My Roommate Wants to Kill Me

Day 1 of Moon 5

Dear Diary,

Good job, you’re completely useless. Here I am, hiding inside my room, fearing for my life, and you can’t do anything about it. Not that I expect you to. That would’ve been strange. You’re just a digital file on my computer.

But just in case something happens to me, you are backed up on cyberspace, where I hope the law-keeping authority can use you as evidence against my murderer. There is only one possible suspect.

Stella Sandhill. Human female. My roommate.

She isn’t home right now but I’ll make this quick.

Ever since the first day, my roommate has been acting strange. At first, I thought it’s because she’s human. I’m very open-minded so I already expected there might be some misunderstanding between species.

But this goes beyond that. I’m almost certain my roommate probably wants to kill me.

That sentence doesn’t sound right. Never mind.

So I’ve started attending the Fourth University of Ishtri Prima. 4thU is a good school, and the Prima is in my home system. The diversity program cuts the tuition in half, so I took the chance.

By now we have been rooming together for three moons, and I’m half-convinced that she’s an assassin just waiting for the chance to strike. I didn’t know what in the world did I do to warrant this. Apparently, I’m her target.

I watch a lot of human entertainment, so I know how this goes. She’s under-covering as my roommate; she’s an insane serial killer. Or both.

But she’s also very bad at her job because I’m still alive.

I take plenty of precautions, but I’m not delusional. I could lock my door at night, test my food for poison, and only drink from sealed hydration packs. I make sure to stay on all the public paths while walking to class. Yet, a skilled assassin would be able to murder me without a problem.

My theory so far is that she’s waiting for me to cross a certain line. One wrong strep and she’d have the perfect excuse to kill me. The problem is, I have no idea where the line lies. I just have to be extra careful.

I misread the clock. I have to go to class. Be back soon.


Day 2 of Moon 5

Dropping the “dear diary” because that just sounds stupid. Don’t know why I kept doing it. My first human teacher taught me and it stuck.

To clarify, I have nothing against humans. Many of my friends back on the Green Moon were human. My siblings keep dating humans. I appreciate their culture. I know what humans are like, but my roommate might be an exception.


Day 7 of Moon 5

[Entry 1/3]

Just met with my mentor about the essay revision. Prof is a nice human. He’s polite, though he always wears linen stripe around his neck for no reason. I keep hearing things about him, though. Not good things. That he bought his teaching certificate, but I’m sure that’s just bored students gossiping.

4thU is a prestigious college. My parents almost couldn’t afford it. My family is well-to-do, but there’s only so much they can do when they have twenty children.

The human is munching on something loudly in the kitchen. I don’t want to go out there, but I left my bag out and the revision’s due in three days.

[Entry 2/3]

So I just went out, and the human is pouring some white liquid into a bowl. “What’s that?” I asked her.

“Almond milk,” she said.

“But almond doesn’t produce milk.”

Guess what she said? “It can if you make it to.”

Why did she have to word it like that? I was just gonna ignore what she said. She then said something even stranger.

“Your mentor is wanted in three galaxies.” Probably saw my face, she then added. “Not this one, though. Don’t worry.”

“How did you know?”

“Everyone knows.”

No, they don’t. “Even if it’s true,” I was trying not to anger her by pointing out she’s lying. “I’m sure it’s something minor. Like pirating movies off cyberspace.”

“If you say so.” She went back to eating. I couldn’t stand the noise so I left. It’s like a hive in your ears.

[Entry 3/3]

I was just about to go to sleep, and I heard my roommate went out. She’s always like this. Nocturnal when her species is not. I wonder where she goes every night.

It’s fine, you know. This way I can see her as little as possible.

She sleeps during the day, too. What kind of class is she taking?

It’s not fine because she can murder me in my sleep. She hasn’t done it yet.


Day 9 of Moon 5

I was surprised to run into her when I was back from class. She’s in the living room, putting a rack on the wall. It holds a peculiar, mechanical-looking thing.

“Is that a weapon?” I asked before I could stop myself.

“No.” The same kind of nonchalance.

“What is it, then?”

It’s not a gun. It’s in two parts. One is curvy with a thin string, the other was hanging perpendicularly and contained several similar sticks.

“A recurve bow,” she said. Sensing my blank stare, probably, she added. “I’m on the archery team.”

She left with the bow, putting it in a long bag. She wore all black.

Our school doesn’t have an archery team.


Day 10 of Moon 5

[Entry 1/2]

Called Ren’el and she didn’t appreciate being wakened up. Kept forgetting the relay puts her day behind. Like always, she didn’t give me any solid advice. It’s been that way since we were kids. She never took me seriously.

Just talk to the human, she said.

As if it’s that simple. My roommate literally owns a weapon and it’s hanging in our living room right now. She disappears from time to time, doing god knows what. She eats an exceptional amount of meat, of unknown origins.

Her leg wrappings had blood on them. Not a lot, but to me, they looked like a splatter. Do I sound too calm? I mean there is BLOOD on her clothes!

Ren’el was surprised to hear that I dug through my roommate’s clothes.

Are they piled up in a basket? She asked. That’s where humans put the clothes they wore.

Where would they put the clothes they don’t wear? Why own them if they don’t wear them? I was confused.

Don’t go through her clothes again. Ren’el suggested. The call ended there.

Seems like a bad connection but I can’t afford another call.

[Entry 2/2]

I got a message from Ren’el. She apologized for how the call ended as if it was her fault.

She also said this:

“Many humans don’t like it when you go through their stuff, especially when they aren’t watching you do it. Keep that in mind. She’d probably kill you if she finds out. “

Oh no.


Day 17 of Moon 5

My roommate bought knives. She said she wants to cook because the cafeteria only serves nutrition pastes and eating off-campus is expensive.

The knives don’t make me fear for my life. It’s that she bought lab-grown meat and cut it into quick and tiny pieces, all with scary efficiency.

My roommate is in the—what do you call it, mafia!

“I have my ways.” She was satisfied with herself.

Needless to say, I refused the food she offered even though they filled with a mouth-watering smell. I justified my decision by claiming to be herbivorous by choice—even though my species is omnivorous like humans.

“Sorry, didn’t know you’re vegan.”

Do I look stupid? She separated the food into two containers. The one for me was probably poisoned.


Day 10 of Moon 6

It’s been a while. School has been hectic. Prof was fired three days ago. He had been importing illegal “school supplies”. The news doesn’t shock me but some of my classmates were devastated. We will be getting a new mentor soon, maybe in a few days. We are having study groups until then.

My roommate kept giving me the “I told you so” face.

