?

Vote for the best Short Story!

Poll closed Jan 19, 2013.
  1. Khaelmin - Don't go where the winter's atomic

    4 vote(s)
    30.8%
  2. Jared Lander - The Digging

    1 vote(s)
    7.7%
  3. acd90210 - Run

    2 vote(s)
    15.4%
  4. jigalowjugs - Gull-Berty's Travels

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  5. Pauly Pen Feathers - Damn Dog Saved My Life

    2 vote(s)
    15.4%
  6. capturedpotential - Without Roots

    1 vote(s)
    7.7%
  7. Knight's Move - Leverage

    3 vote(s)
    23.1%
  8. matthan - Out of the comfort zone

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
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  1. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Voting Short Story Contest (125) Theme: Foreign Soil

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Short Story Contest Archives' started by Lemex, Jan 6, 2013.

    Voting Short Story Contest (124) Theme: Foreign Soil

    Thank you for all your entries. The winner will be stickied until the next contest's winner is crowned(maybe). No more entries are allowed in this contest.

    Voting will end Saturday 19th of January 2013 (I still haven't got used to that) to give you all a chance to read the entries.

    It is possible to vote for yourself, but I would hope in the name of good sportsmanship that you would only do so if you have read all the other stories and given them your honest evaluation. You gain nothing if you base your vote solely on how you feel about the author or whether you have personally invested time and effort in the story. In the end, your conscience is your only judge.

    Any entries under or over the suggested word limit will be flagged as such - they are still entered in to the contest. It is for you to decide whether they are still worthy of your vote.

    Any entry not in accordance with the theme will be dealt with on a case by case basis to determine eligibility. Consider how the author has responded to the theme in making your decision.

    Good luck to everyone!
     
  2. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
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    Messages:
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    Location:
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    Khaelmin
    Don’t go where the winter’s atomic (2944 words)


    I woke up with a start and fumbled with the grip of my rifle, trying to get it at the ready. But nobody was attacking. It was only Jens, my fellow Solarian Knight, reminding me it was my turn to keep watch. I let the barrel of the ice encrusted weapon fall back into the snow and got up, using it as a crutch. Gods be damned, but this cold was getting worse every day.

    ‘Jesus, I can’t feel my toes.’ I whispered in my helmet.

    ‘Stop complaining, Rookie,’ growled Jens as he settled in his sleeping bag. ‘For the last time, the nanites in your blood will protect you from the frostbite. Now, if you wake me up before the nine hours are up, I swear I’ll kill you in most gruesome ways.’

    I said nothing and started to roll up my own sleeping bag with numbed fingers. The nanites kept you from freezing, alright, but you were always on the brink of it. I couldn’t remember the last time I was warm. They were really perverse that way. They didn’t let you die, but they did nothing for the pain. Get your arm chopped off? No problem, they’ll stop the bleeding in seconds, but you’ll be cursing the day you were born until you got some proper medical attention. Or maybe they’re like that so you don’t get too cocky, I don’t know. Everything’s blurred these days, torn between the constant tension of not knowing when the enemy’s going to attack and the cold. Always, the bloody cold.

    I stowed away the bag and started making my way to the ridge we’ve been guarding. What a joke that was. I remember when they gave us the gear for the mission. Hyper-arctic issue armored suit, hyper-arctic issue weaponry, high calorie rations for a full month and a thin sheet of weaved polymer. When the Quartermaster Knight saw my confused expression, he just laughed in my face.

    ‘The sleeping bag’s not there to keep you warm, Rookie!’ he leered. ‘It’s to prevent the snow from infiltrating and freezing the joints of your suit while you sleep.’

    ‘But it’s said to be ninety Kelvin over there! Don’t you think we’ll need something more substantial? Like a heated shelter?’

    ‘Your suit’s heated, and that’s all you’ll ever need. Plus, I’m told you’ll only be groundside for a couple of days.’

    That was over two weeks ago. I cursed and stomped onward, trying to get the blood flowing again. It wasn’t pins and needles the cold was driving through my muscles, it was bloody nails. I got to the ridge and switched the visor’s view to infrared. I swept my gaze around the valley we were tasked with guarding. Nothing but this blasted carbon dioxide snow, falling slowly to the ground, the same way it’s been doing for thousands of years. Rumor has it this was actually a tropical planet, some five millennia ago. Not habitable by humans, on account of the high carbon dioxide atmosphere, but close enough. Then some of the more advanced denizens of our galactic sector had a throw down, and one or more of their monster gigaton bombs found their way over here. There was nothing but joyous atomic winter ever since.

    ‘Tricosa Saladin,’ said a displeased voice in my helmet’s speakers, bringing me back from my reverie. ‘Are you at your post yet?’

    ‘Yes, sir, Icosa Luiz,’ I replied and waved my hand over my head towards the opposite edge of the valley, almost two kilometres away.

    ‘Oh, there you are, Rookie!’ replied the Icosa, my squad leader, in a somewhat more pleased tone. ‘The snow’s almost covered you whole. How’re you hanging on?’

    ‘Every day you ask me that,’ I sighed, ‘and every day I give the same answer.’

    ‘Miserable, then.’

    ‘Utterly. Any sign of the enemy, sir?’

    ‘Not yet. But they’ll be here, make no mistake. They want this bomb, and badly. They’ve sacrificed a minor fleet trying to get through our blockade at the edge of the system.’

    ‘Then what the hell’s keeping them? My ass is so frozen it’s gonna fall off.’

    The Icosa didn’t reply. The bomb he was speaking of was a remnant from that ancient war. The two players of the conflict didn’t exist anymore, but their trash sure as hell survived. For some reason the projectile hadn’t exploded, instead it had just carved off this mammoth of a valley when it impacted. It was bigger and more powerful than anything we Solarians had, and doubly so than what our enemy could build. Suffice to say that everyone wanted it. The problem was that the Worgens found out about it a little sooner than we did. We blockaded the system in an attempt to stop them, but some got through and hid somewhere on the planet. That’s why we were deployed, to stall them until some of our technicians could get here to study and disable the thing. As luck would have it, in a war technicians are needed everywhere at the same time, so it’ll be a while until some of them get here.

    I stared back at the valley and the mounds upon mounds of snow. So it went, every day and every minute of the nine hour shifts we were assigned. I suspect the nanites were also releasing a moderate amount of antidepressants in my blood, because otherwise I would have blown my brains out long ago.

    ‘Hello,’ exclaimed the Icosa merrily. ‘Rookie, have a peek at 43 and 57 and tell me that’s not just another damned snow mirage.’

    I zoomed the image on my visor to its limit and trained it on the coordinates Luiz had pointed. They were faint, but there was no doubt about it. Five kilometers out, there were thermal silhouettes. The enemy was finally here. By the wait, it felt like they must have come over from the other damned side of the planet. I knew it was crazy, but I felt giddy that they finally showed up. Don’t get me wrong, they’re formidable opponents, and nobody goes into a fight with a Worgen smiling. But this meant we could get off of this hellhole, one way or another.

    ‘Confirmed, sir,’ I rasped back into the microphone, ‘Definitely Worgen contacts.’

    I heard a click, which meant the Icosa switched to the general squad channel, so our other two sleeping comrades could hear.

    ‘Rise and shine, ladies!’ he called, skewing his voice to the highest pitch he could. ‘We have gentleman callers coming. Docosa Jens and Tricosa Nadia, why don’t you join us on the ridges, so we can greet them properly? Make sure to bring your camouflage as well.’

    On cue, I activated my own optical camouflage. With a series of sharp punches, I dislodged and cleared the carbon dioxide ice that had encrusted my plasma rifle. While Jens and Nadia were grunting their acknowledgements, I checked the systems, the scope and the ammunition. Everything was ready. My initial excitement had gone up in smoke. All that was left now was a lead ball rolling through my stomach.

    ‘I count sixteen,’ said Luiz, all business-like this time. ‘Rookie, can you confirm?’

    Now that they were closer, I could distinguish some features. Sixteen long and ungainly forms were trudging through the snow. I disabled the thermal vision and I could see them better. Like all of their kind, they were well over two meters in height and performing that half step, half hop of theirs. Even though their world was of a lower gravity than Earth, they were much stronger than a normal human, almost on par with some of our younger generation Solarian Knights. But our nanites improved our muscles and bones over time, so strength was not really a problem. They were called Worgen on account of their furry outward appearance, but internally they had nothing to do with said mammal. They were actually closer to lizards than wolves. But that is irrelevant, seeing how they came from a completely alien ecosystem.

    ‘Check, sir, sixteen,’ I replied.

    ‘Alright, boys, we proceed as rehearsed. Let’s teach these filthy aliens it’s not nice to steal. For Earth, Sol and the Solarian Knights! U-ha!’

    ‘U-ha!’ we shouted in unison. This goes to show you, that no matter how technologically evolved a species, its army always stays the same.

    We waited for them to close in. The first salvo needed to be surgical. We had to take down as many as we could, before revealing our position. No telling how many more there were out there. When they were three kilometers out, I aimed through my scope at the right outermost one. I knew Luiz would do the same with the left one, to make them bunch together, so Jens and Nadia could do the most damage with their heavy weapons. Mark, two kilometers and six hundred meters. Luiz and I fired almost at the same time. My superheated aluminum dust projectile hit my enemy in the right shoulder. It made his shoulder plate fly right off and revealed the fur beneath. The minus one hundred and eighty degrees Celsius must have frozen it instantly, because when it reached to grip it with its good hand, the shoulder just shattered. Its suit compromised, it collapsed into the snow shortly after.

    But I was no longer paying any attention to it. I managed to nick the one closest to him in one of its double jointed legs, with similar results. It didn’t matter where you hit them. If their fragile suits were even a little compromised, they were toast. As predicted, they started bunching together, and that was Jens’ cue. The heavy, two hundred and fifty gram, depleted uranium projectile flew out of his railgun at ten thousand kilometers per hour. It superheated the air around it, turning the carbon dioxide vapor into a thick misty line on its trajectory. The ground where his and Nadia’s shots impacted just exploded. Shards of ice flew everywhere and pierced everything. The shot itself hadn’t hit any of the enemy, but there were now seven fresh bodies with ice sticking out of them like hundreds of daggers.

    The rest of us didn’t idle. When visibility was reestablished, we started picking off the survivors one by one. The last Worgen died gruesomely, hit by both Luiz and myself almost at the same time. It just folded in on itself like a crumbly accordion. Then there was only silence. We surveyed the area carefully, but no others came forth.

