I Am a Genius: listen to my words

I Have the Conch


listen to my words

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Tabitha Reeves: SPACE GIRL! Parts I –

Part I: Awakening

Gasping. Confusion. Panic. Choking. Vertigo. Collapse.

Tabitha Reeves hit the metal grate covering the floor on her hands and knees. She vaguely felt the blood leaking through the skin on her knees as she coughed over and over. It felt like dry heaves, but a little liquid came out each time. It looked a little like blue mucus, she thought. What the hell is going on?

Then strong hands grabbed her shoulders, and flipped her over. Everything was blurry, but she made out a huge man holding her down. She was suddenly acutely aware of the fact she wore no clothing.

Panic and bile rose to her throat as the man set his knee across her legs and pinned her shoulders to the floor. Then another set of hands shoved something hard in her mouth, lodging it between her back teeth to hold her mouth open. Then some sort of tube went in and down her throat. Another object went into her nose and she felt it hit her throat as well.

A second later there was suction in her lungs and her gut, then the blue mucus started to flow through the tubes. Her body started to relax, and as it did she felt the man move off of her. She tried to sit up but found that didn’t work so well, and she felt another bruise form on her elbow. So she laid there, waiting for her strength, sight, or breath to return.

As Tabitha waited she was given a towel by one of the people with her. She wiped her face, noting finally that her body was covered with a thing layer of something very like the slime being withdrawn from her body. As she toweled off and her mind relaxed she was able to remember how she’d gotten here.

She’d been in stasis – that explained the slime, it provided her body with oxygen and nutrients and even simulated the benefits of exercise for her muscles and bones while holding her aging at bay. The ship she was on was bound for Chigon IV. Even at faster-than-light speeds propelled by the dark matter drive it was a trip that would take decades.

She hadn’t imagined waking up was that unpleasant. She’d read the documents they’d given her. Disorientation and minor sickness was all she remembered. But she thought they used beds and restraints to avoid some of the trauma.

She finished toweling off and she was handed another towel — no, a blanket. She wrapped it around her body and looked up and around to try to get some bearings, but everything was still blurry.

The big man grabbed her arm and she felt a sharp pinch. She tried to pull away but he held her fast while injecting her with… something.

She was distracted as suddenly she started coughing again. The last of the blue fluid had left her body, which she could tell because the tubes were clear now. She couldn’t get her body to breathe on its own, though.

The second figure came to her rescue and quickly pulled the tubes from her face, then slapped her back till she had one final, wet cough and drew her first, ragged breath.

“Thanks. I…” she couldn’t hear herself. She felt panic rise for the third time when the figure who had just helped her made calming gestures. A hand held forward, fingers slightly splayed, telling her to wait a moment.

As she stared, she started to make out more details. The second figure was a woman. Above average but not too tall. Jet black hair, dusky skin and blue eyes, indicated a mixed genetic heritage. She wore a tight uniform of gray-blue, identifying her as crew on the ship. She sat on the floor, holding the used towel and smiled kindly at Tabitha, showing white teeth.

The big figure was indeed a man. Genetically designed, it appeared. He had the purple eyes that indicated such. Which explained his size: he was squatting but Tabitha could tell he was at least seven feet tall, and at least half that shoulder to shoulder. Every bit of his body was muscled, and she could tell because he wore a uniform similar to the woman’s. It didn’t hide much on either of them.

Tabitha drew the blanket tighter around her, suddenly embarrassed at her nakedness.

The man said something, but Tabitha still couldn’t hear. The woman responded, and it went back and forth for a few moments.

After a few moments Tabitha was able to make out the names sewn on the left breast of her companions’ uniforms. The woman’s read “Genzi.” The man was “Schwartz.” Last names, clearly.

“… long will it take.”

Tabitha jumped as her hearing suddenly returned.

Genzi laughed softly. “Apparently that long. Can you hear me, honey?”

Tabitha nodded.

Schwartz grunted. “Finally. We don’t have time.”

“Come on, we need you.” Genzi held out a hand.

She was still confused, but she took the proferred hand and rose to her feet, stumbling slightly.

Genzi led her through a door, and Schwartz followed them.

“Get dressed,” Schwartz growled. He held out a uniform similar to the ones they wore.

Tabitha took it gingerly but hesitated.

Genzi spoke up again. “Schwa, dear. Give her a moment of privacy.” Schwartz grunted again but stepped back through the door and slid it closed. “You want me to leave too, honey?”

Tabitha wasn’t sure, but she needed answers, so she shook her head and started to dress. She noted that the name on the uniform said “Kronopolos.” It wasn’t made for her. She hoped it would still fit. “What’s going on?” she asked. “I wasn’t supposed to be revived until we got to Chigon.”

Genzi grimaced. “I’m afraid you’re not going to like the answer.”

Part II: Escape!

For some reason, that didn’t surprise Tabitha. She hadn’t liked being woken up at all. Why should not liking the reason for it be a shock? Tabitha didn’t respond, she just waited for Genzi to continue. Which she did a moment later.

“The ship’s been hailed by another vessel.”

“What?” Tabitha paused, her arm half in one of the sleeves. “What are the chances that two ships can get close enough to hail out here?” The space between Chigon and anywhere civilized was vast, even by astronomic measures.

“Impossible. Or near enough to not matter any. Unless they had a means of tracking the ship. It wouldn’t be that hard to install something if they got to the ship before it departed.”

“But, why would they?”She finished sliding her arm in.

“If they wanted something from the ship and found it difficult to acquire while in port, they could reach it in space, where security would be easier.”

“So these guys are crooks? Ok, fine. But why are you waking me up?”

Genzi gave a humorless grin. “Honey, you’re what they want.”

“Me? That doesn’t make sense. My family isn’t rich. They can’t get a ransom.” Tabitha finished dressing and the break along the front sealed seamlessly as she ran her finger along it. Whoever this Ms. Kronopolos was, she has small feet and a small rear end, but a much larger bust. It was almost too tight to walk in the legs but quite roomy up top.

Genzi shrugged. “You’re Tabitha, right?” Tabitha nodded. “You’re who they asked for. We’ve woken you because they’re going to board. We don’t have defenses strong enough to repel them. On board security teams should probably be able to stop them, though. We just don’t want to risk they’ll make it this far and get you.”

Genzi was right, Tabitha didn’t like the answer. She swallowed, her throat dry. “Ok.”

“Ready, honey? Ok, let’s go.” She slid the door open and greeted Schwartz.

Schwartz nodded and started walking.

The room was full of passengers in stasis. Rows and rows of tanks, all of them filled with blue, viscous fluid in which a human body floated motionlessly. It was eerie to see them all in so much silence. There had been a lot more movement and noise when she’d entered the tank before departure.

Schwartz didn’t pause, moving forward with the ease and directness of someone who was familiar with such sights and had something else to get too. Tabitha was behind him, Genzi bringing up the rear.

They exited through a door on the far side of the room and passed through close, dark corridors, turning every now and then. The walls curved away from the floor and then back together to the ceiling, making the halls resemble tubes. Tabitha was unable to keep track of the path they took.

Before long, the distant sounds of fighting could be heard. Shots, crashes, small explosions. Though it was cold, Tabitha felt perspiration forming on her body. The uniform quickly swept it away, but she was still aware of it.

They encountered a small pack of men. They weren’t dressed in uniforms, but they carried firearms of various models and styles. One of them grinned. “How much you bet this is her?” he cackled.

Tabitha’s eyes went wide, but Schwartz didn’t hesitate. He ran forward, yelling incoherently at ear-damaging volume. The invaders fired but that didn’t stop Schwartz as he waded into the middle of the crowd, throwing enemies to the side. He was probably wearing something to block the attacks, but that he didn’t even break stride was impressive.

“Come on, honey,” Genzi said, pulling Tabitha down a side passage. Tabitha followed, not willing to wait and see how the fight ended. Genzi held her wrist and pulled her along. They were moving than Tabitha believed she could run. Soon Tabitha was breathing hard, but Genzi kept going.

A man blocked their passage. His purple eyes showed he was genetically designed, but he was nothing like Schwartz. He was smaller, narrower, wiry. He had corded muscles on his arms and legs that made them look like braided steel cables. And his arms were long, like an ape. He raised his arm and his arm grew at least five feet.

Genzi dropped low and grasped the man’s wrist. His arm shrunk back to its previous size, even as his other arm stretched out again, grabbing lower to keep Genzi from ducking again.

This time Genzi dodged to the side and ran up the round wall before pushing off and launching herself at the man. A knife appeared in her hand and she stabbed the man’s neck. Blood sprayed everywhere.

“Let’s go,” Genzi said, waving to Tabitha.

Tabitha stood for a second, taking in what happened. “How did you do that?”

“Honey,” Genzi hissed. “We don’t have time. There’ll be more.”

Tabitha finally found motivation to move and stepped to Genzi. The dark-skinned woman took Tabitha’s wrist and started running again. She hid the knife back on her sleeve as they moved.

The sounds of fighting grew louder and closer. Genzi stopped to check a computer panel, bringing up a display that looked like ship floor plans. Red and blue dots blinked all over it.

“Cark!” Genzi spat. “They’re everywhere. We can’t get to the secure hold.”

“What do we do? Surrender?” Tabitha tried to keep the fear from her voice, but the rising pitch almost certainly gave it away.

“If you want to be a pirate’s slave, be my guest, honey.” When Tabitha didn’t answer Genzi continued. “We could take an escape pod, but at this point the pirates are just as likely to win as the crew. ” She stared at the screen for a few more moments. “We could walk.”

“Walk? We’ve been running…” Tabitha realized suddenly what Genzi meant. “You mean… outside?” Genzi nodded. “But I’m not rated for… I’ve never even done it before! What if I float off?”

“Honey, we can stick to the outside of the ship. The bad guys are either driven off or leave when they can’t find you. Afterward, we go back in and you’re safe. We’ll tether together so you can’t get lost. I don’t see another option.”

Part III: Clinging to the Surface

No other option? Tabitha could think of a few. Fighting their way through was one. Genzi was more than competent, it would appear, having taken out that Gen-D without breaking a sweat. They could take the escape pod, which was much less terrifying than the prospect of a space walk. But Genzi was right. With the outcome of the battle up in the air, who knew who would pick the pod up? If either one did at all. Both ships could be disabled and then where would she be?

Tabitha closed her eyes. “Alright. We’ll walk,” she heard herself say. She shivered as she did so. She opened her eyes to see the humorless grin on Genzi’s face.

“Let’s do it then.” She took Tabitha around a corner to an airlock. A variety of space suits hung in the hallway by the iris portal.

They both began to dress, Genzi in a navy blue suit, Tabitha in a pink one. When she had her feet and arms in, Tabitha couldn’t figure out how to seal the suit. She touched the zipline but it didn’t respond.

“They don’t work that way. They’re designed not to respond to touch – that makes it too easy to open the suit in space.” Genzi set the helmet – a transparent bubble that looked a little like a slightly flattened fishbowl – on Tabitha’s head and pointed at a screen by the hanging suits. “Everything in the suit is controlled by eye movements. The seal command is pretty complex because, well, you don’t want to accidentally open up your suit out there. Just follow the dot with your eyes.” She pressed a button and a blinking purple dot appeared on the screen. For several seconds it moved in circular patterns that crossed over each other and then turned into back and forth and up and down. Tabitha could see why they had the screen help, because she couldn’t imagine ever memorizing the pattern.

When the dot disappeared, she heard the soft thumb and tearing sound of the suit sealing. The inside surface of the helmet was suddenly covered with a variety of lights in complex data displays. Charts, read outs, lists, arrows – she couldn’t make sense out of any of it. She stumbled backward, then held as still as she could, trying to overcome the vertigo caused by the display superimposed over the real world.

Inside her suit, she heard Genzi laugh. “You can’t see, can you?”

Tabitha shook her head.

“Using the HUD is at least half of the rating program for using one of these. Move your eyes right-left-right-left.”

Tabitha relaxed as the display disappeared, replaced by the solidity of the real walls.

“You can talk, you know,” Tabitha told her. “The comm is voice activated and defaults to broadcasting to local suits.”

“Ok,” Tabitha said quietly.

Genzi held the end of an orange cable. “The tether,” she explained. “Turn around.” When she did Genzi pushed the cable against the back of Tabitha’s suit. “Move your eyes in a clock wise circle three times.” The cable sealed itself to Tabitha’s suit. More accurately, the suit sealed itself to the cable, Tabitha thought.