She started a job at the nearest station, serving earth food. I like earth food, so it was tempting to accept some when she brings leftovers home. I didn’t, of course.

Between her new job and cooking, she starts to act like a normal diurnal creature. I think we might be able to get along well. She still looks at me when she sharpens her knives, but I can ignore that for now.


Day 11 of Moon 6

Just when everything is looking up, I found the most damning evidence. It was unlike her to leave her door open, but I guess she left in a hurry. The knives were still here. The recurve bow was gone.

I decided to venture into her room. My roommate isn’t the neatest person, but her room is more organized than I expected. A lot of her stuff is in container boxes. On her desk are her main screen and a smaller one. The smaller one is glowing with text.

I was mindful of not leaving a trace, so I took a quick picture and escaped back to my room to read.

What I saw is horrifying.

“After you kill all of them, keep going down the ventilation and reach the research room. Some soldiers will be patrolling the lower level so get rid of them quickly. You will encounter two officers but they’ll be sleeping, kill them without rising an alarm.”

No doubt that’s some sort of instruction for infiltration and assassination.

I can also see half of the image at the bottom of the page, which shows a 3D rending of what I’m assuming, a military base. It looks like a space station? The style of the interior, however, is unlike anything I’ve seen.

I sneaked back into her room for a second look. Some wires are attached to the screens. There’s also a palm-sized controller made for human thumbs and fingers.

I don’t know what they mean. Nothing good.


Day 12 of Moon 6

I contacted Ren’el again. She suggested I should calm down. Talk to the human before calling security. I’d much rather talk to the law-keepers than having them studying my dead body.

I’m confronting the human tomorrow. Wish me luck, but first I have to go to the study group.


Day 13 of Moon 6

I was having difficulty focusing on studying last night. To my defense, it’s well justified. Te’kad at my group pointed it out, so we all gave up and went to get food.

A human—I don’t know his name, he’s the one with glass obstacles over his eyes—said there’s a cafe serving decent earth-inspired food.

Needless to say, my luck ensured it’s the same place my roommate works at.

Apparently, she is acquainted with my human classmate. They waved their limbs, and the next thing I knew, she waved at me and expecting me to wave back. I waved back. She said nothing and went to make black caffeine liquid for us.

After feasting, my classmates and I wandered the streets. One of the stores at the station carries 21st-century earth entertainment, according to my human classmate.

The shelves display many plastics with images of humans with guns.

“Humans enjoy this?” I asked him.

He was excitable and explained a lot, all while waving his limbs as he spoke. I’m paraphrasing here: basically, humans enjoy fake killing people.


Day 25 of Moon 6

As you can see, I’m strategically delaying the confrontation with my roommate.


Day 27 of Moon 6

My roommate brought home donuts. They are inside a sealed container. After my success with discovering coffee, I decided to give it a try.

Donuts are sweet and I ate most of them. My limbs were weak and my head heavy. I thought I was poisoned, but my roommate called it “sugar high”. I asked her a lot of questions, none of which I remember now.

Oh, she taught me how to pronounce her names. It sounds strange.


Day 3 of Moon 7

My roommate and I have reached a tentative peace. Keeping me alive outweighs the trouble of killing me.

I’m meeting my new mentor today. I’m considering changing my major to study humans. Or, as my roommate calls it, “anthropology”.

The dictionary didn’t tell me what is “anthropo”. Useless.


A/N: This one is hysterical and I had a lot of fun. Is it connected to CICADA? It is, even though the organization wasn’t name-dropped. In case it was unclear, the Roommate was looking at a video game walkthrough. The game is Wolfenstein: New Order. Comment your thoughts or questions!

Glass Marbles

“How long is it gonna take?” 5765 laid on the operation table, asking the doctor. “Would I be late for dinner?”

The doctor introduced herself as Calypso. The name sounded fake, but 5765 wasn’t in the position to complain about names. Doctor Calypso was kind to him and didn’t treat him like a child. So that’s good.

“Probably,” Doctor Calypso said. “It’s not that good anyway. Canned beef stew and potato again.”

“Okay.” It didn’t stop his mouth from watering. Any food was good food. A stew in the war zone would have been heavenly.

He tried staying still on the cold surface, but he couldn’t help himself. A lengthy disinfecting process had got rid of all the grimes. His skin was still tender. His fresh new jumpsuit made him fit right in with the sterile environment of this…facility.

He didn’t know where they were. Just underground. It’s large and full of people. They’ve been here for a few weeks. Waiting for something. It’s finally his turn to get treatment.

“Is it gonna hurt?”

“Only a little at first.” The doctor said.

5765 believed her. The doctor was younger than his mother as he last remembered her, and carried an entirely different vibe than anyone he used to know. The same vibe as the man in white, who guided his group inside the facility. The same as those who gave them fresh bedrolls, clean water, and food. They were nice.

“Ouch.” 5765 felt the sting on his arm.

“See? That’s it.” Doctor Calypso put away the empty syringe. “I won’t lie to you.”

5765 was feeling the effect. His eyelids felt heavy, and his limbs felt light. The table underneath him was moving. He used up all his energy to squint. He was inside some kind of pod, and the lid was closing on him. There was a brief panic, but he relaxed. It was the safest place he had ever been to.

Then he closed his eyes and began to dream.

*********

His family lived on the east side of Mt. Trash. Their house was a shipping container, rusted and forever smelled like something crawled in and died. It was probably accurate, since her parents never told him where Grandma and Granpa went. One day they were living with them, the next they were not.

His family scavenged for a living. Mt. Trash was truly resourceful. On a good day, all of them could fall asleep not hungry. On a really good day, they could even find something to sell. Dad would dig out the cyber implants from the dumped corpses they found, and took them to the market. He would come back with fresh food, usually bread. And Mom would yell at him because three implants would certainly worth more than three loaves. He gambled the rest away.

5765 had a handful of siblings. This oldest brother got scammed by the prostitute he “fell in love” with. He was saving money for two tickets out of the system, and ended up broke and stabbed, left to die in the gutters.

But no one would hate the prostitutes because of that. Because his sister did that for a living. She swore to 5765 that she’d never fall in love, and made him swear he’d do the same. 5765 never understood what love was.

“Can you eat it?” He asked his sister.

“No. It eats you.”

Scary.

That was what roughly happened before the war came. For the first time, they were glad to live in Mt. Trash, because the firefights didn’t reach here. Until the bombs started falling. They scurried toward the next settlement, with only the clothes on their backs.

In Clifftown, Dad was conscripted by the rebel army, and that was the last 5765 saw of him.

