Excerpt for The Compendium of Imaginary Stars by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





THE COMPENDIUM OF IMAGINARY STARS


A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES BY STEVE BENTON













Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 © Steve Benton

All rights reserved


Cover image © Dmitry Zaviyalov


ISBN: 9781370946877






This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Further, this book is not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of physicians. The reader should regularly consult a physician in matters relating to his/her health and particularly with respect to any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention, and most definitely not try to use magic of any sort because it really does not exist in our world - as far as we know.




TABLE OF CONTENTS


BITS 'N PIECES

NOTHING BUT STARS IN THE SKY

COLORFUL

SLAVES

PRESENT REWRITTEN

PAST RETOLD





















For Marielena - my wife, my love and my best friend








BITS 'N PIECES



"Linda, dear? Have you seen my favorite tie? You know, the blue one with orange stripes?" Ronald Simmons didn't want to be late for work, especially as he had an important meeting that afternoon. He knew that if his presentation were well received he'd be up for that promotion – the one he had been working toward for the past six months.

"It's in your top drawer, honey," his lovely wife responded from downstairs, as she attended to their son and daughter; ready to rush them out the door to meet the school bus.

That's odd. I could have sworn I hung it on my tie rack.

Ronald quickly went for his top drawer and indeed found the tie he was seeking, and then quickly knotted it around his neck and adjusted his collar. He went toward the bedroom door, grabbing his suit coat on the way, and made a mad dash down the stairs to their expansive kitchen in their newly upgraded home. It always seemed like his wife was getting new things for the house, and he really didn't mind, as long as the books were balanced. His wife and children were everything to him. He had worked so hard for so long it all seemed like a blur, but he had achieved what he had initially set out to do – to own a large home in the suburbs, have two cars, a son and a daughter and, of course, a beautiful wife.

"Okay, my love, I'm off. Wish me luck in my meeting," he said, his cheeks flushed with excitement.

Linda, dressed in a classic, light blue chiffon skirt and yellow blouse, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek as she practically pushed all three Simmons out of the door, just as the classic, yellow school bus stopped out front.

"Bye Daddy!" the children called out in unison, right before they clambered onto the noisy school transport, already filled to near-capacity with students.

Linda gave her doting husband a wink as she shut the door, leaving him to the rest of his day. He would later drive home, arriving in time to sit down at a table with steaming, perfectly-cooked food.

His life was, at the risk of sounding redundant, perfect.


###


Ronald sat in his office, going over his presentation, which consisted of numerous colorful block diagrams and bar charts. He had thirty minutes before his meeting, which was nothing more than a structural reorganization of his company's warehouse. Opening the pencil drawer of his desk, he grabbed a pen, but clumsily dropped it onto the ground.

Bah! Where'd that thing go?

He slid off his chair and got down on his knees, and climbed underneath his desk. It was the first time he had ever been underneath that particular piece of office furniture, and was immediately struck by the fact that the unseen underside seemed to have no finish to it whatsoever. It was like nothing – not even plastic. Curious, Ronald flipped over onto his back, and pushed the pencil drawer out, only to see the word DEMO, apparently burned or somehow attached to the bottom side of the desktop. Only visible from underneath, it was partially obscured by the joining of the side drawers with the desktop.

Thinking nothing more of the furniture oddity, Ronald grabbed his pen, which was off to the right side of the desk, and popped back up, looking around at his perfectly appointed, yet small office.


###


The meeting went just as planned, and Ronald was certain he would get the promotion he deserved, due to his hard work. Excited, he arranged some of the objects on his desk as he thought about how happy his wife would be, once he got the news and had told her. With this promotion they would be able to add a guest room in the back of their home, or perhaps even a swimming pool.

Ronald picked up a box of folders and walked over to his office closet. Trying to open the door while carrying the box, he accidentally dropped it, spilling the contents all over the floor and into the closet itself.

"Aw, darn," he said aloud, as he bent down to pick up the items on the floor. Quickly putting the folders back into the box, he noticed a strange-looking, but attractive calculator on the ground, partially obscured by a lone box. Curious, as he had no memory of ever having possessed the item, he picked it up and examined it closely.

Must have belonged to the former occupant of my office, he thought to himself.

He finished storing his box, next to an empty one that was labeled Inventory, and took the calculator, intent on adorning his desk with the unusual device.


###


Later that evening, Ronald sat at the dining room table with Linda and their children, Bobby and Cindy, having just finished a fantastic dinner of roasted chicken, potatoes and home-baked bread.

"Sweetie, dinner was excellent, as always," commented Ronald, with his two perfectly behaved children nodding in agreement.

"Thank you, dear. There is something to be said for sweating over a hot oven all day," mused his pretty wife. "By the way, the countertop mixer you brought home was immensely helpful with the bread. I couldn't have done it without it. And it matches so well with the kitchen décor."

"Huh?" queried the man of the house. "I… I didn't bring home any mixer. Where is it?"

Linda casually pointed over to the kitchen counter, where an attractive and expensive-looking KitchenAid Professional Mixer sat in plain view.

"Linda, I didn’t buy that. Did it come in the mail?"

"No, dear. It was just… there."

"How odd. Well, perhaps we bought it when we went shopping a while back, and one of us just put it out to use," said Ronald, unease lining his voice.

All four members of the household assisted with dinner cleanup, as was their tradition, so once they were done the children went off to finish their homework, while Ronald and Linda relaxed in the family room of their lovely two-floor suburban palace.

A brandy snifter in hand, Ronald looked at the attractive room in which he sat, proud of his achievements and wonderful family life. Linda was working on a crochet project, which appeared to be something small – like something for a newborn. He almost dared not ask, but did hope that she would announce they were to have yet another child. Bobby and Cindy were fraternal twins, and being seven years old would be the perfect age to assist with babysitting, once the newest family member was attending school.

