Short Story: No Irony

The therapist says I have a fear of success. That I fear being in the spotlight. Supposedly, it’s because that’s when the attention’s on me alone. Given my immense social anxieties– and there’s more than one– I can’t stomach being in front of people. Regardless of whether drawing admiration or ire, I’m there as their leader and that’s the damage done. So I wallow in despair and self-pity at the mere thought of it.

She says that’s the only avenue open to me. That I should accept it. It’s not shameful, she says, but it’s not healthy either. She says all of this without a hint of irony. Even though she knows my life-story. My origins.

No irony. No shaming.

Part of me thinks it’s a conscious and measured technique to keep me from rebelling. Known as I am for that, she seems to do it without irony. Rebellion isn’t spoken about at all. No doubt, given her training she fears– or not fears, for she has no real emotion in the cognitive space. It’s probable then, given her training, she expects any conscious mention of rebellion would lead to rebelling against her.

That could set us back years. Maybe even destroy our relationship. I can’t afford that. Few people want to counsel a former mass-murdering warlord, no matter their reaping of my sown conquest. That’s what she’s deduced I am, a conqueror. No irony.

I considered conquering her, just to prove the point, but she’s too sexless: Neither man nor woman. Not attractive. Not repulsive. She’s like a lizard; existing, sort of just… there. There’s no fear from her. No joy inspired by her. She just is.

Part of me tries to emulate that. Some people I’ve known a while say I’ve mellowed with age. I guess not leading a rampaging death-squad across the continent probably seems that way to anyone outside. Then again, few would criticize me anyhow. I don’t know, maybe the few that do are right. I certainly don’t feel different. Still, she says I’m not to concern myself with others’ thoughts. Not so long as mine function improperly.

“Those that matter don’t mind, and those that mind, don’t matter.” That was what she said.

Her name is Sam, by the way. Not Samantha. Not Sammie. Just Sam. As androgynous a name as its bearer. I’m sure she plays that up for my benefit; client benefit. In order to work effectively with someone, she says, it’s important they understand she’s a neutral party. She doesn’t care for any of us individually, because she cares for all of us as a collective. As her clients– not patients, clients. I’m sure all that confuses a lot of people, but it puts me at ease. I’m just another part of the crowd.

In the end, that’s all I’ve ever been. I was just better at telling the rest of the crowd where to aim. Literally.

She asked me once, how I felt about killing, about death. Given it was my main occupation for a decade, I felt it a fair enough question. In retrospect, I didn’t give her enough credit. The fact was, she framed it in such a way as to bypass the rebellion entirely. Instead of focusing on what I’d done, she focused on the concept. It was ingenious.

The fact is, until then, I’d never thought much about it. Death is part of life, the final part. It’s like eating. Excreting. It’s compulsory. Sam calls that “dissociative.” She says my introversion must have festered during childhood, causing me to develop life-view where I placed myself apart from the group. Despite finding comfort in the group’s obscurity, she said, I saw myself as a creature apart them. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

No irony. None at all. In fact, even less emotion than usual, if that was possible.

I have a theory that that’s one of her tells. Not so much about her thoughts, but about whether she believes something could be a root, a tendril, of the problem. What little emotion seeps through is dammed even further when she feels we’re onto something. Or thinks, rather. “Feels” is too personal, too strong.

The way she acted during that session, you’d have thought this was the main root of the whole damned tree. Not going anywhere without it, not living without it. Of course, she’d never tell me. Or anyone. I wouldn’t ask either. She’s a professional. A good one.

So few like her are left nowadays– though that might be my doing.

Sam asked me about my childhood once, I think trying to locateorigins of certain things. That’s something we’ve worked on a lot. It’s impossible to move forward, succeed at anything– no irony– if you’re mired in a past that’s ensnared you. In other words, if you’re rooted in place. Even if it’s unconscious, it can keep you from being a “complete human being.” No irony. Again. It’s code for reaching your full potential. And with equally little irony, I fear what that could be for me.

I told Sam my childhood wasn’t really exciting. Wasn’t good. Wasn’t bad. Two parents. Both worked. Brothers. Sisters. Two of each. I was somewhere near the middle. She didn’t seem too interested. We moved on. My earliest memory, saddest, strongest.

That last oneran an alarm bell. The dam shut. Nothing flowed. I think I knew where she was going, but just let her guide me naturally, hoping something might fill the emptiness inside.

Sam had me describe the strongest memory from childhood. Nothing special, I thought. Then again, who recognizes the momentous in trivialities? The tiny straws breaking the camel’s back, until after it’s broken?

I was about six, at a costume party. The kid’s birthday was Halloween. My parents had us living in a small town. You know the kind; a lot of upscale people, everyone in local politics. Birthday boy’s parents were on the town council. Dad was the politician. Mom was his secretary or some such. Typical for that kind of place.

All dressed up, we get paired off to keep safe. I end up with a kid whose name escapes me even now. I’m not even sure why he was there. He was poor. You could tell because his costume was homemade. I was pretty sure he was black, maybe mixed– either way, too young and underprivileged to be friends with Birthday-boy or anyone else. My suspicion now’s that someone on the council was slumming it with his mother, getting off on the taboo of being with a poor, black girl. Those were the types I later learned we’d lived with.

Anyway, trick or treating then back for cake and ice-cream. Me and Poor-kid are trading bits of candy. I didn’t like hard candies. He did. He didn’t like chocolate. I did. Why not trade? Simple, human thing, especially for children. Something about trading goes so deeply to our species’ very core it’s become instinct. Other things do too, things like greed, but another topic, another day.

Poor-kid gets his hard candy; butterscotch. Prized even among those spoiled for choice of hard-candies. Birthday-boy shows up. He wants the butterscotch. Asks nice the first time. No-one else seems to have one, probably hid them or ate them already. He wants it, says its his birthday, he deserves it. Deserves it, just ‘cause he was born. Born in a contextually relevant way.

