My Own Monster

Obtaining a body was much easier than Madie thought it would have been. A few thousand dollars to a coroner and she was loading the corpse of a thirty-two-year-old male in the back of an ice truck. His end was somewhat sad, but Madie didn’t care much about that. All she cared about was that she got the body. It was slated for cremation. Whoever received the urn would never know that the pile of ash within it was not who, or what, they thought it was.

It was important that the corpse was freshly. This guy wasn’t even dead for a full forty-eight hours, and he was kept in a controlled environment that slowed the cell decomposition. Now, after unloading him from the truck, he was in her own environmentally controlled lab that would keep his body in prime condition for her experiments.

The first step was to hook him up. She cut the large “Y” pattern of stitches on his chest and opened his rib-cage so she could get to his heart. She hooked up four leads, one into each chamber, then she attached the eight pints of A- blood she also bought from the coroner to the machine. She ran two more leads to the dead man’s lungs. She flipped a switch and the heart-lung machine hummed to life. It began pumping blood and oxygen into the corpse’s body. This was the first, crucial step. She had to stop the autolysis. Bodies begin to decay as soon as they die. Providing fresh blood and oxygen would help remove the toxins that began the decomposition process. She hoped the body was fresh enough that what little damage had occurred could be reversed.

With the body hooked up, all she had to do was wait. She wanted to begin tests right away, and was itching to inject the first serum now, but a glimpse at the clock showed that it was already four in the morning. She let logic win out against her eagerness. It would be best to let the body acclimate before starting any tests.


Madie kicked off her shoes when she got home from working a temporary waitress job. She was exhausted, physically, but her excitement triumphed and she hurried down the stairs to her patient. She entered the sealed lab she built in her basement to find her corpse looking a little more alive. The cold pallor had been replaced with a warmer hue. He could easily have been mistaken for an actual patient in the middle of an open-heart surgery.

She checked the machine, replaced two pints of blood with newer ones, and removed a bag of black bio-matter that had been separated from the bloodstream. Then she turned her attention to the dead man. He was cute. She surprised herself when the thought crossed her mind. She turned and opened a refrigerated drawer. Inside were three syringes.

They were all concoctions of her own design. Created after years of research and testing on small animals. She insisted on human testing. After the third denial, and a stern warning, she was insistent enough that they fired her. She was careful not to leave any notes behind when she left and was thankful to still have friends in the field that helped her get the materials she needed to continue her research in secret.

Madie picked up the first syringe. She inserted the needle into the injection port connected to the blood supply line and pushed the serum into the bloodstream. She watched it dissolve into the blood. An excitement ran through her. When nothing changed after a few minutes, she sighed and sat down in the desk chair by the computer. Science was never instantaneous. Her calculations put the first stage’s completion at four hours after injection. She knew the math was correct, but of course she also hoped for an unexpected triumph. Now the thought of a possible failure crept into her head.

“Now we wait,” she said to the empty room. She woke the computer and began running scenarios. She checked on the body every twenty minutes.

Four hours passed and her alarm sounded. She left the computer station and checked the body thoroughly before pushing the second injection. Again, she waited with a tinge of excitement. Again, her logic won out and she sat back at the computer, triple-checking her calculations for stage two based on the real data of stage one. The time only adjusted by three minutes and fourteen seconds. Now she only had to wait just under sixteen hours.


Madie woke to her alarm. She wiped sleep away from her eyes as she slowly gained full consciousness. She silenced the annoying beep and glanced over at the body. Stage two was complete. She examined him again. He was warm to the touch. The heart was twitching, not beating, but moving. She ran a few tests and was relieved to find everything was exactly as it should be. She pushed the final injection.

The third stage was expected to take forty-five minutes for completion. Madie did not set an alarm because she knew she would hover anxiously the entire time. Her eyes only left the body to check the machine. Then it happened. At the forty-third minute mark, the heart beat. Then it beat again. It began a steady rhythm. Madie carefully removed the leads and watched in pure euphoria as the dead man’s heart began pumping blood on its own.

Then something happened that she was not prepared for. The body groaned. The man, dead for nearly four days, was waking up. She hurriedly prepared an anesthetic. His eyes opened, focused, then looked at her. She could not stop smiling.

“Wh-” his dormant voice attempted sound.

“Shh,” Madie stopped him, “you were in a bad accident. You are in surgery now. I’m going to give a little more anesthetic.”

His eyes lulled and he went under. She unhooked him from the machine. He was able to breathe on his own. She carefully sewed him up. He was alive. She couldn’t believe it. Her research predicted it was possible, but she still couldn’t believe she’d achieved it. A lifelong dream and years of work finally completed successfully. All she had to do now was nurse him back to health. After she calmed down. Then she could begin Phase 2.


Madie had promptly quit her waitress job. She remained awestruck for hours. She had brought a dead man back to life. He remained unconscious on her lab table/hospital bed while she paced near the computer station. She knew her theories would work, but she was still coming to terms with the reality that she had completed her experiment. Seven long years. Five at the facility in Washington and two in her own little lab she built after being fired. After seven years, she had done what everyone thought was impossible. Only a few had even attempted what she had. To her knowledge, she was the first to succeed.

She felt unsure about what to do next for the first time in her memory. She went into autopilot and began checking the reanimated man’s vitals every fifteen minutes. She searched her desk to find the few pages that the coroner gave her.

  • Name: Adam Robert Monteller
  • Birth: 23 April, 2015
  • City of Birth: Harrisburg, Illinois
  • Deceased: 16 September, 2047
  • Location Pronounced Deceased: Necaise, Mississippi
  • Cause of death: Automobile Accident
  • Age: 32
  • Height: 6′ 2″
  • Weight: 224 (12 hours posthumously)
  • Marital Status: Never Married
  • Next of Kin: None

And at the very end it read:

  • Remains to be cremated per city ordinance

The entire world believed Adam Robert Monteller had died and was cremated as directed by local legislature regarding unclaimed persons. That is, if anyone was even looking to know that information.

