Alternate title: “Two For Flinching!”
[INTERMISSION X] 2058: Another Predictive Text Adventure
The year was 2058. Edgar and I had traveled forward in time 10 years to better enjoy our retirement. It was a quiet evening. We were cuddled up to each other on the sofa in front of the fireplace, like a couple of kittens. There was a bearskin rug on the hardwood floor in front of us in the den. I absentmindedly watched the wolverines in the tank. The wolverines were fascinating. They lived with us. They were part of the family. Edgar and I thought the wolverines were like little kittens. We were looking over a small leather bound old book, The Complete Mountaineering Trunk.
Suddenly a distant siren blared out across the field. I raised my upper torso, walked to my wine rack, brought it up to my ears and pulled out a wonderful cognac. Poured a glass, picked up the remote, turned up the sound and stared at the fuzzed picture trying to determine who was contacting us. I picked up the receiver and put it to my ear. It was Anne.
It had been years since I had traveled through time with Anne. She was quite the character. Anne was our upstairs neighbor in that previous future apartment complex on Jackson Street. Anne had this knack for creating chaos and turmoil in her mundane life and living room. She thrived on it. It was something like motor vehicles, and spacetime anomalies only Anne actually had the time and funds to actively pursue. In every space time continuum adventure she almost always did. What she failed to realize is she never prevented any of the mayhem. It was either only amusing to her or like a show.
“It’s Michael, he’s in trouble.” Anne said. “You know how he went forward 60,000 years to live on a planet where he and Edgar and everyone else are cowboys? Well, a time-space anomaly caused his ship to end up in the past, way before 1890. They’ve found him in Arizona with two fighters for company.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Everything is highly illegal now.” She replied, “Somebody turned in Washington.”
“So who killed everybody on the Titanic? And built the pyramids? The cowboys?” Edgar asked.
“Something like that.” She said. “But that’s really a different story. After they arrested him, one of the resistance operatives alerted their contact. Every ship that was on assignment for Michael has disappeared. His leg got shot off in the bar brawl.”
I listened to Anne. She was right.
“So we have to go back to 1890? To rescue the cowboys? You know I’m retired right?” I asked.
“That’s where it gets dangerous.” She said.
I laughed at myself. I was a member of both the Gangland and the Mystery Club.
“To go back when they hunted Edgar? You must really hate that old b***h,” I said.
“I don’t hate her.” She said. “But Edgar is bad news. What if he—I mean the men who shot me—what if we time travel back to there and it happens again?”
“You’re probably right.” I said, “That’s the risk we have to take. They are cowboys and this is the Wild West we’re talking about.” I turned to Edgar and I whisper-yelled.
“What do you say to taking on cowboys that shoot you in a bar brawl so we can help Michael finish his transcontinental salvage trip?”
“Eureka!” Edgar yelled in his fake smoker’s voice. “That solves our problem.” He sat up, began packing his gear and moved to go load up the Chevrolet.
“Don’t forget we have the top down.” I said, extending my fist for a bump of the two hard cubes.
The entire adventure meant nothing to me. Nevertheless, we loaded up, pistols on our hips, and Anne sent us backward through time into the Wild West, to help save Cowboy Michael from whatever trouble he had gotten himself into.
The Wild West was awesome. Getting there was not. We woke up on the ground covered in dust. The time travel had worked. When I opened my eyes, there were 3 figures looking down at me.
“Howdy, partner,” Michael said. “You’re late. Everyone else is already here. You remember my compatriots: Charlie and Hunter. And then you know me.”
My friends gave me his best fighting stance. (By their physique they would have fitted the Jackie Gleason character at leas, if we weren’t across the state). He helped me to my feet. Edgar and Anne were already standing. Now that I was up, I could see Marissa was with them, too.
“Michael, I heard you got your leg shot off in a bar brawl?” I asked.
“Not exactly. It’s a long story. Mostly for the third roommate who gets paid every time we make a dent in a bull.”
We started walking toward a battered wooden building with a large sign that said “George’s Apache Grill.”
“Should you have questions regarding the journey ahead, take it up with Marissa. She’s running the show.” Hunter said.
“We’re here because of Flinch, the old alien foe. He’s sent me to the Wild West in order to disguise himself from my old enemies, the aliens, who plan to beat me to the sauce. People expect cowboy shooty stuff from the media. The big guys want to make this boring sodelocracy look natural by leaking news stories about cowboy shoot, but we’re getting justice today.” Smoke billowed from Michael’s pipe.
