Drones

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Robert felt like he was floating for a moment, suspended in the darkness. The darkness had texture this time, grainy almost. Wafting down onto him, it was actually hair. Long, dark hair flowed around him and his eyes adjusted to see another pair of smiling eyes. They comforted him, he felt safe but did not recognize the face. It was beautiful.

The darkness turned darker and the face faded into a terrible caricature – smile pulled back painfully far to reveal larger teeth than they should have been with a terrible smell of rancid flesh steaming into his nose. He could not move and the laughter suddenly burst into his ears, his mind, and his body. The cacophony rattled his bones and he could not help but cry. No tears came.

The darkness opened to a tunnel, thousands of tiny points of light lining the walls and the floor and the ceiling. As he floated down the hall, body stuck in rigor mortis, he could hear that the laughter was coming from each hole. As the darkness enveloped him, he struggled to remember the face that brought him comfort, and he could almost remember. There was a name on the tip of his tongue, but his tongue was missing.

________________________________________________________________________

A car horn woke him up, followed by a loud shout of cursing and then glass shattering.

Robert rubbed his eyes. He hadn’t been this hungover since yesterday.

The window next to his bed had a thin layer of frost. He threw a shoe at the radiator and it rattled awake, coughing like he was.

“I gotta eat but I don’t want to cook…” Robert spoke to the air. The empty apartment listened intently to his sigh. “Another day of no work and a useless job hunt. God…” He trailed off as he opened the refrigerator, staring at the last remaining beer, a bag of broccoli, and ketchup. A holo-ad flicked on quickly and a dancing see-through hamburger stared into his soul. Opening his ration app, he saw he had enough for one more free delivery until the next week. He could either go and clean some delivery robots again today for pay or he could relax again and simply exist. Maybe sleep again before his next beer. Maybe he would have a good dream this time.

Maybe not.

A few clicks and a beep later, his phone chimed pleasantly to tell him that a large pizza was on its way, complete with pepperoni and spinach with a few slaps of diced garlic. His stomach growled as he ate a dry piece of broccoli to hold his hunger away. His dirty sink spat decently clean water into a nasty little cup he only rinsed out and never washed. He stared through the frost at the city outside, little tears of melting ice trailed down the window and pooled in the frame. He wiped his own tears from his eyes.

The dreams of his childhood were traded for this meager existence. The Great Layoff of 2040 was in full swing. If only he went to school for computer science or engineering… But he was not good with math anyways.

He sipped the water, a small chunk of something finding its way into his mouth. He swallowed without flinching as he watched the automatons flit about outside. Drones filled the skies with their lights, dancing in the early morning hours between buildings with their deliveries. On the ground, the automa-cars gently glided along, stopping for pedestrians. Sometimes the children would mess with them, pretending to jump in front of them to make them slam to a stop. Each time, the cars’ speakers would apologize for the inconvenience.

The sun climbed higher but the day grew darker. Clouds enveloped the skies as usual during this season. The shadows loved it, he imagined.

He was right.

Robert couldn’t tell, but the room grew darker just as began to hear the screams. Confused, he used his sleeve to rub frost off the window, smearing away the melting ice. Looking down the street there was a crowd of pedestrians, all talking amongst each other and gesturing down the street. He turned his head to see what they were talking about and saw another crowd scrambling around the corner. They fell in a pile, different color jackets blending together and sliding in the discolored winter slush.

A sickening sound, part crunch and part wet, echoed up the street. A automa-car plowed into those who did not make it around the corner in time, painting the sidewalk and part of the street in blood. It slammed into the opposite side of the road, which was his building. The building didn’t shake, but Robert did.

“What the fuck…” Robert breathed. The pile started moving outside as people clamored away from the dead and dying. “What a crazy malfunction… there hasn’t been a fatality from one of those autos in over a decade.”

The remainder of the crowd started piling into a cafe across the street from his window as another automa-car rocketed down the street and clipped the tail end of the crowd, creating a mist of red. Robert could see a severed hand gripping the door that swung on its hinges very slowly. He knew it was creaking, he visited that shop regularly. The neon flickered as he rubbed his eyes.

The chaos outside was complete now, people fighting to get inside wherever they could. One tried climbing into the broken automa-car, reaching into the window to unlock the door. The window rolled up and trapped them, their legs kicking frantically for a few minutes while other cars started rocketing down the road, slamming pedestrians into walls or driving over them entirely. Some even backed up and drove off to continue their rampage.

Everyone was leaning out their apartment windows now, screaming at folks to get off the street or just plain screaming in horror. Robert leaned out too, but he could not speak. He had never seen such gore and gristle, making him shake like a tree in the wind.

The shadows tingled with pleasure, watching and feeling what he felt and seeing what he saw. This channel was particularly fun. Thousands of eyes and twice as many ears.

Robert leaned quite far out the window, as it seemed this street was calming down. But cries could be heard echoing from a distance. Looking at the sky he noticed a few plumes of smoke coming from elsewhere in the city. His stomach growled, but he was not hungry anymore.

The people in the cafe stared out at the street, many in shock. An old man held an old woman closely, shielding her face. A strange sound came now, and everyone looking out the windows looked up.

Delivery drones hummed down from the clouds and started swarming the delivery chimneys for the businesses on the ground level.

“GET OUT! GET OUT OF THERE!” Someone shouted. “GET OUT!” More shouting now.

The drones piled into the cafe, and the faces turned away from the window to watch. Blood painting the windows within a minute, and no one could see what was happening. The drones, finished with their work, flew out of the chimneys again, scattering into the sky in a whirlwhind.

Windows began slamming as the drones turned to the apartments, automa-cars whooshed by on the streets still, but Robert saw one drone coming right for him, its red eye shining brightly.

“Fuck.” He spat as he tried to shut his window with icy fingers. It was jammed. He pulled so hard the wood frame splintered and a jagged edge sliced his fingers as he lost his grip and slipped down, falling to the floor and landing hard on his ass.

That moment, the drone screamed into his apartment, slamming into the wall. Robert scrambled on all fours under his bed. The drone hummed pleasantly, shaking off the impact. He could hear its delivery doors slide open, and it spat out a pizza box onto the floor.

“Your delivery, Ro-bert. James. Lowman. Has arrived!” The pleasant voice chirped.

Cold wind blew in, and he could hear the whir of the rotors keeping the drone level while it waited. It slowly started to patrol

It’sfuckinglookingforme, man.

He had to struggle to stay calm, then another drone flew in.

“We are trying to honor a customer service request. Please sign the screen.” The 2nd drone chimed happily. Both of their delivery doors were open, and their forklift-esque package-holding mechanisms clapped with the clang of steel. Not sharp, but enough force to cause some damage. They hovered around the room, and he waited under his bed.

Then someone started frantically knocking on the door.

“Please for the love of GOD let me in PLEASE PLEASE” knocking loudly now “PLEASE, PLeaAAS—-” A loud thud and the screaming turned to gargling. Robert could see two thick holes where a drone had rammed into the door. The holes were close to each other. The wood splintered and tore as the steel tips spread apart, ripping the door and causing blood and guts to pour inside onto his welcome mat.

“Have a great day!” The hallway drone beeped. “Customer served, successfully. Please rate us 5 stars.”

It whooshed away.

The bottom half of the door was splintered and torn. An already thin door was like a wet paper bag now, the blood soaking into the splintered wood.

“….Wow.” Robert James whispered to himself. The drones seemed to pick up on what he thought was inaudible. They whirred and hummed over above him. A jingle kicked on in the refrigerator though, the dancing hamburger causing the drones to cruise over and attack it. The fridge didn’t stand a chance, and neither did the drones as a John Brown-looking motherfucker kicked in the disgusting door, baseball slid through the guts with a shotgun and quickly pumped a slug into both drones, knocking them to the wall and the floor.

“You remember your wife yet?” The crazy man huffed as the smoke cleared, laying down while using some lower intestine for a pillow. The blood soaked his stark white hair.

Robert looked around in a slow daze. Then he started laughing. He did not come out from under the bed right away, staring up at a roach hiding in the bed’s springs.

It looked scared, too.

Thanks for reading, I will keep writing as much as I can! If you happen to know a publisher, let me know ūüėČ

Don’t Tread on Me

Click here to read the part before.

The crowd was bigger than expected, but so was the news.

The signs read a variety of slogans: Fuck the Chinese, Fuck the Government, Fuck Newsom. Basically the same as usual protests. But this was not a usual protest.

Everyone was brandishing their rifles openly, unslung. Someone even drove a technical, having converted a Dodge Ram into a badass anti-air gun. R.J. was just as quiet as usual. But behind his stoic face was a tense fear. A fear that seemed to make the shadows wet and darker than usual.

“So much for that stupid fucking stay at home order!!” Someone shouted. The crowd gleefully responded.

“They can’t tell Americans what to do! If the government doesn’t serve our interests…”

“Right! To! Revolt!” The crowd responded and cheered.

“That’s right!! It’s in the Constitution!!!” He pumped his fist in the air, spit flying from his mouth.