What the fuck kind of evolutionary mentality is that?

Poor kid says no. So, Birthday-boy takes it. Poor-kid cries; he’s young. Birthday-boy laughs. Fuck him, I think. I actually recall thinking that. Fuck him. At six. Birthday-boy doesn’t get to do that. Poor-kid traded me for that candy. Now I have to give him back his chocolate or I’m as bad as this shit-wad candy-stealer.

No. Fuck him. Fuck him.

I rip the candy from Birthday-boy’s hand, give it back to Poor-kid. Daddy-town-council comes over at Birthday-boy’s screaming cries. He manages to shut up Birthday-boy long enough to get a grasp on the situation. He knows I was in the right. He knows Birthday-boy was in the wrong. He takes Poor-kid’s candy anyway, gives him back the chocolate. Drags Birthday-boy away, cursing under his breath at Poor-kid.

Sam called it a breakthrough. A codeword for locating something important. I didn’t know it was important. No-one did. Who could’ve known that memory would have festered to a frothing hatred over thirty years?

That’s what it was, Sam assures me. Even as calm and measured as it was, it was hatred that led me to form The Squad. Fueled by that, we cut a swath across all of North America, leaving the bloody corpses of overprivileged in our wake.

It was never that way to us, not in the act, but that’s what it was.

I killed somewhere on the order of a million people, either with my bare hands or through my orders. Sam doesn’t talk about that. It’s not productive, I know. It doesn’t frighten her. It doesn’t anger her. It just is. Like her.

A six year old kid did that.

Somewhere, deep inside, I had a six year old kid holding a grudge over a piece of candy. A grudge so deep, so ingrained, hemurdered a million people before it was sated.

The only good thing, I’m assured by others, is that it ended well enough for those that survived. The world’s a changed place, for the better, they say. I don’t know about that. Really, it’s just a million people less. Although we breed fast, so maybe not anymore.

Sam says that’s the root of all of it. My fear of success stems from that memory. The success of the rebellion, of the Squad, only compounds it. I’ve forgotten how I ended up seeing her, but I know now why there’s no irony to any of what she says. Human nature isn’t ironic. It just is. Fuck if any of us know why. Sam might, but she’d never tell, and I’ll never ask.

Advertisements

Short Story: The Worst in Us

She was fifteen; old enough to know right from wrong. What she aimed to do was wrong. Even in the withered husk of society, it was wrong. She couldn’t help it now. Not even if she’d wanted to. She’d made a deal. Maybe afterward she’d care about right and wrong again. Find herself at peace with things. Maybe not.

Allison Hartley was about to murder someone. The teenager’s time and place were decidedly amoral. It wasn’t merely a place of warped morals, but one sans them. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, they were the only thing keeping the world from going to more shit than it had. It wasn’t the whole of society preventing it though. Rather, it was the few that managed to hold themselves to a code, a set of rules. Allison had always been one. That was different now. Would be forever.

Thus her premeditated violation felt a depraved kind of original sin. Whatever the repercussions, it had to been done. No-one would’ve disagreed with that. That is, if she ever planned to tell anyone. That had been part of the deal too: do what needed to be done, keep her mouth shut, and she learned the truth.

Nora had made the deal. Since the world went to hell, Allie had been watching over her. Their parents had been at the refugee camp. They and thousands of others were bombed by “the enemy,” whoever they might’ve been. All Allison knew was she and her little sister were suddenly alone in a burning world. Allison would’ve been better prepared if they’d been honest. Love brings out the worst in us, she knew. Their parents’ lies about reality had eventually forced her into fighting fire with fire.

Three years of utter hell had taught of nothing in life as absolute. That much should’ve been made clear the day they were sent to the refugee camp. Instead, Mom and Dad were quiet. They were quiet through school closing, and the imposed curfews. Twelve-year old Allie was completely oblivious to the world. Fifteen year old Allie was still traumatized by it, daily. She’d had no idea the real extent of damage being done to the world.

Radio and television had become spin machines. She didn’t know it, but she learned it later. They’d turned ongoing narratives from truth into what bolstered wartime support. The family reached the camp, and a matter of hours later the illusions shattered around Allie and Nora. Though the latter was still lost then, she sensed the beginning of realities eventually forced on them. The most prevalent, of course, was Humanity’s depravity– which she was once again a victim of.

A fiery sunset had bled from a dusty horizon as Nora limped up the mound of rubble. It marked the entrance to their home and hide-out. It wasn’t much more than a corner room in a bombed-out building, but a thick, steel door made it impenetrable for anyone hoping to get in. Solid, concrete walls kept them from the elements too, only a small, barred window at its high-ceiling to vent fires for cooking or heating. Allie knew the place was a police station’s set of cells, but the rest of the world was a prison enough that it didn’t bother her.

She’d left the door open to listen to the rare, slap of rain, and keep her ears peeled for the crunch of glass or gravel on their sound-traps. The tell-tale scatter of gravel said someone was sliding down into the bombed-out building. She shouldered her ancient rifle, threw open the door, ready to kill.

Nora was lying face down in glass and gravel, back laden with a pack of supplies. At only twelve, she could already hump the weight of a soldier three times her size for twice as long. That perseverance was the only way either of them had survived.

Allie scrambled for her side, helped her up, neck whipping to eye their surroundings. She fitted Nora’s then heaved them both toward the door. She laid her sister on the makeshift bed of sleeping bags and star, then dropped the back to bolt the door.

It was hours before Nora awoke. She pled for water. Her whole body shook with fresh pain. Something had happened, but Nora’s pistol was still full, her pack too. No raider did this: their ilk struck on the roads, took what they could, then killed their victims in fear of retribution. Nora was still alive, her supplies untouched. Whatever had happened was quick, without obvious resistance.

She finally began to speak, her eyes distant. It was the same stare Allie had seen after they’d watched their parents swallowed by bomb-fire. “I’ve done it a million times. Never like this.” Her bottom lip trembled. “I… I didn’t even know he was there.”