“So, where’s Flinch?” I asked.
“He’s in the saloon, playing pool,” Charlie said. “Right through those two swinging doors.” I looked at Charlie. She was wearing the white uniform of the frontier wives of the late 1800s. She had removed a top-of-the-line Colt revolver, always at the ready, from her holster. Her cat ears stuck out over a straw man saddle.
“Pfft,” she laughed. “Just like they used to do at saloons back in yonder days. So far we haven’t managed to snap that diamond knot on my straw man saddle.”
“Keep an eye out.” Michael said to her. “I may need some tips on target.”
“Why are we playing pool?” Edgar asked.
“This is no ordinary game of pool,” Hunter explained. “The rules of this time traveling, life-or-death variety of pool are as follows: A point goes to the team that hits the Queen with the cue ball when the 9-ball is shot to break or bust the 8 on the left corner pocket. Make no mistake, everything that moves will trigger a shot from the other team, so step in front of a moving horse and the odds go to the cowboy, dude, or chick, depending on which side your cowardly moon boot roper will be on. I know you Zazamamniks are not used to being taught.”
“Sheep,” Michael said. “But Hunter’s point was clear and easy to follow. Why have y’all got your cowboy hats on?”
“I don’t own one,” I admitted.
“So now you do,” Hunter said. “Anyhoo, here’s the deal. There are two tables and we can play nine games at a time. Players can have a partner and whoever’s friends with the winning team can choose the next playing partner.”
“Agreed,” Michael said. “Let’s mosey on in there.” Michael led us forward confidently, through the saloon doors and into a standoff we knew was coming.
Michael, Hunter and I went into the saloon.
The inside of the saloon was dusty. The saloon was painted red, black, and white. There were swinging doors on every wall, with old plank-floored floors covered with sawdust. Outside, in the rainy day outside, a group of cowboys at a table in the back were playing a different kind of pool. I looked around and, sure enough, Flinch, the alien lifeform, was leaning against a pool table, waiting for us. He was wearing black overalls, a dark-green hunting cap on his head, and wide-brimmed hat. The one look I got from Flinch was a half-hearted wink.
Our friends just stared at Flinch like I’d expect aliens to stare at me. I told them I ‘d earned my drinks and put my wad of fifty dollar bills on the table. I twirled my cap and smacked my lips. Flinch looked at the money, grinned, waved, and stepped back.
“Well, look who has arrived from 60,000 years in the future,” Flinch said. “Hope it didn’t hurt too bad traveling through all of those quantum fields, Michael.”
“I missed you at yesterday’s poker game, Flinch. Now you know why.” Hunter said with a smile and pushed a drink across the table towards him.
“Hee-haw! If you thought it hurt, stay home with your pretty little eyes shut, honey,” Flinch said.
“Are we going to play pool or not?” Marissa asked. She had a glazed look in her eyes and reminded me a little of the Flat Earth people from my high school.
“Let me pull you two partners together,” Hunter said. “We’ve got your man Flinch,” Hunter said to me, “and Marissa over here is looking for blood. Are you going to give it to her?” Charlie looked like a deer in headlights.
“We play the game or we don’t play the game,” Flinch said.
“It’s just for fun, Flinch. It’s all in fun.” I said and winked.
“Am I the only one who believes in the concept of fun, pal? I mean, I’m ready to wash my wad in your brains if you don’t start this game right this minute!” Flinch shouted, reaching across the table.
“Just trust me, Flinch, it’s just for fun. We’re pretending. It’s a silly game and the sad thing is you’re the object of all this. Damn!” I shot a glance around. “What am I saying? You want to use technology to destroy the universe so you brought us back all this time. I’d just as soon kill you as look at you.”
Flinch let out a short cry of pain as Hunter whacked him across the top of the head with his pool cue.
“I guess the competitive spirit’s alive and well, folks. Wanna test your skills?” Flinch said.
“I’m tired of talking. Let’s play already,” Marissa said. She racked the pool balls. “You first, Hunter,” she said. Hunter had a look in his eye that said that this could be bad. He lined up his cue and I could see him sweat.
“Yeah, go for it, Hunter,” I said.
“I’m just in the mood to whack something, Michael. I’ll take Hunter in a tie-breaker, if you two want to play,” Marissa said.
