Wednesday, February 26, 2020

How to get Spacestation Parts up There

A few days ago I had this dream, and then today, my dream encompassed how I might tell someone about that dream. I do that to myself sometime, and sometimes it can be a bit annoying. Here goes:

We were taking off in a passenger plane heading … (somewhere), when I looked out my window to see this enormously long plane taking off on another runway. I knew what this had to be. I'd seen pictures and I'd read articles, now here I was. I get a front row seat to watch the real thing. That plane thing was going to be the new arm of the space station being built. It looked big, but it was even bigger than it looked. It was easily as long as our whole runway, and our plane would probably been hidden in the shadow of that tail fin - it was that big if not bigger.

We were already in the air by the time the front end started to lift off the runway, but by then things were evolving quickly. This thing looked like a plane that had been stretched really long, there was even maybe a hundred or more little windows all along the sides. The front two thirds or so was silver like most planes without any decorations. The back third was dark blue.

We were still climbing when the front end of that thing seemed to reach takeoff level and the back end left the runway, but the front end still climbed up higher and higher, until it was pointed almost straight up. You might think it would just take off from there, but the ride was only just beginning. I wouldn't want to be a passenger on that plane, though no passengers were on there. I wasn't sure about cockpit crew; someone had to drive that thing once it got up there.

It was pointed almost straight up when the back part, the blue part broke away and dropped down. That was like the push needed to make the rest of it start to flip over onto it's back. It looked like a disaster in the making, but in reality it was carefully orchestrated.

Connected between the two parts was an enormous bungee cord that would probably have dwarfed the circumference of this plane. At a point where it looked like the bungee cord might interfere with how fast that upper part of that 'thing' was trying to swivel, a weight popped out of the end of the blue part, and it snapped around in a viscous arch, yanking the bottom end of the silver part of that plane around and hurdling it hard for the upper atmosphere. When it had whipped all the way around, and the front end was pointed up again, the bungee cord yanked a framework out of the bottom of the silver tube.

This framework folded out into what looked like some kind of landing gear, only that wasn't what it was.

Even though our plane had continued to climb to cruising altitude, this other craft was now above us, and when that framework had totally folded out and locked, the engines fired.

Suddenly - the next thing I knew - I was looking out my window at the tops of a lot of trees, and they were WAY TOO CLOSE. I guess we'd been pushed out of the sky. I fully expected to be kissing those trees very soon, and then kissing my ass goodbye, but the pilot righted us and we started climbing again.

You guessed it - I woke up then. What do you think?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

What are Memories

Who am I? My name is Caroline and I am the daughter of a minor lord. Though my father commanded a respectable number of men in his king’s army, my mother saw to it that I never thought too greatly of myself; she always said that men didn’t like a woman who thought too highly of herself. She feared that father would never find a good husband for me if I were too proud; she worried. I suppose she worried that I was getting too old to wed and since I was an only child, if I didn’t wed, there would be no chance to ally with another great family.

One day, my father came home from the battle with news from the king himself. “Caroline,” he said, before he had even shed his armor. “Ready yourself, the king has accepted my proposal to take you to wife.”

I refused of course. “Absolutely not, father. I’m not good enough for the king. What would he want with me?” The very thought of approaching the king and becoming his wife frightened the living daylights out of me. What did I know of men, and he was the king.

My father and mother didn’t seem too pleased about it either though you’d think they would have been ecstatic at the prospect of marrying their daughter to the king. But father insisted. “If you turn him down now, he’ll be furious,” he said. “You have no idea how important this is to the wellbeing of the kingdom. I want you to go to him. You might even be able to help him. With you at his side, it could turn the tide for us.”

I lost my temper at that. “I don’t want this war. I certainly don’t see the sense in helping him keep it going. I don’t even understand his goals. I hate him!” I yelled at my father, but he was stone faced and wouldn’t hear it.

“Varian needs someone and he had consented to take you,” he yelled back, but he still refused to say why it had to be me. Surely there were other much more qualified women from which to choose.

One day, father told me that he thought Varian might be addicted to something. He told me he feared it was affecting his memory and consuming his energy. He feared Varian was becoming irrational because he was calling halts at odd times and he seemed to be having trouble with the power that moved his machines. I thought it was odd that he would give me this information, but perhaps he was trying to play to my sympathies.

