Short story: Fire Dark

Darkness loomed over the land like eternal midnight. A kind of darkness so deep, it became lit by its own obsidian, atom-honed edges. Amid it, were the gnarled roots of the tree of life. Ruts of Earthen-tangle deep enough to bury even the sturdiest climber. They reached upward into a stalk of barren, petrified limbs like old ventricles in a fossilized heart.

The stars seemed not to exist above them. Nor clouds or moon.

Dead leaves rustled in the distance, stirred from some forgotten hollow eternally belching them. War had swept through the land. Night came. Bombers spewed fire like dragon’s breath. By day, what lay not in ruin would slowly crumble to it.

Little was ever rebuilt. Most was cannibalized: chiseled away by the dual forces of need and time. Their actuators of brute force and terror. What remained was bone, fasting in darkness for eternity. Never to be seen again. Forgotten.

The spark of Humanity had dimmed, but so too had all else. Life itself, so far as all evidence suggested, was flickering and might soon fade. The terror that alone brought with it was underscored by one, haunting question: who would be last to go?

Day-by-day, what few abominable creatures managed to eke out an existence, did so by suckling moisture from corrupted dregs. Each breath, each drop, poison and necessary.

Those feeling the call, what might once have been termed honor, were rising in the stupor of all blood-drenched and ready to die. They knew of nothing. Felt nothing. Save the knowledge that death must be had, and the greater it, the greater the deed.

He was like that. Sitting across the fire, head draped in mail. Face empty and sallow. There was no telling how long he’d been on the road. His face, at first hidden, shorn with tattered links fraying from overuse. He’d tanked more than a few blows to the coif.

The crest-shield of a forgotten clan rest at his side, half covering the sword that now lay bare. Its hilt, still in-hand but resting rather than clasped. This creature knew only the ways of death and fire. Each step in its world was a battle against one for the other. Why, was not certain: only that something drove it onward.

Time passed. How long cannot be said. Omnipresent gloom turned morning into afternoon as much as evening into midnight. A heave of breath escaped the creature’s lips. A mannish sort of grunt. Mail scraped and strained. The creature rose as if mechanical, its sword metallic and polished in blood.

He stopped astride at the other creature’s gaze. The one whose perception made sure to ground his reality. Enough so it remained existent to uphold its shackles through him. He turned his face toward the gazing creature, something alike and different about it at the same time.

With a slight inclination of his head, the gazer corrected him.

Not that way. Death lies that way.

I seek Death.

The exchange thus ended, the creature turned again to leave. This time he did not step. On the ground the light sound of metal hitting stone.

Take it.

The gazer was standing now. Knowing he could do no better good than to aid the abomination. Even if he failed, he’d tried. That was more goodness than any else in the world. Especially in these times. As if the very soul and fire of Humanity rested on such actions, the armored creature defied will and turned back only a step.

There, he stooped. Lifting the trinket to the firelight reflecting off the obsidian skies. A gem glittered: hope’s eternal flame in abounding darkness. He removed a gauntlet, threading a gangrenous-looking digit through the ring. Then, fitting the gauntlet back on, he turned away hesitating only slightly in his step.

His coif shuffled in attempt to look back, but the angle of his destiny was too strong. The current of death too swift, and the fire too bright now. No longer healing, but burning. He breathed and started off again.

Armor echoed through the night for far too long. The remaining creature stood, one ring poorer yet richer within somehow. He knew not why. Only that he’d acted on a compulsion. As that of the creature whom sought that light so vehemently even death could not stop it.

Because in the end, it seemed, even the darkest soul carried light within it.

Short Story: AuralAgent

AuralAgent: Rdy?

FitWix: Yes

That was all they’d ever needed. The moment the response went through, the op had begun.

In the frenzy that followed, neither was sure what was happening. Only once it was over could they have known what they were doing. It was simply too automatic: combined muscle-memory and focus.

In the moment, Aural knew only the swift motion of her body as it vaulted a concrete barrier. Her sneakers slapped asphalt, then sprinted for the doorway ahead. The building stood as any uncaring stone formation but with an undeniably sinister lean. It seemed the core of the place was so corrupt, even the very architects had found pleasure in malicious, contrarian angles, utilitarian minimalism, and drab monochromes.

Aural was different.

Like so many others in the world, AuralAgent and FitWix were fighting for their freedom. True, neither were physically chained nor bound, their lives were no less constrained. Information, like water, needed to flow cleanly and liberally. Above all, it needed to flow freely and for all.

It didn’t.

Aural flitted through the door. Wix guided her via a comm-implant. “Seven doors to the left, there’ll be a break in the hall. Take a left.”

She did. Careful of the darkness that had stirred no-one thus far. It would soon enough. An entire building rose overhead with innumerable bodies ready to rectify any perceived problem. She rounded the corner.

“Hallway juts right.” She followed it. He continued, “At the end of the hall, take the stairwell to the fourth floor.”

She was through the stairwell door when the first signs of commotion rose behind her. Night workers were shambling from their stupor, groping, grunting their way forward: Zombies drawn to the source of their work’s interruption rather than brains.

“Thirty seconds,” Wix said.

Aural passed the third floor, doubled her speed. The hack wouldn’t last that long. She knew it. Wix knew it. Thirty-seconds was their best estimate, but too many people were onto it now. So long as she made the fourth floor though, it didn’t matter.

Her legs went double time. Suppressed mania from ten years of track and field unleashed itself. Equally as long outrunning service agents, dodging COINTEL, Mercs, Hunters, and beat-cops funneled the mania through the adrenal regulators she’d developed. The end-result was extreme capacity for focus, no matter the circumstances.

Kind of had to be, when the penance for failure was something worse than death.

Aural burst through the fourth floor just as lights flickered on overhead. Even before “Time” came through the comm, the fluorescent fixtures had regrown their strength quickly. She passed along narrow corridors broken by closed-door offices around two large, central rooms.

“You only have access to the North server-room,” Wix reminded. “Once you’re in, pull what you need, then switch the privileges to South server-access.”