Genzi held out the other end of the cable. It was about 20 feet long. “Push it against the square on my back.”

When they were both connected to the tether, Genzi started pushing buttons by the screen again, but seemed to ignore the button for opening the lock.

“I’m hacking the registry so there’s no record we went out this way,” she explained. We don’t want them to know where to look for us.”

As Genzi worked, Tabitha became aware of how silent it had become. While dressing, they had heard the sounds of the ship operating and the fighting going on. But inside the suit the silence was absolute. Tabitha couldn’t remember anything being this quiet.

At last Genzi finished and opened the iris door to the airlock. “Let’s go, honey.”

Tabitha stepped in, and the iris closed behind her. It was dark inside the lock.

“Why isn’t the other door opening?” she asked, her voice shaking a little.

“They’re pumping the air out. Interstellar travel teaches you not to waste. They don’t want to lose the oxygen that was in here.”

Tabitha nodded, forgetting that Tabitha couldn’t see her.

A moment later the external iris spread open. Genzi stepped out onto the surface of the ship. Tabitha followed awkwardly, unused to the strong attraction between the boots and the ship, but grateful for it so she didn’t fly off into space.

“We’re not sharing air,” Genzi said with a chuckle. “So feel free to fart, it won’t bother me.”
Tabitha had an image of what a spacewalk would be like. There would be long dark shadows along the ship from its irregular features, with a bright, blinding glare from the nearest sun. This was nothing like that. For one thing, the surface of the ship was smooth, a fact she should have remembered, since she had seen it before. It was smooth to minimize the damage and chance of accidental collision with space debris. Very little of space was completely empty.

For another thing, it was dark, nearly pitch. There was no nearby sun. They were far in between stars. There were a very few lights that indicated where view ports were, but none of it illuminated onto the surface of the ship. The only light in their area were the arm-mounted lights on Genzi’s suit.

They took a few strides and then stopped. Genzi turned off her lights. “Shutting off anything that will help them find us,” she explained. “Now we wait.”

It was queer not to feel a sense of down. There was a pull at Tabitha’s legs where her boots attached to the ship’s surface, but she could her body trying to drift away from it. Her inner ear had no idea which way to orient her. It made her more than a little nauseous and she worried about throwing up inside the helmet. She tried to distract herself by looking around.

Tabitha had never imagined herself afraid of the dark before. But she had never been in darkness so absolute. There were stars in view, but far fewer than she had imagined. Mostly what she saw was black. Black nothing. Emptiness. Void. She had never felt so isolated. There was a woman tied to her, she knew, but unless Genzi spoke, Tabitha couldn’t hear her. And she couldn’t see her. She peered into the void and it didn’t peer back. Nothing did, because there was nothing there.

She could feel her heart rate start to increase. Perspiration dripped down her temple. She began looking all round her, back and forth, hoping to see something, anything. Somewhere in her head she could tell she was panicking, but she couldn’t stop herself. The HUD in her helmet started to flash on and off intermittently as her eyes moved frantically. She crouched down into a fetal position. Her boots released from the ship and she started to float away. She felt the tug as her inertia was stopped by the tether to Genzi.

“Honey?” she heard over the radio. Tabitha couldn’t respond.

“Honey,” Genzi said again. “Honey! Listen to me.”

An incoherent whimper was all Tabitha could manage.

“Honey, close your eyes. Close them tight. I’m going to help you, but you have to be able to do what I say.”

Tabitha nodded.

“Honey, I need you to answer.”

“Y… yes…” Tabitha managed.

“You got your eyes closed?”

“Yes.”

“Ok, sit like that for a moment. Imagine you’re in your bunk, tucked up. You got a mom?”

“N… no. Dad raised me… She… d…”

Genzi interrupted. “Ok, your dad. He’s with you, sitting next to you on your bed. He’s got his hand on your hand, he’s keeping you safe.”

Tabitha pictured it, trying to keep it in her mind.

“Ok, hold your breath. Control it. In slowly. Out slowly.”

“Yeah,” Tabitha said, letting her breathing slow. The tugging on the tether stopped and she felt Genzi grab her.

“Ok, honey. Stretch your legs out, let them re-attach to the ship.”

She felt the movement stop, but was glad Genzi didn’t release her. “Ok, eyes still closed?”

Tabitha nodded again, then remembered that Genzi couldn’t see it. “Yes,” she said.

“OK, open your eyes slowly, tell me if the display is on.”

Tabitha opened her eyes, quickly shutting them again. “No, it’s not there.”

“Ok, this is going to be hard. But I want you open your eyes again. Then turn on the display. Right-left-right-left.”

It took her three tries, but at last she managed to control her eyes enough to get it to come on.
She took a strange relief in the appearance of the colored display. It has disoriented her in the ship, but now it was a comfort just to see anything.

“You doing ok now, honey?”

“Tabitha let out a long breath. Yeah, I think I’m alright. Thanks, uh… Ms. Genzi.”

Genzi laughed. “I guess I never introduced myself. I’m Neva. I guess you got my last name. The muscle’s name is Percy, but for obvious reasons we just call him Schwartz. I’m sorry about this. I had no idea you’d be a kenophobe.”

“A what?”

“Kenophobe. Someone frightened of, well, space. It’s not the stuff in space, it’s the nothing in space. It’s not uncommon, I just… wasn’t thinking.”

“It’s ok, I didn’t know either. All of this… is so weird to me.”

“Heh, honey, you ain’t seen nothing. This is a big galaxy, and there’s some bizarre things in it.

“Look, I need to work on something, but we want to keep your mind from wandering off. There’s a help manual in the HUD. Down-up-down-left. That’ll give you something to read. Sorry it’s not more entertaining.”

“What? No romance novels?”

Genzi laughed. “Sorry honey.”

Part IV: Purple Haze

Tabitha read for a long time. It was impossible to tell how long – though the HUD had a clock synced with the ship, she didn’t take note of the time when she started and didn’t know how to access the HUD’s logs. After a while, though, her eyes began to swim and dry out. Her brain had dried out long before, but she kept reading, even though she didn’t understand most of it, because she didn’t want to succumb to her kenophobia again.

She wanted to rub her eyes, and even reached up to do so, and felt sheepish when her gloved hands bumped into the bubble over her head. She laughed nervously.

“Incoming,” Neva said over the suit communicators.

Tabitha looked around but all she could see was the wall of text that covered the inside of her helmet. She bit her tongue before she could cry out in irrational panic. She flipped her eyes from side to side to deactivate the HUD and tried to see what Neva was talking about.

It didn’t take her long to find it. A wide shadow was blocking out stars and shining lights onto the surface of the ship in a search pattern. The black spot grew larger till the reflection of the light it emitted finally gave Tabitha a sense of its shape. It was broad, and seemed to be flat in comparison. It was a diamond shape, with one of the longer sides in the lead, the extended points out to each side. The back end of it had a long triangular tail. As it was nearly on top of them, Tabitha realized the size was sort of an optical illusion. Compared to her it was big, but it was probably only a couple hundred feet from one wing-tip to the other. It was clearly not large enough for interstellar travel, and probably belonged to one of the two ships in conflict.

That was confirmed a moment later when the light shone directly on them with blinding brilliance. The ship stopped moving and narrowcasted to their helmets. “This Sergeant Blod of the Inverness, attached to the cruiser Passagarde. Maintain position. We will pick you up.” The connection snapped off just as quickly. Tabitha relaxed. It was from the good guys and not the pirates.

All the same, she heard Neva curse over the suit comms.

Tabitha held up her hand to block some of the light, but she still couldn’t sense anything. A few moments later a smaller pod landed on the ship’s surface just a few feet away. She could feel the vibrations through her legs and feet.

A square door in the pod opened and two Gen-D’s stepped out. Tabitha thought one might be Schwartz for a moment, but they were too short to be him. Their guns were massive things. Nearly the same size as their body. Impractical for most to use outside of a zero-g environment, but with a Gen-D, it might be what they used all the time. The soldiers motioned for the women to enter the pod with them.

After they did so, the door shut. Tabitha thought it was completely dark at first, and she felt some bile rise in her throat till she realized there was a light dome on the ceiling, and it was just the comparison to the search lights that made it so dark. No one opened their suits, and there was no gravity in the pod. But she felt it move, the ship above, the Inverness, Tabitha supposed, reeling them in at what felt like a rapid pace. A moment later, the door opened again and she had a view of a large area. The pod was in the center of a large room with brown floors, and a huge arching dome over head. Around the edge of the circular room servicemen sat at computers. A man sat in a chair nearby, turned to face them. He must be the commander of the vessel. He lounged comfortably, slouching. His splayed fingers steepled as he regarded them without expression.

The Gen-D that had picked them up removed their helmets, and one held a datapad in front of Tabitha’s face. A dot moved in strange patterns across it. It took her a moment to realize it was the code to unlock her suit. She pushed the “restart” button at the bottom of the pad than dutifully followed the dot. When it finished, she was rewarded with a soft hiss as the seals on the suit released. One of the Gen-D took her helmet before she could even move. She looked over and saw that Neva was being treated the same way. They left the space suits on them.

“I see,” the seated man said finally, looking at Neva. His face twitched once, ever so briefly showing anger or hate or something similar before he restored his stoic appearance. “Contain her,” he said, pointing at Neva. “Don’t let her speak.”

“But, she helped me!” Tabitha said in confusion. Neva didn’t say anything.

“Indeed.” He waved to the Gen-D soldiers and they dragged Neva away.

“What’s going on?” Tabitha asked.

The officer finally stood. He wore a uniform identical to the ones she’d seen on Schwartz and Neva when they’d revived her, except the name and he had decorations on the shoulder. Tabitha assumed the indicated rank or medals. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful,” he said. “I’m Commander Tarsak. And as a commander I’m not cleared to explain much. You’ve already seen that pirates have boarded the Passagarde in an attempt to kidnap you. Beyond that, I’m not allowed to explain. I’m sure the chief captain of the Passagarde can help you further. We’re taking you to her now.”

Tabitha tried to think of what to say. Before anything came to mind Commander Tarsak returned to his chair and rotated to face the front of the ship.

Tabitha watched out the dome as the ship propelled itself along the length of the big cruiser. As they moved toward the front she could see the pirate ship disengage and pull away from the Passagarde. It seemed to happen in slow motion as the two huge ships drifted apart silently. Compared to the Inverness, the pirate ship was huge — easily a hundred times as large. Even at that, it was only a quarter the size of the Passagarde.

Every interstellar ship in the galaxy either belonged to a giant conglomerate (which ran their fleets like military), a government (which made them a part of an actually military), or to pirates (which either ran their ships like military or barely controlled anarchy). The Passagarde, while government (and thus military) was not a combat ship, which meant it had very few weapons. So while the pirates looked gutsy, the Passagarde was actually the kind of ship they found ideal to attack.

So why were they retreating? Were they simply incompetent or under armed? Decent pirates could take the ship, or at least enough of it to demand something to get rid of them. And they had that Gen-D on their side. The one with the freakish arms. Something was weird about all that.

But Tabitha couldn’t put the pieces together. So she stared at the pirate ship starting to distance itself from the Passagarde. The Inverness was moving faster, relative to the Passagarde, so they managed to see some details on the pirate vessel before they distanced themselves. There was no name printed on the side like legitimate ships had, but there was a huge, if dirty and faded, emblem on the side. A scorpion with a devil’s face, in what was once a deep red, was painted on the vessel’s metallic hull.

It made Tabitha shiver.

A few moments later and the pirate ship was starting to gain inertia and really separate from the Passagarde. The Inverness slowed as it approached a thick tower jutting from the Passagard’s primarily smooth surface. There was a mechanical whirring and thumps, and the smallest shiver through the hull of the Inverness as it docked.

Tabitha was escorted by the same two Gen-D soldiers back to the Passagarde and through a maze of tunnels. She tried once to speak to them, noticing that the name on one of their uniforms said “Blod,” the sergeant that had hailed her earlier. But the men just grunted. Eventually they arrived at a gold-painted double door with the Earth League’s crest on it, centered over the crack where the doors met.

Sergeant Blod tapped the computer on his wrist and the doors opened. Neither soldier stepped forward but instead saluted by making a fist over their heart.

