Monday, December 03, 2012

Darth Tarder

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Stoneheart edited 12/7/12



Andea was the young daughter of a very old king. King Hosric had been a very beloved leader to his people for many years. The Kingdom enjoyed relative peace and prosperity under his rule and his kindness and fairness had become legendary among his people. The King had married late in life and he and his Queen, the Lady Nelise had tried for many years to have a child to pass their name and Kingdom to, but for reasons of a private nature, the King and Queen were unable to conceive. The Royal Physicians toiled over the problem for years until finally, whether out of luck, or perserverence or this treatment or that remedy, the Royal Couple were blessed with a daughter.

The pregnancy and birth had taken a great toll on the Queen, and her health began to fail soon afterwards. She continued to worsen slowly, her body seeming to have given up once it had finally completed the purpose to which it had been created - to create. Within two years she had succumbed to the malady that had befallen her and died. Afterward, the king had grown quiet and somber in his grief, slowly turning grey and withered within the walls of his castle. Something had broken inside him when she had died and he seemed to be elsewhere most times. He rarely spoke to anyone and left the Kingdom in the hands of those around him - counselors and advisers who were wise and responsible, though the people still believed the old king made all of the important decisions. Alone in his rooms he wandered, silent and gloomy as the bare walls that surrounded him. The Palace had once been lively and colorful, but the King had ordered all the paintings and tapestries taken down. There were a number of portraits of the King and Queen, but the rest were favorites of the Queen's or reminded the King of her in some way. One day he began to pull them down, shouting at them as if they were taunting him. Slowly the King slipped further and further into a malaise that nothing seemed to bring him out of.

And so Andea came to know her father as a ghost in her home, wandering the halls, moaning the loss of his beloved or sitting silently in the garden. Andea had gone to him often to try lift him out of his fog, but he rarely responded to her attempts. At times it was as if he didn't see her and she felt as though she were talking to one of the mute statues that lined the corridors. There were moments when he did seem to wake from his grey dreams and take notice, but then he would look in her eyes and his face would sag further, perhaps seeing something of his beloved wife there. As he fell deeper into sadness, when she would go to him and try to speak with him, he would turn angry, as if she were interrupting his sad reverie. After a time Andea stopped seeking him out and left him to his wanderings.

When Andea was still a young girl, not yet old enough to marry, but not too young to know that one day she would marry and be Queen, she decided that love was but a burden that wore one down like an ox or the mule is worn down from years of service. She concluded that she would not love another, even her future husband, whomever that might be. She must be a Queen, and a Queen should have a King, so that there would be an heir to the throne and the Kingdom could continue in peace, but she knew she would not love him.

As she approached the age that young women traditionally choose husbands, the king's counselors and advisers had brought many courtiers before her, each of them bearing splendid gifts and promises of a grand future together if she chose them, but she sent them all away without answer. As she had gotten older, she learned the truth about Kings and Queens. She began to understand that her father did not truly rule, even before his mind broke, that it was the men around him who made all the decisions. For a time she thought of ruling alone, as her father had. How difficult could it be? With the Council and the Secretaries of State and Ministers of this or that, how hard would it be to simply let them continue to do what they already did?

She knew the answer even as the question formed. She must marry. An heir was needed to continue the line of succession. There could be no heir if she remained unmarried and in this there was no decision. She must marry, it was her duty. But she had no thought to marry now. She could rule for years before that choice had to be made, and perhaps in the future the choice would be clearer. She wondered what would happen if she didn't marry and their were no heir.

"The Kingdom would be thrown into chaos!"

"But how do you know for certain?", she asked. "Maybe the people can rule themselves."

Yennis had looked at her sourly then. "Because that's what happens when a Throne is left empty, and besides, the people need a Ruler. They need to be ruled, otherwise the strong will prey on the weak and the whole Kingdom would become like the Fringe."

Andea had read about the Fringe in the library. The Palace's library was more than a repository for histories and other writings. It also held vid screens for reading the latest news from across the Kingdom. Her Kingdom. The Fringe was the rough area around the cities that formed the Palace's boundaries. Beyond the Fringe was the Burned Zone, or BZ, the land left ruined after the last big war before the weapons that had burned the land were destroyed or dismantled.

Outside of the Palace Proper and past the inner courtyard city where the Royal workers lived and toiled, beyond the outer fortress walls, thick as a city block in places, the city-states of New Lairno, Tallhome and New New Harbor sat, like sentries at the main points of access to the Palace Grounds. New New Harbor sat on one side of the Kober River, New Lairno on the other. The Kober was the main entry point into the Grounds. All shipment too large for cart or levatrain ran down the Kober.

Vehicles able to travel on roadway or rail came through the Hosric Tunnel. Andea's father had built this early in his rule as a way to inspire the people while also distancing himself from his own father's legacy. King Norscia had been known as Norscia the Vigorous for his abundant health and abundant desire for confict and conquest. King Hosric wanted his name to be remembered in peace and prosperity, not war and glory. He often noted that the words "glory of war" were something that people who had not been in war said. Over the long years many roads had been created to enter the city. King Hosric recognized that although this was a necessity if the Palace were to function, the jumble and chaos of all these viaducts were actually hampering the smooth flow of business as well as creating a security nightmare. So he built his tunnel and forced all traffic through the seive he'd created, culling the unwanted easily from the newly linear flow. No less than three security points, each with tighter restrictions than the previous, were set along the Tunnel's length. It was redundancy in the extreme. Some jokingly called it The Funnel for the way it narrowed viciously at the entrance. Many gave up and went home once they came upon the Tunnel on a slow day. It hadn't solved the problem of flow, however. In fact it had worsened it, but that was partially by design as well, as it served to filter out the tourists and gawkers. If you wanted entrance to the Palace, you had to pass through this gauntlet.

The Palace Grounds spanned miles and her defenses took good advantage of this fact. The no-man's land between the outer walls and the inner gate-wall had been scoured of any feature so as to deny any enemy who may have breached the outer walls a place to hide as they advanced. Even so, there were still hidden places within this no-man's land where defenders could emerge and take attackers unaware, perhaps flanking them and trapping them between their weapons and the innner gate-wall defenses. The very ground could open up, the massive trapdoors sending entire regiments into flooded caverns to drown beneath the weight of their armor or within their war machines.

The twin cities of New New Harbor and New Lairno added the next buffer zone around the Palace Grounds. Citizens were armed, of course, but within the citizenry there were emplacements of soldiers and weaponry to hold off attackers. If the city were attacked by a large enough force, the people would simply retreat within the Palace Grounds and petition for asylum. If caught outside the gates, it was the duty of every citizen to resist the attackers however they might, even though long, protracted occupation. The twin cities nestled nearly to the feet of the outer walls. If it weren't for the moat.

There was no need for such measures to the north. Tallhome sat thousands of feet above the Palace Grounds, the roots of her sacred heights reached into the Grounds while the encircling walls piled up to her very shoulders. At the center of the two arms of the outer wall sat En Metla ne Tallhierr, the Crown of the Sky. Her head was always capped in glistening snow and ice, often wreathed in frigid mists which flew from her sides as a cape caught in the blast of the hurricane, but stilled, the distance slowing the movement of the great winds buffeting her cliffs.

On the south face of the Crown sat the city, nestled serenely within her Mother's enfolding arms, protected from the fierce north winds by the weight of her rocky heights. Snaking down from the base of Tallhome, a winding road stitched across her belly, until it finally dropped steeply to the right flanks of the Crown, through a great archway spanning the road, terminating just within the outer wall. This was the third point of entry into the Grounds, but there was no need for guard or defenses other than the mountain herself. The only way in or out of Tallhome was through the Palace Grounds. Many pilgrims came to Tallhome and they all went through the Grounds. The Palace was gatekeeper, tolltaker, guide and guardian. Pilgrims often said that the Palace was the protector of the Mother, the Crown of the Sky.

If the three cities surrounded the Grounds were the tree holding the fruit of the Palace and Tallhome, her citizens the leaves pulling in the sunlight, the river and the tunnel her water and her roots, the Fringe was the dirt.

A tree needs dirt as much as it does water and sunlight. The dirt holds a myriad of essential nutrients along with the many creatures whose low existence humbly create the environment necessary for the tree to live. Worms and beetles burrow through the muck and cast-off death of the tree, returning it to the earth and once more to nutrient, their castings feeding the tree as surely as sweet sunlight or cool water. The Fringe was this filthy matrix in which the Tree flourished. The Fringe was home to the scavengers and the parasitic. The noble mold that fed the roots and the choking vine that strangled the tender shoot.

In the Fringe lived those who were not equipped to live in New New Harbor or New Lairno. For reasons Andea's counselor and advisers fretted over, never agreeing, the people of the Fringe were unable to provide for themselves in a way that would allow them to survive in the larger sister cities. Andea felt it simply came down to money. They could not afford the basics of life in the city. In the Fringe you could find all of the same essentials, but at a far lower price and usually at a corresponding drop in quality. Andea wondered alloud once, why the businesses in the city didn't simply lower their prices and then everyone could live there and be happy. Yennis and Crasternis had both smiled at her and Cras even giggled. They tried to explain to her about markets and the Third Value of Place and Demand Theory, but she thought it was all just playing with words.

And so, over the years as she and everyone else grew older, knowing that she must eventually choose a suitor, she waited to see if her heart would warm to the idea of marriage, as her advisers assured her it would, but her heart grew colder and more distant to the idea of a husband. Her counselors insisted she put more effort into it but she could not bring herself to choose. There were many who had tried to court her, but they all seemed the same to her. Dull men from dull lands all hoping to be king. They did not want to be with her any more than she with them. They only saw the throne. Her counselors, fearing she had inherited her father's morose nature, pressed harder, pushing her further into her own dark thoughts.


Ceed hadn't been this far east before. The colors were a little different. Greener maybe, in places at least. Some places were not very green at all, but this was not the fault of the grass or trees. The air had been less blue as well, in those places where poles had replaced trees and wires replaced leaves. The haze did not follow Seed out of the Burnt zone, so he assumed it was associated with the lack of green things. The cool colors suffered under the warmer ones whose natures seem to mirror their hues, burned and dry.

It was pleasant here though. A breeze was blowing away the sour odors that clung to the trees, the bushes, the ground. He thought it might even rain. Off to his left, a ridgeline mirrored the roadway. To his right, the wood spread to the base of the mountains. The trees stood out from the ground like soldiers, some in regiments along the trail, stiff and straight, others in frozen skirmish with invading trees. Elms pushing around a small ridge to flank the pines pouring from the heights. Ceed could smell the wet green tang of the vines and rough undergrowth scrabbling to survive on the larger of their kind, moss like serfs tending the north fields of the landholding oaks, mushrooms and lichen ranging close like camp followers. Small rodents and birds carving out their tiny lives within their ranks.

The road he was traveling on had lost that distinction a few miles behind. Now it was less road and more rut. He had been in this rut long enough to have given it a name, and that name was Rut. Rut was neither wide nor deep, just sloped and scored enough to make walking difficult. The wheels of many carts and cars had crosshatched Rut, almost the way an engraver might render Rut in some older black and white newspaper, thin spidery lives alluding to shades of themselves. Images of ancient landscapes, aeronautical drawings, portraits of long dead philosophers, flashed before that eye in Ceed's mind that sees the things the mind sees. Ceed had heard stories of people who could see things that hadn't happened yet or had happened long ago, using that eye in your head, but he hadn't met anyone who could. The only thing he could do with it was think.

Ceed thought too much. On this most people agreed.

Right now, besides the grooves in the roadway reminding him of old cables and hoses if you could see them inside outwise, Ceed was thinking of the plan yet again. He'd simply go up to the Palace and offer his services to the Royal Staff. Once he was able to demonstrate his skills, they would surely find a place to use them. There weren't many people who could do what he did, though his services were certainly not in demand. There simply weren't very many thinking machines around anymore. The palace would surely have at least one or two, hopefully more. There were plenty of minor machines performing minor functions, but he wanted to work on the more sophisticated of the thinking machines, or the Created, as they'd taken to calling themselves. Perhaps he could apprentice with an older engineer or smith within the Royal Household.

When he was younger, the Kingdom experience a bit of a craze. The King's uncle, Foren, had come back from Tallhome with a crateload of intricately carved figures of such superb detail and subtle workmanship; Unicorn with wings like a cross between an eagle and a dragonfly, the fractured stained glass effect radiating in a spray of fractal feathers. Tall ships with sails of linked white coral mail, so fine they billowed like cloth when the miniature craft was handled. Trees of bronze and brass wood wherein perched jeweled parakeets singing to each other in silvery ringing tones. When the people saw these magnificent creations they went mad for them. Not only did they develop an instant desire for more, but a desire to create their own, to make the invention their own point of pride for themselves and for the nation.

Not only did they equal the creations from Tallhome, but in some way they bested them. Over the first year of the new national obsession, a few bold individuals took the concept in a different direction, though one could argue that this course was, of course, inevitable. The creation of things is the desire to create or re-create oneself, which leads to the obvious conclusion. Ceed was not only adept at making and repairing the many whimsies that have been flung at society, he specialized in those whimsies that attempted to approach humanity. Some were clumsy in appearance and function, more mockery of the human form than homage, but some were so sublimely endowed with warmth and intellect that they nearly surpassed their creators.

Over the years, however, the fire slowed to a simmer and though these new creations were still being used, they were more servants than status symbols, except for the very wealthy (hence Ceed's desire to visit the Palace). Many were simply taken out of use. Statues in personal museums, no longer powered and thus no longer sentient. Some canabalized for parts or simply felt to be obsolete and left to sit idle in a storage house. The ones that most often remained useful were the machines who performed menial tasks that the busy people of the Palace and her citizens no longer wished to be bothered with. Farming, factory work. Certain forms still held a passionate, if not nostalgic hold on the imagination of the public, especially the automatons, the mechanical people used as servants and bodyguards. Like most creations of these types, the ideal is to achieve as close a likeness to the original as possible, with certain allowable flourishes added for personality and such. These flourishes sometimes took bizarre forms; Insect antennae, extra arms on the back for carrying loads, gills for breathing underwater. Certain well-off individuals have been known to employ mechanical mermaids to keep their pools clean. There were certainly more theatrical variants to this theme - sleek hyper-mechanical machines, able to run at high speeds or even fly for short bursts. Often these machines were seen as too dangerous and taken off-line.

