Randy Bragg’s arms still hurt from the morning pushups he had recently resumed. He had to do something, after all. Even if it meant that his food might not last as long, that the precious, life-giving fat around his belly and thighs might burn away a little faster, he had to do something.
It had been at least a week since he’d fired the last few rounds out of his rifle, killing the last of the invaders he’d found lurking around the door to his basement. Their yellow faces and black eyes stared at him still, every time he looked through the tiny slit in the wall. There were no bacteria left to eat their dying bodies; no crows to feast on their eyes. The world was dead and sterile, as far as he could tell.
Bragg knew that the United States had been victorious, though. The few stragglers left behind were those who managed to survive the initial bombs, hiding in their victims homes and shelters, only venturing out when they had depleted the supplies that those visionary few Americans had stocked and supplied for so long, so hard. It wasn’t fair that these yellow bastards had come here. It wasn’t fair that they had killed his wife and his children, that they had killed his friends and their families with their “clean” bomb.
“Oh yes, very clean,” thought Bragg. It had dropped almost directly into their suburb, thousands of air based antiseptics. Those who breathed it died quickly, while those who ate food it landed on killed their digestive bacteria. A bomb that starved you to death! Bragg spat at the ground, letting go of the precious little water that remained. He knew for sure that-
Bragg nearly jumped out of his skin. In the hundreds of times he’d paced the basement, his opinions rolling through his mind, he’d never seen anyone with him. He was supposed to die down here, the food running out, starving. A post-modern tear jerker. But now…
“I’m Dr. Fredrickson,” said the man, extending his hand. “And I’m offering you a chance to save the world.”
“What are you talking about?” sneered Bragg. “The world is over. It’s all dead out there. The clean kind of dead, where nothing rots and you live with their eyes always watchi-
“I know they’re all dead ‘out there,’” interrupted Fredrickson, pointing at the door. “I’m talking about further away than that. "
For a moment, Bragg harbored hope. Washington? New York? Did they escape? Fredrickson dashed them quickly.
"Past the pages, into the real world. I’m going to need as much help as I can get, and you’re the only one alive in this book.”
The blithe comment had utterly shattered Bragg’s composure. You were never, EVER, supposed to break character, not where they could read you. He rushed forward, grasping Fredrickson’s… he wasn’t sure what. He didn’t know that it had ever been described.
“It’s my lab coat,” said Fredrickson, seemingly understanding Bragg’s problem. “Listen, I’m very sorry to break your fourth wall, but it’s kind of an emergency. Will you please come?”
He didn't know what to say. Other than the occasional flashback, this was all he'd ever known. He had the history of his character: the Korean War, the family and kids, the quickly lost jobs. And the bomb. Of course, the bomb was the focal point of his history. But this place, this abandoned basement, was all he'd ever really experienced. That was all that was within the pages.
Bragg shrugged. What else could he do? Sit here and die? He regretfully looked up at the doctor.
“The whole world?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” said Fredrickson. “Very likely, the whole world.”
‘The whole world,’ thought Bragg. ‘So much more than Maple Street…’
Cardiforce was listening, with delight. The chants of the faithful filled the air around him, exacting in their beauty and cadence.
"We are His Clockwork Servants!
We do the work of His hand!
Those who oppose will forgive us
when they are made to understand!"1
Their chants filled him with the shriven perfunctory of a man of faith. He watched gleefully as they raised the arc-welders to the wall of the hanger and struck them against the metal.
Bragg was staggered by the sight. In front of him, two men who looked almost exactly like Rommel and Patton were talking with each other, describing the different points of entry they might expect and the different prospects for armament they could hope for. Upon seeing Fredrickson, the two men smiled and walked forward.
“Who do we have here, Fred?” asked Patton, his white teeth glinting and the ghost of an American flag waving behind him.
“Randy Bragg,” said Fredrickson, motioning to the still stunned man. “He should be the last of the ones we can use. He fought in Korea, so he should work out well for you.”
“Korea?” asked Rommel. “Why would he fight in that little backwater? Don’t the Japanese know how to keep order in their own country?”
Fredrickson put one arm around Bragg and whispered in his ear. “Ohnay orldway arway Ootay, got it?”
