Dragon

O’ Skjold Pige, maiden of flaxen hair and of iron heart, wielder of Longbrand, slayer of Firben the Dragon, Hawk-Talker, and the tamer of Ulv Linjal the Wilder King. Such as it were, she was mother of raiders and matron of heroes. Of Pige Iron Heart -her birth, her life, her death- I sing.

For Skjold Pige was daughter of the Frozen Jarl, Skjold Helt, who stories and names became legend carried by the eastern winds. After his betrayal by Skarp the Usurper and the fall of the great realm of Ullenheim, was young Pige left to wander the frozen lands in search of home and hearth. Placed in the charge of Spyd, her mother’s father, and kindest of her relations, the two did flee the realm for the safety of the wilderness.

Together grandfather and infant wandered and avoided the eyes of the Skarp and his agents. Traveling as a lowly minstrel, did Spyd walk the lands. The infant Pige was left concealed within an oversized lute, protected from the elements and treacherous eyes. So, it was that Spyd the Minstrel came to the cottage of Kort and Hoj. The sisters were Craven, members of the fay-folk in the form of man, and known for cowardice and treachery.

They offered the old man sanctuary and sustenance for the long winter’s night, each sister observing how Spyd would clutch his lute, never allowing it far from sight. Together the Cravens surmised that some great prize must be held within its confines, gold or jewels, perhaps from some ill-begotten scheme. Yes, that must be it, they believed. For surely this long-beard was some sort of highwayman, who had cut many a throat to prosper to such an old age.

They offered Spyd a place in their small stable for the night. The old man readily accepted, still clinging to his lute, even as he drifted into slumber among the putrid frozen hay. He would never arise again.

Thus, it was that in the night did Kort and Hoj strike, killing Pige’s grandfather with the swift blow of their axes. Yet, before they could turn their blades to the lute in hopes of wealth and riches, did they hear the soft mewling of a child, whose life was surely no longer than that of two winters.

Frustrated by their poor fortune Hoj turned to strike the golden haired child, but Kort was quicker. She stayed her sister’s hand, knowing that the girl could be useful. Yet, surely the child would despise them for the killing of Spyd, argued Hoj, but Kort disagreed. She was too young to retain the memory of that night and through her they could find an easier existence among the cold harsh world.

So, it was that two and ten winters passed and Skjold Pige grew up strong and beautiful, though terribly unhappy. She cared for her aunts and their constant demands kept her wearied and dissatisfied. Each day she tended the livestock, fed the hearth, cooked their meals, and kept the snow and dirt from their floors. The two Cravens lounged about all day, making demands of her and treating her as one treats a servant. The girl grew up hard and determined with calloused hands and an unblinking heart.

Pige’s life was one of struggle and work, and rare were her cherished moments, when she was left free to wander the wilderness. Her happiest moments were always found among the natural beauty of her land, as if she were as unbound as the summer sparrows. Yet never was she allowed to walk near the cave of black ice. For her aunts had warned her of the great demon that lived within its mouth, Firben.

The mighty dragon, Firben, was none other than the eldest brother of Kort and Hoj, and his avarice and malice surpassed that of his sisters as the strength of a great bear surpasses that of a house cat. Firben, once stole the treasure of Heksedame, the feared northern witch. Yet, he hoarded the treasure with great jealousy and zeal, even sleeping atop it for fear of robbers and cutthroats. Unbeknownst to him and his sisters he also hoarded the curse of that treasure as well. During the night he transformed from the Craven he was to the terrifying visage of a horned serpent, whose teeth could pierce shield and armor, and whose jaw could swallow a longboat. The name of Firben became feared among the bands of the South and cursed by his sisters, for they envied the mound of wealth upon which he still slept each night.

Pige knew none of this, nor did the naive prince and his band of raiders who landed within the fjord nearby. Oks Prale, son of Skarp the Usurper, went ashore for supplies with his men one snowy winter’s morning. While off alone he beheld the daughter of Skjold Helt, last of the great Jarls. For she was wandering among the trees in search of firewood to warm the feet of her Craven aunts. Her golden hair set his heart aflame, and he approached as one might approach a foal in the wild. Yet, Pige Iron Heart was no skittish creature. Upon his sudden arrival she struck with club and fist, believing it to be some lone sickly wolf or thug of disrepute.

Prale fell to her blows as his heart had fallen to her beauty. She begged his pardon and as he lay upon the frozen ground did he beg her hand in marriage. She considered the bleeding man at her feet. He was fair of face, if not weak of chin, but marriage would also mean freedom from her aunts and their frozen hovel. She accepted his proposal and helped the limping boy back to her aunt’s house to tell them the tidings of her coming nuptials.

Kort and Hoj were less pleased with the prospect of the coming union. Prale was allowed to sleep the night to recover from his wounds in the very same barn as Spyd the Minstrel. The boy would have suffered the very same fate as Pige’s grandfather had it not been for the girl’s constant attention. Come the morning, each Aunt gave their reasons why Pige was duty bound to stay with them and not marry the son of Skarp. For, who would run their baths? Who would cook their meats? Who would keep away the summer rats and the winter wolves? Yet the daughter of Helt remained firm in her resolve, claiming that she would do none of those things if they forced her to remain.

The two Craven cursed their luck and the boy prince. Yet, Kort, always the more cleverer of the two, saw a shrewd plan. If the prince could slay the demon snake, Firben, than they would allow him to take Pige back to his realm. For, if the boy succeeded it would mean the end of their monstrous brother and the recovery of his treasure. If he failed then Pige would stay with them for the remainder of her life, working to keep them in comfort and ease. Prale, accepted their challenge, though his hands were shaky and his battleaxe untested.

Prale set out the next morning, gathering his men, with the intent on proving himself to the relations of his new bride by slaying Firben the Gold. Though forbidden to do so, Pige, also left her aunts’ hovel and followed the trail of the prince and his men, joining him just as the great serpent emerged from its icy black lair.

The battle that was waged between the hunting party and their dragon foe was fierce and filled with the aroma of death. Yet, the fight did not turn in Prale’s favor. His men were killed and he was wounded beyond reason. During the slaughter, Pige came close and pulled the boy to safety, dragging his near lifeless body into the sanctuary of the woods and beyond the reach of the sated Firben.

Pige shed a tear, not for the wounded prince at her feet, but for the lost freedom she craved beyond the confines of her small world. Thus, in that moment her resolve steeled and her heart became iron. She snatched Prale’s axe from his wounded hand and took up her own club.

The daughter of Helt made her way to the shore near the black ice cave, and worked through the morning to bash and cut the sea ice into small jagged pieces as wickedly sharp as Firben’s own teeth. The girl cut a path twenty span wide and forty span long, working as if she were imbued with the power of Hammare the great smith of the heavens. She slashed till the axe became dulled and pitted and pounded till her club splintered and broke. She then took the morning’s snow and laid it over the trail of icy pitons, shading the path’s true intention from all but the keenest of eyes.

With splintered club and dull blade, she approached the black ice cave calling out for Firben with a booming voice. She mocked him for his cowardice, for who else but a coward would refuse to face a mere servant girl. The great serpent was enraged and struck like thundersnow, slithering forth to snap up the arrogant Pige in one assault, but she was prepared. Dodging beyond the grasp of Firben the Gold the daughter of Helt led her unsuspecting prey toward the frozen shore.

She sighted her trap and ran across it, her light footsteps barely disturbing the snowy covering of the trap. She floated across it as light as a midday’s flake. Firben however, whose girth was immeasurable and whose great weight was prodigious, crashed through the field of spikes, their razor sharp pikes ripping into the beast’s belly. The great serpent bellowed as the daggers of ice cut deep.

Skjold Pige did not hesitate. She took her splintered club and drove it into the soft side of the raging monster. Then she took her dulled axe and plunged it into the great serpent’s eye. Firben thrashed and screamed. The birds took flight and the seals took to the waters. With each motion the dragon became lethargic, until finally Firben the Gold laid still and dead near the shore.

An urge came over Pige then. Without knowing her own intent, she reached down and drank the blood of the beast that was pooling beneath the body. The world become color and sound and a new understanding flooded into the mind of Pige Iron Heart. For a great snowy hawk landed near her feet and spoke to her as any one person might speak to another.

Though, the daughter of Helt could not later recall the words of the great predator, she understood its meaning. The bird spoke to her of the treachery of her aunts and the death of her grandfather. A memory emerged to Pige as a wolf emerges from the morning mists. The face that looked down from the haze of history was one that was kindly and gentle, but then it was changed. It became one that was unmoving and dead, blood surrounding it like an ocean surrounds an ice flow. The axes of Kort and Hoj shone in the oily lamplight of the stable.

A quiet rage grew inside Pige Hawk-Talker, and she returned to the cave of black ice and found the great mound of treasure that had  belonged to the demon, Firben. Placing a small ransom’s worth of riches in a sack she ventured back into the wilderness, and carefully gathered the deadly Moddenlir root. Its petals were the violet of the western sunset, but its thorns were deadly, even with the slightest of pricks. She removed them from the earth with skill and care, placing them in the bag with the coins of Firben, and returned to her aunts in their hovel.

The winds of change whipped her hair as she shut the door of the gloomy small home, yet she took care not to betray her intent in voice or visage. She cheerily announced the death of the dragon to her aunts, and at first, Kort and Hoj were despondent at the news. For they realized that the prince had met their dowry price, but upon seeing the bag of gold their misfortune was forgotten. The two Cravens reached greedily into its dark confines of the purse, pulling forth both coins and thorns. Shrieking in ecstacy that turned suddenly to pain, the two old fays fell to the swept ground near the well-kept hearth of their home.

They writhed in agony as their niece looked upon them, with her face of a stone. The last words the two Craven’s heard from the girl they had treated so poorly was but a single pronouncement, I am Skjold Pige, Daughter of Helt, and now my grandfather Spyd the Minstrel is avenged.

In that last moment, they knew their secret was discovered and that their evil deeds had finally returned to them. Pige watched Kort and Hoj shrivel and die at her feet. She then took a torch and lit the house. It flames climbed higher than the trees as night fell across the land.

Before the moon had risen, she was reunited with Prale son of Skarp. Together they boarded his ship and turned toward his father’s realm. Oks Prale believed that he was going home to introduce his betrothed to his father, but unbeknownst to him his bride had drank the blood of Firben. She now spoke with the birds, who knew the secrets of the world, and they had told her of the fate of her father at the hands of Skarp the Usurper.

The snowy hawks and summer sparrows had told her that secret and many more. Now, Pige Iron Heart, daughter of Skjold Helt was returning to her homeland to avenge her family and reclaim the land that was stolen for her. For, she swore, Firben would not be the last to fall beneath her blade.

O’ Skjold Pige, maiden of flaxen hair and of iron heart, wielder of Longbrand, slayer of Firben the Dragon, Hawk-Talker, and the tamer of Ulv Linjal the Wilder King. Such as it were, she was mother of raiders and matron of heroes. Of Pige Iron Heart -her birth, her life, her death- I sing.

Stories

In a time, once ago there was a farm. It sat at the bottom of a mountain that was topped with crisp white snow, nestled at the edge of field of shallow greens and fertile browns, and beneath a sky of crystal clear blue. In this farm there dwelt five brothers and one sister.

Hitotsu was the eldest brother and the strongest. Futatsu and Mittsu were twins and the funniest of the brothers. Yottsu was the next brother and the smartest of the boys. Then finally, there was Itsutsu, the youngest brother. He could not till the fields as fast as Hitotsu, or tell time by looking at the sun like Yottsu, or even make the others laugh till they spit forth their rice like Futatsu and Mittsu. No, Itsutsu was disturbingly average in every single way, except for one. He was a dreamer.

The youngest child of the family was Rei, the only sister. She had the biggest heart of the family, but most of her attention was often reserved only for Itsutsu, and the two siblings would spend their days together playing in the field and pretending to be great warriors or wealthy daimyo.

Their farm was small, yet it was also one without want. Life was hard, but the siblings were kind and generous with their time and provisions. The children were respectful of their elders and the soil was unstinting with its bounty. The brothers and their sister often went to bed with bellies full of rice and pork, and heads full of song and story.

For living on the farm with the siblings was an old man named Grandfather. He was neither bound to the siblings by marriage or blood, but they treated him as such. He was simply a kind old man who had no family and no place to go. In return for their hospitality, he told the most magnificent tales. In these stories heroes vanquished great creatures made of wind and magic; beautiful maidens fell in love with dashing ronin; and bravery was always rewarded while cowardice was always punished. Yet, the most often and whispered stories the old man told were of the Aerials.

“They can take the form of any beast or man they perceive, and yet mischief is so often their common shape. When not stealing your lost trinkets or tripping the prideful, they dance on the rays of the moon, and make love on the tips of stars,” said Grandfather. “To look upon them is to know bliss and to leave their presence is to know longing.” The old man often became sad after he spoke of the Aerials, but the brothers and their sisters had too much honor for him to ask more.

That is until one night, when Itsutsu’s courage outpaced his sense of respect. With great reluctance, but a burning in his heart, did the youngest brother press the subject. He did not want to show dishonor to the man who had been more than a father to him, and so he waited until that night’s tale had come to a close. Then he said, “Grandfather, why do you look so sad?”

The old man simply smiled and waved away the impish question, but after enough prodding from Itsutsu and his brothers he finally relented. “I have seen the Aerials,” he admitted. “I have danced to their songs, and laughed at their merriment. I can still recall how they shone, like the light of joy itself. I do not know how long I kept their company, but one morning I awoke and their great feast had disappeared. Their village was turned to stardust and their light was lost to my eyes forever.”

“Can we ever see them, Grandfather?” said Futatsu and Mittsu with one voice.

“Please, Grandfather,” pleaded Itsutsu, his appetite whet from the stories of the old man. For he had always felt he was destined with a glorious life beyond the farm and the familiarity of his siblings. He ached for the sort of existence he had heard in Grandfather’s stories: adventure, love, and honor.

“Mortals, such as yourselves, can only behold the realm of the Aerials for one night, the night of your fifteenth birthday.” The generous old man smiled a distant and faraway smile as if meant for another person in another time.

“Why is that grandfather?” asked Yottsu. “How is it that we are only permitted one night?”

“Hardly seems fair,” said Itsutsu who sank down in sorrow for the boy would not turn fifteen for another four harvests.

“Aerials are unlike mortals such as you. They are wandering sprites, creatures of pure nature and emotion, like the trees or the dragonflies. They do not have souls and are left to exist for eternity, and yet time has no meaning to them. They have no beginning and no ending. Thus, you may only see them on the night you make the journey from childhood to adulthood, for it is a time of transition when you are old enough to be honorable but still young enough to be playful.”

“I will be fifteen with the new moon,” said Hitotsu the eldest. He had remained silent throughout the story as his siblings had whispered and wondered aloud to each other at the prospect of meeting the Aerials. “Where might I find them?”

“If you truly wish to see them,” said Grandfather. “They will find you and guide you to their meadow, and there you will behold their glowing presence.”

“I cannot wait until I am fifteen,” said Itsutsu as he trembled with anticipation.

“Itsutsu,” said Rei, for she was never far from her big brother. “I want to go to bed. I’m tired.”

“Soon, sister, soon,” said the boy with a shooing motion.