    ‘I think that’s all of them,’ came Nadia’s voice, still high from the adrenaline.

    ‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that,’ growled Luiz. ‘They’re sneaky bastards, these aliens. Maybe as sneaky as we are.’

    ‘I think we all know that’s impossible,’ said Jens and laughed. ‘It’s a well known fact around the galactic cluster that we’re legendary in our-’

    But Jens couldn’t finish the sentence. The ice wall behind us exploded and we were flung over the ridge we were standing on. While I went tumbling through the air I thought I could hear someone shouting ‘Tank! 46 and 72!’ I landed in the snow below, getting buried two meters deep. All around me I could hear ice shards falling and getting stuck in the snow. Then a mountain of snow fell over and buried me. Even though I knew my suit was pressurized and there was absolutely no chance of suffocating, I couldn’t help but panic. I felt like puking from fear.

    This was exactly how it was when I was enrolled into the Solarian Knights. When I almost died the first time, two hundred years ago. I was skiing in the Alps back on Earth, when I was caught by an avalanche. I was nearly brain-dead from oxygen deprivation when they found me. Almost beyond help from conventional medicine, my family brought me to the Solarian enclave. There, a Recruiter Knight infected me with the nanites still flowing through my veins today. They saved me alright, and more. My mortal life had ended there.

    This brought my fear to an abrupt end. I was longer a mere human. I couldn’t suffocate while the mission was still not complete. How did the saying go among our enemies? Neither shame, nor pain, nor death may stop a Solarian with a purpose. That’s it. It was time to live up to it, my comrades needed me. I tensed my considerably strengthened muscles and started making my way to the surface. The weight of the snow was crushing, but it was getting lighter all the time.

    I poked my head through the loose surface layer and surveyed the scene. The tank was half a kilometer away, firing at Luiz’s position. I weighed my options. How to take down a Worgen tank? They were armored mammoths, with little to no weak spots. All I had were some implosion grenades. Then I saw Jens’ heavy railgun, buried barrel first in the snow. Now we’re talking. I removed myself from the snow and with rifle in hand I ran to the gun as quickly as I could. I picked it up and checked the ammo. I cursed. One shot left, but it’ll have to do. This means I’ll have to fire from close range. Closer than I’d like.

    Thinking there’s no time like the present, I started running as silently as I could towards the tank and the small group of foot soldiers around it. I prayed to all of the gods I’d heard about for them not to look back. When I was fifty meters away, I thought it’ll have to do. I kneeled, instructed the magnetic coils to begin charging and took careful aim. If I managed to hit it in the engine exhaust vent, the fire might spread and the whole thing would blow. I held my breath and fired. I sidestepped to see around the trail of mist and my heart sank. The fires around the exhaust vent were quickly dying away. I had failed. One shot was all I had and I had wasted it.

    A wall of fire came at me and I got into the prone position, hiding behind an ice curtain. I peeked over it and I could see the tank’s barrel swinging towards me. Damn it, now I’m really toast, I thought. But to my surprise, the barrel lined up with the ice curtain, and kept turning. It did two full rotations, until a tongue of fire jutted from between the turret and the main body. I stared, dumbfounded, until I realized that even though it didn’t blow from my shot, I had managed to break the containment. The cold must have killed the crew and made any explosive ammunition they had crack and explode.

    I almost felt like jumping up in joy, until I remembered that there were still three enemies alive and well. I threw one of my implosion grenades over the wall and seconds later I could hear a satisfying crunch. I peeked over the wall, rifle at the ready, but there was no one standing. It was then that I had the ground run out from under my feet for the second time.

    My head was throbbing. I turned on my back and I realized I had missed one of them. He’d flanked me and hit me over the head with the butt of his weapon. To my surprise, he threw the weapon away and from his gloves came long metallic claws. Right, Worgens evolved from predators and there’s nothing they like more than a melee kill. One clawed hand came crashing on my breastplate. I could see and hear alarms flashing inside my helmet and over my cracked visor. It was slowly screeching down the plate towards the relatively unprotected area of my groin. No, no, no, I kept screaming and tried flailing at it with my hands and legs, but it was much too crazed with bloodlust.

    When I thought I was done for, I heard a whistling sound and the pressure on my chest stopped. I looked up and I could see that half its mask had been blown away by a plasma shot. The ugly, elongated face behind it was still as stone. I touched it lightly with one finger and the thing just disintegrated, the rest of the body following, kept together in a pile by the suit alone.

    ‘You’re welcome, Rookie,’ came Luiz’s voice through my stuttering speakers. ‘Now we’re even.’

    ‘Jesus Christ, that was some awesome marksmanship, boss,’ I breathed, relieved. ‘Are there more of them? Should I worry?’

    ‘Nah, you can relax. I think that was the last of them.’

    I fell on my back again, savoring each breath of recycled air like it was my last. It nearly was, anyway. I lay there for a while, until I Nadia’s voice brought me back to the real world.

    ‘I’ve found Jens, sir. Not in good shape.’

    ‘I’m mostly fine, sir,’ came his voice between two gasps. ‘My leg got nicked by a shard of ice, and the suit had to cut it off to keep containment.’

    ‘Well, nothing our Medicus Knights can’t handle,’ came Luiz’s reply. ‘I think that about wraps it up, boys and girl. I’ll call for evac.’

    ‘Where do you think they’ll send us next, sir?’ I asked.

    ‘To be honest, Tricosa Saladin, I have no idea. With our luck, it’ll probably be a volcanic planet.’

    I burst out laughing with joy. I couldn’t help it. Anything had to be better than this frozen hellhole of a rock.
     
  3. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Location:
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    Khaelmin
    Don’t go where the winter’s atomic (2944 words)


    I woke up with a start and fumbled with the grip of my rifle, trying to get it at the ready. But nobody was attacking. It was only Jens, my fellow Solarian Knight, reminding me it was my turn to keep watch. I let the barrel of the ice encrusted weapon fall back into the snow and got up, using it as a crutch. Gods be damned, but this cold was getting worse every day.

    ‘Jesus, I can’t feel my toes.’ I whispered in my helmet.

    ‘Stop complaining, Rookie,’ growled Jens as he settled in his sleeping bag. ‘For the last time, the nanites in your blood will protect you from the frostbite. Now, if you wake me up before the nine hours are up, I swear I’ll kill you in most gruesome ways.’

    I said nothing and started to roll up my own sleeping bag with numbed fingers. The nanites kept you from freezing, alright, but you were always on the brink of it. I couldn’t remember the last time I was warm. They were really perverse that way. They didn’t let you die, but they did nothing for the pain. Get your arm chopped off? No problem, they’ll stop the bleeding in seconds, but you’ll be cursing the day you were born until you got some proper medical attention. Or maybe they’re like that so you don’t get too cocky, I don’t know. Everything’s blurred these days, torn between the constant tension of not knowing when the enemy’s going to attack and the cold. Always, the bloody cold.

    I stowed away the bag and started making my way to the ridge we’ve been guarding. What a joke that was. I remember when they gave us the gear for the mission. Hyper-arctic issue armored suit, hyper-arctic issue weaponry, high calorie rations for a full month and a thin sheet of weaved polymer. When the Quartermaster Knight saw my confused expression, he just laughed in my face.

    ‘The sleeping bag’s not there to keep you warm, Rookie!’ he leered. ‘It’s to prevent the snow from infiltrating and freezing the joints of your suit while you sleep.’

    ‘But it’s said to be ninety Kelvin over there! Don’t you think we’ll need something more substantial? Like a heated shelter?’

    ‘Your suit’s heated, and that’s all you’ll ever need. Plus, I’m told you’ll only be groundside for a couple of days.’

    That was over two weeks ago. I cursed and stomped onward, trying to get the blood flowing again. It wasn’t pins and needles the cold was driving through my muscles, it was bloody nails. I got to the ridge and switched the visor’s view to infrared. I swept my gaze around the valley we were tasked with guarding. Nothing but this blasted carbon dioxide snow, falling slowly to the ground, the same way it’s been doing for thousands of years. Rumor has it this was actually a tropical planet, some five millennia ago. Not habitable by humans, on account of the high carbon dioxide atmosphere, but close enough. Then some of the more advanced denizens of our galactic sector had a throw down, and one or more of their monster gigaton bombs found their way over here. There was nothing but joyous atomic winter ever since.

    ‘Tricosa Saladin,’ said a displeased voice in my helmet’s speakers, bringing me back from my reverie. ‘Are you at your post yet?’

    ‘Yes, sir, Icosa Luiz,’ I replied and waved my hand over my head towards the opposite edge of the valley, almost two kilometres away.

    ‘Oh, there you are, Rookie!’ replied the Icosa, my squad leader, in a somewhat more pleased tone. ‘The snow’s almost covered you whole. How’re you hanging on?’

    ‘Every day you ask me that,’ I sighed, ‘and every day I give the same answer.’

    ‘Miserable, then.’

    ‘Utterly. Any sign of the enemy, sir?’

    ‘Not yet. But they’ll be here, make no mistake. They want this bomb, and badly. They’ve sacrificed a minor fleet trying to get through our blockade at the edge of the system.’

    ‘Then what the hell’s keeping them? My ass is so frozen it’s gonna fall off.’

    The Icosa didn’t reply. The bomb he was speaking of was a remnant from that ancient war. The two players of the conflict didn’t exist anymore, but their trash sure as hell survived. For some reason the projectile hadn’t exploded, instead it had just carved off this mammoth of a valley when it impacted. It was bigger and more powerful than anything we Solarians had, and doubly so than what our enemy could build. Suffice to say that everyone wanted it. The problem was that the Worgens found out about it a little sooner than we did. We blockaded the system in an attempt to stop them, but some got through and hid somewhere on the planet. That’s why we were deployed, to stall them until some of our technicians could get here to study and disable the thing. As luck would have it, in a war technicians are needed everywhere at the same time, so it’ll be a while until some of them get here.

    I stared back at the valley and the mounds upon mounds of snow. So it went, every day and every minute of the nine hour shifts we were assigned. I suspect the nanites were also releasing a moderate amount of antidepressants in my blood, because otherwise I would have blown my brains out long ago.

    ‘Hello,’ exclaimed the Icosa merrily. ‘Rookie, have a peek at 43 and 57 and tell me that’s not just another damned snow mirage.’

