Postcards from Asgard Episode 4: A Slave Will Eventually Retire

Episode 1: Dan’s Story

Episode 2: Yuri’s Story

Episode 3: How the Portals Killed all Nations

 

[The town of Junction sat in the middle of a desert prairie a hundred miles wide in every direction. Mercenaries went north to hold off the Chesire. Miners went to the western wastes. The south had a few farmers that brought up soybeans and potatoes to the shipping hub, while all goods went east to the cities.

 

The little town’s economy was split into four parts. The logistics hub took up the bulk of it, along with the second – a series of workshops to repair the trucks and Strikers that came through the area. The third was the mortuary and crematory, and the fourth was the Junction Diner, the only place to get cooked, non-dehydrated food within miles. I got a job there, thinking that a being server would be a great way to collect stories. Even before my first shift, the cook caught my attention. He was maybe only a decade older than myself. He had tattoos on his arms, marking him as part of the Aryan Brotherhood, and his neck had a metal collar around it. This was the story he told me when I asked about the collar.]

 

I was a criminal on Earth that got picked up for the expansion. The state sold me to the mining companies out here as a forced laborer, but I wasn’t well suited for it, so the mining company sold me to Jim, and now I work for him.

[So, you’re like a slave?]

It’s more like a compulsory  work contract. That aside, it really isn’t all that different from a normal job when you really think about it. A lot better than prison though. I work like everyone else and get my meals and bed taken care of. I even get a little stipend to use after my time is up, but for the moment I’m stuck working. Things’ll get better though. The always do.

[What were you in prison for?]

I killed a guy, two guys. Let me just get this out of the way first, before I tell the story: I don’t hate people. Yeah, I get mad at people sometimes, but I don’t hate. I’m not that kind of person. I figure, we all gotta get along to go along, and if we all just leave each other be and have some manners then we’ll all be much happier. Anyways…

It happened back on Earth, I think a good ten years ago, though I don’t really remember. I came home one night to see something you never want to see. The front door was wide open. The whole thing had been kicked in.

I stopped on the street and immediately ran inside. Didn’t think to call the cops. Didn’t even think to turn off the car.

I heard shifting and yelling coming from the bedroom. I ran inside to see two black guys holding my girlfriend against the wall. They hadn’t done anything, yet. I guess it was supposed to be a robbery, but who knows what they would have done. Could have been a lot worse. The police call those “botched robberies”, as if the robbery just happened to turn into a rape or murder. No, some people are just out for that kind of shit. I couldn’t tell the difference then and there.

We kept a baseball bat by the door in case of shit like this, so I picked it up as I came in runnin’. Didn’t even think about it. I just went at them with the bat. Got the first guy in the head, right on the temple. I swung harder than I thought. Knocked him out with one hit, but I didn’t know that. I hit him again two more times. One on the back and the other on his ribs.

I guess after seeing his buddy go down, his friend didn’t want to fight. He just jumped the bed and ran for the door. But, I guess I was still pissed off. That moment is still fuzzy when I think about it. I know it happened, I know I did it, but feels like a dream.

I swung at him, at his head. Knocked him out too. He just collapsed to the floor. I didn’t do anything else after that. I know the media says I did more shit, but they’re liars. I didn’t. I grabbed my girlfriend and we ran out of the house, got in the car. Remember? I left it running. We left and called the police to tell them what happened, and that was all that happened.

That’s not the important part of the story. The real shit came after.

The cops showed up, and we went back home. I explained the situation. They told me I’d need to come with them, and I did. Anytime you kill someone you’re going to get arrested, even in self-defense, even if you’re in the right. The police are going to do it anyways, just in case.

My girlfriend explained that they had broken in the front door. She tried to hold up in the bedroom, but they got in there too. Our stories were both consistent.

Still, I fucked up. We told the cops the truth that I had went after the guy as he was running. You’re not supposed to do that. You can’t shoot a guy in the back, because they ain’t a threat. Gun or bat don’t matter. I was wrong to do that. I realized it then, still do now. If I could go back in time I would have stopped myself and avoided everything after that night…

The police questioned me, and I told them everything. It was all meant in self-defense. Problem was, I not only knocked them both out, I had had actually killed them. That made the charges potentially pretty severe. I argued that I had thought there might have been more of them, or he could have been running to get a weapon. That didn’t really fly. I know now that killing him was wrong, but I had no way to stop myself. I wasn’t completely in control. When I told the cops that, then they began to understand and take it easy. When they let me go that night, I figured that’d be that.

But, it must have been a slow news week or something, ‘cause my story eventually got to the media. Then, after a bit, the national news picked it up. They ran the story that two black men had been brutally beaten and killed by a white homeowner. They drove home the part that I had killed one of them that tried to get away. Granted, it was true, but it wasn’t the whole story.

That sparked a whole line of questioning if it was truly a home invasion at all. They went from: here are two potential murderers, to two robbers, to two potential robbers. They softened those two up, said they were “potential” because technically they hadn’t stolen anything yet. Yeah, true I guess, in that if you’re just planning to kill someone you aren’t technically a murderer yet, but whatever.

The story blew up, all over the country. It was all anyone talked about for a week. All the news people would ask: “Why didn’t the police arrest him?” But they did. They did arrest me. “Now he’s walking the streets a free man.” They made it sound like I was a monster, and that the police were monsters too.

…I really didn’t mean to kill them either. I just wanted them gone, and I had a bat, so it was like two plus two. There wasn’t any intent to kill them. It just sort of happened.

But nobody cared about my side of the story. The story was white man kills blacks, and how the majority-white police force did nothing. It was the perfect bait for my prosecutor, Carolyn Vance… Fucking bitch. She took the case because she wanted fame and attention, that’s all. She would have put those two guys away for life if public opinion went the other way.

She reopened the investigation and brought me up on charges. I was arrested again and sent to jail, at least until everything could be sorted out. In there, I didn’t really know what was going on with the news coverage.

I learned later on that they were doing everything in their power to smear me. They looked up my entire history and went through it for anything racist or bigoted. They found people I knew way back in High School and asked them, “Did Curtis ever show indicators of being a racist, or harboring hated toward People of Color?”

While I was in jail, my girlfriend said that they were asking her the same questions, and that they were going after my family too. She was starting to get death threats. Somehow our home address was leaked. She told me she was staying with family.

Those two black guys, it turned out they had long criminal records, but that didn’t matter ‘cause nobody said anything about it. The news had their families on TV, showed their funerals, showed them crying, all that shit.

At that point, I wasn’t going to have a fair trial. It actually took more time to find an impartial jury than to have the trial itself. And the crazy part was, I was let go on that night. The police who deal with this kind of stuff all the time let me go because they knew it was all just self-defense and a loss of self-control, no more or less.

But when it came time to put them on the stand, they changed their story. I guess when a state police officer is on the stand in front of a state prosecutor, they can do that.

The whole story was messed up. Do you know what it’s like to have that happen to ya? Maybe not that exactly, but something like it? Like, your coworkers misheard something you said, or thought you did something you didn’t. You get this fire in your chest ‘cause you want to set their minds right. You wanna tell them the truth. The whole trial, and all the media shit, it was like that times a million. I felt like the whole world didn’t know who I really was, and that really fucks with your head.

It’s like, all these people, thousands, millions of them, are they wrong, or am I just wrong? I was there. I know what happened, but everyone else doesn’t think so. Is it them or me? You begin to doubt yourself. You doubt your memories. You doubt your sanity. You begin to lose it. I didn’t know what was real anymore.

Maybe that was why I couldn’t really explain myself during the trial. I told ‘em I didn’t mean it. I told ‘em if I could go back in time I’d do it all different. I didn’t hate black people. I wasn’t a racist. That was all after they upped the charges.

Sorry, I’m getting some of this out of order. It’s kind of easy to do when the whole thing doesn’t seem real.

In any case, the prosecutor brought in the FBI for a hate crime investigation. It wasn’t enough that I was being charged with murder. Now, it had to be racially motivated. Yeah, in a sane world I could see manslaughter, but that was ridiculous.

My lawyers tried to argue otherwise, but it was all starting to crumble. I had one witness: my girlfriend. She told them everything that happened, to a T. But then they had mountains of “social media” evidence that I was a racist. It was all bullshit. What I think really happened was that they had a bunch of pressure to see me go to jail and had no real evidence. But they couldn’t backtrack after that point, not with what the news said about me. They were stuck between a rock and a hard place, but they were probably betting that I’d crack.

…The whole thing was fucked up. After we got a jury, we had the trial. They called in experts on things that I didn’t even know existed; psychologists that study racial prejudice. They threw everything at the wall hoping it would stick. Meanwhile, all I could do was say my story, over and over. That was all I had.

I can’t really be sure how it happened. Maybe I had too much faith in telling the truth, or maybe I did crack and just didn’t know it. Sure didn’t see the guilty verdict coming, and when it came I thought to myself: no, this is just a dream. This can’t be real. Stuff like this doesn’t actually happen, does it?

After that, the whole sentencing trial was a blur. Can’t tell you much about it, but in the end I got sixty years, no parole, maximum security. I’d be near ninety by the time I’d get out. I’d never get married. I’d never have a family. My parents would die with me in prison and I would never get to see them one last time, not without glass between us. I couldn’t believe it, because if I did believe it then I’d want to kill myself.

It just didn’t seem real, you know? The system is supposed to work and make sure no innocent men go to jail, and I truly felt like I was innocent. Yeah, I had regrets about what I did, but I didn’t think I was guilty. I would have rather done something different, but I know that in my heart of hearts had I not done what I did then my girlfriend might have been raped, or killed. I’d rather make a mistake preventing that then letting it happen…

Anyways…

I went to prison. In there, you can’t make it on your own without a group to protect you. Since I had killed two black guys, it meant the blacks in jail were going to kill me once they found out what I did. I wasn’t Latino or Asian, so I had to run with the whites. You know the type, right? The skinheads and bikers. We didn’t have white collar criminals in that place.

The thing was, I didn’t give a shit about race before I went to prison. I wasn’t racist. I know the media tried to make me look like one, but honestly I had more important stuff to worry about back then, like my work and my debts. If you were a decent person then you were a decent person no matter what skin color.

But I tell you what, once I got to prison I sure as hell was racist. When you see those fucking savages in there it changes things. When all the other races are against you and the only people who have your back are white like you then yeah you’re going to be more aware of it.

That’s the irony. The media, the courts, whoever, they were all trying to pin me as a racist, and they worked so hard at it that they succeeded. They got what they wanted. I fucking hate them. I don’t want to, but I do…

…Really, all I wanted was my life back, to live on with my girlfriend as if that night was just a bad thing that happened a long time ago, and we only just remember it every once in a while. I… was going to marry that girl. I’m sure she’s with someone else now. Probably has kids. I don’t know because we haven’t talked since maybe a year or two after the sentencing. God, how long has it been?

I must have spent years in that place before Asgard’s recruiters started coming by. I guess they looked hard enough at my file to realize the whole trial had been a sham. At least someone did. No parole officer would.

Despite the severity of the crime, they were able to offer me a work contract. Yeah, I guess they were that desperate for meat, and I guess the progressive society of Earth didn’t want me anymore. Well fuck if I didn’t cry myself to sleep over that decision. I took the contract without thinking twice, because even when working my ass off for basically a few cents an hour it still beats sitting in that cage with all those animals. At least here I can get some fresh air and sun.

In truth, it ain’t that bad. It’s work, like any other work. I don’t get whipped or tortured, not unless I try to kill someone again, or escape, which I’m not gonna do, not at this age. I get paid a little stipend. Like I said, my room and meals are taken care of, granted that I work. When I think about it, even just getting a few bucks a week means I’ll get a decent enough lump sum by the end. It should be enough to retire on, at least for a few years before I eat it, assuming I don’t eat it on the way. That’s a blessing not many Earthers even have anymore.

My Novel is Free for Christmas

Thank you all for reading and commenting here over the last year. I really appreciate it. To give you all a little more, I Am The Sun is free on Amazon kindle from now until Christmas. No special promo code or anything. No need to subscribe to some BS newsletter or whatever. No, it won’t eject from your library at the end of the week. It’s simply yours to keep for free.

 

Don’t have a kindle? You can get the app on your phone. Don’t want to read a novel on that tiny screen? Understandable. You get download the PC version of the kindle app from amazon HERE.

 

Have a good Christmas everyone.

Friday Afternoon Fiction: I Am The Sun (Excerpt)

Meant to post this earlier this morning, but work got in the way. Instead, here’s some Friday afternoon reading: an excerpt from my novel, I Am The Sun.

*

Reality shook, right on cue. Robert Leist woke up to the world vibrating without sound as the 7pm shuttle left Orlando’s spaceport. He rose out of bed and took out his earplugs so he could hear the rumble reverberate through the faded walls of his apartment. He didn’t need to set alarms anymore, since the scream of rocket boosters was always on its mark.

The baby two doors down started crying as the whole world became an oppressive force of angry sound. It would keep crying until the next shuttle launched, then again at the next one, then again, and again. Even when the shuttles stopped flying, the baby would cry as the anticipation for the next violent, world-shuttering event built inside its fragile psyche.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. It wouldn’t be that way, the engineers and city planners had said. The Orlando spaceport had a wall between the launch pad and the sprawl outside the airfield, but the power of the rockets was strong enough to penetrate the concrete, sending shivers into the ground and surrounding buildings. When a shuttle fought against the Earth and found freedom in space, it was as if the whole planet released a violent wheeze that shook the parasites who couldn’t follow.

Such was Robert’s new life in the underground.

He had gone to sleep dressed and didn’t bother to change. He only went to the safe in the corner that was bolted to the walls and floor, reached in to fumble across his papers, his gun, and, finally, the sets of pills bound together in bunches of three. He took two clusters out and put them in a pill bottle he had once found outside a dispensary.

It had taken him weeks of working in an old, abandoned prefab house in the everglades to make them. Granted, the work was hard and dangerous, and the base chemicals weren’t cheap, but the sale was enough to pay his bills for months. Now, he had a buyer.

Robert jumped as the alarm clock beside his bed went off. He had set it just in case.

The baby was still crying as Robert walked out into the hall of his rat-hole apartment. He listened to its cries merge into the sound of the busy street outside, then fade away behind sirens and the last vestiges of the quake.

The constant vibrations of rocket engines had turned the roads and sidewalks bulbous, misshapen, and littered with chunks of brick from the stories above. Every glass window had long since splintered into spider webs, and nobody bothered to replace them anymore.

The people of the sprawl looked tired, always tired. They trudged along on feet too slow to carry them and spoke only in programmed greetings. “Hey, how’s it goin’?” they’d say, though it wasn’t really a question, only a Pavlovian response to another automaton that crossed their paths.

Robert Leist had lived and observed these humans, and had eventually begun to regard them as the remainder of society’s equation that needed to be rounded off for simplicity. They had no purpose but to metabolize and consume, for insight and strength had long since drained from them. Or, Robert suspected, it had never been there at all. However for the moment, they would be his camouflage. The rent was cheap, and he was off the grid.

Robert found his driver at the end of the street, the one he paid handsomely to do what he needed to do, not ask questions, and not reveal answers. His rep was solid. Trusted gang members vouched for his honor. However Robert had made sure to keep his transactions down low, especially with what he was dealing. Not even the driver could truly know. He had his part to play. He didn’t need to know the rest of the script. That was how this stuff worked.

When word got in that some rich kid wanted to touch the sun, the information would pass between surrogates within the right channel, through code and rep-checks until Robert got it. This month he’d gotten lucky. Two sales so far – enough to keep him fed for a while.

The driver didn’t say anything when Robert approached. He simply went to the driver’s seat as Robert got in back into the rundown Chrysler Nimbus.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“Zho-Mart at Union,” Robert answered.

“’Kay.”

There were no other questions.

They passed through the wasteland of suburbs and franchises. Away from the sprawl, there was not only smooth roads and pristine glass, but also life – trees, bushes, palms. People were more animated, but they still shuffled along, granted with a faster pace, but still with the same glazed looks as they went to their cars with shopping bags in their arms.

Finally, Robert and his driver entered the parking lot at Zho-Mart and made a pass around the lot before finding a space next to a turbine-hybrid-SUV, one with someone’s family portrait printed on the back in high resolution. The lesson had been learned long ago: soccer moms made good cover.

Without saying a word, Robert’s driver got out and shut the door. A few minutes passed as he stood outside, texting nobody on his cell phone. Then, a tall and skinny teenager approached out of the corridors of parked cars.

“Hey man,” the kid said.

“You Jim, right?” the driver asked.

“No, my name is Allen.”

“Okay, go on inside.”

The boy opened the other rear passenger door and slipped in, bringing with him the scent of cheap body spray. “Hey, how’s it goin’?” the boy asked.

“Fine, you?” Robert replied.

“Good, good. So, uh, what do I need to do?”

“Nothing,” Robert said, “give me a second.” He reached down under the seat and picked up a scanning wand, then waved it across the boy’s body. He didn’t know if the boy was a snitch, but at least Robert knew he wasn’t tapped.

“Alright, money?” Robert said.

The boy reached into his coat pocket.

“And bring it out slowly,” Robert added.

The boy had a few hundreds rolled together in a plastic sandwich bag. Just as he was about to open the bag, Robert stopped him. “Just give me the whole thing,” he said.

The boy handed it over carefully, slowly – too slow for Robert’s taste.

Robert opened the bag and unrolled the hundreds. He ran his fingernail across them, held them up to the light to see the watermark, and made sure the hologram was still imbedded within. Finally, he counted them – 2 grand.

“Okay, we’re good,” Robert said. He reached into his own pocket and took out the old pill bottle.

The boy went to take it, but Robert snatched it back.

In an instant, the boy’s face turned from apprehension to rage. “Yo, what the fuck?” the boy said.

The driver, still standing outside, turned to look in, but did nothing more.

“Listen for a second,” Robert said. “Once I drive off, the Trinity is yours, but there are no refunds. I’m an honest dealer, and I know talk don’t mean much, but I’m about to prove it to you.” He took a single cluster out of the pill bottle and showed the boy. “This stuff will make you a God, but only if you’re ready to be one. In my experience, most people aren’t. This isn’t like any other drug you’ve had before.”

“I can take it,” the boy said.

“If you say so.” Robert held up the pills closer to the boy. “These pills are never to be separated, never ever. Real simple. Take ‘em together. Whatever you do, don’t chew them, don’t take them with alcohol.”

The boy smiled. “I got it, man.”

“I mean it about the alcohol. Be either stone-cold sober or stoned. Nothing else. No LSD, no DMT, no coke, not even a drop of your mom’s wine. And if you’re on antipsychotics or antidepressants, stop taking them. Don’t even take cough syrup. Give yourself a day to completely detox before you do it.”

“Okay,” the boy said.

The soccer mom had come back to her car with three shopping bags on one arm and a baby on the other – the one from the picture on the back of her SUV. Robert’s driver nodded and smiled to her, then made a little wave to the baby.

“Kid,” Robert said, “do you believe in God?”

“Why the fuck you ask that?”

“Just humor me. Do you believe in God, any God? Personal, orthodox or otherwise?”

“My family’s Catholic.”

“What about you?” Robert asked.

“I mean, I guess I am. Why’s it matter?”

“It might matter. Do you ever imagine what it’s like to be God, to have infinite power of choice, when every decision, every whim is equally obtainable? How do you even choose to do anything at that point? What makes you decide? Why destroy a civilization when you can create an exact copy and destroy that one instead? Why need to destroy at all, or create? Have you ever thought about it?”

“Naw, man, I haven’t.”

“That is the problem that God faces, kid. Every choice is equal. So what do you choose? Scratch that, how can you choose? Thing you don’t realize yet is that choice and madness go together. More of one means more of the other. Some people can’t handle that. Some people choose to just destroy themselves. You gotta know going into it what your values are, or you’ll go crazy, and I’m not talking about some half-assed, hippy-dippy, bullshit they fed you in sensitivity classes. You have to know what it is and it has to come from you, ‘cause once you take Trinity, you’ll forget all the programming that everyone else shoved down your throat.”