“One more thing, children,” said the old man. “This is important. If you ever do find yourself in the company of the Aerials you must remember not to eat of their fruit. Can you remember that?”

“Itsutsu,” complained Rei. “Please, can we go to sleep now?”

“We understand, Grandfather,” said Hitotsu, though his two youngest siblings had not heard the man at all. Instead, Itsutsu was still trying to quiet the complaints of his sister.

“Can’t we go to sleep?” said Rei again as only little sisters can.

“I think your sister is wise beyond her years,” joked Grandfather. “Now off to bed with all of you and no more about such things.”

That night Hitotsu slept fitfully, rolling and turning in his slumber. When asked about his disturbance the next day he simply exclaimed, “It was nothing, just unusual dreams.” Yet, the eldest boy’s fits continued for many nights until the rising of the new moon, for on that night Hitotsu’s mat was empty.

The siblings searched for him, but they could not find where he had gone. It was unlike their brother who was the most responsible of them. They sought high and they sought far. Even little Rei looked behind each blade of grass, and yet no one could find Hitotsu. The only one who did not seem concerned was Grandfather who only smiled at the apprehension of the siblings.

For the old man was wise and when the sun rose the next day their brother had returned and was waiting for them at morning meal with the most magnificent tales. “Brothers and sister,” he said. “I have been with the Aerials, just as Grandfather said I would.”

“You have,” said Itsutsu with great curiosity. “What was it like? Tell us, please?”

“It is like a barely remembered dream now,” said Hitotsu, “but one that was sweet and pleasant. We tested our strength and ate a feast redolent with succulent fragrance. Bowls of rice and soya, sweet donburi, dishes topped with tonkatsu and kare. Plates of udon, soba, and somen cooled in the night air beside crisp yakitori and honeyed nikujaga that would put any other to shame. I ate without ever growing full or fat. It was truly magnificent.”

The eldest brother smiled and spoke no more. He appeared older and much more like Grandfather, for the old man seemed to share Hitotsu’s silence as he too became lost in memories. The other siblings, however, whispered excitedly to one another, imagining what wonders they might see when they visited the Aerials.

The twins, Futatsu and Mittsu, were the next to turn fifteen. They too slept fitfully leading up to the night of their birthday, and on the night of the crescent moon they could not be found. They returned the next morning looking as their eldest brother had and telling tales of the tricks and the games they played among the Aerials.

“It is like a barely remembered dream now, “said Futatsu. “But one that was sweet and pleasant,” said Mittsu. Then they both spoke together, “We played great games and laughed with unabashed merriment.”

“My cards were triumphant in Daifugō and Butanoshippo. My skill was sharpest with Menko and Irensei. I surpassed all my opponents while playing Sudoku and Oicho-Kabu,” said Futatsu with a great laugh.

“Well my dice was swiftest in Chō-Han and Kitsune Bakuchi. My words were cleverest with Dajare and Shiritori. I was victorious over all my opponents while playing Pente and Shogi,” said Mittsu with genuine pride.

“We played without ever growing tired or defeated. It was truly magnificent,” they said together, and then both twins spoke no more that day. Each seemed older than the night before just as their brother had after his night.

The next to turn fifteen was Yottsu, and just as his brothers had before him he slept in fits until the night of the half-moon when he disappeared. He returned the next day to tell the tale of what he had seen.

“It is like a barely remembered dream now,” said Yottsu, “but one that was sweet and pleasant. We talked on topics of great literature and poetry, and together we sang great tales on instruments of varnished pine and cypress. Rich notes sprang from the Koto and Kugo accompanied by the decisive beat of a Taiko and Ikko. Harmonious notes flowed from a Hocchiku and a distant Hichiriki. Their chords mingled with a chorus of Kokyū, and the clear ringing of a thousand voices. I listened without ever growing bored or stale. It was truly magnificent.”

Most of the brothers were silent that day, all except for Itsutsu, for he waited with mounting anticipation for his own birthday when he too could see the Aerials and play and feast and sing among their great realm. So he waited through the cool breeze of the harvest, the harsh winds of the winter, the gentle caress of spring, until finally he came to the airless swelter of the summer season.

One night as he laid down, Rei nestled beside him, he began to dream. In his dreams he saw them, creatures of light and beauty dancing beneath the moon. They feasted and laughed as only their kind could and in those dreams his provincial life was gone and he too was beside them, twirling in the shimmer of night.

Thus, did Itsutsu dream for nine nights, and thus did each night his visions grow stronger. While awake he became restless with his work, and agitated with his sister. Even the words of Grandfather failed to fill the empty bowl of his heart. He became impatient with the mundane and intolerant of the routine of life, until the night of the full moon.

Like the call of a distant wolf he head music. He followed it to a shining meadow far beyond where he had ever gone before. Upon entering he believed that he was alone, yet he had not been alone. For the Aerials were all around him, invisible at first to his eye, but as the light of the moon fell upon the glade Itsutsu’s senses became swallowed by the sights, smells, and music of the wondrous creatures he beheld. Truly, the stories of his slumber had come to life in the glow of the night.

“Aren’t you a brave, boy,” said the soft voice of a beautiful woman. So pale as to almost be made of silver, her flaxen hair fell wildly to her waist. Round eyes and sharp features gave her a tempting and mischievous look. Every movement was full of promise and every word an unspoken vow that no man or boy could resist. Adorned in nothing but twinkling silks and a small jade tiara, she was powerful to behold.

“Who are you?” said Itsutsu after stepping into the realm.

“I am Nyotei, Queen of the Aerial and Keeper of the Unseen.” The queen gestured behind her and the world became a dream. The youngest brother feasted and frolicked among crystal dells. He ate his fill and drank his weight in rice wine and oolong. In that one night he lived a thousand lives, floating above clouds, moving unseen through villages near and far, racing the wind and speaking with the trees. It was the life he had always knew he’d been born to live.

As light began to rise in the east, Nyotei put a warm and inviting hand around his shoulder and offered him one last treat, a ripe cherry. The boy held the fruit, admiring its rich amethyst skin. His mouth watered for a taste, but something within him held his hand.

“One last treat, for my brave boy,” said Nyotei. Her words were as cloying as her hips. “If you eat this fruit, than you will be able to stay here forever, with us. You could live the life you have always wanted.”

In the Realm of the Aerials the land of the living felt like a barely remembered reverie. The words and warnings of Grandfather swam up to him as if from the depths of a great and dark ocean, but he could not hear them. They were ill-defined and lost to time and memory, and as the moon began to set in the west Itsutsu found himself forgetting his farm, his brothers, and even Rei as one forgets the colors of a distant dream.

The boy thought only of the adventure and excitement of the night and so he closed his teeth upon the succulent cherry, and Nyotei smiled as sweetly as the fruit she had offered.

It was then that the sun rose and the saccharine juice turned to ash in Itsutsu’s mouth, and the Realm of the Aerials turned to sunder. The boy’s skin burned as the rays of the lights fell upon it until he too faded from sight along with Nyotei and her kin. The world around him became as empty as his own heart, no fear, no joy, and no love could touch Itsutsu, for his soul was gone and he became one of the Aerial.

Thus, did the siblings awaken the next morning and Itsutsu was nowhere to be found. Their youngest brother was not waiting for them to tell the tales of his nocturnal adventures, nor did he appear the next day or the next day after that. Rei and her four brothers grew sad and life on the farm became as grey as rain and twice as cold.

For even though Itsutsu had not been as strong or as smart or as funny as his brothers, he had been the soul of them all, and without him life became dull. In his depression, Hitotsu grew weak and thoughtless in his farm work. Yottsu became disinterested in his books and mathematics, preferring to instead sit alone. Even Futatsu and Mittsu refused to laugh or joke after that day. Rei would often disappear and none of her brothers could be sure of where she went.

Grandfather seeing the well of melancholy that grew in the siblings became disturbed. He thought of them as family and so he went off in search of answers. On the night of a full moon he traveled once again to a familiar meadow in hopes of seeing the shining faces of old friends.

“Nyotei,” Grandfather called into the darkness. “Do not do this. You may never forgive me my transgression, but I beg of you to release the boy. I beg of you, great and terrible empress.” Yet, all the old man found were the songs of night birds and the admonishing whisper of the winds. Grandfather wept as he had wept after the first time he found himself in that meadow.

Unbeknownst to the old man, Itsutsu was nearby, unseen by any mortal eye. As he watched Grandfather cry softly into his wrinkled hands, the Aerial who had once been a boy began to remember. He remembered the tenderness in those kindly old hands. He remembered his brothers and his sister. He remembered laugher and family, and he remembered that he missed them all.

Then Itsutsu wept too. Grandfather was blind to the boy’s presence but they cried their shared their sorrow as only family could. That was when Nyotei, Queen of the Aerial and Keeper of the Unseen took notice of the boy. He was one of her subjects now, and yet she did not understand his sorrow.

“Why do you cry, little one?” asked the queen.

“I cry because I miss my family. I cry because I can no longer feel the sun, or touch the grass, or laugh as heartily as I once had,” said the creature that had been Itsutsu.

Nyotei nodded slowly and a smile spread across her face. “What if I could give you back your mortal life and return to you your eternal soul?”

“How?” said Itsutsu, seizing upon the question as a starving skylark seizes upon scraps of food. “I will do anything to breath fresh air again.”

“It will require that one takes your place, one of your own flesh and ancestry,” Nyotei’s smiles became like that of a viper’s, cold and serene, and Itsutsu nodded his understanding.

Two harvests passed and Rei finally entered her fifteenth year. She never gave up looking for her lost brother, and when the full moon rose on the night of her birth she found herself standing in a moonlit dell surrounded by mist and vague figures. As the haze cleared her surroundings glistened to life and her search finally came to an end.

Standing before her was her brother, Itsutsu, though he no longer appeared as he once had. His skin sparkled with silver and his eyes were the deep black of two endless pits. His hair was longer and it shimmered like light dancing on water, but it was him. Rei recognized her brother the same as if she had seen him that morning.

Rei on the other hand had grown from a child into a woman. Her smile was as lovely as bird song and her cheeks were the color of roses. Life had filled the once small girl and blossomed her into vibrant womanhood. Itsutsu hesitated. He was unsure if the image he beheld was his sister, but Rei embraced him immediately with tears falling from her eyes with love.

“I have sought you far and near, brother,” she said. “I just knew I would find you tonight, just as my dreams foretold I would.”

Rei, unlike her brothers did not feast or frolic, or sing or play. Instead, she spent the night with Itsutsu and together they walked through distant fields, talking of life. They talked about what had transpired in the youngest brother’s absence, and of Rei and her hopes and dreams for the future. She told him how she had recently fallen in love with a young merchant from a local village.

“He is good, and kind, and though he is not wealthy we will be well taken care of,” she said and smiled as Itsutsu had never seen before.

“I wish I could be there for the wedding,” said her brother.

“I do as well.” A tear fell from Rei’s eye. As it fell it caught the light of the rising sun in the east. “I wish that more than anything.”

“I was foolish,” admitted Itsutsu as he understood that his time with his sister was running short. “I miss the world. I miss our home.”

“But, your brother could be restored,” chimed in Nyotei as she appeared as if from nothingness. In her hand she held a plump shining cherry.

“How?” said Rei. “I will do anything to make it so.”

“I know, my child,” said Nyotei, her tone as smooth as silk. “All you have to do to help your brother is eat this fruit.” She held out the cherry. It glowed in the soft light of approaching dawn.

“I will do it. I will help you, Itsutsu.” Rei snatched the fruit and raised it to her mouth.

“No,” exclaimed the Aerial who has once been her brother, for he could not let his only sister sacrifice herself for him. She was too full of vitality, too full of promise. Her life was just beginning. In that moment he saw her as she would appear through the years.

Itsutsu saw her as a bride, as a mother, and even as a grandmother. He saw her take her last breath at a tender old age surrounded by loved ones who had yet to exist. He saw her smile her last smile as her soul ascended to bliss and peace. He could not rob her of that promise. He could not destroy the children she had yet to birth.

Itsutsu grabbed the cherry from her hand and crushed it beneath his fist. Nyotei screeched a horrible noise. “That was your last chance,” she bellowed. “You will remain here forever. You will never know the feeling of love again.” As the sun began to rise she disappeared, leaving the two siblings to embrace for the last time.

“She is wrong, Itsutsu,” said Rei as he too began to fade from sight. “I will always love you. Remember that.”

“And I will always be with you, sister,” said her brother.

She reached for him one last time, but he was gone and the morning light now basked the empty meadow in the promise of a new day, the promise of new life yet to come. Rei walked home to tell her siblings of what she had beheld on her night with the Aerials. It was a story she hoped would heal the wounds of her family and give hope for the world ahead.

Rei nor her brothers would ever see Itsutsu again, but he would watch them from time to time, concealed from their vision by the magic of the Aerials. He was there when Grandfather took his last dying breath and for a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to find him.

He watched his siblings as they all grew older and started families even as he himself never aged. So, when the time came for their children and their children’s children to come of age, he was there to greet them and play with them and sing for them. Yet, mostly he was there to make sure that none of them ever forgot the importance of family or the thrill of living a humble mortal life.

elections

The air smelled clean, like the vapil plants after a Gorgarian rainstorm. Humans mulled about, waiting in line to enter the gymnasium of one of the district’s local public institutions. The people mostly ignored him, being unable to see him, but the man smiled at them regardless.

“So who is winning? The corrupt one or the crazy one?” said the second man -shorter than the first- as he appeared beside him.

“The democratic process,” said the first indicating the humans.

“Humans…” replied the second looking over the shoulder of one of the men waiting in line. “They are such children. Democracy is system doomed to failure, and worst of all they know it. Yet, they turn a blind eye and continue on with their belief in elections and representative ruling bodies. How quaint, but it is simply tyranny by majority.”

“I disagree. It is a belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is faith in the collective power of humanity itself, that the wisdom of no one person’s lone decision is better than the rest; whether they be rich or poor, noble or common, male or female.”

“A fairy tale, which they themselves cannot even seem to accomplish. The very system that they uphold does not -in practical terms- even judge every man equally. Despite all their high ideals, there are those among them with greater influence than the rest: those with power, money, the right skin pigmentation, the right genitalia, the right sexual orientation, and the list goes on. You speak of a perfect system, but I see nothing but a flawed race of people playing at moral superiority. Concepts, such as democracy and elections do nothing but give the powerless the illusion of choice while keeping them blind to the truth of power.”

“It is an imperfect system to be sure, made all the more imperfect by the hubris and prejudices of the species, but it is not without its beauty. Democracy is a social contract that puts actual power at the doorstep of the masses. Sure, the single common person may never see their whim or wishes enacted into law, but as a people -as voting demographics- they cannot be ignored. The elected must keep the electors content or they are removed in a non-violent and non-chaotic manner. Even you must see the brilliance of that.”

“Brilliance?” said the second man. “I would hardly agree, brother. It is a convoluted and slow system built solely upon the ignorance of the people.”

“Once again you are too harsh by far. What you see as ignorance, I see as hope.” The first man smiled at a young human in a wheeled carriage. The small creature smiled back at him with a giggle.

“Hope,” the second harrumphed. “Another foolish notion. Cast your vote for hope and all you get is disappointment.”

“What would you have them do then?” said the first. “Would you have them return to monarchism, or theocratic rule? What other options do they have at this juncture in their development?”

