I found Grendel perched over the dying man's feeble and withered frame. He was half watching an episode of Married With Children with his single throbbing eye ball. His astral hand tinkered with the man's heart through his steadily rising and falling chest.

I slumped down in the nearest chair. It happened to be occupied by the man's weeping spouse. She didn't seem to mind us occupying four dimensions at once. She shivered, wiped her tears and begun to sob louder.

"I can't take a break with you, can I? Jesus H. Christ on a stick, man. I leave for what, an hour and you're up to this bullshit?"

I flapped my wings nervously. I shed a couple of feathers that immediately dissolved into a glowing, golden mist.

Grendel simply sat and twisted his fingers around the deep fried gunk that clogged the man's ticker.

His posterior erupted in a magnificently noxious fart that was thankfully contained to the higher reaches of the celestial realm. The dying man knew nothing but a gentle and sweet wind upon his scruffy face.

Somewhere, an angel died. I, however was made of much tougher stuff than to be slain by a demon's partially digested breakfast burrito.

"He is your assignment, Michael."

He spoke, pulling the diseased tissue from around the man's straining head and into nothingness.

His widow stopped sobbing for a moment, her head occupying the space that was reserved for my astral colon.

I snapped my fingers. Somewhere within the man's lungs a vicious and incurable cancer began to devour healthy, smoke free tissue.

"So? I should have the right to go to a movie or something."

Grendel scowled with jagged, ill fitting teeth and plunged his three clawed astral hand into the man's lungs. He grunted as the cancer put up a glorious battle.

"You're the Arch Angel of Death, Rebirth, War and Cotton Candy. You exist in a completely delineated plane of existence. This moment for you is both your job interview and retirement party. You're experiencing the end times and The Almighty kicking my buddies and I from heaven.

You know who's going to win the Superbowl. Every Superbowl until it fades from memory. Why would you want to see a movie?"

He replied, bestowing the ravaged man with the gift of life with a flick of his scaly wrist.

I kicked off my sandals, causing his withered muscles to rot through a mysterious east African pathogen.

I shrugged.

"I like Bill Murray."

Was my only reply.

Grendel lowered a gaping celestial mouth and sucked the poor bastard's flesh clean. It was an agonizing five minutes, but he was left pathogen free.

I snapped my fingers. The man gasped, shat his robe and died. His widow became hysterical and ran out of the room screaming.

"You're an ass."

Grendel said with a scowl.

"Now, now.."

I started, but Wheel of Fortune came on.

Her authoritative voice seemed so hollow and weak over the low bandwidth connection. It was a blessing in disguise. The woman's menacing red fedora seemed to have less of an effect on me as its pixelated form bounced across a hundred thousand miles of cheap Guatemalan fiber optics.

I could never quite put my finger on how it was able to shake my world so much. But it was certainly the embodiment of her personality. Brash and unique, easy to spot out in a crowd.

The woman was everything I wasn't. And we hated one another for it, even as we clawed at one another's clothes in our ignorant years.

Her web cam was uneven and shaky. The sun was just beginning to bleed out of the horizon behind her. Carmen always had a flare for the dramatic.

"Good morning, Wally."

She chirped in a sing song voice, pulling the brim of her hat over one of her big, blue eyes.

We'd both be dead long before she could figure out just how wrong she was.

I nodded respectfully, as I always did. My breakfast was just coming in. I tried to steel my eyes against Wanda's over zealous night gown. Carmen was still a furiously jealous woman and I'd get absolutely nothing out of her if I rubbed her personal failures in her perfect face.

We chatted about the failing dollar as Wanda fretted about my office like a mother hen, dotting and dusting while I munched on my soggy toast and sipped my tepid coffee.

When she had finally left (no doubt to examine the pool boy's latest wares) she let out a devious laugh.

"Coffee still? I thought your doctors told you to give up the caffeine. I can't have your body giving out on me yet. Not when I'm so close to putting together all the pieces of the puzzle you've laid out for me."

I narrowed my eyes from behind my newest prescription and lit a cigarette. I sucked on it until my lungs burned with the acrid smoke. It made me feel alive again. The mother hen would have my balls if Carmen ever decided to share some of my less wholesome hobbies with her.

"That's not the only thing I haven't given up. Old habits don't exactly die quite as easily as new ones."

I shot back, smashing the life out of the butt into what remained of my toast.

She sighed. Odlaw found that out the hard way, squeezed in to an iron lung for the last six months of his wretched life.

I could hear camels groaning in the background. Was she in the Sahara again? The tracking device I had managed to bury deep into the base of her skull still showed her position where I had left what I had believed her mangled body to be, deep beneath the Greenland ice sheet.

Clearly she was clever.

"Attached you'll find the plans for the M.C. Escher Project. Odlaw isn't exactly around to stick his nose into your business anymore, but his estate is still pretty active. So when you release this to the press please do try to keep your nose clean? And for heaven's sake-.."

"Don't tell anyone that you dye your hair, yada yada."

The clarity of her cam suddenly became crystal clear for a brief moment. Her eye bore into me.

"Why do you have to be such a jackass, Waldo?"

The fire in her voice was brutal.

I sighed and started the download.

"Why do you keep helping me, C?"

I couldn't help but let a tiny bit of contempt slip through. I hated her, but I couldn't get the smell of her hair out of my head.

"What you're doing is right."

Was her only reply. Her connection was beginning to grow fuzzy. Pops and whistles interrupted the subtle nuances of her delicate face.

"About Greenland.."

I started. I could hear Wanda's routine bringing her back to my office.

"Yeah?"

"I'd do it again."

I said in a deadpan voice was the door knob rattled. The download finished.

"I know."

The connection died.

What If?

Everyone collects one thing or another throughout their life. It may be part of the human condition, but it sure seems like the human race has been wired to squirrel away little trinkets for no particular reason other than they seem to create some sort of happiness that is almost tangible.

Sure, on occasion you'll witness the odd man out. The guy who doesn't seem to have anything to really show for thirty or forty years of living. But invariably if you look closer at these strange specimens you'll notice the same underlaying humanoid mechanics and the need for unnecessary clutter to arrange and sort just so.

Enter the world of Joel.

Joel was thirty five, balding and enjoyed the rather uninteresting sport of cricket racing. It wasn't really an obsession or a hobby, this cricket racing. But he found pleasure in watching the occasional match on his back porch, nestled safely below the super highway that straddled his sprawling fictional city.

Upon first glance Joel did not seem to collect anything. He was logical and thoughtful about his clothing. He regularly gave away old DVDs and CDs. He had no elaborate temple dedicated purely to a specific variant of sub-antarctic water fowl. No cupboard full of antique salt and pepper shakers from central Turkey.

No. Joel was altogether different than the average man on the street. He dealt exclusively in the world of his imagination.

Joel collected ex lovers and the future lives therein. He maintained no in depth manifesto or law suit inducing photography collection. But rather an elaborate series of worlds constructed purely on the "What if it worked out?" scenario that was all too common with men of his economic, political geographical and racial profile.

He mentally maintained twenty six relationships, twenty five of them purely imaginary with people who may or may not have expired sometime in the recent or not so recent past.

This average run of the mill man might have become a genius in another world and in fact he maintained three realities wherein two college sweethearts and a one night fling encouraged him to further his understanding of the universe and subsequently bettered the whole of humanity a significant amount.

He held marriages to fifteen women, two men (oddly enough the most stable of his collected "What-ifs," even though he was firmly heterosexual throughout much of his life) and was theoretically proposed to nine individuals. He held doctorates in biology, metallurgy, chemistry and homeland security. Three of his potential selves were severely obese and two were very healthy.

Twenty potential selves, oddly enough did not find cricket racing interesting in the least. This greatly troubled Joel when he mulled it over while watching the sport. It sort of ruined it for him, in an oddly recursive way.

Every one of his worlds was completely realistic. There was no reality wherein he was not fully himself.

But this is not the story of how Joel collects worlds in his mind for his own petty amusement while riding public transportation. This is the story about how these worlds, however imaginary, killed him in twenty seven ways.

It happened purely by accident one morning while Joel was in reality brushing, flossing, rinsing and washing his rather so-so set of adult teeth. While fully aware of his surroundings he was engaged in one case of wake up sex, ten morning defecations, five early commutes, three breakfasts, two mind blowing blow jobs, two hangovers, one agonizing case of the flu, and one father son talk.

The theoretical wake up sex was great. His husband (a boy he met when he was 13 at Camp Spruce Goose) had always been a great, gentle man. But had always been interested in the weirder side of sexuality. While sudden and completely accidental asphyxiation may have seemed amusing to the average person against Star Wars themed relations, the void it left was sudden and complete.

Joel stopped brushing his teeth and replayed the instant of gratification. Up until that moment in his life the number of theoretical lives had steadily been growing. There was never an instance of losing one.

This happening troubled Joel. With tooth paste dribbling from the corner of his mouth he wondered what had just happened. He was fully sane and in no way delusional. His what-if lives had been purely constructed and in no way had lives of their own.

Yet there he was, his first theoretical life ended. His storm trooper body slick with sweat and death shit while his husband (a cardiologist) performed CPR.

But it was over. The reality slipped away and by the time his mouth was rinsed of his breakfast sandwich, it was gone altogether.

His other selves gasped in unison creating a strange chain reaction in their respective lives. Twenty spouses looked at him oddly, three cats glared indifferently and a goldfish spat bubbles and shat. There was no Darth Vader clad cardiologist to ask what the hell was wrong with him.

Joel and his now twenty four selves went about their days. They collectively mulled over the incident while the real self went about on his daily routine. The real missus was out of town, so it was going to be a beer and chicken wing fueled morning.

