garage.” He turned left so abruptly that Steve kept going straight for a few strides before realizing that his guide had disappeared. By the time Steve came scrambling along after him, Waldo had launched a new conversation singlehandedly. He only stopped chattering when he pushed open a door on the right. “Anybody home?”
Vehicles of all sorts occupied the gloomy, cavernous garage. A gurgle from the shadows startled a little squeak out of Steve. A trickle followed, then a congested sigh, and finally a voice: “What is it, Waldo? I’m busy.” From under a nearby truck, a dark puddle oozed across the floor.
“Hey, Nixie, this is Steve—he’s new.” Waldo tugged Steve by the lapel until the newcomer released his white-knuckled grip on the door frame.
The puddle quivered. “Waldo! I’m not even dressed—!” Then it flowed under another vehicle, causing Steve to stumble backward. Something clattered against the far wall. After some rustling and a long noise like a bathtub draining, there was silence. A petite, indigo-skinned girl in coveralls inched demurely into view. “Hi. It’s nice to meet you, Steve.”
Steve bleated like a baby goat.
Waldo went on regardless, “Lots to see yet. Buh-bye, Nixie.” He towed Steve out by the lapel. “Oho, Steve, I think she likes you! Cafeteria ahead—and the most important person in the whole Foundation: Carol.” He grinned. “This is Steve—he’s new.”
An entity like an upended octopus, with a stubby humanoid torso rising from among its many limbs, coyly wriggled twenty-odd elongated digits at them from behind the lunch counter.
“Carol makes the best vegetarian cuisine,” continued Waldo as Steve’s sharp acceleration dragged him out of the cafeteria. “Word to the wise—don’t talk about meat. Just don’t. And here’s the residential wing. Sort of early for blackout, isn’t it?” He strode forward despite the thick darkness. “The boss lady must be up and about.”
“She woke early to chair ze staff meeting,” asserted a voice to their left.
Waldo wheezed, “Morning, Bartholomew; this is Steve—he’s new,” as he pried at Steve’s chokehold.
“Doss he try to strangle everyvun zat vay?”
“I haven’t gotten around to asking him what he does for fun,” gasped Waldo, freeing himself. “Did I miss anything at the meeting?”
“Only housekeeping. Velcome, Steve.” The slap of rubbery wings followed. A flare of blue-tinged light revealed Bartholomew to be a four-foot-tall bat with bandy legs. He extended a stumpy hand in greeting. At the end of the handshake, Bartholomew had to pry his hand free, not because of Steve’s grip but because the little suckers covering Bartholomew’s palm had adhered to Steve’s skin. “Ze numbness vill vear off shortly,” said the bat matter-of-factly.
“If the boss lady is up, I’d better introduce Steve to her. Later, Bartholomew.”
The bluish light vanished. “A pleasure to meet you, Steve.”
“So, Steve, what do you do for fun?” Waldo asked as he dragged the new employee by a limp arm. “We all have our hobbies. Mine is model trains. I adore model trains. Well? Don’t be shy.”
“I… bowl sometimes,” ventured Steve.
“Bowling! That’s great!” Waldo pounded on a metal panel. Over the hollow boom of his knock, he cried, “Good news for you, Esau—new guy for the company bowling league!”
The wall vibrated with the huge rumble of a voice from below, replying, “Sweet!”
Waldo strode onward, his chatter filling in Steve’s silence while Steve blindly gripped the shoulder of Waldo’s Armani suit coat and followed in the dark. When Waldo halted, Steve ran into him and rebounded so hard that he fell to the floor. “Here’s the boss lady’s apartment.” A low, resonant tone filled the corridor when Waldo touched a button on the wall. Having rung the bell, he bent down and hauled Steve to his feet.
The door hinges creaked. “Yes?” The voice, feminine and commanding, was as resonant as the doorbell had been.
“Good morning, boss lady! I brought you Steve, the new guy. Steve, meet the boss lady, Marianas Wildeman, the brains beneath the Wildeman Foundation.”
After a soft click, a dull grayish light grew around Steve. A hand, dead white with blue veins, reached out through a pitch-dark doorway three yards in front of him. It reached, and kept reaching, and kept reaching. By the time the third elbow-joint extended into the dull light, Steve tumbled in a heap on the floor once more.