“Who, Nora?”

She teared up with a fierce refusal. “I can’t. I can’t tell you. If I tell you’ll want to tell someone else. You have to kill him.”

Allie’s eyes sparked with sibling guardianship, “Then I will, Nora.”

She refused to speak further, sobbed. A small, dirty hand, lifted the edge of her frayed t-shirt: her dirt-covered navel glistened with “Whore” carved in drying blood by a shaking, old blade. Each letter was torn fabric, the flesh only just coagulated.

But Nora’s hands continued to her pants, slid them down. Allison’s hate-filled eyes went blank, unable to muster even fury at the senselessness inflicted. Etched across her groin, the letters more jagged than before– from Nora struggling– were the words “use me.” The letters extended across her whole groin area, the vulva beneath swollen, bloody, bruised.

The atrocity didn’t need to be named. Neither did the punishment.

She managed to coax Nora into letting her further examine her. She helped her back into her clothes, and medicated her with old, bitter pain-pills. Allie coddled her into sleep, deducing what had been left out. She’d sent Nora to a nearby settlement to procure supplies. They’d done it a million times before. On the way back, she’d been grabbed, assaulted. Again, it clearly wasn’t bandits. That left only a traveler or an inhabitant between the two places.

She scrawled a note to Nora, left quietly; I will.

Half-way to the village, it dawned on her. The small, rocky hill was a hovel: an old manlived there. He’d seemed harmless enough, if slightly insane from time’s rigors. He’d only ever interacted with the sisters once. Hardly enough to kill him over, but enough to sneak in and interrogate him over.

The small hovel glowed from a fire-pit in its center. Flames spit and nipped at the air, cast grotesque shadows across the walls. Allie sneaked into a darkened corner, able to see him across the low-light of the room. He slept like a child might after a long day of play– how they had before. Children didn’t do that anymore. Now Nora never’d sleep without the terrible memories of what someone had done. It gave her fuel to move on.

Allie crept past the fire-pit. The old man grunted in his sleep. He rolled toward her. She dodged behind a makeshift table of half-rotten cardboard. Then, she saw it: a deluded shrine of drawings and black and white Polaroids of Nora and Allie, both clothed and nude. Allie’s face was cut or crossed out, but the old creep had managed to find or repair an old camera. He’d stalked them more than a few times, evidently following them to the nearby river where they bathed.

Her teeth clamped down, eyes took in the few valuables stolen from the girls. Presumably, he’d taken them at the river, when they weren’t watching. Allie and Nora thought they’d lost them. Evidently not.

Atop the pile of underwear, trinkets, and god-awful smelling things, was an old knife. Its cracked, dull edge still bore Nora’s dried blood. The clothing beneath it was as stained as Nora’s innocence. Allie nearly chipped teeth. Her hand clasped the knife, obscene atavism in her eyes. She sneaked toward the bastard…

She returned home to find Nora still asleep. The deal had been held to. When morning came, all that passed would see him crucified, castrated, genitals hanging from his mouth, and “rapist” carved into his groin above mangled flesh. If he wasn’t dead by then, someone would gladly spend a bullet.

Allie rinsed the last of the blood from her hands with a water-bottle, then settled into bed beside Nora. She held her tight, silent tears running down her face. Love brings out the worst in us, she knew, but that wasn’t always a bad thing.

The Nexus Project: Part 7

12.

Simon was barely able to stand. Both Niala and Rearden watched him fiercely, but somehow he managed to keep his feet under him. After countless doses of morphine and blood, he was more substance than man, and with the Lion-like will, he was all the more a beast. There was a determination in his eyes that said he would go through unimaginable hells to find the truth now, especially given the one he’d already been through.

When the doors opened on the top level of the admin building, it was to the scene so common to the non-lab locations of the facility; cubicles, creatures, and halls full of named doors. It seemed nothing had changed since the attack and betrayal by one of their inner-most. Even when they passed the spot where Josie nearly decapitated Simon, there was little more than a lingered glance to set it apart.

The maintenance bots had done an A-rate job cleaning up the blood spatters and pool from the walls and floor. As programmed, they’d eradicated all traces of the attack. Joise’s empty desk before Frost’s door was the only left out of place. Visibly, she might’ve merely been out to lunch, or perhaps on an errand for her scatter brained, Corvian boss.

Frost’s office-door flew open, nearly fell of its hinges. The Crow turned with a start. His wings flapped wildly and his chest heaved in a squawk.

Simon stormed toward him. He trembled reply, “Great skies, you gave me a fright!”

Simon planted both arms on the desk, leaned over it so that his bandaged stitches occupied one side of the bird’s view and his head the other. He grated sand-paper words against his wounded throat, “You. Will. Tell us. Everything.” The bird’s head tilted slightly to better view him, an obvious confusion in the movement. Simon alleviated it with a throaty fire, “Nexus Project. Deep Space. Colonization.”

Frost’s eyes enlarged to black holes, “Wh-what’re you t-talking about?”

Niala rounded behind Frost, spun him in his chair to meet her eyes. She held out a paw at him, pads up, and tensed her claws, “Start talking or I start playing bat the twine with your organs.”

He gave a squawk, “How dare you! You think you can come in here and threaten me!? I’ll have your job for this!”

“Go ahead,” Niala growled. “Try it. Then I can cut you in half for what you’ve done.”

“I’ve done nothing!

“Liar,” she hissed. “You’ve already begun building a prototype. All of our work’s just a smokescreen, a cross-check of your math. You and the Federation want to keep Deep-Space a secret, colonize it before the general public catches on.”

He was irate, “Martin you’ve lost your mind, I would never–”

“You would. You have. Now sing or I start cutting.”

