Postcards from Asgard Episode 5: Earthers Always Lie

Episode 1: Dan’s Story

Episode 2: Yuri’s Story

Episode 3: How the Portals Killed all Nations

Episode 4: A Slave Will Eventually Retire

 

[It didn’t take long for word to spread that I was looking for stories. Somehow, I had gained the title of journalist, a journalist from Earth no less, a connotation that came with considerable baggage, though I didn’t know it at the time. A man named William came to me, describing himself as an unofficial historian of Mars and Asgard. He sought me out during my shift, demanding that I meet him after work so that he could, as he said, “set history straight”. He claimed that, without knowing the history accurately, all my stories would be tainted by unconscious Earther bias.

We sat down behind the building after my shift to discuss and share a few beers. I told him that my main goal was to report what people said, no more, no less. If there was bias in anything I wrote, then it was from the bias of the people I talked to. I wasn’t about to act like a filter for my own agenda. At that, he seemed to change his tone for the better.]

Good, because here on Asgard, we have a rule of thumb when it comes to Earthers: Earthers always lie. That doesn’t literally mean all people from Earth lie. What I mean is, people who make Earth part of their identity, they lie. Calling themselves progressives or liberals isn’t enough. They want to distance themselves from us as far as possible, and since they don’t really come from counters anymore they call themselves Earthers with a capital E, as if they’re better than all us outside the solar system.

The schools make ‘em that way. The history they teach, about Mars and Asgard, it’s all written to make Earth look like the good guys and us like dumb rednecks. They’ve studied us, psychoanalyzed us, but it’s always in a bad light. According to them, we want to expand into the galaxy because of womb envy, or because we have little dicks. We’re compensating for something, or something like that. Like I said: Earthers always lie.

The actual history is nothing like what they say. First of all, what were you taught in school about Martian colonization?

I was told that a group of radical Christians blew up the portal between Earth and Mars after going through.

And why is that?

To get away from Earth.

Well, obviously, but why that?

I… don’t really know.

Right, well, they weren’t radical, and not all of them were Christians. They left because of what the portals did to their home planet. They basically changed everything. Changed society. Changed politics. Sure as hell changed the economy.

Portals flattened the Earth, so to speak, economically. Equalized the field, so that we all got the same standard of living, because if you can move goods and people anywhere, then you’re essentially living there, and when you split the difference between the first and third world, you get just a half-shitty world.

Things are cheap, great, but you also have criminals stealing those things, so it’s mostly a wash. Most people in the developed countries didn’t like that their jobs went to third-worlders just so they could buy cheap, third-world crap, but a few bleeding hearts thought it was great for the poor, and the bleeding hearts made policy, so, whatever. All the guys at the top loved it too, made a bunch of excuses for themselves, said they could improve living conditions. Better living through economics, but that was all just a cover for them to make billons.

Hayes made a fortune building nuclear power plants in Antarctica. The farming conglomerate made farms and portals wherever you could. Low tier jobs went to developing districts so you could pay ‘em less; high tier jobs in engineering got taken up by insiders. Most people, us in the middle, we couldn’t make it in that environment, but nothing changed no matter how much we voted and protested. There was too much money to be made and no politician willing to listen. That’s why Maynard’s group went to Mars. It wasn’t zealotry or bigotry. They had nowhere else to go.

Who is ‘Maynard’?

That’s Earth for you. He’s our founder, but most of you don’t know who the hell he is. Charles Maynard was the physicist who designed the first portals, and I don’t care what you say about him borrowing designs, or if you say it was a collaboration. That’s all to give some people credit where credit ain’t due. The portals wouldn’t exist without Maynard, so that makes them his portals. The man was a genius, and I don’t care what anyone says about that.

Anyways, he made trillions off the invention, but, unlike the other rich folks in their private islands, Maynard actually cared about people, and not just the lowest of the low, but all in between. According to his biographer, that was why he designed the portals in the first place: to help make the world a better place.

He came up with the idea to go to Mars since I guess he thought Earth was hopeless. You can’t undo the portals. Can’t roll-back progress.

So, he sold his assets, his private island in the Philippines, and bet everything on his space venture. He bought up a few old boats from when they made the Aurora space station and the portal rings. He packed them with enough food and water and other supplies to last the colonists a few years. Then, he chartered all the flights to Mars for the 26th anniversary of the first settlement, put all his friends and allies on ’em, and, when they were all through, he blew up the Earth-side portal. That way Earth couldn’t reach them for a good, long while, up until the 60 Days War.

Now, just wondering, what do the Earth schools say about that?

This was what I was told: after a few years on Mars, the Martian colonists ran out of resources and decided to… basically hold Earth hostage.

Okay, that’s completely false. It’s true that living on Mars was hard. They had to dig deep into the ground to avoid the radiation. They had to take apart all their ships just for basic building materials. It was hard living for a while, but the Martians pulled-through.

Dr. Maynard kept working on portal technology so that each city could be connected, even when underground. They retrofitted some of the shuttles and put portals on ‘em, sent them out to mine the asteroid belt. That gave Mars access to precious metals and other resources. Once they got to Jupiter and could mine some H3, the probes went even further.

Now, all this time, Earth didn’t give a shit about Mars. The colonists blew up the portal and Earth wrote off the whole thing. They taught you kids that the colonists were extremists, and they probably wouldn’t last long, right? Right.

But when Earth saw what was going on in the belt and outer planets, they wanted to stop it. The Earthers’ massive egos made them think that they were supposed to be the center of the human race, the caretaker of the species. They thought they had the responsibility to oversee human expansion. Bunch of manifest destiny crap. Trying to claim what they didn’t earn.

The truth was, the elites on Earth were pissed that a few thousand people on a desolate rock could do more than millions employed in the Federation’s space administration. Maynard solved problems they couldn’t. Mars put a flag on Europa before Earth could. No fiction could have predicted it. So Earth was going to change that.

The Federation of Nations on Earth signed a treaty that all human peoples would be under their jurisdiction, never mind where they lived in the universe. They said it was all to ensure “basic human rights”. Yeah, sure. It was that and not for total control of the species. Earthers always lie.

They didn’t just make a nation state, but a genetic one. That meant Mars was under their rule, according to them at least. Obviously, the Martians disagreed. When Earth built a new portal to Mars, the Martians jammed it. When spacecraft from Earth took the long way, Mars just sent them back. This created tensions, tensions made conflict, and one day Earth just up and declared war on Mars.

Now, if you were to take bets as to who would win, most rational people would put money on Earth. For every one Martian, there were at least one million people on Earth, and that’s no exaggeration. Earth had nukes and enough resources to keep making them for a good, long time. Hell, if Earth could even blow up Earth, then surely it could blow up a few cities on Mars, right?

Except Mars had a few choice advantages. One: Mars was uphill, so to speak, because Mars has lower gravity. A lot lower. Two: Mars could do things with portals that Earth couldn’t do, and still can’t do. And three: Mars had access not only to the asteroid belt and Jupiter, but by then Saturn’s rings, meaning it had a near endless supply of artillery shells.

To send a nuke from Earth to Mars, assuming they were at their closest, cost at least a billion dollars. To send a rock through one end of a portal at Saturn to the other at a probe secretly orbiting Earth took just a few dollars. And you’d think, yeah well Earth could just shoot them down. Except Mars had H3 rockets and Earth was still using solid state, so yeah, Earth had more resources but Mars had critical advantages which gave them enough leverage to put up a fight.

But the powers of Earth either didn’t realize it or they just didn’t care. Being on Earth does have the tendency to give you a false sense of security. When Earth and Mars were approaching their closest point, Earth sent a volley of ships and nuclear rockets at ‘em, knowing they had about 60 Days to pacify the Martians before the planets moved too far to make the war possible.

Now, that salvo had to follow the laws of physics. They couldn’t get there instantly, not like in the movies. So the Martians had at least a few weeks to prepare. Mars brought in their drones from the asteroid field and placed them in the path of Earth’s fleet. When the fleet got close enough, out of nowhere, they met a cluster of rocks portaled in from Saturn’s rings. The ships that didn’t see it or couldn’t dodge in time were destroyed instantly. The nuclear rockets within the fleet were piloted by software, so they avoided the rocks, but it caused them to divert off-course and use up their fuel. Most of the rockets just simply shut down in space because the software calculated it’d be impossible to reach Mars at that point, which just goes to show you that you don’t always need to meet force with force.

Now, a few rockets got by. Couldn’t be helped. They hit Mars, nuked a city or two, but, again, Mars had time to fortify. Their cities were already far underground to begin with. So when the nukes hit, there were a few quakes and tunnel collapses, but nobody died. That left Earth at about two-thousand causalities to Mars’ zero. Earth spent a few billion while Mars spent essentially nothing.

After that, Mars went on the offensive. They sent portal drones to Earth, a few to Saturn, and began to rain down some rocks. Big ones. At first, they targeted Earth’s remaining deserts, the Gobi, Sahara, the Mojave, places where people wouldn’t be. Earth shot a few down, but each missile was a few million dollars and each rock was free, so it was only a matter of time before some got through.

The bombardment wasn’t meant to destroy Earth, like some Earth historians will tell you. It was only meant to send a message that Mars was to be taken seriously, but of course Earth didn’t listen. They planned another campaign toward the end of the 60 days for a decisive victory. If it wasn’t achieved by then, then they’d come back in two years with a bigger fleet.

The Martian leaders weren’t having it. They may have doubted it at first, but then they figured they could make Earth capitulate. In actuality, it only took one rock. When Mars sent a meteor into the Indian Ocean and caused a tidal wave that wiped out a few cities on the coasts, Earth surrendered. They just needed to scare the Earthers a bit. You know, deter them from fighting a bloody war.

Now, Earthers don’t see it that way. They thought Martians were deranged. Extremists. Psychotic killers. In reality though, Mars could have done a lot worse. They could have destroyed every city. They could have blasted Earth back to the stone age, so long as Saturn had enough rocks to do so. But they chose not to, because, ironically enough, Mars, the planet of war, just wanted to be left alone. I don’t know about you, but I think Mars chose the better outcome to level a few huts so that billions wouldn’t die.

I know Earth historians say different. I know they say that the powers of Earth gave up on Mars because they thought Mars was too radical to negotiate or integrate. All your history books say so. But actually, Earth gave up because they knew they couldn’t win. They’d never admit it, publically at least, but they knew better than to tangle with Mars. Like I said: Earthers always lie.

Mars went on to colonize a few of the outer planets while Earth continued to stagnate. Eventually, Martian scientists figured out a way to turn portals inside out and bend the laws of physics. I dunno, that’s just the way they describe it. Mars, not Earth, found planet Asgard, and it was the Martian flag, not Earth’s, that was first planted on this rock. Obviously, they don’t particularly like being cut out of the T2 worlds, but that’s the way it goes when you don’t have the drive to do it. Most Earthers don’t leave Earth. Most don’t even know where out here, living on Asgard.

Why don’t you think Earth has that drive to expand?

My thought is that they’re just too comfy. Space is hard living, and when you have VR porn and all the food you can eat it kind puts people off from doing the hard stuff. Earthers won’t admit it, but that’s probably the case. Earthers themselves say they have a higher moral imperative to take care of the poor, and the environment, give a good standard of living to every human being before they head out to the stars, but that’s just an excuse. After their defeat by a handful of Martians, I guess they figured they’d stay in their little, blue safe-space.

 

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.

Postcards from Asgard Episode 3: How the Portals Killed all Nations

Episode 1: Dan’s Story

Episode 2: Yuri’s Story

 

[I had to get to the frontier, but without the portals it was as if the whole planet were 100 years behind Earth. They still used trucks and aircraft to get around. Journeys took days instead of minutes. I asked around why Asgard had no portals when even Mars had them, but got no conclusive answers. Fortunately, I found my ride west by running into a guy named Gary Ogletree – a trucker with a heavy rig heading to the Oblivion Wastes. He’d been a trucker on Earth years ago. So on the way, I asked him how the advent of the portals had affected life on Earth.]

 

*

Imagine driving through the night, in a desert, watchin’ the sun come up behind ya, and seein’ all these rocks suddenly appear from all around you, like they’re comin’ out of the shadows. They start turning red and orange. You get to see their bands along the side. They look like the first rocks ever on Earth, like you’ve gone back in time. That was the kind of stuff I got to see truckin’.