In reality, Adam had been brought back from death in the basement of a house leased to one Marcy Reynolds, the alias Madie had created in case any persons clad in black suits came looking for her. She assumed she would have been added to the national watch-list upon leaving her well-funded and well-guarded laboratory environment. She was surprised they never came looking for her when she used her real name. She was very careful to maintain a visage of normalcy. She even acquired a job at a local university teaching biology for the first year after being forced out.

Now she had accomplished her life’s work. A dead man was no longer dead. She jot down a few notes and checked on Adam. The recent anesthesia wore off after a few hours and he came to. He groaned, and Madie rolled her chair over to him ready to interact. She also had a dose of anesthesia ready should she need it.

“Adam?”

He groaned and his head lolled from side to side. He was still feeling the drugs.

“Adam? Can you hear me?”

Another groan, but he was able to direct his attention toward her. His eyes were slowly adjusting. She gave him time.

“Where….where am I?”

Madie smiled. “You are in a recovery room. You had a bad accident. Do you remember anything about it?”

“I…I can’t…”

“It’s okay. It may take some time. You are still feeling the effects of the anesthesia. Do you think you can drink some water?”

She rolled over and grabbed the bottle of water from the fridge unit by her desk. She placed the angled straw between his lips. He groaned in pain and she forced him back into the bed. He was able to take two sips before the pain caused his consciousness to slip.

“Careful,” she said, “We don’t want to open the incision. You must be in a great deal of pain. I will give you some medicine to help you rest.”

She reached for the anesthetic, realized her mistake, then quickly gave him a dose of morphine instead. He drifted into a deep sleep within a few minutes.

Madie hung her head. “Idiot,” she muttered to herself. She had pushed the original dose of anesthesia in a temporary moment of panic when he first started regaining consciousness. Now he was alive and basically well enough to have a normal recovery from a near-mortal injury.


She lived a few blocks from a local hospital where she knew the local ER doctor from her days back in medical school. Her name was Rachel. She was brilliant and could have been a top-class surgeon if she had the desire, but she insisted she was happy helping those who needed help in a crisis. She had almost become a pediatrician.

Madie strolled into the sparsely populated waiting room and asked for Rachel. A few minutes later Rachel came out and greeted her.

“Madie. Good to see you again. Let’s go back to my office.”

Madie followed her through the hallway of evenly spaced rooms and back to a small closet of an office. Rachel shut the door behind them.

“How is your friend?”

“Doing much better. Thank you. I was hoping that I might get just a few more things. I promise it will be the last of it.”

Rachel gave her a side-eyed glance. “You know I could get in a lot of trouble for what I gave you already, right?”

“I know, and I appreciate everything you’ve done.”

Rachel sighed. “What more would you need?”

“Just an IV kit with a spare bag, and some Vicodin if you have some.”

“I can give you the IV, but Hydrocodone will have to do for the pain. Your friend got pretty banged up, huh? You should have brought him in to see me.”

“It’s…complicated. He isn’t necessarily in good standing with the law.”

“What did he do?”

“Well…” Madie shrugged.

“You know what? Never mind. If I don’t know, then I can’t lie if the authorities come knocking on my door. You’re more than capable to care for anyone. We could actually use your help around here if you are looking for a job?”

“Maybe after a while. I appreciate the assistance. And…the discretion.”

“No problem. You know me. I just want to help people get back on their feet.”

“And you have done that in more ways than you know. Keep fighting the good fight.”


The saline solution helped accelerate the removal of the remaining toxins. Madie waited a few extra hours to ensure that there would be no chance of drug reactions in Adam’s system before she opened a refrigerated drawer and lifted two syringes from it. One held a blue solution, the other a dark purple. She pushed them both simultaneously. The blue into the injection port of the IV and the dark purple into the injection port of the dialysis machine she had Adam hooked up to ensure any toxins were removed from his blood.

The concoction was designed to reverse any damage dealt to the body while it had been deceased and promote healing at a quicker rate than would be considered normal. A separate solution remained in the drawer that she hoped wouldn’t be needed. She would only be able to make that decision after she could talk to him for a length of time. Time enough to determine if his brain was functioning correctly.

She reviewed the readout from the EEG machine. So far there hadn’t been any unusual activity.


Madie waited an entire day before beginning her conversations. Even though Adam was barely able to keep a string of thoughts together, she decided she may need to push him to determine if her third solution was needed. She considered using it anyway since it was theoretically designed to repair synaptic connections. The potential harm, or cause of side-effects of using the solution unnecessarily, was low, but she didn’t want to add any risks to her already successful reanimation.

Adam woke from what seemed to be a peaceful sleep. Madie gave him some water and asked if he was ready for some questions. He perked up, ready for the challenge, so she turned on the recording devices and began.

“Your name is Adam Robert Monteller, correct?” She glanced up from her clipboard. His eyes looked unfocused and she thought maybe he hadn’t heard her. Then a frown formed on his face.

“No,” he said.

Madie’s heart jolted but she remained still, frozen in the bare metal chair next to the man in the bed. The man she had brought back from death.

“Your name is not Adam Robert Monteller?” she asked.

He closed his eyes and rest his head on the pillow. “I can’t remember,” he said, “but I don’t think so. How did I get here? What happened?”

“You were in a car accident. Do you remember anything prior waking up here?” For some reason she felt the need to be careful with her words. She technically had not lied to him and decided she would try her best not to.

“Nothing.” He opened his eyes and stared into hers. She lost herself in the blue depths of those eyes, then caught herself and readjusted in her seat.

“You were found dead at the scene, but with emergency surgery we were able to bring you back. You may have suffered some neurological damage during the time your brain wasn’t receiving oxygen. We will be monitoring you during your recovery, but we believe you will regain your memories in time. If you need anything, just press this button,” she handed him the button connected to the side of the bed. It was programmed to a pager she would now keep on her at all times. Not that she planned on straying too far from her work.