It actually was from the Declaration of Independence, R.J. thought to himself. But it didn’t matter. He agreed with the sentiment. The hand resting on his pistol trembled a bit, and he gripped it tighter. What if the Chinese really were invading?

“If the CHII-NEESE are invading… Why is it so quiet out here except for us?!” The crowd roared in response. One person, R.J. noticed, was not cheering, and was looking down at their phone. He continued chanting “U.S.A.” as he walked over to them. His job was to keep an eye out for Fed plants. Robert was always the observant one of their group.

“What is so interesting?” R.J. said as he grabbed their phone. They looked up in a jerk, the movement removing their sweater hood. It was a young man, maybe 15.

“I can’t tell what is real anymore, and what… isn’t…” The kid couldn’t be heard, but Robert could read his lips.

“Sorry kid, I thought… Wait what is this?” Robert looked at the phone screen, and was seeing a news broadcast of San Francisco burning. He radioed for Stephens to come over, away from his post at the edge of the protest. Stephens could barely hear his radio crackle over the din of the crowd, but he made it over.

“Probably fake.” He dismissed quickly. They all watched together as the Golden Gate Bridge slowly bent and collapsed into the bay. The kid snatched his phone back.

“I need to find my mom.” He said as he pushed away into the crowd. His own phone went off again in his pocket. So did everyone’s, apparently. Everyone stopped for a moment, the sound dying a bit as emergency alert sounds buzzed and beeped.

Warning. Please evacuate immediately. Stay at home order in effect. Barricade doors and windows. Turn on news radio.

The quiet began to give away to quiet chuckles and curses of skepticism and disbelief. But before the crowd got loud again everyone could hear it. A loud, constant whirring sound seemed to fill the air, growing louder. Men brandished their rifles in confusion.

“Everyone get behind the trucks.” Stephens spit into the radio. They set up a semi circle of trucks outside the Courthouse to protect from the cops that never came to stop their protest. Flags mounted in the back of some hung listlessly in the stagnant, hot air. “Everyone, stay calm!” he boomed. “They’re trying to scare us”.

Robert saw it first. High in the sky, a drone seemed to hang overhead. Something fell from it.

Orange. Red.

Ringing in his ears and an intense pressure in his head, he thought he would pop. His heart seemed to stop in his chest.

Black. Brown. Smoke, dirt. Red blood on a flapping yellow background, a snake seemed to spit blood.

“What the fuck is happeni-” Robert suddenly realized he was probably deaf now. He felt blood coming from his ears as he realized what had happened. Stephens strong arm stuck out from under a torn piece of metal, twitching slightly, finger on the trigger of his rifle. The gun was pointed at R.J., but he just stared at it for a moment. He could not hear, but he could smell. The smell of piss came from him. There was another smell though, something familiar.

Coppery. Blood. The area around him was a moving crater, filled with a sea of gore that twitched and moaned.

“What the fuck” Robert could feel himself crying but could not hear himself sobbing. He saw an eye floating, looking at the sky filling with dust and smoke. The cornea rotated downward to stare into blood and dirt. Robert vomited and tried to pull himself up.

The shadows were darker that day. It was not R.J.’s imagination. They watched. They were the real reason he felt so cold, it was not his terror. Not his disgust. Their eyes were innumerable, and they relished in the feast of flesh. They stared through Robert, some even using Robert to see. He felt his mind twitch inside his skull and he began shivering uncontrollably. He started to crawl away, pulling himself over a body that begged for help. Robert couldn’t hear, but he read the lips that bubbled and trembled as he passed over half of a face.


A boat off the coast of California bobbed easily in the waves.

An officer looked over the shoulder of a young man, and they congratulated each other as they looked at the computer monitor together. A greyscale view of a smoking city. Hot white flashes of white popped intermittently. Other young men at other computers were engrossed in their work. The sounds of computer fans whirring and clicking filled the room.

With a pat on the back, the officer walked briskly back to the CIC, informing the communications officer to relay the operation’s success. While the bulk of the forces made their land invasion, his detachment was already whittling away at the insurgency they knew would come after their initial invasion. There might even be a promotion, if the drones all make it back safely.

An officer in the August 1st Building in Beijing hung up his phone, smiling as he walked out of his office to relay the news. He nearly trotted down the hall, past rooms filled with personnel on computers, using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Helping to organize more “Freedom Rallies” in the United States and disputing the facts that American news services were sharing. A rumor had already started that the massacres of rallies in California was a False Flag attack, as was the invasion itself. Naturally.

Shadows hid inside of the keys of each computer, laughing as they greased them. Helping them type faster.


“This is… Fun.” A voice echoed in the infinite darkness between worlds. “Truly… Entertaining.”

“Yes. What a terrible universe.” Another shadow mumbled and muttered. “Terrible” the void echoed.

“Can we play more here?” Others hissed in agreement.

“We have work to do elsewhere. Another scenario. Requested.” The first voice rumbled. The others hissed and hushed.

“Work is pleasure.” Rumbles.

“Work is pleasure.” Replied.

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Blood of the Ice

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“Bread?” Omar eagerly hopped down from the branch above.

“Yes, an old Elvish woman gave this to me for the trip I had ahead” ¬†Robert said. ¬†“There’s plenty to share.”

He held the bag out to his subordinate.  An arrow flew from his left and whisked the bag from his hand, pinning it to a tree with a vibrating twang.  Robert smiled and looked at the archer, eyes wide underneath their hood.

“You have a keen sense for magic, tracker. ¬†Omar, where did you find this one?” ¬†Robert beckoned for them to come from the brush and they stepped forward with a visible pride, nearly prancing like a show horse in the Capital on Parade Day. ¬†Omar smiled wide with white teeth shining¬†in the sun and gave a laugh. ¬†He and Robert stepped around the corpses and the small lake of blood forming around them. ¬†Flies already began to buzz¬†upon their corpses with the greedy instinct of insects.

“This one I found following us a few years ago. ¬†An elf, actually. ¬†A criminal from the ruins of their once glorious city” Omar chuckled¬†and clasped them on the shoulder. ¬†“He followed us for days, without any of us noticing. ¬†He has a natural skill that we made useful, and he is now a brother. ¬†One of the best. ¬†Lucky for him…” Omar squeezed him hard on his shoulders, causing the elf to wince in pain. …” he didn’t steal from us.” ¬†Omar gave a hearty chuckle and released him.

“I was… curious.” The elf¬†spoke more softly than Robert expected. ¬†Monotone. ¬†“These men captured a Raven without his group noticing. ¬†A Raven with whom I had a personal score to settle” ¬†A small smile curled the edges of his mouth. ¬†“You were testing us, earlier. ¬†With the bread. ¬†I waited to see if anyone besides me noticed…”

“But they did not” Robert finished with a grin. ¬†The elf smiled.

“I am Landar. ¬†I have a wider skill set than most.” ¬†Robert looked to Omar approvingly.

“You did well to find this one, Omar. ¬†He will prove useful in the days to come. ¬†You have elemental magic, don’t you?” ¬†Other hooded figures stepped from the bushes, forming a circle around them with their backs to the three. ¬†Protective.

“Elemental? ¬†Landar. ¬†Why didn’t you tell us?” ¬† The elf’s eyes were wide and staring back into Robert’s piercing glare. ¬†Silence fell between them all for a moment. ¬†Omar shouted to his men:

“It’s a bruin, don’t worry about it.” ¬†They apparently sensed the creature and mistook it for… something else.

“Why didn’t you tell us, Landar?” ¬†The stare continued. ¬†Then the wind shifted, the way the wind sometimes does.

The wind pushed its way through the trees, rustling the leaves above and around the group. ¬†The smell of the forest whirled into Robert’s nose, making him nostalgic for something he couldn’t quite remember. ¬†He stared through the elf, thinking hard about why he couldn’t remember. ¬†The smell of damp leaves and an air slowly growing colder spread a strange longing within his soul. ¬†The elf mistook this for the stare of a legendarily ruthless officer of the Imperium, a stare that meant impending doom.

“Please… you must understand that it… it’s not something I… like to use. ¬†Or for others to be aware of. ¬†But you knew?” ¬†Landar was visibly shaken. ¬†As a cloud passed over the sun, draping the group in shadows, a Halharken blade appeared before the throat of the elf, held by a hooded man who appeared¬†with the shadow’s passing. ¬†The ancient darkness within the shade of the forest trembled with lustful anticipation. ¬†More blood may come on this scene. ¬†Blood that may only begin to quench their thirst. ¬†Robert and Omar’s silence coaxed more words from the fearful elf.

“You know it drains my life, more so than other magic. ¬†I have nearly no¬†control over it. ¬†I fear that I use… too much when I do…”

“Which element?” Robert snapped back from his daydream. ¬†He was tired, but there was so much more to do on this day.

“…Ice.” Landar whispered. ¬†Omar grinned, and waved to the silent man behind the elf. ¬†The curved steel whistled as it flew back into its scabbard. ¬†The elf breathed heavily, horrified.

