The Glider

Demetri was strapping himself into the glider by the time I reached him. He had a dangerous, fatalistic look about him that morning in the mess hall that he still hadn't quite managed to shake yet. I wasn't sure if he'd try to do something crazy or not, but I sure as hell wasn't going to lose my precious pride and joy simply because he had a vendetta against Aeneas.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

I croaked, gasping for breath. The roof of the world really had a habit of winding a guy.

"Zee advenchure, Milo. It calls cho me. Zee General knows nothing about zee trials of zee common man. Do cho know vhat I vas before zat menace chained me into serzice ov vour puny empire? I vas a king, my comrade. A king vhat ruled a vorld!"

He shouted while fastening the elaborate safety harness around his legs. The thick aviator goggles that he somehow conned the quarter master out of were thick, obscuring his good eye. Sometimes when he slipped into his socialist accent it meant trouble, sometimes it meant he was just putzing around. I prayed to the children is was the latter.

"Cut it out, Dem. You grew up a block from me."

"Yeah. Okay. Sorry. What, no sense of adventure? Or are you jealous I'm taking her for a spin? Don't worry kid, I'll bring you back a condor egg or something. Maybe the head of Admiral Buzzkill down there? Who's to say I won't be a hero and save us all?"

He petted one of the heavy blades affixed to the bottom of the glider, making it look like a gothic Christmas sleigh.

"Aeneas is going to shoot you out of the sky before you even get close to the ground, Dem. He already knows what you're trying to do. It's not worth it. It was an outside shot as it was. We're safe up here and we have plenty of supplies. And even though you and.. General Aeneas disagree on a lot of things, he does have your best interest in mind. You're not going to help anyone by letting those savages down there tear you apart and get a hold of the glider."

I spurted loudly, quickly finding myself out of breath again. I had a white knuckle grip on the roll cage of the behemoth I built weeks prior. I had invested six months in it and I wasn't about to abandon it to some whim of my unstable comrade.

"Zee.. General. Ze knows, ves?"

Demetri whispered, his hand on the control panel.

"Cut it out!"

"Zou told him, ves?"

"Yes!"

For a glorious but horribly brief moment I thought he was going to stand down. He cracked a wide, sane smile. His hair was wild and wind swept, like something out of a bad military novel. His face crept closer to mine

"Zhat is vhat I vas hoping vor."

The roll cage suddenly became very hot. The control panel reflected it's green status onto Demetri's face. His smile became wicked.

The glider rocketed forward and pulled us over the edge.

(You can tell I'm lazy.)

"Please, I need your help. I want you to save my mother, she's all I have left in this world. I... I don't know how I can pay you, I'm not very well off; but I'll give you everything I own. And if that's not enough, I... I'll give myself to you. Willingly...."


She flushed again, cheeks a deep scarlet this time. She's basically offered her body to him, but her mothers life was worth it; it was worth anything he could think to do to her. He was rather surprised at the offer, to the point where he couldn't even get himself to answer. She looked up at him, she thought he was going to refuse her.


"If you want, I can... give you some of the... p-p-p-payment now..."


She was so very embarrassed as she pulled her hands away from his own. He was still a little too dumb struck by her offer to notice at first, but when she stood up and began to remove her dress that's when he snapped out of it and bolted upwards. She was just about to expose her breasts when he stopped her;


"N-n-no, that's not needed. I'll help you regardless of payment."


The half Elf looked at him, eyes filled with confusion as she clutched her dress to her body. She didn't expect him to stop her; she expected him to fully use her, to take advantage. Any other man would, but he didn't... was he that noble? Or maybe he wasn't attracted to women. Or perhaps he didn't find her to be that attractive?


"Sir...? Do you... think me not attractive?"


She asked softly and he was dumb struck again; it was something that was become a disturbingly common occurrence these days. Aeolus wondered if he had upset her by not taking the offer; perhaps her concept of self worth was damaged by his refusal to give into his carnal desire.


"Of course I do, I'd have to be a fool to not find you incredibly attractive."


"Then why do you refuse me...?"


Did she want him to take advantage of her?


"I swore I wouldn't take advantage of you. I'm a man of my word."


She felt a fool to even suspect that he would break his word. He was a apparently a man of honor and decency, and there she was trying to throw herself at him. She felt like crawling away and dying in a hole away from his sight. She looked down and for the first time streaks of tears began to roll down her small cheeks.


"I... I'm so sorry, Aeolus. I didn't think you were a decent man, I suspected that this was what you wanted all along. I've insulted you by not taking you for your word. I'm disgusted with myself, with the way I've acted toward you when all you wished to do was help me."


She wept softly, her emotions getting the better of her. So odd that it was this that brought her to tears, but perhaps she shed so many over her mother and past that she'd grown hard toward it. It was this that caused him to act, to move around the table and take her once more into his arm, to hold her close to him; much tighter than before. She gasped and trembled, but didn't tense up, she simply pressed herself against him, arms laying against his chest, dress held up by the simple fact that he was holding her so tightly.


"There's no need to cry, there's no need to feel this way. All your life the only man that was ever kind to you was your father when everybody else was cruel. And, to be honest... so many Human men are exactly like you thought, far too many for my liking. You had no way of knowing..."


"Why... why are you being so kind to me? I'm a stranger..."


"Like I said, I don't like it when people are mistreated, especially women. Nobody has the right to do this to you or your mother, nobody should feel this horrible, this sad, this helpless. I couldn't sleep at night knowing that this was happening and I just walked away. And, right now... you looked like you needed somebody to hold you close, to show you compassion."


She felt so very odd, it was like a fluttering in her chest. He was so kind and gentle, he showed her such compassion and mercy; why couldn't she have met somebody like him sooner? She looked up at him, her cheeks so red, she didn't want to let him go, she didn't want him to let her ago. She wanted to stay like this forever.


"Aeolus, if I said I wanted to leave here... and travel with you, what would you say?"


"If that's your wish, I'd take you with me. I'm sure that with enough time we could find a nice place for your to start a new life."


She shook her head and moved up onto her toes, her face coming closer to his own.


"No, I mean... what if I wanted to travel with you, remain with you for as long as you traveled... and beyond?"


His cheeks took a bit of color as he realized what she was saying. She swallowed hard and tried to think of what to say. He never expected this to happen.


"I... I don't even know your name..."


"My name is Iregia."