That was before your time. Before the portals, you had to ship stuff with trucks, or planes or something. Might be a strange concept to you now, but that was how we did it.

Being a trucker wasn’t easy though. Sometimes you’d break down, if you were stupid. Sometimes you hit bad weather and sometimes you’d hit a shit ton of traffic. Do you even know what traffic is? Yeah, you get the idea, but you’ve probably never seen it.

I bet you haven’t seen most of America either. It ain’t just coasts or the cities. In between there are farms that go further than you could ever see. Prairie with nothing on it but hills. There are mountains that you can see from hundreds of miles away. Deserts and valleys, and big ole’ trees older than America itself. You don’t get that in the cities. It’s a shame your generation grew up with portals.

When the portals first came ‘round nobody noticed the changes. It came real slow. The first ones were these big ass things that gave off tons of radiation. Unless you were made of wood or metal, you’d be dead going through ‘em.

The shipmen were first to the unemployment lines. No point in puttin’ cargo on a boat when you could just, bam, send it from China with a snap. That’s the one time I’ll give those liberal yuppies some credit: they made sure portals were far from people, so we truckers still had work.

Didn’t take long through, maybe a few years, then portals got better. Built them all over the place. Each city had their own to every other city in the US. At that point, it was done for us truckers. You could still make local deliveries but the cross-country routes were rare. Those routes only stuck around ‘cause the little towns couldn’t afford portals.

Honestly, it wasn’t the work changin’ so much that made me leave Earth. You can always find a new job if you wanna work hard. Nah, it was how the people changed. You know, uh, I ain’t racist or nothin’. I mean, I had lots of Black and Mexican friends back on Earth, but, what the portals did… How do I explain it?

Like, years before the portals, I’d see hitchhikers from time to time. They were usually white kids backpacking, or sometimes they’d just be a drifter. Sometimes you’d pick ‘em up, if they were on your route and they didn’t look like a murderer. Usually, they’d be pretty nice people who didn’t give you any trouble.

I don’t remember exactly when it started happening. All I remember was seeing more drifters and hitchhikers than before, and they were different. They weren’t Americans. They were from Somalia, or Ethiopia, and some were from the Middle East. They didn’t speak a word of English, and they just looked at you with this stink eye, like you ran ‘em off the road. Obviously, I wasn’t about to give ‘em a ride.

I eventually found out why: portal security basically collapsed. Poor people from all over the world rushed the portals into our country. Yeah, they had tried passports and checkpoints at first, but unless the government on the other end cooperates then there’s really no point in doin’ it. Security guards couldn’t stop ‘em. Politicians didn’t want to. Whole thing was a shit-show.

You know that story, of the Tower of Babel? Same thing happened with the portals, except they went one step further and shuffled everyone around on the planet. No more nations. No more countries.

When you walked down a city street, you didn’t know if the people around you could speak your language, or if they were from your country, or if they were friendly or not. You didn’t know if some of these guys were criminals, or worse. The guys that were did some pretty nasty shit that you don’t see in America. It put the normal gang-bangers to shame.

At least a normal criminal robs you and runs off. But those guys? They had no fear. They’d attack cops like they’d attack you. They didn’t give a shit.

I always carried a gun while on the road, but after that I kept one on me in sight so the fuckers wouldn’t get any ideas. Funny thing was, if I was walkin’ down the street and one of those fuckin’ yuppies from the Covenants saw me, they’d look at me like I was some kind of gun nut, like I was the problem and not the assholes runnin’ around, killing people with kitchen knifes.

I remember this one time. I think I was driving through, I think it was St. Louis, or maybe it was Kansas City, when a whole group of black guys, not American blacks but Africans, blocked up the highway and were stopping cars, robbing them one by one. No state trooper came by ‘cause of the backup. Not that it’d do any good.

Anyways, I sat there in my truck, watching this go on, and I’m thinkin’ to myself: why doesn’t anyone just shoot these fuckers in the head? Car after car, people just handed them their money, like it was a fucking toll-booth.

I had some guns with me at the time, not like a stash or anything, just the big three: rifle, shotgun, handgun. I wasn’t about to let them fall into these guys’ hands so they’d use ‘em on someone else. So when it came to my turn, I waved my pistol out the window and fired a few shots at em. Not close enough to hit but just enough to scare them off. And they did; they ran.

But when the cops do show up, get this, they track me down and give me a citation for brandishing and discharging a weapon in city limits. Yeah, the cops went after me, a law-abiding citizen for defending himself. But you know what happened to the robbers? Nothing. The cops weren’t able to find ‘em. So, the bad guys got away while the good guy gets punished. It was crazy.

After that, I just stayed away from the cities. Not like I missed much. You’d go on over to Orlando and it’d look like Djibouti or something. You’d be a walk away from London, or Dubai, but it all looked the same: shanty towns, beggars, criminals. No one could talk to each other, no one cared about each other, no one trusted each other, and everyone was just right about to kill each other.

So yeah, I could have found another job doing something else, but you can’t fix that shit. Who is going to send all those people back? And even then, they’d just the portals again. It’s not like the feds would close ’em. Way too much money to be made, and the government’s too stupid to do their damn job. Honestly, as far as I’m concerned, there are no countries on Earth nowadays.

As soon as I found out that Asgard was accepting colonists, I jumped at it. Yeah, the weather sucks during the super-storms, and you can get tore up by a Cheshire, but at least you can plan for those. Better than walking down the street on Earth and getting stabbed in the throat out of the blue.

*

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Fiction: Christmas at Outpost Hailstorm

The rest of the command crew was already popping bottles of champagne before the last of the computers could shut down. The each desk was cast in tinsel and decorations, and the cork-board had been repurposed as a collage of the crew’s families, from either back on the mainland or way out past Earth. As more people entered the office, now off the clock and with plastic glasses in hand, they had inadvertently opened the doors to the decks below, letting in the blaring sound of Asgard’s remixed Christmas jingles, namely Axe-Stone’s heavy-metal cover of Jingle Bell Rock. The guitar solo’s highest frequency pierced the sound-poof walls of Mike’s headphones.

Mike was having trouble silencing the music and the commotion around him as he oversaw the last cargo craft to take off.

“JetSet107, taxi to ALPHA DELTA and hold position,” he said.

“Holding at ALPHA DELTA, 107,” they replied.

A cobalt-colored air-space craft, looking more like a stingray than an airplane, drifted away from the dock and hangers, slowly making its way to the runway that shot off into the ocean like a grey pirate’s plank. The catapults were already pulled back and had been for a while. Much of the ground crews were inside and celebrating, now gladly off work for the remaining year. Only a handful remained out there in the increasing winds and surf that grew ever more chaotic.

Mike glanced to the computer beside him. The black and red band of storms was a good half-hour away, and so he mentally patted himself on the back for getting the last of the shipments off the rig before the shit finally hit. It’d be a big one too. They called this place Hailstorm for a reason.

 

Meanwhile, Hank trudged along the tarmac in his TLG – a relatively small mech suit of hydraulic motors and protective shields used for carrying bulk cargo from the aircraft to forklift. The winds and spray across the deck made that walk all the more precarious, for on all sides of him were ocean – ocean that went out for hundreds of miles to the horizon and however many uncharted miles down. One slip into the water in a full metal TLG and there’d be no time to get the suit off before drowning.

The planners had seen fit to put the main logistics hub there in the middle of Asgard’s largest ocean. Saved companies a lot of money, but made working there a bitch.

The hissing of engines, the whine of the catapult, even the whistling of his suit’s hydraulics couldn’t compete with the gale that swept across the sea. With a face full of mist, Hank hoisted the catapults adapters to the craft, then gave the underbelly two good hits with his suit’s forearm hooks.

“Dock, we’re good to go down here,” he said.

“Roger. Come on back.”

He began his awkward hustle back to the loading bays.

 

A sigh passed over Mike as he set down his headphones and got up from his chair. It had been a long shift, and everyone but him was already celebrating down below. Now was the time to grab whatever alcohol was left and settle in for the storm – it’d be a long one.

But as Mike took that first step, he stopped. He wasn’t sure if he had truly heard it, a little crackle of a radio, followed by distant and garbled speech. He looked back to the headphones on the desk, thinking, No, it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.

Part of him wanted to forget it and join the party. Surely, he’d earned it. But another part of him, the responsible part, forced him to pick up the headphones and receiver, and wait.

Just as he was about to put them down again, he heard it through the radio, clear as could be.

“Hailstorm, asking for approach tunnel, Korea304.”

Fuckin’ shit, Mike thought. Another goddamn craft… “Sorry Korea304, we’re closed down for the storm. Divert to Titan’s Landing.”

A long pause came over the radio before the pilot spoke again, “Negative, Hailstorm, we have passed diversion window and are entering the atmosphere at approach vector. Please advise on tunnel.”

Mike stood from his desk and looked out the control room’s windows, to the surf and sea outside. Little wisps of white foam were already kissing the ends of the runway. In only a few minutes, the storm surge would be enough to sweep anything off the deck – cargo, people, even the spacecraft itself. What the fuck? He thought. That last one was supposed to be it for the day.

“Korea304, we did not expect another landing today. We are not prepared for you. You need to divert to another city.”

“Understood, Hailstorm, but we are unable to divert. We don’t have enough fuel to boost us to Titan’s Landing.”

“Why? Who’s fuckup was this?” Mike yelled, not intending to say so to the pilots, but didn’t care that he had.

“We are scheduled for T10:30.”

“Earth, Mars, or Asgard Standard?” Mike sighed. “Nevermind. Someone screwed up. You’re not on our register for today. You’re too early.”

“We’re already in atmosphere,” replied the pilot, his voice way too calm for what was going on. They must not have known about the storm.

“Please wait, Korea304,” Mike said, knowing that he didn’t have the luxury of waiting. Outside, things were getting worse. On the weather monitors around him, the yellow bands of the storm had already passed overhead, with the orange ones soon to hit. It would only be a matter of minutes before the bulk reached them.

Mike changed radios to the hanger bays, where the sound of dozens of voices and loud, incomprehensible music hit him. “Guys,” he said over the intercom, but nobody replied. “Guys, listen up!” Still, no one noticed.

So Mike ran the station’s emergency alarm for a few seconds. That killed the voices, but not the music. That fell off just a few seconds later amongst the whispers of the hanger bay. Now that it was silent, Mike said, “Listen guys, we’ve got a fuckup. Another craft is on the way in.” Mike heard gasps and groans, and a few expletives at this. “I know, it’s shitty, but they can’t be diverted and they’re already in atmosphere. We have about ten minutes to get them grounded and secure before we get the shit kicked out of us. Now, we need a volunteer to go out and secure the craft.”

From the silence came one voice. “Hey, Hank is still in the TLG.”

“What!? Fuck that, I’m done. I ain’t goin’ out there.”

“Hank?” Mike said, “Someone has to go out there. There’s bullshit pay in it for ya if you do. I… I know it sucks. It isn’t any of our fault, we just got stuck with it. If those pilots land without an anchor they’re gonna go swimming. Now, you might not give a shit, and that’s okay, but remember that it’ll wipe out the safety bonus for all of it. If you aren’t going to do it for their lives might as well do it for the money.”

“Why me?” he replied.

“Hell, I don’t care who goes out there.” Mike checked the approach of the incoming craft – only 8 minutes out from landing. “Guys,” he said, “they’ll be here in 8 minutes. If you can get another TLG ready by then than do it. Otherwise they’re screwed.”

“God dammit, fine, I’ll do it, but I better get some damn good BS pay for it.”

“I tell you what, Hank, if you succeed I’ll give you my BS pay for this.”

Though Mike got no response, he heard humming of metal joints, then the distinct screech of a hangar door opening, followed by the rushing of wind that silenced everything else. Mike closed the coms to the hangar and reconnected with Korea304. “Korea304 we’re getting the runway ready. Please follow my approach tunnel.”

It was going to take some work to buy them more time. The worst of the storm was estimated to hit them in about ten minutes. That left a two minute window to get the craft grounded and anchored, assuming the estimates were correct. They rarely were.