Back to the shelter under the bridge. A few dozen refugee families were camping there. Sometimes they fought over clean water and food. But when the shells started dropping, they huddled for warmth.

His last surviving brother was one year older than himself. He taught 5765 how to steal. When the soldiers left town, the stores would reopen. That’s how they could get anything they wanted.

In theory, anyway. 5765 got caught on his second try. His first target was the food stand, where he got his dinner. The amazing feeling of being full had made him dizzy. Made him bold enough to forget that he was far from a seasoned thief. His strike on a former toy booth—now military surplus store—went awfully wrong.

It all happened so fast. 5765 was standing among the shelves, pretending to browse. He wasn’t a kid anymore. He was a young man, just old enough to fit in with the surplus crowd.

There weren’t a lot of costumers, so his brother offered to distract the owner. He pointed at some laser gun on the wall, and the owner turned his back to retrieve it.

5765 knew it was his opportunity to act. He grabbed a fist full of pellets and stuffed them down his pockets. These kinds of things were the real currency, these days. He grabbed one hand after another, until his jacket was weighted down.

Some spilled out and pounced on the floor. They made sharp, clicking noises as they rolled.

The owner turned his head and caught him red-handed.

“Robbery!” He was yelling. Everyone in the market turned their heads. None of them helped either side. They ducked and screamed when the guns came out.

The next thing 5765 knew, he was running. In his panicking state, he had put a handful of pellets in his mouth and swallowed them.

What was that for? He didn’t know. They felt like pebbles stuck in his chest. All he knew was that he was choking. He coughed violently, still scrambling to run.

His brother was behind him, scrambling between the various stands.

“Faster!” He yelled.

5765 was running with biological tears rolling from his face.

Before he knew it, his brother was shot. He was shot twice in the back as they were running. 5765 thought he was dead. He hoped it was quick. Because in the blinding panic, he left his brother behind.

5765 went back to the camp under the bridge. His family’s empty tent was still there. He crawled under the plastic sheet, curled up and began to cry.

While sobbing, his waist muscle tightens and he felt the pain. Looking down, he found blood. He was grazed. And he was bleeding. A dark red stain was spreading on his tattered clothes.

His pockets were empty. The treasure that costed him all he had left, were scattered on the way back.

He was certain that was how he’s gonna die. Alone, last of his family, inside a dirty hellhole. The same kind of place where he was born. As his consciousness slipped in and out of focus, he heard voices. Was it God’s angels? They were outside his tent. Then, someone tore off the plastic sheet, and light flooded in.

“Here’s another one!” Someone yelled.

He strained his eyes to look. A group of strangers was standing over him. Some kind of military men. He panicked. Tried to run. Forgot he couldn’t. And he laid there in pain. The night was made bright by all the flashlights they carried. Under the light. He saw that the man in front of him was wearing white. Not the black armors or camouflage like the soldiers.

Someone picked him up and put him on a stretcher. A few hands carried him away. To where? He fell unconscious.

Briefly, he woke up again. This time, he was inside a moving. The hulls vibrated. It was an aircraft. He had never been so high in the sky, and it scared him shitless. He closed his eyes and hoped for the best.

Then, he wasn’t bleeding any more. He was in a shower. He was getting fresh clothes. He was waiting in line for food. Food! He had a metal tray in his hands, like the other people in line with him. The cook dropped a spoonful of something onto his tray. He didn’t know what it was, but it smelled heavenly.

“People, gather around!” A few of those men in white armors came back. One of them looked like the leader, stepped forward.

“By now, you probably heard a lot of rumors about what this place is. Arber Conservatory will be your temporary home. A refuge until we make the arrangement for your new lives. Rest assured that you are safe here. The war is behind you. We have staff in place to take care of your needs. For your safety, please do not venture beyond your designated area.”

“Why did you give us these numbers?” Someone among the crowd asked. “What are they for? Why can’t we use your names?”

“Your number is assigned to you by chronological order. The first one who arrived here was “number 1”, the second was “2”, and so on. It’s easier for our agents to identify you, since some are having trouble pronouncing your names.”

“Please be patient until the transportation is arranged. We will notify you when it’s your turn. If you have any questions, any working agents around you can answer them. If they can’t, direct your questions toward the Caseworker’s office.” The agents scanned the room. “That’s all for now.”

**********

Doctor Calypso processed her patients in groups of eighteen. She used to have twenty regeneration machines but two were down, and there were no technicians around to fix them.

The organization had deemed this dimension “lost”. Even after decades of trying to fix things, trying to make things right. Thousands of agents died to fix this dimension. At first, they were adjusting the timeline so the war wouldn’t happen. When that failed, they were trying to bring back peace. Calypso knew of a colleague who went as far as infiltrating the governments, but none of that worked. In the end, she supposed, fate was fate. What’s lost was lost.

In recent months, C.I.C.A.D.A. had been pulling their resources off the planet. Personnel evacuating through spacecraft or portals.

This underground cave they were in, was the last C.I.C.A.D.A. facility in this dimension.

Arber Conservatory was originally designed to house endangered local plants and seeds. It was far from designed to act as a refugee center, but it’s the only safe place large enough.

It had been months, and they were still stranded on this god-forsaken world, waiting for their turn to evacuate. Only one portal was working. It opened once a week and had to recharge. They could send about five hundred people through, before risking overheating the gate.

Calypso told herself it didn’t matter where she’s doing her job, here or the other side of the portal. These patients needed attention. But the med bay here is basic and severely understaffed.

It could have been a lot worse, though. They could’ve been dead, caught up in the war that’s tearing the planet apart.

Also, she badly needed a cigarette. She had two options. Ascending miles to the chaotic surface, or crawling into the outgoing air duct. Neither was worth the trouble.

She compromised by having a cup of powdered coffee. A green light popped up on the control panel. The procedure was complete. She leaned back in her wore chair, waiting for the machines to power down.

Calypso glanced at the screen, which was producing a detailed report about her patients. One of them caught her eyes. The boy, 5765. Barely a teenager and already suffered multiple old wounds. Hairline fractures and old burn scars.

He was a survivor. She briefly wondered what he could achieve in a peaceful world.

There was something in his stomach, the imaging showed. The automatic operation had removed them from his body, and deposited the small spheres for the doctor to examine.

They were shiny, glass marbles.

*********

“You may also choose to join C.I.C.A.D.A. Our organization specializes in the protection of humankind across timelines, dimensions, and beyond. The benefits of joining our organization are as listed: guaranteed housing, a competitive salary, and a purpose in the service of mankind.”w life. Away from the war and all the ugly things they stand for.