She spoke softly, her face coming ever closer to his own. He really did want to kiss her, and to tell her that she could come with him if she wanted... but he hardly even knew her. But then he wasn't even sure if she even meant it, or if she just wanted some sweet words to make her feel better. He had to give her an answer, and he knew to outside reject her would be the worst thing he could do.


"Iregia, if you wished to travel with me, to be with me, then I wouldn't... outright refuse you."


She smiled so very brightly at that. Her small arms moved up his body until her hands moved around, behind his neck and took a good, firm hold. Then she began to pull herself upwards, her face coming ever closer to his own... and, as she came ever closer, he began to lower his face toward her. They met in the middle, faces not even an inch apart, they could feel the others warm breath on their faces.


Finally, she took the plunge and kissed him on the lips, the mere fact that she did so sent a wave of shock and pleasure coursing through her body. She kissed him with sudden force, trying her best to keep him from pulling away, wanting to make the most of this, her first actual kiss in the whole of her life.

Traitor

Alyias even now, in the final moments of the glorious empire which she had served her entire adult life, was calm. Her serene exterior hardly ever cracked in times in stress, and this was no different than any other. That is not to say she was without emotion, far from it. She was first and foremost a woman, and although not being attached emotionally to any man, she was a caring mother. Regardless of the fact that the little boy she watched, quietly sleeping in his bed chamber was a secret to the state and even his father.

Maybe the man suspected their affairs had produced something even more scandalous, but they were just that, vague suspicions. It was better off, she told herself many an uncertain time. A love child would surely destroy the man's career and fledgling marriage. And there would be absolutely no gain to her or the child, nothing but strife, ending in perhaps her own embarrassing court martial.

Her midnight blue eyes were perhaps a little mistier than she would have preferred, but the flood gates held as she stepped into the dim moon light which flooded the little one's play area. It was night in the Roman city of Alexandra then, and having long ago dismissed her sisters whom cared lovingly for the boy, she regarded the child of four with the warm gaze only a mother could bestow.

She was an impressive woman, Alyias. And like those whom belonged to her generation, her skin was milky white and unblemished. It seemed to glow faintly in the quiet lunar light, surely a product of her Avaria heritage. And that tall, powerful frame was that of a palace guard, built over decades of disciplined training. Still clinging to femininity as she was, she retained the long, straight hair which matched her eyes, given to her by her mother's mother. It comforted her immensely, and she cared for that long ago established link to her home genome almost as much as she did her body and spirit. Even now, after a long night of fending off inner city rioters, it was neat and kept in place with a silver barrette, baring the insignia of a long ago passed civilization, a double shield upon either side of a small sphere and two companions.

Having signed off duty hours ago, she had shed those sophisticated Roman armor and arms immediately. Now dressed in the simple civilian clothing she'd require in the coming day or two, she still had an air of a high ranking military official about her. Tough, knowledgeable and authoritative. But that was something, sadly she could not change. She was not a large public figure head like some of her treacherous peers, so she hoped, maybe even prayed that when word of her deeds finally, if ever broke to the public she'd be spared crucifixion before her new empire embraced her.

Despite the sacrifices required of her, she welcomed being a key factor in the oncoming destruction of the empire which she had since fought for. Her life did not matter in the big picture, she was assured years ago. Only the mission was crucial, and if the mission required her to sacrifice herself, well then so be it.

Her bare feet quietly approached the fast asleep young one, stopping perhaps to regard a misplaced toy, but eventually she found herself at his bedside. Adorable as he was, she admired the strong facial features of his father. A sharp jaw line, a broad forehead, cobalt blue hair clinging to his childish cheeks. And maybe a little of herself lingering in there as well, although submissive in the presence of the over powering genes males of this subspecies possessed. His father was, despite being loyal to his empire as she was to her opposing cause, a caring man capable of the most tender of touch. Alyias found herself wondering if her through and through Roman lover would survive the initial bombardment.

Maybe he would, and as unlikely as the chance would be, maybe she'd see the guardsman again sometime in the future. But by then, her allegiance would be changed and the man would likely be out for her blood. Nevertheless, thinking of him fondly now with those fierce, but naive eyes she couldn't help but wonder how things may have turned out if he hadn't rejected her the way he did. But their relationship was doomed from the very beginning, being his superior as she was.

She would have liked to write it off as nothing more than gaining the trust of the enemy, but this child defied that. She didn't hold any real emotion for the man, but maybe she was capable of it given a different situation. But, oh, how she loved the boy she smiled warmly at. Running her finger tips lightly over his bare cheek.

The flood gates began to give a little, but she held strong. She mustn't break down now, not so close. She could afford to wallow in her tasks while she awaited the Keeper soldiers, but not now. So, gathering all the strength available to her, she did the one decent thing she could muster. She picked up one of the child's discarded pillows, and pushed it securely over his serene, beautiful little face.

The strong arms of a military professional held it down tightly as little arms scratched at her and muffled cries assaulted her pained ears. But it was the love of a mother that kept it firmly in place. No, this world would be far too cruel to the boy because of her foolish choices.

The flood gates broke open, and midnight blue streamed down her milky cheeks, face twisted in an expression of anguish as little legs kicked wildly and pudgy fingers weakly clawed at the backs of her hands. All she could offer to ease the child was her beautifully strong voice, almost a whisper.

"Shh, sleep now, Lucius. Sleep..."

And after long dreadful moments, her hands bleeding and her heart broken, the child did at last, eyes and mouth open, forever twisted in horrible agony.

Complex

It was becoming a pitched and desperate battle for the small company assigned just a few days ago to protect the immense and overly imposing concrete complex where the greatest hopes for their people was being held. Nobody ever really expected their enemy to drive this deeply into Isyrain territory so quickly; it was truly a sign that the times were changing, that their empire was on its last legs.


The battlefield was bloody, burned and blown apart bodies lay all about as the fighting went on. Beams of both charged particles and plasma flew through the air before slamming into metal and flesh alike. The turrets placed in key areas around the complex took the bulk of enemy fire, their heavily reinforced iron structures whining with every blow, threatening to give away at any moment. But yet they held strong, their guns slipping out long enough to squeeze off a round before instantly being withdrawn inside with a hiss of steam to ensure that they would be protected.