By the time he’d finished, she was in. The door shut behind her on a large room cluttered with data racks and terminals. Pristine draperies of bundled cabling poured from the ceilings, tell-tales of such unholy rooms that existed as fashion statements, rather than as altars to that most holy: information.

Such power, squandered and neglected. Aural hated it. Machine-space no corp deserved.

She streaked along an outer row, down abreast lines of server racks to one in particular. A terminal flicked out and her fingers went to work. All the fury of a postdigital child at war fueled her. The stab of keys was her battle-drum, their beating savage. The terminal screen flashed white-on-black text. Commands flowered into processes and calculations. Rocket-fueled bars flashed beneath skipping text-dumps.

All at once, it stopped.

She was reading something. 4-1-8 repeating in her head. Then, movement began again: Slower. Punctuating silences with mechanical frenzy. She checked her watch, set it to twenty seconds, hit “Enter”.

The system was cycling, the authorization switching over. The system itself reset instantly, but it took time for all the checks to go through the thousands of drives, leaving a golden window of thirty-or-so seconds where her stolen ID had both Server rooms’ privileges. If the system had worked otherwise, Aural would’ve had no chance. Not even with Wix on remote.

But fools came in all shapes and sizes, con-men too. One had sold the other a security system without telling them how to run it, its pros and cons. It was equivalent to building a chain-link fence and expecting privacy and enclosure. Never gonna’ happen.

“One for the Angels,” Serling would’ve said. “Just another mark,” the con-man said.

Aural knew the type, couldn’t begrudge ‘em. “Even Hawking fucked around on his wives.” Thing was, someone like her would’ve just used that as an in to fuck Hawking’s wife. So, usually, the message of “don’t be a cock,” was lost regardless of its destination.

Someone like her. But not her.

It could never have been her way. She accepted that. She lived with that. Her way was confined to duality, the day and night. Shadow and not. Like a hag living as a maiden beneath a glamour. It mattered not why, when the time came to burn her alive. Just that she burn. Gods forbid if that formerly-fair-maiden, now burned-alive-hag, had been what kept the pox away.

What’d it matter? They cursed themselves no less when it came, were no less dead, no more deserving of spite for having learned of their mistakes in it.

But Aural was the Hag beneath the glamour. Deceptive, and dangerously so. Truth was, Aural was plain, but good enough looking to disguise the rot in her soul. That was what made her truly monstrous. She knew it, accepted it. Why not? Not like it was going to change. Didn’t matter all the rot came from the gangrene of guardianship. She was the product of an upbringing that fought for what felt right and it had tainted her.

Forever.

She double checked her watch’s timer, grabbed a drive from bay 418 on her way out, then strolled to the next server room.

“Making good time,” Wix acknowledged.

She’d chosen him to plan the op because he’d do it right. Shift changes, lunch-breaks. That was how he thought: like a wage-slave. Former one, anyhow. He knew the ins of a corp-system, especially if that corp happened to be waging a shadow war against… well, everyone– and he knew how best to exploit those ins. Aural was simply skilled enough to risk her throat doing it.

She was under no delusions. Death would be the least of offenses against her if she were caught by anyone. A specific few would seize any opportunity to turn the public on her. Whomever was unleashed directly would be maneuvered into parading her withering bones about until growing bored and throwing her to what few wolves yet remained.

No amount of connections would change that, political or otherwise.

She found the last terminal, hacked it to locate the data-bay she sought. Moments later, she was out of the server room, door hissing shut in a huff of conditioned air. The lights were back on in the building’s corridors, along with their security cameras. Her face tilted downward, obscuring her features: her clothing the only thing out of place on security cams. Didn’t matter. By the time anyone could move against her she was out of the building, skirting darkness for the getaway.

The box-truck was running down the alleyway, steam pouring from its tail-pipe into the cold air. The door was visibly unlatched, a single strand of light glowing from a dim source within.

Aural was in, pulled up by two pairs of hands: Wix’s half-mutilated face taught with effort, the other Zu’s tight with fury. The kid looked scrawny, barely looked able to withstand a stiff wind, but was rooted when he pulled.

Deception. Good.

Such details were necessary in a good crew. You couldn’t plan ops without knowing how every operative would react. That’s why breaking up a winning team was suicide, and adding to it, worse. Principles of American Life disseminated worldwide along the worldly-pipes: what Aural’s ilk called the Net. Mostly too, disseminated by Aural’s ilk.

The truck was rolling when the doors shut again. Aural handed the drives off to Wit. His one, wrinkled eye drew up with a half-smile like Two-Face at a bank vault. A hiss of “Shit!” emanated from the truck’s cock-pit, CanUHLynn was reporting in on time.

Something was different. Spitzu’s voice was rumbling quietly. He called her forward, “Aural, man, get up here.”

She was there in an instant, reflexes and guts ready. All the same, nothing could’ve prepared her: A small tablet computer, acting as entertainment, was propped up and velcroed to a console in the dash. On it, a video replaying at the press of Zu’s finger.

A news-vid cut in, an image of a man Aural knew entirely too well. The rest of, too, through her. It would’ve been hard not to, given his associations.

The vid played again, Anchor to one side. “– to Former President Hubert Langley, whom sources say, “passed away in his sleep” last night according to his wife and former First Lady, Barbara. A press-release says–”

Mom? Dad? Her first two thoughts.

The third was the plummeting in her stomach. Weights on her shoulders and the vertiginous feeling of reality collapsing in 3D tunnel-vision accompanied it. Wix and Zu steadied her. Lynn’s hand grounded her, its grip strained on Aural’s as the other wrenched the wheel back and forth to disappear them.

“Laura?” Lynn echoed quietly.

The use of her name ripped her back. Laura Langley was AuralAgent again– at least, in part. The other part was moving slowly toward the rear of the truck.

“I have to call my mom, my dad just died.”

It was a dumb thing to say, she knew. They’d all just learned it together. Still, it seemed integral to accepting things. They let her go without word or ridicule, but each one feeling weight in their chests.

