Category Archives: Fantasy

Garrison and the Pub

He patted the old red brick wall, as if someone on the other side might hear and open a secret door that no one else can see. “I swear, it was right here,” Garrison said as he stepped back and looked all around at the aged building, looking like he’s taking stock of every brick. “There was a door here, and it opened to a stairwell. There were maybe a dozen steps and at the bottom of those stairs, that’s where it was.”

“The pub,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “The one where you swear you saw an elf?”

“Are you sure it wasn’t…” Tillie hesitated to finish her thought. “It wasn’t just a little person?”

Garrison looked back to my girlfriend. He rubbed the stubble on his face and used his hand to comb back his dark, greasy hair that grew long enough to cover most of his forehead. “Little person?” he questioned. “You’re thinking of Santa’s elves. Elves are actually tall and slender.”

“You mean Tolkien elves,” I interjected. Garrison and I both loved The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. We met in an English lit class and we worked on a group project studying the Tolkien mythology in the context of the 1960s. Through that project, I got the sense that he liked Tolkien a lot more than I did. And maybe took it a bit too seriously. “Remember, there’s plenty of European mythology with elves who were tiny.”

“Yeah, I know!” Garrison barked. “But I’m not talking about those elves. I’m talking about sharp blue eyes, pale skin, and pointed ears.”

“Okay, so you think you saw Elrond at a pub last night,” I continued. The building we were standing in front of was maybe four stories tall and quite old. I couldn’t tell quite how old, but all the buildings around Camden looked like they might have started pretty old but had some work done for the tourists. There were plenty of pubs around Camden, so it didn’t surprise any of us when Garrison told us we had to find this one cool spot he visited the night before. But when he dragged me and Tillie into the alleyway where he swore the door to the pub was, I had to question how much he drank last night.

“It wasn’t Elrond,” Garrison said. “More like Arwen, and I need to find her again.”

It had been a long time since Garrison met a girl he liked. Tillie and I were starting to think maybe he was asexual. We met plenty of people while at Camden University who came out as gay, bisexual, and asexual. It was never a big deal to any of us and Garrison always seemed quite curious about these other orientations. Maybe it was just to explore his options.

University was tough on him. It should have been the best, party-fuelled years of his life. Instead, he spent most of the parties drunkenly embarrassing himself trying to talk with pretty well any girl who hadn’t already rejected him. Being his flatmate wasn’t easy through those years. There were a few times I was certain he killed himself in the bathroom. He would lock himself in all night throwing up whatever he drank and smoked and dropped and snorted. No substance was off limits for Garrison and I was certain his heart would give out at any time. When he tried telling us he met an elf at a basement pub in the Camden party district, I thought his mind gave out before his heart did.

“Okay, let’s say this pub exists,” Tillie began in her completely wonderful rational sort of way. She was good at talking to Garrison, especially while he was on edge. I always told her she missed her calling as a social worker. But I also knew she was living her passion designing the kinds of buildings that give cities their skyline shape. “We should retrace your steps, make sure this is actually where you found the door.”

“I know this is where I found the door,” Garrison said. “I remember walking out of the same door and stopping for a shawarma at the counter right across the street.”

Garrison pointed to the falafel takeout counter. We walked out of the alleyway and jogged across the street to the closed eatery. Tillie pressed her face against the glass door to look inside. I stared up at the grey sky. It was another cloudy day. I missed the regular sun this time of year back home in the Okanagan. Garrison and I both moved back after we finished our degrees at Camden, the same degrees we could have got at UBC, but decided we wanted to add a worldly adventure to our formal education. That’s where I met Tillie and she moved back to Canada with me, though we made regularly pilgrimages across the pond to visit her family and stop in at our old favourite watering holes.

“This place does keep late night hours,” Tillie said as she moved away from the glass door. “Do you have a receipt from your late night snack?”

Garrison reached into his khaki pockets and then into his windbreaker’s pockets. He pulled out a single, small piece of paper and looked down at it. “I think this is it,” he said. “I paid cash, so all I have is a till receipt showing I paid six pounds. No time or address.”

“The register inside does look old,” Tillie said. She looked down either side of the block. “And you’re sure you had to go through an alleyway to get to this pub?”

“Absolutely,” he answered. “Maybe I just can’t see it because it’s daylight. I need to come back at night to find this place.”

Tillie wrapped her blue cardigan tighter to herself as a cold wind blew by. She kicked some of the street water off of her brown boots and looked over to me. “Shall we pub crawl tonight?”

It was after dark when we finally left the hotel to retrace Garrison’s steps. He hung out in our hotel room the whole time and even ordered room service for us all. Despite having his own room just next door, he didn’t want to leave us. I guess he didn’t want to be alone.

The streets of Camden were as busy as I always remembered them. My finishing school didn’t slow down the party scene and plenty of college-aged kids were still out, drinking until they were slurring their words and walking like they can feel the world around them spinning.

Garrison was taking long swigs from his mickey of whisky as he marched us to his first stop from the night before. As we moved through the night before’s stops, Garrison started blending more with the young college crowd roaming the streets. His walk turned to a shuffle and a stumble. His words made less sense and he needed to repeat everything at least twice. I hadn’t taken a single drink that whole night. I grew past that, started to find it boring and pointless. Garrison was still right in it. This discrepancy between us didn’t dawn on me until we walked through those streets together.

“I don’t fucking get it,” Garrison mumbled, staring again at the blank brick wall. “It was here. We walked exactly what I walked last night. I retraced all of my steps. The fucking shawarma place is even open. Where the fuck did it go?”

“Maybe it’s time we accepted that the pub doesn’t exist,” I said. “Maybe you stumbled into somewhere else and you don’t remember. I don’t doubt that you met someone last night –”

“Yes you do!” Garrison shoved me. “You do fucking doubt it. You doubt everything with me. I don’t even know why you hang out with me still. Why you bring me on these fucking trips, just to rub in my face you have someone else now you get to travel and do cool shit with. And I have fucking no one. I’m not your fucking charity case! I don’t need you to bring me along to shit because you feel sorry for me!”

“I never said I felt sorry for you!” I screamed at him, my fists clenched.

“You don’t need to say it,” he spat back. “Everything about you says that. Well fuck you! I don’t need it. I’ll find this fucking place on my own!”

Garrison walked off. A light drizzle came down and I could feel water dripping through my hair and down my forehead. Tillie hugged me and said, “Why don’t you head back. I’ll keep an eye on him. He didn’t mean what he said. He just needs to blow off some steam.”

“You heard what he said,” I pointed to him. “He doesn’t want us around.”

“He doesn’t want you around,” she stressed. “You know I can talk to him better than anyone else. He’ll open up to me. I’ll get him to calm down, we’ll come back to the hotel, crash, and find some breakfast in the morning and it will be like nothing has changed.”

“I think that’s the problem,” I quipped. “He hasn’t changed.”

“Despite your composed outer exterior, you haven’t changed much either,” Tillie quipped back. “You’re still condescending, conceded, arrogant –”

“Then why are you with me?” I asked, maybe a little too harshly.

“Because,” she looked up at me. “Because despite all your flaws, you’re a good person with a good heart. And I get to see that every time you’re with Garrison. He’s your best friend. And you need him, and he needs you, just like I need you. I’m going to talk him down over a pint and in the morning, things will be fine. I promise.”

I kissed her the way I hoped to kiss her on our wedding day and walked back to the hotel. With my wet clothes still stuck to my body, I fell into the bed and instantly asleep.

The daylight through the window woke me and I saw Tillie sitting on a chair, staring out the window. It was the first bit of sunshine we had seen since we landed and she watched it the way I’ve seen old people sit by the lake and watch the waves crash in and out. She looked to me and smiled.

“So, where are we going for breakfast,” I asked.

“I have something to tell you,” she began. “It was about last night.”

“What is it?” I sat back down on the bed, worried something terrible happened to her or to Garrison. “What happened? Is everyone ok?”

“Everyone’s fine,” she smiled. “You won’t believe it, but, we found it. We found the pub.”

She told me how talking over a single pint suddenly turned into talking over many pints and shots. She couldn’t even remember which pub they were at, but they fell out and decided to try and find the door one last time. And there it was. Exactly where Garrison said it was.

Just like Garrison’s story, there was a stairwell, maybe a dozen stairs, and a basement bar. Tillie went on about all the strange people at this bar and how she had never seen any people who looked like that before. She described small men with large hairy feet, hooded figures with bows and quivers of arrows strapped to their backs, armoured men with swords hilted at their sides, and beautiful pale people who were tall, thin, and had pointed ears.

I started to assume that she had even more to drink last night than she had let on and maybe even someone slipped something into her drink. But she insisted she saw all of these things, ripped right from the books Garrison and I studied in university and Garrison continued to obsess over after we finished school. She even said she saw the elf girl.

Tillie’s account was that Garrison had wandered off once they were in the pub and as she stumbled around for a bit trying to catch up, she finally found him in the corner of the bar, talking to the beautiful woman. But not just casually talking, but instantly talking passionately with her. Like they had been talking for hours by the time Tillie found them. He was leaning in, his hands on the table illustrating a story. She had her hand on her check, and she was giggling and mesmerized by every one of Garrison’s words. Tillie had never seen Garrison talk to anyone like that before, let alone a woman who he was obviously drawn to.

“Where is he now?” I asked. “Did he come back last night?”

“When I was ready to leave, I asked him what he wanted to do,” Tillie explained. “He smiled and he said he was going to stay a while. I’d never seen him smile like that before. I think he was actually truly happy.”

He didn’t come back to the hotel. He didn’t make it to the flight back to the Okanagan. He wasn’t there when I proposed to Tillie or on our wedding day. He was gone. My best friend was gone and for a while, it bothered me. Tillie was right, I did need him. But as time wore on, I realized that despite needing him, I would be ok. I had my memories with him. I could always recount a story of one of our drunken nights together running around the streets of Camden. I thought I was being a bad friend at first by leaving him behind. But, the way Tillie told the story, leaving him behind was the best thing I could have done. What he found in that pub made him truly happy and there was nothing more in the world that I ever could have wanted for my friend Garrison.

 

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Anders went too far

A single fist punched through Brant’s door and quickly pulled out to reveal a deplorably ugly face peeking through. Its lower jaw jutted out and its bottom teeth sat atop its top lip. Its small eyes were shadowed by its heavy brow, though Brant could tell it was looking directly at him and it wasn’t happy to see him.

Behind Brant, Calder was running through the house in a panic, screaming about never seeing anything like that before. Brant tried his best not to be terrified and not to let his fear and panic overtake him, but when its second fist came through another part of the door followed by its foot kicking down the door off of its hinges, he knew that if there was ever a time to panic over anything, this would be more than a suitable time.

“Why are you kicking down my door?!” Brant shrieked. “What are you doing?!”

He wasn’t sure why this thing was breaking down the door into his house. His house wasn’t anything particularly grand to marvel at. It was a typical house for Delswynn, a town that Brant had spent his entire life in. He grew up here, worked his first job on one of the farms fields, watched as more and more of the small cottages began popping up all over town accompanied by men selling goods all along Delswynn, and mostly in front of the taverns. Brant wondered if he had ever encountered this behemoth beast at one of the taverns, maybe said a sentence or two wrong to upset the intruder. This often happened to Brant, but he normally paid for it with a swift hit to the face or (in the most extreme circumstance) an arrow to the shoulder.

As he looked closer at the beast, he realized he never encountered it before. He would remember something this ugly. And large. Quite large, really. The beast almost had to duck down to walk into Brant’s house. This made Brant think of his roommate and how he often would have to duck down a bit to walk through the basement. Then he realized he didn’t hear Calder’s manic desperate shrieks anymore. This worried Brant a bit, but not enough to try and run from the slightly green-hued skinned monster now standing only a few feet away.

“Why did you do that to my door?” Brant continued wailing.

“Where are they?!” the beast growled back.

“Where’s what?” Brant tried to reason. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

From behind the beast came a cloaked figure, which Brant at first mistook for a man. The figure removed the cloak and Brant saw its pointed ears and its sharp-edged eyebrows. Delswynn didn’t see much of any race that wasn’t a human. The odd few ugly men (and some women) were often mistaken for trolls. But Brant was looking at two, bona-fide non-human creatures. Both were in his house and both had a look about then that told Brant he may not live through to see the end of this day.

“A couple of items you stole,” said the one with the pointed ears. “Our employer wants it back. Where are they?”

“I haven’t stolen anything,” Brant continued to wail. Brant would hope that his tears would either be hidden from his assailants or that his tears would look more like the brave tears of a fierce warrior about to face his death. Sadly, he brushed his cheek with the side of his hand and felt how soaked it was. He knew he was bawling. He tried convincing himself he didn’t feel the dribble out of his nose either. But it was clearly there.

“I found them!” the beast yelled and pointed toward Brant’s table. It stomped forward and picked up a cloth that Brant had bought from the market earlier that day. The beast then picked up Brant and carried him outside in his hand that wasn’t holding the cloth. He was carried outside and dropped a few feet outside of his house. He looked up to see a man (a human man, Brant told himself to try and comfort his racing thoughts too no success) wearing a black robe with gold markings all over that Brant didn’t recognize.

“I found them!” the beast grunted. “He had them.”

“Very good,” the man said. “But where’s the other?”

The beast tilted his head like a dog unsure of a command form his master. He looked at the cloth in his hand and then looked back at the man again.

“Anders, there’s only one there,” the man continued. “There’s a second. A lavender coloured one. I need that one too.”

Anders looked at his hand again at the turquoise cloth and back to his apparent employer. “There’s two here,” he said.

“Yes, but it’s actually only one,” the man enunciated slowly. “It looks like it’s been ripped. Did you rip it, Anders?”

Anders shook his head.

“Then go back inside, bring this little one with you, and find the lavender coloured one as well,” the man said, leaving Brant feeling a little insulted being referred to as, “this little one.” If there wasn’t a giant beast he, Brant may have scolded this man quite thoroughly. Brant thought about it further and decided that he probably wouldn’t have actually scolded the man. He wouldn’t know how.

