Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 1




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Chapter 1

At Sunrise

A police officer crossed the black pavement in front of an old antique shop. Intense light from his police cruiser tinted his face blue and red. The voices of his colleagues were drowned by howling sirens. On the other side of the makeshift wall of wooden roadblocks, a crowd of onlookers stood gazing at the neon lights illuminating the storefront. “Get back!” a police officer shouted through his bullhorn. Armed with his gun, the policeman approached the shop’s glass doors. Posters for several brands of vices are taped to the walls, blocking the view of the interior of the store.

A feeble voice cries, “Please, chief, don’t damage anything.” Looking back, he sees an elderly man talking to his section chief. Approximately sixty years old. A man of frail appearance with gray hair. A foreigner, tanned, and probably a desert dweller from Dilet.

“Sure… as if everything wasn’t damaged already,” the officer remarks under his breath. There is an audible creak from the twin slabs of the shop doors. As the officer crept toward the doorway, he encountered a black liquid.

The voice of his section captain grumbled, “That’s not our concern. All we care about is getting everyone out.”

A smirk spread crossed the officer’s face. “You tell ‘em, boss.”

As the officer watched, a flash of light came from within the store. The only thing in sight was shadowed darkness. Entering the building slowly, the officer breathes in deeply. The holo-lense illuminated his eye as he scanned the area, displaying a technical reading. As it detected the flicker of a yellowed tube bulb, it revealed itself as the source of the disturbance. “My heart skipped over that?! Damn, Arikado. Don’t freak out.” He laughed. It was only then that he realized that the darkened room reminded him of an abyss, and everything about it seemed wrong. His eyes were filled with static, making it impossible to see anything. “Come on, don’t glitch on me now.”

While the halogen light vanished too, a chill ran up his spine. As the air became increasingly arctic, a neon-colored ghost floated from his open mouth. Pressing the radio switch on his shoulder, his body became cold. “Shit, I can’t see a thing and it’s hell’a cold.”

“Hey Arikado, are you scared of the dark?” a fellow officer jokingly asked.

“Quit talking, Zhang,” Arikado growled. He was sick of the situation and slightly scared at the realization. Still, it wasn’t the usual unease he felt. There is always some concern when walking into dead-end shops with potentially armed suspects, but this was different. It was a living fear, a gripping dread. He felt its claw on his throat and it stole his breath. “No, not at all. It’s dark as night. It’s impossible to see anything. I can’t feel my fingers, it’s like walking into a damn freezer.”

Stepping forward, Arikado looked at a collection of shelves strewn among an inky mosaic of a variety of objects. “So much for keeping the place undamaged, damn what the hell happened here?” Arikado turned as a rustle stirred on his left side. The officer held a gun out toward the distance, pointing into the unknown. “Come out with your hands so I can see them.” He ordered toward the dark mystery.

A red glare, a scream of pain, a yell – Arikado’s eyes widened as a sharp pain burst from his stomach. He could only hear the splash of his blood against the polished tile floor. As Arikado became disoriented, his body is flung across the room. When he collided with the wall, he let loose a scream.

Arikado’s hollering alarmed the squad outside. After the crash, the captain roared, “Get in there!” Five officers poured into the salon with guns drawn. In the shadowed corner, Arikado screams out with misery. As the gore from his splayed open stomach dripped from his arm, he pressed against his wound.

A silhouette of a woman appeared in the darkness. The static strands of her hair spanned out in all directions. A moment of silence is interrupted by Arikado’s whimpers between the police staring at the strange lady. One of the officers commanded her to get to the ground, but all she did was raise her hand, revealing sparks dancing between her fingers.

There was a constant clamor as protesters banged against the barricades, bobbed their signs up and down, and read a variety of slogans about police abuse. A man lunged over the barrier before being struck by a police baton. “Get back!” The officer who dealt the blow demanded, “Get the hell,” Gunfire rang out as it drowned out the protester’s screams. As the police push back, the storefront comes alive in the muzzle flash, fear sending the crowd rushing for cover. All eyes are focused on the flashing blackness.

The woman’s twisted smile spreads between flashes. With a metallic ping, her fingers spread wide, stopping the bullets in mid-air, hovering for a moment as if impacting against something unseen, then falling to the floor. A blinding light flared from the woman’s milky white eyes, shattering the glass in the room. The shards were transformed into shrapnel by a supernatural wind, ripping the flesh from their bodies.

It thrusts the agents’ bodies through the storefront’s windows; their remains rolled in fragments across the now bloodied pavement. Officers on the outside ran for cover behind their cars as razor projectiles ripped at everything in their path. While kneeling over their cruisers, they drew their weapons towards the flare of silhouettes, gripping their triggers as their hearts pounded.

As the storefront stood still, the darkness returned. The shattered glass sparkled in the first morning light. The silence grows from unsettling to straining while every eye stares unwaveringly. Broken shards litter the police vehicles. In addition to the hail of shrapnel falling on the officers, some of them screamed in pain as they suffered injuries from the blast.

Through the remnants of the shop doors, the woman stepped out of the darkness in time for the sliding door to fall off its hinges. She stood blatantly with pride in her eyes. There was an insane, toothy smile on her face as her eyes grew wide. Her body was a burnished gold that embraced the figure of a gymnast. Each step she took left a trail of sparks behind her. “Get on your hands and knees!” the captain yelled. Streams of blood dripped from her body, forming rivers at her toes.

Instead of complying, the woman brought a bloody stride forward. A cackle escaped from her strange, feral grin. An officer, unable to coax with his stretched nerves, pulled his trigger and a shot was fired from the chamber. A led dot flew straight at the woman, but it stopped midair, falling to the ground as the bullets did before. He screamed. “It’s a witch!” The patrol of officers opened fire in a frenzy, each bullet bouncing along sparks shielding the conjurer. Step by step, she approaches the officers huddled behind their cars. As if a mechanical doll were suffering from broken parts, she stutteringly turned her head. Her raised arm sent a blast of lightning ripping through a cruiser, turning the nearby police into a pulpy mess of parts.

A second officer charged with both arms raised, about to slash the “witch” with a saber. Amid the mighty swing, the woman bends down, splitting the officer from the shoulder to the hip. Warmblood cascaded on the ground as the officer fell to his knees.

A roar of screeching tires alerted the strange lady. A pair of trucks barreled from the end of the street and she turned towards the dissonance. Grinning, she stepped over the officer’s body and faced the rushing freights. Several armored rigs rammed through parked cars and tore up any sidewalk decorations, shattering everything in their path. By turning his wheel and slamming the brakes, the truck’s driver spun the massive truck in a circle, pointing its cargo port in the direction of the lady.

The hangar doors creaked with a metallic groan. Rolling open the doors, they were greeted by a humanoid machine covered in steel plates. The machine splinters the asphalt under its triple-toed foot as it emerges from the back of the truck. Its body is twelve feet high. At first glance, it seems like an armored knight. The machine’s three fingers grip a long, specialized rifle with cables and cords attached to its forearm. As it marched forward, the automated servos whined with each movement. From the barricade of trucks, an additional group of officers formed three small squads. They wear bulletproof vests and shoulder decals bearing SDP logos.

With an airy hiss, a tall fellow with a black trench coat removes the hosed mask. Grayed black hair overshadowed a pitted face with years of experience. He yells, “Let’s finish this.” He pointed to one officer hiding behind their police cruiser near the barricades. “Get these asses out of here!” he shouted. He stands slowly on his feet, giving a nod. “Nothing to see anymore.” The man in the trench coat said. “The regular police, what a bunch of cowards.”