Bragg nodded, turning to ask Fredrickson what might be a good topic, when he found himself suddenly alone. He allowed himself to be shepherded off by the two men, asking him of guns and models from the next few years.
"Tell me," asked Rommel. "Who makes the better gun, from your time? The Germans or the Americans?"
Patton seemed patently interested in the same question. Bragg stood for a moment, looking from one to the other, unable to really answer much of anything.
So he lied. "The British," he said, calmly. Both men looked surprised, looked at each other for a moment, and then broke into laughter.
"This one is funnier than the others, Rommy!" roared Patton.
"Yes," agreed Rommel, "though he would almost have to be!"
The two men laughed loudly, turning away from Bragg. As they walked away, planning the different points at which they expected assault to arrive from, Bragg turned and walked around the battlefield, trying to shake off the haunting almost memories of Korea, trying to ignore the tickling fear than now began to gnaw at him.
The door to the large hanger was glowing bright orange now, having shifted from the earlier red. The heat could be felt even at the other side, where the two Foundation Agents were working as quickly as possible, going through every book they could find in their small site, leafing and discarding them with a speed only seen in those who had grown efficient at being panicked.
“He’s moving quickly,” said Dodridge. “We’ve gone from two wounded platoons to a full squad of rangers, a Cavalry, and three post-apocalyptic survivors. Are there any left?”
“Nothing of use, I don’t think,” said Lament. “We’ve just about run ourselves dry. Let’s hope this actually works, huh?”
“It had better, or I’m pretty sure we won’t be around to care,” said Dodridge, hefting and placing the two dragon-shaped bookends on a small table, sliding the book between them and turning, both men running at breakneck speed.
Bragg sat in the dirt, next to one of the other men. He looked, Bragg thought, like he might have been a banker at one time.
When the man saw him looking, he turned and smiled at Bragg. "You're one of us, aren't you?" he asked.
"One of what?" replied Bragg.
"The post-apocers. You look like you've survived the end of the world once or twice." The man smiled at Bragg. "My name's Darren Palanger. I'm from Fallen Monuments, Fallen Gods. Five atomic bombs, one city; which… will… survive!" Palanger laughed, hollowly. "How about you?"
"Randy Bragg, from Maple Street. The clean bomb."
"Kills all the bacteria, including the ones that keep you alive."
"Does that work?"
Bragg shrugged. "My author thought so."
"And do you?" asked another voice.
Bragg turned around and saw Fredrickson standing there. "Do you believe it works?"
"I guess I must," said Bragg. "It destroyed everything I ever remember loving."
Fredrickson smiled. "Then I have a job for you."
“We are his Clockwork servants!” sounded the cry. “We do the work of his hands!”
The men in the front were the luckiest, thought Cardiforce, looking toward them with envy. “They will be the first. The first to touch His heart. The first to become one with His body.” He was regretful that he would not be allowed to join them, join in their sacrifice to the true god.
With a crack and snap, he saw the door give way, breaking and bucking under its own weight as the flames of His servants blasted through it at last. And then came the gun fire.
“Mow them all down!” shouted the Sergeant, yelling through the snapping of shells on metal and flesh. “Kill all the bastards you can!”
Bragg found it difficult to concentrate, to remake, as Fredrickson was telling him, the description from the book. The sky had fallen away on one side, with the grim sunlight of earlier being replaced by night. Beyond the opening, glinting and turning, he saw their foe marching forward. He heard their clicking and turning as the bullets scattered some of them backward.
He had no gun, though. Only a piece of paper. Fredrickson was looking at him desperately. “Faster, Bragg. FASTER. You must try to remember before the pages. Read into what is implied!”
Bragg looked up at him, angry and desperate. “It’s not exactly EASY, ya know?” He returned, trying to recall the moments in his author’s mind when he’d been crafted, the implication of the device. He was slow, deliberate, in explaining its fall. Methodical in the detonation. Only the range had to be changed, the duration of the effect. Fredrickson had explained this carefully, making sure to mention the several different outcomes of Bragg not being careful. It could mean, after all, no more readers.
That didn't make it any easier.