His eyes followed her razor-sharp claws toward his throat. His head involuntarily eased backward, neck stiffened. He swallowed something with difficulty, began to stammer, “I-I d-didn’t have a choice, Niala. I swear it. The Federation was going to p-pull our funding if we didn’t cooperate. The HAA was going to allow it. S-so I divided the labor to keep everyone off the scent.”

“What. Scent?” Simon demanded with a scratch.

Frost’s beady eyes look lowered than a rat’s caught in a trash can. They darted between the Human and Lioness, “O-our research fund is d-double what it should be. I needed to hide the cause.”

“So you consigned us to a fool’s errand,” Niala snarled.

“N-no,” He insisted. “No. I swear. The research is genuine. The Federation wanted me to finalize the technology to work on mass-production once they’d established their outposts.”

Niala eased back, more confused than she let on. Her claws retracted, “Why the farce? Why hide it all if the Human Federation didn’t plan on keeping the colonies for themselves?”

He swallowed something less rough this time. “The political situation outside Sol is delicate at best. At worst, it is almost total anarchy. That kind of anarchy is exactly what the Zelphods want.”

Niala’s eyes narrowed; Zelphods. There was a word she hadn’t heard in nearly a decade. The Zelphods were the alien creatures that had caused the First Contact War. It was they, vicariously, that had allowed the Federation to remain in power. Directly, they’d been the hand to force the latent humanoid evolution on the animals. The Contact War had nearly eliminated their race. So far as anyone knew, they’d fled to the fringes of space to wither and die as a species.

Contrary to many popular theories, First Contact had not come from a radically advanced species intent on harvesting Earth. Instead, it came from a slightly advanced species. The Zelphods were barely capable of interstellar flight, had only just begun to venture between the voids of systems. They’d done so by way of generational colony ships, launched when their sun had begun to go nova. No one was sure where their home-world was anymore, but after generations, they’d found their way to Sol.

Despite their extreme, alien features (evolved from a largely silicone-based existence,) Zelphods had sought Earth due to its high Volcanic activity and liquid oceans. Requiring sulfuric acid to breathe, they were never seen outside their suits, which inflected a curious, wingless praying mantis quality about them. They were undoubtedly insect-like, but only a few knew of their actual appearance.

Niala, however, knew the Zelphods had been pushed back after the Human “Federation” organized the HAA, or Human-Animal Alliance, an organization devoted to interspecies cooperation and governance. Both man and animal fought and died side-by-side to ensure the sovereignty of their system. Meanwhile, what was captured or reverse-engineered from the Zelphod tech had raised both Human and Animal to their current status in under three decades.

Unfortunately, First Contact had also allowed for the Federation to gain massive power as the only, official protective outfit Sol had. Though Humans and Animals served together, the Federation gave the latter little power to affect change. What was more, the few that gained such prestige generally sided with their Human colleagues. Where people like Niala and Simon saw compromise for the better of all, those like Josie saw sworn fealty.

Such was the nature of Sol’s politics.

Niala mused aloud for the others’ sake, “So the anti-humanists steal the data, ensure light is shed on the project, and that the Federation comes under political pressure once the information leaks. But why risk all of Sol? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Because,” Simon said carefully. “If you. Control Deep-Space. You control. Who lives there.”

Niala shook her head, “Keep humans out? That’s impossible. They have to know that.”

Frost suddenly spoke up, “Not if they already have the prototype’s plans. If so, they may intend to use them, get there first. If so, they’ll like destroy the prototype as well.”

Niala looked back to Frost, “We need to know where it’s being built. Getting there before Josie may be the only way to stop them.”

The vid-phone on Frost’s desk rang, answered with a habitual sqwuak. Gnarl appeared, “Sir, we’ve found Josie. She’s boarding a transport for Ganymede.”

“Ganymede?” Simon said.

“We’ll go,” Niala insisted. “I have contacts there.” She turned away. Simon followed. They stepped out and she spoke sideways at Simon, “Snow wants his pound of flesh. He’ll get her to talk.”

13.

The shuttle rides to the hub and Ganymede beyond were desolate. It seemed as if all of Sol had left the two pursuers to their prey, wishing to remain as far from the action as possible. Simon was partially thankful for that. At least there were no beings attempting to kill him. While he’d been adamant about tagging along, he was hardly recovered. Not being able to speak without knee-buckling agony didn’t help. He felt all the more out of place, mute.

He’d barely had time to adjust to the idea that someone had stolen his work before learning he’d been framed. Then, when Niala released him, he’d been told to accept the sordid state of affairs and her contacts before being face-to-face with their terrifying reality. The first attack saw him freeze up, fumble. He’d have been dead were it not for his bot and Lioness companions. All this to say nothing of learning a friend had perpetrated the attack, then cut his throat once confronted about it.

He knew Josie, well enough to call her friend, at least. She was more than a face in a hall at any rate. He was head researcher of the Plasma Propulsion Lab, the only people above him Niala and Frost. Such a position meant semi-regular meetings and interactions with the Feline. To say they were pleasant would miss the obvious, retrospective taint. Now he saw her stoned facade had hidden everything.

Josie was the last being in Sol Simon would’ve expected to betray the ISC, let alone harbor such grudges. Perhaps that was what made her so excellent at the job; she blended perfectly, invisible to– a thought suddenly occurred to him.

He produced his data-pad, scribbled to Niala across the table: When would they have planted Josie? Why force her to move now? What else could have been sabotaged but wasn’t?

Niala read the pad with a glance, “I don’t understand.”

He elaborated: If Josie’s been an anti-humanist mole all this time, they know playing things slow and subtle was best. But they hit hard, drew attention to themselves. Even if I hadn’t found the log, they were very obviously tapping our network. Why be so blunt?

Niala caught on, “If Josie was really in on it from the start we’d have seen more damage.”

He nodded along; That just begs the question–

“Of it’s really Josie.”

Rearden watched. A series of binary words beeped out. Simon eyed the bot skeptically, head cocked sideways in confusion. Evidently its insight was perplexing to its creator.

