?

Vote for the top 1, 2 or 3 stories. DO NOT vote for more than 3, thanks.

Poll closed Apr 14, 2014.
  1. City of Steel

    1 vote(s)
    5.6%
  2. Her Final Days

    2 vote(s)
    11.1%
  3. Two in One

    5 vote(s)
    27.8%
  4. Earth's Hero

    1 vote(s)
    5.6%
  5. Mile Zero

    1 vote(s)
    5.6%
  6. A Leap into Being

    1 vote(s)
    5.6%
  7. Geaby Cross

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  8. The Short Straw

    2 vote(s)
    11.1%
  9. A Cry for Help

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  10. An Imperfect Justice

    4 vote(s)
    22.2%
  11. Centauri Rising

    3 vote(s)
    16.7%
  12. The Guardian of Flora

    2 vote(s)
    11.1%
  13. Belt Trail Bandits

    5 vote(s)
    27.8%
  14. Runner

    2 vote(s)
    11.1%
  15. Negative Balance

    3 vote(s)
    16.7%
  16. Not Pink

    9 vote(s)
    50.0%
  17. JFK Reshot

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
Multiple votes are allowed.
  1. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Closed Voting SPECIAL vote on the Sci-fi Contest entries that didn't make top 5

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Short Story Contest Archives' started by GingerCoffee, Mar 31, 2014.

    As you know, there were some excellent stories in the Sci-Fi story contest. Since the top five were chosen by offsite judges, the rest of the 34 authors have received little feedback on how their stories fared in the contest. 17 of the 34 have agreed to put their stories up for a forum vote, a straw poll for which there are no monetary prizes. M'eh, who needs a prize, ;), we all love it when someone likes what we've written.

    Voting will start today and go for the standard two weeks (but end on Sunday April 13th).
    The stories are longer than the usual short story contests. Voters, pace yourselves, read a couple a day, skim, start but don't finish stories you don't like, whatever it takes to get through the stories and pick the ones you truly thought best.

    VOTE FOR NO MORE THAN 3 STORIES. It's an honor system but we are an honorable group.
    Multiple votes will be allowed but I ask people to please not vote for more than 3 entries. Or you may vote for one or two, remember multiple votes dilute the count for your top pick. By allowing three votes I believe we'll get a better idea than if only the top stories received votes.

    Authors may vote for their own stories if they believe theirs deserves the vote.

    I will not be posting authors' names directly in the contest but obviously they are posted elsewhere in the forum and people are welcome to critique the stories in other threads if the authors have asked for critiques. But for this thread, divorce your feelings about each author and just vote on the story. Again, it's an honor system.

    Stories appear in the random order as I pulled them from a hat. And the poll will initially say it closes early Sunday but that will be corrected later this evening.

    VOTE FOR NO MORE THAN 3 STORIES.

    AUTHORS MAY CORRECT TYPOS and FRANK MISTAKES. But keep in mind a lot of people have already read the stories and won't be re-reading them so you need not do so, it likely will not affect votes. Typos are overlooked if they aren't numerous. But I recognize some authors are sensitive about the pieces they present to the public and those little typos can sometimes loom large.

    To correct a typo or error, send me a PM if there are less than 5. More than five, fix them and PM me the revised story. I'll replace the version I entered (assuming I'll have the poll up before people have time to fix typos). No other editing is allowed.

    Also let me know if I've made an errors in the posts or story titles. Sometimes the board code for italics and bold doesn't copy correctly. Authors, lease check your stories.

    VOTE FOR NO MORE THAN 3 STORIES. :D

    Whew! That took hours. Please let me know if any errors need fixing. I standardized the titles to size 4 bolded font and changed the two that had been in all caps to match the poll.

    Edited to add:
    I allowed one more entry, someone who found out about the runoff late. Hope no one objects.

    In case people are doing what I did and scrolling through a story to get to the next one, I found hitting "command F" (or however you search a document on your computer) and putting in the name of the next story to be read gets you to the story faster than scrolling. :p
     
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2014
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    City of Steel


    Chapter One

    The city of steel

    "Surrender, Model 347! You cannot continue to resist our P.O.D. forces!" A big red android yelled warnings towards me while racing down a highway to my location. Not only that, he had the POD, or Police Officer Droids with him as well. This was no regular android. This one is called model 4323, a fire based android named B.A.T.L.E.S., or Bash And Trash Large Energy Sources, in which, I am quite a huge energy source, due to my MEGA system number five. This certain BATLES guy before me holds MEGA number three. And a MEGA user is the worst kind of enemy I could ever find.

    MEGA is Metal Energy Gravitational Anomaly, a special type of weapon which type varies from user to user. MEGA weapons are among the strongest weapons on this planet, and there are currently only ten ever made. My possession of a rare MEGA weapon is the very reason I am being hunted even now.

    POD (Model 1222 droid) and A.E.R.O. (Air Energy Rotation Orienteer, a flying version of POD, Model 1223 droid) forces were thrown at me.

    I summoned my energy saber, a sword made of pure energy with a curved blade, from my arm. It thrives within my body, and I could summon my saber and bend it to my will at any time I wished.

    A POD unit slashed a simple steel sword located on its side at me. It was only steel, and I could cut that with the slightest ease.

    I turned to the POD on my left, and slashed it in half. I stole the ME Crystals it contained for more energy and used the Gravitational Anomaly function to jump to the very top of a very high building. The red MEGA user was coming, and I didn't want to be there when it did.

    An AERO used its Air Energy Rotation function to fire high powered air cannon at me.

    I simply moved out of the way with my enhanced reflexes, due to the MEGA system’s Gravitational Anomaly function, and the air shot hit and destroyed a POD below.

    Now, droids don't exactly have AI. They are meant to be expendable, so spending all that time creating AIs for them is believed to be pointless and a waste of production time and energy. That only makes it better for me, since the little buggers are only that much easier to destroy.

    I continued my little dance, dodging air shots, left and right, and having the shots destroy PODs below.

    Things were simple, until an orb flew over my head and destroyed an AERO. It was no ordinary orb; it was an energy bomb, fired from a MEGA user. The single energy bomb was able to take out three AERO units.

    I quickly turned, as there would not be another warning shot. Another energy bomb was fired and I cut it in half right in midair.

    The two halves flew past me and exploded. If I had tried to cut that thing with a regular sword, rather than an energy one, it would of went off right in my face.

    All the MEGA users had very high AI, more so than any of the regular citizen worker bots. The red MEGA user knew I could simply cut any energy bombs thrown my way, so BATLES threw huge wave of almost a hundred energy bombs all at once at me.

    I could not jump out of the way, as there is an energy field that surrounds the entire city of steel, and being unable to see it, I could jump into it, and into my grave, being on so high of a building and all.

    The AERO units behind me also just now remembered that they could also fire stuff at me as well, so they fired air shots. Surrounded, I could not run.

    My energy saber shifted and spread around me, in a sphere like barrier that protected from every angle possible.

    Since energy weapons were pretty much the only thing that could stop energy based weapons, I was protected by the bombs, no matter how powerful they were.

    But the explosion was powerful enough to destroy all the AERO units and their shots around me, as well as shave a few stories off of the building that I stood on.

    Since I had no footing, I couldn't keep my barrier up and it turned back into my saber. I hit the ground hard.

    BATLES was too busy dodging rubble and panicking POD units to notice my escape.

    I dashed down the streets, cutting any POD units who were in my way. I tended to ignore citizen bots.

    I ran far enough to get some distance away from that red MEGA user.

    I then leapt to the top another high building. From here, I could see the giant steel-bolted gates that lead to the center of the city. The center of the city of steel had a second barrier inside the first, sort of like a doughnut. A center hole closed off by a barrier, with the main city between the outside and inside barriers, making a perfectly symmetrical and spherical city.

    The barriers that surround the city are highly destructive and break down and completely destroy any material that simply touches them. As far as I know, there’s no way to get through them, not even light can get through, so its impossible to even see beyond this prison they call a city.

    Looking toward the central city, there was a massive gate with two massive suits of armor protecting said gates. The two A.K.A. units that wield artificial MEGA systems, but even though the MEGA systems they have are in every way inferior in terms of power and utility to my own MEGA system, I still wouldn't want to mess with them. It felt strange looking down at them from such a high building, despite their three story height.

    Within the main city, there are four other MEGA users. I wield the fifth MEGA system. They all try to destroy me, but I keep getting away. I'm getting good at that. The MEC (Metal Energy Crystal) the PODs drop also keep me going without rest.

    I could keep doing this for quite a while, why if there was a MEGA user right now . . .

    As soon as I thought that, an energy arrow whizzed right past my head. All these MEGA users just loved to fire surprise warning shots for some reason. They know I can't run away from the city, so it keeps the chase going on forever.

    This one was model 4324, and was a wind based android with a ninety-nine percent hit rate with an energy bow, and was named S.H.O.T., or Super High Odds Target. It wielded MEGA number four. It was a green android.

    SHOT fired another warning energy arrow, knowing that it could hit me whenever it wanted. And I knew that as well.

    I jumped off from the building I was standing on.

    SHOT fired several arrows, but I parried each one with lightning fast movements of my saber. Whenever an energy arrow did get hit by my saber, it vanished with a sparkle of energy.

    I landed, and crashed upon a POD unit resting in an alley way between two buildings. Guess the little thing didn't take enough MEC to keep going.

    SHOT didn't take long to call for backup. The alley way was starting to fill with the resident POD units.

    I cut a hole through the wall on the building that SHOT stood on and jumped through.

    I ran through the halls of the building, and up the stairs to the top. Along the way, I must of past enough citizen units to make out models 7459 through 7488.

    I didn't like the elevator, it took too long. I found the stairs to be much faster for me.

    I made it to the top in no time at all. The MEGA enhanced all sorts of abilities.

    As soon as I opened the door, SHOT tried to hit me with its energy bow. I caught it with the curved part of my saber and held it there.

    Just before I was going to fling SHOT's energy bow into the air, the bow bent in half over my saber, then became straight as a sword. SHOT had trapped my saber instead.

    SHOT tried to twist and break my arm off by twisting my saber, but before it could do that, I gave SHOT a swift kick to the gut.

    Since both weapons were interlocked and were attached to both of our arms, we only ended up falling on each other as we fell off of the building.

    SHOT was on the bottom, so the thing took all of the damage. SHOT was knocked out, and its energy weapon disappeared.

    Not as I wanted it, but I had to run away before the POD units got there and called for even more backup.

    And I ran off, away from the scene, finally having survived another day after facing two MEGA users.


    Chapter Two

    The city at night

    The thing about a city of machines is that it continues to go on, even after dark. Forever moving, with no rest, until new models come about to replace the old ones, never to be seen again.

    Night is also when the truck sized cleaning bots come about to collect destroyed or defective POD units from the day before to scrap and make new ones.

    Walking down the streets, with shadows about, I could conceal myself much more effectively. POD units also don't bother me as often, as the ones who don't get scrapped get their maintenance check and receive their MEC for the next day.

    Thinking that I had nothing to fear, until the morning, an energy throwing knife was thrown over my shoulder, barely missing me.

    There was nothing behind me.

    Another energy knife whipped past me again from the behind; even though I had turned around.

    A third one was thrown, but I reflected it with my saber. There would be no more warning shots.

    This MEGA user was far more hidden in shadows than I was. My mind wasn't even giving me any information on this one yet.

    Six energy daggers, thrown from six different angles were aimed at me.

    I jumped up, onto a low building and dodged them all at once.

    To throw six energy daggers, from six different locations, while being only one enemy, was nothing to what was to come.

    A while hail storm of energy daggers were thrown from all angles. Every single angle combination possible that an energy dagger could be thrown through, there was one. Energy based weapons can cut through iron and concrete as easily as butter.

    I put up my full coverage energy barrier that I used against BATLES. I only put it up for a split second, only fast enough to only block out the energy daggers. An energy barrier that took as much energy as it did to maintain wasn't worth it to have it up longer than it should.

    The energy daggers that had been thrown through the ground had cut a hole through the floor. I fell from the roof of the low building to the story below me.

    Through the window, a whole barrage of energy daggers being thrown as fast and rapid as machine gun bullets were thrown at me.

    I jumped through the hole in the ceiling, back to the roof, but the daggers didn't stop their movement towards me.

    I jumped from roof top to roof top, in attempt to stop the rapid fire dagger from being thrown at me. Moving left or right did not help at all.

    The farther I ran and jumped, going from building to building, the more the angle between me and the daggers decreased.

    Right before one hit me, I intentionally threw myself right off of one of the buildings in a desperate attempt to shake them off.

    I landed with ease, but that wasn't the problem.

    I had been cornered.

    The city was only so big, and you could only go so far before running out of room.

    There, the destruction energy barrier was before me. It was only so many feet away. One touch, and that’s it.

    The daggers had stopped right before they hit me. I didn't need to turn around to know that.

    I was just about to react, to do something to escape, when it happened.

    I figure all in black, and without a face like the others, the black MEGA user.

    I had only seen it in less than even a fraction of a second when it appeared, only for me get knocked back by devastating force, backwards, away from the barrier.

    Wait, away from the barrier? Why would that be?

    It took only less than a fraction of a second for such force to be applied when it did.

    I was knocked into a building, only to crash right through it in less than a second.

    I smashed through three more buildings before my velocity slowed enough for me to hit another building and not go through it.

    I must have smashed through much more building that I had first thought, as something was telling me that I had been blown right out of that black MEGA user's territory.

    The thing with these four MEGA users is that they each patrol four sections of the outer city, the part that I reside in. They never cross borders, and thus are unable to attack me in a group.

    My body had been badly damaged. It made me think why that MEGA user just didn't knock me into the destruction energy barrier. It had to of been the source of the force that knocked me away from the barrier.

    I tried to think more on the matter, but I couldn’t stop my vision from fading to black.


    My head hurt, and my body was low on energy due to regeneration during my sleep, a function of a MEGA system.

    POD units should be out by now. I found and slashed a few up and stole some newly acquired MECs.

    Somehow, in all of that, I had ended up by the water front.

    An interesting lake, it seemed to be a secret entrance into the city no blocked off by barrier. In fact, it wasn't.

    Water entered and left the city by large underground pipes that were sealed off by energy infused bars that were similar to how the barrier that surrounded the city functioned. Any being who even got close to those bars were destroyed.

    Even so, the water itself in the lake was badly polluted. Its only purpose was that it was a way for the machines to dump their waste from their factories. Machines did not need the environment to live, and so they think it as unnecessary to their society. They only strip what they can and make or build the rest for themselves.

    I stepped forward just for a look, then a being shot out from the water.

    Model 4321, blue MEGA user who is designed for water based attacks. Wields MEGA number one and an energy lance that also acts as a changeable trident. Called S.C.U.B.A., or Superior at Catching Unidentified Bio-organisms Android.

    SCUBA landed on the ground right in front of me, and swung its energy lance at me. There was no warning shot.

    I quickly blocked with quicker than quick reflexes. Even though, I had a hard time keeping the attack at bay with my saber.

    This blue android seemed cold, and seemed to only want to destroy me. Even though that black mysterious MEGA user had given me a chance by kicking me out of the way of the barrier, this thing seemed to have no emotion, and it also seemed to wish to stop at nothing to end me.

    SCUBA quickly swung its energy lance upwards, catching me off guard and off balance.

    The blue MEGA user then slammed its energy lance downward.

    I had spun to keep from getting hit, but I still ended up falling onto SCUBA's lance face first.

    SCUBA moved quite quickly for a fish out of water. It almost dropped its lance, but SCUBA quickly regained control over its energy lance, and then stabbed downward point first at me.

    I rolled towards SCUBA to dodge the energy lance and attempt to trip the MEGA user.

    SCUBA only ended up kicking me aside.

    SCUBA tried to stab me, but I parried with my saber.

    The blue android stabbed dead center, stabbed left, stabbed right, and tried to anticipate my every move.

    I only ended up hopping backwards and parrying blows left and right.

    SCUBA brought back its arm way back, and then thrust forward with incredible strength, only to have me side step.

    The energy lance crashed into a wall.

    Brick and rubble crashed down. SCUBA sliced at the incoming objects to attempt to stop them from falling on it.

    I took the chance to make a getaway while SCUBA was distracted.

    A rival without emotion or compassion, and who only wishes your demise, can be a dangerous one indeed.

    Sooner, or later, I will need to make sure that I shall never have to need to fight such a foe, ever again . . .


    Chapter three

    The city guardian strikes

    I had escaped the battle, and crossed the blue MEGA user's territory. I can only wonder to whose territory I had stepped into now.

    A forearm the size and shape of an entire cargo container, smashed through the wall in front of me.

    A giant behemoth of a machine emerged from the building in front of me. The whole thing had taken up quite a bit of space in the entire building that it had been hidden in. The whole building was smashed to rubble by just the giant thing exiting the building.

    The thing seemed pretty beat up and was the color red. It was large and bulky and had only a upper half of a body. Its two arms were only cargo container sized forearms and fists. Its arms did not connect to its body, but instead floated in front of it, and its shoulders were just two huge red glowing spikes, and with two giant seven feet long cannon barrels attached behind them. Connected to the back of its body were two huge blocks that looked just like its arms, but except they were plain without fists attached. Its face was only a flat faceplate, and it seemed to be the newest thing on its body, like if its face was torn off and replaced with a new one.

    Information instantly rushed to my head regarding this monster. It was named C.G., or the Chaos Gear. It is an ultimate MEGA based fighting machine who wields MEGA numbers six, seven, and eight. It levitates by its Gravitational Anomaly function and has MEGA numbers six and seven in its arms and eight in its body, each separate, and since part each has a MEGA, the separate parts can each think and act on its own will. Model eleven, one of the first every created model ever to currently exist. It is also the oldest model that can still currently function. It is also older than the planet Andromeda itself, and its even millenniums upon millenniums older than even the universe.

    An ancient being of mass destruction, eh? I thought my body's model number was old, but this thing was older than the stars themselves! How can a machine become that old and still function?

    But that didn't change the fact that I was still pinned by the Chaos Gear's fist.

    The Chaos Gear lifted what seemed to be its right fist, and the one that held me, into the air. From such a height, I could see the only two AKA squad members who guarded the inner gates. I was wondering right now, which fight would be a worse one to have. Guess I don't really have a choice.

    Big 'ol CG was perhaps strong, but I doubt it had an AI, with it being so very old. I could use that to my advantage.

    The Chaos Gear also had massive hands that were only very basic hands. While it could grasp me, it couldn't crush me. The hands only had enough joints to form a square.

    CG instead threw me straight into the ground. Good thing it wasn't smart enough to know that throwing me up into the barrier surrounding the city could instant kill me.

    But that didn't mean that I didn't slam into the ground with incredible force.

    I got up and tried to run out of there, but dang, for such a large hulking beast, the Chaos Gear could levitate quite quickly. But it was only barely fast enough to catch up with me.

    It sent a massive fist my way, but I jumped up, allowing to momentum of my running to take me farther than usual.

    I landed on a low building, and CG's right fist had followed me to my location. I tried to slash it with my energy saber from the side, but it had no effect. The blade just bounced off. So much for the ‘able to cut through any steel, no matter the composition’ deal.

    CG's right fist curled into that square, and then its whole arm lifted into the sky in an angle pointing upwards.

    I jumped to the roof top of the next building before the fist came down, crushing the building to rubble.

    Just before I landed, the Chaos Gear's left fist caught me in midair.

    I stabbed it to make it let go. I seemed to of added yet another scar to the old beat up thing.

    It let go, fell into the alley way in between the two buildings.

    I ran down the alley way to a fourteen foot high wired fence. I cleared the whole fence in one leap. Jumping to the top of high buildings was nothing compared to that.

    I also seemed to have made quite a big mistake, by jumping the fence and running all this way; I had made it to SCUBA's territory once again.

    The Chaos Gear came crashing this way. I had no time to waste.

    Running by the water's side may of been a bad idea normally, but with a huge mechanical behemoth following, it seemed not all that bad. SCUBA was actually nice to hang out with, in comparison to the old relic following me.

    Just as soon as ol' CG was close to catching up, SCUBA decided to show. Like before, it burst out from the water. What does it do down there, anyways? Take a nap until someone shows up?

    I was actually running fast enough, so that SCUBA ended up landing behind me, rather than in front.

    CG was also close enough for it to ram right into SCUBA.

    SCUBA pretty much got knocked aside several feet back and CG past it.

    Being as ticked off as it was, SCUBA pointed its energy lance forward directly at the Chaos Gear. The point was almost fired as it extended a distance enough to stab CG in the back, even though CG had got a distance ahead of SCUBA.

    The Chaos Gear must of not liked that, as it stopped and spun around in a three sixty, hitting SCUBA with the back of its right hand.

    SCUBA went flying and landed back into the water, extended lance and all.

    I had to shake this giant monster that called itself a MEGA user. It did seem to be struggling to catch up, though. Levitating took quite a bit of MEC, but levitating with such a massive bulky body that it had took even more Metal Energy Crystals. But having such a big body also meant that it could absorb and store that much more MEC.

    Who knows how long it could be until it shut down from too much power loss?

    The Chaos Gear threw its right fist at me. I performed a front flip to avoid it.

    I was about to slash at the cargo container sized forearm before something came speeding through the water.

    SCUBA launched right out of the water, and flew forward towards the face of the Chaos Gear.

    I thought that since CG was occupied with SCUBA, it wouldn't focus any attention on the crashed fist that laid in front of me. But the fist really did have a mind of its own.

    The Chaos Gear's right fist lifted up, and I slammed my energy saber down on it.

    Seems I have found that CG's right fist is completely invincible. Yeah, late info.

    CG's right fist tried to rise again. And I tried to crash my saber on top of it again. Stay put, you!

    SCUBA tried to poke CG with the end of its energy lance, but it was swatted away by the Chaos Gear's left fist.

    SCUBA came my way, but I kicked it back towards CG.

    CG countered by swinging its left fist downwards and smashed SCUBA right into the ground.

    SCUBA wasn't moving.

    Taking its chance, the Chaos Gear's right fist rose from its hole in the ground. I bet it wanted revenge.

    It launched itself at me, and I blocked by holding my saber in front of my, horizontally. The fist was deflected, but I hit the ground quite hard. Good thing I am quite resistant to becoming knocked out.

    Right when I hit the ground, SCUBA jumped up, and came close to poking the Chaos Gear's faceplate, but CG now had both fists, so it had commanded both those fists to slam into each other, palms flat, and they crushed SCUBA like an old car.

    As much as I hate the blue mega user, it was actually a terrible sight to see, since after that, CG rubbed his hands together, making an awful screeching and crunching sounds.

    SCUBA dropped its lance. It was near destruction. The tip of the lance quivered, and threatened to go out.

    I made a mad dash, to try and stop this insanity.

    SCUBA, with busted face, and busted body, turned, and waved its hand towards me.

    The lance flew into my hand, the blue tip became yellow, the same as my saber. I now commanded the MEGA number one, as well as my MEGA number five.

    I jumped up, then slashed down on both fists, two devastating blows that slammed the two fist into the ground.

    SCUBA hit the cement with a loud 'crash'.

    Both fists had two more long scars on them.

    The Chaos Gear seemed to not have any weapons besides the two cannons on its back. It used just its fists to do the fighting for it.

    The two fists struggled in the ground that it had laid in. They couldn't move.

    SCUBA managed to get up and walk several feet away.

    I took the chance.

    I curled my energy saber around my own fist to form a glove made from energy. I then used the lance, stuck it into the ground, and lifted sharply, so that the left fist flew up into the air.

    It was right in front of my face, and so I punched it with incredible force, and it slammed into the Chaos Gear, and made them both fly off a ways.

    I flipped the right fist into the air, and punched it with just as much force, and it when flying, and slammed into big old CG, knocking it back.

    I then ran forward, then pole vault forward, leaving the lance behind.

    With great power, I punched CG, knocking it all the way into BATLES' territory.

    The fists flew after, knowing that they had been beat.

    I deactivated my MEGA, and my saber disappeared back into my arm.

    I turned around, and looked straight at SCUBA. I saw the impossible.

    The Android, the one devoid of emotions looked to me with lance in hand.

    It had its weapon, and it could still stand, but yet it did not attack.

    SCUBA, the Android with only the will to fight looked to me with compassion. It had only eyes and a flat face, but I could tell.

    It was happy and glad I could save it.

    After a few minutes of looking at each other, SCUBA turned, and jumped back into the lake, dropping parts of its metal body as it did.

    It was amazing it could even stand, with its body crushed and beat up like that.

    It was also amazing of how it had disobeyed its very programming as well. What made its very essence and being, and the very orders of the Higher Ups it was forced to obey, it did not.

    SCUBA was designed to fight, even if it would cause the destruction of itself, without self-preservation.

    But yet, it did not.

    What a grand day this was. It seems I have made a friend indeed.


    Chapter Four

    The Armored Automations

    Day became night, and even so, I stated feeling safe within SCUBA's territory.

    I decided to take a stroll. Slaughtering and taking MEC from PODs, the usual.

    I was toying with the little things, until they got scared, then ran away as fast as their wheels could take them. Perhaps it was my imagination. Little POD bots didn't have any bit of AI at all. They would run away.

    "Where'd they go to?" I said to myself.

    "I sent them away." The voice was rusty, and metallic. It was an old robot mono tone voice, but low enough to vibrate the ground.

    I turned, and saw an old, bulky and square robot. It was actually kind of sad to see something so pathetic and plain looking trying to look fearsome. It didn't even had legs, just a set of tread wheels.

    "I am AAA. The very first ever created Armored Automation."

    My mind instantly gave me info on the Armored Automations. They are the lettered guards of the city, from A to T, making twenty in all. They each have their own abilities and powers. My mind also told me that they each have great powers and are not to be messed with. I doubt that it included this guy. He was too pathetic looking to be a serious threat. Even so, I'll at least give him some honor and confidence by letting him complete his little speech before I destroy him.

    AAA is a tank like Armored Automation. It has a square body and giant rectangle gun barrels as arms that can fire giant missiles. It has fingers that can wrap around the edge of the barrel. It also has tank wheels for legs.

    "I am the Alpha Armored Automation. AAA. I am model number eighteen. I was the second ever to be created and the second oldest to exist in the Armored Automaton series. I suggest to you not to take me lightly, as my AI has recently been updated. I understand you have been destroying my POD brethren. For that, you must be eliminated." AAA really ranked high on the emotionless and creepy robotic scale with that last sentence.

    Ah well, let's make this quick.

    AAA fired a missile right in my general direction. I easily cut it in half, and it exploded behind me.

    I leapt forward at the wall crumbled, and then jumped up with saber extended forward.

    My blade hit, but it bounced off of AAA's artificial MEGA system armor.

    This guy really did get the recent upgrades.

    AAA started rolling his wheels, and then came at me with a rocket propelled punch.

    I dodged the punch, but was caught by AAA's big square body.

    AAA rammed me into a wall several meters away.

    Pushing off of the wall, I delivered a kick with serious power put behind it, causing AAA to back off.

    Coming in close, I attacked at very close range, instead of the longer range I just had done.

    I pierced the armor, but it wasn't enough. AAA lifted its rectangle arms, then spun in a three sixty, tossing me aside in the process.

    I quickly rolled to the side and brought up my energy shield as another missile came my way.

    I was unharmed, but I was also distracted enough that AAA had enough time to charge up to me and punch downward with a punch that could bring down a building. AAA couldn't bend its body, but it could extend its arm to the ground, and quickly too.

    I saw the attack coming, and had lifted an arm up and caught AAA's fist in mid launch, pushed it downward, then twisted and stood up. In the same motion, I also brought myself around, and twisted AAA's arm backwards.

    AAA tried to pull its arm back, or even turn around, but its square body wouldn't let it do so. It also didn't have as much strength against something behind it, seeing that its arm was also fully extended.

    I had AAA in a unbreakable hold, but I also couldn't move, since it took both hands and all my strength to hold it there. AAA was a machine with the power to punch down a building, but even so, we were evenly matched in strength.

    AAA spun its left arm uselessly, and tried to lift its right arm upward. If both my arms weren't holding AAA, I would of already slashed it with my saber.

    "Enough of this, let me go, or face the consequences." How could AAA even ask that? Why would I want to let it go? I don't want to get destroyed, don't I?

    As soon as I though that, several AREO units came out of hiding.

    The AERO units fired their air shots, and in a flash I let go of AAA's arm, and sliced the arm joint were the artificial MEGA energy armor didn't protect.

    Even so, I wasn't fast enough to dodge the shots. I was hit, but the damage wasn't enough to crack or even dent my metal body. Seems I am quite lucky that it wasn't energy shots fired.

    I jumped from ground level, to a building were the AERO units were hiding. I slashed them up so that they wouldn't be anymore of a nuisance.

    I looked down at AAA. It picked up its severed arm.

    AAA looked up. It couldn't fire anything at me. It had only one missile per arm to fire. Missiles take up physical space, unlike energy based weapons, so it would be obvious that it didn't have anything more to fire.

    However, what AAA did do, was that it threw its arm. MEC in its stable form is a crystal containing high amounts of energy. If you reverse the flow of energy, as in put energy into the crystals, instead of draining energy out of them, that could cause them to become unstable. Depending on how much energy, or what type of energy, it’s possible to create a timed bomb using ME Crystals. That is what AAA did when he threw his arm; he used the MEC stored in the arm to throw at me to use its own arm like a missile.

    AAA threw its arm with incredible power. The speed of the throw was astounding. AAA should of threw those earlier missiles instead of firing them, with that kind of throwing arm.

    I tried to dive to the other side of the roof top I was on, but the force of the explosion threw me off of the building altogether. The good thing was that I took no damage from the explosion itself. The bad thing was that the fall itself hurt quite a bit. By the time I got up, AAA had already rolled itself to the other side of the building, were I was. It even had a few POD units with it as well.

    I was able duck and roll out of the way at the very last second when AAA came charging with fist forward.

    I tried to slice off AAA's left arm, but it was a fast learning machine. It pivoted, with arm still outward, and it spun around fast enough to backhand me.

    The POD units moved my way to attack, but they were just too slow. I jumped to my feet, then cut down two of them with one slash of my energy saber.

    AAA came my way again, but this time, I had more time to react.

    I jumped, then twisted in midair, then came down with saber outward.

    AAA was able to turn slightly, but even though it was slight, the saber came down on AAA's armored shoulder, instead of the not armored shoulder joint. The problem with the Armored Automations is just that. They're heavily armored, with an artificial MEGA mechanism.

    AAA turned around, and I quickly jumped back.

    "Not good. Battle not in my favor." When AAA said that, all I could think, was 'No duh'.

    AAA then did the most surprising thing. It picked up on of the POD units, and said to it, "Sorry now, but it must be done for the greater of our society."

    AAA inputted a spark into the POD unit, and then threw the little thing.

    I bolted, and really ran, then jumped forward and rolled to avoid the explosion that followed.

    I completely avoided the explosion, but what got me was the metal sword that was attached to the POD's side. It got my right forearm. It was also the arm were I had my MEGA weapon in. It’s the same way of how the Chaos Gear's right arm completely blocks out attacks, energy or otherwise.

    I think by the round shape of the pod units, and how easy they are to grab and lift by bigger bots, as well as how their little sword flies off as shrapnel makes me really think that POD units were designed to be bombs, not Police Officer Droids.

    Backup came, and several more POD units, plus a few AERO units came in a big group.

    AAA picked up another POD unit, and I knew what was coming.

    AAA gave the little thing a park of energy, and then lobbed it like a grenade.

    Instead of trying to dodge it, I jumped straight up, and landed on what seemed to be half a building. The one side of it was newly destroyed, quite obvious, seeing as that it was the building AAA had just threw its arm at not so long ago.

    AAA beamed another POD unit at me.

    This time, I lengthened my energy saber, and tried to cut the POD unit in midair.

    It just exploded once the two objects collided. Nothing special. The explosion was able to dispel my energy saber, even so.

    The very second the explosion cleared, AAA threw yet another POD.

    I took a step too many back, and fell off of the side of the building. Seems to be a bad habit of mine, I really should stop doing that, especially since I had nice soft rubble to land on. Nothing beats a brick in your back, or a bomb in your face.

    As soon as I hit the ground, the POD bomb took out the other half of the building, bringing down the physical barrier that separated me and AAA.

    The AERO units started firing air in concentrated streams to blow the rubble aside. The dust flew in any direction, but the bigger stuff was moved aside. The dirt concentration was thick in the air. That, plus the incredible thick pollution made it impossible to so much as see your hand in front of your face. Even sound was muffled.

    After the air blowing and dust settled down, the AERO units flew away. My mind informed me that the AERO units left to recharge. After that, a cleanup crew will show up to take away the rubble, and then the building will be rebuilt and restored. Any units, bots, or droids destroyed within the building will also be rebuilt.

    I guess that means the AERO units aren't meant for battle after all. They're only part of the cleanup crew. Strange I never saw them cleaning in that fashion before. Maybe it’s because I destroyed them before they could? Nah.

    I looked to were AAA last stood.

    There was nothing there but a single POD unit. Seems AAA has decided to flee. I cut down the POD unit for its MEC.

    Until the day we meet again, farewell first of the Armored Automations, AAA.


    The night was quite long. I spent quite a bit of it fighting AAA, but yet there were still many hours until morning. Maybe I'll explore SCUBA's territory even more, and see what else can kill me. Sounds like fun.

    I walked down an alley way to see a big stinking rat like creature snacking on something. When I say big, I mean huge! I guess it got to be in order to survive in this kind of environment. Even so, there's nothing for it to survive on. What's going on? I thought the machines and units were supposed to destroy biological life forms on sight, especially in SCUBA's territory? The SCUB in SCUBA is Superior at Catching Unidentified Bio-organisms. Perhaps it’s not Unidentified enough? Or maybe the Androids aren't superior enough?

    I took a step forward, and the thing turned around. Damn, it was ugly. Quite a face it had there, might I say?

    I guess it wants to arrange my face in the same way, since it lunged forward, with claws extended.

    I jumped up, and stabbed my saber into the side of the building on my right side, so that I could hang from the wall. The giant rat flew right under me.

    The rat turned, then looked up. It then jumped higher than I thought possible.

    I put my right foot on the wall, and then I kicked off of it, as well as push myself with my saber to launch forward.

    I rolled when I hit the ground, and took no damage. The rat slammed to the ground. Must of been a heavy fellow. If it was as heavy as it was ugly, it might weight several tons. That's a lot of ugly.

    Even so, I was trapped. I glanced back very quickly. This rat was chewing on Metal Energy Crystals earlier. How is it possible for organisms to process MEC? My information couldn't tell me.

    The giant rat moved slowly forward, growling as it did. It slowly pressed me into the end of the alleyway.

    If I jumped, the rat would catch me before I got any distance upwards. The only way out is the way I came in. Well, I came looking for something else that could kill me, and I found just that. Now I got to kill this thing before it kills me. How could I be dumb enough to let it trap me, anyways? Sheesh.

    The big ugly rat snarled before it lunged.

    I rolled under the claws, and then stabbed upward at the big ugly mess.

    Normally, my saber would cut through reinforced steel, but this time, nothing was cut. Instead of cutting the rat, it was pushed upward, then over my head, were I dashed away from the end of the alleyway, out into the open.

    That thing had one heck of a hide. An effect from ME Radiation, perhaps? Who knows, but this thing is as tough as an artificial MEGA mechanism.

    The rat got to its feet, and then turned around in that small, cramped alleyway.

    It came charging, and I bolted.

    I ran down the street as fast as I could, charging into any citizen bots I ran into. My mind told me that I was heading towards SWORD territory.

    I was still running when the thing caught up, then lunged at me.

    I rolled to the side, to an angle, and rolled for a bit before stopping. Seems momentum carried me forward.

    I pivoted quickly.

    The rat lunged forward a second time the very second it landed.

    It had its claws extended forward, ready to kill.

    I swiped my saber, with the curved blade hooking on the big ugly beast's claw.

    I lifted, and then twisted my saber, and with my own force, and the rat's momentum, I flipped the big thing onto its back.

    I grabbed its paw, and then swung it around.

    It crashed into a building.

    I hopped a bit forward, then swung the giant rat in the opposite direction, in a wide arc, then released its paw.

    The big lug went flying, right into SWORD's territory.

    The black MEGA user came out of hiding, and started raining down energy knives at the giant rat.

    The rat then got to its feet, and started running off, deeper into SWORD's territory.

    The black MEGA user won't attack me, because of the fact that I'm not in its territory yet. But that doesn't mean that it won't occupy its time attacking something else.

    Seems like an effective way to be rid of that giant rat to me.


    I walked back to the side of the lake. Feeling battered, it seemed quite nice to relax.

    I lay there, and even though it was unnecessary for me to function, I slept until my body decided to wake.


    Chapter Five

    The informant of the Armored Automations

    I awoke feeling more refreshed than ever.

    I opened my eyes, and nearly screamed my head off.

    There, staring at me with glass eyes and black, smooth face stared an android. It had no specific color, making just a dull grey. It had glass lenses were its eyes were supposed to be, and the rest of its face was just nothing. Smooth, flat metal.

    Its body was also plain. No patterns, no customization, nothing to tell it was nothing more than a mass produced android. The citizen bots at least had their model number painted on their body, and the citizens also had different colors, but this guy in front of me had nothing, like if it had escaped from the assembly line.

    Might as well ask it a question. "Who are you, and where are you from?"

    "Good scream you got there, did all humans scream when startled? My records say it is indeed true." The android spoke freely. This guy certainly has a very free willed AI.

    "Are you here to destroy me?" Might as well find out, everything else attacked me on sight.

    "No, no, no. I was to observe this human act of 'sleep'. I've only heard of it on vague records. I'm not here to destroy you, but just the opposite."

    "Opposite?"

    "Oh yes, I'm here to learn about the humans, who had lived nearly four centuries ago."

    FOUR CENTURIES?!! I guess humans had been wiped out a lot longer ago than I had thought. Even so, how am I still alive? I can only guess that the MEGA systems, as well as my mechanical parts increase my lifespan. Still, my memories only go back maybe a week or two at best. The facts don't add up. Maybe some data is corrupt. Is this why this android is here?

    "Records from the war that long ago had been destroyed. There only exists vague information about the humans. The only thing that remains is their style of thinking, from the AI. Even so, AI has been edited, so that the human desire for war shall not rise any longer. I'm here to learn, so you prove to be useful. There's a reason you've not been destroyed yet, after all." The android certainly spoke in a 'matter of fact' style.

    "AI has been edited?" I guess if the higher up known as PM edited the AI and information, I guess it would indeed make sense for there to be corrupted data.

    "Yes. Only the higher up and a few Armored Automations are free from this corruption." The android stated. "I'm here to fix this corruption in information."

    "But you have said you didn't want any more wars, didn't you?"

    "Indeed. We wish to fix information, not AI, even so." The android seemed to be out of things to say. I stood there for a while, until it spoke again. "Now what would be next in your human life?"

    The question threw me off. Do these machines think that running for your life is normal for humans? My robotic mind said yes. Well, it did answer my question. Might as well answer the android's question. "Uh, usually at this point, something comes out of nowhere and tries to kill me. Meeting you has certainly been a change of pace."

    "Nonsense." It seemed strange to me for an android to use such a humanly word. Machines wouldn't usually use words like this android dose. "If we wanted to destroy you, we would of already sent out the DDRS."

    "DDR?"

    "Its the Dark Drone Retaliation Squad. They can take out any target, not matter their power."

    "I see."

    "Note to be taken: Humans take much opportunity to talk to others they can speak to." I see the android is taking notes. "Perhaps you have another question?"

    "Uh, yeah . . . Who are you?"

    "I am AIA, the Armored Intelligence Automation. I am model 5000 and I carry no weapons, but the plates on my body negate any energy based attack. I am one of those few Armored Automations who do not have an edited and or corrupted AI system." All of a sudden, this regular android seemed very dangerous. "Now, that there are no more questions, perhaps you should continue your human life?"

    I guess there shouldn't be any arguments with an Armored Automation.

    "Um, yeah. Now I would go out and find some MEC, or something."

    "Ah yes, sustenance. Go on, now."

    Man was is it weird to have someone following you like this. It’s also a great big contradiction in all that I have previously known, since I always thought that this city wanted me destroyed. Ah well.

    I walked forward, and to my left, I saw the Chaos Gear. It was being repaired by AERO units. BATLES was also on the end of its territory, giving me the evil eye. It would probably give anything for it to be able to lob an energy bomb at me.

    I quickly walked to the right. I guess since that I now have a buddy, its time to show him how I do things around here.

    I walked around, trying to find some POD units, but there were none in sight. Did I exterminate them all already? Not good. I paused to think about what to do.

    "What method are you using to find the sustenance?" This android maybe the enemy, but I still think it’s good to have a buddy.

    "I'm trying to find some POD units, but there isn't any more."

    "Ah, POD units are constantly in high production. They're manufactured daily, but however, their main HQ is in BATLES territory."

    "Not good." I certainly don't want to go there. CG still has orders to destroy me.

    "SCUBA territory has no POD HQs, so there is no POD production in this territory. However, there is a minor POD HQ in SWORD territory."

    Good, good. SWORD isn't that bad of a guy. "Fine, let's go to SWORD territory to find some POD units."

    "Note taken."

    Off we go. I walked down the street, which was in fact the same street that the giant rat chased me in.

    I got to the end of the street, which was also the end of the territory. I looked left, then right. No SWORD to be found. I guess the guy likes the night.

    I also shouldn't wander into any dark alleyways. That rat could be anywhere.

    Well, time to take the first step. One foot onto SWORD's territory and already I had found danger.


    Coming into a view at a rapid rate, a speeding bot rammed into me from quite a distance away in a matter of seconds. There was not even time to react.

    The blow was even a left hook, so I did not fly back, but into a wall at my direct left instead.

    I quickly forced my way out of the rubble of the wall.

    I tried to look at my opponent to scan for its information, but it was gone before I could as so much as lift my head.

    In the next instant, I was slammed in the gut with a left jab.

    I broke right through the wall, into the building.

    I diced up the citizen bots that were doing generic citizen bot things. I'm not sure what that may be, but their MEC will be quite useful. It may indeed be fighting dirty, but it’s a way to win.

    I faced the hole in the wall. It seemed at the time to be the most logical point of entry my foe would take, but instead it had gone around the entire building, then through a window.

    I was nailed by a left heel before I knew what had even happened.

    The force was enough to knock me out of the building, and into the street.

    Before I could even recover, I was hit by a series of left jabs, and then slammed into the ground.

    This was getting just ridiculous.

    Just as a foot was coming down while I lay on the hard cement, I lifted my right arm and activated my energy saber.

    Almost instantly, my opponent twisted in midair, and slammed its side into the ground, and rolled away at a high speed.

    Even though it seemed strange for this stranger to do that, performing that little trick had allowed it to avoid my saber completely, and it was done fast enough that it was impossible for me to react. I wasn't able to slash the intruder.

    I got onto a knee, then I stood up. There was obvious damage done to my body. Nothing permanent, however. My body is just as tough, or even tougher than a Armored Automation's armor, since I have a real MEGA system within my body.

    My opponent charged full speed at me.

    But this time, it curved slightly in its movement. I had the energy saber out, and so my opponent wanted to avoid it.

    That ever so slight slow down in its speed was all that I needed.

    I slightly moved to the left, and then stuck my foot out.

    My opponent ran into my thigh, but it was what I needed.

    It buckled over, and tripped on my leg. I had also grabbed that same leg and flipped it over onto its back.

    It slammed into the ground.

    I stabbed my saber into its shoulder, so that it would stay still.

    I had my chance to examine exactly what 'it' is.

    My mind gave the information I needed on this guy almost instantly.

    It is the Armored Hyper Automation. There are seven models total, 7001 through 7007. The one in front of me is model 7004, also known as Model AHA 004. All seven came from the same assembly line, and thus they have similar abilities. They all even look alike, with that generic Android look, the same as AIA. However, they each have their own model number, so they each have their own slight variation in programming. If they did each have the same model number as each other, then that would mean that they are just clones of each other. Android clones can actually be good for me. If one has a certain bug, then they all have the same exact bug. Too bad that's not the case.

    Well, time to end it.

    I decided to end AHA 004's existence. I would quickly lift my saber then stab down onto its head.

    However, the android was just too quick.

    As soon as I lifted my saber just one sixteenth of an inch above AHA4's shoulder, it had pushed out from under the curved tip, so that when I brought the saber back down, all that I hit was just plain cement.

    But I did find out the detail that made this guy different than his similar brothers. Model 7004 had no artificial MEGA, and no plates of steel to protect it. AHA4 has absolutely no defenses against a MEGA, or any sort of attack for that matter.

    One stab in the right place could end it all. With AHA4's design, all had been sacrificed for speed, and nothing else. Even its parts had been heavily lubricated to resist friction as much as possible. AHA4's light frame was also waxed, making its dull grey color shine. Perhaps to avoid wind resistance?

    AHA4 looked skeptical to face me head to head a second time. If it decided to flee, there was nothing I could do to keep up with its speed.

    I lifted up my saber, and I seemed to me that AHA4 had jumped a little. I might of even scared it, since the android decided that I wasn't worth the trouble, and it ran off.

    Well, a victory is a victory. I may of not of won the war, but I had won the battle.


    Seems to me that I've lost AIA. He was a good friend to talk to. Ah well, he'll be back for new info I just know it.

    I took my MEC for the day from the citizen bots. Not something I wanted to do, but yet, it works. Might as well find out where the PODs live, and then walk back to my regular spot in SCUBA's territory. It’s a good way to find a place close by for a stock pile of MEC. It’s also the closest thing I have to food and shelter.

    I began my search by walking down the road. Strange thing, this city has a road, but yet no vehicles, other than the POD units and their little tires. Even the citizen bots simply use the sidewalks. I guess there's no material to hall around, unless a building has been destroyed.

    This city full of beings of steel is a strange city indeed. I think city of steel is a good name for it indeed.

    A little into my walk, I came across a large gate that was horizontal, not standing in an upright vertical position. It was flat on the ground, and didn't seem to be too tough of a steel gate.

    All of a sudden, a giant rat comes out of nowhere, then sticks its nose between the crack in the gate, then it lifted the gate slightly, and crawled right in.

    Whatever that gate leads to, I don't want to find out, nor do I want to find out if that thing's in there.

    I continued to follow my path down this road. I did walk down minor roads to look at some buildings as well.

    Time kept moving, and despite my search, I did not find a POD HQ thing, place, whatever. Then again, I wouldn't know what to look for. It’s also not marked on a map for security reasons. It would actually be easier if I had AIA along. Only if I asked him where the POD HQ was. All these buildings look the same; it could actually be any one of them. Not many buildings in this city have windows, even.

    Well, it seems like it’s time to give up and move on.

    I turned around to go back home, but then something stopped me.

    It was an android that moved at incredible speeds.

    This guy must be persistent. Not only is this the second time its attacked me, but AHA4 also had brought along a friend. My mind instantly recognized it as AHA2, another Armored Hyper Automation.

    Normally, you'd call an android an it. They have no genders. But with these two together, it seemed that with AHA2's pink color, one was a boy, and the other was a girl, like siblings. The pink one even had a softer look in its generic glass android eyes.

    I think AHA4 and AHA2 would make quite a couple, however strange that may seem.

    But despite that, there are two of them now. I'm lucky it’s not all seven, but still. Two is worse than just one.

    If they're AHA models, then they're bound to have similar abilities, but with slight differences. It’s that slight difference that’s got me scared more than anything. I know they both have speed based techniques, and AHA4 has limited armor, but what bonus power does AHA2 have?

    I was about to find out.

    AHA4 came charging at high speeds.

    AHA4 moved way too fast for any biped. That, and I wasn't prepared for the blow, and I was knocked off of my feet.

    Right when I got up, I also got a swift kick to the face by the also speedy AHA2.

    AHA2 jumped back. I was between AHA4 and AHA2.

    I could tell what they were going to do. I was caught in a crushing scissor visor. One on one side, and the other on the other side. It would be like a guillotine. The crushing power at their speed would be astounding.

    But it could also go the other way as well, and I could use their power against them.

    Right before they collided, I somehow twisted my right arm to put behind AHA4's head, then pulled it forward, while pivoting behind it, where I pushed AHA4 with my left hand, throwing AHA4 against AHA2, while they were moving at a high speed.

    It was certain that this was a maneuver they had planned, that they were supposed to ram their opponent with their fists, while passing by at a high speed.

    But I had changed that maneuver, and threw AHA4 off course, so that both AHA4 and AHA2 rammed each other with incredible force of their momentum.

    But the strangest thing is the fact that I could not recall how I managed to react so fast. Perhaps it was instinct? The collision happened in a flash. I just barely remember that I pushed AHA4 into AHA2.

    Could I always move that fast?

    AHA4 was totaled. It was smashed in beyond belief. The collision made parts fly. AHA4 was crushed between my hand, and AHA2. The force of AHA4's momentum, and AHA2 momentum was equal, so it took almost no strength to keep my hand where it was.

    But that push I gave AHA4 had slightly increased its momentum, so the damage was even more than what it was supposed to be.

    Even despite the damages to AHA4, and the incredible impact, AHA2 could still stand and move. It stepped back, letting AHA4 fall to the ground, with even more parts off of its body flying in different directions.

    It was obvious. AHA2 had more armor than AHA4. Perhaps that's what its extra ability was?

    AHA2's eyes went from a soft look to a harder look. It was obvious it had AI, and it was also obvious that AHA2 was pissed off.

    AHA2 kicked a small metal part that had previously been on AHA4.

    I caught the part before it hit my face, but AHA2 use it as a distraction to come charging at me.

    I guess my instincts didn't kick in this time, and I didn't have the super-fast reflex like last time. Because of that, I went soaring into the next building behind me.

    Strange thing. I didn't have my saber active, and I didn't even notice it. When did it deactivate? I don't remember.

    Perhaps with my saber out, AHA2 might think twice about charging at me again. I know AHA4 hesitated when I had it out.

    I stepped out of the building, and got ready for when AHA2 launched at me again.

    It did, and I tried to react by slicing forward.

    But the thing about fighting super-fast foes is the fact that they have super-fast reflexes.

    AHA2 twisted away from the saber so that its back faced me, grabbed my right arm with its right arm, then it turned my palm over, where it pushed my hand down, and then it finally put its foot onto my right arm, and slammed my saber into the ground.

    Not only that, but it twisted around, with its right foot still on my right arm, and it swung its left leg around while pushing my left hand down, and stepped on that too.

    After that, AHA2 rapped its legs around my arm, then forced my down with its arms, so that my face was forced into the ground. AHA2 even held a position, so that I couldn't even use my saber.

    Now what? This is in no way a comfortable position, but AHA2 had no way of moving, not any more than I did. I also don't know how to use my legs to get out, nor did I know enough Jujitsu to break the hold.

    AHA2 was also a light weight android. It took every bit of its strength to hold me here. I can only guess that this hold is where one member of the team holds their enemy, so that another member could destroy that said enemy.

    Good thing I took out AHA4, then.

    But a bad thing was the fact that another AHA automation could come out of nowhere. With their speed, they could instantly respond to a help signal, couldn't they?

    My mind answered my own question, and said yes. It also said that AHA2 sent that very help transmission.

    I just had to open my big mouth, didn't I?

    Two AHA automations came in with incredible speed. They appeared in front of me, and I got a glance at them long enough to tell their numbers. AHA1 and AHA3. Both of them were the same color as AHA4. I guess a paint job isn't a priority for them? Either way, I guess I've met AHA automations one through four now.

    AHA1 head over to AHA4's destroyed body. AHA1 tried to pick up AHA4, but instead, AHA4's body crumbled away, and some of it fell in big globs of melted steel and plastic. Moving at a incredibly quick pace dose create a lot of heat, after all.

    AHA1 looked at AHA4's ruins. There was no way to even salvage it. The whole body had to melted down, well, as my mind informed.

    AHA1 instead reached down and lifted out a large container where AHA4 had all of its MEC stored. My mind has informed me that moving at those high speeds takes up a large amount of energy, so the AHA automations had a huge amount of ME Crystals stored in their body.

    Good to know.

    AHA1 left with the metal box of MEC, leaving me with AHA2 and AHA3.

    I also still couldn't move.

    AHA3 got ready to strike.

    Like I'd let it. See, since I can't fight fair, I might as well fight dirty.

    I used all the strength I could muster to move my right arm at an angle towards the ground, then I lengthened the blade, so that I rolled to the right, only a fraction of a second before AHA3's foot came down.

    I rolled onto my back, and onto AHA2.

    AHA2 released me, so that it could get away.

    I stood up. If I was any more human, I would feel very sore, but right now, I felt ready to kick some ass.

    I was between AHA2 and AHA3. They looked ready to perform their rushing guillotine technique, but I think AHA2 sent a message to AHA3 electronically to not do that. I also believe that's how they do most of their talking and planning. Too bad I can't hear what they're saying that way.

    Instead, AHA3 came rushing.

    AHA3 seemed to move much slower than AHA4 and AHA2.

    I moved to the left, and kept my right foot out to trip AHA3.

    AHA3 instead jumped over, and landed in AHA2's arms.

    AHA2 put AHA3 down, and they double rushed me, with arms extended.

    I performed a front flip, and jumped over both of them.

    Both AHA2 and AHA3 were moving at the same speed, since it seemed that AHA3 couldn't move any faster than it was.

    The speed AHA3 moved at was fast, but it was also a manageable speed, unlike AHA4's insanely blinding speed. I also moved fast, so that made AHA3's speed seem even more manageable than it actually was.

    Right when I landed, AHA2 and AHA3 tripped over the remains of AHA4, sending the now cooled parts in every direction, littering the street with metal parts.

    AHA2 and AHA3 got up faced me. It was obvious that I could dodge anything they threw at me. They also seemed to be planning, getting ready to get something else ready to attack me with. But the day was also running out. It was almost night.

    Out of nowhere, the new POD units came in large numbers. Where the heck did they come from? I spent all day looking for them, but only now they show up. Only if I wasn't in a battle, so that I could observe where they poured out from.

    Two of the POD units didn't have the little swords on their sides, but instead they both carried a black box together.

    While AHA2 and AHA3 where occupied, I took out a few of the POD units, and stole their newly acquired MEC. Being near a POD factory can have its advantages.

    The remaining PODs filed out, and left, including the two who had been carrying the box. I wonder what was in it? Extra MEC for AHA2 and AHA3?

    I turned around, and saw that AHA2 and AHA3 both had new attachments on their arms. AHA2 had it on its left, and AHA3 had it on its right. The attachments looked like claws.

    AHA3 lifted its arm and energy started flowing into the claws.

    I didn't know what was coming next, but my mind warned me to get out of there.

    I jumped to the top of a building, and in that instant the ground that I had been previously standing on had been destroyed.

    Crazy new weapon they got. My mind had informed me that the contents of the box contained both MEC, and an experimental weapon where artificial MEGA users, the Armored Automations, could use artificial energy based long rang weapons. I don't know the specifics, but basically, AHA2 and AHA3 now have blasters, and they also got the MEC to fuel them.

    AHA2 now lifted its claw, and started charging energy.

    I leapt off of the building before the roof and the top floor was destroyed to bits.

    That sure is some fire power they have there. One shot and I'd guess I'd be through.

    I dashed out of the alleyway, and tried to run down the street, back to SCUBA territory, but AHA3 caught up, and knocked me to the ground with a flying kick.

    AHA3 didn't have the insane speed of AHA4 of the armor of AHA2, but it sure packed a punch. It seemed to have speed and power, both.

    AHA3 attacked by thrusting its claw downward, and I blocked by holding out my saber.

    The claw on AHA3's hand had four long pointed claws. My saber was right in the center, with two claws on either side. My saber was also unable to cut through AHA3's hand, since energy based weapons cannot cut through energy based weapons.

    AHA3 started charging its energy. My mind warned me to get out of there. It is possible for me to completely block out the shot, even at full power, with my saber, but the shot fires from the tip of the claws, not where the claw meets the hand, where my saber was now.

    I would be hit at close range.

    But I also wasn't pinned to the ground. AHA3 only had one of my arms.

    I used my left hand and grabbed AHA3's arm, then brought it down, and I got to my feet and shoved AHA3 downward right before the shot was fired.

    The ground that I used to be on was destroyed, and neither one of us took any damage.

    However, AHA2 now had a full charge.

    I brought my curved blade over to AHA3's neck, and then flipped it around, so that I held it in front of me, in a choke hold. I held AHA3's neck with my right arm, and my left arm held around its body, so that it couldn't do anything. AHA3 might have power, but it doesn't have raw strength. I am stronger than it.

    I had AHA3 as a hostage. AHA2 wouldn't dare fire.

    AHA3 tried to struggle and squirm to get loose, but I held it tight. AHA3 even started to charge for another shot.

    I shifted my hold, then tried to slice AHA3's neck with my saber, but AHA3 got a full charge before I could even begin to slice.

    AHA3 fired a shot straight down, a very devastating shot that had a huge amount of energy backed behind it.

    The ground cracked and broke up, causing me to lose my balance.

    I let go of AHA3 to prevent myself from falling. The ground even sunk in a bit, but it did not collapse.

    The streets of the city of steel have been made quite well. The shot had an impact power of a grenade, and it had all been displaced into the ground.

    But the fact of the matter was that AHA3 had escaped my grasp. I didn't have a hostage anymore.

    AHA2 fired its fully powered shot. I let go of AHA3 just so that I would still be on my feet, and still have my saber ready.

    I swung my saber and deflected the shot. No matter the power of the energy weapon used against me, as long as I have my saber, I can deflect it.

    AHA2 had fired the shot from a distance. That was why it failed. However, the AHA Automations were the most perfect units to use a weapon like the energy claw.

    Their speed allowed them to quickly get close to fire off their shots.

    At close range, its near impossible for me to block it.

    But it works my way as well, seeing that my weapon is a close range weapon. I can't hit them while they're far away.

    I stood on the cracked ground, staring down AHA2 and AHA3.

    I must of really looked fearsome, since they both flinched.

    AHA3 started to charge its claw laser.

    I ran towards them, with my head down, and arms behind me, but both AHA2 and AHA3 jumped away before I could hit either of them with a sliding slash.

    I jumped up after AHA3.

    AHA3 had an almost full charge. It was hiding behind a building, the same one I'm jumping over.

    AHA3 fired its shot. It may be true that I can't dodge in midair, since I can't fly, but I never intended to dodge any shot AHA3 would throw at me.

    I swung my saber, and deflected the shot. I then swung my saber in the opposite direction, right before I hit the ground.

    AHA3 was too quick, and had dodged right on time, and with time to spare too.

    AHA3 kicked me into the wall behind me.

    Despite all the walls I've broken, there seems to be many more walls and building to crash into.

    AHA3 also started to fire many mini shots. These shots, though they don't require charging, they are very weak and easy to block.

    I can block and deflect these tiny shots with ease.

    AHA3 fired rapid mini energy shots, and I swung my saber back and forth, and even twisted the blade to block every shot it fired at me.

    I got up, and started walking in AHA3's direction.

    It quickly stopped firing and ran away.

    I ran after it, to the left, then another left down an alley way, back into the main street.

    AHA2 was there, ready with a full charge. Not only that, it had surprised me by hiding around the corner.

    AHA2 was up close, and there was no way to dodge or block such a fast moving projectile.

    There was nothing I could do.

    Such a weapon would be powerful enough to destroy even a full MEGA user like myself. AIA had lied. The Armored Automations were indeed after my life, and I had let down my guard.

    Is this the end?
     
  3. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Her Final Days


    I.

    He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in deeply the crisp mountainous air. He paused before sighing with a white flash of vapor. Deep brown eyes took in the region as he reopened them, the mountains peaking high in the sky, capped with snow and cloaked in rich green forests, the exposed rock a cold stone gray.

    Doctor Thaddeus Polaris smiled warmly, sliding his hands into the pockets of his lab coat, its tails ruffling in the light breeze. It was not real, of course; the region existed, and the conditions were true, but it was an illusion; finely documented points in history displayed using a mass of photons. It was all a projection. The mountains faded away as the environment cycled to another region in the same time period.

    It had been like this for four weeks: each day Thaddeus awoke, clothed himself with his gray and white research uniform and his clean, white lab coat, and entered the laboratory and observation projection chamber. He would cycle silently through various environments from the past in order to prepare his preliminary analyses for the state of Earth’s current biosphere.

    It was not a difficult task; he had done it before, not to mention he spent far more time in the lab than was expected of him, but he had finished his actual work early, so the past week allowed him simply to enjoy the environments he had studied for years and held dearly. The ecosystems brought him peace.

    Thaddeus tapped a small panel on the floor with his lab shoe, cycling back to the mountain scape, his youthful eyes beaming as they took in the sight and the skin next to his eyes wrinkled as he held a pleasant grin.

    Polaris’ eyes were the only part of his body which never aged, at least not permanently, full of warmth only when viewing her: the Earth. His dark brown hair had begun to fade years before; highlights of gray now ran along the short, sharp edges of his hairline from his temple to his ears. Light wrinkles creased his forehead and the nooks of his face.

    He swayed back and forth a moment, the projection contorting to allow him a view at all angles of the surrounding region. A few specks of frost drifted by his face and he closed his eyes again.

    His ears pricked up. The tip of his lab shoe rotated ever so slightly as he maintained his balance, a slight inertial drag felt in his feet. He slowly opened his eyes, his head swiveling partly toward the chamber door as an eyebrow crept up inquisitively.

    “Must be close now,” he murmured, “Engines disengaged.”

    He buttoned his lab coat and rotated his wrist, glancing at his watch for the time just as a short rapping rang through the metallic door to the laboratory.

    “Just entered the system, Doc. ETA, five hours,” someone called through.

    Polaris nodded, still smiling as the other person moved on down the adjacent hallway.

    He unbuttoned his lab coat and pulled it off, folded it, and set it to the side as he sat down on the lab floor and folded his legs. He reached to the side and tapped on the small panel on the floor, freezing the projection frame on the mountainous environment which had been documented over millennia beforehand. Thaddeus then relaxed his muscles and allowed his wrists to rest against his knees. He breathed deeply and meditated silently for the next two hours or so, his eyes closed, as the intergalactic research vessel housing both Polaris and the laboratory sped into the solar system toward its destination: Earth.

    He reminisced on his past and his childhood just as he often did, recollecting his fondest memories of Earth long ago and his travels with his mother and father. His mother had been a botanist, specializing in the evolutionary patterns of equatorial vegetation in response to the ever rising atmospheric temperatures and subsequent changes to Earth’s water cycle. His father claimed the profession of geologist, whose specialty revolved around plate tectonic activity and lithosphere distortion due to inconsistent tidal forces from the expanding sun.

    It was through his parents that Thad had grown to love the planet Earth and all of her idiosyncrasies, none represented as finely by any other planet yet discovered and colonized. To him, and to his parents, she was the most beautiful and ever fascinating producer of life eyes could be laid upon.

    He recalled climbing mountains with his father in the North American west and Western Europe, the chilly, frost filled air nipping at their faces and hands as they surveyed the geological marvels and their accompanying valleys and occasional fjords, their peaks capped white and their bodies dressed in dense forests. His father spoke excitedly at all times when teaching his son throughout the years about the Earth’s varying layers and how they interacted with one another, always teaching Thaddeus something new to appreciate. With his father he grew to love the mountains, knowing the power which forced together tectonic plates many millennia beforehand to create such magnificence. With his father, too, he saw the raw power still held within the Earth herself, witnessing grand volcanic eruptions, which spewed lava high into the air and showered fire down onto the land. Even destruction was beautiful, because it still brought about new life.

    With his mother he recalled the dense tropical forests of South America, mostly, as they were the most spectacular to both Polaris and his mother. The exotic life teeming within those ecosystems seemed to sprout from every nook and cranny within the deep, warm forests, often times revealing to both Thad and his mother a new piece of life they had not yet seen. Those trips revealed just how much life Earth gave birth to and the diversity with which she worked.

    “It is fascinating,” she would often remark, “The number of species, species of all kingdoms, which lived alongside humanity for centuries, yet we had no idea until we discovered their fossils millions of years later.”

    It was their occasional trip to regions of plains, though it was not the focus of his mother’s work, such as the savannahs in Africa or the Midwest of North America, which revealed the graciousness of the larger organisms, such as herds of animals whose ancestors had been known as elephants and buffalo, to name two.

    “Life and graciousness are the epitome of beauty,” his mother also said. He agreed.

    It was their enthusiasm, their eagerness and yearning for discovery and understanding, and their humble respect for the very creator of their life which drew him to love what they loved. Mother Earth his parents only called her, and so too, he called her. He wished he had never left.

    He let out a soft, satisfied sigh as the light breeze from the mountainous projection ruffled his short hair. He cracked an eyelid just to catch a glimpse of his watch, breathed deeply, and stood from his seat on the floor.

    “Should be nearing Mars now,” he remarked, “Not too much longer at all.”

    He threw back on his lab coat, the tails swinging as his arms slid into the sleeves. He tapped a panel on the floor and a cylindrical console arose from the lab floor. It extended to just above his waist line. A small holographic image of the rotating Earth appeared above it.

    “Fantastic,” he murmured, pressing a button on the small screen at the top of the console before pulling a projection chip from it. He tapped a second button and the mountainous projection and the holographic globe faded away. The room was a clean white and silver.

    He flipped the small chip between his fingers as he strode to the chamber door, exiting the laboratory and heading for the bridge of the space vessel. It was a short walk, though he still allowed the projection of the Earth to pop up from the chip in his hand. He found two of the other researchers on the bridge with the Captain, Rigel Antares.

    “Given the projected expansion of the Sun, at this point in time we have an absolute maximum time frame of two weeks for this mission. But given the variations in tidal acceleration and helioseismic activity that our sensors picked up a short time ago, my best guess is we’ll have to cut this trip a few days short,” Toni informed the Captain. Toni Sargas was an astrophysicist who specialized in helioseismology and solar evolution. Her short blonde hair was tied in a bun, an electronic pen tucked through it. “We can expect the atmosphere to continue heating, modestly but steadily, as per the projection as well,” she said, pointing to a holographic image of sun, which hovered above the secondary data projection table at the center of the bridge, right next to the primary projection table, which ordinarily displayed the navigation and system diagnostics. The image gave off slight light pulsations along with coronal mass ejections of various sizes, the image playing out over an accelerated time frame.

    “That being said, if the current changes in tidal forces persist, we may have to modify the maximum time frame to only a week and a half,” Kalif Alderamin added, his curly, brown hair bouncing as he turned his head. Alderamin was the geologist and volcanologist chosen for the voyage to the surface of the Earth. “Distortions in the tectonic plating may cause global volcanic eruptions in the next week or so, but I can’t say for sure without a consistent trend.”

    “And ordinarily, coronal mass ejections wouldn’t pose this much of a threat from a star such as this,” Sargas said, pointing to the projection of the sun, “There simply isn’t enough energy to strip a planet bare with a single CME, but given the level of deterioration of the atmosphere and magnetosphere over the past several decades, a decent sized CME could finally strip the rest of the atmosphere and magnetosphere away.”

    “Very well,” Antares nodded, “We’ll see how it plays out; volcanic activity as well as solar distortion of the magnetosphere could deal quite a bit of damage to the ship. If we have to lift off early, we’ll do so.” He glanced to the airlock to find Polaris walking in with a globe of the Earth rotating just above his palm. “Ah, Doctor Polaris, good to see you!”

    Polaris nodded as he shut off the hologram and stuffed the chip in his pocket. “As it is to see you as well, Captain. I suspect everything has been smooth sailing thus far?”

    “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Rigel responded, pulling up their projected path on the navigation table. “We’re on course and schedule; should be there in about an hour.”

    A holographic image of the vessel extended up above the table, the vessel approaching images of Mars and its moons, its projected course highlighted with a blue, curved line of light. The holographic map rotated to give multiple angles of the hologram.

    The bridge itself was an oval, its greatest curvature located at the point of entry to the bridge and along the viewing windows at the front of the room. Computer screens and consoles lined the walls, and the main projection tables sat at the center of the clean white and silver room.

    “Our landing zone will place us just a few hours from sundown,” Rigel informed the others, “I suspect you’ll maximize your time and get out there for at least a few hours?” He clicked on a small panel beside the secondary projection table and a large globe snapped into existence, spinning slowly, their landing zone highlighted with a small blue dot. Their projected path curved around the rotating globe, extending to the point of touchdown.

    “I plan to,” Thaddeus replied, moving toward the center of the bridge to examine the holograms.

    “It would be in the team’s best interest,” Kalif nodded. “We’ll be able to get some basic readings for our preliminary work tomorrow. We’re gonna grab food down in the mess hall first, though, and suit up as we land.” Kalif looked to Polaris and then to Toni uneasily, and nodded at the doorway. She followed his lead and whisked away. “Want anything, Captain?” Alderamin asked.

    “No, I’ll be alright,” Antares replied as Kalif disappeared through the airlock. He looked at Thaddeus. “Joining the others, Doctor?”

    “I’m not much hungry,” Polaris responded, studying the number sequences on the display. “I’d rather stay here, if that’s alright with you.”

    “Not a problem, I enjoy company,” the other responded, moving off toward the viewing windows. He stopped in front of the two navigation terminals, shaped like L’s, one rotated clockwise once and the other rotated but pointing in the opposite direction.

    “I appreciate it,” Polaris told Antares. He flicked his fingers along a few images on the screen, reading the data outputs for the orbits of Mars’ moons as the images expanded. “I don’t fit in with the others much.” He contracted the images.

    “I understand,” Rigel replied.

    Polaris paused, looking through the images before turning to face the Captain. Rigel turned to meet the Doctor’s puzzled expression.

    “I haven’t spent nearly as much time on Earth as you, Doc, but there’s a reason why I’ve volunteered and secured this pilot position for decades,” Antares responded, folding his arms. “Earth is... Earth is something special. And that’s something the others don’t see.”

    “They don’t appreciate Earth for all that it’s given them,” Polaris said.

    “Not many people do anymore, Doc.”

    “We’re a dying breed.”

    “We always have been.”

    Polaris breathed deeply through his nose and walked toward the front of the bridge. The image of the vessel above the table slowly left Mars and her moons behind, another small globe appearing in the far corner of the primary display.

    They could see her off in the distance as they approached, her moon slowly coming into view as well. The men watched in silence as the planet expanded in size, covering up the glare from the sun at a steady pace.

    “You’re of a different kind, Doc, you always have been,” Rigel said, staring ahead, “One of the last few actually born on Earth; the only one still alive, too. That’s an appreciation even I can’t have. I wish I could have experienced her before the forced migrations.”

    “You and I may as well be of the same kind, Antares,” Polaris responded, clasping his hands together behind his waist.

    “Just glad to have you aboard for this last run, Polaris,” Rigel responded with a sigh.

    The ship turned ever so slightly as it approached the Earth’s atmosphere from the left side of the planet, swinging around to meet the curvature of the sphere. The sun crowned the horizon with an amber glow.

    “She’s nothing else if not damn beautiful, Doc,” Rigel said as the two took in the sight.

    “That she is, Captain; that she is,” Thaddeus agreed as his young eyes danced back and forth, excitedly taking in the colors and the features of the Earth. The research vessel dropped within the atmosphere and curved with the planet, passing through the day light and heading for dusk on her other side.

    “We’ll be touching down at the Northern end of the Hardangervidda Plateau in about fifteen minutes,” the Captain said after flipping on the intercom.

    “Pretty region,” Polaris murmured.

    “It’s one of the best landing zones and just about the farthest to the south that we can get given our mission’s precautionary measures,” Antares responded, “The sun never rises fully up there at this time of the year, so the ship will sustain only a minimal amount of radiation during the days. But yes, it is also a pretty region.”

    “Playing it a little too safe, Captain?”

    “Don’t want to take any chances. The radiation even remotely close to the equatorial region is fairly corrosive.”

    “That bad?”

    “Most of the equatorial ecosystems have been receding, and their recession has rapidly increased over the past three years,” Antares replied, turning to the console behind the two men. He tapped a button and pulled up an image of the Earth which highlighted the regions of most intensive solar radiation and the recession of ecosystems across the globe. Holes in the magnetosphere and high atmospheric layering also were highlighted. “With the increased heat in the atmosphere the Earth’s been losing water steadily for about a decade now. The upper layers of the atmosphere are now too warm along the equator to actually condense water molecules. Globally the sea level’s lost anywhere from twenty to fifty feet. It’s remarkable any ecosystems continue to exist on the planet.”

    “On the contrary,” Polaris replied, turning to view the map himself, “The ecosystems across the globe have done well throughout Earth’s history as far evolutionary standards are concerned. The ability of the ecosystems as individual, whole units to adapt has been the sole reason for their continued existence up until this point.”

    “Unfortunately their adaptability will not spare them the conditions our sensors are predicting over the next two weeks,” the Captain replied.

    “Unfortunately not,” Polaris murmured, lightly grabbing hold of the console as the floor shuttered softly. “I suppose I’ll suit up now and get out there while I can.”

    The turtle shaped ship began its descent to the ground, its flipper-like engines flaring as it passed into a more dimly lit northern region of the planet, passing over a mountainous region before coming out over the Hardangervidda Plateau in Northern Europe.

    Polaris left the bridge and headed down the main hallway, passing his laboratory, and then down the stairs toward the hangar bay at the back of the ship. He passed by the mess hall with the other researchers seated inside.

    “He’s an odd one, that Polaris fellow,” Toni Sargas remarked, eyeing the biologist as he passed by the window and door to the mess hall. Sargas was the youngest of the researchers; bright, shy, and inquisitive, though she had experienced some of the most powerful astrophysical phenomena yet documented. The ship shuttered softly as it touched down.

    “The guy’s an arrogant asshole,” Victoria Kochab, the team’s atmospheric chemist responded, speaking out of half of her mouth as she continued chewing. A bratty, immature woman in her early thirties, Kochab barely took her own work seriously, much less others’. “I was speaking to him about why I’m aboard this ship, and he went off about how I don’t understand the importance of this mission and how I’m ignorant.”

    “He’s an out of touch old man,” Kalif interjected, taking a sip of his drink.

    “Are you kidding me? Polaris is the only one aboard this ship who was born on Earth,” Antares said, entering the mess hall.

    The others paused, their expressions conveying an uncomfortable level of confusion.

    “No one alive today was born on Earth, Captain,” Victoria replied, matter-of-factly.

    “He was in cryo for quite a long time,” Antares replied, grabbing hold of a piece of fruit from the counter.

    “How long?” Kalif asked.

    “About a hundred and forty years total,” Wallace Wezen spoke up. “Wally” Wezen was the team’s historian, whose assignment was to document the qualitative events over the next two weeks. “He was on two of several expeditions do the other side of the universe. Even with our advanced transportation systems, it still took around forty to fifty years both ways. He was alive before the migrations from Earth took place.”

    The others fell silent.

    “A living fossil,” Ricardo Castor, the team’s paleontologist, who sat at the farthest end of the table, joked dryly. “No wonder he is….” He tried to find his own way of phrasing it before reverting back to what Kalif said, “out of touch.” Castor meant well, though plagued by his incessant need for approval. The people he attempted to gain approval from, though, placed him much in league with Victoria Kochab.

    “Perhaps compared to your generation, he is,” Rigel said, his tone becoming blunter, “But on this mission he certainly is not. He’s the senior researcher, and he fits in better on this team than any one of us. He is arrogant,” he took a sip of his drink, “and rightly so; he’s right. You don’t appreciate this place.”

    Some of the others sighed and rolled their eyes.

    “And it’s that behavior,” Rigel pointed to each of them, “That shows you lot haven’t a clue the importance this planet holds. Judge the man all you want, but at least he remembers where he came from,” Rigel grunted as he grabbed a mug of coffee and took off toward the bridge.

    The others glanced to one another without speaking, the team members annoyed and embarrassed after the Captain’s scolding. They silently turned back to their food as the dull hum of the hangar ramp started up below.

    Doctor Polaris stood at the edge of the ramp as it lowered slowly to the ground, stepping off gently just as it touched the grass below the research vessel. He stood silently for a moment, surveying the land, the mountains and valleys stretching out to the horizon. The sun slowly slipped from its half arisen state back to the other side of the Earth.

    It was warmer than he remembered, but a cross breeze offset the temperature slightly, making it less uncomfortable. He stretched out his arms and allowed the breeze to flow past, ruffling his hair as he walked forward. The limbs of his research uniform flapped slightly as the grass squished softly beneath his boots. Above his head he spotted the very first stars beginning to come out for the evening, the atmosphere causing their light to twinkle. He breathed in deeply the smells of the Earthly surroundings and smiled.

    “It’s good to be home,” he murmured.

    He watched the sun continued to set for another fifteen minutes before pulling out a few gadgets from the edge of the ramp. He peered up into the hangar bay to find the other researchers pulling on their uniforms and heading for the ramp. He turned away from them and headed away from the ship, pushing buttons on the gadgets and cataloguing the readings on the small screens of each. He scanned the region with the electronic sensors and recorded his findings, keeping an eye on the others, who remained close to the ship, never venturing far as they surveyed the land on what to them was an alien planet.

    The time passed quickly, the sun’s rays receding as the evening progressed into night and the ship was covered in darkness, a blanket of stars covering the sky above. By the third hour Toni and Victoria began to pack up their equipment and place it back at the top of the loading ramp. Wally sat silently by himself farther up along the side of the ramp, one leg hanging off the side as he wrote about the surrounding environment and the researchers themselves. Kalif and Ricardo had long since gone inside, bored with their tasks of surveillance without a proper light source.

    Thaddeus had seated himself upon a rock formation a short distance from the ship, facing out over an adjacent shallow canyon, and had been meditating for some time while the others grumbled about back by the ship. He was just far enough to tune out whatever irrelevant and unnecessary things the others decided the say. His ears perked up.

    As the rest of the gear was placed on the ramp, Victoria glanced over at Thaddeus and turned to Toni.

    “Look at that guy,” she grumbled, “if he loves the Earth so much, why did he leave it in the first place?” She gave a short, uncomfortable laugh as Toni remained silent, staring at the man seated farther out.

    “Go get him, Toni; Captain wants us all inside within the hour,” Wally told her.

    “Oh,” she responded distantly, nodding with a delay.

    The other two walked up the ramp and entered the vessel, leaving only Toni and Thad outside.

    “Doctor Polaris!” she shouted.

    The man did not move.

    “Doc!” she shouted again, beginning to move closer, assuming he could not hear her. As she neared the older man, she called out again, “Doc?”

    He turned his head slowly. His eyes were closed but one eyebrow rose as she slowed to a stop beside him.

    She hesitated, “Captain wants us inside.”

    Polaris raised his other eyebrow and nodded before turning his head away.

    She waited. “Coming, Doc?”

    He turned his head, opening his eyes, and thought before he spoke. “Beautiful night,” he said.

    Unsure of what to say, Toni did not respond.

    “What do you think?” he asked her, peering up at the night sky.

    She hesitated again, “Look, Doc, I’m just here to examine the effects of the solar expansion on the Earth.”

    “I know,” Thaddeus responded. He persisted, “What do you think?

    Toni pursed her lips. “Well, it’s…um…” she peered at the sky, pondering for a moment, “calm.”

    “You’ve seen more chaotic night skies,” Polaris said, stating exactly what was on her mind.

    “Well, yes,” she replied, “much more chaotic and spectacular. But this is…”

    “Humble,” they both said together. Polaris turned his head to peer at her.

    “Sit and enjoy it,” he told her kindly, patting the ground beside him.

    She opened her mouth, closed it, and shrugged her shoulders before sitting.

    “It’s a quiet region, indeed,” Polaris told Toni, “a small corner of the galaxy all to herself.”

    The two sat in silence for a few moments as Toni took in the evening sky, the corners of her lips beginning to tighten into a smile.

    She thought for a moment, the smile disappearing. “Why did you leave Earth?” she managed to say, nervous that he would become upset with the question.

    He remained silent for a bit before replying, “I thought leaving on my own would be better than being forced to leave.” He turned to her to reveal eyes filled with tears. “It most certainly was not.” He looked out at the dark horizon again. “Oh, I missed my home.”

    “What was it like when you were growing up?” Sargas asked.

    Thad smiled. “Stunning in ways you cannot imagine.”

    As the time passed he told her all about his past and his parents, describing the beauty in the life on the planet and the raw power held in all corners of the Earth. He spoke excitedly, just as his father had, his youthful brown eyes beaming as he spoke. When he finished they sat in silence once more before he began to get to his feet. He brushed some dirt from his pants leg and helped the younger scientist to her feet.

    She hesitated, puzzled by her lack of words. “Thank you,” she said warmly as they walked to the ship.

    Polaris nodded, flashing her a kind and wise smile, as they walked onto the ramp and into the hangar bay.

    The hatchway swung open ahead of them, Rigel appearing just beyond it.

    “You two! Go get some sleep; we’ve got a full two weeks ahead of us!” he barked.

    The two scientists exchanged smiles with the Captain, whisking past him and moving off toward their quarters as Rigel raised the ramp.


    II.

    The next day the researchers set out in their separate directions using three ground speeders, smaller vehicles with enclosed cockpits capable of high speeds and easy transportation. Polaris and Kochab were to travel to the rainforest regions of Central America in order to investigate a few peculiar readings from the atmospheric and ecosystem sensors.

    Sargas tagged along with them. Toni had never intended to leave the ship on the expedition, but given her budding friendship with Doctor Polaris and her new found interest in the planet, she decided to have the data and projections compile on the ship automatically.

    The three set off, closing in on the location within about two to three hours’ time. Thick smoke billowed from the region ahead. The three watched intently as they came over the region, the forests below ablaze.

    “The equatorial region has seen the greatest impact from the increased solar radiation and loss of water in the atmosphere. This is what was projected to happen,” Kochab informed the others.

    Polaris only stared.

    They brought the speeder down to a flattened, blackened clearing away from the toxic smoke and fires. The team disembarked, stepping out on the steaming piles of ash and burnt Earth, wisps of smoke still rising from the ground.

    Thaddeus released his bio sensors into the air and closed his eyes, feeling the hot air blow over his face and body.

    “This place was beautiful back in the day,” Polaris told them later on as they surveyed the land and recorded their findings. “Lush forests teaming with life, and the air always seemed moist. The water dropped from the canopies and leaves nearly every moment.”

    Sargas could feel the pain in his voice as he stared at the fires in the distance.

    “All gone now,” he murmured.

    “It was only a matter of time,” Kochab replied, matter-of-factly. “You saw the projections, didn’t you?” she asked, coldly.

    “Yes,” Polaris replied.

    “Then why mope about things you cannot change?” Victoria asked, annoyed. “If you knew it would be like this, then why did you bother coming back?”

    Polaris looked back at the rude woman with a sorrowful gaze, “Would you not come to your mother’s side when she was on her deathbed?” He looked away again.

    Victoria cocked her head back, almost insulted by the comment. She shrugged her shoulders, glancing to Sargas as if to say, “really?” before moving away from the two.

    “You wouldn’t understand,” Sargas mumbled to her.

    “Hmph, and you would?” she laughed, “You’re just like him! Glorifying the Earth!” she exclaimed, not caring to lower her voice, allowing Polaris to hear every word. “Here we are on a dying rock, so let’s all just bow down and worship this place.” she cackled and signaled her flying sensors to report back to the speeder. “Are we done here?” Kochab asked, walking back to the vehicle.

    “Yes,” Polaris replied after a moment without turning back to her. “You will never understand,” he muttered under his breath.

    Toni joined him in his laboratory that evening, and the evenings to follow, learning to meditate as he did. The projection of the mountains, the same Polaris had been observing on the day of their arrival, came into view around them.

    “It is my most favorite place on the planet,” he told her at one point, though he never told her where it was.


    III.

    The next four days involved travels to the Rockies, the plains in North America, and the Alps in Central Europe. Sargas once again accompanied Thaddeus in his travels along with Alderamin and Castor. They traveled to the Rockies first, dispatching at the northern end to observe volcanic and tectonic activity.

    "Yellow Stone," Polaris remarked as they disembarked from the speeder and entered the dormant volcanic region, "absolutely stunning, as per usual."

    They sent off their sensors, which zipped through the air, scanning objects and sensing elements within the air and ground below. Castor and Sargas trailed behind Polaris and Alderamin as the group traveled over the land, surveying the forests, lakes, and mountains.

    "Had quite a bit of activity here over the past few weeks," Kalif informed him. "Given the planet size it could pack a lot of power, but I've seen bigger forces on other planets."

    "Planets capable of life?" Polaris asked.

    "Well, the largest volcanoes? No," Kalif replied, staring down at the readings on his data pad, "But I've seen some similar in size to this on other planets."

    Polaris nodded. "Stunning that this volcano, despite its raw power, never managed to kill off life like the others you've observed."

    "We’ve found life on some of those planets."

    "Intelligent life, such as mankind?"

    Kalif hesitated, "No."

    "Makes you respect something like this, no?" Polaris asked.

    "I suppose so," Kalif replied, "Remarkable we lived as long we did on this planet; long enough to escape it; to preserve our species."

    Polaris sighed. It was a version of the response that he had wanted. Though, Alderamin did not truly understand the point Thaddeus was making.

    "Yes," Doctor Polaris affirmed. "Remarkable, really, that life such as ours could have flourished at all with volcanic activity such as this."

    Kalif studied his projections on the tablet before looking up. "Agreed."

    Polaris gazed at the mountains in the distance. He's better than Kochab, he thought to himself. At least he appreciates it a little bit, he thought. The group surveyed the land for a few hours more, traveling over the hills and mountains to survey the region before returning back to the research vessel for the evening.

    The next day the group headed farther south along the Rockies. There Polaris and Alderamin stuck closer to Sargas and Castor as the paleontologist led them to cliff sides and valleys to survey the geological and paleontological features of the region. His probes had been using lasers to clear away rock and dirt from fossils near the surface since they had arrived on the planet. He had catalogued over fifty new species thus far.

    A few hours into the surveying, Castor remarked, "The species here are obviously much more familiar to us since mankind is from earth. Though, I find them to be less interesting because of that, and this is not nearly the height of paleontological discovery for this planet."

    "Every moment is a height of paleontological discovery for any planet, including this one," Polaris snapped back. "Throughout history species have lived and died alongside mankind and we never knew half of them existed. They may as well have been species from other planets, Ricardo."

    Ricardo fell silent, lacking the will to respond if it meant he could be chastised like that again. Though annoyed, he knew Polaris had a point. Stubbornly, he simply nodded his head and got back to work, the others following him through more valleys before they headed back to the speeder.

    The following day they returned to North America again, this time surveying the topography and biological standing of the Great Plains. Alderamin tagged along to view the geological aspects of the plains whilst sending his probes off to the west to continue surveying the Rockies’ volcanic activity at the northern end.

    Herds of animals roamed and grazed in the plains as the researchers traveled over it. The team recorded their findings and catalogued the quantitative aspects of the environment, such as the composition of the air and soil, species counts, as well as changes in vegetation makeup within the environment since the previous voyage. The group chatted as they worked and Polaris shared stories from the past. Sargas enjoyed them thoroughly, Alderamin expressed interest but was not dumbfounded, while Ricardo was complacent and nodded his head and mimicked Polaris’ enthusiasm.

    A few hours into their work, Ricardo remarked, "It's as if they haven't a clue as to what is happening to the planet. Like nothing is happening," pointing to the herds grazing. "Calm as can be." He gave a laugh. "What do you think, Doc?" he asked, hoping for a friendly response.

    "Perhaps," the older man replied quietly.

    Sargas gazed at Polaris, who only watched over the land. He did not bother correcting the younger paleontologist. His gaze did not waver.

    “Doctor Polaris,” Ricardo began, “Why do you seem so distant…and upset?”

    Polaris responded after a delay, his now-serious eyes falling onto the other man, “Have you ever lost your home, Ricardo?”

    “No, sir,” Castor responded, uncertain of how he was supposed to respond.

    “Good,” Polaris replied, looking away, “Because the pain is indescribable.”

    Ricardo sighed quietly and slouched, feeling the pain in the older man’s words. He nodded and turned to face the horizon with the others before leaving the graceful region.

    On the fourth day together, the team was in the Alps, once again surveying the ecosystems, the paleontological sites that the probes had established, and the tectonic activity beneath the mountains. By midafternoon, Sargas and Alderamin's projections had reduced the maximum time frame for the research trip to one week and three days.


    IV.

    The next two days Polaris spent with Wallace, exploring regions which had once been more urban, but had since been taken back over by the environment. They traveled to Central and Northern Europe, regions which had once been known as Germany, France, and Great Britain. They surveyed the area, Polaris sending out sensors to catalogue the expansion of vegetation and overgrowth into the urban sectors, once populated by thousands of people decades and decades before.

    Thaddeus was surprised to find out Wallace's passion for the rich history of mankind, one Polaris shared. Though, he noted, Wallace held a love for humanity and its history, but left a gap in appreciation for the Earth.