“Get some rest. I’ll be by to check on you soon.” She left the makeshift clean room and went upstairs. A burning desire to shoot the coroner from whom she’d bought the body filled her entirely and she bit the meat of her thumb to keep from screaming. It wasn’t as if she could return to the dumbass and demand further information. She’d risked enough just getting the body.

What she needed was time to think. She grabbed her keys and carefully locked the two deadbolts before walking to the corner coffee shop.


It didn’t matter if the man she reanimated was Adam Robert Monteller or not. The file she was given didn’t provide anything but a basis on which to judge if the final solution was needed. What really mattered was that she had successfully brought him back.

He had been dead, and she had brought him back. This was a success in its own right. Even if Adam, or whoever he was, wouldn’t survive beyond the week, her research proved fruitful. She could replicate it if needed. If the file was wrong and this man had relatives who expected to see a body, then she would pack up what she could and destroy any evidence of her work.

She finished her coffee, paid, and left. The pager buzzed and she checked it. He was needing something and she had been gone long enough. She’d made up her mind after she first questioned him.

She bought a paper before returning to the house. A missing dead man would make the news and she would prefer to know if the authorities were searching for him, or if the coroner confessed to his dealings.


Madie entered the clean room and began checking the man’s vitals.

“I thought a nurse would come by and do that for you,” he said as she moved to check the readout of the EEG machine.

“Sorry for the delay, I was with another patient. What did you need?”

“I wasn’t sure if I would need a new one of those.” He pointed toward the IV bag.

“You won’t,” she said, “now that you can eat and drink on your own.” She removed the needle from his arm and bandaged it.

“Oh, I guess that makes sense.”

“Are you in any pain?”

“I feel sore, all over, but it’s not terribly painful.”

“The surgery you went through was extremely invasive and taxing on your body. You will be in a lot of pain if we don’t maintain your medication.” She handed him two morphine tablets and a glass of water. He took them without question and handed the empty glass back to her. She opened the refrigerated drawer and withdrew the final solution. The dark, red-purple contents could have been mistaken for blood. She pushed the solution into the IV port.

The man soon lost consciousness. She unhooked him from the dialysis machine. The last thing she needed was for her synaptic repair solution to be filtered out before it could work. If he truly wasn’t who she thought he was, she would need to know sooner than later.


He stirred awake and the restraints pulled taught. He looked at them, then up at Madie sitting in the chair at the computer station.

“Hey,” he said quietly. She remained fixated on the screen in front of her. “Hey,” he called louder. This time he caught her attention and she looked over. “Where am I?”

“Good morning,” she said despite the hour, “How are you feeling?”

“Not too bad…for a dead man.”

She raised her brow at that. “So you remember?” She wasn’t terribly surprised at this. An hour after he had fallen asleep, the EEG readout became sporadic and only returned to a steady, normal pace after about thirty minutes.

“Yeah. I guess I can’t complain about feeling anything at this point. What happened? Where am I?”

“First I need you to answer a few of my questions.” She grabbed a clipboard from the desk and rolled over next to the bed. “What’s your name?”

“Tim Waldrop.”

“Last thing you remember?”

“Driving down 59.”

“And after that?”

“Waking up here.”

“Profession?”

“Army Engineer. MVD.”

“Commanding Officer?”

“Sergeant Houston.”

“Last contact?”

“Where am I? I’ve answered enough without knowing what’s going on.”

“How you answer next will determine if you get to walk out of here. Last contact with your commanding officer?”

He looked at her sternly. His face slowly relaxed and he answered, “Four days ago. I was leaving the base when I wrecked.”

Madie pulled the gun from its holster at her lower back and pressed it against his temple. He struggled against his restraints.

“Why?” he asked.

She looked directly into his eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said and pulled the trigger.


Within minutes she had wiped the computer, packed what she could, and destroyed everything else before setting fire to the house. She was on the edge of town when two black SUVs came to a halt in front of her. Teams of armed men surrounded her and a tall man stepped out of the second vehicle.

“Madeline,” he said, “What’s the hurry?”

“Pierce,” she said curtly.

“General Pierce. No need for informality here. Though I can’t return the favor as you no longer are associated with this organization.”

“How did you find me?”

“Simple really. A trail of missing cadavers is not uncommon unless you know what to look for. They’ve already quelled the fire in Necaise. Poor Waldrop would still be alive, or could be again with your help, if you hadn’t painted the walls with his brain.”

“Who’s Waldrop?”

Pierce smirked. “Come now, you wouldn’t have gone through such measures if you hadn’t been successful. It’s time you returned. Now that you have successfully performed the procedure.”

“I’m not going with you.” She pulled out her cell phone but one of the armed men quickly confiscated it.

“Madeline, you know you don’t have a choice in this matter. There’s no need to struggle. We already have a lab and a new patient waiting for you in Puerto Rico. We will be there in a few hours.”

General Pierce returned to the car. A gun prodded her toward the open door and she quietly followed the instruction and got in. The door shut and they were on their way.

“So, what changed?”

“You. Actually. Once you went rogue, we followed your trail finding improvements along the way. You going off on your own actually proved exactly what was needed to convince the higher-ups that this project had legs. Of course, bringing you back in was the main contingent of the project moving forward.” He smiled at her. “You’ll have everything you ever wanted in Puerto Rico. A whole team. Any resource you want. They’ve gone all in, especially after I reported what we found in the last hour.”

“Tell me. Was Waldrop a set up?”

“Nothing ever escapes you does it. Yes. Waldrop was planted. Not easy. Sergeant Houston didn’t know of course, but the incompetent coroner was paid and has since been removed.”

Madie sat in the back of the SUV, certain there was at least one if not two barrels pointed at her the entire way to the airport. Her mind was running scenarios. Weighing pros and cons. Determining whether to play along or plan her escape. An entire lab would be nice and would expedite the process. Resources were hard to acquire on her own, but she didn’t know what they planned to do with her solutions, though she had an idea. It sat like mercury in her stomach. Heavy. Slowly killing her. If she stayed and finished her work through Pierce, she would have to abandon her humanity completely, and that was a cost she wasn’t sure she could pay.