Brant felt himself lifted off of the ground again and carried back into the house. He was dropped on the ground and saw Calder underneath the table, hugging one of the legs, and crying much worse than Brant had been crying (or so Brant hoped).

“There’s a second cloth you stole,” the one with the pointed ears pressed on. “Where is it?”

“We didn’t steal it,” Calder bawled. “We bought it at the market today, we swear!”

Anders growled low. “You’ll take us to where you’re keeping it!” he yelled. “And you’ll bring shovels with you so you can dig your own graves and if you’re lucky I’ll let you kill yourselves before I leave you there to rot!”

“Whoa! Anders!” the pointed ears one interrupted. “Too far!”

At this point, Calder was crying so hard and loud that it was hard to tell what he was saying, but it sounded something like, “In the forest… In a cave… Don’t kill us… We didn’t steal… I’m so sorry… Where’s my dad…” over and over and over again.

The two intruders began talking between themselves and didn’t notice Calder slip off. When they looked back, Calder was back by the table with something in his hand. The two were startled and both reached for their sheathed weapons but stopped when they saw what Calder was holding.

“We don’t have any shovels,” Calder mustered out between sobs, his right hand shaking as he held out the small garden trowel. “We have one of these though! Please don’t kill us!”

Still sobbing, Calder and Brant escorted the two to the small cave where they hid the lavender cloth. It was maybe two or three miles outside of the town and easily found along a small trail that had been walked along many times before.

The cave itself was actually kind of large. The opening stood about ten feet high and fifteen feet wide, but was also quite shallow. So it didn’t take long for Brant to notice the two lurking figures inside of the cave.

They were fairly large creatures. They had to duck down to walk in and out of the cave. They were even uglier than Anders was. They both carried clubs that fit nicely in their hands but were about the same size as Calder and Brant were. The creatures noticed Brant, Calder, and their two assailants fairly quickly as well. One of the beasts stepped out of the cave and nodded towards Anders.

“Thems those kids,” the monster grunted. “They hide it in here. We want it. Give us kids and you live.”

Calder wailed hard enough to grab Brant’s attention. Brant looked over and saw a small puddle building up around Calder’s feet from the steady trickle that ran down his leg. Anders’ gaze didn’t shift from the enormous brute that was approaching him, but the one with the pointed ears (whose name was Neville, Brant later discovered) stared at the growing puddle and crooked an eyebrow before taking a large step back from Calder.

“What makes you think we’re going to let you live?” Anders shot back.

The hulking beast chuckled. “You so little,” it said. “You no match for us. All five of you going to die unless you give us those kids.”

Anders looked behind himself and back to his challenger. “There are only four of us,” Anders said.

The behemoth’s brow furled, this simple math obviously had him very confused. “It no matter,” it continued. “You too small to fight us.”

“Your mom didn’t think I was too small,” Anders said as he unsheathed his sword and readied for a fight.

This was the point when Calder passed out. Brant thought it may have been from dehydration. Calder lost a lot of bodily fluid through the leg of his pants the past few minutes.

Brant peered back up to see what Anders’ next move was. But all Brant saw was a rock being hurled at him. It was a relatively small rock, or at least Brant had assumed. A larger rock would have killed him. This rock only knocked him unconscious long enough that when he awoke, he was being carried by Anders in one hand (Calder was slumped over Anders’ other shoulder) and Brant quickly realized there were no other beasts in sight.

“Ah, he awakes,” Anders said. Brant looked up and saw Anders smile a bit. “Those two were big but threw rocks like tiny humans. I could have killed you with a rock half that size.”

“Where are we?” Brant muttered.

“A fair distance from your home,” Neville replied. “Despite poor throwing skills, they still got away with the lavender cloth. We can’t return to the town, our former employer will have our heads for losing that cloth. You and your friend can’t return, our employer will be waiting for you as well and will probably kill you solely out of sport or frustration or small laughs. We figured our safest plan would be to get you and ourselves as far from there as possible.”

“Why did he want those cloths?” Brant asked. “I was going to use them to dry dishes. The turquoise one, at least, the lavender one shimmered weird, so we hid it in cave just in case it was about to do something crazy.”

“Good instinct,” Neville said. “All we know about them is that they both have some kind of magic engrained into their threads. We don’t know what. It wasn’t our job to ask. Our employer knows, that’s for sure. He’s typically not one to want something without knowing quite a lot about it.”

“Wait, why are you doing this?” Brant blurted out. “Why not just leave me and Calder to be murdered by your boss? Why carry the extra weight?”

Anders shrugged. “I felt bad. Especially the digging your own grave part. I went too far.”

“So, then, what’s the plan from here?” Brant asked. “Where are we heading and what are we going to do?”

“Not sure,” Neville said. “I think there’s another town with a decent tavern about a day’s walk in this direction. From there, Anders and I are looking for work. You and your friend? You’re on your own from there.”

Brant nodded slowly and thought about all he had been through in the last few minutes (or hours, he still wasn’t sure how long he had been knocked out for). He knew this was the best course of action. His home was gone now because some greedy eccentric decided he wanted a couple of cloths that Brant and Calder bought at the local market for barely the cost of a pint. He also knew he and Calder would be useless trying to continue following these two adventurers. They lived in a completely different world than where Brant and Calder live in. All he and his friend could do now was make a new home in a new town and try to build their lives again.

“You’re handling all this well,” Anders commented.

“I don’t have much of a choice,” Brant said. “How are you going to explain this to Calder? I mean, he pissed himself. He apparently doesn’t handle stress well.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Anders said. “On the bright side, I doubt he could smell any worse than he does now. Believe me, he didn’t just piss himself.”

The Ultimate Weapon

The rickety carriage’s squeaking wheels dug into the muddy ground as the horse drawn caravan arrived into the village. It was mostly peasants in the village. Many didn’t even have any work to call their own. They still paid whatever taxes they could to the kingdom, leaving them little more than enough to feed themselves with. And the village didn’t host many travelling visitors either. To see a caravan such as this arrive into the village was a strange sight indeed.

The caravan halted and a man stepped out from the rickety carriage that took the lead on the caravan. Behind the caravan were boxcars, each watched over by one armed guard holding mighty large axes. The guards watched the incoming crowd of villages, who were only curious as to who it was that came to visit them. The guards were stoic and silent. But a voice called out from the front of the caravan. The man standing by the rickety carriage was smiling with his arms wide open. We wore a long black jacket and held a walking stick in his hands.

“Hello, hello my friends!” he called out. “Hello and thank you all for greeting us as we arrive from our very long journey to bring you something especially special.”

Everyone in the crowd looked around, baffled and confused as to what this man was talking about. Why did he make a long journey to this village? There’s nothing in this village but a few peasants’ huts. There weren’t even any kinds of services around, no markets or inns or pubs.

“Though, I must ask,” the man continued. “When we do decide to continue on, I may need some help in pushing my caravan out of the mud.”

“That’s not mud!” a voice called out from the crowd. Everyone else in the crowd laughed as it became evident that this man had no idea where he was.

“Oh my,” he muttered quietly before looking back out into the crowd again. “But yes, something special for all of you! I have with me today a marvel of modern mechanism. A devious device that would make the deities decide simply to die because they could not create something as excitable and extravagant as this. I have, with me today, and available to all of you, the ultimate weapon.”

The crowd’s chuckles hush to barely a whisper as the idea of an ultimate weapon crept into their minds. They had their weapons, a few axes and swords and some even had pitchforks from back when they still tried to farm the soil they stood on that produced nothing more than a few weeds and even those died as quickly as they sprouted up. But what could this weapon be? An explosive projectile made from materials even the kingdom isn’t familiar with? A magic incantation to summon beasts only told in legend? The audience’s imaginations tried to conjure what this ultimate weapon could possibly be.

“That’s right, the ultimate weapon,” the man repeated. “I have it here today, with enough stock for everyone in this village, all readily available to you for only five gold pieces.”

“Let’s see the weapon!” a voice cried out from the crowd. Everyone applauded and repeated the request to see the weapon.

“Very well!” the man gestured to one of his guards, who handed him a round object in a pale green colour. You could tell its leaves were layered thickly and it looked quite fresh. The man held the pale green leafy ball over his head and proclaimed, “See now! The ultimate weapon!”

The crowd’s silence was complemented by the blank faces on everyone watching the man. They were even more confused now than they were when the caravan first pulled in.

“That’s not a weapon!” a voice from the crowd called out. “It’s a bleedin’ cabbage!”

“No, no no,” the man interjected. “It merely looks like a cabbage, but it is so much more. It is… the ultimate weapon!”

“I know a cabbage when I see one,” the voice continued. “It’s almost all I bloody eat. It looks fresh though. Might be quite tasty. Don’t know if I would pay five gold for it, though.”

“No, I insist,” the man said again. “It is, the… ultimate…”

“Yeah, yeah,” the voice interrupted. “The ultimate weapon. We heard you the first time. But, seriously though, how do you get your cabbages to grow so nicely?”

The man began looking quite annoying. He pressed one hand against his hip while his other hand continued holding the accused cabbage. The man tapped his foot impatiently and said, “Sir, perhaps you can insist me with a demonstration?”

“Only if I can have the cabbage afterward,” the voice called back.

“Fine, fine,” the man said. “Now please sir, join me up here.”

The crowd’s lone heckler was known around the village. Derby Potts, a fat man whose hair was falling out in large chunks. Everyone in the village knew the village had a distinct smell that many outsiders found fowl. Derby Potts smelled even worse than the rest of the village. The villagers got used to the village smell. No one ever got used to the smell of Derby Potts. Even as he approach the caravan, the look on the salesman’s face turned from a pleasant smile to a cringing mess. He often looked away from Derby Potts to take in breaths. The salesman quickly learned what the rest of the village had already been doing for years.

“Now, sir,” the salesman began. “This is but a cabbage, according to you, correct?”

“Yes,” Derby nodded.

“And cabbages are quite dense, yes?”

“Yes, sir,” Derby nodded again.

“But if I were to hit you with a cabbage, the cabbage would break and crumble, yes?”

“Absolutely, sir,” Derby continued nodding.

“Alright then, here is my proposition. I will strike you with the apparent cabbage. If you are still standing after I have struck you, it will have proven you correct that this is indeed nothing more than a cabbage. I will award you with the cabbage, and three more cabbages just as fresh as this one is if you are still standing after I strike you. Makes sense?”

“Yes,” Derby nodded.

The salesman reaches back with both hands, the accused cabbage high over his head, and drives it down into the skull of Derby Potts. The sound the apparent cabbage made when it struck Derby was a loud, hard whack! Clearly much harder than any actual cabbage. Derby stumbled a bit, trying to keep his footing. A small gash opened at the front of his head and blood slowly dripped down as he teetered and tottered in place, trying to still stand. The crowd imagined how much Derby wanted those cabbages, watching him fight to stay standing with all that he had.

But all he had wasn’t enough as Derby lost his footing and fell off the caravan and crashed to the filthy ground. The crowd’s eyes were locked on the unconscious Derby. Then their gazes moved over to the man standing on the caravan, who was now slowly unfolding the leaves of the cabbage to reveal a pale grey brick inside.

“Ladies and gentleman,” the salesman began. “Imagine one day the tax collectors visit your village and you no longer have anything to offer the kingdom. They demand so much, after all, and what you live off of so little. When you finally have nothing, they will try to take your children, your food right off your table, your beds, your clothes, whatever they can take they will. Now, imagine having one of these ultimate weapons to defend yourself against the corrupt kingdom and its tax collectors. Well, those tax collectors will wonder why you’re attacking them with cabbages. And once they realize they’re so much more than cabbages, it will already be too late, won’t it?”

The crowd’s silence now complemented the looks of intrigue on everyone’s faces. What the salesman spoke of made sense. But should they act on this idea?

“I’ll take two!” the first order was yelled out from the crowd followed by a frenzy of orders from everyone. Sooner than he knew, the salesman was out of his ultimate weapons and the crowd dispersed, talking amongst themselves about how they will use their ultimate weapons.

Once everyone had all but gone, the salesman walked over to Derby Potts, who was still lying on the filthy ground. Derby popped open an eye and asked, “Is everyone gone?”

“Yes, sir,” the salesman nodded.

Derby sat up and grabbed the side of the carriage and pulled himself up off the ground. The smell was dreadful to the salesman’s nose, worse than Derby had probably ever smelled before.

“You really do must clean off this ground one day,” the salesman commented. “The soil clearly isn’t absorbing the waste you’re dumping onto it.”

Derby said nothing but instead his eyes fixed on the salesman. A half smile creeped along the sides of Derby’s mouth, like an excited young boy about to receive a sweet for a task well done.

“Twenty per cent of the day’s take, was that the deal?” the salesman pulled out his bag of gold.

“Twenty-five,” Derby nodded. “You said you’d pay more if I bled.”

“So I did,” the salesman smiled as he handed Derby his well-earned gold coins.

Just as the salesman was about to climb back into his carriage, he felt a hand tap him on the shoulder. It was Derby, still standing in the same spot with the same smile creeping along the sides of his mouth.

Derby held out a hand full of coin and said, “Three cabbages please.”

Mordecai’s Surrender

The last soldier in Mordecai’s regimen fell just a few feet in front of him. Mordecai immediately removed his helmet and dropped his sword. With both hands in the air, he called out, “I surrender! I surrender!”

But as he looked forward to where the enemy army once stood, all he saw was a single soldier, the one who just struck down that last soldier in Mordecai’s regimen. Mordecai looked all around, trying to find the rest of the invading army, but all who was left was the last soldier standing in front of him.

The last soldier removed his helmet, revealed a bright red beard, long and braided. He looked around too, trying to find the rest of Mordecai’s army. When it dawned upon him that Mordecai was all that was left, he locked eyes with him and called, “Wait, you surrender? What do you mean you surrender?”