 

Korea304’s initial burn through the atmosphere had ended, leaving them gliding above the clouds, though still falling fast. The nose of the craft dipped low, far lower than normal approach, dropping the craft like a stone beneath a large, white thunderhead.

At that point, the redesigned approach tunnel wasn’t intended to give them a comfortable ride, or a relatively safe one for that matter, but to make them come in quick to shave off a minute or two. The sleek, gray spacecraft broke through the top of the clouds, heading straight for the ocean. With only a few hundred feet remaining, the craft pulled up and fired its burners for a few seconds, increasing its speed and setting it on a low and level path to the platform.

The ocean rolled violently below the buckling spacecraft. The power of the wind cut off the tips of the waves and sent them into the air as white spray. Though the onboard computer did its best to fight the turbulence, it couldn’t calculate the chaos fast enough. The pilots inside were being tossed around their chairs.

 

Hank walked out from the hanger, onto the deck, and just stood there for a while, watching the storm approach. A veritable wall of clouds, as dark as the ocean blow, extended from the waves all the way to the highest point of the sky. The massive size of the thing could not be conceptualized, and it was approaching, fast.

The wind had grown, each gust carrying with it the spray of ocean. The waves themselves were almost to the deck, and even some of the greater ones now jumped onto the platform.

“This is fucked,” Hank said. On all sides of him was instant death. Even on a perfectly calm day, being tossed from the deck meant higher than Vegas odds of eating it.

 

Back at the command center, Mike compared the estimations of both the storm and the spacecraft. He had bought some time, about forty-five seconds, and hoped it was enough. “Fuel count?” he said to the pilots.

“30 Liters.”

“Engage a two second burn,” he replied. He had just bought another ten seconds. Mike looked out the windows, trying to find the signature blink of the spacecraft’s lights. The storm was too thick to see anything at that point. All the direction would have to be handled virtually.

 

Korea304 glided just a few feet above the waves. It wasn’t the case that the spacecraft had fallen in altitude, but that the waves had risen to meet it. If a particularly strong rogue one came at the wrong place and time, then the space-faring vessel would become a permanent submarine.

From the pilot’s point of view, they were racing a wall of darkness that came at them from the left. Their destination was obscured in that darkness, and they wouldn’t know they had found it until the nav computer set them down on it, or the instant they overshot it.

Suddenly, the reverse thrusters engaged, right on que. From hundreds of miles an hour, the craft slowed just as the faint outline of the platform came into the pilot’s view. It seemed like the craft would fly right into it, until the reverse thrusters intensified, slowly the craft enough to set down on the tip of the landing platform, where a hook caught it and brought it to a stop.

 

Hank had just seen this thing appear nearly out of nothing and make a near perfect landing on the deck. For a moment, he thought that this might just be a piece of cake. Immediately after, Hank swore that the storm could read his thoughts, because just as he figured he might have it easy, the wind grew and the spray of water became a battering of hail.

Each little piece stung him in the face and arms as he lumbered out onto the deck and toward the craft. He couldn’t exactly run to the thing, not on normal days and especially not now. Walking speed was about as fast as he could go.

He cursed appreciatively once he got underneath the spacecraft and started the process of anchoring it to the deck. His hands were cold now, numb too, but they worked enough to open a hatch to the ship’s anchor – a cable of super-strong alloys with a locking hook at the end. Wasting no time, he brought it down and tried to attach it to the deck. Suddenly, the wind picked up and nearly knocked him off balance.

Hank steadied himself in the TLG and, this time, successfully locked the anchor into place. Proud of himself, he thought that was the end of it, but then the creaking of metal came to his ears. The aircraft above him started twitching to the side as the sea air tried to lift it. The anchor cable pulled and twisted, and, though it groaned like it was in pain, it held, for the moment.

“Mike, you there?” Hank said to the radio.

The voice coming back to him was barely audible over the storm. “You got it anchored?”

“Yeah, but what about the pilots?”

“What about them?”

The tinkling sound of hail intensified to a low roar as the pieces turned from pea-sized to golf ball sized. Knowing that it would only get worse, and judging by the stress on the anchor, Hank said, “I don’t think the craft’ll be here when the storm’s over. What’ll we do?”

Hank wasn’t sure if Mike was silently thinking, or if the radio had cut out that moment. The darkest and heaviest part of the storm was only maybe a mile away. There would only be seconds to react. Already, waves were washing up on the platform and the hail had accumulated to about an inch deep. Walking back across that would be hard enough, even worse if Hank waited.

“Alright,” Mike said, “get them out of there and back to base. The longer we wait the harder it’ll be. I’ll tell the pilots; you open the door.”

Hank wasted no time. Even though his hands hurt from the cold and could barely work the latches, he was able to get the door open. The two pilots were already there and lowering the ladder before Hank could step aside.

“Cover your head with your arms,” Hank yelled. “I’m going to try to shield you best I can.” Pea-sized hail hurt like a bitch, but golf ball-sized hail could kill. Hank was mostly safe since the TLG covered his backside. So long as he didn’t stare into the storm he’d probably be alright, but the pilots… “Get real close,” he said to the two.

Even reaching his armored hand out from under the craft was like it getting hit with a dozen baseball bats. It didn’t hurt, at least not most of them, but sure as shit the hail found a gap or two in the armor. Still, Hank kept his cool.

He corralled the pilots between his arms and tried his best to simultaneously protect them and drive them forward at slow pace, all while trying to keep his balance from the ice marbles and waves beneath his feet. Somehow, he was able to do it, step after step across the writhing platform.

All was going well. He thought they’d make it, miraculously, until a piece of hail somehow beat the odds and found a gap between his arms. Hank didn’t really know what had happened, only that he saw one of the pilots fall to the ground.

“Pick him up,” he yelled to the other. And the other tried, but he simply couldn’t lift his friend. Either it was fear, the cold of the storm, or the hail battering him too, but nonetheless he couldn’t.

Hank knew he couldn’t stay out there or call for help, so he grabbed the still-conscious pilot with one arm, bringing him close, while snagging the other’s clothing with the TLG’s hook. Wasting no more time, he shuffled to the hanger doors, slipping once or twice on the two inches of hail beneath him, but still managing to catch his balance.

Just as he reached the door, a wave of water washed over his feet, then surging up to the knees of the TLG. Hank braced himself for a moment and held position as the hail flowed like a river down to the end of the platform. The wave wasn’t enough to push him over, but it would have taken the pilots away he hadn’t been carrying them.

All the other workers lined up at the doors, yelling at him, encouraging him to keep going. Their shouting over the storm was distant at first, but every step brought them closer, made them clear. Hank could see the lights within the hangar, the table and bottles at the other end where would have, and should have, been celebrating.

Only fifteen feet from the doors, a great snap broke the constant roar of the storm. Hank thought he knew what it was, but wouldn’t look back. All the other men at the hanger, they saw it, and started running further inside, confirming what Hank suspected.

The spacecraft had broken free of the anchor and, with the full force of the storm behind it, started sailing down the deck toward them. Less than ten feet from the hanger door, he could hear the scraping of wingtips against tarmac, growing louder. With his left arm, still holding the conscious pilot, Hank tossed him inside. Despite rolling for a few more feet, the pilot scrambled up, seemingly unharmed.

Hank then grabbed the unconscious pilot, dangling from his right arm’s hook, and threw him too into the hangar. With his arms free, Hank tried to run, but as he made that first step something struck him from behind. One moment, he saw the hanger, the next, only water and tarmac. The cold sea flowed around him inside the TLG suit. It rumbled, like he was being dragged against something.

Water continued to flow over and across him. Hail still beat him. And the ground still moved. He expected to meet the all-encompassing cold of the ocean, bringing with it darkness, and numbness, and his inevitable death.

But when that rumbling stopped, along with the hail and the water, there was light. A door shut, silencing the storm. From that silence came the words: “Holy shit, Hank, are you alright?”

He was being lifted to his feet, or rather every man in the hanger helped to push and pull the TLG upright.

“Dude, are you okay?” “Man, that was so sick.” “Hank, you good? You alright?” “Hey, can we get a medic down here?”

Hank didn’t feel like saying anything.

 

Mike watched the space plane fall into the ocean and instantly disappear. Hands shaking, he changed the coms channel to the hanger bay and called out to them, “Hey… Everyone good down there?”

Someone yelled back, amidst the shouts and cheers, “Yeah, we’re fine.”

“How’re the pilots?”

“One’s unconscious, but still breathing. We’re taking them to the clinic now.”

“And Hank?”

“I’m good!”

“Awesome,” Mike replied. “You earned that bonus and then some.” Mike smiled as he closed the coms and set down his headphones, for good this time.

 

*

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Postcards from Asgard, Episode 2: Yuri’s Story

[Yuri Primalov was a Russian-born ex-pat who had moved to Asgard only within the last few years. He had the reputation of a ladies man, the “Original White Russian” so his former marketing went, though he preferred to go by his formal title of “life coach”. Now, he currently works as a consultant for a natural gas company based in Titan’s Landing, though he still coaches new arrivals to Asgard on the side.]

*

I was born in Smolensk, but moved to Belarus as a child. Father was military. Fought in Syria and Turkey. His orders took us there, to Belarus, to guard the Russian Union. Very traditional family, traditional values. Common for Eastern Europe and Russia at the time.

 

We were well off enough to get Eurpoean and American satellite channels, so I grew up seeing parties and concerts – all the best things America had. The country looked so rich and fun. As a young man, I dreamed of going to Vegas or New York, or even L.A. When I finished schooling, I finally got the chance and told my parents that I’d be living in the US for a while. They warned me about it. Told me it wasn’t a good place for a young man. I did not care. Millions of young men grew up there, so I figured why not.

 

I moved to Chicago, though with the portals it could have been any other city in America. I made friends quickly, both with men and women, but especially with women. I talked with every girl I met, not because I wanted to sleep with her, at least not at first, but because I wanted to know more about America. I had a lot of excitement for the country back then. I was very positive. My goal was just to have a good time and that was something women wanted too, with or without the sexual aspect. Me being a foreigner helped too. Made me seem exotic. Gave me stories to tell.

 

I didn’t try to be popular with American women. It just happened. My male friends would then come to me and ask how I could just talk to someone I had never met before. I didn’t know, not back then. I gave them some advice, simple at first, because I didn’t know why, but when I decided to learn more about all this my advice became more complex.

 

That was how I got the reputation as a… well let’s call it a Life Coach. I did that for a few years until I got burned out with it.

 

What does it mean to be a life coach?

 

You are like a therapist, but informal. One of my competitors called it “Drinking Buddy for Hire”. My best friends in the industry marketed himself as the “Wingman Mercenary”. I looked at it as private social worker.

 

In any case, my job was to lift people up. You get these men who have been disadvantaged in some way, usually socially, and you try to help them the best way you know how. It was a prime market back then. Today, here on Asgard, not so much.

 

What made you stop being a life coach?

 

It is… hard to describe. When I started, I gave advice only to my friends. As word got around, I accepted more clients. I got a license as a life coach and began to see strangers. Over time, though, I stopped being able to tell these men apart. They all had the same story. One would come in, almost crying, telling me about his girlfriend or wife, how she was always unhappy, about to divorce him. If it wasn’t men like them, it was the man close to thirty who still hadn’t had sex yet.

 

That, all by itself, wasn’t bad. But after a while I began to forget who they were. I couldn’t tell them apart. I would ask them if they had tried this or that, and they would say yes, I had told them so weeks before, but I wouldn’t remember. Then, for others, I would assume they had done things I had suggested, only to realize later that I hadn’t said anything about that topic. It was not the fault of my memory, but because these men were all exactly the same and began to merge together in my mind.

 

In some way, they all shared the same experience. Different women, different men, but still perfectly alike in almost every way. It didn’t not matter if one was poor or rich, smart or dumb. The way these relationships fell apart, or a guy’s inability to get them in the first place, they all followed a particular pattern. This was not coincidence. Couldn’t have been. I began to think that there had to be something else causing it.

 

Why do you think that is? Why so many broken men?

 

Someone or something was telling them wrong. I don’t blame these men, because they did what they thought would work. It is all any man does. When they come into my office, tell me they gave her everything she ever wanted, I know that someone has told these men to do this early in their lives, because they would not have thought of this on their own, not every man, not the exact same conclusion.

