Monday, January 21, 2008

The Breaking of the Hour: Parts 1-3 of 5

In anticipation of the upcoming completion of this delayed Rick Slade adventure, I present the first three parts, uninterrupted, for your reading pleasure.

So without further adieu, Rick Slade stars in...

The Breaking of the Hour!

Rick Slade turned the watch over in his hands. It was a man's watch, squarish and silver, with a smaller face that also showed the date. The band was leather, but the brand was worn off of the fastener. The hands stood still at 2:14, the 12th of some month. He checked his own pocket watch and saw that it was correct there, and the date was the 12th.

Carefully, Slade set the watch down on his table and waited. Gears inside his own pocket watch ticked the seconds and minutes and soon, hours by, a testament to Slade's ultimate patience in all things fantastic. In this, he was rewarded, at 5:00 PM, when the strange watch shuddered and, for just the batting of an eyelid, was gone from sight.

He rose from his chair, slow and deliberate, and took the watch up. The hands rested at 10:10, the date at the 15th.

"Well this is peculiar."

Ignoring all outside distraction, Slade slipped the watch on and fastened it. Nothing happened. Perhaps whatever occurred had just been a freak event, he thought, a mechanical fault coming through-

The room bent on its ear and folded through a ceiling that had shifted to a maelstrom of black and coruscating blue lighting. Like a magician's handkerchief, Slade was twisted and drawn through the opening, the core of him screaming against the impossibility of it all, but his mind grappling onto the cause - to the watch - and its innate realness. This was terrifying and horrific, but manageable.

He'd been through worse.

His perceptions and senses split a hundred times over, until he could discern no more than banded light and a rushing, like a mountain stream. Shutting his eyes, as they were little more than a hindrance, he reached out a hand towards the sound and felt it break some barrier and collide with a surface like hot gravel coursing through his fingers.

Concentrating, he forced his hand to close into a fist as he tried to gain some anchor in the world outside this one (or was he in some great outside?). He fought the colossal battle, opening his eyes to the struggle and saw a gash in the light spiraling around him, and through it was the real world. Cursing wildly in Zulu, Mongolian, Mayan - anything that came to mind - he plunged his other arm through, and as soon as the wrist wearing the watch passed the wall of energy, the madness ended.

Coughing, he banged against a wall, holding on with one hand. He looked up and saw a groove cut diagonal along the side of a skyscraper made of marble and steel and glass and soaring a thousand feet above the streets below. Pain awakened and condensed his fractured senses as he realized it was his hand that had done the damage as it sought purchase.

"I see," he sighed. "At least the worst that can happen is I plunge to my bloody doom."

"Ah, that is what you think, Amerikaner!" a voice screamed from behind him.

Slade leaned back and saw a man standing on a hovering platform, his brown jumpsuit snapping in the sharp breeze. With a stitch of a mustache below the shadow of his nose, dark brown, greasy hair fluttering around his head and the familiar twin lightning bolts on his lapels, this could be only one man.

Maximillian Hitler, time-traveling son of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, grown in the robotic womb of Eva B.R.A.U.N.

"Max, shouldn't you be dead in a Sumatran volcano?" Without active thought, Slade snapped around and pistoned off the building into the floating facist. "Let's see if we can't fix that."

* * *

They fell, curses in high German and broad American laughter trailing them like a kite's string. Max Hitler's silver-smooth platform followed closely above them, falling only as fast as it pleased. Slamming an elbow to Slade's gut, Max broke free of the bigger man's grasp and pulled a gun. Slade slapped it away like a child's toy.

"I don't think I've ever seen a Nazi driven through a sidewalk before," Slade shouted over the wind.

"Nor have I seen an American pig turned into sausage, Scheissehund!" Depressing a button on an electronic gauntlet, Max rotated in midair until he was falling straight up and down, right next to Slade. "But from here, I'll have an uberview!"

The platform slid under Max's jack-booted feet, slowing him gradually until he was cackling far above our beleaguered hero. The ground was a vast sheet of death marked with speeding cars, bewildered people and uncaring buildings. Slade squinted and growled, the always-hidden barbarian creeping through.

"I can do this." He grinned at the challenge he'd faced before.

Falling to his death? Old hat.

Working through the faint annoyance, past the anger, Slade calmly looked at the silver watch on his wrist. It was still ticking. How did it know when to shunt through space? Was there a button or command? Slade took the watch off and checked its backing, and felt a wave of heat through his insides.

Sticking the watch back on, he cast aside thoughts of that feeling and peered for a way to slow his fall. The ground was fast-approaching, and time was wearing thin. From off to his right, Slade saw large movement and raised his hands as a streetcar...flew past him.

"Where am I?"