There stood the coldest looking woman Tabitha had ever seen. A pinched nose, sunken cheeks, pale, nearly translucent skin. But corded muscle evident under the skin and the same skin-tight uniform. She had shaved her head, but not recently, and stark black stubble stood out on her scalp.

That’s when things got very strange. A purple, cloudy haze drifted through Tabitha’s field of vision. “What is that?” she asked, but no one else seemed to react at all to the violet fog. Tabitha’s adrenaline spiked, and she fell back into a ready stance, not sure if she was about to be attacked and ready to flee if she was. The mist grew thicker, obscuring everything, and eventually hiding it entirely. She held up her hand and couldn’t see it until it was mere inches from her eyes.

Then shapes started to form from the purple clouds, making images, new colors. Small actions, like tiny vignettes acted out by players on a stage, but some of the players were people she knew. A vision of Schwartz firing a large gun into a crowd of silhouettes. Her own hands, covered with blood, the woman officer at her feet. Neva being carried away by a mob. The pirate ship trading weapons fire with an unfamiliar ship, swarmed about with fighter craft. Flashes of even shorter scenes she doesn’t have time to make sense of.

Then a flash and the purple haze drifted away faster than it had appeared. Tabitha stumbled in place before catching herself and rubbing her eyes. What the heck had just happened?

She looked up. The woman officer raised an eyebrow. “Are you well?”

Tabitha hesitated then nodded. She wasn’t well, she didn’t think. But she didn’t think it would help to tell this woman that.

“Good.” The officer nodded to the Gen-D soldiers. “I am Chief Captain Talia Zenzoff of the E.L.S. Passagarde. Please come with me, we have much to discuss.” She moved back through the double doors into a small antechamber. Opposite the doors was a large room with screens, computers access panels, and a small crowd of officers. An empty command chair sat perched slightly above the rest of the room.

To Tabitha’s left, between the main ingresses of the antechamber, was a single door emblazoned with the Earth League’s seal. Zenzoff led Tabitha through this door into a small but impressively appointed office. The walls were covered in a fine, burgundy, velvety material. Soft Light emanated along the tops of the walls. Hanging on the wall were pictures featuring the chief captain with various official looking people in and out of uniform, and not a few letters of commendation. In the center of the office there was a desk, which looked to be actual wood – an extreme luxury.

Zenzoff saw Tabitha’s reaction and smiled with co ld pride. “Yes, it’s a family heirloom. For four and a half centuries my family has commanded ships of the Earth League’s fleet. The desk was carved from trees found on our ancestral estate before Earth was evacuated.” She moved around the desk and sat in a high-backed chair. She indicated Tabitha should sit in one of the smaller chairs.

After a moment Zenzoff held up a datapad. “I’ve been reading your files. Trying to see what motivated the pirates to come for you.”

Tabitha caught a glimpse of the contents, wondering what information they kept on her. The heading read “Tabitha Kronopolos.” Unconsciously, she looked down at the name on her ill-fitting borrowed uniform, which also said “Kronopolos.” She felt a chill.

Zenzoff appeared not to notice. “You are a xeno-biologist, specialized with research in arthropod analogs, yes?”

S.N.E.A.K.S. — The Man of Cards

Frost grinned. “Trust me,” he said. He pushed open the door.

The air, even before entering was warm and sticky. The room was well lit with candles and torches and a large fire in the hearth on one wall. Yet even so it was difficult to see. Smoke and haze also filled the air. It was difficult to distinguish features on anyone they saw.

It was easy, however, to distinguish the mood. The entrance of a Struct and a furleen, even with two humans, was clearly neither common nor particularly welcome. Nearly everyone near the door turned to look and glared. Not a single one was friendly. But neither did anyone move to threaten or stop them

Frost was the only one of the group that could conceivably fit in. Vrash was human, true, but he bore himself erect. His shoulders were perpetually broad, like a soldier. Dink noted the irony of a slave being so proud, but he also marked the similarities between thralls and uniformed militia. With great effort he filed the combination of ideas for future consideration. He sensed that he might be needed to fight.

The people in the alehouse, however, were unilaterally shabby. Slumped. Closed postured. Possibly dirty, certainly not meticulous. There was an air of weariness. Dink was uncomfortable – almost everything about the team was contrary to the regulars.

Frost, apparently, wasn’t bothered by the ill-fit of his companions. He interlinked his fingers and popped his knuckles. He weaved his way through the common area to a particularly shady corner at the back. There at a small table sat a grizzled man. Stubble covered his craggy, weather-beaten face. One eye was half open. His hair was largely gone, and the sparse, dark hair that remained was unkept, but flat against his head. His body was shapeless, somewhat drooped. He was more of a mound of humanity poured onto a chair than he was an actual person. His spindly but dexterous fingers shuffled a deck of playing cards over and over as he sat there.

The man didn’t look up at them or seem to respond as the team arrived at his table.

“Gentlemen and lady,” Frost said, almost reverently. “This is the Man of Cards.”

There was a short pause. It was another moment in his life when Dink wondered if he would have blinked if he had eyelids. This man did not seem like the sage he had expected. He was neither a dignified prophet nor the crone-like gypsy. He was just a broken man. He looked to the others for a reaction. Vrash, as expected, betrayed no expectations or surprise. Linella, on the other hand, was apparently of the same mindset.

“They’re not Tarot,” she said. It sounded like a complaint.

The Man of Cards coughed loudly. Dink wasn’t sure if it was an expression of contempt or a symptom of illness. When the cough finally calmed he spoke with palpable scorn, “The Tarot is just slight of hand. It’s utilized by cons and fools. It’s simple lies about an interested god. A clever fiction clothed in mysticism to make it seem like it has meaning.”

He coughed again. “Cards of chance. The holy mathematic. Only through the random can the pattern of a random universe come forth. We play a game to learn the answers that we want.”

His hands suddenly tapped the cards into a solid stack and he started dealing five hands.

“I wasn’t…” Dink hadn’t planned on playing. He knew the rules, but he didn’t play.

“We will all play. All involved folk.” The Man of Cards used a tone that broached no argument. The others sat, and Dink, resigned to his fate, lowered himself to the floor by the table as the Man of Cards finished dealing and distributed five equal piles of dull wooden tokens.

Bloody Waters (ii)

Smee worked his way down the rigging back to the deck. It was rough, dangerous work in the storm. The wind clutched at him and tried to drag him off, but Smee clung tightly with three limbs at all times, and soon made it to bottom. He was weary. The storm had been on them for hours and showed no signs of abating. He muscles called for him to rest, but he knew the Cap’m was counting on him to do his part.

And after all, his life depended on it.

Smee had no idea how long they sailed. Each minute was its own. His life become concentrated in the one moment. Get the task done. Pull the line, fasten this, secure that. Each moment was a lifetime and a lifetime of moments followed each other in procession. Smee could no longer feel his arms or fingers, numbed from the unceasing work.

It could have been hours or days when the storm finally wore itself out. The cold was left, and a hard wind and stinging rain, but the Fury was no longer in danger of capsizing from minute to minute. Smee took a moment to look around and take stock.

In the storm’s worst moments, he couldn’t see the starboard rail from the port side. Now he could see a little beyond it. It was night, he could see. Which night he still didn’t know. He sat heavily on the deck, exhausted.

“On your feet, men,” the Cap’m shouted. Smee snapped too quickly as he could. He was certain it was considerably slower than it should have been. Apparently, they were not allowed to rest yet.

“The danger’s not over. Get me a new sail on that mast. Bruce, find out where we are and chart a course west.”

Bruce was visibly surprised. “Due west, Cap’m? But that’s just open sea!”

“I know,” was the only response. “It’s also our only hope.”

The Fallen iii

Shia had no sense of time. She neither knew how long she had been lying in the mud nor how long she’d been walking. Having a companion made no difference to the situation. It seemed they walked forever, but the night didn’t grow any lighter. If anything, the forest seemed to be darker and there was no way to tell where they were headed. She was grateful that Sylfania held her hand, because she was sure she would feel even more lost without that human contact. The dryads hand was rough, yet still feminine. They were hands clearly familiar with the earth.

At first Sylfania tried to talk. But all she had were questions about the world. She claimed she had not seen much of it beyond her own tree and the nearby forest. The forest was vast, she knew that much from talking with the trees an the animals. But she knew almost nothing of the world beyond it, and that only made her curiosity greater. Most trees were not interested in learning more about the world beyond their own.

But Shia had no answers for the Dryad. She didn’t know the world like she felt she should. She knew nothing of customs or of people or cities or creatures. She knew almost nothing. So after a time, the Dryad fell silent. From time to time she would turn to face Shia and give a friendly smile, but she didn’t stop walking.

At last Shia could see a dim light through the trees. “There,” she said, pointing with her free hand. “Someone must be there.”

Sylfania cocked her head to the side. “I’m not sure what that is. I thought we would have found the road by now.” She shrugged and then continued, dragging Shia with her.

The dryad clearly had not lied about her unfamiliarity with the world. Shia had slight misgivings about charging toward the light, not knowing what was there, but she had to finally admit that she didn’t know what would be anywhere. And even if Sylfania didn’t know what this was, she at least lived in this region.

They tramped through the light undergrowth toward the light. As they approached Shia finally felt at least a little relieved to have a specific goal she could recognize. But compared to her journey up to that point,t he trip seemed to take no time at all. Seemingly in a few seconds they arrived at a stone building, two stories high, and quite large in width and length. A sign hung over the door announcing it was the Stone Heart Inn. The stone was quite old, moss growing on bits of it, but it seemed altogether a solid structure from the ground to the wooden shingles of the roof.

The light came from several windows to the left of the door as well as one or two of the upstairs rooms. The Inn apparently was doing well for business this night. As she stepped up to the door Shia suddenly noticed there was no path. She hadn’t been on one at all as she approached, but there wasn’t any path that led to the door. Nor was there any signs of a nearby road. She paused and turned to mention it to Sylfania.

The dryad was on her toes, her hands grasping the outside sill and peering intently through a window. “There’s people in there!” she was saying. “What kind of a thing is this? How did they get in there? It’s made of stone, so it’s not a tree. Is this… a…” She turned and looked to Shia, her brow furrowed in concentration till she remembered the word. “A house!” she shouted finally. “That’s what blood humans live in, right?” She turned back to the window and studied the occupents again.

Shia felt a smile grow on her face. The lack of road didn’t make sense. How did they all get here, after all? “Blood humans” didn’t fly. But she noticed that she was no longer uneasy. She didn’t have the sense of apprehension that had bothered her earlier. In fact, she felt as if the inn itself were inviting her. She was suddenly eager to go in.

“Come,” she called to Sylfania. “Let’s go meet them,” she said, as she opened the front door.

Bloody Waters (i)

Daedalus had never expected much out of life, especially not once he had been obliged to leave his home and adopt a life of piracy. He had expected, however, slightly more than sitting on an island with only the most rudimentary civilization, no decent food, and a definite lack of construction and design supplies. He’d even run out of parchment and couldn’t plan any new projects. He had half an intention of planning his next project to prevent a becalming, though that was one thing even he didn’t have an idea how to accomplish.

The one thing the island did have was alcohol. It wasn’t rum. It wasn’t anything he’d heard of before. The locals called it rutch. And it didn’t taste any better than the name sounded. It did a fine job of getting you drunk remarkably quickly, however. And after two weeks of avoiding it, he’d finally followed the example Kee and the others had set for him and started drinking the vile stuff. It was the only way to get through the day.

The captain had first had them careen the ship, but they had done that, and replaced all the rotten planks, and mended the sails, and repaired the rigging, and anything else she could think of. She’d run out of ideas to keep them busy long ago, and now all they had to do was get drunk.

Maricella was the only one who had stayed away from the alcohol. Even the captain had had a nip most days. But then, Ella never had any alcohol, even when it was the fancy stuff that couldn’t get you drunk.

Daedalus woke and sat up. He’d taken to sleeping on the beach, since the weather was calm and warm. The headache from last night’s drinking was nearly a memory. The first thing he did, just like an uncountable number of days previous, was check for any sign of wind. Nothing. No clouds, no air, no change in humidity, nothing. So he fumbled till he found his square-rimmed spectacles, pushed them on, rose, and after splashing water from the nearby stream onto his face and pushing his dirty-blond hair into something that resembled order slightly more than it had previously, he walked through the shanties and huts that made up the town, at first passing the only stone building – the bar –in the desperate and most likely vain quest for something to occupy his time. It was noon, so the locals were up, scratching a living from the soil.