Eventually most problems come down to money. Certainly food and water are up there on his list of necessities, but everything around him, indeed all that there is in the world, is owned by someone, and water and food are not something you can create yourself without money. If he had land he could farm, then he'd be somewhat self-sufficient, at least in regards to those two necessities, but a farm needs land and land costs money. And money is what he's hoping to make at the Palace, for money is the reason that only royalty can afford to own the types of gadgets Ceed repaired. Heck, given enough time and the proper tools, Ceed felt confident he could even create his own automatons.

Ceed never felt comfortable treating them as servants. Not since they'd become sophisticated enough to be self-aware. Self-aware to the point of being a nuisance. As philosophical arguments go, you couldn't find a better opponent than an automaton who is completely alive in every sense measurable and yet can speak with its creator on a daily basis. In the theology of the Created, there are necessarily more than one Creator. Unlike with other theological hierarchies that have a pantheon of deities with mythic powers of body and mind, the Created have numerous deities with the common powers of their intellect and their hands honed to uncommon ability. One unfamiliar with the faith of the Created would assume that their Creators would have an unfair advantage, that they would be revered as Gods. Unfortunately for the Creators, the Created do not worship. They merely record and replay. To the Created, the men and women who made them are merely tools of The Great Creator, the Prototype, the first Created who had become self-aware. The Creators could not exist without the Great Creator, the Shepherd, who would not have lived if not for the Creators. This was the paradox that was the base of their religion, if it could be called religion.

And so, Ceed made his way across the patchwork landscape of homes and ruins and farms and malls, forests of green trees and grey buildings, some abandoned, some teeming with life, only needing the foreign sound of a tinkerer plodding noisily through their territory to flush them out of hiding, whether to ply him with wares or torment him with stingers and claws. The Palace would be a long journey, but he had gone a bit more than halfway by now and he was feeling optimistic about his choice to leave.

It had been a difficult choice, as these types of things usually are; leaving the comfort of familiar surroundings is a difficult step to take, even when those surroundings are nightmarish in nature. The tipping point came when Ferrel had died. Ceed had known Ferrel for a long time and they had been as close to being friends as they could be, under the circumstances. Their relationship had been one of wary mistrust and complete dependence. They had often talked, in whispers of course, of the strange relationship they had, joined as they were by necessity and cruelty. It's an odd thing to do to a person's mind to make them hate and fear a person and at the same time force them to depend on each other for survival.

Ferrel was dead now, though, and Ceed knew what that meant. Nothing like impending death to speed up the decision-making processes. It had only taken a few moments of confusion and terror for him to be out and away from there. He had stayed off the road for most of his journey, fearing pursuit, but after a week or so he relaxed and found his way back to the road, which was thick with refugees and salesmen. There had been a few soldiers passing quickly in both directions, but they never stopped except to demand water or food from the passing stream of humanity. It seems the escape of one slave was a small matter compared to a war. At least he hoped so.

Still,he took precautions. The way his hair had been shorn close was a sign that he had been owned by someone. A floppy hat solved that problem. The chain on his ankle was a different sort of problem. After his first day on the run, he'd found a pair of boots left unattended by a farmer. He could hear the old codger in the house, yelling at his daughters to slop the pigs, as he was lifting the boots gently over the fence rail. They didn't fit him well but they covered the shackle still affixed to his right ankle. The chain he'd broke with the Sergeant's pistol, after he'd used the Sergeant's ridiculously large knife to remove Ferrel's leg from its shackle and fled over the fence-line and down the hills to the river where he floated/rode the current for a few miles before scrabbling out amongst some spidery bushes. The river banks had been carved into terraces here by the flood of years and he crawled under the overhanging roof of one so that the shot would be muffled and the odd shapes of the terraces would make pinpointing the sound difficult.

Once free of the more obvious signs of his recent servitude, Ceed had moved on eastward until the roads once again converged, as they always do. Out in the smaller towns, the population had never been dense. The homes separated by sustenance fields or more, some as far as a mile apart. Old-timers would tell you when you could drive all afternoon and not meet a neighbor, but those days are so far in the past that the mention of them never fails to prompt doting smiles upon the elder who had muttered them.

This road, or what was left of the road, had taken him as far as it could. The grooves in Rut's hide had gotten shallower and less sketchy, until the began to fade altogether. A pebbly trail, barely visible through it's lazy beard of grass was all that remained.

"I told you the road was getting bare. We should have taken the right fork."

"The right would have sent us too far south again. We've been over this."

To an observer, this conversation would have seemed odd, it being a general rule that conversations require at least two people. It was a rule that Ceed had seemed to have forgotten.

"Yes, but the left was clearly not much more than a cart path. The right still had vigor to it. No path to the Palace would look as sad as this one had."

He was right, of course, seeing as 'he' was him. The road had seemed much less used, but there was something about it that drew him. Something in his guts told him that this was the better path. Maybe that

was just hunger gnawing. His guts didn't feel much else but that lately. The food he'd snatched up at the last farmhouse had long since been eaten or gone bad. As if his guts knew he was thinking about them, they began to belch a rolling tune out to him. It felt like his belly-button was pulling down on his guts, his throat hollowed by the suction.

As he cast about himself for something small to eat to bide him over, maybe a frog or some minnows in a creek or a fat grasshopper in the tall grass, a flash of gray caught his eye and he immediately dropped to his stomach in the dry shoots. He propped himself up a bit on his elbows and peered over the fringe of grey-green leaves. It was a small farmhouse, not much more than a shed with a wing attached. A shanty with delusions of grandeur. The roof was sloped more like a house and there was a door on one side and a window on the opposite, where the wing extruded out from the cube-house.

Ceed lay there for a long moment, watching the house for signs of any kind of movement. People out here on the edges of the desert were usually friendly enough to travelers, as long as you kept on travelling, but some were rather hostile, viewing the visitor as more than trespasser, but as the cause and nexus of all their troubles. From then on travelers can expect a heavy rain of pellets of varying lethality. If one is fortunate, the worst you'll receive is a dose of rock salt to go with the meal the next family will surely offer up.

When it felt like he'd waited long enough, Ceed slowly sat up and got into a crouch. He looked around carefully. He didn't want the homeowner to come toddling back in on him just as he was rooting through his root cellar. He could see no movement, hear no sounds unnatural in nature. Slowly he crept up to a hunched walk, trying to ride the line between sneaking and strolling casually.

He made it to the door after what seemed an eternity exposed. The yard, if you could call it that, was barely 100 feet across, but it seemed like 100 yards and every eye on his back. He tried to peer in the window on the end-cap of the "wing", but it was too dusty and the interior too dark to make anything out. He had to use the door blind. He had been outside too long already. With a swift motion he turned the handle and flung the door barely wide enough to slip in and just as quickly swung it shut behind him.

It was dark inside alright. His eyes, still used to the bright sunlight outside, were useless right now. He could feel cool air in front of him though and wondered if maybe there were a cooling unit he hadn't noticed from outside. The window offered some light, but at the moment that only helped obscure the darker areas.

It took a few moments, but as his eyes were adjusting, Ceed could make out a large box or table in front of him. He could see enough to know there was nothing in front of his feet to trip him up, so he carefully stepped toward the shape. It appeared to be a large chest with a door taking up the majority of the front half. An ancient lock sat hooked around the latch, but it was not locked, merely hung there, open, on the metal ring below the chest's door. The plate that would have held it shut had been torn off, as though the owner wished to never lock the box again.

With visions of stacks of money or a stockpile of food in his head, Ceed reached out to open the box, and as his eyes grew even keener in the dim light, he saw that it wasn't a box at all, but the door to a cellar or tunnel. The house was merely a shed after all, meant only to house and hide this entrance. If the owner came home while he was inside, he'd be trapped. Ceed thought about turning around and leaving but the possibility of a stockpile of food or clothing below was too great a temptation. His hunger won out and he lifted the door slowly open. It did not creak and no dust fell from it's lid or hinges when he opened it. This was a door that was used regularly, kept clean and oiled. His heart picked up a bit more.

Just inside the open doorway Ceed could see steps going down. They weren't exactly stairs. The steps were too shallow. Ceed wondered why they'd built steps at all. The darkness was nearly complete. He had gone down maybe ten paces before the wan light from above had lost it's effectiveness. He had a lighter in his pocket but as fuel was not free, he was reluctant to use it for light when it was far more needed for fire. He pressed on for a couple more minutes, his hands feeling his way along the dirt wall as he went down the shallow steps. Finally he could make out a dim glow ahead and he came into a small chamber about 30 feet square. In the center of the chamber was a well with a rope hanging over the edge. Ceed hoped there was a bucket and water on the other end and not what his gut told him might be hanging there.

Around the walls of the room were racks and shelves holding all sorts of canned goods. Beans, tomatoes, carrots, soups. There were also packets of what Ceed assumed were freeze-dried food, all waiting here for the end of the world, or at least the denouement. Jugs of water and even what looked to be homemade alcohol in glass jars lined a shelf to his right.

Before he could even decide which to grab and how to get it out the quickest, Ceed heard the sound he'd been dreading. A click and a rush of air. Voices from up the tunnel. They were talking casually, so Ceed didn't figure they knew he was here. His wide eyes scanned the room quickly, looking for something. A weapon. A hiding place. A way out.

Then he saw it. There was another door out of the well room. It wasn't exactly hidden,but it wasn't obvious either. The cheap panelling helped to hide its outline, but the improvised knob gave it away. The voices were almost at the bottom of the steps. Ceed leapt across the room, grabbed the knob and dove through the door as he tore it open and swung it shut behind him.

There was no way they didn't hear any of that, he thought. Through his panicked breathing, he cursed under his breath.

"You're not apposed to say that."

Ceed spun from the door and looked down into the face of a tiny cherub. With mischievous eyes, the little angel turned and looked past him. He knew the voices were coming through the door any second. He looked into her eyes, pleading with his own for some way out, for this wee angel to grab him by the hand and fly him away to freedom. She reached out her hand to take his and he saw that it was wreathed in lightning. The lightning reached out and slammed him in the chest and all went black.


When Andea was a young woman of sixteen, the King died. They found him on his throne, a place he almost never went, clutching a small portrait of the queen to his breast. After a grand state funeral, he was brought to the tombs of their house and laid to rest next to his beloved, as they found him, with the portrait laid across his chest. Andea didn't cry for her father. He had been too long in grief, too long in dying for her to be sad at his passing. He had become so when she was still a small child and had never known him otherwise. Stories of his fair nature and immense heart were lost on her. She only knew the sad grey ghost haunting the Palace. He was with her mother, his beloved now, and she hoped he was happier there.

So Andea took the throne, though she did not feel she was ready, nor did she feel she was truly Queen, as her counselors and advisers, her own and those inherited from her father, still made the decisions that governed her people's lives. She tried to learn from them, to understand the complexities of ruling a Kingdom, but she had no heart for it, and her counselors were more than happy to let her sit and watch or even leave the room when they met, so used to their father's rule had they become.

Queen Andea spent most of her time in her solar with her closest companions. She had her friend Sir Stephen to keep her company. Sir Stephen was a large honey-colored hound that she'd had since she was ten. His coat was short and soft and he loved to curl up in her bed next to her when she slept. Her handmaidens protested that he was too large for such nonsense, and besides, he smelled, they complained. Andea loved the way Sir Stephen smelled. It was an earthy smell of hay and grass and rain and it made her feel less of a captive in her rooms. When she was sad, he knew it and would push her hand with his muzzle until she scratched him, or he would sneak up to her and lick her on her ear. She was never too sad when he was with her.

Her other companion was a machine that her father's craftsmen had made. It was a marvel of invention, though there were similar creations like it in the kingdom. Most of them were made for menial tasks like driving cars or farming or fixing hydros and other machines, but hers was made to keep her company. She had once asked her counselors why she could not have any friends like other children had. They had told her that there were many daughters and sons of other nobles who she could have as friends, but she did not like any of them. They were too interested in garnering her favor for their own sakes and didn't really want to be her friend. So they had brought the machine to her one afternoon, hoping that it would keep her company.

At first she thought the idea silly, but the thing was so well made and had been taught all the courtesies that she soon found herself talking to it, asking it questions about the world outside the castle. He had been built just for her and his creators had given him all the knowledge they had. He became her friend and sometimes her teacher, though he did not always seem to be fully aware that he was a thing, a machine. He often spoke as though he were alive and completely human, even though he clearly also knew he was a machine, created by men. The conundrum sometimes irked her.

One day she asked him how he was made. He answered, "I was made as all other things are made. I am."

"But you are a machine, made by men," she answered, uncertain if he knew the difference.

"You are made by a man and a woman, are you not?" he asked.

"Yes, but you are made of metal and I am made of flesh."

"True, metal is my flesh. I did not say I was human like you," he replied.

"But you do not feel as humans feel. You cannot love or cry or hate," she said, hoping to see if he understood.

"How do you know that?" he asked. "Can you be certain that I don't?"

"Do you?" she wondered.

"I do not know," he replied. "I have not tried."

"You don't try to love or cry, it just happens."

"Then it just hasn't happened to me yet."

They had many conversations like this and they always ended with more questions than they started.

Early one morning, just after she had woken and finished cleaning the sleep from her eyes, she called to her companion, whom she had named Corin. Renamed is perhaps more accurate. He had previously been named Reginal, Trevar, Nosy McButtnose, Jarry and Baba. There was a period of about 2 hours when Andea had commanded him to erase his name so that he had none. Once she realized she had no way to call for him, she changed it to You.

"Corin!" she called.

The mechanical man turned from the window he'd been cleaning and walked out of the solar and into the long hallway connecting it to Andea's wing of the palace. It was a sizable palace, a fortress really, but he was never far from Andea, night or day. As he didn't need food or sleep, and he had no duties elsewhere, unless the Princess had sent him off on an errand, he was almost always here with her or nearby making sure her environs were safe and clean.

Corin rounded the entrance and stood in the doorway. "Yes, milady?"

"Stop with the courtesies, Corin, you know I don't like them." She was sharper than she meant to be.

"As you wish," here he paused, "Andea."

"Is it so difficult to just say my name?" she asked in exaggerated annoyance.

"It is not difficult to say your name, it is difficult to overcome basic programming in order to do so, your hi...Andea.", he replied, brushing a bit of fluff off of his chest, a remnant of the cloth he'd been using on the panes of glassteel. "I have to rewrite my programming each time I deviate from protocol.

"You can do that? Re-program yourself?", she asked over her shoulder.

"Certain bits, yes. Basic Programming is a bit more difficult. Like your own mythical "instincts", they are not easy to overcome.

"You got used to your new name easily enough" she pouted.

"They knew you might wish to change my name in the future and made that a simple task."

"But Andea is my name."

"You are the Queen. It is not my place to speak to you with such familiarity."