It was during the morning news that his second self died. Just as he had begun to grasp the reality of an isolated incident, his second life came to an abrupt and terminal end as his cheating spouse (his first girlfriend, a nerdy little seventh grader) set their home ablaze in a prescription drug fueled frenzy.

An exploding propane tank filled his worlds with pain and fire. Visibly shaken, the remaining selves broke out in cold sweats.

Collectively, within their different theoretical homes each self found a mirror and stared into it. The real Joel just stared slack jawed into the reflection he cast on his ancient television.

Am I mad, he thought to himselves collectively. No, of course not.

Every theoretical life was carefully and thoughtfully fabricated. There was no grand delusion. It was simply his imagination (by then overly active) running away with itself. But however hard he tried to will the nerd-girl loving investment broker, or the Darth Vader loving web designer back to life it was futile.

They were gone. Their realities, more than two decades in the making each had been snuffed out. Over forty collective theoretical years. He and his collective selves shuddered like beanie baby collectors would after a home flood.

He and his twenty three remaining theoretical selves stopped. They immediately formulated a plan that involved every self withdrawing from their lives temporarily. It was a strange precaution, but Joel wanted to safeguard his elaborate collection to the best of his ability.

He laid down on the couch as a fleet of men nearly identical to him started their theoretical cars, hopped on their theoretical motorcycles and departed in their theoretical yachts.

Six hours passed before a coastal storm drove his third self to the bottom of the sea clutching a deflated life raft. Another two hours passed before his forth met it's untimely end at the hand of a freak car jacking incident with an enigmatic corn rowed youth named C.J.

Frantic, Joel directed his likewise upset selves into hiding. Withdrawing from their carefully built lives was not good enough.

This directive inevitably and immediately brought the brutal end to five, six and seven. Terrified by their own theoretical deaths they had all failed to pay attention to their environments. Five found himself hit by a bus, six fell down a flight of stairs and seven curiously enough was caught in the epicenter of a U.S. Air Force bombing range.

And so it continued in sequential order. The husband to an iron worker, dead. A marine biologist and father of six, dead. The would be husband of a pop star, crushed to death by a stage light. Occasionally hours would pass between ends. Sometimes two within the span of minutes.

Gradually Joel's stress began to build. Number twenty three, a severely obese self proposed to a McDonalds franchiser sustained a massive heart attack brought on by the severe mental condition caused by watching yourself repeatedly die. Go figure.

Nearly five hundred years of theoretical life were extinguished. Within Joel's mind, only one terrified self remained. He imagined the man gasping for air, clutching at a shooting pain in his right arm. His eyes were wide and laden with baggage.

It was then that Joel himself began to experience the tell tale symptoms of a heart attack. As life bled from his last remaining theoretical life his real body cried out in agony.

Soon the last remaining theoretical Joel collapsed into unconsciousness.

Rolling off the couch, clutching his left arm as if it were broken his view of the last what-if grew blurry. Remarkably like it's actual self, he was only three months removed. Proposed to a Russian immigrant, he'd never see his unborn son.

He died, ironically enough in a gutter. The real Joel was left with only his own thoughts and a failing heart. He considered just letting it happen. But the phone rang.

It was Clara, his girlfriend of two months.

She wanted to break it off. It seemed she had been wrong to assume she could change his strange habit of examining her faulty logic. As the real Joel's eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed onto the kitchen floor, a new one was born.

A Joel that received a call from Clara. Her just wanting to say "I love you." before bed.

The real Joel passed into unconsciousness. But the new theoretical Joel remained aware. His connection grew fuzzy with his progenitor as blood bled from his real brain.

Soon there was nothing.

Theoretical Joel pondered this as his real self died. And he continued for quite sometime afterward.

I've never been my very own person, my very own being. In the beginning I was merely a part of a real person, a young man born into privilege and power; the things he never wanted. He loved a girl he wasn't allowed to have, he yearned for a life that was below his station; and yet he wasn't content in the idea that he could have it. I was still a part of him then, I felt the same as he.


But then we split apart, slowly... I began to have my own feelings, my own ideas; I fought for control and I lost in the end. Expelled, I was all but killed in his fear of what I was; twisted and deformed when I was first born I couldn't blame him. But I was angry then, so angry at everything; at him for rejecting me, that girl for never looking at me with the same eyes as she did with him, the world that spawned me... and deep down in my core I was angry at the man who caused this all to happen.


Bleeding to death in a manner of speaking and consumed with hate I was seduced by the siren song from a vast distance. It soothed my hate and my grievous wound; it made me feel as though somebody could understand the twisted creature that I was. I went to it, I traveled across universes in numbers I could never calculate, all to find the source of this song...


I found it in a dead little universe over one hundred twenty trillion years old; it was a huge crystal obelisk. When I tried to touch its surface I was consumed whole... and there I met the one who sung that song, the siren. Then I learned...


I was blasphemy, I was sin. A bastardization of the Human essence, composed of nearly all that was dark and evil; I had no redeeming qualities. But more than that I was composed of equal parts of two forces that should never have existed in balance; and then they weren't in balance, the Life Force that composed one half was damaged and burned, a good piece destroyed by the one who spawned me. I was on the brink of destroying myself, the very nature of my being was going to kill me.


I didn't want to die, even when I knew what I was; a monster and a freak that never should have been allowed to exist. But still I was too angry, too full of hate; I was blind to my fate when I became its bound servant. In return for my service I would be allowed to live, the damage would be repaired. I would be allowed to seek my revenge against those that had wronged my damnable existence, but at the same time I was to do its bidding.


Its bidding, it turned out, was something I did with relish; at first, that is. I was capable of making others suffer, I was capable of taking out all the pain, the anger, the hatred for myself and others on beings who did me no wrong. I made the lives of countless millions hard, I made them curse their own existence, their own fate. But more than that I enslaved entire populations, I turned worlds inside out as I spread my influence amongst their populations.


But even as I reveled in the carnage, the destruction, the testament to my own power... something inside of me took away from the pleasure. It was a feeling, deep down inside that I was doing something wrong, something terrible. Oh, I tried to ignore it, I tried to push it away... but it refused to simply stop. I could live with it, I thought; I could live with the weight of my sins if it helped release my pent up emotions.


But even as they were released that feel creped deeper inside, the void left by them was being filled with something far worse.


The campaign that I waged at the bidding of my new master was long, it was bloody, it was Hell. Worlds were destroyed, entire populations wiped from reality; their souls weren't even spared. My master desired them all, and so I collected them with a sword that was given to me, a sword made of the same black crystal that my master seemed to exist inside of. To this day the screams still haunt me; the screams of the damned, their wails of terror and strife as they were sealed within the blade that I carry even now.


But if that was not enough I gained a following. As though I were some kind of messiah the people whom bowed to me worshiped my being with almost a fanatical drive. I unified them, yes... but I also killed their families, their friends, their neighbors... I was no hero, no savior, no god! I was a killer bathed in the blood of the innocent, a reaver of souls that fed the desire of a master whom used me as a pawn.


The guilt, the despair... the horror at my actions. It was all building, it was all growing. The fire in my soul was dying, the hate and revenge that I lusted for was exhausted; only the guilt remained. It was something I could never understand, something that I could never grasp; why did I feel this way? I was all that was terrible and evil in a being, the darkness that so many cursed. I should have enjoyed it all, I shouldn't have felt this way.


But I did.


Even if I don't sleep there are times when I let my being wander, where I "dream" in a sense. And as time wore on my dreams grew more disturbing, closer to the reality I wanted to run from. The faces of the beings I killed haunted me, their wails echoed off the hollow essence that made up my form, the guilt took on a voice of its own, screaming at me.


Even in my dreams I couldn't escape what I had done, what I felt. I couldn't live this way, I just couldn't... and so I tried to throw down my sword, to renounce my master and its ways, hoping that it would lift the the guilt, the shame that I faced every moment of my life for so very long now.


The pain... oh, the pain I felt as it punished me, as my master made me bow before it. It had nested inside me, it had bound itself to my being in a way that it could bend my will to its own through a pain I had not felt before in my entire so called life. I could feel my two opposite natures boiling at one another, tearing me apart from the inside out on a level that beyond beyond sub-atomic I wished so desperately for it to stop, but I knew that everything would continue...


I wished that I would just die, then and there. Then, maybe, I would have been free of it all. But I wasn't strong enough. I wasn't brave enough.


I gave into my master, I vowed my loyalty once more... I took the sword back in hand and I fought in its name, to build its kingdom. A kingdom founded on the power it drained from the living, a kingdom that was crafted from the bones of the dead, a kingdom where I was to be a faux god to the survivors who would rally under my name, their desire for power and greatness blinding them to the fact that they were slaves.


That we were all slaves.


I hate myself... I hate myself for being weak, pathetic... I hate myself for what I have done, the sins that will never wash away. I hate the guilt, I hate the sorrow that I feel deep within me. I hate the false power that I control through the will of my master, a master whom I hate. I hate my very being, I hate the nature of who I am that binds me to slavery, I hate those who spawned me, those who rejected me.


I hate the very day I was born.


Why was I born? Was it just to suffer? Was it to make others suffer as well? Was my existance just a quirk, an accident that had no meaning to it, that had no prospects of ever finding happiness? Why was I born?! WHY?!


I can't answer that... I doubt anybody can. It's one of those questions that stands there, mocking you with its presence for as long as you exist, taunting you with the knowledge that you can never answer it.