As the lady growled, sparks blew across the road in long streams. Discarded litter floated in a spiral wind like leaves. The armored suit lumbered in front of the group, squared off with the strange girl. As the pilot dragged his knees into the ground, he formed a position similar to a sniper’s, pointing his rifle at the woman. With a loud shriek, an electric bolt ignited the machine, leaving a path of fire behind. As lightning strikes the armor, it causes a great spark that turns its white plastic plating cyan in the glow, and its red lights dim for a moment. A few seconds after the blast, the ground flares as tethers of lightning roll across the pavement.

The blond monster paled when the goliath moved again. After being struck by a blast from its muzzle, her right leg is blown off in fleshy red strands above the knee. Rolling and spinning, her limb fell to the ground and tumbled. Her ribs snap as she collides with the pavement, sprawling on her side.

Laughing, the older man said. “Good shot. Now, pack up so we can get out of here.” A squad of armored police rushed forward to take the girl, carrying syringes, ties, and a large yellow plastic bag. A police officer kneeled, grabbing the woman’s wrist. Plastic ties were prepared with a snap. Her rose-red lips crease up into a tight curtsey as he catches her sapphire eyes. As she pushed herself up, she clutched his collar with the other arm. His throat was pierced by her nails, causing him to gasp for breath. It is as if a shotgun blast tore into his skull with all its ferocity. The sight of the headless officer makes the others step back from the twisting and twitching witch.

“Quit screwing around. Shoot her.” Roared the captain. As they drew their pistols, they shot her body with bullets. As her mutilated corpse danced from side to side in the hail of bullets, she laughed one last time. Her body was nothing more than a pulpy wad of flesh after their ammo was spent.

Some distance from the action a shadow in a cloak sat on a rooftop watching the bloody scene beneath the storefront buildings. “What a pity, the lady had’st shown promise.”

A vision of a dull burgundy flashed through Apricot’s mind. Under the thick cloud of slumber, an annoying buzz disturbed the peace. Her room changed from a red glow to shade as she opened her eyes. She turned her head towards her nightstand as she stretched. In crimson digital lights, an alarm clock blinked “8:23 AM”. As her hearing and vision became clearer, her eyes grew wide. “I will be late again!” Her grogginess was gone as she stood up, sending her covers cascading to the ground.

As she moved through her room, Apricot grabbed her clothes and put an arm through one sleeve. She adjusted the green and white seifuku with yellow trim. Although it pained her to admit it, she glanced over at her makeup before deciding she didn’t have the time today. “Perhaps just eyeliner will do, that only takes a moment.” she reasoned.

As she climbed down the stairs, she spotted her younger brother, Jasper, sitting at the breakfast table with half-eaten morning toast. His eyes were glued to the television. This was typical of Jasper. Instead of cartoons or a movie, an emergency broadcast drew Apricot’s attention. A well-dressed woman in a deep red swing coat reported an incident. The volume was far too low to make out what was being said. Apricot imagined herself in the position of the lady in red. If only, she thought, she could tell such an important story. However, she could not shake the guilt she felt whenever such thoughts occurred. Sadly, news media are always seeking ways to exploit tragedies. “What’cha watching?” she asked.

“Oh, you’re up.” Jasper snickered. “I was woken up again by your alarm. It’s annoying how you never turn it off. You’ve been sleeping through it lately.” Apricot hated the way her little brother could be so smug. If he knew she was oversleeping, the little brat should have woken her up. “But look at this!” he said. “The police had another standoff.”

Apricot opened her fridge. Plastic still covered a few leftovers and pre-made dishes. Meals for her father, as he often got home late from work. Eventually, they accumulated like a museum of the past week’s dinners. After grabbing half a carton of milk, she took a swig from the cardboard fold out and snatched some eggs and butter. “You know you could be a good boy for once and help your big sis, Jazz.”

The boy laughed. “Get yourself up.” His eyes never averted from the screen. “Wow, there’s blood all over.” His mouth dropped open.

Apricot lifts her head from the fridge, looking up at the image of bodies and limbs and pools of crimson spread like modern art over the wide pavement. “Jasper Signa!” she shouts. “You know you’re not supposed to watch this stuff!”

“It’s the news, and Mom won’t be home anyway, so don’t lecture me.” said Jasper.

“But Dad is home.” The color vanished from Jasper’s face as he swung in his chair to see his father standing behind him. Jasper felt his father’s hand on his back. “What is this?” he asked in a voice of concern. Apricot felt satisfied, knowing that their father caught him acting like a jerk. By pushing with her foot, she shut the fridge door.

Jasper mumbled, “The news.” Before returning to his lively speech. “A bunch of people were attacked by robbers. The SDP had to be called.” Jasper chirped. “Sachiban model 4s, Dad.”

“Hmm, I see. I guess your sister is right. If your mother finds out you watched this, she would be furious. It’s best if you turn it off,” their father told a disappointed Jasper.

Despite his pouting, Jasper flipped off the television with the TV’s remote control. “Missy, you are late for school,” Apricot’s father continued. “Do you think you can make breakfast, considering you’re already delayed?”

Her fingers were about to break the egg in her hand as she froze. A hollow moan came from the pit of Apricot’s empty stomach. “I guess you’re right.” She moaned.

Apricot ran along the thoroughfare, worried about her lateness. She thought to herself as she weaved her way through the crowd that it was unusually busy. It appalled her to discover a barricade blocking all movement as the source of the commotion. “Not today!” Apricot shouted as she raced up to the fence. “Ah, come on!” As her hands found themselves on the rail, she shouted, “There has got to be another way through.”

“Eh, girl, turn around,” shouted a uniformed man. Cleanup crews bagged gory remains on the other side. Despite the slimy conditions, they did not seem to slow down.

Apricot thought, “This must be where the attack took place.”

“Didn’t you hear me?” The man shouted again. “Go around!” Redirecting her from where she came.

A sigh escaped her lips as she turned to face the morning street as if going against a stream. Apricot slipped through the unyielding people but made little headway. She knew of another rail line that wasn’t on her usual route. Despite being a few blocks away, the rail did not stop at the university, but it was close enough.

The station was in sight after a quick jog, but her heart dropped when she saw the line had boarded passengers and the room was getting limited. Apricot sprinted through the crowded street, bumping into people with sailing apologies. Before the doors closed, a young man held the doors open with one arm and reached out with the other.

With the cart’s speed increasing, Apricot ran faster. Her hand reached out for the man’s open palm. As he lunged forward, he gripped the door of the train. The young man lifted Apricot onto the threshold of the train’s closing door. Behind her, the doors shut with a hiss. “Hey there, almost missed your train.” He chuckled.

Apricot blushed. “Thanks to you, I didn’t.” His smirk was a little exaggerated. Then she noticed him looking her over. Her bust was the first thing he ogled before swinging back to her eyes. Her first thought was, “Oh great, he’s a pervert.”

He asked. “Got caught up with the detour, huh?”

Nodding, she said. “Mm-hm, so, did you?”

“Nah, but quite a few people complained about it.” While leaning against the support pole, he gripped the headrail. “It’s crowded in here this morning. It’s usually empty, that’s why I like it so much. With all these people, I feel uneasy.”

Apricot thought to herself, “That’s pretty rich coming from a pervert.” She shook her head. “Yeah, I’ve been there.” Apricot bit her tongue, not wanting to say more.

