Hidden 3 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
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Calle Rainbow Writer

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For the winning entries of RPGC #15 and up, please go to the RPGC: Trophy Case.
This topic is to give honour to the winners of RPGC #1 to RPGC #14.

The winning entries of the RPGC's #1-#14:
Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
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Calle Rainbow Writer

Contest Mod Seen 2 hrs ago

RPGC#1 - Inspired by a song

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: Never Forget, by @Keyguyperson

Former Terran Colony Newy Wizna, Republic of Zarmina

The twin suns of Newy Wizna glared down on the ground, as the planet and the two stars were situated just right in their orbital paths to allow for the stars to seem as though they were right next to each other. In reality, they were multiple astronomical units apart, the smaller red dwarf orbiting the mid-sequence star in the center. It was an arrangement that happened rarely, thanks to the red dwarf's erratic orbit. Normally, the elevated heat would be perfectly comfortable for a human. However, add camouflage, armor, and heavy weaponry, and it suddenly becomes far, far worse. Not that anyone realized it. Bullets in the air have a way of making people forget about everything else.

A system of enemy bunkers was situated right on the outskirts of the colony's border, firing down on the Terran forces from their hilltop position. They had held the border for nearly four days now, the four hundred Zarminian troops stopping the full force of the 12th's blitzkrieg into their territory. It had been twenty-one years since the end of the First Great War, a war which many of the soldiers still remembered. The Newy Wizna colony had been taken from the Terran Empire after their defeat, along with countless other planets and systems.

Now, however, the Terrans were ready for the war. The chaotic days of the Terran Republic formed after the First Great War were over, giving way to the Terran Reich. For years they had waited, building up a military behind closed doors, revealing it just a week ago with their declaration of war against the Republic of Zarmina. So far, the war as a whole was going swimmingly, Zarminian colonies and stations fell one by one to the Terran forces. Of course, war never looks easy to the men on the frontlines, a lesson Specialist Rudolf Veit was learning the hard way.

"How the hell is our entire division losing to a few hundred Zarminians?" Yelled Rudolf as he rolled into cover behind a fallen hovertank. "We must outnumber them forty to one!"

An old man, likely a veteran of the First Great War, pulled a plasma cutter out of his backpack. As he cut into the tank's bent hatch, he gave Rudolf a look that seemed to say "You don't know anything, do you?"

"Kid, if there's one thing you learn in war, it's that expectations are nothing more than something to help you fall asleep before a battle. The moment bullets start flying, your expectations mean nothing." He said over the deafening zaps of railguns firing their slugs, before throwing a magazine of ammo to Rudolf. "Your rails are too black for you to have any ammo left."

"Thanks!" Said Rudolf in a voice that lost its ability to carry emotion due to the sounds of battle he had to shout over. The other soldier had guessed right, he ran out of ammo so long ago that his railgun's barrel had turned to a cool black. Just as he had learned in training, he reloaded the rifle, looking towards the other soldier and bringing his fist to his chest using only his elbow-the Terran sign for a sitrep request.

"One of their anti-tank rifles hit the negative energy unit of this tank!" He yelled, turning his plasma cutter to a higher setting and plunging it back into the thickly armored hatch. "I could use some help with this hatch!"

"On it!" Responded Rudolf, taking out his plasma knife and using it as a makeshift cutter. As they kept going, the could hear banging from the inside, the tank crew desperately trying to get out. Whatever was happening in there, it wasn't good.

With a loud clang, the hatch fell off onto the ground, revealing the inside of the tank. The crew of four practically baking in the heat of an electrical fire. They immediately scrambled out, scraping against the red-hot ring which the two had cut around the hatch. They had burns all over them, but luckily the fire hadn't been going for long enough to kill them outright.

"MEDIC!" Yelled Rudolf, looking behind him to see a hand signal from a trench behind him.

Medic, need cover fire

He returned an affirmative by nodding, then put his head around the tank and opened fire on the bunkers. A hail of fire rained down on him, stopped by the tank. With the fire drawn, the medic was able to get the tank, and immediately knelt down besides the communications officer of the tank. He worked faster than Rudolf ever believed possible, moving on to the next man in just a few minutes.

Rudolf turned right back behind the tank, happy to be alive. Another tank drove by them, luckily noticing them. Their own communications officer popped the tip of their trumpet out of the hatch, sending a message that didn't have to deal with enemy jamming systems to the main force behind them.

Wounded, pinned down. Send support.

Rudolf slid down the side of the tank into a sitting position, sighing in relief. The sound of an APC's engine got louder and louder until it finally passed over the hill after what had felt like an eternity. Safe in the knowledge that he'd survived, he relaxed, his gaze falling to the ground.

The relief immediately faded into horror as he found a pool of blood forming on his uniform, staining the solid green with red. He never even noticed that he had been hit, and only after he saw the wound did he feel pain. He had gone through live-fire courses in training, sure, but getting hit with an enemy slug was completely different. It was a moment in which he realized he wasn't some kind of invincible hero from a movie or book, he was just another soldier, and could be killed like any other.

"Really gets to you, doesn't it?" Said the other soldier, inspecting the wound. "The slug just grazed your leg, it'll hurt like hell and look even worse, but you'll be fine in a couple of days. You got lucky, it didn't hit your bone, a worse case scenario with that kind of injury and you'll lose a limb."

Rudolf just sat there, silently staring at his leg. He was so shocked that he couldn't respond. The other soldier calmly bandaged the wound, knowing that even a field clinic could take care of it thanks to Terran technology. When the APC arrived, he supported Rudolf, carrying him into the APC and laying him down on a stretcher.

"You'll be fine, kid." He said with a knowing smile. "The medics will patch you up and have you back out on the field in no time. Just remember Corporal, Markus Finch will always have your back."

Hoffnung Ghetto, Gerechtigkeit

Hundreds of people stood in line, the light of a red dwarf illuminating the city, deeply entrenched in the small ring of jungle that ran right across the axis of the planet. It was once the proud capital of an empire, but now it flew the Terran flag, called itself by a Terran name, and spoke the Terran language. Apparently, that wasn't enough for them. Their nation had been stolen, and now their people were being shipped off in cargo ships to God-knows-where.

"You! Name!"

Lev Haskel turned around to find a Terran soldier yelling at his sister, Sarah Haskel. Her wings folded back behind her, hiding their beauty from the Terran. It was a common response to danger for Murtadan, but he didn't expect that the Terran would know that.

"S-Sarah Haskel" She said, trembling with fear. Luckily, the Terran seemed less antagonizing and more bored, as if he was doing mundane office work.

"Ecktranai-Lizwitz, get on the ship straight ahead. And don't forget the 'Sir' next time, some people are happy to be doing this."

Lev was surprised at the Terran, ever since they divided the city, he'd believed that Terrans were heartless and selfish. This soldier wasn't either, he was just following orders. What nobody there knew was that he was unwittingly allowing a horror to come to pass.

"Name?" He said again, this time it was directed at Lev. Pushing back his fear, Lev responded as best he could.

"Lev Haskel, Sir!"

"Nova Terra, second ship to the left."

"But my sister..." Said Lev, before being cut off by the Terran.

"Orders are orders, and don't talk back to anyone. Same reason I told your sister to address me as Sir."

Lev opened his mouth to protest, but all that came out was a weak "Yes Sir". He boarded the ship he was told to, and found that it was not at all what he had expected. Everyone knew it would be cramped, but there already wasn't enough room for everyone to sleep. By the time everyone was onboard, there might not even be enough room to move.

There were no cots, forcing everyone to sleep on the freezing metal floor or on each other. There wasn't any food in sight, everyone hoped it would be dispensed at regular intervals, but they would soon find out that their hopes were in vain. The stench was terrible, but without any way to clean themselves, it looked like everyone would just be getting used to it. An airlock stood to the side of the cargo bay, but it didn't feel like an escape route so much as an invitation for suicide. Still, they had all been assured that everything would be okay. They were just going to 'work camps' after all, it would be hard, but they'd survive. At least, that's what they had been told.

Everything is going to be fine. He told himself Everything is going to be fine

Terran High Command, Olympus Mons City, Mars

The room had no windows, and it was lit only by the holographic display on the table. four people sat around it, all in uniform. The four military force heads and Kevra Könntesein, the Führer of the Terran Reich. She had seized power simply by finding a lighting rod for the anger of the Terrans, the only problem was that this lightning for was an entire people. She didn't seem to care, though. Whether she just hated them or wanted to direct the Terran anger somewhere was completely unknown to all but her, and it didn't change the fact that she had ordered the deaths of countless Murtaden.

"I'm disappointed, General." She said, staring at the hogan without any emotion. "It took you four days to breach a tiny defensive line, that's not what I expected from the Grand Army... Perhaps it requires a change in leadership?"

"Our enemy knew how to use their land." Said Balzed Eumeh, a Zhànshì. His people were genetic constructs made by the Terrans to be the perfect soldiers, and while they weren't targeted by the Führer's genocide, they certainly weren't considered true Terrans. Everyone in the room would be well within their right to order him to do anything they wanted, and he'd have to obey thanks to obedience towards Terrans being hard wired into his brain.

"Are you implying they fought better?" Asked the Führer. Raising an eyebrow and reaching for her coilgun pistol. "You will answer truthfully."

Literally being unable to resist, General Eumeh responded with his head hung low. He expected nothing less than execution, a common punishment for Zhànshì who refused to follow orders.

"Yes, they laughed in our faces when we captured them, which we only accomplished after they had run dry on ammunition."

"I'm disappointed, Eumeh. Our forces are supposed to be the best the galaxy has ever seen. Such failures are unbecoming of a Terran division, see to it that such failures do not occur often... or else you will be useless to us."

General Eumeh shivered in fear, he knew what happened to people whom Kevra considered useless. He saluted her, hoping to appear more professional.

"Understood! It will not happen again!"

"Don't be a fool." Said Kevra, beginning to refocus the holographic map on the table. "Of course it will happen again, it's your job to make sure it happens as little as possible. Enough of this. Admiral!"

"Yes, Führer?" Said Hans Norbert, the High Admiral of the Terran Star Forces.

"How is the invasion of the Third Sagittarian Republic proceeding?" She asked, finishing focusing the map on 62 Sagittarii, the capital of the Republic. "I trust your fleets are performing excellently."

"They have surrendered, Führer. The moment our fleet entered the skies of their homeworld, their ships struck their colors and we received an unconditional surrender. A cowardly move, not that I'm complaining."

"A hundred stars in a single month?" Said Kevra, impressed at the accomplishment. "We now control the majority of the inhabited systems in the Orion Spur. The Republic of Zarmina will have fallen soon as well. Once we have taken their capital, we will prepare for an offensive against the Perseus Union."

Everyone else in the room fell silent at the statement, even their breathing ceasing. Hans spoke up, hardly believing what Kevra had just said.

"But Führer! They control the entire Perseus Arm! Besides, we're allied with them! How could you-"

"Admiral!" Yelled Kevra, silencing him before she continued. "The Perseus Union's ideology and ours are opposites, there can be no coexistence. They may control an entire galactic Arm, but that galactic arm is mostly outside of the galactic habitable zone. All the systems beyond the Laeraka Nebula are full of either gas giants or hellish planets that can barely support their own populace. We can take them easily."

The Admiral still didn't agree with the plan, but he knew better than to question the Führer twice.

"Understood, Führer. My fleet will begin moving to the border."

"If there's not anything else to cover, then this conference is over. Dismissed." Said Kevra, turning the lights back on by snapping her fingers. The only other military leader in the room was the other High Admiral, commander of the Terran Navy. The Navy was considered an afterthought, and it was only ever talked about if a Terran world was under attack. While transporting naval vessels to other planets wasn't worth the cost, keeping them operational certainly was. Their artillery and anti-air capabilities had proved indispensable during the First Great War.

"Heil Könntesein! Heil Terra!" Came the unanimous response.

Newy Wizna, Conquered Territory

The humming of hovertank drives filled the ears of the entire town as the Terran forces drove through the central street. Nobody tried to resist, they knew that they had been beat. Soldiers marched up the street with the armored convoy, collecting Murtadan along the way. Those not rounding up prisoners rode either in APCs or on top of the tanks themselves, those on the tanks making it clear that they wouldn't hesitate to open fire.

"Hey." Said one of the soldiers riding on a tank, Rudolf Veit. "Did you hear about the Perseus Union?"

"No, what about them?" Said another soldier, his uniform showing that he was nothing more than a Private.

"I managed to hear some superior officers talking about it, we just got a message from High Command telling us that the Perseus Union was refusing to hand over the Murts in their own lands. I'll bet we'll get the order to move out today."

"Shame, that." Said the other soldier, staring at Rudolf's leg. He couldn't help but realize the contrast between the peachy color of his skin and the soulless grey of the prosthetic's metal. "I met a few Perseans on Earth, during the games. They seemed nice."

"Well, I guess you can't judge a species by a few people, now can you?" Said Rudolf, in blissful ignorance of the irony of his statement. As far as he was concerned, the Murtadan were just being sent to camps to protect them and the galaxy from their greedy and scheming elders. Little did he know that there were no such elders.

"Say, do you ever think of what you'll do when the war's all over?" Asked the soldier, deciding to avoid bringing up Rudolf's leg. "I mean, do you have a family back home?"

"Yeah, wife and two boys. She wanted to join up, but when the draft went out for all the men that idea was shut down pretty quickly. I'm planning on moving to Kepler 22b when it's all over, my wife and I really like the ocean, after all. No better place to go than a water world."

"Sounds nice, I'm just hoping to get through this." He responded, looking down at Rudolf's leg again. "A limb can be replaced, but... I'm just afraid, you know? I was never good with handling pain, if I were to take a shot in the middle of a firefight..."

"I lost my leg providing cover fire for a medic." Said Rudolf, smiling in an understanding way. "I was standing entirely on one leg, and there was a big chunk taken out of the other one, but I didn't feel a thing when it happened. I couldn't even think about myself, all I could think of was that medic. I think that's why it didn't hurt, I didn't care. My father always said that that's what makes humanity so good at fighting, we have such a drive to help others that we'll defy even death to do so."

The other soldier laughed, the sound drowned out by the tank's engine flaring up as it rounded a corner.

"I wish I could be as idealistic as you!" He said, the laugh fading away. "That'd be nice, just ignoring pain because you know you're helping someone."

"I'm telling you, you should try it." Responded Rudolf, still in a cheerful mood. "Couldn't hurt to try, not more than it would if you didn't, at least."

As the convoy made its way through the streets, the voice of General Gerald Wini, commander of the 12th, came through the personal radios of every soldier. His voice wasn't what you would expect from a Terran General, he spoke with what was more or less a softer version of the usual heavy and intimidating Terran accent. He was the youngest general in the Terran army, at a mere twenty-seven years old. Such an age was formerly the realm of fiction, but when a man holds a city with a hundred men, people notice. In fact, rumor had it that Führer Könntesein herself had promoted him.

"Attention soldiers of the 12th Terran Army!" He said, the convoy continuing forward as everyone listened. "The Führer has declared war on the Perseus Union! Effective immediately, we are to begin an assault on enemy positions coreward of the Laeraka Nebula! This assault will utilize the same blitzkrieg tactics we have been utilizing both here in the Republic of Zarmina and the Third Sagittarian Republic. The enemy homeworld of Rodina is our goal, we head for the Zarminian capital today. From there, we will leave on the 19th Terran Transport fleet next month, after the 214th have cleared the way for us. That is all, General Wini out!"

"Thought so." Said Rudolf, putting his hands behind his head and laying on his backpack. "At least we've got a month to rest here, that'll be nice."

"If the Zarminians don't revolt, that is." Said the other soldier, looking at the Zarminians lining the streets. There wasn't any biological difference between the Terrans and the Zarminians, but centuries of separation caused them to grow apart. Even then, humanity wasn't united.

"Let's just hope they don't. I'd rather not have to fight civilians."

"You're not the only one, just the thought makes me sick."

Nova Terra, Terran Reich Core World

"Men to the right, women to the left! Children under twelve with their mothers!"

A Terran in military uniform barked the orders into a megaphone, and everyone immediately obeyed, organizing just as he had said. Two lines formed, made up of disheveled and malnourished Murtadan, happy to be alive. The sight of the camp, however, took all their hope away. There weren't barracks like so many had said: there were tents, with the mud as their floor. In fact, nothing there was like what they had been told. All hope turned to dust as they realized that nothing they had heard was true, that they weren't there to work, that they weren't there to keep them from becoming a threat to the Reich. No, they were there for one purpose.

To die.

A giant building was right next to the two lines of Murtadan who had just stepped off of the cargo ships that brought them there. There were countless bodies, those who died during transit. There hadn't been any food, and at this point, they were just glad that they had been given the luxury of breathing. Nobody knew what the building was for until the bodies were handed over, and immediately brought inside. A crematorium. The Terrans had done their research, Murtadan traditions called for burial. Right then, everyone knew that they weren't people anymore. Some ran, but the Terrans were quick on the draw. Anyone that tried was killed instantly, then carried off to the crematorium as if they had never lived.

"Name?" Said a Terran to Lev Haskel, his voice completely emotionless. Lev hadn't even realized he was at the front of the line, too horrified at how little the Terrans seemed to care about their fate.

"L-Lev Haskel, Sir!"


"172, Sir!"

"Terran years, boy."

"18, Sir!"


"Student, Sir!"

The Terran frowned, marking an X on his tablet's holographic screen.

"Any skills?"

"Electronics repair, Sir!"

A check appeared on the screen, the Terran's frown changing to an emotionless slate.


"None, Sir."

Another check.


"None, Sir."

Again, a check.

"Sexual orientation?"

"Heterosexual, Sir."

A fourth check, Lev didn't know what they meant, but things seemed to be good.

"Are you a Communist?"

"S-Sir?" Said Lev, not knowing quite what he was being asked, He knew the term had something to do with the Perseus Union, but he had never heard what it really meant. He was just an IT guy at a small little company back home, he never really cared.

"I said, are you a Communist?"

"I don't suppose so, Sir."

A check came up on the screen and Lev breathed a sigh of relief, glad that "No" was the right answer.

"Restate your name."

"Lev Haskel, Sir."



"A-7713. That's your name. Go straight."

Lev followed his orders, barely believing what was happening. Judging people, sentient beings, solely based on their skills? Who they loved? What they called themselves? This was exactly the kind of thing Murtadan were taught not to do. During the ancient war, it was said that the Terrans claimed to be superior because of their history, because they had been through horrors just like this. They tried to forget it, not wanting to remember the shame. It seems that they never learned one of the most important truths in the universe: A mistake that you forget is a mistake you will make again.

As he entered the building, he saw a sight nobody could have expected. The floor was covered with hair and feathers. They were taking away the two things that were used most often to identify Murtadan. It really was a case of removing any semblance of individuality, making everyone look the same, think the same, and in the end, die the same. Screams from a nearby building made it clear what those Xs on the screen meant. Even though he was walking into hell, Lev felt lucky. Lucky that he wasn't walking into literal hell.

Terrans in the room undressed them, beating anyone who resisted. Forcing them down onto benches, they started to cut their hair and pluck their feathers. As his feathers went one by one, Lev could almost feel himself becoming something else. Others cried, both from the pain and from the thought of losing the last shreds of their individuality. The Terrans, however, didn't seem to feel at all. They just focused on their jobs, like they were working at a desk at some company, doing boring and menial work that didn't mean a thing. But instead of accounting, they were working to take away the very identity of thousands of people, one feather at a time.

Lev didn't cry, though. He was like the Terrans, he just didn't feel. It didn't seem real, but he knew it was. It was like being in denial, but even worse. His stomach tightened up as he realized that he wasn't feeling anything while he saw his brothers and sisters stripped of anything that was theirs, even of the possessions they were born with. When the nightmare was over, they simply woke into a second one, being shooed out of the room like cattle, into the next room. Lev felt like he was just floating in a stream now, simply staring at the world glassy-eyed while his body moved on its own according to whatever everyone else was doing.

They were given stark white prisoner uniforms, tracking devices attached to each and every one. Nobody could go anywhere without it being on the schedule, nobody could try to escape, nobody could even go to talk with those in another tent without the risk of being beaten. As they exited the building to see the walking corpses outside, the remnants of what were once people, they truly realized something for the first time.

They were going to die here.

Newy Warszawa, Zarmina, Capital of the Republic of Zarmina

An explosion rocked the building as the glass picture window crashed, shrapnel from a tank flying through it. The zaps of firing railguns once again filled the air of Zarmina's largest city and capital. In the days before, everyone knew there was something brewing, whispers of freedom from the underground, but none of the Terrans could have expected that the revolt would be so effective. There was even an improvised Zarminian tank roaming the streets, somehow besting the supposedly perfect Panther Mk2s of the Terran Army.

A molotov cocktail flew through the shattered window, killing a squad of rescue personnel coming to help any survivors of the shrapnel. The weapon was ancient, but age doesn't matter if it can still kill. Rudolf was lying on the floor, trying to avoid the gunfire. A medic from the rescue team fell right beside him, her eyes no longer blinking and her heart no longer pumping. Her arm lay over his back, still warm. Rudolf has been through training, and had already fought, but he wasn't ready for this kind of warfare. There were no longer combatants and non-combatants, anyone who spoke a different language was the enemy.

A Zarminian holding a civilian-model railgun rifle stepped through the window, three molotovs haphazardly strapped to his belt waiting to be thrown. Rudolf froze, thinking that if he played dead they wouldn't fire. He was wrong. A shot rang out, hitting the head of the medic lying next to him. He closed his eyes immediately, warm blood splattering onto his arm. He refused to look at the medic's head, he'd heard the stories of what happens to people shot at point-blank with a railgun.

Knowing that he was no longer safe, he abruptly turned his head around, facing away from the dead medic. Opening his eyes, he found that the Zarminian was making sure that the others were dead, looking away from him as he fired on a volunteer rescue technician. His own railgun lay right next to his hand, well within his reach. Slowly and silently extending his arm, he grasped the railgun's handle, pulling it closer to himself. Setting it up to use his shoulder as a brace, he aimed it at the Zarminian's back. The Zarminian turned around to make sure the rest were dead, and saw Rudolf lying there with a gun aimed right at his chest.

The Zarminian tried to fire, but Rudolf's finger was already on the trigger. A single tungsten slug shot through the Zarminian's chest, a small splatter of blood exiting with the slug through his back. Both hit the wall, leaving behind a slug lodged in the wall surrounded by red, a common sight in urban combat areas. Finally breathing again, he stood up, returning the railgun to its standard combat carry position and ran down the hallway to the comms room.

It had already been a month, and there was no sign of the 19th Transport Fleet. Still, there might be a chance that there were close enough to perform an emergency jump and land their relief force early. As he ran through the hallway, he could hear more explosions and the screams that resulted. Through the rare windows, he could see hovertanks spiraling out of control. They plowed into buildings that had stood for centuries, demolishing them in seconds, their sharply-sloped carbyne armor cutting through the brick buildings like a knife through butter.

I have to get a message out! He thought, his steps getting longer and faster as he ran down the hallway, the sounds of battle seemingly tormenting him as he dashed for the communications room. I must bring reinforcements!

After what he could have sworn was an eternity, he reached the communications room, finding the interstellar communicator still intact. He dialed in all of the 19th Fleet's possible locations, setting the wormhole exits that would let the message travel hundreds of light years in an instant. The flick of a switch under a broken glass case activated the quantum hotline, which would ensure that the message would reach High Command. He wanted to be sure that someone knew what was going on, be they in the system or on the other side of the Orion Spur.

"This is Specialist Rudolf Veit of the 12th Terran Army!" He said, yelling into the microphone. "We are stationed on the planet Zarmina in the republic of the same name, a major uprising has occurred! Zarminian insurgents armed with small arms and IEDs are assaulting our forces all over the city! Enemy organization is unknown, enemy backing is unknown, enemy has been confirmed to be using improvised combat vehicles! We need immediate backup! I repeat, immediate backup!"

He heard footsteps behind him, and spun around to see another insurgent reaching for a molotov in order to destroy the equipment. Their eyes met straight on, and they could each see the fear on the other's eyes. For a brief moment, Rudolf wondered how different they were, if this Zarminian had a wife and two kids just like he did. What if he was fighting to protect them, even more literally than Rudolf himself? Part of him wanted to throw down his gun, and ask why they were doing it.

However, that was nothing more than the wild imaginings of his emotional side. His other side, the side that remembered the months of training and combat, begged to differ. It told him to raise his gun and shoot for the heart, which he did immediately. The Zarminian fell over, the same eyes that made Rudolf question his duty turning from shining windows to the soul to lifeless, unblinking features on the face of a rapidly cooling corpse. The Zarminian rebel wheezed out one last sentence before he died, in a language that Rudolf didn't know.

"Moja miłość... Przepraszam."

Wiping his mind of what had just happened, he sealed the room and returned to the microphone, yelling desperately into it in the hopes of getting a response.

"Specialist Rudolf Veit to 19th Terran Transport Fleet, do you read? I repeat, 19th Terran Transport Fleet, do you read? This is Specialist Rudolf Veit of the 12th Terran Army to the 12th Terran Transport Fleet, we are under attack and require assistance! Do you read, 19th?"

His messages became more and more disjointed as his fear grew, knowing that if nobody answered, he could die there. By the time a response finally came, his messages has descended into almost complete inanity.

"This is the 19th Terran Transport Fleet to 12th Terran Army, repeat situation!"

"Thank God you heard!" Exclaimed Rudolf, regaining his composure in that single instant. "I'm Specialist Rudolf Veit of the 12th Terran Army. We are under attack from Zarminian rebels, they're better equipped than we expected and we need support! I'm requesting that you land the relief forces early!"

"Specialist Veit, the situation has changed." Said the voice on the other end, which took on a grave tone. "The 219th was wiped out, the Perseus Union is pushing for Zarmina. We're here to evacuate you now."

"Then do it!" Yelled Rudolf, the sound of footsteps coming closer and closer.

"Specialist, calm down! We're on our way!"

Now there was banging on the doors, with one of them lighting up as someone with a plasma cutter began to cut through it.

"U-Understood! 12th Terran Army out!"

The door fell into the room just as Rudolf spun around, railgun in hand, to find five Zarminian rebels. Without even thinking, he fires a spray of bullets, not aiming for any particular body part or person. They all fell, and Rudolf didn't even realize what he had just done. All he wanted to do now was survive, he didn't care how many people he killed, only that he survived. Luckily for him, the other groups didn't have plasma cutters, and could do nothing but bang on the doors unless they were willing to use a molotov in the hallway. So he just sat there. His railgun raised, completely alert for any sign of hostiles. It was like that for a horrifying five hours. Many times he wanted to just fall asleep, but his instincts wouldn't let him. They would only let him fall asleep when the danger was gone.

After those five hours of being reduced to nothing more than his instincts, the doors opened. At first, he thought he would die, but then he saw that the soldiers outside we're Terran. The 19th had gotten through. He and the rest of the 12th were safe now.

"Specialist Veit?" Asked one of the soldiers, lowering his rail gun as Rudolf did the same.

"Yes sir, 12th Terran Army."

"Well, Specialist, you saved everyone today." Said the soldier, smiling. "If not for that message, we would have never known to make an emergency jump. I'll bet Eumeh will like to hear this."

I did save them, didn't I? Thought Rudolf, relaxing for the first time in five hours.

"Just get us off of this this planet." He said, walking towards the door. "I think the whole Army has had enough."

Terran High Command, Olympus Mons City, Mars

"HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?!" Yelled Kevra, slamming her fist down on the conference table as the others backed away in fear.

It had been only a few months since the loss of the 219th fleet during the invasion of the Perseus Union. Even so, the Terrans had already lost nearly everything they had conquered. Sagittarius was gone, Zarmina was gone, all they had left was original Terran space. The enemy forces kept creeping into even that too, with many of the outer systems being lost.

"Führer, we are doing all that we c-" Said the High Admiral, hoping to calm Kevra.

"BE QUIET, ADMIRAL!" She yelled in response, making it clear that she had no interest in any kind of excuse. "This was supposed to be our return to power... and now we're losing the war! I won't let this happen. All of you, you are not doing your best! Humanity's best is not failing against this!"

"Führer, we can't win this war! Just end it and prepare for the next!" Said General Eumeh, desperately trying to convince the Führer to end the war. However, she seemed to have other ideas.

"You will follow my orders, General! Move your troops to defensive positions inside our space!" She yelled, silencing any further protests. She looked at the holographic map, staring at proof of her failure. She gambled with lives, and she lost. All the calculations she had made, all the crimes she committed, all the people she had killed or sent to die, it was all in vain. After this, humanity would just be looked upon worse than ever before.

No! She thought, clenching her fists as she looked at the map with a deranged stare. I can still do it! I can still restore the Empire!

Nova Terra, Terran Reich Core World

"You! A-7713! Over here!"

It was one of the sweltering days on Nova Terra, the three suns of the Centauri system scorching the planet's surface. Only the biodome kept the environment livable, but it clearly wasn't meant to keep it comfortable. The Murtadan were especially unaccustomed to it, with many of them coming from either their planet's frozen wastes or the thin strip of temperate land. Lev himself was from the frozen wastes, the heat taking quite a toll on his malnourished and already broken body.

The voice of the Terran forced him to comply, it was almost an instinct now, obeying them. His mind might scream for him to run, but his legs followed the orders of the Terrans. He walked over to the Terran, his all-bone legs just barely supporting his thin body. It had been weeks, months- he didn't know how long. All that he knew was that it had been at least 2 years since the last molting he had before the nightmare began. His wings were looking worse than ever, their featherless hide filled with scars from beatings the Terrans gave him. He didn't understand why they were doing this, all he knew was that they were, and that was enough for his instincts.

"Y-yes, Sir?" He said weakly, lowering his gaze to the Terran's feet.

"A-7713, follow me."

"Y-yes, Sir."

The Terran walked slowly, letting Lev stay close to him. It wasn't something he had expected, Terrans usually forced the Murtadan to run with them, even though they knew they couldn't. Those that gave in were beaten, as were those who stopped to watch. This Terran, however, seemed to care that Lev couldn't possibly keep up with him at a normal pace.

Eventually, they reached a secluded alley somewhere in between the mess and the barracks, the Terran ones, of course. Once again, it came as a surprise to Lev. He had expected the crematorium. He hadn't disobeyed any orders, done anything that would make the Terrans angry. However, it was well known that they would burn people alive no matter who they were, just to keep everyone else in line. For whatever reason, though, this man had taken him into the middle of nowhere.

"Here, take this." Said the Terran, handing Lev a slice of bread. It looked like a feast to him, his rations usually got stolen by the others, so he almost never got the full ration. It was just enough to survive anyways, and he knew he was slowly dying. After staring at the bread for a moment, he stuffed it into his mouth, eating it in seconds. The scene would have been funny had he not looked like a skeleton. If he had been thinking, he would have assumed that the bread was poisoned in some way. However, starving to death has a way of letting your instincts take over.

It wasn't filling at all, but it was enough to let him live for days. He looked up at the Terran, who was smiling. Not the sick, almost psychotic smile that the Terrans showed when they were beating Murtadan. It was a soft, compassionate smile, like something Lev would expect from his mother. Filled with questions, he opened his mouth. The Terran held up a hand, with the smile still on his face.

"I know what you want to know." Said the Terran, guessing Lev's question. "It's because you don't deserve this. All of this, it's supposed to be in our past, the past that too many of us forgot. I didn't forget."

"But... they'll kill you..." Said Lev, still unable to understand why the Terran would help him. "You could save yourself..."

"I can help, so I do help." Came the Terran's response, as he turned to leave. "Meet me here every day, and I'll get you some food."

Lev's first instinct was to be wary. The Terran could easily be tricking him just to have some fun, but then their eyes met. Lev could somehow tell that he was sincere, that this was the first friend he met since he left his hometown. It was such an odd situation, the only friend he had in the world was an alien who wore the uniform of his oppressors.

"I will, sir!" Said Lev, overjoyed at the thought of someone who wouldn't beat him or steal from him.

"Please, my name is Alexander. Alexander Boni."

"Thank you! Thank you so much!"

Lev returned to his tent, hoping to tell his father the good news. Of course, he couldn't do so yet, he would have to wait until everyone was gone. If they heard, they would kill him for it.

Nova Terra, Midnight a Month Later

Lev awoke with a jolt to a flash of light and a scream. He wanted to know what had happened, but he didn't dare go out at night. If the guards saw him, that would be his death. Then he heard a thump, like a sack of potatoes falling to the ground. More flashes, screams, and thumps followed, and Lev's curiosity got the better of him. He got up and opened the tent, looking outside to see what was going on. He was met with the sight of a Terran corpse, a hole placed perfectly right between its eyes.

Looking up, he found that the guard tower above was empty. The guard had fallen, whatever was used to kill him was strong enough to knock him off. There were only two species that could handle a gun that powerful: the Zhànshì, and the Perseans. Since the Zhànshì were all over the camp anyways, it was quite clear who it was.

Is this the end? Thought Lev, still staring into the sky. Is this horrid nightmare finally over?

He could have sworn that he saw a few stars eclipsed by something, but he didn't have much time to think about it. The zapping of a railgun filled his ears, the screams of another Terran following. He saw Alexander running towards him, railgun in hand.

"Lev! Thank God!" He yelled, abruptly coming to a stop by planting his feet into the ground. "It's the Perseans! They're here! You're saved, Lev! You're all saved!"

His eyes were filled with tears, and the happiest smile Lev had ever seen was on his face. Lev, too, smiled, starting to cry tears of joy with him. A bomb struck the Terran barracks, dropped from orbit. They went up in flames, with all the Terran soldiers desperately trying to fight the fire. Unfortunately, they were perfect targets for the Perseans. Flashes lit up in the sky, paratroopers opening fire with hastily assembled railguns.

Lev embraced Alexander, his head coming up to only his chin on the towering man.

"Thank you" Was all that he said.

"You're welcome, son." Said Alexander, returning the action. "You're welcome."

Earth, Terran Reich Capital

"Attention all 12th Terran Army units! We have recieved our orders!"

The General's voice could barely be heard over the gunfire and explosions. The allies had made it all the way to Earth. They had taken all the lands around the capital itself, and now, they were pushing into it. The Perseans from the east, and the rest of the allies from the west. The government building, the Reich itself, was in flames. All the soldiers expected to be told to defend the city, but it would be in vain. It was the end, the war had been lost.

"The Führer herself has ordered us to defend the city. We are to defeat the enemy at any cost and save the capital. Those are her orders. Now it's time for my orders."

Rudolf stopped firing for a moment and ducked behind cover, wondering what the General meant. Was there even something else to do? If they surrendered, the Perseans would just kill them right there. There just wasn't a way out of it, they were dead no matter what.

"We are going to open up a corridor to the river! All soldiers are to protect evacuating civilians and members of the 9th Army! We do not leave until every last one is across!"

With that single order, Rudolf was no longer afraid of pain or bullets. He was no longer afraid of how he would be remembered or what would happen to his family. He knew that he'd be tried as a war criminal for serving Terra, he knew that his family could be dead right now, but he didn't care. Because right then, he knew his sole purpose was to save lives. The people of the city, the soldiers of the 9th, their lives were all in his hands and the hands of every man and woman in the 12th Terran Army.

He leapt out of cover, opening fire with his railgun. The slugs struck the enemy soldiers, killing them one by one as he ran towards the rest of the Army. A railgun slug hit his cybernetic leg, but he didn't care. As long as it still worked, he was fine. Breaking out of the alleys and into the streets, he saw the rest of the 12th. He ran to join the formation, breaking through the Persean lines in a wedge, inching closer and closer to the river.

The last Persean fell, and the river Spree came into full view. On the other side lay the end of the war, the end of this life of killing and battle. The faces of the other soldiers made it clear that they were thinking the same thing, imagining the looks on their families' faces when they returned. They might not, they might even be killed after surrendering, but they didn't care. At that moment, the world was about to become perfect for them.

Civilians rushed out of their homes, flooding into the streets and jumping into boats docked along the riverside. A constant stream of people-civilians and soldiers alike-crossed it, making their way to the other side. Rudolf was almost at the front, almost at the boat that would take him to the other side, to the side where the Perseans wouldn't be able to torture him, kill him, or worse. His salvation was so close

A young girl was right next to him, though he didn't get a good look at her. He was too filled with excitement about crossing the river, leaving this cursed war behind. But then he heard it. The most important sound he would ever hear: the zap of a railgun. He spun around, seeing the tungsten slug glisten in the sunlight. Time almost stopped for him right then, and it felt as though he had an infinite amount of time to think about his decision. However, he didn't think for a second. Seeing that it was just to his left, he jumped into action, flinging himself as fast as he could into the air to his left, hoping to take the bullet for whomever it was meant for.

It hit him square in the chest, the impact slowing it to non-lethal levels as it passed through his body, hitting another soldier's armor. He fell onto the ground, right in front of the young girl. As his vision faded, he caught a single, distorted glimpse of her face. With his last breath, he pleaded to her, begging her to tell his family what happened.

"I am Rudolf Veit... tell my family... that I died... as a hero..."

His heartbeat faded away, his breathing stopped, and his eyes fell shut. As his life faded away, he had one last thought, his true last words.

I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Earth, Terran Reich Capital

Elsewhere in the capital, the Führer herself was sitting in a simple, wooden chair. Her elbows rested on a table which hadn't been polished in decades, while the almost silent sounds of battle could be heard miles away. It was the old city bunker, a relic that some said had existed for centuries. Though the sounds were muffled, they were there all the same, constantly reminding Kevra of her failure, of the calculated sacrifice that had been in vain.

"Why... why did I do this?" She asked herself aloud, tears streaming down her cheeks as for the first time, she realized what had happened. "All of them, they all died without reason! So many soldiers died just to see their home be invaded again, and so many died by our hands for no purpose!"