I knew about this power. All the great families had some, and it was maintained by wise men who knew its secrets. Everyone knew that to touch it was death. Only the strongest of wizards could escape that sentence, and even they did not touch it willingly. It was also rumored that some wizards who touched the power too often grew to love it too much, so if Varian was addicted to that, either he was a wizard and the power was like a drug for him, or he thought the power would make him stronger. Again, I didn’t understand the man or his war.

Father worked on me until I finally relented. We packed up all my belongings into an open, one-horse cart, and he took me to the edge of the king’s encampment where he turned me and the wagon over to one of the outer sentries. He mounted his horse, and without another word to me, he left with his men. The sentry called the watch commander who came and escorted me on into the camp and to the king’s private van, where he left me to present myself. I thought this was all rather odd, but perhaps my father had fallen out of favor since the battles had been going badly lately, or perhaps my delays had caused hard feelings between them. I hoped not.

I knew that if I thought about it much longer I would become quite angry with my father. He was giving me to the king like some kind of trophy, and without so much as a goodbye, but I squelched the thought before it could do its damage. I was terrified; I was going to meet the king any time now, but no one was moving, so I decided that it was up to me to move. I was a little surprised when the guards let me pass into the king’s trailer without a word; they just came to attention as if I passed through their ranks every day.

Once inside the door, I didn’t see him in the darkened trailer. I knew he had to be here; his personal guards would not have been standing outside otherwise, but he was nowhere to be seen. That meant that he must be in his bedchamber or in some other small nook I couldn’t readily see from the door. The thought so frightened me. I was afraid to call out. I almost turned and ran back to my father, but he would be long gone by now. Instead, I steeled myself and took a few more steps into the room towards a small table that held a tiny lamp. To my horror, I succeeded in kicking him. He had been huddled on the floor behind a small cabinet near one of the outlets, and I had succeeded in tripping over one of his feet.

He was so angry at being bothered, or perhaps being caught, that he jerked his hand from the hole in the wall and jumped to his feet, whirling on me. I thought he was going to beat me, or even yell at me, and perhaps, if I had been anyone else, he might have done just that, but instead, he looked at me as if he were looking at a ghost. His mouth was open, and all the blood drained from his face. I was terrified to the point of fainting, but I’m not the fainting type.

I don’t know what possessed me. He was my father’s king and general and I was no one, but my mother had always taught me to be practical. “We have to put a stop to that right now,” I said as I pulled him bodily away from the corner where he had been huddled. I intended to get at the outlet and replace its cover. The thought that I should prostrate myself didn’t occur to me in time to stop my action.

He let me move him for about two steps before he grabbed me up into a hug that was so fierce it frightened me even more. Then he started saying crazy things.

“You’ve come. I’m so relieved. I need you so badly,” he said into my hair while he continued to crush me to him like a drowning man.

Why would he possibly need me? I remembered seeing him once across the battlefield, but I had never met him, and yet he seemed to know me far better than I knew him.

He wanted to sweep me off to his bedroom, but I pushed him away. “I did not come to you as a harlot, my lord,” I said. “I expect to be wed properly before I ventured beyond this room. If you will be so kind as to provide me with proper quarters until then…”

He seemed a little confused by this, but he relented quickly enough, and set about making the arrangements immediately. He strode quickly to the door, throwing it open. “Set up a pavilion. I’ll sleep there until another van can be brought up. The lady will sleep here.”

I was aghast. I was not a lady. I was only the daughter of one of his generals. When he turned back to me, I objected. “My lord, you mustn’t give up your van to the likes of me.”

“Of course I must. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said as he reached out a hand and touched my cheek, and then my shoulder as if he still couldn’t believe I was standing there and he needed the physical touch to tell him it was true.

I stepped back a bit. “Please sire, I do not even know you.”

His face fell; he looked as if I had just broken his heart, but he didn’t say anything about it, and true to his word he moved to the pavilion as soon as it was ready, but since all of his things were in the van, he spent almost every waking moment with me.

He moved the camp the next morning to a wide plush valley where the grazing was good and the watch duty was easy, then he began to consult his books.

As time went on, he told me bits and pieces of his intentions. He told me what he thought he had learned from the books and what he thought he learned from the power outlets he was constantly touching. It was horrible to watch; he’d stick his hand in behind this thing in the wall and then he would curl up and twitch helplessly. Sometimes he would moan and cry out softly. I guess he could get out of it himself; after all, he had been doing it long before I came along, but I never watched him go the whole time myself. Every time I saw him, I pulled him away. It got so that he never did it while I was looking, but he could be quick about it when I turned my back.

