One of Them

Kent sat by Caroline’s bedside, stroking her blonde hair, coarse as the straw mattress upon which she slept. The creases in his face were exaggerated by the morning sun, its orange light splitting through the windows which had long before been boarded up. He gathered another handful of her hair and ran his fingers through it as she slept, as she shivered without end. His mouth was curled into a frown, as it had been all morning since he had awoken. His aching muscles felt like they’d been pulled into a grimace ever since she first started showing symptoms. She hadn’t been getting any better the past few days, not even with the medicine. He stopped stroking her hair and grabbed the damp cloth from the wash-basin at the foot of his chair, wiping away the sweat on her fevered forehead. Replacing the cloth to the cool water of the basin, he removed the bloody bandages from her forearm and looked at her wound. Over a week and the infection still hadn’t died down. Pus festered around the lesion and it smelt of rot. Maybe Charles’ medicine couldn’t help her. No, it had to. Kent tossed the blood-stained rags across the room and re-wrapped her arm with some rags next to the water basin, making sure to tie them tight.

He stood up, returning the chair to the rough-hewn table in the corner of her room, exiting and walking to his room at the other end of the house. The hallway floorboards creaked with every step. He had to remember to repair them when he got back. Anything that was even slightly broken or out of place had to be fixed. Opening the door to his room, he strode over to the chest at the foot of his bed and removed the holster and revolver from its depths. Buckling the holster to his waist and placing the gun by his hip, he removed a belt of ammunition from the chest and slung it over his left shoulder before walking over to his wardrobe and procuring a gray wool vest. The wool itched like ticks crawling over his skin, but it was the best thing he owned to cover up the belt. He didn’t want to become more of a target than he was already. He scratched at the vest, and then at his graying beard. Kent put on his leather boots, aged and cracked and damaged by the sun, and left the room.

He returned to Caroline’s room. The thought of leaving her alone again, of a shambler breaking down the door and attacking her again, clawed at him, but he had no choice. There was so much to do, and only so much daylight. It wasn’t safe to be out at night anymore. He bent over her and kissed her forehead, which had already begun to pool with sweat again.

“I’ll be back soon, baby girl,” he said, his voice cracked like his boots. He turned to exit her room, making sure to lock her door, and walked down the hallway to exit his abode. Before he opened the front door, he grabbed the brown stetson off of the rack by the door and placed it on his head, covering his combed-back, gray-black hair.

The dawn clementine of the sun had already risen above the ridge when Kent turned the key and locked the door to his house. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was still home to him. The unpainted brown of the mesquite was a stark contrast to the tan sand of the Arizona desert. The house’s windows and single door were covered by planks of wood and scraps of metal. He grabbed the iron lock from his pack and clasped it to the door. He’d traded a week’s worth of food for the lock, but the heavy clunk it made when it closed reminded him of the good deal he had made. Satisfied with the current state of the locks, he walked over to the small barn next door, kicking up dust with every step. He removed the lock from the barn and threw the doors open. Inside the barn was a single brown stallion, somewhat thin but with a hint of muscle hidden under its leathery hide, who huffed a greeting as light entered his home. Kent walked past him, making sure to pat him muzzle, and grabbed a saddle off the barn wall. The horse whinnied and backed up, shaking its head in one violent movement.

Kent sighed. “C’mon, Strider, don’t make this difficult.” He always hated that name, but ever since Caroline named him, it stuck. He walked over to Strider, who had backed him into the corner, and threw the saddle over him back. “That’s better.”

Strider whinnied a single, resigned neigh and walked out of the barn.

After locking the barn door, Kent pushed himself up onto Strider, grabbed the reins, and kicked its sides, galloping out of the valley that surrounded his highly-defensible home.

#

There was one dirt road that connected Kent’s home to town, and he traveled down this road the same as he had done near every day now. The sun, which turned from a deep orange to a blinding silver-yellow, blazed above. Kent wiped his brow and grabbed the canteen on his saddle, taking a deep swig. The lukewarm water didn’t bring him any relief. He cracked the reins, and Strider picked up speed, trotting toward town. At least at home, he always had repairs or some other activity to keep him occupied. Out here, with only Strider and the dirt as company, he had nowhere to turn but himself, and that frightened him. He remembered that day, just over a week ago, when Caroline was attacked.

#

She had been outside, hanging up the clothes to dry. Kent warned her to take his gun, but she insisted it would be fine. No sign of a shambler for days. She hadn’t been outside for five minutes when Kent heard her scream tear through the silence. He grabbed his gun and kicked down the front door to see it biting at her arm. Its skin was black with desiccation, its clothes torn by some unknown desert beast. Without hesitation, he aimed down the sights and fired, striking the shambler. It turned to face him, empty eyes staring and blood-stained teeth barred. As it dropped Caroline into a puddle of her own blood, Kent fired again, this time striking the ghoul in the head. The carcass collapsed. Kent rushed over to it and unloaded the remaining bullets into its rotting skull, his own shouts almost as loud as the gunfire. Satisfied that it was now nothing more than a pile of decaying limbs, he ran over to Caroline. She was unconscious, blood pooling out of her forearm. Kent tore his shirt sleeve and wrapped it around her wound, as tears began to stream down his face.

#

He shook his head, as the memory could be flung from his mind. He looked toward the horizon and saw, for the first time in a long while, a silhouette, approaching from the direction of town. It was large and bulky, shifting from side-to-side along the dirt road. A wagon, maybe? Kent let go of the reins with one of his hands and moved his now-free hand toward his revolver.

The figure got closer. It was a wagon, drawn by a single horse. Its contents were covered by a large sheet of rough, linen cloth. Kent got a good look at the two people sitting in the wagon’s front. A man, wearing a dirt-stained black suit, patchy stubble covering his face. By his side, a woman. Brown hair in a tight bun, blue gingham dress torn near the ankle. Kent made eye contact with the two of them. They stared back, their mouths closed with tight lips. He gave the couple a single, curt nod. The man gave a slow nod back as the cart passed him. Kent’s thoughts turned from Caroline to the couple. Were they trying to get out of town? Avoid the danger? Made sense, sure, but going out into the desert alone was a death sentence. If the heat didn’t get you… Kent shuddered at the thought, the memory of that first chewed-up corpse on the roadside burned into his brain.

A blaze of heat scorched Kent’s side. Unusual, since the heat primarily came from above. He looked to the right and saw the same-old lone church by the road, white stone standing tall and proud, a monument of arrogance against the desert sun. But by the church’s side, a great fire roared from a large pit, the flames licking the sky. A priest, cloaked in black, crossed himself and read from a worn book as he stood by the flames. Though his face was stone, staring at the pages, Kent saw a deep sadness in his faltering expression. By his side, a woman, wearing a dress black as night. She stood at the priest’s side, crying into a handkerchief, the volume of her tears rising like the flames next to her. As Strider ambled past the pyre, Kent stared into the flame and wondered for whom she was crying. Whoever it was, he thought, it wasn’t them that she should be crying for.

#

The tall, hastily-erected wooden gates of Prescott opened wide as Kent came near. Looking up to the watchtower, the guard up top, taking one hand off of his rifle, tipped his hat to Kent. Kent huffed in indifference. Courtesy wasn’t necessary in times like this, he thought. The people should just get in, get what they need, and get out.

Even though Sheriff Wallace had the gates erected to “keep those monsters and us in,” the initial tension had died down a week after its construction. It seemed as though the reanimated menace was finally coming to an end, but Kent wasn’t so sure of that. Kent stepped off Strider and hitched it by the gate, tying the reins tight before making his way towards the town’s center.

The inn, the blacksmith, and the stores were all still there, all still that sickening shade of off-white. Charles’ office towered above all the rest, though, its red paint a fresher color than everything else. Dust nipped at his face and the faint odor of burning wood filled his lungs.

As he walked, he remembered a time, a few years ago, when he and Caroline came to town. The plague hadn’t come through yet, and Prescott was a sleepy, dust-covered transit town. She was pulling at his pants, asking incessantly for sweets from the general store until Kent relented. Her smile as she gorged on the candy made bile churn in his own stomach. She’ll be like that again, he told himself.

A crowd amassed outside of the doctor’s shop. Men and women and children, all clumped together into an amorphous shape, surrounding the building, held back by two men on the front steps, clad in blue uniforms and holding rifles.

