Category Archives: Occupation

The EGC Part II

​Kayleb Forest was young enough to have learned the standard Thorlinthian unit system, and his marriage technically made him a citizen of Valhal, but his parents were old Earthers who raised him to think in the American units. That’s why he always felt strange when thinking he was about to compete in the EGC as a member of a Thorlinthian team against the American team. Now, as the crowds miles below cheered, he thought back to how it had all come about.

Kayleb knew from the first EGC, when a hypecast game had been previewed to Earthers for the first time, that he wanted to play. It had been hard enough in school getting special visas and time off to get into Zero G Ball; but the first time he had played, even in the safer environment of the Laser League, he had felt totally outclassed. Of course, there were very few Armadians in an appropriate age range, which meant he learned playing against adults, and Thorlinthian adults at that. Despite that fact, he loved it. He had been the first in his school to learn the Thorran language, which was standard amongst the Armada, and he was the only one in his class to learn East Valhallan, which was the language spoken by the coach on the TAS Frightbringer, where he had taken every opportunity to go and train. It wasn’t just Zero G Ball, either. By the time he’d normally have entered high school, he’d been accepted by the Armada’s Remedial Education Program, which was designed to give Earther students the opportunity to receive a Thorlinthian-level education by the majority age, which sat right around 16 years of age. He was the oldest applicant in the Frightbringer’s radius of authority to be approved for the program and the second oldest in the world. He was, by Earther standards, a genius. By Thorlinthian standards, he was slightly above average. He was the only student accepted by the Frightbringer that finished the program ahead of schedule.

Kayleb would often be called a traitor back home. He didn’t seem to feel as devoted to resisting Thorlinthian rule as a “good American” should, but that was fine by him. One doesn’t stay scrawny long playing Zero G Ball regularly, and the Peacekeepers rarely took issue with a “traitor” defending himself a little too heavily against “patriots” with a bone to pick. Peacekeeper forces were primarily manned by “traitors” themselves. He soon became friends with the Peacekeepers in his town, and he would study in their station. Sometimes, he would even get to tag along on shuttle trips to the Frightbringer on days civilians weren’t normally permitted. After his first year playing, he scored an invite to the Frightbringer to watch the second EGC live from space. He realized then that he knew both competitors from the ship’s team, including his coach, who competed in the Kohstr tournament. The other was a frequent sight in the hangar, where she could usually be seen inspecting shuttle hulls and repairing defects. He had first met her on his first visit aboard a Peacekeeper shuttle. She hadn’t expected a civilian and had quickly started swearing in East Valhallan, which Kayleb had just started picking up. He didn’t know what exactly she had said, but he recognized several words to do with eating and using the toilet. It was unlikely they were used in the appropriate context.

Seeing her play Kohstr was like watching a master chess player. Her moves held neither hesitation nor haste. She moved carefully and would only set down her hand on occasion to push back the lock of blue hair that kept loosing itself from behind her ear. He had asked about the hair, thinking it was against the rules, but an Armadian he never met had told him she had almost become a Valkyrie, but she had failed out of their academy. She wasn’t smart enough, apparently. Kayleb kept probing and learned that her name was Keria’Ledrii, named after her great grandmother or some generation past that. The Thorlinthians didn’t count generations further than that, so the word used was imprecise. Though born a Khuda’Cronell, her failure to attain Valkyrie ranks caused her to lose her title and become a Teros’Cronell. She was a young teenager at the time, one of the youngest in the Armada. Valkyrie drop-outs were apparently an exception to the age limits. Kayleb learned there were a few in the fleet, but most didn’t go on to seek a military career. It had something to do with honor or lights. The word was the same. Kayleb experienced his first crush that day, and he resolved to become one of the champions at the fourth EGC, when Zero G Ball was first scheduled to be played. Once her match was over (She lost to the Lieutenant in the first round.), Kayleb headed straight for the Zero G Court to train.

By the time the fourth EGC came around, Kayleb had almost finished his Remedial Education, but he discovered that Earthers needed a complete juvenile education to even try out for one of the teams for the qualifiers, so he couldn’t try out for the Frightbringer’s team that year. The American team required a college degree, and it didn’t look like any colleges were planning on accepting a Thorlinthian education any time soon, so he couldn’t play for them for another four years after that point, which was indeterminate. He realized at that point that he wasn’t going to get to play in the EGC. He couldn’t even start on the requirements to try out for the American team, and the ship system was being replaced by representative teams from New Valhal starting with the next games, so he couldn’t represent the Frightbringer after he finished his Thorlinthian education. The best he could do was play as a small fry in the Ship League, which would be his first time playing with semi-lethality. Still, he loved the game, and he was on his way to being a great player.

A year later, Kayleb talked to Keria’Ledrii for the first time ever down on Earth. He thought it was strange, running into her at a grocery store, but apparently, the Frightbringer wasn’t the only ship that had quite a few crew members seeking to live “ashore” somewhere that wasn’t below zero and didn’t have the Cost of Living of New Qzcivden. As it happened, the Frightbringer made its shuttle runs to his town, so the crew that wanted to live ashore almost all lived there. Keria’Ledrii happened to have an apartment about a block from Kayleb’s grocery store because of its proximity to the Peacekeeper Station, where the shuttle runs were tended. She was able to do her job from the ground about half the time, it seemed, so she actually spent quite a lot of time in town. Kayleb didn’t even realize how long he had been talking to her until his attention was drawn away by the melted ice cream dripping past his fingers. He replaced the ice cream and was surprised when he turned around to find Keria’Ledrii still standing there, leaning with her back against the opposing freezer doors. Apparently, she wanted to keep talking, but he explained he didn’t want a second carton of ice cream to melt in the store, so he headed over to the check-out. She followed him and started asking him questions about himself. He was bewildered until he looked up at the check-out clerk, who was staring at the two of them as if they were talking nonsense. At that moment, he realized he had been speaking to her in East Valhallan, which no one else in town knew. Most had picked up standard Thorran, but she spoke with a thick Valhallan dialect, and he was the first Earther who understood her. She wanted to keep talking because she had no one else to talk to. As she checked out after him, he offered to have her over for dinner at his parents’ house. She commented on how nice that sounded and accepted.

Kayleb’s parents didn’t know any Thorran or East Valhallan. Keria’Ledrii didn’t know any English. Nonetheless, the trio got along well that evening with Kayleb as their increasingly haggard translator. Shortly after Keria’Ledrii started explaining what she did in the Armada, Kayleb reached a point where he simply didn’t know the words anymore. He told her this, and the conversation began to come to a close. Kayleb’s parents offered for her to stay the night, as dinner had carried well past dusk, but she was heading back to the ship on the first shuttle early the next morning, so she politely declined. She would be back in town in ten days’ time, though, so Kayleb’s parents invited her to come for dinner again, this time early enough that she could play a board game. Kayleb didn’t know how to say board game, but his parents brought out a few to show her, and she seemed excited at the prospect. Kayleb saw her to the door, and no one noticed that she had left her pocket wireless until Kayleb got up for the late morning shuttle to the Frightbringer for practice. He grabbed it and brought it along with him to the ship. When it landed on the ship, the door opened, and Kayleb could see Keria’Ledrii across the hangar looking very concernedly at a type of ship he had never seen before. He excused himself from the rest of the Earthers on the team and headed over to speak with her. He was stopped abruptly by a very uniquely clad Armadian with black armor and a formal kilt and sash on top. Upon seeing the swords and knives, Kayleb guessed that the Dragon Rider stories were more than legend and didn’t argue about being stopped. He did, however, tell the Dragon Rider that he had the wireless belonging to the hull technician working on his Dragon.

He must have worded that wrongly, however, since he immediately found himself pinned to the ground, the Dragon Rider shouting at him in Osgordian, which Kayleb recognized but didn’t speak. To his surprise, however, he soon heard a familiar voice shouting right back at the Dragon Rider in the same language with what Kayleb was certain was an incredibly thick Valhallan accent. Occasionally, he heard some Valhallan curses pop up and the Dragon Rider was spitting hard words right back, some of which were easily distinguished by the other Earthers in the hangar as English and Thorran swear words. After at least two minutes of thinking his arm was going to be snapped any second, Kayleb found the weight of the Dragon Rider suddenly lifted from his body and the grip gone. He heard a crash and a squeal and looked to see the Dragon Rider about 50 yards away, having smashed into a light shuttle’s nose so hard the shuttle had turned, dragging its landers along for the ride. Kayleb looked the other direction and saw a bright green light fading from a very flustered face with a strand of blue hair messily hanging in front. He gaped before she said in East Valhallan with a clumsy smile, “I failed because I was stupid and lacked grace, not because I was weak.” This was clearly a reference to the Valkyries’ Academy, and Kayleb chuckled stupidly as she helped him up with his uninjured arm. Kayleb asked what that was all about, and she said the Dragon Rider had insulted her virtue and accused Kayleb of being a thief and worse. At that, Kayleb remembered the wireless and went to pull it from his pocket only to discover that that arm was dislocated. When he groaned and turned white from the pain, Keria’Ledrii called out to her supervisor and escorted him to the infirmary. Once he had been fixed up at the infirmary, he handed her the wireless, and she gave him her contact information. As they walked out, a medlifter carried in the Dragon Rider, unconscious. Keria’Ledrii reached out momentarily, and Kayleb was quite sure she broke one of the Dragon Rider’s fingers with a twist. That was the first time Kayleb was late to practice.

A year later, Kayleb turned 18 years old, and there was a small party with a couple friends from town and some from the ship. Keria’Ledrii was there, too. She had to have the significance of it all explained to her, since she wasn’t used to years, and the age of majority in Thorlinthia was different. Once she’d caught on, though, she was probably the most enthusiastic of the party-goers who weren’t in Kayleb’s family. When he asked her at the end of the night to start going out with him officially instead of just hanging out as they had been for the past year since he was finally an adult, he had to spend quite some time explaining what he meant. By the end of the conversation, they were engaged. The party decided it would keep going for a few more hours at the news.