“What’s worse, I heard that Ginzu’s entire system had to be shut down for repairs. The cause: lightning during a robbery. What a load of shit. Have you ever seen a freak lightning storm endanger a rail system?” Apricot shrugged. “I haven’t either.” A sort of silence follows for a moment. Her mood had changed after being ogled; she was not ready to start a conversation after being paused. Huh, uncomfortable, sure, he knows all about it. Wrote the damn book on it. His shoulders slumped, and a sigh rolled from his lips. “So, what brought you out this morning?”

“Ah, I’m going to college. I study journalism.” Apricot had always been happy with the career she had chosen. The government and the media share a high level of trust that allows for a controlled relationship between the two. Passing the state journalist exam is difficult, especially for someone like Apricot, who is a foreigner.

Smirking, the guy said. “You’re a journalist, are you?” His posture softens. “You got a camera?” The question struck Apricot as odd. Her eyebrows squished together uncontrollably. “I figured a journalist would be interested in photography.” He replied. “I have this camera I’m trying to sell. Maybe you’d be interested in it.”

“No, I’m sorry. I’m not looking to try photography.” It was a lie, but she assumed the camera was stolen or broken.

Two arms were raised behind the young man’s head. “I ride the train almost every morning, so if you ever change your mind, come see me. Just letting you know my name is Cortez.” At first, Apricot thought he was attempting to flirt with her, but then Cortez waved. “Well, see you around OK.” Amid the mass of timbered bodies, he blended in unexpectedly.

Splashes of sweat streak Apricot’s rosy cheeks. During the jog to the university’s entrance courtyard, she sweated through her clothes. A large monitor screen displayed a government broadcast with the time-boxed in the upper right-hand corner: “10:04 AM”. This left Apricot feeling anxious. She hurried through the sparsely populated halls. The twists and turns made them seem like mazes to her. It was as if the designers had made the entire building as confusing and frustrating as possible. To intentionally cause hardship for students, let alone visitors. As if inside the vaults of each room are treasures hidden and there would-be robbers who would find themselves lost among the many turns, unable to escape.

“The detour. They will keep the door open.” Apricot thought to herself; a noble effort, but one that failed miserably to ease any tension. Ms. Akagi, her instructor, had already drawn the off-white paper shade in 1403B when she saw the door. The hand hovered just above the knob. Her lungs filled with a deep breath as she silently prayed to the almighty for divine luck. When she tried to twist the handle, she was met with resistance from metal fasteners that had locked. The doorknob jiggled with little give as she grunted again, hoping to will it to open.

As Apricot stepped back from the door, she lowered her head and placed both hands on the side of her cheeks. There was a tightness rising from her face, flowing down to her toes. Her breath was long and steady before she let it out with a sigh. “Late again.”

On a weekday, Blue Ash is like any other bustling city, a shadow of its real population. On a narrow lane, Apricot passed through people wearing a variety of fashions. The air was filled with the smell of barbecue over a charcoal grill. On the sidewalks were vendors who sold food from their carts. Shops lined the road offering a variety of items, from trinkets to clothing to consumer goods. Apricot had always seen this avenue as more of a hall of commerce.

One shop that caught Apricot’s eye was a boutique window selling the latest style spread across mechanical dolls. She admired the doll’s striking poses. Their realism seemed unreal. Almost, it is that small gap between the two that unsettled her. There was something in the eyes. They seemed to be alive, yet dead at the same time.

The sounds of programmed synths diverted her attention to an arcade. “I have little else to do.” She thought. After being enticed by the blinking neon lights, she enters the somewhat dingy “Game Palace”. A piped perfume filled the air inside. Apricot assumed it was an attempt to cover the humid heat generated by a mix of body sweat and cigarette smoke. A myriad of flashing arcade cabinets line the walls, each with an assortment of tunes that blend to make that classic sound. Apricot associated its pleasant ring with a good time despite the cacophony.

The flavor of one game was what she was looking for. A side-scrolling hack and slash game by Capnom called Queen Of Dragons. It’s a game Apricot did pretty well at. During her last visit, she had reached stage three on a single coin. Today, she was determined to go further.

A slight flicker appeared on the screens as the machines dimmed. “Crap, the power is going out again. Seriously.” A specter of breath appears in the open air from her mouth. In the frigid air, her skin tingled as if she had stepped into a deep freeze. The cold fades as quickly as it appeared, but not before causing all the systems to reset. It evoked her boredom as each began their boot sequences, causing her to whine. The appeal of battling pixilated monsters had passed.

After wandering the vitrines for a while, she came to an unfamiliar side street. Shops around here are relics from another era; dusty old places that were long forgotten. She walked past a hardware store, electronics boutique, a shady-looking pawnshop, second-hand shops, and a small market at Wiseman’s; a chain she had never heard of before.

There was a different type of populace walking the streets here. If the ones before were people without a care, these made her consider she may be in danger. In response to several unwelcome glances from men, Apricot decides it is better to head back onto more populated streets. A group of four guys kicking another man in the ribs welcomed her as she turned the corner. As each strike knocked his body from side to side, he barked out. Her wide eyes filled with horror as she shouted, “Stop! Stop!” When the guys turned to see her, she realized it had been a silly reflex.

She had now attracted the attention of four very hard-looking men. It was the tallest one who delivered the last kick. “Yeah, let’s get out of here. Make sure you have the rest of it, punk.” The men all walk towards Apricot, saying, “If not, get the hell out of town.” Apricot felt her throat tighten. The four walked by her without even a glance.

Her head turned downwards as she gazed at the man on the ground. As he spat blood, her eyes widened. It stunned Apricot to recognize him. That’s the man she met on the train. “Are you alright? Do I need to call the cops?” she said.

The man groaned as he stood to his feet. “Don’t do something stupid like that. Stay out of it. It has nothing to do with you, reporter.” He limped out of the back alley without looking at her. Despite her desire to go with him and make sure he was okay, Apricot knew it was not a good idea for her to do so. Being involved with people like that can leave you hurt, if not worse. Unlike most, Apricot valued what was unseen. Despite her desire to become a journalist, she had a pseudo-respect that some things should be left unsaid.

As Apricot was walking, she soon spotted a familiar sign: “Utopian Theaters.” It was now obvious where she was. Across the street was a small cafe called Hot Shots with an aromatic smell of brewed espresso. Upon entering, the aroma greeted Apricot. They embellished a pleasant chocolate wood décor with soft pastel green and red hues. There is some privacy with light music, but not so much that it drowns out your thoughts. She could not help but salivate as she walked up to the counter and inhaled the smell of fresh baked goods. “Hey girl, I thought you had school.” Apricot looked up at a bright blue gaze from Bonni Willox, one of her best friends from high school.

“Bonni!” Apricot chirped, reaching over the countertop to give a warm hug. “I did not know you worked here?”

“Yeah, I needed a part-time job. It turns out you can’t be a movie star without one.” She laughed. “So, why are you here?”

“I was late for class. Stupid detour halted my train,” Apricot grumbled.

Bonnie leaned forward and whispered, “I’ve got a story for you. I overheard the police talking about that. It upset the Okabe officials about not capturing the robber alive. Rather than calling them a robber, they called them a witch. I found that odd, given what had happened. A freak lightning storm is out of place, no? They killed how many people?”

Apricot smirked. “How’s that a story?” she asked. “That sounds more like a novel.”

“Heh, normally I agree with you, but the way they were talking about it did not sound like the usual upset about killing her, but… like they wanted her. They kept saying they had a deadline to bag them.” Bonni drummed her fingers against the polished wood of the counter. “I will tell you more about it later, but right now, is there anything I can get you?”