“Normally we would kill you where you stand,¬†ele-mental.” The word dripped with acid from Omar’s lips. ¬†“But you will come in handy with a mission we have in the future. ¬†Some of us may actually survive with your skill on our side.”

The elf flicked his eyes between Omar and Robert, not entirely convinced that they would let him live.  Robert spoke words of reassurance.

“We really do need you. ¬†We won’t wait until you fall asleep to slit your throat as if you held the blood¬†of the flame.” ¬†The sunlight trickled through the trees into Robert’s eyes, and he looked up. ¬†“Omar, let’s get moving back to the mountains. ¬†We have some planning to do.” ¬†As the sun danced between the leaves, glittering gold, Robert had a strange image flash into his mind’s eye. ¬†A beach, at night. ¬†Then some strange house, with green grass surrounding it. ¬†Perfect grass. ¬†He shook his head involuntarily with a odd twitch, and the images vanished. ¬†The sun still glistened between the leaves. ¬†Nostalgia again.

“Strange” He muttered to himself, and he cracked his neck. ¬†The Halharken disappeared into the forest like darting birds, and he began to walk. ¬†They could not be seen or heard, but he knew they would escort him as he walked. ¬†Invisible. ¬†He rested his hand on the pommel of his sword, feeling the design as he had always done. ¬†But somehow, this time it seemed foreign and unfamiliar. ¬†As if it was his first time feeling it. ¬†He tossed the old woman’s staff into the woods to his side and walked down the road.

 


 

The old woman hissed as she sensed him throwing the cane away.  She had no way to track him now.  But she had heard some of what was said between the group despite the distance.  Halharken on this side of the mountain.  An elf that held the Blood of the Ice.  She tossed her anger aside as she scribbled furiously onto a parchment, arthritis shooting pain up her wrist.  She gritted her teeth and sealed the roll with a bit of wax and a stamp.  A stamp with the image of a raven holding one snake in its mouth and another in its claw as the two serpents twisted around its body trying to strangle it.

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tales of a travelling salesman final

Suspicious Silence

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Her bony finger tapped Robert forcefully on the shoulder, snapping him out of his awe at the glorious vista before his eyes.  He turned and looked at her, and threw a glance at the bulging bag of bread she held out to him.

“Thank you, this kindness won’t be forgotten. ¬†Perhaps if we have a good harvest, I’ll bring my son with me next time I travel to your lands.” ¬†Robert smiled genuinely at her. ¬†The bread was some of the best he had ever had.

“Yes, perhaps!” The old woman replied¬†with a forced smile. ¬†Being so good at lying, it didn’t show. ¬†“Well, be careful on your travels. ¬†Better get a good start while the day is somewhat young.” ¬†Robert nodded, and turned away.

“Wait!” She burst out. ¬†Robert whirled back to her as a bird chirped. “Take this with you! ¬†Your legs are still weak. ¬†You have no horse.” ¬†She held out her gnarled wooden cane.

“I cannot take an old woman’s cane from her.” ¬†He said laughing and shaking his head.

“Please, I have plenty more. ¬†This one has no significance to me. ¬†Take it.” ¬†She held it out with both hands, and he saw that it was a very dark wood. ¬†With lines curving up the side in strange spiral stylings he had never seen. ¬†He hesitated, but took it from her. ¬†He might need a weapon in Elven lands, his throbbing head reminded him.

“Thank you. ¬†I will return this one day.” ¬†Robert lied¬†quietly. ¬†His hands tightened around it, feeling the smoothness of the staff before holding it to his side to steady himself. ¬†His legs were beginning to find their true strength again. ¬†He walked, the staff longer than he remembered it in the shade of the hut. ¬†The woman stood in the doorway watching him as he walked away through town, toward the mountains that were close to the borders of the Imperium. ¬†Before those stony peaks lived the¬†forest that Robert was found in, beaten and robbed. ¬†The old woman cackled and coughed as she went inside, closing the door behind her. ¬†The spell she cast left her tired, her bones ached more than usual. ¬†It was time for a nap.

Robert continued walking through the town, feeling the stares of all the Elves looking him up and down. ¬†A lone human in a land that despised him. ¬†Looking¬†to one merchant’s wares, some beautiful red apples gleamed¬†in the sun and Robert glanced up with a smile at the owner. ¬†The man stared back into Robert’s eyes with burning hate. ¬†Robert could see crow’s feet beginning to form around the Elf’s eyes.

Signs of aging.

Robert looked back down and continued to walk, the hateful glares urging him to increase his staggered pace.  Children suddenly appeared out of thin air, singing some Elvish taunt as they threw small bits of rotten fruit at him.  Robert understood.  This was something to be expected.  Children act on impulses that adults bury deep within their hearts.  Well, most adults.  The children disappeared as quickly as they appeared.  Robert continued to walk along as quickly as his legs would take him, both hands on the staff that steadied his steps.  A rock flew toward him from behind as an instinct from his younger days tilted his head to the left.  His right hand reached up and without looking he caught a rock that was meant for his skull with a loud slap.

The crowd watching him was more silent than before. ¬†He was quick despite his age. ¬†A reaction that a farmer shouldn’t have. ¬†Avoiding confrontation, Robert simply dropped the stone and continued down the hill out of town. ¬†Heading into the forest valley below. ¬†The people watched in suspicious silence as his head disappeared behind the road.


 

“Jah’sahn, are you sure that we should go into the Imperium again? ¬†Maybe we should just go home.” ¬†The young elf was nervous, and hungry. ¬†His hands played with the string of his bow.

“We have to.” Jah’sahn replied as he carved up an apple to share with his friend. “This is our last apple, and I am not going back to farming. ¬†I told you that already.” ¬†He took a deep breath to quell the anger he had within. ¬†Looking up at the clouds through the trees, the light glittered between the leaves. ¬†His father used to have a word for it, before he died and left him an orphan. ¬†His mother had died when he was a baby, during the Reclamation. ¬†A stupid name for a stupid war. ¬†Jah’sahn’s hands fiddled nervously with his sword resting in its sheathe.

“Fine, fine” His friend replied. “I just don’t want to beat up any old men again. It’s… not right. Human or no.”

“I understand, Brielbeh. How could we have known? After we tripped the horse up we had to follow through…” He paused for a moment in carving the apple. “But… I felt strange after that last encounter too. Even if the money we got for selling the horse kept us fed for a while. Did your sister recover with that medicine we got for her?” Jah’sahn offered an apple slice to him.

“Mostly. The fever’s almost gone, and she is talking again.” Brielbeh sighed and took the slice from Jah’sahn’s outstretched hand. “Its probably the only good thing that’s come of all this.” He muttered as he munched.
“Hopefully we can score something big. Maybe some information to give to the Ravens¬†for a price. Maybe they’ll even let us join up.” Jah’sahn mused, tasting the sweet fruit as a small bead of juice trickled into his stubble. “But probably not.”

“Yeah, probably not.” They both were sitting in a tree high over the road, looking at the dancing patterns that the sun created through the trees on the ground below.

“They say you have to be pretty skilled with magic” Brielbeh chuckled. “The only magic I’m skilled with is making food vanish!” They both laughed through their nose with a short exhale.

It wasn’t the first time they had this conversation, or laughed at this joke.
Robert was walking down the same road they were watching, his legs steadily gaining back their strength. That stew the old woman made revitalized him unlike any meal he had before. He didn’t have to rely on the cane so much now, and he carried it at his side. ¬†The birds were chirping all around him when he first came into the forest road, unfamiliar tones that made him yearn for home. ¬†Now, they were mostly silent. ¬†Robert’s hand tightened on the staff, as he felt a familiar fear creep into his body. ¬†The urge to stop and go relieve himself¬†on a nearby tree was overwhelming. ¬†Ahead of him, hidden in the trees, the two young men noticed him walking.

“Jah’sahn! ¬†It’s that man from before.” Brielbeh whispered. “What should we do?” ¬†Jah’sahn stared at him coming down the road. ¬†Thinking.

“Let’s see if we can’t help him. ¬†To make up for what we did.” They both smiled at each other and began to make their way down the tree branches, swinging and leaping with the dexterity of youth. ¬†They landed at the same time on the road, several paces from where Robert stood brandishing the staff at them.

“You two!” Robert snarled. “I won’t be taken by surprise again.” ¬†Jah’sahn moved forward, palms out.

“No! ¬†We felt bad about what we did, we want to –” An arrow materialized in his face, pushing his right eye from the socket. ¬†It hung in a muddled mass at the tip, before falling into the dirt. ¬†“Wee.. wahnt…to..” Jah’sahn slumped over and died in the dirt. ¬†Brielbeh screamed and ran toward his dead friend, but three arrows thumped into his back, one cracking through his rib cage and poking from his chest. ¬†His eyes bulged and he coughed, spewing blood over his white tunic. ¬†He fell on top of his friend with outstretched arms. ¬†Robert was mortified, glancing around at the trees and the bushes. ¬†A voice came¬†from somewhere in front of him.

“Aww, look at them. ¬†Two little lovers.” ¬†The words were laced¬†with an audible sneer. ¬†Small laughs came from the foliage to Robert’s left and right. ¬†The voice was familiar enough to put him at ease.