The light was too bright as he stepped through. The other side didn’t look too different. The same kind of room, but with clean white walls.

“Refugee number 5765, you may now choose a name.” A slightly mechanical voice began. The room had many screens, and he was standing in front of one. “If you choose to become a civilian, on the screen in front of you is a list of socially acceptable names, ranked from the most common to least.”

“There’re other options?” He asked, hesitant. It seemed silly speaking into a machine.

“You may also choose to join C.I.C.A.D.A. Our organization specializes in the protection of the humankind across timelines, dimensions, and beyond. The benefits of joining our organization are as listed: guaranteed housing, a competitive salary, and a purpose in the service of mankind.”

“It’s like the people who saved me, right?” He asked.

“[Direction Unclear].” The machine said. “Please repeat your inquiry.”

“…Never mind,” he said. “Go on.”

“As an agent of C.I.C.A.D.A., you may choose any codename you like. As long as it is one word and does not conflict with those in our database. Type in your potential name to see if it’s available.”

“You have chosen to become an agent of C.I.C.A.D.A. Please exit to the room on the right for information regarding your future identity, housing, and training program.”

After he made his choice, a woman in a black suit greeted him at the door.

“Welcome to Earth.” She shook his hand. “This one is safe. You are safe. You are home.”

And, for the first time in his life, he felt like he could finally breathe.

Divine Intervention

“The portal is ready, Kyan—wait, why aren’t you in your costume?”

Startled by the sudden opening of her office door, Kyan turned to face her colleague, Beryl. His presence was always anxiety-inducing, since it either meant more work or bad news.

Or both. She was just about to take a sip of coffee from her “world’s best boss” mug when he barged in. It would be a shame if she dropped the precious cup.

“What portal?” She asked, dumbfound. “There’s no scheduled portal opening today, I don’t think. Also, what costume?”

“Well, check your calendar again. The Moongate project just got an update,” Beryl tapped his hologram wearable, looking agitated. “Never mind, the launch window is in just under an hour. We have to get you ready. I’ll brief you along the way.“

Kyan sighed, putting down the coffee and got up. It was then she reconsidered her life. The mug was a mere souvenir from a trip back to the 21st century. She was no one’s boss. She was just another lowly employee at C.I.C.A.D.A. Level 3 in the dimension-spanning organization’s hierarchy. Anyone could order her around.

“What is this update about?” She asked. They walked down the labyrinth of white corridors. Judging by the scenery, she knew they were heading toward the launch hall. “Start from the beginning.”

“Fine. You know the trip we planned for the Eyaithen Ceremony? When their entire planet gather to pray to the goddess Yaeshene? What’s worse, the sun of their system just had an unpredicted flare event. Which means they are holding the ceremony *now*. We aren’t ready, but someone must go.”

Well, fuck. “Do we not have a Traveler on call?”

“No, we do not. Kyan, I cannot stress enough how important this job is. They are going to ask for the Yaeshene’s blessing on their new spacecraft launch. Our analysts calculated a 62% chance of them discovering Milky Way on their next expedition. That was two months ago.”

“I don’t like where this is going,” Kyan said. “I’m supposed to have my afternoon off.”

“The percentage is now eighty-seven. We need to put it under twenty. 10% or under would be even better. Take a look at this,” Beryl pushed a tablet into her hands. “A report from Lark.”

A shaky footage of a devastated hellscape. Kyan faintly recognizes the architecture style to be of Earth. A middle-aged man showed his ash-covered face in the frame, as he turned the camera toward his tattered self.

“Level 6 Traveler, codenamed Lark, reporting a Class A event from the year 2487…” He coughed. Blood seeped from between his fingers as he covered his mouth. His augmented left eye was hanging out of its socket. The footage was glitching badly. “To any agent seeing this, take a look at Point Sigma-Beta-Echo-Four, to Echo-Seven. Something went wrong…there. Requesting…intervention.”

“Let me guess,” Kyan gave Beryl back the tablet before the footage cut off. “That’s the timeline where we didn’t stop the Eyaithens from waging war on Earth. Not good. Everything goes to shit. The stakes are high. You can’t find a good Traveler, so you find me.”

“You aren’t taking this serious enough.” Beryl made an angry gesture, as if he wanted to smash the tablet on the wall. “Do you think I wanted to come to you? The Traveler we are training for this mission is sick. Something she caught on her last trip. I don’t have a choice.” He stopped abruptly. “We are here.”

Gate Hangar 9. Kyan sighed. She was really doing this.

“Tell me, at least there’s someone to go rescue Lark.”

“Of course. He’s a valuable agent.”

In the changing pod, Kyan changed into the gray protective armored suit. She held the helmet under her arm when she stepped out. The space opened up.

In front of her was the heart of Project Moongate. The site was styled like a hangar, with tall ceilings and maintenance crew walking on levitated platforms. The most eye-catching subject was the circular gate in the middle. Four pairs of metallic arches held it steady, taking up most of the space. The actual gate wasn’t that big. It could only let in the smallest spaceship. The Moongate was humming even in pre-activation mode. The steel platform vibrated beneath Kyan’s feet.

“Is this necessary?” Kyan eyed the four-person costume crew as they crowded her. They were dressing her up in Eyaithen fashion, attaching ready-made white cloth stripes to her suit. The material felt like silk.

Beside them were crates of artifacts, collected by other Travelers on their previous journeys.

“We don’t have time for makeup,” one of the costume crew members said. “A mask should do.” They discussed among themselves, and decided to take her helmet. The crew was working in terrible efficiency. They put it through the handheld 3D printer and sprayed it gold.

When Kyan got it back, the helmet had two branching horns attached to it. It was also shaped like a goat’s face, with a complicated engraved pattern on the sides.

Kyan turned to look at the holo screen she saw them referring. It was the Holy Text of the Eyaithen people. She could barely recognize the language, let along speak it. Guess that’s why the crew attached a voice filter to the built-in translation device in her helmet.

She wasn’t close to an expert in the Eyaithen. As a Traveler, her specialty was in time travel, not planet-hopping. She did remember one report about this alien species. They were devoted believers, even though C.I.C.A.D.A. has not found out if their goddess actually existed.

“Your mission is to impersonate the Eyaithen goddess, Yaeshene.” Beryl approached Kyan just as the crew was putting on the finishing touches.

“Are you serious?” Kyan glanced at the complicated costume. Dozens of fabric stripes dragged on for a few meters behind her, acting like tails. “Alright, I kind of saw that coming. What am I going to say? Should I say anything at all?”