Every time I pulled him off, I got a charge too, if only for a second. I think it must have been this that starting to give me bad dreams, or at least very strange dreams. Dreams where everything was different from what I knew. My dreams told me that Varian and I had loved and even married before, but someone without a face had taken me away from him during a time of chaotic confusion. Had he declared war to get me back? If this was true then why was he still fighting it? There were other things in my dreams that were different too, but aside from knowing that fact, I didn’t remember any of it.

Another dream hinted that there had been a son. So he kept fighting to reclaim a son, but these were just dreams, weren’t they? That one made me feel strange inside though, so I went to find my father’s encampment. When I couldn’t find it, I asked around, but no one seemed to know who I was talking about. That evening I tried again, and again no one knew who I was talking about; one man told me that he thought my father was dead, but that couldn’t be true, he had brought me here only a few days ago. I couldn’t even find any of his men, so I went back to Varian to ask him about it.

He listened patiently while I told him about my problem finding my parents and my reasons for why I wanted to speak with them.

He asked a lot of questions about them and I discovered that I didn’t have many of the answers. Then he told me to accompany him when he did his thing with the power outlet. I refused of course; I had enough trouble sleeping at night without having to worry about becoming addicted like he was. A fine pair we would make then.

The very idea was frightening to me, but he convinced me to try. “You want your nightmares to stop, don’t you? I believe this will do it. And you can’t get addicted to it after only one try,” he said. I shuddered to think about it. “I do it all the time and all it does is leave me confused for a little while. After I put together what I’ve seen, I’m fine.”

I had my reservations about his definition of ‘fine’ but he did seem to be getting better since I was able to interfere most of the time with the length of his fixes. “The power is supposed to kill any but the most powerful wizards who touch it. It’ll kill me.”

“Trust me, it won’t,” he said and held his hand out to me. Was he saying I was a witch? There was no witch blood in my family. But he was my king and he seemed to know much more about such things than I ever could so I took his hand. I could feel my own hand shaking in his firm grip.

We sat down on the floor beside the outlet. He curled up around me as if to be my chair and then he took my hand and together we stuck our hands into the wall to touch the wires in back. I felt him tightened up around me and begin to tremble, but then I was swept away on a reality trip to end all reality trips. Everything I knew to be true broke up and drifted apart into pieces along with parts of information designed to give me enough foundation to hide the machinations of the spell they had worked on me. In its place was the reality I had grown up with; the one Varian was fighting so hard to reclaim, and he was fighting against master wizards and witches alone to do it.

I remembered it all and was sickened by what had been done to me, to us. The parents I had been looking for were the people who had taken me away from this life of love and happiness with Varian. My ‘mother’ had been the witch who had constructed the spell that created what I had thought was my life. My real parents were both powerful in magic and I too in my turn. They had been dead since I was a child, and Varian and I had grown up together. Our son had also been swept away in the same attack that had shattered my life, and it angered me to no end, but I didn’t have time to dwell on my memories, I had to get Varian out of this. He had some wizard blood in him and that had allowed him to survive what he had been doing, but it was killing him slowly anyway. He had indeed become addicted, and though he had started doing it for good reason, it had to stop now or I would loose him again and now I had the power to stop it. I was the witch in the family; I was perfectly capable of doing this at any time and I knew that I had many times in the past. Varian needed to direct the armies; I couldn’t do that.

We would find our son, but first Varian needed to be weaned before it killed him. I pulled him away from the outlet, and while he lay there shaking and sweating, I cast a spell on him. I thought about shielding the outlets from his touch, but there were many other ways that he could find to continue his addiction. Though I hated to do it, the only alternative I saw was to make it so he could not touch the power outlets or any other source he found. I knew it would be very hard on him, but I was here to help him through it all.

I called his guards inside to help me put him in his bed and then I called for his second in command. When the man arrived, I informed him that I had regained all my memories and what I had done to Varian. He welcomed me back and seemed relieved that I was myself again.

I questioned the man about what he knew concerning the whereabouts of my son, but unfortunately, he knew nothing.