The enemy had managed to gather up an impressive number of older model Io class tanks, they must have been stolen from the numerous salvage yards of Isyr, where the outdated machines were sent to to be stripped for materials. The underpowered and overworked old design steam engines complained with every inch of advancement made, the weight of the troops inside and the oversized particle weapon arrays made their already difficult job worse as the drill like treads sank into the soil, made soft and mushy from the previous nights rain.


But even as they sank into the mud and became little more than stationary turrets they were still of vital importance; they were used as shields for soldiers. Sporting new and old design Gunblades alike they darted out from behind the heavy iron shielding to make quick precision attacks before falling back, allowing them to pick off Iryian troops and to attack the delicate legs of the newer model Io tanks. Their light weight, yet durable crab like legs became super heated then cooled, and while they didn't show any immediate effects from the strikes they were become weak and brittle; without their legs they too were little more than stationary turrets.


Slowly, the Isyrian company began to fall back as their numbers dwindled and numerous turrets were overcome and finally destroyed, leaving only smoking iron lined craters. The newer Io tanks took up formation in-front of the withdrawing troops in an attempt to protect them, sacrificing their mobility to play shield. Some soldiers stayed behind and took shots at the advancing troops who had to leave the safety of their own Io shields while most of the others took up a tighter, more uniform final defense formation near the complex; they would die before they would let the enemy have it.


From atop the complex came something alien to the enemy, something they had not seen before. Fast, air born via gliding through the air and sporting a pair of heavy Gunblades that were more akin to bazookas, the brave men who piloted these strange contraptions rained plasma bolts from above, moving deep into the enemy lines where there was no Io protection. They swooped up and down while dodging fire with graceful ease; it was as though they danced in the air while defying the basic principles of gravity. And when their power cells were finally depleted, the troops prepared themselves for their final act.


With the pull of a trigger on their hand bar, multiple razor sharp blades sprung forth from the ultra light super structure of the craft... and then they began to dive, taking aim before spearing panicked soldiers who were unable to flee, in the process allowing the enemy to slaughter them after landing all in the name of their homeland.


Finally there came a point when the Isyrian controlled Io's ran out of power, their power cells were drained and their steam engines dead, leaving them as nothing more than iron hulks. The enemy began to advance once more, their numbers superior and their firepower greater than the company could hope to match. But even so they fought with all of their might, all of their pride. With fury and valor they pressed on, and even when their power cells were finally tapped dry they fought, charging into melee combat with the sword mode of their Gunblades even as they were slaughtered.


The Isyrian company had fallen, killed to a man. Their Io's were little more than useless husks, their bodies strewn over the field of battle. The complex was breached and inside the men and women who worked for the future of their empire killed if they resided. The secrets held in the building were great and numerous; there were half finished glider weapons, hulking and overly impressive clockwork automata covered in iron with steam powered legs and massive Gunblade style cannons in the place of arms, even new lighter weight turret designs that were meant to be mounted on steam trains which were in the process of testing.


But the greatest prize was deeper inside, in the heart of the complex. There, in a heavily shielded chamber was the very first nuclear reactor constructed in Isyra. Fully operational, albeit for short periods of time, it generated enough power to drastically change the balance of power on a global scale; it was the key to the dream of Isyr one day dominating not only their continent, but eventually the whole of the world.


In their inexperience with the technology and the need for shielding, the soldiers tried to gain entrance to the reactor's chamber, using brute force to remove the heavily shielded doors while the scientists attempted to stop them, trying to warn them of the danger. But the men were deaf to their warning, killing them in cold blood; they were too foolish to accept the danger of their actions.


Even as they entered the chamber they didn't feel the death they were brining on themselves, their bodies absorbing enough radiation to kill thousands of men hundreds of times over. Without any experienced people to operate the device, let alone tell them of the danger the soldiers attempted to remove vital pieces of the reactor using their Gunblades to blast through the metal structure, upsetting the delicate balance the scientists strived to maintain. With this balance forever destroyed and pieces missing, the nuclear reactions were becoming wild. The soldiers, unaware of the damage being done by their actions removed more and more pieces, crippling the reactors ability to maintain any manner of control; the reactions were growing wild, uncontrollable... what was once a device that generated usable power was now little more than a bomb.


The soldiers had sealed their fate, for the reactions grew so wild, so out of control that, finally, the reactor could take no more... and with a sudden, blinding flash of light their lives had ended. The whole complex went up in a blaze of glory and power, the Io's and bodies outside were caught up in the brilliant light and surge of power. A deafening explosion could be heard for miles around as a cloud slowly rose from the ground, from the area where the complex once stood.


A cloud in the shape of a mushroom.

Those ever curious and watchful jade eyes of the then young Julia gazed out of the tiny porthole which populated the cramped starboard wall of her command module. She floated in the perpetual free fall, that gorgeous, long flowing, golden hair held down tightly at her neck by white knuckled hands. It didn't quite hide the shapely curve of her left ear, which gradually hinted at a point.

The trip out thus far had been long and monotonous, the stars hardly changing as her primitive bio mechanical vessel hurtled through the vast reaches of the oort cloud. The planets and major population asteroids which circled her home system had been left behind months prior, so when she finally reached her intended destination, she was obviously ecstatic that her journey had reached its halfway mark. Communications with home had been difficult to maintain, and after all, she was all alone here in this lichen covered aluminum can. A bit dangerous, yes, but the technology, albeit primitive was also easy to keep in shape. And more important, it was cheap.

And what use would another humanoid serve? Just deplete her food stores twice as quickly, her logic informed her. However now, as she gazed at the quite alien object some meters beyond, its black sheen glinting in the dim starlight, she wished she had brought along someone, anyone.

She hadn't expected she would have been so frightened when finally faced with the object she had been observing for most of her adult life. But, on Gaias Fifth, the alien vessel was only statistics, and the occasional blurry smear against a sky that more or less was static. But Julia was, those whitened knuckles gripping her shoulders tightly, pulling her hair down to maintain some illusion that she wasn't entirely weightless. Her heart was pounding relentlessly in her small chest, despite being weakened a considerable amount in the zero gravity environment. She could feel her neck veins throbbing as a lump rose in her throat. She prayed to no one in particular that space sickness wouldn't kick in. Not now when everything was coming together.

The instruments around her were all automatic. Blinking LEDs would have told her the super computer was going through its preprogrammed checklist, attempting to make contact with the immense hulk beneath her, that is, if she could take her eyes off of the thing.