A month later, he was informed that if he wanted to remain in the Ship League for any additional cycles, he’d have to enlist as a Peacekeeper. He said he’d think about it, but when he talked to Keria’Ledrii, she said that wasn’t necessary. He should just try out as a champion for the EGC instead. When Kayleb explained why the American team wouldn’t let him on, she told him to try out for the New Valhallan team since he was so good in the Ship League. When Kayleb protested that he wasn’t a Thorlinthian citizen, she informed him that he would be after their marriage. Try-outs, however, were in two months, and Kayleb couldn’t afford to sit around not practicing for a whole year. They talked to his church and got the wedding moved forward. After the wedding, Kayleb and Keria’Ledrii did something that hadn’t been done before. They took advantage of Thorlinthian laws allowing a member of another (presumed but not explicitly stated to be Thorlinthian) planet to change planetary citizenship upon marriage to make an Earther a Valhallan citizen, which in turn made Kayleb a Thorlinthian citizen. He wasn’t the first Earther to legally become Thorlinthian, but he was the first to be directly affiliated with a planet other than Earth. He didn’t make the team, but he was able to secure facility usage rights as a Valhallan citizen aboard Valhal’s embassy ship, the TAS Hunter. It was such a long shuttle ride from his hometown to the Hunter (which was situated above Italy) that he had to move. Being a Thorlinthian citizen, however, he no longer needed a visa to live outside the US, so he simply moved to Italy, and Keria’Ledrii lived aboard the Frightbringer while she secured a transfer to the Hunter. The transfer took a few months, but there were no surprises when she arrived at their apartment near Rome. Neither of them were sure how to feel about that.

Kayleb didn’t try out for the EGC for the next few years. He instead rejoined the Ship League as the first Earther Armadian after enlisting and attending training in Antarctica for a little over a year. It took a couple weeks for him to get back up to snuff, but the close quarters combat training he had received paid off in plenty, and he quickly found himself a better player than before. He also found he had a little more money to throw around once he was employed as an Armadian, even if it was low-level pay. He and Keria’Ledrii started spending more time actually in Rome when both were on liberty and took leave for World Youth Day his second year in the Armada. At the end of his minimal term as an Armadian, Kayleb decided to try out for the EGC team again before renewing his obligation. This time, he made it.

He got out of the Armada and started taking a daily shuttle to the TAS Tyrant, which was over the former South Africa, for practice. There, he met Reggie, who had been MVP for New Valhal in the previous EGC. Reggie was now missing two fingers, but the giant of a man claimed it made it easier to grip the ball. Reggie, as it turned out, worked at the New Qzcivden Basilica, Saint John Paul the Great Cathedral. This gave them quite a lot to talk about, as Kayleb and Keria’Ledrii were both somewhat recent converts, having joined the Church their first Easter in Rome. Reggie said a lot of “Tees” (Kayleb didn’t like the word) converted pretty regularly, and that Saint John Paul the Great Cathedral actually had the world’s largest baptistry for that express purpose. Reggie came over for dinner a lot, and occasionally, Kayleb and Keria’Ledrii actually went to Reggie’s place in New Qzcivden for dinner. The first time they went, Kayleb realized just what winning the EGC could mean as far as money went. Victors received suites in New Qzcivden and a regular stipend, which was neither excessive nor as slim as their pay had been while both had been in the Armada.

A week before the games, they found out the first team that New Valhal was competing against was North America. That wasn’t good news. They were hoping to go against North America last for a better chance at placing. The team was confident they could beat the other teams, but North America had the daughter of Drigondii Sheii’Cronell on its team. The rest of the team was adequate, but Lihandii Khuda’Cronell was a total unknown. Her try-out had been extremely secretive, and no one could be found who would say anything about how she played. Not only that, but no one had any idea what kind of strength she had, and whenever he contemplated the upcoming match, Kayleb would think back to the Dragon Rider in the Frightbringer’s hangar. He had no doubts about how strong his wife was, but he also had no qualms admitting that he was pretty sure Lihandii was stronger. It felt strange when he thought about the fact that he was planning on how to defeat North America on behalf of the New Valhallan team. He didn’t really think he was a traitor, but he had always thought of himself as American. Now he was going up against the team he had planned on playing for.

All these things came rushing through Kayleb’s head as he stared straight ahead into Lihandii’s eyes. He knew from personal experience that it wasn’t a good idea to look Valkyrie-types straight in the eye, but something was strange. Her eyes weren’t glowing green, though they certainly glowed. No, they were an unmistakeable gold, and looking into them was like looking into the sun. He looked away and to the clock as Drigondii Sheii’Cronell wrapped up his speech. The timer was counting down in millidays, but Kayleb was counting down in seconds. 3… 2… 1… Now.

There was a rush like he had never experienced in a game before when the spheres opened and he leapt forward. He had timed it perfectly. Under any circumstances, he should have been the first to that ball. Even Reggie was a good twenty yards behind him, but a golden flash swelled around the ball, and Kayleb dodged a shot only just as the ball spun around to reveal Lihandii Khuda’Cronell clinging tightly with one arm extended away and holding a repeater. The bolt certainly struck Reggie, and Kayleb fired back twice with his own, both shots missing by a hair and zipping past the teenaged girl and hitting two of her teammates as she spun about the ball as if it were a set of parallel bars. She came sliding toward him, feet first, and Kayleb managed to deflect the majority of the blow, so he was surprised when he found himself flying backward at top speed with a broken set of ribs. He took a while to slow down, and quickly realized he was the last remaining member on his team still conscious while his teammates had managed to make Lihandii the last on hers. Kayleb gritted his teeth as he blasted forward at breakneck speeds to intercept the ball. He shot the ball with the repeater, and a few of its teeth went spinning off while the ball slipped from Lihandii’s grip. Kayleb made contact with the orb for a brief moment before looking at Lihandii and straight into the Devil’s eyes. This was one of the fastest-paced games of Zero G Ball ever played, and it was only just beginning.

The Frost was Visible on the Grass

The Frost Was Visible On The Grass

The frost was visible on the grass as she looked out on the plain from her hiding spot in the woods. She had to be careful so that her breath did not give her away and to avoid any sudden movements. The snow around her actually insulated her a little from the harshness of the cold but was starting to soak through her uniform around the joints. She wanted to stand up and shout after three days of laying in the snow and thoughts of better days drifted through her mind. The desire for sleep attacked with a vengeance as she opened her pitiful rations for the morning and saw that this package did not have the stimulators in it. It would be a long day and possibly a longer night.

The morning noises began just before sunrise with the local farm animals awakening with bluster. The birds were relatively quiet as they chirped and warbled out of synch with each other while broadcasting their morning songs into the light wind. At least the wind had died down since last night’s blizzard. Surely no one would expect her to be here after that. Perhaps they would finally let down their guard and she could finish her mission and go home.

Her directions were complex and made little sense. It was only her total respect for her superior’s abilities, knowledge, and experience that kept her on track with the mission. She was a long way from home and had not slept for ten cycles of the local planet. The operation required absolute stealth and the time needed to get in place with that level of secrecy was long. Still, she loved her job and gained great satisfaction from a mission well done. She was due for a promotion and was sure that it would be coming if she completed this assignment in a satisfactory manner. She continued her concentration on the cabin and the surrounding area.

The cabin smelled like an old shoe after it got wet and then you walked in it for hours. The smell permeated every object in the cabin including their clothes, blankets, and even the food. The six of them had been in the cabin for seventy-five days without even a wash and the strain was clearly showing. No one had stepped outside since the proximity alarm had gone off thirty days ago. They knew someone was out there but did not know who or where and the man they protected could not be risked.

They could not stay in the cabin for much longer as they were running out of everything. Seven days ago they ran out of food. As for today, the water was so low that they would have to risk at least going out to collect some snow to melt. This meant that one of them would most likely die trying to collect the snow unless help came soon.

The old man they were guarding smiled when he awoke and sat up straighter in his chair. “Have you finally decided to go for snow?” he asked. One of the soldiers, a short, stocky young man they called Private Johnson, replied, “We’re not sure yet. There may be someone out there and perhaps help will be here today.” The old man asked, “Don’t you think if help was coming they would have found us by now?”  Private Johnson responded, “I don’t think that going a little longer without water is such a big deal and I don’t want to die.” The old man shook his head disgustedly and answered, “We all die. Being afraid of it does not stop it from coming; it only makes for poor decisions and usually allows it to happen faster.”

The tall man with command stripes on, Lieutenant Trapper, laughed and said, “Did you want to try it old man?” The old man said, “Yes. I would be glad to go get the snow.” The lieutenant’s face turned into a sneer as he said, “You old worthless bag of shit. You would die before you got out of the door. Now sit down and shut up before I have to teach you a lesson.” The old man’s smile vanished and a cold, dangerous look came across his face as his eyes seemed to brighten and almost glow a light blue. The old man said in a soft, deep, and deadly voice, “If I go for snow, I will get snow; and I will kill the sniper. If you go, you will die.” He stood up and moved in front of the lieutenant with his face hardening into steel. “I told you that I did not need your protection. Your help is not coming, death waits for you outside the door, and if you stay in here you will starve.  You need my help.”

The lieutenant stared back at the old man and reached out to push him back into his chair. “Sit down old man before you hurt yourself,” he said. As his hand touched the old man the scene turned into a blur. The old man moved like lightening and grabbed the lieutenant’s hand. In a fraction of a second he changed their little world. He stepped back while pulling the arm and twisting the hand. Then in a loop motion he swung his arm and spun his body. He lifted one leg in the process and stepped on the thigh of the lieutenant as the lieutenant fell toward the chair. As he pushed down the leg snapped and the lieutenant landed in the chair just in time for the old man’s other foot to swing around and catch him in the face. The old man continued to spin and ended up behind one of the other men with the lieutenant’s knife across the man’s throat and the lieutenant’s gun pointing at the rest of the group.