Not exactly the victory party she was hoping for.

Short Story: Huntmaster

Skeletal steel and concrete rose as sharp darkness in gray light, stalagmites threatening the sky impotently while the ground devoured them over eons. Once the seats of Kings, Titans, Tyrants, now they were little more than remnant bones of an old world. One lost to myth and time equally: Former SkyGods’ temples now consigned to decay, as with all lost epochs.

Perhaps one day, such remnants would be excavated: dug from the depths to be better understood. Those few living and aware of the possibility, doubted its happening.

Their numbers were fewer each day.

Krant had learned the hard way that it was impossible to rebuild what had been lost. Though there were arguments what was lost didn’t deserve reconstruction, they were academic. For scholars, by scholars. Theoretical works at most.

More, they were distractions. Attempts to ignore the issue at-hand, rather than address it. Nothing was being done, globally. Civilization was stagnating. The animal-Human, too, because of it. That was all that mattered.

When Humans needed most to ensure their survival as a species, that was unacceptable.

Krant knew of the Empires, distantly. The mountains were his home. Like his village, no-one cared to attempt conquering what could be neither easily reached nor exploited. It made him more qualified than most to impartially examine anything– everything.

Life worked differently in the mountains, honing one in some ways more than others, but mostly doing only that. Honing, tempering. It was a unique way of life: one of a kind. People at the base of the mountain, or in the plains, never worried but for the harshest of winters and driest of summers.

Mountain people worried and toiled all year.

Life in the plains was split into varying seasons, each accordant to the prosperity of the last. Off the mountain, people had breaks: time to watch crops grow before harvesting them. Krant’s people had no breaks. They ate only what they could hunt or slaughter infrequently, and foraged or grew the rest during the slight warming at mid-year that brought occasional sunlight. The rest was spent in hunting, fishing, general chores and hard labor.

Such lives were worlds apart.

Quite simply, Krant’s people were the Forgotten. They knew it, didn’t mind. Having never presented a threat to the Empire when it was building itself, Krant’s people were too far out to incorporate, and not worth the risk or effort to force out or hang otherwise. So, Krant and his family, their mountain village of thirty other families, lived as one entity, separated, and caring not for the Empires– nor likewise.

Yet no-one minded. Life was life. The villagers had been interlinking and splitting for a century or more: like the cells people knew they’d never again see. Some sought fortune and glory, peace, down or in the mountain. Some never left the village’s confines, tending to little more than herb gardens and hunting needs.

Still more, like Krant– and in each their own way, worked each day to strengthen their village, family, or people.

Krant himself often led Hunts, sharing the food procured freely with those nearest and neediest. Blood or not, they were all kin. He’d helped to build and lead death-pyres for at least one member of every family in the village. Often, more. He’d held his fair share of grieving masses at bay against the tumult of inner-turmoil. Enough that he felt the flesh of each as that of his own.

Level-headedness and sound logic had made him a leader in more than a few situations. Fortunately, none requiring much in the way of danger.

This would be different. Krant knew it even now. Something was happening in the forest. The trees were too still. On normal nights, what few tree-dwelling creatures remained in the world, often reported soundly until sunrise. Or else, they frolicked, hunted, or skittered to and fro amidst the leaves and grasses of one of Earth’s few greeneries.

Nocturnal animals, Krant as Huntmaster knew, had survived much of the cataclysm that had stolen the old world. Most theories put forth Human fear of the night in the first decades of the old-world’s collapse as cause. That fear, theoreticians postulated, allowed such animals to thrive, as Humans tended to hunt large prey (often predators) in twilight hours.

Simply, Humans killed predators as prey during daylight so their prey flourished at night.

That was the theory, anyhow. Krant wasn’t sure he believed it. He was certain of its effects. Presently, there was nothing in the trees. Nothing moving. Sounds faded the nearer the rising smoke came. Krant had tracking a wood-dog when he noticed it, he understood why now.

Two days before, he’d wounded the wood-dog: large and cunning like a wolf but descended from dogs rather than the other way around. It seemed what Evolution refined could refined itself– to terrifying result.

Nature had turned one of man’s best friend’s into its newest predatory nuisance.

Fortunately, they were abundant enough that a diet to be supplemented in the event of lean times. Carrying the rest of the village’s needs on his back meant he himself (and a few others at that) didn’t scoff at stray meat.

It had attacked, alone, about midnight.

Unlike most creatures, it sought campfires as a means to hunt or scavenge. Certain Canines no longer feared Humans, no matter the cost it might incur them in the end. Usually, they attacked in large packs that way. Overwhelming so that each man was caught off-guard when it began. In the case of this creature, only starvation would compel it.

It had been a lean winter.

It wouldn’t even be good enough to eat, Krant knew. The best he could do was put it out of its misery: nothing deserved the torture of starvation. Let alone when wounded, as he done to this one. So, an act of mercy had compelled him onward. The irony not lost on him that he’d eat it as likely as it him, given half the chance and starving.

Now, it was close. Somewhere nearby. He felt it in his gut. The smoke risingupwind meant it’d caught scent of the camp. Injured or not, it would attempt another meal.

Krant used it as an excuse to move in range of the fire. Its inner ring of light glowed half-obscured by tents in a grove of trees. Red, black, and white glittered proudly in the hidden grove, beneath low flames of a cooking spit.

Already the men were on their feet, swords drawn: Empirical men. Gruff voices.

“’Ow could they’uv got wind of it!?” One cried.

“Shut your goff, you fool,” another hissed. “It’s dogs. Dogs!”

Further ranting was drowned in what Krant knew to be true, but might never prove.

The sounds of the Wood-dog circled with a mournful howl. It off-balanced the men, frightened them. It leapt from behind a tent, knocking one of the men to the forest floor and dragging him off as it followed through. The others turned.

It was now or never. Krant acted on his gut, fearing only what he could not live with otherwise.