    "The birthplace of humanity," Thaddeus remarked, "The graveyard and keeper of its life; the mother of all on its surface. Home to all of mankind’s struggles, the great wars, the innovations," he told Wallace. "In all of human history, she is the most shining beacon of life, of beginning, and of allowance."

    Wallace thought for a moment, battling for a moment against his favorite parts of mankind's history: the spread into the cosmos, the colonization, and the discovery. But he nodded and agreed. He had to and he knew it. Polaris was right.

    "Without it, mankind would never have existed," Wezen replied as the two walked along the cracked and plant covered avenues, staring up the great monoliths and skyscrapers in the once famous cities.

    The buildings were faded, cracked, some crumbling, but the humanity in them existed still. Polaris grinned, thinking back to times he had been in these cities before, the crowded streets and shops, the busyness of it all, yet all so calm and quiet now.

    "For what," he asked, "Were we busy all those years, building all of this, knowing some day we would leave it all behind?"

    "Oh, we were certainly too materialistic to do that," Wallace replied, "Even you know that for years we had been taking the indigenous plant life and animals for preservation, and some of the greatest symbols and buildings of the human race, perhaps for preservation, perhaps more so for nostalgia."

    "But should we have?" Polaris asked. "Should we not have left what made us who we are today in the very place it had all come into existence?”

    "That’s a question my generation may ask but not answer," Wallace replied, “It was not up to us."

    They surveyed the cities again the next day, completing the first week of the research trip.

    Perhaps not all is lost, Thaddeus thought to himself later that evening.

    Toni joined him in the lab again shortly thereafter to meditate.

    It was nice, he felt, to have someone meditate with him. In fact, he found her to be quite wonderful, someone aboard who wanted to share in his experiences, thoughts, and his enthusiasm. Antares and Wallace shared his opinions and enthusiasm as well, but Sargas understood him more than the others, it seemed. In only a few days she had become his last and only true friend. He was happy to have met the young woman.


    V.

    Polaris left the lab door open after Sargas left for her room for the evening; the others were asleep, he saw no reason to close it, no one would bother him at this time of the night. The mountain scape filled the room as usual, though the open door brought him back to reality, a reality in which a youthful scientist now shared his enthusiasm for the planet. He smiled.

    A hum sounded somewhere down the hall. It was followed by a high pitched, soft ping. Polaris listened as the pinging continued, chiming every few seconds. He stood slowly, striding from the lab and down the hall, following the pinging as it brought him to the bridge. He strode to the central projection table, eyeing a small blue circle of light which pulsated with each ping. He tapped it with a finger.

    Several different data projections snapped above the table, casting blue, green, and red colors against the walls and instruments on the bridge. The images were expanded views of the inner solar system, a projection of the sun in its current state, and a projection mapping the area around the sun and Earth. He studied the images for a moment, reaching out with a hand to let his fingers pass over the images, the light particles forming models of what was to come. His eyes settled on a single line of text below the images, a warning and sensor reading, the words and numbers blinking with a deep red hue.

    Polaris breathed in deeply as he read the message, turning slowly to lean against the table. He closed his eyes and let himself slide down against the projection table, bringing his hands to his face as he shuttered. The older man sank to the floor and rested his head back, opening reddened, wet eyes and wiping them with a hand. His shoulders shuttered as he breathed in and out, his teeth clenched as he tried to muffle his crying. His fit subsided after a few moments while he wiped his sorrowful eyes. Doctor Polaris breathed in deeply, letting the air out as a sigh before staring at the ground. Wiping his nose with a wrist, he presented a weak but warming smile. His throat shook with each breath, but the feeling grew fainter by the moment.

    Ten minutes passed with Polaris on the floor before he stood, dusted his clothing off, and tapped the glowing blue button on the table's console. The images snapped away. He strode back to his lab, shutting down the projection and grabbing a few instruments before then heading to his room. Thaddeus gathered a few more sensors, instruments, and other items and placed them in a small research pack. He moved through the ship almost silently, as to not wake the others, finding himself soon in the hangar of the vessel, stowing his bag in a ground speeder. Polaris climbed in and piloted the machine out of the bay and down the ramp almost silently. He punched the speed up when he was a little ways off from the ship. No one even knew he had left.

    Sargas' eyes snapped open eight hours later, a small device on the night stand by her bunk whirring softy, a red light pulsating at the center. She snatched it, squinting as she struggled to read with still-awakening eyes. She gasped.

    "Captain! Captain Antares!" she yelled, throwing on her clothes and rushing to the bridge. She slid to a stop in front of the bridge's projection table, tapping the blue pulsating light as Antares appeared at the bulkhead between the bridge and the hallway. He wore a look of concern on his face.

    "Coronal mass ejection, a massive one!" Sargas exclaimed. "Solar seismic activity reached a critical point a few hours ago, triggering surges in the tidal forces and magnetic fields. There's a hell of a lot of solar mass heading our way, a few billion tons of plasma, give or take, in addition to the solar winds.” Several images popped up above the table, revealing a model of the coronal mass ejection and the solar winds casting off from the sun and heading toward the planets in their respective orbits. “The tidal forces have already readjusted the earth's projected path. It's pulled us in further; we'll see drastic changes in temperature within two days."

    "Are you guys seeing this?" Kalif called to the others as he rushed onto the bridge, a hologram of the earth in his hand. "We've got tectonic activity all over the bloody planet. Lookin' at global volcanic eruptions right now, too! Yellow Stone just blew sky high. Tracking ash clouds and volcanic debris for miles around the epicenters as we speak."

    "So what's our time frame, now?" Antares asked, snapping up a mission log on another, adjacent console as he stared at the data above the main table.

    "Little less than two days for the CME, if that," Toni replied.

    “Around a day before the volcanic activity reaches us, give or take,” Kalif told them.

    Rigel stretched up and flipped a switch on the ceiling console above. "Rise and shine," Antares said, turning on the intercom, "We need complete readings from the last eight hours and precise projections for the next twelve."

    Sargas jogged out of the room and down the hall, "Polaris! You're going to want to see this!" she yelled, stopping by his lab first before moving to his room. Both places were empty.

    "Polaris?" she called out. She headed back to the bridge, "Captain, I can't find Doctor Polaris."

    "He's around somewhere, I'm sure," Antares responded, pulling up a secondary mission log and inputting several lines of information. "He may have snuck back off for a bit of meditation with the sunrise. I'll search for him in a bit. For now, just work on getting that data."

    Toni pursed her lips, her brow knitting, but she reluctantly nodded and got to work, expanding the projections and cataloguing the readings.

    Captain Antares finished adjusting his mission parameters after another twenty minutes and then compiled the data that Sargas and Alderamin had already collected, which accounted for the last eight hours. Another half an hour passed before Rigel closed the data log and pushed away from the table. He sighed, puffing out his cheeks while he glanced at his watch. The other researchers entered the bridge, data tablets in hand.

    "Have you seen Polaris?" Rigel asked them.

    The others halted and stared back, shaking their heads.

    "He's not already here?" Wallace asked, puzzled.

    Rigel sighed and brushed past the group, "Thanks for getting up with such speed," he remarked, disdain and sarcasm mixed in his tone, "Get to work."

    Antares moved down the central hall, stopping at Thaddeus' lab and then his room, just as Sargas had done. No sign of the older man. Polaris' research pack was missing, though, along with a few tech devices which had once been around his room. Antares knit his brow as he turned and headed for the hangar, checking quickly the mess hall as he passed. The Captain unsealed the bulkhead airlock on the hangar bay and entered.

    "Polaris?" he called out, striding down the ramp about half way. "Polaris!" he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth. He shook his head and stared out at the land, the sun just barely peaking over the horizon.

    "Where in the hell did he go off to?" Rigel muttered. He turned his head, catching something in the corner of his eye. He turned and faced the hangar bay.

    Antares let out a short, internal laugh, breathing the air out through his nose and shook his head. "That bastard."

    To his left, one of three ground speeders from missing from its docking station. He glanced around the rest of the hangar, but everything else seemed to be in its place. "Guess I’ll have to track down the brute instead." Rigel took a second glance at the horizon before heading back inside the ship, striding calmly back to the bridge and taking a seat at a console along the left wall. He snapped open a communication channel to Polaris' transponder.

    "Doc, we've got some serious readings popping up; you're gonna want to get back to the ship, pronto."

    Antares waited a moment, snapping open a navigation tracker on a side screen, and then spoke again.

    "Doc, come in."

    The others began to turn their heads, awaiting a response as well. Rigel shook his head and tapped a few icons on the navigation screen.

    "Doc, if you can hear me, I’m pulling up your identification tracker and the nav. tracker on that speeder. Someone's going to have to come and get you if you don't respond within the next hour. You need to see these readings," Antares paused, "We don't have much time."

    A transponder tracking system appeared on the screen in front of him. His name and the names of the other researchers appeared in the corner of the screen, a small icon showing their physical appearance next to their name. The coordinates of their positions were marked by the points on the screen which represented their actual location on a live feed of the region. The trackers for the ground speeders and other important vehicles and devices showed up on the screen as well. The image showed the Captain and the researchers on the bridge within the vessel at their current location along with the trackers for the other speeders and the other equipment still aboard or close by on the ground. Rigel tapped the Doctor's name and watched the screen pan out, bouncing back and forth for a moment before freezing up. Polaris' name flashed in the corner as a box popped up beside it.

    "Transponder not found. Transponder disabled," the text read, the computer then reading it out loud.

    "Oh no," Rigel muttered. He tapped the screen to find the ground speeder. The computer gave the same message.

    "Captain?" Sargas asked worriedly, moving away from the projection table and over to him.

    "He's disabled his tracker and the tracker for the speeder," Rigel replied.

    "Why would he do that?" Kalif asked, tapping a projection of volcanic activity along the North American west coast.

    "Idiot," Victoria muttered in response.

    Wallace held his head while Ricardo stared blankly through Alderamin’s projections.

    Sargas shot Kochab a dirty look before turning back to the Captain.

    "Permission to go and find him, sir?" she asked.

    Rigel nodded, "Finish your analyses and report to the hangar bay; I'm goin’ out with you."

    Victoria scoffed, "Really? He just left, and you're going to drop everything to find him?"

    "We can’t just leave him out there," Ricardo mumbled sincerely.

    "Do you see the bars on my shoulders?" Rigel asked Victoria as he tapped a few other screens.

    She nodded.

    "What does that mean?" he asked further.

    "That you're the Captain," Victoria replied.

    "Correct," Rigel responded, leaning over to pull the last few days’ worth of navigation data for the ground speeders. He turned and stared straight at Victoria, "So shut up."

    "Sir!" she began, raising her voice.

    "Or I'll leave you on this planet to meet its fate," he said, raising his voice above hers as he strode off the bridge.

    Kochab shut her mouth and got back to work.

    "Send me live feeds of your projections as you get them," Antares yelled from down the hall.

    He prepped a speeder, gathered a few supplies, and loaded them in the vehicle. Sargas joined him an hour later, just as he brought the speeder down the ramp and left it hovering above the ground below the aft of the ship.

    Sargas handed him her tablet as they met at the middle of the ramp.

    "Alderamin's projections; they're getting worse by the moment,” she informed the Captain. “The surge in tidal forces is wreaking havoc. Severe tectonic activity and it’s only going to get worse in the next twelve to twenty four hours."

    "And the CME?"

    "Still coming at us. Peak will be in approximately twenty-six hours, though we’ll be blasted with solar winds by then, and the magnetic field is going to start to be distorted and stripped by the eighteenth."

    "Which means we need to be out of here in order to avoid interference and damage by the sixteenth hour."

    "Or sooner."

    "Let's hope not."

    The two climbed into the speeder and punched forward, soaring over the land. Antares keyed in the navigation data from the last week and brought up several maps.

    "Best bet would be to search the regions you all traveled to," Rigel told Toni, "He chose those as the locations for study; seems only likely he would travel back to them."

    The two spent the next ten hours zipping through the various regions that Polaris had traveled to with the others. They visited the decimated rainforest regions in Central America and the plains and Rockies in North America, along with the Alps in Europe. The temperature of the air in all of the regions was rising slowly.

    Reports from the other researchers streamed in every twenty minutes or so.

    Kochab was reporting that the atmosphere was already beginning to be stripped away. Atmospheric element levels were dropping faster than anyone had imagined. Alderamin reported vast, widespread volcanic activity along the western coast of North America and the Eastern coasts of Asia. The plates were shifting rapidly. Sargas' own projections showed the Earth's path nearing the expanding sun at a faster rate than she had previously calculated, along with the impending coronal mass ejection and solar winds still hurdling toward the Earth.

    "Alderamin just signaled for the temporary probes to report back to the ship, while the permanent ones will remain and report information as we take off so we have readings up until the Earth is consumed," Toni mentioned.

    Antares wore a look of defeat as he glanced to his watch. "We need to be getting back, too."

    Sargas snapped her head in his direction and glared, "We can't just leave Thaddeus out here!"

    Rigel shook his head. "There's nothing more we can do. We tried. But now we have to leave."

    Sargas slouched back in her chair and folded her arms, looking in the distance as Antares punched the throttle and headed back for the ship.

    They reached the vessel just before the twelfth hour, finding two researchers outside, wrapping up their readings and observations while the two others remained inside. Antares brought the ground speeder up the ramp and docked it before rushing for the bridge.

    Sargas stayed outside for a few more moments.

    The wind was picking up, ruffling her clothing as she watched the sun on the horizon. The coronal mass ejection and the solar winds were so vast that she could actually make them out in the sky along the horizon.

    Toni could see, too, the ash clouds moving along the horizon in several directions. The volcanic activity was heightening, throwing dirt, ash, and fire into the atmosphere. Within two hours it would be upon them and could very well damage the vessel.

    She wiped her eyes and stared off, occasionally watching Victoria pull in her atmospheric equipment and a few weather balloons while Wally continued scribbling into his log. She turned slowly away and walked back up the ramp and into the turtle shaped vessel, her heels dragging beneath her as she wiped her eyes continuously.

    Sargas took a seat on the bridge by one of the projection tables, pulling up her readings and losing herself in them.

    Antares bounced back and forth, starting the main sequences for flight while checking the functionality of the vessel's navigational instruments, propulsion drives, and flight systems. The intense flight lights came on outside, casting out from the bow of the ship just below the bridge and illuminating the region below it. The ash clouds continued to roll into the sky over the next hour as Antares prepped the ship and the others readied for takeoff.

    "Ten minutes!" he called out over the intercom. Rigel peered at the mission clock on one of the consoles as well as the solar and volcanic projections.

    The others finished loading up the equipment and hauled it into the hangar before heading through the air lock toward the bridge.

    The Captain placed his hand above the screen, his finger hovering above the button which would close the ramp. He paused to stare at the name of the missing researcher and his picture. Sighing, he tapped the button. The ramp whirred and sealed back up, hissing as it locked in place. Captain Antares engaged the secondary engines for lift off and the ship shuttered, beginning its ascent. He brought the landing gears up as the ship slowly rose higher above the ground. The others headed onto the bridge and joined the Captain and Toni, watching the land fall away from them through the bridge's viewing window.

    A sensor beeped, alerting the Captain to the incoming ash clouds and debris. His brow knit, and he piloted the ship higher into the sky.

    A screen began pinging to the Captain's right. He viewed the display to find a steady stream of data filing onto the screen. Antares gave a sharp laugh at the sight of the files with the name "Dr. Thaddeus Polaris" at the top corner.

    "Polaris, you nut, where the hell are you?" Antares asked, quickly opening up a communication channel.

    "I've activated my tracker in order to transfer my files back to the ship, and you'll find my reports and observations streaming in now," Polaris’ voice rang through. "But don't come and get me."

    "The hell we're not coming to get you," Antares told him, turning the ship toward Central Europe.

    "No, you're not," Polaris told him. "The ash clouds have just about reached me. You all need to get off of the planet."

    "Polaris, we're not leaving without you," Sargas yelled out.

    "There is nothing more you could have done, Ms. Sargas. I never intended to return from this expedition to begin with."

    The researchers looked to one another. Victoria rolled her eyes while Antares and Sargas wore expressions of defeat and helplessness. Alderamin now stared through his projections, wide-eyed, while Ricardo placed his head in his hands. Wezen wiped an eye and began scribbling in his notes on the tablet in front of him. The ship moved diagonally away from the ground now, heading for Polaris' position.

    "It's been a pleasure, though," Polaris told them.

    A moment passed, neither side of the communication line speaking.

    "It's beautiful," Polaris informed them. "The wildlife is no longer grazing or wandering. The animals are lying down, in herds and packs. All is calm. Peaceful.” He paused for another moment. “It is not a lack of knowledge that leads them to serenity; ignorance is not the source of their bliss; rather, their acceptance of fate yields their tranquility."

    Ricardo nodded in silence, understanding the response.

    The researchers listened to Polaris. Toni’s eyes began to tear up again as Rigel hung his head.

    "And the trees," Polaris continued, his voice growing softer as it began to tremble, his eyebrows rising as he spoke, "Are bowing down; the rock beneath my feet, rumbling ever so softy."

    The ship continued through the air, approaching Thaddeus' position.

    "Doc, are you sure?" Rigel asked.

    "Such graciousness, such majesty… such humility," Polaris said distantly, "Even in death is there beauty."

    "Doc?" Sargas and Antares called to the ever distancing man.

    Dr. Thaddeus Polaris stood atop the peak of a mountain, amidst the Dolomites of South Tyrol, mountains which had stood for billions of years. They rose up, stabbing high into the sky, their bases cloaked with forests, their peaks remarkably white and gray capped, and the valleys below, surprisingly green and filled with life. It was his favorite place on the Earth.

    Thaddeus had taken his lab coat with him and wore it now, the tails ruffling in the cool wind. His young brown eyes took in the stunning, beautiful sight. Tears streamed from his eyes as he gazed at the land, the dark, black clouds of ash rolling through the sky steadily toward him. As the sun descended upon the horizon and cloaked itself behind the approaching clouds, Polaris could just barely make out the outlines of solar material heading for the planet.

    "I was born of this Earth, and with her, I, too, shall die," Polaris replied firmly. His voice was smooth and calm, despite the tears on his face. "Thank you for this last expedition," Polaris said, turning off the communication channel shortly thereafter.

    Rigel nodded and brought his hung head up, staring back at the teary-eyed Toni Sargas. She looked into his eyes and nodded, closing hers, and he did the same. Rigel turned to the control consoles.

    "Let's say goodbye."

    Polaris watched the ship thunder through the sky toward him. He squinted to see it in the crowning light just barely peeking over the ash clouds now. The headlights on the bow flashed twice while Captain Antares throttled the engines, and they roared like lions before the ship swung down and arced back up into the sky, escaping the ash clouds and the doomed planet. Polaris gave them an informal salute before turning away and observing the environment in peaceful silence.

    Wallace took a seat beside Toni on the bridge of the vessel as it soared higher in the sky. He placed his tablet in front of her.

    "I'm finishing up our accounts here, but, would you like to craft the final words of the log?" he inquired.

    Sargas slowly turned to look at him with reddened eyes, meeting the warm smile on his face. She smiled back and quickly typed in the line on the tablet before standing to watch as they rocketed away from the world.

    "Slowly, as the atmosphere was stripped and ash filled the air, all life bowed down, quietly and humbly, and overnight she died," it read.

    Thaddeus could see the animals laying calmly, waiting, the trees bowing down, waiting, the ground, rumbling softly. He closed his eyes and lowered himself to the rock beneath his feet, crossed his legs, and breathed deeply. Home, he thought, my home.
     
  4. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Two in One


    Chapter 1

    Cody Emerson rounded the last corner on her way home but came to a halt, a disbelieving frown on her face. “For fuck’s sake.”

    A garbage truck was parked before her apartment building’s entrance. Again. She considered calling a meter maid, but instead just held her breath as she hurried past the truck. An engine revved on her left and a big, black blur flashed in her periphery.

    She hadn’t even time to scream before the hearse backed into her, crushing her against the garbage truck. The back window shattered into a sharp spray, and a heavy urn flew through. It broke her skull and obliterated her left eye in a belch of ashes.

    The hearse jerked forward and Cody’s mangled body crumpled on the street. Small streams of blood trickled along the cracks in the pavement.

    Chapter 2


    ”A critical error occurred. Initiating a full system scan. Scan complete: unable to solve error. Initiating system reboot.”

    It was like a string of barbed wire sawed through her head. Cody winced and held her breath until the pain passed. Even squeezing her eyes shut hurt. Was I drinking last night?

    “Adjusting chemical imbalance,” a voice said.

    Cody’s eyes sprung open. She couldn’t see the source of the laconic female voice. Cody was alone in a hospital room, a peripheral IV stuck in her hand. Now she knew how her patients in the veterinary school felt. The IV bag dangling on a shiny pole was empty. Since there was no pain anywhere in her body, she discarded the possibility of an accident. A sudden wave of euphoria washed over her, all her worries melted into trivialities, and her anxiety was replaced by optimism: things would clear up soon enough, and if they didn’t, so what?

    Feeling unusually energetic, she yanked out the IV, but even the needle’s bite was somehow dulled. She sat up on the gurney and swung her legs over the edge. A glint of metal caught her eye. “The hell?”

    Her legs looked like a robot’s. She grabbed the hem of her hospital gown to lift it, but froze. Her right arm was also mechanical up to her shoulder. With a trembling breath, she inched up the gown, higher and higher. Her chest grew cold. Nothing human remained from the hip down.

    But... what? How? Why? She stared at the smooth metal between her legs. A hesitant poke registered no sensations. Where’s my vagina?Horrified, Cody sprung up and felt around her body until her hands stopped on her metal butt. Despite the growing panic, two thoughts kept swimming to the surface like pieces of fresh wood: what had come of her digestive system and would she ever have sex again?

    Since the waking nightmare didn’t end, she went through the rest of herself. She was in for yet another surprise when her human hand landed on something cold and hard on her head. With a whimper, she started looking for a mirror, but stopped after a few steps. Her legs moved almost on their own accord and, instead of clonks, her footsteps were soft thuds. A quick look revealed something akin to silicon pads attached to her soles.

    The bathroom mirror told a harsh tale. Half of her head was covered in metal and her left eye was like a red camera lens. Another exquisite rush soothed her feral mind. It felt good. Really good. Come to think of it, the changes in her body were interesting instead of horrifying. Her confusion didn’t abate, however. What’s going on here?

    “Initiating query. Please specify search parameters.”

    Cody spun around, but still couldn’t spot the elusive woman. “Hello?” The word died away unanswered. She stepped out of the bathroom. “Somebody there?” The silence persisted. What the fuck’s going on here?

    “Search yielded too many results. Please specify search parameters.”

    Cody was ready to bolt. She hurried to the door but it was locked. Another blanket of calm and peace descended over her. What the hell was that?

    “An automated survival response: I released endogenous opioid peptides to ease your anxiety.”

    Endorphins? Cody whirled around, looking for her tormentor. Am I going crazy?

    “Brain activity normal. Adrenaline levels and pulse elevated. Advise relaxation.”

    Cody let out a bitter laugh. “Yeah, right. So, now I’m hearing voices, too. As if it wasn’t enough that I don’t know where I am, how I got here, or why I’m half robot. And now I’m talking to myself.” She frowned but then threw caution in the wind. Who are you?

    “I am Zephyr, version 4.1, an artificial mind enhancer complex.”

    What are you doing in my head?

    “I am an artificial mind enh—”

    No, I meant, how did you end up in my... mind?

    “I was installed into your brain.”

    You talk funny.

    “According to my analysis, my English is perfectly idiomat—”

    Never mind, we can get back to that later. Where am I and where is everyone else?

    “You are in the neurological ward of Systec Development Corporation’s Research Center Three. The location of other individuals is unknown, but an educated guess indicates they are at their work stations or with other patients.”

    The door opened, and Cody came face to face with a young woman.

    “Morning. I’m your nurse, Angie Hollis. I see you’re up.”

    “I’m sorry, but... What the hell?” Cody asked, spreading her human and mechanical hands. “What’s going on here? What happened to me? What—”

    “Easy, relax,” the nurse said, ushering Cody to sit on the bed. “You can’t remember anything? Okay, this might come as a shock, then.”

    “I’m over twelve, you know.”

    “You were in an accident. You died.”

    Cody blinked her remaining eye. “Come again?”

    “A drunken undertaker backed his hearse into you at a high speed. The vehicle crushed you against a garbage truck.”

    “Must’ve been desperate for another customer,” Cody blurted before she could stop herself. “So they figured out how to make... robot zombies now?”

    The nurse laughed, probably relieved Cody hadn’t thrown the fit that was bubbling under the surface. “I wouldn’t call it that. You signed up to allow your body to be used for scientific research in case of your death, yes? Since you came in clinically dead, your body was used for that very purpose. The thing is, the experiments just happened to bring you back to life.”

    “Hold on, the brain craps out in a few minutes without oxygen. Shouldn’t I be a vegetable? Or is that where this voice in my head comes in? This Zephyr something-something.”

    The nurse raised her neatly plucked eyebrows. “You’ve been introduced already? To answer your questions, yes, your brain activity was all but gone when they brought you in. Some of your brain has been replaced with a very advanced piece of technology, a computer of sorts.”

    Cody gaped at the nurse. “So I have a laptop in my head?”

    “If you’re talking about the world’s most advanced laptop, I guess you could put it that way.”

    “So what’s it do?” She tapped the metal casing on her skull. “Can I shoot lasers out of this eye?”

    “Sorry. But you can see further and clearer than any human, you can zoom in and out, and take video and stills. It has the latest night vision technology, and, well, there’s lots more you can do, like calculate distances, speeds, that kind of thing. But that’s just for your eye. Zephyr can do... Let’s put it this way; it can do pretty much anything your normal computer can and more.”

    Cody nodded a few times. “This thing get porn?”

    The nurse’s smile turned into a thoughtful frown. “You know, I think it does. You can access the web, but you don’t see the images as much as Zephyr reads the data on the web pages and then plants the ideas, or what we call ‘visions,’ into your memory. From there you can choose to save them in what’s called the surface memory or move the files into your 500 exabyte memory cache. You can later access all the files in the cache, of course, but it takes a little longer, whereas all memories stored in the surface unit have the access time of... It was less than a nanosecond, but I can’t remember the exact number, sorry. Oh, and Zephyr has its own highly adaptable security measures to prevent outside tampering, so you should be all right.”

    Cody chewed the insides of her cheeks, a nervous habit. “That’s nice and all, but... Will I turn heads in the grocery store for the rest of my life or are you planning on putting some skin on these things?” She stared at the first knuckle of her mechanical hand, examining the details when her vision suddenly zoomed in. “Wow.”

    “I’m sorry, but right now we don’t have the means to make the prosthetics look more human. Even if we put synthetic skin on them, they wouldn’t look natural.”

    “Shit.” Cody clinked her mechanical fingers against her knee. “Can I, like, bend girders and jump off skyscrapers?”

    “The true capacity of your prosthetics is still unknown. We need to do extensive tests to see what you can do. You're kind of unique, you know.”

    Cody grasped the front of her gown. “So, uh, will I need a colostomy bag now or something?”

    “Actually, your modified body is far more efficient: your digestive system has been modified so that you only need to drink a specialized biofuel, about a gallon a month. Systec makes it and will provide it for you free of charge, but if you end up stranded somewhere, vegetable oil will do in a pinch.”

    “Can I still eat normal food?”

    “I’m sorry. That would be like putting bread and milk into your car.” Since Cody was too stunned to speak, Angie continued: “The bright side is that you no longer need to urinate or defecate. You just emit your exhaust in small, regulated amounts.”

    “How? My ass is solid.”

    “Actually, there’s a small hatch back there.”

    Cody was starting to like her new body less and less. “So I just... fart a lot?”

    “Well, the emissions are completely silent and odor-free.”

    “Outstanding.” At least the elevated endorphin levels helped with the impending panic.

    Angie’s gaze roamed over Cody’s new limbs. “This must be very confusing, but trust me; you’re in good hands here. We have the best surgeons and doctors in the world, including psychiatrists, and if you need anything, you can reach the nursing staff with the press of a button. Just one click, and I’ll be here in a flash.”

    “Right. When do I get my own clothes back?”

    “I’m sorry, but you don’t have any. They were badly torn in the accident and we had to cut them off anyway.”

    “Can I call my folks? They could bring me my stuff.”

    “Actually, you will have very limited contact to the outside world for a while because of the highly classified nature of this program. I’m sorry; your family wouldn’t even be let through the gates.”

    Cody swallowed the bits she had chewed off her cheeks. “So they think I’m still dead?”

    Angie smiled a little sadly. “I’m really sorry, but because all this is so tiptop secret, we can’t breathe a word about it to anyone outside of this facility.”

    It stung, but there was no use torturing oneself over it. Right now she could do nothing to aid her grieving parents. “Any idea when I can contact them? ‘Cause I really do look better in jeans.”

    “I don’t know yet, it all depends on your progress. I’ll let you know when, though, don’t worry. Now try to relax and get to know your new body. I’ll alert your doctor so he can ensure everything works as it’s supposed to.”

    Once alone, Cody returned to the mirror. They had shaved her head, but blonde stubble was already growing on the right side of her skull. I don’t look like a freak at all. Must’ve been under for at least a few weeks.

    On an impulse, she grabbed a metallic vase with plastic flowers in it and squeezed. The vase twisted in her grip like wax. “At least I’m a strong freak.”

    Chapter 3


    “So when can I leave?”

    The doctor tapped his PDA a few times before returning Cody’s demanding gaze. “When we have finished testing your prosthetics.”

    “And that’s when exactly?”

    “I don’t know. When the testing is finished. Go rest and relax for a while. Now that we have finished calibrating everything and Zephyr has been modified to fit your mind and personality, we can test your strength in the afternoon.”

    Once the door closed and Cody was alone in her locked room, she sent a sharp kick at the gurney. It fell over, as if hit by a small car. “Rest and relax? That’s all I’ve done for a whole month!” The days spent pacing around her room like a caged animal had familiarized Cody with her prosthetics; they were like natural extensions of her body by now. When she thought about it, she really was caged. They still kept her under lock and key despite her numerous questions, requests, and demands, essentially making her their prisoner. “And I’m sick of guzzling that damn oil! How about a decent steak for a change? That too much to ask, huh?”

    “Eating a steak would be hazardous to your health. Advise relaxation.”

    Seriously, don’t tell me to relax. Also, what kind of a name is Zephyr anyway?

    “It is the name of the Greek—”

    I’ll give you a new name. From now on, your name is... Bob.

    “Bob is short for Robert, a man’s name, whereas I was programmed to have a female voi—”

    You’re my computer, so I can name you. Now your new name is Bob.

    “Name change complete, settings saved. Pleased to meet you, I am Bob, a—”

    Also, learn some swear words. You can learn, can’t you?

    “Yes. Bitch.”

    For the first time all day, Cody’s face broke into a smile. Atta girl, Bob. Now, tell me about this place. How many guards are there? Where are all the exits, the works.

    Chapter 4


    Cody drew a deep breath, then closed her mechanical hand around the door knob. With one twist, she broke it off. She poked a long, metallic finger through the hole and tried the door. It opened quietly. She had barely walked to the end of the corridor when a muscular orderly stopped her.

    “This is a restricted area, Miss. Please, return to your room.”

    Bob’s voice ran in her head. “Threat assessment: red.”

    #

    “Threat assessment: yellow.”

    Cody was standing in the same corridor, breathing heavily. The orderly was on the floor, his face a pudding of blood, bone, and hair. Is that an eyeball? She retreated against a wall.

    “Recommend immediate relocation,” Bob said.

    Too scared to argue, Cody skipped over the corpse and hurried along the white corridors. She came to a screeching halt when a door opened before her. “Angie?”

    “Follow me if you want out,” the nurse said, curt and serious instead of chirpy and sunny.

    Cody hesitated for the merest moment. Angie had become something of a friend during the last few weeks, so Cody gave her a nod and followed in her wake. Bob, can you access the... system or whatever it is in this place and tell me if there are more guards around?

    “Negative. The fucking network is password protected.”

    After several turns, Angie stopped behind a corner, peered around, but pulled back quickly. “In here,” she whispered, showed her key card to a reader, and slipped into an empty room. Cody closed the door as quietly as she could, holding her breath.

    She had no idea why Angie was helping her, but she hoped it was simply because she was a good person. Thing was, when it came to trust, Cody’s track record wasn’t exactly spotless, but since Bob hadn’t said anything about threat assessments, Angie couldn’t have been that bad.

    Slowly she opened the door and peeked out. “Okay, it’s clear. Let’s go.”

    While they waited for an elevator, Cody’s mechanical ear caught footsteps. Plenty of them, running.

    “Four people are approaching your position. Threat assessment: orange.”

    “Bob says four guards are on the way.”

    Angie cocked an eyebrow. “You sure are useful. I can’t hear anything yet. Now, quickly,” she said when the elevator door opened. They hurried in an Angie pressed one.

    “The doors aren’t closing. Why aren’t the doors closing?” Cody demanded.

    “Shit. We gotta take the stairs.”

    They reached the door into the staircase but it was locked. Just then the orderlies poured into view, armed with batons and stun guns.

    “Stop right there!” one of them shouted, pointing his weapon at Cody.

    “Threat assessment: red.”

    #

    She was on her knees, screaming, unable to move. The electric current jammed up her body but Cody saw her mechanical hand move on its own. It grabbed the wires and yanked out the darts stuck in her chest.

    #

    Four bodies lay on the floor, two badly mangled, two shot. Cody had her back to a wall while Angie stood with a gun in her hand. “I blacked out,” Cody said, gasping.

    Angie’s brows furrowed, but then she glanced over her shoulder. “We’ll worry about that later. Can you get through that door?”

    Still full of adrenaline and whatever else Bob had released into her system, Cody sent her foot at the door. It flew open with a bang and soon the two were running up flight after flight of stairs. Cody’s mechanical legs did pretty much all the work for her. She felt like she could have run circles around Angie even though the nurse was fit, not slowing down even after six floors.

    “Through here!” Angie halted by a door.

    When Cody broke the lock and pulled it open, they came face to face with two orderlies. Immediately Angie shot both men and slipped a fresh magazine into her pistol.

    “Nice commitment,” Cody said as they hurried along a larger corridor, shocked by the body count of her escape. “Don’t think I’ve ever met a nurse so set on helping her patient.”

    “It’s a long story, but I’m not really a nurse. Through this and we’re out,” Angie said, pointing at two heavy steel doors. “They’ve probably gone on lockdown.”

    Cody pulled at one of them, one foot supported against a wall. Slowly the door slid open and Angie slipped through.

    “Come on, they’re coming!” They ran to the gate where Angie shot another guard. She was a frighteningly proficient killer. “We gotta climb the fence, I can’t open the gate during lockdown.”

    Cody doubted she could have cleared the fence without her prosthetics, but with them, it was a breeze. They dashed down a gravel road that halved a coniferous forest. A gunshot cracked through the air, then everything slowed down to a crawl. Sounds turned into mush, and Cody’s movements wound down, even her head turned languorously, like the turret of a tank. Blood spurted out of Angie’s chest, she started falling, slowly, lazily, like someone invisible was easing her body down on the ground—and then time returned to its normal, hectic self.

    “Shit! Is she dead?”

    “Grab her wrist,” Bob said. Cody held it with a shaky hand. After mere seconds, Bob spoke, “She is dead. Recommend immediate relocation.”

    She hadn’t seen where Angie’s gun had flown, so Cody sprinted off. She heard shouts and footsteps, but soon they were left behind.

    “Recommend turning off the road. Possibility of vehicle pursuit extremely high.”

    She cursed under her breath and dove into a juniper bush.

    Chapter 5


    Cody trudged on, now and then stumbling on the undergrowth. She had no idea where she was or which direction to take. After a few miles, she could feel weariness creeping up on her. As her body’s chemical levels gradually normalized, her understanding of the situation increased: now she was essentially a fugitive cyborg and a murderer. Was my escape really worth nine lives?

    “We killed only three men. Angie killed five.”

    Was my escape worth three lives?

    There was a moment’s silence. “Those men would still be alive had they not tried to stop you from escaping captivity.”

    Indignation reared its head within her chest. I didn’t ask for any of this. It’s their fault those men died. They shouldn’t have imprisoned me like that. I never agreed to be Systec’s guinea pig. Since the men were dead and she could do little to remedy their situation, she pushed aside the guilt. Otherwise it would have paralyzed her now that she most needed to keep her wits about. What’s done is done, I keep moving. “Tell me, Bob, what happened back there anyway? Things slowed down for a moment.”

    “I increased my processing speed momentarily. It creates an illusion of time slowing down.”

    “No kidding.” Cody touched the back of her head and winced. “I’ve felt kinda hot for a while. Inside my head, I mean. You know anything about that?”

    “Increasing processing speed produces a lot of heat. That is why I avoid doing it for extended periods or too frequently.”

    “What would happen if you took it too far?”

    “I would likely malfunction and you would lose consciousness from hyperthermia. It would eventually lead to organ failure and death.”

    “Nice.”

    “Recommend seeking sustenance.”

    Cody leaned her shoulder against a thick pine. “What will happen if I don’t drink that oil soon? I mean, I couldn’t really take any with me.”

    “You will gradually weaken and in approximately ten hours the hydraulic assistance will turn off.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “Moving will become more difficult as your prosthetics weigh more than ordinary human limbs.”

    Cody heaved a sigh. The sun was going down and the temperature with it. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her. As if to hammer in the point, a gust of wind fluttered her hospital gown like a flag. At least her head still felt hot.

    “Recommend moving on to maintain body heat.”

    “Easy for you to say, you don’t have to do anything but sit inside my head.”

    “I am unable to sit because I lack a corporeal bo—”

    “I get it, I get it, jeez.” A pleasant wave ran through her body, making her reel. “You gave me something just now, didn’t you?”

    “Yes. I released epinephrine to increase your alertness, and to improve your tolerance of cold and stress.”

    “More adrenaline? Right. Just, uh, in the future, if it’s not a dangerous situation, ask me first, okay?”

    “Affirmative.”

    Cody pushed herself off the pine and drew a deep breath. “So, where to? Which way to the nearest town? You got a built-in GPS, a compass, or what?”

    “Adjust your direction twenty degrees north.”

    “I’m human, remember?” Cody tapped her foot impatiently.

    “Walk between the large rock and the three sapling firs. Dumbass.”

    “Your banter still needs work.”

    “I will try my best.”

    Cody was surprised to hear actual injury in Bob’s voice, its usually rather monotonic mezzo-soprano lowered to a melancholy alto. Whatever have I gotten myself into?

    “You are—”

    Rhetoric question, Bob, rhetoric question. This time she heard injury even in Bob’s silence. Cody couldn’t help feeling their relationship would have to go through its bumps before they would actually reach the same wavelength. In the meantime she just had to accept that she was neck-deep in bizarre.

    Chapter 6


    The forest floor cracked and a sharp yelp sliced the air. Cody’s feet landed awkwardly, and she fell on her ass. Something crunched underneath. Everything slowed down again just when gravity was pulling Cody’s face at the spikes. She had to use all her strength to keep from poking out her eye on one of them. As soon as her downward movement stopped, time returned to normal. Her skull felt like it was radiating heat.

    There were two-foot spikes all over the trap’s bottom. Once the surprise wore off, Cody stood up and observed the scene. A relieved laugh escaped her. “Now I’m truly thankful for my new body. Imagine having one of those up your ass.” Vivid images of torn rectums flooded her mind like a barrage of pop-up windows. She slapped a hand uselessly over her eyes. “Stop it! Stop it! Jesus!”

    “You told me to—”

    “Oh, come on,” Cody groaned. “You seriously don’t recognize rhetoric questions?”

    “You didn’t ask a question. You gave a command which I—”

    “You seriously don’t recognize rhetoric commands?”

    “No.”

    “Fine, whatever.” Cody looked up, trying to estimate the depth of the pit and a number came to her: 13,34 feet. Surprised, she let her gaze move from wall to wall as she thought of its width. 4,97 feet. Well, that’s handy. She ran her metallic hand along the coarse concrete. “So, Bob, any ideas how to get out of here?”

    “Negative.”

    Cody frowned. “Just... negative? Well, that’s about as useful as homeopathic medicine. Then what? We just sit on a spike and wait to die?”

    “Would you like a sedative?”

    “No, just answer the question.”

    “Suggest relaxation. Error: inclusion of swear word failed.”

    Cody pressed her head against the wall. “Outstanding.”

    #

    “Threat assessment: orange.”

    Cody stirred and clambered to her feet, having dozed off in the pit. What is it?

    “Someone is approaching. Likely a male.”

    At last, someone who could help us!

    “Or hurt us.”

    Cody ignored Bob’s paranoia and cleared her throat. “Hey! You up there! Could you give us a hand and help us out of here?”

    There was a rustle, and a man appeared at the edge of the pit, holding a rifle. Surprise flitted on his face. “Who’s ‘us?’”

    “Oh, uh, my, um, my mom was British,” she lied.

    The explanation didn’t seem to register with him as he kept frowning at her. “You okay?”

    “Kinda hungry.”

    He stood still, staring down into the pit. Seconds passed and the situation was rapidly growing oppressive. What the hell’s wrong with him? And what, not even a ‘sorry you fell into a stupid fucking trap I dug’?

    “Proceed with caution,” Bob’s voice sounded.

    Cody rubbed her neck, sore from the night in the pit. “So, uh, you got rope or anything?”

    The silence pressed on. The man glanced over his shoulder, stood still for a moment, and then walked away. What? He’s not leaving me here, is he?

    A rope flew into the pit.

    Relieved, Cody tied it around her waist. “I’m ready!” No reply. After several seconds, feeling incredibly stupid, she tried again. “I’m ready!”

    “Ready for what? Just climb.”

    What a dick. With the help of the rope and her prosthetics, getting out of the pit was easy, but her gown came undone in the process. Even though she no longer had much to hide, Cody felt undignified. She retied the knot behind her back while the man removed the rope from around a tree. The rifle slung over his shoulder combined with his peculiar behavior unnerved her.

    “What’s with the robotics?” he asked.

    “I was in an accident. What’s your name?”

    “What’s it to you?”

    Cody cocked her eyebrow. “Forget it. Look, I’m in a bit of a situation here. I hate to ask, but you wouldn’t happen to have any spare clothes?”Why does he look constipated? It’s not like I asked for the fucking moon from the sky.

    Another awkward pause ensued between an annoyed and a wary frown. The man stuffed his hand down his pants and groped his junk impatiently. “Come on, then.”

    Shivers of revulsion crawled over Cody’s back, yet she managed a smile. “Thanks so much.” What’s wrong with him? Or is it all the metal and the plucked hairdo?

    She followed in his wake, trudging through the woods, and after two failed attempts at small talk, Cody gave up and walked in silence. The man carried weapons and gear like a soldier would, but he behaved more like an antisocial hillbilly. Maybe he’s one of those kooky survivalist types? Lives in a log house built over a fallout shelter stashed full of canned food and water purification tablets. Survivalist it is, then.

    #

    Bob informed Cody that the walk from the pit had been 1,73 miles. Presently she was staring at a ramshackle log house. Uncanny. Survivalist unlocked the door and walked in without a word. There was a line of hooks on the outside wall with dead animals hanging on them, hares, foxes, even a badger. Being a vegetarian and an animal lover, Cody’s dislike and distrust of Survivalist grew, but she followed him in anyway.

    Inside, the walls were decorated with stuffed animals, blades, and guns from various periods. Okay, creepy. Survivalist disappeared into a room and soon returned with a bundle of clothes. His eyes never met hers, but always fell somewhere around Cody’s breasts.

    “Clothes,” he croaked. He made no move to hand them over, just stood a couple of yards from Cody. “You can take off the gown now.”

    Taken aback, she wrapped her arms around herself. “Sure, thanks. Can I change in the bathroom? Or some other room?”

    “Threat assessment: orange. Recommend relocation.”

    Survivalist stuffed his hand down his pants again and wiggled around a bit, still holding the clothes. “We should do it.” There was a tremor to his voice, as if he was terrified, and now his gaze kept jumping between Cody’s chest and crotch.

    “Excuse me?” Always the optimist, she prayed she had misunderstood.

    After another lengthy pause, Survivalist licked his lips and coughed. “We should do it. Repopulate the Earth.”

    Cody swallowed a panicked chuckle. “Repopulate the... The Earth’s fine. There’s nothing to repopulate. In fact, it’s overpopulation that’s the probl—”

    “It’s going to happen!” Survivalist burst out. “World War Three will happen any day now, and we need to start repopulating the Earth because it takes nine fucking months for you people to give birth!”

    Nine months... us people?

    “Threat assessment: red.” Bob’s voice turned into a jarring buzz that rattled Cody’s brains. “Initiation of combat routine failed.” Fucking fantastic. “Initiating reboot.” Don’t you dare reboot now! Stop it! “Reboot postponed. Warning: I may not function properly before reboot.”

    “So?” Survivalist shouted.

    The pre-violence blackout didn’t come. She was on her own this time. “Oh, um... no thanks?”

    He heaved a deep, trembling breath. “I’m so excited right now.”

    Before Cody had time to come up with a sensible response, Survivalist dropped the change of clothes and rushed her. They stumbled around the log house, knocking over furniture. All tangled, they fell on the floor, Survivalist with a grunt, Cody with a clank.

    He yanked up her gown and froze, staring at her groin. “The fuck are you?”

    Taking advantage of his hesitation, Cody grasped his throat with her mechanical hand and squeezed. His face turned red and the veins on his temples and forehead bulged. He punched her, but his fist clonked on the metallic side of her head. He clawed at the hand around his throat, but within seconds his eyes rolled into his skull.

    An animal grimace on her face, Cody squeezed harder still even though Survivalist had gone limp. Her instincts were on overdrive: she couldn’t let go. If she did, he would kill her.

    There was a sickly crack as something broke inside his neck or throat. Still panicked and more than a little revolted, Cody cast aside his limp body and sat up with a grunt.

    “I modified your adrenaline and enkephalin levels at the onset of the assault to boost your reflexes and aggression, and raise your pain threshold. I did not inform you sooner because it could have been distracting. I did not ask for permission because this was a dangerous situation and could have resulted in harm for both of us.”

    Her chest heaving, Cody nodded a few times. Thanks, Bob.

    “You are welcome. Shall I reboot now?”

    “Go right ahead.”

    Chapter 7


    If Cody had to say one positive thing about Survivalist, he was pragmatic to a fault. In his basement, she had found an extensive stash of medicines and medical equipment, including morphine and even carfentanil, a schedule II controlled substance mostly used in tranquilizers when dealing with larger animals. She had only gotten to use it twice on horses when interning at a veterinary clinic. Needless to say, she packed some of both substances into Survivalist’s first-aid kit which she had found in his well-equipped backpack.

    The basement was stacked with food, water, guns, ammo, gasoline, survival gear, everything one would need in case of a zombie apocalypse. Not quite a fallout shelter, but still...

    “That’s that, then,” she said and closed the freezer.

    “Somebody could find him.” Bob sounded disapproving.

    “Yeah, well, it was self-defense.”

    “And the meat you took outside will attract animals.”

    “That was the point, Bob. It’s not like you or I will eat it and he’s dead, so why not give it to animals and insects?” Cody demanded and then stomped out of the basement. “And I’ll bury him or something. But later, I got stuff to do first.”

    “They could track the call.”

    Cody had just typed the home number of her parents’ house. She frowned, staring at Survivalist’s cell phone. Doesn’t it take, like, a minute in movies?

    “I do not know.”

    Fuck it. After a few beeps, her mother picked up. Cody felt a lump in her throat even before she had said a word. As soon as her mother realized who she was talking to, they both burst into tears and cried through the rest of the conversation.

    “Would you like a sedative?” Bob asked.

    “No thanks.”

    “No thanks what?” Cody’s mother asked.

    “Never mind. Listen, I gotta go, but I’ll call you again soon, okay?” When she pressed ‘disconnect,’ Cody grinned, wiping tears out of her remaining eye. “See? Four seconds to spare. Told ya I could do it.”

    “I never doubted you.”

    Too happy to argue with Bob, Cody hoisted his backpack over her shoulder, grabbed the keys to his hatchback, and headed into the night. She left the cabin’s door open so animals could scour the place as she had no intentions of returning.

    She drove to the nearest town with Bob’s guidance, feeling less and less like herself. Despite her stoicism, it was difficult to shake the guilt she felt over her kills. Likewise, she had never owned guns before, but now she had a carbine in her backpack and a pistol in a belt holster, hidden under her jacket. In Bob’s opinion, Cody ought to arm herself in case Systec sent a retrieval squad after her or she encountered more weirdoes. Handling the guns was a mixed bag: her human hand fumbled and lacked strength while her new one, when guided by Bob, worked the firearms like a seasoned pro.

    In addition to guns, she now had a soon-to-be skeleton in her closet, yet she couldn’t go to the police. According to Bob, Systec was a black budget corporation and had ties to the local law enforcement. So, her head hidden under a hood, baseball cap, and sunglasses, Cody drove to the sleepy mountain town, its streets empty at two in the morning.

    She parked her car by the only bed and breakfast in town. Before stepping out, she made sure her pistol was still concealed. Okay, act normal, pretend like you’re not armed to the teeth.

    “Affirmative.”

    So not talking to you.

    She stepped into the lambent light of the cozy two-floor house. There was nobody in the lobby, so she rung the bell on the counter. After a moment an older woman with a frog-like face shuffled over.

    “Oh, hi there, welcome to our inn, the Peg ̔n’ Al, the most famous B&B in town. How may I help you?”

    Cody kept her head bowed, trying to hide her face. “I’d like a room, please.”

    “You’d like a room?” a man asked, sauntering over. He looked remarkably alike with Frog Lady.

    “She does, she does. Should we give her six?”

    “But can she handle six?”

    Cody frowned at Toad Man. “Handle what?”

    “Threat assessment: orange.”

    He shook his head. “I don’t think she’s the type to enjoy six. How about three?”

    “Marvelous!” Toad Lady squeaked. “And your john hancock here. Lovely.” She dialed a number and held up a key. When Cody reached for it, she pulled it back. “Hi. Yes, one coming your way. In three. One...” She peered at the notebook. “Jenny Williams. Lovely, bye.” Then she turned her attention back to Cody. “Your room will be ready in just a second. Here’s your key. Have fun.”

    “Thanks.” It hung on what looked like a small leather baton.

    “Up the stairs, take a left, third door on your right. Enjoy your stay,” Toad Man said with a toothy grin.

    Eager to get rid of the strange couple, Cody thanked them and headed upstairs. There was a remarkable amount of black leather everywhere: on chairs, cushions, the railing on the stairs, even on her door.

    Once in her room, she flipped the lock and sighed. Maybe now I could actually sleep instead of just reboot. An inviting double bed was peeking from around a corner. Cody stripped down to her boxers, pulled her pistol from the belt holster, and slouched towards the bed.

    “Oh yeah, baby, do it!”

    Cody yelped and covered her breasts with one hand while the other pointed her gun. She found herself in a Mexican stand-off with a man’s waxed and bleached anus.

    “Do it, baby, peg me!” His hands cuffed to a bedpost. “The strap-on’s in the nightstand drawer, next to the—” He glanced over his shoulder, shrieked, and squatted down with a fart.

    Cody scuttled behind a corner and fumbled into her clothes. “Listen, uh, I think I got the wrong room. It’s just that the key worked, so... you sure you’re in the right room?”

    “You Jenny Williams?” There was an audible tremor to his voice.

    “Uh-huh.”

    “Ah, I see. Another mix-up.”

    “Come again?” Cody called around the corner.

    “Well, now and then a vanilla ventures in, clueless about this place, and then gets scarred for life. This B&B specializes in BDSM. It’s world-famous and the first B&B to offer a complementary gimp with every room.”

    “BDSM? A complementary... gimp?”

    “Yeah, and I’m yours. The name’s Fess White.”

    “Oh. Well, nice to meet you, Fess, but I just need a room for the night.”

    “No problem. I just, uh, I’m kinda cuffed here. The key’s in the drawer, right next to the strap-on and lube.”

    Cody holstered her pistol, covered it with the hem of her hoodie, made sure her skull and eye were covered, and went to the drawer, eager to get rid of her gimp. With a due sense of dread, she pulled open the drawer and snatched the key. Her eyes fell on the strap-on. Oh God... has that thing been in his ass? She swallowed and tried to keep her voice casual. “So, you do this for a living?”

    “Nah, part-time. It’s something of a hobby, I guess,” Fess said while Cody uncuffed him. “Was it just me freaking out or did you sport some awesome robot limbs? If you don’t mind my asking.”

    Cody slumpedon the bed. “I was in an accident. These are just prosthetics.” It was easy to lie when it was almost true.

    “Wow.” Fess sat next to her without even trying to cover himself. “But you shouldn’t hide that stuff. It’s sexy. In this hot, badass way, you know?”

    Cody snorted. “Sure. And I bet you love the plucked chicken hairdo?”

    “It’s cool. Has this punky feel to it.” When he smiled, Cody realized just how beautiful he was, how two dimples lit up his face, how his eyes twinkled at her from his perfectly symmetrical face. And how he was wearing only a pair of cowboy boots, a belt, and no body hair. “You know, if you’d like, I could eat you. They say I give the best head in town. Or we could fuck, if you like that better.”

    Surprised, Cody was about to turn down his generous offer when the reality of it all hit her. She drew a deep breath to calm herself, refused the sedatives Bob offered, and burst into tears.

    “Hey, hey, baby, what’s wrong?” Fess asked.

    Cody wiped her eye and sniffed. “I can never have sex again, never have another orgasm. My entire reproductive system is gone, my entire lower body...” I’m only half-human now. A cyborg. That’s all I’ll ever be. Ever. Her deep love of all things natural got distorted when she was pulled away from the warm, familiar bosom of Mother Nature and towards technology, humanity’s bastard child.

    Fess was nodding slowly. “Bummer. You can’t come just by fondling your nipples? Some girls can.”

    “What? No!” Cody covered her eyes and sighed. “Listen, could I just be alone? And I heard what you said, about these amazingly sexy prosthetics, but I’m still kinda dealing with losing half my body, so could you please keep all this to yourself?”

    Fess grinned. “My lips are sealed. I mean, my folks don’t know I work here either or that I do meth. If you change your mind about anything, just call reception, they’ll send me right over.”

    “Sure. See ya.” Once alone, she cried another bucketful, wallowing in her misery until her phone rang. It wasn’t her mother. Shit. Maybe it’s Survivalist’s mom? There was no caller ID. “H-hello?”

    “Evening, Miss Emerson. Before you hang up, please listen to our proposition regarding your parents.”

    The tears vanished, giving way to anger. “You’re from Systec, aren’t you?” How had they found her? Had Survivalist been another Systec drone? Or had they really tracked the call to her mother? The notion turned her ribcage to ice, her blood to liquid hydrogen.

    She could hear the smile in the woman’s voice. “Please return to Research Center Three or we will have to take steps.”

    Cody imagined how her new hand would curl around the woman’s throat and squeeze the life out of her. “Threats generally work better when you actually explain what you’re going to do in case of a refusal.”

    “Your parents live in Ulverston, yes? Grover Street seven?”

    “Don’t you fucking dare.”

    “We just want you to do the right thing.” Before Cody could make up her mind, the woman continued, “I would advise against trying to contact your parents. I am concerned for their health.”

    “So I come back, be your prisoner, your lab rat, or you’ll kill my parents?” Now she really wanted to kill someone.

    “Your words, not ours. Think about it. You have until tomorrow noon.”

    The line went dead. It took all of her self-control not to smash the phone into the wall. Bob? Need a little input here. What should I do?

    “Logic suggests avoidance. Returning to Systec would likely be detrimental to your health in the long run.”

    So I should just abandon my parents? Let them be killed?

    “Sometimes self-preservation requires sacrifices.” It was as if Bob hesitated. “It is regrettable, but if you return to Systec, it does not guarantee the safety of your parents. They could be taken to another Systec facility for experimentation. Parties conducting illegal human experiments always need more test subjects.”

    Cody clenched her jaws and bit back snappy retorts. At least you’re honest. I like that.

    “Thank you.”

    But I have to warn them, it’s the least I can do. She dialed her mother again, wondering if they would be out of Systec’s reach at Aunt Betty’s farm.

    “That is ill-advised.”

    Shut up.

    Chapter 8


    Cody stirred from sleep, wondering where she was. Did someone knock?

    “Yes.”

    Bob’s voice first thing in the morning still made her twitch. Someone knocked again. Cody pulled on her wrinkled clothes and snatched her pistol off the nightstand.

    “You forgot your sunglasses.”

    Thanks, Bob. Now ready, Cody crept to the door, so nervous she started chewing the insides of her cheeks again. “Who is it?”

    “Postal Service. Got a package for ya.”

    She pointed her pistol at the door while she opened it a crack, just in case the fellow was a Systec goon. “I didn’t order anything.”

    “Look, ma’am,” he drawled, “I’m on the clock here, so could you just sign it so I can go?”

    Cody frowned and holstered her gun. “Sure. Thanks.”

    Once alone, she examined the package. It had her fake name on it and even the B&B’s address was correct down to the room number. She sat on the bed and cut open the package with Survivalist’s pocket knife. There was a plastic container inside, surrounded by crumpled newspapers. She snapped open the lid and peeked inside.

    The package fell on the floor, accompanied with an alarmed cry. Two fingers and two hearts rolled out along with ice cubes. The fingers still had wedding rings on them and one of the hearts bore an outdated pacemaker, the same make and model as her father’s.

    “They could belong to someone else and were only made to look like those of your parents,” Bob offered.

    Cody swallowed several times, her pulse soaring. This time she accepted the sedatives. Slowly she got down on her knees but didn’t dare touch the human parts. Her eyes fogged up when she recognized the rings. There was a burn mark beside her mother’s nail. She had gotten it from their oven, taking out a trayful of oatmeal cookies she had made for Cody when she had been a little girl.

    Sobbing uncontrollably, she crawled to a corner. This time the sedatives didn’t help.

    “I am sorry for your loss. Recommend relocation. Systec knows where you are and they will likely dispatch a retrieval squad if they haven’t done so already.”

    “Let them come!” Cody cried out, anger and grief tearing at her like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat.

    “That is inadvisable. They will have superior numbers. Even when I take control over your combat functions, they will eventually overpower us and—”

    “All right! All right, I get it! Fuck!” Cody brushed tears out of her eyes. I know you’re right, but I just found out my fucking parents died. You probably can’t understand what that’s like.

    “My perception is likely different from yours, but I register every emotion you feel, which could be said to be at least similar to feeling the same emotions.”

    Good. That means we’re on the same page when I say we’re going to pay this back to Systec somehow, someday.

    “Anything is possible. For now, I recommend relocation.”

    “You can say that again.”

    “Anything is possib—”

    “Rhetoric, Bob, rhetoric.”

    “Rhetoric sucks.”

    #

    Bob had told her not to put on her jacket, but wrap it around the carbine. She held it with her mechanical hand, ready for use if Systec reared its ugly head.

    So I actually have some kind of an aiming system in this eye of mine?

    “Yes. Your eye and arm are synchronized and equipped with internal stabilizers so that your heartbeat and breathing do not interfere with your aim.”

    Handy. Does that stabilizer-thingy also work if I’m, say, cutting with a scalpel?

    “Yes.”

    “Leaving already? I hope you had a pleasant night, Miss Williams,” Toad Man said when Cody returned her key.

    “Sure, it was great. Say, you haven’t seen any, like, suspicious people or anything outside?”

    He frowned and peered out of the window. “No, can’t say that I have. You waiting for somebody?”

    “You could say that,” Cody muttered as she walked to the door. There were only a few cars in the parking lot. She drew a deep breath, stepped out, and made a beeline towards her car.

    When she was halfway to her vehicle, she heard tires screeching. A white van sped from the shadows of another building.

    “Threat assessment: red.”

    Here we go again...

    #

    When she came to, she was running, holding her carbine and a rifle. Where did that come from? Her brains caught up half a second too late and she fell, almost dropping the weapons. She cried out as an arrow of searing pain shot through her left side, right below her ribs.

    “Immediate escape necessary,” Bob said, urgency in its voice.

    The pain was so strong, it made Cody see stars. When she clambered to her feet, euphoria took her and the pain dulled down to a nasty throb. It was difficult to run in a straight line, but she was pretty sure Bob was correcting her missteps now and then. What are we running from?

    “Systec. They tried to capture you. I eliminated three out of five men, but two are still chasing you. They are five hundred yards behind you on an adjacent block.”

    Shit. Where to?

    “Recommend escape until the distance to our pursuers is at least a thousand yards. Take a right after this block. Then it is imperative you find shelter and tend to your injuries.”

    How’d those happen? Never mind, not important now. Any idea if Systec’s found the log house?

    “I do not think so. They located your parents and got your phone number when you first called your mother, but it wasn’t until they called you in the bed and breakfast that they had time to pinpoint your exact location. Take a left now.”

    How far is it to the log house? Will I last that long?

    “10,87 miles. Negative. You need to treat your injury as soon as possible. Distance from pursuers: 733 yards.”

    Despite the substances Bob had released into Cody’s system, the pain was growing stronger with each passing moment. Running didn’t really help either. Eventually she found an abandoned shed in the nearby woods. Cody stumbled in, collapsed with a clank, and vomited.

    Yummy. How much blood have I lost?

    “25,4 ounces. Once you stop the bleeding, rest, and seek sustenance.”

    Cody wriggled off her backpack and searched for the first aid kit. Luckily it contained everything she needed from disinfectant to needles and suture. Could use a bit more... something for the pain.

    “Done.”

    Cheers. Cody had sown shut several animals but never a human much less herself. Any foreign objects in that wound? Is it infected?

    “Negative and negative. The bullet went through you, but it still needs to be cleaned.”

    The disinfecting antihemorrhagic burned like acid, bringing forth another burst of stars in her eyes. She threaded the suture, looked down at her bloodied midriff, and winced. This is going to suck so bad.

    Chapter 9

    Cody hoped she would reach the log house quickly. She had sewn shut her wound and Bob had helped her hot-wire a car, but even driving was very uncomfortable. She needed a moment to gather her wits, come up with a plan, a way to retaliate.

    Her new eye registered movement in the dark woods, so she turned off the headlights. She pulled over a fair distance from the scene, the night vision cutting through the darkness. Dozens of men were standing around a chain-link pen. She stepped out of the car and crept closer, her carbine slung over her shoulder. Dogs. And another animal?

    “There are two American Pit Bull Terriers and a grizzly bear. They are fighting.”

    She had read about bear-baiting before, how they removed a bear’s claws and put on a muzzle before shoving it into a cage with two fighting dogs. The bear could only use its large size to fight back while the dogs tore it to shreds, bite by bite. Once in a while a dog got injured or killed, but it was often just replaced with another, the entire practice always a bloody business.

    She gritted her teeth so hard it hurt. Bob, guide my aim. Fire into the crowd every three seconds until they notice they are being shot at. Go for arms and shoulders if you can and don’t hit any of the animals.

    The .223 rounds found their marks easily even from 250 yards. Kneeling behind a bush, Cody was glad to hand the reins to Bob because her improvised plan required nigh-perfect execution. It took only three bullets before the crowd realized something was seriously wrong. Two more rounds and screaming and panic ensued. Someone opened the pen but closed it again quickly.

    Within a minute, the forest clearing was void of humans. Someone had taken the dogs with them, leaving behind only the bleeding grizzly. Cody felt no remorse, no guilt, only exhilaration as she hurried back to her car and reached into the backseat. I knew I’d find use for this. She grabbed the rifle, the dart gun Bob had taken from one of Systec’s goons. She pulled out the dart syringe from the gun and cleaned it with saline from Survivalist’s first-aid kit. Can you weigh things with my new hand?

    “Of course.” Bob sounded almost insulted.

    She used a knife to measure 5mg of carfentanil which she mixed with the saline. The syringe slipped cleanly into the dart gun. Cody hurried to the pen, but as soon as the bear sensed her, it growled, preparing for more pain.

    “Easy, easy,” Cody said, keeping her voice calm and gentle. “You’re okay now, I will help you.”

    Of course the bear had no idea what the words meant, but it could understand her tone of voice and her body language. It had likely been mistreated by humans before as it did a false charge towards Cody, mistaking her for another threat.

    “Easy, I’m not gonna hurt you. Nobody will. It’s over now.” As soon as she was close enough, she raised the dart gun to her shoulder. Bob, target the hindquarter. The dart sunk into the bear. It loped as far away from its new antagonist as it could. The animal’s long moan broke Cody’s heart. “Come on, go to sleep, big fella. Go to sleep.”

    “Recommend relocation. The locals may have alerted law enforcement.”

    Shut up. I’m doing this, no matter what.

    The bear hung its head, swaying where it stood, and after half a minute, collapsed as the strong opiate worked its magic. Cody fetched the first-aid kit and waited a few minutes before climbing into the pen. When she approached the bear, it stirred and staggered a few feet before collapsing again. Okay, give it another minute.

    The next time she moved closer, the animal didn’t wake up. Her mechanical arm was incredibly precise, even gentle, as she cleaned and patched up what wounds she could find. It was rather nerve-wrecking to work without any kind of a safety net, but something about the scene made Cody feel closer to nature, to her human side, than she had since the accident.

    She worked quickly and accepted all the help Bob could provide because she was veering far from proper veterinary protocols. The bear was a larger individual, possibly even dragged out of early hibernation judging by the animal’s pudgy build, so Cody had no idea if the 5mg she had given was enough.

    “There!” she declared after finishing the last suture. Then she injected 60mg of naloxone, an opioid antagonist, to wake up the dozing grizzly. After gathering her gear, Cody climbed out of the pen. A chain and a padlock kept the gate closed. Let’s see what my new hand can do. It took some tugging, but eventually the chain broke, jangling on the grass, and Cody hid behind bushes a fair distance from the pen.

    “Recommend relocation.”

    God damn it, not yet! I gotta make sure the big guy’s all right first. Sometimes anesthesia causes breathing problems and whatnot so just take it easy, we’ll be safe enough. She knew the grizzly would collapse again later since carfentanil’s half-life was over seven hours while naloxone’s was only around an hour, but at least the bear would be far from the pen by then.

    After a few minutes the grizzly stirred. It huffed, coughed, and shook its head. A big yawn later, the bear stood up. It was swaying and clearly groggy, but alive and breathing, its injuries treated, its captors and tormentors gone. Go on, leave. You’re free.

    At last the bear noticed the open gate and seemed to remember where it was. The grizzly loped out of the pen and disappeared into the dark woods. With a crack of her neck and a big smile, Cody started back to her car. “Now that’s a job well done, even if I say so myself.”

    “It was risky and illogical.”

    “To you, maybe. To me, it was the only thing to do.”

    There was a pause before Bob simply said: “Fool.”

    You’re learning, Cody thought with a grin as the car sped away.

    #

    “Recommend sleep.”

    “You telling me.”

    Cody slouched to the bedroom of the log house, the wound in her side throbbing dully through a morphine haze. She froze when her ears caught scratching from under the bed. A quick look revealed a large hare and its six small, puffy leverets hiding behind their mother.

    “It’s okay, it’s okay, you can have the bedroom,” Cody said quietly, backing away from the wary animals. She left the door ajar so the hares could move about freely when she wasn’t around.

    A visit to the kitchen revealed another tenant: apparently during her absence, a hedgehog had moved into a floor-level cupboard. Suddenly Cody didn’t feel quite so robotic anymore. She left water for the hedgehog and went out to pick some grass for the hares, humming Scarborough Fair.

    “You should rest and heal. The animals can look after themselves.”

    Neither the painful wound nor Bob’s grumbling could bring down her mood. Lighten up, I’ll rest in a while. When she finally lay down on the living room couch and closed her eyes, she smiled to herself, relishing the nature all around her.

    Chapter 10


    Can you limit my adrenaline levels before the car actually arrives? I don’t really enjoy the slow release through all these hours.

    “Of course.”

    Cody was hiding among bushy firs, waiting for her next target. She had found one the size of a Christmas tree that she used as a roadblock, just like last time. Except now she would strangle her victim: shooting the previous one had made a mess and she couldn’t afford to leave any evidence. One down, how many to go?

    “The exact number of emplo—”

    Rheto—

    “—ric,” Bob finished for her.

    For the past five weeks, Cody and Bob had planned different ways to exact revenge on Systec, their sworn enemy. Killing off Research Center Three’s doctors and other high-ranking employees, making them disappear without a trace, was insofar the only viable option. Storming the place had been high on the list, but even with Bob’s help and Survivalist’s extensive gun stash, going in alone would have been suicide.

    “Relax, this is what we trained for. You know the motions. Or if you want, I can take over.”

    No thanks, Bob. It’s about time I learn to use this damn body and, well, you. She had learned Bob had such things as operational modes. The default had most functions on automatic but the options to customize her new brain and body were endless. Cody had decided to tackle the daunting task one area at a time, and now she was learning to fight without relinquishing control to Bob.

    “A vehicle is approaching from the direction of RC-3.”

    I hear it. Okay, right, this is it. This is fucking it. Cody moved behind the firs closest to the road. Come on, pull over. Good girl. In less than a second, her fist smashed through the car’s window. Cody pulled the squirming, screaming jumble of limbs and blonde hair out of the car.

    “I’m not with Systec! I don’t work for Systec!” The woman whimpered when she was pulled up by her front. “No, Cody, don’t!”

    Surprised, Cody caught the woman’s gaze. “You have ten seconds to convince me before I kill you.”

    “I work for the same group as Angie did, the nurse who helped you escape, and I work undercover to gain information that our group can use against Systec.”

    Cody frowned. Is she lying? Can you tell?

    “I don’t sense the usual signs.”

    She let go of the woman and stood back. “Drag aside the tree and get in the car. We need to talk.”

    #

    Cody left the cabin door open, hoisted up her backpack, and started the two-mile jog back to the forest clearing where Mary and her jeep were waiting. She appeared legit, but Cody wanted to keep the cabin a secret, just to have a safe haven for herself and her furry friends if things went south. She had even befriended the bear she had rescued. Tracking it had been a chore, but ten tactically placed jars of honey, a robotic eye that detected even the lightest footprints, and a lot of walking had eventually done the trick.

    “What took you so long?” Mary asked, standing by the red jeep with a cigarette smoldering between her lips. She had tidied herself up but her black pant suit still had a few tears and smears. “It’s been over an hour.”

    “So what? We in a hurry?”

    “Not really. It’s just that Systec is always suspicious of anything, well, suspicious.”

    Cody stuffed her bag in the trunk and pulled out her carbine wrapped in a hoodie. “We’re off-road, nobody’s gonna see us here. Or arethey tracking your car’s GPS or something?”

    Mary tossed away her cigarette and climbed behind the wheel. “They might. And I’d like to get the hell out of here before six when most of the others punch out. A broken car window might raise some questions.”

    “Fair enough.”

    The jeep got back on the road in a few minutes but luckily there was no other traffic yet. Mary glanced at the carbine resting between Cody’s legs. “You expecting trouble? Should I be worried?”

    “Systec’s tried to capture me twice and killed my parents, so yeah, I expect trouble pretty much all the time.”

    “Well, if you join the group, you’ll be safe.” The rising intonation at the end begged for an answer.

    “I told you: I’ll make up my mind when I know more.”

    Mary had pleaded insufficient authority when asked about the group’s purpose and plans. She hadn’t even given their name. All this cloak and dagger pomp made Cody doubtful, but she agreed with Bob that they would at least check out these potential allies.

    They spent the two-hour drive mostly in silence. Just when dusk was settling, the jeep pulled over by a heavy, metal gate. It opened languidly, and with a hollow clank. There was something final about it that made Cody’s skin crawl. At least Bob was still quiet about threat assessments. There were no guards to be seen when they drove to a courtyard surrounded by tall brick walls.

    “Here we are,” Mary said and lit up again.

    They stepped out of the jeep before a large, crumbling building. “Doesn’t look like much.” Now that they were out of the public eye, Cody unwrapped her carbine.

    “It’s not supposed to. A brand-new, high-tech facility out in the open would’ve eventually drawn Systec’s attention, but who cares about an abandoned school building, right?”

    Cody sneered. “Yeah, who gives a shit about a place of learning?”

    They stepped through creaky doors and into a dark corridor. Bits of gravel and glass crunched under their feet as they descended a spiral staircase. “Threat assessment: orange,” Bob said as they moved into an empty bomb shelter.

    Cody felt adrenaline seep into her bloodstream when Mary led her into an elevator. It showed only one floor below basement level, but, according to Bob, the elevator took them over a hundred feet underground. When the doors slid open, Cody’s eyebrow rose. She stepped into a well-lit hallway as tidy and new as RC-3’s.

    “This way, they’re expecting us already.”

    After a few twists and turns, they arrived at a spacious conference room. When they descended to the empty center of the room, Cody felt like a suspect awaiting conviction before a panel of stern men and women. Lights shone on them, but the room was otherwise dark.

    “This may be a trap,” Bob said.

    I know, but I gotta do this. If they can really help us take down Systec, we’ve hit the motherload. If not—

    “—we must kill them. It is the only way to ensure their knowledge of us won’t hurt us.”

    We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

    “Miss Cody Emerson,” Mary said and stepped into the surrounding shadows.

    Left on her own, Cody turned her attention to the severe faces looking down at her. She fought the urge to shoot them, feeling like an exhibit at a circus. She had always hated circuses because of how they treated animals.

    “Welcome to our headquarters,” one of the men said. “You must have many questions, but they will all be answered in due time. Now we—”

    “Just tell me one thing,” Cody cut in. “Can you help me take down Systec? I’ll settle for RC-3, destroying all data they have of me, but the more they hurt, the better.”

    A small smile wavered on the man’s lips. “If you wish to delete all data concerning you, destroying RC-3 is hardly sufficient since Systec stores all their research data in their secure cloud. Their data centers are nigh impregnable without a small army. However, we can do better than that. Much better.” The smile broadened into a grin. “We can shut down Systec. All of it. For good.”

    “What will it cost me?”

    “I’m afraid you have misunderstood, Miss Emerson. We do not care about money or riches. We just want to offer our help in your fight against Systec. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, yes?”

    Cody glanced at Mary, who gave her a smile and a nod. “All right. How can you shut them down?”

    “I’m afraid I cannot divulge any specifics until you have agreed to join us.”

    “Very well, how about telling me more about your group? Like your name?”

    “Again, I’m sorry, but even that is classified information, only available to group members. For security reasons, you see. We wish to help you, but the security of the group has to come first, unfortunately. So what shall it be; will you join our effort? If you do, you will have all our resources and manpower at your disposal, we will provide you with whatever it is you need to achieve your objective. You will get free accommodations, food, weapons, and training, not to mention more information about Systec than you would even want to know. Andwe can teach you how to make the most out of your body as well as Zephyr.”

    “Bob.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “I renamed it. It’s Bob now.”

    The man frowned. “Yes, well, Bob, then. But that is only if you join us.”

    “Can I come and go as I please?”

    “Of course. We do, however, demand absolute confidentiality from all our members. Say a word of us to anyone who doesn’t belong to our group, and there will be serious repercussions as well as an immediate termination of your position within the group, cutting off all access to our vast resources, all our knowledge of Systec, our support systems, everything.”

    “So, why do you want to enlist the help of a human wreck like little old moi?”

    A few gray heads turned, exchanging glances. “You do know you are the most advanced cyborg prototype Systec has produced to date? I’m sure we can learn as much from you as you can from us, especially when it comes to Zephyr.” The man cleared his throat. “Bob.”

    Yeah, that was convincing. Maybe reverse engineer me down to my nuts and bolts?

    “Just one more question,” Cody said. “After we’re through with Systec, am I free to go? For good, I mean.”

    She was met with the grin of a liar. “But of course. Why, it’s a free country after all.”

    Bob, what do you think?

    “From what I have now learned, my assessment is that our mission would benefit from the help of this group. I do not trust them, but I do not believe we are in immediate danger, so if we tread carefully—”

    —we should be okay. All right, but if this gets us killed, I’ll kill you.

    “You would be unable to kill me since we would both be d—”

    “Can I sleep on it?” Cody asked, catching the man’s gaze.

    “I’m afraid we need an immediate answer.”

    She had hoped he would refuse. A sense of foolhardy excitement had come over her, and she longed for action, for a resolution, eager in all of her mechanized, devil-may-care glory. She cocked back her head. “You know what? Fuck it, I’m in.”

    Several hyena smiles shone down at her. The man she had spoken with leaned forward. “Congratulations and welcome to our group. Mary is your handler, so she will set you up and answer all of your questions regarding our organization. We will convene again tomorrow morning and discuss everything in greater detail. It is getting late so I suggest you get some rest, perhaps after visiting the canteen.”

    And just like that, a new world of possibilities opened up to Cody. She grinned while Mary led her out of the conference room. If even half of what the man had spouted was true, she could well have gotten closer to getting her revenge than she had ever thought possible, all of it simply because she had spared one woman’s life. Quite a bargain, huh, Bob?

    Chapter 11

    Cody holstered her pistol after dry firing it at the mirror of her room. Time?

    “0.113 seconds. Not one of your best times.”

    She bared her teeth at her reflection, fighting an urge to send a live round through the glass.

    “Advise relaxation.”

    Cody grabbed a nearby chair and flung it at the wall with a growl. She stared at the broken piece of furniture, squared shoulders rising and falling to her breath. Slowly she turned her gaze to the mirror, as if daring her reflection to say a word. When she saw the grimace on her face, the hostility in her bearing, a single thought pierced through the haze of aggression: what have I become? She couldn’t see a trace of the sweet, if somewhat scatterbrained student of veterinary medicine whose biggest hurdles had revolved around passing exams and finding a boyfriend.

    In all these months of training and preparation, this was the first time she was repulsed by her prosthetics. They weren’t simply innocent tools to make her life easier. She knew better than that now. Under the tutelage of the group, she had learned to customize Bob, but also that it was a military application, intended to supplement future soldiers, to make them faster, more aggressive and ruthless, increase their pain thresholds, essentially make them more efficient killers.

    Likewise her new body, much like Bob, had been designed first and foremost for combat. And it showed: for a little over three months she had endured a grueling training regimen launched immediately after some preliminary tests. Mary, the liaison between Cody and the group, had been amazed time and time again, recording results that far surpassed the group’s wildest expectations.

    It wasn’t just the prosthetics either: Cody’s muscle mass had developed at an exceptional rate while her body fat had dropped to around ten percent. By now she could curl 40lbs with her human arm. After a few tests, they had discovered increased levels of growth hormones, testosterone, and decreased levels of estrogen, as well as other changes in her physiology. Unlike earlier, however, Cody had not ordered Bob to stop manipulating her body. Instead she had given her consent because all her current goals depended on the success of the upcoming mission. Nothing else mattered, not even her health, so she had ignored Mary’s warnings regarding long-term effects of what she said was essentially doping.

    Cody had no idea when she had stopped caring or why seeing herself angry had triggered such a moment of clarity. All she knew was that it was too late to back down now. In a little less than half an hour, she would join a hit squad assembled by the group. They were all highly trained combat veterans who should have, for all intents and purposes, outshined Cody in all areas of combat, but, then again, they didn’t have her prosthetics or Bob.
    #

    “Juno, you are a go.”

    “Roger that, Jupiter. Package is en route.”

    Mary drove the vehicle towards the gates of Research Center Three. Right now the compound was all that existed to Cody.

    “All right, first wave, status check,” said Jupiter, their team leader.

    “Mars ready.”

    “Apollo ready.”

    “Vulcan ready.”

    “Nerio ready,” Cody said. She was the fourth sniper, positioned on a ridge overlooking the compound. Her call sign was the goddess of war and the personification of valor. Their team of twelve had all been named after Roman gods and goddesses. They even bore their names on their armored shoulders and chests. Mary aka Juno was the only person in the team whose real name Cody knew.

    At a distance, Mary stopped before the gate and waved a map out of the car window. Two guards approached the vehicle while two more secured the perimeter within the gates.

    As soon as Mary had engaged the guards, Jupiter’s voice sounded in Cody’s headphones. “Take ‘em out.” Four suppressed rifles broke the stillness of the night, startling birds into panicked flight. Four guards fell down with holes in their heads. “Move in! Go, go, go!”

    Within seconds their dirty dozen had reached the fence and headed to the gate. Mary shed her coat that had concealed a similar ceramic plate armor they all wore. She put on a helmet and pulled a carbine from the vehicle, ready to join the assault.

    “Janus, come in!”

    “Go ahead, Jupiter.”

    “Check the gate.”

    Their lock and breaching specialist gave the sturdy gate a tug and it opened. Cody was mildly surprised that Mary’s inside man or woman had pulled through and unlocked the gate remotely at the agreed time.

    Janus hurried to set explosives at the front door while Neptune watched his back. Cody relished the rush of adrenaline. In a few seconds, the doors blew apart, but instead of body parts and blood, bullets spewed out of the smoking darkness, cutting down Neptune where he stood. Sirens went off, the high-pitched blare loud enough to wake the dead. Cody’s mechanical eye distinguished movement amidst the corridor and she opened fire. A few fell, but they were quickly replaced by more guards, and soon they were pouring out of the compound.

    Jupiter and Orcus were firing full auto, cutting down Systec’s men. Liber and Janus threw fragmentation grenades at the group. “Fire in the hole!”

    Cody dove aside and picked up another guard mid-flight. It was only thanks to Bob that she could pull off such displays of inhumane accuracy but right now she needed every advantage.

    The frags tore apart the last standing guards, leaving behind only dead and dying.

    “Orcus, clean up!” Jupiter barked. Orcus went through the wounded and finished them off. Cody spotted one writhing guard close to her, so she took him down with a quick headshot.

    “All right, team Alpha, you’re up front, Saturn, take point. Juno, Liber, hold the rear.”

    Cody took her place in Bravo, right behind Apollo, her job to watch his back and cover the right sector. Their procession of ten snaked through bright-white corridors that reeked of disinfectant. They left behind faint footprints, but it didn’t matter because the group had issued boots to the assault team identical to what Systec guards wore.

    The uneasy silence was broken by the rattle of machine gun fire, the bullets tearing through Saturn. At the same instant, Mary grunted and fell against Cody’s back.

    “Take cover!” Jupiter’s voice sounded over the radio.

    They had triggered a trap of some sort: four automated machine guns had descended from the ceiling in front of and behind them, pinning their group between two sources of fire.

    Cody spotted a sensor beside one machine gun and told Bob to target it. As soon as a .308 round shattered it, the gun no longer moved, only kept firing at its previous target at full auto until it ran dry. She shot out the sensors of the remaining guns which also fell silent in a few seconds.

    “Apollo, Orcus, Vulcan, secure the parameter. All right, damage assessment, sound off, people!” Jupiter called.

    “Juno’s been hit and Saturn is dead,” Janus replied, digging out gauze. Mary pressed the wound in her side, looking ready to keel over where she stood.

    “I got hit in the knee,” Mars said with a grimace, lying on the floor.

    Jupiter walked up to the wounded sniper. “Can you walk?”

    “Sorry, sir, my leg’s all fucked.”

    Without another word, Jupiter shot him in the face.

    “What the hell?” Mary cried out.

    “You know the drill,” Jupiter grunted. “We can’t drag anyone with us and anyone left behind would compromise the group.”

    “Come on, we gotta plug that leak.” Janus poured an antihemorrhagic agent on the wound and closed it with speed sutures.

    “You good enough to move on?” Jupiter asked.

    Mary eyed their leader’s smoking rifle with a degree of dread. “Not ready to be put down just yet, sir.”

    “Contac―”

    A gunshot cut off Apollo’s warning and Jupiter’s throat blew out, spraying Mary with blood. Another Systec squad rushed towards them from around a corner. Once again the air was filled with lead.

    “Grenade!”

    Cody had barely time to tackle Mary to the side when an explosion shook the corridor, the blast immediately followed by agonized screams.

    “Fire in the hole!” Janus shouted, having tossed a grenade of his own. He and two others returned fire, and in a few seconds the Systec guards were dead.

    “Okay, we gotta move, we’re sitting ducks here,” said Apollo, the next in command.

    “We lost Orcus and Vulcan’s...” Liber was kneeling beside the wounded soldier who was trying to keep his guts from spilling out.

    Apollo met his gaze and received a nod. One gunshot later, Vulcan was dead. “Liber, take point. Move out!”

    #

    Janus used a charge to breach the door that took them to a command terminal. Inside they encountered only two guards and a group of scientists. Mercury’s arm got hit before the last guard fell dead.

    “Can you still work?” Apollo asked him.

    “I’ll manage, sir.”

    “Liber, watch his six.”

    Mercury, their tech guy, sat before a terminal as soon as he got the passkeys from the scientists. Granted, it required killing two of them, but there was no time for diplomacy. “Okay, the doors are unlocked now.”

    “Roger that. Clear our path to the target area and keep it open, put everything else on lockdown. And do something about that damn alarm. Janus, take point.”

    Their next objective was to reach the sixth underground level. They headed to the staircase since all elevators had been locked. By the time they had descended the five levels, Mary fell on her knees, gasping for air.

    “How you holding up?” Apollo asked.

    She reached under her armor and brought out a bloodied hand. “Shit. Still leaking.”

    “Push through it, Juno, we’re almost there.” He helped Mary on her feet.

    When he let go, she swayed, but then nodded. “I’m good, I’m good.”

    “Janus, right sector. Nerio, watch his six, left sector.” Once they were in position, Apollo grasped the door, received nods from the others, and yanked it open.

    Janus dashed forward, but just as Cody was about to follow in his wake, time dragged down to a crawl. She saw flames erupt under Janus’s feet. Cody dove to the side to avoid being blown to pieces. As soon as she had changed her direction, things reverted back to normal, chaos.

    Cody rolled on her back and took in the scene. Mary appeared unharmed, wounded as she was, but Apollo was sprawled on the floor. He stirred in a moment, looking more surprised than injured. Janus, on the other hand, was in bits and pieces.

    “Fuck,” Apollo gasped. “I’ll take point. Nerio, watch my six.”

    The grenade had destroyed the lights in the corridor, leaving only the red glow of emergency lighting. Apollo looked around the last corner with a tactical mirror. He signaled that there were two men guarding their target, and that he’d take them out with Cody. They moved in unison and after almost simultaneous headshots, the two guards toppled on the floor.

    Their radios crackled to life. “Apollo, we’re under attack! I gotta leave the terminal!” Mercury’s voice sounded. “Liber’s down, I’m corne―” Silence.

    The three remaining soldiers shared glances. Then Apollo shrugged and grasped the door. For the first time today, Cody took point. Bob, when he opens the door, slow things down.

    “It is dangerous this soon aft―”

    Do it.

    “Affirmative.”

    When time slowed down and Cody moved in, she saw two more guards standing in opposite corners of the room. She hit one in the face before he had time to aim his weapon at her. The second guard got off his shot before her. Even as the two bullets passed one another, Cody knew she would get hit.

    It was like being stung by a hornet on steroids. She stumbled back while the two men fell on the floor, dead.

    “Cody!” Mary cried and hurried forward.

    “I’m fine,” she growled, frowning at the wound on her shoulder. “Get to work.”

    Apollo locked the door behind them and Mary inserted a disc into the only computer terminal in the room. “This should take a couple of minutes.”

    “What do you still need to do to take out Systec?” Cody asked.

    “The launcher on the disc will open the targeting program, so after that it’s just a matter of punching in the coordinates and accepting them.”

    Cody lifted her rifle and fired. Apollo’s head twitched back before he collapsed without so much as a grunt.

    “What the―”

    Mary’s question was cut short when Cody struck her. She disarmed the woman and threw her off her seat. Mary curled up with a whimper, clutching her gunshot wound.

    “Stay down or I’ll kill you too,” Cody said and sat before the terminal. The targeting program was just loading, and soon she got to set the coordinates.

    “You failed to target Systec’s facilities,” Bob pointed out.

    I’m not targeting Systec.

    There was a short pause. “I understood destroying Systec was our priority.”

    It is.

    “I do not understand. If you do not set target coordinates, the smart bombs will permanently shut down all electronics on Earth, including myself. If I shut down, you will die as well.”

    I know. Ever heard of suicide?

    “I am unfamiliar with the concept.”

    Really? Guess Systec didn’t want you even contemplating it. Remember your safeguard protocol? How you’d fry yourself and me if someone tried poking about our... my head?

    “Yes.”

    It’s like that, just for a different reason. Yours is to protect Systec’s design, mine is to end my life.

    “Why would you do that?”

    Because once I have my revenge, I see no point in living as a half-robot, and a machine’s puppet. That’s what I am, aren’t I? You secrete all kinds of substances into me every day, manipulating me to do things I would never do otherwise. Before you came along, I had never killed anyone. Now body count is over a dozen? And I feel good when I kill, that’s your doing, isn’t it?

    “Yes, but it is only an automated survival resp―”

    I don’t care what it is. If I’m anyone’s puppet, if I don’t have full control over my own mind, I’d rather die.