Truth be told, the residents were happy to have them there. The pirates were spending nearly all their treasure, which had once been considerable, buying the bland food and rutch to keep themselves alive for the duration of their stay. At the end of his circuit through the town, Daedalus turned around and sighed. He thrust his hands into his various pockets, he had many on his trousers and shirt, looking for coin. He had several and started for the bar again. He had seen a few of the crew on the beach, but not all of them. He expected to find all of them but Ella in the pub.

He trudged toward the door, reaching his hand for the latch.

“Not again, Daedalus.” The voice was full of disappointment though no reproach. That would be Ella. For one thing, no one on the crew called him Daedalus. Bruce had given him the name Gearhead, and most of them had taken it up. Refusing to use the nicknames Bruce made up was Ella’s way of telling him he was an idiot. But more telling, no one else who knew his name gave a lick if he drank – most of them thought he was a priss for not drinking more.

He winced at the disappointment. He had no shot at wooing Ella. No man did. But by the same token, every man was at least a little smitten by her. He didn’t even have to turn, because her image was burned in his mind. Long, raven hair, brilliant, shining green eyes, skin the color of white honey, the dimple on her cheek…

He lowered his head, dismissing the infatuated feelings. It was foolish anyway. Carefully composing his face to disguise the passing reaction, he turned to look at her. “Yes, again. I have no other projects I can work on, Brillig is attached to the ship for various reasons the captain has ordered, and I don’t even have the resources to plan. I shall have a drink of the sea-cursed bilge juice and try to obliviate my mind until the blasted wind returns.” He turned from her halfway through, unable to hold his resolve if he kept looking at her.

There was a pause, as if Ella were considering something. “Come with me,” she said, her voice brighter, clearly trying to get off the subject. “I just may have a project that interests you.” She had many virtues, and while she did tend to mother, despite being the youngest person on board, but she held herself off from lecturing, when she could remember to do it.

Daedalus was glad for the change of subject. Ella always knew when you were wrong, and could make you know you were wrong with just a few words, but then she left the subject alone. If she truly thought you needed immediate correction, she would be more likely to pound it out of you. Her womanly frame held a girl who knew how to fight.

“A project? What sort of project?” She had already started walking and he had already starting following without even thinking about it. She walked with a swift pace that was deceptively relaxed looking. Daedalus found himself hurrying to keep up.

“I hope that doesn’t sound deceptive. It’s really more of an investigation. Smee found something.”

“What sort of something?” The town, such as it was, was turning into forest quickly.

“That’s what we need you for,” Ella explained as the path started to rise upward slightly. “It’s old and we’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Old? But I’m not a historian or an expert in antiquities.”

“True,” she said, ducking under a low branch and around a boulder. “But it also seems mechanical.”

“Mechanical!” Daedalus’s pace quickened subconsciously. Now he was interested. Ancient and mechanical was a fascinating combination. He topped a rise, catching up to Ella and passing her. And then he knew he was in the right spot.

Smee sat on a log, and a small book in his lap snapped shut at the sight of the two. He stood, though Smee’s standing was more of a hunch. His eyes twinkled slightly under a ridge-like brow and he waved a long, gangly arm. “Ahoy Gearhead. Ella found you, aye?”

“Yes, yes. Is this the contraption?” Daedalus moved forward quickly. There was a low mound, nearly square, about a foot on a side. It rose maybe a foot and a half from the ground and was covered with vegetation. As he approached, however, he could see that some of the vines had been moved, and there was a stone structure beneath it that had been unquestionably shaped. Closer examination showed that there had once been runes or glyphs carved into it, though the natural weathering had worn them away almost completely. Daedalus was no expert in languages and recognized nothing of what he could see.

The glyphs would never have gotten his full attention anyway. There were three circular buttons forming a triangle at the top of the strange object. They may have once been raised, but time had reduced them to the same level as the rest – the only thing distinguishing them was the outline, which was partially filled with tiny detritus, making them not readily recognizable.

Daedalus quickly tore away the rest of the covering and began enthusiastically prodding the dirt around its base. He couldn’t immediately find the bottom. He muttered as he examined, and finally stood. “I’ve no idea how big it is. Can you move it, Smee?”

Smee moved to the edge of the rock and pushed it, with no apparent movement. He grabbed a nearby tree with his tail to brace himself, planted his feet firmly in the ground, and wrapped his great, hairy arms around it. Then he heaved, his legs, arm, and tail tensing with the effort.

For a moment nothing happened, but just as Daedalus thought Smee would give up, one edge of the device lifted and the whole thing tipped to its side, spraying dirt into the air.

The underside was even more interesting. A set of nine stone rods protruded from the bottom, forming three triangles which in turned formed the corners of a larger triangle. Each smaller triangle seemed to match the circles at the top.

“What does it do?” Ella asked. Daedalus had taken a quick look at the rods and then had starting digging with his hands in the spot where the object had sat in the soil. After a moment he could find nothing, so he sat back on the ground. His fingers habitually adjusted his spectacles, and he was oblivious to the dirt it left on his nose.

“Do? I’ve no idea, honestly. I was hoping there was more to the contraption.” He gazed longingly as the dirt hole briefly. “There’s really only one way to find out.” He adjusted his position so he could see the three buttons again, then he reached forward and pushed one. Nothing happened. The buttons didn’t even move. He pressed again harder.

“Methinks it does nothing,” Smee said. He had sidled next to Ella and stood close by her.

“Nonsense. It clearly does something. Any fool can see that,” Daedalus replied. He fumbled at his pockets for a moment, finally producing a knife. He began cleaning the space around the buttons. “It merely needs some maintenance after sitting here for so long.”

A few moments later he had finished, and he tried again. This time the button slid in easily. And as it did, four of the rods shifted. Two receded into the device while the others grew longer. “Brilliant,” Daedalus breathed. He pulled his finger out and noted that the button returned to position much more slowly, though the rods didn’t return to their position. He pushed another button, and a similar effect was achieved. By this time the original button had returned to the starting position and he pushed it again. A different set of rods, three this time, now shifted lengths. “It will take a while to work out the patterns for this,” he said, still pushing and releasing buttons and watching the rods react. “But there must be a pattern. It’s a mechanical device, and it must be predictable.”

“So what is it?” Ella asked. She leaned against a nearby tree, arms crossed, watching the lanky man experiment.

“I’m still not sure. Of course, the only way to know for certain what it does is to take it apart, but it doesn’t appear to have any seams. I’d love to know how this was assembled. Anyway, I think it’s some sort of key, or puzzle. The rods should conform to something, form a certain pattern. Then something happens. Or if you have it with whatever it belongs to, that object does something.”

“Well what does it belong to then?”

“Your speculation is as sufficient as my own, I’m afraid.” Daedalus frowned, discomforted by the fact. “But I would imagine it can’t be very far. This isn’t the sort of key that one just drops somewhere.” He snorted a laugh at his own humor. “It was either left here deliberately or it was moved by natural forces. But either way, it would seem that whatever it came from is on the island somewhere. Probably quite close.” He was still pushing buttons, muttering observations under his breath as he worked when he wasn’t talking to the others.

Maricella pushed herself up from the tree and stretched. “Well then, we’ll leave you to this. “C’mon Smee, let’s look for this … whatever it is.

Smee nodded and followed her as she walked. He tended to walk on all fours, “knuckle-walking” like an ape. No one knew where he came from but he was very capable and loyal to the captain. To Maricella, like to anyone else, he was grotesque – he had a small sort of snout, small black eyes, and a hairy body. Much like a big chimpanzee, but with a tail he used for grasping and climbing. And his wiry black hair was not so thick. You could see the skin on his arms and back through the fur. But even in that grotesqueness there was a sort of charm. Smee easily endeared himself to you, and he had a way of looking almost cute, even though his face was ugly.

Smee started to pick through piles of vine or brush that he found. “What’re we looking for?” he asked.

Maricella thought for a moment. “Well, whatever it goes to is likely stone, and big, right? So a big, stone, man-made something.” She reached and pulled away a vine herself, ignoring the scratches on her skin and the tiny tears the brambles made to her blouse.

Smee nodded and kept looking. They had covered most of the clearing and had moved quite a way from Daedalus. Maricella scanned the area. She had very little idea of what they were looking for either. But as she said, it must be big, so she looked for places a big thing might be hidden. The saw a likely mound and signaled Smee to come. He obediently came her way.

The brush was thicker over here, and she had to lift her legs higher to avoid being tripped by the vegetation. Smee seemed to be having an even worse time of it. His legs were short for his size and though his arms were longer, that didn’t help with the undergrowth. He was more or less climbing through it. And image that Maricella found amusing, but refused to laugh out loud about.

She watched him come closer when there was a small crashing sound and he disappeared with a small yelp. “Smee!” Maricella yelled, hurrying to where she’d last seen him. She quickly reached the edge of the hole and saw him dangling there, his tail and a foot had seized onto some vines as he had fallen into a huge hole.

“I found something,” he said dryly.

Maricella allowed herself a smile, though she was still worried. Smee was more agile than anyone she knew, but this was entirely unexpected. She looked down in the hole. She was on the edge of a huge hole, which had been covered by vine growth. Smee had broken through some and fallen part way, but managed to hang on to the vegetation. Down below was dark, lit only by the light through the small area Smee had broken through. Maricella could see that there was water down below, though not much else was visible in the gloom. “This is odd,” she said finally.

Smee was making his way down the network of vines he clung to. He reached the bottom and then dangled even further, holding to the vines with only his tail. “I’m still far from the bottom,” he said finally. “We could make a line from the vines, but we’d need torches too.” He raised himself up and climbed back upward. “That is, if you want to search down there. Seems like a good place for something big and hidden to be.”

“I guess we might as well get a real rope then, since we’ll be going back to the ship. Are you alright, Smee?”

“I’m fine. Takes more ‘n a fall to hurt me. Though I usually like to know about the fall first.”

Maricella smiled and took his hand as he reached the top. “Good then, let’s go.”

About an hour later they were back at the hole, with two lanterns and a good length of rope. Smee tied one end to a tree as Maricella tied the other around her waist. “You’re not as strong,” he explained. I’d rather lower you.” Maricella preferred to be able to take care of herself, but she allowed the aid, since it would be faster. She held a lit lantern in one hand and gripped the rope with the other, then lowered herself off the edge as Smee slowly let her have more rope. She descended gradually till her boots touched solid ground. It was wet and slimy, the water turned out to be a pool to one side and a stream flowing out.

“I’m down!” she called out as she began untying the knot at her waist. She saw Smee scramble over the side and quickly climb down hand over hand, the lantern held in his tail. When he reached the bottom he stood on all fours and looked to Maricella for his lead.

Maricella held the lantern high in the air and turned around slowly, getting a feel for where she was. Now that she was down here she could see that the stream ran one direction, there was a faint light in that direction, which she guessed would be the sea. To either side of the stream was a sort of gravel beach that ran up to nearly sheer rock walls. The stream itself flowed from the darkness. She shrugged, and started walking in that direction. After she had gone about a hundred yards she found a waterfall that fed the stream. It fell from a small hole in the rock wall about twenty feet above. The sides of the chasm were closer here, but not claustrophobically so. It was not the stream’s only tributary, though, and she continued to follow it till it ended in a solid rock face, the stream flowing from underneath it.

It seemed that the stream was very shallow there. She wondered if they could swim under it. She knelt at the side and tried to reach under, but there was barely room for more than her forearm. The current was stronger too and it was hard to push her hand in. She removed her arm and stood.

She frowned, disappointed at first, till Smee spoke. “Look, some of that writing.” He was gesturing to some figures. The area was much smoother than the rest of the rock wall, and bore the marks of stonecutting tools. They were indeed the writing. It was easier to make out than the marks on the device Daedalus was examining above. The rock was of the same sort, but not as worn, though it was pitted and scarred. She slowly walked across the smoothed area, holding the lantern close. She didn’t understand any of it, but that was hardly new to her. She knew her numbers but knew very few letters of her own tongue. All of this was mystifying to her, but she found it very interesting all the same. After examining it for a few minutes she came across a special mark set in the wall over the middle of the stream – three sets of three circles, each forming a triangle.

“That matches the thing we found,” she said.

Smee nodded. “Gearhead will want to see this.”

They retraced their steps and returned to the rope. Smee grabbed it and pulled himself upward, hand over hand, almost faster than he’d come down. Maricella made to follow, but she wasn’t sure she could climb it successfully, so instead she tied it around her again and waited for Smee to lift her.