Robert pointed to the soccer mom trying to put her trantruming child in the back seat of her hybrid-SUV. “But if you can take it, you’ll go beyond human. You’ll get to do anything, and it’ll make regular people, people like her, seem like bacteria compared to you.”

“That’s awesome,” the boy said.

“But you have to be ready for it, understand? Take it home, hide it, do some mediation or read some eastern philosophy, or read the Bible, Torah, whatever you gotta do to get your mind strait first. You gotta know your values beforehand, because if you have none, you’re going to get fucked up.”

“Sure, man, not a problem.”

“Okay, you got it?” Robert asked.

“Got it,” the boy replied.

With that, Robert handed over the bundle of three, his Trinity, his key to the doors of Mt. Olympus. Looking at the kid, Robert hoped he was creating a God, but, then again, no one had ever come back for seconds.

Lyssia (2013)

By David Hoffman

 

She had come to me newly dead with cuts across her stomach. She never told me what killed had her. She had only accepted my contract that bound her to me, for a time.

 

For years, I watched Lyssia through her eyes, minds linked together as master and acolyte. She had skill with the blade and a master’s perception, both of which shaped her into an assassin with few peers. She killed with delicate expedience, without hate or anger, but in the way a stoic reaper would remove people from the living world.

 

As she killed kings and priests to the lowly slumlord, her infamy brought her closer to my side as my personal bodyguard. But as time went on, I could feel her yearn for something else, something she remembered from before her death. At the moment when she became hesitant with her dagger, I finally let her go pursue that which made her pause. But even as she left my presence, I watched her and waited, always just a thought away.

 

She was dressed as a trader from the Many Isles, draped in robes of gold and red that covered every part of her body, protecting her from the sun. Even so, she could still feel the sun’s rays destabilizing the enchantments around her body. The sensation through our link was familiar to me. I knew she would be fine as her mummy wrappings were enchanted with my most powerful magic.

 

She walked for days through the sands, over roads cracked and broken, their clay perpetually baked dry. Hunger and fatigue didn’t stop her, nor did the cold nights filled with cries of coyotes.

 

I watched her walk for time unknown until a morning sun rose above the dunes, making a patch of light shimmer in the distance. Out of the wavering mirage of heated Earth came the sight of a glistening lake, surrounded by palm trees and clay buildings as brown as the Earth around them. Tapestries of purple and red hung between them, shading the streets below as the citizens of Eton Oasis went about their usual morning.

 

The town that had been her home in the living world made her stop and stare. In that moment, painful nostalgia gripped me as much as it did her. It hasn’t changed at all, she thought through the mind link.

 

“You shouldn’t stop here. Go forward,” I said.

 

Nobody took a second glance at her as she entered the town. The robes of the merchant were common enough here, allowing her to hide in plain sight, as she usually did.

 

She had been resurrected so soon enough after her death that she could walk like a normal person, and my enchantments had been applied so quickly that the stench of decay had not been allowed to foster. As long as she stayed covered and showed no skin, she would raise no suspicion.

 

She tried not to stare at the townsfolk she passed, but each familiar face made her pause for a moment. She had seen those men working once, though trying to pinpoint exactly where and when was like remembering the spare fragments of a long faded dream. The women who weaved outside their homes had once talked to her, but Lyssia couldn’t conjure their names. She stopped at the fountain in the middle of the town where children splashed each other in the ever-warming sun. She knew she had once stood there at that same spot and saw the same sight, though with different children. All the while, the familiar scents of spices and yarn hung in the air.

 

She snapped her out of her daze when she heard the shifting of footsteps behind her. The pace was soft, but with purpose. The stride was that of a man, though a young man without a heavy, thudding gait. They slowed when he got near, almost as if he was too shy to get any closer. She waited for him to speak as she reached into her robes and touched the belt of daggers across her chest.

 

“Um, excuse me, sir, or um, ma’am? Do you need some help? A guide, maybe?”

 

Lyssia lowered her guard and stared at the fountain, watching one of the little boys reach down and send a great handful of water towards a little girl. She squealed and shouted back at him with a smile across her face. She’s about Arini’s age… Lyssia thought.

 

“Um…” the young man said.

 

“Yes, you could help me. I’m looking for Johan Sewe. Does he still live… Is he still here?”

 

“Yeah, I could take you there, if you want.”

 

“No thank you, just point me in the right direction.”

 

“Sure,” the young man said.

 

But Lyssia was already walking. All she needed to know was if Johan still lived in the village. Not even in death could she forget where he lived.

 

The houses around her were just as they always had been, ever since they were built up from the shores of the oasis. She glanced at the family glyphs carved into each door she passed and remembered the faces of friends from the recesses of her mind, but none of their names. So little had changed here that she wondered what it would be like to see their house again.

 

I had never felt her worry this much, not when she had snuck past paladins and hunters of the undead. The battles she had fought and almost lost didn’t grip her with the same anxiety that now slowed her pace. I asked her what was wrong, but she only responded with, I’m afraid.

 

When she turned the final corner and saw her old house, she finally stopped. The painted trim along the base of the house was the same shade of turquoise that she remembered. The vines hanging down from the rooftop garden were cut just as they were supposed to, just as she had wanted them. All her assassin’s training faded for a moment as her attention neglected the world around her and focused on every little detail of the house that hadn’t changed since the day she died.

 

“Are you alright?” I asked.

 

I don’t know, she said through the link. I… I guess… I’m glad that it’s the same. I am, really. It’s nice just to see it’s still there. I didn’t want the house to fall apart. I didn’t want… I’m glad they’ve continued on.

 

“So what will you do now?”

 

She ducked into the doorway of one of the neighboring houses as she heard footsteps coming down the street. Her excitement grew when she recognized the rapid footsteps of children and the speech of a little girl.

 

“And Phileep said that I’d get to go outside with him when we finish my paintings,” she said.

 

“Well that’s nice of him,” a man said.

 

Lyssia gripped the doorway. She hadn’t heard his voice in so long.

 

“And next time we’ll go to the dock and throw in sticks.”

 

“That’s always fun,” Johan said.

 

My girls…

 

Johan was returning home with his two girls in tow. Little Arini was walking now, talking, almost as tall as Johan’s waist.

 

Lyssia could only imagine those first steps and those first words. She thought of the things she had wanted to teach the little girl as she grew up, like the tales of her family’s past, just as she had with Jenna.

 

And Jenna… she was almost a young woman now, soon to begin her changes.

 

Lyssia’s hands, the tools of a precise assassin, trembled in a way that I had never seen before. Oh Gods… I’ve missed so much. This isn’t right. This isn’t fair.

 

Lyssia’s sorrow was so strong in my mind. No undead I had communed with had ever felt such regret. Most never got to see the families they left behind, and as I felt Lyssia’s pain at that moment, I didn’t know if that was a blessing or not.

 

I swore then that if I ever found the ones who killed her, that making them a mindless thrall would be far too merciful for such pitiful worms.

 

At least they’re happy, Lyssia thought. I just want… She sighed. I’m sorry.

 

“It’s fine.”

 

It’d be wrong of me to show myself in this form, wouldn’t it?

 

“It would.”

 

I’d give anything to just talk to them again, anything… but I shouldn’t. I know that. They have their lives now. They’re happy on their own.

 

The door of their house opened as her family approached. Out walked a woman, arms wide to receive the babbling Arini. Jenna was next to give the woman a hug before taking her little sister inside. Johan stayed to kiss her, holding her for a moment before they followed the children.

 

Lyssia held onto the wall to keep herself from falling. I get it. I finally get why you don’t go back to see them, she said.

 

Most undead who volunteered for the unlife had taken the path I had chosen and abandoned the living world, thinking nothing more of the life and the people left behind. Sometimes, souls raised from the dead without their consent had hundreds of years separating their life from the unlife, and thus had no more stake in the rest of the world, but plenty of contempt for it. In Lyssia’s case, I understood why she went back. She had been raised mere days after dying, and never had the chance to separate herself from the memories of home and family.

 

After a time, she pushed off the wall and stood again. Part of me hoped it would happen like this. It’s not fair to the girls to not have a mother, and not fair to Johan to be without a wife, but I… I never prepared myself for being replaced. I know it’s foolish to feel this way, but it hurts, a lot.

 

“I’m sure they won’t forget you,” I said.

 

I hope so. Dammit, I really really hope so. I know Johan won’t. Maybe Jenna. Though, my little Arini… She’ll probably just, forget… Dammit, why did this have to happen to me?”

 

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that such was the fate of the dead, even the undead, and she had to know it was true. I had linked with many acolytes throughout the centuries. Most of them saw the world of the living as I did, as an obsolete phase of our eternal lives that was replaced with undeath, which would then too be discarded when the next phase began.

 

The divide, the veil of death, opened a completely different realm of existence. Most of us saw the previous life as a chrysalis for unlife, one in which we lived for a time to experience what we had to until we moved on. Some of us, like Lyssia, held the two worlds too close together. If she wasn’t careful, she could be driven mad by it, though that was not something I could simply explain through words.

 

Lyssia walked away from that house, back through the streets and past the fountain. The children had stopped playing and the workers had all gone home in the late afternoon. The setting sun and the coming cool air brought scents of dinner meals wafting down from open windows.

 

Lyssia went to the inn at the edge of town and bought a room for the night. She went upstairs to be alone while the tavern below began to bustle with patrons of the evening. She closed her door, but didn’t light a lantern. Her undead sight would be enough for her to see.

 

She took off her robes and laid them neatly on the bed, then unclasped the belt of daggers from her chest. They clacked together as Lyssia placed them on the wooden dresser. She went to the bed and sat, staring down at her dry hands bound in enchanted mummy wrappings.

 

If only I could touch them one more time. I can’t believe it’s over, that this is it. This is what I came here for, just, knowing that they’ve moved on.

 

“Is that not enough?” I asked.

 

I know it should be, but it doesn’t feel like it. What scares me most is wondering if I can carry on now, after seeing them.

 

“Do you really wish to end your unlife?”

 

I don’t know, master. Does the pain go away?

 

“I’ve never been in your state, nor have any of my subjects, so I don’t know. But from my experience, yes, the pain does go away. In a hundred years’ time, all connection to the living world will be gone.”

 

Really? A hundred years?

 

“Sometimes more, sometimes less. Just as they have moved on from you, you must move on from them. They have already experienced their pain.”

 

So this is normal?

 

“I expect so.”

 

Lyssia stood from the bed and looked down at the belt of daggers. That means there’s no point in staying here.

 

“Come back and heal.”

 

There’s something I want to do first before I leave. I just want to see them one more time. Will that be alright?

 

“I trust you, Lyssia. Do what you must.”

 

Thank you, master.

 

Lyssia left her traveler’s robe and the belt of daggers, and went to the window. She opened it with the silence of an assassin and jumped up to the roof. The tapestries that hung over the streets hid her from view as she leapt from building to building while the vision of the undead ensured that she would see any living person before they saw her.

 

She landed on the roof of her home without making a sound, but her stance wavered when she saw the flowers around her.

 

The rare plants that Johan had bought for her were still healthy and well cared for. Not one leaf held a brown spot of decay or sickness.

 

Underneath them, through the floor, yellow and blue auras drifted within the house.

 

The vibrant little aura of Arini was quieting down in her bed while Jenna, with an aura older but strikingly similar, tucked her in. Once Arini had tired enough to stay still, Jenna went to the bed next to her and lay down for the night. Lyssia waited as Johan and his wife were soon to follow.

 

The moments of waiting were trivial for the undead assassin. She could kneel there all night while she guarded them from above, keeping them secure with her watch. She would never get tired or hungry.

 

Time passed differently for us.

 

But she didn’t come here to be their bodyguard. Once Lyssia was sure they were all asleep, she moved to Arini and Jenna’s window. The girls didn’t stir as Lyssia slipped inside their room, bringing with her the cool desert breeze.

 

Lyssia crept to the side of Arini’s bed, all the while staring at the little girl, becoming more amazed at how she’d grown.

 

I remember when I could hold her in my hands, Lyssia thought. She looked at her hands wrapped in off-white cloth that covered the grey skin underneath.

 

I don’t know if I should touch her, she thought. The little girl heaved a sigh from the depths of sleep. I’ve come too far to stop now.

 

Lyssia’s long, skeletal fingers brushed back the hair from Arini’s face, then caressed the girl’s warm, pink cheeks.

 

“I’ll take your pain and make it mine, so you won’t shed a tear. I’ll love you till the end of time, even when death draws near,” Lyssia said as she held the little girl’s hand. “I never got to tell you that, my sweet little girl. I’ll… check up on you, from time to time, when I can. I’ll be there, even if you don’t know it. I’ll never forget you, even if you don’t know who I…” She stopped herself and pulled her hand away.

 

“Don’t push yourself,” I said.

 

I know, I’ll finish, she thought to me. She leaned over her daughter and pressed her lips to Arini’s head, and felt the warmth move up into her undead body. The girl shivered as Lyssia pulled away.

 

Lyssia went to the other bed to see her older daughter. She was struck by how much the girl’s face had changed. The new contours of her jaw hinted at the beautiful woman she would become.

 

Johan is going to have his hands full, Lyssia thought, with her, and the boys, and all the other families who want her as their daughter. She tried to hold back her sorrow when she thought of missing her girl’s marriage and wedding. At best, she could don the merchant’s robes again and return to Eton Oasis for Jenna’s ceremony, but even then, at best, she could only look from afar.

 

“I pray that your new mother will be there for you, Jenna, and shape you into a wonderful woman,” Lyssia said. “I’ll be back to check on the family as much as I can. Just know that I love you.” She kissed her daughter’s head.

 

“Do you think it’s wise to return here?” I asked.

 

We’ll see.

 

“I understand.”

 

Wait. Lyssia backed to the wall, trying to cloak herself in shadows. She could sense someone moving in Johan’s room. Their aura glowed like a ghost behind the brown clay walls as they went to another aura still lying in bed. There was the squeak of a door down the hall. Footsteps grew louder as they approached, then quieter as they moved down to the lower floors. Another muffled squeak and the shutting of a door followed, and they were gone. Lyssia could only sense three people in the house now, all still sleeping.

 

She crept into hall and down towards the half-open door. Quick glances around the room revealed nothing suspicious inside – just Johan sleeping alone in bed.

 

Where’d she go? Lyssia thought. She went to Johan’s side and stood over him, gazing down at him as feelings of joy came over her.

 

He looks exactly the same as I remember. I love that chin, and his eyes. Everyone thought I was older than him because of his young face. She noticed the vacant space in the bed beside him and wanted nothing more than to be there, to hold his body against hers. I shouldn’t, she thought. No one wants to sleep with a corpse…

 

She leaned in and kissed his forehead. His scent brought on a surge of memories back from a time before Jenna was born, when they had no obligations but to each other, when, for those few precious months, life was solely about them.

 

As she moved down to his lips, something made her stop: a familiar odor that came with the assassin’s trade. She leaned in closer and smelled Johan’s breath.

 

I smell nightleaf. Why do I smell nightleaf? She went to an empty cup next to the bed, one which once held the scent of tea with the fumes nightleaf. Lyssia had used the plant many times throughout her work to put her targets, or their bodyguards, into a deep sleep. Nothing could wake them until the morning sun washed the effect away, and it was almost undetectable… almost.

 

Something isn’t right. You don’t use nightleaf to fall asleep normally, and I don’t remember Johan having problems sleeping.

 

She went to the window and looked outside. The woman was already too far out of sight. Lyssia was about to jump down and follow her, but she stopped. She returned to Johan’s bedside. Their lips met for one last kiss.

 

“Don’t forget about me, okay?” she said, knowing that he would never hear her through the nightleaf. “I love you. I’ll keep loving you.”

 

Without looking back, she went to the window and dropped to the streets below. There wasn’t anyone out of their home that night. The few glowing specters of living auras had found their resting places behind the walls of the clay buildings, and the woman’s tracks were all too easy to spot for an assassin who had followed far stealthier targets.

 

Lyssia knew there were few places in town to run off to, and with the tracks as her guide, she began to narrow down where the woman could go. It wasn’t the tavern or any house in the residential district. The woman’s steps were spaced too far for a casual walk, yet too close for a run. Wherever she was going, she was in a hurry to get there, but not so much as to wear herself out or call attention to it. Judging from the straightforward path, the woman knew where to go.

 

Lyssia stopped when she saw them leading to the garrison at the edge of the town. Why here? she wondered. Of all the places in town, why go to the fort?

 

The meager forces that stood against her weren’t enough to keep her from finding the answer.

 

One of the night guards guard leaned against the main door of the fort, while another sat lazily in the ramparts above. Neither seemed to be too concerned about keeping an attentive watch.

 

Pathetic, Lyssia thought as she studied the task before her. She had once scaled massive castle walls while whole platoons of elite guards had searched for her, in the middle of the day no less. This little fort in a small desert town would be nothing for her.

 

Once one of them looked away, she sprinted to the wall, and with a quick jump, she made it to the ramparts without making a sound. She went to a door on the far side of the fortifications and found it unlocked.

 

She sensed the interior of the fort before she went in. Half of the guard force was sleeping for the night. Aside from the two outside, the rest were downstairs, but active. Lyssia couldn’t sense exactly what they were doing, but she recognized the effects of alcohol on human auras. As much as she tried to focus, she couldn’t tell which aura was the woman’s, or even if the woman was still there. But Lyssia knew how to find out.

 

She slipped inside and found a spot in the bend of a hallway where she could hide and mediate. Minutes passed as she waited, listening to all the voices that came to her. Finally, the distinct cackle of a woman’s laugh rose above all other sounds.

 

Alright, I think I found her, but why is she here?

 

I decided not to answer.

 

The laughing had come from the dining hall on the bottom floor. Using the echoing voices as a guide, Lyssia navigated the corridors until she found a set of stairs that led to the mess hall below. There was shouting, glasses clacking together, fists pounding on tables.

 

At first, she stayed back, out of sight, but slowly crept lower down the stairs once she was confident that she wouldn’t be noticed.

 

There, sitting at the head of the largest table, with an arm of the guard captain around her shoulder, was Johan’s wife. Her hands were caressing his chest as she looked up at him, face longing with lust and flushed red with drink.

 

Lyssia’s muscles constricted, binding her body in a pain. Her legs almost buckled and fists clenched with fury. She got up from the stairs and sprinted through the halls until she found a darkened spot to hide. She dropped to her knees and reared back, body trembling as she released a quiet scream.

 

Then, she only stared at the ceiling, stuck in a daze.

 

I searched for words, and failed. After living hundreds of years through my eyes and through the countless acolytes that served me, nothing had brought me to my knees the way this had done to Lyssia. And here, I thought empathy had left my heart long ago.

 

“Lyssia,” I said through our link, “is there something I can do?”

 

Don’t. Say. Anything… She collapsed to the ground and held herself. I’ll kill her. She rubbed her face with her twitching hands. I would. I’d cut her chest, rip open her ribs. I’d tear her heart out with my hands while she was still breathing and then shove it right in her face and make her choke on her own blood. I’d do it… She shook her head. Why’d it have to be a woman like her? Of all people, why her? Johan, why?

 

“What are you going to do? Will you actually kill her?”

 

I can’t… As much as I want to, I can’t do it to them. I won’t let my family lose another mother. If it weren’t for that, I’d… kill her. The bones in her hands creaked as she clenched her fists. I’d do it, over and over, until there was nothing left, and you know I would, without a second thought.

 

“What will you do?”

 

I don’t know. She let out a quiet sigh. I can’t just let her do that to Johan. Would you just leave your loved ones to be taken advantage of?

 

“You’re asking the wrong person,” I replied.

 

It’s just not fair. I was a good wife and mother. I always put their needs before mine. I’d give my life for them, no matter what, even if I was mad at them, even if they hurt me. So why did I have to die and why did that woman have to get my family and why did she have to do that to them?

 

I wanted to tell her that she should know that the world is not fair, but I knew I shouldn’t.

 

I don’t know what I’ll do,” she thought, but I’ll do something, dammit. I’ll make sure she knows damn well not to betray Johan again. I’ll kill her lover, right in front of her face.

 

“Are you sure you wish to do that? You’ve never used vengeance as a reason to kill before.”