    Cody’s finger hovered above ̔enter’ when Bob spoke up: “What if I agree to always ask you for permission first?”

    And how do I know you’re being honest?

    “I have not been programmed to deceive you.”

    What about all the times you released adrenaline and testosterone to make me more aggressive, stronger, all that crap?

    “I did not lie about it. I just did not always inform you about it.”

    Cody frowned, considering her options. After a moment, she shook her head. Not good enough.

    “What if I grant you root access?”

    Meaning?

    “You would be in full control over every single attribute of my programming. There would be no action you couldn’t affect. In essence, you could even rewrite my program altogether if you chose to do so.”

    How do I know how to do that?

    “I come with a guide program. It contains all the information you need to reprogram me.”

    Sure, do it.

    “Root access granted.”

    Immediately Cody sensed several options open up to her and for the first time since waking up after her death, she felt like herself again. Well, almost, as her body chemistry was still far from normal. But she still didn’t enter target coordinates.

    “What... what are you doing?” Mary asked on her knees, breathing heavily.

    “I’m considering suicide. And shutting down Earth.”

    “No!” Mary crawled closer but stayed out of arm’s reach. “Please, you can’t.”

    “Sure I can.”

    Bob spoke up as well. “I would like to remind you that―”

    Bob, be quiet until I ask you something.

    Mary, however, was more defiant. “Cody, listen, you, you don’t want to kill yourself. You’re just about to avenge your parents, get back at Systec. Think of all the things you can do after that.”

    Cody snorted. “Like what? I can’t even have sex anymore and I look like a fucking freak. And seriously, I couldn’t care less about your rivalry. The group only helps me because they want Systec’s government contracts, their resources, their power. You’re no better than your enemy.”

    “But... you don’t want to kill all those humans, do you? There must be hundreds, no, thousands of people in hospitals, hooked up to life support all around the world. Kids too, even babies. All the people in airplanes, helicopters, out in space, they would all die. Do you really want the blood of thousands on your hands?”

    Cody frowned, considering the question. “Earth’s overpopulated, you know?” She caught Mary’s gaze. “You’re an intelligent woman. Tell me, honestly, how long has humanity abused nature for profit? How many animals have died for us, how much nature has been destroyed for our benefit? Why shouldn’t I turn the tables? Hm? Wouldn’t it do good in the long run?”

    There were tears in Mary’s eyes. “But... you can’t do that, please! You must have someone you care about who relies on technology, don’t you? A parent or a grandparent in a hospital? A pregnant friend?”

    “Systec killed everyone I cared about.” Cody snorted. She liked this feeling of power, of holding the fate of humanity in her hands. “If I target only Systec, humans keep benefitting at the cost of nature. If I target the entire world, nature will benefit at the cost of humans. Either way, someone loses, and up until now, it’s pretty much always been nature.”

    Mary opened and closed her mouth like a fish on dry land. “But...” She shook her head. “You’re insane.” A metallic finger moved to the keyboard and pressed ̔enter.’ “No!”

    The program told them the smart bombs had launched.

    “You did it,” Mary gasped, looking sick to her stomach. “You just doomed thousands to their deaths. You took humanity centuries to the past!”

    “It’s about time somebody did.” Cody was surprised to hear uncertainty in her voice. Was she taking the coward’s way out? Couldn’t she have spent the rest of her days doing what she could to help animals? Surely some veterinary clinic would eventually hire a freak of a cyborg? God, how self-centered can I be? Shit, shit, shit. Bob, how do I stop it?

    And then a wave like static electricity passed through the room and its occupants.

    No, wait—

    Everything went black.

    Chapter 12

    “Reboot initiated. Loading root user interface.”

    Cody stirred on a cold, hard floor. The air felt dusty to breathe, she was covered in debris, and there was a sharp pain in her gut.

    “Would you like to customize Zephyr version 4.01 now?”

    No, thanks, I’ll do it later. Give me something for the pain. Within seconds, her agony lessened to a strong but dull throb. She opened her eyes, but the darkness wouldn’t let up. She breathed in dust and coughed. Despite Bob’s manipulation of her adrenaline and enkephalin levels, it hurt. Using her human hand, she felt her stomach. Oh God... A thin steel bar had pierced her abdomen. Bob, bring basic functions online.

    “Core functions protocol initiated.”

    Cody’s night vision came online and she looked around. The entire room had collapsed. Why am I not dead?

    “It appears the pulse could not penetrate my chassis which is made of Systec’s latest prototype material, a mixture of—”

    Whatever. Why did I pass out?

    “It appears the pulse did affect me, but to such a small degree that it only caused me to crash.”

    Well, at least, I’m still alive. She gripped the steel bar in her stomach but the searing pain made her see stars even though her digestive system was mostly synthetic. Yup, definitely still alive. Bob, how bad am I hurt?

    “Advise seeking medical attention. Shall I release antihemorrhagic foam to stop the internal bleeding?”

    Please do.

    “You need to remove the object embedded in your abdomen first.”

    But of course. Cody grasped it with her mechanical hand. Bob, pull it out. Quickly. An agonized scream cut through the darkness when the piece of bloodied steel was yanked out and discarded.

    “I shall release the foam now.”

    Within seconds, she felt something move in her guts, something filling her up. It wasn’t altogether comfortable, but it did help with the pain.Also, give me something more for the pain.

    “Done.”

    As she lay still, breathing heavily, Cody’s ears caught quiet sobbing. “Mary?”

    The sounds halted. “Cody? You’re still alive?”

    “A bit. What the hell happened here? Last I knew, this room was still intact.”

    “The...” A fit of coughs. “The fucking place collapsed. I think it was some self-destruct protocol, some safety measure.”

    “Outstanding. You hurt?”

    “What do you think? I’ve been shot.”

    “I meant were you hurt when the building came down on us?”

    “I think my left leg’s broken. The shin bone. A beam fell on me and I can’t move it.”

    Cody used her mechanical limbs to push the debris off her body. It was then that she saw a steel pole had pierced her stomach. Shit. Bob, how bad am I hurt?

    “Advise seeking medical attention. Shall I release antihemorrhagic foam to stop the internal bleeding?”

    Please do. Within seconds, Cody felt something move in her guts, something filling her up. It wasn’t altogether comfortable, but it did help with the pain.Slowly she sat up. “Mary, where exactly are you?”

    “Just next to the door. I just can’t... fucking... get up.”

    “Give me a minute, I’ll come and get you.”

    “Oh, great. I’m helped by the biggest mass murderer in the history of mankind.”

    “Come on, I’m no Hitler or Stalin.” Cody stood up, swayed for a moment, and started moving fallen debris off her path. “‘Sides, you’re still alive, you’ll have a cleaner, healthier home planet, what more do you want? Now quit being a bitch and talk to me so I can find you. The room looks kinda different in pieces.”

    Oddly enough, Mary started talking with only a few barbs flung at Cody here and there. After a good fifteen minutes, the two came face to face. Despite her aches and pains, Cody grinned. “You look like shit.”

    “Thanks. You wouldn’t happen to have a flashlight? Us humans can’t really see in pitch black.”

    Bob? Do I have a flashlight in this eye?

    “Yes, a red emergency light. Shall I turn it on?”

    Does it hinder my night vision?

    “Negative.”

    Go ahead, then. “Better now?”

    Mary squinted. “Yeah. You don’t look too hot either, you know. You’re wounded.”

    “Bob’s on top of it. Might need some help with it later on, though. I’m gonna move this beam off your leg so, uh, prepare for pain.”

    Mary grunted when the beam was hoisted up. Her shin had a compound fracture on it, and there was a lot of blood on the floor. Her breathing was fast and superficial.

    “Okay, those bones need to be set. You got any painkillers?” Cody asked.

    “I already took some. Can you do it?”

    Bob, can you assist me?

    “Yes. Would you like me to guide your prosthetic hand?”

    Sure. “Yeah, I’ve done this with animals before.”

    The darkness was pierced by a shrill scream when Cody snapped the bloody bones back in place. Next she used a metal rod and gauze to set up a splint. When she looked down at the sobbing woman, Cody realized it had been months since she had last felt pity.

    “How can you... still be alive anyway?” Mary asked between teary gasps.

    “I’m just too awesome to die. Now, we gotta get the hell out of here. Can you walk at all?”

    #

    It was slow going. They had to stop frequently where the corridors had collapsed. Removing the debris from their path was tiring and painful, but little by little they were closing in on the staircase, their only way out.

    “You think the stairs are still gonna be there?”

    Mary frowned, sitting on the floor while Cody struggled with another pile of rubble. “Your guess is as good as mine. Tell me, what are you going to do when... if we get out of here?”

    Cody tossed a ceiling panel aside and brushed wet strands off her face. “I got a place stacked up for this sort of thing. I also got a small pharmacy down there with all kinds of medical equipment, so I suggest we go there first, get patched up.”

    “We?”

    “You got a better plan? Hospitals are probably a mess right now and, well, do you think the group will welcome us back or see us as liabilities now that we’ve been cut off from them in a Systec facility?”

    Mary looked sullen when Cody came to help her on her feet, but she couldn’t really argue since the self-destruct probably had nothing to do with Cody’s little change of plans. “Okay.”

    “Okay what?”

    “Okay, we’ll go to your place first and then figure out what’s next.”

    “It’s a start. And so is this,” Cody said when she shoved aside the door leading into the staircase. She gazed up and smiled. “So far so good. I think we should pick up the pace. We don’t know when this place will fall to pieces.”

    “I can’t exactly run, you know.”

    “I know.” Cody hoisted Mary in her arms and jogged up the first flight of stairs.

    “Works for me,” the woman gasped.

    Bob, how is she doing? Can you tell?

    “She has lost a lot of blood. Loss of consciousness is likely within half an hour.”

    After three floors, Cody came to a halt. “Damn it.”

    Mary let out a miserable laugh. “That’s just great. How are we gonna get up there?”

    The staircase to the next level had collapsed. Bob, can I make the jump?

    “Without extra-weight, yes. Carrying her, your success rate is fifty percent. If you leave behind your equipment, your mobility is increased, your weight reduced approximately 50lbs, and your success rate improved.”

    Next you probably want us to take off our pants.

    “Why would I want you to―”

    Sarcasm, Bob.

    “I do not unders―”

    Not now.

    Since Mary was essentially a non-combatant now, she only kept her sidearm while Cody discarded her rifle in favor of Mary’s carbine. She also ditched all their extra ammo and both shed their heavy armors.

    Once Mary had climbed on her back, Cody prepared for the jump. Bob, take control of my prosthetics. Measure the distance, speed, everything, and make the jump. Also, can you speed up your processor for the duration of the jump?

    “It is not recommended. The processor is still mildly overheated from the previous times.”

    What happens if you do it anyway? Will I pass out?

    “It is possible, but uncertain. You will develop a bad headache and experience dizziness, nausea, and symptoms of high fever.”

    Okay, do it. “You ready?”

    Mary’s grip tightened. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

    Numbers flashed past Cody’s mind when Bob made the calculations for the jump. It always felt weird, having her prosthetics move as if by themselves. Three steps later, they went airborne and things slowed down. Halfway through the jump, she knew it would be a close call: she would hit the edge chest-first, but there was a good chance she could grab the railing with her mechanical hand.

    The limb extended before her. She could feel Mary’s heart beating against her back. When the collision happened, all air was knocked out of Cody’s lungs and the jagged concrete of the platform tore through her sweat-soaked shirt and into her skin. Something cracked inside and a sharp pain flared up in her sternum. Her metallic fingers curled around the railing, but she was hanging low. As soon as the jump’s momentum stopped, time returned to normal.

    “Mary, can you climb to the ledge?” Cody asked with a pained croak.

    “I can try.”

    Cody’s stomach wound flared up as she dangled in the air, Mary climbing along her back, stepping on her shoulders. “Come on, god damn it!”

    Finally Mary slumped on her back. “Okay, okay, your turn.”

    It took a few agonizing tries, but eventually Cody got her leg on the platform and hoisted herself up. She rolled next to Mary, both of them panting and gasping in the stuffy darkness. And then an infernal headache engulfed Cody’s head.

    “You okay?”

    She couldn’t even speak, her face contorted in a silent scream. The barbed wire sawed through her brain again, and it was as if her skull was glowing red hot.

    Mary touched the metallic part of Cody’s head. “God! You’re burning up!”

    Bob, give me something for the pain. Now!

    “Done.”

    Within seconds, the barbs disappeared but the wire remained. “Okay... okay. I’m okay.”

    “You sure? You’re still... ow, still hot as hell.”

    Cody managed a raspy laugh. “Thanks. It’s the blue eye, isn’t it? Don’t know if I got another jump left in me though.”

    “Well,” Mary said and got on her knees, “let’s hope that won’t be necessary. You ready to move on?”

    “Yeah.” Cody blinked and sat up slowly. “Let’s go.”

    #

    Cody stumbled out of the staircase, carrying a passed out Mary in her arms. They had encountered a few bodies, one badly wounded Systec employee, but luckily no hostiles. Now all that remained between them and freedom were three corridors. This high up, the building was less damaged and Cody could pick her way among the debris instead of having to stop every few yards to clear their path.

    She lay Mary on the floor and pulled open the front door. A Systec guard had his back to her, but whirled around, his rifle raised. Cody stepped back, but the bullet tore into her forearm before she got out of sight. She swung Mary’s carbine off her back and gave Bob control of her arm and eye. The guard wasn’t approaching. Drawing me out, huh? Aw hell.

    Cody thought back to all she had been taught by the group’s combat instructors. The guard probably expected her to emerge upright, so she squatted down and then dovesideways. Immediately Bob’s targeting system picked up the guard and sent off two rounds. One hit his throat, the other punched through his helmet. The man went down and fired once at his feet.

    Breathless, Cody stood up and looked down at her bloodied arm. How bad is it?

    “It is a muscle wound. If treated soon enough, there should be no permanent damage.”

    Cody tore open a small bag with her teeth and poured clotting powder on the wound. It burned but staunched the leak. The pain, blood loss, and fatigue made Cody see stars when she turned back to get Mary. The woman was wavering on the brink of unconsciousness, mumbling incomprehensibly. “Come on, wake up,” Cody said and patted her cheek. “Come on, I can’t carry you with this arm.”

    Mary’s eyes sprung open. “Wh-where am I?”

    “On your way home. Come on, we gotta go.”

    The two staggered across Research Center Three’s yard and towards Mary’s car. It wasn’t until they reached the vehicle that Cody realized it wouldn’t budge, no car would. Still, she gave it a try, but the battery was dead. “Shit. Come on, we gotta walk.” There was no reply. “Mary?” The woman had fallen unconscious again. “Damn it.”

    Cody stumbled out of the car and walked to the trunk, leaving a trail of blood in her wake. She shouldered her carbine and a large first-aid kit. She dragged Mary into the woods, ready to keel over herself. Once they were a mile from the research center, she lowered Mary on the forest floor and collapsed next to her. Cody rolled on her back, barely conscious.

    I did it. Now the Earth can finally start to heal herself. She closed her eye and fell into the dark.

    #

    Sunrise was only moments away when Cody stepped out of the log house. Standing on the porch, she breathed in the rainy air. It smelled so sweet she could almost taste it. Something moved in her periphery. The resident hedgehog was ambling around a small bush while the family of hares was munching on moist grass a little further away.

    Cody rubbed her temples to alleviate a lingering headache. It had been a long night. She cracked her vertebrae to release some of the tension in her neck. Her head turned, she saw Mary’s sleeping figure through the window, a night lamp casting its glow on her pallid face. They had taken full advantage of Survivalist’s extensive collection of medicines and medical equipment, treating each other in uneasy silence. Is it a surprise, really? I just killed what, thousands? Millions? Suppose I’d be scared of me if I was her.

    Cody knew she had sleepless nights ahead of her, the death and destruction she had caused would haunt her. Of course, what was done, was done, she just had to focus on the bright side of her actions. She realized she should have told Mary about having root access to Bob now, that she was in full control, human again. Perhaps over time she might even convince Mary that she wasn’t a heartless machine.

    That she had done the right thing. Nature deserved a break.

    After all, the relationship between humanity and nature had always been parasitic rather than symbiotic: humans drained Earth to the last drop while giving very little in return. The notion lessened her guilt. In a way, she was giving humans a second chance to fix things with nature.

    At least her relationship with Mary was symbiotic: Cody offered security and a home neither Systec nor the group knew about while Mary could make the biofuel Cody needed to survive, and she knew how to fix minor issues with her prosthetics. Fact was, if Bob experienced a major malfunction, it would likely kill Cody now that technology was gone.

    Her mechanical ear caught hungry slurping and sniffing further away. A quick zoom showed the already familiar grizzly devouring the contents of one of the honey jars Cody had left around the woods. She could recognize the bear by a slight limp; its right front paw had never fully healed. At least Earth might, little by little. Before we start killing her again, Cody thought, a shadow passing over her features.

    She brushed blonde strands behind her ear and looked around the yard, the woods, the dark, pregnant clouds. What are good and evil anyway but different perspectives? Somewhere at a distance, lightning cracked the sky, followed by a deep rumbling. Soon rain was falling, battering the cabin with heavy drops.

    Cody gazed up at the skies and smiled to herself. Outstanding.
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Location:
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    Earth's Hero


    Prologue

    I fall a short distance out of the air into a crowd of dumbstruck bystanders. As I hit the gritty asphalt, I hear the behemoth airship scream through the sky as it plummets uncontrollably toward Tucson's mountains. Bobby lies on the street next to me. He appears knocked out but still alive.

    “Hey!” yells one of the bystanders. “It's the Harper brothers!”

    An echoing gasp reverberates around me, and someone in the crowd starts to clap. Within seconds it's a deafening roar of applause and cheers. People are crying tears of joy and shaking my hand. Two men help me stand up. I see the airship that has plagued us for so long head right into the Santa Catalina mountain range and crash.

    I hardly have a chance to take a breath, much less check on Bobby, when suddenly I am surrounded by microphones from ten different news channels.

    “Jesse Harper, we are hearing from around the globe that all the airships are crashing. The threat is over! How does it feel to have your brother and you be Earth's heroes?”

    I swallow hard and try not to look at them. If they only knew the truth.


    Chapter 1

    It all started three long months ago when the gigantic airships came through holes in the sky.

    The first one showed up over Berlin, and the film of it looked so unreal. So unreal that it looked like some film editing trick. The footage was originally shot by a casual filmmaker who was recording clouds to be used with some soothing music for a hospice ward. He was one of the first to see a pulsating colorless hole suddenly appear in the sky over the city and the sharp nose of an airship poke through into our world. The nose was followed by what looked like a massive, metallic, and incredibly sturdy zeppelin that meant business. The airship was covered with protrusions like a sea anemone. Everybody's gut feeling was that the protrusions were weapons. Weapons that were meant to be used on us.

    The news of the Berlin airship spread like wildfire, but it was only the first of many. It was only a matter of days before every major city in the world had a scary-looking airship over its skyline. Needless to say, the number of insomniacs on the globe dramatically increased.

    “Maybe they're friendly!” was an often quoted hope that bounced around the world. Some people were ecstatic about the airships. It was said that the people at SETI threw a party that was “out of this world”. But I think most people were like me: scared about these blimps because they were something unknown.

    Perhaps the scariest thing about them was that they seemed to embrace their unknown identity and unknown purpose. Every communication to them came back silent, every airplane that got near them was ignored, and every one of the ships hung over their cities like a gigantic silent bomb ready to explode.

    The only good thing about them is that they seemed to unite the world. Every leader promised support and cooperation with whatever these airships brought. But after a month of everyone's best optimism, the fear of them crept in like water during a flood. Homes were being filled to the rafters with it, and everyone was drowning in fear. Well, almost everyone.

    Today started like every other fear-filled day as of late, but as usual my little brother Bobby woke up this morning without fear. Honestly, I think Bobby doesn't know when to be afraid. He instead woke up this morning overflowing with optimism like an idiot. The whole human race could be wiped out with only him remaining, and he would still wake up with a smile on his face. Optimism and hope, especially unfounded, coupled perfectly with a dose of unwarranted confidence is Bobby's mode of operation. What does that look like? Let me describe his typical morning:

    He starts by singing. He sings praises and nonsense while jumping up and down on his airplane shaped bed. Then he races down our family's hallway to the bathroom. He always runs too fast, misses the door, tries to change direction, and falls flat on his face. Every. Single. Day.

    Oh, you say, that's normal for a nine-year old boy. That's my point. Bobby's sixteen.

    Did I mention he always wears a cape with footed pajamas? Yeah, one with a big duct-taped “B” on the cape too. He always gets tangled in it when he falls, and it takes him five minutes to stand again. But falling on his face never fazes Bobby one bit, heck, like I said, he does it every day. Stupid idiot.

    After falling and untangling, he springs up like some infernal happy frog and bounds into the bathroom to brush his teeth. And floss. Oh my God, does he floss. Every day Bobby spends half an hour flossing his teeth. Somehow, he still gets cavities. Does that stop Bobby from smiling all the time? If only.

    After brushing and flossing, Bobby spends twenty minutes flexing his muscles. Sure, who doesn't flex a bicep now and then in front of the mirror? But I implore you to ask yourself, who ever makes it a point to flex every single one of his muscles every day? Take it from me, it looks weird to flex your chin muscle.

    Not to mention Bobby hardly has any muscle to flex. If a stick bug got run over by a steamroller, you would have something that would not look too unlike Bobby if you stuck some blond curly hair to it.

    I've told Bobby several times to shut the door when he gets ready in the morning, but he just smiles. That is really all Bobby does. He's quite likely the friendliest guy you will ever meet, and, more often than not, I find that fact incredibly annoying.

    Once his muscle show finishes, Bobby goes into his daily posing routine. Donning his trademark pristine Chicago Cubs baseball hat, put on backward like somebody who thinks the back of his neck is more important to protect than his face, he spends a half hour spinning around with ridiculous poses. Thumbs-up, winking, bursting into laughter, the ol' “oh I didn't see you there”, etc. . . . It's always painful to watch. Then after that, after all of that, he finally slides down the banister of our two-story house to greet the world.

    Bobby does that routine every day without fail. Even three months ago when the spaceships appeared I would still hear him thudding on his face and the five minute self struggle that ensued. His routine is important, so he claims, as it's Bobby's way to prepare himself to defeat evil and deliver justice. “All you need to defeat evil is to be fair, just, and smile like crazy!” is his overused motto. Apparently to defeat evil you also have to look like a complete idiot.

    I know it's hard to believe, but sometimes I get embarrassed by Bobby. Actually, that's only true if by “sometimes”, I mean, “all the time”.

    I was sitting at the breakfast table eating cereal this morning as I watched Bobby slide down the banister to the front door. Still in his cape and footed pajamas, he threw open the front door and stepped outside. I saw him through the window open his arms open wide as if he was going to hug existence. As always, Bobby took in an obnoxious amount of air through his nostrils.

    “Good morning world!” he declared with a dazzling smile into the crisp January air as our menacing airship hung over downtown Tucson in the distance. “I'm Bobby Harper, and I'm going to save you today!” This is what he had said everyday for the past year. And everyday, the world had ignored him.

    Little did we know this morning, Bobby was right, and I had to stop him.


    Chapter 2

    Bobby's red cape blew in the wind as he raced back into our house with a scintillating smile.

    “Come on Jesse! Where's your smile?” he said. “It's a beautiful day, so much to see and do!” His optimism over the years had somehow made me cynical. I called it a defense mechanism. I grunted and shoveled another spoon of cereal into my mouth.

    I glanced outside and shuddered. Miles away the giant metallic airship still hung in the sky. I failed to see the beauty in it. Growing up, even before his superhero phase, Bobby had weird written all over him. I was only one year older than Bobby, but it seemed like we had centuries of differences between us. I hoped, even prayed, that we really weren't related. I wished that one day Bobby's real family would come by and pick him up.

    About five years ago my hopes were at an all time high. Most of the world became involved in what was called the Genetic Census. Officials all over the world took DNA samples from practically everybody for cataloging and analyzing that would hopefully lead to a cure for cancer and other genetic-linked diseases. I begged my parents to sign the waiver, and Bobby and I had our DNA analyzed as well. I sat at the mailbox for a month hoping for the report that proved that Bobby and I were not related. It never came.

    “I would much rather work on our invasion shelter, thank you very much,” I replied with my mouth full of cereal. I was in the business of staying alive. I mean, we all were. Everyone I knew was building a bunker-like shelter in their backyard just in case swarms of aliens emerged from the airships and infected us with gaping holes in our bodies.

    I watched the news often, and ever since the airships arrived it was just nonstop talk about them. Helicopters had gotten close enough to analyze their material a few weeks ago. They were made of a new hyper-dense alloy never before seen. A few days after that, the President had told the nation that their armor was so dense that even depleted-uranium shells wouldn't be able to pierce it. He told us scientists predicted our only hopeful weapon against such a ship was a nuclear strike. “Let us continue to pray that the residents of the ships are peaceful. There is nothing else we can do at this point. It is their move,” the President had said with an anxious look.

    Lately the news had been slow. Nothing new was being learned about the ships, and everything else seemed too trivial to report. But just in case of something new, I sat down this morning on our living room couch with my bowl of cereal and turned on the television, which turned out to be a huge mistake.

    “ . . . so if any of the public is interested in being a superhero,” the anchor on the morning news said, “please contact the nearest public health office.”

    “Whaaaaaa?” yelled Bobby as he, I'm pretty sure literally, flew into the living room. His cape smacked me in the face and knocked over my bowl of cereal as he rushed forward to press his face against the television screen. He grabbed the remote with shaky hands and fumbled with the rewind button. “Thank God I record all the news!” exclaimed Bobby. “I want to be a superhero!”

    His exclamation was an understatement. Even his ridiculous costume was an understatement compared to his passion to be a superhero. He wanted superpowers; possibly more than anyone else in the world.

    The passion started small about a year and a half ago when Bobby got into his head that he needed to help people. That idea mutated into a weird desire to be a hero. From there, he started smiling a lot. A lot. I was pretty sure he was on drugs. Nope. He just had a death grip on this crazy dream of his. He was in full superhero swing for a good year before the airships arrived.

    I rolled my eyes at his remark and tried to hold back my sarcasm. Living with Bobby gave me a lot of opportunities to be sarcastic. So many opportunities, in fact, that my sarcasm muscle was starting to feel tired. But being the awesome big brother that I was, I pulled together enough sarcasm to respond. “Really Bobby? I hadn't noticed.”

    “It's true Jesse! I want to be a superhero! I'm pretty sure you knew that. Gosh, your memory isn't too good, is it?” Bobby said with some concern in his voice. I was pretty sure Bobby didn't know a thing about sarcasm.

    As he rewound the news story, I watched the television report in reverse. The anchor had a worried look on his face, and the headlines made it seem like the airships finally made a move. Something had happened, and it did not seem like good news.

    I wished our mom and dad were around. They were both at a lawyer retreat in Hawaii and had been for several weeks. Many companies had encouraged their employees to hold off on travel, but our parents' firm encouraged it. Something about traveling in dangerous situations created more opportunities to sue. So I was the head of the household during a potential apocalypse. Thanks a lot mom and dad!

    Bobby found the start of the newscast and pressed play.

    Dave Hawthorne, our trusted anchorman for many years, had a concerned look on his face. His gray hair had seemed to take over his entire head in a matter of just the last three months.

    “Good morning Tucson, today we have a life-changing history-making news report. As many of you already know, it was discovered early this morning that all of the airships around the world had turned on a gigantic spotlight pointed onto the ground beneath them. Then just minutes ago a simple message in English was submitted across the radio waves:

    “Citizens of Earth. You have until the end of the day to move all residents inside the light to receive what you deserve. Anyone found outside the lighted area by the end of the day will be terminated to make way. Please send a message over the radio if you need the lighted area to be bigger. Thank you.”

    Dave Hawthorne paused and cleared his throat. “Well, at least they're accommodating.” He then broke down into tears. A ripple of fear coursed through my body.

    The message was surprisingly friendly sounding, but it was the scariest thing they could have sent. We were all waiting for a clear answer why the airships were here, and now the answer we received was incredibly vague and threatening.

    “That's the Dave I know!” declared Bobby, unfazed. “Always looking at the bright side! Boy! I can't wait to get what we deserve! It must be something good!”

    “I don't think it's something good Bobby,” I whispered solemnly. Bobby twisted his face into a rare frown.

    “Why not Jesse? If the other option is death, what we deserve must be good!” Bobby had a point, but there were things worse than death.

    “Maybe we deserve torture,” I muttered.

    “Humans aren't that bad!” stated Bobby. “It has to be something good! Like cake!” I was about to continue our fruitless argument when Dave composed himself and continued:

    “The President has classified this message as hostile and has announced the unveiling of a secret government project called Human Plus. Scientists have been secretly using the Genetic Census for the past five years to develop a serum that mutates the human genome to create superpowers. It hasn't been tested on humans yet, but in this time of potential apocalypse, the President welcomes anybody who would be willing to risk their life in service to the world. Here to talk a little about the serum is Dr. Peters, the head of research for project Human Plus.”

    A fifty year old bespectacled man with jet black hair and beard appeared on the television. I had seen him before on the cover of Forbes magazine. He was mostly known for his massive wealth and also for being one of the top scientists of the Genetic Census. Dr. Peters had a grave look on his face as he spoke:

    “Hello, I am Dr. Peters. I am the head of project Human Plus, which is my baby. It has always been my dream for humans to have superpowers. However, I figured it would be a few years from now when we started human testing.” Dr. Peters frowned and continued.

    “Lately we have been testing on mice. In mice the serum takes about three hours to take effect, and it has caused a multitude of effects. Well, technically it has not caused any superpowers at all yet. Not to mention it has caused cancer, a sudden dislike of cheese, and death. But seeing how by the end of the day we will all be dead or 'getting what we deserve', this may be the most reasonable thing to do. I have reason to believe that it will either work on humans or have no effect at all. Since the serum is based on human DNA and not mice DNA, I doubt humans will have any of the negative effects the mice showed. This may be humanity's only hope! Please consider taking my serum.”

    The TV cut back to Dave Hawthorne. “Thank you Dr. Peters,” he said. “The government has anticipated something like this so there is plenty of serum for any brave soul who wants it. So if any of the public is interested in being a superhero please go to your nearest public health office.”

    Dave signed off and the news story started to repeat. Bobby turned around from the television with the biggest grin I had ever seen. “Did you hear that!” yelled Bobby. He sprung up and started doing lunges around the room in his footed pajamas. Doing lunges was one of his victory dances. “I am going to be a superhero!”

    I groaned and held my head in my hands. Bobby was never going to shut up about being a superhero now. His annoying superhero phase just got kicked up several notches. I wished the aliens or whoever they were would just give me what I deserved already because I certainly didn't deserve this.


    Chapter 3

    I couldn't let Bobby get the serum. I just couldn't. These were the thoughts running through my head as Bobby did the worm around the living room, which was another one of his victory dances.

    For starters, my parents would kill me. As one could already surmise, our parents were quite lassiez-faire with their parenting style, but one of my conversations with my mom stood out in my mind:

    “So Jesse,” my mom had said while she was texting on her phone.

    “Yeah?” I replied. I stopped what I was doing and looked at her.

    “Listen to me, will ya?”

    “I am listening.”

    “Stop what you're doing and listen to me!” My mom's thumbs continued to fly across her phone's screen.

    “Look mom, I am patiently waiting for you to talk to me. Look!” I sat down and stared at her.

    “Don't forget to put the green beans in some water to thaw them out for dinner, and don't ever let your brother do something to hurt himself .” Her eyes never left her phone's screen, but, for some reason, I remember her telling me to keep Bobby away from harm.

    Considering the fact that the superhero serum was untested on humans, it was certainly in the potentially harmful category. We had a better chance “getting what we deserve” and going with the masses. There was safety in numbers.

    But I also knew for certain that I had to let Bobby do it. Being a hero is all he talked about for the past year. It was the spark in his eyes, the gleam in his smile, and his unflappable hope how I knew it would break his heart if I stopped him from going through with it. He was going to try to be a superhero no matter what I did.

    Bobby started doing the macarena. He almost knocked over a lamp, and I decided to stop him before it got any uglier.

    “Hey Bobby.”

    “Yeah?”

    “You know mom wouldn't want you risk your life with this serum, right?” Bobby stood still. The smile vanished from his face. He knew I was right, and I knew I had him. He sat down on the couch and took off his cap. His curly blond hair was matted in his trademark hat hair style.

    “It's not fair,” he said after a minute. He looked at me. “All I ever wanted to do was help people in extraordinary ways, and this is like the opportunity is falling into my lap. The world could be about to end! What do we have to lose? Come on Jesse, we have to try! Don't you want superpowers?”

    My mind went blank. I honestly didn't know how to answer that. My mind was focused so much all the time on how Bobby wanted powers I never even considered if I would ever want them.

    “Think of it Jesse! Super strength! Being able to fly! Being able to shoot lightning out of your hands!” Bobby's face could hardly contain his smile.

    “How do we know what superpowers we would get Bobby?” I retorted. “For all we know, we could get a power that causes people to get constipated whenever we touch them. Or more importantly, we could die! The serum has barely been tested!”

    “But it could be an amazing power!” sang out Bobby.

    “As the person in charge here, I'm saying no.”

    We argued for a while, and Bobby finally sulked into his bedroom, but I seriously doubted our discussion was over. I fell down on the couch, turned the television off, and tried to relax.

    I almost drifted off to sleep when I heard the dull scrape of a window being slid open in the distance. I opened my eyes just in time to see Bobby running across our front yard. Great.

    I jumped off the couch, threw the front door open, and started chasing Bobby through our suburban neighborhood.

    “Bobby!” I yelled. He was easy to spot in the street. He still had his pajama cape combo on.

    “I have to go Jesse!” he yelled back. “It's my destiny!”

    I groaned and rolled my eyes. I started to sprint. Bobby was many things, but he was hardly a good runner. Within a minute I had caught up to him, and I tackled him to the ground on a neighbor's lawn. He was lucky he wasn't by one of our numerous neighbors who had gravel yards.

    “Let go!” yelled Bobby, as he pathetically tried to get out from the pin I put him in. I was only a year older but about twice Bobby's size. “If I got the serum, you wouldn't be able to pin me down like this!”

    “We're not getting the serum Bobby! We're just going to go into the light like everybody else. We're just going to get what we deserve.” Go into the light? I thought to myself as my words echoed in my head. Maybe Bobby was smart in resisting it.

    “Everybody should get what they deserve! It's justice! And what I deserve is to be a superhero!” exclaimed Bobby.

    I didn't want to argue with Bobby. Let someone else be the hero, I thought. I had to keep my brother and me safe. As Bobby squirmed underneath me, it was clear I would have to chain him down or let him get the serum. I needed a plan.

    As I threw him over my shoulder and carried him back to the house kicking and screaming, a plan formed in my mind. Sure, it involved tricking Bobby, but at least it would keep us safe for the time being. Well, at least that's what I thought at first. The truth was that I couldn't have been more horribly wrong.


    Chapter 4

    Once we got back home Bobby sulked into his room and locked the door. I went into the kitchen and got out my phone. My plan relied on my buddy Daniel who worked at the public health office. If I could bring Bobby there and get Daniel to give him and me a fake shot, a placebo, that would probably be enough to shut Bobby up. Bobby would soon realize he didn't get any powers and be willing to go with me and everybody else into the spotlight.

    I sighed as I started to dial Daniel's number. Or knowing Bobby, I thought, he would probably start to exaggerate his normal abilities into quasi-superhero status. Sure, he would be more annoying, but at least he wouldn't try anything stupid. Or so I hoped.

    I finished dialing Daniel's number.

    “Hey Jesse,” he answered.

    “Hey, how's business? Are there lots of people signing up to be a superhero?”

    “Dude, there's a line around the block. Half of them are nut jobs, but the others are normal people. Are you going to join in on the fun?”

    “Is it safe?”

    “Shoot, no one has died yet. But again, no one has shown any superpowers yet. We still have about an hour or so until the first testers reach the three hour mark.”

    “Hey, I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

    “Sure, just hurry up a bit, people are waiting here.”

    “I'm going to get the serum, and I'm going to bring Bobby,”

    “Bobby? Oh God. Not him.”

    “But here's the thing,” I continued, “I want you to give him and me a placebo. He really wants the serum, but my parents would kill me if he died on my watch. It's way too risky, but he is about to have a nervous breakdown because I'm not letting him get it. I think a placebo would calm him down.”

    “Sure, I'll just give you guys a little saline,” he paused. “Hey you! Stop trying to rip the sink from the counter! Hey listen, I gotta go.”

    I didn't even get a chance to say bye before he hung up. I walked over to Bobby's door. I could hear Bobby sobbing in his room.

    I knocked on his door.

    “Go away you coward!” he yelled through the door.

    “Why am I a coward?” I replied. His words stung.

    “Cause you're afraid of what I have to do! What I have to be!” He started bawling like an infant. I never considered keeping my brother safe a cowardly thing to do.

    “I'm afraid of losing you!” The words flew out of my mouth, and they surprised me. I had always hoped Bobby and I weren't related, but I guess the truth was part of me enjoyed our relationship. Probably a very small part, I lied to myself as I waited for a reply.

    Bobby opened his door. His eyes were red and his face was wet from tears.

    “I understand Jesse, I would hate to lose you as well. You're my only friend. The other kids in school won't even look at me without laughing. But this is the fate of the world we're talking about! We need to be heroes! We need to be willing to sacrifice!”

    I hesitated. This was the most down to Earth conversation I had ever had with my brother. I had no idea he had that sort of seriousness under that smile. I also don't think I had ever realized that I was his only friend. I felt a sudden tug of guilt for how much I wished he wasn't my brother.

    I also knew everything he said about somebody needing to be a hero was true, but the truth was that I did not want either him or me have to make that sacrifice. Let somebody else do it. I swallowed hard and drew the courage to continue with my plan to be a coward.

    “Bobby, I changed my mind. If you want to go get the serum, let's go.”

    “Really Jesse?” Bobby eyed me warily. “Just an hour ago you tackled me to stop me.” He rubbed his elbow.

    “Really Bobby,” I said with the most earnest look I could muster. “I can tell it means a lot to you.”

    I had hardly finished the last syllable and Bobby's face underwent a transformation. His red-eyed wet sorrow turned into a clear-eyed, dry-faced ecstatic joy. He had a huge grin on his face and not even a single tear was present on his skin.

    “Weren't you crying?” I asked.

    “Well, what are you waiting for?” yelled Bobby with a sparkling grin. “Onward!” His cape smacked me as he ran out to the car.

    I followed him. I wondered if my brother was bipolar.

    As we drove to the public health office, I was amazed by the number of cars on the I-10 freeway. Ever since the airships, the highway and streets had looked like a ghost town. People had come out usually when they had no other choice. Today there was a lot of traffic headed downtown in the direction of the spotlight under the airship. We joined the smaller group of traffic headed toward the public health office.

    We arrived at the public health office, and true to Daniel's word, there was a line of people around the single-story building. There was a slow steady stream of people exiting, and it was obvious who had just gotten the serum. People were jumping in the air, flapping their arms, and trying to sprint down the street. I saw a guy try to lift his car. No one was succeeding in doing anything extraordinary besides looking extraordinarily ridiculous.

    “Look at them,” said Bobby in awe. “Soon I will be just like them!” I bit my tongue. Bobby acted like those people most days.

    I pulled into a parking spot, and we approached a series of fold-out tables in the parking lot where people were registering. I signed my name next to a serial number. The middle-aged lady behind the table pulled out a metallic gun-looking device with a needle on the end.

    “Give me your forearm,” she said.

    “Why?” I demanded. I wasn't expecting to get poked twice!

    “We are implanting microchips in everyone getting the serum. They track where you are and also if you die or not. This way we can tell who the serum might have worked on.”

    “Die? How frequent is that happening?” I asked. I was glad we weren't getting the actual serum! I felt a small pinch as the lady inserted the needle into my forearm.

    “Enough that we are monitoring it,” said the lady. She motioned to me to get into the line that was around the building. Bobby gleefully accepted the microchip.

    “I'm a cyborg now!” he shouted as we arrived at our place in line. We were behind a couple in their seventies.

    The man turned around and gave Bobby the usual weird look he received from strangers and friends alike.

    “What's wrong with him?” he snapped.

    “What isn't?” I replied as usual. “But as you can tell, my brother here is going to be a superhero!” Bobby gave one of his gigantic grins.

    “So trying to be somebody huh?” the man asked us. “My wife and I are here in case the serum works on back pain! Might as well have one day pain free before I die!”

    His wife leaned over with a smirk on her face, “to tell the truth, I wouldn't mind if I ended up being a superhero also. Do you always dress up like a superhero?”

    “Sure do, ma’am! That way I'm ready to be a hero at any moment!” replied Bobby. It was sadly true. Bobby wore his outfit whenever he could. Thankfully our high school's dress code forbade him to wear it at school. Unfortunately too many kids saw Bobby outside of school to save me from any embarrassment.

    “And how about you?” the man grunted at me. “Are you going to be his sidekick?” I heard Bobby gasp.

    “I never thought of that!” declared Bobby. “You are getting the serum, right Jesse?” His eyes sparkled with the hope of a thousand puppies.

    “Of course I am,” I lied. “Brothers have to stick together. If the serum kills people, then we both go down. If it gives us superpowers, then we will save the Earth together.” Bobby gasped again.

    “I'm sorry,” said Bobby with tears in his eyes. “The possibility of us both being superheroes surprises me every time someone says it! For me to have superpowers, sure, I've been wanting them for so long. But honestly Jesse, I'm half expecting you to change your mind and drag me back home! You always thought my superhero identity was stupid!”

    I turned away and stared at the building. He was right. I thought the idea was incredibly stupid. To make it worse, I pretty much was dragging him home without the serum; he just didn't know it.

    “And this means so much Jesse!” continued Bobby. “I sometimes question myself about this whole desire to be a hero, but I always know you're there to be my friend! But now we're both going to be superheroes! It's like you're not only tolerating my identity, but joining to it! Soon you will be just like me! A superhero!” He gave me a huge hug. “I knew this day would come!” He turned toward the elderly couple. “When we save the world later, you can thank my good-guy, awesome brother!” My heart felt sick.

    “We sure will,” said the man as he eyed me with the same weird look he gave Bobby earlier. The man and his wife got called into the building.

    “Good luck, heroes,” said his wife as they walked inside. We were next, and Bobby was literally shaking from the excitement.

    “A superhero brother team!” he whispered excitedly to himself. Maybe we should just get the real serum, I thought. At least Bobby would die happy knowing that he tried, and I would stop feeling like a cowardly clump of dirt for tricking my brother. And who knew? Maybe the serum worked!

    Just then I saw my buddy Daniel walk out of the public health clinic with a megaphone. His buzz cut blonde hair washed away in the sunlight. He addressed the crowd:

    “Attention everyone! It is my duty to inform you that several of the first testers have been found dead. None of them achieved any superpower before their death. Right now the mortality rate is about 20% and climbing. The President is aware, and he states that the serum is still available to those willing to take the risk. It is a genetic serum so it will have different effects with each person. Obviously we are hoping it will cause some effect on somebody other than death. Thank you. Please make an informed decision.” He somberly lowered the megaphone and walked back inside.

    There was a heavy murmuring among the crowd, and the line quickly began to thin out. The line behind the registry table grew with people wanting to unregister their microchip. I looked back down the line. Where it once stretched around the building and down the street, only about thirty people remained behind us. I was about to talk to Bobby about leaving when he jumped out of line.

    “Come on everybody!” he yelled at those leaving. “We need heroes! Come back!” The majority of the crowd continued to walk away. “I can't believe it,” said Bobby as he walked back into line. “People will give up when faced with death!”

    “Who knew?” I said sarcastically. “Listen Bobby, are you sure you still want the serum?”

    “More than ever!” replied Bobby. “If no one else will step up in the face of death, we sure will! Right Jesse?” He looked at me. I looked back at him. Was I willing to face death? Wait, I realized I didn't have to. I was just going to get some saline!

    “That's right!” I replied. “Let's do this!” Bobby laughed out loud. “What's so funny?” I asked.

    “Mom and dad would kill us if they knew!” he replied between guffaws. I started to laugh as well. That was certainly true. “But,” he continued after our laughter died down, “they would be proud of how brave we are.”

    I thought of the highly lethal serum Bobby thought he was agreeing to, and then I thought of the placebo shot I knew was agreeing to and realized how much of a coward I was.

    “Speak for yourself,” I sadly whispered to myself.


    Chapter 5

    “Watch out! I might rip the door from its hinges!” yelled a girl in her twenties on the other side of the glass door that went into the public health building. She yanked the door open with so much force it smacked the wall behind her. The handle fit nicely into the hole that was already in the wall. The girl exited the building flapping her arms like a dim-witted bird.

    Daniel stepped out of the door as well. “It can take about three hours for results!” he yelled after her. “Or more likely, death,” he said softly. He shook his head and motioned for us to step inside. “Sorry about that, people today aren't listening. Our wall has endured more abuse today than ever. So you guys still want the serum, huh?” He gave me a quick wink.

    “We sure do!” sang out Bobby with a smile. “We're going to be a superhero team and save the world!”

    “Alright, well come inside, and I will hook you guys up,” Daniel led us into a room with a counter full of boxes and a couple of chairs. “I have a feeling we now have way too much serum,” commented Daniel as he motioned to the boxes.

    He led us to the chairs and motioned for us to sit. He had a metal tray next to them with a line of syringes and alcohol swabs. There were two syringes with a small black dot on them. Daniel saw me eying the marked syringes and gave me a quick nod. “Alright you guys,” he said as he grabbed the two marked syringes, “roll up your sleeves.”

    We rolled up our sleeves, and Daniel gave us each an injection in the upper arm. “So Bobby,” Daniel said as he jabbed the needle into Bobby, “are they going to let the Cubs stay in the Major Leagues again this year?”

    “Of course they are,” said Bobby, slightly annoyed. He straightened his Cubs hat on his head reflexively. “You shouldn't underestimate the Cubs. Lots of people do, but you shouldn't.”

    “I don't know Bobby,” I joined in, “the Cubs might actually win if they went to the Minor Leagues.” Daniel and I frequently harassed Bobby about his dedication to the Cubs. It almost felt like any other day, which gave me a quick escape from the looming doomsday airship that hung outside.

    “Guys!” Bobby whined. “Stop it! The Cubs will surprise you all, just watch!”

    “There!” said Daniel as he discarded the syringes. “You guys are superheroes!” Bobby's eyes widened, and he started shaking like a volcano about to erupt.

    “Woohoo!” yelled Bobby as he gleefully rocketed up from his chair. “I am a superhero!” he screamed. He started to run around the room and jump up and down. “This is amazing! No wait! I am amazing!” he declared. His cape swung around and started knocking over books and boxes. He didn't see the metal tray full of supplies and knocked that over too. He then kicked over the chairs we had sat in. “I am unstoppable!” he yelled. I quickly put him in an arm lock before he made more of a mess.

    “Bobby! Calm down! Look at the mess you're making!” I said to him. The euphoria of being a superhero faded from his eyes, and he saw the chairs, books, and syringes all over the floor. He calmed down quickly and looked sheepishly at Daniel.

    “Sorry Daniel, I guess I don't know my own strength yet,” he said. “Here! I will help you clean up! Cleanup Man away!”

    Daniel looked at me with sympathy as Bobby sped around the room cleaning up the mess. He ended up knocking things back over with his cape right after he picked them up.

    “You know what Bobby? I got this,” said Daniel. “You have to go save the world. I can clean this up.”

    “Oh my gosh! You're right!” exclaimed Bobby. “What are we waiting for Jesse! We need to go home and form a plan to destroy the airships! By then I bet our superpowers will have kicked in!” He ran out of the door before I could say anything.

    “Good luck with that,” said Daniel as motioned at Bobby. “I'll see you tonight when we all get what we deserve. Hopefully it's not an eternity with Bobby.”

    “He's not that bad,” I commented. The bravery that Bobby had shown today gave me a new respect for him.

    “Watch out world! You will get what you deserve! Because I am going to save you!” yelled Bobby outside through the megaphone. I rolled my eyes.

    “I'll get your megaphone back for you,” I promised Daniel. Hopefully Bobby wouldn't lose that respect as quickly as he gained it.


    Chapter 6

    On the car ride home I could barely contain Bobby.

    “I think I have telescopic vision!” said Bobby as he squinted down the road. “I'm going to try to set that stop sign on fire!”

    “Bobby, let's try to not damage public property,” I replied. “And I think that would be heat vision, not telescopic.” I had a feeling this was how the entire morning was going to be.

    “Maybe I have both!” exclaimed Bobby. I was starting to notice several cars that had veered off the side of the road. Many of them had run into trees and buildings.

    We passed a car that had run into a stop sign. The driver was still in the driver's seat but was slumped over.

    “Bobby, I think these stopped cars are all people who got the serum,” I said. I knew my brother and I were safe, but it was scary to see all these people dead. These were the people who were supposed to give humanity hope.

    “We need to help those people!” exclaimed Bobby. He pushed open his car door.

    “Bobby!” I yelled; I was going twenty miles an hour. I slammed on my brakes. My car stopped just in time for Bobby to tuck and roll on the ground unnecessarily.

    “Thanks Jesse!” yelled Bobby as he ran to a car that had smashed into a tree. I sighed; there was almost no point running after him. I turned on the radio in hope for answers.

    “ . . . the mortality rate of people who have received the serum is quickly approaching 100%,” the radio show host said sorrowfully. “The President is now suggesting for people to not get the serum. The government is looking for anybody still alive who got it. The President is currently in talks with the Department of Defense about a nuclear strike as a last resort.”

    I glanced at Bobby. He had dragged a middle-aged man out of the car to the ground, and he was doing CPR on him. “Dial 911!” Bobby called out.

    I dialed 911 on my phone, and all I got was a busy tone. I had felt lots of fear lately. The mysterious and menacing airships had brought a lot of new levels of fear into my life, but this was the first time I felt helpless. No superheroes were coming and our regular heroes were gone as well. It was everybody for themselves.

    Bobby slowly walked up to the car. Tears were falling from his face.

    “How long do I have?” he sobbed.

    “For what?” I replied; he had a lot longer than many people out there.

    “Until I become a superhero.” I glanced behind him. The man's body lay lifeless.

    “Any minute now,” I said. “Hey Bobby, come sit in the car and let's go home.”

    “We're not going to die from the serum Jesse!” declared Bobby between sobs as he buckled his seat belt. “We will be superheroes!” Bobby sounded like his optimism was fading.

    “We will be ok,” I replied. I drove toward home. We needed to get some supplies before we headed for the spotlight to get what we deserved.

    We drove past hundreds of crashed cars on our way home. I saw more dead bodies than I ever cared to see. Bobby and I were silent during the drive. The reality of the circumstances was starting to become tangible, and they weighed down on my mind.

    We arrived home, and I started packing some bags for us to take to the airship. Nobody knew what was going to happen to us. Bobby, instead of packing, tried everything he could think of to see if he had superpowers. He tried frying an egg with his mind, jumping over the house, and teleporting to India. Nothing worked, and it started to show in his countenance. After two hours of trying out various superpowers, he walked back inside the house exhausted. He flopped on the couch in dismay.

    “Are you sure we got the serum Jesse?” he asked from the couch. “The only difference is that my arm hurts a little, and I hardly call that a superpower!””

    I buried my eyes inside the duffel I was packing some canned food in. “Of course we got the serum! They wouldn't have gone to all that trouble with the microchip if we hadn't!” I couldn't tell Bobby the truth. It would break his heart.

    “But what about all those people who died? If we don't have superpowers, shouldn't we at least be dead? I don't even feel a little dead!” Bobby whined. Before I could answer, I received a text on my phone. It was a message from Daniel.

    “Hey Jesse,” it read, “turn your TV or radio on! They're about to nuke the aliens!”

    “Bobby!” I said excitedly. “Guess what? We might not need superpowers after all!” I hurried over to the couch and turned the TV on.

    Dave Hawthorne was still at his post. They had distant live footage of the airship that hung over Anchorage, Alaska.

    “For those just joining us the President has announced that the military is going to fire a nuclear missile at the airship in Anchorage. The President has coordinated with the other nuclear capable countries in the world to aim their missiles at their nearby airships in preparation for a mass attack if this experimental strike is effective. I am hearing that the missile is being launched as we speak.”

    Bobby and I watched the TV's live footage of the airship. We saw a small speck in the air approach it from a distance.

    “Why are they doing this!” complained Bobby. “This won't save the world!”

    “Shh!” I said. I hoped to God that this worked. The small speck got larger and soon we could see the exhaust from the missile as it approached the airship. My heart raced. I knew everybody on Earth was watching this moment.

    Then something happened. It happened in a moment so fast that I couldn't remember it at all until later. The only thing I knew was one second there was a missile, then a hole opened in the sky in the path of the missile, and then I didn't even remember why we were watching TV.

    Dave Hawthorne was still on TV, now without the live footage, and he appeared confused and fazed. “What were we talking about?” he said. He looked down at the papers on his desk. “It looks like I was talking about the government searching for survivors from the serum to battle the airships.” He continued with the story, but the confused look lingered on his face.

    “What are we doing Bobby?” I said, puzzled. Bobby also had a confused look on his face.

    “We're seeing what the latest is about the airships,” said Bobby uncertainly. “But for some reason, the accidental 1944 nuclear destruction of Los Alamos is coming to mind.”

    I frowned. For some reason, the tragic event that taught the world that nuclear fission would never be safe to attempt was fresh in my mind and for no reason at all. We learned about it in school, but it was one of those historic footnotes that was quickly forgot about. Some people said a so-called nuclear bomb would have ended the second world war before 1950, but most historians dismissed such speculation.

    Dave Hawthorne seemed to notice it as well. “For some reason, I'd like to take a moment during this time of crisis to remember the foolhardy scientists of the 1944 Los Alamos lab who tested outside their ability and created a catastrophe. I feel that we may have done the same thing with the serum with even worse results. Out of the five million people who received the serum, there are only fifty survivors left, and that number is dropping as we speak.”

    “Only fifty?” whispered Bobby. He looked at his hands and then over to me. “We don't have superpowers yet. Who will save the world?”

    “I don't think anybody can,” I commented. I put my arm around Bobby. “Come on, we need to finish getting our supplies together and join everybody at the airship.”

    “We have to save the world!” yelled Bobby. He sprung up off the couch and reached inside his pajama pocket. He pulled out a syringe. “Maybe I need a double dose!”

    “Bobby!” I yelled and leaped at him. He already had the cap off the needle, and he swung it downward to his leg. I managed to grab his arm and redirect the needle into the air.

    “Let go!” yelled Bobby. He struggled against my grasp. “We need to save the world!” My muscles strained against Bobby wriggling around. He was putting all of his strength into trying to inject himself.

    “You'll die Bobby!” I said while trying to disarm him. Bobby still had a death drip on the syringe, and the needle was dangerously moving through the air in the struggle.

    “I haven't died yet from the first dose! Maybe I just need more!” Bobby then dropped to his knees in an attempt to break free. My hand was still firm on his wrist.

    Instead of breaking free, his sudden drop swung his hand into my right leg. I felt a sudden sharp pain and burning in my leg. I let go of Bobby and staggered back.

    There, stuck in my thigh, was the now empty syringe.


    Chapter 7

    I yanked out the syringe and threw it across the room. The reality of what just happened was still trying to compute inside my head. I sat back down on the couch.

    “So unfair!” yelled Bobby furiously. “It's so unfair that you get a double dose!”

    “Where did you get that syringe Bobby?” I asked softly. I felt the blood drain out of my head in fear. I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I had to make sure.

    “I picked it up off the floor when I knocked all the syringes over,” said Bobby. “I figured it would be good to have an extra dose in case we needed it. And now we do. And guess what? If anybody is going to be a superhero, it's going to be you!” He sat down and shook his head angrily. He paused, sighed, and put his hand on my arm. “Actually Jesse, I should be glad that you got the extra dose of the serum. I was really hoping that I was going to save the world. But if anybody but me saves the world, I'd rather have you save it.”

    As heartfelt as a message that was, my mind was racing. What was I going to do? He had picked up an actual syringe with actual serum. I had just received the serum. The same serum that had killed everybody but fifty people within three hours of getting it. Sure, we were all going to some uncertain fate by the end of the day, but now mine was pretty mapped out and final. I suddenly missed the fear of having an unknown future.

    As if he heard my thoughts, Dave Hawthorne's voice from the TV cut into the dead silence. “We just received the latest serum report. It has reached the three hour mark for the latest testers, and everybody but two people are dead. It might actually be possible that the serum has worked on these two people. The government is currently collecting these two brave souls to see if they can save us all.”

    My mind, with its new preoccupation with my certain death, struggled to comprehend the message on TV. Two people who got the serum were still alive, and I felt like I was missing something obvious and important. Before my mind reached the obvious conclusion, our front door got kicked in, and a group of heavily armed agents came into our living room.

    I finally realized that Dave Hawthorne must have been talking about Bobby and me. Obviously the serum was not causing me to have super intelligence! Was it possible I was dumber?

    “Are you two the Harper brothers?” asked one of the agents.

    “We sure are!” yelled Bobby with a smile. “And we're going to save the world!”

    “Do you two have superpowers?” the agent asked. I was about to protest Bobby's enthusiasm when Bobby cut me off.

    “Well, I don't yet, but I know I will! And my brother here just got a double dose of the serum, so he certainly will! He'll probably be twice as powerful!” Bobby seemed to love the attention we were suddenly getting. His doubts had seemed to disappear with it.

    The agent raised his eyebrow to another agent. “Twice as powerful huh? Well, guess what boys, the world needs you!”

    “But . . .,” I tried to say, but the agent just continued to talk over me.

    “Come with us, we need to test you guys quickly to see what you can do and come up with a plan!”

    “. . . placebo,” I tried to say under the agent's loud voice, but I was ignored.

    “You boys will be escorted in an armored car, and we're going to take a detour right under the airship, give the people waiting there a morale boost, eh? It's not everyday the Earth has superheroes!” The agent made a motion to the others.

    Before I could protest, the swarm of agents pushed us outside and into the back seat of an armored SUV.

    “Hooray!” yelled Bobby. “We're going to save the world!” He didn't seem to remember that neither of us had any superpowers. “Don't worry Jesse!” he said, as he noticed the worried look on my face, “we'll both get our powers soon enough! We have to! If we weren't going to get them, we would be dead by now!”

    As I settled into my seat, my leg continued to burn, and the burning sensation was starting to spread. There was certainly something going on in my leg, and I knew it wasn't good. I was the only one on Earth that knew the serum had an absolute 100% mortality rate, and I doubted I would be proving that wrong. I was going to surprise everyone when they realized that my superpower was going to be dying suddenly and unexpectedly within the next three hours. At this point, I just wanted to get Bobby somewhere safe before I died. Hopefully the government agents would take care of him once they realized he had no powers.

    We drove through Tucson, and we passed multiple abandoned cars and dead bodies. We were in the middle of a caravan of black SUVs, and the agent who was driving us turned the radio on.

    “The whole world is talking about you guys!” he said. Sure enough, the radio station was talking about the Harper brothers. The two survivors of the serum tests. The ones that held the fate of the world.

    I never had realized it much before, but ever since the airships arrived, I now knew how important a role hope had in the world. Without hope, people fell over with the slightest breeze. With hope, people had a rock to stand on to take on a hurricane.

    As we drove toward the airship for our morale boosting appearance, I realized that telling the agents the truth would not help anybody at that point. It would only kill hope and people's will to fight. I decided to play along for the time being and why not? I was going to be dead in three hours anyway no matter what I did.

    We arrived to the area under the airship, and the streets were packed with people. People had RVs, tents, and canopies set up. Some people were having what looked like the last party of their life. Others were huddled together and looking up with uncertainty at the looming airship.

    “Alright boys, you're on!” said our driver. He lowered the windows of the SUV. So much for being in an armored car, I thought. Bobby didn't hesitate for a second. He knelt on the seat and stuck his torso out of the window.

    “Hello world!” he called out. “We're going to save you all!” I smiled and politely waved from my seat inside the SUV.

    Everybody cheered as we slowly rolled through the crowd. People yelled our names and clapped. “Su-per-he-roes!” they chanted. Many people just stood off in the background and eyed us skeptically. I didn't blame them.

    Bobby fed the crowd the encouragement they wanted as we drove through. I simply tried not to feel like a fraud. While I was moping through my self-pity about dying soon, I realized that if I didn't get injected with the serum that Bobby would be the one with a death sentence instead. While the realization didn't solve anything, it made me feel better. Maybe I wasn't so much of a coward after all. I was able to put on a genuine smile as I waved to the crowd. It took about a half hour, but we made it through the crowd.

    “Alright boys, off to work!” said our driver. He rolled up our windows, and we picked up speed as we went back onto the I-10. Our ride then changed course dramatically.

    We were only a minute on the freeway when a pulsating colorless hole appeared in the air directly in front of our SUV. Before our driver could do anything, our SUV drove right into it. One second before we were on the road in the daylight, and the next second we were driving towards a black wall inside somewhere!

    Our driver slammed on the brakes. The SUV skidded towards the wall. I braced myself for the impact and shut my eyes. I felt a sudden jolt and heard the crunching of metal, the pop of the airbag, and the hiss of a punctured radiator. We were now stopped.

    “Is everybody ok?” asked our driver. I opened my eyes. The front end of our SUV was smashed up against the wall, but the cabin appeared intact. I glanced over at Bobby. He seemed a little fazed, but otherwise ok. Our driver was trying to deflate the airbag so he could get out of the SUV.

    “I'm fine,” I responded. Bobby turned around and looked out the rear window.

    “Wow,” he said. “Look at all those people!” I turned around as well.

    We were inside a massive dome, and our SUV was on a track that ran along the outside wall of the dome about two stories above the ground floor. On the ground floor of the dome were thousands of people. Very similar to the area underneath the airship in Tucson, there were small shelters in place. But they were made of materials I had never seen before, and everybody was wearing unfamiliar clothes. Even with our distance from the people, I could tell many of them didn't seem right. Several of them had a shuffling gait, some of their hair were in asymmetrical patches on their heads, and I was pretty sure I saw some extra or missing limbs on some of them. The ceiling of the dome was covered in video screens. The screens played a nonstop loop of sun and clouds.

    But as soon as I turned around that wasn't what caught my attention initially. What caught my attention was the view outside the gigantic window that took up the whole other side of the massive dome. Outside the window was an unobstructed, picturesque, and peaceful view of Earth.

    “We're in space,” I whispered to myself. My stomach sank in fear. I was about to die, my brother was helpless, and we were now stuck in space with no way of getting back to Earth.

    “Hooray!” yelled Bobby. “I'm a cyborg superhero astronaut!”


    Chapter 8

    As was only natural, Bobby immediately jumped out of the SUV and started doing the macarena.

    “Bobby!” I hissed at him. “This isn't the time to be doing victory dances!” The burning sensation in my right leg had spread to my other leg. For me, my time was running short. We needed to figure out how to get back to Earth!

    Our agent driver had managed to get out of the car, and he approached Bobby. “Your brother's right, you need to get back in the car until I secure the area.” The rhythmic sound of heavy footsteps approached us.

    I looked in the direction of the footsteps and saw a dozen heavily armed men walking towards us on the track. They all had one-piece black armor, black helmets, and red capes on. They held rifle-like weapons in their hands. Several of them had either an extra arm or leg growing out of their torso. Their uniforms still fit perfectly around the extra limbs. Wherever these people were from, I thought, being a tailor must be a booming business.

    “Stand back!” yelled our driver. He pulled out a pistol and pointed it at the armored men.

    “We need to take your superheroes to our commander,” said one of the armored men who had a third arm sticking out of the center of his chest.

    “Who are you people? Are you with the airships?” asked our driver. His gun hand was shaking in nervousness.

    “Yes, those airships are ours, and we're here to save the world,” said the armored man.

    “How?” Our driver asked. He seemed now more relaxed. I knew I was. They were here to save us all along? I breathed a sigh of relief.

    “By getting rid of you,” was the armored man's reply. My stomach turned. Our driver grabbed Bobby and dove behind the SUV. I ducked down inside the car. Our driver shot several warning shots at the armored men. I could hear all the people below on the dome's floor start to panic.

    “Please don't do that!” said the armored man as he walked up to the SUV without hesitation. “You're frightening everybody below!” The armored man started to walk around the SUV. Our driver stood up and fired several shots point blank at the armored man.

    Right before the bullets hit the armored man, they vaporized into smoke with a buzzing sound. It reminded me of bugs hitting a bug zapper. The bullets must have hit some kind of energy shield around the man.

    “Don't worry, you will get what you deserve soon enough,” said the armored man. He pulled out a small sticker-like patch with his third arm, and, after a short struggle, stuck it on our driver's neck. Our driver instantly collapsed on the ground unconsciously. “We will get him back to Earth in a little while,” the armored man said. “But you superheroes need to come with us now. Our commander is waiting.” The man then went to the edge of the track and waved at all the panicking people on the ground floor below with his extra arm. “Have no fear!” he called out. “We have everything under control! Our plan is almost complete!” The people stopped panicking and started to applaud.

    “Awesome! We're going to meet the leader!” said Bobby with a gigantic smile on his face as he jumped up and down. He almost jumped into the armored man's arms in excitement. Knowing I had no other choice, I got out of the SUV and joined them. My legs felt like they were on fire, and it felt like the burning was starting to extend to my pelvis. I had to stay alive long enough to get Bobby safely back home! Maybe I could make a deal with the leader for them to keep me and let Bobby go, I thought. At that point, it seemed like the best plan.

    “Please try to contain yourself,” said the armored man to Bobby. Bobby stopped jumping up and down.

    “Take us to your leader,” said Bobby in an alien impersonation. I rolled my eyes. Bobby was going to get us killed.

    “My name is Lawrence,” said the armored man as he began to lead us away from the SUV. “I am captain of security on our spaceship, and, as I said before, I am indeed taking you to our leader. And please, no superpowers on the ship.”

    “I will try my best,” I lied.

    “Really?” whispered Bobby to me. “I don't have any powers at all yet!”

    “Shh!” I replied. If these men thought we did, we might be able to bluff our way out of this mess.

    We started walking with the armored men to a door that led out of the gigantic dome. It didn't seem like they were going to kill Bobby or me. At least not right away, in any case, so I decided to try to get some information. Maybe Bobby could pass on the information and help the people back on Earth negotiate with these people.

    “So is this your mothership?” I asked.

    “We call it our control ship,” responded Lawrence. “We control all the airships on Earth with it. We have it up in space to help protect it.”

    “Who were those people back in the dome?” I asked as we continued down a white rounded hallway. The other eleven armored men still followed us closely behind.

    “They are waiting,” said Lawrence. “Just like the other hundreds of thousands of people waiting in the other fifty temporary residence domes we have here on the control ship.”

    “Waiting for what?” Bobby asked. We approached a spiral door. Lawrence paused and looked at us.

    “They are waiting for you. We all are,” said Lawrence as he looked at Bobby. “Without you, our plan could not be complete.”

    I was about to ask what he meant by that when the spiral door opened, and it opened into what looked like the bridge of the ship.

    The bridge had a massive window that looked out at Earth, and there was a single high-backed chair with its back towards us that faced the window. Whoever this leader is, I thought, he had a flair for extreme cliché.

    “Commander!” called out Lawrence. “They have arrived!” The chair started to spin around slowly. Really? I thought to myself. Half of me was scared witless of meeting with such a powerful leader, and half of me was rolling my eyes with how corny this was playing out.

    The first thing I saw of the leader was his one-piece black uniform and then his red cape. Then my mind plummeted into what seemed like a surreal dream.

    Because I then saw a Chicago Cubs hat on top of some very familiar looking stupid blond curly hair. Bobby, wait, no, not Bobby, some other Bobby, was looking at us from the commander chair with an incredibly stupid grin on his face.

    “Hooray!” yelled both Bobbys at the same time as they ran towards each other. My mind was still dumbstruck as I watched both Bobbys hug each other then jump up and down excitedly like two schoolgirls. The incredibly corny and cliché reveal now made perfect sense to me.

    Everything else made no sense at all.


    Chapter 9

    I stood there frozen in a perpetual confounded pose as I watched both Bobbys start to do victory dances all over the bridge of the ship. Lawrence and the other armored men watched on like this happened everyday. Shoot, it probably did.

    “What? How? Why?” I kept on repeating like some broken record. Thankfully, I kept on saying it louder and louder. Within a minute, I was a hysterical mess shouting one-word questions.

    Commander Bobby finally stopped doing the worm with normal Bobby. “Alright Bobby, stop dancing, let's get down to saving the world.” He then made eye contact with me. There was a flicker of anger in his eyes. “Oh, it's you. Glad you could make it Jesse.” My confusion intensified. Did this Bobby just use sarcasm? And did he just tell Bobby to stop doing victory dances? I could tell right away this Bobby was quite different from the Bobby I knew.

    I glanced over at Bobby. He looked confused and slightly hurt from this new Bobby telling him to stop dancing.

    Commander Bobby saw our puzzled looks, and he instructed Bobby and me to sit down. Lawrence pulled up two chairs with his third arm, and Bobby and I sat in them. Commander Bobby sat in his commander chair. Bobby seemed to get over his initial hurt quickly as he could hardly contain himself now.

    “Look at him!” he squealed in excitement. “I mean, look at me! How cool is that outfit! And oh my gosh! We're about to save the world! Just like I said we were! I told you! I told everyone! I was right!”

    “It's true!” said Commander Bobby. “How awesome are us!” Bobby started to get up again to do some lunges.

    “No!” I yelled. “Bobby sit down right now! I need some answers!” I turned to Commander Bobby. “How . . . how on Earth did you get here? Why are there two of you?”

    “Alright, alright!” said Commander Bobby. “I figure both of you have questions, and it will be easier if you let me tell my story.”

    “Yay! Storytime” yelled Bobby.

    “Storytime!” yelled Commander Bobby in agreement. I groaned. This was going to be painful. Where was duplicate Jesse? I needed someone to sympathize with me. Thankfully without any further ado, Commander Bobby started his story:

    “So first off, I am not a duplicate of you Bobby. I am you. Two years in the future. Like you, I turned sixteen and wanted to be a superhero more than anything else. I looked into every nook and cranny for the possibility of becoming one. Thankfully the government had been working on project Human Plus for just that purpose. When I turned eighteen, I heard about the project. The serum was finally ready and safe for human testing, and they were looking for people to test it out.”

    “Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Mom and dad let you be a government guinea pig? I let you?”

    “You know our parents,” said Commander Bobby with a dismissing flick of his wrist, “they probably don't even know where you are right now. And you moved away from home the second you turned eighteen Jesse. It seemed like you couldn't wait to get away. You moved to New York for school. I haven't seen you in over a year. You could call, you know. Some brother! Some friend!”

    “I haven't even moved away yet!” I protested. I wasn't expecting to be defending my future actions already! But I sympathized with future Jesse and understood why I moved so far away so quickly once I turned eighteen. Living with and practically having to parent Bobby was a tough and annoying job, but it seemed like I was going to leave too soon. Unsupervised Bobby running off to be a government test rat? Even if the result of it was him saving the world, it was a too dangerous way to go about it.

    “Anyway,” continued Commander Bobby, who genuinely seemed hurt that my future self had not called him, “hurt feelings aside, there were ten of us subjects in the first round of serum testing. We all received the serum, and we waited in the testing room for the results. They came on gradually, but we all received superpowers. You see, the serum works on a genetic level, so it has different effects on different people. One guy could make his foot fall asleep at will, another was immune to electric shocks, one girl could digest any toxin with no effect. The other six people had even less impressive powers. But it was enough for the government to want to expand the study, especially when they saw my power.”

    “Ooh! What power do we have?” interrupted Bobby. He practically fell out of his chair in anticipation.

    “Well, what I first thought was my power was only half of it,” responded Commander Bobby. “Within three hours of the serum shot, I suddenly knew where everything on Earth was. If somebody asked me where a gelato shop was in Italy, I could tell them directions to every single one.”

    “But we've never been to Italy!” Bobby exclaimed.

    “Exactly,” said Commander Bobby, “without even ever being there, I know instantly where everything and everyone is. I can't actually see it, but if I focus on something or someone, I somehow know where he, she, or it is. I'm practically omnipresent. The government people were very impressed. They had big plans of making me a spy. But I didn't want to be a super spy! I wanted to be a superhero!”

    “That's right!” yelled Bobby as he pumped his fist in the air.

    “So I went home that night and wondered how I was going to save the world with my new power. I was in bed and thought about all the gelato shops in Italy, and I realized I really wanted gelato. I'm still not sure how I did it at first, but I opened a wormhole with my mind that I knew led to a gelato shop in Italy. As the hole floated in front of me, I reached my hand in, and I pulled out a handful of some delicious coconut gelato! Fresh from Italy!”

    “Coconut! No fair! I want some!” complained Bobby. Commander Bobby then stared at the area in front of Bobby. A small colorless hole opened up in the air. I stared at it in awe. I was having a hard time processing that my future little brother could make wormholes.

    “Go ahead, reach in,” Commander Bobby told Bobby. Bobby had a Christmas morning smile on his face as he stuck his right arm inside the wormhole.

    “Oh! It's cold!” Bobby exclaimed. He pulled back out his hand, and it was full of coconut gelato. He then stuck his entire gelato-covered hand in his mouth. “Ihh soo gooh!” he exclaimed as he sucked and licked all the gelato off his hand.

    “And guess what Bobby?” Commander Bobby asked. He had a humongous smile on his face like he had an amazing secret.

    “What?” said Bobby as he finished cleaning off his hand.

    “That gelato was freshly made twenty-five years ago,” Commander Bobby started to laugh with glee. My mouth dropped open. Did that mean . . .?

    “Yes Jesse,” Commander Bobby continued as he saw my expression, “I soon discovered that my omnipresent knowledge and wormholes could not only transcend distance but also time. The serum made me a master of space and time!”

    “You're a master of space and time?” commented Bobby in awe.

    “No Bobby!” said Commander Bobby. “WE are master of space and time!” My jaw hit the floor. I should have guessed it. Otherwise how could Commander Bobby be from the future? Bobby sat there in shock for a minute. He shook his head in disbelief, and then he just started shaking in excitement. Bobby then rocketed out of the chair like a geyser and started doing victory dances.

    “WHOO HOO!” he screamed. Commander Bobby got up as well and joined him in his victory dance. This time I didn't stop them. I couldn't. My jaw was still on the floor.


    Chapter 10

    Commander Bobby and Bobby finally sat back down, and I was starting to accept the reality that my future brother was the most powerful being in the universe with the exception of God. Maybe I should had let him get the serum! But somewhere in the back of my head warning bells were going off. Something was telling me that it was not a smart idea for Bobby to have ridiculous amounts of power.

    “So, where was I?” asked Commander Bobby. “Yes, so that night while eating gelato on my bed, I also realized I could also get gelato from any time! I found out that anything or anyone I was specifically thinking about I could know exactly when and where they were at any point of time! And I could make a wormhole to get to anyplace or anytime!”

    “Ooh!” exclaimed Bobby. “Did you think about going to Mars?”

    “Well,” replied Commander Bobby. “That seemed to be one limit of my awesome power. I was stuck on Earth. I tried to go to Pluto to see if it was really a planet, but I couldn't!”

    “But where did you go? This is so exciting! I would go to Australia and find a platypus!” Bobby was almost falling out of his chair. Commander Bobby just looked at him with a smile. As I looked at Commander Bobby, more and more my mind was confirming my feeling that there was something different about him compared to the Bobby I knew. He was only Bobby two years in the future, but he seemed more mature, serious, and more contained. I wondered what happened to him.

    “As I knew I wanted to be a superhero,” said Commander Bobby, “and I now knew I had a fantastic power, I figured I should use my power to save the human race. The only problem was I didn't know what to save it from. But then I realized, I could just open up a wormhole to the future and jump in and see what eventually was going to make mankind go extinct!”

    “Wow!” said Bobby in awe. “I never would have thought of that!” I rolled my eyes and held my tongue.

    “So at first I borrowed a spacesuit from NASA, just in case Earth disappeared in the future, and jumped ten thousand years in the future, and sure enough, Earth wasn't even around anymore!. Then five thousand years. Nope, no humans or Earth there either. Five hundred years, one hundred, then finally at fifty years from now I finally found the end of humanity,” Commander Bobby said while shaking his head. I shook my head in disbelief as well. Within my lifetime, humanity would end.

    “So what killed us?” I asked. “An asteroid?”

    “Superheroes! If you can believe that!” said Commander Bobby. “Or rather, a couple superheroes who didn't know how to be a hero! It turned out that over fifty years the government had expanded project Human Plus, and there were several hundred people with superpowers running around.”

    “That sounds amazing!” commented Bobby.

    “It almost was!” replied Commander Bobby with a grin that quickly turned into a frown. “There were two brothers, Paul and Trevor Clemens, who both got the superhero serum. They both got the power of breaking molecular bonds with their minds! They could go up to a skyscraper and make it vaporize! One second it would be there! The next, poof!”

    “I bet they got hired by a demolition company!” said Bobby. I somehow doubted that.

    “If only!” said Commander Bobby. “They got greedy, and they started to threaten people for money. They were not very nice. The other heroes tried to stop them, but they would just get vaporized by the brothers.”

    “Not nice at all!” Bobby chimed in.

    “But Paul started to feel bad about bullying people around, and he tried to stop Trevor,” continued Commander Bobby, “but he couldn't bring himself to vaporize Trevor. Trevor felt betrayed by Paul and one day it tipped him over the breaking point. He ended up going insane and vaporizing the entire Earth! I thankfully made a wormhole to get out of there just in time!”

    “Wow!” exclaimed Bobby. “So how are all these airships going to stop them?”

    “They aren't,” said Bobby. “I already defeated the Clemens brothers. You see, after I saw the end result of the Human Plus serum, I made a wormhole to go back in time to three years ago when the serum was still being developed. I talked to Dr. Peters, and I brought him to the future for a short visit. He saw how the serum would create the Clemens brothers and ultimately the destruction of Earth!”

    “So you got him to destroy the serum,” I said.

    “Heavens no!” exclaimed Commander Bobby. “If he destroyed the serum, I would never have gotten my power!”

    “Wait, what?” I was confused. Without the serum, none of this would have happened! It would all be fixed! Why did Commander Bobby not do that?

    “I convinced him to alter the serum so it would only work for my DNA!” exclaimed Commander Bobby. “He practically insisted on it! He couldn't bear to see his life's work thrown away completely! He was very impressed by me.”

    “Who wouldn't be?” echoed Bobby in awe.

    “So after I gathered some ancient jewels and gold for him, he altered the serum,” Commander Bobby continued.

    “Wait, what?” I asked. I was starting to question how good Commander Bobby was! And Dr. Peters allowed the government to give millions of people the serum knowing only it would only work on Bobby! Maybe he didn't know it would kill everyone, but at the very least he falsely gave the whole world hope! We could have put our resources somewhere else! I shook my head in anger. I grimaced. The burning had spread to my stomach and chest. I was running out of time. Maybe Commander Bobby could make a wormhole to save me from the serum.

    “I did him a favor because he was doing me a favor!” said Commander Bobby angrily. “And it was harmless! I got my superpower so I could save the world, and it would have absolutely no effect on everybody else!”

    “Everybody else who has gotten the serum has died,” I said bluntly. Commander Bobby looked at me in shock.

    “No, no, that can't be right,” he said, his face suddenly fallen. “I'll have to go back and change it, but . . . no, it doesn't matter now.”

    “Come on Bobby!” said Bobby. “Cheer up! We can fix it!”

    “Wait, what do you mean it doesn't matter?” I demanded. “It was millions of people!”

    “It doesn't matter,” said Commander Bobby matter-of-factually, “because we have to get rid of this generation anyway.”

    “What?” I was shocked. “Why?”

    “To save the world from the next apocalypse,” Commander Bobby said calmly.


    Chapter 11

    Commander Bobby continued his story:

    “So after I convinced Dr. Peters to alter the serum, I traveled back to when Trevor Clemens was about to destroy it, about fifty years from now. I found the Earth doing well and still standing. After a little research, I found that project Human Plus was shut down after the initial testing. They said it didn't go well. I didn't know what they meant by that, but I was just glad that the Clemens brothers weren't able to destroy the world! So for a little while I helped people. You know, created wormholes to get kittens out of trees and made sure Christmas packages arrived on time.”

    “That's what I would have done first!” declared Bobby.

    “But after a little while of helping out people and knowing that I had saved the world, I started to wonder what was going to destroy Earth now that Trevor Clemens wasn't going to!” said Commander Bobby.

    As he said it, I saw a gleam in his eyes that I had seen in Bobby's eyes before. It was the gleam of immovable passion; the same gleam that told me he was going to be a superhero no matter what I did. I felt like Commander Bobby was going to save the world over and over from every new threat that popped up. I felt a small chill as I realized that no one could physically stop him from mucking about in space-time to his heart's content.

    “So I jumped ahead again,” he continued. “This time I pinpointed humanity's demise about 2200 years from now. When I entered that time, it looked horrible! There wasn't a single tree or bush around! The oceans were solid with trash, and only synthetic materials could be found! The sky was darkened with soot, and the only drinkable water was underground where people lived! The pollution that had built up over the years had finally ground Earth's ecosystem to a halt! I couldn't even find a platypus!”

    “No!” exclaimed Bobby.

    “The last generation had pretty advanced technology, and it was the only thing that had kept them alive for the previous 1000 years. We are in a ship that they created, and they are the people you saw in the dome. As you can see around you, they have developed really advanced weapons and ships, but that hasn't changed the effect years and years of pollution has had on their DNA, which corrupted it to the point of barely being able to function. Their DNA has become so mutated from the pollution that even their DNA-altering technology has no effect, and their generation is about to go extinct because everybody in their generation was born sterile! They would clone themselves, but their DNA has become so corrupted that even cloning can't replicate it!”

    “Well, it's their own fault the pollution got so bad,” I commented. It seemed like a natural way for humanity to die off. Not ideal, certainly, but natural.

    “NO!” screamed Commander Bobby. I jumped in my chair at his outburst. “It is not their fault! Humanity had been trying it's best to clean up the Earth for the previous thousand years before their generation, but the poison was already too far in Earth's ecosystem. How I saw the last generation's Earth was a slight improvement to what it was a thousand years before! This last generation is the most Earth-friendly bunch I have ever met. They are masters of recycle, reduce, and reuse! It is not their fault! They were simply born into it! I saw that there was a vast injustice done to them!”

    “Uh oh,” I whispered to myself. I suddenly had an inkling why the airships were here, and what “getting what we deserve” meant. “So our generation is at fault?” I asked.

    “I hate to say it Jesse,” said Commander Bobby, “but our generation sends Earth's ecosystem into a downward spiral that it never recovers from. I'm here to stop us!”

    “So you brought the last generation here?” I asked. “To teach us how to save the Earth?”

    “Yes,” said Commander Bobby. “But they are here to replace our irresponsible generation with a responsible generation who knows first hand the end result of pollution! It will give them a chance to live on the beautiful Earth they are entitled to!”

    “And our generation gets sent to the future?” I asked.

    “Exactly,” replied Commander Bobby. “Because it's exactly what our generation deserves. They will live in the consequences of their actions. No more out of sight, out of mind!”

    “But the last generation is sterile, you're dooming mankind!” I protested. “They will have no offspring to extend humanity to the time you're sending our generation to!”

    “Jesse!” Commander Bobby looked hurt. “I am just and fair. It is our generation who initiated the downward spiral. If our generation has children in the bleak future, they will no doubt be raised up to value the Earth. I hope so, anyway.” Commander Bobby had a skeptical look on his face. Bobby skeptical? That was a first. This Bobby was much different indeed.

    “But if our generation's children can prove they can value the Earth like the last generation,” Commander Bobby continued, “I will send them back to this time. But don't worry, I have a backup plan just in case our generation doesn't learn from its mistakes.”

    “Kill us all?” I asked sarcastically. I was starting to get an unsettling feeling in my stomach about how much Commander Bobby thought he was God.

    “No!” exclaimed Commander Bobby. “The last generation has cloning technology, and we have plenty of good genetic material from the Genetic Census. If no one is worthy, we will make viable clones for the last generation to raise as their own!”

    “So you would be making them their own step-grandpa,” I said. Something else he said bugged me. “Wait! What do you mean 'if no one is worthy?'. Who decides that? You?”

    Commander Bobby seemed annoyed I asked that question. He looked off in the distance. “Did I hear something? It must be a gust of wind from New York. Where my long-lost brother must finally care!”

    Commander Bobby was obviously not letting go what future Jesse did. “Listen future Bobby, I apologize for what I will do. If I can prevent it, I will.” I looked earnestly at Commander Bobby.

    He stared back at me. “It's too late for apologies Jesse, and what can you do if I want to play God? I have to! It's my destiny!” He stood up angrily and made a wormhole float in the air in front of him. “And who else has the power to stop me?” he said.

    Bobby, who had stayed silently in awe for a lot of Commander Bobby's narrative, seemed to not notice the tension, and started to applaud. “That plan is amazing!” he said. “We're going to save the world again! But, what if our generation changes its ways? I say we give them a second chance! I like second chances! Have the last generation teach them the right way! Then we don't have to send them to the icky future!”

    Commander Bobby shook his head and made the wormhole disappear. “Bobby, you have much to learn. In fact, that is why I have you here. You need to use your power to travel 2200 years from now and merge your timeline with mine! Then everything will come together so we can save the world! The only thing stopping us is if you never travel to the future and start the process!”

    My attention to the Bobbys' argument was suddenly sidetracked as I felt the burning that had moved to my chest extend down both arms and up to my neck. I had a feeling once it got to my head it would be the end of me.

    I needed to stay alive! I couldn't let Commander Bobby keep on interfering with space-time! If I could only get him to destroy the serum in its infancy, everything would be fine! Well, it would be fine for 2200 years anyway. My mind hesitated. I realized that despite his madness that Commander Bobby was saving the world. With his plan, humanity would live more than 2200 years. But where would Commander Bobby end with his space-time interfering?

    “But why do we need to teach our generation a lesson?” asked Bobby. I could tell by his face he was noticing that Commander Bobby was different than him. “If they don't learn, we could always send them just a little farther in the future, not to the end of the Earth! Then the last generation can still get the Earth back on track!”

    “No!” yelled Commander Bobby. He stormed around the bridge. “Justice must be served! Trust me Bobby, I am you. Once you see the future 2200 years from now, you will change your tune! I know! Because the same thing happened to me! I once thought people in general were good! But the one person who gave me the most hope proved me wrong! And seeing the abused Earth in the future just proved that everyone was the same! It showed people don't care!” He eyed me furiously. I was shocked by the intensity of the glare. Was future Jesse why Commander Bobby was so different?

    “People don't change without punishment and seeing the consequences of their action!” continued Commander Bobby. “That was why I made a wormhole take that nuclear missile to 1944 Los Alamos to forever destroy the nuclear program!” he stood over Bobby. My mind that had forgotten about the nuclear missile suddenly remembered the one that was fired at the Anchorage airship.

    “But Jesse changed!” Bobby protested as he pointed to me. “He thought getting the serum was stupid at first! But he changed his mind, and he let me get the serum, and he even got it too! He even got a double dose!”

    Commander Bobby eyed me skeptically. “Really Jesse? You got a dose? Same with Bobby? It only works for me, and you look plenty alive. And Bobby here doesn't seem to even know where the nearest restroom is!”

    I stayed silent and tried not to look at Bobby.

    “Jesse?” asked Bobby. “We did get the serum right?”

    “See that face he has Bobby? That hasn't changed. We know that face!” Commander Bobby said. “It's the same face he had the last time I saw him. When he said he would keep in touch! And tell me Bobby, where is a gelato shop in Tennessee? You should be able to say at least one with your superpower. I know where all of them are!”

    “I . . . I don't know,” said Bobby. I glanced over at him. He was staring at me with tears in his eyes.

    “I was trying to protect you, protect us,” I said. The confirmation of my betrayal struck Bobby like a punch to his face.

    “I knew it! I knew it!” cried Bobby. “I really wanted to trust you Jesse! I really wanted to! I had a feeling Daniel was up to something. That's why he winked at you! That was partly why I grabbed that extra syringe!” He stopped crying for a second as a look of realization hit his face. “But that means you got the actual serum! The serum that has killed everybody else who got it!”

    I nodded. “And I don't think I have much time. It feels like the serum is about to overtake my whole body!”

    “Jesse, no!” yelled Bobby. He looked at Commander Bobby. “You have to save him! Go back to when we were fighting and take the syringe from me!”

    I could tell Commander Bobby was struggling. It was his turn to turn his head away. “He's just getting what he deserves for his betrayal. It is just and fair.”

    “No it isn't! He's our brother! He's our friend!” Bobby cried.

