Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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Unlimited Shelf Life

by Steven Mace




Garrett Forrester III stepped inside the elevator. He was carrying a briefcase, and his face wore the self-satisfied smile and complacent expression of a confident man who knows the precise routine of his day, and for whom every event should progress smoothly. His silver-grey hair almost exactly matched the silvery-grey pinstripe colour of his expensive business suit. He pressed the button for the top floor, and the elevator doors closed behind him.

The elevator hummed into life. He watched each floor number light up as it progressed serenely upwards. The elevator paused at the seventh floor, an unexpected diversion. He suddenly heard voices beyond the doors, voices that were feverishly chattering and were high in pitch. There might have been the slightest quiver in Garrett Forrester III's professional mask, the smallest possible tic in his thin-lipped, stern mouth. He awaited the impending intrusion. The elevator doors opened...

...and a horde of children, all of elementary school age, poured into the cramped confines of the elevator: boys and girls between six and eleven years of age, talking loudly at the tops of their voices, giggling and chattering inanely. Garrett Forrester III cringed in horror at the sight of these vile young creatures, some of which were now turning wide, curious saucer-shaped eyes upon him where he stood pressed against the elevator wall. At first, his mouth had dropped open with shocked dismay, but now he decided to take decisive action to remedy the catastrophic situation that he now found himself confronted with. Using his briefcase as a shield, Garrett Forrester III fought his way through the entirely unexpected crowd of offensive juveniles, before finally managing to escape intact from the elevator--a vital second before the doors closed shut on the baying pack of youngsters inside.

"Good heavens!" Garrett Forrester III, Chairman of the Board and owner of Silverdale Industries Inc. roared toward a startled audience of secretaries, PAs and office clerks. "So... whose bright idea was it amongst the lot of you to organise a Bring Your Child to Work Day?! And why wasn't I informed? I'll have your guts for garters!"


* * *

"The concept is ground-breaking," Arnold Hopkins told the circle of faces gazing blankly at him in the boardroom. "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the battery that never powers down, the battery that never has to be replaced. In a rechargeable battery, the electrochemical reactions are electrically reversible. You simply re-charge and re-use. Unlimited shelf life." He sat back smugly and waited for applause that, disappointingly, did not materialise.

"And this means...?" A nervous, flustered-looking executive named Joseph Slatter asked. He had small, compressed features that floated in the midst of his bloated head like the yellow at the centre of a fried egg. In truth, his head was shaped more like a potato: a lumpy, misshapen potato which had been deposited on top of an ill-fitting suit, as Slatter also had the misfortune to be lacking a discernible neck.

"No more cases of 'batteries not included' stuck on our toys and the risk of disappointing the kids," Arnold replied. "This will change electrical goods forever. Rechargeable batteries- they're the future. Now, if you'd just---"

Arnold was interrupted by the door to the boardroom suddenly flying open, and a disgruntled-looking Garrett Forrester III marching in with a furious, thunderous expression upon his face. "Damn fool things..." he was grumbling to himself. "They'll be the ruination of this company..."

As was company policy, every single executive in the boardroom, including Arnold Hopkins, had risen to their feet as acknowledgement of Garrett Forrester III's entrance. Now, in continued accordance with that policy, as formally initiated by Silverdale Industries Inc's Founding Fathers Leonard Gobin and Garrett Forrester I, they began to recite the official company song 'Rockefeller is our God' (their rendition was the abbreviated version, as the complete song in its entirety is almost half an hour long) Incidentally, a cover version of the song with a groovy new melody was re-recorded by Lennon & McCartney in 1964 at the request of Garrett Forrester II (GF2 to his golfing buddies) and is available for a dollar from Silverdale Records:

Adam Smith is our Saviour
Rockefeller is our God
Money makes the world go round
Ain't that the truth
Kids play doctors and nurses
So c'mon open up your purses
It's all real, it's not fake
There's no toy we can't make
We'll make toys for kiddies
In our sweatshop factories
We'll invest all our profit
And we'll never ever stop it
Cos toy-making is our cash cow
Ain't that the simple truth now.
Our loyal customers in Peking
Just love to play and dance and sing
Teddy bears and Barbie dolls
GI Joes and gangster molls
Small boys and girls love 'em all
Let's get them down the shopping mall
Ohhhh, cos Adam Smith's our saviour
Rockefeller is our God
Money makes the world go round
Ain't that the truth, ohhhhhh baby, ain't that the truuuuuuuuuth!

For the last line and the sustained verbal extension of 'truth', all of the executives waved their arms and hands in the air and wiggled their fingers.