 

If it had been the case that these men were trying different things and couldn’t find the right combination, then that would be one thing, but each tried the same thing and each had the same result. That made me believe that something or someone over them was teaching the wrong thing on purpose. If that was the case, then what could I do? I cannot move the oceans. I am just one man.

 

Some people told me that I should have kept the secrets to myself, that way there would be more girls for me. I do not believe this, because making men worse does not make women better. Women will sour when they don’t have good men around, and that will hurt me in my relationships with women. To make one better is to make the other better. We are connected that way. That is why knowing that something else was working against me crushed my drive.

 

What was working against you?

 

I don’t know exactly. You point at so many places, but never the source. Maybe it was society which told men to be that way. Maybe it was Hollywood. I did see American movies where the fat, goofy men get the girls. I guess guys thought you only had to be goofy or weird and nothing else. One reason might be American schools. I did not go to them, so I can only say what my clients told me. They said teachers encouraged boys to always be in second place to the girls. Let them go first, let them speak in class, make way for them in the hallway. Now, I am for treating women and girls well, but not at the expense of yourself. Men and women both hate it when men demean themselves. It could have been that, plus more. I don’t know. All I do know is something was there. Something was turning the tide against me…

 

[I expected the interview to end there, since Yuri started looking away, visibly distressed.]

 

…Would you like to know something that I had known for a long time, but I never taught these men? Have you ever heard of Game Theory? I do not mean flirting. You have? Kind of?

 

Game Theory is about cooperation and betrayal. Who will betray who, and when, and why? Do I turn you in so I can get a greater benefit? Do you turn me in for that benefit too? Or do we both work together for slightly less benefit? If we both turn each other in then we both lose.

 

The relationship between men and women is like that too. There are things men want from women, and things women want from men, and they are not the same things. Their desires sometimes work against each other, but, still, men and women need to come together to continue the human race. That leaves us the opportunities to both cooperate and betray the other. Men betray women by abandoning them with child. Women betray men by cheating, or using them for money.

 

The society around you can encourage whether to cooperate or betray. Long ago, society told men and women to cooperate, today, and especially back in America, society tells men and women to betray, but mostly women. There are no consequences for her betrayal, not in American society. I’ve had men come to me, crying, telling me that he held up his duties to a relationship, and that she still cheated on him, left him. Some people think that men disserve it too. Some people even cheer women for betraying their men, but men are not allowed to betray.

 

But like I said before, I am just one man. I tried to spread the word. I met with people like me, who taught the same things, that way we could coordinate, network, but no matter how hard we tried to convert men it made no difference because society was working against us.

 

Eventually, I became tried. I used to like helping people, but it became too much, too difficult, not enough reward. I quit my job in the United States and moved back to Belarus to start a family with girls who were not going to betray, or less likely to. By then, word had gotten around Russian Coalition that Asgard was accepting immigrants. I left because I thought I might be able to set men and women right on Asgard, so it wouldn’t repeat what had happened in America.

 

What are the major differences between Earth and Asgard, in regards to the relationships between men and women?

 

To be honest, there is difference in some, no difference in others. For every one woman on Asgard there are about three or four men. It makes men thirsty, just like it did back on Earth, and it can make women think too much of themselves. And there really is no difference between women who won’t cooperate on Earth, and no women to cooperate with on Asgard. As the Americans have said, it is a “sausage fest”. But, I think it is getting better.

 

The women who come to Asgard are different than most women of Earth. The women who want security, or just want to continue working and buying things like the rest of them, will be content with Earth. The exceptional women who want something more, or the more desperate women from the third world, they will split themselves from the herd and come here. So even though the ratio is still off, the women are a different kind of women.

 

That is why I’m hopeful that my work will make a difference and finally set things right. We may come to balance between men and women, once more women immigrate. Hopefully, I can make men better here without society working against me. That will make women better, so we can then learn to cooperate again, have babies, and continue to other worlds. What alternative is there?

 

None, I imagine. Well, Yuri, I do appreciate you setting aside time to talk to me. Before I go, I just want to ask one last question: if you only had once piece of advice to bestow on men, what would it be?

 

Never give her everything. I told my clients that women are like treasure-hunters. They go looking for whatever it is they want in a man, whether that is looks or money, or companionship. They are on a quest for it, and they will stay on that quest so long as they believe there is something to find. Once the treasure is found, they realize there is no more left. They have all they could possibly get. When they believe the well is dry, they will go looking elsewhere. However, if she still feels that there is more to you, or more in you, then she will stay. Always give the impression that you’ve got more tricks up your sleeve. Never remain stagnant.

 

[I thanked Yuri for his input and wished him well, for his endeavor may actually change things for the better. There are critical times in history where one man, one idea, or one event, can alter its course forever. The fledgling days of Asgard are those times, when such junctions are not only possible, but inevitable.]

 

*

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Postcards from Asgard, Episode 1: Intro and Dan’s Story

(This is going to be a little experiment in fictionalizing what would essentially be a typical blog post/essay. Think of it as the book World War Z, but instead of chronicling the zombie apocalypse, it is instead depicting a world where Feminism, Political Correctness, and the blue-pill shift never stops. Feel free put your comments, critiques, criticisms, and/or condemnations below.)

 

*

 

There were two main reasons why I left Earth for Asgard.

 

The first: Earth didn’t want men like me anymore. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a journalist (still do, in fact). But I couldn’t tell you how many times I’d been turned away from a gig because I wasn’t the right “type” of reporter. They told me straight, “we don’t need the white male perspective right now, but feel free to try again in eight months”. That last part was only to soften the blow. They would never hire me, no matter how good I was.

 

If that had been the only thing wrong, then I might not have left Earth at all. I might have stayed there and dyed my hair blue, and my beard pink. I could blend in and toe the line like the best of ‘em, but would I have been happy? No.

 

That’s because my second reason for leaving Earth was my intense interest in people who became adventurers. Imagining the kind of soul it took to cross the Atlantic nearly seven-hundred years ago made me want to do the same. Who did you have to be to leave home and head west for gold, with only the promise of fortune taking you thousands of miles away from home? What kind of man gives up everything they’ve ever known for the prospect of something better, a little slice of it, a slice that was never guaranteed?

 

That question pulled me, while the culture pushed me. So off-world I went, to Asgard.

 

The children on Earth know next to nothing about Asgard. It is a planet so far removed from Earthen society that even if you were to search the internet, as deep as you could go, you might only find a footnote on a generic encyclopedia article, or, if you’re tech savvy, a Martian recruitment page behind the government’s firewalls. They don’t teach it to kids in school, it never makes the news, and movies about it? Heh, you’ve got to be kidding.

 

The great dream of space expansion they promised was quickly swept under the rug when Mars won the 60 Days War. Everything after was sanitized and blacklisted. History was rewritten. And now, no one knows about our third planetary colony. Nobody, except the men like me who couldn’t hack it on Earth anymore…

 

To put things in perspective, Asgard has close to 500 million people. That sounds like a lot, until you realize they’re spread across the entire surface of the world. Asgard’s tallest skyscraper tops out at just under a thousand feet, which is about a third shorter than the Empire State Building. If you were to line up all the paved roads on Asgard in a straight line, you wouldn’t be able to reach Atlanta from Washington DC. The yearly output of Asgard’s entire planetary electrical grid produces enough electricity to power New York City… for 3 days.

 

Needless to say, life on Asgard isn’t what you’d expect. It has plenty of hardships and very few luxuries.

 

I went there to talk to the men like me, who left Earth because they were pushed out, or had nothing else on the home-world. Deadbeats, druggies, criminals, neglected veterans. Those were only a few examples. I wanted to make sure their stories were told, so that something would live on. I wasn’t keen on letting Earth’s historians wipe out what could be an exceptional era.

 

Dan’s Story

 

[Titan’s Landing is Asgard’s planetary capital. Even though it’s roughly the size of Salt Lake City, Utah, it is home to Asgard’s political establishment, the embassies of all nations currently colonizing Asgard, and the headquarters of Asgard’s corporations. It is the only city with a fully-functioning space port, and though any shuttle can land anywhere on the surface of Asgard, it is Titan’s Landing where return trips are made. Despite being a small city, situated on the shores of a crater-bay, it is a new city that is expected to double in size every five years. That’s a new skyscraper every four months. Needless to say, there are plenty of construction contracts, and everyone’s hiring. It is here that I found my first story.

 

I met Dan in a diner just outside the spaceport grounds. He was a young man from America, who left his home planet because, as he put it, “that place made you a pussy.”]

 

*

Dan:

It was a long time coming, but I guess I didn’t realize it at the time. You get used to living in certain places for a while that you forget that they might not be good for ya. I actually remember the night it happened, when I took a long, hard look at my life and realized that I needed to do something better.

 

At the time, I was living in Ft. Lauderdale with a roommate from college. We were gonna take the portals to Denver to see one of his favorite bands, some hipster thing that I don’t really remember.

 

On the way to the portal station, I got on Findr, just to see who’d be in the area, and, lo and behold, one of my old college flings was in the city, plus her friend that I kinda knew from back then. So I sent her a jaunt. I figure she’d take it if she wants, but I didn’t get my hopes up. My roommate and I got off the bus at the Ft. Lauderdale station, then walked across the gates to Denver International, then another bus into the city. Got to see the sunset for a second time, which was always cool to me.

 

The club was standard hipster stuff, filled with old vintage wood carvings and bikes, or whatever those people liked. I dunno. Not my kinda thing but my roommate was into it. So I went to get a drink at the bar while he walked off for whatever. I hung out there for a while by myself until this girl came up to me, out of nowhere. She was like, “Hey, how’re you? What’s your name?” I gave it, reluctantly. Wasn’t quite sure why she was talking to me in the first place. Now, I don’t know about you, but if a girl cold approaches you at a bar and she’s that friendly then you’d better get the hell out, ‘cause she’s either a cop or a con. My dumbass didn’t know any better.

 

So, I made some small talk. She said her friends were supposed to be there, but they weren’t of course, and that she was lonely, and she just wanted someone to talk to, and I bought it. Actually, I bought her a drink. No, actually, she said, promised me, that she’d alternate drinks with me: I buy her my favorite, she buys me her favorite. Whatever, I thought it was a fun idea at the time.

 

As soon as she had the drink, her phone got a text. She said it was her friends and that she had to go. She thanked me for the drink and took off. I watched her go over to a table, to a bunch of people I saw when I came in. Then it hit me that I’d been conned.

 

And the guy next to me? He laughed at it. I was about to tell him to go fuck off, but then I got a good look at him. He seemed like a giant, but I guess that was only his coat. At the time, I didn’t know what a Cheshire was or any of that shit.

 

[Reader’s note: a Cheshire is one of Asgard’s apex megafauna. It is a catlike, or cat-equivalent species of super-predator roughly the size of an African Rhino. Its teeth are, on average, 4 inches long, claws are 6 inches, and has a maximum sprint speed of about forty kilometers per hour. It’s namesake is due to its wide mouth, giving it the appearance of the Cheshire cat. Armored coats are made from their skin due the numerous porcupine-like quills intermixed with the animal’s fur, or fur-equivalent.]

 

His vibe was enough to stop me from doing anything stupid. What a guy like that was doing on Earth, in that hipster bar, who knew? He said to me, “Go over there and make her get you a drink. Don’t take that shit from her.” I told him, hell no. Not that I was afraid or anything, but some things you gotta let go. Not worth the drama.

 

He said nothing to that. He just got up and walked on over there. I didn’t know what he said because of the music, but it must have been bad, because all of them sitting there glanced over to me, then looked away. He just, silenced them all. He didn’t raise his voice or anything either.

 

Then, he came back and said, ‘Good news: they feel like shit for what they did. Bad news: she’s broke and can’t buy you a new one.’ He said his name was Lars, gave me a handshake, and bought me a beer like we were bros or something. Tell you what though, it felt good to have someone on your side for once. After that, I figure we’d just hang out, ask him about his coat or whatever, but then guess who walked in the door?