“Omar! ¬†I knew you and your men would come sooner or later.” Robert called out, placing his staff at his side again. ¬†“Come forth, and have my thanks!”

Hooded figures¬†came from the shadows, bows slung over their shoulders. ¬†The curved blade of the Halharken¬†Order rested on their hips. ¬†The Imperium’s best trackers. ¬†“I do think that these young men were going to help me… But…” Robert spit on their corpses as blood pooled underneath them, turning the dirt to mud. ¬†“They also got me into this mess. ¬†Stole my horse and everything.”

“Lucky you didn’t have¬†this” Omar appeared above him crouching on a tree branch. ¬†He tossed a sheathed sword to Robert. ¬†“Or they would have known who you were straight away!” ¬†It was Robert’s sword. ¬†Shorter than a longsword, greater than a knife. ¬†Forked at the tip like a trident. ¬†Carvings along the blade, runes that no longer worked. ¬†The pommel was resolved with the face of a bear. ¬†Emerald eyes.

“Yes, that would have been extremely unfortunate.” Robert whispered, strapping it to his waist. ¬†“Are you and your men hungry? ¬†I have some bread for us.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Heedful Hospitality

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“Elven…?” Robert repeated groggily. ¬†His memory was still fuzzy, and his head burned as if it had been set out to bake in the sun. ¬†Despite the pain in his body he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings. ¬†It was a modest hut. ¬†A once colorful rug covered the dirt floor with intricate patterns, the walls were the dark color of a local wood. ¬†A small fireplace was across the room, with a black kettle bubbling over the flames. ¬†It smelled pretty good, and his stomach rumbled into the quietness.

“Let me get you some food. ¬†This was¬†my Grandmother’s recipe. ¬†So you can guess that it’s an old one.” ¬†She cackled cheerfully like the elderly tend to do. ¬†She turned and hobbled away, a gnarled wooden cane steadying her gait. ¬†Her silver¬†hair was pulled into a bun and Robert could see that her ears were longer and drawn into a pointed tip. ¬†All at once completely alien and somehow familiar. ¬†Robert rubbed his temples, taking the edge off of¬†his throbbing skull.

Robert James Lowman. ¬†My name. ¬†But who… am I?¬†

“Here you are.” The old woman smiled and handed him the bowl. ¬†Her hands shook way too much, yet only a small bit spilled out. ¬†A thick brown stew steamed before him, carrots and potatoes and beef urged him to feast. ¬†Raising the first spoonful, he smiled as his mouth filled with saliva. ¬†Closing his eyes as he chewed, he gave a small moan as he turned the only-slightly tough meat between his teeth. ¬†The smell filled the air around him, and suddenly he felt emotional. ¬†He was missing someone. ¬†Someone who used to cook like this.

“Linda!” He burst out with a full mouth. ¬†He gulped down the bite and stared ahead, eyes pulled wide. ¬†He knew he was married to a beautiful woman, one he was blessed¬†to even know at all. ¬†Robert remembered some of who he was. ¬†They lived in a manor house far from here.

Nearly the other side of the world.

His heart beat faster in his chest, and he fought to keep the blood from his face. ¬†Robert was lucky these Elves didn’t recognize him, but that’s about as far as his luck stretched. ¬†His legs felt as if millions of needles were slowly prodding into them. ¬†He must have been thrown from his horse.

Why am I so far from the border?  Why did the Crown send me here?

“Linda? ¬†Who is she? ¬†A lucky woman to have such a handsome man worry for her.” ¬†The woman grinned at him with twinkling eyes, thinking of past times when Elves were forever young. ¬†When she still had her husband there to keep her warm during the long winters.

“I am the lucky one, truly.” Robert replied.

I can’t¬†let her¬†know I am from the Capital.

New memories were swirling into existence on the canvas of his mind, painted with an eldritch brush held by the skilled, long-fingered hands of ancient shadows.  They enjoyed using this world.  It was more diverse than the traditional universes they sculpted to lure their captives into false memories.  So many opportunities for chaos, so many shadows that could grow and tangle and twist the minds of corporeal beings to their hateful desires.

So many variables.

¬†“You’re a sweet man for saying that” The woman continuing to smile. “So I know your wife’s name. ¬†Who are you?”

“My name is R…Roger…” He trailed off and stuffed his face quickly with a heaping spoonful of the delicious stew to buy him time to think. ¬†His name was infamous¬†enough that he knew to¬†hide it from even this frail woman. ¬†And she was so pleasant! ¬†The only Elves he had ever met were on the battlefield as a younger man or in the secret laboratories under the Citadel, unknown to even the nobility¬†of the Imperium.

“Roger Theregin.” He said after swallowing his bite. ¬†He could feel it travelling all the way down into his gut. ¬†As if the potato was wrapped in guilt. ¬†Rubbing his head with one hand, he used the other to place the bowl on the table next to him. ¬†He knew he had to get back to safety. ¬†His mission was a failure, but he gleaned¬†some important¬†facts that he had to get back to the Council.

“Ohhh, a name from your East! ¬†You must be a farmer?”

“…Yes. ¬†My wife and I have a small farm right on the border of the Imperium.”

“We both know the Imperiums’ borders reach much farther than the lines on the map.” ¬†She laughed softly and shook her head. ¬†“Ever since that one¬†day all those years ago, we Elves have always lived in fear. ¬†Mortality such as humans know it truly is a burden to us like we have never borne before.” Robert nodded silently, as he slowly began to swing his pained legs over the side of the bed. ¬†He winced as the woman put her hand¬†softly on his shoulder.

“You should rest. ¬†Forgive the ramblings of an old woman.” Robert rubbed his thighs, urging the stinging away as best as he could. ¬†He must have been here for days. ¬†Feeling weak, he pushed himself up to stand. ¬†He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched.

“I am strong enough to relieve myself from your care. ¬†I wish I had some way to pay your hospitality, you were far too gracious to a stranger you scarcely know.”

“Nonsense” She waved her hand and shook her head with a solemn smile. “You are in an Elven home. ¬†We may be poorer than we were before, but these traditions of hospitality will never die. ¬†Even if we do.” ¬†He nodded with silent respect, and stretched his hand out to take hers, she smiled and gave it freely — almost blushing¬†as he kissed it.

“Truly, thank you” He said with real¬†respect. “I will come back one day to thank you for this kindness. ¬†For now I must¬†leave.” ¬†She grabbed his hand with surprising strength as he tried to release hers. ¬†He was startled, and looked into her eyes. ¬†Hazel, but darker. ¬†He felt a small fear grow within him before she smiled and spoke, reminding him of his own grandmother.

“Not before I pack you a bag of bread to keep you going!”

He laughed as he walked to the door, opening  it.  Looking outside as she prepared his bag.  The land was lush, clouds flew along on the breaths of cool wind.  People РElves Рwent about their day, some carrying water to their homes.  Some tending their modest shops.  Mountains watched in the distance.  He listened to the far Eastern birds sing their foreign songs.  Unheard to him, the old woman muttered to herself inside.

“Never before have I felt such smooth hands on a farmer.” She scoffed. ¬†“Roger Theregin? ¬†More like Lord something-or-other.” ¬†Placing the last bit of bread into the bag, she tied it shut with a bit of twine. ¬†She flicked her eyes¬†over to Robert, and seeing his back still turned she began to hold a hand over the bag. ¬†The smallest glow emanated from the tips of her fingers as she whispered words that twisted her tongue around in her mouth, and made the space within the hut darker. ¬†Even a skilled mage like her could not sense the devious pleasure of the shadows. ¬†The fire shrank and sputtered, almost going out as she resolved her incantation.

“Foolish human. ¬†To think that I would believe such a poor lie. ¬†And for him to believe my own!” Her lips pulled back in a toothy smile as she unconsciously ground her teeth. ¬†Even if this spell took time from her own life, it was worth it to help her son’s cause. ¬†The last hundred years left Elves mistrustful of humans. ¬†This ‘Roger’ was certainly an Imperial spy, sent to gather information on her family. ¬†The old woman began to shuffle toward Robert’s turned back, the smile transforming from the conniving grin to a pleasant beaming. ¬†Resisting the urge to take the large knife from¬†her left and cleave it into¬†his spine, she reassured herself with thoughts of her talented¬†son. ¬†So gifted with the arts, and with many friends he had spirited away into different parts of the world. ¬†Even the Capital of the Imperium itself. ¬†Reaching to tap Robert on the shoulder, she thought to herself:

“We are everywhere.”

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Candescent Clarity

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His heartbeat thundered painfully in his ear, mixing with the strange whispers that came and went like a terrible breeze between rotting trees.  He swore that he could feel spit spewing from empty space next to him as the strange language dripped into his ears.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

He shivered so hard he thought his back might spasm.

Robert knew that his wife would never make it off the planet, like most of those on Earth. There were only so many shuttles that were capable of escaping the gravity-well.  Not nearly enough.  They never made enough.  A terrible case-study of financial Darwinism.