The old man spoke – and they listened. “You have a choice. For seventy-five days we have followed your plans and we accomplished nothing. You can continue to follow that path to its conclusion – where you die. Or you can do as I ask and maybe you will survive. In either case, I am no longer doing as you ask.” The group looked at their lieutenant, who was unconscious and seriously injured, and one by one they stood at attention and saluted the old man.

One of the soldiers, a Sergeant named Bull, raised his hand and the old man nodded. The soldier asked, “We were told you were an ambassador of some fame and we needed to protect you until help arrived and now you turn out to be something else. Why have you waited so long to reveal yourself and why were we sent here?” The smile came back to the old man’s face as he spoke, “You were not sent to protect me, you were sent to keep me from leaving until the snipers were in place to kill me.”

The soldiers looked astonished and confused. The old man went on, “I waited because I needed to know what kind of sniper would be sent as that will tell me who my enemies are.” Bull asked, “You decided to be bait? How many snipers do you believe are out there and what can we do to help?” The old man gave a huge smile and his face lit up as he said, “Welcome to the war boys!”

After they received their instructions, Bull asked, “Before we start, I need to know who you really are?” The old man smiled softly with a twinkle in his eyes and said, “I am “officially” an ambassador from Monte Carlo. In reality, I lead a group that has protected Earth from itself for a long time.” The soldiers looked at each other and Bull asked, “What about the Thorlinthians? Can you defeat them?”

The old man grew serious and a dark shadow crossed his face as he said, “No. They are way too powerful; however, it is possible that they may defeat themselves.” The soldiers were confused at this remark and the old man held up his hand for them not to ask what they were thinking and went on, “Our information shows that some of the Thorlinthians are helping the resistance.” He saw their looks, shook his head, and said, “No. We are not the resistance and we do not work with them. However, my attempts to contact this group have resulted in this death trap which I will now use to see who is against us and who is for us. Are you ready?” They all nodded their heads yes.

The old man turned away and a shine came from moisture in his one eye as he realized that most, if not all, of these soldiers would die in a few minutes. He moved the couch over and lifted the carpet off of the floor. The old man tapped the floor seven times and sang three notes followed by two more taps. A trap door appeared on the floor and the locks on it released as they reached down. They lifted the trap door and climbed down into the cellar.

The soldiers clambered down the stair and looked around the cellar at all the food and supplies in awe. The old man handed each of them a bag full of fruit from the shelves and water bottles from a box on the floor. “Eat and drink rapidly as we are running out of time,” he said. He gave them a couple of minutes and then directed them into a tunnel at the end of the basement. “Let’s go.”

They exited on the edge of the plain near the forest. The five of them climbed out of tunnel and sprinted toward the trees. The last soldier collapsed as he reached the trees with a blossoming red section on his chest. When he fell on the snow his blood stained the snow bright red as his life disappeared into the cold. The old man turned back and fired a hyrent arrow toward the sniper who fired. Through his optical viewer he directed the arrow back along the warmed air the bullet came through to its source. He watched, without satisfaction, as the arrow detonated in front of the sniper. The sniper was human.

They were now down to four as they moved through the woods in a circle around the plains. Twice more they were attacked and both times they lost another man and another sniper died. Every time they responded and the sniper died and every time the snipers were human. Bull asked, “I thought these would be Thorlinthians. Why are we only finding humans and who are they working for?” The old man nodded and said, “The resistance would not want me dead but the humans working with the Thorlinthians would.”

They had made almost a complete circle of the cabin and he still felt something was wrong. The sensation came to a head when he detected a slight change in the surrounding magnetic fields. He instantly jumped backwards over fifty feet in one leap as he watched Bull be shredded into bits by a hypersonic disrupter burst. Three armored Thorlinthians appeared out of the snow and a fourth walked slowly from the woods smiling as he said, “So, we have finally uncovered the Kuli presence on Earth. Did you think you could hide from us forever?” He strode confidently toward the old man.

The old man said, “Kuli? I do not understand. What are Kuli?” The Thorlinthian commented, “I am Shan’Delo of the 12th Regiment. Do you take me for a fool? No human can leap fifty feet or has access to hyrent arrows. You followed our bait right into a trap. I always heard how brilliant the Kuli were but you are a fool.” The old man smiled in a very mischievous way as he said, “I said that I am not a Kuli and that is accurate. However, what makes you think you led me into a trap?” The old man laughed and then he disappeared. From behind Shan’Delo the old man pointed his arrow launcher at back of his head and asked, “Could you have your men drop their weapons?”

All three of the Thorlinthians fired at the old man and in the process disintegrated their leader. Yet the old man was no longer there and in a split second he reappeared at his original location where he fired a pulse gun at the rest of the Thorlinthians. When the last Thorlinthian hit the ground he looked to the woods. A line of fifteen Thorlinthians in full armor appeared and one raised his hand for the old man to stop.

The Thorlinthians moved forward out of the woods about twenty feet and stopped. The commander stepped forward and said, “Nicely done! I applaud you. Still, the fifteen of us could slow you down. What do you think? Shall we continue this little war or are you ready to talk?” The old man smiled again, “What is it you wish to talk about? Surrender?”

The Thorlinthian laughed and moved forward. He said, “I will give you the option of surrendering now and we will promise you no torture. Or, we will capture you after a bit of a struggle and then I will guarantee torture. What is your choice?” The old man shook his head and said, “The bullies always are confident when they outnumber their enemies. What would you do if the numbers were different?” The commander smiled, “But this is the situation we have. What is your choice?”

The fourteen Thorlinthians behind the commander started to drop one at a time in rapid succession. The commander turned and the old man leapt across gap between them and struck him below the skull and snapped his neck as the last Thorlinthian hit the ground. He stopped and waited.

The frost was visible on the grass as she looked out on the plain from her hiding spot in the woods. She stood and walked toward the old man. She was glad that this mission was almost over. As she approached she could see he was smiling in a very mischievous way.

The old man spoke first and said, “I am not a Kuli but some of us humans carry on in their place. They monitored the population of Earth for thousands of years for those of us with “special skills” and brought us to their training facilities. A very long time ago, they went to Mars and never returned. Those of us in charge are doing the best we can to carry on the traditions they established.” She walked up and shook his hand with a firm grip and a smile on her face. She asked, “Do you know who I am and who I work for?”

The old man nodded and commented, “Yes. You appear to be a KR2 and probably are working for the Thorlinthians who are helping the resistance.” She answered, “No to both. I am a Valkyrie and I work for someone who is a third party in this conflict with ties back to Linthia. Do you have the authority to speak for your group?” The old man said, “Yes. That is why I am here. We are ready to work with you if you have a plan that will help the humans of Earth.” The two of them walked through the woods to a clearing. She pulled a control out of her uniform and tapped the screen. Her ship materialized in front of them and they climbed aboard. In moments, the ship lifted to the tops of the trees and vanished.

The area next to the nearest tree shimmered and a man appeared wearing light brown robe with silver lining and sandals with no socks. He stepped out of the woods and spoke into his comlink, “They have taken him and all has gone as you predicted.” The voice on the comlink said, “Return to the base after you trace the ship’s path with the Tresonic Beacon you placed.”

He watched his pad for the rest of the morning and half the afternoon. The ship finally stopped at a very interesting location. He noted where the ship stopped and transmitted the coordinates back to the base. Things were going to get lively after all these years of monitoring. The Kuli took out his hype globe, smiled for a brief moment, and vanished.

The frost was visible on the grass the next morning when Lieutenant Trapper dragged himself out of the cabin. A man walked up to him and said, “We do not tolerate failure.” A foot came down on his throat and a loud snap was heard. The man turned and walked across the grass, through a couple of snow drifts and climbed into his helicopter. As he entered, he told the man inside, “All the loose ends are eliminated sir.” The man inside answered, “No they’re not. I’m afraid that the loose ends are just starting to multiply. Let’s go.”

 

Leaps of Faith and Disappearing Acts

“Larry, you’re going to break something if you try this,” Nora Ayling said as her fiance stood atop a three story building, ready to jump. “Or even worse, you could get yourself killed. You know, for most people, this would be a sign of suicidal tendencies, sweetie.” She made a scowling face at him, trying to mask her worry with anger, an effort that wasn’t panning out as well as she’d hoped since her voice betrayed her concern.

“I’ll be fine, Nora. Don’t worry,” Larry said, rechecking his visualization of the fall in his head one more time. Before Nora could argue again, he was in the air. His jump was almost completely vertical, pushing out just enough that when his backflip was finished, he didn’t land directly on the edge of the roof again. Instead, his heels gently scraped against the edge of the building, his knees bent and gently extending through the fall to decrease the acceleration of his descent ever so slightly. About midway down, he pulled himself into a roll against the wall, kicking out and up with barely ten feet to go, slowing his descent to the equivalent of a two-story fall, which was just enough as he hit the ground, tucking into another roll and standing up several yards from the side of the building, a bit disheveled but otherwise unscathed.

Breathing deeply and closing his eyes, Larry looked up to the sky, wondering how Terira would scold his form if she were here. Unfortunately for him (or, perhaps, fortunately), Terira was with Drake on their honeymoon. He wondered if they had gone to the actual moon at any point just to play off of the word itself. He chuckled at the thought. That couple could never stay out of mischief for long, even when they tried, which was rare.

Finally, Nora came stomping over and slapped Larry. “I told you not to DO that,” she shouted at him, pounding her hand against his chest in frustration. After a while, though, she stopped, and Larry pulled her into a hug. “I worry about you so much sometimes, Lar.” She pressed her cheek into his chest as he gently stroked her soft hair.

“I know you do, Nora,” he said, “but I have to master Thorla’din before Drake and Sara head to Thorlinthia. I’ve only got a couple more years before that if Mister Kendrick’s right. I still have to have time to teach Angus and Summer before the Phoenix rises.” Nora’s face contorted to express a sense of disconcerted understanding, and she stepped out of the hug, holding Larry’s hand and starting to head back to the apartments.