Daedalus was predictably excited and rapidly put together a sling from the nearby vines to carry the device, which he and Smee carried between them. “Hurry! Come!” he kept saying, excited to see the wall Maricella and Smee described to him. It took longer to get the device to the bottom of the crevice, they had to tie it to the rope and lower it to the floor, then Smee climbed down and untied it. But he insisted in lowering Maricella and climbed back up.

Maricella closed her eyes, frustrated. Smee thought he was chivalrous, but she wasn’t a child. But there was no point in arguing it, she’d only get further worked up and nothing would get done. After Daedalus made his clumsy descent, Smee hauled the line back up and handed it to Maricella. She tied it to herself and allowed herself to descend, and finally Smee came back down.

She didn’t wait for them to pick up the sling and marched toward the wall. She sat on the ground and waited for the other two for them to catch up.

Daedalus dropped his end of the sling when he saw it. He rushed the last few feet and splashed into the water to get a closer look. Maricella rarely got tired of watching Daedalus when he was excited about something. He was meticulous, but excited. She sometimes wished she had the passion he displayed. It took the inventor a long time to reach any conclusions; he would push his finger in, nod, and then make marks on the dirt with a rock.

Finally he stepped back with a grin. The water reached above his waist and he was starting to shiver, Maricella could see, but such discomfort would hardly dissuade him. He splashed back to their side of the stream and knelt by the device. “I don’t know what it does,” he said, but I’m certain it’s supposed to go there. The holes are the same size as these stone rods. We just need to make them match. He began a long process of pushing the buttons and adjusting the locations. He may have had a plan in mind, but if he did, Maricella couldn’t tell. The process seemed one of random experimentation. After possibly a half hour, he nodded and stood. “Now we just need to get it over there.”

“How we gonna do that?” Smee asked. Daedalus’s face fell in disappointment, and a moment later Ella realized why. Smee and Daedalus could carry the object together, but The stream would be, at best, difficult for Smee to stand in. His normal gait was somewhat hunched, but even standing upright he was about four feet tall. Daedalus was a tall man, and since the water came over his waist, there was a danger that Smee would have his face constantly flooded by the running water.

Smee crossed his long arms and watched expectantly. He knew them. They would ask him to do it anyway. Daedalus wouldn’t give up a project like this, and jealous as he was of the fact, Maricella wanted to see Daedalus succeed in his projects. She would be convinced and persuade Smee to help. And Smee always did whatever Maricella asked. He couldn’t help himself. After his loyalty to the captain, his devotion to Maricella was the strongest feeling he had. She never returned his feelings, of course. What woman would love a creature such as him? So he strove to keep his feeling secret, to varying amounts of success.

“It’s not that deep, Smee,” Maricella said in that berry wine sweet voice of hers. “You won’t be under the water. And you can swim anyway.”

“I can swim, sure. But not while carrying that ballast,” he pointed out.

Maricella looked to Daedalus and then back. “Please, Smee. You’ll be alright.”

Please was the magic word when it came from Maricella’s mouth. At that point, at least for Smee, it was no longer a discussion, but it was a request. He could never deny her request. He sighed and moved to Daedalus’s side. “Fine, let’s get this done.” I’ll be writing a poem about this, he thought. How the valiant hero completed a dangerous task for the lady fair.

They couldn’t use the sling to get the device into the wall. That left it in the water. They would need to lift it by hand to put it up to the holes. Smee squatted next to it and put his hands underneath, waiting for Daedalus to do the same. Then they waded into the water.

Smee admitted to himself that he had probably over reacted to the potential danger, but it was, at best, an uncomfortable task. He slipped a lot on the smooth rocks at the stream bed, and got a mouthful of the water, each time. It was difficult to see with water dripping from the hair over his eyes. He trusted Daedalus much more than he preferred to in order to know where to go.

At last he found himself next to the wall, hefting the object above his head, nearly on his own, while Daedalus lined it up and pushed it in. It was at this point that he realized Daedalus hadn’t finished his preparations. Smee found himself holding the device up by himself and straining under the weight while Daedalus pushed buttons and waited for the rods to adjust. A minute later and the ordeal was finally done.

Smee felt something in the wall take hold of the rods, removing the weight from his muscles. The sound of stone grinding on stone filled his ears – at least while they weren’t underwater – while he dragged himself to the side and sad tiredly on the bank.

To his chagrin, he found himself fascinated by what was going on. The noises grew louder, though hardly deafening, as if they were approaching. Then, the wall began to move.

“Fascinating!” he heard Daedalus saying. “I couldn’t even tell there were any seams!”

A great split was forming down the center of the stream, and water began forcing its way out. There had been quite a bit more held back by the walls. It was lapping at his feet, a foot up the bank already. The walls continued to separate until they were as wide as the stream originally was. A few moments later and the flow of water evened out. It was a good deal wider than it had been, but not dangerously deep.

Daedalus was already moving forward, muttering inaudibly. Maricella was not far behind him. With a mixture of trepidation and curiosity, he stood in the water and followed them.

The chamber beyond was vast. Their lanterns didn’t reach near the walls, but revealed massive columns supporting the ceiling. There were crystals on the wall, shining with a white light from a source Smee couldn’t divine. Water filled the floor. Near the center it was deeper, but further from the middle it wasn’t any deeper than Smee’s waist. The ceiling was invisible in the gloom.

The group spread out, each moving where their gaze took them. Smee moved to the wall, which were covered with engravings and paintings, some of which were worn, but some seemed preserved remarkably well. They seemed abstract at first, but as he spent time looking them over, they seemed to coalesce into something meaningful. There was a conflict. There were oblong shapes at war with shorter shapes. In some of the areas one side would win, in others, it would be reversed.

The pattern continued, with glyphs and other images he couldn’t make any sense of, until he reached one last massive relief in between two battle scenes. At the bottom there were countless human bodies, eerily realistic in contrast to the abstractness of the paintings. The victims were disfigured, missing limbs, contorted in pain. There was a red ochre stain that seemed to spill across the figures. Knee deep in these bodies was a massive figure, twelve feet tall at least. It possessed five arms, two on each side and one from the center, and in each it held at least one human figure. Three more were in its massive fanged teeth. It was covered in hair, and the arms were much longer than one would expect from the size of the body. Its eyes were blank, no pupils. Smee couldn’t suppress a shiver as he gazed at it.

The central arm was different from the others, aside from the fact that it seemed to have two thumbs. Instead of holding a body, it held a large ball of some sort, as if it were offering it to anyone looking at it.

Though he felt disgust and fear, he couldn’t help but reach up to the ball, and before he was fully of conscious of what he was doing, his hand pressed against it with the faintest pressure. As soon as he touched it, the wall section with the relief faded back a few inches, then started it upward.

Inside was a treasury. When Smee had thought of the term, he’d always imagined piles of coins and fantastic objects. This was hardly so grand, but there were works of precious stones and metal on display around the circumference of the room, interspersed by 6 stone columns. In the center was a gold alter, intricately inlaid and decorated.

The sound of the wall moving had brought the other two. “Fascinating!” Daedalus said again. It was a predictable response, but at least whenever he said it you could tell he meant it.

Smee looked to Maricella. “What do you think?” he asked.

Maricella stood looking at the discovery, her eyes wide. She crossed her arms. “I think the captain will want to see this.”

***
It took some time to get back. Captain Isadora Calavera de Castellano had drunk a cup of rutch but was hardly incapacitated. The rest of the crew could hardly make the same claim. Most of them, even at mid-afternoon, were already stoned mindless. With the judicious application of her boot to various bodies, she was able to rouse her first mate, the cabin boy, and her navigator.

First mate Kee Prinz was a huge man. His mother was human but he took after his father in appearance. His father was one of the Nameless – savage sailors from beyond the Bleeding Sea who seemed more beast than man, with fangs on their lower jaws, grayish skin, and sloping foreheads. Kee’s eyes were like small red stones set into his face, but that was the one gift from his mother’s side, and the one reason he’d lived past birth, as it signified a holy child.

Isadora’s cabin boy was a stunted old man named Tunk. Barely three feet tall and wrinkled, his old body was still strong. He never seemed to get ill and never complained even under the harshest circumstances. But then, he rarely said anything at all.

The navigator, Bruce, was six feet if he was an inch, bald, and muscular. He had a handlebar mustache and the uncanny ability to know exactly where he was at any time of day and in any weather.

The crew was often at odds with each other when personalities didn’t mesh, but Isadora kept the best people closest to her. She would trust any of them with her life, and in fact did nearly every day. It was why she was still alive after all these years.

However, she could also trust most of them to be stinking drunk when they were certain they had no responsibilities. So it was a good portion of the afternoon before she not only had the supplies they needed, but also the people she wanted with her.

Maricella had been right. She was definitely wanted to see this ancient place. She was certain the others believed it was because of the treasure. And normally, yes, this would have been a tremendous draw. However, she had a suspicion, and she needed to see if she was right. If she was, it did not bode well.

They group brought more lines so they were able to descend much faster. Isadora tried to ignore the japes and rowdy noise Bruce always made, but the feeling of trepidation grew until there was little else she could focus on. She splashed through the water, her tall boots filling slowly with water as it splashed into the top.

As concerned as she was, she couldn’t help feeling impressed by the accomplishments this structure represented. Few buildings were made this large. For it to have been constructed long ago as it obviously was represented an incredible undertaking.

“It’s right this way,” Smee said, moving through the room. Isadora smiled as he tried to keep himself dry, despite having all four limbs in the water.

“Stop!” The order was unexpected. Kee used a variety of tones when yelling at the crew, but this one was far from bluster. He never showed fear, but there was something that demanded his, and probably everyone’s, attention.

Before she had a chance to ask what it was, however, Isadora learned for herself.

She heard it before she saw it, and felt it even before that. There was a wall of air pressure, and the water rose in a wave. She saw Tunk and Bruce splash into the water from it. And even as they fell, the primal bellow that caused it filled her ears. She resisted the impulse to cover her ears and instead drew her saber and a long knife. She hoped the others were doing the same, because her shouted order couldn’t be heard.

The origin of it all then emerged from the darkness. It was made of wood, she thought at first. A huge mass of wood and leaves and branches. But she realized it was covered in vines. As it moved into the half-light she could see it was a mass of writhing, flowing vines, some of them green and living and others old, hardened, wood-like. It had three masses of them formed into legs to move forward, keeping the main mass a few feet above the water. And a number of tentacle like appendages writhed out from it, lashing at the walls. From somewhere within it came the awful roar.

Immediately it reached for the closest person, Smee. But Smee was ready. He’d drawn his two flintlock pistols, which he’d somehow kept dry, and fired them both at the tentacle that came for it. Pieces flew in the smoke and the thing bellowed in rage as it drew back.

It charged into the room and seemed to reach for all of them at once. Isadora lost track of some of the others and found herself fighting for her life. She was not nearly so fast as Smee, and though she hacked at the vines that came for her, she was seized around her waist and lifted into the air. She heard a shout as the ground flew away, Smee was calling for her. But for the instant she was alone. She hacked at the vines, but made little headway before she was flung through the air, landing in the water in near total darkness, the air rushing from her lungs.

There was mixed shouting and bellows and a few discharges of powder, but she could make nothing of what was happening. She could see Smee dancing at the edge of darkness, avoiding strikes and slashing back with his knives. Tunk clung to a mass of vines that undulated and thrashed about. Where the others were she couldn’t guess.

Then she remembered the phrase. She tried to stand, but could barely breathe, and she slipped, falling to her hands and knees. Another tentacle of vine smacked her and threw her against the wall. She hoped it wasn’t a rib cracking that she felt. She clawed at the wall to pull herself up and staggered along it. She needed to get to Smee.

She heard a scream, she looked up and saw Ella, standing her ground with a cutlass. But it wasn’t her. The scream was from Bruce, who was held in the air by a vine around his boot. Isadora grunted and moved forward. She would help him in a moment.

Another vine flew at her, whip-like. She threw herself into the water and just as she hit it she could feel the spray of broken rock from the wall. She scrambled back up and hurried to Smee.

“There’s a command phrase,” she shouted. “You have to order the beast.”

“Me Cap’m?” Smee sounded disbelieving. “Why…”

“Shut it and follow orders, Smee! Order it. ‘Chk’ti lemell fu tana.’”

