Bonus Poem: We Are All Mutants

A hundred million years,
or more of evolution,
has made us all mutants.
From dull, single-celled organisms,
to complex universes of life and intelligence.

We came from the sea,
after a bubbling froth,
formed us in its foam,
and boiled over,
spilling us out,
into the Earth.

People,
hung up on monkeys,
so narrow-minded,
and refusing to realize,
how powerful is nature,
that it can outlast us so greatly,
and yet attune us so perfectly.

Science is no myth.
Evolution only a theory in name.
One is the process of confirming,
what the eyes see.
The other,
is the process of how they came to be.

So black, white,
red, brown,
or a color we’ve yet to meet,
We’re all the same,
in a way;
the universe forming itself,
through forge and fusion,
reaction and fission,
and chemical concoctions.

The end result?
No creature could imagine,
nor form in mind,
without prior observation.

All the things of life,
existence;
love, hate,
joy and pain,
everything in between
is the reaction of life,
greeting itself–
of the universe,
creating itself.

Short Story: No Choice in the Matter

His heart pumped fire, a war-charge. His feet thumped damp Earth, beat a near supersonic rhythm jet-fueled by adrenaline. He’d have panted terror if it weren’t for fear that it might slow him down. Instead, he took half breaths, held them. His temples pounded. Brain half-suffocated brain. He didn’t care. Higher-brain functions weren’t important now. So long’s his heart kept his blood moving, his legs would keep working.

He slid down a hill, pivoted, sprang across a ditch. He landed, still running. Blood-hounds barked and howled over grumbling ATVs and whining dirt-bikes. Moonshine and gunpowder pierced the air, inflicted by the clothing of his pursuers. He wasn’t even sure how he’d escaped. It didn’t matter. Nothing but running did.

They’d tied him up days ago, had been starved and tortured him since. Mason wasn’t sure who, but knew they represented the less-enlightened sect of populous in these parts. They were almost fanatically devoted to eradicating those unworthy of their antiquated, myopic lifestyle. Mason knew what his crime was. They’d bludgeoned it into him. “Choosing” to love a man was the highest disrespect to them. Never mind the fact he hadn’t chosen a damned thing.

The assholes would’ve never been part of his thoughts. They weren’t either. Not until they started attacking him, anyway. He knew well enough they were a part of a local order of hicks– most-likely the Smith or Flynn clan. A few others like them inhabited the area, but none were so brazen as to kidnap and torture a man.

Mason and his husband arrive home one day to find a giant swastika scorched into their front yard. A giant, brown and white “FAG” burned beneath it. It was hardly clever. In the end, all it did was anger his neighbors. Even the less, “liberally-minded” cites of the American South would’ve cared so much. Saying that would’ve missed the point that current era was hardly any of the 1900’s. Even the more conservative folk– most elderly– didn’t care. He’d changed more than a couple minds on “his type” himself alone.

The his was even simpler than the why. It was all freedom, openness; most folk judged a man’s worth by the sweat on his brow. The rest didn’t care to know anyhow: It wasn’t their place to broach such uncouth topics. Changing minds became about how the sweat poured from the couple’s brows. If there was anything to either of them, it was hard-work. From the trades of carpentry and auto-maintenance, to their home renovation hobbies, to landscaping “FAG” from their yard with new sod, both men earned their respect.

Yet here he was: sprinting through back-assward woods. The snow-ball’s chance in hell of escape was as likely as his becoming another hate-statistic.

Engines revved. Dogs howled. Powder and booze-smells grew stronger. His heart readied to give out, accept death. His mind readied to watch on-high as his blackened and bruised body crumpled. The spatter of bloody knife-cuts across him were even less a choice than anything. He hadn’t chosen a damned thing. Never. The fucks behind him didn’t care in the least.

But he had to find Ben, had to reach him. He’d been working late, hoping for extra cash for their trip when Mason went missing. The hicks feared him. Ben was twice the size of even the largest captors, but all muscle. He could’ve punched a fist any one of ‘em Terminator-style. He tended toward pacifism though. All the same, had he been there, Mason would’ve never been caught off-guard. Never frozen. Never been jumped from behind and knocked unconscious to be tied up. It wouldn’t have happened. Mason’s state would’ve enraged Ben’s rare but fierce temper.

Mason wouldn’t go back, couldn’t. He wouldn’t lie down. Wouldn’t die. He’d never submit to another torture session. He’d kill himself before those bastards carved anything else into him. “Fag” was the least of it. The first cuts were quick, easy. Eventually, all of them were made with dull blades.