“I always found dictatorships to be quite effective,” said the second with a smile.

“That is true enough for the dictator,” said the first with a knowing look. “But for humans -at least the humans of this nation-state- they would never oblige it. They value their freedoms too much.”

“They certainly do have freedom,” said the other with a laugh. “Freedom to cause poverty; freedom to pollute the planet and their bodies; freedom to justify war and justify murder and justify every sin and hardship that humans can inflict upon one another. As they say, freedom is never free, except what they don’t understand is that it is the free that rarely pay the bulk sum.”

“Your cynical attitude once again betrays your own pessimism. Where you see anarchy, I see choice. Where you see a planet heading toward a cliff, I see a planet that believes it can fly.”

“Most cannot,” said the second. “How often have we seen it, time and time again, on a thousand other worlds? They all have high hopes. They all have lofty goals. The basser’babal people even had wings and they couldn’t fly, at least in the proverbial sense. For them it ended the same: ruin, chaos, war, and eventually extinction. This planet and its people will be no different.”

“You ascribe a lot of importance to one single election,” said the first man.

“It is the not just one election,” said the second. “In fact, despite their mewling, this election is fairly insignificant, but elections lean toward partisanship, which leans toward infighting, and stubbornness. Eventually nothing can get accomplished because people are too concerned about winning to see the galaxy through the stars. It does not matter if there are two or twenty candidates or parties or districts or regions or parishes or whatever. In the end, it always comes down to us versus them. It’s not about voting for what you care about but about voting against the person you see as the embodiment of evil, at least for the current election cycle. That is anything but a healthy system.

“I mean, look at these people,” continued the second man. “You talk of common power and choice, -and even if that is true- how many of these common people have carefully researched the issues or the candidates? How many of these people are going to go into those small curtained booths to press a button for the option that would make a true benefit for them? I would wager, very few of them. Elections are not about the issues, they become about the candidates. That is how demagogues and egotists and all manner of corrupt officials get the common people to vote against themselves. Holding elections doesn’t give the powerless a voice. It only ensures that the power-hungry have to be more charismatic than your average strongman despot.”

“Well, you would know a thing or two about that,” said the first man, “but what you fail to see is the potential of the system.”

“Potential for ruin…”

“Potential for change. Human lives are short, less than a 100 orbits of their planet. Elections allow for the relinquishment of old ideas and the coronation of new principals. Sure, they are not all going to be winners, but the system and the people are robust enough to absorb the good and the bad, and to learn from them. As you said, this one election will not change much on its own. Yet, on the whole there is an empowerment found in the election process. It forces a race of people to constantly think and reevaluate itself and its place on the planet. Mistakes and missteps can be just as powerful as the right decisions. Yes, it is a riskier road, but the power to vote means that humans are forced to be more independent and more proactive in their views and ideas.

“Look at these people,” continued the first man. “They aren’t waiting in line for food or material wealth or even momentary joys. They are waiting in line to cast a vote for an idea. That is more important than all the security and comforts that come from blind obedience to some emperor or theocratic dogma. Maybe they will vote with their passions instead of their heads, but there is something to be said for that too. It’s a physical act of hope that does give voice to the common person. So, you see that you are wrong, my brother. The call of democracy may be frustratingly slow to be heard, but it is there. Maybe it is anything but singular, but it is powerful. It is rarely the sound of a lone voice in a crowd, but instead a chorus of voices, some singing off key, and some signing different words, but in the end it becomes a song that can’t be ignored. It becomes a melody that changes the course of this people and the course of this planet.”

“Naïve as usual,” said the second. “You talk in metaphor and high minded rhetoric, while my arguments are based in the reality of this planet. Yet, to counter them you give me nothing but poetry about hopes and dreams. I judge your argument as invalid.”

“And I disagree. My argument could not be more valid, at least where humans are concerned. They are a people of hopes and dreams. They need them as much as they do food or oxygen, and I give you poetry because it contains wisdom. In fact, it was one of their poets that once said, A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. I think that sums up the human race very nicely.”

“Careful, brother. It almost sounds as if you care about these insects.”

“What can I say?” said the first man. “I am guilty of having a fondness for them.”

“You always did enjoy lost causes.” The second man smiled and disappeared in a flash of light.

“Maybe,” said the first man again watching the line of humans. “But we’ll see.”

“Look alive, squad. Contact, 30-k and closing, 9-low.” The voice brought Kyle Mason out of his own thoughts. The targeting computer on the HUD in his flight helmet immediately registered the enemy aircraft as they came into LR sensors range, appearing as red triangles against a green background.

“9 o’clock?” responded a disembodied voice from the other end of his earpiece. “Hell, I don’t get up before 11.”

“Cut the talk, two-two,” came the clipped British response. “Two-six, control your flight.”

“Aye, command,” said Mason.

“Assigning targets.”

Mason watched as a red circle flared to life around one of the small triangles on the heads up display. Simultaneously, a double red circle appeared on the main display of his helmet, outlining a firing corridor that led to his assigned hostile. Visually he could not see the craft, but he could tell where it was. He held down the confirm switch on his flight stick and double blinked his eyes on the radar target to set the lock. A satisfying deep baritone hum sang in his ear as the computer acknowledged the command. “Lima,” he called out.

The phrase was repeated ten more times across the board as the men and women in the formation around him found their own targets.

“Breach,” the single word floated to him through his headset as if spoken by some voice of his own imagining.

For a surreal moment the most distant part of his mind registered that the speaker of the word was not American. Too little emphasis was put on the “ea” sound. Mason had always been fascinated how by different people could look at even a single word and come up with so many ways of saying it.

The more active part of his mind only registered the command and the implied action. “Fox 3,” he called out as he slammed home the firing button on his stick. The cockpit below his feet rumbled as the launch doors opened. The delay between pressing the button and the rewarding ignition of the missile had always irked him. Realistically, he knew that his payload had to stay concealed below the airframe to maintain the craft’s stealth profile, but instinctually Mason had always wanted more of a one-to-one response, like how it was in the video games he grew up playing. Maybe that’s why pilots had come to jokingly to call the delay Server Lag.

The time between trigger and ignition was, in actuality, less than a second, and finally Mason heard the ALRAAM roar to life. The seeker streaked away trailing a brilliant blue jet of flame and joined a flock of its brethren as they emerged from the bellies of the craft around him.

Their targets, Dragon-24 Hōshō aircraft, didn’t stand a chance. They were more than ten years out of date and could barely be called Gen-7 fighters. Their sensors had no way of warning their pilots of the danger they were in until it was too late. Mason’s own craft, the MF-52 Archangel, was top of the line Gen-7 tech. It was never going to be a fair fight. You almost never saw a Ho in the air anymore, except in training simulations.

All eight hostiles scrambled. Their signals blurring momentarily on the HUD as the craft activated their SHIELD systems to try and fool the locks, but their pilots might as well have been warding off the missiles with fly swatters. Five craft vaporized under the salvo, one was clipped but maintained and two managed to evade. Mason’s own target was left as nothing but scrap and ash.

He wondered if the pilot had managed to eject. He always wondered that. Mason never thought of himself as a killer, but that was only because air combat was so impersonal. It was easy to blow up a piece of technology, it was hard to remember that there was a person inside it. He hoped that the pilot had managed to bail, he always did.

The three remaining enemies turned tail and lit out, one limping away on his only working engine.

“Lima,” said a voice in his head.

“Stand down,” Mason said. “Two-five, stand down.”

“I’m not going to just let them get away.” The voice was female and had a hard edge to it. He found no noticeable accent to her voice, most likely American. He could barely place her face, with only a vague memory of dark long hair drawn tightly into a pony-tail.

“Stand-down, two-five.” Mason put an edge to his own voice. He had been put in charge of Bravo Flight and he wasn’t about to let some pilot’s frantic ambition endanger the parameters of the mission. He knew the commander was listening. “You’re not cleared to fire.”

“Aye, sir.” The response was terse, spoken through gritted teeth. He could almost hear her thumb ease up off the firing switch.

He let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. The reprieve was brief.

The cockpit suddenly went wild. A screaming tone wailed inside his head, and the HUD flashed red. The main display began a quick succession of calculations that ended in a growing red dot at the edge of his peripheral. As he turned his head to track it, the cockpit around him seemed to disappear beneath his gaze. The digital overlays in his helmet transmitted directly from the Angel’s sensor skin, giving him an unobstructed view of the pearlescent sky and the small crimson pixel that was growing to become a discernible digital circle.

“I’m painted red!”

“Ghosts, bloody piss.”

“Missile lock. Missile lock. ”

“I’m red!”

The in-line channel was full of chatter as pilots around him started coming to the same conclusion he had. They were caught in an ambush, and time was running out.

The clipped British instructions of air command were lost among the chaos of the other ILC transmissions. The words came so fast that the calls began stepping on each other, like a frantic crowd of people clawing over one another to escape a fire, but there was no escape. So there was just panic.

“Scatter!” someone called, and Mason watched as the neat, orderly formation began to break up. Aircraft banked and dove, trying everything they could to shake their lock. It was every man for himself, every woman for herself. The terror was contagious and the more hysterical some of the pilots became the more the group as a whole began felt the effects.

Waves of electromagnetic energy washed over Mason’s instruments, momentarily darkening them, as one or two of his more panicked squadron mates began to prematurely activate their SHIELDs.

All the while the small circle of his own incoming seeker had grown to the size of a shirt button, 25 klicks and closing. Mason fought to keep his sense of fear in check, with the memory of a plan swimming up out of the murky depths of his mind. “Cease alarm.” The insistent blaring tone instantly died.

“Bravo flight on me,” he said switching from squadron channel to flight channel. He could do nothing for the full group, but calming three voices as opposed to eleven was a lot easier.

“On your six,” came the immediate and surprisingly calm American female voice.

“On your wing,” said another voice, with barely a hint of any accent. Mason had not recalled hearing it before.

“If we’re going to die, we might as well do it together,” said two-two, his distinct Aussie accent clear, even over the ILC. The last craft tucked itself almost effortlessly behind his right wing.

“We’re not going to die,” said Mason in a voice that radiated a calm he did not feel. His own hand was shaking so hard on the flight stick it was a surprise that his craft wasn’t swaying wildly back and forth.

20-k and closing fast, read his display and the circle was now the size of an egg. The details of the missile were just visible beneath the digital outline.

“Follow the leader,” called Mason and he swung his Angel around, pulling hard on the stick. For a moment the world was sideways, the growing red circle on his helmet swung toward the metal flooring of the cockpit. Slamming the stick forward he put his craft into a steep dive toward the deck, his fellow pilots only a few hundred meters behind him, the world was plummeting up to meet them.

He risked a quick glance at his sensor readouts. It showed all four missiles bearing down on them. They had crossed the 10 kilometer barrier. All around him the blue marks that had once represented the other members of his squadron were winking out of existence, their cries of help silenced one by one on the squadron-wide ILC frequency. With his tail to the chaos he could only imagine the sight of their fiery defeat.

He put the images from his mind. “Climb and SHIELD, only on my mark.” His voice was strained from the G’s pushing him back in his flight cushion. The inertial compensators were practically screaming, but he wasn’t done yet.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest filled the view of his windscreen, but a quick glance behind him showed that the red circle had grown to grapefruit proportions. It was less than 4-k and still coming. Mason waited only another second, daring not to hesitate any longer.

“Mark,” he screamed and pulled back hard. His vision blurred only slightly before his flight suit constricted, stemming the blood loss from his head. The warning lights flared to life again. The Angel’s onboard LAI smart computer was compensating his maneuver, easing the sudden jerking movement out over a softer arc to protect the integrity of the airframe, but even with the unwanted interference it was less than a second before blue sky once again replaced his view of the deep green forest.

He locked his eyeballs on a switch in the forward controls of the cockpit. The flight stick was still fighting him, he couldn’t risk moving his hands for even a second. Instead, he dub-blinked on the switch, watching as it lit up blue, as the computer acknowledge his selection. “SHIELD,” he said, and the node went from turquoise to emerald.

Over the rushing sound of wind and air friction against his cockpit he never heard the modified electromagnetic pulse activate, but he felt its effects as they rocked his plane and sent static across his instruments. A countdown timer appeared on the side of his helmet. Two minutes to recharge before the System to Hull Integrated Electromagnetic Lock Defense could be used again. That could be overridden, but a pilot ran the risk of frying his own circuitry along with any missile in a 700 meter area.

His electromagnetic burst was followed closely by three more as his flight mimicked his maneuver almost perfectly. The missiles, on the other hand, had a harder time. Even against less sophisticated ALRAAMs activating a craft’s SHIELD was no sure defense, but coupled with the hard maneuver and the force of gravity they were dead in the air.

The seekers were nearly on top of them when the EM wave disrupted their systems and fogged their SatNav guidance. Unfortunately an armed but targetless missile was a still an armed missile, and as the four long slender cylinders plummeted past Mason’s Angel two collided. The explosion fell away, but the shockwave rattled the airframe of his craft, to say nothing of the teeth in his head.

Not all his pilots were so lucky. At the tail end of the formation two-five screamed as the explosion engulfed her. “Fu… ” The line died.

Mason turned his head just in time to see the trailing Archangel lose altitude. It tumbled wildly, burnt and sheared. Blue flames poured from the now exposed engines. Then it was gone, blocked by cloud cover as the three remaining Angels ascended back toward the ceiling.

“She’s going to be spewing mad,” said his Aussie wingman.

“Keep your head in the clouds,” said Mason. “This isn’t over.” As if to illustrate his point the HUD picked up six new contacts closing on them fast. It was the ghosts. They had come into active SR sensors range, which only meant one thing, they’d depleted their long-range ALRAAMs and were coming in to finish off their prey.

Mason leveled off and took a quick assessment of the situation. They were the only three Angels still in the sky. The rest of the squadron was destroyed or had lit-out of the arena. They were facing two to one odds against craft they had not even known existed two minutes before. Running was out of the question. There was only one thing left to do.

His Angel roared as the afterburner kicked in, and even now a familiar thrill wrenched at his gut as the craft below him rocketed forward. “Break formation and engage.” He smiled despite himself. “Time for a little payback.”

The air cracked as his craft broke the mach-2 barrier and the gap between him and his two targets melted away. Mason could see the silhouettes of the approaching aircraft against the backdrop of the white-blue sky. They were Dragon-32 Haneul-nim fighters. He, like most of the Allied pilots, had only ever heard rumors of them. They were said to be the first Gen-8 fighters ever built. Not many who encountered them had ever lived long enough to tell anyone about what they saw.

With a flick of a switch he cycled to his four AIM-14L Sidewinder missiles. A tone began to beep with increasing rapidity till it became a hollow single long sound. Almost before he heard the noise his finger was depressing the firing button on his flight stick. “Fox 2.”

The blue tail of the missile was momentarily blinding as it sped away, locking onto the heat signature of the closest of his approaching targets. At the same time a new sound vied for his attention as the Dragons fired their own heaters.

Instinct took over and Mason pulled back hard on the flight stick. “Chaff,” he called out and the computer responded be releasing a trail of glowing hot metallic embers. The sparking superheated metals shavings fell away from his craft like a comet’s tail, existing for only the briefest moment in time. The first missile slammed home and exploded amidst the glowing field of red-hot debris. The shockwave rattled his craft and sent him spinning.