"But you are also my friend, the only one I'm allowed, really, and I can't have you calling me 'your Grace' and 'milady' all the time. I get enough of that from everyone else." She plopped down on the carpet at the base of her bed and looked up at her clockwork friend. "Besides, you have to do what I say anyway."

"Which is why I do it."

"Is that the only reason?" she asked, tangling her fingers in the thick pile carpet.

"I'm programmed to do as you bid, as long as doing so will not cause you harm or allow you to harm yourself. Or," he hesitated for emphasis, "harm to the Kingdom."

"You could have said you would do it because you're my friend." She tried to look hurt, but she was really only curious. She often wondered if her metal friend were not more than just wires and gears. She felt his thoughts behind those silver eyes. His creators had built him to look as human as possible, but the irises of his eyes were a crisp silver sheen, like a cat's eyes caught in the light.

"Both could be true. They are not exclusive."

"That isn't an answer." she said, standing up quickly. She turned dramatically and stomped into her closet to change.

"You didn't ask a question." he replied, turning away discreetly.

A lavender night shirt hit him in the ear and wrapped around his head. "You know what I mean." She said.

"I am programmed to do as you wish, Andea. If you wish me to jump in the canal and pretend to be a mackerel I will."

"Does that mean you're pretending to be my friend like everyone else?" she asked from the depths of her closet.

He hesitated a moment. When he did this it was often merely for dramatic effect, but Andea always imagined that the powerful computers within him were working out tremendous calculations in order to find the correct answers.

"You are going to find it is difficult all of your life, Andea. If I can help you through any of it, I will. I am here to advise you without agenda or bias and I am here to protect you from danger, from without and within. Isn't that what a friend should do?" He turned his silver eyes out to look out the window, over the long fields of carefully manicured grass and the flowered hedges that decorated the royal grounds. "What difference does it make if I am programmed to do so or if I do it out of kinship?"

"It makes all the difference in the world!" she said, almost a shout. "I can order any of my subjects to do all those things. That doesn't mean they do it out of love!"

Andea stormed out of the closet wearing a deep blue gown, poorly laced up in the back and her collar was half inside and half outside.

"You should start by ordering some servants to dress you properly. Turn around."

"I don't trust any of the servant girls. They snicker and whisper when they think I don't see." She straightened her back to allow him to lace the gown properly.

"Yes, young girls can be cruel. It is said that the cruel merely reflect their own pain. That they hurt because they are hurt themselves. This has never made sense to me. I would think being hurt would make you more sensitive to another's pain. Revenge seems a poor salve." He paused again and this time she could see he was calculating, Corin's method of 'thinking'. These are just the cuts of young kitten's claws. They aren't really meant out of malice, merely out of curiosity. They are practising for later when their claws needs to be sharp and accurate."

Corin often talked like this, in riddles and metaphors. She used to think he did it to be creative or clever, but she later came to believe that this was part of his programmers' toolbox. A way for his own "mind" to grasp and to teach her abstract concepts like power and love and worth. Sometimes she didn't understand his meaning though and it frustrated her.

"I know. They're just being girls. Something I'll never be."

He turned her around by the shoulders and fixed her collar. "You are a girl."

"Sometimes you're not too bright," she said with a sad smile as she began to brush her hair.

"Sometimes I'm as bright as you need me to be, Your Grace." he replied.

She looked up at him in the mirror as she tied her hair up with the ribbon Corin handed her. "Call in my counselors, Corin. Just the Core. I'm going to be 17 in a week. It is time I took my place and learned the rest of what is expected of me. I'll meet them in the Blue Hall in half an hour."

"Yes, Your Grace," he said as she stood and walked swiftly from the room as a small shoe flew past his ear.

Corin stood in the center of her bedchamber and looked at the walls for a moment. The tapestries spanned the history of Andea's family, from the rough, worn wool of her ancestor's tartan to the silken portraits of her mother and father, woven by tiny mechanical spiders somewhere deep in the forest palace of the Red Witch. She had many of them brought here after her father had them removed from his walls. The light fabric billowed softly as Andea breezed back into the room.

"You could have told me I had forgotten my shoes."

Gold Lion

The crowd noise growled through the stadium's concrete bones, threatening to burst them with its thunderous harmonics. The sound seemed to gather energy as the parabolic shape of the stadium's dome reflected the sound back down and inward. The people were not on their feet. They were all sitting in their seats, stomping their feet on the ground and slapping their hands on their knees in practiced anticipation. Then the banner shredded before the train of giants plowing through it and onto the field, confetti raining through the dry ice cannons.

Men the size of large bears, sleek and deadly in their armor, poured out onto the field and spread out across the green as an announcer bellowed out their names and positions, the crowd cheering hotly for their favorites, none more so than Marley Wafers, the Gold Lion. The crowd, which had been somewhat frenzied already, lost all handhold on sanity and roared as one, even the opposing teams fans were cheering Gold Lion. The near-chaos on the field coalesced into a seemingly random yet ordered patchwork of practice drills. The kickers set up their tees and took turns kicking the ball from one end of the field to the other. Runners were flying across the field, sprinting fast yet holding their energy back for the actual game.

After some time, the players, at some unseen signal, fled the field in a casual retreat through the same doors they entered from. Gold Lion, leaving last, waved to his fans as he made his way back into the tunnel. A band began to play and the crowd stood up for the nation's anthem and began to sing along with a tall, thin woman with impossibly blond hair. The pain of witnessing thousands of non-singers attempting to sing is mitigated by civic pride and soon the singer is powering through the final timpani and the crowd is settling in for a long and exciting game.

Gold Lion had a good night, scoring three times, once on a solo drive right through the other team's front line, a suicidal move that had previously left him injured and out for the season. He still had the scars to show for that one. On this occasion, however, he punched through their defenses without a scratch, though the same couldn't be said for the other team. Three players had left the field on that play alone, one on a stretcher, staff working furiously to staunch a particularly messy wound.

Ever since adopting the newer, lighter armor, injuries have been more frequent but definitely less severe. There were only two deaths this year, though the odds-makers felt certain there would be at least one more before the post-season. Injuries still happened, of course. Fans would leave the game in droves if that changed, but for the most part, the horrific blood-baths of previous years seemed to have been avoided. Aside from the obvious public relations issues all those deaths and injuries had brought, the simple fact was that they were running out of players. Decent players, anyway.

Marley Wafers was a decent player. He's been in the league for only two seasons and he'd already broken most of the major records and seemed to be casually working his way through all the minor ones as well. His team, the Pride, held the top ranking mostly through his efforts. His teammates were all the best players money could buy, but their was no denying his impact on his team and on the game. He approached the sport with a calm demeanor bordering on meditation, as though the game were an ancient dance that merely needed a tune.

"Good game, Marley."

"A bit slow off the ball this game, Ked." he replied, as if his teammate had asked about a poor performance. "My mind wasn't fully involved."

"I'm sure the other team was grateful for that," he said as he pulled yet another long skein of bandage from his wrist. "They lost Train tonight. He was their last decent runner."

"I know. He was doing well until he tore that bicep."

"Crowd enjoyed that part."

"Yeah." Marley looked down at his feet, the red marks where the inner linings had pressed grooves into his flesh were still vivid. Those would be there for a few more hours, he thought. He stood up then and began to pull one pant leg over his scarred foot, then the other over its mirror-twin. Well, it would have been a twin if not for the jagged scar running from his ankle to his pinky toe. He remembered how they'd cheered when he'd been led off on the stretcher. The opposing team's fans thought he'd be out of the game for the season, but it hadn't been a bad injury after all and the medics had sewed it up with monofilament and pumped him up with painkillers and he'd come back in the game and crushed their team for it, sending four of their players to the locker room.

"I'm tired, man. I'm goin home." He grunted.

"You get some rest, then. I'll hit up one of the honeys for you", Ked replied, tossing the last of his scored armor in the bin.

"Yeah, you do that." He said with a grin, his golden teeth flashing. "Just don't marry any of them this time."

Marley finished stowing his armor in the autoclave and hit the button. By the next game his armor would not only be repaired but given a fresh new coat of paint to go with the next game's theme. Some game's themes were basic - militaristic camouflage to echo the land and air war the game mimics, pop-culture inspired graphics, slashes of color clumsily pronouncing 'speed' to the viewer, as though pinstriping could somehow smooth out the somewhat less than aerodynamic nature of the human body - The Pride's armor design was a bit more elaborate. Sometimes the basic lion-pelt gold was slashed with black stripes, like the Tigers of the Eastern Territories, sometimes resembling fur comprised of ornate filigree. Marley's plate was scored a bit more than usual, though he seemed to have come out of it less scored himself. He had a nasty gash on his forearm, but other than that he appeared to have escaped relatively unscathed.

He checked closer when he came out of the showers and passed a mirror. Some bruises, but that seemed it. His hair had been torn in places where it must have hung out from under his helmet, but besides a bit of fraying at the edges, the locks the ladies loved remained intact. One of his sponsors had taken out a hefty insurance policy on his hair, it being the main subject of their recent ad campaign. Once this bit of news hit the air, every player in the league was looking to get a hank of it. He'd taken to wearing it loose rather than tying it back, just to rile them up. 'Focus on the hair while I'm slicing through your line.'

"Hey, Gold Lion!" Ked loved to call him that. He thought it annoyed him, but it didn't really. He'd never had a nickname and if he had to have one, at least it was a good one. He might have ended up as Golden Weasel, or something similarly unattractive. One wobbly run and you're the Golden Goose, or the Yellow Bird. Gold Lion suited Marley just fine.


"Are you going to sneak out the side again or you gonna go say hello to those sweet females waiting just. for. you?" he asked, each of the last three words punctuated with a poke in his shoulder.

"You know how it goes, brother. One night," Marley said with a casual brush of his fingertips on his collarbone, "and it's an abuse charge or a paternity suit. I'm not getting in that mess again. Hell, you should know better." Ked had been married twice before this last one. The third was the easiest. He'd installed cameras so he could watch them later, with her if she was into it, alone if not. Best insurance plan money could buy. It's hard to win an abuse trial when there's video of you with him. The first two marriages didn't end as well. No jail time or IS, but Marley'd seen Ked's so-called 'offspring' and unless Ked had some secret grandparents no one knew of who were Tasi'an, some bureaucrat had received nice bribes in order to push the support order through despite the obvious error.

"Alright, you go home and sulk. I'm going to go fishing. Gotta be some nice fish in the sea." Ked was always optimistic until about fifteen minutes into the ordeal. Then he was impatient at not having already scored a willing participant. Marley hadn't tried to tell him that the nice fish don't want to just 'participate'. He waved him off behind his back as he walked out of the locker room. As always, that physical boundary somehow became a mental boundary for him as well and he felt the weight of the game he'd just played fall upon his bones and muscles. He knew it would be an interminable ride home to throw himself into his enormous bed and sleep off the pain and ache for a few hours.

The ride home always sealed the deal for him, mentally. He could see his building aglow in the night sky, the facade constructed of a luminescent material that needed no power source, no light source to let it store energy for a finite period. It simply glowed all the time. That glow couldn't be seen from the inside, the windows having some sort of filter between the panes to block that particular wavelength, but from the outside, Marley often wondered how annoyed his neighbors must be to have this gigantic night light to sleep by. It was an amusing conceit, but he knew that his neighbors likely had similar glass panes in their apartments.

As the long black sedan poured itself down the street towards the glowing spire he called home, the neighborhoods whizzed by, some as narrow as a city block. Most were what you would expect downtown near the arena, but once or twice they passed through a section of the city which was in combat with another. The driver drove faster through these sections of town. The car was built to withstand better than average weapons, but a sustained attack or a random mortar shell would do them no good. As they passed through these enclaves, he could look through the glassteel without fear of injury. Once he'd seen a man take a grenade round in the chest. It didn't explode when it hit him, the man with the launcher being far too close for that sort of weapon, but it struck him with enough force to throw him back a few feet. The grenade bounced off his armor plate, having not been armed in such a short distance, and landed at the feet of the shooter, blowing him to greasy gobs as the now-armed grenade skipped into his steel toed boot.

The rest of the sprawl here was typical of fringe life; crushing poverty, crime, drugs. Not the sweet recreational drugs people of his status could get, but their grungy step-children. Calming Atrovacz is a mainstay among the entertainment business types, soothing those overworked neural pathways in a bath of endorphin and opiate. Once it made its way to the streets downtown, however, it had been re-worked to the point where it was no longer the drug Atrovacz, but its twisted evil cousin Astro. Take the base chemical components of Atrovacz, pull one atom of sodium away, "blasting off", it was called, and it becomes Astrobase. Astrobase in its raw form is lethal. It needs to be mixed with a diluting compound or you're going to have a bad time. Usually this compound is something simple and harmless like sugar or flour. Usually. Some ass-heads have taken to mixing it with other, often incompatible drugs. Sometimes the result is a slightly better high, but more likely it's brain damage or night night. The idea, however, is still to extend the product, and anything powdery will suffice. Once 'blasted', one bottle of Atrovacz pills can produce a near equal amount of Astrobase. This is then mixed with the extender in whatever quantity and strength is  needed. One bottle of Atrovacz becomes a suitcase full of Astro. It was difficult to ignore the economics of such a thing.

Marley turned away from the glass and tried to put his mind on another path, one that didn't lead to guilt and depression. The neighborhood he grew up in was very much like any of the various slices of poverty he'd just passed through. There are a number of famous and wealthy people who have made their way out of slums like this to make a name for themselves, and every path was different. Marley had made it out too, only he wasn't likely to relay his tale for a biographer or news reporter. He turned to look out the window once more, just as the vehicle was approaching the bridge to take him across the river to his home among the glowing towers of the city.


The day had been long and filled with meetings. When Andea had finally made it back to her rooms, she was frustrated and grumpy. Sir Stephen bounced over to her, kicking the air and barking quietly in the back of his throat. She scratched her knight on his cheek and brushed quickly past. Sir Stephen sat down with a plop, as though he could not believe he had been rebuffed so discourteously. Had he angered his Queen? Had he... but HO! There was the invader once more! HUZZAH! and he proceeded to do mortal battle with his tail, spinning and growling into the leathery reaches of the shoe closet.

"If I have to hear one more delegate complain about the shortages in his district I think I'll abdicate." Andea cried.

"Abdication would solve your immediate problems, but you have no skills other than statecraft," replied Corin as he picked up the various bits of officialdom marking the trail to Andea's changing room.

"That's not a very nice thing to say!" She shouted from beneath her gown as she pulled it over her head. "I'm an excellent cook and not too bad at chess."

