G. Wells Taylor


Borland cradled a glass as he sprawled on his swaybacked sofa, a half-bottle of whiskey on the coffee table in front of him. Too tired to do more than zip open his Variant Squad jumper for a bit of relief. His belly bulged out and up toward the cracked ceiling like someone was inflating it.

Coming out of retirement was thirsty work.

He had set himself up under a dim lamp he kept on the cracked veneer side table in his living room. The television sat across from him. He'd already turned it on, but only got a bright blue screen. Since his reinstatement as a Variant Squad Captain he'd found enough extra money to hook up the broadband again. The fact that he'd ordered it four weeks ago and the television was still a blue screen with nothing on it gave him something to chew about at coffee break if anyone would listen, but he didn't really care.

Borland never watched much broadband anyway. Getting drunk and arguing with a blue screen made as much sense as yelling at the news. But hooking it up in the first place seemed like something that a normal person with responsibilities would do.

Stay focused. You rattled some chains.

He'd been on his feet all day talking to recruits so he'd grabbed his bottle when he got in, stuffed a couple pillows and an old winter coat against the arm of the couch and propped himself in a drinking position. There was still time to get a bit of a glow before bed-and he found he slept better with a few solid slugs in him-at least for the first half of the night. Also, the triple-meat sub sandwich he'd had for supper would start to react with the whiskey if he was stupid enough to lie down too soon. Borland was not a fan of heartburn, especially now that he was on the road to recovery.

He'd never be healthy, and he'd never be young again. But at least he could be watertight.

He had just finished reading a Team Omega comic book that he took from Zombie's locker at the Stationhouse. Two days after quarantine ended, the other baggies were cleaning out his personal effects when Borland happened by. The young man's involvement was weighing on him. Not so much from guilt-he'd do it again in a minute, the sacrifice had been worth it-but he was stricken with an intense curiosity about the young man who picked the shield-name Zombie. Borland had walked past a second time as the locker's contents were being stuffed into a box.

Zombie's parents had been told what happened to their heroic son, and would be anxious to get their hands on his possessions: just toiletries and T-shirts, underwear and hairbrush. But it was Zombie's stuff, their little boy's gear.

The third time Borland walked past the lockers, the box was sitting there unattended so he reached in and grabbed the comic.

He didn't think mom and dad would miss it. And if things continued with the new Variant hybrid the way Brass' scientists were predicting; they'd soon have too much on their minds to worry about their dead son's possessions. Hell, they might even come to envy the boy in time.

Beachboy had said Zombie read re-issues of the actual Team Omega comics. The originals were published decades before, but had been re-released with upgraded artwork and re-purposed as graphic novels.

Borland couldn't have cared less about the history lesson and he told Beachboy as much, but he could understand the novelty of a full-color paper version of something, over the insubstantial virtual incarnations that were flickering on e-readers and tablets everywhere.

He left the comic book on the coffee table for weeks-forgot about it for a time when other things came up.

Distraction from hell…

The comic was ragtag, the paper worn from many readings. There was a picture of a kid eating radioactive waste on the cover. But Borland had been pleased to find that the issue included Zombie's namesake, Zombie the superhero. He turned out to be some dreamy character all in white and glowing green that had these foot-long eyebrows. It turned out that his powers came from insomnia. Not being able to sleep gave him the ability to talk to the dead and communicate and fight through the dreams of others.

Borland sneered at the stupid pack of made-up geek talk, but he found the story and pictures interesting enough, and easier to read than a wordy eBook. The story followed Team Omega fighting the Robot Maker-a mad scientist who wanted to rule the world with machines.

Borland had read through most of it the last couple nights, but had just finished the final chapters and epilogue.

He flipped it back to read the last page again:

With the world safe from evil once more, the team returns to Omega Island to unwind…

One joker named Blackout wore a dark hood with a single eyehole. He got his powers from boozing.

Borland liked him.

Deciding he needed air, Blackout tucked the bottle of whiskey under his arm and took the long stairs to the top of a tower to relax and, Borland imagined, get stinking drunk.

That's the spirit!

And that was when Blackout ran into the prissy caped hero, this Zombie fellow, standing up there in the dark, watching the full moon and thinking.

Blackout was at the top of the stairs, and drinking up a storm. Then he noticed light coming from ahead.

Blackout said: 'Oh, Zombie, can't sleep either, huh? Want a drink?'

'No my friend, drink will not help,' replied the taller hero. The full moon was behind him. 'I never sleep. That is the source of my power. I could not speak to the dead otherwise.'

Blackout drank.

'And because I never sleep. I can never dream,' Zombie lamented, while Blackout kept swigging whiskey in the foreground.

Zombie drooped into a sad pose overlooking the moonlit sea and said: 'And without dreams, life has no meaning.'

That switched in the next frame to Blackout sliding down the wall plastered drunk saying: 'Sure sounds to me like you need a drink.'

Borland knew that was supposed to be a funny ending to the adventure.

He turned the comic over in his hands before setting it down. The cover was frayed, and the pages tattered. It was clear that the issue was important to the Zombie Borland knew.

He had read it to pieces.


The kid got something out of it. Maybe something that made him decide to quit training for a mechanized army unit to volunteer for the Variant Squad.

Maybe something he thought would give his life meaning.

But it was something that got him killed.

Death can have meaning, too.

Borland struggled to get comfortable on the couch, but the action brought a riot of twinges, cramps and pains from his rewired guts.

Felt better, but just a bit.

He'd lost some weight too.

But just a bit.

Brass had come through on his offer to get Borland's hernias fixed. That was five weeks ago, and the doctors said they wouldn't do it unless he lost a lot of weight, but Brass just started pulling strings. The big man

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