A man in a top hat and a thick mustache yelled, “We need our medicine! What if we get infected?”

A woman, scrawny, her cheeks as rosy as the paint on Charles’ office cradling two small children beside, her called out, “I need to think about my family!”

A boy no older than sixteen, the stubble barely breaking through the smooth skin on his face, shouted, “If you can’t protect yourself, how can we be protected from those monsters?”

The voices of the crowd all melded together into a cacophonous roar. The riflemen stood still, ignoring the clamor. Kent pushed his way through the crowd, shoving against the back of the fat bartender. As he got closer to the door, one of the riflemen caught his gaze.

“Miller.” His voice, cold and clear as ice water, cut through the clamor of the mob, who had started to become silent upon hearing Kent’s name. “Wallace and Goodman want t’ see you.” He stepped down from his spot and into the crowd, moving aside the now-quiet throngs of people to let Kent pass. Kent stepped through and made his way up the small staircase to the front door. The man’s watery eyes and thick goatee were unfamiliar to Kent. He pushed his way cautiously past the guard. Mayor’s bringing in too many conscripts, Kent thought. How could he trust them all?

“Hey!” a scratchy voice broke out. It was the sixteen-year old boy, who had stepped forward to the edge of the staircase. “Why does he get to see the doctor? We want our medicine!”

The fat bartender roared, “Boy, don’t you know who that is? That’s Kent Miller, and you’ll give him some respect!” The bartender nodded at Kent as the crowd began to shout in agreement, and the young man, blushing furiously as he stared at his feet, stepped back into the crowd.

His boots clicked crisply against the wooden floor as he entered Doctor Charles Goodman’s pharmacy. The good doctor took care of not only the townspeople, but of his own workplace. Everything was immaculate in his store. At least, it usually was. The shelves were now empty of the bottles and jars of cure-alls and remedies that once lined them in perfect rows. The floor, often clean and clear of debris and dirt, were now scuffed and covered in a thin layer of dust. The door had been bashed in and shattered glass fragments still littered the atrium. Goodman himself, who was usually sharply was now unkempt, his shirt stained, white hair strewn about the top of his head like he had just jogged through a tornado, a lens of his glasses shattered. A lump on his forehead was crusted in dried blood. He stood by the counter of his store, his shirt stained, His arms were crossed as he spoke to the man across from him, who wore a brown vest and pants, a blue shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat.

Sheriff Robert Wallace, noticing a new presence in the room, turned to face him. “Morning, Kent,” his voice rolled out of his mouth like thunder.

Kent nodded towards Wallace. “Sheriff,” he responded in a brusque tone. He turned to the doctor. “Charles, what’s going on?”

“Take a look for yourself, Kent,” Goodman responded, opening his arms out to the barren store, tears in his eyes.

“Early this morning, a couple broke into the office as Charles here was getting ready for the day,” Wallace said, stepping towards Kent. “They attacked him and emptied the shelves and backroom.”

“They took everything,” Goodman said, his voice trembling, “Money, painkillers…”

“What about the vaccine?” Kent eyes widened. He was across the room before he realized it, digging his fingers into Charles’ shoulders. “Charles, what about the treatment?” Goodman didn’t meet Kent’s eyes, his hollow eyes drifting toward the corner of the room.

“That, too. Everything’s gone, Kent.”

Kent opened his mouth to speak, but no noise came out. His ajar lips and large, twitching eyes made him look insane. His brow furled and he gritted his teeth.

“Who were they?” he growled.

“I…I can’t remember,” Goodman said, “I didn’t get a good look at them. I saw a man approach me, a gun in his hand, and a woman by the door. Next thing I know, they club me over the head, and when I woke up, everything was gone.” Goodman touched the lump on his head and looked at the fingertips, as if there might be fresh blood. Kent let go of Goodman and his hands curled into fists.

“Doc, Caroline needs that medicine. Are you sure they took everything?”

Goodman buried his face in his hands. “I’m so sorry, Kent.” He collapsed into the corner.

Kent turned to Wallace, taking deep breaths through his nose. “Any leads?”

“Was waiting for you to show up first,” Wallace said, taken aback by Kent’s rancor. Even though he was the sheriff, Wallace didn’t do anything without first consulting Kent, leaving himself to talk and bring as much information to Kent’s capable hands as possible. The people of Prescott wanted Kent Miller, the survivalist Civil War veteran, to be the town sheriff, but Kent, preferring a quieter life outside of town, declined. So Prescott was stuck with Robert Wallace, the once-bumbling drunk who could barely see the pile of horse-shit that he just had stepped in. “All Charles remembers is that he was attacked by a man and a woman. Didn’t get a good look at either of their faces. I’ll stick with Charles. Maybe you could take a look around?”

Kent turned dismissively away from Wallace and made a beeline for the shelves. The doctor and sheriff were right. They were cleaned out. No arsenic, no creams, no nostrums, no vaccines. Everything was gone. Kent slammed his fist on the counter. The fury in his chest knotted as he thought of Caroline alone in the house, her eyes becoming hollow like the demon that attacked her. I have to fix this, he thought. He spun around and looked at the shattered door. The muffled yells from the crowd grew louder as he approached the wooden frame, pouring through the gaps like dust on a windy day. The shards of glass were spread out on the floor, having been broken from the outside. Something blue caught his eye. Kent reached to the door and grabbed a piece of blue, gingham cloth which was snagged on the splintered glass. He froze. A man and a woman. A covered wagon. A blue gingham dress. He gripped the cloth as he stood up and turned to Wallace.

“I’ll come get you later,” he said, holding back the feral band of horses in his chest.

“And where are you going?”

“I’m going to find Caroline’s medicine.”

#

Kent pulled back hard on the reins of Strider as he reached the ridge by the roadside. He calmed down his mount, brushing his mane, before stepping off of it, tying him to a nearby fence, and, crouching, began walking down the road. He must’ve followed those wheel tracks for hours. The sun was already starting to set by the time he saw a small pillar of smoke rising thick and greasily into the orange sky. Kent slid down the rough rock and sand of the ridge, and crawled towards the campfire in the distance. He saw the wagon, still covered up with that large cloth, the horse standing off to the side. Around the humble fire sat the man and the woman. He was reclined on the ground, shoving finger-fulls of some indiscernible slop from an iron plate into his mouth, while she just sat up across from him, staring silent, the fire making deep shadows on her gaunt face. Kent slowly moved forward, taking care that his boots didn’t kick up too much dirt or press too loudly on the ground. He made his way behind a large boulder a small distance from the couple. It wasn’t a preferable position, but as he pressed himself up against the rock’s surface, he felt confident that it would protect him. He leaned to the very edge of the stone, listening in on the couple.

“…and when we get to California, it’ll be okay,” the man said, snorting through servings of his dinner and wiping his greasy hair from his brow. “Lots of people made it out there. There’s water, land, protection. Everything’ll be okay.”

The woman gazed towards the man and said nothing, shifting her eyes to the fire and clicking the heels of her boots together.

“I promise, Maggie,” he said, “Once we get to California.”

Kent removed his gun from his holster, leaned over the edge of the boulder, and pointed his gun with a steady arm towards the couple. They wouldn’t be able to see him until it was too late, he thought, and he only needed a single moment to strike. He looked towards the wagon again, and saw a rifle barrel sticking out from under the cloth. He had to be quick.

“We have enough medicine to last the entire way now,” the man continued. The woman nodded and brought a small bottle to her lips. Even from the distance, the distinctive paper label and yellow liquid allowed Kent to recognize the medicine as the same treatment he gave his daughter. Their minds were set, Kent thought. Stolen medicine, fixed plans, weapons…they wouldn’t be willing to negotiate.

A crack filled the air as Kent fired, the bullet striking the man in his shoulder. He shouted as the white-hot bullet tore through his flesh, dropping the plate and reaching for the gun at his side. The horse reared and ran off into the desert, frightened by the sudden noise. The woman scrambled to the wagon, crawling on her hands and knees. Kent made eye contact with the man for a second, seeing an inferno burning in his eyes brighter than the campfire around which they sat, before retreating behind the rock. Another crack and a resounding thud, as a bullet from the man’s gun pounded into Kent’s rock, resonating the entire fortification.

