Excerpts

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BOOM! POW! A sharp left and a sharper right made quick work of the last two henchmen as Colonel America charged at the villainess. Maman Brigitte had dared to take hostage the Colonel’s comrades, The Crusaders (THE CRUSADERS!!!), and he was the only one left to charge to the rescue.

Aside from the Colonel, his teammates, and Brigitte and her Institute minions, Park Avenue stood abandoned from 34th Street to Central Park South. Even the NYPD had been cleared out by National Guard troops who secured the famed, flower-basketed boulevard. Outside, the Manhattan air sat muggy and unseasonably warm in the pre-dawn. The Colonel was finding it hard to breathe, though he had the battle almost won.

The only thing that stood between Colonel America and his adversary was a glass counter; the entranceway into Tiffany’s having been demolished in the early-morning donnybrook. The battleground that the previous day had been a shop of rare and unique objects of wonder was now a common shambles. Individually and in packs, the eldritch artifacts littered the store. Over here: cards that could conjure the strength of mighty athletes, long departed but still summonable to play their positions. Over there: cards that gave form to pocket-monsters or digital-monsters, so that their possessors could duel for supremacy. Behind the glass counter, Maman Brigitte intended to leave all these valuable talismans behind to escape with the rarest card of them all.

“The gig is up, Maman Brigitte!” Colonel America shouted. “Surrender … or else!”

Maman was a ghostly figure, dressed in a diaphanous black shroud and matching headscarf. Her face, black as a moonless midnight, was as hollow and austere as her figure was tall and lithe. She confronted her adversary who was clad in primary-colored body armor and cowl, folded-over boots and famous bulletproof flag-cape.

“I think that’s ‘jig,’” she corrected in her thick Creole accent. “’The jig is up.’”

“Really? Are you sure?” the Colonel paused, perplexed. “I’ve been saying ‘gig’ all this time.”

Suspended three feet off the floor in a cage composed of black magicks and white bones ripped from the security guards, the other four members of the Colonel’s team shook their heads or rolled their eyes. The big one, made of soft, black, crumbly sediment spoke for them all. “Colonel!” the Carbon Avenger shouted. “Remember what we told you about banter!”

“Sorry, Avenger!” Colonel America said to his teammate while Maman Brigitte smashed open the glass counter and pulled out an ornate, two-by-four-inch tin with malificium  engraved across it in gothic letters, the u carved like a v.

The colonel droned on, “Remember, even the best of us still has a couple areas he’d like to improve …”

“Shut up and subdue her already!” the Carbon Avenger advised.

But just as the Colonel was vaulting over the counter and ready to put a gloved hand across her throat, he was overcome with the fumes of a thousand Haitian fire peppers. His eyes burned like a deep breath of ammonia. In a puff of putrid smoke, Maman Brigitte was gone. Her voice lingered on for a moment, “Now I need but one more …” then degenerated into a fading cackle.

As the voodoo priestess’s presence receded, the cage that held her captives disintegrated. All but insect-sized Midge, who had wings, fell to the floor. Pantagruel, the World’s Largest Human, hit particularly hard, flat on his coccyx. Midge, his wife, tittered at this until Pantagruel shot her a killing look.

“She’s got almost the entire deck,” the Carbon Avenger exposited. “We’ve got to find that last Malificium card before she does or the world is doomed!”

“Wherever it is,” Colonel America pondered, “Let’s hope that it’s protected by guardians worthy of their fateful role.”

 “For now, though, we should get back to the Pinnacle and see if we can figure out where this rarest of all Malificium cards is,” the Carbon Avenger suggested. “As for who might currently be charged with its safekeeping, we just have to leave that to a higher power.”

The Colonel, Midge, and Pantagruel all nodded in agreement. The fifth member of their cohort merely smiled his beneficent smile.

   –prologue to Mighty Mighty

When Age of Certainty’s call for submissions went out, we asked for stories about how the world would be different if we knew for a fact that God exists, or that He doesn’t. Considering how speculative fiction writers of my acquaintance are overwhelmingly atheist, I assumed they’d take this as an invitation to put paid to the whole concept of divinity. Other non-deists might have a character named “God” who mucks about, and we would draw from a smaller but more fervent cadre of authors who’d make their case in favor of the Lord of All. Age of Certainty was to be an evenhanded collection of stories postulating both the existence and non-existence of God.

That’s not what happened.

The first thing that became apparent once the reading period opened is that genre writers – as much as they consider theology to be complete hokum – love their speculative elements, and the ones who submitted the best work all took the position that God is among us. Without making a blanket statement, my further correspondences with the selected authors suggests that they, as a general rule, have little to no religion in their lives – but that doesn’t make God any less a fascinating character to them.

The next thing that I noticed is that there are quite a number of devout Christians who write speculative fiction. I was really rooting for one of them to break out of the slush pile with a story worthy of inclusion here. Sadly, all I got from that choir was Jesus Christ fanfic devoid of any social commentary, but replete with wish fulfillment. I confess I’m disappointed by the paucity of good stories submitted which posited that it’s unlikely that God exists. Certainly, nobody can prove a negative thesis, but you can prove that there’s a simpler, more elegant explanation for phenomena up to and including the existence of the universe. Stanley Schmidt has no trouble filling up Analog with such tales every month, but Age of Certainty got few takers.

Sadly, that handful of hard science fiction authors who did submit all misinterpreted the submission guidelines. They spent so much time on theory that they made the same mistake as the Bible thumpers and missed the whole point of the book: What would be the effect on society?

