Published on 2011/09/11

Half-Life

Jay Faulkner

"Protecting the city of Empire Falls against this new menace has become my number one priority," Chris Whitcroft, Commissioner of Police for Empire Falls, growled through gritted teeth. "I am devoting all the resources at my command to ensure that this so called Half-Life is caught and punished for his heinous …"

Climbing in through the twelfth story window, Kyle Beck hit the off button on the remote control and sighed. Whitcroft’s words echoed around his head, unbidden … new menace … costumed villain … caught and punished …

Looking around, tears blurring his vision, he saw his father – lying still in the sterile hospital bed – and, wondered how it had come to this.

* * *

Kyle pushed his hands deeper into the pockets of his jeans, fiddling with the loose change in them as he tried to keep the look of disinterest from his face.

"It was your choice, to come, Kyle" his father, Professor John Beck, stated calmly. "Most kids your age would love to be in your position, you know."

"Really?" Kyle mocked. "No offence, Dad, but I can think of better things to be doing than being stuck in a museum with my dad."

"Yeah, really," his father replied in a pitch perfect mimic of his son’s tone. "You have free reign of the whole place, Kyle. No crowds, no stuffy tour guides, just you and a hundred items from the past."

"I suppose …" Kyle started, looking around the dimly lit foyer of the museum. He had been here many times before, of course, both with his father – who, as Dean of Archeology and Anthropology at Empire Falls University, acted as the museum’s expert on many occasions – and on school trips, but this was the first time that he had been here when the museum was closed so he began to see it with different eyes.

"Besides which," his father said. "You are going to be the first person in Empire Falls to see the museum’s newest display."

"What?"

"Didn’t I tell you?" his father asked with a small smile as he moved past the museum’s famous indoor fountain and stopped beside a double door marked ‘Private – Staff only’. "It arrived this morning – that is why I am here tonight; I couldn’t wait to see it."

The Professor stepped back and allowed Kyle to enter first. Coming to stand behind his son, resting both hands gently on his shoulders, he followed his gaze and – for a moment – both were joined together in silent awe.

"What … who … is that?"

"That," his father said, quietly, "is Echidna."

Towering above them stood an ebon statue. A striking face looked out with an imperious gaze. Waves of hair, so finely crafted that they looked like they could move, cascaded down to cover the naked torso until, in an unsettling juxtaposition, it joined the sinuous, scaled form of a giant snake where her legs should have been. Her arms were held out from her body, relaxed, and both wrists were adorned with finely detailed bracelets.

"Echidna?"

"What do they teach you kids, these days?" the Professor joked, ruffling his son’s hair. "I suppose that classical Greek mythology – especially when it relates to the lesser known stuff – isn’t exactly top of the curriculum, is it?"

"Greek?" Kyle asked. "You mean like Zeus?"

"Yes, like Zeus but also, at the same time, not like him at all."

"What do you mean?"

"Well Echidna wasn’t exactly worshipped as Goddess. Some people say that she was more like, in modern terms, a boogeyman – something used to frighten people with."

"How come?"

"Well," his father said, bringing his son closer to the statue and pointing to the engraved figures around the base. "Do you see these … Echidna was said to be the mother of all so-called monsters which, if you believe that, would make her a monster in her own right."

"Don’t you believe it?"

"Actually I don’t," his father acknowledged. "I think that people just needed a scapegoat and simply judged a book by its cover … if it looks like a monster, if it looks different to you, then it must be a monster."

"That isn’t very fair," Kyle stated, staring up at the statue’s face. "I think that she looks kinda nice – kinda sad too."

"Her children," his father said, softly, "those so-called monsters, were hunted down and killed. That would make any parent sad, wouldn’t it?"

"Couldn’t they – couldn’t she – fight back?"

"She did, and they did," his father agreed. "The problem was that she was only one against all the Gods, and all the mortals who feared what they didn’t understand."

"What happened?"