“Maggie, get the rifle!” the man screamed.

Kent leaned over the other side and saw the woman throwing off the tarp on the wagon and thrusting her arm over the side, reaching for something in its depths. Kent aimed and fired. The bullet struck her in the side, just below the ribs. She cried out like a wolf as blood flowed from the wound. He fired again, hitting her in the back. She collapsed, crimson staining her blue dress. The man screamed as he saw the woman fall, a rattling howl which reminded Kent of the way he shrieked when Caroline was attacked. The man turned his gun on Kent once more, firing three times but striking the rock like thunder cracks with every shot. Fragments of rock exploded from the great stone. Kent crouched behind the rock, lifting his hand above the top and blind-fired towards the man. He heard another crack and a bullet whizzed above him, then silence, then the telltale click of the chamber being removed from the gun. He had only a few seconds. Kent stepped out from behind the rock and pointed his gun towards the exposed man. The man was reloading his gun when he looked up, fear in his eyes. Kent fired. The bullet crashed into the man’s stomach. He groaned as he dropped the gun and clutched at his body, red spilling out between his fingers. Kent strode over to the man, picked up the revolver, and placed it in his empty holster, still pointing his own gun at the man.

The man moaned in pain, tears falling from his eyes. “Maggie,” he wept.

Kent turned and looked towards the woman, lying face down on the dirt, motionless, surrounded by a pool of blood. He pointed his gun at her head and fired. The bullet collided with her skull and she remained motionless, still like the morning sky. The man screamed as Kent fired, a scream of pain that made Kent shut his eyes tight and bare his teeth in a grimace.

Kent turned back to the man, looking at him with a face as harsh as uncut stone. “You should’ve expected retribution for what you did.” The man looked up at Kent, pain welling in the folds of his face.

“We was looking out for ourselves,” he wheezed, “She was infected!”

“Well, now she won’t come back,” Kent spat, his gun still pointed directly at the man’s chest. The man cried silent tears, clutching at his side. Kent spun around. “The sheriff will be here soon,” he said, his voice seemed cold enough to extinguish the fire.

“Wait,” the man gasped Kent looked over his shoulder at the pitiful figure reaching out to him. The man choked out the weak words, “Please don’t leave me out here. Don’t let me turn.”

Kent paused. He stood there, looking at the man, his black suit was stained with blood, his face covered in dirt and tears. Kent turned around and aimed the gun at the man’s head. The man looked up at Kent, his eyes pooling, a slight smile on his face as if he were thanking him. The man turned his head away and closed his eyes as Kent cocked the hammer of the gun.

#

Kent sprinted through the doorway of his house. The evening sky was filled with starlight by the time he had retrieved Sheriff Wallace and made it back home. He stood in the entry hallway, listening carefully, in his hand a small glass bottle with golden liquid.

“Caroline!” he yelled out. There was no response, just a slight shuddering throughout the house. He ran down the hall and threw open his daughter’s door. “Caroline,” he gasped.

Her arms flailed as her body convulsed on the straw mattress he had left her on. Kent ran over to her, unfastening the lid of the bottle. He took quick, shallow breaths as he forced open her mouth and poured the liquid down her throat. The convulsions continued for a moment, then settled somewhat. As he kept feeding her the liquid, her shaking grew more and more calm, until it had ceased altogether. She lay still on the bed, her chest rising and falling in a slow, regular manner.

Kent sighed a deep sigh, smiling somewhat for the first time that day. “It’s okay, baby girl. I’m here now,” he whispered, pulling up one of the chairs and the wash-basin. He dabbed a cloth in the water and pressed it against her forehead, looking down with sorrow at her delicate figure. “I’ll never let you become one of them.

A Snake Called Obsession

Let me tell you something, man.

People say that obsession is extreme dedication, that it’s love and devotion on a huge scale. No no no no no. Obsession is a fucking snake. I’ve seen it.

And you’ll see it, too. Next time you think about that new video game you bought, or that new album you started listening to, or that smoking hot chick who sits across from you in Ethics. The next time you think about any of those things, just look carefully around you, and you’ll see it. You’ll see it coiling around, surrounding you like a never-ending storm. And you wait for the tail to come and for that giant goddamn snake to just end. But it doesn’t. It just keeps going and going, until it’s completely surrounded you on all sides, until all you can see are it’s fucking scales and all you can feel is dark and cold, like being buried in snow.

That’s when shit gets crazy, though. The scales begin to change. Their color shifts, from blue to red to green to colors you can’t even recognize. The scales become smooth, and the cold and dark that was surrounding are replaced by a soothing warmth and a soft light. Then, your eyes glaze over and all you can see is that game you were fantasizing about…what was it called? Dragon Age: Inquisiton or some shit like that? Anyway, it becomes sacred, a Holy fucking Grail, suspended in front of you, close enough to where you can see it but never reach it. So you keep reaching for it, because you think it’s your salvation or something. And it becomes all you CAN think about.

That game’s all you ever end up talking about. It’s the first thing you think of when you wake up and the last thing you think of when you fall asleep. You become dirty, your clothes super-wrinkled. You smell like curdled milk and sweat, like you haven’t showered in weeks. You start wearing weird shirts with obscure references that only you’d get and putting goddamn Inquisitor buttons and pins on your backpack and jacket, and who-knows-where-else. And don’t get me started on those glasses. You stay up too late reading fan-fictions online about Cassandra Pentaghast, and so you start wearing glasses to compensate. Those glasses have rose-colored lenses, man.

It’s a sickness that completely envelops you. It’s a stranglehold by a serpent that won’t let you go. Take a look at Lee. He hasn’t talked about anything but Mass Effect for the past two months! Don’t tell me that something isn’t wrong with him. Oh sure, you say you see a glint in his eyes, but all I see are those goddamn scales reflected back at me. It freaks me out, man. And when you talk to him about anything else, try to get him to move onto something different like martial arts or cooking, try to get rid of those things he’s obsessed over, he responds like they all do: “Don’t take this away from me! I need this!”

Don’t ever feed it. That’s how the snake survives: it feeds on your obsessions. Once it encircles you, it never has to sink its fangs in you because you already belong to it. It gains strength the longer you are trapped within it. So how do you get out from its grasp, or how do you avoid it in the first place?

Simple: don’t think about it. Just don’t obsess over that stupid game. It’s just a game, it’s probably not that important in the long run. Just focus on the important things in life, like family and health, and don’t concentrate on stupid shit, like Nostalgia Critic or Chopped. Because when you start obsessing over those things that are a waste of time and energy, that’s exactly how the snake gets you.

James Tiptree, Jr. Imitation Exercise

James Tiptree, Jr.’s writing style can be summed up in the following phrase: to the point. Tiptree does not waste her time with airy words and flowing descriptions, preferring to cut to the meat of the matter. Few words are wasted on figurative language; it’s merely used as a device to set up the rest of the story. Rather than spend a lot of time focusing on the descriptive language, Tiptree chooses her words carefully to depict visceral, “human” actions and emotions that really cut deep into the human experience and forces me to question the flowery writing conceptions I’ve been drilled into appreciating since a young age.

These curt and succinct descriptions also lend to the thematic approaches of her story, which create a sense of intrigue on the surface, but is ultimately much darker and deeper at its depths. Reading stories like “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” one can see the initial fascination with the alien species, characterized using one or two descriptors at most, leaving us to fill in the blanks with our own imagination. This evokes a sense of wonder and mysticism that is inherent in science-fiction. However, on further exploration, the themes of her stories are grim and bleak, warning us of alien threats that might be closer to home than we realize. By the end of “And I Awoke,” we learn how dangerous sexual attraction towards alien species is. This acts as an allegory, prompting us to take caution against unregulated, addictive hedonism. Indulgence can be okay and harmless, but when uncontrolled, can lead to disastrous consequences, which, in the story, potentially lead to the decimation and conquering of humanity.

Tiptree’s initially-simplistic style is far more complex upon analysis, and her stories create a sense of desolate wonder unlike any other science-fiction writer I’ve experienced.


And From Across a Black Ocean, He Called to Me

A cold mist swirled around my feet as I stepped into the black shop. My footsteps were light as I crossed into the largest section of the store. This was strange. Indoor stores were uncommon in Bhimra, especially ones of such reputation. Still, I had to find what I was looking for.

