It was the Age of Enlightenment. Mankind discovered Genius.
Anyone could be a Genius, and at almost anything. The Personal Enhancement Program—nowadays known as PEP—searched the world for special people, testing those who asked for free. A quick scan at a PEP Center determined if a person was a Genius and, if the test came back positive, a second one done on a later date told them what skill they possessed.
PEP Geniuses received free education, to hone their God-given gift. The PEP produced scientists and artists and doctors, all of them in great number, turning wordsmiths into Shakespeare, tinkerers into Thomas Edison, and humanitarians into the next Mother Theresa.
Getting a PEP Test had a minor inconvenience. A thick rubber hood covered the subject's skull, poking them with electrodes. After gathering their data, the electrodes left a person's head covered with tiny red dots. The first PEP Test created dots that faded quickly, but the second test required deeper probing. It left dots that were bright and could last for weeks. All in all, however, it was a small price to pay, for newly discovered Geniuses were toasted at gala events, and oftentimes featured on the daily news. They achieved celebrity status, with their polka-dot red faces beaming smiles into a blizzard of camera flashes.
Hank was a possible PEP Genius winner, as his first test came back positive. Sometimes though, the second test would be unable to determine a person's special talent, leaving them with a face full of spots and no Genius prize. These losers were called Dots and, for some reason, society shunned them.
No one wanted to be a Dot, especially Hank. Tall and young and lanky, he had sandy brown hair that seemed to always need a trim. His face seemed ready to smile, although he rarely did. But people typically liked him, even if they sometimes forgot his name.
If he was brought up in conversation for whatever reason, two things were mentioned the most. One was that he never said much, and if he ever spoke, he avoided eye contact. He preferred to look at the nose of the person he was talking to, or perhaps at their chin, or at some distant point past their head.
This was truly a shame, because the second thing about Hank were his eyes. Toasty warm and almond butter brown, they were framed in lashes the color of dark chocolate, thick and rich and long. So much so that when he blinked, it was as if two butterflies were resting on his face, gently folding their wings.
Hank liked his life for the most part, but he knew it had to change if he wanted his future to not suck. He'd been a stockboy at Asok's Asian Deli for over six years, ever since he was seventeen.
It was time for Hank to be different.
One thing special about Asok's were its big front windows. They gave Hank his view of the world, as he watched people walk by. Today, he spent more time than usual watching people walk, because he knew Anna was coming, to buy groceries for her family. She had graduated from high school in the spring, but it was now October, and at some point in the summer she had turned nineteen.
It surprised Hank that Anna still came to Asok's, having not gone off to college, or moved out on her own. It was as if nothing ever changed with her, just like nothing changed with him. So today, Hank decided that he'd dithered long enough. Anna was all grown up, an adult and everything a woman ought to be. She should move out on her own, and she should be his girl.
That is, of course, if she would like me to be her guy.
Sometimes it freaked Hank out knowing when Anna was coming. He didn't know how he knew, and he kept what he thought to himself as, at exactly the right moment, she broke free from the crowd about a block away.
She's so beautiful, his brain told him as he watched her take long strides.
On most days, Hank imagined that Anna was walking right up to him. Today was not such a day, for he was a nervous wreck. The weather was chilly, and Anna wore her favorite off-white Angora sweater, fastened with just the middle button. A floral pattern graced the scoop neck t-top she wore underneath, with professional gray slacks completing her ensemble. As she grew near, Hank noticed she was wearing her white tennis shoes, instead of the cute pair of black pumps she typically wore.
Probably because of the weather, he thought. It looks like it's going to rain.
Hank wasn't able to think about much else, other than the fact he was staring at Anna. He then found himself pondering the look of his own drab clothes. A faded color t-shirt from some cultural event he attended long ago lay hidden beneath his official, buttoned-up blue Asok's work shirt. He also had on the company correct dark blue cotton trousers. This pair was a little ragged, and they flared just enough at the cuffs to hide all but the toes of his slightly scuffed, dark brown boots.
He tore his eyes off Anna long enough to look down on his sad attire. At least they're clean and I smell good.