The world went red, then black. Krant was on the heels of the remaining, two men. They chased the dog as it drug their comrade. He chased them, driven by a force he knew but could not place. In a moment, he was atop the nearest man. His dagger plunged into his side from behind. Withdrew. Rose, slashed.

Moments of blood-warmth flashed in war-poses over gurgling sounds lost to time: Lightning-capturedimages of terror, like frames in old-world film.

Then, it was over. The Wood-dog was gone, one Empirical corpsemissing.

Krant’s blood-rage subsided. Its source mystifying but its cause obvious. He confirmed his suspicions after raiding the camp for supplies and information. There, in script form and signed by an Emperor’s Agent, orders to “seize and raze any unregistered settlements.”

The village!

Why else would the Empire have sent people here? Why else would they’ve been camping in these woods, so obviously trying not to be found? Krant wiped the last of the blood from his dagger, knowing the answer. He broke camp, using its most-flammable contents to build pyres for the bodies

He set them alight and walked off toward home.

Two things would never happen again from that day forward, Krant knew: he would never eat wood-dog again, and the Village would never be at-peace again. The Empire had just declared the extermination of “unregistered settlements.” That meant they were consolidating, constricting, exerting their authority to maintain control of their lands.

War was coming. Krant would be ready.

Short Story: Blind and Bound

She stood in her shower, half-cradling a breast. One arm draped upward and around her, finger resting at her lips. The other worked to soap herself. Her eyes, stared: quite literally, dead-ahead. Their milky blindness told most of the story, but even her own circumstantial birth could not account for all of their current damage.

Something had happened. It was obvious and she knew it. What, she wasn’t sure– No, she was… but it seemed a dream. Someone else’s. It couldn’t have been hers. She’d been dreaming. A nightmare. Taken advantage of, but not. Caught off-guard, really.

She’d been blind since birth, born with a defect that kept the optic nerves from forming properly. Cataracts came later. She couldn’t help either, but as she’d known nothing else, she coped, adapted: to both life and circumstance, it was never a question of bothering her.

Until today.

Her senses were acute enough she’d never needed her cane outside the most populated areas; shopping malls, boardwalks, city-centers and the like– places where Humans couldn’t fathom that the rats and roaches scurrying about were actually people. People like them. Each with their own lives, memories, minutes and moments lived until and beyond their passing in the amalgamated haze of life.

For a five-five blind woman with less muscle mass than a proper steak, it meant nobody paid any attention to where you were or going. Short of having an attendant, she’d never have been able to walk city-streets without the cane.

She’d resented it her whole life. Not for any, one, irrational or emotional reason, but because she knew it made her appear outwardly vulnerable.

Her only feelings on the matter were that no-one knowing made it easier. Confidence alone held the facade of equal power in the streets. It allowed her to be one of the other cockroaches when needed. Otherwise, gave her strength to carry on day-to-day, despite her slightly more-unique set of challenges.

But if the equal-power perception were upset things change.

In other words, she remained a roach with her cane, but now one hanging from a candy cane on a dead Christmas tree. The conflict was obvious. She needed to be a chameleon using its color-changing to hide itself in plain-sight. Not a fucking clown.

At least, that’s how she’d always thought of it. Now, it seemed that wasn’t true. She’d been attacked without it, just another unlucky woman in the hands of some sick pseudo-human creature.

She’d screamed as soon as she’d felt his hands.

The smell! Something like motor oil and gasoline mixed with brill-cream. The smell of Human gone bad. Or old fruit too long rotting in sunlight. No good for liquor or anything more than decomposition.

She’d smelled it almost as soon as it hit her peripheral. As a deaf-dog smelled its owner in a garage from a second floor bedroom. She knew someone was near. An off-rotted someone. Were circumstances different, she’d have thought it a dead body.

The sudden rush of steps gave her pause, but the kind that didn’t hesitate in her step. Then, from nowhere, she was on the ground. Something struck her head, dazing her. Making her unable to scream. The world was spinning. Its motions unnatural, sickening. Dread burst into her limbs, doing its best to compel them onward.

It was too late. She felt cold air. Body heat. Stinking, Human-badness. Something pathetic and erect seeking violent, grotesque bounty. Before she could scream, he was inside. Then, she was screaming… but her mind was floating, drifting as if a sail-barge set adrift mid-storm and now consigned to float forever, alone.

Then, she was alone. Her limbs flailing, her tears ran.

It had only been moments. The little-pricked psycho couldn’t even last more than a few seconds, proving it was only the rush he got off on. She’d never gotten to touch his face. If she had, she’d have a good description, but her body’d been too heavily restrained.

Cooling water centered her on reality, pulling her back from a brink. Enough to warm the water, anyway.

Heavy. He was heavy. Not muscular, not obese. Heavy. Like the darkness of his soul was a lead-weight that kept her still. Part of it was herself: still too shocked to know how to think or act outside flailing. Utterly understandable, no-one would deny that. She’d managed a couple good scratches and a hit before her forehead hit concrete and she was dazed again, too.

So, he was heavy. And smelled. He’d have some scratches, and probably a bruise.

It wasn’t enough. She needed more, could only get it by revisiting that horrible memory. Over and over again. The way he slid inside with a kind of practiced-precision: he’d done it more than once. Nobody got that lucky on the first try of anything, especially not this.

Serial rapist. Heavy, but not fat. Smelling of badness and poorly endowed.

Still not enough. Better, but not enough.

He’d come at her from the side, along Fifth. Out of an alley. He’d have struck in the area again. Serial-anythings were predictable once identified. He’d hit her with something blunt, but not metal. She knew it from a thunk on the ground beside them. Wood on asphalt. The sounds replayed in crystal clarity. Clearer even than when they happened– for now, she had some grasp on their order of action.

Something wood and round. It had begun to roll, stopped and scraped when lifted. As if broken at its end. It was light, but precise. He hit her again.

Wood. Dense. Rounded but too small for a full-size bat. Not strong or heavy enough to break bone or skin. She was guessing it had been a scale-model one; the type kids picked up as souvenirs at their first attendance of a real game.