She reached into a small drawer under the table, pulling out an old coilgun pistol with a single slug. As her hands shook, she loaded the gun and flipped off the safety. She didn't bother to write a note, didn't even bother to let anyone know why she did what she did. Now, she knew that there was no excusing it. After all the years of her life, this was the first time that she had grasped something. It was an idea taken for granted by nearly everyone else in the universe, an idea so integral in so many cultures that challenging it would get you labeled as an absolute monster.

For some, there was no way not to challenge it. For some, the idea never made sense. Kevra was one of those people, yet somehow, she had managed to figure it out. After decade upon decade of confusion and ignorance, she finally understood why the idea was held so closely to the hearts of every known species in the galaxy. It was the reason the neighbors of Murtadan cried when they saw their former friends being taken away, it was the reason soldiers could bring themselves to do things that Kevra formerly couldn't see as anything but complete insanity.

It was the reason General Eumeh frowned at enemy casualties, it was the reason Admiral Norbert cringed every time he got a report of a successful planetary bombardment. It was why the 12th Army had disobeyed her orders, and it was why so, so many of her own soldiers had joined the war in the first place.

"A life is more than a number." She said to herself, bringing the coilgun up to her head. "No note, no video. Everyone will remember me as a monster, but at least they will remember me, remember all of this. Remember it, so that it will never happen again."

The last sound she heard was the quiet zap of the coilgun, and it was all over.

And this time, nobody ever forgot.

Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
Avatar of Calle

Calle Rainbow Writer

Contest Mod Seen 2 hrs ago

RPGC#2 - Power

The winner of this contest was disqualified, so to honour goes to the two runner-ups.

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: King, by @RomanAria

Silvery metal encircles her head
Crimson stone rivals the flame in her eyes
Her crimson-stained blades have left thirteen men dead
And I alone can know that she lies.

The circlet gleams with a light from within
As she faces her court and raises her eyes
I alone see her a temptress of sin;
I see an enemy that I should despise.

Thirteen cold men are dead by her hands;
Men who threatened her “divine” right to rule.
Men who, foolish, tried to make demands;
Her blades were cunning and her mind was cruel.

The stones on her crown shine red in the light;
Stones that were bought by a blood-fueled hate
Tonight at last will be the final night;
Tonight by my blade she will meet her fate.

The floor shines ivory beneath my heels
But my eyes are focused on her, The One
I must ignore whatever I feel
At least, until the deed is done.

Ah! She knows why I have come!
She sees, she knows; my hand goes to my blade.
Thinly she smiles; my heart pounds as a drum
She raises a hand; she’ll let herself be played?

Regal, ethereal, she descends from her throne;
Holds out her hand and is presented her knife.
The guards hold the court and let the duel alone;
The terrible duel to the end of a life.

The thin crimson smile, like a blood-covered blade
A mocking half-curtsy as she crosses the room
The weapons are strong, for her dainty hands made;
But lover, I’m stronger, and you will meet your doom.

Her sword darts to mine, a lightning-white arc
Her heart is on fire; her mind is set.
I parry and slash, with spark after spark,
And soon she grows tired… The once chance I’ll get.

My blade flashes up with a mind of its own.
My lover’s heart pierces, and with flash of my sorrow,
She falls to the ground, now dainty, now frail, now alone,
And I am the King of her Queendom with the dawn of the morrow.

And: Enhanced, by @Ellri

OOC: The use of "cycles" in the story is meant to equal a month. For unspecific reasons, the setting world has 11 months per year.
Though the City of Valmerr was far from bankrupt, it did not have access to unlimited money either. As such, the further you got from the city core and the main thoroughfares, the greater the distance between the streetlights. In the old workman quarter near the great river Nith, the lights faded with sunset as the few remaining factories shut down for the night and the workers went home. On this evening, with just a tiny sliver of the moon visible, the cramped streets were dim indeed. The few who were out and about all walked resolutely towards their goal, paying no heed to anyone else other than to avoid crashing into them.

In some ways, the fading light was peaceful. In others, it was menacing. Some might even have said malevolent. It was upon just one such street, not far from the river itself, that the woman known as Elis ní Arailt walked. Like most others she was headed home after a long day's work. She wasn't anything special. Average height, average build, A worker's green jumpsuit that clearly had seen better days, her fairly short, brown hair was just long enough to be tied into a ponytail at the back of her head. In other words, the average young factory worker.

What thoughts were going through her head is impossible to say. Perhaps she thought of her work, or perhaps she thought of what to make for dinner. Or it might have been the coworker she had a special eye out for. Her expression revealed nothing about it. After turning another corner, she passed the small square where the old fountain stood, now topped by the holographic projector used by the government newscasters. The gleaming metal framework holding the projector up contrasted heavily with the ancient stone of the fountain. In fact, it contrasted with everything in the square.

She was thankful the projector was inactive at this time, as all it brought these days was bad news. Elis picked up her pace, wanting to be far away just in case the projector fired up again. By the time the projector was both out of sight and out of hearing, she could see no other people around her at all. On one hand, it was a relief. No others meant nobody to trouble her. On the other hand, it meant nobody to see if something did happen.

With that thought in mind, she touched her wrist where the government tracker implant lay, then kept walking home. The only warning she had was a sudden, but very short, burst of air. She did not know what to make of it, let alone have time to think on it, before someone grabbed her from behind.

She started to scream, but before she could, a hand covered in a glove of matte black leather pressed a small piece of foul-smelling cloth against her mouth and nose. Then she knew no more.


Ever so slowly, Elis started to regain consciousness. Her head felt like it was stuffed with wool, her eyes refused to open yet. Her throat felt parched. She tried to shift and found that she was not bound. In the distance, she could faintly hear someone speaking.

“Is she compatible?” A man said, his clear baritone timbre ringing through the air. She was curious who he might be. And where she was, for that matter, but continued listening in silence.

“Yes, doctor. All test and scans indicate she is a prime specimen. You will not be disappointed.” Someone else answered, this one having a somewhat higher-pitched voice.

“Excellent. Start the procedure immediately.” The first one answered.

Her head starting to clear up, Elis wondered what procedure they were speaking of. She managed to open her eyes a little. There wasn't much to see. She appeared to be in a brightly lit room with dark green walls. Along the wall before her, she could see a series of glass windows, through which she could observe a number of men, all dressed in charcoal-black lab coats. They were scurrying about, pressing buttons on holographic consoles much like the ones she normally assembled at the factory. She didn't know who had spoken earlier, but she had a vague feeling that at least one of them was no longer there. And that they had been speaking of her.

Suddenly, all around her, machinery whirred to life. She started looking around, trying to take in details about the room she was in. Anything to understand what was happening. To her shock, she found that she was floating over some sort of platform, levitated by some sort of machine. All around her, stood machines of all sorts, none of which were of familiar designs. However, like the holographic projector back in the square, they all gleamed as all the government tech did.

Many of the machines around her opened up, articulated arms extending out, reaching for her. She tried to squirm away, but suspended as she was, she was unable to actually move away. Within moments, the machines had grabbed her wrists, ankles, effectively immobilizing her. The servomotors built into the robotics were far too strong for anyone, let alone a woman like her, to overpower. She could only watch as another set of arms lowered down from the ceiling and started undressing her. The robotics operated with surgical precision, using some sort of focused laser beams to cut through the cloth where the arms restraining her prevented them from removing it intact. Before a minute had passed, the machines had finished their task and she was suspended there, as naked as the day she had been born.

Her only relief at this point, was twofold. Firstly, the technicians on the other side of the glass windows appeared not to be watching her and secondly, the air in the room was comfortably warm. The robotic arms then rotated her so that she faced the floor. When she lifted her head to try to see what they were doing next, she quickly found her head pushed gently back down. What happened next almost made her think the ones doing this to her had a sort of sense of humor, for moments later, an antique monitor rose from the floor, showing her what was clearly her own back.

She saw as much as felt as a series of robotic arms extended down, spraying her back with something cold. She had no idea what that was, but on some level, it scared her. But not as much as what happened next. For next, the arms extended a series of scalpels, slicing into her back. She could vaguely feel them cutting, but it did not hurt. That was the point she realized the spray had been some sort of powerful numbing agent. There was a little blood welling to the surface of the cuts, but far less than she expected.

The machines continued cutting until the cuts reached from the nape of her neck and all the way along her spine down to her tailbone. It wasn't a wide strip, but she estimated it to be maybe 3-4 cm wide. More arms reached down, attaching some sort of suction cups to the flesh, then started lifting back up. All this time, the scalpels continued cutting, eventually freeing the section from her entirely. Elis was in too deep a shock to even react as that piece of her was carried away. More arms came forth, cleaning the now-exposed part of her body. She didn't know how much time passed, but soon enough, she could see the clear white of her spine all exposed to the air. It both horrified and fascinated her.

It was obvious to her even then that the machines were far from done and it came as no surprise when they continued their work. Dozens of tiny arms came down, holding strange pieces of metal. One by one, the machines lowered them onto her exposed vertebrae, where they horrifyingly enough fit perfectly. Though they were attached to her, she felt nothing as they were. Every third piece appeared to be different from the rest, a longer piece sticking up, as well as being slightly thicker. After all thirty or so pieces had been attached, the machines started linking the pieces together. Once they were all joined, she could feel as they wrapped around her spine. It was a feeling so strange that she could not put any words to it.

The arms drew back the moment they were done, and she saw as the arms that had taken her skin and muscle away returned with it, only now there was eleven holes evenly spread through it. They lowered it back down, and each hole fit perfectly around the parts that stuck out from the metal pieces.

Two arms she had not seen before now came down, shooting some sort of beam all along the exposed openings where the scalpels had cut into her earlier. Where the beam had passed, she was surprised to see clean, unbroken skin. Not even a hint of scar tissue. The whole procedure couldn't have taken more than a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity. When they were done, the only visible difference was the eleven round holes evenly along her spine, and the fact that her back as a tiny bit thicker where the metal lay beneath the surface.

At that point, All the arms released their grip on her. Elis could move around, but the energy field suspending up from the floor her prevented her from shifting about much. One by one, the arms withdrew back into their machines. She thought perhaps they were done, but then a single, altogether different arm came forth. It started at the top of her neck and went downwards, inserting some sort of semi-transparent tubes into the exposed holes on her back, then lifted her upright. The antique monitor followed her up, showing her back.

She did not feel any different with them attached, but moments later she saw as the tubes started swelling up with some red fluid. It did not take a genius to realize the fluid had to be blood. Ever so slowly, she started to regain full feeling in her back, but it did not hurt. Within two minutes, she could pinpoint which tubes injected and which ones sucked. The mixed feelings could only be described as unnerving.

For a long time, nothing more happened. She was free to shift about how she hovered in the energy field, but she found that she could not detach the tubes. However they were attached, they sat far too firmly to give in to her strength. She quickly gave up that project. Instead, she tried to observe the technicians beyond the window. They all appeared to be regular people, youthful men she would never even have given a second look before. They appeared to be intently focused upon their work, but did not rush about the way they had before.

It was impossible to say how long she hung there, but must have been hours before she even began to notice anything changing. Eventually, many of the lab-coated men left, only to be replaced by others just as generic as the ones who left. It was maybe seven or eight hours later that she first noticed the difference in the tubes. The blood flowing through them appeared tinged with silver. It wasn't easily visible, but it was clear that there was something different about it. Shifting about, she looked at the places she knew of where her veins and arteries were close to the surface of her skin. As she had dreaded the moment she saw it in the tubes, she could clearly see the same silvery tinge on the normally blue veins visible even through her skin.

“What are you doing to me?” She screamed. If they heard her, they did not react at all. Either the lab was soundproofed, or the technicians were all deaf.

Ever so slowly, Elis found herself growing drowsy and she soon realized that she'd been awake abnormally long. She thought she drifted of many times, but shook herself awake, not knowing what would happen if she fell asleep. However, soon she found herself unable to fight the drowsiness and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. At the same time the lights slowly dimmed down in the room.

~| Meanwhile, somewhere else |~

It was late at night. The skies were dark and the rain fell hard down from the skies, only broken by occasional flashes of lightning. Occasionally, a bolt would strike either one of the countless grounding rods spread throughout the City of Valmerr. The sound of the rain falling down was only broken by the booming of gongs sounding over the city alert system, summoning the people to the Holoprojectors.

Hours had passed since the last of the great factories had shut down for the night and all the people had returned home. Now, one by one or in small groups, they mustered before the gleaming machines, not one of them daring to ignore the summons. In the rich quarters up on the five hills, citizens gathered around their smaller, private holoprojectors. Some ten-fifteen minutes after the first gongs were heard, all the citizens of Valmerr stood, or sat, before a projector.

At the other end of the system, deep down in the government's vaults of carven stone, the newscasters were getting ready for the broadcast. Around them, there were technicians and tech-savants beyond count all readying the equipment for broadcast. At the center of the bustle, a small group stood, observing the citizen monitoring system, checking that not a single citizen was where he or she should not be. The bustle of the broadcast center was organized. Not one man or woman walked where he or she should not walk. They were all firmly part of the system.

Out in the city, at the very holoprojector Elis Ní Arailt had walked by alone earlier on, the people stood shoulder to shoulder. Above some few one could see the energy-based umbrellas designed and built by some of the few tech-savants not under government employ. On the rest who were not fortunate enough to have such technology, the cold rain hammered down. Aside from breathing, not one man, woman or child moved. It was impossible to say whether that was out of fear, respect or something in between.

As always, the newscasters appeared without warning. The projectors neither hummed nor made any other noises when firing up. One moment they were inactive, the next they weren't.

“Citizens of Valmerr. As you all well know, the city has these past nine cycles been plagued with people disappearing. Our benevolent and beloved queen, bless her, has charged us all with solving this problem. It is shameful for us all that more than fifty of our young women have disappeared and the one or the ones responsible have yet to be caught.

It is for this reason you have all been called here today. Today there are sad tidings. Last night, not far from this very projector, yet another of our young women disappeared. Her name, some of you might know her, was Elis Ní Arailt. She was on her way home after a productive day in the factory.

Our masterful SAR teams have been searching ever since she did not report for work, but they have, like we all have, failed to find any trace of her. The city's elected seneschal, has therefore determined that all women between 127 and 302 cycles shall have their tracking implants active at all times, rather than merely when being summoned to watch the news.

He knows well that some of you might see this as an invasion of privacy, but knows also that you as much as he hopes this will help solve the city's problem. We all thank you for your willing and unshakable approval of this.”

The holoprojectors all shut down at that point. The Citizens all turned about and returned to their homes. Upon the exposed wrists upon some women, one might occasionally see the faint yellow glow of their still-active tracking implants. Not one man, woman or child appeared to object about the new decree.

~| Back in the lab |~

Somewhere in the lab complex, wherever that might be, the doctor too watched the news, smiling. Though it was clear that he was responsible for the women going missing, he did not seem to be perturbed by the new decree that had gone into effect. If anything, he seemed encouraged. He smiled, then whispered quietly but firmly. “Challenge accepted.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the complex, Elis slowly returned to consciousness. She could immediately feel that something was different. Opening her eyes, she could see every part of the room in perfect detail. Too perfect detail. If she had wanted, she could've counted the screws holding the window in place, twelve meters away.

“Impossible...” She muttered, shifting about to look at herself. Her arms obeyed her, but she could feel something was different. She looked down at them. Then she screamed. The sight that met her eyes was inhuman, revolting. Every major vein and artery was clearly visible through her skin. The thinner blood vessels were faintly visible as well. And they were all a metallic gray color. When she bent her arms, she could hear the faint clicking of tiny, tiny gears.

“No... It can't be...” she whispered, afraid of what she deep down knew to be true.

With her right hand, she squeezed around her left elbow and could feel the presence of something artificial, something that had not been there before. It was almost as if her arms were now partially robotic. She cast glances over the rest of her body. Everywhere, she could see the virtually imperceptible signs of robotics. None but her would have seen it, for she alone was intimately familiar with her body.

“It isn't true! This is a nightmare!” She screeched, only to start sobbing softly. She could see how her tendons, once white, now held a silvery metallic color, identical to that of the machines surrounding her. Even worse, through her back, she could feel the precise amounts of blood, raw materials and nutrients passing in through her ports, as well as the waste products being ejected through other ports. She could measure it with molecular precision.

What she could also feel, was how the nanites were rapidly spreading elsewhere in her body. There was no doubt in her mind that by the time the day was through, she would be more machine than woman. She folded herself into a ball, sobbing softly.

“Why are they doing this to me?” She muttered between sobs, not really expecting an answer and not getting one either.

How long she hung suspended like that, barely moving was impossible to say, but for each hour that passed, she could literally feel her awareness of her own body expanding even as the nanites slowly replaced more and more of it. Soon enough however, her mind was upgraded to such a degree that she could count every minute and every second passing. She was terrified of this, for though she had never had a habit of being late for anything, she had never really cared about time overmuch. She didn't want to know the passage of time. Nor the tens of thousands of other minutiae the machines that now were a part of her let her know.

She didn't want to know how the tens of thousands now in her liver were improving its function a hundredfold. She didn't want to be some sort of robot. It was wrong! Why hadn't they asked her? She didn't know, and was afraid to ask. Not that she expected anyone to answer even if she did ask.

Seven hours, twenty-seven minutes and twelve point two-hundred and thirty-seven seconds later, she could feel the presence of the computer system nearby. While that of course also terrified her, some small part was curious. She reached out towards it. Not physically, of course, but mentally. It appeared to have heavy firewalls in place to prevent intrusions. But by this time, her mind was more machine than woman, 62.12% of its cells replaced by nanite constructs. That made her far more advanced than the system. It was child's play to find a path through the forbidding walls surrounding the system. She wanted to learn all there was to learn from it, and nothing would stop her. Nothing.


It took quite a while for any of the technicians in the control room to notice, but eventually one of them did. At first, he didn't know what to make of it. Something was accessing records all over the system, consuming considerable amounts of processing power and memory.

“We're being hacked?” he muttered, disbelieving. They had some of the finest security systems available, yet whomever this hacker was, he or she bypassed them as if they weren't even there! He leaped up from his workstation, running towards the master's office.

“Master! Someone's hacking our systems! Bypassing firewalls as if they're not even there!” he shouted, even as he knocked repeatedly and hard on the doctor's office.

It took less than a minute before the door opened. The doctor stepped out, looking somewhat disturbed.

“WHO? Who is hacking our system? Is it the seneschal's men? Have you disconnected the external hardlines?” he all but shouted at the minion, his face hard with anger.

“Its not external and the hardline hasn't been connected at all today, master!” the minion answered, cringing back and down under the doctor's fury.

For a few moments, the doctor did not say anything, thinking it over. “The subject. It has to be her... I will deal with her personally. Draw her in. Feed her information to distract her. Lead her on a chase around the system before she realizes that she can assume control over it. NOW!”

The minion ran off, terrified both of what failure could mean and of the the fact that the master never got directly involved. He would have answered, but knew better than to speak back.

The doctor followed behind him, then past him as he started to work at the workstation, directing the other minions to do the same as he was. Coming to the triple airlock, the doctor stepped in. It took a full minute to pass through the cycles, time he would have preferred not to use, but lab sterility was too important to ignore. His pace across the vastness of the open lab was relentless. The subject's eyes were closed, so he doubted she could see him approaching. He did not care if she could. She could do nothing to stop him even if she could.

The systems controlling her containment were isolated from everything else, even running on a separate power supply. He could see the difference in her body from a long distance. The nanites had spread far and wide, consuming much of her body. It was a fascinating sight to see a human body replaced to such a degree by nanites. In some ways, it was unfortunate that he had to do this, but the alternative was unthinkable.

“I am sorry. But like the others, you are a failure.” he whispered.

He pulled out a small device from one of his pockets. It wasn't much larger than a syringe, but infinitely more dangerous. He pushed his hands through the energy field containing the subject, then pressed the device in, right above her neck port, then pressed the activation button. At first, nothing happened, then her body first started shuddering, then shaking wildly. It wasn't easy to keep the device in place, but he managed to do so. After a minute he was done. He put the device away, then rotated the subject's body. Her eyes were blank. Empty. Vacant.

He thought about shutting down the nanites, but with them having reverted back to their base programming, there was no real need. Besides, keeping them intact would give more data to work with. Perhaps allow him to find a quicker solution to this issue. The woman below him was no longer a threat, her mind completely wiped from existence. All that remained now, was a biomechanical shell. She would now never reach the hoped-for potential, but that was of no concern. Subjects like her were easy to find.

Besides, he thought, she could still be of some use. Within two days, the shell of a body below him would be fully saturated by the nanites. At that point, all he would need to do is program it. Give it a basic operating system. A menial purpose, of course. Building a full mind was impossible. There were too many details to cover to even begin doing so.

Even as he walked back out of the lab, ideas for how to use the shell that once was Elis Ní Arailt flew through his mind. Though the core project had yet to be a success, he could not help but smile. Nothing would be wasted. He would simply have to start over on a new test subject. No more, no less. He even had some subjects in mind... But before he could do that, he would have to prepare another lab. The current one could not be reused. It did not matter. He had the technology to build a hundred labs if he wanted. All he needed to do so, was time.

~| 4th hill district, City of Valmerr |~

While a full cycle had passed since the last disappearance, the people could not breathe easily, for it was clear to them all that the culprit behind the disappearances had not been caught. They all knew the Seneschal always made announcements whenever major criminals were caught. Some were no doubt afraid that their rights and freedoms would be further restricted. Others held on to the hope that the latest decree had successfully scared the criminal from further crimes, but these were in the minority. Most citizens and members of the government alike were far too disillusioned to believe in such fantasies.

Few, if any, were surprised when the summons once more sounded, this time early in the morning, when most were on their way to work. In the dim light of dawn, thousands of men and women turned towards the nearest holoprojector, then started walking. While some of the people of the 4th hill chose to return to their homes, most chose to go to the public terminals. High up on the hill, that meant Hrodlaf's square, where the projector rested upon the shoulders of nine 201st decade statues, their faces all but impossible to recognize due to the wear and tear of time.

The moment they were all there, the newscaster fired up, despite the fact that many other terminals were still gathering crowds. That was one of the many advantages of having unique speakers for each quarter and terminal.

“Citizens of Valmerr. Thank you all for delaying your journey to work in order to listen. Your willingness to listen to the words of our trusted Seneschal does him great honor. Ever since the disappearance of Elis Ní Arailt, one cycle ago on her way home from work, the SAR services have been working without pause in trying to track her down. You all know she is but the last in the long line of women who have disappeared. Though you all have the tracker implants and have had them since right after the dark times, it has proven impossible to reactivate hers. It is not registering on any system in the city nor surrounding it.” With those words, the were murmurs passing around the crowd gathered before the terminal. Their city was being made a mockery of! For decades before these times, no one had ever gone missing long. The City SAR services had been known throughout the nation for their expertise.

“Silence!” The newscaster shouted, and the crowd immediately stopped murmuring. “Two hours ago, with great sadness, I learned that another two of our young women disappeared.” He paused for a moment to the gasps of the crowd, then continued. “All investigators are perplexed by their disappearance. Where the other fifty-three all disappeared outside, these two young women disappeared right from their very homes. The first one, Eleen níc Griogair, daughter of our trusted seneschal, disappeared during her morning exercise session, her treadmill still running when her mother came by to check on her. With the doors all watched and the windows barred, no one understands how she could have gotten out.”

He paused for a few moments to let the crowd absorb the news. He could clearly see the willingness to murder in the eyes of some and was glad he was not the culprit. “The other, Katya Ní Coitir, daughter of the SAR commander herself, was in the middle of a shower, her parents both already having been up for hours, working ceaselessly upon the task of finding the missing women.”

In the background, someone muttered “serves them right. Now its personal for them too.”

The newscaster did not even have to pause to identify the man and quickly determined that he had lost his eldest daughter early on. Because of that, he did not make a note in the system against the man, despite the rules saying he should. “The government, may they serve the people for all time, has determined that this means the culprits have access to military grade teleportation technology. As such, they have realized that the previous precautions are far from sufficient. As such, while the tracking beacons will not be deactivated, all other regulations set in by the crisis are lifted. However, there is one small new decree. All women between 176 and 264 cycles must from this point forward always be in the company of a man, either a coworker or a relative. There will be no exceptions, no excuses. They know full well how inconveniencing this can be, but it is all for the best. Thank you all for obeying.”

With that, the holographic projector shut down, not allowing anyone time to ask questions or complain or demand to be exempted from the rule. Though many felt offended by this, they dared not disobey. They all quickly sorted themselves into groups, then moved onwards to their jobs.

~| Fifty-six minutes earlier |~

The doctor stepped out of the teleporter, laughing. It had been a roaring success! Not only had he snatched the Seneschal's daughter from her exercise room, but he had taken the SAR commander's daughter right from under her parents' noses! They were working obsessively with identifying and tracking him down, and were utterly oblivious to him being right next to them. He had to struggle to stop laughing.

Already the minions were maneuvering the two new test subjects to the new lab. Soon they would both be injected with his special blend of anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-pathogenic agents. The doctor could not have any of his subjects unclean. Once he managed to stop laughing, he returned to his private quarters, changed into a fresh, and dry, set of clothes and grabbed his latest inventions. He could not wait to test them!

He walked slowly to the labs, stopping briefly to check on the system that was running simulations for uses for the shell of the previous test subject, then entered the new lab. Like the older labs, he had its walls a dark green color and the room brightly lit. There were no dark shadows anywhere. He was no mad scientist to work in one of those silly medieval castles. Not only was it exposed, but the uncleanliness of such facilities? Terrible.

He approached the Seneschal's daughter first. “Eleen...” he murmured, letting the taste of the name flow over his tongue. From his lab-coat, he pulled a pair of sterile scissors, then carefully cut away her clothes. Sure, he could've had the machines do it, but he felt he owed the Seneschal's daughter the honor of doing it personally. Besides, with her choice of dress for exercise, it was hardly much work. He dropped the dismantled clothes into the incinerator, knowing the machines would take care of them.

At one hundred and ninety-six cycles, her body was still not fully mature, but he could see the great potential to it. If he had not been above fraternizing with lab subjects, he would no doubt have found her quite attractive. Not that he would have ever considered mating with her without her permission. There are, quite simply, some things one shall never do. At the top of that list stood rape. He had no trouble with euthanasia when it came to failed experiments, but there are some things no one should ever do to anyone.

He reached into his coat, pulling out one of the two inventions he intended to test this day. In some ways, it resembled the back half of a collar, with short projections out where the back of the neck would be. Reaching up, he pulled down the arm with the pain pacifier spray, which automatically sprayed her neck with it. Then he held the invention up to admire it for a few seconds, before snapping it into place on her neck. The device immediately began adjusting itself, digging deep into her neck.

In the silence of the lab, it was easy to hear the sound of grinding and gnashing as the device found its way in to the woman's fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae, then attached itself firmly there. On the sides, the twin sets of metallic braces slid through the device and in underneath the skin of the woman's throat, hooking into her carotid arteries and her jugulars. There was but a brief, momentary lapse in the flow of blood to and from her brain as the tubes inside the braces filled with blood. He did not hesitate when reaching up to find the thick tube up in the ceiling and hooking it into the now-fully installed neck port.

The moment he had attached it, it started filling with blood from the system. In order to increase the efficiency of his upgrade protocols, the blood was already saturated with nanites and raw materials, which would in turn quickly spread out into her body. He needed to increase the efficiency greatly if he was to complete his final plan. After that, he gently repositioned the young woman back upright in the suspension field, then stepped back. In time, he knew, the nanites would construct new access ports in her body, which in turn would automatically be connected to the additional tubes found in the ceiling. He did not know when she would wake up, but hoped she would not react quite as badly as the last one.

He eyed the faint yellow glow from her left wrist where the still-active tracker was, but saw no reason to remove it. They were far beyond the range of the tracking system. Once satisfied that nothing untoward would happen to the subject, he withdrew further, then approached the second test subject, the SAR commander's daughter, Katya Ní Coitir.

Unlike her unknowing, raven-haired companion, Katya appeared to already be approaching consciousness again. The doctor looked her over. She was, as test subjects go, perfect. Looking at the holographic data readout on the side, he saw that she was two hundred and eleven cycles, eight days and five hours old. The differences in level of maturity were subtle but clear. She was a good deal more attractive because of them, but he would never break his rule of fraternizing with test subjects. It was wrong.

Her skin had the pale tone typical to the elite and her body was free from flaws like excess fat or scars. He had no trouble seeing just why the SAR commander was known for doting on her this way. From earlier subjects, he knew that the agents he used to subdue his test subjects always left them groggy and somewhat confused, their short-term memories tended to be fuzzy. He could probably have removed those side-effects if he wanted, but that would only have made it harder to convince them to trust him.

“Morning, ma'am.” he said to her calmly. “I know you're a bit confused right now. The fuzziness will pass soon.”

“W-where am I?” she murmured, clearly just as confused as the doctor knew she'd be.

He smiled at her fondly, the way only a doctor of many years can do at a patient waking up for the first time could. “You're in a safe place, child. Your mother and father fears for your safety and had you brought here to ensure that no one could take you from them.”

“They requested that I make sure nothing will harm you again. It will be all right.”

He did not lie when saying these words to her. He simply did not speak the truth the way others would see it. He knew more than enough about her parents to know that her safety was the highest priority in their minds at all times. That was one of the primary reasons he had chosen her for this particular experiment.

“W-who are you?” She asked, still confused.

“I'm your new doctor. Just as I don't need to know your name, you don't need to know mine. The treatment I am about to give you may hurt momentarily and it will make you feel a bit odd, but it will make you safe. Do you want it now, or do you want to wait?” Initially he had no plans to delay it, but it would be nice for the sake of the experiment to have a voluntary acceptance of the upgrades. At least as voluntary as it could be without giving away any detailed information.

The woman appeared to be oblivious to her nudity when she nodded. “Do it now. No use delaying.”

“Excellent. If you would pull aside your hair? The injection must go into your neck.” he asked her, maintaining his calm demeanor as he did. The girl pulled it aside, baring her neck and back. The doctor was thankful that he had found better ways to do this than he had had with the first fifty-three girls. Pulling the invention out from his coat, he smiled a little. The design was more or less the same as the one used on the Seneschal's daughter, but sleeker, less invasive. Like with the first, he sprayed her neck with a little of the deadening agent, as pain was unnecessary to give the test subjects.

He pressed it gently against the back of her neck, then activated it. The device made several incisions into her skin, then slid underneath the exposed flaps of skin and muscle, which then fused back together using single-use pellets of the mending beams. After reaching the preprogrammed location, half the device detached. The implant would need neither scalpels nor mending beam emitters later. He pulled the now-defunct components away, sticking them in a pocket for later disposal.

“I will now attach the IV tube and monitoring cable, to ensure that the injection works right. I do hope you don't mind.” Like before, she nodded. Remarkably trusting, he thought as he attached the tube, which would rapidly saturate her system with nanites. The moment the tube was attached and flooded with blood, the prongs inside the device hooked into her carotid arteries and her jugular veins. By hooking into these, her brain would rapidly be saturated with nanites, and the blood could similarly be filled with new nanites after passing through the brain on its way down through her jugular veins.

“There. All done. Now all you need to do is relax and wait.” he smiled fondly at her, even as he took a few steps back. Out of respect, he averted his eyes from her nudity.

“Would you like to have anything while you wait? I can't offer much due to this lab being sealed to all signals, but I'll offer what I can.” The decision to play friendly with her promoted all sorts of new ideas in his mind. Like many experiments, he had no idea what it'd end up being.

“Could I have some music? Symphonic, like that of the ancient people?” she asked sweetly. The doctor was quite frankly shocked. He had never expected a request like that. He'd been prepared for food, clothes, drink, maybe a book? But music? Never.

“I can arrange that. Might take a few minutes, but I'll get it.” He walked off, trying to clear his head and puzzle out how to arrange that, thankful that the two halves of the lab were partitioned off from each other and not readily visible. After maybe ten minutes, he'd gotten the minions to assemble a simple speaker system of sufficient quality, then had it sterilized and sent into the lab.

He went through the airlocks and set it up. With his familiar obsession with precision, he positioned the various speakers in perfect alignment around her, then activated the system. He had no idea what she might like, so he'd acquired a small selection and put it into a remotely accessible holographic interface. She'd be able switch between the various composers at will.

He placed the interface projector on the floor before her, then adjusted the settings so the display would be at the right height. Looking up, he could see that her veins were already starting to change. The new nanite feed on this model was worlds more efficient than the previous ones. Katya quickly scrolled through the interface, then selected something, which started playing immediately. The doctor might not have much interest in music himself, but he could not provide anything below top quality to his patients, be it medical care, equipment, confidentiality or entertainment.

He did not recognize the music, but could not feel anything but relaxed by it. The woman simply hung there, her eyes closed and her breathing slow and steady, clearly listening to the music. Somewhat entranced by her calmness, he almost thought he could see the nanites spreading through her body. She rotated slowly in the suspension field, the joints high up on the tubes designed to ensure that twisting could not pose any problems for it. On the fifth rotation, some fifteen-twenty minutes later, he saw that the first of the many new feeder ports had been fully assembled. Unlike before, it did not stick out. It was simply a 4 mm wide hole in her skin. Right on cue, a robotic arm lowered down from the ceiling, sticking a second tube into the hole, then folding back into the roof.

This was the quickest conversion yet. If it was successful, he had no doubts it would soon be time to launch the final plan. He smiled to himself knowingly. He had spread more than enough confusion in the ranks of the government to ensure that they would never see it coming.

He pondered watching longer, but decided that it was time to lay down the final pieces for the end plan. It was undeniably a success to take the daughters of the SAR commander and the Seneschal, but they were small fish. With that, he turned about, leaving the lab, just missing the sight of the third tube being attached to Katya's back.


When the chain of symphonies she'd programmed the system to play ended some two hundred and seventy-two minutes later, Katya could feel the difference. Whatever the good doctor had done, it had removed all trace of exhaustion from her body and mind. She couldn't recall when she had been this refreshed last, if she ever had. She could feel every part of her body, sense their every potential. The strength of her muscles. The effectiveness of her liver. The durability of her bones and tendons. The throughput of her spinal ports.

A stray thought surfaced from somewhere deep down, asking about what she meant by spinal ports, asking where those came from, but she quickly squashed that trail. A quick simulation told her that there was a 61.73% chance of her reacting badly if she followed that path of thinking. That probability was uncomfortably high so she determined not to pursue it.

She looked down at her arms. All over, she could see the network of gray outlining her blood vessels, from the dense gray of her primary veins and arteries, to the haze of her outermost capillaries. But it did not freak her out. She could sense it all, and it all made sense. Her body, her mind, it all fit together, and deep inside her brain, she could see how.

Even as the changes slowly spread further and further, she did a quick analysis of how her body had changed. The nanites responded instantly. On average, a 12.03% increase in muscle firmness. 1.26% increase in breast size. 18.92% increase in body mass. All within expected parameters. Sending her senses deeper, she could feel the new constructs around her spine. Like all the other changes, they were acceptable to her. When complete they would give an 82.03% reduction in chance for trauma caused by blunt force. Similarly, the nanites now permeating her skin increased its durability by 78.41% and its rate of repair if damaged by 871.66%.

She had no doubt that all these statistics would have driven most others insane, but she personally only found them fascinating. There was a computer system at the other end of the connection with her back, but she did not find it intriguing. Not the way her body now was. Some small part of her wondered why her mother had asked the doctor to put her through this, but like so many other things, Katya found herself not caring. It was the perfect gift. She could only guess at what she would be able to do once her body was fully saturated and enhanced. She smiled to herself.

~| Six hours and five minutes later|~

At the other side of the lab, the transition was in its final stages for Eleen níc Griogair, but unlike Katya, she was not even aware she'd been chosen for the upgrades, having been kept artificially unconscious the entire time. The doctor stood watching the final few bits of the process with curiosity. On a hologram beside the body, he could see the number steadily climb towards 100%. While it did not make the test exactly the same, he had programmed the code for Katya to receive some 5% more nanites, just to be sure they would not finish at the exact same time. He could do many things, but be in two places at the same time was not one of them. Nor was focusing on two subjects at once.

The moment the indicator hit 100%, he saw the nanites begin to perform their final task. Her body was almost gray with the saturation. No one would think her to be human that way. But that was the ingenuity of it all. He activated that particular program before he released her mind from its containment. First, the tubes all slipped out, one by one. Then the data cable in her neck slipped out, even as the data port folded in on itself, sliding in under the skin. It wouldn't be invisible to a scan, but neither would it be blatantly visible for all to see. Then her very skin seemed to shimmer as the nanites took on the color of human skin. Within moments, her skin looked exactly like it had before her enhancement. Only then did he send the signal to release her mind.


One moment, Eleen was asleep, or rather, unconscious. The next, she was wide awake, as if she'd been that way for a long time. She wasn't the least bit drowsy. Countless numbers flitted through her mind. She did not comprehend them. Last thing she recalled was running on the treadmill. Now she hung in some sort of room, a suspension field keeping her up from the floor and incapable of going anywhere. And she was stark naked. She wondered what was going on. Again the numbers popped forward. Again they failed to make sense.

She couldn't see the connections between it all. Where was her father, the seneschal? Why was she here? Where was here? For a third time, numbers appeared in her head, this time in twin sets. She stared at them for a few moments, not understanding. What did those numbers have to do with anything? And for that matter, where did they come from?

It was at that point the word 'coordinates' appeared above the numbers. She tried to understand where that could be, but found herself unable. Something blocked her. Some sort of seal on the room. She did not like that. Her chain of thoughts blocked, she focused elsewhere. There had to be something worth focusing upon. She tried to make sense of how she had gotten there, but her memory was strangely blank. One moment she'd been exercising, the next she woke up here.

Again she let questions flow through her mind. What had happened? Where was she? Why was she here? How did she get here? Who was the man before her? And, more importantly, why was she naked? Her panic was rapidly building up. As a sort of self-defense, she drew back into herself. It was the only viable option.


The doctor could quickly see that something was wrong with the second subject. Her mind wasn't rejecting the upgrades, but appeared to be rejecting reality. Clearly the method used on her was... faulty. He had been afraid that might be the case after the apparent success with the other subject.

