Wait Until Starlight

Moore tuned the car’s radio to AM 580. It amazed him that drive-ins still existed. He leaned back in his seat and tried to enjoy himself.

“So what’s next?” Park sat forward, eyes pausing to stare inside each car near them.

“We watch the movie. It’s a good one. Audrey Hepburn in a 60s thriller, what’s not to love?” Moore closed his eyes and settled deeper into the leather seat.

“Um, sir. Shouldn’t we be walking around. Investigating, yeah? I don’t mean to overstep my position. It’s just Operative Manners made it very clear–”

“Kid, relax.” Moore fished out his fat wallet and tossed it onto the dash. The metal of his Estate badge always found a way to dig into him. “I get it. You’re eager to get out there and make something of yourself. Save the world and all that jazz. You’ll get your chance, I promise. But, hey — listen — here’s my advice. Take it slow. Or else you’ll end up jumping at every shadow you see like Yearsling.” Moore gave Park a reassuring smile and a few quick pats on his shoulder. How many times would he have to give that speech?

Park nodded to himself. “Got it. Stay cool. Relax.”

RA-TAT-TAT.

The young operative spun in his seat toward his rattling window and dashed a hand beneath his jacket. Moore gripped Park’s bicep, holding his arm in place.

A teenage girl winced and pulled her hand back from the window. “Sorry!” her apology came muffled through the glass. “I didn’t mean to startle you. We’re selling special kettle corn for tonight’s movie.” She lifted a tray for the two operatives to see and gave them an apologetic smile. Moore leaned closer and spotted her name tag. Letting down the window he said, “Sure thing, Kelly. Sounds great. I think my partner and I could use a snack. Two.”

When the girl reached the next vehicle Moore let out his stifled laughter.

“Alright, alright.” Park shoved his cup of kettle corn into the center console and crossed his arms.

Moore took a handful of the sweet popcorn and shoved it into his mouth, grinning through the large chomps. “Ah come on. That was funny.”

“People have gone missing, sir. Every week another empty car and no body. I don’t see how that’s funny, yeah?”

The grin slipped behind a sigh. “It’s not. No.” Moore took a few more chomps of popcorn. The movie flickered along but Park’s sulking made it difficult to follow the plot. “You’re killing me, kid.” Moore leaned across Park and opened the door. “Go be productive. Go investigate if you want. I’ll keep an eye out here. Give me a call if you find anything.” He rattled his cup of kettle corn and scowled at the bottom.

“Fine.” Park stormed out from the car.

“Oh hello there.” Moore helped himself to Park’s forgotten cup of kettle corn.

He ate and watched Park’s silhouette disappear behind a minivan. It was always the same. Katherine saddled him with some eager kid fresh from training. And over the years he’d seen too many of them go through the same routine.  Some of them young, think they’ve won a special prize, only to learn they’re being recruited into the Estate. It’s all exciting and full of clandestine meetings and “ops.” Exciting, until the day they come face-to-face with the Strange and — Moore shook unbidden images from his mind — they either end up dead or stark raving mad.

Moore let out another long sigh, popped a few more kernels, and headed out for a look see.

***

There hadn’t been much to go on from their report. To Moore it looked like a standard case of some wackjob with an easy playing field. On his way to the projection booth he took a few surreptitious glances in cars. It was exactly as he expected — teenagers making out or getting high. People didn’t come to the Starlight Drive-in to watch movies, let alone watch out for anything suspicious.

Moore made a slow spin looking for anything that might stand out. Maybe a black town car, or a van with deep tinted windows. Christ, even a Dino-Rider ripped from some 80s toy recursion would give him something to work with. No such luck. Just more steamed up cars.

A stab of acid-reflux shot up Moore’s chest. “Oof. Two cups, too many.”

The projection booth sat atop a small gravel hill, a flat grey cement block of a building. With any luck he’d find the projectionist huddled over their latest kidnap victim. Then it’d be as simple as subduing the jerk and turning it over to the proper authorities. Moore wrapped his knuckles across the door. After a few beats he tried the doorknob — locked.

“Bah.”

From inside a hidden pocket of his jacket Moore withdrew what appeared to be a thin, black plastic disc no bigger than a quarter. Pinching it between both thumbs and forefingers he stretched it out over the doorknob. Letting go the black plastic snapped onto the knob. A soft “pop” followed as the black plastic and knob simply vanished. Moore had never really bothered trying to understand how different cyphers worked, so as long as they worked.