Hunter grabbed his pool cue, steadied it against his fingers, and lined up a shot. He aimed, set his arm, and then looked over to me.
Hunter made his shot and stepped back in his booth. Flinch had a dumbfounded look on his face. None of the balls had moved. Flinch had psychically blocked him.
“Did I do that? I almost broke it when I was down on all fours. If you feel like paying me, go right ahead,” Flinch said. I backed up a few feet.
“I’m outta here,” I said and headed for the door.
“Oh, you can’t leave without a reward for best foot forward,” a figure bursting through the saloon doors said, his figure masked by the sun lighting him from behind.
“Punished,” Hunter growled. “What are you doing here?”
Punished had always been a man, and not some kind of dream creature. Although if Hunter had been interested in the things of the spiritual world he would have had to talk to the real Punished, and he sure hadn’t wanted to have a conversation with him. Still Punished had been around for years and done what he said he would do, until recently.
Punished’s hand flashed up and brought a gun to bear. Hunter and I braced for the surprise shot and the pain when it happened. Hunter put his left forearm out to protect himself.
“You know good and well why I’m here. Flinch and his goddam superstitions can rot in hell. Marissa’s a mutant, and she wants to cook your partner just for sport, Hunter. Aren’t you glad you came along?”
Marissa had her shotgun cradled against her belly. She turned and looked out the front window of the Wild Pony Saloon. Her right hand was pointed down at the floor.
“Oh no,” Hunter said. “You’re going to shoot me.”
“Don’t make me, Hunter,” Flinch said and pulled back his arm to fire.
“Flinch, shut the fuck up!” Hunter yelled and rushed forward. “I can take care of you both.”
Flinch raised his gun using only his mind and had time to fire a single shot before Hunter had him by the throat.
“Let go, Hunter,” Flinch said. “You’re the one bleeding.”
“Hold it right there, Flinch, or I’ll put my hand down your pants,” Michael said. Hunter looked back and forth, then finally down at his shoulder. He had been hit.
Charlie, Michael, and I turned to face Punished. He was carrying a shotgun. He was standing beside Marissa, whose hand was raised, pointing the muzzle in our direction.
“Take the gun, Michael. Don’t shoot,” Punished said.
Punished did it. Hunter let go of Flinch’s throat and we backed up, returning to a standoff.
Michael said, “I’m your boy. Whatever it is. If you let him go, you’ll be in my debt.”
Punished looked at Marissa and then at Michael. I did the same and after a pause he nodded his head.
“I have to do this,” he said.
“There’s only one bullet,” Marissa said. She looked at Michael.
Michael said, “It’s just a peace offering, Marissa. That’s all.
Hunter and Flinch held their hands up. They were bleeding and didn’t seem in the mood to shoot anyone else.
“Just keep it down or I’ll shoot you both,” Flinch said.
Punished handed Marissa a box. She said, “Now get us out of here.”
Marissa opened the box. The next thing we knew, we were on the cowboy planet, 60,000 years into the future.
The cowboy planet was Michael’s home. Michael was a starship captain. He stood at the top of the Wild Pony Saloon looking down at the world below, his hand on the door handle.
“How many guys do you think I shot?” Hunter said. “Four, maybe five? Is that even right?”
“That’s about right,” Michael said.
“When’s the last time you’ve seen a guy shot?” Hunter said.
“It was the summer of 1986,” Michael said, “But the summer of 1986 wasn’t that long ago for me. Not when I just got my Star Trek model kit. Damn, but I’m old.”
“You look more like an old wagon rusting at the side of the road, Hunter. You’ve got to get out more,” Marissa said.
“You’d think this would do it,” Hunter said. “Flinch didn’t go back to the armory. He’s out in the desert, probably wandering around eating twigs and burping goatshit for all we know.”
“I gave you a way out,” Punished said. “He was controlling my mind but I broke free. I hate you all but I don’t want to destroy the universe. That’s why I brought you here. This planet is special. The cowboys here have some very unusual talents.”
“Special powers,” Hunter said.
“Oh no,” Michael said. “You’re all crazy. There’s a guy in town, Johnny Caste, he had the ability to read minds. He was killed five years ago. I’m his brother. I went back in time and saved him. He’s fine. We can visit him at the saloon. “
Marissa jumped out of the mule wagon. “You heard about Johnny Caste?”
