We stood on the precipice that now overlooked the Valley of Burning Shadows, formerly called Los Angeles. The city had resisted the will of Imperator Ali and had been transformed into a so-called Mortuary Garden. Doom ships hovered beneath the static wall of blood lightning, lances of fire spilling from their swollen gun pods to end the lives of the scavengers and mutants still surviving in the valley. Near the ruins of the Chinese Theatre a loosed brace of glowing Wraith Hunters chased a man in rags down the cracked pavement of the street, their unearthly braying and the whip-crack sound of their flickering venom tendrils carrying over the howling wind. Carlyle had wished to speak a few words to our dead planet before embarking on our desperate mission, but for fear that the Wraiths might hear us he remained silent.
I blinked away the tears forming in my eyes and took Cecilia by her arm.
"We should be away from here." I whispered. "Before the doom ships find our life spore."
Purging flames roiled unnaturally from one of the doom ships and we all shivered at the screams of those sheltering in the sewer being incinerated. In the strobe light of the lambent sky, shuddering and inflamed, Cecilia nodded solemnly and spread the word to the others. We filed back down through the winding catacombs of the forgotten civil defense shelter that housed our one last hope; the MENSA Time Cauldron.
If it worked as Carlyle had postulated then we would be able to burble our way back through the soup of time and stop Mikhail Ali before he became the Imperator and ruler of a dead world. The eight of us who survived the merciless scouring of the population by Ali's dread host climbed into the iron cauldron. Carlyle set to work adjusting various dials and sliders and reassured us that his invention would safely convey us against the current of the raging river of time and back to 2005. Mikhail Ali, then just three years old, was admitted to MENSA in February of that year. Chrono analysis had determined that event as the moment when divergent time became irreversible. He had to be stopped!
"Mikhail Ali, from Bramley, Leeds is being tested for entry to MENSA at the University of York."
Carlyle folded the newspaper back under his arm and looked at me with contempt.
"We're too late, and it's your bloody fault." He poked a boney finger into my chest. "You wanted to take a break in 2019 to save your damnable American Constitution from being put to the torch by Ali's legions."
"I thought you were in MENSA, Carl." He hated being called that. "It doesn't even make sense. How could we be late in your time machine because I stopped to save the Constitution?"
He stewed, his face crimson with rage, but he could not come up with a reply.
"We're late because you're stupid machine made us late." I answered for him and he looked set to launch himself at me. Cecilia intervened while the others watched with silent interest.
"Look, both of you, calm yourselves." The touch of her hand on my chest inspired more emotion than Carlyle's heated words. "We're too late to stop him from joining up with MENSA, but he's still only three years old. We can best a three year old."
"We're already in the unalterable divergent time stream." Roger, our self-proclaimed chrono analyst, interjected. "Ali is a MENSA member and we are on the path to the destruction of the world."
"That's true in theory. In theory a time machine that can travel into the past is also impossible, but we seem to have beaten those odds." I spoke knowing full well that hopelessness could kill any chance of success.
"I beat those odds!" Carlyle's words dripped with venom, but I ignored him and continued on.
"We can beat those sorts of odds again. We just have to find Ali and stop him before he can marshal the full technological resources of MENSA."
"By stop him, you mean kill him?" Roger adjusted his spectacles and considered his own rhetorical question. "It might work. The divergent time theories don't allow for it, but it still might work. If he's dead, he's dead."
"We'll find him in this 'University of York' then." Cecilia smiled thinly.
We quieted as a man in a neatly fitted suit walked past. I called out to him.
"Excuse me, sirrah." He gave me an affronted look but stopped to listen. "Might you direct us to the nearest Tesla Conveyor?"
"Yeah, sure buddy. It's about two streets over next to the Whatthefuckareyoutalkingabout building." He smiled broadly and saluted us with his middle finger.
Our efforts to find the Tesla Conveyor of which he spoke were fruitless, but we did manage to locate a primitive wheeled vehicle that Carlyle was able to rig for flight. The simpletons on the streets below seemed amazed as we burst into the sky on a phosphorescent stream of neutrinos.
"We have him." Carlyle was watching the University's testing center through the custom-made optics of his magnefioscope. "You and Cecilia keep the neutrinomat prepped for departure; the rest of us will go in and make sure the job is done right."
They slunk out of the neutrinomat's doors without another word. They were armed with a variety of weapons constructed with materials at hand. Carlyle carried a sonic pincer, Roger a typhoon gun, Henrietta was armed with a nerve cudgel, and the rest all carried a variety of basic truncheons. They were kitted out in full commando gear, right down to the overly small black knit caps they wore on their heads. I was not quite sure what the caps were for but Roger had assured everyone that they were necessary after he looted them from a cappery in Leeds.
I watched them move across the blighted hills surrounding the University until I felt Cecilia's breath hot on my cheek. She was crouched by the window next to me, but her face was turned towards me rather than towards the window.
"What is it?" I asked her, our faces only inches apart.
In answer she pressed her lips to mine and pushed me down to the floor of the neutrinomat. The sexual tension between us had been building over the weeks in the civil defense shelter beneath Los Angeles. That she chose that moment to finally break down the wall between us did not seem odd at the time. We writhed and rolled about on the floor of the van, our hands exploring one another and our bodies beginning the intimate dance. I shook with excitement as our passion reached its crescendo, unaware of the sound of the neutrinomat powering down to prevent a cascade overflow. Satiated, I held her naked body against mine and looked up at the ceiling. Just then, at the moment of my greatest satisfaction, the door to the neutrinomat was thrown open by Carlyle.
"He's got them! We've got to leave! He's a monster!" His eyes were wild with fear.
I sat up, my nudity forgotten, but Cecilia pulled me away from the driver's position with her limber arms. Carlyle gurgled behind me and I turned just in time to see him dragged down by a seething mass of metallic tentacles. Imperator Ali rose into view in the doorway, blood frothing at his lips.
"Imbeciles." He intoned, his voice a symphony of overlapping machine-generated sounds. "You thought to stop the Imperator?"
He flung Carlyle's lifeless body over the neutrinomat and advanced. I looked to Cecilia, who still pinned me down, and saw that her face was a cruel mask of glee.
"Feeling betrayed?" Ali hissed. "Your lover is just another of my servants. Designed to infiltrate and exploit, as she has so very well. Now, join us! Your brain will fit well into the cerebro chamber of a Wraith Hunter."
The pain lasted for longer than I could have anticipated. Now I serve the Imperator, my mind only rarely free to think about things other than hunting the packs of feeble humans who deny the will of Ali. I hold to the hope that some other splintered group of MENSA survivors might make the journey back in time and stop the Imperator. If they succeed, perhaps the headlines will reflect it. Or perhaps I am trapped forever in this hideous divergent time stream.
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