He woke from his faint with a wild shriek.
“Beautiful,” crooned a husky, hot-blooded voice. Kneeling by the cot where Steve lay, a stocky female with rust-red skin shook out her black hair. Her black eyes danced. “Don’t waste it here—” She stretched out a massive pair of wings and stood on four horsey legs. “Wait until you’ve got your audience, darling.” She grabbed him in a headlock and, without turning, dragged him backwards to the end of the long room. A large hatch opened behind her to reveal a carpet of city lights not far below. Wind whipped at Steve’s clothes as he struggled to free himself. “That’s the spirit!” shouted the creature as she backed toward the hatch. She spread her wings and let the wind take her.
Steve screamed all the way to the ground, but he stopped trying to free himself until they touched down. His shrieks had gained attention from shoppers all along the busy street where they landed. The flying horse-bodied woman beat her wings twice before taking off again. Steve stumbled backward from the stinging wind of her take-off, her husky voice still pursuing him: “Run, little man, run away fast.” But all around him, people stood transfixed, lacking the good judgment to flee. “Are you all insane?” Steve bellowed. “Run for your lives!”
His voice rent the stillness. Abruptly the street flowed with screaming shoppers, pushing and trampling in their frenzy to get away. Steve led the stampede.
Three and a quarter hours later, a fire truck pulled up alongside Steve as he trudged back toward the city lights. The truck stopped, its passenger door swung open, and Nixie in her coveralls leaned out. “Hi! Want a lift?”
Steve merely grabbed the frame of the truck and climbed into the passenger seat as Nixie slid over to take the wheel again. He slumped in his seat.
“Fifteen miles at least,” said Nixie. “That’s impressive. And you were on your way back. Not bad for your first day. I bet you were on your high school track team, weren’t you? If you weren’t, you should have been. How far did you run, anyway?” Steve’s silence made her glance at him. “Tired? Don’t worry. We’ll be home in a couple of hours.”
The truck rumbled past the city limits sign and exited the highway under another sign that read, Airport – Next Right. Nixie cruised past every security checkpoint until she reached an enormous hangar, where an equally enormous cargo plane waited. She drove the truck up the ramp into the aft cargo hold. Once she parked the fire truck, Nixie looked to Steve. “Coming?”
He kept staring at the dashboard without seeing it. By the time the plane touched down two hours later, Steve hadn’t moved more than his eyelids. This time it was Marianas Wildeman herself who came to him. She wore armor, not unlike an astronaut’s pressurized spacesuit. Here in the patchy light of the cargo hold, Marianas was revealed as an asymmetrical creature, one long arm folded behind her head, two splayed legs in front and another in back to form a tripod base. Her head was oval, perched on a spindly neck that arched forward from the center of her chest, but her face was humanoid behind the clear visor. “Steve.” Her voice held a maternal tone. “We’re home, and we need to have a talk. Will you come out now?” Her long arm unbent, all four elbow-joints of it, to open his door.
Steve slid down from the high cab. Like a sleepwalker, he followed Marianas Wildeman through the cavernous garage to the residential wing, back into the darkness. This time, some flitting shadow pressed into Steve’s hands a pair of night-vision goggles. Through them, he gazed around a rec room crowded with an extravagant variety of life forms.
“You did a marvelous job on such short notice,” said the winged horse-woman as she fluffed her hair and preened her feathers. “Such a scream I have not heard in ages! Delicious! It inspired me!”
“I thought you seemed rather carried avay,” said Bartholomew dryly.
“I was carried on the wings of my muse!”
As this argument burgeoned, a huge pom-pom of hair bobbed across the floor to Steve. “Do you drink coffee? Tea? Soda?”
“Coffee,” said Steve dully.
“Black? Cream? Sugar?”
“A man after my own heart,” declared the hairball as it bustled away. It returned with a ceramic mug balanced atop its flyaway strands. “Careful—it’s hot. Can I get you anything else, Steve? Can I call you Steve?”
Steve drew a deep breath. “I don’t care what you call me—just tell me what the hell is going on here?” The last half of the sentence rang out as a piercing cry that arrested everyone.