Incineration

This view was his favorite thing in the entire universe. Greg sat in the cockpit of his small ship. It was a GK-200. There were only two like it in the known galaxy. He owned one and the other belonged to his younger brother, Keel. It could easily fit a crew of five, but at the moment Greg was the only one on board.

He tried to take it in, enjoy the view he’d normally go out of his way to see, but this time he couldn’t. Somewhere in the slow rotation of stars and planets before him his brother was in trouble. The console beeped letting Greg know the sensors had finally picked up on the faint signal unique to Keel’s ship. It was coming from a region on the outskirts of Vanguard IX. Greg quickly prepped then made the jump. His console said it would take three hours, which wasn’t enough time to sleep–not that his nerves would let him–so he went to make a cup of coffee.

“Bring up Vanguard IX, section 236, sub-section 19,” Greg called to the on-board computer. He sat on the small couch that took up half of the small cabin and sipped his coffee. On the wall in front of him, the computer displayed the small section of the galactic map. Parts of the map were black, unfinished. Spots like this were rare. Over 99% of the galactic map had been pieced together when the seven empires called a treaty several centuries ago. The only reason Keel would be out in a “blank spot” meant he’d picked up a job that either paid enough to buy a planet, or someone played his heartstrings like an authentic horse-hair violin. Greg hoped it was the former.

“Zoom,” he calmly called. An area enlarged to include three small planets. One, named Ajax Minor, was a few seconds jump from the black, uncharted area. “Ding Keel’s beacon.” At the command a blue dot pinged on the map and soft ripples scattered from the location. It was inside the “blank spot” a few seconds jump. Equidistant from the line that divided the known and unknown in relation to the planet.

Greg took another sip of coffee. “Pull up all jobs listed across Ajax Minor.” A short list popped up next to the map. Normally a world like this, on the outer rim, would be crawling with jobs for mercenaries, craftsman, even farm hands. The list on the screen listed three jobs. One was a haul job. Transporting two hundred livestock off-world to a planet even further out. Great pay for the work. Greg would have taken it if he had a freighter big enough and he didn’t have to worry about his little brother. The second listed was a bounty. A few renegades ditched the local militia and took off into the “blank.” Greg doubted that was enough to entice Keel, until he saw the third job.

The third job was pretty much the same as the second except it wasn’t issued by the local government. It was, however, issued by a local magistrate.

⊇600,000 For the return of Christa, daughter of Magistrate Kalus. Kidnapped by two deserters of the Zilan Guard. For further details, contact the Magistrate’s estate.

Greg nearly coughed his hot coffee into his nose but was able to swallow it after some effort. 600,000 credits! Not enough to buy a planet, but not far off either. This was it. There was no way Keel would turn this down. He could hear his brother selling it to him.

“Greg, it’s two jobs in one. We go out, rescue the girl, grab the guys, and bring them all back. One trip, 650,000 creds. It’s almost too good to be true.”

Keel was charismatic and could make anything sound more fun than dangerous. Greg knew better. In this scenario, Keel would be more focused on the girl than the money. Which meant Greg would have to cover the actual details of the job while Keel fantasized about marrying a rich magistrate’s daughter who he would get bored with after a few months.

The real problem in this situation was that Keel hadn’t called Greg until he was already on whichever planet he tracked the deserters to. The signal had been weak, garbled, only enough to let Greg know that Keel needed help.

As soon he finished the jump, Greg contacted the magistrate’s estate to get the details. They were pompous enough to tell him that another “bounty hunter” had taken the job a few days ago, and they would only provide the funds to whoever brought back Mistress Christa. Greg fake-smiled his way through the communication until he got what he needed. Then he made the jump toward Keel’s signal. He made the calculations manually so he would stop well outside the signal’s location. Jumping into a “blank” was never the best idea. He double checked the distances. Then punched it.

Maybe twenty seconds passed before Greg was spit out into the empty space before a planet the color of half-digested junk-rat kebabs. Hoping the color indicated a mostly desert-like surface, Greg set the scanners to work looking for life-forms while he pinged Keel’s ship. The ship was straight ahead. He gunned it. At normal speed, it would take a few minutes to make it to atmosphere. He checked the scanner. The entire planet was covered in red. There were no areas without a signature. He flicked the screen, but the readout remained the same.

“Damn thing must be picking up plant life again,” he said, and was convinced when he was a few thousand feet above the surface. He could see dark and light brown areas that consisted of large plants. Tall and broad with leaves that hid the surface from above. He circled, pinging Keel’s signal, until he found his brothers ship. The tip of the nose was all he could see in the bright light of the nearby star. The rest was covered in some kind of vine, like arms pulling it into the planet itself.

Greg hovered. He tried to signal his brother but didn’t receive a reply. He began his descent, increasing his engines output so it would incinerate the plant-life and make a clearing for landing. His brother had taken the job only a few days ago. The state of his ship suggested that whatever these plants were, they grew fast and could prevent them from taking off in a hurry if needed.

His landing gear transferred the weight of the ship to the planet’s surface. Ash drifted up into his view and slowly fell. He checked his readout. The display showed a compatible atmosphere, but he pulled on an exosuit anyway. Something wasn’t right.

He hopped out of the airlock. The ground underneath was soft. He made his way toward Keel’s ship. The vines were thick and taught. His suspicion was right. The spacecraft was effectively tethered to the surface. He found the airlock. The door was open and covered with moss. Smaller vines had entered the ship, covering the airlock walls. Greg climbed in. Almost every surface was covered by the aggressive plant-life. He made his way toward the cockpit but came to a halt when he entered the cabin. The layout was the same as his ship. A couch took up most of the cabin and a display board covered the wall opposite.

