Archive for May, 2016

The Collector

The Museum


Far, far way, in a place and time outside of this reality, there is a library that houses all the knowledge of the known Oneverse. If you go there and ask the Librarian, he will take you to a small room high in the massive building, far from the press of other scholars down on the main floors and he will hand you a book in which is written the true history of the human species. This knowledge exists nowhere else. The Librarian might pat your hand and sigh sadly before he walks away to leave you to your studies. It is not a happy story.

It reads something like this.


The Darkness and the Light have been at war in the Oneverse for a very long time, longer than man has existed on that little blue marble called Earth. Terrible have been the wars. Bloody the conflicts. Battles have been fought until there was no man left standing. Species have been wiped out, killed to the last child.

Winners and losers both have fled these wars, running to the ends of the Oneverse to hide from their enemies. Hiding in out-of-the-way corners while they licked their wounds, counted their losses, and planned the next battle. But Darkness and Light are merely two sides of the same coin. One cannot run from oneself. These beings, these refugees, never outran their destiny for they brought it along with them as baggage.

Earth is a shore upon which the flotsam and jetsam of the Oneverse has washed up and found footing over and over again. Wave after wave has brought strange beings and powerful entities here. Intent or accident? No matter. They have called this place home for a short time. Some were mortal. Some were not. Here they lived before fading. Death graced the living and sleep claimed the rest. Time claims everything in the end, after all. Immortals may not die but they can fade away from the weight of their own ennui.

After man claimed the Earth, the visitors were called god-lings when man still believed in the supernatural.

Witches and warlocks they were called when man grew ignorant and Darkness claimed their minds. What are humans after all, but the children of just such a wave? Despite the promise of their auspicious beginnings, the knowledge and wisdom of their ancestors – the First People – faded and was lost, like so much smoke up the chimney.

The Earth is littered with the enormous tombs of those lost god-lings. The shadows of the world are ripe with their ghosts and men have learned to fear the dark for good reason.

The war of the Star Lords came to this out-of-the-way planet once. A flotilla of starships bent space and time, stepped across a universe and appeared as if by magic in the skies above all the great cities of Earth. A battle was fought and the holders of the Heart of the planet were thrown down and deposed. One cannot kill god-lings but you can do unspeakable things to them, tortures that mortals would not understand. The Heart of the World was imprisoned and turned into a glorified power source.

The starships left, going on to fight other battles and imprison other god-lings but they left behind an Overlord. A god-ling who used his power to force the planet into servitude, by twisting the Heart of the World to his will, using her connection to enslave her own children. He erased the cities of the god-lings, drowned their books, and made the minds of men forget who their true Mother was.

Thus began the ten thousand year reign of the White Elephant Lord.


At eighteen, Early graduated from high school, took her scholarship money, left home, and never looked back. She soon found that not everyone was a warrior in the war between Dark and Light. She thought this very odd. Surely you had to pick a side? How could any human walk about blind to the evil that lurked in the cold hearts of mankind? How could they not see the unhappy ghosts floating along, toes inches above the sidewalk and still manage to walk around them all the while denying that they existed? How could you not see the pain of the world? Was it not glaringly obvious? In the war for the control of the planet, how could you not pick the side that did not mean to eat you for breakfast?

For a while she thought people were broken. Who broke them? How had this come to be? This was before she learned that humans see only what they want to see and that the human brain has an amazing ability to un-see things right under its nose. The world taught their children to trust only what their eyes told them and that the unseen world was an aberration of a broken mind.

Early had been seeing ghosts since she was seven. She had been able to walk the places behind the veil of the world since she was eleven. She did not feel broken but she learned not to talk about her exploits out among the stars with anyone.

Early had been fighting a battle with the Dark from the moment her mother pushed her out of her womb, or perhaps even before that. She had her father to thank for that – as twisted a human as ever walked the planet. Hanging out with people her own age at University made her feel ancient beyond her years. She would stare at them and shake her head in wonder as they talked. She knew nothing of the world but she had never been that naive.

How could the world be so utterly messed up?

Why became her mantra.

Early took her scholarship, got a job making pizza at night, and set about learning everything she could about the nature of the universe and more specifically, about this strange species called human. She soon came to realize that her teachers were hopelessly ignorant, unable to put all the pieces of their collective knowledge together and make that leap out into the Void where all knowledge resided as one thought in the mind of the Oneverse. University made her feel crazy, like she was looking at the world from the bottom of a kaleidoscope.