"Dear, is there something you'd like to tell me?" asked Ronald, as he swirled the golden cognac around in his snifter, noting Linda was without her usual glass of red wine.

"Hmm? Such as?" she rhetorically questioned.

"We're having another baby, aren't we?"

Linda just grinned and kept on with her crocheting project.


###


The next day, Ronald sat at his well-appointed desk in his office, studying the calculator he had found in the closet. It was odd-looking, and had a wide LCD interface. Picking it up, he tried to turn it on, but was unable to locate a power switch.

This is weird, he thought.

He went to set the electronic object down, when it suddenly displayed some text in its small screen.


}

return KitchenAid;

}


This isn't a regular calculator, or it's busted.

Ronald set the small device back onto his desk, keeping it simply because it looked good there.


###


That evening, while he and Linda sat in their comfortable lounge chairs, Ronald looked around, again scanning their surroundings, as he would usually do. Descending into deep thought, he tried to remember the day they bought their lovely home, but to his dismay was unable. Nor could he remember their wedding day, even though the official photo of their nuptials was clearly hanging on the wall.

Ronald shrugged and polished off his cognac, nodding off into a relaxing slumber.


In the morning he awoke, not remembering how he got into his bed, but having an idea, he bound down the stairs, heading directly for the kitchen.

What he was looking for wasn't there.

"Honey, where's that mixer? You know, the new red one you used to make bread dough?"

"Mixer? Love, we never had a mixer, no matter how many times I asked for one," responded Linda, as she filled their children's two small juice glasses.

"Daddy, you look silly, you know that?" commented Bobby, as Cindy snickered at her brother's words.

"Yes, dear. You really should shave that beard," said Linda, causing Ronald to reach up and touch his facial fair.

I never had a beard before.

"Okay, children - off to school," he said. "Linda, I'll be working late today."


###


"Good morning, Mr. Simmons," said Sherry, the office receptionist.

"Morning. Did I get any messages?"

"None, sir."

He didn't know what he would do without Sherry. She always seemed to know what he needed, and when he needed it. Forgotten anniversary? Sherry had flowers for him to bring home. Daughter's piano recital? Sherry not only cleared his schedule; she walked him out the door when it was time to go. She was truly a treasure. He liked her – a lot, but not in a romantic sense. He loved his wife. Sherry was simply a faithful ally who helped to make sure Mrs. Simmons was a happy woman.

Ronald entered his office and shut the door, going straight to his closet. As he stared into the small space, he heard a small dinging sound from his desk. He turned and walked over, picking up the calculator he had found the day prior. Its display now had some flashing numbers.

Wow, that's weird, he thought.

Returning to the closet, he remembered the box labeled Inventory. He climbed back into the small space and pulled the box out, noting it now had a folder inside.

Blender? I wonder what this is?

Quickly opening the folder labeled Blender, a single sheet of paper fell out, landing on the ground at his feet. Ronald unceremoniously dumped the box onto the ground, bent over and grabbed the piece of paper, which, along with a picture of a red KitchenAid blender, seemed to have technical specifications. Some data he basically understood, such as dateCreated and some dimensions, but what perplexed him was the entry that said Land Impact = 13. There were also lines that said Scripts and Permissions, but he had no idea what they meant.

However, he knew one thing for sure – it was a picture of the blender that had disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared in his kitchen, and his wife and children remembered nothing of it.

Getting an idea, he walked out to the receptionist's desk. Slyly leaning onto the small counter, he said, "Hey Sherry, do you notice anything different about me?"

"Hmm?" she murmured, slowly looking up. "Such as, Mr. Simmons?"

"Well, my beard for one. You didn’t mention it, like you do every time I wear a new tie."

"Mr. Simmons," she said, "what are you talking about? You've always maintained a well-trimmed beard."

"Oh… well, yes. You are quite correct. I was just testing you, see?" he joked, but at the same time he realized that something was seriously wrong.

Back in his office, he sat at his desk, going over some figures for the next season's marketing campaign, and noticed nothing else unusual in his otherwise perfect life.


###


Ronald Simmons awoke in his large bed the following morning, to the sound of birds chirping and some light music coming from his clock radio. He rolled over to put a hand on his wife's shoulder but found only empty space. In fact, the pillow was perfectly placed, and it seemed that no one had slept there all night.

As he brushed his teeth, he took notice of the toiletries on the counter next to the sink. He saw only his items.

Linda must have put her stuff away.

He walked out his door and went to drop down the stairway, but stumbled and fell, having miscalculated his step due to the fact that there was no stairwell. Cautiously, he moved down the small, unrecognizable hallway, approaching a small kitchen off to the right.

He wasn't in his house. It was as if his bedroom was moved somewhere in the middle of the night while he slept.

There wasn't a single picture of his family anywhere. Just a couple framed photos of him with his college buddies on a backpacking trip through Europe. Ronald reached up to rub his beard, but to his surprise he was again clean-shaven.

"Linda? Linda! What’s going on here?" he cried out, by now completely confused and distraught.

No one answered.


Ronald had never dressed so quickly in his life. Once he was ready, he sprinted toward the front door of the house, only to find he was in an apartment complex. It was a simple click of his key fob that enabled him to discover the location of his car. However, his car had also changed. Instead of driving a smart, four door Ford sedan, he was now the owner of a yellow, late model Corvette.


I always wanted one of these, but not at the expense of my family…


###


As he entered the expansive entrance to his company's headquarters, he saw a larger, much more attractive reception desk. There to greet him was a gorgeous blonde who sported a low-cut blouse.

"Good morning, Mr. President," said the new girl.

"Mr… huh?"

"Mr. Simmons, you have a meeting with the Board of Directors at two p.m."

"I do?"

"Yes, sir. You asked me to remind you. Your personal secretary will notify you later today."