The difference being this cabin was layered in the brown vines. They covered everything. The floors, the walls, the display, the couch. They outlined a body sitting on the couch. Greg carefully stepped toward it and pried the layers off until he confirmed what he already knew. A wave washed over him and tears welled in his eyes. He braced himself against the vine-covered wall then lowered himself onto the extra-padded couch. He felt himself begin to cry and he almost let the tears fall, but he remained steadfast. He was in danger.

He stared at what had been his brother. Keel was smart. He would have left something behind knowing his older brother would come for him. Greg looked around the cabin but couldn’t see anything but vines.

“Play last transmission,” he called. Beneath the vines, the ship buzzed and a voice began talking through muffled speakers.

“…sorry. I should have waited. Do not come for me. I repeat…”

The transmission cut out. It was the same one Greg had received roughly sixty hours earlier, but he could understand what little had played. A thought sparked through Greg’s mind. Keel must have known his warning would fall on deaf ears.

“Play last recording,” Greg called. The muffled speakers once again broke the silence, but this time it came from the display board. Greg began pulling vines away until he could see the screen. Keel’s face was there, looking sickly, as he spoke.

“…brother. I mean it. I always appreciated you even if I never said so, but it seems this time you won’t be able to save me. Even if you showed up this second. It’s too late. This planet. These vines. They cover everything and grow too fast. I know you will find this. If you are watching, leave now. I can only hope there is still daylight for you. Once night comes, these things will cover your ship like they did mine, and they won’t let go. They are tougher than you can imagine…”

Greg looked through the cockpit window to see the sunlight fading. He quickly tapped the display, sending the recording to his own ships computer. He paused to look at his brother’s remains one more time before exiting the ship and running toward his own. He reached the airlock door before noticing small vines reaching out like little fingers from the ash at his feet. He climbed inside and initiated an emergency extraction. His ship kicked to life, automatically ascending until it would exit the atmosphere and settle into an orbit around the planet. Greg sat huddled in the airlock, inside his exosuit, while his ship flew him to safety.

He stripped out of his exosuit, climbed out of the airlock, and into the ships prep room. He headed straight for the cabin and played the remainder of his brother’s recording.

“…I know the soldiers landed here. Their ship is only a few hundred meters from here. I found them. What was left of them anyway. The girl wasn’t with them. The magistrate must have assumed they took her. If she were here, then she’s dead. None of that really matters now. I’ll be dead by nightfall. It seemed like such an easy job. You always said those were too good to be true. And here I am to prove you right once again. One last time. Greg, you were always there for me. Maybe I took that for granted a few too many times. I just want you to know that I always wished I could return the favor. I tried, but I always seemed to screw it up. I’m sorry. I love you brother.”

The recording stopped. Keel stayed frozen on the display. There was a sad smile on his face. Greg sat there. Once again, he felt the wave come over him. This time he let himself succumb to it, and for the first time that he could remember, he cried. He fell into the couch in his small ship, hovering over his little brother’s grave, and began sobbing. Tears wracked his body. Through those tears he made his decision. He would build a funeral pyre. He would burn the entire planet. He didn’t know how, but he knew it was possible. He would find the means. He couldn’t wait to see it.

Supernova

Riding the cosmic waves was one of Deban’s favorite hobbies. He hadn’t taken his board out in weeks, but he also hadn’t made any credits either, which is why he had to turn Granta down.

“Come on, they say a shower is coming in. A good one. They’ve already raised the level to red,” Granta’s face was projected into a tiny area in front of Deban’s face.

“As much as I love dodging meteors out on the surf, if I don’t do this job I won’t have a board. Sorry man, I’ll catch you next time.” Deban flicked the hologram and it receded back into his arm console. It wasn’t necessarily true. He could sell his slab and live off the street, but his board would no doubt be stolen the first day. Not like he’d have to make that decision anyway. He practically won the lottery.

Antares was a city that borrowed its name from the star at its heart. In school, he learned that Antares was built over six thousand years ago during the first years of humanities endeavors into space. Earth was a term in the history books that meant nothing to him except as a speck of dirt lost somewhere in the cosmos when compared to Antares, and that his ancestors supposedly came from there. Earth was a tiny planet that revolved around some star named Sol. Antares the star is 700 times the size of Sol, and Antares the city surrounds the star, making the entire area roughly 2.1 billion miles circumference. Not bad. Except over two trillion people live here, which made space a commodity.

Which is why Deban needed the cash to pay for his tiny eight by eight slab he called home despite all the heat and electricity for the city being siphoned from the star beneath it. The only thing between him and falling into that fusion reactor was eight miles of engineered metal. He was born and raised here so never gave it a second thought.

Somehow, out of the trillions of people always needing a buck, he was given the opportunity to make an easy six million credits by delivering a data file to some prick who fancied himself a politician. Deliveries like this cost extra and often entailed dirt on somebody, or else a simple data transfer across the net would do the job. Deban didn’t want to know and didn’t need to. All he needed was the cash. Sure, he could crack whatever simple encryption they placed on the little metal tab in his pocket, but doing so would leave a mark and they’d know he compromised the package. It was bad business and he was a professional.

Deban pulled up the map on his visor and followed the augmented path through the metallic city. This trip would take him out of his hemisphere which meant he would be seeing some new sites. Sites he would never have been able to see before, but included with the data file was a false identity that would let him cross borders with no issue. At least that’s what he was told.

He made it to the train station and it was time to put the caliber of his client’s pocketbook to the test. False identifications were extremely hard to come by with the scanners stationed in every nook of the city. Even if you managed to get one, or have a delusion of grandeur and decide to make one, it was never guaranteed to work. They failed nearly ninety percent of the time and getting caught meant getting Iced.

Deban placed his hand on the terminal and hoped his life wouldn’t end with a false read. The synthetic fingertips registered and he was admitted as Wallace Stevens. Two first names? he thought. Whoever made this ID was either a genius or the luckiest idiot in the galaxy. Two first names is almost a guaranteed red flag but it worked so he boarded. The nerves didn’t go away even after the train had been hovering at high speed for an hour. He was headed to a new land so to speak. All of Antares was basically the same. He tried to keep calm and soon lost himself while staring out of the window across from him.

