Hero and Leander

O Muse, may I now inspiration drink,

A sweet and lasting draught from waters sweet,

That I may sing the love of Hero fair,

And brave Leander and the god’s revenge.

That night was when Leander saw her first,                           5

A maiden, skin that glowed, like ink her hair,

Her grace apparent through the sacred cloth,

Processed among her sisters robed in white.

Selene shone her moonlight, pale and wan,

On Aphrodite’s faithful servant girls.                                     10

There watched Leander, one among the crowd,

His eyes upon her shining face did stare.

He tried to keep up, pushing through the mass,

Then raced ahead, his gaze for hers searching.

He ran and stumbling fell down heavily.                                15

An outcry, shouts; he looked and saw her there.

She stared at him, expression calm, her eyes

Now locked on his. A smile then touched her lips.

The moment came and went, an instant’s time.

She passed like sunshine that’s obscured by clouds              20

And left Leander sitting stunned, on fire,

Infatuation now consuming him,

A sun that burned so hot within his breast.

He watched her lead the dancing band of girls,                    

The only one that mattered now to him.                                 25

She brought the cup of wine to each in turn,

The yield of Bacchus and his fruitful vine,

That brings the purple god whom we consume,

The draught of gods that makes a man enthused,

Like the Bacchant or Delphic priestess mad.                          30

She stepped toward him while his heart beat loud.

The cup extended, fingers brushing hers,

A momentary bond, a secret glance.

He lost himself and gulped and drank the wine

As he desired to hold her evermore.                                       35

His passion shocked her, and her own desire.

‘Leander,’ he said. ‘Hero,’ she replied.

Their understanding was expressed at once,

There was no need for words between the two.                     40

The woods were long a place for secret love.

Leander waited there among the trees,

And watched and hoped that she might come to him.

She came, an apparition, gleaming white

In virgin clothes, the badge of her office.                              45

They met with elm and ash as witnesses,

And pale Selene shining down on them.

He longed to touch, to hold, to feel her then,

As she uncertain stood with downcast eyes,

Afraid of what his touch might mean for her.                            50

In silence forest-shadows shifted slow.

From the horizon, rosy-fingered Dawn

Extending skyward ended night’s repose.

His face in sunlight shining strong and bronze,

She touched with hands both delicate and pale,                    55

And drew herself to him and held on tight.

She wanted never, ever to let go,

And knew she never would while she yet lived.

She begged for him to come to her that night,

To look and find the tower, shore’s high guard,                    60

Her light a constant guide across the sea.

He promised, swearing names of gods unknown

And known: he would return to her that night.                     

A promise made, the course of fate made fast.

But now Apollo’s coursers charged the sky,                          65

And he returned across the narrow sea.

The wine-dark sea in endless rolling crashed.

Into the surf he dove, the summer wind

A constant aid as then he struck forward

Through wave on wave with stroke on stroke.                       70

Over his head the sea came rolling then,

Now rising, plunging now it foamed ‘round him.

Leander’s breath now came still strong but fast,

His shoulders powerfully turning ‘round,

His hands dug furrows deep into the sea,                              75

Just as a farmer’s plow turns clods of earth.

Above, her guiding light, a lowly star,

Shone weak but steady, growing stronger still,

An imitation pale before the sun

He bore now blazing high within his breast.                           80

He saw the deadly cliffs, more black than night

And turned aside toward the nearby shore.

He came ashore, and scrambled through the surf,

A man, alone an army, stormed the beach.

A path around the promontory ran,                                        85

The tower high and lonely overhead,

The wind’s susurrus sounding soft on stones.

A gate stood facing east across the strait,

Its ancient Cyclopean stones piled high.

On through Leander went, and up the steps.                         90

The tower’s broken crown, long since collapsed,

Was where he found his guiding star alight.

He closed his eyes against the sudden light

And felt the warmth of her embracing him.

She gave him bread and wine by the fire.                              95

He told his journey, she her long waiting.

They shared the modest food, their hands entwined,

And watched the constellations wheel above.

She named each one in turn and he listened.

At the first hint of dawn, then she woke him,                            100

And Hero and Leander parted slow,

With a sure promise to return that night

And every night that followed idle day.

He watched her run as lithely as a sprite,

Herself a setting sun that disappeared                                        105

Among the shady oaks and verdant elms.

Leander left the way that he had come,

And swiftly crossed the strait again once more.

That night they shared together bread and wine

While Hero dried his dripping, matted hair,                           110

Leander gently stroked her flushing cheeks.

They laughed and sang the evening after that.

He whispered quiet words to her; she blushed

But pleased within her heart she held him close.

He passed his lips across her reddened cheeks.                      115

A warmth that flowed from chest to fingertips,

Inexorably drew her then to him.

She yearned to cast away her holy garb,

Devotion manifest in simple cloth,

The promised mark of reverence divine.                                 120

For what had she this fateful promise made?

For what had she discarded future love?

The words, her oath, in earnest spoken then,

Now rang within her head resounding words,

And dawn then saw her running home away,                         125

Her hair now flying over raiment bright,

And lost, forlorn Leander crying out.