Mordecai knew exactly what he meant. His army negotiated the release of many of its soldiers from the enemy’s captivity. And from what Mordecai’s heard, the enemy’s prisoner camps are actually really nice. He heard of straw beds twice as comfortable as the thin cots the soldier slept on. The enemy’s territory to the south was well known for its array of fruits, so the prisoners were fed with sweet exotic flavours they never tasted before. And the weather at the prisoner camps always seemed bright and sunny and warm. It was raining on this day on the battle field. Mordecai could see his breath as he heaved each of his breaths, anticipating his capture.

“I mean I surrender,” Mordecai continued. The mix of battle sweat moisture in the hair clung to his dark beard, making it feel heavier and heavier. He was exhausted. All he wanted was to rest on a soft bed made of straw. “You have clearly defeated my army, I anticipate your reinforcements are on their way. I surrender.”

The soldier with the red beard looked behind himself, then back to Mordecai. “No no,” he began. “No reinforcements. But I can see by your grand armour and your well crafted weapons that you could easily best me in one-on-one combat. I surrender to you, good sir.”

Mordecai couldn’t believe that this man was trying to surrender to him. He had never seen his army’s prison camps. He imagined the strict admirals of his army constructing the camps to be complete with the most grueling labour any man could endure. He pictured enemy soldiers sleeping on jagged rocks and eating nothing but the dust and mud caked to their boots.

“Sir,” Mordecai said. “You don’t want to surrender to my army. Our camps are the kind of living hell that could be only imagined by the most perverse of damaged invalids. You are much better off returning to your general and fighting another day.”

The man with the red beard crooked his head to the side and squinted his eyes, as if he were attempting to read an abacus. “Have you ever actually seen your camps?” he asked. “Believe me, when we negotiate for the release of our captured troops, they re-enter battle with the energy and vigor of a month’s long rest. We know of the fine meats and spices your farmers produce in your area to the north. And that’s exactly what you feed your prisoners. Believe me, this is most beneficial for both of us. If you bring me in as a prisoner, you will receive ranks of valour and I will get the kind of rest I have been craving for years.”

Mordecai felt for the man. He knew of the pain and exhaustion this war was causing. But Mordecai didn’t care about a rank of valour. That would only mean more battles, more frontlines, more troops to command, more work. But after talking with this man for a few moments, he knew he didn’t want to put him through the same thing. There had been enough bad blood and blood shed during the many years of this war anyways. There had to be a way they could both be captured by each other.

“I know!” the man with the red beard yelled. “How far back is your general?”

Mordecai had to think about this for a moment. “A few yards to the north,” he answered. “Why?”

“Mine is just a few yards to the south,” the man with the red beard said. “We could go to each other’s generals, say our entire armies had been defeated, and surrender that way. I mean, I imagine this is why you tried surrendering first and have been hesitant to take on my offers.”

“Indeed,” Mordecai replied. “But won’t the generals have a few questions as to why we’re just walking up and surrendering? I mean, if either of us were all that’s left, wouldn’t we just return to our own generals?”

“We could say we got lost,” he explained. “And we knew the only way we could find our ways home would be through the mercy of our enemies and the generosity of our admirals. They would have to take pity on us then. Besides, the leverage of a captured troop is worth a lot in this war. Did you know my land’s population is half of what it was when this war started?”

“Really?” Mordecai was shocked at this. The admiral’s messages had always been that the south’s armies had only been growing stronger and that they needed more troops. This is why Mordecai joined the war effort. “I wonder what our population numbers are now.”

“But you see what I mean,” the red bearded man continued. “Our generals would absolutely take each other prisoner, we would both finally get some rest and relaxation time, and our admirals would absolutely negotiate for our safe returns. This will work.”

From there, the two men nodded to one another and, without another word, walked past each other in opposite directions to their opporite camps where their opposite generals stood waiting for either victorious troops or news of defeat. Mordecai came over a tall him and deep within a valley stood a small camp. There were maybe twenty men standing around, some were sharpening weapons and hammering plate metal armour. Others were huddled over tables reading maps and placing figurines determining strategy.

There was a moment when all work at the camp ceased and twenty or so pairs of eyes all fixed on Mordecai. His immediate reactions was to raise his arms, demonstrating defeat, and calling out, “I surrender!”

Mordecai walked slowly down to the camp. The men around formed a group in front of him, all staring at him. None of them were armed or ready to fight. They knew he was easily outnumbered and there would be no point in making any sort of move of aggression. The men gathered and watched more out of curiosity then out of any need to defend their base.

Another man with a long red beard walked to the front. Mordecai assumed correctly that this was the general. He was more portly than the man with the red beard Mordecai met on the field. His voice bellowed a much lower tone as well.

“Did you say you surrender?” the general asked.

“Yes, sir,” Mordecai answered.

“Where are the rest of my men?”

“All dead, sir. I’m the last to remain alive on the field.”

“Then why not return to your general?”

“Dead as well, sir. The battle front moved very far to the north. Your men did quite well in the fight. We were all along the battle fields, the next thing I knew, the battle moved to our camp. The enxt thing I knew after that, everyone was dead except me,” Mordecai quickly lied, recalling the conversation he had with the man on the field and adding his own colour to the tall tale.

“I see,” the general remarked. “And I imagine that surrendering to me and letting your admiral bargain for your life and freedom is your best bet of getting home?”

“Indeed, sir,” Mordecai said. “Though I’ve heard quite terrifying things about your camps. I’m quite fearful of what I will encounter.”

The men around the camp laughed, as if they all had the same discussions that Mordecai had with the man on the field. They knew he was looking for a quick vacation, and appreciated the way he played up the situation to make it not seem so sneaky that he was looking for a nice rest.

It was three weeks before the exchange for the two prisoners finally took place. Mordecai spotted the man who he discussed his plan for a quick vacation from the war with. They were both standing in front of their opposite generals. A few other infantry stood behind the generals, as was the custom for a prisoner exchange.

The man with the red beard nodded at Mordecai. “How was your rest my friend?”

“It was wonderful!” exclaimed Mordecai. “I haven’t felt this energetic in months. Did you know the straw beds in your prison camps have bits of cotton between the straw? It was like a real mattress.”

“Really?” the red bearded man answered. “That’s fantastic. Did you know your prison serves three hot meals each day? Each meal with a different meat. I have only been eating cold oats mixed in milk for years now. It was really wonderful.”

“Do you know where you’ll be assigned next?” Mordecai asked.

“I believe there’s an Eastern front lacking a few soldiers that I’m headed to,” he explained.

“Oh yes, I know of that one as well,” Mordecai answered. “I’ll be joining that front in about one week.”

“Excellent,” the red bearded man said. “Do you know how many troops?”

“Around 200,” Mordecai replied. “Our forces are running thin.”

“Indeed,” the red bearded man said. “Our numbers are dwindling as well.”

There was a moment of silence, then Mordecai piped up and said, “There’s a large forest near that front, isn’t there?”

“Indeed.”

“Lots of trees and brush,” Mordecai continued. “Two men could easily get lost in there, even during a battle.”

“Quite,” the red bearded man nodded, understanding what Mordecai was thinking. “Could get lost there for the duration of an entire battle, couldn’t you?”

“Indeed,” Mordecai smiled.

“See you in a week,” his smile glistened through the red follicles around his mouth.

“See you in a week,” Mordecai smiled.

The Tavern

Vorak walked through the tavern doors, stopped at the doorway, and looked around the open room. He saw a collection of different things: a few dwarves, some elves, and a lot of men. There were only a small handful of other orcs in the room, making Vorak a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to seeing his orc brothers sitting with dwarves, elves, and men, drinking ale and regaling stories. Dwarves, elves, and men were meant to be smashed.

He walked slowly through the tavern, staring at each thing as he walked by. No one in the room paid much attention to Vorak, not even the other orcs. Instead, the other orcs kept drinking, spill bits of ale down their chins and onto their still blood soaked chests. The orcs smiled as the men, elves, and dwarves spoke. The ocrs’ crooked and sharp teeth jutted between their lips as they smiled. Normally the sight of an orc bearing his teeth would bring Vorak great joy and excitement. But this wasn’t battle, and it made Vorak sick.

He grabbed one of the other orcs, wrapped his hand around the other orc’s tied back hair, pulled his head back and Vorak drove his fist into the other orc’s face, pummelling him off of his chair and onto the wooden floor.

“You drink and be merry with the enemies!” Vorak cried. “We haven’t been out of battle but minutes and already you betray your own blood!”

The orc on the floor chuckled, then the rest of the tavern began laughing loud. Vorak looked down at his prey and saw that there was no mark on his face. Vorak had crushed other orcs twice his size with half as hard of a punch. Why had this orc not even have a scratch, not even dust from the floor on his face.

“Aye son,” the orc said. “You have no clue where you are, do you?”

The tavern began shaking with laughter again. Vorak looked around and saw all matter of creature in the tavern all sharing the same laugh at his expense.

In a rage, Vorak grabbed a table with a single hand threw it against the wall. Only for the table to never connect to the wall. Instead, the minute it left Vorak’s hand, it vanished. And in the same instance, it reappeared in the spot he picked it up from.

Once again, the tavern shook with laughter.

The other orc took his seat and wrapped his hand around his ale stein. “Best talk to the barkeep, young lad,” he said. “I was the same as you when I first got here. The barkeep will set you drink and send you off with a pint.”

“What magic has cursed this place to never be destroyed?” Vorak sneared.

“Just, talk to the barkeep,” the other orc repeated. “Oh, and make sure he doesn’t pour you any of that stout shite. You won’t be used to it.”

“Why not?” Vorak asked.

“No blood,” the orc replied. “Will never taste the same without the dwarf blood in it.”

“Funny,” a pudgy, red-haired dwarf at the table interrupted. “I always preferred my stout with goblin blood. You gotta boil those suckers for a long time before you can put them in the barrels though. You don’t know a burning arse-hole shite until you’ve drank raw goblin blood!”

The tavern erupted with laughter and the dwarf drove his hand to the table with every breath of laugh he let out. Vorak watched all the creatures share the laugh as he walked over to the barkeep. He was human, small, with scraggly long hair and a thick dark beard. Vorak locked eyes with the barkeep as he reached the bar.

“What kind of sorcery is this?” Vorak demanded.

“No sorcery at all, good sir,” the barkeep replied, smiling. “Just the best tavern there is for folk like us.”

Vorak grabbed the barkeep by the scruff of his hood. “Don’t play with me, wizard,” Vorak grit his teeth. “Nothing can be smashed. Nothing can be destroyed. You have cursed this place.”

Vorak lifted the barkeep and threw him against the wall. He saw the barkeep hit the wall lined with bottle of liquor, and then drop to the ground. But no bottle moved, and as the barkeep stood back up, he straightened out his top and chuckled.

“I assure you,” the barkeep continued. “It’s not quite what you think.”

“Then what is it?” Vorak barked.

The barkeep let out a long exhale, as if he had to explain this so many times he was taking the time to think of a new way to explain, just to keep himself entertained. “Let’s start with this,” the barkeep began. “What’s the last thing you remember before arriving to this tavern?”

“Being in battle,” Vorak didn’t hesitate to answer. “Our armies were smashing all of your kind. Hundreds of men slaughtered in the fields.”

“And then what?” the barkeep continued.

Vorak thought for a moment. “There was a little one,” he continued. “One of those ugly, small creatures with the large, hairy feet.”

“Halfling,” the barkeep interrupted.

“That’s it!” Vorak cried. “Me and some of my orc brethren spotted a Halfling, and we began stalking it.”

“Did you kill the Halfling?” the barkeep asked.

“Of course!” Vorak yelled.

“Did you, really?” the barkeep continued.

“Well…” Vorak hesitated. “Not right away. The Halfling spotted us and began throwing rocks at us. But then we crushed him!”

“I see,” the barkeep nodded. “And you specifically remember crushing this Halfling, you remember crushing him, or driving your blade into him?”

“Um…” Vorak hesitated. “Yes, of course! The orcs are mighty!”

“Do you really remember?” the barkeep asked.

“Well…” Vorak paused. “Well, I must have. Orcs are mighty! Halflings are small! What else?!”

The barkeep nodded again. “Well, we have a lot of creatures here with similar stories to yours. The dwarf with the red hair, when he arrived, the last thing he remembered was fishing and catching a relatively small fish and throwing to the ground in anger. He didn’t remember stepping on the slippery fellow and falling back onto a rock. Or the elf on the far side of the bar? Was adjusting his crossbow. When he arrow wouldn’t fire, he started to inspect the stirrup, right at the tip of his crossbow. Sadly, he forgot to remove the bolt before the stirrup started working properly again. I even have a troll outside who got into a headbutting contest with a brick wall and still insists that he won the contest because the brick wall collapsed before he did.

“So you see, you belong here,” the barkeep smiled as he poured an ale. He slid Vorak the stein and continued, “Fresh ale. I always remember that no orc ever likes my stout. Hard to come by dwarf blood here, on a count that no dwarf here can actually bleed. I’m rather proud of my stout, though.”

Vorak took the stein without a word and took a chair at the table with the red-haired dwarf and the orc with the tied back hair. He sat down, placed his stein on the table, then hunched over looking at each of the creatures he had for company.

“Well,” the dwarf began. “What did you in?”

Vorak hesitated, then mumbled, “A hobbit threw a rock at me.”

The table was silent for a moment, then the orc began chuckling, then the dwarf, then the entire room was laughing harder than a group of jesters huddled around a campfire.

“No fucking shite!” the dwarf yelled. “A hobbit? I thought the fish was bad. Barkeep! Make sure this boy’s stein is never empty. He needs as much ale as he can get!”

The Thief in the Woods

“You better hold it right there,” Steven said, aiming his weapon directly at Sam. “Drop your weapons, your goods, and any coin you have and I’ll let you be on your way.”

Neither men knew each other. They didn’t even know each others’ names. But Sam could tell a lot about Steven from first glance. Steven was obviously an experienced thief. He wore a black cloak and his boots were dusted on the sides and caked with mud underneath. Steven obviously spent a lot of time in these woods, hunting any traveller that comes through. Threatening them with his ultimate weapon he held firmly in his hand.