"Well, that is the strange thing," his father said with a sigh. "Writings about her just stopped. It is as if she simply vanished one day, and took her children with her …"

"Hey!" Kyle exclaimed suddenly, tracing his finger across the stone. "I know what this is – it’s a centaur!"

"Well done," his father beamed. "I am glad that you remember some of what I have taught you."

"Actually," Kyle admitted, sheepishly, "I saw them in the last Harry Potter movie."

"Ouch," his father protested in mock pain. "That is definitely a low blow!"

"I know that this is a Minotaur, though, Dad," Kyle said, pointing at another figure. "I remember the story about the maze …"

"Labyrinth, child, it was a labyrinth!"

Kyle and his father turned, in shock, at the unexpected interruption, and stared at the group of men who stood in the open doorway behind them. At the forefront stood a living, breathing anachronism – a man dressed as a Roman emperor, complete with laurels.

"Really, Professor, the urchin’s education is sorely lacking!"

" … who are you?" Kyle’s father stammered, pulling his son close to him, realizing that the men were armed with faintly glowing swords. "What do you want?"

"I really must get a better agent," the man sighed, theatrically. "I am Nero, my dear Professor and as for what I want that it simple – I want the riches that this museum has to offer and you are going to help me!"

"No … no, I won’t."

"Don’t be so sure, dear man," Nero smiled. "I had been wondering how I would narrow down my choices to only the most valuable pieces but now it seems that fortune – excuse the pun – has favored me by giving me someone who can point me in the right direction."

"I said I wouldn’t help you!"

"I know," Nero acknowledged. "However I am sure that you will rethink that when I tell you that you have a very simple choice to make."

"… I do?"

"Oh yes," Nero smiled, stepping forwards. "Help me and we all go away happy tonight, refuse me and you pay the price."

"I am not afraid of you …"

"We both know that isn’t true, Professor," Nero interrupted. "I can see the fear in your eyes but don’t worry, I won’t harm you – not when I have your darling child instead."

"Don’t you touch him!" the professor screamed, sandwiching Kyle between his body and the statue.

"Like I said, Professor," Nero pointed out. "It is your choice to make."

"That is no choice at all …"

"I know," Nero agreed, happily. "So, shall we?"

"Stay here, Kyle," his father said to him, holding his face in both hands as he stared into his bright blue eyes. "Don’t move, don’t do anything at all, until I come back. It will be ok."

"Daddy …"

"It will be ok, Kyle," his father said, kissing him gently on the top of his head. "I promise."

"Don’t worry, kid," Nero interjected. "If your daddy is a good boy and gives me what I want you will both be home and tucked up in bed before you know it. Now, shall we go, Professor?"

Pushing the Professor in front of him, towards the door, Nero turned to two of his garishly dressed men.

"Stay here."

"What are we?" One of them asked in disdain. "Baby-sitters?"

"You are whatever I say you are," Nero stated, flatly. "At this moment you are an insurance policy to ensure that the kid stays here and that his father does exactly what I want him to do … if he moves, if he tries to get away, kill him."

"… but you said that you wouldn’t hurt him!" his father protested, struggling to break free of Nero’s grip.

"And if you both do what you are told," Nero countered. "I won’t have to. Now move!"

Kyle slumped down against the statue, his back pressed against the coil of Echidna’s body, and fought back the tears as his father was dragged out into the museum. The two men left to guard him moved a few feet away and lounged against the wall, keeping watch on him as they chatted between themselves.

"God damn it, Frankie, I can’t believe that you talked me into taking this gig!"

"If this pans out, Jerry, we will be loaded!"

"Maybe," Frankie muttered. "But that man is nuts … and he has us wearing these stupid dresses!"

"Togas, Frankie," Jerry snorted. "They are togas. I thought the same as you when I started working for Nero but – mad or not – he knows what he is doing and you can’t argue with the tech that he gets his hands on!"

Waving his sword in front of him he pushed it, easily, into a packing crate that it sliced through like a knife through butter.