Still, I’m happy with how this collection ended up, whether through Divine intervention or happenstance. It’s my privilege to present to you tales from ten talented authors who answer the question, “What if God existed?”

   –introduction to Age of Certainty

It was a far different Bellagio from when Friends Helping Friends set up headquarters there. People given to hyperbole might say that it looked like a war zone. It didn’t. The grand hotel-turned-executive-mansion was surrendered almost without a fight during the invasion and had been spared further degradation throughout the insurgency.

It wasn’t structurally unsound. It wasn’t even pockmarked by weapons fire. It was, however, shabby.

There was a sense of decay about the place. Wallpaper, scuffed and damaged through the course of regular wear-and-tear, remained on the wall because replacements weren’t available. Mirrored and brass surfaces needed polishing, but no help was available to take on the task. Water stains mottled the carpet. The mold that caught hold in those spots emitted odors that were growing progressively worse.

Up on the fourth floor, the Donatello room was buzzing with activity as the staging for the raid continued. Gunny Spamblocker and his troops continued to check and re-check their weapons and ask each other questions about the mission in an oral drill to make sure nobody forgot any details.

General Dishinstaller and Colonel Sanchez went over the strategy. General Veecey and Colonel Celltower discussed their part in the plan, putting their jealousies aside for the moment.

The cacophony was becoming to be too much for M. Griffin Croupier VII. So was the marginalization.

“Hey!” he shouted over the din. “Hey! Could someone explain something to me?”

Things quieted down, even though Croupier could tell he had nobody’s complete attention. Everyone still seemed to be going down their checklists.

“I just want to make sure I got this straight,” he said. “I looked over the plan. General Veecey is going to be in this battle – but not in a command capacity– he’ll be equal partners with Colonel Celltower.”

There were nods.

“Dishinstaller, an American general, will have command of an army comprised, in the main, of Domestic troops but, we’re hoping to not need them.”

Nods again.

“Colonel Sanchez has operational authority but, because we’re depending on the stealth of a small, elite unit, Gunny Spamblocker will have tactical control.”

“So what’s confusing you?” Veecey asked Croupier.

“It looks like everything’s getting done,” Croupier pointed out, “but nobody’s really in charge.”

Dishinstaller, Sanchez, Celltower, Spamblocker and each of the five enlisted troops ceased whatever tasks they were attending to, turned to face Croupier and announced, in chorus, “Welcome to America!”

Then they all went back to work.

Veecey escorted his civilian friend out, suggesting he go take a walk.

   –from Land That I Love

We have more cold days in Hell than you might think. That’s because it’s in Idaho.

Nor is it nearly as crowded as widely believed. Most souls who come here stay only briefly. Put your mind at ease: No matter what you’ve done in your life, you are almost certainly going to Paradise. Those of us in the city who were eternally damned took note of new arrivals. There was one in particular that none of us would forget, although I think he has forgotten us.

It was after the invention of television but before that of personal computers when he came through the gate.

“Hello? … “Hello?” he called out to each person he met as crossed the threshold into our decrepit walled city. We damned souls, as is our nature, ignored him. “Is this where I’m supposed to be? Is there a place to stay around here? Hello?”

Looking out of my curtainless, glassless second-floor window, I resisted the urge to help the young East Asian man, and wondered why I still felt that urge. It wasn’t long, though, before a rape gang formed. Some men were dressed as I was, in Mesopotamian kaftans. Others were dressed like the new arrival – in shirts and trousers. And men of every place and time in between joined the lust-filled, hate-filled crowd. They moved in phalanxes down the narrow, dusty streets from all directions as the gates swung closed behind the newcomer.

Even if I alone could have helped him, what would have been the point? I’m one of the few who have been damned for eternity. Over the past few decades, as Americans began arriving in increasing numbers, they introduced us to such terms as “plea bargaining,” “parole” and “time off for good behavior”. We just laughed, we forever damned. Who knows? Maybe the One True Judge laughed too.

It quickly came clear that the newcomer didn’t need any help.

   –from “Forever and Ever, Amen”

“Fuck you. I don’t care if you allow me to introduce myself. I never really liked that song. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – now that’s a great tune!

“You will spend eternity here in Hell. Heaven has forgotten you and the Earth soon will. You’ll suffer at the hands of countless torturers over the millennia but it pleases me to greet the condemned souls who fall into this pit of … Hold on. My cell.

“Hi, hon. … Of course I’m happy to hear from you, but … Babe, I’m at work! … Yes, dear. (This’ll just take a sec!) … Look, I’m in an intake right now and … No. … Don’t start crying. … ‘You’re my red-hot momma.’ … All better? … Good, gotta go. … Right back at ya. … I said ‘right back at ya.’ … I love you. … I love you more. … OK? … Bye.

“Sorry about that. Yeah, we’re newlyweds.

“Hey, while I’m already torturing you, let me tell you how I met my wife.”

   –from “Intentions”

Here are a few things that don’t go together well:

  • spent fuel from a nuclear reactor,
  • a leak in the container that’s designed to hold it for 9,997 more years,
  • shoddy maintenance on the controls that are supposed to alert the command center,
  • a gentle, spring-fed creek trickling through the bucolic Wisconsin countryside nearby,
  • the adorable woodland creatures who dwell along the creek, and
  • the granola-crunching pinhead who thinks they want to be petted.

The result can only be bloody mayhem.

More on this later.

   –from Mighty Mighty

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