In tears he wept frustration, sadness, loss,

But he remained then ever resolute.

That night he waited, hopeful yet hopeless.                           130

The dark and endless waves returned his gaze.

Then blazed a sudden light, a blinding star.

It pierced his chest; desire and joy drove him.

The northern wind began to blow the sea,

As gentle autumn turned to bleak winter,                              135

Unyielding waves now roared and dashed him ‘round.

His heart was brave, his arms were swift and sure,

But winds now whipped the waves to frenzied state

And sought to push him back the way he’d come.

He fought though he began to tire with time,                        140

And yet the light did seem to grow closer.

He knew that he would reach the shore this time,

Could feel fair Hero’s touch already then.

His heart did swell, as did the storming sea.

Into the early morning Hero went,                                         145

The moonlit darkness swirling ‘round her feet.

Her mind in two between her want and fear,

Desire and duty dueling fateful dance.

A light, the sun’s resplendence, shone on high.

Did someone know their secret held so close?                      150

She ran and sought to reach the tower’s peak.

There stood a figure dressed so bright and cold,

That Hero, awed and eyes averted, fell.

She spoke: ‘My child, do you know who I am?’

‘My mistress, Aphrodite ocean-born.’                                    155

‘Indeed, and I have come to stay your sin.

For you will not betray your oath to me.

But do not doubt me. I have seen to it.’

And Hero sobbing, turned and ran away

Toward the pebbled shore and crashing surf.                        160

There lay Leander, twisted, bruised, and drowned.

The sea had dashed him on the cliffs over

Again and rolled by surf, by rocks shattered.

She flung herself upon his corpse and wept,

Her tears then mixed with blood upon the sand                     165

As she now tore her hair and scratched her face.

She cursed the gods, and Aphrodite most.

She left her priestess robe behind and ran

Toward the tower’s crown and broken cliff.

The rising sun then greeting her, she leapt.                             170

Her broken body found Leander’s corpse,

Her arms extending reached for him in death.

And thus they stayed forever, night’s sorrow,

Eternal sign of love’s devotion, yet

A curse of Aphrodite’s displeasure,                                       175

In autumn’s sky at night, two sets of stars,

Their arms outstretched, and fingers straining far,

But not to meet a thousand years from then,

Though heaven’s dome still wheels across the sky.

Losing Now

I once believed that we have things our own,

a life that’s long with many years to go,

and love that’s full to outlast the ages

and wealth accrued by constant yearly grind.

But what is life when it’s behind you now,

and shining youth is lost in old age?

But where is love that’s lost to endless death,

and not to be reclaimed from cold despair?

But what is wealth that gilds a gray coffin

and builds a mausoleum marble-clad?

That all will end, that we will have nothing,

for past is gone and future is not yet,

that losing’s constant, ineluctable,

I know this now, both is true and certain.

Despite what we have lost there still remains

now, now is all we have, the sum total,

the only remedy is living now,

the recognition of the present time.

Though we are always, ever losing now,

there always is another now, once more,

and we need not lose now ever again.

Alpha Centauri

Jessica set the navigation computer’s matrix to a point approximately 50,000,000km away from Alpha Centauri and engaged the enfoldment drive. The ship Folded space, winking out. It reappeared instantaneously several million kilometers away from her starting point. It had taken days of hopping this way to get to Alpha Centauri from Earth.

Suddenly there was a flash of light from the nearby star.

“What the—? A solar flare?” Jessica said.

An alarm sounded. A red light blinked on the control board.

“Manual reset? Dammit. New tech on an old ship. What a great idea.”

The control board blinked back at her. She caught her reflection in the cockpit window. Short brown hair, oval face, high cheekbones, rounded nose.

She pushed away from the ship’s controls and swung her chair around to check the navigational computer. It clicked and beeped. The display showed the ship’s position relative to its starting point. Jessica stomped down the cockpit ramp, her boots clomping on the steel decking.

It was typical for one of these ancient LZ-42s to fall apart at the seams but she’d hoped that it wouldn’t be so soon after leaving port. This was not a good sign for the rest of the cargo run.

Jessica descended four levels to E deck, the engine room, taking each ladder slowly. There was no real hurry. Besides, breaking a leg going down a ladder was not the best idea when she was the only crewmember awake. She keyed in the code for the engine room and went down the last ladder.

The ship’s drive, flanked by two banks of computers, thrummed in the middle of the room. The computers gave off a faint glow. This was the only indication of the activity happening inside the metal cube to which they were attached by massive cables snaking across the floor.

Jessica checked the computer readout. It gave no indication of the malfunction. All systems were normal.

“Well, something’s got to be wrong,” Jessica said.

As if prompted, the hatch above her clanged shut. Jessica whirled around. The hatch acted as a safety bulkhead, separating the levels of the ship in case of a fire or plasma leak. But it shouldn’t be able to close on its own.

She pressed the hatch release next to the ladder. Nothing happened. She tried the manual release lever. Luckily, the company mechanics had done a good job overhauling the whole ship after they installed the new drive and the lever was jammed—rusted in place.