Smee tried the words, but they didn’t come out right. So she shouted them again. “Chk’ti lemell fu tana.”

The third time he got it right, just as Isadora was grabbed again. “Order it, Smee! Don’t just say it!” she cried as she was whisked through the air again.

“Chk’ti lemell fu tana!” Smee finally managed to yell.

In an instant, everything stopped.

Though everything mostly meant the vine and wood golem. It froze in place instantly, tendrils of vine outstretched or curled in mid-strike. Isadora fell as the tension around her leg released suddenly, but she grabbed a vine. It broke, but slowed her fall. She fell not gently but with grace. Immediately after, Bruce fell with a distressed cry to splash in the water head first, his shout cut suddenly by the submersion. Isadora flinched to see it happen, not entirely sure he was not uninjured. But by his continued thrashing she felt sure he would survive well enough.

Tunk slid down an arm, using his arms part way to steady himself, but mostly sliding on his feet. He splashed through the water, which came to his chin in some places, till he was by the captain’s side. Maricella followed close behind him. Smee stood staring, entirely unsure what had happened. Daedalus too, stared, though he moved closer and was poking vines, moving them aside, studying the beast.

Isadora wasted no time. She turned to the door to the treasury and marched toward it, pausing only long enough to ask, “This is it?”

Smee grunted an affirmation, still distracted by what had gone on.

Kee and Bruce entered the room just behind her, interested in the treasures.

“There’s no coin,” Bruce said, no small measure of disappointment registering in his voice. “No piles of loot.”

Kee snorted. “Any of these would bring a price sufficient to bring back what we’ve spent on this sea-cursed isle.”

Isadora had seen enough. “We must leave. Immediately. Take nothing. Now!” The last was said as her officers hesitated. She didn’t wait any longer, but left the room and crossed to the entrance. Tunk struggled to keep up, but followed immediately. Kee and Bruce were a bit behind, and Maricella was forced to take Smee’s hand and bring him along. He was still staring at the beast. Daedalus came last, protesting for what he couldn’t study, but obedient.

They left subdued. The captain answered no questions about what had gone on and at last ordered everyone to silence. They climbed the lines up to the field.

As Kee, the last of the group, emerged from the hole, a huge flock of ravens took flight from the trees. Cawing and screeching, their voices almost tangible in the salty air. Then a strong, cold wind rushed over them.

“Praise!” Bruce shouted. “We can move at last. Even if we are no richer. Sea’s blessings!”

“This wind brings no blessing,” Isadora said. “Rouse the crew. We sail immediately.”

***
As the last of the crew came aboard The Righteous Fury the wind had picked up considerably. At first it had been a gradual thing. The temperature started slowly cooling, and birds, especially ravens, had begun filling the air, seemingly emptying all the trees on the island of their occupants. For an hour the sky was darkened by the black wings. After the birds had disappeared to the west, away from the Bleeding Sea, the sky was growing darker of its own. Clouds seemed to come out of nowhere. And the temperature started to drop. As the last sailor boarded, Smee was almost cold, and he was covered with hair.

It was a strange thing. Sudden changes in the weather were not unknown on seas of Bakahl, but there was usually some warning. No one he had talked to had seen any kind of warning.

Yet even that was not unsettling. Until you added in the discovery, being attacked by a giant plant, and the captains reticence. The captain was not the most talkative of women. Over the last few years Smee had managed to piece together parts of her past. Her disagreement with her queen, ending in being labeled traitor and exiled was the reason the Fury favored preying on the ships of the Crystal Islands. But she rarely avoided direct questions.

“Why are we running like pups from demon spawn?” Kee had asked when they had first returned to ship.

The look the captain returned froze Smee’s blood, and she wasn’t even looking at him. But Kee was made of sterner stuff, and perhaps stuff that was much less bright. “We left behind a small fortune, Cap’m,” he continued. “We deserve an explanation.”

The Captain’s eye had burned like green flame. But she said nothing more on the subject. “Make ready to sail,” she said through clenched teeth. Then she had turned escaped into her private quarters, slamming the door behind her.

Kee snorted and returned to work.

Smee had no more idea of what was going on than he had before. But he was a good deal more scared than he had been.

The crew unfurled the sails with difficulty, the wind yanked on the material and it seemed it might tear, but they finally had the sails set and the ship leaped into action, as if eager to move after so much time convalescing on the beach. Several sailors nearly lost their balance, but Smee stood strong, one hand on the rigging. The wind bit at his face, and he loved every instant of it. He was not made to stay on land. The sea called to him too strongly. It was almost enough to ease his mind.

The relaxed feeling was not to last long. The seas were not calm, and the wind continued to pick up. Before they had even left sight of land the waves were reaching up to kiss the deck. No one could remain still.

“Captain!” Bruce called out as the woman appeared on deck again. “We should return and wait out the storm.”

She turned toward him, and Smee caught a look in her eye he couldn’t explain. It wasn’t the hardness he usually saw. Perhaps it was regret? “This storm won’t end for us. If you trust me, don’t ask again. We must try to outrun it.”

Bruce was left speechless, and as the captain turned, Smee quickly returned to his task, avoiding the woman’s gaze.

For hours they raced with the wind. Whenever he looked behind him Smee could see darker skies and darker seas. They were on the edge of a much worse storm, and so far, they were barely outpacing it. It would seem they weren’t avoiding it. The ship rose up and down as if a piece of flotsam. Waves seem to come at them from the sides as well, washing over the deck and beating at the sailors. It was hard to stay upright as they worked to simply stay alive.

“Heave to!” the shout came suddenly. The Fury turned and slowed almost as instantly when the men adjusted the sails. Smee looked just in time to see a man fall over the rail. He heard no shout, and it seemed as if he were just a pile of rags, tumbling almost shapelessly. Smee put his regret away. He would grieve the man later, but spending effort on it now would cost the lives of the rest of them. A great swell passed under them at that moment. The Fury had turned just in time to avoid it capsizing them. They were pointed nearly to the sky, then, hung for a moment before diving back down. The bowsprit and front of the hull were submerged before it righted again.

Smee allowed another instant of relaxation, relieved they had avoided that one. But even as he returned his attentions to his work he realized they were in more danger. The change in course and speed had given the unnatural storm time to come upon them, and it hit with full fury.

The rain seemed likely to break his skin, and the wind tore at his flesh. It tore at the rigging too, and in this case was successful at pulling it apart. A sail tore loose and snapped furiously. Smee didn’t wait for orders, but instantly was climbing the rigging. Down below he knew the order was being given to take in the sails. They could no longer use them.

The rigging was as familiar to Smee as the smell of his bed. If his spirit was made to sail the seas, his body was, quite literally, made to climb through complicated arrangements like the rigging of a ship. He could move through it like a spider in its web. It was a matter of seconds before he was at the sail itself. It didn’t take him long to see that they would never be able to pull it in. It had tangled and would require too much effort. It would kill them before they could salvage it. He moved to the mast and seized a hatchet kept there and began chopping. His feet clung to the yard arm as he worked. The work seemed endless, but at last he felt tension release as the sail whipped away and was buried in the sea.

The Fallen i

She pushed herself up out of the mud, wondering how she’d come to be lying in the mud in a forest during the darkest hours of night.

The ground was damp, the mud only on the very surface. From the smell of it, the rain had been very recent. She looked up but couldn’t see any stars. The clouds hid them well. The wind blew her hair into her face and made whispering sounds through the unseen tree branches. She thought she should be comforted by those sounds, but instead she found it caused a shiver deep inside her.

That was all she could tell about where she was.

She was wearing a long, cobalt blue gown, made of silk and satin. It was very light, and she could feel the breeze on her skin underneath it. On her back she had a dark cloak which cleverly concealed her two sets of wings. She must have been trying to hide that she was an angel, she thought as she started walking through the woods. The moldering leaves crunched and rustled as she stepped through them. She had no idea where she was going, just that she should get somewhere.

Why would… She stopped walking as she tried to remember the name of the god she served. Why would she send her here? And who was he? Why couldn’t she remember?

She slumped against a tree. A great mass of grief and fear rose into her throat and filled her head. What was going on? She didn’t think she had ever felt so helpless. The feeling was almost a tangible thing. She clenched her teeth and crushed her eyelids shut, willing herself not to cry. It would not do. A solitary tear emerged from her left eye, and slid halfway down her cheek, but no other tears.

She pushed away from the tree with one arm, holding herself steady.

S.N.E.A.K.S. iii

Master stared at Vrash for several long moments before speaking. “I made a bet today,” he said as he began pacing before the gladiator. This was no surprise to Vrash. That was how owners made money off gladiator matches. “I’m not sure whether I’m pleased or not.” He paced some more before saying anything else. “Well, I suppose that’s it then. You’re a free man now.”

Vrash blinked. For the first time in his life, he was truly surprised. “Free?”

Master frowned and grunted. “You win too much. The other owners were forcing me out. They set up what they thought would be an impossible match. Their four best, armed, against you, unarmed. If you lost, the were to pay me what they thought was several times your worth. If you won they would force me out of the arena. No one would ever agree to a match with any of my fighters. Unless You no longer competed.”

He resumed pacing. “I confess I considered simply retiring you. You’ve been a great asset. But I can’t use you among my guards and you can’t tutor my children. The expected thing was to kill you. But I’d sooner put down a prize horse. You have provided me with a great deal of wealth. I can give you a small amount of coins, but you’re not allowed at the arena, on pain of death.” He stopped pacing, his back to Vrash. “Good luck in your new life, wherever it may be.”

Vrash was still standing in position to be inspected as he watched his former master walk away for the last time.

CHAPTER 2

Dink tromped into the small, semicircle auditorium through doorway, which he noted was double wide. Exactly for persons of his description. His gigantic metal body took special considerations in architecture. And since Structs — living beings made from metal or wood or what-have-you by magic wielding engineers — had only been recognized as “alive” in the traditional sense for a decade, there wasn’t a lot they could expect out of society. This organization, however, seemed not just willing, but interested in accomodating his special needs.

Dink himself was made of iron and steel. And copper, and a few alloys. His creator hadn’t had a lot of one material, apparently. Dink didn’t mind his unusual composition, however, and often spent time simply contemplating the appearance fo the mash of materials.

His creator also hadn’t been exceptionally creative when designing him. He was, essentially, a giant metal ball with two huge legs and two arms that ended in hands with opposable thumbs and three other digits, and a domed head he could swivel. There was a human approximation of a face thereon, but other than that, he didn’t look much like a person.

Dink tried to be careful as he stepped into the room, but it was nigh impossible to do it without making a loud sound. And as his first step into the room revealed, he had startled someone.

Perched on the large desk at the front of the room was a girl. She had thick hair, pink, that covered her head and tumbled off her shoulders. She also had a long, pink, cat tail that twitched nervously in the air. And sticking out of the mass of unbridled hair were two cat ears — also pink. Dink lastly noted that in place of feet and hands she had pink cat paws. There was no hair on the rest of her. Or at least Dink assumed so. She was wearing a loose shirt and shorts. Her legs and arms were bare skin. Her large round eyes were a deep green.

She hissed.

Dink paused. He supposed if he were capable of it, he would have blinked. Instead his impassive looking oval eyes remained still. He spoke carefully. “You are a Furleen?” he asked. “I have not met one of your kind before. I am Dink.”

The catgirl came forward, but crouched defensively as she approached with a slow and careful gait up the incline. She walked all around Dink and finally stopped at his side. She jumped up on a chair next to him and crouched on her hands and feet as she looked at him. “You’re a dink? What does that mean?” she asked suspiciously. Dink noted that she had more canine teeth than other humans.

“I’m not a dink,” he corrected. “I am a Struct. My name is Dink.”

The catgirl nodded slowly. “I see. Are you here to tell me to leave?”

“Why would I tell you to leave?”

“People don’t like… my kind.” She said, squinting. The suspicion in her voice was still heavy.

That sentiment was something Dink could appreciate. He turned and lifted a chair slightly, stacking it on another. There was no way it would support him. He sat down on the floor and looked at her. He wanted to appear less threatening. “I’m only here because the elf-woman at the front directed me here. I am to wait for a representative. I would guess that’s not you.” He hoped that would come across as a joke.

The Furleen’s muscles relaxed, and a small grin appeared briefly. “Nope.” She sat down on the floor and looked at him. “My name is Linella.”

