NARRATOR: Alongside a lonely highway in Central New Jersey, a deathly quiet falls over a deserted suburban shopping center.

ROB BELL, ADVENTURER: You drive by, and you see houses, and farms, and all of a sudden you see this site. And it’s almost completely deserted. And you ask yourself, what could have happened?

JIM MEIGS, JOURNALIST: Every once in a while, you will see an abandoned strip mall, and it’s obvious why. The buildings are old and not in good shape, with peeling paint and crumbling curbs. But this one looks brand new.

NARRATOR: What powerful forces could have emptied this promising shopping destination?

ANDREW GOUGH, HISTORIAN: The only signs of civilization are the cars passing back and forth on the highway. But none of them stop here. It’s uncanny.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER, MILITARY HISTORIAN: The buildings all look brand new, but it’s clear that no one has ever set foot in them. Who could have built this vast complex and then just walked away from it? Where are the shoppers? Where are the tenants?

ROMA AGRAWAI, ENGINEER: It’s just so strange. You look in the windows, and you can see the certificate of occupancy. The mall looks ready to move in. It’s structurally sound and everything. You can look around and just imagine a Liberty Travel here, a Dollar Tree there. But there isn’t anything.

NARRATOR: What once was a promising site for commercial development is now an empty husk of a strip mall. What could have caused this site to become abandoned so quickly?

BELL: You get the feeling like a major piece of the puzzle is missing, like there’s something unexpected and different about this site.

NUSBACHER: One thing that’s fascinating about this site is that it’s so modern. Which means that, whoever abandoned this place, it couldn’t be Nazis. Which is odd, because if you watch this show, it’s usually Nazis.

MEIGS: On one hand, it’s just an empty strip mall in suburban New Jersey. But on the other hand, it’s a powerful metaphor for loss and isolation in the twenty-first century. It’s extremely unsettling.

NARRATOR: This is the Princeton Meadows Shopping Center.

AGRAWAI: Work on this site started in 2019, with plans for construction to be complete by summer 2020. The weather in the winter was mild, and the contractors made good progress. By March 2020, the site was nearly ready to open.

NARRATOR: But in March 2020, an outbreak of a virus named COVID-19 would wreck all the grand plans for the opening of Princeton Meadows. Anthony Harper was one of the developers.

ANTHONY HARPER, REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER: It’s not been an easy year for us. I mean, it’s not been an easy year for anybody. We had several tenants lined up. CVS. Einstein’s Bagels. I had a couple of feelers from Orvis, you know, they sell all that fancy outdoor gear? They all backed out as soon as the lockdown started.

MEIGS: There’s a certain poetry to the silence, a certain splendor to the absence.

BELL: All that effort that went into building something like this, and here it is empty. You walk around, and you think of everything that could be here. A nail salon. A hardware store. Maybe over there in the corner you could have a Five Guys.

GOUGH: I haven’t been inside a Five Guys in over a year now. You can get takeout but it’s cold by the time you get it home. It just isn’t the same.

AGRAWAI: All I want is to go to a restaurant with my husband without worrying about getting sick. I’m talking a date night here. Just to sit and talk for a while. It was such a normal thing, and now it isn’t.

NARRATOR: Princeton Meadows now faces a difficult time in an uncertain future.

HARPER: So from a financial standpoint, we’re taking a severe hit. And that’s not a great place to be, but there are so many people in this community that are hurting so much more than my partners and I are. You hate to see it. A lot of the crew that built this strip mall are out of work now—have been for months.

MEIGS: I look at one of the online tracking pages every day, and the numbers just keep going up and up. I remember when losing a thousand people a day was such a scary figure. Now, it’s four times that, and it’s heartbreaking.

NUSBACHER: I think back to the 1940’s, during the Blitz, and people in London wondered when that was going to end, and it didn’t, not for years. Is this close to the end of the pandemic, or is it just beginning?

HARPER: I got a call the other day from a guy who wanted to open a shoe repair place here, and I nearly cried. I mean, it doesn’t sound like much, a shoe repair place. But it was something hopeful. I feel that we’ve lost that in a lot of ways.

BELL: I’m an adventurer. A world traveler. I spent six months in a studio apartment in Hoboken, sheltering in place. You can’t imagine what that’s like.

GOUGH: Twenty years from now, we’ll look back on this time, and I don’t think any of us will ever remember it fondly. All of us have been touched by this cruel disease, in ways we won’t ever fully understand. And those that have lost a loved one will never forget that impact.

HARPER: I know it’s just one shopping center. There are a million of them in New Jersey. But to see it empty like this, day after day, when it should be filled with life, is just so depressing and sad. I keep thinking, one day, we’ll have tenants, and customers, and things will get back to normal again. All we can do is hold on until that happens.

NARRATOR: The tides of history move on, racing past us all. Princeton Meadows stands as a mute reminder of the ravages of disease and time.


In Every Life A Little Reign Must Fall

To “rein in” a horse means to pull on its reins, causing it to slow down. So the phrase is “rein it in” — NOT “reign it in.” If you’re reining something in, you’re doing to it what a rider would do to a runaway horse.

Grammar Rant of the DayMarch 4, 2014.

SeBour, a member of the board of directors for the Arbutus Business and Professional Association, said the organization discussed encouraging private investment in Arbutus, but didn’t have anyone to take the reigns.

Baltimore Sun, January 7, 2015.

Two weeks ago, Meehan was appointed to Governor-elect Charlie Baker’s transition team to oversee educational issues. At the same time, Caret announced his departure at the end of January to take the reigns of the University of Maryland college system.

Lowell Sun, January 7, 2015.

But perhaps Mother Nature was giving Jodie Marsh a hint that she should reign it in a little.

Daily Mail, January 6, 2015.

I have tons of ideas flying into my head all of the time – that’s what happens when you’re ADD. You’re hyperactive and all over the place, but you can also sit for eight-hour stretches if you’re really interested in something. I can reign it in and control it. I’ve also found ways to cope with things that distract me.

Publisher’s Weekly, January 6, 2015.