As soon as the obligatory rendition of the company song to mark Garrett Forrester III's entrance into the boardroom had ended, one of the senior executives, Ronald Korbuss, spoke up. He was a tall man in a black suit, with perfectly cultivated dark hair that may or may not have been a toupee, and he also wore glasses that magnified his blue eyes to a startling degree. "Mr Forrester! Sir! Hopkins was just demonstrating to us his concept of rechargeable batteries---"

"Rechargeable batteries? Rechargeable batteries?" Garrett Forrester III sneered contemptuously. "Do you think I need concern myself with such inane science fiction as rechargeable batteries when--dear God--there are children running riot in this building? Young children? I turn my back for one moment and my employees run roughshod over everything we--"

"Mr Forrester," Korbuss said gently. "We are a toy designer and manufacturer. It's good to apply market research every now and then, let the children in and let them have a taste of the new toys about to come on the market."

"Since when were toys about the children?" Garrett Forrester III roared defiantly. "We're a business! Silverdale Industries is about making money! Send the kids to the factories if they want to see some piece of useless junk roll down a conveyer belt! Even better, get them working in the factories! Put them to some use! Damn the labour laws!" He slammed his briefcase down upon the boardroom table. "Children should be seen and not heard, they should not be gallivanting around this building like a pack of hyenas or wolfhounds! How can we deal with this? Can someone call Pest Control?"

Feet shuffled as the board fidgeted anxiously in their seats. Executives exchanged nervous glances. Sweat dripped down brows. Someone anxiously cleared their throat. Somewhere toward the back there was a very audible and thunderous fart, but the culprit did not want to claim responsibility--quite understandable, since the overpowering and noxious stench made the distinguished septuagenarian executive Dorothy Planchard faint. Later, she was brought round with smelling salts and thankfully that distinguished lady made a full recovery.

Finally, Edward Taylor VI, a brave soul (and one of Garrett Forrester III's golfing buddies), put his hand up. He was a genial fellow in a dark blue suit, with white hair, crinkling eyes, an infectious smile and a 'friendly uncle' persona. "Er... Garrett, oh whoops, sorry, sir? Mr Forrester? Pest Control deal specifically with... vermin, sir."

Garrett Forrester III frowned at him. "Your point being, Ed?"

"Er... well..." Taylor fell silent.

"Mr Forrester!" Martha Gates, a notable board member with notorious feminist views and a known force to be reckoned with, rose with difficulty to her feet. The exertion of such an act already put her out of breath, and out of necessity she required a moment to compose herself. Fortunately, there were no other executives in her immediate vicinity to be troubled by her fleshy mass. She almost took up one entire side of the conference table. Her considerable physical size seemed to reflect her powerful personality. She was an enormous woman who squeezed herself into gigantic tweedy suits for business meetings, with red hair cut into a bob-style and penetrating blue eyes that even now coolly assessed and scrutinised Garrett Forrester III intently. (It was rumoured that, like Henry the Eighth, she required a huge crane to winch her over-sized physical form out of bed in the mornings, however this might have been a foul and spiteful rumour spread by her enemies, of which she had many of both sexes) "These children who you compare unfavourably to rats are the offspring of employees," she told him. "Today is 'Bring Your Child to Work Day'. It's nice to do something for our hard-working employees every once in a while, and give the kids a special treat. It's extremely short-sighted of you not to recognise this. You were sent a memo regarding the matter."

"I was sent a memo?" Garrett Forrester III responded impatiently.

"You were sent a memo." Martha pursed her lips.

"Was I sent a memo?" Garrett Forrester III demanded to know of his slender, blonde personal secretary Alicia, who had materialised by his side.

"You were sent a memo," Alicia confirmed immediately.

"Did I approve the memo?" Garrett Forrester III barked.

"You approved the memo," Martha replied dryly, with a hint of sour, wry amusement.

"You approved the memo, sir," Alicia confirmed almost at the same time, with a hint of youthful eager perkiness.

"Damn!" Garrett Forrester III said bitterly. "I must have been in an uncharacteristically good mood that day. Hopkins! I can see you getting agitated there. Do you have something to say?"

"I do, sir," Arnold Hopkins replied, speaking up for the first time since his speech to the board regarding the concept of rechargeable batteries. Everyone turned to look at him, apart from Dorothy Planchard who was still lying prone on the floor, surrounded by medics. "My son Richie is here today. In fact, I only just sent him down to the basement earlier to visit Dr. Karloff--"

"Dr. Karloff?" it seemed that the entire boardroom said in horrified unison, apart from Dorothy Planchard.