“A few words would be fine. Yaeshene is not a chatty god.” A beat. “Don’t say anything stupid.”

“I’m a professional,” Kyan said.

“Sure. There will be twenty drones surrounding you in a crescent formation. Sixteen of them are hologram effect projectors, making quite a light show. Four have speakers attached, so don’t be surprised when your volume is booming.”

“Got it. Anything else?”

They were walking slowly toward the bridge. Crew members helped carry her tails.

All around them, the engines were powering on. The noise echoed in the Hangar 9. They have to shout to be heard.

Beryl side-stepped to avoid stepping on the tails. “Double-check your jet thrusters,” he reminded.

“Already did,” Kyan was putting the mask on. It was a heavyweight on her head. “Wouldn’t be a convincing goddess if I fell from the sky, would it?”

The translator inside her helmet was projecting her words into a different language. A slow and rusty sound.

The Moongate powered on. The boom made Kyan glad for the helmet to dampen the noise.

Kyan stared into the gate. It was swirls of white light and nothing else. She took a deep breath, waved back at her colleagues and gave a thumb-up.

The Traveler took a step into the portal. The drones followed after her.

*********

King Alqovoh stood at the top of the tower. Below him, his royal subjects knelt. The air smelled like a hundred or so flesh burning, or some kind of herb.

The bells chimed in the wind.

“Lit the pyre,” he spoke. His servant cut the string. The embroidered signal flag rolled out. Under the tower, ten soldiers dressed in silver armors held the torches to the pyre.

The King moved his gaze toward the horizon. A crimson cloud was forming, casting shadows over the land of sand. Not an ideal weather for the launch, but the craft’s departure should not stray from the schedule.

Lightning flashed across the sky, making his subjects cower. Still, the King stood tall.

“The ceremony must continue,” he spoke, even as his servants trembled.

That was until the booming thunder rolled over the hills. He felt the presence before he looked up. The sky opened up. A circular ring of light. Energy crackled like a storm. The sharp wind shook even the firmest joints of the tower. He looked up and saw the celestial being descending in the glow of golden light.

His subjects knelt once more. Each of them must have been shivering worse than he was.

“The Gate of Thantonia,” he heard himself muttering in awe. “Just like the Holy Text… ‘a ring of pale fire burns…’ The Goddess has not abandoned Eyaithen, after all.”

“Do not abandon your homeworld.” The Goddess spoke. Her voice was calm, gentle even. The voice echoed through the sand plain. “Those who reach for the stars will not receive my blessings.”

“But—” That was not what the King had expected. He could not bear to look straight at her radiance, as he spoke in rebellion.

“Forgive my bluntness, but we have to search for a new homeland. This world is…We are running out of resources, and our kins—”

One of the Goddess’s lightning orbs struck the ground, causing flames to flare up. The divine act installed fresh fear in his people.

The King tried to keep calm under pressure. According to the Holy Text, the Goddess Yaeshene was not a merciless one. The spell she cast was merely a warning. The explosion did not injure his subjects, even though they were dangerously close.

Indeed, the Goddess seemed to lean down, closer toward him. He risked a glance up.

“I entrusted this land to you. Use it wisely.”

As if it was all in a dream. Yaeshene disappeared into a blinding ray of light. The pyre was out, leaving only ashes and smoke. The King searched the sky, but not a single trace remained.

The ceremonial ground was holding a collective breath. King Alqovoh was in deep thought, then he broke the dead silence.

“Burn it.” He pointed at the craft. “Burn it for the Goddess.”

*********

The Moongate spat Kyan out and powered down. The Traveler fell onto the bridge platform, less ceremoniously than she expected. She stood up, as the machinery whirled. Platforms folded to box her in. The decontamination process began.

“Woah, now that’s a nasty headache.” Kyan’s head felt like it was about to split open, but the pain only lasted for a few seconds.

When she stepped out of the pod, the crew helped her get out of the costume.

She exited the decontamination pod. The project manager and his inner circle was there, waiting. Kyan froze. What did she do to warrant this?

The meeting concluded with the project manager satisfied with her answers. Kyan still had paperwork to do but that was as expected. She was at the coffee machine when her wearable beeped. It was Beryl.

“Welcome back, Kyan.” Beryl was among them, also the only one who looked glad she was fine. “The project manager wants you to explain this.”

The tablet he was holding was showing a page from an Eyaithen book. A history book, as far as she could tell. It showed a sketch of something that looked…faintly, like a broken drone.

Oh fuck.

“Only nineteen out of twenty drones came back through the portal.” A crew hurried over and reported. That wasn’t helping.

“A drone flew too close and I accidentally knocked it down. It fell and crashed.” Kyan explained, as professionally as she could manage. “I didn’t know where was my arms with that stupid helmet on.”

“What!” Beryl was scandalized. “That goes against everything a Traveler stands for. You should never leave anything unnecessary behind, ever. Is this affecting the timeline?” He turned toward the analysts.

“Not much. The likelihood of the Eyaithen leaving their planet within the next five centuries is 6%,” the analyst said. “To be honest, their spacefaring technology is shaky at best, at least at this point in time. The likelihood of them discovering the drone’s real use is close to zero.”

“See, I would consider that as a success,” Kyan said. Even as she said it, she realized how much of an excuse it was. However, she was exhausted and sweaty because the suit didn’t have proper ventilation. She just wanted a shower and sleep on her day off. She was going to get a day off after all this, right?

Beryl nodded. “We achieved the goal, no matter how.” For once, he was agreeing with her.

The meeting concluded with the project manager satisfied at her answers. Kyan still had paperwork to do but that was as expected. She was at the coffee machine when her wearable beeped. It was Beryl.

“Wanna grab a drink after work?”

“Sure, why not. It’s been a long day, after all.”

*********

In a distant world where the sandstorm washed against the scorched land, fragments of celestial origin sat on a golden pedestal behind the throne. The relic was metallic in color and smooth to touch. The Shards of Divinity, it was called.

According to C.I.C.A.D.A. analysts, the cost of sending an agent to retrieve the broken drone outweighed the risk of humanity’s exposure. So, they left it like that.

It would remain there, for the entirety of the reign of King Alqovoh the Entrusted, and long after.

We Flew All The Way To Rushmore

We flew all night, all the way to Mt. Rushmore. I landed on Lincoln’s head, stumbling until I knelt down on a flatter surface. It was slippery with morning dew, and I was spent.

Cold wind still filled my lungs as I tried to even my breathing. My feathers were all ruffed like a backyard chicken’s, but I had stopped taking good care of them long before that day.