I had no purpose even as I ruled a kingdom; I was too lost in my own guilt to see a point in going on. I returned to my homeworld on a whim, looking to see if maybe, somehow, I could see those whom I left behind. I didn't know what I would do if I met them, met him... saw her. But I didn't care, anything would have done. But even as I came close I knew something was wrong... my homeworld was burning.


They were rampaging, they were killing, they were enjoying it all so much. Everywhere I looked there was death, destruction, mayhem; it was like looking at my own work. I shuddered, a feeling passing over me that I had no felt before; if I were Human I'd of been sick. My past was being destroyed piece of by piece, my memories being invalidated as buildings were leveled and people killed. The familiar feeling of hate came back, then... hate for those who dared to ruin a world which gave me life, no matter how much I hated it.


They were there, I could feel them; the one who spawned me and the woman we shared a love for. I went to them, I went as fast as I could... but it was all for nothing; he was dead when I got there, slain by the weapons of the invaders. And she... well, she was taken by their leader, their little red prince as a trophy.


I had nothing, then. No connections to the past, no desire to live in the present, no hope for a future. Everything was gone, everything was destroyed. I had nothing at that moment, I was literally nothing; just the ghost of a dead man. And those with nothing look for something, anything to hold onto to, to take for their own... to use to tell themselves that THEY EXIST.


And for me, that was hate. A bitter, seething hate that grew inside of me, that pushed the guilt and sorrow out of my mind, out of my consciousness. It consumed me, it ate away at all that I was; the fire was back and it burned with a brightness that could rival the stars. If I couldn't have anything but my hatred, then I would have to return the favor... I would destroy all which that little red prince held dear with my hatred. I would leave him with nothing but hate for me... I would let him be consumed in the same fires that consumed me.


And when that day came, then maybe the guilt would return for my sins... and maybe I would feel even more when I looked back and saw the price that was paid for my hate. But you know something...


I think, maybe, I could "live" with it. Because, you see, after I made him pay, after I burned the whole of his empire to ashes, when I brought death to the vastness of what I now know as the Keeper Empire... I won't care.


I won't be able to care... because I plan to not exist after that. If his empire is to burn I know that it will take all that I have, all that I am... my hatred is all that's keeping me going now, and when that source of hate is gone, I plan to go with it.


Maybe then, after I have been crushed into near nothingness, when my life is fading away and I come face to face with oblivion I will be able to answer a question that has been burning in me for so long now. The one question that I've wanted an answer to for so long...


Why was I born?

I would later learn that years prior when the plague broke out on the mainland and the sterile atoll of Altuna's Chariot became some sort of impromptu leper colony, the resident legionnaire corps of engineers dug in deeper than they had ever managed to go before.

The then starving and imposing undead lit the proverbial match under their collective asses. Once their keen senses, honed by Altima's hand sensed warm flesh beneath their shuffling feet they clawed through the narrow corridors after the terrified and all but abandoned legions of Isyr.

Our nation celebrated landfall here long before my birth. No one had ever reported in that long stretch of time Altima's ever probing and subversive mind. Whether or not she had laid dormant all these years while humanity tried to make sense of her mastery of technology I've yet to discover.

Maybe the engineers stumbled upon her lair while attempting in vain to escape the restless undead and somehow awakened her. Or maybe there was a grain of truth in her crooning voice. Maybe I was special.

I sure thought I was as I came to the end of the line. I almost missed it at first. The corridor was cleverly designed to loop back in on itself into a never ending labyrinth. I had no light to guide me, but I could feel his presence. I could smell the special type of decay that comes with Isyr soil and Altima's sickness.

He was a legionnaire in life. As I ran my bloodied and raw fingers over his breast plate I could make out the holy lion cub, their battle flag. It was crusty, I could feel excrement and blood flake off the exquisitely machined armor like paint off of an old barn.

The legionnaire, a corporal by the way his elaborate helmet protected his nose, was little more than withered muscles bound to broken bones. I stole his exhausted gunblade and discarded the long since dead power cell on the rubble strewn floor.

I had to rip it from his withered, dead hand but I managed to loot his last remaining power cell. I jammed it into the hilt and turned on the blade's search light.

I was blinded at first, it could have been days since Altima's invasion of my mind. She cackled as I allowed my shame to come into the light. I was still nude and much of the skin on my legs was chapped and red.

Shamelessly I clawed through the dead man's rucksack and feasted upon his long since disused rations. He stared at me with hollow eye sockets and chuckled with a slack jaw.

Before long as I continued toward her lair I saw more of them, the unlucky victims of the plague. They were all in military finest, armed and quite dead. Most of them had been feasted upon, but toward the end it was obvious what kind of dismal fear men succumb to in the dark with no escape. Eventually the blood soaked and shredded garb faded to neat, tidy bodies with single entry wounds. The kind born out of resignation and surrender.

I wanted to count them all and collect their badges. But their families were dead, and even though the light from my looted weapon kept the malicious voice at bay, she still teased me.

She seemed so sweet on the surface, but as I grew closer her malice shone through. I knew I should have looted what supplies I could from the dead and return to the surface, but even as she mocked me for the tears I shed over my countrymen I grew excited.

I stopped many times and succumbed to her pressure. Sometimes amongst the dead, their bodies stinking and cold. Sometimes I would manage to crawl away before she took my hands away from my control.

I tried to keep my eyes closed while I violated myself, but toward the end she forced them open. When I developed sores and began to bleed she laughed.

"Would you prefer the dark, Gabe?"

She'd toy and cause the looted light to flicker. When I grew defiant she conjured images I'll never be able to describe. After awhile the light failed and I was left blind.

I slipped into unconsciousness several more times. My body kept moving by her request. When I awoke the final time I could feel her engine. It purred and shook the ground like a jackhammer so hard I could feel it in my back teeth.

I feared what was to come. I had gathered certain expectations from her while she reduced my childhood memories to blackness. Lumbering beasts of burden that had once been men, horribly twisted mockeries of life. But through the fear I craved her. And above all, I craved to become strong. When I heard the sounds of the birthing chamber, I remember smiling. And when I could make out the noise of living human agony, I laughed.

I was home, at last.

For some reason seeing my last and only link to the outside world smashed against the cool, damp corridor floor didn't bother me in the least. Maybe that's when she infiltrated my mind and made me into the puppet I would much later realize that I had become. Or maybe she had done it days prior as I skimmed the waves surrounding the barren atoll and everything leading up to that moment had been some elaborate play for my her own twisted and deranged amusement.

The camp lantern was flickering, its plasma flame guttering and dying. I was a full grown man hardened by decades of combat. But throughout my journey beneath Altuna's Chariot (a name I would later learn meant something quite literal) I had not allowed myself to be enveloped by the inky black. Frankly, it scared me. The horrors on the surface didn't phase me in the least. They were slow, weak and easily dispatched, the byproduct of a horrible plague brought on by unsanitary working conditions and a horrible ancient progenitor grudge.

Science could explain them. I could sit down on a lab bench and examine their mutated brain tissue under a microscope. But the black was something altogether different. It was unknown, the absence of one of my senses. I wouldn't go so far as to imagine there were monsters lurking about. Maybe that would have offered me some comfort.

But it was the still and quiet eternity that terrified me. So as I watched my silhouette blur into nothingness against my own blood smeared on the rock I whimpered. It was then that I heard a horrible and gut wrenching groan. It was an unearthly sound, a noise you'd expect the dead to make if they could breathe.

It took me a minute as I stood there in horror before I realized that it had escaped my own mouth. It was a primal noise that I heard only rarely from those beyond help, from those past crying for their mothers to please make the pain go away. It was the sound of a battlefield after action.

But Altima was there. I'm not sure if I should mean that literally, but as I stumbled about my campsite looking in vain for my headlamp I could feel her.

It was exquisite and horrifying at the same time, like being bludgeoned to death in the middle of an orgasm. I could feel the soft heat of a woman against my chest as I tore apart my rucksack screaming. I could feel my throbbing heart betray me alongside my member as a hot wetness flooded my thighs.

I slid my bloodied hand around my drained gunblade and swung at the stale air in a frenzy, only to feel her ghostly and wholly other worldly hands cut through my crew cut lovingly. Like Emily used to before she died.

"Shhh."

She whispered, her authoritarian voice sultry and sexy.

"You're just going to hurt yourself if you keep behaving.. irrationally."

I fell to all fours as far too many hands caressed my body. They were warm and hollow, those you'd imagine that'd belong to a ghost. They soothed my body and relaxed my terrified muscles. My mind was still screaming, but it was rattling inside of a cage, apart from the rest of my consciousness.

To say that I could feel her infiltrate me would be an understatement. All of my senses screamed as I sat there on all fours. I could taste and smell her bitter sweet presence invade my mouth and nostrils. I could feel her clamor around inside of my head. I could hear her soft whispers as she dug in deep, burrowing into my memories like some sort of silky guinea worm and I could see her, faint smoky outlines of a seductress behind my eyes.

With no control over myself I cried out for more. My voice sounded so hollow and weak when it came back at me, bouncing off of the solid granite walls. It was a vaguely sexual experience wherein I was the prize, but it was more than that. It was a perverted submission on a wholly spiritual level.

She giggled and dug in deeper. She found out all my secrets without me opening my mouth. Those she found interesting she lit up like neon strip club signs. Those she did not she wiped clean, reducing them to blank slates.

I held onto the picture of Emily and the scent of her hair for the longest time. But before too long she tore it from me like a lollipop and replaced it with her own indescribable presence.

I had no concept of time. There were several instances that my legs grew numb and my body shuddered with exhaustion. But even that eventually washed together into inky black.