“Great,” Jessica said. “Well, one thing at a time.”

She turned back to the drive computers. She pulled up the drive operation manual on the computer. It was the only file available to display. She opened the file. It read:

DISCLAIMER

THE QX-1 ENFOLDMENT DRIVE AND ALL ASSOCIATED COMPUTER TERMINALS ARE THE PROPERTY OF THE INTERSOLAR CORPORATION AND ARE PROTECTED BY A SPECIAL LICENSE. OPENING OR OTHERWISE TAMPERING WITH THE ENFOLDMENT DRIVE OR ITS COMPUTERS IS PUNISHABLE BY 200 YEARS IN PRISON.

BY OPERATING AN INTERSOLAR CORPORATION FREIGHTER, THE CREWMEMBER AGREES NOT TO REVEAL THE CONTENTS OF THIS MANUAL TO ANYONE. VIOLATION OF THIS AGREEMENT IS PUNISHABLE BY AN ADDITIONAL 200 YEARS IN PRISON.

“Thanks. I’ll try to keep it in mind,” Jessica said. She scrolled to the next page of the manual. It read:

ENFOLDMENT DRIVE OPERATION

THE ENFOLDMENT DRIVE REQUIRES NO HUMAN INPUT FOR NORMAL OPERATION.

TO PERFORM MANUAL RESET, DISENGAGE DRIVE WITH MAIN SWITCH, WAIT ONE (1) HOUR, THEN RE-ENGAGE DRIVE.

IN CASE OF MALFUNCTION, RETURN TO INTERSOLAR CORPORATION SPACEDOCK FOR MAINTENANCE AND REPAIR BY LICENSED INTERSOLAR CORPORATION MECHANICS.

“What the—?” Jessica pressed the button to scroll further down the screen. It didn’t move. “That’s it? You’ve gotta be kidding me. And how are we supposed to get back to spacedock if this doesn’t work?”

There was a single switch above the computer display. Jessica searched around the computer banks for any other switches or controls.  Except for the display, its control buttons, and the switch, there was nothing she could push or switch on the monolithic computers.

“Alright, so just turn it off, wait an hour, and turn it back on again.”

Jessica stood for a moment, hand on the switch. She couldn’t help but wince as she flipped the switch. The drive’s thrumming stopped. She pressed the computer’s power button. Its lights and display dimmed and went out.

She let out her breath. It was as anticlimactic as she’d hoped. She looked at her watch: 0721 hours.

Jessica turned back to the ladder and tried the hatch again. It stayed closed. She pounded the bare metal. Taking a deep breath, she surveyed the hatch control panel. She pulled an omnitool from her belt and popped off the panel cover. She’d cursed the ship for being old. Now she was grateful. The control panel was full of wires, not the newer nanochips. Not that it would have made sense to completely overhaul an old junker just to upgrade the door tech.

She started tugging at the wires, figuring out which ones led up to the hatch at the top of the ladder. She pulled out the wires from the back of the panel cover. Blue electricity arced out of the open panel and connected with her bare hand.

Jessica hit the floor with a thud and blacked out.

Pain; confusion. Fuzzy blackness gave way to a semblance of consciousness. Groaning broke the silence. Jessica rolled to one side and onto her knees. She lost her balance and her shoulder slammed into the floor. She lay there for a moment breathing. She managed to sit up and open her eyes. The control panel was still open, staring, mocking her.

“Gloves, Jessica. Gloves,” she said, shaking her head and wondering how long she’d be out for. She checked her watch. “Well, that’s ten minutes I won’t have to wait for the drive,” she said, grunting as she got to her feet.

But the power discharge shouldn’t have happened. They were very low power connections from the ship’s reactor to the control panel and the hatch. There shouldn’t be a charge in there capable of knocking her out. And the safeties would have to be off or malfunctioning.

“What a piece of junk. This thing’s going to get me killed,” Jessica said, pulling on her work gloves. “Okay, let’s try this again.” She rearranged the wires—bypassing the main power conduit and taking power from the auxiliary lines—closed the panel, and pressed the button. Nothing happened. “That should have done it.” She switched the wires back and tried again.

The hatch opened.

Jessica sighed and shrugged. “I’ll take it.” She hurried one level up to D deck: reactor core. While the drive in the engine room let the ship Fold space, the drive did not power the ship itself. The fusion reactor provided electricity to the ship and powered the maneuvering thrusters. She checked the power levels and various indicators on the control panel for. Everything showed normal. She read the log reports on the computer, scrolling through several times to make sure she hadn’t missed it.

“No power spike? I know what I saw and I sure as hell felt it. I thought they gave these things a complete inspection before sending them on jobs.”

Suddenly, metal clanged behind Jessica. She whirled around. The upper hatch leading up to C deck was closed. A sinking feeling settled into Jessica’s stomach. This is not good.

She tried the same trick as before, switching the wires for the hatch control and then switching them back. Nothing both times. The manual release lever wasn’t stuck this time but it didn’t do anything either, which shouldn’t have been possible.