 

Yeah, my friend from college, Erica. Oh yeah, I guess her friend was there too. Jessica? Katelyn? Eh, I forget now. Erica and friend found me at the bar, sitting next to this space-Tarzan guy, so immediately they were like, “Oh, who’s your friend, Dan? What’s your name? What do you do? Blah blah blah.” They both tried to sit next to him, but I already had one side, and Erica got the other. Her friend wasn’t happy about that, but hell I wasn’t gonna move for her.

 

So he told them about, of all places, Asgard. Said he was a hunter there. Now, when white girls on Earth hear “hunter”, they think “poacher”, and so they think you’re one of the worst human beings, like, ever. I expected them to explode with that angry white girl rage, but they both just looked at him, doe-eyed, heh, excuse the pun. Sorry.

 

But they hung on his every word. Didn’t matter what he said. While he was  telling his stories, I looked at him and thought to myself how… different he is. I couldn’t tell why. It wasn’t his muscles, but his vibe, the way he carried himself. He must have been through some shit because nothing seemed to get to him. When that chick gypped me out of a beer, he simply walked over to their table like he was going to check the mail. No emotion. No angst. Just… “well, this is what I gotta do now.”

 

Truth is, he was a completely different class of person. It didn’t really bother me that my friends, well my one friend and her friend, were almost drooling over him, because, compared to him, I was nothing. At the time I didn’t know what this feeling was, but in retrospect I guess I had an inadequacy complex. Here was a titan among men, and I was barely even a man.

 

But, through it all, he always made sure to look at me, and talk to me. Keep me in the conversation. He didn’t seem like a bad guy. He didn’t want to make me feel insecure. Eventually, he told me, not the girls, but me, “Hey, if the music is starting to get on your nerves, I know a place in Boulder that a bit more low-key.” I agreed. Of course, the girls agreed too but they’d agree to anything if Lars was going.

 

So we took the light rail to Boulder. Went to a walking mall, then down some steps to a little dive bar that I can’t remember the name of either. The place was a dump. Crooked ass floor boards. Lamps too low to the tables. The benches were all torn up and had duct tape all over ‘em. One of the least-kept bars I have ever seen, and I’ve been to some dives on Asgard.

 

We found a booth somewhere in the back. Lars ordered us some beer, and we got to talking. The girls kinda took over the conversation. They talked about their school, and their job, and all their activities, but I’ve heard all that shit before and I can tell it wasn’t appealing to Lars. Every time he put them down, gently, of course, the two of ‘em sprang back up to prove themselves. “Oh, I’m the head of some stupid waste-of-time organization, isn’t that great?” Heh. No, no it’s not.

 

God, if I could go back in time, I’d slap myself right then and there for putting up with such boring, stuck-up bitches. You want my honest opinion? You can be stuck-up and not be boring, or you can be boring and not stuck-up about it, but the combination of both is the worst kind of cringe. But Back then? I would have lapped it all up. Eventually, Lars had enough. He told the girls that they should go use the bathroom or something, that he needed a minute to make a phone call. Normally, you’d think these girls would have put on the snark or some shit, but I couldn’t believe it at the time: they just did what he said and went to the bathroom.

 

Then, Lars glared at me, stern-ass look on his face, and told me the words that I will never forget, “Aren’t you bored with this?” He nodded to the bathroom, obviously meaning the girls, then to the rest of the bar. “You know this is all fake right? It’s pretend. It’s all dress up. See the bench, how worn it is?”

 

And how could I not? Shit, I could feel the lumps in the seat.

 

“See the finger marks? The seat was torn up on purpose. The cuts on the fake leather were obviously done by a knife. I know for a fact that the pool tables aren’t level… on purpose. See the graffiti and shit on the table? It’s laminated over. None of this is real, man. It’s all fake and pointless.”

 

And shit, I can never forget what he said next. “No offence, man, but this place has made you a pussy. That’s why you’re unhappy, and don’t even try telling me you are. I can see it in you. Do you even feel it?”

 

Bull’s eye. Right in the heart. That man knew my number, for sure. I told the truth. I told him no, that I wasn’t happy. He said, “What are you looking for?” I had no clue, and said so. “Well, whatever it is, you won’t find it here.” He got up from the table, gave me another handshake, and dropped this on me, “If you ever get tired of this, talk to Sam at the ALGS.” After that, he just… walked off.

 

The girls came back from the bathroom and asked where he’d gone. When I told ‘em, they left too. Well, they gave me some shit excuses but that’s basically what they did. As soon as Lars was gone they bailed too.

 

That night started the little seed of doubt. I went back home to Ft. Lauderdale, went to work the next day and tried to process it all.

 

Maybe I had felt stuff like this in the background all along, and that night kinda opened my eyes to it. Ever since college, shit, even during college, I had just taken my classes because that’s what you do. I got a job as a cashier because you needed a job. I spent my money on going out because that’s what people like me did. What the fuck else was I going to do?

 

Sometimes, when you’re stuck in the suck, you can’t picture yourself ever leaving it. You think, this is all there is. This is all I’ll ever be. You either get used to it, or do something radical, or you just off yourself. Most people get used to it. Me? I eventually realized that I’d be trapped in that cycle on Earth. No job would ever pay me enough to buy a house or start a family, so I didn’t bother trying for it and spent my money on going to bars or whatever. Fifty bucks a night out, twice a weekend, every weekend. Four-hundred dollars a month, nearly five-grand a year, and what did I have to show for it? Nothing.

 

It took a few days, but I realized that Lars was right. This place made me a pussy. It was designed to trap me there, and it would continue to suck the life out of me if I let it.

 

That’s why I decided to say fuck you to Earth. I sold the rest of my stuff, signed my work contract, and bought a ticket off-world. I don’t know yet if it’s gonna pan out. It’s hard living, for sure. But shit, it’s better than before.

 

[I thanked Dan for setting aside his valuable break time to lend me his story. He wished me good luck and asked that I send him an autographed copy, if my writings ever came to publication. I thanked him and wished him good luck. However, before we left, I jokingly asked him if the girls of Asgard were any better than the ones on Earth. His tone changed to serious as he told me that if I was going to learn more about that, then I should talk to a man named Yuri.]

 

*

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Science Fiction: Good Morning, Travis

“Good morning, Travis.”

He had trouble putting it all together at first. Time would be skipping for a while until new memories could form a pattern, a timeline, across his synthetic network.

He didn’t know what had come first.

Right now, he sat at a dinner table with his friends and family, glancing across the smiling faces that met him each time they looked up. They were all using the fine china, the kind that came with special guests like investors and department leads. He tried to remember exactly when he had seen it last, but couldn’t.

“Good morning, Travis,” repeated in his mind.

The cooks had made his favorite. Everyone else had a piece of pumpkin chicken with slices of cranberry acorn squash, all glazed with cinnamon. He remembered that it was good, but couldn’t remember the taste. He looked down to his plate and saw it empty.

The others didn’t seem to notice that he had nothing, but they looked happy, happy that he was there again.

“Good morning, Travis,” repeated in his mind.

Sitting across from him was his girlfriend, Jennifer, and that he knew before everything else. Around her were James, Nick, Troy, all the friends he had known but knew nothing about, all smiling at him. His mother and father stood at the fringes of the table and raised their glasses for a toast. His father spoke first, “It’s good to have you back, Travis.”

“I’m glad to be back,” Travis Malvern said, but he didn’t have a glass to raise. Everyone else drank.

“Good morning, Travis,” the voice inside him said.

 

It had taken twenty-four hours to remember the day before. The doctor had pulled him out of a hospital bed, at least he thought it had been a hospital bed, and said to him the first words of his new life, “Good morning, Travis.” Only, Travis didn’t remember the moment as it happened; he only remembered that it had happened.

Slowly, events started catching up to him as he spent long, quiet days with his mother.

He gave himself time for his mind to come up to speed as he sat out on the balcony of their Delta 2 high-rise. In between watching the sun set below the towers and the traffic wander through the highways, he would go into a trance and remember something inside him, only to return to gazing at the sun. By Travis’ perception, it was skipping across the sky.

Finally, he spoke, “Mom… when am I?”

“You’re home, honey.”

“I know, but when?”

“You’re here, now,” she said. “The sun is going down.”

“When was the last time I saw a doctor?”

“Your doctor or any doctor?”

“Any,” he replied.

“It’s been about a day,” she said.

“Did he have black hair?” Travis asked.

“Yeah.”

“What kind of doctor was he?”

“Reanimation specialist.”

“Oh…” was all Travis said before went on a trip back into his memories.

“Good morning, Travis.”

 

Days after the pumpkin chicken dinner and the toast, Travis stood on that same balcony with his girlfriend, Jennifer. Her blond hair, flowing in the wind, evoked half-memories he couldn’t fully retrieve.

“Smile,” she said.

“Why?” Travis asked.

“Because I want you to smile.”

“Okay.” He tried. It was his first smile and it didn’t come out right.

She shook her head. “Stop being so concerned. Just smile. Show me you’re happy.”

Travis tried again.

“Still doing it wrong,” Jennifer said. She put her drink down on the railing. For a moment, Travis was worried about it falling over and landing on someone down below. It might shatter a windshield or knock someone out.

“Let me hold your drink,” he said.

“It’ll be alright for a second, just relax. Now smile.”

“I’m doing it.”

“It’s not the right kind.” She came at him and started tickling his sides, but he didn’t laugh. He didn’t even move. “Come on,” she said. “No, I got it.” She pushed her fingers into her cheeks and pouted her lips, making a ridiculous duck face. “Quack quack,” she said as her eyes bulged. “Quack quack.”

Travis laughed.

“There it is,” Jennifer said. “That’s the smile I’m looking for. I’m really glad you’re back, Travis.”

“Me too.”

 

“Good morning, Travis.”

Travis opened his eyes and unplugged himself from his bed. The clock read 10:30 am, his usual start time. His mother was sitting on a couch in the living room, her fingers tapping across the surface of a tablet. She glanced up at him and smiled before she returned to her work. “Morning, Travis, how’re you doing today?”

“Good. What’s with the suit?” Travis asked.

“I’m going out to meet the other members of the foundation today, but I figured I’d run home and get something to eat first.”

“I thought you were going to spend the day with me,” Travis whined.

“When did I say that?”

“Yesterday. You said you’d spend time with me.”

“Travis, that was three weeks ago.”

“Good morning, Travis,” said the remnant.

Travis’ mother closed the tablet and started toward the door. “I’ll see you when I get home.”

“Wait,” Travis said. “Where have I been?”

She cringed at the question. “Travis, you’ve been here in the house. I’ve said goodbye to you every day. Look, I’ll spend some quality time with you when I get back. Just keep yourself occupied until then.”

Travis was alone for the rest of the day.

He didn’t remember it.

 

“Good morning, Travis,” his mother said as he opened his eyes one morning. “I’ll be back in a few days.”

Travis was about to ask where, until he remembered, though didn’t remember how, that his parents were leaving for their anniversary and wouldn’t return for another week.

“What’ll I do till then?” he asked.

“Do what you’ve been doing. Keep yourself occupied. Love you, sweetheart.” She kissed him, then left.

Travis got up and wandered their floor of the luxury skyrise. Every room was empty and silent, since the servants had a week off while Mr. and Mrs. Malvern were away.

He wandered through the reading room lined with bookshelves and antiques, scanning the covers of the old and dusty works. Sitting above one bookcase, next to his diploma, was a picture of Travis at his college graduation. Clinging to his side was Jennifer, wearing her own black robe with a scroll in her hand.

The sky that day looked so perfect, as were the trees, the light, both of their smiles. Everything in that picture was as it should have been, yet he had never lived it.

Travis drifted from room to room as the time crawled in that apartment. Finally, he returned to his bedroom and opened the nightstand. There, amongst other things that were too familiar but still forgotten, was his set of keyfabs. One of those, he knew, was to her apartment.

Travis Malvern left his parent’s mansion and followed a route that was new, but one he had traveled many times. His old passcodes for the autocars and city checkpoints were still active. He found her apartment where it should have been and her name still in the directory. He didn’t think twice about entering, because he knew he had done it many times before without issue.

Her apartment was dark, but he could hear movement in one of the other rooms. Light came from underneath the door, leading him to the sounds of moaning. Travis didn’t hesitate to open that door.