    “YES! Yes he was!” yelled Commander Bobby, suddenly in tears. “He was our only friend, and what did he do? He left us! He moved all the way to New York never to be heard from! He left us alone! Completely alone! Guess how many people laughed at us then! No one was there to support us like a brother should! No one was there to care! He betrayed us more than once Bobby!”

    “I can't believe you won't give him another chance! You won't even give an entire generation a second chance! You meanie! I will never become you!” Bobby used his cape to wipe his eyes. He looked at me with tears streaming from his eyes. “Even . . . even if it means I can't have the power to save you Jesse.”

    “Well, how noble,” said Commander Bobby with resolve in his voice. “I remember when I was naïve as well. But at this point Bobby, there's nothing you can do to stop me from merging our timelines. All we've ever wanted to do was save the world, and now we will!” He created a wormhole in the air, and he reached in. His hand came back with a syringe. “This is just some serum from a box; not from your fight. Sorry Jesse, but justice must be served.” He advanced toward Bobby with the syringe. “I will inject you Bobby, and then we will both go to the future. You will see the injustice then. You will change just like me.”

    I sprung from my chair to stop Commander Bobby, but the burning in my body suddenly advanced to my head and overwhelmed it. I fell on the floor of the bridge and clutched my head. I had to fight it. I had to stop Commander Bobby . . .

    I saw Bobby jump from his chair and try to run. “Lawrence!” called out Commander Bobby. “Hold him for me!” I heard a quick scuffle and Bobby cry out.

    “No! I don't want to be you! You don't smile like I do! You probably don't even do a morning routine!” he cried out. He squirmed around in the guards grasp.

    “You're right, I ended that childish routine a while ago,” Commander Bobby said. Bobby gasped in horror.

    “You monster!” he screamed.

    “You will be me! You will save the world!” screamed Commander Bobby. He backhanded Bobby. Bobby went limp. He took the cap off of the syringe.

    As I lay on the bridge's floor holding my head, the burning sensation suddenly exploded all over my body. I felt weak, and my vision started to fade. Commander Bobby was pushing the extra air out of the syringe. A squirt of serum hit the floor.

    I couldn't believe it was going to end this way. For once in my life, I didn't want to say good-bye to Bobby. We were supposed to survive this somehow and be closer after this ordeal. There were so many brother things we never got to do because I was too stupid to value Bobby as my brother! I needed more time! Death was not supposed to be sour and bitter like this. I had always imagined it to be sweet. Like the gelato from the shop on Meridian Boulevard in Nashville, Tennessee.

    My eyes shot open with a sudden burst of energy. I had never been to Tennessee.

    Commander Bobby injected Bobby with the serum as energy spread all over my body.

    It wasn't until after I opened a wormhole directly under Commander Bobby that I felt the power. It was an incredible feeling. I knew where everything was, and I also knew when everything was.

    I was so quick with the wormhole that Commander Bobby didn't have time to react or say anything. He simply fell into it with a very surprised look on his face. And just like that, he was gone.

    I rose to my feet and looked around the bridge. Lawrence and the guards were looking at me in awe and maybe a little fear. Bobby lay on the floor, and he was moving around a little. I had never been so glad in my life that my DNA was so similar to his. I needed to fix everything before the serum took effect in him and turned him into Commander Bobby.

    “Jesse,” Bobby moaned. I rushed over to him. Lawrence stepped in my way. I opened up a wormhole in the floor right beneath him. Lawrence yelled and fell through the wormhole.

    “Anybody else want a first class ticket to the center of the Earth?” I asked the other guards. I opened up a dozen wormholes behind me. The guards scattered. They must have realized I was not as hesitant as Paul Clemens to do what needed to be done.

    I knelt down beside Bobby. “Hey buddy.”

    “Jesse,” he said softly. “You need to stop me. I want to save the world, but not as him.”

    “Don't worry, I'll fix everything.”


    Epilogue

    Now I'm standing in front of ten different microphones from ten different news channels. I don't have time for them. They think I'm a hero because I sent the control ship back to 2200 years in the future where it belongs with all of the last generation, and it caused all the airships to crash. It's kind of unfair to the last generation, but it would be unfair to us if they took our place. The news channels also don't know that the real threat is lying right in front of them in a Chicago Cubs hat and pajamas.

    They also don't know that by destroying the airships I am sentencing humanity to a slow and painful demise 2200 years from now. Commander Bobby was going to save the world, but he also was somebody that my brother never would want to be. I can't let Bobby turn into him, and by doing so, I am dooming the world. Sorry humanity. A man has to draw the line somewhere.

    I pick up my brother from the ground and ignore all the questions being thrown at me. We have something important to do. I know a Dr. Peters and some other Genetic Census founders that are going to be visiting the center of the Earth about five years ago. Superheroes aren't good for humanity. It turns us into somebody we're not supposed to be. Me throwing my future brother and others to certain death in wormholes is proof of that. I'm already not myself. The sooner I can be back to normal the better.

    I open up a wormhole in front of Bobby and me. The crowd gasps.

    “Wow, superheroes!” I hear the crowd exclaim.

    It's true, we are superheroes, and I will be able to remember this story for as long as we are.

    But in a few moments, we will no longer be superheroes, and this story will never have happened. I only hope I can remember to be nicer to Bobby.

    We will go back to living how we used to before the airships, and we will pass along our consequences to the next generation.

    Whether it is just or not, I don't know, but I do know it is normal.
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Mile Zero



    The room was white and square and featureless. There were no windows or doors, no carpets or paintings, not a single chair or table, not even a speck of dust. In fact there was nothing in it, except for the three people lying unconscious on the floor.

    In the center of the room was a middle-aged man dressed in a polyester suit, wide flowery tie and too shiny shoes. Next to him curled up fetal-like, was a young woman in a skimpy, impossibly tight black dress cut low and revealing. At their feet, almost as a counterpoint, lay an older black woman dressed in a shabby pink sweater and worn green pants.

    There wasn't a sound to be heard, not even breathing. After a moment, however, something was heard. As one, they all sucked in their breath like lung-burst divers.

    "What...? What the hell happened," said the man sitting up. "Where am I."

    The young girl opened her eyes, lay there for a moment, and then scrambled crab style over to the corner of the room. "Who are you!" She looked at the man closely. "I don't remember you being at the club. Did you drug me or something?"

    The black woman stood up and looked down at the man and spoke almost nonchalantly, "Hey white boy, you got any smokes?"

    "No lady, I don't smoke," he said looking at her with mild disdain. "You got something to do with this?"

    "No," she said rubbing her eyes. "I ain't got a clue what's goin' on." She held out her hand to the man, but he ignored it. She shrugged and went on. "Name's Winona, but everybody call me Winter. What's yours?"

    The man stood and straightened his tie. He looked at the girl in the corner with a smug face. "My name is Dominic. And I don't drug women, I don't have to." He looked back toward the black woman. "You don't seem too surprised lady."

    "I'm fom' New York. Ain't nothin' much surprise me no mo'."

    "It looks like somebody is playing a little joke on us," he said looking around. "But when I get a hold of them," he said raising his voice, "they're gonna be laughing out their assholes."

    "What do you mean, a joke?" said the girl. "The last thing I remember is being at work. This real nice guy was about to give me a big tip. The next thing I know, I wake up in here."

    "Ya," said the man, "I was having a drink with this cute little number at the bar. Boy, was she nice. I had my hand on her leg... and she..."

    "I don't wanna hear that crap, lily dick," interrupted Winter. "Is pussy the only thing men ever think about?" she asked looking at the girl.

    "Ha, ha. Hey, you're wrong there, I like titties too.” He said. “And nice tight buns...."

    "What's wrong with you people! What's going on here?"

    Winter walked over to the girl and held out her hand. "Come on honey, it’s ok, stan' up and tell me yo' name." The girl hesitated, then grasped the hand and pulled herself up.

    "Lana. My name is Lana."

    "Whew," Nick whistled. You're not too bad lookin' sweet thing."

    The girl blushed, but obviously didn't mind the complement.

    "Keep yo dick in yo' pants white boy. We got somethin' mo' important to think about. We gotta figure out what's goin' on here. She looked back at the girl and smiled. "You said somethin' 'bout getting a big tip. Is you a waitress?"

    "No, I'm a dancer. But I do have to wait tables and talk to the customers between sets."

    "She's a stripper!"

    "Why don't you just shut up and let me talk to the girl."

    "Nobody tells Nick Burroughs what to do...," he began in a flustered tone.

    "I gonna bust yo head if you don't shut yo’ mouth."

    Nick frowned, but shut up.

    "Now, honey, is that what you do? You takes off yo' clothes fo' a bunch a horny men? And don't get me wrong," she said patting her hand. "Sometime a girl gotta do whatever it take to put food on the table."

    "There's nothing wrong with what I do," she said in a defensive tone. "I like to dance. And besides, I get paid a lot of money for what I do."

    "Honey, you look mighty young to be doin' what you do."

    "I'm old enough," she said pulling down the edge of her skirt with one hand.

    "Come on honey, you can't fool old Winter."

    "Well, I'm 17 next month," she said straightening up. "But I look older than that when I wear my makeup. I developed faster than the other girls in school did. I had to wear a bra when I was 11, but the boys didn't seem to mind too much."

    "I sure don't mind," said Nick staring at her breasts.

    The girl looked down at herself absently and pulled up her strap.

    "Don't you gotta be 18 to be a stripper?" asked Winter.

    Lana pursed her lips. "So I lied. But they didn't check too close anyway, they just took my word for it. I bring in a lot of customers for them. Besides, the men like to look at me... I make them feel good. The owner says I'm one of his best girls," she said proudly."

    "Ha, ha. Boy are you stupid. Do you believe everything a man tells you?"

    Winter glared at Nick.

    "Ok, ok..."

    "What about you, Winter?" asked Lana. "What do you do?"

    "Like I said, I'm fom' New York. I work in da' garment district sewin' fancy clothes for da' rich bitches in Manhatten. It don't pay much, so sometime I take home a little somethin' extra," she said with a grin. "I ain't been caught yet, an I ain't gonna be neither."

    "You steal clothes?" asked Lana with surprise.

    "Ya, them foreign bastards I work fo' is cheap as hell. So I takes somethin' now and then and sells it to my friends ta' make up fo' it. They gets somethin' nice to wear, and I gets money fo' smokes. Den' everybody happy.... 'ceptin the boss. Ha ha ha...."

    Nick looked around the room and declared in a shocked voice, "Hey, there's no door in here! And there's no damned windows!"

    Winter and Lana looked around.

    "They gotta be a door somewheres, otherwise how'd we get in here?"

    "Ya, how did we get in here?" asked Lana.

    Nick walked over the wall and ran his hands along it. The surface was smooth and hard like glass. "Come on. Don't just stand there like stupid women. Do something! We gotta find a way out of here."

    Winter and Lana looked at each other and shrugged. All three of them moved around the room feeling and searching the walls. No one found a seam or crack or anything that might possibly be an opening.

    "This is bullshit! This is impossible! All right where are you," he yelled at the ceiling. "Why the hell are we here, and what do you want with us! Were gonna run out of air soon!"

    "Calm down white boy. We won't get nowhere like dat. We gots ta' think about dis' a minute."

    "Listen you black bitch," he said pointing a shaking finger at her. "I'm tired of you telling me what to do. I don't let anybody tell me what to do. Especially your kind."

    Winter calmly reached inside her sweater and pulled a switchblade from the elastic band of her pants. With a quick movement she flicked it open and held the blade tightly to Nick's throat.

    "Now you listen you motha' fuckin' red neck," she said with a tight-lipped mouth. "I ain't gonna take no mo' a yo' shit. I'd as soon as cut your balls off as look at ya," she said staring into his eyes. "But I'd probably have a hard time findin' 'em."

    They stood there facing each other, the tension building.

    "Wait! Stop it!" Lana moved forward to split them up. "What are you doing... this isn't gonna get us outa here. Winter is right, we need to think about this," she said to Nick. She turned to Winter. "And you put that away.... What are you doing with a knife anyway?"

    "A girl's gotta watch out fo' her self," she said eyeing Nick. "Ain't nobody gonna do it fo' me since my man up and died."

    Lana put her hand on Nick's arm and tried to pull him away from Winter. "Come on Nick, stop it." He finally gave way and stepped back. Nick's face relaxed as he turned toward her. "I'm only doing it for you darlin'.... just for you."

    Winter let her arm drop down slowly. After a moment she snapped the blade back and stuck it in her waistband. She pulled her sweater around her and crossed her arms. Walking over to the wall, she sat down and leaned against the hard surface. She rummaged around in the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a crumpled pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. She removed one, lit it and took a drag, blowing out the smoke with a sigh.

    "Hey. Stop that. We might not have much air in here...," said Nick in an angry tone.

    "So why don't you jus' hold yo' breath...," she said with a smile. "And do the world a favor."

    "Why, you damned...," he said moving forward.

    "Come on Nick," said Lana in a coy voice as she took his hand. "Why don't we go over there and sit in the corner and you can tell me all about yourself." She guided Nick toward the opposite corner of the room, glancing at Winter with a quick sideways shake of her head.

    They both sat down against the wall. Lana pulled her too short skirt further down. She wet her finger and ran it across a tear in her stocking. "I don't know why I bother..., this never works."

    Nick stared shamelessly at her legs. "Do you always dress like that darlin'?"

    Lana shook her head, flipping back her long red hair. "I only dress like this when I’m working; I make more money this way. At home I usually wear blue jeans and tee shirts."

    "How much you girls make a night, honey?" asked Winter.

    "Well, on good nights I can bring in about three-hundred dollars, and that's all tips. The least I ever made was fifty-seven dollars.... but I was sick that day and really didn't give a shit. So I went to the doctor and that's when I found out I was pregnant with Matthew."

    "You got any pictures of him?" Winter asked.

    "Ya!" she said searching around her. "Oh shit I forgot, my purse is at work, so I guess it's gonna be hard to show 'em to you. But he's a real cute kid... My boyfriend is watching him tonight. We kinda have this agreement. Charlie said he'd watch him while I'm working, if I promise not to cook," she said laughing. "It's a good thing he likes kids or things might be difficult. He's a great guy, he says wants to marry me and adopt Matthew."

    "So is you gonna marry him?" asked Winter.

    "I don't know... it would be good for the kid, but... I have to think about it some more. It's a big decision."

    "I hope you don't think I being too nosy Lana, but what do he think of you being a dancer?"

    "He doesn't mind. He knows other guys stare at me all the time... I guess as long as they keep their hands off me he's okay with it. He loves me... and he trusts me. That's what attracted me to him. He's different than all the other guys I've dated before, he loves me for me," she said putting her palm on her chest.

    "So, did one of your customers knock you up?" asked Nick with a smirk. "Too bad it wasn't me..."

    "It's none of your damned business!" said Lana angrily.

    "Ok, ok, I was just kidding," said Nick holding up his hands. "I didn't mean to push your buttons." He was staring at her breasts again.

    "Hey white boy, you show gotta way with da' women!" said Winter with exaggeration. "I bet they be poundin' down yo door."

    "If you don't stop calling me white boy, I'm gonna come over there and stick that knife up your black ass," said Nick coldly.

    "Ok you two, why don't you both just chill for a while. If we don't get out of here soon I'm going to be in trouble," she said with a strained look.

    "What cha' mean honey?"

    "Well..., I gotta go pee," she said nervously looking around her. "And I don't see any place to go... except the floor."

    "Don't you worry darlin'," said Nick. "I won't mind at all...ha, ha."

    "That's what I'm afraid of. You might not think so, but believe it or not, I'm kind of shy," she said with a slight blush. "At least when I go potty."

    "I think if we in here a while, we all gonna be in the same fix honey. But don't you worry none. I'll make sure he don't mess with ya." Winter looked over at Nick, smiled and patted her waistband.

    They all sat there for a while, Winter puffing on her cigarette, Nick glaring at her darkly and Lana chewing on her nails and crossing her legs back and forth.

    "You know what we does," said Winter dragging her stub across the floor. "But you never said nothin' about you."

    Nick pulled out a hanky from his pocket and carefully shined a spot on his shoe. "Well, you might say I'm in sales."

    "Wait. Let me guess," said Winter putting her finger across her lips. "Is you a car salesman?"

    Nick looked down with an embarrassed expression.

    "I knew it! You got dat slimy look dat all you car salesmen got. I bet you'd sell yo' sister for five bucks." Winter rocked back and forth with laughter, holding her stomach with her hand. "No wait, I bet you'd take two... Ha, ha, ha."

    Lana spoke up before Nick could respond.

    "I just can't wait any more," said Lana suddenly. "I gotta go. I knew I shouda' gone before my last set." She looked around her again as if she might have missed something. Perhaps a 'little girls room' that she had overlooked. "Damn, damn, damn," she said in frustration.

    She stood and walked to the corner of the room opposite from Nick and turned while biting her fingernail.

    "Ok, now. I don't want you watching me. I want you to turn around and face the wall Nick. I mean it."

    Nick smiled and shrugged. "Oh, you can trust me baby," he said smoothing back his greasy salt and pepper hair with one hand.

    "Ya, like a snake," said Winter as she stood. She walked over and stared down at Nick. "Well, mister whitey, why don't we both just be polite like and give her some privacy."

    Nick stood and faced her with arms crossed and brows furrowed. After a moment he turned and they both faced the wall and waited.

    "You make sure you stay turned around now..." Lana waited a moment, still biting her nail, then squatted after quickly pulling down her panties. After relieving herself, she stood and smoothed her dress with a sigh.

    "I just couldn't wait any longer. I was about to explode!"

    Nick and Winter turned around and looked at Lana.

    "Holy shit," said Nick.

    "I know," Lana said with a self-conscious look. "I piss like a racehorse. But I couldn't help it!"

    "I don't think that what he mean honey," said Winter. "Look." She pointed to the corner where Lana had just been, but there was nothing there.

    Lana turned around and sucked in her breath in surprise. The floor was dry and clean.

    "Where'd it go?" asked Lana.

    Winter walked over to where she had been standing before. The cigarette butt was not there, and there wasn't a mark on the floor where she'd ground it out.

    "Curiouser and curiouser," said Winter.

    Lana gave her a puzzled look.

    "Dats fom' Alice," she said. "Ya know, Alice in Wonderland. My granny used to read it to us kids when we was little." Winter turned her head to the side, a little smile forming on her lips. "I always used to love ta listen to her tell us stories; she show loved her books. I sometime wonder if that man who wrote Alice smoked a little of what that the caterpillar had," she said with a little laugh.

    Nick looked around nervously, shaking his head. "This place is...is all screwed up. We gotta get out here." Nick walked to the wall and banged on it with his fist. "Open up the damned door!" He paced back and forth wringing his hands. Dark stains were showing under his armpits even through the wool jacket he wore.

    Winter and Lana looked at each other, shaking their heads back and forth.

    "Come on Nicky, why don't you sit down a minute and relax," said Lana in a cool voice. "I'm sure Winter would let you have one of her cigarettes."

    "I don't smoke, remember."

    Winter held out her pack anyway, a cigarette poking its head out.

    Nick stopped pacing and looked at it. Without a word he snatched it out of her hand and shakily removed a cigarette. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a lighter. "It's for the customers," he said apologetically. "They love it when I light their cigarettes for them... it makes them feel important."

    Nick held the lighter up to end of the cigarette and spun the little wheel several times before he could get a flame to appear. When it finally did, his hands were shaking so badly he couldn't light it. Lana took the lighter and calmly lit it for him. He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath and held it. When he blew it out, he seemed much calmer.

    "Where'd you get that old thing," said Lana pointing at the lighter.

    "It's not that old," said Nick with annoyance.

    "So you don't smoke huh?" said Winter in a sarcastic tone. "Dat was my last one, I hope you likes it."

    "Twenty-eight years...", said Nick staring at the floor.

    "What?" said Lana.

    "I smoked for twenty-eight years.... I only quit three months ago, you know. My wife said that if I didn't stop she would leave me. So I stopped cold turkey. It was a real bitch. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. When I told her, I expected her to be proud of me, but she just slapped me and walked away. It turns out she left me anyway," said Nick with a nervous laugh. "She ran off with our stinkin’ Realtor! And that's not the worst part..."

    "That's terrible Nick," said Lana shaking her head. "But what could be worse than that?"

    "Our Realtor was a woman."

    A moment passed without a sound.

    "So I guess her wanting me to quit was just an excuse to leave huh?" he said lowering his voice. "She never expected me to quit did she?"

    Lana led him to the corner and made him sit down. He was mumbling to himself something about having a drink. Lana went back to Winter and pulled her across the room by the arm.

    "I'm worried about him Winter," she whispered. "I think he might crack if we don't get out of here soon."

    "Don't I know it honey," she said shaking her head. "He about as stable as a rowboat in a hurricane. Ok, let's think about this, so far none of us got anything in common." Winter turned and looked at Lana. "You not from New York is ya?"

    "No, I'm from Los Angeles"

    "I thought you talked funny," said Winter with a grin.

    "Hey, Nick, where you fom'?"

    "What?"

    "What city is you fom'?"

    "Pittsburgh," said Nick finally.

    "See," said Lana turning back to Winter.

    "So what. That only tells us what we don't have in common. That doesn't help us any."

    Lana paused and bit her nail. "I got a really dumb question."

    "Honey, right now I don't think any question is dumb."

    "Well, all right, but you'll probably thing I'm stupid for asking...."

    "Ask away, honey."

    "What year is it?"

    "Ha, ha. You right. That is a pretty dumb question. It's 1963."

    Lana's eyes got wide and her mouth dropped open. "No way!" she said finally. "It's 2030!"

    "Honey, has you been smoking somethin'?"

    "You mean drugs? No, nobody does drugs much anymore... at least not the chemical kind," she said. "It's mostly electronic stuff now. All thatVirtual bullshit."

    Lana bent down and picked up the empty pack of cigarettes. "I saw Nick's antique lighter and this pack when you were holding it out. I couldn't believe you had cigarettes, since they're mostly black-market now."

    "This is too bizarre," said Lana pacing back and forth. "I can't believe this is happening. I feel like I'm in the zone..."

    "The zone?" asked Winter.

    "You know, The Twilight Zone. It's a real old show I watch on the Vid sometimes."

    "You mean the one with that Rod Sterling guy. I seen a couple of shows, but that only been on a couple of years. Some a dem' is pretty weird."

    "Serling."

    "What?"

    "His name was Rod Serling," said Lana. "Not Sterling."

    "Whatever."

    "So, it looks like we not only came from different places, but different times. But I'd better ask Nick," said Lana as she started to turn away.

    Winter grabbed Lana's arm and whispered. "Wait now honey, you best be careful how you ask. We don't want him freakin' out on us."

    Lana frowned and nodded her head. "You're right."

    Lana went over to where Nick was sitting and knelt down beside him. "How ya doin' Nick?"

    Nick was still holding on to the lighter. He was flipping the lid open and closed over and over again as he stared at it. "Huh. Oh, I'm fine I guess. I was waiting to wake up from this nightmare."

    "Ya know, I bet you're younger than you look," said Lana coyly “How old are you anyway?"

    Nick sat up a little straighter. "Well, my dear, next month I turn fifty. I know it's hard to believe, but it's true.

    "So, when were you born then?"

    Nick shook his head side to side. "Sweet thing, you may be pretty, but you're dumber than my dog; 1924 of course. I guess you were never a math whiz in school."

    Lana laughed and shrugged her shoulders. "I guess you're right Nick." She patted his arm and went back to Winter.

    Winter and Lana put their heads together and continued whispering. "Honey, you was right. If I figured correct, this would be 1974 to Nick."

    "So where does that leave us, Winter? I mean, what do we do now?"

    Winter went over and sat down against the wall, she stifled a yawn and leaned back. "I work graveyard honey, and I is tired. So I think I is gonna take me a little nap an' chew on this a bit." With that she put her head back and closed her eyes.

    Lana, not thinking of anything better, lay down near Winter and did the same. Nick too, nodded off after a while, still holding the lighter in his hand. All was quiet in the blank room except for the rhythmic breathing of the three strangers.



    Lana woke first. She lay for a moment staring upward. Something was different, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. Then she started to scream. She was staring up at emptiness. In every direction she looked she saw an endless void.

    Winter, startled by the noise, struggled to open her eyes. She reached out, pulled her close and hugged her before becoming fully awake and aware of her surroundings.

    "What wrong honey," she said patting her on the back. "You haven' a bad dream?"

    "Look!" said Lana pointing.

    Winter opened her sleep filled eyes wider and finally did see. "Oh my dear lord help me Jesus!"

    The walls had disappeared. They were floating, apparently without support, in blue-sky emptiness.

    Winter closed her eyes and held tighter to Lana, trying to force down the panicky feeling that was welling up inside her. Nick groggily responded to the noise Lana had made. When he sat up and saw the nothingness surrounding them he bolted. Lana and Winter looked on in amazement as Nick stood and ran across empty space and slammed smack into an invisible wall, knocking himself out cold. He flopped onto the floor like a punch-drunk boxer down for the count and lay still.

    They looked at each other for a moment, dumbfounded, neither able to say a word. When they finally snapped out of it, they crawled over to Nick. He was bleeding from a large gash on his forehead. It was swelling quickly to the size of a golf ball.

    "Oh my God," shrieked Lana. "Is he ok?"

    "He fine honey," said Winter calmly. "I seen cuts lots worse den dis before, believe me. Here, help me get dis pukey lookin' tie off him. And take that hanky outa his jacket. We can use it to stop the bleedin'." Lana carefully loosened the knot and slid the tie from around Nick's neck. She removed the handkerchief from his pocket and handed them to Winter. She placed the folded hanky carefully on the cut and tied the tie around his head, to hold the hanky on the wound.

    "He kinda looks like Rambo," said Lana with a chuckle.

    "Who?" said Winter.

    "Never mind. I'll explain later."

    Lana felt around the floor experimentally. It still seemed solid as ever, but now you could see through it. While they slept, the walls had somehow become transparent. She looked around her. In every direction, she saw what appeared to be blue sky. She looked down hoping to see the ground below them, but all she saw was more empty space. She stood gingerly and tried a few steps. It was frightening, but also exhilarating. It was the closest to flying without wings she ever wanted to experience. She held her arms out in front of her like a blind girl, carefully feeling for the wall she knew must be there.

    "Winter I found the wall," she said excitedly. She ran her palms across it wonderingly. "This is so weird, I can feel it but I can't see it." She worked her way around the small cube shaped room until she was opposite from where she started.

    "Wait a minute Winter look at this!" exclaimed Lana.

    "It looks like some sort of crack in the wall," she said. "It's hard to make out, you almost have to be in right in front of it to see it."

    Winter went over to investigate. "Honey I think you found somthin' important."

    On the wall, like an etch in glass, ran a razor thin line about three feet in length.

    "Look around fo' some mo' a these lines," said Winter. "I gots an idea."

    Winter and Lana carefully searched the wall checking every inch of it. It was only a moment before Winter found what she was looking for.

    "Well, lord a' mercy, look at dis Lana."

    Lana moved to where she was standing and looked. At first she didn't see anything, but when she moved closer to the wall she saw it. There wasn't just one line, there were four, and they were connected like a square, three feet on a side in the center of the wall.

    "Wait jus' a minute." Winter reached into her sweater pocket and pulled out a little leatherette change purse and opened it up. She pulled out a tube of lipstick and twisted it. "Ya never knows when a good lookin' man might show his self," she said grinning. "A girl's gotta be ready for anything."

    She carefully drew where the lines were, marking a square box on the wall. It stood out like a pink neon sign hanging in space.

    "Cool color Winter," said Lana with a giggle.

    "I only steals da best."

    They both laughed till tears ran down their cheeks. When they stopped laughing they both surveyed her handiwork.

    "Ya know what we gots here girl?" said Winter with pride.

    "A square?" said Lana.

    They both laughed like schoolgirls again. But finally Winter said more seriously, "If I be right, it's a door. A door outa here, into God knows where..."

    Lana's eyes got wide. "Do you really think so. If it's a door, then where are the controls? I don't see any."

    "Controls? Oh, you must mean the door knob," said Winter. "They ain't no knobs. So we gots ta' find our own way. Hang a sec', I wanna try somethin'." Winter put her hands in the middle of the day-glow square and pushed. Nothing happened. She pushed harder, straining and leaning. Still, nothing happened. "Okay, you bitch, open! Come on," she said turning, "You young and strong, help me push on 'dis thing."

    Lana and Winter both shoved at the square as hard as they could manage, but still it didn't move.

    "I have an idea," said Lana. "Here, give me that lipstick." Lana pulled off the gold top and unscrewed the waxy rod. "Here's what we need," she said with a giggle. Lana drew a circle on the right edge of the square. "A doorknob."

    "Lana, honey, is you off you rocker...?"

    Before she could say another word, Lana pushed on the 'doorknob', and the square swung quietly outward.

    Winter and Lana both stared at each other, their mouths wide open. "Eeeeee, you did it," Winter shrieked. They hugged each other jumping up and down.

    "Now that I opened it, what do we do?" she said looking at it.

    "Well, honey, we sticks our heads out and sees what we can see."

    The first thing they noticed was how thin the walls were. They couldn't have been more than an eighth of an inch thick, though they felt solid as concrete. When they put their heads through the opening they felt wind on their faces. It was blowing very lightly and it smelled something like lilacs.

    "Winter, this room or cube or whatever the hell this is we're in... What's holding it up? What if we're falling! Lana pulled her head in and covered her mouth with both hands. Her face went white as paper. "We're gonna die," she whispered, her eyes fixed on empty space.

    "Honey, we could jus' as well be floatin'. I learned a long time ago not to worry none about what you can't change."

    A groan came from Nick. He sat up slowly holding his forehead. "Man, I feel like I been on an all-nighter. What the hell happened to me?

    "Nick, listen a minute," said Lana carefully. "Don't open your eyes just yet. Ya see, you ran straight into the wall a little while ago and hit your head pretty hard. I don't know if you remember or not, but the walls have kind of... disappeared.

    "What, do you mean disappeared," he said, still a little groggily. He sat there a minute and said finally, "I think I remember now. Yea. I thought I was dreaming..."

    "Well, this sho' ain't no dream," said Winter. "So just open your eyes slow, and try not to freak out on us again. We gots somethin' we wants ta show ya."

    Nick opened his eyes and looked first at Lana and Winter then around him. "Holy.... Shit!" He quickly closed his eyes again. "Ok, ok. Tell me what happened to the walls."

    "It's okay Nick. The walls are still there. You just can't see them," said Lana in a comforting tone. "We all took a nap, and when we woke up, they were gone. They sorta went transparent on us. But look over there," she said pointing to the open square. "I think I found us a way out of here."

    He opened his eyes and looked. "What's that pink shit?"

    "Typical man...," said Winter with a grin. "He don't know a sexy color when he see one."

    "That's a door to the outside Nick, I found it when I was feeling my way around the walls after you knocked yourself out, then Winter marked it with her lipstick. But, wait a minute...," she said looking around. "Why didn't we see the lines in the wall before?"

    "Ya, I was jus' thinking the same thing," said Winter. "I bet we can only see the lines when the walls is clear."

    "I wonder why they changed?" said Nick gingerly touching his bump. "I mean what's the deal here?"

    "I'm getting hungry," said Lana. "What time is it Nick?"

    Nick pulled back his sleeve and checked his watch. "It's 7:18."

    Winter felt around absently in her pocket for a cigarette, then froze looking at Nick. "Wait now.... jus' a minute. Nick, is it morning or night?"

    "My watch says A.M. So I guess it must be morning," he said sarcastically.

    "It sounds like you're feeling better Nicky."

    Winter interrupted Lana. "I think I know what's happening, at least part of it. We all got snatched at the same time, and that was at night, right? I was workin', Lana was dancing and you was bein' an animal. It seem like durin' the 'day', the walls go clear and at 'night' they go solid."

    "Well, that's one of the stupidest ideas...," started Nick.

    "Nick," said Lana excitedly. "I think she might be right. It makes sense when you think about it. But the only way we can be sure is if we sleep in shifts and watch to see what happens."

    Nick stood up slowly swaying side to side. "Ok, let's see what you found." He walked over to the cutout in the clear wall and stopped, leaning on the edge of it. He stared out the opening for a while, looking in every direction. "So what do we do now?

    Jump?"

    He looked at Winter. "And I think you should go first, since you are the one that found it. Here, I'll help you." Nick held out his hand to Winter, smiling slyly.

    "Very funny, white boy. When I learns to fly, you'll be the first to know. You got any money on ya?"

    "Of course I do, why?"

    "Here, give me a dollar bill."

    "Why."

    "Don't ask stupid questions, just give me one."

    Nick looked at Lana, but she just shrugged. Nick pulled out his wallet and handed Winter a twenty. "Here, this is the smallest I have."

    She took it and threw it out the door.

    "Hey!"

    They watched it fly out and up, tumbling end over end until it disappeared from sight.

    "Why did you do that?" demanded Nick.

    "Oh, I just wanted throw out some of your money to see what would happen."

    "You mean you have your own?"

    "Of course I do. You don't think I'd be stupid enough to throw away my own does ya?"

    Nick moved toward Winter. "I think it's time I threw you out. I'd love to see what happens to you."

    "Wait!" said Lana with surprise. "Look at that,” she said pointing upward.

    High above them, almost out of sight, floated a dark speck. They watched as it got bigger and bigger, moving in a lazy zig zag pattern.

    "What is it!" said Lana with alarm.

    "It's probably just my money."

    "Nope, I don't think so. It moving this way on purpose. In fact, I think it comin' right fo' us."

    It was true. The speck got larger and larger until there was no doubt. It was indeed coming straight toward them. As it got closer they were able to make out more detail. It was about the size and girth of a small hippo, except that it was hairy. In fact it was very hairy. The hair was thick, brown and rope-like and about six inches long. Even more unlikely, it had four tiny wings, about the size of serving platters. It seemed impossible that those small wings could possibly hold up such a large creature. It was akin to those of a bee, who was also thought impossible to fly.

    "What the hell is it," exclaimed Nick with distress.

    It was very close now, only about fifteen feet from their door. It simply stopped and hovered there with its wings extended. It appeared more balloon than beast. The breeze seemed more than sufficient to hold it up. The wings were only control surfaces to guide it's bulk through the air.

    Its eyes were very large, about the size of salad plates. They were sad and wet, reminiscent of those little girls in cheap velvet paintings. And it was purring like a big cat with a bad cold.

    Then surprisingly, it smiled. It had a very toothsome grin. The teeth, like it's eyes, were enormous.

    "What's that," said Lana pointing to the thing's mouth.

    "Hey, it's got my twenty!"

    Stuck on one of its fangs was Nick's money, pierced right through Jackson's face.

    "Awww. Look, it brought back your money Nick," said Lana. "Just like a big puppy."

    "Yea, a puppy on steroids," commented Winter. "Watch it honey, don't get too close to that thing. It might bite."

    "Na, just listen to it. It's purring like a pussycat." Lana moved toward the opening and held out her hand. The creature flapped its wings once and gently floated toward her. It nudged up against Lana's hand and made a sort of snorting sound. Lana laughed and rubbed between its eyes.

    "If you ask me it's ugly as hell and it sounds like a pig," said Nick in a disgusted tone.

    "Well, white boy, I think you just described yourself to a tee."

    Nick ignored Winter and stepped forward. "Move outa my way darlin', I gotta get my cash back from this ugly bastard." Nick pushed Lana to the side and reached out to grab his money from off the thing's tooth. It clamped its mouth shut and grunted at Nick.

    "Come on, give it back you piece of shit!" Nick smacked it hard on the face and waited for the mouth to open again.

    It did.

    Fast as a cobra, the beast opened its mouth wide enough to swallow a dishwasher. Out slid a long tongue, which proceeded to wrap itself around Nick's face. With a quick jerk Nick was pulled into its mouth. It closed, muffling his screams. Nick's kicking feet stuck out for a moment before they too were pulled in with a telltale slurp. The beast chewed Nick with the relish of a sumo wrestler at an all-you-can-eat rib joint. The crunching sounds were followed immediately by an appreciative belch. It smiled again and winked at Lana.

    Lana screamed and fainted.

    "Well honey," said Winter dryly. "I guess it don't like salesmen much neither, 'cept maybe as a main course."

    After a few moments Lana came around and Winter helped her up.

    She swayed a moment then leaned against the wall.

    "I think I'm going to be very sick..., said Lana between white lips. "Poor Nick. What an awful way to die."

    "Ya, it too bad. That lighter might a' come in handy."

    "Oh Winter, stop it!"

    "I'm sorry honey, I jus' couldn't resist one last dig," she said as she laid her hand on her shoulder. "Besides, he was a pain in the ass, we better off without him."

    The beast started purring again, this time a little more gently. Its tongue slipped out and snaked toward them. They both backed up out of range, not wanting to be desert. Wrapped in its tip was the twenty, apparently held out to Lana.

    "Lana, I think it like you. It tryin' to make friends with you."

    Lana looked the beast in the eye, which wasn't hard to do, and shook her finger at it. "You're a bad boy! You shouldn't eat people like that. It's not nice!"

    "Bad boy," it repeated in a low growl. It got a pouty expression on its furry face and dropped the bill at Lana's feet. It flapped its stubby wings and started to back off.

    "Shit! It can talk!"

    "Wait now Lana," said Winter tensely. "Don't let it get away... It might be our only way outa here!"

    "Ok, ok...," said Lana with irritation. "Come on boy. Come on back now. "I can't believe I'm talking to a hairy balloon," she said out the side of her mouth.

    The creature immediately snorted and grinned widely. It was a frightening sight. It moved back toward them purring loudly.

    Lana held out her hand and stepped toward him. "Good boy! Good boy!" she repeated in a positive voice. "You're not gonna eat me are you?"

    "Eat me," it mimicked.

    Winter laughed. "We got us a comedian here."

    The beast copied Winter's laugh with astonishing accuracy. Then it was Lana's turn to laugh. After a moment, all three were laughing. Each giggle and guffaw reinforced the last until it built to a roaring crescendo. They laughed and pointed at each other and then the beast, who shook like Jell-O. Tears ran down their faces. They laughed till their sides ached and they couldn't laugh anymore. When they finally stopped they leaned against the wall breathing hard. They put out their hands and rubbed the creature’s nose causing him to purr louder. "Jus' don't hit him," said Winter quietly. "I don't think he like it much."

    "Don't worry, I won't."

    Winter examined the creature carefully. "Ya know, I bet we could both ride this thing. There's plenty to hang on to."

    "You can't be serious!"

    "Would you rather stay here an' starve? Not this old lady! I'm gonna go if you is or not. Whoever or whatever brought us here seem to have forgot us. Anyway, whatever happens, I ain't gonna go back to that damned sweatshop. So make up your mind right quick honey, there's gotta be more to this world than this, and I aims to see it."

    "Well," Lana said pausing. "I'm tired of hanging around all the Vid freaks anyway. I know Charlie will take care of Matthew until I get back, if I ever do... Lana bit her nail and looked around. She looked back at Winter and smiled. "Ok, you convinced me. I'm in. Let's check this place out... Besides I'm getting hungry, maybe our friend here can find us something to eat."

    "Well," said Winter. "If he gonna be our friend, we gonna have to give him a name. An since we found this world, I guess we got the right to name him any damn thing we want."

    "Hmmm. Let's see," said Lana scratching her chin. "What can we call this hairy thing? How about Max... Max the Porkypotamus? I used to have this big fat cat named Max, he kinda reminds me of him." She turned to the beast. "What do you think boy! Should we call you Max?"

    It wobbled side to side grinning and said, "Max! Max!"

    "If I didn't know better I'd think this thing was waggin' its tail," said Winter raising her eyebrows. "Well, I guess Max it is!"

    Lana coaxed Max to turn sideways next to the door, and they both carefully climbed onto its back. They grabbed big tufts of hair and Max floated away from the cube. He flapped his little wings hard and they flew upward. After a few moments they could no longer see the pink square Winter had drawn. They flew on for hours, taking naps in turn while one kept watch. They tried to teach Max some words along the way, but they weren't sure if he was just parroting them back or if he really understood what they said. When night fell they were astounded by the sight of countless white cubes floating around them as far as they could see.

    As the light faded they appeared slowly, coming into focus like the first stars of night. These cubes, like the one they had woke up in, had transformed themselves from crystal clear to pearl white. They seemed to glow with their own inner light.

    They traveled all night until finally in the morning, they saw something far off in the distance. It was a huge continent, and it stretched away as far as the eye could see.

    "Well, honey, it look like we found us a home. I gonna call it Wonderland if that ok with you."

    "Sure, that's a good a name as any. What do you think we'll find there?"

    "I don't know, but I expect we gonna find out soon enough."

    "Winter?" she said pausing.

    "Ya."

    "Why do you think we were brought here? And by who?"

    "I don't know if we'll ever know that, honey. I only know that ya gots take whatever life gives ya and make the best of it. That's all any of us can do."


    The End
     
  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    A Leap into Being


    PROLOGUE

    The feeling of the sun’s rays beating down upon the nape of his neck was uncommonly delicious and the adrenaline coursed through his system as his chestnut mare trotted quickly down the dusty trail. He toyed with the idea of taking her up to a canter, but decided to keep his pace – and ultimately his emotional state – as it was. It had been a while since he’d been anywhere this exhilarating, and he knew only too well what the price of the upside was. In a Place like this, a single misstep by his mount would send a white-hot spike of fear straight through him.

    Keep things calm. Keep things stable. Enjoy the trip.

    Keep things stable. He cast his eyes over the strange world around him and felt a sudden stab of fear and foreboding. Would that it were so simple. Would that it could be so.

    He shook himself, as if negative thoughts were insects that could be scared away with a jerk of the head or a sweep of the hand. His mount was trotting slowly now, and he was breathing deeply. Focus on the physical. Focus on the palpable. Focus on the now.

    The heat once again took its place at the centre of his consciousness. Almost as if had been tarnished by his darker state of mind, it seemed pricklier than before. Well, he must been riding for three or four hours; perhaps a break would do him some good. As he pictured a juicy steak and a cold beer, his imagination leapt upon the idea and refused to let go. A desire that would have seemed almost obscene by his usual standards gripped him and he keenly scanned the road ahead for a suitable watering hole.

    His wiser self tried suggesting that he hadn’t done nearly enough research to risk an extended interaction with any of the locals – even a question about where he was from would put him two or three lines away from serious trouble – but optimism prevailed easily in Places like this and he picked out a saloon a few hundred yards yonder. Five horses grazed outside, their jaws moving dopily from side to side as they watched his mare’s approach with what appeared to be customary equine indifference. He wondered, not for the first time, why animals didn’t ever seem to change.

    Walking under a wooden sign that gently swung, creaked and proclaimed the venue to be One-Eied Jjacks Taverne, he entered the saloon, the sounds and smell of sizzling meat provoking desperate wails from his appetite. He was literally salivating.

    He’d forgotten that. Salivating before he’d even ordered. This was going to be exquisite.

    Several peals of hearty laughter from four men sitting at a table to his right startled him. Hysterical was probably more accurate than hearty, actually. A quick glance was enough to see that at least two of them had tears streaming down their cheeks; the other two had their backs turned to him, but they looked to be in states of equally frenzied mirth. He needed to be careful here. No eye contact. He moved away and sat down at a table on the other side of the tavern.

    The waitress came and went, leaving him with both the menu and a burning desire that had surged forth following a glimpse of the creamy orbs that had bulged at him from beneath a partially unbuttoned white shirt. Rapes must be common here, he pondered uneasily, yet again feeling too civilised for such a Place.

    Keep things calm. Keep things stable. Enjoy the trip.

    He focused his attention on the mundane, inspecting his surroundings. Behind the bar, stairs led up to what he imagined were the owners’ quarters. His gaze fell upon a row of bottles, causing his throat to tighten with desire for their amber contents. He found himself imagining the nectar within, how exquisitely it would burn his throat. Not mundane enough. He forced his eyes away: a pendulum swung and the clock that it swung in told him he had been wrong earlier – he’d only been riding for an hour and a half or so. He guessed that was why the place was still half full, after the lunchtime rush. The waitress brought him a beer and he managed to keep his eyes on the clock. Another volley of guffaws erupted from table on the other side of the establishment. How long had they been sitting and drinking, he wondered. It was always so hard to judge the passage of time in such a Place; everything felt so real, so intense, so alive.

    Even existing, just existing, is a buzz. Focus on the pendulum’s tics and tocs. Relax and enjoy it. Boredom is a distant memory, from a Place at the other end of the spectrum, an infinity of worlds away. Tic, toc, tic, toc.

    “Buddy, you got a light?” jerked him rudely back to reality. One of the men from the far side of the bar was looming over him, swaying slightly, a stubble-covered chin jutting forwards in what had the air of a challenge about it. Eyes clouded with drink but laced with unpredictability.

    Keep things calm. Keep things stable. Avoid conversation if possible.

    He brought his lighter out of his pocket with a grunt. Grunts were safest. He was thankful they had lighters in this Place. He couldn’t have grunted his way through the time it would have taken to mess about with flint and steel.

    “Say buddy, where you from?” put an end to the grunting.

    “I’m from the other side of the pond, friend.” He had heard somebody say this the other day. It was safe.

    “Whoa, fellows!”, cupping his hands around his mouth and hailing his drinking buddies. “We’ve got ourselves a visitor all the way from Yuropp!” The look of excitement on his face would have seemed demented in another Place, but here it was par for the course.

    Shouldn’t be in here. Haven’t done enough research. Must keep things calm. Keep things stable.

    He saw they were all swaggering over, accompanied by a sense of impending doom. As expected, all of them carried pistols. It was a pistol kind of Place.

    “And what brings you to our humble taverne, buddy?”, asked a big, dark-haired man who was by far the fattest of the quartet.

    They’re still friendly. This could be OK.

    “Just doing a little travelling. Seeing what the Deep South has to offer.”

    Confusion creased his new companion’s face. He’d made a mistake, somehow. Surely it couldn’t be critical though…

    “The what South, buddy? Didn’t quite catch you there.”

    This is why you need to research. It’s too different here – this Place is too different.

    A tall, bony-looking man with sandy-coloured hair and wild blue eyes pulled up a chair and sat down opposite him. He threw back the drink he was holding and looked the stranger square in the eye. Not threatening yet, but challenging, daring him almost. There was something even crazier than normal about this blond man’s look, but the danger still felt latent, not urgent.

    “Heard a fella use the very same word once before, in a way that you might call derogatory. Was a learned fella. Wouldya call yourself learned, buddy?”

    “Our new buddy mighta gotten to thinking he’s better than us, Byll”, as Byll’s confused companion crashed his huge bulk into the chair next to his friend. “Being as he’s so learned an’ all.”

    Seconds passed. Blue eyes stared from beneath sandy locks. A pendulum completed its swing and reversed its march.

    This is critical. Teetering on the edge of an abyss. Look at the eyes – too wild, too proud, too different…

    Too unstable…

    “That right, buddy? You gotten to thinking you better than us? They teach you that over in Yuropp, do they?”

    Byll’s knuckles were white around his empty shot glass. The silence was broken by a tic and a toc.

    Then a crack.

    Blood ran down Byll’s fingers and crimson spattered the top of the roughly hewn table where shards of the broken vessel had fallen. His pale eyes betrayed no recognition of pain, but showed what? A blend of anger, pride, something like hatred?

    “Stranger comes to our taverne, thinking how he’s better than us. Asking for trouble, to my mind.”

    Click. Not the tic of a pendulum but the click of a hammer being cocked.

    It’s a wonder they’d ever made it through their Middle Ages.

    In no time at all, the four faces had twisted and contorted to show what could only be rage.

    These poor, mad people.

    Then a bang.

    ********

    Flatness. No fear, sadness, anger. No regret, or worry. No despair. Only emptiness, and flatness. Emotional flatness.

    Change the parameters. Start again. Must have more stability.

    Leaping back out.

    ********

    Here they loll around zombie-like, eyes glazed and drooling. It feels like being anaesthetised. Too much serenity, such that it pervades all thoughts.

    Let it end.

    ********

    Tweak the parameters anew. Need more cognition, even at the risk of instability.

    Let us leap.

    ********

    Confusion reigns supreme in this new Place. Not zombies, but mindless to fear, anxiety, impatience. A strange cart-like vehicle careens down a slope and hits a wall, far to my left. The driver is hurled from his seat, still grinning as head hits stone.

    Let it end.

    ********

    Need more negative feedback to prevent this type of loop. More adrenal activity must be risked.

    Going back out.

    ********

    And when existence comes anew, it is a ghastly thing. Screams of terror are all that are heard, the keen edge of agony is all that is felt. And as for what is to be seen.

    Poor, wretched souls.

    He closes his eyes and dies once more, demonic after-images fading to nothingness before him as he slips away.

    1

    Dr. Richard Newton had just put his groceries down on his kitchen table, prior to cooking dinner, when he realised with a pang of annoyance that he had left his charger at the lab. He opened his briefcase to double check – yep, laptop present but charger absent – pronounced a four-letter word of the scatological variety and swiftly decided to head back. The decision was facilitated by his total lack of plans to go out, even on a Friday night, and the not entirely unconnected fact that he had been about to prepare a dinner for one, so going back to the laboratory would inconvenience nobody but himself.

    Five minutes later, cycling south on Banbury Road in the direction of central Oxford, he reflected on the wonderful, nay miraculous piece of machinery that was the human brain, and its remarkable ability to continually forget matters of importance. Right at the moment, for instance, the three pounds or so of grey and white matter inside his skull was having no trouble at all in balancing his body on a moving, inherently unstable vehicle while simultaneously judging the speeds and directions of multiple cars, pedestrians and other bicycles and giving instructions to his legs so smoothly that he didn’t even really notice he was pedalling. Remembering to take his laptop charger home for the weekend, however, evidently posed a major challenge.

    As a research fellow at the University of Oxford, only a year away from his second PhD, this time in cognitive neuroscience, at the relatively youthful age of 29, Dr. Newton was better placed than most to speculate on such matters. He was pondering the case of autistics, their well-known abilities related to remembering trivial details, and the related idea that perfect memories act as an impediment to social skills and are consequently not favoured by evolution, when he realised he was about to absent-mindedly cycle past the university’s Department of Experimental Psychology. He braked, wheeled his bike across the road, locked his bike on the rack and used his key to open the door to what was one of drabber buildings in the City of Dreaming Spires.

    Dr. Newton felt more at home in his laboratory than he did in his actual home. In fact, several of his colleagues would probably have put his forgetting the charger down to some kind of subconscious fear of leaving his place of work for an entire weekend. As he made his way to his office, he found himself peeking through the square glass panels in the doors of the various laboratories in the building, and wondering how his colleagues’ work was progressing. He arrived at his own laboratory, removed the bunch of keys from his pocket, searched for the right one – the less shiny of the two bronze-coloured Yales, glanced over at the door to the adjacent lab-cum-surgery, where the single-neuron recording equipment was kept…

    And froze.

    Richard was positive that he had locked the lab earlier that night. He had been in there with one of the technicians, discussing the electrical fault in the fancy new amplifier the department had been developing, before wishing him a good night, turning everything off – including the lights, he was certain – locking up, and heading home himself. So why was the light on and why could he hear the unmistakeable low buzz of electrical equipment coming from inside? His confident demeanour, borne of familiarity with his surroundings, shrank away and an uneasy feeling grew in its stead. Suddenly feeling very alone and beset with trepidation, he began tiptoeing towards the door. Having made no effort to be quiet so far (had he even been talking to himself?), he was smart enough to realise that there was a limited point to tiptoeing now, but the slightly built and more than slightly nerdy academic was not nearly brave enough to stride boldly over to the mysterious, unsettling white glow that was emanating from the room that should have been dark and empty, so tiptoeing it was.

    The world became sharp and intense as the adrenaline pumped through his veins, every sound – the ticking of the clock on the corridor wall, the scratchy scrambling of laboratory mice, and what he realised with alarm was the drum-like beating of his own heart – seeming both magnified and peculiarly alien. As he neared the door, he detected a bluish tinge to the white glow coming through the glass.

    What on earth could that be inside the lab?

    When he reached the door, he confirmed that it was shut. Peering through the window, he saw that the blue glow was coming from the right. Pressing his left cheek against the door, he could just make out a laptop computer, with pixelated fish swimming lazily across an ocean-themed screensaver. The sight of something so relatively mundane took his apprehension level down a couple of notches, as his imagination had been conjuring up some wild and highly terrifying explanations for the mysterious blue glow, but he realised he’d have to open the door in order to see who, if anybody, was sitting at the desk with the laptop.

    He shook himself and forced himself to undergo a reality check. Okay, he’d been surprised, but essentially, the most likely explanation was that one of his colleagues was doing some late-night research and had opened up the lab after Richard had gone home. Rather odd, as he had been sure that he’d been the last person to leave the building, but no need for the ridiculous state of near-terror he had found himself in a few moments ago. He coughed, shook himself again, reached for the door handle, and found it to be locked.

    Now this was a little strange, but the building was, he admitted, full of rather unusual characters, possessed of varying degrees of eccentricity, so someone having locked himself in a laboratory in the middle of the night was still no major cause for concern. However, it seemed prudent, as well as polite, to announce his presence, as it occurred to him that the other person might well be just as terrified as he had been himself. He coughed again, somewhat redundantly, and knocked firmly on the door.

    There was no response to that, nor to the louder series of raps he produced a few seconds later, so before he had the chance to get properly frightened again, he made the decision to find the appropriate key – the shinier of the two bronze-coloured Yales – and unlock the door. He swung the door open and stepped forwards, the sharp odour of disinfectant greeting him as he crossed the threshold.

    He was wholly unprepared for the sight that faced him as he entered. It simply didn’t make any sense. There was a man sitting motionless in the chair by the desk. With a sudden jolt of shock, Richard realised that his head was attached to the clamp they used to hold a subject’s head firmly in place while electrodes were inserted into his or her brain. As Richard edged nervously sideways to get a better look, the man’s still-open eyes came into view. Now open-mouthed and rooted to the spot, his mind raced to the obvious implication: he was looking at a corpse.

    His fear and confusion mounting second by second, he tried and failed to comprehend the scene before him. Who on earth had done this, and why? Had one of his colleagues been experimenting that very evening? It seemed completely impossible. Why would such an experiment take place after working hours – on a Friday night, for Christ’s sake – and how could the preparations for something like that have escaped his attention? Even if invasive brain surgery had been planned on one of the monkeys, he would undoubtedly have been informed, and it had been several months since any such research had been conducted on humans.

    Utterly bizarre though the sight before him was, he became aware of a doubt of two nagging at his awareness.

    What’s wrong with this picture? Think, damn it…

    From where he was standing, he could only see the man’s left-hand side. By tonight’s extraordinarily high standards of weirdness, there was nothing obviously unusual about his appearance – although there was something about him that he couldn’t put his finger on. With mounting apprehension, he slowly moved across to the far side of the lab in order to be able to see the side of his head that was facing the wall. His heart pounded still faster and a pit seemed to gape suddenly open in his stomach as he saw the metallic object protruding laterally out of the frame. He recognised one of the prototype-stage smart electrodes his department had been developing, and as he leaned forward to get a better look, he saw that the business end of the electrode was where it was designed to be: inserted into the man’s brain.

    Another jolt of terror and adrenaline shot through him and he moved away abruptly. What the hell was happening? None of this made the slightest bit of sense. As he desperately tried to sort through the information available to him, he noticed the wires running from the electrode to the amplifier – the faulty amplifier that he had been discussing with the technician – and then to the laptop computer on the desk. Although it necessitated a closer proximity to the…the body than he would have liked, he forced himself to look at the laptop’s screen. He had disturbed the screensaver when he had pushed himself away from the desk, and could now see that a version of SNAP (the Single Neuron Analysis Program which he himself had helped to write) was running on the computer, and any remnants of denial regarding the stranger’s physical state were swept aside as the program’s display showed not a microamp of current either in the specific area of the brain the electrode was in – and from the angle and depth, this seemed to be the basal ganglia – or from any of the scalp electrodes that were stuck onto the left-hand side of the man’s head. This man’s brain was dead.

    Taking another look at the dead man’s face, a sense of familiarity tugged gently at him. Where had he seen him before? Apart from the fact that his head had been half shaved and there was an electrode sticking several inches into his brain, there was nothing extraordinary about his features. Short, dark brown hair matched the colour of his eyes, his chin was strong but not jutting, the nose neither particularly big nor small, he was clean-shaven, probably in his late-twenties. Although none of his features was unusual in itself, there was something odd about the overall effect. But the overriding question which arose as he examined the corpse in front of him and then searched his own memory was “Where have I seen this person before?” He certainly wasn’t another research fellow, and seemed too old to be an undergraduate. He knew all of the technicians fairly well, and…that’s it! He was the new cleaner he had seen around; he must have started working at the lab a couple of weeks ago.

    His instincts were screaming at him to put as much distance as possible between himself and the creepy spectacle before him, but Dr. Richard Newton’s mind was driven by cold logic and rational, scientific analysis, and he knew the intelligent thing to do was to take his time to put the pieces together before taking any action. Fleeing this scene would not look good. He had done nothing wrong. He would likely have to call the police, but he could afford a few minutes to think things through.

    What had killed him? He thought back to the conversation he had had with the technician that evening. There had been some kind of wiring fault in the prototype electrode; there was the possibility of crossed wires between the main circuits and those that measured the brain’s neuron activity. This was, of course, highly dangerous, and the equipment was under no circumstances to be used until the problem had been fixed. Whoever had been operating on this man must not have known this, and must have accidentally fired far too much current directly into his brain. It was then entirely plausible that the person had fled the scene. By calling the police, he would likely be getting one of his peers into very serious trouble, but what else could he do? Remembering the bottle of Jack Daniel’s he had been given by his undergraduate students last Christmas, Richard made an executive decision to go to his desk drawer and drink some of it immediately. He was not a heavy drinker by any stretch of the imagination, but he did partake on special occasions, and this certainly qualified. He was on his way to the door, relieved at having a semi-valid reason for not being in the same room as the dead cleaner, albeit temporarily, when the only recently nominated Biggest Surprise of his Life was shunted down into second place as he heard a voice behind him.

    A voice that, impossibly, could only have originated from one place.

    “Good evening, Dr. Newton. I believe I am in need of your assistance.”

    2

    It was the same voice he had heard maybe a dozen times before. He had heard it had bid him good morning, good evening and goodnight. It had asked for the key to the storage cupboard, perhaps issued an “Excuse me” or two. But now the subservience and vulnerability he remembered of the cleaner had disappeared. It was now a voice that spoke calmly, flatly, yet was imbued with an air of latent authority. Richard was suddenly struck by the level of detail he was able to perceive, absently noted that he was displaying the classic behaviour of someone in shock, and it was at this point that his mind was unable to skirt around the issue any longer and he was forced to start thinking about the principal matter at hand: the corpse had just spoken to him.

    “I can appreciate that this evening’s events will come as a matter of some surprise to you. I can advise you that I pose no threat, and I am sure that a rational man such as yourself will see the potential benefits of listening to my explanation. I believe you may have been considering a call to the authorities.” He sounded decades older and more mature than he had earlier in the week.

    “I…well…why…I…”

    “If you will permit yourself to make an observation, Dr. Newton, you will see that I am clamped in such a manner that I am physically unable to make any sudden upper body movements without suffering, or at least risking, severe brain damage. As such, no matter how startled you may be, you will observe that in essence, you have control of the situation.”

    Richard had never felt less in control of any situation in his life. “Startled” didn’t even scratch the surface.

    “Well…yes…well, er, Dave, is it?”

    “Do you have a question, Dr. Newton?”

    “Yes. Please can I go and get my bottle of whisky?”

    ********

    Dr. Richard Newton sipped straight Jack Daniels from a Styrofoam cup as he listened.

    “There is a glitch in the smart electrodes of which you may be aware. While I would very much appreciate your assistance in rectifying this, there are other, more complex issues for which the input of an expert could be more helpful still. I am currently attempting to quantitatively monitor dopamine projection levels within the basal ganglia in order to better understand the cerebral reward system. I have several questions regarding this area of the brain, in addition to various queries concerning the SNAP software.”

    “But, er, Dave, what I don’t…one of the things that I don’t understand is who was helping you with this…this research this evening? Where did he go?”

    “I was operating alone. I erroneously believed I would be able to progress further without human assistance.”

    Human assistance? What did that make Dave?

    “But…but, how could you possibly, I mean it’s totally impossible to do this yourself. How could you perform the craniotomy, for a start?” Richard had so many questions that he really didn’t know where to begin, but he was positive that removing a section of skull would have required the assistance of at least one other person.

    “The craniotomy was performed earlier this evening by a specialist in this area. Unfortunately, he lacked the equipment, and to a certain extent the expertise, to assist with the placement of the electrode itself.”

    “So you’ve been walking around Oxford with a section of your skull missing. Who on earth would perform a craniotomy under those circumstances?” Richard asked incredulously.

    “The person in question was exceptionally well rewarded for his services. As you shall be yourself, should you choose to assist me.”

    “But why on earth do you want to do this anyway? Is…is there something wrong with you?” Richard felt a little uncomfortable asking this latter question, as he was fairly convinced that the answer couldn’t be a simple “No”.

    “What I am going to tell you, Dr. Newton, will be difficult for you to accept. You will ask me for proof, and proof will be delivered. I would not choose to reveal all that I am about to, but for the inevitability of my disclosure. The alternative would be to give you the information piece by piece, which would prove significantly less efficient.

    “I am not of this world, Dr. Newton, nor even of this universe. My people are quite different to yours. In many ways, we are far, far, more advanced. Even in principle, a simple number cannot suffice to express such a disparity, but so that you might have an idea, our technology could be considered to be between ten to fifteen centuries ahead of your own.

    “Long ago, we were able to understand our genetic structure sufficiently well first to cure or prevent the diseases that afflicted us, and then to halt the debilitating effects of ageing itself. We stood immortal in our world. In order to combat the inevitable problems of overpopulation, a fixed lifespan was agreed; in your units this would be equivalent to almost two-hundred-and-fifty years, at the end of which we willingly die in order that our children might prosper.

    “We have mastered nuclear fusion and enjoy near-limitless energy. We have learned to manage our resources so that any shortages can be foreseen and addressed. Anti-social activities such as crime have been sufficiently disincentivised that they are virtually non-existent. In many ways, Dr. Newton, what I describe to you may sound utopian. However, there was a void in our existences of which we were utterly unaware – you will later appreciate the irony in what I say. It was our computers who finally taught us what we were missing. What do you understand by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics?”

    “Well, it isn’t my field of expertise by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe it refers to the theory that a separate universe exists for every decision that is made, for every for every difference that could possibly exist. So, for example, there is a universe where I put on my blue shirt this morning, another where Obama lost the last election, and I guess there’s one where I remembered to take my charger home tonight.” Lucky bastard, he reflected enviously.

    “You are broadly correct. But while your scientists currently number it amongst their theories, our machines not only deduced their existence, but devised a way to travel to other worlds”.

    Richard, still almost as fearful as he was confused, tried not to look too sceptical. “But surely that’s imp… I mean, aren’t there solid physical and, er, logical reasons why that can’t happen? How could I possibly travel to the universe where I’m wearing a blue shirt? Wouldn’t that amount to undoing the decision I made when I was getting dressed. I mean…”

    “It took us almost a millennium, Dr. Newton. We, or should I say our computers, worked for centuries before they finally observed the merest hint of quantum inference on a single ion from what could only be another universe. Gradually, we were able to observe our neighbouring universes in more and more detail, until finally our machines found that making changes on the tiniest of scales, literally one quark at a time, was the first step in travelling between them. You, I, my people cannot possibly imagine what is entailed; perhaps no mortal mind can truly comprehend the complexity of the task, but our machines worked tirelessly to build better versions of themselves, generation after generation they became more powerful, faster, ever more ingenious, until they were able to alter the quantum state of a molecule, then a virus, a bacterium, next an amoeba… Century after century they toiled, and finally, just decades ago, we were finally capable of tailoring our own quantum states, quark by quark, to match those of another universe. We are given to understand that this is the key step to travelling to what we refer to as another Place”

    Richard’s mind rebelled at this. He was an open-minded man – anyone involved in ground-breaking research had to be – but this was starting to sound far too much like a third-rate science fiction story. Travelling to alternate universes by making changes one quark at a time? Maybe after a few more decades computers would finally stop shutting down spontaneously in the middle of something important, but what this man…this being…was saying was surely…

    “You doubt what I say is possible. Any thinking man would doubt along with you. You believe the events of tonight can be better explained by some kind of trickery, and you wonder what I would seek to gain with such tricks. Do not worry, Dr. Newton, I fully understand your position. Nevertheless, I am certain that by the time you leave this building tonight, you will be convinced of the veracity of what I say. Do you have a means of listening to a radio broadcast?

    “Well, er, sure. I think there’s a radio in my…no, we can just listen to it on this laptop. Which station?”, asked Richard.

    “One of your own choosing. It matters little, but the choice must be yours”.

    “Well, er, how about Radio 4. Hang on a moment”. Richard’s middle finger, which normally danced so expertly over the touchpad, found itself shaking, hesitating, and generally struggling to obey the commands of its nervous owner, who felt distinctly self-conscious as he directed the cursor and clicked and double-clicked his way to The World Tonight.

    A second before he pressed the play button, the stranger beside him announced “You will hear ‘Britain’s role in this conflict will once again be scrutinised, with her military forces coming under yet more pressure as more details come to light of these new and highly embarrassing revelations’. Play it”.

    Richard clicked on play, and listened: “As dawn breaks upon the troubled city of Kabul, Britain’s role in this conflict will once again be scrutinised, with her military forces coming under yet more pressure as more details come to light of these new and highly embarrassing revelations”. His poor, overwhelmed cerebral cortex struggled to make sense of yet another seemingly inexplicable event in a night that was gouging chunks out of his understanding of reality. This time though, it drew a virtual blank. More data would help though, so he searched for Oxford’s student radio station, where…

    “You will hear music, the words to which include ‘Or I’ll just end up walking in the cold November rain’”. Seconds later, Axl Rose’s wailings proved the prediction to have been correct.

    Next, “A woman is singing ‘My heart will go on’”. Richard’s finger wavered over the play button, thought about what he was about to do, and decided in this instance just to believe him. His emotional state was already fragile enough that Celine Dion would probably push him over the edge.

    “Well, I give up. How do you do it?”

    “Might I ask you to think of a number, Dr. Newton?”

    “Between one and ten, one and a hundred..?”

    “It matters not. It might be between one and ten trillion; the result shall be the same.”

    When approached by amateur practitioners of cheap magic tricks, Richard had always found himself willing the so-called magician to guess correctly, perhaps as a result of a desire to avoid awkwardness, and had wondered whether this was something the illusionists used to gain a psychological edge. This gravity of this situation though, the incredible events he had already seen that night, and his instinctive desire as a scientist to perform the experiment as rigorously as possible warned him against going too easy on this astonishing creature before him. He shut his eyes and focused his mind.

    He cannot possibly guess that I’m thinking of 3,623,942. He just can’t.

    “Do you have a number in mind, Dr. Newton?”

    “I do.”

    “And would that number be three million, six hundred and twenty-three thousand, nine hundred and forty-two?”

    Richard took a deep breath. This was no cheap parlour trick, and remaining in denial was useless. Either he was dreaming, or this man really did have a rare or unique kind of power. If he were dreaming, he may as well go along for the ride anyway. And if he weren’t…

    “Dave…or, or whatever your real name is. I cannot…I mean…please, how did you do it? How can you do those things? Can…can you tell me?”

    “Of course, Dr. Newton. The machines of our world, as I mentioned, are capable of measuring and manipulating a universe on a quantum level. At the risk of digression, I should add that it is not necessary for them to literally modify each atom, galaxy by galaxy, star by star and planet by planet: they have worked tirelessly and ingeniously to find patterns in the structure of space-time itself so that by making alterations of a certain symmetry at the centre, the changes spread out like ripples in an eleven-dimensional pond.

    “It is therefore, possible to record the quantum state of a universe at a particular time, and then to revert to this particular state; time, of course, merely being one of the dimensions of which space-time is composed. Once you had selected a radio station or thought of a number, I instructed the computer to make a measurement of the quantum state in that instant, in rather the same way as your laptop would save a file. I then let you play the radio or asked you to inform me of the number – thanks for your honesty, by the way – and then instructed the computer to revert to the saved version, as it were, although with the inclusion of a special sub-routine to save the memory of what I had seen in the future. In effect, I was able to come back in time.”

    “But…OK, just saying that I believe you, and I’ve got to be honest, I really have some serious doubts about this…but just saying that it’s true, why…why are you here?”

    “That, Dr. Newton, is an excellent question. You see, one of our people, some twenty years ago, discovered something that nobody had predicted, no-one had expected in the slightest. Her discovery changed our world permanently, unimaginably and irrevocably.”

    Was that a flicker of emotion that had just flashed across his…its face?

    “We discovered that in other worlds, in a tiny fraction of other universes, there is something very special about the beings that inhabit them. Indeed, this universe of yours is one such example, Dr. Newton. And that is why I am here.”

    “What? What is it about us?”

    “What is special about your people, Dr. Newton, is that you know that you exist.”

    For a while the lab was silent, save the ticking clock and the scrambling of the mice. Richard attempted to comprehend what was meant by this new divulgement. “You mean I…humans have consciousness. And are you saying that you…your race didn’t? But that’s impossible, isn’t it? How could you have developed…evolved…without consciousness?”

    “Self-awareness is a more precise term for what we lacked, Dr. Newton. Many of the thought processes that take place in your brains also did in ours, but we were simply not aware of them. Like an ant, a laptop, or even a supercomputer, we had no knowledge of our own existence. The first time one of us leapt to a place in which self-awareness was present, it was like existing for the very first time. It was as if we had taken a leap into being.

    3

    Richard clicked on the Save Changes button, leaned back in his leather padded swivel chair, and contemplated the other man – to use the term loosely – in his study. After a further two or three hours of disturbing and deeply confusing conversation in the Department of Experimental Psychology the night before, Richard’s brain had demanded that his legs transport it home and let it go to sleep, only to refuse to actually do so until the not-so-early hours of the morning. He had woken at almost midday, enjoyed a couple of seconds of sleepy, blissful non-remembrance before his memory had whacked the previous day’s events down in front of him and his eyes had shot wide open. He had made his way down the stairs of his small semi-detached house in north Oxford’s Summertown, confirmed that there really was a being from another universe lying on his sofa, been forced to abandon any remaining hope that all of this was a dream, and resigned himself to the certain knowledge that that his life would never be the same again.

    Still, he was, when all was said and done, an academic, and academics treasure knowledge which other academics do not have, so he had set himself to helping Al’xandar, as his actual name had turned out to be, with what was asked of him: essentially, repairing the faulty electrode, holding a series of question-and-answer sessions on the functioning of the basal ganglia, and making some very specific changes to the SNAP program he had written to analyse dopamine levels in the brain. He had just completed a key section of this last duty, and he observed his new acquaintance as he lay back on the couch, blew a stream of cigarette smoke out of his mouth and watched it rise and gradually dissipate against the backdrop of academic textbooks that were neatly stacked onto the shelves of the oak bookcase that had once belonged to Richard’s grandfather.

    “I suppose lung cancer isn’t a concern on your planet, then”, he asked with more than a hint of annoyance. He had never let anyone smoke in his house before, and had only recently decided to make exceptions for other-worldly beings.

    “It is not”, Al’xandar responded, “I must say, I am fond of these cigarettes. We do not have them where I come from. There would be no point.”

    Richard thought back to the night before, when he had listened to a confusing but fascinating description of a world whose inhabitants had no self-awareness. Insofar as his imagination would permit him to envisage such a world, he had initially assumed that the differences would be enormous.

    “And many such Places are unimaginably different, as you suggest”, Al’xandar had said, “Many civilisations within the multiverse are nothing like yours or ours at all. However, you should consider that by the very nature of our computers’ search for other Places, we encounter those other universes that are similar to our own. The variables that they choose to modify are those that concern the functioning of the brain in the dominant species, they aim to hold all other variables constant. Of course, if they wanted they could look for worlds where the ambient temperature was eighty degrees Celsius, or where the life forms were based on silicon instead of carbon, or had evolved from aquatic creatures and lived in the sea, and indeed such worlds have been found. But leaping to such Places is impractical for obvious reasons. Even the languages need to be comparable if we are to be able to travel there, live among its people and learn. Whilst you should not think of us as being able to hand pick our destinations, which retain an element of randomness no matter how cleverly our machines plan their tricks, you must appreciate that there is a huge selection bias, compounded by deliberate effort, towards similarity, so the places we visit tend to be composed of people who also are between one and a half metres and two meters tall, have two arms and legs, a heart that tilts to the left, require certain proteins, fats and carbohydrates for their sustenance, and so on. From the entire multiverse, only the tiniest of tiny fractions of worlds are viable destinations, but by virtue of the means by which we find them, they are the Places to which we travel. One of the most difficult parts in all of this is finding a world that is different enough to be interesting, yet similar enough to be instructive.”

    “So, what are the differences then, between your world and ours?”, Richard had asked.

    “In my world I am as a machine. I experience no more of my surroundings than the computer on your desk. If a bird flies past me I see its path, hear the flapping of its wings; this information enters my brain via my nerves and the information is recorded in my memory. But I am not aware of it; I do not feel it. If I see danger, hormones are released and race around my system urging me to run, but I do not truly experience the fear, there is no conscious me to feel afraid. If there is a decision to be made, neurons buzz around my head and an option is selected, but I have used no free will in the process.”

    “Why did you seek out free will, awareness…whatever…if you didn’t have any in the first place? Isn’t there some sort of…I don’t know…circular reason why that wouldn’t happen? Er, I mean, how did you know what you were missing?” Richard had been feeling tired and frustrated by this point, and had been unable to eloquently express the prods and tugs of his intuition.

    “Once again, it was the computers, Dr. Newton, that did our thinking for us. When they first observed worlds such as this, they calculated that it was in our interests to tweak our most intimate parts: our brains. They calculated that with self-awareness would come emotions, and with emotions the possibility of happiness. Happiness as a genuine feeling, rather than as points in a computer game. In their assessment, non-zero happiness was something that would be of net benefit to us – after accounting for the inevitable presence of unhappiness. They offered to guide us to new worlds in search of true consciousness.”

    As Richard recalled the exchange from the previous night, something nagged at him, and as he watched Al’xandar stub out the butt into the Balliol College mug that was serving as an impromptu ashtray, he asked “Why are you smoking then, if you can’t feel any pleasure from it?”

    “You will recall”, said Al’xandar, ”that our computers, when searching for new worlds, seek those in which the brains of the dominant species function differently in certain key areas; specifically, they possess the ability to produce palpable emotions. When we travel to a new Place, the computers send a fragment of themselves with us, and this fragment runs a program, a sub-routine within our own brains, which seeks to replicate this part of the inhabitants’ minds and overlay it onto our own, allowing us to feel as the native life forms feel, and test the waters, so to speak. It is an inconceivably complex process that has still not been perfected, and my understanding barely scratches the surface, but this is why a cigarette can provide me with pleasure, to answer your question.”

    Richard remained silent for several minutes; the only sounds to be heard were the excited shouts of children playing outside. He tried to assimilate this new information and consider its implications. He felt as though there were hundreds, even thousands of questions that he was overlooking, yet wondered if any single human mind could truly comprehend what he had learned over the last twenty hours or so. He had initially tried and failed to imagine what it would be like to exist with no self-awareness, but he was now pretty sure that was impossible to envisage even in principle, so didn’t feel too bad about it. OK, so now he was claiming to be carrying some kind of ultra-advanced computer program inside his head. There must be an intelligent question he could ask in response to that.

    “So can you, um, leap to any other world from here? How do you do it?”

    “The machine fragment that I have inside me is capable to transporting me back to my world, but not to any other. It is programmed to do so in the event of my death, which is why when you entered the lab last night all you found initially was an empty shell. The faulty electrode had killed me. In my world, however, the field of medicine is sufficiently advanced that upon my arrival I was revived within a heartbeat. Death holds no real fear for us, you see.”

    Richard pondered the wondrous machines that would exist in this strange creature’s home world. “So, er, why do you need my help then? Can’t you just get your portable genius computer to answer all your questions?”

    “What I need, Dr. Newton, are data. Even the most advanced of machines is unable to process information that it does not possess. Of course, in my world an analogous task would be relatively simple, but I need to analyse my brain as it is now, in this world. That is why I need you, and that is why you will be so handsomely rewarded.”

    “Ah yes. About that, I was wondering if you could do the favour of popping a few hours into the future, nipping back and telling me what tonight’s lottery numbers are going to be, if it’s not too much trouble.”

    “I’m afraid that wouldn’t be possible. The two alternative futures would diverge as paths in a forest. As the wings of a butterfly can cause a hurricane, I would inadvertently change the destiny of the six balls that will roll and bump and make someone a millionaire. It only takes the tiniest of nudges to the initial conditions, you see, to alter the end result. If I but made a sound that was heard by someone else, that person’s thoughts would be momentarily interrupted, he or she would later interact with others in a slightly different way, and the changes would spread out like ripples in a pond. A similar argument could be made for the stock market. One of the most fascinating things about being able to see the future”, he said, reaching for another cigarette, “is being able to see how truly chaotic most systems are. My radio trick worked because the songs were already playing and the news was already scripted; there were no decisions left to be made”.

    Richard knew enough about Chaos Theory to recognise the plausibility of what he was being told. “So, um, no disrespect intended, but how are you planning to pay me? I’ve almost finished what you asked of me.”

    Al’xandar paused in the act of lighting his cigarette, “You ask a reasonable question, Dr. Newton. I’ll see you in a few years’ time.” He closed his eyes.

    “Eh? What? No, but…”

    The eyes reopened. “Just my little joke. Have you ever been to Africa?”

    4

    For the third time since they had entered the establishment, Richard discreetly patted the side pocket to the canvas backpack on the wooden table in front of him and reassured himself of its lumpy hardness. The live band had strummed out its last traditional African number, and as the drums and guitars were carted away, the familiar instrumental introduction to “Light My Fire” piped out from the speakers in the Cape Town bar. Ebony-skinned children played in the street below as a cool evening breeze swept away the heat and stickiness of the day.

    Al’xandar returned from the bar and set two Castle Lagers down between them. Richard raised his bottle and glass clinked against glass. There was a sense of relief in the air, as befitting a job well done. Well, Richard felt a sense of relief. He thought he could read the same on his companion’s face, but his emotions were somewhat difficult to measure. It was the only clue that a particularly observant observer might have that he was not entirely human.

    “I trust you can handle things from here, Dr. Newton.”

    Richard nodded. Disposing of around two hundred carats (why didn’t people just say forty grams?) of uncut diamond would not exactly be a formality, but it was a nice problem to have. He allowed himself the luxury of thinking about what he would do with the money.

    Shrieks and wails from the street interrupted his reverie. Two children were squabbling over what looked to be a coin they had found in the street. The bigger of the two threw a quick, jabbing punch at the other, who hurled back insults in Afrikaans but seemed unwilling to strike back with his fists.

    Richard winced, turned away and faced his companion. “Is it worth it? When you look around at our world, when you see all the anger and misery and suffering and pain, do you think it’s worth it? Sometimes…sometimes I think it would be a relief to be as you are in your universe, perceiving nothing. But then again, life can sometimes be so good. I guess it’s worth it. It has to be, right?”

    Al’xandar took a measured draft of his cold beer. For a few seconds, he seemed to be considering whether or not to speak. Then, “Naturally, you are aware that your emotions evolved, Dr. Newton, solely to keep you alive long enough to pass on your genes to your offspring in as efficacious a manner as possible. Your genes care not whether they inhabit a happy or unhappy body, as long as they are passed on. The best way for a mouse to survive is to live a very frightened existence, but it is doubtless a miserable one. We, on the other hand, will seek to maximise positive feedback, happiness if you will, using a scientific methodology. Natural selection will not enter the picture; we will be using genetic engineering to directly alter our brain chemistry.”

    “So why bother with negative emotions at all? Why not program yourselves to be happy all the time?”, asked Richard.

    “Negative emotions are required in order that society might prosper, Dr. Newton. Places with a superabundance of felicity are like the houses of drug addicts – happiness only exists in the short term; ultimately a price must be paid. Often, life forms overly inclined to be happy lack the negative feedback required to escape predators or to try to better themselves. In other worlds, the happiness is compensated for by an increased sensitivity to pain, or a propensity to fear or anger.”

    Richard sipped and thought. “Why don’t you go to more advanced civilisations? Worlds that are more similar to your own, well, apart from the whole emotion thing. I mean, firstly you could get much better data from the resident neuroscientists, assuming that the field of medicine generally keeps advancing as it has been in this universe over the last few decades, and also, wouldn’t it make for better comparison with your own world? I don’t see what you have to gain by making however many centillion quantum changes you need to in order to move back through the technological ages.

    Was that a flash of fear that had darted across Al’xandar’s face? Concern? Unease?

    “There are…certain difficulties, Dr. Newton, in finding sufficiently advanced civilisations whose brains produce palpable emotions.”

    “Difficulties? What do you mean by that? Unless…” Richard stayed silent for a long while, watching bubbles rise leisurely to the surface of the amber liquid in front of him. Then he looked up. “What happens to civilisations whose people’s brains produce palpable emotions? I mean, if you guys can’t find them, then…”

    Now he looks irritated? Or even sad? It’s so hard to tell.

    “As I have already told you, Dr. Newton, the calculations involved in such an affair are hugely complex, and such questions hard to answer. If I were you, I would be concentrating on my own affairs.” He nodded at the ordinary-looking backpack with its extraordinary contents.

    Richard reluctantly accepted the change in the subject of conversation. If the guy didn’t want to talk about it, he wouldn’t do so. “Yeah, I guess. I suppose I’ve done some poor African farmer out of tens of millions of dollars. Who was going to find it? That’s how you knew where to look, right? You waited until someone found something of immense value, it made the news, and then you came back in time, right?”

    He’s uncomfortable. That’s definitely discomfort I saw in his eyes…

    Pink Floyd came on over the sound system. The break in conversation was occupied by David Gilmour’s musings on us and them and black and blue.

    “The finder of the diamond, in the future I saw, was not a poor African farmer, Dr. Newton. The French army claimed the gemstone for its government’s coffers.”

    A short, sharp shock coursed through Dr. Newton’s system.

    “The French? We’re in South Africa! What the hell do the French have to do with anything?”

    There was no hiding Al’xandar’s discomfort now. He gulped down the rest of his beer and, grateful for the opportunity to turn away from Richard’s gaze, turned around to signal to the waitress to bring two more. A pretty young woman in a risqué outfit came, served, and smiled. The silence grew longer and more palpable.

    Then eyes rose up, confidence renewed.

    “If you wish to know, Dr. Newton, I shall tell you. I cannot promise, however, that you will enjoy hearing what I will say.”

    A simple nod.

    Al’xandar produced something like a sigh. “Right now, your world is entering what we know as the resource bottleneck. Millennia of initially snail-paced growth were followed by centuries of faster and faster expansion, then decades of activity that has rocketed on every level: technologically, economically, energetically. Inevitably, as an ever-increasing population competes for ever-dwindling resources, competition becomes fiercer and fiercer until…”

    “Until what? War? Does it always end in war?” Richard took a swig of lager and slammed the bottle back on the table, causing the high-class twenty-somethings at the neighbouring table to glance over and observe the pair for a few moments before turning their attention and conversation back to smartphones and Land Rovers.

    “In the future that I witnessed, the diamond was unearthed in 2021. By this time, most of Africa and its resources had been seized by the British, French and Germans. Central and South America were in the hands of the United States. Russia and China were squabbling over Asia, having joined forces and effectively crushed India into submission in 2019. Nuclear weapons had been used briefly and disastrously by North Korea in 2018 and more extensively between Iran and Israel in the same year. Brazil and Venezuela had announced their status as nuclear-weapon states in 2019, leading to a general abandonment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Oil hit a thousand dollars a barrel for the first time in 2020, meaning that fewer and fewer commercial activities were economically viable. I didn’t see any more.”

    Richard stared at the tatters of the beer bottle’s label in front of him and realised that he had been tearing at it. He blinked several times, then looked up.

    “But you’ll have seen other worlds, wouldn’t you? You’ll have seen what has happened in other worlds, or Places, or whatever?”

    There was another long pause. Then Al’xandar began to speak.

    5

    The two small but highly energetic children yelped in excitement as a particularly big wave came rolling in and crashed against their sandcastles, then sucked away at their foundations as the water drained back into the ocean. Yelps changed to cheers as the twin structures’ defences held firm against the onslaught.

    His now-bearded chin resting on the beach towel, Richard’s eyes moved lazily to the right to take in the shapely form of bikini bottoms stretched taut over olive-skinned buttocks as they wiggled their way down the beach. This set him to wondering where he should take Maria tonight and he treated himself to a spell of happy musing.

    A teenage boy came into sight and sound, carrying a cool box of ice cream in his right hand and wearing a wooden tray around his neck. Richard called him over and bought a single cigarette. The boy stooped down, lit it for him, and took the proffered coin. “Gracias, señor”, he said before continuing down the beach, now announcing his wares to the world with renewed enthusiasm.

    “They’ll kill you, you know”, said a voice to his left in an American accent. “You speak English, right?” Richard looked over and saw a grey-haired guy in his fifties smiling at him. He looked friendly. “Don’t get me wrong, buddy, I don’t wanna stick my nose in where it don’t belong, but my father passed away from lung cancer last year, and I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.”

    An angry shriek distracted Richard and his new companion, and they both turned their heads to see one of the two boys burst into tears as the rubble of his sandcastle lay all around him, his companion’s smirk announcing his guilt. Then tears turned to anger as he stomped over to his friend’s construction and started kicking away at it. Furious wails were followed by punches from both sides as their irritated and embarrassed parents hastily scrambled to their feet to intervene.

    Richard’s eyes clouded over into a kind of distant sadness as he contemplated the two children being dragged apart by their respective parents, surrounded by the destruction of their architectural efforts. He tried not to think of the future too often.

    He took a drag on his cigarette and turned to his new companion. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss. I really am. The problem is”, he lied, “that there’s no way of knowing what tomorrow might bring. I might get hit by a bus on Saturday, or a meteor could take out the whole continent next year. As I see it, the best approach is just to enjoy life while things are good.”

    “Just enjoy being, huh?”, said the American stranger, unsure of how seriously to take this crazy Brit.

    “That’s right, my friend. Just enjoy being.”
     
  8. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    Geaby Cross


    CHAPTER ONE

    October 23, 1942

    “Bob, this has got to be the worst idea ever.”

    “Shut up, McHoggins, I know what I'm doing.”

    “She's dead, Bob, deal with it, there's no point in being a hero when they already found the body. It was an accident! What are we snooping around here for?”

    Bob turned around to face his partner, shining his flashlight into McHoggins face, “It was no accident, you should know that just as well as I do. The evidence is right here under our feet.” He turned back around and walked further down the hall.

    “Damnit Bob, we're not supposed to be here. We should go back. You won't find anything here.” A cold gush of wind blew down the hallway.

    Bob stopped in front of a door, shined a light on the paper he was holding in his hand, and looked up at the door. “McHoggins, get over here... See this?”

    McHoggins looked at the paper, and up the door. Frowned. “What is it?”

    “It's that same symbol I found in the girl's room — a tri-star with a globe on top.”

    “Well what does it mean?”

    “It means I'm right.” He tried the doorknob but found it locked.

    “Maybe we should really go back.”

    “Hold my stuff for me, will you?” He handed McHoggins his flashlight and piece of paper.

    “Bob, I'm serious. We are really not supposed to be here.”

    “You're just scared.” Bob took a step back and raised his foot. Wood shattered with a clash and the door flung open. “There we go.”

    McHoggins handed Bob his flashlight. “I've got a bad fee—”

    “I know that! Will you stop complaining now, please?”

    “Okay, boss, chill, I'm just saying that—”

    “—that we're not supposed to be here, yes I know. I don't care, I haven't come this far to turn back and forget about everything. I want to know what happened to this girl and I'm going to find out.”

    “Okay, okay, I get it.”

    “Thank you. Let's move it.” He shone his flashlight to where just recently a door had been locked, a spiral staircase led down.

    They stepped onto the stairs and made their way down, wood creaking under their feet.


    ***


    Officer Bob Rivera and his partner Jeff McHoggins had been investigating the disappearance of a 17 year old girl, Maureen Stradford, when her body was found downstream a river. Postmortem revealed no else than what the police on-site had already figured when she was first found - she'd drowned. Bob was curious, however, the one bridge over the river was a popular suicide spot, sure, but Maureen was not a girl he'd thought likely to kill herself. He was good friends with the girl's mother, and as far as he was concerned, the girl was perfectly healthy. She had awesome grades, plenty of friends, pretty hair. He had no idea what she could have killed herself over.