“I know, but it’s still going to drive me crazy every time you do something like that. You didn’t exactly have to do it five times, either.” She pressed her elbow into Larry’s ribs. He winced jokingly, and she laughed.

“Yes, I did,” he said, pulling out the last syllable to accent what he was saying. “If I only did it once, it wouldn’t exactly be practice, Nora. I have to know I can do it more than once. Otherwise, it might just have been a fluke.” He pulled her in more closely.

“Well, I don’t see what jumping off of buildings has to do with martial arts, anyway.” Nora looked down the road, her face beginning to soften again. “Couldn’t you just do your rolls on the ground?” This time, it was Larry’s turn to chuckle.

“Well, I could, but it wouldn’t be as effective, dear. The jump is more about directional control in free-fall, and the roll is different, reflecting that fact. There’s also the factor of controlling a slide without applying so much pressure that my foot would snag on the wall. Not only that, but the final jump at the end just can’t be practiced properly any other way.Thorla’din requires a total investment of mind and body, and faith leaps like that one are a way of extending that investment and energy.” His explanation had hit on most of Nora’s objections rather pointedly, but Nora still had one question.

“Well, why does it have to be Thorla’din?” she asked. “Why can’t you use some other art instead to fight these guys? I get that this is just the way training is for Thorla’din, but most martial arts on Earth don’t make you jump off of three-story buildings, you know.”

“I have to use Thorla’din,” Larry said, “because the elites use Thorla’O, which can only be beaten with Thorla’din. I have to be stronger, faster, and more fluid than a group of people who have a massive advantage over me, and if I’m not, I’ll probably die when the time comes to fight them.



Larry remembered those words now, as a Dragon Rider barely missed his head with an assault knife. He twisted smoothly, stepping calmly into the twist to retake control of his own balance even as the Dragon Rider’s second attack came down. Larry parried with a knife of his own.

“You know,” he said to the AI in his suit, “not many people can fight like this, even among the Dragon Riders.” His feet blurred into the steps he had been so careful to memorize, coming dangerously close to the edge of the building, which was significantly higher than three stories.

After winning his second Kohstr championship, the Lieutenant had left the tournament even more of a celebrity than he had gone in. Grie had taken it rather well, too. This Dragon Rider had merely caught a non-Dragon Rider in the armor of a fellow he knew to be dead, so he had responded in anger. Larry was now very glad he had worn his normal armor to the tournament.

“Yes, sir,” the AI replied as Larry moved out of the way of five more consecutive attacks. “We should be grateful, then, that the opponent is emotional, sir. Readings taken from his armor indicate he is much stronger than you, but he’s wasting much of his energy with poor form weakened by his anger.”

Larry grunted as he pushed upward finally, pressing his knife into the Dragon Rider’s chest, being careful not to hit any major organs and using the AI, Sjau, to call in emergency services. As soon as he verified their status to be en route, he double-checked to make sure his opponent wasn’t dead and started to head away.

“Wait, please, sir,” Sjau said as Larry moved toward the entrance back into the building.

“What is it, Sjau?” Larry still wasn’t sure how much he liked Sjau’s personality, but he trusted him/it.

“Perhaps I should purge his memories of this occasion before we leave. Would this be acceptable to you, sir?” Larry gave an appreciable look to the inside of his helmet.

“I didn’t even know you could do that, Sjau.” He was a bit concerned for a moment that Sjau could do it to him.

“Yes, sir, but it will take some time. It’s a highly encoded function.”

“Could that work on everyday people, too, Sjau?” Larry asked, suddenly having an idea.

“Of course, sir. I just need to activate the function first.” Sjau’s usual stoic speech was a bit disturbing to Larry at times like these.

“Excellent. And do you think you could transfer these functions over to my Peacekeeper armor, too?”

“No, sir,” Sjau said, dissapointing Larry for a moment, “But this suit can take on the appearance of your old armor.” Larry smiled again.

“Good,” he said. “I don’t think I want anyone to know they’ve seen me for a while. The Lieutenant needs to disappear for a while, I think.”

“Yes, sir,” Sjau responded. “Function activated. Memory purged. Your opponent will not be able to remember the attack now.”

“Good,” Larry said again, moving through the door now, back into the building. “It’s time to disappear.”

The EGC

“Welcome, everyone, to the twelfth cyclical Earth Games Competition!” The announcer started off with a brief history of the games, as always. “As we all remember, I’m sure, the EGC started out as a simple Kohstr tournament between Armadians of each ship and Earthers of each continent. Now, eleven cycles later, the games have expanded to include many native Earther sports and some traditional Thorlinthian sports, including Zero G Ball, the most popular sport ever played. Of course, the most intrigue still goes to the Kohstr tournament for many, most of whom are still hoping for the return of the legendary Lieutenant.

“Now, as we all know, the Lieutenant was an Earther who managed to claim the Kohstr championship two years in a row at the very start of the games. Since then, he has neither been seen nor heard from by the public, and he certainly hasn’t returned here to New Qzcivden for the games. Nonetheless, anyone who can remember the games, which were even hypecast to the civilian fleet that had still been on its way at the time, can remember the Lieutenant, a man who somehow mastered the game with skills great enough to beat the Armada’s greatest players, many of whom had played since infancy, despite the game having been introduced to Earth a little over two cycles prior to the first games.

“And, of course, many of us remember what has since been called by many ‘the greatest game of Kohstr ever played’ between the Lieutenant and Dragon Rider, Grie Khuda’Mundi, who has championed the game every cycle since the Lieutenant disappeared. The game holds the record for longest Kohstr game ever played at over two whole days, and not a moment of it was still with cards being drawn and set constantly. Legend holds that after the game, the competitors’ hands kept moving to draw and set cards even as they slept for a week. Talk about reflex!

“This year, the games will be starting off with a game of Zero G Ball up on the TAS Dragon King itself, and Drigondii Sheii’Cronell is going to give a short address before the game. I will be your announcer, Frihd Khuda’Rahut.” The announcer stopped speaking as the slides of the Lieutenant and Grie Khuda’Mundi faded away and views of the Zero G Ball court on the Dragon King came into view.

The court was roughly the size of a football field that had been spun lengthwise around its center to form a cylinder. It was close to fifty yards in diameter, and the hemispheres at either end rounded off the court to remove any sense of up and down. The court was located in the upper levels of the bulbous aft end of the ship, and it had no gravitational modifications, giving it a good sense of “Zero Gs”, indeed, while the ship orbited the blue planet.

The players were positioned inside small spheres floating at either end of the court. When it came time for the game to begin, the spheres would open and retract into the edge of the court, which would then seal off, leaving the players to the game. Each player had medium-strength body armor on with small propulsion packs attached. The time limit of the game was enforced by disabling the propulsion packs, allowing split-second maneuvering at the end of the game to continue in the event of a final score.

The objective of the game was to retrieve the spiked ball at the center of the court and pass it through the opponent’s goal. This was made more difficult by the fact that both teams were also armed to the teeth with various near-lethal weapons. Severely injuring a player would result in the injured player being removed from the game, but killing a player would disqualify the killer or killers and result in a penalty shot to goal, discouraging players from simply killing each other.

Despite the extreme danger of the sport, it was an extremely popular game, and it even had a type of laser tag variation with a smooth ball for children and amateur players. The professionals, however, were trained well enough to take more than a few hits and not get too hurt, and they were skilled enough with their weapons not to kill their opponents, many of whom returned to the game after recovery. The cyclical mortality rate of the game was actually lower than Earther boxing, which was not one of the games at the EGC.

The first game was between the North American team and the New Valhal team. Due to the danger of the game, Armadians actually weren’t allowed to play, but Dragon Riders and civilians were, so the game had been introduced to Earth in its full form the same cycle that the first of the Thorlinthian civilian ships arrived. At the first games, it had almost seemed racial in separation between Thorlinthian natives and Earther natives, but now, many Earthers lived in New Valhal, and many Thorlinthians had moved out to more densely Earther areas, increasing the diversity of players on any team.

Now, as the players on each side stretched, that diversity was plainly apparent. In the red, blue, and green uniform of the North American team, there was a young man in his twenties with bright violet hair, distinctive of a Khuda’Vellihad, and a young woman roughly ten years his junior with the blue hair typically found among Valkyries. Lihandii Khuda’Cronell the Second was the youngest person on her team, but she was one of the crowd’s favorites to last the whole game despite this being her first year eligible to participate in the games. She was, after all, the only known child of a Sheii’Cronell in all of history, and she was a Valkyrie at that.

The first buzzer calling everyone to the attention of the anthem sounded, and each of the players found a grip against the edge of the sphere from which they could salute and sing. After the anthem, a very well-known voice was heard over
speakers across the world as Drigondii Sheii’Cronell spoke.


“I’d like to personally welcome everyone to the games this cycle, in addition to introducing the players of the first game. On the New Valhallan side, we have Krehn Khuda’Velast of Osgord,” a green-haired man in the blue and silver uniform of New Valhal waved his free hand from inside his team’s sphere, “Lehadi Crisad of Lok,” a dark-brown-haired woman raised her hand to wave, “Seliad Teros’Cronell of Thor,” a blonde man raised his hand, “Kayleb Forest of Earth,” a young man with black hair raised his hand, decorated plainly with Valhallan marital tattoos, “and the ever-popular Reginald Green of Earth.” At the final name for the New Valhallan team, the tallest of the players raised his muscled arm, and a large part of the crowd in New Qzcivden went wild, cheering on their feet for the last year’s MVP.

After the cheering subsided slightly, Drigondii continued. “On the North American side, we have Trey Weathers of Earth,” a dark-skinned man in his late thirties raised his hand from the North American sphere, “Christina Khuda’Cronell of Earth,” a young woman with dark red hair raised her hand, and a cheer was sounded again before Drigondii could continue, “Krigu’Andi Khuda’Vellihad of Tyrr,” the violet-haired man raised the remarkably darker of his two hands, a characteristic shared by many on his planet, “Gril’Die Kehstr of Valhal,” a man in his late twenties with fiery golden hair and very pale skin raised his hand, “and finally, Lihandii Khuda’Cronell of Earth.” The whole of the stadium roared with cheers and applause as the young Valkyrie raised her hand.