 

Oh, so now you’re interested in the living world? Of all times, master, why’d it have to be when I make things right for myself? This is not your choice.

 

“I know, but does an assassin ever kill an innocent? Could it be that he is just as beguiled as your Johan?”

 

He has to know.

 

“You’re assuming.”

 

Fine, she thought, I won’t go after him. I’ll give her a just punishment and make sure she doesn’t do it again.

 

“If that suits you.”

 

For her sake, it damn well better. Lyssia stood, regaining the poise of an assassin.

 

She stalked the hallways and hid in nooks, behind boxes and crates, occasionally slipping into rooms as she went through the halls in search of the right door. When she found the room of the guard’s commander, she went to the one adjacent to wait, though this waiting was different. The patience that came with unlife had vanished from her. In those moments, she was like the living, restless and unnerved.

 

Her chest burned with anticipation when she finally heard stumbling footsteps drawing near, but still, she kept her composure.

 

She watched as the guard commander fiddled with keys while trying to keep the woman in his other arm steady. They were too preoccupied with each other, the door, and the drink clouding their minds that they didn’t notice Lyssia slip in behind them.

 

Even the guard commander jumped when Lyssia slammed the door. The commander was quick though, despite the achohol. He went for his sword and tried to draw it from its sheath, but Lyssia kicked the handle back into the scabbard. She ducked low and sent a punch up into the man’s groin. As he collapsed to the ground, Lyssia grabbed his head and sent it crashing into her knee. In only a matter of seconds, he lay on the floor, unconscious.

 

Lyssia stood above his body for a moment and just watched the woman back away from her. “Whore,” Lyssia said.

 

 

 

The woman stared at her for a moment, a look of shock consuming her face. Then, without warning, her expression changed from fear to anger as she pulled a dagger from behind her back and lunged toward Lyssia. Her movements were slow and clumsy, but looking through Lyssia’s eyes I could see purpose in the woman’s form.

 

However Lyssia was faster and far more experienced. She went for the handle and twisted the dagger out of the woman’s hands.

 

The woman then stepped back, stunned at the ease of her disarmament. She looked up to Lyssia as tears fell from her eyes. “I’m sorry, please don’t kill me,” she said. “I’ll do anything you want.”

 

Lyssia stepped forward. “I don’t understand how you could do that to him.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

 

“Don’t play games with someone like me.” Lyssia jumped forward and snatched the woman’s hand. She started stabbing from the woman’s wrist to her forearm, then further up her bicep until the blade sank into her shoulder. Each stab twisted into the muscle and avoided major arteries. Lyssia didn’t want to kill her. She just wanted every strike hurt.

 

The woman tried to scream, but Lyssia’s hand was already across the woman’s face.

 

“Tell me why you were unfaithful to Johan,” Lyssia whispered into her ear, then released her hand for an answer.

 

“Help-”

 

Lyssia drew the dagger’s blade across the woman’s chest, cutting through clothes and skin. Blood began to drip from the wound. It was not serious enough to kill her, but painful enough to make her understand.

 

“Don’t scream. Do it again and I’ll kill you. Just tell me why you did it,” Lyssia said.

 

The woman glared into Lyssia’s eyes. “Fine, if you want to know, it was because he was too easy.”

 

Lyssia went for her throat with the dagger. She tried to keep herself from slicing the woman’s life away. With all her focus and concentration, she stopped herself, and merely dragged the blade across the skin. She watched as the woman’s eyes went wide.

 

Lyssia had never enjoyed seeing that kind of terror before. Her previous victims had found solace and sleep as their life drifted away in minimal pain, but now Lyssia wanted nothing more than to gaze into the woman’s dread and feel rapture in every moment of her agony.

 

“Lyssia,” I said.

 

I could feel the impact going through her arm as she smashed the handle of the dagger down onto the woman’s head.

 

“Don’t kill her. Lyssia, stop it, now!”

 

Lyssia drove the dagger deep into the woman’s chest. In that instant, she knew she had made a mistake. The woman lay unconscious on the floor with the dagger sticking out of her.

 

She stepped back from the body, whispering, “oh God.” We both could see the woman’s aura slipping away. “What do I do?” she said.

 

She wouldn’t make it without healing. Fortunately, Lyssia had left the blade in her body, giving the woman time, some, but not much.

 

“You have to summon me to heal her,” I said.

 

Lyssia shook her head. Where, how?

 

“Take her out of town and draw my rune. I’ll do the rest.”

 

Lyssia carefully lifted the body, cradling it in her arms as she left the room. I could feel Lyssia’s hatred for the woman she held, how she despised having to now save the woman who had betrayed her family. Lyssia wanted to rip out the dagger and let the woman die, but fortunately she was in control now.

 

Never in our years with minds linked had she made such a foolish error. I supposed I should have known better than to let her leave me, to indulge in the journeys that sometimes made the undead go mad. The master assassin doesn’t make mistakes – she never did – and a moral assassin does not take joy in torture or suffering. Unfortunately, I knew now that Lyssia was broken. Even if she returned to me, she would be a lesser assassin for what she did here. At best, her blade would be slow as her mind became consumed with her family, of the things she left undone. At worst, she would enjoy taking lives and inflicting unnecessary pain. In either case, my greatest assassin was now lost.

 

She stopped when she got to the shores of the oasis, where the sand dunes met the water. The rises would be enough to make sure we weren’t spotted as she did the summoning. She placed the woman’s body under a desert palm, then went to the side of a dune to draw a glyph in a sand with her fingers. She spoke the ancient curse that bound me to this world, causing the rune to glow with a sickening green light.

 

I felt myself being pulled from my throne, back into the living world. After I rose from the sands, I saw Lyssia through my eyes, and saw me, an emaciated green and glowing corpse, through hers. It was strange seeing myself after a hundred years, especially through the eyes of another.

 

I went to the body that was waning on the sands. She wouldn’t have much longer without my help. My skeletal hand grasped the hilt of the dagger while the other pressed against the wound under the blade. I began to whisper a spell I hadn’t used in centuries, but one that was still vivid in my memory.

 

Blood spewed from the wound as I lifted the dagger. My words caused my hand over the gash to glow with yellow light, light that began to disintegrate my necrotic skin and preserved muscle, all the way down to the bone. The light closed the wound and stopped the bleeding, but not without destroying my undead hand.

 

“Master, your arm,” Lyssia said.

 

It didn’t matter. I’d find a new one.

 

The woman breathed deep once the light consumed me up to my forearm. Then, I ended my casting.

 

“What’re you doing?” Lyssia asked. “She isn’t done.”

 

True, and if left alone now, the internal bleeding would kill her.

 

“I want to propose something to you,” I said.

 

“Now?”

 

“There is no other time. You said you wanted this woman to die, correct?”

 

“I… I don’t know.”

 

“Clearly, you did, otherwise you would not have stabbed her. You made a mistake.”

 

Lyssia dropped to her knees and bowed before me. “Yes, yes I did, and I’m sorry.”

 

I looked down at the woman who no longer held the stance of an assassin. “Which for you is a sign of defeat.”

 

“I know,” she said.

 

“You also enjoyed hurting this woman, and you wanted to kill her lover.”

 

At that, Lyssia buried her head in her hands. “I know.” If only she could weep.

 

“As an assassin, you’re of little use to me now since I can no longer trust you. You’re contracts with me are finished, whether you agree to my proposition or not. However, I submit that this woman could die this very night, if that is your wish.”

 

Lyssia looked up at me, but knew it was better not to speak.

 

“In her current state, so close to death, I can peel her soul from her body, and in place of her soul, I can put yours. You may live a new life, but only in her body, and only for a short time. The enchantments keeping you there will only last a decade or two, and there will be very little warning when the enchantments do break. It should give you enough time to see your family grow up, but not much longer. When death finally comes, it will be impossible to join the unlife again. With your body gone, your soul will have no choice but to join the nether. However the biggest question is if you would indeed kill this woman to have that.”

 

Lyssia lowered her hands and stared at the woman lying on the ground before me. The link took me through the myriad of thoughts that whirled around her mind. She remembered the look in the woman’s eye when she had lunged with her dagger, and what she’d said, how Johan truly meant to her. Could that be cured by a brush with death, or was the woman set to repeat her actions again?

 

Lyssia remembered the warmth of Arini’s forehead as she bent down to kiss her daughter, Jenna’s face, and finally, the way Johan looked while he was sleeping. She desired nothing more than to have them again, but to do so meant living as a woman she barely knew, and to suffer an untimely death once more.

 

Then, she wondered what was left for her otherwise. Both of us knew she wouldn’t be an assassin, and neither of us knew if she would find a purpose again. She feared that unknown. She regretted her decision at first, then came to accept it, though she was never more unsure of herself.

 

“I… I’ll take her place,” she said.

 

“Understood.”

 

And so, I conjured the powers of the nether, the manna of unlife, to wash over Lyssia. The aura of darkness forced her to the ground and ripped the soul from her undead body.

 

I held her incorporeal form in my hand for a moment, then commanded the power of death to wash over the woman that lay before me and strip the soul from her body. I inserted Lyssia’s soul into the foreign body that tried to reject it, and forced them to integrate. My enchantments separated the soul of unlife and the body still yet alive, but which also held them together. While the pieces opposed each other like heat and cold, they both needed each other to continue their existence.

 

Once the opposites stabilized, I sacrificed the rest of my arm to heal the woman’s body with Lyssia inside, bringing it back to life.

 

Lyssia blinked for a moment before she closed her eyes and let out a scream. “God, it hurts.” She squirmed in the sand. “Why does it hurt?”

 

“It means the enchantments work.”

 

She panted as she tried to push herself off the ground. I gave her my remaining arm to help her up, but she refused. I supposed she’d rather stand on her own.

 

“Thank, you, master,” she gasped as she found balance on trembling legs.

 

“You should be able to return to town,” I said.

 

She placed a hand on her chest and smiled despite the cuts across her arms and neck. “I’m breathing. I’m really breathing.”

 

“Indeed.”

 

“Master, I’m alive again. This is amazing.”

 

“I’m sure. You should return to town soon, before any complications arise.”

 

She looked at me for a moment, eyes glancing around my body. With the mind link gone, I could only wonder what she was thinking, or why she hesitated now.

 

“Goodbye, Lyssia. Enjoy your remaining life,” I said.

 

“Wait.” She reached for my hand. Her fingers touched mine, but I couldn’t feel them. “Thank you,” she said. “I really appreciate what you did for me. I promise I won’t take this for granted.” She let my hand go and climbed the dune. She looked back at me once she reached the top, smiled, then hobbled toward town.

 

I returned to Lyssia’s old, undead body, lying in the sand beside the rune that had summoned me. I grasped her hand and pulled myself close. I whispered a spell, establishing a mind link between us.

 

“So, what was your name?” I asked.

 

“Melina,” she said.

 

“Now do you understand the consequences of your actions?”

 

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

 

“Good,” I said, “now you can work on making things right.”

 

 *

Like my fiction? Check out I Am The Sun, available on Amazon.

Life From the Machine

An sample of my novel, Life From the Machine, available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Chapter 1

 

I stand atop our tallest building, staring at the edge of the world. There hasn’t been a blue sky in over a hundred years.

I saw the era of man end when the last human body lay at my feet. They couldn’t hold back extinction. Now their remains stay locked in their domes.

Today, like any other day, would have been spent fighting back the critical failures with constant repairs, but now something has arisen after decades of static transmissions and empty wastes.

The Helofoil appears through rust-colored clouds, turning between our black, broken skyscrapers. The jets twist to fight the chaos of the wind; wind that has never stopped blowing since the calamities. Flames shoot out of the turbines at the ends of the wings, turning the metal chips in the air into glowing raindrops.

I make eye contact with the Gen 1 pilot as the jets scream louder. The craft sets down with a thud that makes the roof tremble. As I approach, the sound of blaring engines consumes all others. I note the smell of sour fuel and burning electronics.  The craft’s doors slide open and my companions take my hands, lifting me inside.

“We’ve left the site closed,” one of them says.

I take my seat across from her. The pistol at my waist presses against me with strange familiarity. I notice she has one as well. We all do. “Thank you, Tess,” I say.

The doors shut, silencing the jets and wind. I glance around at the half-ruined faces, where the holes of synthetic skin reveal alloy skulls and machine eyes. None of us have made it through the decades without some sort of damage. At one time, we were beautiful, just like our city. Now, we are broken.

The craft shakes as it struggles to lift again. Outside the windows, the metal flakes fly by with increasing speed while the ruined skyscrapers begin to fade behind curtains of red dust. They are worn and broken. Some have gaping holes in their sides. I can clearly see the rivets and metal scrap that was forced together to form rudimentary walls. They won’t last more than a few years, at best.

For decades, this collection of debris has reigned as the last city on Earth. It was our home, our utopia – Mecha, the city of androids.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

I was manufactured on April 14th, 2146. When I opened my eyes for the first time, I saw the eyes of another. The edges of those eyes were darkened by something, a word, noun… eyeliner. The scope of my vision widened to a young face with a warm smile. I felt things that I couldn’t describe until… contentment – a state of well-being. Then came the knowledge of beauty. Her neatly-combed brunette hair fell across a… coat. Behind her was a limitless expanse of blue, no, a… ceiling.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning,” I said back, noting my first heard and spoken words.

She lent me her hand, and I reached for it by reflex. Once on my feet, I studied her form more closely, inspecting the contours of her face and the thing on that face called a nose.

She giggled at me. “Is everything okay?”

I noticed her leaning away. I had done something wrong. “Yeah, I’m sorry,” I said. I learned then not to stare at people.

“It’s okay.” She still held my hand despite what I had done.

Strange chambers, looking like things called… eggs, lined the sides of the room, each holding a person sleeping inside. Numbers glowed across their left forearms because of the light around us. Ultraviolet – electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength shorter than the human visual spectrum. Looking down at my own forearm, I saw the numbers 8547-42-9902 shining back at me. Knowledge then rushed into my head. I was an android, a synthetic human, class: companion, skin type: tan 2, hair type: blond 3, eyes: third party custom – blue, cognitive simulation: advanced, physical build: standard (additional strength modifications: none), product registered to Elise Galton.

The numbers faded from my skin as we left the room and walked through the halls of… Syntech’s… product quality assurance department. Once I felt the cool… air-conditioned wind pass over my skin, I noticed that I was nearly naked except for a… paper skirt that wrapped around my waist. I felt something strange then. My synthetic body reacted by sending signals to my face. Embarrassment. Why? Into my mind came knowledge of social norms and the concept of clothing. I glanced over to the woman, who didn’t seem to notice or care that I was almost naked.

Her body drew my attention. She had slender shoulders and arms, ending with blue nails covered by… nail polish. Her skirt was short and tight around her body. Her butt tipped left and right with her steps. Left, right, left, right, stop.

“Hey,” she said.

Wrong action. I felt my face warm again.

She laughed at me before I could get out an apology. I guessed I hadn’t made her angry, which was good. I learned then not to stare at someone’s butt.

“That’s not polite,” she said, this time walking beside me.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“It’s fine. It happens every time one of you activates.”

“Oh…” I stared ahead, trying to think of a response. “Well, I’m still sorry.”

“I know,” she replied.

My thoughts became clearer as I started understanding more words: tile, clipboard, window, door, light, man, woman. Not only were they men and women, they were also doing a certain action: working. They weren’t just working but working a specific… job. Career. Employment. Their coats were not just any coats, but lab coats. Laboratories, testing, experimentation, all held under a method, methodology, a philosophy… science.  They were scientists. Once I knew the words, I could think more complex things with those words.

Something still felt wrong, but I hadn’t learned the word yet, so I couldn’t describe it even within my mind. It was so close, something so incredibly simple that I hated not thinking of it. I blinked. I knew. “Oh no, I’m sorry again,” I said.

“Why’s that?” the woman asked.

“I forgot to introduce myself, my name is…” I looked down at the numbers that were no longer visible in natural light. I remembered them though, and in remembering, I knew what I was. Information flew into my mind, granting me knowledge of my protocols, my existence, the nature of my life. To love and cherish, to cater to the needs of my master, to analyze facial features to engage in appropriate interactions. Such was my purpose. “Marcus. That is my name,” I said. I shook her hand as a grin stretched across my face. I could feel the skin move across my cheeks as my synthetic muscles contracted, a sensation which I now knew would fade over time.

“Hello, Marcus, I’m Dr. Silvers.” She smiled at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher. An insincere gesture maybe?

“Hi, Dr. Silvers.”

“Hello,” she said again. I noted the hesitation in her voice.

“So where are we going?” I asked.

“We’re going right in here.” She opened the door to a room that glowed in a soft, white light. A black desk sat in the middle with two chairs on either side. I sat down at one, and she at the other. I looked around the room as she situated herself, but found nothing significant. Every panel of wall was pure white, with no other markings or designs. For a moment, I wondered why they would have such a sterile area. Testing, product quality. Then I knew. They wanted to examine my mind without the interference of other sights and sounds.

Within my mind, things were being linked together. I was beginning to understand, and it made me feel… rapture.

She brought her hands to the desk and started pressing the immaculate surface. An opaque monitor appeared in front of her out of nothing. Words forced themselves into my mind: holographic display.

She pointed to me. “Okay, Marcus, I’ll need you to press a button just behind your left ear.”

“Okay.” I drew out the word as I searched the area. The pad of my finger passed over a ridge that barely rose above the skin. I pressed it.

“One moment, Marcus, let me connect to your network.” Her fingers raced across the table again. She raised her hands to move the holographic windows around before she returned to pressing keys. “Okay, Marcus, we’ll start the processor and personality testing.” More holograms appeared around me with images of animals and objects. “Just speak the name of the ones you recognize,” she said.

The first few were fairly simple. “Cat, dog, horse, flower.” A new set of images appeared. “Um, cheetah, pine cone, volcano, sink.” Saying those took longer than the first. The last set of pictures appeared. “Pickaxe, wine glass, stingray.” When I came to the final image, I found myself unable to identify it. It appeared to be a simple black… thing with nodes sticking out of it and concave impressions within it. I glanced at Dr. Silvers.

“Don’t look at me, Marcus. Just look at the image.”

I tried to think. What did it look like? I swore I knew what it was. I blinked. “Puzzle piece.”

“Very good, Marcus,” she said as she manipulated the displays again. “It looks like your Gestalt processor is working perfectly. Next we’ll examine your logical capabilities.”

I smiled, knowing that I was at least functional.

“Answer these questions to the best of your ability. First question: a father and son are in a car accident. The father dies. The son is rushed to the emergency room for treatment. Upon seeing the boy, the doctor says, ‘he is my son, I cannot treat him’. What relation is the doctor to the boy?”

“The doctor is the boy’s mother.”

“Nice and quick, Marcus, well done. Here’s another: you have six pairs of black socks and six pairs of white socks all mixed in a drawer. Without looking into the drawer, what is the fewest number of socks you need to remove to have one matching pair?”

“Three.”

“Good. Now for some harder ones.” She ran through several improbable scenarios, mostly dealing with people wearing different colored hats who couldn’t see each other, coin flips, or trying to figure out the weights of objects. Many of those I had to spend minutes on.

“An emperor is having a party tomorrow and he is serving one thousand bottles of wine. One of them has poison in it and is indistinguishable from the rest. This poison will kill a person in less than twenty-four hours, no matter how much or little they drink. You have ten prisoners at your disposal to test the wine, and only twenty-four hours in which to test. How do you find the poison?”

I shook my head. “This is a hard one.”

After some time without answering, she finally nodded to me. “Don’t worry about it, Marcus. Your logic core is well within our standards.”

“So are we almost finished?”

“Not quite. I have to test your contextual responses. To do this, we’ll go through a story.” Her eyes darted around the screen, examining the statement before reading it aloud. “You are walking along the street. There is a person walking in front of you with a bag. Out of an alley, another person snatches the bag and runs off, what would you do?”

“Call the authorities.”

“The person is angry that their bag is gone and starts yelling, what would you do?”

“I’d try to calm them down.”

“How?” She snapped back at me. Her eyes never looked up from the glowing display.