On her 21st birthday she left school for good, not bothering to get a degree, and became a full time pizza maker. This freed up her time to follow her own investigations. Threads of her inquiries led her to the more arcane and occult studies. She called herself a witch because trying to explain her true nature would have been too exhausting. She joined a dojo and learned how to fight with a knife and a sword and her hands. She never forgot that – though they were pretending to fight and that the sparring was just practice – what she was truly learning was how to kill.

She learned to banish ghosts. She took many lovers. She acquired a spirit animal, a small white dragon that hung off her right shoulder and whispered its warnings into her ear. “I have always been here,” it told her, when she asked why it had come. Riddles annoyed her. She did not ask again.

Time and distance meant nothing, she found, if you listened hard enough. She became an excellent listener and learned to follow where her mind’s ear led ear.

Then the power of her quest dried up and turned to ash. She had peeled it down layer after layer only to find that the last layer fell away to reveal … nothing. Did she know all she needed to know? Was there no answer to her ultimate question? Was she even asking the right questions? Boredom settled on her mind and even making pizza began to pall. She hopped a train and went to see her sister Connie.


Connie threw open her door and grinned.

“I didn’t believe you were coming. Mom said not to count on it.”

“Mom is a bitter and jaded old biddy. Her view of the world is tainted by her own toxic experience,” Early said, grabbing her sister and giving her a fierce hug. “Do you have any booze? Travel makes me parched.”

Connie laughed and pulled her into the house. It was a large house, on a big lot that backed against a wild creek and the neighbors houses were hidden behind dense yew hedges that Connie kept trimmed off at fifteen feet above the ground.

“I like the quiet,” Connie had said, when she bought it.

Early thought it was not so much the quiet but the privacy Connie craved. Connie had a particular hobby that the neighbors would not have viewed kindly.

Connie pushed Early towards the living room while she went into the kitchen to get a bottle of wine.

“I have a new therapists,” she called. “I am really excited about what we are doing. We have done some hypnosis sessions. She thinks she can help me get to the root of my problems.” The clink of glassware drifted out of the austere steel and white paint kitchen as her sister chattered.

Early walked over to the wall of windows that looked over the back yard. “That’s great,” Early called over her shoulder. She shifted her gaze into the space behind the world. A ghost lingered out there in the garden.

“You,” it breathed, its breath as cold as ice. It had once been male. Now it was hard to tell, time having begun to blur his lines.

“Me,” Early nodded. “You are still here.”

“Where would I go? I still molder under the ground. She planted azaleas over my grave and bound me with their roots. Cursed witch. I hate azaleas. Send me on. I know you can.”

Early shook her head. “No. I don’t think so. Connie needs you. You please her and give her comfort. You will stay until the need does not exist.”

“She has him,” the ghost said, pointing at something that lingered not far off. “What does she need two ghosts for? Greedy little slut.”

Early snarled at him. “Watch your mouth. That is my sister you are talking about.”

But she turned and let her vision flare in and out of realty. A honeysuckle bush had a macabre crown. The ghostly blood still lingered along the slit in his throat. It was a fresh kill. Early stepped through the void into the nothingness in front of him.

“What did you do to deserve this fate?” Early asked, curious.

“I? I did nothing. She has a blood-lust that my love making could not quench. The scalpel was already there, under the pillow.”

Early snorted in amusement and let go of the alter-verse, returning to the living room. He had a dick. Of course she had a scalpel.

“I have a nice cab. I hope that will do,” Connie said, coming out of the kitchen.

Early sat down on the nearest couch, her back to the window. She would never tell Connie she knew about the bodies in her garden. “That will be fine. I just need something to blur the sharp edges of the world. How goes the morgue business?”

“Coroner. The word is coroner. I got a promotion. Shift supervisor.” Connie poured the wine and handed a glass to Early. “Means I have to work the night shift but that suits me fine. All the most interesting cases come in at night.”

“Interesting,” Early laughed, taking a long pull on her wine.

“People are fascinating. They choose the most diverse ways to die and night is their favorite time.”

“Maybe the veil between the worlds thins out a bit after the sun goes below the horizon,” Early said.