A passing gleam appeared through the trees. It curved away. Distant engines mingled with dogs and shouts. Mason’s heart nearly stopped. The rural highway to town appeared. He scrambled up-hill, more determined than ever. He bobbed and weaved through trees met asphalt. An old Bronco screeched to a stop, nearly hit him before the blue and red lights appeared. The deputy was out, gun in-hand before he realized the man’s sordid state.

The ATVs rumbled nearer. The dogs howled over Mason’s hysterical pleas. The cop ordered him into his truck, peeled out as the first pursuers appeared at the tree-line. He raised his rifle to fire, saw the lights, then grit his teeth and lowered his weapon. The Bronco raced to town and the hospital. The officer took Mason’s statement as he was tended to by a nurse. Ben appeared, face pale but with fiery eyes held at-bay by concern.

Ben hugged Mason carefully, parted only when the nurse insisted she finish stitching and bandaging him. The officer left a guard on the hospital room over night. He returned the next morning alerted the couple that all of the men Mason had reported were being arrested.

Justice was swift, as near to complete as it could be. Mason’s testimony was given via teleconference from his hospital bed. His injuries were too severe to allow him to leave. Nonetheless, his story went public. Debates of hate-speech, freedom, and crime were sparked locally and nationally. Most sided in the couple’s favor.

Mason, on the other hand, was merely glad to be alive. He was wheeled into his house, at Ben’s insistence, to find a giant banner welcoming him home. Beneath it, stood all of the couple’s friends and neighbors. If nothing else, Mason was who he was, and most were grateful for that. No matter what others felt for a moment Mason knew, if given a choice, he’d have chosen to be himself– if only to selfishly retain the love that welcomed him home.

Short Story: Ritual for the Bereaved

She had skin like an ebony goddess with a face painstakingly carved from stone by masters’ hands. Sweat gleamed off her as if she’d been coated in lacquer, fired in a kiln. Beads of water formed streams, forced downward by gravity to mix with sweat. Her wiry hair was wild; stray strands cascaded down her face, jutted out from her bun-ponytail, and framed her prominent cheek bones.

She began at an edge of the black-mats in the wooden room. In her hands, thinly-curved steel of two katanas readied in a down-angled point at the floor. Her head hung, chin against chest, as her mind sank entered a placid trance. Her muscled thighs parted just enough to give her legs their due gait. Then, with a breath, she sprinted forward a pair of steps.

Her feet and calves worked in a spring. The blades remained motionless as she flipped forward, landed. Steel rose in double, whipped through the air with audible swipes, made inward slices. She spun on a single foot, a ballerina in a fouetté turn. The blades followed, parted to swipe one high and one low. Her body compelled them to follow through.

With a backward flip-kick, her wrists rotated, whirled the blades around. She landed, jammed them backward to penetrate phantom foes. The swords pulled free from the phantoms, fused with a wide sweep that saw them righted in her hands. She saw the swipes catch the throats of five armed men around and in front of her. Had they been there, she would have been deathly right.

Her powerful legs made a deep lunge, right hand thrust a blade forward, inward. The toes of her left foot dragged forward as she straightened, put her fists knuckle-to-knuckle. The mirrored steel shined from the large’s rooms LEDs, reflected half and quarter views of its innards. The reflections became blurs; the blades dropped, began to spin, whirl, twirl, while her body made small pirouettes and leaps.

She did a final, backward stab, eyes shut, then pulled the blades forward, flattened her arms outward. Her wrists angled to keep the blades flush with the t-pose, extend the breadth of her reach. Together, steel and skin sank back to her sides. The swords returned to their down-angled point, her chin once more against her chest as it heaved from exertion.

A door opened behind her, a scent like smoldering wood coals wafted over. A smile crept across her mouth. She turned on-heel, eyes open and head leveled. Before her stood a tall, equally dark skinned man. The white and gray that peppered his beard matched aged-eyes wrinkled at the corners. A large scar ran down the right side of his face, through his eyebrow and a piece of his upper lip, and made his smile unique, peculiar.

“Jazmin,” he said gruffly as he crossed the room.

She met him half-way, “Dad.”

“Am I interrupting, sweetheart?” He asked respectfully.

She shook her head, led him toward a corner to sheath her swords. She patted a towel at her neck with one hand, used the other to ready a water-bottle to drink, “What’s the what?”

He smiled, her lingo ever foreign. Such was the way of generational gaps between fathers and daughters. He knew the meaning of this particular phrase, sensed she was all business today.

He responded in kind, “Your assignment just came down from the top.”

She gulped a squirt from the bottle, panted, “Since when’s Dahl been giving you my orders?”

“Since the assignment concerns an old acquaintance,” her father replied seriously.