She had an idea of the weapon, but what more could that help? How many of the things were there in the world? Let alone in a city with a Major League team? She couldn’t know, but it was another detail.

She’d begun to move again. The last of the creature’s vile poison leaked off her into the pooling warmth, suckled away into nothingness down the drain. Her body gave an involuntary quake, but her arms worked to clean herself. Her feet warm, soothed.

He’d been wearing sneakers. He’d gotten the drop on her only because he was lost in his spring. The steps had been heavy, confusing at first. Incapable of immediately registering themselves as boot or shoe. But now, they were sneakers at full-tilt. He’d have worked out a method, a serial case: probably repeat offender.

No belt either. He wouldn’t have worn one. It wasn’t his first time, after all. That was obvious still. She’d heard no zipper but had felt the press of thin material on her legs as his knees pinned the backs of hers.

Pants. No zipper. Synthetic Fibers. Athletic-wear.

It was the only conclusion. With his weight, he was probably in disguise– that is to say, his dress wasn’t usual. He’d have abandoned the dress of a so-called day-to-day job, its presence evidenced in the brill-cream scent between the gasoline and motor-oil. He wouldn’t have left work just to do this. He’d prepared to do it.

Meaning the car-scents were hobbiest scents. Probably, the brill-cream an identifying trait. People that knew him would know it. That too, would connect him with his likely hobby of auto-repair– or if not hobby, necessity. Which meant he either had enough money to work cars for fun, or none at all and against odds, did it for pay.

Compulsive gambler was also a possibility. Such was the case in cracked eggs.

She didn’t know any mechanics though. While a few gear-heads in the ‘burbs knew her, none would remember her. Certainly, none with that scent of badness.

She twisted the shower off and stepped out. Groping for the towel and careful of her steps on the slick tub. It needed to be cleaned. Like she’d been…

No! She wasn’t unclean. It was him! He needed to be cleaned: Scrubbed from society while facing his crimes head-on.

She’d already taken a sample from the homemade rape-kit she’d fashioned from cotton-swabs and airtight tupperware. It wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t about to walk into a police station without having some idea of what to say. She wanted him caught, not to have herself coddled. The last thing she wanted was to be coddled.

No, what she needed was information. As much as possible before going to the police. If she could figure out who it was, she could act.

Statistics said a victim was more likely to know their attacker. It wasn’t much to go on, but it could temporarily narrow the field. All she needed was to connect the right dots so she could turn the guy over, let detectives handle it from there.

It was as decent a place as any to start. She made the call.

A half-hour later she was meeting in her living room with a cop. She didn’t particularly like the idea, given the reputation they’d gained, but it wasn’t that difficult to choose between the Detective’s presence and letting the tiny-pricked bastard do it again. She gave what information she could muster:

Heavy, taller than her. Sneakers. Sweats. Wooden mini-bat. God-awful smell. Probably a serial. Scratched and bruised.

The detective hadn’t bothered to question her. She could hear the disbelief in his breath. Not the kind that would write her off. Rather, the kind that said he was ashamed how he’d squandered his senses. She gave him the homemade kit, which he handled as if a fearful student given a task by a mentor, to be taken with all precautions and properly handled.

He asked if she wanted a ride to the hospital, offered it. She accepted, though mostly for efficiency’s sake.

Two hours later, her he calling: he’d found someone she should, “Erm, take a look at…” She chuckled in earnest. His relief told her he was equally in earnest.

She was guided into a room. “The DNA will confirm,” the detective said. “But he fits the profile. Make the ID, we’ll hold him for interrogation.”

She stepped in, immediately overwhelmed by the scent of badness. She didn’t need confirmation, her gut affirmed her feelings. Her senses screamed. Terror rippled chains over her body, threatening to rip her back to that horrible series of moments. She shattered them with a breath.

Stepping over, mind focused, she connected a few, choice aspects of the attack she’d missed before. He had a strong right hand, dominant, but a stronger than usual left arm. Probably, from driving. Racing, she guessed. It fit with the stench of motor-oil and fuel.

And, he’d had a certain way of breathing. A huff-puff beneath a wheeze. He smoked. Excessively. He smelled of it even now. Smoke and sweat. It poured from him. Not fear sweat, no. Junkie sweat. The kind that came from craving fixes. He didn’t believe she could ID him; she was blind, after all. So, he wanted her again. He thought he could get away with it. Again.

That cinched it.

She stepped before him, senses screaming and gut knotted. The smell of badness floored her. She took off her sunglasses to stare him in the eyes with her milky-blind blues.

“You didn’t think I’d catch you.”

His breath stuttered. Imperceptible to anyone but her. He remained silent, but he was caught.

“The DNA will get you, but I want you personally to know, you won’t be seeing daylight for a long time. If you do, and you’re not changed, I will know. I will always be watching.”

The detective needed no further confirmation. He one, then the other, from the room: the former to sit and file paperwork, the latter to holding. Even as she boringly recited information for a proctor to fill out, she knew she’d never again fear walking the street– cane or not.

Short Story: The Journey

Light cut inward at right angles around ancient, concrete block that formed the maze-like entrance of a small, former temple. Once a way-station for pilgrims, in an eon of isolationist practices, it had fallen into utter disrepair. However hidden its would-be caretakers were, they existed– even if losing faith at the world’s state.

The land around the flat-roofed temple was now a barren wasteland of petrified trees and Earthen refuse composting since time immemorial. Such grave-markers for the salted-Earth’s civilization ran far and wide. Were it not for the fiefdoms formed of generational, dictated procedures filling settlements with tradeable goods, even the most skilled and nomadic hunters would have nothing to fill their bellies.

Managing without the interference of any Empire was considered myth: the land too poor a provider otherwise.

Though little more than facades for war-lords of untold power and resource, the Empires’ glorious acts were touted regularly by town and heraldry criers, even if their names were not. These acts ensured people remained just misinformed enough to be ignorant of their Emperors’ true movements and motives.