Connie grinned. “I love your slightly bent view on how the world works. It makes my journey seem almost mundane by comparison.”

“What does this new therapist have you doing?” Early asked, ignoring the off-handed compliment.

“She says I need to remember my childhood traumas so that I can heal and move on.”

Early tried to catch her breath. “Is that such a good idea? Maybe you were not meant to remember. Maybe forgetting was a way to keep from being destroyed.”

Connie shook her head, over-confident and enthused, like she always got when she started a new therapy. “Babies need to forget. Adults can handle what children cannot. I want to remember what happened to me as a child and why I cannot shake the feeling that I am tainted with the darkness that surrounded our house as we grew up.”

Early bit her tongue and said nothing, letting Connie ramble on. Who was she to say if this was a good thing or not? Connie’s relationship with their father had been nothing like hers. Early liked to play with dangerous things. Her interactions with her father had evolved into a twisted game of cat and mouse. He had been the one who forced her to learn how to travel between worlds. She had been the one who made him rethink his taste for little girls. Conceding defeat, he had let an uneasy truce settle between them, content to get his revenge by sabotaging the little things that affected her human life.

Eventually cancer ate him out from the inside. Early smiled. She had enjoyed that part, though she had to endure her Mother’s gleeful unhappiness along with it.

The war between Dark and Light had washed up two refugees in the form of her parents, who married and spent the next thirty years tormenting each other. Even now, Early was not sure if her Father represented the Dark or the Light. Her mother was certainly just as ambiguous. Connie did not hold any grudge against Mom, but then Connie could not believe that a woman could be anything but a victim.

“You need to try it,” Connie said.

Early blinked. Her mind had been wandering. “Huh? Try what?”

“Hypno-regression. Dig out the musty old bones you have hidden in your attic. It would do you good.”

“Mmmm.” Early said. “Let me think about it. You have any snacks in your kitchen. I haven’t eaten since last night and the wine is kicking my butt.”

Two bottles later, they ended up curled under the covers of Connie’s queen sized bed, talking until the middle of the night.

Connie dozed off and began to snore.

Early laid back and began her meditation exercise, concentrating on her breathing. Baby breathing was the kind where your whole belly rose with every breath. It was how infants inhaled, their bellies too big and their muscles not yet strong enough to push air into their lungs inside their ribcage. She thought about that as she inhaled. Being an infant. She remembered a lot about her childhood but she had no actual memories of the sexual abuse as her older sisters had experienced it. Her interaction with her father had been far more complicated, far more deadly. Could she remember? Should she remember? Was it not better to let sleeping dogs lie? Would she turn into Connie and start murdering her lovers if she ignored her past? Could she ever have another lover, if she remembered what she had forgotten?

“Do not do it,” the white dragon whispered in her ear.

“Why not?”

“Forgetting heals all wounds,” the ghost said. “It is far too dangerous.”

Early thought about it. Dangerous? She had come to Connie’s house looking for a reason not to die. Why not? If it killed her then it was meant to be.

“No…” the dragon sputtered. Early shoved it back through the Veil.

“Shut up, I need to concentrate.”

Somewhere in the process of clearing her mind, the wine took over and she fell asleep.


Early wandered the back alleys of the Oneverse, looking for her bike. The logical part of her brain told her that her bike was just where she left it, padlocked to a post by her back door in another city. But in the dream she was convinced someone had stolen it. In the middle of a verdant and well manicured park, she found it, laying abandoned on the lush lawn. She stooped to pick it up but something grabbed her by the throat, lifted her off her feet, and shook her like a rag doll.

“This is mine,” snarled the giant goddess.

“Sorry,” Early sputtered. “I thought …”

“You wish to remember? Remember this,” the woman said, shoving Early out of the world and back into her body. Early woke with a start.

“I told you it was a bad idea,” whispered the dragon.

“Oh, shut up,” sighed Early. What had the giant woman meant? Remember what? Had the god-ling put something in her mind? She felt it, then, a thing that begged for her attention just off the edge of memory. Early got up and wandered through the dark house. She got a glass of water in the kitchen and then came out into the living room. Facing the windows that looked out on the midnight garden, she sat and sipped the water.

She thought about what the woman had said and her heart began to race. “What if I don’t want to remember?” she whispered.

“Too late,” snorted the voice in her ear. “You stuck your foot into it this time.”