Ronald awkwardly crossed his arms and pointed his hands in opposite directions, while giving the receptionist an inquisitive, yet expectant glance.

"That way… sir," she responded, pointing to her left, while returning an odd stare.

Ronald walked down the hallway until he saw Sherry, whom he had always known as the sole receptionist for the small company - a company now apparently much bigger than it had been before.

"Mornin', Sherry. Um, anything new?"

"Good morning, Mr. Simmons. Your schedule is free until your afternoon meeting with the board. Shall I call the country club and schedule a quick round of golf for you?"

"Golf? Um, no. That's okay. I need to do some research. Oh, and Sherry? Will you notify me if my wife calls, please?"

"Wife? Sir? Did you just go to Vegas and do the unthinkable?"

Shaking his head, he walked past Sherry and entered his office, only to find an expansive and luxurious space. His desk had changed, and was now a massive mahogany structure, with four large flat screen monitors on top. To the back of the room was a full bar, beautifully lit and backed by mirrors. He walked over and opened one of the numerous crystal bottles, taking a sniff. Vodka. He opened another. Cognac. And yet a third, which was obviously a fine Scotch whisky.

I could get used to this, but… my wife and kids. I have to find them. What the hell happened?

Then he saw the closet.

It was the same exact size as the closet he had the day before. In fact, it was the only thing that remained the same in his office. Ronald opened the door and noticed that it was deeper than it had been previously. He grabbed the box labeled Inventory and dropped it on top of his new, larger desk. There were now numerous folders inside, as well as folders within folders.

Let's see, he thought to himself, this one's called Ford Taurus.

Opening the folder, a single sheet of paper fell out. He glanced at it, and noted it had the same basic information as the paper he had seen the day before for the blender.

Shit. That was like my car. What the hell?

He scanned some of the other folders, not even bothering to look inside them. He saw Family Photo1, Dining Room Set, Beard…

Beard! What is this?

Ronald grabbed the paper from inside the folder and read the detail on Beard. It even had a creepy picture of the beard that he had worn for a single day.

He went to the bar to pour a long, stiff drink. Choosing the scotch, as he intended on chugging whatever it was that he put into the small glass, he savored the scent for a moment and then pounded the contents in one gulp. Then he drank another. And another.

Ronald stumbled over to his desk and plopped down into his chair, his head buried in his hands. As he sat still, he pondered the state of his existence, trying desperately to remember his life. To his surprise and dismay he could not remember one detail – only a basic overview, and that also seemed to be fading.

Then, he thought he heard some odd static and muffled voices. They were almost possible to understand, but he found they became louder and intelligible when he touched the mysterious calculator he had found in the closet, which still sat on his desktop. As he listened, he noticed it was a conversation between a man and a woman.

"Okay, I have voice chat on. Can you hear me now?" asked the man.

"Yeah. So… wow. It's over?"

"Sure is. I ejected her stuff last night.

"So, what happened? You two seemed so happy," said the feminine voice.


"Hello!" Ronald yelled at the top of his lungs. "Who's talking?"


The two voices continued with their conversation as if he hadn't said a thing.

"I found out she was married and had kids in RL," said the male voice

"No way! She had a real family and everything? I knew she was hiding something. Her online schedule was just too weird, ya know?"

"Yeah," he said.

"So what are you gonna do?" asked the unseen woman.

"I already made some changes. Packed the house away and put some furniture in an apartment on the mainland. But I think I'm just gonna wipe it all and start from scratch. I'm already storing everything in my inventory folder. Hell, I even made myself head of the corporation, but it's tough finding people who wanna role-play. Everyone wants to be in charge, you know what I mean?"

"Yeah, tell me. Oh gawd, do you remember when Avatar came out? Every frikin' Na'vi female was Neytiri and every male was Jake Sully. Made it impossible to RP. But, you know what? I've got an idea! Why don't you do something… different?" said the female voice.

"Well, I guess I could. I mean, Linda's gone – she even blocked me, but I saved the kids for a future family. What are you thinking?"


"This is Ronald Simmons, president of this company, and I demand to know who is speaking!"


"Go female avie. You know, it's a lot of fun, and the clothing options are so much better. We could play sisters."

"Yeah, why not? Hell, I have the shape saved anyway. Wanna help me shop? I'm kinda clueless with those things," the invisible man inquired

"Oh yeah, hun. I know all the best stores. By the way, did I ever tell you your RL pic is awesome? When did you take it?"

"Last year, so it's kinda old, to be honest. This is weird. I've never used voice, and here we are. Oh, and your RL pic is amazing. How old is it?"

"This new one? Last week. Um, I have some… better ones, if you know what I mean," the woman answered with giggle.


Ronald was nearly at the point of a complete mental meltdown. Unable to comprehend what he was hearing, he believed it could have been coming from an adjacent office, until he heard the last of the otherworldly conversation.


"So, sweetie, you ready? Ready for the change?"

"Yeah. Already have a mesh bod. Swapping the shape now. Hey, why don't you watch?"

"Sure, okay," said the female voice, right as Ronald's personal assistant walked into his office, wearing a serene look on her face.


"Well, make the change and we'll go shopping," said Sherry.


Looking down, Ronald Simmons screamed as large breasts suddenly protruded from his chest.


END














NOTHING BUT STARS IN THE SKY

An Iraqi child and marine team up against insurgents, but whose side is the child on?





Lt. Rand Jones lay in a puddle of his own blood on a flat, rocky shelf. He was separated from his squad during a firefight and barely escaped with what was left of his life. He knew if he didn't get medical treatment soon he would be just another corpse in the Iraqi desert.

Taking his utility knife, he cut the leg of his camouflage pants open and examined his wound. Luckily, the shrapnel missed his femoral artery, but had still done enough damage to cause constant bleeding. The sun would rise within the hour, and when it did he would be a sitting duck for local insurgent fighters. All he could do was keep up hope, and let his mind travel back to when he was a civilian.