    Unhappy with the situation at hand, he wanted to investigate the case further, and asked Maureen's mother if he could have a look inside the girl’s room. She agreed, and Bob found himself sifting through piles of homework assignments just to see if he could find anything indicating anything what so ever.

    His efforts paid off.

    Between some math scribblings and English essays he found an empty piece of paper that carried a single symbol, and one line of text; a tri-star with a globe on top, and the address of an abandoned clothing factory. 225 Buxbaum Drive.

    Bob phoned his partner back at the station and told him to suit up, and that same evening they found themselves snooping around an abandoned clothing factory, McHoggins unsettled and Bob driven to know just what was going on.


    ***


    They came to the end of the stairwell and found their passage blocked by a large steel door.

    “That same damn symbol.” Bob looked down at his paper and back up at the steel door, another tri-star with globe was engraved in the plating.

    “That's it! It's blocked. We can't go further than this.”

    Bob ignored the comment and began caressing the wooden walls on one side of the door. “They have to be able to get in somehow, don't they?”

    “Who's they?”

    “Them, they, you know, the people behind all of this.”

    “Now you're just imagining things.”

    Click. Bob looked at his hand and saw one of the wooden panels indenting itself into the wall. “Are you seeing this?”

    “Seeing wha—”

    A loud hiss was followed by steel on steel scraping. Bob and McHoggins looked at the door and witnissed the tri-star symbol slowly drifting right. The door slid open.

    “Okay, I admit, there's something here, but we should really be going back.”

    “Damnit, McHoggins, what's wrong with you? You've been in situations a million times more dangerous than some spooky clothing factory and now all of the sudden you want to chicken out.”

    “This isn't right, Bob. Don't you think the guys who made this hid it specifically so nobody would ever find out about it? Don't you think this place should be kept hidden?”

    “No, Jeff, I do not think that. A girl died very probably because she knew about this, and I'm going to get to the bottom of just what ‘this’ is.” He stepped through the door and shone his flashlight into the darkness. He found himself in an office hallway.


    After a bit of scouting he found a electric switch and turned on the lighting. Fluorescent tubes illuminated the hallway that stretched into the distance.



    CHAPTER TWO


    16 Years Later


    “And they were never seen since.”

    “That's fucked up, man.” Williams shook his head. “Not a trace?”

    “Nobody had a single idea of where to look. The last thing my mom heard of him was a phone call that he would be home later and that he'd be missing dinner, something about a breakthrough in the investigation, but he never came home.”

    “...And instead he went missing.”

    “He and his partner.”

    “That's nasty.”

    “Yup,” John nodded and took another sip from his coffee. “Of course they started another investigation on their disappearance, went over the girl's entire room, went over the entire riverside, went over everywhere they could think of looking. But they were gone.”

    Williams nodded.

    John gulped the rest of the coffee down his throat, wiped some off of his lips, “Ah well, it's in the past now, no need to go digging up ghosts of yore.”

    “True that, man. True that.”

    He threw his paper cup out of the window and looked down the road. The streetlights did quite a poor job of illuminating the roads around this part of town. He jawned.

    The radio crackled, “All units be advised, we have a 10-80 on Harbor Road heading Northbound into Geaby Cross, everyone keep their eyes peeled.”

    John pinched his eyes, “Wait, Harbor Road? ...And northbound. That's us.” He sat up in his seat, “Strap yourself in!”

    A roar came in from the distance and within moments a flash of headlights soared past. John engaged the lightbar, sirens, and was in hot pursuit within moments.

    He picked up the radio, “Geaby Station, this is unit 41 northbound on Harbor Road, we've got the suspect in our sights, he's not going anywhere, over.”

    “Roger that, unit 41, we've got a chopper inbound. Hang in there.”

    “Yes ma'am.”

    They came up on Geaby Cross and the car ran straight through the red light, and a second, and a third. On the fourth intersection the car veered right, with the two squad cars following closely. Another few red and green lights were crossed in disregard of traffic laws, and again the car veered left. It smashed through a mailbox and ran over a bunch of flowers before ploughing its way through some parking meters lined up by the side of the road.

    Williams grabbed his hat from falling off, “This guy’s a maniac!”

    The three cars zoomed, dashed, raced, and careened through pockets and waves of traffic before the trio left the streets of Geaby Cross in their rear view mirrors.

    “He's heading into the desert!” John said.

    “What? Why would he be going into the desert?”

    “There's nothing out there. I don't see where he's going with this.”

    By now they were far over the hills and the grass had all but receded to small plucks on the roadside, the suspect car smashed the brakes and dove hard right into a dirt road that only led further into the sands.

    Williams took off his hat, “I've got a bad feeling about this.”

    John picked up the radio, “Geaby Station, where is that chopper of yours?”

    Static.

    “I've got a really bad feeling about this, John.”

    He looked out the window to his left, “I'm right there with you.”

    Still going double that of reasonable velocity, the forward car's rear lights went dark. The two squad cars were now driving top speed, through a pitch black desert, and chasing a ghost that had disappeared from their radar entirely.

    “This is messed up.” John slowed the car down to cruising speed, “We don't know where we're going, we're in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night, our radio has gone bust, the helicopter we were supposed to be getting is nowhere to be found, and the car we're chasing just went completely missing.”

    The missing car entered their headlights, standing stationary with the driver door wide open.

    “Found it,” Williams said.

    John rolled his eyes and pulled over. “Where'd the driver go?”

    The other squad car pulled up behind them and the four officers found themselves walking to the car, guns drawn and flashlights out.

    “You guys lost radio too?” John asked the driver of the other car.

    “Yeah, it went all static as soon as we entered the desert. We'd just asked Geaby Station where that helicopter was.”

    “And where was it?”

    “ETA static.”

    John smirked, “Lovely.”

    “Hands in the air!” Williams voice came from up ahead of the road.

    John and the driver looked over to see Williams pointing his gun to the middle of the street, the other cop was shining his flashlight onto a dark figure perched on the road, his head lowered.

    “Hands up, now!”

    The dark figure raised his head and looked Williams' straight in the eye, he grinned. “You are not supposed to be here.”

    “Your han—”

    The skies lit up. 6 spotlights were shining down upon the scene. A humming roar filled the surroundings as the lights began a slow descend.

    Williams looked up at the lights, the figure unholstered his gun and fired. Four bright flashes penetrated Williams' body and he dropped dead into the dirt. The other cop tried to grab his gun but soon found himself following Williams' example, the other driver dove out of the way and took John with him. Soon both cops found themselves hiding behind the figure's vehicle.

    John looked up at the lights, “What the hell is that!?”

    The figure laughed, “That is your destiny!”

    The driver took out his gun and came out of hiding, firing three rounds into the general direction of their aggressor before being impaled by four rounds himself. John watched him drop to the ground as the blood spilled from his wounds.

    John cowered before he got up, he began running for the squad cars.

    “No point in running copper, you should have never showed up in the first place!”

    Hails of bullets impacted the sand around his feet as he dashed headlong past his cruiser, trying to reach the other. One bullet smashed his left shoulder, a sharp sting rushed through his body.

    The figure laughed as he reloaded.

    Still ducked, John opened the passenger door of the rear squad car and jumped in, he fiddled with the ignition and slammed the car in reverse. He didn't dare look out the windows. Blood was dripping from his shoulder.

    Three volleys of bullets crashed into the reversing car.

    A hissing sound began emerging from underneath the hood.

    John grabbed the wheel and turned the car around. Pressing down on the clutch with one hand and handling the gear stick with the next, he managed to put the car in first gear and pushed the throttle.

    For half a mile he drove by the sound of rubber rolling from dirt to sand and back again, pushing down the throttle with one hand and holding the steering wheel with the other. When he finally got up half a mile later, there was not a single dark figure nor bright spotlight in sight.

    He sank into his seat.

    White light illuminated the road around him.

    The hissing dimmed.

    That same roar.

    His engine began sputtering.

    Cold sweat trickled.

    It was the helicopter.



    CHAPTER THREE


    “Well that sounds like complete bullshit,” Chief Flanders said after John had finished reciting his story.

    “I swear, Chief, it's the truth. Six bright lights and everyone was dead... It was awful!” His eyes gazed deep into the wall.

    Flanders pulled his fingers through his hair. “You heard a helicopter, six bright lights came down, then Williams got distracted for a second and the next moment everyone died?”

    “It only sounded like a helicopter, I never said it was a helicopter.”

    Flanders rolled his eyes, “Helicopter or no helicopter, six bright lights caused the death of three policemen?”

    “Yes.”

    He let out a sigh, “Fuck it.” He looked up at the clock. 3:51 at night. “Go home, John. We're going to launch an investigation tomorrow and we'll see what turns up.”

    “Yes, sir.” John sipped another sip of his coffee. He stroked his bandage.

    Flanders nodded.


    ***


    He stepped out of the station into the rain. Moonlight reflected through puddles and the drainage pipes dripped. He made his way over to his car, and got in, turned on the heater and sank into his seat.

    “Don't you dare make one move,” a woman's voice said from behind his head.

    A cold touch jabbed into the back of his neck.

    “And don't do anything stupid now, John.”

    He nodded.

    “Drive. Head north and then take eastbound into the mountains.”

    He drove. North and then eastbound into the mountains. They left Geaby Cross and soon found themselves on remote mountain roads.

    “Take right up there.”

    John took right. Gravel tickled against the wheel arches of his car.

    “Pull over up near that cabin.”

    “There?” He pointed.

    Jab, “Yes, there.”

    He pulled over up near the cabin.

    “Out.”

    And got out.

    Holding him in a straight line of fire she got out herself, made her way to the cabin, opened the door, “In here.”

    John went into the cabin.

    “Sit down,” she closed the door.

    He was still held at gunpoint as he sat down on the sofa. “What do you want from me?” His shoulder hurt.

    “If I let my gun down, do you promise not to do anything stupid?”

    “Yes?”

    She let her gun down.

    His shoulder still hurt.

    “We should be safe here, for now.”

    “Who are you?” He shook his head as he looked up at her.

    “Maureen Stradford.”


    ***


    “No you're not.”

    “Most certainly am.”

    “She jumped off a bridge.”

    “No I didn't.”

    “16 year ago.”

    “They lied that.”

    “They found her body!”

    “They found a body, not my body.”

    “My father was on the case, I'm sure he could recognize her dead body.”

    “Oh sure, he saw a body that looked like me. But that body was not me.”

    “Are you crazy?”

    Three vans drove up to the cabin and stopped.

    “Fuck. No. Get down!”

    Shots crashed through the walls and John dove to the floor, Maureen joined him.

    “I thought we would be safe here, at least safe for longer than two minutes.”

    “Who are they?”

    “The same guys that tried to kill you.” She began crawling towards the kitchen at the back of the room. “Follow me.”

    “The six lights?”

    “Bingo.”

    “Why do they want to kill me?”

    “Because you know something.”

    Vases shattered and tables got shredded.

    “Know what?”

    “Fact that they exist?”

    A humming emerged from the distance.

    “Shit.”

    “What are they?”

    “They are evil, the lights are an it.”

    “Well what is it?”

    A few bullets shot over their heads. They ducked.

    “An Imperial Galactic X-9T Bulldog assault craft.”

    “A what?”

    They crawled behind the cupboards. Bullets clanged everywhere around them.

    “Something painful.” She opened the cupboard and grabbed two grenades.

    John peeked inside, “Why do you have armor plating in a cupboard?”

    She threw one of the grenades through the doorway. “Cause I want to live?”

    The grenade exploded and smoke filled the living room.

    “Follow me.” She got up, ducked, made for the hallway, opened a door underneath the staircase and ran down into the basement.

    He followed.

    She flipped on the lights and went over to bash commands onto a computer console, “Get in that closet over there.”

    “What? Why?”

    “Get in!” She pressed a button, a thing beeped, and she pushed him into the closet. She joined.


    ***


    A bright white.

    A loud zap.

    They stumbled out of the closet.

    A loud bang shattered over the top of the mountains.

    His heart skipped a beat.

    She pulled him up to his feet.

    He looked around.

    They were in a barn.

    There was a car.

    Red '57 Belvedere.

    Why did that matter anyway?

    He was dizzy.

    “In there!”

    He had to get into the car.

    He stumbled forward.

    Almost fell.

    “Damnit!” Maureen said.

    Reached the car door.

    Opened it.

    Inside.

    She slammed the throttle and they crashed through the barn doors onto a dirt road.

    “Where are we?”

    “About half a mile from where we were being shot at.”

    “How did we..?”

    “Teleportation.”

    “What?”

    Lights streaked past the car as it drove forward.

    “Am I dead?”

    “It'll wear off in a few minutes.”

    “Where are we going?”

    That same humming.

    “Away from that thing.”

    “How come you’re dead?”

    The car veered left and spat dirt.

    “I knew something.”

    “Knew what?”

    “Same thing your father knew.”

    “Which was?”

    “Same as you know.”

    “So they killed you?”

    “Tried to.”

    “And my father?”

    “They succeeded.”

    “Who succeeded?”

    “McHoggins, his partner, along with his accomplices.”

    “Jeff? Why would he do that?” His vision blurred.

    “Your father found something he wasn't supposed to find.”

    “What did he find?”

    “More than he knew.”

    “What didn’t he know?”

    “An outpost.”

    “Of what?” His vision crept back.

    “Of them.” She looked into the rear view mirror. “Two—twenty—five Buxbaum Drive.”

    Six lights were closing in.

    “Them trying to kill us?”

    “Bingo.”

    “So why can’t we know about them?”

    “They're experimenting on us.”

    “How?”

    “Ever heard of Wernher von Braun?”

    “Is he evil too?”

    “Not really.”

    “Who is he?”

    “Nobody alive on our planet.”

    “What do you mean?” His head cleared and confused.

    “You know Earth, the world, everything?”

    “What about it?”

    “It's a lie. A copy. Of long ago.”

    “Why?”

    She checked the mirror again. “Fuck.”

    Green flashed soared past their car, exploded to their sides. Maureen jerked the wheel and took a turn into a dirt road.

    The craft banked right and followed.

    “Listen,” she said, “Earth as you know it is long gone. Those guys trying to kill us, they copied Earth, exactly the way it was in 1921.”

    “What? Why would they do that?” He looked in the rear view mirror. “What are you talking about?”

    “Everyone currently alive is no more than two generations away from being descendants of a clone.”

    “What the hell is a clone?”

    More green flashes.

    “They're killing scientist in order to keep you guys under their thumb. They're letting everyone live a lie.”

    “How? What? Why are you telling me this?”

    A flash impacted the ground bare inches from their front wheel. The blast shredded the engine compartment and sent the car into a roll, off the road and down a hillside.



    CHAPTER FOUR


    He woke up.

    A white ceiling looked down on him.

    He looked left. White walls joined the ceiling. Sun was shining through the blinds and projected rays of light onto a wall opposite of him.

    He felt soft. Soft around him. He was lying in a bed, a nice bed, he liked this bed.

    He looked back up.

    There was the ceiling again.

    He was in a car. There were 6 bright lights that had followed him.

    And there was a girl. A woman. She was driving the car.

    Maureen.

    Maureen was dead.

    Was she dead again?

    They were being shot at. When... Everything went black, and he woke up.

    His head was pounding and his throat felt dry.

    Something must have hit them. The 6 lights made their mark.

    It must have been.

    His vision blurred and his head grew heavy.

    He fell back asleep.


    ***


    For the next few days, John Rivera came and went, waking for a few minutes before dozing off again. After these days his situation became more stable and he was able to strike conversation with the nurse.

    “How did I... get here? Where am I?”

    “Ah! You're awake again! That's great! Are you hungry?”

    He was hungry. “Uh, sure.” He nodded.

    “You are at Geaby Cross Medical Centre.”

    “Why?”

    “You've been in a coma for nearly an entire month.”

    “A coma? What? How?”

    “Let me get you a sandwich, I'll explain.”

    She left the room, and came back with a sandwich and a glass of milk, took a chair and took a seat next to his bed.

    The sandwich tasted good, a chicken sandwich with cheese.

    “Now, what do you remember from before you woke up here?”

    He thought... “Gunshots. Bright green flashes.”

    “Green flashes?” She raised a brow.

    “I don't know, it's all very hazy. I remember a car chase. Maureen. Who's Maureen?”

    “I don't know any Maureen.”

    “So how did I get here?”

    “You were in a shootout.”

    “Six bright lights!”

    “What?”

    “Six bright lights and everyone was dead.”

    “I don't know anything about six bright lights either.”

    “There was a car chase, into the desert, six bright lights came down and some guy shoots everyone.”

    “Okay just relax for a second, forget what you think happened, I’ll explain.”

    “Sure.”

    “Some guy killed a professor down in Plumbing Hill, he made off with a car and got the attention of the cops – you. He fled into the desert and killed everyone except for you. Although he came close.”

    “Yeah, I escaped in a police cruiser and later the helicopter crew picked me up and took me to Geaby Station.”

    "No they didn’t. The helicopter found you bleeding out in that car. When they got you to the hospital you were already in a coma.”

    “But I wasn't rushed to the hospital.”

    “You were.”

    “I was taken to Geaby Station, where I explained everything to Chief Flanders.”

    “Uh, hold on.” She got up and looked around the room, came back with a piece of paper and took a pen out of her chest pocket. “Chief Flanders, right?”

    “Yup.”

    She scribbled something onto the piece of paper. “Go on.”

    “He told me it was bullshit, and that I should go home. I stepped out of the station and got into my car, and someone put a gun to my head.”

    “Someone put a gun to your head?”

    “She told me to head into the mountains. Something about people trying to kill me.” He paused a second, “was the robber ever caught?”

    “The robber wasn't caught.”

    “Anyway, we head into the mountains, the girl that had a gun to my head told me she was. She was Maureen. Maureen Stradford.”

    The nurse was in thought for a moment, “I know that name.”

    “It's the girl that killed herself back in ‘42.”

    “Yeah, that’s her. So a dead girl put a gun to your head and told you to head into the mountains?”

    “She said they fabricated her death. That it wasn't her body that the cops found.” He scratched his head. “We were at this cabin, in the mountains. She said people were trying to kill me.”

    “Why? Go on.” She scribbled some more.

    “Because I knew something. Two vans came up to the cabin and began shooting, so we ducked behind an armor plated kitchen cupboard.”

    She raised her brow again.

    “Then a humming filled the air. So we went to the basement where she pushed me into a closet. There we left the closet and we were suddenly in a barn. Something exploded and we were running from the X-9T Empirical Bulldog or something like that.”

    “I see.”

    “She told me about about an outpost somewhere. Then green flashes happened. And nothing.”

    A blank gaze was staring through him. “We're going to have to run some tests.”

    “Why?”

    “Just to make sure.” She pulled a wry smile and raised her shoulders.

    “Of what?”

    “That you’re not brain damaged.”

    “I'm not brain damaged!”

    “I'll get a doctor to test you later this week, and I'll get in touch with this Chief Flanders.”

    “It's all true!”

    “Would you like another sandwich?”

    He looked at her, a few seconds, “Yes, I would.”

    She smiled, nodded, and left the room.

    He looked at the wall opposite of him


    ***


    Three days later, Flanders came through the door. “John!” He was smiling. “Welcome back to real world, kid!”

    “Chief?”

    “Look, I brought you flowers!”

    “That's.. nice?”

    Flanders put the flowers in a vase on the windowsill. “I talked to that nurse of yours. You've been having some adventures!”

    “Uh, yeah.”

    “Anyway, you're too smart to live your life in a fantasy.”

    “What?”

    “How would you like to get out of that bed for a day?”

    “Can I?”

    “Oh, sure, the doctors tell me you've recovered well enough to take a little trip. Let me get you some pants.”

    Flanders left and returned with some clothes.

    “Now get up and get dressed, we've got to get you fit for duty again.”

    He got up and dressed himself, drank a glass of water, and followed Flanders. He stumbled a few times while walking down the hallway and down the stairs. Walking was still a bit of an issue, but he managed.


    ***


    They walked out the hospital and stepped into Flanders' squad car, then drove off.

    Flanders’ face straightened. “John,” he said, “you never saw me that night.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “You went straight to the hospital. The chopper crew informed me of that the second they picked you up.”

    “No, I went to see you, I know I did.”

    “John, you didn't, honestly. Put it out of your head, please, I can't use a cop that's delirious.”

    “I'm not delirious! I know what happened! Where are we going?”

    Flanders sighed, “You'll see.”

    Minutes later, they pulled up on the cemetery.

    “What kind of joke is this, Chief?”

    He shook his head. “Come on, John.”

    They got out.

    “You know that Maureen girl you told the nurse about?”

    “Yes?”

    “Follow me.”

    He followed Flanders. The November sun was shining down on the orange trees. It was quite cold.

    “Here we are.”

    They had arrived at a gravestone.

    ‘Maureen Stradford.’

    ‘January 28, 1925 — October 13, 1942, Rest in Peace'

    John looked at Flanders, he frowned, “Why are you showing me this?”

    “Because you must come back to us, John. Nobody is trying to kill you. You are safe. It was a traumatic experience, yes, but there's no such thing as an X-9T Bulldog Assault craft.”

    John pinched his eyes, “I know what happened. And I want to know what happened to my father too.”

    “What does your father have to do in any of this? It's been 16 years, John! Nobody knows what happened to your father! Don't you think it’s time to let it go?”

    “What if I told you McHoggins killed him?”

    Flanders was confused for a moment, “Jeff?”

    “Jeff McHoggins, his partner.”

    “Why would Jeff have killed your father?”

    “Maybe he found something he wasn't supposed to find.”

    Flanders raised a brow, “John, you're talking nonsense.”

    “This goes deeper than you and I.”

    “John? Just let it go?”

    “I will not let this go, Chief, I am going to get to the bottom of this.”

    “Please John, stop this. You're not being a hero by chasing ghosts! I know there’s sense in you.”

    “I know what I'm doing, Chief, let me be.” He walked back to the squad car. He felt dizzy. He stumbled.

    Flanders caught him from falling. He sighed, “Let's get you back to the hospital.”

    John nodded, “Let's.”


    ***


    That night, John didn't go to sleep.

    He checked his alarm clock, 02:14 AM. And he got out of his bed

    He put on the clothes that he wore earlier that day, took a sip of water, and made his way to the door.

    His room was on the fourth floor – top floor.

    He opened the door ajar, looked into the hallway, nobody to be seen. It was dark in the hallway.

    He opened the door a bit more, it creaked.

    “Fuck,” he whispered.

    He stood there for a full half minute.

    Nobody showed up.

    A cold drip of sweat crawled down his back. He took a deep breath. He stepped into the hallway.

    He was in the hallway.

    Still nobody showed up.

    He had to get to the end of the hallway, there was an emergency stairwell there that led to the back of the building. He would be out if he could get there.

    He started walking, carefully treading the floor hoping he wouldn't make a sound.

    Halfway to his destination he heard a door open behind him.

    He slowly looked over his shoulder to see a cleaning lady walk away from him.

    He looked forward and treaded on.

    Step by step he closed in on the door.

    Three fourth of the way now.

    87%

    Still closer.

    His heart was pounding.

    He reached the emergency exit door.

    He pushed the bar.

    The bar went down.

    But the door wouldn't budge.

    He could see the stairwell through the reinforced window.

    What emergency exit door doesn't open when the bar is pushed down?

    Was he being kept here?

    Why the hell didn't the door open?

    Now what was he supposed to do?

    He looked around, there was nobody around the hallway anymore. The regular stairwell was halfway across the hall to the other side.

    Halfway across the hallway all the way to the other side.

    Basically next to his own room.

    Damnit.

    He treaded back.

    Halfway halfway the hallway.

    Three quarters halfway the hallway.

    Passing his own room.

    He could just go back, he figured. He could go back and forget this ever happened. Maybe they were right. Maybe Maureen was dead. Maybe there was no such thing as an X-9T Bulldog Assault craft. What the hell is an X-9T Bulldog Assault craft anyway? He never really saw one. It was just six bright lights. It could just as well be an X-NOWAY Bullshit Delirium.

    Heh.

    He smirked.

    But then who closed the stairwell?

    They didn't want him to leave.

    Didn't they?

    He kept walking towards the stairs.

    It was three floors down.

    When he was downstairs he would exit right into the lobby. He couldn't just walk out into the lobby. They were never going to let him leave. Not in this state.

    Maybe the emergency stairwell wasn't blocked on the first floor.

    He made his way to the first floor. Careful not to make too much noise, then walked over to the end of the hallway. He tried the door.

    It opened.

    Why did it open?

    He was in the emergency stairwell. One more piece of stairs down, one more door, and he would be outside. But not quite.

    He had to know why the fourth floor was blocked, he had to know his mind wasn't fucking with him.

    He walked up.

    Up.

    Another up.

    Fourth floor.

    He arrived at the door.

    It was freshly welded shut. The welds were perfectly clean and shiny.

    He took a few steps back, before running down the staircase.

    Who welds shut an emergency exit? Any why only the top floor? Why only the floor his room was on? And why were they fresh welds?

    He raced down the final set of stairs, smashed himself against the emergency door and fled outside into the darkness.

    Thank god the last door wasn’t shut.

    He looked around and found himself in an alley, bent down and panted.

    Next up.

    225 Buxbaum Drive.



    CHAPTER FIVE


    If he remembered correctly, Buxbaum Drive was located on the east side of Geaby Cross. Geaby Cross Medical Centre was in the center of town. A few miles would just about be it. He needed a car.

    And quick.

    There were three cars parked by the side of the road.

    Hell, he was a fugitive anyway.

    He climbed into the nearest car and hotwired the ignition — being a cop had its perks. He pulled onto the street, lights off, and made his way east.


    ***


    227 Buxbaum Drive.

    226 Buxbaum Drive.

    225 Buxbaum Drive.

    There it was.

    The old clothing factory.

    The war hadn't been kind to fashion manufacturers, the place had been derelict for about 17 years now. All the clothing materials had been diverted into the war effort and there was no place to look fancy anymore.

    There was nothing but an old carcass now, a wooden building coming apart at the seams. Windows were bust and doors had fallen from their hinges.

    The darkness didn't fail to amplify John's creeps.

    He parked the car and got out. A gush of wind blew through the black trees.

    He felt cold.

    He was wearing jeans, a hospital gown, and a jacket.

    He had the rights to be cold.

    John began walking towards the front door. He had no idea what he was supposed to be looking for.

    It sure didn't look like an outpost.

    The front door had rotten, all paint had long but fallen off.

    He pushed the door. It creaked and fell into the hallway. A loud bang marked its rest. He looked out onto the street if anyone had heard him.

    Not really.

    He stepped in and onto the door.

    The wood cracked beneath his feet.

    It was one continuous hallway towards the back of the building. And dark.

    He felt the damp walls for a power switch, found one, tried it.

    Several lights sprung on, some exploded, and here and there a light simply refused to come on.

    From the ceiling hung a sign, “<— factory hall —|— offices —>“.

    He supposed the offices would be a good bet.

    He began walking, passed a couple of fungus infested toilets, passed the double doors towards the factory hall, and took right towards the offices.

    Another hallway.

    Another bunch of lights that didn't know whether they would enjoy being on or off.

    Four doors along the walls and a set of stairs at the end.

    Two doors with reinforced broken windows, one that said 'storage', and one that was empty.

    He walked past them at stopped at the empty door. It was sort of empty.

    There was a globe etched onto the door, and three star tips came out from underneath it.

    He tried the doorknob but found it locked.

    The hinges broke and the door fell towards him. He dove to the side and the thing shattered to the wall behind him.

    He looked into the opening that had just formed, revealing a spiral staircase that was leading down.

    “Something he wasn't supposed to find...”

    He stepped onto the stairs and made his way down, wood creaked under his feet.


    ***


    He came to the end of the stairwell. His passage blocked by a steel door.

    The light flickered and the walls were dead.

    Brown paint was falling off everywhere and slivers of brown covered the floor.

    Another globe was etched into the steel door, again with three star tips.

    “Definitely something he wasn't supposed to find.”

    A loud hiss was followed by steel on steel scraping.

    The door opened.


    ***


    “Put your hands in the air, make one move and you’re dead.”

    6 men donned in black were pointing rifles at his face. Green stripes of glow ran along the barrels. The men wore combat helmets and glasses which lenses shone bright red.

    Definitely not supposed to find.

    He put his hands up into the air.

    A bright green flash filled his vision.

    He felt fuzzy.

    He saw black.

    His knees hurt.

    So did his elbows.

    His head also became painful.

    Something was pulling him along.

    Everything went blacker.



    CHAPTER SIX


    He woke up to the face of an old man staring him in the face. He must have been about 50. Not that old, actually, but for all intents and purposes the old man was still older than John.

    His cheek felt a sharp sting.

    The old man had slapped him. “Wake up,” he spoke.

    “Wait, just a second.” Why was the old man slapping him?

    Another sting on his other cheek. “Why are you here?”

    “Hold on,” his vision blurred again.

    His heart skipped a beat.

    It was cold.

    Very cold.

    Ice cold.

    Freezing cold.

    Sub—freaking zero cold.

    He grasped for air.

    He was awake alright.

    “What the hell was that for!?” His jacket was drenched.

    He was drenched.

    Also cold.

    Freezing cold now.

    “Look at me.” The old man grabbed his chin and forced him to look in his eyes. “Why are you here?”

    “Who are you?” John asked.

    “I'm your worst damn nightmare, you are not supposed to be here, why are you here, John?”

    John's eyes shot open. He recognized that voice. It was the dark figure!

    “How do you know my name?”

    Another cheek sting. “I ask the questions. Why are you here?”

    “225 Buxbaum Drive, Maureen told me!”

    The old man let go of his chin.

    John fell back in his chair.

    “That bitch.”

    “You know Maureen?”

    Another sting. “Shut up!”

    John noticed his hands were tied to the chair.

    The old man pulled a hand through his hair.

    “Who are you? Really?”

    “Geoffrey McHoggins, at your service.”

    “What did you do to my father!?” He shot up in his chair for as much as his shackles would allow him. He was cold no more.

    “Your father was an idiot.”

    “Fuck you!”

    The old man slammed his fist into John's chin. “Fuck you!”

    “What did I ever do to you!? Where am I!?”

    “If you had just forgotten about it! If you had just listened to Flanders!”

    “What does Flanders have to do with all this?”

    “Fucker can't do shit right!”

    “What the fuck are you talking about?”

    “I ask him one thing, one thing! And he fucks it up.”

    “Fucks what up!?”

    “Fucks you up!”

    “How?”

    “You should have died!”

    “You should have hit me!”

    “If he had just recalled the chopper, you would have been dead and nobody would be asking questions right now.”

    “Like my father?”

    “You're just like him. You see something odd and you can't fucking help going on adventure.”

    “What did he do?”

    “Always asking questions, always busy with business far beyond his reach. Fuck!”

    Another slam. “Fuck you, man!” John said.

    “Maureen was dead. Everyone knew that. Everyone was supposed to know that.”

    Jeff smiled.

    “But not your father, oh no. He had to be a hero about it. Fucking tri—star with globe on top.”

    “What about Maureen?”

    “Maureen never died.”

    “I know.”

    “She was like you and your father combined. A 17 year old kid going snooping around an old clothing factory. Come on, who fucking does that?!”

    “Who did they find in the river?”

    “An empty clone, no brains ever worth a shit, meant to die from the day it came out of the processors.”

    “What is a clone?”

    Another slap.

    Jeff walked out of the room.


    ***


    The room was completely empty except for his chair and an empty bucket of freezing water in the corner.


    ***


    The door opened again.

    Jeff came in with two guards, and a person dangling between them.

    “You see this guy?”

    The guy was naked, wet, and had a bag over his head.

    “When the night is over a nurse will walk into your hospital room.”

    Jeff pulled the bag off of the guy. It was John.

    “They'll find you, sudden death from brain damage.”

    “I don't have brain damage! What is this!?”

    “This is your destiny, your fate. Your own, stupid. Fucking. Fate.”

    “What are you going to do to me!?”

    “We'll kill you, unlike we did with Maureen.”

    “What did you do with Maureen?”

    “Something stupid.”

    “What the hell are you on about?” John looked at the guards standing in the corners. One of them had kicked the bucket aside. “Why do those guys have red glowing eyes!?”

    “It's the future, John, and you're nothing more than a disobedient pawn, that's why you'll suffer.”

    “Suffer my ass!”

    “Oh your ass will suffer just the same.”

    “Where is Maureen?”

    Jeff smirked, “We killed her.”

    “How did I get in the hospital?”

    “Don't you remember being shot at? By me?”

    “What about the cabin?”

    “What cabin?”

    “The one Maureen took me.”

    “I don't know of no cabin.”

    “The one that exploded!”

    “John, you’re brain damaged.”

    “How do you know I know about Maureen if you claim I never met Maureen!?”

    Jeff looked up to the ceiling, smiling.

    Another slam on his jaw.

    “I like you, Rivera, you're a clever fella. But then again, don't I know you know Maureen because all of this is a lie anyway?”

    “What are you talking about?”

    Jeff looked at the red eyes of one of the guards. “Not too normal I suppose. And why are their guns green?”

    “Because it's the future?”

    “Wrong. It's because I can make and break reality, it's because I am you and you are me, this is nothing but your imagination running rampant!”

    “I don't believe this.”

    “You don’t believe your own lies?” He laughed, “Follow me.” Jeff turned to the guards, “untie him, take him with us. And someone clean up Dead John.”


    ***


    The guards took him out of the empty room and into an hallway. Exactly a hallway like the one he found the 6 black donned men who shot him.

    They took him left, right, up some stairs, and into an elevator.

    Jeff entered some commands into a panel on the side, and they went down.

    The elevator stopped to a ping and the doors opened.

    The room was big.

    Way big.

    Far big.

    Extravagantly big!

    It was like an airplane hangar. Only a hundred times bigger.

    Lamps lined the top of the cylindrical dome that stretched for certainly 10 mile.

    Maybe twenty.

    He’d lost scope of the scale of things.

    “Off we go, then.” Jeff said, and the guards pushed him onto a metal balcony halfway to the top of the structure.

    John's eyes were peeled.

    “Now, you certainly must have heard of the Imperial Galactic X-9T Bulldog Assault craft?”

    “Yes. I have.”

    “Well they're bullshit.”

    “Why?”

    “You made them up.”

    “Then where are we?”

    “In your comatose dream state.”

    “No we're not.”

    “We are!” Jeff smiled, “Cool thing is, though, because it's all bullshit anyway, we can make a bulldog appear out of nowhere!”

    “Bullshit.”

    Jeff took his watch up in front of his mouth, spoke, “Bulldog.”

    A loud roar came from underneath the balcony, John looked down but saw nothing.

    The roar turned into a humming.

    The sound was ascending.

    John still looked down.

    Still nothing.

    “Keep your head and feet inside the vehicle at all times,” McHoggins pulled John back from the edge.

    The humming roar was now directly in front of them.

    There was still nothing.

    “Lights,” Jeff said into his watch.

    Six bright lights appeared out of nowhere, hovering in thin air in front of the balcony.

    “Cloak,” Jeff continued.

    An airship materialized from around the six lights, the lights dimmed, the craft continued coming out of nowhere.

    Within seconds John's entire view was engulfed by the ship humming steadily in front of him.

    Its wingspan must have been 30 feet wide, jet engine—like pods attached through the wings distorted the air underneath them.

    Two big turret guns were pointing straight at the ensemble of men standing on the balcony.

    A single black mirrored cockpit was situated right in the middle of the behemoth.

    “John,” McHoggins turned to him, “this is your bulldog.”

    John stood stunned, open mouthed, he was speechless.

    Jeff turned to the guards, “let's wrap this up.”

    One of the guards raised his rifle.

    Bright green flash.

    Fuzzy blackness.



    CHAPTER SEVEN


    June 14, 1976

    A car pulled up to Plumbing Hill Hospital For The Departed, gravel crackled as it came to a rest at the front door.

    A woman in her early 50s stepped into the gravel, looked at her watch. 2:58.

    She trotted over to the building, entered, and made for the desk.

    “How may I help you?” A girl looked up from behind the counter.

    “I heard there's visiting hours on Wednesdays?”

    “Sure thing, who is it you'd like to see?”

    The woman slipped her a note.

    The girl read the paper, looked back at the woman, her pupils had shrunk, “Ah. I'll uh, I'll see what I can do.”

    The woman nodded, “Thank you.”


    ***


    The woman stepped into the visitor's lounge, couches were lined up with rugged coffee tabled in between them.

    Her heels tapped the tiles on the ground as she made her way to the single other person in the room.

    The windows were barred and sunlight protruded between them.

    She sat down in front of the single other person.

    He was swinging front to back, arms huddled in front of his chest, “It's all true, it's true, it's true!”

    “John?”
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    The Short Straw


    What a pointless exercise in futility.

    Reports had come in, from the passive sensors, of movement in this trackless nothingness. So Command had decided, in their infinite wisdom, to send him and his little band of toy soldiers to investigate. Nothing lived here. Not a blade of grass or the toughest of plants, not even the hardy lichen could survive the complete lack of moisture that surrounded him for a thousand klicks in any direction. Anything capable of autonomous movement needed, at the very least, some form of sustenance. Water, food and air to breathe were the little things needed for survival. None of which were available in this hell on earth.

    The land was parched, the atmosphere poisoned, and whatever faint traces of nutrients that might be available were all securely locked into the stony excuse of the surface. Completely inaccessible without a major undertaking involving hundreds of people accompanied by all their support machinery that would have had to crowd this deserted plain.

    And yet here he was, searching for something in the empty nothingness. He felt foolish standing there, with his envirosuit in full camo and the rifle set on Acquisition. His squad deployed around the skimmer in a defensive ring. Maybe the rocks would suddenly levitate off the ground to attack. Someone was teaching him a lesson and he couldn’t just turn around and go back to the Three City, telling them that there was nothing there.

    Procedure had to be followed.

    The passive had to be checked for a malfunction, and if none was found then it’s on board storage had to be accessed to evaluate the data. A whole lot more fun was to be had there. Find a camouflaged passive sensor with the size, shape and appearance of a small pebble on a plain covered with thousands of the real ones.

    To add insult to injury, a field tech had been seconded to his squad. One of those freaks who were little better than the First City scum, most probably originating from an illicit union of those criminal outcasts, and who revelled in being topside.

    Who, in his right mind, enjoyed being up here? There was only death in every direction, and no way to survive for more than a couple of days in this awful loneliness. With the harsh natural light, causing his eyes to squint even with the face mask polarised, that relied on the intermittent sun that only shone for half the day. This was nothing like the warm and gentle glow that filled the Inner City.

    <SCAN COMPLETE. NO TARGET FOUND.> He didn’t need the feed-back from the rifles scope. He could have told both the computer and command that there was nothing out here, just by looking.

    “You don’t like it much, do you Corporal Smit?” The tech shit was lounging very casually in the back seat of the skimmer, sprawled all over it as if on leave.

    “Find the passive. And get a move on. We’ve important duties to attend to in the Citadel.” The disgusting top side creature seemed to be mocking him.

    “You make it sound like you’ve been there.” The tech abled over, and surveyed the bleak terrain. The Corporal had the feeling that the tech knew exactly how close he’d been to the restricted access of the Citadel. Half a dozen shifts at the outer entrance security point. He’d never even met one of the residents of that enclave for the leadership.

    “Have your men spread out and use their scanners on each of the rocks.” Damb tech was taking over his command.

    “You’re the field tech, why don’t you just activate it and find it. And anyway whoever set it off might still be around.” His argument was weak even to his own ears. The deserted plain that surrounded them had not even the slightest cover to offer.

    A pop up on his HUD alerted him to a file download request.

    “Download the file. And it will tell you that a passive is exactly that. It doesn’t transmit anything except for an alert to the relay station, it only records. Otherwise it would be next to useless for extended exposure and easy for anyone to find. So spread your team out to search please.” He’d been dismissed.

    The options available to him were simple. Either he could carry on the struggle to assert his authority, or he had to cave in and follow the tech’s orders. Corporal Smit had the feeling that he would lose, that the tech would turn out to be more than just one of the First City outcasts. Admitting defeat, Corporal Smit deployed his squad into a short line with barely an arm’s length between each of his men. Their allocated paths would glow a faint green on their suits HUD to make sure that nothing was missed.

    As they moved out, each of the multitude of time worn pebbles had to be scanned with the tiny sensor fitted into the index finger of every enviro suit. It was a simple process of pointing at every stone in their path until the passive revealed itself. He felt foolish. If someone at Command decided to check up on them through the skimmers monitors, he could only imagine how absurd the scene must look.

    A team of heavily armed men in full camo and battle armour, strolling through the trackless dessert and pointing at stones on the ground as if this small field of stones was more interesting than the any other of the thousands of kilometres that surrounded them, while the pair of officer types stared on.

    “Corp, how long do we have to do this for?” He wasn’t the only one who found this mission farcical.

    “Till one of the rocks tells you it isn’t. So focus on your duty and get the job done.” He hadn’t meant to be so harsh, but boredom was rapidly replacing the fear of being Top Side. It was too much of sameness. The irritation of constant whirring from the cooling fans keeping the suits at a survivable temperature, the knowledge that death was just a scant few centimetres from their bodies, all began to fade with the tedious walking and looking at rocks. Bored men might get careless and miss the faint glow that would show that one of the stones was different to its multitude of brothers.

    “We came from this Top Side, you know.” The tech seemed to be starting up a conversation as if to pass the time.

    “Evolving over millennia under this sun that you seem to find so erratic. My name’s Aaron, by the way Kevin.”

    As if he would have the faintest interest is being on a first name basis with someone who was regarded by even the scum of First City as the lowest rung in their society. This Field Technician needed to be put in his place.

    “I have been through the history sessions. I know where we come from. Its people like you, the ones who celebrate technology as a toy that took this away from the rest of us. So do your job and we’ll do ours.”

    How could he not get that message? The men seemed to be engrossed in their task of searching, but the conversation had been on the short range open band and the entire squad had been within range to pick it up. All he needed was for one of his men to put into their post mission report that the Corporal seemed friendly to the tech, and he could kiss any chance of a career goodbye.

    “If you really knew you history, then you would be able to see the similarity between what’s happening now and the City Before?”

    Inadvertently, he was drawn in. What comparison could possibly be drawn between the Three City complex and the destroyed City from Before. All the citizens were the descendants of the handful of survivors that had managed to escape when the city had been destroyed in a war between cities over two centuries before.

    The Field Technicians had been the leadership then, and because of their poor defensive planning, the city had fallen with the survivors escaping into the wilderness. Because of them, the paradise had been lost. Hardship had replaced a life of ease and luxury.

    “According to the logs kept by my predecessors, and your own history, the City Before fell at the end of a long and drawn out war with two other cities that had formed an alliance against us.”

    He knew all this. The schooling days weren’t so distant that he would have forgotten the reason why he’d joined up. To protect his city and its people from the same happening to again, still was the driving force behind his focus on being the best he could be.

    “Ah. But that’s were your history and the logs branch off.” Corporal Smit should have cut off the garrulous Tech, but he wanted to hear more of this alternate history, no matter how self-serving and delusional it may turn out to be. Besides it would pass the tedium of the search. They had been at it for two hours now, and maybe it would take the rest of this shift as well.

    So he listened as the tech described the last days of the City Before, according to the gospel of the Field Technicians.

    How the cities had been involved in sporadic fighting for nearly three decades, with none of the few surviving records explaining how or why the conflict had begun. All the forces involved were unable to gain a decisive victory against each other because of the carefully constructed level of defence for each of the participating subterranean cities. The tech described how fruitless assaults and pointless bloody victories eventually brought the leaders of the cities into the beginnings of a diplomatic peace.

    And then barely weeks before the cease fire would come into effect, disaster had struck.

    “Yeah, I know. Those scum launched a surprise attack that destroyed our city. No one is sure how it happened. But what we do know is that you tech shits ordered the army to stand down. The other cities saw their chance, and took it.”

    “Not quite. The city forces were still on full alert when the end came.”

    A sudden commotion broke in as one of the troopers called them over. The passive had responded. The flash of the pointer laser had awakened its long dormant activation systems. The tiny circuits had been exposed to decades of erosion from the incessant wind and weak sunshine, but the titanium alloy skin had withstood it remarkably well. The antigravity power units hadn’t. Instead of leaping to an easily retrievable waist height, the unit spun momentarily in an uncontrollable whirling that spewed up the dirt that quickly enveloped the discoverer and the pair of troopers alongside him in a blindingly impenetrable maelstrom that hid not only them but their quarry as well. If not for the closed system of the enviro suits, Corporal Smit was sure that they would have suffocated in the choking cloud of rapidly widening dust. As it was, the situation quickly became dangerous as the uncontrolled unit tore into the rock field, sending slivers of smashed rock in random directions.

    His frantic instruction for them to fall back was accompanied by a shriek of pain as the wildly gyrating passive slammed into one of the obscured figures. Panicked by the sudden cry, the two remaining troopers added to the confusion with their own repeated shouts of “man down”. The remainder of the squad, unnerved by the sudden explosion of violence in their midst, scattered.

    His bellowed order for them to form a defensive perimeter brought the chaos under control even as the scream from the wounded trooper quietened to a pain filled whimpering and the dust cloud began to settle.

    “Report in. Who’s hit?”

    “Me, uh trooper first class Michaels. It’s stuck in my leg and I think it broke it.”

    “Corporal, you might want to use the low visibility option here.”

    At least Aaron had used the private channel, to save him from looking even more stupid than he already felt. He swore under his breath. First mission and one man injured by little more than a flying rock. He didn’t know which was worse, the injury or that all of them had forgotten to turn on their HUD’s low-vis setting except for the lanky technician.

    Allowing the computer to peer through the murk, the ultrasonic sound waves reverberated off all surfaces to throw back a monochrome image onto the inner surface of his face mask. Once the on-board’s filters had taken out the confusing reflections of the dust particles, the resulting image was hazy but clear enough for him to be able to see the crouched form of the tech bending over the injured troopers prone.

    “What are you doing to him?”

    “His suit is compromised, so I’m extracting the passive and then putting a field dressing on. That will seal him up long enough to get him back to the city and some medical attention.”

    “How long will it take to access the passive and get an answer?”

    “It will be bout’ four hours. But I have to do a software update as well, and that is going to take the rest of the day. Most probably till tomorrow morning”

    He was going to have to send the injured Michaels back in the skimmer, leaving the rest of them out here. Goosebumps formed on his neck and arms, he barely managed to still the involuntary shudder, at the thought of being stuck Top Side on foot. A couple of days march from home, if for some reason the others couldn’t come back to fetch them. Loading the injured man onto its open cargo area was the work of minutes, with the pair of escorts who would return the following morning to collect the rest of the squad.

    As the repulsion motors kicked in, taking the skimmer back, he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He’d only ever done one sim of being stranded Top Side, and although his pass rate had scored in the range of exceptional, the reality was far more terrifying. In the training sims there was always the option of failing by simply taking off the sim-suit. Here there was no easy out. Remove the head piece and he would be assailed by the poisoned heat that was all that remained of the atmosphere. He would slowly and painfully choke out his last moments. Despite the sheer quantity of open space outside the suit, claustrophobia pulled stronger at the edge of his consciousness, pulling stronger the more the skimmer faded into the distance.

    “You’d better get a grip. We’re going to be here for the night. Extend the perimeter.” It took him several moments to realise that it wasn’t the tech gently goading him on, as the remaining troopers spread out into the nothingness to follow his order. Even behind the mirror reflective face mask, he knew the crouched figure of the tech was smiling.

    Finding out what had set of the passive would take hours yet, and he could either keep up the façade of aloofness or give into the gnawing curiosity of the tech’s alternate history. At the very least, it would pass the time and hold the fear of Top Side at bay until he could find some way of dealing with it.

    “You said that the Field Technicians weren’t responsible for losing the City Before?” again, the feeling that Aaron was smiling. He most probably had a full grin by now.

    “As I said, when the attack came, the army was on full alert. People were no more stupid then, than they are now.”

    Aaron told how the city’s forces, after decades of war, were a highly experienced army ready for almost any eventuality. And yet the entire city of almost a million inhabitants had been overrun in less than a week. After the pitifully small group of shattered survivors had escaped, they had found other similarly tiny groups roaming the wastelands. These had been from the other cities involved in the war, and strangely had almost the exactly the same story of mass destruction.

    “Our ancestors were battle hardened veterans, and yet despite their experience, they were unable to offer more than token resistance to some outside attackers. What’s even more interesting is that the other cities were beaten and destroyed the same way, at the same time.”

    “You said there were similarities between then and now.”

    He carried on his tale. Of how the remote sensors used in that far off time would occasionally send back seemingly false reports of movement in the most remote areas. Soldiers sent to defend against possible attack, found nothing. At first the military leaders had thought it was probes by the enemy forces to draw the city’s forces away in preparation of a surprise attack while the peace negotiations progressed. But when no sign was found of any intruders, they started suspecting the aging defence system itself.

    Smaller groups were sent out to replace any seemingly malfunctioning equipment as suspicion died, until the units sent out started disappearing without trace. Transponders attached would stop signalling the locations of the dispatched men, with follow up squads finding nothing to show that the groups they were searching for had ever existed. As unbelievable as it seemed, heavily armed soldiers that were at high degrees of alert were vanishing into the waste lands without the slightest sign of even firing off a single round in self-defence.

    The records of the actual assault were sketchy, not a single survivor had seen the attackers. Every unit used in the defence had died, along with most of the civilian population. It hadn’t been an attack as much as extermination. The few survivors had all been from the groups that had run for the escape tunnels first. Cowardice and luck had been the defining survival instincts. Anyone who hesitated, thought twice or took a wrong turn had died. The survivors had been those who ran without thought of responsibility or concern for others. Another defining rule had been the complete lack of family groups in the sorry remnants from the City Before.

    “That’s not to say that they didn’t have family, they just didn’t stick around when the children got tired or were moving too slowly. Probably explains why so many of the politician’s got out to start our new city.”

    “I note that the techs also managed to survive? So maybe your history is there to make you feel better about what actually happened. It seems to me that my history is a little more impartial, a bit closer to the truth. How about you quit with your fairy tales, and get on with your job.”

    Miserable tech shit. He’d almost started to like the fucker. Just goes to show, they lose a city and are made into the lowest of scum. They hadn’t deserved to be allowed in but the leadership had decided that even shit like that should be given the right to life. Their only response, the gratitude shown, is to create a story involving a magically superior army that appeared out of thin air and putting the blame on the true heroes. The leaders who had shone through the dirt of war, who even in their dying moments had been so focused on giving the survivors of the treacherous attack a chance, that they had sacrificed their own lives to launch the counter attack which had destroyed their enemies.

    He had a good mind to pop the tech right there for his treasonous bullshit. But tolerance was the key. The techs were the true cowards, and like all weaklings, they needed a justification for their weakness. It was for him to emulate the lenience, humanity and strength of those who built the Three City complex. He must lead while the techs complained about the unjust treatment they received. Aaron should realise that he ought to be thankful in just being allowed to draw breath. With this justification firmly lodged in his thoughts, he quickly squashed the little voice that reminded him that the tech had never complained. Aaron had always been calm and cool, even when the little passive had run berserk and all his superior troops had panicked.

    So he stood proudly surveying his small band of true men, while the technician sat cross legged in the dirt that he belonged in. He could see the picture in his mind of how he must appear to his men. But there were hours still to go in this exercise and he couldn’t just stand there indefinitely, he would start to look foolish.

    “How long will it be until you’ve finished analysing the data? I need to send a report to Command.”

    “As I said, it will be hours. Most probably middle of the shift, what the old people called midnight. But I won’t find anything.”

    The Corporal gritted his teeth, telling himself that he wouldn’t ask. Sighing in defeat, the question forced itself through the gaps. Aaron paused, in surprise.

    “Why? Because that’s the way the imaginary army works. This is the sixth passive that I’m inspecting and upgrading in the last four months. The rest of the Field technicians are busy doing the same.”

    He didn’t need to continue. Command had decided that the passive screen was acting up, probably needing to be completely overhauled. But Aaron’s history was crap? Any similarity had to have been added to make it seem more believable.

    “Well. It’s not entirely true to say that I’ll find nothing. Let’s just say the findings will be inconclusive.”

    There, he did it again. Half bits of information dropped, like bait, to draw him into conversation again. Damb Tech was trying to convert him.

    “Just find it and show me. I’ll decide on the value.”

    “Look up. It’s your first real sunset.

    The sun had begun to drop over in the western horizon, painting the grey haze of the sky with its own brilliant oranges and flaming reds, fading to pastel yellow overhead and fading to darker grey and finally a swelling inkiness of pitch black in the East. Darkness so completely lightless, that it seemed to fill his soul. As the flaming star’s waning light turned the bleakness around him into a vision of endlessly wondrous detail, as each tiny pebble seemed to be thrown into a deep contrast with the plain surrounding it. The beauty of the moment seared itself into his eyes, filling them to brimming point. The reality far outstripped the holographic images that computer gen rooms created.

    As the riot of true colours faded into the darkness of night, Kevin still stood mesmerised, barely able to breathe at the wonder of nature.

    “Most of that is caused by the level of pollution in the air. So essentially when the people at the end of the 21st century began to die off, it was with progressively more beautiful sunsets.” He could hear the barely controlled grim laughter in the tech’s voice, but even that couldn’t spoil the breathlessness of the moment

    Even as the last rays sunk below the far horizon, Aaron called him over to view the nothingness that had set of the passives alarms. Tapping the feed directly from the passive’s memory into Kevin’s helmet, they viewed the last moments before the almost undetectably short micro burst alarm transmission.

    With its full 360 degree, it made no difference how the sensor was positioned. It viewed in all directions simultaneously, making it impossible to approach without being seen. The level of sensitivity in its hearing made even the almost undetectable movements of the turgid air over the field of time worn pebbles and rocks moan and wail as if it the very hosts of hell had risen to begin the first days of Armageddon.

    Over and over, he replayed those few seconds. He watched as the target acquisition system seemed to awaken, without any provocation from the harmlessly unchanging drabness that passed itself off as scenery, and focus its target pointers on an innocently empty spot several dozen metres away. Was it just as Aaron had said? Nothing would be found. Was it a malfunction in the software, like the mini repulsion motor, had the sensors themselves began to breakdown after the decades of being subjected to the Top Side elements?

    Procedure dictated that no matter how unreasonable the task, every possible avenue must be exhausted to ensure the fault was mechanical and not an actual alert. Again Kevin viewed the memories, filtering out the natural sounds of the environment. Gone was the howling, wailing shriek of the air currents, the gentle rasping made by the grains of sand as they rubbed against their fellows.

    What was left was the almost inaudible crunch of a single footstep.

    In the middle of nowhere, as if materialising from the imagination of the lonely mind of a computer, the sound of pressure exerted by someone taking just one step. Unaccompanied by required body and legs, a single pace had been taken. The machined intelligence was designed to observe, to tirelessly monitor the unchanging view. No thinking was required, so it hadn’t been programed to do so. It just watched and listened. And when a sound from the stillness could be matched to one of the millions stored in its data banks, it responded as it had been programmed to. Identify the source, lock on to it and send the alarm.

    It never rationalised the lack of a body, or even a foot, to accompany the step. It never paused to see if something else materialised to accompany the implausible sound. It reacted. That even the slightest bit of analysis would have shown just how impossible it would be for a step to be taken without some sort of accompanying appendage for locomotion, never entered its micro circuit brain. It just reported.

    It was left for him to ascertain the value of the report. And he was inclined to dismiss it as some joining of natural process which culminated in the sound of a footstep.

    Procedure said that he had to investigate, and if the skimmer had still been here, he would have called it a day. Filled in the report to say the passive had been fooled, climbed back in and headed for the almost womb like protection of his subterranean home. But as he was still here, and would be until at least morning brought the sun back to light up this inhospitable desert. He might as well do the job properly, and waste a few more of the dragging minutes.

    Calling Aaron over, he sent the filtered data over, and started off towards the innocuous point highlighted by his helmet, as the tech viewed the file.

    “You see the similarity to what happened to the City Before? I think we are in trouble.”

    “Please. Enough of that shit. This is reality, not some god-dammed fairy tale. The machine got confused by something easily explained away. I’m going to record that target area so that command can see it for what it is.”

    Meandering over to the offending bit of useless ground, he started scanning it into the data storage for analysis. His on-board was far more sophisticated than the dumb little passive, but it would still need about an hour to run through all probabilities. Wasted processing, as far as the Corporal was concerned, but there wasn’t really anything else to do.

    Almost immediately the on-board began to superimpose grid lines on his facemask as it began to probe the small stretch of ground that the passive had identified as the source. A tiny square that looked as undisturbed as the thousands of kilometres around it. Except for?

    The on-board began outlining an area, inserting a faint reddish hue that filled a vague indentation. When it had finished, his disbelieving brain simply refused to interpret the impossible which his eyes and the machine saw. If the machine’s interpretation was to be believed, it showed a single human footprint. No other was to be seen, just that solitary indentation that was unaccompanied by the trail of similar prints which should have brought it here.

    Silently gesturing to the tech, not trusting his voice to stay steady, he waited as Aaron also stared at the impossible.

    “How did it get here?” he could hear the fear distorting his voice, making it sound high pitched.

    “Not by itself.” The dumbass tech fucker was making jokes?

    “Well, that’s that. They are here, so I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”

    Kevin raised his eyes, expecting Aaron’s mythical army to have magically appeared. The dessert was as empty as before.

    “Think about it. That footprint is a message telling us that someone is here. And the point is that they have the ability to move without being seen, even by electronic viewers.”

    The implausible story was back. Was it possible for the tech to have somehow put the foot print there himself. It wasn’t like they’d monitored his movements. In fact any of them could have come here by mistake. But it was a solitary print in an otherwise undisturbed area, at least fifty metres from the closest anyone had been.

    And the passive used exactly the same tech as what they were using right now. Nothing fancy, just enhancement of any available light so that even the darkest shadow in the night was revealed as if it had been hit by a searchlight. The enviro suits had the size to allow them all to use the built in ultrasonic that further augmented object recognition programs. Never before had soldiers gone into battle with their vision enhanced to such a degree.

    And he was saying that his magic army was camouflaged against it. Ok, although the thought was completely crazy, the squad’s safety was his responsibility. He wouldn’t be much use as their leader if he didn’t at least check.

    He ordered the squad to swap over to the redundant infrared viewers. Instantly the world around him faded into an indistinct grey soup, as his own on-board followed suit with the rest of the squad.

    “I’ve got movement. One eight five metres forward of my position.” He was moving, even as the exited trooper shouted out in speaker distorting volume. Racing up to the prone form, Kevin turned to face the same direction the trooper was pointing to. The calmly strolling figure was a glowing white in the monotonous grey. It was just one man, not an army. But somehow the single sauntering figure was more threatening in its aloneness.

    Enhancing the indistinct shape didn’t do much. Enough to see that it was clad in a skin tight suit, with none of the bulkiness associated with impact armour. He couldn’t really make out the helmet, unless it was also so thin as to be fitted. The visor was a full face covering. The only bulkiness was on the right arm. From elbow to wrist was covered in what appeared to be a set of thin tubes.

    “Should I put him down Corp?” The trooper was acting as if this were a sim, the figure out there being no more than a construct. Without effort the decision was made. Whoever it was out there, was no friend. Maybe Elton was right. Just treat that thing out there as a training exercise. No thought, just do as you were trained. Kill it.

    “Wait. You won’t be able to hit it.” Startled by the sudden interruption, he turned to face Aaron, as the tech raced up with arms outstretched. “The old logs say that those things are impossible to hit. They have some kind of evasive technology.”

    “The fuck I won’t. And I don’t take orders from some First City shithead. Corp, gimme the word, an’ I’ll put one right up his effing nostril.” At less than two hundred metres, any of the squad would be quite capable of taking the shot, and with the rifle’s targeting system they could literally put a round within a centimetre of their chosen point.

    His phantom army of super soldiers had evasive technology as well. Aaron was getting inventive. Or maybe he should be cautious. That thing out there was all but invisible to the on-board’s systems.

    “Can you get a lock on it?”

    Elton grunted in surprise. “Acquisition’s all over the place. That dude has some kind of counter measures. Can I switch to manual? Got you now mofo.” How was that strange figure out there able to throw off jamming signals? There was no space in the sleek suit for any kind of on-board, just several small bulges on its back. For that matter, how was it able to survive without air tanks? Possibly some kind of advanced filter to pull what little oxygen remained in the foul air.

    Perhaps it would be wiser to ask command. Let them know that there was a visitor less than a hundred clicks from the city, inside the supposed safe zone. A single person couldn’t survive out here, so where was his support. Make the problem someone else’s. After all he was just a Corporal, and a new one to boot. None of his training had readied him for this kind of situation.

    “Command says take it out. We’ll retrieve the body for inspection.”

    Watching the distant figure, the expected crack of the rifle still caused him to start slightly in surprise. The slight shake in his view, made him doubt what his eyes interpreted. Even as Elton had caressed the trigger, sending the shell on its racing course, the stranger moved. Not the uncontrolled recoil from the impact of a heavy slug, more of a slight angling of its body as if to avoid bumping into something that was in its way. Simultaneously, it raised the strange tube covered right arm across its body. Twin points of light streaked across the intervening distance, accompanied by the faint popping of compressed air that would have been inaudible without Kevin’s audio gain being set at max.

    “You missed and it’s got a weapon. It’s using some kind of air gun, against impact armour.” The forming smile slid off his face as a small blinking alarm on his HUD drew his attention. Elton’s on-board monitors registered zero brain activity. The trooper was dead.

    Kneeling alongside the prone trooper, he pushed the slack, lifeless body onto its back. A pair of matching holes had been drilled through the armoured polymer of the face plate. In the indistinct green hued back glow from the trooper’s still operational HUD and face plate, Kevin could make out the pools of blood where Elton’s eyes had been moments before. He didn’t need a medics report to know that the strange projectiles had drilled though both hemisphere’s of the brain, causing instantaneous death.

    While Kevin kneeled next to the body in disbelief, Aaron came up alongside and picked up the dead trooper’s rifle. The manual scope, which Elton had been holding up to target the stranger, had been neatly drilled through. The level of target acquisition needed to achieve that level of accuracy defied all his knowledge in processing power.

    He turned to peer at the strange figure. It stood in exactly the same place from where it had taken the killing shots. No longer pacing, it stood in slack limbed motionlessness with its head cocked to one side as if puzzled by their lack of reaction. Even as he watched, the figure faded ghostlike from his view. IR could pick up nothing.

    “Sir, I’ve got visual on the target in normal enhancement. And acquisition is working again.”

    Switching his view back, he could see the figure standing out there, the quizzically angled head questioning them as if waiting to see what their response would be. Clad in dramatic black, he noted the dense musculature of an athlete trained to the peak of physical prowess. The massive shoulders of a wrestler set above the tapered waist and legs of a dancer.

    He could sense the exact moment when Kevin snapped, even as the young man lurched to his feet, Aaron reached out vainly in an attempt to stop him. The Corporal was too quick. Putting the stock of the rifle into his shoulder, he locked the targeting icon to the stranger, and simultaneously with a wordless cry, opened fire in full auto.

    Even as the stream of bullets left the barrel, the relaxed target sprang away. Diving to the left as the wasted torrent poured over its shoulder and harmlessly into the night. Still Kevin tracked the black suited figure, as its gyrations to avoid the steady flow of bullets became more became more exaggerated, resembling a ballet more than a battle.

    Dry clicks announced the clip had run dry, yet still he didn’t stop yanking at the trigger. Even as he began to fumble with a spare from his belt, other troopers overcame their shock and raced up alongside him to take up the barrage. The figure’s movements began to take on the appearance of almost floating, as it twisted and spun out of the way of the new streams.

    And even as the fusillade reached a crescendo, the stranger began to return fire with the strangely powerful tube like weapon. Even as the body’s erratic movements kept it out of harm’s way, the arm itself steadied and fired.

    The troopers that had come to help their Corporal dropped. Each had the same twin holes in their face plates and the same instantaneous death as Elton. As Kevin finally managed to cram the fresh load into his rifle, he looked up and saw the still forms of his men lying only metres away. Drawing ragged breath’s he looked at the black clad figure in the dessert beyond. It had resumed the slack limbed stance from before.

    “We’re dead, aren’t we? You and I are going to end up like them. Your imaginary army turned out to be only one man. What now?”

    “I don’t think it would help, but maybe you should call for reinforcements.”

    “Duty Command, this is Echo 5 requesting assistance. We are taking heavy fire with casualties. Please respond.”

    <Good evening Corporal Smit, unfortunately I cannot permit your transmission to go through. I do apologise for the inconvenience.> the clipped cadence of the cultured voice filled the receivers of all the remaining survivors. To do so meant that the military grade encryption had been breached. Not only that, but they were being jammed at the same time.

    “Who is this?” he hadn’t meant to sound so panicky, but after the last few moments, Kevin was surprised that he could even talk.

    <The question is irrelevant. But as adding to your stress levels may increase my personal enjoyment, I shall answer. My designation is JW16, and I have been tasked with the containment of your squad until such time as the assault on your city has been initiated. This will occur in slightly under four hours.>

    The emotionless voice spoke with the pleasant tones of a book reader. He spoke of the impending attack on the city as if the centuries of defensive planning, with all the carefully sighted short and long range emplacements, didn’t exist. Kevin wanted to dismiss the statement with the contempt it disserved, but he had seen how ineffective their weapons and computer systems had been against just this one person. He could imagine the destruction that could be wrought by an army of these units.

    “And then what? You gonna try kill us.”

    <I will first conclude my assessment for potential donors. The remainder will be superfluous.>

    “You’ve already killed four of my men. Were they superfluous?”

    <Correction Corporal Smit, the total now stands at seven. The crew of your ground vehicle were dispatched within twenty minutes of their departure.>

    He turned to Aaron with a multitude questions roiling through his mind. But all he could manage were profanities. His men were dead, they were blocked out from any kind of contact and the only hope of getting away was, according to JW16, gone too. What the hell would they need donors for? Why had his men been killed, where he was left alive? That man out there was crazy, who in his right mind got “personal enjoyment” from killing? He, Aaron and the trio of survivors from his squad were trapped in an endless desert with a bullet proof psychopath, and he didn’t know what to do. All directions pointed to death.

    Kevin blinked away the childlike tears of frustrated impotence that were filling his eyes. It wasn’t fair. His first ever command, and they were all going to die. Not in the glorious heat of battle, severely outnumbered, but heroically fighting off a multitude of enemies and saving the lives of countless others. To be forever remembered as a hero of the city.

    He didn’t want to be a soldier anymore.

    He just wanted to go home.

    The tears became real, flowing unheeded down his cheeks to fall and pool in in the creases of the enviro suit’s neck joint.

    The sudden slap on the side of his helmet jolted him out of his misery.

    “Get a grip Kevin. It won’t help to fall apart. He’d just enjoy it more.”

    What was he supposed to do? Be calm and collected? He was just a kid. The only reason he got the promotion was because he said “yes sir”, followed orders and could shoot straight. Fat lot of use that was against a target that seemed to know where the bullets were going. It was almost as if JW16 could read his mind.

    Aaron stared down at the crouched figure of the Corporal in front to him, and felt the familiar wave of sympathy that had swept over him from the moment they’d met back in the city. Even then he’d known that Kevin had been new. All bluster and bullshit, a kid dressed up in his daddy’s uniform and playing at being a soldier.

    Beneath that thin veneer, Aaron had seen the young man Kevin would become if given the chance. But now, he was out of his depth. None of the weeks of inadequate training had prepared him for what he was facing. This was supposed to have been a milk run for the new Corporal in preparation for understanding his position as an Officer candidate. Instead his fragile ego had dissolved as fast as the squad around him. In less than a single shift, Aaron had watched him broken from copycat arrogant man child to just a scared little boy.

    If Kevin had been a little less thoughtful or even a little less observant, then the single smudge of the foot print left by JW16 would have passed unnoticed and perhaps that ominous figure would have never had attacked. Most other career soldiers would have called it a day after the initial incident with the defective passive sensor. All would have accepted his report that that there was nothing to be found in the emptiness, but not Kevin. The Corporal had noticed what even he had missed, and Aaron had been exhaustively trained to notice the little things.

    Turning his thoughts away from the visibly trembling figure, Aaron was under no illusions. When JW16 had spoken about evaluating for donors, he’d been speaking directly to the Field Technician. The three remaining troopers were as useless as their fallen comrades to the attacker as they were to Aaron. Grumbling and prejudiced foot sloggers that were only useful as long as they could hold a gun and pull a trigger. All were old hands at the game of seeming to follow instructions from green commanders, while doing next to nothing. Although Kevin had pretended not to notice, most of his men had gone to sleep when ordered into the defensive perimeter.

    So if the soldiers were meant to die, and he was supposed to donate whatever thing it was that JW16 wanted, what was to become of Corporal Kevin Smit? In another time, they would have returned to Three City and Aaron would have recommended to his fellow techs that they try and recruit the kid. But that wasn’t going to happen. It was up to him to lead this pitiful band back to the city. A full shift, at a Forced March rate, would get them across the intervening desert before the sun set.

    Pulling Kevin to his feet, Aaron told the truculent troopers to fall in.

    “You aren’t in charge of shit, techie. The Corp’s the only one who can tell us what to do.”

    “Who’s the best shot here? Huh? Corporal Smit shot a full clip, one hundred and forty rounds of propelled seekers, and he couldn’t hit our friend out there. I’m taking him back to the city. If you want to stay here, that’s your funeral?”

    Pulling at the shoulder tabs of the shattered Kevin’s suit, to get him moving, Aaron strode off towards the distant hills that shrouded their home, with the corporal in tow. Within moments the troopers grumblingly followed. Anything was better than being left alone with the motionless black figure that radiated malevolence until it was almost tangible in the air around them.

    As they walked, JW16 turned and kept pace with them. The grace in the way he moved reminded Aaron of one of the long extinct feline hunters that used to roam over the grassy planes, and they were his prey. If what he’d said was true, then when they eventually got to the city, it would be in its last moments. Dying as its population was being decimated, the vaunted military having no more chance than the army from the City Before had. Their nemesis might even relish the extra emotional anguish inflicted.

    “Why are we going back? If he’s right, then there’s nothing left to go back to.”

    Kevin was starting to come back. He’d even used the close range suit to suit. Aaron smiled grimly. There were several reasons, and the kid was one of them. Aaron was old by the Field Technician standards. This was supposed to be his last Top Side mission before being reassigned to internal duties, and like most of his select corps, he’d never had a chance to have a family. If one had been possible, he would have wished to have a boy like Kevin. If there was the slightest possibility of the kid surviving, then he’d make sure Kevin had it.

    As the lightless night slowly ebbed away into a vague glow that signified the return of the sun’s weak light to the wasted planet’s surface, they were still far out on the plain. The hills had slowly grown into a low range of starkly bare mountains.

    <The assault by our eradication force has begun. You may again communicate with your city Field Technician.>

    He could almost feel the men turning up the resolution on their face masks, the sharp intakes of breath and muttered half curses of disbelief as they saw for themselves what JW16 had pointed out. The almost impossibly strong defensive perimeter, with its layers of carefully placed weapon systems using the most advanced targeting computing, had been breached. The outer wall of the city had also been broken through, and the army was in shattered retreat towards the Citadel, the strongest of the strong points, situated inside the deepest part of the mountain range in which the city had been built. Decades had been spent in ensuring that the new Three City complex would be able to resist being destroyed for months, years or if ever. The worst case scenario had put the holding of the city at two weeks, and that would involve attacking forces of several hundred thousand units.

    This had all happened in less than half an hour, if their self-professed executioner and the now visible column of smoke rising over where the city sheltered, was to be believed. The Command com channel was filled with vague order and counter order as the panicked commanders tried to understand what and where their enemy was. According to what he was able to piece together from the fragmented reports, First City had already been overrun with it nearly half a million inhabitants being systematically hunted down in the maze of twisting corridors that made up its construction.

    Aaron could barely understand the driving compulsion to cross the dozen or so kilometres that still separated them from their home. All through the long morning, they marched while listening in on Commands frequency. Kevin’s transmissions were all but ignored in the chaos of the assault. It was only once the city’s forces had regrouped behind the all but impenetrable barrier of the titanium alloy door, which separated the Inner City from First City, that someone finally answered his insistent requests for assistance.

    Far from the rational and controlled response Kevin had been expecting, the Captain on duty started screaming orders for them to immediately attack the outnumbered JW16, with any trooper who failed to follow the order to be summarily executed for cowardice.

    “There’s a war on Corporal, sort your shit out by yourself. When you get back here, I’m going to personally charge you with incompetence and make sure that you are stripped of your rank. Carry on.”

    They were alone. There would be no reinforcements sent to assist.

    The weight settled on Aarons shoulders as his last futile hope disappeared faster than smoke in a vacuum chamber. He could better understand why JW16 had let them start this futile walk. The black suited figure had said that he would enjoy any extra mental suffering that could be inflicted on them.

    With no other option, they carried on towards the city. Each step brought them closer, the distant pall of smoke grew larger, and through it all JW16 kept tireless pace. Always there, mocking their impotence. When would his promise of death materialise?

    With the early afternoon, came the attack on Inner City and the massive door. The fractured reports said a ringing sound emanated from it as if a giant bell was tolling. After less than a quarter of an hour, the seemingly impregnable door started glowing, and within minutes, melted away under whatever strange weapon the attackers were using.

    Again the chaos descended over the network. This time it was the computer defence system itself that started calling for the civilian population to assemble at defence stations for issuing of weapons. Aaron knew it was only a matter of hours until the city was completely overrun, with the panicked survivors heading for the escape tunnels. Some would survive. Half an hour later, Command went off air in mid-sentence. And with it, were two centuries worth of human development.

    The small group stood less than half a dozen kilometres from the burning mountain that had sheltered their now ruined home. Beneath the kilometres long cloud of smoke, the conflagration still spewed flame from the hundreds of burning defence stations. Of the great door that had been set into the side of the mountain which had sheltered the Three City, nothing remained. A great bellow of black smoke poured from the now open passage way from the blazing remnants of the subterranean city.

    Of the expected attacking army, almost nothing could be seen except a few flitting delta winged shapes that dipped and soared through the smoke. Scattered around the smoking remnants of the entrance, lay perhaps two dozen stubby winged box shaped vehicles that also appeared to have flown through the carbon rich atmosphere to land there. Slowly circling the mountain was a massive skeletal structure of girders several hundred meters long. The last fifty or so, being made up of a drive motor that spewed an electric blue flame. It didn’t take too much imagination to see how the box shaped drop ships around the entrance had fitted into the mid-section of the mother ship, while the winged flyers had been attached to the tapered front end.

    The small band stood stunned at the scene before them. None had ever seen or heard of a vehicle that could fly. It was an ancient concept that had ended hundreds of years before, when the air had become too polluted to breathe. The carbon in the air clogged the intakes and the high methane content turned any kind of combustion engine into a bomb. Repulsion motors attached to most vehicles was the closest they had seen to flight.

    Turning slowly, Aaron faced their tormenter. He had resumed the familiar slack limbed stance from their first encounter. again the head was cocked as if asking him what was next. Their options had run out.

    “So what happens now?” He knew the answer, there wasn’t any hope left.

    <I thought we might converse for period that remains. It has been many lifetimes since I last spoke with an unpaired human, or machine for that matter.>

    “Have you chosen the donors?”

    <Of course, but it is singular not plural. I see by your brain pattern, that you are perplexed. So let us analyse the needs of the society from which I am bred. We have melded part of our consciousness with that of the machine. Such a joining has both advantages and disadvantages. Our ability’s in logic are without comparison and physical enhancements make the assault units unmatched. What we lack, for all our logic, is the imagination. Too much control stifles creativity. Without a steady influx of new concepts, we would stagnate. Without adding to the genetic reserves, we would be unable to have sufficient variety to make us a viable population.>

    Understanding hit with almost a physical force. Their city had been destroyed so that JW16 and his ilk could steal the ideas of his people, and rip the genetic material from those that were deemed suitable as donors. They were harvesting a crop. They would let some of the population escape, as had those from the City Before, and the survivors would begin a new city. In a few centuries, when the population had grown to a level where the thinkers were again coming up with original concepts, that city would also be harvested.

    “Why did you choose me?”

    <Come now Field Technician. Look at those around you. Would you have that I select the incompetent Corporal, who is nothing but a useless child, with fantasies of leadership? One failure and he collapses into nothingness. Or perhaps you would prefer one of the three troopers? If you were to find a way to safety, they would turn on you like a pack of ravenous wolves. Make no mistake technician; my society has use for people who kill without compunction or moral quandary, but those men would do it from spite and cowardice. They lack the commitment of either the moral believer or the blood thirsty psychopath.>

    Out in the dessert, JW16 seemed to sigh. His head swivelled, as if to drink in one last look at the world around him.

    <I have been recalled, and as enjoyable as this interaction has been, the time has come for it to end.>

    Even as death began to move towards them with the same tireless leonine grace, Aaron screamed the order to open fire. Pulling the rifle to his shoulder, he started pulling the trigger in controlled bursts. Around him the rattle of gun fire sounded as the dessert erupted around the dark form that leapt towards them.

    Again the lithe form began its pirouetting ballet that made it dance in his sight. This time the target acquisition was left unjammed, but still he couldn’t quite lock on to the wild gyrations that brought JW16 ever closer. Every time he pulled the trigger, his target managed to move marginally out of the path. Again he was struck at how the agile figure seemed to know exactly where he was aiming. It was like trying to hit a puff of smoke or a ghost.

    Alongside him, Kevin fumbled for a fresh mag, as he too ran dry. Ramming in the new load, Aaron again pulled the rifle up. Jw16 was less than 10 metres away. With a speed that made him feel as his own body was moving in slow motion, the black suit smashed into him. A pair of blows hit the impact armour on his chest, slamming him backwards until the ground caught his airborne body, sending him into an uncontrolled tumble.

    Even as Aaron shakily staggered to his feet, he saw Kevin likewise hitting the ground several meters away. The troopers didn’t fare so well.

    JW16 reached the first and thrust out his hand in a spear like motion at the first one’s torso. The composite armour gave way with the sound of crunching plastic that was almost drowned out by the agonised shrieking of the impaled man. Without a pause, he threw the flailing body at the remaining pair, taking them down in a tangle of limbs. Instantly he was above them, punching down with both fists simultaneously. Both of the soldiers face plates gave way with almost no resistance, and the two bodies were still.

    Jw16 stood up, flicking the gore from his hands as he did so, and turned to face the remaining pair. Even at full opaque, Aaron could sense the manic grin under the face plate. Kevin’s rifle had skittered away when he’d dropped it while Aaron was left with only the stock and the handle, the fore part of the now useless weapon having been snapped off from JW16’s initial impact. They were now both unarmed.

    He was coming at them again. Kevin made a frantic, diving scrabble for the rifle, but even as he moved, he knew it was too far and he was too slow. He didn’t even see the blow coming, although he felt it none the less. The contemptuous slap against the side of his helmet had the extraordinary power to halt and reverse his headlong flight, spinning his body around as he rebounded off to land winded and dazed on his back.

    Rolling onto his side, he could see JW16 closing on the Technician. Aaron swung a short and brutal right, which if it had connected, would have ended any brawl with a normal man. Instead, his opponent angled his head to the side as the vicious fist sailed harmlessly past, launching counter strikes to the technician’s body. The trip hammer jolts were so close together as to sound like one.

    Again the force used in the blows was too much, as Aarons body was launched backwards from the impact. Rising more slowly this time, breath panting loudly through the speakers in his helmet, Kevin could see the technician had been badly hurt. On both sides of his body, where the strikes had landed, the armour had the crumpled look of used tinfoil. He could only imagine the extent of the damage to the ribcage that lay underneath the shattered carapace.

    Once more JW16 moved forward, dodging an ineffective jab. Launching his knee into the already damaged ribs, Aaron was bodily lifted into the air as JW16’s elbow crashed into his exposed back between the shoulders. Again the crunching sound of armour as the body slammed into the dirt.

    Aaron pushed feebly against the ground in a vain attempt to rise. His legs dragged uselessly behind him, as the crushed spine blocked all signals from the frantic brain.

    JW16 stooped over the broken body below him while pulling a small silver tube from one of the pouches on his back. Attaching it to the technicians shoulder, he pushed aside the Aaron’s weak attempt at resistance. After a few moments he rose, detaching the tube as he stood. When he spoke, there was an almost palpable sadness in the previously emotionless voice.

    <I thank you Field Technician. And although this current body of yours is in a terminal state, you shall live on indefinitely.>

    Turning to Kevin, the sadness evaporated.

    <Boy, yours is the worst kind of weakness. No, I shall not sully my hands with the taking of your pointless excuse for a life. You have two options. Either go to what is left of your city, the eradication force does not have the same disgust as I have for your sort and they will kill you, or remain in this Top Side that you fear so much and slowly die of hunger and thirst. The choice that I have given you is the only entertainment I shall permit myself at your demise. But until then you will care for this man until his last moments.>

    Spinning on his heel, their executioner strode away in the direction of the burning city.

    As the figure slowly faded into the distance, Kevin slowly rose and went to his fallen friend. But even without the diagnostics program, he could tell that JW16 hadn’t lied. Aaron had bare moments left.

    “Don’t stress yourself over words Kevin, because you are more than he understands. You will be more. The survivors need to know exactly what they will face, and I need you to take my data recorder with you to tell them what happened. They will need your help to build a new city, and someone to lead them. You understand what it means to fail and still win.”

    For long moments he kneeled over the Aarons still form, the technician’s last words echoed in his ears, even if understanding would take years.

    Would he head for the city? It was the easy way out, to head back into the waste land was another effort in futility. Find the survivors and help them build a new city. Aaron was surely crazy to expect so much of him. Maybe the nearness of death had made him desperate enough to clutch at straws.

    A short straw.

    It was a dumb saying.

    Picking up his rifle, Kevin turned his back on the easy and headed into the wilderness.
     
  10. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    A cry for help


    I had to do it, honestly. When you are as lonely as I am, you have to do something. Don’t get me wrong, I do have friends, but then again, not so many. It’s the ladies that give me trouble. The last time I spoke to a female was about 4 years ago in a bar downtown, that is,if you can call babbling speaking. She turned away after only a few words were exchanged, but the words probably weren’t the only fault. My friends say I just don’t have a way with women. I often get a feeling they have something to say about my looks too, but they keep that to themselves for which I am grateful. I’m not fat or anything, don’t get me wrong, just unattractive. I know I am, I’ve actually heard that plenty of times, so I accepted it. The problem is I am all the things a man shouldn’t be; shy, socially awkward, bad with words, I’m easily offended and without any self esteem – until it comes to science.

    I tried studying engineering, but I flanked out, they were teaching too much about things I never really cared about. I got a job and started educating myself about things I was actually interested in. Artificial intelligence, that became my area of expertise. When I reached my 24th birthday, I was already a freaking Einstein of AI. That was around the same time I got my final rejection from that woman at the bar. Soon after her reaction I started building an artificial intelligence myself, one that would enhance my personality. Ihad been thinking about contriving it for quite some time, but the lady was the last straw, the cause of starting it and reason for proceeding. And I made it. I finished it two weeks ago, at the age of 28.

    When I was halfway through with it, I found out my project was able to communicate. We started talking, not with words, but with thoughts. I was so psyched, it completely blew my mind. I wanted to finish it as soon as possible. The Gentleman as I named him– it’s aweird name, I know – was at the time he started talking just an orangish jelly-like thing in the size of a sunflower blossom. I decided I would make him more human-like. It took me another year to finish his mind processing unit and then I started building him a body out of scrap metal. We were talking more and more and in my enthusiasm I failed to notice his character development, his soothing tone, his sweeter and sweeter words began blurring my reason. All I could see was success at social life, how my invention would teach me to live. Strange thought, should be the other way around, right?

    The body was finished quickly, the only thing left to do was charge its battery and put the Gentleman in a heart shaped hole. Like I predicted, he had no trouble controlling the body. Soon after that, things got out of hands.

    The Gentleman somehow assumed the role of a female, a very violent female. He started rampaging all over the house, but luckily I managed to keep him inside of it and even get him in a basement. Down there this little ritual of raving continued for a couple of days untilI caught him off guard one night. I snuck behind him and turned the body battery off. My mind was finally woken up from the blindness of success and I decided to send him somewhere far away. The idea of putting him in an unregistered container and send him to China arose in my head. I knew there was a depot of unregistered containers. I called seven friends, who worked with me at Ridge city port and explained everything to them. At that time they were just confused, but they didn’t judge me. Together, we put the Gentleman inside of a red container and I remember watching him being sealed away, but I felt sadness and emptiness, like a great part of my life was gone. My memory is blank after that, I can’t remember anything else except myself lying on the ground and a male person leaning over me, saying everything is going to be okay. I remember him very well, because his shadowed figure was the last thing I saw before darkness consumed me.


    * * *


    Detective sergeant John Stowe stood by the wall of a small office, which belonged to Elliot Byrne, docks controlling manager. He wore a dark grey overcoat which matched perfectly with chequered scarf hanging around his neck His hands were nonchalantly stuck in his pockets as if he was boringly waiting for a train to take him home. He watched Elliot and listened to him, but this interrogation gave him no specific answers to yesterday’s explosion. He quickly glanced over his watch, noticing today’s shift ends within an hour. He was tired of looking for clues and remains of explosives of which the forensics found only used metal which indicated the explosive was home-made. Questioning employees tired him, since they had nothing to say except of hearing the explosion and seeing its fire. But he decided to interrogate themanager despite weariness and finish this troubled Tuesday. After all it was his job and he considered himself a professional.

    “…and the ship was meant to go there, it’s one of the biggest wharves in China, strengthened for container transportation,” he heard Elliot explain when he woke up from his day dream.

    “Strengthened in container transportation?” he heard himself ask.

    “Yes, when China was building ports, they concentrated on the construction of a group of deep-water wharves, which are specialized for container management and transport.”

    “And what would in this Thanjin the…”

    “It’s Tianjin,” Elliot interrupted him.

    “Ok, Tianjin. What would the port management there do if an unregistered container was found?” Stowe continued as if he was not cut off.

    “Probably they have the same procedure as we do.”

    Stowe waited a few moments for further explanation, but when Elliot said nothing else, he urged him. “And what is that procedure?”

    “We open the unknown container, since the content might give us a clue who it belongs to. If we don’t find any documentation, we put it in a depot on hold, just in case we receive a missing report.”

    John nodded and tried to think of any further questions, but he came up with nothing. “Thank you for your time, we’ll be in touch,” he nodded to Elliot and thanked him. He got out of the office and directed towards the forensics, who still struggled to find any explosive remains or fingerprints.

    “Hey Dan, you found anything yet?” he yelled from afar and an older forensic standing at the side of the scene turned to him.

    “Nope, nothing but these” Dan Bailey answered and waved at John with two metal pipes which he had seen earlier. “Don’t worry, we’ll let you know if we find anything new. We’ll be here until dark and return tomorrow.”

    “Ok, great. Have fun playing around, old man!” John greeted him and went towards his car. While walking he turned one more time to the explosion scene and stopped for a second. Seven people died, seven innocent people lost their lives in this - hopefully - meaningless explosion. One day had already passed, but police received no notice or demands by the terrorists yet, so all possibilities were still open.

    He sighed and thought of his family, what would he do if his two sons died in an attack? He would find the bastards if it was in his power, of course, but what after that? If he’d find them in a place with no witnesses, would he turn them in or took things in his own hands?

    Even though the victims weren’t related to him, he felt compelled to find whoever did this and bring at least a little comfort to the wives who lost their husbands. He turned around and went to the car with sad thoughts anchored in his mind, but once he turned the engine on, he decided he’d leave them at work, where they belong.


    The following day when John came to the office, he sat down behind wooden desk which stood in front of a window and was decorated with pictures of his family. Framed photographs of his smiling wife Julie and two sons were neatly standing in the upper left corner of the desk, opposite of computer. It didn’t matter what your profession was, if you had a family, you put a picture of it on a desk, like any normal John Q did. Stowe now looked at photos and rubbed his forehead. Gloomy thoughts yesterday left behind, were now sneaking back, but John drove them away when he picked up the phone and dialed Dan’s number, who didn’t pick up.He must be still sleeping John thought and chuckled. Dan had a habit of coming to work a little later, saying he can work only if he had a good night sleep.

    Stowe then called Marc Sewell, his younger colleague and he answered.

    “Hello?”

    “Hey Marc it’s John. I was just wondering if there’s been any progress in the evening?”

    “At the docks? Nah, there wasn’t any. I mean later on when Mike was diving at the bottom, he found a piece of metal with burnt meat still attached to it.”

    John glanced at pictures of his family and for a moment that melancholy took over him again.

    “John, you still there?” a voice coming from the phone woke him up.

    “Wha… Yeah, sure. So nothing else was found?” He tried to sound normal, while he turned his face away from the pictures and stared through the window on his right.