“It’s a small town,” Hunter said. “Johnny lives only a mile down the street from me. I’d know the lights coming on from a mile away.”
“Let’s go to the saloon then, y’all,” Michael said, relighting his pipe. “I gotta warn ya, though. The people around these parts are kind-hearted folk, but they’re wary of strangers. Don’t do anything a cowboy wouldn’t do. Don’t light anything on fire or steal or give any one the middle finger, for sure.”
Hunter and Marissa moved around the mule wagon. They opened and shut several doors that I hadn’t noticed before.
We found Johnny in a saloon called The Fandango Follies. It was a true cowboy saloon on the outside but on the inside there was a state-of-the-art electronic music machine. Hunter turned on some music. Johnny sat at a wooden table with a glass of whiskey in front of him.
“Barkeep!” he called, seeing us walk in, “Drinks for Michael and his compatriots. Michael, it’s been too long. How can I help you?”
“There’s a time travel alien who is trying to destroy the universe,” Michael explained. “We need you to read his mind.”
Johnny sat in thought. “You want me to traverse the quantum field? I must admire your confidence. And what’s with all this talk about joining a fictional species?”
“No one asks why,” Michael said. “You may consult your inner being to gauge your level of strangeness. Do you feel normal?”
Johnny took a long draw from his glass of whiskey. “No,” he said. “I don’t. I don’t think I want to.”
“Perfect,” Anne said. “Will you come with us, back to the Wild West, to defeat Flinch?”
“Sure,” Johnny said, swallowing a bit more.
“Awesome!” Hunter yelled.
“Yeah, thank the hocks,” Marissa said.
We hugged Johnny. Hunter was waving his Stetson in the air, holding it onto Johnny’s skull. Punished, true to his word, slapped us in the back of the head.
“Get ‘er done,” Punished said, walking away from us.
“One last question: Where’s the gun?” Michael asked.
“There it is,” Cowboy Johnny said.
Michael checked it out. “All bullets missing. Possession of stolen merchandise.”
“No gun, but a bike. Our bike was repossessed,” Hunter said.
“They have your plastic horses. Throw them to the wind,” Punished said.
We threw the plastic horses.
“Well, if we’re gonna shoot some aliens, we best get a move on, Michael,” Cowboy Johnny said. “I’m a busy man, I got plans tonight. I’m gonna talk with my new lady friend, Martha Kent. She’s a gal from Looneyville. She had the rest of her family been killed, she’d make an excellent sheriff. She’ll go full hog.”
“Let’s motor, then,” Marissa said. She opened the box again and we once again traveled through time to the saloon in the 1890s.
Flinch was waiting for us. He looked like William Tell. He was holding his guns in one hand and holding onto his horses. He was ready to fire the pistols at any second. The mule was facing away from us. We were about to be trained on.
“Well, well, well. Look who’s back to meet their maker,” Flinch said. “Listen, buddy, if you want to have a gunfight, fine. But I don’t wanna blow my head off. I want you to come to my table, and be my best friend. I will put you in the Kentucky Derby.”
“My compatriots ain’t here for a gunfight, Flinch,” Cowboy Johnny said. “Not now that they got me here to read your mind.”
“You no friend,” Flinch said.
“Nah,” Hunter said. “How about I lie?”
“Think of me as Jack The Ripper,” Flinch said. “And I just want to let you know, my teeth can rip holes in you as deep as your soul.”
“That won’t happen to me, but you’d better believe it will to someone,” Johnny said. “What was it, Flinch? Listen, I’ll help you learn to be a better rancher, and help him grow on that little farm of his. I just want to have a regular life like you.”
“I don’t want a regular life, man,” Flinch said. “I want power. My life ain’t like yours. I grew up as a pyromaniac. My father was a magician. Once, he tried to force me to practice fire-worship. So, I created a fire, with the intention of setting fire to the ranch house. That’s how I learned fire-worship.”
“That sounds legit,” Michael said.
“That was a nice story,” Edgar said. “But we need to get the job done. Johnny, can you read his mind for us?”
Johnny stared in intense concentration, reading Flinch’s mind. “Our pal Flinch here has quite the secrets. Right now he’s thinking that the only way to defeat him is for us to pour in enough bullets to stop the sun, or burn up the earth with atomic bombs. The answers is always there if we are patient. All we have to do is ask.”
Flinch wasn’t buying it. “Ah, come on, man.”