The hatch down to the engine room was still open, but that wouldn’t do her any good. It was the only way in and out of the engine room. She needed to get back up to the cockpit. Luckily, there was another door out of the reactor core that led to the cargo hold.

Jessica cranked the wheel lock, ignoring the warning sign. The door hissed and swung open. Jessica stepped out onto the balcony. She might as well have walked out an airlock. The cargo hold was a chasm of blackness punctuated by pinprick lights. A catwalk extended out before her, disappearing into the dark. The lights in the massive expanse gave the impression of a star field, but even these grew so dim they disappeared into the distance.

A wave of vertigo overcame Jessica and she grabbed onto the railing. The field of lights became a blur. Breathing hard, she turned back to the doorway. A solitary light revealed nothing above the door. There was no way to get to the living quarters or cockpit directly from the cargo hold. But there was a dim shape off to one side of the door. Jessica grinned. A maintenance locker. There was a plasma torch inside.

“Guess I’ll have to do some work of my own. Screw their licensed mechanics,” Jessica said.

She lit the torch and immediately turned her head away, squinting from the light. She pulled the goggles she’d found in the locker down over her eyes and set the tip of the torch to the sealed hatch. The blue plasma reacted with the metal to give off a white hot light. Molten metal spread from the contact point. Hopefully it wouldn’t fall down onto her unprotected head. She didn’t like the idea of burning her face off under any circumstances—much less when she was trapped in the lower decks of a broken-down cargo ship somewhere near Alpha Centauri.

Sweat ran down Jessica’s neck. Her arm cramped from holding onto the ladder awkwardly. The steel hissed a final time and Jessica leaped out of the way, extinguishing the plasma torch. The deck plating rang like a bell as the hatch doors fell.

Jessica hauled herself up onto C deck: storage and maintenance. It was a jumble of food containers, replacement parts, tools, O2 tanks, space suits.

Jessica hesitated, looking up at the next hatch leading to B deck. The lethal hatch doors were hidden in the bulkhead between decks. Any trust she had in the ship and its most basic systems was gone. The malfunctions had to be random, but they sure didn’t seem random—at least the ones happening to her. There could be other things going wrong on the ship that she didn’t even know about. And the moment she was between decks would be a great time for the hatch to close and put an end to her doubts—permanently.

There was no point in disconnecting the power to the hatch doors. There was another connection at the control panel on the other side of the doors so that the hatch could be opened from above.

Jessica hauled herself up the ladder, plasma torch in one hand. She paused just below the hatch, eyeing the two halves of the hatch retracted into the bulkhead. She stretched her leg to rest her right foot a few rungs from the top and catapulted herself through the open hatch, yanking her foot through behind her. She rolled, sat up, and stared at the hatch. It didn’t move.

Jessica laughed at how ridiculous she was must look.

She stood up. Even in the living quarters, everything was steel and hard angles. A few seats, a kitchen, bunks for sleeping, bathroom, and a passage leading to the iceboxes where the three other crew members were in stasis. There was no ice nor were they cryogenic chambers; rather they called them iceboxes because everyone came out of stasis freezing and shaking.

Jessica had been lucky so far. A minor issue with the drive requiring a simple, if lengthy, reset and two malfunctioning bulkhead hatches. It could have been far worse. It could still be. She needed to wake up her crewmates. They’d be annoyed. Going down for stasis was somehow worse than waking up from it, but she was going to need help if things got any worse.

Four pods, each with vitals displays, filled the small room. Jessica’s stood open and empty. One other was empty. The displays on the two middle pods showed life signs.

Jessica approached the pod on the left. She tapped the display then pressed two buttons simultaneously. A damp smell filled the air. Jessica wrinkled her nose. The lid of the pod lifted revealing the mostly naked body of man about forty-five years old with prematurely gray hair, a square face, and a flat nose.

Groans. His body convulsed violently.

“Easy, Hawk, easy,” Jessica said, laying a towel over his shivering body.

Hawk sat up. “Jess, wha—? Why are you waking me up?” Hawk said through chattering teeth.

“We haven’t gone very far. We folded space just fine for a while. Then the drive needs a manual reset. Then the bulkhead hatches start going haywire and I get zapped and I have to cut my way out of the reactor core.”

Hawk exhaled. “Shit. Okay.” He tried to stand and fell back against the pod. “I think I need a sec.”

“Take it easy. I’ll wake up O’Brian.”

Jessica repeated the procedure for O’Brian’s pod. Nothing happened. She tried again. Nothing. “Hawk—” Jessica said, not even trying to keep the panic from her voice. “It’s not working.” She jammed the buttons.

“Just relax. Let me try.”

The control panel went dark.

“Oh, God, Hawk.”

“She’s fine. She’s fine. She doesn’t even need air in stasis. She’ll be fine until we get back to port.”

Jessica wasn’t very reassured. “We need to send out a distress call and check the ship’s systems to see if the computer can tell us anything.”

Jessica grabbed the plasma torch and Hawk, having quickly dressed, followed her up the ladder to the cockpit. Jessica hesitated for a second before scrambling through the hatch. She stood up and immediately grabbed for the wall, lightheaded.