There was a lot that could be inferred about Sam on first glance as well. He dressed well, wore a shirt and jacket made from the finest of materials. His boots were polished as if this were the first time they were worn. Steven figured Sam for a wealthy landowner. Probably oversaw a farm outside of a large village where trade was good and the harvests were thick.

“You better listen,” Steven continued. “I’m not afraid to use my arms and I must warn you that I am quite experienced with them.”

Sam looked at Steven’s hand and saw the odd object that Steven held. Steven held it the same way a hunter would hold his crossbow. Only Steven’s armament had no trigger. There was no indication that it projected anything.

“You have no idea what it is your holding, do you?” Sam inferred.

“What?” Steven quickly replied. “Of course I do! I’ve used this for years! Robbed many with it. Even killed a few.”

“Not holding it like that, you won’t,” Sam smiled and started chuckling.

“What do you mean?” Steven cried out. “Why is it that you insist that I don’t know how to use my own weapons?”

Through his chuckles, Sam answered, “Well, you have the damned thing pointed right back at yourself.”

Steven looked down at his arms confused. He tried to see what Sam saw. But he saw nothing.

“Look,” Sam began. “How about this, let me go free, and I’ll show you how to use it. It is, in fact, quite a deadly weapon. Very vicious indeed. You could lead an army with what you’re holding. But you need to know how it use it first.”

With a nod, Steven agreed and handed the thing over to Sam. Sam inspected it briefly, looked back at Steven, and raised the thing over his head like how a woodsman would hold his axe to cut a log in two. He held it a moment and said, “Now, you best better empty your pockets and hand over any coins and good you may have.”

Steven cocked his head to the side and squinted his eyes. He stared at Sam, holding this object over his head, attempting to grit his teeth and look threatening. And very much failing.

“My god,” Steven said. “You have no idea how to use it either.”

Sam lowered his hand, still holding the thing. He looked down at it, back up Steven, and shrugged. “You’re right,” Sam said. “Not the damndest idea. I don’t even know what it is.”

Steven approached Sam and stood next to him. Both men looked down at the thing. Sam turned it over a few times trying to look at it from every angle. Neither man had any idea what to make of this strange thing that they both previously insisted they knew how to use.

Finally, Steven pointed to a small hole on one of the thing’s sides. Sam brought it closer to both their faces for a better look. A thick, black smoke shot out from the small hole and covered both men’s faces in a black soot. Both men coughed and hacked, trying to catch their breaths. They could feel their throats closing as they gasped for air. Then, one after the other, they both fell to the ground and died.

A rustle in a bush gave entrance to a small woodland imp, maybe a fifth of the size of either of the men. He drug behind him a large sack. He stopped by the bush, looked in both directions for anyone else oncoming, and then ran right to the two men’s bodies.

As he emptied all of their coins and valuables into his sack, he said to himself, “Well, at least one of us knows how this thing works.”

Stack Three

The lab’s airlock pops open and Dr. Curtis walks through the doorway, each step harder than the last. His arms swing while he moves forward in perfect rhythm with his walk. He stares down Hunter through his thick brow and heavy eyebrows, snearing out of the side of his mouth.

“Hunter, what the fuck is happening here?” he barks out.

“Air-exhaust three is malfunctioning, Dr. Curtis,” Hunter replies. “I think there’s something clogged in the vent.”

“Well, whatever it is, get it the fuck out,” the high pitch raspiness of Curtis’ voice came out.

Hunter knows that glare and snarl all too well. His first week in the lab he mixed up Petri dishes and wound up cloning ten-thousand extra stocks of celery when he was supposed to be cloning oranges. Curtis’ snear went high and his brow drooped over his eyes, like the madder he got the more that brow dropped down.

“What are we going to do with all this extra celery?” his voice was like blocks of compressed snow rubbing against each other that day. Made Hunter cringe every time Curtis opened his mouth. He got used to the raspy snear and whine over time, but that first week Hunter couldn’t believe what he got himself into taking this lab job and prayed to God it would finally rain.

The air exhausts are located at south-west side of the complex, the opposite side from where the food is grown against the east wall. Hunter, who was by the computers monitoring the air exhausts that ran along the north wall of the lab, starts his jog, the equivalent of five city blocks from where he was standing. Ait exhaust three was the furthest south and furthest west of the seven erect tubes in two rows: air exhausts four to seven ran along the outside wall on the south-west that ran diagonally along, giving the complex a triangular shape. Air exhausts one to three ran between exhausts four to seven, like soup cans stacked on their sides to make a pyramid.

When an air exhaust, or stack as their sometimes called, has a clog, there’s no computer algorithm to fix it – it has to be done manually. The air travelled from the three-cloning plantation through thick vents with fans to push the air out. Each stack also had a side airlock door on them in case anything was to fall into them. The best way to fix a clog is to cut off the air flow to the stack, climb in, reach into the vent and find what got stuck. This had to be done quickly, the Last Continent depended on all seven stacks for its air production, to lose one stack for even an hour would completely throw off the Last Continent’s air mass and pressure, enough of a change and people would start exploding. Their bodies were used to a certain air pressure. Any sudden changes in that air pressure, like losing stack three, and people would simply combust, and the more people die the more the Complex Corporation loses money.

Cloning plants for air and food didn’t come cheap. People bought fruits and vegetables each week and paid a monthly air-fee, it took up most people’s paycheques. Work was becoming scarce on the Last Continent. Most people used to work in the Nuclear Corporation facilities, but those weren’t on where the Last Continent sits now. Technically, where those sat isn’t anywhere now. Nuclear Corporations mostly made bombs. One day, they all went off. Poof went everything, except for the Last Continent, at the time called Australia. All those other countries gave up on nuclear disarmament, figuring one of them would eventually want the others’ non-renewable resources. And besides, there was big money in big fear and big weapons.

The Nuclear Corporations didn’t like that Australia wasn’t manufacturing weapons like they all were. To see a country take a pacifist’s approach was bad for business. So, they did what any major corporation would do if someone threatened it business; they tried to sue Australia, and when that didn’t work, they increased their production. So much so they needed to hire new people. Unfortunately, inexperienced people. One woopsie – and boom, goodbye everywhere.

Australia was far enough away that none of the blasts affected it, until the radiation started travelling and killed all the plant life. Before all the naturally occurring plants died off, a few scientists saved a few plants and started cloning them. They cloned enough to sustain the air mass and some food once the last bush had withered and stopped reproducing cells. Australia was mostly desert terrain to begin with, so the plants didn’t take long to die, but at the same time, people were used to not having a lot of trees around. You noticed a huge difference towards the coastline, those certain parts of the country that had forests filled with cute animals like koala bears (now completely extinct except for the few kept in the Complex Corporation’s lab to study how a lack of animals affects plant life), so most of the population began moving inland, where it was most dry but also where the Complex Corporation lab had been built. Seemed like a smart idea, be next to where the air is coming from.

A few years later, Australia renamed itself the Last Continent, as a reminder about how smart it was not to join the nuclear production fad. Most people worked normal jobs, opened stores and fixed people’s houses. Complex Corporation started buying all those jobs, and then fired everyone who worked them. Some people were outraged but knew there wasn’t much they could do: after all, Complex owned the means to let them live.

Hunter was lucky to get a job as a stack-technician, basically someone who makes sure all the stacks are working right, and when they aren’t, to fix them before anyone explodes.

It took all that exposition for Hunter to finally reach stack three. The airlock door pops open and he reaches into the main air vent, hoping he doesn’t have to climb in to find what he’s looking for. The vents are about two feet off the ground and four feet in diameter, so it’s no problem for a person to crawl in. Take some guts though, you can’t have claustrophobia and you have to not mind winding up with wind-tunnel hair.

Thankfully, Hunter was able to find what he was looking for at arm’s length in the vent. Whatever it was, it was soft, still a little warm, and heavy to pull out. Hunter has to reach with both arms, grab a handful of fabric that surrounded the soft warm thing, and push back with his foot to finally pull out what was lodged in there. It only moved in a small crawl until it reached the end of the vent, when it popped out like a champagne cork, pushing Hunter and causing him to fall on his back.

It takes a second for Hunter to realize the stuck thing landed on top of him. The t-shirt it was wearing tore and Hunter still had a bunch of the fabric in his hands. It was lying on his face and Hunter turns it over to find out it’s a person that was stuck in stack three. But that wasn’t the disturbing part.

The person lay with his arms around himself, like he was hugging himself while he crawled through. But what he was holding against himself was a bit of a tree. Hunter doesn’t recognize the breed of the tree, it’s not one that’s in the lab, so there’s no way this person broke in, stole the plant, and crawled through the vent to stack three as an escape.

Hunter picks up the plant and examines it. It’s strange, because it has prickles instead of leaves, but it isn’t a cactus, like what used to grow in the deserts. He and the corpse have to get out of the stack quick and turn back on the airflow, so Hunter drags the body by the underarm and around his shoulder, tosses him out the side door, thumping against the ground and tossing up the dust around it.

*****

Curtis paces around his office in a huff, trying to put his arms around his back like a great genius thinking about the great conundrums of existence, only his arms don’t reach all around. His arms flop to his side as he plops down into his chair and swivels back and forth breathing hard.

“Alright Hunter, no one can know about what you found,” Curtis barks out.

“People get stuck in those stacks all of the time,” Hunter replies, and he’s right. A small group of neo-environmentalists, similar to the ones that surfaced in the ’90s (who, in turn, were just imitating the ones that come out of the ’60s (so I guess these would be neo-neo-environmentalists or post-neo-environmentalists)) began protesting the Complex Corporation, saying that the plants should be liberated and growing naturally. They didn’t realize that the only decent soil that could grow plants to begin with became so radioactive that nothing would ever grow in it, let alone something that humans would want to eat from or breathe. Post-neo-meta-environmentalists have never been much for facts, just yammering garbage about the energies and mother earth – little did they know that mother earth left us all orphaned.

“I know, and the public usually never has any problem when we tell them we pulled another dead hippie from a vent,” Curtis continues. “But none of them have ever been pulled out holding a plant we’ve never seen before. Who knows where he got that from? I want a full investigation but keep your goddamn mouth shut.”

*****

Hunter remembers the first time he heard about the environmentalists. He was young, doesn’t remember exactly how young, but young enough that he wasn’t sure what to make of these people trying to say that the people who his dad worked for were evil people.

This world, with the Complex Corporation, constant desert everywhere, life constantly manufactured and synthesized by a single entity, was the only world he knew.

His parents talked about the days before the Last Continent. They both wanted to travel but never got the opportunity to. He’d listen to his parents talk back and forth about magazines they’d buy, looking at faraway lands and imagining themselves walking through exotic forests, romantic cobblestone streets, and dining at restaurants where they couldn’t read the menus. They’d talk, they’d laugh, but then mother would start crying. She missed the world. In a sense, Hunter missed the world too. He missed a world he never knew every time his mother cried. He wondered what he was missing out on.

It wasn’t long before his mother vanished. One morning, Hunter got out of bed and walked into his parents’ room and found nothing. He stood, alone, in a room he used to find so much comfort walking into. He wondered if this was how his mother felt when she thought about before the Last Continent.

He wandered through the house and found his father at the kitchen table, holding a piece of paper, crumpling the ends between his fingers and breathing heavily. He crushed the paper into a ball and threw it against the ground before storming out of the room. He’d stand on the front deck for the rest of the day, just staring out, not saying a word.

Hunter picked up the paper and uncrumpled it and tried to decipher what was on it. He was still too young to read but recognized his mother’s handwriting. Hunter never asked his father what the note said.

To this day, he still doesn’t know.

*****

The tree perplexes Hunter. He tires studying the strange, prickly plant that he found held by the corpse in the vent, but he doesn’t even know where to start. He had already studied its cell structure: rigid walls just like the other plants the factory grew. He inspected its thorns and found them to contain collagen, just the same as the factory cloned plants. Finally, he experimented with its ability to photosynthesize energy and food for itself. Again, much the same to the other plants in the factory.

Hunter becomes curious about how the strange plant will be affected by seasonal changes. He uses some of the cells in the plant to clone a full tree, small in stature, but mature enough to exhibit all the signs of any tree that would have been found in the wild.

The seasonal simulator is a long, cylindrical glass tube with an air locked section that rises to place vegetation inside of it and test the effects seasonal changes. This device came in handy when the Complex Corporation first started cloning trees for air and food, deciding what plants were most resilient and how to manipulate their genetic code while cloning to create vegetation so resilient that seasonal changes would not cause them to wilt or hibernate.

The tests begin and the plant is subjected to a rapid changing of seasons in a contained environment that tricks the plants cells into thinking that the seasons are changing normally. Spring to summer to fall to winter to spring again saw little change to the strange plant. None of its prickles fell, it never changed colour, it never wilted or hibernated. Exploring the original source plant again, Hunter found no dramatic genetic changes, no chemical boosters, no synthetic collagen to prevent the plant’s seasonal life cycle. It simply endured. Naturally endured.

******

There’s a bar that Complex Corporation employees go to once their shifts are over. Only the low level employees go there, in fact, none of the employees know anything about the board or the upper managers, or at least, who they assume are a board and upper managers. Fact of the matter, they don’t even know how the hierarchy at Complex works. The person above them hires them – and that’s about it.

The bar has the usual drinks, your cheap cloned water, the pricey natural water that Complex produced but didn’t give a discount to any employee (after all, almost everyone was a Complex employee, how did they expect to make any money giving out discounts?) and for the excessive indulgent, the bar serves cans of pure oxygen.

Hunter sits at a table towards the back. The waitress with long straight black hair and wearing a tight black tank-top with the Complex Corporation’s circular logo across her chest comes by and lets him know there’s an oxygen special on today. Just great, Hunter thought, in about half an hour everyone in this bar is going to be high enough to try and crawl through some of the stack’s vents themselves. All Hunter wants is a cloned water. He throws his few Complex dollars onto the table and asks for a tall glass of the cloned stuff. The waitress shrugs, like she’s surprised he didn’t take her up on the oxygen deal, grabs the money with the swipe of her hand and walks off to the front.