When I regained consciousness again I was already nearing her sanctuary. How I knew that eluded me, but I could feel it. Deep in my bones.

I had to get to her.


The compound was like an elaborate hive planned by a mentally challenged queen ant. The engineering corps had mined out every scrap of usable technology decades before I was even a sparkle in my old pap's eye. They were the best minds on the face of the planet and even when the outbreak occurred there were still here, toiling beneath the rugged other worldly surface.

Even when the science team above became shambling, flesh hungry undead they simply buttoned up and did what they did best. They built. They explored and they died.

When the progenitors abandoned their outpost here they didn't exactly have an easy recovery for their technology in mind, to say the least. I pity the poor sods, laden with digging equipment and first generation light blades churning through the dark, trying to avoid those ancient booby traps.

At the academy I read about them and their "salt the earth" policies. We didn't know anything about their culture or even what they looked like. The only thing we had managed to puzzle together was that they really didn't appreciate having to back down and leave their territory unguarded.

It took the corps fifteen years just to uncover and disarm a single trap. It shut the whole project down. Good thing, too. When they shipped it off to the arctic for R&D it went ahead and detonated.

Our first taste of cobalt laced thermonuclear technology was not exactly our sweetest. If it had gone off on the surface so close to the shore, it would have wiped our civilization off the map.

So, needless to say after that incident the engineers planned their passageways and chambers with less comfort in mind than conservation of rigged "relics." It took me four days just to clear the first six checkpoints.

As I made my way through the winding and sometimes unfinished corridors her voice grew stronger and more insistent. The woman, her name was Altima at that point, had a power about her. She never mentioned how she found herself beneath the earth or what she was before.

I had always assumed she was the last surviving science team. Someone lucky enough to escape plague and sterilization alike and burrow down far enough to be safe.

But as I continued to listen to her ramble to herself I couldn't imagine her bundled up in a lab coat studying a progenitor chemical toilet. She spoke with a sultry authority that screamed leadership. She never mentioned it, but as I crawled through the filthy and partially collapsed seventh checkpoint I imagined her a corporal or general.

I guess it was wishful thinking on my part. Meeting someone wholly human, who knows the trials of leadership and a woman to boot. Even then I was thinking with my pecker.

Later, after I found her she made sure that was the first thing that I lost. Before my eyes, arms, legs and freewill. It was the old johnson.

With the lovely image of my approximation of her dressed in general's garb and a big honking sword in the back of my head I made camp and ate the last of my rations. They were stale and civilian, but they gave me enough energy to beat one off and pass out.

I don't know when I regained consciousness. When I did I was standing up ramrod straight petting the cold, hard rockface. My palm was chapped and red and starting to ooze blood. As far as I could tell by the dim light on my camp lantern I hadn't managed to get very far and I was quite alone. But there I was, buck naked stroking the smooth tunnel wall like it was a kitten.

Her voice was gentle and perfectly clear when I heard it.

"You're not too far from me now, Gabe."

Before I realized she shouldn't have known of my presence, let alone my name I couldn't help but notice my radio smashed to pieces at my feet.

On the surface of the desolate little rock that barely passed for an island her voice was an annoying whisper, a frantic little mosquito. She sounded so alone and scared, I couldn't help but stay tuned in. I guess I thought I owed it to her. Even though I know she couldn't hear me, I found myself talking to her after awhile.

It didn't take too long to set up camp. After the capital city massacre I didn't have too much gear left. But I unloaded the skimmer and tied it off to the rusted out dock as best I could. I knew a storm could rip it loose, but I wasn't really planning on staying very long. Back in those days there were still a lot of fanatics, wacko "loyalists" still clutching the emperor's dead, irradiated hand like it was the only thing left in the world. Maybe it was.

So I tried to stay moving. I was a high profile target, after all. When I heard the stories coming out of the north about General Aeneas' men, I thought it was best to stay real low on the radar. Those poor bastards didn't do anything wrong, they were just following orders. And the man lead them into a loyalist meat grinder.

Haaj was a cruel bastard, but he still had one of the best pocket books in the free world. If loyalty to the crown didn't grease the mouths of peasants, hard gold sure as hell did.

I was alone. The last of my men laid down weeks before. They paid the worst cost. They didn't even make it a mile out of the capital. That kind of hard radiation would cook an egg in under a minute. I really shudder to think of what they felt when they cracked open their shelter, so meticulously built over the years only to take a deep lung full of scorching Uranium 259.

They had survived a direct and focused nuclear strike. Not the dirty bomb bullshit those mud folk along the coast like to play with. But hard, unadulterated superpower shit. I could see them drop from the skimmer.

Tasris even managed to radio me from the beach. Through the periscope I could see she was torched. She said goodbye and told me to get the hell out of dodge. Pity the bomb played tricks with circuits. The poor girl couldn't even off herself, she just laid down in the surf and bled out.

The annoying little mosquito talked about that, the capital city disaster while I set up shop in one of the abandoned barracks. She was certainly well informed for a woman sealed beneath a quarter mile of granite.

At first I never intended to help her. I didn't think the begging would have much of an affect on me. In my years I'd heard it all, some bitch who found herself in the land of the lost didn't really fit on my list of folk to meet.

But I kept the radio on anyway. She was with me for days while I tore the surface compound apart, looking for supplies. She even sounded nervous when I found a couple of the "locals" and put them out of their misery with the last couple of shots left in my gunblade.

For the epicenter for the virus, they went down pretty easy. Still as hungry and dim witted as ever, I couldn't tell if they were the Haz-Mat techs abandoned here, or the original poor sods who were just dumped here from the mainland.

Curious, though. I didn't find any munitions. No power cells, shells or scraps of rod-fuel. Most of the food was gone, too. I don't know if those scrawny, flesh hungry bastards knew how to work a can opener or what, but the place was picked dry.

But she was always there for me. She'd explain her day, how she went about watering her crops, replacing light bulbs and purging her CO2 filters. She didn't sleep much, saying she was too old to waste much time on it.

So, one day I just up and decided to do it. I broke out my headlamp, grabbed my radio and crammed my rucksack with whatever food I could and that was it. I climbed into what was left of the access tunnels to the compound below and I set off.

She said she was waiting. I didn't realize how serious she was.

Altima seemed like such a beautiful name when I thought it belonged to someone human. Now, not so much.


The sun has fallen once again, the night has returned. Like a flash she woke up the moment the sun went down, and now she's looking out the window, her little face pressed against the glass. Her eyes dart back and forth as she looks at the city below, then she looks over her shoulder at me, her eyes tell me all I need to know.


She's hungry and she wants to feed.


I tried to dress her but she was restless, she shifted and squirmed in an attempt to get to the door; she really must have been hungry. But I made her know that if she was bad I wouldn't feed her, and she complied with what I needed to do. The moment she was dressed, though, she was at the door, almost scratching at it; she must have been starving at that point.


People looked at us as we made our way through the building, from my place on the 20th floor to outside, wondering why I would dress her in such a way, but they didn't matter; she was hungry and my little darling just couldn't be starved any longer. I considered maybe letting her feed then and there, but then that would just complicate things.


We wandered the city, still so alive after the sun fell below the horizon. She stayed close to me, even though she was always curious about the world around her; I made sure of that the last time when she was almost hit by a car. Her cute little eyes seemed to see through the darkness around her, her nose twitched as though she smelled something. Perhaps she did; I never really could figure out how she exactly found what she wanted to eat.


She tugged at my hand as she began to move as quickly as she could with me in tow, I could tell she found something tasty to eat. We went on for almost five minutes before we found the prey, sitting in a park. She licked her lips in anticipation, her eyes seeing through the darkness born of a blown out light; even if there was anybody there they wouldn't see.


She looked at me with those eyes and I nodded, telling her it was alright. I released her from my grasp and she went to feed on her prey, but I couldn't watch; I never could stomach the way she ate. I turned away and even plugged my ears with my fingers, the sounds were just as bad as the sight. I could still hear some of it though, the sounds of pleasure and squealing as she fed in her unique way. I could almost feel the screams on the back of my eyes...


And then, it was over. My cute little pet came up to me when it was over, nudging her face against my back in a way to tell me she was done. I turned and removed my fingers, and she looked up at me, those eyes staring into my soul; she was full of life and vigor again, that much was certain.


"Master... let's go home."


She said softly with a smile as she took my hand and I nodded. We walked off into the night again, and I knew that by tomorrow morning there would be a small blurb on the news about how another body was found, killed in the same way as all the others. They would say that it was a serial killer, or some kind of disease, or something else altogether different, but I didn't care; they would never link it to my sweet little pet.


But still, it was hard for me to accept the death of my fellow man... but then, I guess this is just something I'll learn to live with. After all, my sweet little pet will likely outlive me... and now I can't see my life without her.


I don't think I could live without my sweet little pet succubus.

Your beautiful features had rotted away long before I realized that I had lost you.

The trail was hard and brutal, no one had maintained it for quite a number of years. The gravel, laid down two decades prior had slipped and rolled downhill. It made the hike pretty grueling. Before long I was sweating through my cheap cotton shirt and yuppie shorts. When I tried to whine and complain you just smiled at me, waved down from an impossible distance ahead and barked some words of encouragement.

I loved that about you. You knew I was always the natural pessimist and chronic whiner. But you put up with me, even as you laid there gargling on your own blood.

Civilization was far removed. You were always the adventurer. Your sense of direction was uncanny, even after I forgot to pack a map in compass in my infinite wisdom. You simply shrugged off my intellectual negligence and said you could find a route if you needed one. It was a state park, after all. Most of the trails were pretty well groomed.