    I zoomed the image on my visor to its limit and trained it on the coordinates Luiz had pointed. They were faint, but there was no doubt about it. Five kilometers out, there were thermal silhouettes. The enemy was finally here. By the wait, it felt like they must have come over from the other damned side of the planet. I knew it was crazy, but I felt giddy that they finally showed up. Don’t get me wrong, they’re formidable opponents, and nobody goes into a fight with a Worgen smiling. But this meant we could get off of this hellhole, one way or another.

    ‘Confirmed, sir,’ I rasped back into the microphone, ‘Definitely Worgen contacts.’

    I heard a click, which meant the Icosa switched to the general squad channel, so our other two sleeping comrades could hear.

    ‘Rise and shine, ladies!’ he called, skewing his voice to the highest pitch he could. ‘We have gentleman callers coming. Docosa Jens and Tricosa Nadia, why don’t you join us on the ridges, so we can greet them properly? Make sure to bring your camouflage as well.’

    On cue, I activated my own optical camouflage. With a series of sharp punches, I dislodged and cleared the carbon dioxide ice that had encrusted my plasma rifle. While Jens and Nadia were grunting their acknowledgements, I checked the systems, the scope and the ammunition. Everything was ready. My initial excitement had gone up in smoke. All that was left now was a lead ball rolling through my stomach.

    ‘I count sixteen,’ said Luiz, all business-like this time. ‘Rookie, can you confirm?’

    Now that they were closer, I could distinguish some features. Sixteen long and ungainly forms were trudging through the snow. I disabled the thermal vision and I could see them better. Like all of their kind, they were well over two meters in height and performing that half step, half hop of theirs. Even though their world was of a lower gravity than Earth, they were much stronger than a normal human, almost on par with some of our younger generation Solarian Knights. But our nanites improved our muscles and bones over time, so strength was not really a problem. They were called Worgen on account of their furry outward appearance, but internally they had nothing to do with said mammal. They were actually closer to lizards than wolves. But that is irrelevant, seeing how they came from a completely alien ecosystem.

    ‘Check, sir, sixteen,’ I replied.

    ‘Alright, boys, we proceed as rehearsed. Let’s teach these filthy aliens it’s not nice to steal. For Earth, Sol and the Solarian Knights! U-ha!’

    ‘U-ha!’ we shouted in unison. This goes to show you, that no matter how technologically evolved a species, its army always stays the same.

    We waited for them to close in. The first salvo needed to be surgical. We had to take down as many as we could, before revealing our position. No telling how many more there were out there. When they were three kilometers out, I aimed through my scope at the right outermost one. I knew Luiz would do the same with the left one, to make them bunch together, so Jens and Nadia could do the most damage with their heavy weapons. Mark, two kilometers and six hundred meters. Luiz and I fired almost at the same time. My superheated aluminum dust projectile hit my enemy in the right shoulder. It made his shoulder plate fly right off and revealed the fur beneath. The minus one hundred and eighty degrees Celsius must have frozen it instantly, because when it reached to grip it with its good hand, the shoulder just shattered. Its suit compromised, it collapsed into the snow shortly after.

    But I was no longer paying any attention to it. I managed to nick the one closest to him in one of its double jointed legs, with similar results. It didn’t matter where you hit them. If their fragile suits were even a little compromised, they were toast. As predicted, they started bunching together, and that was Jens’ cue. The heavy, two hundred and fifty gram, depleted uranium projectile flew out of his railgun at ten thousand kilometers per hour. It superheated the air around it, turning the carbon dioxide vapor into a thick misty line on its trajectory. The ground where his and Nadia’s shots impacted just exploded. Shards of ice flew everywhere and pierced everything. The shot itself hadn’t hit any of the enemy, but there were now seven fresh bodies with ice sticking out of them like hundreds of daggers.

    The rest of us didn’t idle. When visibility was reestablished, we started picking off the survivors one by one. The last Worgen died gruesomely, hit by both Luiz and myself almost at the same time. It just folded in on itself like a crumbly accordion. Then there was only silence. We surveyed the area carefully, but no others came forth.

    ‘I think that’s all of them,’ came Nadia’s voice, still high from the adrenaline.

    ‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that,’ growled Luiz. ‘They’re sneaky bastards, these aliens. Maybe as sneaky as we are.’

    ‘I think we all know that’s impossible,’ said Jens and laughed. ‘It’s a well known fact around the galactic cluster that we’re legendary in our-’

    But Jens couldn’t finish the sentence. The ice wall behind us exploded and we were flung over the ridge we were standing on. While I went tumbling through the air I thought I could hear someone shouting ‘Tank! 46 and 72!’ I landed in the snow below, getting buried two meters deep. All around me I could hear ice shards falling and getting stuck in the snow. Then a mountain of snow fell over and buried me. Even though I knew my suit was pressurized and there was absolutely no chance of suffocating, I couldn’t help but panic. I felt like puking from fear.

    This was exactly how it was when I was enrolled into the Solarian Knights. When I almost died the first time, two hundred years ago. I was skiing in the Alps back on Earth, when I was caught by an avalanche. I was nearly brain-dead from oxygen deprivation when they found me. Almost beyond help from conventional medicine, my family brought me to the Solarian enclave. There, a Recruiter Knight infected me with the nanites still flowing through my veins today. They saved me alright, and more. My mortal life had ended there.

    This brought my fear to an abrupt end. I was longer a mere human. I couldn’t suffocate while the mission was still not complete. How did the saying go among our enemies? Neither shame, nor pain, nor death may stop a Solarian with a purpose. That’s it. It was time to live up to it, my comrades needed me. I tensed my considerably strengthened muscles and started making my way to the surface. The weight of the snow was crushing, but it was getting lighter all the time.

    I poked my head through the loose surface layer and surveyed the scene. The tank was half a kilometer away, firing at Luiz’s position. I weighed my options. How to take down a Worgen tank? They were armored mammoths, with little to no weak spots. All I had were some implosion grenades. Then I saw Jens’ heavy railgun, buried barrel first in the snow. Now we’re talking. I removed myself from the snow and with rifle in hand I ran to the gun as quickly as I could. I picked it up and checked the ammo. I cursed. One shot left, but it’ll have to do. This means I’ll have to fire from close range. Closer than I’d like.

    Thinking there’s no time like the present, I started running as silently as I could towards the tank and the small group of foot soldiers around it. I prayed to all of the gods I’d heard about for them not to look back. When I was fifty meters away, I thought it’ll have to do. I kneeled, instructed the magnetic coils to begin charging and took careful aim. If I managed to hit it in the engine exhaust vent, the fire might spread and the whole thing would blow. I held my breath and fired. I sidestepped to see around the trail of mist and my heart sank. The fires around the exhaust vent were quickly dying away. I had failed. One shot was all I had and I had wasted it.

    A wall of fire came at me and I got into the prone position, hiding behind an ice curtain. I peeked over it and I could see the tank’s barrel swinging towards me. Damn it, now I’m really toast, I thought. But to my surprise, the barrel lined up with the ice curtain, and kept turning. It did two full rotations, until a tongue of fire jutted from between the turret and the main body. I stared, dumbfounded, until I realized that even though it didn’t blow from my shot, I had managed to break the containment. The cold must have killed the crew and made any explosive ammunition they had crack and explode.

    I almost felt like jumping up in joy, until I remembered that there were still three enemies alive and well. I threw one of my implosion grenades over the wall and seconds later I could hear a satisfying crunch. I peeked over the wall, rifle at the ready, but there was no one standing. It was then that I had the ground run out from under my feet for the second time.

    My head was throbbing. I turned on my back and I realized I had missed one of them. He’d flanked me and hit me over the head with the butt of his weapon. To my surprise, he threw the weapon away and from his gloves came long metallic claws. Right, Worgens evolved from predators and there’s nothing they like more than a melee kill. One clawed hand came crashing on my breastplate. I could see and hear alarms flashing inside my helmet and over my cracked visor. It was slowly screeching down the plate towards the relatively unprotected area of my groin. No, no, no, I kept screaming and tried flailing at it with my hands and legs, but it was much too crazed with bloodlust.

    When I thought I was done for, I heard a whistling sound and the pressure on my chest stopped. I looked up and I could see that half its mask had been blown away by a plasma shot. The ugly, elongated face behind it was still as stone. I touched it lightly with one finger and the thing just disintegrated, the rest of the body following, kept together in a pile by the suit alone.

    ‘You’re welcome, Rookie,’ came Luiz’s voice through my stuttering speakers. ‘Now we’re even.’

    ‘Jesus Christ, that was some awesome marksmanship, boss,’ I breathed, relieved. ‘Are there more of them? Should I worry?’

    ‘Nah, you can relax. I think that was the last of them.’

    I fell on my back again, savoring each breath of recycled air like it was my last. It nearly was, anyway. I lay there for a while, until I Nadia’s voice brought me back to the real world.

    ‘I’ve found Jens, sir. Not in good shape.’

    ‘I’m mostly fine, sir,’ came his voice between two gasps. ‘My leg got nicked by a shard of ice, and the suit had to cut it off to keep containment.’

    ‘Well, nothing our Medicus Knights can’t handle,’ came Luiz’s reply. ‘I think that about wraps it up, boys and girl. I’ll call for evac.’

    ‘Where do you think they’ll send us next, sir?’ I asked.

    ‘To be honest, Tricosa Saladin, I have no idea. With our luck, it’ll probably be a volcanic planet.’

    I burst out laughing with joy. I couldn’t help it. Anything had to be better than this frozen hellhole of a rock.
     
  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Jared Lander
    The Digging (1,433 Words)


    He dragged his shovels carelessly across the barren earth, its flesh scraping against the cold steel heads of his tools of choice. He had carefully selected the ground where he would begin his work. Setting down his cliché lantern, he knew he had a long day ahead of him. The ground was flat and covered in bent grass, he liked this grass best, it was a straight standing grass that seemed to grow best from supple ground. He scoffed at the identical grass next to his site, it was to become matted and sometimes it would even die after he was finished excavating its neighbor land.

    His first stab was always his favorite, the shovel pierced the ground easily and he let out a sigh along with the earth. He paused a second to absorb the moment, he smiled and continued, prying a large divot out of the ground and carefully tossing it to the side. The earth made a sad thud as it landed on the fresh cold grass, flattening it and tainting its freshness. The divot was about 4 inches thick, and the grass was standing up, pointing to the heavens as if to ask, “why?” There was beauty in every scoop of earth he took and he made sure to take brief moments to notice the roots, worms, rocks, and sometimes small bones he found in the dirt. Occasionally picking small objects up and neatly dropping them in his shirt pocket, still smiling all the while.