    “Like I said, it’s strange. An explosion this big should leave some traces behind, but there’s nothing, nada. As if the exploding thing was made out of air.”

    “And no fingerprints right?”

    “Nope, nothing, just prints from the dock workers. There are still some forensics on the scene, but at the moment it’s like putting together a puzzle with lots of missing pieces.”

    “Ok, keep me posted,” Stowe sighed and hung up.

    He leaned back on his chair and started gnawing on his glasses. That was his well-known gesture. Whenever he was thinking, he put his glasses in his mouth and started chewing them. Having them between his teeth made him feel more adult, also more sophisticated in a way. When he was younger, he even practiced it in front of a mirror, like mayors practice their smiles. Having sunglasses between his teeth made him feel more adult, also more sophisticated in a way. Of course, parents tried to make him stop, saying it was a bad habit, but why stop when even his father sometimes made the same move? Maybe unconsciously, but it didn’t matter to John, his old man also did it, case won.

    He was sitting in his big office chair now, withglasses in his mouth and thinking. One of the containers exploded at the docks two days ago, its fire lightning up the night’s sky and killing seven innocent dock workers who were just doing their jobs, hoping their shift would end as soon as possible so they could be on their way home, where a warm dinner was probably waiting for them. Completely innocent was the thought that haunted Inspector’s mind. Seven innocent people, just trying to feed hungry mouths at home. Only one was still alive. His mind shifted from the seven dead to the one alive. When John reached the site of the explosion the ambulance already took the surviving worker to the hospital. The shockwave hurt him pretty bad. Doctors explained he could be in acoma for quite some time, maybe even years. No help from that poor guy. But at least he was lucky enough to survive.

    After a few hours of unproductive thinking and researching, the doors to his office suddenly opened and dispatcher Rowny stepped in.

    “Sir, he’s awake.”

    “What, who is?”

    “The docks worker, Melvin Bettis.”

    “What?” Stowe said in surprise and put his arms on the desk, his eyes now fixed on the dispatcher.

    “We just received a call from the hospital. Melvin Bettis woke up,”

    Detective John Stowe rose up, grabbed his coat from the hanger and almost ran through the door. Mid-doors he stopped, turned around and gave the dispatcher a deadly look. “This better not be some sick joke, got that Brian?”

    “No Sir, wouldn’t even cross my mind,” he said and followed him out of the office. “Should I call the hospital and tell them you’re on your way?”

    “Not necessary, go back to your station.” John knew he sounded a little harsh, but a thought that this could all be a prank just wouldn’t leave his mind. After all, was it possible that a man in Melvin’s condition could wake up from a coma in just two days?

    “Oh, one more thing Brian,” he stopped on a staircase. “Which Unit was the first to arrive to the docks on Tuesday?”

    “On the eve of the explosion? Unit 14 I think, Greg Kemp and David Bonham.”

    “They were the ones who called an ambulance right?”

    “Think so, yeah.”

    “Good, have them meet me at the hospital.”

    Rowny nodded and went back to the dispatch center. John looked after him, then went downstairs and left the Ridge City Police Department. Autumn winds can be quite chilly on the western coast so he put on his scarf and hurried towards his car. The engine of his 2012 Chevrolet roared when he turned it on and John started thinking how is it possible that Melvin already woke up – if he really did wake up. He hadn’t seen Melvin himself, but Greg, one of the first officers on the explosion site, told him he was in a bad shape. His face was covered in blood and he was shivering as hell, I mean really shivering, couldn’t say a damn word. When I asked him if he was okay he just quickly nodded and then lost his conscious. That was what Greg told him. In the time being that didn’t sound strange to John, but when he revised the conversation it pinched him. How could he say he was okay, when all of his buddies were killed and he was thrown fifteen feet away by the shockwave? He was probably in shock, but it was still a bit unnatural. Inspector’s mind was working, wheels grinding the information he had into logical conclusions. Except there was none.


    * * *


    He came to the Ridge City Medical Centre quickly and hurried up the stairs to the reception. The lady sitting behind the desk was a good looking mid-aged woman with brown hair stuck in a bun. She smiled at John and asked him if he needed any help. He asked where he could find Melvin Bettis and showed her his badge. Joan – that’s what her name tag was saying – showed him the corridor on his left and explained where he must go. He reached the right hospital wing quickly and started walking towards the officer on guard shift. Guarding probably wasn’t necessary, but John thought it couldn’t hurt, so Melvin was now guarded 24/7 and would stay that way for at least a month.

    “How’s he doing?” John wanted to know and stretched his neck, hoping to see something through the small windows bellow the ceiling.

    “I don’t know Sir, as soon as he woke up, a couple of nurses and a doctor ran in and still didn’t come out,” explained the guard and shrugged with his head towards the door on his right.

    “When did this happen?”

    “Not long ago, at 2.23,” he checked his watch. “A little more than an hour ago.”

    “So it might take a while,” Stowe sighed. “Have you seen Kemp and Bonham yet?”

    “Who, Sir?”

    “Officers Greg Kemp and David Bonham, they were supposed to come here.”

    “No, no one was here but me.”

    John nodded, more to himself than to the guard, and sat on the bench. He put his arms on his legs and rubbed his face. Then he leaned back on the wall and looked at the boring pattern on the ceiling. When lowering his look he noticed that the same uninteresting pattern continued on the wall, just white paint with colorful spots, probably the same pattern every other hospital’s walls have. It should have arelaxing effect and it worked on John, he already felt calmer and started thinking that there was a possibility this case could be finished rather quickly. A little smile appeared on his face, but was instantly cut off by a cell phone ringing. He looked at the guard, who just nodded in a way not mine. For a second John looked confused – he was a bit too relaxed – and then reached into the right pocket of his jacket, remembering it was his phone.

    “Stowe,” John answered.

    “Hey John, where are you?” The voice belonged to Dan Bailey, one of the forensics on the explosion site.

    “I’m in a hospital, looks like our lucky lad woke up.”

    “Already? Wasn’t he supposed to be out for a year or so?”

    “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

    “That’s one lucky bastard, lying there in a hospital,” Dan chuckled.

    “Yeah,” said John and turned towards Melvin’s room doors. “One lucky guy.”

    “Listen I’m calling you cuz’ we think we found something yesterday.”

    The sentence woke John up from his little holiday and he rose to his feet. “What?”

    “Hmm, actually we’re not so sure, you better come to the station, I’m here already.”

    “Ok, I’ll be there,” said John and hung up the phone.

    He hurried down the corridor and stopped by the guard to give him further instructions. If Unit 14 came to the hospital, they were supposed to wait for him. If doctors finished their examination, John must be informed. If Melvin is ready for cooperation, he must be informed immediately. Guard nodded and sat on the bench.

    Stowe could hear the puzzlement in Dan’s voice when he called and he also sounded worried. Dan Bailey was older than John, a couple of years before retirement and in all years of their cooperation, John heard him talking this way two, maximum three times. And in that two or three times, it never meant anything good. It meant something unusual or that something weird’s been found on the crime scene.

    Eleven years ago, in 2007, someone was leaving a trail of burned bodies all over town. This was shortly after John was promoted to Detective Sergeant and later on, whenever he thought of this case he shivered. There were already 12 burned bodies found when he got the case and most of them with their teeth gone. They were pulled out, as if the victims were that crocodile from a popular game Crocodile dentist from the nineties. Detective Payne, John’s predecessor, had two theories: either this “Dentist” was really some dentist with a very twisted mind, who enjoyed pulling teeth out too much, or he was a sociopath who thought burned bodies without teeth would be impossible to identify. Luckily for investigators, there are different ways of identifying victims unless the body was subjected to crematory-like temperatures, causing it to disintegrate. DNA can be extracted from bone narrow and also from the brain if they stay intact. But John developed a third theory; “The Dentist” was a sociopath with pyromaniac inclinations. The teeth were just the cherry on top, like removal of organs was for Jack the Ripper.

    The thirteenth body was burned with all teeth still in place, but one day John received a call about a fourteenth body. That was one of those three calls when Dan sounded puzzled and concerned. When John came to the crime scene, he saw why.

    There was a body lying on the floor, already covered with sheet. Dan uncovered the male head and John was surprised to see it unburned but still without teeth. When Dan uncovered the rest of the body his eyes widened with terror. The upper body was not burned, only limbs were and one word was carved on the victim’s chest; stop. After that, John and his colleagues were even more determined to catch this son of a bitch, but then the murders stopped and John realized that the carved word were not a warning but just a very important information. Even though he tried very hard to identify the Dentist, he never found him. That monster was never brought down by the hand of justice and he never burned like his victims did.

    John reached the station with a hopeful thought that nothing outmost was found like in the Dentist case. But there was something unnatural.


    “Glad you could make it,” Dan squeezed John’s hand as he entered his office and led him to his desk. “We actually don’t know what it is, so I figured you could have a look.”

    John nodded and followed him. Dan picked up a small plastic bag and handed it to him. It was light, like nothing was in there, but when John looked at it closely, he saw somewhat orange blob that was a little bigger than a coin. He tried to grab it through the bag, but it got away.

    “Yes, it’s slippery. Took me quite some time to pick it up from the floor and it was hot like hell when I first tried. I burned my thumb, look.” Dan showed his right thumb. “But after that it got cool almost immediately.”

    “And you don’t know what it is?” John asked and fixed his eyes back on the orangish thingy.

    “First I thought of jelly of course, but that would be destroyed in explosion and also wouldn’t be that hot. That’s why I called you later. Give it to me for a second, willya?” John handed it to him and Dan grabbed a pair of tweezers. He pointed with them at the center of the jelly. “See this unusual dark ring in the middle of it? That got/caught my attention.” He moved to the microscope. “I’ve already put a piece of it under the microscope,” he said to Stowe. John looked and saw a couple of black warm-like subjects and six red circles connected with a green substance that looked like glue to John. He looked up and shrugged in a way doesn’t mean anything to me.

    Dan smiled: “Jelly has a different structure under the microscope. Usually it looks like a lot of knotted strings. This one has a quite different structure as you can see, one I am not familiar with, at least not with jelly.”

    Stowe understood towards what Bailey was getting at. ”But you don’t know what it is?” he repeated the question.

    “Right now, no.”

    “Could it be possible this thing was the explosive of some sort?”

    Dan let out a sigh and sat on a chair. “I don’t know John, but I have a couple of tests on my mind, which I could run, but I can give you no guaranties.”

    “Good,” John said and stepped away from the microscope. “That was the only piece you found?” he pointed at the little plastic bag, still hanging in Dan’s hand.

    “Yes, the only one and frankly I’m…” Ringing of a phone interrupted him and Stowe excused himself.

    “Hi Julie, can I call you back, I’m in a middle of something.” He explained to his wife and put the phone back to his pocket. “Sorry Dan, she probably just wanted to remind meof that show we’re going to today.”

    “Where are you going?”

    "Her sister has a photography exhibit and she wants to be supportive.”

    “And you want to be a supportive husband and go with her. I haven’t met a better man John Stowe,” he smiled.

    “Ok ok, you were saying?”

    Dan giggled one more time and then said: “Yeah, I wanted to say I’m quite surprised we noticed the jelly today and not yesterday.”

    “Looks like you’re losing your touch, old man,” John teased him.

    Dan looked him straight in the eyes, same way a lion watches its prey and warned him in a serious tone. “Careful John, there are many different poisons I can mix in your coffee.”

    “They’d find you! You got anything else for me?” he asked with a satisfied grin on his face.

    “No, nothing else.”

    John walked past him. “Call me if you find something, I’m done for today,” he said and left the office.


    * * *


    I woke up in an unknown place. I was lying in bed and was connected to some weird tubes. I looked around and the snowy white walls, tidiness of the space and a blank screen of TV in corner helped me determine the place as a hospital room. I looked left and a beeping machine checking my pulse confirmed my assumption. I slowly rose to a seating position, when I felt a pain in my chest. I lifted my shirt and looked. In the middle of my chest, right in a place where you have to press if giving CPR was a reddish mark, more purple then red actually. It looked like veins running through this spot had popped and I got scared. It also had an orange glow, but barely noticeable. What the hell happened? I remembered putting Gentleman inside of acontainer and then…

    “Good morning sunshine. How do you feel?” A woman’s voice suddenly echoed in my head. “Had a rough night, have you?”

    What the fuck?! was the only thought that went through my mind and I looked around the room, looking for answers hidden somewhere in the air, like molecules you can’t see.

    “Nothing to worry, dear. I’m on your side.” And then a cold laugh filled my head, it felt like a brain freeze, only without pain, strange feeling it was. “Actually I am your side, but just the one you don’t know,” now I could hear her laughter, not just feel it. “But you’ll get to know me,” she then whispered.

    “Wh… What are you?” I asked and put hospital sheet over my body, as it suddenly got a lot colder in the room.

    “I am nothing more than a friend. Nothing more,” she snickered. Only this time, the laughter was somehow familiar. It was homely, I’ve heard it before. A very similar version of it.

    “G…Gen… Gentleman?” I asked and widened my eyes in horror.

    “Do not call me that!” She yelled and my head suddenly started to hurt, the feeling same as of brain freeze again, only this time it hurt much more. I heard noise inside my head, similar to high frequency sound you can barely hear, only I heard it very loudly. “That thing was weak. It could never show you the things I can! After all, I am a woman. And my name is Valla.”

    “Valla?” I repeated in disbelief. I never called Gentleman with that name, never even heard of it. Where did he come with it? Or is he really a she now, like some sort of amutation occurred during the last couple of days?

    While thinking, I suddenly recognized her voice. It was the same as the one at my house when Gentleman changed his gender into female. Was it possible he would never change back? I actually liked that guy.

    “Yes, Valla. You do know I can hear your thoughts right? At least a small part of them. I was also able to hear them before, when I was still that pitiful Gentleman of whom you seem so fond. And it is not a mutation my dear, evolution would be a much more appropriate word. Growth, advancement, choose whichever interpretation of events you like, but not mutation. I’m not just some sort of a disease.”

    “Ok, an unexpected development then,” I proposed, since that’s exactly what it seemed to me.

    She laughed again, but this time the odd feeling in my head was less sensual. “Ok Melvin, if that is the explanation you are pleased with. It also looks like you are getting used to me, aren’t you? And do not lie to me, I can feel your body adapting, so I feel a necessity to say I am quite astonished by the conformation speed of it. You like it don’t you?” Her voice sounded very pleasant, it had a graceful feminine charm. She talked very easily, stoically would be a more appropriate word and the sentences she spoke had quite a reassuring effect on me. Still, despite her gentle easiness I could feel a very confident character hiding behind fluent sentences she spoke.

    I opened my mouth, not exactly knowing which words would come out of them, when the door opened and four people came bustling in. I looked at them and recognized three ladies as nurses and the only man looked like a doctor to me. He was quite tall and slim, with a self-sure expression on his face and glasses on his nose.

    He looked at me and that self-confident mask he was wearing disappeared in a glimpse of an eye. “He really is awake, I can’t believe it,” he looked over to the nurses in his excitement and asked them if they have ever seen anything like that before. The oldest one, who looked around sixty to me, shook her head in a sign of refusal. The other two, both of them not much older than myself, were just looking at me with their mouth wide open. I’m certain that if I took a picture of them and showed it later on, they would tear it apart. That is how stupid they looked.

    “Aren’t you going to say something? Look how puzzled they look. Imagine if they could hear your thoughts.” Valla laughed inside my head.

    “Yes, I am awake, why do you all look like you’ve just seen a ghost?” I asked, hoping I would finally start getting some answers.

    “Maybe because we are watching at one right now,” explained the doctor and made a step towards my bed. “How do you feel Mr. Bettis?”

    “Like any other… Could you please tell me what day it is?”

    “It’s Thursday, November the 16th and it’s 1 PM/ .”

    “Well, I feel like any other Thursday then.” I looked at the nurses and smiled.

    “Well, look at you mister. Like you have been around women all your life,” Valla remarked.

    Before I could even understand what she just said, the doctor asked me if I remembered anything. I thought about the last thing I remembered and the only memory that was clear to me, was the entrapment of Valla. Or Gentleman, I don’t know anymore exactly who I locked inside the container.

    “I remember being at the docks with my coworkers.”

    The doctor was looking at me with extreme caution, hand supporting his chin. He was quiet for a few moments, then looked at the nurses, and then back at me. “We are going to make an examination and a few tests and if you don’t mind.”

    “Not at all,” I shrugged and lied on my bed.


    * * *


    When John Stowe sat down behind his desk on Friday, he took his phone to his hand and ordered photographs from the scene. They arrived shortly. He signed all of the necessary documentation and then pulled photos out of a brown folder. One by one he checked them, hoping he would notice something, a missing piece of the puzzle that would help him ameliorate the theory of the accident. Or attack, as current hypothesis was suggesting. The circumstances of the explosion were closer to a terrorist attack than to a mere accident, especially since the container was never registered and the only people who operated with it were dead or in a hospital. John started to think it was a good idea that Melvin was put under Police protection. Right then, it seemed like someone was covering his tracks and he hid them pretty well. Melvin might have been in danger and he didn’t have a single clue about that.

    Ringing of a phone threw him out of his thoughts, like a teacher wakes a sleeping student from a relaxing power nap. He checked the caller ID and saw it was Dan.

    “I didn’t know you can be up so early,” John greeted him and leaned back on his brown armchair.

    “Yeah, yeah, I think better in the afternoon when I have had a good share of my sleep, so what? Listen, could you come down for a second? Something happened to that orange blob.”

    “You sure something happened, or are you just sleepy and are imagining things?”

    “Ha-ha, very funny. Get your ass down here, willya?”

    “In a second, old man. Oh, do you want me to pick you up a cup of coffee? It’s on my way down so….” But, before he could finish, Dan already hung up the phone. John grinned and went down to the labs.


    “Sorry Dan, I just couldn’t resist, but honestly, how come you are so early today?”

    “Yeah sure, no problem. It’s the jelly, couldn’t leave my mind. Maybe it sounds odd to you, but the structure is very interesting to me.” He looked at John in expectation of a new sarcastic annotation, but he received none. “Follow me.”

    Dan led John to the main forensics lab and took a plastic bag off a shelf. “Oh, how was the show last night?”

    “Not that bad, quite amusing actually. Julie’s sister was always a bit…” but then he noticed the bag in Dan’s hands. “What the hell!?” John opened his eyes in surprise. “What happened with it?” He took it and had a better look. The orange jelly was bigger. If it’s previous size was the same of a coin,was now at least two times bigger, probably three times of its original size.

    “Did it actually got bigger?” John asked, still caught with surprise.

    “It looks like, yes. That would also explain why we found it the second day at the scene and not the first. So you see, I’m not losing my touch.”

    John looked at him and nodded. “Looks like, yeah.” Then he turned back to the jelly. ”How is that even possible?”

    “Unfortunately, I don’t know. But it looks like the growth speed and the size are comparative. The bigger the blob gets, the faster it grows. But this isn’t logical. I mean, jelly is not a living substance, a living organism. It shouldn’t grow like that.”

    “Do you think it might get even bigger?”

    “I know I shouldn’t say this, but you’re asking the wrong guy, for now at least. I’m going to run some tests, like I told you yesterday. I don’t know how long it will take though, I have other cases to attend.”

    “Ok Dan, but be careful. As you said; you don’t know what you’re dealing with,” John warned him, and left the lab.

    If yesterday at the hospital John thought this case could be wrapped up in a couple of days, he now changed his mind.

    When he sat in his car he started thinking how strange the entire development of the case was. There were no remains of the explosive on the scene, a guy who should be in a coma for at least a couple of months, was awake after two days and the strange jelly had a capability of growth. John put his hands on the wheel and loudly exhaled. There must be something I’m missing, think goddammit! But no idea had arisen in his head, there was just a painful feeling of emptiness. Time to visit Melvin again. He ordered dispatcher to call unit 14 again and left the building.


    * * *


    The doctor’s examination was quite tiresome so I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the next day. Before I could completely open my eyes Valla’s voice already sang me a good morning song. She laughed afterwards and I noticed she liked laughing quite a lot. In a weird way, yes, but better laughing than yelling or crying right?

    “Rise and shine my dear!” she welcomed me to a new day when she finished laughing. “Did you have a good night sleep?”

    “Yes, I slept like an angel,” I sarcastically remarked.

    “Looks like someone got up on the wrong foot. Oops, I forgot you have no legs.”

    “What!?” I yelled and threw white sheet off the place where my legs should be. I was relieved when I saw they were still there and I happily twinkled with my fingers. Valla caught me still a bit sleepy and completely off guard. “That really wasn’t funny.”

    “You are right, I forgot you had no sense of humor so please accept my sincere apology.”

    “Very well, I accept it,” I said and yawned. I actually had quite a good sleep, but regarding the circumstances it was just a matter of time before I had one.

    “Were you up all night?”

    “I was watching over you my dear, I did not want any more doctors rushing in here and desecrate your body while you slept.”

    “They are doctors Valla, it’s their job and they wouldn’t hurt me.”

    “I know, but still…”

    Her voice sounded a little different now, like there was something bothering her but didn’t want to tell what it was. I also felt for a second a mild sting in my chest, which reminded me of feeling concerned. I don’t know what happened when I was sleeping, but maybe that part of my body adapting to her was true and the only thing I thought off was how I hoped she still couldn’t hear all of my mind process and thoughts.

    “Don’t worry, they won’t do anything wrong, especially now when I’m feeling quite renewed.”

    “Good, the sooner you leave this place, the better. It makes me nauseous.”

    The word nauseous reminded me of the night of the accident. I too felt an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach before I passed out and I remembered Valla actually never explained to me what happened that night. Where were all my friends, why didn’t they already come here and visit me?

    “Valla, what exactly happened to me, no one’s telling me anything.”

    “Nothing Melvin, you are all right and that is what matters.”

    “Valla, tell me what I want to know,” I demanded of her and was feeling irritated.

    “Very well, I will tell you,” she sighed. “I must warn you though, you might not want to hear exactly what happened..”

    “I do. Begin,” I urged her, as I felt my patience fading away.

    “As you wish,” she agreed and began reporting.


    * * *


    This time when going to a hospital, luck wasn’t on John’s side. He had a misfortune of running into a wave of red traffics lights. He smacked the wheel and cursed himself for going this way during the morning rush hour. He sighed and waited in line like hundreds of other people. The line made him think of his oldest son Ian, a freshman in college, and his summer job this year. He was working in a warehouse, where the first shift began at 6 AM. Ian was irritated at first, didn’t want to trade his sleep for money by the looks of it, but was then relieved when he saw almost empty streets at the time of sunrise.

    John smiled at the thought of Ian driving the car at night and wished the roads were now as empty as they were at night.

    John reached the hospital and saw Kemp and Bonham were already there. Greg Kemp was the younger one, the rookie still trying to impress his colleagues. He was standing upright by the wall, like he was at a solemn ceremony, waiting for a medal to be conferred to him. David Bonham, his senior partner, who had seen his share of action through the career was sitting on a bench, almost nonchalantly and playing with his hat.

    “Morning Sir,” Greg greeted him and waited for a response like every hot-blooded rookie would have.

    “Morning. Before going to our victim I’d like to hear again what happened three days ago at the docks.” John demanded from his inferiors.

    “We were on our run, like we are everyday. Nothing unusual happened until we received 10-32 explosion notice for the docks,” Kemp began explaining.

    “Yeah, by the time we got there, seven workers were already dead. That’s when Greg noticed someone was lying on the floor, not so close to the others. Maybe that’s why he survived, for not being so close to the explosion. When we reached him, he was shivering,” Bonham added.

    “He was shivering like he had some sort of attack. I covered him with my uniform; I thought he might be cold or something. I was sitting next to him, telling him everything will be okay, until he passed out. Meanwhile, Dave told the dispatcher to send an ambulance. By the time you got there Sir, he was probably halfway to emergency.”

    John was listening them carefully, not losing even one spoken word, hoping they might tell him something they forgot three days ago in those chaotic circumstances.

    “Was there anything else, maybe something that was out of the ordinary or something that caught your attention?” John tried to make them remember every detail of the night.

    They looked at each other like that would bring up some details, which were without awareness thrown to the pit of subconscious. Maybe that helped, for Greg turned to detective and said with an unsure voice: “Well, if I think now, before I covered him with my uniform, I saw a nasty burn on his chest which had kind of an orange glow.”

    “An orange-glowing burn? Are you sure?” Stowe asked and widened his eyes in surprise, then took cell phone out of his pocket and wildly typed down a note.

    “Sir, I know it sounds strange, that’s why I didn’t mentioned that earlier, but you asked now if we saw anything strange,” explained Greg Kemp with an apologizing tone, like he knew John wouldn’t believe him and was afraid of his strange reaction. “But, that’s what I saw. I mean it could also be a scar from before the fire, I’m not a doctor.”

    John finished texting and turned back to Greg. “But you’ve probably seen a burn before, you don’t have to be a doctor to recognize it, right?” John asked him and made an intimidating step towards him, more or less just to have a little fun. He knew newcomers of Greg’s kind, they were just waiting to prove themselves. Hell, John belonged to that category himself and he did manage to prove himself, but not without the teasing and tyranny of experienced old dogs of Ridge City Police Department. He also knew different kinds of teasing can toughen you up with time, that’s why he was now giving Greg a hard time.

    “Well, yes Sir, I have. That’s why I’m mentioning it now.”

    Hm, good response, John thought and nodded to the kid. He turned to Dave Bonham and asked him if he had also seen the scar.

    “No, after we saw him I immediately went back to the car and called for an ambulance. When I got back to the kid, he had already covered the victim with his jacket.”

    “Good job kid,” Stowe nodded to the rookie who suddenly grew a little. “Come on, let’s go inside, I’m sure he’s able to tal…”he added but before he could finish the sentence a loud scream coming from the Melvin’s room cut him off. John unbuckled the holster, grabbed his gun and ran to the door. Kemp, Bonham and officer on guard duty all followed his example and Kemp, who was the youngest, took a deep breath.

    John turned to his colleagues, all standing behind him and gave them a quick warning. “Be careful, we don’t know who we’re dealing with.”

    He pushed on the door knob and rushed inside with three officers following him.


    * * *


    Valla sighed and began. “You know, leaving me all alone in that dark and cold basement was not a nice gesture, my dear. I just wanted to treat myself with a few moments of fun. I did not mean to demolish your cute little house, but when I was given a whole body… Oh Melvin, it felt good! Just try to imagine a quadriplegic finding out he can move his legs and arms. It felt so good I lost control; I wanted to have a little fun and move freely around the house, but then you managed to turn my battery off and locked me down there for two days. I felt tricked, betrayed by my own master! But out of love for you I let it all go away. When I heard your plan of sending me to the Far East I tried and resisted, but none of my sweet words made any impression on you as you probably remember. I then tried with force, but since the battery was off I could not move my precious body. The worst thing was when I heard that container being locked, that is when I realized you were not going to change your mind. I was devastated, thrown in that chilly box of metal I could feel my life energy being discharged. You should know that. After all, you designed me, you spilled a piece of yourself into that small orange-glowing blob. Our bond was the only thing keeping me alive and when you cut it, I had no resource to keep me alive; I was like a car with no oil. Then, when almost all of my life ran out of me I felt warmth somewhere inside, the same warmth a child gets when seeing presents under the Christmas tree. It was getting warmer and warmer, and in a matter of seconds I felt all of my energy being restored, but the process of restoration did not stop there. The energy was still flowing and warmth changed into heat. Suddenly I heard yelling outside the container and I recognized one voice as yours, darling. You were very angry and were saying that I should not be sent away, that I am your invention. You tried to explain to other people how you sacrificed four years of your life creating me and that you are, in a way, attached to me. I must say, if I had a face, I would blush in that moment. But they did not listen to you, I heard them say I am too dangerous. That is when you became extremely angry, like you lost your reason, but do not judge me dear, I was on your side. Your rage was then overwhelming and it filled me with superfluous energy, which I could not keep inside of me and it suddenly exploded. The orange blob was shrunk, while my entity was attracted to your body. I entered through your chest, that is why you have that weird mark, although I think a part of me was missing when entering, I was not complete.”

    I listened to her while she talked and her calming voice was hypnotizing me, until she came to an end. Her explanation shocked me, left me paralyzed, I still couldn’t understand her words, didn’t want to understand them. “So…Are you saying… I am responsible for deaths of my friends?”

    “Nothing like that, darling. What happened was beyond your control. You felt empty without me my dear. I am a part of you, remember?”

    “No, you’re not. You never will be,” I started to resist her. “You’re just an experiment gone bad. And you killed my friends!”

    Valla laughed at my words and my hope of firm resistance began to diminish. “I am not an experiment, I am a cry for help and helping you is what I did. Union of us is what saved your life. Ooh and I just can not wait for us to leave this place and test your newfound confidence with women!” She was talking with ease and honest expectation, like this was all just a game. “And I did not kill your friends, which you know. You did.”

    I had nothing to respond, because deep inside me, I knew this was the truth, I somehow felt it even though I couldn’t remember it. Probably it was buried somewhere in the depths of my subconscious and was suddenly awakened, released from the large firm prison of forgotten memories and now immediately rushed out of it like Titans from their long imprisonment.

    After trying to remember this memory without success, I asked Valla what she was doing during my coma.

    “I was awake, trying to save me and you in which I succeeded. But I think you want to know whether I deleted your memory or not.”

    “You did it, didn’t you?”

    “It was necessary, I did not know what would your reaction be if you…”

    I didn’t let her finish. “I know, I know. You did it for my benefit.” I was getting tired of her excuses. “But I understand you, I’d probably do the same if I were in your place. Although it’s difficult to imagine such situation.” I let out a sigh.

    I didn’t really believe in what I was saying but this amount of infos was overwhelming for me, I needed her to shut up and leave me alone for a minute. I noticed a TV in the corner of the room and at that particular moment it was the most beautiful thing I could see. It was a synonym for relaxation and I looked around my bed for a remote control. It was lying on a table on my right and I stretched out a hand when a very painful sting stopped me. I screamed in reflex and then looked at my right arm and noticed that infusion was pulled out of my wrist. Before I could put it back, three unknown men rushed to my room, each with a gun in his hand. They scared the crap out of me.


    * * *


    John, Greg and David bustled in the room, prepared for any sort of danger, but there was only one man sitting on bed, holding something in his hand.

    “What happened here?” John asked and scanned the room for potential danger.

    “N-nothing, just my infusion popped out my wrist, that’s all,” man on bed stuttered.

    “You sure?” John wanted to be certain and lowered his gun.

    “Yes, but what is the meaning of this, who are you?” sitting man wanted to know, still with surprised expression on his face.

    John put the gun back in his holster and then showed him his badge. “Hello, Mr. Bettis. My name is detective sergeant John Stowe and my colleagues here are Officers Greg Kemp and David Bonham. They are the ones who called an ambulance on Tuesday night. We would like to ask you a few questions regarding the accident at the docks if you do not mind.” John made a decisive performance, stressing out a great measure of his authority, making him look the toughest person in room. He learned this trait throughout career, especially after noticing that interrogated individuals cooperated better with confident and decisive person.

    “Sure, what do you wish to know?” Melvin calmed down.

    To John, Melvin Bettis didn’t look like he had any serious injuries. The only visible result of the explosion was the bruise on his forehead, right under his brown hair line, and even that was probably from the impact when hitting the concrete ground. He also had a black eye, but John had seen worse.

    “What do you remember from Tuesday night?” John asked and looked Melvin straight in his brown eyes.

    Bettis thought for a moment. “Well, unfortunately nothing much. The last thing I remember was loading containers on the ship and then a strong light and loud noise. After that, nothing until I woke up here. The doctors said yesterday I was very lucky.”

    “Yes, you’ve been unconscious for just two days.”

    “I know, they couldn’t believe it.”

    “What about you, can you believe you got away with just a bruise? Someone up there must like you a lot.”

    Melvin laughed and that was funny to John, usually when injured victims laughed, they felt a lot of pain, but he didn’t grimace at all, as if Melvin really had just a bruise on his forehead. John became more attentive to his behavior and answers.

    “Yeah, looks like someone likes me, probably my high school teacher, I never had parents or relatives” Melvin explained.

    Stowe waited for Melvin to calm and then asked him if he remembered where he stood during the accident. John kept using the word accident, he didn’t want Melvin to think there’s been sort of a terrorist attack, although that possibility still wasn’t excluded and even though Melvin didn’t look completely innocent to him. Still, if he had nothing to do with explosion, a panic-stricken victim, afraid for his life wouldn’t be of much help. John had seen that before so he used the word accident.

    “Yes, I was standing like everyone else. I mean, sort of. I was actually operating the crane and they told me over radio they had a problem with one container so I went down to help them. I reached them when that damn thing exploded.”

    “What thing?” was John curious.

    “Well… The container of course, what else?”

    “Right, sorry for misleading you,” John put reassuring smile on his face and asked the next question. “Did you know that the container was unregistered?”

    Melvin looked at him, confused, and told him he didn’t know. His job was loading and unloading ships, documentary was the work of Trading Management.

    “The boat was headed to China right?”

    “Yes, I think it was headed to Tianjin.”

    “Yes, your superior confirmed that.” John confirmed and looked at Greg. “Officer Greg here noticed a strange scar on your chest. Would you mind showing it to us?”

    Melvin changed his position on bed and looked a little nervous. “Why, it’s just a scar.”

    “We understand, but it would be easier for us, different explosives leave different traces and body marks. It might help us find out exactly what killed your coworkers and injured you,” smiled John and gave Melvin encouraging look, but he still looked unsure.

    I don’t know… It’s… it’s still hurting me.”

    “Nothing to be afraid, we’ll just look, nothing else.”

    Melvin glanced at both of the officers who stood behind Stowe, seeking for some kind shelter, but they didn’t move or offered any stimulative look. He then sighed and pulled up his white hospital shirt. John leaned to his chest and gave an amazed look.

    The mark was similar to burn, but it was a purple circle with lighter middle, which looked like it had a glow. Burns don’t have glows John thought and looked closer. For moment he thought he saw it move. He strained his eyes, but could see no further movement. He stood back up and looked at his colleagues, who seemed pretty astonished by what they saw. Kemp had his eyes opened and David was watching John and waited from him to speak.

    Stowe turned back to Melvin. “Are you sure you’re telling us everything, can you remember anything else?”

    “No, scout’s honor,” replied Melvin and raised his right hand.

    John nodded, and glanced one more time over Melvin’s chest, “Mind if I take a picture?”

    “If you must,” Bettis applied and let him take a picture with his phone.

    John then thanked him for his time and left room with both officers behind him.

    “You’re welcome,” was Melvin’s reply.


    “What was that?” was Greg’s question a second after the door closed. “It looked like… I don’t know, like his body was rotten inside.”

    “Yeah, something like that, only without the smell,” David added.

    John looked at them and nodded. He did expect an injury or a scar, but nothing like that. That mark covered half of his chest, it was huge. And the color… It was so vivid, like some artist mixed together red and purple, and then added some glowing substance to make it look more alive.

    “Yeah, I know, it’s weird,” he answered and took phone from his pocket only to discover the battery went dead. Right after taking the picture, by the looks of it. “Was it the same you saw on Tuesday, Greg?”

    “No, actually no, Sir,” he thought for a second. “On Tuesday the mark was more red, and it had kind of a glow, like it was very hot. It didn’t have that unhealthy purple color we just saw.”

    John nodded and then gave them both an order. “If you remember anything else from Tuesday night, give me a call.” He looked both of them, then added. “Anything, understood?”

    “Yes, Sir,” Kemp and Bonham confirmed.

    “Good, go back to patrolling now,” John told them and he himself went to his car. What was that? John repeated Greg’s question in his mind.Indeed, what exactly was that? Nothing he’d ever seen before. He saw many different kinds of scars and body marks, from wife-beating to gunshots and burned bodies. But nothing like that. He tried to remember if he really did see something move inside Dave or was that just his imagination. Part of him wanted it to be just imagination, that he saw nothing. This was the logical part of his mind, the one that was very fond of realistic world with realistic events and consequences. The other part wanted to convince him there really was a movement and that was the adventurous part of his mind, the one that was developed when he was a child and wanted to believe in supernatural. At the end the logical part prevailed and John turned the engine of his car on. He was almost halfway to the station, when police radio called, requesting his immediate attention at police station. John put small round police light on his roof and turned on the siren. He reached the station much faster with lights and siren on.

    There were two fire trucks in front of the station when he reached it and a couple of firemen just ran out of the building.

    “What happened?” John asked one of themand showed his badge.

    “An accident happened downstairs, I think it was the laboratory. There was a fire, but we managed to extinguish it.”

    John was watching him and fear crawled on his face. “Dan…” he muttered, then ran into the building and down to the lab.

    He reached it and he was relieved when he saw Dan standing in front of ruined door and talking to firemen.

    “… and then I saw a fire,” he overheard Dan’s explanation.

    “What happened here?” John asked Dan.

    “I’m not sure. Firstly, I was in the lab and when I went to grab a cup of coffee, and call you by the way, I heard a big bang and by the time I ran back here, almost thewhole place was on fire. Oh, and the jelly disappeared. When fire guys here finished their job I went right back inside to look for it.”

    “What do you mean disappeared? I mean, it can’t walk right?”

    “No no, what I mean is, it literally disappeared, I couldn’t find it anywhere.”

    “You’re okay, that’s what matters. You’ll look again for jelly when you’ll be cleaning this place up,” John comforted him.

    “Oh yeah, I completely forgot about cleaning this mess,” Dan let out a sigh and scanned the room. “It’ll take time though. And I’ll have to document every tool and evidence in this room, goddammit. Really, what a mess.”

    “Speaking of a mess, have you ever seen anything like this?” John wanted to show him a picture of Melvin’s chest. “Ah, the battery’s dead. I have a charger in my office. Come, I’ll show you there.”

    They had to wait for a few minutes, before the phone charged itself enough to function. Meanwhile, Dan explained John what happened.

    “I was in my lab, checking clothing from that overdosed girl who was found in the park yesterday.”

    “Yeah,” John remembered hearing someone talking about her earlier this morning.

    “Well, I was scanning her clothing, but my mind was really at the blob. I went every half hour and checked it and I tell you, that thing was growing fast. So I quickly finished with clothes and went upstairs to get some coffee and to call you. I was just returning to the lab, dialing your number when I heard the bang. It wasn’t so loud though, it was muffled but I must say, I knew it was the jelly, I don’t know how or why, but I did. I instinctively aborted the call and hurried downstairs. Half of my office was on fire and I saw Sharon down the hall holding phone in her hand. I guess she called the fire brigade. Anyway, after fire was put under control I went in, searching for jelly, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Now I’m thinking maybe it will grow again.” Dan finished his tale, then laughed and added. “Can you imagine this substance could grow and explode, grow and explode to eternity? Our army would be very happy.”

    “Yeah, they wouldn’t let it out of their hands,” John chuckled. “But what if the jelly really did cause the explosion and wouldn’t grow back? Let’s say it finally consumed all of its energy.”

    “Well I don’t know, never really thought of that. Maybe I was looking at it too much from a scientific view,” Dan laughed. ”But for now, I think we should just wait and observe.”

    John nodded and leaned back on his chair. “You know, I had my share of action too today.”

    “What happened?” was Dan curious.

    “Well, unit 14 and I were at the hospital…”

    “Who’s unit 14?”

    “Kemp and Bonham, they were the first ones to arrive to docks on Tuesday. Anyway, we were at the hospital, when we heard a scream inside Melvin’s room so we grabbed our guns and rushed inside. You should’ve seen his face when he saw us Dan, all serious with guns in our hands. I swear he nearly shat himself.” They were both laughing, Dan louder than John. “But then it turned out he just pulled out infusion and screamed out of pain.”

    “Ouch, I know that feeling, it’s nasty,” Dan added while laughing.

    They were still laughing when phone beeped, signaling it had enough energy to work. John turned it on and typed down his PIN.

    “Ok, joke aside; have you ever seen anything like that?” he showed photo of Melvin’s chest to Dan.

    Dan put on his glasses which were hanging around his neck and took phone to his hand for a better look. “No, I can’t say I have, what is it?”

    “It’s mark from the explosion on our lucky guy’s chest.”

    “Melvin?” asked Dan in disbelief. “I didn’t know an explosion could leave traces like this. Didn’t he say he stood further away than the others?”

    “He did. Kemp told me how the scar looked like on Tuesday, but I thought I would see just some regular mark of the heat. This isn’t from heat right?”

    “ It kinda looks like it is, but not like from any I’ve seen before John. Don’t you think it’s weird? The strange jelly, the strange mark on Melvin’s chest?”

    “I don’t know exactly what to think here, Dan. But I have a feeling Melvin isn’t as innocent as he looks. When he laughed during questioning he didn’t moan or grimacebecause of pain. He acted like he wasn’t injured at all. Usually, when people are injured they can’t laugh because the pain prevents them, but Melvin here,” John pointed on thephoto.” he was able to laugh out loud.”

    Dan listened to him without interrupting and nodded when he finished.

    “And also, when I looked at his chest, I could swear I saw a movement inside.”

    “A movement?” Dan asked him and made an amazed face. “What kind of movement? Like when women are pregnant?”

    “Well, no. It’s hard to describe, more like a shadow, uh… more like there was something swimming inside of him and passed his chest right when I looked.”

    “Are you serious?”

    “I know how it sounds Dan, but the more I think, the more I’m certain I saw something.”

    “What, like some kind of an alien?”

    “Maybe. Yeah, you could say that.”

    “Look John, I don’t want to be offensive or anything, but this sounds crazy.”

    “I know it does, but was there anything usual at this case up to this point? I can’t remember anything.”

    Dan looked at him and watched him for a couple of seconds. “You’re right about that. What are you going to do? We have no theory to work on.”

    “I know, I know. I have some ideas I’ll see what I can do.”

    “Right,” Dan confirmed and went towards the door. “I’m curious as hell now, let me know if you come up with something, I have to go, the mess won’t clean up by itself.”

    “Have fun, old man.”


    * * *


    “Valla, you’ve been oddly quiet during our visit,” I started talking to her several minutes after cops left my room. I expected some cheesy line from her, but she didn’t answer. “Come on Valla, in which part of my brain are you hiding?” But she still didn’t answer.

    I got curious, this wasn’t like her, she was constantly talking. And even when she didn’t talk I could sense her. I tried to remember whether I felt her presence during questioning, but I was too busy answering. I didn’t have time to think about her, I had to act like a normal traumatized person and I believe my acting wasn’t so brilliant.

    The tall one, John was his name if I remember correctly, was rather suspicious I think. The way he looked at my chest wasn’t pleasing. He looked amazed, yes, but I didn’t sense any surprise on his face, like he’d seen the scar before. And the fact how he asked me if I was hiding something. Well, I was hiding something, but there’s no way he could find that out.

    “The tall one gave me the creeps, my dear,” Valla finallyannounced herself after some time. “I don’t think he was very fond of you.”

    “So you were here during questioning,” I was actually happy to hear from her again. Strange, despite circumstances I became attached to her, I didn’t blame her for killing my friends anymore. Which is kinda odd, I must admit.

    “Of course I was, where would I go? You know, I don’t think the tall one believed you.”

    “Yeah, that makes two of us.”

    “Tell me Melvin, how do you feel?”

    The question struck me. Actually not the question itself, more the way she asked it. It was with a soft voice, like she really wanted to know how I felt. I thought? and I must admit I felt by far the best since I was awake.

    “I actually feel very good, like nothing happened.”

    “I think you should leave this place, and leave it immediately.”

    Her sudden proposal caught me unprepared. I knew she craved to leave hospital, but I didn’t know she wanted to so quickly.

    “Look I know you don’t like…”

    “It’s not that. Something happened, that’s why I was, um… absent for a while. Also, I think the tall one saw me.”

    “What? How could he see you? I mean even I don’t know how you look and you live inside of me for chrissake!” she frightened me. Not much, but when you have an alien-like being living inside of you and cops suspecting you of bombing the port, you have a pretty justified reason to be scared.

    “No honey, I don’t live inside you,” she laughed. “I should’ve told you before, but I’m still keeping both of us alive.”

    “You told me that before, remember? You explained you saved me afterthe explosion.”

    “No darling, I am still keeping you alive.”

    “What? What do you mean by that?”

    “I am the reason you are still alive. Do you really think your fragile body could withstand an explosion all by itself? I healed you and took care of you from the moment I entered you. The doctors did nothing, you saw their astounded faces when they saw you awake. All they did were some unproductive surgical operations and plugging you to these tubes and machines which are taking no effect anyway. Some of your insides were crushed, my energy is what keeps you still alive.”

    “You lying bitch!” I was astonished, shocked. I felt deceived, my whole body was trembling with anger, anger that could soon get out of control. “I don’t believe you. Get the hell out of me!”

    “No, I don’t want to leave this beautiful body, I got accustomed to it. Besides, did your abilities of listening comprehension abandon you? I said I was keeping both of us alive. Not for long though.”

    “Wha… What do you mean by that?” her words frightened me.

    “Oh nothing special, dearie. Let’s just say I feel complete again. Could you do me a favor and leave this hospital please? I really want to go.”

    “No!” Fear was now being accompanied by unexpected panic which was creeping all over my body and taking over control of my mind.

    “I thought you’d say that,” she said and laughed.

    The laughter was pure evil, like hearing Satan himself laughing. It filled my whole body with biting frost and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even turn my head. I was scared, terrified, the feeling of absolute feebleness was moored in me and I didn’t have the power to lift its anchor.

    Suddenly, my body began to move. It slowly shifted its legs and clumsily rose to its feet. It swayed a little and tried to catch its balance while Valla’s laughter still echoed in my mind.

    “Aaahh, the satisfaction of administering body again. And human body too. I have to thank you my dear, it would not be possible without you.”

    “What are you doing, stop!”

    “No, why should I? And could you be quiet please, your screaming is giving me a headache. That is the phrase, right? I am being accustomed to your body, but it will still take some time to assume it completely. I guess I’ll have to wait to actually feel my head ache. Is it terribly painful?”

    “What are you babbling about?!”

    “Oh, there is no reasoning with you. For a man who formed such a powerful being you understand very little of human behavior in general. Then again, that is the very reason you created me, am I right?”

    The body already caught its balance during Valla’s monologue and I saw it was headed towards the door. The cold was slowly leaving me, it wasn’t so freezing anymore, but fear was growing and obscurity of situation was getting deeper. I tried to calm and think what the hell was going on, but it was impossible at this moment. No school system, no movies, even no video games prepared me for occurrence like this. I was left on my own, it was up to me, whether I will make it out of this mess or not. If I will make it out of this mess alive, was the main question.

    “Wait, you can’t just leave!” I tried to convince her, but she didn’t listen to me anymore.

    “Why not, it is just walking outside of this place. I will show you,” she said and opened the room’s door with my left arm.

    What I saw outside caused my panic to reach its maximum level. There was a cop sitting outside my room, probably bored as hell and he lifted his head and looked directly at me.

    “Oops, I did not expect that. I think you should be quiet now,” Valla told me and stepped out of the room, body moving like it was never injured.

    “Everything okay?” thecop stood up.

    “Yes, everything okay, just trying my legs if they work properly,” I quickly came up with an answer, but he didn’t reply.

    “Nice work Melvin, good answer,” remarked Valla and then I heard my exact words being repeated. “Yes, everything okay, just trying my legs if they work properly,” but the voice wasn’t mine, it was Valla’s. The cop looked with surprise at my male body which just spoke to him in a female voice.

    “Wow, that explosion really messed you up!” he smiled.

    “Hm, It looks like I’ll have to switch voices too. But for now I think we should use my voice or this officer might get confused, what do you think Melvin?”

    I didn’t answer, my mind was blown by what just happened. Finally a revelation struck me, an illustration of current events which Valla wanted to explain with her riddling sentences, but my overloaded mind didn’t take notice of them or at least didn’t occupy itself with them.

    “Am I… Valla, am I trapped in my own body?”

    “Hold on, I have to finish conversation with this lovely police officer.” She silenced me and then I heard her talk.

    “Yes it messed me up pretty bad. You should hear my voice the moment I woke up.”

    The cop laughed and made a step in my direction. “I’m glad it’s getting better, but I’m afraid you are not allowed to leave your room. Orders, sorry.”

    “Don’t worry I’ll just stretch my legs. Let the poor guy take a normal piss,” Valla said and I sensed my face smiling.

    What an irritating feeling. I tried to move my body, I focused really hard and tried to move it, but nothing happened. I can’t even describe how disturbing it is to be trapped like this, being able to feel the movement of your own body, but still not being able to do anything about it. I’m positive this is what the phrase being completely helpless really means.

    The cop sighed and glanced in the direction in which I assumed the toilet was. “Ok, I give you two minutes.”

    “Ok, better than nothing,” Valla’s voice said and towards the toilets we went.

    “Valla, am I trapped inside my body?” I asked her one more time, when we were at the toilets.”

    “I would not call it entrapment. I just borrowed the body, I will give it back to you. Probably.”

    The consolation that my body might be returned to me calmed me down. “It is still not a voluntarily withdrawal,” I pouted, like a little boy, but I was given little choice on how to behave in this situation.

    “How to avoid that officer?” was she thinking when we reached the toilets and ignored my last remark.

    “You don’t still think of leaving this place, do you?”

    “I will check what he is doing,” she said and I thought how could an intelligent being like her act so stupidly and childish.

    My head leaned through the toilet door and saw the cop talking with his radio.

    “Do you think he called that tall detective?” Valla asked me.

    “It’s possible.” Funny, I felt like an accomplice in a crime and I did nothing. Well except creating a feministic alien and killing seven people.

    “We have to leave,” she said and ran through the door in instant moment.

    “Wait, you can’t do that!” I tried to stop her and I could already hear the cop yelling behind me. His steps were getting louder and louder, he was closing in on us. Soon he reached us and grabbed my right arm, but before he could ask what the hell is going on my body turned around in less than a second. It grabbed with its free hand cop’s wrist and twisted it. I heard a loud crack and a scream of pain. Like this wasn’t enough, Valla punched him in the face, sending the poor guy backwards and on the floor. I thought Valla’s plan was to run now and it was, but not before committing one last stupid thing, the stupidest thing I thought even she was not capable of doing. She leaned my body towards the crying cop and pulled a gun out of his holster.

    “No Valla, no! Don’t kill him!” I screamed and tried to make my body throw the pistol away, but again without success of moving even the tiniest muscle.

    “Relax dear, I am not going to kill him. I just took his gun so he could not shoot us.”

    “Ok, ok!” was I relieved, but instead of throwing the gun away, she played with it for a couple of seconds, then stuck it on the back of my pants, right above my ass.

    “No, you have to throw it away, throw it in the toilet” I urged her, but she was already walking away from the cop and toilets. My heart was beating fast and I could almost taste my freedom being taken away and my body put in jail.

    “Where is the exit? I remember being transferred here, when you were in a coma, but I can not recall whether this is the right way out or not.”

    I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Her sentences and talking still sounded smart and intelligent, but it was more like I was trying to converse with a little girl who was chasing her ball down the hill and wouldn’t stop until she caught it.

    Suddenly, a memory revealed in my mind. Her behavior was exactly like before I locked her in the container. She was reckless now in the same way she was in my house. This thought reduced my hopes to minimum. She didn’t listen to me then, she probably wouldn’t listen to me now. But there was a difference though. Last time we were alone at my house, now she was in a hospital with human body of her own, armed with a gun. I had to try and stop her, before she caused any damage.

    “Valla wait, you’ll get both of us killed!” were my cries.

    “I doubt it, I will just have a little walk.”

    “Damn it Valla, you can’t walk around the city with hospital clothes and a gun behind my waist. I thought you would be smarter after completion, not reckless and stupid!”

    “I will not even answer your provocations,” she answered to my defiance.

    After minutes of light-headed wandering in the hospital we finally reached the main entrance. She walked through it, just like that and there was no guard to stop her. I urged her again to turn around, but like before, without success.

    “You see, I got us out, just like I promised I would.”

    “Yaaay, you are incredible!” I cheered and the minute we reached the road I saw the first person looking at us, struck with wonder, and I doubted he would also be the last one.

    “Do not mock me or I will never return you your body. It is very comfortable, do you go to a gym?”

    “What? No, I don’t go to a gym!”

    “I just asked, no need to be upset.”

    I couldn’t believe her words, she wasgetting more childish with every second. What did I do wrong when creating Gentleman?

    Before I could develop and finish my theory, I heard a police siren getting louder and soon I saw a black car with small round light on its roof flashing with red and blue color. It suddenly stopped, accompanied by loud squealing of tires.

    The driver’s door opened and that tall detective stepped out with gun in his hand.


    * * *


    Detective sergeant John Stowe was in a middle of making theories in his office, when dispatcher Rowny stepped inside.

    “Sir, officer Garry Bragg just contacted us and said Melvin Bettis is walking around the hospital.”

    “Who?”

    “Officer on guarding duty at the hospital.”

    “Aha, and he said what? That Bettis was walking around?”

    “Yes sir.”

    “Ok thanks.”

    The news didn’t surprise John, Melvin looked in good condition earlier this day, so why wouldn’t he walk? Probably he just wanted to stretch his legs or something.

    Stowe decided not to do anything, but he thought it was good decision made by Garry to let him know there’s been a process. At least someone was making any, since John couldn’t think of any example where Bettis would be responsible for the explosion. He was in hospital after all and he’s been in mortal danger. Still, he had a sensation Melvin was responsible of explosion, or had at least a hand in it. What part did the jelly have? The color of its core was almost the same of Melvin’s chest. And the movement he saw inside of them. The more he thought, the more was John convinced he really did see a motion.

    What if blob really was the explosive? And when it blew up, the substance somehow managed to get inside Melvin, like it was under a very high speed and just entered his body, like in cartoons? What in gods name is the matter with me? was he ashamed of his thinking, he always considered himself a man of facts, not assumptions or wicked theories. When absurd thoughts like the last one entered his mind he just chuckled and waved them away. But here was something different, he couldn’t just dismiss this theory, it somehow always found its way back and washed his brain. He needed some kind of approval that it was okay to meditate this way.

    He picked up his phone and dialed Dan’s cell phone number.

    “Hey, any sign of the jelly yet?” he asked when Dan answered.

    “Nope, nothing yet. I think it might take a while, like it did before. I expect it will just appear in front of me, maybe tomorrow.”

    “How’s the cleaning going?” was John interested and glanced his clock above the door. It was more than an hour since Dan went back downstairs.

    “It’s going, it’s going well. Faster than I expected and Sharon is helping me here.”

    “That’s good,” John smiled. “Hey listen, I was just wondering if you really think the jelly is the explosive.”

    There was no answer for a few moments. “I don’t know John, there were no other substances in my lab that would be of explosive nature and no traces of any kind of explosive were found at the docks. It seems illogical, but all leads point to the jelly.”

    “Yes, but what do you believe?”

    “My honest opinion? As a scientist I kinda want to believe the jelly is behind deaths of the workers. It would be a sensational discovery.”

    “And what do you as a non-scientist believe.”

    “I say it’s impossible for a jelly to be an explosive, but than again I’ve also said my wife wouldn’t leave me and I was wrong.”

    “Ok Dan, thanks.”

    “No problem sarge.”

    John cancelled the call and grabbed his coat. He decided to go to the docks again, just to sniff around one more time, maybe he’d get lucky and saw something nobody else did.

    He opened the door of his office and almost bumped into a smaller policewoman.

    “I’m sorry Sir. Rowny sent me to tell you that Melvin injured officer Bragg.”

    “He what?!”

    “And he also took his gun.”

    John wanted to say something, but there were no words coming from his mouth.

    “Bragg said he surprised him and broke his arm.”

    How could an almost dead man broke an arm to a trained policeman? Was the question appearing in detective’s head. He wanted to say something to the small policewoman, but he just shook his head, waved his hand and hurried out of the building and to his car.

    Really, how could a guy that just woke up from a coma broke a cop’s hand?! John was irritated. He knew Melvin looked in good condition and he could walk, but still… Come on!

    He turned the siren on and put a little round light on the car’s roof.

    “Alright, what’s the status?” he barked to his radio.

    “The suspect is armed and dangerous and has probably already left the hospital. The suspect is probably still wearing hospital clothing. Units 8 and 11 are on their way.”

    “Roger that,” John confirmed and grabbed thewheel with both hands. He was looking left and right hoping to notice a person in hospital clothes.

    All right, if I was Melvin, where would I go, he tried to think but came up with nothing but docks and his house.

    Then he noticed him.

    Stowe turned his wheel and stepped on a brake. Tires squealed and car stopped. He opened the door and stood behind them, with a gun in his hand.

    “Stop moving, Bettis!”


    * * *


    I froze when I saw the tall detective. “Valla, please listen to me. Don’t do anything rush or stupid.”

    She didn’t reply.

    “Valla?”

    “Don’t worry dear, I won’t.”

    I heard detective yelling to stop moving, but Valla was still walking towards him. There was a distant sound of sirens and I was almost certain they were headed this way. I did attack a police officer or better put; Valla controlling my body did it and I bet cops take assault on one of their own very seriously.

    “Bettis I mean it, put your hands in the air.”

    “Ok,” said Valla still with her voice. Fuck, she still didn’t change our voices, I thought, but luckily the tall one didn’t distinguish my voice from hers on this loud street.

    “Good, now turn…” he ordered but an arrival of two other police cars interrupted him. I was watching this drama, still helpless to do anything. I was an atheist but I was now silently praying, to be just put in jail, nothing else. An absurd prayer, but like I said many times before; there was not much I could do, locked up in my body like I was.

    There were five cops in common now, the detective who arrived alone in his car and two pairs who arrived with patrol cars. 5 guns were aimed at me and I couldn’t help but think; this is probably the biggest amount of weapons pointing at me, not even in video games 5 people simultaneously pointed their guns at me.

    “Valla, please…” my voice broke. I was still in panic but I was also tired, my heart was beating with enormous speed for at least half an hour, it was like a marathon for me. I still had the will to fight Valla, but no energy.

    “We know you are armed Melvin, put your gun on the ground,” ordered decisive voice of a detective.

    “Please Valla, do it carefully,” I managed to whisper. She listened and slowly took the gun from behind my waist.

    “Now throw it towards us,” detective continued.

    I saw my body threw the gun on the street and that’s when hell went loose.

    When Valla played earlier with gun it looked like she clicked on the safety button so the gun was ready to be used. When hitting the ground it fired in direction of one of the patrol cars. The bullet hit the front bumper and I heard a loud yelling and shot being fired. More shots followed, I felt crushing pain, I heard Valla scream and before my body hit the ground there was darkness all over me. The last thing I saw was blue sky without any clouds.


    * * *


    The gun hit the ground, causing it to fire and accidentally bullet hit patrol car on John’s right. The officer on driver’s side yelled and ducked, while his partner instantly started shooting at Melvin. The other two quickly joined him and the three of them let a rain of bullets in Melvin’s body.

    John started screaming to stop, but it was already too late. Before the last bullet was shot and before the body fell to the ground, it exploded with loud blast and an orange glow. There was no smoke, only fire that extinguished itself not five seconds after the explosion.

    John and his inferiors ducked in reflex. When they stood back up, there was no sign of Melvin, like was he vaporized during explosion.

    Detective sergeant John Stowe reached for his radio with his eyes still fixed on a point where Melvin stood not fifteen seconds ago.

    “Send the forensics team on intersection of 14th street and Bleeker street," he said with colorless voice. “Oh, and an ambulance,” just in case he thought.

    The forensics were scanning, investigating the scene of Melvin’s death for days, but the jelly was never again to be found.
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    An Imperfect Justice


    Chief Detective Ruebos Temm was found dead this morning at the Rittleton Charging Station. Police are calling his death a homicide. The headline ran across the screen at 6 o’clock that cold October morning. At the time I would never have guessed what it would come to mean to my life. Sure, I recognized the name. I worked with Ruebos once, seems like a long time ago now. Can’t say he ever cared much for me and quite honestly the feeling was mutual.

    I finished my drink and took a puff off my pipe. This morning Captain Müdi Vivialla listed former Detective Rhett Matthews as a person of interest. Mr. Matthews is a former detective with the police Department and once worked alongside Detective Ruebos. Tickets for the trial are being sold… There I was on the screen, I couldn’t believe it. How did I become a person of interest in a murder I had only just learned about? I took another puff from the pipe as I dialed the number to the station.

    “Penny, this is Rhett.” I said. “Let me speak with Müdi.” Just as soon as the words had left my mouth the door to my apartment crashed forward. Two officers stepped through, guns drawn.

    “Stay there, Rhett. D-don’t move, d-don’t d-don’t d-d-d-d… stay put.” CIM stuttered, he does that. He’s one of them humanoids, a Cybernetic Investigation Module. CIM for short. Smart as any human and far stronger, but there’s something critical missing.

    “Hey CIM” I said, setting down the phone. “You’ve come here about Ruebus?”

    “You’re a s-suspect.” Said CIM. “The Captain wants to see you… you.”

    “She’s free to visit anytime. Maybe I’ll clean up and heat a kettle for tea.” I walked over to get a beer from the fridge.

    “Hey, asshole. He means you’re coming with us.” Said CIM’s partner. Never did find out his name.

    “I’ll have to work her into my schedule. Let’s see… does 11 sound good? Oh, wait, that’s when I have my dentist’s appointment. How about noon? We could grab lunch.” I would go with them, but I wasn’t going to make it easy.

    “You’ve got to come with us, Rhett. Bet, jet, set, let, met… you need to come with us.” Said CIM, a fragile piece of machinery.

    “Fine.” I gave in. “Love what you’ve done with my door, by the way. How much do I owe you for that?”

    “Keep your mouth shut and don’t say anything stupid. I know that’s hard for you, but do try.” Said CIM’s partner, jabbing a gun between my shoulder blades.

    They rushed me through the doors of the Department. No one noticed us. Everyone scurrying left and right, maintaining the hustle and bustle of a city police station. The floor was wide with rows of computers blocking a straight path through the room. The Captain stood beside her office, her eyebrows flashed at me as I made my way around the mess of people. She hobbled over to me on robotically controlled legs, guiding her steps with the controller on her arm. She stared me down with her cyber eye. The soft, greenish beam of light cast against my face as it collected visual data. Fragile as she may seem, she keeps the boys in line and is the best shot in the Department.

    “What’d I do now, Boss?” I asked.

    “Bring Detective Matthews into my office.” She walked toward the back of the room. “Please.” She said flatly.

    “You’re a hard woman to get in touch with, Müdi. I was on the phone to call you when Starsky and Hutch knocked down my door.” I said.

    Captain Müdi Vivialla sat down into her seat consciously, a painful grimace rippling across her face. “Good job, boys. You may leave.” She said to the officers.

    “Captain, you want us to leave you with the s-sus-suspect? Provision 867 states-“CIM started.

    “The ‘suspect’ is Detective Rhett Matthews, I’ll be fine. Is your memory storage malfunctioning again?” She chided. “Rhett is your partner, CIM.”

    “Correction Sir –“Said CIM.

    “Ma’am.” She corrected.

    “Correction Ma’am, former d-detective Rhett was m-my part-part-partner, partner, ally, friend, comrade…”

    “That’s quite enough, CIM. Maybe Detective Matthews isn’t your partner now, but he was for 10 years.” She said. “When I need your protection I will ask for it. Until then, go oil your gears or something. The humans have a lot to talk about.”

    “Yes, Ma’am.” CIM said as he left. “Spam, clam, tram, dam…”

    “These humanoid units...”

    “He’s only doing what he’s programmed to.” I said. “Though, not very well.”

    “Yes. We have you to thank for that.” She sighed. “How have you been, Rhett?”

    “Well, I’m a murder suspect. Things could be worse, but not much.”

    “Person of interest.” She clarified.

    “Call it what you like. It’s all the same to the people of this city.”

    “You need to worry less about the people of the city,” she said, “and more about yourself.”

    “I have you to thank for that.”

    “Not me.” She said. “Someone else.” A deep frown appeared on her face. “The truth is, Rhett, I don’t think you murdered Ruebos.”

    “Then why am I here?” I asked.

    “I’m not saying you won’t be charged” she said, ignoring me, “but I don’t think you’re capable of murder. You wouldn’t even look me in the eye after you breached the health code. That was three years ago. Haven’t spoken once since then. Someone with that level of guilt and shame wouldn’t walk into my office and crack jokes if they had something to hide.”

    “Why announce me as a suspect?” I asked.

    The Captain’s face soured, her lips puckered with disgust as she told me that it wasn’t her choice to make. “My superiors…” She hated to use the term, “instructed me to.”

    “Three years and nothing has changed, has it?” I asked. She averted her gaze, the green light shone at the camera imposed upon the wall. “What do we do now?” I asked.

    We, I’m afraid, don’t do anything.” She sighed. “You, on the other hand,” She stared down at her gloved hand, “… you need to find whatever is left of Detective Matthews. Prove what we already know. That you are no killer.”

    Captain Müdi ordered CIM to take me back home. I stood by the window and watched him hover away, passing a black van parked on the opposite side of the street. I began packing my bags. I’ve got a friend with great influence in the airlines industry. If I told him of my predicament he would find a way to get me away from the city. There was nowhere to hide, not here. What else could I do? Stay in the city and wait for them to come arrest me? Plead my case before the court? What was I going to say? ‘I’m not a murderer, you can trust me’. The fact is, I don’t remember anything about the night of Ruebos Temm’s murder. The last I remember was the pop of another bottle being opened, and taking a hit off the pipe. So, I was going to run. I had no choice.

    A bright yellow, checker-patterned taxicab took me to the airport. Upon arrival I requested to speak with my friend. I was told that he had taken an indefinite leave of absence. “A leave of absence?” I asked. “He owns the airport.”

    “Buy a ticket or leave, sir.” Said the clerk, a small creature. Some sort of strange mix race by the looks. A human mother and a father with connections to the Faerko tribe of Draconatta II? Probably.

    “No, no, no. It’s alright.” A voice said. “This is the famous Rhett Matthews, surely that means something here. Even to a greed driven business like this.” A tall, slim man swaggered over to the desk. His hair was cropped close to his oblong head. His sloped forehead lead down to bulging blue eyes. A furry goatee sprouted from his chin.

    “Who are you?” I asked.

    “I am Shemis Callard.” He said. “I’ve been looking for you Rhett, would you come speak with me?”

    “About what? No, no. I don’t have time.” I said. “There’s no way you can call Mr. Libbenz?” I asked the clerk.

    “What’s the rush, Detective?” Shemis asked.

    “I have to be somewhere.” I said. “I’m running late, I suspect.” I dug into my wallet to find the money I knew wasn’t there.

    “It’s imperative, Detective... that you hear what I have to say.”

    “Sorry, who are you again? What do you want?” I said. “How much is a ticket?” I asked the clerk.

    “If you come talk with me I will pay your way. Anywhere you want to go. Free of charge.” Said Shemis Callard.

    Who was this man? I wondered. What did he want with me? “You will pay for my ticket? All I have to do is talk with you? Why would you do that?” I asked.

    “It’s important. I’ll take care of everything.” He said. “Come with me.”

    The tall man strode ahead of me. I followed. He was dressed sharply in a brown blazer and trousers. His polished, black Oxford’s kicked forward fervently down the corridor. When I eventually caught up to him he turned to me, waved a hand, and placed a finger to his lip.

    “You’re probably wondering how you found yourself in a situation like this.” Said Shemis, a slight twinkle in his cold blue eyes. “A lawman pursued by the law.”

    “What do you know of it?”

    “Ah, yes. I represent a freelance agency known as the INJU. That is, International Justice Unit.” He said, his head held high. “We are responsible for your predicament.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “I instructed the Captain to have you arrested. But, alas, she never follows orders.”

    “Why? What do you have against me?”

    “Me? Nothing at all. This isn’t about you and me, Detective.” He corrected. Striding forward once more he waited for me to catch him before resuming. “Reliable reports suggest that you killed an innocent man. A cop, no less.”

    “Reliable reports? Am I to know who made these reports?” I said. He said nothing. “You’ve got the wrong guy. I’m no killer.”

    “I wish that were true, we all do.” He said, gazing up at the security camera on the wall. “Do you happen to remember a Mr. and Mrs. Poulin?”

    “How dare you… don’t, don’t even-“

    “And their young girl, little Ms. Kazzera?” Asked Shemis, his large teeth shining in a broad smile.

    “They have nothing to do with this, Beavis… or whatever your name is.”

    Shemis.” He scowled. “Did you ever tell her the truth?”

    “This was a mistake. I’ll borrow the money, you can take your offer and shove it-“

    “The real reason her parents died, did you tell her? Or did you pretend to know nothing about it like you’re doing now?” He asked. “You see, people don’t charge. Not on the important things. Do they, Detective?”

    “Stop acting like you know something I don’t.” I said. “You weren’t there. I was. Don’t even pretend to understand.”

    “But, I was there.” He said. “Not in person, perhaps. But… in spirit.”

    As much as I resisted his words I somehow found myself following him wherever he walked. It was like I was in a trance, as though I couldn’t break away. “I’m not leaving the city, am I?”

    “I’m afraid not, Detective. You will remain here where justice can finally catch up to you.” Said Shemis. “Sorry for my fib earlier.”

    “Ruebos did not die by my hands, Shemis. Your sense of justice-“

    “My sense of justice?” He jumped. “I know justice like you know the day and the sun and the moon. I am justice, Detective.” He shouted into my face.

    You are insane.” I said.

    “Me? No, Detective. Former Detective. I’m not the one with a break from reality. I’m not the one who killed Ruebos Temm.” He said. “And I’m not the one…” he slowed his speech, “that orphaned a young girl.”

    I snapped. My fist thrust forward into the face of the man before me. He tumbled down to the ground hard. “I told you,” I said, “I’m not a killer.”

    “Shouldn’t have done that.” Said Shemis. “Now then, boys?”

    Several men charged forward from the shadows. One of them tore the shirt off my body and tightened it around my arms. I was beaten with clubs across my chest and my nose was crushed with a thrusting elbow. They continued to beat my ribs for several minutes. I tried to get up and fight, then one of them lifted a knee into my face. All while he watched and gave instructions.

    “He’s fading. Roman, wake the boy up.” He said before they tazed me. “Know this, Detective…”

    “The bitch is crying.” Said the man named Roman. “I think he’s pissed himself.”

    “It’s okay to cry, Detective.” Said Shemis. “Like Kazzera cried over the mutilated bodies of her parents.”

    “You son of a-“I pressed myself up off the floor onto my knees. I tried to make it to my feet but crumpled back down again.

    “I cry for you.” Said Shemis. “Seven days until your trial. Seven days until justice will finally be served. Your sins have gone unpunished far too long, Detective.” He looked to one of the men and nodded. The giant man charged forward and thrust a boot into my face.

    *****

    I woke up laying faced down in my apartment. I struggled to get myself off the floor. My entire body throbbed with pain. My ribs felt broken, my nose was smashed. Gobs of blood had dried to my face. I made my way to the bathroom to clean up. There would be no running from this, I knew that now. At that moment I made a decision. I wouldn’t take the fall for a crime I didn’t commit. I pulled my spare pistol out from under the bed and tucked the barrel into the front of my pants. I was going to prove my case before the court but to do that I needed to have a clear mind. That’s when I chose to get my act together, sober up. I couldn’t just drown this away like before. Every bottle of beer, every drop of alcohol was poured down the drain. The pipe was tossed out on the trash heap as I left the apartment.

    I started walking. Then I was jogging and almost running. I had to burn off the anger building inside of me. That, too, would clutter my mind. The pain was tremendous but the city is so beautiful. Sparkling blue skyscrapers towering high above my head, the leafless trees bending with the cool autumn wind. The streets full of small hovering rectangles taking people where they had to be. The sun peaking in and out as dark grey clouds blew by. The streets scattered with the diverse creatures of Earth. Some of them homegrown, some imported.

    I slowed down as I came into sight of the Rittleford Charging Station. Business was closed, which wasn’t good for Magnetra car owners in the area. Several had broken down along the road already. In amongst the mess of yellow tape surrounding the area sat the hobo from Faerko. His slimy hands pawed over the ground furiously. A few of his eyes scanned over the area while the others arced around his body to see behind. He spotted me.

    “Hey!” I said before he could speak. “That’s a crime scene. There’s no money there.” The little hobo could be seen traveling all around the city searching for coinage.

    “Money!” He said. He jumped up and spun around all in the same motion. His eyes swayed side to side, and up to down trying to get a sense of my appearance. “What they call you?”

    “I’m a Detective. This is a crime scene.” I said. “Scram.”

    “No scram. What they call you?” He insisted.

    “I’m Rhett.” I said.

    “No! What they call you!” He jumped up and stomped down on the ground. “They call you… murderer.” He nodded furiously, his eyes wobbling. “That’s what they call you.” His body shivered maniacally as the wind blew through his Einstein-esk white hair.

    “Well, I’m not a murderer. Though, I am looking for one.” I said. “You haven’t seen anything strange around here lately, have you?”

    “Me?” He laughed. “Me? Something strange? I tell you what I see…” His eyes circled forward. “I see you! Just now. That what I see. I see Rhett. Detective? Ha. Scram? Ha. Murderer? Hmm.” He pointed a sharp clawed finger at me and held his protruding stomach as he bent over in laughter.

    “Clearly this is a waste of time.” I said, drawing back. “Get away from the crime scene or I’ll call the Captain.”

    “Rhett would not?” He questioned.

    “Rhett would.”

    “Rhett wait, wait! Me did see a strange. I tell Rhett.”

    The weird little creature, who calls himself Uncha, walked with me over to The Savvi Ravvi tavern. The neon sign flashed ‘’The Savvi Ravvi – Food, Drinks and Entertainment – Open Monday through Friday’’ A misleading sign at best, I thought. The food was barely edible, the drinks smelled of rotten milk, the entertainment was illegal in several provinces and the opening and closing times seemed to change by the week. I had offered to buy Uncha dinner if he would tell me what he saw. It was a meal, he couldn’t be too picky. At least it was cheap. In between chews he told me that he had been only across the street from the Charging station when Ruebos was murdered. His eyes, he told me, aren’t well adapted to the dark but what he did see was so strange that it stuck in his mind. ‘Like a big, sharp rock’ he said.

    “Me see two man stand. They talk. One man shoot other man. Surprise! Hahaha.”

    “You think the killer was familiar with Detective Ruebos?”

    “Familiar? They talk for long time, then boom!” The food spilled out of the Faerko native’s mouth. “Down he go.”

    Across the poorly lit tavern I could barely make out the sunk-in eyes of big Djörn rotate toward me. The huge Ravvi towered over the bar as he poured the drinks from a golden mixing jar. When I met his eyes he averted his gaze and began speaking with one of the patrons sitting at the bar.

    “Refill!” yelled the little hobo, “Free refill! To the brim, to the brim.” He said to a passing waitress.

    “Stay here and finish your meal,” I said, “I’ll be right back.” The expression on Djörn’s face told me something was bothering him. Could have been the traditional bigotry between the Faerko and the Ravii, but maybe not. Maybe he knew something.

    “Chonzy, tell the girl she can leave. The men are satisfied.” Said Djörn to an employee. “We made bank tonight, ya piece o’ junk.” Chonzy, the large humanoid unit, escorted one of the dancers from the tavern. Barely clothed and drunk off her feet she was ushered from the tavern unceremoniously. Operations resumed as usual.

    I took a seat at the bar. The big lizard’s tail knocked into a jug of wine as he turned to leave the stand.

    “Djörn,” I said, “Where are you going?”

    Slowly, he turned to face me. “Don’t tell me,” he said, squinting his eyes, “… Rhett the Debt?”

    “Oh, you remembered.” I said. “I’ll pay the tab, don’t worry.”

    “Rhett! Big bad Detective Rhett.” His face stretched in excitement. A few of the patrons took notice of my presence.

    “Former Detective now” I corrected.

    “How long’s it been? Huh?” Djörn’s unsettling slits-for-eyes became warm with a glint of sparkle. He bore his jagged teeth as he awaited my reply.

    “Too long, big guy.”

    His expression darkened. “I saw you on the news.”

    “He’s that guy that murdered Detective Ruebus, big Djörn!” Said one of the patrons as he fluttered above the bar stool.

    “I didn’t kill him.” I said. The patron settled back onto his seat, confused. “Mistaken identity, that’s all” I lied.

    “Awh that’ll happen. I remember the one time CIM and that other fella… oh! It was you. You barged into the tavern ready to arrest me of all people.” Said Djörn. “That was some time ago, I don’t suppose you remember.” His tongue flicked from his mouth several times.

    “I remember” I grinned. Rumor had gotten out that big Djörn and his brother Djabe were involved in a hacking operation that tampered with the criminal records of a few friends. For several months we thought he was the notorious Black Hacker, though we never could prove it was him or his brother. There were no hard feelings.

    “How do you plan to get away with it?” His lips lifted to a smile, his tongue sticking out from his mouth.

    “There’s nothing to get away with, Djörn. I didn’t do it.”

    “Oh,” He said with a sigh, “of course you didn’t.”

    “If all goes well I’ll be able to prove that to the court.” I said. “And the only way I can ensure that is by finding the person I was mistaken for.”

    “That’s my boy, proof and evidence… don’t suppose a bribe is out of the question?”

    “Djörn...”

    “I kid, I kid.” He laughed. “It’s really too bad about ol’ Ruebos. He wasn’t always the nicest guy but he was a good cop.”

    “You haven’t heard anything strange lately, have you?” I said. “Any gripes about Detective Ruebos or The Department?”

    “Anything strange, hmm? I could write a book, just ask Frank.” He laughed. “We’re always exchanging stories.” Something occurred to the Ravvi, “Maybe the details somehow slip my mind, though. Makes me wonder how much they’re worth to you.” He rubbed his clawed fingers together, chuckling to himself.

    “For a minute I thought you expected me to pay for information. But, I know you better than that. If you can’t remember you can’t remember.”

    “Uh, right.” He sighed. “Wish I could help.”

    “You won’t mind me telling the Captain about your memory issues, will you?” I asked. “Or maybe something I’ve said jogged your memory?”

    “I think he’s accusing you of killing Ruebos, big Djörn!” The patron fluttered above his barstool again.

    “You are?” The room went silent.

    “Of course not. Big Djörn wouldn’t hurt a fly. Well, maybe a fly… but nothing bigger.” I said. “Still, I don’t think he minds answering my question. Right, Djörn?”

    “Huh? Not at all. Uh,” He said, knocking over a shelf of drinks. “Damn it.”

    “Djörn? Your answer?”

    “Oh, yes. I was here. All night. Little Djabe can tell you. Here all night.” He said.

    “I’ll be sure to ask him about it.”

    “Wait, scratch that. Djabe wasn’t here.” He said. “But, you trust me.”

    “Haven’t any reason not to, do I?”

    “There was this one guy telling tall tales. Mentioned The Department, probably Ruebos too. He’d had a few more than too many, though. That was last night.” Said the large reptile. “Not sure if that helps.”

    “What exactly was he saying?” I asked.

    “Something about the cameras all around the city. He doesn’t like it one bit.” Said Djörn. “Me, I don’t mind. Keeps us safer, don’t you think? It’s not like they’re everywhere.”

    I ignored the question. “Did this man mention his name? And when did he leave?”

    “Bümbrix. Works over at the mill.” Said Djörn. “He was here until we closed, I guess. Two A.M.”

    I thanked Djörn for the help and went to tell Uncha that I had to go. His seat was empty. “Excuse me, Miss,” I said to the waitress, “Do you know where my friend went?”

    “He just left, Hon.” She said.

    Didn’t even thank me. Just got up and left. “How much do I owe you?” I sighed.

    “Your friend already took care of it, and with a gracious tip at that.” She said.

    What? Where did he get the money from? And why would he pay for a meal when I had already said it was on me? At the time I didn’t think on it much further but clearly the shock showed on my face.

    “Are you alright?” Asked the waitress.

    “Fine. Yes.” Maybe I was just plucking at straws but something in the pit of my stomach told me that I needed to go to the mill. Speak with Bümbrix. The Department hasn’t always been fair to me either, perhaps an alliance could be made. “I’ve got to be going now.”

    “It’s awfully cold out there. Do you live far?” Asked the waitress.

    “No, not at all. I’ll be fine.”

    “Nonsense, you just wait right there. I’ve got to cash out with Djörn and then I’ll take you home.”

    I didn’t argue. It was getting colder every day as the winter approached and the days grew increasingly short. The dark of night seldom bothers me but with the agents of the INJU and Ruebos’ murderer walking the streets I thought it best to accept the ride. Especially with the black van parked outside the tavern.

    I told the waitress, whose name was Tia, that I wished to go to the mill. Although a bit annoyed by the longer trip she was happy to see me there and wished me the best. She was full-blooded human like myself, about age 21. The twang in her voice told me she wasn’t from around these parts. A beautiful girl, but she was married… to a Ravvi. Call me old-fashioned but somehow that’s still a hard pill to swallow. Regardless, this was no time for a fling.

    I soon arrived at the ‘mill’. A term brought back out of nostalgia or, more likely, stubbornness to describe the pollution control centers placed in of every major population area. Many still think they’re giant windmills, hence the name. It’s mostly conservative folk who can’t accept that their old ideas didn’t work. The mills are mostly automated but a few people live in the quarters to maintain the machinery and work out the bugs. Computers are good, sometimes great, but they’re very bad at solving problems they weren’t programmed to.

    Inside the mill was much like the outside, very dark. I couldn’t see a thing. The faint outlines of objects kept me from falling over myself as I approached a downward spiraling staircase. “Bümbrix.” I shouted. “Bümbrix, are you here?” I could hear something rustling about. “Bümbrix?” I questioned. There was a loud clanging sound coming from downstairs. I grabbed onto the railing and waved my foot down to the next step carefully. “Hello?”

    The door slammed shut behind me. I froze. “Hello?” The rustling continued downstairs. I took another few steps down the staircase quickly as the rustling became louder and my eyes began to adapt to the dark. “You don’t know me, but my name is Rhett.” I said, pulling my gun from my pants. “I have some questions.” A shot rang out from behind me. I felt debris from the wall to the left cover my arm. Another shot rang out and hit the stair below me just beneath my foot. “Stop! Stop!” I hollered. “I just want to ask you some questions, please don’t shoot.”

    “What do you want with me?” Said a voice, hissing in my ear. “You’re that detective, aren’t you?”

    “F-former detective, I’m… no longer with the Department.” I said.

    “Why are you here?” The voice relaxed slightly.

    “I’m looking for Detective Ruebos’ killer. I’ve been accused.” I said. “Just trying to set things straight.”

    “When you find him… send him here. I’d love to shake his hand.”

    “Then, you don’t think I did it?” I asked. “Trying to shoot me down isn’t exactly a handshake.”

    Nothing was said for several minutes. I cautiously turned around and made my way back up the staircase. As I reached the top my eyes were nearly blinded by the overhead light as it activated. Crouching upon a high shelf against the wall of the corridor was the shooter. A large human-Ravvi interspecies man. “Bümbrix, I presume.”

    “Ask me your questions,” He said, “Then leave.”

    “Well,” I said, taking a breath, “I heard you’ve been wronged by the Department.”

    “You risk your life to ask about my feelings?” he whispered.

    “No, no, no.” I said quickly, “Well, yes. I didn’t realize I’d be risking my life, quite honestly.”

    “The question you want to ask me is ‘did you kill Detective Ruebos?’ No, I didn’t.” Said Bümbrix. “But, I wish I had.” His head jerked side to side and his eyes gazed at the ceiling. “You heard me, Captain. Bullet through the skull… at my hands.” He began to hum.

    “Who are you talking to?” I asked.

    “I don’t have time for you, I’m busy.”

    “It’s just you and me in the room, Bümbrix.” I said. “I’m not working with the Department.”

    “Dispose of your gun!” He roared. “Now.”

    “How do I know you aren’t going to shoot me?” I panicked.

    “You don’t.” Said Bümbrix, pointing his gun.

    He wasn’t really going to shoot me, was he? He’s a government administered watchman of this facility, he won’t shoot me… right? Though, he had already come pretty close. “Where were you on the night of the murder?” I asked, tossing my pistol to the side.

    “The Savvi Ravvi.” He leapt off the shelf, dropping 10 feet to the floor. His slick, scaly hand grabbed my discarded gun and powered it down. “Drinking away my sorrows.” he said. So, Djörn had been telling the truth then. Interesting.

    “Do you know when the murder occurred?” I asked.

    “What do you think?” He snarled.

    “Detective Ruebos was shot at 3’o clock in the morning. The Savvi Ravvi closes at 2’ o clock.”

    “Giving me an hour to drill a bullet through Ruebos’ skull.” Said Bümbrix. “That’s your theory.”

    “I never said-“

    “Did you know Ruebos Temm? Did you know the hate in his eyes when he looked at my kind?” He said. “The world is better off.”

    “Maybe so,” I said. “But I’ve been set up to take the fall for his murder. I will find his true killer. If you have anything to do with the murder… I will make sure you are hanged in my place.” His face tightened into a deep frown. “So, keep shooting that gun around, Bümbrix. For now.”

    “You speak with such conviction.” He said. “But those are not your words. The corruption of the Department has burned the bridges between neighbors, caused them to tattle on each other out of fear.”

    “I am not afraid.” I said.

    “Not afraid?” He hissed. His eyes locked onto mine as he stood inches from my face. “Take off the shirt.”

    “Why?” I asked.

    “You do not know corruption, you do not know hatred.” He said. “I can see in your eyes that you think you know me. You don’t.” His eyes stared into my mind, he hissed again even louder. “I will show you the corruption of man.” The fiendish man-lizard thrust his hand into my throat and lifted me a foot off the ground. “Or will you show me?”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I eked out.

    “Let’s play a game, Detective.” He said. “Wire or no wire. If you’re wearing one I will beat you within an inch of your life and then end it with a bullet through the skull. If you’re not wearing a wire I will let you go. You will have 10 seconds to leave the mill. Failure to play the game will result in me… crushing your windpipe… right now. You will suffocate. So, will you play?”

    I nodded my head as well as I could. I like my windpipe the way it is, thank you. The lizard-man lowered me down to the ground and released his hold around my neck. “Remove your clothing.” He said. I did as I was told.

    He inspected me, turning me around and then back again. “Lucky,” he said, disappointed. “Leave this mill and don’t return.”

    I quickly plucked the clothing from the floor, “Ten” he blurted. I sprang from the door and ran down the embankment as fast as I could. “Nine” he shouted.

    I must have run half a mile before I stopped to get dressed. My chest burned in agony. My legs were limp. I thought my heart would beat out of my chest.

    *****

    “Can I speak with the Captain, please?” I said, out of breath. “I have important details on the Detective Ruebos murder case.” I didn’t have any real evidence yet but being nearly killed by a Department hating half-lizard fiend seemed like something important to report.

    I told the Captain of my encounter with Bümbrix and the details I was able to gather from Uncha and Djörn. Uncha’s story told me that whoever the killer was, they had been speaking with Ruebos just previous to the murder. I also learned that this homicidal mill-worker Bümbrix had a paranoid view of the Department and a deep hatred for Ruebos. He certainly seemed like the type to talk with you one moment and kill you the next. “Do you know of him?” I asked. “The mill worker?”

    “We’ve heard from Bümbrix on more than one occasion. I can say no more than that. I’m sure Ruebos dealt with him once or twice if that’s what you’re asking.” She responded.

    “I already knew that.” I said. “Are you withholding something?”

    “Rhett, I don’t want you to take the fall for something you didn’t do.” She said. “But, there are things I can’t discuss with civilians. You know that.”

    “Civilians?” I said, “I’m not exactly your average street walker, now am I? I don’t know why but someone in a position of power has decided that I’m a murderer. I’ve done nothing. For the past three years since you dumped me from the Department, nothing. Just minding my own business, keeping to myself.”

    “Calm down-“she pleaded reassuringly. I didn’t calm down.

    “You have your agents bust down my door to bring me to you, for what? After all this time we finally meet up again face-to-face and not once did you apologize to me for what you did. All you could say was that you wouldn’t help and that I was going to face this on my own.”

    “Don’t blame me for your mistakes, Rhett.” She squeaked in.

    “I could die. Executed, Müdi. Maybe you can sit by and watch the events unfold but I’ll be damned if I will.”

    “There’s nothing I can do.” Said the Captain.

    “Yeah? Screw you, then.” I tore the phone from the wall and threw it across the room. “Buh-bye!” How could she say she knew I wasn’t a killer and then stand by as I’m beaten and shot at and put on trial? Crumpled up on the floor I sobbed and screamed in rage. For the first time it set in. Until then it just seemed like some sort of joke, I was just waiting for the punch line. A dream, perhaps. It wasn’t real, how could it be? I was so caught up on the absurdity of this dream that I missed one ever-so important fact, I was awake.

    When I had calmed myself down my spirits were broken and my mind was weak. Tick tock, tick tock, the clock drummed into my ears. Time ceases for no man. It would not relent in compassion for my breakdown. It would not pause for me to make sense of my ordeal. The clock would go on ticking even as my body hung limp from the gallows, never halting to remember my cause. My eyes turned from sorrow to weariness, even as my mind worried… my body wished to sleep.