Looking around the bar, Hunter sees people talking, laughing, spilling water and sucking on cans so hard they collapse before the person stops to exhale. They usually cough and laugh once they let that breath out. The sound around him is like a wall, encasing him and leaving him feeling deaf. He tries to listen in on conversations, but it all comes out as noise. He has no idea what anyone is talking about, but judging by the way people suck on cans and spill water, he figures it’s nothing important.

A body drops in the chair in front of Hunter and starts talking. He’s talking loudly but Hunter pays no attention until this new being slaps the table hard and yells, “Hey buddy, do ya hear me there?!”

Hunter looks at the man and figures he’s had at least a dozen cans of oxygen. His smile causes his eyes to squint hard to where it looks like the upper half of his face is collapsing, like if you grabbed the top of a can and slowly rolled it on itself.

“No, sorry friend, I must have missed that,” Hunter finally lets out, not even sure why he’s talking back.

“I heard you’re on that case! The fuckin’ hippy dippy in stack three!” He slaps the table again and starts laughing, his chest bouncing as he heaves and gasps for air. “Did you fuckin’ know he ain’t even the first?!”

“Of course,” Hunter replies. “This has been happening for years, but…”

“And I know why this one’s so fuckin’ special!” he screams out. “You think he’s been the first found with a fuckin’ plant in his arms?! The only reason why you’re investigating this is that you should have never found him! Ha! Never should have found that fuckin’ hippy. Now Complex needs to keep you busy, make you think you’re finding something new! They’ve known for fuckin’ years!”

“So what? I’m on some kind of goose chase then?” The waitress comes by and places Hunter’s water in front of him. Hunter watches her walk away.

“Ah. You like that piece of tail, don’t ya?!” His high man’s black hair falls in front of his face, covering his forehead and hanging a bit of his eye, dripping with sweat, obviously from the euphoric excitement. “I’ll tell you what, I bet Complex is paying her to listen in to our little talk here friend.”

“What makes you figure that?”

“Cause I’m supposed to be the guy watching you and making sure you don’t get any smart ideas about that new plant. Hell, they’re considering offing you already for that unauthorized experiment you did in the season-simulator. I had to talk them out of it. Take this as a warning pal, quit nosing around. Come up inconclusive with your findings, forget you ever saw that prickly-fuckin’-thing, and go back to work. The more you shut up the better it is for you.”

Hunter can’t tell if this guy in front of him is so high that he’s making up all this garbage, or if he’s so high he just blew his own cover. A dozen cans of oxygen do funny things to a guy.

*****

The bar’s closed but Hunter stands outside by the back entrance. His hands are in his pocket and he leans against the wall next to the door, staring out into the night sky watching the stacks pump out air. He breathes deep and wonders what it was like before the Last Continent, before Complex, and wonders where his mother is.

The waitress comes through the door and walks to opposite way from Hunter. He runs up behind her and catches up, grabbing her arm gently at the elbow. She turns quickly.

“Who the f.. oh,” she begins. “My only cloned water of the night, and he didn’t even tip. Look, I don’t know why you hung around or what you were expecting, but I’m not that kind of waitress. Complex doesn’t pay me enough for that kind of shit.”

“Were you listening in on my conversation?” Hunter asks.

“What the fuck are you…”

“I need to know. If Complex is looking to kill me then I ought to know everyone who’s watching my every move.”

“Listen pal, I’m not part of your paranoid delusion or the O-2 case’s euphoric fantasy…”

“Just answer the question.”

She stares at Hunter for a minute and breathes slow. Her head spins left and right before she grabs Hunter’s hand and walks him around the corner and down a dark street.

“Where are you taking me?” he asks.

She stops in front of Hunter’s apartment building. Hunter looks up the steps and then back down at her. “So, you know where I live. Paranoid delusion, right?”

“Shut up for a second,” she blurts back. She stares at the doorway, then grabs Hunter’s arm again. “Run.”

Before Hunter has a chance to react, the door bursts open, splinters fly past his face, and Hunter starts running closely behind the waitress. Hunter can hear heavy steps running up behind him, but he doesn’t look back. Just keeps running forward, trying to stay ahead.

The two come across a bus at the end of the block. “Get in,” she commands.

Hunter hops in the side door, the waitress hops through shortly after, and a voice from the front yells “Hold on!” before the van takes off with guns shots coming from behind them, shattering the back windshield.

Hunter tries to catch his breath, and looks at the waitress. “Paranoid delusions.”

*****

The van suddenly stops and Hunter realizes he fell asleep on the drive out. He looks through the broken glass of the back windshield to see the city’s lights glowing in the distance. The side door opens and standing in front of the old warehouse the van’s parked in front of is a face with sweaty black hair hanging over his forehead, just covering his eye.

“Bet ya missed me,” he says, smiling wide.

“Should you have been driving after all that oxygen?” Hunter asks as he crawls out of the van.

“Had you going there, didn’t I? My best performance yet,” he replies, putting out his hand. “Name’s Leo, and no I don’t actually work for Complex, and no I’m not here to watch your every move.”

“But Complex is trying to kill me.”

“The big bad business isn’t the only one with spies kicking around.”

This shocks Hunter because he’s always been told no one has ever infiltrated the environmentalists. But at this point, he wonders why he’s taking anything Complex has told him seriously. “Spies, huh. That’s how you guys figure things out?”

“Well, living spies for the low level stuff,” continues Leo. “It’s easy to get an entry level job and report back basic findings. You know, lab techs, waitresses, easy stuff. The good stuff comes from those who are no longer with us.”

This is the point that Hunter realizes that both sides have been setting him up. “The guy in stack three. What you had a tracer on him? I was always supposed to find his body? Who was he?”

“Well, kind of, um…”

“The reason he had a plant in his arms was that he was a Complex spy,” the waitress steps in. “When we figured it out, we planted him with a mic and tracer and let him grab the plant and run off. He was crawling through the vent to get in and report back.”

“Why didn’t he…”

“What? Walk through the front door?” the waitress interrupts. “Number one, he was dressed like one of us. And secondly, because low-level guys like you aren’t supposed to know about these little operations. Hell, if the public found out,” she shakes her head. “People are ok with being controlled so long as it’s not in their faces and obnoxious. They’re okay with paying for air but spies are apparently still going too far.”

The waitress starts to walk towards the warehouse when Hunter grabs her elbow again. “Wait, thanks for helping me back there.”

She nods slowly. “My name’s Annabelle.”

“I guess you already know my name,” Hunter responds. “But why help the guy who got your bug into Complex? I served my purpose in your plan, didn’t I?”

“Let’s just say there’s something I like about your eyes,” Annabelle responds.

******

Hunter notices a few scratches along his face while he stares into a mirror. The men’s bathroom is on the opposite end to the front entrance of the warehouse. Hunter walked through taking in the hoards of people, standing around and talking. No one wore a uniform from Complex, in fact, Hunter only just notices he’s still wearing his as he stares into the mirror. He wipes some dust and wood fragment’s from under his collar and runs his fingers along the embroidered Complex logo over his heart. He pulls his pocket comb from his back pocket and combs back the dark hair that was sticking up every which way now. Part on the right, comb to the side, still keeping to Complex standards.

Hunter steps out of the bathroom back into the large open room that housed those who don’t believe in paying for the air that Complex provides them. They don’t realize that the only reason they’re alive is because of Complex and that they should be grateful for what they have. He hears conversations about what some other countries were like, the kind of food they made and all the exotic places they explored before the Last Continent. Always looking back and never looking to the future or paying attention to what’s happening now. Hunter starts to wish that he just went home and was killed already so he didn’t have to stand among these useless, post-neo-meta-hippie-environmentalists. If they didn’t exist to begin with then none of this would have happened. There would have been no issue with stack three, there would have been no unfamiliar plant, and Hunter would be sitting in his apartment right now huffing oxygen and staring at his walls like he did most evenings. That’s what everyone did in the evening. Was that so bad?

Hunter wasn’t about to give up his life for some flakey ideals. Through a window back where the front entrance is Hunter could see the city’s lights and knew it wouldn’t be a far walk back. With one step forward he tries to make his march back to his old life. Two steps in he looks to the side and sees a face, wrinkles setting in and frames by dark hair hinting to silver. Her eyes look over and Hunter stops mid step feeling his heart stop and his stomach climb. She smiles and tears fill Hunter’s eyes. She walks towards him, smiling still, her green eyes fixed without blinking.

“I was hoping you’d find us,” she says in almost a sing-song voice that Hunter remembers from his lullabies as a child.

*****

Hunter’s father worked the same job that Hunter works now; in case you forgot, Hunter monitors the stacks and makes sure that everything runs smooth and nothing’s blocking the air. There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that Hunter would wind up working the same job that his father did. Hunter wasn’t very good at many things, but then again most children weren’t. They city’s children were bred to eventually work for Complex, be it in the factories or building and fixing the buildings and houses that Complex owns. One parent’s pride and joy was Complex’s future employee investment. People were given food and allowed to breathe so that Complex could continue making money for generations.

Most boys ended up with their fathers’ jobs, but rarely did their fathers ever move up in Complex. Promotions were scarce and only employees that demonstrated a unique skill or a higher than average intelligence ever moved anywhere. Hunter’s father was intelligent but he never flaunted it. At home Hunter’s father would read books that he’d kept from before the Last Continent and he’d create large mathematical puzzles for himself to solve.

When Hunter started training for his position, he asked Curtis what he thought of his father. “He did what he did,” the supervisor replied. “Not very bright, I could tell that. He didn’t talk much and was always modest about his skill set. He would just stare at the stacks’ readings, clean something out if he had to, and went home. Nope, not very bright at all, because I can tell bright people, and your dad wasn’t one of them.”

Hunter wondered if Curtis’ supervisor said the same thing about his father.

*****

“How long have you been here?” Hunter asks.

“I left a little after you turned five,” she replies.

“I know that,” Hunter interrupts. “But, I mean, how long have you been associating with these kind of people.”

“That gets a little complicated,” she continues, staring at the concrete ground and swinging her arm. She stares up, through her shaggy bangs and smiles. “I’ve always loved your green eyes. So bright and vibrant.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Hunter barks. “These people ruin everything, we have it so good back in the city, why are you here? Why do you want to ruin everything?”

“I’m not trying to ruin everything, I’m trying to save everything,” she barks back harder and louder. “You don’t know the world that I knew. You never got to hike through the Amazon or explore the African Jungles. You never got to see snow covered mountains or feel a tropical rain. None of these things I’m saying means anything to you and yet even when I say them I remember the smells, the tastes and I miss it so much, Hunter.”

“I used to miss it too, but then I missed you.”

“I’m sorry I left, and I wish I could have brought you along, but I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just had to leave and find… something. Anything that wasn’t cloned or manufactured.”

“So when did you wind up here?”

She looks around the warehouse and stares up at the scaffolding overhead. She smiles as she stares into the fluorescent lights overhead and stretches out her arms like she’s introducing Hunter to the world. “I found this place.”

People from all around started walking close and sitting down, staring up at her as she continues her story.

“I wandered out of the city, it was early still, I left before sunrise to make sure I still had time to write a note. I walked through our front door and I walked and just walked until I was out of the city and then I walked some more. I thought that if I didn’t find anything out here, that it was all barren waste, that at least I would suffocate and die out here. I wouldn’t have to die in that city. I walked for hours and I kept breathing, but the air felt so different. Like it wasn’t just chemicals I was breathing in, like it was simply life. Before the Last Continent, before Complex, we used to have real food that was grown from the ground, not in labs. Breathing that air felt like tasting that food again.”

She takes Hunter by the hand and walks him towards the door opposite from where he came in. It swings open and they step outside. Hunter feels his blood slow down and feels himself take a deep breath as he stares out into the field where hundreds of trees, all with the prickly leaves that he hadn’t seen until what he found in stack three, scattered out and growing from the ground, looking stronger, thicker, and greener than anything he had seen in the lab before.

Hunter takes another deep breath and holds it like he would with a can of oxygen at the bar. He feels the pressure pushing out from his lungs as he holds the breath, but he still holds it like he never wants to let it go, like he may never breathe again. She puts her hand on his diaphragm and he exhales slowly, feeling the blood move through his veins, like he was just born and this was the first breath he ever took.

“The Earth always finds a way,” she says, looking to the sky.

A smell hangs past Hunter’s nose, like the smell that arose when he put the plants through their photosynthesis cycle, but it was like if a thousand plants were all being put through the cycle at once. So potent and strong.

The air swings by Hunter’s face and he wipes the sweat from his brow with his hand, only his sweat is cold. That’s when he hears the plink plink plink around him. He looks up and sees tiny droplets of water falling from the sky.

“Complex never wanted us to know about this,” she says, Hunter barely listening as he feels the water against his face and his arms. “It’s why the city stopped expanding. They knew years ago. They only wanted to start doing something about it now.”

Hunter walks around the warehouse’s perimeter and finds himself looking back in the direction of the city. The lights of the building glow leaving a yellow ring surrounding the arc the city creates in the distance. Hunter can almost see his apartment building from where he’s standing. He thinks about his job, his couch, his television set, all the Complex run programming that would be on at that moment, the food that’s left in his fridge distributed to him by Complex, and who’s at the bar still and if the special on oxygen is still on.

Even as he stands, soaking wet and breathing deep breaths, he still feels an urge to take a step forward and start walking back.

Limited Space

There are so many small specks of light in front of me that I can’t stand back far enough to hold a complete picture. Millions and millions specks of light, so many unexplored, so many only leaving questions, so many whose existence can’t even be confirmed by looking at them. Their very presence is deceitful as time and light move at different intervals and the distance of these specks of light is immeasurable by conventional units used to gauge length of time. It disturbs me that I’ll never be able to touch each of these lights. To explore their mysteries and give each a name. But I still have to try.

The ship is the size of a relatively large apartment. When it was built, it was recommended that no more than three or four people travel in it for any extent of time. They warned of the enclosed limited space that the ship offered coupled with a lack of privacy and personal space could lead to significant conflict and possibly even a lapse in sanity.