    He had finished carving the fresh layer of sod from the earth’s massive yet delicate flesh. He had arranged the earth in a neat pattern to the side of his work site making sure he could easily replace the grass to give his art an undisturbed sort of appeal. His work area was about three and a half feet wide by eight feet long. The earth was brown and grass roots jutted upward, the earth seemed almost to be begging to bleed. He knew it was time to begin the gouging and tearing of the earth. He stepped back and picked up a pointed spade shovel, gently laying down his flat headed shovel perpendicularly to the grave he was digging.

    He rolled up the sleeves on his plaid button up shirt, revealing surprisingly thin yet toned forearms. His pale skin glistened in the dim lighting of his lantern. He exhaled sharply, inhaled, and then surprisingly made an aggressive plunge of the spade deep into the earth’s crust, dirt and pebbles grinding against his steel. The sound made him feel powerful; as if he was expressing his dominance over the stubborn ground society had built itself upon. He repeated his stabbing of the ground for a couple minutes and then paused to reflect on his work. A large mound of dirt had already accumulated on the ground next to depression he was creating. He wiped a small bead of sweat from his brow and continued to eviscerate the ground beneath him, continuing for an hour or so until only his head was exposed above the earth.

    Dirt was now smeared all over his skin and clothes, but this was normal for him. He paused and admired his work, he seemed to be satisfied with the pit he had created, it was, after all, going to be the resting place for an expired soul. The grave was about 5 feet deep, and that was plenty. Six feet under was just a stereotypical expression that people thought was common knowledge about grave digging. He gently laid his shovel on the ground above and easily and impressively pulled himself up and onto level ground. He sat with his feet dangling into the shallow abyss and thought about the machines people were using to help dig graves, there was no art, no personality in the process. The thought made him bitter, but he quickly dismissed it and picked up his shovels and walked back towards the shed where extra tools and supplies were kept. It took him three minutes to get to the shed; it stood ominously and was tastelessly made to look like a crypt near the center of the cemetery. It was grey and made of cement looking plaster slathered over a wood skeleton. The sign on an elaborate door read, “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, KEEP OUT”. He took a minute to reflect on the blasphemous idea represented by the shed, and again, he quickly dismissed it and reached into his pants pocket and produced his keychain, he instinctively found his key and inserted it into the lock and unlocked the single deadbolt that was keeping the shed safe from robbers.

    The door opened defiantly, its rusting hinges moaned as they were stretched from their slumber. The shadows from his lantern created eerie shadows that crawled across the floor and walls. The inside of the shed was a perfect square shape, maybe around one-hundred square feet. There were bags of soil stacked along one wall and on the other side there were various tools for digging and gardening. He walked past the poorly maintained tools and in the corner he removed a canvas tarp, under the tarp there were very nicely maintained tools that almost glowed in the darkness. These were his tools, and he treated them with the utmost care and never let anyone else use his tools. He picked up a nylon brush and cleaned the dried dirt off of his shovels eventually revealing the number four on the back side of both of them. The dust and dirt floated and danced around in the light of his lantern, slowly falling to the floor to rest with its brothers and sisters. He rested his shovels with the heads pointed upwards so the floor would not dull the edges. He replaced the tarp and went over to the stack of community tools, grabbed a blue plastic tarp and some planks of wood and headed back out to his most recent hole.

    By the time he got back to the grave, the sun was already beginning to come up, creating an opaque purple on the backs of the mountains to the east. He put the planks of wood across the grave and put the tarp over the dirt and grass he had removed from its original resting place. He looked over his work one last time, and then promptly headed toward the entrance of the graveyard to begin his walk home. The trek home was a little more than a mile, but he easily and willingly made the walk whenever his skills were needed.

    The path home was a dirt trail that carved a path through the woods just north of the cemetery. It was eerie at night; and even more ominous during the early morning. Condensation gave birth to a thick fog that resided among the woods, it limited visibility and easily played tricks on the feeble minded people that would go on late night or early morning hikes. He knew the path like the back of his hand, where every ditch, rock, or crudely protruding root laid. A couple times unsuspecting hikers had tripped or turned an ankle, giving a dangerous name to what he considered to be a tame trail.

    After twenty minutes of walking he came to a concrete road running perpendicular to the dirt path. Across the street was an old brown house. It was stereotypical with a creaky porch and closed dark shutters. It looked soft among the fog; he smiled as he crossed the road and walked up the stairs to what was his home. He pulled the keychain out of his pocket and found his house key, in one motion he unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door. He stepped into the clearing and closed the door behind him; it closed easily and quietly, unlike the shed in the cemetery. The floor was wooden and was filthy with dried mud and dirt from his boots. He kicked off his boots and slid them under a small table to the right of the door. There were two other pairs of identical boots there, all about equally worn; he cycled them regularly to avoid smell. The sun was beginning to cast a soft light through the fog that fell upon his kitchen counter. The house was becoming fairly dusty, save for the spots he regularly used… the refrigerator handle, the sink, one spot at a dining room table for four, and his lazy boy, which was parked in front of a small television which he never used... Glad to be home, he relaxed and waited until he could go back to his job.
     
  5. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    acd90210
    Run (1224 Words)



    Ian ran. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him. It was no use; the truck was gaining on him with every second that passed. By this time his running had become so erratic he was rapidly slowing down. Ian held his sight ahead to Rita, who was running along the desert sand in front of him.

    The desert heat and the pursuer beat down on Rita and her love. She stole a quick glance back to see Ian had begun stumbling from exhaustion, with the off-road truck rapidly making ground on him. A border patrol agent ran up to Rita and grabbed her.

    Ian saw Rita fall into the grasp of the agent. He stopped running, took off the backpack he was wearing, turned to face the oncoming truck.

    *****

    Ian and Rita sat in the darkness in the desert hills miles from the border. A nylon backpack sat on the ground between them.

    Rita spoke, “Why did we take this?”

    Ian sat with his head on his hands resting on his knees. He picked his head up, glanced at the pack for a few seconds and said, “It was too good to pass up.”
    Rita kicked the bag, but it did not move, “I wish we would’ve left it.”

    “Wish all you want to, it’s not going away.”

    Rita pulled herself over to Ian’s side and with a tear in each eye said, “I love you.”

    “Love you too. Babe, don’t worry about it. We will get out of this.”

    Rita caught a glimpse of a flashlight in the distance over Ian’s shoulder.

    She whispered, “He found us.”

    Ian motioned to Rita toward the opposite hill from the flashlight, strapped on the backpack and they both ran.

    *****

    Rita lay on the hotel bed reading a celebrity gossip magazine. She glanced at her cell phone. Ian had gone for some breakfast from the hotel lobby. She noticed she had a voicemail from thirty minutes before. A hard knock on the door startled her.

    “What the hell, Ian?” She yelled at the door. The knocking persisted as Rita walked over and opened the door. Ian almost knocked her over as he rushed into the room. His eyes were wide as he rushed into the hotel bathroom to the sink. He leaned on the sink counter and stared into the mirror.
    “What’s going on? Where did you get the backpack?”

    “I got into an elevator coming back up. I noticed this backpack sitting in the corner. I opened it up to see if I could find a name or something, and well, see for yourself.”
    Ian laid the pack on the sink counter and opened it to show Rita the contents.

    “Oh my God.”

    “Yeah, I know.”

    “What are we going to do?”

    Ian shook his head as he zipped the backpack up, “I guess I should put it back.”

    “Yeah, you probably should.”

    “But my God, Rita, think about the possibilities. Think about what we could do with this.”

    Rita leaned against the bathroom door and bit her thumbnail, “I know.”

    “We need to get back to native soil as soon as possible. Pack up your stuff, we are leaving.”

    Just as Ian finished his last word, a heavy slow knock came from the door.

    Rita walked to the door and spoke through the door, “We don’t need a maid.”

    A deep voice sounded through the door, “We know you have the bag. Hand it over now and you will die quickly, I promise.”

    Rita looked down with horror as the door handle jiggled. She jumped over and locked the dead bolt. The jiggling stopped and footsteps shook the walls of the room and then slowly grew fainter and fainter. The door to the room next to Ian and Rita’s room could be heard opening. A quick yell came from the other room, then silence. Ian pointed toward the door. Rita slowly opened the door. Ian glanced over as the sliding glass door to the balcony slowly slid open and a giant man in an all black business suit slid the curtain over.
    “RUN!” Ian yelled as Rita opened the door. Rita slipped out the door and Ian followed. He could hear the muffled sound of silenced gunfire come from the area of the intruder. They ran for the elevator thirty feet down the hall and slipped in as the man walked out into the hall.

    *****

    “We are close to the border crossing. If we can make it there, you have got to let them know we are citizens, and hopefully they will protect us.” Ian explained to Rita as they jogged across the parched sand. The morning sun shone red across the expansive desert in front of the couple.

    “I don’t think anything can protect us. He always finds us.”

    Ian shook his head, “This is our only chance. Our only hope is that we can get some protection from the border patrol.”

    “Ian, I’m scared.”

    “Babe, this is going to work. You are going to be fine.”

    As the pair walked, a shape materialized in the horizon ahead of them.

    Ian grabbed Rita’s hand, “That has to be the station, we are so close.”

    They both began to slowly jog. A vehicle revved its engine in the distance behind them.

    Ian’s head dropped, “Rita, give me the backpack.” She took the pack off and handed it over to Ian as she began to cry. “Listen to me Rita. Look at me; you do not stop running, no matter what. You have to get across that border.”

    *****

    Rita was watching as Ian stopped in front of the truck, turned around and took the backpack off. The truck came to a stop near Ian. The large figure in a full black suit stepped out of the truck and walked slowly toward Ian. They exchanged a few words. Ian threw the backpack over to their pursuer. In one smooth motion the man in the black suit pulled a pistol from under his jacket and blew Ian down. Rita fell to her knees out of the grasp of the agent’s arms and screamed. The figure in the distance picked up the backpack and stared down at Ian’s lifeless body. He slowly looked up and nodded to Rita. The agent ran toward his patrol truck as the figure in the distance calmly stepped into his truck and left into the distance.