You were like some wild cat. You had reflexes that'd put even my Halo trained trigger finger to shame. So why was it you I found yourself suddenly floating, tumbling into me like some bloody boulder?

You joked about how you'd find a thinner man. You never meant it seriously. Sometimes my mother would ask why I put up with it. I'd always just shrug it off. I knew you were never serious. You knew it. That's all that mattered. We could always see past the faux cruel facade to the truth, even when we thought we meant things in the heat of a shouting match.

So why was it you didn't see the root snaking under the steeply inclined trail, or the loose patch of gravel?

When I woke up last week the world had been dead for nearly thirty years. Every microbe, every single celled plant and every Africanized honey bee. I'm not sure how I know. Even if I still had the faculties to count every sunrise and sunset, I couldn't have possibly done so face down and frozen solid in a puddle of mud. I just know. It's somewhere in my bones.

Every day I can feel the clock running. It tells me how long I've been the way I am and how long I have until I fall apart. It's the same clock that tells me it's time to eat. But when I look around, I only see the snow covered wreckage that used to be Winnipeg. There's nothing to eat. Not a blade of grass or a single puppy.

I groan and look anyway. Sometimes I pass people who used to be like me. Most of the time they're alone. Sometimes they're in groups of five or ten, huddled in ruined apartment buildings or malls. They look really old. Most of the clothing they wore when they were alive has been weathered to shreds. I don't think there's been anything to eat away at their dead flesh for awhile. When I try some of it it tastes bad. Like freezer burned bananas.

None of them move. They're all bloated with what used to be animals and plants.

I don't know why I'm the last one still around. Maybe I was the last one to die. I don't remember it, but I'm missing most of my throat and blood stains whatever mud doesn't. Maybe when the winters got real cold I got lucky and froze like a side of beef. I can still feel the ice in my belly, all sharp and prickly. But as I shuffle around it dissolves into slush.

When I close my eyes sometimes I can think. Sometimes I can catch glimpses of those who died before my awakening. But it's foggy and distorted. There hasn't been anything dead and moving for ten years.

So I pick an arbitrary location and move. I can't go very fast, but that hardly matters. As the clock ticks down I begin to feel stiff again. There's more snow. It's colder here.

Eventually I fall face forward. I don't close my eyes. They freeze wide open.

I spend the next six thousand years staring at a rock. It's not very interesting.

  1. Barry had no idea quite yet that his life, as full of snack food flavored joy and Star Trek reruns as it was, was just about over. While it's true that the middle aged, over weight desk jockey didn't exactly take care of himself or his (sometimes severe) health issues it's a strange twist of fate that it'd nearly save him from being eviscerated by his best mate's mentally deranged brother in law. Almost.

    It started strangely enough with a visit to the comic book store.

  2. I was dead by the time they found me nearly sixty eight years too late. My body wasn't so much decomposed as it was evaporated. Sure, the parched Sahara air did it's fair share of preservation. But the real thing that kept me from falling apart, would you believe it, my flight suit.

    It was made of this real neat material, all shiny patches and mission buttons. This pencil necked flight tech once told me that it was probably smarter than I was. He chuckled at me like Fat Albert.

    I didn't exactly have a Ph.D in quantum theory, but I see a shot at me when I see one.

    It was kind of ironic that when they cracked the seal on the landing module I sank my teeth into the poor bastard's grandson. He tasted like astroglide and chips.

  3. Todd wasn't exactly my friend. He wasn't exactly anyone's friend.

    They say that you always have to worry about the quiet one. You know, the guy who sulks in the corner all the time reading and listening to death metal. The one you never see with anyone else at the campus hang outs, always by himself hiding behind his coke bottle glasses and smug sense of self satisfaction.

    I never really gave the guy much thought. Even after the shootings at NYU and MIT, I never really thought anyone capable of, you know, just fucking tweaking out.

    How wrong I was.

    Todd was there. He took a bullet in the spine for me. I want to say that he did it out of the kindness of his heart. But I'm sure he hated me. I think he did it to prove everyone's misconceptions wrong.

    I could have sworn as the life drained from his cross eyed face I could make out a smirk and an "I told you so." on his lips. And I hate him for that.

    Prick.

  4. A lot of innocent people were affected by the writer's strike. The big fight was between the worms at the top rolling in their dough and the twerps who pound on keyboards all day. It's natural to cheer for the underdog.

    But there were hair dressers who couldn't work. No actresses or actors to doll up for sitcoms. And there were cameramen. Nothing to shoot. And there were the folk in wardrobe. No one to dress up all pretty.

    But who gives a shit about them?

    What about the fucking dog washers, man. What about them?

  5. I miss Pauline Redeker. Even now I think about her a lot. How was her life after we left one another in that shower of sparks that barely passed for a relationship? Did she ever remarry that asshole broker she was so in love with? The one with the blue BMW and single testicle?

    I hope she did.

    I found out last week that the bastard died of AIDs.

Trolls III

The Search for the Middle Man
Mr. Well for all of his good deeds, charity work and over zealous attitude toward the approaching apocalypse was far from a good man. So as it was when Laura needed him the most he was huddled in his personal shelter, playing with his wooden trains and figurines. The door to his vault was sixteen inches of solid steel and smart plastic and hid quite cleverly. Even if he wanted to hear her screaming bloody murder he would be unable to respond.

Laura not knowing his whereabouts continued to scream as the rotting tank which introduced itself of Seven Legs feasted upon their twitching child. She hardly paid attention to the shadowy men who were even now tearing apart their suburban home, searching for her husband in absolute vain. Unable to answer their questions in a non hysterical manner, she simply beat against the hide of the Troll.

The Mechanical Man wheezed, his lungs in need of replacing.

"He's not here."

The Blue Haired Man crushed an ancient and priceless vase beneath his enormous foot. He was clearly agitated.

"I can see that we've been fed inaccurate information. Tell me, Kyle. Why is it your prisoners are always so willing to volunteer their secrets, however flawed they might be. While my prisoners occasionally hold out for days and spill their guts only at the last second?"

Kyle's leg joints hissed as he carried himself over the broken heap of a body guard. He sharply pinned the corpse with a long, multiple jointed leg. It took a moment, but the body guard began to stir.

"Because my prisoners don't literally have their guts spilled."

He replied as the freshly reanimated slave began to drag himself toward Seven Leg's general direction.

"Then maybe, my friend, it is about time that you make a couple of policy changes in regards to who you interrogate and who you execute."

Kyle The Mechanical Man narrowed his eyes and sized up his mentor. He could have argued his point six months prior, when he was whole of body. But now he had certain disadvantages. He coughed and whispered in a bitterly digitized voice.

"Yes. Sir.

And Sain?"

The Blue Haired Man rummaged through some business papers. Mostly ordering invoices for cattle feed.

"Let Rodney deal with him. They always had an interesting relationship. It'd be interesting to see what his imagination can come up with."

I

The relentless rain was coming. A vast and assaulting sheet that left none beneath it dry or without being hindered in their movements. It was sudden and extreme as it always was, droplets fat and sticky in the low gravity. They clung to any surface, enveloping it all in a translucent skin that shimmered like miniature oceans in the breaking daylight which sliced through it all, clouds regardless. And with the glaring and extreme UV radiation night became day as the little world continued on its endless and solitary waltz through the complex trinary solar system.

Through intelligent and soulful eyes It welcomed the warmth. Neither a he or a she, It was all together different from anything any humanoid would be familiar with. A complex entity, certainly It possessed a mind capable of thoughts that rivaled and often surpassed the strange carbon based collections which stalked It even now. But that mind was devoid of only one crucial thing that ensured the survival of other non-humanoid species, ruthlessness. It certainly was not a pacifist by nature, like all sparks of consciousness it possessed a quality and drive that pushed it to do regrettable things. However, It's unrivaled ancient history contained no bleak wars, no crusades, and certainly It did not have a word which could be translated to something akin to genocide.

No, the conflicts faced by It's kind were shaped by nothing more than the requirement to feed. And with a self regulating population upon this lush world, there was always more than enough prey to go around. So It knew only the simply hunt of lesser, dimmer things. Creatures like itself, but devoid of the sentience which made It's kind sacred. To It, the purposeful ending of another intelligent life (or even something of suspected intelligence) was something that could be translated to blasphemy.

As the day rapidly approached, the landscape unfolded beneath It. The small world was suddenly a large space to those eyes (nine in all), filming over in partially translucent fifth eyelids to shield their delicate inner workings from the extreme light. It was a world if deep blues, purples and bleeding oranges that intermixed every which way. A world of deep canyons cut by raging rivers and lakes, shrouded in heavy chlorine mist and yellow belches that flowed like water. Certainly this land was fatal to unmodified humanoid life, it was far too warm, far too small, and the gasses which It breathed was a noxious chlorine mix, containing little if any oxygen. But this was home, the only one known. For the search carried out by It's fore bearers had found nothing out in the expanse beyond this realm. Nothing of value, anyway. The worlds encountered were either hopelessly lost to artificial manipulation at their current technological state, or already occupied.

So they quietly dwelled within their artificial constructs, tiny bubbles orbiting places of relevance. Or else they stayed here. Where they had existed, virtually unchanged for 50 million strong years.

The harsh light doubled in intensity as the second sun was rising, shedding light on the great family-herds that lay in the valley far below, partially lost in the chlorine cloud. At first glance from those sensory organs, they appeared to be moving landscape, their carapaces blending into whatever lay beneath foot. But as those eyes, far more sophisticated than any hawk zoomed in upon the center of it all, the landscape took on a richer detail.

These were It's people, more specifically, the family in which It had been born into.