“You alright?” Hawk said.

“Yeah, I think so,” Jessica said, blinking and shaking her head, trying to clear it.

Hawk sat in the pilot’s chair. The red light on the control panel no longer blinked red. Hawk glanced at the navigational computer. “Alpha Centauri. Well, we’re not too far. A ship or two should come by at some point.” Hawk sat in the pilot’s chair and ran his fingers through is hair. “I’ll have to send out a general distress call. All channels. Hopefully someone will hear us.”

“What’s the status of the ship’s systems?” Jessica said.

Hawk navigated the computer display. “All normal. That’s impossible.”

Anxiety knotted in the pit of Jessica’s stomach. “It should be. The reactor computer didn’t show a spike either, but I certainly felt it.”

“So there are malfunctions with the drive, iceboxes, and door controls. Two completely separate systems—great. And there’s something wrong with the main computer too.”

“We need to just shut everything down.”

“You can’t shut down the reactor.”

“I know. I mean the main computer and everything the reactor powers—cut it off from the rest of the ship.”

“Yeah, but what if we can’t get it back on?” Hawk said. “Why don’t we just wait and see if anyone answers the distress call?”

“What if there’s a malfunction with life support or the reactor? There might be nothing and no one to rescue if we just wait. And if the main computer’s malfunctioning we might not even be able to talk to anyone that answers. If only we could get O’Brian out we could take the skiff and leave. We need to get the ship moving. Now.”

“You’re right.” Hawk smiled. “Hey. We’ll be fine, Jess.”

“Sure.” Jessica tried to smile.

Hawk exhaled slowly. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Jessica sat in the co-pilot’s chair and almost pulled her knees to her chin but stopped herself. She didn’t need Hawk knowing she was panicking; didn’t want to admit to herself that she was panicking. It wasn’t even time to panic. The ship was still in once piece. There wasn’t anything seriously wrong. It was just some screwy hatches and poor O’Brian stuck in the icebox.

Hawk turned around to the computer and started pressing buttons. The cockpit lights dimmed and went out. So did the control panel and the navigational computer and their displays. The cockpit went dark. A single emergency light pulsed overhead.

The main lights came back on. The computer whirred and its displays lit up along with the piloting control panel.

Suddenly an alarm blared.

Jessica glanced at the computer display. “Life support!” 

“That’s not possible,” Hawk said.

“Yeah. I’ve been hearing that a lot. But it’s happening.”

“But the computer’s back on. And there’s the redundant system down on D deck.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”  Jessica tapped the display. “I’m locked out. I can’t do anything about life support from here.”

“I’ll go to D deck and restart the life support system from there. Still, we should have hours unless we lose air somehow.”

“Yeah, no we haven’t—.” Jessica looked at Hawk, her eyes wide. “I had no way out of D deck. I went into the hold. It’s a minimal atmosphere in there. Which means we lost most of our air out of here into the hold. I’m so stupid! No wonder I felt lightheaded after climbing the ladder.”

“It’s alright. So, how long do we have?”

“I don’t know. We need to hurry.”

Hawk leaped to his feet and swooned. “Shit.”

“Easy. Hurry, but not too fast.”

Jessica turned back around to the computer display. Life support was still not responding to her commands. She checked the distress signal. It was broadcasting on all channels. She tried to boost the signal.

Minutes passed. Jessica pressed the intercom. “How’s it coming down there Hawk?” There was no response. “Hawk?” Static.

Jessica’s breathing came fast. Her chest was a leaden knot as she got to her feet. “Okay, okay, okay.”

Jessica left the cockpit, dread filling her boots. She came to the hatch.

And the lights went out. All of them. No emergency lights came on this time.

Jessica stumbled back from the hatch to avoid falling in. She got down on her hands and knees and felt her way over to where she had left the plasma torch. A faint blue light illuminated the area around her but she could only see a few feet down the ladder. The hatch between B and C decks looked like it might be closed but she couldn’t tell for sure. Holding the plasma torch as far away from her face as possible and hurrying through the hatch, Jessica descended the ladder.

Her boots squelched on the deck plating. She looked down. Hawk’s dead eyes met hers. Jessica recoiled, slipping in Hawk’s blood and falling to the floor. The plasma torch started burning a hole through the plating. It filled the room with a brilliant white light. Hawk’s head lay on top of the closed hatch, along with one of his hands.

Jessica sobbed. Her whole body shook like she’d just come out of the icebox. She pulled on her gloves and set Hawk’s head and hand to the side, covering them with a bit of cloth. I can’t do this alone, she thought. Wait—O’Brian!

She ran to the third icebox, her mind racing. She would have never tried to cut her out if their lives didn’t depend on it. Jessica might be unable to revive O’Brian or she might already be dead. Or cutting into the pod might kill her.

Smoke billowed out of the open pod. O’Brian’s charred body was twisted and black.