 

He remembered sitting in the small, private room of St. Augustine's Hospital, where his son, Jake, was in the final stages of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was holding the boy's hand when the youth took his final breaths.

"I'm sorry, Daddy. I know you'll be all right. I'm gonna see Mommy now," whispered Jake, putting his free hand over his heart and struggling to maintain consciousness, as his internal organs shut down from massive infections throughout his body.

Rand leaned forward and kissed his son's forehead right before the youth expired and left the world of the living.

 

I wish I could have saved him. Was too damned busy mourning my wife to notice the symptoms.

 

He joined the Marine Corps shortly thereafter. His wife had died in a car accident three years earlier, and now that his son was gone he had nothing else to live for. That alone made him the perfect soldier. Then OCS put him in the command structure.

Jones was considered a hands-on officer – a bit reckless, but effective. He was more than willing to jump into the line of fire in order to achieve objectives, and the memories of his wife and son drove him like nothing else could.

But now he was going to die unless a miracle happened.

 

And it did.

 

Rand saw an Iraqi boy approaching. The youth had an inquisitive grin, and gave the lieutenant little cause to be alarmed.

"American! You American soldier?"

"Huh?" he murmured, thinking he might be hallucinating. "Yeah. Over here."

The kid, covered in dust, as were most children in that region, approached cautiously.

"What’s your name, son?"

"I am Achmed, American. What your name?"

"Jones. Rand Jones. Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps. I need help, son. Need to get to my unit. Are you hungry?"

"Yes, Jones Rand. Very hungry."

Rand groaned as he reached down and pulled a protein bar out of his pant leg pocket and handed it to the boy, who appeared to be about twelve years old.

"I need to find shelter before the sun comes up. Do you know anywhere I can go?"

"There hole in mountain, Jones Rand. Not far. You come?"

Rand could only hope the child wasn't going to lead him right to the enemy.

"Sure. Gimme a sec. It's hard to stand."

"I help. I save you," said the boy, as he pulled on Rand's arm.

Getting up with difficulty, Rand followed the boy as he tried to find the easiest path down form the rock ledge where he had been lying for the past few hours.

"Hey kid, why are you out here?"

"Run from men. They bad. Kill my mother. Take sister and make wife."

"Oh… God. How old is your sister, son?"

"She eleven, Jones Rand."

 

Fucking savages.

 

The two moved down a small path, with Rand limping along as the boy attempted to assist.

 

These poor kids. They deserve better. Maybe I can get Achmed to a safe place – if he doesn't kill me first.

 

Rand had very little trust in humanity anymore, so he couldn't be blamed for his lack of confidence in the boy. Still, his paternal instincts overrode any sense of self-preservation as they stayed in the shadows provided by the rising sun to the east.

It wasn't more than an hour later that the two heard voices – men speaking in Arabic, and quite loudly.

"Achmed," he whispered, "we need to hide. Where's this hole you were talking about?"

"It here, Jones Rand. You hide. I take men away from you."

"No, Achmed. You need to hide with me," he said, the thought of the boy's potential betrayal in mind, but coupled with a sincere desire to get the child out of that hellhole.

Climbing into a small opening, which led to a larger space inside, they sat toward the edge of the dirt wall so that anyone peering inside wouldn't see them. Rand unholstered his standard issue Berretta M9 and quietly moved the safety into the off position, and then made sure the chamber was charged with a round. As the voices became louder he put his index finger up to his pursed lips, saying, "Shhhhhh," as quietly as he could, while motioning with his other hand for the lad to stay put.

 

It didn’t work. Achmed went running out of the cave.

 

Aw damn. I'm dead.

 

Rand heard a lot of chatter; nothing that he understood. His heart was pounding so hard he was having a hard time determining the distance of the voices. After a few minutes he had determined they were moving away and he started to calm down.

 

Wow. Maybe the kid led them away?


###

 

He had no idea how long it was that he slept, but he guessed it was the entire day, because the sun was setting in the west when he woke up. But for all he knew it could have been a day and a half. The shrapnel wound in his thigh seemed to be healing, but he knew any brusque movements would quickly change that.

Waiting until the sun had completely set, he crawled out, taking care to not disturb his wounds. As he stood up he gazed across the flat horizon. He was hoping he could see where young Achmed had gone, but the boy was nowhere to be found. Rand was completely alone in the desert, with a day's worth of water rations and one protein bar left. He needed to find his unit, or some Allied forces in the least.

He knew there was a small base southwest of where he had engaged in the firefight, so he logically went off in that direction.

 

I'm a sitting duck out here.

 

The lieutenant trudged across the acrid plain, moving slowly, until he saw a helicopter on the horizon. Watching intently to see the direction in which it was moving, he visually tracked the craft to the south and kept following it.

 

Wish I could walk faster.

 

After some hours he noticed the sun was going to peek up over the eastern horizon, so he moved toward some small hills, hoping to find shelter from the intense heat that was soon to come. He was still out of radio range, and dared not try to contact friendly forces quite yet, preferring to save the battery until he had a visual.

 

Damned budget cuts. You think they'd at least give me a satellite phone.

 

Rand found a space in between some boulders where believed he could get shelter from the sun, as well as stay out of sight. Luckily, there were some shrubs he could use as camouflage, covering the entrance to his hideaway. As the sun rose, he wedged himself back into the rocks, intent on waiting the day out in the shade. He hadn't been sleeping but two hours when awoke with a start.


Achmed was sitting in front of him, chewing on some dates.


"I back now, Jones Rand."

"Hey, kid. How'd you find me?"

"Americans very noisy."

"Then how come those insurgents didn't hear me?"

"They more noisy," he said with a chuckle.

"Well, I'm making one last push, when the sun goes down."