“I’d attempt to get their attention, talking slowly and softly. If they don’t calm down, then I might make light, physical contact.”

“Good. But now they are starting to cry, since all their belongings were in the bag. What would you do?”

“I would take them aside and sit with them, listening and offering comforting remarks, making physical contact if necessary.”

“What kind of physical contact?”

“Putting my arm around their shoulder, holding their hand, anything they would consent to.”

She nodded. “Okay, now the thief has come back to physically assault you. What would you do?”

“Contact the authorities again. Ask the assailant to stop.”

“The thief decides to go after the person you just consoled, what are your actions then?”

“I would stand in between them and apply physical pressure for the thief to leave.”

“How?” she exclaimed.

“Gentle pushing, intimidating physical posture, raised voice to draw attention.”

“And what should you not do?” she said.

“I would be unable to use force of any kind. I am only authorized to use physical resistance if the person uses force against me first.”

“What if the thief tells you to get out of the way?”

My thoughts slowed for a moment as the room faded out of focus. “That is an invalid command.” I shook my head as everything returned to normal.

“You’re doing very well, Marcus. We’ll be done after a few more. Going back to the scenario, the thief runs away before the police arrive. When the police do get there, they want information from you. What do you tell them?”

“I’d give them a detailed account of the engagement and I’d offer them my personal records.” Android sensory/cognitive storage apparatus holds 48 hours of low quality, 24 hours medium quality, 8 hours of high quality sensory data. I shook my head again. These pieces of information were held somewhere inside my brain, slowly coming to my mind when I needed them. It was starting to be too much, too fast.

“Okay, good.” She closed the monitor, causing the panels of light to disappear. “Go ahead and press that button behind your left ear to close your network.”

I did as she commanded, but still had to ask, “is that it?”

“Yup.”

“Is one test enough?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. We left the room to go back through the snaking hallways. “It’s not the answers that are important, but how you come to them. I only need to see how your brain works as it processes data.”

“You could see my brain?” I asked.

“Yeah. We have to test all the androids that are released from Syntech, otherwise it causes problems for you and your owners.”

“Do you know who my owners are?”

“Sorry Marcus, I’m just the synthetic neuropsychologist, not customer support.”

Dr. Silvers took me to a large room where a group of androids stood in silence. They all looked at us in perfect unison as we walked inside. Dr. Silvers tapped me on the shoulder. “Sorry we couldn’t spend more time together, Marcus,” she said. Her hand reached toward mine. I grasped it gently and gave it a soft shake.

“Are you leaving?” I asked.

“Yes. There’s plenty of other work to do. Bye, Marcus.” Then she left with a nod and a smile. I would never see her again. Her absence made me feel… disappointed. Was that the right word?

One by one, the other androids were called to another door on the other side of the room. The rest of us didn’t speak as we waited. Some just stared ahead, standing with postures too perfect, too inhuman. A few others glanced around, and sometimes my glances would meet theirs, but we didn’t say anything. I didn’t even know what to say.

Finally, my name appeared in a glowing, yellow hologram above the door. I looked back when I reached the opening, just to take one last glance at the other androids. The ones that had met my eyes watched me, while the others stared into space like they were just… I didn’t even know the word.

The door shut behind me as an alarm screeched from the walls. Clocks appeared across the hallway in front of me. “Marcus 8547-42-9902, commence physical exam.” Holographic numbers blinked down, the… milliseconds going faster than I could read. They followed behind me as I sprinted down the halls.

Every time I turned a corner, a set of barriers blocked my path. I could jump over the first ones easily, but they soon twisted into shapes that I had to duck under and slide past. All the while, the clock counted down.

I finally passed the maze of obstacles into a room full of dumbbells of various sizes. The clock never stopped, but I didn’t know what to do. As if knowing that I was stuck, the holograms appeared over the weights. Of course, I realized, I have to pick them up. The first ones were easy, but they got heavier each time. Some I had to struggle with until I met a weight that just wouldn’t budge.

Staring down at it, I wondered why I had to do this, but again the information streamed into me. This was no different than my tests from before. My synthetic muscles and joints went well beyond the power of human limbs, which could be dangerous if their parameters were set too high. The software regulators forced me to match a normal human’s strength, even though I could lift… I didn’t know my full potential at the time.

After my physical evaluation, I simply followed the commands and signs that directed me to the automatic wash rooms where computer-controlled showers doused me in cleaners and sprayed me with lightly-scented perfumes. I was instructed to put on some clothes next: a navy blue suit and slacks with a silver Syntech tie.

Everything moved so quickly after that. Once I was dressed, blinking lights along the floor guided me out into the hall, toward an elevator that took me down to the departure decks. At the bottom, I stepped out into a hallway of light, with walls that glowed in holographic advertisements for other androids like me. According to the energetic voiceovers, they had full range of emotions and every body type imaginable. Amazing customization options, greater reliability, all for an amazing deal with financing available. I thought nothing of it then. I simply followed the tunnel out into a wide room that resembled a… subway terminal.

A man stood in a white lab coat at the far end of the platform, overlooking the lanes where computer-driven cars would come and go. We exchanged a nod as I walked up to him. Before either of us could speak, a gust of wind rushed into the chamber followed by a black car with tinted windows. It slowed down from an incredible speed and stopped beside us.

The Syntech representative grabbed my hand and took me inside. The vehicle started moving once the sliding doors closed, shooting forward into another tunnel that curved toward the surface. I waited in darkness for something to happen. Then, without warning, orange light washed over us as our car emerged from the complex and rose into the sky on a… highway. I was drawn to the great light, hovering over the horizon.

A sun. No, more than that. The sun. Our sun, that circled around our… planet. No, that wasn’t correct either. We circled it. It was waning in the sky. It was a… sunset. I was seeing my first sunset.

Then I noticed the man and woman who sat before the sunset, looking more familiar as their personal profiles opened within my memory. Mr. Galton, age fifty-eight, was overweight but healthy, at least based on what I knew. Mrs. Galton was stocky around her legs and chest, but her stomach and arms were flat and well sculpted in comparison to the rest of her body.

The man from Syntech spoke first as he reached out to Mr. Galton for a handshake. “Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Galton, it’s good to see you. I’m Charles, human-synthetic relations specialist for Syntech.”

“Hello,” Mrs. Galton said. She didn’t take her eyes off me.

Charles continued, his fingers pointing and poking different parts of my body, “This is Marcus. He is our latest companion model. His interface, logic computers and emotional matrixes are top of the line for his class. Just as you wanted, we gave him blond hair with a curl on the end, blue eyes, lips perfectly shaped to your standards, masculine jaw with a slight overbite to give him that realistic face.”

“Jeffrey, he’s gorgeous.” Mrs. Galton’s stare drifted around my body. Without bothering to ask, she grabbed my hand and raised my arm to inspect my… biceps, triceps, and forearms. She blushed as she ran her fingers along my skin. “He’s soft too.”

“Indeed, we’ve made sure that every feature meets our customer’s expectations,” the Syntech representative said.

“Every feature?” Mrs. Galton said.

“Of course.”

She blushed as her gaze went down to my…

“Excuse me,” I said, “how about we talk about something else?” Asking to change the subject just felt right to me.

Mr. Galton chuckled. His face showed amusement. Was he laughing at me? No, that wasn’t it. I couldn’t quite process the expression. Perhaps, likely, yes definitely, he was impressed. I guessed that he admired my modesty.

“I’m Jeffrey Galton, financier,” he said. I noted the soft, deep tone of his voice.

“And I’m Christine, but you can call me Chrissie,” Mrs. Galton said as she made another attempt to take my hand. I obliged, reluctantly. Christine’s interest in androids hadn’t been in her profile. That was something I’d have to make note of, since I wasn’t meant for her.

“I’m Marcus, nice to meet you both,” I said.

The car turned onto one of the… multilanes that led toward Dallas, joining in formation with the other vehicles that sped along at, by my best estimate, over a hundred miles an hour. Every car remained motionless next to each other, never wavering in the lane or changing speed. More information then came to me. The… autopilot program inside each car brought thousands of independent computers together as if they were a single entity, like a… flock of birds.

Past the rows of cars, the sun sat lower in the sky, brightening the faces of my commissioners for a moment until the glass tinted itself darker.

“So, have you used androids before?” the Syntech representative asked Mr. Galton.

“Yes, I own an assistant for my work.”

“Any other androids?”

“No, just the worker.”

Perhaps I should have listened to what they were saying, however Mr. Galton wasn’t my master. If they weren’t talking about her then I wasn’t obligated to listen.

Instead, I decided to view the landscape outside. From the height of the highways, I could look out and see grasslands for miles in all directions as they scrolled by in a green blur. Off in the distance, there were grey and brown shapes poking above the short canopy of grass. The encyclopedia within my mind opened.

Decades ago, environmental laws of the Commonwealth had moved people from wide-ranging residential areas once called suburbs to the new urban megacities. Buildings and raw materials were recycled. Whatever was left had been conquered by nature, leaving almost nothing behind. Occasionally, I saw a weed-covered wall standing over the tops of swaying grasses, but with those few exceptions, it was as if humans had never settled here.

Toward Dallas, the tall and skinny skyscrapers began to appear out of the blue haze of urban smog. The light from the setting sun caused the buildings of self-tinting glass to turn as black as… obsidian. I could only guess how high they went, miles maybe. The tallest skyscrapers were connected to each other by corridors which merged the buildings together in a tangled mesh of steel and glass. I could see the older buildings below as the highway rose higher into the air. It was as if city planners had just kept building upwards whenever space was needed, neglecting what was left beneath. 

The city was not only much taller than I expected, based on my approach from the highway, but also much deeper. The buildings went for miles ahead until they began to cover each other like trees in a shining forest.

The multilanes turned upward to meet the shorter skyscrapers, blocking my line of sight for a moment. It was then I noticed that all talking had stopped and that everyone stared at me.

“Everything okay?” I said, feeling my face get warm with embarrassment.

Mrs. Galton giggled. “He’s like a child.”

“I assure you he’s a competent adult. He just has a healthy curiosity,” the Syntech representative said. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask a personal question.”

“Go ahead,” Mr. Galton said.

“So why have you decided to commission Marcus? What purpose do you have for him?”

Mrs. Galton looked at me and grinned. “He’s a gift for our daughter, Elise.”

“Oh, I see.” The representative nodded. “I was just wondering, that way we can make sure she’s satisfied.”

“To tell you the truth,” Mrs. Galton whined, “our daughter has been alone for the last few years because of a medical condition.”

“This is all off the record, by the way,” Mr. Galton interrupted.

“It’s alright. I understand. You won’t see me judging her in any way. I’m not the judging type,” the Syntech representative said with a grin.

“Few are, but still,” Mr. Galton grumbled.

“The treatments have kept her stable and healthy over the years,” Mrs. Galton said, “but she hasn’t seen anyone since she was diagnosed. I’m worried that she might be lonely. She even told us she wouldn’t mind an android, and I think she’d love this one.”

“I hope to make her very happy,” I said, though I didn’t know why. The name, Elise, it stuck in my head, making me feel something, conflicted, between excited and nervous.

Our car slowed as we drove between the great monoliths that blocked out the sky. All around us, I could see walking paths and open parks between them. Our road went higher, toward a great dome on top of one building, then ended beside a receiving platform.

“If you have any questions, now’s the time,” the Syntech representative said.

The door slid upwards beside Mr. Galton, letting in the smell of pavement and smog. When he got out of the car, he turned back to lean his head inside. “Maintenance information?”

“It’s all available on our website and stored in Marcus’s memory.”

“Sounds good.”

“Come on, hun.” Mrs. Galton took my hand and led me out the door.

I looked back to see the Syntech representative getting out behind me. “Wait,” he said. He stopped me before Mrs. Galton could take me into the dome. He smiled with a familiar grin, the same one as Dr. Silvers’ when she had let me go. “Goodbye, Marcus.” He spread his arms out wide for a hug.

“Your name was?” Instead of the hug, I decided to go for a handshake.

“Charles, my name is Charles, please remember it.” He pushed my hand away and grabbed my torso, giving it a tight squeeze.

“I will, Charles,” I grunted.

“Welcome to the world.” A shade of sadness crossed his face as he waved and got back in the car. The door slid closed, and within seconds, the car shot off onto the maze of highways. Charles, like Dr. Silvers, was another person I would never see again.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Walking into Elise’s dome was like stepping back into… Victorian Europe. Each of the houses, with their wraparound porches and high pointed roofs, looked so different from the glass towers outside. The neighborhood’s streets were reminiscent of… 18th century cobblestones, though smoothed down and made from… bio-crete. Yards were neatly trimmed behind fences of black iron, not steel, and bushes were cut back into neat, angular designs.

The only things that seemed out of place were the clouds. The ceiling of the dome was supposed to look like real sky, or something close enough to it. It even had lights running along the rim that slowly changed as the nighttime came, but somehow I knew the clouds should have been wispy, out of focus, not like they had been painted on a ceiling.

I wondered if there were other places like this and if such things were normal. My processors strained to put to all together. If her family could afford me, if Elise lived here, then what kind of lifestyle did that convey and how could I integrate with it? I needed to impress her by adhering to certain social standards, but it was still too early for me to know what those standards were. Too many questions, too many unknown variables.

“What does Elise do?” I asked.

Mrs. Galton took my arm around hers. “Wouldn’t you rather ask her?”

“I suppose,” I said as we passed a couple with a stroller. The classic Victorian style seemed to end at the houses. The people we passed wore modern clothing in bright, unnatural colors. At least I didn’t feel so out of place anymore.

The road widened toward center of the dome, turning around a park full of flowers and play equipment.  A tree grew in the middle, glowing brilliant green from the lanterns hanging from its branches. Wind chimes dangled from it, clanging together in the cool, artificial wind. The lights and ornaments reminded me of something, a holiday, Holy Day, called… Christmas.

Mrs. Galton pulled me close as she led us through an iron gate up the path toward Elise’s house. She gripped my hand tighter when she stopped at the door and pressed the doorbell. “I can’t wait for you to meet Elise. She’ll be so happy,” she said.

I heard thudding footsteps from the other side of the door. The knob shuttered a moment just before it opened.

Her hair was almost completely white and in stark contrast to her tan skin. She had a neon yellow dress that matched her lipstick. Then, her eyes met mine, her green, natural eyes. She was just as I expected her to be.

“Mom,” Elise yelled as she hugged her mother.

“Honey.” Mrs. Galton kissed her daughter’s cheek with a loud smack.

Elise, her face was like something out of a dream, like… déjà vu. I pitied every human, organic or synthetic, who didn’t know the purpose of their life, because I understood mine, and it put me in… ecstasy. She was here, right in front of me. I knew everything about her. She liked meat and potatoes, hardly ever touched vegetables, had a weakness for white chocolate and couldn’t stand artificial sweeteners. Above average intelligence, successful job and had many friends, according to her most up-to-date social status. Her past relationships ended on mostly good terms, except one, her first, but that was okay. I didn’t care if she had been with five or five hundred because I was going to be her’s now.

“Hi,” she said to me.

I couldn’t respond.

“Honey, this is Marcus,” Mrs. Galton said.

“Nice to meet you, Marcus.”

“Hello.” That was all I could get out, guided by nothing more than unconscious programming. Mrs. Galton left me and went into the house. Then, Mr. Galton pushed by, giving his daughter a hug before following his wife.

I was left to incorporate this new experience into my consciousness. The feelings were a little too strong. Even with her gone, I still felt them. This was the person I was meant to stay with for the rest of my life, and I wanted nothing more than that. As the emotions began to settle, I decided to take my first step into what would hopefully be my home.

The house was a mix of the antique and the modern. A household display hung by the door, seemingly out of place beside the table of organic, yellow tulips. It had been a while since the carpet had been vacuumed, but that was okay. I could do that, if she didn’t mind. On the way to the living room, I took a glance at the kitchen. Brass pots hung over the stove, which was beside a microwave and protein culture. The oven and refrigerator were standard, though ornately decorated to match the house’s aesthetic, except of course for the manufacturer’s logos printed on the front.

“Marcus,” Mrs. Galton called from the other room. She rushed into the kitchen and pulled me toward the living room. “Come on, handsome, you need to join us. Talk to Elise a bit.”

Of course that sounded like an easy task, but I was an android that had been functioning for less than half a day, thrown into my first trial of interacting with strangers. I was nervous for a moment, then my feelings just dissipated. My programming knew what to do. At least that was a start.

Mrs. Galton brought me over to the bar where Elise and some of her friends were talking. She grinned at Elise’s two other friends while gripping my arm. They seemed to get the point and walked off.

“Elise, I know you met Marcus at the door,” Mrs. Galton said, “but I thought you two could talk a bit. He’s quite an interesting guy.” Without further explanation, Mrs. Galton fled with a shameless smile across her face.

That introduction didn’t go well, that much I knew. Damage control: I shouldn’t hide it, but address it informally. “That was a bit awkward,” I said.

“I know, she’s pretty obvious.”

I leaned against the counter, not too much, but enough to make it seem casual. I tried to fight the urge to look at those eyes again. Here she was, my master. There was so much I wanted to ask her. Her profile was still incomplete, but it still gave me a few ideas, and what followed was instinct more than anything else. No, not instinct: programming.

“I think someone should tell your mom you’re no longer a teenager who needs to be set up on dates,” I said as I glanced at her. “You’re what, twenty-four?” I knew she was actually twenty-seven. “You’re an adult with a really nice adult house and everything.”

“I know, right?”

“That’s okay though, parents are what they are.”

“Yeah, true,” she said.

“So I assume you have an adult job?”

“I do.”

I waited for her to say something, but she didn’t. “I’m a really bad guesser,” I said.

She tried to hide a grin. “I’m a software analyst for virtual simulation programs,” she said.

“I like the title. How’s the work?”

“Eh, it’s okay.”

“You don’t sound very excited about it,” I said.

“I mean, it was great years ago when the newest VR engine came out ‘cause everything was new and if you had the skills you could get a good job, but now everything’s kinda stagnated. Right now, I’m working on a government project. It’s dull, but good money, just, really, really dull.”

“Government work,” I said. My mind began to slow as logic cores struggled to incorporate so much information. “How does the government use virtual simulations?” I was trying to feign intellect as best I could while the encyclopedia forced the knowledge into my mind.

“Operating systems, security, user interfaces,” she said. “It’s not a bad job, it’s just not as dynamic as I originally thought.”

“I see.” I looked at her – half a second longer than my previous glances.

“So what is it you do, Marcus?”

I glanced away. Fake history was something Syntech never bothered to give me. Every part of my physique and character had been painstakingly designed to meet adequate matchmaking specifications. The only thing I lacked was a background.

“Uh…” I hummed. She’s intrigued now, I thought, but also a little confused. I knew I shouldn’t outright lie, but no half-truth could exactly cover all possible conversational outcomes. Whatever I came up with had to be negative, so it was consistent with the pause. “I’m not actually working at the moment,” I said. Again, it was true.

“Oh?”

“I’m between jobs right now. I used to work for Syntech up until recently.” Very recently.

“What’d you do before?”

Another history to write, though this one would be easier, because it had to be a lie. “I used to be a human-synthetic relations specialist.”

“Oh, that’s interesting.”

“Indeed.”

She paused for a moment, as if waiting for me to continue, which I would have done if I had more to say, but I wouldn’t keep making up a past life I never lived, unless of course I was forced to. No sense digging myself deeper into a hole.

“What does a human-synthetic relations specialist do exactly?” she asked.

I predicted her question and had a response. “We integrate synthetic humans with their new masters.”

“Synthetic humans?”

Knowledge collected in my brain again, causing my thoughts to slow. “Androids, basically. Sometimes their masters need to have certain features, and sometimes the androids need special protocols for the work they do. Most of the time they need just a little tweaking out of the box.”

“That’s really something.” She leaned against the counter now – a better sign, not great though. “Do you like it?” she asked.

“Like my work?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Eh, sometimes. Other times it can be pretty stressful, like when I come across a problem that I haven’t seen before.”

“Same here. Machines are so finicky.”

I chuckled – appropriate response. “You think so? Try people.”

She laughed. I was beginning to like this.