They were odd creatures with their alien limbs in a perpetual state of running and hopping. Like some twisted kangaroo they vaulted across the landscape, propelling themselves high into the air by three rear limbs, then descending once again with an additional front six moving in a motion reminiscent of a millipede. And then it started all over again, moving in great waves of hundreds.

Their smooth skin, translucent by night was now becoming an ebony black tinged by greens that swirled like some perverted oil spill. They were beginning the morning's feast, sucking in the glaring day in addition to the tiny, human sized creatures that were mindlessly heading for shelter against the fast approaching day. But the rapidly breeding things didn't stand much of a chance. Their ultimate fate was to be halved at the beginning of every day. That was how it was here. How it has been since the beginning of their civilized society.

But It was well feed, as always in the morning. Possessing something that could translate to poet, or artist, this creature relished the grand natural sight which unfolded every day below. But today, It would witness something far more interesting than the usual sunrise coupled with the ritualistic culling. Something unseen to It's kind until now.

II

Fourth Deputy Centurion Marell Akantos lurked motionless in the shallow depth of the narrow waterway. The water was murky here, and even despite the elaborate filtering mechanisms built into her combat suit, the stench of chlorine and sulfur filled her cranial exoplating. Far below lethal levels, her commander had assured her and those under her command they were in no danger, for the odors picked up by their sensitive noses were only traces of the lethal atmosphere lingering. Nothing at all to worry about.

She was clearly a humanoid sentient. Beneath those thick, rubbery layers of her jumpsuit stood a woman whom bore little physical difference from most typical human subspecies. She was even a member of one of the two progenitor races, that of the Roman Empire. So it was her people that in part sparked this ingenious design, and little variations had appeared since it was first forged in the jungles of some lost terrestrial world.

This place would have killed Marell in seconds if not for the technological means which protected her. But it appeared surprisingly little to combat everything from microscopic alien bacteria to the highly corrosive atmosphere. It was nothing more than a thick sheet of seamless, spongy material not at all different in appearance to that of a wetsuit. It spread over her entire body, revealing only her face beneath an almost comically large helmet that clamped firmly to her collarbone. At the moment she was not required to give facial ques to those twenty four under her command, so she had set the elaborate thing to opaque. Her visor instead displayed a multitude of statistics regarding those under her command.

Most were talking to one another in private channels, their heart rates slow and relaxed. A select few were engaging in virtual combat with a vast array of opponents, displaying a flurry of mental and physical responses. Her second in command was playing a game of cards with himself. A solitary sentry on the outskirts of their secured riverbed was singing along to the latest musical craze.

They had been waiting here for a solid three hours ever since the drop shuttle had departed for the safety of their home encampment. They didn't have to worry about their life support, for that shiny black cranial exoplating was everything from a personal computer to a tiny self contained world. The bacteria which it housed somewhere out of sight would, in theory, keep them all alive indefinitely as long as their bodily functions remained. There was even a neat little tube that dispensed a multitude fruit juices.

Marell sucked on that now, enjoying the crisp, bittersweet and faintly metallic liquid which would keep her well awake for the coming day. It would have usually been no problem, but the days on this little world lasted for a gruelling eight point six of her standard.

As the suns erupted over the horizon, the rain came. The surface a few feet above them shuddered with countless impacts before a series of bright pillars descended upon them. The world was coming alive now, and their mission dictated that they would lead the sneak attack which would snuff that life out. So, marshaling her quarter of a century of soldiers, she began as her mission file commanded.

Trolls II

Dead Eye
The out rigging chamber was still and quiet when Maria finally awoke from her head trauma induced slumber. Her hair was matted and wet. Whether that was due to being soaked in something that smelled an awful lot like diesel fuel or a clotted head wound was anyone's guess. Her hands came back stained black after inspecting the wrench dents.

But her vision was skewed anyway. Everything beyond a dimly lit radius of an arms length was blurry and murky. She could sense movement, but it seemed terribly far away to be of much concern. The backs of her eyes itched once her damaged mind comprehended something familiar. Blue and worn its cover was hopelessly stained. Its pages were soaked in the same bitter smelling liquid that soaked through her cheap secretaries uniform.

She snatched the ledger up from the floor, unaware of the gleeful shout escaping her partially numbed mouth. Its neat spiral bind was broken, the cover hopelessly stained in excrement, blood and bits of bone. She didn't have the faculties to realize it was her own, so she needlessly grabbed her sleeve, trying to clean it off to the best of her ability. It was her only link to the life outside of the murky chamber she now found herself in, and while she could not immediately recall what exactly happened or who she was prior to her awakening, she remembered the critical importance of the ledger and the information it contained.

She had worked with it on a daily basis for years. It contained every appointment, meeting, note and iota of intelligence that was left of her. She had a sudden and terribly feeling that someone was going to be awfully lost without the information it contained.

The chamber floor shuddered. Dazed and handicapped, Maria stared in wonderment at the creature before her meek and little corner of existence. Unable to comprehend fear or wonder, she simply shat herself.

The creature was lost in the haze. She could only make out a sharp tang of spoiled meat, the sound of buzzing flies and the sensation of a hot and heavy fog rolling over her.

Craning her head up in futility, she could make out a single piercing eye. And quite like the bloodied wrench of The Mechanic, it filled her world. She discovered that while her damaged mind could not quite grasp the concept of fear, it could manage pain quite well.

Twisted Face
The mechanical rasp of Kyle's respirator was terribly distracting to Mr. Aeneas as he was dragged from his cramped holding cell into the debris strewn arena. He wasn't exactly a visual man. But pressed later on in his senile years he could still recall the terribly metallic rasp of the man's labored breathing.

It was pathetic and hollow, like a mentally challenged Darth Vader.

"Moving me into the luxury suite then, gentlemen? Superb. I'd quite like a pint of your finest house lager and a nice basket of spiced bread. I'm famished. I've been on the road all evening, you see."

He babbled unbeknownst to the automated midwives. Their ears weren't exactly tuned to his peculiar way of communication.

"Are you really gone, Mr. Aeneas? Or are you just grateful for my company?"

Kyle croaked between his attempts at defying suffocation. The automated midwives dropped him in the center of the arena before collapsing into their constituent body parts. The sand beneath his bottom became soaked with engine oil and synth-blood.

Mr. Aeneas widened his eyes, the bright lights still a little dazzling. He pawed at the dots that made up his world.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe a little from column a, maybe a little from column b."

There was a clank and a decompressing sound as Kyle lowered himself to the arena floor. His eyes didn't look quite natural, despite being original.

"Are you really gone, Aeolus?"

He asked in a whisper, a digitized thing.

"No, but I'm probably going to wish I was. Aren't I?"

Kyle, despite being the cause of all this torment, sighed.

"Yeah. I'm sorry."

His body disappeared into the brightly lit arena.

"Is Mark around?"

He could make out the sound of the man who was once a friend retreating.

"Yeah. I'm sorry."

Struggling to his feet, Aeolus grabbed the closest thing to a weapon he had. The buzz saw arm of an automated midwife. The lights dimmed and Aeolus could make out the small form of a blue haired man on a catwalk many feet above him. He waved with the arm.

The blue haired man waved back before flipping him off. Testy.

Another round of trials had begun. He could feel the rumbling of an approaching enemy long before the gate swung open.


Trolls I

The Mechanic
Maria scrunched up her nose when Rodney came tumbling into the foyer, all dark, jagged lines and filth. He stank of synthetic oil and Troll afterbirth. The mechanic was brilliant in all meanings of the word, but cleanliness wasn't exactly one of his best attributes.

He wobbled a little too close to her immaculately maintained receptionists desk, threatening to spill his chaos into her little world of order.

"Rodney,"

She began while she checked his arrival time into the elaborate ledger that her employer insisted she keep. Within its hundreds of pages of tiny print more than six thousand meetings, conferences and power lunches were listed in order of importance for the next eight months. This man was consistently number one, every day without fail.

He tried to look charming as he nodded his wide brimmed hat at her, smiling with broken teeth and chapped lips.

"Ma'am. Crazy weather we've been having."

"Mmhhmm."

She was lost in the ledger while he leaned on a pile of paperwork, hopelessly smearing it. Maria only managed to notice after he failed to materialize in the ledger.

"You're not-.."

Her eyes darted from his grubby hands to his face. If looks could kill.

"..-scheduled for.. a.. meeting today."

"I know."

A grimey wrench slowly came out of his jacket pocket. Maria didn't know how to react until her world was filled with metal and pain.

Sain's Horrible Deal
The lair was humid and filthy, the ancient tiled floor stained with decades of Troll afterbirth and rotting vegetation. It was hardly a location he ever expected that would wind up holding all of the riches his nation had to offer. But desperate times called for desperate measures.

He adjusted the wick on his lantern and let the light play over the closest collection of steel ingots and Bonsai trees. It hurt to look at, but a masochist by nature he couldn't help but wish he had thought out his end of the bargain a little bit better.

There was screaming deeper in the lair, he followed the noise for quite sometime until he came upon the primary birthing chamber. Rows of elaborate belching machines lit by torchlight spewed out tiny bundles of hideous joy. Their ugly little faces twisted in agony, the Trollings screamed at their indignation. The Mechanic and his assistants were there, cooing over them as the automated midwives carried them off to the outrigging chamber.

"Shouldn't you have the entrance guarded?"

Sain called over the racket of Trolling fear and Bonsai trees being run through what he had come to call "the big wood chipper." The Mechanic, startled by his partner dropped a screaming bundle to the floor.