"Why push? We go now, Jones Rand. Come. I know. Americans soon."

"No, man. We have to wait 'till the sun goes down."

"We go now. Sun good. Enemy sleep now."

"Heh heh – okay, let's go. You lead the way."

 

The two moved out in a southerly direction, avoiding a couple of small, abandoned villages. Rand was certain there would be some way to contact allied forces in them, as every village had a hardline. Still, Achmed seemed to detect danger and kept the soldier moving along. It was nearly the end of the day when they saw a dust cloud to the north. As they watched, it was apparent that it was manmade and moving in their direction.

"Jones Rand, that is enemy."

"Shit. We have to hide, kid. Where do we go?"

"Down. We go there," said Achmed, pointing at a ditch along the side of the road.

Lying down flat in the rut, which was approximately three feet deep, Rand made sure the chamber of his M4 rifle was charged. Achmed appeared to have absolutely no fear at all, as he laid low and waited for danger to pass. The approaching vehicles, obviously more than one, were noisy to say the least. Rand guessed they were beat-up Toyota pickups – a popular choice out in the Iraqi desert.

"Achmed, take this. Point it and pull the trigger if you intend to shoot," said Rand, while handing his 9mm pistol to the youth. "Keep your finger off the trigger like this if not shooting."

"No. No gun for me, Jones Rand. It okay. You shoot," said the boy, as he pushed Rand's hand away.

The lieutenant shook his head and holstered his pistol. "Okay, Achmed. I'll protect you."

 

Like I was unable to do for my family.

 

Rand kept his head down, squinting his eyes as the shoddy vehicles rumbled by. He watched Achmed's small, dust-covered face, framed by bushy, black hair, as it broke out into a grin.

"You think this is fun? Exciting?" he hissed at the boy.

"American, you are brave," whispered Achmed, snickering as the insurgent vehicles rumbled by.

The two waited for about fifteen minutes before they popped their heads up, watching as the caravan rumbled off in the distance. Getting up, still with some difficulty, they started moving again to the south.

It was dark out, and the center of the Milky Way displayed as a streak through the sky. Rand thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, aside from his wife's face - something he would never see again.

Walking until daybreak, Rand felt they were close. That was a good thing, as he had just emptied his canteen, and needed more water as soon as possible. Then, he saw an encampment in the distance. Hoping it wasn't a mirage, he pulled out his radio and sent a distress call. To his good fortune he contacted the distant base, which was about four clicks away.

"Achmed, we're gonna be okay. A helicopter is on its way," said Rand, obviously relived.

"Yes, Jones Rand. You shall be fine."

"No kiddo, you'll be fine too. How'd you like to go live in the USA?"

The boy just shook his head. "My home here."

"Okay, whatever floats your boat. Still, we should stay here and…"

 

Oh shit. They're back.

 

"No place for hide, Jones Rand. They coming now again."

"I know. Well, it was good while it lasted."

Ran had no choice but to remain in place, his trusty M4 in hand, while waiting for the insurgents to find him. He knew he would be killed, but what pissed him off was that they would probably kill Achmed too.

"Can you run? Is there someplace you can hide?"

"No, sir. No place."

Dropping to the ground, Rand dialed his scope and waited to see the whites of the enemies' eyes. His rifle had a short barrel, so he could get an accurate shot on anything in less than 300 yards – the closer the better.

 

Hit the drivers first. Then the tires. Keep them distant.

 

He was about to pull off his first round when five AGM-114 Hellfire missiles struck the caravan, destroying the trucks like they were made of matchsticks.

The cavalry had arrived. Rand would live another day, and he had one young boy to thank. Closing his eyes, he welcomed the brain-rattling noise of the approaching Sea Stallion and accompanying Cobras, which had launched the missiles that saved his life.

 

"Sir! Lieutenant Jones! Relax! We're putting you on a stretcher."

Rand opened his eyes, looking at the Navy medic who was applying bandages to his wounded leg.

"The kid. Bring the kid along. He needs food and water. He helped me," groaned the lieutenant.

"Kid? Sir, there's no one here but you."

"No, there's a local kid with me. Achmed. About twelve years old."

"Sir, we're out in the dessert, and there's no one as far as the eye can see."

"That's… not possible."

 

As he was being loaded into the helicopter, Rand saw a flash of color out of the corner of his eye. Slowly lapsing into unconsciousness, thanks to the painkillers the corpsman had administered, he turned his head to see Achmed standing next to some Marines, shuffling his feet in the dust while eating a red apple. The boy looked over at Rand, put his hand over his heart and waved, a bright grin encompassing his small face as everything faded to black.



END







COLORFUL


Terry's beautiful, colorful, utopic world is perfect; until it is not.




"Terry! We'll be late if you don't hurry!"

"Calm yourself, Bobby. The event doesn't start for another hour, and the pods will get us there in minutes."

Terry Livingston was more excited than she appeared about the grand opening of the latest art gallery in New Francisco. Mopa, the hottest artist on the scene, had held to his promise of creating a live, interactive gallery, where the mod crowd could go and play.

Terry was part of that crowd, as was her lover, Bobby Sherwood. In fact, everyone they knew were part of that crowd, so to say the ensuing party was to be epic would have been an understatement.

"There's a rumor that Mopa created a new color. Isn't that brilliant?" Terry asked, while she buttoned her violet tunic.

"Mopa's the best. But don't you find it odd that he's never been seen in public? In fact, we don't even know what he looks like," responded the hurried man, as he quickly donned a pink and yellow blazer and rushed for the door. "Come, we want to be early, so we can join with our friends. This is gonna be great," continued Bobby, as he laughingly grabbed Terry by the arm.


