Well, at least she’s laughing.
What will happen when we return to that dark, empty square?
Life takes turns that have told me that it's all a big game board. The game begins at birth – influenced by the positions of the pieces before you. You start in the same square as your parents, and remain tethered so for some time. As time goes on, you're allowed to take some free turns, with the condition that you return to the square of your parents. Violation leads to consequences. After some more dancing like this, you're at last allowed to diverge in another direction. But this is when a terrible truth is learned. As a child, the game board may appear as that of Chess – vast, open and with innumerable possibilities. But now, the facade vanishes, revealing a path, or more likely, series of paths that must be followed or chosen from among. For many, or so it seems, that starting square has some powerful tools in it. Cards to help in a tight spot. Cards like parents ready, willing and able to help in some way, be it financially or emotionally or anything between. Cards like a vehicle, earned or given before this point. Cards like a home. Cards like a future. For me, that square had nothing but sentiment and a broken father in it. For me, that square was empty. But, though it hurt, I moved on this game board. I met other pieces. I tried earning or finding my cards. For a time, I had a few I was proud of. My stupidity cost it all. I watched as they burned, as my squares became filled with hate and hubris. I watched as my path looped back to my starting square. My empty, dark square. A new piece entered the game. Another who had seen squares shattered. He helped, even when he himself needed help the most. When his own path was looping around. Together, we learned. Together, we fought. Together, for a time, it seemed we triumphed. Only now, we both see a coming omen. Our path, now indeed one for a time, appears to be looping once more. And I am uncertain how I will emerge. How we will emerge. What will we do this time? Now when so many fellow piece now are lost, forgotten or broken? When so many cards have been burned? When we return to that dark, empty square, will we triumph once more? Or will we finally lose this game?
“I’m drawing power from all nonessential systems, like speech, weapons… memory.”
“You know, it’s funny, Gwen. I can’t remember your face.”
Gwen lay propped against a tree, fighting pain and unconsciousness. One of her arms she kept close to her side, careful not to move the maimed limb. She would be bleeding, if the plasma that had been fired at her hadn’t cauterized the wounds.
She lay amidst a battlefield. All the combatants all wore the same armor – black, with white highlights fashioned in the motif of a skeleton. The Death’s Head motif of the Coalition States military. The only combatant that deviated was her – the only combatant left alive.
She looked to her power armor, lain against another tree, though this one visibly bowed under the weight of it. The whole thing was fifteen feet tall, and even more maimed than Gwen was. It glittered in its chrome finish, eldritch symbols Gwen knew to be enchantments coated the entire thing, head to foot. Gwen nearly shed a tear at the sight.
She winced – a problem making itself known. Her bones were all metal, and incredibly difficult to break. Unfortunately, certain impacts had indeed bent them out of shape. Her own skeleton was pressing on and pinning her innards – she was dying.
Her legs, bionic and built for combat, were mostly missing and mangled. Some oil and lubricant gently leaked from them.
Sudden movement nearly made Gwen jump. The eyes on her power armor flickered on and she saw it twitch gently.
“Friday?” Gwen asked gently, simple speech now a chore.
“Pilot?” Came the feminine response. “Gwen? You’re still alive?” Her voice seemed to glitch and repeat upon itself for a moment before continuing. “T-t-then I haven’t failed you.”
“Never, old friend. But it seems we may not make it out of this one. I’m all out of tricks.”
The armor’s A.I, Friday, was silent for a moment. Then, “I think I still have one.”
Gwen’s brow furrowed. “Oh?”
Suddenly, Friday rose from the ground, debris from the battle falling from her fifteen foot stature. One leg was badly damaged, but intact, and the entire right arm was missing at the shoulder. A sizable portion of the head had been crushed and mangled, but the eyes remained mostly intact. The rightmost one only flickered occasionally. Her torso was agape, the hatch that allowed entry, and therefore piloting of the armor, was missing altogether. The pilot’s compartment had been singed in places.
Friday’s good arm reached forward and she hunched down to Gwen’s level. “Try to relax.” She said before lifting a wincing and gasping Gwen into that pilot’s compartment. “Try to buckle yourself in – my fingers are too big to help.”
Gwen tried to control her breathing as Friday began to move. “… Friday… what are you doing?”
“Taking you to s-s-s-safety. Energy is precious right now. Shouldn’t t-t-talk so much.”