Pushing open the door, the interior knob and cylinder clattered to the floor. A 70 mm projector whirred along unattended. Moore peered out the projection window. Seemed Ms. Hepburn was doing her thing just fine.

In the back corner of the booth were a dozen more film canisters stacked chest high.  On a workbench next to them sat a small reel-to-reel projector facing the wall. An 8mm spool of film had already been fed into the machine. Curious, Moore turned it on. The yellow bulb flickered to life and the buzz of the motor filled the room. A group of teens loitered in front of the Starlight concession stand. Their flickering images laughed in silence with one another. Some jock kid pointed toward the camera and waved for whoever stood behind it to join them. Moore leaned in. A figure bounced into view. Or at least, as best as he could describe it, the outline of a person. It turned to face the camera, and as it did the entire group looked directly at Moore — terror and a plead for help swept across their black and white faces.

“Hello.”

“Geeze!” A flash of his ever growing acid-reflux shot up through his chest. Moore turned toward the door to see the young Kelly standing there.

Her unwavering grin widened.

“Kid, remind me to keep tabs on you for future recruitment. You could sneak up on a kitchen cockroach.” Moore leaned against the wall and pressed a hand against his chest. He really needed to find an antacid.

“You’re just in time.”

“Oh yeah?” He winced as the burning sensation grew in his chest. “Time for what?”

“To join my movie, silly.” Kelly stepped forward and clasped her hands together.

“Sorry, kid. I–” Moore grimaced. Glancing over his shoulder he saw the outlined figure mimic her movements. He hated it when the little things slipped past him. Like a teenager who smiles too much and never blinks. Who, when you really pay attention, just looks like someone trying too hard to be normal. “Dammit.”

“You’ll be perfect for my climax.”

“I’ll have to pass. I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of guy.” He stepped forward and held up his hands. Beads of sweat dappled his brow. What’s gotten into you? Shape up. His stomach twisted. “OK, I think you had your fun.”

“You don’t look so well, sir.” Her brown, un-blinking eyes  flashed with enjoyment.

“Look, kid. Whatever you’ve done, it’s…” Moore felt his knees grow weak. “We can fix it. We… we just…” A wave of nausea bowled him over, pushing him to the ground.

“I think you had a bit too much kettle corn, mister. That’s OK, though.” Kelly leaned over him. “It’ll pass, it did for everyone else. Just as soon as you join my movie.”

Moore tried to grab her as she stepped around him on her way to the projector. Everyone else. Christ, she got Park. Of course she had. Katherine was going to be pissed when she heard he let a rookie operative go it alone. Stupid!

Laying on his side, Moore reached toward another inside pocket of his jacket. His limbs felt huge and numb all at once. Fumbling with uncooperative fingers, he pinched a small blue and white capsule between his index and forefinger. But the kettle corn drug had done its work. As the capsule touched his lips his weakened fingers twisted, flinging it to the concrete floor.

Kelly turned the projector toward him. Its fan and belts spun faster and faster as the light fell over his huddled body. The warmth of the yellow light flowed into his bones. The world around him flickered from the booth — dark blues and the sounds of whirring projectors — to the black and white world of Kelly’s movie, coupled with the cries for help from the other trapped teenagers.

Moore looked back to the flickering image of Kelly. Well, it had been a good run.

The wall behind her collapsed into a single 5-inch cube of concrete. A rush of superheated air followed an instant after, as the sudden empty space sucked out Kelly and her projector.

With a jolt Moore snapped back into reality. Park rushed inside through the newly created entryway. “That actually worked!”

Moore crawled toward the capsule. His guts feeling as if they’d been caught up in the gears of a weed eater.

“Hey sir, you OK?”

“Cap…”

Crap. I hurt you, yeah?” Park knelt down beside Moore and began to search him for injuries.

“Cap…” Moore waved a hand toward the discarded pill. “That!”

“Oh!” Park hopped to the capsule and helped Moore down it.

It didn’t take long for the effects to take hold. Park’s own stomach roiled with the amount of sick Moore deposited in the corner. Once relieved, Moore sat back to catch his breath. A cacophony of car horns broke through the ringing in his ears. Shouts soon joined the blaring horns.

“I guess we interrupted the film, yeah?” Park asked.

“Heh.” Moore lay his head back and closed his eyes. “Pick up the girl and grab the projector.”

“Yes, sir.”

Moore tried to rest for a moment, but the noise outside had risen to the sound of an angry mob. His head popped up. Angry mobs usually sounded, well, angry. Not like a mass of terrified people running for their lives.