Jessica turned and vomited onto the floor. She stumbled over to the hatch and started cutting. She tried to ignore the acrid smoke coming from Hawk’s vaporizing blood. She vomited again. The hatch doors crashed to the floor below. Jessica prepared herself for what she knew was down there.

Hawk’s body was heavy. Jessica could only bring herself to pull what used to be her friend out of the way of the hatch. She hurried down the ladder, trying not to move too fast so she wouldn’t pass out.

The reactor was normal. The redundant life support system was off, the display blank and unresponsive. There was no oxygen being produced. She would soon be unconscious and as good as dead unless she could move the ship or get off it.

The enfoldment drive computer stood lifeless in front of Jessica. It was 0825: over an hour had passed. Jessica could feel the pulse in her head. Blackness crested the edges of her vision. She pressed the power button and flipped the switch.

The computer whirred, lights flashing.

The drive came to life.

The thick power cables glowed. Had they done that before?

The edges of the massive cube began to warp. Jessica closed her eyes and shook her head. It was no illusion. The thing seemed to be folding space in on itself.

Jessica scrambled up the ladder as fast as she could. Alarms blared and lights flashed all over the reactor control station. She ignored them, screwing up her eyes in an attempt to stave off unconsciousness. She ignored Hawk’s headless body and the blood on her hands. She forgot about everything except the skiff on A deck—the only escape.

She also forgot about the hatch leading to A deck. As she pulled herself up, the hatch snapped closed, catching her boot heel in its jaws and twisted her ankle. Jessica cried out in pain. She tugged frantically at the zipper and managed to pull her foot free. Limping to the escape door, Jessica smashed the panel. It didn’t respond. Screaming in frustration, she ripped open the panel and burned out the controls with the plasma torch then yanked on the manual release. The door slid open and she threw herself inside, leaving the torch behind.

The skiff rocketed into space. Jessica just breathed, making a desperate, guttural sound in the back of her throat.

Yellow light seared the window. Jessica stopped the thrusters and repositioned the skiff so she could see the ship.

There was no ship. Where the ship had been was a newborn star, pulsing and expanding.

“My god. The fusion reactor.”

Wave after wave of radiation cascaded over the skiff—solar flares buffeting it like a cork tossed in the surf. The star was being stretched, like an unseen force had grabbed the right side of it and pulled, distorting its perfect sphere. Suddenly it exploded. A leaf in a storm, the skiff rolled over and over. Jessica managed to stop screaming and steady the small ship.

But someone was screaming. It was in her head. It was coming from outside the ship. It was everywhere and nowhere.

The star’s heat and energy and light were disappearing. And where they went was nothing. Or rather a sphere of inky black nothingness, pulling in everything around it. Everything including the skiff.

Jessica vainly jammed the thruster controls. She couldn’t even tell whether or not they were on. The black sphere became larger and larger. As the last bit of the star’s exploded energy went out, Jessica crested the event horizon.

_______________________________________________

CONFIDENTIAL

INTERSOLAR CORPORATION

INTERNAL REPORT ON INCIDENT AT ALPHA CENTAURI

The Intersolar Corporation LZ-42 freighter Drake en-route to mining colony SK91 disappeared near Alpha Centauri shortly after leaving Earth orbit. A distress call sent from the Drake was received by a nearby freighter, the Sophie, at 1550 hours on May 23rd. In the distress call, the crew of the Drake reported malfunctions with their enfoldment drive, stasis chambers, electrical systems, and door controls. Only one distress call was sent. The Sophie detected a massive amount of residual energy from the distress call’s point of origin. Upon further investigation by Intersolar, a newly emerged black hole was discovered in the area where the Drake disappeared.

Our theory is that a series of malfunctions led to the catastrophic failure of possibly both the fusion reactor and the enfoldment drive. The cause of the malfunctions is unknown.

There were no survivors out of the three person crew.

The Drake’s mission was to transport raw materials back from the SK91 mining colony. Thus the only major losses were the ship’s reactor core and drive. The ship and crew are easily replaced.

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For Immediate Release

The Intersolar Corporation Freighter Drake was lost in a tragic accident near Alpha Centauri on May 23rd, 2107. Intersolar is working hard with the relevant authorities to determine the cause of the accident. Our hearts go out to the families of the three crew members lost in this tragedy. Intersolar takes workplace safety very seriously and endeavors to do everything possible to safeguard the lives of our team members.

The Hunter

He comes for all, the hunter stalking prey,

Lying in wait, a wolf among the sheep,

To wrap its jaws around the gentle throat

Quickly. Or, creeping, gnawing, ever near,

Time, relentless, now until, in halting old

Age she demands her loan be paid in full.

Forever drinking the draught of deepest

Sleep, you he takes in his loving embrace,

To breathe, to dream, to laugh, to hurt no more.

The Battle

    Marcus danced away as the others faced him, the sun glinting feebly off their bloodstained blades. The wind whispered through his short-cropped hair, barely cooling the sweat pouring down his neck. He glanced around him, looking for a way out. The bodies of his brothers lay a short distance away, blood showing red and stark on their tunics. Telltale signs of what were most likely fatal wounds. There was no time for grief now. His three opponents stood between him and the forest, the way home. He fought to quell the panic in his gut. Three against one, he thought. There’s no way. I can’t.