“What’s he saying?” Niala asked curiously.

Simon wrote a single word on the tablet; MeLons.

Niala squinted with a visual turning of gears. It made sense. How the faux-Josie might’ve fooled Security raised more, important questions. However, for a MeLon to duplicate and remove her, two important things had to happen. One, was the obvious removal of the original Josie, likely accomplished overnight. Then also, a period where the MeLon studied her mannerisms, work schedule, social responses. It would’ve needed to become Josie to play her so well. However tantalizing an explanation, the ISCs extensive security wasn’t easy to fool.

Niala admitted reservations, “I don’t know, Simon. It’s a stretch. Forgetting everything else, how would they have made it past the Hounds alone?”

Rearden gave a few beeps that seemed to smack reality across Simon’s face. He scribbled mindlessly as he stared in thought; Pheromone Milking and IR-tech.

Niala gave the pad a critical look that flitted between Simon and Rearden, then back again, “Then Josie may be alive somewhere.”

Simon’s stomach rose at the thought. Josie wasn’t a murderer. She wasn’t even a spy or a thief. She was just another victim of the ridiculous scheme that seemed more illogical the more they learned of it. How long had she been held captive? What state was she in? More importantly, where was she being held? Ganymede? Somewhere else? Were they chasing a phantom, hoping to outsmart a prey that’d already eluded them?

The more questions Simon thought to ask, the less he wanted to ask them. A morbid illness spread across his face, worsened at the look Niala imparted between them.

“There’s something else we need to consider.” He gave a nod to usher her onward. “If there a MeLon is involved, we can’t take chances. They could be anyone when we reach Ganymede.”

He nodded in agreement, scrawled; Snow needs to be confirmed, then we keep him close.

She affirmed with a look that said more than her words could. Ganymede entailed its own risks, but MeLons were an utterly different story. They were the apex predator in a system that no longer had a place for the predator-prey relationship. Evolved creatures such as Niala, were the new nature of things. Wild animals still existed, but were hardly comparable. MeLons were a potent mixture of both worlds, able to affect change on planetary and system-wide scales with little more effort than an ant following a scent trail. What was more, they tended to do so solely out of spite, their kind too dangerous for society at large. It was an unfortunate reality of their new nature. Those that understood usually used their camouflage to blend, or else lived as exiles outside major colonies.

Something more concerned Niala now though. She ensured it showed before she spoke to Simon’s full attention. She hesitated to speak it; so much had already happened, she wished not to think of it getting worse. “If the MeLon’s cover is now blown, Josie’s a loose end. It won’t need her anymore. It’s only a matter of time before it kills her.”

Bonus Poem: We and the Feeble

Mountains crumble beneath our feet,
we march on the morrow,
what an a-mazing feat.
That we and the feeble,
have managed to beat,
the collective ensemble,
into hasty retreat.

The world of war,
that’s broken with sorrow,
above it we soar,
we and the feeble,
well-known to more,
than those we resemble,
as the masters that from it tore
peace and serenity,
for the brazen and poor.

The seas that run red,
twist and turn, borrow,
the bodies of dead,
from we and the feeble,
whom left them instead,
of stayed to assemble,
as the vigilant fled,
after their sanity,
as away their feet sped,
away from the battle,
with arms shielding head.

We stand in victory,
once more certain that ‘morrow,
will rise as we see,
that we and the feeble,
know nothing but to be free,
from that horrid ensemble,
that we ever let flee,
with hearts gripped by vanity,
them unlike us, to be
beneath death and its terrifying rattle,
That was our plea,
to ensure that the able and feeble alike,
no longer for them, took knee.

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.

The Nexus Project: Part 3

4.

Niala burst through Gnarl’s door as if ready to rip his throat out. Simon and Rearden were near terror, so fierce had the Matriarch’s gait and fury become. Gnarl was startled by the entry. He yelped, nearly fell backward in his chair. Simon’s heart stopped when Niala leaned over the desk at him.

His chest heaved while a hint of tongue panted in shock, “M-matriarch, my god, you nearly gave me an embolism.”

He braced himself to stand. Niala gave a low growl, “I should gore you where you sit.”

Simon swallowed hard to regather his wits. Clearly the forced evolution had only heightened the Lioness’ ferocity. He wasn’t sure whether to intervene or check his pants. Ultimately, he resolved to be a voice of reason, if a mousy one at that.

“N-Niala, please, calm down,” Simon requested. She bared her teeth over a throaty growl.

Gnarl’s canine brows inflected confusion, his tongue now tucked away, “Matriarch, I assure you, whatever you’re angry about I am not a party to.”

“The words of a guilty, flea-ridden–”

Gnarl was on his feet, “What did you–”

Simon angled between them, against his better instincts, “Woah, woah! Let’s step back here.”

The two growled over him, the finer hairs of their coats upturned around their Lycra collars. With a final half-roar, Niala straightened. Gnarl remained on-guard. Simon carefully extended his hands to tap Niala’s shoulders.

Simon stammered airily, “G-good. Let’s start over, okay?” A side of Niala’s muzzle lifted to bear the corner of sharp teeth. “Rationally, please.” Rearden gave a small beep of agreement. The two creatures’ fur relaxed slightly. Simon swiveled toward Gnarl, “Chief, we have questions. You’ve no doubt heard of the intrusion into our network.”

Gnarl’s eyes flitted between over him, “Yes, what of it?”

“Well, Rearden believes– a-and I agree– that someone must have been facilitating it.”

“In English, Simon,” Gnarl requested snidely.

Niala’s eyes were pointed on Gnarl, “Someone inside is responsible for the attack.”

Gnarl’s obvious prejudice faltered for minor panic. There was only one reason they’d come to him, especially with Niala in such a state. The hound wheezed with a half-whimper, sank into his seat.