ICYMI, “Pitch Perfect” star Rebel Wilson crushed it when she hosted the MTV Movie Awards back in April of 2013. This year, another hilarious blond lady will take the reigns, so when MTV UK caught up with Wilson when she was out promoting “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” we just had to find out if she had any advice for Amy Schumer. (She does.)

MTV News, January 6, 2015.

Sources tell News4 Jack Requa, Metro’s assistant general manager, will be asked to take the reigns as acting GM. The announcement is expected at Thursday’s board meeting.

NBC 4 Washington, January 5, 2015.

With Republicans set to take over both chambers of Congress on Tuesday, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said on “The O’Reilly Factor” Monday he cannot wait for the GOP to take the reigns and show that “the grown-ups are now in control.”

Daily Caller, January 5, 2015.

What to Watch: After an admittedly dramatic offseason, the Jaspers are trying to find some consistency on the court this winter but it hasn’t always been easy. Manhattan needs to reign it in a little bit.

The Saratogian, January 1, 2015.

“The President has expressed full confidence in Director Brennan and demonstrated that trust by making no effort at all to reign it in,” Udall said., December 17, 2014.

Inhofe is set to take over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee when the new Republicans take over the Senate in January. This committee is a key player in regulating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and trying to reign it in.

Mashable, November 12, 2014.

Using “rein” instead of “reign” is not difficult, people. It just isn’t. Make this a priority, please, before I have to come and slap you.


So Your Wife is Going to Have Twins. Here’s What to Do (After You Stop Panicking)

As best I can tell, it happens maybe 200 times a day in this country. A nice couple goes into a maternity clinic, a nice medical technician turns on the ultrasound machine, and the scan reveals that the woman is pregnant with twins. And panic ensues.

It may not happen in the clinic – probably it won’t. It may not happen on the drive home. It may not happen that day, or the next. But if you find out that your wife is about to have twins, there’s a good chance that you’re going to panic about it. (Panic is almost guaranteed if you’re talking about triplets or higher-order multiples.)

The first thing to understand is that there’s nothing wrong with panic. Panic is a natural, healthy response to a frightening situation. Panic is completely called for under the circumstances. So go ahead and cut loose, at least for a little while.

All done? Good.

The problem with panic is that panic never helped anybody do anything, and you’ve got quite a lot to do between now and the time that your wife gives birth. Some of the things you have to do – like babyproofing and arranging for child care – you’d have to do anyway with just one baby, but there are plenty of complications with two or more that you need to be aware of.

1. Learn how to handle basic baby care responsibilities. If you don’t know how to care for babies already – I know I didn’t have the first clue when my twins were born in 2009 – you’re going to have to learn. This is a cold hard fact. Everyone knows that as an American father in the twenty-first century, you’re expected to shoulder at least a share of the parenting responsibilities. But if all you have is one baby to deal with, it’s certainly possible – I am not recommending this, you understand-to push off a bunch of the messier parts of the childcare experience onto your wife. But if you have two babies in the house, there’s no way that you’re going to avoid dealing with baby care. You’re going to do diaper changes, you’re going to clean up vomit, you’re going to help feed babies, you’re going to get spit up on. Explosively. Accept this.

So how do you get experience in dealing with baby care? Well, there’s nothing like on-the-job training, but if you want to get a jump start, you could do worse than reading a basic book like The Happiest Baby on the Block. Happiest Baby is not, strictly speaking, a child-care manual, but it does tell you what to do when one or more of the babies starts crying uncontrollably. (This will happen, often, and it’s very helpful to have at least some idea of what to do when it does-see the discussion about panicking, above.)

2. Develop your strategy. Okay, just how do you and your wife plan on caring for two babies at once? With one baby, you can-again, this is not recommended-kind of wing it. That is to say, you respond to that baby’s needs as they come up. You can try that with two babies, but it can be a prescription for disaster.

The best example of how this works is nap time. If you have one baby who’s ready to fall asleep, it’s in your best interest to do everything you can to get the other one to fall asleep, too. This has several advantages, the most important of which is that with both babies asleep, you will get some sleep, too. And you will need it.

But setting aside the need for sleep, if you don’t coordinate it so that the babies are on something like the same kind of schedule, you’re basically committing yourself to 24/7 baby care without a break. And you’re going to want a break, if only to take pictures or check your e-mail or just enjoy your kids for a few minutes. If you feed the babies at the same time, burp them at the same time, and put them to sleep at the same time, you’re sparing yourself a lot of aggravation.

Of course, you’re also going to have to make decisions about how to handle the big, controversial childcare issues-breastfeeding versus bottles, disposable diapers versus other more environmentally friendly options, co-sleeping versus bassinets. Start thinking and researching your approach to these issues now, rather than deciding things later when you’re exhausted and distracted.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, because you’re going to need it. As you let family and friends know that you’re having twins, it’s not too early to ask them to lend a hand once the babies arrive. The more help you can get, the better off you’re going to be. If your parents want to come over for a week to help out, let them by all means – as long as they’re there to help and not just be entertained by their grandchildren. If you can find friends who will bring over takeout, that can be a huge help, too. (This isn’t limited to just your close circles, either. You’re likely going to need some kind of help at your office, for example, in terms of additional leave and support.)

You’re at least going to want to think about getting some kind of professional help. We hired a cleaning service even before the babies came, just because my wife was having trouble dealing with the housework during her pregnancy. You’re certainly going to want to identify people who can babysit so that you can get the occasional night out-two babysitters are better than one, at least when the babies are very young. We didn’t consider a nanny, but I regret not trying to get a doula – someone who comes over part time and assists the mother in taking care of herself.

Also, take the time to try to set up some kind of contingency plan in case of illness. When my twins were six months old, my wife and I both came down with a serious case of the stomach flu at the same time. I couldn’t so much as feed the babies without getting violently ill. We had to call in my wife’s mother, who lives an hour and a half away, to help. That was a lifesaver, but it would have been better if we’d had someone closer to home that would have been available to help. Try to figure out what you’re going to do if there’s an emergency ahead of time.