But there was no-one in the brick-and-mortar former-temple to give care to the Empires or their backward warring. All that remained was a skittering lizard, invisible in the darkness and camouflaged in the light via slow-shifting photo-pigments in its skin.

It one-two’d across the floor. Three-four’ing both legs inversely tandem at each other. The front and back feet came together, ending their gate nearly touching. Excellent for tree-hanging, but poor for any hope of speed.

It was doing its best however, at running flat-out. Angling right. Left. Right again. Were it not for its immense length, and thus intimidating stature, it might have been comical.

It was not.

From the rear, it was a sight of relief. From beyond, one of terror. The figure atop the sandy, trunk-mined hill did not hesitate. It knelt, hands together, whispering quickly. Harsh syllabic resonance whistled with feminine sharpness over wind from nowhere. Gusts kicked up. Dirt and sand pelted debris in gale-force winds that stirred but never moved.

The charging creature reached the hill’s apex. Dexterous hands flashed, extended outward: wrists together, hands in a V.

Gale-forces boomed, focused like compressed air bolts. Wind deafened and off-balanced the creature first. Low-pressure jolted air from its lungs. The distant whistle, howled. Petrified trunks and limbs cracked and shattered at weak-points.

A phantom beam cracked, blowing the creature backward off the hilltop. It cleared the hill-bottom, landing painfully against the temple’s stone. A snap gave way to an agonized wail as it landed on its back with a series of grunting writhes. It failed to move, instead moaning pitifully.

She appeared and knelt beside it, hands together and whispering once more. One hand stroked the great eye of the fading creature as it wheezed. She soothed it with an angelic hum, it harmonized with another subsonic one, vibrating from her hand and lulling the creature into death.

The life slowly left its body without difficulty or pain.

That was always their way– her way. Never anyone else’s. How could it be? So few people understood anything anymore, let alone of themselves. One day again perhaps, the world would come to know the goodness she did. Now however, even she could not negate the need to survive. Not when it counted most.

She sat beside a small fire just inside the temple so as not to suffocate herself, but to still bathe in warmth against the nights’ growing cold. She’d scouted the place the night before, using her mind in meditation to see within it.

Seers, they’d once called them, but with one’s eyes closed “seeing” felt a misnomer. She was a sensor. Like one of the old-world’s fabled optics. People didn’t know or understand that though. How could they? The Empires had been keeping them ignorant and hungry for a millennia now.

She rose to turn the spit a while, doing so in silent contemplation.

If the information she sought to confirm was true, a new world might come of it. Something once thought lost, reborn from ash like the mythical phoenix. There was only one way to find out.

She slept with the fire’s coals still burning. Then, having eaten and secured as much of the prey as she could carry, she set out, leaving the creature’s remnants for scavengers. Were it not for them, she’d mused, the creature she’d filled her belly would never have camped here.

After all, Lord Darwin was strong in his understanding of nature. And it was he whom assured a hierarchy of life existed and affected itself and its environment. The latter’s inverse was equally, if not doubly, true: The old-world had learned that lesson the hard way, and its descendants were still suffering for it. Would be, possibly for life– like millions, billions more.

But there was only one way to be certain of any of it…

It was but a few days later she found herself on her knees, beaten and weathered from rough terrain, and her bodily wounds paling in comparison to those in her heart. She stared upward in mixed disbelief and despair, as if learning her Gods had betrayed her. It was not Gods however, nor even man. It was the Empires.

She saw it now. They were bee-hives with no queen and only one goal: maintain the self-aware Hive’s existence. The truth was staring her in the face now. She might have believed it before, but she knew it now. The evidence was here.

Long seeking some thread of stability in her confused world of war, pseudo-magic, and demi-gods that set fires but could not extinguish them, she’d thirsted for understanding, knowledge. The coven hadn’t answered her questions, even after an entire adolescence in their care. However distant she might’ve been otherwise, lack of answers increased it.

But now, there was truth. A truth she’d seen only with her own eyes, but that she would kill to ensure was known. How? Without the Empires’ interference? She couldn’t say yet. She re-read the words before her, knowing it would have to happen sooner or later.

Her jaw stiffened; learning one’s namesake bore itself a badge of responsibility in itself. Confirming hers, ensured she’d hold it to the highest standard.

There, beneath the millennia of soiled signage, Usa learned of the United States of America.

Yet the Empires had assured their existence was myth, as were what remained of their beliefs. Usa knew now it was lies and would to go to war to prove it.

Short Story: Snowbound

Tufted fur of an emaciated snow hare tousled in cold wind, its slow half-hop betrayed its own hunger and exhaustion. It had been a lean winter. Made leaner still by the utter lack of break between driving and falling snows. Even if the hare didn’t know, it was currently three-feet taller than it should’ve been.

It hopped a short distance to the edge of a tree trunk. Tension stiffened it. Its ears twitched and tuned like parabolics. The muscular kneading of all small creatures pulled and dropped at its face to sniff the air with foreboded curiosity.

For a long moment, all was still.

Instinct passed and the forager returned its face to the snow to will something from nothing. Background wind ensured it never heard the whistling shaft. One minute, it was living: the next, dead. Its hunger forever sated by the nothingness left over.

Izrik didn’t breath. He let the last of the bow’s vibration dissipate through him, admiring his shot with a professional pride. He had true skill as an archer. Shame it alone could not guarantee him a meal.

He eased from his knee, slinging his bow around across his chest and starting for the carcass. It lay, leaking steam and blood into frigid snow. If nothing else, he’d have a new wrap for his sword-hand. The last was frayed from hiking and walking sticks, rather than battle. He’d almost longed for battle. It was practical: he’d been crossing the tundra-wastes over a week now, each day signs of habitation growing sparser.

The birds had disappeared first. Even the Winter Raptors hunting wider-ranges were gone.

Izrik recognized the encroaching of a no-man’s land. The Tundra held no life beyond a certain point, but he was determined to cross it. To reach the lands beyond in search of food, Humanity… anything. He’d rationed just enough meat to get him through a few days of would-be hunger, was already used to sleeping in the permafrost after perfecting the art of iglooing.