Her neck stiffened, eyes widened to match his, “You can’t mean–”

He interrupted gravely, “I do.”

Their eyes met with a hardened narrowness. Somewhere beneath her confidence and determination, Jazmin’s core was shaken. To hear such words meant any hope for peace was gone.

She spoke with a stiff spine, “When do we leave?”

“Now. There’s a van waiting.”

A quarter of an hour passed before Jazmin pushed her way from the gym and into the night. The Zen garden beside and behind the gym gurgled with a hand-made waterfall at the edge of its Koi pond. Japanese Maples in cement and paver-stone planters cast her in sparse shadows beneath the palette of copious neon signs and incandescent poles lighting the streets. She followed the cobble stone path along the garden’s outer-wall, found her father waiting before the an open side of a black van.

She gave him a look as if yet unprepared. He sympathized, “You know, I can talk to Rachel. She and I are old friends. If she–”

“No,” Jazmin said definitively. “I trust her judgment. If she believes I can do this, then she knows I should.”

He gave a small nod. She tossed her duffle bag inside, gripped the vans roof with a hand to launch herself inside. He sighed, climbed in behind her.

It took almost two days to travel from Hong Kong to the remote region where they would find their mark. The Nepalese scenery of verdant, earthen hues and white-capped mountains would have been a jarring shift from Earth’s densest, rain-laced city were it not so gradual. Jazmin found herself enamored, but her joy was always quickly suppressed by the assignment at hand.

They reached the mark’s hideaway; a small temple on the precipice of a mountain where snow fell eternally in screaming winds. Her father led the way inside. Two pairs of blades readied, one after the other, and slipped through the temple’s double doors.

The woman was in her late forties, clearly honed from a life of agile aspirations and training. There was no incitement to violence– it was already clear in her eyes. Something said she expected the two assassins as more than a mark could. A clear spite was beneath the expectation: she’d been the one exiled, cast out for daring to challenge Dahl. In place of death, she was told to flee from beneath the sword at her throat and never return. The spark of hatred in her eyes then had since grown to a raging, animistic fire. Twenty years of planned revenge and festering rage still fueled it.

Her own blades were out. Jazmin and her father were ready. One of each of their blades blocked the woman’s. The free blades sank through her fleshy torso beside one another. Her eyes went wide. Blood trickled from a corner of her mouth. Jazmin and her father pulled back together. The woman shriveled to the floor. The thirsty, aged planks beneath her lapped up blood that spilled down her sides. She gasped on the floor, eyes distant and glazed.

“Jazmin,” she whispered.

The girl knelt beside her to listen carefully. Her dying breaths were on her, all of them knew it.

She wheezed a wet breath, “T-take my swords. T-they ar-are yours n-now.” Jazmin gave a singular nod with a blink. The woman raised a bloody hand to caress Jazmin’s cheek, “You’re so beautiful.” Eyes began to tear up. “I-I’m s-sorry I couldn’t be there to see you grow.”

Jazmin took her hand, “Shh. It’s okay. I understand.”

At that Jazmin was sincere, she understood the woman’s absence, the rationale for her exile, even the anger that had prompted the attack that led to it. More importantly, Jazmin understood why there was no epic fight; simply, it was easier for all if her death was quick, in defense of themselves.

She squeezed Jazmin’s hand, “N-never f-forget that I l-love you, sweetheart.”

Jazmin suppressed her own tears, “I love you too, mom.”

The life left her mother’s eyes and her body went limp. There was no one to blame; not her adulterous father whom caused the challenge to Dahl, nor herself that put the blade to her, not even the exile whom sought revenge, consigned herself to her fate by declaring all out war on the Order. She would have never hurt her family, but even Dahl knew she couldn’t allow anyone else to take the assignment, put down her would-be assassin.

Jazmin collected her mother’s blades and sheathes, slung them over her back, then lifted her for a pyre she and her father had already built. Absent or not, respect was due, and if there was anything the Order knew, it was the importance of rituals for the bereaved– no matter whom put the blade to the mark or why.

Bonus Short Story: The Legend

The curved fingers of his left hand formed quarter-notes in andante while his right hand thrummed eighth-note cut-time against it. Ebony and ivory gleamed between shadows thrown from the spotlight in the rafters. His eyes were closed while he crooned a painful symphony of blues-like harmonies. They rumbled from his throat to tell a story of love won, lost, emptiness without it, and finally the love’s return. All the while, the empty opera hall filled with a phantom audience to his side behind his closed eyes.

The sound men readied their mix while their board-lights spiked red. Someone cut the gain on a mic and the mix was perfect. The Legend played on, oblivious to the technical orchestrations. He’d become too enamored with the crowd streaming in through the doors in his mind. His vocals were crisp, clear, perfectly overlaid beneath the piano that accompanied it. Breaks in verses were accented with hard dynamics that would bring even the hardest of heart to tears.