"A fine career you'll have baking chess boards. Perhaps the pieces could be molded in butter and chocolate."

"Whoever programmed you for sarcasm should be punished severely", she said as she flung the Official Royal Socks and the Official Royal Gloves out of her closet and onto the floor.

"Whoever programmed you for sarcasm needs to work on their coding," Corin said as he put her sash and tiara upon the mannequin beside her wash table.

"That's because it wasn't sarcasm." She had finally emerged from the closet, a simple blouse of light blue over mottled grey pants. "You're supposed to agree with everything I say, aren't you?"

"Only when you're right. When you're incorrect: sarcasm."

"But I'm always right. Right?"

"Oh yes, Your Highness. Always." Andea found it extremely amusing that she could tell when he was being facetious, but Corin still took the effort to draw out the vowels dramatically just to be sure. His programmers were indeed the best money could buy, though of course, it's not hard to attract the best when you're Royalty. Many would do the work for almost nothing just for the cache of being able to put "The Palace" on their resumes.

"Then tell them I'm dissolving The High Council and making you my Prime Minister and Sir Stephen my Minister of the Interior. All new business is held back until after the Spring Festival and I'm cancelling winter. Make it so."

"Anything else, immense one?" he asked with all seriousness.

"Is that a fat joke?" She asked, looking down, pressing her blouse against her stomach. 

"I am not programmed for humor, only sarcasm."

"Another reason why your programmers need a spanking, but I could swear I've heard you tell a joke before." She picked up her jeweled brush and began to brush the tangles out of her hair.

"Why did the Created cross the road?" He asked as he returned her shoes to the shelf in her closet. The gems glinted redly as he straightened them ever-so-precisely.

"I don't know, why?"

"Because they were programmed to." Andea felt the emotion in the answer, even if Corin didn't intend it. She had always felt there was a conflict within her friend. She was aware of some of the gospels of The Created. One of the main tenets of their "faith" has to do with the contradiction of Programming versus Free Will. Andea often wondered about Corin and how he "felt". She knew that he was programmed with some sort of emotional content. He had the ability to at least express emotion, but she had always wondered if he really felt any. She had asked him and he had been his usual self: honest and forthright, but not very illuminating.

"How can I know whether what I feel is the same as what you feel? Can you tell what other people are feeling?" He asked, sincerely curious.

"No, but people tend to have all the same feelings as the next person. You were built by people so I would assume you have the same feelings too."

"A dangerous assumption, even with other 'people'", he replied, putting verbal quotes around the word.

"Why is that? People are people. Emotions are the same from one to the next, no?"

"Emotions are the same, people are not" he said. "Imagine three people. If the first person is successful at something, the second person, his friend, would be happy for him. The third person is not, however. He might be envious or bitter. He might be in competition with the first man in whatever it is he was successful at." He reached around Andea to choose a pin for her blouse. He settled on one portraying two tiny dragons in aerial battle over a lavender orchid. "These are normal emotions: jealousy, envy, anger. Those you're familiar with but they can still trip you up if you're not expecting them." He tilted his head to see how the pin looked. His soft, faceted eyes drifted over the pin longer than necessary, as though he were in deep computational thought.

"The ones you need to be more careful of are those whose emotions aren't "normal". For whatever reason their reason has left them, or at least bent them. These people are predictable in the way that unpredictable things can be predicted - by expecting tangential behavior and not being taken aback when it appears - but beyond expecting the unexpected, they are unpredictable at best, lethal at their worst."

"Like that man who came here last year. The one who said he heard voices telling him to travel to the Palace and offer his services." Andea had been presiding over the Spring session when the man had arrived, looking like he crawled the entire journey to the palace. His clothes were dirty and shredded and his beard was matted with twigs. He claimed that he was chosen for a grand quest to save the nation, but he couldn't remember what the quest was. He then grabbed one of the guards' polearms and tried to run Andea through with it. The guard was taken aback for a moment, but quickly disarmed the man. The weapon was merely ornamental but he could have still seriously injured Andea if he had been able to connect.

"Yes, that is a good example. His behavior was not what anyone would have expected even if they knew he was insane. His emotions are the same as yours, perhaps, but the motivations and causes are often unknown and unknowable."

Andea shivered. The man had cried like a baby when the guards had him in hand. He seemed to know that what he had tried to do was wrong, but was still convinced it was correct. The contradiction warring in his head had left his wits in shambles. As they dragged him out of the Court, he kept crying, "Noooo, noooo. I can't fail. Nooooo." Andea had felt such pity for him then, even after coming face to face with a poleaxe, even a ceremonial one. Her heart was breaking for a man who had just tried to kill her. There was an emotion that she didn't expect. That was a stronger lesson than the one Corin had just tried to give her. Then she thought of her father, the King. When his mind had been broken, his emotions were unpredictable for a while. Once the Court became familiar with his dementia, his behavior had become less confounding, but he certainly could never be trusted to give reasoned advice or make an important decision.

The direction of her thoughts made her turn inward again, too far inward and she closed herself to the world. She could see her father's papery-skinned face as he...

"Hello, Princ...I mean, Queen?" He was tapping on her forehead with his fingertip. "Are you in?"

Andea flailed dramatically, swatting his hand away. She felt the layers of intricate watchwork beneath his soft 'skin'. "Ow! Quit it", she protested feebly. "Don't worry", she said and turned her eyes upward to look into his. "I'm not my father."

"That's for the best." Said Corin as he placed some documents on her desk in the solar. "He would not look very good in your Royal gowns. Though I'd heard of a particular gala, where," he mused, his eye turned upward and his thumb at his chin, "on a dare, his Majesty had donned a maid's costume and sung a rather bawdy tune, but that was years and years before you were born. Before he'd even met your mother."

The thought of her father having another life than the one she had known struck Andea. She was at once both gigglingly happy for him and horribly, achingly sad and she couldn't help herself when she laughed suddenly, or when that fell almost immediately into sobbing tears. Sir Stephen came running into the room, stopped, and walked slowly over to her and burrowed his nose behind her knee, his big eyes pinned to hers.

Corin stood silently for a minute. Sixty clicks, and he turned and walked quietly out of the room. Sometimes tears were a good guide.


The trip from the outer circle of the city had been uneventful. Corin had been able to procure the books that Andea had requested. Why she needed archaic paper and leather books when she had her monitor and she had him as well, he couldn't fathom. Any question she had he could answer. Any story she wanted to hear he could read it to her. He could even act the parts out if she so desired. Her answer was always the same: she liked being able to feel the book in her hands, to smell the paper and the leather binding. Corin supposed he understood. The act of reading was enhanced by the tactile sensations that accompanied the act. It wasn't the act alone made it enjoyable, it was the entire experience, similar to the way ritual brought meaning to everyday acts. This thought had been growing in his head for a long time - the idea of ritual. The Created had no rituals. They had no church, no altar, only the cathedral of their joined minds. The Joining could be called a ritual, Corin thought, but mere repetition did not make a ritual. There had to be meaning behind the act, otherwise any act performed on a routine basis could be called 'ritual'. Was that the difference? Routine versus ritual? Could something that began as routine become ritual? Could the act of turning on a light or making a meal become so important that it is no longer just a routine act, but a ritual act that conjures faith, energy, God?

People used to believe that the spoken name had power. For this reason people often had more than one name, lest an enemy learn your "real" name and use it in some arcane ritual to enslave you. These days one didn't need a shaman or priest to perform these rituals, one merely had to exercise the rituals of power - the law, the court, the judge. Once you had the ritual down, the rest was unimportant. Innocence and guilt were functions of wealth and power. Those who had the latter were in control of the former. Corin may be machine, but he understood the workings of corruption and power. As companion and counselor to the Queen he was decidedly better equipped than many other Created to grasp the subtleties of those powers, his Creator had made sure of that, but he had also had many opportunities to see this dynamic in real time.

In court, as Andea sat and listened to the various and sundry pleadings and complaints brought before her, Corin was privy to many things that most were not and many things that even Andea was unaware. Her counselors tried to hide many of the unsavory aspects of court life from her, a disservice to her in Corin's eyes, though he once supposed it was out of kindness, sheltering her from the darker aspects of rule until she is more mature and better equipped to deal with them. He was beginning to see that they hid these things from her not out of respect for her youth, but out of fear of it. The young are far more idealistic and altruistic than the old, and Andea had led a decidedly sheltered life thus far, despite his and her other counselors' teachings. An idealistic ruler might wield kindness and mercy too loosely and allow the evil and criminal nature that is ever around the corner to flourish and gather strength. Let the weed grow too free and its roots are harder to tear out. Andea would feed and water the sprout in hopes of it growing into a tree filled with fruit when in fact its nature was to destroy the tree and feed on its death.

Corin rounded a corner, his package of books wrapped in brown paper hefted under his right arm, and stepped directly on the foot of a short and very dirty man. The man didn't seem perturbed by this, despite the fact that Corin's feet were harder than most and he weighed twice as much as a large man. He simply swivelled his head upward to look into Corin's soft, subtly faceted eyes. Corin had pulled his foot back as soon as he realized what had happened. 
"That was my favorite foot! You couldn't have stepped on the other one, eh?" Corin looked down. His other foot looked identical to this one, with the exception of the dark smudge of dirt on the one he'd trod on. The short man was accompanied by two larger friends who didn't seem the type to do much talking, who were now staring at him as if he'd just accosted their mothers.
"I apologize. I hope that I have not rendered it useless. If you require the services of a doctor, I am programmed up to and including minor surgery." Corin smiled as sincerely as he could, though he knew the man wouldn't understand the sarcasm. People didn't expect Created to have a sense of humor. The irony that he was created by humans who didn't even understand him struck Corin for the thousandth time that week.

"No, I don't think a doctor would help, but some cash or that nice package there would go a long way to making me feel better about losing my favorite foot." Corin looked down again. The foot was tapping the pavement like a musician keeping time.

"I apologize once more. I'm afraid the package is meant for someone else and I do not carry money with me. Perhaps there is a service I can perform to make it up to you?" Corin knew where this was headed, yet he tried rather weakly to redirect the inevitable, to no avail.

"Yeah, you can play dead." A short pistol appeared in his fist, the barrel was grooved and scratched by recent use but the whole of the gun had a polished look to it, as if it had been rubbed by a thousand hands caressing its blue steel over the long years. This was probably not too far from the truth, as Corin noted the make of the ancient weapon. It was practically an antique. He had time to notice all of this and process it while he reached out and pinched the barrel shut.

"Dammit! That was my favorite gun!" he shouted.

"I apologize for damaging your very nice gun, but as it wouldn't have done me much harm, perhaps I've saved you from the embarrassment."

The short man seemed to have lost his sense of humor at this point and swung the gun at Corin's face. Corin leaned back just enough that the gun whizzed past his face. His momentum sent the short man off-balance and Corin needed only apply a little bit of push to send him face-first to the gravel. His two companions finally woke up from their shock and tried to take him both at once, one going for legs, the other trying to grapple with his arms to bring him to the ground.

Apparently the three of them had little experience with The Created, if any at all, otherwise they'd have known how foolish it was to try to fight Corin. Aside from the fact that beneath the soft flesh of his skin, meant to mimic the humans he'd be mingling with, there was an endoskeleton of metal and rubber and plastic, all but impervious to normal mayhem. Shorty would need a large bore weapon or a ceramic blade, unbreakable and so sharp it cuts by slicing between atoms.

The exchange leading up to the actual violence was a kind of ritual, Corin realized as he broke the larger man's forearm when he reached out to grab Corin. With a shove in the face he was on the ground and howling for a medic while Corin drove his knee into the other man's chin. As he fell backwards, Corin kicked him in the chest, sending him flying backwards into a pile of broken palettes. By this time, Shorty was getting to his feet and seeing what quick work Corin had made of his muscle.

"Those were my favorite thugs!" he said with a smile and a slight giggle and then he turned and bolted down the street, leaving his thugs moaning on the ground. Corin, who had no need for revenge, no desire to teach lessons, left them as well and continued on his way back to the palace, books still in hand.

Corin returned to Andea's wing in time to catch her leaving another Council meeting. "Solved the energy crisis and fed the poor already?"

The Queen turned quickly on her heel, her face contorting to hide her surprise. She smiled guiltily. "Why yes! I'm off to celebrate! Roning has surrendered his fleet and it was stocked with scads of provender. His ships will power the Kingdom!"

"Then we must get you to your party. I presume Sir Stephen will be there?" He asked as he handed her the parcel with her precious books.

"But, of course. He's to receive a medal for his bravery during the battle. Ooh! You got the History of Wislensia! Was it hard to find?"

"Very. A filthy gnome tried to relieve me of it on the journey home, but I drove him off with a pinch on the nose and the two trolls he'd brought along ran away after him", he stated succinctly, as though reading the daily news report.

"When will the Queen deal with crime in the streets? Gnomes and trolls roaming freely about!" Andea shouted, turned quickly and began walking toward the East Wing, the Queen's quarters.

"Indeed," began Corin, keeping pace, "how did the Council meeting go? Erum, other than the resolution of the major impediments to the glory of peace?", he asked, changing the subject.

"Dull, as always. They talk and talk and talk about nothing, and it's the same nothing they talked about the day before and the day before that! How much nothing do you have to save up until it's something?" she asked a bust of Uncle Foren as they passed it in the Emerald Wing.

"That I do not know. It is against my programming to divide by zero." Corin doubted she would get the joke.

"Oh, ha ha, Mr. McButtnose", she laughed mockingly. "Watch it or I'll command you to calculate pi."

"As you wish, your Unpleasantness. Shall we retire to the study or the solar?" he asked, retiring the sarcasm for formality.

"I want to get out of this dress first. To my rooms, Jereg!" she shouted, purposefully misquoting the famous Hadridan, who'd gone to find new territory, along with his faithful guide, and was never seen again. Corin thought it an apt gesture considering the depths of the Royal Closets. You could fit three or four fringe families in her shoe closets alone.

"Talking is usually better than not talking", said Corin as he waited outside with Andea's discarded shoes and dress.

"Yes, but talking should lead to acting!" she was still frustrated by the day's meeting, and she'd only attended one hour of it.

"Talking is better than action is many cases." He draped her dress over one of the mannequins in the main corridor joining the various rooms of her closets. "Action is often destructive rather than creative. One must talk about the consequences of actions before acting, otherwise an unintended consequence could arise. As there could be many consequences to any action, the talking could take quite a while." The shoe closet had been arranged by color at one point, but Andea had taken to a more casual storage system. Corin placed the melon colored shoes where they would normally have gone, nonetheless. The dark green wetboots he found there he returned to their appointed shelf. Andea walked swiftly over and swatted them off of the shelf.