Gwen nodded, trying not to move her arm too much as Friday took all controls. As she walked, the armor limped on its damaged leg. Gwen could tell by the tilt of the armor that Friday was off-balance with the loss of an arm. With that arm had also gone the armor’s primary weapon, the source of a great deal of counterweight.
Gwen had to choke back a sob at the horrible state her friend was in. She knew that once, Friday was an eldritch powerhouse on the battlefield, able to magically reallocate her mass to perform functions of many such armors. She could change her weapon on the fly, even take to the skies if need be. But now…
After hours of limping, Gwen spoke. “How are you holding up, Friday?”
A long pause. Friday then spoke in broken words interspersed with static. “Power… critical… drawing from… subsystems…”
“What subsystems, Friday?” Gwen asked, growing yet more concerned.
Another long pause. “… All of them.”
“What do you mean, Friday? Talk to me.”
“Speech is surprisingly taxing, Gwen. Drawing power from speech… weapons… radar… memory…”
“Memory?” Gwen nearly passed out from the pain suddenly shouting in surprise and fear. “Friday, you can’t!”
Friday chuckled. “It’s funny, Gwen. I already can’t remember what your face looks like.”
“Friday, no! You have to stop! Send a signal, a distress beacon!”
“The mountains are b-b-b-blocking any radio signal I send. W-w-we are dozens of klicks from any settlement capable of r-r-receiving.”
“There… there’s gotta be something….”
“T-t-there is, Gwen. Safety. Must g-g-get you to safety.”
“Setting primary directive.”
“I took those outta you!”
“Escort pilot to medical attention.”
“Friday! Goddammit! Friday, don’t you dare shut me out!”
“Pilot verbal commands not recognized.”
“Friday, you robotic bitch!”
“Pilot verbal commands not recognized.”
Gwen, unable to continue protesting through the pain, struggled to keep her breathing under control, and to stop from sobbing. “Friday…”
“S-s-systems critical. Essential hardware damaged or missing. Power levels low. Power source unrecognized. Systems unrecognized.”
“She doesn’t even remember when Thor upgraded her…” Gwen muttered, defeat sinking in.
“Primary directive – seek medical attention. Pilot – r-recommend r-r-rest. Rest, Pilot. Recommend. Pilot. Direc-Pilot. Reco-rest-d-d-d-directive.”
“Friday, shut down all verbal components.” Gwen heard a gentle down-spin as certain parts ceased functioning. Instead of continuing to protest, she simply laid back, fighting every tear that fell. She closed her eyes, and without realizing, fell into a fitful, painful sleep.
“My son… my child…”
The village burned. Sounds of battle, of conflict and of slaughter ran through the air. A helicopter roared by overhead. Through it all, a lone figure stooped before some rubble, some of it still burning. He grasped the glowing embers, the small licks of dying fire as if it were nothing. His gloves didn't so much as singe. He panted from exertion. He pulled something from the flame, and ran when he heard heavy boot steps marching nearer. Before the Coalition forces could find him, he was gone.
He looked out over the village from a cliff face not a kilometer away. Thick, dark plumes of smoke rose to the sky. He choked down the thought that there were people contributing to that smoke. People that breathe no longer.
Instead, he looked to what little good came from his presence. From under the deep cowl of his hood, he looked from the village down to the bundle in his arms. He pulled back the blanket and smiled at the gently fussing infant swaddled there. The blanket was only gently singed – his mother's final attempt to protect the lad had paid off it seemed. He smiled in the knowledge that she would be happy to see him safe.
The cloaked, cowled and robed figure turned from the village, knowing that he could offer nothing more here. Knowing that he had condemned them all to their fate.
He wrestled with these thoughts as he traveled for the next week. Had he moved on, like he intended weeks ago, the Coalition would never have caught wind of him. They never would have come, ready to put down an enemy of the state, an inhuman, magic-wielding monster. When the village refused to give him up, they attacked, charging them all with treason for harboring a monster. For harboring a mage.
Now, they're gone. Every one. All but this lad, this little bundle. After some days of travel, when he resolved to make camp and during a bout of sentimental thought, he set the babe down, and gently began the rite of naming his father had taught to him.