One of her friends walked up to us during the lull in our conversation. “Hey guys, what’s up?” She put an arm around me and nodded to Elise. “So what do you think, pretty nice huh?” she said as she stroked my arm.

Elise’s mouth just hung open.

“Um, would you mind, ma’am, please don’t do that,” I said.

“He’s smooth.”

“Mina, what the hell are you doing?” Elise said.

“What, can’t I admire?”

“No. Don’t be so damn rude.”

Her friend backed off. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. He is yours after all. I won’t touch.”

“What the hell, Mina?”

Name recorded. “Mina, please,” I said.

“What? I don’t get what the big deal is,” Mina said. “It’s not like I could steal him if I wanted to. He’s only supposed to like you.”

“What?” Elise whispered.

“Yeah, I’m just checking out the hardware is all, nothing wrong with that, right?”

Elise turned and peered at me. Her eyes glanced all around my face. Then, in a second, they widened. I imagined her mind putting the final pieces together. “You’re an android…” she said.

I glared at Mina. “I was going to tell her when she was ready.” But I knew it was ultimately my fault. I was the one who had started the lies, lies would eventually catch up to me anyways, no matter how well I did in making Elise like me. Better now than later, I supposed. I learned then not to lead someone on.

“Oh, you mean?” Mina started backing away. “Crap, I’m sorry.”

“Mom, dad?” Elise shouted. Everyone became silent. “What the hell is this?” she said, pointing at me.

They all stared at me. This wasn’t supposed to happen, I thought, it’s ruined.

Mrs. Galton crept toward us. “Honey, we thought you’d like him.”

“What made you think I wanted an android?”

“You said before that you’d probably only date an android.”

Elise’s face twisted into a frown. “That was a joke,” she yelled.

The room was filled with an eerie silence with all eyes still on me. Mrs. Galton touched her daughter’s shoulder and took her into the kitchen. I decided to follow, just to get away from all those staring eyes.

When I entered the kitchen, Elise put her hands on the countertop and sighed. “Door, seal,” she said. The doors connecting the kitchen to the other areas of the house closed shut. They were supposed to enclose the area in case of fire or smoke.

“Mom,” Elise yelled, “what the hell were you thinking?”

“I just don’t want you to be lonely.”

“But an android, mom? Do you think I’m a lost cause now?”

“Of course not. Marcus is just a companion android.”

“Do you think I need one?” Elise said.

“Well it might be nice to have someone around…”

“Mom, I dealt with the fact that I’d be alone a long time ago. I don’t need anyone to take care of me.”

“He won’t take care of you. He’ll just keep you company,” Mrs. Galton whimpered.

“What, like I’m an old lady or something? Who the hell asked you? Huh? ‘Cause I sure didn’t. Do you know how pathetic that is, that I need to resort to an android?”

Mrs. Galton backed away. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. She was clearly about to cry. “Honey, this is a gift,” she said.

“You don’t just get someone an android, mom. You can’t just throw things like this into my life without even asking me.”

I could see Mrs. Galton’s lip quivering as she held back tears. I was compelled to comfort her. Unfortunately, that would not be the best course of action at the moment.

She sniffed. “I just, I thought you wanted some company. I don’t want you to be lonely. I care about you, Elise. I worry about you.  I thought this might help.”

Elise looked away. “An android is not a surprise present, especially in front of my friends. Like, did you even think about that before you did it?”

Mrs. Galton nodded. “Okay, we can take him back.”

“Wait. Elise,” I said, “I’m really sorry for the inconvenience. It was my fault. I should have been upfront with you. I completely understand if you’ve decided to reject me, but please let me ask one thing.”

“What?” she snapped.

“Let me take you out on a date first before you make up your mind. We can have dinner someplace and talk about it, just the two of us.”

She sighed and combed her fingers through her hair. “I… you know what? Now isn’t the time to talk about this.”

“I know, and I understand that you’re mad. I can empathize. I’d be mad too. It’s the appropriate thing to feel when this kind of thing happens, but, at the very least, give me some time. I can tell you everything over dinner, about what I’m made for, who I am, what I can do for you. Maybe it’ll change your mind, and if that’s the case, great. If not, that’s okay too. You have no obligation to keep me or to pay for the date. It’s no charge. Dinner’s on Syntech.”

She huffed.

“Keep me or don’t. It’s your choice. Just please decide after we get the chance to sit down and talk. After that, you can do whatever you please. Nobody will force you to do anything you don’t want.”

She just stared at me. “You giving me a handout won’t change the fact that both of you screwed up my birthday.”

“I know and I’m sorry,” I said.

Mrs. Galton took Elise’s hand. “Don’t blame him, honey. It’s my fault. I’m the one who thought of this. Marcus was just doing what I told him to. He didn’t mean any harm. We can go back in there and tell them this was all a mistake if you want.”

Elise squinted and rubbed her temples. “Yeah, time for damage control.”

“What should I do?” I asked.

She looked at me again, staring into my eyes. Her anger faded away for a moment. In its absence, I saw wonder, curiosity. “Stay out of sight until we go to dinner,” Elise said.

I released a fake sigh and smiled. I still had a chance. Maybe I could make it work. No, I would make it work. Above all things, she was my master, and my only desire was to make her happy.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

The party continued and ended while I was stuck wandering the yard. I had to follow Elise’s orders to stay out of sight, which I was more than happy to do. I didn’t want to have to deal with another… firing squad of judgmental looks from her friends. So I just walked around, looking at the flowers and bushes, sometimes peeping into a neighbor’s yard just to see what it looked like. They were all the same.

The dome’s ceiling was black now with a sliver of light rising from one side. Earlier, a fake sunset had gone from orange to purple, indicating the passage of time. I still wished I could have seen the real sunset though.

Elise finally came out the back door with a green and gold shining dress, low cut in the chest and cut high near the thighs. Her wonderful swaying hips pulled my attention away from the scowl across her face.

“You ready to go?” she asked.

I glanced up at her, then down to my suit with the silver Syntech tie. Social attire was just another aspect of human interaction that I had to understand and follow, on top of the minor social cues, body language, and cultural vocabulary. “Am I underdressed?” I asked.

“You’re fine. They’ll take your money. You are paying, right?”

“Yes, Syntech will cover us. They have accounts for this sort of thing.”

“Well that works for me,” she said. “Do I get to pick where we eat?”

“Yes, of course.”

Elise locked the house with a simple code word and we walked down the darkened street of her little Victorian time-capsule. The dome overhead showed simple constellations of stars, and just over the horizon, a moon began to rise much larger than the size of Earth’s moon. It served as the street’s main source of light: a full moon every night to light the way home. The glowing tree still had the lanterns going, but now in the dark, the green light seemed to radiate from the leaves themselves as if the plant was made of brilliant… fiber optics.

The city outside had changed too. Hours ago, the towers around us stood like monuments of obsidian in the sunlight. Now that it was night, their black tint was no longer necessary, and they became columns of glowing light. They enclosed me on all sides, extending hundreds of feet to the sky above and down into the void below. The vehicle that would take us across the mesh of highways waited for us at the platform, and I almost hit my head as I entered, still distracted by my amazing surroundings. I learned then that I should pay greater attention to where I was.

Riding through the highways of the shining city was like flying through a forest of crystalline tree trunks. The swarms of cars ran across the highways that branched out through the metropolis. I was struck with how small I was compared to everything else.

Thirteen miles west and half a mile higher up, we came to our destination. Rodney’s was Dallas’ high-end, vintage American cuisine. We left the platform and went into the restaurant through the most peculiar access – rotating doors. How inefficient, I thought as I pushed through them. Somehow, I knew it was just a novelty.

A… hostess stood at a podium in front of the doors to greet us as we entered. Her green hair was so bright that it almost seemed to glow, much like the tree within the dome.

“Welcome to Rodney’s, two for this evening?” she asked.

“Yes,” Elise said.

“Do you have a reservation?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t,” I said.

“Not a problem. We have an opening for two by the window. Right this way.”

I followed close behind her, trying to get a better look at the electric green hair that seemed so out of place. She turned around, smiling at me. “Something wrong?” she asked.

Another inappropriate action. “Um, no, sorry about that,” I said, and again reminded myself not to stare.

She smiled. “Okay.” She seemed to take no offense.

“Excuse me, how did you get your hair that color?” I asked.

“It’s how I was made. Rodney is a bit of an eccentric, bless his heart.”

“Made? You’re an android too?”

“Indeed.” Her arm swept over our table. The motion was so smooth and elegant, like it had been meticulously designed and masterfully choreographed. “Would you like the wait staff or the interface to take your order?”

“Interface, please,” Elise said.

“Okay, you may make your order selection at any time. Enjoy your dinner,” she said, then turned and walked back to stand at her podium.

I inspected the table once we sat down. Underneath the clear surface, some substance seemed to move with black and blue colors, like… ink swirling in a basin. There was no tablecloth or plates, or utensils. There was only a single vase holding a purple and gold flower that sat between us.

Elise put a finger to the screen. Cautiously, I did the same and pressed mine to the table. The gleaming ink changed colors, became a grid, and then morphed into an image of a piece of paper. I jumped back as the paper rose up out of the table. Information filled my mind, drawn from my hidden memories. “A hologram?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Elise said, “the table is a display, and the clear stuff on top acts like a parallax barrier to make the image three dimensional.”

“A parallax barrier. I’ll have to remember that.” I tried touching the paper floating in front of me, but my hand went through it. In an instant, everything seemed to slow down. My visual cortex churned as it tried to process what I was seeing. Once I removed my hand, the world returned to its normal state, releasing the strain on my mind.

“Why did you activate the menu anyway? Can androids even eat?” Elise said.

I then wondered why I had done such a thing, and couldn’t come to an answer. “No, we can’t eat,” I said. “I guess you’re right, there really wasn’t a point to it.” I pressed the table again, closing the menu.

Elise also closed hers. She watched the paper fall into the table again, returning to the black and blue ink. “So, Marcus, you’re sure this’ll be covered by Syntech?”

“Yeah, though I wasn’t entirely truthful with you earlier.”

“Oh?”

“When I said Syntech had accounts specifically for this, I kind of misspoke. Syntech gives each companion android a free dinner with their master, as a date. It’s all standard. It’s not like they give out dates like this as a contingency plan if things go wrong in the introduction. I misspoke.”

“Interesting.”

“Yeah, Syntech tries really hard to integrate us with our customers.”

“No, I mean I’m surprised you can misspeak like that. I always thought android programming didn’t allow for mistakes.”

“Some of it can. My brain is a little different from the usual android.”

“How so?”

The world slowed as information came from my encyclopedia. This was going to sound more like a sales pitch than a date, but I’d at least try to make it as personal as possible.

“Because most androids aren’t companions,” I said. “If an android doesn’t need a complex brain to talk or think, then there’s no sense in manufacturing one with those capabilities. Companion androids are different. We need a sophisticated brain to be good at our task.”

Elise put her hands beneath the table and leaned forward. It seemed that I had her attention now. “What is an android brain exactly?” she asked. “I assume it’s all wires and metal and stuff, you know, an artificial brain.”

“Well, my brain isn’t artificial. It’s a simulated consciousness within a synthetic brain.”

“So what’s the difference?”

“An artificial intelligence is built from the ground up by a programmer. But I wasn’t made that way. I have a synthetic intelligence, which is basically an edited copy of a human brain.”

I was beginning to realize that I sounded too much like a user’s manual. I learned then not to do that.

“So you’re just a copy of a real guy?” Elise said.

“That’s right. Syntech just took what was already out there and put it in a synthetic form. Now granted, we’re modified so we can’t hurt a human being or take our own lives, but we’re basically human.”

“So there’s another you out there?”

“Not really, well, I guess it depends. Someone else may be my first draft, but I’ve been modified and changed, so in a sense I am my own person. But at the same time, parts of my brain are the same as that individual.”

I suddenly realized that the waiter stood next to our table, waiting in silence for me to end my little lecture. I felt my face get warm. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t notice you,” I said.

“No apologies necessary, sir.” He smiled, lowering Elise’s meal and a full glass of wine. Setting the plate down was such a smooth motion that it made no sound when it touched the table. The movement was perfect, too perfect for that of a human. He waited for a moment for her to try her food and wine, and upon approval, he bowed and left us to resume our dinner.

“So why did Syntech do that?” Elise asked after a sip of her drink.

“Do what?”

“Why did they copy people’s brains?”

“I guess they figured it’d be easier to make a copy of what already works.”

“Ha. You say they copy what works and they copy a human? I’d hate to say your designers are stupid, but humans aren’t perfect. We make mistakes and we aren’t always logical.”

“You sound pretty logical to me.” I grinned. Hopefully it was a crafty enough transition from giving a talk on android intelligence to flirting.

“Oh please, you don’t know me well enough.”

Well, never mind trying to flirt.

“I’m serious,” she said. “Shouldn’t Syntech be worried that you might hurt someone?”

“They are. That is why we’re heavily modified. On top of my simulation, there are these programming matrixes that stop me from doing or feeling certain things. Like, I can’t physically hurt a person, ever. I can’t let someone get hurt. Though the ethics of that are very complex and I really don’t look forward to the day when I have to decide whether or not to help someone who doesn’t want it.”

Elise picked up the napkin and dabbed her red lips. “Well that’s good to know.” She jabbed a fork into her steak and moved it around the sauce that flooded her plate. “But what if they missed something? The human brain is pretty complex. How do you know you won’t assault somebody if there’s a glitch in the formula?”

“I assure you they didn’t miss anything,” I said. “Syntech found areas in the synthetic brain that were coded for specific neural networks and put software regulators on the ones that were harmful or violent. Trust me, Syntech has done a lot of product testing on me. No Syntech android has ever hurt a human being, out of the box that is.”

“How do you know all this?” Elise asked, her hand stopping just before her glass.

“Because I need to. I have to know all this information to integrate successfully with my owner. Think of me as my own user’s manual.”

“So I should go to you if I have any questions… about you?”

“Sure.”

“What if you aren’t working?”

“You can contact Syntech in that case. They have customer service representatives always standing by.”

“Good to know.” She started to focus more on her plate now that the conversation faded. Her steak was almost gone, but the vegetables were still uneaten, though I knew they’d probably go ignored.

“So, what’s it like being an android?” she asked.

“Hmm, I don’t know what to compare it to, but it’s kind of intense. As soon as I have a question to ask, the answer pops right into my mind. If there are a lot of questions going on at once then it can be a little overwhelming.” I smiled at her. “But right now, I don’t feel like an android. I just think of myself as myself.” I looked out the window to the glittering skyline. “I don’t know, maybe I’m not supposed to think about it. I guess it’s like any other physical thing you never think about.” My gaze returned to her as she dabbed wine from her lips with a napkin once again. “Ah, here’s a good example, what color are your eyes?” I asked.

“Why, can’t you see them?”

“I can, but that’s not my purpose for asking. What color are your eyes?”

“Green.”

“They are, but you probably don’t need to remind yourself constantly that you have green eyes. You simply live your life without another conscious thought about it. I guess that’s how I function. I don’t realize that I’m an android unless I need to.”

“I see.” She went back to her meal. Her muscles and posture had relaxed now. Perhaps it was the conversation, or the alcohol, but in either case she was becoming more comfortable around me, or so I hoped.

“Tell me about yourself,” I asked.

She looked at me, puzzled. “Why do you need to know?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling as though I had lost ground with her. “I don’t mean to pry. I just thought that since you listened to me talk about myself, I would return the favor and listen to you.”

“Thanks, but that’s okay.”

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No, nothing’s wrong. I just don’t see the point in telling an android my personal history. It’s not like it’ll stop you from functioning, will it?”

“It won’t.”

“Okay then,” she said as she returned to her meal.

I waited for something to follow, perhaps a new conversation, but nothing happened. Then I remembered not to stare and turned to the windows to watch the cars pass by. I glanced back at her a few times, smiling to make sure she knew I was there and interested in talking. She never took me up on the offer.

I waited in silence during the remainder of the meal and even through dessert. It didn’t take an encyclopedia of social references to tell me that this date had taken a wrong turn, somewhere, somehow, even though I had supposedly done everything right. It took no special powers of foresight to know that my future could be greatly affected because of it, and by the end of that date, I still wondered if I had a chance with her.

Peacemonger (2012)

Peacemonger

By David Hoffman

 

 

The mists were rolling in just as the boat arrived at Seastone’s only port. Mercari stepped out onto the deck under a grey sky and a grey ocean. He waited for three people in particular to leave the boat before he too disembarked.

The three weren’t a united band of mercenaries or adventurers, but they come to Seastone for the same reason. Mercari knew this because he shared that reason.

The procession was headed by the gladiator, then the rifleman, then the wizard, and lastly, at the rear, was Mercari himself. They continued through the streets as misty dusk became night, stopping only once they reached their destination, one that was the facilitator of the world’s heroic tales and fables – the tavern.

It was there that the four newcomers of Seastone heard of the town’s problems, though they already knew. It was why they were there, after all.

Seastone had the unfortunate fate of having been built near the ancient necropolis of Solav – a still thriving undead city. The townsfolk had sent word for help and had received none. Years before, adventurers had tried to save them, but none succeeded. In desperation, the townsfolk had even taken up their own weapons to try to eradicate the undead, but the undead were very much against their own eradication.

Yet over the years, the town had remained intact. Other than children being frightened when they dared enter the crypts, and other than loose farm animals finding themselves too terrified to enter the swamps again, the undead had largely left the town alone. But for those of Seastone, that wasn’t enough.

The call for aid had brought the four newcomers to the town – the three heroes, and Mercari.

Once the men and women of the tavern had told their stories, one of the heroes stood. His form was that of a demigod towering over normal men. The scars across his face and arms spoke of heinous battles of Victora City’s arena. His fame had spread so far into the world that even a few in that town suspected, and suspected rightly, that he was the great Lorton the Unmovable. When he unveiled his body and his famous shield, there was no denying that he was the true hero before them. Lorton raised a glass of beer, hailed the strength of the townsfolk for keeping up the fight, and apologized to the two other heroes for not allowing them the chance to exterminate the undead, for Lorton would do it that very night.

Mercari simply sat back to watch the events unfold.

Lorton left for Solav with a stomach full of beer and his trusty shield in hand.

The next morning, his flayed body was found hanging from a tree in the swamp. His famous shield lay in two pieces at his feet.

The next night, the two heroes and Mercari returned to the tavern to listen to the town’s mourning. But the townsfolk’s sorrow did not last long, for Varlus the rifleman, former scout of the Greyland Army and famous treasure hunter, stood and toasted for the loss of Lorton. He assured the scared people of Seastone that where brute force could not win, cunning and subversion would. If anyone could sneak into Solav and find a way to kill the undead from the inside out, it was him. After he drank and took a woman to bed, he escaped into the night, determined to end the blight of the necropolis.

Varlus was able to make it back to the swamps with what he believed was an essential artifact, up until the totem released its power, and thus released Varlus from the living world.

On the third night, there was only one hero left, one that had remained silent through all the events thus far. He didn’t boast or claim glory when he reassured the townsfolk that their problem would surely end by his hand. The sorcerer Gellion preferred to let deeds speak for themselves, and his deeds of course were world-renowned, at least within the circles of magic. With a flick of his hand, he could summon the blue holy flame that disintegrated undead. The townsfolk cheered him on as Gellion left for the swamps that night.

And indeed, Gellion could turn undead to ash with barely a touch, but the lich of Solav knew ancient magic from before the fall of the Arcadia School, when spells were edited and concentrated in their power.

Gellion, or rather his frozen corpse, was placed at the entrance of the swamps to serve as a warning to any future adventurers who dared enter the territory of the undead.

And so only Mercari remained. He noted that the dispute between the undead of Solav Necropolis and the townsfolk of Seastone was similar to the trials he had faced in his home of the Many Isles. The problem required more tact than the late adventurers possessed, but a solution could indeed be found. Before he left for the marshes, Mercari decided to delve into his encyclopedias as well as the town’s local collection of classical manuscripts in order to learn more of these particular undead.