Apricot nods her head while placing a finger on her cheek. “How about a Vanilla latte with a dash of half-and-half.”


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Episodic Series, Fiction, Lyorta

Lyorta: The Saga Of Retribution: Prologue




PROLOGUE

The threat of war had always loomed over Marion. Through its brutal history, the soil had soaked up the blood of many, and so it is with this story. In 795 RE, an empire from the far west invaded Golgotha, a land encompassing Marion’s north-eastern half. For 45 bloody years, the two empires fought each other, resulting in the capture of Golgotha by the western empire known as Azure. Peace was about to reign again… but poison can be swift and futile to expose once infused.

~ A Rider At Sunset ~

~ 845 RE ~ Golgotha’s Capitol: Elitus, at Dusk ~

Along the old country road, dusty soil erupted as thunderous hooves barreled over bittersweet pastures. Riding at the front is a brave warrior clad in armor. His name was Guildred, a Lord Knight of the Azure Empire and proud leader of the griffon knights. From what I knew of him, he was an absolute terror on the battlefield. Renowned for being the first in the vanguard and never leaving until he slew his enemy.

As he advanced, an army of cavalrymen on horseback, armed with rifles and spears, followed him. They rode past the heart of death, a field littered with rusted weapons buried in the dirt that marked the graves of the fallen. It filled his mind with images of the dead stacked like walls and their fetid odor as he remembered the blood and mayhem of the battle. Horror pierced his heart as he heard the irons bearing down on each other and the echoes of their screams clashing together. Despite the terrors of war, Guildred sat tall with his chest outstretched, a picture of strength. The flowing white cape of his robe gleamed in the dying red sun’s rays.

They rode forward toward a castle that was obscured by a rusty haze. In his veins, the panic was pumping like the beat of a war drum. He could hear the creaking of his horse’s reins as he wrapped the cords in his hand. With his saber raised, he points towards the war-torn city gates of Elitus.

They already stationed several guards in blue uniforms at the gates. As Guildred’s hand rose in the air, the soldiers prepared their spears. The Lord Knight felt his heart crawl into his neck as his horse came to a halt. Two guards point their long polearms at the naked neck of the gallant knight within seconds. Snowy whiskers and deep chasmic wrinkles adorn the face of the elder guard. The other guard was much younger. Despite his youthful sense of invisibility, the guard tightened up, giving him away.

There was an unsettling silence in the air. Regardless, the result would be the same. In his mind, it was simply a matter of whether he would wet his blade. As the guard’s face lit up with wide eyes, the old man appeared to recognize him, much to the Lord Knight’s relief. Though he couldn’t tell if it was fear or respect. “Lord Knight Guildred, what was this about?” asked the elder.

“I’m here under the orders of High King Grandor to protect the prince! I have no time for pleasantries,” Guildred said firmly, brushing the spear’s tip away with his sword. “Let me through,” they met his commanding reply with a nod from the guards, who parted to let the cavalry pass. Guildred directed his band of soldiers to cross the threshold like a rushing river of bestial hooves.

It had been so long since he last saw Elitus without its fortifications. During the war, ramparts constructed from metal plates and wood surrounded every street. They armed even the littlest children to defend the city. Now everything was quiet, and it appeared peaceful, although that was soon replaced by hallowed silence and prayers. Guildred’s armor-clad warriors stormed the streets, shaking the earth.

The Lord Knight glanced down to his side and saw a man, wide-eyed and mouth agape, dressed in a well-worn cloak. Lifting his stance over the man and pointing forward, he sent the retrenched cavalry to their positions. They do this as a coordinated force, trained and adept at what they do. Two men secured each junction, clearing the way for the horses. Guildred remained composed, with men guarding doors to their shops, locking the windows, and fleeing the knights despite the widespread panic. Guardsmen approached to ask about the situation as the riders explained it.

He grumbled to a younger man beside him, “Traveling as a group will hold us back with this much panic.” He watched the alarm spiral into hysteria. A growing sense of urgency pierced his body. “Hm,” he growled. He thought to himself, “the time is running out.”

Snatching the reins, Guildred rode into the crowd while the young soldier yelled, “My Lord, wait!”

As people dive to get out of the way, Guildred steered his horse through the crowded city streets by instinct. In battle, riding a horse is one thing Guildred considered. The men knew when to step aside, and when they did not, the Lord Knight would cut them down. This is a game of avoidance; this was a game he had never played before. The feeling of imminent collision shook him to the core. Despite the tension they shared, his horse continued diving, weaving, and avoiding obstacles, both living and inanimate.

~ A Legacy Remains ~

Children’s giggles reverberated from the cool marble chapel. On a red blanket sprawled over the floor, an infant girl and boy play. In their midst was a group of dressed men in expensive attire. They cover their faces with carved wooden masks of animals. These masks depict a bear, a boar, a bird, a deer, a fish, a fox, and a wolf. The bird adjusted his cufflinks with obvious restlessness. Their swords rested on their laps. Candles flickered and danced, hungry for a feast, waiting for their sacrifice as phantom winds moved into the room. Almost no sound escaped their lips as their whispers dragged.

“Wham!” The burst echoed down the hall. As the clopping of hooves draws nearer, the men bound from their chairs. Huddling around the children, the men grabbed their brands for protection. The fox pointed at the door. The bear and the boar, the two more burly of the men, rushed out of the sanctuary and into the hall with their sabers drawn.

Guildred rode down the marble halls toward the strange masked men. The bear and the boar struck combative stances with their swords in hand. “Royals,” Guildred said to himself. He had always considered the lesser houses to be idle and cowardly. “This pair must find power in their authority,” the trained warrior mused. Their stature and attire clarified they were countrymen and betrayers.

Grandor’s fears of usurpers were realized. Guildred choked the shaft of the spear. As the boar rushed towards Guildred, he hollered with a sense of authority, “Halt.” If the situation were different, Guildred might have laughed; instead, it provokes anger. Responding with an unadulterated charge, he narrowed his eyes. A pulpy red burst of blood shot from his spear as it pierced the man’s chest. The thrust ripped from his face the wooden boar mask, showing a toothy, open-jawed scream.

Guildred stared deeply into the man’s blue eyes, filled with tears. The nobleman, who once stood proudly, gags for air as a strand of saliva escapes his mouth. The nobleman grasped at the spear’s tip as Guildred lifted the struggling man. In utter horror, the second man in a bear mask stared, his body still and yet trembling.

The Lord Knight released a subtle growl as he rode several feet with the impaled man roaring in agony. A thrust sends the boar’s body soaring from the spear. As he flew, he crashed into a wall, sending a tapestry tumbling behind him.

As the bear jerked at his knees and turned tail, he ran away from Guildred, who now appeared like a giant brute dressed in his silver armor. For a moment, Guildred considered pursuing the man, a feeling of almost animal thrill for the chase overtaking him. In the end, he decided it was wise to aim through the open chapel doors where the men came from. Guildred examined the bloody spear’s tip that once found itself buried in the man. His “royal” meat hung from its bent end, useless to Guildred now. In any case, he did not desperately need range. He threw the spear to the ground, and it rolled, leaving behind a bloody trail. As he rode into the open doors of the sanctuary, the rest of the men shrank back in fear. In the blink of an eye, Guildred lept off his horse, drew his saber, and rose to his feet. The men greeted him by pointing their ceremony blades in his direction.