I reviewed my newly reacquired memories of the council members; Galois, the man who had played my concerned father and Marika, the woman who had played my worried mother had both been members. When the council had shattered, the palace had nearly come apart. My memories didn’t tell me whether the building was left standing, but the battle that had waged within its walls had been enough had anyone tried for that end. Commander Caisson told me that during the battle the family apartments had been breached and our son, Kalon, has not been seen since. No one had been left alive in that wing, but his small body was never found. His nanny and her husband who was Kalon’s personal bodyguard were both killed in the attack.

My list of names was minus only two; there had been no small child where I had been kept. I had never considered it at the time; my life was carefully constructed and kept simple, but I knew now that there are always children around. Servants had families and those families had children of all ages. As soon as they were old enough, they worked along side their parents in whatever capacity they could handle. At the place where I had been kept, there were no families. All the servants were old men; the only woman aside from my ‘mother’ had been an old woman who did the laundry down in the well house. She was always washing something and another old man was always drawing up the water for her. Was that the only thing he did? I didn’t know. Perhaps he was there to ensure that I never lingered and to ensure that the woman didn’t talk.

“Commander Caisson, do you know where Lord Galois lives?”

“Of course, my lady. We have been fighting Galois and his men for the last six months, ever since you were sighted there. The terms for his life were to deliver you alive and then leave the country.”

“I want to go there immediately; there may be some clues left there.”

“At once, my lady,” he said and turned.

“Send the doctor in,” I said before he reached the door. He nodded and was gone.


   

To Escape a Dream

Over the last two centuries, the more developed societies of the earth have slumbered.

Commerce continued – it was vital that it did, but it was all mechanized.

A little more than two hundred years ago, a major gaming corporation made a huge breakthrough in gaming technology and the Living Dream was born. The game was enclosed in a helmet and it allowed the player to place himself in the place of anyone in history – it allowed the player to be anyone at all in any setting they wanted, exempting something completely fantastical. They weren’t restricted to historical events either. A player could be Julius Cesar and act out his fate to the tee, but they could also make things happen the way they wanted by simply making different decisions.

There was a point system too. A player earned points by working for or helping someone in the game. A player could do something as mundane as help an old woman cross the street or work at the local store. Or they could be the greatest general in history and win wars for his emperor or king. With points, they could buy ordinary items in the game such as a house or a car. With enough points, they could buy another existence and change their life. The choices were infinite and the popularity exploded.

At first, high school students were the biggest buyers; it expanded their understanding of history and even the understanding of the strategies of war, but it wasn’t long before both older and younger players became the norm.

Business executives and owners pulled out all stops to mechanize their businesses and corporations and add them into the gaming system; there were big bucks in it. It wasn’t long before a big breakthrough was found that would allow gamers from around the world to work for points through the game. Anyone could try their hand at being the president of a global corporation or running the mailroom of that same corporation. In no time, all aspects could be accessed through the game.

Now, babies were born in a test tube and introduced to the ‘game’ as soon as they could crawl. Everything, including procreation, was automated, run virtually by citizens who consumed very little, as they were lined up in warehouses like cordwood.

The gamers knew no different. Life had not changed for them. Get up. Go to work. Get a paycheck. Take a vacation once in a while. And of course there was still ‘the Game’ where they could ‘get away from it for a few hours’ and be someone else; it was a nice way to unwind.


   

They Always get Found

They always get found; the kids who can do magic. Everyone says so. They always get found. But Billy was good at hiding; he always had been, though he didn’t know why. Maybe it was the saying ‘they always get found’ that spurred him to be good at hiding. He wasn’t going to be found, not unless he wanted to be.

Billy wasn’t hiding now, not yet. All the kids were being taken somewhere else tonight. They were all walking, holding hands with a friend in the dark or riding a tricycle or pushing a bike. A few walked alone. There was a grownup here and there, but Billy could only see one ahead of him in the dark.

He looked up; clouds were rolling in fast, looking like dirty cotton balls in the dark, but that wasn’t what frightened him. Up there, was four moons that he could see – all lined up like marbles, but they were close. The first one – the one most directly overhead – looked like a platter on a big blue placemat. He reached up and used his fingers to measure. The placemat was as broad as half the moon was wide. The next moon had a noticeably narrower platter, as did the next one probably; it was difficult to tell with that one because the clouds were crowding it; all of them sitting on a black table. The fourth one though… He watched it closest of all. Just before the clouds covered it from sight entirely, he saw the blue platter rush to be centered in front of the moon, generating more clouds in its hurry and then it huffed all that air toward the earth, aiming somewhere far below the horizon behind him.