"Yes... Dr. Karloff. I thought that Richie would enjoy that. He gets so bored with me going on about rechargeable batteries and the benefits to the environment they bring. I heard something about a new invention Karloff was working on, a machine that can see through walls. Isn't that cool? I knew Richie would want to check that out. Karloff's an ideas man, after all--"

"An ideas man. Oh, he's that, all right," Ronald Korbuss muttered darkly to himself, unheard by anyone else. "Amongst other things." A riotous hubbub of noise had erupted, as everyone in the board room attempted to speak at once, apart from the unconscious Dorothy Planchard. Arnold could only hear partial snatches of words and phrases: "--deeply flawed genius--" "--a crank--" "Dr. Karloff? More like Dr. Frankenstein"-- "completely loony tunes"-- "that crazed maniac"-- before Garrett Forrester III halted proceedings and the chaotic maelstrom of voices before they could reach a crescendo, by delivering a mighty roar of: "Siiiiiiiiiiiilence!" Immediately a hush descended, and all present then dutifully fell silent- apart from the low moans of Dorothy Planchard as she slowly recovered consciousness with the aid of smelling salts. Apart from the audible plight of that poor notable and respected lady, you might have heard a pin drop. Garrett Forrester III's full attention was now focused on Arnold Hopkins.

"Your son has willingly entered Dr. Karloff's realm," he intoned, as if passing a courtroom sentence. "Let us all hope and pray that, by allowing him to do so, you have not made a fatal error of epic proportions. Alicia! Bring me my mid-morning coffee."


* * *

The so-called 'realm' of Dr. Karloff occupied two distinct and distant extremities of the Silverdale Tower Building: the first zone, or clearly defined extremity, was the Basement- originally built as vast storage space taking up three underground floors, existing beneath street level and the towering citadel of the Silverdale Building directly above it. In the years since the toy inventor Dr. Karloff had been a Silverdale employee and had taken his work-space down there for his inventions, private projects and various forms of testing, the Basement had filled up with his equipment and tools. The second zone, or defined extremity of territory for Dr. Karloff was at the opposite physical spectrum of the Silverdale Tower- the rooftop. It was here that Dr. Karloff could perform his more risky experiments and test his most haphazard inventions: those that required more space for manoeuvre, open air for foul miasmas to dissipate or those precarious prototypes which might prove to be particularly dangerous. Inventions that could be explosive or radioactive in nature, for example. Dr. Karloff tended to shuttle between the two extremities; officially an employee but nevertheless occupying his own unique role in the company, retaining his own brand of individualism and creative freedom to invent new toys underneath the auspices of successive generations of Garrett Forresters.

Dr. Karloff had invented a vast number of different toys for children, the fate of which had become popular and bestselling, or had become notorious and even banned (that was if they ever actually made it to mass production, Dr. Karloff was frequently censured or overruled, much to his chagrin). He'd invented life-size androids with basic AI which could speak and obey spoken commands--these Silverdale Drones™ had become personal serfs to many a boy and girl despite their high rate of malfunction, sometimes with tragic consequences; various clockwork animals: birds, spiders, bugs, snakes (the latter three were great for frightening anyone suffering with a phobia, sometimes lethally), and Dr. Karloff's personal favourites: the burrowing clockwork badger capable of building small tunnels, and the clockwork otter, which could happily swim within water and not become damaged- "What on earth can a child do with a clockwork otter?" Quality Assurance had complained to his line manager; a home astronomy kit including a giant telescope which could view distant objects in detail as far as Andromeda; doll babies which excreted real urine, excrement and vomit (these, unsurprisingly, were banned); piggy banks which illuminated and played particular songs according to value of currency when coins were placed inside (songs by Elvis Presley and The Beatles were particular favourites of Dr. Karloff); giant tanks that children could ride in and fire water cannon from at their own personal choice of target (Dr. Karloff had wished to include real ammunition and possibly a small uranium-based missile, but had been understandably overruled); giant dollhouses intended to be constructed in the family garden and be miniature versions of real homes for children to play 'House' in, possibly alongside a Silverdale Drone to run errands; super synthesiser-keyboards which had a selection of fifty thousand different tones and realistic sound effects; giant cranes, cars and trucks which could be operated by remote control; the Miniature Fairground, with slides and swimming pools, bouncy castles, tunnels and dodgems; the Great Maze and Assault course for kids; the Moulding Screen where you could press your hand or face into a tessellated plastic mould to create a sculpted outline; the battery-powered pedalo-style water-cruiser (banned after several instances of unfortunate drowning); life-size battle figures, where kids could play Army with real figurines carrying electronic weapons; all these and more, a remarkable array of various fantastic toys, courtesy of Silverdale Industries. Many in the toy manufacturing industry agreed that it was remarkable how Dr. Karloff conceived such a wide variety of ideas for exciting and popular toys, while consistently maintaining such a total disregard for public safety.