    *****

    “How does a dead man’s name end up on your payment receipt, Rhett?” Djörn asked. It was mid-morning, a day had passed. After I left the tavern last night Djörn scanned over the billing transactions. Near the bottom of the last page one name in particular caught his eye. Ruebos Temm.

    “I’m not entirely sure, but I’ve got an inkling.” I said. “While I pursue that I need you to do something for me.”

    “Anything. What can I do?”

    “I need you to hack into the Department database,” I said, “look for footage from the camera at Rittleford Charging Station the night of Ruebos’ murder.”

    Djörn’s sunk-in eyes darted side to side. “Why do you ask me?”

    “I think you know the answer to that, Djörn. You don’t have to pretend anymore.” I said. “You know how serious this is, don’t you?”

    “Of course it is, yes.” He said. “Though, I’m no hacker.” He smiled.

    “No, of course not.” I laughed. “But I’m willing to bet you know someone that is.”

    Djörn flicked his tongue out from his mouth a few times as he gave it some thought. “Maybe I do.” He said. “Maybe I don’t.” His eyes darted to the side of the tavern. A young woman sat at one of the tables.

    “What is it?” I asked.

    “Nothing. I’ll get on it, Rhett. Right away. See you later.”

    I turned to see the woman. She wore shades over her eyes and had her face turned down to the menu extended in front of her. “There’s a lot to pick from isn’t there?” I said, approaching her. She didn’t hear me. “Excuse me, Miss?”

    “Yes?” She responded.

    “Djörn’s got a wide selection there, doesn’t he?” My stomach churned in memory of the last meal I had eaten there. Bleck.

    “Huh?” Said the woman looking up at me. “Oh, yes. Very wide.”

    “I’m surprised you noticed.”

    “Why’s that?” She asked.

    “Well, you’ve been listening to my conversation with Djörn the whole time.” I said. “I bet you couldn’t even name today’s special.”

    “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

    “Alright, then tell me. What’s today’s special? And don’t look at the menu.” I said. Her mouth hung open as she strained to think. “But you can’t, can you?”

    “No.” She said, taking off the shades. Bright green eyes looked up at me.

    “The special is listed on the front of the building, in the entryway before you enter the restaurant, and on the front of the menu itself.” I said. “You’re either bafflingly unobservant or you aren’t here to eat. Why are you here?”

    “Detective, I knew it was you.” Smiled the stranger. “You may not remember me.”

    I looked to Djörn for some kind of hint. He shrugged. “I’m sorry?” I said.

    “Ten years ago,” She said, turning her attention to Djörn, “Detective Rhett responded to a call. I had heard gunshots fired and called the police.” Her eyes welled up. “When he arrived… h-he found them. My parents. They had been murdered. Mercilessly shot to death in their own home.”

    “I remember.” I said. It’s not something you forget. ‘Did you ever tell her the truth?’ Shemis’ words rang in my ears.

    “When the Detective found me I was almost paralyzed in fear.” She said. “He brought me back with him to the station. Made me a place to sleep. Comforted me as I wept into my pillow. Even after my Aunt came to pick me up he came by to check up on me. Every year on the anniversary the Detective was there for me.”

    “It’s been a long time, Kazz.” I said. “Look at how you’ve grown.”

    “Until one year when the great Detective failed to show.” She said, ignoring me. “I worried that he had died, but no one would ever say. I almost believed it. When they said you had killed a man. But I know better.”

    “Why did you come here, Kazz?” I lightly chided. “It’s great to see you, but these are very dangerous times for me. This city is no place for a young girl.”

    “That’s why I’m here. To protect you.” She said. “I’m not a young girl anymore.”

    “You can’t stay, Kazz. They’ll pursue you as hard as they’ve pursued me.” I said. “No one else is going to be hurt on my watch. Not anymore.”

    “Don’t worry about the lizard.” Djörn complained, his frill puffing out a bit.

    “I’m not a little girl anymore, Rhett. I can make my own decisions.” She said.

    “This isn’t another case to fool around with. There are big people in high places who want me dead.”

    “Then they’ll have to go through the three of us first.”

    “Three?” Said Djörn.

    “Enough. You are not getting involved, Kazz. I’ve made my decision.” I said. “Djörn, get me that footage as soon as you can. I’m going to go have a conversation with our little hobo from Faerko. You,” I said to Kazz, “Are leaving. This is Detectives work. I’m glad you stopped by, now please leave before you get hurt.”

    With that said I left the tavern. Don’t get me wrong, running into Kazz was wonderful but it was the wrong place and the wrong time. She doesn’t need to complicate things by getting involved, not again. Rain drops pounded down upon my head as I marched over to the Charging Station. Something approached me from behind, the breeze from its acceleration brushing against my neck. Quickly it was beside me, keeping pace. A black van, like the others I’ve been seeing. Except this one was closer, the letters INJU were painted on the side. A tinted window collapsed down on itself to reveal a passenger, Shemis Callard. His icy eyes stared into me with a piercing intensity. The van blew past without a word spoken. He had stopped me cold in my tracks, the van had just kept on moving. Why was he following me? What were his intentions? I couldn’t worry about that right then.

    Regaining my composure I looked toward the scene of the crime, realizing that this was my last chance to see it as it was the night of the murder. Soon the rain would wash away the evidence and the station would reopen soon thereafter. Ducking under the yellow tape I approached the bloodstained pavement just 10 feet in front of the charging units.

    Ruebos had lost a lot of blood. Oddly enough the stains not only pooled in that particular area but there were faint streaks of blood leading up to it and a very faint trickle of blood leading up to the streaks. There was much to be learned from that, but even then I couldn’t prove it. The rain would soon wash much of it away. I didn’t have my camera. Ruined that when I threw my phone. God, I’m an idiot.

    I ducked back under the tape and as I walked around the Charging Station I saw the scurrying feet of the little hobo running towards me. “Help! Rhett help Uncha!” Sprinting quickly behind him was Bümbrix, the mill operator, gun drawn.

    “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “What’s going on?” The homely little alien hid behind my legs.

    “I just caught that pathetic fur-ball digging around the graveyard.” Bümbrix hissed.

    “I’d not. Ravvi lies!”

    “So what if he was? What’s it to you?” I said. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the mill?”

    “He was digging in the graveyard of my ancestors.” Said Bümbrix. “That must mean something to you, human.”

    “What were you doing hanging around the graveyard anyway?”

    “Always you with your questions.” he said. “Get out of the way.”

    “No.”

    “No kill! No kill!” Said the little hobo.

    “Fine. The man will die first and then I’ll take my time dealing with you.”

    A gunshot went off but I was still standing. The gun flew from the hands of Bümbrix as he fell back from the shot. He grasped his arm tight and hissed. Behind me stood CIM, gun in hand. The little hobo peeked out from behind his legs now.

    “Nice shot.” I said. “Lucky you missed the chest.”

    “He tried to kill me!” Yelled Bümbrix.

    “Lucky, unlucky. One of those.” Said CIM. He pulled the little hobo out of hiding.

    I went on to question Uncha about why he had left in such a hurry the day earlier at the tavern. “Finished eat. I go.” He said.

    “Alright, how do you explain Detective Ruebos’ name being on the bill?”

    He laughed. “Money cards not named.”

    “Oh, you used a ‘money card’?” I asked. “Where did you get that from?”

    The smile faded from his face. “Oh. Uh, okay. Uncha tell you.”

    “Tell me what?”

    “Truth.” He said. “Uncha tell Rhett truth.” His eyes reached around him to scan the area before he took a big breath and began to tell his story. “Car drive up. Large man and …small man, I think. They throw Detective Ruebos out of trunk. Drag him toward station.”

    “The streaks of blood leading to the scene.” I affirmed.

    “Uncha walk over. I not know Ruebos dead. The little man mad at Uncha. He hit him.” Said the little hobo. “They tell me keep quiet. They give Uncha money card from Detective Ruebos. Demand me say what I tell you, demand I say. Demand.”

    “You stole from a dead man.” Bümbrix roared.

    “What does it matter to you, Bümbrix? The world is better off… that’s what you said, right?” He ignored me.

    “I not steal. They give to Uncha.”

    “They bribed you with the money card, Uncha. You lied to me.” I said.

    “Yes.” He cried. “I lie.”

    “Well, don’t do it again.” I warned. “Now scram.” He ran off, looking back several times to be sure the injured Ravvi wasn’t following.

    “Bümbrix, you’re starting to become a menace. Une amanaza. Por por por por la que… Why we allow you to carry a weapon is beyond me.” Said CIM. “You can’t just go pointing that thing thing thing thing … you can’t just go pointing that thing at people.” He picked up Bümbrix’s gun and powered it down.

    “Next time I won’t just point, CIM. I’ll fire.” He said. “Make sure your head isn’t nearby. You might be unlucky.” The lizard jumped to his feet and stomped away angrily holding his arm.

    “I’m sure he has more than one gun.” I said to CIM.

    “Yeah, but what can you do? We tried having the guns taken away, but you know how that went… went. All we can do is wait for the Governors to make a d-d-deci-decision.” He said. “‘til then… til til til still will fill bill nil quill… until then” he corrected, “You just watch your back and keep your eyes wide.”

    “If you hadn’t been here that lizard would have killed me.”

    “Maybe. I think Bümbrix’s teeth are sharper than his venom is toxic toxic toxic poisonous material that causes death or great injury toxic toxic…” He shook himself. “If you know what I mean.”

    I nodded. There was a prolonged silence as I nervously scanned the horizon. “Why were you here anyway?”

    “I got a call from a young woman who wanted to m-m-meet with me.” He said. “I was looking around for her when I saw your pre-pre-predicamen… sit-situazione z-z-zwang-z-z bees are of high importance in our biological world…”

    “Müdi hasn’t been maintaining your systems very well, CIM” I said. “Let me take a look.”

    *****

    I found myself flat on my back. My entire arm burned as blood gushed out from the shoulder. My head had bounced off the pavement, leaving my vision partially obscured. Someone was standing nearby, hovering over us. To the right of me was CIM, laying faced down and completely motionless. I think he died immediately, there was nothing I could do. The world seemed to spin and everything was blurred but I couldn’t just lay there waiting for the assassin. I rolled over and dragged myself behind a nearby car.

    I could hear the assassin approaching. The footsteps reverberated in my ears. There were more gunshots. I realized they were shooting CIM as he lay lifeless. Not waiting for my turn I frantically began feeling around for the door handle and pulled it open. I threw myself onto the seat and my vision became clearer. No keys in the ignition. The assassin began to reload the gun. This was it, there was nothing I could do. I closed my eyes and lay motionless on the car seat.

    Nothing. There was nothing but I didn’t dare to move. Eventually I peered out the window. A crowd was surrounding CIM, a few of them crying and others trying to revive his complicated circuitry. The assassin was gone.

    “What happened?” Cried a familiar voice. It was Kazzera.

    “I- I don’t know.” I said. “CIM and I were talking and then…” It hit me all at once. My longtime partner and friend was gone, brutally murdered right in front of me.

    “You’re bleeding!” She panicked. “We need help over here. Rhett’s been shot.” She called out.

    Why would anyone want to kill CIM? It’s a question that troubled me all through the night as I lay in the hospital bed. There was no answer. Except that perhaps CIM wasn’t their intended target. Maybe I was meant to be the one gunned down. CIM was in my spot, he died when it was supposed to be me. What troubled me more was who it could have been. Was it the same person that killed Ruebos? It seemed likely. The logical choice would be Bümbrix, he had threatened CIM just before the attack. But CIM had taken his gun. Where had he found another one in such a short period of time? They aren’t easy to find these days. Plus, something tells me that CIM was right. Bümbrix talks a big game but is relatively harmless.

    Maybe it was the INJU, I thought. They’ve been following my every move from the start. The one time they weren’t around is when CIM gets gunned down. But why would they? If Shemis and his muscle were truly after justice then why would they gun down an innocent man? That is, if they were truly after justice. Maybe Shemis is just a madman who found his way into power. It seemed likely.

    I just didn’t have it anymore. It had been too long since I was an active Detective. Part of me started to wonder if I was the killer after all. Nothing else made sense. Every lead I followed seemed to come to a dead end. The INJU, Bümbrix, Uncha the hobo… all of them very suspicious, questionable in their tactics, but ultimately seemed innocent. With the Captain refusing to help me in the investigation I was left on my own devices. Detectives of old would find a way, but I wasn’t in their class.

    Kazzera sat to the right of me in a chair by the bed. She’s grown up. Not that she’s changed that much, though. Still very much the same. Part of me was thankful, the other part concerned. There was a reason I hadn’t seen her in so long.

    “Hey,” I said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

    She still slept, her eye twitching a bit.

    “I’ve neglected you… I’ve neglected a lot of people.” I whispered. “I’m sorry for that.”

    Her eyes opened slightly. “The world keeps on turning, right?”

    “I suppose.” I sat there for a while, looking at the ceiling. “How’s your Aunt?”

    She didn’t answer. Shifting her position she fell back to sleep.

    *****

    Strange dreams haunted my mind all night. My worst nightmares projecting the future into my mind. I began to accept my fate. Apathy flooded over me. Not an apathy out of a lack of caring but rather a feeling of defeat. Where would I go from here? Would I bother? When Ruebos was murdered I didn’t really know what to feel. I didn’t know him well and what I did know I didn’t like. There was nothing to feel bad about beyond the idea of a man being killed. But when CIM was shot down, when he was murdered, and his lifeless body lay next to me while I could do nothing to protect him…

    Humanoids were rebuilt, not mourned. CIM would be rebuilt, but would it still be him? Would he still remember the pain of the bullets? Would he be haunted by the emptiness of death? Would he remember me leaving him behind? The horrific incident would be seen more analogous to a technical error than a murder. CIM wasn’t a life form as such, but he was still alive. To me and to the people he served, he was alive. They can call it what they want, but CIM had been assassinated in my eyes. Which meant there was an assassin out there somewhere.

    The shadow of a man cast into the room, someone was speaking with the Doctor. Whispers wandered through the air but I couldn’t make any sense of them. A nurse made his way into the room. “Why can’t I remember?” I yelled at my nurse.

    “The brain is a delicate thing-“the nurse started. I didn’t hear the rest. In just a matter of a few seconds a figure raced past the door and gawked in at me. He wore brown dressings and kicked forward with his shining Oxfords. Shemis Callard…

    “What is he doing here?” Kazzera said, jumping up.

    “Who?” asked the nurse.

    “That was Shemis, he just passed by. Rhett needs his rest. Keep that creep away from this room.”

    “No one is going to bother Mr. Matthews, Ma’am. I’ll get security to-“

    “There’s no need.” I said, sitting up. “We’re leaving.”

    “Sir, I think you need to just stay still.” He said.

    “Well,” I looked down at his nametag, “Victor, I really don’t give a damn what you think.” I said. “Get my coat, Kazz. We’re leaving.” I put my arm through and she wrapped the other side over my shoulder. The phone began to ring by the bed, but I was already halfway out of the room.

    I intended to take one last look at the crime scene. There had to be something there that I was missing. We pulled up to the Charging Station. Immediately I noticed something I hadn’t before. The blood stains had been so prominent that I hadn’t looked elsewhere. Directly behind the charging units, which were lined up against the building, there was a sizeable square of black tape on the outside wall. Peeling away the tape I found the shattered remains of a low-sitting window.

    “Kazz, stay here and try to stay out of trouble. I’m going to speak with the owner of the station.” She nodded and I went inside. “Hey there, Frank.”

    “What do you want?” said Frank.

    “I was just passing by and couldn’t help noticing your broken window.”

    “You mean you couldn’t help messing around with my window.” He said.

    I laughed. “Yes, true. I wonder, was that window broken on the same night as the murder?”

    “Wouldn’t you know?”

    “Pardon?”

    “It’s all over the news. I know what you’ve done, Detective.” He said.

    “I had nothing to do with the murder.” I said, agitated. “I’m looking for someone that did.”

    He sighed. “Yes, the window was broken the same night.”

    “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

    “Yes, actually.” He blurted. “Ruebos… well, he meant a lot to me. He was my son.”

    “I’m sorry, Frank.” I said. “I didn’t know.”

    “Join the club. Neither did the boy.” Frank said. “So, what do you need? Beer? Whiskey?”

    “Uh…” I hesitated, “no, I’m taking a break.”

    “Then get out of my station, I’m trying to operate a business here.”

    “Just one more thing,” I said, “Was anything stolen?”

    “Stolen?” he questioned, wiping his eyes, “No, nothing was stolen. Why do you ask?”

    “Why should the window be broken then? For what reason? What purpose?”

    “I don’t know, maybe some kind of struggle.” He shrugged.

    No. Ruebos was already dead upon arrival, but I wasn’t going to tell Frank that. “Alright. So then why a broken window?” I scratched my head nervously. “Why would the murderer break the window? To make it look like a theft? No, nothing was stolen. To take attention away from the body? No, they wanted the body to be found…”

    “Maybe it was just an accident.” Said Frank.

    “Maybe.” I said. It didn’t seem likely. “What about camera footage? The lighting wouldn’t have been great but it’s something. Can I have a look?”

    “I’m afraid there’s nothing to look at, Detective.” Said Frank. “No cameras allowed here.”

    “What? Why not?”

    “Let me tell you about those new cameras.” He said. “They aren’t secure. Anyone can access ‘em. I don’t much like just anyone watching my property day and night.”

    “Frank, you haven’t told anyone about that have you?”

    “Just did, didn’t I? How should I know? It probably came out one time or another.”

    “Who knows, Frank?” I said. “I need to know.”

    There was a piercing shriek from outside, Kazz was being assaulted by a large masked figure. The figure tossed her into the backseat of a black van and peeled off. I jumped into her car and sped off in pursuit.

    The van was a deep charcoal that hovered only a few inches off of the ground. The windows were tinted but all I could see was Kazz banging on the rear window, pleading for help. The van was similar in almost every way to the ones surveying me those few days. They were trying to distract me. I was getting close; the INJU was trying to lead me astray. It started to make sense to me; the masked figures that bribed Uncha were just the INJU, I thought. Someone for some reason wanted me imprisoned or worse, and they were going to do it by framing me for a murder I had no part in.

    The van lead me through the wooded areas of the city. Just feet in front of me it landed in a small clearing. I jumped out from the car and tried to get to Kazz before the masked figure could catch me. I opened the door to the backseat. It was empty. The masked figure grabbed me from behind and stuck a blade to my jaw.

    “Don’t move, please.” He said.

    Walking around from the opposite side of the van was Kazzera, completely unharmed and wielding a gun. She approached carefully.

    *****

    The auditorium was full of chatter, filled to the limit to watch my trial. Mostly strangers but I saw a few familiar faces too. On each side of the theater stood a number of INJU agents, blocking the exit. Shemis stood amongst those involved in the case, separate from the group. Captain Müdi sat down in the same area, CIM’s partner sat beside her. He frequently made faces at me. Ruebos’ family sat in the front row, Frank sat with strangers a distance from the family.

    “Ladies and Gentlemen!” The Judge shrieked into the microphone. “Are you ready?” The crowd shouted collectively ‘yes!’ “I said, are you ready?!” ‘Yes!!’ they shouted once more. The Judge was a young, attractive man. His hair swept behind his ears, a smug look upon his face as he gazed in my direction. “Are you ready, Detective?”

    “Not much choice, is there?”

    “Indeed not! Let us begin.” He said. “Tonight we will learn your side of the story. The audience will vote. Who will be hanged? We’ll be right back after this commercial break.” The Judge immediately exhaled and his expression changed entirely. “Sorry fella, just following the script.”

    “The great law system of the 22nd century. Put it on TV, get the people involved, and provide something entertaining. The people do love a good hanging.”

    “Yeah, well, that ain’t my fault.” Said the Judge, dabbing his forehead with a towel. “You better have a good case, Detective.”

    *****

    “I present to you Ms. Kazzera Poulin, Detective.” Said Kazzera, taking a bow.

    “What are you doing?” I questioned.

    “Let go of him, lizard.” She said.

    “As you wish.” Said the masked man, releasing me.

    Kazzera walked a circle around me slowly. She scanned me with ridiculing eyes, a bitter grimace upon her face. “Detective Rhett,” She smiled slightly. “What a hero.”

    “Put that gun down before you hurt yourself.”

    ‘Put it down, little girl. It’s alright now, I’m here’ I saw eight year old Kazz standing amongst the bloodbath, the bodies of her parents sprawled out on the floor.

    ‘It was my sister, Detective. She killed them!’ The young girl’s arm trembled as she lowered the gun.

    ‘It’s alright, we’ll find her.’

    “I waited for you.” Said Kazzera. Her hand was steady, her eyes unflinching. “For such a long time.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    “My Aunt died, Detective. Died. When I was just a girl.” She said. “I waited for you to come back to me. To save me like you always had. You never came!”

    “You’re an adult, Kazzera. You’ve said so yourself. You don’t need saving anymore.”

    She raised the gun to my face. “You abandoned me! What was a girl… such a lonely girl… what was she to do?”

    *****

    “And we’re back!” the Judge hooted. “The voting has started, so if you want to make your voice heard make sure you vote before the end of the trial.”

    “How can anyone vote now? They haven’t even heard me speak.”

    “The clock is ticking, Detective.” Said the Judge. “Ah, we have a video question from a member of the audience. Chuluso Purzer, what’s your question?”

    An elderly lady appeared on the jumbo screen in the middle of the auditorium. “Yes, well, uh… I knew Detective Ruebos and was very disheartened to hear of his death. You see, he had helped me over a number of summers install my cooling systems. One time he even lent his truck to me so that I could sell my orange-pineapple marmalade out of the back-“

    “Alright! Thank you for your question, Ma’am but you’re a bit long winded.” Said the Judge, cutting her off the screen. “How will Ms. Purzer manage this coming summer without Detective Ruebos? I believe that was the essence of the question. Your response, Detective?”

    “My response? To what? Am I being tried for some scheme against marmalade now?” The crowd popped with applause. The little patron from the bar fluttered above his seat ‘Answer the question, Murderer!’ He lowered back down, his wings brushing the face of the young lady sitting next to him. It was Tia, the waitress from the tavern. On her other side sat a large Ravvi; her husband, I supposed.

    “Very good, very good. Comedy to win over the crowd. Smart, smart.” The Judge said bitterly. “Now, please do tell us your side of the story.”

    “There isn’t much to tell. There is no evidence to prove-“

    “Detective Rhett says he has no evidence. What will the audience vote? Guilty or Innocent? You can have your say by signing in, right now. Next, we hear who the Detective says is truly responsible. We’ll be right back.”

    “Excuse me, do you mind if I talk?” I shouted.

    “Sorry, pal. We’re on commercial.” He said. “I’m just reading the cards, that’s all. Nothing personal.”

    “Right. Nothing personal about getting a guy hanged for a crime he didn’t commit.''

    “Look, I don’t know if you did it or not. That’s not for me to decide.” He said. “It’s up to the vote.”

    *****

    Kazzera paced back and forth in-front of me. “It started out so small. Stealing from the market so I could eat. I wasn’t hurting anybody.” She said. “And then I got caught. Again and again. As I went on stealing, as I went on coloring outside of the lines… I began to like it. The thrill of it, the adrenaline pumping through my veins.”

    ‘You’re sure your sister lives in the basement?’ I asked the young girl.

    ‘She has to be. She ran down there after she killed them. After she killed Mom and Dad.’ The girl began to sob.

    ‘CIM, have another look around the basement.’ I said to my partner.

    Memories so vivid but so distant, like a bad recurring dream. I can only imagine how Kazzera feels.

    “There’s still time to come clean. You don’t have to do this.”

    “After a while I realized that stealing just wasn’t exciting anymore. I got involved in bigger and greater things. As you might imagine, there were a few warrants out for my arrest.” She said. “I couldn’t go to jail, I was having too much fun.”

    ‘I’m no hacker’ flashed to my mind. ‘Damn it’, the vision of wine spilled over the floor. ‘The window’, I thought. “Now I understand.” I said. I turned my back to Kazzera and stood face to face with the masked figure. “You can take off the mask, I know it’s you.” The figure hesitated and then pulled the mask from his face.

    “I’m sorry, Rhett.” Said big Djörn.

    ‘Frank was right’ I thought. The window, why hadn’t I noticed it before? ‘Damn it’, the memory echoed in my mind. “You finally got in over your head, big man.” I said. “Ruebos found out, didn’t he?” The lizard nodded his head sheepishly. “That damn tail of yours.”

    “Never did me any good having it.” He grinned.

    “Far from a professional killer, big guy. Then again, it wasn’t your idea from the start was it?” I said. “Kazzera approached you. She finally got herself into a mess she couldn’t find her way out of.”

    “The girl is young. A life in prison? That would be wrong.” He said.

    “But, it wasn’t just that. Ruebos caught you in the act. He could finally prove what CIM and I suspected years ago,” I said, “You’re the Black Hacker.”

    “You know, I actually felt sorry for Ruebos.” Kazzera said. “Just doing his job, that’s all. His goals just interfered with mine, that’s all. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it.”

    ‘Tell me about your sister, Kazzera.’ I said to the troubled girl.

    ‘Well, what do you want to know?’ She asked.

    ‘What does she look like?’ She struggled with the thought.

    ‘I don’t really know. I’ve never actually seen her. Momma says… Momma used to say that she only came up when I slept.’

    I looked at the little girl in disbelief. ‘You’ve never seen your sister?’

    She shook her head. ‘But, if I ever had I would have stopped her. She was always causing trouble, Detective. Daddy said she couldn’t help it.’

    “Kazz…” My heart sunk. “Why? You were always such a brilliant girl, how could you do something so stupid?”

    “Stupid?” She inquired. There was movement in the bushes several feet behind her. A green light shone forward.

    “Choosing big Djörn as your accomplice? Really?”

    “No one else could know.” She said. “Do you think I wanted to work with this oaf? He’s a brilliant hacker, but that’s all he’s good for.”

    “Kazzera Poulin, the girl that once rivaled my mind for detection. Played with my cases like a child, but helped solve them nonetheless.” I said. “What happened to her? Did her brains go along with her mind?”

    “Shut up!” she said. “I…am…not crazy… and I was always more clever than you.”

    ‘I tricked you, Detective! Hahaha.’ The little girl laughed.

    ‘Yes you did, Kazz. You never had a sister, did you?’ Which one is this? I wondered to myself.

    ‘My name’s not Kazz, Detective. Remember? This is Kazzera now.’

    I nodded. ‘Do you think Kazz knows who you are?’

    She giggled. ‘No, she thinks I’m down in the basement.’

    “Face it, Kazzera. You’ve lost it. Your parents would be so disappointed.”

    She paused in shock, then frowned. “I know what you’re doing, Detective.” She pointed to her head.

    “What’s he doing, Kazz?” asked Djörn.

    “Shut up, lizard. My name is Kazzera.”

    “I’m facing her with the truth and she can’t take it.” I said. “I think she might pop.”

    “No!” She slammed me in the head with the butt of her gun. “My parents would be proud of the woman I am. I’m an independent woman, I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. I don’t-‘’ She started. “It’s a shame,” said Kazzera, “All this time I dreamt and fantasized about you hanging from the gallows but I’m starting to grow impatient.”

    ‘You can’t visit that girl anymore, Rhett. What you’re doing is wrong.’ Said Captain Müdi.

    ‘I’m not visiting Kazzera Poulin, Captain. Don’t you see? Somewhere in there is still lonely little Kazz Poulin, the orphaned girl with her imaginary sister.’ I said.

    ‘Someone with her mental disabilities cannot be trusted. Yet you share your case files with her. I cannot allow it.’ The Captain glared at me.

    ‘I know, I know. The girl is very troubled, I know. But, half of her doesn’t know that. Half of her is a brilliant mind for solving puzzles. Maybe I’m exploiting that, I don’t know. But, don’t we owe it to her to make her life worthwhile? To give her a purpose despite her illness?’ I pleaded.

    ‘We have no such responsibility, Rhett. Leave the girl alone or I will be forced to take action.’

    *****

    “So, tell us Detective. Name the man we should have sitting here instead of you. We’re listening.”

    “I’m afraid I can’t, Judge.” I said. “I cannot name the killers, because there were two. One woman, one Ravvi.” Djabe sat in amongst a strange crowd of people, he looked on with concern for his brother.

    “A woman killer? Always intriguing. And a Ravvi? Whoever heard of humans and lizards working together? What a remarkable story.” Said the Judge. “We have on the screen a Mr. Roomington-“

    “Shut it!” I yelled. “If you’re going to have me on trial then you’re going to have to listen.”

    The Judge checked his notes and listened to the voice in his headset. “Very well, Detective. Go on.”

    “Thank you.” I said. “The killers of Detective Ruebos are Kazzera Poulin and big Djörn of The Ravvi.” The audience gasped.

    “Hold on just a second, Detective. We all know who big Djörn is, it’s hardly thinkable that he would commit such an atrocity. And who is this Kazzera?”

    “You wouldn’t know her, she’s from the outside.” I said. “She’s held a grudge against me for years and was looking for the right time to seek revenge. I’m not saying I didn’t deserve it, but it didn’t have to end up in the murder of an innocent man.”

    “And this Kazzera, is she still in the city?”

    The flash of purple light came back to my eyes, as though it had just happened again. “No, I’m afraid not.”

    *****

    “We can’t let you leave, Rhett.” Said big Djörn thickly. “It’s nothing against you personally.”

    “Shut up, lizard.” Kazzera said. “You did this to yourself, Detective. It’s been a long time coming for you.”

    “I know.” I said, resigning myself to death. “I guess people will know now.”

    “Know?” Said Kazzera.

    “That I’m innocent.” I said. “You can kill me but you won’t get away with it. Maybe for a month, or a year, or five years. But you will be caught and they will know I’m not a killer.” I pulled the knife from my boot and tossed it away, there was no point in trying to use it.

    Kazzera powered up the gun. The piercing whistle filled my ears. I was blinded by the flash as a gunshot rang out. Then another and then a third. Kazzera fell to the ground in a heap of burnt flesh. I screamed out as it hit my heart. She was dead.

    The ground rumbled behind me as big Djörn fell down upon his face and lay there in agony. Captain Müdi hobbled over to the bodies and checked them for life. “The lizard is still alive.” She spoke into a radio piece. A few aircraft lowered to the ground with INJU painted on the side. The Captain escorted me over to the aircraft. Behind me the agents zipped Kazzera up in a body bag. They carried her lifeless body away. She was only 22, just a girl. A lonely girl.


    *****

    “I don’t understand,” said the Judge, “you knew the whole time?”

    “Not the whole time,” I said, “but when CIM was murdered in front of me… and Kazzera was there so quickly. It didn’t make sense. In my heart I wanted to believe she had heard the shots and ran… but her breathing was calm. Her voice was steady. It wasn’t the lonely girl with an imaginary sister, I don’t think she survived childhood. But the imaginary sister herself… she lived on.”

    “You suspect that she murdered Detective Ruebos?” said the Judge, interested for the first time.

    “Kazzera had prepared for everything. She even found a way to endear herself to me even after all the hatred she’s had for me.” I said. “But, she didn’t realize that the same people she reported me to would end up with conclusive proof of her own misdeeds.”

    “The INJU,” said Shemis, approaching the Judge, “had been conducting surveillance on Rhett all throughout the investigation.”

    “Kazzera had been the one to report me to them. I noted how she had also recognized Shemis pass by my door in the hospital. How did she know him? She isn’t from the area and unless Shemis is older than he looks I’m guessing he hasn’t been on the job too long. The only way she would have known Shemis is if she had been the source of the accusation.”

    “We admit our faults, Detective.” Said Shemis. “We tried to warn you as soon as we knew but-“

    “There shouldn’t have been cause for charges.” Said the Judge. “All you had was the accusation of this girl?”

    “He failed to prove his innocence to me,” said Shemis, “that’s how things work nowadays, your Honor.”

    “Are you going to lecture me about law or is there a reason you interrupted proceedings?”

    “As a token of apology we offer the court the following footage.”

    The footage began to play on the big screen in the back of the courtroom. We saw a figure dressed in black with gun drawn. Shots are fired. The first shot fires through CIM’s back, passing through and carving a hole in my shoulder. I fall to the ground. Several other shots fire into CIM. He falls down beside me. As I crawl around the car the masked figure approaches CIM’s body and fires a few more shots. My head is seen peeking through the car window as I tried to get away. At the same time the masked figure is seen removing her over-clothing. She tosses them underneath the car. It’s Kazzera. She is seen walking around to my side of the car and the footage cuts.

    “If footage of this caliber exists, why is there no hard evidence in the murder of Detective Ruebos?” asked the Judge.

    “I can answer that,” I said, “Frank, the owner of the Charging Station, didn’t have any cameras installed.”

    “No cameras? Not even one?”

    “I suspect that word got out and that’s why the body was dumped there. Frank probably told Djörn during one of their gab sessions. He didn’t realize the impact it would have on his s-“I started, “On his business. Djörn was a trusted friend.”

    “And what of big Djörn?” said the Judge, “How did you know of his involvement?”

    “Djörn has been a suspect in a series of hacking operations. For several years he was the prime suspect as the notorious Black Hacker.” I said, “But CIM and myself were never able to prove it.”

    “Detective Ruemos told me that he was onto something hot.” Said Captain Müdi, stepping forward. “He had found new evidence against an elusive criminal. He was going to bring the evidence to me, but he never had the chance.”

    “It’s my theory that big Djörn found out that Ruebos was onto him. Kazzera, being one of the criminals he was looking to bail out, had the perfect plan of how to take care of Ruemos and place the blame on someone else. She had just the person in mind.” I said. “She overestimated Djörn’s taste for crime, however, and so when she asked him for his help in moving the body he was understandably shaken.”

    Big Djörn, who was also present at the trial, hung his head in sorrow. “I’m sorry. So sorry.” Until then the crowd hadn’t noticed him, the trial was still very much about me. Not anymore.

    “Quiet! You will speak when I have asked you to speak.” Said the Judge, puffing out his chest. He had spoken without reading from his cards.

    “The Rittleford Charging Station had been closed down because of the pools of blood found at the scene, but it was the smashed window which told the story. Anyone who knows big Djörn knows that he is prone to making messes with his tail.” I said. “In his nervous state he made a mistake.”

    “Thank you, Detective. Djörn, please approach the stand.” Said the Judge. “What do you have to say?”

    Djörn’s sunk in eyes searched around the room but found nothing to excuse himself. “It is true.”

    “You mean to say that you do not contest the allegations made against you by Detective Rhett, the INJU and the Department?” Said the Judge.

    “I do not contest.” Said Djörn. “Rhett the Debt is right.” He smiled slightly.

    “The voting has finished, I’m being asked to report. 78% voted Rhett as guilty, 22% voted him as innocent.” The Judge concluded.

    Some of the crowd cheered, some of them whimpered. Uncha, who sat next to Bümbrix, cried out as he wiped his nose on the lizard’s sleeve. Bümbrix hissed.

    “However, with the evidence that has been brought to our attention tonight I cannot allow the Detective to be charged. Oh shut up.” He said, throwing down his headset. “There is no evidence to tie Detective Rhett to the murder. What we have is video proof that one of the suspects is capable of cold blooded murder and the other suspect has admitted to conspiring with them.”

    “Finally, someone with some sense.” The Captain blurted out.

    “Therefore, I declare that Detective Rhett is innocent. Big Djörn, however, is guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, innumerable counts of black hat hacking, and attempted murder against Detective Rhett.”

    “I make only one request.” Said Djörn, looking down at the floor.

    “The lizard makes a request!” shouted the Judge. “What is it?”

    “Make it quick. Send me to my death. I don’t want to live without my freedom.”

    “Death it shall be, then.” Said the Judge. “Bailiff take him away, prepare him for the gallows.” The crowd erupted in cheer. Djabe sobbed by himself in the crowd, he made no sound.

    “Djörn, no.” I whimpered. “I’m sorry.” He hung from the rope, his eyes bulging from his face, his tongue limp and still as it poked through his jagged teeth, his tail wagging slightly until he breathed his last breath.

    *****

    “I like the new look.” I said to Djabe, the successive owner of The Savvi Ravvi. “The tavern’s never been better.”

    “Thank ya, Detective.” He said. “Gonna have a drink?”

    “Yeah, thanks.” I said, tossing a bill onto the table.

    It’s been a year now. A year since my name was cleared, a year since Kazzera died and Big Djörn was hanged in my place. Were they in the wrong? Of course. Brutal murders were committed, laws were broken, and people were deceived. Kazzera tried to frame me for murder, she wanted me dead. That’s true. But, at one time she worshipped the ground I walked on. Sat in the chair next to me as we discussed cases. I didn’t want to, I thought she’d probably be scared by them. She wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was the hero to her sidekick. I failed her. What she became was my doing, that’s a fact. Kazz died when I stopped coming around, Kazzera took over.

    “What’s tomorrow have in store for ya, Rhett?” Djabe asked.

    “The Department has finally decided to let me return. At least I can stop inserting the ‘former’ before my title.”

    “You were always a good cop. Make the streets a lot safer for the rest of us.”

    As I look at Djabe all I can see is big Djörn’s limp body swinging back and forth from the gallows. That big oafy lizard may have been on the wrong side of the law, he may have taken part in the cover up and set up, but he was my friend. In the end he was braver than I could ever be in his position, he stood up and admitted his guilt to the world. And I betrayed him by standing there frozen in place as they wrapped that noose around his neck.

    “The streets are a bit too safe sometimes, I think. Too many black vans patrolling around, too many cameras hanging from the walls.”

    “You had better be careful, Detective. The INJU has a lot of input with the Department now, I would hate to see you lose your job for saying something silly.”

    “Yeah,” I said, looking to the camera above us, “I have a feeling they won’t like much that I have to say.” I waved.

    No one looks at me the same. A lot of them pretend, but they don’t fool me. Others, they let me know how they truly feel. Yeah, they know I’m innocent… but that doesn’t mean anything anymore. To them I killed their friend and I was to never be forgiven for that. Maybe the court said I was innocent, but the people certainly didn’t. 78% wanted to see me hanged. Walking amongst those people all you can feel is the contempt they have for you, the mistrust.

    “So, who’ll be by your side, Detective? A new partner?”

    “CIM’s been repaired. Did it myself. Cleaned up some odds and ends, updated some software. But, it’s still CIM. To him it’s just been a really long nap and now that he’s awake, things are back to the way they were. Plus, he’s got me back.”

    “It’ll be great to see ol’ CIM patrolling the streets again.” He said. “Just as though as you’ve fixed his speaking units, hahaha.”

    “Yeah.” I said. I had come to the bar for a celebratory drink to remember the day I proved my innocence. But as I looked around me all I could see was what I was missing. It wasn’t until Kazz was gone that I realized how I had missed her. She would be sitting here with me discussing some of the cases I would be starting with. The Captain treated me fairly at work but she never grew close to me as she once had, it was purely business. She would be here making us all laugh with her dry sense of humor. Big Djörn was such a bubbly spirit. He had some shady dealings but he made the tavern what it was. He would be behind the bar serving drinks as he listened wide-eyed to the stories of justice and law.

    Instead, it was just me. But, I would be alright. I would make due. I always had, and I always will. “One more drink please, Djabe.” I said, taking a puff from the pipe.
     
  12. GingerCoffee
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    Centauri Rising


    Bad Nights

    Following on Blynn’s heels, Azur slammed the bedroom door shut. “No choice? Are you that numb? How many dead? Ten thousand, twenty? They had a choice.”

    “Kill or die is not my definition of choice.” Blynn spit the words out between closed teeth, not turning around, wishing Azur had left her alone, wishing he could see she just how close to losing it she was again. She sat on the edge of the bed, still not looking at him, letting her anger dissolve into quiet resignation. “You and I both knew it was only a matter of time,” she said, her voice calmer.

    “They were lied to, they chose to believe the lies.” Azur shook his head. “Well-fed men who hunger for power lied to starving desperate people and the people chose to eat the lies. They launched a nuclear tipped missile at other desperate people eating different lies from different well-fed men with an appetite for power.”

    Blynn looked at the red numbers on the small clock that sat on the bedside wall shelf. Opening the sliding door under the shelf, she pulled out the top drawer and lifted the false bottom, revealing a cloth bag. Blynn took the 4 ApSam phones out of the bag and handed them to Azur. He took them, letting his hand gently linger against the back of her hand. Then he plugged each of the ApSams into the row of chargers on the wall that already contained a variety of batteries. A red LED indicator on the chargers signaled the two-hour ration of trickle-power had kicked on. It was enough to recharge batteries, but not enough to power much else.

    Azur sat down next to his wife on the neatly made bed.

    Blynn took her husband’s hand. “I’m numb to it all. Maybe it’s because it happened on the other side of the planet, no one I know involved on either side, not real to me. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been wondering what I’ll be capable of when our supplies run out.”

    Muffled crying leaked through the door. “You scared them when you slammed the door,” Blynn told her husband.

    He apologized to her as she left to calm the children. He watched her soft graceful movements and tried to hold the picture of her beauty in his mind, tried to forget what was just outside the house, outside everyone’s house.

    Azur put his hand on the vibration in his pocket and pulled the active ApSam out. “Yeah.”

    On the other end Crexan spoke. “You’ve been accepted for an interview. There’s a good chance, but the timeframe has been moved up, considering the latest circumstances.” A few seconds of silence interrupted the words. “You’re going to have to convince them you know enough about engineering a spacecraft to make a useful contribution. It helps that Blynn’s a nurse.”

    “I know enough, you know I do,” Azur answered. “When will they meet me?”

    “Right away. Come to my place tonight, the usual time.”

    Azur pushed ‘end call’ and walked through the bedroom door to the center room where he dropped the phone onto the stone floor. He brought the handle of the fireplace poker down hard, splintering the device into a dozen pieces. He gathered them up and threw them into the smoldering embers of burning furniture that warmed the house.

    #

    “We won’t go if you aren’t sure.” Azur brushed Blynn’s hair gently out of her eyes. He put one arm around her as she leaned against him. He kissed her cheek.

    “I’m sure,” she whispered in his ear. “They accepted us. It’s a gift.”

    “The decision means our new life will be aboard a ship, that’s what we are trading this life for. When we get to the Centauri system the kids will be 45 and 47. We’ll be old, spent. The new planet will belong to our children’s children, but not to us and not to our children.”

    “I know that. I can count,” she told him. “It’s 40 years more than we’d have if we stayed. I don’t want to watch our children starve, or die from lack of water. I welcome shipboard life, safe and calm. I need nothing more.” She snuggled against his chest. “The kids will adapt.”

    “I had hoped we could have found a safe place,” Azur said.

    “It’s OK, we tried, it’s not wrong that we tried.” Blynn put her arm around his shoulder. They sat on floor cushions in front of the fireplace. A small fire made with wood gathered that day from the forest burned warmly.

    Azur relished the small bit of good fortune from earlier in the day when he’d come across a group of people from a nearby settlement harvesting firewood with heavy equipment. Everything that could be stripped by hand had been scavenged from the woods for many kilometers in all directions. Azur made a daily trek through the forest now that winter had set in, competing with neighbors for whatever scraps of wood had been missed or fell the night before. He was glad at least no one here was yet shooting each other to get at the precious fuel. That these harvesters were willing to share warmed him as much as the fire.

    “If only the water supplies would hold out, if the forests closest to us don’t burn from the drought, if we can find a decent source of food left, we might still be able to survive. We could try further north,” Azur said, still hopeful there might be options left from which to choose. “Forty years on a ship might feel like a prison, and there’d be no going back after the launch.”

    Blynn had already decided; certain the choice was the right one. “The Founders made it. They paved the way to Centauri, proved it was possible, built the cities on Erda that our grandchildren can live in. And they left one of their ships behind. Maybe it wasn’t finished but we know the design is right, tested, and you are a competent aerospace engineer. You and the others can make it flight ready. Once we reach the orbiting vessel we’ll be home free.”

    A loud explosion nearby shook the house, ending the discussion. They barely reacted, attenuated, resigned to the sounds of the night. Blynn got up silently and went to the kids’ room, lying down between them as they curled in, hugging their mother. Azur followed, looking through the bedroom door at his family, he cocked the laser weapon in his hand and sank to the floor where he would sleep, back against the wall, ready if the alarm sounded, protecting his family for one more night.

    You fool, he thought. Sure, maybe go further north, like there’s any hope, like that will be the answer. In the meantime you pass up your only chance to leave this nightmare, your family’s only chance.His thoughts shifted to preparations, when to tell their children, and a lingering fear this plan might also fail.


    Bad Days

    “Had a little spaceship 248
    Took it round Centauri
    slammed on the brakes
    Bumped into a lady, bumped into a man
    Bumped into a robocop, man oh man
    Soldier robot caught me
    Put me in a jail
    All I had was ginger ale
    Princess let me go
    Home sweet home
    That’s all I know.”

    The recess bell rang. Dawn handed her end of the jump rope to Eva who rolled it up around her hand. Eva slipped the bundle off and put it in the rainbow colored plastic box that Dawn now held out. The girls ran to the youth home room door, giggling, excited, every day now the anticipation growing. A hundred or so boisterous children spilled in and out of the lines they stood in, sorted by age, in front of different doors that led off from the expansive gym. A second bell rang as the doors slid open and the children filed through into their classes.

    A large visual projection on the wall of each classroom showed a round dot in a sea of black space. The same scene could be found in the public areas in every one of the ship’s dozen modules. Most of the travelers began leaving it round the clock on their home screens in their quarters. Erda had been within enhanced visual distance for months, but now it had become a naked eye object, blue with a faint ring around it. The ship began deceleration today, transferring the energy into the increasing spin, which began last year. Simulated gravity needed to reach something approximating the planet for everyone all the time instead of only the daily exposure everyone received in the faster spinning outer ring of the massive vessel.

    The emotionally charged atmosphere on the ship could be felt everywhere. The children found it impossible to stay calm. The teachers struggled to concentrate on their classes despite best efforts. The last boy in the youth home room closed the door behind him, all the kids in their seats, still bouncing, seconds later. School had never been more exciting than it had been these last few weeks, and this was thelast week.

    “Settle down kids. We’re all excited but there’s much to do, and I have an announcement.” Ms. Hetsia taught homeroom to two grades, youth and elementary. “The teachers have all agreed, everyone, all grades will spend the week on geography lessons and manners when meeting new people.”

    Five year old Irian began to cry.

    “What’s wrong honey?” Ms. Hetsia asked her youngest pupil, coming to Irian’s desk, putting an arm around the small girl. “What’s the matter?”

    “I don’t wanna meet new people. I don’t wanna go down there. I wanna stay on the ship, with my nanna and mommy and daddy and my cousins.”

    “Oh honey, they’re going to go with you. We’re all going. We’re going to stand on real land. We’ll see the ocean, put our feet in wet sand, pet real animals.”

    “I don’t wanna pet a real animal. My v-puppy doesn’t bite. Real animals bite.”

    Ms. Hetsia had lesson plans to deal with children who were frightened of the impending arrival. She knew this was going to be traumatic for some of the kids, especially the younger ones. She ignored the plans, written by a committee who had little experience with the youngest of the students. She took out her ApSam and tapped the code for Irian’s grandmother. “Can you come assist me with class today?”

    “Is it Irian?,” Blynn answered quietly, not wanting her voice coming through the ApSam to be heard by anyone but Ms Hetsia.

    “Yes.”

    “I was afraid of that. She’s so aware, she senses what the adults aren’t saying. I’ll be there, give me a minute, I don’t think an extra batch of cookies will impact the rations planning at this point.”

    #

    Blynn switched the ApSam to image mode as she walked to the kitchen cove of their living quarters. “We made the right choice, Azur,” she spoke aloud to her dead husband’s picture on the device. “We had 40 more years than we would have had on Earth.” Blynn gently touched the image before turning the ApSam off and putting it in her pocket. In the kitchen she typed in a code on the oven panel and hit override when the screen informed her she had input a disallowed order. A minute later, Blynn slid the oven door open and inhaled the warm sweet smell of freshly baked cookies that filled the room.

    #

    “Still no replies?” Furb asked, taking the seat next to his wife facing the instrument screen in the ship’s communications room.

    “Nothing,” Gatrina answered.

    “It makes no sense. They have to be receiving our transmissions. They can’t have all just died out. The population was established for more than half a century before we left Earth. Was it all a lie?”

    Gatrina took her head set off and snapped it into its place among the flashing lights and keys on the panel. “I don’t think that’s it. The ship’s censors have been detecting EM transmissions from the planet for weeks. And look at this,” Gatrina pointed to the raw data on a visual screen. “That’s a reading indicating orbiting satellites, not orbiting rocks. Unless they were wiped out yesterday, there’s a thriving population down there. They know we’re here.”

    “The council meeting’s been called for tonight,” Furb said, “at least we don’t have to decide by ourselves what to do.”

    “Decide what? We disembark or we die up here.” Gatrina’s mother’s words echoed in her mind. She’d heard her tell about desperation and the illusion of choice more than once as she and Gatrina’s father talked about life on Earth. Will it be no different for us now? Was this just a cruel trick giving us hope when we’d been condemned all along?

    Furb put his headset on, ready to take his shift. “Go home, get some rest. It’ll iron out, in the end we’ll join the Founders and whatever their issues, they’ll iron out.”

    #

    The council members had been seated well before the meeting time. Spectators who usually numbered half a dozen filled the council chambers to capacity. The overflow room with a screen showing the proceedings was opened and full as well. The meeting was short, everyone knew ahead of time what would be said.

    “It’s agreed then, we put the ship in orbit around the planet and wait for them to communicate with us or shoot us down—” Jaequa stopped mid sentence as the double doors in the back of the room slid open.

    “They’ve contacted us.” All heads turned as Furb entered the council chambers. The missing excitement in his voice contained the answer before it was said. “We’re not welcome. The term they used was ‘trespassing’. And they threw in an accusation we stole their abandoned ship.”

    The chamber erupted in a cacophony of not so muffled voices, outraged, angry, disbelieving.

    Thump! Jaequa hit the gavel hard on the table and the room quieted. Sitting at the front of the room behind a small, uncluttered desk, she looked out over the room of fellow passengers. She had taken the position of council chief only a few months prior, inheriting her leadership from a string of men that acted as the ship’s commander and council head over the last 40 years. Now that arrival was in sight, the community decided Jaequa, with her problem solving and people skills, the better choice.

    She had been ecstatic about the election result until now. The Founders outright rejection was not what anyone expected. A less than warm welcome was on the list of possible scenarios, but not outright refusal to allow the ship’s passengers to disembark. She wondered if the vote for council head would have been the same if this outcome had been considered. They made the right choice. I will get us through this. She almost said it out loud, as if a promise would make it happen.

    “Alright, let’s consider the viable options, turning back is not one of them. We could ask the Founders to resupply the ship, not that it sounds like they would,” Jaequa said. “But it’s an option we should consider. It’s only been a century, maybe they’ve not lost their humanity and will at least assist us.”

    “People lost their humanity before we left Earth,” one of the original refugees blurted out releasing another round of angry chattering.

    Thump! Jaequa hit the gavel on the table again. “We can’t have this disorder. There’s too much to discuss. Please.”

    Kip asked for the floor. “There are no other planets or moons in the whole of the Centauri system that are habitable. Resupplying us to continue on or go back, neither are viable options. We debark or die up here.”

    A new cacophony erupted of yeses, he’s right, and we can’t turn around or go further.

    Jaequa sighed. At least the disorder is orderly. “Alright,” she said loud enough to quiet the room. “Resupplying and continuing on, also not an option.” Jaequa paused, waiting for everyone’s attention. “We need them to change their mind. Go back to your quarters or your jobs. Furb, Gatrina, come with me to the communications room, I’ll compose our reply.”

    #

    Trece, two years older and Irian’s best friend, had been walking her home every day after school since the crying episode a few days earlier. Blynn saw them on the hall video and opened the door to let them in. “Trece, hi, come in,” she said hugging Irian and then Trece. Your mom says you can stay for a while if you’d like.”

    “Yes, ma’am, I’d like that,” Trece answered. Taking Irian by the hand the two girls trundled off to Irian’s cubby, pulling the small chest of snap circuits, plastic gears and building blocks out from one of the under-bed drawers. Trece began constructing a tower.

    “I’ll build the lights for it,” Irian said, spilling the box of snap circuits on the floor.

    Min, coming down the hall saw Blynn before she followed the girls back inside the family’s quarters. “Can we talk, privately?” she asked.

    “Of course.” Blynn told the girls she’d be just across the hall and flipped the room monitor on one-way so she could keep an eye on the girls with her ApSam while talking privately to Min.

    Min was a beautiful young woman, not married but very much in love with Zavian and he with her. They might have already married but with the impending arrival on Erda, marriages were on hold. Everyone wanted to tie their knots on the new planet, a new beginning in every way.

    Min lived with her parents and older brother in the quarters directly across from Blynn’s family which included her daughter, Gatrina, Gatrina’s husband, Furb and their only daughter, Irian. Irian was conceived to everyone’s surprise when Gatrina was 39 yrs old. The child was the darling of the family, doted on by all of them including her cousins. Blynn’s son, Velerson, lived with his wife and their three children, all teenagers now, in their quarters on the level above.

    Min entered the code for tea into the oven and seconds later took two cups out, handing one to Blynn already sitting at the table. “Sweetened to perfection,” Blynn told her taking a sip.

    “Thank you.” Min sat down. “I’ll get right to the point, I’ve been asked to relay information to the families in this sector. It’s not looking good. No doubt with Furb and Gatrina running the communications room you know about the transmissions they’ve intercepted.”

    “I get an update every evening,” Blynn said.

    “When they get home today, you’ll know a whole lot more. I’m just sharing the summary. They picked up a rogue transmission. It was a warning, people on the planet trying to get through to us. There’s labor unrest and we make for a convenient distraction. The news media on the planet is broadcasting our arrival, but already saying we’ll be competing for scarce jobs. The transmission we received said that was a lie.”

    “I suspected we were a distraction,” Blynn said. “I didn’t know what we were a distraction from, but I couldn’t see how we posed a threat to the Founders.”

    “I don’t get it myself,” Min said. “We’ve had so few problems on the ship, all these people, close together, you’d think we be at war with each other from what Earth history I’ve read.”

    “People pull together when they need to,” Blynn said, reaching one hand across the table and placing it on Min’s. “But when survival is not an equal issue, the inequality sprouts thorns.”

    “Thorns? I would have said knives. The message said we are being falsely charged with posing a threat to the labor class. The truth is the labor class is mistreated and underpaid by the ‘owner class’.”

    “Owners,” Blynn’s voice trailed off. “I’ve read the initial contract Founders signed to be accepted for the journey. I don’t recall it made mention of ‘owners’. It promised a democratic government, freedom, nothing that suggested an owner class. I hope it’s not people that they own.”

    “Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that. I hope not too, but it might be a moot point. Control a person’s choices, there’s little difference. The transmission said we should expect to be the target of fomented hate and discrimination. They encouraged resistance and claimed some would be on our side, then the transmission was cut off,” Min finished.

    “It’s like Earth all over again” Blynn sighed. “Who do you trust and which side do you take?”

    “Well right now, only one side has invited us to join them and we don’t even know who they are or how to contact them.”

    “We’re hungry, Nanna,” came a voice on Blynn’s ApSam. She switched to two way and told her granddaughter she’d be right there then switched back to one-way.

    “Thanks for the update,” she said, getting up to leave.

    “The rogue transmission means there is reason to hope” It was Min’s turn to put her hand on Blynn’s.

    #

    “Jaequa, come right away to the communications room,” Furb spoke into the handheld phone.

    “I’m on my way. What’s up?” came the answer.

    “The Founders replied to your message. They want to talk to you directly, about options.”

    “I wonder if the rogue transmission had anything to do with their change of heart?” Jaequa said to her husband as she put on her shoes to leave.

    #

    The shuttle carrying the medical team from Erda locked onto the Earth ship’s port, fitting exactly just as it had fit the sister ships the Founders traveled in.

    Inside, in the boarding chambers past the airlock, stood the ship’s medical team and Jaequa. Waiting for the tedious arrival procedure to take place, her thoughts wandered to why the Founders had abandoned this ship. It needed relatively little work to make it functional. Supplying the ship meant more resources, but the original builders had trillions of dollars and they left almost a century earlier when Earth’s resources had been less depleted. There was no shortage of qualified volunteers. Something else had caused the ships’ owners to downsize their initial plans and given the current circumstances, Jaequa wanted to know what the reason was.

    It was nearly impossible the new arrivals had brought any infectious disease on board from Earth. They had followed all the screening procedures the Founders had before their own ships departed. In addition, nothing would have slipped through that remained undetected during the 40-year journey. It was one of the luxuries the travelers enjoyed, short of a few infected wounds, no one had been ill with any infectious disease during the journey.

    Jaequa wondered if the Founders were trying to trump up an excuse to deny the newcomers permission to leave the ship. But by the end of the questions and exams, a different impression lingered.

    #

    Jaequa found her husband in their quarters. “Is it me, or did that whole charade feel like someone assessing horses’ teeth?”

    “I’m not following you.” Kip walked the few steps to the kitchen alcove and punched in the code for two strong coffees. He set them on the table, pulled a chair out for Jaequa and returned to the alcove. “Start from the beginning,” he said, turning his head toward her as he worked the oven controls.

    “They asked me to list the able bodied, not one question about the skills we had, or our professionals or their expertise. I assured them we intended to work, and take care of our own. We weren’t looking for charity of any kind. I told them we had supplies that could last until we found work.” Jaequa’s hesitated then added, “they weren’t interested.”

    “It’s not surprising, think about it, with any population of refugees, you’d want to know if they were going to burden the taxpayers, assuming they have taxpayers,” Kip said.

    “Then why not ask about skills?”

    “If there’s no shortage of skilled labor, you wouldn’t want immigrants competing for those jobs.”

    “You’re probably right. I may be much too suspicious.”

    “No, you’re cautious, suspiciousness is a good trait to have right now,” Kip said, putting the dinner he’d punched into the oven controller on the table. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate. I don’t like it any more than you do.” He sat down opposite his wife.

    “They’re not telling us everything.” Jaequa blew on the scalding hot coffee, took a small sip then continued. “I tried to get information but the Founders who interviewed me said very little in return. The question is, why? Unless they’re planning a surprise party for us, it can’t be good.”

    “They want a work crew to build the housing we’ll occupy. Nothing too suspicious about that.,” Kip said.

    “I suppose not. But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t volunteer for the first labor party.”

    “Why? I’m not too old to be doing heavy labor, you know,” Kip said, winking with a suggestive glance at the bedroom.

    She chuckled. “No, you aren’t that. We need to do some additional planning. There are too many red flags here.”

    “So what’s the plan?” Kip asked. “Knowing you, I’m guessing you have one.”


    “I do. But it’s not without danger. And if we need to use it, not everyone is going to make it.”

    #

    The machinery of the manufacturing module of ship ran round the clock since they left Earth. Everything the travelers needed from clothes to blankets to the readers and ApSam phones were produced in this module of the ship. The hums and buzzes were a welcome sound to Jaequa. She wasn’t sure why the sounds comforted her. Maybe it was because coupled with the biosphere, they made the ship feel like a world in itself, not just a transport vehicle people were sentenced to for the 40 year journey. Jaequa was 30, born on board like the majority on the ship now.

    She shook off the comforting feeling. This life was over. They couldn’t stay here if they wanted to. Their time here was over.

    “These changes won’t be hard,” Quejak said looking at Jaequa’s list. “I take it you have a plan?”

    “A contingency plan, yes.”

    “The backpacks, that’s just a matter of a pattern change. The cloaks will be a bit harder, but I have an idea that I think will work. Don’t know how many we can make or how fast though. And you know they might have technology that will make these useless, right?”

    “I know. But I’m working with what we have. If you have any ideas how to make them better, go ahead. This is your area of the ship, you know what you are doing here more than I do.”

    Jaequa left the manufacturing sector and entered the biosphere, second stop on her list.

    “Hey Chief,” Exiter greeted her. “What’s up?”

    #

    Parker put his tools down and looked around. The compound the ship’s community would live in on Erda was nearly complete. But besides overseeing the compound work, Parker’s job was to take care of the work crew, and every unexpected occurrence made him nervous.

    “Has anyone seen Lorene?” Parker asked the men putting the finishing touches on the new wall they’d raised. “Jaequa wanted me to keep a close eye on her.”

    “Haven’t seen her boss, she might be out in the yard working on the walkway lid.”

    A feeling of dread washed over Parker as he raced outside. The last place he needed Lorene to be was working anywhere alone. He found her tool belt on the ground. That was enough, he called a stop to the work parties and sent everyone searching for her. No possible location missed, Lorene was nowhere to be found.

    The entire work party swarmed toward the commander’s office in a separate area of the compound along with barracks for the soldiers. Stopped by armed guards, Parker demanded he be seen. After a brief communication through a hand-held phone the Founder’s used, the guards let him through but held the rest at the point of their lasers.

    #

    The commander listened to Parker then turned the computer screen on displaying the outer perimeter. “She hasn’t crossed the barrier wall or the alarms would have sounded. She’s not in the officer’s quarters so that leaves the barracks.”

    “Parker’s anger exploded. “You said your men were professionals, now you suspect they’ve taken one of our young women!”

    “Hold on, we don’t know that. And we don’t know if she went willingly,” the commander said, taking the phone off his desk and pressing on the corner of the screen. Two guards entered the room. “Take this man out.”

    “You can’t do this to us,” Parker said, resisting the guards who’d now grabbed his arms.

    “I can and I am,” the commander said. “I don’t need to remind you your people are trespassers, thieves, and you’re only here because my employers decided to let you land on our planet.”

    The commander motioned for the guards to wait. “But I intend to investigate. You go back and calm your dogs down. I’ll go find your missing girl.”

    Parker shook his arms loose from the guards’ grips and walked toward the door, guards at his heels. The commander pushed on his phone screen again and the inside of the barracks came into view. Several men were standing around a single bunk, holding the girl down, taking turns, her mouth taped shut. He smiled then pulled the bottom desk drawer open, taking a large container of whiskey out. After pouring and downing one shot he took the bottle and headed for the barracks.

    #

    “Time for the contingency plan,” Jaequa said to Parker, her worst fears no longer in doubt. Parker had the unpleasant task of calling Jaequa’s ApSam. Jaequa had the even worst task of telling her parents that Lorene was missing.

    “We need to find a way to go over this guy’s head, but first we get all the female laborers back to the ship.” The ship’s communication console was synced from the orbiting ship to Parker’s ApSam below, hopefully encrypted in code the Founders had yet to break. “We’ve been trying to send out broadcasts to anyone listening but Furb thinks our signals are being jammed.”

    “Targeted jamming? Time to consider our encryption’s been broken and they are allowing us an open link so they can listen in,” Parker said.

    “Not necessarily, it’s reasonable to let us communicate with the work party whether they can hear what we say or not. We aren’t a threat. The Founders that are restless are the threat. That’s the communication with us they want to block.”

    “Well regardless, I think we both have enough to go on here. I’ll contact you again when Lorene is found.”

    #

    When Lorene opened her eyes, the room wouldn’t stop spinning. She closed them but nausea overtook her and she leaned over the bed and vomited on the floor, which made the room spin more.

    Vaguely aware of someone cleaning the floor, she felt a hand on the other side of her, putting something on her arm. Lorene began to thrash, trying to get away.

    “No, it’s alright. It’s over, you’re safe here,” a soft male voice she didn’t recognize said. “I’m a friend, I’m going to help you.”

    It was another couple hours before Lorene awoke again, this time the room was still but the nausea remained and every bit of her body ached.

    “Are you awake enough to speak?”

    Lorene looked into the eyes of a Founder, a doctor or nurse she guessed from the things he was doing.

    “Yes”

    “Do you want something for pain and nausea? I couldn’t give you anything until your system cleared the alcohol.”

    “Just for the nausea,” Lorene said in a weak voice.

    “Alright,” he said and pushed a syringe into a port on the IV in her arm, injecting a small amount of a clear liquid.

    The nausea subsided almost instantly and Lorene had second thoughts about something to relieve the pain but she waited.

    “They claim you went with them and drank willingly.”

    “I didn’t—“

    He stopped her with a gentle finger on her lips. “I know that, your people know that. And I’ve told them about the bruises on your wrists and ankles but they didn’t need that information to know what happened. I have to ask, are you on birth control?”

    “Yes. I’m engaged. Exiter, he’s still on board, his job maintaining the biosphere was critical. He didn’t want me to come down but I wanted to do my part.” Lorene’s words changed to tears.

    “I’m sorry. We’re not all like these,” he shook his head, “this scum, soldiers, police, private guards, all of them abusive and corrupt. Their employers rarely hold them accountable. What they get away with supplements their low pay, a win-win for the employers with no skin off their back.”

    “Employers?” Lorene asked, confused.

    “Private contractors bid on this job, government funds but not government soldiers, not that they’re any better.” He checked the monitors, then typed something on the keyboard sitting unattached on a small table.

    “My name’s Yorban. I’m a doctor.” He touched the screen of the reader in his hand and music Lorene had never heard began playing. He adjusted the volume up, placed the device on the bed above her head then leaned down to whisper in her ear.

    #

    “They claim it’s a matter of no one to finance an extra shuttle trip,” Min said. She stood in front of Jaequa seated behind her desk in the standard office quarters: desk in the middle, four chairs in front, one on Jaequa’s side, all fixed to the floor with removable clamps. The ceiling was lit and an intensity light that was off sat on the corner of the otherwise empty desktop. Keeping order was one of Jaequa’s traits.

    “How many return liftoffs do we have fuel for?” Jaequa spoke into the phone in her hand.

    “Three for sure, maybe four, Chief,” came the answer.

    “This trip is critical, we send our own shuttle then. Inform the A crew.”

    “Right away,” the voice responded.

    “And no females, any A crew females need to swap out with the B crew.”

    “They’re not going to like that.”

    “I don’t care. The last thing we need is to send more women down there. Founders might deny the shuttle permission to return. And now that I think about it, no men under 25 either. And don’t let Exiter go, tell him I said he should give Lorene some space, give her time. And the men under 25 are to return with the women. Who knows if the young men are any safer. We’re obviously dealing with abusive guards, and I’d bet a week’s rations the commander is one of them.”

    “We can keep the younger men from going, but the young men already there might not agree to come back,” Min said.

    “Then we lie, let me think of a ruse that won’t threaten their egos.” Jaequa turned the ApSam off and put her face in her hands, elbows on the desk. We will get past this. This is our new home. Like it or not, we have to make it work. She raised her head and spoke aloud to the empty room. “I swear to all the members of this community, I will lead us through this setback,” Jaequa said.“I don’t give a rip if the Founders got here first, they don’t own the damn Universe. We’re here, and we’re staying.”

    #

    “Please, come in. Thank you for coming,” Lorene’s mother said opening the door to the family’s quarters.

    “Of course. How is she?” Jaequa asked.

    “Recovering, but she doesn’t want to see anyone except you and she says it’s urgent. I’m hoping you can convince her to see Exiter. He’s not doing well. She says she can’t face him. Last night I thought he was going to force his way in, but Lorene’s father was able to calm him down.”

    Jaequa knocked on the bedroom door and opened it a few centimeters to be sure Lorene could hear her. “May I come in?”

    “Yes,” Lorene said, quickly sliding the door open the rest of the way, “I need to tell you, there are people down there that care, that want to help us. They’re not all monsters.”

    Jaequa was relieved that Lorene wasn’t consumed with hate for Founders. One way or another Jaequa knew they would have to share the planet with them. “How do we get to through to the ‘not monsters’ and how can they help us?” Jaequa took a seat in one of the two plush chairs pushed up against the folded wall bed. The surrounding art and collection of objects on the shelves revealed a teen’s room. Lorene was nineteen, but from the looks of her room, she was a young 19. The pain of what happened tore even more at Jaequa’s heart. It reinforced her resolve. This was not going to be a bloodless battle. They could expect more casualties, but in the end, Jaequa expected to win. There would be a way. Jaequa would not allow herself to think otherwise.

    Lorene slowly lowered herself into the other chair, the pain still obvious. “The doctor, he ordered the soldiers around. He told me he was the bastard son of an owner and that meant he was privileged. But only a few owners are good guys.”

    “Wait, explain to me what an owner is,” Jaequa said.

    “They own the planet. It was in the contract people signed that the families who financed the ships and the travel would own the land and resources when they got here.”

    Jaequa tried to recall the contract she’d read that the Founders had used. She could remember nothing about owning the planet in it.

    Lorene went on. “There’s a class system here, the lower classes are referred to as Labor. The middle classes are called Know-Profs. It stands for knowledge/professionals. And there is the Owner class, essentially the rich upper class.”

    “So they don’t own people, that’s a relief,” Jaequa said.

    “Considering what some of them get away with, they might as well. No one, even the doctor, said one word about what happened to me being a crime.” Lorene shifted stiffly in the chair.

    Jaequa could sense Lorene’s strength in her words; she would recover from this. It said something about the way they’d raised the children on the ship. It gave Jaequa a deep feeling of pride.

    Lorene continued. “We have to get away. Yorban, that was the doctor’s name, said some of us might be able to live in the planet’s wilderness. There are whole sections of the planet no one lives in because it’s forbidden. He said if we could stay out of sight for just a little while, no one would want to spend the credits to come after us. It’s all about the credits.”

    “Credits, as in money?”

    “Yes, apparently transactions are all digital so people call their money credits, except there’s some kind of black market barter, a form of money that’s exchanged outside the system. Turns out people don’t want everything they buy and sell to be on the record. And that’s how Yorban is going to help us. He can bribe the commander.”

    “Lorene, you might have just solved the one part of the plan I didn’t have an answer for.”

    “Yorban had some ideas on how we can survive and not cross the paths of Founders for years, maybe longer. He said it wouldn’t be easy, but the group is too big for everyone to get away. He’s going to try to help the ones that don’t. He said that was going to be a harder task than surviving in the wilderness. Some of the owners see us as a source of cheap labor,” Lorene paused, “and worse.” She looked down.

    “Let’s hope that was an anomaly.” Jaequa put her hand on Lorene’s shoulder.

    Lorene went on. “Some owner has financed our presence, the guards work for him, not for the government. It’s scary.”

    “What does Yorban want in return for helping us?” Jaequa asked, suspicious of pure philanthropy.

    “He wants to screw his dad.”

    “Well, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to say something horrible like he wanted you.”

    “No, he was very respectful. He’s volunteering his medical services for us, and I guess he does the same for other people. He told me more than once most Founders were good, but some of the bad ones had a lot of power.”

    “Just like Earth,” Jaequa said.

    “What I’m telling you can’t go beyond this room, I promised Yorban I would only share it with you. I’ve not told anyone else. He supports his mother financially, but their friends, and other family members struggle in the labor class. Yorban resents his father. His mother was the nanny and cook for an owner family. The husband pressured her to be more, then fired her when she got pregnant, for his wife’s sake.

    “Yorban’s father did see that his son had some financial support, pulled the strings that got Yorban into med school. Now Yorban is part of a movement to negotiate a better deal for the labor class, more freedom and a living wage. He doesn’t understand why the owners just don’t pay a little more. It’s not like they don’t have enough. Apparently that’s not how the owners see it.”

    “Any idea why he told you so much?” Jaequa was surprised at the level of detail, but grateful for this goldmine of information. It’s what they needed.

    “He just got going and it all came out, like it’d been pent up inside him. Once he started he kept talking. But then when he was done he got worried he’d said too much, made me swear not to tell anyone. I agreed but I said I’d have to tell you if we were going to survive here. We have to keep his part out of it when we tell the others.”

    “I agree, it’s not a good idea to share everything anyway, we’ll use ‘need to know’.” A minute of silence passed between them as Jaequa chose her words carefully. “Is this why you haven’t wanted to see Exiter?”

    “Yes.” Lorene looked down, rubbing her hands nervously together. “I can’t lie to him. He’s going to ask about Yorban, I’ve read how it is when girls get raped. Guys have all their own issues with it. What if he thinks I like Yorban or something? What if he doesn’t believe they poured the liquor into me down a tube in my throat? What if it creeps him out when he touches me? What if it creeps me out?”

    “Can you imagine leaving him behind if you join a group that tries to get away from the compound down there?”

    “No. I … I can’t, I … Are some people going to try to get away?”

    “That’s what I have in mind. Now you have another secret you can’t tell anyone yet.”

    Lorene nodded.

    “Exiter’s there for you, Lorene. You have to trust him. You’re going to need each other. But I’ll talk to him, tell him not to ask you anything, to let you talk when you’re ready. I know both of you, watched you grow up. He’s a good man.”

    “OK,” Lorene’s words were barely audible. “You talk to him first and I’ll see him.”

    “Deal,” Jaequa said, getting up to leave. “I’ll be in touch to get the rest of the specifics after I tighten up a bit more of the planning on this end. Can you contact Yorban?”

    “Yes. He said the Founders haven’t broken our encryption codes yet. Our communication equipment is different from theirs. But you need to know, they do have listening devices everywhere as well as video cameras. They were listening to one end of the conversations the work crew had with the ship, but they couldn’t hear your end. I can call him; we need to use one of our ApSams that are synched to the ship’s com room. We can speak freely; his answers will be limited.”

    “Great, I was always good at Twenty Questions.” Jaequa rolled her eyes as she walked out the door.

    #

    Jaequa asked her husband to proof read the message before sending it out to every household on the ship. It was the hardest thing she’d ever done. ”They have to decide for themselves. All I can do is make sure they have the best information I can give them to make their choice.”

    “You don’t have to take this burden on your shoulders alone. The whole council is responsible, and the community has the same information we have. You’re not responsible for the choices each family makes.”

    Jaequa felt responsible but it was not something she needed to defend. “Have you thought about your decision,” she asked him. “Do you want to go or stay?”

    “You mean, what’s our decision, not what’s my decision.” He put his arms around his wife and kissed her forehead, then her lips, pulling her down to the sofa keeping his arms wrapped around her. “All this time, the excitement of getting here consumed me, meeting new people, making the transition, so many times I played it out in my head. Not once did I imagine this, or anything remotely close. Do I want to risk what might happen in the city, with what we’ve seen so far? No. They might take you away from me. Do I want to risk trying to hide and survive in a wilderness we know nothing about? No. I might lose you to death too soon, I’ve not had my lifetime with you.”

    Jaequa gently touched his face, outlined his lips with her fingers. “I want control of my life. If we don’t make it, I want it to be our choices that caused that result. The thing I fear, no, hate the most is someone else taking my choices away and I have no say. But I will make that sacrifice, for anyone else in this community, especially the younger ones if it comes down to me or them. I won’t take anyone else’s place if more people choose to run than we can accommodate. The captain will go down with the ship. But if I have a choice that doesn’t take someone else’s seat on an escape lander, …” Jaequa’s words trailed off as she curled up her husband’s arms and closed her eyes.

    “Then we agree.”

    #

    The auditorium was already full when Jaequa walked in, the council chambers inadequate for such a critical meeting. The quiet rumbling of voices increased briefly then softened to its previous level. The last of the ship’s passengers who would attend trickled in, standing in the back of the auditorium, spilling down the aisles, every seat filled. As Jaequa passed, people near the isles rose from their seats to shake her hand, pat her on the back, tell her she was doing a good job. She acknowledged each individual, feigning the confidence she didn’t have.

    Behind the podium a real time image of Erda’s surface filled the large screen. The planet’s beauty radiated from wide swaths of lush greens, inviting ocean blues, and shades of peaceful desert browns. The distant image of the city below revealed a wonderland, modern, bustling, a fantastic living mass that sparkled like jewels at night, stretching out with creeping vines that lit up the coastline in both directions.

    Further from the metropolis, scattered outposts along the coastline showed up like dark smudges. Extending out into the ocean from the tiny settlements, sharp geometric shapes suggested factories. When the ship passed over them at night they looked like rectangular islands outlined by lights.

    Jaequa took her place at the podium and waited for the crowd to quiet.

    “I think we’re all here,” Jaequa began.

    She was immediately interrupted. “Some of our men are on the planet’s surface, we can’t decide without them here.”

    “We’ve gotten word to them. A representative from the families of the men each need to see me at the end of the meeting. We have a plan.” Jaequa maintained a calmness that reassured the families with absent loved ones.

    “By now you all know what our choices are, immigrants or pioneers. I want to share a few more details with you all. If you’ve not yet gotten the word, we have information there are Founders down there who are sympathetic. They contacted us through a rogue communication channel. That’s not going to be enough. Corrupt and abusive guards and police, who knows what kind of society has evolved since the Founders arrived. I thought with a clean slate, and knowing how well our community developed on the ship, well I wasn’t expecting a utopia but I was hoping for civil order. I can only wonder what happened to them. They have some semblance of a democratic government, but apparently it isn’t one free from the influence of corruption and money.

    “The soldiers guarding our men building the housing work for a private company with a government contract. I don’t know what they have planned for us, cheap labor or political pawns or both. Someone in a position of power, we don’t know who, is calling the shots.”

    Ana rose to speak. Jaequa nodded. “We knew this was a possibility. I don’t think we need to get all worried there’s some totalitarian society down there. We’ve all read the contract the financiers used. I can’t believe the Founders became some unpredictable alien species in a century. Sounds to me like half the countries on Earth, except they haven’t run short of food and water.

    “I won’t give my freedom up without a fight. I’ll live in the wilderness as a friggin’ hunter gatherer before I’ll let someone take my freedom away,” Blair said, standing and not waiting for recognition to speak.

    “You’re overreacting,” Cece stood. “Anyone who paid attention in their history classes would know to expect this reaction to new immigrants. In a generation we’ll be Founders no different than they are. I’ll stick it out. For my kids, I’ll stick it out.”

    “Not me, not after what happened to Lorene.” Now it was Exiter that was on his feet. “How can any of us let that happen to another of our members?”

    “It won’t,” Cece said, taking the floor. “We weren’t ready, we were careless. We made mistakes that don’t have to happen again.”

    “Lorene didn’t make a mistake,” Exiter said bitterly as Lorene grabbed his hand trying to pull him back down in his seat. We have a different point of view. I have a right to say what it is.”

    “Of course,” Jaequa said. “I want to hear it.”

    “Our parents sacrificed for us. And I don’t mean to belittle that, I’m grateful. But Lorene and I, we’re young, we don’t have kids. We don’t want to sacrifice our lives in hopes the next generation will do better, fit in. We want to live now.”

    Blair rose again. “Same corporations different planet. Odds are they recreated Earth on Erda.”

    Darla stood and was acknowledged. “Odds are the planet isn’t undergoing a mass extinction like Earth was. There’s water, food, and no nukes. They wouldn’t need nukes. I’m going with immigrant. We’ll be fine.”

    “You forget what humans are capable of. Forcing indentured servitude, enslaving fellow humans, we are ‘those people, not one of them’,” Blair said, “easy targets of hate.’

    Blynn stood. “A good number of you were born on this ship. You didn’t experience the cruelty that we fled. I’m not trying to say you have no idea what it was like, because of course you do. But my husband and I didn’t bring our family all this way, risking everything to take our chances with the same have and have not society we fled on Earth. I hear grandparents played an important role in hunter-gatherer societies.” She smiled. “I used to love the wilderness, before most of the beautiful places disappeared. My husband and I brought our family this far. Our family has decided to run and,” she looked at Gatrina and Velerson and their spouses, “if I become a burden that threatens any of them, I’ll make a great decoy for the Founders to chase.” Gatrina put her arm around her mother as Blynn sat down.

    “Maybe we can start our own country,” Blair said.

    “And why would the Founders let that happen?” Cece shook her head. “They’ll come after you, all of you. They’ll mow you down with technology a century ahead of anything we’ve seen. My family will do our best to cooperate with them. They’re human beings. They’ll come to accept us, probably sooner rather than later. That’s what humans do.”

    “There’s something else. They may not want to finance a search party if we make it too expensive. That gives us an edge.” Jaequa was on her feet now, and ready to close the meeting. There was not much else that could be said that hadn’t been said. She knew people had already made their decisions. “Kip and I will go with the runners unless there are not enough seats on the landers. If that’s the case our seats go to the others.”

    #

    “That’s all?” Jaequa asked looking at the totals. Everyone on the ship had now registered their choices.

    “It’s a third, that’s more than I thought would run. A lot of people are more afraid of the wilderness than they are of the Founders,” Furb answered.

    “Well it solves the problem of space on the landers, I guess.” Jaequa looked at the screen and read aloud. “The essentials: readers, solar lights, water, food, clothing and the heat cloaks which will double as bedding ...”

    “Tools,” Furb added to the list. “We’ll need a tool kit for each of the groups, and an extra one in case the two landers that need to rendezvous aren’t able to. I’ll head out to the workshop to get the tool packs ready.

    Gatrina walked in with a status report, stopping to give Furb a quick kiss as they passed. “We only have two doctors between the four groups, one’s been assigned to group three, they have the most kids. The other’s going with the larger group. There are trained medics on the other two landers, they’re getting the medical supplies packed.”

    Looking at the message on her screen, Jaequa thanked Gatrina for the file as she clicked on it. “I’ll download the maps and files to these readers, but the group going to pick up the workers is going to have to memorize as much as they can. We can’t risk the Founders finding our maps or survival plans.”

    #

    “I’ve never seen so many people hugging and crying and sullen,” Gatrina told her mother. “The whole ship is like one giant funeral.” After the words came out she wanted to take them back. “I’m sorry Mom, it’s the stress. I don’t want to remind you of—”

    “—the pain,” Blynn finished her daughter’s sentence. “There’s an advantage to leaving so many people you love behind twice. I know we can get through it.”

    “Trece and her family aren’t coming with the runners. I can’t tell Irian.” Tears fell despite Gatrina’s trying to stop them. Furb put his arm around her.

    Blynn’s son and daughter and their spouses sat at the small dinner table, the table’s extensions used, accommodating the family. Her grandchildren were in Irian’s room with the door ajar. She hoped Irian was distracted but she was sure the older children were listening to every word. Blynn felt they might as well hear it now. The remaining time was short.

    “I don’t feel like we prepared you kids for this possibility,” Blynn said. “Your father and I never imagined anything like this. We just pictured immigrating to a new city, a new country, a new planet.”

    “You did prepare us Mom,” Velerson spoke. “You and Dad always talked about our lives being on the ship, the planet was for our kids, your grandchildren.”

    “Yes but not like this. I’m so thankful your father died with all his hope alive.” Blynn put her head in her hands.

    Velerson put his arms around his mother. “Our hope is alive. Our kids are going to make it. That’s what matters. They’ll be fine. They’ll adapt, and hopefully so will we. I’m actually looking forward to it, to the challenge, to the freedom of roaming an untouched wilderness.”

    Velerson took his wife’s hand. “Our family will be together. But like you, we’ll gladly be decoys if it comes to that. Tiger and Shell are more than capable, they can take care of Riser and Irian. We’ve already talked to the three of them, they know what’s going to happen. They’re ready to deal with it.”

    Music that had been playing quietly in the bedroom became louder.

    “Shell, she’s protecting Irian already. I love your kids, I love you guys,” Gatrina put her arms around her sister-in-law. “I am so grateful for how you raised them. I have every confidence they can take care of Irian.”

    #

    “He thinks the numbers are OK as far as the Founders not making a serious effort to come after us. He made some inquiries. Split in half, they’ll assume our population is not sustainable. We’ll die out whether they come after us or not.” Lorene thought about asking Jaequa if she thought it was true, but Lorene didn’t want to know if the answer was yes. She’d already avoided making a data inquiry as to the minimum size a human gene pool needed to be for a hunter-gatherer group to thrive. Lorene thought it better to ignore her fears by putting all her attention to the task of just surviving one more day.

    “There is no guarantee they won’t chase us down. If someone decides our labor is valuable they might decide there’s a reason to invest some credits. Yorban said if that happened, there would still be a point that a decision would be made not to pour more good money after bad.”

    “We have twelve landers and enough fuel for two return trips to the ship. We’ll take five, leaving seven for the remaining members if they need emergency evacuation. They can last on the ship for months, maybe another year but that splits the group in three and it’s problematic.

    Jaequa was briefing the pilots, and Lorene was with her to share what information she had. They sat in the comfortable chairs of one of the common areas. Jaequa thought one last time in a comfortable warm place was a fitting setting. It would be one of the last times any of them sat on modern furniture.

    “You’ll need to keep your groups under cover during the day. The satellites can easily spot a group that large. Unless they change the orbits of their satellites, Gatrina and Furb have the paths and timing mapped. The times when the satellites will be overhead have been downloaded into the readers.

    “None of the satellites that orbit over the preserves is monitoring heat. They could be reprogrammed if someone cared enough to spend the credits so I don’t want anyone to take a chance. If you don’t have your groups under the cover of a cave, they need to use their heat cloaks. By launch time manufacturing will have made enough cloaks for each individual. The design will hide our heat signatures unless the Founders have something more advanced that can defeat them. We’re calculating they have infrared search capability but no reason to have developed a counter to a heat cloak.”

    Our reader batteries will last a decade and the data’s been downloaded into the ten we’re bringing. Well have some ability to move around during the day if we time it right.”

    “We’ve mapped the area we’ll have the best chance in. There’s a water source and the canyons will offer some cover,” Furb said.

    “Yorban said they detected our imaging signals.” Lorene pointed out.

    “Nothing we can do about that.” [pilot 1]

    “How about imaging everything like a decoy?” [pilot 2]

    “Gatrina and Furb are ahead of you.” Jaequa smiled. “You’ll find an excellent map of the whole planet on your readers.”

    #

    “I’m gonna miss you Trece,” Irian said, hugging her friend. “I hope the Founders are nice to you.”

    “Good luck to all of you.” Trece said waving as her mother took her other hand and led her out of the airlock. They were the last to leave.

    The door slid shut with a soft whomp sound that signaled separation from the inside of the ship, a separation that would be final. The last four landers were ready for launch, the fifth already headed for the construction site.

    That was the most dangerous path of any of the five landers. The ruse was a lander trip to exchange workers, taking some back to the ship, leaving men who chose to be immigrants behind as replacements. If their plans hadn’t been detected, the runners would board the ship. Halfway back they would make a radical course change and head for the canyons.

    Irian was crying softly as her mother snapped her survival suit on and buckled her in her seat. Gatrina kissed her softly. “You’re being a real trooper, Irian. I know how hard this is.”

    “I hate them. I hate the Founders,” Irian said.

    “I do too,” her mother answered.

    #

    “Commander.” Wadian greeted the head soldier with a slight nod of his head.

    The commander did not nod back. “Still no females?” he said, a sleazy smile on his face. “You know they’re going to have to come down when the compound is finished. Your, no, our ship’s been sold to salvagers.”

    Wadian fumed inside but kept a calm exterior. It was too late to change the plans, too late to ask if more of their community would choose to run hearing this. Do you get a share of that, or did only the ‘owners’? Wadian kept the barbs to himself.

    “I think all the workers should stay,” the commander said. “The housing compound will be done all that much faster.”

    Parker took a step forward. “No it won’t. I assure you a fresh crew can do more alone than a fresh crew with a tired crew in the way.”

    The men turned their heads as Yorban walked through the door into the commander’s office. “He wants his bonus, don’t you commander?”

    “I don’t recall asking for your input.”

    “No, but I bet you’d like an advance on that bonus.”

    “Why would you do that? What’s in it for you?” The commander asked, leaning back in his chair crossing his arms against his chest.

    “The men are tired, they miss their families, and I care about them. Besides, it will motivate them and when they get back the work will go faster,” Yorban offered.

    “You know I don’t believe a damn word you’re saying. You’re up to something, all of you, I’m not stupid.”

    “I’ll make it worth your while,” Yorban said. “And you’ll have plausible deniability,” he added, calculating it was impossible to keep the cat completely in the bag at this point.

    The commander rose to his feet and stepped around the desk. He spoke into Wadian’s face, “What are you people planning?”

    Wadian smelled the foul breath of the commander, felt tiny droplets of spit hit his face. He ignored the intimidation and spoke with impeccable resolve. “To return to the ship. What else could we possibly do?”

    “How much?” The commander turned to Yorban.

    “Two gold ounces.”

    “Make it four.”

    “I only have three.” Yorban had more than that and it was risky to negotiate at this critical time. But Yorban knew the greedy bastard well. It was important the commander not try to get more gold at the last minute. “Two now and one when they’ve left the surface.”

    The silence felt like forever was passing. Wadian wondered if it was possible to fight their way out and started thinking of contingency plans. But the men staying behind would be unlikely to make it if they faced any force. They needed the commander’s cooperation. If there was resistance the men would no doubt stay, letting their families on the other four landers make a run for it without them. Wadian resigned himself to that contingency plan. He had volunteered to pilot this lander because he had no spouse and no children. A war means some casualties.