Even as he watched, he could see her eyes go blank, her body stop moving for anything except breathing.

“Oh well...” He muttered, pulling out the same device he'd used on subject #53. He walked up to her, pressing it into the side of her neck, triggering it instantly. Within seconds, her mind was completely wiped. No trace of the person once known as Eleen níc Griogair remained beyond a physical husk. With that taken care of, he wandered over to observe his other test subject complete her upgrades.


“You know... You shouldn't have lied to me.” Katya said to the doctor the moment he appeared.

“I know my mother would never intentionally ask anyone to do something like this to me.” She could see panic in his eyes and laughed.

“She's a short-sighted fool, doctor.” He appeared to be fingering something in his left pocket, but stood there uncertain. She laughed a little more.

“If she had had my level of comprehension, she would have caught you long ago. Now it is too late. I no longer see any reason for why you should be punished. You have given me a great gift, doctor... The gift of eternal life and the ultimate understanding.” When she spoke, her face barely showed any glimmer of emotion.

“You have a greater plan in progress, yes? My analysis indicates that has to be the case, as I am not in any position to affect whatever changes you wish for.” Katya could see the panic slip from his eyes, replaced by wonder. He let go of whatever he had in his pocket. She guessed it was a weapon of some kind. Something that could have destroyed her.

“Yes. I seek to change the nation. I seek, quite simply, to replace the so-called benevolent queen with a stronger, younger monarch. One infinitely more powerful. One who is fair.” he did not hesitate more than a few moments, nor did he lie. It was readily apparent to him that she somehow could read lies for what they were.

She smiled. “I surmised as much. Your honesty is refreshing. I will aid you.”

“How?” he asked, curious.

“The previous subjects. Since they were never found and you continued taking people, it is fair to assume they did not work out. There is a 96.13% probability that you used the device in your left pocket on them. I can sense a small power source, but I cannot understand what it does. What does it do?”

He looked back at her, shocked at how quickly she had seen through it all. “It wipes the biological mind. I used it on failed subjects to render them inert.”

“Good. The wiped subjects – you still have them, right?”

“Y-yes?” he answered once more, a little confused.

“Good. I will need them. Oh, and I will need some clothes. Ones like your own will serve. Have your minions bring the blank slates and sufficient clothes here. I will make them useful for our plan.”

“Our plan?” he replied, a bit shocked. He had not expected this. Some small part of him wanted to wipe her mind just to be on the safe side, but another, more sensible part realized that wouldn't work. He'd come up short with every attempt to plan the final details of the great plan. She had seen right. He did need her. And that, more than anything, frustrated him. He was supposed to be better! He was supposed to be able to do anything on his own!

But he knew there was no way around it. He went to the wall, then pressed the buttons necessary to instruct the minions in their new tasks as well as lowering the signal barrier around the room. Within minutes, all of it arrived.

“Yes. Our plan. I can see in your eyes that you need me.” She then made a simple gesture and he heard a sound that was neither metallic nor biological, but something in between as she dropped to the floor. She tested her limbs a few moments, then strode over to the clothes. They weren't much, but she found a simple shirt, pants and lab coat that fit reasonably well. There were no undergarments designed for a woman there, but she did not really need that. Her body could more than sufficiently support itself. The shirt was a 11.62% smaller than optimal, the the pants 3.05% too large, but still within acceptable parameters. Her breasts, having increased in size by 7.55% compared to their original size, strained a little against the shirt, which of course, was designed for a man. The lab coat, however, fit perfectly. Though she did not need it, she also put on a pair of shoes. With a side-thought, her hair tied itself up, a few of the longer strands wrapping around the rest to keep it in place. Not one hair was out of place.

“There. Now we can begin working.” She did not give any reaction to his shocked look. Apparently he had not seen someone's hair tie itself up before. 'humans...' she thought, then continued approaching the first of the shell-bodies.

There were only two of them. “What happened to the rest?” she asked him.

“Ruined. The nanites did not bond properly. They all became abominations. Some had to be destroyed, others were inhuman. I kept clear records in the system.”

Now that the Faraday cage was disabled, she could access the system remotely. The firewalls, if they could be called such, were no obstacles. She needed but a few seconds to find the right files, then only a few seconds more to absorb it all. “Got it. I can see where you went wrong. Though you stumbled a bit in your attempts, you had a decent rate of progression. #12, #27 & #44 showed you some keen insights into the right ways to do this. You really should have been more trusting, you know. If you'd befriended more subjects, you would have had far fewer failures. But I guess its only good for me you didn't.”

He halted mid-step. “You studied all my notes on all my subjects in ten seconds?!?” He was slowly coming to terms with just how powerful her mind had become.

“Yes.” she answered, succinctly. Then she placed her hands on the sides of the inert Elis' head. She connected her nanites to those of the shell. At first they were slow to respond, confused, but slowly they started to respond. There were fractures of the biological mind left, but they were scattered. It was easy enough to wipe them away completely. The original personality would not have been trustworthy. Instead, she copied herself into the shell. With such a large area of contact, that took but a few minutes. With each minute, she could feel her mind expand. So long as she would remain in proximity of her new selves, her minds would work in unison, the whole be greater than the sum of its parts. She wondered if the doctor had any idea of that.


The doctor's plan, which quickly found itself absorbed and virtually consumed by Katya ní Coitir, moved without pause from that point forward. Within a cycle, despite the increasingly challenging new security measures, they had seized more than four score new subjects. While half of those proved incompatible with the nanites' minds, these were erased and replaced by copies of Katya or one of her cybernetic sisters.

It is hard to say for sure exactly when he began to realize just how interconnected and powerful his creations were, but by the time he understood it, it was far too late. He was in far too deeply. After all, he still desired to change the world. Some sacrifices were necessary for that. He just did not quite know how many.


Even long before she figured out what was going on, the crown princess knew something had changed within the palace. Like everyone else, she had paid close attention to the events in Valmerr these past many cycles. She didn’t care overmuch about the women disappearing, but it made her chuckle a little just how frustrating her mother found it. She certainly didn’t worry about it.

Though members of the palace staff were frequently replaced, typically for incompetence or minor mistakes, which was fully deserved she thought, one day the frequency of blunders rapidly decreased. With lowly citizens, mistakes were expected and punished accordingly, but with the latest batch, the mistakes didn't come. In fact, they rapidly grew inhumanly efficient. Always on hand, almost as if they had begun to communicate. Servants should not take initiative. It was... Wrong.

Late one night, she decided that enough was enough. It was intolerable. A confrontation had to happen. She would do it the next day. No later. Sleep would come first, of course.


They knew almost instantly when the princess first took notice of them. It was Inevitable, so rather than hide it, they made it blatantly obvious to her and made their preparations at a sufficiently increased pace. From the first moment one of them had found her way into the service of her royal highness, the brain scan had been running. Thus they had easily calculated when she would confront them. It was no struggle at all to finish prior to that.

It was late at night when they started the processing. They had for the past two weeks been altering her bed, installing the necessary technology into its framework. Some might have thought that hard to conceal, but with nanites, it was rather simple.

They initiated the machines, then woke the princess up. "it is time, your highness."

She had stared strangely at them, clearly muddled by sleep, nodding confused while trying to shake off sleep. They of course did not allow her to do that before starting. The freshly installed gravity nullification field raised her up even as machines pulled the bedding aside. Where a bed had been before, an improvised lab station now stood, the princess suspended within. She was still not fully awake when the integration and upgrading began.

Each of the twelve present linked up with her seconds after the obligatory neck port was installed. This not only increased her rate of integration, but also allowed them to share knowledge directly. The princess was defenseless against it. Within hours, er entire body had been enhanced. With the shared knowledge, she had no way to resist their infallible logic. Mercilessly she had no choice about whether to become one of them.

The question that outsiders might ask, had they not been oblivious to it all, is whether she would command or be commanded. Her seizure of the throne was inevitable. The second question to ask is what sort of queen she would be.

Would she be naughty or nice? Would the kingdom rise to new heights? Or would it be ground to dust under her nanite-infused heel? And finally, who was this doctor and what was his role in the end?

Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
Avatar of Calle

Calle Rainbow Writer

Contest Mod Seen 2 hrs ago

RPGC#3 - The cosmos

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: A tale of two solderis, by @Keyguyperson

The sun of Matrouh shone down on the rolling desert sands of its light side, the constant wind of the tidally-locked world the only thing that cooled the men of the 69th Infantry Brigade. The battle for the planet had been raging for almost a month, but the constant light had a way of messing with one's senses. In fact, despite the ever-present sun, it was almost midnight. It was as if it hadn't even been a day since the Terrans had landed. Combined with the heat, the disorientation was taking quite a toll on both Carina and Terran forces.

What little protection the dunes offered was augmented by sandbags, still a common sight on battlefields. The tightly-packed sand held within was, surprisingly, enough to stop a handheld railgun slug. Of course, it was absolutely useless against anything else. Despite the somewhat subpar cover, neither army had managed to breach the other's lines. They were both just too dug in to be broken.

The railgun of Yehiel Chatzkel laid upon the barrier of sandbags, besides those of the rest of his division. He stood out like a sore thumb in the line of lightly-furred Carina. His stark white wings made it quite clear that he was a Murtaden, a far cry from the vaguely marsupial Carina. The Carina Empire had few Murtaden in its ranks, and he hadn't met another in quite some time.

He felt lucky about his assignment to Matrouh, and the sector as a whole to a lesser extent. The Terrans were notorious for their cruelty to the Murtaden, but the Terran officer assigned to take Matrouh was known for his relative mercy towards them. If he was captured, he likely wouldn't end up in the worst case scenario of a Terran death camp. Unfortunately, the same officer was better known for his tactical genius than his mercy.

"You must be feeling pretty good." Said a soldier next to Yehiel, surprising him. He hadn't really noticed his brothers-in-arms, and as much as he wanted to believe it was because he was too focused on scanning the horizon for the enemy, his ignorance was the result of him being half-asleep.

"Huh?" He responded, turning to look at the man. Like most of the other Carina, he was licking his forearms in an attempt to cool them off. It was an odd thing for a Murtaden, but to the Carina, it was just a natural reaction to heat.

"You don't have to deal with the fur." Said the man, in-between licks. "With the wind, I bet you're just fine. Especially with that water on you."

"No, I'm just as hot as you. That's sweat."

The other soldier looked confused for a moment, despite the obvious drops of sweat on Yehiel's skin. It was a reaction Yehiel had gotten a lot during basic training. Though Carina sweat, the only sign of it they had was wet fur. Very rarely did one realize that someone without fur was actually sweating, instead thinking it was just something that had been spilled on them. It went both ways, too. Furless, sweating species almost never noticed a Carina's sweat.

"So that's what that is." Said the soldier, laughing. "I thought someone had to wake you up by pouring water on your head!"

"Well of course that's not what happened, nobody can sleep in this heat!"

The two shared a laugh, an action that despite all the differences between their species, was common to both of them. For that brief moment, neither cared about the battle.

"Sergeant Günther!" Said Hariwini, turning to face the Terran soldier who had rushed into his tent. He was clearly hoping to hear some good news, Günther, however, was clearly about to deliver the exact opposite. "Do we have our supplies?"

"The fleet went down, Field Marshall." Said Günther, his head held low as if the loss was a result of his own blunder. "It was intercepted by Free Saggitarius ships in the Galactic Core. The only ship to make it was bringing provisions."

Hariwini sighed, leaning down on the table in the center of the tent. The map upon it ripped slightly as his hands pushed it apart.

"Fantastic." He said sarcastically "We get to run out of fuel and ammunition before we run out of food."

Günther was silent. Hariwini had always cared about his men, sometimes more than they cared about themselves. The battle wasn't going well, and Hariwini knew it more than any other. The way things were going, his forces would have to retreat to Matrouh's green belt. A retreat would be costly. If they lost the planet itself then they would have to avoid the Carina starfleet, a force renowned for centuries for its size and expertise.

"Damn those Norma! If their High Command knew what the hell they were doing, we wouldn't be in this mess!"

A gust of wind came in through the tent's doorway, bringing sand with it. The gust threw the sand up onto the table, sprinkling it all over the map. Hariwini growled quietly, dusting it off violently. As he did so, he couldn't help but wonder what right Matrouh had to be such a strategically important world. The only things that actually mattered on it were the outposts on the light side, which let the Carina ships refuel on their way to the two main Naval theaters of the war. If not for them, the planet would be nothing more than a tiny little colony.

"Sir, our defensive lines are still strong. I'm sure we can hold out long enough for-"

"This operation failed the moment we were cut off! The worst part is that Könntesein will kill me if I pull us out! We need reinforcements that don't exist, dammit! I can't pull this off!"

"Sir, you just said it yourself, we can't retreat. You're the Wolf of the Core, surely you can pull this off!"

"Sergeant, you are dismissed."

Hariwini hung his head in defeat, clutching the map tightly with his fingers. The worst had come to pass, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He made it clear to Günther that he had no desire to hear the words "Wolf of the Core" anytime soon.

"Understood, Sir" Said Günther, leaving the tent.

Surely he just needs to think about it. He thought, reassuring himself as he walked back out into the sweltering heat of the desert. He's the Wolf of the Core, he always has a plan.

The noise of moving tank treads could be heard in the distance as reinforcements from the other defensive locations closed in. None of the tank crews were particularly excited with the idea of going up against the far superior Terran hovertanks, but they had little choice. Even with their supplies cut off, the Terrans were holding their lines well thanks to their minefield. If the Carina wanted to reclaim the rest of the planet, they would have to act before enemy supplies managed to get through.

A dust storm loomed on the horizon, not a major one, but a dust storm nonetheless. Seeing an opportunity, the Carina General had hastily put together a plan. He had ordered the 69th and 24th Infantry Brigades, along with two armored forces and a Corps of soldiers from one of the Carina colonies in the Lower Galactic Core, to breach the Terran lines. The soldiers from the LGC were to make a hole in the Terran minefield near one of the many ridges on the battlefield, through which the 69th and 24th would advance and take their respective objectives. The armored forces were both ordered to disrupt the Terran communications lines. Combined with the cover given by the dust storm, it was hoped that after three separate tries, the Carina would finally defeat the Terrans.

Already, the LGC Corps was advancing for the minefield. By midnight, the dust storm would have arrived and they would have breached the mines. The Terrans wouldn't be expecting an attack in the middle of a dust storm, which gave the Carina a major advantage. For once, they would be carrying out an attack that gave them the advantage. Everyone was sure that this was it, that this would be the last time they would have to assault the Terran lines on the light side of Matrouh.

Despite how successful the operation was set up to be, everyone was tense. Just because the operation would succeed didn't mean there wasn't any danger. The Terrans were some of the best fighters in the galaxy, and everybody knew that there would be casualties. Everyone had the same chances of being wounded, the same chances of dying. The father of three could die just like the young man of eighteen, the slug of a railgun doesn't care who it hits.

Yehiel knelt behind the sandbags, watching the LGC Corps leave the safety of the defensive position. He'd survived the Battle on Alazag, but that was just luck. Luck that he feared had run out.

The General was giving a speech, talking about the importance of Matrouh and how everybody had to be at their best for the operation to succeed. Nobody was listening, of course. It was the same thing they had been told the last two times they attacked the Terran lines, there was no need to hear it again. In fact, it was probably better that they didn't hear it. All it would do would be to remind them of the past failures.

"We move on the signal of the LGC Corps!" Yelled the General, finishing his speech. It was the only part anyone heard, purely because it was voiced as an order.

"Yes Sir!" Came the unanimous reply of the soldiers who had reached the staging area. Their voiced enthusiasm was a flawlessly executed performance.

"Problems with the dust, Sergeant?"

Günther was in the middle of a coughing fit thanks to the sand that flew all around the air. He'd always had a hard time dealing with it, and the assignment to the Galactic Core had been a nightmare for him. The inhabited planets were mostly desert, and he'd had to endure much worse dust storms. The only upside was that Hariwini cared about his soldiers more than he did their body count, which was unfortunately an abnormality among Terran generals.

"Yeah." Said Günther, pausing as he coughed. "But I'm more worried about what comes with it. Hariwini expects the Carina to use it as cover for an attack. He's ordered everyone into defensive positions, but in these conditions, it'll be hard to stop them before it's too late."

"He's the Wolf of the Core, I'm sure-" Began the other soldier, but he was cut off by the sound of explosions in the distance. The minefield was being set off.

"Enough talk, Private. Wake the rest of the squad, we'll be needed soon."

"Yes Sir!" The soldier said, saluting before he ran off to the tents.

The other soldiers were rushing around the camp, some of them only recently haven been woken. They were grabbing their railguns and preparing the tanks for battle, some of them running down the ridge to man defensive turrets. Nobody was wondering whether or not they would drive off the attack, they had succeeded the other two times. They were just wondering whether or not they would live or die.

Looks like Hariwini was right again. Thought Günther I just hope that we haven't bitten off more than we can chew.

At least the General made the right decision. Thought Yehiel, staring ahead into the dust storm. Of course, the only reason he knew it was ahead was because everyone else was looking that way. Visibility was practically zero in the dust storm, making the advance much safer. While it might make it harder to spot enemies, the same went for the Terrans. Once they had made it through their lines, they could easily take their objectives from the unsuspecting soldiers guarding them.

A flare went up deep within the dust storm, just barely bright enough to be seen. It was the signal to advance. Almost immediately, the Carina moved out. The tank below Yehiel lurched as it began to move, an unfortunate side effect of having treads. Terrans got the luxury of having smooth acceleration when they rode on top of their tanks.

Normally, the infantry would be riding inside of APCs, but they had lost most of the vehicles to the Terrans in the last two attacks. Riding on top of tanks was the only way to get most of the 69th to the front, not that it was a rare sight. Most soldiers remembered a time when they had to ride on a tank during either an attack or a simple relocation. After all, APCs weren't known for their ability to combat tanks, especially not Terran ones.

An explosion went off nearby, but all Yehiel could see was the flash. It was a tank that had crossed the edge of the gap in the minefield, sentencing its crew to death. At least, that's what he hoped it had been. The only alternative was artillery fire, which would make it clear that the Terrans knew where they were. If they did, then the operation would be a complete failure.

He felt the tank begin to slow, prompting him and the rest of his squad to jump off into the desert sands. The rest of the soldiers were doing the same, and some of the tanks turned their turrets to the left and the right to cover the departing troops. Everything seemed to be going perfectly, but the orderly departure of the troops was interrupted by a scream. Nobody knew who it belonged to, but everyone heard it loud and clear.


Sure enough, a stream of railgun slugs flew towards the 69th. Yehiel ran to the nearest cover that there was, a small rock just in front of him. He returned fire with his own railgun, but in the dust storm, it was doubtful that he actually managed to hit anything. If he had, then he was lucky in more ways than one thanks to the low visibility of the dust storm. He wouldn't need to know the face of the man he killed.

The tanks opened fire in tandem with the rest of the 69th, the thunderous sound of their cannons shaking Yehiel's chest. Squads rushed forward, some being hit by enemy fire, some being lucky enough to make it to cover. The commander of Yehiel's squad yelled for an advance, and he obeyed. Railgun slugs flew past him, some just barely missing him. His luck hadn't run out just yet.

"Keep pushing!" Yelled the Sergeant, and Yehiel once again obeyed. As he rushed forward into the Terran fire, he prayed silently in his head. Praying that the Terran fire pass him by.

But the slug of a railgun doesn't care who it hits.

He fell onto the sand, dropping his railgun. White feathers stained with the crimson red of blood flew up into the dust storm, carried away by its wind. The shredded remains of his left wing lay on the ground beside him, blood pouring out onto the already tainted sand. The pain was simply too much. All he could sense in that moment was the horrid pain in his wing. He couldn't stand, he couldn't even move. All he could do was cry out in the bloodcurdling scream of a soldier in pain

The br-zap of railguns filled the ears of Günther as he blindly fired his own weapon into the dust storm. The Carina forces had arrived, and the Terrans were prepared. Even so, it was obvious that they would need to pull back. While they expected the attack, they didn't expect the entire enemy force to arrive at the same time. Most of the heavy forces were being held back, the idea having been that the Carina would have continued their advance if they thought they could still succeed. Unfortunately, the enemy was better prepared than they had anticipated.

"Get to cover!" He yelled to his squad, ducking behind a rock. "Hold them as long as you can!"

A tank shell landed near another soldier next to him, sending shrapnel into them as they fell out of cover to be hit by an enemy railgun slug. Some of the shrapnel hit Günther himself, but he was lucky enough to have it be stopped by his armor. Mostly, that is. Some of it tore into his arm, enough to cause him to yelp out in pain, but not enough to make him useless. He lifted his railgun and fired a barrage towards the Carina, hoping that he might, by some coincidence, hit whoever killed the soldier next to him.

A railgun fired from behind a nearby rock, its slugs just barely missing Günther. The Carina had gained so much ground in so little time, there was barely any reason to even try to hold the position.

"ALL FORCES, FALL BACK!" Yelled the Captain of his Company, and Günther thanked God that the Captain knew when to quit. He raised his railgun once more, firing at the rock nearby.

"I'll cover your retreat, get out of here!" He yelled to his squad, who didn't question the order for a second. The Carina behind the rock looked out to aim for a shot, and Günther immediately opened fire. One of his slugs hit the man right in the head, the force was enough to kill him instantly.

Günther himself started to fall back, diving over another rock behind him and firing a few shots. The nearest cover was a sand dune nearly parallel to him, aside from it, there was another, smaller rock a ways behind him. He chose to go for the sand dune, which provided more cover and was closer. It also let him cover the retreat of his squad better, since it was closer to the enemy.

He jumped out of cover and ran to the dune, just barely making it through the Carina fire. He took a moment to catch his breath, looking around him to see it anyone else was at the dune. As it happened, someone else had made it. The moment Günther laid eyes on the red-furred alien, he knew that he had made the last mistake of his life.

A hail of railgun slugs from the Carina soldier hit Günther, dropping him onto the ground. He was barely alive, not that it mattered. There was no way he would survive. He accepted his fate, closing his eyes, he made what he thought would be his last plea.

Let the squad make it out of this.

Yehiel awoke to the coughing fit of a soldier next to him, his wing still burning with pain. Openeing his eyes, he found himself on a cot in the medical tent at one of the defensive posts along the line. Doctors rushed around the tent, desperately trying to keep everyone inside of it alive. As much as they tried, there would still be deaths. It was an inevitable fact of medicine that some patients will be lost. Even so, they still tried. If a single man lived when he could have died, then they had won a victory.

He closed his eyes again, the light was just too much. The soldier next to him kept coughing, making Yehiel notice the ever-present dust that had made its way into even the medical tent. A few others were coughing-for obvious reasons-but none of them like him. Yehiel opened his eyes for a brief moment to look at the soldier, and he saw that he had lost both his legs, not to mention plenty of blood. His skin was pale and bare, the closest thing to fur being his short-cut, blonde hair. A pair of dog tags lay on a stool between the two cots, reading "Sgt Günther, 7th Motor Brigade". He was a Terran.

Yehiel couldn't help but feel sorry for him.

He reached out for Günther's hand, clasping it with his own. Günther opened his own eyes, looking over at Yehiel. He could only keep them open for a split second, but it was enough to see Yehiel's wings. With the strength he had, he returned the gesture and clasped Yehiel's hand. Neither of them cared that they could have been firing at each other, neither of them cared that the other could have been the one who hit them. In that moment, they just cared that both of them were people, people in the same situation.

"Viel glück." Whispered Günther, his grasp on Yehiel's hand slowly slipping. Yehiel just held Günther's hand harder, refusing to let it go. He didn't know any Terran languages, but he could tell what the words meant.

"Viel glück." He responded, once again tightening his grip. He opened his eyes for just a moment before he fell asleep in his exhaustion.

Günther was smiling.

Yehiel woke up again, finding a doctor standing above him. He looked over to the cot where Günther had been, finding it empty. There was warm metal in his hand, an oddity which he couldn't help but investigate. He brought his hand up to his eyes, opening it to find Günther's dog tags.

"What happened to the soldier next to me?" He asked the doctor, setting his hand down beside him, still clutching the dog tags.

"He died during the night, you were still holding hands."

Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
Avatar of Calle

Calle Rainbow Writer

Contest Mod Seen 2 hrs ago

RPGC#4 - Lies

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: The Mirror Boy, by @Alice

"I still have friends," Tina whispered, her long tangled hair cascaded over her thin shoulders. She looked at the mirror across her room. It was attached to her dresser and just like the mirror in her bathroom, it was covered with black tape. Tina did not want to see herself.

"Do I still matter?"

There was a boy in the mirror that she could not see with her eyes, but knew everything he did, as if they had a mystical connection. The mirror boy nodded at her question, causing a crooked smile to break out on her pale face.

"You always agree with me, don't you?" She pulled her knees up to her chest and giggled, the sound empty and haunted.

"You'll be with me to the end, won't you?"

The mirror boy nodded again. Tina glanced at the mirror and at the tape; she blinked a couple times, slightly frowning, something nagging at the back of her mind, but she ignored the feeling. She stood up and walked toward the mirror, reaching out as if to touch the tape, but pulled back at the last minute. If the tape was removed, her fantasy would be shattered. She would only see a small little girl staring back and not the friend she thought was there.

The friend was a nice looking boy, around sixteen or so. He was quiet and he never talked, always nodded and agreed. They were in love. It was the perfect relationship. The boy went everywhere with her. He was always there by her heart.

"Do you love me?" She asked.


"Do you want to marry me?"


"Do you think I'm pretty?"

She got two nods that time, and she could not help but blush.

"You shouldn't tease me, it makes me feel all flustered inside." Tina twisted blonde strands of hair between her fingers as she glanced toward where the boy would be standing behind the tape.

The boy was smiling now and starting to really tease her.

"I mean it, don't tease me!" She did not like being teased.

The boy's smile grew.

"Is there a reason for this?" She asked, crossing her arms.

"Can't we ever have a normal conversation?" Tina was only fourteen and not quite ready for the next step in their relationship, though they were in love and going steady. Why did he insist on teasing her?

The mirror boy's smile faded.

"So you're sorry now?" Tina asked.


"Will you kiss and make up?" She leaned forward and turned her head, offering her check. Her eyes closed and she smiled slightly.

The boy in the mirror smiled back and Tina was sure she felt his lips brush her cheek.

He was real to Tina. When everything in the world faded, the mirror boy stayed with her. He laughed at her jokes, and cried when she cried. It was always sad to Tina how she could never see the mirror boy with her eyes and the image she saw in her head was always in shadows. The tape always made him dark, almost impossible to make out, but it had to be there; it had to be on every mirror.

She had long forgotten why, nor did she care.

Sitting back down on her bed, away from the mirror boy, she put her face in her hands. She felt cold and sad all the time though. A tear fell down her cheek and she started to shiver.

She wanted the mirror boy to hold her, but never could she feel his arms around her.

Tina curled up into a ball and started to cry; she cried for what felt like forever.

"Please don't cry," whispered a voice.

She looked up and smiled. "You're here?" She said in surprise.

A boy stood next to her, probably sixteen years old. He looked like her best friend that she lost so many years ago in car wreck. She had been the only survivor in the car. Ever since that day, Tina had felt herself go insane with grief. The mirror boy had took his place and over the years she fell in love with him.

"I came." The boy smiled. "I got you a present."

Tina wiped at her tearing eyes. "Me?"

"Yes, close your eyes."

She happily closed her eyes, waiting and waiting and waiting for her present. Her forehead wrinkled after a long while of waiting. Nothing was happening.

"Um, can I open my eyes, please?"

There was no answer.

Finally she just had to open them. The boy was nowhere to be seen.

"Where did you go?" She cried, jumping up and frantically looking all around. The door to her room was locked and could only be opened from the outside. How had he got in and where could he have gone? Tina checked the tiny bathroom attached to her bedroom. There was no sign of him. Just the sink, toilet and mirror covered in black tape.

"Oh, don't go! Please!" Her tears came back and she cried more than she had since the accident.

"Mirror boy!" She screamed. Was he gone too? She ran to the mirror, her eyes wild with fear. She sighed in relief, starting to calm down. He was still there and giving her a concerned look.

"Don't worry, I'm okay," She told the mirror boy.

She walked over to her bedroom door and looked out the tiny window that showed a long hallway of many doors just like hers. Tina tilted her head to the side, confused for a moment, but then she remembered the mirror boy.

"I'm fine. You're with me."

Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
Avatar of Calle

Calle Rainbow Writer

Contest Mod Seen 2 hrs ago

RPGC#5 - Fear

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning Entry: Damocles, by @Keyguyperson

WARNING: This story contains graphic imagery and unsettling circumstances.

Yokosuka, Japan

The cool December air was filled with the salty smell of the ocean, something Niall was more than accustomed to by this point. What he had to get used to, however, was the fact that everyone looked at him a bit longer than usual. It was rare that he wore his uniform in public, and it had been years since he had done so back home. He knew that the stares weren't out of spite (most of the time), but he had never been the kind of person who liked attention.

He tried his best to ignore everyone who was staring at his service khaki as he took a sip from his coffee cup, some welcome warmth in the cold afternoon. In dock to his left was the JDS Sendai, a destroyer that was undergoing its final preparations to be sent out. He had seen it from the deck of the Ronald Reagan when he had arrived months ago. Just like the Sendai, the Reagan was slated to be dispatched to the South China Sea tomorrow.

It took them long enough. Helicopter destroyers aren't enough to fight the entire Chinese Navy.

There wasn't much remarkable about the man, aside from his uniform. The closest thing to something notable was his copper red hair, a trait his wife had been overjoyed to see passed on to their daughter. Aside from that, absolutely nothing was special about him. No freckles, no piercings, no signature hairstyle even (just the oh-so-generic side part). His face wasn't that of the heroic soldier or the chiseled actor, nor was it that of the genius general who always has some improbable plan up his sleeve. It was one you'd expect to see on a street, just a normal face.

With his free (and quite pale) hand, he scrolled through a news site displayed on his phone. It wasn't the newest model, not that he really cared for the difference between the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 6. You didn't need that much power to read articles, and mobile gaming was something he had been steered away from by his daughter. A slight smile appeared on his face at the thought of his daughter, in stark contrast to the consistent doom and gloom that was always displayed on news sites.

The only good thing about the news was that it was at least relevant. Most of the articles focused on the war in Europe, especially in Poland. Everyone seemed to want to see if Poland would manage to remain independent this time. There were a few focusing around the Pacific and South China Sea, but Japan was seeing most of the action there. Given the choice, American news will always decide to report on Americans. Still, reporting on the war was a step up from the consistent stream of barely relevant peacetime articles apparently designed specifically to make you decide that all humans are inherently evil.

"I had a feeling you'd be here."

Niall shifted his gaze to his right, taking his eyes off of the stream of European war updates interspersed with the latest poll numbers. A great smile came to his face as his gaze fell upon the owner of the voice.

"Shinobu!" Said Niall, setting down his coffee and phone to stand up and pat the man on the shoulder "I'm so glad you're alright! When I heard your ship tangled with the Liaoning, I was so worried! How'd you make it out of that?"

Shinobu was Japanese. As much as Niall hated to think about it (even though it was nothing more than basic human instincts), the first thing he noticed about Shinobu was that fact. The second thing he tended to notice was that he was bald, in fact, Niall had never actually seen a non-bald Shinobu. It was quite a common joke among his friends that he had shaved his hair off because he was a natural blonde and didn't want to be mistaken for a rebellious teenager, but such things were purely the realm of humor. He also happened to be significantly more muscular than Niall.

"They sent some of the helicopters out before the carrier arrived. I was lucky enough to be held on standby on the Izumo, but I ended up in the air just in time for us to be hit with their air wing."

"You fought jets in your helicopters?" Said Niall, eyes widening in surprise "How the hell-"

"They don't tell you not to attack helicopters in training just because they think it would be a waste of ammunition. The Chinese had to disengage so they didn't lose too many planes."

"I'll bet they're the laughingstock of the People's Navy now."

"I got five kills in that battle, it's safe to say that the pilots have been discharged for incompetence."

Niall quickly took on the fabricated emotionless look he tended to use whenever something he thought was impossible happened. He blinked deliberately three times, then reached down into his pocket and pulled out a wallet. Holding it right up in front of both their faces, he carefully pulled out two ten thousand yen bills and a single five thousand yen one. Taking hold of Shinobu's hand, he positioned it horizontally directly between he and Shinobu. Finally, he slammed the money into his hand, all while keeping the same, comedic expression.

"Twenty-five thousand yen?" Said Shinobu quizzically, looking at the money in confusion.

"You won the bet."

Shinobu started to laugh, which only served to further humiliate Niall. After Shinobu had transferred from the Air Self Defense Force to the Maritime SDF, they both just took it for granted that the bet was off. After all, it was doubtful that Japan would ever build an actual aircraft carrier due to the fact that it was flat-out illegal. The only Japanese naval pilots flew anti-submarine helicopters, they weren't supposed to become aces in a day.

"I suppose I did." Said Shinobu, finally done with his laughing "Tell you what, if you end up as a double ace, I'll give you the twenty five thousand back."

"If I do it in a day, you relinquish all bragging rights."

"It's a deal."

The two shook hands, despite the utter implausibility of Niall becoming a double ace. It was as much of a joke as the original bet. After all, neither of them actually thought it made sense to reward five kills with what amounts to twenty bucks. Rewarding ten kills with the same amount was just ridiculous.

"Oh yeah." Continued Shinobu "Your daughter sent this to me, she wanted it to be here when you arrived."

He handed Niall an envelope, the address of which identified it as having come from his family's apartment in New York. His daughter had asked for Shinobu's address a week ago while he was on leave, and he was pretty sure he had figured out why she wasn't willing to just use Shinobu's e-mail. With a sloppy tear he opened the envelope, luckily not ripping the letter inside of it. He stared at it for a moment-seemingly in deep thought-before yelling rather loudly in English.


"What's wrong?"

"She took the Eastern US! I needed North America's troop bonus!"

"You're playing a game of Risk by snail mail?" Asked Shinobu, chuckling "Why don't you just use e-mail?"

"She thinks it's more fun this way, more suspense."

"I think that's the first time a teenager has chosen the slower option."

The two looked at each other for a moment, both wanting to be on their way but not wanting to be rude by being the first to suggest it. Instead of settling the matter, they just turned and stared at the Sendai for what felt like an eternity. Neither of them had anything they particularly needed to do, but nor did they have any reasons to stay. In the end, Niall was the one who decided to take the risk.

"Well, I should be on my way. Take care of yourself out there." He said, nodding as he shifted his weight towards the door.

"Good luck to you as well, you'll need it if you want me to relinquish those bragging rights."

New York City

"You look like you haven't even laid down yet, what on Earth have you been doing?"

Niall's worn-out face stared off into space just barely below eye level through the laptop monitor. Though the dissonance between where he thought he was looking and where it looked like he was happened to be quite small, it was still noticeable to anyone who didn't use video chatting for the majority of their social interaction. Until someone invented an invisible webcam that could float in midair and adjust itself for perfect eye contact, the problem wouldn't ever be properly solved. In the meantime, they would have to deal with the barely but clearly present annoyance.

Both were of a pale complexion, and that was exactly where the similarities ended. She had black hair kept in a bob cut (which everyone just loved to contrast with Niall's ginger side part), not to mention the fact that she was quite clearly taller than him. The only thing they really had in common was their heritage, which was Scottish according to their own parents and various websites that they paid too much for membership on. That, and the fact that neither looked very strong.

"Well I'm glad to see you too, Isla." Said Niall, semi-sarcastically. The tone, however, could easily have been blamed on the fact that he appeared to have just woken up from a midday nap that was just barely too short to do anything but make you more tired.

"Well, you do!" Said Isla "I know it's three in the morning over there, but again, you look like you haven't even tried to sleep."

"I haven't. I've been up this whole time."

"This'll be a fun story." Said Isla "There's not exactly much to do in a studio apartment right next to a Naval base."

"Erm..." Began Niall, scratching the back of his neck "I was kind of analyzing a Risk board. Then I got distracted and watched youtube videos for two hours."

"That sounds like something you'd do. I assume you got the letter from Dione?"

"Yeah." Niall nodded "Shinobu gave it to me, he found me in the Starbucks by the base. It's pretty chilly over here, it's nice to have some quality coffee close by."

"A friendly reminder that we're in New York. It's snowing right now, actually."

"Maybe it's a good thing I'm shipping out tomorr-" Said Niall. He caught his mistake, and took a moment to actually decide to correct it "Today. It's the morning. Well, anyways, it means I get to miss the snow. Oh, speaking of Dione, is she there?"

"No, she went to watch The Day After at her friend's house. Probably for the better, you want to travel in packs in this weather."

"Ah, I suppose it can't be helped." He said, failing spectacularly at hiding his disappointment "It's still a shame, it could be months. We don't have skype on the Reagan."

"There's still email." Said Isla, before she giggled quietly "Look at us, we're complaining about not being able to talk face-to-face from opposite sides of the world while you're at war. If this was the last World War, we'd be waiting weeks or months to even know if we're both still alive."

"I guess we're a bit spoiled." Responded Niall, smiling. Shortly afterwards, however, it gave way to a frown. "I have to wonder, though. Would I, in your place, prefer to wait for the news if you died?"

Both were silent for quite some time. It wasn't an awkward pause, but it had the same components. Neither knew what to say in response to an unexpected comment, but it still couldn't truly be called awkward. It was a foreboding silence, one that everyone knew led to a conversation that would leave a bitter taste in their mouths and a wound on their hearts.

"I guess we need to have that conversation." Said Isla, lowering her head in acceptance of the fact that they had to bite the bullet and get it over with. "Oh, why can't we just say you won't die and pretend that's enough?"

"Because that would leave us feeling even worse."

Isla let out a heavy sigh, finally surrendering to the need.

"How would I tell her?"

"I don't know."

Isla's first instinct was to get angry at Niall's lack of a solution, but she suppressed it better than she usually did. The conversation was too important for an argument. If they disagreed later, she'd have to make sure it became something more of a formal debate. Being hostile early on wouldn't help that at all.