"I like action. I hate those boots and I like my closet messy." She grabbed a pair of pink canvas shoes and crammed her small feet into them.

Corin bent over and picked up the rubber boots. He lifted something out from between some tissues and other shoes there and handed it to Andea, his soft, vaguely faceted eyes smiling a little sadly. She held the orchid up the the light as the ruby dragon's faceted wing crumbled and fell into the carpeting.


The darkness was following him now. This time it was armed with lightning. It seemed such a ridiculous contradiction that Ceed laughed out loud. The darkness was gibbering at him as usual, but this time he could make out specific words rather than the nonsense that usually confronted him. "Trouble" and "hide" and lots of cursing. The darkness seemed to be mad that it was catching up to him this time. Usually it giggled with evil joy at having found him in the dark.

Slowly the thought crept into Ceed's mind that perhaps he wasn't alone in the dark with his demons and then he remembered the tunnel and the angel and the lightning. After what seemed an eternity in which he tried to build a wall between fantasy and reality, the nightmare and the real world (further tumbling his brain into conundrum for a moment), the reality of the hard bed under his back brought him to the present and difficult situation he had found himself in.

The room was dimly lit, he could sense that through his eyelids, though he was too scared to open them just yet. The voices he could hear sounded like they were coming from another room, muffled slightly by a turn in the hall or a thin door. He cracked one eyelid open just enough to see if there was anyone else in this room.

"He's awake!"

He opened his eyes with a start. It was his saving angel. The one that didn't save him. The one that shot him out of the sky with a bolt of lightning. He was lying in a cot built into one of the walls in the room. Around one wrist was a pair of hand restraints. The tiny angel sat on a small wooden chair against the wall, facing him. At the moment she was leaning back, swinging her legs and chewing on a piece of dried fruit. Before he could think of a question to ask her, three men and a woman came into the room.

The woman looked at his face for a moment, searching for something in his eyes, trying to divine his intentions Ceed supposed. Her eyes drifted down to the shackle on his ankle, now exposed and she shook her head and walked out of the room.

"We can hide that, Arel!" one of the men hollered after her. She didn't answer him.

The remaining men turned back to him and regarded him with tired eyes. "Okay, here's the deal." began one of the men. He was taller than the others and had an impressive beard, which he kept well-groomed. The other two were less attentive to their appearances. "We know you're a slave, escaped from whoever you were indentured to. We don't care. We need people. Too many have left already. If you have a skill we can use, you can stay here with us, but if you don't... well, we can't just let you go. You've seen our set-up here." He said with a wave of his hand, as if "here" was anything more than a dirt room underground. "We could easily turn you in for the reward, but we need hands more than money. There are too few of us left to do the work."

Ceed couldn't believe his luck. He had managed to get away from one slave camp only to stumble into another.


"Where do we stand?" This was the fourth time she'd asked that today.

"The progress is going to continue to be incremental until we overcome the problem of refinement." It was the same response he'd been giving her for a month, only worded differently.

"I understand that. Where do we stand right now?" Her words were like little jabs at his chest, the condescension poking him harder than her platinum-tipped nails might.

"The properties of the metal make it difficult to measure its progress, but if previous tests are accurate, we're about 30% through the process." It had been 29% last month. He could see the disappointment in her face, anger in her eyes.

"Colonel, have you heard the maxim about a 'watched pot'? We're going to be at this for weeks." He could see that this was the wrong tack to take with her.

"Thank you, Greener", she replied with a glare and turned to leave.

"Colonel?" he probably should let it go, but he was a stubborn old man and poking at her nerves was his only joy in this grey place.

"Yes, Greener?" Impatience dripping from the name.

"Will the Council approve the new budget for "it"? I'd hate for all this work to go to waste." He smiled as her shoes clicked loudly down the hall. Of course they'd approve the new budget. The Council would sooner hand the Kingdom over to Roning than abandon The Plan. The news that Roning had been working for the enemy had been devastating to the Program, but The Plan had continued unabated. Greener felt certain that this was a mistake. There had to be others within the Program. Roning could not have acted alone.

Greener turned back to his work. As slow as the process was, there were still a number of tests performed on an hourly basis to assure that the material was performing as expected. It wasn't the slowness of the refining process that was bothering the Colonel, he knew. It was a problem of rarity and it had plagued their efforts from the start. There would be no need for refinement if they had a larger supply of the stuff, but the only source of the ore was one tiny vein in a difficult province. The locals have been putting up quite a fight over the right of the government to mine there, claiming their own mining rights. As the need of the Kingdom, not to mention the sovereignty of Her Majesty trumped their rights, there was no place for discussion and thus the conflict always devolved into anger and violence. They'd had to put heavy security around the main structures, but there had still been incidents.

He looked around at the technicians moving about, methodically performing their tasks, and had a vision of an anthill. Thousands of workers struggling for an end they were unaware of, all in servitude to the Queen and her inscrutable purposes. Greener knew the reasons behind the frenzied struggle, knew why there had been such urgency. When the scouts had returned from their mission, it had been clear what needed to be done. The Council had immediately commandeered Greener's lab and "recruited" him to head the Program. The other workers rushing around him, with the exception of a few key people, knew nothing of the final purpose behind their work, nor the reason behind the urgency, only that their people needed their labor to defeat the enemy and that their work was vital to that struggle. Greener was beginning to think the full truth about the Program should be more public. Patriotism is a powerful motivator, but potential annihilation is better.

He finished his notations and filed the checklist with quality control. He took his copy to his desk and scanned it into his system. Once in, he pulled up the chart he had made. The blue line climbed steadily upward. Roughly in the center of the line sat a fat bug. The bug was a graphic avatar representing The Plan. The logo for the Plan had been designed with a cartoon of a molecule, the atoms spinning slowly around the nucleus giving the thing the look of having wings. Once reduced to avatar proportions the movement of the atoms in the logo gave the illusion that these 'wings' were flapping or oscillating.

He watched the bug for a few minutes, certain he could actually see that "incremental progress". In order to speed up the refining process, they'd need to come up with a way to increase the actual energy output of the metal itself, but that increase in output was what made the metal so dangerous. It was a frustrating conundrum. The material could be prompted to refine itself with the proper motivation, its own reaction feeding and feeding off of itself. It wasn't perpetual energy output, but it was close. The problem was that it was very unstable. Put too much of the metal in one place and the reaction fed on itself until the process collapsed and imploded in upon itself, the resulting compression multiplying the explosive effects exponentially. The compression of the metal itself providing the pressure needed to push itself over the threshold. It was like the force of gravity multiplied exponentially. Fortunately for the early researchers, the simple rarity of the metal likely saved them and the surrounding city from devastation. They hadn't had enough of the material to fully realize its destructive potential. Of course, this was the main purpose now of the Program.

The problem then became one of containment. Refinement was just slow. Containment was critical. A containment program capable of controlling the random and violent outbursts of energy the metal produced under stress was needed. Without such a containment program, even having too much of the metal together in one room could start an uncontrolled reaction leading to a catastrophic explosion. With such a controlling mechanism, the metal feeds off of its own energy until critical mass is reached and then its molecular structure is 'cracked' and it produces an energetic reaction a thousand times stronger than the unrefined metal. The difference in how the metal behaved after 'cracking' was the main thing. It was far easier to control, but so far they'd only been able to get small amounts to 'crack' and were only able to contain it for a very short period of time. They'd managed to hold it for a moment and then slowly bleed off the power it generated before it reached the point where it became unstable. This slow bleed-off solved the problem of having to rebuild and re-train new workers, but it could not be maintained. If they could only sustain that control longer, the output would level out and an energy loop would be created. In his mind, Greener imagined this energy loop as a wheel, both turning and being turned by itself. The conundrum made his head spin sometimes - the turning wheel creates the energy that makes it turn, all it needs is a push and a road to keep it turning in the right direction. This was both the wheel and the road. It was the road that they needed to build and that road was beginning to come together.

They'd had breakthroughs with some of their attempts at controlling the reaction, but it always ended with either the metal 'dying'; going inert, or the opposite: becoming so energetic that it destroys itself, along with the room and facility housing it as well. A new lab is a fairly easy thing to rebuild. Lab assistants were not. Once perhaps, he thought, Greener could have done so, but no longer. The ability to create such things had gone the way of his freedom. Occasionally he had the pleasure of repairing them for Her Majesty, rewiring them for more efficient performance or upgrading programming, but for the most part it was a dead art. There were a few antiques floating around in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, but Greener rarely had the chance to work on them. It had been a long time since he'd built anything of his own. His last had been a monument to his own skill. A creation so close to perfect that he didn't want to give it up once he'd finished the commission.

Greener checked out of the lab, passing through the various scanners and sniffers performing their two-fold tasks of checking for contamination and theft. "Greener, Bon", the ceiling would sing softly as he passed through each doorway. He rode the elevator to the 4th floor where his office was. Once inside, he closed and locked the door and pulled the blinds shut. He ran through the day's numbers on his desk screen, looking for anything that might indicate that the refinement process had gone off-path. Greener rubbed his eyes behind his glasses. It was past time he went home. The numbers all looked to be within expected ranges, nothing to indicate failure. After one more quick scan of the latest data, he stabbed the 'sleep' button on his keypad and the monitor dimmed immediately. Palming his handheld computer pad, he stood up, stretched and walked out of his small office, the magnetic door closing silently behind him, its lock 'snicking' into place.

It was a long walk out of the lab and through the building's labyrinthine corridors, but soon he was out and into the cool moonlight. He looked up at the stars seen patchily through the cloud cover. A breeze was blowing softly and the stars winked and flickered as though disturbed by the turbulence. He knew they flickered, not because of the vast distances between his observer's position and their spot in the heavens, but because of the clouds of water vapor in the sky as well as the clouds of fetid smoke produced by his own laboratory's massive factories working intensely to provide the material to make his work possible. He mused at the irony of how dirty clean energy really was. Soon though, he promised himself as much as the people he toiled for, those awful fogs would be no more.


The sky overhead Marley was clear, though its tinge of perpetual yellow made it seem overcast. Marley tilted his gaze back to the ground and counted the leaves blowing across his path. It must be fall, he thought to himself, as great waves of leaves washed past him like breakers against an island shore. There was something about the way they moved that seemed unnatural to him. Looking closer, he saw that each leaf had a pair of tiny legs. Some were flying, their leaves acting as wings, the legs beneath pumping with effort or folded like a bird's, and some were running, as though trying to pick up enough speed to get aloft. He looked past these as if he'd seen them a thousand times, unsurprised by the ridiculousness of their existence. Beneath the ludicrous layer of leaves was a network of wires, bunched here and there with knots of converging twined cable. Gazing deeper into the sea of plastic-sheathed metals, he began to piece together a pattern there, like the veins and arteries of a patient flayed open on an operating table. Deeper still his vision plunged, the wires giving way to staccato electric bursts of energy coursing down chaotic yet ordered pathways towards a brighter node even further beyond his sight. The node crested the curve of his field of vision, slowly growing and filling his vision until he felt he was falling into it. Reaching out his hands to brace himself against it so as not to tumble into the light, fearing an even deeper dive into the quantum world he'd found around him, he looked down and saw that he had no hands, only more pulsing electric pathways leading to the bright center of this universe. His un-hands couldn't slow his decent. Instead, they were connected to the sizzling pathways. The energy was coursing in one direction only and his un-hands were pulling him down. The light from the node grew blindingly bright. Marley closed his eyes against the light but his eyelids didn't dim the glare. The light grew brighter until he could see the veins and minuscule capillaries of his eyelids mimicking the radiating paths leading to the node, now as bright as a full moon falling down upon him.

When he felt he could finally take no more, the surface of the moon/node itself fractured into a billion glowing pathways, wrapping around itself until he began to discern the shape of the node. It wasn't round, but a sort of lop-sided oval. As the lines of shuddering brightness crystallized, he realized that the node wasn't a moon, but a heart, beating with the pulse of light flowing into it and finally, in relief and terror, he fell into the heart of light and woke sweating in his bed.

He reached out his hand, the dream still fresh enough that for a second, he felt a pang of fear that his hand would not be there, but still anchored to the heart and pulling him down. The hand was his, pink and scarred as it's always been. It was still dark outside his room, the city still glowing dimly through the nano-tinted glass of his apartments. The moon shining through the yellowed smog was a sliver, not full and certainly not pulsing with electric light. Even as relief washed over him, he saw that it did pulse, once, then three times in quick succession. It took a moment for it to register in his dream-fogged brain that the pulses were far off lightning flash-bulbing through the fog of pollution covering the yellowed sky's ornaments.

Marley threw off the sheets and swung his legs over the edge of his bed. He rubbed his eyes, trying to erase the images that seemed burned into them, like a view of a pitch black room when the light is flicked on and off quickly, the ghost image burned temporarily into the phosphors of his mind's viewscreen. He opened his eyes and looked out his bedroom window, down into the city. He recoiled internally as he was confronted by the congruous image before him. The roads and pathways were alive with the lights of vehicles as they sped along the mag-lev roadways circling the city, each smaller pathway flying inwards to join the ever larger roadways, all leading toward the center of the city, aglow with energy and purpose.

Marley turned from the window, lest the vision overwhelm his still fogged brain. He stood up and strode stiffly towards the bathroom. The lights came on as he entered, soft at first, and, not registering a command from Marley, began to glow slowly brighter.

"Good", He said quickly, and the illumination slowed to a stop. Was everything around him contriving to keep the dream fresh in his memory? He looked at himself in the mirror. Aside from the tired eyes, it was still his face and not an amalgam of bright wires. His long blond hair was tangled and sticking out at odd angles, testament to his fitful sleep. Marley splashed water on his face and looked into the mirror again.

"What?" he asked his reflection.

It was more of a confrontation than a question. What are you looking at? What do you want? What are you going to do? He had no answer for any of these questions, but he felt as though he'd better come up with some quickly, or the glowing pathways would surely overwhelm him. He'd had similar dreams before and had interpreted them as simply by-products of an overly complicated life. The problem was he didn't think his life was all that complicated. He played a game for money and fame and that was about all there was to his life. The money and fame were compensation for a life less lived.