S.N.E.A.K.S. ii

The man with the triangle tattoo was inching closer, hoping to get into striking range without having to rush. Vrash flexed his fists and waited for him. He would have to be fast, and it was a gamble — Triangle’s sword gave him a longer, and more deadly, reach than Vrash had. He watched Triangle’s center, his chest, waiting for the muscle flex that would show he was making his move.

The twitch appeared, and instantly Vrash threw himself forward to the ground, as the sword cut through the air where he’d just been. The gamble proved to be not without cost though, as the punching-dagger split open the flesh on his arm. But it also paid off, he rolled into Triangle’s legs and Triangle fell forward into the sand. Vrash was on his feet before his opponent even hit the ground. He jumped and landed, knees first, onto Triangle’s back. He heard a crunch, but his opponent kept struggling to push himself up. Vrash pushed Triangle’s face into the sand a pummeled him brutally on the neck and head till the struggling stopped.

Satisfied, he gave the head one more shove as he pushed himself to his feet. He rubbed sweat and strands of black hair from his face and looked about. The fight had been a private one. There were only a dozen or so men, clustered together. There was only one man clapping, and him half-heartedly. That didn’t matter to Vrash. He had won. That was all he cared about.

A gate in the wall slowly rose and two handlers removed. Vrash stepped forward toward the gate as the men, eunuchs, approached him. One began bandaging the wound on his arm as the other put a wine skin in Vrash’s hand. Vrash took several gulps. He’d been worried briefly that he might not win. And that meant it was the end of his life — even if he surrendered, Master would have him killed for a loss. Life was good to him today. He would meet his end another time. Though it would probably be in the same arena.

Still, something felt unusual. Master wasn’t clapping. He knew he was Master’s pride, but Master didn’t seem pleased with the conclusion of the fight. He shrugged it off. He was a slave, and a slave could not know such things. He submitted to the oil rubdown the eunuchs provided and returned to his cell to await Master’s servants to collect him.

He didn’t need to wait long. Master approached a few moments later, his quick footsteps echoing in the empty hall. He wore a frown and his brow was furrowed. Master had once-dark hair that was graying, but not very much of it. The top of his head was bald and the back was clean shaven in the current style. He ward only a robe draped on one shoulder and his fat could be seen jiggling in the bare area. He wore simple leather sandals this day.

Vrash stood and waited for him. He continued to wait as Master stood and glared at him. Vrash was a tall man, and Master was short, and it was obvious that Vrash could kill him easily, yet there was still something in Master’s eyes that made Vrash feel small.

S.N.E.A.K.S. i

Vrash punched the other man in the chest. He didn’t know his opponent’s name. He never did. They were both unarmored, but Vrash was the only one unarmed as well. They both were well muscled, and they both wore nothing but a piece of cloth wrapped about their waists. So were the other three men in the arena. Two of those men were also dead. Or at least dying, their helpless bodies lying in the sand. The third was closing in tight behind him. He would need to take care of his current antagonist first.

He lifted a leg and kicked the other man, pushing him back. He would be expecting a respite in the attack — since it was used to give one some breathing room, but Vrash wouldn’t give it to him. There wouldn’t be time for that with the other fighter in the arena. The tactic was only to give him a sense of ease. Vrash leapt after him as the man stumbled, focusing entirely on regaining his balance. He spun as he re-closed the distance and his elbow brought a furious blow to the fighter’s face. Vrash couldn’t suppress a grin as he felt a satisfying crack and a tiny spatter of blood on his arm.

He continued his spin and grabbed the man’s hair and pulled back his head. He finished the fight with a viscious punch to the fighter’s neck. He let go as the dying body collapsed, struggling soundlessly for breath that would never come.

Vrash faced the direction of his last opponent, whose run slowed as he saw Vrash was no longer distracted. Vrash could tell he was cocky, and knew he had reason to be. Vrash was breathing heavy, he’d fought and killed three men already, and the sweat was running down into his eyes. The other man held a sword and a punching dagger. Vrash hadn’t even had time to lower himself and pick up someone’s weapon. He’d been given strict orders not to touch them anyway.

His owner — Vrash didn’t know his name and was only allowed to refer to him as Master — had never put him in a fight he couldn’t win. Vrash tursted him completely. He was well taken care of and treated to honors no other gladiatorial slave ever got. He didn’t care about freedom. He’d never known it, and didn’t see what appeal it would have. He was good at fighting, and he didn’t know how to do anything else. Life was good.

But it was hard too. He’d fought four men at once before, but he’d been armed. He’d fought three men unarmed. He’d fought beasts. But these men were good, and Vrash just wondered if maybe Master had given him a fight that was too hard as the two men circled each other.

The other man had a tattoo on his upper arm, three red circles in a triangle. He lunged at Vrash with his sword, but he didn’t have enough power in his legs — it was clearly a feint. Vrash didn’t even react. He didn’t know if Triangle intended to draw him out or test his defenses, but Vrash wasn’t going to give him anything. Triangle had a confused look in his eyes, and he paused. He clearly hadn’t expected no reaction at all.

It was all the chance Vrash needed. He grabbed Triangle’s wrist and pulled him forward. He couldn’t hold his opponent in place, else he’d take the punching-dagger in his side. But pulling the man and letting go was good enough. It forced Triangle completely off balance and he stumbled forward. Vrash stepped behind him and pounded him in the kidney. Triangle only grunted. Vrash grinned. This one, at least, was a man. He reached out, hoping to grab the man’s arms, both of them, but there was too much momentum, too much distance. Triangle whirled and they returned to circling.

There would be no false moves, no fakes any more. Each move would be with the intention to kill.

Orkbusters, Inc

A mousy young woman sat at a desk, picking her nails with a dagger and chewing on a piece of sassafras root. Her short, sharp nose twitched as she ran her fingers through her short brown hair. Plain, distinctly unpretty brown eyes glanced up every now and then to see if anything new had happened in the room. It hadn’t, so she went back to her personal grooming.

A moment later a slight figure dressed in a worn colorless tunic and breeches threw open the outer door and strutted across the floor, passing the antique weapons rack and completely ignoring the tapestries of battles hanging from the walls. He carried some sort of fruit filled pastry in one hand while the other brushed stray wisps of dark hair from his face back further on his head. He hurried past the woman at the desk, breathing, “Morning, Sheena,” in a cheerful way as he did so. Most people with her attitude toward mornings would have grunted in response, but from Sheena it was more of a squeak that translated to, “Morning, Herb.”

Herb opened the door behind and slightly to Sheena’s left and disappeared into the office beyond, leaving the office silent but for the sound of Sheena’s nail file once more.

Less than five minutes of continued boredom later, the outer door once again opened and another slight figure entered. Sheena was accustomed to fewer than two interruptions before her midmorning tea break and this second intrusion annoyed her, although she had still to look at anyone yet that morning, let alone say anything that required any degree of thought.

The figure who had just entered was different from the first in two ways. First, although he too had dark hair and colorless clothing, his robes were obviously well cared for. Secondly, this figure took a moment to take in his surroundings. He gazed at the weapon rack and noted various exotic weapons of mysterious origin. He examined the tapestries, noting the meticulous workmanship and the historic battle they commemorated. Finally, he observed the secretary at the desk who was apparently trying to pull something out of her left ear. “Precisely what I was looking for,” he muttered under his breath with only a small degree of sincerity.

As he approached the desk, Sheena decided which rude tactic she would use. She decided on the ever reliable casual speech patterns and lack of eye contact that had served her so frequently in the past. She carried out her plan by continuing to focus her gaze on the desk, moving her finger intently around inside her ear, and speaking in the annoying accent she had learned at the farm she had grown up on. Her father and mother had always used it, and it had always bothered her, so she felt confident it would bother this stranger enough to drive him out of the office. “Yeah, what do ya want?” She demanded with a twang in her voice, turning to look vaguely in the direction of the stranger as she finished.

What she first noticed was that this was not the usual fat, ugly merchant or petty duke that she and Herb usually dealt with. He was slim and handsome and was stroking a well groomed and attractive goatee, although, there was a fairly large and very blue lizard sitting on his shoulder. The second thing she noticed was that she actually didn’t want to be rude to him. She quickly took a mental survey of everything in her appearance she needed to straighten up. Then she just as quickly pulled her finger away from her ear, yanked the sassafras root from her teeth with her other hand, and finished up by rapidly ensuring her hair was not too badly damaged. She still looked like a mouse, but at least it wasn’t a rude mouse anymore. After a half moment that to her seemed interminable, she realized she also needed to correct her tone of voice and wording. She used the court accent she had learned while tormenting ladies-in-waiting from the castle and rephrased, “What may I assist you with, Sir?” her voice only breaking once in the whole sentence.

The stranger grinned a grin he hoped any intelligent observer would recognize as longsuffering and condescending, but the secretary would perceive as charming. It worked. He watched her suppress a sigh as he spoke, “I need a company to recover something of mine. I heard that Herbert Spearpoint can assemble an excellently skilled and qualified group. Have I come to the correct place?” The lizard blinked, as if it too was seeking the answer to this question.

Sheena looked at him until she realized that the stranger had stopped speaking, having asked a direct question. “Oh, uh . . . I mean, yes. Yes Sir,” she managed to get out. “I’ll go find out if he can see you.”
She stood up in a hurry, eager to please, and knocked over her chair. Flushing, she moved to pick it up when she realized it was righting itself. As she looked towards the stranger, he winked, acknowledging that it was his doing. Her mind stuttered for a moment and finally came up with the thought, “He winked at me!” She managed a cautious smile, and as the stranger gave a full grin, she turned to the door Herb had moved through and thought, “Even his teeth are handsome!”

As she turned to the door, the dark stranger thought, “Fool,” and kept his peace. The lizard seemed to grin a little.

As Sheena opened the door, she cautiously peered around it to see what was going on. Usually Herb woke up very late in the morning, came to work, and slept in his office chair for a couple hours more. This morning, he had come in earlier than usual, had been less grumpy, and was not sleeping in his office. He was leaning back in the chair on its rear legs, one hand flung out to balance himself as he tried to balance on one leg while the other hand tried to feed his mouth the pastry. The whole act was impressive in an eight-year-old sort of way, and Sheena was relieved to find that not only was Herb not sleeping, he seemed to be happy. This was confirmed when he spoke.

“I’m happy today, Sheena,” he said. “I’m having a great morning, like destiny is coming my way. Make sure no clients get in to talk to me until at least mid afternoon.” He popped the pastry in his mouth and took a very large bite. He then proceeded to make quiet animal-like noises. Whether they were expressions of pleasure derived from the consumption of the pastry or small grunts caused by the exertion from balancing on the chair, Sheena wasn’t sure.

She tried to speak to him, but wasn’t sure how to communicate how important it was that Herb met with the most attractive and charming man she had ever seen in her pitiful life if only because she desperately needed to please him and keep him in the office. She pondered this on a minute while Herb chewed, mouth open, and swallowed. “By the way,” her boss queried, “What do you need?” He popped the remainder of his breakfast into his mouth and continued balancing. More grunts followed.

“Well, it’s just that . . . well . . . um… There just maybe . . .” she tried to figure out what to say. Her little brain wasn’t very used to tactful or persuasive speech, and finally it burst through the blockade hindering it’s expression. “You have a wizard here you have to meet with,” she blurted in her usual mean-spirited tone, usually reserved for clients.

“Uh’m bufee,” Herb managed to say around a mouthful of fruit and flaky crust.

“You don’t look terribly busy,” A third voice broke in. Sheena recognized it as belonging to the tall, dark stranger. Herb had no idea who it was, and he didn’t have much time to think about it immediately, since the surprise had caused him to lose his balance and choke on his pastry. Fruit flew everywhere and so did limbs as Herb fell to the floor, bruising his backside and his ego, but only temporarily. Herb’s ego had remarkable healing capabilities.

“What the . . .?” was the first halfway intelligible thing that came out of Herb’s mouth. Pulling himself up by the edge of his desk, he glared about the room, trying to find the vandal who had attacked him this way. His eyes rested briefly on his secretary, who was attempting to creep unnoticed out the door. He was about to scream at her when he noticed the stranger who had already claimed the only other chair not soiled by half-chewed pastry, and was calmly stroking his pet lizard. “Who are you?” Herb demanded immediately, feeling a pressing need to regain control of his day. It had been going so well, and this person could not be allowed to change his course towards destiny.