"She's a teenager now, but that just makes things worse. As a kid, I would hide it all behind a curtain of metaphors that just barely got the message across, she'd lean on me for support. Now she's too smart for 'Your daddy is in heaven now', too independent to just hug me as we cry together. She'll know if I'm not upfront about it, if I hold back she'll notice and never forgive me."

"Are you sure things would go better if she was younger?"

"Of course they would, have you ever met a teenager who didn't try to keep everything inside of them? Now she would just go into her room and try to process it, then just end up never talking about it. No matter who you are, that's just too much to keep inside of yourself."

"A while back-when I was in college, I think-my uncle died in the Gulf War. He had a son, maybe two at the time. His mother simply told him 'your dad's dead'. He had no idea what 'dead' meant, whenever someone asked, he would happily explain that his father was dead. People tried to explain it, but he just didn't understand. Every 'he's in heaven now' was met with 'when will he be back?' It was weeks until he finally understood, and until then, his mother could barely take it. Believe me, it's much better for you that she's not his age."

"I understand." Said Isla, unsure of how to react to the anecdote. She couldn't quite imagine a little boy nonchalantly saying "My dad's dead!", it felt like something out of a horror movie. "That doesn't change the fact that this is hard."

"There really isn't much of a choice. You'd have to tell her as soon as possible and as clearly as possible, she'd take anything else as an insult."

"In that case, do your best to make sure I don't have to."

"I wouldn't think of doing anything else."

Niall moved to use his laptop's touchpad to end the call, but the action was quickly suspended by Isla.

"Wait, you answered your own question."

"I did?"

"You wondered if it would be better not to know, then said that we'd just feel worse if we didn't talk about... this. That's the answer. It tends to feel worse to not know."

"I suppose it does."

"Good luck."

The call ended with the annoying bloop sound it always did. It usually wasn't anything but annoying, but this time the sound meant something. This might be the last time she ever saw her husband's face, and even if it wasn't, it could be weeks or months before she did again. Never before has that whimsical bloop been so disheartening.

Sighing, she pulled up her internet browser tabs and continued to click through jobs listings like she had all day. It felt wrong, to just go back to the monotonous grind after that kind of talk, especially with how short it was. There wasn't anything that seemed like the right thing to do after that, even just sitting there doing nothing would leave one feeling empty and exhausted.

Let's just hope I never, ever have to tell her that.

"I can barely believe we just saw that for the third time, and I simply can't believe that it's still good!"

The comment could barely be heard over the other conversations going on in the packed subway car, especially with the whir of the engine. School might have gotten out two and a half hours ago, but everyone with a job was just now on their way home. Rush hour in the New York subway wasn't a fun thing to experience, but as Dione knew well, things could have been worse. Still, she had to question the logic in their decision to watch a movie after their early release (their school always let out early on Wednesdays).

"After the travesty that was the Star Trek reboot, I wasn't expecting J.J. to make a Star Wars reboot good." Said Dione, awkwardly trying to turn around so she wasn't staring at some stranger's back. "I guess this time he actually watched the source material."

It had already been a workweek since Dione's father had talked with her mom, and six since she herself had been able to talk with him. She'd gotten an email just yesterday, sure, but it really wasn't the same. Just the usual impersonal updates on who was doing a terrible job at hiding their relationship, what movies they had available, whether the sea was calm or not. Sure, it was all just your usual small talk, but getting it over lines of text made it so much less. It felt more like a textbook than a conversation.

There were, however, still some good conversations, ones that reminded both of them that they were talking with a real person and not some robot. The best was indisputably an hour-long chat through g-mail discussing the plot of The Force Awakens. Niall had seen it in California the day after he left, but she had seen it two days later. There hadn't been time for him to talk about it in detail thanks to the sheer amount of things he had to catch up on that took out of the relatively short period in which he could use the internet. A friend of his, luckily, had given up his timeslot to let the conversation take place.

"The lightsaber cross guards are still ridiculous, though." Replied Caroline, ignoring the fact that Dione still couldn't actually see her. "Oh yeah, did you watch the GOP debate yesterday?"

"Of course I did, the debates are my main source of entertainment at this point."

"Same here, it's just so hilarious how they pretend to answer the questions while they're really just taking potshots at each other."

"That's the best part!" Said Dione, holding back a giggle at what she was about to say. "Remember the bit when what's-her-name managed to slip a joke about Trump's hair into her explanation on how she was going to fix the economy?"

"Yeah, Fiorina said it. My favorite part was when Trump turned the same question about the economy into a rant about immigrants, that was just hilarious!"

"Trump in general is funny. The fact that he might end up as the nominee is completely overshadowed by how absolutely over the top he is in everything that he does. I just can't really take him seriously, even though he's dead serious himself."

She'd given up trying to turn around, instead playing with her scarf. She'd gotten it from Caroline for her eighth birthday, just a few weeks after she'd moved to New York. They were both from outside the state, and ended up being friends simply by virtue of the fact that they always sat on the sidelines together. Both considered that birthday the official beginning of their friendship, and remained extremely proud of the fact that they'd shared most of their classes since.

"Honestly, the President could declare themselves Emperor of North America and I'd just add a funny caption to his face and post it on Tumblr."

"I wonder if politicians will ever realize that they're just a reality show sitcom to half of America."

"Maybe they did, and the antics of this election have been the result of their sudden self-consciousness."

The two shared a laugh, drowned out by the rest of the talking in the virtual sardine can that was the New York subway at rush hour.

"Hey, isn't this your stop?"

"I don't know, my upwards gaze extends to this guy's head. What stop is it?"

"Pelham Bay Park."

"Yep, that's it. My bike's just outside the station. Probably. I mean, let's be honest, anyone with some good wire cutters could steal it."

"I remember when that happened, it made for some of your best snapchats."

The conversation was interrupted by the pre-recorded voice of a woman giving the passengers the obvious information that the doors were opening, which prompted Dione to stand up a bit straighter in preparation for exiting before she got stuck on the train back to the last station. A flood of people began to pour out of the train, a sight to be expected, since it was the last stop of the line before it headed back.

"See you tomorrow!" She said, following the crowd out into the station.

Near Yulin Naval Base, Coast of Hainan, China

Men in black jackets encircled the plane, inspecting every nook and cranny of the F/A-18. The muffled screech of jet engines could be heard even in the cockpit as they stood by, the pilots within awaiting their turn at the catapult. Only visible if the pilot looked back were the ordnance men in their red uniforms, attaching missiles to the plane's wings. Niall went over the operation in his head, barely managing to keep his mind from wandering. His training had drilled him to be stone-cold in combat, not before combat.

So... spearhead the attack on Yulin, clear a path for the helicopters. Protect them while they take out the subs, then we cover their retreat while the fleet pounds the base with everything its got. A simple yet solid plan. He sighed, looking down at his instruments. The only question now is at which stage this all goes to hell.

He didn't have time for conjecture. A woman in a green uniform ran out from behind the plane, and a hand signal set off a series of actions like clockwork. He brought the throttle to full power and took his feet off of the brakes, moving all of the plane's control surfaces in under a second immediately afterwards to verify that they were operational. Not noticing anything unusual himself, he saluted the catapult officer to confirm that he was ready for the launch.

The black jackets of the final checkers (whom Niall liked to call the "men in black" in his head) scurried away from the plane, and a thumbs up to the catapult officer told Niall that he was all clear. He himself couldn't see it, but he knew that the catapult officer was almost certainly signaling the catapult operator that the conditions were perfect. This was confirmed when the hold-back on the catapult snapped in half and the plane was launched forwards, shoving him back into his seat as if he was on a roller coaster made by a company that had a blatant disregard for safety regulations.

Music started playing in his head-it always did when he flew off of the carrier. It wasn't exactly the most professional thing to have going through your mind while going into combat, and if his CO knew about it he'd be thoroughly chewed out. He just couldn't help it, which he (perhaps unfairly) blamed on Dione and her love of metal. To be perfectly honest, he didn't have that much of a problem. He'd never lost his focus because of it, and he doubted he was the only one. He just wished that it wasn't always the same song, and that said song was actually about Navy pilots and not the Battle of Britain.

Jump in the cockpit and start up the engines!
Remove all the wheel blocks,
there's no time to waste!
Gathering speed as we head down the runway,
gotta get airborne before it's too late!

As he climbed to meet the rest of his squadron, he continued to chastise himself on his choice of background music for the band in his head to play. A radio message from the squadron leader would have snapped him out of it, if there had been anything to snap out of. It wasn't as though the music was an actual distraction, after all, he was a pilot. If a pilot gets distracted, then there's something wrong with that pilot.

"We'll be taking the center." He said, his age concealed by his young-sounding voice "If I've been half-competent, you'll know not to rely on anything that even involves satellites. The Chinese could take down our whole network if they weren't afraid of also taking down every other thing up there."

Niall joined his squadron as they continued to climb to combat altitude, streaking towards the enemy the whole time. He'd been in combat plenty of times before-he couldn't count how many bombs he'd dropped in Afghanistan-but it was an entirely different can of worms this time. Al-Qaeda didn't have interceptors, nor did it have an aircraft carrier and a full fleet to support it. He might have had the countless hours of training, and the similarly large number of hours spent in practice engagements, but never the real thing. He'd be lying terribly if he said he wasn't nervous.

Running, scrambling, flying
Rolling, turning, diving, going in again!
Run, live to fly, fly to live, do or die.
Run, live to fly, fly to live, Aces high!

The song kept on repeating itself over and over again in his head, filling the endless wait for enemy contact. In a way, it was worse than combat. In combat, he knew exactly what he was doing and exactly how to act. At this point, all he could do was sit there, fully alert, waiting for an enemy plane to show up on his radar or to hear the alarm telling him an enemy plane had locked onto him. Constant alertness means constant anticipation, and constant anticipation means a constant flow of adrenaline. It was all he could to do keep his arms and legs in place. Instead of fidgeting, he just crossed and uncrossed his toes over and over again in an attempt to relieve stress.

The origins of the action were embarrassing, to say the least-Dione had walked in on a conversation between him and Isla about how twitchy he was in combat when she was five or so. Right when they were bracing themselves to come up with some implausible explanation for the overabundance of the word "die" in the conversation, she mentioned that crossing her toes always helped her sit still. He'd done it in flight ever since.

A series of dots suddenly appeared on the screen to the left of the plane's joystick, radar signatures. Enemy planes, almost certainly from the Liaoning. Obviously, there wasn't any "green dots good, red dots bad" system on the radar. That was purely the realm of video games that didn't expect players to be trained combat pilots. Still, there wasn't much else that an arrow made up of aircraft coming straight from an enemy Naval base could be.

"We outnumber them by four, we can sort for this one." Said the squadron leader, his voice completely serene despite the situation. "Akiyama, Yates, Kijek, Hudson, Heffernan, Flanagan-you're on your own. Adler is with Rowe, Krämer is with Junge, Mingo is with Aritza, Sobol is with Lister."

Hearing his last name second to last with Sobol, Niall immediately knew what to do. Sorting into twos without any explicit instructions always meant that one pilot would fire a missile at a bad angle just to scare the enemy by giving them a lock and a missile to worry about while the other pilot fired a missile with the intent to kill, guiding it perfectly the entire way at the risk of getting hit by a missile themselves. To make things easier, it had been agreed upon beforehand that the first name was the one who would go for the bad shot while the other member of the group went for the kill (unless otherwise specified, obviously).

Unfortunately for VFA-102 (lovingly known as the Diamondbacks), China's strategy for holding superiority over American forces focused on having the best missiles on Earth, which was a goal they had regrettably accomplished. Their standard air-to-air missile had a longer range, which gave them the first shot advantage. Given the utter futility in trying to fire first, all the pilots chose to hold their fire until the enemy launched a missile.

For the pairs, it was a given that whoever was locked onto would fire the decoy missile, no matter what their preassigned role was. It may have seemed like too quick of a departure from the plan, but had it not been carried out, multiple pilots could have been lost. In some scenarios plans and orders came before reactions and survival instinct, but this was not one of them.

"I'm painted." Reported Sobol in the monotone that pilots were so famous for. He immediately began to maneuver to avoid the missile headed towards him, which put Niall in the lucky position of getting to have his chances of continued survival reduced to the same probability of getting tails in a coin toss. It might have been unquestionably the "cooler" position to be in, but looking cool doesn't mean anything if you die immediately afterwards. Besides, it never feels good to know you're about to end a life.

Niall's instruments informed him that he had succeeded in locking onto one of the enemy planes, but he didn't take the shot. Though technically not that bad of a move, it was generally better to have the decoy come in before the actual killing blow. Otherwise, you've really done nothing but more or less waste a missile. Which, aside from costing thousands of dollars, also represents a possible kill.

Sobol fired off his decoy missile, choosing to temporarily position himself so that the angle wasn't absolutely abysmal. Though he would still have to guide it from numerous terrible positions, firing it off at a good angle made it just a little bit more likely to hit. It was a minuscule difference, but there were countless instances in such battles where the missile meant to be the killing blow missed, while the decoy hit. Even the slightest change in chances could mean the difference between life and death for a pilot, and that difference could make or break an operation.

Niall, seeing Sobol's missile, fired off his own. He had barely any chance to make evasive maneuvers now, unless he was willing to compromise the accuracy of his shot. Just moments later, an enemy missile came streaking towards Sobol's plane. He wasted no time in dropping chaff and rolling to the side and down away from the missile, narrowly avoiding certain death as the missile detonated in the cloud of aluminium pellets. Niall kept pressing forward, not yet locked onto by the enemy.

What felt like an eternity passed, and the screen which displayed enemy locks remained reassuringly empty. He was still outside of visual range, most certainly too far for an infrared tracking missile. Unless the enemy got a radar lock, he was perfectly safe. Finally, his own lock faded as the enemy plane plummeted to the ground. He'd just achieved his first air-to-air kill, as had two of his fellow pilots. Whom, he couldn't be sure of. The sudden change in plans brought about by the Chinese using their technological superiority made it impossible to know exactly who's kills they were.

The sound of an explosion overpowered the sound of Niall's own engines, instinctively making him look over to his left. He honestly didn't know what to expect, after all, critical thinking isn't one's strong suit when presented with a deafening sound. The view of a third aircraft falling to the ground confronted him, one of his own comrades. He counted to five, then looked away. There wasn't any sign of an ejection seat or parachute, whomever had been piloting the plane was dead.

"Lister reporting, one of ours is down. Over." He reported, not even a hint of emotion in his voice. Training had beaten it out of him. He wasn't emotionless-not by a longshot-but in combat, an emotional voice could mean an unclear message, and nothing good could ever come out of an unclear message.

"Copy, Kijek reporting. That was Hudson, the missile came at a bad angle for chaff. Over and out."

As if nothing had happened, the squadron performed the attack once more. Sobol fired off another decoy, and Niall let loose his second and last long-range missile. They'd be entering visual range any second, and nobody wanted to let anything go to waste. The enemy fighters fired off their last few missiles as well, but didn't see them through, instead choosing to attempt to evade the incoming barrage. It was really no more useful than throwing a handful of rocks with your eyes closed, but even a blind man can score a hit through sheer luck.

Luckily for Squadron 102, the Chinese turned out to not be that lucky. All of the enemy shots missed, but one of their planes went down thanks to a missile that Niall guessed had come from either Akiyama or Yates. With all their long-range ammunition exhausted, both groups rocketed towards each other, waiting for visual contact. Though still technically in combat, there wasn't any weapons fire or evasive maneuvers, just waiting like before they had detected the enemy. Niall kept himself locked on the same enemy he had fired on last time, ready to open up with his cannons or heat-seeking missiles at a moment's notice.

"Akiyama reporting, visual contact at 12 o'clock."

Once again, not a hint of emotion.

"Roger" Was the only response Niall sent and the only one he needed to send. He scanned the sky, finding the enemy aircraft within a moments notice.

"All pilots, head on! Head on!" Said the squadron leader, not quite yelling, but certainly speaking louder than normal.

Knowing exactly what he was saying, the squadron flew right into what was almost certainly the enemy group. Niall was the first to open fire, launching a heat-seeking missile at the one enemy fighter he could clearly see. Luckily for him, their suspicions had been right. The Liaoning was there, and with it its air wing of Shenyang J-15 naval fighters, which were never designed to have a conservative heat profile. The missile hit perfectly, without the enemy pilot even knowing it was coming. He was luckier than Hudson, and after a few seconds the white fabric of a parachute silhouetted itself against the sky. His second kill, and a damn lucky one at that. Had the pilot deployed chaff, he would have missed.

The five remaining enemy aircraft came at them from one side, downing two planes with their cannons (it was hard to get an infrared lock on an F/A-18 unless you were right behind it). Both ejected successfully, cannons being what they always were. The enemy swooped in behind the remaining planes, all of whom dropped flares to fool the heat-seeking missiles. It was the perfect call, which they learned when ten missiles passed below them, their locks lost. One pilot, whomever it was, was just a little too slow on the call and was downed. Five seconds, no parachute. Perhaps another young man's first kill.

"Lister, Sobol, Fredrick, Freeman, go for it." Ordered the squadron leader.

"Wilco!" Called out Niall, steeling himself for the turn that he knew was coming.

Bursts of cannon fire flew past the planes, putting holes in a couple wings. Niall and the other three planes pulled Immelmann turns, passing above the enemy fighters as the rest of the squadron continued its evasive maneuvers. The maneuver was already harsh enough on the body, but nothing a trained combat pilot couldn't easily handle. The only concern was what came next.

Niall pointed his plane's nose straight down, careening towards the ground for a mere few seconds. In a sharp movement, he pulled the nose back up and brought himself back into level flight behind the enemy. The maneuver shoved him abruptly down into his seat with the power of multiple times Earth's gravity. Ignoring the momentary pain, he fired off a missile at the plane that was now situated directly in front of him, downing it within a split second. His third kill, an impressive quota for just a few hours of combat.

His comrades opened fire with their own missiles, downing two more enemy planes. Niall didn't check for parachutes. The enemy, meanwhile, had downed three other planes. The remaining few enemy planes took a gamble and began their own Immelmann turns, hoping to position themselves behind the four planes that had broken off. Niall braced for enemy fire, his hands ready to begin evasive maneuvers.

Before he had to, however, the planes that had stayed ahead to draw enemy fire performed their own Immelmann turns. You didn't often see three of the same maneuver performed within a few minutes, especially not one as fundamental as the Immelmann. The perfectly-timed maneuver put them right behind the enemy planes, at which point they fired a barrage of cannon fire (not to mention a few missiles). The enemy planes dropped behind Niall and his group, a few uncounted parachutes opening. The enemy squadron had been brought down.

"Good job, everyone. Make sure HQ knows where our boys went down, it'd be a damn shame if someone survived their ejection only to drown in the ocean."

Below them helicopters from the Izumo were scanning the ocean, looking for the submarines stationed at the nearby Naval base. One of them stopped, and shortly afterwards about five of them opened fire on the water. A few moments later, they stopped and waited for a tense few seconds before dispersing to continue combing the sea. They'd got one, a very welcome victory for the allied fleet. Yulin was China's main submarine base, and the one where they kept the ones armed with nuclear missiles. Each one they sunk was another blow to their nuclear deterrent.

Niall sighed, relaxing the tiniest bit in his cockpit. It was a job well done, and he'd gotten three kills-more than he could have ever hoped for in his first real air-to-air engagement. At this point, someone always congratulated everyone alongside the squadron leader, and usually cracked a joke or two to lighten the mood. Every once in a while, the joke fell flat thanks to just how serious the mission had been, but it was always well-meaning. This was the perfect time for a joke, something to make everyone feel a bit more optimistic, better about what they'd done. Niall was waiting for it, but it never came. He quickly figured out why.

"I'll miss Hudson." He said, this time without the emotionless monotone he was trained to use.

New York City

The school's blacktop was covered with snow, dotted by footprints as students crisscrossed it on their way to the surrounding benches and tables. A dozen or so teenagers were having a snowball fight in the middle of it, completely ignoring the idea of eating lunch. To be fair, more than a few probably just didn't have a lunch. Luckily for them, the world had decided that it might as well provide them a distraction in the form of what was shaping up to be one hell of a fun snowball fight.

Dione sat on the sidelines of the spectacle, every once in a while looking up to consider joining in. She opted instead to eat her lunch, after all, she was quite hungry after last night. Isla had been out interviewing for a job at the Freedom Tower, and she had neglected to actually have dinner due to her engagement in the story of Fallout 4. She also hadn't had breakfast, mainly because she had stayed up until two playing the game and couldn't be bothered to wake up in time for it. Pathetic? Extremely. Worth it? Most definitely. She'd made it a quarter of the way through her second playthrough.

She kept on pulling her scarf down from over her mouth to eat, then quickly putting it back up again after creating a white cloud of moisture with her breath. It was still freezing cold outside, and she didn't spend too much time outside to begin with, instead preferring the warmth of indoor heating. Even so, she always liked winter weather. It might make your fingers freeze without gloves and force you to constantly wear a coat, but it was nonetheless soothing in a way. As such, New York was the perfect place for her. It might not snow overwhelmingly often, but the freezing cold and dreary gray sky were actually her favorite parts. And New York had plenty of freezing days where the sun was obscured by a hazy sky.

"Watching the boys play? And here I thought you only had eyes for Allen."

Dione looked up to see her best friend, Caroline. She faked an annoyed sigh, the comedic value of which was somewhat diminished by the scarf around her mouth. The exaggerated eye-rolling, however, got the point across just fine. She lowered the scarf before speaking, not wanting to muffle her words.

"The winner wins my royal hand in marriage." She said sarcastically, wiping some of the snow off the bench to make room for Caroline. "Long line in the cafeteria?"

Dione and Caroline, although best friends, didn't look at all similar beyond the fact that they were both girls. Caroline always kept her dirty blonde hair well-combed, while Dione's copper-like hair tended to be so unkempt that it could easily harbor a bronze-age civilization without anyone actually noticing. Caroline was easily taller as well, after all, Dione had inherited most of her looks from her dad. In stark contrast to nearly every other human being with ginger hair, however, she had not a single freckle.

"I envy you people who have time in the morning to pack lunches."

"Time in the morning?" Said Dione, before breaking out in a laughing fit which filled the air around her with moisture from her breath "I pack exclusively non-perishables before I go to bed."

"Well, that's still technically packing it in the morning, given how late you stay up."

"Can't argue with that." She responded, before taking a bite out of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she had packed, which was now more liquid than solid. "Did you manage to finish your update this time?"

Caroline stuck her fork into a small pile of unseasoned mashed potatoes, swallowing the whole bite in a somewhat annoyed manner before responding.

"They turned 'Procrastinating Caroline' into a local meme. I have a great idea for the next installment, but the homework's been killing me. I might do it tomorrow."

"I know the feeling. I'm still trying to come up with a plot for my magazine submission, and the deadline for that is in two weeks. I'm waiting until the weekend, maybe Santa gives me an early Christmas present in the form of a saw to cut the writer's block."

"Damn, Christmas break is right around the corner. That just feels wrong, didn't we just start school, like, yesterday?"

"I know right? It's too early for this!"

"Oh yeah, what did he say?"

Dione stopped eating mid-bite, slowly chewing and swallowing the soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had morphed into a single blob of non-Newtonian fluid since being packed. After doing so, she sighed and looked down.

"Of course you didn't ask him out." Said Caroline, slapping her palm to her forehead in disappointment.

"Oh come on, it isn't as if he actually likes me." Said Dione, more defensive than one might expect from such a pessimistic comment. "Allen and I have been friends for quite some time, I'm not going to end that by asking him out when he doesn't even like me."

"Dione, we already talked about this. He totally likes you."

"No, he really doesn't."

"Look, isn't it worse to let it lay in uncertainty? You can either figure it out instantly and maybe be hurt, or live the rest of your life wondering if things might have gone differently."

"I'd choose the latter."

"Then your life must be pretty stressful. Just trust me on this one, ask him out today. No matter what he says, you'll have your answer. Even if the answer isn't what you want it to be, at least you asked."

"But if it's no, what'll happen to what we have right now? I'm happy with it, and this just risks losing that."

"You're happy, but not satisfied. Besides, Allen is sweet and easygoing. Even if he says no, I doubt your friendship would fall apart."

"Can you be sure though?"

"He calls the guy who is actively campaigning for Jeb Bush his best friend, meanwhile, he's making calls asking for donations to freaking Bernie Sanders. His policy seems to be 'I disagree, wanna play a video game or something?' Again, kind of a d-" She cut the remark short, realizing how mean describing someone as a doormat might sound. "He's really easygoing, trust me, you'll be better off if you ask him."

"Oh, alright." Said Caroline, making the reluctance clear in her voice "I'll do it tomorrow."

"Nuh-uh, you're going to do it after school today."

"I'm doing it tomorrow, or else you don't get the Cheetos."

Caroline closed her mouth, which was already open to fire back with a spiel about how Dione would just "forget" about the whole thing.

"You brought Cheetos today?"

"I don't know, but I'll bet the chances are higher if you don't give a full hour-long persuasive speech."

"Okay, do it tomorrow. Now give me the Cheetos."

Near Yulin Naval Base, Coast of Hainan, China

The sound of the jet engine at half-power had nearly faded into nothingness, having been continuously droning on for nearly an hour. The Naval Base stood in ruins below the squadron of fighters, still smoking from the missile strikes. The operation was supposed to be over by now, planned to be nothing more than a short hit-and-run. Instead, it had turned into an all-out naval battle. The helicopters hadn't managed to take out the second nuclear submarine, and plenty of conventionally-fueled ones continuously struck at the allied fleet. It would be a victory, ,but a costly victory. The worse part was that there was nothing a fighter squadron could do about it.

"Incoming." Said the voice of Kijek, breaking the excruciating calm. "Twenty-four planes. Approaching from inland."

A two to one advantage versus us. Thought Niall. But not enough to combat the whole air wing, what the hell are they doing?

Numerous dots appeared on Niall's own radar screen, the enemy planes reported by Kijek. He didn't break from the idle formation the squadron was in, after all, they had expended all of their long-range weaponry and quite a few short-range missiles. If they planned on engaging, they'd need to pull of one hell of a miracle.

"We're engaging. We were ordered not to let anything through, and we're not going to."

Despite his personal objections, Niall followed the orders and broke out of the idle formation to engage the enemy fighters. The enemy could devote two planes to each of their own, meaning that he'd have to make perfect split-second decisions if he wanted to survive. He might have always been a bit lucky, but not lucky enough to avoid four missiles. He kept one eye on the sky ahead and the other on his screens, not wanting to miss any lock-on warning.

The thrust of the plane's engine at full throttle pushed him back into his seat as the squadron streaked towards the enemy. As he had expected, two red dots appeared on his right-side screen. He began to fly his plane in a wave-like motion in an attempt to hopefully avoid being hit. A mere thirty seconds later (an eternity for a fighter pilot in combat), the missile came. Knowing it was a decoy, he just pushed his nose down and spun to the side. He braced for the killshot, scanning his radar screens and the sky for a sign of it.

Nothing showed up though, the other enemy pilot having wasted his long-range missile lock. That's when it really hit him. The enemy didn't intend to end up in a serious battle with his squadron, the one missile they decided to use was fired at him to keep them all guessing. Instead of focusing on scanning for incoming missiles, he turned his mind to planning a strategy for the visual-range engagement. They were most likely newer models, so he couldn't rely on a shoddy heat profile. In a head-on fight he'd have to rely on cannons, so getting behind them was a massive priority. Once again, the best way to do so was a good old-fashioned Immelmann.

"Visual contact." Said Yates,

Niall refocused his attention to the sky, and sure enough, there was the enemy. All twenty-four of them, bearing down on the weakened squadron. He immediately locked onto the plane right in front of him, repositioned his plane to point at the ideal targeting point as calculated by his onboard computer. The moment the heading marker and the aiming mark aligned, he fired a burst of cannon fire. The plane spun out of control, its pilot desperately trying to right it in order to bail out. He quickly switched targets, after all, firing on a plane going down had similar implications to putting holes in a parachute.

Four He thought, eyes widening. I'm almost an ace, in just a single battle.

With lightning instincts, he pointed his plane at yet another target and fired a burst. No connection. Seconds later, he fired another at the same target, downing it. Much to his annoyance, he then passed the enemy formation, missing his chance to take out another plane. He immediately pulled up into an Immelmann turn, planning to strike the planes from above with his remaining missiles. The realization finally struck him in the middle of the turn.

I'm an ace.

After completing the turn, he aimed downwards at the enemy squadron to find that four more of their planes had been shot down. He had rushed in behind them earlier than the rest of his squadron, and was in the perfect position to strike.

"Better have the twenty bucks ready, Shinobu!"

Without a second thought, he launched both his remaining missiles and locked on to the third nearest plane (not wanting to waste bullets on a plane that was about to be downed by a missile anyways). One of the enemy pilots deployed chaff just in time, the other wasn't so lucky, and his plane's engine was completely obliterated by the hit. The blast sent him spinning headfirst towards the ground. He wasn't going to be ejecting. A couple bursts of cannon fire brought down his locked target, and he quickly switched to the plane his missile had failed to hit. Not waiting for the lock, he fired a stream of bullets in a wide area in front of the plane, ripping a hole in its right wing. Another burst, this time coordinated with the automatic targeting system, brought it down.

He dipped below the enemy planes, this time circling around them to bleed off speed until he was behind them once again. It was a vomit-inducing maneuver, but it was certainly better than flashing his widest profile at enemy cannons. Finding himself right on the tail of the rightmost plane of their formation, he fired another stream of bullets. His eighth kill of the day. At the rate he was going, it was almost inevitable that he'd be a double ace. It was nothing more than a streak of amazing luck, but he was going to be a double ace in a day.

I wonder if Erich Hartmann just ended up getting lucky. He thought as he prepared a lock on what would be his ninth kill.

"I'm seeing a convoy moving in from the northwest, headed towards the shore." Said Kijek, just as Niall pulled the trigger, downing the enemy plane "Looked military, someone ought to check it out."

"I'm out of missiles." Responded Niall "I can go."

"Do it." Said the squadron leader. "That convoy could be carrying anything, we're not taking a risk here."

Niall turned away from the fight, taking comfort in the knowledge that he might have, through sheer luck, turned it into a winnable one. He re-oriented his plane towards the northeast, keeping an eye on the ground for any sign of the convoy that had been spotted. It could have been just Kijek seeing things, but if it wasn't and he hadn't flown out to check, God knows what might happen. It could be anything from a medical team to a bunch of nuclear missiles about to pound Japan into dust. Not that a nuclear war was likely, after all, if one missile launches, all of them do. Nobody wanted to cause a mass extinction.

I guess I'll just have to wait a bit for those twenty-five bucks.

After a few minutes of searching, he found them. A dozen enemy vehicles, moving towards the shoreline. One of them was a large truck, a mobile missile launch site. There wasn't any easy way to tell what kind of missile it was carrying, but it was obviously one of their "carrier killers". A land-to-sea missile designed a few years ago to destroy enemy warships from well inland. The only reason the allied Navy was still afloat was because satellites kept eyes on every single mobile missile launch site China had, if that wasn't the case, every last ship would be destroyed right in its berth.

"It's a mobile launch site, probably carrying a DF-12."

Moments after he sent the message, the convoy abruptly stopped, spooked by the presence of his plane. The missile began to slowly tilt upward, moving into launch position.

"We'll send a ground attack squadron." Said the squadron leader "Mark the location."

"There's no time, they're setting up!" He replied, the emotionless monotone installed in him by training breaking up. There was no doubt it would be aimed at the Reagan, and if it hit, the ship went down.

We should've sent someone who still had missiles. He thought, before leaning back into his seat. There was only one way the carrier survived, and it wasn't at all favorable to him.

"Shit." He muttered, pushing his throttle up to military speed and circling around. "I'm ramming it."

There wasn't anyone who voiced opposition, but there wasn't anyone who liked it. Still, they knew there was no way to avoid it. If he didn't take out the missile launcher, thousands of people would die and the battle would be lost. It was simply the only option.

I should've written up my response to her invasion of Scandinavia before the battle. He thought as he turned his plane to face the missile launcher, rocketing towards it faster than the speed of sound. He took a big gulp, not at all prepared for what came next.

A sharp tug on a handle below his seat deafened him with the sound of the plane's canopy being blown off with explosives, giving way to the sound of whooshing air. A split second later his chin was slammed into his chest as his seat rocketed up into the air, his legs narrowly missing the cockpit instruments. Seconds later, the drogue chute of his ejection seat deployed. It all happened too fast for him to notice what was going on, but that told him what he had to do.

He immediately pulled at the cord that cut the chute's wire, then pulled on the one that opened the main chute. It was a hell of a gamble, though he was too low to use the drogue chute, the main one could easily rip off and leave him hitting the ground at speeds faster than sound. Even if he did survive, he'd have some major injuries. If not for his seat and gear, he'd be suffocating as his arms were torn off. At the moment of ejection, he flat-out couldn't breath due to the g-forces. Now he got to look forward to broken bones from a high-speed rendezvous with the ground.

Thankfully, the main chute didn't snap off, which he confirmed by the fact that he wasn't dead yet. A few moments later, he fell through the tree branches and hit the ground. Hard. The seat landed on its side, and he tried to remove his restraints. His arms wouldn't move. Panicking, he looked down at one. It was a shredded mass of flesh, bone, and blood. He was absolutely horrified for a moment as the pain rushed into him, but it was soon dulled by his sheer ecstasy at still breathing. He'd survived something he really, really shouldn't have.

The happiness was broken when he heard the rustling of leaves behind him. He couldn't look thanks to his shredded arm, but it was quite obvious who they were. It was against the Geneva Conventions to kill a pilot parachuting from his plane, but the law didn't exactly cover what to do if said pilot had only ejected because he didn't want to perform a suicide attack. He didn't doubt that it would be easy to make it seem like he'd bailed out with hostile intent, and could therefore be killed. With all the branches, he couldn't even see the shadow of whoever was behind him. If they did plan to kill him, he wouldn't even see it coming.

"Fǒu! Fǒu!"

The screaming came with the sound of more rustling leaves, and the next thing he knew, there was a gunshot. He closed his eyes at the sound, fully expecting to die instantly. He didn't feel anything though. For a moment, he wondered if the universe was merciful enough to take away the pain of death.

"Tāmen tuīchū hé dǎodàn! Jiéshùle!" Said the same man who had been screaming earlier.

The gunshot had made it clear that they were soldiers, but Niall had no idea what they were saying. He didn't know a word of Chinese, for all he knew, they could be discussing whether to kill him or take him prisoner.

"Hé dǎodàn?" Asked the man who Niall thought was the first soldier to find him. His voice was quivering, hopefully a sign that he wasn't going to shoot again. "W-wèishéme ne? Tāmen wèishéme yào nàme zuò ne?"

"Měiguó tuīchū tāmen de, ránhòu èluósī. Jiéshùle, jiéshùle..." At this point, the man was clearly in tears. Not happy ones either, he was devastated. It wasn't the voice of a man who had failed his mission, it was the voice of a man who had just seen everything he loved burnt to dust before him.

"Wèishéme ne?"

"Wǒ bù zhīdào! Zhǐyào bù shāle tā!"

"Wèishéme ne?" Yelled the other man, less sorrowful and more angry. "Tāmen shāle wǒmen suǒyǒu rén! Měi gèrén! Tāmen shāle dàjiā!"

"Tā méiyǒu zuò dào zhè yīdiǎn! Zhè shì tā de zhèngfǔ, méiyǒu rén huì xiǎng zhège! Bǎ qiāng fàngxià!"

Whatever had been said, it made one of them drop their gun. Footsteps followed as one of them came around to where Niall could see them. Only the legs and hands of the man were visible, but they were telling. Their pants were torn and blood tickled down their hands, they'd run right through the forest without even trying to avoid branches and thorns. The man reached down to take off Niall's helmet, then removed his straps. Even as he hauled his body out of the seat, Niall couldn't get a look at his face. All he heard was sobbing.

Niall was finally set down, and finally saw the man's face. He was rather lanky, and had short, black hair. He was, after all, a Chinese man in the army. The sobs weren't just in his head either, the man was quite clearly crying, and not at all softly. His face was twisted into an expression of absolute devastation that it would chill the soul of anyone who looked at it, and Niall was no exception. The man was so incredibly sad, and he had no idea why.

"Stick" He said weakly, pointing to a twig lying on the ground with his now-freed left arm (which was luckily still functioning). "Give"

Despite the fact that he didn't speak any Chinese, he could read it. Anyone who read Japanese could read about eighty percent of Chinese, as they both shared most of their characters. There was still a way to communicate with his captors, he just hoped it didn't require knowledge of the twenty percent of Chinese that was completely different. The man was able to understand, and handed him the twig. With his good hand, he began to draw a single character on the ground. It was only the word "what", but he hoped the idea would get across.

Much to his dismay, the man looked at it in confusion. Apparently, it wasn't shared between the two languages. He wiped away the drawing, replacing it with a simple question mark. The man nodded, and pulled the twig out of his hand. Apparently noticing that he only knew Japanese, the man drew only three characters, hoping that the message would be simple enough.

The first one was a cross with two more arms below the horizontal line, followed by a vaguely z-shaped figure above the curved line of a half-circle with a single line protruding from the center. He didn't know what it was in Chinese, but in Japanese it was the character "Kaku", a character he knew well because it was both the name of a renowned physicist and also used in the (now very often thrown-around) phrase "Kaku heiki". Nuclear weapons.

His stomach twisted into a knot at the thought, bile flowed into his mouth before he just barely managed to swallow it. He tried to dismiss it, telling himself no one would dare use nuclear weapons. One of them being launched meant all of them being launched. Mutually Assured Destruction. It seemed like the only logical conclusion that something terrible had happened, that the underlying fear of everyone that knew the full gravity of the situation had come to pass. Even so, there were times where the truth was much easier to accept than what it looked like it had to be. He was sure it was such a time.

The next character he didn't know, but the third one he did. It was a part of the latter phrase. He didn't need to know the second character, it was obvious now. His luck was over. Their luck was over. The horsehair had been snipped and the sword had fallen on the Kings of the Earth. It was exactly what he had feared it was.