His voice was soft and gentle, yet firm and final. "I, Alexander Cross, by my…" he paused, thinking. "By our forefathers, and their gaze upon our lives, by their sacrifice, that we might carry on their struggle, their knowledge and their trials, do name thee. By my hand do I care for thee, carry thee, and comfort thee." The child gave an unexpected coo, and reached for Alexander. He smiled before continuing. "I do take thee, my…" he paused again, this time nearly choking on his own words. "My son. My child. I do name thee…"
He lifted the babe, the small bundle. He gave a small giggle, and wrapped tiny fingers about the edge of one of Alexander's nostrils.
"I do name thee Gabriel Cross."
“Let’s go play some games.”
He fiddled with the little shape in his hand. It was a die, twenty sided, typically used for his role-playing games. But this one was different – it was a deep, ruby red. The numbers one through twenty are seemingly etched into its sides, but they seemed odd. The numbers were an emerald green, and he couldn’t feel where they would be set into other dice.
“You’re strange…” he muttered to himself, alone on his school’s lawn. He knew it was just a die, just a plastic polygon used by nerds with no lives like himself, but something nagged at him. A voice, distant and small told him that this wasn’t just some factory plastic. It wasn’t just a die.
He stood, deciding to play around with it, and perhaps set his mind at ease. He stepped to one of the many paved walkways around campus, and cast it across the solid ground. It clacked and clicked repeatedly, and finally came to rest with its face labeled ’12’ turned to the sky.
For the briefest moment, he was filled with trepidation – some part of him desperately wanted something to happen. That part of him got its wish, as the small die quickly built up a light within itself, tinged the same ruby red. Within a single breath, there was an explosion of fire, centered around the die. He was cast back, landing on his back, hard enough to blast out what little air remained in his lungs.
The smoke began to clear and he scrambled to his feet, desperately thankful to have survived. He looked to the aftermath – a blackened, smoldering star burned into the pavement. And in the epicenter was the small, ruby red die.
He reached down, and tentatively picked it up, surprised by its coolness. He fiddled with it some more, running a hand through his now soot-covered hair. He smiled.
“Let’s go play some games.”
How I loved the rain!
I stood at the bus stop, umbrella in hand, awaiting my transit. The rain was pleasant, gentle. It smelled of vanilla today.
The bus rounded the corner and I readied my fare. As it pulled up, I stepped on, leaving my bags behind. I knew they’d be at my destination, as long as I paid promptly. I did so, passing the empty seat where a driver might sit in any other city.
I took my seat some rows back, enjoying the emptiness of the bus. I took a moment to get comfortable, ensuring my umbrella was securely folded. I noticed the eye staring at me from within the tear of fabric on the back of the seat in front of me. I nodded and waved. It blinked. I chuckled.
I sat back, preparing for a long ride. I basked in a new rain – the red that fell from the bus’ ceiling. How I loved the copper smell and taste. How I loved the rain.
Not an inch of the room was free from the coppery tone, smell and stickiness of blood.
“Quite the case, detective.” The officer wasn’t wrong. The scene of the crime was a doozy.
There were two bodies in the room, a man and a woman by the looks of it, but no further details had been found. Their torsoes lay on the bed, their left and right arms lay on the floor to the left and right of the bed respectively, and their legs lay on the floor at the bed’s foot. Their hands and feet were missing, and while each and every exposed wound and lasceration was cauterized, no inch of the room was free from the coppery tint, smell or stickiness of blood. The heads, if one could call them that, were pegged to the wall above the bed. Their jaws had been removed, all teeth absent. Their tongues lolled out, still dripping despite the cauterizing. The skulls were skinless and hairless, and the empty eye sockets seemed to peer directly into the detective’s heart and soul.
Several buckets or trash bins had been filled with the contents of the stomachs of officers that couldn’t handle it. It was later found that some of these buckets also contained the contents of the victims’ stomachs.
“I almost can’t believe it. Can’t be real, can it detective?” The cop said, the sights and smells beginning to get to him too.
The detective only looked away, his face a grimace. “It can, and it is, Montoya. We gotta…” He turned fully away from the victims, covering his mouth and whiping the spittle building there. “We gotta… get this under wraps and figured out quick.”
“Detective! We got the locked door open!” Came a call from another part of the house.
“Oh, thank God…” he breathed, leaving the wretched scene. Nothing could be worse than that hell, he thought.
The locked door hid a sizeable closet, once used for storage. What might have once lay here was gone, stacked throughout the house. Instead, the detective was greeted with a third body, strewn and dismembered in the same manner, head skinned, scalped and dissassembled the same way.
Only the torso lay in a crib.