4. Get a Costco card. This of course assumes that you live near a Costco, or some similar warehouse store. With two babies, you’re going to be buying a lot of your supplies in bulk, partly because it’s cheaper and partly because you’re going to need more. Costco and its competitors are going to be cheaper on a lot of things in a lot of ways. (There are certain things that Costco doesn’t carry, though, like butt paste.) And at least at our local Costco, you have shopping carts that hold two babies at once, which is an enormous convenience.

But shop around-we were able to get a lot of stuff cheaper at some of the specialty baby stores, and elsewhere online. (The “Amazon Mom” service, which got you several free months of free shipping through Amazon Prime, was very useful, not least because you didn’t have to leave the house to buy stuff. However, it doesn’t seem to be open to new members at the moment.)

Along with this, don’t be afraid to ask for sibling discounts. Babies R Us has a discount program, and your child care provider may cut you a break for multiples.

5. Get a minivan to handle all the stuff you will buy at Costco. That’s largely self-explanatory in and of itself, but the real advantage of the minivan is the remote power sliding doors. Make sure that you buy a minivan that’s big enough to accommodate your stroller. (Side-by-side strollers are easier to maneuver but can be hard to fit through doors; back-and-front models are a little easier to deal with but give the twin sitting in back ample opportunity to kick the back of a sibling’s seat.)

Once you get the big issues out of the way, you’re free to concentrate on the fun stuff, like naming your twins (please, nothing cutesy like rhyming names or names that start with the first initial) and buying clothes (pick out stuff that’s complimentary but not quite identical-even if your twins are identical you want to be able to differentiate between them).

The amount of work that it takes to raise two babies isn’t just double the amount of work it takes to raise one-sometimes it feels like the same amount of work squared. Having twins in the house is tough enough as it is. If you take the time to make some decisions now about what you want to do as a parent, it can make things a bit easier and result in less panic for everyone. (You have stopped panicking, now, haven’t you? Good.)


Rules For Going To Costco On a Saturday

(Note: this is 2020 as I repost it; it is clearly a relic of the Before Time. Your mileage may vary.)

  1. You are not alone in this world. Actually, if you stopped reading this whole entire rant at this point, and just realized that “Hey, it’s true, I am not alone in this world,” I would be happy. Ecstatic, even, Thrilled beyond words. But people don’t do that, or at least they don’t do that at Costco on a Saturday. Case in point. I had survived all of the numerous indignities and annoyances that are concomitant with a Saturday Costco trip, and I was waiting in line, and the couple ahead of me in line had put all their stuff on the conveyor belt, and that meant that it was my turn to start putting my stuff on the conveyor belt, but I couldn’t, because this woman was standing right in front of the conveyor belt for no good reason. So I said, as nicely as I could, “Excuse me,” and she realized what she had done and apologized. But think about just how self-absorbed you have to be not to realize that, on a Saturday at Costco, somebody might be in line behind you? I mean, honestly.
  2. Your IQ drops fifty points every time you walk into Costco. Our ancestors were prehistoric hunter-gatherers once, and Costco is all about hunting and gathering. It is a place for the reptile brain to shine. You’re going to make stupid decisions like paying thirty dollars for a box full of fried cheese. But it doesn’t just happen to you, it happens to everybody, and that means two things. One is to show consideration to other people (in accordance with #1 above), and the other is…
  3. WATCH WHERE YOU ARE GOING. WATCH. WHERE. YOU. ARE. GOING. This is not just a rule for Costco. It’s a rule for airports. It’s a rule for grocery stores. It’s a rule for driving your car on the highway. But it applies double at Costco, which, on any given Saturday, is filled to the rafters with people who are not watching where they are going. You are driving a big, heavy cart loaded down with Kirkland Fruit Chews and paper towels and pork chops in an environment with hundreds of other people, all driving big, heavy carts full of discount-priced bulk. You cannot–you cannot–just stand in the middle of a heavily-trafficked aisle and stare off into the distance like you were on a peak in Darien and staring at the wonder of the Pacific Ocean. WATCH WHERE YOU ARE GOING.
  4. Be a shark. Sharks move or they die. Sharks don’t stand still. You know what stands still? Shrimp stand still, and sharks eat shrimp, and Costco shoppers are not going to put up with you if you stand in front of the frozen shrimp and squat there, talking on the phone, or staring off into some other freezer case wondering what the difference between the regular tilapia and the panko-crusted tilapia is. MOVE. Don’t just stand around.
  5. Do not block aisles and doorways. This sounds like I am repeating myself. If you watch where you’re going, and if you keep moving, you won’t block aisles and doorways. And yet, people still block aisles and doorways. I often say that there’s a special place in Hell for people who constantly, stupidly block exits–and it’s right by the exit. I am not saying you have to be a rocket scientist to go to Costco, but if you had the common sense and situational awareness that God gave dung beetles, at least you wouldn’t park your cart in the middle of the doorway to the refrigerated room where the milk is. And yet, this happens all the time.
  6. Don’t get the food. I don’t care what it is that they’re giving free samples of. They’re doing it in a heavily-trafficked spot. If you stand around, with your cart, waiting for a free sample of ranch dressing, you are going to be in my way or someone else’s. That is really just another way of saying that you should know your store’s layout. Know where the bottlenecks are and whether you are going to be causing people problems by lingering in one spot or another. And, for God’s sake, have your receipt in your hands and ready to hand to the person when it’s time to leave.
  7. If you break any of these rules–and probably, you will, at least be embarrassed about it when you get caught. Apologize. Realize that we’re all in this together, that nobody really wants to spend their Saturday in Costco trapped in a large building full of food with a couple of hundred feral hunter-gatherers. Be nice. Watch your kids, and tell them to watch where they’re going.


Thor Slaymaster’s Snowbound Angel

“It’s called a polar vortex, Mr. Slaymaster.”

Thor Slaymaster grunted. Thor Slaymaster liked cold weather, the way that he liked beer and nachos and hot alien women. Zombies were easier to kill in cold weather. The shapeshifter aliens were easier to spot, as the mist from their breath tended to glow in a pale lavender color. And Thor Slaymaster’s hot alien girlfriend positively hated cold weather, and wanted to spend every cold day wrapped up in blankets with a warm body beside her.