“Are you going to criticize or are you going to help me?”

“It is there. Inside you. It has always been there. Just as I have been,” the dragon hissed, annoyed.

Early sighed. Stupid dragon and his stupid dragon riddles. She put the glass down, curled her legs into a lotus position and began her deep breathing exercises again. With each breath, she gathered the energy of the world and let it spiral through her. When she thought she was ready, she found the little spark of light that had been hanging off the edge of the world since the dream. It was waiting for her. Early had no more time to prepare. Something exploded inside her brain.

She was ephemeral, a thinness spread across a thousand light years and she was hungry. The golden sun lured her in and she began to feed. Too late, she realized it was a trap. Too late she found herself wrapped around a small planet gestating something nascent and helpless. Too late, her existence changed forever.

Early came back to herself, confused.

“Is this it? Is this what she has done to me? My head is full of all her memories?”

“Did you not ask for all the knowledge in the world?” dragon asked in her right ear.

“Crap, not like this. How do you turn this off?”

“Too late. Too late. You are the Heart of the World,” whispered the white dragon as it spread its wings and sank into her spine, joining body to body with her, becoming one. Warm white light spread through her body, blinding her with its brightness for a moment.

“Who?” rumbled a voice that was close and yet far, far away.

The breath froze in Early’s throat. This was no ghost, come to feed upon her light. Something powerful had woken in the world. It had its eye turned towards her. She shed all the energy she had gathered and tried to become invisible. The eye swept over her and passed on.


Early let Connie drag her around to her favorite haunts for a couple days. It was a welcome distraction from the problem she did not know how to resolve. When Connie grew weary of her company, Early kissed her goodbye before catching her train south. Connie had been a good wall to hide behind but now she had to stop running from her problems. The thing that hunted her was waiting behind the veil of this world, haunting every dream, tainting her vision quests, keeping her from finding peace.

This being was powerful. She had never encountered its ilk on the Earthly plain before, but then she had never gone looking, had she.

There were creatures such as this in other places, in other realities, in other dimensions. Her quest for knowledge had taken her to many places filled with god-lings. She had wandered like a thief through their halls, touched their things, and listened to their wisdom. They had never noticed her. She was less than a ghost in their eyes, no more than a stay thought in the god-mind of places both strange and ancient.

She thought about this new development in her personal quest on the long train ride home. Did Earth have a god-ling? Did this account for the anomalies that science and the universal laws of physics could not explain? And if it was the local god-ling, who was she to resist it? Earth was his, was it not?

She fell asleep somewhere north of San Francisco and dreamed.

She was in the control room of a planet ship and starships hung ominously in the sky as a battle was waged and lost across the whole world. The enemy came at last to the sealed doors of her battle station and began pounding on them, trying to force their way in.

“Let go,” said her co-pilot, his voice a lot like that of her white dragon. “Surrender.”

“This place is not theirs. I cannot allow them to steal my world from me,” she said, near to weeping.

“Live. Fight another day,” her co-pilot begged.

It seemed like good advice but when it came to opening the door and letting them in, she could not make herself surrender. The pounding increased.

Early uncovered a red switch and put her finger on it. ‘Self Destruct’ the label said.

“No,” whispered her co-pilot desperately.

“Yes,” she said, pushing the button.

Early woke with a start, the beat of the wheels along the rail line not unlike the beat in her dream.

“Fuck,” she breathed, sitting up in her seat. “Get out of my head, you bitch.”

No one answered, not even the white dragon, but deep within her, something fierce stirred.

She returned to her life and tried to lose herself in the mindless details of pizza making but the new memories would bubble out of her subconscious at the weirdest times, and usually they came in response to a question she needed answering.

The Earth god-ling still hunted her but she grew adept at staying small and hidden in the dream plains. In meditation, she sent out questing threads, hoping someone out there beyond the veils of the worlds knew how she might deal with this unwanted attention.

She had given up hope and was content to be invisible when, one night, in meditation, she stumbled by accident upon a path that led around the corner and into some-when else. Slipping through the veil to follow it she found herself walking down a corridor she had never seen before. Early stopped to admire the detail of the walls and floor around her. If she ever made a place of her own, the doorway would be much like this, filled with everything she found beautiful. It was almost as if someone had reached into her mind to make this for her. That was silly, of course. Why would anyone do such a thing? She put her hand on the door at the end of the hall and turned the handle. This is probably a trap, she thought, just as the world went black.