It was monolithic, nearly ten kilometers long, and two wide as her instruments on her homemoon had told her long ago. But now, actually being this close to it, she was in awe. Flatscreen and partially immersive holographic displays blinked into activity around her as a series of floodlights illuminated the tiny fraction which was presented to her. There was absolutely no insignia, portholes, or for that matter airlocks. The featureless black was seamless, coated in a thick evenly distributed translucent material. It took a couple of moments, but those floodlights were refracted every which way, a billion tiny pinpricks glaring back at her and what lay beyond. The surface light spread illuminating nearly one sixth of her discovery, somehow travelling beyond the reach of her powerful lights through that odd skin.

Was it even a spaceship at all? She mused to herself. It certainly didn't possess any noticeable engines. So was it a monument of some kind, built to simply convey a message, emotion or signify an event? If so, it had been drifting for a long time. A really long time. Millions of years long. She thought it possible, but that would be an awful waste. She was first and foremost an ambassador. Not once in her life had she even day dreamed of being an archeologist. And even if she were, what was there of significance here?

The nexus of bio engineered dolphin grey matter, enhanced with blitzing silicone circuits was quick, the light was instantly gathered by the tiny photonic sensitive communication cells on her vessels hide. Almost instantly it was thrown into a thousand different subroutines.

Tearing her gaze away from her porthole once again, she kicked back and finally released that golden hair. It floated every which way as she glided through her oxygen-nitrogen ocean effortlessly. Quickly she steadied herself in front of the communication terminal. When the floodlights were disengaged, a white toothed smile erupted on her pretty young face. Those petite fingers tracing along the real time feedback of the craft beneath her. It's smooth, featureless black returned, blinked light back at her, then returned once again.

She repeated the gesture five times.

As did it, six.

Julia could hardly contain herself. She screamed in joy, her previous fears temporarily drowned out in the excitement. The radio dish under her command assaulted the ebony surface beneath. It returned the gesture in kind, in fact, it began to move as well.

There was no surge of background matter as the vessel swished beneath her, no radiation, nothing but the constant stream of radio pulses, she noticed almost immediately, directed entirely at her. A bright, crisp and clear series of clicks. Almost like that of a whale.

How the immense bulk moved so effortlessly without any noticeable sign of propellant was far beyond her.

And was it fast. That super computer strained to keep up with it, cameras tilting and panning, directional radio antennas trying to track the thing as the tail end raced toward her faster and faster.

The young woman tumbled toward her navigation terminal, initiating a chemical burn to keep up with what she had come so far to make contact with. It was tiny in comparison to the speed worked up by her companion, but she hoped it was a gesture something intelligent could understand. But by that point, the majority of the mass was past her.

Those small feminine hands grasped the flat display terminal as she saw the behemoth's rear pass the craft's front most camera. But something glinted in her powerful mini-novae as she was abandoned. Like a fine water mist, it sparkled and sent off a thousand mini reflections. It moved in ripples, delicate waves cascading from the ebony hide which was departing her. It was beautiful, she thought while securing her long golden hair behind now fully revealed Elven ears. The camera's high resolution couldn't have done it true justice still, she found herself wishing she had gone out in a vacuum suit.

The vessels clicking eased, and what followed would have made her jump if she wasn't already air bourne. A deep and sudden resounding bellow, a lurching series of powerful resonances followed by a high pitched squeal made those sensitive and pointed ears ache. It continued as she turned down the volume, it was a whale's song. She couldn't have possibly guessed at how ancient and complex it really was, not with that humanoid brain.

The craft disappeared into the silky black beyond, that matching hide only making itself known by the absence of starlight. The bellowing continued, its rich, complex language five billion years old. A language that predated even the earliest of humanoid civilization.

The massive, bellowing craft pivoted with tremendous ease far ahead of her. That radar pinging of its thick skin telling her that it was now approaching just as quickly, then slowing, until it yet again was within reach of her floodlights.

Again, it refracted a dozen which ways, sending off a wonderful, lustrous glow. But it continued to spread as if it were a fire, outlining every curve. An onrush a kilometer a second, revealing grand quad wings which were even now forming from port and starboard. Long, almost hydrodynamic they twisted, their tips the last to remain that lustrous, but featureless ebony.

But it didn't stop there. The thin trial which she had observed earlier flashed into existence. Complex currents of the unknown material illuminated and spreading, all around her in fact. Complex, twisting currents enveloping her tiny craft. The light grew, and with it colors appeared. First, the primaries, but where the trillions of microscopic currents criss crossed, a dazzling series of secondaries flashed into existence. A wonderful peacock's tail, oh, how could water in flood lights compare to this marvel?

It moved her to tears, trembling hands wiping reddened eyes. This was what she had come all this way for, certainly.

Tobias lay awake that night cycle, as he had for the previous four. His eyes partially glazed over, the young man stared at nothing in particular. Unfocused, they were like two perfectly round pools of stagnant water, a dull blue awash with a dead grey. They had always been the window into his soul, and tonight was no different. Twisted like some shattered oil slicked puddle his inner mind expressed itself without inhibitions.

Fear shone through like some grim gothic portrait, a deep primal thing beyond the petty concerns of most. Perhaps it was reminiscent of some cornered animal, a last ditch dread that could drive man or beast to anything. Beyond that, layers condensed into a thick strata of mental instability. Self loathing glimmered somewhere, deep in those endless dead eyes, complimenting a good dose of restrained savage violence and an unfocused desire. Buried beneath it all, he remained. A stable intellectual's core smashed under tons of excess baggage he could not for certain claim his own.

Young Tobias was conscious of his thoughts as most men typically were, certainly. He was hardly special, the boy was boarder line mundane. Why, even his tedious job as an engineer was a bore. Fix this, purge that, tape that, ad infinitum was his job description. And although requiring a good number of years at a reputable university, he was perhaps the least intelligent member of the small crew which made up the U.S.U.S.V Jericho. Not to paint him challenged, by any means. He was quite capable, but more with his hands than his wit.

However he lived in a sort of perpetual dream these past few days as something nagged at him, a force he could not explain or silence in the back of his head. Neurons blazed a trail of brutally abused grey matter, virtually scorched from the increased activity. His mind was growing too big for his tiny spark of self awareness, and it was easy to get lost. He was growing befuddled within himself, detached. Simply living now was perhaps to be likened to being submerged beneath a number of meters water, his limbs mere mechanical instruments, technological toys and nothing more.