So it was to the Basement zone that Richie Hopkins, son of Silverdale executive Arnold, had excitedly descended, taking the elevator to Floor Zero, and stepping out into a gloomy, sinister dark corridor that in appearance and upkeep was completely unlike the gleaming, bustling offices above. The boy was accompanied for part of the way by a nervous secretary who had quickly made her excuses and abandoned him in the dark. "Follow the lightning," had been her cryptic remark before she swiftly departed, and indeed Richie had been able to see distinct white flashes at the end of the corridor which he assumed must both signify and highlight Dr. Karloff's present location. He turned a corner and naturally found the industrious inventor in the murky chamber which passed for his laboratory. He was wearing plastic goggles that were monstrous in size, and was seated at his work-table, hunched over and engrossed in the inner workings of some device which emitted sparks and flashes at intermittent moments.

Richie cleared his throat. "Dr. Karloff?"

The inventor turned around and looked at the twelve year old boy standing in the entrance to his laboratory. "Yes?"

"I'm Richie Hopkins," Richie told him. "My dad is on the executive board here, head of toy design? Arnold Hopkins? He said I could come down here and take a look at what you do. Pa said that you had invented a machine that can see through walls!"

"Did he now?" Dr. Karloff smiled, scratched his nose, and stood up. "Well my boy, we'd better see if we can find you something interesting to play with then, hadn't we?"

Dr. Karloff cut a rather distinctive figure: he was a tall, cadaverous-looking man, dressed in a long white coat and loose-fitting brown trousers. Tufts of grey hair bordered his ears, but he was mostly bald--his enlarged, prominent cranium gleamed in the florescent light of the Basement like the shell of a boiled egg. He had taken his goggles off when he'd started speaking to Richie, but even underneath them he wore glasses--metal ones with fine, round frames and thick, milk bottle top lenses.

He walked over to another machine, and began to pull levers and mutter incoherently to himself. At one stage, he hauled down a periscope from the ceiling and began to intently examine something unseen through the lens. Richie stood silently behind him, and patiently waited for the inventor to notice him again.

After a while he turned around again and seemed to see Richie again for the first time. "Ah, you again!" he said. "I clean forgot about you! Follow me, young fellow! To the stairwell, and the rooftop we must go! Would you mind bringing those prototype zap guns with us? In that box there. We are about to conduct an important experiment into my latest special projects... the Gamma-Ray Gun and X-Ray Spectacles!"


* * *

They ascended a seemingly endless flight of stairs to the rooftop, the good doctor bounding ahead of Richie with an energy that seem to contradict his years and physique. At first Richie had thought that the cardboard box containing a stash of zap guns was quite light considering the metallic casing of the weapons, but after climbing up numerous flights of stairs, even a youngster like Richie began to feel tired.

"Dr. Karloff," he gasped, when he began to feel out of breath. "Are we nearly there yet? Why couldn't we take the elevator?"

"Don't trust elevators, my boy," Dr. Karloff told him. "Got stuck in one, once. Took hours before they rescued me. Never use them now. Don't worry young Hopkins, it's all good exercise!"

Finally they reached the rooftop. Dr. Karloff swung open an unlocked metal door at the top of the stairwell and Richie was met by a cool blast of air and the sudden intrusion of sunlight. He followed Dr. Karloff out on to the plateau of the Silverdale Building, and was immediately impressed by the view. He could see massive, towering city skyscrapers for miles around, surfaces of solid concrete and shimmering glass reflecting the sunlight; a landscape of looming monuments to capitalism, buildings that were close by the Silverdale Tower and visible beyond it. It was a good thing he didn't suffer from vertigo, as they were quite high up. Apart from a large metal hangar situated toward one corner of the rooftop plateau, there was no other feature up here. He followed Dr. Karloff across the concrete surface of the roof, towards an area where the inventor had set up various equipment and machinery. There he noticed the gangly frame of a young teenager who was obviously Dr. Karloff's assistant... as the young man turned round to look at them, Richie felt his heart sink and he shuddered with sudden fear. He recognised this particular individual. It was Gordon Grish, the senior school bully.