A red sphere on a shelf caught my attention. I picked it up. An apple, glistening crimson as if light were emanating from within. I placed it back to its original position and read the label next to it.

“Syntherian Apple.”

I sneered at it. “Impossible,” I said mockingly.

“Why would you think that?”

I spun around as my eyes bulged out of my head. Standing in front of me was a man, with lanky arms and a beard which pooled at his feet like the fog in the shop. He stood, tilting his head, expectantly waiting for a response.

“Well, i–it’s just that…um…Syntheria…”

“Speak up.” His voice was like a dagger.

“Syn–Syntheria was razed to the ground two centuries ago.”

“And?”

And? I tried to explain how Gorot and his warband salted the earth around the ancient elven city, that nothing grew there anymore, that everyone knew that.

The man smiled, a wide and toothy smile. “Young man, you’ll find that here, many things are possible.” He tapped his fingers together. “But I don’t think it is magical apples that you’re looking for. No, you’ve come for something quite special.”

I stared, watching as he glided around the black store.

“Tell me what it is that you’re searching for. Samsaran texts, a Sigil blade, one of the Amarant Stars. I can assure you, we most certainly have it.”

My hands shook violently as I took the slip of parchment from my pocket and handed it to him, describing how I was to bring that item to my patron.

The man chuckled. “The box…he would ask for the box. My boy, do you have any idea for what your benefactor asks? No, of course you don’t. This box is a particular treasure of mine, one I would not normally pass on to a simple messenger as yourself, but I can make an exception given the circumstances.”

I suddenly recognized his voice. He was the one calling to me in my dreams, the one plaguing my waking moments. He must be the Antiquarian.

He turned with an unexpected swiftness and disappeared behind a bookcase, rustling about for something, throwing rolls of parchment and gemstones behind him. He strode back to me, holding in his hands a small wooden chest.

“Your benefactor does not yet understand the gravity of what he desires. This,” he tapped the lid of the box, “is ancient. Far more so than I am, and its contents are even a mystery to myself. However, I extracted it from the Xaranthines and kept it hidden. I never dared peak inside, oh no. What lies inside here is far to great a temptation even for myself.”

He pushed the box into my chest, until I took it from him. Holding it in one arm, I tried to reach for the bag of coins on my side.

The man chuckled again. “Your master has already paid for it, boy. Everything’s been taken care of.” He leaned in close. “I could barely resist the enticement to open it myself, and I’m far less curious than any man. I wonder if you’ll fare any better.” He shook his head as he turned once more and disappeared into the blackness of the shop. I choked out an attempt to make him wait, but as I walked around, I could not find any trace of the man.

I looked back down at the box. Its clasp was undone and the rough wood was split slightly. I held the lid with a firm hand.

Entry Log 409-5b

The bell in the upper-left quadrant of the glass-and-steel door rings. I pass through the threshold. There are five life-forms inside the place of business. I identify one whom is standing up. Male, 39. All others are sitting and facing away from him. Conjecture: he must be the leader. Are they afraid of him? He wields a metal object in his hand, actively dismembering the hair on their head. Identifying: object appears to be a pair of scissors. Primary use: cutting. Human functions are quite foreign; no database entry on “hair cut.”

Greeting: “Salutations, human.”

The man with the cutting instruments does not turn to face towards my platform. “Jesus, what are you doing here? Thought I told you not to come back after last time. That girl nearly lost her scalp.”

Statement: “I still do not understand. If humans are okay with removing their hair, they must surely accept removal of more.”

His exhalation is distinctly audible. “Well, whatever business you have, make it quick. I’ve got two other customers waiting, and I don’t want you hurting any of them this time.”

Identifying customers: male, 34; female, 17; male, 60. They appear to have excess hair.

Query: “I am, how you would say, curious. How do you dispose of the hair?”

The scissor-man’s eyes turn approximately 346 degrees in their sockets. Analyzing expression: eyebrows raised, pupils contracted, lip curled downward. 95% match to perplexity. He turns his head towards me, away from his victim. “We’ve got a broom. Ricky sweeps it up and throws it in the dumpster. Can’t just leave it around, it’s dirty. Health Department would shut us down. You know the Health Department, right?”

Statement: “My database contains an entry on this Health Department. It is such a shame to dispose of such luscious hair. I do not understand why the government would mandate such an act.” I watch as the scissor-man removes the hair from the male, 34. The brown locks fall to the ground in wet mounds upon the linoleum tile. Searching database for reasons to dispose of hair; error, no entries found.

The scissor-man turns to the end of the cutroom. His vocal amplification increases to 14.3 decibels. “Ricky, sweep it up!” A male, 18, appears from the end of the cutroom, wielding a large implement in one appendage, with a flat plastic plate in the other. Identifying: large object is a broom; flat object is a dustpan. The scissor-man returns his attention to me. His exhalation is again distinctly audible. “Listen, tin man, if you like hair so much, go buy a wig and stop bothering me. There’s a place down on Plantation.”

Search terms inputted: one entry found. WIGGED OUT, 334 Plantation St. Specializing in both monofilament and natural hair wigs.

Query: “One is simply able to purchase a covering made of hair?”

“‘Course you can. Hell, I’m wearing one right now.” The scissor-man reaches with his hand and removes the hair-garment on top of his head, revealing a bald scalp.

Query: “But why would one wish to dispose of one’s own hair. Is it not for warmth?”

The scissor-man replaces his hair-garment to his scalp. “Look, buddy, if I wanted to stay warm, I’d put on a sweater. Hair ain’t about that, it’s about style.”

Missing connector found: style. Related terms: beauty, status. Other automatons are without such qualities.

Conjecture: “Perhaps with a hair-garment, I would be able to become a unique platform. Hair brings with it much ‘beauty and status.’ Without it, one is mundane.”

The scissor-man returns to dismembering the seated male. “I’m not sure about that. Look at Vin Diesel, he isn’t mundane.

Diesel: liquid fuel used to power machinery by compression of air mixture and injection of fuel. Not my machinery.

Statement: “Fuel is irrelevant in this conversation.”

Query: “WIGGED OUT is located 10.3 miles away. Is there not some business transaction that we could make and bypass the locomotive process?”

The scissor-man makes an abrupt cut and pauses. He rotates his head towards me. “How much cash do you got?”

My motivator core glows.

Bad Story Exercise – The Lone Rider of Mysterra: Chapter the Ninth

Brenton, the last in the line of the ancient kings, stood before the Warlock Lord, seated on his black throne, in the vast antechamber. Blade in hand, he slowly strode towards the figure clad in black, his boots clacking on the floor, stopping before the stairs leading up to his dark seat. The towering black marble pillars vaulted above them, opening to the inky sky, a sky devoid of the comfort of light. The only light source stemmed from the Warlock Lord, as he wielded a greatsword which flickered with crimson flame.

“So,” the Warlock Lord rasped, his voice calling out from behind the pale mask he wore to conceal his visage, “You have come to challenge me. How noble. I shall reward you with the honor of a quick death.” His words penetrated Brenton like icicles, filling him with a chilling dread. Nevertheless, Brenton raised his dragonbone sword, pointing it towards his enemy.

“It is my duty to slay you and return peace to this land,” Brenton shouted with conviction, though every fiber of his being shook with fright. Standing in the presence of the Warlock Lord alone was enough to strike fear into any man, let alone challenging the dark titan to a duel.

The Warlock Lord laughed his cold, terrifying laugh, which resembled a mixture between a cacophonous death rattle and a moan slaked in eternal pain. “Defeat me? My child, you are not the first to attempt such a feat, and you will not be the last to fail.” The Warlock Lord rose from his throne and descended the staircase, almost gliding down the marble steps. “Perhaps instead of killing you, I shall turn you into one of my servants. Your abilities will be most useful in my army.”

“I will never serve you, abomination!” Brenton charged forward, thrusting his blade outwards, hoping to penetrate the villain’s heartless chest. The Warlock Lord side-stepped his attack, and Brenton stumbled. As he lost his balance, the Warlock Lord smacked the back of Brenton’s head with a gauntleted fist. Brenton fell and crashed upon the marble staircase, swiftly turning around to face the Warlock Lord from his less-than-preferable position.