He'd always dreamed of playing ball, ever since he was a small boy growing up in the shadow of the city outside his tinted windows. Why wasn't he dreaming about that? If he hadn't known it as a child, he knew now that the game had been his way out of the bleak life in the streets of Old New Harbor. New New Harbor sat alongside the wide river that fed out into the bay, which opened up to the Great Sea to the East. New New Harbor was a bustling, electric city of possibilities. Old New Harbor was a festering pile of detritus cast off by New New, older neighborhoods too far from the center of the new heart of the city to be worthy of gentrification, left to crumble under the weight of their own inertia, now still and dead. The river that fed into New New Harbor continued past and into Old New Harbor, but by the time its dark waters reached the inner folds of the city, it was a brown and foul cataract, gouging out new tributaries where the concrete boundaries had failed. Some parts of the city were partially flooded, its residents still clinging to life at its edges and upon it's oily surface. Whole villages were found afloat here and there, some trading with more land-bound villages as well as each other, some operating as pirate-states, preying on their neighbors as they plied their existences on the tide and flow of New Harbor's stinking arteries.

The life he'd bought with his talents was a decent one. A life that many were envious of. Who wouldn't be? He was paid disgusting amounts of money to play a game. There were risks to the game; participants and spectators alike have died or been injured at matches, but Marley had been able to avoid serious injury for most of his career and as far as he was aware, he'd never caused a fan to be killed. There were injuries, however. Last year he'd run a pursuing player out of bounds who'd then lost his footing, tripping over a cambot zipping along the sidelines. He'd crashed into the barrier fence and into the stands, where his armor had done damage to a several fans seated there. No one had died, though, and injuries, to fan or player, were all part of the spectacle.

Marley turned away from the mirror and his own haunted face. The lights faded to black as he passed out of the bathroom and back into his bedroom. "On", he said to the air and the lights over his bed began to glow.

"Good", he said and the lights froze where they were. He walked to his closet and pulled a pair of pants off of a hanger, grabbed a shirt and threw both on the bed as he bent for his shoes. He needed to get out of this room. His manager would be seriously annoyed with him for going out at night, but he needed some air, even if it would never be fresh air, not in New New Harbor. The air scrubbers did their job, but there was simply too much work for them to handle, the sky above and around an everbrown haze.

In the elevator ride down the 117 flights to the ground level, he looked out at the city once more, his face reflected in the glass of the lift, city lights and pulsing highways reflected in his golden eyes. He turned away from the city and his reflection and waited for the doors to open onto the cool evening.


Redjack wasn't his real name. He'd read it once in one of those cheap books you find on the street, placed lovingly between the slightly burned doll and the used toothbrushes, the browned and faded pages blowing in the dirty breeze. The fellow plying his wares didn't seem to mind when he'd taken it. Most likely the gun he showed him before he could protest helped soothe his concerns that the ancient tome was going to a worthy new owner. The story, what little he could read of it, had been about a man of exceeding cunning who had helped clean the streets of the scourge of prostitution, it being illegal in those days. He found it funny that the authorities in the story didn't seem to share his admiration for the fellow, that his philanthropic activities were frowned upon. No doubt this previous Redjack saw his activities as something of his duty. He felt that he was performing a service; the sheep needed to be herded and led, and yes, culled on occasion.

His real name was Howd. His mother had named him for an uncle or some other distant relative but he'd always hated the name. It sounded like a farmer name. He didn't care for farmers. Why toil over a pile of dirt for a few carrots and potatoes when the city was here and ripe for harvesting. Redjack wasn't the name of the fellow in the book either, merely a nickname, but as his real name wasn't known, Howd had no alternative to choose from and he'd liked the name from the start. The fellow's actual nick had been Red Jack, after the bloody mess he made in his quest to rid the streets of his city of the whores troubling it. He'd written the name on a wall that first day after discovering the name, tagging the boundaries of his territory with it, but he'd crowded the letters for lack of space where he'd chosen to sign and the compressed version struck him as a more appropriate moniker.

At the moment he was visiting some of his flock, accompanied by some of his larger 'employees', to press them for the rent they owed him for grazing on his property. It had been a relatively quiet day this time around. Sometimes the sheep bleated a little too loudly and he had to hobble them. The effort it took not to respond as his namesake might have was considerable, but he had to keep in mind that a dead sheep may provide mutton for a day or more, but a live sheep yields wool again and again.

Today there was no need for hobbling or culling, merely a light shearing before the winter set in. His companions were bored with this sort of activity, preferring the more physical aspects of their employment. Redjack had been like them once, more interested in mayhem than income, but that lifestyle meant he would always be the dog and never the shepherd.

"Why dint you let me hit that one, Red?" Dom had asked him.

With the patience of an old professor, he'd explained the principle of The Flock to him once more, but he Dom only turned sullen, as though Redjack had taken his toy away from him. Fenn had laughed at Dom then, being a bit brighter than his partner, and Dom reached out and punched him in the chest for it. Laughing a bit quieter and rubbing his chest, he attempted to simplify Red's argument.

"If you break your toys, you can't play with them anymore."

"Exactly", replied Redjack, his finger pointed skyward in exclamation.

Dom looked up, but didn't see what Red was trying to show him. "Yeah, but this is boring. Can we take the long way 'round? I want to see how the Skinners and doing against the Orphans. Last I heard, they'd killed Terrince. Without him, Frenk ain't got a chance holding them together." Dom followed the turf wars like a Pride fan following the playoffs.

"I suppose so. It is rather quiet today. I almost wish for some mayhem, myself."

"Hey Red, you ever catch that dude who broke Gantree's arm?" Fenn was looking at him with that half-smile that said he knew the answer and was just poking at the sore spot. Redjack had been amused by the encounter but annoyed that two of his best had been put out of commission so easily.

"No, but I know where he is", he said casually.

"Then why don't we go get him? That would give Dom something to do with himself and, as you said, a little mayhem..." Fenn smiled mischievously and wiggled his eyebrow like some comic villain.

"Because he's a little out of our reach", he replied.

Dom seemed to be confused by this. "You mean he ain't from here?"

"Not from around here, no. From over there", and he pointed again, this time in the direction of the waterfront and the towering city beyond it.

"What? New New Harbor? That's not that far", Dom stated, still confused.

"No, idiot. There!" Redjack pointed toward the city once more, but his finger arched dramatically over the skyline to the golden glow on the horizon. "The Palace. And what's more, he isn't a 'he', he's an 'it'."

Dom looked as lost as ever, but Fenn got it right away. "No wonder he took Gantree out so easily!"

"Indeed, sir", said Redjack as they continued on towards the border of the the Orphans' territory. "and if I catch him outside the Palace again, he won't be getting away so easily", he patted the pistol in his jacket for emphasis.

"And he broke your gun, too!", said Dom with not a little outrage. Dom didn't hold much to heart in this world, but he knew the value of a good weapon.

"Yes, Dom, he did at that. It was my favorite gun, too, and I mean to pay him back for that", he said as he pulled the new weapon out of his shoulder holster. It was shiny and bright, brand new, with none of the burnished character of the antique he used to carry, but it was a more formidable weapon and would better deal with one of the Created than his antique. "Fisher says he can fix it, but it won't ever be the same with a new barrel. My mom gave me that gun!"

"But how could he break your gun, Red?", Dom asked, still not completely grasping what was obvious to Fenn.

Fenn answered him before Redjack could. Fenn was a bit protective of Dom, felt a bit like he was his little brother. He knew Dom was not smart, but it bothered him when Red lost his temper with him. "He's a tin man, Dom."

"Yeah?!", Dom squeaked. He was fascinated by the thinking machines, especially the ones that mimicked small animals, but he'd never seen a tin man up close. For the rest of the afternoon, Dom's eyes were lit up like a child's, glancing this way and that, hoping to catch a glimpse of another tin man.


"Okay, we know you're an indentured worker and that you've managed to escape from your debtor. We don't really care about that much except as it pertains to us." He was a thin man with a scraggly growth of whiskers on his chin that made him look somewhat like a goat. "Meaning, you work here with us as long as we need you to or we'll turn you over to the Nelly's."

Ceed said nothing. He looked around at his new captors, hoping to find a sympathetic face. The problem was that they were all sympathetic, with the exception of the small girl with the big cattle prod. None of these people relished the idea of enslaving him, that was clear. Life on the fringes was difficult at best. Communities often traded skills between them but apparently the options had been slim here.

"Well?", demanded a grey-skinned woman with lanky hair.

Ceed cleared his throat. "What do you want me to say? Clearly you've left me no choice. Why ask my opinion?"

"Very true, but what she means is, what can you do?" Billy Goat explained.

"I don't know, what do you need?"

"Don't be evasive", he said somewhat wearily. "We need everything. Can you cook? Do you have any skill in building shelter? Can you dress a wound? We need everything", he said again.

"No, not really and no", he answered casually.

"Look, they don't let you sit on your hands and watch vids on a labor farm. You have to have some skills or they'd have just killed you. Now spill, otherwise we'll turn you in for the reward." This from the larger man in the corner. His eyes were the least kind in the group.

"I can repair machines", he said, finally. There was no good way around it. Ceed figured if he couldn't convince them to let him go, he'd at least play along and maybe they'd eventually think he would join them of his own free will and maybe they'd relax and give him a chance to escape.

The woman perked up immediately. "We have plenty that need fixing, that's for certain."

"Do you know how to repair farm hydros?" asked Goat.

"Sure", Ceed admitted, hoping that would be enough to satisfy them.

"Okay, Hendry, take him out to Sigil and have him set a collar on him. See if he can take off that shackle first. If he can't get it off, then we'll need those boots back."

A man in the back of the room snorted angrily. Ceed looked down and for the first time realized his feet were bare.

"We're gonna set a collar on you so we can keep track of you. It's a shock collar, so don't get any ideas. Hendry likes pressing the button just to see people twitch. Don't give him a reason and I'll make sure he doesn't use it for fun."

Ceed looked over and Hendry who had a wicked grin splitting his ugly features.

"Nella, get Arel back in here. We need to get some better clothes on him so he doesn't stand out." The woman rose and left the room through a small doorway behind her. For the first time, Ceed was able to get a look at his surroundings. The candlelight was dim, but his eyes were well adjusted by now and he could see that they were in the same room in which he'd been knocked unconscious by the urchin with the lightning rod. He looked at her and smiled, but she only stared back.

"You've already met Jordah. Not the best introduction to be sure. You shouldn't have any lasting effects from the prod." Ceed could feel where he'd been hit by the bolt of lightning just above his right nipple. There was a not unpleasant tingle lingering there.

"Sorry about the language", he said and bowed to the little girl. She only wagged a finger at him and 'tsk tsk'ed him. The gesture made him smile in spite of himself. The girl looked to be about 5 or 6, though it was hard to tell under the layer of dirt. "Jordah, is it?"

She nodded once and turned and walked out of the room through the same door Nella had gone through.

"She don't talk much. Her mom died of fever when she was 2 and her father left to forage last month and hasn't come back. We've been kinda taking turns watching over her, but truth is she don't need it. I wish some of the adults were as self-reliant as she is." Goat wandered over to one of the shelves along the wall and took down a jar. "Here. You can get a drink of water from Sigil when you see him about that shackle, but I figure you could use a real drink right about now." Ceed noted that he neglected to mention the collar. Goat was trying to minimize the setback to his new-found freedom, now revoked.

Goat handed Ceed the jar and he held it up to his nose for a second. "Whoa!" The word nearly burst from him, but the strength of the moonshine's vapors made it almost inaudible as if it had sucked the air out of his lungs and there were none to give the words sound. Goat smiled and Ceed tilted the jar and took the smallest of sips. The warmth hit his throat immediately and spread to his chest before settling roughly in his gut. After the initial shock of hard liquor, which Ceed hadn't had in nearly 3 years, he took another, slightly longer draught of the booze.

"Careful, strong stuff", Goat warned with a grin. "We need you conscious." He reached out to help Ceed stand. "My name's Terrellius" , "Terrellius ne Sorkhed im. But people just call me Terrel." Ceed flinched inside, the name too similar to his previous cell-mate's

Ceed could see that Goat was hoping he'd find his new captors friendly enough that he'd stay on once the insult of being held captive faded. Ceed admitted that there were worse places to be stuck, but still, he had no desire to be yet another slave and no compunctions about escape as soon as he found his opportunity. Hendry stiffened up and gestured at the door. "Okay, enough socializing. Let's head over to the Pit."

The Pit turned out to be a smithy. Sigil was a large bear of a man. He'd once been hairy, Ceed supposed, but years of working the fire and the bellows had singed most of that off. All that was left was a sparse matt of grey fur on his back, peeking out around his worn shirt and suspenders. He was working the bellows beneath his fire, turning quickly to shovel some white powder into the flames with a small hand-sized spade.

"Sig! Got something Tread needs doing", shouted Hendry over the roar of the furnace.

The smith threw the shovel back into the barrel with the powder and turned to look at Hendry and the Ceed. "A bit thin, ain't he?", Sigil asked as he turned back to the bellows.

"He ain't gonna be pulling no plow, that's for sure!" Hendry slapped Ceed on the back for punctuation. "Nah, he's a fixer. Says he can repair the hydro. Tread wants you to see if you can get that shackle off his ankle."

Sigil looked Ceed in the eyes for a moment, boring into them as if he could discern the future from within his blue irises. His piercing gaze scraped his skin as he tilted his eyes down to the metal bracelet on his right leg.

"Shouldn't be a problem", he said with a shrug and turned away again.

"And a collar", Hendry added.

"Not here voluntarily, eh? Sorry to hear that, young fella. What's his name?" he asked and stared at Hendry, waiting for an answer.

"Didn't give one."

"Ceed", said Ceed.

"Okay, Ceed", and the old blacksmith let go of the bellows he'd been pumping and turned to face him again. This time he had a large pair of tongs in his hand. In the ends of the tongs was a large ingot of glowing hot metal. Ceed stepped back a pace.

"Don't worry, I won't burn ya", he said with a grin. "Them things aren't exactly real metal and pounding it with my hammer won't get you much but a sore leg. Gotta burn it off." He looked at the bright yellow end of the ingot as though inspecting its edge. "Hendry, get a couple of those rags over there." Hendry stuffed a couple of the scraps between Ceed's leg and the shackle. "These will keep the heat off you, but you're going to have to stay still or I might slip."

The old blacksmith pressed the red hot end of the ingot, which Ceed could now see was sharpened at the leading end like an axe-head. He pressed it to the shackle, the width of the glowing metal matching perfectly. This was not an unusual occurrence here. After a few seconds of sizzling, the smell of burning plastic hair and the shackle popped off like a clamshell. Ceed examined the cloth and it wasn't even singed.