Gordon Grish was a notorious connoisseur of malice within senior school, a practitioner of sadistic acts. He was a perpetrator of cruelty, capable of turning violence into an art form. His preferred victims were senior school first-graders. He was a gawky teenager with pimples, but he had shifty eyes and a cruel smile that was more of a knowing smirk. His hair was a light, sandy colour. When he saw Richie his eyes lit up, and that unpleasant smirk-smile that Richie knew so well appeared upon his face.

"Well, well, well," he said as they approached, loud enough so that both of them could hear, although Dr. Karloff did not grasp the significance of his words and tone. "If it isn't the little squirt from first grade, Richie Hopkins... "

"Gordon!" Dr. Karloff snapped. "Don't just stand around here. Help me with the equipment. I am about to perform an experiment and give a demonstration... "

To Richie's relief and amusement, it soon became very obvious that Dr. Karloff wouldn't let Gordon near anything important and that he only let him run inconsequential errands and do odd jobs, such as polishing the levers.

"What are you experimenting with?" Richie innocently asked the inventor.

Before Dr. Karloff could open his mouth to speak, it was Gordon who swung around and said with a sneer: "Don't you know anything, dummy? Dr. Karloff is working on artificial gamma ray bursts, you doofus!"

"Hmmm... okay... " Richie replied uncertainly. "But isn't that, like, dangerous? I mean with radiation and stuff?"

Gordon scoffed, but this time Dr. Karloff answered his young charge. "Quite right my boy," he said. "But I think I've cracked the perfection of a Safety Zone. We're going to test it out with these zap guns here. It will be like re-creating a supernova in miniature, a microcosm of a photonic event."

Richie didn't know what some of those words meant, so he stayed silent.

"Of course," Dr. Karloff continued, "These gamma ray zap guns are only the tiny stuff. I've got a much more powerful cannon on board my airship."

"Your airship?" Richie asked, his interest piqued once more. "You've got an airship?"

"Oh yes," Dr. Karloff said. "In the hangar over there. Based it on Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's blueprints which I--ahem!--which came into my possession... I've got an even bigger gamma ray emulsifier in there, it's set to give off one hell of a blast! It's an actual cannon, my boy!"

"Dr. Karloff, do we get to play around with the zap guns now?" Gordon whined. "I'm bored!"

"Gordon, we do not play with such devices! They're not toys! This is an important and risky experiment," Dr. Karloff said. "Boys, could you put goggles on and each take a zap gun? I would like you to aim your gun at the target over there--yes, that circular bulls eye, pinioned to that stick." Gordon was handing out the goggles, and as he gave Richie his pair, he gave the younger boy a sinister, mocking grin.

"Behold my masterpiece!" Dr. Karloff cried out, as he aimed his own gun at the appointed target. "Here it is, testimony to my genius... ! Stand out of the way, kiddies!" Dr. Karloff cried out, as he slapped his pair of goggles over his spectacles again. "Incoming gamma rays!"

A burst of energy poured out of the inventor's zap gun and there was a luminous flash around the bull's-eye board. Through their goggles, Gordon and Richie could see that the board was now glowing. It pulsed with a florescent light for about twenty or thirty seconds and then slowly dimmed until its appearance had returned to normality once again.

"Ha-ha!" Dr. Karloff cackled, capering from foot to foot. "A harmless and controlled gamma ray burst! Magnificent! Wait for a little bit my young chums, and then you can aim your weapons and test it out for yourselves!"

"Boring," was Gordon's verdict. "I had a more interesting target in mind." And with that, and before Dr. Karloff could shout out a warning or prevent him from doing so, he aimed his zap gun at Richie and fired the gamma rays directly at him. Perhaps, to give him the benefit of the doubt, Gordon wasn't really psychopathic at all when he committed this act. Perhaps he just didn't understand the science and thought that he wouldn't kill Richie by doing this, but would just make him glow for a bit.

Richie felt the air charge up around him, and a strange prickling and tickling upon his skin. Then his ears popped, and he thought he heard a shrill burst of a high-pitched tone in his ears, a temporary aural effect which mercifully decayed and dissipated, eventually. Richie still had control of his mind, body and senses, and so retaliation was at the forefront of his thoughts. Even as Dr. Karloff began to howl in dismay and blunder toward him, Richie levelled his own zap gun at Gordon and let loose with the rays. Almost immediately, he saw Gordon enveloped in blue fire from the gamma ray charge, his eyes luminous and vivid within the artificial cloud of electromagnetic distortion.