“Why do you fight?” the Warlock Lord asked. “You have no chance of victory. My darkness shall consume all. Why resist the inevitable?”

“Because I have things worth fighting for,” Brenton shouted. “Honor, homeland…” He clutched at the golden locket around his neck, “…love.”

The Warlock Lord laughed again, this time shrieking with amusement. “Love? Such miserable palabra shall not save you. Now, die!” The Warlock Lord stabbed his sword downward towards Brenton. Brenton held fast his locket, thoughts of the beautiful Amarra filling his head, as he closed his eyes and braced for the bitter end.

The evil Lord’s blade never reached Brenton, however. A burst of light emanated from between his fingers, pouring forth from the locket. Brenton became surrounded by a golden bubble and, when the Warlock Lord’s blade struck the bubble, it cast him back. The Warlock Lord flew through the air before stabilizing himself and floating to the ground of his throne room.

“What sorcery is this?” he barked at Brenton.

“Love,” Brenton stood up, readying his blade, staring confidently at his enemy. “My love gives me strength, and it is love that shall defeat you!”

“Very well, fool. Let us see pit your love against my hate.”

Chosen – I

2419 A.D., 49 years since Parallax

“One day, this chalk outline will circle this city.”
– Cedric Bixler-Zavala

۩

I was walking past the main gate of the Crafter’s District when her silken, metallic voice came over the intercom.

“Attention citizens: curfew begins in one hour. Please make your way to your residences. Any citizens found outside during curfew are in direct violation of the City’s laws. Thank you for your cooperation.”

I fucking hate her voice. The Recons are dead serious about enforcing the curfew, so, adjusting the bag I carried on my back, I picked up my pace.

The gray sky bore down on me, more than it usually did. Perhaps the Field Marshall’s reminiscence about the sun affected me more than I thought. I’ve never seen the sun, but old-timers like the Field Marshall grew up in an era before the City. What a different time that must’ve been, before the City, before the Rings, before this shit-storm of a life…

The Outer Ring didn’t so much prosper but rather…fester, unlike the rest of the City. Who am I kidding? It’s a shit hole. Sure, there are a few locations, like the Crafter’s District or the AgriCenter, that do well for themselves, but they’re exceptions to the rule. The small complex I live in is just one of many buildings that have fallen into disrepair. I always strode past the glimmering white walls of the Inner Ring when I was a kid, but now, I can pass through them. I know I don’t belong, though. If it isn’t the Recons reminding me of that fact, it’s the Inners.

I walked past an emaciated beggar, sitting outside of a small, metal abode one could barely consider to be a shack. We can’t all get by on rations. I put a couple of astrals into the small box he was holding out.

“First bless you.” He coughed wheezily, holding out his box, hoping other passers-by would be as generous. They, of course, ignored him. But that wasn’t as bad as how the Recons treated him. A couple of them walked past him, like he was a piece of trash. When he reached out to touch them, one of the Recons turned around and smashed him in the face with the butt of his rifle. The beggar screamed in pain as he grabbed his face, blood gushing from between his fingers.

“Get off the street, or next time, we’ll run you in for vagrancy,” the Recon said, pointing his finger at the beggar, before walking away with his comrade. The few bystanders still around were staring at the Recon in shock. “Go about your business, citizens,” he commanded, and the crowd dispersed.

I stepped forward to intervene, to yell at the guard or to assist the man who was now doubled-over in agony on the steel ground, but something yanked at the back of my neck. I turned away and continued along my path.

How did it get this bad?

I approached the towering white gate to the Inner Ring. Clad in his heavy black armor, the Recon at the gate, of course, asked for my identification. They don’t want Outers entering the Inner Ring without reason. I handed him the plastic card with my information.

“State your business.” Can’t imagine he was this gruff to everyone.

“Delivering weapons to the Children of Synthesis.”

He gave me an exhausted, aggravated look through his semi-transparent visor. He obviously wasn’t in any mood to deal with my shit, nor was I in any mood to get my ass beat by Recons. Again.

“I’ve got business with the Archon,” I stated plainly this time. He continued to look at me with that same expression. “Seriously.”

After a short pause, he turned to the other Recon at the post. “Get a confirmation.” Turning back to me, he said, “I find out you’re causing any trouble…”

“Yeah, yeah,” I replied, “heard it all before.”

I’m sure he was about to pull out a baton and give me a thrashing, but his companion called out, “He’s clear.”

The Recon stepped to the side. “Get your business done quick.”

I walked past him, making sure to scuff his boot as I continued by. I should’ve expected the harsh smack from his weapon in the center of my back, but the pain still caught me by surprise. I knew this was a fight not worth having, so I ignored it as best I could.

The gleaming white buildings in the Inner Ring were instantly different in appearance from the fragmented and beaten-down hovels in the other districts. I never felt as though I belonged here, not like my father did. Mom never told me what exactly he used to do for a living. “He was a government contractor,” was the most I could get out of her. She didn’t like talking about dad. Thinking of them, I jogged past advertisements of water purifiers and travel simulators, the seductive perks of being rich. Most of the citizens in the Outer Ring were lucky if the meager amount of astrals they could scrape up could get them a second water ration. I tried to ignore the flashing lights of the city as I made my way to the Skywatch.

I was, again, stopped by the Recons at the barricade to the Skywatch.

“Oh, come on guys,” I said, exasperated, “You know who I am. I’ve been through this gate, what, fifty fucking times now?”

“Standard procedure, Mr. Vaas.” The same bullshit they gave me every time. I think they just got a sick pleasure out of holding me up. I was eventually waved on through. Guess they were getting bored. I slowly began my long trek up the hill, to the white tower which rose above the City.

۩

“What’s up, Aeranas?”

The vaulting white ceiling and the soft blue glow of the Archon’s office always made me feel protected. No matter what happened in the City, I felt weirdly safe in the Skywatch. Maybe it’s because the people here at least pretended to give a damn about us.

“I’ve told you before, Jacob, please address me with a modicum of respect.”

I sighed, “Greetings, Lord Archon.” He gave me this job. I owe him that much.

Archon Bartoq Aeranas stood in front of the window. He turned to face me after I had properly greeted him, his green cloak fluttering behind him. Stress was something that could be seen on the face of everyone in the City, but it was always extremely apparent on his. It weighed heavily on him. He wasn’t old, but the wrinkles that lined his face and the gray in his black hair made him seem much older than he was. The toils of leading the City probably took at least ten years off of his life. “Thank you for humoring me. Now, do you have the Field Marshall’s report?”

“Right here.” Walking over to him, my boots echoing on the smooth metal floor, I handed him a tablet, which I had removed from my pack. He pressed its screen, staring at it for a long moment in silence. “Well, if there’s nothing else, I should be getting home.”

“Hold on for a moment,” he said, putting the tablet down on his desk.

“Sir, curfew’s going to be in effect soon.”

“I told you to wait a moment. This will not take long.” He gestured to the white chairs in front of his desk.

I shrugged. No denying the Archon, I suppose. I sat down in front of his cold metal bureau, as he sat across from me, fingers interlocked, examining me with his gray eyes, gray like the sunless sky.

“Do you know why I gave you this job?” He finally asked.

“Because you owed my father a favor?”

“Yes, but I had another reason in mind. It’s because I trust you.” Oh great, one of these talks. “But your friends…them, I do not trust.”

“Sir?”

“The group you hang around with. To be plain, they’re miscreants. I don’t want to see you falling into their behavior.”

I gave him an annoyed look. “How do you know who I spend time with? Have you been following me?”

“Me, no.”

I knew what that implied.

“I’m concerned for your safety, Jacob. I know what your ‘friends’ do after curfew. I don’t want you being hurt, or worse: caught up in their activities.” He stood up, fingers dragging lightly across the surface of his desk. He was being unusually harsh. What did he know? “If I find you engaging in any illegal behavior with them, I will punish you, regardless of your affiliation with me. Do you understand?”

I hesitated. “Perfectly.”

He smiled wearily. I’m sure he knew I was lying. “Good. Now, get on home. You don’t want to be out after curfew.”

۩

“Attention citizens: curfew is now in effect. Any citizens found outside of their residences during this time will be incarcerated by the Special Tasks and Reconnaissance Force. Curfew will be lifted in twelve hours. Thank you for your compliance.”