"I still don’t like it," Frankie complained. "I mean that guy and his kid have seen our faces … I am not some crazy super villain like Nero who doesn’t care who knows who he is; if I get caught I am going straight to the pen, not some cushy padded-cell like he will!"

"Is that what’s worrying you?" Jerry laughed. "Don’t worry about it, Frankie. Nero made the same ‘promise’ to the manager at the bank job last week!"

"And?"

"Let’s just say that he was tucked up in bed later that night," Jerry winked. "If you count six feet under his flower bed, anyway."

"No!" Kyle screamed, overhearing the conversation and jumping to his feet. "Don’t hurt my daddy!"

"Damn it, Jerry," Frankie growled as he ran towards Kyle. "You and your big mouth – the kid heard you!"

"So what?" Jerry mocked. "Not like he will have long to worry about it."

Kyle slipped past the lumbering Frankie but, as he neared the door, he was caught with a vicious backhand slap from Jerry that sent him flying backwards. Losing his balance he stumbled into the statue, slamming his head against the unforgiving stone, and crumpling against its base as blood began to flow from his temple.

"Should I kill him now?" Frankie asked, standing over the fallen boy.

"Nah," Jerry snorted. "No need – we should wait until his dad is finished before doing him, Nero may still need him. Not like the brat is any trouble anyway."

Wiping the blood from his head, staring in shock at the crimson stain on his hand, Kyle tried to get to his feet but a wave of dizziness washed over him and he fell back to his knees. Reaching out he grabbed onto the statue’s outstretched hand, his blood staining the dark stone, and tried to rise again.

"Please," he whispered. "Someone help me …"

The stone hand warmed under his touch and, almost imperceptibly, Kyle felt its grip tighten on his own. Through tear filled eyes he watched as the stone bracelet on its wrist seemed to melt before flowing down its arm and onto his own and, as it did so, it changed from ebon stone to bright, argent, silver. As it left the statue and completed its journey onto his own arm he felt it tighten against his wrist. The dizziness and nausea he felt was magnified, suddenly, and the room swam around him, the floor receding, until a sudden warmth in his stomach replaced it all and he got to his feet.

"What the Hell …"

Jerry’s voice faded into incoherent babbling as he backed away, tripping over his own feet. Frankie turned, trying to see what had caused Jerry to react like that, and came face to chest with a figure that towered over him. Looking down Frankie saw the cloven feet that led to trunk-like, hairy legs. He saw the rippled muscles of a stomach that led to am immense and powerful chest. He saw the corded neck that held a snarling bovine face that snorted its anger directly down at him. He saw the horns that gleamed with wicked sharpness.

He didn’t see the fist that came crashing down onto the top of his head and drove him into senseless darkness.

"What …" Kyle didn’t recognize the guttural growl that came from his mouth, just as he didn’t understand the strength that he felt coursing through his body. As he moved towards the fallen Jerry, however, he caught sight of himself in the reflective glass surface of an empty display cabinet and stopped in his tracks.

"A Minotaur?" he breathed, watching as steam came out of the creature’s nose as it … as he … spoke. "I’m a freakin’ Minotaur!"

"Don’t hurt me," Jerry pleaded, bringing Kyle’s attention back to him. "Please!"

"I won’t," Kyle grinned, baring his sharp teeth. "I promise."

"Thank yo …" Jerry’s relief was cut short as Kyle stampeded his way over to him and, with a flick of his wrist, brought his hand slapping into his face. The display cabinet shattered as Jerry’s body slammed into it.

"Oops," Kyle snorted. "Looks like my promise was as good as yours!"

"What’s going on?!" he breathed to himself, confused now that the immediate danger was taken care of.

"You asked for help so I gave it."

The soft female voice came from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Kyle spun around on his hooves, struggling to find the speaker, but found no-one.

"Who’s there!?" he cried, plaintively. "Please, you have to help my daddy!"

"I have given you what you need to help your father yourself, my child," the voice whispered. "I know what it is like to lose loved ones and would not want you to face the same thing so I have given you their forms to use … go, now, save him."