I turned my head when I heard Olivia’s landing. She was graceful, riding the wind, gliding down and folding up her wings as soon as her feet touched the ground. Then, a breeze hit us. I heard her cursing as she wavered in the gust. I had already slipped and fallen off the human president’s face, crashed into his nose, and tumbled down the hill.

Before I recovered, the wind wooshed behind me. Olivia hauled me up from the ground.

“What the hell was that?” She was mad at me. “We just flew for five hours straight, what’s the point?”

“You didn’t have to follow me,” I said, smacking her with my left wing.

“I thought you were ditching Wind Physics for, I don’t know, a bite in town. But you kept flying like a psycho, all the way here.”

“That’s because you’re too slow to catch me,” I laughed, getting up to my feet.

“Where is ‘here’ anyway?” She crossed her arms.

“Mount Rushmore,” I pointed at the four heads carved into the mountain.

She turned to look, the sight startled her. “Those aren’t natural.”

“No, they aren’t.”

“You flew five hours to see four human heads made of stone?”

“I didn’t plan to stop here.”

“Then where are you going?”

“Relax, I’m not running away. Just need some time away, that’s all.”

“You really have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

“The sun is coming up,” I commented. Rays of gold would soon engulf us and the ground down below. If I squinted, I could see the tourist center. I turned to look at Olivia, she was toggling with her wrist screen. “You aren’t going to report me, are you?”

“If I were to do that, I’d have done it 300 miles earlier,” she scrolled, “And my wearable is running out of battery. Hey — Where’re you going?”

The park was about to open. We couldn’t be here when the tourists arrived with their cameras. The Director wouldn’t like viral photos of a winged person on the internet, and I knew Olivia was camera-shy. Our existence was supposed to be classified.

“Alright, are we going back?” She arrived next to me, combing through her feathers absentmindedly.

“Yes, but it’s also getting hot.” I didn’t like flying close to the sun, and it was almost summer. “We can fly in the evening. Don’t you want to see the world, just for one day? I’m sick of spending my life in the hangar.”

“People will be looking for us — ”

“We’ll go back at night. Promise.”

As I walked down the neat pavement with all the state flags hanging from both sides, I could see a gift shop sign from there. We couldn’t just walk down the street in broad daylight.

“Ugh, fine. It’s not like I’m the one with a disciplinary warning.”

“That was an accident.” I didn’t like the reminder, but I loved being her amusement. “Let’s not speak of that ever again.”

We walked down the pavement with our wings folded. A few employees were arriving, getting ready for the day. One of them opened the door to the gift shop and went back inside.

I slipped in, grabbing two souvenir sweaters from the shelf. They were the largest size.

“What the hell are you doing?” Olivia hissed at me. I tore off the price tags and threw one of the sweaters into her arms.

In the public restroom, I took off the complex elastic band from my forearm and used to it bind my wings to my back. Olivia did the same but she was slower. I could get it done in a minute. She was the good kid who seldom left the hangar. I was surprised she had tagged along for so long.

“Isn’t this nice?” An hour later, we were walking on the side of a mountain highway. Cars sped past us, their drivers weren’t giving us more than a glance.

“You can see the city from here.”

“Would be better if we can glide down there,” Olivia said, “That’s faster than walking.”

“You want to see the city?”

“Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? If you want to see these trees — ” she gestured all around us. “We have plenty of these back home.”

I kept quiet, not wanting to mention the fact that she just called the hangar “home”.

“I feel like…” I hesitated, “I felt a pull…to come here. Like something is drawing me here.”

Instead of laughing at me, or worse, ask “what do you mean”, she didn’t say anything at first. I regretted walking at the front. I couldn’t see the reaction on her face.

“Hmm,” she finally said, “I wonder if it’s your human part or the bird?”

She was right. I never knew what kind of bird DNA they put in my body. My wings were tawny and white. Those colors were too common to really tell the species. And the scientists won’t tell us. Either they thought it was useless information, or they mixed so many things together they forgot which was which.

Could my bird species be native to South Dakota? Was that the reason to come here, some sort of natural instinct, living on as a part of me? Or…my history as a human had something to do with this.

I wrecked my brain and could not find an answer. None of us could remember our time before the hangar. Some of us were even born there and never ever left. I always liked to think of myself as the former. Someone with a history, with a past, a back story.

Yet it was no use to me now.

“Let’s head back,” I said, “That way we won’t miss the curfew twice.”

“But didn’t you say it’s dangerous in broad daylight?”

“It’s alright. We’ll fly high, close to the sun,” I looked at her, before tearing off my disguise and doing a running take off. “It’s not a problem at all.”

Beijing Took Us Under

Fading, the narrator’s childhood memory got fantastical.

I knew what I wanted when I left my hometown five years ago. I still knew, but the reason wasn’t the same. I have not been back to Beijing since.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t or wouldn’t go back, it was simply easier to stay away.

I still thought about the city, but only on a starless night and under a fluorescent desk lamp. I called it “city of fog”, a suitable name. When I was younger, I thought the fog was magic. When I grew older and came to my senses, the name remained due to the air pollution that the city was so famous for.

Today I was reminded that everything was changing. The city was a thriving metropolis, shedding its skin every day, over and over again like clockwork. The memories of my childhood were fading, that much was certain. Time ate away all things. Yet, one glimpse of memory came up every now and then.

It was windy that day. I exited my school’s steel gates, walking back home. Maybe I would stop by the convenience store and grab a rice ball, maybe not. I craved the kind with teriyaki beef inside.

I walked past the neighboring school, which was technically another part of mine. My classmates were jealous of them because of their beautiful campus. But to me, it was just the difference of more flowering trees. But it was winter, and they were all equally leafless. We were never expecting snow.

Gray brick walls guarded the other campus, except where they were metal fences. A string of students was outside, chattering and pacing, perhaps on recess.

Shapes of gray moving across the soccer field. Because the school color was unofficially gray, everything was gray. The buildings were gray, painted like that. The sky was gray but that wasn’t the principal’s design.

I liked the color gray. It was soft, neutral, and yet warm like dove feather. Many thought it dull, but I didn’t feel any annoyance when I put my hands inside the pockets of my uniform jacket.

I slowed to watch the students. They were mostly girls. They all looked similar to me. They all looked like me. Dark hair and dark eyes, whatever body size wrapped inside gray school uniform. They all looked the same except one, who had blonde hair and certainly not dyed.

It was naturally blonde. Dyed hair was prohibited, just like piercings of any kind. Tattoos were unmentionable, and it’s not like we knew where the parlors were.