The sound crew gathered near the curtain to watch The Legend, lost in his world. Across the hall, the lighting crew gathered on a cat-walk. They hung in half-hunches on the railing or else dangled their feet through it, heads and eyes fixed as they watched along either side of spot-lights.

As if with the fade of one falling into sleep, the stage-lights dimmed. The lighting guys thought to get up but something held them in place. The Legend launched into the first chorus, his throat rumbling and crooning the highest notes as even his younger-self could have never done. The phantoms suddenly appeared below. Silhouette people streamed in from the doors, shuffled to their seats; a faceless audience that didn’t exist.

The crews wished to look to one another, express some disbelief, but the Legend had captivated them. Instead, they merely listened, mouths half-open and drying against open air.

The Legend’s gray hair began to darken to its youthful chestnut. His wrinkled face tightened, its smatter of salt-and-pepper five-o’-clock shadow darkened too. He unripened from the old, grizzled troubadour to the young, boyish song-poet he’d been. He almost shriveled in place from the change. The room merely watched in awe.

He started the first verse over inexplicably, crooned with less gravel, though its presence was undeniable. All the same, it was the least of the crowd’s focus– phantom or otherwise. The stage had darkened to a lone spot-light across he and his piano. His rhythmic melody thrummed and sustained with ear-warming vibrations, filled the audiences’ hearts with a curious, sharp pain.

Beside him, the Legend felt his thoughts and memories project across the black curtains. The heat of the light dissipated and the spot-light died out.

He sang of love won: the projection shone like an eight-millimeter reel. It even shook and bucked with the same, hand-held framing and fast-motion movement of the era’s film quality. He stood before a woman on a platform, their unceremonious wedding officiated beneath a banner that said “Cinco De Mayo” in a dingy looking bar. They wore day-old street clothes, her hair golden as it cascaded down her shoulders with fatigue.

He sang of love lost: The projection jumped through time with the eight-note thrum as its beat. The two people aged a decade in half a phrase. Through the verse, his hair and face grew heavier, longer, her more angry, fierce. At the second half of the verse, he stood alone on a road, began to walk it toward a setting sun. The wandering continued over the rise and fall of more suns. The city he’d left turned to woods, plains, then more city until he hunched over a scotch in another bar.

A man approached from one side, a cigarette in his mouth, put a hand to the Legend’s shoulder to impose for a match. A short conversation took place. The Legend began sang of desolation, sadness. He and the other man took off in a truck. The sun gleamed off its dirty windshield while he stared off at the road, his mind elsewhere. The scenery turned colder, became filled with snow while canyons encompassed the truck. He gave a pained wince, his eyes telling of an obvious longing for the woman.

When he sang of emptiness, the cold truck turned to the cold innards of a darkened cabin. He and the other man were now beneath piles of blankets on chairs before a roaring fire. The man gave a few hacking coughs into his clenched fist. His body heaved. There was a hesitation in the young Legend before he rose from to help his comrade. The emptiness in the elder Legend’s voice apexed as his younger self stood before a filled grave, his face pale and body hunched against cold.

He muttered something beneath his breath, then turned away. The cold scenery wandered past again, the Legend ambling along snow-laden streets. He stumbled drunk most times. It was obvious in the sad droop of his eyes, but bleak grays and drab blacks suddenly began to recolor as the roads turned rural once more. The weather visibly warmed, his posture straightened. Trees budded with beauty that fanned out in stop motion across the road. It lined the edges of an asphalt horizon as the eight-millimeter film shook and bucked more than ever.

He wandered almost endlessly, aimless until he sang of love’s return. The younger visage of himself watched his feet as he walked through a verdant forest. His downcast eyes were prompted upward by a shadow and the face of the woman he’d long ago married and left. They were older now, both more slacked and their eyes heavier than before.

He approached with a cautious, slow gait. She dangled her feet off the edge of a dock, her arms locked behind her to prop herself up. He stopped a few feet away. She seemed to sense his presence, but made no protest. He continued and sank into place beside her.

The last verse cried out over the two once more falling in love. Time passed while the Legend and his wife were hobbled by age. Until at last he stood over her bedside, as weathered as he had first been on stage. She held his hand with a smile, then closed her eyes. The Legend’s last lyrics were echoes. The piano faded out. The crews watched the lights fade up and the phantom crowd disappear. With them, the Legend had gone too, the piano now vacant in the spotlight’s center as its last chords echoed into silence.