The cockpit rang with grunts and curses as he fought to regain control of his ballistic Angel, but even when the horizon returned to its proper orientation he wasn’t out of danger. The second heater came screaming in on him, only having been momentarily diverted by the death of its comrade.

Mason rolled his craft over, the missile passing within meters of his right wing. He watched it soar out for several full klicks before wheeling back for its next pass. He heeled his own craft back around and scanned the arena for the ghosts.

They weren’t hard to find. After easily avoiding his initial salvo the two wingmen had reformed and were streaking back toward, intent to catch him between a rocket and hard place. There was nowhere to run with the missile closing behind him and his enemy ahead, but running was never his plan.

The heater was back on him in seconds, 500-m, then 300-m, and then 100 meters away. Mason made sure to dub-blink the control switch before throwing his Angel into a wild barrel roll. “SHIELD,” he yelled and this time heard the hum of the electromagnetic turbines as they spun to life, making the hairs on his neck stand at attention.

It was called a Drescher Maneuver, named after some German pilot Mason could never remember. The heater shot past him, it’s guidance and electrical systems momentarily scrambled by the pulse. Most missiles had pretty sturdy shielding against even modern EM waves, and were programmed to reset to their default directive. For SatNav seekers that meant regaining a lock on the assigned target, but for heaters, which weren’t controlled by satellite guidance, that meant locking onto the first available heat source. In this case, that was the lead dragon.

“Fox 2,” for good measure Mason fired one of his own, and even as the enemy pilot dodged the re-aimed missile the second one took the Ghost almost completely unaware. The sky lit up with the explosion.

His HUD went red, as the Angel shook around him. The second dragon strafed right past him, its guns blazing a molten hot trail of cannon fire down his fuselage. His helmet display highlighted parts of the Angel that were damaged or inoperable, as the craft’s eternally placid female voice rattled off the critically damaged systems, including his SHIELD system, self-repair systems, and a worrisome coolant leak in his right engine. Without the coolant his hydrogen-shockwave fuel cells were going to start reaching critical temperatures, but only if he lived long enough for that to happen.

He threw his craft into a half-loop to get behind the second dragon, but the LAI screamed at him to stop. Thanks to the damage, the stress on the airframe was too great. The sheer force of air-friction was threatening to tear skin panels from his plane.

The dragon started a similar move and for a crazy moment the two craft looped around each other like a carnival fun ride.

“I need a little help here, mate,” said two-two. Mason’s HUD showed two dragons chasing down the Aussie’s already damaged Angel. Then, one of the chasing enemies exploded as two-one, the last remaining Angel, appeared on scene, even as he was being chased by two more dragons. To Mason’s naked eyes the event looked like nothing more than a distant flash in the sky, like a small firework exploding.

He stopped his loop and kicked in the afterburners heading for his wingmates. His own pursuing dragon seemed caught off-guard by the change in tactics and was slow in coming after him.

The computer chirped as Mason switched his firing back over from HeatSeek to SatNav and barely waited for the lock tone before letting loose his last ALRAAM at one of the two enemy craft trailing the fourth and most silent member of his squadron. Immediately the dragon peeled off to escape the incoming seeker.

He pulled a wide wheel and switched his missiles again back to HeatSeek. “Fox 2,” he fired a wild one at the second dragon still in pursuit of two-one. From his distance the missile was easily avoidable, but Mason hoped it would be enough to distract the pilot.

“Two-two, two-two,” he called over the ILC. “Light out of the arena. I’ll cover your six.”

“No worries, Tw…” Two-two exploded in a blue ball of flame and shrapnel.

“Shit,” cursed Mason as he finished his slow maneuver toward where the Aussie pilot had been moments before. The wide arc brought him directly behind the dragon that had been shadowing his now dead wingmate. He was so close he never bothered waiting for a lock signal. He dumb-fired his AIM-14L. Without the standard lock warning his target had no idea what was coming till the missile slammed into his engine and exploded. Flaming pieces plummeting after two-two, but despite the satisfaction of the kill it didn’t bring back the downed Aussie.

A familiar warning tone began blaring, signaling that Mason’s forgotten pursuer had finally caught up and unleashed another heater.

On the HUD he saw the last Angel begin to wheel around and come back toward him.

“Belay, two-one. Light out.”

The fighter kept coming.

“That’s an order, pilot. Get the hell out of here.” Mason, flicked his wrist forward and dove toward the Earth, releasing the last of his chaff. This time the shockwave of the missile explosion knocked something loose. The HUD highlighted his flight control systems, and the stick was sluggish in his hands.

“Acknowledged,” came the response from the remaining member of his flight. He watched as the Angel looped back around and headed out of sight. One of the dragons fell into pursuit, but Mason locked on and fired his last heater. It was enough to deter the dragon and within seconds two-one was beyond his sensors range.

The heat-level in his right engine was reaching critical. His onboard computer was doing all it could to bleed the engine compartment, opening vents and filtering in additional coolant, but the fuel-cell was beyond help.

“Recommend, engine one shut-down,” said the calm female voice in his head.

“Override, Betty” he responded, just as the cockpit warning started up again with not one but two incoming missiles.

Mason kicked the craft upward in the opposite direction of where two-one had disappeared. He wanted to get the dragons as far away from his wingmate as possible. The force of acceleration pushed him back into the flight couch, but the missiles and remaining dragons were still gaining.

The blue of the sky parted and faded to darker shades. Despite the fact that it was still midday, Mason opened his eyes and, for a moment, saw the stars against a dark cerulean field. Then, everything exploded.

He probably screamed though he couldn’t remember if he had. He instinctively braced himself as his vision went dark. He didn’t relax until the simulator cockpit began to rise around him and light from the outside world flooded into his small black cocoon. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the glare of the steel gray room and government issued LED ceiling lights of the training center.

He took off his helmet, slick with sweat, and let out a deep breath.

“G’day, mate,” said the voice of a figure standing over his open cockpit. The man reached in a hand and helped Mason from the simulator. “Xavier Given, but you can call me Bogan, all my mates do.”

“First Lieutenant Kyle Mason. Pleased to meet you.”

“What do you say to a pint?” said the sandy-haired Aussie with a wink.

Mason gave the man a weak smile as he steadied his shaking legs. “Yeah, I can use one.”

Carl Jung once said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” I don’t know how true that is, chemistry is not my strongest field of expertise, but for me it started simply, as such things commonly do. It was a chance meeting, but mine was not on a bus or in line at the grocery store. No, my chance meeting was in the laboratory as I experimented on the nature of vibrational harmonics of strings across quantum dimensions. You know the usual sort of thing, at least for a theoretical physicist.

You have to understand, my work never allowed me time for a personal life. I never much minded the lonely dinners or the empty beds. My work was all that mattered. It was important, you see. I was working on a way to test the very fabric of reality itself. I had the potential to prove the existence of a quantum multiverse, a theory even Einstein only ever guessed at. The university was more skeptical, of course. They always are, and every year I found myself with less and less funding, and less and less help. I have been reduced to one graduate student, Callie.

She is a pleasant enough sort of girl, but I have seen lab rats with a more developed mental capacity. Mostly, I had to resort to making her stand in a corner and hand me things. I once tried to trust her to analyze the results of a particle collision experiment I was conducting, but the only particles she managed to find were the bits of potato chips she had left on her hands from lunch. She ruined the results.

Sufficed to say I often sent Callie home early so that I could concentrate on the real work. It was during one of those late hour tests when I first noticed the smell, lilacs. They had been my mother’s favorite and always reminded me of the good times I had as a child. As you can imagine, I was startled, at first. I mean my lab is a completely clean room, barring any sort of Callie-related mishap, and that is precisely what I thought I had encountered.

The smell was faint and died away almost immediately before I could find its source. I also ruled out any involvement by my wayward graduate student as her preferred scents tended to be pizza and a rather pungent narcotic substance. All I could do was chalk the sensory experience up to some sort of olfactory recall. I convinced myself that it was nothing more than the hours of work and toil that had caused the sensation, and that they were nothing more than errant memories of carefree days.

I cataloged the next incident while running the same experiment. I was testing sub-atomic string harmonic pitches to try and find a convergent point between dimensions. It is all in the paper I published several years ago, if you care to invest the time to look into the subject. Most people do not. The scent of lilacs again, this time stronger and lasting a whole fifty-seven point two seconds. Over the next week I recorded three more instances while attempting the same experiment. It was no coincidence or suppressed memory. I found that the more I increased the power of my experiment the longer the scent remained.

Finally, after a week of detecting the faint odor I resolved to increase my resonance to full power, and that was when I heard it, Springsteen, or more specifically, Thunder Road. I was certain of it. I had loved that entire album growing up. It was what helped me survive the lonely days of high school. I used to listen to it as an undergraduate at MIT as I lay in my bed contemplating the majesty of the forces that governed the world.

Much like the odor it only lasted for a few seconds, and was faint enough that it could have been nothing more than the echoes of a radio from down the hall. Still, I recorded it. However this phenomena proved harder to duplicate. Unlike the lilac scent it was not present every time, and sometimes it would be a different song entirely, still just as memorable.

Over the next three weeks I continued my experiments, this time meticulously adjusting the harmonics and the levels of their intensity. More often than not, there would be no change, but more than once I caught new sounds, even what could have been garbled conversation. I felt gusts of air movement that should not have been and made no sense with the airflow setup of my own lab. Once I saw a flash of orange and red. I mistook it for fire at the moment of its appearance, but quickly realized that it was color, shimmering color, like a reflection seen through a foggy mirror.

By the fifth week of my experimenting I had isolated the data of my most successful attempts. I took everything I learned and put it into the fabrication of a specialized box, no more than the size of a toaster. Callie was on hand to witness as I placed an apple inside and when I activated the device the apple was completely atomized.

I was disheartened, to say the least, All my careful planning led to disappointment. I had expected something more, but all I got was a machine that destroyed objects. Perhaps I can sell it as a solution to waste management, I thought, but then something miraculous happened. The next morning the box was full. There was not an apple inside, but a small piece of paper. It read “Thanks for the apple.”

Immediately, I accused Callie of some sort of practical joke. I tossed her from the laboratory for the day and contemplated what I believed could only be a hoax. Yet, the next day another note appeared. This time it read, “Day 61: No reply yet from the box. Received apple appeared in pieces. Hypothesis: letter was similarly broken down upon transport. I must conduct further tests.” The note ended with a mathematical formula similar to the one I had been constructing.

Callie could not have created that note. There was no way my assistant had the creativity or brain capacity to perpetrate such an elaborate hoax. The letter was authentic. I quickly scribbled my own note, “Received research notes. I concur with your analysis.” I added the last part more as a joke. I still had my doubts as to what was going on.

Yet, the next day I received a response, more mathematical formulas, as well as an elaborated theory on special dimensions as it applies to string theory. I combined the miraculous research with my own and was able to refine some of the techniques I had used in constructing the box. At the bottom of my next note I added an addendum: ”Who are you? Where are you?”

The response I got back was equally astounding. The only name she gave was Clara, but she was more descriptive on her physical location. She gave longitudinal coordinates that matched almost exactly with my own. If the coordinates were to be believed my new pen pal was almost exactly in the same place as myself. The implications of this were astounding, multiple dimensions occupying the same physical space. Clara also agreed with my findings and my hypothesis.

This was the start of our collaboration. Over the next four months we shared all our findings with one another as we continued to refine the process of sending objects through the dimensional barrier. We also talked about our lives and our homes. It was inevitable, I suppose. We were each both curious about the other’s world. Clara lived in a place much similar to our own, with one difference. There seemed to be less hostility and war. Humanity embraced a better way of life, science and altruism.

Reading the descriptions of her world made me feel ashamed of my own and I am afraid to admit that in my representation of our world I may have omitted a few of the nastier facts of the human experience. It was a selfish act. I did not want her to think less of me, as if I was some barbarian from some unevolved world.

In the time of our correspondence Clara sent exactly two pictures. One was of her in a field, obviously during some outing or picnic. It had no description. I was struck by her beauty, like a model found in some magazine. Her hair was light lavender her eyes were the color of the sky. She had freckles on her nose and small dimples that showed when she smiled. I, of course, returned a picture.

It took me hours to find the right one with the best lighting and at just the right angle to accent my features. I was never very photogenic. I am not homely, but I am also not the most handsome male of my species. I took several photos of myself, making sure to take off my glasses and smile with just enough teeth so as not to expose my overbite, and of course I kept my mole concealed on the side pointing away from the camera. It took most of the day. Callie even helped to give me tips on grooming.

The second picture was a more private affair. This one I will not describe, but I assure you that the contents were as much for science as for any other reasoning. After all we had to compare the biologies of the people of Clara’s world with our own. This picture you will not find with my research materials. It is a personal memento.

After this our relationship took on a decidedly personal nature. We still compared research notes, but most of our correspondence was resigned to personal letters. We learned that we had much in common. Our upbringing, our interests, and even our beliefs seemed almost perfectly aligned. I had never met a girl like her before, and I suppose I still have not. Yet, it was like she could tell what I was thinking. It was like she knew exactly what I needed to hear. It was on day one hundred and six that I told Clara that I loved her. It was a sentiment she did not return until day one hundred and eight.

On a personal level I found that my days seemed suddenly less empty. I was happier. I often whistled while I worked. I even found my tolerance of Callie growing. She often helped me construct my letters, giving me advice on how best to express what I was thinking. Sometimes we would sit for hours, polishing a letter so it sounded just right. I was always eager to impress my new transdimensional love. Also, I found that I had underestimated my assistant. When it came to matters of the heart she was rather insightful.

Yet, as happy as I was my loneliness also festered, like a cancer. It was a weed slowly overtaking my field of lilacs. I wanted more than just letters and pictures. So together, Clara and I built an even larger messenger box. Expanding the dimensions of the device proved trickier than I had suspected, as the larger the area within so did the number of atoms the device contained. I found that it was harder to affect larger fields of atoms, especially complex ones. It was one of the reasons why only paper and graphite had so little trouble passing through the dimensional wall.

It took Callie and I six more months of work to complete and test the larger transport device on our end. Even then experimentation produced mixed results. The box was able to transport simple organism with little problems, but with anything more complex than a field mouse the results were less than enthusiastic. Finally, on day three hundred and twenty-two I entered my lab to find a live chicken with a note explaining how Clara was able to stabilize the arrival process of the chamber. I was overjoyed, and with help of Callie I went about implementing the changes to our own device. I even successfully managed to send the chicken back through to other side of the rift, as we were now calling it.

It was then that I knew I would be united with my Clara, the love of my life. I made preparations to leave. It took another week before we could refine the process for what we anticipated were the needs of human test subjects. Seeing as I could ask not anyone else to test the process, not Callie, and certainly not Clara, I wrote to her to tell her that I would enter the chamber and we could live our lives together on her world of peace. Nothing else mattered.

It was on day three hundred and thirty-eight that Callie became suddenly reluctant to help. She raised complaints about my safety. She said that the machine was nothing more than an incinerator. It could only destroy objects, not transport them anywhere. She said I was tilting at windmills.

As a last resort she lied and said she had written the notes. She claimed that at first it was a prank, but then it got out of hand. She claimed that she was Clara and she had fabricated the whole affair. Then, if that was not ridiculous enough, she also claimed that  through working together and sharing notes she had come to love me, as if that was possible. No. I know her words to be nothing but lies. She is not the woman of my dreams, just merely a girl, jealous of the love I share with Clara. She is just trying to keep me, whether out of misplaced concern or for her own jealous reasons. I do not know which, nor do I care. I have no future with Callie. My future is with Clara.

