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The Long Man
A prequel novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6
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The Long Man, a novella by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 6

I didn't really come into my own until recently. It took a world gone mad to make me sensible, I guess.

Many epiphanies are born out of tough times -- at least, mine was. The Great Depression meant my usual antisocial haunts and hidden byways were infiltrated by scores of displaced shortmen. Everywhere I went there were people: sleeping in ditches, lurking in alleys, squatting in abandoned buildings, milling around on the fringes of forests hunting and gathering like in the days of yore.

They sang around what small fires they could muster. Very retro.

Where once the whole world was groups around their fires with only the thin tether of lore to remind them they didn't wander alone, now this Earth was entangled in networked nations of symbiotic institutions with interdependent economies complex enough to behave like a genuine beast -- unpredictable, wild, tantrumatic. When it thrashed thousands died and millions were reduced to living like we did in the olden days: humble, depraved, and always close to death.

But the short always purge themselves eventually, like fire sweeping the forest floor; and I could smell it, waiting in the wings -- war. The world quivered at its edge.

You should understand that the Great War scared the life out of me. I was stuck right in the middle of it, and for a while there it seemed like there was nowhere I could turn without challenging somebody's army. By the skin of my teeth I escaped gassing, shelling, shooting. I saw the impossibility of aeroplanes flying in squadron, and I heard and felt their insectile drone. It was a carnival of mechanized murder that stung me to my soul, and opened my eyes.

So, like I said, when I smelled big war coming again I applied my newfound wisdom and got the hell out of Europe.

I took to the deep woods of western North America where the towns still had space between them. I competed with bears for dumpster diving privileges. When my clothes became too torn and discoloured I wore skins, which made me feel very nostalgic.

I did a lot of thinking. The world was giving birth to a new kind of animal -- a grey and restless one that straddled continents. It was as alien to the short as it was to me; they found comfort mostly in each other. Madeleine had taught me to love again, but she had died. Whom could I love in her stead? Another of the short seemed a daunting prospect on account of the sheer number of unsuitable candidates on top of the delicate conundrum of my life-ravaged unattractiveness.

I eventually decided that I could love the beasts, because I pitied them.

It was strange to pity those whom I had once revered and even, in the youngest sliver of my youth, thought of as gods along with the personified forces of nature -- my childhood friends whose terrifying aspect was occluded only by the faith that their power represented something meaningful.

And yet here were these heretofore great creatures, biting one another's tails as they cowered in ever shrinking patches of disconnected world bisected by concrete and steel, becoming psychotic for want of a normal life. It was the worst kind of desecration. Yes! I could act for the once noble beasts.

...This lasted up until I was kicked in the chest by a moose I had saved from being impacted on the front of a CP locomotive. "Okay, that's it," I declared, probing my cracked ribs. Earlier that day I had been mauled, pecked, and defecated upon. "You animals are ingrates! I'm through."

I stalked up the railway to the next town, determined to find a source of spirits.

Upon arriving at a sad looking foresters' camp I sussed out the local watering hole by the stink and pushed through the batwing doors with a grunt. The lumberjacks looked up from their card games and conversations, cigarettes dangling forgotten from their frozen mouths. I sidled up to the bar, swishing through the sawdust on the floor.

The barkeep, a blotchy-skinned, beefy woman with squinty eyes and a lined face etched in a permanent frown. She began to stammer incoherently.

"Shot of rye," I said.

"S-Sasquatch!" she groaned, brow glistening with sweat.

I sighed. "On second thought...just leave the bottle, will you?"

With shaking hands she pushed the liquor across the bar -- an unsanded brace of two-by-fours balanced on rusty sawhorses. The lumberjacks just continued to stare, absolutely motionless. The wireless warbled on with some fellow's tinny voice pining after his sealost love. I filled my glass and knocked it back, then filled it again.

I listened to the wireless. A couple of drinks later I noticed that the place had emptied out behind me, half-drunk drinks in greasy glasses left abandoned on the wooden tables. When I turned back the barkeep had also fled, so I flipped a couple of gold coins on the table in case I forgot about it later.

I drank another shot. The wireless mumbled and whistled.

A gang of lumberjacks burst into the bar carrying a net between them. I upended the first two manually and menaced the other two with my walking stick swung in a tight, hissing arc. They all fell over themselves to leave.

I turned back to the bar wearily, poured another drink, listened to a commercial about breakfast cereal. And that's when I heard about him: Superman. Apparently this guy was possessed of strength many times that of an ordinary man, and was capable of amazing athletic feats, all performed in the service of protecting shortkind from its own most nefarious and cruel members.

I knew immediately that he must be long -- a new peer! And at the end of the programme the announcer told me the origin of the broadcast: New York City. That's where I would find this new friend.