    *****

    Rita sat in the border station staring at the sunset. A border agent walked into the room.

    “Ma’am, we have arranged for a taxi to come pick you up and take you to town.”

    Rita picked her head up from the window, “Did you catch that man?”

    “No ma’am. He was able to get away from us. We gave a description of the vehicle. Hopefully that will turn something up.”

    Rita got into the backseat of the cab. He phone vibrated in her back pocket. The screen showed an unopened text and voicemail.

    She read the text:

    Thank your man for your life

    She stared at her phone for a few minutes. She then selected the voicemail and listened.

    “Hey babe, I’m down here waiting to get your breakfast. I already miss you. I love you.”

    Rita laid her head on the seat in front of her weeping, and played the message again.
     
  6. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    jigalowjugs
    Gull-Berty's Travels
    words - 1086


    Ahh now, let me tell you a thing or two about the Gull. Hmm. Well, where do I begin?
    Okay then.
    It's like this, the well known thing about the seagul is, well; to be honest, im not entirely sure, but maybe this tale will shed some light.

    The sky was blue, and the sun swam through it like the fish in the ocean below. It shone warmly as ever and shared its light generously.
    Wonderful thought Bert who sat upon his defecated rock and nibbled a curious crab. It was always better for fishing on such days and he was by no means inexperienced.
    The fresh sea winds filled Berts well bellowed lungs, as he listened to the whispers of the open waters; small eddies and bubbles broke its surface and reminded him of that dreadful night.

    It had been cold and wet; dark and stormy; terrified the small family huddled together at the top most point of a brave little ship.
    Lightning had blitzed the clouds and rain had fallen as if the gods were insulted; huge waves, none smaller than the ship, threatened to engulf it with every pass. They foamed at their crests and smashed at its hull like a ravenous monster.

    Berty had cuddled close to his brothers Merty, Herty, and Gerty, as his parents did their upmost to protect them from the probing blusters.
    The thunder growled at the boat like a dog at a passing stranger. But it took little notice and carried on bobbing and weaving; disapearing behind a huge wave at an unatural angle only to reappear. It had a miraculous resilience to the barrage of waves, but it was then that the ocean decided to conjure its biggest of all. It loomed like a insurmountable wall; forcing the boats ascent to its zenith; little could it do as it verticly rose towards the scintilating sky above.

    Anxiety filled Berty as he slid; family and all, to the bottom of their home, and to their despair a nasty gust swept through their defences, and blew Berty far out to sea. The mother was distraught and the father held her wings.
    “No” he Gulled over the ferocious howls. “He is gone my love, if we follow now we risk the lives of our Gull-lings”
    The mother quailed and the father shreiked but the winds took even that from him.

    And so Berty had lost his family on a ship gone far yonder. All he could do was sit and ponder upon the detritus he had grown so fond of. And how lucky he had been to find such rocks amongst turbulent sea, and there could be no doubt they had saved him; for very few others had ever survived such perils.

    Five days had passed since that night and Berty was no longer Berty, but Bert. He had come of age and proudly lost his Y, yet grieved for this unsharable excite.
    Oh father he would sing to the winds of the sea. Oh father if only you were here.
    We could share this moment and you could teach me to fly.
    How he sang day and night but there was no reply.
    Oh mother where art thou, if you were here you could teach me to fish. And the winds they whispered, but not with news of his nearest.
    He sang for a minute and then for an hour, he sang to the sun, and then to the moon, even the stars had no answer, but they twinkled with his mourn.

    Time passed and his songful wails had changed, his sorrow had left and his void had been filled; nurtured by the sea, he had found his new fulfilling joy.
    He had found his love, and his inspirational muse. A song so beautiful even a small crab came to see, but his beguiled curiosity served Bert his first indipendant feed.
    Bert licked his lips and wondered what it was that had tasted so delicious, there must be more. Again. He thought, as he sung his song for crab-ilicous meat.

    He sat upon his singing rock and watched the sun rise for the 1876 time. And thought for a moment upon which song this day would need. A song he had learnt from his mother, one which brought up plenty of feed. He hopped from his father and stood tall upon his mother; her firm granite surface pressed hard against his feet.

    Everday he had eaten upon this rock and next to it stood Shert his father, where he practiced his flap. He would beat his wings; sometimes fast and others slow. And then he would listen to what his father might say. But unlike Flert, his mother, he stayed quiet as a rock.

    Twenty more days and just the same, his father was still unwilling to share any secrets. His wings were strong now and felt the winds and currents which weaved unseen and teased Bert with their prospect of freedom.

    Another four days of song and sun and Bert was filled with an enthralling delight. It was the 1900th day with his mother and father, and something strange was up in the sky. A small speck against the pale blue heavens grew quicker and bigger as it aproached his lands. He stood tall and proud and unleashed his best song, that made even the waves stand still for momentary pleasure.

    It was only a short wait and then before him; stood upon his mother, the fairest creature he had ever befallen.
    “Who art thou?” he requested in his best gullian.

    Against the sun she stood her feathers glinting with feminin glamour. The smell of gullness filled his lungs. And for once song was not to be found; his heart had adopted a new rhythm; one which surely could not be maintained.
    “I…I asked who thought are, yet thou answers not”

    She turned , graceful, beautiful and observed Bert as if she had not known he was there.
    Berts heart nearly exploded.

    “Yesterday I was Jessy, but today I am Jess! Who art though who sits here so lost and alone; seemingly without flight?”

    “Amazing how can thou tell that I have no flight”
    Jess lifted a foot which was covered in excrement of crab.

    If seaguls could blush, so bert would have blushed.

    “My name is Bert, and wouldst thou help me fly”

    And so Jess showed Bert who flew from his father, leaving his parents behind.

    Two specks dwindled beyond the world.
     
  7. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Pauly Pen Feathers
    Damn Dog Saved My Life
    [2757 words]


    Pepper was a Cow-dog. Now don’t be silly, of course I don’t mean she was half cow and half dog. A Cow-dog is one that’s used to herd cattle, and Raymond had a lot of cattle. Raymond was a full blooded Apache Indian and he owned the biggest cattle ranch within a hundred miles of Winston, New Mexico.

    And Pepper was smart. She was, in fact, the smartest dog I had ever met. Really, she was.

    I remember one time, right around the time I first got her, getting up from my kitchen chair and walking over to where she was lying on the floor, in the best cowboy drawl I could muster, I said, “Get up, Pepper” She sprang up like a shot. Then, pointing my finger in her face, I gave her a command she’d never heard before.

    “Dead Dog” I ordered. “DEAD DAWG!”

    Now I’m here to tell you that big ol’ black mix of Newfoundland and Labrador retriever lay right down at my feet, rolled over on her back and played dead. It tickled the heck out of me how she used to play dead, her body lying stock-still with her tail wagging like forty-goin’ north, beating the floor like a drum.

    She really thought she was something. Oh yeah, Pepper thought she was the Queen of Sheba. And in my opinion, she was just that.

    #

    “She’s useless.” Raymond bellowed. “All she want’s to do is play, and gets all the other dogs to playing around, too. I can’t have that.”

    “I’ll take her off your hands, if you really don’t want her.” I said, looking up at Raymond as he sat next to me at the bar.

    Benny’s bar was dark. It took almost two beers time to adjust your eyes to where you might actually see another person sitting next to you. And it smelled. The room had the sweet-sickening smell of old spilled beer. The floor was sticky with it. But we didn’t have any options. Back then, Winston was a tiny little town with a population of only forty people.

    Having grown up in Chicago, Winston was completely foreign, different than any place I’d ever seen. It had one general store with a couple of gas pumps outside, a post office, and Benny’s bar. That’s it. Main Street, the only street in town, was a dirt road lined with a few wooden houses and an assortment of trailer homes scattered haphazardly across the land. Oh, and it had a street light, just one, right on the corner of Main Street and Highway 52.

    “You got any food?” Raymond asked.

    “No” I answered.

    “Well, there’s a half bag in my truck. You can take it, and the dog, if you want.”

    “I do.” I told him.

    “Benny, dos más, por favor.”

    “No, not for me.” Raymond said. “I have to drive up to Albuquerque. That’s a trip I don’t want to take with too many beers in my belly. C’mon, let’s go get your new dog.”

    I paid the bill and said adios to Benny. Benny was a good old girl, but a little quirky. She could speak English well enough, she just wouldn’t.

    Following behind Raymond we stepped out into the hot New Mexican afternoon. The sun was bright and shrunk the pupils of our eyes to what must have been tiny little dots after sitting in Benny’s bar for a little over an hour.

    Well, I though, now I would have to learn how to take care of a dog. I grabbed the half bag of dog food from Raymond’s truck and issued my first command to my brand new best friend.

    “C’mon, Pepper.” I said. “Let’s go.”

    She jumped right out of the truck and followed me all the way home. She didn’t seem to care a thing about ol’ Raymond, any more. I don’t think she liked him much, anyway, what with him always trying to get her to do some work.

    When we got home Marvin was parked at his usual spot in the kitchen; a few hand rolled cigarettes sat on the table next to a can of cold beer he was drinking. Marvin sat strumming his guitar working patiently on the melody of an old country song. Luckenbach Texas, I thought, Willie and Waylon and the boys. It was music that brought Marvin and me together. We both played guitar and we both loved country music.

    “What the hell?” Marvin exclaimed when he saw my new dog.

    “Whatcha got there, boy?” He added.

    I guess we were both guilty. Marvin and I loved to pretend we were cowboys and made a point of talking to each other in Southwestern drawl.

    “That’s my new dawg.” I answered. “Raymon give‘er to me.”

    “Well that’s a good dawg.” Marvin cooed, petting Pepper’s head. “That’s a good dawg. Yes it is. Yes it is.”

    I though I would get sick if I had to listen to this all night.

    #

    Marvin was a transplant from Los Angeles. When his dad bought an old gold mine out here, not far from the Gila National Forest, Marvin moved here to work it. The old mine was left abandoned after the government gathered up all the Japanese who worked there and put them into the relocation camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They left close to a thousand tons of ore sitting on the ground just waiting to be processed and taken to the smelter. It was the guitar that brought Marvin and I together, but it was the gold mine that kept us in Winston.