His polished blade aimed at the three, shouting “Drop your swords in the name of Lord King Grandor!” He huffed, twisting his body at an angle. With his mouth down-turned, and his gaze focused on the children, Guildred released a deliberate exhale.

Yelping, the bird raised his hands and yelled, “Sir Guildred, you must understand.”

Guildred thought to himself. “They’re pleading their cases already?” He shook his head and spotted to his left the wolf, charging forward, hollering “Quick, kill the child!” with a gruff voice.

When Guildred noticed the fox standing over the young boy, he reached for his throwing dagger. As the fox raised his sword over the baby boy, he yelled, “It must be finished.” Guildred sweeps the small dagger across the room in one fluid motion. The blade struck the fox in the throat. Knife in his neck, the man tumbled backward, squelching, blood gushing onto the floor. The fox rolled on the ground as he reached for the hem of his co-conspirator’s cloak and let out a loud squeak.

Guildred’s eyes dart up just in time to see a dramatic swing aimed at his head. “Clang!“ Guildred blocks the wolf’s attack, their two blades groping, slipping, and ending their flash dance with a poke to the ribs. As the wolf released his sword, the man reached for the edge stuck in his lung. His shirt, wet with blood, is painted in broad, wet strokes. In the same manner, in which Guildred had plunged his weapon into the man, he expelled it effortlessly. In the process, the colored saber drips onto the ground, creating a small puddle at his feet. The wound became a fountain. The wolf feels his heartbeat betraying him. Among the children’s shrieks are tears and squeals of discomfort, besides the wailing of the remaining masked men.

When the deer and fish jittered, they drop their brands. The bird is too startled to do much. Behind Guildred, a procession of soldiers swarmed the room, pointing their spears. Suddenly, the bird cried, “Mercy!“ Guildred turned his sapphire gaze at him. He could tell from his voice that he was a relatively young man. The bird’s hands shot into the air. Suddenly, the sword rolled out of his grasp. The blade landed on the floor with a clunk, revealing a face flushed with a shade of pink Guildred had never seen before. His eyes, puffy and sullen, filled with streaming tears, he exclaimed, “I had nothing to do with this.”

Except for the crying children, the only sound was Guildred’s first step. There was an audible metallic clank. With the chapel’s ringing, its weightiness became clearer. Slowly and deliberately, Guildred marched toward the men, who cowered at his approach. Guildred stands over them. After loosening his right hand’s leather strap, he drew a quiver from the men. A similar reaction followed when he did the same with the left. With a bang, the gauntlets fall to the ground, fingers spreading, palms open.

Guildred squatted down and lifted the kids off the ground. “How do I stop their cries?” He wondered to himself. Then he recalled what his maid mother would do with his siblings. While humming a song he knew from the bards, the noble warrior gently bounces, cradling the pair. Russet infantile hands gripped his silver breastplate firmly. It wasn’t long before they stopped crying. Guildred doesn’t even bother to glance at the others as he rises to his feet. His soldiers parted as he walked across the sanctuary’s purple carpet. He paused his humming to add, “Arrest them.” He then resumed his croon, continuing out of the room.

“Please! Mercy!” a shout echoed. Mercy is the last thing he deserved, Guildred judged.

The young girl’s rosy sepia face is kissed by a pink digit that wags against it. Violet jewels looked up at Guildred’s sharp diamond features, crystal blues framed by sandy blonde locks. Her body is flattened against Guildred’s forearm. A smile spread across the brace knight’s face. “Rest well, Princess Talumn.” Guildred said.

Following Guildred are six marching soldiers. The young baby of a boy kicks in his other arm, struggling, curling, and winding in the knight’s arms, beating his hands and feet against the metal plate. “Papa!” he shouts, arousing Talumn from her slumber.

As a lump formed in his throat, Guildred muttered, “Silly kid.” He fought to contain his tears as he said, “Don’t worry, your father is coming.” The truth was, his father was dead, poisoned at a dinner a few hours earlier. Guildred approached a large silver door that is embossed with the image of a winged man reaching into the clouds. This door opened in the middle, revealing a circular room with transparent walls and a view of the village. Squirming, the boy tugged at Guildred’s white cloak, trying to get free. There are four more soldiers in the room with them. As the silver doors close, the room rises, expanding the view of the city as they climb higher. Guildred pointed at the window. “Look, Illian.” The boy’s blues become luminous with fascination. The boy turned his head slowly and smiled up at the Lord Knight. “I thought that might make you smile,” he said. “It’s your kingdom. Don’t forget it.” Guildred warned. “You get to leave this madness tonight.”

The climb took less than a minute, but it felt like it was for hours. After the silver doors open, a black sky and a red moon are visible in the distance. All four soldiers sprint across the castle’s reach. The warm summer breeze blows Guildred’s way. One soldier calls out, “All clear.”

In the distance, Guildred saw a massive airship en route. “We will get you out of here,” he said. In Guildred’s eyes, the goliath looked like a flying stronghold. However, it is much smaller, but anything that flies that size deserves a title. Its blue-white landing lights blinded the group as it drew closer. The large ship anchors itself to the castle wall; Guildred’s cape cracks in the winds generated by the large ship. Dropping loudly from the airship’s deck, a metal board landed with a clang.

Guildred squinted, turning ajar and shielding the children from the blinding spotlight. Two gigantic guards clothed in cloaks of blue cast shadows. Guildred compared their helmets to pointed metal hoods, similar to bishop’s caps, except they covered their faces. With large lances like cannons, the soldiers stood at least nine feet tall, crossing the metal bridge; their mere presence was unintentionally menacing.

As another man crossed, the light darkens for a moment. As before, he wore royal robes and was much shorter and unarmored. A hearty greeting awaits him from the fresh-faced man, “Lord Ashnod, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”

When he recognized the man, Guildred’s face lit up with delight. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Gallion Gravios.” He trusted him as a child, at least at one point in his life. “The circumstances are far too grim to respect,” Guildred said, while Illian cried loudly.

Gallion reached out and took the children from him. “They will have a better life than they could ever wish for.” He narrowed his eyes, turning Guildred’s stomach. “Were the nobles trying to kill the royal family? Was it true?”

Guildred replied to Gallion, “It seems so.”

Gallion looked over to the ship and said, “I see. In that case,” He turned away from Guildred with a grimace. He muttered, “Kill them all.”

General Gallion paused when Guildred said, “I have three of them captured; should we not at least question them? So we can understand the situation.” Gallon stood still. Guildred swallowed uncomfortably, not wanting to undermine the nobleman’s authority.

“Kill every one of them. We would have had lasting peace between our two kingdoms if it weren’t for King Bridehan. The balance now rests in the hands of a crying child. Leave Bridehan, though… we will neuter him after this.” Guildred bit the inside of his cheek. An odd feeling came over him that there was something more going on than what appeared on the surface. As he watched Talumn sleep in Gallion’s arms, doubt entered his mind. Hopefully, Grandor will shelter them appropriately and they will prove him wrong.

Gallion turned back to Guildred while standing on the bridge. “I trust you will handle it for us. In the morning, we might require new nobles. Take control of Elitus and Guildred after the ride north. The bastards in Tidus need to see the true cost of what they’ve done. Leave the public out of it. Such things shouldn’t bother them.”

As Guildred watched Gallion turn away and board the airship, he said, “Yes, sir.” His guards followed and redrawn the bridge onto the ship. While the vessel ascended back to the skies, he stood wide-eyed. As he grips his saber, he turns to the guard standing next to him. “You heard him,” he says. “We have work to be done.”