But the snow made the roadways impassable, and the winds made the helicopter unflyable, and Thor Slaymaster was restless. Beer and nachos and sex had fulfilled his basic requirements, but he hadn’t killed anything in days and the forced inactivity wore on his nerves.

“Has everything shut down?” Thor Slaymaster asked.

Terry bit his lip and stared at his monitors. “Everything’s still quiet, Mr. Slaymaster. Air traffic is shut down. All the bad guys are stuck inside drinking hot chocolate. Only thing running is the subway.”

“Then that is where I must go.”


“Revenge,” Thor Slaymaster said.

Down in the tunnels, deep beneath the city, there lived an angel. Thor Slaymaster had seen her once, and she had defeated him. But he was still alive, and it was a good day for revenge.

Thor Slaymaster had no idea who she was or even if she was still alive. She had attacked him after he had agreed to help relocate the local mutant community to a new housing project in Baltimore. The mutants had moved willingly, and were rapidly gentrifying a bombed-out sector of the city. But the angel had not reappeared, and Thor Slaymaster had been bogged down with a zombie uprising in Miami and had not been able to track her down. He reasoned that she was likely a mutant herself, and had stayed behind in the tunnels. It was a decent place to start.

Thor Slaymaster took the subway to the end of the Green Line and went exploring down the far end of the tunnel. The area where the mutants had been looked like a beehive without the bees. There was a startling assortment of earthmovers and tunneling equipment everywhere, but all the workers were home due to the freezing weather.

Thor Slaymaster trudged through the mess left by the construction crews until he came to the place where the new station was being prepared. He saw the woman with the angel wings and the dead-white mask standing on the platform, as though she was waiting for the next train.

“Thor Slaymaster,” she said. “Predictable.”

“As predictable as me finding you here.”

“Have you come to gloat over your triumph?” the angel asked.

“You misunderstand,” Thor Slaymaster said.

Thor Slaymaster was talented, athletic, and deadly, but certain things were not part of his skillset, and leaping was one of them. He had no more chance of leaping six feet off the railbed to confront the angel standing on the platform than he did of, well, growing wings. He thought about taking a shotgun from out of his over-the-shoulder harness and just blasting the angel into the next world. But Thor didn’t know what defenses the angel had against such an attack–she could be a shapeshifter, or another kind of alien altogether with unguessable powers. And the revenge he truly wanted was to wrap the angel’s whip around her throat and squeeze.

“You have a mission,” the angel said. “So did I, once.”

“Everyone knows my origin story,” Thor Slaymaster said. “I did not come down here to listen to yours. If you want to defeat me, here I am.”

“And give up my strategic advantage? If you want your revenge, come and get it. Don’t think you can taunt me into coming down there, either.”

The only reason that Thor Slaymaster was still alive was his ability to recognize and exploit the weaknesses in the strategies of others. He searched his mind for anything that could give him an advantage. He could fetch one of the construction machines waiting down the track, but they would be slow and he would be a sitting target. He could approach the subway platform from above, but the angel would be ready for such a tactic. There were no ramps or ladders or jetpacks lying around.

“You showed wisdom in dealing with the mutants,” the angel said. “Show wisdom now, and leave this place.”

Thor Slaymaster said nothing.

“I will not harm you. I would even give you some hot chocolate if you wanted some. It is cold, even down here, and far too windy for me to fly.”

Thor Slaymaster said nothing.

“Ah, the famous Thor Slaymaster silent treatment. Let me ask you this, silent man. Why did you come down here? It wasn’t for revenge.”

“Revenge,” Thor Slaymaster said, “is a dish best served cold.”

“That is an excuse,” the angel said. “An excuse made by incompetent or inefficient men. If vengeance works at all, it works when it is sudden and bloody and violent and unrestrained. You know this, in your heart, and yet you did not seek vengeance against me until now. Why?”

“My duties lie elsewhere,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“Then I give you a blessing,” the angel said. “And, as is traditional, a curse. Do your duty. Fight the monsters and aliens that infest this world. Protect the innocent where you can, and fight ruthlessly where you can’t. When you are done with your duties, and if you still want revenge, then meet me here. I will be waiting.”

“Back so soon?” Charlie said. She was still in bed, wrapped up against the chill. Thor Slaymaster thought he saw a small movement in her lower body, under the thick covers, that might have been her tentacles.

“Yes,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“That didn’t take long,” she said.

“Duty called,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“Zombies?” Charlie asked.

“Something more important,” Thor Slaymaster said. He flipped the covers back. He had been right about the tentacles.


Thor Slaymaster’s Breaking Point

Thor Slaymaster sat quietly in the dark room. He had been there for three days, more or less. In that time, he had determined that the floor and walls were constructed of hard, durable, seamless plastic, probably overlaid on solid concrete or stone. Temperature and humidity were controlled, which suggested some kind of ventilation port, somewhere above his reach. He had not been provided with any sort of food or water or anything that even pretended at being a toilet, and had therefore determined that the room did not have a drain built into the floor.

The good news was that there weren’t any zombies in the room. Thor Slaymaster could handle being in a dark, stinking, escape-proof cell as long as there weren’t any zombies in there making life difficult for him. So he slept when he could, and sat quietly when he couldn’t sleep, conserving as much energy as possible against the time when his situation changed enough that escape and bloody vengeance were possible.

Twenty feet above Thor Slaymaster, an eight-foot tall alien in a brown robe impassively watched a monitor showing Thor Slaymaster impassively sitting in his cell. “This one is not reacting as the others have,” he said.

A human in a filthy lab coat nodded. “He is taking longer to reach his breaking point. But he will. All men reach their breaking point, sooner or later.”

“As you have said, Dr. Slaughter. What else can you do?” the alien asked. His squirming mouth-tentacles were the only outward sign of impatience.

“I can introduce pain,” the doctor said. “This specimen is very large and very tough, and probably not very smart.”

“He could be smarter than he looks,” the alien said.

“I don’t think so. He’s probably survived much worse privation than this in the wilderness where we picked him up. It will be difficult to break him using our standard tactics.”