No-one was quite sure what to make of it, but neither were they willing to speak toward speculation– or anything really. The Legend had given his final performance to an empty room– yet somehow it was more full than any over-sold stadium. Whatever had happened, the Legend had not died, merely faded out, and that much would forever be certain.

Bonus Short Story: Délok

No one realizes they’re about to die, or at least that they have. I know I didn’t. I’d been inside a hospital room surrounded by friends and family for months. My prognosis had never been good, and the fact that I hung on so long was miraculous to just about everyone I met. That’s the interesting thing about pancreatic cancer, it’s the most dangerous of all of those terrible diseases. It has the highest mortality rate of any disease, disorder, or cancer around– including Ebola. That last point’s important for posterity’s sake as it needs to be understood what is meant when I say things weren’t looking good.

I’d accepted that, along with everyone else around me. That included the whole world– literally– They’d been watching me die for months, and were riveted. ‘Cause of the type of man I’d always been– a high-powered CEO whom demanded one-hundred-percent transparency from myself and the people around me– I’d managed to amass quite a following on the reality television and web-markets. Twenty-four hours a day I had cameras around me– although those last few months I couldn’t imagine made for very good television.

All the same, my death came with about as much obviousness as an ant crawling on a paralyzed limb. I woke from sleep to find myself standing before the window in my meek hospital room. I must have had one of those strange blackouts again, I figured. The cancer had a way of doing that, you see. It had metastasized to tumors in my spine, brain, and lungs. Sometimes I’d go hours acting totally normal. Then, a moment later, a tumor would shrink enough not to press a nerve, or cut-off certain blood flow, and I’d suddenly exclaim, “What!?” all the while wondering why I had no memory of the goings-on.

That day was different though, I felt it. That, and the duplicate of me in my hospital bed, told me something was off. I thought maybe I was hallucinating again– another thing that tended to happen from time-to-time– but the way the aides, nurses, and my family-members ignored my pleas for an explanation told me something more was afoot.

It must have been one of those fabled, out-of-body experiences, I reasoned; a sort of transcendence of space and time that a properly-positioned mind could enter. I’d heard and read about them before, and in most cases, they were the results of psychotropic or hallucinogenic drugs. I was certainly on enough of those, but with none of the associated euphoric feelings.

In fact, I felt terrible, as if all at once I could feel every growth, cyst, and tumor in my body. The pain throbbed within me– or rather, I throbbed completely, overwhelmed by the pain. I doubled over onto the floor only to feel something pass through me. I looked around to see my family, the medical staff, and a camera-man in a somber, shuffling procession for the door. On my hands and knees, I could do little more than retch as their progress through me sickened my core. A white-light overtook me then, and I knew I was dead– or dying at least.

Then, something curious happened. I found myself in a field of white-light– actually that’s misleading. It was more like an endless sprawl of white-light with no beginning nor end, a trans-dimensional terminal for those to pass through, alone, on their way to whatever after-life they were destined for. Those were my sentiments at least. The Christians would have called it purgatory, but I just called it, “What the hell?”

He materialized before me; an old, hunched man that wore robes like the old Buddhist monks you see in Tibetan flicks. His wide smile and prayer beads affirmed the likeness. He leveled both hands before him, prayer beads hanging from one. They lifted slowly with a singular word; “Up.”

I felt myself rise to my feet, found once more standing and painless. He turned away with a gesture to follow. We wandered through the field of light together, he with a timely shuffle beside me while my gait lightened with a languid caution. I wasn’t sure where I was, but the pain was gone and I knew I was safe. After months of agony, that former point was really all that mattered. I was ready to shuffle off to any number of the great beyonds if it meant I wouldn’t feel the pain again.

That hunched figure led me to an edge of the light that formed mist around us. I must have seemed hesitant at first, because he gave me a look of beaming pride like a grandfatherly master to his beloved apprentice. He disappeared into the mist that obscured all beyond it.

I felt compelled to follow, if only for the sake that his radiant kindness was euphoric. I’d had enough people around me lately whom had lost their warmth. I missed it. They were all too concerned with avoiding the elephant in the room, too fearful of rousing any further pain in me. I really just wanted a game of cards, or a cup of coffee– something to remind me that being human wasn’t just a series of painful moments underlined by others’ fear. Somehow this old man exuded every game of cards, cup of coffee, and everything else fun in my life all at once.

I followed through the mist, found myself beside him on a dock. The sun shone with a brilliance that kissed a river’s pristine surface with diamond radiance. Slightly ahead and below us in the water, a wooden row boat rocked gently from an invisible current. He shuffled his way to the boat and I followed, allowed him to brace himself on my shoulder for support as he stepped wide for the boat. To think of myself in the state being the lesser of two, fragile souls warmed my heart. I was human again, even if– as I suspected– only in death.

