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Guest Writer

A wave of palpable menace
by Jess Gulbranson

We’ve been following our rumpled yellow-haired hero ever since early 2001, when he lost his motel – along with everything else but the red hooded sweatshirt on his back – in a poker game. He’s been bouncing around through several different dimensions ever since. Here's episode 32:

el was sitting at the head of a long table, having a conference with Frank and Frank and Frank ...

"We'll try and keep it simple, Mel. We've been thinking it over for a long time, and there are as many theories and plans as there are Frank Burleys. There are some facts we can agree on."

The one speaking was Mel's friend, the supernatural investigator. The other Franks, who all had their own numbers, called that one Frank2. "The first of us to show up was Frank1," he said, nodding at the duplicate seated next to him. Mel recognized that one as the one who had showed up at Clay's laboratory with a baseball bat and cosmonaut suit. "He came directly here, but the rest of us were all captured by the DCB or Vlad Tepes. Frank1 had a rough couple of weeks until the artillery arrived."

"I'll say!" piped up Frank1. "There wasn't anything here but that big goddam lizard!"

"Lizard?" Mel had a bad feeling about that.

"Hey, don't worry about it. He's dead." All the Franks started laughing, then Frank1 continued. "I came here through the inside of a black hole, which is supposed to be impossible. All that was here were these buildings and a 20-foot-tall lizard-guy with six arms."

Frank2 leaned forward and chimed in. "Believe it or not, he had mortally wounded it and was running in circles around the facility to tire it out. The first of us to show up put an end to it. Hey, Franks, should we show him the dearly departed?"

He was answered by a rowdy chorus of assent, and they all left the hangar and followed Franks 1 and 2. They made their way past a number of bleak buildings and Mel thought the layout looked familiar. "What is this place?"

"Fort Bragg," said a clean-cut Frank in a uniform that looked like Mel's dad's from WWII. "Only, with no people. Fully stocked, though, like they just up and walked out."

Another Frank joined in. "We've been inventorying the warehouses for weeks and gathering up quite an arsenal. Any more of Godzilla over there and we'll be prepared." He was pointing and, as they approached, Mel saw what appeared to be a long log pile.

It wasn't, though – it was the bones of what looked like a dinosaur. Mel peered closer, and saw a human-looking pelvis and six arms mixed in with the dragon-like remains. One of the arms was holding a sword, which had to have been 10 or 12 feet.

"Whoa ..." The Franks all nodded in response. "Do you know what this thing is, or did you pick a fight with the wrong museum exhibit?"

A wiry Frank wearing only black pants and a lot of oriental tattoos stepped over to him. "It's the Ma Yuan."

Mel was surprised. "Now we're getting somewhere. Dean said that the golden ring was the Ma Yuan. He said the Immortals had some major trouble with it. Apparently they lost a lot of people, and maybe that's why."

"The Ma Yuan was a mythological monster of extraordinary magnitude. It would rise from a sleep of centuries and slaughter a few minor gods to keep heaven on its toes."

Frank1 retorted his tattooed duplicate. "Do the myths say anything about the Ma Yuan rising up to get its ass kicked and the flesh stripped from its bones by a refiring plasma cannon?" The Franks were cracking up again, and it was minutes before they could recover. Frank2 shouted over the din.

"Let's go back in. This thing is fuckin' creepy."

As soon as they were back in the hangar locating some coffee it was time for business. Mel took a sip and winced. "Dammit, this isn't a naval base. So who put salt in the coffee?"

No one admitted to it, so he addressed them seriously. "Here's the deal. Some big players in the universe seem to think I'm some sort of chosen one, or the Messiah about to save the world. You know what? I'm not buying. I'll tell you what, though. My woman is out there with some evil bastards gunning for her, and I can't stand it another minute."

Mel sat down, feeling like a town-meeting grandstander. "I won't ask for you guys to become my followers. In fact, I wouldn't want a dozen Frank Burleys hanging around all the time, flipping out and killing people." That got a laugh.

"Anyway," he continued, "I'm here because I'm dead. I wasn't able to bring myself back like last time, because I wasn't in my body when it got ventilated. You're all here because your souls were captured by some Count Chocula wannabes. What I think is that we are all trapped in this ring-thing as potentials. Now, if you guys could help me to get actual and get out of here, I'd do my damnedest to get the rest of you out of here. Can you do it?"

The Franks were actually looking morose, before Frank2 began to speak in a subdued voice.

"There were more Franks here before you arrived, Mel. Every day we're here, another one of us disappears. We're all getting absorbed by him."

He pointed at Frank1.

"Hey, we went over that. I have no control over what's happening!" He was red-faced and about to jump up from the table.

"Okay, okay... I'm just saying. We did go over that, and nobody blames you. Well, not much. Anyway, I think we can help you, Mel. Just realize there isn't much time to dick around once you're out. There may not be any of us left to rescue."

Mel thought for a moment. "I understand. Now how do I get out?"

Frank1 was the one to reply. "He's one of us, but not like us. Frank4 is ... well, different. I'll take you there. We'd better hurry." Mel said hasty goodbyes to all the Franks, and followed the cosmonaut outside.

They said nothing as they walked, and eventually they came to a Quonset hut. "HEY! FRANK FOUR!" Frank1 was yelling as he walked inside. Mel followed, and they entered a single large chamber. Sitting in a chair was a robed figure. The figure turned and faced them, revealing exactly what was different. The hood and sleeves of the robe revealed a skull and bony fingers. A few strands of gray hair fell out of the hood and two pinpoints of red light shone from the sockets. When he spoke, the voice was like bones grating together.

"I suppose you're ready."

"Dammit, Frank4. If you know everything in advance, then why don't you tell us more?"

The red eyes flickered, and Mel felt a wave of palpable menace. Frank1 shuddered as well. "I don't have to. Besides, my time as an individual is almost up."

Mel thought he had better take over. "Frank, I need to get out of here. Can you help me?"

The skull stared him down. "I can and will. But it will be more difficult than you might imagine. You're dead, after all." He laughed and Mel actually felt a small dribble of pee in his shorts. "But, you live elsewhere. You're going to have to borrow yourself."

Mel thought it through, and the prospect didn't sound appealing. "What do I do?" The undead Frank pushed a bottle on him. It was cloudy and dark, and smelled of vinegar.

"Drink me!" Frank4 laughed again. "You'll figure it out, I'm sure. Black magic always works." He turned to Frank1. "Guess what, Burley; it's time! You'll be glad you absorbed my power." He gave a skeletal thumbs up to Mel, then vanished into a luminous fog, which flowed into Frank1. The cosmonaut promptly passed out.

"Well, bottoms up!" Mel held his nose and drank. It was foul anyway. Darkness came, and then he opened his eyes.

He was in a laboratory, like his old high-school lab, only there were modern computers. Mel felt something on his face and touched it. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses. In front of him was Anne, only young like in her photo album.

"Good morning, Mr. Smith."

Well, at least he was alive.

Look for Mel's past adventures, check out an interview with our dimensionally challenged hero, and e-mail Jess at j_gulbranson@hotmail.com.

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