Early woke. She was the white dragon and she was chained to the floor of an immense lab. Scientific equipment sat on every surface. Early spread her wings and fought the shackles but to no avail. Rarely did she shape-shift and only when she desperately needed to. Had she had fought her captors but had no memory of it?

“You cannot break the chains,” a voice said. Early looked around. A young man was chained in much the same way as she. The eye bolts in the floor would have anchored a battle ship and seemed overkill for such a small human. Early tried to speak but dragon had no mouth to shape human words. She shifted back to her Early shape.

The chains, meant for dragons, fell off her wrists and ankles.

“Whoa, neat trick,” the boy said. “Now go find a key and get me out of these things. And hurry. I think they mean to stuff and mount us.”

Early scowled at the room. Where would she even begin to look? She studied the boy’s chains and then studied the boy. Reaching out, she grabbed his arm, shifted through the veil into the place between the worlds and then back again, making sure to come back near the door out of the lab.

“Holy …” the boy said, hugging himself. “What just happened?”

She tried the door. Much to her surprise, it opened. She poked her head around the door. Compared to the brightly lit lab, the room beyond seemed cast in perpetual gloom except for the puddle of light that lit a glass case.

“Shut up and stay behind me,” Early said over her shoulder as she opened the door a little wider and slipped through. There was not just one glass case; there were thousands. The great room stretched for as far as the eye could see, filled with row after row of cases. Early peered into the nearest case. Artifacts. Old and weathered. The cases housed a collection. It was a museum. Ah, she thought, they are inside the head of another god-ling.

“Don’t touch anything,” Early whispered.

She slid one foot over the floor and then the next, silent as a sigh. Then she stopped and stared at her feet. The floor was not a floor. It gleamed softly, this floor, like old polished wood, but it felt odd under her feet. Resilient. Changing. It met her feet as her foot touched it and pushed her onward as she took another step. Early stopped to listen to it. It was not animal. Maybe part plant, part machine.

“What is wrong?” asked the young man.

Early frowned and shook her head. If he did not feel it she was not going to waste time explaining it. She changed her gate, letting her feet slide over the floor, gathering chi and redirecting it under her feet so that she might distribute her weight in a circle around her body. Booby traps, her gut cautioned her, might be set in such a sentient floor.

The display cases were fascinating. Each one contained something more fantastic than the next. Art. Weapons. Alien tools. Cooking vessels. Animals stuffed and looking unnaturally alive. Aliens treated the same way. She paused before a human dressed in Phoenician battle armor. The curators of this museum had access to all the realms of the Oneverse, it seemed, even hers. She stared at his face, wondering who he was. The eyes, god, the eyes looked alive. Early shuddered. She could not shake the feeling that something still lived inside that brain. Was this to have been her fate? She snarled in defiance at the frozen man’s accusing stare and hurried on. The end of the aisle beckoned and she wanted to find a door out of this place.

At the end of a long row of displays, she saw a pair of thrones set in an ornately draped alcove along one wall. The chairs were empty. Early had no interest in thrones. But she did like knives. She turned to study a long knife in the nearest case. The blade seemed to be made of shadow and smoke. She put her hand on the glass and tried to shift it out of the way.

“Don’t,” hissed the young man. “Oh, shit …”

“Your time as a sneak thief is over,” said a woman. Early turned around. A giantess now sat on one of the thrones.

“I have been inside the heads of many gods before this,” Early said in challenge. “I will do so again. I like your collection.”

“Were you looking for something in particular or are you just sight-seeing?” the woman asked, disdain heavy in her tone.

The young man left Early’s side and crossed the room to sit in the vacant throne next to the woman. As he settled, he grew in size to match hers. She smiled at him and patted his hand as it rested on the arm of his throne. Early glared at him. This had been a very clever trap indeed.

“I seek a name. In the naming, I will know the true nature of my enemy,” Early said.

“Ahh,” the woman nodded. “So. You stole the Heart of the World and now the White Elephant Lord hunts you, wishing it back. Why should I help you, Thief?”

“No one owns me, uh, her.” Early shook her head. The memories wanted to become her own. She grit her teeth together and thrust out her jaw stubbornly. “I know what he wants. I will not give it to him.”