Another hour passed and they must have entered the new hemisphere because a news story filled the window he had been gazing through.

“Dr. Bugosa was found dead in his laboratory two nights ago. The servers containing his research were destroyed and no backups can be found. Though nothing is confirmed at this point….”

He stopped listening and pulled up his arm console. His audio switched to his personal link and music filled his ears. He surfed the net for another few hours as the train took him closer to the biggest payday of his entire life. He lost himself in his console and didn’t notice the two large men board and sit across from him until he happened to glance up and see both of them staring at him. They wore old Mark VI suits. He offered a nod but neither of them moved. He returned to his console and tried to forget about them. Other passengers boarded, got off, walked by, but the two men never moved.

He decided to get off and walk the last fifty miles hoping the two would lose interested. When he stood, they stood, and he knew he was in something. He turned to exit and one of the men tried to grab him. Deban prevented the man’s thick hand from getting a hold on his jacket and bolted through the closing door. The doors reopened and the two men ran after him, but he was through the scanners. This hemisphere’s housing units weren’t as confining as they were up north, but they were still stacked at least three high which gave Deban cover and the confidence he could lose the men as he ran the final miles to his new life.

Running through crowds was an easy way to get spotted. The streets were less crowded here, but he knew how to blend in. He stopped after the first few miles and took a straightforward path walking the streets like it was a normal day. He stopped at a small noodle shop and had a bite. He hadn’t eaten since last night and he was feeling it. He tried to eat slow but finished quickly anyway so he hit the streets again. He almost walked into the two Mark VI’s as he left. They walked by surveying the area but hadn’t seen him. He thought about grabbing a car, but his contact said only trains and no direct paths to the destination. Besides, cars were easily traceable and easy to get caught in. Deban had mulled that tidbit over on the train and had a plan that technically fell in the clear. He carefully retreated the opposite direction of the two suits and visited a board shop. He bought a cheap, beginner’s model.

Boarding was restricted except for designated areas so he headed toward the nearest launch point. He’d start off in the waves and then veer off toward the estate to drop off the metal tab and pick up his six mil. He was thinking about how he’d use the money when a slug bounced off a wall to his left. He turned to see the Mark VI’s running toward him with weapons drawn. He launched his board instantly and took off above the stacks. He ran the board as hard as he could to minimize his time in the air. He made it to the estate within minutes. No cars had followed him. He’d taken a direct path, but was confident he hadn’t been tracked.

As he descended, he saw enforcement cars near the front gates. He almost bolted but instead cut the engine and dropped eighty feet before powering the engine back up to stop himself. He mistimed his ignition and tumbled onto the back grounds of the estate. He hit the floor and was surprised to find it soft. Still hard, but softer than the metal he was used to. He ran a hand through the green blades of grass he had only seen in holograms. Real grass cost more than a year rental for a slab. He wished he could enjoy it, but he needed to hide.

He got up, grabbed the board that was still hovering several feet above the ground, and hid in a small corner. He pulled up his feed and synced with the local network. His screen showed the front of the estate behind a reporter.

“Landus has been found dead inside his estate this morning. Though no links have been determined as of this moment, there is speculation that his death may be linked to Dr. Bugosa’s from a few days ago. Both men had been-”

Deban flicked the screen away. His heart was racing. What is happening? He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the metal tab. It was a simple device. He scanned it and worked quickly to decrypt the contents. Ten minutes felt like ten years but he finally cracked it and let the contents spill across his screen. It was mostly raw data though not hard to understand. Antares, the star, was nearing the end of its life, which meant that the city would share the same fate. Deban assumed the people chasing him wanted to keep it a secret since the data had Dr. Bugosa’s name imprinted in it.

The way he saw it, he had three options. Upload the data to the net so everyone on Antares knew. This would get him Iced by authorities once they traced his upload, or he could even be killed by whoever held the leash of the Mark VI’s assuming they could trace him also, but a mass exodus would likely occur. Maybe he could escape in the chaos. Option two was to try and get the metal tab to someone with authority who could use the information to save the city or at least its inhabitants. Of course he would never know who would be clean and who would be a part of the group trying to kill him. His last option was to keep the data and run, but he would be running forever even if he found a way to get off Antares.

Deban ran his hands through his hair. Easy scores are never easy. Now what? Idiot.

A Queen’s Robes

Kristen could do things with a thread that professional designers and dressmakers could only see in their minds. She could make a movie star of a peasant or a pauper of a king. In fact, she had done so on several occasions. This semester it was The Wizard of Oz. Making Lindsay look like Judy Garland was a breeze. Turning Matt into the Tin Man was a small challenge. Convincing the audience that Liam was the scarecrow without a brain she couldn’t really take credit for. He was born for the role. She just dolled him up a bit to make it seem like he was acting.

A prodigy, they said. Unparalleled for her age. They being her friends and a handful of teachers she never would have guessed actually resented her talent because it surpassed every dream they had given up on long ago. There were a few who said it with genuine sincerity.

Her parents were proud, but they could only see her art as a hobby and encouraged her to graduate and go to college to study a “real” profession. A job that would pull in a steady income while dulling her vivid imagination she could bring into reality. They always suggested accounting. She hated numbers, but she still worked hard for each A she received in her math courses.

After school, she would go to the theater, walk past the rows of empty seats, and into the dressing rooms. These rooms were the final stage for her. She cherished helping her garments onto the actors who would flaunt them across the stage. She felt comfortable among her costumes and those made by previous students. She felt at home in the small room beside the dressing rooms where two sewing machines occupied a coffee table and fabrics were haphazardly organized in a trash bin in the corner. Spools of thread where tucked in the tiny drawers of an old card catalog. Everything in the room was repurposed or donated or picked up off the street through the years. The few friends she considered close called the stage a second home. This cramped room behind it was her first.