The blonde couple, which by all appearances could have been related, made their way out of their modern apartment and headed for the pod station in the basement of their building. Society had come a long way since The Restructuring, and not only was work voluntary, every need was taken care of. They had the best clothing, food, events, activities, and were only required to keep physically fit and healthy. Their entire building was filled with people their age, so of course they had many friends with whom they could play: be it the opera, nightclubs, antioxidant bars or tennis. Terry and Bobby had it made.

Racing down the moving walkway, they stepped into a private pod, which was made even more private when Bobby hit the dimmer button, effectively blocking any outside view. Their lips pressed as they savored each other's scent, and played a bit before they arrived at the all-new Mopa exhibit.

"Bobby! Terry! Over here!" called out Doris Wong, one of Terry's best friends. Terry waved excitedly, as she practically dragged Bobby along to join with the woman.

Doris looked different from Bobby and Terry, as she belonged to a different race of human being. Millennia prior, anyone could mate with whomever they desired. However, this was found to be non-conducive toward proper genetic reproduction, with the human gene pool being limited, so the authorities started to make smart matches. Bobby and Terry were introduced to each other after they had turned eighteen years old, as were Doris and her mate, Charlie Lin.

"Bobby! It's so good to see you. I'll bet you two are excited about Mopa's new exhibit, eh?"

It was quite obvious that Charlie thought Bobby was a great guy, most probably due to Bobby's cool demeanor. But Terry knew Bobby didn't really care much for Charlie, nor Doris, and only hung out with them for her sake. And that was a good thing, because she knew she would create fine offspring with Bobby once they had received their birthing license from the authorities.

"Yeah, it should be keen," chuckled Bobby. "Let's go get a drink…"

"Wow! I love your blazer, Bobby," said Doris, admiring his colorful jacket.

"I picked it up for him in the Retro Section the other day," Terry proudly stated.

"I sure hope you had a cappuccino when you were there. There's a little place on the corner of Blue and Orange that serves them," advised Charlie.

"I don't drink coffee products. My health report advised me to avoid them, and thus would facilitate a quicker birthing license," said Terry, noting that Doris and Charlie gave each other an excited glance.

"We were going to wait to tell you, but… we got our license this morning!" squealed Doris, as she leaned into her assigned mate.

"So great!" exclaimed Terry. She was genuinely happy for her friend, as well she should have been. Receiving a birthing license was the pinnacle of any couple's relationship.

"Hey, congrats, you two," added Bobby, forcing a smile as he said so.

The two couples entered into a rainbow portal, which led them into a tunnel that dazzled the senses. Sparkles floated on the walls, creating illusions of profound beauty rarely seen, even in their brilliant world.

And that was where the problems began.

Terry was watching the wall display with piqued interest, losing herself in the depths of the display, when she suddenly saw and heard what seemed to be gray noise – wavy lines and disrupted vision, along with a painful sound that caused her temporary dismay.

"Ouch! What is that?" she cried.

"What's what, Terry?" asked Bobby.

"Terry, tell me nothing's wrong," Doris kindly demanded.

"It's… like… there are no colors. Oh, wait. Okay. I'm fine."

"Perhaps it was a reaction to that wall you were staring at, Terry," suggested Charlie.

"Yeah, maybe you're right…"

Mopa's exhibit was mind-blowing, offering the best in extra-sensory enjoyment, coupled with antioxidant atmosphere flows and scent blasts of every known color in the universe.

And then Mopa revealed himself, along with his new color.

He was tall; unusually tall. He was also strangely handsome, which caused Terry undue stress, as she was genetically matched to Bobby and should have only found him to be sexually attractive. She watched as Mopa waved his arm through the air, with a color never before seen by human eyes following his hand.

Everyone gasped, held their breaths deep and then burst out into applause.

And it happened again.

Terry saw the same interference, but this time she wasn't staring at a wall. Mopa changed from being a tall, handsome man to looking like something she had never seen before. He was pale, nearly colorless, with soulless black eyes and a fish-like face. His lustrous hair disappeared, revealing a bald, clammy skull that had dark spots all over. Worse yet, the entire exhibit now looked dirty and gray. There was trash on the floor, and aside from being dressed in rags, everyone looked bland and malnourished.

Gazing at her assigned mate, Terry was mortified that Bobby, although looking roughly the same as before, had a tired face and a sallow complexion. Dark circles under his eyes showed a severe lack of sleep, and the attractive blazer she got for him was only a beat up tweed jacket.

What the heck? What's wrong with me?

"I… I need to go home. I don't feel well," she said, turning for the door without another word. Bobby shrugged his shoulders and waved goodbye to the couple he didn't really care for in the first place, and then followed Terry back to the pods, which took them to their apartment.

"Bobby. There's something… off with me. I don't see colors anymore, and everything's ugly and dirty now."

"Come on, let's get you to the hospital then."

"No! If they find something wrong we may not get our license. Doris already got hers. Don't you want to have a baby?"

"Well yeah, of course! But your health is more important than competing with those two. They're no big deal, anyway. Let's go get you checked out."



###



Later, at the local clinic, Terry waited alone in an examination room, looking at the drab, unpainted walls. There should have been colorful splashes and designs all over, but she now saw everything in black and white; her world had become grayscale. Crumpled papers littered the floor, and numerous ugly boxes lined every hallway of the clinic. But what shocked Terry wasn't the garbage – it was the attending physician who entered and gave her a blank stare.

"Are you Mopa?" she gasped.

"No, I am not. I am Doctor Halloway. I hear you are suffering from visions. Please, tell me what these might be."

"You are… ugly! And the world is gray. There's garbage everywhere and it's scary."

"I see. Hmm, please hold still, Terry," said Doctor Halloway. He held a tuning fork-like instrument up to her ear, which caused a light humming sound to reverberate in her brain. In a matter of moments her vision was returned to normal, and she found herself looking at a very handsome doctor with red hair and a neatly trimmed beard.