“You are mortal,” the woman laughed. “You cannot hope to win against him.”

“I know a thing or two about hopeless battles against insurmountable odds,” Early growled. “This White Elephant Lord is the one who does not belong. He is the thief. I mean to take back what is hers, mine, uh, … ours.”

The woman on the throne studied her.

“Yes,” she nodded after a long silence. “I see it now. No accident, you becoming the Heart. Ten thousand years has he ruled your world. Ten thousand years has he tried to contain your power, tried to make you his consort, his concubine, his harlot. Ten thousand years has he tried to bend you to his will and his own Dark needs. Killed you, he has. Over and over again. Hunted you. Crushed you in your cradles. Dashed your brains out on the walls of your nurseries. Raped you to death countless times. Burned you as witches until all the magic of the world guttered and nearly went out like a spent candle. Each time he finds you. Each time you die rather than submit. This last time, he thought you had fallen asleep forever. He thought he had won.”

Early tried to control the bright flush of emotions that washed through her. They were there, in the back of her mind, all those deaths, a gift from the woman whose bicycle she had thought to take. It would have been easy, letting all that death and dying take over. Early felt the muscles in her jaw jump and she tried to control her tricky memory. She decided to get angry so she had something fierce to focus on.

“Is this why my world is so utterly broken? I should kill him for that,” she seethed.

The giantess laughed. “Ah, no. You cannot blame him for all of it. You did the most damage. Shattered yourself into a million pieces, you did, and hid yourself in the mud of your river bottoms and shallow sea. But he discovered your ploy almost at once and began rooting you out, one shard at a time. How can one keep your children safe when you are nothing but a breath and a memory?”

“I remember many things,” Early said, shaking her head stubbornly.

“Do you? You are still broken. Great pieces of you are still missing. The more powerful you become, the more likely he is to find you and stop you.”

Early stared at the couple in dismay. “Help me. Keep his away while I figure this out,” she begged.

The woman shrugged. “It is not my job to police the other dimensions.”

“Said every politician ever,” sneered Early. Her rage began to build again, a bonfire in her heart.

“Ah, don’t be petulant. It is too late for your world. He has incepted himself in the minds of every human and all are on a quest to stamp out your soul. But more fool he, for he has only made you stronger and more determined. Your world may be lost but you are not.”

“And yet you sit idly by while he tried to kill me. Why have you never intervened?” Early asked again.

The giant queen looked down at her sadly. She seemed to come to a decision.

“I have something for you,” she said.

The woman held out her hand. A cartoon ray-gun shimmered into existence there.

Early laughed. “A toy? I do not need a toy. I need a real weapon. What am I supposed to do with that?”

“The illusion is of your own making,” the woman said. “I may not be able to go into his reality and alter his matrix but the rules do not say I cannot arm a wandering thief. Take it and make it do what you need it to do.”

Early hesitated for a moment and then took a step, leaning forward to snatch the toy from her hand. In the next heartbeat, she had it pointed at the woman. The queen froze.

“What if I kill you with it?” Early asked. The young man made to rise. Early ignore him, the muzzle of the ray gun pointed unwaveringly at the queen’s heart. The woman shook her head and the young man sank back onto his throne.

“What is this? Did you come seeking allies or did you wish to make more enemies?” the queen asked.

“I came seeking answers. You have been very generous in that respect. I thank you for that,” Early said with a slight bow as she backed away. She paused for a second beside the case that held the shadow knife.

“Only the Dark can wield that weapon,” the young man said.

Early gazed back at him and then put her hand out, phasing it in and out of reality and around a corner in the places in between. When she pulled her hand out again, the knife was in her fist, frost settling on her knuckles.

The man stared at her, all the color gone out of his face.

“Do not tell me what I can or cannot do. I might take it as a challenge,” Early said.

“It is Dark magic, that,” said the woman. “It will lead you down paths you cannot return from.”

“Let me worry about that,” Early said, tucking both weapons into her pockets and shifted home.