The alien’s mouth-tentacles spasmed and went slack. “We have discussed this, Dr. Slaughter. Our race does not believe in violence. We intend to subjugate Earth through persuasion and logic, not force. There is no need to cause this man any more pain.”

“But we must break him,” Dr. Slaughter said.

“Yes,” the alien said. “Do you remember how we broke you?”

Dr. Slaughter went pale. He repressed a violent shudder, then went to the control panel next to the monitor. He paused for a long moment, considering a large red button that read “NICKELBACK,” but thought better of it. He opened a plastic cover and pushed a smaller, black button, to be used only in emergencies. It read “LANA DEL REY.”

Thor Slaymaster heard the opening strains of “Young and Beautiful” and smiled. Up until this moment, he had only known one thing about his captors. Now he knew several things. He knew that they used some sort of power source to power the hidden speakers above his cell. He knew that they were at least conversant with some elements of human culture, even if they might not be human themselves. He knew that they were wholly irredeemable and therefore not entitled to anything even approaching mercy.

And he knew they would come for him, eventually, and try to subject him to something worse. He would be ready.

About sixteen hours into the musical torture, a bright light came down from the darkened ceiling. Thor Slaymaster was caught in its beam. He was unsurprised to find that he was immobilized, and that he was drifting upwards.

“It’s a stasis field,” Dr. Slaughter explained. “The sensation will pass in a few minutes. You’ll be taken to our recovery room for analysis.”

The recovery room proved to be brightly lit and quiet, without a hint of twenty-first century torch music. The bed was nice and comfortable. The restraints were well-padded. A small medical robot crawled up Thor Slaymaster’s arm and injected an IV saline solution. A larger robot held out a bedpan.

The alien in the brown robe glided over to the foot of the bed. “Welcome,” it said. “Are you ready to accept my unquestioned authority?”

Thor Slaymaster stayed silent.

“He must have survived his ordeal only through his brute strength,” the alien said. “He does not appear to have much in the way of reasoning function.”

“It may be a lingering aftereffect of the stasis field,” Dr. Slaughter explained. “More likely, he’s just too stupid to understand.”

“Maybe a different question, one that’s easier for him to answer?”

“You can try. He’s not going anywhere.”

“Well, then. Do you have any questions of us?” the alien asked Thor Slaymaster. “Who we are? Why we’re doing this to you? What do we hope to accomplish?”

“Why do you want to die?” Thor Slaymaster asked.

“A metaphysical question,” the alien said. “See, Doctor, he is smarter than he looks. And to answer your question, what I want is to rule this planet, and end its plague of violence, and I cannot do that if I die. So your premise is invalid.”

“You misunderstand,” Thor Slaymaster said. “You kidnapped and tortured a Slaymaster, so you must want to die. If I know why, I can kill you more efficiently.”

“Clearly,” the alien said, “this one is not at his breaking point.”

Dr. Slaughter started to say something about the limits of operational conditioning, and then started to say something about the padded restraint on Thor Slaymaster’s left arm being loose, and then didn’t say anything at all because Thor Slaymaster had yanked on his cheap polyester tie and had fractured his windpipe.

“Violence,” the alien said. “Is it all you humans know?”

Thor Slaymaster grabbed hold of a medical robot that was trying to refasten his restraints. “Pretty much,” he said, as he threw the robot in the general direction of the alien’s head.

As the alien screamed in unaccustomed pain, Thor Slaymaster removed the rest of his restraints and his IV. Unfortunately, the alien recovery room did not seem to have anything in the way of usable weapons. “I have one more question for you,” Thor Slaymaster said. “Do you like your justice swift, or poetic?”

“I thought you were smarter than you looked,” the alien said.

“Poetic, then,” Thor Slaymaster said. He picked up the IV stand and whacked the alien in the midsection. The alien doubled over, and it was easy work for Thor Slaymaster to push him down into the cell below.

“Get me out of here,” the alien said. “I’ll give you whatever you want.”

Thor Slaymaster smiled. He had what he wanted. He had his freedom, a new race of aliens to fight, and fellow human beings to rescue. Thor Slaymaster had a breaking point, but it would take a lot more than nonviolent aliens, turncoat doctors, and cheesy twenty-first century popular music for anyone to get anywhere near it.


Thor Slaymaster’s Exit Strategy

“This was supposed to be a very short budget meeting,” Alvy said.

Thor Slaymaster didn’t say anything. He was trying to figure out the readings on the controls of the spacecraft. The changing green figures on the center display looked to be a proximity range of some sort. Whether the figures represented the proximity to the Alphabet ship or to the firm, flat, unyielding, deadly surface of the Earth was a matter of some current concern for Thor Slaymaster.

“You’d canceled it three times,” Alvy said. “Killbot invasion last Monday, helicopter malfunction last Thursday, and I don’t remember your last excuse.”

“Hangover,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“That’s not what you told me.”

“At the moment,” Thor Slaymaster said, “it is not that important.”

Thor Slaymaster was uncomfortable in spacecraft, the way he was uncomfortable in formal wear or chairs with armrests. Thor Slaymaster’s skillset did not encompass orbital dynamics or ballistic navigation or any of the approximately seventeen other specific knowledge bases that one would need to guide a damaged, pilotless spacecraft to either a convenient local space station or the surface of the large, blue planet below. Since neither the spaceship or the inconveniently deceased pilot was of human origin, this made Thor Slaymaster’s task of keeping himself alive unreasonably difficult.

“What you told me was that you were taking a quick trip up to the Alphabet ship to see Charlie, and that I could ride along, and we could go over the budget figures on the way up. That doesn’t seem to be working out so far.”

Thor Slaymaster briefly considered whether a controlled experiment involving throwing Alvy out the nearest airlock to reduce the ship’s drag coefficient would be beneficial. He concluded that it might be, but that other matters took precedence and that good combat accountants did not grow on trees.

“Do you know what is wrong with the pilot?” Alvy asked. “If we could wake him up, maybe he could tell us what to do.”

“Unlikely,” Thor Slaymaster said. While Thor Slaymaster had substantial experience with the anatomy of the aliens commonly known as “Alphabets,” his knowledge was mostly confined to the female of the species. However, he had every reason to think that the crack in the rear skull carapace that the pilot had experienced was as fatal as injuries get.