Even as I write this she has gone to fetch security and others who will try and stop me. So I must hurry. My hour grows late. As I sit here and scribble this note I know it will be the last remaining record of my words on this world, but have no fear. I will be in a better place with the woman I love. I have endured my lonely prison long enough, and if you are reading this account than I have already stepped into my machine. I am already happy. I bid this world and this life good-bye.

To Callie, I do not blame you. You were a loyal and good assistant. Perhaps in another life things could have worked out between us. I hope you find your happiness as I have found my own. Thank you for trying to help me, but what I do now I do on faith, guided by love.

For as Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything can be counted counts.”

Zak woke with a start, sweat beading his forehead. He might have screamed but he couldn’t be sure. Some people were looking at him as if he might have. He ignored their stares and reached for the small woven rope that encircled his wrist, as if to reassure himself it still existed. Goose bumps rippled his arm and neck as he shivered despite the crush of human bodies around him. Almost every inch of the cold metal floor was occupied by men, women, and children. Families huddled close while strangers eyed each other from across the room. He ignored them all and tried to find sleep again.

The small blanket was barely enough to cover his body, but along with the bracelet it was all he had left, except for maybe his dreams. Sleep was the one place he could escape, and in those dreams he was back home, a small town in Iowa with his family. They had been lucky, most of the war hadn’t touched their part of the world. The big cities like New York and Chicago had felt the brunt of the destruction, but not their small rural community. No, for them it was more about the drought.

He still remembered when his father had announced that they couldn’t stay. “Earth is dying. The powerful and the demagogues are fighting over what’s left and it’s people like us who are going to get caught in between,” said his father to his mother when he didn’t think Zak was listening. “I know this guy from the dockyards. He says there’s a ship leaving and we can get on it.”

“Leave Earth?” Zak’s mother began to cry. She tried to hide it like she did some times, but Zak knew. He always knew when his mother cried. “Where will we go?”

“The ship is bound for the Laan Consortium. Once we get into their space they have to take us. It’s their code or something, at least that’s what some of the guys were saying.” He put a comforting hand on his sobbing wife’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay. We can start a new life there, a new home.”

“But this is our home. I grew up here. I thought Zak would…” The tears cut short her words.

At the mention of his name their son ducked behind the corner before they noticed him, but not before he heard his father say “Maybe we can come back someday, once the war is over and the famine…”

That little house seemed so far away now. He tried to find sleep again, but it wouldn’t come. Zak’s eyes slid to the media players that were mounted on the walls beyond the energy shield, which separated the humans from the rest of the spaceport. The video feed itself was in Standard Laanish, but the media player translated it into all spoken languages including Terran English. Two creatures, one a dark hairy muscular beast and the other a hairless smooth pale creature with giant eyes sat talking as footage played in the background.

“These humans are scum,” said big eyes. “Their planet is a mess of war and pollution, and now they expect to come here? We don’t want their burden or their problems. We have enough of our own.”

“They are a sentient species, like every person in the Consortium,” said his hairy opponent.

“No, not at all like us. They are primitive and savage. They can’t even stop from killing one another, and now they are bringing their violence here. There are billions of them on that planet. Do you expect us to accept every single one?”

“There are plenty of worlds in the consortium that have already opened their doors to these poor creatures…”

“And look what happened to them. Look at the violence taking place in F’rag’hul’ja? Thirty Consortium citizens are dead because a few humans decided to build a bomb. Why? Because their god told them to?”

“Those were human extremists. Most of them were let into the Consortium on temporary passes. There was only one asylum seeker among them.”

“Isn’t one enough? Even if less than 1% of humans are criminals, isn’t that enough reason to condemn them all, especially if it keeps our people safe. They don’t deserve to come here and just take opportunities away from citizens of this Consortium. We built our worlds, and we can’t let savages like them tear them down.”

“You can’t judge all human on the actions of a few.

“They are either criminals or will be criminals. They can’t help it. Look at human history, look at their world. They can’t control themselves, they are all killers and deviants. They don’t even celebrate Shad’lat or speak Laanish, like any decent sentient being…” Zak had heard enough. When he turned his head away the sound automatically stopped .

He realized he was playing with his bracelet again, feeling every bump and scratch of the coarse braid against his skin.The colors were fading and the small strands of rope were fraying from time and wear, but it still held together. If only barely, in some spots. He moved his hand away for fear of stressing it more and walked toward the energy fence that encircled the small human enclave.

Running a dry tongue over cracked lips he held out his hands and uttered the Graakic word for water. It had been a while since his last drink, but two soldiers beyond the fence just growled something to one another in their guttural language before cackling in what he recognized as laughter. Then the lizard creatures walked away, never once looking back at him or his outstretched hands.

“I don’t think they’re going to help you, boy,” said a kindly older man sitting near the perimeter of the energy field.

“What did they say?” said Zak.

The man hesitated for a moment but translated. “Something about how we all smell so bad of dirt and piss that they could smell it even through the fence.” He shook his head and spoke into his chest. “Why did I ever leave Earth?”

No one had meant to land on Graak, a small planetoid on the outskirts of the Laan Consortium. They had always meant to keep going to Trimble IV or even Deshdo where humans were being welcomed, like the promised land. It hadn’t worked out. Their ship had never been very space worthy to begin with, and in the end it just couldn’t take the journey. They had spent two weeks adrift in the void before a Laan patrol had found them.

The first time Zak saw the ship that his father had called the SS Alban, all he could think of was how gray it looked. It wasn’t like some of the cool looking military craft he had seen a few times, or even like one of the luxury spaceships that only the rich people could afford. No, the Alban was slate gray, as if it was still waiting to be painted something more exciting. It also wasn’t very big.

He was told the ship had been designed to hold fourteen people. They packed in twenty-seven and two babies. There had barely been a place to sit, let alone lie down. Even worse, the journey was slow. The FTL engine only did about .8 past the speed of light, and they felt every bump and whine as the Alban cruised through warped space.

More than a few people got sick from the motion of the trip, including Zak. He remembered retching up his small meals of bread and water. That was when his mother had made him the bracelet. She put it together from different pieces of rope and string she had collected from others on the Alban. He could still remember watching her as she wove each piece together, humming softly, a small smile turning up her lips.

“What if I don’t get better?” he had asked her as she tied the token around his wrist.

“Sometimes, you just need to have hope.” She kissed him on his head and it was true. Days later he recovered. It had only ever been nausea and space sickness. Unfortunately, others were not so lucky.

Zak and his family were fortunate enough to be closer to the front of the Alban. A few in the rear compartments had gotten very sick from a radiation leak in the engine. The crew eventually managed to fix it, but not before three people, including one of the infants died of FTL poisoning. The bodies had to be ejected into space, not just because of the radiation, but also because the ship had no place to store them. They had held what little ceremony they could for the dead, but it didn’t feel like enough, at least not to Zak.

Every fews day after those deaths his mother would take back his bracelet and add another strand of some piece of string or cloth that she collected from the ship. Maybe it was her way of reminding him that he was alive and every new moment should be cherished. Maybe it was her way of saying how they were all connected; they lived interwoven, like the braids on the bracelet; or maybe she just did it to keep busy, a way to keep her mind off the tragedies they had all witnessed. Unfortunately, the Alban was not done with tragedies.

Three weeks into the journey a small electrical fire broke out in one of the cargo compartments that housed some of the passengers. The doors on the ship sealed automatically and the people inside were trapped. Those that didn’t burn were killed by oxygen starvation. Five people died in a matter of minutes, including his mother. She had been in the compartment chatting with one of their old neighbors, possibly trying to get more strands to add to the bracelet. He was never certain. All he knew was that she would never see Earth again, dead or alive. As before, all the bodies had to be ejected into space. The Alban limped on, and so did Zak.

He could remember the sound when the engines finally died. He had thought they had already crossed into Consortium space, but he found out later that they were barely on the border. The FTL had been slowly growing fainter for more than two weeks, their speed ebbing away like a tired old man losing his fight against time. When the engines stopped completely all he had heard was quiet. It was like there was something missing, a familiar hum in the background that they had all grown accustomed to. It was like a mother’s touch, you never really noticed it till it was gone, and afterwards the world seem much lonelier and crueler.

That had been almost a year before. Zak was thirteen now, his birthday had come and gone, at least he thought it had. It was hard to keep track of the time of the year on a planetoid with a thirty-one hour day and only three quarters gravity. Everything was so alien, so different. He had grown up in the tundras of the American Midwest with wide expanses and fresh air. Now he was being held in the corner of a spaceport where the air was staler than the bowls of pudding-like substance they gave them to eat. It all happened while other beings, hundreds of thousands of light years away, debated if he and his people deserved the right to be free and happy, as if debating whether they were animals or people.

A small girl, with three eyes and a pretty face smiled at Zak from the distant side of the energy fence. He smiled back at her and she started to walk toward him before a restraining hand grabbed her and yanked her away. Her mother or father -Zak couldn’t really tell- was pulling her along and scolding her in a flute-like language. She looked back at him once more, this time in shock and with a new hint of fear. He couldn’t understand what her parent was saying but he had heard similar things enough times to make an educated guess. Fear and suspicion were higher than ever, especially after the attacks on F’rag’hul’ja. Everyone was on nerves and no one seemed to need look far for reasons to hate humans.

In the first camp they brought him to, Zak had met another boy, Peter. He had seemed nice enough, but pretty soon he started talking about everything he wanted to do to the people of the Laan Consortium. “Abominations against God,” he had called them and started reciting all these Bible verses. “It is the duty of humans to exterminate any creature that was not created in God’s image. The aliens of Laan are an affront to Jesus Christ.”

Zak didn’t see much of Peter again after that. There were never a lot of human extremists, but you found them here and there. Mostly it was just talk, old men venting about how it was in a world that they no longer walked on. His father had made sure to keep his son clear of people like that, but sometimes it was inevitable, and sometimes it was more than just talk. Sometimes it was far worse than just talk.

A Graakic month after they arrived a few humans attacked a Graak humanitarian worker. There was a fight and the Graak died along with one of the humans. It was Peter. Most people just shook their head and said how sad it was, or that Peter had been a hothead and he got what he deserved. Most of the people he knew in the camp felt bad over what had happened. “That’s no way for a human to behave,” said Mr. Glenrose. “That’s no way to repay the hospitality of these people.”

Unfortunately, the Graak weren’t satisfied with the remorse of humans, or maybe they didn’t believe it. A group of armed and angry Graakic citizen attacked the camp. They burned down tents and the make-shift barrack houses. They beat anyone they found near to death, calling them all “dirtlings,” and yelling how humans should go home. Mr. Glenrose and four other people died in the attack, and hundreds more were badly injured, including Zak’s father.

He had stood up to some of the Graak when they came, protecting his son. Zak could still remember his screams as they kicked him and beat him with clubs, but he refused to move. He refused to leave his son at the mercy of the mob. After that they took him to a hospital somewhere, but that was the last Zak saw of him. A few weeks later they transferred all the humans to different camps, and no Graak, Desh, Trim, or any alien who spoke Terran seemed to be able to tell him what had happened to his only parent.

He looked again at the fading braid on his wrist. The night of the attacks it had been nearly torn off, but it had held. Zak examined the bracelet and picked at the fraying ends of the weaker parts. It was as if he could not stop digging at it, like touching at a raw nerve in hope or disbelief. His memories were like that too. Sometimes, no matter how much he tried not to, he found himself seeing his mother’s body; hearing the cries of his father; or feeling the raw gut pain that came when he thought of the poor baby that did not make it to Graak. Part of him wanted to forget, but part of him also wanted to know why it was all happening to them. So he picked at his memories, at his pain, and at the small memento that sat on his arm.

“We are receiving word now,” said the blue-skinned newscaster on the media player, “that because of the attacks on F’rag’hul’ja,” the Consortium council has been forced to deport several hundred refugees back to Earth, for their own safety.” The video changed to show footage of attacks on human aid centers all across the Consortium. Fires burned and people of all types were fighting with fists, weapons, claws, and tentacles. “Officials have told us that those being moved are currently in the highest risk zones for anti-migrant violence. This decision also comes after the leaders of many worlds have begun openly refusing to accept any humans, saying that they pose too high of a risk to their native populations.”

A mummer went up from the people around Zak as more and more people were suddenly paying attention to the news feed.

“Humans in detention centers on parts of F’rag’hul’ja, Rangul, and Yulide are already being put onto ships for the return trip to their own homeworld of Earth. Consortium officials believed it was best to keep this secret for fear of further reprisals against the human migrants as they were transported to launch sites.” The video feed changed again to show lines of humans with armed guards surrounding them. Men, women, and children shuffled forward as they were loaded back onto waiting ships that seemed no sturdier than the Alban.

“That’s a death sentence,” said the older gentleman sitting beside him. “Half the warring factions on Earth will shoot any approaching ship out of orbit, and the other half will take them hostage to try and use as leverage.”

Zak just looked at him and twisted his braid nervously on his wrist, before returning his attention back to the distant media player. That was when he saw it. One of the shuffling figures. His shoulders were back and his head was down. He looked at the camera only once, but that was enough. It was enough for Zak to recognize his own father. He looked older and thinner than his son could remember. It was as if something had broken inside of him, as if he no longer cared.

“The Consortium Council is still trying to decide what they will do with the rest of the humans still currently being held in temporary detention centers, but more deportations could be expected. Experts are trying to determine how much of a threat the humans are to the the security of Laan and its member worlds. There is also a debate among many people of the Consortium of how deserving these creatures are of the same rights as every citizen of Laan, with many polls showing that a majority of Laan now believe that humans are less than sentient.

Zak felt the tension release before he heard the final snap. When he looked down his mother’s bracelet was in his hand. One of the ends had finally broken under his nervous tugging. Part of him wanted to cry,  but the rest of his body didn’t have enough water to allow it to happen. So he just stood there, watching the live feed as the ship holding his father blasted off into the dark violet skies of some alien world. The camera held for a second longer as the fast moving ship disappeared from sight, leaving only a small trail of smoke behind it.

In 75% Earth’s gravity the braided rope took longer to find the floor than Zak would have anticipated. He closed his hand around the nothingness that replaced it and watched the bracelet for a long moment, debating whether to pick it up again. Maybe it could be fixed. Maybe it could be made whole again. Instead, he just stepped over it and walked away finding that someone had already stolen his blanket. So he just laid down on the cold floor shivering, feeling suddenly less than who he had been, maybe even less than he would ever be again.

How do I keep finding myself in these blooming situations? thought Egan as he stalked carefully through the darkened trees. What am I doing here? I’m not anyone special.  Silhouetted by the moonlight he looked back on the road he had come. It was too late to turn back, too dark to even see the way home. His fate lay only ahead of him now.

Nothing more than a figure of shadow and fear, he gazed at the woodland around him. Every tree limb, every animal, any and every movement played across the young man’s doubts. Each rustle and crack became an imagined beast capable of devouring a man whole. Of course, that could very likely be my true end before this night has run out

Leaving the safety of the path for the greater concealment of the forest, Egan moved through the trees silently, navigating the treacherous undergrowth as only a practiced Heroner could. Growing up in the woodland village of Heron’s Haven the youth had learned how to move through trees, quickly and quietly, when the situation was called for and this one most certainly did. As children he and his friends often played hiding games among the forest, but always close to the village itself. To journey further had always been a child’s dare. Maybe that’s all I am, a fool kid who never grew to see the reason of his elder years.