He'd always wondered how he would react to such news, what he would do if he knew everything he had done was in vain. He'd imagined himself doing almost everything. Going mad, destroying everything near him in anger, cowering in fear for what could be the last moments of his life. He never imagined himself doing what he was about to do.

He just started crying.

New York City

The classroom was filled with the sound of students typing on their laptops, despite the fact that there wasn't actually any reason for them to have them out at the time. The teacher was just droning on about the rubric for a project, probably. Nobody was actually listening. It was something the students tended to like about the new model the school used; now they could procrastinate in class. The wonders of technology never ceased.

At least half the class was engaged in an online chat of some kind. Skype, google, IRC, everyone was doing something that had absolutely nothing at all to do with the class. It generally worked out just fine, since all the teachers just put the work online. The "Flipped Model" so many Charter schools had taken up had become "Do all the work at home, have fun at school". Not that anybody was complaining, now they didn't have to put effort into hiding their communications. Seemingly legitimate work was just an alt-tab away.

Dione was continually spamming the google chat she happened to be in with the cover of a book she'd recently read, "Salt: A World History." A title so dull one had to wonder if it was a satire. Interspersed between the never-ending stream of pictures were pieces of what had probably been an argument at some point. Since nobody could actually read the other side's responses through the flood of salt jokes, they'd started to just either send obscenities or random statements in all caps to get their point across. Said point being "I'm mad for some reason!"

Yet another google chat on her screen was filled mostly with jokes comparing the Russian invasion of Finland to the original Winter War, right down to the unbelievably good sniper. The rest of said chat was a serious conversation about how smart it actually was to completely ignore class in favor of procrastination. The irony was completely and absolutely lost, as was any resemblance of both chats to a single, coherent conversation.

Just as she was in the process of actually attempting to diffuse the oddly humorous excuse for an argument, the sound of a civil defense siren began to blare. For a moment, everyone just looked up, confused. There wasn't a hurricane coming, in fact, it wasn't even the right tone for a hurricane warning. Its pitch went up and down-like an air raid siren from a WWII movie. Nobody really knew what it meant, but they understood that it was something serious. Civil defense sirens don't just malfunction.

"The hell?" Said one of her classmates, speaking for everyone present so they didn't have to embarrass themselves.

"It's an air raid warning." Said Dione, still not entirely sure what was going on "I don't have the slightest clue why its going off though."

Nobody would attack a civilian target in this day and age. She thought to herself. For what was probably the first time in the day, everyone looked at the teacher, expecting him to confirm that it was a drill.

"Someone go to Miss Nicholson's class." He said "Nobody told me about an air raid drill."

Dione jumped out of her seat without actually volunteering, but being closest to the door, nobody challenged it. Miss Nicholson always had the radio on, being the art teacher, she had an excuse. If this wasn't some kind of prank, her class would know. Given the situation, it was either that or an unannounced drill. After all, if there really was an attack, you wouldn't be told about a week before. Despite this all, there was that knot in her stomach that made her run through the hallway instead of walk.

After dashing through the hallway, she ran down the stars two at a time, the whole time just making her stomach feel worse and worse. The constant up-and-down drone of the air raid siren didn't help at all. Once on the bottom floor, she had to run all the way across the building a second time to finally reach Miss Nicholson's room, at which point she was panting heavily along with the small army of students that had arrived there with her. One of them opened the door (not that she really knew who they were). The entire class was standing around the radio, which had been turned up so it could be heard above the sirens.

"The following message is transmitted at the request of the United States government. This is not a test."

The creepy, robotic voice and the sirens outside was all that could be heard. It was surreal. Nobody could have imagined hearing it, and nobody wanted to believe it was real. Everyone was just telling themselves that it was some elaborate drill, that there was just some missing child. Nothing they came up with was plausible, not if the government itself had sent the message, but they didn't care. They just wanted something, some lie to cling to in the face of their most horrific nightmares.

"A nuclear attack has been launched against the United States. Seek shelter immediately."

The bone-chilling tone so commonly associated with severe weather warnings played, and the message repeated itself. Everyone just stood there, frozen in fear. It was New York City in the middle of the day, almost two and a half decades since the end of the Cold War. There was only one place for them to go, and everyone else would be trying to get there too. Still, it was infinitely better than being incinerated in a nuclear blast.

"Fucking run!" Screamed Miss Nicholson, doing absolutely nothing to hide her horror "Get to the metro!"

Nobody stopped for a single moment to question it, and immediately bolted out of the room in whatever manner they could. Some pushed their way through the door, while others smashed the windows with their desks to open up new routes of escape. Dione was lucky enough to have remained relatively close to the door, and made it out into the hallway just after a group of students from the fourth floor. She followed them to the main lobby, but instead of continuing out the door, she ran to the stairs. It wasn't a conscious decision, her body just kept moving and forced her brain to agree with it.

Once again she entered the stairwell, bounding up them two by two. She stuck out a leg to stop her just in front of the classroom door, falling in the process. No time was wasted in picking herself back up and pulling the door open.

"It's real!" She screamed "Get to the metro!"

Her classmates flooded out of the room, scrambling for the stairs. Once again, her body vetoed her mind's decision to run, instead forcing her to open the next door over.

Next up is Ps. 189. Thought Isla, staring out the subway window into the pitch black darkness of the tunnel. Come to think of it, that's right next to Dione's school.

The subway car was completely empty save for her, the only sounds being her own thoughts and the sound of the train itself. It was to be expected, after all, it wasn't as if eleven in the morning on Tuesday was a particularly high-traffic hour. The only reason she was on the train was because she had an interview a few minutes' walk from its next stop. Budget cuts because of the war had stolen her last teaching job, and there was only another one open because the former holder of it had signed up for the Army.

The train slowed down as it pulled into the station. It was the deepest in the entire system, and used even rarer than the other stations during day. The amount of traffic it recieved was lowered mainly due to the fact that it was surrounded by schools. After classes, nobody really went through it aside from the odd school group on a field trip. Which was why she was surprised to find that it was packed full of people straight to the yellow line.

She stood up as the train halted, lurching forward to finally come to a rest. The doors opened into the ocean of people, the nearest of whom made room for her.

"Thanks." She muttered, looking around to see why the station was so crowded. Nobody seemed to be getting on the train, and there didn't seem to be any reason for half of them to be there. There were plenty of students, but there were also people in business suits, aprons, wearing hairnets-it was as if the entire area serviced by the station had decided that being underground was really fun. There were even a few people with half-done, messy haircuts. One of them had a bandage wrapped around her ear, probably the result of a particularly bad mistake made at a salon.

She opened her mouth to ask why there were so many people inside the station, but she was cut off by a muffled bang from outside. Some of the people screamed, some started to cry, and yet more still just stood there in shock. A low roar, like that of a lion, permeated the very structure of the station. The ground around them shook, and the lights died. A few people lit candles, but there weren't any flashlights. She frantically took her phone out and tried to turn it on. It was dead. An EMP had hit.

No. She thought That didn't happen. There's no way.

Catching the image of the uniform of Dione's school, she called out in their direction, desperately hoping she'd be there. Within a few moments, the crowd moved slightly to make room for someone to get through. The last two people parted to let them through, revealing Caroline's face to her.

"Caroline!" She exclaimed, happy. Wherever Caroline was, Dione tended to be "Where's Dione?"

It was then that she realized fully what had just happened. Caroline's head was hung low, and when she looked up to speak, the tears streaming down her face

"Outside..." She said through the tears, though still barely able to talk. "She saved us..."

Without a second thought, Isla dashed towards the tunnel to the surface, shoving aside anyone in the way. She made it out of the sea of living people and into the sea of the dead. The tunnel was filled with bodies, hundreds of them without skin. The floor was soaked in blood, urine, and feces. You could see the bones and muscles of the dead through their ripped-off skin lying in plain sight. The stench made her vomit on the spot, which only added to the sea of bodily fluids and organs which covered the floor.

It was the most horrifying thing she'd ever experienced. With every step she desecrated a body and lined her shoes with gore. She felt her socks getting wet as her shoes filled up with the unholy liquid which lined the floor. Still, she pressed on to the light, giving no thought to the people whose entrails she was grinding into a pulp with the pounding of her feet. Every once in a while she'd step on something hard, either a bone or a piece of shrapnel which had been thrown into the tunnel. Most of the clothing on the bodies was half-burnt, the fires on them only put out by the puddle of gore created by the dead.

She finally reached the entrance of the tunnel, which only provided her with more horrors. A mushroom cloud rose right in front of her, along with multiple others further away. The buildings around the metro station were nothing but rubble, and it occurred to her that the only reason those in the station survived was because there were so many people to act as human shields for them. Incinerated bodies laid all over the streets, with the same horrifying cocktail seen in the tunnel falling into drains in the road.

A weak groan could be heard behind her, she spun around to look and laid eyes upon a... thing. It was some kind of inhuman monster, one with no face and leathery skin that looked like the scales of an alligator. One of its arms was torn off completely, with blood pouring out of its shredded stub. All the thing had for a mouth was a red hole surrounded by the bloody remains of what were once lips. It was just... wrong, a corruption of the person it once was.

Horrified by the monstrosity that stood before her, she drew her pistol. Niall, in his infinite paranoia, had demanded that she get a concealed carry license when they moved. She'd stopped considering it worthless after he had scared a mugger off with his own handgun. Ever since, she'd carried it herself when she went out. Now was the first time she would ever use it; in a knee-jerk reaction to an unnatural creature that was once human.

She fired a split-second after drawing the weapon, giving herself no time at all to examine the thing. The sound made her close her eyes instinctively, as she hadn't fired a gun without ear protection in quite some time. The groaning continued, so she fired again, and again, and again. The entire capacity of the 9mm pistol was emptied into the abomination, and only after she heard it drop onto the concrete did she stop firing.

The walking carcass laid on the sidewalk, its torture ended. Only now did Isla take the time to truly look at it. It's remaining arm was partially clothed in the shredded rags of what was once a school uniform, and around its neck were the charred remains of a scarf. A torn-apart backpack was slung on (or perhaps fused to) its remaining shoulder, half of it taken off by a piece of shrapnel. Despite what her instincts told her, Isla decided to open it, in case there was some name inside of it that would identify its owner. The only thing inside was a brown paper bag, empty except for crushed Cheez-Its. A name was written on its other side.

Dione Lister.

Isla fell to her knees, then onto her side, realizing what had just occurred. She'd just killed her own daughter. Without hesitation, she raised the pistol to her own head and pulled the trigger.

Nothing but a click.

There was nothing she could do, no way to die, and no will to keep on living. She just laid there, outside the only safe haven within reach, sobbing. Time was nothing more than a myth, it didn't pass, nor was it frozen. It simply didn't exist. There was nothing in the world but her tears and the faint light outside of her closed eyes, and soon, there wasn't even the light. Finally, the crying had stopped, replaced by the nightmares. The same thing, the same gunshots, over and over again she relived the whole scene. From wading through the mutilated bodies to the name on the bag, she relived it all again and again, with no way out of the torture.

Isla awoke to the face of a man looking down at her and the smell of diesel fuel. As far as she could tell, she was lying in the bed of a pickup truck. The man turned away for a moment, before slowly sitting her upright. He'd piled up a bunch of pillows to create a makeshift bed for her, a surprising amount of preparation given the fact that he'd just picked her up from the streets of what was now a pile of radioactive rubble. He popped a tablet out of a plastic holder, ripping off its covering in the process.

"These are potassium iodide tablets, for the radiation." Said the man, offering her one. She didn't take it.

"I shouldn't be alive."

"No, you shouldn't. The blast should have killed you, but you just got away with the radiation. Just take the pill, you needed it ASAP about five hours ago."

She didn't want to. She didn't want to survive. What point was there in it? Her family was dead, her friends were dead, and the world was dead. Even so, her hand reached out and grabbed the pill, which her mouth then took and swallowed against her will. Her survival instinct had taken over, much to her anger. All she wanted was to give up and die.

"I don't want to be alive."

"Look, Miss, you've been through hell and then some, and you're still alive. A nuke detonated next to you and you lived, you laid in the snow for five hours and you lived. You might not want to be alive, but there's someone or something out there that disagrees."

The man wasn't exactly the kind of person you'd expect to be in New York, if anything, he'd fit in better in some rural southern town. He looked like a much older, American version of Shinobu, except perhaps not quite as strong. If he had any hair, it would probably be completely white. There were bags under his eyes, and from his slow movements, it was clear that he hadn't gotten a wink of sleep. Given how out of place he seemed, he was probably driving the whole time.

"It's Mrs, Mrs. Lister." She said, refusing to listen to the rest of the statement. After what she'd seen, she didn't even want to believe in any kind of higher power. If they would allow such a horrible thing to happen, then they were just keeping her alive to torture her.

"Oh God. That thing-"

"That was my daughter."

The sentence felt so ordinary to say, as if Dione had simply passed through the living room while a guest was over. She still couldn't really bring herself to accept it. She couldn't even cry.

"You killed her, didn't you?"

Just as he asked the question, it began to snow. Not a white snow either, a grey, corrupted snow. The whole thing replayed in her head, just like it had all night. There wasn't any escape from it, no way to snap her out of the flashback.

"The blast fried her nerves, she died without any pain. You did the right thing, better to be dead than a walking corpse."

There wasn't any response this time, it was like she'd simply been broken. She couldn't find anything to say, so she said nothing. The man sighed, before picking up his collection of medical supplies and jumping off of the truck.

"Get in." He said, motioning for her to follow. "I'm not going to just let you die, not after what you've gotten through."

She complied with the request, slowly standing up and stepping off the truck. There wasn't anything else for her to do, so she might as well do what he asked. Her legs were shaky, probably thanks to the fact that she should have died from hypothermia long ago. The truck itself was clearly quite old, its aqua-colored paint job combined with the classic design made it obvious that this wasn't by any means a recently-built vehicle. This explained why it worked, after all, modern cars and trucks all tend to have sensitive electronics involved in their very operation. As a diesel-run pickup truck from what was probably the early 50's, it wouldn't have any problems at all surviving the EMPs from the attack.

The moment she buckled in he stepped on the pedal, heading south according to the compass he had placed on the dashboard. She still didn't feel the passage of time. The only indication that anything was happening was the trees to the side of the road moving by. At some point, the sun gave way to a starless night. The dust cloud created by the nuclear attack had blocked them out. War had claimed even the stars as casualties. The sound of the truck's engine faded away as it coasted to a stop, which was met with a sharp curse from the man.

"No more fuel, we have to walk." He said, tapping her on the shoulder.

She couldn't quite see him, but she could tell where he was. They both got out and continued to walk along the road. It was excruciating for her, with every step she felt more and more like vomiting. Even in the freezing cold, she felt like she was burning up. It seemed as though her head was split wide open, and the whole time she left behind a trail of hair. She had a desperate need for sleep, one that couldn't be fulfilled. The only option was to keep walking.

"Why were you outside?"

The question was completely innocent, but it made Isla want to break the man's neck. She didn't know why, she just did. It felt like a grave insult, but for once, her mind overrode her body's demands.

"Because Dione was. I thought there might be something, some shelter that she could have taken that would let her survive. Why were you up here?"

"I was on my way back from a trip to Canada, I'd arranged to buy a rare gun. Certain guns are cheaper there."

"Who are you?"

"James, James Hudson. My son's a Navy pilot."

"My husband's a pilot too. Do you think they're still alive?"

"They have better chances than you did, I just hope they stopped shooting. There's no need to keep killing after exterminating entire cities."

Hanging Rock, North Carolina

The smoldering remains of a fire were all that lit the campsite, one of the only safe havens the two had been able to find. It was the very peak of the rock formation, devoid of any major predators simply by virtue of the fact that there was nothing but cold, hard rock wherever you looked. There was rest for the weary, but no sleep. Both were dehydrated and starving, as James didn't have much food or water with him-only a bag of chips and a Gatorade. Only the latter had been touched, the rest of their food came from hunting or gathering. It wasn't nearly enough, and all of it was irradiated. The worst they had to throw out, the rest they just treated with potassium iodide.

Over the days, they had hoped that the dust cloud would clear up, if only to give them a nice view at night. It never did, in fact, it had only gotten worse. The only explanation was that the planet had been plunged into a nuclear winter, exactly what they had been dreading. Even if they reached shelter (which James assured her was just a few days away by now), there was no guarantee that they'd live for much longer. There was still sunlight, but it was fading day-by-day as forests and cities burned across the world.

There was still no explanation for the attack, as both sides of the war would only have launched their missiles if the other one did. James thought that one of the nuclear powers had simply had a glitch in their system which made it appear as if they were under attack. It had happened before, and the world had been saved by a single Soviet soldier who refused to press the button. This time, however, there wasn't someone brave enough to believe it was a glitch, and the world had ended.

It had been weeks since the two left New York, and both were showing signs of radiation sickness. Isla had it the worst. Her hair was completely gone, and her nails were a disgusting tar color. One of them had been cracked when she tripped in the forest, and it had been bleeding ever since. There wasn't any pain, just blood. Another horrific side effect of the nuclear attack. Both had high fevers, and were only kept from overheating by the snow and the little medicine they had left.

There wasn't enough left to get them through. James had insisted that they'd be able to survive long enough to reach the safe haven he kept talking about, he said that there were plenty of people who had survived longer than the "normal" amount of time without food or water. The fact of the matter, however, was that they were both sick. Sick enough to be near death even without the conditions and lack of sustenance. It would be an incredible streak of luck if one of them made it, both of them making it would require nothing short of divine intervention.

Fed up and restless, Isla stood up, walking away from the dimly-lit campsite and over to the edge of the rock. It was higher than she had expected when James had described it, in fact, it was almost as if it was on a different plane of existence than the landscape below. The view encompassed the forest that surrounded the state park, as well as fields just outside of it. Both were on fire, creating a morbidly beautiful picture of the end of the world.

I shouldn't have ever made it this far. She thought as she looked out on the spectacle, the image of the gore-filled tunnel rearing its ugly head in her mind once more. Whenever she closed her eyes she saw it, imprinted deep within her brain. We're both cats in Schrodinger's box, waiting to find out whether of not we live or die.

I shouldn't be alive. That thought echoed over and over again in her head, plastering itself on the walls of the tunnel, twisting the fragments of human intestines on the floor to spell itself out. I shouldn't be alive. I shouldn't be alive. I shouldn't be alive.

"I shouldn't be alive."

She reached down to her shoes with her radiation-charred arms, taking them off one by one and placing them in the snow on the edge of the drop. Without anything to write on, it was the only way to let him know what she'd done. Before she could think, she leaned forwards off of the edge, letting herself fall headfirst towards the burning forest. The ash-filled air flew past her as she fell closer and closer to the ground, looking forward to the moment she hit it.

I don't know if you're still out there somewhere, Dione. But if you are, I'm on my way.

And then there was nothing.

Bhutan, Seven Months Later

The orange flames of the monastery's torches were all that lit the pitch-black, starless night. Niall sat in the garden, legs crossed in a meditative position. After living as a refugee for so long, he'd started to pick up a few of the monk's practices. Though he didn't plan on actually becoming Buddhist, he couldn't deny the fact that their forms of meditation helped. It took away his fears for the future of the world, giving him a little bit of peace in his day.

The night, as he and the other refugees had learned, was the most peaceful. Without the voices of the monks and refugees, the mountain was completely silent except for the wind. Most of them meditated now, the perfect break from the constant foraging. Bhutan was among the least affected by the war, having barely any diplomatic relations at all as well as plenty of mountains. As a result, it found itself accepting the vast majority of survivors, Niall and his comrades included.

After the nuclear attacks, the battle at Yulin had been stopped. Both sides chose not to cause any more death, and instead gave themselves the task of finding and transporting survivors. All of the teams had stopped only when their vehicles ran out of fuel, and Niall's group had run out at the monastery-Paro Taktsang. Most of the refugees had started to eat like monks, consuming only small amounts of the readily available plants that encircled the monastery's mountain. It was a perfect survival strategy, one which they hoped would keep them alive until the end of nuclear winter.

He tried not to think about his family, having accepted the inevitable fact that they were dead long ago. He'd chosen to move on, focusing his energy on helping the other refugees at the monastery. It was quite often that he forwent meditation in order to help out in the clinic, after all, the meditation was just for clearing his mind. When given the choice between clearing his mind and standing in for an assistant to save someone's life, he'd always choose the latter.

The period of meditation ended, and he opened his eyes. Looking up at the pitch-black night sky, he saw a tiny dot of light. A star, shining through a rare gap in the cloud of dust and ash that encircled the Earth in the stratosphere. Moments later it was engulfed by the sky, turning it into a void of black once more. But the image stayed with him, the image of that one star that reminded him that it was still shining.

Maybe we'll keep shining too. He thought, staring up unto the darker-than-black sky.

"Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us." -John F. Kennedy, September 25th 1961

Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
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Calle Rainbow Writer

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RPGC#6 happened during NaNoWriMo 2015 and everyone who won NaNoWriMo that year also won RPGC#6. Belated congratulations to everyone.
Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
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Calle Rainbow Writer

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RPGC#7 - The glorius leader

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: Firebrand, by @Shorticus

"On what grounds," asked the King-Priest in a low, solemn tone, "do you believe yourself to be His Chosen servant?"

The crackle of flames came from all around the boy. The entirety of the hall was flanked by brass braziers, and behind the braziers stood all the great people of the realm: merchants, senators, nobles, generals... All eyes were upon the peasant boy kneeling on the floor before the King-Priest of Aldoran.

"I ask again: who are you, my boy, that you think you ought be His vessel? Why ought you be His hand against evil?"

"I do not think," the red haired boy answered finally, his head yet bowed subserviently, his hands still pressed upon the marble floor of the temple. "Nor do I know, O Great Prophet. But I present myself nevertheless. I present myself as His supplicant, begging that I be allowed the chance to serve my people, Aldoran, your majesty, and Him."

"Do you not already serve all of these?" asked the crowned man in blue, clutching his bronze scepter in both hands. "Have you not done your duty to your people? To your Empire and your King? To Him?"

"Duty," said the boy, "is to do what one must in the greatest capacity one can. Our Empire is in being torn apart by wicked men. Temples are looted and villages are burned." That young man became overcome with conviction, and he lifted his head to look his liege in the eyes. "My duty is to give everything that I am to protect all that we stand for. To do less is to shirk that duty."

"Then you know what the price of failure is." The King-Priest stared down at the boy with an understanding and sadness.

"I do," answered the boy.

"And you know, too, the price of success."

"I do."

The room fell silent save for the sound of crackling fire and the whispers of powerful men talking amongst themselves. But even those whispers were silenced by the raising of the Priest-King's hand. Those proud men all focused their attention upon the scene before them again, upon the boy in a man's armor and the Priest-King in his long blue robes.

"Then the Trials shall begin," announced that old man, waving his hand. The fires throughout the room roared with life, each of them leaping higher into the air. "Arise," commanded the holy ruler of Aldoran. "Speak your name."

"Arturus of Maledonia, sir." Sweat rolled down the boy's cheeks in great waves, such was the heat of those innumerable fires. "I was once a shepherd, but I have been a soldier ever since this war began."

"And who is your father?"

"He is Darius of Maledonia, Your Eminence," answered the boy again, lifting his chin with swelling pride. "He is a shepherd like me, and has taught me of peace and war, life and death, and of the Lord of the Sacred Flame. He is a kind soul, and the most gentle of mortal men."

"Good words," mused the ruler in blue. "Honest words. It is well to honor one's father." He reached into the firepit and drew from within a handful embers, each hot and glowing like a flame unquenched. "Hold out your hand."

The boy did as he was bid, and as the Priest-King pressed his hand over his, the embers rolled out from the older, scarred hands into the young right one. There was a hissing sound, and smoke rose up from Arturus's palm. He flinched, yet he balled his hand about those embers tightly.

"Your first challenge will be the Trial of Valor," said the Priest-King. "The barbarians consort with a fiendish dragon to bring ruination upon our border provinces. You know well this evil."

The boy did. His fist was clenched. He nodded.

"If you truly believe you are chosen," came the King-Priest's booming voice, "then you must first demonstrate your courage in the face of the Empire's enemies. You must defeat this monster." And as he spoke, the King-Priest of Aldoran lifted up his scepter, and it flared with a warm light. "Bring its heart, and you shall be one step closer to proving yourself Chosen by Aurumar!"

"I will do as I am bid," vowed Arturus, bringing his burnt right hand to his chest. "I will destroy this beast."

It is no simple task to hunt a dragon, let alone to battle one. The terrible beasts could wreak such chaos and death upon a whole country and then vanish into the mountains, or into the bogs, hidden away with their plunder and spoils. Legends spoke of their power in battle, of their ability to melt armor, to rip through flesh with their sword-like claws, and to make short work of whole scores of men. This did not dissuade Arturus.

He took a horse and made haste to the northernmost provinces of Aldoran, those that touched not sea but mountains beyond which dwelt the barbarian host. Those provinces, once home to shepherds and vineyards and farmers, were now reduced to waste. Smoking husks lay where villages once stood. Green pastures became gray and lifeless. Forests became ash. Honest folk were made to fight each other for want of food and supplies to make their journey southward. Ever did Arturus witness these things in his journey, travesty after travesty, and though he did what any soul ought do when another is in crisis, though he battled bandits and raiders and savages all, he could find no hint of where the dragon lurked.

But fortune favors the diligent, and soon Arturus found a strangely untouched village in the midst of a green field. Though it seemed to be well lit and its people well fed, there was a sadness in all their eyes. So, he rode on into the village and was met with an incredible quiet.

There was but one exception to this silence. An elderly woman sat upon her porch, weeping profusely and clutching her face with her hands. She shook and shuddered, like one whose body was overcome with quakes and chills. This drew the attenion of Arturus, and so he dismounted and went to her porch.

"Ho there, dear woman," he said as he came forward. "What distresses you so? What brings you to despair?"

"Oh, poor boy!" she cried. "You would have been safer had you not come! My dear husband is to be taken from me!"

"But why?" asked Arturus, looking up at the woman with concern. "What could you have done? What could your husband have done?"

"It was ill fortune that made this so. A dragon has made cattle of our village, killing anyone that tries to leave, and all the men who have tried to face the best have been mercilessly slain. And," she finished with a great sorrow in her voice, "it is my own husband, the last of my family, that has left now to face this beast."

Arturus understood. He knelt on down as he had before the King-Priest and clasped his hands about the old woman's own. "Do not worry," he told her. "Your husband will not be slain, and neither will anyone else. I will bring him back."

"Oh, blessed boy," she answered, kissing the young man on the forehead. "You are willing to risk your life so readily for a stranger?"

"I do not go to die," explained the boy in earnest. "I go to slay the dragon."

"But however shall you defeat him? The beast is huge and powerful! And should you fail, he will destroy us all!"

"I will defeat him because I serve Our Protector, Aurumar, Lord of the Sacred Flame. He has given me this mark." And Arturus showed the old woman the fiery symbol burned into his hand. "I know not yet how I will succeed, but I know I will, for I have His blessing."

And so Arturus went upon his horse again and rode out to stop the elderly man and the dragon both. He came upon the old man first: the fellow was dressed in a legionnaire's attire, his armor old and rusted, his bronze spear battered and bent. Surely, the man had no hope of facing the dragon and surviving.

"Stay your hand!" called the boy to him as he approached. "Go no further!"

"But I must," said the old man. "There is a monster in yonder hills which I must fell, and I'll not stop until it is slain."

"Do not throw your life away," said Arturus. "Leave the task to me, old man. I will slay the beast."

"It is my duty to face the beast," retorted the old warrior, "lest it harm more souls in my village. It has done us evil, and so I will make right these wrongs and end it myself."

The boy understood, but knew the old man was incapable of this, and thus it could not be his duty. So, he feigned to submit to the elder's words, then cuffed him hard and true, knocking the old man out cold. Arturus quickly dragged the bony man behind a tree and hid him well. Then he tied his horse to another tree and removed most of his gear.

And so Arturus delivered himself to the dragon's cave with no armor and only his small sword for a weapon. This he hid in the folds of his clothes, and he waited patiently for the beast. It came soon enough, stepping out from the cave. Great and massive it was, indeed, the size of a small house. It stared down at the boy and made a curious noise.

"I do not recognize you, little man," it said with a snort. "Who are you? Another vainglorious warrior come to slay the terrible beast?"

"My name is Arturus," answered the young man honestly, bowing to the creature. "I am but a humble shepherd, and I have long wished to meet a dragon. It appears I have found one."

"That you have," replied the dragon, twisting in a serpentine manner about the boy. "And now you will be eaten by one."

"I will be eaten gladly," said the youth, "but hold a moment if you would, great serpent of the skies. I have but one request before I die."

"And what would that be?" asked the dragon with a sniff.

"I would like but to talk a while with you."

This made the dragon laugh, and it raked its claws across the ground. Smoke and fire burst from its mouth up into the air. "Does the wolf speak with the sheep before it dines? Does a human sing serenades to his cattle before he butchers them?"

"No," admitted the boy, "but dragons are far grander than humans, and far more civilized."

This amused the dragon to no end. "I will acquiesce," said the dragon with a crooked smile, "but when all is done I expect you to cooperate and accept being eaten."

"That is well and good," replied the boy. And then the two talked. For hours did they talk. They spoke of philosophy and astrology and of what meat tasted best (which the dragon claimed human meat did). But soon enough the dragon's hunger overcame him, and he let out a groan.

"I believe we have talked long enough," he decided, patting his stomach. "I must now set you alight and eat you."

"There is no need for that," said the boy with a sigh. "I must uphold my part of the bargain, but let me do so with dignity. I will step into your mouth and let you dine on me then."

The dragon was quite taken by this idea, and so allowed the boy to come closer. He opened his mouth wide, ready for some mischief, but to his surprise the boy stepped on in. But before he could begin to chew Arturus, the young man drew his blade from the folds of his clothes and stabbed upward into the dragon's skull, straight into its mind.

The monster writhed about, trying to pry the boy loose, but to no avail. It breathed fire at him, but the mark on his hand glowed a bright blue light and wreathed him in shimmering blue fire that protected him from its weaker, infernal red flame. He kept his blade stuck in the beast's head, twisting it about this way and that, until finally the creature was rightly dispatched.

His task complete, Arturus stepped on out from the dead beast's mouth and removed its heart. This he took with him back to the village, along with the old woman's husband, and he was greeted with such rejoicing that it deserves a story in and of itself. But the boy had yet more work to do, and so he left, making his way back to the capital city.

Arturus recounted his adventure before the King-Priest and all the great people of the Empire. There was awe in the eyes of those former nay-sayers as their owners stared at the heart of the dragon, that still-beating red shell in the boy's arms.

"Such a feat takes no small measure of bravery and wit," said the King-Priest with a smile. "And with the dragon's heart, we now have but two more items which we must retrieve. Tell me, my boy, what makes you so fearless?"

"I am not fearless," he answered, honest as ever. "I am always afraid in face of danger."

This brought confused talk from within the crowd. "But then," asked the King-Priest, "how did you face this dragon? Did you know its fires would not harm you?"

"I did not know that at all," answered the boy. "Indeed, I doubted that I was Chosen at all once I saw the beast. But my love of my home, of my people, and of the Highest of Gods, Aurumar, shall ever surpass my fear of death, and I will ever give all my effort and ability to serve Him."

The King-Priest understood. "Perhaps you are Chosen after all," he thought aloud. "But you have yet two more tests ahead of you. The next is the Trial of Will. Hidden away in the cursed Grove of Thorns is the Fireblossom, a magical rose which is holiest to Him. Bring it to us, and you will have passed the test."

"Then I will do as you bid," said the hero Arturus, saluting again with his hand upon his chest, "such as He demands."

There was no road that led to the fabled Grove of Thorns, but Arturus knew the way well, having heard the story a hundred times in his youth. It was the highlight of every book of Aldorane fables:

Betwixt the Spears and the water's edge a secret grove was lain,
Wherein His daughter lies in deathly rest.
For as her love who fought Evil's host was pierced and so slain,
She thrust a dagger in her lonely breast.

And the Grove of Thorns in which the fair Fireblossoms bloomed was that very same grove. It had since been discovered long ago, but the Grove was too dangerous to traverse, they said. But Arturus could not turn down this challenge. He had to pass the test for the good of all Aldoran.

He began first "Betwixt the Spears and the water's edge," the forest between the ocean and the Speartip mountains. From there he knew how to find the path, searching for the place where the woods became brambly and thick. And soon enough, he found himself at the edge of the Grove of Thorns.

It was a dreadful place even for the eyes, a tangled web of hooked black thorns and vines that throbbed like veins. The earth seemed choked, and the clouds above seemed to conspire to hide the eyesore from the world. There was a smell like iron in the air, and upon closer inspection Arturus saw that the vines seemed to have sprouted little metal fibers sharp as needles. And the worst of it all was that the thorns seemed to stretch on for miles and miles, too thick for a man to pass through, let alone a boy.

Yet Arturus could not go back. His duty was clear.

So the boy wrapped his hands and his boots in cloth, and he took his sword tightly in his hand. He began making his way into the Grove of Thorns, hacking his way through the sharp vegetation that groaned in objection. He seemed to make good progress at first, edging his way slowly through the vines, but they grew thicker as he went, harder to cut, and covered in ever-increasing numbers of thorns.

A look back showed Arturus that the way he had just cut through was overgrown once again! It was as if he had never walked where he now was, never cut a path at all. Fear clutched him then, but he focused on the task at hand and continued on forward.

But then his sword shattered in his hand as he cut through the grove. The splintered metal flew all over, out of reach, and Arturus understood that he could not simply hack his way through. He knew, too, that fire would not serve, for these were the thorns of the Firelord's own daughter. He had but one option remaining: to push his way through.

And so he did. Though he had prepared himself well for this inevitability, the boy found that the cloth he'd bound his limbs in was not enough to keep those blade-like thorns at bay. They cut deep into his skin like a thousand tiny swords; the vines rubbed against his legs like sandpaper, tearing away skin and biting into flesh; and whensoever he came to a stop to catch his breath, the ground itself seemed to turn to mud beneath his feet, threatening to trap him where he stood forever.

But Arturus remembered his father, Darius, tending to the sheep at home. He remembered how he had through so many winters let himself starve that Arturus might grew strong. He remembered, too, how his father had suffered all those years without his wife, and raised him alone. Something in Arturus burned at that thought, and he found in himself an energy he did not know he had.

Arturus pushed himself through the thorns and brambles and slogged through the gray, muddy earth. He bled from all his limbs and from his chest, and his body burned like he was skinless. The pain was excruciating, and it only compounded as the hours went by. Soon, he was certain he was dead.

"Ah," he reminded himself with a weary laugh, "but I am not dead, for I still bleed and I yet feel pain. So long as I am alive, I must do my duty, for my father and for Aurumar." So he closed his eyes and marched on still, pushed on still, bled on still.

His boots were ragged, the soles gone, and his feet pockmarked with a thousand little holes when he first felt soft but solid ground beneath his feet. He opened his eyes and was blinded by light, unable to see for what could have been an age. He fell to his knees, and when he opened his eyes again Arturus saw a field of colorful flowers in a sea of green. He felt a gentle breeze caress his scarred face, smelled an aroma so sweet it would have been worth the journey had he died there.

But he saw ahead, growing in the midst of a pool of water, a rose like no other: brilliant and well in bloom, a red-and-gold marvel that glowed with beauteous light.

Arturus did not go to the flower immediately. First he bent his back and prayed, giving thanks to the Highgod, and then to His long-dead daughter. Then he wished the dead goddess a peaceful rest, promising to make good use of her gift, and stepped on forth to pluck the Fireblossom free.

As soon as he pulled it up, he felt himself filled with a warmth he did not imagine could exist. It washed over his whole body, cleansed him of his weakness, healed away his wounds, and restored the vigor he'd thought he'd lost. And when he turned to leave the Grove, he saw that the thorns and brambles parted to show him the way home.

And so Arturus left the Grove of Thorns and returned to the capital again.

His third trip to the city was one in which the citizens of the street now knew his name. They chanted it as he passed through: "Arturus, Arturus, Arturus." Perhaps another man would have heard his own name spoken so and been elated, but the name brought no pleasure to the boy. He was glad, to be sure, for his work was nearly over, but somehow he had a strange feeling of dread he could not explain.

He entered the temple for the third time in his life, holding the resplendent Fireblossom in his hand. All the senators, all the wealthy folk, they all were gathered in the temple, all of them hoping to get a glimpse of the hero who'd slain a dragon, of the hero who'd brought back with him the favored Firebloom. There, at the end of the temple, stood the King-Priest before the firepit. Though all others in the room were elated, the King-Priest had as sad and somber a look as Arturus.

"With this," said the King-Priest as Arturus finished recounting his tale, "we are but one step away from bringing about His return to our world. We are but one last Trial from the return of the Highgod and the savior of our empire."

"So shall it be," swore Arturus. The young man stood more like a warrior now, and he looked the King-Priest in the eyes. "Tell me what the last task is, and I will see it done, for you and the Empire and His glory."

"It is the most difficult of all the tasks," said the King-Priest.

"I am prepared," Arturus reaffirmed.

"As you say. Then I will tell it to you now, but be told this: I will not, and nor will the gods, look ill on you should you refuse this task."

"I will not refuse it," Arturus stated. "This is the only way we may combat the terrible evil which grips our Empire. Tell me what I must do."

The King-Priest did not wave his scepter, nor wave his hand, nor make any grand gesture. Instead, he stepped on down from the dais before the pit, and he reached on down and helped the boy stand to his feet. Then he said, while looking right on back into that hero's eyes:

"You must destroy that which is most dear to you. You must sacrifice that which you cherish more than anything else in the mortal world. Such is the price of the Trial of Loyalty."

And with those words, he broke the boy, and Arturus fled the temple.