23 Years Later


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Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Prologue




Prologue

The Crisis

Crowds of people walk through the downtown slums. Throughout the city, ripped posters from long ago adorned the walls. They are now nothing more than meaningless echoes in someone else’s mind; memories of a different time. Men and women are working in offices flanked by large windows, while festive decorations embellished the city and well-dressed customers emerged from carousel doors. Their clicking feet vanished as silence extended to the depth of the snowy streets.

In a shadowy control chamber over a mile underneath a shopping center, a young black-haired girl is sat. As a hand tapped her shoulder, she felt a chill run down her spine. At that moment, she glanced over at the young lady sitting next to her. “Come on, Chino,” she whispered. “We can do it.”

Taking a glance at the console in front of her, she gave a slight nod and half-smiled, but it quickly faded. The fingers instinctively slid across the keyboard. An overhead video wall illuminated the darkened room, and she glanced up periodically. Several objectives are listed under the heading “Mirror Crossing Operations.” Besides interacting with Falcon-One, Chino’s objectives included maintaining power levels. She cleared her throat and adjusted the microphone’s neck. “Alright, it looks like we have everything set up on our end. Let’s get started with the Mantra-Tech systems check, Falcon One.” Chino said.

“Rodger, I have light. The ION engine appears to be functioning properly. Ready and waiting for instructions. Over,” a male voice replied over the intercom amidst a hint of static.

The young woman who sat next to Chino responded: “Begin with the core inspection Falcon-One.” As Chino pulled her uniform from her neck, she left a small sigh of relief at the loss of the growing pressure on her throat. Within a few seconds, Chino’s monitor levels changed from green to orange to red. Her fingers worked rapidly, gathering information about the municipal electric grid.

Billboards lined every street. They emitted a dull fluttering light while cars snake their way through the gridlock. They dimmed marginally when Chino flicked a switch, then buzzed once again. Midway through a busy street, a group of school children watched in awe as the streetlights suddenly go out. Chino watched the levels disappear while a lump formed in her throat. She whispered to herself. “Damn it, not today! I won’t let you die on me.” Chino said as she turned on switches rapidly until the lights sparked back to life and gradually rose to a stable position.

A heavy crackle of interference rolled over the radio. “Core One, stable. Core Two, stable. Oh, Core Three, stable. Core Four, stable.” said the technician.

A loud voice boomed with authority. “Get that line clear.” the commanding officer ordered. Chino slumped into her chair as she worked. An elegant hand closed around her fingers.

Chino turned her fearful gaze to the welcoming eyes of her co-worker. “It will be all right. We got this.” Her whisper offered Chino a comfort she had not expected.

“Click,” the technician sounded. “My cable had come loose.” Chino heard the thumping of her heartbeat during the pause that followed. The technician continued, “Core 6, stable. Everything appears to be working properly. On my end, all is well. The levels are being broadcast now.” A broken streetlight flickered back to life as the clap of thunder echoed, promising rain.

“Falcon-One, everything looks fine on our end. Start the particle engine check.” Chino instructed. At last, the roving camera displayed an image on the wall. The technician dressed in an astronaut suit is working on a satellite. Blue orbs flew through the unnatural darkness like fireflies lighting up a warm summer night. While watching the spectacle through the screen’s muddled image, Chino cannot help but admire the colors. As the wisp ran in front of the optics, the camera adjusted its lenses to focus.

The technician grunted, “Let me see here.” Over the radio, a plastic board snapped. Chino looked at her co-workers wearing white, gray suits managing various switchboards inside the control room. They are all surrounded by colored holograms. As seen from her angle, their images were nothing more than bright lines of color. They changed and twisted as her own did while sifting through the compiled data. “Engines one and two are ok. Ah…. Let me see engine three, is OK.”

Through the darkness, the technician drifted along the satellite’s channel attached to a meager tether. The light from the wisps painted his spacesuit’s white nylon tricot a dull blue. With only the satellite as a guide, he waded through the dark void, climbing metal rungs and climbing snowy plastic as he changed his sense of direction. His excellence in his trade was clear to Chino as he flew around the machine.

When Chino had ensured that the energy levels were stable, she began her last check. After opening a few screens, Chino breathed deeply. “Headquarters has cleared you to engage the Mantra Drive Falcon-One.” The technician glided to the edge of the satellite, using his thrusters. His feet were hanging over the panels. He reached for another tether from his side and connected it to a rung on the ladder, gathering his footing. After that, he grasped the bar of a round switch. By turning the white cylinder with the metallic chime, he waited for the satellite rods to glow red one by one.

A man stood up and pointed to his screen as Chino shouted, “Object spotted, Commander, east of the gate.” On the wall panel, a picture of the object appeared. A moment later, her heart fluttered. She thought to herself, “This shouldn’t be happening.” Instantly, the computer recognized the object and locked onto it. “Falcon-One, there is something far off in the distance on your three. Could you provide a visual?“

The technician saw a twinkle in the distance. His HUD displayed a green box around the object. Inside, numbers are counting down. “Roger, I copied a visual. It’s approaching rapidly.”

“Falcon-one, can you tell me what your reading is on this?” The commander’s voice was firm, but Chino felt worried in it as well. There’s a loud, haunting crash as pieces of plastic and metal fall onto the floor. The light turns the satellite into nothing. The man lost his suit instantly. His flesh flew abroad, and his bones dissolved in the light.

During the commotion, the video feed flashed off. Everything inside the building trembled like an earthquake had struck. The commander yelled in concern, “Falcon-One, do you copy? Do you copy Falcon-One? There is no signal, Falcon-One. What is the situation out there, Falcon-One?”

30 Years Later

“Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion that destroyed Blue Ash city. At least the disaster, which reduced everything in its wake to rubble in an instant, killed two point three million people. Smoke from the explosion obscured the sun for three days. This was one of the most devastating disasters in modern history. A brand new city has risen in its wake. New Ash City has been called a technological wonder of the world. We remember…” in a flash, the news anchor disappeared into the black of a television screen.

“Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before,” said a young girl looking over a suburban township.


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An End To All You Know (Summer 2019), Fiction, Novels

An End To All You Know: Prologue



This story is currently a work in progress. If you find any errors or have comments please feel free to let me know.


When time ceases to be time, it is easy to lose yourself.  We define ourselves in finite terms.  If handed infinity, would you still be you?  I lost myself some time ago.  Unborn to the world, stashed away, placed on pause.  Past, present, future, they all converge inside the abyss.

My chest raised and lowered with each deliberate exhale as the cool eternal darkness carried me to unknown shores. Movement, movement; I had not felt movement since untold times long ago. The sound of brisk footsteps running along a tiled floor echoed through the under tide.  It rose me, my heart started beating as my mind opened, sparking to life anew. The deep pulse channels through my body once again, grasping my fingers into a fist I jolt as I realized, I still existed.  My soft lips part as I took a deep inhale as one would when breaching the surface of water. Immediately regret filled me along with the invading murk.  My lungs burned, plump with an unknown fluid while my mouth swelled with the taste of mineral steel.

My ten thousand years closed eyes opened as the illusion of long-suspended slumber is broken.  A dark sterile white ceiling greeted me.  The tiles edge rush like a river as an occasional beam passed overhead while rods of light like spears stab through the glass.  Ever more clear the sound of footsteps grow as the remaining fog that held me for so long depleted.