Jennifer was lying naked on her back, legs wrapped around another man. She noticed the door open almost instantly. She gasped and pushed her lover off her.

“Hey,” he said in protest.

“Travis,” she yelled and covered herself.

The man turned and jumped back when he saw Travis there in the doorway. “Yo, what the fuck?” he shouted as he brought his arms up, ready to fight.

“No, it’s fine,” Jennifer said to him. “Travis, what are you doing here?”

“I was looking for you,” he said.

“Wha-well you could’ve called first or something,” she exclaimed. “You don’t just let yourself into someone’s apartment like this. What were you thinking?”

“I thought it was okay.”

“Things have changed, Travis.”

“I understand,” he said. He looked at his girlfriend, naked, and felt… nothing. He knew he should feel anger or betrayal, at least something passionate. The realization that he felt nothing made his mind swirl as memories and concepts swarmed for dominance.

“Good morning, Travis,” said the voice in his head.

“How long have we been broken up?” Travis asked.

“Travis, get the hell out of my apartment,” Jennifer yelled.

With that, he left. Another charge on his autocar account. Another trip back home. The house was still empty when he got back, and he still had his girlfriend’s key. No, ex-girlfriend. He left the key on the counter instead of putting it away with the rest of his things.

 

“Good morning, Travis,” said the voice as he woke up again at the usual 10:30 start time. Travis barely had enough time to disconnect himself from the bed before the phone started ringing. He lunged for the nearest tablet and took the call.

“Honey.” He knew it was his mother’s voice, even before the picture could connect.

“Mom,” he said.

“How’re you doing?” she asked.

“Fine. I’m… fine.”

“You sound lonely.”

“I am. I’m here by myself.”

“Well don’t worry, honey. We’ll be home in two days. I was just calling to check up on you.”

“But didn’t you just leave?”

“It’s Friday, Travis.”

“Oh…” he said. “Did, did you know about Jennifer?”

“What about Jennifer? Is she okay?”

“Yeah, she’s fine. It’s just. I think we’re over.”

Travis’ mother let out a long sigh. “Darling, things have changed. You couldn’t expect her to stay after the accident.”

“But she didn’t even tell me.”

“She told you months ago,” Travis’ mother said.

“Months ago?”

“She told us a few days after that she was parting ways with our family.”

“Good morning, Travis,” said the voice.

 

“He has all the mannerisms of Travis,” Dr. Weiss said, “and has his features, at least based on the most recent records we could find.”

The doctor was standing over him, but talking to someone else. His parents sat on the other side of the office. His mother looked worried, his father, confused.

“He will have Travis’ memories at a rudimentary level. We won’t know what specific memories those will be until the network starts to synch with the remaining brain tissue.”

“What does he sound like?” his mother asked.

Now the doctor turned to him. “Go ahead and speak,” he commanded.

“Hi, mom,” Travis said

She started crying.

 

Travis could only look at his mother’s face, smiling on the tablet in his hands. He then looked around at the old things in his room. The lacrosse stick. He didn’t remember playing, but he remembered getting the trophy. His bed was gone, but the sheets of his childhood bunk were spread across his recharging station. Pictures were hung on every available space of wall – a collage that chronicled the life of Travis Malvern.

“Mom,” Travis said, “what am I?”

“You’re our son.”

“No, I’m not.”

“You’re a living monument to our son,” she said.

“I’m not alive though, am I?”

“You’re alive to us, sweetheart. That’s all that matters.”

“How long have I been this way?”

“About eight months. Look, we’ll talk more when we get home, alright? I love you, honey.”

“Okay.”

“Tell me you love me before you go.”

“I love you, mom.”

“Good. Talk to you later.”

The call ended and Travis put down the display. He went to the artifacts of his life that enshrined his room, creating a sacred temple to the late Travis Malvern. He tongued his teeth when he saw a picture of a boy with braces. His dresser drawers held children’s clothes, but he couldn’t remember if they were his or not.

“Good morning, Travis,” sounded again in his mind.

“What am I?” Travis whispered. “Why did they keep all this stuff?”

He wandered into the living room and looked at the pictures on the mantelpieces. Who but guests would look on those pictures and know that there was a happy family. It validated the fortunes his mother and father made. It justified their happiness. It protected them from sorrow. “I’m a… moving picture,” Travis said.

He cringed, but no tears fell.

“I’m not Travis.”

He noticed that the sky was dark. A whole day had passed through his consciousness and yet he hadn’t remembered. He wasn’t supposed to remember. He was to activate when required and play the part of Travis Malvern. An ageless actor, required to dance for those who chose not to let him go.

His fingers ran across his head, combing through hair that was coarse and synthetic. “No, no, no no no. I don’t want this!” he shouted, but no air passed across his lips. “I shouldn’t be here.”

“Good morning, Travis.”

“Shut up! I’m not Travis. Leave me alone!”

 

“Are the memories really his?” Travis’ mother had asked in the office of Dr. Weiss.

“We’ve mapped some areas with acceptable precision,” Dr. Weiss had said. “What we could salvage is in there, somewhere. You have to find a way to coax it out.”

 

Travis collapsed to his knees and shook his head. “This isn’t right. Why couldn’t you just let me go?” He pushed his face into the carpet and cried. “This isn’t fair.”

Then he stopped as the artificial consciousness software tore his emotions away. Like his memories, they were to be a conditioned response in the event of certain stimuli, and not to be allowed to run out of control.

So Travis only got his feet and stood there, staring, waiting for synthetic cortex to reset.

Through his vacant eyes he saw the city glimmering in the night beyond the balcony’s glass door. Wind pushed against him as he opened that door and stepped out into the cold, night air. He looked down at the highways hundreds of stories below.

He had no second thoughts. His mind was already made. There was no hesitation, because there was no emotion, and no dominant program to tell him otherwise.

The replica of Travis Malvern opened his arms to the rushing air that accelerated past his body. The comforting ground, the whole planet itself, came up to meet him, to take him away.

 

“Good morning, Travis.”

Travis twitched as he opened his eyes. The impact had ripped apart his left arm all the way down to the black, composite skeleton. “N-n-n-nooooo-o-o-o.” His voice grated on a blown speaker as he forced himself to stand on shaking legs.

His right arm pawed at his head. His fingers wrapped around a ripped piece of synthetic skin, then tore his face from his body. He tried to find a break across his bare skull, anything that could give him access to his mind so that he may finally destroy it, and die.

Lights ran across the pavement. He looked up to see an autocar coming for him at over ninety miles an hour. He ran toward it as fast as he could under mechanical legs that hissed and creaked with every step.

The car tried to break and swerve, but Travis jumped toward it. The car let out a sickening crunch as Travis’ body rolled across it, instantly turning the windshield to spider webs.

“Good morning, Travis,” the voice repeated.

When he finally stopped tumbling, Travis looked up at black sky. He grasped for it, seeking help, before he smashed his palm into his forehead. Over and over, he tried to break through his polymer skull, but it was useless.

Travis stood for a second time and looked for anything that could end it. The car had stopped further down the road. There wasn’t another coming.

“I-i-i-i-i-i-iiii…” his voice box grumbled.

He started forward, dragging his broken leg behind him as he tried to get to the edge of the highway. Once he made it to the railing, he looked down to see a small ravine below and a creek running through it. It was his last chance.

He leaned his broken body over the railing and let himself fall over, hoping that it would finally be the end.

*

A hobo and a drifter were enjoying their campfire below the canopy of the superhighways when a sickening wet thud caused both of them to jump from their overturned buckets.

“What the fack was that?” the hobo cackled.

The drifter just hummed. Half of him was in some other reality. He pulled the jack-needle from his temple so as to return briefly to the real world, and said nothing as he went over to the body – clearly a machine’s body.

Examining the skull still crackling with brief electrical sparks, the torn face, broken arm, legs with locomotive drives bent all the hell, he finally came to the conclusion. “Bah, junk,” he said and kicked the machine a few times, getting no more than a twitch out of it.

“Fackers throw tha best shit away,” the hobo exclaimed.

“Mmm.” The drifter took the input jack on his temple and plugged it into the output connector which sat, clear as day, just behind the robot’s head.

“What ya see?”

The drifter waited, time continuing on, different for him than it was for everyone else in the world. After a few seconds passed, a disjointed lifetime had played from the synthetic mind and into the head of the drifter.

Without warning, the drifter stood, raised his foot and slammed his boot into the head of the remnant.

“Wha? Wait. Stop!” protested the hobo. “We can sell it!”

But the drifter didn’t, not until the machine’s head finally cracked open and the water of the creek washed in. A few electrical shorts, a few more spasms, and the thing was dead, for real this time.

“Why’d ya do that?”

“‘Cause,” said the drifter, “this guy wanted to stay dead.”

 

*

Like this? I’ve got more fiction in the Library, and two novels on Amazon – I Am The Sun and Life From The Machine.

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Short Fiction – Brother Dreadnaught

The tank’s bubbles danced toward the surface, rustling the pilot’s short, white hair. Her head and torso – what little remained of her body – was bound to the ship by wires and tubes, splayed out from exposed nerve endings where her arms and legs had once been. Her chest expanded in simulated breathing, even though the bath surrounding her nourished every cell with oxygen and nutrients. Those eyes would stay closed for the rest of her remaining life, though they would see the universe in ways that no living human could.

Fingers touched the edge of her glass container, leaving rings of moisture that faded as the hand receded back. He wondered if she could sense him, standing there, both beside her and within her interstellar body. How much did she know? How far could her mind travel outside that cage? What kind of world and its sensations crossed her remaining neurons? The questions hadn’t pained him as much as the answers had.

As the door slid open, he wondered if she wanted him to leave, but no, her autonomy was just his wishful thinking.

“Mr. McCann,” the interloper said, breaking the solemn peace of this sanctum.

“Captain,” Richard McCann said, though he didn’t break his gaze upon her, the totem of flesh and starship.

The reflection of Captain Vasquez passed across the tank, warping around the pilot like a ghost, stopping once it reached Richard’s similarly stretched form. “We’re ready to disembark,” he said.

But Richard didn’t look away. His eyes only peered deeper into that tank as he tried to piece together how painful it might have been for each fiber optic node to merge with every nerve cluster. Had her mind been taken before or after?

“Captain,” Richard said, “was she a volunteer?”

“She was.” Captain Vasquez touched the tank, just as Richard had. “Anne had a condition that caused chronic pain. When nothing worked, she chose this option.”

“Good,” Richard said as a weight was lifted from his mind, partially. “Do you know what she sees in there?” he asked.

“I’ve been told it’s a forest, going on forever. She enjoyed the outdoors.”

“So, it’s heaven for her.”

“I hope so. We want to make her as comfortable as possible.”

As Richard turned toward the door, he said, “Makes her easier to control.”

The crew waited for them in the mess hall – a compartment only designed to feed five at a time. For the nine of them, it required all to stand. The Captain stood on a bench at the table to get their attention. “Alright. Everyone get enough sleep?” he said.

The roughneck crew all nodded, though some couldn’t hold back their groans. Fatigue shown a little under their eyes, but it wasn’t enough to get Richard worried. The only person who needed to be awake, as fully as she could be within her dream world, was Anne.

“Good enough.” Captain Vasquez then motioned for Richard to join him up on the bench, but he didn’t oblige. However, Vasquez didn’t lose his smile. “Well, I’ll turn it over to Mr. McCann here to go over the mission specifics.”

“Who is the astrogator?” Richard said as he scanned the room.

“Me,” replied a little Asian woman with arm-length tattoos.

Richard tossed the chip over to her, which was caught on the second grab from the air. “Search for that signature, but run a virus test on it first,” he said.

She glanced back to the Captain with a sneer. “We’re dealing with hot data?”

“Sensitive data,” Richard replied. He glanced across the crew again to read and remember their expressions – apprehension across the board, with one or two giving him the stink eye, all except the Captain. He and Richard had already parsed this deal.

“We’re searching for a particular ship,” Richard explained. “Each ship has subspace signature. Normally, that information is kept secret. I’ve purchased those secrets at a substantial cost to me. That means I’m heavily invested in the outcome of this mission, understand?”

“What’s to say the data isn’t fake?” one of the crew exclaimed. Richard couldn’t see who had said it.