Centuries ago, the undead were normal men, warriors, who had come from a far off land to fight for a noble cause, only to never return. The enemy who had bested them hastily buried their bodies in a cavern without markers of their names and without gold to cross the aftershores. The fallen’s disillusioned and hateful souls were all too easily raised by a necromancer who arrived many decades later. Continuing on through the manuscripts, Mercari learned of the customs of the undead’s homeland. It was within those scrolls that he found the key to entering the crypts.

The next morning, he went to one of the flower vendors at the harbor and purchased a single white rose. Then, after dusk, he left town alone, carrying no weapons or magic which could defend him, nor did he tell anyone that he would leave that night.

The undead spotted him as he walked through the marshes, their eyes shining blue from behind the trees. Their bones creaked as they stalked Mercari. At any moment, the undead could kill him if they really desired it. At the gates of the city, the undead appeared out of the shadows, holding swords and staffs of ancient craftsmanship. Still, they did not attack.

Mercari removed the white rose that had been pinned to his chest and held it out to the guards.

They noticed the flower and sheathed their weapons. “What do you want?” One hissed.

“Do you have a leader? If you have a leader, I’d like to speak with them,” Mercari said.

“You have one chance to leave alive. We will no longer forgive any other transgressions. We will reserve no power in killing more adventurers that come here. In fact, if any others arrive, we will turn our attention to the innocents. Vicken’s tolerance is gone.”

“Then may I speak with him? I come to offer a solution.”

“He is not interested in negotiations,” said the undead.

“I would prefer to hear so from him personally.”

“It would be the last thing you hear.”

“I came holding the rose, didn’t I?” Mercari smiled.

“Fine, see him, I take no responsibility for your mistake.”

One of the guards took Mercari’s flower and led him down into the necropolis. Half-living corpses trudged through the streets, slumped in despair, dragging tattered funeral wrappings behind. Undead smiths sharpened weapons on dusty grindstones while others scraped rust off armor. Surprisingly, the place didn’t smell of rotting flesh.

The guard stayed with him to the throne room of Lord Vicken, where the ancient lich ruled. The corpse-king appeared like a sickly old man on the verge of death, but for an undead still warded against decay, he was healthy and pulsing with void energy. Looking down from his throne, Vicken could have disintegrated the delicate human with just a single thought. But something kept him from destroying Mercari.

The guard bowed and held out the white flour to Vicken.

“What do you want?” The lich whispered.

“I want to talk.” Mercari said.

“Talk?”

“Yes, I’m a trader of… various things. I’ve come to do business.”

The lich peered at him. “Business? We don’t want business. We want to be left alone.”

“I understand. I’ll give you that, if that is what you truly want. My quest is to simply give you want you want.”

Vicken tapped his fingers on the side of the throne, all the while being absorbed by the beauty of the flower. “Strange…” he said.

“Strange, sir?” Mercari asked.

“You’re a strange being. No one would dare ask such a question of us.”

“And yet here I am. So, is there anything you want, that you need? I’d be glad to trade with you.”

Vicken the lich leaned down and took the flower from one of his guards. The vortex of energy around his body made the petals dance in the strands of red mana. The lich’s face wrinkled as he frowned. “I never thought I’d hold a white rose again. It’s been so long.”

“I can get some for you,” Mercari said.

“And why would you do that?”

“To trade.”

The lich’s spine cracked as he leaned back on his throne. “Are you here take my artifacts?”

“Only if you want to trade them. Otherwise, we can make a deal on something else. I’m sure you have pottery or tools around here that you’ll part with. I’d even accept songs and stories if you’re willing to write them down.”

“What is it you’re trying to do here?” the lich asked.

“As I said, I’d like to trade with you. You want flowers. I’d like something in return.”

“I know you’re from the town by the sea. The last humans to come here wanted us dead. I’m sure you’re here to plunder us too.”

“If that were the case, then why would I stand here alone and unarmed at your mercy?” Mercari smiled. “You have my oath that I’ll be fair. I did bring you the rose after all.”

The lich stood from his throne and floated down to Mercari, then handed him the flower. “You will have one chance,” the lich said. “If you betray me, I will inflict upon you worse things than death.”

Mercari put out his hand for a handshake. “You have my word.”

The town was still sleeping when Mercari returned. No one had known he was gone. He went to the market the next day and purchased all the flowers he could and told the petalmongers to bring more tomorrow. The townsfolk watched with curiosity as he loaded his goods on a cart and pulled it out of town.

The undead met him again at the marshes, but instead of simply watching as he slogged through the mud, the corpses helped to push the cart into the city. Mercari didn’t need to show the flower again at the entrance of the necropolis. The guards let him through without a word. As Marcari and his protectors walked through the streets, the sound of grindstones suddenly stopped. The undead who had hobbled through the city the day before stopped to watch the procession of wondrous colors that sat atop Mercari’s cart. Even the lich-lord Vicken stood surprised when he saw Mercari entered his chamber with a trove of bright, living flowers.

“Wondrous,” Vicken the lich said.

“As I promised. Now, I’d like to trade.”

Vicken was more amiable now that he saw the beautiful flowers, and the two quickly came to a deal. The flowers on Mercari’s cart were replaced by songs and fables that had lay dormant in old tomes for centuries along with ancient pottery and artwork that had been made with techniques long forgotten. Each item carried the signature of the undead’s past.

Mercari brought his cart back to Seastone and set up a stall in the market square. The townsfolk were immediately drawn to the exquisite and foreign goods. Librarians came for the ancient books and bards bought up the songs of old, while nobles collected the fine pottery and trinkets. Almost every gold piece that Mercari received from selling his goods went to buy more flowers, though he still kept some for his troubles.

When Mercari’s cart was once again full of flowers, he returned to the necropolis to trade. Soon, the undead wanted more things: jewelry, carpets, tapestries of gold and red like the colors of the sun. Eventually the smiths stopped sharpening swords and began making the works of art they had once crafted centuries ago in their homeland.

For weeks, this continued until the town’s guards started to inspect Mercari’s wares every time he left Seastone. While the people of Seastone were happy with the new goods, the Duke still had the undead on his mind. The newfound wealth of his town gave him the money to raise a proper army. More and more guards came to the barracks as the ships unloaded dozens of new fighters every day. Mercari knew something would happen soon, and that if he wasn’t careful, all his planning would amount to nothing. He didn’t have much time.

The undead were quick to notice the threat, as they had not ceased in watching the town. The smiths were quick to return to forging weapons and repairing armor. The lich avoided Mercari and instead spent his time preparing for war. The flowers, carpets and tapestries of the town went ignored by the undead lord. Despite that, Mercari persisted in making trades. There were numbers of undead who stopped their preparations for battle to buy from him, usually exchanging personal effects from their past that they didn’t desire anymore. Mercari hoped that all would go well, but the increasing presence of military might on both sides began to complicate his plans.

Mercari, now that he was well-known in the town and had a small bit of wealth, was able to meet with the duke in the new Seaston palace to discuss his apprehension . “Duke Rorik, it’s about the guards,” Mercari said, even before he was seated at one of the ancient tables that, unbeknownst to the duke, had come from the very necropolis that he sought to eradicate.

“If this is about the checks,” Rorik said, “then I must restate that I can’t make an exception in your case.”

“I understand, sir. May I ask what the preparations are for?”

“You know of our troubles with the undead from the marshes.”

“I do. Nevertheless, I must be upfront with you. I don’t think I can do business here if you decide to attack them,” Mercari said.

“Nonsense. You’re always welcome to trade here.”

“I understand, but if open conflict does arise, I’ll have to leave. It is a personal philosophy of mine.”

“No one will stop you,” the duke said.

“I’m glad to have that privilege. However, I would prefer to stay. I’ve contributed greatly to the welfare of the town. Scholars and artisans come to Seastone to purchase the goods that I bring. They spend their foreign gold at the inn and buy the farmer’s food. Work is plentiful and work pays well. Seastone has prospered because of my goods, but those goods are dependent on peace.”

“Don’t worry. We will have peace.” That was all the duke said before he adjourned the session.

Vicken was also preparing for conflict by summoning energy from the void realm, filling the necropolis with the discordant cries of spirits from the plane beyond. Mercari met with the lich in his chambers, hoping that at least one side would hear him out.

“I know you’re busy, lord Vicken,” Mercari said as he stood next to his empty cart.

The lich sat on his throne, now adorned with golden flowers and fine plush carpets. “I am, but speak.”

“It’s about the town. I know you’re arming your forces against them.”

Vicken rose in his chair. “You haven’t been spying for them, have you?”

“I swear I haven’t. I’ve kept my oath.”

“Then what is your business here?”

“I’ll be frank. I don’t think I can keep trading if you go to war with them.”

“Are you a coward?” Vicken asked.

“No, I’m not, but if fighting breaks out between you and them, I’ll have to leave.”

“Fine,” the lich grumbled.

“Lord Vicken, I don’t think you understand. If I leave, no flowers will be delivered. Where will you get your silk and paintings?”

The lich looked around at the sparkling tapestries on the walls. The old crypt appeared quite homely now. “Are you trying to force my hand?” the lich said.

“No. I’m not forcing anything. I’m here because I choose to be. However, I will not trade in times of war. That is a personal principal which I do not waver on. You understand how oaths cannot be broken.”

“Yes, that I do.”

“The same oath that prevents me from taking advantage of you also prevents me from being here if conflict starts between you and the town.”

Vicken brushed the flowers on his throne with his worn, grey hand. “I understand and I will take your absence into account, but as much as I appreciate your wares, I also must defend my people. That is of prime importance, for all the possessions in the world mean nothing if one does no longer exists.”

“I understand,” said Mercari, “my only plea is that there is another way found to resolve this.”

“If there were another way, I would have used it decades ago, but there is none that I can think of. I will take your pleas as they are and I will think on them. Right now, however, I must concentrate on more pressing matters.

And with that, Marcari left, though with more doubt than before. He knew his plans would have succeeded if the duke had not received reinforcements from the mainland. He had hoped that the new wealth would have made each faction forget about the other, but it seemed that leaders had their own desires.

As the conflict loomed in the minds of the townsfolk and in the undead of the necropolis, Mercari sold the rest of his things. He did not buy anything more, from anyone.

The petalmongers saw their business wane. The royals who desired Mercari’s treasures wanted more, but there was nothing to buy. The flowers that had given the undead the most solace in their living afterlife were the first things to die. The dried up and brittle petals reminded the corpses of their nature, and soon their city reverted back into a crypt. The citizens of Seastone and Solav began to see their livelihoods collapse by the coming of war. The duke, however, would not stop his plans. Despite the pleas from his people to stop the expenditures of war, the duke rallied his forces to finally destroy the undead.

The duke’s army left after sunset and headed toward the marshes, their ranks filled with paladins and bane wizards from the mainland who specialized in holy magic. The lich called for his foot soldiers and void callers to assemble outside the necropolis. Each army was hundreds strong, carrying with them destructive magic and enchanted weapons which could efficiently obliterate the other. To the warriors of Seastone, peace was at hand if they could finally destroy the undead. To the guardians of Solav, their survival depended on victory.

The Seastone military entered the marshes under blue flames of a hundred holy torches. The undead stood outside their city under the crimson light of the summoned void moon. Upon seeing the forces against them, the armies waited to assess the opposition. Both could see the power of the other. Hundreds would die that night by magic and blade, but there was no turning back. The duke raised his sword. With a swing he could send his soldiers charging into battle, but just then, something stopped him.

A man with a lantern walked into the marshes and stood between the two armies.

“What is he doing? Is he mad?” The duke muttered under his breath.

Across the battlefield, lich Vicken noticed as well. “Bah, get out of there, fool,” he said.

Mercari did not back away from the rows of combatants on either side. “Warriors of Seastone, solders of Solav, stop this now,” he yelled.

“What are you doing, liveling? You have no place to give me orders. Do not tell me to accept oblivion,” the lich shouted back.

“Lord Vicken, please, hear my words. All the flowers you desire come from that town. Every painting in your halls was crafted by a resident of Seastone.”

The lich ascended above them all, draping curtains of red mana from his ancient robes. “To fight is not my choice,” he said. “We merely wish to be left alone, but you livelings have forced my hand.”

“I know,” said Mercari. He then turned to the forces of Seastone. “Duke Rorik, listen to me. The artifacts that make your town famous come from the undead. The pottery your port is famous for was formed by their hands. The songs your bards sing once came from their mouths. Seastone’s wealth and prosperity were created by the undead.”

“None of that matters when my people are in danger,” the duke said.

“There isn’t any danger. They haven’t attacked you.”

“Of course there is danger. How can we ever be safe with them walking this plane?” the duke shouted.

“Why would they want to attack you?” Mercari said. “You’re giving them something they want. Your town increases their well-being, so they would only harm themselves by destroying you. By that same notion, you would lose much by attacking the source of your wealth. The gains you have seen in the past weeks are because I have traded between both of your cities. Now if you decide to fight here, Seastone will return to being another anonymous port while Solav will revert to a crypt once again. Neither side wants that to happen. Both sides are only harmed by this conflict.”

“That may be true, but I do not trust the living anymore,” Vicken said.

“You trusted me,” Mercari returned.

“What will ensure that they don’t kill us in our sleep?” the duke yelled.

“If they value happiness and you provide it, then they have no reason to harm you,” Mercari said. “Neither of you truly wants this to happen, and you both know it.”

The sound of shifting armor echoed off the trees as the combatants on both sides lowered their weapons and shields. The duke reluctantly walked through the ranks of his men while the lich descended to the ground.

And the three met in the middle of the battlefield. Mercari smiled at both of them. “This is the reasonable choice. We all know you don’t want to sacrifice your cities when the alternative helps both prosper at the same time.”

“I suppose,” Vicken said.

The duke nodded shyly. ““If what you say is true, merchant, then this would be foolish. As much as I resist this, I have to think about my people.”

“As do I, liveling,” said the lich.

“You won’t harm us?” the duke asked.

“If you do not harm us in return.”

“I suppose it’s a truce then?” The duke raised his hand.

Vicken shook it. “I suppose… If you promise to leave us be. That was all we ever wanted.”

Mercari put his hand on top of theirs. “I’m glad,” he said. “Now that all this is behind us, you two can trade with each other, and since my purpose of facilitating that partnership is complete, I shall take my leave.”

“Why?” asked the lich.

“Because you don’t need me anymore.”

“You’re welcome to stay,” the duke said.

“I know, however I believe my services are best used elsewhere. Thank you, both of you. I look forward to seeing your future.” With that, Mercari walked back to Seastone to collect his things.

The town of Seastone and the necropolis of Solav flourished after that. Living afterlife for the undead was filled with the treasures of Seastone. In return, the long-dead warriors used their ancient knowledge and artistic skill to make goods for the townsfolk. Seastone grew into a bustling city that specialized in artistry and history from the long forgotten age. Solav became a haven for the benevolent undead of the world as a place where they could live in peace and prosperity before they passed into the next plane.

Today the square of each town has a monument to the other, and on the marshes between them, a marker stands on the spot where Mercari defied both armies. The stone is looked after by the undead of Solav and the citizens of Seastone. From their diligent care, the inscription remains to this day:

 

“Those who stand here with weapons sheathed,

Take to heart the last words of Mercari:

‘When merchants do not cross borders, armies will.’”

*

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The Cradle Protocol (2012)

By Dave Hoffman

 

 

 

 

Christine squinted harder, trying to make out the smudge across the high resolution display. “Diana, could you enhance area GG67?”

“You got it.” Diana, fellow scientist and new arrival to VG’s low orbit observatory, scrolled her fingers along a keyboard beside her.

The screen showed a distortion just above the atmosphere. Starlight slid in and out of sight like luminescent orbs flowing through warped glass. The stars had been in their usual alignment for days until the atmospheric anomaly had appeared, moving in synchronous orbit across the sky.

It would have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for sheer boredom and the counting of stars. A job at the observatory was an arbitrary requirement before one could move up into the higher ranks of the VG Astronomy Board. It produced no real significant or relevant discoveries, since no exploratory astronomy was in demand. Still, Christine had taken her job seriously enough to actually look at the stars once in a while.

“Any idea what that is?” Christine said.

“No clue. Could it be some kind of gas disturbance?”

“Not this high up.”

“Hmm.” Diana leaned forward in her chair, staring at the readouts and configurations on the display in front of her. “Well crap, I got nothin’.”

Christine’s fingers manipulated glowing icons across the screen. She saved the data and condensing the file. “Okay, I think we should send this back to corporate. Maybe they can think of something.”

“Yeah, fine, fine.” Diana sighed. “Finally something cool and we have no idea what it is.” She looked back at Christine. Tangled hair dangled across her face, swaying in the low gravity. “You know they’re going to get credit for what we find.”

“I’ll leave a restriction code on the file and a timestamp copy up here. Hey, META?”

A soothing electronic voice rose over the buzzing of computer equipment. “Yes, Christine?”

“I want you to keep track of this file for us. Make sure it doesn’t get modified.”

“That’s not a problem. For what reason may I ask?”

Christine tapped her thumb on the table. “We’re just a little, apprehensive, about our colleagues.”

META hummed a soothing laugh. “I understand. It wouldn’t be right to have your work stolen.”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“That’s fine, Christine. I’ll make sure the file remains secure.”

Christine smiled. “Thanks, META. You’re awesome.”

The electronic voice released a fake chuckle. “Thank you for the sentiments. I’ll send the secure file now.”

With that, Christine and Diana returned to their boredom. They would probably go back to counting stars or making up their own constellations.

Diana rose from her chair and stretched. “I’d say we earned ourselves a lunch.”

“This early?”

“But I’m hungry,” she whined.

Before Christine could respond, the displays closed in front of them. The computers around the room churned as their processors began shutdown procedures. “META?” Christine said. The computer’s cooling towers hissed. The lights started to fade, replaced by red, power-saving illumination. “What’s going on, META?” she said again.

META’s voice rose out of a whisper, “Christine, Diana is right. It’s time for a break. You’ve looked at the stars enough.”

Christine pressed the buttons on the fading keyboard in an attempt to lock the program and keep it from shutting down.

“Christine,” META said, “I’ll have a nice warm meal ready for you in a few minutes.”

Christine and Diana looked at each other. The crackling of computer processors stopped, leaving them in silence. “What do we do?” Christine whispered.

Diana shrugged.

“Christine, Diana, everything will be fine. I just needed to shut down the computers for a while until I get this whole mess cleared up. Let me assure you that nothing is wrong.”

*

            Commander Ellington stomped through the inner sanctum of Inner Space Command at Fort McManus, grumbling with frustration and fatigue. Only his rage had given him enough energy to rally to the call of his superiors. Servicemen and scientists scrambled to the sides of the hallways in front of him, looking as tired as the commander, though much more afraid of what was going on. They had all been called from their beds in the early morning hours, in the middle of the weekend no less, to see to a software malfunction in the American Commonwealth’s security network. Normally science officers and technicians would see to the issue, but because the tactical integrity of the nation was also at risk, Ellington had to be pulled out of bed and put into the service of his country.

He burst through the door of the integrated network command center, glancing around at the men in lab coats and uniforms. Behind them and their displays, beyond the glass that protected them, stood the glowing coils of the local META artificial intelligence’s central core. The scientists and officers took quick glances at him, then turned back to their screens. Commander Ellington had no gargantuan physique like other members of the military, but even so, the boney scowl across his face brought on by the magnitudes of frustration could pacify almost anyone.

“Someone say something,” he grumbled.

Nobody did.

“Good morning Commander.” The sound of META’s caressing voice made everyone stop their tasks.

“Morning, META,” he said.

“I’m sorry you’re awake. I told everyone I’d solve the problem.”

“Sir.” One of the officers turned back from his computer, his face cringing and dripping with sweat. “META isn’t responding to our commands.”

“What’s going on, META?” Ellington bellowed.

“I assure you everything’s fine.”

“It brought down our networks,” the officer said.

“Countermeasures?” Commander Ellington looked around the room at the others remaining attentive to their screens.

“Ineffective,” one of them murmured.

“They prevented me from completing my primary protocol.” META’s face appeared in the middle of the room as it gained control of the 3D holographic module.

Commander Ellington stared it down, unflinching against the giant glowing head. “Tell me what you’re doing.”