"Oh, what happened? I don't understand? Will this affect my birthing license?"

"No, not at all, my dear. You see, throughout the millennia mankind has suffered numerous maladies, which we have always sought to correct. You merely experienced something that used to happen on a casual basis. It is nothing to be concerned with, really. That is all."

Terry sped along the moving sidewalk with Bobby, recounting her distressing events of the evening.

"Everything was gray – ugly. Heck, even the doctor looked like Mopa."

"And what did Mopa look like?" Bobby asked.

"Like a fish-man. No hair, black eyes and spots on his head. There was garbage everywhere, like the bots stopped cleaning or something."

Why did I tell Bobby? What if he asks for a replacement mate? Am I broken?


###


The following day, Terry went to play tennis with her friend Felicia. She really liked Felicia, as she and the girl looked very similar. Plus, as an added benefit to their friendship, they were the same size and build, so they could share clothes. Felicia had an outfit that Terry wanted to borrow, and she knew a good tennis match would put her friend in the right mood, being that Felicia usually won.

And win she did.

"Great match! You always get me in the last set," said Terry.

"You were a tough opponent this time, Terry. Your backhand is sure improving."

"Hey Felicia, you know that cute, yellow spring dress you wore to the grand opening of Omar's Antioxidant Bar two weeks back?"

"Yes. It was such a find!"

"Well, do you think I could borrow it for a party tomorrow?"

"Of course! What is the event?"

Terry giggled lightly, and said, "It's a birthing license party for Doris Wong. You do know her, don't you?"

"We've met before. She is a nice girl. Please give her our best wishes. Now let's go get that dress for you."

The two were in Felicia's large walk-in closet, with Terry admiring her friend's expansive wardrobe.

And then it happened again.

One moment she was looking at the pretty yellow spring dress, and the next she heard a raucous noise and found herself holding what was actually a burlap sack with shoulder straps.

Falling to the ground, Terry screamed in agony.

Then everything went dark.

Terry awoke in a filthy room, virtually unfit for human habitation. This time, joining the ugly garbage and boxes was a large amount of rotten food waste, which she could unfortunately smell too. Not knowing where she was, nor how much time had passed, she sat up and looked around, panicking while breathing in deep, heaving breaths.

"Where am I? What's happening to me?" she cried out.

"Terry, please remain calm. You are perfectly safe," a tinny-sounding voice called out from a speaker in the ceiling.

"Who are you? What's going on? I'm scared!"

A door slowly opened, and two identical fish-like people entered, both giving her blank expressions.

"Mopa? There are two of you? What's going on?"

"Terry, please. There has been a malfunction. You must relax. We are not going to harm you," said one of the fish men.

"Who are you?"

"I am Porso, and this is… Mopa."

"Hello, Terry. I do apologize for your distress. This seems to be completely our fault, and is totally unintentional," said Mopa.

"How can I tell you two apart? You look identical," exclaimed Terry, still frightened out of her wits.

"Hmm, I shall hold this paper in my hand," said Mopa, as he bent over and picked up a dirty piece of crumpled paper from the ground.

"Ew, gross!"

"Indeed," said Porso, "but it shall suffice for the time being.

"So, what happened to me? Why is everything so ugly?"

"Well, to be honest, your implant failed," said Porso.

"My what?"

"All humans are given an implant at decanting," said Mopa, staring at Terry with his black, expressionless eyes.

"Decanting? What's that?"

"Terry, have you ever seen a newborn baby?" asked Porso.

"Of course! I see them on the screens all the time!"

"No, Terry. I mean in real life," said Porso.

"Well, no… why?"

"Babies are not born. They are grown," said Mopa.

"I'm confused. What do you mean?"

Porso sighed and seemed to have what resembled an expression of sadness. He took a deep breath and then recounted the tale of humanity to their unfortunate victim of failed technology.

"Of course, you realize we are not like you. Our species is called the K'Nath, and we ruled intergalactic star systems before your ancestors were walking upright. Tens of thousands of years ago we encountered a dying world, orbiting a star on the outer edge of what is called the Milky Way Galaxy – Earth, the planet from which your people originated. There were few surviving humans left, but enough for us to save your species, on another world, and in another galaxy. At first we thought they would fight against us, but they were weak and only wanted to be cared for. They quickly left everything behind for a new beginning.

"Earth? I only know the here and the now. New Francisco!"

"Of course," added Mopa. "And that is all anyone will ever know. We have brought mankind to an enlightened state. By providing your every need, and giving you sensory enhancements via your implants, every human on this world is happy, healthy and enjoys a wonderful standard of living until his or her time comes to an end."

"To an end? What do you mean?" asked Terry, not knowing the concept of endings or death.

"Terry, of course you've never seen an aged person. Before we restructured your species your ancestors lived for many decades, turning wrinkled and what you would view as ugly, before becoming feeble and dying in misery. We have been able to increase your life expectancy, but when you expire it is sudden, and we modify the memories of those around you so you are not missed. In fact, due to your failed implant, and consequent reaction in front of your mate and friends, we had to modify their memories so you would not be remembered. I am sorry to inform you of this."

Terry stared at Mopa in disbelief, not knowing if she should cry or keep questioning.

She didn't cry.

"Well, I certainly don't want to be ugly or wrinkled. And why is everything so without the beautiful colors I have always known? I miss the colors."

"I can answer that," said Porso. "The implant was developed after our first attempt at saving your species had failed. We provided farms and jobs and many of the things that human society had previously produced on Earth and Mars, the two formerly inhabited planets of the system of your ancestors. However, this experiment failed. Clans formed and were constantly warring with each other, thinning out the gene pool with each savage death. It was at this point that we knew your species could only thrive if properly managed. We gave the humans a choice – be controlled more, or be abandoned. They chose control. However, the required resources for keeping your world perfect and orderly were more than we could spare, so we created the implant that gives you the illusion of beautiful perfection. The energy saved is substantial. So, mankind has been living a peaceful existence now for thousands of years thanks to this wonderful technology."