He pulled at the sleeve of a girl that walked near him. “We have only one moon you know.”

She looked at him and then at the cloudy sky. “Of course. What are you talking about, Billy?”

Billy looked up again. The clouds covered everything now.

He turned around and started to walk back.

‘They always get found.’

He passed the grownup that was bringing up the rear. “I forgot my coat. I’m cold. I’m going to go get it. I’ll be right back.”

“Well, hurry up, or you’ll be late,” said Mrs. Wilson.

Billy started to run.

‘They always get found.’

He ran back to the now dark buildings where he and all the others had lived for the last two years, but he didn’t go to his room – he went to his stash. A small bag of wood chips and a heavy black quilt he’d altered so he could wear it like a cloak.

‘They always get found.’

It was easier to wear it like a cloak than it was to carry it.

‘They always get found.’

Well, he wasn’t going to be easy to find. Not until he wanted to be found. He ran to a place he’d found months and months ago. It was cold, and snow had blown to cover much of it, but very little was inside. It would be perfect for now; no one would think to look here – surely, it was too small for anyone to hide in.

A plane flew over just as he was pulling himself into his hole, heading toward where his classmates were going. With a woodchip in his hand, Billy pointed up with his finger and like he was shooting a make-believe gun. “Pishu,” he whispered and the plane exploded into a ball of flames. He dusted the ash off his hands and coiled back into his hole.

Yeah, maybe they’d find him, but he wasn’t going to make it easy for them. He’d find somewhere else to hide come morning.


Morning dawned blustery cold, but that wasn’t what woke him. People were walking around in the room directly overhead. Near as he could figure, that was the laundry room, but there shouldn’t have been anyone there. Everyone had left the night before. The rumors he’d heard boiled down to some kind of raid, but by who was never clear.

Then he hears voices out by the end of the building, only about twenty yards away. “Are you sure they searched the whole building?” asked one voice.

“We’re searching the darkest corners now. No one’s here. It’s still warm inside so whoever was here has left recently. Can’t tell for sure if it was a rogue mage school or just an orphanage.”

“That plane was shot down from somewhere close around here. It happened so quickly, they didn’t have a chance to pinpoint the location, but there has to be some sign. Find them. If you have to turn over every rock, find them.”

“Yes sir.”

Billy’s blood ran cold. So they could tell where the spells came from. No wonder they always get found. He needed to get away from here, but there was no moving now, not with a guard standing right outside. He crawled deeper into his hole and curled up small. He scooped some dirt over his quilt and then pulled it around him, covering himself entirely. There was nothing to do but wait until the coast was clear. If they used a mere flashlight to search this spot – provided they found it, he hoped they’d only see some old trash. If they used infrared, he’d have to defend himself. He pulled his bag of woodchips in close and hoped his camouflage held up.


Billy waited for hours, but the search was fierce. He was constantly catching sounds of tramping boots, or orders to search here or there. So far, no one had spotted this little mar in the foundation.


Billy waited through the night, and still there were guards everywhere, not so much searching anymore but seeming to wait for him to break cover. He waited until the sun rose yet again. His stomach was cramping from hunger and his throat was dry, but he dare not move. It was quiet outside now, but he couldn’t be sure it was quiet enough.


The third morning he knew his wait was over. Birds were singing outside, and a fox checked out his little hole. It might have been a den at one time, but this close to town, he kind of thought not. But, with wildlife in motion, people were not.

Cramping with hunger pains, Billy crawled out of his hole and headed back toward where the others had gone.


Rules of the Magic
One person can control only one kind of magic.
Fire – must be touching something combustible before something within sight can be burned – the target does not need to be combustible.
Water – must be touching liquid (or ice or steam) before any liquid (or ice or steam) within sight can be changed from liquid to solid to gas.
Air – can make it blow. Can create a vacuum in a sealed space. Can make air too thick to breathe.
Earth – must touch rock to affect products of earth. can learn to control the magnetism of the Earth to a degree. Can change rocks to mud and visa versa.
Must touch metal to be able to affect it. Can change the composition of metal if they understand how. Can do with metal the same as with rock.
Teamwork could mean that a ball of ice could be lifted from the ground, set on fire and then blown at a target. Water to make a ball of ice, Earth to lift it, Fire to set it ablaze and Air to throw it.
The team members must be touching each other in order to work together.