...I know, I know: you're already laughing. I'm still embarrassed. So what if every kid in the world over the age of five knew Superman wasn't real? I didn't. What can I say? I'd been a little out of touch, and what I had been in touch with over the past generation had mostly served to baffle me. I had no basis to doubt the reality of Superman in a world that had zeppelins. Thus, my visit to New York was coloured by a not insignificant amount of disappointment.

I slept in Central Park. Come nightfall New York's megaliths glow.

Meat was hard to come by, but I stole out to Chinatown in the small hours to scoop crap out of the gutters, or to scoop up the rats eating the crap out of the gutters -- whichever smelled least rancid. It was on one such foray when I was forced to quickly retreat into the shadows at the sound of approaching shortmen engaged in horseplay, their drunken voices ringing off the bricks.

As they passed by the mouth of the alley I slunk in I saw that a woman was at the centre of their ring, and she seemed to be in some distress. When the wind turned I smelled the men's arousal and knew something untoward was afoot.

And maybe I knew, too, that I had something to atone for.

They backed their prey into the alley. They tossed her from one of their number to the next, taunting and singing. She sobbed raggedly, and plead. Someone tore her skirt.

I cracked my knuckles.

Everything went quiet. "Who's there?" barked one of the boys.

"Comeuppance," I said, stepping forward and cutting the air with my spinning staff. Its whistling end intercepted the closest boy in the collarbone, felling him neatly.

Someone rushed me in the dark, a switchblade snicking open. I tossed him aside and he struck the wall rudely, dropping into a pile of trash cans.

The two boys left standing retreated to the sidewalk but I followed them, tripping their feet out from under them, then standing over them as I let my hood drop. They blanched. "Bad boys," I rumbled. "Your own comeuppance is nigh. Run away home now, and renounce your evil ways."

They fled. I replaced my hood and turned to the alley. "Go home, girl."

She fled.

I straightened the dirty trenchcoat I wore over my robes and limped back to the park. I stood tall as I walked, feeling just a little bit like Superman. I wondered how else I might serve the citizens living in the belly of this city...

My initial campaign did not go as smoothly as would have been ideal. Some people got hurt -- petty thieves as well as cops and bystanders. I'm clumsy, and sometimes I freak out when I'm cornered. Never the less it was sufficient to gain me a certain amount of controversial notoriety on the island. I wondered how long it would be before Moses came to shut me down.

One night while I was eating a rabbit in the park I smelled hot tobacco and heard twigs crunching in the shadows. An ember burned. I tossed aside my dinner and prepared to pull away but a man's voice called out, "Please, stay a moment. I only want to talk."

I hesitated beside an old oak.

He continued, his voice low and soft, transatlantic pronunciation covering an eastern accent. "I have been observing your work here in New York. I am very impressed. I am interested in helping you."

I snorted. "Help how?"

He took another step forward, spread his hands. "What do you need? I should think a better base of operations is in order. And, dare I risk offending you, a bath, perhaps."

"Why would you do this?"

"I represent an organization with an interest in funding unusual projects."

I snorted again. "Whose army do you arm?"

"Only our own. My name is Bahram. Come back to my apartments and we can discuss things in more civilized environment."

I hovered.

"Please, my friend. I promise you I am concealing nothing. And even if I were you are more than capable of defending yourself. Please, come and have a drink with me and allow me to explain my interests."

So I went. I rode in a fancy automobile half a block up Fifth Avenue and then proceeded up to the luxurious penthouse apartment of Bahram Siraj. As I took a seat he fitted a fresh cigarette into a long holder, smiled beneath his inky black mustache, and directed a mute Indian to prepare our drinks. The Indian tried not to wince at my scent as he handed me my glass.

"I suspect that you are a private man," said Bahram. "I can respect that. However, you must appreciate that if we are to get on with any measure of civility we will have to exercise some amount of trust."

"Granted, sir."

"Thank you, sir. I do not know whether you recognize my name but I will not mince words, as it is said; the Shah of Anwar is my father. My father is a man of great vision, and he has never let convention or criticism dampen his enthusiasms. He is also a man of uncompromising morality --"

I held up a hand in interruption. "Slow down, Mr. Siraj. You're wasting your breath if you want me to join your religion. I don't care if you're a Whirling Dervish or a Secret Saint of Prester John -- I don't do clubs."

The corners of Bahram's mouth tightened subtly. "Clubs, indeed." He sipped his drink. "I can assure you, sir, that religion is entirely beside the point. My father acts as a man on Earth -- a man with a great power of wealth who seeks to use it for the betterment of all mankind."

Now I smiled tightly. "He must encounter much scepticism."

"Altruism is indifferent to scepticism, because it requires neither the faith nor the kudos of others. As a vigilante you must appreciate this, or you would not act."

"Vigilante? I'm a superhero, like in the comic books."