Hank smelled good no matter what. Some people might mention that first when describing him. Early in the day, after having taken a shower, a person might mistake his scent for a basket of daylilies, or tuberose washed in rain. As morning became noon, his body produced green scents, like mixing spice with citrus from the produce aisle. Later in the day, they might think tea was being served on a fresh mowed lawn, with his sweet scent calling to discover what smells so good out there. For years, no woman had been close enough to Hank to enjoy the scent of his world, but like a fine wine, he'd improved with age. Now if one did come near, she'd best be prepared for what he might do to her otherwise good moral senses.
Anna had been coming to Asok's for as long as Hank had been working there. She was only thirteen back then, but she had always been stunning. Tall for an Asian woman, but short when compared to Hank, Anna was pure Japanese. Her stick straight, jet black hair had grown long over the years, accentuating her height. It shone brilliantly, even when the weather was cloudy, as it was today. Still, she oftentimes carried with her a pair of sunglasses, using them as a hair beret when not wearing them. Lately, her favorite pair had big square lenses set in chunky white frames.
Hank focused on the button of her Angora sweater. A breeze blew back its tails, framing her curves in fabric.
Hank was mesmerized. She's an angel approaching with her wings unfurled.
Anna liked to walk as if in a hurry. She swung her purse powerfully. Hank loved the way her bosom bounced when she walked that way. He knew she loved it too, and he was pretty sure she also knew he loved it, so for that reason more than any, he decided things would change today.
He was going to talk to Anna.
She breezed into the store, causing the chimes on the door to jangle. She made sure her apparel was proper, standing still long enough to make Hank smile at her. She cast him a quick glance and almost smiled herself, before grabbing a red basket and doing her shopping.
Fifteen minutes later, after she was finished, she disappeared back into the crowd on the street outdoors. Hank minded his manners as best he could, so as to not gawk. He greeted two of his favorite customers by name, an old Asian couple named Satō, who didn't speak much English. They liked Hank a lot, oftentimes saying hello, which was about the only English they knew. They also gave him polite head bows along with toothy smiles, and Hank bowed back to them after bagging their groceries in the cloth sacks they had brought along.
Usually Hank worked at Asok's until closing time, except sometimes on Friday, when the store stayed open late. Today, though, was an exception, for he had made an appointment to take his second PEP Test, to finally find out what kind of Genius he was.
It had been ten months since his first test came back positive. Most people took their second test just a few days later, to find out right away what kind of Genius they were, but Hank had delayed this otherwise momentous event. He didn't really know why, but he had made an ultimatum on Monday, which was the day he scheduled the appointment to take his second test. Either he was going to talk to Anna when she came to shop, maybe even ask if she'd like to go on a date, or he was going to the PEP Center for the second time.
And he didn't talk to Anna. So after she disappeared into the crowd, Hank finished up his responsibilities. He said goodbye to the owner, and to some other people he knew, before hanging his work shirt by his apron in his locker in the back. He put on a soft cotton pullover top the color of brown dirt, and his favorite black hooded sweatshirt, accented with gray stripes.
He thought about his future as he rode the bus to the subway that would take him to the PEP Testing Center at Capitol Hill University on the outskirts of town. He tried not to get his hopes up. No one knew what the second test would predict, and the strangest of pairings often came from taking one.
A middle-aged plumber was on the news the night before, standing before the cameras and a field of microphones. His second PEP Test had declared him to be a Genius mathematician, and he entertained the reporter interviewing him with a tale of how he could solve the newspaper's daily Sudoku puzzle with amazing speed. His red polka-dot face grew bright as he began describing Chaos Theory, and its ability to predict astrophysical phenomena, and how his free PEP education would let him pursue such lines of thought.
The reporter cut him off politely, and as quick as possible, to send the broadcast back to the studio.
That plumber seemed happy.
Hank felt happy, too, for the most part. He liked stocking shelves at Asok's, working with the suppliers to make sure the right amount of everything his customers needed was available at all times. The owner appreciated him for his skill at this, and for his attention to detail.
Hank was pretty sure his second PEP Test wasn't going to declare him to be a Genius stockboy, even though working at Asok's was the only thing he enjoyed nowadays about his life. He hadn't had a girlfriend since his high school crushes, and his buddies from back then had all moved away to raise families or pursue careers, or do something else that was important with their lives.