"Echidna?" Kyle breathed, staring at the unmoving statue. "Is it you?"

No answer came but, from further in the museum he heard sounds of raised voices and with a burst of fear for his father he moved to the door. Reaching out to it he grabbed each side in one immense hand and pulled … only to tear them off their hinges and stand there, shocked.

"Oops!"

Staring out into the darkened museum Kyle saw Nero, and his men, standing near the fountain, his father held between two of them. Nero turned, seeing the monstrosity that Kyle had become, and stared in shock. Kyle began to move towards them, lumbering his large frame as fast as he could. He watched in horror as Nero pulled out one of the glowing swords and moved towards his father. Realizing that he wasn’t fast enough to reach them Kyle screamed in frustration and then felt his body shift, change, and before he could understand what had happened he was moving faster than he thought possible. Four legs powered him, his wrist burning as his body morphed from a Minotaur to a centaur, across the marble floor and he ate up the distance between him and his father.

As fast as he was, though, it wasn’t fast enough.

He stared in horror as Nero plunged the sword into his father’s body, thrusting it away from him and towards the fountain. Like a puppet with its strings cut Kyle’s father slumped over the edge of the fountain and disappeared into the dark water just as Kyle skidded to a stop before the grinning Nero. Reaching down with powerful hands Kyle gripped his robes and hauled him off his feet.

"You don’t want to do this, boy," Nero said, somehow recognizing Kyle. "You have a choice to make – me or your father."

Kyle’s gaze flickered to the fountain and, with a cry of despair, he dropped the madman to the floor and leapt into the air. As he fell towards the water heat ran through his wrist and he felt his form shift, again, as he cut through the surface cleanly and realized that he could see perfectly in the darkness. Taking a breath, without thinking, he realized that he wasn’t choking, he wasn’t drowning – he was breathing. With a kick of his tail he propelled himself through the water and grabbed his father where he floated face down, dragging him to the surface and leaning him across the edge of the fountain. He cried in relief when he realized that his father was still breathing.

Looking around the darkened room he also realized that he was alone.

Nero and his men had gone.

"Hold it right there!"

Kyle sighed, wondering what else could go wrong, as a group of policemen suddenly stormed through the front doors, weapons pointed directly at him.

"Holy …" one of them said, staring at him. "Is that a mermaid?!"

"That’s a merman, thank you!" he shouted as he jumped out of the water, using his powerful tail to propel himself high into the air. The by now familiar feeling of change ran through him as he saw the silver bracelet flash and, before he realized that he wasn’t falling, he was flying through the air towards the door. As he reached it he thrust his wings down, sharply, and shot into the night sky, leaving the confused babble of voices behind him.

"Get an ambulance!"

"What was that?"

"It was like a half-man, half-bird thing!"

"A harpy?"

"It was half-man and half-fish before that!"

"It was half …"

"… life?"

* * *

Kyle Beck placed one hand on his father's chest, feeling the reassuring rise and fall as he breathed, and leant closer. A gentle kiss on his cheek was followed by a rough whisper.

"I'll fix this, Dad, I promise."

"… are you ok, Mr. Beck? I thought that I heard voices." A nurse's head appeared around the door, peering around the now silent room. Her eyes focused in confusion on the large black feather that drifted lazily towards the floor by the window.


Jay Faulkner resides in Northern Ireland with his wife, Carole, and their two boys, Mackenzie and Nathaniel. He says that while he is a writer, martial artist, sketcher, and dreamer he's mostly just a husband and father.

His work has been published widely, both online and in print anthologies, and was short-listed in the 2010 Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition. He is currently working on his first novel.

Jay founded, and edits, 'With Painted Words' - www.withpaintedwords.com - a creative writing site with inspiration from monthly image prompts, and 'The WiFiles' – www.thewifiles.com– an online speculative fiction magazine, published weekly.

For more information visit – www.jayfaulkner.com.