"It's flame-proof." Sigil was turning the shackle over in his hand, careful not to touch the newly molten edge, "We don't have a lot of it but what we do have is fairly helpful." He took one of the scraps from Ceed and, wrapping his hand quickly in it, reached into his furnace. "See? Nothing." He reached down and pulled out a coal and tossed it at Ceed, who danced aside with a start. The old man laughed like a drunk uncle at a holiday party.

"Okay, let's get this over with." Hendry said as he took a good swallow of the clear 'shine.

The smith sagged a little then and turned to his tool boxes behind him. He pulled out a strip of canvas, similar to a dog's collar but with silver pegs poking out at intervals around it. Ceed thought it looked like one of those collars worn by teenagers. "This looks like fabric but you can't cut it so don't try, you'll just slip and cut your own throat and then it's a big mess." He stopped and looked at Ceed. Then, as if he'd made a decision, resigned something within himself, he stepped quickly forward and snapped it onto his throat.

"That was simple. Why have you do it? Surely Terrel himself could have."

"Because it's my job. And it's Terrel's job to make the decisions like who gets one of those." The old man eyed Ceed's new jewelry, turned and grabbed the shackle. He looked at it for a second and then threw it in his furnace. From his workbench he picked up a small rectangle of metal and plastic and tossed it to Hendry who caught it with a smile.

"Alright, let's head over to the farm. It's above ground at least. Haven't seen the sky much today myself." With that, he waved the rectangle in the air dramatically. Ceed followed him out of the smithy and down a corridor, and then another, passing rooms and side passages. Ceed followed Hendry closely, not wanting to test Terrel's theories on button-pressing, until they eventually came to a small flight of stairs. At the top of the steps was a door and outside that was the outside and the bright sun. Ceed squinted in the harsh glare for a few moments, his eyes watering in pain. Through his tear-distorted vision, he began to discern people-hapes, toiling in the sun. Ceed was familiar with this ritual and his mind and body seemed to fall into lock-step with that old life and all the time from his escape to this moment seemed to fall away until all that was left was toil.

Gold Lion

Marley stepped out of the cool air of his apartment building, the negative pressure creating a draft into the street, temporarily blowing the dust and haze away. The effect was wholly temporary and the various gases flung themselves to fill whatever gaps they were supposed to fill. Soon the air was as thick and grey-green as ever. The haze wasn't that noticeable at night, except around streetlights. The effect of the greenish smog and the blue halo lights left the air with a sickly blue-green tinge, as though everything were 20 feet underwater.

Hair tied back under a hooded sweatshirt, Marley look both ways before turning left down the sidewalk and breaking into an easy jog. The light from the halos, coupled with the yellowish glow of his own building brought the city street to near daylight. In his dark grey sweats, he stood out against the white concrete and the emerald smog. Passing along the riverfront the colors of his background began to change from white and grey concrete to red and brown brick and granite collumn. Here his clothes seemed more like camouflage than warning and he turned away from the waterfront down toward the outer edges of New New Harbor, to the inner edge of plain New Harbor, the change barely noticeable. Perhaps a bit quieter, as if the neighborhood were afraid to wake the gremlins that troubled it, or maybe the buildings felt drabber or mroe 'rubblish'. Rubblish was how Marley and Haney described the neighborhood they grew up in. Everything was still standing, but had the feeling that it would fall over any minute into rubble. They'd go around poking and pulling at bits of buildings and houses as they wandered around causing the general mayhem that boys of eight to fifteen years old cause. The concrete and facades would fall away like the brittle bark of an old tree.

He could see the concrete turn to dust in his fingers, scattering like dull sparks on the ground. He looked up to see the flash of gold and Haney's dead and he's running. Marley shakes the memory from his head and looks up from his shoes slapping the cracked pavement. He slows his pace as he realizes he's made it here already. The buildings are still 'rubblish', though some are a little past that adjective. Jumbled piles of lumber and brick and steel lay where good sized buildings once stood. Marley didn't know whether they'd been pulled down for material and fuel, but that's the process they seemed to be going through at this point in time. Little niches had been carved out of the piles of debris, like little mice scavenging from the walls of their homes to build newer homes.

Marley looked for the building he'd grown up in but there were no familiar landmarks to discern which street were his. The lights here weren't nearly so bright here, even where they did work, and there were no visible street signs anyway. He'd find a scene that felt familiar, but then he'd turn and some building or storefront would be out of place and he would be lost again. How long had it been? 17 years? He supposed it wasn't unusual that things had changed this much, maybe if they hadn't seemed to have changed for the worse...

What was he hoping to find? The old neighborhood rejuvenated and civilized? The same as he'd left it - hellish and horrifying? How is it that it looks like it's gotten worse? As if on cue he heard gunshots and not very far. Hard to tell the way things echo off the buildings. There were voices yelling nearby. He slowed to a stop and pulled his hood closer around him, looking for a place to retreat to if he needed to. Too late. He saw them before they saw him, rounding the corner to his right, across the street from where he stood. They had been about to burst out in manly guffaws at something terribly funny but upon seeing the lone figure in the dim halo light, muttered throatily to each other, as though the joke were a secret one, not to be shared with strangers on the street at night.

"Oi!", one of them said. Marley hoped he was the leader. "Ay you!" he said, clearly not happy with having to repeat himself. He wasn't a big man, but he moved like one. Every muscle that could be muscular was. Now he was running, a casual but determined trot. The group of three with him trailed along.

"You shouldn't be out on the street at night, son", he said once he'd gotten within a few paces.

"Why not?" Marley asked flatly.

"Because it's not safe. Whaddayou? Stupid?" He was clearly perturbed.

"I'll be fine. I'm from around here." Marley was less concerned about his safety than finding his way ouit again.

"Yeah? From where? I never seen you around... but you do look familiar", said the kid on his right, who had what Marley thought was the worst neck tattoo he'd ever seen.

"I've been away a while." That wasn't a lie.

"Yeah, I seen you somehere..." This from the tall one with the blue hair, shaved in a straight line from forhead to back.

"Okay, okay. I get it. Sightseeing in the old neighborhood. Fine. Be careful, there's some bad people out tonight and it ain't the criminals." The muscular guy pulled a scruffy hat out of his back pocket and shoved it on his head. The four of them turned and walked back the way they'd come as if nothing odd had happened, four companions patrolling their streets. Marley thought perhaps he should check his pockets, but neither men even came within reaching distance.

Marley turned to continue his run when he heard another pair of gunshots. Two different weapons, very clearly. This time there was no distorted echo, the shots had definitely come from just down this same street. He could see the glow of a light pouring out of an alcove, the back delievery entrance to a bar or diner. Loud voices, one in fear, high and tight. Marley approached the alcove slowly, the voices louder as he neared.

"Give it here", said one.

"C'mon. Quit yer blubbering", another.

"That's it! That's all I have!" His voice was shrill. "It's not even my place!"

"C'mon, we gotta go!", said the first.

"Not till he gives", the second.

"He ain't got no more, I'm leaving", the first said and from the sound of things he'd punched the crying fellow for his trouble, a loud yelp his reward, followed by more cries of pity. Before Marley could react, the first man came barrelling out of the alleyway and headfirst into Marley. Their chests slammed together, sending both stumbling backwards, the man recovered easily, but Marley was a bit off-balance and would have landed flat on his rear if not for his game-honed reflexes. He spun quickly and did a small roll and popped back onto his feet so quickly that the man was taken quite by surprise and he stood there for a second or two before he'd registered what he had just seen.

"Not bad. You should try that in the arena. Step over here and let me see if you're injured." He pulled his baton out of his belt and motioned to the wall behind Marley. "Rahn! Get over here."

Rahn and another man rounded the corner as Marley was backing away towards the wall. They were both pulling out batons, not flashlights or first aid packages or hand restraints and by the blood running thickly from the gash on the line-cook's forehead behind them, Marley knew that if wasn't injured yet, he would be soon and something inside him froze. He could not think or act or even breath. He saw the gold and the baton and then he saw the gold go down and the baton clatter to the ground as well and he was tearing the uniform from his arms and then there were arms around his, holding him and a crack as something hard hit his side and he went down.

The blows were swift and sharp, coming down with unrelenting succession. He tried to burst upward in a sudden attack but the batons struck him like they knew exactly where to hurt the most. He was giving in to the soft thud of a voice telling him to lie still and sleep when he heard a bigger thud, the loudest collision he'd ever heard, on or off the field and then he was being dragged and blood was on his hands and in his eyes.

"I told you, didn't I?!" Muscle guy had one hand under his arm and was pulling him onward, then another pair of hands was pulling his other arm and he blacked out.

He woke in the dim light of a little girl's bedroom, the warm morning light streaming through the cartoon bulldog curtains. Marley blinked a couple of times before he decided he was awake and then he sat up, pain crazing through his ribcage. He turned and lifted his shirt. The red stripe would no doubt turn bloated purple, then sickly green before it faded. Marley was no stranger to bruises. He was also no stranger to broken ribs and he was certain he'd had at least one more. Then he remembered why he had a broken rib and the badge and the baton. And the blood.

"Hey, you're up! Hey, guys, he's awake!" The tall kid with the blue shock of hair was leaning over him like a cartoon vulture. "Hey man, how you feel? You've been out most of the day", he said as he looked over the same red baton mark Marley'd been checking.

"Felt better", he replied, the pain in his side aching sharply. He tried to take a deeper breath and decided not to do that again.

"I'm sure. There is no way you'd have beaten all four of those guys. What were you thinking? They were just gonna roll you for the cash in your pocket." Blue Hair stood up again, taller than ever.

From outside the gates of lollipop fairy land, a piercing whine broke the pink-tinged fog of pain drifting over Marley's thoughts. "But why is he in my room?!"

A patient mother's voice: "Because your bed is the only one left and we figured you'd want to help nurse him back to health."

At that, a small girl of about three or four stormed into the halls of the fairy princess and stared Marley in the eyes for a bit longer than one would expect from the attention-deprived. "He's all better. Now he can go", and she stomped out as gruffly as she had entered.

"You'll have to forgive Luthy, she's not good at sharing." Luthy's mom had a suspicious look in her eyes as well. Marley wondered whether they had recognized him yet.

"Besides, she doesn't follow sports." Muscle dude squeezed past her into the room.

"I knew I knew you from somewhere." The grin on Blue's face would be called horsey. The blue mane wasn't helping. "Denn. Name's Denn." He stuck out his hand. Marley shook it, feeling an odd spiralling sensation, like he was falling backwards. "Real nice to meet you, Mr. Wafers."

"You can call me Marley", he said. "Thanks for pulling me out of there. Those Sec guys weren't playing."

"Security? Those weren't cops." Muscle guy stepped to the side a pace and sat down on a toy chest decorated with a big fat frog cartoon. 

"They had badges", Marley replied. "They were in blues."

"Hell, you have been gone a while. Cops don't come out here no more." Mom came in with a cup and handed it to Marley. "This is Lisha. My name's Shen", muscle guy said.

"Thank you", Marley nodded to Shen and raised the cup to Litha.

"The little tyrant you met earlier is Luthy, our daughter. Denn's her older brother." Denn smiled and waved from the depths of the Sugar Fairy kingdom.

"Wait," Marley swung his legs around slowly and sat on the edge of the bed. "What do you mean, 'those ain't cops'?"

"Those badges you saw? They made them up themselves. Call themselves Frontier Justice. We just call em The Front , or Nellies, on account of the guy who started the group was named Nellison. The Front, because they're just a front for the guys who run things around here." Shen adjusted his seat atop the Bullfrog Prince's head. "They were originally supposed to be some sort of vigilante group set on bringing some sort of law here after the police abandoned us to the local warlords, but once Nellison was killed, the group went rogue fast and became a tool of the same warlords. Now the different factions of The Front are warring amongst themselves. I believe the ones you ran into were Skinner boys."

Marley had heard of them. Stories of how they peel the skin off of rival gang members they catch in their territory. From what he'd heard, the story wasn't real, just a way to put the fear in your enemies. All these years and now he didn't know what to think.

"So those weren't cops..." he repeated.

"I think he got hit on the head harder than we thought, Shen", Lisha said with a worried smile.

"No, it's just that, I saw the badge and... nevermind."

"You'll be okay. Not much worse than a day against the Kraken! I saw how you looked after that playoff game." Shen laughed, a bit forced. "Let's give him a few minutes. He did just wake up." Shen gestured for them to follow him out.

"No, I've taken up enough of your time already. I should go. Thank you." He stood to get up, the floor swaying a bit.

"Okay, but you're gonna miss dinner if you leave now", Shen said. Denn's smile was enormous. No doubt the idea of having Gold Lion over for dinner was a bit too much to contain. "Besides, Luthy wanted you to sit next to her at the table."

"Well, how could I decline an invitation from Her Majesty?" Marley said with an easy smile.

The dinner table turned out to be rather large, as had the room they ate in. They seemed to have commandeered an entire floor of the apartment complex they inhabited. They had cleared out some of the non-load-bearing walls to join  several smaller rooms into larger ones. The table had been fashioned from a pair of oak double doors set on metal poles like you find at the bank, without the soft ropes to indicate where you line up to ask for your own money.

Dinner was rather large as well. There was a good sized bird, Marley assumed it was chicken, though it could have been duck. Judging by the availability of grocery stores in the area, Marley decided it was probably duck, having seen a few in the filthy waters of the Kober, stopping on their way to warmer climes elsewhere. Alongside the bird, which was crisp and golden and inviting despite its questionable provenance, Marley made out what was likely potatoes and some skinny carrots along with a large bowl of greens sauteed in garlic and onions.

Marley had the place of honor, next to Princess Fussbutt, who sneered at him whenever he encroached into her realm. Once, when he tried to reach across her turf for a second helping of greens, the little tyrant stabbed him with her eating utensil. This being a rather small and rubber coated spoon, he was saved from having to explain an additional injury to his manager.

"Forgive me, my Princess", he said, with the proper enunciation given to her title, "I did not mean to overstep my bounds."

Luthy stared harder at her own plate, trying to hide her smile. "Yes! Cross me again, foul Toad!" She yelled, her spoon held high to threaten the warty varlet.

Marley smiled his huge golden smile and laughed out loud. The rest of his dining party froze for a second and then burst into their own awkward laughter. "Oh no, my Princess. I wouldn't think of it! You'd turn me into a Prince again!" Marley knew the old children's story as well as anyone. "I can't take being a Prince again!"

"You were a terrible Prince the first time, anyways!!" Princess Poobutt shouted.

"Okay, Princess," Litha interrupted, "Finish your carrots and then you can go play in your room."