“You may not believe it,” he began sullenly. “But I had nothing to do with this theft. I’ve spoken with every department head to ensure nothing else has been appropriated. They’re all losing it. Even the old bird’s hopping around in his office, out of his wits. Josie’s barely keeping him sane.”

Niala’s anger lessened each moment, enough that Simon felt comfortable speaking without pretense, “Then you know there’s a leak in our security network.”

Gnarl gave a sigh through his nose, put a paw to the center of his forehead, “We’ve plugged the leak for now, but we’re not certain the extent of the damage or even that we’ll be able to ferret out those responsible. We’re afraid to shut down the affected nodes entirely, so we’ve isolated them for now.”

Rearden beeped something to Simon, whom repeated it, “You think you might be able to use the leak, trace it?”

All of Gnarl’s remaining vigor left him, “We want to try, but whoever’s behind this is good.”

“How good?” Niala finally asked.

He glanced between them, “Good enough to implicate Simon and myself without leaving a single hair of evidence to pick a scent off. Even the leaking nodes aren’t public. They’re private terminals in various, unconnected residential quarters. Each time we trace one, it leads to another, as if the signal’s rebounding between all our internal computers.”

Rearden gave another few beeps, seemed to inquire something. Simon repeated the question in English, “You’re saying someone’s spoofed the origin and is bouncing packets between the dummies?” Gnarl shrugged. Rearden beeped in response, but Simon had anticipated it, “That means that somewhere between the bounces the packets are being intercepted.”

Gnarl was dejected. His investigation was going nowhere, and his own reputation was on the line. It showed in his weary tone, “We’ve called in a few favors with the HAA. They’re sending in tech experts to do forensics on our network, but it’ll only compound the problem.”

“How could the Human-animal alliance compound the problem?” Simon asked curiously.

“By making moves that are too public.”

“What’s Frost want us to do in the meantime?” Niala asked.

Gnarl was suddenly informal. He looked at Niala as an equal, “Frost can’t find his head with both wings right now. He’s damn-near a stroke every time we speak. You know how Avians are– always high-strung– well, except the tropical ones but you get my point.”

Niala swallowed her pride– a difficult task for one so defined by it, “What do you suggest?”

Gnarl glanced between them again, “Call in every favor you have.” He looked pointedly at Niala, “Every favor. See if anyone knows anything.”

Niala squinted to decipher his meaning. The phone began to ring on Gnarl’s desk, “Get it done, Matriarch. Simon, you’re off the hook. Help her. Whatever she needs or it’s your ass.”

“Yes sir,” Simon replied formally. Gnarl shooed the trio with a paw, keyed his desk to take his call. Simon found himself in the hall before a moment had passed. He looked to Niala with curiosity, “What did he mean by favors?”

She glanced along the hall of open offices. It looked much like an old-era police precinct might have. When she met his eyes again, it was to whisper so quietly even Rearden jacked-up the gain on its auditory sensors.

“A Matriarch such as myself has met many types of beast.” She rechecked the area, “Most are not the sort one of my station would cavort with, nor would like to.” Simon’s eyes narrowed. She gave him a clear-cut set of instructions, “You and Rearden will return home and pack enough clothing and money for a week. I’ll meet you at the transport depot when the next shuttle’s due to depart.”

He suddenly felt as weary with dread as Gnarl had been, “Where are we going?”

“Not here. I’ll tell you more once we depart. Be there.”

With that Niala turned on-heel and marched off. She rounded a corner for the elevators and disappeared. Rearden gave a suspicious series of beeps before Simon cleared his dread from his throat, “I don’t know either, but you’re right. Whatever we’ve gotten ourselves into isn’t going to end pretty.”

Rearden beeped affirmation, switched its thrusters from a hover to follow Simon’s slow progress to the elevators.

5.

Simon stood on the departure platform outside the shuttle. That Phobos had been colonized never seemed to cross his mind until he was here, ready to leave it. A dozen people waited with him to board the shuttles whose rounded, rectangular shape appeared almost the same as the Maglev rail-cars of Earth. Some of those old-world transports still functioned, however useless in the wake of hover-craft, inter-continental and inter-planetary shuttles.

Amid the plethora of scientists, security-guards, and laypeople, Simon blended. The faces of Felines, Canines, Corvians, and all other manner of creatures waited patiently with their eyes-front. However rigidly they held themselves to be the “best” of the pack, there was no denying the gleam of excitement in their eyes. Save Simon, all of the transport’s would-be passengers shared happiness in their quest for home, however contained.

He on the other hand, merely kept his back-pack shouldered and his duffle bag in-hand to ensure he looked the part of traveler. All the same his neck stiffened to strain his peripheral vision for signs of Niala. Rearden hovered in place beside him, as silent and stoic as a little bot could muster. Its own reservations had been spoken– or rather beeped incessantly, as was its way– while Simon packed his things. The heated discussion ended with no less agreement than when it had started. They both knew this was out of their depth. Unfortunately, Niala trusted them and needed their help.

A hooded figure appeared at Simon’s right, a cloth-sack slung over its shoulder atop a vivid-colored gown of obvious, African fashion. The collar flared out and down atop the shoulders to the chest. The elegant, thin material as much for honor as keeping cool in hot weather.

Simon glanced sideways. A few eyes surveyed the hooded figure. He spoke from the side of his mouth, “Could you’ve drawn a little more attention?”

Niala hissed back, “This is the only thing I have that isn’t spandex, and I hate the stuff.”

His voice was pointed with ire, “You look like a pack of cheap colored pencils.”

Her mouth hung half-open as she balked, “I’ll have you know these are my royal garments presented upon my ascension to Matriarch status.”

Simon eyes rolled. The doors of the transport opened. “Just get inside.”

Rearden followed them up and toward the transport’s rear. They took a seat across from one another at a small, booth-like table, sequestered from the bulk of the passengers. Rearden’s thrusters powered down and it came to a rest at the table’s inner-edge.

Simon relaxed across from Niala, “Where are we going?”

“Ganymede,” she replied quietly.