Yet, the waning game and growing hunger in his belly nagged him. He knew he could not eat more than enough to sustain himself. Beyond wastefulness, it was dangerous to become fatigued from a full belly, but it made him tired not to eat too. Worse still, it made him weaker. Barren land or not, that was unacceptable. He’d need all of his strength to make it through.

He set camp for the night to eat what he could and preserve the rest. In the morning, he rose, leaving the igloo as he’d built it for someone or thing to find it useful. He picked a petrified limb from an ages-dead Hickory, more than adequate for its purpose and solid enough to give even an acolyte’s staff a run for its money. Then, used it to test the deepest drifts and set out.

Especially in clearings, there was no telling whether snow had formed coverings for pitfall traps of old-era buildings or machinery. He couldn’t say for sure of any around, especially given the snowbound terrain, but the petrified trees led him to doubt it. His usually-acute instincts were proven wrong moments later.

Izrik poked his hickory into a drift, felt it sink a few feet and thunk. Satisfied, he stepped into it, felt his legs sink the two feet to the hardened under-layer.

He’d not walked a half-step when he heard the crack! He leapt on instinct, sensing his mistake. His reflexes were good, but not enough. He fell downward, twenty or more feet, banging along smooth, thin metal with the violent ruckus of a bag of hammers poured over an anvil.

He tumbled downward through enclosed nothingness, fighting to right himself and keep his legs beneath him. The echoes were deafening, leaving him even more spun than lost gravity. He was soon sliding downward at impossible speeds, darkness swallowing him.

His senses sharpened. Leathers worked on order of muscle to slow him down. In a moment, the slope leveled out. Izrik was moving too fast. He burst from slatted sheet-metal that covered the shaft’s terminus. He burst out, catching himself on its edge with one hand. The other dangled, jammed with inertia over distant, clanging metal in pitch-blackness below.

His plight took only a breath to confront him. Straining groans of metal forced his arm up. He felt the shaft flex, scrambled to climb too-smooth metal. He’d only just clasped the edge again when a metallic snap cut the air. Gravity jerked downwardwith folding metal. The shaft’s underside slammed a concrete wall, looking distantly likea wilted metal flower touching its own stem. Izrik’s body followed through, slamming the wall front-on.

Wind knocked from his lungs, he lost his grip and fell into darkness.

He landed on his side on something heavy, coughing and scrambling for breath. On his hands and knees, gasping, he finally looked around: The darkness was thick, but the thing beneath him was heavy, wooden, smooth but unnaturally so.

Izrik managed enough of a grip on himself to stand. In a flash, he was blinded by a sudden, intense, light as which he’d never seen. Thousands of lamps and overhead lights flickered on. With them was the obvious whirring of something neither man nor animal. Machine, he guessed.

And in a moment, he understood the machines were all around him, connected to glowing panels.

His attention however, was drawn to one side of the room. A massive stockpile of metal cylinders spackled with pristine, colored paper lined the wall. He knew what it was without having to guess; food. Canned food. Old world, but good forever. His feet carried him with ethereal disjointedness but a large, colored emblem on the floor caught his eye mid-way.

He’d yet to grasp the whole of the room, but there on the floor, words he could read but didn’t understand; “Seal of the President Of the United States.”

President” was the only word that made sense, but it suddenly struck him. All of the Empires’ lies: from the Rebellion’s so-called pseudo-evidence. It was real. He alone had proof. Now, food enough to last in relaying it to another.

He circled a small gait, viewing the damage of the serendipitous– rather than unfortunate, tumble he’d taken. It was only then that his mind stopped swirling, and the immensity of what lay before him locked him still in the symbol’s center.

He could only breathe, “Woah.”

Short Story: The Treatises

And on that day, the skies thundered and the Empires’ death-machines soared overhead. And on that day, came rest to millions; dead. And on that day, the post-Human dream; bled. And on that day, arose a great evil incarnate from its bed.

Man, but not man. Human, but inhuman.

But too, on that day, was born something greater; a seed tempered in fire. Though lain dormant in the cold despair that followed, it awaited only a spark to ignite.

And so, it did.

She held it as if precious, but sentimentally so. Its covers were worn, but for certain, it was the fabled Treatises on the Empires’ Rise. A collection of so-called “heretical” works outlining the laborious details of the rise and fall of previous civilizations, their way-paving for the Empires’ rise.

The last, true-history book known to Human-kind. Likely, the last printed or distributed before the Empires’ rise, it was beyond myth. Afterward, information was too closely-guarded and censured for any truth to be printed or distributed. Since then, things had only gotten worse.

A lot worse.

Myna knew Humans could adapt to adversity, it was the only reason she– or they– were alive. It was as simple a principle to her as stepping over a fallen, petrified limb blocking one’s path. It was an inevitability. Yet, nothing had prepared her for this. She’d only been on the scavenging run two days now.

Over the century, people’d been working themselves ever outward from the Empire’s main settlements. They trickled out, thronging this way and that like water through weakened stone. Smaller villages and settlements were appearing here and there, but nothing substantial enough to be permanent in the way the Empires seemed to be.

That was important; so close, yet so far.

Treatises was a direct contradiction that the Empires had been formed as believed. History went that the Empires came of lands once in chaos and madness, to aid in bringing them order. After civil wars tore the world apart, there was little more that could be done than try to rein in the madness.

No-one was sure what had really happened anymore, so far as Myna knew. She doubted even the Emperors knew what really happened. What’d it matter anyhow? The damage was done, the past, past. All she or anyone else knew was what lay ahead.

Now, what lay ahead was utterly shrouded in mystery.

The book had already decided that. She wasn’t sure how she’d first heard of it, but she knew from whom. That fact alone caused her to wrap it in a fur pelt she’d been working with after dinners and before sleep. It would keep the book safe from the elements while she decided what to do with it.