Inhabitating this drowned dreamlike existence his mind was a disorganized type of thing. Colors wailed and assaulted him in the backwash. Refracted every which way, it was like being immersed deep within some broken, full body kaleidoscope of horror and with each passing of the grinding mirrors, he lost a little bit of control. It grew in tiny increments, but now, his ears only vaguely aware of the snores of his shipmates, he could swear he could hear singing.

It was beautiful, disembodied, and child-like. Eager, like a retarded little brother, he focused on the gorgeous song which defied solidification. He strained harder and harder, grunting externally in frustration. Fists clenched against the fabric of his zero gee cocoon, he held onto the tune like it was dear life. Slowly, the last tiny bit of sanity which tethered him to the real world dissolved, and trying with all his might to force the tune into stability, he was aware of it slipping ever further away until it was far too late.

Unblinking he let his big, ropy arms hover in front of him, weightless as he tried to grab the things in his head like they were tangible objects. It was exhilarating and the same time terrifying. He could feel the fragment of self awareness glower and dim, perhaps he was the first man to ever feel himself go insane.

A stronger man would have fought it, but Tobias was weak willed. In all honesty, he was a good man though. He had been chosen for this expedition because of his intellect and adaptive social skills, he was in fact a fine engineer that everyone onboard the Jericho got along with. His powerful hands did wonders out of faulty appliances, and his deep and soothing voice assured him no enemies. But he lacked a certain switch in that complex biological circuitry. He wasn't exactly submissive, but perhaps he just went with the flow too often. Maybe some shyness harbored since childhood was part culprit too, but either way, he was a target to the thing that lay beyond the bulkheads. A weak spot that could be molded to its own ends.

Perhaps if he had fought harder he could have lasted another day or two in the weird detached puppet state but he was so tired, and he didn't have the mental strength to remain fully alert. So it happened, and it snapped, vaulting him into darkness.

He could feel his arms move to release his harnesses but not control them. Through his remaining half deadened senses he could surmise he was moving, passing his many sleeping shipmates. He tried to yawn, but he found himself without a mouth. For some reason, it didn't fully concern him, his mind was too clouded to connect it with a sense of strange discontinuity. Why, it was far more worthwhile to him to try to focus on that wonderful, angelic voice in his head than fight for control.

The Jericho was quiet that time of night, and most of the crew were asleep. So he encountered no curious mates. Soft hisses of opening pressure doors gave him some concept of where he was going, but through perhaps some act of alien mercy, he was allowed to slip into an unconsciousness that would spare him the sensations of what was to occur.

His body, unhindered by being unconscious went about on its course toward the engine room.

The children did not know of Jeffrey's sordid past or his immediate political concerns. They weren't affected by his views on the trade embargo with the Queendom of Pan. Or his opinions on the capital punishment of scripters. They wanted one thing and one thing alone from him regardless of his physical deformities or uneven temper. They lusted after what he could provide to such an extent, that they often arrived at bizarre hours of the night, clad in little else besides their pajamas and moccasins.

He had grown used to it years prior, but even as the soft rapping grew insistent on his stable door, Jeffrey could not help but think that perhaps it was best to establish some sort of of regular business hours. It was probably best anyway.

After making a quick survey of his dwelling he hoofed his way to the huge double doors that served as his breezeway. He snorted once and the insistent knocking replied with four rapid Tick-Tick-Tick-Ticks. He immediately lifted the 200 pound deadbolt that had once been a rather imposing evergreen.

Quick as lightning she slipped inside, all blood shot eyes and fidgets.

"Hannah.."

Jeffrey grunted, replacing the bolt before hoofing his way over to his stash.

"You know that I cut you off yesterday. You're going to make yourself sick."

She covered the callouses on her tiny, fragile hands. They were stained with graphite and ink. Hannah hesitated behind the plodding beast that was Jeffrey, but only because her mother had warned her about spooking Daisy, their milk cow. She didn't want a kick in the head.

"I was wondering, Jeff-Jeff...."

She squeaked, looking all to the world like a nervous bird.

"How much for a double dose this time? The stuff you gave me last night was way too light. It didn't do anything for me."

Jeffrey chuckled as he unlocked the enormous wardrobe that kept his stash locked away from prying and dangerous eyes.

"Girl, it was as strong as it ever has been. You're just building up a resistance to it is all. Your little brain is a tricky little engine, finding clever ways to foil my work."

"Kay-Kay. So... stronger?"

She grinned as he swung open the double doors and rifled amongst bricka-brack and utensils.

"It'll cost you three pounds of paper this time. Good quality, too. I'm not looking for the recycled junk your friends keep giving me. High grade cardstock, no watermarks. Can you handle it?"

He snorted, the cloud he produced was wet and sticky. He knew full well that he'd never even get half of that.

"Done!"

She croaked as she rolled her hands. Hannah was one of his most impatient customers, always far too eager to get back to her dirty little habits. But supplies were supplies. He could never really cut off anyone. The children needed him far too much now that he had fed their growing minds with his elaborate wares.

Finding what he needed he gathered it all up into his arms and swung around, lowering himself to her level. She quickly approached, looking for imaginary spies. Her face was distorted in his solid gold nose ring, like a carnival mirror. She looked terrifying to herself.

He held up a bundled stack of papers bound with black ribbon.

Hannah's eyes widened as she caught glimpses of the elaborate script beneath the silky ribbon. Jeffrey's hand writing was magical and dark. She kissed one of his enormous horns quickly. But with little control over herself she caught a full sentence in the corner of her eye and tiled her head to began how work out the riddles without aid of her home made abacus or chicken coop quill.

After a moment Jeffrey made an irritated, throaty noise. The girl yelped and grabbed the papers, scurrying toward the double doors. He followed her.

"Thanks Jeff-Jeff."

He lifted the enormous deadbolt without a word and she disappeared into the chilly night.

"Don't over do it! Get some sleep!"

But she was gone. With a sigh he replaced the bolt and went to make himself some tea.

Such were the trials of a puzzlesmith in The Land of Faj.

It was beginning to rain by the time I crawled out of the one bedroom, one bathroom closet that barely passed for an apartment, let alone a "luxury flat." It wasn't the kind of rain that just made your day a little bit more unbearable. It was the kind of rain that was oppressive, an omnipresent sheet of water that soaked everything.