With that last thought, Slade fell the remaining hundred feet, not into the concrete, but a vortex of energy and perception beyond normal human thought.

* * *

He awoke in a sheen of sweat, laying on his office floor and the ruins of the table.

A two-inch thick piece of ironwood, and he'd broken it under his fall?

Pushing through the grogginess, he stripped off the watch and lurched across the room to a small glass dome on a oil-sheened plate of gold. He stuck the watch inside, replaced the glass and flipped a switch, locking the containment jar.

"Mack needs to hear about this."

* * *

Whirling electrified coils, smoking beakers, the tangy smell of burned air and growling, locked boxes - these greeted Rick Slade as he entered the labyrinthine laboratories of Professor Mack Andersen. Slade paid them no mind, as he'd investigated most in this lab in his previous visits - and helped procure some of the more...unique materials.

"No earthquakes localized to churches, flying death commandos or dark continent beasts lurking in the shadows," exclaimed the bespectacled professor under a cap of blond-grey hair, "and yet...and yet...."

The two colleagues shook hands and laughed. It had been nearly two years since Ooranla Turu and the lost elements.

"I did run into our old friend Max Hitler, and he was hovering." Slade set the glass container on Mack's table. "But that's for later, over a red beer. Tell me what this is."

"A man's watch, slightly worn." Laughing at his own joke, Andersen took off his regular glasses and replaced them with a pair of magnifying specs. He made to remove the lid, but Slade's hand shot out and gripped his wrist.

"I don't think you want to do that."

While Professor Andersen examined the watch as thoroughly as he could through a half-inch of glass, Slade walked around the main room of the lab, noting the new items and concoctions on the shelves that stretched floor to ceiling along all the walls. Broad wooden tables, criss-crossed with the scars of science and progress, held objects not seen outside of hidden jungle civilizations, ancient kingdoms, the holds of long-sunken ships and a few items some museums still thought stolen.

"Rick, you'd better come over here." Mack waved for Slade and pointed at the watch. "Where did you say you got this?"

"I didn't, but if it matters, off a man's severed forearm."

"How I wish to hear that story, but it's irrelevant. No deep expedition to a lost kingdom or a mad scientist's charnel house in the depths of the Black Forest? Perhaps another jaunt to South America-"

Slade turned cold. "No, none of it. And I haven't been to South America since...." He sighed. "Just go on."

"It's not from around here, Rick, you know that. Was the arm just laying around?"

Shaking his head, Slade said, "No, it fell from a building. Right here in Chicago. I ran to the roof, checked every room, but there was no body to match it."

Mack rubbed his chin and replaced his normal glasses. "Probably a malfunction of the chronal trigger...this is serious, Rick. Deadly serious."

"Why? Sure it can jump a man across the world, but-"

"No, Rick-" Mack grabbed his shoulders and looked dead even into his oldest friend's weathered face "-it can jump a man through time, and God help us if the wrong man had access to this-"

And with a deafening BOOM!, the world outside exploded.

* * *

Splintering inward like a rotten door, the wall imploded in shards of brick and glass. Slade covered his face while pulling the stunned professor to the floor. When the tinkling of falling debris had stopped, the screaming started in the street. Panicked voices of men, the wails of women and children, sirens in the distance - and behind it all was the crackle of a burgeoning inferno.

Chicago was on fire.

"Rick *cough* are you-?"

"I'm fine, Mack. Stay behind the desk."

Pulling a gun from under his jacket, Slade approached the jagged opening in the wall and looked out.

His heart pained to see his city this way. A long strand of iron scaffolding, bent and blackened by heat, lay in the middle of the street, straddling the remains of several exploded cars. Buildings around showed signs of damage, as from bombing. He looked up, but saw no planes, just the rising plumes of smoke from nearby streets.

"Devastation stretches for a least three blocks east and longer north and south. We're on the edge."

Slade's eyes followed the smoke and saw a black metallic disk move across the sky and against the wind. His cursing startled the professor into standing.

"God above, Rick, what's wrong?!" Mack joined him at the window.

Slade pointed at the disk. "Max Hitler. This was his doing." He stormed through the wreckage of the lab towards a fallen glass container. He popped the clasp and took out the watch.

"I don't know how to use this, but if I can hop through time, I'll stop him."

"Be careful, Rick! It took you to him once, and if I know my super-science it will again."

Smiling, wicked and eager, Slade strapped the watch on. "That's just what I want."

In a flash of light and the rushing of water, he was gone.

* * *

It was yesteryear, and not apple pies and Grandma. The sky was a bleak grey like overwashed clothes. Slade braced himself against an alley wall and stared out at the plaza before him. He'd been here, but long ago.

Friedrichshafen, Germany. Home to the famous Zeppelins.