There are two sleeping quarters on the ship. Our crew of four took turns on shift piloting the craft and analyzing data gathered from systems we passed through: two were on shift while two rested. The sleeping quarters are located toward the back of the ship and are next to the two bathing waste disposal facilities. The front of the ship is the main hull, an open space with three large windshields: one in the front and one on either side. The main pilot’s seat is situated in the middle of the hull. It’s a single seat with computer navigation systems in front. The pilot needs to see out the windshields and use the navigation computer to properly steer the ship.

The analyst’s computer is to the left of the pilot’s seat. It consists of a desk, chair, and onboard computer system with three large monitors: one that assists with navigation and direction, one that gives planetary read outs, and one that constantly analyzes the solar system the ship is in for any sudden changes or immediate threats.

Each member of the crew were trained for both piloting and analyzing, this way tasks during shifts can be changed to keep things fresh in the crew members’ minds. When someone does the same task for too long, it becomes automatic and they stop paying attention. When you’re in a crew of four, you’re thousands of galaxies away from your home planet, and there’s no guarantee of civilized life (let alone habitable planets), paying attention to everything is of the utmost importance.

I don’t know what happened in the last galaxy we travelled into. It seemed like a normal enough system: it had a star at its centre that acted as its sun and had five planets orbiting around it. The two furthest planets from the sun were gas giants and the two closest were inhabitable because of the immense heat and radiation from being so close to the star. But the planet in the middle showed signs of water and vegetation. It was the first planet that we encountered similar to our home world. We had been travelling for four years, which meant that if there were no established or intelligent civilizations on this planet, it could be colonized, our planet’s population and pollution issues could be resolved, and the crew on this ship could finally go home.

We approached this new planet, but stayed out of its atmosphere. We had no know what the plants were breathing before we could risk the ship and ourselves. I was manning the analytics at the time. Preston was piloting. We got up to wake up Daniels and Mackenzie to show them the planet.

“Roberts! Roberts!” Preston yelled out as he escorted Daniels and Mackenzie into the hull. “Tell them what you just told me! Show them the analytics!” Preston was smiling, but he was sweating too. He put his arms around Mackenzie and Daniels, smiling and talking about how we’re finally struck gold. Preston wasn’t blinking. His eyes were beat red like they were just blasted with sand.

“The planet definitely shows signs of water and vegetation,” I said. “But we still don’t have an atmosphere or planetary gas read. For all we know, as of now, this planet has a minimal atmosphere and the water and vegetation are feeding on radioactivity. I’m going to need a couple of hours for a full read out before we can even enter the atmosphere, let alone land and explore.”

Letting Preston know that it will be a while before we know if our mission is complete hadn’t hindered his excitement. We passed through what felt like hundreds of different galaxies, analyzed planets with surfaces too cold to sustain life, radioactivity that could melt a human in seconds, and surfaces submerged in liquids with PH levels of hydrochloric acid. No life, no growth, no habitation, just rocks and gas-balls floating in nothing, sustaining nothing, and revolving around nothing.

“Seriously, Roberts,” Daniels said as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “What do you figure are the chances that this rock is the rock we can land on and eventually haul half of our planet over to?”

The data readouts looked promising. I had only been monitoring them for a few minutes. Protocol read that we had to wait at least two hours before we were allowed to land. There was an incident where another crew found a planet with some of the most promising readouts in the history of our organization. It was almost four months before we found their transport ship, still floating just outside of the planets near damn-perfect atmosphere.

The crew took their miniature transport off to the planet. Once the crew landed, they immediately started sending signals back to their main transport to record their landing and exploration. The recordings from the ship told a story of the crew noticing something funny about the rock they landed on. It was soft. Almost like a sponge.

You could hear the crew start to panic when their miniature transport started sinking into the ground they landed on. The dirt and grass swallowed that transport like a headache pill. When the rescue excavated the crew’s main transport, the readouts showed that while the air had the right mix of nitrogen and oxygen and the atmosphere held off enough of the close-by star’s radiation so that the rock wasn’t a floating nuclear reactor in space. Unfortunately, they didn’t wait enough to read the planet’s air pressure and ground density. It was like a brick landing in pudding and then pulled under like it was being drug to hell.

“So far so good,” I replied back to Daniels. “We have another hour and a bit before we can load up and land. I’ll keep an eye on the readouts. If anything funny comes up, I’ll holler.”

“Stuck in the middle of nothing and we have to rely on silence for reassurance,” Daniels said.

Daniels and Mackenzie made their way back to the sleep quarters and passed Preston who was making his way back to the navigation chair.

“This is it, this is it, I know it!” Preston rambled on.

I kept my eye on the readouts, looking for even the slightest off readout that would make trying to habitat this planet difficult. Nothing. I even faked the time readout and got an extra half-hour of readouts. Nothing. Preston was still sitting in the navigation seat, rambling on and on and on.

“So, what’s the word, Roberts?” Preston asked. “Are we packing up and dropping down?”

I kept staring at that screen. It was a perfect planet. Every other planet we encountered had some flaw or some reason that it wasn’t quite right. I looked out the main navigation window and stared at the perfect planet. Not a thing wrong. Like god was handing it over to us in a silver platter. Even though we’d been travelling for so long and working so hard to find a planet like this, now it almost seemed too easy. Too perfect.

“I guess it looks alright,” I replied. “Still doesn’t feel right though.”

“It doesn’t feel right because we’re not down there yet,” Preston laughed. “Just think about it. Think about how many people we could fit on that rock. All the things we could build. The cities we could develop. I bet there’s some amazing tropical islands, untouched by people. No pollution or over-population like what happened in the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands. You’ll actually be able to get a spot on the beach and be able to lay out your towel comfortably. Shit, I don’t think those beaches have been that clean since the twentieth century, or even earlier.”

I remembered going to those beaches as a kid and wondering why so many people flocked to them. All along the horizon, you could barely see the sun or the sky or even the water. Just people and umbrellas and beer vendors everywhere. I felt like I didn’t have room to breathe. I was scared that every time I moved my arms I would hit someone I was walking past. I was scared that the people around me were feeling as enclosed as I was, they would be mad that my arm hit them when I walked by. I didn’t know how they would react. I was scared all the people around me. Even in this ship with only three other people around me, I was scared of getting in their space. God knows how someone with such limited space would react if you got into their personal bubble.

Preston was still staring off, probably imagining all the things we could do with a blank slate of a planet, when we heard the screeching from the sleeping quarters. It was like screaming and choking and vomiting all at once. Preston and I ran back to the sleeping quarters to see Mackenzie on top of Daniels. Mackenzie’s arms were pulsating to where we could see the veins clearer than we could see the pigments of his skin, his jaw was shattering, the sweat was pouring off of his head, and the drool was slipping off of the side of his mouth and dripping onto Daniels.

Nothing Mackenzie said made any sense. He gritted his teeth and growled out at Daniels while he pushed down against his throat. Daniels was kicking his feet, trying to throw Mackenzie off of his body. Daniels’ face was turning blue by the time Preston and I got into the room.

Preston and I pounced on Mackenzie and pulled off of Daniels and drug him onto the floor. Mackenzie kept fighting, swinging at us and clocking me across my jaw before Preston finally thrust his fist down into the middle of Mackenzie’s forehead. Mackenzie’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he stopped struggling. Daniels behind us was still coughing and throwing up.

“Did you kill him?” I asked while rubbing my sore jaw.

“I don’t know,” Preston answered. “If he isn’t dead he’s probably concussed pretty good. He won’t be getting up anytime soon.”

Preston checked Mackenzie’s pulse, looked up to me and nodded. “He’s still alive. Barely. We better figure out something to do with him before, or if, he wakes up.”

Preston and I drug Mackenzie into the bathroom and latched the door from the outside so if he woke up he wasn’t getting out. Daniels was sitting up on his bed, still coughing a bit and wiping sweat off of his head.

“I don’t,” Daniels coughed. “I don’t know what the fuck happened there. I was sleeping. I wake up and Mackenzie is on top of me. I don’t know what the fuck happened.”

Mackenzie was fairly quiet this entire mission. He shone brightest while he was reading reports. He was very logically minded and loved reading through numbers and understanding data. You could tell he was most in his element while he was running data. He seemed like he was actually relaxing while he was running data. Everywhere else you could see how tense his shoulders were. We could all tell he wasn’t comfortable being with other people this close all of the time, but he never complained and he was never aggressive before. He was always polite but brief.

Preston started pacing the floor, wondering what we should do if Mackenzie woke up. Preston knew that we couldn’t land with one member of our crew losing his mind for seemingly no reason. This was probably sending Preston even more over edge. I wasn’t sure how long he could hold his anticipation for landing.

“You know, we could always leave him while we head down,” Preston suggested.

“We can’t do that,” Daniels replied. “If he’s hurt really bad, we need to help him. If he’s ok and wakes up and figures out we all left him alone on this ship, who knows how he’ll react. It could send him even worse over the edge. He could fly the ship off and leave us on this planet. And god knows how long we’ll last if he leaves us…”

“You’re wrong!” Preston barked out. “We’d be fine down there! We could probably last years until the rescue finds us. You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about!”

“Calm down, Preston,” I stood up. “We’ll get down there soon enough. Don’t worry. We just need to know what to do about Mackenzie first.”

Preston turned and marched over to the bathroom where Mackenzie was locked. He opened the door and looked down at Mackenzie. “He won’t be waking up. He’s not our problem. Taking care of him isn’t our mission. Finding that planet is our mission. And the sooner we get down there, the sooner we can head home and start developing. If this piece of shit is the only thing stopping us I’ll make sure he’s out of the way.”

Preston lifted his boot and stomped down onto Mackenzie’s head. With a single stomp, Preston’s foot made its way through Mackenzie entirely and landed back on the tiled floor. A piece of Mackenzie’s skull rolled out of the bathroom and slid across the floor, landing in front of my foot.

Preston’s face was soaked, either in sweat or in tears or in both.  “What the fuck happened? How did I do that? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What the fuck happened?”

Preston stumbled out of the bathroom. I put my arms out to him, trying to get him to sit down. He shoved me back and I fell onto the data readout controls, crushing some of the circuitry underneath me. Preston paced, heaving heavily and wiping sweat from his mouth and off of his face.

“Get packing, we’re fucking landing,” he said through clenched teeth. “Be ready in one hour. You hear me? One fucking hour and we land on this mother fucker.”

Preston marched off to the sleeping quarters. Daniels was standing next to me, help me back to my feet and checking the damaged controls. “Asshole’s lost his mind,” Daniels said. “We gotta get him to calm down. And if he doesn’t calm down, we need to tie him down or something. If this planet’s no good, our mission is already fucked, we can’t read shit anymore. We deal with Preston first, clean up…” he swallowed hard and his lip trembled. “We clean up Mackenzie, and we figure out a best course home. We’re useless out here now.”

The door to the sleeping quarters flung open and Preston came marching out, his eyes fixated on Daniels. “Is that what you think?” he gritted his teeth and his face burned red. “You think we’re just going to turn this puppy around with its tail between its legs? Is that what you think mother fucker?”

“Preston, calm down,” Daniels tried to reason. “We’re still going to land, we’re still going to explore. You just need to mellow out a bit man, you’re acting crazy.”

“You know what’s crazy?” Preston spat out. “You assholes don’t want to succeed. You obviously don’t. Otherwise we would have landed the minute we found this place. God just handed the Garden of Eden to us on a silver platter and you assholes don’t even want to land. All of our planet’s problems can be solved with this rock. Why the fuck are we still sitting here?”

“Because you goddamn just murdered Mackenzie, that’s why!” Daniels yelled back. “Mackenzie just needed a few minutes to calm down. The anxiety of this place was probably just getting to him. You had no fucking right to…”

“That asshole was probably a vegetable after we had to fight him off of you,” Preston stepped to Daniels, staring him down like a dog fighting for territory. “Keep in mind, you’d probably still be gasping for air and turning blue if we hadn’t fought him off of you. We did what we had to do. He was compromising the crew and the mission.”

“He was part of the crew!” Daniels yelled.

“He stopped being crew and became a liability the minute he snapped,” Preston yelled back.

“If Mackenzie was a liability, what’s our contingency plan then with you?” Daniels stared back and buffed his chest like he was ready for a fist fight.

“The only contingency plan here is surviving and making it back home with something to report,” I piped up. “Our controls are destroyed and we’re going to kill each other if things don’t calm down. None of us are in our right minds right now. We should all just rest for half an hour, do something with Mackenzie’s body, then try to land.”

Preston looked to me and with a complete straight face and monotone voice, he said, “Let fucking Mackenzie rot where he is.”

Without a second breath, Daniels reached back and smoked Preston across the jaw, sending Preston toppling to the floor. Preston wiped the blood from his mouth and tackled Daniels, both landing on the navigation chair, damaging the controls. The ship started moving while the two kept fighting. I tried to fix the navigations and get the ship to stop, but it had already set its course and none of the override controls were working. I looked over to see Daniels on top of Preston, both hands around his throat and pushing down just like Mackenzie had been only minutes earlier. Preston reached beside himself and found a piece of a broken computer and lodged it into the side of Daniels’ head.

A blank stare immediately overcame Daniels’ face, like he was seeing the light to the afterlife glowing in front of his face. Daniels then fell over, stopped breathing and bled across the floor.

Preston sat up breathing heavily, brushing dust off of his t-shirt. “Well, two down,” he said staring up at me. “Do you want to make it three, Roberts? Or are you going to shut the fuck up and get us on that planet?”

I looked over to the navigation controls and looked back to him. “You broke both the data readouts and the navigation controls. Nothing works anymore. There are no overrides. The only thing still functioning is the autopilot with a destination.”

“Well where the fuck are we going then?”

“This galaxy’s star.”

Preston huffed and stared up out the window. “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“I’m not. In about twenty minutes, this ship will fry.”

“What about the transport? Does it still work?”

“Probably.”

“Well why don’t we get the fuck in there and save our sorry asses?”