There would only be one more production before she graduated next semester. It hadn’t been officially announced but rumors hinted it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kristen was thrilled and broke her one, self-imposed rule by sketching costumes before the rumors were confirmed. She placated herself with Titania and the excuse that this may be her last chance to prove what she could do before heading to college.

She hoped to make Puck and Oberon the most realistic fairies to grace the stage. Her sketches were nearly finished when it was finally announced. The rumors were true. A giddiness filled her blood and danced through her chest. She was always excited at the start of a new project, but this time was different. She knew her best work was before her. She had already started Titania’s robes knowing how long it would take to make them perfect. Over the winter break, she shut herself in her room and only allowed herself out to get more material or when her mom forced her to put the needle down.

School started back up and she worked on each costume in turn the few hours after school. She kept Titania’s robes at home. They would be her greatest achievement. They would be what convinced her parents she was talented enough to pursue a career she loved. She was convinced that this would be the start of that career. Whatever doubts she once had disappeared with each seam. The robes became her armor.

The other students already approached her with held breath. They knew she could make them whatever they wished they could be, and they all were amazed as each costume was revealed. All of her friends believed her work on Puck or Hippolyta were the best ever seen in the history of the school. They even liked them better than those in the recent movie adaptation.

“And that was with a million-dollar budget,” Sarah said.

Kristen wanted to show them Titania’s robes in that moment but knew she was a long way away from finishing them. The first few months of the year sped by and she finished every costume except Titania’s. When she didn’t have them done by the start of March, everyone in the play became interested. They all believed she had forgotten at first. Her unintentional mystery began rumors when she started rushing home after school. Casting had been completed and she would sometimes stay long enough to make minor alterations or fix any tears her classmates somehow already made to the finished costumes.

She had just repaired Puck’s costume for the third time and slipped out the side door when she heard her name.

“Kristen.”

She turned to see Jessica leaning against the brick building. A cigarette burning in her hand.

“Hey Jessica.”

“How are you? I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages,” Jessica said.

“I’m good. I’ve been around.” She knew what Jessica really wanted and tried to cut the conversation short. “If you’re wondering about the costume, I’ll have it ready before the show next Thursday.”

“Oh yeah. I was wondering if you’d finished it. I bet it looks incredible after seeing what Matt was wearing. Isn’t he the fairy king?” She took a drag from the cigarette and blew the smoke into the sky where it sat like a heavy cloud. “So it won’t be ready by Tuesday?”

“No. I’m sorry. I still have a lot of work to do on it.”

“We do have the full-dress rehearsal Tuesday.”

“I know. I just need a little more time, but I’ll have it done. Just wear Glinda’s dress from last semester. It will have similar dimensions. A little thinner, but similar enough for you to get the feel of it.”

“I’m not sure Mr. Williamson will like that I’m the only one not in costume. It’d be nice to wear the dress before the ball, you know what I mean? To know that it fits?”

“Glinda’s dress will work for rehearsal. Trust me. I can explain it to Mr. Williamson if you want.”

Jessica gave her an exaggerated sad face.

Kristen smiled as best she could. “I’ll try to finish it this weekend.”

“Really? That would be amazing. Thank you so much.”

Jessica put out the cigarette against the brick wall and flicked the stub into the bushes. She gave Kristen a wink before disappearing through the door back into the theater. Kristen bolted home. She hadn’t promised anything. She only said she’d try.

The weekend passed without a single stitch. Her parents surprised her with a trip out of state to visit college campuses. She dutifully toured each one. They were beautiful and she liked them each as much as she could, but every time she mentioned the theater department, her parents would divert the conversation to job placement programs.

“Ninety-three percent, that’s incredible,” her dad said.

Her thoughts kept returning to Titania as her parents spoke with the tour guides.

Kristen successfully avoided Jessica all day Monday. She was almost as successful on Tuesday until she went to the restroom during fourth period. Jessica was standing by the open window finishing a cigarette. Raindrops pattered against the glass and dripped onto the ceramic floor.

“Kristen! I was just thinking about you. Did you have a good weekend? A productive one I hope.”

“Not as much I would’ve liked,” she admitted, “My parents took me to tour a few colleges.”

“Oh really? Have you figured out where you’re going? I bet it’s somewhere with a really cool theater program.”

“Not exactly.”

Jessica frowned. “You don’t want to make costumes? You’re so good at it. I thought for sure you’d work in movies or move to Paris and be the next big thing.”

“I do. At least the movies thing. It’s just…”

“Speaking of which, is my costume finished…sorry, I mean Titania’s dress? Everyone’s dying to see it. Me most of all.”

Kristen glanced away from her fake smile. Jessica wasn’t gifted with much talent for the stage.

“Not quite,” she said.

“Will it be ready tomorrow?”

“I’ll try my best.” Kristen offered her own fake smile.

“I know you will. Thanks.” Jessica tossed the cigarette out the window and closed it. She was almost to the door when she turned back to Kristen. “Hey, Kris?”

“Yeah?” She bit her tongue, hating herself for answering to a nickname.

“Would you mind, you know, not saying anything about my little habit?” She imitated holding a cigarette. “I don’t think they’d let me on stage if they found out I broke some dumb rule.”

Kristen pulled the fake smile back on and nodded. “Sure.”

“You’re the best.” The words were deadened as the door closed behind her.

Kristen went home right after class and worked on the robes. She skipped dinner and worked late into the night using a flashlight in her closet so her parents wouldn’t catch her. She was nearly eighteen but rules were rules as far as her father was concerned. The sun was rising when she finished the last adornment. Her tired eyes weren’t able to appreciate them fully, but she knew this was the best work she’d ever done.

She freshened up and changed her clothes. She hoped her mom didn’t notice how tired she looked. She made it to school on time and through her first few classes. The classes dragged by. Her sense of time slowed by the lack of sleep. She accidentally nodded off during fifth period. She thanked the stars Mrs. Barnhardt was nice and pretended not to notice.