“Uh, sir!”

Grabbing a hold of the projector he hauled himself up and gazed outward. His knees turned to jelly.

A fifty foot tall Audrey Hepburn clawed her way out of the screen.

Her body flickered and jittered. Reaching out a giant hand she grasped a blue Civic in the front row. The teens jumped out from the rising vehicle. Audrey opened her mouth and through every car speaker in the lot a voice wailed, “You ruined my movie!” The desaturated starlet launched the car toward the projection booth.

Moore and Park ducked. The sound of tearing metal and crushing stone rattled the booth as the vehicle slammed along the back of the roof.

“Sir, what now!?” Park cried out.

“Find the girl! I’ll deal with the movie!”

Park didn’t hesitate. Not seeing her nearby, he scrambled to a sprint, headed straight into danger. Another thunder of crushing metal exploded over the building.

“It was almost done!” Her voice echoed, sounding like a odd mix of Hepburn and Kelly’s. “Why couldn’t you just do what I wanted?”

Moore stabilized himself against the projector. Despite the barrage of thrown cars it had remained in place, bolted to the floor. In vain he searched for an off switch, that would have to shut her down. The platter holding the film reel spun with a vengeance.

Desperate times… Moore made a grab for the film when the roof ripped away. Audrey Hepburn stood holding the crumbling roof above her head, snarling down at Moore. “My movie!”

He plunged toward the running film where his arms sunk into the film strip. “Well that’s new.” Audrey’s howl of rage busted every car speaker. Two extra arms erupted from her body. Moore directed his cinematic twin appendages and grabbed a hold of her upright arms, fighting to keep her from smashing the roof down upon him. Audrey twisted and flailed. Chunks of concrete and wood rained down around Moore. “Come on, kid! Hurray up,” Moore spurt through gritted teeth. He wrenched to the left, pulling the film strip toward him. Impossibly it kept running through the projector, spinning through Moore’s arms. Audrey’s back crooked in middle, like a glitched television screen.

Somewhere in the distance a girl cried out in pain.

Once more he yanked. Audrey doubled over, her flickering face looming just feet over him. Kelly’s wail resounded from somewhere in the lot. Audrey’s face snapped into the visage of Kelly’s surprised gape. The projector screamed and garbled, eating the film and stripping it away from Moore.

The fifty-foot tall Audrey Hepburn turned into a garbled wall of movie frames, flashing by in the thousands before exploding into a shower of light. Moore did his best to dodge the falling roof.

***

Moore came to after a few slaps on the cheek from Park. Debris rested all around him and his mouth tasted of grit.

“Seems I got my chance, yeah?” Park gave Moore a toothy grin.

“Yeah, yeah you did.” With Park’s help Moore stood up and coughed out concrete dust from his lungs. “OK, you can stop giving me that look. You were right, is that want you want me to say?”

“I just think we’re going to make a good team, sir.”

“Team? Oh, God.” Moore took a deep breath. He looked around the Starlight Drive-In. People still milled about, confused. Several groups argued amongst themselves about what exactly they saw. A distraught redneck cried over his busted truck. “All right, partner. Get the girl, and get that projector. Your next lesson is ‘Call the Fixer.'”

“Who’s the Fixer?” Park helped Moore out of the rubble.

“Eh, that’s a story for another time.”

End.

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Encyclopedia of Impossible Things

Monte Cook Games has announced a new book called Encyclopedia of Impossible Things. It’s a 160 page book full of new cyphers and artifacts for The Strange. Looks to be a great resource for the game. 

I’m looking forward to picking it up as a source of inspiration for my short stories. Woot!

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A Knock at the Door

You may wonder why you have been selected. What makes you so special? We’ve been watching you dear reader. You go about your daily activities — work, lunch at Subway, home by six, bed by 10, repeat — and most would say that is all there is. But there is more, and you know it. Deep down you feel the lure of a deeper reality. One that spans beyond this planet, that ebbs and flows in the dark recesses of The Chaosphere.

Before you lay the harrowing adventures of those that have come before you. Those brave and insane enough to translate between the many recursions spread across the Shoals of Earth. Meet mad bioengineers of Ruk. Follow the foolhardy as they traverse the Green Wilds of Ardyn. Or perhaps you will discover that there is a place where your favorite novel does exist. 

Yes dear reader, within you lies the spark. A yearning to explore the myriad of recursions that exist right at your fingertips. Read on. Learn all you can. For soon you too will be invited into The Strange.

— The Estate

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