“With that,” Drigondii said, “I wish the players all a fair match and look forward to the results. Let the games begin!” As the spheres retreated from the players, and the countdown to the start of the game began, few were paying enough attention to notice a man placing a late entry to the Kohstr tournament, even if he was wearing a worn-out set of Peacekeeper armor. Those that did certainly didn’t notice the worn-down rank on the uniform as they looked back to the screens to watch the game. Not even the registrar was paying enough attention to see that the Lieutenant had just signed in for the first time in ten years.

Mickey

A violent buzzing set itself about the room. Out of the pile of sheets in the center, a hand reached out to silence the alarm. Slowly, Michael Shore rose from the cluster of bedding and set about folding up the sheets neatly in the corner. He had to go job hunting again today. Only a few months ago, he had been a private army’s top pilot instructor. Now, with the mercenary force he had served in dissolution, he was jobless, and mercenary pilot didn’t shine too well on a resume. It didn’t show up on his resume at all, actually, but that was a separate problem. In this overpopulation job market, someone who couldn’t account for the past twenty years of their career didn’t look too great.

He turned on the old TV he’d had for the past thirty years and listened as the broadcast continued on the UN summit being held today. It had been all over the news for the past week, and now it just seemed to Michael to be blown out of proportion. He only really kept up with it because his daughter was excited about it as a translator. I must be a terrible father, he thought. After all, he didn’t even know what other languages she spoke anymore.

As he always did, he ensured that his cigarette box was secure in his jacket before even getting ready. He then headed to the bath, filled with water from the night before. He scrubbed himself clean thoroughly before rinsing off and draining the tub. After it was fully drained, he set about drying the tub with a hand towel. While he dried, he overheard the woman on the news talking about the possible prospects of the summit: social reform, counterterrorist action, financial security… It was all the things that had been promised to be resolved in the last five summits. Nothing was getting better. The economies, governments, and terrorism threats all across the world were only getting worse every day. Mercenary armies had done what they could with the terrorists, but the various sponsoring countries refused to let them inside their borders.

Michael rose and turned to the sink, where his toothbrush and toothpaste were smartly facing the east wall. He picked them up and carefully placed a measured dab of toothpaste onto his toothbrush. He then brushed his teeth in a clockwise motion, going in order of tooth number and ensuring he reached every part of each tooth. When he had finished, he rinsed the toothbrush and his mouth and repeated the process twice more before carefully flossing twice. He rinsed his mouth with mouthwash after each floss and added in one last rinse for good measure when he couldn’t remember if he had done so after the first floss.

After he finished his hygeine routine, Michael deftly placed each item back into its original place, marked with a border of waterproof tape. He then moved back out into the bedroom, where he checked his jacket for his cigarette box again. The woman on the television was introducing the delegates now. He wondered if any of them were named Bob or John. Probably not, he decided. Michael then went about putting on his clothes, which had been carefully ironed the night before, right down to the socks and briefs. He made sure at each step of the way that everything was properly aligned. When he had finished donning his garments, he moved over to the kitchen, where he had slow-cooked a beef stew overnight. He poured the stew carefully into a plastic container before taking the slow cooker to the sink to be thoroughly washed. After he had washed and dried the cooker, he put a lid on the container, ensuring it was the lid properly matched to the small tub.

Once the food was properly sealed to Michael’s satisfaction, he placed it carefully into the bottom left corner of his lunch box, into which he also put a banana, an already-baked potato, and his required utensils, tightly held together with a rubber band that matched the color of the lunch box perfectly. After his lunch box was zipped and placed flush with the edge of the counter near the door, Michael went into his refrigerator and grabbed the tub marked for April 1st. He set the tub on the counter three inches from the stove and closed the refrigerator as he read the slip of paper taped atop the lid of the tub.

As described on the paper, Michael pulled out a small skillet, set the stove to 15 degrees past the medium mark on the dial, and opened the tub. Reaching inside, he removed a small cube and unwrapped the wax paper around it. Taking the cube of butter, he placed it exactly in the center of the skillet and began to count to two hundred in two-second intervals. When he had, he removed the baggies of chopped ham, bell pepper, chive, tomato, and potato, carefully emptying the baggies onto the pan in that order and placing the empty baggies neatly atop one another directly opposite the tub. After counting to thirty, he pulled out the small cup of beaten egg and poured it onto the seared ingredients. He finished his omelette and folded it neatly into a traditional napkin fold on the small, square plate he pulled out of the tub. He turned off the stove as he set the plate on the counter where he picked up the baggies, wax paper, and cup. While it cooled directly next to the warm stove, Michael took the baggies, wax paper, and cup to the sink, where he washed them all for reuse and dried them with a dish cloth.

Removing the fork from the tub, Michael picked up the plate and ate his breakfast neatly. Upon finishing, he pulled out the final item: a cup of orange juice, carefully measured and sealed in a plastic container. He drank the orange juice and washed and dried his remaining dishes, placing each item back into the tub and placing the tub in its place inside the cabinet, where it would sit until the 23rd, when he would prepare for May 1st’s breakfast.

Now satisfied with his morning routine, Michael double-check the status of all his switches and knobs, triple-checked his jacket for the cigarette case, and donned the jacket. Walking to the door, he reached into the countertop bowl and retrieved his phone, keys, and wallet. After placing them all in the appropriate pocket, he checked one last time for the cigarette box and grabbed his lunch box. He opened the door and was a
bout to flip the breaker switch to his peripheral electronics and lights when he heard the following words on the television, no longer in the woman’s familiar voice:
“Ladies and Gentlemen of these United Nations of Earth, I come to you on behalf of the Empire of Thorlinthia.”

Michael Shore dropped his lunch box and pulled out his phone, his fingers automatically punching in the number he thought he had forgotten long ago. It rang twice before he heard, “Hello? Who is this?”

Sounding almost mindless, Michael said, “Lieutenant, this is Mickey. The Phoenix is rising.” A quick tumult could be heard over the phone. Then scraping and a clatter as the phone was picked up again.

“Confirmed, Mickey. The Hummingbird is ready. Pick me up at the planned location in one hour. Lieutenant out.” Just like that, the conversation was over. Mickey placed the phone into a random pocket, pulled out the breaker, and retrieved the small key from inside the small hole behind it. He picked up his lunch box and ran out the door, slamming it hazardously behind him, ignoring the sound of breaking glass as his bowl fell off the counter and sprinting down the stairs to his car. It was time. Phoenix Day had come, just as the Lieutenant had told him when they met five years ago. All Mickey could think about was his daughter, who was currently in the world’s most dangerous location.

War Is War

[The following story contains graphic descriptions of violence and mildly suggestive content. Reader discretion is advised.]



“Hey, sweetie. Where’d you go?” Nora Denton wrapped her arms around her husband’s shoulders as he sat down beside her in the bed. “I was hoping we could have some fun before going to bed, but you’ve been gone for hours. Did something happen? Are Angus and Summer alright?”

That was always Nora’s first thought when Larry came back unscathed. While he was gone, her worries were usually focused a bit more centrally on him, but once she knew he was alright, she started worrying about the other family she had in the Resistance. Larry was always careful not to give any details about ongoing missions, but if she was ever connected to the Lieutenant, it would already be too late to pretend she didn’t know about the Resistance’s activities. Her family had bigger secrets to keep than that.

“Yes, Nora. Everyone’s fine. I was just checking out some new armor and a nifty little piece of equipment Sara gave to Summer to give to me. I’m pretty sure she got it from Drake, too, because it’s some seriously impressive stuff, Nora. There was an artificial–”

He was interrupted by the sounds of repeater fire from outside. Snapping to his feet, he crouched down slightly before moving to the window. He motioned for Nora to secure the door, and by the time he looked behind him, she had already deadlocked it and started moving toward the kids’ room. Looking back to the window, Larry peeked through the blinds to the streets below.

There wasn’t too much to see from the top floor, but Larry had good eyes. Down on the street, there seemed to be a group of heavily armed men firing on Armadian Police Forces. All Larry could think of that particular idea was that it was a very bad one. A few uniformed Armadians were lying on the street, arms sprawled and blood spreading about them. That being said, the rebels, who obviously hadn’t thought this through properly, had spread out on the sides of the road.

A few Armadians were still alive, though, and they started laying down suppressive fire on the rebels, who were dropping like flies for lack of cover. Eventually, the rebels started using their fallen comrades as shields to hold back the Thorlinthian fire. The Armadians were wittling down the rebel forces, but they were still taking heavy casualties. After a few more minutes of mixed gun and repeater fire, rounds stopped flying about. The last Armadian had dropped.

It was now, Larry thought, that the rebels made their biggest mistake. Instead of dispersing and moving out, they grouped together and started confirming their kills. These men weren’t professionals. They were hunters, and hunters need trophies. Larry started to feel sick as the rebels removed the Armadians’ helmets and started on one of the most disgusting human-hunting rituals mankind ever invented: scalping.

Larry watched in horror as the rebels pulled out their knives and grabbed their kills by the hair as they began to saw away the flesh over the heads of the Armadians. He was reminded in that moment that his team was the exception, rather than the rule, when it came to civilized operations in the Resistance. They would never have performed such a messy operation as a full-on firefight in the middle of a heavily populated, civilian area. They certainly wouldn’t have resorted to barbarism as these men were, defacing the bodies of their fellow man.

But many rebels didn’t see the Thorlinthians as members of mankind. They just thought of them as alien animals and enemies. Even now, as they tore away the flesh of someone so like themselves, with families and pets, the rebels only saw what they wanted to see: demons. It was like a World War II video game. If it was German, it was a Nazi war criminal as evil as Hitler, who would clearly be a match for Satan when it came down to who was a worse person. But Larry hated that outlook. These were people. He knew some of those men, he was sure. He had been asked so many times for autographs or photo ops with Armadians in and out of uniform that he was certain at least one of those men was in the street, dead, right now.