The twine of my silky black hair filled my vision as waving undersea foliage. Every subtle movement caused the drifts in which I rested to whirl and wander.  I rolled off the smooth, spongy floor to levitate in my container.  Through the dark murk I could make out something human like just beyond the glass, but it moved wrong, like a reproduction.  The strange thing hunched its upper body over the foot of my container with cables and cords lining its scratched timeworn metallic armor. To my side I heard a mechanical groan, with a simple jostle of my hip I rolled over, my gaze leaping toward another pair of similar strangers.

A whimper left my throat along with a wisp of carbon-dioxide.  My eyes grew wide and my jaw fell agape as I released a bounding shriek.  The lumbering form of an imitation human face; imitation as to the extent it is something akin to a cheap plastic mask.  I darted around the strange cell swiftly toppling me with a powerful sense of claustrophobia.  My insignificant movement aroused the attention from the alien creature, and to my horror it turned in my direction. With no way to escape, I was at the mercy of this inhuman pretenders.

Outside in the dark I could make out I was inside something like a stretcher surrounded by a glass tube and submerged in some kind of liquid that allowed me to breathe. “She isn’t supposed to be awake.” the being’s voice startled me. The sound was distorted through the smothering fluid, even still I could tell it was digital, broken and artificial like the rest of the peculiar thing.

“Stay quiet.” demanded another of the alien engines; its voice was deeper and more machinelike than that of the first. The group came to a full stop. I halted my breathing, hoping that I had not angered my captors. They stood still. The tension of no reply grew as it strangles my every vein. Only the slight whine of their long warn motor’s break the agonizing silence.  Was it me?  No, they were observing the hall for something. “They have spotted us.” announced a male voice.

A loud ear-piercing scream from the dark sent shivers down my spine. I felt it crawling across my skin, like an unfamiliar touch grooming me where it should not.   Bracing my knees onto my shoulders, I curled tightly into a ball and covered my ears to stop the deep stabbing pitch.  The screams increased in numbers, there must have been a hundred of them and the surly roar of gunfire was all too loud. It hurt as each percussion thundered through me. My eyes latch shut to escape the horrors which I knew awaited the rising of my lids.  All that separated me from a nightmare, is an inch of glass. The thought drew a light sob to crawl from my throat.

The sound of scraping coming ever closer, and beyond that scraping, I could hear the buzzing of a chainsaw carving, slathering a wet pulpy mess as it made its way through whatever victim fell to its grinding teeth.  A splatter of red splashed onto the glass obscuring my view in a violent coat.  With a thud, the carrier is swung aside, throwing me against the wall of the container. More panic gripped me as I observed the three mechanical soldiers fighting with chainsaw blades and rifles. Beyond them is a vision of a swarm; malformed tumorous bodies ridden with polyps, clawed and shrieked in an unbridled feral rage. My kicking feet struck against the glass, pushing me away from the sight. I knew it was futile. There was no escaping. My silent dream released me to this nightmare, and somehow I longed to return to that nothingness.

The capsule shifted again, jostling me from my huddled cowering. I met the plastic faces of another pair of mechanical soldiers. They were pushing the cart; their arms slung over with rifles in hand. Each one popping aimed shots into the swarm. The three in front swung their weapons cutting into the creatures.  A glorious howl lept from there, well, whatever they had. They painted every wall with dripping blood as insides and limbs rained to the floor. Unwillingly getting closer to the tide of battle; my heart sunk. I soon realized the machines were pushing my prison toward that horrid visage. “No, no, I don’t want to go there! Please, no!” I begged with the loudest scream I could muster against the fluid. They gave no answer or even a consideration. My gaze met their cold unfeeling masks once again, molded with that false smile.

Looking into to the fray of battle, I saw only two soldiers. “309!” one android yelled, his voice stilled me. I couldn’t help but notice they showed concern for each other. The front two soldiers increased pace, cutting and chopping to get to their fellow. Among the fleshy horrors I made out the missing android’s arm, and its head, but that couldn’t be right. The head was too far from the arm. I contemplated what I was seeing. “Grab his tracer!” commanded the android above me.

As the puzzle completed itself in my mind I screamed “They ripped him to pieces!” The two android soldiers in front stopped their progress at the end of the hall. One held back the unending hoard of monsters; four arms slashing and cutting against the throng, valiant and proud, a shining conqueror, my, defender? “Are these things trying to save me?” I wondered. My emotions were in a maelstrom of total confusion.

My view become fast covered by the amount of blood that rained down on the group. In some ways the covering sheen of gore comforted me, in others it brought out an intense anxiety of the unknown. The other android picked through the ripped torso of their fallen comrade. It lifted a small card out of the thing’s body. Fleshy tethers ripping free as they deposited the card into their own frame.

“I got it!” the machine hollered in victory. 

“There is an elevator shaft ahead.” said the android who hung over my capsule. Her voice was female, even though her body did not match her gender. They all looked the same to me, aside from a natural patina of rust and wear that allowed them to be somewhat distinguished from each other. “We can get to the roof from there. Attaching to the carrier now.”

Between small gaps where the scarlet black had not covered, I saw that the hall had become nothing but a twitching pile of meat with a river of blood wetting every surface.  Colored cords like worms moved about boaring down into the piles of ruination tethering stray parts back together. The closer to the elevator we got, the deeper the pile seems to be. The limbs that remained gripped at the androids. With little effort they jerked themselves free, giving the parts no purchase. The soldiers stood guard, holding the line against the onslaught as the others pushed my capsule into the elevator.

The capsule lifted into the air by a bright blue light, levitating the android up the tunnel. The entire thing radiated a blue glow as we rose higher. The platform stopped opening to a sky that is bleak, the color of rusted iron, and a dull glow overshadowed everything upon the rooftop. The buildings in the city were decayed with lengthy lines of overgrowth from something like that of muscle flesh. A strange-looking vehicle of some sort waited for the group; judging from the large wings, I assumed it was a plane, but I could not be sure. From the elevator shaft, the other two androids appeared. They were sopping wet with blood. As they walk bits of flesh fell off their bodies leaving a messy trail of gore in their wake.

“You recovered one.” a man yelled from the ship’s open hanger. My heart jumped. Immediately I dove against the glass trying to spot the man through the film of red ooze. They lift the pod as the androids dragged it into the threshold of the plane’s dock. Sadly, pressing against the window provided me with nothing. It was too dark to see anything. Still, it comforted me to hear a human voice. “What condition is it in?” the man inquired.

“It’s awake.” An android grunted.

A torso covered in a white plastic suit pressed into the side of the glass. “We cannot have that.” he commented to the machine. “My, isn’t she magnificent?” I looked over my shoulder to see his face hidden behind a visor.

“Help me, let me out!” I screamed, retching my body against the window. The man’s face seemed even more unconcerned than the androids. His eyes only filled with a dehumanizing gaze in response to my struggles. “What is happening! Why am I here? Who am I?” There is a subtle twitch in my eyes as round dots of crystal floated in from my ducts.

“Phhhhshhhhhhhhh…” A small vent above my head leaked out a malaise of white clouds. The smell is rancid and made me gasp. My body tensed as I gasped for another scream, but my chest could not manage the effort. Instead, a low moan escaped as everything grew heavy.  In the milky fluid I tried to struggle but failed. My fingers pressed against the glass as the weight on my arms increased. It is as though I am being crushed and I fell limp. The iron lids over my eyes closed like curtains, as the theater of this nightmare came to a sudden halt; the deep slumber of stasis returning.