    When I came out here from Chicago it was for the Rainbow Family World Healing Gathering. Every year the Rainbow people picked a new place to meet for a week of partying. I remember seeing something a lot like this in the film Woodstock, but nothing could have prepared me for it. There were stoned, naked hippies running amuck smack in the middle of the wilderness. At dinner we stood around in a big circle passing bowls of some kind of health-food mush to one another, chanting “Ooom”. I’ll tell you what, back in 1977 we didn’t know the meaning of WTF, but that’s exactly what I was thinking. So after a good night sleep under the stars I gathered up my stuff and said good bye.

    Hitchhiking to the nearest town I could find, I ended up in Winston. Benny’s bar was just a short walk from the highway. When I arrived at the bar, there was Marvin sitting on the Benny’s porch strumming his guitar. I had brought my guitar with me from Chicago and Marvin let go with a big smile as he glanced up at me, and noticed the guitar case in my hand.

    “Sit down.” He invited. “Wanna beer?”

    “I sure do.” I said.

    And that’s how it all got started. We were both big city strangers living in a world we only knew from old cowboy movies and television shows.

    #

    “Yes, that is just a good doggy. Just a gooood, good doggy.”

    Marvin must have had a few too many beers, I thought.

    “Well, Jimmy.” he said with his eyes fixed on my Pepper, “she’ll keep you company out at the mine. I’m taking you up there in the morning. Pack enough food and water for three or four days; okay?”

    “Sure” I said, “What’s up?”

    “Dad’s coming in for the weekend. He want’s you to blast out all them old footings. We’re gonna pour new ones for the Classifier Gene’s building.”

    “What’s a Classifier?” I asked.

    “It separates big rocks from little ones, I guess.”

    Marvin only knew a little more about mining than I did, which was not very much. And I knew a lot less about handling dynamite. I wasn’t happy to hear anything about blasting. Now I began to I think I would be a lot safer taking a full time job at the logging camp, where I worked on the weekends.

    We started early the next morning. The ride to the mine was only forty-five minutes, but we had a lot of work to do. It would take us an hour to get to Truth or Consequences for supplies and another hour back to Winston, and then we would head out to the mine.

    We had a little camper set up on jack stands for overnights at the site. When we got to the mine we unloaded the truck and filled the camper with our supplies. Marvin made sure I knew exactly what we needed done, which footings to blast, and which ones not to. And before he left he took a lot of time to explain exactly how to handle the dynamite. He knew I had never worked with it before, but he figured I was pretty smart and caught onto things quickly.

    “See you in a few days, Jimmy” Marvin waved, and then off he went.

    I can only wish I had the skills to adequately describe the unfathomable beauty of New Mexico. The cactus desert with its ever shifting colors change endlessly throughout the day yielding to the whim of sunlight and is, in a word, breathtaking. The rugged terrain of the foothills that gently rise to kiss the heals of the Black Range Mountains are full of plant life, bushes and shrubs, trees, rocks of all shapes and colors, and… Rattle Snakes?

    Yes: rattle snakes!

    Pepper barked furiously. I could sense urgency, anger, and fear in her voice. Looking towards the sound of her bark I saw her, and it. It was just a baby rattle snake, only three feet long. But I had heard the venom of a baby rattle snake is much more powerful than an adult’s. Pepper was darting towards the snake, and then away, jumping back and upwards. I never knew a dog could jump like that. It seemed unnatural. She was almost flying, back and fourth and around in crazy, frantic circles. The snake was striking, but missing its mark, over and over. I ran to the camper for the gun.

    The gun, I thought. We forgot to bring the gun!

    I was in a panic looking around the camper, inside and out, searching through tools and supplies all around the camp site. Dynamite, I wondered. No, that’s a bad idea. I grabbed a hoe. What the hell did we have a hoe for, I thought, we weren’t gardeners. I didn’t know, but I would be glad we did.

    “Pepper” I screamed as I approached the scene of the crime. “Get over here!”

    She responded running towards the sound of my voice and then back again to her find.

    “Pepper, Get over here NOW!”

    She came.

    She was exhausted, panting, and still very excited. I led her into the camper and locked her inside. Taking the hoe in hand, I found the villain and separated its head from its long, curling body. Pepper and I would have a treat for dinner tonight.

    She sat watching, and licking her chops with great expectation as I dressed the snake and prepared it for the frying pan. Don’t ever let anyone tell you rattle snake tastes like chicken. It does not! It’s gamey tasting and goes down hard. But Pepper and I enjoyed it, and it was fun. It made us feel triumphant, killing the serpent and having it for dinner. And the skin did make such a nice ornament around my cowboy hat. In a silly way I thought I wore it like a badge of honor.

    I didn’t feel like waiting for Marvin. I finished my work early and decided to walk back to town two days early. We had done it before, Marvin and me. It would just be an hour and a half walk down the foothills and through a few ranchlands into town. But if we were going to walk, I told Pepper, we’d better get going. The western sky was getting dark and the sound of distant thunder lightly found our ears. After cleaning up and packing everything into the camper, we took off.

    #

    I felt uneasy about the time. I didn’t have a watch but I felt like we had been walking for over two hours. And the land wasn’t getting any flatter, I thought. We were still in foothills and the storm was getting nearer. I had the very sobering feeling that we were lost.

    “Pepper” I hollered “get over here.”

    "Damn dog" I thought. She kept walking off. Maybe Raymond was right. Maybe she was useless, after all.

    I knew I was going in the right direction. Even with the sun hidden behind ever darkening clouds I could tell I was heading east. I thought. I wondered. But now I started to worry.

    As the first drops of rain touched my face I realized walking home may have been a bad idea. You didn’t want to be caught out in a thunderstorm, not out here, I told myself. The elevation is high enough that the storms seemed to be just above your reach. In Chicago, I remembered, storms happened high overhead. But out here they wrapped you up and incased you in their fury like a cold blanket of impending doom. The hard truth was, you could die out here. I pictured myself being struck by lightning. I could be fried to death in an instant and served up like that ol’ rattle snake, food for any animal that happened to meander by, digested and shit out some old buzzard’s ass, I thought.

    “Pepper” I screamed.

    I was getting angry now, and scared. Lightning struck a tree not even fifty yards away. Pepper was lazily walking in front of me and kept turning to the south.

    “Pepper, are you stupid? Get over here and stay with me “I scolded.

    This went on the whole time, and now that the storm had arrived, it was dark.

    I felt panic creeping up inside of me as the urge to break into a full blown run crossed my mind. Pepper was off again, walking to the south. Screw it, I thought, just let the damn dog wander off. Then it suddenly occurred to me; maybe she was right. Maybe, just maybe her instincts were leading her in the right direction. I’ve heard of that before; lost dogs finding their way home over hundreds of miles away. It seemed fantastic, but it had happened before. I had a choice to make. I knew it was a choice that could end my life, or save it. I followed Pepper.

    “Damn dog” I laughed at myself as we reached the top of a small hill and spied the street light of town just a few miles up the highway.

    Yep, Winston New Mexico had one of everything; one store, one bar, one post office, and one street light. We were home.

    #

    “Are you still planning on going back to Chicago, Jimmy?” Marvin asked, peering at me from under the brim of his cowboy hat.”

    “Yep, I am. Gimmie a ride to Albuquerque? I asked.

    “Sure.” Marvin agreed “First thing in the morning.”

    #

    “The rental charge for the pet carrier is twenty dollars, sir.” The girl at the counter said.
    I paid for it, and my plane ticket, and tossed my suitcase onto the rack to the left of the counter.

    I felt sadness leaving New Mexico, and Marvin. It had been a remarkable summer. I had seen and done things I never would have imagined I would do. I made friends with an Apache Indian, and played cowboy, for real. I worked on a gold mine, and along side lumberjacks felling towering trees. I lay on the desert ground blanketed by a billion stars on a warm August night and wondered how the hell could Elvis die so young. And I made a best that summer. I made a best friend for life.

    “C’mon Pepper, get in”

    As the baggage handlers approached to put Pepper in the cargo hold I got down on my knees, opened the door of her cage, and kissed her wet nose.

    “I love you, Pepper” I said. “It’ll be alright. You’ll like Chicago. I promise. “

    “We’ll have lots of friends, and mom and dad will just love you. I know they will.”

    She looked up at me with her big, beautiful brown eyes, tail pounding the side of the cage.

    “Woof.” she said, and settled in for the long plane ride home.
     
  8. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Without Roots (1307)

    I scraped the hotdog into the garbage. I watched the ketchup slide along the clear plastic bag like thick blood. My dog would’ve eaten that, if he were still alive. I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. Yet again I’d managed to let something expire. It’s a hotdog, do they even go bad? I didn’t want to take the chance. What is an alternative dinner? I could eat that chicken I cooked, how many days ago? But it’s so bland, and the rice is too sticky, and I don’t even know if the corn is meant to be slimy. No, better to just eat a chocolate bar. I did just that, not really caring at the moment that my flat stomach will not be flat if I continue this way.
    So here I am. Alone. I’m in my room watching online TV with my milk and chocolate bar. I’m briefly concerned that the pop up ads would give my computer a virus, but decide to let it all go to hell. What does it matter now? I deal with it down the road. Heck, why don’t I treat myself to a glass of wine? It’s Saturday night, I can put on some ‘empty’ calories.

    What was I thinking? Through the thin walls I can hear my neighbour talking in his foreign language. Normal. Normal now, that is. Was it really just two months ago that I lived with my parents? That I ate dinner with people? That I believed in…something? When did I decide that that life was no longer mine? I remember buying the ticket, and realizing that this was it. I’m moving on. My friends and I had our last coffee together. It was at the café that we’d come to deem ours. A quaint little place with overpriced tea and fatty cakes. We talked normally. Well, they talked normally. I never really was much of a talker. They could go on about each other’s lives, schooling, and relationships. And I? What did I have to talk about? Emile was getting serious with her boyfriend, engagement likely soon. Alice was pretty much finished her accelerated learning business course. Of course she was already offered a job in some high powered agency doing something with numbers. I was…moving to Germany. The novelty of it wears off after they’ve exhausted the normal questions.

    “What are you going there for? I can’t believe you’re leaving!”