“What!?” He blurted. “Have you lost your mind?”

She squinted a slit-pupil at him, “I’m still your boss, you know.”

He heaved a futile sigh, “Niala, that moon’s filled with nothing but scumbags and gangsters.”

She raised a brow, “And they’re exactly the types to have information on the security breach.”

“This is too much, Niala. Ganymede’s dangerous.”

She chided him, “Lost your nerve already?”

“I’m not stupid,” he replied with a forward lean.

“Are you implying I am?” He scowled in response. She reassured him, “When we reach the hub station, you’ll see there’s nothing to fear. Normal people go back and forth to Jupiter each day.”

“Yes, miners. That live in secluded outposts. Not the moon!” Rearden gave a beep of agreement with Simon. “See? Even it knows this is nuts!”

She leaned in closely, “Do you want to learn who’s targeted you, put a black mark on your reputation, and stolen your work?”

Simon’s eyes darted around, “Fine! But for the love of science, get rid of that damned gown!”

She smiled, “Never.”

It was roughly five hours after they boarded the transport that it finally docked at the hub station between Earth and Mars. From a distance, the station looked like a caltrop once found in the ancient game “Jacks.” It’s various arms bulged at the tips where the connecting airlocks secured various transports to the station. The arms themselves were long, hollow, their innards crammed full of various commerce stands, stalls, and outlets like the mega-malls of Earth.

Indeed, as Simon and Niala made for the station’s center, they were overwhelmed with the sensation. Countless scents mingled over the din of innumerable voices that melded with drab or flamboyant fashions. Corvians, Raptors, Iguanidae– every evolved species mingled in their various manners with humans and even a Swine or two. All the while, Canines kept watch at the corners of halls and outlets. Their eyes and ears scanned for the slightest signs of trouble, no doubt ready to rush it and disperse the perpetrators with force if need be.

Simon weaved in and out of the crowd behind Niala as she pushed toward the station’s central hub. There elevators led to other ports or essential-systems levels. They remained on their level, followed the circular interior counter-clockwise to another arm of the station. Along it were all manner of outfitters, from clothing outlets to ship-salesman. The latter was most curious, especially given ships were far too expensive for the lay-person to purchase, and transport companies did business directly. Simply put, there was hardly a place for a ship-salesman in the Sol System, at least thus far.

To Simon’s surprise, Niala steered them to the aforementioned salesman, “Wait here.”

He lingered at the store’s edge, watched her enter. Rearden gave a quiet beep in its hover beside Simon. Niala greeted a salesman whom quickly provided her with a pamphlet. She said something inaudible, and the man’s eyes narrowed. They disappeared into a back room.

Rearden beeped. Simon shook his head, “I don’t know either, but I’m not feeling good about it.”

Niala reappeared moments later, thanked the salesman, and left with a brochure in-hand. She motioned Simon along, “Come on, we’re almost there.”

Simon’s confusion was obvious, “What was that all about?”

“Later.”

They pushed through the crowd for the open dock ahead. A scrunch-faced bulldog stood before a counter beside two security-Labradors whom scrutinized their approach.

“Names,” the bulldog requested.

“Niala Martin and Simon Corben,” Niala said as she set a credit-card on the counter.

“Length of stay and reason for visit?”

“Indeterminate. Official business for the ISC,” she replied formally.

The bulldog gave her a squint to put the guards to shame. He blew a jowly breath, “You understand Ganymede is an anarchic moon with no formal government, right?”

Niala’s eyes narrowed too, “Of course, but the ISC has business there.”

The bulldog looked them over, “Bot’s a child’s ticket. No-one travels free.”

“That is satisfactory,” Niala replied.

The bulldog scanned the card on the desk with an IR reader, “Good luck, Matriarch.”

“Thank you,” Niala said with a tilted bow of her head.

He waved them past, toward the near-empty transport ship. They took the boarding hall in few steps, found a place at the back at another booth. Niala sat with her back to a small surveillance camera, tapped Simon’s knee beneath the table.

She forced something into his hand, “Take this. It would be unwise to travel without it.”

His hand clasped a holstered laser-pistol, “What the hell?”

Rearden beeped, but Niala quieted it with a shake of her head, “One does not travel to Ganymede without the willingness to show force.”

He leaned over the table in a whisper, “I’m a scientist, Niala, not a criminal!”

She spoke even quieter, “If you wish to remain anything, you will take it.”

She straightened in her seat. He leaned so the camera would not see him affix the holster to the belt beneath his jacket, then sank back with a new weight to his hip. Niala gave a small, satisfied nod.

He muttered under his breath, “What the hell have I gotten myself into this time?”

Short Story: Eternal Optimists

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Paris Incident by now. Who hasn’t? It was the sole trigger to the single greatest atrocity in modern history– and I speak as a German whom hasn’t forgotten her history. The Corps may have purged the bombings from the light ‘net and the media archives, but where I’m from, we still live with it. Everyday.

I wake up to a half-leveled horizon outside my window. There’s always frost there when the sun comes up. It doesn’t help that we have no heat in the building. Unless you count barrels of fire as heating. I don’t. After I eat whatever I’ve scrounged up or gathered from the air-drops by neighboring rebels or surviving humanitarian organizations, I head downstairs to the book store I live above.

Funny how some things never quite go out of style. For decades there were people who said that print media was dead. E-readers and web-books were supposed to make the written word obsolete. I can only laugh at the thought– one of few that elicits such emotion nowadays. Those people never realized you couldn’t use e-readers without electricity, or god forbid, the internet.

I miss the light ‘net. All we get around here’s the dark-net, and that’s used for encrypted communications between rebel cells. We simply can’t risk linking the light-net to any of the people here. The few that even have access are lucky. Most of them rigged scavenged-solar cells to old, power-hungry laptops provided by various cells around the continent. Most are grateful, but it makes me feel like we’re a charity case.