"Horrendous! Catastrophic!" Dr. Karloff was wailing, close to hysteria and nearly at risk of a nervous breakdown. "What have you boys done to yourselves? Give me those zap guns now!"

In a moment, both boys had been disarmed but the damage--or perhaps, more accurately, the alterations?--had already been made. The inventor and good doctor's warning had come a second too late. In mishandling the weapons which Dr. Karloff had foolishly given them, Gordon and Richie had been left exposed to streaming gamma ray particles from the quantum accelerator, which began to make unprecedented substantive alterations to their DNA and body chemistry.

This was initially most obvious in the younger boy. Richie realised that he was seeing everything happen in slow motion. He moved around the rooftop, gazing at everything he saw, exploring the corners of the Silverdale Building plateau, observing the view of the cityscape from these heights, circling the border of the hangar where Dr. Karloff had said he kept an airship. He did all these things without knowing that Dr. Karloff and Gordon watched him open-mouthed, and that when they looked for him, all they saw was an indistinct blur. Eventually he got bored at their apparent lack of speech and frozen postures and wandered back down the stairwell and into the Silverdale offices below. It was there that he discovered the truth. Mere seconds had passed, when to him it seemed that minutes had. He realised that he could move much quicker than anyone else, to the point where other human beings and objects around him seemed to be moving very slowly, while he was apparently operating in different phases of time. Richie could move so fast that he could pluck a fly clean out of the air, but he saw it all happen in slow motion. He was reminded of his father's repeated remarks in regard to the concept of rechargeable batteries--'unlimited shelf life'--and he felt as if he himself was running on a super-battery, moving at breakneck speed. He was a living, hurtling human being, who had been electrochemically charged. He flitted in and out of offices, careering past bewildered secretaries and PAs; one woman felt a gust of breeze dislodge a curl of her hair and the rest of her locks were set to tremble; the mail boy felt something slight knock the pile of letters and parcels he was carrying and send them crashing to the floor. However, this was not a permanent shift in his perception of time and space, but something that Richie realised it was possible for him to manipulate. He could shift gears, so to speak, so that he could slow down and return to the normal speed of the real physical world, even though that wasn't so much fun. However, he realised that out of necessity he would need to control his perception of time, and slow reality down to the point where he would interact and communicate with people normally again. It did not take him long to master this. He materialised at normal speed in one of the lower levels of the Silverdale Building in a crowded office, and the employees turned round and gasped when they saw him. It was as if he had teleported into there, out of thin air. He was the boy who had appeared out of nowhere. Realising that he could now control his 'gears' of movement and perception of reality, Richie decided to return to the rooftop and explain to Dr. Karloff what had happened.

Eventually, he found himself up upon the roof again, after moving up through the stairwells of the Silverdale Building at his new super-fast top speed, yet also ascending and traversing the levels with an economy of effort. Gordon was there alone, standing by the parapet. His brow was furrowed, and he glared at Richie with a jealous rage. He was showing no ill effects from Dr. Karloff's unintended act of gamma-ray exposure, but he was certainly annoyed about something. His hands were down by his sides, clenched into fists. Dr. Karloff himself was nowhere to be seen. "How... ? How come you got the cool super-powers?" Gordon whined through gritted teeth.

"Oh, I don't know... " Richie replied, with just a hint of false modesty. "Just lucky, I guess."

Infuriated by the smug look on the face of the younger boy, Gordon abruptly rushed at him--hands outstretched, ready to strangle Richie by the neck. Richie of course, saw Gordon coming and with his new flexibility and rapidity, easily side-stepped him. Gordon grasped hopelessly at thin air and suddenly found himself so perilously close to the edge of the rooftop that he was in danger of overbalancing and falling--which was exactly what he did. He toppled straight over the edge of the building's rooftop, clearing the parapet and falling forward into nothingness. He screamed as he began to plummet toward the busy street, eight hundred feet and fifteen storeys below.


* * *

Garrett Forrester III was in his personal office, in the process of dictating a letter to his perky blonde secretary Alicia. "I wish to inform you," he was saying, "That firstly, I am unclear as to your identity, secondly, my relationship with Harriet Fotheringay is strictly platonic and there is no suggestion that... " He was interrupted in mid-dictation when he glimpsed the body fall past his office window, just above the padded shoulder of Alicia's suit jacket. For a brief instant he had glimpsed the form of a screaming young man with fair hair, silhouetted against the city skyline--and then he was gone.

"It's a damn strange thing," Garrett Forrester III remarked, after a moment of silence. "But I could have sworn I just saw an adolescent boy fall past that window just a second ago."