“It could be, but I doubt it. In any case, if it’s fake, you all get paid to take me nowhere, so there’s no risk for you.”

“And what if it isn’t fake? What’s the risk then?” said the short man next to him. By the appearance of patches and burn marks across his jumpsuit, Richard figured he was in engineering. Engineers, well, good engineers, weren’t the kind of people to take risk likely.

“I don’t know,” Richard replied. To that, the crew released their sighs and murmurs.

“No one knows all the risks,” Captain Vasquez said. “Besides, for what we’re getting out of it, the risk is worth it. Trust me.”

And with that, all their protests ceased.

The Captain continued, “That being said, we’re packing a full armory.”

The crew seemed pleased by that.

Richard stepped forward to take all their glances again. “The ship we’re looking for shouldn’t be operational. It’s deadweight. Sorry to spoil the surprise.”

“If that’s the case,” replied the engineer, “then why hasn’t anyone snatched it yet?”

“The pilot went rogue and the whole craft, crew and all, was lost in space. Rescue wasn’t worth it apparently.”

“Until now,” Captain Vasquez added. “That being said, we’re still packing our gloves for this one. No reason not to. Any other questions?”

“It doesn’t make sense,” said the astrogator. “Why’d they just leave the hulk out there to drift? It has to be worth something.”

“It is, to me,” Richard answered. “Lots of times ships get lost. Bringing them back is more trouble that they’re worth. That seems to be the case here.”

“Seems to?” she said.

“Yes, seems to. That’s my conclusion based on my data.”

Captain Vasquez jumped from the bench, becoming shorter than the rest of his crew. “Alright, any other questions?” he asked as he made for the door. “Nope? Good. Get out of here and ready Anne for flight,” Captain Vasquez ordered.

Once on the bridge, the rest of the crew worked in perfect synchronicity to bring the ship out of its final prep. Reactors woke from their half-sleep, feeding the engines and quantum manipulators that would flow them to the stars. The world of the physical and the virtual dream that held Anne’s consciousness were merged together by the ship’s artificial intelligence and VR crew. Richard watched the two of them work with speed and precision at their consoles. They craned over readouts and graphs, making the most delicate of changes to the world of Anne’s dream. Despite the engineer working in a flurry to make the ship mobile, none of it would matter – astrogation, life support, weapons – if those two lost hold of the reigns.

“How’s everyone looking?” Captain Vasquez asked, though he was already flipping through his chair’s holograms to double-check their work.

“No bugs detected. Data stream good,” one of the two VR team replied.

“And no viruses on your data,” said the astrogator.

“Field manipulators good too.”

A click of the intercom brought a voice from engineering. “No problems here, boss.”

“Then it seems we’re ready to go,” Captain Vasquez said. He turned his head up from one of his displays. “Unless you have some reason to stop us, Mr. McCann.”

“I don’t,” Richard said.

“Okay then. Everyone in position. Let’s wake Anne and set a course. Astro, VR, link and synch a waypoint. Depart from the station now.”

 

From the ice-capped mountains above came a breeze so cold that it woke Anne from her sleep. Her eyes opened to the swaying of evergreens and beams of light searching the forest floor between their branches. As each ray passed over her skin, they left brief a tract of soothing heat that was all too quickly consumed by the mountain’s wind.

The writhing of warmth and cold made Anne relax beneath her tree. But just as she was to close her eyes again, the mountains breathed harder, chilling her skin and the muscle beneath, almost down to the bone.

“Wakey wakey, sunshine,” called the wasp. A little glowing insect made of light danced down from the trees and flew circles around her head. “Time to get up. Time to get up.”

“Where’re we going?” Anne said as she got to her feet.

“Out of the forest. Into a clearing. Not far.”

Anne smiled at the wasp. They were about to start another adventure across the infinite lands. “I’d like that,” she said.

“Then follow,” the wasp exclaimed as it flew off into the forest, leaving a golden trail suspended in the air behind it.

Anne started running.

 

Their ship, the Lightfoot, rode through a wave of force that bent time and space from their path.

“L1, L3, L4.”

Anne’s mind and the field manipulators across the ship produced an eddy that subverted the limitations of the universe. Richard couldn’t help but marvel at the loophole that mankind had discovered in God’s physics. It was barely understood, only enough to allow for flight faster and further than anything else in the known universe many times over.

“Keep her at L4,” Captain Vasquez ordered. “Do we have an exact waypoint yet, Roo?”

“It’s only in the neighborhood,” replied the astrogator.

Captain Vasquez glanced back at the outsider on his ship. “Mr. McCann, is there a chance this ship has moved from its last known coordinates?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t want to go chasing down buoys.”

“You get paid either way. Concerned you might get bored?” Richard quipped.

“Just making sure you get what you pay for,” Vasquez returned.

“Sir, I’ve been able to narrow the search around planet Nocturne. I’m also picking up recent resonance signatures. They match our target,” said astrogation.

Vasquez flipped up a holographic display and looked through the data himself. “Mr. McCann, I thought you said this ship was immobile.”

“I said I didn’t know. I said the pilot went rogue.”

Captain Vasquez collapsed the monitor into nothingness then turned his chair to fully meet him. “Rogue pilot. Still alive?”

“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Richard replied.

Roo, the astrogator, started typing in a torrent across her keyboard, loud enough to bring them both out of their conversation. “Sir, I think I’ve found him just outside the fifth moon.”

Yet Captain Vasquez still stared at Richard. “Drop out of FTL. Let’s go in slow.”

 

“Over here, over here!” the wasp yelled as it bounced between two of the final trees, stopping Anne before she could go any further. Beyond the wasp’s golden wings was a blank, open prairie. The limitless horizon was broken only by one outcropping of rock, and before that rock was a strange black thing, something so different than anything Anne had seen before in her mystical forest.

“Slowly now,” the wasp said, but it did not fly ahead to guide her. These steps Anne would have to take on her own.

Even though she was out from the shade of the trees, the sun’s warmth was no longer there. The rays still touched her skin, but they didn’t bring the comfort like they had before. With each step, the glowing ball in the sky began to recede behind the mount in front of her, and behind that unknown mass which stood before it.

“Wait. Don’t get too close,” said the wasp.

 

“Scans, please,” Captain Vasquez commanded. “I want to know what we’re looking at.”

On the monitors, the fifth moon of Nocturne was a perfect silver ball, lined with glowing red veins of volcanic canyons. The perfect sphere had a blemish, however. A cloud of debris obscured much of the view as the Lightfoot entered a field of broken ships that orbited the moon.

Vasquez knelt forward in his chair, eyes darting around all the displays. Richard noticed the rest of the crew doing the same at their stations. “Report,” Vasquez ordered.

“Nothing so far,” replied astrogation.

“Announce any changes as they happen. Let’s start in slow.”

At first, the ship drifted in silence, but as the cloud began to envelop them, clangs and crashes reverberated through the walls. “Just debris,” Vasquez mumbled. For a moment, he craned his head up and ordered, “let’s get some cameras on ‘em.”

Multiple holographic screens blipped into existence, blinking from one piece of wreckage to another, looking for any designation on the former ships.

“Check for heat signatures and radiation,” Captain Vasquez said.

“Single point ahead,” astrogation replied. “I think it’s the ship we’re looking for.”

One of the displays froze on a piece of rotating debris. All the crew looked up to study those numbers. Even though Richard saw the same thing, none of it surprised him.

“Shit,” Vasquez whispered as he leaned back in his chair. “Navy.” He glanced up to Richard. “Mr. McCann, why would the Navy be here?”

“Was here,” he replied.

“Is there something you should be telling me?” Vasquez asked.

“I don’t know the whole story myself, Captain,” Richard said.

“Found it,” proclaimed astrogation.

The cameras zoomed in to a dark blue ship drifting in the field of junk. The Captain and crew stared at the image of the hulk amidst the panels of other ships and grains of dust. A wing appeared here, a turret there, but never the whole picture. Still, the Lightfoot continued its drift through the cloud, making the image clearer by the second.

It was only when the ship could finally be fully taken in that asterogation muttered, “Oh shit.”

“Full stop,” Captain Vasquez shouted. “Power down the reactor. Cut the lights.” He spun to glare at Richard. “It’s a Dreadnaught.” He glanced around the crew and met their eyes in return. “Shut everything down. Now! We’re going dark.”

All across the ship, the lights dimmed and the sounds of reactors fell silent. The flames of engines died and the quantum fields dissipated, leaving the Lightfoot as just a capsule of atmosphere floating in space.

 

“Wait, don’t go!” yelped the wasp.

Anne stopped mid-step, just as she had almost crossed the plains. Closer now to the shadowed figure, she could see that, whatever it was, it seemed to be made of metal, though not quite metal, and stone, though not really like stone. Its casing was like a statue, but somehow Anne sensed something lived inside. A heartbeat of crackling static sounded in her mind in uneven rhythm.

 

“Okay, let’s relax,” Richard said. “Has it moved?”

“No,” said one of the crewmen.

“Good. Now, before we get too excited, let’s run some scans on it first.”

“Mr. McCann,” Vasquez interrupted, “you said you were looking for tug or a utility ship. That’s a Navy fucking Dreadnaught.”

“I can see that, Captain,” he replied. Then, he looked across the room and said, “who’s the one scanning the area?”

“I am,” replied a large man with red hair, hunching over his station.

“Check for life signs,” Robert ordered. To Captain Vasquez, he said, “no sense in turning tail until we know it’s dangerous or not.”

“We should have known whether it was dangerous before we came all the way out here,” Vasquez yelled.

“Well, what do the scans say?” asked Richard.

“Engines are cold,” the technician said. “The reactor is in a power-save state.”

“What about life signs?”

The tech glanced back to the captain. “We’ll need to get closer.”

Vasquez paused a moment, staring at Richard. “Mr. McCann, why would the Navy leave one of their ships out here?”

“Pilot went rogue. That’s what I know.”

“See, this is why that’s hard to believe. No military would leave one of their best pieces of tech floating in space, unguarded.”

“It’s a mystery,” Richard said, “and I intend on finding the answer.”

“Not if we’re heading into the firing range of a Dreadnaught.”

“We don’t know if it’s functional anymore,” Richard replied. “What we’ve seen suggests that it isn’t. Why not go a little closer, just to make sure?”

Captain Vasquez looked past him to the man at the scanning terminal. “Any change?”

“No, sir. All quiet.”

“Fine,” Vasquez said. “Let’s go in, slow.”

 

“Be very quiet,” whispered the wasp. “It might be sleeping.”

Anne studied the ground with every step, making sure she didn’t accidently break a stick or step on dry leaves, lest it wake the golem ahead. Whoever or whatever stood before her was turned away to stare at the monument of stone beyond. As the form became clear, the covering of stone and metal held designations, symbols, that Anne couldn’t decipher. In the back of her mind, a word from a long time ago came to the surface, and she almost murmured it, though she stopped herself.

Soldier, she thought.

 

“Starting the scans, sir,” the technician announced. Two probes shot out from the Lightfoot and flew toward the Dreadnaught. Their wisps of flame twinkled in the distance as they corrected for a course around the ship. The technician bent over his readouts further to study the data that was coming in.

Richard McCann stood at his shoulder, just as intent on reading the data.

“Not reading any life signs,” said the technician.

“Dammit,” Richard murmured.

“Actually, I’m picking up one.”

“Who is it?” Richard asked.

“It’s in the dunk-tank, so I’m guessing it’s the pilot.”

“How is he?”

“Don’t know.”

“Excuse me,” Captain Vasquez interrupted. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”

“I’ve got biomass, but, like I said, no life signs.”

“They’re dead,” Richard said. “The pilot went rogue and killed them.” He stared at the screens as anxiety made his body sweat and his face flush. “Captain, we should dock with it immediately.”

“What?” Roo, the astrogator yelled.

“I can’t tell if the atmosphere is good or not,” added the technician, almost nose to his display.

“This was what we came here for. Do it,” Robert commanded, thereby ripping all the crew from their stations to stare at him.

“I’ll make the orders,” Vasquez replied. “Everyone, double-check everything for any kind of anomaly. Dennis, scan the ship again to make sure. Keep an eye on power consumption and resonance fields, if any. And keep Anne on a tight leash.”