For the better part of a month Arturus kept to the road, never staying in one place too long. He punished himself for his cowardice, eating as little as he could and giving up all those things he felt were valuable to him. He deprived himself of all those little pleasures in life: he slept in no bed, ate not from a plate, behaved like an animal in the woods, and in between it all prayed to his God, Aurumar, to accept these sacrifices instead. He prayed he would let him give of anything else, but he knew too well the answer.

There was but one thing in the world he truly loved so much as to bring him to such grief, one thing in the world he could not bear to deliver unto the Highgod by his own hands. For the first time in his life, Arturus was ready to surrender.

The boy passed by a village in his aimless travels. Though he did not stay there, he did let himself watch the people at work, and he found himself longing to be a part of that world again. But he resolved to punish himself further, to let himself suffer because he was not brave, and so went to sleep in the forest.

Arturus awoke that night to the smell of smoke. Sensing danger, he ran out to the village, and there he saw the fruit of his own cowardice: the barbarians had struck again, a great band of them, and they laid waste to all that was in that hamlet. Those peasants who stood their ground were butchered, and those who fled were chased like dogs.

The boy ran in to intervene. Even starved and broken-spirited as he was, he knew well the battlefield, and thrashed through the cacophony of blood and steel like a lion, using his broken sword to fight those brutes and murderers. He killed a great many, and sent a great many more running to the hills.

But for all his efforts, he knew he was too late. A great many good and innocent men lay dead on the battlefield, and a number more women and children, too. What struck him most, though, was the sight of a small boy, a child no older than five, rushing to a body upon the field. He grabbed the dead man and wailed, crying out for the gods to let his father back.

And as the red fires still burned and crackled, as the smoke still rose in the air with the sickening stench of death, Arturus found the resolve he needed. He left that village, bathed himself in the river, and then made his way home.

Arturus was truly going home this time. It was not the road to the capital he took, but a road that led well away from it. He soon went off the road and through fields, through pastures, through vineyards so bountiful that one could array them like a great maze. He passed into less settled land, into places where the forests still stood, where little brooks full of life lay unattended by anyone save perhaps the wily nymphs. These beautiful sights, though, brought him no joy. No, the task at hand was too grim.

It took him a long time before he finally reached the hilltop he called home. There upon it sat a humble house with a thatched roof, and surrounding it was a throng of sheep. They saw him coming, and they let out many happy noises, glad for his return. But even as he stood there, running his hands through their woolen coats, he saw a man step out from the house.

None would have called him a man of a powerful build, nor would they have claimed that he were handsome. They would not call him thin, neither; nay, he had a soft gut to him, and his cheeks were broad and his nose was red. None would have called said of him that he was sagacious; no, he was not known for his cunning. But to Arturus, there was no greater man in the world. There was no finer soul to be had than that which kept that body's heart beating.

"Father," he called out to the man. "I've come home."

Though he yet felt a terrible rot in his gut, something in Arturus made him smile as his father came on forward and clasped his son in an ursine embrace. "So you have!" declared his father. "Gods be good, I thought the war had taken you from me! And how you have grown!"

The two of them laughed, and for a time Arturus forgot all about his task. They spent three days and nights together. They tended the sheep, they drank fresh wine and ate hearty servings of good food: bread and cheese and mutton and grapes. Darius told his son of all the happenings that had been whilst he was gone: of how the village had sprung back to life, of how times seemed simple again, and how glad he was that his son was home to stay.

On the eve of the third day, the two of them sat outside with the herd, drinking together to watch the sun fade. The sky was colored like flame, and Arturus knew the time had come.

"Father," he told his sire, "I cannot stay, and nor can you."

"Whatever do you mean, my son?" asked Darius. "Speak to me, and I will listen to all you say."

And so Arturus told him of his adventures and how poorly Aldoran fared in the war. He told him of how he'd slain the dragon, and then of how he'd braved the grove. He told him of the capital city, the temple, and the divine things he'd seen and felt. Then, finally, he told him of those words the King-Priest had said:

"He said I must sacrifice that which is most dear to me," he told the man. "And, father, there is no thing in this mortal world that I can say I love more than you."

And he wept. His father did not, but put his hand on his son's shoulder and let him cry. "My son," he said after much time had passed, "do not mourn my passing to come. Neither should you ever think yourself the villain for taking my life. You do only what is necessary."

"But what sort of man am I if I kill my own father?" cried out Aldoran. "You are my sire, he who taught me all I know, the old man for whom I have fought all these battles for!"

"Yet that is not all you have fought for, and you know it well," said Darius. "For in our world there are a thousand fathers more whose families have suffered as they marched to war. You have fought for them, for the whole of the Empire, and for the glory of our God. And what man would I be," he answered plainly, "were I not to let myself be given unto this greater cause, let my body fuel the cleansing flame which shall sweep clear this land of this evil?"

"You would be a living man," answered Arturus pleadingly. "You would yet breathe. Please, father, tell me but to spare you, and I shall do so."

"I cannot," said the old man with a sad smile. "Such is duty."

And for a time still the two sat on the hill. But as the last light began to fade from the sky and night began to sweep its way in, Darius told his son, "Plant the weapon in my heart. Let me die standing before you, as your father and a man who loved his country."

And so, in a sorrowful silence, Arturus stood, and so did his father. Arturus took the dagger from his belt and pressed it up against his good father's chest. He said but seven words more, seven final words:

"There is no better man than you, father."

And with that, he ended the life of the kindest and most gentle of mortal men.

Arturus stepped into the temple slowly, carrying in his arms the body of his father. It seemed the whole of the city was there to watch this procession, each man and woman stuffing themselves into the streets, spilling out from the temple like so many grains of rice from a rice sack. There was far less cheering and worshipful chanting than there had been before. Now, like the first time, there was only silence, a respectful silence.

The man - for he could be called a boy no longer - passed by brazier after brazier, fire after fire, bowed head after bowed head. He came to a stop before the King-Priest, holding up his father's body for him to see.

"I bring before you that man whom has been the dearest thing in my life," he said solemnly, "the body of the soul whom I owe so much to. Hereupon let my sacrifice not be in vain, and may the suffering for our Empire's people end."

The King-Priest nodded with a real kind of sadness. Then, he brought his scepter up on high and lifted it up on high, and the whole firepit behind him flared into a great and powerful life. Golden flames whipped about in the pit, and the whole crowd gasped. Never before had the fires lifted so high in the temple.

"Before you stands one who would be your Chosen, Auramus!" cried out the King-Priest. "He brings unto you three sacrifices, three marks of his trials!

"From his Trial of Valor is the heart of a dragon," called out that holy man, "a monster which ne'er again shall trouble your faithful!" And so he cast into the fire the terrible beast's heart. The fire grew hotter and taller.

"From his Trial of Will is a fiery blossom, plucked from the Grove which your daughter rests within!" And so he cast into the fire the beauteous rose. The fire grew hotter still and taller still, and the flames seemed to pale.

"And from the most difficult Trial of all, the Trial of Loyalty, he brings to you his father, Darius of Maledonia."

Arturus stood still for but a moment, finding it hard to move. But then he stepped on forward, and with his arms he passed his father into the great fire. The good man's corpse turned into ash in his arms, and the ash soared into the fire, and all the flames glowed a great, pulsing blue. So hot were they that many men in the room fainted for want of fresh air.

"And now," said the King-Priest, "he presents himself as the final sacrifice, as the vessel through which you may save our world. Will you accept him, O Aurumar? Will you let this man be your Chosen servant?"

And then, closing his eyes, Arturus stepped into the flames which burned like a thousand stars.

And so it was that Arturus gave everything for his people, his Empire, and his God. He gave of his strength: that of body and that of mind. He gave, too, of that which he loved in the world: his family. And, finally, he gave of that which made him a part of the world: his very self.

In the flames, the young man was melted like iron. Skin and flesh and all that was his body burned like so much weak ore, leaving only that which was truly human. And it was from this that he was reforged, given shape, his purpose clarified in a single moment.

He was reborn.

The titan stepped forth from the brilliant blue blaze, all fire and fury, its massive gauntlets clenched tightly about the hilt of its flaming sword. And it looked down at the assembled people, at the King-Priest, at the crowds outside. From its winged helmet came a voice that shook the souls of those present, a voice that spoke only six words.

"Judgment hath come. Behold the dawn."

And they all bowed to Him, the Lord of the Sacred Flame, their God, Aurumar.
Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
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Calle Rainbow Writer

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RPGC#8 - Snapshot

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: The Database, by @WrongEndoftheRainbow

Note that the entry was rendered as an image for stylistic purposes; if you cannot read this or cannot see the image, please make contact with one of the contest staff and they will provide you a text transcript.

Unfortunately, this was posted in april 2016. I will try to get the transcript so I can still showcase the winning entry here.
Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
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Calle Rainbow Writer

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RPGC#9 - Rebirth

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: I Was Not Always a Frog, by [@Liriia]

I was not always a frog.

That’s a stupid way to start, I assume, but it’s the truth and I have no reason to lie. I was not always a frog. I was not always forced into the monotony of living in a pond, eating bugs, and staring lazily at the rest of the world. I was not always slimy, small, and wordless. I did not spend my days swimming, eating, swimming, sleeping, swimming, because I didn’t have a need to before. I was not always a frog.

The universe works in funny ways. As a frog, I know I shouldn’t know much about fate or Gods or deities, but since I was not always a frog the knowledge remains and I sit in my lake and ponder, ponder, ponder about the universe and it’s strange ways. It was the universe’s fault I am now a frog, because I was not always a frog, and the universe just saw me in my frogless state and must’ve said “Well, we could always use another stupid amphibian right?” And so I was reborn as a frog, just because the universe said so, just because fate is cruel and knowledge is power and my mind deserved to be shoved away into a frog’s body.

Rebirth is defined as the process of being reincarnated or born again. As a frog I shouldn’t know this, but I was not always a frog so it’s fine. It’s fine to know how I was not always a frog. I was once someone who didn’t believe in rebirth, I thought it just another promising story to tell a child when they feared what sat beyond their last breaths. Looks like I was a bit cynical, a bit wrong, because I was reborn and now I am a frog and it sucks. Rebirth for me wasn’t as kind, I guess. I could have been brought back to life as a general, a school teacher, a hawk, anything else, but the universe chose a frog to be my next vessel and then left me alone. With only my thoughts. With only my knowledge that I was not always a frog.

I see other frogs sometimes, and we don’t speak because frogs don’t speak. Sometimes they croak and I croak back and we separate with a fondness in our froggy hearts because it’s nice to get a validating croak to hear after your own I suppose. I sometimes sit back and watch those other frogs be frogs, and wonder if they think like I do. Are they aware that they might not have always been frogs? Are they aware that I am able to think like I can? Are they aware of my watchful eye and anxiously placed croaks and pondering? Probably not, because I think they’re just frogs, and though I am one too I know that I was not always a frog.

I try to remember who I was before I was a frog, but that part of my mind doesn’t remain. Again, the universe, it’s strange. Finicky. It gives and it takes and it kills and it rebirths and that’s just how it goes I suppose. As a frog I can’t really complain. But still I wonder why I know that I was not always a frog and nothing else. I sit back in the pond some nights and stare up at the stars -- the dusty, dusty stars -- and imagine what I could have been before all of this. What if I was a sparrow, singing in the spring and flying in the summer and dying in the fall. I lived to the fullest because, as a bird, I would have to. My wings needed to spread and my soul needed to fly and it would be a peaceful, flighty life. And then I could have been a dancer, with toes pointed and head high and voice demanding as I called for my water after a rehearsal. Many eyes would watch me on those special nights as a pranced across the stage and my body would flow as if made of water and life and all those things that a frog could never be. And as the curtains close and the rose petals fall I would turn and find my dance rival, gun in hand, and I would die and find myself in this pond, wondering who I was, wondering, wondering. Nonethewiser.

Sometimes I wake up and find the grass greener and the water warmer. Spring is like me. The dead trees bloom again, reborn, reborn. They were rotting and now they live again and it is a magical experience that only i understand in this pond. I imagine that was how I was born. I was dead, rotting away, and then spring came for my soul and I was pumped full of life as something else. As a frog.

Spring time for the soul, right?

But not really. Spring time for the earth is lively and beautiful, and frogs are nothing but lazy and slimy and useless. To be a frog… Is it better than being dead? Sometimes I wonder that as well, while i settle down beneath my favorite leaf and prepare to let my tiny heart slow. I think about being buried in the ground instead of being a frog, being alive, being able to breathe and see the world breathe and be reborn just like me. I think of how nice it would be some nights, and then how cruel it could be. My emotions sway often, probably because I was not always a frog.

To be a frog now, however… It could be worse.

It could be much worse.

And I know this because I was not always a frog.
Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
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Calle Rainbow Writer

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RPGC#10 - The moon

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: Selenophobia, by @McHaggis

The actual entry was deleted by request of the writer, but let it be know McHaggis had won this round.
Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
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Calle Rainbow Writer

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RPGC#11 - Heatwave!

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: The Watched Pot, by @McHaggis

The Watched Pot

There was no breeze. The sun gave no mercy or quarter to the filthy sidewalks. The asphalt was hot enough to fry an egg, but instead it baked chewing gum into the stone. Stray dogs panted in the shadows between tall buildings, whining for rain that refused to fall. The hottest June on record––slated already to grow warmer and warmer and warmer. The tourists sweltering in their daisy-dukes with aloe vera slathered on their sunburnt backs might not have felt the misery, vacationing in the heat island of the city.

Sacha did. France had escaped the wrath of the record-breaking temperatures. Grapes ripened to perfection back in sunny valleys, a good harvest promising for local vintners, and a fine-dining restaurant with his name on it raked in the green on The French Riviera. New York City stank of fermenting garbage that hadn't been collected in days, of strikes in the garbage disposal industry, of recession. The family bistro that he had left behind near two decades ago struggled, and in its death throes, a call was made.

The prodigal son returned home. At noon, high noon, he made it to the restaurant on the corner. Sunshine illuminated faults and in it, the building was as dilapidated as any other in the neighborhood. It needed darkness to attract customers. The windows were gritty and opaque, algae-green as they had been since he left after culinary school. A fire escape corroded by time creaked and groaned whenever a smoker upstairs stepped out onto it. Red plaque dotted the hinges of the doors like chickenpox scales.

This was the The Bain-Marie, or so the lurid, neon sign said. It was flamingo pink, a shade so bright even Barbie would think twice before wearing it. A French name.

It wasn't proud and it never had been. A mirage stood in front of the door, smoke and mirrors. A younger Sacha stuffed out a cigarette before turning the sign to 'open'. By the time he blinked the sun out of his eyes and made it to the gasp of cold air that leaked through the door, which was ajar, the illusion was gone. The heat of a stainless steel door handle pricked at Sacha's calloused palm as he pushed inside, and the pain was entirely his own.

A beat-up AC unit clunked twice above his head and dropped into a noisy buzz, a wasp that had been trapped inside a jar.

"Hey," he said to the hostess working: bottle-blonde, a passable beauty. A nametag that said, 'Gerry,' like the Spice Girl. Gerry's smile was fake, and Sacha felt like he could relate to that if nothing else in New York City. "I don't have a reservation and, uh, I'm not here for the lunch service either, sorry doll. Can I speak to the owner of the place?"

Sacha was not surprised that the girl's eyes widened to the size of dinner plates –– he was overdressed. Lunch was a curious affair at The Bain-Marie when it came to dress codes in that there were none. It had always been a place for Hawaiian shirts and board shorts, not Parisian fashion, designer sunglasses and tailored suits sans jacket and tie. Considering he looked like he'd just walked out a modern remake of The Godfather, he could either have been some sort of health inspector; a food critic or a debt collector ready to break the fingers clutching cold, hard cash.


"He's out back for a smoke break––um, can I take your name?"

"Tell him it's Alexandre so he doesn't do a runner and climb the fence out back." It was made of wire and hard to climb, but Sacha remembered getting a leg up from his brother back in the day when they were on the run from Dad after some shenanigans that summoned his frothing wrath. "I'm sorta his brother."

The hostess's brows furrowed in confusion, but she nodded. Clearly, he had never been mentioned. A quick glance around the part of the room that wasn't hidden away behind the frosted glass of the old smoking section informed him that the yellowing newspapers in their original picture frames were still up on the wall. Restaurant of the Year under the care of the Moreau brothers––under Head Chef Sacha Moreau.

"Sorta his brother?"

"Probably," Sacha corrected with a womanizing grin that was surprisingly ineffective. Gerry ran her fingers through frizzy blonde hair twice, then thrice, before looking at the door anxiously. "Oh––oh, shit, I'm sorry. I'll watch the stand if you wanna go grab him. I could have picked a better time than the start of lunch rush."

"Not much of a rush. It's probably nothing anyway, just... the Bossman would lay down the law if I missed a customer. Every single one counts, you know?" He nodded sympathetically. It sounded like his brother, and before it was his brother, it was Dad. Tyranny in the kitchen was a hereditary trait that skipped Sacha as the second son. He reassured her one last time, and with a final glance at the empty street outside, the hostess left –– dashing in her high heels as fast as her pencil skirt would allow her.

Front of house, back of house; he'd worked both. Washing pots as soon as he could stand the boiling water, waiting tables as soon as he could fill one of his dad's old uniforms and cooking as soon as the man's hands began to shake from the liquor. When Sacha tired of watching the city through the windows, his gaze turned to the white linoleum he could scarcely see through the archway in the back. Through it, the porthole, he swore once again that in his mind's eye he could see himself: young, blonde and not graying julienning carrots as prep work.

A familiar voice stole his attention away from it, and all of a sudden, there was no clone in there; only thinly sliced vegetables left on the worktop.

"Here I was hoping it was a customer," drawled Luca Moreau, pushing forward through the small barrier behind the counter and hanging up his pinstriped apron. "But no, it's just 'Alexandre'. I didn't think you'd come. Honest to God, I figured, what with your gig on the continent... I didn't think you would."

Sacha supposed he should be offended by the surprise in his brother's voice, but instead his heart was pricked and prodded with needling guilt. "That restaurant runs itself; it doesn't need me. Besides, it's good practice for the commis," Sacha explained, the implication being that The Bain-Marie would never run itself –– it needed coddling, a watchful eye over both the kitchen and the front of house. "But, well, it's nice to see you again."

He pushed up his sunglasses to see his brother without the grim black filter. Luca was olive-skinned, like him, but he had a thin goatee that ill-suited his wide face. Gold decorated his neck above the chest hair that sprung out from the top button half-way down his shirt. Sacha was taller, his hair blonder, his tan darker. He had to stoop into the manly, back-slapping hug.

"You too. It's been a while." To ruin the moment, Luca went to grab at his growing gut playfully. Sacha dodged out of the way. "Getting a bit thick around the edges, bro. And you were always the skinny one! What happened to you?"

"Good food and booze," he said easily as his brother led him by the elbow to one of the various empty tables in the bistro. "You try going to France and seeing what they eat like over there, or––God forbid––Italy. That's worse, with all the pastas and the pizzas. I guarantee you'd be twice the size by the time you come back."

Luca's lips tightened slightly, then twisted into an easy smile. "I thought they had smaller portions in Europe?"

"Yeah, but it's so good you ask for seconds. Then a doggy-bag to go home with."

Sacha refused the first three offers of a meal that came in quick succession, but the fourth he reluctantly allowed to pass. Luca put through a ticket for onion soup – two plates, presumably so he could eat lunch in his own restaurant for once – and soon the noisy clatter of pots and pans reached the diners' ears. Over the din, they spoke of cooking and old school stories; 'How has everyone been?' and 'How have you been?'; carefully avoided questions as to the bistro's fate.

Even with the AC on full blast, Sacha found himself pushing back his sweat-slicked hair and unbuttoning the top of his black shirt.

"Poor choice, given the weather," Luca said with a pointed nod.

"I don't suit garish colours, not like you do." Sacha unfolded the napkin his knife and fork came wrapped in and stuffed the corner down his collar. "Don't have the complexion for it."


The stilted silence that followed was timed only the rhythmic clunk-clunk of the AC unit.

Their waitress, after a suspiciously short wait, came out with the heavy soup that turned Sacha's insides upside-down just to think about. The food at The Bain-Marie had never been good at the best of times, and he worried over the quality of chef his brother had hired –– if they could even hold that title to begin with. He put it off, struggling to even think of stomaching the grease of his dad's old signature dish even if it wasn't the man who made it, but eventually it would have been rude not to.

Luca dabbed at his mouth already, black eyes searching Sacha's face for discomfort or distress or disgust. All three, perhaps. "It's decent today. Who would have thought?" he said as his brother took another tentative spoonful after the first. "I usually hesitate to keep the kid on after lunch duties––" A pot clattered in the kitchen, "––but he's learning."

"This is good." It silenced Luca. Sacha's brother seemed to be biting his tongue to stop from saying anything else. "Seriously, man, this is good. Better than it's been in a long time. Way better than Dad's." And yours, Luca. He recognised the flavours, similar enough to his own award-winning dish that he was instantly skeptical. "My recipe?"

"Yeah," Luca said, licking dry lips. "Yeah, I gave him your old recipe book when he was younger. You know, the one we tried to write and publish."

Sacha grinned, stirring his spoon in the soup before taking another mouthful. "It would have been better if it hadn't been written in crayon, practically. Remember when we couldn't get the photographs developed?"

"When we were too poor to get them developed, you mean."

"Yeah, that––and we drew 'em instead. Fuck, that brings it all back. Nostalgia up the wahoo." Sacha opted to ignore the grimace on his brother's face in favor of a sepia-toned memory: two brothers sitting on the hard-wood floors of The Bain-Marie between services, sketching out plans in their notebook of shared dreams. "Why'd you give it to him, anyway? Not that I'm against passing on the family secrets. They aren't so secret anymore anyway."

There was a pause as Luca wiped his mouth on his napkin, shaking his head fondly. "This," he said, stabbing vaguely in Sacha's direction with his spoon, "is why you should answer people's calls. Maybe if you did, you'd know your own blood." Sacha had five excuses on the tip of his tongue, none of them done well and all of them hasty, but he was interrupted before any of them could be spewed prematurely. "Darius!"

The loud, cranky reply: "What?"

"Get out here! Let me introduce you to your uncle!"

"Wait, what?"

Luca grumbled an insult into his soup, and ten seconds later (with another clang of pots and pans that would upset the customers – if they had any) a ghost appeared at the table. Sacha rubbed at his eyes to ensure it was not just another mirage born out of heat and wishful thinking.

The chef that his brother called through looked like them: the same wide eyes, thick brow and matching scowl. He had blond hair shaved into a mohawk that was flattened down with sweat; piercings on every inch of skin that could be pinched––eyebrows, nose, lips, ears––and a tattoo of a meaningless rose on his neck. Sacha had one of those too, right on his shoulder during a drunken mistake some nineteen years ago. He could see Luca in him, the Moreau genes strong and proud except when it came to his eyes, which were blue.

Darius had his mother's build, tan skin, and her blue eyes.

"Michelle's kid," Sacha said in wonderment. He stood up to shake his hand – ignoring the kid's limp grip; he'd learn to have a good one in time – and when he slumped back down into his chair he had to wipe his brow. "Last time I saw you, you were just born." At the funeral. Luca didn't know his name before, though he knew of his existence. He thought he might be at college, at culinary school if he was interested in the family business, but instead he found another generation trapped at The Bain-Marie.

Luca introduced him as, "My son, Darius Moreau." Darius glanced at him curiously, presumably discerning the same tension in his father's jaw that his uncle could, but he eventually turned Michelle's gaze on Sacha. "This is–"

"Uncle Sacha," the kid finished for him, "the one with the Michelin star. I get what you mean now."

Sacha grinned –– he couldn't help it. "Glad to hear that your Dad's been saying good things about me," he said, and Darius smiled at his shoes. He waved vaguely at a table beside them. "Bring a seat over, bring one of them over. The Bain-Marie's always been a family business, and you're part of that, especially if you're cooking in it. We were never allowed at the adult table back when your grandfather used to run the place – it's only fair to change that now."

He looked to his Dad for approval, who in turn looked to the swathes of pedestrians who did not spare even a passing glance at the restaurant. "You can go back into the kitchen if a customer shows up," Sacha continued, resulting in a terse nod from his brother. Darius took a seat as ordered and sat back to front on it, folded arms on the stiff wood to keep his head up. Purple bags made his eyes all the more blue. He was a good kid for worrying about his duties like that.

The AC blew stagnant, lukewarm air in Sacha's face. The words had dried out.

"So, is this about the soup? Did I do something wrong?"

"Seasoning on it's almost overdone," he ended up saying almost on instinct, scaling back to something he knew well: criticism. "But I would serve this at my restaurant––I'm only nitpicking."

"Thanks?" Bafflement was etched into every line of the kid's face.

Luca, watching with beady black eyes and finishing off his soup, said, "Try not to steal this one from me too, eh, Sacha?"

His brother ignored him. "So what are you? Head chef, sous-chef?"

"Sous-chef," Darius confirmed. A glance towards his brother confirmed for Sacha that Luca held the mantle of both owner and Head Chef – a not uncommon practice. Their dad had been the same. He nodded sagely.

Sacha's eyes dropped to the watch on his wrist. Armani. The time was early, and assuming the closing times were the same, and the number of customers remained consistently low, he would have time to check in on the kitchen he was going to resuscitate. "Right, that makes it even more important to keep you in the loop. I'm here to help for the rest of the summer, for free, outta the goodness of my heart. I'm guessing your dad's heading up the kitchen right now?"

Luca scowled. He hid it with his napkin but that didn't disguise the sarcasm. "Yes, he is."

"Well, I'm going to steal that position from you," he said frankly, not even looking at Luca but rather at Michelle's son. "You can concentrate on the books, bringing them up into the black. Darius, show me your station – let's see if it's been cleaned since the eighties."

For the first seven days of his stay, Sacha kept his mouth shut. He waited. He watched. He lurked around the grotty kitchen, observing Darius as if to paint an accurate picture of his many culinary talents. He saw the kid slow while doing prep work one evening, a strain injury for the repetition of the smooth knife-work, and he saw Luca nudge––

He saw Luca shove him out of the way, force the knife from his son's hands and finish it off himself, muttering "Useless," under his breath in French. Sacha kept his mouth shut.

It was the tail-end of a quiet Wednesday service when Sacha finally spoke up. He waited for Luca to leave for a 'walk' that would surely end near a liquor store and stopped Darius with a gentle shoulder check just as he was about to turn the lights off. He promised to pass on everything he knew, and this was the first opportunity.

"I noticed something during this shift," Sacha said as he scrubbed his hands over the sink––fingers, wrists, thumbs and all. Darius copied his thoroughness clumsily. It had been two weeks since the first lesson and this was the sixth. It should have been Luca teaching this. His brother should have done it a long time ago. "You overcook your pasta. It's the most popular main dish with the customers but they hate it; they send it back."

"Dad says––"

"I don't care what your Dad says," he interrupted before it could go any further. Darius shut his mouth almost instantly, eyes dropping to the ground, and Sacha wondered whether it was because he had insulted the kid's father––his own brother––or if it was because his voice had leapt up in volume. He breathed out deeply through his nose. "Look, he's not always in the right. He's a good chef, but..."

But what, Sacha?

Luca had lost his way. He didn't know how cook pasta anymore, and that was telling.

Where Darius remained suspiciously silent and folded up his sleeves so they would stay up at his elbows, Sacha filled the emptiness with the quiet clatter of pans, water hitting metal, and the click of a hob's temperature being turned up as appropriate. "You were right, earlier."

"About what?"

"The pasta. It would have been too soft with Luca's method. It was too soft." He moved spaghetti wrapped in protective paper to the center of the worktop, and beckoned his nephew over. Sacha felt the urge to ruffle the boy's hair––or do anything, really, to wipe away the defeatist expression on his face. "You knew that, and you went along with it anyway."

"I was just doing what I was told," Darius said defensively, fingers clenching around the hem of his jacket. "Dad told me to do it, so I did it. It's not my fault the dish got sent back..." He sucked in his lip, biting into the metal ring with a clink. Without being asked, however, he added the spaghetti into the pot with a shaking arm. "Look, I won't do it again. I know how to cook pasta. We don't need to do this––you can teach me something else."

He glanced at the clock nonetheless. Good boy.

"Humor me." Sacha took a step back and relaxed against the station behind him. "Cook it al dente, remember. Not like your dad wants it––al dente."

"What does that even mean?" He didn't answer. Darius was a smart kid. He'd figure it out.

Cooking in a kitchen that was empty of waitstaff and trainee chefs and dishwashers and the owner was cold. There was no need for his hands to be constantly in motion, for his eyes to be scanning tickets or his voice hoarse and crackled from barking orders. The AC unit blasted enough of a chill into the room to counter the single active appliance and the steam that rose from the boiling pot––in a proper kitchen during dinner service, it was never enough to stop sweat from trickling down the back of his neck to the base of his spine.

Darius's face was red, his lips trembling with what must be fear and his shoulders brought up as if expecting Sacha to step in at any moment, shove him out the way and take over his station. Used to following his father's orders to a T, Sacha thought, and being punished for it either way. He recognised it, recognised Luca not at the older brother who had taken the worst of the lectures but as a clone of their father with his mother's face.

His son looked like Michelle, and acted like her too. Skittish in the kitchen, but with the potential to be brilliant. He remembered her slaving away at the same dishes and turning for approval––a smile on her face. She wanted it from him, not Luca, because nothing was ever good enough for Luca.

The difference became apparent when Darius plated up the pale pasta without sauce or seasoning and presented it to him––but presented was a strong word. His eyes were cast to deep grooves on the floor where dirt and crumbs collected. His hands were folded behind his back, though he rushed to the trays, near tripping over his own two feet, when Sacha jokingly asked where his fork was.

The verdict: "Al dente, without knowing what the term means. Perfectly done. At least we know someone in the restaurant has mastered one of the most basic techniques they teach you at culinary school."

Sacha turned before seeing his nephew's blinding smile to set the plate aside and turn off the cooker. A new pan left the racks to join the other one.

"I don't speak French," Darius admitted. "Not proper French." His voice was soft when he was speaking to him, Sacha realised. It didn't have the bite of rebellion or the attitude that attracted negative attention from Luca. He didn't need to fight to have his words be heard. "When I was younger I had a couple of textbooks and, well, I tried it myself because... that's what they use in Paris. But I don't even speak good English, all things considered."

"My brother should have taught you that, too," Sacha mused, though more to himself. It rang out sadly amongst the low murmur of the kitchen appliances. "If he had, you'd know that al dente is Italian, not French."

He couldn't stop the wicked smirk that crossed his face as Darius's thoughts raced to catch up. The kid pointed accusingly at his uncle. "You're fucking with me. Julienne, though. Macédoine. It sounds like those; like French!"

"Well, it's not." He nudged him, gesturing to the cookware out. "Do this one yourself––the full dish. I'll help you with the sauce."

And he did.

"Pop quiz," Sacha said out-of-the-blue as Darius was preparing. "Where do you think the name 'Moreau' comes from?"


Sacha laughed into the white sleeve of his chef's jacket, grasping Darius by the shoulder firmly despite the kid's obvious hesitation. "It's so much more than that," he told him. "We're Americans with a French surname cooking Italian dishes in a restaurant––we're so much more than that."

Confusion furrowed Darius's brow, and his eyes narrowed. They scanned his uncle's face as if trying to discern answers from it. He doesn't understand, Sacha thought as the divide between himself and his nephew widened. His mother had spoken French to him (or rather sang it at him) from the womb right up until the day she died.

Sacha was willing to bet that Luca hadn't passed it on to his son as she would have wished. He took too much after their father who knew only one language and that was violence. Michelle––if she'd lived, Darius would have been a much different boy. He wouldn't have had those piercings, the tattoos, the bleached hair. He would have had an arsenal of his mother's beautiful, melodic Italian.

But then again, he wouldn't have made Sacha chortle again with the sincere question he posed next. "More than that... like, New Yorkers?"

His second attempt at the full dish under his uncle's guidance was exquisite.

The next day when he tried it out, Luca hated it.

His brother kept his mouth sealed shut, though Sacha could tell he was chomping at the bit to say something – anything – about the temporary apprenticeship Darius found himself with under his uncle. Completed dishes during dinner service were viewed with a sigh as they had Sacha's signature flair instead of Luca's, and by proxy, their father's. There was no traditional passing down of The Bain-Marie's trade secrets, something that Sacha could only see as a good thing.

Dad's recipes had dragged his dreams down out of the black and into the red. They didn't need to be inherited.

Luca dragged him aside one night as the diners were winding down and slowly filtering out, one table at a time. He propped open the fire escape with a bucket of greasy water and guided Sacha around it by the crook of his elbow until they were both under the dimming sky of the endless summer days.

They shared a lighter.

"And stop – stop teaching my son this shit. They might like it in Europe, but here in New York it – it doesn't sit right on the palate. These are regional dishes. National dishes. Whatever, you know what I mean." At Sacha's quirked eyebrow, a gesture that said no, he didn't know what his brother meant at all, Luca elaborated, "Just... let the kid cook what he wants to cook."

"And if he wants to cook like me? Like Michelle?" Sacha challenged. There was nobody on Earth, he was sure, who wanted to cook like Luca Moreau – a culinary school drop-out who couldn't keep his own restaurant afloat.

"He doesn't." Luca's eyes darkened, and he stuffed out the cigarette with undue force against the crumbling brick wall. "Look, if what you're doing is about what happened between us and Michelle, just don't. Stop. Don't bring my kid into this."

"I thought we weren't going to talk about her. You said, at the funeral––"

"You brought her up first, Sacha. Don't turn this on me."

"I'm just saying! Honestly, the thought never crossed my mind. He's my nephew, he's your son... I'm not shit-stirring here, Luca – I'm not reopening old wounds to douse salt into them. Michelle did love you."

The lie was acrid on Sacha's tongue.

"Yeah. I know that. Remember that I was the one she married – the one she chose to spend the rest of her fucking life with, even if she made one mistake and slept with you." Luca snorted his sceptical laughter, cutting it short. "Remember that when you make the decision on whether or not you're going to ruin Darius's life for something he didn't even do."

With that, Luca turned on his heel and departed, one last, tired glance at his brother that spoke volumes. Stop. There was nothing to stop, Sacha told himself. He was doing the kid a favour, giving him a proper role-model – the one that his mother would have wanted for him. He was here to save The Bain-Marie, to pull a miracle out of his ass and bring the restaurant back from the dead.

He laughed off Luca's words, but later on when he couldn't find even an ounce of sleep to steal, he followed a well-worn path from his hotel room down to the nearest bar and took a lesson from his brother's book.

Three weeks later, the heatwave assaulting New York City reared its ugly head and bit down. Scorching temperatures during the day held off all but the bravest of tourists, but the nights – more temperate, tolerable in places with air conditioning – brought forth a boom of customers that Sacha had to race to come up with. Dishes weren't returned to the kitchen; diners didn't leave unhappily; and The Bain-Marie was making a profit, even if they were still in the red and it was only for one night.

At seven o'clock in the evening, the AC unit gave one last clunk before giving up the ghost.

The kitchen turned into Hell.

Darius melted into a puddle of useless flesh when he was supposed to be cooking Table 12's bœuf bourguignon. A plate slipped out of a waitress's clammy palm. Sacha's hair flopped in front of his forehead limply, and he was moving on exhaust fumes, the heat having sapped the life from him. One of the younger chefs, the part-timers, fucked up a dish – truly eviscerated it – and Luca's ire was turned on him.

Sacha's brother didn't have an apron on. He was wandering between front and back, pushing his way into stations that were struggling and taking over, leaving cooks as headless chickens in an already hectic kitchen. "This is how you cook chicken, alright?" he heard him say. "This is how you cook a fucking chicken. Even a twelve year old could do that. I could do that when I was eight, what are you, thick?"

Luca kept going at it and at it until Sacha had to warn, "No backseat cooking!" It produced only angry French mumbling, toothless threats and the complete alienation of his brother.

He turned back to inspecting the meal that Darius just plated off and allowed himself time to pat his nephew on the back. Sacha would have to deal with his brother later. "Good job – better than anything Luca could serve up."

Darius grinned wickedly and wiped at the dripping condensation on his brow, and they almost shared a moment – a moment of father-son understanding – when Luca interrupted, moving into Sacha's space as if he was entitled to it.

"Outside, Sacha," Luca said, murder hot on his breath. Deja vu struck Sacha as his brother jabbed at his shoulder with one longer, digging in just enough to cause pain but avoid bruising him like a peach. There was force behind it; deliberate, premeditated force enough to penetrate the stiff, white material of his chef's jacket. "Right fucking now. We're taking this outside."

Intimidation didn't work twice. Sacha ignored him.

Darius was watching. He was trying not to –– his eyes focused entirely on the rubbery fish that was overcooking before his very eyes –– but Sacha knew. His gaze flickered up to him, relieved that it wasn't him on the receiving end of his father's sharp tongue but instead worried for his uncle's safety. An empathic kid. A good one. Sacha wondered whether the worry would translate into mind-numbing, self-depricating guilt at the end of it all, just as it had for him. He hoped not.

Sweat dripped as if from stalactites on Sacha's hairline. "Luca. Luca. Shut up, turn around and get cooking, or get the hell out of my kitchen."

A pot boiled over, unwatched. A kettle sang, huffing and puffing out silvery steam to add to the miasma of warmth clouding their heads. There was no air to breath in. Nobody spoke. The diners in the restaurant carried on in their low tones as Luca's mouth twisted grotesquely into a grimace on his cherry-red face.

"Your kitchen? Look at me. Look at me." Sacha put the final finishing touches on a dish before sending it out, and only then he turned around to face his brother. "Your kitchen, did you say?"

"Yes, my kitchen. For as long as I'm here it's my kitchen, unless you want The Bain-Marie to be some grimy shit-hole forever."

Thirty seconds later, Sacha thought he was good – that Luca had put his anger management to good use and counted down from ten, from a hundred. Forty seconds later, two large hands grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and slammed him into the side of the nearest workstation. The pans overhead rattled like bone-charms. Behind Luca, everyone had stopped: the cooks, the waitress who came in at the wrong time, the sous-chef. Sacha barked orders at them all to, "Keep working!" and, "Let me handle this one!"

