Last time on ACE ARCHER: Fresh off finally meeting Ace Archer in person, Caryn Alexander was uncertain what to make of the old man… delusional paranoid or victim of a conspiracy bigger than earth itself? Oh, and the guy she flirted with in the hospital lobby is apparently not who he seems…
Ace was leaving the Stupid Sitcom Network on 24/7 now, hoping to catch another glimpse of the tampon commercial. He wasn’t sure how much Miss Alexander had believed him about the Gaslight connection, but if she was anything like her grandmother, her curiosity wouldn’t let her stay away from it.
The Gaslights didn’t have a face, but whatever they did have, Ace would never have forgotten it. When it had just been a battle between him and Dalor Gruz, well, that had been one thing. Once the Gaslights got involved, though, that’s when it all started to go off the rails.
In memory, he was there, the unnamed planet. The final battle to the death. Chip Charles leaping faster than Ace knew he could.
And Ace cradled the dead boy’s body in his arms.
His fault. His fault.
No. Not his fault.
It was Dalor Gruz, whose lethal reputation had until now been just so much peacock feathers.
It was the three lights in the air, one red, one green, one blue, who had brought the Tempest and the Blade of Eternity to this yellow-skied planet to fight for their entertainment.
It was Chip, the boy whose das’t hero worship was so overblown that he somehow thought it was an acceptable sacrifice to shield Ace from Gruz’ deathblow.
It was… his fault.
He could barely hear Anne’s cries from the observation sphere floating over the arena. Blood thrumming in his ears made hearing anything impossible. His eyes, though… they saw nothing but Gruz.
With a scream, Ace leapt to his feet, outstretched hands ready to crush the assassin’s throat. Dalor Gruz was nothing but ready, though, and as soon as Ace moved, the killer lunged forward with his own attack, the ancient dirken suddenly flashing silver in his hand.
The voice was the same impossibly perfect English as the one that had summoned them here. The gas-lights that floated above in judgement. As if merely saying the word made it a universal law, both Ace and Gruz immediately ceased to move, their bodies held aloft in attack, interrupted.
The middle of the three lights, the green one, slowly descended from the sky to position itself between Ace and Gruz.
“THE CHALLENGE HAS BEEN COMPLETED,” it said. “A BATTLE TO THE DEATH. WE HAVE SEEN WHAT WE WISHED TO.”
“Not his death!” Ace screamed at the energy being. “Mine or Gruz’s! You said it was between us!” Our hate, Ace thought.
“A BATTLE TO THE DEATH,” it repeated. “YOU UTILIZED THE OTHER’S DEATH TO PREVENT YOUR OWN. YOU HAVE WON THE CHALLENGE.”
“What?” Ace gaped, horrified.
“What?” Dalor Gruz demanded, horrified.
“THERE WAS A BATTLE. THERE WAS A DEATH. IT WAS NOT YOURS.”
“I was the victor!” Gruz screamed in anger. “It was my death to give! I killed the little fool!”
Ace strained his will to no other end than moving his immobilized body just enough to tear the life from Gruz’s body, but no amount of will could override the power of the gas-lights.
“YOU MISUNDERSTOOD. YOU WERE A TOOL. YOU CAN BE RETURNED TO THE TOOLBOX.”
Without a shimmer or a pulse of light, Dalor Gruz was simply gone.
“THE BATTLE WAS NOT BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR NEMESIS,” the green sphere intoned. “THE BATTLE WAS BETWEEN YOU AND DEATH. YOU WON.”
Ace’s eyes glanced up at Chip’s sister Anne, who stood watching with tears and confusion welling in her eyes in equal portions.
“You killed my friend!” Ace screamed at the gas-light, but not loudly enough to drown out the voice in his head. The voice he feared was in Anne’s head as well. “Our lives are not your das’t game!”
“YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOUR LIVES ARE. WE HAVE SEEN WHAT WE WISHED TO. WHAT DID YOU SEE?”
“I saw some inhuman monsters with too much power and too little soul set up the death of one of the finest young men I have ever known.”
“YOU ARE SAYING THAT YOU ARE NOT HAPPY WITH YOUR SUCCESS AT THE CHALLENGE.”
“You’re das’t right I’m saying that!”
“YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOUR LIFE IS. YOUR SUCCESS AT THE CHALLENGE ENTITLES YOU TO SUCH A DETERMINATION.”
Ace furrowed his brow. “I… I don’t know what you’re trying to say.”
“YOU SAY WE HAVE TOO MUCH POWER,” the gas-light intoned. “AS COMPENSATION FOR YOUR COOPERATION WE PUT OUR POWER IN YOUR HANDS FOR ONE DETERMINATION.”
Between the over-accurate pronunciation of the words, the lack of tonality and the absence of a source of origin, it was already hard to listen to the gas-lights. Now he couldn’t even parse what their meaning was.
His fault, the other voice he didn’t want to listen to piped in.
It was the change in Anne’s eyes that translated the gas-light’s offer for Ace. While the glowing balls of light had no expression to read, there was no face in the universe that Ace Archer knew the language of better than Anne Stevens.
He had feared he would see a reflection of the words in his head, but instead of “your fault,” he saw with perfect clarity that the words in her eyes were “your chance.”
“My determination?” he asked of the green gas-light. “Any determination I decide?”
“AS YOU SAY.”
“I determine that my life has Chip Charles in it. You’ve got so much das’t power, then bring him back.”
“YOUR DETERMINATION IS RETROGRADE,” came a slightly different gas-light voice. Ace had no idea which one was talking, but it wasn’t the green one that seemed to have been their diplomat. “YOU ARE GIVEN DETERMINATION OF YOUR LIFE AND YOU USE IT TO RESTORE A STATUS QUO. YOU PLAY A ZERO-SUM GAME, ACE ARCHER.”
“Is the determination mine?” Ace demanded.
“Then you have my answer.”
The green sphere rose from its position before the still-immobile Ace Archer and joined its two fellows.
“WE HAVE SEEN WHAT WE WISHED TO. YOUR CHALLENGE IS OVER.”
Ace fell to the ground, control of his body once more his own. Anne was kneeling next to him as if she hadn’t seconds ago been trapped under glass far above him.
And Chip, Chip Charles, the boy who would die for Ace Archer, slowly sat up from where he had lain dead.
The gas-lights were gone.
The arena floor was no longer the one the three lay upon. Instead, it was the wooden deck of the Tempest, chrome walls and flashing machines protecting them from the vacuum of space that now surrounded them instead of the nameless world’s green sky.
“My God, where have you been?” Professor Prospero spun in the pilot’s chair before racing towards them. The ship… she was immobilized! Energy readings off the meters! I tried everything!”
“Just a little zero-sum game, Prof,” Ace said. “Everything worked out in the end.” He smiled at Chip and gave the boy an affectionate pat on the back.
But it hadn’t all worked out in the end, had it? the voice that was never far from Ace’s recollections asked. If you had known then what would happen to Chip as a result…
My fault, my choice, Ace thought back. There really isn’t much difference between the two, is there?
“It absorbs all day,” a familiar voice said, “so I can put my mind to what my life is really about!”
The actress who played the artist smiled at Ace, but all he could see was the green Gaslight floating in the alien arena, the yellow sky now oils on canvas behind the happy tampon girl.
Gotcha, Ace thought, and the voice of guilt had nothing to reply.
© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.