She spent the night meditating on what she knew of Treatisesand roasting the day’s large hunt. She’d have to start rationing soon with the land as petrified as it was. The game,disappearing with it, was thin as it was. It would only get worse. Soon, she’d reach the barren lands.

Her mind wandered, inexorably drawn to the book’s mystery: Myna first heard of Treatises as a child. Her mother and uncle were arguing about something.

“It doesn’t exist, Turel. This is an obsession!” Her mother hissed in angry hush.

“Treatises does exist, I have the proof!” Turel argued, thrusting something in a hand at her mother.

Myna remembered little else, save that her mother tore the object from his hand and immediately cast it into the fire-pit. He’d wailed something angrily as the page formed ash, then stormed away.

Myna couldn’t recall the last time she saw her uncle, but she knew it was sometime around then. He went missing not long after, and although Myna’s mother assured her he was fine, had never returned.

Through the years, there were times when her mother would stare blank-faced into the fire, hypnotized by it. It was different than the usual hypnosis of a full meal, or sickness, or fatigue. It was deeper, pained, as if guilt seized her.

Myna was determined not to wile away her days in that same despair.

She broke camp for the outer regions the next morning, managing to procure more game than she should rightfully have found. A day and night thereafter, she returned home with little more than a few, old-world trinkets barely enough for a week’s bread. Next time, she would have to choose a better direction.

Until then, she was preoccupied.

She stood beneath the hanging candelabras forming the poor-man’s chandelier over IzKie’s table. The woman had evidently not expected her back yet, else-wise Myna doubted she’d have found her in such a state. Papers and books were always strewn across every surface– of which there were an inordinate amount in IzKie’s home, but never before had Myna seen her table so piled.

Usually, it was set for tea, dinner, or any of the number of activities the two had planned.

All of it would have been frightening to an average person, so much so-called seditious materials, but IzKie was authorized them. Apart from making her incalculably smart, it also made her a pariah among most villagers. Myna’s association put her on the fence herself. Even leaving her worse-off in negotiations at the bazaar, for fear too much haggling might kill a sale.

When trading for food and survival, that was unacceptable.

Yet Myna’d never have it another way. She admired IzKie too greatly, had learned to read by listening to her quote passages from memory while following along in silence.

But she had not opened Treatises.

It was dangerous. Not knowing what lay within, no matter its power, meant it could not be properly handled… but it was also dangerous to know. If only because it might make her disappear– like Turel.

IzKie offered her tea to soothe her aches after the recent journey. She accepted, but remained distant, speaking little.

IzKie noticed, her voice soft and sweet, “Are you unwell, Myna-bird?”

It took a moment to respond, IzKie’s words contending with a fog, “Hm? No… Yes. I’m… not sure.” IzKie’s walnut-dark eyes brightened in the excess light, turning to warmer woods. Myna could have lost herself in them, wanted to. Instead, she sighed and sipped tea, “I found something I can’t do anything with.”

“On your run, you mean,” IzKie assumed, settling into her listener’s-role; perfect-posture and pointed shoulders relaxed but disciplined, like Empire Guards at-ease.

For a moment, Myna hesitated; she loved IzKie. Probably more than she should. There was something intoxicating about her. As if her intelligence enthralled certain types, Myna’s most of all. Probably, Myna guessed, it was the intelligent ones themselves– or, those capable of it. Like how every had various uses, but only some made for proper bows or arrow-shafts.

But… how much about IzKie did she really know? Was it enough to trust her with this? Could IzKie disappear her? Would she lead someone else to? Or, would she disappear herself? Myna didn’t think she could handle that. She was too attached.

But, IzKie had appeared around the same time Turel disappeared. Was it coincidence or design?

Now IzKie was looking at her, watching her. Expectantly.

Myna reached into her pack. One of IzKie’s brows twitched, ready to rise, but held before it could. Drawing forth the fur-wrapped tome, Myna set it upon the table and began to unwrap the corners. IzKie’s eyes widened, then narrowed shrewdly; the left-one half-squinted as an archer’s mid-aim.

A powder cask lit behind them. They exploded to triple sizes, confirming Myna’s fears: she had procured what she believed. IzKie was up, shutting her windows and drapes, locking her doors and windows. It all happened so fast Myna was still trying to catch up when IzKie whirled and grabbed her shoulders.

“Whom have you told of this? Where did you get it? Who saw you? Does anyone know of this!?”

Myna was stunned, thrown for a loop, wishing to answer but spinning. IzKie’s bony fingers dug into her shoulders. Apart from hurting, it grounded her. She attempted to find her voice, seeing the walnut eyes now almost deep-black in the new darkness.

“I– I…”

“Speak, bird. Speak!”

“I told no-one,” she swore. “I hadn’t even opened the furs until now. I swear it, Iz! I swear it!”

IzKie straightened, slowly releasing her. She was swept away by a mental whim and began pacing the kitchen’s open length, swaying the racks of drying herbs with each passage. A long while of silence passed beneath the rhythmic tamp of IzKie’s feet. Then, on compulsion, Myna sighed desperately.

At that instant, IzKie appeared beside Myna, kneeling, “Myna-bird, you are my angel and Humanity’s redeemer. You know it not, yet, but I love you deeply and what you have found is a treasure for all.

“But I must go. And you must stay.” She began wrapping Treatises with the fur. “Keep it hidden and avail yourself of my home. Or if you desire, return to yours. I only ask that you do as you have done thus far and keep it hidden.”

“Where are–”

“No time, bird,” she said firmly, halting any further conversation. She wrapped herself in a light-cloak and draped a pack across her breast, immediately setting out. “I will return soon.”

She pecked Myna on the cheek as she bustled past and out the door, shutting it with speed. Myna sat, spinning again, this time from the kiss radiating along her cheek and IzKie’s hurried departure. Wherever she’d gone, Myna decided, wasn’t worth knowing. Not yet.

But a very real dread was inching along her spine, decidedly sourced in the book beside her. Already, she wished she’d never found the damned thing…