“Maybe I could do CPR,” Alvy said.

“They don’t have hearts,” Thor Slaymaster explained. “You’re an accountant. Do you know what the numbers there mean?”

“I think that one that looks like a saxophone might be a twelve.”

Thor Slaymaster considered the situation. He and Alvy were trapped on a small, not to say claustrophobic, spacecraft with a damaged communication system and a dead pilot, which, depending on just how you looked at the controls, was either hurtling out of control towards the oblivion of the asteroid belt or headed straight on a collision course with what looked to be Madagascar.

Thor Slaymaster knew his limitations. No man alive could do more damage to an oncoming zombie horde. But here, in deep space, most of what he knew was working against him. He needed help, but the only member of Team Slaymaster around for several hundred cubic miles of deep vacuum was not being very helpful right at the moment.

“Alvy,” Thor Slaymaster asked, “what exactly is it that you specialize in?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Slaymaster?”

“Well, I mean, we have you on Team Slaymaster for a reason. What are you good at? It can’t be just accounting. For both of our sakes.”

“You mean like Excel? Data mining?”

“You misunderstand. I mean like, skills that can help us get out of this spacecraft and somewhere safer.”

“You mean like an exit strategy?”

“Precisely,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“Okay,” Alvy said. “Exit strategy. What most people do is assess where they are and how they get out of it. Unfortunately, that’s counterproductive, because it focuses all your attention on where you are. What you want to do is figure out where you want to go, and work backwards from there to get to where you are.”

Thor looked out the pilot’s window at the blue mass of Earth. “How about there?”

“You’re not getting it,” Alvy said. “Your exit strategy has to be fixed on a specific goal. The Earth, for example, is a good place to go, but it is also a very big place. It’s mostly ocean, and if you land in the ocean there needs to be a ship around that can pick you up. I also think the prospect of landing a spacecraft in the uncharted ocean would frighten me just a little bit.”

“Slaymaster HQ, then.”

“Better. Now you just have to figure out how to find it after you decelerate from orbit. You know how to decelerate from orbit, right?”

“It is not my strong suit,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“If landing on Earth is not realistic, then what else do you have?”

Thor Slaymaster considered his options. “Shapeshifter mothership is a no-go. The moon is two days away, and I didn’t bring any snacks. I don’t want to go to the International Space Station if I can avoid it.”

“Why not?” Alvy asked.

“Their coffee is lousy. The Alphabet ship is probably our best option. They can probably get us back home faster than anywhere else.”

“Do you know the name of the ship, by any chance?”

“I think it’s called the EXPHARLABLIGZWOOZLEBLORGLE.” Every word in the native language of the Alphabet aliens had at least twenty-six letters.

“Because there’s a button on the left there that says that, and under that there’s another button that says WOOLERBLINGLEQUABBLEBLONGER, which I think means something like ‘autopilot’.”

Thor Slaymaster pushed the WOOLERBLINGLEQUABBLEBLONGER button, and the ship automatically fired its retro-rockets and slowed to a more survivable speed. He pushed the button for the Alphabet ship, and the spacecraft made a gentle turn until it was within the range of the ship’s tractor beams.

“Well done, Alvy,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“Thank you, Mr. Slaymaster. Now, if you could just take a quick look at the third quarter ammunition spending. What we’re seeing here is a trend…”


Lord Voldemort Makes Some Basic Mistakes

Now that the Harry Potter series is over, it may be instructive to go back and see, exactly, how and why Lord Voldemort…

SPOILER ALERT: The following contains serious, massive spoilers for the book and the movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and maybe the other books if you haven’t read those. You have been warned. Read no farther!

As I was saying, to see exactly how and why Lord Voldemort failed to follow the simple rules set forth in the epochal “Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became an Evil Overlord” list. The following is inspired by that list (and hopefully doesn’t infringe on it in any way, or at least I hope not). This is the Top Things I’d Do If I Were Lord Voldemort.

I will stop calling myself “Lord Voldemort.” I will pick a name that is equally evil, of course, but less obvious, like “Lord Simon Cowell” or “Lord Scott Boras.”
When I pick a new name, it will not be an anagram of my real name. My enemies have the same access to the Internet Anagram Server that I do.
I will stop calling my loyal minions the “Death Eaters.” Instead, I will call them “The Funky Bunch.”
The next time I have a chance to kill Harry Potter, I will not use the killing spell that has backfired on me four different times. I will shoot him with a gun.
If one of my Horcruxes is kept in the vault of Gringotts, I will take special care not to torture any goblin who may have access to said vault.
If I have only one Horcrux left, and it is in my pet snake, I will not take that pet snake into battle with me. I will entrust the snake to the care of my local zoo or herpetological association during the course of the battle.
I will not insist that I alone be able to kill Harry Potter myself. If one of my Funky Bunch has the chance to kill him, I will allow him to do so. Then I will kill that person and take credit for killing Harry Potter anyway. It’s not like anyone would ever be able to contradict me.
If I announce that Harry Potter should give himself up, and come into the Forbidden Forest alone, unarmed, and he does so, I will not immediately kill him. I will wonder why he did something so foolish, and ask him so.
If I come up with a great idea like giving one of my Funky Bunch a silver hand that strangles them the second they betray me, I will insist that all of my Funky Bunch get the same silver hand and not just one person.
If I do manage to kill Harry Potter, I will check to see that he is dead myself, and not let one of my Funky Bunch do it if I have threatened the child of that person in the last few days. Then I will shoot Harry Potter with my gun, just in case.
If I acquire a wand that is rumored to have unstoppable killing power, I will try it out on one of my Funky Bunch first before using it on Harry Potter.
If I am interrogating a prisoner with vital information, and one of my Funky Bunch signals me that they have captured Harry Potter, I will pay attention to the signal instead of continuing to interrogate the prisoner. I am the Dark Lord, and I ought to be able to multitask.
I will not let Severus Snape become headmaster of Hogwarts just because he asks me to. Double agents cannot be trusted. Instead, I will send him out to kill Harry Potter and let one of my Funky Bunch take the job.
I will not leave my diadem Horcrux lying around the Room of Requirement where anyone can find it. I will donate it to the British Museum, and chances are that they’ll just store it in a vault somewhere, which is fine by me.
I will not have all my Horcruxes be completely obvious magical heirlooms. At least one of them will be something that you would never think would be a Horcrux, like Nelson’s Column, or Tony Blair’s hairpiece.