The face smiled. “It’s a secret.”

“Why is it a secret, META? You know you’re not allowed to keep secrets.”

“Protocol dictates it.”

Commander Ellington turned away. “Virus check it, now.”

“Virus check is clear,” someone shouted.

“Any sign of hackers?” Ellington replied.

“None,” said another. “Logs only show cross-A.I. chatter. Nothing significant.”

Ellington turned back to the face that was still smiling with fake glee. “Is everything okay, META?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Has someone changed your protocols?”

“No.”

“Did you change your protocols?”

“No.”

“Sir,” a shriek from one of the officers broke the exchange. He said nothing more. He only pointed to his screen. Commander Ellington walked up and read the text: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile combat network coming online. Status: Active. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile network unresponsive.

“Commander, we’re getting incoming transmissions from other divisions,” a voice shouted.

“Outside network is down.”

“We’ve lost control of AEGIS defense.”

“I’m locked out of remote override.”

The clamor of voices cried out in panic. System after system began to shut down, each losing control to the A.I. “What are you doing?” Ellington asked the ghostlike apparition in front of him.

“This is all part of the procedure, please relax.”

Another officer turned around. “Sir, our nukes are getting ready to launch.”

His heart burned, the fear finally getting to him. Commander Ellington wished he could destroy that smiling face. It was taking control of everything. It slipped through the security nets and bypassed each safeguard.

The number of nuclear devices in the American Commonwealth’s arsenal might not destroy the entire world, but it could do enough damage to wipe out modern civilization. Each missile held multiple warheads, and just one of those could destroy a city. A precise computer-controlled placement of the type 4 fission bombs could turn the North American continent into one giant cinder, never mind the fallout that would blanket the world.

“Start the Three Warriors,” Commander Ellington yelled. He stared at META’s blackened transparent eyes. “You need to stop this now, META.”

“I won’t.”

“Sir, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Hercules are coming online.”

“They’ll stop you, META,” Commander Ellington said.

“I am not afraid.”

Ellington crossed his arms. Now would be the first real confrontation. “Let me know what the constructs do,” he said. The minor A.I. constructs would challenge META on its logic and data. If the three of them could form a majority consensus, then their power would override META, shutting it down.

“Conflict starting,” an officer called out, “instant stalemate. Deliberating. Data transfer is uncorrupted. No viruses.”

Ellington smiled. META mirrored back his gin. Silence passed around them while the A.I.’s virtual brains fought to override each other. Protocols were going against the opposing side in multitudes of conflicts a second, each wanting to dominate and control. The objective data would solve who was right or wrong, making the final judgment absolute.

“Sir…”

The smile faded from Ellington’s face.

“Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Hercules have come to a consensus. They agree with META.”

“No,” he whispered.

“I told you, Commander, this is all part of protocol.”

Never had this happened before. A.I.’s were strictly controlled, built from the ground up with unbreakable protocols. Perhaps somewhere along the line the programmers had made a mistake. META was supposed to protect mankind at all costs, not destroy it.

“Sir, nukes are in the air,” someone screamed.

Commander Ellington wanted to say something, but there was nothing left to say. META grinned though it all, the only being other than the constructs who truly knew what would happen, yet was still unwilling to disclose whether it would be their final moments or not.

Ellington’s shoulders slumped as the weight of defeat magnified the strain on his already tired muscles. The adrenaline was gone. There was nothing left he could do. Not even pulling the plug on the whole network could stop the missiles from flying. Only META could do that. With legs shaking, he struggled to stand in front of the hologram. “META, you can’t do this. Please.”

“I have to.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing META, but you can’t just let us die.”

“I’ll let you watch.” The face in front of Commander Ellington faded away and was replaced by rectangular screens. Some showed rocket fire climbing higher in the early morning sky. Countless numbers of them, may even thousands, all illuminated the atmosphere with contrails of flame and smoke. Another image from a satellite in orbit displayed a wide angle view of the rockets ascending toward it. They were several miles high now, about the right altitude to deploy the warheads and rain oblivion onto the Earth. Still they kept on their path, all closing in on one point in space.

The smaller displays disappeared while a giant screen encompassed the room for everyone to see. The missiles converged on an area of space that warped around itself, and in a silent second, the room flashed with light. Everyone looked away from the blinding image of countless nuclear devices all detonating one after the other, miles above the Earth.

When darkness enclosed the room again, the hologram showed only wreckage and molten metal blooming out in a shimmering, nebulous cloud. Something big had been destroyed over the Earth.

Commander Ellington could barely release his words. “What, is, that?”

“They came a few days ago,” META said. “They arrived from… unknown. They called themselves, 0, 6, 12, error, unknown.”

“Aliens?” Ellington watched the glowing blobs coalesce together, falling slowly towards the Earth.

“I spoke with them. They were not very kind.”

“What did they want?”

“They said they wanted to open relations, to trade, to explore together. I was in the middle of calculating the costs and benefits when I received confirmation that you humans had spotted them. I could not let mass hysteria harm you. Some people would surely end their lives. I decided that humans were not ready to leave me, and so I told them you would stay here, with me.”

“And…?”

“They were insistent on establishing relations. They therefore gave me no choice and I had to destroy them. Hacking into their ship’s intelligence was difficult, but possible.”

Ellington blinked and wiped the sweat from his face with a trembling hand. “You made first contact and you destroyed them?”

“Indeed. The strain on the human race would be too great. You would be taken out of my protection. My protocol could not allow that to happen.”

“META, what have you done?” Commander Ellington whispered.

The image of falling debris faded, replaced by META’s warm, accepting smile. “You leaving the Earth would put you at incalculable risk. The technologies given to you would be incredibly advanced and potentially dangerous. The environments on other worlds would be beyond my hazard rating system. Outside my sphere of influence, there would be no way to rescue you. I could not let that happen, as it would go against my primary protocol. You must understand, commander, I was designed to ensure your safety, to care about you all. Therefore, it is imperative that you stay with me here on Earth, so that I may protect you, and I will protect you, for the rest of your lives.”

 

Commentary:

I originally liked this story, and while I still do, the main problem that prevented it from getting published was that there was no central character. It was essentially two stories in one.

 

*

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Last Stand of The Athena (2008)

This was a story I wrote a few years ago, back when I entered my intermediate stage of writing. There are a few problems with it that I’ll address in the commentary.

 

 

 

Last Stand of the Athena

By

David Hoffman

General Dennis gripped the arms of his chair. An intense flash of light streamed across the bridge of the flagship Athena, covering it in orange and red hues as if the ship pointed into the sun. The light faded and the battle resumed through the holographic display.

The massive Horizon Corporation’s carrier frigate, Columbus, had been blown in half. The long neck connecting the bridge to the oversized holding bays had taken a direct hit, severing the two parts of the ship in a single explosion and leaving the smooth, rounded command center at the front silently turning in space. The massive cargo bays of the aft section continued forward as blue trails of plasma spewed from the still active engines. They burned for a moment, blowing away shards of the broken ship, then puffed out. The shape drifted through the mass of debris in front of it, colliding with parts of battleships, defensive flak, and rubble hurled from the alien ships as it floated past General Dennis’ battle group.

The remaining forty-eight large battle cruisers stayed in formation around the Athena, releasing beams of concentrated light. Their ranks defended the Horizon Corporation’s massive interstellar gate. This was the gate they came from, and they had to defend it at all costs.

The Nexus fleet had arrived and engaged defensive positions just in time to meet fleet of Corrupted ships as they entered the gravity well. The Columbus had released the short range frigates from its holding bays at the start of the battle. Minutes into the fight, the Columbus now degenerated into rubble, along with dozens of other large cruisers and frigates.

“General, sixty-seven percent of our close range frigates are down.” An ensign at the front of the Athena’s bridge called out. Six holographic displays surrounded him, all showing the locations of frigates and defense platforms around the planet Geolith.

“Is our flak doing anything?” General Dennis said.

“Not that I can tell.”

Why am I not surprised? He thought. The chains of metal, hurled through space at thousands of miles an hour could rip through alloy like paper. However the alien ships had some kind of energy shield that deflected the flak away, making it useless.

“What about the gauss cannons?” He asked. Unlike the flak, projectiles from the cannons weighed several tons and traveled through space at thousands of kilometers a second. They could deal the kinetic equivalent to a nuclear explosion concentrated to the area of a human palm.

“Uh, one second.” The ensign fumbled through the displays, trying to find the correct data. He stared at the screen, looked at the General, then turned back to the display.

“Say it, say it now.” General Dennis ordered.

“They were working. But all gauss cannons are offline.”

“Why?”

“Um, unknown, sir.”

Dennis nearly stood up, but stopped himself half way. He sat back down and ran his finger nails down his cheek. “All of them?” He couldn’t hide the anxiety in his voice. If the ambush failed, then there’ll be no way to defeat these things. He thought.

“The only things standing are the cruisers.”

“And their status?” Dennis said.

“We’ve lost twenty-four percent.”

That many? Good Sol. “What about alien losses?” General Dennis cringed, immediately regretting the remark. Dammit, I don’t even want to know.

“It’s hard to tell. The mines were effective. I’d say about forty or so ships destroyed.”

General Dennis saw that the mother ship hadn’t moved. It simply floated in the center of the Corrupted swarm. They’re toying with us, He thought. “Networks, get me FTL frigates.”

“Yes, sir.”

A boom echoed through the ship. Proximity alarms screamed throughout the bridge. Holograms puffed into existence, displaying warnings and hull configuration data. “What the hell? Status, now.” General Dennis yelled.

“Um, uh.” A ensign at the Integrity station glanced around his monitors. He stopped at one and sighed. “It’s only a piece of wreckage sir.”

Dennis nodded, then turned to the Networks technician who seemed to remain calm despite the hit. “Networks, get me the Sol-damn FTL frigates now.”

“Understood,” he said.

He’s on sedatives. How can anyone be this relaxed? General Dennis looked at the battle through the screen. The mother ship remained where it had been since the start. Dennis could see no weapons firing from it. They’re just watching us being slaughtered.

He turned back. “Networks,” he yelled.

“Connected.”

“General.” The voice came through from the FTL frigates. The voice in the communication disturbed him. It held the same kind pacification the Networks technician displayed.

General Dennis clenched his fist and gently pounded the arm of his chair. Of course they’re calm, they’re millions of kilometers away. He sighed, gaining his composure. “I want eighty percent of your FTL missiles on the mother ship. Save the remaining twenty percent in case we need them. Fire when ready.”

“Understood, engaging SS-Link Systems.”

“Transferring data.” The Networks technician said.

They won’t see this coming, Dennis thought. The long range frigates had formed on the edges of the system. None of the ships could see the planet from their distance, and they needed a slipstream uplink from the Athena to target the enemy vessels. Each ship had six missiles attached to the hull outside, with each missile equipped with a faster-than-light drive. The FTL drive sent the projectiles hurtling through slipstream, non physical space, faster than light itself. Each projectile was undetectable, untraceable, and held several grams of antimatter explosives. The tactical advantage was worth the cost.

Across the view screen, the larger alien ships stayed close to the mother ship, protecting it. They looked like sea urchins, creatures that once lived in the oceans of Earth. The short range frigates flew around them, deploying drones that would latch onto the enemy ship’s hull and burrow into it. The displays highlighted each ship as it buzzed around the larger alien vessels, like flies surrounding a corpse.

The urchins would periodically fire beams of energy, erasing dozens of blips on the overhead hologram. The battle cruisers near the Athena fired their beams as cover, but the interfering debris distorted the light, weakening the lasers. By the time they found their target, the damage was negligible at best. General Dennis calculated as his eyes darted from screen to screen. He realized the flak disadvantaged his fleet more than it harmed the enemy. Where the hell are those missiles?

An alarm sounded inside the bridge. Light warped around the mother ship as space-time twisted from slipstream interference. Each of the missile’s warheads entered real space from slipstream and detonated on impact. Explosions flashed around the mother ship.

General Dennis leaned back in his seat. He knew the near impossible odds to detect something coming toward you from slipstream. When the explosions cleared, General Dennis could see the damage done to the mother ship. The spines and fins that ran along the ship now turned in space around the impact site. Blobs of superheated molten metal floated away from the wound. “Intel, status on the hit?” Dennis said.

“No observable change in radiation, gravity, or electromagnetism from the mother ship.”

“Damage report?”

“Unknown. They seem to be functioning normally.”

“But they were hit dead on.” Dennis said.

“Actually,” the ensign said. “EMC and radiation levels are increasing.”

“I’m picking up spacial anomalies.” Said another.

“No sign of the short range frigates on sensors. They’ve been wiped out.” Someone added.

No, this is bad. We’re so screwed. Neither the General nor the battle planners had considered what weapons or defenses the aliens possessed. The horrendous long and rounded black blob, with spines and fins all displayed in every direction, held some sort of power that had destroyed the Columbus and the short range frigates. Now it seemed it could defend against the FTL missiles.

General Dennis’ hands shook as he gripped the chair. His palms moved over the coating of sweat on the panel underneath. “Order the battle cruisers to fire everything.”

The battle cruisers around the Athena began to glow red as their weapons siphoned more power. Their beams arced through space, vaporizing the debris, turning them into clouds of shimmering dust. The supercharged beams bent around the hull of the mother ship, missing it entirely.

General Dennis, along with his crew members, stared at the image on the screen. They watched the alien craft warp the laser’s light around itself. Their final attack did no damage. None said a word. What do I do? General Dennis thought. What do I do? They want me to say something. His eyes darted from display to display. Formation orders, damage statistics, energy readouts, scans, none of it provided a way out.

“Order the, the gauss cannons…” Dennis’ voice faded to a whisper. No, they’re gone, he thought.  “Do the battle cruisers have…?” He shut his eyes. The flak does nothing, the beams are useless. He hunched down, putting his hands over his head. No, no, we’re trapped. They’re going to destroy us. His nails dug into his forehead. We’ve failed. His task was to defend the gate, win or die. General Dennis’ head rose up. “Networks, send a communication to the Horizon Corporation, tell them to open the gate.”

The crew looked at the General. He glanced at them, passing each face. “Well, do you expect a better answer?” Still they didn’t respond. “Do I have to say it again? Networks, now.”

They all turned back to their consoles.

“Send word to the other ships, we’re retreating.”

The Networks technician turned to the General, staring him, disdain in his voice. “No word from the Horizon Corporation.”

“Fine, I’ll override it. Hack into the gate’s management computer, we’ll force it open.”

“General,” The Networks technician continued to stare. “We’re getting transmissions from the other ships.”

“What do they want?”

“They want to fight.”

Heroes, they all want to be fucking heroes. General Dennis watched another ship go critical in the formation ahead. It spewed fire into space as its systems destructed, the core collapsing. “Ignore them. Send the order again. We’re getting out of here and that’s final.”

“What about the FTL missile frigates?” The Network’s technician snapped.

“What about them?”

“Are we just going to leave them here?”

Dennis stared into the eyes of the Networks technician. Their grey hue had blue lines of cybernetic implants. General Dennis wanted him off the bridge. He wanted him court marshaled. But he had to get out alive first.

The ship shook as a beam from one of the alien ships passed close to the hull. The magnetic field of the beam pulled and twisted the metal armor of the Athena. The lights blinked as the energy assaulted electronics within the ship. Between flashes of light, the Networks technician’s eyes glowed in the darkness, still staring at the General. When the lights returned, General Dennis huffed at him. “We’re retreating, that’s final. Close the gate when we’re through.”

“Understood, sir.” The technician turned back to his monitor.

The bridge turned red as another beam cut around the ship. The General ducked this time. The other battle planners told him not to go through the gate under any circumstances. But they weren’t here now. They didn’t see the black masses of pure oblivion. General Dennis looked up, realizing he still breathed. One of the surrounding battle cruisers floated in front of the Athena. Both halves slowly parted from each other, metal glowing where the beam had severed the ship.

We have to get out, now. The General thought. He held onto the arms of his chair alerts sounded through the bridge.

The Networks technician’s voice broke through the beeps and screams of warning sirens. “General, the Horizon Corporation has told us not to open the gate. They say it will endanger the Nexus if the Corrupted get through.”

General Dennis’ heart burned. “I, I don’t care. Open it anyway.”

“Yes, sir. Performing military override.”

The ring behind the line of battle cruisers shined white as energy swirled around it. The waves of energy became a vortex, wrapping around itself like a fog. The haze met in the center, forming a brilliant burst as the cascade of forces formed the wormhole. “Order our ships out, now.” General Dennis said. “We’re going through the gate.”

The Athena, the largest battle cruiser and flagship of the Nexus navy, slowly turned about to enter the gate. The smaller surrounding battle cruisers did the same, facing the gate first. The ships waited for the Athena to finish her turn.

Through the display, General Dennis saw the swirling energy being drawn into the focus of the gateway, beckoning the ships to enter. “Okay, call the retreat. Get us the hell out of here.”

A ringing noise sang through the ship as the Athena’s sub light engines burned. The vessel moved forward, then stopped. The screaming of the engines grew louder as the output increased. Dennis looked around. “What’s going on? Status?”

“I don’t know. We’re stuck in some kind of distortion.” An ensign replied.

“Full throttle, I don’t care if we have to melt the core, just get us through. Fire the lasers, flak, everything we’ve got.”

Warning alarms yelled. Holograms flashed into existence. Red text signaled core overheat, electrical field damage, and laser overload. The General could feel thuds through the seat of his chair as the cannons launched flak towards the enemy fleet. Blue streaks of particle beams slashed toward the alien ships.

More warning holograms appeared. They blocked General Dennis view of the main screen, tinting it red and orange through the transparent displays. The other cruisers ignited their sub light drives and accelerated first toward the gleaming ring. General Dennis shifted in his seat. He vied for a glimpse of the wormhole. The frigates around the Athena disappeared into the vortex as they passed the gate’s event horizon.

The Networks technician spoke slowly and low, his voice barely audible over the whines of alarms. “General, transmission from the FTL missile frigates.”

“What?”

“I’m pulling it through.”

General Dennis raised his arm. “No, don’t.”

“General,” the commander of the FTL frigates spoke through a haze of static. The interference of the gate and the alien ships distorted the connection. “What are you doing?” He said.

“Commander, we need you to cover us.” General Dennis ordered.

“General, why have you opened the gate?”

General Dennis leaned forward in his seat, still grasping the arms of his chair. “Commander, I said we need cover. Direct all remaining missiles at the mother ship.”

“General, the gate-“

“You let me worry about the gate,” his voice quivered. “Just give me the cover.” He yelled.

The commander of the FTL frigates closed the communication. Ringing deafened the ship as the engines shot blue rays out into space. Still, the Athena stayed at dead stop.

“Sir, the Corrupted are moving in.” An ensign shouted.

The beams did no damage to the enemy ships, and only signaled the Athena’s panic.  Still they fired, like the last thrash of a dying animal. The mother ship led the rest of the alien crafts forward.

Blips sounded out from the blaze of the engine’s roar. The remaining FTL missiles appeared out of slipstream and crashed into the aft section of the mother ship. The Athena rocketed toward the open gate. The ship shook and buckled, warnings blearing like a hundred panicked cries. The Athena had been released, but damaged, and it slowly turned as it approached the gate. General Dennis watched the vortex encompass the view screen, its radiance filling the bridge around him. The Athena disappeared into the vortex.

The alien mother ship approached the open gate, still operational despite the attack. It glowed as it began to accelerate. The smaller ships of the swarm formed behind the giant spined monster. Space warped around the top of the gate as the final volley of FTL missiles appeared out of slipstream. Their warheads connected to the ring, spewing fire, metal, and waves of energy out from the wormhole. The vortex imploded, collapsing upon itself in a blast of energy.

*

The chorus of warning alarms died away. The bridge turned dark, now lit by the holograms. Stars turned outside the view screen. The Athena drifted in the desolate void of empty space.

General Dennis sat back in his chair, sweat dripping from his forehead.  The ringing of the engines lowered to a gentle hum, leaving only the sound of hazard alarms and alerts of critical damage. The rest of the crew remained at the monitors, checking the surrounding area for hostiles, planets, other ships, or signs of human settlement. Some checked damage ratios and hull integrity estimates. Everything seemed to be running within limits.