He heard the airlock open, a whooshing creak accompanied by shouts and boots thumping into the passenger cabin.  Voices other than the ones from the darkness trickled through the flimsy plastic door to the suitcase compartment he crammed himself into.  A thin line of light gave him the air he needed to breathe and allowed him to hear his soon-to-be captors.

“Well, looks like Brillby finally offed himself. ¬†Poor bastard.” A gruff chuckle.

“Have some respect, Clark. ¬†The man lost more than most.” A¬†reverent voice said.

“Hey — I said ‘poor bastard’. ¬†Just… keeping it light.” Clark grumbled. ¬†Slow, heavy footsteps.

“Jackson, what do you think?” ¬†Silence. ¬†Boots thumped around, and he heard the steel click of a rifle loading a bullet into its¬†chamber.

“There will be no need for that, Clark. ¬†Robert and I know each other.” ¬†Robert felt frost spread within his gut.

Who is Jackson? ¬†I don’t know anyone named —

The compartment clicked open and light flooded fiery fluorescence into his retinas. ¬†Squinting, he saw the familiar sight of a gun barrel leveled at his face. ¬†A man’s eyes came into focus, eyes dark as coal looking furiously at him. ¬†A large hand came from the side and pushed the gun barrel down.

“God, Clark. ¬†You still can’t listen. ¬†You want to be stuck on sewage duty again?” ¬†The older voice chided like an irritated father.

“No, sir.” Clark still stared¬†at Robert with hateful daggers, unblinking. ¬†He backed away, and allowed the older man to step forward and stare at Robert. ¬†A shock of white hair on top of his head was contained by a small black beanie, a large and regal white beard covered his face and went down to the center of his chest. ¬†The bluest eyes Robert had ever seen. ¬†Like clear ice over a frozen lake. ¬†He had seen this man somewhere before. ¬†Somewhere. ¬†But where?

“Robert, get on out of there. ¬†Out of the shadows.” ¬†Robert sheepishly climbed down with the awkward movements of an older, out of shape man. ¬†A foot down onto the chair below – with hands still in the luggage hold – he began to slip and the artificial gravity caused him to fall — but Jackson caught him. ¬†Strong despite his age and taller than he expected, Robert was set down onto his feet by Jackson holding him under his arms. ¬†Like a parent sets up a toddler. ¬†He felt the blood rush to his face. ¬†Recovering quickly, Robert spoke:

“You said you knew me. ¬†Explain.” The men erupted in laughter around him.

“This one has balls, lieutenant.” ¬†Lee giggled.

“Leave us.” Jackson whispered. ¬†The two guards exchanged glances.

“Sir?” They both said together. ¬†Jackson remained silent, simply looking at them from the corner of his eyes. ¬†They both looked at each other and shrugged in unison, walking toward the airlock.

“We’ll be right outside, sir.” ¬†Jackson waved his left hand at them, his right on his sidearm.

“I know why you’re here, Robert. ¬†Do you?” ¬†Jackson asked as he stared¬†unblinking with wolf-eyes. ¬†Robert replied with silence and a stare.

“I finessed my way into this universe. ¬†I followed you from outside your real home, back on Sedgebrook Drive. ¬†You fell through quite the rabbit hole. ¬†Again. ¬†Do you know what’s happening yet?”

“What are you talking about? ¬†Sedgebrook? ¬†I lived outside of the city, within view of the Great Elevator. ¬†What do you mean, ‘this universe’? ¬†Who are you!?” ¬†Robert said.

The older man shook his head.

“When you think of your wife, what memories do you see?” ¬†Robert’s heart skipped a beat. ¬†Those strange memories of a different timeline flashed again into his vision as he conjured the image of Linda’s face. ¬†Something was horribly wrong.

“I… I don’t know what’s happening to me. ¬†These memories aren’t –”

“Those are your true memories, Robert. ¬†Each time you slip between worlds, they become harder to see. ¬†Given enough time, they will vanish completely. ¬†You have to focus, focus on your love. ¬†That’s the only thing that they don’t understand.”

A thunderous explosion shook the Gwaden, and they both lost their footing and fell into seats across the aisle from each other. ¬†They locked eyes and Jackson stood remarkably fast for someone his age. ¬†He leaned over Robert and put his left thumb in the middle of his forehead with a soft force and his right thumb into the skin over his heart. ¬†An electric current rushed through Robert, and memories he had forgotten about rushed back to him in an instant. ¬†The cold forest. ¬†The sands of post-war America. ¬†The lights flickered and died inside the shuttle as another explosion rocked the Gwaden, and the red glow of emergency lights filled the cabin. ¬†Whispers violently hissed, forcing fear to flow into Robert’s body. ¬†A fear laced with anger. ¬†He remembered everything now.

But for how long?

“They hate me, Robert. ¬†I try to save the souls they keep. ¬†You are not alone in this game. ¬†Millions of people over the course of human history have become trapped in their game, replaced by the elites of their malevolent society…”

A blast rocked the ship, cracking a hole in the hull of the Gwaden.  Air began to rush out of the docking bay, and he could hear the screams of Lee and Clark as they were sucked into the vacuum of space.  The artificial gravity created by rotation was stopped as the frigate lost power, and Jackson skillfully glided over to the airlock and pounded his fist on the emergency seal to force the door shut.

“They are going to kill us both, Robert. ¬†Fill your mind with thoughts of your wife, and your life. ¬†Maybe they will be strong enough to –”

Another explosion rocked the ship and there was the monstrous sound of steel being ripped apart, violently tossing the shuttle out into space.  Crashing and tumbling, Robert was bounced around inside the cabin along with Jackson.  He protected his head the best he could, and pissed himself only a little bit.

“Dream of her to escape, Robert. ¬†You must dream of ¬†-”

A stray slug of iron tore into the shuttle, tearing it in half like a wet paper bag. ¬†Robert’s eyes dilated from fear. ¬†Remembering the first time he was knocked out by the vacuum of space, he could not help but let fear wash over him. ¬†There were no happy thoughts to be had. ¬†Clutching at his throat, his lungs burned as the air was pulled out of them. ¬†He felt his eyes bulge, and begin to pop.

Stars looked on, devoid of emotion.  They had seen this all before.

And they would see it all again.

 


 

A washcloth woke him, icy on his steaming head.  Comforting.  Soft.  A skillful hand dabbed his fevered skull with the caring touch of a mother.  Almost settling back into the pillow, Robert began to sit upright and pain shot through his body, driving him back into the bed.  His legs were like hard, dead rubber.  Forcing his eyes open, the natural light made him squint.

“Hush now, don’t try to move. ¬†I found you in the dark wood. ¬†You should know better than to go there. ¬†Bandits love to ambush travellers. ¬†You had nothing but the clothes on your back when I found you.” ¬†Robert’s eyes had adjusted and focused on the elderly woman who was tending to him. ¬†The corners of her mouth were tilted ever so slightly upward, the tiniest smile.

“Where -” A cough thundered from his chest, labored. ¬†He felt exhausted and weak. “Where am I?”

Who am I? 

This thought he kept to himself.  Robert knew his name, but his mind was a terrible mixture of shadows and fog.  He was scared, and tired.  So tired.

“You are far from home, ser. ¬†Human land is a week’s ride from here, with a fast horse. ¬†And we don’t have any of those left.” The woman sighed. ¬†Something about the sighs of the elderly make one feel an existential despair, and it weighed on Robert’s fragile psyche. ¬†Tears began to form under his eyes.

“Shhh. ¬†There, there… ¬†Don’t worry. ¬†You have surely heard tales of Elven hospitality?”

 

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The Celestial Elder

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Jason Gathers looked back at the colonies being pulled into Earth’s gravity as he began to prime the small craft¬†for a long burn. ¬†Fire spread around the O’ Neill cylinders like fearsome flowers, orange mingling with yellow and red with a terrible fury. ¬†The screams of millions of people burning alive went unheard as his engine spun up, and he felt a heavy sorrow grow inside his chest.

“I wish she could have seen this¬†with me. ¬†Who knew that revenge could be beautiful?” ¬†Jason softly slurred to himself. ¬†“Her hair was the same color when the sun shined just right.” ¬†He felt a small pride that he had turned a group of exploited slave laborers into an efficient task force. ¬†Each of their charges detonated at the right time, at all the right places. ¬†The Earth’s gravity did the rest.

“They were good men…” ¬†He whispered to the memory of his wife. “Friends, even. ¬†But we all made sacrifices for this cause.” ¬†As his engine kicked into gear and the long burn began, the charges he had secretly placed on their vessels exploded and destroyed all¬†evidence of their¬†involvement. ¬†Shadows watched, pleased with the dark fruits of their labor. ¬†Their suggestions in this universe have climaxed to this result. ¬†A beacon he had dropped into orbit began an automatic broadcast on all channels, which had previously been completely jammed.