Rehearsal was right after classes. Before the evening rehearsal, she made a few last-minute alterations after Jessica tried them on. She followed Jessica out onto the stage to see her work in motion. Everyone was captivated. Jessica devoured all the attention given to the dress, but became irritated when everyone praised Kristen for her work. Kristen had poured herself into the robes despite Titania’s minimal part in the play. She believed Titania was the most important character.

Opening night came and Kristen sat in the back with strangers to watch all of her creations dance on the stage. She tried convincing her parents to come. They said they would try to make it after her younger brother’s soccer game. When Titania made her appearance, Kristen forgot about everything else. The fairies dancing on stage, each made by her hand as well, were merely shades. Even Jessica couldn’t blemish her fairy queen. She was lost in the moment. She almost didn’t notice the crowd was similarly captivated. The only tell was the quiet. Jessica absorbed the admiration she believed was for herself and butchered two lines before taking the dress offstage with her. Kristen couldn’t stop smiling. She almost couldn’t believe what she saw was the product of her own hands with their bandaged fingers.

The next day she overheard a few rumors floating about the school regarding the play. The students who attended the first show had been telling all their friends. She couldn’t help but smile when a group of girls were discussing the costumes in an envious tone. Several girls from her class asked if she would make their prom dresses. She disappointed them explaining how much time she spent making Titania’s robes.

Evening came and she mended any damaged costumes. Liam, now playing Mustardseed, had somehow torn a hole through his right leg while prancing off the stage. Puck needed minor adjustments. The ivy was hard to keep attached and even. Sarah had spilled something and stained Hermia’s dress. Kristen tried getting the spots out but ultimately cut the section away and hemmed the area to align with a natural crease.

Kristen sat backstage during the second production. The theater was filled with more students than the night before. Several parents were there for a second time. Her parents promised to see the play on Saturday on account that her mom had to work late.

Saturday came and Kristen again repaired several costumes that were obviously worn more than just onstage. She could sense the hesitation from several friends.

“And what happened here?” she said with mock reproach.

“Well, I wore it home, and…”

“I’m joking. This will only take a second.”

She walked through the dressing room as everyone was getting ready. She wanted to make sure every one of her creations were perfect. She made small talk as she turned each actor around. No one dared interrupt her and each stood rigid under her scrutiny. She tried putting them each at ease with a joke about how the costume will probably be thrown away by this time next year, but they all reassured her it would be crazy to do so and these costumes will remain in the school for a hundred years. She thanked them for the kind words but she knew better.

Jessica arrived only fifteen minutes before the curtain. She walked in already dressed for the show. Kristen examined her robes and found a small hole in the right sleeve. The material was burned through. Kristen’s stomach twisted and she thought she could be sick. She opened her repair kit and held Jessica’s arm.

“What are you doing?” Jessica asked, recoiling to escape the needle as if it were laced with poison.

“I’m going to fix this hole.”

Jessica looked down her arm at the hole. “Well, would you look at that.”

Kristen grabbed her arm again but Jessica pulled away.

“Kristen, it’s fine. No one is going to see it.” She walked off before Kristen could respond. Everyone made their way toward the stage and Kristen, with nothing left she could do, made her way to her seat.

She sat down before the lights dimmed. She was fighting back tears imagining what else may have happened to Titania’s robes. She could see Jessica, cigarette in hand, leaning against the brick wall. The back of the robes catching on the rough surface. Fraying the top layer of fabric as she moved and eventually pulled away. Ash falling onto the sleeve still hot enough to burn, and Jessica brushing the ember away without a care in the world.

All she could look at when Jessica took the stage was the right sleeve. She couldn’t see the hole from her seat and knew no one else would see it, but she knew it was there and had to put a hand over her mouth to hold back a sob. She was glad the seats next to her were empty.

The show ended with a standing ovation. Everyone came out and talked with the audience, accepting praise, mingling and having a good time as was custom after the final show. Kristen tried keeping to herself but every so often someone would come up with their parents and tell them how Kristen had made their costume. They were all proud of her. She accepted their compliments but would turn the attention back to whoever was in costume except for Liam who had ripped a hole through his left leg this time. She knew the parents who attended were proud of their children because they were there, supporting them.

The theater gradually emptied. Kristen made her way into the dressing room as Dana was heading out the door calling after everyone to wait for her. She caught sight of Kristen and paused.

“Hey Kristen, you coming? We can give you a ride.”

“Thanks. I’m going to clean up a bit. I’ll catch up later,” she lied.

The cast always went out after the final show. It was another tradition that eventually turned from dinner into a party. She never went despite almost always getting that last-minute invite. She had her own ritual. The room was littered with her costumes strung about on chairs or left on the floor. Cast off like the second skin they were. Discarded on the way out the door. Some had been hastily hung up. A few were actually given a few seconds of consideration.

By the door, heaped in a pile, were Titania’s robes. She picked them up and laid them across a chair. It seemed Jessica started the party after her last line. A dark stain was settling into the fabric near the waist. It was still wet and Kristen could smell faint hints of vodka in the air. Ash was smeared across the right thigh. The grey contrasting the brilliant colors of the robes. She looked upon the desecration of her greatest achievement and found she could no longer fight back the tears. They poured forth in sobs. She sank to the floor and let the shaking take over.

Twenty minutes passed before she was able to calm herself. She caught her breath and stood looking over all of her hard work as it was casually forgotten. She picked up each costume and hung them on the rack. Placing them among all the others from the past several years. She avoided Titania’s robes until the others were all put away.

She picked them up and held them. She couldn’t bring herself to put them away. To leave them behind. She laid them across a chair and began undressing. She slipped herself into the robes with minimal effort. She had made the alterations to fit Jessica, but she had used her own dimensions when she first began working on them. She always intended them to fit even when knowing she would never be seen wearing them.

She looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes still swollen and red. She sniffed and wiped her nose on the ruined sleeve, then stood straight and tall in the full glory of herself as Titania. This was her center stage. This was the realm she ruled over. She felt like a queen and a fool all in one. Pride swelled in her chest and a smile emerged as new tears fell down her flushed cheeks.