"Sir?" Alicia glanced up, wide-eyed and pouting prettily. "I beg your pardon? Am I to add that to the letter?"

"No, of course not," he said to her. "I just saw it right now. Over your shoulder. No point in looking round now, he's long gone. Splattered all over the pavement, I'd expect. Oh, you wouldn't have heard anything. Windows are soundproofed. Now, where was I... ?"


* * *

When Gordon had fallen off the rooftop, Richie had immediately made for the stairwell again. Despite his suffering at the hands of the school bully, Richie had the aim of getting to street level before Gordon hit concrete, and possibly saving his life somehow. He made it to the street below in 6.49 seconds, but several unexpected and unavoidable collisions with Silverdale executives and employees near the building entrance had slowed him down.

By the time he'd located where Gordon had fallen, he thought that he was too late. A crowd had gathered, obscuring Richie's view of the body. Richie was not really disgusted by blood and gore, instead he was naturally curious like any morbid twelve year old might be. Like any self-respecting rubber-necker, he wanted to see the grisly outcome of Gordon Grish's descent from the rooftop of the Silverdale Tower. Yet even as he approached the crowd and attempted to squirm his way through, he could hear gasps of disbelief and astonishment.

"--what the, I can't--"

"--he fell! I saw him--"

"Hit the ground! Saw it with my own eyes!"

"--Impossible! Don't believe it!"

Finally, Richie managed to push his way through the massed ranks and bulkier forms of all the adults blocking his view, and what he saw once his view was unimpaired made him gasp with shock. For instead of lying like a flattened pancake or a crushed tomato on the sidewalk, Gordon was stood there as if he had just stepped out for a stroll--not just fallen eight hundred feet from the top of a skyscraper. He was completely unscathed. There was simply not even a scratch on him. He was brushing his regulation-issue white laboratory coat and dark blue trousers down with a mild, nonchalant manner. When he finally looked up, he immediately saw Richie standing there watching him in sheer disbelief, and he grinned.

"Hey there, Hopkins," Gordon said with a sneer. "Did you think that was the end of me? Bet you thought you would never be seein' me again, huh?"

Richie stared at him in open-mouthed, gaping astonishment. "What? How--?"

"Gotta admit, I thought I was a goner," Gordon sheepishly confessed. "I saw the street below and this here sidewalk just getting bigger and bigger and the traffic getting louder in my ears 'til I thought my eardrums would burst at the same time as my skull. So what did I do? I just braced myself for impact, and got ready to meet my Maker, but guess what--seems like Dr. Karloff's gamma rays didn't just do weird stuff to you--I got a special power too. First thing I hit was that hot dog stand over there and I just... kinda... bounced off it, you know?"

The crowd, riveted by the exchange between Gordon and Richie, turned to look at the crushed, twisted remains of a hot dog stand nearby. Next to the wreckage, seated on the sidewalk, there was a dark-haired man wearing an apron and a cap, sobbing profusely, with his head buried in his hands. There were more murmurings and gasps of astonishment. "You bounced?" an adult male voice asked incredulously. "Kid, whaddaya mean you bounced?"

"Yeah," Richie spluttered. "How come you bounced?"

"I sure did bounce, but I don't know how," Gordon replied. "Bounced up again quite high too--maybe forty or fifty feet, then came down for a second time. Then I bounced again, but only a little bit. It was a bit like being on one of Dr. Karloff's special bouncy castles. By then, all these people had come running along to have a look, and check over this miracle they witnessed before their very eyes."

More murmuring emanated from the crowd. A few people began to applaud.

"You know what this means, don't you?" Gordon said with a fiendish, traditional Grish smirk. Richie did not like his look and tone one bit.

"I... am indestructible!" Gordon flexed his absurdly weedy frame, rolled his sleeves up and pretended to show an enlarged arm muscle.

It was in that precise moment that Richie understood Gordon Grish was forever destined to be his nemesis and eternal arch-enemy. The unfortunate gamma ray exposure had sown the seeds of their respective futures. He was darkness to Richie's light, a being that Richie could never possibly destroy, and his entire existence was now owed to the vital, indisputable fact of his own indestructibility. Although it would prove impossible for Richie to ever negate Gordon's powers, he would always be physically faster and able to remain one stop ahead of his rival. Effectively, they both neutralised each other. This was the ultimate outcome and the price to pay following their conversion and elevation to superhero status.