“People of Earth. ¬†Escape while you can. ¬†We are here to bring a new age to humanity. ¬†We are here to show you that Earth is too small and too fragile a basket to put all of our eggs in. ¬†We have played in this cradle for too long, and despite our advances the Earth cannot thrive under the weight of all of us. ¬†Look above you, now. ¬†See the terror the Republic and the Consortium have created. ¬†They are destroying the colonies, and their sloppy work creates more destruction for the people on Earth, while they hide comfortably in their shelters. ¬†They do not care for those in space. ¬†We are expendable to them. ¬†Rise up, and leave now. ¬†We need your help to achieve¬†humanity’s¬†destiny, to spread our civilization to the stars. ¬†Come, join us and prosper together in space. ¬†Or stay, and die.”


Robert cried, his imagination showing him images of chaos in the major cities.  People fighting over each other to leave Earth.  Soldiers struggling to keep control and to keep their fingers from their triggers.  His wife alone in a crowd, trying to herd a group of small children.  There was almost no way for them to get out in time.  Not with an entire city trying to evacuate.  Hope was translucent, faint as a whisper in a thunderstorm.  If the colonies roaring into the atmosphere did not create the panic, then that broadcast that just played over the intercom certainly would.

In the cockpit, Jason’s accomplice cried too. ¬†He was frustrated with his cause, knowing now that the people they condemned to die on Earth were mostly innocent. ¬†There was no way to contact command¬†and to call off Axis’ descent. ¬†It probably had too much momentum anyway. ¬†It could not be stopped. ¬†Something else was bothering him. ¬†Racking his brain, he could not remember why Jason ordered him to kidnap Robert James Lowman. ¬†He couldn’t even remember the orders. ¬†The shadows stared through¬†him with smug, obsidian smiles. ¬†They knew why. ¬†Confused and isolated with his guilt, he programmed the autopilot to take Robert to the hidden fleet behind Axis, and sat back in his seat. ¬†He stared at the blockade of ships in front of him that ignored this shuttle, turning to face the ancient celestial demon that doomed their¬†home world. ¬† Flashes erupted silently as he coasted above their firing solution.

“Useless.” He mouthed silently and put the small, silenced gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. ¬†His body recoiled, and floated up. ¬†Blood and brain vibrated¬†strangely in zero gravity as the shadows laughed, dancing along with the crimson bubbles. ¬†Whispers filled the cabin as the man’s dead body floated and dreamed¬†of another universe. ¬†Whispers from shadows that were always watching in pleasure.

Robert had moved ahead to the front of the craft to take Omar’s body and give it some semblance of respect by covering his dead face¬†with his coat and placing it in a seat. ¬†Robert could hear the raspy conversation, and stifling his tears he drifted toward the cockpit to investigate. ¬†He gasped when he opened the door, seeing the corpse floating in the same moment as the whispers went silent.

“I must be going fucking crazy.” Robert muttered¬†to himself. ¬†He put himself in the pilot’s seat after softly pushing the corpse¬†down and behind the chair. ¬†Robert had no sorrow for this terrorist, regardless of his situation. ¬†The only thoughts he could think were of Linda, horrified¬†on the planet’s surface as humanity’s impending doom coasted toward them. ¬†Remembering some basic flight controls, he began to flip switches and tried to move the yoke. ¬†It was stuck in its programming, and he was unable to move the controls. ¬†A notice flashed on the instrument panel:

PLEASE ENTER THE PASSWORD TO ACCESS FLIGHT CONTROL.

‘Password’ did not work. ¬†‘Guest’ did not work. ¬†Robert slammed his fist in frustration on the flashing screen, which also did not work. ¬†To the pleasure of the darkness, he was trapped in this thing on its way to the last place he wanted to be. ¬†He pushed himself back into the cabin, searching for the escape pods in the back. ¬†Their doors had been welded shut. ¬†Probably a preemptive move by the terrorist to stop any escape. ¬†Without options, Robert glided¬†to the seats on the right, resigned to gazing down¬†at the tracers within the barrage of¬†hot¬†steel. ¬†Suddenly the front of the asteroid appeared underneath the shuttle, and he could see that the U.E.R.’s attack was barely whittling away at the surface. ¬†The explosions were probably gigantic, ¬†but the sheer size of the asteroid made it useless.

“Useless”, Robert muttered angrily. ¬†He stared down at his elder, the massive stone rolling beneath him. ¬†Pockmarked with craters, the ancient drifted underneath the craft for what felt like ages. ¬†He tried to look off to see the edge, but the immense rock¬†stretched out to blend with the darkness of space. ¬†There were abandoned structures that dotted the landscape, old mining bases probably. ¬†Finally the end of the space boulder appeared, and he could see mammoth¬†thrusters that were darkened and cold. ¬†Without realizing it, Robert had been crying this whole time, tears filling the space around his face. ¬†He was startled into a scream¬†as the V.I.’s voice broke the silence:

“Please buckle your seat-belts and prepare to dock. ¬†We have arrived at our programmed destination. ¬†Thank you for flying with The Consortium, where your comfort is our priority.”

Docking clamps loudly clamped onto the side, shockingly fast after this announcement. ¬†He looked out the window and he could see dozens of ships surrounding the shuttle. ¬†They were older transport craft, dirty and outdated looking. ¬†There were massive guns on each of them, and he knew that they must have been jury-rigged to become a fighting force. ¬†He saw the space around him disappearing as the shuttle was brought into a docking bay of a much larger ship. ¬†Steel and chrome shined beneath the lighting inside¬†as he saw the name of the craft painted high above the deck and the walkways. ¬†The U.E.R.’s Gwaden. ¬†The old ship thought to have been lost over 20 years ago on a deep-space patrol now closed around him.

The shuttle’s movement ceased with an iron screech as Robert’s heart pounded in his chest. ¬†Who knows what these rebels would do to him? ¬†They would probably think he killed the pilot. ¬†He floated up and hid in an overhead compartment, not able to stop tears welling up in his eyes. ¬†He was completely hidden, but he was not alone. ¬†His fear was with him. ¬†The shadows were with him, keeping him company. ¬†And he could hear their gleeful whispers. ¬†He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to fill his mind with his wife’s beautiful face.

Linda…

Suddenly he was seeing flashes of her in places they had never been. ¬†Like lightning illuminating a darkened art gallery. ¬†A beach at night somewhere, walking from¬†a strange automobile that hadn’t been relevant for generations. ¬†The same car at a 20th century drive-in theater.

What are these memories?  

He had no time to think more, as he heard the airlock start to open with a hiss and the creaking of metal.

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The Faucets

So, we all know cats are pretty weird. My cat is definitely no exception. Her name is Mrs. Gibbles, and she is probably one of the weirdest I have ever met. She loves to get to the sinks as I try to wash my hands or start the bath so that she can get the absolute freshest water possible. She will stare at the faucets in wonder as the water starts to come out, like it is some magical thing beyond understanding. It’s not uncommon for me to go home after working all day to find her in a cat-trance, staring at the faucets in one room or another. She will look at me as I make fun of her strange obsession, meowing needily.

“More water, Dad!” If she had her way, she would be a watterlogged piggy.

Recently, she has been acting even stranger around the faucets. She’s been refraining from drinking the water, unless I put it in her bowl. But she still stares, and it has been all she does for a week now. Extremely unusual and out of cat-character. She sometimes even makes a racket while I watch TV or clean the house, swatting at the steel and chrome and meowing incessantly. Sometimes I thought that she was attacking a roach or something! She would hiss and go into crazy-mode, running around the house at maximum velocity with her fuzzy white gut swinging back and forth only to charge back into the bathtub and attack at the faucet. I would try to surprise her, to see what she was up to, but whenever I did she was just staring in wonder at the glistening steel. The same look she has when she stares off into the spaces in-between atoms, gazing at ghosts.

Bored and with some extra money, I decided to set up some cameras. I thought maybe I could get some prime footage and get onto America’s Funniest Videos or something along those lines. Maybe just make my folks laugh. That would have been enough. But I don’t know what to do with these tapes now. I’ve begun moving out because of these tapes. I stay in a hotel with my Mrs. Gibbles, only packing during the day.

The footage started as usual. Just her looking out the window as I drive away, then immediately she plodded over to the bathroom. The camera in there was at a downward angle, looking from a corner where the ceiling meets the walls. She sat on the edge of the tub, away from the faucet. Staring. Nothing remarkable happened for a while, and she crawled into the far end of the tub laying down where she could stare at the faucet. Very very boring. But then I began to see some movement at the chrome, and I was unable to understand how the water suddenly began to run when I realized it wasn’t water.

Slowly, over the course of several minutes I saw a purple finger stretch from the faucet. Unmistakably a finger. There was a long nail, black on the tip, cracked and moldy. It felt around the tip of the spigot and Mrs. Gibbles began to hunt it. She crept toward it, and suddenly slid to attack, swatting and hissing at it. No audio, but this was the thing that she would always do. Smack, smack, smack and the finger disappeared. She stared up into the faucet, cutely sniffing at what I knew to be impossible.

Then the finger crept up from the drain below her, bits of my wife’s long black hair entangling it, but then I saw it was unlike a finger because it was much too long and it had no knuckles. More like a tentacle than a finger. It poked at her with an intelligent curiosity, startling her tail into a big poof, coaxing her to attack again. Playing. It disappeared, and as she investigated the drain, it reached from above and tickled the back of her head.

