The Tale of John Marker
by Amy Fontaine
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
We drove back to the station. To my relief the receptionist Wisteria was off-duty, replaced by a young man who guided us to Reuben without complaint. Reuben was happy to see us. He brought us into the room hidden at the back of the building to meet the other remaining Strange Times worker, which gave me a pleasant surprise.
She was standing facing away, with her hands clasped behind her back, staring at the blank screen of what looked like one of those ancient computers that spanned the length of an entire wall. She was dressed in a lab coat, looking very prim, and, from the doorway of the secret back room behind the offices, I didn’t yet recognize her. She seemed nothing more than a white-clad figure in a tiny, dusty room with little light. Then she turned, and for a brief moment we looked at each other. Our eyes widened in recognition as smiles crept across our faces.
“Mary!” I cried, running to her.
“John,” she smiled, as we embraced, for a moment just like the high school buddies we used to be.
I had no clue what she was doing here. I’d had a crush on her in the 8th grade, and we’d been friends all through high school. We went separate ways after that, however. This seemed a bizarre place to have a reunion.
Then again, she also had always loved science. Perhaps a crazy assignment like this would have intrigued her.
Scruffy coughed lightly from nearby. It brought me back to the present. Mary and I parted awkwardly. This wasn’t the time for such things, and we both knew it.
“You came just in time,” she said quietly, and the smile on her face became wan. “Reuben,” she called to the old man, who was watching from a corner, “we’ve found him.”
Reuben’s eyes widened. Slowly, all four of us settled our gazes on the screen.
A light-green, complex series of rectangles and squares flashed on the screen. Once my eyes had adjusted to the inconsistent light, I recognized it as a detailed map of New York City. A cold blue dot blinked from part of the screen. I identified the place easily in my mind.
“We found him!” Reuben cried. “At last! Hurry, friends, we have no time to lose!”
A thrill of fear rose inside me like a rearing snake.
As a boy, I always wanted to be like my dad, to be the one to save the day. Now, after all those years of dreaming up imaginary heroism, I was doing something real.
* * *
As I had guessed, the place was the decrepit, abandoned mall I remembered. Though in the middle of the city, it never seemed to attract any attention; indeed, people appeared to keep their walking routes deliberately away from it. I had always been incredulous that any mall could go out of business in New York City, but, as I glimpsed it again in the red light of evening, I sensed something eerie and unnatural about it, something that could make anyone afraid of it somehow.
Nonetheless, I had no hesitation in my mind; I had driven us here, as quickly as I could, and I would see this through. Still, we all felt something unsettling in ourselves as we stood at the threshold of the structure while daylight faded around us.
Scruffy whined pitiably. It was the first time I ever heard him whimper. “I don’t wanna go in there,” Scruffy said. “I don’t like him, that guy. He’s mean, he named me Sir Fred IV and I just don’t like him.”
I looked at my dog. He seemed so different from when I’d first met him, now that I knew what he could do.
“We have to, Scruffy,” I said, reaching out to scratch his ears in what I hoped was a consoling manner. “We must. Lives could depend on it.” If it had been any other time, I would have laughed about his true name, maybe even joked with him about it. As it was, I didn’t notice it at all. All I noticed were the glass doors in front of us.
“Well,” said Reuben, licking his lips. “We should go in now...”
Mary nodded silently, solemn-faced. She was staring ahead at the set of double doors.
I nodded too. Slowly, I reached out and opened the door.
The four of us stepped through into the mall, with me leading us cautiously, Scruffy at my side.
We came through near the start of a stairway. The tiled floor echoed as we walked carefully forward, its aristocratic pattern of moons and stars seeming to magnify the shadows of twilight. The mall stretched on endlessly, with halls leading in all directions around the stairway, to stores long closed and boarded up, whose names were forgotten.