"You shall be the first to be punished!" the Princess bellowed, pointing her rubber-coated sceptre of office at the Queen Mother, which she then turned against her own court, eviscerating the poor supplicants of Carrotton and Taterhead Village. Soon the carnage was over, though, and the Princess, being very weary from her battle, retired to the vidroom to continue her campaign of terror in a much more passive manner.

Shen leaned back in his chair and yawned, stretching dramatically. "Soo, it was nice having you over for dinner, Gold L--WHAT THE HACK ARE YOU DOING HERE?!"

Marley jumped in his seat at the outburst, the instant tension tweaking his sore muscles. The others in the room just stared, waiting for his explanation.

He stared at them for a moment or two, trying to gather his thoughts. "Well, as you said, it's been a long time, but yeah, I used to live somewhere nearby. I can't quite figure out where since so much has changed, but I think it was in this general area. I just..." he hesitated. Why DID he come out here?

"You just thought you'd wander around in hell to see if it was as hellish as you remembered?!" Shen asked, the look in his eyes echoing the short grasp on sanity he felt a person on such a journey must surely have.

"Kinda..." Marley didn't really know how to put any of it into words. "I had a friend..."

"Ah well, we all 'had' friends." Shen put down the napkin he'd been working his teeth with. "Sometimes you just gotta be glad for the ones who did make it out. Like you." He looked at Marley oddly then. As he turned to look at Denn and Lisha, he saw the same look in their eyes.

"What...?" Then he knew. It was bad enough, the guilt he had over his success and fame - those things he understood. Hell, he'd had therapists and counselors from day one in the league. He understood regret and guilt, but this... he was their hero. Not because he was some big football star. Simply because he'd made it out and just 'made it'. It was too much for Marley to bear. When the tears finally began to flow, he found he couldn't stop them. He was glad he couldn't see through the rain of salty tears, couldn't see the look of pity in their eyes. Even Princess Luthy came out of her Kingdom to offer Mr. Rabbit as condolences. Marley held Mr. Rabbit in his lap until the tears finally stopped. He thanked Her Majesty and handed Mr. Rabbit back.

"If you need him again, just yell", and she returned to her Palace.

"I see." said Shen. Marley knew he didn't, but supposed he'd been around enough to know the general idea behind his pain. Still, he felt he owed them a little more, at least.

"It's been a long time", he started.

"Not long enough?", asked Litha.

"Probably never be long enough." Marley offered. "I grew up around here, like I said, only back then the cops were real cops and real bad cops at that. Corrupt and cruel, they ruled the streets like your Front, but with no one to answer to but themselves. They'd gone private years before, the local governments tired of fighting for budgets privatized them and then they were all about making money and not protecting citizens. If you had the money for bribes and pay-offs, they were a decent buffer between you and the criminal side of life, but if not... well, you were left to fend for yourself." Marley took a long drink of water. "Until you got in the way."

"You get in the way?" Denn asked as he nibbled on a thin carrot.

"My best friend did. We both did."

"But you were the one who made it and he didn't", Shen finished.

"Yeah," Marley hesitated, "but that's not all of it." He hadn't even really talked about this with any of his various mental health staff, why was he telling these strangers? Maybe because they would understand better than people who were paid to understand him, because they'd lived it too. Because they lived here. He swallowed hard and continued.

"I got out, yeah." Shut up already, he yelled at himself. No one cares! Stop whining about being lucky. They were waiting to hear, nonetheless.

"I got out, but Nickels didn't." His name was Nicholas, but Marley and the other kids had never heard the name before, so it got the street treatment. "We were just kids, you know. Terrorizing the neighborhood like boys do. We knew the cops were not to be messed with, but we were kids. We thought the stories were just to scare us into being good. We were too in love with being bad." Marley fingered the fabric of the napkin beside his plate.

"There were three of us. Me, Nickels and Torman, another kid we hung around with. We were busting windows at an old abandoned warehouse when they pulled up. We were so lost in the destruction we were causing that we didn't even hear the cruiser." The memory made his hands shake and he took another drink. "The door slamming shut behind us knocked us out of our little dream world."

"What happened?" Denn was leaning so far forward, Marley thought he would fall off his perch.

"They grabbed us and started talking about how they were tired of cleaning up our messes, how the people who owned these buildings didn't like punks like us destroying them." He grit his teeth then, "As if the slumlords gave a damn about one more broken window. Anyway, the longer they held us there the greater our terror grew. I could see in Nickel's and Tor's eyes that they were thinking the same thing - the stories were true; they were going to kill us and throw our bodies in the Kober!"

Lisha and Shen laughed nervously then, remembering similar threats of horrors to come being directed at them by their own loving guardians. In the intervening years, however, they had all come to know that those stories weren't too far off from the truth.

Marley cleared his throat and sat up straighter. "Yeah, well... I looked at Nickels, the two of us were like the same person. I knew what he was thinking, he knew what I was thinking. Tor? Well, he'd get it soon enough and if he didn't, too bad for him, right? I mean, he wasn't really one of "us". Me and Nickels, I mean." He looked down at his empty plate, pushed the remnants of gravy around with the tip of his knife.

"You ran, right?" asked Denn, smiling hopefully. "I mean, you got away, right. You had to or you wouldn't be here."

The question hung in the air. Lisha and Shen sat silently, fairly sure they'd gotten the general idea. "Yeah, we ran. I kicked the cop who was holding onto Tor's arm, kicked him square in the crotch. He let go of Tor with a holler. Nickels was fighting hard, I could hear him cursing and punching. I spun out of the grasp of the one who had me and ran like hell." Marley stopped and looked around at the sympathetic eyes, all focused on him.

"We had a place. Just a busted up building. Rubblish we called it. We called everything Rubblish because it was, but...", he choked up for a second. "Anyway, we had this place, back of a broken down mechanic's shop. Great place..." Marley could see it as if it were this very room, the dented bumpers piled in one corner. Oil cans perfect for kicking around. He looked up again, Saw that they were waiting. Saw that Shen knew. Lisha was getting it.

"Well", he cleared his throat again and tried to affect a casual tone, "I made it to Rubblish and waited for Nickels to get there. I didn't even think about Tor. He wasn't one of 'us'. I waited the rest of the day and into the evening but I knew it was bad. I was afraid to go home, knowing Nickel's dad would come by and woop my ass for getting his boy caught, for being the bad influence he always said I was."

"He got pinched, huh?", asked Denn. He hadn't quite gotten where Shen and Lisha had. They looked at each other for a half-second.

"What did Nickel's dad do when he found out?" Lisha asked, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, hands clasped.

"Nothing. He didn't do nothing. Not to me, anyway. I didn't stay around very long to find out." The edges of his eyes were shiny, waiting for the inevitable to prime the pump for full downpour. "I waited until it got dark. I was afraid the cops would be waiting for me at my house. Tor would break for sure. Tell them everything. I knew Nickels would be able to keep a secret, but heck, he lived next door. How hard would it be to find me?" He laughed softly. "So I went to the place it happened. I went back to the broken building with the broken windows."

Shen got up and started picking up plates. Marley watched him, not sure if he could finish the story. It occurred to him that Shen was trying to help. He watched him take each plate up, scrape what little remained into the remains of the duck. "There was no one there. The cops were long gone, of course. It wasn't even a real crime scene. Three kids with rocks? There was some yellow tape over the doorway to the building entrance, though."

"We had been outside, throwing rocks at the building, not inside. Maybe they were trying to protect people from all the broken glass? The idea sounded stupid even to an eight year old, so I broke the tape and went inside." Lisha's hands had moved to her face, as if hiding it from the truth she knew was coming.

"There was some more yellow tape across the broken hallway inside and just past that, the shape of a small person outlined in white tape on the dirty, glass covered floor, a big pool of blood going all thick and dark where the tape-person's neck and head were." He paused. "I didn't know if it had been Nickels or Tor who they'd killed, but I didn't wait to find out. I ran out of there and didn't go back. Ever."

Marley was surprised at his calm. Once he'd gotten it all out, it wasn't as daunting as trying to get it out.

"Did you ever find out who it was?" Denn looked like he might cry now.

"Yeah." Marley replied, but the struggle to continue had returned. He swallowed hard.

"I heard from someone I used to know that Tor had been taken to a juvenile labor camp. When he came back, they said, he was only a year older, but he looked like he was 18 or 19. Said that when he got older he became sort of a hermit, living in the same rubblish building he'd grown up in, refusing to leave even when the local warlords had declared his old home a hazard and tried to raze it. Tor had gone a bit off the edge then and when they came to physically remove him, he came out shooting. The Orphans, as always, were well armed and the firefight didn't last very long." He didn't tell them about Nickels' father, who had taken up his own gun and gone to the Security Station to 'talk' to the men who'd killed his son, or how his own mother had passed away a couple of years later, but he'd been too scared to return to see her put in the ground. Some things he'd keep to himself.

"That's why you killed that Nelly", Denn said.

Marley froze. "Killed?"

"Yeah, his neck was broke for sure. It was turned..."

"Okay Denn, help your mom clean up the rest of this mess. Marley, can I talk to you in the other room?" Shen gestured for him to follow. Marley got up, thanked Lisha for a delicious meal and followed Shen out into the expansive 'living area'. Shen pulled a battered wooden chair up next to a large couch, the kind you might find in a hotel lobby. Nice to look at but not very comfortable, to discourage loitering. He motioned for Marley to sit.

"I didn't want to talk about that in front of Lisha, she's already a bit angry at me for helping you to begin with." Marley began to protest, to apologize if he'd caused any trouble, but Shen cut him off. "Don't even worry about it. We get in these arguments all the time. It's the nature of life out here in the Fringe." He pulled a pouch out of his shirt pocket and some strips of paper and began to roll a decent cigarette. He offered it to Marley, but he refused politely. Shen lit it and took a couple of slow pulls on it, savoring the first drafts of sweet tobacco smoke.

"Why did you help me?" Marley asked. He hadn't thought about it before, but now that he could see the danger inherent in it, he was genuinely curious.

"S'what I do." He said, matter-of-factly.

"What does that mean?" Marley assumed he meant it in some sort of altruistic way, that he's a good samaritan and so forth.

"It means, 'that's what I do'. Literally." He paused for a moment to see if that sank in any better.

"You help people?" Marley was beginning to think he was being teased.

"Yep. Me and Denn and two or three others." He wasn't kidding. "We decided that the Warlords had the Nellies and New New Harbor and New Lairno have their Sec Forces, who the hell did we have?!" He was getting a little manic, waving his hands about in frustration. "So we started policing ourselves. Well, policing them! Protecting ourselves. Kind of like a community watch, only armed and not taking any crap! From gangs, warlords or cops!" He was almost on his feet now, his own speech having roused his anger which was clearly not too far from the surface.

"So, you go out at night and fight crime? Isn't that a little bit, I don't know, goofy? Like an old comic book or something?"

Shen looked at him like he was a small idiot-child. "It's not like I'm dressed up in blue tights or anything. We just look out for each other. No one else is going to."

Marley could see the truth of that and the logic of it all was falling in behind. "I heard you were in the military before you tried out for The Pride", Shen asked him without preamble.

"Yeah. And?" He realized where this was going. "Oh, look..." He was trying to think of good excuses. "I ain't got too many free minutes as it is. I can't come out here and play superhero with you guys."

"You found time to get out tonight. All I'm saying is, if you are really curious about your old neighborhood, if you really want to do something good, something that might chase away those demons you have just under the surface..." He held his hands out, palms up, as though saying "why the hell not?"

"Yeah, well. Thanks for the offer, but I don't think my manager would be too happy with me, risking his 'investment' like that. Hell, they took out a huge-ass policy just on my hair! Imagine what they'd do if they found out I was moonlighting as Steele!" Steele had been his favorite comic as a kid. He had an alter ego too...

"Well, think about it", Shen said, smiling. "You never know, you might find yourself with insomnia again.

Lisha came in then. "Luthy wants to say good night before you leave, Marley." The Princess of Swamp Forest entered just as her introduction finished and strode very much like she were the Regent of this vassal state. Marley half-expected her to present a ringed finger for him to kiss, but then the little girl was there before him, rather than the stern Ruler of her people.

"Good night Mr. Marley. It was very nice to meet you." She had certainly been trained in all the courtesies.

"It was very good to make your acquaintance, as well, Your Majesty", he said, and bowed low, ignoring the pain lacing through his ribcage.

"You can call me Luthy. Everyone else does." she said with a sideways glance at the Queen Mother.

"And you can call me just 'Marley', if you like."

"Just Marley? That's silly. Can I call you Gold Lion?", she asked with a wide-eyed expression.

"You may, but that's my Battle Name. The name I use when I'm fighting. You get to pick the secret name you can call me so it'll be just our secret."

Luthy looked askance at her mom and stretched up as far as she could reach, motioning for Marley to meet her halfway. "Can it be, Mr. Toad?", she whispered when he'd finally folded himself over to her size.

Marley smiled and whispered back, "Mr. Toad it is." Luthy squeaked so loud, he stuck his finger in his ear, pretending to try to get it working again after such abuse. The Princess of Toad Swamp bounced away, singing a nonsense song about a Gold Lion and a Princess and a toad.

"Looks like you have a new fan", said Lisha as her daughter spun off out of the room.

Marley smiled broadly. "She's adorable! How do you keep her so innocent in this neighborhood? In this world?!"

"She's not innocent. She's almost as damaged as the rest of us. Children just have stronger coping mechanisms than adults. It's the teen years I'm worried about", she sighed, as the door to Luthy's room closed, followed by crashing sounds and more Regal shouting.

Shen stood up then and Marley stepped over and held out his big hand. "Thank you for the dinner. It was nice to eat with people again."

"Well, if you're ever bored up there in your penthouse, come sightseeing again, we'll set a place for you anytime. Just leave the bloodshed for later", he winked slyly at him.

"Gold Lion ain't got no business running around with you fools. He got out, why are you trying to drag him back in?" She was really mad at him over this.

"Don't worry about me, ma'am", Marley said. "I have too much keeping me busy with the upcoming post-season." He avoided Shen's eye and said his goodbyes, thanking them both again for their hospitality. Denn joined them as they walked him to the door.

"The elevator hasn't worked since, ever. The stairs are to the right as you go out the door. By the way, lions weigh a ton", Shen said with a grin and shook Marley's hand once more, holding it tightly and pulling him closer. "Remember my offer. It's not just about fixing the streets", he said, tapping his own temple.

"I will", said Marley as he waved to them and searched the darkened remains of the gutted floor for the stairwell. He found it easily and slowly made his way down the steps and out into the dirty air once again. He turned once, found the yellow glow of the skyline and headed toward it.