He thanked me with that beaming smile that needed no words, settled onto a bench in the boat and gestured me beside him once more. I took my seat, and as if pulled by a distant tug, the rowboat launched along the river. All around us the flats and foliage of his once-native China rolled out around thatched-roof huts of bamboo and grasses. The sunlight was heavy overhead, traced a morning arc that warmed us. Despite the ever-present haze of thin mist and fog that seemed to amass in the sky only, it warmed us, let just enough light refract rainbows over that untouched surface-water.

I cannot say how long we traveled through that beautiful land for. I know only that I had an amazing sense of wonder, awe, and more than a little profound belonging. It was only at those feelings’ apex that I began to wonder what might come next. I was soon granted visions of terror that matched the beauty.

The water became chopped, rough. All of my pain returned at once. Beside me, the old man sensed the impending doom. All the same, the only change in him was that of his smile fading to a determined indifference, and the slight draw of the corners of his eyes that complimented it. I braced myself against the water’s attempts to throw me overboard, saw ahead the reason for its tumult; a waterfall emerged from the mist with a chaotic spray all its own. From the echoes beyond it, and the carrion-birds that circled above, I knew it would kill us.

It was only with that thought that the old man put a hand to my tense leg, looked at me knowingly. As if by some magic, he read my mind, silently imparted a thought to me; if I were so convinced of my own death, what fear did I have? What more killing of me could there be? If this was to be the end of the end, why would it be any worse than the last end– where I’d been completely unawares and only noticed after awaking beyond it? The questions’ answers formed one, collective thought; I had no reason to fear. Whatever lay beyond that water-fall, something in the old man beside me said, was to be faced as a challenge; not as a thing to fear but rather overcome.

That euphoria that had once before flooded me returned with enough force to blot out the pain in my body again. I gave the old man a stern, knowing nod, and relaxed into an equal determination just as the rowboat plummeted over the edge of the fall. I feared nothing. Not even as we fell like stones through the air, pinned to our seats on the boat.

We landed with a heavy splash that rattled the boat’s joints. Even so, it kept afloat, as firm as our faces against what terrors lay before us. It was only then that we once more emerged from the mist to see blackness all around us. Then, sparked by something in it, red skies descended. All of the world’s worst terrors were upon us: We saw men murdered, women raped, villages burned. Pickpockets pilfered while thieves liberated bread from stalls, only to be shot by the guns of faceless soldiers. Heavy tanks chased flocks of children and families, herded them toward firing lines.

I wished to help, but boat’s speed was double that of the atrocities around me. I knew I could not help. My teeth grit in anger, enmity. The old man touched my hand, gave a shake of his head. At first I did not understand, but his face returned forward, empty. I saw then what I had missed.

This was not a thing to be helped, not here least of all. It was, as it had always been, the way of human suffering. Whether real or imagined, these horrors were as much a part of the human condition as the death I had so recently succumbed to. He protested my anger for one, simple reason: anger, fear, spite, these things that I’d felt were the very core cause of the atrocities around me.

My shoulders sank helplessly, and suddenly the world around me flared with that ambiguous white light. All of my emotions left, drained through a sieve of confusion that couldn’t even manifest its usual ways about me. Suddenly the murdered men embrace their killers, the raped women held those that assaulted them as babes while they wept on their shoulders. The burned villages were extinguished by the bucketfuls of water from those that had set the fires.

Like them, the pilfering pickpockets sought forgiveness, returned the stolen goods with shame. The half-dead and dying thieves broke bread with the faceless soldiers whose countenances were now those of their comrades. The heavy tanks too, turned to other men, women and children whom chased the others in joyful play. All along the former firing line, the weapons dissolved to form the faces of more, smiling family-members; brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers.

Just as I began to understand, the boat and the field dissolved once more into that endless sprawl of light. I was once more on my feet before the old mam. He raised his hands again, this time pressed them together as though in prayer. He gave a small, hunched bow. I felt compelled to return the gesture, and with it, came his beaming smile.

He placed a palm flat against my chest at my heart, and I spoke, “Me?” A small nod from him, and with the opposite hand over his own heart, I said, “You.”

He said only a single word, “Délok.”

Somehow I knew what it meant. Perhaps in that mysterious way that all of those things had occurred, I had also been imparted with new knowledge. In either case, I knew that like myself, he was meant to help show others the way, impart messages from the dead. Those places we’d visited were realms of beauty, pain, and finally peace. There was only one way to reach them yet, and in that, only one way to assure that one day it would no longer be necessary: relay my journey, tell others what I knew was its purpose, intent.