At the foot of the stairs, a figure, back turned to us, stood facing a horrible jumble of machinery. It looked more like a pile of junk than an actual mechanism, with its rust-red and silver plates oozing oil from the cracks that were almost everywhere. Cables coiled around the jumble like a protective black snake. Attached to the nightmare was an ordinary-looking PC monitor, raised on a stool.
Out of the shadows at either side of the staircase stepped two snarling black dogs, a Doberman Pinscher and a Rottweiler. Scruffy made a move as if to run to them, despite their threatening expressions. He changed his mind once he saw them more clearly.
The dogs had clearly been mutated. From the bridge of the Doberman’s muzzle protruded a granite-gray rhinoceros horn. The Rottweiler had large, bat-like leather wings, flared angrily in a gesture of warning. It was obvious that both the dogs’ temperament and some of their genes had been modified, though modifying a creation after it materialized, as Scruffy had told me, was painful for the being. Probably, the one who had done it hadn’t cared.
Scruffy knew now that these were not the dogs he remembered. Sad that they’d been changed but determined not to show it, he snarled back at them.
“Blackwater,” Mary said.
Alerted by the dogs and Mary’s penetration of the silence, Eugene Blackwater turned his head.
His gloomy, dark purple robes embroidered with acid-green swished slightly with the movement, but his body seemed almost horribly still. It was as though he was a human turned to stone, only moving ever so slightly with geological shifts every hundred years.
Blackwater’s face was craggy and lined. Unlike Reuben’s wrinkles, which made his face seem cheerful and knowing when he smiled, this man’s face looked almost wounded. Indeed, I wondered if he ever smiled at all; right now, his face was etched into a serious frown.
What drew me most were his dark eyes, which gleamed with an icy madness. They locked on mine right away, and seemed to be staring through to the back of my head. It was unnerving, but I returned his gaze calmly and confidently. My dad had always told me that fear was a choice, and I would not allow myself to be afraid.
Surprising me, a tiny corner of his lip jerked up into a smirk. It seemed to make him even more horrible somehow; it was an evil smile, and even the small movement contorted his face.
“I knew you’d come,” Blackwater said smugly. His voice was hollow and faint, like a wind in a pumpkin patch at Halloween, when everything seems more terrifying. He was speaking to Mary, but his eyes were still fixed on me, as if they never would move.
Mary trembled for a moment behind me, beautiful Mary, who had been my best friend for years. For a moment I thought she would falter. I should have known better. She was shaking with rage and longing to move.
If Blackwater noticed, he didn’t show it. He continued, “I left that chip intentionally; I was hoping you’d come and find me. Now I can kill you, so you cannot leak my secrets. I am so sorry if you don’t agree with the decision.” His stone face contorted again, this time in a sinister sneer. “I need someone to test my finished masterpiece on. It is complete!” Here, for once, his voice became strong and deep. “That ugly failure, the biotechnical fabricator, is no more. Now I have something much greater, much more powerful under my command. I present to you... the Doomsday machine!”
He gestured grandly at the gross thing behind him. Gazing at it, a thing like a sick parody of love flashed through his eyes.
“The fabricator,” he went on, “was only for creating powerful bodyguards to take care of anyone who stood in my way when I was gone from my Doomsday machine. The Doomsday machine is so much more than that petty Lego toy. After all, why create when you can destroy?”
Blackwater’s eyes became glazed as he stared at nothing. He continued, “It acts as a detonator. Once a life-form’s DNA is registered into the machine, it knows where that being is, no matter where it goes. A touch of a button will weaken it instantly, killing it within ten minutes. The flesh dissolves within an hour after its death, leaving only a skeleton. Such remains are not easily identifiable to even the most reputed scientists.” He gave a nasty, mocking nod to Reuben, who was practically fuming.
Finally Mary couldn’t contain herself. “That’s disgusting!” Mary exclaimed. “Everyone took you for a genius, but they were blind. You’re foolish, you and your insane machine!” Struggling to find more words to describe her hatred, she settled on spitting as far as she could in Blackwater’s direction.