It's delicate egg head cracked open and leaked bits of brain. The Trolling immediately stropped crying, finding the whole process intensely interesting. The Mechanic, thinking nothing of the accident strode over. An automated midwife killed the curious creature with fire before throwing the corpse into "the big wood chipper" with another Bonsai.

"Shouldn't you be out hunting for more off my shopping list?"

The Mechanic replied, hands in his pockets. The filthy, blood stained wrench was a great comfort. Sain's head would crack open just as easily if push came to shove.

"Touché. I have our visitors working on it. They make a ruckus about the whole thing, especially the pissant little effeminate one. But they'll do as they're told so long as I'm running the show."

One of the machines guttered and died. Assistants furiously tried to restart the engine as digitized wailing echoed within its interior. Sain, curious looked over The Mechanic's shoulder, hoping to catch a hint as to just what was going on in this horrible place.

Automated midwives assigned to the stalled machine were lost without direction. Their heads remained stationary while listless eyes grew bored and wandered. One keeled over and died. The others, grateful for a task proceeded to disassemble her biological components with hissing pneumatic drills. While the mechanical shell was dragged off she was added to five separate and working contraptions. They immediately began spewing out fatter Trollings.

The Mechanic didn't look phased.

"My shopping list. Now. Or else you'll have to replace more than one midwife. They're harder to come by than your little trees."

Sain narrowed his eyes, while he prepared a devastating quip before he remember just who he was talking to. He ended up sulking back from whence he came, trying to pick his least favorite member of his harem. Where was he supposed to find ten tons of live deer?

Charities

When I was a good deal younger I spent my fair amount of time watching television, like any normal child. Sure, the vast majority of the programming I was interested in wasn't exactly normal for a kid who should have been watching Transformers or Tiny Toons, but television is more or less television when you boil it down to photons and electrons, isn't it? I watched a lot of entertainment geared toward those much older than I. Documentaries and news programs were pretty much standard, very rarely did I ever opt to flip on a cartoon instead of say, The World Before Man: The Cambrian Explosion.

Which is fine. My parents didn't seem to terribly mind me being exposed to educational material on a daily basis, and it did help my grades in the end of things. But it meant that I was exposed to a large amount of advertising geared toward adults of the intellectual variety. Which meant scores of banks, software and travel advertisements.

But on occasion I'd see an ad depicting a lonely, starving and filthy child in a third world country and a large, white, fat man begging you to shell out a couple of bucks a day to pay for the little kid's booster shots so he can be healthy enough to write you a thank you letter in broken English. I'd occasionally ask my mom if we could sponsor a child in Malaysia or Chad, or where ever the big, fat white people decided to beg from, while holding a shivering, starving child.

The first several times she brushed it off, telling me that maybe for my birthday she'd surprise me, or that she'd talk to my father about it. But nothing really materialized out of my pestering. I never received a letter with a postage stamp from Burma or Costa Rica. We never put an expensive toy in the Toys for Tots bin at the grocery store. At the most we'd donate a couple of cans of soup at a food drive, but that was pretty much it. So I kept asking.

One day my mother and father sat me down, put on their parenting hats and gently informed me that we couldn't do what I was asking for. Why? I asked, more curious than anything. Who didn't want to help those less fortunate? Were they some sort of monsters? Or were they just incredibly selfish?

Well, my mother began. We can't afford to.

Can't afford to? We couldn't afford to buy one toy for the big box outside the grocery store? Or one coat for welfare?

No, my father began with a sad little laugh. You'd probably see it next time we go "shopping."

I was too young to really realize what my father meant back then. I was just a stupid little kid. So I left it at that. I only really realized what they meant as I grew up and began to become more observant of the world around me and how most of my class mates were different. Their parents didn't shop with brightly colored stamps. They always had newer, less worn in clothing. Their holiday presents were much more elaborate than anything I'd ever experienced.

The truth of the matter was my parents were dirt poor almost all of the time. We shopped with food stamps, we received federal food stuffs, my holiday season was populated by Toys for Tots and we "shopped" for my winter coats at our local welfare office. Despite both being fully employed year round, my parents were always struggling to be in the black at the end of the month.

The only time I saw anyone in my family give to a charity was when my father died. My since disowned "aunts" decided to donate $100 in my father's name to a diabetes foundation, instead of helping my struggling mother pay for his funeral (at the time, unknown to me my mother was very much in debt, due to my father's expensive medical issues).

So, suffice to say donations and charities are still a sensitive subject for me. I really don't like giving or receiving pity or handouts. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, like admitting defeat, or that one party is inferior to the needy group. As arrogant as I may be, I don't like to think I'm better or inferior to anyone else. But it's been seared into my mind.

The moment I left the nest I became bogged down in my own financial woes and it's continued to this day. I've only started to work myself out of the enormous multi-generational slump. To this day I've never really given charity more than a couple of dollars a whack, and even then I feel forced and awkward. Like I'm a bad person if I avoid eye contact with the old army vet looking for handouts outside of the grocery store. Or screening my calls because the local police department needs money to host youth activities.

Which is not to say that I'm against charity. Quite the contrary, I'd love to help the local SPCA or help diabetes research, or provide some manner of relief to those in situations I've found myself in. I just don't like being approached and being put on the spot and guilt tripped while I barely have enough as it is.

But at what point is it wise to start channeling a portion of my income into a worth while cause? When my debt has been entirely eliminated? But at that point, wouldn't it be more wise to invest the same amount of money, so I'm capable of donating even more in the future? And what would do the greater good, giving gift cards to grocery stores to the homeless, or kibble and blankets to the SPCA? Or a big check to the Wildlife Conservation Fund, but be unable to see the results and potentially risk it being lost to administrative drivel?

The sea was cold that night, and huddled on the sandy shore of the tiny volcanic island the last remaining Balena drank in the crisp and bleak sky. Her eyeless head swayed in the gentle and frosty air currents as they rushed over the only landmass on the planetoid, they were complex, thin and disorienting, but all the same welcome. She was a sentient creature, certainly, as evidence shown by that big, egg shaped head of hers. But lacking the tool wielding appendages of her long ago separated cousins, she was not so in the traditional sense. That considerable mass of grey matter in that thick creamy white head of hers didn't know or care about physics, or the all together boggling concepts which surrounded interstellar travel. But within, she nurtured profound revelations equally as astonishing. Perhaps, in the opinion of a couple of important few, even more so.

Her long and delicate flippers, all four of which still baring similarities to that of a humanoid plodded through the grainy jet black granules beneath. Her mass was considerable, and being on land was exhausting despite the all together relaxed gravity. But she was used to the deep black depths of her home waters. The pressure was different here, nothing at all like the crushing depths closer to the seafloor. But even though being separated by an extreme amount of time from her malicious land and space dwelling relatives, she still shared one common objective. That of survival, be it her own, or that of the species. She herself in her mayfly like existence was growing to the end of her natural life cycle, being nearly four centuries old now. But perhaps it was not too late for her children, clinging to her innards deep in her belly now, to make a life for themselves.

As no other of her kind had done before, the lone Balena quietly went about digging through the desolate, wet soil with much inefficiency. Her flippers had too long been removed from the single island and she was not properly adapted to birth this way. But she went about her task, being driven by some subconscious, animalistic instinct within. It was hard to believe such a cold, calculating thing dwelling in her inner most neural network could produce something so, well, motherly. And even as the tiny volcanic shards began to break her skin, she continued on bravely through the sterile ebony soil.

The great cities below laid in shambles, as they had for most of her life. Destroyed by fevered minds fearing the emergence of her kind. And with them, the rich nurseries from which she had one day, long ago, been birthed into. Poisoned, the currents and algal blooms would not cleanse the areas for another two or three decades. And she could not wait, not a year, or another minute to birth the next generation. So seeking the only option she saw available, she came upon the great black island. A charcoal blotch on her shimmering blue world, it's only region devoid of significant life force. But here, it was the beginning of it all with it's half collapsed artificial structures and constructs not designed for her kind. They aged now, as they would continue until the end of time.

Perhaps this would be a new beginning, she thought to herself in her own complex and rich language. Maybe her children would somehow be spared the ritualistic culling of the cousins. Maybe long enough to find a way to defend themselves better against their poisons and radiation blasts. Maybe even one day escape them altogether.

Maybe they'd swim in great shoals again, grander consciousness flickering in the intense super natural light as they shared their diverse collections of essence. A community that would rival the previous one, spanning the entirety of this water world and perhaps beyond, to the great giant in which it circled, now an ominous green marble which hung precariously above head. But to her sensory organs, it glared in intense and unnatural infrared. A nerve ending white light spread like the stars themselves.

That great jaw unhinged and she bellowed into the month long night, a darkness so devoid of company it carried a total futility to it. But she continued on, her song deep, mournful, almost gothic. The children writhed inside her as she forced their departure. They came kicking and screaming with stabs of pain, dozens of them, miniature versions of her adding to the night's depressing song. Their voices were tiny, innocent as those eyeless heads swayed back and fourth in the protection of the crater which she had dug. Their little mouths wailing as their umbillicals snapped under the light gravity.

Such precious new life, she remarked, with her bulk relaxing and the last of her litter being released. And she began to calm, that great neck laying itself down. The end was drawing to a close now, as it had been for her mother. But she felt no sadness or regret at leaving this world or her wonderful new lives. After all, she was engineered to have no predators. And the sea was rich in life. Yes, they would fend for themselves quite well.

How well, she could not possibly fathom as she gazed up at the brilliant glare above. How could she know that the bright pinpricks far above was the end for her ruthless cousins? That no longer would her kind be hunted, because, of course, those were cities burning.