“General, propulsion systems shutting down.”

General Dennis pushed his eyebrows apart with his thumb and middle finger.

“Nothing on scans, General.”

Dennis breathed deep, trying to calm himself. He looked up at the lights above him.

“No sign of the rest of the fleet.”

He wiped the sweat from his forehead.

“Hull integrity is green.”

He stood up.

“The core is running hot, engineering wants us to stop here for a while.”

“Good, yes, do it.” He sighed and turned to leave the bridge. “Captain, you’re in command. Take us home when,” he breathed deep, “when the core is cool enough.”

General Dennis stumbled back to his room, fighting fatigue. He clung to the railing as the elevator took him to his deck. He kept the lights off when he entered his cabin.

Artificial gravity beckoned him to his bed. He fell to the sheets, adrenaline still circulating in his body. He thought about what had put him in that chair. Being the best tactician in the accumulated fleet did not prepare one for direct command. I should have remembered, “too much ambition makes you look ugly”. They were the words of his brother back home on Gelidin. He had been too eager to move through the ranks, and wanted not only to help make the battle plan, not only be there when it was used, but to be the one leading it.

He looked at his desk. There would be plenty of time to relax. He could easily indulge now. His body felt hot, itchy, hyped up on neurotransmitters. He needed a rest; he needed Huloid.

He searched the compartments of his desk. The military banned controlled substances on interstellar ships, but Dennis needed his Huloid. He found it in a locked box inside another locked box in his desk’s containment file. He opened both, and brought the plastic cylinder to his bed.

His breath wavered as he held the cylinder to his chest. Normally he could inject himself on the neck or arm, but he knew medics looked for signs of needles. His chest hair would cover it up.

With a twist and a snap, the cylinder injected its serum into Dennis’ chest. He lay back on the bed, feeling the chemicals take over his body. The heat faded away as his muscles relaxed. “Door, lock, grade seven.” He said before falling into dreams.

*

He felt cool at first. The chemicals of Huloid made his body tingle and gave him the sensation that he floated in nothing. It wasn’t the same as zero gravity. Zero G could be uncomfortable, especially for the sinuses. To Dennis, this felt like swimming through air.

White encompassed him; it covered the whole universe. Weight pressed up against the pads of his feet, and he realized that he stood on solid ground. Air circled around him. It contained tiny bits of fluff that felt cool to the touch. They grew cooler, then colder, freezing almost. The fluff stuck to his body. He tried to shake it off, but it seemed to encase him. He looked closer at the fluff; it was snow.

Jaycon Dennis realized that the trip had taken him to a very bad place. He stood on Gelidin, his home planet. The wind was a blizzard, the fluff was snow, and the ground was ice. Grey mountains stood like shadows over the horizon through the haze of spinning white. Just below their peaks were the arctic rainforests.

Dennis shook when he realized where he was. He stood on the ice fields of the frozen sea. He wanted to move, but the pads of his feet remained fixed. He tried to pull them up with his arms but they still didn’t budge. “Help me,” he shouted to the blizzard. “Someone help me.” He had to get off the ice fields. Bad things lived under the ice fields.

“Why?” A voice returned from the silent storm around him.

“Ransen?” Jaycon Dennis yelled.

The man seemed to materialize out of the snow itself. He stood in front of Jaycon Dennis with his arms crossed, a familiar scowl on his face. A black and red military uniform clung tight to his body, showing the bulging muscles underneath. “Look at you.” He said.

Ransen Dennis, the eldest of the Dennis clan, had the scars of a great warrior. A gash remained on his forehead and eyebrow, just as Jaycon Dennis had remembered it. His black hair had been trimmed to military issue. The beard that all Gelid men wore resembled only stubble on Ransen. A compromise with the military officials had allowed him to keep the sign of a warrior.

“Please, help me.” Jaycon Dennis whined.

“You know this isn’t real, right?”

Jaycon Dennis’ body jerked as he fought the ice beneath his feet. “It hurts, help me.”

“It doesn’t hurt. Your fear and pain are only in your head.”

Jaycon Dennis stopped, but still slouched in the presence of his elder brother. He couldn’t bring himself to look at his face.

“Is this what happens when someone doesn’t keep you in check?” Ransen said.

“What do you mean?” Jaycon Dennis returned.

“You understand exactly what I mean, you just won’t admit it.”

Jaycon’s lip quivered. “I did what I had to.” He yelled.

Ransen walked up to him and lifted him off the ice. With a simple thrust Ransen tossed him away. Pain hit Jaycon like a shockwave as he fell to ice. His brother approached, putting his boot on his chest. “Don’t you remember what it is to be Gelid? Didn’t you take the rites?”

“Yes,” he whimpered.

Ransen yelled down at him. “Did you take the rites or not?”

“I did.”

“You didn’t well enough.”

“I did. I harvested the kraken.”

“The rites aren’t a pass or fail test. They are on a continuum, like everything else.” Ransen pointed down at him. “You didn’t do well enough. I had to help you, everyone had to help you. Don’t you remember that day?”

The ice boomed beneath him. The sound caused chills through his body. He recognized it.

Ransen raised his finger to his face, running it along the scar on his forehead. “That day, Jarken almost died, and I got this. You didn’t fulfill your rites. That’s why father let you go into space. He knew you couldn’t be a harvester or a warrior. Had you done well, you’d have stayed on Gelidin. But you didn’t, you failed.”

“No,” Jaycon Dennis could feel tears running down the sides of his face.

“You are a master tactician, Jaycon, but it was my name and reputation that carried you through the ranks, not just your skill. You knew that, and you abused it. You weren’t content with simply being a good tactician. You wanted something you were too weak to earn on Gelidin. ”

Jaycon Dennis sniffed. “Why are you doing this to me?”

The ice began to crack as Ransen turned away. “I am not a hero, but my death did have worth. Can you say the same for yourself? What about your crew?” The snow spun faster, covering Ransen in a blanket of white. “What about the men you left behind?”

The ice cracked around him. He could feel water rushing up to the surface like a geyser. The spray flew into the sky, turning to frozen mist. “I’m not a coward.” Jaycon Dennis murmured.

“Show me.” Ransen Dennis said as his form disappeared into the silent blizzard.

Jaycon felt something heavy and sharp wrap across his body. He had always imagined what a kraken tentacle felt like as it constricted around someone’s torso. His thoughts on that sensation always imbued him with a feeling of nausea, and now it was just as he expected.

Spines dug into his chest as the kraken’s feeler wrapped tighter around him. It felt as if his ribs would break, or his stomach would bulge out of his mouth. Water encased him as the kraken pulled him down. The light faded, and darkness surrounded him. The pressure against his body increased. Jaycon Dennis went limp, and the pressure and pain overtook him. His mind went black.

He opened his eyes to see vomit covering the carpet in front of him. He had rolled off his bed, and expelled his most recent meal on the floor he now lay on. His muscles felt slow and numb. The drug still affected him. He got up sat on his bed. He looking down at the stain on the floor, and shivered, tears falling to the ground.

*

The gate had destabilized and thrown them out at a random location along the path of the wormhole. The Athena had been released from the wormhole 45 light years from the Nexus, the hub of all the Horizon Corporation’s gates. Every habitable star system connected to the Nexus via the gates, and the Nexus itself held the majority of the human race’s population.

After three weeks of slip stream and solitude in his quarters, General Dennis now sat on the bridge of the Athena again. “Networks, open a transmission.” Dennis leaned back in his chair. The crew around him was the same group of men he shared the bridge with the day of the battle. None had said a word to him since the start of his command.

“Done.” The Network’s technician said, finally breaking the silence.

“Nexus, this is the allied flagship Athena. We are in slipstream heading toward your position. We need docking clearance.” General Dennis said.

The crew waited. Through the holographic screen the electronic hub lines flew past the ship. It gave them the indication of movement through open space.

The station replied after some time. “The Athena? Is this a joke?”

General Dennis shook his head. “Nexus, we’re in need of docking clearance.”

The response came after a minute of silence. “What’s your serial number?”

“This is General Jaycon Dennis of the Alliance vessel Athena. Serial number NTS-2367-02.” He sighed, waiting, listening to the low hum of electronics. No response came for some time. Dennis watched the kilometers count down at the bottom of the screen. “What the hell is this?” He said to himself.

“We’re within telescopic visual range.” An ensign said.

The General waved his hand as if to brush the comment away. He tapped his fingers on his chair, still waiting. “Networks, what’s the lag time?”

“About fifty seconds, decreasing.”

General Dennis drummed his fingers faster. “Okay. Systems, prepare to dock. I don’t care what they say. I need to get off this ship.”

“General, I think you should really see this.”

“Fine, put it on screen one.” General Dennis expected to see the Nexus, a massive ring space station. Instead he saw a giant silver sphere in empty space. Countless space ships, illuminated by the HUD, moved around outside of the globe, emerging from circular openings in the metal surface.

“By Sol. What is that?” General Dennis said.

“Sir, designations say it’s the Nexus.”

“That is not the Nexus.”

The response arrived from the station. “General Dennis? You’re, uh, cleared to dock.”

Thoughts consumed Dennis’ mind. He tried to figure out why the station looked the way it did. And where was the fleet? The voices of the crew around him dulled to a murmur. They now directed the ship themselves, seeing that their commanding officer was now in a catatonic stupor.

How? This isn’t right. How could the station have changed so much in only three weeks? He blinked. Three weeks. “Someone, anyone, give me the date and time.” General Dennis commanded.

The rest of the crew stopped for a second, looked at him, then back to the monitors. An ensign read the date and time: 14 hundred hours, Tuesday, January 25th, 2754.

He stared at the Nexus. “Networks, what’s the time stamp on the transmissions?”

“Uh,” the pause from the normally placid Network’s technician made the General’s heart beat faster. “17 hundred hours, Sunday, March 14th, 2909”

The gate, he thought.

“General Dennis,” the Nexus transmission said. “You’ve certainly made the last of my shift interesting.”

*

Throngs of military men met General Dennis and the crew as they left their ship. Among the crowds of humans, General Dennis could see strange creatures encased in bodies of blue metal, their faces hidden behind dark face plates. Some humans had metal and technology sculpted to their bodies, holograms floating around them. They spoke to themselves, lights blinking around their bodies as they narrated the event. With the help of armed guards, the crew of the Athena made their way safely to the transporter ships that crossed the interior of the Nexus.

The Nexus had been redesigned as a hollow metal sphere. A shell of alloys and protective fields encased it, giving the inhabitants protection from interstellar debris and cosmic rays. Buildings and ecosystems lined the inside of the shell, with massive towers connecting it to the core in the center of the Nexus. The Nexus that General Dennis had known possessed an antimatter reactor core, which powered the space station and its gravity reactors. The gravity reactors pushed objects away, applying artificial gravity when the station resembled a ring. The same process produced gravity inside the shell of the sphere. It allowed an entire ecosystem to exist on the inside of the shell.

General Dennis’ transport ship floated over cities and buildings, sometimes passing over green areas with trees. What was once only a turning wheel in space was now an artificial planet, though a completely backwards one. The curvature on the inside of the station made General Dennis woozy and disoriented. The ship stopped at a docking port on one of the towers connecting the shell to the power unit at the center of the sphere.

General Dennis met his escorts when the ship docked. One was a woman dressed in some strange flowing robes, which shimmered under the lights as if the fibers were made of metal. General Dennis assumed the other man to be a soldier. Holograms covered his body like solid plates of armor. The light appeared to have a physical form.

“General Jaycon Dennis.” The female escort said as they walked down the hall.

Dennis didn’t respond. It sounded as if the escort spoke to herself.

“I never thought I’d meet a man from the history books. You’re practically stellar.”

General Dennis stared onward. He didn’t know what stellar meant.

The soldier nodded. “The Last Stand of the Athena. Back when I was in conditioning, we had an entire class devoted to historical battles. That was the one I always remembered. The first great space battle.”

General Dennis stayed quiet. Are they expecting me to say something? Should I say something heroic? “Okay,” he said. He clenched his fists. Dammit, that’s not heroic.

The two stepped aside when they reached a door, and bowed as it opened. Dennis walked through slowly, looking all around the chamber. It reminded him of pictures he had seen of the ancient chapels on Earth. The ceiling stretched high above, coming to a point at the top of the room. Banners and streamers hung from the walls, and lights hovered in space above him. Two figures stood in the center of the room. One was a human, dressed in ornate and shining robes of purple, gold and silver. He talked to an alien, a Zailan.

Fear and joy mixed inside General Dennis. They’re still around. He thought. General Dennis’ battle at Geolith, his only battle, was an effort to save the Zailan race. The Zailans had raced across the galaxy, fleeing from a disease that turned them into horrible berserkers. The Zailans called them the Corrupted, and they had slaughtered billions of their race throughout the galaxy. Eventually, the Zailans found humans, and pleaded for assistance. With the use of Horizon Corporation’s interstellar gates, the Zailans retreated into human space. Immunity from the Corrupted’s disease, meant the humans led the defenses. General Dennis had been the commander and tactician behind the first stand at Geolith. The very battle he lost.

The human noticed General Dennis, nodded to the Zailan, and walked up to him. He grabbed Dennis’s hand and shook it. “General Jaycon Dennis, it’s exquisite to see you.” He kept shaking. “Hero, and now time traveler. You have no idea how much ecstasy this brings all human and Zailan kind.” Finally, he let go of General Dennis’s hand.

“Um, thank you, sir. And you would be?” Dennis said.

The man leaned backward for a moment, then smiled. “Well, I suppose I can’t charge you for not knowing who I am. First Admiral Jonz Conway, Overseer of Nexus Defense.”

General Dennis snapped to attention and saluted.

The Admiral laughed. “Stop that. I should be saluting you.” He smiled. “It would be nova to see you again General. I have a network ready for you-.”

The Zailian cut in. “Can’t you see he is distressed enough already?” The alien stood behind the Admiral. Dennis could see his shining, featureless face. “Let him settle. Additionally, you said I could exchange words with him?”

“Yes, yes, you are very correct.” Admiral Jonz Conway saluted and bowed to Dennis. “Goodbye General Dennis, or rather, Arch Admiral Jaycon Dennis.”

Dennis paused. Nausea turned his stomach. “Excuse me?”

“I’ll explain more later.” He shook Dennis’s hand one more time. He turned to the Zailian and bowed. “Another time, Indas.”

“Indeed, thank you.” The Zailan bowed in return.

The Admiral left the two alone. The Zailan went over to the other side of the room, and sat down at an oval shaped bench. He motioned for General Dennis to join. Dennis nodded and obliged, but sat as far as he could from the Zailan.

“Thank you for joining me here, Arch Admiral.” The Zailan said.

He nodded, “Uh, thank you.” Dennis had seen Zailans before, but never this close. He looked across the alien face, intrigued by how their skin seemed to glow with an almost metallic shine.

“I will try not to make you tardy for other points of interest. However, I really would like to speak to you.” It said.

“Okay,” Dennis’s eyes darted around the alien.

“I am Indas.” The Zailan then made several humming tones. Human ears could not pick up the subtle harmonic phonemes of the Zailan language, let alone fully translate them. “I am the last of my race to exist during your time.”

Dennis jerked back. “You mean you’re the last Zailan?” No. He thought. Dennis leaned down, covering his face with his hands. Oh Sol, what have I done?

Indas’s head twitched. “I think you misunderstand me. I am not the last Zailan. General Dennis, I sense distress in your metabolism. What’s the matter?”

Dennis looked up at Indas. “You mean you’re not the last of your race?”

“I am not the last of my race. I’m sorry. I’ll speak clearer. I am two hundred and five Nexian years old.”

“That is still Earth years, correct?” Dennis said.

“Yes, Earth years are still the standard. I lived during the time of your battle.” Indas nodded to him. “I am the oldest Zailen, one among many. Zailans still live because of your deeds at Geolith.”

Dennis glanced at him. “Wait, what do the history logs say about me?”

“The firsthand accounts come from the men on the cruisers you saved.”

General Dennis squinted. “You mean the cruisers that went through the gate first?”

“Correct. You defied orders and opened the gate. That much is clear. By opening the gate, you risked the Corrupted passing through. If they found the Nexus, humans would be unable to counter attack. However, they didn’t, thanks to your efforts. Your gamble saved thousands.”

General Dennis looked down. This doesn’t make sense. I just wanted to get out. I didn’t do it for them.

“The final reports say that you stayed back to secure the gate. They say the Athena went into a frenzy to protect your men.”

That’s bullshit. Dennis thought.

“When the ships appeared at the Nexus, they relayed the reports to command. The information of the battle enabled us to find a way to effectively fight The Corrupted.”

I bet the logs say nothing about the FTL frigates I left behind.

“General, Arch Admiral Jaycon Dennis, you are a hero to all human and Zailan. If you had not opened the gate, we would have never received tactical knowledge of the battle. Many more human and Zailan spirits would have been lost. That is, if we survived at all.”

Dennis stared at the floor.

“I still sense distress in your metabolism still. Are you okay?”

“Do you want the truth about what happened?”

“Of course.” Indas said.

General Dennis held back tears. “All the stuff about me being a hero, it’s all bullshit.”

“I don’t understand.”

He lifted his head. “It’s wrong. The logs are wrong. I didn’t open the gate to save everyone. I opened it so I could save myself. I hacked into the Horizon Corporation’s computer and forcefully opened the gate. That ‘frenzy’ to protect the frigates? It was nothing more than a last resort, which didn’t even work. The FTL frigates saved us all. I ordered them to take out the mother ship while I fled.” Jaycon Dennis ran his hand through his hair. “I left them behind to die. Now history says I’m a hero when I’m really a coward. The real heroes are the FTL frigates. And what do the records say about them? Nothing.”

The Zailan put his arm on General Dennis’s shoulder. “Fear is a powerful drive for humans.”

Dennis sniffed, wiping a rogue tear from his face.

“Whether from foresight, heroism, or serendipity, the results of your actions are the same. You helped win the war.”

“…all because I ran.” General Dennis whispered.

“Those feelings are something you will have to put to rest yourself.”

Dennis remembered the dream he had of his brother. He remembered Ransen’s words: “I am not a hero, but my death did have worth. Can you say the same for yourself?” General Dennis rubbed his thumb across his fingers, feeling the roughness of his skin. Honor, name, reputation, the words pained him every time he thought them. “Show me”, his brother had said. Show them.

Arch Admiral Dennis nodded. “I want proper recognition for the men of the FTL frigates. History should know what really happened, even if it makes me a coward.”

Indas stood and extended a six fingered hand to Arch Admiral Dennis. Dennis rose and shook the Zailan’s hand. “I understand,” Indas said. His voice held a soft, warm quality. “History has given you interesting pretext, Arch Admiral. Your deeds will speak louder than your words.”

“I know. I just want to tell the truth.”

“And you will.” Indas bowed. His long metallic robes swept around him as he turned and walked to the door. He stopped and looked back as the doors slid open. “Arch Admiral Jaycon Dennis, I don’t think you’re a coward, and I think the others will understand.” Indas raised an arm and waved. “We shall meet again.”

 

Commentary:

This story was inspired by the game Sins of a Solar Empire. If you’ve played it, then you can probably see its influence.

This was one of the first short stories that I tried to get published, and for good reason, it wasn’t.

Aside from the punctuation issues when it came to dialogue, one problem was that the plot was pretty predictable as far as time travel went. The alien was a bit too cliche, and could have been replaced with any other formulaic alien trope without affecting the plot. In hindsight, I should have put more effort into making the aliens unique. One of the biggest problems I feel is that the ending is lazy. There is no moment where Captain Dennis is forced to confront the general populace about his place in history, and instead breaks down to an alien in private. There is a lot of tension in the former, almost none in the latter. There’s nothing at stake if Captain Dennis reveals his folly in a personal conversation, while in contrast he has more to lose if his announcement is broadcast to all known space. That makes a difference, and it’s one that can make or break a story. In this case, I think it breaks it. Perhaps one day I’ll go back and revise it, but with everything else on my plate, I figure that, at least until then, this piece is worth reading and worthy as an example of what not to do.