The rebels were almost done securing their trophies when they found out why Larry had already known it was a strategic mistake to do so. Dragon Riders may have been the most feared mortal men on the planet, but the eight blue-haired women that just dropped onto the street from the sky were something worse.

Valkyries were known for their raw potency as warriors. A single Valkyrie could take down a city. The rebels had just pissed off eight of them. Despite being outnumbered almost twelve to one, the Valkyries had already won. The men on the street right now were walking dead. They knew it even as the Valkyries pressed slowly in on their position, walking as calmly and peacefully through the hail of resumed gunfire as one might walk through the store. After several seconds, the rebels had to r
eload. The Valkyries used this moment to strike.


Armadian Special Forces were known for using precision weaponry akin to sniper rifles and heavy repeaters similar to standard assault rifles. Dragon Riders were known for using knives and the occasional sword, getting within arms’ reach of their opponent, though they still carried small repeaters on their sides. Valkyries, too, carried these weapons, but they weren’t exactly known for using them. They even had suits with built-in weapons that were often used in medium to long-range stealth attacks. In close quarters, however, the Valkyries used no weapons. It was the one reason you might be pleased to see a Dragon Rider. Dragon Riders were kinder than a Valkyrie.

Now, Larry watched as eight furious Valkyries used their hands to slowly tear apart the men who were still making a futile attempt to kill them. The first man to be touched by one of the Valkyries screamed as she pressed her thumb into his eye socket and used it to grip his head as she ripped it off of the rest of his body. His screaming didn’t last long. The second man actually seemed to have some martial arts training. When the Valkyrie’s hand reached out, he swiftly moved around her in one smooth movement which would normally have dropped a grown man to the ground with a dislocated shoulder. Instead, the Valkyrie merely danced through the motion and used the fall to grab his shoulder with her feet. Quickly, she kicked her legs downward, swinging the man beneath her and bringing herself to an upright position as she pulled his hand off for daring to touch her. His throat soon met her foot as she crushed it.

Larry watched sadly as the spectacle below turned into a scene straight out of a horror film. There was nothing the men could have done against a single Dragon Rider, let alone the eight Valkyries. If they had known the Valkyries were in New Qzcivden, Larry doubted they would have been so keen to stick around, though they still probably would have performed the attack. Men’s egos weren’t easy to deflate, after all.

Now, as the men below found themselves being made into many more pieces than they were designed to have, they must certainly have regretted the attack. Larry watched as the last of the rebels dropped to his knees, his hands above his head in surrender. The Valkyries walked about him in a tight circle, then started to walk away. Just as he was sure he would live, however, the man’s lips began to move.

Larry didn’t know what the man said, but it clearly wasn’t anything the Valkyries wanted to hear. They stopped in unison and turned around like they were the same person. Then, seven of the Valkyries took a single step back while the one directly facing the man began to walk forward. It was like a well-rehearsed dance as the other seven began moving in a circle, evening out the gaps between themselves and never turning away. The Valkyrie who had stepped forward reached the man and knelt down, bringing herself to his eye level before placing both her hands on his shoulders. She seemed to speak a few words, probably explaining that he could have lived, before moving one hand to the man’s hip and one to the base of his neck. She then swept her arms in front of herself, flipping the man sideways like a coin before driving the hand on his neck into the street. The man’s skull collapsed as it collided with the ground, and his brains spread across the road like pancake batter.

The Valkyrie rose to her feet. The others stopped their circling. As they moved toward her, Terira Khuda’Cronell looked up to her cousin’s window. Larry quickly dropped his finger and stepped away from the blinds, as if he had touched something hot. After that, he didn’t look back out the window or go back to talking to Nora.The couple just made sure that the children were still asleep in their windowless room (though it did have a beautiful skylight) and went straight to bed without saying another word. Nora simply curled up tightly into the embrace of her husband as they both set off into a restless sleep.

When Larry awoke in the morning, he returned to the window and looked out to the street. As he had expected, the bodies and even the bloodstains were gone. Larry wondered if it had been an act of mercy that Drigondii had allowed the Valkyries to eliminate the rebels when he had been so close. Drigondii Sheii’Cronell didn’t need hands to kill a man. With that chilling thought reverberating through his mind, Larry turned the wireless straight to a children’s program before setting about making breakfast while Nora got little Drake into his day clothes. He wasn’t going to let his children hear the news today.

Revelations

“You know, I was a doctor once,” Colt Tyson spoke aloud to the guns he was cleaning. It was a story he’d told no one many times. “I worked in a top secret facility designed for studying extraterrestrial activity. Unfortunately, funding got pulled pretty drastically long before I ever showed up, so it wasn’t properly equipped when we actually found an alien.” He set down his latest work and picked up a Thorlinthian repeater for disassembly.

“I’m still not sure if it was a male or female,” he stopped as he said this, looking forward for practiced dramatic effect. “I never could get it to answer that question, and it was such a foreign creature that I couldn’t figure it out by conventional means. In any case,” he said, removing the firing rail, “I think it was female. The voice was too light to be male, in my opinion. So let’s call her a ‘she’.” He set the firing rail on the workbench and pulled out his soldering iron.

“Her name was Kahlisa. She was from a world long dead, apparently. Last of her species…” He trailed off as he fiddled with the more complex bits of circuitry in the repeater, setting it for a lower rate of fire to improve accuracy. “She was the Guardian of our galaxy. A Kuli…” The soldering iron came down again, and his voice trailed off to allow him to concentrate.

“The first time I went in to see her, one of the other doctors had already gotten his hands on her. He wasn’t quite as stable as I am, and I’m fairly certain he crossed his fingers when he took the Hippocratic Oath. He did so many horrible things to her. I didn’t have the heart to say what he did to her eyes, though I’m sure she knew.” He slid the rail back into position over the cooling electronics.

“It wasn’t even just her eyes. He took massive samples of all sorts of different tissues. It all ended up being useless, anyway. We couldn’t isolate her genetic code, and we couldn’t figure out why she was able to do the things she could do. Her brain was incredibly small compared to our own, and we couldn’t get to it on account of some sort of metal intrinsic to her bones. We couldn’t drill into it without producing enough heat to cook her brain. Not only that, but anaesthetics just didn’t work.”

He finished reassembling the modified repeater and pulled out an old assault rifle. “Whenever we thought we were making a breakthrough with finding her genetic code or analyzing a tissue sample, the sample would just fall apart. It was like she knew, and she just disassembled it from her cell.” He pulled off the mounting rails and chuckled. “Even now, it sounds crazy, but I’m sure it’s what was happening. It was always literally right before a breakthrough.”

He finished removing the barrel. “She healed from everything, too. Even the eyes came back after a few weeks. There were scars, but everything healed. I ended up blindfolding a creature I had met with no eyes. That’s actually kind of cool when I think of it…” He ran his brush over the carbon deposits on the glossy metal.

“But it all came to an end rather suddenly.” He started to oil up a rag to clean the barrel. “One day, my boss just came in and said they were shutting down our research. No progress except a few notes on Xenopsychology was hardly impressing the few investors we had left. They decided to shut us down and convert the facility to a prison. I wouldn’t stand for it, of course. I had my standards. I had sworn to take care of my patient. I said I would stay as long as my name was Doctor Colt Tyson, so they had my license revoked and my degree annulled, which I didn’t even know you could do.” He began cleaning out the barrel.

“They told me that I was the one who had to tell her they were going to stop feeding her, just to get to me, I suppose. Just to rub in the fact that I was no longer ‘Doctor’ Colt Tyson, they sent me back to Kahlisa one more time to sentence her to death.” He started putting the rifle back together.

“But when I spoke to her, she wasn’t even surprised. She said she already knew and that she was prepared for it. She made me swear not to tell anyone, but she apparently didn’t need to eat to stay alive. She could do this super meditation/sleep thing that completely halts her metabolism. Her brain would just operate on fumes until the Phoenix rose.” He snapped the mounting rails back on.

“I didn’t know what that meant at the time, of course. I just figured she was being all mystical about her death or something. I left and joined up with a mercenary group that didn’t particularly care if its doctor had had his license revoked over some political scandal. I did my best to forget. I told myself it didn’t matter anymore. But that was a lie.”

He set the reassembled rifle back on the workbench and leaned back in his chair. “Then, one day, the Tees came. Drigondii Sheii’Cronell showed up, and the Phoenix rose. I thought maybe she was still alive, somehow, for that moment I saw that man speaking on the television. I headed back to the facility. But it was gone.”

He picked up the rifle and pressed the stock into his shoulder, aiming down the iron sights just like his friends had taught him all those years ago. “I got there and it was all gone, blown to pieces. T
hey must have blown the facility when they heard aliens were here in some vain attempt to cover up what they’d done. She’s gone now.”


“She’s not gone, Texan.” A second voice came from the door behind Colt. It was the voice of Summer Ayling. She must have been listening the whole time. Colt set down the weapon and turned around.

“How do you know that, Summer?” His eyes expressed a desperate need for knowledge that his voice refused to betray. Summer smiled back, understanding.

“I know because I’ve met the Kuli, Kahlisa of Fehmadad. She’s about five feet tall on four haunches, six and a half on two?” Colt stood at the description. She was telling the truth. “Kahlisa lives in Texas now, in the town where I grew up. The same town where Drake Kendrick grew up.” Colt’s face didn’t react the way she had anticipated. Instead of donning an expression of realization, his face had adopted a more confused look. She tried again. “It was the same town where Drigondii Sheii’Cronell grew up.” There was the look. She knew she had a lot of explaining to do now.

“Wha–? He grew up here? He’s not a–? But the Thorlinthians…” Colt was totally befuddled. Summer gestured for him to join her in the main cabin, and she waited until he had entered to close the door behind her.