Once she regained her aplomb, Marianas Wildeman said, “But Waldo must have told you…?” Steve’s bewildered face made her draw herself sternly erect on her stumpy tripod. “Boris, Nixie, bring Waldo here. Now.” When the two staff members had gone, Marianas bent her head. “What can I say, Steve? I’m sorry. I thought you knew—we all thought you knew. We rehearsed the script, for the love of—!” She sighed. “No wonder we’ve had such trouble filling the post.”
Nixie returned, dragging a rigid Waldo behind her. “He’s gone again. His suit was hanging on the rack.” She dropped the empty body with a thud. “And I found this.” She offered up a rough, misshapen tube with a tiny set of train tracks protruding from one end.
Marianas took the tube in her gaunt hand. She examined it from all sides. “Ah. There’s the script: papier-mâché for a new railroad tunnel. Look—” She pointed at the tube. “The original want ad. What did he take to the newspaper office, I wonder?”
Wordlessly, Steve took from his pocket the tattered newspaper clipping and gave it to her. She read it and started to laugh. Then she sighed again. “I’m so sorry, Steve.” She tossed the clipping into a trash can. “Let me explain.”
“I’ll go put out the bait,” said Nixie.
“No, he’ll come back once entropy catches up with him.” Turning to Steve, Marianas said, “The Wildeman Foundation is a group of freelancers. We are hired by various governmental and private agencies to take care of highly dangerous situations. Naturally, we prefer to keep our private lives private, so usually we stage little scenes to distract people from what’s actually happening—like tonight, for example. It was Boroka’s turn to act as decoy, pretending to attack a popular shopping district. Esau acted as the hero who defeated her.” Marianas gestured toward a hulking, furry man with no neck.
Esau gave Steve a solemn thumbs-up.
“There were bombs planted under eight of those stores,” continued Marianas. “Domestic terrorism. While Boroka and Esau played their parts aboveground, the rest of us were underground, neutralizing the threat. Your job tonight, your entry-level position, was to clear the area of as many onlookers as possible. You did such a splendid job of getting them to run away that we all thought you knew you were supposed to.” She paused to gauge Steve’s response, but he offered none. Then, simply, she told him, “We’d like you to stay on. Please.”
Steve’s eyes searched the rec room. The staff hushed, awaiting his reply, but he just sipped his coffee. “Good coffee,” he said. “I didn’t catch your name.”
The hairball plumped itself up with pride. “Isabella… but you can call me Izzy.”
Steve took another sip. He spoke carefully measured words. “When I came here today, I figured this was my last chance, and a long shot at that. I’ve been out of work eighteen months. I’ve filled out sixty-four applications in the last six months alone. Two got as far as an interview, not counting this one. Then the bank took my house. Almost everything I have left in the world is in public storage off I-94. Yesterday I sold my car because I couldn’t afford the upkeep.”
A collective sigh met this declaration. Izzy extended a thick braid to pat Steve’s knee.
“So… that’s my job, is it? Spreading panic in the streets?”
Marianas smiled at him. “You’ll be involved in all our planning. Whatever your role, you need never lie to people about the danger involved. It is dangerous work. But that wouldn’t be all. Once you became familiar with the Foundation, you would become our public face. As it stands, most of the time we must rely on Waldo because of his suit.” She nudged the empty shell before her. “You know as well as any of us why that isn’t working. He means well. I will give him that much. The trouble is that Waldo hasn’t got much in the way of short-term memory. We named him Waldo because we’re always searching for him. He’s basically a sentient gas, really. We made the suit for him, to keep him grounded. We write scripts and rehearse meetings to prepare him, but he keeps veering off on his own little tangents. We need someone reliable, someone normal humans can relate to.”
Swallowing the last drops of his coffee, Steve said, “I always wanted to be a comic book hero, ever since I was a little kid.”
“This is serious work,” said Ricky.
“Saving the world is serious work,” Steve shot back. “Why do you figure people love comics so much?”
Marianas laughed. “You’ll fit in around here just fine.”
Sequel should be up in just a few minutes mire. More. Gahj! Thjis finger is really getting to mne!