    Yes well. Unlike you girls, with marriage in the cards, great jobs lined up, and independence I am…unaccomplished. Not that I’d ever switch places with you. I don’t want marriage, and I don’t want to be stuffed into a stupid dress every day to put on a fake smile and tell my employer that E=Mc2, or whatever the hell they do. It’s really a laugh. I was the one in high school with the highest grades, most likely to excel at school. My friends were more interested in the parties. Which I was never invited to. I didn’t care. I wasn’t your normal high school student. I had serious goals; school was the thing in the way of them. But I still did my best at it because I had to be there. So who were these people that I’d once called friends? Now two months into my…independence I’d hardly spoken with any of them, beyond a brief email.
    So why did I come here? Why did I choose Germany out of the entire wonders of Europe? Why go here in the winter? Why not Italy, or Spain, or somewhere…not here? Because it was different. I adjusted to this as naturally as a snail finds his new shell. I found this apartment online, a private room with a shared kitchen and bathroom. I’d love a private washroom, but finances certainly don’t allow for those luxuries. The place is nice, the owner OCD in neatness. My fellow apartment sharers are…eccentric. One a fellow English speaker. She is the master of drinks. She knows the strangest things, and can drink a whole lot before getting smashed. Whether it’s the drinks or the similar lifestyle, I find I can talk with her for hours. Yet with my friends I’d be done in ten minutes. Then there is the guy across the hall. I don’t know much about him, except he seems very nice and talks loudly in his language that I have yet to place. I was quite honestly terrified if this place would work out, considering I knew nothing about it. But that was the excitement of it all. Not knowing what was next.

    So why did I come? Not to find myself. I know who I am. I think. I did it for my goals. What would they be? To find people with stories that need telling. People get so busy with their own stuff that they forget about the rest of the world. I could feel it in myself. Selfish motives for everything. So I dropped everything. Okay, well I didn’t have much to drop, besides being a struggling writer in my home country, to become a struggling writer in Germany. I wanted to see the world, meet people.
    So far I’ve learned a bit about cooking for myself. I’ve mastered train transfers with far too much luggage, and I’ve heard a lot of stories. People can have boring lives, like my friends. Typical lives. But sometimes you meet really interesting people that just need their story told. That’s where I come in. I tell those stories.
    I decided to start by immersing myself in one town. Hence the apartment. But once I feel like I’ve really gotten to know this town, then it’s time to move again, find new adventures. I still talk to my parents weekly. I still have to ask for cooking tips. I still need to see their faces over Skype. But I’ve not had the heart to tell them my greatest fear.

    I don’t know why I’m living. I thought I’d find purpose striking out on my own. Finally doing something, even telling other people’s stories. But I’ve not found it yet. No thousand year old stone has given me that sudden realization what I’m meant to do. No glorious train ride through beautiful countryside has given me that purpose of life. What am I here to do? What is the point in living in a society that supports no morals? What do we have to hold on to anymore? Am I surprised that child suicide rates have gone up? Why should I be? There is increasingly nothing in this life but the superfluous celebrities to show them the way to live. We have no roots. I thought coming to Europe with all its old history would give me the sudden insight into what purpose I have, besides worrying about poisonous hotdogs. But I can’t seem to latch onto its seemingly ancient roots. Perhaps they aren’t so strong.

    Something has to change. I need a reason to live. Why tell people’s stories if we all just die? This life is so important if it’s the only one we have. So we have to do something great with it. And yet what makes a life great? Will I ever be fulfilled?

    It scares me at night when I look outside and see that expansive sky. What is out there beyond this world? This absolutely huge, unfathomable world. How can all of this come from nothing? How did a tiny speck form this massive thing? I don’t believe it. But what do I believe? I guess I’m still trying to find that out. Maybe this old town will give me the answers, if I just stay a little longer. And maybe in two trillion years that hotdog I threw out will be another human being, with another story to tell.
     
  9. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Leverage (2818)



    It had been a long time since I'd been in space. Although you never really forget the feel of zero gravity, it was still a shock when the shuttle first broke free of Zeal’s pull and it felt like my body had burst from the strain, and I was flung into ethereal weightlessness.

    I had forgotten how much I hated it. Thank God for centrifuges.

    As comforting as the fake gravity was, I was beginning to wonder, as I sat in the immigration detention room on Kahai’s space station months later, when I would feel the real thing again. It had been almost an hour since a security officer had escorted me to the sparse room, and there was no way of knowing when I would be let out again. They had said there was a small problem with my visa, and that I was to please wait in this room sir. Of course, locking the door had made their courtesy seem a bit hollow.

    The room itself was small, but not uncomfortably so. It was rectangular, with a table in the middle and two chairs, one on either side. A glass and a jug of water sat casually in the middle of the table. They had been there when I arrived, and I didn’t know how long they had sat there before that. I had decided against a drink of stale water. The walls were pristine white, lit to the point of brilliance by an impressive array of fluorescent lights that left shadows weak and scattered. The door was in the wall across from where I was sitting. Above where the doorknob should have been, there was a one-way mirror, large enough for one or two people to look through at once. It was a little disconcerting to realise that I was possibly being watched.

    I had been a bit nervous about returning to Kahai anyway. My family and I left ten years ago, and a lot had changed since then. Kahai had only begun opening back up to other planets in the past few years, and I owed my new job there to this fact. Kaha speakers were in high demand for the flood of new industry that was pouring in. Zeal was beginning to invest in the new market, economically as well as politically. There was even talk of a defense contract between the two planets. Big money was being thrown around, and that meant new opportunities. My previously useless language skills were suddenly at a premium, and an interpreting company had offered me a job.

    Suddenly, there came the sound of deadbolts sliding back, and the door swung open. A man entered and quickly shut the door behind him, but not before I could catch a glimpse of two more people waiting outside, a man and a woman, dressed in military uniform. The man turned to face me, and after studying me for a moment, he sat in the opposite chair.

    He too was dressed in military uniform, and judging by the bewildering array of medals, ribbons, and cords decorating his chest, he was somebody important. He was middle aged, and his short auburn hair was beginning to gray. His face was hard and impassive; his dark brown eyes showed no mirth, and his emotions, if there were any, were impossible to read.

    He took out an infoslate and started it up. It flickered into life, and he began to peruse its contents. No doubt he already knew whatever information the infoslate would supply, but I got the feeling that he wanted me to firmly understand who was in charge.
    He glanced up a
    t me, as if to make sure he had my attention, then he looked back at the glowing slate in his hand.

    “Daniel Vox,” he read. He had a firm baritone voice with a slight accent.

    “Born in Ekotan, Kahai to parents William and Sheri Vox on the fourteenth of May, in the year 632, Standardised Earth Reckoning.” He spoke almost perfect Zeali, but I quickly overcame my surprise, hoping it had not shown on my face. He seemed to take a certain relish in speaking, and he enunciated the words slowly, exaggerating his intonation slightly. After a short pause to eyeball me and make sure I was still listening, he continued listing off the information I had given to Kahai immigration, seemingly in no particular order and for a purpose as yet unknown. Education history, employer, reason for visit, intended address while on the planet, intended length of stay, contact information for Kahai national sponsor, the list went on.

    Eventually he finished. He shifted his gaze to me and slowly put down the infoslate with a noise that seemed disproportionately loud.

    After another, lengthy pause he said, “Mr. Vox. Would you say that I speak Zeali well?”

    I was a little surprised by the question and confused as to its relevance, but I answered yes, I thought he spoke excellently. He nodded and continued speaking.

    “Then you will agree that it is unlikely that I have misunderstood the information you have provided to us?”

    “Yes, I suppose.”

    “So if there were any irregularity to be found, it would not be due to an interpretation error on my part, it would, in fact, be due to the nature of the information you have provided?”

    After a pause I replied, “An irregularity?”

    The man folded his hands, his gaze never wavering.

    “Mr. Vox, perhaps you have realised that when I read out your information, there was one piece I left out.”

    My mind raced for a moment.

    “Occupation, Mr. Vox. I did not read out your job.”

    Puzzled, I replied, “I’m an interpreter. That’s what I said my job was. Don’t you believe me?”

    There was no change in his expression.

    “See look,” I said, switching languages, “I can speak Kaha. Are you happy now?”

    “Mr. Vox, we do not doubt that you are an interpreter.” He still spoke Zeali, so I replied in kind.

    “Then what’s the problem?”

    “That is, we do doubt that you are only an interpreter.”

    “How do you mean?”

    The man looked down at the infoslate for a long moment.

    “Mr. Vox, would you consider Zeal to be your home?”

    Again I was confused by his line of questioning. After a while I replied, “I am a citizen of Zeal, yes.”

    “But Mr. Vox, would you consider it to be your home?” He looked at me with a light in his eyes. Here was something he was passionate about. It was the first emotion I had seen display itself on his perfectly controlled features.

    “Ah, well I suppose you’re referring to my childhood on Kahai. Indeed, it did take a while to adjust to life on Zeal, but yes, I would call it my home now.”

    The blank expression had returned to his face.

    “During your time on Zeal, did you ever miss Kahai, Mr. Vox?”

    “Yes of course I did. I hadn’t ever known any other place, so naturally I missed it.”

    “Do you still miss your old life on Kahai, Mr. Vox?”

    “I suppose so, yes. Everyone has a certain feeling of nostalgia about their childhood home.”

    “An educated man like yourself would of course be aware that there have been some significant changes on Kahai since you and your family were here.”

    I chose my words carefully. “If you are referring to the... political changes, then yes, I am aware. My family left just before the war started.”

    “Now despite the great prosperity and progress Kahai has enjoyed since the War of Liberation, I suppose that you might still miss Kahai as it was, Mr. Vox. Kahai as you knew it.”

    “Well yes, that’s the only Kahai I could miss. But what does that have to do with my job?” I was getting annoyed now, and it must have shown in my voice.

    “No need to get upset, Mr. Vox, we will come to that soon enough.”

    Without any further explanation, he got up, taking the infoslate with him, and left the room. I heard the deadbolts slide efficiently back into place.

    My patience beginning to wear thin, I sat trying to figure out what could possibly be going on. What could the man have meant by ‘only an interpreter’?

    My thoughts were interrupted when the door was unlocked and the man returned. This time, along with the infoslate, he had a book in his hands. As he sat down, he carefully laid it on the table in front of him, his eyes watching my face, searching for a reaction. I believe my puzzled look must have disappointed him.

    “Mr. Vox, would you care to explain the presence of this item in your luggage?”

    “Certainly. It’s my Zeali-Kaha dictionary. It was my parents’ when they lived here, but they gave it to me when I decided to come back. Surely an interpreter is allowed to carry a bi-lingual dictionary.”

    The man did not seem amused.

    “A dictionary certainly, but –“

    I abandoned politeness in favour of finding out just what in the galaxy was going on. “Then what’s the problem? I’m getting tired of being detained without being told why. Tell me what’s going on.”