    He and his two brothers, Decius and Kaeso, had marched proudly from Castelmare leaving behind the cheering crowds.  Their white tunics seemed to glow in the sunlight which bounced off their bronze breastplates. A spear and shield were in each hand and a short sword hung from each belt. Marcus, the youngest, had walked behind while his older brothers each carried the standards of their city and their family; a black ram on a field of white and a red oak on a field of green. They had marched mostly in silence that day, the tension mounting as they walked to the arranged meeting place. They slept under the stars, feeling and hoping that their enemies would hold up their end of the bargain and not kill them in the night. The Aemilians were their enemies, but they were generally honorable. Marcus slept fitfully, his dreams varying from scenes of victory to tableaux of blood and screams. The next day had found them face to face with their three opponents under the morning sun. The three Aemilians were similarly equipped and carried standards showing the blue Aemilian bull, set off by a background of yellow and four white stars on a purple field so dark it was almost black. A brief ritual had followed. They started by staking their standards in the ground. Then each combatant cast a stone beyond the line demarcated by their enemies’ standards and spoke the accustomed words to initiate the contest. They squared off against the Aemilian champions in pairs. Marcus focused all his attention on his opponent who was a head taller with eyes darkened by paint and a breastplate gleaming over a thick leather shirt that hung to his knees. He dodged the Aemilian’s spear and looked over in time to see Decius go down with a sword embedded in his abdomen. Kaeso was already lying on the ground, a spear emerging from his chest.

   There was no escape for Marcus, but he would not run. Despite the fear gripping his chest, making it difficult to move his legs, it was his duty to stand and fight. Anything less would dishonor him and his brothers’ memories. But his legs felt leaden and weak at the same time.

    Move! Marcus stepped back once, then took another step. Relief washed over him in an instant. At least I’ll die fighting. The thought was little comfort.

    He would have to deal with his man first. Marcus notice that his opponent was separating him from the other two Aemilians; one was limping, the other bleeding from his belly. The big man narrowed his painted eyes and lunged. Marcus skipped to the right, the sword barely missing him. The big man motioned to the other two who started to circle around Marcus. As Marcus hoped, his opponent’s overconfidence got the better of him. When the big Aemilian lunged again, Marcus ducked and rolled under his defense, like he had done so many times training with his brothers. He buried the sword in his enemy’s groin, jumping away as the other two soldiers swarmed behind him. He escaped but tripped and fell. His sword went flying in the dust; his shield lay by the body of the dead Aemilian, discarded when he had gone in for the kill. He rolled over to see the Aemilian with the belly wound advancing on him, the limping soldier following behind. Marcus panicked. Scrambling backwards his hands and feet flailed at the ground, kicking up dust but not moving him very far. Something behind him stopped his advance. He twisted his neck and found himself staring into the lifeless eyes of his brother Decius. Blood had soaked his tunic turning the brilliant white to a deep red. He turned back and the Aemilian was bearing down on him, slowly, savoring the kill. His sword dripped with Decius’ blood. Marcus saw the smug satisfaction in his eyes turn to surprise as a spear seemed to appear in his chest. He collapsed next to Marcus, still staring in surprise. Marcus leapt to his feet and whirled around.

    Kaeso lowered his arm and grabbed at his upper chest with a grimace plain on his face. “What are you waiting for? Finish it.”

    Marcus turned, stooped, and pulled the spear from the Aemilian’s chest in one fluid movement. The hamstrung Aemilian limped backwards, a shocked look in his eyes. The look of a man who knows he is going to die. Marcus advanced on him, hefting the spear and preparing to drive it home. The Aemilian dropped his sword and fell to his knees, reaching for the hem of Marcus’ tunic.

    “Please,” said the Aemilian. “Don’t. Spare me. My name is Regulus. I have a wife. A little boy. You win. I can just go.”

    Marcus stopped short, unsure of himself. The spear fell to his side. Behind him he could hear Kaeso howling, shouting to finish him. Marcus saw his own pain in Regulus’ eyes. His head swam. Blood pounded in his ears, throbbing in his temples. He shifted, about to step back when Decius’ eyes appeared, lifeless, staring, filling his vision.

    Marcus growled. “Coward.” “We both knew what we were getting ourselves into,” he heard himself lie. “And you killed my brother.”

    Regulus screamed as Marcus rammed the spear home. The screams became gurgles that rose along with blood from his throat. Marcus pulled out the spear and Regulus’ face slammed into the dirt.

    Marcus turned around and ran to Kaeso. “I thought you were dead.”

    “I’m alright,” said Kaeso. “I hit my head when I fell. Good thing I came around when I did.”

    “Decius—,” Marcus started to say.

    “I know. We’ll take him home.”

    They quickly lashed together the Aemilian standards and whatever bits of rope and cloth they could find to fashion a rudimentary bier. Marcus and Kaeso walked through the night, not bothering to stop to sleep, focusing only on the goal of getting home.