And it was a sickly yellow. It stank like rotten eggs and battery acid while strangling what little remained of my windowsill habanero peppers. I had stopped eating them months ago when I started shitting fire and blood.

The fire was to be expected, I dealt with it. It often came with the territory of spicy cuisine. The blood, unless you're a native of New Mexico City, was not.

Hi, I'm Wayne Michaels. I'm a white collar slave.

Life isn't too bad nowadays. I have enough to live, breathe and breed. If I'm lucky I'll get to do all three at once one of these days. I'm working pretty hard on the last one, so I have something going for me.

I guess that's all I need in the end of things, really. I suppose I'm doing better than my garden. Or that old woman who serves as slave master at the office.

She's not terribly bad, once you get past the masochist behavior, whip and sun bleached handbag face. Occasionally I'll feel bad for her and throw her a bone by moving a little too slow with my hourly TPS report. Her wiping is pretty weak nowadays, not enough to scar.

It just smarts, you know? But it seems to make her happy and it keeps her pulling a salary. Which is all that matters. Once you get the golden watch and a lick of that sweet brass ring it's all over.

It left a bad taste in my mouth when they started outsourcing retirements.

Bill in Severe Audits once told me she'd get really into it. She'd even wear boots and fishnet stockings.

That she once laid into him for three hours because he missed a couple percentage points of an annual deficit report.

The poor sod's back looks like France after the war was over with. The craters, not the nuclear waste and mutant fruit flies.

Okay, maybe a couple of fruit flies. Sometimes in the summer when it's infected- whoo. You haven't lived until you've smelled gangrene through cheap pressed cotton.

My cube is pretty big. I share it with a Mexican family. They're nice people. They don't really seem to do anything relevant for The Company besides adding a little extra heat in the winter time and scavenging food from my waste basket.

But they're clever and resourceful. Their kid, Juan (I just call him that because it seems to piss him off, I really haven't bothered to learn it) does a pretty good job when I come in hung over or too tired to do any work.

One of these days I may get around to hiring him as a subcontractor. I know they're illegals, but that's the benefit, right? No taxes, pretty disposable, too. One call to Homeland Security and wham-o, instant stew complete with lead seasoning.

I just wish I could get more seeds. I miss eating.

Dice

It was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make, leaving him. I had spent the better part of my adult life with the man-child, crooning over him and feeding his vindictive, absorbent personality whenever his mental well being demanded the attention.

I'm still not sure why he snapped and did the things he did. At that point I was on auto-pilot, a zombie in the post divorce apocalypse that came from his angry, marijuana reeking maw. Which is not to say that I was not fully aware of his pain or that I was not concerned. I was, and even though there was a wriggling sense of pleasure at his lesson being learned I was left largely devastated.

The night will always haunt me.

It began in a haze, and even as I prepared myself in front of our full body mirror speckled with stickers of dragons and wizards there was not a single moment of clarity. I couldn't concentrate on if the blush was just right, or if that shade of lipstick was really something I wanted to wear on a first date or not.

He just sat there in his corner, draped in his filthy blanket with his back propped up against the corner. Furiously scribbling tables, statistics and percentages I was a void to him. Even when he got up to roll another joint and he brushed across my backside to open his cabinet stash, there was nothing.

I wasn't sure then what that meant. Was it his own feeble attempt to regain some sort of human warmth? Or was I in his way again, my "fat ass" too unavoidable?

I learned after the restraining order and the police watch that it was the latter.

When he regained his cross legged composure in his corner amongst his second edition Dungeons and Dragons books he managed to speak to be from beneath the mass of matted stubble, greasy hair and smoke that made up his being.

"....you'll be home for 8, right?"

He didn't catch my deadpan expression or my tired sigh, so lost was he in what spells to assign his new necromancer, half dragon villain.

"I don't know when I'll be home. Probably later."

I managed to croak while I fastened the earrings he bought me for my birthday. They were little oriental dragons studded with sapphires.

He exploded.

"....what? How-w-w could you be so rude?! Everyone's going to be gaming tonight! How's it going to look if my wench isn't at my side?! I've already rolled up a new character for you!"

I lost myself in the barrage of insults that followed, opting to concentrate on how worn the mirror's frame had become. There was a time however briefly when it used to bring us a lot of fun.

Those videos are probably still floating around on the internet to think of it.

It took him a full hour to grow hoarse and lose his rapid fire mouth. He muttered something about being "through trying to talk sense" into me before returning to his books. I took it as a cue and left.

All I could hear as I walked to the front door was him angrily rolling dice.

Have you ever heard someone angrily rolling dice? It sounds so weak and hollow.

It was fitting.

The blue refugee and ran his plated fingers through the rough surface of the frozen world. It was a fitting place as any. His journey had been long and hard. He had survived the blitz and a manhunt that spanned more universes than he thought possible to exist. He had bleached his exosuit beneath pulsars, and felt the warm breeze of a beach that straddled a monster world, eight times the size of his home planet.

The behemoth before him hummed, its core reconstructing the appropriate hardware in order to properly dispatch this lone threat to its young. Of course through the hard vacuum he couldn’t hear it; rather he felt it through his legs. The thing was churning up the silvery ground beneath it, rebuilding the world to suit its needs.

It was the ultimate survivor. It would be an honor to die by its maw.

“I’m not sure if you can hear me.”

He started, lifting the glare visor on his faceplate. It was a difficult movement, the micro machinery it his suit hosted resisted him the whole way. They were creatures of habit, it was hardly ever was it necessary to lift it. Grown accustomed to their life in the shade, the pinpricks of sentience fried in the harsh radiation of the skyless horizon.

What does a dead man had care about radiation poisoning? He’d be damned if he’d be the first.

“Maybe you can’t even figure out that this is my way of telling you I’m sorry,”

Chuckling sadly, he approached it. A mass of swirling talons eating into the frozen landscape, he wondered what must be the brain of the thing. Where did it first sense of his presence? With what eyes did it see him carelessly stomp all over presumably, its young?

How did it feel when he squished the life out of the seamless spheres? Was this all just a preprogrammed response? Or was it alive? Was something in all of that metal and plastic screaming in pain?

“Hell, for all you know this could be how we are. I come here out of nowhere in the first light you’ve probably seen in your entire life. What’s the first thing I do? I take my first steps in this dismal place, and squash your nest.”