    Behind the man’s blank features, I knew his mind was hard at work. After a tense moment, he opened the book to the inside cover and pointed at the publisher’s mark. It was an image of a ringed planet enclosing a six pointed star.

    “This, as I am sure you are aware, Mr. Vox, is the symbol of the old monarchy, despots overthrown in the War of Liberation. Of course there are still those who would seek to reinstate the old order, despite its hypocrisy and tyranny. Think carefully, now, Mr. Vox, and tell the truth.” The man rose swiftly, knocking his chair over, and slammed the table with his hand. His face grew red with sudden anger and his voice rose to a shout. “Are you or are you not a member of a secret organisation planning to overthrow the government of Kahai and reinstate the monarchy?”

    I sat stunned for a moment. I could hardly believe it. My own chair clattered to the floor, and I let out my frustration and indignation at this man who had kept me here for so long.

    “You have detained me, interrogated me, and accused me of being some sort of terrorist because of a publisher’s mark in my dictionary? When Zeal hears about this they are not going to be pleased, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who the head of this space station is going to pass the blame on to when this all comes back to him, so you’d better update your resume, pal, because you’re going to be needing it real soon.”

    We stood there, eyeballing each other for a few tense moments. Suddenly a woman opened the door, breaking the thick silence.

    “Commander, the captain requests your presence in his office.”

    She seemed nervous, and glanced in my direction a few times as she spoke. Perhaps she had heard the shouting from outside, or perhaps she could just feel the anger heavy in the air.

    After a moment the commander turned and left without speaking, leaving the dictionary on the table. Once more I was alone.

    I picked up my chair and sat back down, feeling a little foolish for having lost my temper. I told myself that this sort of thing was what you expected from a planet fresh from civil war like Kahai. I told myself that I had to get to grips with the fact that Kahai had changed, that it wasn’t the place I had grown up in anymore. It certainly wasn’t Zeal either.

    Still, something nagged at me. Surely, even on paranoid Kahai, they wouldn’t detain a Zeali citizen for a publisher’s mark. The captain must know the diplomatic storm that it would create. I figured that there must be more at work than I could see, some piece of the puzzle that I wasn’t aware of.

    As I sat, trying to think what could possibly motivate the captain to bring such a thing down on himself, the door opened again. This time a different man entered. Another military officer, even more extravagantly decorated than the last. He spoke to me in Kaha.

    “Mr. Vox, I am Captain Itekh. I am here to offer my most profound apologies for the way you have been treated, and to tell you that you are free to go. The shuttle is ready and waiting.” He smiled ingratiatingly.
    “But – but what about the –“

    He cut me off quickly. “No need to worry about that Mr. Vox, it was just a small misunderstanding. I do hope it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience. Now, if you’ll allow me to escort you to the docking bay, you can be on your way at once.” Another smile.

    I picked up my dictionary and allowed myself to be shepherded out of the room and through the space station towards the docking bay. I still had no idea why they had held me in custody only to release me without explanation, but I was glad to be on my way, so I didn’t say anything.

    At the docking bay a group of officers was waiting, including the one who had interrogated me. He nervously watched the captain as we entered. I allowed myself a smug smile as I passed him and entered the waiting shuttle. Boy was he in for it.

    The shuttle was old, and the ride was bumpy. I hung on grimly to the armrests as we hurtled towards the surface of the planet, only releasing my deathgrip once the shuttle had landed and the doors opened again.

    Inside the small terminal a man in a suit was waiting for me. I could tell from his black hair and eyes that he wasn’t from Kahai. He flashed me a smile and extended a hand in greeting.

    “Hi Daniel, I’m Toben. We talked over the Relay. Welcome to Kahai.” I recognised my new boss’ voice.

    “It’s great to be back,” I replied. And it was true. We emerged from the building into the warm outside air, almost suffocating in its humidity. Familiar smells assailed my nostrils, dredging up long lost childhood memories. I breathed deeply, enjoying the open sky after months in space.

    As my luggage was loaded into a taxi, Toben spoke again.

    “You know you caused quite a stir today, Daniel.”

    I looked over at him, surprised.

    “So you heard about my little adventure in immigration? That was quick.” I was feeling in a much better mood now that I was back on the ground. The whole episode was quickly becoming more humorous in my mind than it had seemed at the time.

    Toben flashed another quick smile. “I have my sources. News travels quickly on Kahai.”

    We got into the taxi and the door closed with a soft thud behind us.

    “I suppose I ought to tell you what was really going on,” he continued as we started down the dusty road.

    “Aha, I knew there must have been something else to it.” I grinned triumphantly.

    “Yes quite. It was the captain of the space station, you see. He was using you as leverage.”

    “Leverage?”

    “Yes. See the Kaha Space Navy is pretty pathetic. In fact, that old tin can of a shuttle you came in on and the space station are all there is. The captain has been trying for years to get enough money from the defence ministry to build a proper ship, but they keep turning him down. So today he saw an opportunity to get what he wanted.”

    “But what do I have to do with the captain getting money for a space ship?”

    “You were used as leverage, like I said. The defence ministry is just in the process of negotiating a big weapons deal with your home planet Zeal. The last thing they want is any sort of diplomatic difficulty upsetting the deal. This is where you come in. You, my friend, represented a very big potential diplomatic difficulty.”

    I was starting to catch on.

    “You mean – the captain, by holding me, was threatening the weapons deal, and using it to get money out of the defence ministry? Like blackmail?”

    Toben laughed. “Like I said earlier, we like to call it leverage here on Kahai, Daniel. But yes, you get the idea.”

    I sat back in my seat. It was then that I realised just how much Kahai had changed since I had left. Or maybe it had always been like this, and I had simply gotten more accustomed to living on Zeal than I had previously thought. I stared out the window of the taxi, watching the city of my childhood roll past.
     
  10. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Word count 1052
    Title: Out of the comfort zone



    Adam Smith’s mother had never worked in the usual sense, she was a freelance writer for local papers and as such had no stable income to speak of, Adam’s dad held down a job with a builder with a property developer, he had done since he left school at age fifteen and he loved the work, it paid well too and they had enough money for a nice holiday every year. They had even brought him to Disney World for his 11th Birthday last Summer, the memories of which still brightened Adam’s dreams.

    However about four months ago a large black sedan pulled up into the driveway leading up to the Smith’s house. A stern looking man of strong build floated towards the house as if taking a stroll in the park. By chance it was Adam that heard the knock and Adam opened the door. Adam had to look up at the man who towered above him like a mountain over a hill. He greeted Adam with a watery smile and eyes full of sympathy and asked was dad around, Adam acknowledged in the affirmative and he turned on his heels leaving the man in the door toward the living room, he found his dad, and brought him to the door. He heard his dad say “John?, what are you doing here, come in I’ll make you a cup of tea” The stern looking man named John, told Adam’s dad “Bad news, Brian.” Adam’s dads’ face dropped at this, the warmth of his face wiped from his face quicker than water off a window. Adam was still standing statue-like listening to the conversation. His dad told him to go into the living room and Adam did as instructed.

    Several hours passed and Adam had long since retreated to the safety of his room raised voices were heard in the kitchen and then as quickly as they started, they stopped and Adam heard sobbing, had Dad hit her he thought? He ran to the kitchen and saw Mum with her head on Dad’s shoulder, she was sobbing, tears rolled down her cheeks, her hair was tangled. On the other hand Dad looked like he had taken ten rounds with the heavyweight world champion, he was uneasy on his feet and looked down right uncomfortable when he saw Adam. His parent’s broke their embrace. Adam’s world moved slower, actions seemed more deliberate scratch of the chairs on the ceramic floor as his father pulled up three seats. He explained that John, the guy who called earlier was his boss, Adam could see what was coming, he noticed the use of tense, he was his boss, so he wasn’t anymore. Dad explained that they would get by and he promised to get work somewhere. Dad was so reassuring, whereas his mother was, without fail, pessimistic the result of failing to be published, novel after novel each one a blow to morale. They juxtaposed each other in every situation Dad had that uncanny ability to convince you the sun was shining when you were being soaked by a storm. Adam always believed him, no matter what his dad was a pillar.

    Dad didn't find a job and just over a week ago he sat Adam down and explained the situation, he used big words like economic climate and negative equity. The end result of which was that they would have to emigrate, before this sunk in Adam was shown the
    tickets and they would be moving to New York - the land of opportunity dad exclaimed. Dad promised they would visit the Bronx Zoo and go to a New York Yankee’s game ! To Adam, Dad’s excitement was palpable however a fool could tell he scarcely meant it. The week until their flight rolled by, time had the strange effect of moving quicker when you wanted it to stop.
    There was no going away party, people came round to the house to say their goodbyes, Adam would have guessed they were at a funeral judging by their demeanor, they spoke in hushed voices and some old women who Adam barely knew hugged him and gave him sweets and talked is hushed voices. Adam felt worse, they made him feel as if he was on his deathbed, “Was America really that bad?!”
    Adam refused to go to school the day they were going to leave, he didn't want to say goodbye to his best friend Karl so he could have an excuse to text him. Adam worried about Karl, they were best friends and Karl didn't have many others besides. He thought of asking Dad could he stay with Karl while Dad lives in New York but he would miss his parents too much. Saturday, judgement day, rolled round and bags were packed, the house was cleared with some furniture store buying most of it in one go, the house would be sold by the bank and it might make enough to cover the rest of the mortgage, as Adam had picked up from the conversations between his parents.
    A taxi came ‘round at three and during the short trip to the airport, Adam rested his head against the cold glass taking in the kaleidoscope of green in the rolling fields and meadows, they’ll have nothing like this in America, sure said the taxi driver, dad replied “mmm” he didn't want to talk either. They reached the airport, then the customs office, then the boarding checks. Adam hated the hustle and bustle of airports, he trailed behind his dad one hand firmly on the suitcase that he clung to like a climber to a rock. They reached the boarding gate and it was five o'clock by then. It was six when they sat on the plane and six-thirty when the ocean was beneath them. Adam didn't speak and slowly fell asleep. Dreaming of something wonderful, something new.

    It was six am when JFK beckoned, the plane landed and Adam and his family descended a flight of steps. They were in a concrete jungle now. Adam was outside his comfort zone and into the unknown. He gripped both his parents hands tightly and they shared a moment of awe. They walked together.
     
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