Shutting the door behind me, my sister sprinted out from some alcove in our apartment to greet me.

“Jake!”

Elena hugged me around my legs with that immense strength four-year olds seem to have. I patted her on the head. No matter how shitty I felt, she always could cheer me up.

“I was worried you weren’t going to make it back.”

“What, and leave you all alone? Never.”

“Want to see the picture that I made?”

I smiled. “Do I ever.”

She ran back deep into the apartment, most likely to our bedroom. I could hear her feet echoing off the stone floor in the distance. She’s sweet. Sheltering her like this isn’t good, but what am I supposed to do? Knowing what the City was like when I was her age screwed me up permanently, got me mixed up in some bad business. What would it do to her, now that things are worse?

I walked over to the busted holo-screen in the corner of the room. Damn thing hasn’t shown a clear image in years. Only static now, but Elena was probably trying to watch some kid’s show before curfew started. I shut it off. No point in keeping it on during curfew.

She came back from wherever-she-was and thrust a scrap of paper towards me. I took it from her hands, inspecting the four figures she had drew. There she was, messy blonde hair and wide grin, standing between myself, decked out in full Skywatch outfit, and our mother, with her gleaming gold hair and reserved stance. The man on my other side, though, I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t recall anyone in my family who had long brown hair and wore a Recon uniform.

“Who’s this?” I pointed at the unknown man.

“What do you mean? It’s dad?” She giggled.

I took a closer look at the man in the drawing whom she claimed to be our father. She was born a few months before he died, way too young to remember him. Hell, I don’t remember him looking like that.

“Oh yeah, I see it now.” Might as well play along. I handed it back to her. “It’s a great drawing, sis.”

She took it from my grasp, but pouted as she did so. “Don’t lie to me. It’s not that good. You couldn’t even tell dad.”

“Oh no, I just forgot that he had hair like that.” I ruffled her hair. “It really is good, Lena-Baina. I promise.”

She shook her head, trying to get my hand off of her, and looked back up at me. “Thanks, Jake.” I couldn’t tell if she actually meant it or was just placating me.

I yawned. “Hey, I’m really tired. I’m going to go to sleep early. Could you play out here for now?”

“Okay.” She walked over to a stuffed elephant in the corner of the room, conversing with it. I think she loves Trunks more than she loves me sometimes.

I walked to the end of the apartment, but opened the door across from my bedroom instead. I wanted to check on her. She was lying in almost complete darkness, only illuminated by the green glow of the heart monitor by her bedside. Her sheets were strewn in a messy pile around her. It’s been a long time since mom left that bed. Her bright blonde hair was now dull and sickly, her once-full cheeks now gaunt, her smile non-existent. Her chest rose and fell slowly. Every time she exhaled, an almost-silent wheeze came from her open mouth. I reached into my pack and pulled out a small, glass bottle filled with blue pills, which I placed on the counter by her bed. We weren’t supposed to get a refill on our medicine ration until the end of the month, but the Archon pulled a few strings for us. I slowly and silently shut the door as I exited her room and entered my own.

It was cramped, having to share a room with Elena, but I found a way to make it work. Maneuvering around the various toys and pens littered on the floor, I removed my bag, placing it beside my bed as I flopped onto it’s nearly solid surface. I repositioned myself on the uncomfortable mattress, facing away from the opaque window. There wasn’t much else one could do after curfew, apart from sleep. And I needed the rest.

۩

The faint knocking at my door woke me up. I turned to see my sister in her bed, still fast asleep, before checking my watch. Midnight. On time as usual. Dex was always a man of his word. I hopped out of bed, tip-toeing to the front door of our complex.

As I opened the door, Dexter’s mousy face greeted me. He may have been a few years older than me, but he was still scrawny. Good thing he was quick, though, or the Recon’s would’ve gotten to him a lot sooner. Still, being out this late, even dressed in dark clothing and with a vast knowledge of the Recon’s patrol patterns, was dangerous.

“Good to see you, mate.” Dex and I couldn’t meet up as often as I would like. My work got in the way, but our evening excursions always brought us together again. “Ready to go?”

I nervously shifted my weight as I looked at the ground. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go tonight.”

“Jake, what are you talking about?”

“I think the Archon’s following me. He knows what we’re doing.”

Dex swore to himself as he walked past me into the living room. I closed the door quickly, turning to see him sitting down on the rough couch in the middle of the room.

“What does he know?”

“He was mentioning that he knows about what we do after curfew.” I leaned against the wall.

“But he couldn’t prove anything.”

“Dex, he’s the Archon. He doesn’t have to prove anything.”

He scratched the back of his head feverishly. Anything that went off the plan made him nervous. “We gotta deliver the Nether. You know Callax.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I do.”

“He’s already pissed about some dorks who got caught going off plan. Recons got to them, seized a few cases. We gotta stick to the plan. That’s all there is to it.”

“But the Archon…”

“Fuck the Archon, man.” He stood up and paced around the room, turning every few steps to prevent walking into the walls. “Callax knows what he’s doing. As long as we stick to the plan, we can avoid the Recons, make the deal, and be back before curfew lifts.”

That didn’t really comfort me. “You sure?”

He looked me straight in the eye and gave me his most consolatory smile, a weak grin that resembled a nervous admittance of dishonesty rather than encouragement. “We’ve listened to Callax this far and things have worked out for us. We don’t have a choice, Jake. We trade the Nether, get the ration cards, and get out. Callax’s happy, the clients are happy, we’re happy.”

“Speak for yourself.” None of this made me happy.

“I know, man, I know. But Callax’s depending on us.”

I straightened up from the wall, shrugging at Dex. “Yeah, I guess he is.”

He grinned and strode towards the door. Putting my boots on, I joined him as we exited from my home and sprinted through the darkness. Sometimes, I think we know the patrol routes better than the Recons do. At least, I hope we do.

Excerpts from “Reflections from the Stars” by Nikolaus Borghaaz

Published 2389

We called It the Zenith, and we believed It to be godsend. No one was sure from where or when that monumental black obelisk came, but this much could be agreed upon: It was not of this Earth. It was our first confirmation, after a history spanning the course of thousands of years, of the existence of an alien species who had, at one point, traveled to our blue planet and left their impression on its surface. Much like these Visitors, I leave this account so our progeny may understand the mistakes we have made. In this way, perhaps you will become the redemption our species now seeks.

۞

The year was 2341, the day the 18th of August. Though my mind decays, I will remember this date for the rest of my life.

We discovered It in a chamber far below the surface, deep inside the Rocky Mountains, while exploring a newly found cave system. A team of archaeologists, scientists, and engineers, myself among them, found a never before seen pattern of radiation emanating from within the mountain range. Barely distinctive in any form, it was nearly identical to background radiation, impossible to discern, unless one was looking for it. Nevertheless, we found this signal both fascinating and disturbing. Such readings had never been seen on Earth before, and so all desired to discover its source. In order to understand this radiation and its origin, we set on a journey through the center of the mountains. The primary exploration team consisted of myself, an archaeologist from the New Republic of Baltaslavia, Dr. Anthony Rickard of the physics department at the University of Astra in New York, Emilio Vescio of the Center for Radiation and Alternative Energies Studies, and Sir David Edgerton of the International United Sovereignty’s Cosmological and Interstellar Research Division.

It was found in the epicenter of an expertly excavated, and even more expertly hidden, chamber. Though It was imbedded in the stone, It appeared as though It were placed there, for us, or someone else, to find and activate. It towered nearly a hundred feet above us, radiating a strange coldness. I remember the sense of dread that filled my very essence as we approached It and the frost that penetrated through me. It was unlike anything we had ever seen. Though It was ancient, Its metallic surface was intricately carved with swirling designs. We ascertained that among the patterns was an unknown language, a message which was left for us. We could not read what had been written on Its ebony surface. Maybe if we had, we would have known to avoid It.

And then, Rickard had discovered a smoothness on Its inky exterior. What prompted him to touch the flat plate, I cannot imagine. Perhaps he was motivated by the universal thirst for knowledge, or perhaps It had already begun to indoctrinate him by Its very presence. Whatever the true reason, he placed his hand on the surface of the pylon, and, in that instant, everything we had ever known changed.