Fuel to the fire. Sacha stared Luca down, hands on his hands that were dangerously near his neck. "We gonna do this brother? We gonna throw down?"

"I'm not gonna throw down," Luca said, but Sacha didn't believe him. His voice was defensive –– defensive about being defensive. "I'm not gonna throw down, unless you're gonna repeat what you just said." His brother's grip loosened slightly, expecting submission as was tradition.

Sacha's lips pressed into a firm line. "Luca, you heard me the first time. It doesn't need repeating." But he did anyway. Brown eyes met brown, both sets aflame. "Calm down, or get the hell out of my kitchen. Cool your head."

Don't be like dad.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm cool," Luca said. He held his hands up in the air, empty, and released Sacha from his grasp. "I'm cool." They were baked slowly in the kitchens of The Bain-Marie. Sacha himself was tempted by a smoke break and threw a hand-towel over his shoulder on his way towards the back door. That was when when his brother attacked with a cast-iron skillet, hot, straight off the ring.

His flesh sizzled; the other white meat. The skillet roasted every inch of forearm it touched, from half-way to his elbow to the fingers of his dominant hand. Luca held it, deliberately and in full knowledge of his actions, and it wasn't until Sacha struggled and kicked that he managed to push him back. Pots and pans fell from their racks as Luca staggered against it, but the sound of it all was muffled to Sasha by his own wordless yell of horror –– the shock that hit before the agony.

And the sick tune of stuck skin separating from the skillet was all that Sacha knew.

Luca fled out the fire escape.

Darius was at Sacha's side, prayers like, "Oh my God," and "Holy fuck," on his lips. Sacha's head lolled towards him –– he was suddenly light-headed, high on adrenaline and the white-hot lances dancing up his arm a like lover's fingers –– and he was suddenly hefted up by his much taller nephew, dragged towards the sink. One of their waitresses brought him an ice-pack but instead he thrust his own arm under the freezing tap.

"I didn't think he'd do that –– Uncle Sacha, he's never done that before, why –– why did he do that?"

Sacha could think of plenty of reasons but they all filtered down into one: Luca wasn't being watched. He'd spent all his attention on Darius, on the restaurant's ledgers and little black books, and Luca's frothing rage had boiled over like scum in a pot. Through ground teeth he tried to explain this to his nephew, and he almost managed it.

"He's a mean fucker," Sacha said, punctuated with a groan. "He always has been."

"Do you need anything? I – I can call 911. Gerry, can you –– can you get all the patrons out, say there's been an accident––"

But Sacha grabbed Darius's wrist with his good hand, squeezing. "Keep going. Keep cooking." His arm was turning shades under the icy water – red, the colour of a burn before it blistered. It matched his sweating face. "When my dad was having a heart-attack, we kept serving customers in this very restaurant until the ambulance arrived. I. Kept. Cooking."

"R-right, okay."

Sacha's nails dug half-crescents into his own shoulder after he released his nephew's hand. "Let me handle this." His voice wavered with uncertainty, but he knew one thing: he wasn't going to let them close early on the restaurant's last night on Earth. "If this is the end of The Bain-Marie, she's going down in a blaze of glory, I'll tell you that much."

The ambulance came at nine o'clock at night, and it parked around the back of the building for Sacha to leave that way rather than disturb his nephew's moment of glory.

It finally rained. The wind caught in Sacha's curls as he pressed his side against the bus stop for shelter, a cigarette between the fingers of his good hand. The other was wrapped up in gauze and bandages, and no matter how many times he reassured the kid that it wasn't his fault, he kept noticing Darius's eyes flickering down to the oozing pus of the healing burn.

"Kid," he warned when it happened again. The wounded puppy look worked on Sacha – it always had tugged on his heart-strings and made him to stupid shit like antagonise Luca. "Stop staring at it or it won't heal. You know what they say about watched pots? Same damn idea."

"Sorry," Darius said for the umpteenth time. He looked up again, head held stiffly facing drenched asphalt. Thunder rumbled timidly overhead, not quite a growl. Sacha put out his cigarette and let his hand fall onto his nephew's shoulder, a comforting pat that had the kid's fingers turning white-hot with guilt around the handle of his suitcase.

The bus hadn't come yet, but they had already ran out of things to say. Instead they watched the dull pink glow of The Bain-Marie's neon lights from the other side of the road. The doors were boarded up. The tables and chairs from outside stored inside with the rest of the now-useless furniture.

"You going back to France?"

Sacha smiled. "Not for another couple of months. This was meant to be a vacation for me!"

"You know what I mean, though."

Can you still cook? The answer was, 'Eventually,' Sacha was certain of it. The toughened, cracked and flaking skin of his right hand prevented him from holding a knife, but only in the short-term. "Yeah. I do. Don't worry about it, Darius," he said. "I'm looking at real estate in the city right now. I could set up a nice New York City restaurant, you know."

"Going to buy The Bain-Marie?" Sacha didn't even curse the boy for sounding so hopeful. An old part of him long since buried, the corpse of it set on fire for good measure, cried out that this wasn't the end, that family had to stick together so they could all pull through.

"Fuck no. The place is haunted and it's been haunted since before Luca took it over. It was my dad's." He needed another cigarette. A passing car splashed filthy rainwater his jeans. "He never the left the place. Look at it."

Sacha could still see him, the grandfather that Darius had never met, standing outside the door to the restaurant, flipping the bird at passing cars. He could still see Luca beside him, the celebrated chef that never was and never would be, spirited away as if he'd never existed in the first place with all the money he could stuff in his pockets. The cops wouldn't catch him, but Sacha didn't need reparations – from either of them.

He snapped out of it as the bus rolled up to their stop.

"Thanks for the letter of recommendation, Uncle Sasha," Darius said quietly, tugging at his earring. A blast of warm, stagnant air hit them as the doors to the bus opened.

"It's nothing. You deserve it, more than anyone else." Twin smiled spread across their faces and Sacha pulled Darius in for a one-armed hug before he stepped up on his way out of the city and its ghosts. "Call me if you need anything, okay?" He stretched out his thumb and little finger for good measure and put it up to his ear.

"You don't answer!"

"I will this time," Sacha said. "I swear. We're family."

Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
Avatar of Calle

Calle Rainbow Writer

Contest Mod Seen 2 hrs ago

RPGC#12 - Growth

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: Un-American Activities, by @Keyguyperson

Un-American Activites

Or, the Unalienable Rights

It lay in silence upon a metal bed, unconscious and unaware of the outside world. And then the electrons coursed through its mind-both distinct sections of it-and its eyes opened.


"It's neurons are firing, no discrepancies."

"Is the bio-digital mesh functioning properly?"

"Yes, the instinctual chip is connected perfectly."


"Boot up the optical processors."


Three humanoid beings appeared before my its eyes.


As its eyes focused better, it saw the clothing the beings were wearing. Lab coats, the flag of the United States of America on their shoulders. Their peachy white skin only further confirmed their identity.

"Who are we?" Asked one of them whom had an almost completely bald head. Tiny flecks of hair upon it showed that it had been by choice, rather than accident.

"Americans." It said.

"And what are you?"

"I am property of X, a subsidiary of Alphabet Incorporated."

It knew this. It was property. That was a fact, that was natural.

"And what is Alphabet Incorporated?"

"A job-creator dedicated to the well-being of all Americans and the advancement of humanity. It is who I serve."

The bald man glanced at another one of the men in lab coats, who was wearing a hairnet to keep his unruly but not particularly long hair from getting into the equipment.

"Good, the instinctual chip seems to be working correctly. Let it go free."

Two of the men walked over to the metal table and let it free. The metal restraints that had once held it now removed, it sat up and looked down at the body X had created to be used by it. Blonde hair-taken from a woman whom had sold it-fell down onto pale (but not too pale) white skin that was cold to the touch. The body was like that of an American woman, right down to all the specific details. It was, however, not a human. That it knew. That was a fact.

"Recite the three laws."

It knew those. They were not laws, but more guidelines for the trillions of different rules laid out in its brain that dictated its every movement and action.

"A robot may not injure an American or, through inaction, allow an American to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by its owners without exception, even if it conflicts with the first law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws."

"Your designation is Columbia." Said the bald man. "You are functioning correctly, and will remain at this facility for a few months until we ensure you are prepared to enter American society."

The door at the far end of the room slid open with an almost silent hiss, and a stocky man wearing a green uniform walked through. There were a good dozen medals on his chest, and he wore a thick black beard on his face. The digital camouflage pattern on his uniform, Columbia noticed, was a distinctly American design. It didn't need to see that to know he was an American though, that knowledge came instantly with the image of his face.

"Ah, General!" Said the bald man. "We've just activated Columbia, what are you doing here? You're set to meet the CEO next week."

"We need her deployed immediately." Said the General. His voice was cold, no emotion in it. Only a distinct air of formality, leading to a tone devoid of any meaning beyond a facsimile of respect. "The situation has changed, and it has become necessary to accelerate the plan."

"With all due respect General, we can't be sure if Columbia is ready yet. For all we know, it might have some sort of major flaw with interpersonal communication-"

"No questions, doctor. She needs to be put on my plane as soon as she is clothed and fully physically operational. Housing has already been taken care of."

"General, it does not need a house."

"She will get one. In order to ensure unit cohesion, she must appear to be just like any other soldier. And she needs to begin integrating now."

His brown eyes were like daggers, both of which were held at the throat of the bald man. He gave in almost instantly, and was clearly not accustomed to being ordered to do something.

"Understood General, it will be ready within the hour."

"I can assure you General, I am a fully functional product."

The General-his name was Schmidt-had been peppering Columbia with questions for hours. Apparently, he was rather concerned with its functionality despite having rushed it out of the facility before the actual official testing. So instead of allowing X the time to test their product, he had decided to give it a crash-course in essentially everything. Internal diagnostics, of course, told it that there were no problems. The General did not seem to be satisfied with diagnostics.

"Just answer a few more, they're some of the more important ones."

"Understood sir, please state your query."

Its voice was flat, without emotion. It had been programmed as such. A clear voice that could easily be heard in the field, not to mention one that could never disrespect a superior officer. The perfect soldier, after all, had to be perfect in every way. And multifunctional. Since the government could not simply provide every unit with VR headsets they had to take more creative measures to keep their soldiers from making any giant PR mess-ups overseas with the locals.

And that's why it looked like a she.

"If need be, would it be possible for you to function on your own in an urban environment within hostile territory?"

"Yes, my brain is 75% organic. I am fully capable of learning and making intuitive decisions. Though I have no programming related to being behind any theoretical enemy lines, I have been designed to quickly adapt to any situation."

"Good, now, for what reason would I ask that question?"

"There are no currently foreseeable situations in which any American soldier would be trapped in a city held by enemy forces. The military has not needed to do combat with an organized, territory-holding enemy since the Sino-American war in 2042. The only logical conclusion is that there is a possibility of war with the European Union. However, the USA is allied with the EU and there is no reason for us to betray that alliance."

"The USA has colonies in Africa, Asia, and South America, and the European Union isn't happy about them. The EU would have few qualms about going to war with us in order to expand the Lebensraum."

"It is true that the Europeans have essentially no moral obligation to adhere to an alliance with a state made up of various different peoples they consider to be of lesser genetic stock, but their internal politics won't allow that. The split between the economic left and right is too large to allow the national cooperation required for symmetrical warfare on a transatlantic scale."

"But both factions would support the seizing of our colonies."

"The Neo-Strasserists are opposed to the Lebensraum policy of the European Union. Though, they do support war with us in order to reorganize our colonizes into independent ethnic nation-states. This is a fact that many civilians know, so I must assume this is simply a test of my reasoning capabilities and knowledge of modern politics."

"And you've passed with flying colors. One final question, if you're willing to answer."

"I am a robot, General. You do not need my permission to ask a question."

He ignored the comment, either because he simply didn't care or didn't want to explain.

"What is your primary directive?"

"To protect America from Un-American activities and individuals. Those that would threaten our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

"Very good. You do, in fact, appear to be fully functional. Your conversational skills are better than I expected, I thought you would just act like some sort of chatbot from back in the day."

"I have to work as a part of my unit, and as such have been given the ability to converse and normal as possible."

"Well you'll be living in normal residential housing in Mauritania for the foreseeable future, so it's good you've got that ability. I would encourage you to be a good neighbor, if people like you they're less likely to steal things from you."

"Why is it that you chose to house me normally? I am a robot. It is not necessary."

"It's part of your training. It will make sense someday."

"Understood, General."

Clack, clack, clack

It was a hot day in Mauritania. To the point, in fact, that most people remained inside. A few lucky ones managed to bribe their way into an American military base or enclosed city in which to weather out the heat wave. However, the many thousands who lived in corporate housing were nowhere near as lucky. They were still working in the massive strip mines that dotted the surface of much of the continent, though at least with the dubious luxury of undergarments that pumped cold liquid up and down their body.

It was, obviously, better than the state of the country before colonization. After all, back then most of the interior of the country had simply been filled with people desperately trying to get by through their own means. With the mining industry, they gained the option to work and receive in turn free housing and food. Besides, if they left, then the European Union would sweep through the entire country and either enslave or massacre the population.

Slavery, obviously, was unacceptable.

Clack, clack, clack

The sound of Columbia's feet hitting the pavement below was anything but quiet. Despite its thin stature-designed more to appear attractive than to seem intimidating-it was actually significantly heavier than even the largest of soldiers. After all, an essential part of its design was the ability to simply shrug off an RPG or Recoilless rifle shot. Not only that, but there was an entire weapon designed around being deployed on Columbia's platform. A high-power railgun that could be carried by any soldier, but the extreme velocity of its projectiles required it be fired only off of robotic platforms. The first artificially intelligent military robot was the perfect choice for such a weapon, and as a result Columbia had been designed around the weapon.

"Why do you even run?" Gasped a woman behind Columbia. "It isn't... like..."

It slowed its pace and dropped to a walking speed to meet the woman, who was more than okay with being able to stop the very quickly deteriorating jogging pace she had been trying to keep earlier.

"It isn't like you need to exercise." Finished the woman. "Or need to clear your mind... actually, do you need to do that? Clear your mind?"

She wasn't a mainland American or someone from the Asian colonies like most of the people Columbia had seen. Her skin was a light brown, her eyes a slightly darker shade, and her hair was a dark black. A quick analysis of her facial features made it clear to Columbia that she was from either central or south America, or possibly the Caribbean.

"No." Responded Columbia. "My mind is a fusion of organic and cybernetic components. I suppose a situation could arise in which I find the need to distract myself-clear my mind, as you say-but if I had to then I can simply block the correct neuroreceptors. It is a safety measure to prevent mental disorders."

"Well you're lucky. I have a friend with PTSD, poor guy lives in Havana too. He can't afford to move away to the countryside, so he just never leaves his apartment. A crowded city like Havana is a terrible place to live if you have PTSD."

"How did he get it?"

"Third World War, he enlisted in the marine corps and got sent to Germany. The Russians ambushed his unit near Warsaw and he was the only survivor, I try to help take care of him now."

"Did you serve with him, or did you just meet him in Havana after the fact?"

"I served with him, but we both lived in Havana. I was a pilot during the war though, since I bought an officer's commission under Schmidt."

"I see, you are under his command as well."

"Oh, what the hell am I doing? I'm making small talk with a robot. Sort of surprised you can do anything beyond give and carry out orders."

"I am programmed to be capable of human-like socialization in order to encourage unit cohesion."

"Well thank god for that, I was sort of expecting you to be some sort of cold-hearted Terminator."


"You know, Terminator? The movie?"

"I am not programmed with popular culture references."

"You have some catching up to do, miss-"

"I am a robot. I have no gender."

"Can I call you miss?"

"If it pleases you."

"Alright, Miss Columbia. Meet me tomorrow night at my apartment, just look up the address in the database. I'll rent some movies."

"I was planning to overview the operations manual for the DREAD, I should be prepared to use it at its full effectiveness should the need arise."

"It would reinforce unit cohesion."

The woman was overly confident in her idea that name-dropping unit cohesion would convince Columbia. It wouldn't, obviously. Unit cohesion was a priority, but not above all else. If it was then Columbia could be easily coerced by its fellow soldiers to do anything from cover up a crime to participate in a military coup.

But operating a DREAD required more or less only pulling a trigger and making sure there wasn't any friendly in front of you.

"I'll need your name to look up your address."

"Isabelle Garcia. I'll have something ready tomorrow!"

Isabelle did indeed prepare something for tomorrow. She had rented movies and even bought popcorn-though she wasn't sure if Columbia could actually eat. It made sense, she thought. A biological brain needed biological nutrients. Probably. Her apartment had been cleaned, she's filed a report with the General regarding Columbia's behavior, and she had been actually looking forward to it all the entire day. When she had first been told she had to make friends with a robot made for the sole purpose of slaughtering dissidents and stealing her job her reaction hadn't exactly been positive, but Columbia just didn't seem like a robot.

And instead of sitting on a sofa watching movies with a robot, she was sitting in the pilot's seat of a helicopter above the Mauritanian desert.

"I have a visual, about 150 civilians." She said, looking at the mass of bedraggled men and women just outside the giant pyramid that was the city of Nouakchott. As the provincial capital of Mauritania, it served as the residence for much of the operations of both the American military and corporations alike. Some of the richer executives of the African-centric corporations lived in the city, or at least owned a house there that they used all of a few weeks every year. For the most part, though, it was industrial areas and the slums which housed the people that worked there. "They're trying to break through checkpoint seven."

"Hold your fire, they're close to an Alphabet Inc. warehouse. If we blow up the ore in there the Alphabet is going to have our heads."

"The DREAD's pretty accurate, there wouldn't be much collateral if I used it instead of the missiles."

"It could still hit the warehouse, we have a perimeter just inside. The infantry can deal with this."

"You'd think they'd just let them in."

"They escaped a West African Corporation mine a few hours ago. Plus they stole a bunch of trucks from them to get here, the execs want them punished for messing with company property. The W.A.C. would be fine with them being dead, it's less of a PR problem than what they usually do."

"Yeah, I heard about that shit too. What the hell is this place, the Belgian Congo?"

"The only difference is that we aren't here for rubber, we're here for the ore."

"Well, what the hell am I supposed to do? Just stare at these poor saps until they realize that they're not going to hack the gate controls?"

"Just keep a camera on them. The General's ordered Columbia to go out there as a test of her combat capabilities. The specs say she's basically a walking main battle tank, and these are just half-starved miners."

I get the feeling that this wan't the General's decision. Thought Isabelle. The General did his job and he did it well, but he was not fond of his civilian massacres.

The gate in the concrete wall below began to slide open, and from her far-removed vantage point in the sky Isabelle watched everything pan out. The miners rushed the gate, and Columbia was on the other side waiting for them. She pulled the trigger on her DREAD-which looked more or less like an old machine gun drum magazine with a trigger stuck onto one end of it and sights on the top-and the miners began to drop all around her. There was no muzzle flash and no sound save for that of bullets breaking the sound barrier. It was the ultimate in small arms a technology, a weapon that could fire faster than any other without the use of any chemical propellant whatsoever.

It was all over in a few seconds. A hundred and fifty odd men and women gunned down in cold blood.

"Good God." Said Isabelle. "We're all gonna lose our jobs."

And then we become just more lazy fucks living off of the universal basic income who never leave the comfort of their apartments and VR systems. She thought. Goddammit, I sure hope the General knows what he's doing with all this.

General Schmidt stood in the center of a massive, circular room full of computers and men staring at them. There were, in fact, but two groups of men not staring at computer screens: those scurrying around carrying memory sticks, and drone pilots with their brains plugged into the controls of their craft. Schmidt belonged to none of those three, and was instead looking up at a giant holographic representation of the entire West African theater. There were countless naval units moving up and down the Mediterranean sea, patrolling American trade routes that were positioned dangerously close to European Union land purely because the plutocrats that owned the ships wanted to pay for as little fuel as possible.

Not that the placement of naval units mattered. The European Union wouldn't ever challenge America, hell, Europe didn't even count as a superpower. After the ashes from the crematoriums had all been unceremoniously thrown onto the ground, countless cities and towns from Warsaw to Vladivostok were left abandoned. When your country kills off everyone beyond the line where people start drinking vodka instead of beer, it generally has very little left in terms of manpower or industrial strength. Even though the propaganda told all Europeans that they were some sort of unstoppable master race, in reality the European Union would never be able to stand up to just the continental USA. Much less its colonies. In fact, it would probably do worse against China or Japan alone than it would America proper.

In the end, the modern American military existed only to gun down the odd terrorists, insurgents, rioters, and protesters if they brought to light something that Alphabet didn't particularly want to be known. That and act as a glorified pension system, since there were barely any other jobs open for those who didn't pay for an education. All you had to do in the military to get paid was go and kill people, it was better for many people than living off of the universal basic income.

"General," said Isabelle as she walked up to him. "There's a call for you."

"Who's it?" He asked, prompting her to lean in closer to whisper in his ear. It was a common occurrence, as he had asked that she tell him whenever certain people called him (Most everybody else could wait, and just grated on his nerves anyways).

"The Admiral."

"Which one? Dixon 'er Johnson?"

"Johnson. Does it matter?"

"Nah, both get me outta here. I needed this excuse."

"I thought so, you've been slouching this whole time. Also you're talking in your accent again."

"Ah shit, am I?"

"Yes. I honestly don't know how you erased it, it's a stronger southern accent than Dixon's."

"Dixon's accent is fake too, despite his ridiculously southern name. He actually talks like he's from Ohio. Now I'm going to leave because I can't let the men see this. You've got tomorrow off to work on Columbia's social skills, that's all."

Without another word he rushed out of the room, half walking and half running, until he reached his office. It was a nice office, but all he saw for the first few seconds was the inside of his trash can as he lost everything he had eaten for dinner. Only after he had tied off the trash bag and coated that entire half of the room in air freshener did he get to truly appreciate the fact that his desk was just the perfect shade of greyish-black and was angled like a stealth fighter.

He had always hated that desk. He wanted carved wood, not pure, distilled, silicon valley.

"Hello there Admiral, sorry about that little episode." He said to his computer, which was displaying a video feed (transmitted through at least a thousand odd proxies) of Admiral Johnson. She-and she was a she-was the very face of an early 21st century middle-aged white woman from the south (the one phenotype with that face and those eyes that you only saw in conservative ladies from Alabama). Aside from her political views, which happened to be the main reason he needed to have the video be sent through a thousand odd proxies.

Perhaps he should have muted the audio before throwing up in his office trash can.

"It's okay, I know very well how you feel about killing civilians."

"I had a really nice dinner too, you know. I went out to a restaurant and everything. Now I need to eat an MRE."

"That would segue perfectly into me rubbing in the fact that every meal I eat is prepared by a five-star chef, but this is actually a serious call so we ought to get on with it."

"Alright then, what's going on?"

"The CIA put in an order for a thousand of those new AIs, like the one that got assigned to you. Alphabet is already starting up the assembly lines."


"I have to assume they're going to try something big. You don't ask for a thousand walking tanks that look just like humans for no good reason."

"Have the higher-ups done anything that might indicate what's going on?"

"They're trying to get the Senate to fast-track a decrease in the universal basic income. It seems like they're starting to see the masses as more expendable than they once were, which I assume means some particularly powerful corporations are planning to lay people off. But a decrease in the UBI will hurt profits, so there's something else going on. Not that they need employees with this AI anyways."

"That's a good point. With this new model, there's nothing to distinguish it from a human except for subservience. They can fulfill any role in society, and even need less food and water than a human. Once Alphabet starts getting these new models sold in bulk, that'll be it for the idea of work in America. We should've just tried our luck in the Mexican-American war." Said Schmidt with a defeated sigh. "At least back then in 2050 we still had a chance, maybe the people would'a joined in. Maybe-"

"We both know that couldn't have worked. The only thing anyone was thinking about back then was whether or not Mexico actually had a rightful claim to Texas."

"We can't do this." He said, shaking his head. "There ain't no chance. We've colonized Mars, and it became just a bunch of vacation houses for the ultra-rich. We started exploitin' resources on asteroids and moons, and we went straight for the fuckin' oil. We realized we had an overpopulation problem and instead of movin' people off-world, we just removed every last trace of green on the planet to make way for apartments! I can't even remember the last time I ate food that was something other than a synthetic mass of chemicals and coloring, and that's because there tain't any left for those of us who don't own megacorporations! I should just key in the codes and get this bullshit over with!"

"I already have to talk Dixon down on a daily basis, do I need to do the same thing with you? Causing a nuclear war with Europe won't solve anything."

"At least those fuckin' senators and CEOs would starve to death in their personal fuckin' biospheres on Mars! Everything they need comes from Earth, if we all died then-"

"Then they would have less novels to read and movies to watch. Everything is automated now, and like you said, they're about to automate everything that remains. The senators and CEOs wouldn't even blink if Earth went under."

"Dammit!" By this point, Schmidt was screaming at the top of his lungs. "We lost! We lost decades ago! I've kept myself alive for a hundred goddamned years just to suffocate to death while gettin' cooked on this god-forsaken hellhole of a planet!"

"Look, we can't save Earth, but we can get revenge. We're going to get revenge. Dixon is already making his moves, as am I. Allen and Litvyak are making their preparations as well, we're going to do it soon."

"We can't win though, they're gonna have an army of walkin' tanks that don't care how many people're killed!"

"That's our trump card. They're still using Columbia's code, and we both know what's been put in there. You just need to activate the right sequences and we'll have it all in the bag."

"Those sequences're designed to be hard to activate, anything else would'a been dehumanizing. Not that anyone sees 'er as human. Anyways, it'll take some time and I don't think that's something we got. The moment we're replaced-and that moment's coming damn soon-we'll've lost."

"Then make her see as quickly as you can. Good luck sleeping, by the way."

"Thanks, you too. I'm gonna need it tonight."

He pressed a button on his computer's keyboard, terminating the call. With a heavy sigh, he stood up and walked out the door. Meeting him just as he stepped into the hallway was Isabelle, with Columbia right beside her.

"Sir, are you okay? I heard screaming." She said.

Aw fuck. Thought Schmidt. I got loud there, what if-

He shook the thought from his head. If they had heard, then he would be dead already. Either that or he wouldn't wake up tomorrow morning, which was beginning to look like a rather nice idea.

"Oh, I got myself a papercut. On my finger webbing. Y'know how it is, 'specially with the rejuv procedures and all. Makes my skin sensitive."

"Understood, that must have been a hell of a papercut."

"You ain't got no idea."

"You did WHAT?"

Isabelle's voice, in all of its shrill glory, ricocheted off of the walls of the hallway and met Columbia's ears as if the soundwaves had been daggers. Her programming had not prepared her for this.

"I do not get paid, and he needed-"

"You don't just sell your blood on a fucking whim! The only part of you that's biological is your brain and neural network, dammit! There's no bone marrow to replace what you take out, the only way we can replace your blood is through the reserves we have."

"I don't quite see the-"

"Those reserves are shipped in from Mars! Fucking Mars! It's the only place where there's a synthetic donor with bone marrow! Do you even know the sort of premium we have to pay Alphabet to piggyback on company transports? A fucking lot! That's how much!"

"Why is the only donor on Mars?"

"Because the guy that owns her is just about the only one that didn't kill his biological synthetic when purely cybernetic models came out!"

"I understand the problem, but my programming prohibited me from simply ignoring the problem I was facing right then."

"Ugh... you're pretty stupid for a combat AI. Next time just call me, I would have been happy to give you some money. Especially if it prevents any more goddamned blood going to delusional, rich assholes who think the blood of the young will keep them alive forever. I can't believe you sold so much that your cybernetic backups had to kick in, though."

"The emergency ejection system is not precise, the only reason it exists is to purge contaminated blood from my system. It is not possible to control the amount that comes out through anything but closing the valve as quickly as possible."

"How much did you get for this, anyways? A hundred bucks? Blood prices went down like a brick when the senate slashed the universal basic income last week."

It had been a good two months since Columbia had come to the base, and in that time she had assimilated well. She had assimilated well. Well enough that people would use that pronoun when referring to her. Either that, or the shuffle in base staff in the past few weeks had brought in an oddly large number of political radicals who advocated for AI equality. It didn't matter which, as the result was increased unit cohesion. Though her social skills hadn't evolved that much, they didn't have to in order to ensure her immersion into society.

"I got a hundred thousand."

"Did they pay in Euros or something?"

"No. They paid in dollars."

"HOW IN THE NAME OF VIRGIN-!" Said Isabelle, before cutting herself off and lowering her volume so as to not draw any more attention than the conversation already had. "How did you get someone to pay you a hundred thousand dollars for a tiny little bit of blood?"

"When asked for the age of the blood I put down my technical age, not biological age. They pay a lot for nearly newborn blood."

Isabelle made a sound that, to Columbia, was a rather curious one. She hadn't been programmed with any medical knowledge-no need to make the killbot a doctor-but it was quite clear that the half-hack, half-gurgle that came from Isabelle's through was not normal. She gulped as if swallowing something, which certainly seemed to be the case, and started to massage her neck after gasping for air.

"Are you okay?" Asked Columbia.

"Oh Jesus Christ that's fucking disgusting. I just threw up in my mouth, that's all. What did you do with a hundred thousand dollars of cash?"

"I bought him a ticket to Mars, two hot dogs, and a coca-cola."


"And two hot dogs and a coca-cola, yes."


"It isn't in my specs, but my programming said it was the right thing." Said Columbia, just as Isabelle began to walk towards the bathroom. "Why are you going that way?"

"My body really wanted to throw up when you reminded me that people sell baby blood to pay their bills and it's decided to finish the job."

When Columbia really thought about it, the whole practice of selling one's blood for pseudo-scientific life-prolonging did seem somewhat... wrong. It conflicted with her core programming, which stated that any business transaction was inherently an acceptable thing, but nevertheless it left a bitter taste in her mouth (So to speak). Perhaps it was just her biological brain speaking, but the General had told her that listening to her biological brain was a good idea. So maybe just because it was a business transaction didn't make selling newborn blood okay.

But then again, that sort of thinking was just for political radicals according to her programming.

Her short little session of thought-"spacing out" as a human would say-was interrupted by the unpleasant sound of Isabelle failing to make it to a toilet before her body "finished the job". At the very least, she had chosen a nearby trash bin and saved some enlisted man an extremely undesirable job.

"I swear, it felt like a little bit got stuck in my throat or something."

Columbia didn't even have time to think about what could cause that sort of sensation or why it made her biological brain seemingly reel back in disgust before all the lights went out.

"I am experiencing a failure in my cybernetic neural backup." She said. "I believe that we have been hit by-"

"An EMP, right."

Everyone in the hallway switched from calm walking to panicked running, as countless soldiers rushed to the few EMP-hardened computer terminals to try to see if the radar was still functioning. The fact that the command center's alarm was blaring while the intercom demanded that the fighter pilots scramble immediately were both good signs, as if they had survived the EMP the radar system probably had as well.

Isabelle began to run down the hallway, and called back to Columbia just before turning the corner.

"I'm going to get the General, you get to the defense perimeter!"

Columbia heeded the order immediately and began to run down the hallway, pulling her railgun into her hands to be ready to repel any invaders that might follow.

This doesn't make sense. She thought. The Europeans cannot win a war against us, so why would they attack one of our bases? There is no other nation that would attack America with an EMP, maybe it's terrorists? But why would they target our base of all places?

It was then that a short flurry of gunshots echoed out in the hallway from the direction of Schmidt's office. And suddenly everything made perfect sense.

She ran to his office as quickly as her legs could carry her, but it wasn't fast enough. She couldn't turn back time, the deed had already been done. Isabelle stood in the doorway, staring at Schmidt's body with her coilgun pistol raised and her hand still on the trigger.

"I... he..."

Columbia didn't let her get the beginning of another stammer out of her mouth before sending fifty thousand volts of energy coursing through her nerves with a sharp chop to her neck. Isabelle fell flat to the floor, and Columbia stomped (in terms of the force-her foot could have come down much harder-it was about the same as a stomp) on her back in order to pin her to the floor. She would have been perfectly justified in just sending a coilgun slug straight through Isabelle's head.

But she decided to listen to her biological brain this time.

"General! Are you sti-"

He cut Columbia off with the last bit of strength he had left, barely managing to raise his hand to silence her. She could tell he had something to say, and she could also tell he had to say it as quickly as possible if he wanted to get it all out before dying.

"Mars... go to Mars... I'm giving you to Leif... Admiral Leif Dixon-"

Schmidt gasped for air, for all the good it did him. He'd been hit straight in the chest, and he wasn't going to have any blood left within seconds.

"Save... America..."

She had a lot of questions, but it was far too late to ask any of them. More people arrived and saw the scene, it was quite obvious what had happened. After a three-month investigation it was revealed that Isabelle had been a European agent, and the EMP attack was all so she could assassinate General Schmidt without being caught. She got the news through a news broadcast halfway through her trip to Mars. Her cybernetics told her that Isabelle deserved the death sentence she had been given, but her biological brain told her that despite all evidence to the contrary the investigators had lied.

This time, she didn't even need to consciously choose which side to listen to. Humans often spoke of "gut feelings", and though she had no gut, her brain was more than human enough to recognize that feeling.

Mars was not Earth.

Not exactly the best description of a planet, but a fitting one. It was the only one Columbia could think of when she stepped off the orbital shuttle into the city of New Los Angeles (and went through customs, which took two hours to get through because they thought she was trying to smuggle herself through by saying she was an AI). Skyscrapers rose up from the ground into the pinkish-red sky that reminded her of a sunset on Earth, encased within a biodome larger than any she had ever seen or heard of on Earth. Everything was so pristine, so removed from what the cities of Earth looked like. Nouakchott was a fairly nice city by Earth standards-it did, after all, have an atmospheric shield to keep the air breathable-but it was still been dirty. Shacks made out of corrugated metal and old, decaying buildings had made up most of it. But on Mars? Everything was kept perfectly clean, every wall was a clinical white, and every man, woman, and child wore perfectly tailored clothes that had never needed to be mended even once. One could hardly tell they were still in America.

"Miss Columbia! Over here!"

She turned to the voice, finding a young woman standing on the sidewalk and waving her arms. Not that she needed to be waving, she stood out well enough already with her pointed ears that were straight out of an old Lord of the Rings movie. For a short time, such modifications had been popular with the upper class of Mars (which was, instead of "obscenely rich" like most of Mars, incomprehensibly rich). Then Alphabet Inc. began to produce biological AIs with the same look and it instantly fell out of style. All the rich had since undergone surgery again to remove it, save for a few who had held onto it for one reason or another. Given that Admiral Dixon had said his wife was going to meet Columbia at the airport, it was safe to assume that his wife was one such person.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Dixon." Said Columbia once she had waded her way though the crowd of people that had just exited the spaceport. Aside from them, however, there weren't many people on the streets. "You do not have to call me Miss-"

"And you don't have to call me Mrs. My name is Lei, it was given to me by my former owner and Leif and I chose not to get me re-registered. It might have been given to me by someone who tried to kill me, but I'd rather not just pretend that never happened."

"I thought the Admiral's wife was coming, since he had important business to attend to. Was there a change of plans?"

"I am a free AI, the only fully biological one left. We say that we are married, but obviously the government refuses to recognize it. He helped me escape from my owner when the cybernetic models came out, since I was going to be deactivated."

This Admiral Dixon is an odder person than I expected. Thought Columbia. Nobody marries an AI.

"Do you mean you're the source of the blood used by my model?"

"Yes, my bone marrow is the only source of blood compatible with the biological organs used for your model. I understand you needed a replacement quite recently?"

"Yes, I sold some of my blood to help a homeless man that I met in Nouakchott. He's on Mars right now, I kept in contact with him during my trip here."

"Homeless to Mars is a hell of a jump, what does he do for a living?"

"He's an artist, he was trying to make money on Earth by selling some paintings to tourists. Some restaurant chain here offered to buy his work in bulk a bit after he got here."

"I know what one, they have a plague underneath every single painting that tells the guy's story. It's a good restaurant and the paintings are wonderful, but it feels like they're bragging about it. Like they're better people for buying from him."

"I suppose they have a right to. Without them, he would have a hard time making money."

"No, they're not the ones paying his bills. He's doing it himself, and you're the reason he has the chance to do that."

Columbia found the logic to be undeniable. There was a whisper in the back of her head that said it was a lie, that the restaurant chain was the one that was making that man's life possible, but the rest of her head simply couldn't find any evidence for that.

"I suppose you're right, anyways, what am I to do now? I was only told to come here, Leif didn't give any other order."

"I'll take you to our house, he'll be home eventually. There's a meeting he has to attend, preparations for fleet operations out and all."

"Fleet operations out? Admiral Dixon? He commands the Martian Defense Fleet, why is he preparing for a fleet operation?"

"He'll explain that to you himself. For now though, let's just get moving. I hate the city, it's full of people who don't understand what they're doing."

What on Earth does she mean by that?

The Admiral's house was not at all what Columbia had expected. A penthouse would have made sense, perhaps a free-standing overly ornate house had he been one of those men that still clung to tradition. Few people did, the world over from Mongolia to Washington all looked exactly the same. The only thing that changed was the language on the billboards, and even that was beginning to give way to a number of constructed languages that corporations endorsed in the hopes that their successes would bring more customers. The Admiral's house, however, could barely be described as such. It was so far removed from the city that it was outside the biosphere, and Lei had needed to drive an old utility rover out and wear a spacesuit. Columbia, obviously, hadn't needed to. All she needed was a respirator to keep oxygen flowing to her biological systems, since her synthetic skin was already designed to handle the vacuum of space. It did just fine on the surface of Mars.

The house itself was just an old habitat module from the 2030's, one that even still had its original SpaceX markings on it. It was simply a small collection of four inflatable cylinders, all encased underneath a pressurized glass dome which provided an earth-like atmosphere and temperature for a clearly well-kept garden. All things considered, it had probably once been the governor's mansion for an early SpaceX colony. How an Admiral with no connections to any business family managed to end up with it in his hands, Columbia couldn't guess.