In the forest there was one place none would ever go, a place all knew for its dangers. Not even the most foolhardy of village boys would journey so deep into the nightmare wood. How could a mere boy step foot where even his father dared not travel? Dark and villainous, I had become to be known only as The King’s Lair, and it was this very place where Egan now found himself.

Around him the vibrant life of the forest had grown dim. The triproot was much denser underfoot as if not an animal or other had passed through within recent memory to trample down the thick litter of the forest floor. All had known better, which meant he was face with the reality that he truly was less intelligent than a squirrel or racmonk.

As the brush became denser so did the treetops. Only a few shafts of moonlight managed to pierce the heavy tree canopy, providing but a brief glimpse of light every few hundred steps. It was a long journey through the blackness, and perhaps, the Pits of Death were darker, but at least there one could be certain they were already dead. In this place, Egan had not even the comfort of that certainty.

Eventually, even the darkest of journeys must end, and his concluded in a small clearing, a break in the shadow, where the cloudless night was allowed to bring its gentle glow to the land. Set inside was a great cave opening emerging from an even greater mountain side. Along the outer edge was a small stream, pooling at the foot of the mountain, and continuing on into the forest and untold places. The moon reflected off the rippling water trickling down from its mountain origin. For a moment, Egan stood taking in this little utopia buried among the nightmare of the surrounding forest. To one who had not known better it would seem an oasis of hope in a desert of darkness, but he knew better. This moment of silent observation was brief, for in this angelic place there existed a greater demon then any that had been conceived of by the mind of a slumbering man.

No sooner was Egan out of sight then did he hear the sound of wings. They were not the feathery wings of a bird. The sound was much crisper, like the snap of leather, but neither were they the sound of a bat. It grew steadily to a near deafening roar as the creature approached. The beast was larger in size, than any bird, any bat, or any man could ever be.

Egan chanced a brief look, as the creature crossed the moon. It circled once before easing into the clearing, its arrival announced with one last flap of great wings, and a massive thud that shook the ground. The breezed gusted as the creature’s landing stirring up loose leaves and tree branches all around him. Mammoth in size, it towered over the very treetops themselves, a terrifying sight, yet compelling. Like a man mesmerized by fire, Egan could not look away from the beautifully frightening giant.

The beast’s crystalline scales flared brightly in the moonlight, with an almost unnatural shine. Its head was arrayed with a crown of sharp horns, and a no better or majestic cap was ever laid upon a king of man then what sat atop that great beast’s head. It folded wings behind its back, a royal robe of scarlet leather and green crystal. The creature’s noble gaze slowly scanned its domain, searching for anything that dared to disturb its realm.

Egan caught sight of the creature’s eyes. They burned like the flame of death, but there was something more that he could not place, a spark deep within the flame, a mere hint of something concealed. Awe struck by this impressive monster he could do only one thing, think only one thought, say only one whispered word, “Dragon.”

The word, barely audible, snapped the creature’s head to rigid attention. Stupid, boy, he cursed in him mind. Egan flattened himself among the underbrush which no longer seemed as thick as it had a moment earlier. The great beast lowered his razor snout to where he lay, sniffing the air with nostrils larger than a man’s head and absorbing the smells around him, like a village dog on the hunt of dinner scraps. Is that all I am, all I was ever meant to be?

The youth’s hand fell to his hip, a sweat-soaked palm coming to rest on the hilt of his sword. That familiar weight was always an odd sort of comfort, like man bare and naked suddenly remembering his trousers. A good sword could make a man feel invincible, as if he could stand against any foe mortal or otherwise.

Egan’s fingers tightened around the hilt. He knew that the dragon was sure to find him now. The time had come to be weighed and measured, to move or die, but he he could not move. Something in him was compelled to inaction as if his muscles were suddenly stone.

Yet, the beast did not kill him were he cowered. The dragon backed his head away slowly, almost cautiously. Once certain of no movement the creature retired to its cave with not a second glance. Egan found himself alone and freezing, shaking in his cold sweat.

Regaining a composure he never had he reprimanded himself for his near fatal mistake, but he still dared not move. The night was suddenly open to him, every sight, sound, and smell were tangible. The taste of the crisp early spring air, the very distant sound of night birds, the feeling of noiseless wind on his face, the slight smell of sulfur, and below it all like a deep heartbeat, he could hear the breath of the dragon within the cave. For a very long time Egan listened with no nerve to move as the great beast settled and slept. Thoughts whirled through his head as he lay among the dirt and undergrowth.

*  *  *  *  *

It had been an unseasonably cold night for spring, but not in the Spitting Pig, the local tavern. Draen having finished his seventh pint had boasted he could kill a bear with his hands, and demonstrated it on Ferris who moments earlier had boasted to take any man. The Blacksmith brothers, Hector and Dorvin looked on laughing. Rathel watched quietly as he always did, never having much to add but enjoying the company. Egan, always the leader, egged the two on boasting that he could best them all. That was where it had begun and with the eyes of the bar mistress, Evia, whom no man could ever seem to form a proper sentence around.

The trouble thus began where it usually starts with most young men, women and pride. That was the night, while Daen and Ferris wrestled like drunken bears, Egan approached her. Slowly at first the conversation began, but with well placed laughs and compliments it quickly picked up momentum, much like Draen’s meaty hand had before it hit him unexpectedly. The whole tavern, the whole village laughed, especially Evia.

The larger man, having finished with Ferris, wished to test the claims of Egan and had struck, not hard, but enough to make the other feel a fool. That was when the simple yet dreaded boast erupted from his mouth. “I could take you. I could take the King if I wanted.”

“Could you really?” asked Evia with her eyes as much as her lips.

“He’s just fooling,” said one of the Blacksmith brothers before they both fell over laughing.

“I will,” said Egan as he stood. “I will kill the dragon.” With no more to say to the stunned crowd he walked out.

Even after he sobered up Egan was never one to back down from a challenge. His friends knew him and the strength of his words. They tried to talk him out of fulfilling his claim, but there was nothing to be said. He had said the words and put his solemn vow to it. Others may have saw it as foolish pride, but to him it was a matter of honor, at least what small honor the son of tanner could have. Even if he died he planned to do so with his word unbroken.

*  *  *  *  *

What if I don’t die? The dragon had failed to pick up his scent. The feared and ferocious King, talked about in the legends of his small woodland village was perhaps less than the god he was believed to be.

The stories had stretched back for generations, told from grandparent to grandson, down the lines. A great beast, an efficient and deadly hunter, and a monster that would devour anything unfortunate enough to run across its path, these were the stories of King the Dragon.

Perhaps long ago, but what of now? Could it be true? Could King be as old as to be feeble? Some believed that dragons were immortal, but Egan had begun to hope that those beliefs were wrong. So it was, from that small thread of hope, a gilded suit of courage began to be forged in his mind. What if King is much older then most people understand?

Suddenly, he was already feasting at his own victory banquet. The beautiful Evia sat upon his arm, the arm of a hero. She listened intently as he told the daring story of how he slayed the dragon for the another countless time. His name would become legend. The great celebration of his mind’s eye played before him until eventually he succumbed to slumber.

It was from this dreamless sleep that Egan awoke with a start to find himself staring into a great fiery red pupil centered among a golden yellow orb. Immediately, he pulled his blade clear of its scabbard and dove into the clearing away from the mighty beast. He hit the ground and rolled into a low fighting stance.

The dragon gave the rolling, jumping, jittery man a dispassionate eye. The great creature lazily turned towards him as the little man waved his sword around, like a twig in a driving wind. Raising his head to the moon, it gave a powerful cry that rocked the trees, shook the ground, and turned Egan’s very bones to porridge. All his high talk of honor and pride fell short of the actual danger he now faced.

As Egan’s nerve drained so did his color. With one mighty swing of the beast’s talon the pale youth’s sword landed several paces away with a sharp metallic ping as it became wedged in the trunk of a near-by tree. With the loss of that last symbol of courage his nerve finally broke, but it was too late. Every attempt he made to run the dragon was there, around him, ahead of him, behind him. He soon realized that the surprisingly nimble giant was herding him into the cave, into his very den. With no choices left to him, the man ran desperately into the dark mountain hole in hopes of finding even the smallest exit. Clawing futilely at the walls to no avail, he understood with a grim determination that he was trapped.

King entered the blackened cave, his massive shape silhouetted by the moonlight, blocking all light momentarily as he moved through its entrance with a cat-like grace. Egan considered hiding in the darkness, but when he caught sight of those flaming red eyes, he knew it would make little difference. They followed him warily, always on him no matter how he moved in that blackened cave. Suddenly, a flash of light and flame burst forth from the creature’s mouth. He cringed and awaited the searing pain that never came.

Opening an eyelid he found the cave basked in the warm glow of a fire. In its center stood a large pile of kindling cracking and spewing forth a flame that illuminated the bleak darkness. The dragon, however, was still staring at him. King sat for a long time, his eyes upon the young man, and after the great beast seemed satisfied with whatever private sentence he passed upon the invader of his domain, he moved slowly into a lying position, those scarlet eyes never once leaving Egan.

How odd to see a dragon lying down. After the shock of his initial fright, his fear-stricken-mind seemed to wander toward odder thoughts. Lying down is the sort of thing that seems very much out of character for such a great beast. Dragons were havoc and destruction, they ravage towns and steal maidens, but surely they did not lie down. It looks more like my old dog than any great specter of death. Yet he needed no more reminder of what the creature truly was than to look to its scaled and talon wings, folded along his backside. It was no domesticated pet.

This was how each remained for several arduous moments, but after a time Egan’s nerves began to calm. Not even the tightest of cords can stay taught forever, and the now overwhelming cold he felt was beginning to demand more attention then his residing fear. Slowly he approached the fire and sat down opposite the dragon.

“Are you comfortable?”

Egan jumped looking for the voice’s source. “Who said that?” He had hoped his own voice was not quivering too much.

“I did.” The youth turned his head settling it upon the dragon. “Yes, that’s right. I was the one who spoke,” said King. To see words pass from the lips of the great beast was almost too much, akin to watching a fish leap from the water and fly like a bird. “I take from that look you never expected to see a dragon talk.”

“What black art makes this possible?” was all the dumb-struck man could mumble.

“I know many languages. I talk to many different animals, even humans.”

“But you’re a dragon?” Egan stammered.

“And you are a human. You think yourselves far superior to all other things, and yet you, young one, had no idea that dragons had the ability for speech. Perhaps that makes you just a dumb animal.”

His words were not harsh, but King’s voice had a velvety quality to it. Words of stone were draped in a layer of compassion and caring. The words spoken were ones of a teacher correcting his student for a simple mistake. They were not the words of a violent being.

“In all the stories I heard about the great King, I never once heard about his being able to talk.” It was a thought spoken aloud more for Egan’s sake, but King could only shake his massive head as he considered it. Even such a slight movement seemed so human that it threatened to overwhelm the poor youth’s threshold for understand.

“How foolish are humans and their assumptions?” King turned his head to the cave entrance where a small figure, about the size of a large dog, was entering. It came around the massive body of the intelligent beast, to lie down near the fire.

A small animal, its scales were a more vibrant green then that of its larger counterpart, but the same burning bright eyes marked its origins clear. The horns on its head were not as developed, and its wings still seemed more slender in the comparison, but no mistake could be made. It was a baby dragon.

“Are you female?” asked the bewildered Egan.

“All dragons are one gender,” responded the larger beast. “Though I suppose the closest a human could understand would be to see us as female, but such a mark is not accurate. How could something be called day without night? It is another arrogant judgment passed upon my kind by the race of man.”

“Then how do you have children?” Egan hoped the question was not inappropriate, but his curiosity was suddenly overwhelming.

King looked lovingly at her child as the small creature drifted asleep, warm and safe by the fire. “All dragons are born with-child. We, however, do not lay our egg until a certain age. It takes a dragon egg ten summers to hatch. My child was born three summers ago. She is still very young. She cannot fly, and her flame is yet small. You see, young one, my only have one offspring. Every dragon in the world is only capable of bearing one child.”

“All this time, you’re not a King, you’re a queen,” said the man momentarily lost in thought. “Wait, if that is true then the number of dragons in the world could never rise.” Understanding began to dawn on his face.

The great creature nodded. “A dragon lays her egg toward the end of life. Once hatched, a mother has only about a hundred summers left of life. In that time she must raise and teach her child all which it must know. When the parent dies the child will take her place in the world. If a dragon is killed, not only does she die, but so does her lineage. Thus, forever will there be one less dragon in this world.” King’s eyes wandered toward the fire as if lost in some distant memory.

“I was always taught the dragons were immortal?”

King’s eyes shifted toward Egan. “To the butterfly, a tree is immortal. My kind is long lived. I myself have existed for over a thousand summers.

“I can remember when there were no humans in these woods. When I was much younger I caught some of the best prey where you village now stands, long before your kind came to these lands.” King smiled a little at the memory as it faded from her eyes. “No more. Your people have over hunted this forest. I am lucky if I can find enough food for a season anymore. I have to keep going further from my home, and my child, to find even meager hunting. Sometimes I resort to stealing one of your sheep or cows, like a common wolf, just to get any food.”

The dragon’s gaze hardened as her anger flared. “Man thinks only of himself. This is not your forest. You did not create it and you were not the first ones to inhabit it. You should learn to respect it, as all others do. You should learn take only what you need.” King’s voice grew to a roar and Egan once again found himself fearing for his life.

However, the dragon upon seeing how afraid the youth had become pulled her temper under control. “I apologize. Sometimes I forget myself and my emotions.”

“I think it is I who must apologize. I can understand how you must feel.” Egan relaxed again, but remained wary. “Why me? How come you didn’t just kill me?”

“You humans have begun to grow bolder. I used to go many summers without seeing any of the race of man. Now it seems every time I leave my cave, there is one here in hopes of receiving a new trophy. Most are men, grizzled by warfare and years of hardship. None listen to reason, and I wonder if anyone in the world misses them. You, however, are a child. You must be no more then 20 summers old?”

“I am 19 years old. A man by all rights,” he said defensively.

“Of course, but in my experience, youth means idealism. You are young enough yet to have your mind changed. I need one, such as you, who can speak on my behalf. One who can convince your race to stay away from my home and my child. Everyday now, I fear to go out hunting for food, and leave my little one alone. Yet, I have no real choice. It is either hunt or starve and she is too little to fly.” Her gaze moved to the sleeping drake curled by the fire. “I do not know what you can do, but I ask that you try.”

“Why not go yourself and plead your case? You can come with me back to my village.”

“To go to your home, would be certain death. Most humans do not even know dragons have to ability to speak. Before I could even utter a single word your people would try to destroy me.”

“But you’re a dragon. Surely, you could force them to listen.”

“You yourself are bigger and stronger than a hornet. Would you willingly put your hand into a hive? No, I am too old. It would be my death.”

The pair sat in silence for awhile. Each lost in their own thoughts. The young man stared into the flaming fire, before returning his gaze to the flaming eyes of the dragon. “How come you’re kind has never tried to talk to humans before?”