Light exploded from the obelisk, bathing us in a heavenly aurora. The coldness that filled me to the brim had now been replaced by a soothing warmth. When my eyes had finally adjusted and the outburst of luminosity had died down, I saw Rickard convulsing before the monolith, whose surface now radiated white. He stood in front of It, shaking, his eyes rolling to the back of his head as the curves and patterns on Its surface glowed. Without thinking of the consequences, I rushed forward to pull him back and as I tackled him, the light from Its surface dimmed. Rickard recovered from his seizure and immediately shoved me to the side. Kneeling on the ground, he drew on the cave floor, writing out strange mathematical proofs into the damp dirt. Though we attempted to question his health and implored him to answer us, he would ignore us, pleading with us to stay quiet as he continued his equations. Edgerton and I resigned Rickard to his work, while Vescio watched over him, as we continued in our attempt to understand the artifact before us. It was ancient, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years old, and yet the technology that went into crafting such a monument was millenia more advanced than anything we could create. It rose above us ominously, an ebony spire in an already dark cavern. Such symbolism was not lost on us.

Vescio called out suddenly, beckoning us over. Pulling my eyes away from the pillar, I turned to see for what reason Vescio had hailed us. He pointed towards the equations and statements written out by Rickard. Edgerton, after a moment, recognized them. It was a variation on a series of formulas designed around the creation of a faster-than-light warp engine drive, capable of bringing spacecrafts to the edges of our solar system within minutes. Edgerton was stunned, and for good reason. His research department at IUSCIRD had been working on developing warp drives for over fifteen years and they could never discover a method of rendering the plasma required into a safe method of charging the engines without overheating the drives or generating deadly radiation. At long last, Rickard sat back, staring at the blueprints he had written out. We questioned him, asking him where the knowledge came from, and he responded by looking back at the obelisk. It was impossible to even consider. Could such a technology contain this sought-after information?

One after another, Vescio, Edgerton, and I approached the spire and placed our hands upon Its flat surface. Much like Rickard, Vescio and Edgerton convulsed and shook before It, white filling their eyes. This time, however, we simply waited and observed, in order to ascertain what would happen. Unexpectedly, after only seconds, they snapped out of their seizures and began to discuss what they had seen. It would be as the ravings of madmen, had I not experienced it myself.

Fearing what would happen, I pressed my hand onto the obelisk and it seemed as though time had stopped. I stood among nebulae, gasses of greens and violets surrounding me as stars and other astral bodies filled the void of space around me. It is difficult to describe, but it felt as if I had become as central to the cosmos as the sun to our own planet. I attempted to walk forward, and found that I could not lift my legs. My feet were rooted to the non-existent ground. Seeing as I could not move my lower body, I outstretched my arms with ease. It was at this point that I heard a faint whispering, a nearly silent lull that beckoned to me in a tongue which I could not understand. I felt compelled to reach out and pluck a star from its place in space. I did just that, clutching at a nearby heavenly body. As I drew it near, however, it erupted into new shapes. Floating around me were now mathematical equations, chains of molecular structures, paragraphs upon paragraphs of words in various languages, blueprints, codes, notes, plans. Though I could not recognize nor understand all that which surrounded me, I began to comprehend what it was: it was a guide, a series of documents encased within an archaic, advanced reliquary. The designs which drifted around me could be utilized in various fields: philosophy, infectious disease research, interstellar travel. It appeared as though every industry our race had sought to completely conquer was finally within reach. I stood there for an endless stretch of time, reading the compositions which swirled around me, attempting to understand them. Even though they were in a format I could easily read, many of the concepts were in fields I had not studied. The silent voice, which had become a companion to me by this point, faded away and the astral world around me dimmed. I slowly awoke to see my fellow researchers standing around me, waiting anticipatively to see if I had experienced a similar revelation. We did not speak for a long time and yet we knew we shared the same thought: we stood on the precipice of something greater than we could ever have conceived. And what occurred was far greater, and far more devastating, than anyone could have imagined.

۞

In the months that followed the discovery of the artifact, which became colloquially known as the Zenith, an unprecedented level of progress rocketed forth from the human mind. Almost immediately after the news of the Zenith went public, the International United Sovereignty, headed by Prime Minister Elena Wagner, imposed restrictions, sending in the military to secure It, and began to build a headquarters nearby. Accelerated by the materials obtained from the Zenith, construction of the Skywatch, an advanced military garrison and encampment, was completed in less than a year.

Few individuals were allowed near the Zenith, in order to ensure safeguards. Even fewer were allowed to interact with It. A select few individuals, myself and the Discovery Team included, were able to approach the Zenith and extract information from within. Vescio and Edgerton began, from that point, to work for the IUS and utilize the Zenith to obtain schematics for desired research. The technologies they discovered paved the way for innovations in weapons, medicine and disease control, interstellar travel, and quality-of-life improvements. These findings were not released to the general public, however. The IUS deemed that many of these discoveries, were they to fall into the wrong hands, could lead to a break in the international peace which the world had long-since fought and bled for.

I did not desire to network with It any longer. It was apparent that the Zenith was an object far beyond our comprehension. A research team scanned It days after our discovery. The readings they returned were unusual, to say the least. The Zenith was comprised of a yet-unknown metal, an element which had never before been seen. It radiated the natural energies of the universe, which seemed to power It. It was a self-perpetuating device that was too powerful for our own good, despite the knowledge It yielded. In the end, I returned to Baltaslavia to continue my research on proto-humans, all the while contemplating my encounter with the Zenith. The whispers which encircled me as I entered the Zenith still follow me, calling me back to It. I resist the beckons of the artifact.

Others, however, believed It to be a source of salvation for humanity. Anthony Rickard, the first man to interact with the Zenith, promptly resigned from his position at the University of Astra and founded an organization promoting “the universal spread of knowledge and an interaction between forces, in order to promote the common welfare for humanity’s future.” In other words, a religion. Called The First among his technophyte followers, Rickard’s organization, The Children of Synthesis, argued that the technologies discovered—everything, from warp drives to cancer medication—should be made free for the citizens of humanity to use as they desired, eventually leading to humanity becoming one with machines. A noble cause, yes, but the methods by which they desired to acquire the Zenith’s technologies were far from benevolent. The technophytes attacked genetic research laboratories, weapon contractors, and hospitals, in retaliation for the restrictions imposed by the IUS, which in turn caused more limitations to be enforced. A vicious cycle of conflict began and continued at that point, which only further escalated after Rickard was assassinated in 2344 by Henry Elias, a man believed to be behind numerous governmental killings.

The public outrage and riots sparked by Rickard’s martyrdom led to the IUS slowly, but surely, releasing the technologies developed from the Zenith. Within a decade, our technology had jumped forward by nearly two centuries. Hundreds of epidemics were eliminated. The rising conflicts in the African Demilitarized Zone were quelled. Humans traveled to the edges of the solar system and beyond. New cities popped up around the world. Treatments converted otherwise undrinkable water into a form which could be used, ending the global drought. Lifespans of humans were nearly doubled. It was a new golden age for humanity, a period of time known as The Rise. If only we knew how far we would fall.

۞

The scanners of the Skywatch revealed startling information after countless checks and rechecks. Every time the Zenith was used, It would release a signal, a more immense version of the signal which the Discovery Team had used to find It. Astronomers and cosmological watchers at the Skywatch included their own signal among the ones sent out by the Zenith, to see where they would head. After months, a signal was sent back, from far beyond the edge of the solar system. It was foreign, unnatural. It was a sign that something alien was headed our way, compelled to us by the Zenith. No one was certain whether it was the creators of the Zenith or something else entirely, but the general consensus became that one day soon, we would be visited by an alien species. Even if they had access to the same technologies as the Zenith granted, warp drives could only accelerate the ships beyond the speed of light by so much. It would be years at the earliest before we would be visited.

First Contact was made on January 22, 2366. The craft was unlike anything we had ever conceived. It was far different from the design of the Zenith, black and carved with intricate patterns. The ship was sleek and white, gigantic and yet contained. However, it glowed with that same radiance which came from the Zenith. It touched down outside of London, near the headquarters of the IUS. A number of governmental officials, including Prime Minister Wagner, met the visitors as their ship landed, watched by thousands of citizens in person and billions on holo-screens.