She leaned into it like she leaned into my rubs. I vomited.

I googled some information on my address. A young girl had been drowned in the tub by her mother when she was only 6.

 

 

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Shooting Stars

 

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The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin and Robert stood frozen, clutching his suitcase. ¬†He stared at the corpse of his friend as it floated eerily just¬†above the floor, dead nose inches from the tacky carpet. ¬†Gulping with a dry throat made him cough, and Robert covered his mouth involuntarily. ¬†The man with the gun turned¬†his¬†sneer to a frown as he tightened his aim on Robert’s face.

“Don’t. ¬†Move. ¬†Slowly toss the suitcase down and put your hands up.”

What can I do?

Moments passed, and he tossed the suitcase to his side just as the man began to bloat with rage.  It quickly floated away and bounced around in the seats across the aisle.  He was in no position to negotiate here.

Here goes nothing. 

“You’re not going to get out of here alive if you don’t put down that gun.” Robert leveled his eyes at the man with a monotone drone his father used to use on him. ¬†The man was defiant, like Robert¬†used to be.

“Pfft!” The man expelled air in disbelief. ¬†“No one in the U.E.R. knows this is happening right now. ¬†No one but you. ¬†And you have no way to contact anyone.”

He was wrong there.  This entire time Robert had been using his mobile to send a live stream of this attack to executive officials at the Consortium.  The communicator was floating now, dangling from his suitcase that hovered off to the side, above the seats.  If the man looked close, he could easily see a red light blinking softly.  But his attention was wholly on Robert, who continued his speech craft:

“Doesn’t matter. ¬†You get to Persephone on schedule, you have security waiting. ¬†You deviate from this shuttle’s flight path, you have military personnel¬†just itching for action.”

The man stared with an empty face at Robert. ¬†Slowly, the gun went to his side. Relaxing. ¬†His eyes were deep in his face, and when the lights flickered for a moment he looked like a skeleton. ¬†A slow smile found its way onto the tired man and Robert’s blood turned to ice as he spoke.

“We have seized Persephone, and the Prime Minister’s office there. ¬†He’s surely been executed by now. ¬†Justice… Justice is almost here.” ¬†The man’s whisper was below a breath, and Robert only saw his lips move:

“Any minute now.” ¬†The man was very assured of himself.

“Justice..? ¬†What “justice” is this?¬†Whose¬†justice? ¬†Who are you?!” ¬†Robert shouted now, and the gun raised again in response to his agitation.

“We are the remnants of those you sent into space — those you sent to DIE!” ¬†The man shouted at him, gun flinging wildly around with each gesticulation.

“What are you talking about? ¬†Forced colonization ended¬†over two¬†decades ago! ¬†Reparations were made!”

“Fool!” The man screamed. His teeth¬†were bared with¬†his lips pulled back in a snarl. ¬†It took all the¬†will he had left to keep his finger from the trigger.

“You think that those “contractors” you use are willing employees?! ¬†What man would willingly take his family on the first¬†deep space colonization?”

Families?

Robert only knew that the contractors the Consortium used for deep space were paid well, and supplied well.  He was under the impression that they were all willing scientists and engineers and workers.  Everyone in the world was.  Robert could only stare blankly at the angry terrorist, too confused to speak.

“What do you think happened to the colonists from before? ¬†They just lived on like usual!? ¬†Why did we need to have mass incentivized immigration to the Lagrange colonies then?! ¬†They should have had plenty of people there already! ¬†Are all of you so stupid?!”

“We thought there were casualt–”

The man slammed his fist into his chest loudly, grabbing at his heart.  His teeth were grinding, and Robert could hear them.  They sounded as if they would explode into dust any second.  Several seconds passed.

“You had… no idea? ¬†No one did?” ¬†Tears poured from his eyes in steady streams. ¬†He did not sob, but the tears would not stop. ¬†Robert shook his head.

“I have no idea what you are talking about. ¬†We thought the contractors were all professionals looking for new frontiers. ¬†‘Pioneers and Adventurers!’ Haven’t you seen the promo commercials?”

“Good God. ¬†It was only the execs¬†who knew? ¬† How could they keep such a secret, so many military personnel were used to move us all…” The man’s voice cracked. ¬†He looked even more tired now, older. ¬†Weaker. ¬†Smaller somehow.

“Jason got us so riled up. ¬†We were away for so long… No contact, or news… We just thought you all had forsaken us, and just used us up and tossed us aside. ¬†But…” ¬†He trailed off, staring out the window just over Robert’s shoulder. ¬†The Earth stared back at him pleadingly.

“Hey… What is your name?” Robert asked quietly, with caution. ¬†He slowly lowered his hands, and the man did not react. ¬†His unblinking stare reflected the glow of the lights inside the cabin.

“It doesn’t matter. ¬†All of this will be over soon.” ¬†He sounded if he had already died.

“What do you mean?”

“Axis is coming. ¬†It’s¬†probably almost here.” The man whispered with great reverence, as if speaking of a mighty, vengeful god that¬†could hear him.

“Axis? ¬†What is that?” Robert asked, egging him on for more information. ¬†If he noticed that comm device, all of this tenuous trust would fly out the airlock. ¬†Robert needed more information.

“Axis is the reason you came up here, Robert. ¬†But we lied to you about the specifics.” A sardonic snicker. ¬†The man looked down and shook his head. ¬†Robert was confused still but the shuttle’s autopilot interrupted, announcing¬†that they would soon be docking at Persephone.

“I’ll get us away from the station. ¬†There’s no reason for you to die there anymore.”

“Wait!!” Robert exclaimed as the man began to duck back into the cockpit. ¬†“Why did you want me? ¬†Why me?” ¬†The man paused for a moment, and without looking back he spoke to Robert.

“I’m sorry about your friend. ¬†I am. ¬†And your family on Earth. ¬†But there’s nothing we can do now. ¬†Looks like you’re coming to space with us. ¬†We will find a way to make you… useful.” ¬†The door shut behind him, and the man whispered to himself in solitude as he flipped switches.

“Maybe. ¬†I believe you enough to let you live, but my friends… ¬†They probably won’t.”

shooting-stars-1

Robert drifted over to his phone, and ended the live stream. ¬†He pulled himself¬†into the seat and looked to his left out the window. ¬†The vastness of space stretched itself before him, and he could see the blockade of frigates created in response to the alien discovery on Luna. ¬†Something wasn’t quite right though, and he couldn’t place his finger on it. ¬†He stared, confused at a shadowed part of space behind the ships. ¬†A large place without¬†stars.

Impossible.  Must be a trick of the light. 

He stretched his vision to see as best as he could toward the ominous darkness out there, beyond the frigates.  Robert passed several painful minutes in silence and he saw the shadow slowly grow.  A couple more stars disappeared within it. The darkness had been gathering its strength beyond the blockade.

“Fuck. ¬†It’s a giant asteroid.” Robert breathed. ¬†He pounded his communicator’s speed dial and reached electric along with his soul for his wife, searching. ¬†Hoping. ¬†He begged for her to pick up, but it was a Monday, and she was probably still in class. ¬†Looking at his watch as the phone rang, he pleaded¬†for some cosmic being to tell her to pick up the phone. ¬†But nothing was listening. ¬†Nothing good, at least. ¬†Unknown to Robert, his extreme emotions and fracturing¬†psyche were the source of macabre delight¬†to the demons that placed him here in this universe. ¬†He was nothing more than a pawn. ¬†His fear and frustration and existential horror tingled the shadows and made them dance with delight. ¬†Lights flickered in the cabin. ¬†Whispers of their ritual leaked into his mind and tickled his ears, and Robert¬†whipped around to find what made those sounds. ¬†A language he had never heard but for some reason found too familiar.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

In this moment he finally reached the front desk of the school, and he asked to speak to Mrs. Lowman, with as much normalcy as he could muster.

“Linda… You need to dismiss class and get everyone out of there. ¬†You need to go to the emergency shuttle outside the city, a panic will start soon. ¬†I know it.”

“R.J., wait, what are you talking about? ¬†Everything is fine here. ¬†Nothing is wro–“

“Listen to me, Lin. ¬†You have to trust me. ¬†Get out of there, please. ¬†Please.” ¬†Robert began to cry. ¬†“There’s an asteroid coming. ¬†It’s terrorists.”

“Robert James, this isn’t funny, ” Her voice cracked and gave a nervous laugh. ¬†“You got me, OK?” ¬†Suddenly he could hear a siren go off in the background, and the kids all screamed in unison. ¬†“Robert, oh my god. It’s on the Persephone camera feed. ¬†You weren’t lying! ¬†I have to go, but how did you know?! ¬†I can’t do this alone R.J.! ¬†Where will I meet you?!”