 

“I think it’s okay,” whispered the wasp. “We can go forward.”

The sun was hanging just above the horizon, drowning everything in light the color of fire. Anne did take that first step, then another, creeping toward the figure before the mount. “Hello,” she murmured. “You okay?”

Something in her psyche told her that it was alive. Even in the dream, she could almost hear the thing breathing.

“What’s your name?” she asked. “Can you hear me?”

It let out no sound, or a recognizable scent. Sight alone and the intuition of her mind gave it a living presence in her dream world.

She reached forward to touch it, saying, “You okay?”

Then, the sound of gurgling stone made her stop. The arms and legs of the figure moved like a statue, slow, deliberate, without wasted energy. The sound of its joints reminded her of a long forgotten word – avalanche. The head and neck scraped across its outer casing as it turned to look at her.

 

“Oh shit,” the scanning technician said, bringing all attention on him. “Reactor’s powering up.” He drummed his fingers across the keyboard and cycled through the windows, blinking them in and out of existence. “Detecting resonance field,” he yelled.

All glanced up at the display above them to see the Dreadnaught’s lights shine into the darkness, then focus on them.

“Fucking…” The scanning technician spun to look at the captain. “Weapons online. Their weapons are online!”

“Power the deflector plates. Get us out of here,” Vasquez ordered.

“No, wait,” Richard screamed.

 

Did the weapon materialize out of the dream, or was it always there, unnoticed? Anne only wondered about this for a fraction of a second before she stared down the barrel of the figure’s automatic rifle.

Soldier, she thought.

“Run!” shouted the wasp just before it stung her and brought her out of her trance.

She turned as the sound of a magazine sliding into place broke the silence of her realm. Her legs carried her forward, but not fast enough for the wasp. “Faster, faster,” it cried.

 

The turrets across the Dreadnaught released a rain of red light that sheared the deflector plates off of the Lightfoot, sending the molten scales spinning off to join the rest of the graveyard. On the bridge, the crew braced themselves against the impacts that were beating the ship to pieces.

“Countermeasures,” Captain Vasquez screamed.

The Lightfoot released a barrage of missiles, which were all shot down within seconds. A stream of sand followed, but the opaque cloud wasn’t enough to disperse the torrent of laser fire coming from the Dreadnaught. More deflector plates bristled down the hull to concentrate to vulnerable areas, but they too were ripped off, clusters at a time.

“Get us out of here,” Vasquez ordered.

“Captain,” Robert protested, “open a com-link to the Dreadnaught.”

But Vasquez ignored him. “Why aren’t we going any faster?” he yelled.

“The Dreadnaught’s merging its resonance field with ours,” a crewmember replied. “I’m trying to break it with modulation.”

The ship bucked to the side as a compartment was released into space.

“Status?” Captain Vasquez yelled.

“Storage. We’re okay.”

“Well, if we can’t outrun it,” Vasquez said, “go for the rings of Nocturne. We’ll have to hide. Evasive maneuvers.”

“Captain, please, open a channel,” Richard pleaded.

 

Bullets rang out through the forest as Anne tried dodging between trees. She already had wounds across both of her arms. She was fortunate that her legs remained unharmed, but, even so, the figure was getting closer. The stone armor didn’t burden it through the forest. The branches and bushes merely warped around it without breaking.

Anne ducked behind one of the trees and searched her body for weapons. The stones for her slingshot had been spent. Only her bowie knife remained, but she knew trying to get in close would kill her. Fleeing was her only choice. The bark of the tree next her exploded as she sprinted further into the forest.

“Keep running,” the wasp yelled.

“Anything you can do?” Anne replied.

“Keep running,” was all it said.

 

Richard was sweating too. Yeah, he expected he’d find some kind of warship, but a Dreadnaught, a functioning Dreadnaught, and functioning without a crew, was beyond reason. It wasn’t supposed to be possible.

“Captain,” Richard cried out. “Captain, you have to open a channel. I need to talk with it.”

The ship shook again. “Fire in the engine room,” someone said.

The intercom clicked, followed by a churning of static and a faraway voice. “Captain, fire. I’m sealing the module.”

“Do it,” Captain Vasquez replied.

“Captain,” Richard repeated. “You have to listen to me. Open a channel to the ship.”

“What good’ll that do?” he exclaimed, but he didn’t wait for an answer. He turned to one of his crew. “Open a channel.” When he returned his gaze to Richard, he spoke without fear, only condemnation. “Whatever you’re doing better work.”

A chime sounded across the bridge amidst the shearing of the Lightfoot’s deflector plates.

“Danny,” Richard yelled. “Danny, can you hear me? It’s Richard.”

But the storm of laser fire didn’t cease. The Lightfoot dodged around the asteroids of Nocturne’s rings as the stream of lasers cascaded across them like a waterfall.

“Danny, stop. It’s me, Richie, your brother. I’m here, on the ship. You have to stop attacking.”

 

Anne held her bloody arms as she ducked under fallen trees and jumped over logs. Bullets whispered by her head before they met the trees around her, splintering the bark into the air. The figure, though large and heavy, was still only feet away and following just as fast. The wasp now stung her relentlessly, the poison needle forcing Anne to go faster even though her muscles screamed and tore under the strain.

 

“It’s not working,” said Captain Vasquez.

“There has to be some way to contact him,” Richard said. “If the pilot knows it’s me, he’ll stop attacking. I know he will.”

Another wave of force sent Richard stumbling across the floor. As he got up, he glanced around the room for anything that might trigger a solution in his mind. Then, he saw the VR and AI techs, working to keep Anne running forward.

Contacting the Dreadnaught through regular comms was useless. If Danny was trapped in his own world, just as Anne was, then there was no getting through the veil of their dream. But, there had been theories Richard had come across, though more like musings, about the nature of their dreams. Through Anne was tethered to the Lightfoot’s computers, and Daniel to the Dreadnaught’s, in the cosmic metaverse their dreams and psyche’s joined together in a mutual illusion created by the quantum fields they manipulated. What that world was could not be known to anyone but the pilots. But in that mystery remained a chance that perhaps a message could still be relayed.

When Richard returned to his feet, he yelled to the crew, “can we get a message to Anne?”

The ship buckled again, causing the air vents to silence. “Yes, we can,” the VR tech replied.

“It needs to be an exact message.”

Another burst of force made the lights flicker. Some of the monitors went out, but reappeared again with hazard warnings flashing red and orange.

“What is it?” the tech asked.

“Tell her that she needs to send a message to the Dreadnaught. She needs to tell him that Richard is here, and is about to die if he doesn’t stop.”

 

There was no end to the forest, as each tree and rock looked the same as the others in the miles before. Hills that went up eventually went down, only to go up again in a seemingly infinite loop. As the stress and panic seeped into Anne’s mind, she began to think of things that had been long forgotten. An infinite forest was not possible, nor was a talking wasp. What was this thing and why was it after her? As each bullet brought the fear of death, that fear brought reflection. The binds on her mind were slowly slipping away.

Even the wasp became transparent as its voice died to a whisper. “Anne,” it said. “You need to talk to him. Tell him his name is Danny. Tell him Richard is with you. He needs to know that Richard, is, here. If you die… he dies…” The wasp then disappeared from her reality.

But the bullets still showered the trees. There was no end to the barrage, nor the march of the man encased in stone.

Even as more of Anne’s long-dormant faculties returned, she couldn’t yet conceptualize a plan. The task before her seemed impossible, almost as if it wasn’t real.

A bullet pierced her side, sending her to the ground. She pawed at the dirt, scrambling to get behind a tree for cover. She held her stomach, then stared at the palms of her hands. The red coating of blood brought back memories she couldn’t entirely place. In the wind, she swore she could hear a voice say, “Resonance field collapsed.”

Anne panted and looked up at the trees. The wound at her side didn’t hurt, but she could feel every pulse of blood seeping out of her.

The sound of gunfire stopped, replaced by the stomping of feet through the ground. Deeper and closer each thud came until they started rounding the tree. Before Anne could even see him, she exclaimed, “Wait. Danny.”

The statue came into view, still holding that rifle. As the barrel raised, she pleaded with him. “Danny. Richard is here.”

He sighted his weapon.

“Your name is Danny. Remember. You are Danny,” Anne said. “Richard is with me. Don’t kill me or Richard dies too.”

The statue remained poised, staring down at her through the scope of his rifle.

“Danny, do you remember?” Anne asked.

Around them, the trees began to disintegrate into ash. The forest burned away, replaced by a barren, earthen battlefield as far as they could see. The ground was red and orange, like the surface of Mars at sunset. Scattered for miles were bodies clad in armor of all eras. Roman centurions lie atop Army Rangers, next to the remains of Samurai and Braves and Maasai warriors. In the distance, wooden trebuchets burned beside fallen fighter jets.

As Danny’s dreamscape merged with Anne’s, the end of his rifle fell. His shoulders eased from their stance, and he said, “Where is Richard?”

The fetters on her mind had fallen away. She knew, remembered, that this dimension was merely an illusion brought on by the cage around her body and mind. Though her cage had been accepted willingly, she could feel that Danny’s had not, given the state of his world.

“Richard is here, with us, within me,” she replied. “If you kill me, he’ll die too, so you have to trust me… Danny, ask yourself, how else would I know? I know because he told me.” She held her chest with bloody hands. “He’s here.”

Danny tossed the rifle to the ground. The armor around him began to fall apart, merging with the other featureless stones of the battlefield. The young man that stood before her seemed confused and miserable, as if he were a child that had wandered away and become lost here, in the realm of desolation.

“Where is he?” Danny asked. “I don’t see him.”

Anne held up her bloody hand. “If you promise not to hurt us, then I will take him to you.”

 

The ventilation across the bridge started again, purging the hot, reused air from the room and replacing it with a cool breeze that brought serenity to the crew. They were all at their stations, unmoving, as if waiting for the end to come. Every screen throughout the bridge was focused on the Dreadnaught that had suddenly halted its assault. Despite the Lightfoot remaining somewhat functional, the reactors were almost overheating and the protective plates had all been torn away.

“S-status?” Captain Vasquez murmured.

The response was slow in coming, though everyone had the same report: they were barely hanging on in every capacity.

“Why’d it stop?” asked astrogation.

“Reactor is still online, as are weapons,” replied the scanning technician.

“Anne must have gotten through,” Richard whispered.

Captain Vasquez could barely speak. “W-well, what do we do now?”

“We finish the deal.” Richard started toward the door, realizing that he did so on trembling legs. “Prepare to dock with the Dreadnaught.”

The Lightfoot limped to the Dreadnaught, its thrusters listless in pushing the hulk for the last remaining feet. Cross-ship connection was successful, as the umbilical had remained, miraculously, unharmed.

Richard McCann crossed the threshold between the ships. Upon opening the last hatch, he was met with the smell of decaying bodies. As he closed the door behind him, the funds of his bank account were depleted and sent to Captain Vasquez, per their deal. The credits would be of little use to him now. Hopefully, they would cover the repairs.

Pushing past grey bodies of the former Dreadnaught crew, Richard made it to the VR terminal and attached his computer display to the port. Richard had been correct in assuming that Danny would be alive. What he hadn’t foreseen was the type of ship the military had put him in. A Dreadnaught was not a realistic prediction, nor a prototype Dreadnaught which could function without a crew, at least for a time. It made sense why the military would leave this ship to rot: it was too dangerous to salvage with the pilot still alive, as they had learned from the deaths of their other ships. Richard guessed the Navy’s plan was to wait out the pilot’s life expectancy inside that tube and return for their ship on his expiration.

But what pushed Danny to go rogue in the first place would be locked within his mind. Richard, fortunately, had the means to find out.

Richard typed into the VR consul. Hey, Danny, you okay?

 

Anne flinched as Danny looked around their battlefield. “Did you hear that?” he said.

“Hear what?” Around them, there was only simulated wind.

“Someone said something.”

“Not me,” Anne said as she got to her feet. Despite her wounds, she, strangely, felt no ill will to this young man. He had put in this realm unwillingly, without knowing the nature of its existence. He was merely a child trapped in a nightmare, lashing out at whatever monsters he had seen. Anne limped away from the boy, hoping that one day he would find his forest – his serenity.

*

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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.