   

The Partners Game

Trump was elected president, and he could no longer maintain his TV show, so to take it’s place, he proposed a televised game, making it available on prime time TV as well as cable, and on the internet. As incentive to make viable offers, profits achieved would be split 50/50, and of course, losses were also split.

The premise was, rather than have government spend tax payer money to shore up troubled companies, the show would pair these companies up with a partner who can either add monetary support or have a business plan that would make the difference. In fact the type of aid offered to the business can vary; it’s up the business owner to decide which offer of help he wants to try.

There is something of a twist though. Since one’s online personality is frequently very different from a face-to-face presence, the owner has one week to get to know each person offering his or her idea online only. Any and all details about the offer can be discussed to any length, and in the process the owner is to get to know the person on the other end of the connection. This is complicated by blocking all pictures and restricting all reference to the sex or race of the offering person. Also names are changed to an online ID.

After the owner has gone though all offers, or all those he was interested in, there is a big show where he meets each person making the offer. He or she is given ten minutes with each person, but it is forbidden for him or her to reveal their online ID, and then he meets them all together, and he is given five minutes to make his choice. A one-year contract is then signed and the deal is done. Only then will he know if he picked the person he really wanted. And of course, updates are aired to detail the changes and their success or failure. Whether the partnership is furthered after the year, is totally up to the two involved.


In my dream, I was one who had an offer of a business restructuring of a pig farm. The farm was a very large operation, and the man had been rather wealthy, but suddenly it had begun to lose money and the owner wasn’t able to figure out how.

I was good at troubleshooting businesses even though I’d never ran one myself, nor had I taken any business classes. I’d worked as a consultant every since I’d helped out a friend, and he’d referred me to another friend, and so on.

During our online discussions, I was given a Google maps image of his property, and out of curiosity I tried to actually find the place on Google maps. No coordinates had been included. The closest I found was a place in Florida but it was totally upside-down and wrong in other ways. I knew it wasn’t the right place.

I was already the winner of another contest, but that didn’t stop me from entering again – I could afford the travel expenses, but it would be nice if the two places were sort of close together and the other place was in Colorado.

As I walked into the studio where my pig farmer was being wooed by three very pretty girls. Of course, it wasn’t too hard to know which of the very nicely dressed men was my farmer; only one of them would be the center of such attention. Or at least that’s what I thought, and I was right. It was my turn to try to win the man’s favor.
I won because I called him my pig farmer, something I’d done frequently during our correspondences – he’d really liked my insights, but they were things he didn’t have the time to implement.

As I went through the books and worked my way through the various steps of his operation, I discovered that his supply shipments were unusually expensive, forcing him to cut back on many things, which in turn would soon force him to downsize his operation entirely.

My presence nosing around turned out to be something of a wildcard because I walked into the train delivering our feed and other goods, and ran into my pig farmer’s brother, who was unloading half a car of beer. I’m going to assume that the rest of the car had been full of beer too because nothing else was here. I asked to see his invoice because no listing of beer had been on any of the books I’d gone through.

Further research into the issue, easy once I was on the trail, uncovered that the brother had added beer to the order, marking it as priority, which bumped an entire load of grain or whatever would have occupied that car. This discrepancy was then doctored and the bumped goods were then abandoned and eventually auctioned off by the shipping company back at the departure point. My farmer bought his brother massive amounts of beer, which he then sold, keeping the money of course, and no one was the wiser – until now.

I confronted the brother. His excuse was that he liked his beer – he apparently had no idea how much I knew – I was just a woman.

I gave the evidence to his brother and then I took over the ordering, delivering, and offloading of all supplies. Yep, that was the problem. Things began to turn around immediately. Oh, and I made sure the brother got a six-pack of beer every shipment. I wouldn’t want him to feel neglected.

Though my pig farmer was a handsome young man who’d inherited the business from his father, really the last thing I expected at the end of my contract was to be offered another contract, a much more personal and long lasting contract.

He proposed.


   

The Grim Reaper

What is death?


I have heard it said that death is merely the next step … a new beginning, not an end. But what if it’s something else? What if it’s only a step in some kind of evolution? You can’t tell … you can’t know, because no one ever comes back to tell of what they found there.