At that point, the presumably enraged creature had attacked him and the partially buried gate booth. He fought well, like he was trained to do. In the end of things, he was left virtually unscathed, but his only method of escape from the surface had gone up in a puff of smoke –quite literally.

Part of him was glad the thing seemed to be rebuilding itself. So he threw his rifle into the regolith three football fields away. Maybe it’d do him in before he succumbed to his oxygen recycler dying in the lack of usable sunlight.

He sure hoped so. When he joined up with the Roman Expansion Corps, he was hardly promised a slow death as air bled from his body. He had imagined a glorious demise at the hands of some enemy of the empire, or at the least in a horrible accident on board an overly elaborate warship.

Romans, as much as they preoccupied themselves with living and their pursuit of means to expand their ways, were even more preoccupied with the concept of death. More importantly, how they would happen upon it.

War or famine? Quite and dignified? Or maybe in a blaze of glory, riding an atmosphere stripper to its target like a mechanical bull.

Holographic tables and data cubes materialized behind his eyes. The biomechanical algae in his backpack were starting to chill. It was only a matter of time before the resilient little buggers became frosty slurry.

“Then I come here, coming at you like some sort of monster from the dark. I throw bits and pieces of radiation at you like no one’s business."

...Maybe I’m just wasting my time.”

The creature sprouted hundreds of barbs on its flailing, digging, ever moving cords of shiny metal. Burrowing beneath a surface harder than steel, they sowed themselves like mechanical seeds.

The man let himself feel a glimmer of regret and was surprised by the fact. He was Roman. He was legion. How could he possibly dare contemplate such a thing here, on the edge of his own death? But throughout all of his mental and spiritual tinkering he felt it like a knot in his chest. He regretted what he had done, he regretted his journey. The blue refugee, in all of magnificent glory and wit, had led a life that he would never wish on his worst enemy.

He was probably worse off than this thing churning in the dark here, like some sort of bastard plant. Unaware of where he was, isolated and alone, it was probable that he was the last of his kind. The war that had driven him here was decades past, and his enemies were as efficient as he. They wouldn’t leave any stone unturned, or any system untapped. Their plan was epic, a genocidal scheme that spanned far more than the cosmos.

Within the mass of swirling tendrils, a knot formed. It grew into a formless mass, and within a couple of minutes of watching severed itself from the rest Deadened, the tendrils stopped moving.

The seamless sphere reflected his face perfectly.

With trembling hands, he reached out to touch it. The suits resident A.I. protested, but his will was stronger than metal and motors. He forced himself to grab it.

Exoplating or not, it radiated heat. A lot of it, and he could feel the pinpricks of it travel up his forearm. It could be anything, delta radiation, gamma, some sort of nano-virus. But who the hell cared?

It was unusually heavy; the mass of a watermelon crammed into a volume the size of a golf ball. Maybe he had killed it in their duel. An arrant blast could have done the creature in before it had the spiteful will to obliterate his only method of escape.

Dying, maybe it had meant it. Its young dead and itself mortally injured, it was would he would have done. Destroy the invader’s crazy gateway and lay down to die. Let him watch you go, then realize that there’s no way home. That there was no way out. That death was the only option, slow and brutal.

He smiled sadly.

“Ha.

Joke is on you, you clever little bastard. I had no way home to begin with. You just sealed the deal.”

Hefting the sphere in his hand, he vaulted it out across the horizon. Maybe it’d leave orbit altogether. Let someone find it in a million years and wonder just what it was.

It was quite surprising, a half an hour later was he sat in the frozen soil watching his oxygen recyclers sputter and die, when the little silvered sphere came around from his backside and hit him in the back of the head.

Touché.

Venting II

It took Jeremy a full five minutes to realize that Julian had not simply chosen to ignore his task list in some bizarre display of simian dominance, but there was indeed some elaborate technical problem preventing his little devil horned image from blitzing across the World-Ship, a ball of water seven hundred kilometers in diameter.

He still fumed, puffing out a hundred little children from his birth sac before feasting upon them in a fury. Their crunchy screams, precise genetic clones of his own were soothing. If it wasn't for the fact that he was off schedule it would have been an acceptable breakfast.

His worker cube was still fully operational even though many of the systems around him where not, so he set off down Julian's hideously cold maintenance corridor. The World-Ship decided to sacrifice 50,000 square feet of rich feeder fish farms to accommodate the floundering Julian. It had constructed an elaborate system of corridors, drained them of brine and replaced it with a sharp oxygen-nitrogen gas.

Sometimes Jeremy resented the fact that one of the feeder fish farms that was demolished had produced his favorite variety of cheese flavored snack.

His seamless, transparent cube of water and half eaten young shuddered as a compression wave rocked the tiny corridor.

Julian's face briefly materialized on the back of Jeremy's optic nerve. Crazed, extraordinarily pale and unusually quiet the man was clutching his throat. Snow worked itself up into the corners of the elaborate display before guttering and dying.

It took him another four minutes of travel and detailed genetic blueprint analysis to realize that Julian was indeed not complaining about a lot of food stuffs, but that he was very likely in the final stages of asphyxiating. He considered it and determined that it would be a bad thing to allow his life to end, in accordance with human customs.

It seemed so bizarre and alien to him. He muled it over for another moment, half chewing on the dismembered corpse of Jeremy Junior. What was a Fish to do?

He was the only human for a hundred million light years, they needed him functioning at least within twenty percent of optimal capabilities.

So it was with a little effort that he increased his speed down the narrow, fourteen kilometer long corridor. Concentrating on his breakfast and the puff of flame propelling him to extraordinary speeds, he failed to notice the terrible sight of the ocean boiling away from outside the corridor.

It was only the harsh light of the neutron star in which they were orbiting, and his own disfigured shadow that made him pause a mere fifty meters from the simian living complex.

He involuntarily birthed far more young than he could possibly eat in one sitting. They felt like little bricks.

"I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge."

Said The Garbage Man as he approached my immaculately maintained farmer's porch, bag of dripping tampons and Q-Tips in hand. His face was lost in a sea of stubble and the impenetrable shade of his dingy union baseball cap.

I tried to ignore him, as I typically do. I began to slowly rock back and forth, the chair's restored crescents barely squeaking the hardwood at all. It was a futile attempt to try to read the latest issue of Vain and Skeptical, so I didn't try. I stared very hard at the image of Elizabeth Courtly, Atheisms cute little superstar.