“And land where!?” I yelled. “Onto that perfect planet!? That has no pollution. No ozone depletion. No man made problems killing every living thing on that world. You want to land there and start all over again? And just keep doing the same old shit? Fuck you, Preston!” I walked over to the hatch leading to the transport and slammed the emergency launch, sending the transport floating off into nothingness, with nothing inside and direction set.

Preston shook his head. “You fucking idiot. You worthless fucking idiot. We were so close. So fucking close.” Preston stood up and walked into the sleeping quarters. He didn’t close the door when he pulled out a revolver from underneath the bed. He looked out at me and held the gun to his head, splattering what was left of his mind all over the bedding and the walls.

He toppled to the ground, his legs crumbling beneath him like a marionette whose strings were dropped. I walked into his room and all I could think about was how surprised I was that no one had gone for the gun earlier. I guess we all still tried to be professionals. That got us far.

I still don’t know what got into Mackenzie. It won’t matter though, I’m sure the outcome would have been the same one way or another.

I wanted to name all of the stars I saw when I looked outside. Touch each of those lights in the sky. But I realize that the universe doesn’t want us. Nor, do we deserve it.

Clicking

You can tell how much someone paid for their shoes by the clicking sounds they make when they walk across linoleum. The louder and sharper the click, the pricier the shoes.

Men’s fashion is always dictated by subtleties like this. On the surface, men’s fashion is very boring: jackets, shirts, sweater, khakis, jeans, plaid, pinstripe, black shoes, brown shoes, neutral tones, straight line cuts. Very linear. But the entire premise of modern male fashion is the details in the subtleties. It’s kind of like that scene in American Psycho where all the men in the office are comparing business cards. Bone, silian rail, eggshell, romalian type, pale nimbus white. And much like that scene in American Psycho, there are those who will ensure they flaunt their subtleties.

I hear clicking all day. The clock ticks, computer keyboards and mice click, lifting and dropping phone receivers click, and most of all, the click of people walking. The louder and sharper the click, the more they paid for the shoes, the higher up the hierarchy they are.

Some clicks are so distinct, I know who it is from twenty steps away. And I can tell when they’re coming to my desk.

“Ogden,” I hear Samuelson blurt from over my shoulder. I try to make it look like my eyes are down looking at my keyboard. I’m really staring at his Italian shoes whose brand name I can’t pronounce. The stitching weaves along the top and around the toe like baroque poetry. Those shoes’ click was at the top of the food chain here, or damn well near its alpha-predator stature. I try not to look at my pair of Stacey Adams, which I had to skip a student loan payment to afford. Even then they’re a whole year out of season. I hope no one else pays attention to these details like I do.

“Hey,” Samuelson points to my shoes. “Wearing those while the snow’s all melting and gross out there? That’s a great plan. Let the dirt mess up those dinosaurs. Am I right?”

I keep my Stacey Adams in my desk drawer and I wear a pair of cross-trainers while I trek through the melting snow. When people ask me about my shoes, I tell them I’m heading to the gym. I haven’t worked out in years.

“That’s right my man,” I instinctively reply, smiling like I just got some joke at some other poor schmuck’s expense. I react this way a lot. Sometimes I don’t even hear what a guy like Samuelson says. I look for the cue, see his smile, hear his laugh, and I just join in, hoping I disguise how terrified I am every time he stops by my desk.

“Anyways, Ogden, a bunch of us are going for tapas at this whisky place a few blocks from here after work, care to join?”

Samuelson always invites me to these things. I always decline. Where the fuck do these guys get the money for these fucking things? I’m terrified to find out what their monthly tapas expense is on their budget. I don’t know if he always asks me because he genuinely likes me or if he likes humiliating me every time I have to turn him down. I try to make up excuses, but he knows where he is on the ladder, and he knows where I am.

I brush the crumbs from my peanut butter sandwich onto the floor without losing eye contact. The more I look at him, the less likely he’ll notice the mess from the last bit of food left in my house.

“No can do my man,” I keep smiling. “The wife at home,” I’m not married and live in a basement apartment, “Wants me to look after the kids,” I don’t have kids, “While my mom takes her out,” my mom’s been dead for ten years, “To show her the family cottage just a bit out of town,” I’ve never left the city.

“No worries, Ogden,” Samuelson raises his arm and it takes me a second to realize he’s looking for a high five. “Maybe next time, my man.” Samuelson walks down the hall, and I watch as he meets with another guy at the same level of the food chain as he is. They high five and laugh. Samuelson looks back for a second, still laughing. The two click off together.

I don’t pick up my phone for the rest of the day. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I spent my whole life being told that as long as I go to college, I’ll find a great job, a rewarding career, and I’ll be able to make something of myself. What the fuck have I become? How the fuck did I wind up here?

I watched my father grow through the company he worked for. He was with them for nearly forty years. Every year he had another raise. Every few years, another promotion. I wasn’t even out of elementary school when he got his first managerial position, along with the fat salary that came with it. He worked his way up, found success, retired easy, and is now remarried and living the easy life. His new wife is young enough to have babysat me while she was in high school.

“What a fucking prick,” I hear from behind me. I look back and see Adams. We started here at the same time. I have no idea what he does. I don’t think he knows what I do. I barely know what I do. “Did he ask you about tapas after work too? I don’t know if it’s managerial charity work or if he gets some sort of kick out of watching us turn him down, but I wish that motherfucker would shut the fuck up already. You know, he thinks he’s fucking charming. He thinks everyone likes him and looks up to him because of his position. You know how he got that job?” Adams wraps his hands around in a circle and starts jabbing at himself back and forth making choking noises. “World class cocksucker. Guaranteed.”

“Come on, man, how can you know that?”

“Did you know that motherfucker is two years older than we are? Did you know he joined this company six months before we did? Did you know he doesn’t even have a degree? He’s either sucking cock, or he got raped as a kid by the biggest shareholder and getting hush money.”

Adams had a strange point. He must do something with staff records. How else would he know this? He could also be making this stuff up. Either way, it’s entertaining.

“Hush money or not, he’s still higher on the caste system and we have to take his shit,” I look down at Adams’ shoes. He’s wearing cross-trainers. No shame. You have to admire that kind of conviction in a person. “What do you got going on once we punch out?”

Adams shrugs. “I don’t know man. Cheap beer and online porn probably. Why? You wanna watch?”

“Fuck no,” I reply. “But while we’re on the topic of cheap beer, maybe gather a few of the other dredges here and have a game of poker or something. My place?”

“Five buck buy in?” Adams asks.

I nod my head Adams pats my shoulder and scurries off. He’s good for getting a decent group together for cards. We drink, eat crap food, and talk about who in the upper caste we would kill first if opportunity arose. It makes my empty fridge and barren apartment on a Friday night a little less depressing.

*****

Adams took all of us Friday night. Wound up leaving my apartment sixty bucks richer (some of the dredges got ambitious and bought themselves back in a few times after busting) but promised that pizza was on him next time.

Monday rolled around too quickly. I spent my weekend either on my couch or in my bed. I didn’t want to think, especially not about work. I just finish tying my Stacey Adams when I start hearing the clicking again. Only it’s not Samuelson who walks by my desk. It’s Adams.

“Fancy new kicks, Adams,” I call out. “Is that what you did after you robbed us all blind?”

Adams looks back and smiles. “Something like that.” He dances a tap-dance-ish jig before walking back to his desk. I watch his shoes as he walks away. Italian leather, fine stitching, a little worn but still sharp. No way sixty bucks bought those shoes. At least not new. He must have an in with a warehouse or an eBay wholesaler.

And email pops up on my screen. Adams wants to do sushi for lunch. I pull out my wallet and see a ten. Enough for a bit of sushi, I can eat the rest of my lunch when I get back to my desk if I’m still hungry. It’s totally worth knowing what Adams’ secret to those shoes is.

*****

“Seriously, I know you got those on eBay, there’s no way you could afford them otherwise. Spill the dude’s username,” I pop a small piece of maki in my mouth.

“And I keep telling you, I didn’t get them on eBay,” Adams smiles.

“How else could you buy those? I can’t even pronounce the name on them.”

“It’s a secret.”

“Spill it Adams, come on!”

“You really want to know?” Adams is still smiling.

“Yes!”

Adams looks back and forth.

“I got them from Samuelson.”

“Samuelson sold you those?” I look down at the shoes. “Are you guys even the same size?”

“Turns out we are,” Adams grin grows wider with pride. “But he didn’t sell them to me.”

I drop the piece of maki I was about to pop into my mouth.

“What?” Adams shrugs. “It’s not like he’s going to miss them. Do you know how many pairs of shoes that motherfucker owns? Like thirty. All black, Italian leather. I scuffed these ones up a bit so he wouldn’t notice them. He’s not going to notice one pair gone.”

*****

Samuelson noticed. He charges toward my desk, his clicks getting louder as he gets closer.

“Where are they?” he demands. “Those were seventeen-hundred dollar shoes. That’s more than you fucking whore mother makes in a year. I saw you eyeing them up last week. You better fess up, or so help me fucking god I will have your balls.”

Adams yells out from the back. “What are you going to do with his balls?”

Samuelson looks over. “Shut your fucking mouth!”

“Or what?” Adams yells. “My balls are next?”

Samuelson clenches his fists and looks back down at me. “If I ever see those shoes on your feet, no one will find your body.”

Samuelson turns and walks away and as soon as he’s out of sight, I look back at Adams. “What the fuck was that from you?”

Adams shrugs. “He ain’t so scary.”

*****

The next day, Adams shows up to work in a pink silk shirt. Not girly pink either, power colour pink. It looks impressive.

“It was one of Samuelson’s white shirts,” Adams whispers to me by the water cooler. I try to tell him to hush as I look around to see who might be listening, but Adams keeps going. “Samuelson takes these fucking sleeping pills, right? I could teabag him with my sweaty balls after a ten hour workout and he would never know. I watched him. He was out by ten, I snuck in, grabbed his shirts, washed them with a bunch of my red soccer jerseys, and voila, brand new pink cashmere shirts for the office.”

Samuelson walks in a couple seconds after Adams finishes his explanation. Samuelson obviously heard nothing. He walks right in, grabs a paper cup, looks to Adams and says, “Great shirt man. I could never pull off pink. I got the same ones in white. Looks good though.” Samuelson actually came off sincere. No fake smile, no inviting out for tapas, no laughing with the other upper management. He’s actually impressed.

“Thanks man,” Adams replies. “I’ve been refining my taste. No more cross trainers and corduroys for me. It’s amazing how much better quality you get when you spend a little more, right?”

Samuelson nods. “Yep, higher price means higher quality. Just how life works.”

*****

I must have nodded off in front of the TV. It’s 2 a.m. and there’s a knock at my door. I get up from the couch and open the door to see Adams in a two-piece, double breasted suit, silk tie, black shoes polished so well the defining lines look white. He adjusts his tie and says, “Well, Ogden, how does it look?”

I hear a pop and some mists into my face. It stings my eyes and I wipe them. I look down to see my hands smeared in red. Adams is on the ground with a hole through his head. He’s twitching and bleeding all over my porch, and then stops. I look up and see Samuelson at the far side of the backyard, pointing a gun in my direction. He lowers the gun and walks toward me. My brain keeps screaming to shut the door and call the cops, but I just freeze in place. Samuelson walks right up to me without taking his eyes off mine. Once he’s standing in front of me, he aims his gun down and shoots again, without taking his eyes off mine.

“You can wear whatever the fuck you want, and it won’t make a difference,” Samuelson is sweating. His brow is furrowed. He doesn’t even blink. He shoots Adams’ body again. “You’re still nobody. You’re as replaceable as a stripper on a Tuesday night. As useful as a dog in a gutter. You just scrape off the bottom, hoping some shit falls off of my heel, just so you can have something that used to belong to me.” He leans in closer. “And don’t forget it.”

I can hear sirens in the distance. Samuelson turns and walks away. I hear his shoes clicking for blocks. And I stand in the same spot until the police arrive. I tell them I have no idea what just happened.

Kidneys

Tim read through the pamphlet for the fifth time, trying to fully understand all of the benefits this procedure will have on his body. His eyes glazed over the pictures of the smiling senior citizens and the diagrams showing where exactly what was being inserted and how. He read all of the side-effects, including the one about what to do if your body rejected the implants, who to contact, what conditions to look for, and how it sometimes cause extreme abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, the development of or enlarging of breasts and other hormonal anomalies, and in some cases death.

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Karen rubbed Tim’s shoulders like she would while they lay in bed together; Tim would be having his stomach cramps and couldn’t sleep at night.

“I don’t have much choice outside of this, do I?” Time replied. “With all the time we spent talking about it, I might have, what? Three months? There’s nothing else.”

“What if it doesn’t work?” she asked.

“At this point, so what? What worse could happen?”

Tim’s stomach cramped up and he clenched his side. His abdomen was throbbing, as if Tim could feel his kidneys slowing dissolving as he sat there.

Doctor Richards came out and sat down with Tim and Karen, asking them what they thought about the procedure. Karen pressed about waiting for a donor, giving Tim new living tissue rather than some piece of machinery that has been on the market barely a month.

“I told you, Ms. Fowler,” Doctor Richards began. “Tim has a rare condition. One we barely ever see. I had to find my medical textbooks from college just to diagnose him. Living tissue would only last a short while. Maybe give him a week to a month extra. I know it seems bizarre to…”

“I’ll do it,” Tim blurted out. “I’m so sick of this. I’m sick of never sleeping and being in pain all of the time. Even if I die on the operating table, it’s better than living like this. If I’m going to die, might as well die trying.”

Doctor Richards advised Tim not to think about it as how he’s going to die and pointed out how positive thinking can help patients pull through even the worst of situations. Tim glared at the doctor. “Just give me the fucking forms, doc,” Tim snarled.

Tim handed the brochure to Karen and clicked the pen as he read through the form. His knees were pouncing and he started clicking the pen repeatedly, in a steady but rapid rhythm. Karen placed her hand on Tim’s shoulder, and he stopped fidgeting, and started filling out the form, while Karen pulled out her chequebook, started writing the cheque and calculating to make sure they could still pay the rent and afford groceries. It would be tight, but it would be worth it.