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Dark Stuff

Dark Stuff


Kimi slammed through three reality wells in quick succession, trying to stay conscious as her body morphed and changed in each reality. The dog-sized bugs chewing on her arm in one reality well turned into a swarm of bees trying to sting her to death in another. In the next her arm was a gaping wound, her hand a mangled mess, the white of her bones visible beneath the gore. She remembered another place, a better place. There, the wound became a burn, her skin charred black. She slipped sideways into Home and slammed into the wall of her kitchen. For a moment, blind with pain, she stayed there, slumped against the wall, trying to stay on her feet. The arm was whole, here, in this place, the pain a deep, dark, burning-cold memory she could not shake.

Catching her breath, Kimi stood, pushed away from the wall, and shifted one last time. She was darkstuff, striding across space, the stars tangled in her bones. Her arm was gone below the elbow. She gathered stars and shaped them into bones. Ulna, radius, carpals, metacarpals, phalanges. She tested the shape, making a fist made of stars then she gathered stardust and formed the muscles. As a final touch, she gathered light and shaped it into skin, etching spirals into the surface. The darkness touched the spirals and slid away. The golden arm lifted of its own accord and the spirals converged and cast a shadow of themselves out just beyond her body. Half shield, half weapon, it stood guard around her.

When she thought she had the wound under control, she let the stars go and shifted Home again. The pain was now just a dull ache, a body memory to remind her that she was flesh and blood and though she could walk through time, she could still die in a thousand different ways.

Grabbing a beer from the fridge, she went into the bathroom and popped a handful of pain killers into her mouth, washing them down with the ale that tasted vaguely of pineapples.

The shower beckoned. She could not remember the last time she had bathed. Her brain went in search of memories, ones that belonged in this gravity well. Nothing was linear. Time flowed sideways when you jumped. She scrubbed her hands over her face and through her dark hair. Definitely could use a shower. She turned the water on and twisted the handle towards hot, letting it run while she stripped off the t-shirt and sweat pants and tossed them into the hamper. No matter what she wore when she left, she always came back in a baggy t-shirt and sweat pants. It was a thing her mind did, the Communion techs said, when you thought of Home and stepped through the veil.

Stepping into the shower she let the spray beat against her arm, the heat driving the last of the cold from her bones.

Twenty minutes later, dressed in clean sweats and a tank top, beer in hand, she set the alarm on her think-pad, wandered out onto her deck, and stared up at the night sky.

Only the brightest stars were visible, the rest drowned by the city’s light pollution. Somewhere out there, a battle was raging, starship against starship. The Communion, the alliance of beings intent on keeping peace among the hundreds of planets boasting a sentient species or two, fought back the invading Reapers, whose only agenda was to take what they could and kill any who stood in their way.

It was a war few on this planet knew about. Kimi stared at the city lights. From up here on the 31st floor of her highrise, the street lights looked like stars laid out in unnaturally regular orbits. Streets and houses and schools and businesses lay hidden under those lights, all the people asleep in every sense of the word. Even awake, none of them ever looked up, wondering who else lived in the universe, wondering how they had managed to avoid the attentions of those who would take a lush planet like this and strip it down to bedrock.

A bright light flared above her head, as something entered the atmosphere. It broke into a half dozen fiery pieces as it skimmed the dense envelope of the upper air before burning itself out in a brilliant flash of green light.

Kimi smiled grimly. The bug ship’s orbit had finally deteriorated enough to hit atmo. This was not some random asteroid. The color was a dead give away. She had done that. Killed the enemy corsair and half the bugs who were running it. They were fools, those bugs, thinking they could breech the Communion defenses around this planet. The defense batteries let nothing through.

A frown settled between her brows. The beings allied in the Reaper camp were diverse. The bugs were the Reaper’s dogs of war. Point and release. They wanted this place. How long before the intelligent beasties figured out how to get around the network of killer satellites that hung in the furthest orbit, all facing outward, watching?

The generals of a half dozen continents had launched the weapons decades ago, thinking they were meant to point at their enemies on the planet. The moment the network was complete, the Communion sent a starship to hijacked their programming with their own AI programs. Now the satellites watched the dark void beyond the edges of this solar system, the last line of defense against something few on this planet believed to exist. Few even understood what those flashes meant as the bug ships burned to cinders above their heads.

Kimi went back into her apartment and checked her think-pad. Nothing needed her attention. She should rest and heal but the adrenaline was still running hot in her veins. Slipping her feet into a pair of canvas shoes, she put an audio-plug in her ear, grabbed her keys, and let herself out. At the elevator she pushed the penthouse button.