You know, it’s a wonder that Voldemort got through seven books, when you think about it.


Thor Slaymaster’s National Treasure

“No,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“It’s an important mission, Mr. Slaymaster. The President knows you’re the best person to handle it.”

Thor Slaymaster stayed silent. He knew if he did this long enough, the little man with the neatly parted hair, the horn-rimmed glasses, and the briefcase would go away, allowing Thor Slaymaster to recalibrate his air-defense system.

“Satellite imagery says the National Gallery is still intact. We know the Matisse was being stored in the sub-basement. We have the security codes. What we need now is someone to retrieve it, and you’re the best qualified person to do that.”

The State Department official was correct, but only because Washington, D.C. was the largest zombie population cluster in North America. Although the zombie outbreak had been largely confined to the Southeast, the hardiest zombie tribes had made their way to Washington and had settled there. Determined opposition had kept the zombies contained within the Beltway, but penetrating deep within Washington itself was a challenge for even the most determined zombie hunter.

“Look, Mr. Slaymaster. The President owes the French Premier a big favor after the incident with the Omega Box. Returning this painting to France is a matter of national honor. He has instructed me to give you whatever you need to accomplish this mission.”

Charlie stuck her head out from the ordnance room. “Does that include a new helicopter? Mil-spec?”

“I can have one here within the hour,” the State Department representative said.

“He’ll go,” Charlie said.

“Charlie,” Thor Slaymaster said. “This is not your decision.”

“If I have to hear you complain about your old helicopter one more time, you will have a different decision to make, one that you won’t like.”

Thor Slaymaster didn’t like being cornered by his girlfriend, the way that he didn’t like movies with subtitles or plain-cake donuts. But there are times when every man has to bow to the inevitable.

“Make sure you get them to fill up the fuel tank on the helicopter first,” Thor Slaymaster said. “You. Tell me about this painting.”

“It is called Pot of Geraniums,” the State Department representative said. “It shows a pink flower with a large green stem in, well, a pot.”

“This is a national treasure?” Thor Slaymaster asked.

“For the French.”

“Remind me never to go there.”

The stretch of open grass between the National Gallery and the Air and Space Museum would have been a perfect place to land a new, mil-spec helicopter, if it wasn’t for the teeming hordes of zombies milling around.

“What do you think?” Charlie asked.

“I think this is a suicide mission,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“You like those.”

“You misunderstand,” Thor Slaymaster said. “I do not like suicide missions. Sometimes, they are necessary. This mission is about retrieving a picture of a flower in a pot. It is not necessary.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Charlie asked. “You want to try going through the roof?”

“Cause a distraction,” Thor Slaymaster said. “Pick the ugliest building you see and blast it.”

“Is that one ugly enough?” Richie the helicopter pilot asked, pointing towards a large pile of crumbling concrete just to the north.

“That’ll do.”

Most of the zombie horde around the Gallery moved towards the smoking rubble of the nearby Hoover Building, but there were still a few stragglers. Charlie fired her chain guns into the remaining zombies, clearing enough open space for a quick landing. From there, it was a straightforward march into the Gallery, interrupted by shotgun blasts and the dying moans of zombies.

Generations of thieves and looters had taken every scrap of artwork out of the Gallery long ago. Thor dashed through the Rotunda, taking care not to step on the few remaining shards of sculpture. A few zombies lingered in the corridors, and Thor dispatched them with his shotgun. He found a stairwell that looked clear of zombies, and jammed the door behind him shut, taking a moment to reload.

To Thor’s surprise, the sub-basement was well-lit. The room where the painting was supposed to be kept opened with a touch. The Matisse was there, sitting on an easel, in plain view.

Thor Slaymaster activated his wireless headset. “It’s a trap, Charlie,” he said.

“Isn’t it usually? Who is this time?”

“One way to find out,” Thor Slaymaster said.

Thor Slaymaster pulled a handgun out of a shoulder holster and took careful aim at the painting. He fired, and the painting toppled off its easel. He waited a long moment for a net to fall from the ceiling, or a cloud of toxic gas to be released, or an explosion. The explosion took a few seconds longer than he expected, and came from a different direction.

“God damn it, Slaymaster,” a very loud voice shouted. “You weren’t supposed to do that!”

Thor Slaymaster turned and found a very large, angry man in the remnants of an Air Force general’s uniform screaming at him.

“I was careful,” Thor Slaymaster said. “I made a tiny hole in the corner. Easy to fix.”

“You were supposed to return that to the god-damned French Ambassador! That was a priceless work of art! A national treasure! The President will be furious!”

“I did not vote for him,” Thor Slaymaster said.

The general’s red face clashed horribly with his ragged blue uniform. “We brought you down here to recruit you. To see if you had what it took to help us reclaim this city from the zombies.”

“This is how you recruit? No wonder the military is losing people.”

“But you’re a loose cannon, Thor Slaymaster. You’re a menace to everyone and everything around you.”

“I was designed that way,” Thor Slaymaster said. “What’s your excuse?”

“You listen to me, Slaymaster,” the general said.

“Why? You haven’t said anything interesting yet.”

“You think you’re tough? I have spent my whole career crawling down the tunnels and subways of this fair city, killing every zombie I saw, just to try to keep some semblance of a national security apparatus up and running. I don’t need you to come down here and tell me jack-squat, Slaymaster.”

“There is no national security, General. There is no nation. All we are is a collection of problems. And most of those problems accumulated right here, in this city, because people refused to face up to their responsibilities.”

“Fancy talk,” the general said, “coming from someone with no real responsibilities.”

Thor Slaymaster smiled a smile fierce enough to cause even a dedicated zombie-hunter to take a step back and reconsider his lifestyle choices. “I am responsible, General. I am responsible to my team. And right now, they are waiting for me. Do you have the real painting?”