*****

The security scanner beeped and the airport security officer motioned for Tim to step aside.

“Any knives, guns, or other weapons currently on your person, sir?” the security officer asked. Tim could see the hole beneath his lip where his piercing had once been and could see the scars along his neck from where he used to be tattooed.

“No,” Tim replied.

“Any enhancements?” the security officer asked.

“Just my kidneys,” Tim answered.

“Nice man, vital organs are totally in right now,” the security officer commented. “Just had my spleen replaced with an E12. Purifies my piss so I can distill it and make booze. What model are your kidneys?”

“Um, E1, I guess?” Tim looked down as if he could see his kidneys through his jacket and shirt and read the model printed along the side.

“E1? And they’re still running? You’re crazy bro!” the security officer slapped his knee. “I was barely alive when they started making E1s! You gotta upgrade. Gotta upgrade.”

“They’ve been working great for twenty years, haven’t had a problem with them at all, why do I need an upgrade?” Tim asked.

“The specs man, the specs on the newer Es are so much better. Man, I got a second job and I’m pulling overtime here to afford replacing my arm,” the security guard slapped his shoulder. “This one here. My good arm. Gonna join an enhanced arm wrestling league.”

“That’s cool kid,” Tim reached for his bags coming out of the x-ray. “Cool talking with you, I got to catch my flight though. Good luck with the arm.”

“Thanks buddy,” the security guard giggled. “Like I said, get an upgrade.”

As Time walked toward his flight gate, he could hear the kid ask the next person in line, “Any enhancements?”

*****

The flight was over Ontario when Tim woke up. He left the TV set embedded into the head of the seat in front of him on the channel showing the flight path. He wiped the drool hanging from the side of his mouth and looked over at the seat next his’ TV set to see what other people were watching. The man sitting next to Tim was staring down at a small screen embedded into his forearm and had headphones plugged into his wrist. The man caught Tim staring and unplugged a headphone.

“It’s a new model,” he said. “Full digital media capabilities. DME12. I’d say I can’t leave home without it, but people would probably be staring even worse if I was missing an arm.” He chuckled.

“No kidding, look at that,” Tim leaned in staring at the screen. “My TV at home isn’t that sharp.”

“Do you have any enhancements?” he asked.

“Just my kidneys,” Tim answered.

“Oh, what do you use those for?” he asked.

“Heh, I used them to live,” Tim answered. “About twenty years ago my kidneys decided to take a holiday and not warn me first. If I didn’t fork out the fortune to replace them I would have been dead within a few months.”

“No kiddin’,” the man replied. “None of the enhancements do that anymore. Well, except the old models. What are you running in there?”

“E1,” Tim answered. “And for the love of god, don’t tell me I should upgrade.”

The man laughed. “You got that young kid in the security line too? Too many people upgrade for no reason. I mean, I’m constantly travelling, so having all of my media on me like this just makes sense. When I run or hit the gym, I can just plug in and all my music is right here. None of the tissue on here is living, so it doesn’t sweat, but the rubber faux skin around it is still water proof so I can swim and if my sweat drips down, no damage. Just makes sense.”

Tim wanted to avoid any obligatory airplane talk, but he had to know who better who was sitting beside him. “So, what do you do then that requires the travelling and the rigorous workout schedule?”

“I’m a major league hockey coach,” he answered and the put out his non enhanced-hand. “Stan Davis.”

They shook hands. “Tim Fowler. I’m retired.”

“You don’t look old enough to be retired,” Stan smiled.

“Thanks for the flattery, but I unfortunately am that old,” Tim answered.

“Well, what did you used to do?” Stan asked.

“Nothing special, sold insurance for a while. Spent a few years running the admin work for a construction company. You know, this and that.”

Cool, cool,” Stan stopped and stared out, looking like he was trying to find a conversation somewhere in front of him. “Are you stopping off in Hamilton?”

“Heading right through to Calgary.”

“Oh, well,” the silence again. Stan started to place the headphone back into his year. “It was nice to meet you.”

*****

By the baggage claim, a six-foot illuminated sign with a map advertised the airport’s new enhancement-application. It listed off everything passengers could do with their enhancements: buy flight tickets, check for cancelled or delayed flights, check in, weight baggage, order in-flight peanuts, it seemed like everything could be done off someone’s body part. Tim laughed a bit staring at the ad, thinking about how far along technology has come, yet sitting beside him on a plane was someone who made a living assembling a team of people who hit a hunk of rubber with a stick.

The conveyor belts kicked on and bags began dropping. People standing around the conveyor belt pointed their fingers or their palms towards the bags that passed by. Tim caught a glimpse of his black suitcase, patched-together with the same luggage tag he’s used for forty years or more. He reached down and picked up his suitcase, and someone standing beside him tapped his shoulder.

“You didn’t scan that bag,” he said.

“Sorry?” Tim began. “What do you mean scanned? What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t scan the bag with any of your enhancements,” the man continued. “How do you know if the bag is yours?”

Tim turned over the luggage tag and the man saw the scribbled note with Tim’s name and address along the white piece of paper, laminated and hanging off the bag’s handle.

“What is that?” the man squinted and leaned in. “It looks like my grandfather’s luggage.”

“Was he on this flight?” Tim asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Then you know the bag’s mine,” Tim pushed his way past the man. “Excuse me.”

It was raining in Calgary when Tim stepped outside to hail a cab. The bright lights guiding the cabs along the dark roads leading up to the airport’s main doors reflected off the wet concrete, hurting Tim’s eyes a bit. Tim never thought he would want sunglasses in the middle of the night so bad. He man from the carousel stepped outside and he held his hand in front of his face, shielding from the glare off the road. He stepped up beside Tim when he finally dropped his arm. Tim looked over and saw the man’s eyes had turned completely black. Tim stared for a short while. The man laughed.

“Yeah, should guess that you’ve never seen these before,” the man pointed to his eyes. “It’s new. It adjusts your eyes to levels of brightness so that you can see everything better in all conditions.”

“Like transitions lenses,” Tim said.

“Like what?” the man asked.

“Something we had when I was younger,” Tim explained. “They were glasses whose tinting would adjust as the light around you changed. It was a brilliant invention. Saved a lot of lives probably with all the issues people have with night driving. Those eye enhancements of yours are actually a very good addition. I am impressed.”

“You think that’s cool,” he continued. “Had a little less-than-legal addition to these bad boys too. Full x-ray capabilities. Expensive addition, sure. But in the long run, I’m saving a lot of money from not having to buy porn anymore.”

Tim said nothing and hailed the first cab that pulled up.

*****

The diner was dimly lit and by this time of night only two kind of people were hanging around: lonely insomniacs and drunken kids who had nowhere else to go once the bars kicked them out. The kids hung out in the booths at the far end of the diner where the waitress would only visit occasionally, “After all,” Tim remembers one waitress telling him one late night when he was hanging around, “once they order their food, they only have their drinks filled maybe once after that. They’re not actually here for food or service. They’re here because they don’t want to be home yet.” The insomniacs sat at the front of the diner along the bar, hoping each other would start a conversation though none of them could muster up the right words to start talking. So they sat quiet, stared at their black coffee and stale fries and barely moved.

“Haven’t seen you in a long while,” a waitress with dark hair tied back said as soon as Tim found his stool at the front of the diner bar. Time couldn’t remember her name. He never knew any of the diner’s staff’s names. “Where ya been there old timer?”

“Visiting the east coast,” Tim answered. “Had a check up on an old procedure I had, well, years ago. You were probably in grade school.”

The waitress blushed while she poured a cup of coffee. “Procedure? What do you mean by that? Like surgery?”

Tim grabbed a newspaper from in front of an empty spot along the bar. “Yeah, a surgery. My kidneys decided to pack up and leave without telling me. Nearly wound up in an early grave. Those enhancements saved my goddamn life.”

The waitress looked over to the table of young kids all staring at their arms, some with headphones in their ears, occasionally talking to one another and showing each other the screens on different parts of their bodies. “I never understood those enhancements,” she said. “Just more crap for us all to spend money on that doesn’t actually make any of our lives better.” She topped up Tim’s coffee. “I’ve seen kids downright obsessed with those things. One kid who came here nearly had every part of his body replaced with some piece of machinery, just to brag about how much of his body are enhancements. All the most recent models. All the top brands. After I saw that kid, I swore I would never have one of those things. Tried to save up for a while, but pay here barely covers my rent and food. No point, I’m just fine without it.”

Tim looked down at his watch and smiled, “I understand that, believe me, if I had real kidneys, I wouldn’t have a single piece of machinery in my body. You know, I’m really glad you don’t have any enhancements. I like you and wouldn’t want you to go through this.”

“Go through what?” she asked.

The sound of plates crashing and cups toppling over sang from the booth with all the kids. “What the hell’s going on with my arm?” one yells out. Another was screaming, “My god, I think he’s dead! His liver must be malfunctioning!” Tim wondered how other people were reacting to the same situation.

*****

After Tim’s surgery, Karen visited him every day that he was recovering in the hospital. They had to keep him there for a month to monitor how his body was adjusting to the new kidneys. He was resting comfortably but could feel the machines in his body working. Though it was unsettling at the time, Tim got used to the feeling of machines in his body before he left the hospital.

“I’m just worried,” Karen said through building tears.

“Don’t be,” Tim reassured her. “That’s why the doctors are keeping me here. I’m going to be fine. If anything goes wrong, they know something went wrong and they can fix…”

“Not that,” she said as the tears streamed. “I’m worried that you’re less than human now. You’re missing something and you replaced it with some gadget. What point do you stop being a human?”

“When I become more obsessed with the gadgets than my own humanity,” Tim replied.

*****

“I’m no luddite,” Tim said as the waitress scrambled looking for her phone. “I think most technology we developed over the last century or so has been really helpful. Made our live easier and allowed us to progress in other ways. But these things, are fucking useless. It’s for the better, believe me.”

The waitress discovered that all the phone lines were dead only after she found her cell phone and tried to call 911. “Did you do this?” she drops her cell phone.

“The cell phone signals were an unintended side effect,” Tim explained. “Enhancements run on the same satellites as the cell phones do, after all, most enhancements have been replacing cell phones.”

“No the cell phone lines!” she yelled. “That!” she pointed to the booth of kids, some dead, some with non-functioning limbs, some comatose but possibly still breathing.

“Well, as in did I somehow shut down all enhancement signals causing all of them to shut down? No,” Tim shook his head while he sipped his coffee. “But, did I do something that wound up with the ripple effect of all these useless gadgets finally shutting down? Yeah, that was me.”

The waitress started crying, putting out her arm to balance herself against the counter and knocking over the coffee pot, letting it crash against the floor. “Why?”

“A beautiful woman once asked me when do we stop being human,” Tim explained. “I said it was when we become more obsessed with the gadgets than our own humanity. I owed this to her.”

*****

Tim did all the research on gallbladder surgery before Karen went in for her procedure. The number of death during this procedure, even for older populations, was negligible. The hospital offered Karen an enhancement to replace her gallbladder, talked about all the benefits of a mechanical gallbladder and tried to sell her on the top high-end brands for enhancements. Karen had integrity, and Tim really admired that, and she refused any enhancement, saying she only wanted the simple procedure. Karen went her whole life without any enhancements. She never needed them, never found any use, and was perfectly happy with skin and bone.

The waiting room Tim sat in while Karen went in for surgery had posters all over advertising for the newest enhancements, covered in infographics showing what each enhancement does and brand name logos competing for the impulse buy of a designer arm or finger or toe or pelvis or neck.

The screaming could be heard all throughout the waiting room. Everyone lowered their arms and unplugged their headphones to stare up and all wonder the same thing: where did that scream come from?

The screaming went on for a couple of minutes before a doctor finally came out and called for Timothy Fowler.

The doctor explained that one of the surgeon’s arm enhancements started playing an Internet video. Something hit something the wrong way as surgeon’s entertainment enhancements were all supposed to be deactivated during procedures. The signal playing the video interfered with the medial equipment. The medical scalpel went haywire, cutting up Karen’s insides. Doctor said she was dead within second of the arteries around her heart being cut open.

Another doctor come out of the surgery room and Tim peered over. The doctor was drenched in blood. Tim caught a glimpse of the inside of the surgery room. It looked like a bloodbath that Bathory would have found excessive.

The hospital managers soon entered the conversation, offering their apologies and trying to compensate for Tim’s loss by paying for all of Karen’s funeral arrangements and offering Tim some new free enhancements.

*****

“Your kidneys,” the waitress said. “How are you not dead? Your kidneys!”

“First model, they never went online with enhancements on first models,” Tim sipped his coffee. “My kidneys don’t need to watch videos of celebrities naked in order for them to do their job. They run on some of the same technology, though. They’ll be shutting down soon enough.”

“So, why are you here then?” the waitress asked. “Why did you come here? Did you have something against those kids? Did you have it out for one of the other waitresses? Why here?”

Tim shrugged. He thought about the man going blind while looking through a woman’s blouse. He thought about the hockey coach losing the function of his arm while swimming. He thought about the arm wrestler having his spleen suddenly shut down while on a drinking binge. “I have nothing else, and I’m about to die. Figured I go drinking the only coffee in this city I can get at this hour.”

The waitress looked at the TV resting on the end of the counter behind the bar. She was a news report that showed a building on fire, with a caption that said, “Enhancement Manufacturing and Control Building Currently on Fire.” Around the building engulfed in flames, little balls of fire were falling from the sky. The news reported said something about them being satellites and the broadcast may be interrupted.

She heard a coffee cup fall and shatter and looked to see Tim toppled over on the bar, still sitting on his stool. The sound of white noise filled the diner as the TV broadcast went dead. She could hear sirens outside in the distance and wondered what kind of enhancements the EMTs had. She wondered about all the doctors’ enhancements. She wondered about all the police’s enhancements. The politicians’ enhancements, the CEOs’ enhancements, her friends’ enhancements. She couldn’t figure out how the world was better off now.