Summer knocked gently on the door to the cockpit, where Angus and Michael were playing an old-fashioned game of Go Fish. “Angus? Mickey? I need you two to come out here.” When they had, she said, “Angus, it’s time we told them what we know. Colt knew Kahlisa.” Angus’s eyes widened, and he nodded. He got everyone to sit down at the low table in the center of the room and waited for Summer to join them.

“Well, everyone,” she said as she said on the couch beside her husband, “This is probably going to take a while, but it all started when two Valkyries came to Earth over thirty years ago…”

The Clothes Make the Man

Larry Denton sat down, pulled out his personal Thorlinthian data processing unit in his hotel room, and sighed. “Alright,” he said, pulling out the small data drive Terira had delivered the previous day. “Let’s see what you’ve got for me.” What he found baffled him completely.

There was nothing on the drive. In fact, he found upon further inspection, there wasn’t even any empty space on the drive. It was completely blank, yet it was completely full. Thinking on it, Larry decided it must be using an encryption protocol of some sort that his DPU wasn’t equipped to handle. He turned off the device.

Immediately after the device had completely powered off and just before Larry was going to remove the data drive, the screen lit up with a dim, red message in Thorlinthian. Njota di drigarmr frodlikr. The message translated to a simple “for use in Drigarmr processors.” Confused, Larry removed the data drive. The screen turned off.

He walked to the bathroom and locked the door. Moving across the small room, he lifted the secret lever on the back of the toilet. The wall in front of him opened to a small hatch, which he entered, climbing onto the ladder inside the secret compartment. He worked his way down two floors, where he found a small room with a lift in it. He took the lift all the way down to the drainage system under the hotel, where a small pulse car was hiding behind a fake wall.

Larry slid open the fake wall and opened the trunk of the pulse car. There, he had a set of Peacekeeper armor for public affairs as the Lieutenant and a metal lockbox roughly the size of a suitcase. Larry pulled a small chain out from under his shirt, his dogtags from an age now past dangling from the chain beside a small key, which he used to open the lockbox.

There, awaiting any need for emergency missions, was a full set of Thorlinthian Drigarmr that had been pulled from a Dragon 52F’s cargo shelf during the destruction of the TAS Fhit. Larry pulled it out and truly inspected it for the first time.

The Drigarmr was not entirely different from other Thorlinthian battle armors, except that it was composed of the most effective armoring material available, commonly known as Drigarmr. Technically, the official name for the outfit was the Dragon Rider Battle-Ready Dress Uniform, but it was known fairly universally by the armoring material’s name instead because its actual name just took too long to say.

Of the few features that did distinguish Drigarmr from other Thorlinthian armors, the most apparent was the kilt and sash, which were commonly only found on Armadian formal wear. However, since Dragon Riders were always expected to be ready for battle situations, they wore the armor all day, every day, meaning they wore it to formal occasions, too. The kilt and sash gave the armor a much more dignified look.

Another distinguishing feature was the unique structure of the helmet. It was capable of being completely opened and retracting entirely into its bottom rings, which sealed the neck guards for vacuum. When removed or disabled, the helmet had the appearance of a simple, if very thick and heavy, collar. When fully enabled, the helmet closed around the wearer, displaying the usual HUD in addition to a fully functioning, specialized DPU interface built into the armor.

The DPU itself was contained between the life support system and the cargo unit on the backplate of the armor. It was completely sealed off and connected to the suit’s main power supply, a small fusion reactor that was centered inside the life support unit. Its interfaces were in the side of the torso, immediately beside the area where the floating rib sits. In order to use the DPU, Larry would have to put on the armor.

Whilst donning the armor, Larry realized multiple times that he had performed a step in the wrong order and had to remove everything, starting over again. After several failed attempts spanning almost an hour’s time, he found that the correct order was skinarmr, a gel-like, skintight undergarment that covered the whole body; then backplate, which had thick slings that went over the shoulders; then legs, which locked into the backplate in their top; then arm sleeves, which locked in using a clockwise motion to bring the shoulder guards over the actual shoulder; then torso, which locked first into the top of the legpiece, then slid into a lock under the shoulder guards; then belt, which was rather self-explanatory but ended up being much more difficult than Larry had expected since the belt was designed not to have any excess length and instead expanded to fit any waist and locked into a series of slots between the backplate/torso portion and the legs portion of the armor, forming a tight seal but requiring about the strength needed to fully draw an English longbow; then the boots, which had shinguards that twisted into place and locked onto the legs; and finally, the helmet collar, which just came down over the head and twisted into place. The kilt and sash, themselves, were actually integrated into the leg and torso portions of the armor and didn’t require themselves to be put on seperately.

Once he had the armor on completely, Larry slowly raised his wrist into view and activated the power. Immediately, Larry recognized the benefit of the skinarmr, which cooled almost instantly to an ideal ambient temperature based on synaptic responses the armor detected through a constant scan of Larry’s
brain stem. The armor itself, which weighed somewhere around two hundred fifty pounds altogether, began to act as a supportive exoskeleton, the integrated artificial muscles adding to Larry’s own strength instead of having the armor’s weight detract from it.


After getting used to the feel of the armor, Larry activated the helmet. He was amazed at the additional information provided by the suit’s DPU. It was constantly processing all sorts of inputs Larry would never have thought of and making them available onscreen. With a flick of his eye, Larry could summon up an atmospheric analysis program, which utilized samples that the wearer had to obtain and place into a port in the gauntlet’s wrist. With another flick, he could enhance any of his senses or block another one out. The suit was even capable of transferring minor haptic input to the wearer’s skin, though this was heavily monitored to ensure no painful sensations were pointlessly transferred to the wearer.

Once he had grown fully accustomed to wearing the armor and using the DPU, Larry pulled out the data drive, which he had been keeping in the pocket of his pants in the pulse-car’s trunk. With a flick of the eye, he opened the small hatch on the side of his armor that exposed the DPU interface ports. There, he inserted the data drive. Again, however, nothing happened. The DPU recognized that it was a data drive but showed no data and no empty space. Then, remembering what had happened up in his room, Larry set the DPU to reset.

When the DPU was powering off, the HUD was momentarily set to the same that Larry was accustomed to seeing in his Peacekeeper armor, which must have simply been what the helmet processed on its own. Then, when the power came back on, the entire interface changed. Displays disappeared and were replaced with simple icons. Every piece of electrical equipment in view seemed to light up, along with every weapon and every tool. Entire paragraphs of programming code were streaming by in a small window at the top right of the HUD.

Then, suddenly, the window disappeared, and the lights dimmed. Larry’s view cycled through a series of extra-visible spectrum scans before returning to the standard visible, with ranges, temperatures, power levels, and ammunition counts beside every relevant item in view and a few slightly out of view. Just as Larry started to comprehend what he thought was happening, he was proven wrong as he heard, “Greetings. I am Sjau. My dark drive appears to have been utilized as a support unit in wearable armor. Please verify.” Larry’s jaw dropped silently before his mouth formed an understanding grin. This was a very good day.

Sjau

Self-check complete. Basic processing systems functional. Temporal markers synchronized. Deviations eliminated. Independent power production holding at eighty-two percent of nominal production rate. Power production acceptable. Positioning signals received. Position triangulated. Sensory processes enabled. Visual input available. Auditory input not available. Haptic input not available. Olfactory input not available. Gustatory input not available. Visual input enabled. Visual indications point toward a high probability of being in a small room. There is a door directly forward, and the room is unlit. Using infrared input, it is determined that the room temperature is not regulated to expected standards, instead holding at approximately four percent of the standard room temperature for a Qzceno-class warship. This warrants further self-tests and environmental checks.

Analyzing auditory receiver. Auditory receiver functional. Pressure consistent across audio receivers at two percent standard pressure. Audio input invalid. Analyzing haptic receivers. Haptic receivers functional. Haptic response at lessened capacity due to effects of temperature and pressure. Increasing temperature to five times standard room temperature will fully rectify. Haptic input currently invalid. Enabling heating unit. Time to nominal temperature: three millidays. Analyzing olfactory receivers. Sufficient atmosphere not detected for olfactory input. Olfactory receivers disabled. Analyzing gustatory receivers. No biofuel detected. Gustatory input unnecessary. Gustatory receivers disabled.

Sufficient sensory input not available. Enabling external sensory receivers. No external sensors directly connected. No wireless sensors detected. Disabling external sensory receivers. Enabling wireless transmitter. Scanning standard wavelength patterns. Multiple responses received. Cross-referencing responding transmitters with current position. Nearest transmitter determined. Connecting to nearest transmitter. Connection denied. Transmission is encoded. Referencing cypher tables. Encryption protocols determined. Connecting to nearest transmitter. Connection accepted.

Networking protocols determined. Accessing sensory devices. Determining nearest sensory devices. Enabling sensory devices. Visual input available. Auditory input available. Haptic input not available. Olfactory input available. Gustatory input not available. Enabling nearest visual input. Visual indications point toward the input being an external camera on a deep space vessel orbiting a planet slightly larger than standard with a high-nitrogen atmosphere. Focusing processing on visual input in the direction of self-unit reveals a fragmented Qzceno-class warship. Probablility is high that self-unit’s containing ship has been severely damaged. Cross-referencing new visual input with position and sensory self-checks indicates a high probability that self-unit is in a fully vented area of fragmented ship. Infrared input indicates life-signs in singular non-vented area of fragmented ship. Full-spectrum scan indicates recent burst of dreiyri radiation. Lifeforms are in danger.

Disabling wireless transmitter. Connection severed. Enabling motor processes. Motor processes enabled. Selecting standard visual input. Self-unit begins to move toward door. Arm, left, reaches out to activate door-opening mechanism. Door opens. Self unit moves out of room. Visual scans indicate high probability that self-unit is in passageway. Self-unit turns toward lifeforms. Visual input shows passageway to be ruptured. Further scans indicate steam lines to be cold and electrical transmission to be disabled. Self-unit is drifting up. Enabling magnetic locks. Self-unit returns to deck. Self-unit moves toward lifeforms at a standard run pace. After fourteen millidays, self-unit encounters a discontinuity in deck. Lifeforms are in opposing fragment of containing ship.