“How come you’re kind has never tried to talk to dragons before?”

“Fear, I suppose.”

“We are different, and differences breed fear, and fear breeds violence. I have watched you humans for generations. You war with each other unending, over your own slight differences. Your people would not hesitate to kill me for mine.”

“I suppose you’re right.” He looked outside the cave. The sky was beginning to redden with the first rays of morning. “The sun is coming up. I should be going.”

“Yes and thank you for listening,” said King.

Egan got to his feet. Dusting himself off, he walked near the dragon. “Thank you. I will try to tell them what you have told me. Farewell.” He walked out of the cave into the rising sunlight.

“Farewell,” followed the voice from behind him.

As he left the clearing Egan looked back to see the outline of King standing in the cave’s entrance. She was glowing in the morning light. He smiled to himself and plunged into the lightening forest.

As the sun continued to rise, the nightmare forest of the previous night no longer seemed threatening. In fact Egan was surprised to find that he was actually happy. Picking his way through the thick underbrush he forged on toward home, excited by the new things he had learned he could not wait to tell his friends.

He was not far along on his journey when he heard the great cry pierce the morning air. It was some distance behind him, yet clear. It brought back to him the frightful memories of the night before. With no thought he turned and started back toward the cave,, running, charging, tripping several times in his mad rush.

He knew what he would find in that clearing. The sounds of a battle could be heard ringing through the trees. Egan slowed as he approached. Panting from exhaustion he observed the scene ahead of him.

A group of five men were circling King their naked swords catching the growing rays of sunlight, but not just any men, they were his friends.

“Stop!” Egan yelled between ragged breathes as he broke into the clearing. No one heard or no one cared. In desperation he threw himself at the closest man, the wiry Ferris. Both tumbled to the rocky dirt.

Ferris’s stern gaze turned quickly to bright smile as he saw who it was. “You’re alive!” he yelled. “When you didn’t come back last night we came here looking for you. Then when we got here we saw your sword,” he pointed to the blade lodged in the nearby tree. “We feared you dead, but now you’re here.”

“So you don’t need to kill anything,” Egan said desperately.

“No, now we can all do it together. Think of it, Egan, we’ll go home heroes with the greatest trophy anyone has ever seen.”

“No, I can’t let you!” shouted Egan as he came to his feet.

“What are you talking about? Think of it, we’d be the men who defeated the mighty King.”

“No you don’t understand…” The man stopped at the sound of a scream, a human scream. Both men looked to see one of the Blacksmith brothers lying on the grassy floor, a deep gash across chest and stomach. Dorvin lay on the ground crying out in pain.

“No!” yelled both men in unison. Ferris left his friend’s side, and charged back into the fight.

“Stop, you all have to stop!” pleaded Egan but his appeal went unheeded.

Then his heart stopped as the baby wandered from the safety of the cave. Draen was the first to reach it, threatening it with his sword. King lost control of her temper and charged the man. As she flew at him, Hector and Rathel drove their blades into the soft underbelly of the beast. The noble creature cried out in pain as her side ran red with little streams of blood.

With a single breath the dragon let loose a ball of fire that consumed the offending men. The heat created waves in the air, blasting the sand underfoot to glass. Two lifeless charred bodies were all that remained of Egan’s friends.

Draen abandoned the baby dragon in favor of her mother, and lunged with his sword. Impressively he managed two quick cuts in her vulnerable area, but that was the last thing he ever did. With another breath of fire he too fell dead, cooked where he stood.

Ferris taking up the fallen sword of the now motionless Dorvin struck with twin blades. King slowed from her injuries was only able to block one. It went spinning away into the forest but not before its twin found its mark. Moments later Ferris fell nearly sliced in two from King’s razor sharp claw.

The clearing was peaceful once again. Egan could even hear a songbird singing. The transition had been eerily quick, chaos to peace. He looked around at the bodies of his five friends. The five men he’d grown up with, joked with, and cared about. Next his gaze fell onto the fiery red eyes of the great beast.

King wavered as she stood there in the morning air. Her breath was ragged and quick. She was in great pain. “I am sorry,” was all she said before she fell to the battle marred floor. It shook with the impact of her massive body.

He watched the creature for a moment where she lay, her gut rose and fell rapidly. Each breath was short and accompanied by soft groans. Walking over to her he could only think of holding her head. “No, I’m sorry. This is my fault. They were my friends. They came here after me. If I hadn’t come…”

“Do not blame yourself,” said King softly. “The fish does not know where the stream may lead him. It must follow and do what it can when waters become troubled.” The man looked into those noble eyes again. He finally realized what the spark was. It was intelligence and compassion. They were the eyes of creature who wanted nothing more than a quite life for her and her child. They were so human, yet somehow so much more.

A small figure emerged from its place of hiding, crying out as she saw her mother. The drake fell against her parent with a howl that told of true sorrow and pain. King spoke to her in a strange language of ancient growls and throaty rumbles. Perhaps, she was trying to comfort the small defenseless creature or to tell her something more, Egan never knew.

Looking back up at him, she spoke softly, “They were your friends and I know how much it must hurt. Know that I only did what I had to, to protect myself and my child. They arrived only moments after you left. As I said before, most humans do not want to talk. They just want blood.”

Egan just nodded.

“Now she will be without a mother. She will die unless someone teaches her how to survive.” Her words were strained, coming much slower.

He looked down at the little creature that was clinging hopelessly to its parent. “I will raise her. I don’t know what I may be able to do, but I promise you, I will try.”

“I know you will. I am at peace knowing you will be here. You are a very rare person, I think.”

“Don’t die,” said Egan, as if his futile plea could stave off the inevitable. Tears fell steadily from his eyes landing soft against the dragon’s emerald scales.

“I will not, as long as my child lives. Through her part of me will always be alive.” Her eyes began to grow distant. They gazed past the young man to something beyond. The noble beast took one last breath and was still. Her stomach ceased to move, and that spark of life and spirit left her great scarlet eyes.

Sensing the loss the drake gave a loud cry. Egan’s heart broke at the sound of it and at the loss of such a creature. Soon however sorrow became resolve. I will not allow this death to mean death for another. I will raise her.

*  *  *  *  *

Egan never returned to his small woodland village. As far as the people of Heron’s Haven knew all six friends had died that day, but all were too afraid to make certain. That was how they left it.

After he had buried the dead men, he burned the body of King. The flame rose white hot, as the dragon’s own inner fire mingled with the pyre that consumed her remains. He spread the ashes among the wind from a place higher up in the mountain. Everything was done with the greatest reverence. Egan was not just burying a dead beast, but a queen among the forest.

Appropriately he named the little dragon, Princess. The two lived together in the cave in the clearing. Each grew and aged as time went on, as did their friendship. Princess grew up strong and beautiful. She had her mother’s eyes.

Egan lived up to his solemn vow. He taught Princess to hunt, and talk, and even to fly. He protected her, raised her, and cared for as if she was his own child. He lived to be ninety-five years old, as if by some magic, and when he finally died Princess burned his body and scattered it among the wind to join the soul of her mother.

After his death the young dragon left the clearing and the woodland in search of better hunting grounds and maybe even others of her kind. She never did return to that forest, but she never forgot the man and all the lessons he taught her. He truly was a specual type of person.

“Oxygen levels, seven percent,” said the tinny emotionless voice.

Two days since the accident. Two days, since the death of the crew. Sometimes I can almost see a face, soft and warm with red lips, like roses, and the greenest eyes of spring lawn. A man could lie in them for hours and forget the world. A man could almost feel the grass blades between bare toes, and the cool nighttime breeze across goose-pimpled skin, like when I was a kid, left to lay for hours gazing at the stars.

The stars, I could never get enough of them, sitting outside till I was dragged to bed. The irony has not escaped even my oxygen starved brain. I suppose the universe does have a sense of humor. Those stars will be the last thing I ever see. Still, they are beautiful.

The sky outside rotates slowly, an endless cycle of glittering diamonds. The explosion that kicked me clear must have sent me into a spin, slow enough to not be dizzying, but fast enough that I can trace the movements of constellations across my viewplate. I have become a world unto myself, small and alone, floating through the void and surrounded by billions of tiny reminders of light and possibility. Some are known to me and others still deeply unfamiliar. If only I had an eternity to unlock their secrets, but I am down to mere hours.

Hair as soft as silk and as dark as the endless void, it smelled of lunch meat, but that was only in the morning. The kids used to laugh as we played rocketship, while she made their lunch. I can almost see her face. James, I love you, come home to me. It floats before me, obscured and distorted, like a figure trapped under the ice, kicking and screaming for air, but it’s gone. Now, I am alone.

The only thing real is the groan of my stomach, louder than before. The only image I can hold is the tube of paste I ate for breakfast so many days ago. I think it was banana. It tasted like metal. They always tasted like metal. I’m thirsty, but not “I just ran five-miles thirsty,” just “I could use a drink” thirsty. A beer would be nice. The saline indicator on my helmet is below zero. The emergency supply ran out hours ago, or days ago. There is no difference anymore.

Saturn rises across my field of vision. Its rings are back-lit by the sun and the powdery blue dust that surrounds the god-planet’s rings are shining like a thin wire of razor, beautiful and bright. It gives the whole planet the illusion of a motion faster than any purported by science. The great orb is like a spinning top on a whirling axis. It was my obsession, my only religion for so many years. All I wanted to do was see it with my own eyes, and now my eyes turn beyond it. In the distance, sits a bright blue dot.

Home is not a place, it’s a feeling, it’s family. Whenever you think of us, you’ll be home. The words come distant and half-remembered. My father spoke them on the day I left for college or was it the academy. He is dead now, and when I think of his face I see nothing. I feel only the cold in my fingertips. I never made it home for the funeral, a six month mission made it an impossibility. Everyone said they understood, of course they did. Maybe I never could.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

Never say you’re sorry for that which is beyond your control. I am proud of you, son. Was it in my head? Was it my imagination? Did the suit’s communication system just come to life? It’s not possible. There is no one within a billion kilometers. I am the only human, the only thing alive out here. I am truly alone, and I am delusional.

“Oxygen levels, five percent.”

The flames, the rush of air, the silence. I come awake with a start from the half remembered dream, or was it a half-dreamt memory. Saturn is in full view. Even at this distance it dwarfs everything. Distantly, I hope I get to see it one more time, before I finally let go.

Hold on, son. Hold on to life. As long as you draw breath there is hope. I remember when he first said that me. His voice echoed from below, through the winter trees. We were camping and I had slipped from a tree limb. I had climbed too high. The limbs were too weak to support me. I have been trying to reach something, but the goal itself is beyond memory. Only the climb remains.

Hope is everything. Never lose it. This time the comm indicator sprang to life. The words weren’t imagined. They were real, spoken over the short distance channel.

“Dad?” my voice is raw and cracked. It hurts to speak, but it is maddening to stay silent. “Dad, is that you? Where are you?”

The only reply is my own breathing. I am beginning to slip. The isolation has taken its toll. Hypothermia is beginning to set in. The suit’s internal life support is slowly shutting down, like a deer succumbing to snow and frost, stumbling ignorantly towards its cold lonely end.

“Oxygen level, three percent.”

I wake. “Dad.” I don’t know if I screamed it. It’s hard to gauge how loud something is inside a helmet of plastic and metal. I struggle to get control of my flailing limbs. They no longer feel like part of my body. They no longer feel like flesh, just wood, nothing more than useless branches attached to a dying and forgotten tree.

I remember his eyes. They were bluer than the sky, bluer than the icicles that used to form on our garage.

I’m here, son. The LED indicators on my helmet are dead. There is no way of verifying the transmission source, but I am certain it is a transmission all the same. Saturn is gone now, replaced again with the endless ocean of stars.

“How is this possible?”

Moments fade, even memories die away, but love remains. Suddenly, there is light and color and I can see his face. It is a distant memory. I must have been very young. He still had his hair and that stupid mustache, but it was the same toothy grin.

“You’re not here. You’re dead. Gone.” I close my eyes and the light fades. Only the stars remain, eternal and fixed.

Everything must end. Even the stars are not forever. Their light is older than we can imagine. Most are dead even as they shine down on us. He is older now. His face shaded beneath the nighttime sky, only half facing me. His eyes sit transfixed on something above us.

“Dead.” I let the word hang there. Maybe for the first time I truly begin to question its meaning. Death, the concept seems almost beyond the scope of imagining, if not understanding. How can one word hold so much meaning and so much abstraction?

“Oxygen level, two percent,” says the computer as if in rebuttal to my musings, but even its voice of certainty is beginning to grow slow with the frost. I never considered what might happen to that voice. It will die with me, without ever having been alive. For some reason the thought saddens me. Man and machine will meet their end together.

But just because something ends, doesn’t mean it goes away. Look at the stars. Even after they have disappeared from the universe their light continues to shine. They continue to inspire and drive us. They are still beautiful. So why does death need to be any different? I could almost feel his hand on my shoulder as we stood before the casket of my mother. His face is blurry, but only because I watch him through tears.

“You’re not here. There is no life after death. No heaven or hell.” Such fantasies were sweet lies told to children to give comfort in times of grief. I know that. I’m a scientist and I know what happens to a person after death. Neural pathways shut down, the body stops pumping blood, cells starve for oxygen. They die, nothing less and nothing more. There is no light. Their isn’t even a tunnel.

My son, the scientist. You know so much. What do you know? Nothing. Quantum mechanics, string theory, dark energy? His face is angry, distorted somewhere between rage and pity. Fancy words to mean that for as much as you think you know, you still know nothing. Maybe God isn’t in the sky. Maybe he’s in us, tangled in the places between quarks, or unseen in the fifth, or sixth, or even thirteenth dimension? What if he is speaking to us now through the vibrations of a quantum string or calling to us through cosmic radiation?

“There is no God. We live. We die.” My mouth moves mechanically, rehashing the old argument, but the words just feel cold in my mouth, as if they too have been frozen by the void around me.

What good is your science if it only dashes hope? Hope is everything.

“We’re dead particles, brought to life for a brief second through a freak accident of nature. Dust to dust and ash to ash.”

Stardust and cosmic ash, perhaps. Those particles were forged in stars, created at the beginning of time itself. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. There is a spark of the cosmos in us and that is no accident. We are part of something greater. How can that mean nothing?

“I miss you, Dad.”

“Oxygen level, one percent.” The hum of the air filters quiets. I had grown so accustomed to them I didn’t even realize they were still on. Now there is no sound. All the suit’s systems are dead. I am not far behind. My eyes feel heavy. I close them to rest, if only for a moment

Death is nothing to fear. Take it from a dead man.

“I want to believe you. I wish you were here.”

I am always with you. If space and time are one, then do any of us truly ever exist, ever truly stop existing? Maybe we never really go away. Maybe we are always here, like faint echoes bouncing around the great vastness.

“Even after you’re dead you’re still lecturing me.” I try to put the joke to my voice, but it comes out flat especially in the lonely dome of my helmet.

Only trying to show you the way. Like a light from a long-gone star.

Could the voice be right? Time is an illusion tethered by gravity, and if there is one thing I am lacking, it’s gravity. Then why am I so short on time? I open my eyes. Saturn has returned and I can almost feel it smiling down on me, like an eternal deity. In that moment, I remember my mythology. My father would have laughed. Saturn is the god of time.