"Yes, you are," agreed Bahram, nodding as he leaned over to ash his cigarette. "And I have been authorized to support you in that role for a period of five years, provided you accept, of course, and provided you remain dedicated to serving the public good."

I squinted. "I already have some money. In Switzerland. I just haven't been able to drop by lately, on account of the war."

Bahram grinned. "Then we could help you to regain access to your funds. It pleases me for you to present us with something we can do for you immediately."

"All this for a monster?" I sneered, looking around at the fine furnishings I was soiling with my dirty overcoat. "What do you get out of it?"

Bahram drained his glass and put it down gingerly on the bar. He walked slowly across the room, stroking his mustache, then crouched on the carpet beside my chair. "My friend, to be completely honest with you, I will tell you. I will tell you what this means to me: my father's love. If you wish to doubt my father that is another matter. But as his envoy I assure you that all of my cards are on the table. I ask only one thing of you tonight. Trust me. Trust me just a little, so that before my father I am not failure."

I sighed. I crossed my legs and looked out the window. With a grunt I turned back and finished my drink. "I am Lallo," I told him. "And my life is longer than history."

And you know what? We became friends, Bahram and I. It was a kind of friendship I hadn't had since pre-Imperial Rome, a kind I'd forgotten I could enjoy. We'd shoot the shit about anything or everything and go to baseball games and throw back drinks together. We stayed up late and got each other excited about ideas that were centuries or millennia old. My anecdotes about Socrates left him in stitches.

I appeared in public in an alabaster masque, rubbing elbows with the glamourous and seen. I explained to them all how I had been burned by gas in the Great War, and then we would all have an easy jab at the Germans. The girls all laughed. We listened to jazz and drank martinis.

Good times.

At night I patrolled Manhattan and interfered in its ugliest squabbles, separating the defenseless and guileless from the violent or greedy. I wasn't really interested in bank robberies or car theft, but assault and residential burglary frequently inspired me to action. I worked hard.

Sometime around mid-century Bahram invited me back to the palace in Anwar to meet his father. I experienced the nadir of my dignity cowering like an infant through every minute I spent aboard an aircraft, my hands clapped over my ears and my eyes squinched shut, humming. The thrum of the engines spoke to me like a stampede of mammoths, quickening my pulse and filling me with terrifying animal passions.

After the first leg of the journey Bahram arranged for a curtained area on the plane so that I might have privacy while I quailed.

The Shah was very fat and very jolly, and I liked him right away. He had a grey beard a wore a funny hat. "Lallo -- I have so anticipated our meeting!" he cried, waddling across the red carpeted hall to embrace me. Then he turned to embrace his son. "Truly Bahram," he said, looking at me, "this treasure of a man you have found is a credit to you. I am so excited to have him here!"

I was fed and watered, shown to my gorgeous quarters and there I slept the sleep of a baby. In the morning was a large breakfast at which we sat cross-legged around a large square table and I was introduced to various colourful guests of the establishment. In the afternoon, a walk through the gardens.

Indeed it would not be until the evening that the Shah would guide me on a private tour of the universe that existed deep underground beneath his palace, showing me wonders I had not seen in all my long years alive. From all that I beheld that night one conversation sticks out in my memory, and I'm curious about it still.

It occurred as the Shah and I strode along a catwalk high above a pit where workers were busy assembling a metal skin over a long, conical superstruture. "Do you know what this is, Lallo? It is a rocket!"

I frowned. "A missile?"

"No no," he chuckled, putting his around my shoulder. "This is a vehicle for transporting men and materials off of the Earth, and into space."

I rubbed my jaw thoughtfully. "What might a man do in space, Shah?"

"Anything he wills, for whoever reaches a planet first will be its king."

"You will capture the Moon, then?"

The Shah scoffed. "The Moon we'll leave to the Soviets. The focus of our project is Mars. However, this rocket will not make that journey. It will simply deploy a small radio relay in orbit about the Earth."

I looked out at the mighty rocket taking shape beneath us and tried to imagine it in flight. Could nothing stop the ambitions of the short? Could they even dream to scratch the stars? I chuckled again. "It's a wonderful dream, Shah. When do you expect to actually reach Mars?"

Now it was his turn to laugh. "My friend," he said, "we are already there."

On the way back from Anwar, Bahram and I stopped off in Geneva to go to the bank. We got a bit of the runaround until Bahram used his powers of persuasion to elicit the fact that my accounts had been liquidated to Israel as reparations for the holding of Nazi gold. The bank had preferred to keep the Nazi gold because of certain influential Nazi clientele currently in hiding, figuring that the chances that I would show up were small. It had been a hundred and thirty years since my last deposit, after all, while the Nazis were still a going concern.

Fucking Nazis.