“How do we get enough bullets to stop the sun?” Edgar asked.
“Easy, there is a code he has never told anybody,” Johnny said. He opened up a coffee can full of stones. He poured it into a circle around us. Then, he used his mind to close the circle.
He closed the circle. He poured another circle. Another. With each circle he poured, he closed a little more of the opening around the core of the circle. When he was done, there was no opening. The stones were cast onto the rocks. The rocks were cast into the circle. They became a star.
“This is very, very cool, guys,” Flinch said, “But I don’t see how it will defeat me.”
Johnny looked defiant. “Here’s how it will defeat you: We will find the black spot, the explosion, and you will fall off the earth.”
A crowd started gathering.
Hunter and Michael were watching. “You expect me to let them kill me?” Flinch said, in shock.
Johnny gave him a sympathetic smile. “Don’t worry, bud, we’ll make it better. Trust me.”
“Not on your life,” Flinch said.
“Yeah, I meant…” Johnny looked at Edgar. “Edgar, you agree?”
Edgar smirked. “Dude, I like me a good partridge in a pear tree. But not one with feathers like this.”
“How do we cast Flinch into the star?” Marissa asked.
“Like this,” Michael said. “All we gotta do is have him inside this cocoon, and throw him into the star.”
A young raccoon came in and offered Flinch some braclets. Flinch smiled at the young raccoon and placed the braclets onto his hand.
“I see you’ve fallen directly into the trap,” Michael said. “Those aren’t ordinary bracelets. Those are headed toward death. We have to close the curtain, so to speak. We’ll have to do this without a word. Nobody need know what has happened. They will feel as if they are plunging into fire.”
Michael picked a whittled stick. He twirled it.
“That’s cool, dude, whatever,” Flinch said.
“No, it’s awful,” Michael said. “All it means is that whatever he thought was love has blown up. Now, put your hand into the cocoon.” He grabbed Flinch’s hand and thrust it into the cocoon.
Flinch cried out in desperation. “No! I am your best friend!”
“Don’t worry, Flinch,” Michael said. “It’s no different from the ache of a bad break-up.”
Flinch dropped his hand into the cocoon. Johnny watched, stunned, as the cocoon started to vanish.
“Time is short!” Johnny shouted.
A thunderous clap rolled across the clouds.
“It is done!” Edgar said. “We are in our own cocoons now. Never again shall Flinch see my face.”
“A job well done, all around,” Michael said. “We must leave quickly. I fear one of them has been left behind. This was your final lesson.”
Hunter and Michael took off. Hunter and the raccoon looked at each other sadly. “We are all going to die.”
“Are you ready to go back to retirement, Edgar?” I asked him.
“I think I am,” he said, taking my hand in his. “I have nothing more to teach. I have fulfilled my plan to destroy the species.”
“Well, if you have destroyed the species,” I said, “Why don’t we ask if we can go home to our wolverines?”
“Sure thing,” Anne said. “What would a vacation be without stabbing a goose?”
The world turned bright blue, and the sun was shining. Anne pushed the button. Edgar and I waved goodbye as we were transported to our home time period, 2058.
Home had a new sense of comfort, after having been away for so long. Edgar and I went back to cuddling on the sofa, watching the wolverines in the tank. The wolverines were extremely happy and overjoyed to see us. Their joy was more intense than if we had received a most prized gift from a long-lost relative.
Michael and Anne came into the room.
“Hi,” I said. “Do you want to watch a movie with me?”
“Not on a school night!” Anne yelled back.
“Okay, well, let’s watch a quick episode of Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea.”
The fire roared in the fireplace while we watched Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea. It felt like we could live happily forever after, but we knew in the back of our minds that was wishful thinking.
Darkness rose on the horizon. The wolverines went to bed. “Are you all right, Michael?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I think so.”
A shimmering wall rose from the backyard. Then a waterfall began cascading into the pool. A huge golden dam came together, slamming into the pool in a huge wave of golden light. The dam rose higher and higher, finally swallowing up the fountain. The entire area became a reflection of the last images on our television screens. Edgar stared at the TV and went to bed.
“Good night, Edgar, I love you,” I said.
“Yeah, don’t worry about me,” he said. “You watch out for Anne.”
The room fell dark. In the depths of the ocean, an enormous mountain erupted and spewed lava. A light flickered inside. Flinch was out there, somewhere.