I wait, but the voice says no more. Real or imagined, it’s gone. The only sound is my shallow breathing. I know am breathing in my own CO2. Each slow gasp seems more unsatisfactory than the last, but those are distant sensations. My body seems suddenly unimportant, because my eyes are growing heavy and before they close the last thing I see is my god.

The men and women jumped around the blazing fire like wind sprites dancing near the spray of some great ship. They leapt and trotted to the song of the flute and the beat of the drum. The stars glistened brightly down upon the little party as the shadows of men and elves shimmered across the tree line. The flickering silhouettes, like shades of some elseworld, foreboding in their contrast to the happy party they reflected. Laughter and drunken talk echoed throughout the modest forest village and the smell of roasted meats and assorted foods wafted upon the air. The children, glad for a night without curfew, burst through legs and past dancers, running and teasing as they played and chased one another.

Page looked around at the gathering and could find none without a smile, almost none. The young wizard was perched on a large log carved into a bench meant for a man of smaller stature, but he barely noticed. He sat around the fire laughing at some retelling of a story they had heard a dozen times before. Others gathered around him watched the dancers or chatted lightly about happier times. The darkness of what was to come seemed forgotten to all, except for one.

To his left sat Carmithius looking uncharacteristically melancholy. The only one to take no notice of any of the merrier tidings. “Carm?” Page nudged his friend jovially, “Cheer up. You should be having a greater time than all of us. You’re home.”

The touch seemed to startle the elf away from his thoughts. “Oh, I am happy to be home, do not misunderstand that,” he started.

“But Carm has always had a tendency to be too serious,” finished the round and sandy-haired human sitting to elf’s left. He took a draw from his flagon.

“Yeah, ol’ Carm could depress an imp, he’s so gloomy,” laughed a second, noticeably quick witted elf, sitting nearby on a large flat rock. His human nearly spit out his drink to join in on the laughter.

“Justin, Flaksus, that is enough. Why don’t you two go check on my wife and the other cooks? See how the feast is coming,” said an older looking elf from the ground. He sat near Carm, long dark hair framing a content smile.

“Yeah I’m starving,” said John. The thief was idly fingering one of his daggers, a habit he performed only when nervous or drunk. From a look at him, Page guessed that it was the latter instead of the former.

“Yes, Master Taphitus.” Both youths stood and walked toward the cooking area.

“What troubles you my former apprentice?” said the old master once the other two had left the circle of light.

“I am not unsettled, master,” replied Carm.

“Carmithius Huntsman, I helped raise you. You are always unsettled.”

The old elf known as Taph let his gaze wander the revelry that surrounded them before bringing his eyes back to the forlorn Carmithius. “Tomorrow will come, and it may bring the darkness we fear or only another sunrise. Worry does nothing to stop fear or sunrises. Tonight is for celebration.”

“I do not fear the sunrise,” said Carm an uncharacteristic touch of offense in his voice. “My companions and I are prepared to face what is to come. That is not the source of my mood.”

“Then it is worse than I feared.” Taphitus Huntsman nodded and sighed. “I know you miss her, but your sadness will do nothing to change what has come to pass.”

“She was my mother and the last time I was home was the last time I saw her alive. I watched her die, murdered before me,” Carm clenched his hands at the last words, “right here in this very village. How can I not think of that moment as I sit here among all this happiness?”

“If it is foolishness to worry over the coming sunrise, than it is utter madness to lament the passing sunset.”

Carmithius took out a silver token that hung from his neck by a leather thong. It caught the light of the fire and flickered like a diamond in the night. “This is all that remains of her.”

“Untrue,” said the master huntsman. “You have your memories. Take it from an old man, who watched both you and your mother within your birth cribs, she is among us. Everything you do, everything you are, I see your mother’s hand in it. Her presence is now within you, and me, and everyone who was lucky enough to have known her.”

“Thank you, master.” Carm tucked the pendant back into his shirt.

“She is proud of you. I am certain of that. You have done great good in the land, and you have true friends by your side. Now you are home, but for a brief time, surrounded by friends both old and new. She would not have you worry. She would want you to feast and dance and enjoy the time that is left to you, because that is what she always did.”

“I will endeavor to be happier,” said the younger golden haired elf.

“Ye damn well better,” growled the dwarf that sat across the fire. “Ye know how much blasted trouble tha’ damn wizard went through to set this up.”

“Thank you, Bowen,” said Page surprised by the other’s words.

“Shut up, ye damned wizard.” He finished off his tankard and tossed it away with a satisfied yell. “More ale.”

“I wish you had not arranged this,” said Carm ignoring the dwarf’s outburst.

“You’re welcome,” said Page with a small smile. He had his own fears, which he dared not show. Their enemy was growing and there were very few places left in Allion to hide. Even at that moment he could feel the dark power as it searched for them, but its search would be in vain, at least for that night. Carm’s village was a sanctuary protected by old magic. Their enemy would not find them. At least, that was his hope. Outwardly, he just kept smiling.

Taph laughed, a twinkle of mischief in the old man’s eyes, “It is not everyday that a group of heroes comes to…”

Thak burst into the fire light, stumbling as he moved. He was panting heavily, his silvery hair drenched with sweat. The half-elf collapsed as if all his bones had suddenly given way. He landed on the ground between Taph and Bowin, almost spilling the dwarf’s drink.”

“Watch where ya going, ye silvery haired half-wit. Ye nearly spilt me ale.” Grumbled the dwarf with no hint of anger. In a moment it was forgotten and Bowen resumed his happy drinking as he watched the nearby dancers cavort around the flame to the sound of flute and drum.

“You have to go and dance,” panted Thak. “Its bags of fun.”

“Yes, I think you should go and dance,” said Taph with a knowing smile. “There is a certain maiden who has not taken her pretty young eyes from you all night.”

Page looked over to a group of young ladies, both human and elven. An attractive mousey-haired elf maiden batted her eyes toward Carm before she noticed the wizard’s gaze. The maid turned away, and suddenly the huddled group of ladies erupted in high-pitched giggling.

“Aria?” Carm said. “How has she been?”

“She has grown, and ever since you left on your grand adventures you have become her favorite topic of conversation.”

“We used to play together, when we were kids.”

“Aye, I remember,” said the old elf. “She has blossomed, and I am sure she would not refuse a dance with the great hero.”

“C’mon, Carm,” chided John, “It’ll be fun. You remember fun? Even Bowen is having fun, and that only happens when there’s a chance we’re going to die.”

“Keep up that kind of talk, thief, and there’ll be a good chance that one of us might die tonight,” growled Bowin with a smile.

“Fine.” said Carm, but it was already too late.

“Carmithius Huntsman,” said Arai as she approached the group. “You have been home since before sunset and you still have yet to say a word to me. Do I mean so little to you?” Aria was standing behind them, her gaggle of friends only a few paces off, just outside the circle of light. They whispered together like darkhawks perched on a branch together, making secret plans.

“Of course not,” stammered Carm as he rose to meet her. “I do apologize. So many people have wanted to talk to me since I got home, I am sorry that I did not come and see you sooner.”

“Sooner?” she said.

“First,” he corrected. “I apologize that I did not see you first.”

“Dance with me and all is forgiven.” There was no chance to refuse. Suddenly Aria had his hand and they were gone. Carm disappeared from the warmth of their circle with very little protest.

Page and the rest of the men laughed as Carm was dragged away, but then the hawks descended on them like helpless field mice. The girls appeared, a war party emerging from the darkness. Before they could move Page, John, Thak, and even Bowen found themselves being dragged after Carm and Aria.

“I am not really a good dancer,” protested Page to the pretty red-haired human girl that held his arm in her abnormally strong grip.

“It’s alright,” she said, “Just follow me.” She took him in her surprisingly firm grip and he found himself spinning around the fire with all the others. The world was a blur of colors, blues, blacks, oranges, and the wild red of his dancing partner’s hair.

“Let go of me ye daft banshee,” Bowin yelled as he went spinning by. The dwarf was at the mercy of a tall dark haired human girl who had the usually fierce warrior trapped in a mad twirl.

They danced into the night pausing only to feast upon all sorts of meats, vegetables, fruits, and pastries. Taphitus was right, the sun would rise and their trials and tragedies would be waiting for them. This night was a night for mirth and friends. By the end night even Carm was smiling, and for a moment the darkness was forgotten.

“You excited?” asked Marc in front of me.

“Huh?” I replied articulately. My attention was rapt on a pudgy fingered woman who was scolding her child for crying. The boy could not have been any older than five or six years, and his mother’s anger was only making him cry louder.

“Are you excited about the trip?” asked Marc again as if he were the one talking to a six year old.

I brought my attention back to where I was and with it returned the sickening feeling I had been having all morning. “Yeah, it’ll be fun,” I said with less enthusiasm than he was expecting.

“Fun?” he looked at me as if I was from a different planet. “Craig, we’re going to Australia. This is going to be more than fun. I promise its going to be the trip of your lifetime. You’re going to love it. I know this great little spot on Bells Beach where the surf and the women are perfect.”

“It sounds fun.” I tried to muster up more excitement for the idea but I couldn’t quite get it past the lump that was forming in my throat.

“Trip of your lifetime.” Marc turned back to peer toward the front of the line. “I hate these security checks. What exactly do they think they’re going to find?” he muttered under his breath.

I was absentmindedly running the thin starched belt-like rope through the fingers of my left hand. It ran from one black pole to another being held together by nothing but small clasps. It separated the lines of people as they waited their turn to pass through the security check up ahead. It was such a small and flimsy obstacle, like the kind of thing you would see at a bank while you were waiting for the next teller. I could walk right over it and it would only prove to be a minor inconvenience. There was nothing holding me there, in that line, or in that place. I could just walk out and never look back.

“You okay, bud?” said Marc. His face was suddenly close to mine. “You’re looking a little pale.”

“I’m fine,” I lied.

We took another step forward with the line. Like a giant caterpillar the throng of people were slowly progressing forward and I could hear the minimum wage TSA agent speaking to a person not more than fifteen people in front of me.

“Step forward and raise your hands,” said the officer in a monotone voice as she waved a wand over the tall business man. “Are you carrying any firearms, restricted food, wood products or exotic metals with you today, sir?”

“We’ve been friends since the third grade, Craig,” said Marc drowning out the security officer. “I know when your lying. You’re nervous about the trip aren’t you?”

“Its not the trip itself,” I admitted, “it’s getting there.” My left hand was gripped around the snap that held together the belt-like barrier. As I talked I played with it, hooking and unhooking the simple plastic clasping mechanism.

“You’re worrying over nothing. You’re going to be perfectly fine.”

“Maybe we should have flown.” I looked ahead to the slow moving line, and wished it would move slower. We were now ten people from the front.

“Flown?” ejaculated Marc with a laugh, “and spend 25 hours couped up in a tin-can. No thank you.”

“I just mean, how safe is it, really?”

“You’re starting to sound like one of those nuts you see on the news.”

“No,” I quickly said, “I’m just a little nervous. I’ve never used a TTP before. I don’t know how comfortable I am with the idea of having my body atomized and transported to the other side of the world.”

“According to the statistics driving a car is more dangerous than trans-teleportation.”

“I heard that its not really you that comes out on the other side. They say that the machine really disintegrates the real you, copies all your information, and then uses it to create an exact replica of you at the other end of the machine.”

“If its an exact replica, doesn’t that mean it’s still you?” said Marc like I was crazy.

“What if its not?” There were four people ahead of us now in line. “What if it’s just some person with all your memories and your personality, but it’s not you. I’m me, what if the person you meet on the other side is me, but not me.”

“Philosophy was never my best class,” said Marc. “Besides, I use the TTP all the time when I travel for work. I’m still me,” he said with a laugh.

“How can you be sure?”

Marc was silent as if considering my thought and for a minute I thought I had got him. Instead, he just broke into a wide grin and clapped me on the back in the way that he always did when he was dismissing my ideas. “Its going to be fine, Craig. Trust me.”

I hated when he dismissed my ideas with his grin and back slap, like I was a child who needed comforting. Worst yet, he knew it annoyed me, but it also reminded me that it was my friend standing there in front of me. I never questioned that. He was Marc, right down to his idiosyncrasies. He was every bit the abrasive, loud, and sometimes dense man I had always known. He tapped his foot when he was nervous and showed off his big lop-sided smile to any woman who passed.

Maybe he was right, I told myself. I was just being ridiculous. The government never would have approved TTP travel if it wasn’t safe.

“Step forward,” said the squat mannish woman dressed in the blue TSA uniform. Marc put his bags on the machine and did as he was instructed. “Raise your arms. Are you carrying any firearms, restricted food, wood products, or exotic metals with you today, sir?”

“No, ma’am.” Marc gave the woman his biggest grin yet.

She never noticed as she finished waving the wand over his body. “Clear,” said the officer as Marc moved forward. She turned to me. “Step forward.”

By the time I got my bags and joined the line for the trans-teleportation booths I was calmer. I knew I was just over-analyzing. I always over-analyzed everything. Millions of people used the TTP a day. None of them ever came out different. None of them ever talked about dying in the machine. At most people said it was nothing more than a tickling sensation.

I held onto that reassuring thought as we made our way through the terminals and got in line for the NY to SYD TTP booth. I did some deep breathing and by the time I stepped onto the glossy metallic floor I was feeling much better about everything. After all, people had the same doubts about the airplane, the automobile, and the train when they were first put into use. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that people even had the same kind of doubts about the horse-drawn carriage.

My calm shattered like glass once the heavy plastic doors closed around us. They locked it with a final and deafening click. I realized that I didn’t even want to go to Australia. It had all been Marc’s idea. I was more than happy to sit at home. I was seized by the sudden urge to jump at the doors and throw my body against them until they crashed open, but I was sure I didn’t have the strength.

They looked like thin plastic but they were reinforced and coated with a special polymer that made them as hard as steel and able to withstand the force of the trans-teleportation field. There were stories of people so desperate to get out of TTP Booths they broke several bones in the attempt. They were of course promptly arrested afterwards for trying to damage government property.

I looked around at the dozen or so others standing in the booth with me. None of them were panicked or even seemed the slightest bit distressed. Most were chatting lightly or looking around with a disinterested glaze in their eyes. Marc saw me looking and mouthed the word, “relax,” which he followed promptly with a lop-sided grin, though it could have been directed at the pair of college girls behind me.

“Please stand still,” said a calming female voice. “Bioscans in process.”

Almost as one everyone in the booth stopped chatting or moving and stood stock still as the attendant had showed us in the instructional video. With my left hand, I clung to the slick plastic handle of my luggage as if it was a life raft. The grip was digging into my palm but I barely noticed as the bluish light of the bioscan passed over me. I felt a sort of tickling sensation.

“Bioscan complete,” said the automated voice again. “Transport initiated. Have a safe trip.”

My nerves were suddenly on fire and the world went white…

“See,” said Marc as we stepped out of the the retrieval booth in Kingsford Smith Terminal, ” and it didn’t even hurt.”

“I kind of tickled,” I said, the tension of the trip finally leaving me. “I guess you were right.”

“Of course,” he said laughing. “C’mon I know this great little place down in the harbor to get some lunch. I’m starving.”

“Right behind you,” I said as I grabbed my bags in my right hand. The stress of the trip was quickly being replaced by the excitement and euphoria of being halfway around the world. My worries suddenly seeming childish.