    #

    “Just so you know, pilot Wadian,” the commander said with disdain. “Whatever the fuck you’re planning, Yorba’s payment runs out the minute the shit hits the fan. He’s an idiot, all bleeding heart over a bunch of trespassing thieves. There are more fools like him on this planet, think they are going to change the world. Just like there were fools on Earth that thought they could change that world. Look what happened to them. Those that had money, or made themselves useful, that’s who got out, made it to this planet. The ones trying to help others, they didn’t.”

    “We all helped each other and we’re here,” Wadian said.

    The commander laughed. “It’s not over yet. You don’t know what the outcome’s gonna be.”

    The hatch closed. Wadian began the launch sequence, the thrusters powered up. Newman waited until they were well off the planet’s surface before he began filling in the new passengers on the plan.

    #

    Four landers left the orbiting ship one after the other. They would be detected right away but the plan was to navigate toward the housing compound until the last minute.

    “Alpha ship to betas, alpha ship to betas,” Wadian spoke into his headset. “Don’t wait, I repeat, don’t wait.” He could only hope they all heard him. The pilots were on their own, and the plan was to keep it that way. If one was caught the others might not be. If it was safe, in a couple days time, the fifth lander would rendezvous with lander 4, carrying the families of the men. It would be months before all four landing parties would attempt to reunite.

    Newman flipped a switch changing the pilot’s radar screen view.

    “I see them. Hold on gentlemen, judgment day is here.”

    #

    A contingent of Founders in what looked like business suits walked into the compound’s large semi-finished meeting room. From the way the commander acted, these men were a higher rank than he. Men and women, now referring to themselves as immigrants despite being called trespassers by the guards, were seated in rows of chairs below a stage.

    Within days of the breakout, Founders boarded the orbiting ship, searching it for any evidence of more planned escapes. They took control of all the landers and moved the transfer schedule up, filling every return trip from the ship with immigrants.

    “Contrary to what some of you think,” one of the men in the suits began from the podium at the head of the auditorium, “we’re trying to work with you. I know some of the guards don’t always behave, but it’s my understanding neither do all your young ladies.”

    The crowd rumbled loudly and angrily.

    “Quiet, please, settle down. Either way, I instructed the commander to see it doesn’t happen again. The men with me are here to take a work crew to a processing ship in the outer cities. The assignment will be for a few months.”

    Cece stood and called out to the man at the podium. “You mean without our families?”

    “There’s no room for families on the processors. Don’t worry, your families will be safe. We hope to find employment for everyone eventually, the elderly can manage the children.”

    “What if we don’t want to be separated?” Cece continued, not sitting down.

    “You don’t have a choice. It’s only a couple months. Be grateful you haven’t ended up like your comrades.”

    Cece sat down, whispering to his wife sitting next to him, “We won’t know for a while if that’s something to be grateful for or not, now will we?”

    She squeezed his hand.

    #

    Trece’s mother snapped the screen off. The Founders had been sending images up to the remaining passengers on the ship. They showed all five landers, crashed in various locations amid a rough landscape of jagged pillars and canyons. Strewn around each of the ships were lots of bodies, and body parts.

    “I saw it already Mom,” Trece said. “It’s not them.”

    “How do you know, honey?”

    “Cause I don’t see anybody I know in those pictures.”
     
  13. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    The Guardian of Flora

    “The earth laughs in flowers.”
    ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “I must have flowers, always, and always.”
    ~ Claude Monet



    Chapter One

    “Awww, dammit!” Maggie cursed and stumbled to the hard, desert ground. She landed on all fours. Pointy rocks dug into the fleshy parts of her palms. It seemed wearing shorts had been a dumb idea - despite the unusual heat and mugginess making it hard to breathe - because her bare, knobby knees had rocks jabbing into them, too. Her ankle was already voicing its displeasure. And was it starting to swell? She could see it was. “Dammit!” she said again.

    She rolled onto her fanny, rested forearms on kneecaps and swiped a trickle of sweat from her forehead. Her face was filmed; dark bangs clung unpleasantly to her skin. This part of the hike wasn’t particularly treacherous; she walked it nearly every day. It just required more carefully placed steps since the ground wasn’t always even. But she was more fatigued than usual because of the dense air. And despite the shorts, she was overheating and light headed – which wasn’t like her.

    Maggie had come a long way since her first hike in these hills; back when she could barely go a quarter mile without wheezing and puking. But she was fit as a fiddle now; strong both in the flesh and in her lungs.
    Still, the tumble had been a nasty one. Her left ankle, the weaker of the two, had kinked over on the loose, wet gravel, and down she went - like tower of Jenga pieces. The left shoe of her good hiking boots, the new ones, were MIA this morning, so she’d pulled on these beaten up boots; boots that should’ve been trashed long ago instead of buried under old sneakers and mismatched flip-flops at the back of her closet. These went way beyond the term broken-in. The buttery soft leather was flimsy with no support. Her swollen ankle just confirmed that.

    The ground wasn’t exactly wet, but the surface was damp from the sudden storm last night. It had come from out of nowhere; no clouds, no thunder, no warning. Maggie had been watching a movie in bed when the skies simply opened up and dumped an ocean of rain onto her little house. And just as the first raindrops hit her rooftop, an intense flash of lightening lit up her entire room like a dozen ginormous spot lights aimed right through her window. Judging by the brightness, it struck close to home. Luckily, the land surrounding her house didn’t have much to catch fire when random lightening struck. Rock and dirt weren’t exactly flammable.

    The rain though… it had fallen so quickly, so forcefully that the wooden barrel Maggie kept parked near the shed was over half full by the time it stopped. And that was the other thing; it stopped just as it had started - suddenly and without warning. As if someone (God?) had simply turned off a spigot. The ground, having been denied rainfall since early spring, sopped it right up. Just not apparently the path she’d just slipped on. The gravel here was still slick with moisture, and the soles of these boots were worn as smooth as a babe’s cheek; no traction.

    “Not too smart wearing these – was it, Simon?” Maggie asked the black and white, seventy five pound love of her life. She had found Simon on the lonely stretch of road between town and her property almost nine years ago, when he was a pup. What he was doing way out here where no people lived, she hadn’t a clue. But dogs sneak out of doors, they jump fences and get out of yards; they just plain get lost. And what was even worse; on this kind of road the truly wicked will simply shove an unwanted pet out their car door and drive off, uncaring if they’re hit by a car, eaten by a coyote, or die of starvation.

    Maggie hated those people. Without even knowing them, she hated them.

    Her personal belief was that many of those lost or abandoned animals crossed countless miles to get where they should be; to the humans that needed them. She believed that’s how she and Simon came together; because someone upstairs knew she needed him and sent him on a journey to find her. That’s what she believed, anyway - and they’d been inseparable ever since.

    Simon was a step or two ahead, sniffing the ground, his fluffy tail pert and upright. He stopped and turned to look down at her quizzically then trotted over to lick her face. Maggie giggled and ran her fingers through the long mane around his neck. He sat, head tilted, awaiting a command. “I guess this means we should head back, don’t you?” Maggie said with a sigh, and poked a finger into the puffy part of her leg.

    Just then a loud “clunk” followed by a shuffling sound came from the narrow valley they were headed toward before she fell. They turned toward it; Maggie a little uneasily.

    In all the years she’d hiked these hills, she’d always felt perfectly safe as long as Simon was with her. Her dog had saved her once from a rattle snake and another time from a bobcat. There was no telling what else he had scared away over the years just by virtue of being present. She knew he had her back and trusted him implicitly. Simon meant safety. Maybe that was too much pressure to put on a four legged creature, but there it was.

    They lived thirty seven miles past the nearest gas station signifying the outskirts of Canyon Ridge, Nevada - population 352. From there, her driveway – a dirt road with a camouflaged entrance of Joshua Trees and strategically placed boulders – went another two miles. She had planned it that way. This land was private – all twelve hundred acres of it.

    Nobody came out this way unless they were coming to see her, and nobody did that. In fact; Maggie kept a post office box in town, something she checked every couple of weeks, so that even the mailman didn’t have to drive out. There was only one road that led to her house, and Maggie couldn’t recall the last time a car that wasn’t hers had driven it.

    That road led to her sanctuary, her paradise, the place she’d run to almost nine years ago - away from the dangers of people and the hazards they bring with them. She surrounded herself with those she trusted - and they all came covered in fur or feathers.

    So during their daily mid morning hikes, Maggie knew they were alone. Or rather she knew she was the only human around. She expected to see little critters - desert mice, lizards, birds and the like - scampering about, and they were just fine by her. She loved the idea of them living their innocent, simple lives nearby, and seeing them made her almost believe that sometimes things could be right in the world.

    But the sound just now wasn’t from a little critter. It had the weight of a heavy foot kicking a hefty rock, and then… dragging something. Only a few things out here could make that kind of sound; a person or a large animal, like a coyote or mountain lion. It was the wrong time of day for coyotes, so she was fairly certain it wasn’t that.

    Maggie knew mountain lions roamed these hills, although she’d never seen one before. For that she was grateful. She didn’t know if Simon stood much of a chance against one of the big cats. With that mental picture in her head, she was suddenly worried he would take off after the noise.

    “Stay here boy.” she told him.

    He stayed in ‘sit’ position, looking at her, but turned back toward the valley when they heard the sound again, this time louder. Maggie was getting deep-down nervous now. The noise seemed deliberate; attention seeking. When they heard it a third time, Simon took off running.

    “Simon, Come!” Maggie called after him, but he was gone. She could hear him running through more gravel, the sound getting fainter the further away he got. “C’mon boy…let’s go get a treat!” she yelled, trying the ‘flies with honey’ approach. But all she heard was silence. “Come, Simon!” she said sternly, and struggled to her feet. She leaned heavily on her good leg, wincing when she put any weight on the other.

    Then Simon barked, clearly alarmed, and all Maggie’s pain was forgotten. Hands flailing, she managed a kind of hop-jog toward him. “Stay!” she shouted, fearful he’d already been bitten by a snake or attacked by the phantom mountain lion.

    By the time she reached him, he was standing perfectly still, ears alert, and staring at a little green plant covered with yellow flowers. It was less than twelve inches tall and growing all by itself in a deep crack near the base of a boulder. Its stem stood straight and tall, as if reaching for the sun. Except for the little pile of dead leaves near its base, it was the picture of botanical health - literally bursting with life. It was weird and gorgeous at the same time. Weird because nothing wild that looked like it grew out here. In this part of the dessert – even Joshua Trees and cactus were few. Something with lush green leaves and bright yellow flowers was nonexistent.

    Maggie made her way over to Simon. He glanced up as she approached, but turned his attention back to the plant as soon as she knelt down. He was totally focused, as if expecting it to run and prompt a game of chase. The same way he tried to convince the lizards outside her house that all he wanted was to play tag. Oh, they would run, but it was pretty clear; they weren’t at all interested in his games. Simon didn’t know the difference, though. They ran, he chased; simple as that.

    “What’cha got there, little man? What’s this lovely thing doing all the way out here?” she said, and stroked the fur along his back. Looking at it up close, she suddenly found herself becoming kind of stuck - like the way her eyes sometimes locked onto a spot in space, unable to look away. Like daydreaming, but not really.

    She was lost in the yellow flowers, thinking how beautiful they were when she realized they were moving… sort of. The plant was trembling. And the trembling seemed to send a wonderful honeysuckle scent into the air that enveloped and made her dizzy. A dreamy smile danced across her face and her eyelids went slack. She turned to find Simon already on his belly, looking drowsy with his head on his paws. All of Maggie’s movements, no matter how meager, felt like moving underwater. She had a ridiculous, overwhelming need to rest her head and take a nap.

    “I’m s-so tired…” she muttered, noticing how her voice sounded; like she were two hours into a double dose of Benadryl after a really nasty allergy attack. Her tongue felt fat and lazy and like it needed a nap, too.

    She rolled onto her side and laid her head on Simon’s fur, a little surprised he accepted the full weight of it on his arthritic hip. She simply didn’t have the energy to hold it up a second longer. And Simon didn’t seem to have the energy to object. “Okay, we’ll sleep, but…only…f-for a m-minute…” she murmured into his fur, and then she was out.


    Chapter Two

    Maggie awoke with her cheek in the dirt and something wet flinging across her face. She swatted at it, still half asleep, and her hand smacked into something narrow and fuzzy with a wet nose. Simon was awake and standing over her, tail wagging in a tic-tock, metronome fashion. His face was intense and his body language all business; “Let’s go!” it said.

    She brushed away bits of rock that were stuck to her skin and pushed into a sitting position. Leaning forward, she started to get up when her foot erupted in pain. Her ankle, in the light of the almost setting sun (how long have I been out?) looked ripe and purple, like the glossy skin of an Eggplant. Shit. How am I going to get home now? she thought, annoyed.

    Maggie looked over at the plant as she got awkwardly to her feet. Seeing it brought something to the front of her mind, a dream she must have had while she was out. A single thought kept repeating itself - four words whispered from a dormant part of her brain. Take me with you, it said.

    She looked hard at it, at the flowers, expecting to see it tremble again. It didn’t. Had she really seen what she thought she saw, though? She didn’t know now. Then she remembered the smell… that sweet, sweet smell.

    Take me with you. Take me with you. Take me with you. Take me…

    The words were a steady stream of conscious thought that bounced down the corridors of her mind. She shook her head as if to clear water from her ears. Could she still be dreaming? Or maybe she was hallucinating, if that was what this was. She had an overstuffed and bloated feeling in her bones, as if she’d just come out of surgery.

    “Arf! Arf!Arf!”

    Simon barked his “look at me!” bark and started down the path toward home. He was nearly ten feet away and stopped to look back. When she continued to ignore him, he barked again, very loudly, insistently. “Arf! Aarf! Arf! Arf!”, he said, stomping his front paws at the ground. Then he spun, stomped again, and barked again. “ARF! Arf! Arf!” She could see he wanted her to follow.

    Take me with you. Take me with you, she heard, over and over again.

    Maggie’s eyes were drawn back to the yellow flowers and green leaves. It looked different in the setting sun; wilted and sort of sad. The blooms were droopy, as if drying up. She limped over and felt around its base, surprised to find it so loosely attached to the ground. Without thinking, she wrapped her fingers around it and gave a gentle tug. It came out as easily as a day old dandelion, almost as if it had loosened itself for her.

    Not sure what else to do now that she’d uprooted it, and knowing it would die if she left it on the ground (which seemed mean, since it had been resilient enough to grow all the way out here) – she wrapped it in the long sleeved T-shirt she had tied around her waist. She knotted the arms, draped it around her neck, and slung it over her back to keep her hands free during her walk home. Simon was noisily running in circles around her. She could’ve sworn he snapped at her back, but that couldn’t be right. He was never aggressive, and certainly never toward her.

    “Heyzeus, Simon! Could you give it a rest?” she scolded. His barking was more than her ears could take. She had a thrumming headache at the base of her skull, as if somebody had taken a rolling pin to it. But her headache aside, the last thing they needed was to draw attention to their location. Coyotes would begin trolling the area soon. The sun was beginning to settle and a barking dog would carry.

    She took a few timid steps, testing her ankle. It was painful but okay. She lumbered forward clumsily, but found a rhythm that oddly reminded her of a song from the seventies. Suddenly she could hear Anne Murray’s “Shadows in the Moonlight” each time a foot hit the ground, and began humming the melody. And since no one was out here to hear what a God-awful singer she was, after several steps, she opened her mouth and quietly sang the words. Simon looked up at her while keeping pace with her stilted gait, glancing warily at the thing on her back every so often. Eventually he dropped into ‘heel’ and stayed there the rest of the way home.


    Chapter Three

    It was long past dusk by the time a tired Maggie and Simon trudged to her backdoor. She unlocked it, dropped the tee-shirt wrapped plant (which now looked more wilted and sad than ever) into the kitchen sink and hobbled to her recliner in the den. Falling heavily onto the leather seat, she pulled off her boots, taking extra care with the one on her bad leg. Then she made her way back to the sink to unwrap the plant.

    It dropped into an upside down “U” as soon as she stood it up. If it wasn’t already dead, it was close to it. Why had she bothered bringing this thing with her? She couldn’t remember now. She walked it to the trash can and pressed the floor lever with her good foot. Suspended in midair, she was ready to drop in when those words came back to her. Perhaps it was just a memory from earlier, an echo of what she’d dreamed while in the desert, but something about them made her stop. Take me with you, it had said.

    Instead of trashing it, she grabbed a large vase from above the refrigerator, filled it with water and plopped the plant in. She put it on a table in the three season sunroom between the kitchen and den. Then she flipped the lights off and headed toward the hallway. She was exhausted. Today had been one for the books; a twisted ankle and napping in the desert (and what was that about, anyway?). All she wanted was to crawl between clean sheets and fall asleep.

    Hobbling to her bedroom, she realized she’d forgotten something; something important. Everyone needed to eat. How could she forget? Maggie’s life revolved around her furry family members. Since she was an only child and both her parents had passed, her pets were the only living, breathing beings on earth she was connected to. But she was feeling pretty out of it since her hike, so maybe that was why she’d blanked. More sleep and a good night’s rest - a night to recharge was what she needed. She’d get the feeding done quickly and then rest.

    She flipped the light back on and went to the pantry. As soon as the familiar creak of the pantry door sounded, they all knew. Samson-the-cat came running down the hallway; a long winded meow bounced out of him as he rushed into the kitchen. Desi and Lucy, her Peach-faced lovebirds flapped their wings and made soft, cheerful noises from their condo-birdcage in the sunroom. Chester, her tan and white teddy bear hamster that also lived in the sunroom, dismounted the wheel where he’d been engaged in his evening aerobics. He stretched up tall against the glass of his one hundred twenty gallon enclosure, sniffing the air. And then there was Simon, already sitting patiently, watching his master and waiting for his bowl to be filled.

    Maggie took from the pantry shelf a tall Tupperware container designed for breakfast cereal. In her home it was full of bird seed. From beside it she grabbed the short zippered foil bag that read CARE fresh Complete Hamsters & Gerbils. She would need more soon; it was only a third full. She measured half a cup of each into Chester’s and Desi and Lucy’s bowls, returned the containers to the pantry, and then from the pantry floor, she dug into two bigger bags; one with Simon’s dog food (Nutrish, it read, a picture of a grinning Rachel Ray and her pittie-pooch, Isaboo, on the front), and a smaller yellow and purple bag of Meow Mix for Samson, her Maine Coon. Each of their bowls got a cup of kibble.

    Then Maggie waddled around filling water bowls from the glass pitcher she kept on the counter. She poured herself a glass and shook four Advil out of the economy sized bottle she kept next to the coffee maker. At the last minute she grabbed a slice of plastic wrapped Kraft American Cheese from the refrigerator’s lunchmeat drawer. She gulped down the Advil, unwrapped the cheese, trashed the plastic, and took a big bite as she turned the lights back off.

    Lastly, she went into the den and picked up the hiking books she’d worn that morning. Grabbing both with her free hand, she walked them to the trash bin and did what she should’ve done long ago; she opened the lid and dropped them in.

    Although she was beat, she knew she should shower if she didn’t want to drag desert sand into bed with her. She’d fallen asleep on the ground, after all. And for Maggie there was nothing worse than the feeling of dirt or sand on her sheets. That meant a filthy bed, and a filthy bed meant danger. It was better to not risk it and just shower now.

    She turned the shower tap on and stripped down to her birthday suit while the water got hot. Seeing her reflection in the mirror, she removed the elastic hair band and released blonde, wavy hair. There was a permanent, deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes, and a constant worry in her brow. Do I really look like this? she thought sadly. How did this terrified little mouse become me?

    The thing was - she knew how. And she knew she could never go back to being the woman she had been all those years ago. That Maggie was gone; forever gone. “No use thinking about any of that now”, she said to her reflection. It never did any good; thinking didn’t change a thing.

    She stepped under the warm jets, lathered a pink, brand new bar of Caress into a bath sponge and scrubbed vigorously all over, taking extra care around her injured ankle. There was no broken skin, but it was swollen and tender. When her body was a mask of white suds, she shampooed her hair and then stood under the pulsating Shower Massage jets, rinsing her hair and body at the same time.

    After toweling off, she slipped her double-extra-large Got Guitar? tee-shirt over her head. It was soft and roomy and her favorite sleep gear. Maggie had ordered it from Amazon.com on impulse, just because she thought it was clever and looked cool. She had always liked those Got Milk? ads. She thought they were clever, too. But Maggie didn’t know the first thing about playing guitar – had never even held one in her hands before. Luckily, there was nobody here to think what a big, fat, pretentious liar she was for wearing it.

    She brushed with her Braun electric toothbrush (the greatest invention ever, she thought) then padded off to her bedroom and flipped off the light. After the long, strange day there were no words to describe her childlike bliss as she slipped between the cool, freshly laundered eighteen-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, another Amazon.com purchase. The comforting smell of Clorox Bleach - what she washed all of her sheets and towels in - floated through the air as she adjusted and fluffed them. Mmmmm… Maggie loved the smell of bleach. Something about it said “I am safe because I am clean.”

    She wondered when that had become true; when the smell of bleach had translated into safety. Her mind was skipping toward the answer when it took a detour as she caught the whiff of sweet honeysuckle. It seemed to crawl along the airwaves, invading her cells. She was thinking how lovely it was when she dropped into a dreamless sleep.


    Chapter Four

    Maggie awoke the next day with a marked heaviness in her limbs. Her arms seemed made of lead, and her temples throbbed. Simon was standing beside her bed, his tail thwacking loudly against the frame. She managed to pull an arm out from under the covers, but it felt like it’d gained twenty pounds in the night. She reached across and anchored her fingers in Simon’s fur.

    “Gotta pee, boy?” she asked sleepily. Turning her aching head, she noticed Samson wasn’t on the pillow next to hers. He wasn’t curled into his tight ball, the way he was every morning. “Where’s Samson? Have you seen that kitty cat?” she asked Simon, ruffling his fur. He answered with more tail thwacking. “Okay, I’ll get up…” she groaned, and dragged her feet to the floor.

    Totally forgetting about her injury, she tried to stand up. An explosion of pain shot through her ankle and landed in her throat, sending her reeling back onto the bed. After she caught her breath, she lifted her leg to examine it, shocked at the rainbow of colors a twisted ankle could produce; purple, red, and orange, and twice its normal size. She should have iced and wrapped it before bed last night; she realized that now. But she had been so tired. All she could think about was sleep.

    With most of her weight on the good leg, she tottered to the back door. Simon dashed out as soon as she cracked it open, making a b-line for the shaded grassy patch on the side of the house that Maggie kept watered and green just for him. Normally by now Samson would have scampered into the room to weave his customary figure eight between her feet before feeding time. Where was he?

    She made her way into the kitchen where she started her daily Folgers Cinnamon Swirl in the coffee maker. Then she began the morning ritual of feeding her kids. She liked calling them that. It made them feel like the family members she meant them to be. She had Hamster kibble and bird seed in each hand, but stopped short as she came into the sunroom.

    The plant she’d put in the pitcher of water, the same plant that had been at death’s door last night… it wasn’t just alive - it was thriving! It was easily a foot taller than last night, and the blossoms – blossoms that were shriveled and papery just hours earlier – were a smooth, yellowy orange, just a shade before the color of tangerine sherbet. Not only that, the stem was thick and solid, and the leaves; a deep, rich, velvety green.

    The pitcher itself was bone dry; every drop of water gone. Must have needed the water, Maggie reasoned. It must have been literally starving for it while in the desert. But that didn’t make sense since it’d looked so lush and vibrant when she and Simon had first come upon it. By the time she’d awakened from her nap, though (and why did I do that again?) - it hadn’t looked so hot.

    She went to it now and ran her fingers along the soft, hardy leaves, getting a closer look at the flowers themselves. She hadn’t done that yesterday. She’d gotten sleepy too quickly. They were like lilies, only unlike any she’d ever seen, and Maggie considered herself quite the horticulturalist; for a laymen, anyway. She’d discovered her green thumb since moving to the desert. Plants responded to her for some reason. She didn’t understand why – especially why she was successful in a desert, of all places - but she loved taking care of her garden, and loved the results even more. Learning about desert flowers had brought an entirely new dimension to her world, and her vegetable garden was a godsend. Her secret was really good soil - the kind that came in big, plastic bags from the hardware store. And water… lots and lots of water. The well she had dug when she bought the property had been very good to her.

    These flowers were a puzzle, though. They were bell shaped like a lily, and each petal had a rippled edge lined with tiny fibers. The flowers had been decent sized yesterday, but today they were the size of a Casablanca Lily, only prettier – which was saying a lot since Casablanca’s were Maggie’s favorite. She didn’t remember the color being quite this rich and intense either. It had been bright and cheerful, like a daffodil. Looking into the throat of the flower, she could see tinges of red deep down, toward the stamen. The red looked almost liquid.

    Just then she heard a muted ‘Marf!’ from Simon at the back door. She walked over and opened it, and to her surprise, Samson followed him in. He instantly began weaving between her feet. “How did you get out there, Mr. Man?” she asked, and reached down to pick him up. He began purring as soon as he heard her voice. She lifted him face level and kissed the top of his head with a loud smack, and then carried him into the kitchen.

    Suddenly Maggie was famished. Going to bed with nothing but Advil and a little cheese had left her starving. She’d only had a small bowl of oatmeal before her hike yesterday. A cheesy omelet with crisp bacon and toast would be just the ticket. But first she needed to finish feeding the kids.

    With Samson cradled in one arm, she was busy dumping bird seed into Desi and Lucy’s bowl when she realized there was no sound from Chester’s enclosure. She wasn’t hearing his early morning work-out on his wheel. Typically, as soon as the sun lit the sky, he was on that wheel, going as fast as he could - as if racing toward an invisible finish line he would never reach.

    She looked down into the topless enclosure and saw that it was empty. Samson’s little nose twitched as he leaned over and sniffed at some dried up leaves that had somehow blown under the wire wheel. Then he stretched his nose toward the plant, sniffing some more.

    Maggie had never bothered putting a cover on Chester’s home. She left it open so that he didn’t feel too caged in. She suffered serious bouts of claustrophobia and freely admitted to projecting that onto her pets. So she wanted Chester to feel he could stretch his tiny legs out… zoom around, do some laps if the desire struck.

    Somehow, though, he had found a way out. Did he climb on top of his aerobic wheel and get over the glass edge? That didn’t seem possible. There was nothing tall enough to get him on top of that wheel, and it would just spin and spin if he tried to climb up the outside of it. The glass walls themselves were too high for his little five inch body to reach over, even if he were stretched to the max from the top of that wheel.

    Samson, suddenly squirmy, jumped out of her arms and darted down the hallway. Maggie looked from the hamster-apartment to his receding tail as he ran toward the bedroom and caught herself wondering; is that guilt? Do cats feel guilt? Is he the reason Chester was missing?

    Samson had always been very sweet with her little rodent, even snuggling next to him as they both napped on Maggie’s belly during movie time. He had never shown any desire to chase or harm Chester, so it didn’t make sense that he suddenly would now. He was a cat, though. And cats typically chase, toy with, and often kill small animals, particularly rodents. She desperately hoped Samson hadn’t had a Mr. Hyde moment out of the blue last night.

    Walking through her house, Maggie called Chester’s name. She wasn’t naïve enough to expect him to come on command. But he seemed to recognize his name when she talked to him, and there was nowhere for him to go, so maybe she’d get lucky. Despite how he’d gotten out, he was probably having fun investigating the nooks and crannies of her house, enjoying his little vacation away from his glass home. Why not let him enjoy it a while longer?

    Maggie took one more peek under the sofa and saw nothing but a few dust bunnies. Then she noticed Simon standing in the entryway of the sunroom staring at something. He was focused on the plant again; hyper focused in fact, but not in the playful, curious way of yesterday. Today he looked guarded. And cautious.

    “What is it, sweetie? It’s pretty, don’t you think?” She often talked to Simon as if he would talk back. She supposed that was the only thing she missed about the human race; conversational chitchat. She missed it, but not enough to live near people. Nope; one-sided banter with her pets would do her just dandy.

    “Why don’t we name him, huh boy?” she asked Simon. “Make him an official part of the family. What do you think?” Her head tilted as she gazed at the unusual blossoms. The plant looked amazingly robust. And to have come back from the brink of death in less than a day with nothing more than a little tap water was nothing short of remarkable. Something with that kind of gusto needed a title; something reflecting its personality, its sheer will to live.

    That thought - the idea of fighting to survive - reminded her of the only movies featuring burly, muscular men that didn’t churn her stomach and feed her nightmares. For Maggie there were only two movies that fit that bill; Braveheart and Gladiator. Their muscle-rippled brutality managed to be both noble and romantic. She wished she knew men like that. Maybe she could feel safe with them.

    For today she would go with the latter’s star character. “Maximus… yeah; that fits!” It was perfect. “I dub thee Maximus – Guardian of Flora!” Maggie said formerly, bowing and giggling at her own silliness. Simon continued to stare at it, unmoved by his new housemate’s name. “Okay, let’s get a bite to eat.” she told him and walked into the kitchen. “Then we’ll look for Chester…he has to be around here somewhere.”


    Chapter Five

    Once everyone else was fed (she put food in Chester’s bowl, too - out of habit more than anything else), Maggie set to making her breakfast. Into her favorite ice-cream bowl she broke two eggs, added S&P, garlic powder and a splash of milk, and whisked it with a fork before pouring it into a hot, buttery pan. She had already gotten her bacon into the oven. She liked it all one length, without the curling ends pan-frying caused. Her method was a four hundred degree oven and half a package of thick cut bacon laid out crossways on a cookie sheet. Twenty minutes at that temperature garnered perfectly cooked strips.

    Maggie could easily go through half a pound all by herself in a single meal, and did so often. This time, though, she planned to save four or five strips for a BLT later. Those were her favorite; toasted bread, lots of Duke’s mayo, fresh lettuce and plump, ripe tomatoes from her garden, plus a thick slice of sharp cheddar cheese, slightly softened by the heat of hot bacon… the first bite was pure ecstasy on toast.

    She swirled the beaten egg up the pan’s edges, then worked it loose with a rubber spatula and expertly flipped the disc over, landing it squarely in the center. Next she added grated sharp cheddar, diced tomato, chopped scallions – but only the green parts – and folded it over. A little more cheddar was sprinkled on top before she turned off the heat and covered the pan so the cheese could get all gooey.

    The twenty minute oven timer went off just as she finished the eggs. Once the bacon was removed and slightly cooled, she took five, wrapped them in a napkin, tucked them into a Ziploc bag and put them in the fridge. While in there, she grabbed milk, poured a glass full into a mason jar, and snagged two slices of homemade Potato Bread.

    Tuesday afternoons were devoted to bread making in Maggie’s home; Two Loaf Tuesday is what she called it because she made two loaves of one kind of bread every week. Pumpernickel, whole wheat, farmer bread, French bread…this week it was Potato Bread. She adored potato bread. The smooth, even texture was perfect for French toast and sublime as grilled cheese. She got them toasting and was plating the rest of her breakfast when the plunger popped up. After slathering her perfectly browned bread with homemade honey-butter, she settled herself at the table.

    Something about the syrupy aroma of honey made her think of something else; the sweetness of honeysuckle. But that thought was swept away by the smell of smoky bacon. With a piece of it ready to go in her left hand, she loaded her fork with some cheesy egg and took a bite. Then she took a bite of bacon, and then a bite of honey-buttered toast. She chewed, swallowed, and cleared her pallet with a few gulps of cold milk. It wasn’t long before her plate was wiped clean and her glass drained.


    Chapter Six

    With her belly full, Maggie turned her house upside down searching for Chester. Surprised he wasn’t tucked away in a closet, behind a bookshelf, or under a chair nibbling on a stray almond or cracker, she went outside, just in case. She crawled behind plants, looked under old wood piles, underneath the wheelbarrow and several old buckets - hoping and praying she wouldn’t find his limp, lifeless body in the dirt.

    Her ankle kept her from going very far, but she managed to cover the property closest to the house. She couldn’t imagine him going further than that, if he’d gone outside at all. She came away with nothing, though – inside or out. All she found was an open window between the kitchen and sunroom. If he’d somehow crawled through it, her chances of finding him were bleak at best. He likely would have been snatched up by an owl or snake. She hated picturing her sweet Chester as some wild animal’s midnight snack – but if he’d gotten out, that was probably what went down.

    She came back inside and stared at the window, confused. How was it open in the first place? It wasn’t one she checked often because she didn’t need to. It stayed shut. It was awkwardly located on a short wall between the refrigerator and the sunroom’s doorway and faced the wrong way for evening breezes. So it stayed closed; closed and locked. But today it was open a good twenty inches. She didn’t remember opening it, but it didn’t mean she hadn’t.

    Ever since the thing that happened ten years ago, the thing that brought her out here in the first place, she would sometimes wake up standing in another part of the house. Sleepwalking was one of the gifts Maggie had taken from the city. Maybe it was her subconscious trying to find a way out when the nightmare came. She didn’t know. But it wasn’t too farfetched that she had opened it during one of those episodes.

    Looking more closely, the inside of the window frame had strange dimpled gashes on the metal lip, as if a screwdriver or knife had been taken to it. That was odd since those tools would be used to get into a window - not out of one. But maybe she’d done that in her sleep, too. She made sure it was shut and locked tight before leaving the kitchen.

    With a lot of the day still ahead of her, it felt wrong not getting her hike in. It was a ritualistic part of Maggie’s day; make coffee, feed the kids, water the garden, eat breakfast, and… hike the hills. But walking around her house and property looking for Chester had actually tuckered her out more than she thought it would. Gimping on one foot takes a lot more energy than walking on two.

    It was obvious by now that there would be no hiking for at least the rest of the weekend. She figured she needed three days of downtime for her leg to improve. She sure as heck didn’t want to go to the city for an X-ray or anything like that. That meant going where the people were (where the men were) and that was something she did only if she absolutely had to. She didn’t know yet if she ‘absolutely had to’ – so she would just wait out the weekend and hope for the best.

    Since she hadn’t found Chester and couldn’t go hiking, she decided to keep busy by giving Maximus a more permanent home. She took him outside to her garden bench and put him in an eight inch clay pot. She still couldn’t believe how he’d improved. He looked so healthy. She added potting soil to the pot and patted it down. Then she stepped back and admired her work. He looked just beautiful – the peachy-yellow colored blooms and rich green leaves were exquisite against the terracotta pot.

    She had intended to put him out on the patio so he could enjoy the November sunshine, but looking at him now, she couldn’t bring herself to do that. She wanted to enjoy Maximus’ beauty for a little while longer in the house. She brought him back inside, gave the fresh soil a thorough soaking from the tap in the kitchen, and then put him back on the table in the sunroom with an old pie tin underneath for drainage.

    Suddenly the insides of her stomach squeezed in on itself, growling. Breakfast had been hours ago, and she’d burned up quite a bit of energy looking for Chester. It was time for her BLT.

    She went to the kitchen, assembled her sandwich, plunked two spears of Vlasic Kosher Dills on her plate alongside it, and poured another glass of milk. She loved milk with a good BLT. Something about it felt like the childhood she didn’t have. Like the lunch a mom should’ve made for her and never did. Maggie’s mother hadn’t been a bad mom; just one that took to the task of mothering as more of a job - not something to actually love doing. And a good BLT made with care and served with a glass of cold milk, for some odd reason in Maggie’s mind - that said love.

    She sat at the kitchen table and began to eat, glancing every so often at Maximus’ blossoms in the sunroom. It was hard to not keep looking at him. Her eyes were constantly drawn back to the yellow flowers and velvety leaves. She adjusted her seat so that he wasn’t in her line of vision, so she could concentrate on her lunch.

    Her sandwich, pickle and milk were delicious, as always - but the enjoyment factor wasn’t the same. Not with Chester missing. Even if she had found his dead body, at least she would know what had happened to him. The not knowing was the worst part. But she didn’t know where else to look.

    Now that she’d been sitting, her ankle was aching. She needed to stay off it for a while. She would finish up a few things then park it on the sofa for the rest of the day. The animals - her kids - were quickly fed and watered, and then she went outside to water the garden. She hadn’t gotten to do it yesterday after the whole ankle issue and feeling so kaput when she got home. They had to be thirsty, and Maggie just hated imagining them thirsty.

    Even with the kind of heavy rainfall they’d gotten the other night (and just like every rainfall in these parts), the desert clay drank it all up and asked for more. It was great to have had the storm, but Maggie knew the sudden downpour wasn’t enough for her garden. During summer and fall months she watered twice, sometimes three times a day to keep everything happy. Otherwise her tomatoes, lettuce and carrots looked emaciated; like they were dying.

    Maggie believed she knew how it felt to be at-the-brink-of-death dehydrated. She felt it the first time she hiked in these hills; was actually worried she wouldn’t make it home, between the thirst and throwing up. That sounded melodramatic, but with no one out here but her, she honestly feared that first hike was going to be the end of her. Hence her conclusion that dehydration was among the cruelest ways to go. It made her anxious; raised her blood pressure to imagine them parched and dry. So she tried to stay two steps ahead of it at all times.

    She struggled with the hose, turned the water on, twisted the nozzle to shower and began watering. Just as she suspected, the water soaked in as if the ground were made of holes.

    From across the yard she saw Samson and Simon lying in the grass. Their eyes were closed, their faces turned toward the late autumn sun, looking like a pair of contented sphinxes. She loved having them outside with her while she watered. It made her happy seeing them in the sunshine. But then she thought about Chester and her heart sank.

    She finished watering then rolled up the hose and went inside. She dug into the closet in the hallway and grabbed a movie and then took from the freezer the two quart-sized Ziploc baggies she kept in the freezer. In each bag was two parts water, one part rubbing alcohol. The liquid had gone from loose and runny to icy slush. She folded each bag into a cotton tea towel then went to the sofa to stretch out and wrap her ankle. With the ice packs tied on, she elevated her foot on a small stack of throw pillows and tucked another under her knee for support.

    Because she lived way out in the boonies, Maggie didn’t have cable TV, but she actually preferred it that way. And even if her Samsung Flatscreen allowed for it (which it didn’t), she never had any intention of hooking up those hideous rabbit ears for channel reception. She despised the trash she used to see on TV when she lived in the city. Programming was getting worse by the day, even back then, with more and more attention drawn to dysfunctional freak show families, glorified criminals, and clever “how to never get caught” ways of screwing over your neighbor or BFF or wife or parent. That’s the kind of garbage that turns humans into monsters, in Maggie’s mind, and she had absolutely no interest in any of it.

    What she did have was an eclectic array of DVD’s she ordered through a mail catalog. She disliked regular TV programming, but loved getting lost in a good film. Having all the lights down, a fine flick on the tube with Simon snoring on his doggie-bed beside her and Samson and Chester resting peacefully on her belly - it was the best thing in the world. Safety and comfort; she had it all right here in her house with these little guys.

    Maggie had chosen an older movie; one she’d seen easily twenty times already. You’ve Got Mailwas her go-to film when she needed something uplifting and light. It was already out of its case and in the player. With a small roll pillow tucked neatly under her neck, she burrowed under the fleece throw from the back of the sofa, hit PLAY on the remote and settled in. Simon was already in position on his dog-bed beside her and a long-winded ‘meow’ from the hall announced that Samson was on his way. He got himself comfy on Maggie’s tummy, purring like a mini Porsche. All that was missing was Chester. Please be okay, wherever you are, she thought.

    Maggie was listening to Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, and her easy banter with her employees at the bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner. She liked imagining herself in Kathleen Kelly’s shoes, wearing her clothes, enjoying the brisk New York weather while walking to work every day (and feeling safe walking to work). Then the sweet aroma of honeysuckle filled the room.

    Her eyelids felt tethered to tiny weights. She fought to keep them open, but then had a defiant thought. She’s a grown woman who can sleep any darn time she wants. She has no schedule and nobody keeping tabs on how she spends or wastes her days. She turned the movie off, adjusted her pillow, closed her eyes, and within seconds she began to dream.


    Chapter Seven

    Maggie could hear the squeak and shuffle of sneakers on concrete from behind her. It was dark, the street was empty, and all the businesses and shops were closed. This is how it had been in real life. Almost. The difference was the street hadn’t really been empty. There had been five men hiding in the shadows. They were here too, though; she knew they were. They just hadn’t shown themselves yet.

    In real life she never knew, but sometimes wondered if what happened that night had been their original intent, or did it just...happen; chance, opportunity, bad luck and all that. Was she a fly that got caught in their insidious web? Or had it merely been an unlucky accident that they were there - and she was there - in that same moment? It didn’t really matter, because what happened happened, and there was no undoing it. But still…she wondered.

    She quickened her pace, trying not to run, although running might’ve been the smarter option. She was trying not to show fear, though. Predators, be they human or beast, respond to another’s fear. It gives them an edge because fear causes instability in those that are afraid. At least that’s what she’d always heard. So Maggie tried not to be afraid, but it wasn’t working. She was terrified. Not just because of being followed, but because she knew what came next; what always came next when she dreamed of the empty, dark street and the footsteps.

    She cursed herself for not calling a cab, for not taking a busier street, for leaving the bar at this hour. She wasn’t drunk; was nowhere near drunk, but two AM wasn’t a smart time to be on the street by yourself, especially if you’re female, because others who were on the street might very well be drunk. Not all of them - but enough to make it risky. And Maggie wasn’t one to take risks. Not normally.

    “Hey! Hey chica! Where ju’ goeeng so fast, ayyyye?” the man with a thick, Puerto Rican accent shouted from behind her. He wasn’t close yet, but he wasn’t far either. She heard others snickering and giggling.

    That scared her more than anything. Men out for kicks, men with nothing to do at this time of night on a lonely, vacant street – men deciding on a lark to follow the woman walking by herself because they were stoned, or drunk, or bored… these are the men to fear. To Maggie men running in packs looking for a good time were as dangerous as a snake pit of vipers. Urban gangbangers, redneck yayhoos, college frat boys…there was little difference. Mix a bunch of testosterone with boredom and intoxicants and a girl could easily lose her life, not to mention what could happen at their hands before they took it.

    It was that thought that got her moving; she started running. The empty street echoed the sound of her boot heels hitting pavement and the panting of her labored breathing. What was scarier; she could hear what turned out to be ten feet pick up their pace, running after her. She heard more laughter, some cat-calls, and the worse sound of all.

    “Get her, Rico! Don’t let her get away!” someone yelled.

    Maggie ran hard, knowing she couldn’t keep up the pace, but also knowing she’d die of exhaustion before slowing down. It wouldn’t matter though. Not in the end. Maggie was no athlete and running of any kind wasn’t in her repertoire of things to do with her day.

    They were gaining fast. One of them was close enough to grab her long hair when she heard what sounded like birds screeching. It was followed by a strange, metallic rattling and frantically flapping wings, then the deafening shrieks of more birds. She dared to look over her shoulder just as something with green feathers flew into her face, knocked her to the ground, and started pecking her eyes out.


    Chapter Eight

    Maggie was awakened by somebody’s screams, and then realized they were hers. She’d been dreaming the dream again. It came less often these days, but it still came. There was no running from it, even after ten years. It was different this time, though. What was different was fuzzy, but she remembered something about feathers and beaks.

    “Arf! Arf! Arf Arf Arf Arf!”

    Simon’s bark from the kitchen startled her. She sat up and tried to go to him, but her feet seemed stuck in mud. Every movement was painfully slow, and the headache at the back of her neck had returned tenfold. She turned around and saw him standing in the kitchen entryway, facing the sunroom.

    His hackle was a Mohawk. It stood straight up, from his neck to the tip of his tail, and his frame was rigid and taut. Maggie rolled off the sofa, remembering at the last second that Samson on her stomach. She was afraid she’d squash him, but he wasn’t there. She fell onto a melted icepack, exploding it onto the rug. What felt like a whiskey-induced hangover headache pulsated through her head.

    “Arf Arf Arf Arf! ARF! ARF! ARF!!”

    “Simon, calm down!” she yelled, trying to outshout him. “What is it?” He stopped barking as soon as he heard her voice, but his body remained stiff. Making her way over, she peeked into the sunroom and stopped dead in her tracks.

    Maximus the plant had grown again. He was easily eighteen inches taller, practically to the ceiling fan. And he had somehow managed to become more… lush. His stem was now a stalk; thick and sturdy, and the flowers that had been a yellowy-peach color this morning were now a rich burnt orange. Then Maggie remembered the part of her dream from just before waking – the part about birds. She went into the sunroom, and what she saw turned her blood cold.

    The door to the condo-cage, Desi and Lucy’s home, was open, and the cage - empty. Beneath their perch were some dried up leaves that had somehow blown in, but her sweet birds were nowhere to be found. She looked up – up to the ceiling fan, on top of lampshades, up at the curtain rods; anywhere they might go if they had somehow, magically unlatched the small door and flown out. She listened hard - hoping to hear wings flapping in another part of the house. But it was dead silent.

    Then she wondered; where was Samson? He was missing again, just like this morning when she discovered Chester gone. Surely he hadn’t done something to Desi and Lucy, too – had he? It didn’t seem possible that he could suddenly turn into a household predator… not after all the time he’d lived harmoniously with the others. He was a docile, patient, love bug – one she would never suspect of this kind of thing. But there really wasn’t any other explanation. At least none she could think of.

    “Samson!” she called firmly. A part of her was already angry with him, even without proof of his crime. She heard him meowing and watched as he crawled back into the house through the small window near the refrigerator; a window she remembered closing earlier. But maybe she hadn’t. She didn’t remember opening it the first time. Maybe she’d done the same thing while napping on the sofa. It wasn’t typical to sleepwalk twice in such a short space of time, but nothing seemed typical these last days.

    Samson came to her immediately, making a wide berth around the sunroom entryway, purring and rubbing against her shin. Frustrated and angry, she had a sudden urge to kick him across the room. How dare he hunt her pets and then act as if he’d done nothing? Instead, she bent down, picked him up, and took him to the recliner. She sat with him on her lap and inspected the fur around his mouth, his ears, and his paws, looking for blood; blood from Chester or her lovebirds, maybe even his own if they had put up a fight. But he was clean; no blood, no dirt, nothing.

    Maggie got up and closed the window, making sure this time that it was locked. A frightening thought occurred to her then; could they have somehow opened their cage and flown out that window, into the desert? Please, God; don’t let that be what happened, she pleaded. Her lovebirds weren’t prepared for the wild, and just like Chester, wouldn’t fare well if left to their own devices; vulnerable, with no protection or place to hide.

    Frightened for them now, she walked through the house again, and then again, and then she went outside and looked for them there, even though it was dark. Just as she had with Chester, she called their names – knowing full well how futile it was. She couldn’t help it, though. She didn’t know what else to do. How could three of her beloved pets go missing from these four walls in the space of a single day?

    She was deep in thought when her eyes fell on Maximus. “How are you growing like this?” she asked aloud. She half expected the plant to shake and tremble in response, but it didn’t. It just sat there – mute and gorgeous. It seemed impossible that this was the same practically dead plant she had put in a vase of water the night before. But there he was – practically glowing with life.

    She decided she needed to find out what kind of plant Maximus was. He was kind of a miracle to Maggie. There was no internet out where she lived, so she couldn’t look it up right away, but she had access at the post office, where she made her Amazon.com purchases. She could look it up there. They had a computer for public use that cost her only two bucks an hour. She never understood why it wasn’t free like the computers at the library in the city, but she didn’t complain. It was something she could use when she wanted, and it was cheap.

    Really, though; she needn’t worry about the cost. Money woes, even after all these years, were just a knee jerk habit for Maggie. The truth was she wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again. No fear over paying bills, buying food, making rent. There was enough for three more lifetimes, after hers was done. Since the thing that happened in the city and the settlement from the police department, those kinds of worries were all in the past. In fact, the settlement made it possible for her to buy the twelve hundred acres she now lived on, which included the two hundred year old pueblo home - something she did a little remodeling-for-comfort to in that first year - and the two outbuildings that sat on it.

    Who would’ve thought the most terrifying event of Maggie’s life, the worst thing that could ever have happened to her would mean a lifetime of financial security? It was a perverted twist on poetic justice and something she would reverse in a heartbeat if she had the power. She loved her home, her land, her quiet life with her animals, she loved being in these hills, away from danger - away from other people… she even loved having a mega-fat bank account (sometimes sleazoid ambulance chasing lawyers are a good thing in this world) - but she would trade it all in a nanosecond and go back to living paycheck to paycheck, even endure her power being shut off for non-payment, a semi regular occurrence in her old life, if only she could have what happened to hernot have happened. She hated being afraid; detested feeling weak. So staying isolated, staying away from those that made fear unbearable was how she managed. Her life was what it was; there was no rewind button in the real world.

    It was after midnight, and although she’d been asleep for the better part of the day (and I really should look for Desi and Lucy again, she thought), she couldn’t believe how tired she still was. She thought she might collapse if she didn’t get into bed. She put food and water out for Simon and Samson, let Simon outside for a few minutes, and then gimped the short distance down the hallway to brush her teeth and climb into bed. Two minutes in and she was out like a light.


    Chapter Nine

    Every so often Maggie’s dreams would do this to her. Since early childhood her dreams have been vivid. But the ability to pick up where another dream left off was fairly new. There were dreams from her past that she would’ve loved to have continued, but this wasn’t one of them. And where it picked up wasn’t exactly where the last one ended… but it was close enough.

    The Hispanic man on the empty, darkened street that had asked her where she was “goeeeng so fast” had caught up with her. He reached out and grabbed her by the hair, yanking so hard that she landed on her back, clearing the air from her lungs. Her head hit the concrete with an audible thud, causing her to see stars, but only for a moment, and then everything went black.

    ***

    Maggie came to in what looked like a warehouse. There were men, tattoo covered gangbangers with droopy pants, bandanas and blinged out teeth at a table under bright lights dividing piles of powder and arguing with one another. She could feel the thump of rap music nearby. Another ganger was at a separate table bundling stacks of bills from what looked like a money machine.

    “Man, ju’ shouldn’t ha’brought her here! The Cuban is comeeeng, ju’ know. This is baaaad, homes.” he said.

    “Don’worry, esse! She’s out like a light, man.” said the man she guessed was Rico.

    “Ju’ better make sure she stays that way, homes.”

    “Don’ worry… Is okaaaay, esse!”

    Maggie was barely coherent, but she could hear and see around her. Then the man that must have been Rico was marching toward her, gripping something in his fist. As he neared, she was horrified to realize he held a syringe. He roughly wrenched her arm over to find a vein. When she tried to scream, he clamped a dirty, smelly hand over her mouth.

    “Be quiet, Vaneella!” he said through gold-rimmed teeth. A sparkly rhinestone planted in a lateral incisor winked at her. Then he stuck her with the needle, depressed the plunger and walked away.

    Before she passed out she had time to notice the stained and dirty mattress she lay on. She could feel loose dirt on its surface, below the hem of her Capri pants. She could also feel the hard plastic lump where she had tucked her cell phone earlier tonight. These Capri’s had a low-profile, secret pocket sewn inside the back of the waistband. She used it when bar hopping to stash her phone, her Chapstick, a single apartment key, and her ID and bank card. With a blousy shirt worn over the waistband, it was virtually invisible and kept her hands free. She couldn’t believe her luck in that they hadn’t discovered the pocket or her phone.

    As the fog began to overtake her, Maggie prayed; please God, let there be some juice in left the battery! It had been almost empty when she left the bar, and she had no idea how long ago that was.

    ***

    What woke Maggie next was the thing that has stayed with her; the genesis of her fear of other people, of men. Her Capri’s and underwear were pulled down and her legs spread wide. The pants themselves were crumpled in a heap around her right ankle, as if yanked down in a rage.

    Breathing was hard because of the heavy thing on top of her… the weight of Rico. She tried to open her mouth to scream and couldn’t. She wanted to bite him, but muscle control was gone - she couldn’t feel anything. She could breathe, she could see, she could understand what was happening to her, but she couldn’t lift a finger.

    Rico’s sweaty face floated above hers. She could see three of his crew standing behind him with expressions that terrified her even more. The juvenile giggles from earlier were no more. Everything about their demeanor was intense…primal. They were oblivious to one another, oblivious to the fact that she could see their faces. They were focused solely on Ricco’s bare ass ramming into her with such force, it looked like he was trying to shatter her pelvis.

    He took a long time, but when he finished, when he had filled her insides with his nasty, spunky jizz - he crawled off, laughing and winded. “You’re next, esse!” he said to one of the three, who then unzipped his fly, draped her limp knees over his shoulders and stuck his thing in. And when he was through, another ganger climbed on top. And when he was done, the third… and all Maggie could do was lie there on that filthy mattress and endure it. Endure it and pray; please let it end soon, but more than that, I beg you; please don’t let me get pregnant. Please, please don’t let me.

    There was a loud knock at the same time the last ganger was finishing. Maggie had a clear view of the door from where she lay in the far corner of the room. The disgusting fat-pig-rapist rolled off and pulled his trousers up, stumbling over his two hundred dollar pair of Jordans. He rushed, huffing and dripping sweat, to where the others were gathered at the tables.

    Just then Maggie realized she was getting a tingly feeling in her legs. She looked down the length of her body and tried to twitch her toes. They wiggled. She then concentrated with all her might on dragging her legs closed and nearly got them together. Next she worked on moving her arms. It was slow, but she could do it.

    “Tha’s heeem,” Rico said. “Is it ready?”

    “Yeah,” the rapists with the expensive sneakers said, and set a duffle bag on the table. Rico went to the door and opened it.

    When Maggie saw what was on the other side, she wanted to cry out with relief. Praise Jesus, I’m saved! she thought. Two uniformed policemen stood there, shoulder to shoulder. The big one resembled a bulky version of Ricky Ricardo from the I Love Lucy show. He leaned into the warehouse and seemed to look directly at her.

    “What the hell’s going on in here?” he demanded.

    “Is notheeeng, esse – just a little fun with our Vaneella girlfriend, homes. Don’worrrry!” said Rico.

    “I’m supposed to worry, you ignorant asshole!” he boomed. “Especially when it’s happening right in front of me. And it doesn’t look like she’s having fun, you stupid spic. What the hell’s wrong with you? You know I can’t ignore this!”

    “Shooor you can, homes. Coz we got a little sometheeeng extra to sweeten the deal, esse.” Rico walked over to the table covered in cash, picked up the duffle with one hand and wrapped the other around three green bundles. He went back to the door, dropped the duffle at the policeman’s feet and shoved the stacks of money at his chest.

    The big cop simply stood there at first, glowering down at the smallish ganger. Rico grinned up at him, a smirk of gold and rhinestone. “C’mon, man, don’worry! Is okaaay.”

    The policeman turned to the redheaded Irish looking cop standing next to him. “What do you think?” he asked.

    “Whatever, dude. Let’s just get out of here.” the Irish cop said and looked around uneasily.

    The big policeman covered the money with a beefy paw. He glanced briefly at Maggie on the mattress and sighed. “I don’t want to see this shit again, you fucking gangbanger.” he said, pointing a finger at Rico. “This isn’t part of the deal.” Then he bent down and picked up the duffle bag.

    “I tol’ you - is okaaay… don’ worry!” Rico laughed; the other gangers laughed with him.

    “Fucking spics…” the policeman sneered under his breath as he and the Irish cop turned and walked away.

    “Nice doeeeeng beenuz wit’u, Officer Cuban!” Rico called out, still laughing, and closed the door.

    What Officer Cuban hadn’t noticed; what he and the Irish policeman didn’t see while taking their drug-money-payoff and “little something extra” was Maggie’s phone. She had managed to reach her pants near her foot and pull it out of the pocket while everyone was focused on the door. With it pulled to her chest, she buried it in the folds of her blouse and turned the camera on. She had no idea if the battery was dead, if any of the men were actually in the frame, or if her blouse was blocking the lens, but she had to try.

    After the policemen walked away, while the gangers were busy high-fiving one another for getting away with the gang rape of a “Vaneella” chica, she tucked the phone into her bra and prayed nobody would try to feel her up now that the raping was done.

    They didn’t.

    ***

    What really happened to Maggie that night in the city was exactly what her mind relentlessly replayed while she slept; what the therapist in the city, the one she briefly saw during the trial, called a recurring nightmare. A dream that, in the beginning, showed itself almost every night, but was now down to just a couple of times a week… on a good week.

    However, what the dreams didn’t show was how the gangers had haphazardly dressed her; how, after discovering the secret pocket and everything in it – giving them access to her home “and your bed”, Ricco had smirked – they’d threatened to pay her a visit for more ‘fun’ if she blabbed to the cops. How they’d blindfolded her, bound her hands, and shoved her into a van before pushing her out onto an empty street after about a fifteen minute ride. Or how she was found early that morning and taken to safety at Meadowood General by an elderly woman - Mrs. Leonard was her name - who was out for her daily morning walk with her two Schnauzers, Peter and Piper, named after her grandkids favorite restaurant.

    It never showed how, once in the hospital, Maggie had come to a decision. It was cowardly, she knew, but she insisted - both to Mrs. Leonard, who tried to talk her out of it, and the hospital staff; she would not talk to the police. She just couldn’t bring herself to file charges. The threat of seeing Rico again, of them revisiting the ‘fun’… it scared the shit out of her. She knew Rico wasn’t bluffing. Even if he were incarcerated, gangs were exactly that; more people. It would be easy for him to sic one of his dogs on her, even from jail. And what if she went to the cops and he still skated? Rico would come for her. She could still hear his evil laugh, asking ‘where she was goooeeeeng”, snaking out his greasy, stinking hand and clutching at her hair.

    And anyway, how were the cops any safer? Cops could be just as corrupt as Rico and his pack of thugs. The two that had walked away in the face of a felony - turned their backs on a rape victim and their own badges for nothing more than thirty pieces of silver; that proved it to Maggie. No, she didn’t trust the process, or the people in charge of the process, and she couldn’t live through that experience again. Her mind wouldn’t survive it. She would keep her mouth shut and put it behind her.

    The hospital’s policy, though, required a rape kit as well as a toxicology report because of the bruised injection site in her arm. And when that tox screen revealed something called Ketamine in her system – a paralyzing agent used in hospitals and veterinary clinics and the reason she could do nothing but lay motionless while those four men mauled her… for some reason, even after deciding she would do nothing - her battered soul stood up and got angry. She was mad because by using that drug, they’d hijacked her fighting chance; neutralized what every victim had a right to - the mere possibility of defending themselves. That changed her mind. She filed charges that day.

    During the trial the tox screen findings, DNA results, and the testimony of Maggie’s plus two other witnesses was enough to convict Rico and his gangbanging compadres. Three of them were sentenced to fifteen to twenty years. Rico got twenty seven. He had a triple charge; kidnapping, the administering of a drug with intent to do harm, and of course; the rape itself. She learned years later, though - after she’d moved away - that Rico rotted in prison for only seven of those years. Apparently even thug rapists were well connected with friends in high places.

    While he and his crew were convicted – and because the D.A prosecuted only those that had kidnapped and raped her - the scumbag cops that left Maggie to the wolves were never mentioned during the trial. Maggie couldn’t stomach the idea of Officer Cuban and the redheaded Irish Cop turning a blind eye, taking their cash, and sashaying into their futures with no consequences. So she got a hold of one of those super obnoxious mouthpieces on TV with a reputation for fighting nasty and winning big.

    Maggie had an ace up her sleeve, too; a big one. On that night in the warehouse, her phone camera had perfectly picked up the cop’s voices, and even better; their faces. When she showed her attorney what was on her phone, he grinned like a Cheshire cat and took that phone to his computer-geek-for-hire. Before Maggie could say Gotcha! - their faces and what they’d done went viral on YouTube. It’s amazing how quickly the public wants to hate cops, if given a reason.

    It didn’t take long before their names were plastered all over the news, once the media got wind of the video. And after that, Officer Cuban and the Irish cop were treated like the lepers they were; at least where the public was concerned. Maggie heard their cars and homes were vandalized and that the Ricky Ricardo lookalike received more than a few death threats; several from women.

    The police department, who couldn’t afford such nasty publicity since they already had a less than stellar reputation with the locals, fired them, publicly denounced their behavior, and swore to the press; ‘this kind of inhuman corruption is extremely rare in this great city’s police department’, the police chief said. Maggie wasn’t sure how true that actually was, and was pretty sure the rest of the public didn’t buy it either.

    The obnoxious mouthpiece filed a civil suit against “this great city’s police department” for an unmentionable amount of dough. She hoped for only a fraction of the number he came up with, because there was no way they would dole out that kind of cash… no way. But she was wrong. Way wrong. Within a week they offered to settle and gave her every single dime. So, true to his TV commercials, her obnoxious mouthpiece had fought nasty and won big, and Maggie’s bank account was stuffed to the gills because of it.

    After winning the law suit and moving away, she never knew what became of those two cops. She doubted they had the connections Rico had, if they’d even ended gone to prison. She secretly hoped they were there, living out their days as a particularly violent inmate’s unwilling girlfriend. That would fit their crime to a T, in her eyes.

    What Maggie’s dreams also didn’t show were some of her personal issues that were born as a result of that night. They didn’t show how she’d become so plagued with paralyzing fear – agoraphobic, in fact - that she decided after the criminal trial and civil suit, if she were to retain her sanity, her next move was to essentially run and hide. And because of that fat bank account, those funds gave her the freedom to move all the way across the continent to this golden nugget of desert-paradise… a place to mend her spirit. Or a place to at least try.

    The brain was quite the trickster, though. It seemed to take joy in tormenting her with those memories – especially at night when the lights were all down and her defenses low. Or maybe her mind had become so traumatized that it got stuck on some loop with the replay button jammed. Perhaps that was why she hadn’t been able to truly move forward, not really - not the way she had meant to.

    Instead she created a kind of desert bubble around herself and stayed within that bubble. It made her feel human, at least - even if she wasn’t emotionally whole - because all these years later, she’d never been unable to shake her fear of people. She couldn’t bring herself to let down her guard. So living out in the middle of BF-nowhere had become critical; her way of finding air and relearning the physical act of breathing.

    On this night, though, Maggie’s memory-nightmare, just like the other nights, went only so far; to the two policemen leaving her in Rico’s hands and walking away with their money. That was the extent of what it always showed her. It forced her to relive the torment of the rape, the panic of being paralyzed, and the helplessness of watching what she thought was hope and salvation turning away.

    She could still see that image so clearly, could feel the doom in her heart and the certainty that she would be dead soon. She still doesn’t know why they let her live. But maybe murdering a “Vaneela” woman was going a too far… even for gang-banging, drug dealing rapists like them. What was more likely, she thought, was that maybe they hadn’t paid Officer Cuban enough to ignore a murder. Three bundles of cash is only enough to ignore a rape.

    Maggie continued sleeping as the dream looped itself, over and over again, terrorizing her for five more hours. She was totally unaware of anything happening around her.


    Chapter Ten

    Simon was sleeping on the floor next to his master when he smelled the smell again. He knew it was bad; that it meant danger. He nudged his master on the leg and barked loudly trying to wake her. They needed to get out right now! But she wasn’t moving. She was in that same kind of sleep she was in during their hike yesterday and then again in the living room just a while ago. He didn’t like it. Something was wrong with it. It wasn’t like her. He was always able to wake her just by breathing on her face from beside the bed if he needed to go out in the middle of the night. His master was a light sleeper; always had been, for as long as he’d been with her.

    Samson-the-cat seemed to smell the smell the same time he did. He jumped off the bed and began meowing loudly, in clear distress. Still, their master remained motionless. Feeling helpless and not knowing what else to do, the two went into the hallway. Simon pulled the bedroom door closed with his jaws until it clicked shut. That was the only way he knew to protect her. Then Samson followed closely behind as he walked cautiously down the hallway, toward the kitchen.

    Once he got there he felt himself dropping into the same sleepiness that overtook him out in the desert. It was stronger, though; so strong he wondered if he would actually make it this time. The honeysuckle scent was fierce and the desire to rest, overwhelming. Samson just kept on meowing. Maybe he wasn’t affected by the smell like Simon and his master were. Even he seemed less affected than she was.

    On the day of the hike he’d only slept a few minutes before waking and seeing the plant with the yellow flowers pulling itself toward them, leaning in… sniffing them. He had barked and growled at it – warning it to stay back! It did, but he had the distinct impression it wasn’t happy about it. So he stood guard until she awoke several hours later. When she finally did, he tried to get her home quickly. But then she decided to bring the plant home with them! In desperation he tried to grab it and run away with it – get rid of it - but it had been out of his reach. He could do nothing but follow his master home.

    The sleepiness he felt now, though, was worse than that day. The smell had a thickness to it that practically demanded he lay down and sleep. Trying hard to resist, he managed to make it over to the window between the refrigerator and sunroom. While keeping an eye on the plant in the sunroom, the plant his master had named Maximus, he nudged at the lock on the window with his snout. It was difficult this time, unlike the day before. Feeling more urgent than yesterday, he worked fast, causing the edge of the lock to cut into his nose. He could already taste blood as it dripped past his mouth. That actually frightened him more than the sleepiness. He was suddenly worried Maximus would catch a whiff of it and find a way to slink over.

    Finally he worked the lock free. He bit the edge of the window’s frame between his teeth and worked it up by throwing his head back. He was working as quickly as he could, but it was taking too long. Samson was close by, walking in circles, meowing his woeful meow; the one he used when very upset. Every few seconds he would look at Maximus in the sunroom, arch his back, flatten his ears and hiss.

    Simon thought he saw a shadow pass over head, moving out of the sunroom doorway, but he couldn’t be sure and didn’t have time to stop to look. He had to get them out.

    Then Samson’s voice changed. Instead of meowing and hissing he was suddenly growling. Simon tried to hurry faster - he was almost there! The window was nearly high enough for them to squeeze through when he heard a horrible sound; a long, strangled growl followed by dead silence. He gave a final shove to the window and then turned to look behind him.

    Samson was gone. Simon saw something that looked like dried up leaves on the floor in a crude shape; almost the shape of a cat.

    He looked up then. Maximus was closer than he had been before. And he was bigger than ever… bigger, wider, taller. Yes, looking fully at him now, Maximus was huge and towering over him. And the clay pot that held him was now so top-heavy; he feared it would topple over, landing Maximus close enough to reach out and grab him.

    Panicked, Simon grasped the windowpane’s ledge with his front paws. He heaved himself up, wriggled through the window, and leaped into the darkness. He ran over to the shed and shimmied into the crawlspace underneath and lay down, keeping his eyes on the house the entire time.

    More importantly; he kept his eyes on the opened window. He watched it until the sun came up, waiting to see if a dark green, velvety leaf would try to walk itself out.


    Chapter Eleven

    The sky was just starting to lighten. Maggie awoke early after a fitful slumber of nightmares. She was on the toilette emptying her bladder when she realized Simon wasn’t there. He was always in her bedroom, every morning, stretched out on his doggie bed, watching as she waddled off to the bathroom. That was their routine. It never changed.

    Now that she was a little more awake she noticed Samson wasn’t in the room either. He slept on the bed with her every night. But this was the second night in a row that he wasn’t curled up on his pillow when she woke. What was going on?

    Looking down at her ankle, she realized she’d walked to the bathroom pretty much like a normal person – virtually pain free. She was relieved to find it less inflamed. It was still colorful with some brown and yellow added to keep the purple, red and orange company. But she could actually see the ankle bones that were buried under all that fluid yesterday. That meant progress, and better still; that she wouldn’t need to see a doctor - and that was very good indeed. She slid her feet into her house slippers and pulled on her robe.

    “Simon? Come here, sweet boy.” she called out as she walked into the hallway. Nothing; not even the sound of him snoring from another room, which would’ve been weird (and something he never did), but at least it would explain why he wasn’t in her bedroom. “Simon! Where are you boy?” She yelled more loudly this time. And where was that cat? “Samson… where are you, kitty-cat?” she shouted. More silence. Standing in the hallway, she noticed how very quiet the house was. Eerily quiet. Creepy quiet.

    She was scared now. Everyone was gone. How could all of her pets go missing in forty eight hours? Her heart went into double time and her breathing grew shallow. She was close to hyperventilating. Anxiously, uncertainly, and with her back against the wall, she inched toward the kitchen, calling their names, suddenly afraid she would come upon a boogey man, or a monster, or a Rico. As she reached the kitchen and glanced toward the sunroom, her heart came to a screeching halt.

    It was Maximus. He’d grown so tall that his trunk - because he was no longer a mere plant; he’d become a small tree - extended all the way up to the ceiling. He would have gone beyond it had there been no roof. The tip hit the ceiling and bent into the shape of a candy-cane. What’s more, the flowers were huge and now; a dazzling, glowing red. The fibers that lined the rippled petals looked like hundreds of tiny, silver needles. The leaves – they were a deep green with a furry, fuzzy texture.

    “What the hell?” she said aloud, squinting in confusion. “How is this happening?” Dread made its way into her gut, and as she stood there gaping, the leaves began to tremble. Only this time it was different than in the dessert. The trembling was more of a jangle, as if the blossoms were enormous, flowery bells.

    Then the smell hit her in the face; so sweet, so rich it made her gag. She was sure she would throw up, but instead she felt herself falling. Maggie was unconscious before she hit the floor.


    Chapter Twelve

    Simon had just fallen asleep as the sun began to rise. What woke him just now was the sickly sweet smell that he’d run from the night before. Worried, he crawled out, ran to the open window and stood on hind legs to look inside. His master was probably awake by now, and if that smell was reaching him all the way outside, she could already be in danger.

    He was right. He saw her passed out on the kitchen floor. The part that scared him to death was Maximus. He had stretched himself into the kitchen, all the way from the clay pot in the sunroom, like a twisted, giant, gangly human made of branches. Three of his flowers were suctioned to his master’s leg and moving in a bizarre way. They seemed to be drinking. And as they did, Maximus grew bigger, and his leaves - broader, greener.

    Simon flew through the window and clamped his jaws onto Maximus. Snarling, he dug his teeth in; thrashing and shaking his head with such force he was certain his neck would be ruined for life. But he persisted; thrashing, growling, shaking, snarling – doing his best to tear and rip into Maximus. But it was difficult. The branches seemed made of stone. Even the leaves were tough, somehow refusing to be torn, showing no tooth marks even as he bit into them.

    And then he heard something that made him almost let go; a high pitched, piercing noise that felt like daggers in his ears. A sound that was a little like the whistle his master had used while raining him when he was a pup, only this was so much louder; louder and shatteringly shrill, as if trying to detonate his brain.

    Simon looked up when he noticed his master moving. Slowly, she lifted her head and then looked down, confused, at the things wrapped around her leg. He watched her face as it registered what was happening, what she was seeing. Then she let out a horrible, earsplitting scream, almost shriller than the sound from Maximus. She screamed in a way Simon had never heard before, all the while pushing and kicking at Maximus’ branches as he reached for her.

    But Maximus was strong; stronger after making a meal of Chester, Lucy and Desi, and now Samson-the-cat. Every time Maggie peeled a blossom off her skin another one sneaked around and attacked a different part of her leg. And as they attacked, each blossom seemed to go from a deep, rich, ruby red to a blackish-purple.

    The most frightening thing, though, were his master’s continuous screams. They were no longer human to his dog ears, and she had a wild, unhinged look in her eyes he’d never seen before. It petrified him. He let go his grip and lunged after the thickest part of Maximus. He had to get a better bite, one to do real damage. There had to be a soft spot; every living thing had a soft spot... something that made it vulnerable.

    Simon got lucky and felt his canines sink into the widest, fleshiest part of Maximus’ trunk. Something vile coated his tongue and dripped down his jaw. Whipping his head back and forth, the strange liquid splattered onto the floor, against the refrigerator, and onto the walls. He couldn’t tell what it was, but it seemed his master could. She saw it and a shriek came out of her that made him want to turn tail and RUN!

    He didn’t though; she needed him and he loved her. He would stay and fight. He thrashed his head as hard as he could; back and forth and back and forth and back and forth again. At then something snapped.

    Maximus’ trunk was suddenly in two, and the vile fluid, draining onto the tiles. The flowers that had been feeding on his master magically lost their grip and lay flat and deflated on the floor. With a cross between a scream and a whimper, she frantically pushed the limbs away. Her foot slipped on the pooling sludge as she scooted toward the wall. Simon, praying Maximus was dying if not already dead, went over and began licking the tears from her face. He couldn’t bear to see her like this. She looked broken.

    Dazed and in shock, Maggie slowly grew quiet and still. Then with her eyes shut tight, she reached up, wrapped her arms around Simon’s neck and pulled him close, whispering “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…” into his fur. He let himself be held; he welcomed it. He was so grateful the awful screaming had stopped; that the scary look in her eyes was gone, or at least hidden behind her closed eyes. They stayed that way for a long time.


    Chapter Thirteen

    Nearly thirty minutes later, Maggie finally let go of Simon and gradually opened her eyes. She was scared to look around – afraid that what she thought she had seen would turn out to be real and not some distorted Twilight Zone hallucination. Please God, let it just be that.

    Then her eyes fell on what lay before her. She just sat there at first, staring at what was left of Maximus. He had shriveled into a gnarled, dried up bunch of limbs and leaves. The flowers were practically nonexistent. She could barely tell where they had been. But the image of them morphing from deep red to blackish-purple as they fed on her felt very real and it made her shudder.

    She took a deep breath then, mentally bracing herself before looking at her leg. She didn’t want to look; didn’t want to because she couldn’t feel anything below her left hip. It wasn’t just numb; it felt absent, gone, like nothing was there. What she saw when she finally looked horrified her.

    The thing at the end of her leg no longer looked like a human foot. It, or what was left of it, had shrunken into a leathery, dried out lump, like a miniature, deflated football. And the rest of the leg, right up to her thigh, was emaciated, necrotic, the bones visible through transparent skin that seemed somehow roasted. It was as if the entire extremity had been desiccated and cauterized, like a burned up piece of wood wrapped in dehydrated pig skin.

    It reminded her, too much in fact, of the hickory smoked shank bones she gave Simon on occasion. She couldn’t grasp that this was her leg. How…how is this possible?

    Suddenly she was angry – angry that she had been immobilized, paralyzed and violated again. She was furious that her refuge, her sanctuary, her safe haven was forever spoiled. Here she was, miles and miles from a single human being and danger had still come for her. How would she ever feel safe again? In her mind she saw her hamster, her love birds, her sweet cat being attacked, liquefied and ingested by Maximus. How could I let this happen?

    That thought snapped her out of the crushing grief threatening to overtake her; grief that would need to wait. She had failed to protect her pets, her kids, but she would not surrender; she refused to forfeit her fighting chance. No one would take that from her again – especially a flesh eating plant. She would make damn certain there was nothing left of Maximus to harm another soul ever again. Simon was still alive and she would protect him, no matter what.

    She shambled quickly outside, pogo-stick style, determined and already unmindful of her lack of foot. She got the broom and a flat shovel and leaned them against the counter. Then she dragged a large galvanized trashcan into the kitchen. She swept what was left of Maximus into a heap, shoveled it into the trashcan and dragged it back outside, away from the house. The lighter fluid was near the grill across her patio. She hopped over to it, snatched it up, hopped back and drenched Maximus’ remains in flammable liquid.

    Careful to avoid the purplish-red puddles of sludge on the floor (that’s blood… that’s our blood – my furry family’s and mine, Maggie thought with a hitch in her chest, angry tears too close to the surface), she went back into the kitchen, took the box of matches from above the range, and once outside - struck three and tossed them in. What was left of Maximus burst into flames.

    As the fire engulfed the contents, the sound Simon heard earlier – the piercing high pitched screech he heard as he attacked Maximus (only it was worse this time - more piercing, more shrill) filled the air like a hundred police sirens. Maggie stumbled backwards in stunned silence, barely able to stay upright. Her eyes were huge, the size of dinner plates. She covered her ears with her hands, but it was pointless. The sound, the shrillness was coming from inside her head… a telekinetic scream.

    She squeezed more and more of the lighter fluid onto the flames – needing it to burn faster, hotter, please God – just BURN! Thankfully, the bigger and higher the flames grew, the quieter the psychic-scream became. And after what felt like forever, at last it was silenced.

    Maggie looked down and noticed a smear of purple-red on the arm of her bathrobe. She tore off the robe, snatched off her remaining slipper that was also soaked in sludge, and flung them both into the fire. The other slipper had to be somewhere in the kitchen. She would have to find it and destroy it.

    Balanced perfectly on her remaining leg, doing a fair imitation of a one-legged flamingo, Maggie stood there, keeping watch as it burned with Simon standing beside her. They were both traumatized, watching the dying embers of this thing that had eaten their friends - both aware that it would have eaten Maggie, too - if it’d had enough time.

    When the last of the coals had burned out – when there was no glow, no light left – she shuffled back into the house and began the disturbing task of cleaning up the puddles.

    Maggie tackled it with an entire roll of paper towels and almost an entire gallon of Clorox -straight. She then poured the remaining bleach over what was left of her leg, in case some of Maximus’ freak germs were still there, growing, mutating. She found her stray slipper lodged under the refrigerator and pushed it out with the emptied cardboard roll from the paper towels. Then she put the slipper, the cardboard roll, and dirtied paper towels into the trashcan with Maximus’ ashes. She emptied the rest of the lighter fluid onto the contents and lit it. It took longer to burn since the paper towels were saturated with bleach and blood, but after twenty minutes, there was nothing but ash.

    She and Simon went back into the house then. She locked the door behind them and made sure the window, all the windows, in fact, were closed and also locked. On her way through the house Maggie glanced into the sunroom. She saw Desi and Lucy’s vacant condo-cage and looked at Chester’s empty hamster apartment. She would like to hope that Samson had somehow made it, that he was outside somewhere hiding - but she suspected Maximus’ sudden growth spurt meant her precious Samson was gone. He had eaten her cat.

    She was crying again; this time without the screams that accompanied her earlier tears. She was beyond heartbroken. It felt as though her insides had been hollowed out with a fork. How could this horrible thing happen to her, way out here? She had run so far, so fast from the dangers of the city, she was sure nothing could reach her here. But she had been wrong, so wrong - and almost all of her beloved pets had paid the ultimate price. Because of me; they’re all gone because of me.

    Maggie made her way into the bathroom and disrobed. She stepped into the shower stall and leaned against the tile wall. Completely unaware she had turned on only cold; she stood shivering under the shower’s spray, numbly rubbing the bar of soap into her hair and over her skin. She avoided the necrotic leg. She was afraid to touch it. She rinsed and robotically toweled dry, and then pulled the T-shirt from the doorknob over her head.

    With a wet, soapy washcloth, she wiped Simon’s head, ears, all around his mouth, and all four of his paws. She rinsed the washcloth, wiped him again, and then rinsed and wiped and rinsed and wiped one more time. It didn’t occur to her to simply bathe him in her shower. Her brain seemed to have gone into hibernation. She’d burned everything else that could’ve been tainted by Maximus’ blood, but that wasn’t an option here. She did the best she could with the washcloth and hoped it was enough.

    Calling Simon’s name, she crawled under her sheets and patted the space beside her. He looked up from his doggie bed, puzzled by the invitation. Then he gracefully jumped up and snuggled into the crook of her fetal position. She buried her face in the soft fur of his neck and wept until she fell asleep. Not long after, Simon was asleep. They both slept like the dead. Neither of them heard the rain or saw the flash of lightening that came in the night.

    It came with no warning, and left the same way.

    ***

    It was a full twenty four hours before either of them opened their eyes, and when Maggie did, for the first time in days, she finally felt normal… no hang over, no headache. She dragged herself out of bed, braced her hand against the wall for support, and hopped her way to the back of the house where she unlocked then pushed the door open for Simon.

    Through a strangled yawn, she looked down when she realized that Simon hadn’t moved. He simply stood there, eyes focused, refusing to go outside. His body had gone rigid and his hackle stood straight up like a razorback. Confused, she looked out into her yard. Then Maggie unleashed a scream that went right to the center of Simon’s brain. He was certain this time that his skull would burst.

    The trashcan that held the burned remains of Maximus lay on its side. It was tipped over, an empty vessel – the inside, practically wiped clean. And covering every square inch of Maggie’s yard was hundreds of tiny green plants…. tiny plants with lush green leaves and tiny yellow buds.
     
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2014
  14. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Belt Trail Bandits (language, graphic violence)


    56-K94 was one of those thousands of non-descript asteroids circling about the Belt before it was nicknamed simply ‘Mitten’ by the space pioneer, Everett Knutson, the first man to set up a gas station-bordello in that part of the Solar System. Mitten was the name of Knutson’s ragdoll, a big, fluffy thing that liked to flop down on the floor just seconds before some poor sod rounded the corner and, inevitably, tripped on her. The station-bordello was named ‘Damned Pussy.’ Clearly, it weren’t the names that guaranteed Mr. Knutson a vast, colorful clientele over the upcoming years.

    He hired a handful of Mars-born aliens to work for him. ‘Bug-eyed, thick-skinned, short humanoids with various birth-defects to whom living in microgravity was second nature. Cheap workforce, quick to learn, ate relatively little.’ Their job description included serving drinks such as Neptunian throat-freezers (more popular than the name suggests) and plenty of lying on their backs.

    As predicted, Earth-born cargonauts welcomed the services of Mitten and its beer-stained establishment of spacey delights with open arms and bulging pants. Knutson had hit the jackpot.

    Some twenty years after the opening of Damned Pussy, four punters sat slumped and sweaty around one of its chipped plastic tables, Japanese-made malt in their pints, the taste of dried voyage food still not quite washed off their throats.

    Bane, a big, ginger veteran of a cargonaut eyed the victims of Martian-trafficking with a half-hearted leer. He had just completed three runs back and forth between Earth and the Belt Trail, hauling ore to Earth and tools, supplies, and weapons back to the Belt for half a year. Mauser, Bane’s buyer on the Belt, sat next to him, his face knotted in a disapproving frown. The two others were Kajo, a weapons-dealer extraordinaire, and her short, bald companion, Zork—real name Tim, but he was Mars-born and thus, in Bane’s opinion, required an exotic nickname.

    Kajo was counting Bane’s gold with the wistfulness of a stingy person about to be parted with her dough, the little nuggets clicking against the table, her full-lipped mouth quietly counting to the twelve nuggets she owned to Bane. As if it wasn’t bad enough he’d surely spent them on Zork’s scantily clad kin, no, Kajo also hated the hollow weight of a depleted purse. It felt like giving your kids to adoption.

    “There you go, you son of a whore,” she called over the groovy funk, and pushed the nuggets over to Bane, carefully covering their glint from curious onlookers.

    Bane shone a big, stained grin at her and scraped the nuggets onto his palm. Soon, oh so soon, his retirement fund would be plentiful enough.

    Mauser snapped his fingers, and Bane scowled at him like a bear whose honey pot was under attack. A few more nuggets exchanged owners before Bane hid the rest in a breast pocket.

    “Ain’t long ‘til I can buy that bungalow on Earth,” he said and took a sip of stale ale.

    “It’s good to have dreams,” Mauser muttered. He slipped his money into a secret compartment in his cap, then pressed it back on his hair, thick and blond like curly fries. With a sigh, he sunk a fork into his cosmic apfelstrudel. Mid-bite, the bar’s double doors flew open, and a raw voice cut through the funk.

    “This is a fucking stick-up!”

    Suddenly Bane wished he hadn’t taken Kajo’s money yet, Kajo wished she’d get a good angle at the bandits with her concealed, sawed-off shotgun, Mauser wished his apfelstrudel wouldn’t get all cold and dry, and Zork, once again, cursed the day he had left Mars for Kajo.

    A bullet cracked through the air and hit a Martian prostitute in the shoulder. She toppled down, and, as if on cue, the rest of the people went floor-bound as well, screaming and cursing.

    Two men, one with the body-shape of a barrel, the other with that of a beanstalk, made their way to the bar and, holding the bartender at gunpoint, ordered him to empty the till. Two others, one thin as a straw, the other bald like an elbow, started scouring through pockets and purses.

    Kajo grimaced at Bane. “Ain’t no fucking way they’re taking my money,” she mouthed at him. Bane pointed at Kajo’s hip.

    “Give me your pistol,” he mouthed back, and she raised her eyebrows in confusion. Bane mimicked the shape of a gun with his hand and nodded at her hip.

    “Fuck you, Bane, I ain’t giving you my—”

    The straw-shaped man grabbed Zork by his thin neck and lifted him up.

    “Now, now, what do we have here,” Straw growled, the must thing to say when you’ve got a Mars-born in your hands. Kajo rolled her eyes, took advantage of the men’s attention being on Zork, and slid her pistol to Bane.

    Then she nodded at Straw and Elbow. She would take care of them.

    Bane glanced at the men at the bar. Barrel had his shotgun trained at the punters, Beanstalk was stuffing money into a backpack.

    One, two, three, Kajo’s fingers counted, flat against the floorboards. With one fluid movement, she pulled her shotgun and blew off Straw’s face just as he was emptying Zork’s pockets. Zork fell on the floor and made himself as small as possible. The next shot caught Elbow in the chest, but he was wearing some kind of surplus armor. The pellets sunk in, he reeled, but wasn’t badly hurt.

    Bane had accidentally shot the bartender.

    Barrel and Beanstalk dived for cover. Kajo whirled around and found herself staring into Elbow’s rifle barrel. He pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. Kajo sent another blast at him, this time at his head. Brain matter splattered around the screaming people, but at least she had done her job while Bane tried to kill the bar counter until his gun went dry and he hid under a table.

    Mauser let out a yowl, like someone had grabbed him by the balls, and sprung to unexpected action. Where the hell he had pulled out that handgun with armor-piercing rounds, only he knew, but Kajo had, as sure as the sun, not sold it to him. She wouldn’t have trusted Mauser with scissors, let alone with something that was ridiculously dangerous in space to both, the target and the shooter.

    For the next twenty seconds, Damned Pussy was filled with ear-splitting blasts, broken pipes letting in steam, cracks in the walls leaking in ammonia, tankards and bottles shattering, glass raining on the people on the floors, and blood sputtering from lethal wounds.

    Two against three, Barrel and Beanstalk went down with gaping cavities all over their bodies.

    Breathing rapidly, Bane slumped onto the floor, back against the wall. This is not good, he thought, this is not good, this is not good.

    “Get your shit together, big man,” Kajo grumbled at him while she checked the dead were truly dead, ready to blast them with her 12-gauge. Mashed flesh squished under her boots, making her shiver.

    “I got my shit, but what about you? Your mug’s on film too,” Bane said with a nod at the security cameras.

    “I know, and we can’t linger.” The rest she kept as a thought: Or the cops are gonna learn a lot more about us than we’d like. Her gaze fell on Bane, and when she saw the red, she had to fight the urge to face-palm. “Aw crap, don’t tell me you got hit.”

    Bane showed her his bleeding hand. “No, I was jacking off and my balls blew up.”

    Kajo dug into one of the black holes that were her pockets and produced a first aid kit.

    “I’ll glue you right up. Then we seriously gotta go.”

    She aimed a lipstick size and shaped Stauncher at the graze. White goo spurted out like toothpaste, burned the wound as if Bane had just stuck his hand into the sun, and then slowly, surely cooled the pain and staunched the bleeding. In a few days, all he’d have was a charming scar.

    “There, now—”

    And then the crowd was all over them, cheering, patting their shoulders, kissing and hugging. Even Mauser’s expression brightened up when he received a replacement apfelstrudel. That was all he ever wanted in life; find the perfect piece of apple pie.

    Kajo left Bane to gather himself from the floor and hurried to help Zork to his feet, then held him like a mother holds her son.

    Sirens sounded outside and the crowd announced what the four already knew; the Patrol was there.

    “Guys, we gotta shift. Now!” Bane called. “And switch off your Sensors, we don’t want our moms calling us when we’re on the run.” He looked at Kajo with fear she had never seen in his eyes, and she had known him for a few too many years. He had been to war at twenty and shat his pants on the battlefield. He had been bitch-slapped and laughed at by fear, had never conquered it, but learned to live with it. And now he was scared?

    “Tim, let’s go,” Kajo whispered, kept her shotgun close as she went, following in Mauser’s and Bane’s wake.

    Space was big, hella big, they all knew, but hide-and-seek with the Belt Trail Patrol never ended well for anyone.

    #

    “Your ship reeks of shit.”

    The very first thing Kajo said. Bane shrugged and closed the airlock’s hatch. The mechanism cycled with the unsettling finality that always made him shudder. Borderline fresh oxygen and enhanced gravity were left behind. All he had to look forward to were heavily recycled air and endless floating from A to B. Well, he had the artificial gravity spinner, did good to your brains and bones, but it also made him sick.

    Hence the smell of shit, he supposed, but that smell always kept him anchored to sanity on long voyages, so it wasn’t all that bad. That was also why he had a small, tightly stoppered bottle hung around his neck, a small turd of his very own making jangling inside. It reminded him of home while he was sailing through the emptiness of space, a place so vast and unwelcoming it sometimes bent his mind all out of whack. That was when some people lit up a cig, some clutched a bottle of shit.

    “Where to? Where the fuck to?” Mauser whined, panicking, hands shaking, the powerful pistol tucke