When I awoke on my hospital bed, I had been confirmed dead for two-days. In wishing to observe some ritual of closure, the hospital staff and my family had left me as I had died. There were no doubts to those thousands– maybe millions– of viewers that I had died either. Even fewer doubts were present in the learned medical staff and my family. An immediate series of tests confirmed that my cancer had gone, and I yet lived. As if healed by death, I was once more pain-free, and with a perfect forum to tell my story. I sat in my bed, and began to speak…

And here we are.

I cannot say why I was chosen, having never known of the ways of the délok, whom return from death to relay the wishes of the dead. But now knowing it, I am certain that my journey must be heard by all. Whether those that hear believe it or not is of less import than that they feel its sincerity in their hearts. Only then, perhaps, may we find a way to reach those blissful realms without first succumbing to death. I know, for my part at least, that is the purpose of the délok; to help Humanity reach its collective Nirvana, and one day, shed this mortal coil without fear. I know too, that it is not a thing we should fear, but rather, take as a challenge that we all must overcome, together.

Short Story: The Murder of an Angel

I found her wandering the Ginsu Corporate Japanese garden. I’d been called to the scene to address a public nuisance. Such is the way of our culture now that even this woman, goddess though she was, could not escape our surveillance drones nor there automatic report. Though she was non-violent, I knew from the report I received en-route, that I’d have to take her in. What I found when I arrived though…

The Ginsu Corp’s Japanese garden is an enormous courtyard in the center of a sky-scraper made of all modern, sleek angles, stainless steel trim, and large, open windows. That last bit seems the most important for what I found, but it was hardly on my mind when I entered from the lobby-side. The door there was designed to open and close like a sliding door, but was hidden in the windows to appear as one. Something about architects and their styles– or some such nonsense– made it necessary to hide the door.

There was a persistent, purposeful gurgle of water in the garden. A make-shift river was cut through its center with clever, hidden plumbing and a slow-trickling waterfall to the left side. The water would slip down those rocks endlessly, follow the twists and turns of its man-made banks, flow beneath a foot bridge in the middle, then exit somewhere far to the right to start the process again.

The few, Japanese Maples Ginsu had imported were delicately placed around the garden’s stone pathways and small clearings so as not to overshadow the countless foreign hedges, flowers, and ancient, potted bonsai-plants. Over the sky-scraper and through the foliage, the sun’s rays cut streaks through a mist that persisted over the area. It gave the garden an almost ethereal look.

It was surreal. There I stood in heavy, corp-sec armor with an LR-30 five-five-six in my hands, in a veritable garden of Eden. It was even more surreal when I made my silent progress to the footbridge, then clomped over it in my weighted gait into the Garden’s heart. Somewhere behind me a Koi jumped at one of the various water-dwelling insects. It landed with a splash that I missed but caught the ripples of. Even at the distance I could see the Koi in the river; they were massive, all manner of mixtures of orange, black, white. Some were wholly patterned, the rest mostly solid colors with speckles of others splattered across them. There must have been a few hundred that swirled through the water, added life to the already-teeming garden.

I found her a few paces from a split in the hedges. To say I was breath-taken would be an understatement. She sat in the dewy grass in one of those shining sun-rays that gleamed down from the heavens. The metaphor was all the more apt then. Her knees were drawn up, legs curled beneath her while she leaned on an arm. She glowed with an aura of the sunlight– or maybe it was her angelic features– while a hand pensively hung at the back of her neck. She stared upward in trance, as oblivious to me as I was of what was to come.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but it was enough to eventually rouse her curiosity. I should have said something, anything, but I knew I couldn’t. To add anything to the sounds of that low gurgle, distant, quiet birds, and the faint scent of fresh mist would have been blasphemous. Instead, I watched her. As if of her own volition and nothing else, she rose from the ground and angled toward me.

She was clad in little more than a transparent dress. It wasn’t a thing from any of the corp-owned stores in town. They’d have never allowed it. Even so, she wore it like a goddess, could have fit in with any of the old myths about ancient women whose beauty brought men and women their knees.

She tilted her platinum blonde head– which curiously seemed natural despite its impossibility– and drew a slow hand upward. My eyes caught the motion to see her pale skin beneath the dress, her body bared for the world, for me. The glow behind her gave an outline of something voluptuous to her already-transcendent beauty. It was difficult not to stare. Even so, something in the way her hand curled beneath the hard angles of her jaw made it seem as though she wished me to, took pleasure in it.