In 1966, during an attempt to rescue a woman from an overturned car, I was struck by a transport truck skidding on the icy Brooklyn Bridge. It was Christmas. I was compressed against a support pylon by the snow-coated grille, and even as it was happening I knew it was bad. Very bad.

Somebody in one of the stopped cars had carols playing on the radio.

I remember the flashing lights of the ambulance and then nothing else for long, cloudy time. My nightmares were garish. Over a course of days I awoke and slowly recognized that I was in a hospital. I surmised that Bahram was taking care of me.

Much of my body was encased in plaster.

Most notably, my right arm was sore despite its total absence.

Prester John strode into my room and took a seat on a chair beside the window, tugging his slacks into position carefully. "It's a miracle you survived," he said primly. "Thank God."

"Thanks, God," I mumbled.

"Very good," nodded John. "And now you can thank me, who saved you from what promised to be nothing short of a dissection at the hands of New York's medical authorities. You're in my private hospital, here in California."

I sniffed, looked around. "Nice place."

"Yes. And costing several hundred dollars a day. To whom shall I direct the bill, by the way?"

"The Nazis."

He frowned. "I can see I am being too oblique. I'm asking after your employer."

"Uncle Sam. I collect food stamps."

Prester John stood up. He brushed his nails briefly on his suit jacket and then turned to linger at the jamb. "I can, and will, make things very difficult for you. This is, you understand, a hospital. We have many tools at our disposal."

"Fuck you, John," I said. "I remember the Inquisition. Do your worst."

And he did. I will not dwell on it, but I will say that the Inquisitors never knew what John knew -- they never knew how far they could've pushed me. So I'm not really ashamed to say that I broke. I did. In time I came to tell John everything I knew about the Shah of Anwar. Every scrap of memory exported and, in the end, readily and enthusiastically. I hoped that if I complied I would be killed.

Instead I was dumped by the side of the road in Minnesota, naked and nearly mad.

By begging in rags I raised the dimes I needed to use a payphone. Though I have never been very good with telephones and the like I had managed to burn a few combinations into my mind. It didn't take me long to run through them all. All wrong numbers. The Shah had severed all ties. I was on my own again.

But this isn't a sad story. Like I said before, most hardships are easier to bear when you have a mission...

Ella was living in Philadelphia when I found her again, although living must be defined broadly for the statement to be wholly true. What remained of her was housed in a nursing home, hooked up to wires and tubes and machines. I wandered into her room with a scrap of telephone book folded in my hand. "You're sly," I said, "but not sly enough. Give me a few centuries, I'll find anyone."

Her breathing apparatus clicked. "Lallo, Lallo, Lallo," she wheezed.

I sat down beside her bed and touched her deeply lined chocolate brow. "You've looked better," I admitted.

"You too."

We talked for a long time, she and I, mitigated by the slow pace of her respirator. We both cried, especially when we talked about our boy and how sick he had been. We exchanged stories about our various missing or battered parts, and showed each other a spread of languages, living and dead. I tried not to make her laugh because it caused her machines to beep in alarm.

We held hands. "You've always been my favourite nightmare, Lallo," she told me.

The afternoon waned and twice the nurse had tried to shoo me off. When she threatened to call security I looked to Ella imploringly. "What can I do for you, Ella? I have the power to break any rule. Do you want me to take you away from this place?"

She shook her head. "This is not my life. My life ended two thousand years ago. It is time to stop this charade life. It is time to put an end to the monstrosity. We have no right to it."

I licked my lips nervously. "You want me to end it for you?"

Her feeble head raised from the pillow, her eyes suddenly ablaze. "End us all, Lallo. Stop Prester John. Stop Moses. Stop the next me, and the next you. You know we are bigger than this life, and we break it when we thrash. You know."

I kissed her on the lips as she died at my hand. I left through the window, which isn't as easy as it used to be. I grunted a lot. Christ!

Ella was right. I did know it. And now I am bent to my plan.

As I was the first so shall I be the last.

My circumstances are humble these days, that's true. It's more of a squat than a hideout. It leaks when it rains, but I have umbrellas for my bookshelves. I spend a lot of time reading. I dig back and I also keep current. I follow news of the growing machines of influence of Prester John and Moses and Ra Sum and Aum and the rest of us, adding pins to my maps and drawing connections on my charts. I can so easily spot the long now, just by the shadows they cast in the records and the footprints they make in economies. I've even spotted a couple I'm pretty sure the Holy See doesn't know about. I observe, I synthesize, I plot.

I bide my time.

Our day is over. This is an age where any individual fist can wield the fires of thousands of years worth of work and sunlight in an instant, an age where even the short stumble under the burden of their power. Lest we create new gods after so many millennia fleeing the old, the long must go.

I will reap them, and the short will have their inheritance.


Fin.

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