Suddenly, an ominous shadow was cast over both of them. The street rapidly darkened as if cloud cover had rapidly descended, and the crowd gasped. Richie and Gordon craned their necks to peer above them, toward the sky, and they both saw the dark silhouette of Dr. Karloff's zeppelin-inspired airship blotting out the sun.

Dr. Karloff had obviously opened up the hangar and launched it from the top of the building. Both of the boys remembered that he had a super gamma ray cannon on board the ship. It was uncertain whether Richie or Gordon had the thought at the same time, but certainly Richie was the boy capable of moving the fastest. He scaled the full height of the Silverdale Tower in 6.94 seconds. He had rapidly re-located the stairwell and traversed the many steps in a subatomic blur. Richie made it back to the rooftop before an irate, gesticulating Gordon had even made it back inside the Silverdale Building to wait anxiously before the elevator doors.

Dr. Karloff's airship was drifting idly beside the rooftop and was impressively colossal in size at these close quarters. Richie took one look and was in awe at the grand magnificence of Dr. Karloff's elaborate and remarkable aircraft construction. Comprised of rigid light-alloy skeleton, made of rings and longitudinal girders, it was a streamlined cylinder with crucible fins, kept aloft by internal combustion engines and flaming thrusters.

Dr. Karloff threw open a side door and his bald, gleaming head poked out to look at Richie where he stood upon the rooftop. "Richie Hopkins, my dear boy!" he called out. "Whilst debating my course of action, and whether to fly off to South America and avoid censure from Garrett Forrester the Whatever for what happened to you and Gordon, I figured out a way to re-adjust the gamma ray polarity! I've adapted my cannon and it might be fit for purpose! Care to be a willing guinea pig?"

"What are the risks? Will I lose my super-speed power and be a normal boy again?" Richie shouted back, above the hiss and splutter of the airship's thrusters. He was thinking of himself, of course, but mainly he was thinking of Gordon Grish.

"Well, there are three possible outcomes," Dr. Karloff explained. "One: further exposure to the gamma-rays will neutralise your super powers and restore you to normal activity and perception; secondly, the exposure will have no obvious effect, or may even recharge and amplify your current extraordinary abilities; thirdly, the rays will deconstruct your biological and molecular structure and you will no longer physically exist in this present space/time continuum."

"In other words, I'll die," Richie answered. "Right?"

"Sorry." Dr. Karloff nodded glumly. "Only trying to soften the blow, young Hopkins."

"Well, what possible choice have I got?" Richie replied, with all the bravery a twelve year old could muster. "Gordon Grish is going to torment me for the rest of my life if I don't do this. It's a chance I'll have to take."

"Gordon is alive? My god, what did the gamma rays do to him? Come on board then!" Dr. Karloff cried out. He threw a flimsy rope ladder down from the side door he was currently framed within, and it unfolded toward the rooftop. The ladder hung inches away from an eager Richie Hopkins, who was standing near the parapet. He caught hold of the end of it, and then began to haul himself up, clambering up on the cords which took the weight from the soles of his feet.

"We have to be quick," Richie told the inventor once he'd reached the top. Dr. Karloff's egg-shaped face had grown larger, step-by-step, as it had hovered above him. Now Richie hauled himself out of the open air and into the gloomy internal confines of the floating airship.

"Why's that, my young fellow?"

"Gordon Grish is still down there, somewhere. If it works on me... " Richie said, and then hung his head. He had left the thought unspoken, but Dr. Karloff was, obviously, an intelligent enough man to understand. If the reverse charge process worked, and the steps to eradicate Richie's superhero powers were successful, then the gamma ray cannon on board the airship would soon have to require a new target.

"Come with me, young Hopkins," Dr. Karloff said grimly to him. "Three outcomes. Normality. Immortality. Mortality. We'll let Fate do the choosing."


THE END


2014 Steven Mace

Bio: Mr. Mace is an author of SF, Fantasy, Horror and Thriller/Suspense fiction from London, England. His impressive list of places where he has been previously published includes: Diabolique Magazine's Exhumation Collection, Roadside Fiction, Darker Times, SNM Horror Magazine, Litro Magazine, Blysster Press Crypticon Anthology, Five Stop Story, Suspense Magazine, Urban Story, and Litro Magazine Online. His novella "Staccato House" was shortlisted for Contact Publishing's Page Turner Prize novella-writing competition in 2011. He has also self-published an SF/Fantasy novel Copper Moon Rising, a Fantasy Adventure novella The Pirate Princess, and two collections of shorter stories, Beyond Twilight and The Splendour of Shadows.

E-mail: Steven Mace

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