I have reason to wonder about this because, you see, I…have died…


…but I’m not dead.


How does one defeat the Grim Reaper, you ask? Let me tell you how I did it; perhaps then you can pity me. You see, I walk, I talk, I even breathe, but the only reason I do that is because it facilitates speech. My heart does not beat, my body is not warm, I feel hot and cold temperatures, but neither one affects me; I do not shiver from the cold or sweat in the heat. You might think that these things are trivial; perhaps they are, but these things take so much with them when they are gone. With life goes emotions, love, hate, fear, joy, wonder. I know them, I remember them, but I don’t feel them anymore, and I cannot even miss them.

You see, I have always been a fighter. I fought to survive when I was born, because my mother had died. I fought to survive on the streets as a boy after my father was killed by a horse. I fought in the king’s army until he was defeated – he was a rather small king in the grand scheme of things. After his army was scattered, I became a mercenary. After a lifetime of fighting, it wasn’t all that surprising that I earned the moniker of ‘the Grim Reaper’ though not to my face. I suppose it was understandable that those who hired my sword started paying for single kills – making me an assassin. What can I say? Killing was my life. I was good at it.

All this makes me look like a cold, evil man, but I don’t think I was that at all. I was just very good with a blade – most any blade, in fact. I loved good food and good drink. I didn’t care what it was as long as it was good. I’d try most anything at least once. I also loved the ladies. It didn’t matter if they were tall or short, thin or fat, light or dark; they were all fascinating and a joy to watch, touch, or even just talk to. I love women, which is probably why I never settled for just one.

Therein lies my weakness, and therein was my downfall.

She had shiny dark curls that waved and coiled down below her waist. She had luscious full curves for all her five-foot height and she had glittering dark eyes that hid such a dark secret. I couldn’t keep my hands off her, and her voice was honey and spice, like her mouth.

Her secret?

I discovered that at the same time I discovered a knife sticking out of my chest and my life’s blood pouring down my front. That brought about my next fight – my fight with the Grim Reaper himself – a fight I won, much to my dismay.

She wasn’t there when I opened my eyes again, but she wasn’t very far away, and she was already working on her next mark. My walking into the room saved the poor man’s life. She took one look at me and screamed the most demented and terrified scream, I hope never to hear again. Of course, I could understand why she screamed. Her knife was still protruding from my chest and its location was unmistakable.

I cornered the woman, which wasn’t all that hard since she was backing away from me, suddenly utterly devoid of the customary grace women always have. I pulled the knife from my chest and used it to silence her screams. That was my first kill in my new…existence.

The man had fled with her first manic syllable, though I’m sure my blood-soaked appearance helped motivate him. I left the inn after I retrieved my sword from my room. After that, my existence has been just that – an existence.

At first, I fended off ‘rumors’ of my death or of my injury. No one questioned me because I was still walking and talking. They paid for my services and then they left my proximity as quickly as possible.


   

Super Suits

The four of us were inseparable, had been ever since I can remember, and I can remember back to diapers, at least a little. Over the years, we trained hard and played harder, but we were always together. The only time we weren’t was when we went to bed - Tika went to her room, Jon, Mike, and I went to our room across the hall.

The separation here was more than just the fact that Tika was a girl and we three were boys. Tika was the emperor’s daughter, and on the day she was born, we three were picked from the newborn orphans across the land to be her bodyguards for life. All the royal families did much the same thing these days. There were hundreds of orphaned children in every district. When his first son was born, the emperor decided that if there were less orphans left to grow up stealing and killing for a living, there would be less crime. Did it work? I don’t know, but I wasn’t about to complain.

When we became teenagers, we each got this body suit we were required to wear every waking moment. It was close fitting and comfortable, but it was a nuisance to put on, and I hated the color. It was an iridescent blue – not my color, though it looked really nice on Tika. It was the same color as her eyes. I know, I’m not supposed to notice such things, but I think she’s pretty, and her eyes are probably the most startling thing about her since her other coloring is really rather dark – shiny black hair, cut to shoulder length and skin that looks like she’s always in the sun, even when she isn’t.