Her blonde hair, long and straight, fluffed out in the wind. With her blue eyes and high cheekbones, she was the different one. But she was among them, dressed like them, talked like them, like us.

It confused me briefly. There were foreigners in my city, but they were tourists or businessmen.

I wasn’t a sociable child. Years of learning English didn’t mean I would call out to a stranger. Curiosity lost the fight.

She looked at me, turned back to her friends, and nothing else happened.

I walked home like usual. We didn’t live far from the school. We used to, then my parents rented an apartment near the school so I didn’t have to take two hours to commute.

The floor was made of cold white tiles instead of the familiar rich wood, which my mother was always paranoid about any scratches or spillage.

The second day we moved into this apartment, I spilled milk on purpose. The white liquid slouched on top of the tiles and didn’t react. I wiped it off, disappointed.

I sat on the bed in the living room and thought about the subway, which was only significant because it led to my real home. The small apartment I grew up in, where all my childhood memories dwelled.

The subway was a new one. I didn’t dislike it. It was new but already filthy and bustling like the rest of the city.

I was missing the commute again, except the parts I didn’t. The greasy seat or the handle, plastic feeling on my skin. The beeping of the card-reader and the green lights. The beggars who were slowly stumbling along the walkway performing a trick, then stick their hands under your nose. The constant danger of being a small animal among a large number of animals, of your species but much bigger.

I missed the creature living in the underground.

It was not a metaphor. Even if it was, a metaphor of what? The creature…what did it represent?

I saw it many times. Through the windows, the ghostly shapes as the darkness flashed past. It wasn’t merely the reflections of us passengers.

One day I went up to it and stared. The small lights guiding us, heading into the black hole.

The creature underground, it could be the desire of millions of people, wishing to make a life in the City of Fog. It could be the predator living in the shadow of those subway stations and waiting to strike. The creature could be the sleepless nights I spent on dreaming. It could be all.

It was not. The creature wasn’t any of the above.

The creature was real, and I was ashamed of not giving it a proper name. But who was I to name a creature that was as old as time? At least, that was what I assumed. I was a lost child in a lost city, heading toward a certain destination in life, no looking back.

I could jump off at this stop. When I saw the blond girl earlier, she broadcasted the connection. It made her one of us.

I thought she might even know of the creature.

I was sure that I wasn’t the only one who knew of the creature. After all, it was there, underneath the city full of millions of people. Anyone could have stumbled upon it, or saught it and succeeded.

If I got to the underground, would the stranger also be there? I was convinced that it wasn’t my concern. Even if she did know of the creature, she might have other reasons for not being there when I was. Hell, her school might not even have let her out yet!

With a heart of pure intentions, I set out for the nearest subway stations. I went down, down, and down. The escalator hummed as it worked, crooning as the chains rolled. I was entering the underworld.

The smell in the air was different. It smelt of mod and urine, I guess.

I liked it better than the taste of fog. I saw the black hole of the tunnel. A train would come out of that any second. I walked alongside the yellow warning line, past the sentry’s office and the restrooms. I walked into the dark tunnel that had no end.

With a flashlight in hand, I was focused on the patch of light in front of me. I bought at the neighborhood store when I first started exploring. It was the most powerful one I could afford, yet the thick darkness still swallow up its light.

I walked, careful not to tip over. I was descending, but the slope was familiar.

I could never sense the flow of time with the world so still around me.

I heard a rumbling. A low thunder, constant and never-ending. Every rock in the tunnel shook.

I felt its presence before seeing it. It was there, in the dark. I stopped right there, looking up.

Then the creature was looking at me, staring at me with its enormous eyes. They glowed bright white, so bright that they tore open the darkness and lit up its face. The creature was large, so large that I didn’t even know how large it was. Maybe the size of a train, maybe larger. It was designed to fit in the tunnel, but its body was thick and smooth like a giant python.

It wasn’t a snake though. I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a dragon, but dragons didn’t exist and this creature did. Myths about dragons came from people’s imagination when they found dinosaur fossils. They created great stories for themselves, all based on dead things.

This one was alive.

Awestruck once again, I stood stock still and watched as it approached me. Its claws razor sharp. Each step made the earth tremble. I was not afraid.

It bowed down to me, not because I was superior. It allowed me to touch its head, right between the eyes there was a soft patch. Its scales were cold and sharp except for one place, where it had black furs extending from its forehead and all the way down its spine, ending with a long and soft tail. It looked like any Chinese dragon would look like, like the mythical creature we all knew by heart.

Except it was not that. I was never sure what it was. I continued to call it “the creature”.

It made a sound, a low hum. It might have been approval. I didn’t speak its language.

It turned its head. Torch-like eyes shone upon a dark corner, where I saw the blonde foreigner standing there, at its tail.

She was surprised to see me, but I wasn’t. I felt a slight joy and bitterness at the same time. She was stroking its tail.

She met my eyes. I wasn’t good at telling expressions from eyes. But one thing I knew.

It was my creature, and now I had to share.

Struck Dead

A writer working on his magnum opus had to face the end of the world.

Ermolai had been attempting to immortalize himself through works of literature for two decades.

It was hard work for sure.

He had been writing ever since knew the language. His mother said he learned to write before he could speak. He wrote on the swinging chair on the porch of his childhood home. He wrote on a slim notebook hidden under the English textbook while the teacher was talking. He wrote on prom night, shut in his bedroom with all the lights off. He studied engineering in college to please his parents, for he knew he should atone for ignoring their love for eighteen years.

When he acquired a typewriter, he typed. Rolls of manuscripts pooled onto the water-damaged floor of his college dorm. He would accidentally wake up his roommate, who would grumble and then yell at him in the darkness.

Upon completion of the bachelor’s degree, he rented a good suburban family’s garage and lived there. He had a used computer and it took five minutes to turn on, and he had to remember to save the document before closing.

His first publication was a short story published in a science fiction magazine, after a few dozen rejections. It put some food on his foldable table. He realized the market for genre fiction and thus he made money from it, enough to keep him alive in the dimmed light of his square room.

Any spare time after deadlines, eating, and sleeping, he would spend them on his Untitled Magnum Opus.

Define Magnum Opus: a large and important work of literature, especially regarded as a writer’s most important work.

He was put on this earth to complete this, his most important work. He would one day finish and publish it, and his life would be complete. It was doubtful that people in this day and age would understand the true meaning of such work, though. He wouldn’t be surprised if no publishers would take the risk in publishing this tome. Many famous authors in history were remembered posthumously.

As for the moment, it sat at 920 pages and lacked an ending. He cherished the moment when it would be complete, therefore he should be fully prepared for that.