Cardiforce ordered his men forward, charging into the room. It was bigger on the inside than the outside, he noted, dismissing the Foundation’s trickery as nothing more than an idle illusion. While they hadn’t expected any real resistance, they were more than capable of handling anything the tiny outpost could possibly muster.
The penitent rushed them, bringing both guns and swords to bear on their attackers. The first lines fell away quickly, but there was no way to anticipate the horses. They charged down on the exposed flank from beyond the building’s sides, cutting through the primary force with ease.
“For the glory of Gondor!” shouted the lead man, his sword held brazenly aloft.
Cardiforce instructed a sniper to shoot him.
Bragg finished and looked up, but Fredrickson was already gone. He looked back down to his page, and noted the sudden appearance of Super Fred, the hero of a thousand worlds, catching the falling bomb and vanishing with a dash—
A young man was cutting his way through the crowd with a sword much too big, much too sharp to be real. Cardiforce heard it moving through the air, whistling, snicker-snack. However, when the men the boy had beheaded did not stop moving, he was easily removed from the equation. But the whistling did not stop.
Cardiforce looked up. There was a man there, plummeting, a white lab coat fluttering in the wind like a cape. Cardiforce assumed, for a moment, that it must have been one of the reinforcements the Foundation was expecting, his entry gone awry. A moment before the man hit the ground, he looked up at Cardiforce, smiling an evil grin. And vanished.
Bragg coughed, breathing the noxious purifying gas, feeling it eat away at his lungs. All around him, men were dying, gagging on the weapon he had created. The thing he made from a time before text, when it was only an implied threat and not a real one.
He struggled to stand, trying to run away from the deadly, impossible fallout, but he could not. As his eyes finally clouded over, he knew that his body would remain here forever, unchanging, the rot unable to take hold in a place where the bomb had been. Just as he had so many times before, he felt the darkness overtaking him, felt the little lights at the corners of his vision explode inward in a burst of adrenalin, glimpsed for a moment his wife and child standing among those golden refractions. Then, he died.
Cardiforce vomited, throwing up a mass of cogs and skin. He could feel them within him, turning slower and slower as His divine grace fled his body. He, like all those around him, had failed. Never before had the church been so close to a goal of this magnitude, and now it was taken away from them.
He had decided. Their punishment was severe, their death assured. He reached down and touched some of the metal cogs that had moments ago been his lungs or stomach, crying as they broke into pieces. Then, he died.
Fred was in trouble, he knew. He probably shouldn’t have let them know he could carry people around, because now they’d be asking for it all the time. Sooner or later, someone would try to write something really helpful or valuable into the book, not realizing that it would lose more than they could imagine outside the confines of the storyland. Everything was much more beautiful in here, much more perfect. Even that silly bomb.
But Fred knew that, for a moment, he’d been someone really important. At least, for a short while, he’d been something that mattered. More than just words on a page or casual addenda, more than a footnote. He’d been a savior to the world. Then, he died.
Well, not really. Wouldn't that just be a terrible way to end it?
Agent Lament smiled as he read the final chapter and closed the book, throwing it into the pile that had been building up at his feet. The far side of the hangar was still a ruined lump of burning metal, but everything else had returned to normal. He opened up his phone and pressed a few buttons, popping his neck as he leaned it over.
“Situation?” came the voice from the other side.
“Success, Doctor. 423 is capable of exactly what you expected and is apparently highly motivating to those he encounters. Kind of a nice guy, too, once you get past the attitude. We'll have to update its file.”
“I'll take care of that personally. Tell him that the copy of the Vatsayana he requested will be delivered shortly.”
With a click, he closed his phone and got out the notepad Fred was currently occupying. "You got your book," wrote Lament. "You ever get tired of living vicariously?"
He flipped back a couple of pages, looking through his notes intently for new addenda. He saw it, finally, at the bottom of the first page he'd written on.
'Not when that's the only living you get.'
Lament picked back through the books 423 had run through, noting how the stories seemed to fall apart. One of them, less than a quarter of the way through, quickly vanished into cursory descriptions of an unchanging room where no one ever lived, and then suddenly fell away into blank pages. He turned it over and looked at it again: The Man from Maple Street.
He shrugged and threw it into the pile. Dodridge struck a match, and they were ablaze.