“So, she is asleep. Just like that?” The android I had hired commented.  His head was thin and rectangular, with a single blue upper reticle, altogether its shape reminded me of a pistol.  If one gathered scraps and did their best to construct the human shape, this would be the result of the rest of its body. Cables and ribbons hung between the gaps in its plating and from the back of its head into its neck and down its spine. The plastic mask I provided now dangled off the side of its head, no use for the artificial visage anymore. The entire thing is made of silver black gun metal. Several decades line its body, scraped and scratch listing incomplete model numbers.

In all my years, I never thought I would have this chance.  As I looked upon the bloodied container, a new wealth of hope filled me. I could hardly believe my eyes and I could not look away for fear it was a dream, I nodded my head in response to the android’s question. “Indeed, she is.” I faintly commented.  Rising from the container, I looked around the room.  I had paid for a squad of five and yet, before me, was only four. “I see there are only four of you that returned. I am sorry for your loss.” I said, hoping to cover for my previous lack of acknowledgment.

Then the machine said something most peculiar to me. “309 will live again, like your girl. He is in stasis, sleeping.” the android lifted a small rectangular chip from his bloodied breastplate. “He needs a new body. One I expect you to pay for.”

“Heh, me pay for a body for your mistake. Why do you expect me to pay for it? I hired you to retrieve her, not to refurbish your aging bodies. You knew the risks when I hired you. If you did not consider the complications that is your own fault.”

The android’s reticle twisted and turned, focusing on me, more, closely, I didn’t enjoy seeing my own concerned reflection gazing back.  A loud creek grumbles as the hanger motors opened the doors revealing his intentions. “Then our contract ends, there is no negotiation.”  The open doors stole the breath from my lungs. It terrified me, not to mention being berated by my suit as it whipped me in the winds.  I could feel my feet growing unsteady as the open hanger threatened the unknowable plummet.

“Wait! Stop!” I screamed. “We can work something out.” the hanger of the ship’s doors closed as my will bent.  What more could I do?  I held no position to argue against it. “I should have known better. Our colony lacks any military grade android parts though. How about a trade? Something of equal value?”

“That is fair. We will require more seeds.”

The surreal nature of the situation leaves me shaking my head. It has been a long time since I went to the outside world. Androids used to be the servants of man. Now they drove a hard bargain.  Where they have learned this kind of behavior. I suppose through observation over time they have become akin to such things.  Still, what could they want with seeds?  There is no real place to plant them, and even still what would artificial beings like them want with anything biological. I had to know, and so I asked. “Why exactly do you want seeds, anyway?”

“Unmodified seeds are the most valuable thing in the world. They are one of the few things we cannot fabricate. Unlike our greedy peers in the empire, we seek to build a new biome and restore the world as we remember from our nativity, before your cursed decay spread.” the android replied.

Impossible, it won’t be done.  Not by their hands. I kept that thought to myself not wanting to give any reason for further torment from the machine. “Yeah, well, good luck with that.” I grunted walking back over to the capsule gazing inside at the fair-skinned girl resting soundly.  At our salvation.

The ship carried us over the ruins of an old city, through the slumbering lands that grew rotted.  We fly through an even more lonely sky, over a vast sea and over mountain passes and fleshy fields; until we reached a desert wasteland of hollowed buildings for as far as the eye can see.

As the ship descended to the ground, a secret hanger door split forth from the sandy soil. Two people waited on the platform for our arrival. A young woman with black hair named Vanity and a much older man, a doctor, Hellibor Winters, who was given charge of this girl. When the ship landed the doors opened to reveal the ark in which she rests. I could hear Vanity shout, “They did it!” from even within the confines of the ship.

“Brilliant. I told you we could trust them.” Hellibor grumbled in his usual gruff voice.  As I made my way out of the ship Hellibor stood stoic as ever in contrast to Vanity’s excitement. Before I even said a word Hellibor says to me “Bring me the capsule.” in that familiar, commanding tone.

“It is good to be home.” I thought to myself.

“There was a complication.” I muttered. “We need to give the androids a bit more payment before they will release the girl to us.” I regrettably informed them.

I still remember that low growl Hellibor let out under his breath.  It was the kind of growl that let me know there would be repercussions for this later. He turned to Vanity, gesturing with his hands. “Vanity, do it, go get another seed for Brainer to give these swine.”

“Yes, Sir Hellibor.” Vanity replied, so formally as usual.  I can’t help but notice the sway in her step as she headed inside the building.  One of the few pleasurable things left in the world.  “So, you recovered a specimen.” Hellibor commented.   I stand side by side with Hellibor as we watched the machines go about their normal activities.

“It’s a girl as you had hoped, yeah, but one thing, she woke up during the extraction. It means they broke the seal on the ark.”  I couldn’t even look him in the eye. Soon noticed my palms were sweating inside my suit.

To my surprise, his reaction was not as sour as I had expected “It should not matter.” he grunted. “If she is infected, then the contaminants should have no effect on her.”

“They almost threw me out of the ship. I think they would have thrown her too. What a way to negotiate extra payment.” Hellibor let out a heavy sigh, shaking his head as he placed his hand on my back.  It was reassuring, to be honest it was the first time I had felt a touch in, well, ages in fact.  It felt unnatural.  Heh, I suppose Hellibor felt much the same way as he whirled his hand away as soon as he realized what he had done.

Vanity returned with a pair of test tubes. “Two seeds,” she chirped, holding out the measly pair in my direction. “They are still cold.” she happily commented as though it mattered.

As I reached for the two seeds I felt a heaviness grow in my gut.  “They will take this as an insult.” my mind screamed.  Two seeds for what they just did.  That was hardly any payment at all.  Though their contract never specified any amount, but it was still clearly plural.  I took the two suspended seeds from her, “This is all you are giving them.”

Hellibor nodded with confidence.  Together we walk to the drop ship’s hanger doors to present our, payment. The leader of the group moved to the lip of the hanger, towering above us like a giant. He jumped down onto the platform, looking at the pair of reflective tubes in my hand. “May I inspect them?”

As I reached to the skeletal metal hand, Hellibor chimed in. “Before we pay, I want to inspect the girl myself. Make sure she is without blemish. To do that, I will need to run scans on her.”

“That will not be happening without my payment. We agreed payment upon delivery. We delivered a specimen. Our end of the deal is complete. Now you must oblige yours.” the sternal android replied.

“Brainer give him the seeds.” Which surprised me. Then again, I guess even Hellibor even knew when to quit.

I extended my open palm. The android plucked one sample from my hand and scrutinized the vial. “This will do, where is the rest of our payment.”

“That is it. One seed for one person. You wanted double payment, so I have graciously allowed two seeds.” Hellibor stated with authority, I was hoping the machine would surrender to such a ridiculous request they deep down I knew what was to come.

“I do not take your humor lightly.” the android groaned.

“As you said before, there is nothing more valuable than a seed.”  It was a fool’s attempt, but none the less I could tell in that unfeeling machine’s eye, I had not impressed.

The android chuckles with this grating, artificial, inhuman laughter. “Now you, you know humor,” it said pointing to me. “I have a feeling however, this girl is worth far more to you than those seeds are to us. If you wish to continue your little game of negotiations, I will destroy her and call it a loss.” The smug masks melted off all our faces. I looked over to Hellibor to see if he wants to continue or not.  His body is stiff,  I could not read him at all, but I could see the fear of failure stabbed clear through him from the machines little comment.

It was right; we needed her far more than the androids needed our seeds. We had searched for years to find someone held in stasis, and now we had it. So close to the goal, Hellibor’s foolish pride was the only thing holding us back; and he would sacrifice his pride, because he must. “How many do you want?”

“As many as you have inside that little shelter of yours.”