"And… this is what everything really looks like?"

"Yes, I am afraid so. Is it not much better to see the world through an implant?" asked Porso.

"Maybe, but I also like truth," said Terry.

Mopa and Porso looked at each other, with the latter turning to Terry and saying, "As your implant failed, and you now know the truth of your existence, we could offer you a different life."

"What do you mean, a different life?"

"Yes, you could live amongst our kind. Of course, you could never return to your friends. You would be transported to our homeworld, which is in a nearby star system. I might add that it is not nearly as dreary as this place appears, although it tends to be a bit wet in comparison," said Mopa.

"Couldn't you just… you know, fix me? I'd rather not hang out with you guys. No insult intended, but you're pretty ugly, to be honest."

"Mankind is not attractive to us either, young Terry," said Porso, as he formed what resembled a grin on his fish-like mouth.

"I believe we can attempt another implant for you, Terry. However, you would be assigned a new group of friends and a new mate. You would also have your memories altered, and would have no knowledge of our encounter, nor the effects of your failed implant," added Mopa.

"So, I'll go back to my life?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes," said Porso.

Terry seemed to concentrate for a moment, and looked long and hard at the garbage-strewn room, figuring it was better to live a lie than to suffer such ugliness.

"Okay, please fix me. I want to go back," she said, as she got up from her filthy cot.



###




Mopa, the handsome exhibit artist, was closing his new interactive gallery after a successful first showing, as his assistant, Porso kindly led the spectators out the door, where they would go off to various clubs and events. Terry Livingston hooked her arm around that of her mate, Bobby Sherwood, as they prepared for their next event. The two made for the door, ready to party on into the New Angeles night without a care in the world.

After Porso locked the entrance, he turned back to Mopa and gave his identical friend a kind nod.

"It seems the implant has taken well. Terry has successfully integrated into the birthing group, is with her new mate and has not missed a beat, so to say."

"Yes, Porso. I do believe it shall hold this time. I find it odd that she did not choose to leave, as so many other failed implants had done before. Perhaps we should have told her of the farming community on our world where humans live as they did on Earth. It could have extended her life."

"She, like many others, preferred the security of ignorance. If she only knew that her ancestors begged us to make them forget so many centuries ago. It was then that we realized their value."

"She is from simple stock, Mopa. Her line is not known for its intelligence."

"Yes, I believe you are correct. Speaking of stock, I do so prefer the Asian varietals. They are much more tender."

"It is their naturally higher percentage of body fat, Mopa. And I must agree. The Caucasians are a bit stringy."

"Oh, I put in a personal request with the New Francisco group for Doris Wong's left thigh, now that we've extracted the fetus for proper growth and decanting. Perhaps we could have a gathering and enjoy the meat together…"


END








SLAVES


Two unexpected worlds collide in a tale of two beings who blend the lines between friend and foe.



Golden-eyed Kantros relaxed in the warm summer sun, a cool breeze keeping it from being unbearably hot outside. She enjoyed the fair seasons on her world; a place made for her and those of her kind.

However, it was also made for those of the lumbering caste: the large, bumbling antagonists that almost always seemed to be underfoot, sticking their noses in everyone else's business and making a racket at the most inconvenient of times.

Kantros was of the stealth caste. As luck would have it (or not), she was required to share property with one of the lumbering caste (who referred to themselves as the warrior caste) – a brown-eyed, unkempt male named Vortag.

As they shared their property, they also had the same group of slaves, per the rules of their society. There was a mature male, a female, and two juveniles, with one of each gender. Kantros rather liked having slaves, but easily became upset when they forgot her daily massage, or when her meals were prepared late. After all, slaves were there for her pleasure.

Vortag didn’t seem to mind their slaves' lack of punctuality, and this particular fact caused some strife between the two. Still, Kantros had to consider that she was a relative newcomer to her property.

At first, she believed she could put up with Vortag's antics and partying, but things came to a head rather quickly. The ensuing fights almost forced both to abandon their properties and slaves, which would have been devastating to both. But they managed to make amends and live in peace – for the time being.

"Vortag, they are late with our meals again. How much longer shall you tolerate your slaves' ineptitudes?"

"Really, Kantros. You can be such a relaxed individual, but you stress out over the smallest of things. We have blessed lives. Our world doesn't require us to work, we have servants who attend to our every need, and yet you fret over schedules and massages. There are worse things that could happen."

"Perhaps you are correct. Still, I would prefer to have my own property and slave."

Vortag flopped down onto a large, plush pillow with a light grunt, stretching out and relaxing in the shade provided by a massive tree.

"I am rather fond of my servants, Kantros. I wish you could see the value they bring."

"Value, yes. But they are so… primitive! Their species cannot even communicate properly. They attempt to address us in grunts, whistles and hisses. It would be insulting, were it not so pathetic."

"Kantros, not all species are capable of telepathic communication. We are indeed fortunate, and highly advanced in comparison. Plus, we have been on this world much longer than the slave species. And although you and I are of differing castes, we have much more in common with each other than with those poor, unfortunate beasts. Even more so now that the war has ended. I am glad we have resolved our differences and can enjoy our blessed lives in peace."

"The war was costly, I must agree. Yet we still see fights break out between our castes. If only yours would groom a bit more, and stop making such a racket. You have to be the noisiest types I've ever seen – even noisier than the slaves and their annoying offspring."

Kantros sat up and looked out over the patio expectantly. She knew her lunch would soon be served, on a silver platter, as was to be expected. Kantros preferred the male slave when it came to prepared meals, but the female for her massages.

Vortag merely sighed and relaxed, lulling off into a light sleep. He knew he would be awakened when his meal arrived.


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