The suits were because, now that we were teens, we would be venturing into the public eye a little more. The suits were body armor. They zipped from hip to ankle, elbow to wrist, and up the front only up the left side, or in Mike’s case, up the right side. Zippers were weak spots and you didn’t want weak spots going right up the middle, so they put them on our most defended side – Mike was left-handed.

The collar reached right up under my chin, but leaving it unzipped was out of the question. The first time I tried, the suit complained with a soft beeping. It wasn’t so loud as to be hard to listen too, but it never let up unless all the zippers were completely joined. Once zipped up, the seam was nearly indistinguishable from any other seam in the suit.

Most of the time we wore clothes that covered the suit, but once in a while Tika would wear something to purposely accent the blue. The way she dressed sometimes, it would be impossible to tell that the blue was body armor.

Now that we were wearing these super suits, our training took a new bend. We needed to know what our suits could do, and they could do quite a lot. They weren’t only for defense, though they did that very well. Being shot is definitely no fun, but I’ve seen the result of someone being shot when they wore regular body armor. I walked in on one of the royal troops changing at shift end. We’d withstood a skirmish assault the day before and he’d been one to catch a bullet. He was okay – nothing broken – but the bruise was a spectacular display of red, yellow, and purple.

Wearing the suit, getting shot was like getting punched really hard, or maybe kicked by a horse, but the suit dispersed the force of the blow, and while you were usually knocked from your feet, you could still jump up and continue the fight. Mike would bruise some, but I think it only showed up better on his pale skin. He said they never hurt much, and they were mostly gone by the next day.

Our suits also provided us with a range of communications and tactical displays, as well as, well, pretty much anything we asked for, provided it wasn’t something physical. Mike asked for a ham sandwich once, and the poor suit gave out the funniest static sound, like it was saying, “Uhhhhh” until it errored out and reset. Mike laughed about that for the rest of the day, and even incorporated the sound into whatever he was saying. It was a funny sound, but Mike made it funnier.

As our training evolved, we three fell into our niches. Tika was our commander – of course she was – and I was the second in command – that might be because I was the biggest of the three of us guys. Mike became our communications officer and Jon was our tactical officer. We were rapidly turning into a well-oiled machine, and we frequently talked about becoming the emperor’s secret weapon on some under cover mission or other. Yeah, we were really full of ourselves.

In reality, we really were good, but we forgot about one very important detail. That Tika was always a target. We were out back in the royal ‘back 40’ as it had been unofficially dubbed, and we were running an exercise outlined by our trainers. We were only fourteen, but it was a day I will remember for the rest of my life. In our minds we were an arrow, ready to be let fly from the royal bow, but then things went terribly sideways.

Shots rang out and I watched Tika go down like a rag doll. It wasn’t the right kind of going down we associated with shots. The shot that took me down was, and I was sent sprawling back. It the moment it took for me to look again, I saw someone pick the limp Tika up from the ground and hustle her into a van I now saw parked among the trees a few yards farther away. I will never forget seeing her arm flop limply as they angled to get her and them into the vehicle, her hair blowing in the breeze over the man’s shoulder.

I sprinted after her, and alarms were sounding back at the palace; they had been watching our exercise. Standing where she had fallen, I watched them out of sight. We were here for one reason and one reason only – and we had failed. For a moment I was in shock as reality hit me blunt in the face. We four were this fantastic arrow, but now someone had broken the arrowhead off. Now we were just this shiny blue stick with a couple fancy feathers attached to it.

Another car roared toward us, more than likely palace guards. Where were they when we needed them? How could they allow someone from outside back here, close enough to take my friend, my Tika, my purpose for existing?

I looked at the ground and spotted a few drops of blood – Tika’s blood, then I turned to sprint for the approaching car. Almost before they had come to a full stop, I pulled the man out and tossed him aside. I had no time to question him. Mike and Jon had caught up to me, and Jon pulled the passenger out while Mike jumped into the back seat. We all were on the same page. Mike leaned forward between Jon and me. Both were waiting for orders. I gave them.

“Mike, call home and tell them what happened. Tika has been wounded, but it wasn’t bad – not enough blood, and if she were dead, they wouldn’t have taken her. We’re going after them. Tell them I expect full support. Jon, zero the satellite on us and find that car. While you’re waiting, look up that plate number and find out who it belongs to.” I was already hot on its trail, and I intended to eat dust until I could stop them.

Mike leaned back so his talking to home wouldn’t interfere with the information Jon was feeding me.