He was still talking, I realized.

"It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life, reputation and reason."

He mused, sitting down on my front step as he rummaged through my bathroom's sanitary bag like the absolute pro he was. It was his occupation to pick through the waste of society. Why it had to be on my porch on my only day off was far beyond me. But his elaborate holographic ID key said just that, in it's annoying, chipper voice that hurt my ears.

There was a time when I felt sorry for what this human being must have once been before it had died inside.

"It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories."

The garbage truck, an elaborate hovering beast of teeth and highly corrosive excretions guttered and died. The cushion of air dissolved beneath it with a
whommmf, causing it to fall to the earth in a single deafening crash.

As it bled on the street curb in whimpered:
"I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity."

The Garbage Man looked at his dying friend, the no longer idling truck-beast with presumed apathy. The sun still could not penetrate the dense thicket of shade and stubble that was his face. There was a solemn whizzing and a sharp tang of o-zone from The Garbage Man.

I didn't know what that meant. I didn't care. I wanted to enjoy my Saturday afternoon.

"...from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom."

He stood briskly and marched back from whence he came, leaving my walkway littered with my dripping unmentionables.

Why not Robert Frost? I thought to myself as he began to mop up the mess.

Court

She stayed with him despite the ugly scandal that had exploded all over the news. It was a national issue now, his irresponsible pecker and it's quirky habit of turning hookers into bull horns. Talking heads with better hair than sensibilities cursed him in their curious distant, passive aggressive ways.

It was quite comical once you got past the disease and public outcry for a fiscally responsible governor that didn't enjoy a piece of street trash once in awhile.

You can't have your cake and eat it too, you know. He's a busy man, not a cashier at Denny's.

Perry thought to herself as she buttoned up her black Armani blouse in front of the cheap body mirror. Todd had personally salvaged it from her trailer after it flipped over in the ensuing riots. It was a little cracked toward the bottom left corner, but over all it was in pretty good condition. The same mirror she had been gazing into since she was a toddler, fascinated with the way the dingy nicotine residue made her cobalt hued eyes glow.

She really loved the man, despite all of his ugly habits. He was just a desperate man with an excitable peter. It took the edge off of things. It wasn't like he was doing heroine or anything serious.

Okay, besides that one time..

There was a quick succession of knocks, like the pitter patter of little feet.

"Come in,"

She more mouthed than anything. Todd quickly cracked open the door and poured into the room. He was hyperventilating again, his remaining hair plastered to his wide forehead.

Perry looked at him from the corner of her eye while securing a diamond stud into her ear.

"Oh, honey. Not again. Really..?"

She swooned sympathetically yet unmoving from her corner of the room.

"Nnn-n-n--no! I j-j-just f-f-finished r-r-running a--a--a m-mm-marathon!"

Eying it on the unsavory hotel bed he rushed to and frantically tore apart her Coach purse in a whirl wind of sweat stains and wheezes.

Perry sighed, wondering if her bangs would look too childish in the court room lights. She caught him again with the corner of her eye

"It's in the left pouch, dear."

"No, the other left."

A heavily crinkled paper bag materialized from his mess of lipstick, tampons, Magnum sized condoms and ammunition. He unfolded and breathed into it frantically.

She continued the finishing touches on her appearance while he struggled to calm down. It was an important day, the lights at the witness stand could add fifty pounds to Katie Couric. Perry denied herself memories from the previous day, the damning evidence that woman brought against her darling.

So what, he just asked for a squeeze. It's not like she's the pope or anything..

She turned around and flashed Todd (who had nearly collapsed in exhaustion) a bright, optimistic smile. Oddly enough, she denied him her usual favors.

"She's going to tear me apart, y-y-y-you know."

Good, he was beginning to collect himself.

"Yeah right,"

She dismissively waved.

"Who is she? Nobody."

She did her best to put the right tone behind her words.

"She's my w-w-w-wife, Perry."

He began inflating the little paper bag again.

"Well yes, there is that.."

A flashbulb went off.

The Loner

Her cell phone buzzed like an angry cricket in her pocketbook somewhere off in the mess, likely by the door. She didn't dare answer it, knowing full well that Russel was likely still fuming about the night before. After four rings there was a silence broken only by loose shingles on the roof.

She went back to work, latex cloves, face mask and trash bag in hand.

By the time Lizzie was finished trudging through the sea of ancient and yellowed newspapers a fine dusting of snow had begun to accumulate on the unkempt farmer's porch. It had been a difficult days work and she was nowhere near knowing anything relevant about this man.

The only things she could wrench from the mass of debris was that he lived alone, loved peppermints and his dogs were extremely well groomed.

She wondered absently what this meant, what kind of man would disregard his own cleanliness even right down the last screaming second of life, but pamper his dogs in such a showroom fashion, even if they were mutts taken in off of the streets.

What did it say about his frame of mind? What did it say about his character? Would it be fair to estimate that he cared more about the well being of others than his own physical well being?

Then why, when he jumped of the roof of the capitol building did he land in a sea of pedestrians, crushing eight of them beneath his enormous weight? Maybe he just had a soft spot for dogs.

All of the mail she managed to discover while searching in vain for a next of kin were left unopened, discarded next to a stained garbage can. All of them credit card offers and political fliers. Not one bore anything even remotely close to a personal correspondence.

So she sat there, amongst all the dusty bricka-bracka, battered furniture and sixty years worth of The Daily Post and wondered. The angry cricket - her cell phone buzzed nosily in the far corner of the house. It was distant, removed. It didn't phase her train of thought.

She always tried to remain outside of the subject's mind. There were too many of them. She couldn't risk getting attached to one, let alone all of them. It'd be an emotional drain.

Lizzie walked a fine line between emotional detachment and professional respect. Her job was pawing through the aftermath of someone's demise. It was easy to get attached to the dead.

Everyone was different. Some men, some women, some of them bordering on their centennial year, some of them barely retired. But there was one unifying fact. They had all lived and died alone. Most of them for the majority of their adult lives.

During interview, past lovers typically revealed a moat of resentment and often very few personal details.

Lizzie, wiping the sweat from her brow and dusting off her torn cover alls stood up in the middle of it all. The floor boards squeaked beneath her weight.

It was getting dark. She'd better order a pizza.

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