“I’ll find you! ¬†Don’t go to Persephone! It’s a trap! ¬†Linda? ¬†LIN?!” But the line was already dead. ¬†He looked at the communicator and saw that there was no service at all. ¬†The Consortium must have alerted everyone, just like he had hoped. ¬†But there was no way to prepare for something like this. ¬†A mass evacuation plan had been discussed, but there were nowhere near enough shuttles available for an exodus like this. ¬†He could only imagine the chaos his wife would have to endure trying to escape. ¬†If she could even get out of the city. ¬†But why was the service cut off so suddenly?

He floated over to the other side of the empty¬†passenger cabin¬†to look at the Earth. ¬†He felt cold as he stared at massive shooting stars entering the atmosphere, and he couldn’t understand what they were. ¬†But then he realized that they were the various O’Neill colonies¬†slowly¬†falling into the atmosphere. ¬†New Sydney, New Beijing, New London. ¬†They were being ripped apart by the Earth’s last line of defense. ¬†Several million people lived in¬†each of them.

Something¬†suddenly slammed into the window Robert¬†looked out of, and he screamed at the unknown horror as it drifted away. ¬†Then he noticed that it was a human corpse. ¬†More of them were tumbling by,¬†and it sounded like a hail storm outside. ¬†The ship turned away from Earth¬†as he watched the burning colonies returning home. ¬†A bright flash lit the night side of Earth¬†below him, as one cylinder¬†hit the Indian subcontinent. ¬†His view turned with the ship, and he saw what was left of the great crown jewel of humanity’s first steps into space. ¬†Persephone was now nothing more than a blossoming flower of twinkling glass and steel that spread partly into space, partly into orbit, and partly into tiny lines of fire¬†streaking down to¬†the Earth.

The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin, a steady rhythm to accompany the sobs of Robert James.  The shadows watched him and trembled with pleasure at his hopelessness, whispering among themselves in impossible tones.

On the Earth’s surface, a child in a rural area stared up in wonder at the great streaks of light flying across the sky. ¬†He giggled and laughed as he held out his arms like an airplane, running back to the house as fast as he could. ¬†He wanted to share this moment with his mother, who waited inside crying as she watched an¬†emergency broadcast repeat itself.

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Infinite Ice

Click here for the part before.

 

The stare of stars from eons ago gave a passing glance to the tiny craft drifting slowly away from Persephone Station.  Veiled by the darkness and coasting through space, it went unnoticed on the radar of the large U.E.R. frigates that formed a mechanical canyon around it.  Drifting and rotating slowly.  Just like a bullet that was stuck in time.

“Even if a member of the crew looked out a window, they might not even notice this thing.” ¬†Jason Gathers half-chuckled as he took a small swig from the bottle. ¬†Nose burning from the scent, a tiny bit trickled from the corners of his mouth and bubbled in the small cabin around him, twitching and trembling tiny little amoebas of alcohol. ¬†Silence purred.

“Wish I could at least listen to music, this is going to take a while.” ¬†He gobbled up the bubbling bits of whiskey from all around him, and Jason reminded himself of a dog he used to have. ¬†Junior¬†giggled endlessly watching¬†the dog chase after the bubbles that Jason blew for the pup to chase.¬†¬†After papa taught him how, Jason Junior¬†loved blowing the bubbles himself. ¬†New liquid¬†appeared in the small compartment as he stared out the window at the stern steel sides of the massive warships.

These bubbles came from his eyes, translucent and reflecting the lights that littered the sides of the frigates.  Thousands of portholes stared at Jason.  He stared back.  Thinking.  His wife used to tell him that he thought too much.  After what happened on the mining base, she never spoke about it again.  She never spoke about anything.  Tears constantly flowed from her hazel eyes as she stared off in silence.  She gazed at the spaces in-between atoms.  A half-trained doctor that the workers had access to made some vague diagnosis:

“She’s traumatized, Jason. ¬†There’s not a lot I can really do for her besides some kind of therapy, and I don’t have the time…” The Doc motioned behind him – like a ringleader in a circus – to the lines of tiny dirty cots behind him in the cave that was his clinic. ¬†Coughs mixed with wheezing breaths and the barely audible sound of mice¬†chirping to each other from the shadows.

“There’s not enough meds to go around to fight this flu, and the accidents keep piling up. ¬†I’m doing the best I can. ¬†I’m sorry.” ¬†Jason stared back at the Doc. ¬†His eyes must have been hollow looking, tired. ¬†He sure felt tired.

“Look, Jason…” The Doc put his arm carefully around the shell of a man, and walked him out of the cave clinic and into the main cavern. ¬†Even through his shirt, the Doc could feel that he was cold. ¬†Stalactites poked down threateningly. ¬†They seemed larger than usual. ¬†At least it didn’t smell like gangrene out here, Jason thought absentmindedly.

“Just try and talk to her. ¬†I know it’s¬†hard… All of us cried for you. ¬†Just like we cried for the Willow family, and for the Karns. ¬†I’ll tell you the same thing that I told them: Talk, be with each other, be there for each other, and for god’s sake – keep working. ¬†Idle hands do the devil’s work, they say. ¬†Sure wish they’d give the guards more real¬†work to do. ¬†I hear they get fed well. ¬†I bet they could mine if they tried…” ¬†He trailed off awkwardly.

Jason stared at Doc’s face. ¬†He was trying hard, but Jason’s mind hardly retained any of what he said. ¬†His wife was essentially catatonic. ¬†She had one sick day left from work, but if she didn’t show up for her shifts then they would put her out the airlock. ¬†Just like the old lady Karn, after her sons were killed for insubordination. ¬†Jason forced a smile. ¬†The doctor forced a smile back and disappeared back into his clinic.

More tears were bubbled around Jason in the cabin of the craft.  His hand was playing with the grip of his sidearm absentmindedly, and he took his hand away to swat his stray tears.  Only a few more minutes before he would be able to kick the engine on, and get back to Axis.

An old proverb of sorts crossed his mind: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. ¬†Space was very cold. ¬†He saw his wife’s streaming tears turn to ice in an instant as the air whipped out of the airlock. ¬† Tiny bits of ice¬†spiraling into infinity.

 

 


 

 

“I’ll never get sick of this view, R.J. ¬†It makes you feel small, every single time. ¬†It’s humbling.” ¬†Omar was looking over Robert’s shoulder at the Earth’s sphere below them. ¬†A beautiful¬†orb hurtling through space. ¬†The moon could be seen hovering over the opposite side of the blue and green glow below.

“I wonder how long ago that weird shrine-thing was placed there on Luna. ¬†Do you ever think of that?”

“Not really, Omar. ¬†I’m actually crunching some numbers in my head. ¬†Do you have the recent market price for yttrium? ¬†I think it spiked again because of the U.E.R.’s increase in ship production.”

“Sure. ¬†I probably have it in my folder here.” ¬†He started ruffling through his papers and Robert thought about other polite ways to tell him to shut up. ¬†He needed silence to think every time before a negotiation. ¬†“Robert-time”, his wife called it lovingly. ¬†She always knew to just give him some chamomile tea and to go watch the TV in the other room. ¬†God, he loved her. ¬†And he was lucky enough to be loved back.

“Here, R.J. ¬†This is that memo they sent out the other… What the fuck?”

Robert looked to Omar, irritated. ¬†His eyes were wide and locked straight ahead. ¬†Robert followed his gaze to the door to the pilot’s cabin, which was ajar. ¬†Dark blobs came tumbling and fluttering out, the strange dance of liquid in zero gravity.

Omar unbuckled his seat belt and pushed off his chair, drifting quickly to the front.  Steadying himself quietly on  another cushioned chair, he slowly reached out and poked one of the dark blobs and Robert watched as the liquid trembled away from him.  Looking at his finger, the color drained from his face.  He looked at Robert and mouthed:

“Blood”.

The sound of a heart thumping filled Robert’s ears. ¬†He and Omar stared at each other, each wondering what to do. ¬†All the while the blood tumbled through the air between them. ¬†Robert grabbed his suitcase, and he looked up to see a man wearing a pilot uniform holding a large knife to Omar’s throat. ¬†A skinny, long blade.

“I take it this one’s name isn’t ‘Robert’, is it?” The man sneered through gritted teeth. ¬†Robert reached his hand up and out to Omar’s horrified face. ¬†A vain gesture. ¬†The blade pressed tighter against his throat for a moment, drawing blood. ¬†Robert continued to stare in silence, unable to respond to the terrible question.

In one swift motion, the man flicked the knife back, pushed Omar to his knees with a hand and a quick kick, and stabbed straight down into the back of the neck. ¬†After a spasm,¬†Omar’s dark eyes rolled back into his head. ¬†The man grinned as the limp body was pushed onto the ground, and bounced softly back up. ¬†Floating face-down as if possessed. ¬†In shock, Robert could only feel a numbed surprise at how little blood came out.

“You’re coming with me, Robert — or should I say R.J.?” The sinister sneer was almost cartoonish in proportion to his face. ¬†R.J. felt cold, only his friends called him that. ¬†How could he know? ¬†Robert’s face was an open book.

“We know more than you might think. ¬†We have people in the Republic government, in the Consortium…” The man chuckled as he drew a small silenced gun and pointed it at Robert.

“We are everywhere.”

 

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

 

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