That fact did not make Hank happy at all.
He looked upon the river as the bus crossed a bridge connecting his side of the city with the other. Although cold outside, the setting sun made the water sparkle, and its beauty took his mind off his troubles for a while. The beauty was short-lived, however, as something black and sinister churned the far-off sea. It raced like lightning toward the river, traveling far faster than any force of nature ever could.
It seemed headed straight for Hank, filling the river below from one bank to the other. It rose in the air when it reached the bridge, as if gaining life. Greasy dark black tentacles soon engulfed the bus. Like the great hand of Poseidon, they gripped the bus and shook it. The rhythmic motion tranferred itself to the roadway, twisting the bridge like taffy.
No one on the bus took note of this, save for Hank. He looked at the passengers with fear for their lives, but none so much as gasped. Not one single person raised their eyes from what they were doing to pretend they were alone.
With evil intent, the black invaded the interior of the bus. It squeezed through the panels and windows as if they were made of gauze. It sought out every passenger, throttling them by the neck, to strangle them before throwing them into the churning sea.
To aid the black in its intent, the river rose as well. Water shot up high, buckling the bridge and creating gaping cracks. The entire bus was lifted by one such burst of water, to soon plunge overboard.
Hank rose to his feet in alarm. He cried out to his fellow travelers, who seemed oblivious to their doom. "Look out everyone! Hang on!"
The few who did raise their eyes looked at him with flaccid faces. No one seemed concerned that Death was imminent.
The black took note of Hank, however. It stopped attacking the other passengers and sent all its tentacles to him. Within seconds, he was engulfed.
Leave me alone!
Hank arrived at street level after exiting the subway, and walked the short distance across campus to the PEP Center. The receptionist didn't notice him, as she seemed engaged with what she was watching on her computer monitor.
"I'm here for my second PEP Test," he said to gain her attention.
"Oh. I'm sorry" she said, looking at Hank over her glasses. "I was just…" She paused as grave concern washed the color from her face. "Have you seen the news?"
"Ah… no. I just got here," Hank said, sounding confused.
She stood up and invited him to her side of the desk, allowing him to see what was on her monitor. Breaking news was being broadcast about a recent disaster. 'Freighter Strikes Highway 20 Bridge' the trailer read along the bottom. Above it, a helicopter view showed half the roadway gone, having fallen into the river or crashed upon the freighter's deck. A rescue operation was under way, indicating people died.
Hank stared open-mouthed. "They say there was an earthquake out at sea somewhere," the receptionist said. "It created a seiche—like a tsunami, I guess."
"How did that boat get there?" Hank asked, as the freighter that destroyed the bridge was too huge to travel up the river.
"The seiche picked up a lot of boats, tossing them about. This one…" she pointed at the carnage, "broke free from its berth and got sent into the river. It stuck under the bridge, and the next time the water rose…"
She left it at that, letting the news broadcast tell the rest of the story. "Some cars fell in the water when the bridge went down," she said. "They're looking for them now."
The broadcast switched to black and white surveillance video footage taken moments before the catastrophe, from a camera mounted on the bridge. The receptionist became animated.
"Oh! They showed this clip before. You have to watch what a bus does when the freighter hits."
Although the image was grainy, it was obviously a miracle. Like a special effects scene in a movie, as the bridge crumbled all around, somehow the bus made it safely to the other side. It continued undeterred, as if nothing happened.
"God saved them," the receptionist said, convinced by her faith. "It's rush hour now. There must be a dozen people on that bus whose lives were saved."
"More like twenty," Hank said softly.
- Upright. In the Den.
- Sci-Fi Action Adventure, propelled by a little Romance.
He used to say he loved me.
He held me close and warm.
He used to hate to say good-bye,
And couldn't wait for us to be once more.
But then one day,
A note, a train…
By the time I reached the station, he was gone.
Our nights were long, but starlight shone.
He held me close,
But now he's gone.
And the stars don't seem to shine so bright
As I spend my nights alone.
And all for what?
A train, a note…
By the time I reached the station, he was gone.
Under a heartless, starless sky,
I spend my nights alone.
And all because
A note, a train…
By the time I reached the station, he was gone.