He made preparation. He was going to shut himself in the garage and write Part Five of his Untitled Magnum Opus on the first of February and finish it in 28 days.

It was doable.

He had received a check of $150 through the mail. He went out to cash it and buy food. He hadn’t seen the outside world in a week, and the sunlight was brighter than he remembered.

It was slightly more crowded in the discount store, but only slightly so. There were families doing their weekly shopping, and he had seen a more hard-edged man pushing full carts down the isles. They bought crates of canned foods and water and loaded them onto the back of their monster trucks.

The shelves were almost bare when he arrived. Still, it was more than enough. Non-perishable products were great for his shut-in.
He came out with a cart full of groceries. Two loaves of bread for fast consumption, peanut butter, instant ramen, canned meat, canned corn, canned beans. Alcohol. He drank cheap whiskeys, but there were a few beers in the basket. He didn’t have a fridge, so anything frozen was out of the question. He would have taken the canned sardines, but they reminded him of his lesser times in college.

He rolled the cart down the street. Cars sped past him and no one spared him a glance. He pressed the secret password to open the garage door. He placed the cart in his den, next to the bookshelves. The garage door hummed as it unrolled, and finally closed.

He was inside his kingdom again.

All better. Drained from his outing, he was recharging as he leaned back on his faux leather office chair. The computer began to boot up. He grabbed a bottle of water and drank, eyes never leaving the loading screen.

He scanned the document and found the machine too slow to load to the entire thing. He booted up the printer and began to print. All 920 pages of his work. The printer made a buzzing sound as it worked in the background.

When it’s done, he had the stack and flipped through them once and once again. The sound of the paper was like the fluttering of wings. He smelt the heavenly ink.

He looked upon his screen. It was blank except for the two words: Part Two.

He adjusted the type size. His eyes were getting worse these days, but it would not matter when it was over.

He stretched his arms, cracked his knuckles and began to type.

Days blurred together. Time lost its meanings. Ermolai typed, ate, and slept. His life became hazy in the end.

The nice suburban family didn’t bother him—that’s why they were nice. They stayed upstairs, talked quietly, walked quietly, and even the children played quietly. Which was why when there was a loud crash, it woke him from a drunken slumber.

He stared wide-eyed at the bleach-white ceiling. There was a throb in his right eye. It was difficult to tell reality from a dream, and a dream from the words that poured from his fingertips.

When the crash was followed by a scream, he sat upright.

He couldn’t tell the time. There was no clock, but judging by the blue-ish gray cloud seen from the slit above the garage door, it was either dusk or dawn.

He paddled his way across the various objects littering the floor. A small door connected the garage to the kitchen, but it usually stayed locked for the safety of both the family and himself.

It was only unlocked when the matriarch came looking for the monthly rent. Then she would close it carefully, and turn the lock slowly, so it didn’t make much of a noise, so it didn’t hurt his feelings.

He tried the door. It was locked. Why wouldn’t it be?

He heard a few clamors upstairs. Thud. Thud. Thud.

He went back to sit down at his computer, yet there was this constant distraction. He had tolerated the existence of humans in his close proximity, but it was too much this time.

He fought the urge to scream at the family “Stop the noise!”

He settled for knocking on the door and yelled, “Would you please be quiet?”

The noise continued downstairs. Thud. Thud. Thud. Down the staircase. Then it all died down.

Good.

He went back to work.

The quiet was nice.

When the noise sounded right next to him, he almost jumped out of his skin.

The office chair creaked loudly. He stared at the door. The sound came urgently. Thud. Thud. Thud. Something banging on the door.

Knock. Knock. Knock. He scrambled backward.

What the hell was that?

“Stop!” He shouted at the person on the other side of the door. “If it’s about the rent, there’re still a few days until it’s due!”

It wouldn’t stop.

Ermolai began to pack. Whatever was going on, was either supernatural or he was going insane. Judging by the frequency of the knocking and the force of it, it’s only a matter of time before the person made a hole on the panel, or brought down the door altogether.

It was clear that he couldn’t stay there.

He didn’t have many possessions. A backpack could carry them all. The stack of paper and the computer. A change of clothes. Clean underwears, not many of them. A jacket, wrapped around the computer to minimize damages. Bottles of water and some food. He swung on the bag and opened the garage door.

The neighbor, an old lady dressed in a flowery gown, snapped her head up at the sound. She stared at him unknowingly, unblinkingly, and it was unnerving.

She was making her way over to him. A slow shuffle, then faster, faster, almost up to the speed of a jog.

When she was some ten feet away, he finally recognized the pattern on her gown wasn’t flowers, but blood splatters.

He looked at her face, which was missing a half. She reached out for him, made gurgling sounds with a hollow cheek. A bloody eyeball skewed on her ring finger.

Naturally, he did what was acceptable in this situation he screamed, and ran.

His backpack bounced on his back as he went. His jeans were coming loose, his shirt riding up, and he could feel the wind against his waist and upper ass. There was no time to worry about his dignity. There was no dignity in fear.

After about thirty seconds, he was heaving like an old dog. He slowed down to a jog and then a fast walk, and finally stopped. He bent over in the middle of the sidewalk, breathing heavily.

He took in the silence around him and the sheer contrast of his loud heartbeats. He looked up and scanned the neighborhood—it was eerily quiet, devoid of anything living. There was a dog barking, but it could be an illusion. When he looked to that direction the dog silenced. The houses were there. A few pieces of clothes and trash littered the unkempt front lawns. The curbs were empty of cars, except one.

Was it a dream? If it was, the vividness was equally alarming. The only car was a white sedan. It had a broken window. He approached it without much thought.

There was a corpse sitting behind the wheel. He took a few steps back, still stunned by the state of the world he was living in.

He couldn’t stay here. He had to get away. Far, far away.

He took another closer look at the corpse. It wasn’t moving, and showed no sign of imminent animation. He tried the door handle, didn’t expect much, but the door unlocked. He froze, afraid of sudden noise would wake the corpse. It didn’t respond. Still had its mouth hung open; he was decomposing.

Ermolai noticed the key was still jammed in the ignition. He hesitated for only a second, then hauled the body out of the car and climbed into the driver’s seat.

The car smelt unpleasant, but the window was down. He started the car. It coughed a few times, then hummed to life.

He drove, heavy-hearted, toward the edge of the city. His manuscript never once came to the forefront of his head.

It was a different world. One unsafe to him. One he couldn’t play God with. He had to navigate its rules like everyone else who wished to stay alive.

It was a new world, and he wasn’t brave at all.