No one expected what stepped out from that ship. As a lift descended from the underside of the craft, humanity looked on as three robotic beings disembarked from the vessel. They were humanoid in shape, with skin of pure white, a black skeleton barely visible beneath their semi-transparent surface. Walking over to the government officials, they appeared to be significantly taller than humans, rising a couple feet above even the tallest present. Perhaps the most disturbing feature was their faces, or their lack-thereof. Where a face would normally reside, there was what appeared to be a sheet of glass. They had no eyes, no noses, no ears. Only a pair of lips, located near the bottom of their heads. They approached Prime Minister Wagner. The whole world stood silent, watching them. After nearly a minute of muteness, they bowed.

The one in front identified itself as Vigil, a member of the Collective. It explained that the Collective is a race of networked advanced intelligences who hail from the Tau Nebula on far rim of the galaxy. The Collective’s origins were unknown, even to themselves. They were created thousands of years ago by someone called the Grand Creator. Ever since the Collective first became aware, they sought after anything developed by this god-like figure whom they worshiped, a being whose works disappeared many millenia previously and only fragments of which remain. Vigil claimed that what we called the Zenith was one such technology created by the Grand Creator. Prime Minister Wagner, who stared in stunned silence, finally spoke up, stating how she hoped this would become the first step in a peaceful coexistence between their kinds. With that, more lifts descended from the Collective’s ship, and many more of their kind exited and interacted with the humans present. The First Contact was, by humanity’s standards and hopes, a success.

۞

The peace between our kinds did not last as Prime Minister Wagner hoped. After being denied access to the Zenith numerous times, the Collective emissary Vigil issued an ultimatum: allow their kind to access the Spire of the Grand Creator, or otherwise be issued the full-force of their might. In a meeting between our two kinds, Prime Minister Wagner calmly explained to Vigil that access to the Zenith was restricted even amongst humanity, that even though the Collective were peaceful, granting them contact was a risk that she could not take. She had barely finished her statement before Vigil raised his hand before her and fired from his palm a blast of energy, killing her instantly. We had no time to react before the leadership of Earth’s united government was eliminated. The Parallax had begun on June 13, 2370.

The Collective’s ships filled the skies as beams of light erupted from their vessels and lay waste to the surface of Earth. Collective soldiers marched upon our cities, killing human civilians and military indiscriminately. The audacity of such acts had not been seen on Earth for centuries. War crimes of this magnitude were non-existent as of The Rise, and now we were faced with a threat far greater than we could have prepared for. The various world militaries and the IUS’s Special Tasks and Reconnaissance Force were deployed to key locations around the globe in order to minimize the severity of casualties while defeating the onslaught of Collective, but to no avail. The technologies utilized by this advanced hivemind were too great for our soldiers.

Not all Collective were the enemy, though. There were a number of factions who did not associate with Vigil and his invasion force. The Severed were one-such group, an offshoot of Collective who had been removed from the network and did not have access to their kind’s minds. This did not stop the animosity between our species, however. The Collective were the enemy, and therefore, all Collective, regardless of their association to Vigil, were seen as a threat. Some of the Severed went into hiding, while others were protected by the IUS, an action which was taken to the displeasure of the common folk.

The Collective invaders blackened the Earth’s surface and darkened its skies, turning most of the planet uninhabitable. Major cities were abandoned or otherwise destroyed. Civilians fled their homes, escaping to whichever military bunker would accept them. Thousands were protected by the IUS STRF, who now coordinated the planet’s militaries. The bunkers could not hold everyone, however. Thousands more were turned away by the STRF, forced to find shelter elsewhere. Some civilians who were denied entry by the STRF created hidden settlements in caves and underground, hidden sanctuaries where they could remain undetected by both humans and Collective. Most, unfortunately, were slaughtered by the Collective invasion force.

The war in the skies raged on as human warships met the Collective fleet. Though the Collective were smaller in number, their weaponry was far more advanced. Their cannons and lasers shot down numerous human vessels, but we were not entirely defenseless. Technology yielded by the Zenith, along with the sheer amount of human ships, gave us a chance to repel their forces. We were at a stalemate. Both human and Collective ships were shot down at regular rates, creating the vast wasteland of devastated ships that now floats around the planet, called The Steel Graveyard. Ground forces were able to hold back the Collective at numerous flashpoints, but the technology of the Collective, as well as their scorched earth tactics, were too much for humanity to handle. It was no surprise, then, when the leader of the STRF, Archon Alexander Gabrysch, contacted me.

۞

What choice did the Archon have? It had been years since the Parallax started and humanity was out of options. As I was the only one of the men still alive who had contact with It, I was a prime candidate for returning to the Zenith and extracting what information I could from It, anything which could give our forces an advantage against the Collective. Edgerton had died during the invasion, while Vescio’s mental state had long-since deteriorated, a side-effect of exposure to the Zenith. Access to the Zenith had been completely restricted after those who came in contact with It showed signs of mania, dementia, and insanity. I admit, the whispers still called to me. I feared their appeals for so many years, but the time had come for me to return and do what I could to save the human race.

I returned to the Skywatch, which had become a displaced persons camp, so crowded and built up that it now resembled a fractured city. It was far different from the top-of-the-line military base I remembered it to be. Escorted by the STRF into the Zenith caverns, I passed by various military checkpoints and stationary unmanned weapons, until I approached the obelisk once more. Trepidation filled my heart as I pressed my hand to It. My body froze and I once again found myself in the nebulae. This time, though, I did not find comfort in the brume of space. I grabbed at one of the stars of knowledge and began reading, reading, reading. I sought any information that would help humanity in its fight. It felt as though I had searched through the records of the Zenith for days, while in actuality it lasted only for a few seconds. I was exhausted and exasperated, and yet I continued to search. At long last, however, I found schematics for a pulse weapon that could be utilized for military forces or anti-air weaponry. I studied the blueprints closely and shortly thereafter found myself waking up in the Zenith chamber. I notated the information, which was now etched onto my brain, inside the Skywatch’s command post, explicitly stating how each element of the weapon worked. Satisfied, Archon Gabyrsch ordered for the weapons to be developed immediately.

Every soldier and ship was outfitted with these new pulse weapons, the effects of which were instantaneously apparent on the Collective forces. The beams of plasma shot through the Collective as though they were paper, their fleets suffering a similar effect. For once, the tide of battle was turning in our favor. Less than a year after the STRF began using the pulse weapons, the remaining few Collective warships commanded by Vigil fled beyond the Kuiper Belt. After thirteen years, the war was over. Humanity survived the Parallax.

But at what cost? Our blue planet was now black. The IUS estimated that over ninety percent of humanity had been eradicated by the Collective, while the Collective suffered similar losses. The majority of the planet had been scorched beyond repair, rendering most land uninhabitable. What humans remained were, for the most part, distrustful of their new government, which declared total control over the world’s forces and, furthermore, harbored what many considered enemies of the planet. The conflict reached a boiling point when Archon Gabyrsch declared that access to the Zenith and many of its technologies would be, from that point onward, completely denied. The surviving Children of Synthesis were outraged, stirring up the anger of the survivors who were already enraged at the IUS for their quarantines and restrictions. Those who despised the totalitarian power of the IUS fled into the Wastes, in order to build fractured settlements. Most of these wanderers resorted to abhorrent acts in order to survive, such as banditry, rape, even cannibalism. The plurality of survivors, however, saw the IUS as the only entity which could protect them and ensure any future. The Skywatch became the only safe place on Earth, and so the military base became the last City of humanity with the Skywatch, the new government capitol, at its center. The remaining humans and Collective live inside of the City, attempting to create a marginally hopeful future for both our kinds.

۞

As for myself, my mind has now decayed beyond any point of improvement. Though I may write with some mastery of language, it is with great difficulty. The whispers of the Zenith claw at my mind. I hallucinate regularly, seeing strange visions of alien creatures. Soon, I will no longer be comprehensible. And so I leave this record of my tale for others to find. I will exit the City, a militarized nation and the final bastion of humanity, in order to find a quick mercy in the Wastes rather than suffering the elongated anguish of insanity. Woe unto humanity, for we believed the Zenith to be our salvation, the tool to a golden age of prosperity. Instead, It became our doom, turning us from anticipated ascendants into a race of the damned. Our legacy is not the technological fortune we hoped for, but instead, our legacy is a slow and drawn-out death.