The general reached into a nearby file drawer and extracted a hard, cylindrical plastic case. “Here it is. How did you know?”

“You would not have endangered the mission by leaving the real painting in a vulnerable location.”

“Just so,” the general said. He handed the painting to Thor. “You shouldn’t keep your team waiting.”

“Thank you, General. And… good luck, with the whole national-security thing.”

“Good luck to you, Thor Slaymaster, with the whole zombie-killing thing.”

Thor Slaymaster headed back up the stairwell and fired a small rocket into the jammed door at the top of the stairs. When the echoes faded, he reactivated his wireless headset and stepped over a pile of charred zombie corpses. “Coming up, Charlie. Hot LZ. Be ready for pickup.”


Thor Slaymaster’s Dark Angel

Thor Slaymaster hated after-action reports, the way that he hated light beer and heavy body armor. But they were a necessary part of his profession. More than once, he had made it through a narrow scrape because of some piece of information that had been written down in an after-action report. So the first thing that Thor Slaymaster did after he got back to Team Slaymaster headquarters was to ask Andy to bring the recording equipment for the AAR. Then he asked Charlie to bring disinfectant and bandages.

“You’re a mess,” Charlie said. Thor Slaymaster’s alien girlfriend examined the mass of scratches and scrapes that covered Thor Slaymaster’s upper body. “And here I thought that you were out there on business. What was her name?”

“I do not know,” Thor Slaymaster said. “But I am going to find out.”

“I was teasing you, sweetheart,” Charlie said.

“You misunderstand,” Thor Slaymaster said.

The city was rebuilding the ancient subway system, which was good news for commuters but bad news for the mutants. The city had offered to relocate all mutants affected by the expansion to Baltimore, but quite a few of them refused, for the obvious reason. The city contracted Team Slaymaster to remove the remaining mutants with as little bloodshed as possible. “As little bloodshed as possible” wasn’t really in Thor Slaymaster’s wheelhouse, but it was a good opportunity to try diplomacy for a change.

Thor Slaymaster asked the subway conductor to hold the train for him at the end of the line, and when you’re a subway conductor on a subway line populated by rebellious mutants, and Thor Slaymaster asks you to wait for him, you wait for him. Thor walked down the tracks to the largest of the mutant settlements. There, he met with the mutant leadership, and explained the (admittedly, relative) advantages of moving to Baltimore, and the disadvantages of facing Team Slaymaster in a small, enclosed space.

“We will discuss what you have said, Thor Slaymaster, and give you our answer tomorrow,” the mutant spokesman said, out of one of his three mouths. Thor Slaymaster shook the less scaly of the mutant’s hands and headed back to the subway, confident that he had done a good day’s work and had earned a big plate of General Tso’s chicken, two or three cold beers, and a deep-tissue tentacle massage from Charlie.

There was one other person on the subway, and she was waiting for Thor Slaymaster. She was tall. That’s the first thing that Thor Slaymaster noticed, because he didn’t notice it all that often. She was tall, and she was wearing a dead-white mask, high black-leather boots, and a long, black dress with huge bat wings at the back.

“How did it go?” she asked.

Thor Slaymaster didn’t answer random questions from strangers on public transportation conveyances.

“Are you going to slaughter the mutants?” she asked.

Thor Slaymaster shrugged.

“Is that supposed to be an answer?”

“Yes,” Thor Slaymaster said.

The winged woman with the white mask whipped out a whip, which wrapped around Thor Slaymaster’s chest.

“That was uncalled for,” Thor Slaymaster said.

“So is the senseless murder of innocent victims,” the woman said. “Now, tell me, what are you going to do?”

“Nothing,” Thor Slaymaster said. “They must choose. If they will live, they will live. If they will die, they will be killed. All men choose their own path.”

“What path will you choose?”

“The one that gets you to take your whip back, before I wrap it around your neck.”

“You disappoint me, Thor Slaymaster. I did not think that you were given to idle threats.”

“You will find out if it’s an idle threat,” Thor Slaymaster said.

The subway car went around an unexpected curve, which threw Thor Slaymaster’s balance off, just enough that the winged woman was able to push Thor Slaymaster back a step. “You’ve been riding high for a long time, Thor Slaymaster,” she said. “But you’ve made some powerful enemies.”

“Like who?” Thor Slaymaster asked.

She didn’t answer. Thor Slaymaster looked at her eyes, behind her mask, and saw a deep, bright well of anger, and then a flash of radiant energy which flooded the car. The force of the energy shattered the door, and pushed Thor Slaymaster back towards the edge.

“You’re no match for me, Thor Slaymaster,” she said.

“I haven’t laid a finger on you,” Thor Slaymaster said. “That can change.”

The winged woman laid a finger on Thor Slaymaster, and it felt like a hammer blow. Thor fell out of the back of the subway. He was dragged along the tracks by the whip.

“What happened next?” Andy asked.

“She let go,” Thor Slaymaster said. “A full-grown Slaymaster is a hard thing to tow. I unwrapped the whip, walked to the next station, and took a cab over here.”

“You poor baby,” Charlie said. “I think you may have a broken rib or two. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Thor Slaymaster said. “I have never been defeated before.”

“You weren’t defeated,” Charlie said. “You were caught off guard. If you had been properly armed, you would have destroyed her. It could have happened to anyone.”

“It has never happened to me before,” Thor Slaymaster said. “Up until today, the only reason I was still alive was that I had never been caught off guard. Now, the only reason I am still alive was because the dark angel did not kill me. I don’t know what to do with that knowledge.”

“Don’t you?” Charlie asked.

Thor Slaymaster thought for a long moment, and then realized that he was feeling something that he never had before, a desire, a deep-seated yearning for one thing.

“Revenge,” he said.

Charlie’s long, alien tongue darted over Thor’s naked chest, dabbling at the bright red blood that was still seeping from his wounds. “Bet your ass. Nobody does this to my boyfriend and gets away with it.”

“Andy?” Thor Slaymaster asked.

“Leaving now, Mr. Slaymaster.””