In the distance, Slade saw the completed shape of a zeppelin. Noting a newspaper at his feet, it was probably the Graf Zeppelin II, sister-ship to the Hindenburg. 1938. The country was on the eve of war, but that wasn't something Slade could stop. He had to find Max, if Max were here.

And he was sure the slippery Nazi was, though what was he doing here and what it had to do with that...explosion was…. An ominous bolt slammed home in his head.

He left the alley at a dead run towards the airfield on the edge of town. American had been spared large-scale tragedy when the Hindenberg erupted in fire over a largely empty airfield. The floating bomb taunted him, its duralumin ribs standing out even at this distance, heat-treated alloy framework just waiting to crash into the city streets of Chicago. He would stop it; there was no choice.

A gun's CRACK, followed after a moment by several more, split the day, pedestrians flinching at each one as they hurried their way to the market or work or home. The shots came from the direction of the zeppelinfield and no doubt heralded Max Hitler’s arrival. "God, I hope he brought friends." After seeing the charnel house outside Mack Andersen’s window, Slade felt eager to return the kindness of a horrific death.

"Herr Slade! Achtung, Herr Slade!" The voice called from behind him, accompanied by the stomping of many booted feet.

Slade stopped in his tracks and turned around. A small group, a dozen maybe fifteen, all SS; they were more familiar than the town.

"Herr Thomas, so nice to see you," Slade said in German. "How long has it been?"

"Perhaps ten, fifteen minutes." The straight-backed younger man let his hand drop to a side holster. "When last we parted, you had just been arrested by the Gestapo for espionage. And were at least ten years younger."

Eyeing his surroundings, Slade took in the open garbage barrel, the nearby fruit vendor cart and, most lovely of all, a butcher shop.

"A misunderstanding. I'm sure you get those all the time." Slade started to turn, stepping back towards the barrel.

"We heard gunfire and wondered, did our Amerikaner friend make more trouble?" Herr Thomas’s hand now rested fully on the holster. Those SS behind him who could were raising their machine guns. No sense waiting.

Rocking back, Slade grabbed the barrel and, using his momentum, threw it into the crowd. A few bursts of machine gunnery pitted the eaves of the buildings on the street. The crowd began to scatter. Forgetting his wares, the fruit seller threw his hands up and darted away from the excitement. Kicking the wheel blocks off, Slade ducked behind the cart and rushed it passed the Nazis and into the wall next to the butcher's door. Once inside, Slade knew the game was his.

No Nazi could match his skill with a blade.

Vaulting over the counter, he took a cleaver in one hand and threw it. It spun across the room and out the door, catching a goosestepper in the chest.

"C'mon, Thomas! I have places to go today, Zeppelins to save."

From outside came a clatter and shouting about preserving the wonders of the sky, the great German achievements that had only recently been tarnished by the Hindenburg's obliteration in the States.

"Here, sir." Slade turned and saw the butcher, cowering in a back door and holding an old shotgun. "Give them a taste of our anger."

Accepting the gun, the American adventurer chambered a round, grabbed another thick-bladed knife and darted out the door, firing the scattershot round into the mass of SS. He whirled the blade around, stabbing it in and out a half-dozen times before sliding the next round home and letting loose.

In the pain and confusion, Rick Slade jogged through the winding streets to the great expanse of green, the zeppelinfield. Moored by thick ropes and cables to the ground, the Graf Zeppelin II looked both as innocent as a child's balloon and deadly as a torpedo. Near the mooring tower at the ships stern, a black-clothed figure strode from a pile of bodies to cabin pod slung under the great airship. He paused, looking over his shoulder and straight at Slade.

"Keep staring, Max," Rick growled through gritted teeth. He was a scant two hundred yards from the mechanically grown fascist, too far for the butcher's knife to be accurate or the shotgun.

With a final smile, Max raised his right arm, moving his fingers along the gauntlet he’d used to control the floating disc. Fire and earth spewed from the ropes tethering the zeppelin and the tower itself buckled inward under the strain of precisely controlled detonations.

The Graf Zeppelin II began to move away from the ground, trailing its useless cables like streamers. Quickening his pace, Rick Slade dashed the last yards and leapt, grabbing a trailing rope. He wrapped it tightly around his wrist and shut his eyes; he knew what was coming next.

Wind, noise, light from Heaven piercing his soul and air on his face, the sound of motors.

He opened his eyes and with a free hand wiped away the tears brought on by the cool air. Staring back at him was a sight he'd often seen, but not at this height: the Chicago skyline, 1953. Stretched below him, the row after row of man-made hills led to the greater city set against a grey northern sky. To the right was the lake, an undulating plane of blue crossed with white.

No one knew what flew above them yet, waiting to rain down such misery and death.

Rick Slade unwound the rope and started to climb.


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