Imagine me, all corp-sec clad and rifle-toting ready to rain hell-fire on rebels and revolutionaries, being met with a match so fully inverse of myself– in appearance or otherwise. Surreal didn’t quite cut it anymore, if only because of the ethereal, extra-worldly magnificence before me. I was the beast in the metaphor, a perfectly sculpted image of terror, torture, and pain, and somehow I’d found beauty that brought me to my knees. Literally.

My rifle dropped from my hands first, the safety thankfully on. She was within arm’s reach, could see all the subtle curves of her supple breasts, perfectly-rounded hips, and the glistening green of her eyes. The left side of her head was shaved. The rest short but with bangs that angled around her forehead. The seemed to weight it into a tilt to one side, then drifted in the light breeze that made it over the gargantuan walls of the around us.

I met her eyes with a breathless, parted mouth. I was only vaguely aware of the people gathered around the garden and surveillance cameras. Most would be watching out of curiosity, others out of arousal. So repressed has our society become that this woman was committing a crime simply by existing. By then, I had forgotten my job there. She could have murdered me, if it meant only a touch from her unearthly wonder.

Our eyes were still locked when I fell to my knees. Her mouth formed a sadness then that still stabs my heart when I remember it. With a pair of nimble, silken fingers, she lifted me upward by the broad-underside of my chin. Her touch sent a shiver through my spine. I was ready to faint, so powerful was she.

Why what came next happened, I don’t know. Maybe she knew what was to come from it. Maybe, like I with her, she’d been captivated by something in me that I didn’t know existed. Or maybe she was as enthralled as I by the unseen, primal forces of lust and love that have allowed our species to propagate. Whatever it was, she gave a small shake of her head as I rose to full-height from the light pressure beneath my chin. Then, slowly, both of her soft hands rose to either side of my face. She pulled me into a long, deep kiss that nearly made me buckle again.

Her breath was hot, inviting, her tongue soft and trained like a dancer. Between us a slow, almost mournful ballet began. I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I never wanted it to end. My hands were warmed through my gloves at her hips while the breeze tousled the creased, see-through dress around them as its anchors.

I know she sensed what was to come. I felt it in a burst of passion that surged between us. If I had known though, I might have done something more. But all I knew was her; a glowing, pulsing beacon of beauty, love, and good in a world literally gone to hell. Outside that garden, there were a dozen different corps all vying to carve out the largest part of the world they could. Anyone that got in their way was labeled a traitor, dissenter, terrorist.

My job was to rid the world of those people, the undesirables. All I ever did was drive wedges between people and their families, murder the righteous, and taunt the rest into choosing sides in a war for the most basic of freedoms. I will never know her name, but I’m sure that she was all of those things and somehow… I couldn’t have done more than I did in that moment.

There was a sound like a someone shouting in the distance, but I didn’t hear it. Then a hiccup in the low gurgle. I was a million miles away, riding a beam of sunlight with a queen of stars. Her passion never faltered; not from the moment our lips met. It merely stopped as she slipped down my body, clutching at my armor. I was hit by reality like a freight-train ramming an unseen motorist off the tracks. Another apt metaphor that was just as bloody as my armor as she slipped away from me.

Before I knew it, she and I were surrounded by one of the Corp’s Emergency Response Squads. The ERS are guys sent in to “contain,” a “situation.” In other words, I didn’t do the job fast enough or well enough, and some assholes kicked down the door. They murdered an angel. I know no-one believes in that stuff anymore. Neither do I, really, but then again I never believed in love, or love at first sight either. I do believe in those last two now.

She bled to death in my arms. Her glowing gown was stained red from the exit wound in her chest. I was safe from my armor and its built-in kinetic compensators. I wish I hadn’t been. I’d have rather died there with her.

I held her, breathless tears welling in my bestial eyes. She never stopped smiling. Not even after the life left her eyes and her last breath eased from her chest and tore out my heart. I was arrested for indecent public conduct and displaying affection while on-duty. The latter was a reprimand, the former a felony.

I took my forty licks– corporate lashings that we all agreed to allow when we signed on with corp-sec. Why wouldn’t I? I was cold, numb, without feeling. I had become the very thing the corps always wanted out of us. It wasn’t until I realized that that I finally understood why she’d smiled even with a bullet through her heart and her life fading: she’d made a statement with her life, her death, and the moments leading to it. I was the punch-line to a joke about trying to remove the humanity from a human.

Even now I don’t mind. Every day I wake up in my dingy hovel, help more people to escape the prison-compounds the Corps have turned most cities into. I use my power, my authority, despite my Spartan living and appearance, to do the one thing I know she would approve of. I help people find feeling again, just as she did for me. Even if she didn’t love me, I loved her, and I’ll go to my grave doing everything to honor that. It took the murder of an angel to awaken me, but I’ll be damned if it was in vain.