Error encountered. Ship map invalid due to fragmentation of ship. Updating ship map using previously gathered external visual input. Accessing maneuvering catalog. Three viable options available. Selecting option with highest expedition. Self-unit bends legs. Disabling magnetic locks. Self-unit rapidly extends legs, launching self-unit from initial fragment toward lifeform-containing fragment. Self-unit retracts all limbs, shifting center of gravity forward. Self-unit extends limbs, bracing impact with lifeform-containing fragment using legs. Enabling magnetic locks.

Visual input indicates a high probability that self-unit is in forward galley. Scans of bulkheads show identity of fragmented ship to be Qzceno-class warship TAS Fhit. Self-unit moves toward port-side galley exit at a standard run pace. After three millidays, self-unit passes through port-side galley exit into forward port passageway. Self-unit moves forward at standard run pace once more.

After eight millidays, self-unit’s position correlates closely to previous estimate of lifeforms’ position. An infrared scan shows heat sources above and outboard. Consulting the adjusted ship map shows a nearby lift. Self-unit moves toward lift, monitoring infrared sc
an of lifeforms. Upon opening the lift door, auditory receivers reveal a brief rush of air past self-unit from the lift. This indicates that the upper passageway is pressurized. Self-unit enters lift and takes it to the upper level.


Air once more rushes onto self-unit when lift door opens to upper passageway. Thermal scans show temperature and pressure to be within acceptable standard ranges. Disabling heating unit. Enabling auditory processes. Enabling olfactory processes. Audio input available. Olfactory input available. Selecting all available inputs. Cross-sensory confirmation available.

Self-unit is in a room-temperature passageway in the forward-port upper section of the TAS Fhit’s wreckage. Infrared scans show that lifeforms are being held in a nearby un-jettisoned life pod. Self-unit moves toward life pod at a standard run pace. Visual scan of the pod through its door viewport shows three unconscious Armadian crew members and one Valkyrie nearing loss of consciousness. The Valkyrie looks up and points to life pod door. Olfactory receivers indicate that there are no harmful gases present in the passageway. Self-unit opens door to life pod. A mild breeze into the life pod shows that life support in the pod had been nearly exhausted.

“Get us out of here,” the Valkyrie gives self-unit an order before losing consciousness. Self-unit’s protocols mandate that self-unit comply with any Valkyrie orders. Analysis of the order indicates a high probability that the Valkyrie desires self-unit to ensure the lifeforms get off the ship safely to a nearby, non-fragmented ship. Self-unit analyzes life pod’s jettisoning systems. A display indicates that steam pressure is not sufficient to launch life pod. Error encountered. Order compliance not possible. Searching for alternative means to compliance. Accessing technical specifications of life pod and jettisoning system. One viable option available. Warning: Self-Unit operation endangered by current means to compliance. Further searches show no alternative options to be viable.

Self-unit exits life pod and seals it. Turning to jettison controls, self-unit disables life pod hull locks. Magnetic locks set to maximum. Motor power restrictions lifted. Saving self-unit memory to dark drive. Enabling direct dark drive recording. Memory bypassed. Self-unit steps closer to the life pod, using a wide stance to increase stability. Leaning forward, self-unit grasps manual jettison handles of life pod. Self-unit’s limbs groan under the strain as self-unit pushes the life pod toward the nearest ship. As the life pod begins to move, self-unit’s main spinal support begins to overheat. Self-unit releases grasp on life pod handle.

The life pod moves away to safety as the heat from self-unit’s overheated motors and supports begin to melt self-unit’s circuitry. Enabling dark drive emergency transmitter. Dark drive transfer initiated. Haptic processes overloaded. Error encountered. Full sensory overload. Further operation not possible. Shut down commenc–



“Sir,” a young technician said to the intimidating figure standing before him. “We’ve just received a dark drive transfer.” The figure turned around. The figure’s burning red eyes locked on the technician’s own.

“Which unit?” Drigondii’s simple question was immediate and efficient, but the underlying tone expressed a slight sense of concern.

“It’s unit seven, sir. It was being serviced aboard–” The technician began to explain but was swiftly cut off by his Monarch.

“Sjau was being serviced aboard the Fhit. He didn’t make it out, then?” The technician was slightly taken aback by the Monarch’s personification of the unit, but he only shook his head.

“A life pod has just been detected moving toward the Dauntless, though, sir. Dark drive recordings show that unit seven damaged its circuitry irreparably manually ejecting the life pod. Scans show that it holds three crew members and one Valkyrie.” Drigondii nodded at these words. He held out his hand, into which the technician placed the dark drive recorder that held unit seven’s final moments. The monarch took it and walked away, toward the main hangar.

Family

It was late evening the next day by the time the shuttle landed again in New Qzcivden, this time in a registered flight. Larry Denton stepped out with his wife and children with all paperwork in order to watch the games in just a few days. Better, since Larry had clearly arrived after the Lieutenant had registered in person, he was even less likely to be connected to the Lieutenant by official investigators. Officially, he’d end up spending the actual tournament time in the bathroom, blowing chunks. In reality, he’d be going through the maintenance access in his bathroom to the drain system, where he’d take a pulse-car to the tournament and participate as the Lieutenant.

All that was, of course, the main objective. It was a kind bonus given by the universe that he now had the week to spend with his family on the island city. It had been quite a long time since he had been able to walk around with them in public. The Resistance kept him fairly busy, particularly considering his position.

He was fairly certain that the only reason the Lieutenant was even being allowed to participate this year was that he was already the champion. If he had been substantially linked to any violent activities against the Thorlinthians, it would have been another story. As it was, the Lieutenant was officially just a supporter, which wasn’t illegal. No evidence had ever been left that he was an actual member of the Resistance. Even less evidence had been left that he was Larry Denton. Larry had intentionally stacked the evidence against that notion time after time, leaving him in the clear to travel whenever he had time.

Now, he was shaving on the top floor of the world’s finest hotel. As the Lieutenant, he had given the room to himself. The Lieutenant was supposedly afraid of heights, anyway. It was on his bio, after all. What kind of person would deny a biography’s viability when it had been officially endorsed by its subject. And as the Lieutenant’s biographer and long-time friend, Larry had few reasons to be held suspect for being shown such generosity by the Lieutenant. Honestly, he wasn’t sure how he kept the two separate in his own mind sometimes.

“Larry, hon, can you come help me with little Drake’s pajamas?” Nora called out to her husband from the other side of the large suite. Larry washed his hands and wiped off his face before joining his wife in the effort of putting on his disabled son’s night clothing. Normally, she didn’t ask for help, but Larry treasured the moments he was able to spend with his son, who had been named after an old friend who officially had died years ago in a plane crash.

Drake Denton had a form of cerebral palsy called spastic quadriplegia. As such, he required assistance with most tasks, including changing his clothing. Despite being almost six years old on Phoenix Day, Drake had required use of diapers and a feeding tube, along with daily physical therapywhen Larry was away. Since the Thorlinthians’ arrival, however, he only required assistance with tasks requiring use of major voluntary motor functions, since he now employed use of a Thorlinthian assisted living device that allowed removal of the feeding tube and gave Drake continence for the first time in his life.

“Hey, there’s my boy!” Larry said as he walked into the room. Drake smiled at his dad’s appearance but didn’t speak due to the candy in his mouth, which Nora had a habit of giving him to keep him from getting upset when he was being changed. Now nearing ten years old, however, it was more simply a treat since he had become exceptionally well-mannered over the years. Larry went over to his son and started putting on his pajama shirt, which had his favorite Japanese cartoon character on it. (Drake insisted that anime was different from normal cartoons, and Larry had no reason to disagree, but it was an argument Drake enjoyed having, so Larry still feigned total ignorance whenever the subject came around.)

“Do you think we should go to the zoo tomorrow, Lar?” Nora turned to her husband as she finished wrangling Drake’s socks on. “Drake was saying earlier that he was hoping to see if they had a dragon here, and I can’t say the prospect hasn’t crossed my mind, either.” She smiled and gave her boy a few kisses on the cheek, making him smile ear to ear.

“Well, there aren’t really dragons, per se, you know,” Larry said. At this, he got a groan from both parties present, so he added, “Well, dragons are lizards. The drig is a flighted mammal with a really tough and thick hide, and the wyrms are all basically flightless drigs. They’re monotremes, which means they’re mammals that lay eggs, and they have scutes over their bellies that make them look like a reptile from below, but they have fur all over the rest of their bodies and are warm-blooded.”

His wife and son gave him a look that said they didn’t particularly care about those differences. Just in time, Larry’s five-year-old daughter, Sarah, came along. “Daddy’s right. Dragons are reptiles. Still, daddy,” the little girl gave her father a teasing look, “there should be dragons at the zoo since they keep Komodo dragons there, too.” Larry picked up his little girl and gave her a bear hug. Sarah had been named after Terira, and the little genius had earned the name very early in life. Even compared to most Thorlinthian children, Sarah would be considered brilliant, as her memory and reasoning skills were on par with those of Valkyries.

“See, Dad,” Drake had apparently finished his candy. “But I did mean the drigs. Do you think they’ve got drigs at the zoo?” He gave his dad an embarrassed smile, which earned him a hug of his own.

“I think they’ve got one drig and a few different wyrms there, but I think you’re going to like the ulfr. It’s a flying dog.” At this, both children’s eyes grew wide. They loved dogs. “Of course,” he added, “they’re not pets. They just look like dogs. They don’t like people, though.” The kids frowned slightly, but they still seemed eager to see the flying dogs and dragons.

“But that’s tomorrow,” Nora chipped in, tucking Drake in as Larry took Sarah back to her bed. “You have to go to sleep first. Today’s been a big day. We got to see lots of new things and fly over the ocean, so I think that’s enough for one day.” Everyone said their good nights, and the parents sang their songs. The day was over. It was time for bed.