She shut herself off from the curiosity, letting the night greet her. And despite those tiny worming bodies nipping at her stomach, she quietly fell asleep. Beyond, oblivion greeted her.

I look up to the sky, to the stars that twinkle above my head and I wonder; will we ever reach them? There's so much wonder in the sky, so much that we could learn if we turned our attention upward... and yet, that's not something we want to do. We want to stay here, we want to fight and kill one another over issues that are so blown out of proportion that we don't even know how they started.


A thousand more young men and women died today in a war that has been raging for generations now, their only crime being born in an era that lusted more for power and conquest than discovery. If this were peaceful times, if we were a truly great civilization as they claim, those people would have been educated, they would have given their lives to something that would impact Humanity in better ways, beyond dying in a ditch somewhere because two nations can't just get along.


The stars watch us, they see our foolishness; do they weep for us? Can they see how much we suffer because of our own failings, our own lusts for the material? Possession of land, of money... the power that comes with it; what does it all matter? Does such fleeting things truly deserve the sacrifice of so much potential? If the stars do watch us, then maybe they are laughing... maybe they watch the Human drama on this little world and laugh at how stupid we are, at just how small and meaningless our little fights are.


"My God is better than your God, so convert or die", "Your land is better than my own so I'll take it", "Might makes right, and money brings power"... is this all we're capable of thinking? Can't we all just look up to the stars and see how small we are while how vast the rest of the universe truly is? Can't we just be content to live with one another and turn toward the future, to make it better? Can't we all marvel at the glory of all creation and hope to one day see it in all its magnificent splendor?


I look to the sky and I wonder... what will be my fate? I got my orders today, I'll be shipped off to some forsaken corner of the empire to defend some meaningless little patch of dirt that the brass thinks is worth dying for. This may be the last time I can look up at the sky and think these thoughts, the last time I can afford to wonder about the glory of the stars and the frailties of man.


If the stars are watching... will they laugh at my death, or weep at my loss?

Janet

The sun was a bloated thing in the early twilight, a stuck pig that bled red and orange into the heavily polluted horizon. The night was kicking and screaming, dragging its heels like a spoiled child. Stars refused to twinkle into existence, and the bums were not yet prowling the shady side of town, in their never ending quest for fuel, alcohol or otherwise. It was as if there was some intelligent being, some tangible almost super natural force was somehow in control of the world surrounding Miles. Maybe there was a god showing him some miniscule amount of pity. But he doubted it. Like all things, night would come down like a jackhammer, and with it the temperature would drop a full twenty degrees. Things would be miserable long before he reached his tiny studio apartment, he knew that for absolute certain.

He was a thoroughly below average joe, Miles. Short, with not a speck of attractive definition on his pale, freckled body. That heavily thinning copper hair swept itself over in a pathetic comb over, not quite creating the illusion he so desired. His gut was a little too bloated, and he walked with a little limp from a recently sprained ankle. Cheap no name sneakers dragged a little as he made his way down the wide, quite urban side walk, their heels worn and filthy from over use.

A bright purple windbreaker was zipped up most of the way, to guard against the oncoming chill as the concrete jungle allowed it's heat to be sucked away. It was a little too small, but he had to take what he could get. Money was constantly a problem for Miles, and a cheap windbreaker was all he could afford for the time being. His wishful logic informed him it would be enough until it started to get really cold. So maybe he'd have some time to save up a little money.

What a joke that was. In his future, immediate at least, lay Ramen Noodles and instant cheesy macaroni. Well into the brutal winter he knew that was fast approaching now in mid autumn. Soon he'd be stuck trudging home in a blitz of snow and ice, in those ancient sneakers and surely by then tattered second (or third) hand windbreaker.

The traffic on the street was light, and he enjoyed what silence he could scavenge from his long trek home. Occasionally, he sipped on a tepid coffee from the gas station by his office building. It was old, stale, and the creamer an unpleasant cinnamon non-dairy powder. It stung his taste buds and left a disgusting aftertaste in his mouth. A thin film of it clung to his teeth, and as his tongue patrolled those small square off white chompers, they felt slimy and unnatural. But this was a treat, granted, it was horrible coffee, but he enjoyed the flavor of the creamer, and the caffeine would help with the chores that awaited him at home.

Maybe he could even stay up long enough to slip quietly into one of his many, many hobbies. But perhaps the word hobby is an overstatement. A hobby requires financial support, and quite obviously he lacked such a luxury. What he had were interests. An over used library card, piles of newspaper clippings (the free, ad ridden variety) and stacks of worn (and quite ancient) notebooks. Scribblings, really. Chicken scratch that held perhaps a glimmer of talent. But ultimately only that, a simple glimmer of what might have been.

In his youth (some couple decades prior) he had been told he had an amount of promise. That perhaps he could even sell his works for profit. But he lacked focus. His ideas, initially creative and totally unique, gradually slumped into unfinished works. Being the pack rat he was, he never got rid of a single work. Perhaps, just perhaps dear Miles was under the illusion that it was possible to spring back to work one day.

This is not to say Miles was miserable. Quite the contrary, he had one passion in his probably dead end life. And perhaps his only real hobby, it was Janet. He adored her, his companion for an eternity it seemed. Janet, unlike most of his friends and family, was always a constant. She was there in the early morning before he began his trek to work and at night to listen to how his day went, and was always glad to see him. She was gorgeous, her hair a deep black originally had now been tinged grey and begun to thin like his own, but he imagined it added character. Those big, watchful eyes shimmering with intelligence as she snuggled up to him in the drafty one bedroom they shared.

He lavished money upon her, and during the past couple of years, increasingly more of his paycheck went toward his one and only love. She was old, and although he'd rather say she was so and so years young, who was he fooling? They both knew that her health was failing, but he liked his elaborate little illusions. But he was a good man, Miles. He loved her like he always had, the only way he knew how. So, he paid for the endless parade of drugs, medical visits, operations and equipment out of his own pocket (no assistance had ever been offered to him, that was an impossibility) and he allowed himself to suffer accordingly. It seemed to be reaching its climax now, she gobbled up every cent. Overtime was all he had left in the world besides her, and he was thankful after all those years that he had such a demanding boss.

The engorged globe of hot plasma exploded as it dipped across the expanse of the Earth. The sun was falling quicker now, spilling out its guts all over the western sky like some celestial slaughterhouse. The pollution only increased the beauty of it, and squinting through his coke bottle glasses, he wondered who really cared anymore. Certainly he thought it was pretty, but he saw a lack of interest from the occasional passer by. Sad, he thought. That such beauty would go so unnoticed by so many. He wasn't smug about the fact, but it was a little depressing.

He didn't know that Janet lay by her tiny windowsill, on her favorite blanket watching the same scenario. She settled softly, her bulk relaxing, weary muscles moving into a position that was comfortable. Those watchful, intelligent eyes closing as she slipped into a sleep warmed by the dying red innards of the sun.

By the time Miles reached his fifth story studio streetlights buzzed around him like so many hazy fireflies. The sun had disappeared an hour prior, and with it came the cold. Not nearly as bad as he had feared, but still windy enough to drive the warmth from the tip of his nose. His key sunk home in its lock, and then five additional as it had been for several years. Ever since his neighbor's apartment was ransacked, and the poor old woman mortally wounded. He had cursed himself for a long time afterward for leaving Janet alone. It could have been her, and it nearly cost him a full week's pay to get over his paranoia.

The door creaked open, and he shut it quickly behind himself. Two dead bolts found their place, with each individual heavy duty key lock.

"Sweetpea, I know you don't like it when I'm late.. but Mister Sorrentos kept me for forever."

He didn't need to explain why, he knew she wouldn't understand the complexities of his job. And he wasn't really in the mood to put her through a soap box moment. The wind breaker was discarded, as were his bargain bin sneakers. As Miles turned, he began to tread through the maze that he shared with the love of his life. Antiquated cat runs, catnip balls, a little furry scrap of clothing sewn into the shape of a mouse (he made most himself from discarded work shirts) were spread out evenly. He took great care in placing them back neatly into their designated areas.

He may have been poor, but by god, he'd never be messy.

He wandered around, cleaning the mess that had built itself up in his absence, occasionally commenting on his day out loud. The silence in the house was a little disturbing. She didn't come as she usually did, nor the racket that accompanied her (Janet had grown a little clumsy in her old age), and she remained perfectly quiet where ever she was.

He found her as he often did, fast asleep in her windowsill. She had covered herself with her favorite blanket. He felt a little guilty for making so much noise, but he pushed it aside as he began to disrobe. What he needed right now was a nice hot shower, and then a hearty meal, because tonight was Friday. Dessert night for the both of them. He could taste that fruit cup now.

He sat next to her, admiring her beauty. Even now she retained a quiet grace about her, she would continue to age as of course he would, but to him, she'd always be his little ballet queen. As he sat there, watching her intently a gnawing feeling began to work itself up in his oversized gut.

Oh my god.. she isn't br-

Stubby fingers ran themselves through her long, thinning hair and felt no movement. There was no deep breath that accompanied sleep. There was no sign she was aware of him, and there certainly was not a heartbeat.

She had died alone.

Hot wells erupted in his eyes and miniature rivers cascaded down his face. Picking her up roughly, he clutched her tiny frame desperately, as if trying to will her back to life. Quiet tears eventually gave way to violent sobbing as he gripped tighter and tighter to her hair, burying his face in her cold flesh.

But she was gone, that was for certain. He had always known her illness, feline leukemia, would eventually steal her from him. And his tears were bitter, bitter sweet, fur sticking to his wet lips and glasses pathetically.

So this, he wondered, was what it felt like to have nothing.

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