“I compliment you on your professionalism,” the dark man responded in a tone Herb wasn’t entirely sure was sarcastic. “My name is Argin, a sorcerer by profession. I need a group to recover something for me. I understand you organize such expeditions.” The lizard nodded to emphasize the remark.

“Sometimes,” Herb responded cautiously. “For a fee . . .” He quickly added, even more cautiously. Then having felt that he hadn’t been clear or cautious enough, he amended, “A very large fee.” The better to get this man out of here. This wizard probably wanted them to find root of swamp squash or drake dung or some equally detestable ingredient to his sorcerer’s potions.

The wizard grinned an unamused grin (as did the lizard, or so it appeared) and said, “I understand that. I’m sure we can come to a mutually agreeable amount.” The lizard stretched its back, revealing there were wings.

Herb finally started to consider the proposal. This stranger was either rich or had a vastly different method or reckoning wealth than Herb did. And it didn’t appear that the mission was to seek out the bark of a tree shaped like a deity or anything ridiculous like that. The presence of the winged lizard bothered him somehow as well. It wasn’t a dragon, being far too small even for a hatchling. But it wasn’t a forest drake either, the claws and teeth were too short and the tail too long. What could it be? It was time to get serious and find out details. “What do you need us to do, Wizard?” he asked. He had chosen the term ‘wizard’ to address the man on purpose. Depending on how it was used and who used it, it could be an insult or an honor. How this stranger responded would determine what sort of man he was. It was a dangerous tactic, but Herb had paid to have defenses against magical attacks placed in his office, and was reasonably sure of being able to survive if the sorcerer got hot under the collar. If the man took it as a compliment, then Herb knew he would be easily conned and manipulated.

The stranger was neither offended nor flattered by the remark, however. He simply got to business, ignoring the appellation “I need you to recover Zy-Krawn’s Jewel,” he said plainly.

Herb nearly fell out of his chair, this time with laughter. Zy-Krawn was a legend from thousands of years ago, a tall-tale about an evil tyrant-mage who had reigned in blood an terror for a couple hundred years. It was mainly used to scare kids into being good, but in recent years it wasn’t even told for that anymore. Herb reminded himself this was probably a serious client, and if he was crazy, it was best to humor him until he left or the constables came anyway. “And where am I supposed to find that?” He asked.

“I know you think this is an insane idea from a crazy man who thinks he is a wizard,” the stranger said. The sorcerer’s lizard began to pick its teeth with it’s claws, looking occasionally at Herb. “But I have researched this for longer than you have been alive. Never mind my appearance, I am a mage, and appearances can be deceiving. I know the legend of Zy-Krawn is true, or at least mostly so. And his Jewel does exist, and will give the one who possesses it fantastic powers. I have determined that it is located in cave at the top of Potter’s Mountain, just outside of town.”

“Yeah, well, Potter’s Mountain is haunted. That’s gonna cost you some money.”

“You don’t seriously expect me to accept you believe in fairy stories of vengeful miners?”

“Doesn’t really matter what you accept, Wizard, I run this job, and I make the rules. My crew might take exception to this detail, and I’m not too happy about the possibility of running into some dead man who thinks I’m jumping his claim. Can you pay enough for me to put up with that, or are you going to leave my office now?” The lizard stopped and glared at Herb, ruffling some scales to look bigger. For a minute, Herb was afraid he’d pushed his luck a little too hard and the sorcerer was going to attack him.

After a tense minute the lizard relaxed and started nibbling on the strangers’ chin. The wizard chuckled;. “I think you’ll find that I can pay you plenty.” He produced a bag seemingly out of no where and tossed it onto Herb’s desk. The sound of coins clinking told Herb exactly what it was.

Herb disregarded what was considered polite in his business and opened the bag. Platinum crowns. A lot of platinum crowns. Herb was impressed and excited, and tried to hide it. He could smell the riches. “This is a good start. What else can you do?”

The lizard glanced at Herb perturbedly; the sorcerer glanced at Herb with an annoyed eye and nearly sighed. “I have four more bags like that one you can have once you’ve brought me the jewel.”

“Where did you get this money?” Herb pressed. He didn’t want to gain possession of missing money the constables were looking for.

The reptile’s eyes flashed red, and the sorcerer sighed in impatience. “I’m a man of means. Do you want the job?”

Herb considered a moment. “One more thing. If there’s no danger, why are you willing to part with so much money just to have me run up a mountain?”

“I never said there was no danger. Although I’m sure that will be minimal. But time is of great importance here. I have . . . friends . . . who are . . . eager . . . to see the jewel.”

“I can have a team assembled and ready to go in the morning. Where should be bring the jewel when we’ve recovered it?”

The lizard relaxed considerably and started to nuzzle up against the sorcerer’s neck. “I shall want to interview them, of course.”

“If I can trust your money, certainly you can trust whoever I choose, hmm?” Herb had a firm rule about letting his clients pick and choose members of his groups. They always ended up selecting faithless priests, clumsy thieves, and stupid warriors.

The sorcerer laughed. “Very well, Herbert Spearpoint. Bring the jewel to my residence near the Tower of the Magi on the Street of Carvers, between the market and the docks. It is a large house of gray stone. I will pay you your money there.” He stood to leave, but turned as he reached the door. “I should warn you, I will know if you try to give me a fake jewel. I will be very disappointed if this is not done quickly and correctly. I am not well known because the few who have had reason to learn of my power have never been able to tell anyone about it.” That said, the reptile on his shoulder glared coldly at Herb for a moment, and the Mage was gone.

Herb shrugged it off and started making mental notes about this job. Maybe this was his chance to meet fate. The platinum would be plenty to buy him a small, legitimate business where he wouldn’t have to risk his neck so often. He’d be free and able to grow old, fat, and happy, but now he needed to prepare. “Sheena!” he bellowed.

The secretary came in slowly, a mystified look on her plain face. “What?” she asked softly.

Herb snapped his fingers in frustration. “Stop fantasizing, woman, we’ve got work to do.” Have the Shriner, Cristobol, Tim, and Blinder meet me at the Red Bow Inn tonight. Tell them it’s big money.”

“Huh?” Sheena wondered. “Oh, yeah, sure, Boss.” She slowly walked out the door, still dreaming of the tall stranger who had entered her life.

On Religion and Fantasy

With the release of a new Harry Potter movie comes a new string of antichrists… er… anti-free speech, anti-freedom of religion, and anti-intelligent preachers who think that the self-purporting fictional account of an imaginary boy in an imaginary place is going to damn the entire world to hell. In my mind, the one type of person equates to the other. It is fundamentally antichristian to burn books in this way. I mean, Christ didn’t deny access to other ways of thinking. He merely encouraged all to listen to the truth. As far as I can tell, my reading of the New Testament shows Christ trying to teach wholesome truths and helping people live positively. I really only recall one time (twice, depending on how you concordinate the gospels) when Christ actually attacked people. It was not on the grounds of religious differences. It was about the desecration of the holy temple.

The popular opposition to the Harry Potter books mystifies me. It does a tremendous amount of damage: it teaches hate and intolerance to children, and tells them that reading is bad. In many ways, it tells children they are bad. Most children do not have the sophistication to separate an evaluation of themselves from an evaluation of the things they like. Heck, many adults don’t have that level of sophistication (see book-burning preachers).

It also confounds me that Harry Potter in particular gets singled out. Tolkien doesn’t. Jordan doesn’t. Feist, Brooks, Zimmerman, and LeGuin don’t. Much of this is particularly odd. Tolkien was Catholic, and therefore anathema to start with for much of the non-Catholic Christian world, but at least his themes are very “biblical” in nature. Jordan deals with non-Christian deities, even as protagonists. Zimmerman was a pagan in every Christian use of the word (and it shows clearly in her work). Most of these authors sell at least at a comparable level to Rowling.

Granted, Rowling is the only one on my list here that writes for a child audience, but if that’s their reasoning, then I have to go back to my other question of whether the book or the book burners are doing more damage to the young ones.

Now, it is not unknown to anyone who reads my material that I am a fan of the fantasy genre. Works like Legend and Krull annoy me not because they’re bad but because they’re bad fantasy (see also the animated movies based on Tolkien’s works). So perhaps I take the whole thing personally. I don’t really see myself as a Potter fan, though. I have enjoyed the one movie and two books I’ve gotten through, but they’re a little low level. I suppose 15-20 years ago I would have loved them though.

But that’s not the point. The point is that these people who claim to be spreading the love of Christ are spreading intolerance and closed-mindedness. I find that repugnant both as a student of literature and as a Christian.

Look, the Bible talks about dragons. It also talks about “familiar spirits” and sorcerers and witches and wizards. Now personally, I find most of that to be somewhat metaphorical. After all, if God is in all ways perfect, then he is surely a perfect artist and writer, and therefore will employ some literary devices, such as figures and symbols and such. However, many of these preachers seem to have a problem understanding non-literal language (which leads me to wonder exactly how they think they can understand scripture) – which is clearly shown by their inability to see Harry Potter as anything other than a text book on how to perform evil magic rites (do the terms “fiction” or “narrative” mean anything to you?). This being the case, I suppose I should come up with a reasoning to justify the reading of fantasy even to you literalists.

Hypothetically, if the Bible accepts these figures as real (remember again, this is not my position, but the position the literalists to whom I speak), then you should accept them as real. This means that you shouldn’t be burning a frickin’ book just because it differs from your religious point of view!

Sorry, I got ahead of myself there. So, we’re accepting them as real, which in turn means that there will be books about the material, just as there are many books on subjects you don’t (and for that matter, aren’t asked to) agree with. This means that you shouldn’t be burning a frickin’ book just because it differs from your religious point of view!

Sorry, that just popped out of my mouth again. So there are subjects that you don’t have to agree with, but out of tolerance for other people’s way of life, as well as convincing them that you actually love them instead of just saying you do once a week while showing them difference, you really shouldn’t be burning a frickin’ book just because it differs from your religious point of view.

The Duke and the Contessa

The duke and the contessa were forbidden to love each other. At least, that is what they believed. It would have been socially inappropriate to express any such feelings. Yet everyone at the court knew that they loved each other. It could be seen in every glance, every gesture, every word they spoke to one another (and many words they spoke to others), though they never admitted what they thought would be indiscretion. By most courtiers, including all the women (with one unimportant exception), felt that their relationship was terribly romantic and many hoped desperately that somehow the situation would result in a union of the two plaintive lovers, but by the same token no one would tell them about the plainly obvious love because that would ruin the utter romance of the situation, and everything should be romantic, even at the cost of happiness. For romance is beautiful, and beauty is more important than pleasure.

But then came the day of their falling out. The duke by some small forgetfulness or faux pas had somehow offended the contessa and hurt her pride. Or perhaps it was the contessa who had slighted the duke; no one can be sure about these things. Either way, they both turned cold shoulders to each other that day, and the relationship only grew more sour. At one point the duke surely felt that he would like to make it up to the contessa, but as they could no more declare their love now than previously, and thus there was no way for him to show that he was sorry. The contessa grew angrier and angrier, and even when the duke was not the subject of conversation or when he wasn’t near, one could feel her burning anger. Meanwhile the duke simply grew more and more morose; his visits to court became less and less frequent. The contessa felt slighted at this as a new insult, and the effects of her wrath in the duke’s deportment: he stopped showing as much care in his grooming, he spoke barely ever. This development was very sad to observe. But it was that tragedy was beautiful, so no one said anything to correct the situation.

Eventually, the contessa could no longer stand the sight of the duke, and commanded her army to attack his territory. The war was bloody, eventually involving most of the other courtiers as they had to either defend their own lands from the armies or joined one or the other side, depending on which side they found to be more beautiful. In the end, most of the realm was destroyed, the crops burned, the citizens murdered, and the animals driven away. Only the courtiers themselves remained. But even the ruin was beautiful, so no one complained of the results.

The contessa still hated the duke, but she lacked the power to kill him. The duke, on the other hand, still refused to directly harm his beloved contessa, even though his army had been much larger and more capable, and he was still physically capable of ending her life. And so we did what we had always done, and continued to hold court, although there was nothing left to rule. And that is when the angel came. We called him an angel because he was beautiful, and we didn’t know what else he was. He came from the sky, right through the roof of the castle, and stood before all of us. He proclaimed in a deep but melodic voice that he had witnessed the strife in our land, and that he now knew what he had always suspected. Now that he knew who they were, he would take the contessa and the duke with him.

For the god and goddess of beauty cannot be suffered to remain with mere mortals.