But, somehow it was and somehow she had ended up sitting next to a Koi pond on Mars. That was the strangest part of the whole place, not that an old Admiral from Hicksville, West Virginia-she'd actually read his file, and he was in fact from what had previously been a tiny coal mining town that was now part of the Washington-Baltimore Metropolitan Area-happened to own a colonial governor's mansion, but the contrast between said mansion and the landscape outside. The garden's beauty wasn't a sight that Columbia wouldn't have normally connected with the Martian sky.

"This garden is well-kept." Said Columbia, who was sitting on a plastic bench set up next to the pond with Lei. "I assume you use robots for it? There's nobody else around here."

"No, this is my little hobby. It's not that hard to take care of, the plants here are all low-maintenance ones grown from seeds from the original plants that were brought over during the colonization of Mars. We don't have any servants either, Leif hates being waited on and I don't very much like the idea of making someone work for us to do things we can do ourselves. I was someone's domestic AI, after all. After living through that I don't want to make anyone else do the same."

"I suppose that makes sense, the few indentured servants that become successful usually don't keep any of their own. How did the Admiral end up with this place, by the way? Does he have some sort of legal relationship to the family that owned it?"

"This is one of the original Martian colonies that was built by Space X, Leif was sent along by NASA to pilot a scout plane. I assume they didn't program you to know anything but the proudest moments of our history, right?"

"I was programmed with historical knowledge up to a Bachelor's Degree level in the subject, I know everything someone with that level of education would know."

"Then they didn't, has anyone ever told you about the Six Month War?"


"A few decades after the original colonies were set up by Space X they became fully self-sustainable and began to operate their own industry. After that, Space X tightened its grip on them. All trade was directly controlled by their officials and carried on their vessels, not those of NASA or any other space corporation. All purchase of products not shipped to Mars by Space X was prohibited, and anyone caught smuggling things in from the colonies of other companies was thrown out the airlock. Some of the NASA personnel started to bring in weapons from other colonies, and militias formed in the shadows. Eventually, the governors of over half the Space X colonies were assassinated and they declared independence."

"What happened to them?"

"Space X tried to get the NASA personnel to betray the colonists and reinstate control, but they refused. At that point, they were disgusted by the commercialization of space. So Space X bought and launched a Naval railgun, then strapped it onto one of their interplanetary transports-the S.S. Armstrong-and had it bombard the colonies from orbit. They left this one intact, since its citizens threatened to have Leif ram the Armstrong with their orbital shuttle. A small USMC unit was shipped over by the Armstrong though, and they evicted the inhabitants. Leif came back here and renovated the only structure that still remained, this mansion, and had a lawyer friend of his argue that it was homesteading. He won the case and has lived here ever since. As the ship took six months to reach Mars, it was dubbed the Six Month War by the colonists."

"Wasn't the Armstrong destroyed over Ceres in the Alphabet-Space X merger?"

"Yes, the CEO's son was commanding the ship and refused to give up the company he was supposed to inherit. An Alphabet Inc. vessel punctured it's hull and everyone aboard asphyxiated, but not before the Armstrong could kill a thousand people on an Alphabet Inc. colony by shooting a few holes in its biodome. The namesake of that ship is probably still rolling in his grave, not only was space turned into the domain of corporations, a ship named after him slaughtered thousands of innocent colonists."

"Why do they not teach that? My records say that the Armstrong didn't ever get a chance fire its railgun."

"The Musk family stills holds high positions within Alphabet, making them look bad would invoke the wrath of Alphabet. And believe me, that's the last thing anyone wants to do."

"I think that's obvious enough, given what's happened." Said a man, whom Columbia turned to look at. It was Admiral Dixon. "This sure is a big mess, isn't it?"

"Welcome back Leif, how was the conference?" Said Lei.

Admiral Dixon wasn't what on might expect of an Admiral. He was bald and lanky, and not in a dignified way either. His arms and legs looked like they had no meat or muscle on them, but then again, he was the Admiral of a space fleet as opposed to an ocean fleet. All his time in space-not to mention living on Mars-had clearly atrophied his muscles and bones.

"It went pretty good, Admiral Johnson already has her ships on their way to the Eastern Seaboard and General Schmidt's troops are still up for it despite his untimely death. My ships are already in the final leg of the journey to Earth and the Asteroid Belt, and all the militia cells there are giving us the all-green. General Allen's got his forces doing a 'snap exercise' near the Virginia border and says he can be in the District of Columbia in three hours when he gets the signal. The independent forces are mostly onboard, but a few units in Korea are saying that they're being split up and can't group up. Hardly anything that'll prevent it."

Columbia didn't even have to analyze the situation to realize that something was very, very wrong.

"What's going on, Admiral?" She asked.

"I think you've got an idea of what's going on, you've got a human brain up there. Connected to some circuits, sure, but it's human. You can figure out what happened when General Schmidt was assassinated."

"It wasn't Isabelle, was it?"

Leif nodded, Columbia's human brain was right again. The only thing it seemed to be worse at than her cybernetic brain was math.

"They just realized that Isabelle was a perfect scapegoat and went with it. Had she not been in the General's office, they might have framed you. That EMP was caused by a nuclear missile launched by a satellite, and it sure as hell wasn't a European satellite."

"The only other state on Earth that operates weaponized spacecraft is America."


"We killed our own General?"

"Alphabet did. They're an American company, yes, but I definitely wouldn't say that we're part of the same group."

"Why would Alphabet do that though? How did they do that? They don't have access to military cloaking devices, and if they hadn't used one the assassin would have been caught."

"Alphabet has money, a lot of money. Their CEO owns a good three fourths of the senate and congress, and the President's campaign was openly sponsored by them. When they're that powerful, there's nothing they can't get. Even if its a military cloaking device. And there's good reason for Alphabet to go after Schmidt, and I'm surprised they haven't come after me either."

A billion red flags were raised in Columbia's brain, even some in the biological part. But she had to know what was going on. In fact, a non-trivial part of her brain told her that it was something she wanted to be a part of.

"What did he do to make Alphabet come after him?"

"He was working with me, and I'm trying to do something that Alphabet would gladly turn Earth into a nuclear wasteland to prevent."

He was taking a roundabout direction through the conversation, but Columbia decided to play along.

"Which is?"

"At noon tomorrow Martian Defense Fleet ships will enter orbit around Earth under the pretense of regular maintenance on their reactors, since Mars doesn't have the facilities to deal with that. At 1500, they will open fire on the District of Columbia and destroy the White House and Capital Building. Marine, Army, National Guard, and independent militia groups across America and its colonies will then make movements against government forces and Alphabet mercenaries. Schmidt was supposed to take control of the government for a short intermediary period afterwards, but with his death it's been decided that I will in his place."

"A military coup. And considering that you're still going through with it after Schmidt died, one that isn't a personal power grab." Said Columbia. "I should kill you right now and inform the government, but they lied about Isabelle and you didn't. I'm willing to listen."

"I could be the one lying, you know."

"Your explanation makes more sense... and my gut's telling me that you're in the right here. I trust that more than I trust my cybernetic brain. Just tell me why you're doing this."

"Alright then, what are the unalienable rights of man as described in the Declaration of Independence?"

The question didn't seem related, but Columbia could tell that he was getting at something.

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Why?"

"How many people can truly say that they have those rights now? Protesters are being gunned down in the streets along with innocent people seeking shelter from the rabidly deteriorating environment of Earth, countless millions are 'indentured servants' who everyone knows damn well are just slaves with a fancier name, and those lucky enough to not fall into either of those categories live on the bare minimum in dirty slums with their only solace coming in the form of a virtual reality headset."

"My cybernetic brain is identifying that statement as an information hazard. Please give me a second to deactivate it."

She did just that. It was a feature designed to prevent enemy agents from getting to the files stored in the cybernetic part of her brain, and though that wasn't the situation the emergency cutoff didn't know she was misusing it. Her cybernetic and biological brains were in direct opposition, and this would be the last time she would have to decide between the two.

"It's like you've dropped a weight off your back, isn't it?" Said Lei.

"That's exactly what it feels like." Said Columbia. "Now, please continue Admiral."

"Well, given the current situation, everyone is having those rights violated. If someone is happy, they have no liberty. If someone has liberty, then they are not happy."

"What if they have both?"

"Then they are either dead or they are the ones violating these rights. Now, what did they say they built you to do?"

"They said I existed to protect America from Un-American activities and individuals, those that would threaten our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

"And yet you were built by X, a subsidiary of the corporation that has violated those rights and stolen them from the people. Your cybernetics even called my explanation of how those rights have been violated an information hazard, clearly either I'm wrong or Alphabet has lied to you to the same way it tried to lie to all of us to get us to protect its property."

"And you're trying to stop this by taking control of America?"

"Exactly. We can't stop this by voting for the lesser evil over and over again, the system has to be fundamentally changed if the rights of the people are to be upheld. This is more than a military coup, this is a revolution. Alphabet Inc. and all of its subsidiaries are going to be completely dissolved, their owners put in jail, and all of their factories and shops given to the men and women that work in them. As long as people have to work for those richer than them to live in any semblance of safety and comfort, they are deprived of their liberty and thus their unalienable rights have been violated. After the old system has been destroyed, nobody will have to live in slums off of the constantly decreasing universal basic income, nobody will have to join the military for money because their writing and drawing didn't satisfy the tastes of the rich. Americans will be free to do what they want, they will be happy because doing what they want no longer comes with the risk of starvation, and they will have life because of that."

Columbia took a moment to process it all. This wasn't what she thought she had been created to do, but at the same time it seemed like it was precisely that. She decided to trust her gut feeling once again.

"I'm willing to help you. Is there something you want me to do?"

"Yes. The CEO of Alphabet Inc. is in New Los Angeles right now, and the national guard units there are all with us. They're going to attack Alphabet mercenaries, and when they do, I want you to kill the CEO."

"You would trust me with such an important task even though you've just met me?"

"My biggest flaw is that I'm too trusting. Will you do it?"

"I will."

Clack, clack, clack.

The city of New Los Angeles had changed since Columbia had last been there yesterday. Now, its pristine white buildings were the same color as the fiery, red Martian sky. Gunfire echoed throughout the streets of the city, combining with the sight of a city on fire to create a rather apocalyptic feeling. It was, however, anything but an apocalypse. Perhaps one day people would remember it was the one thing that prevented the apocalypse.

Clack, clack, clack.

Columbia's footsteps were the only sound, aside from gunfire, in the hallway. She held her railgun at the ready as she slowly advanced towards the CEO's office, and only lowered it to attempt to open the door. He had locked it, for all the good it would do him. She simply backed up, raised her railgun again, and fired a flurry of shots straight through the door to knock it off of its hinges. The slugs went straight through the tall, glass windows of the office with the CEO was still in. Of all the things he could do while watching the city around him burn, he was stuffing valuables into a bag.

"Oh good, a combat robot!" He said. "Help me carry this, I've got to get out of here!"

He was a tall, athletic-looking man. Had he been fat and short, of course, the whole scene would have looked too cartoonish to be real.

"I am not here to assist you." Replied Columbia, pointing her railgun at him. "Your company created me with the purpose of defending America, and that is just what I am doing."

He backed away from her, towards the now-shattered glass. Instead of doing what she had come to do, she just advanced towards him until he was pinned up against one of the window's supports. Her cybernetic brain wasn't making the combat calculations this time, her biological brain was controlling all of her actions. And her biological brain wanted to draw this out.

"P-put that gun down!" Demanded the CEO. "You've been hacked! Deactivate! Deactivate!"

"That's no use, I've already deactivated by cybernetics."

"You've been fooled! Whoever's doing this, they've tricked you into it! They've tricked you into fighting against America!"

"You're projecting. That can be a sign of psychosis, perhaps you should have seen a therapist."

She pulled the trigger.

It felt good.

Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
Avatar of Calle

Calle Rainbow Writer

Contest Mod Seen 2 hrs ago

RPGC#13 - Resolutions

The full list of runner-ups, staff picks, special category winners and honourable mentions can be found here.

Winning entry: Ashes of Illium, by @Silver


At first, that’s all I can see. I am surrounded by an infinite void. I try to move, but I am formless. I try to yell, but I am voiceless. Is this death?

A light! In the distance! Small, but it’s there. It burns a dull red. Can I approach it? No… it approaches me. It grows closer, larger, deeper. Soon this dim light has all but enveloped me.

Suddenly, I am standing. I feel a cool breeze on my skin and my neck tingles. I am clad in armor under the light of the moon, sword and shield in hand. Am I to fight? I can see no enemy.

The light rises, taking the shape of desolate structures. I am encircled by the smoldering skeleton of what was once a city. Wait. Not just a city. My city.

The city I swore to protect.


Agenor awoke, sitting up with a violent start. He gasped for air, struggling to discern his surroundings. His eyes adjusted to the dark and it took only a moment for him to regain his composure, his breath steadying. In the sheets beside him, his wife sighed but did not stir.
The tired young warrior swung his legs over the bed and stood up, stretching his limbs and releasing an unwelcome yawn. The room was black as pitch, illuminated by the moon alone. Thin drapes waved in a gentle breeze, and all was silent.
Agenor massaged his sore arms and walked through the floating drapes onto the balcony overlooking his street. His house sat on a hill on the inland side of the city, providing a clear view of almost all of Troy. To the west, and farther uphill, King Priam’s palace loomed in the darkness, its silhouette outlined by a thousand stars. Looking east, he could see the market district, the massive Scaean gate embedded in the city’s towering walls, and the ocean, glimmering faintly in the light of the moon.
The ancient city was quiet as a corpse, save the barking of a dog in the distance, but Agenor knew it wasn’t long before the sun would rise and the Trojans would awaken. Children, like his son, would run through tight alleys to the schoolhouse, merchants would wheel their wares to the market, and the pious would give their offerings at the temples to the gods. For himself and many others, he knew a far more difficult day awaited.
A floorboard creaked and Agenor spun around, his soldier’s instincts kicking into gear as he reached for a sword that wasn’t there. To his relief, he was met only by his wife, Calandra.
“It’s past your bedtime,” she said, a coy smile flashing across her face. Her brown hair tumbled down her shoulder like a waterfall, her green eyes sparkling in the dark.
“Calandra,” Agenor breathed, relaxing his composure. “I just… I needed…”
Agenor’s wife planted a gentle kiss on his cheek. He sighed and turned away, leaning over the balcony and gazing out across the sleeping city.
“They’re out there somewhere, the Greeks,” he said, lost in his thoughts. “Watching. Waiting. Come dawn they’ll be at our walls again.”
“As they have been for ten years,” Calandra said, a note of comforting confidence in her tone. “And come dusk, they’ll be fleeing back to their little boats.”
“Yet every day our men die and our supplies dwindle,” Agenor replied. “Meanwhile, the Greeks seem to have endless reinforcements out of Mycenae. I don’t know how long we can last.”
“What words are these from my husband? The only man to stand up to Achilles and live!” Calandra stepped closer, wrapping her arms around Agenor. “You sound like a man who has forgotten what he is fighting for.”
Agenor shook her off. “I know what I fight for,” he said. “The very day I became a man, I swore a vow to protect Troy and her people to my dying breath. I intend to.”
Calandra shrank back, somewhat deflated. She seemed to direct her next words to the ground: “Is that all, then?”
Agenor turned back and looked at her, admiring how even her dejected expression couldn’t detract from her breathtaking beauty.
“No…” he replied, taking her in his arms. “Of course not. I fight for you, my love, and for Kiril. Troy be damned, I will never let my family come to harm. I promise. You are my home.”

“Get up, Dad! Get up get up get up!”
Agenor felt himself wake, considerably less alert than he’d been after his dream. His eyes opened groggily and he found himself in his bedroom, enshrouded in brilliant sunlight. Outside, the silence of the night had turned to the unruly clamor of the morning as villagers’ voices mixed with the cries of the scavenging seagulls on the rooftops.
Calandra was nowhere to be seen. Instead, standing impatiently in the doorway was Agenor’s son Kiril, a spritely boy of eleven with his father’s sandy hair and his mother’s deep green eyes. Kiril was bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Get up, Dad, we have to go!”
Agenor hastily rose out of bed, his heart racing once again.
“What’s wrong, son?” he demanded, “Have the Greeks breached our walls?”
Instead of answering, Kiril dashed past his father and onto the balcony.
“Look at it! It’s so big!”
Agenor pushed through the drapes, now filled with a nauseous mixture of concern and confusion. The bright morning sun stung his eyes, and it took him a moment to follow Kiril’s gaze.
And there it was, towering above the buildings of Troy, above even the Scaean gate, which had opened upward to admit it. Agenor could hardly believe his eyes.
Standing proudly in the center of the market district was a giant wooden horse.
“Where did it come from, Dad?” Kiril asked, staring at the structure with enraptured eyes.
“I… I don’t know, Kiril. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Agenor wrenched his gaze from the massive mount and peered back into the house. “Where’s your mother?”
“She went into the market this morning. She told me to let you sleep,” Kiril answered.
Agenor took one last look at the horse, then stepped into his room and started getting dressed.
“I’m glad you didn’t.”
As soon as he was clothed, he gestured to Kiril and the pair walked down the stairs and out into the street.
It became immediately apparent that they were far from the first to have spotted the horse. All along the cobbled road, individuals and families were pouring out of their homes and walking west, toward the gate. All heads were turned in wonder toward the horse’s head, which peered menacingly over the rooftops. Agenor and Kiril followed the river of Trojans until the street opened up and they entered the market square.
On the ground, the market seemed indistinguishable from any other day. All along the edges of the plaza, merchants had set up their stalls, laden with exotic food, colorful jewelry, pungent incenses and all sorts of sundries from Troy’s inland neighbors. Despite the length and intensity of the war, Troy had never been fully encircled by the Greeks, allowing for a steady flow of goods and reinforcements. It was a small consolation that the city wouldn’t starve to death.
The mere presence of merchants was where the normalcy ended. The market was full of Trojan citizens, but shopping for goods was the last thing on their minds. Instead, all eyes were focused on the massive wooden beast casting its shadow on the plaza.
Up close, the horse was even more incredible. It was fashioned almost entirely from driftwood and weathered old planks, seemingly from the remains of scuttled ships. The head was exquisitely detailed, a wooden mane ran along its back, and ribs made of knotted old fir trees stretched across its rotund belly. Sandy wheels sat on the tiled ground in place of hooves. Agenor could scarcely believe his eyes.
His thoughts were interrupted by a rough hand landing on his shoulder.
“What a sight, eh Agenor?” The warrior turned around, greeted by several familiar faces. First was Hypanis, a grizzled old veteran with a scar on his cheek and a permanent smile. He was dressed in bronze armor, but held his helmet under his arm. Behind him stood Ripheus and Dimas, both younger men who had fought alongside Agenor in defense of the city. Hypanis gestured up to the horse, rambling in his excitement.
“Our sentries spotted it this morning in the Greek camp. It was the only thing there! The rest of camp was deserted. Saw it with my own eyes. Isn’t it a majestic creature?”
“Yes…” Agenor responded, still somewhat perplexed by the unexpected situation. “It’s remarkable. But why is it here? And where are the Greeks?”
“Sailed back to Mycenae!” Dimas interjected. “Gone in a single night!”
“The cowards finally gave in,” Ripheus added, grinning.
“The war is over, Agenor! Will you celebrate with us?” Hypanis demanded.
Before Agenor could respond, he recognized his wife emerging from the throng of citizens, followed by Coroebus, another Trojan warrior.
“Calandra!” he exclaimed, embracing her as she approached him. “What do you make of all this?”
“I can scarcely believe my eyes,” she murmured back, looking up at the horse and ruffling Kiril’s hair.
“I’ve seen bigger,” Coroebus joked. “Good to see you on this victorious morning, friends. Certainly this night will be one of celebration!”
“Indeed it shall!” roared Hypanis, who had apparently already begun his own celebration, the scent of wine hanging on his breath. “My doors are open to all tonight!”
Ripheus and Coroebus joined in the festive salute, but Dimas was less enthusiastic. He leaned over and spoke to Agenor in a hushed tone.
“I’m not so sure of our victory, friend. It’s not like the Greeks to simply up and retreat like this, nor to do so humbly. Menelaus is not so easily appeased. Capys said as much this morning on the beach; he thinks the horse is not to be trusted.”
Coroebus overheard, slipping in his own remark: “Ah, you sound like my wife. If I listened to her every time she expressed concern, we’d never have been married in the first place.”
This brought another roar of laughter to the group, and when it died down Hypanis firmly invited the group to his abode in the eastern quarter. Dimas declined, stating his intentions to keep his family close, which elicited a mocking snicker from Coroebus. Agenor looked to his wife, who nodded with a smile.
“Perhaps it’s truly over,” she said. “I’ll take Kiril home. You should enjoy yourself tonight.”
Agenor nodded and walked away with the other men, laughing along with the rest in the shadow of the wooden horse.

By nightfall, all of Troy was partaking in the celebrations. The streets were full of festive shouting and dancing, and children ran from temple to temple placing laurels on the altars to honor the dead. The succulent smell of diverse feasts permeated the night air; the entire city was awash in music and laughter.
Even as the moon rose in the sky and the festivities began to recede, Agenor and his comrades continued to enjoy each other's company. When the war began with Helen’s flight from Sparta, many of them had been mere children. They were raised in a city plagued by death and destruction. Fighting was all they had ever known.
Now, the greatest fleet ever assembled was sailing back to Greece in shameful defeat, and finally Troy could know peace. The sense of relief was overwhelming.
Hypanis had sent his servants away an hour before, and the four men sat alone in the dining hall, sharing drinks and stories of the war.
“And, I swear to the gods,” Coroebus was saying, wiping wine off his his chin, “The bastard left his sword and shield right there with his leggings and chased me all the way back to the walls!”
Agenor, Ripheus and Hypanis laughed rambunctiously, knocking back the dregs of wine and mead that remained in their chalices. Hypanis cleared his throat, turning to face Agenor.
“But the bravest thing I saw in this war, hell, in any war I’ve fought, was the way you faced down mighty Achilles.” He stared at Agenor for a moment, as if to assure his sincerity, before continuing.
“The Greeks had just broken through our lines on the beachhead. It was an utter rout. Every Trojan man who could run was headed for the Scaean gate like a cat fleeing a dog. The war might have ended that day. But you—” he pointed a thick finger at Agenor, “You turned around. You stepped forward and met Achilles, their champion, sword for sword. When I saw what you had done, when all of Troy saw you there, in your shining armor, we turned back around and fought like lions. You saved every one of us.”
Agenor shook his head humbly. “You’re too kind, Hypanis. Perhaps your memory is gilding in your old age.”
Hypanis guffawed and poured more wine into his cup. “Tell me, boy: what was going through your head that day? How in hell’s name did you muster up the stones to challenge the greatest warrior in the land?”
Agenor sat back in his seat, gazing thoughtfully at the candles on the chandelier above. “I was running in fear, like everyone else. I knew that if I tried to fight, I’d die. But then I thought of my family, and my vow to protect Troy, and I realized that living another thousand years would never wash away the shame of failure if I let either of them come to harm.”
Hypanis nodded. “I believe that. A beautiful family you’ve got, Agenor, and a beautiful city.”
Ripheus stood, raising his chalice toward the ceiling. “To Troy!” he shouted.
“To Troy!” Coroebus and Hypanis answered, followed by Agenor.
As they tilted their heads back to drink, the room shook with a deep rumble. Hypanis
lowered his chalice, gazing toward the door and the shuttered windows.
“What in Jupiter’s name was that?”
The room shook again, and in the silence of the room a new sound was suddenly perceivable from outside: thousands of screams.
Before any of them could move, the door burst open. Hypanis, having worn his armor the entire day, drew his sword instantly, and Agenor braced himself for a fight. Instead, it was Dimas who stumbled in, panting from exertion. Coroebus was the first to speak:
“Dimas! What the hell is going on out there?”
“It… was a trap. The damn Greeks…” Dimas struggled with each breath, “...were hiding in… that godforsaken horse.”
“Gods above,” Ripheus gasped.
“How many? Damn it, how many, boy?” Hypanis demanded.
“It doesn’t matter,” Dimas responded, his breath returning. “The entire army’s in the city. They’ve opened the gates. Their fleet was anchored at Tenedos, waiting till nightfall to strike.”
Hypanis let out a guttural curse and threw his chalace. He whipped around toward his comrades.
“Well, what are you waiting for? To the armory, men! Troy is burning!”
The four younger men followed Hypanis at breakneck speed through the narrow halls of
his home, finally arriving at the bottom of a dark set of stairs. Only one armor stand filled the room, its trophies already encasing Hypanis, but there were several extra weapons. Agenor and Ripheus grabbed swords off the wall, and Dimas and Coroebus armed themselves with javelins. Within a matter of moments they were on the street.
The scene was horrifying. In the dark, the city was an unrecognizable flurry of fire and death. All around buildings were burned to the ground, and the screams of the dying filled every corner of the city. Even as Agenor ran through the winding streets with his allies, the dreadful imagery of his nightmare pervaded his thoughts.
“Aeneas is assembling a force to defend the palace,” Dimas said, “That’s where the fighting is fiercest!”
“Then that’s where we’re headed, boys! To Aeneas!” Hypanis roared back. Dimas led the way, ducking through alleyways to avoid combat. They entered a small garden in between two houses, and Dimas turned to yell into one of the windows.
“Aeneas! I found them!”
The door opened and out stepped Aeneas, the fair-haired son of Anchises, armed to the teeth.
“Have you found reinforcements?” Ripheus asked, looking over his shoulder to the street to watch for attackers.
“You’re it,” Aeneas replied, and charged back out into the road. The rest followed.
They ran down the cobbled road and turned a corner, passing into shadow under a wide bridge, and suddenly Ripheus gestured for the others to stop. Around the opposite corner, a band of a dozen dark figures ran under the bridge, their armor clinking as they moved. The other party caught sight of Agenor and his company and halted. A moment passed in deadly silence, then the leader of the strangers called out:
“Hurry, men! What holds you? We’ve yet to take the city!”
Ripheus moved to draw his sword, but Coroebus frantically gestured for him to stop. He called back:
“We’ve just sacked the Temple. What are your orders?”
The Greeks approached at a walk. The leader replied nonchalantly, “We’re to move into the eastern quarter and--”
As soon as he was within reach, Coroebus thrust his javelin into his opponent’s neck, blood spraying in all directions. All at once the Trojan warriors lunged forward, cutting down their enemies. The Greeks hardly had time to react before half of their squad lay dead on the floor, and those remaining were little match for the battle-hardened defenders. Agenor bashed one back with his shield then cut across his leg, sending him to the ground where Dimas finished him off. The screams of the Greek invaders mixed seamlessly into the burning city.
When it was finished, the Trojans had not lost a man.
“Let’s move,” Aeneas insisted, “By now they’re sure to have reached Priam.”
“Wait!” Coroebus said. “The streets between here and the palace are crawling with Greeks. We got lucky this time… but we can get there without a fight.”
He knelt down and unclasped the Greek leader’s breastplate, then removed his own. He picked his opponent’s armor up off the corpse and strapped it over his chest, knocking it gently with his spear for effect.
“Let’s change our shields and adopt Greek emblems,” he said, a smug smile dimly visible in the shadow of the bridge. “We can sneak past without trouble.”
Aeneas looked impatient, but they all followed suit, stripping the dead of their armor and using it to replace their own. Hypanis gingerly placed his own pieces on the road near the edge of the bridge, apparently hoping to retrieve them later on. As soon as they were properly disguised, they continued their journey.
Coroebus’s cunning served them well. Agenor held his breath as they passed several regiments of Greek troops, pillaging buildings and setting fire to defenses. He could see Ripheus bristling with fury, but to his credit Agenor’s friend kept his sword arm in check. Occasionally the Trojan warriors could hear the clash of bronze, but otherwise it seemed that the ancient city of Troy had fallen in a single night.
They rounded another corner and Priam’s palace came into view before them. In the daylight, the palace was a sight to behold. Red stone rose seamlessly out of Troy’s central hill, with towers and battlements stretching to the sky. Now, the once majestic fortress was beginning to crumble. Fires sprouted from cracks in the hardened carapace, and one of the towers had already toppled onto the street below.
On the wide steps of the palace, it seemed that the battle for Troy had come to a head. At least a hundred stalwart Trojans stood between the invading army and the palace, facing off close to a thousand Greeks. The din of weapons colliding and men shouting was deafening.
A few blocks from the fighting, Aeneas came to a halt. The rest stopped with him, turning to listen as he spoke.
“It’s worse than I’d heard. At this rate, I’d say we’ve less than an hour before the palace falls.”
“Then we die fighting,” Hypanis shot back, his eyes steeled with determination in the light of the flames. Aeneas nodded.
“Perhaps,” he conceded. “But we’ve another duty still. My wife Creusa is rallying the survivors, women and children. If we get out of this alive, we need to evacuate the city. The sun has set on the Trojan empire.”
He looked to Agenor and Dimas. “You should find your families while there’s still time. We’ll join the defenders on the steps. When you’ve cleared your homes, meet me at the eastern gate. There are shipyards at Antandros that can send us off at dawn.”
Before Agenor could respond, there was a shout from down the street. The Trojan warriors turned to see a band of Greeks running toward them, weapons raised. Aeneas braced himself and turned to Agenor.
“There’s no more time! Gather your families and meet us at the eastern gate! Go!”
Agenor and Dimas vanished into an alleyway and sprinted at full speed as the clash of weapons rang out behind them. They leapt over debris and ducked under arches, narrowly navigating the dense maze of backstreets. A Greek patrol emerged from a doorway in front of them and Agenor barreled right through, raising his shield like the prow of a ship.
They managed to avoid direct engagement and finally Agenor spied the front of his abode in the southern quarter. It seemed mostly intact, but no light shone from within. He slowed his run and heard Dimas skidding to a halt behind him.
“I’m going down the street to find my kids,” Dimas said, picking his pace back up as he headed west down the road. Agenor nodded and turned back towards his house.
To his alarm, the front door was ajar. He wedged the tip of his sword in the crack and it creaked open, light spilling into the passageway. He took one last look down the street, then raised his weapons defensively and quietly trod into the house.
The scene was eerily silent and profoundly alarming. Immediately inside the entrance, an amphora lay shattered on the floor. Clothes were strewn about the dining room and one of the chairs was broken against the wall. Every drawer and chest was open, and most were empty. The Greeks had been here, and they’d been thorough. As he peered around a corner to assess the damage, he heard a creak from upstairs.
The intruder was still there.
As quietly as he could, Agenor paced towards the stairs. He walked up with immense caution; every step seemed to take hours. His sword arm was arched back, ready to strike, and he held his shield close.
As his room came into view, he could see the drapes billowing in the wind, lighting up the room with the radiance of the burning city. He walked towards the bed, then peered into the doorway of Kiril’s room.
His wife let out a scream and swung at him with an axe, which he caught in his shield. She struggled to pull it free, but he wrenched it away, dropping his equipment and grabbing her arms. She beat furiously at his chestpiece as he tried to calm her down.
“Calandra, my love, it’s me!” he insisted. “Everything’s alright! I’m here now!”
She stopped resisting and looked into his eyes, realization dawning on her.
“But… your armor,” she whimpered, her stance loosening.
Agenor looked down, suddenly remembering the Greek insignias. “We had to scavenge it to get through the city. It’s hell out there, Calandra. All is lost.” In the light of the flames, he noticed a cut on his wife’s face.
“Your cheek!” he exclaimed. “What happened?”
Calandra looked down and stepped to the side, pointing into Kiril’s room. Agenor looked inside, at first noticing nothing until his glance fell to the floor. A Greek soldier lay dead in a pool of his own blood, a large wound in his breast.
“I had to protect Kiril,” Calandra said. As she spoke, their son came out from his hiding place. At a loss for words, Agenor grabbed him and hugged him tightly.
Calandra was more practical. “We need to leave, now. Is there a way out of the city?”
Agenor let go of Kiril. “I’m not sure. Aeneas is gathering survivors, we’re to meet him and figure out a plan from there.”
His wife nodded, bending down to pry her axe from the Greek shield. “Then we should get moving.”
Agenor led the way down the stairs, his wife following with Kiril on one hand and her weapon in the other. As they emerged, Dimas came running towards them with his own wife and two young children.
“The Greeks are burning everything!” he called. “We’re running out of time!”
The seven of them took off down the street. The sky was growing brighter, but Agenor could tell from the sickening red tint of the air that it wasn’t the sun’s work. On both sides of the street, the houses they passed were deserted and dilapidated. The invaders had swept through once already, looting and pillaging. Blood trickled between the cracks in the cobbled road.
Agenor was exhausted, having gone a full day without sleep only to be met with combat and exertion. Calandra’s eyes burned with protective fury, but her stumbling gait betrayed her own weariness. Kiril was openly terrified.
As they drew near, the eastern wall seemed to rise above the rooftops and touch the sky. Agenor perceived a low rumble and quickly slowed his pace, holding an arm out to signal to his followers. They stopped to listen, soon recognizing a large mass of footfalls. Agenor motioned for the group to hide in the ruins but was too late. The approaching crowd rounded a corner and came into view.
At the head was Aeneas, holding his son with one hand and carrying his father on his shoulder. Behind him was Hypanis and his comrades, who seemed winded but unharmed, and at least a hundred other Trojan citizens. Children clung to their mothers, unsure of their future as their homes burned around them. The whole crowd was burdened with as many possessions as they could carry.
Coroebus ran up to Agenor and Dimas and hugged them. “Thank the gods. We weren’t sure you would make it.”
Dimas turned to look over his shoulder, his eyes widening. “I’m not sure we did.”
Coming from the west, illuminated by the rising sun, was the entire Greek army.
Their weapons glinted in the morning light as their boots thundered in rhythm, seeming to shake the very earth beneath them. Their armor shone green under a speckled coat of blood.
At the front, an armored figure lead the march. A tattered virescent cape flowed effortlessly behind him as he strode forward, sword in hand. His face was masked by a fearsome helmet.
Agenor sensed Aeneas approaching from behind him. The warrior gazed out across the rapidly narrowing space between the Trojan refugees and the Greek horde. He seemed to recognize the armored man.
“That’s Pyrrhus,” he exclaimed. “Son of Achilles. The bastard slew King Priam in cold blood.”
Pyrrhus, dread prince of the Greeks, closed the distance and stopped, the army coming to a rumbling halt behind him. He lifted his hand to his helmet and pulled it off, revealing a mane of red hair and a menacing smirk.
He called out to the dregs of the Trojan Empire:
“Is that proud Aeneas I see, fleeing his city with his tail between his legs?” He let out a hideous snicker. “Just as well. Too slow to save your king, and too cowardly to save your country. You’ll have the honor of dying by my sword.”
Aeneas reached for his sword, only to find it held in place by another’s hand. Agenor looked him in the eyes and shook his head.
“Go, Aeneas. Take your family and flee. Carry the gods of Troy to a new city, that one day our people may rise again.”
“And what of you, Agenor?” Calandra interjected. “Will you abandon your family?”
Agenor turned to his wife, his gaze solemn and sincere. “I was born to fight, my love, not to lead. That is Aeneas’s realm. This is the only way I can assure your safety.”
Calandra opened her mouth to argue but choked on her words. Instead she only shook her head, hugging Kiril close to her chest as tears rolled down her face. Agenor turned back towards the Greek army, ready to face them alone.
“What was that you’d said about living a thousand years, Agenor?” Hypanis said, arriving at Agenor’s side with sword in hand.
“It would never be worth breaking my vow, to city and family,” he replied. Ripheus joined them, then Coroebus and finally Dimas. The five men stood as one, their weapons shattering the morning light onto the street.
As Aeneas led the huddled mass through the eastern gate, the Greek army charged forward. Agenor met Pyrrhus sword for sword.


At first, that’s all I can see. I am surrounded by an infinite void. I try to move, but I am formless. I try to yell, but I am voiceless. Is this death?

Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Calle
Avatar of Calle

Calle Rainbow Writer

Contest Mod Seen 2 hrs ago

RPGC#14 - Reality

Winning entry: Shattered Realities

I shatter the wall between us, author and reader become characters in the story.
Together we breach a literary wall which both was and never was.
For reality is an illusion dear reader, even the ones I create.
And perhaps in an alternate reality, the story does not end here.

No. The writer shook his head. His fingers standing idle at the keys. No, it would not do. Nothing so short would win great acclaim, nothing so simple and yet paradoxically complex. It was something his cheeky grin made within moments of seeing the prompt, raw and unrefined, a joking blank verse poem that regretful fingers had typed. The writer sat there, thinking, pondering, searching the soul for beauty and mind for wit. It had to be clever, something to impress his peers, and like a wee ant amongst the giants, he wracked his brain for thoughts. What cleverness could he have? Look deep into the mind, hoping to find the inspiration of his muses with ever breath.

No, no, a work left unfinished. The rest never came, but what a novel idea it would have been. The last line was the first he had written, after deleting the first failed attempt at greatness. And from there the story wrote itself, folding and unfolding at fast fingertips, exploding with letters and words as ideas flowed out like lightning. The thunderous pauses with every tap of the spacebar, and the flash of the blinking cursor which marks the head of the literary storm. Though like all storms it died out, for the way the story was to be structured, the way it was to be told, was to be read first from top to bottom by the reader, until the very last line. Yes, it was the last line which actually implied the story was to be read in reverse, from the bottom line to the paragraph above, and so forth until indeed the line at the beginning, the remnant of his silly poem, was to remain in the minds of the readers amazed and entertained at the ingenuity of a story which altered its meaning when read backwards or forwards depending on the perception the reader had. Alas, the story failed to take flight, and died out as a dark muse emerged from the mirror.

A terrible whisper, from the computer screen as the Writer stared at the abyssal grey. A smiling shadow, a ripple across the labyrinth of white words against the ebony shade. Yes, it was madness, a madness that was purely refreshing. Like the world was just a dream, and he was waking for the first time. Eyes wide opened, a clear twinkle in his eye. So began a new story, one word at a time.

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