It was then that I remembered that the thing I’d admired most about Mary, more than her brains or body, was her guts.
Blackwater looked at Mary. He seemed, not angry, but simply vaguely taken aback. His face did not seem talented at expressing emotions. Perhaps he hardly had any to show.
“What will all this get you anyway?” Mary asked harshly.
Blackwater’s eyes glinted dangerously, once again staring up at something invisible. “Power,” he whispered. “All the power in the world...” His voice escalated into a deep, booming tone, sounding nearly hysterical. “I can control politicians, businessmen, anyone on Earth who has influence, make them do as I say or die! Entire nations will fear and obey me!” His voice shook the walls, as the two altered dogs seemed to growl in agreement.
“And where will that get you?” I said softly, almost to myself. I was surprised at the sound of my own voice, but I went on, my voice becoming once more confident, calm and articulate. “You will be feared, yes, but no one will love you. No one loves a dictator. All you will do is provoke rebellion and warfare. You will be just as alone as ever, and when you die there will be dancing on your grave.”
His eyes found me again. He glared daggers of hatred at me, but I stood my ground.
To my surprise, Scruffy piped up from beside me, “He’s right, you know. My ancestors were hunters, but only because their own survival depended on it. To kill for the sake of killing is a pointless waste, almost every animal knows that. Except, of course,” he added coolly, “a few human rats.”
Blackwater looked at Scruffy, as if seeing him for the first time and feeling nothing but distaste for him on first sight. “Sir Fred IV,” Blackwater said. “Ever the untrainable one.”
Scruffy growled. Before anyone else could move, he leapt forward, making swiftly for the Doberman. He lunged at the Doberman, teeth bared. Dodging smoothly, the Doberman pinned Scruffy, wriggling, to the ground.
“Scruffy!” I cried. Without thinking, I ran after him.
“John!” Mary cried. She started after me, but Reuben held her back.
Scruffy had escaped his detainment and sunk his teeth into the Doberman’s neck. The Doberman, unable to reach Scruffy with his fatal horn, thrashed, trying to shake off the German shepherd.
At this point, the Rottweiler showed up. He had taken to the air with his gliding wings, and now dove from near the high ceiling toward the ground, wings folded neatly, honing in on his target and speeding toward it like a furred torpedo.
Scruffy, rather than trying to get out of the way, detached his fangs from the Doberman’s tough skin and jumped up to meet the Rottweiler, about five feet higher into the air than I would ever have thought he could.
“Enough!” commanded Blackwater. The Rottweiler pulled cleanly out of the dive, swooping back up toward the ceiling. Before anyone could blink, Blackwater had pressed a button on his machine. In midair, Scruffy’s muscles loosened. As his body came to the end of the arc it had started, his legs folded under him, and he fell, without any control, landing to slide across the smooth floor and stop at my feet.
“SCRUFFY!” I screamed. I lifted his head off the floor carefully with a hand, stuttering, “Scruffy, Scruffy, please don’t die on me, you were one of the best friends I’ve ever had and I don’t... I can’t let you die!” A tear leaked from my eye and splattered in his fur.
He slowly opened an eye. “I’m not... dead yet,” he said hoarsely, attempting a weak smile. “And I won’t be. We’ll carry on... right, Marker?”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “We will, we will, I know it.”
He seemed satisfied with this answer. He managed a real smile this time. “Yeah,” he agreed quietly. His open eye closed.
I stayed with him the next few minutes, scratching his ears, whispering to him whatever nonsense came to my mind, hoping it would take our minds off things. It didn’t, of course, but it was almost like old times, but for the quaver in my voice. He said nothing, only listened attentively like he always had before he opened himself to me.
Eventually, I embraced him gently, and he passed away in my arms. I lay him carefully back down on the floor and stroked his back one last time, looking at him sadly. He appeared for all the world like any other dead dog.
Copyright © 2015 by Amy Fontaine