    It was early morning. The sun, obscured by low clouds, was casting a feeble light. Marcus, exhausted, shifted the weight of the bier behind him from one hand to the other. He knew the necessity of what they had set out to do, felt the weight of responsibility and expectation lifted from him. But any feeling of victory was tinged, tainted by bitter grief for his brother and perhaps even for himself, for his lost innocence.

    “I’ll remember you Decius, the way you were,” Marcus said, more to himself than to his brother’s body. The road turned one last time and reached the edge of the forest. Marcus looked up, eager to see Castelmare. “You can rest now. It’s done. We’re home.”

Dryad

Andrew sweated as he picked a path through the brambles up the steep slope of the hill. There was no wind, not even a slight breeze and only the sound of his own breathing and the whirring of insects for company. Despite his steady pace he breathed hard and his legs began to ache.

    “Almost there,” he said to himself.

    Scrambling up the last few feet of rocks, he reached the peak at last. He turned around and surveyed the way he had come. The land below stretched out for miles before rising again and was broken only by the dark green ribbon of well-watered grass that suggested the presence of a stream when it rained. He turned around and leaned against a tree, a scraggly pine. The ground dropped off in front of him and tumbled hundreds of feet down a rock face so sheer nothing could find a foothold on it. Stepping up to the edge he close his eyes, exhaled, and leaned forward.

    “Now why would you want to do a thing like that?” said a voice like rustling leaves.

    Andrew’s eyes snapped open and he whirled his arms, fighting to regain his balance. He felt something grab his shirt and pull, making him tumble backward to the ground. Looking up he stared into an upside down face. It was kindly but wore a stern expression on a face so heavily lined it resembled tree bark. Andrew blinked. It was tree bark. Andrew jumped to his feet and stared. The man’s face, for it was shaped like a man’s, was aged but vigorous and his head was topped with leafy green hair. He had a wiry, muscular body that, like his face, seemed to be covered in thick, grooved bark.

    “What are you?” Andrew asked, shaken by the man’s appearance.

    “Why do you want to die?” The man said as if he hadn’t heard the question. “Seems a shame to waste a life.”

    “None of your business.”

    “Oh, but it is. I do not want my home tainted by such a death.”

    “Your home?”

    “Indeed, I live here. Is that such a surprise?”

    Andrew looked around as if he had somehow missed seeing a hovel or hole somewhere that he might sleep.

    “What do you mean? Where?”

    The man gestured to the tree. Andrew inspected it, half expecting to find it hollow.

    “In the branches?”

    “Not quite,” he said as he walked over to the pine tree standing nearby. Andrew stared open-mouthed as the tree man became translucent and then dissipated like fog. Shocked, Andrew stepped back and his heel struck a rock. In an instant, the tree man grabbed his hand, pulling him back from the edge.

    “That is twice now.”

    Andrew glared. “Leave me alone.”

    “Why do you want to die?”

    “I don’t.”

    “You were going to jump when you got here.”

    “I don’t know who or what you are. Just stay the fuck away from me. Why do you care anyways?”

    “I do not. I am simply curious. You see, for me, life is a joy and death merely a necessity, eventually. But I do not seek death nor shun life, as you do. What can be so terrible about living that would make you end your life?”

    Andrew sat down with a sigh, “That’s just it. I have a great life. Family, friends, work. It’s great. But I walk around feeling like I have this thing in my head. It’s black and it has tentacles that wrap around the base of my brain. And it won’t let go.”

    The tree man smiled, “Here, take my hand.”

    “What?”

    “I will give you what you seek. And it will be much better than jumping off a cliff.”

    “You’re going to kill me?” Andrew asked as he took the tree man’s hand.

    “In a manner of speaking. You will have oblivion.”

    Suddenly, Andrew felt his hand grow cold and the chill spread to the rest of his body.

    “What are you doing?” Andrew asked through chilled lips.

    The tree man smiled, an icy smile like the surface of a frozen lake glinting in the sun. He closed his eyes.

    Andrew could feel himself fading, not in strength but in substance; disappearing like a dream, once vivid but slowly forgotten. Looking down, he saw roots bursting from his shoes and leaves sprouting from his fingertips. There was no pain, just a dull pressure at the edges of his awareness. He felt his body becoming rigid, his nerves extending into the branches emerging from his shoulders, tearing his shirt. Panic gripped him as he tried to move but found himself unable to. He felt like he might fall but the roots that were now his feet had anchored him to the ground. He screamed. Nothing came out. He had no mouth. The world blurred, the sky and the ground becoming a haze of blue and green and brown. Silence enveloped him. His mind began to grow dim and foggy, like his consciousness itself was barely holding on to reality.

    Suddenly, a spark flared in his mind, one word forming in the dark: “No.”

    His eyes snapped open and his vision filled with the surprised look on the tree man’s face. Andrew jerked his body backward, snapping the now-dead roots from his feet. The tree man snarled and lunged at Andrew, but too late. Andrew tumbled over the edge of the cliff.

    Looking down at his hands, he saw they were hands once again. He smiled and closed his eyes.