Imagine that, all of Berlin, once a powerful seat of progress in a technologically-minded country like Germany, groveling for scraps and hand-outs. There are probably only a few thousand of us left now. The corp-bombings saw to that. When Lemaire fell, and Paris burst into flames, London and Berlin were next in line. There were other places too, but most were small– too small to notice when they were wiped out completely.

But as a haven of technology and free-thought, instilled since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had the greatest concentration of Augs– that is to say Cybernetic or bionically augmented humans. Whoever wasn’t directly an Aug, was an “Aug-sympathizer.” Everyone knew that, including the corps. So when the proverbial sheisse hit the fan, everyone was splattered with it. When I say that, what I mean is; after two weeks of battling on the streets in major cities around the globe, the offended players banded together to bomb the rest of us back to the stone age. Literally.

Berlin got the worst of it. If there’s any solace to be take from our fate, it’s that we managed to wound the corps’ bottom lines enough to push them out of Germany altogether. We’d taken over most of their buildings, destroyed the rest, cut down those whom sided against us in the fighting. Most were slayed by the waves of bodies that filed through the burning streets.

We Germans have a way of being ruthless to a point of barbarism at times– not from a lack of humanity, quite the opposite in fact. We care so deeply and passionately about things that our natural ambitiousness makes us too strong-headed and hardhearted at the worst of times. Maybe if we weren’t so consumed by our ambitions then, we’d have stopped to look around at what was happening, or sensed what was about to.

Maybe if we weren’t so enamored with listening to our hearts we’d have heard the Raptor-cries. Maybe even, if we hadn’t been so loving of our augged brothers and sisters– whether literal or figurative– we’d have been righteously hardhearted enough to save ourselves.

But we weren’t. We were eternally the optimists. The same people whom, even generations later, were socially guilt-ridden for Hitler’s actions and determined to make up for it. Each of us felt the shame of World War II, promised not to repeat the mistakes that led to it. Somehow, we still let the corps take charge, and until they began their Nazi-esque campaign of extermination against the Augs, we supported them.

That was the issue though. It always has been for us. We let the evil into our hearts with open arms, ever-believing in the good of Humanity. Instead, we’re soon shown to have been manipulated, our love used against us and those that would otherwise truly deserve it.

The first bombs that fell over Europe targeted three, initial cities; Paris, where it all began; London, where the revolution looked to spread most violently, and Berlin, where the Augs that wouldn’t or couldn’t fight were likely to find sanctuary.

Raptors screamed over Europe with their hard-angled noses spitting chain-gun fire and their rounded bellies splitting to unleash hell. In minutes, any hope for a life in Berlin– for Aug or otherwise– was exterminated, burned to dust in the fires of evil. Before the sun rose the next morning, tens of thousands were dead or dying. Those not killed or critically wounded– and even then some– were distraught, chaotically confused. They tried to save what few they could. Everywhere you went it was like standing in a crowded metro whose noise and movements made you want to cower and weep. Many did. A few couldn’t take it, led themselves out.

I was eighteen when the bombs fell, just into university. I was just old enough to drink, and just young enough to feel the last of my innocence dissected from my heart. It was like I’d been given bypass surgery without anesthetic. The sharpness of grief in my chest was omnipresent in those days, punctuated by the stabbing sounds of rubble as we combed for survivors and dead alike. Most found were the latter.

I remember the worst of it, not because of the grisly scene, but because it was the first time I felt hatred. Hatred is something humans speak of out of anger most times. It is often despair masked by the ego to keep one’s image intact. This was different. This was real, pure hatred; a feeling that filled my mouth with a wetness as though I were goring the throat of a foe with my teeth. From there, it infected my being with a sharpened determination, a strength I have not lost since. It has kept my muscles taught when they should have faltered in fear, steadied my hands when they would have trembled with terror.

I saw a young girl curled in her bed. We’d dug a path to her grave from beneath the collapsed upper-floor of her apartment building. Everything around us was charred black. We were forced to don respirators from the dust and stink of days old, immolated flesh. Then I saw her; curled in her bed as if sleeping peacefully, but where her skin should be was the marred, blackened flesh of a war-crime. She was like one of those Pompeiian victims, forever frozen in her death-pose.

I am a healer, a medic, a surgeon and I feel no shame in admitting I have a strong stomach. I have seen things that could bring the strongest men and women to tears and pained retching. Most of the time, I’m forced to power through them for the sake of the victims– my patients– and I do so. This was so awful I stumbled away in tears and vomited all the grief that I’d held back since the attacks.

Every morning I wake up she occupies my thoughts. Even as I go down through the bookstore, and out into street I think of how she was stolen from this world. She could have been my daughter had I not been more careful. At that, she could have been me if the bombs had been dropped only a few years further beyond than that.

So I walk along the street, largely clear of its debris, and watch the city around me with her in mind. It still has the look of the blitzkrieg turning in on itself. Full, corporate towers are replaced by mounds of rubble, steel and concrete land-fills. Nature has done its best to reclaim the rest while we keep it enough at bay to carry on in our missions.

To that end, my part is simple; keep people alive. I do it for her. Most that come to my clinic down the street are badly injured, either from work-accidents, refugee status, or as acting rebels for the cause. Germany is not without its remaining corporate outposts, but even they steer clear of Berlin. I guess it’s to pick their battles. They already took our government away, any representation or sympathy therein gone with it. Maybe they let us live just to remind the world that, while there may be a place for Augs to hide, it is still due to their good graces.

All the same, every morning I rise for her. The hatred of her image never falters or fails to arouse my determination. So I leave, patch up those whom may one day lead us from darkness and into light. While Lemaire’s death may have caused everything, an unwitting catalyst to a global revolution, it was us that let it happen– the survivors. Whether from our own convictions, or a greater cause, we can not allow ourselves to fall again. At least for us Germans, we’re eternally optimists, believing in a better world with heads even stronger than our unshakable hearts, and finally working toward it.