It opened onto an open-air nightclub. Jazz played softly amid the glass tables, pin lights, and potted plants. She went to the bar and ordered a gimlet. Caleb, the bartender, made it the way she liked it, with fresh limes and Blackfriars. She had a running account up here, one the Communion paid regularly. Finding a table near the glass wall at the edge of the roof, she took a sip of her drink and sighed as the little knots between her shoulders relaxed a bit.

Someone sat down in the chair opposite. She scowled and turned, thinking him a desperate lounge lizard. She froze. He had the stink of portal travel still clinging to the edges of his form.

“You are a hard person to find,” he said. There was a scar high on one cheek and another on his chin that had taken a chunk out of his lower lip. A gold ring pierced his lip there, as if he were proud of the scar and wanted people to notice it. Long ebony hair blended with a black leather coat over black silk pajamas that ended mid-calf, revealing the finest pair ox leather boots she had ever seen. The man knew how to dress. The leather coat was not an affectation. It hid something, weapons perhaps, under its stiff panels. He was a Reaper. He could be nothing else.

Kimi cursed her lack-witted brain for walking out of her apartment without a weapon. She had become complacent. Or was it just denial? The war would never come here, to her town. She resisted the urge to run.

“You were on the bug ship, weren’t you,” she said.

“On? Hardly. Linked. I was watching when you slid through onto the reactor deck and stole their core. Stupid. Foolhardy. Brilliant. Why are you still alive?”

“I can’t tell you all my secrets,” she said coolly.

“I particularly enjoyed that trick where you broke the hull and let the hard vacuum finish the little buggers off. None were alive when the ship burned up on entry.”

“Enjoyed? Are you here seeking revenge?” She pretended to relax, even bringing the glass to her lips to take a tiny sip of her gimlet.

“Where did you take the reactor?”

Kimi stared at him over the top of her glass.

“Oh, not to worry,” he said. “I just want to know so I can avoid that gate until the hard radiation clears. Twenty thousand years should do the trick. I thought the Communion was against such wanton destruction.”

“Infinite are the levels of heaven,” Kimi said, raising her palm to the sky.

The dark haired man stared at her, his eyes glittering. “Enigmatic to the last, I see.”

That sounded like a threat. Kimi put her glass down.

“Why are you here? What do you want?” she asked, starting to get annoyed.

“I want to offer you a deal.”

“Deal?” Kimi snorted. “What can someone of your ilk offer me?”

“We do not want all of it,” he said, waving at the city. “Just a portion. Give us a continent. One you have no emotional ties to. Let us strip it down to bare dirt and we will leave and never come back. There are six billion humanoids on this planet. Too many. The food riots are done but the water wars have only just begun. Let us help you cull your garden.”

“What would you do with those you cull?” Kimi knew the answer but she wanted to keep him talking.

“Fat are your children, Mother,” the Reaper said. He had the nerve to smack his lips.

Kimi flinched and looked out over the city, shaking her head.

“You have come too late. I have grown fond of all the places on this planet, plant and animal and yes, dare I say it, even the humans. What kind of Mother would I be, to give you even one of my children?”

“Surely, you must realize that your garden needs tending. They are nothing like you, your children. Not one of them can slid around corners and walk the Nothingness between the worlds, as you can. They just eat, fuck, and die. What purpose does it serve, keeping your spawn in such dire straights?”

It was too soon. Her arm ached horribly as she spread her fingers wide and let her fingers skim the edge of the veil that marked the edge of this place. Beyond was the Nothingness between reality wells.

A mech-warrior slid through the veil, gun already drawn and charged. The black Reaper’s form wavered and began the transition to somewhere else but he was too slow. The blast blew his head and torso into a pink mist. The rest of him fell twitching to the tiles.

The mech scanned the bar. Caleb and the scattering of patrons stood frozen, their mouths hanging open which was probably a good thing. Any motion right now might be taken as an act of aggression.

The robot turned its sensors towards her. “Will that be all, Mother?” it asked.

“You’ve made a mess,” she said watching Caleb’s eyes.

The mech nodded. It pushed a button on its arm. A bubble formed, engulfed the body and the blood splatters, and took them elsewhere.

“Mother?” asked the mech, bowing its head. Kimi smiled at it.

“Thank you for your service. That will be all.”

The mech-warrior slid through the veil and was gone.

Kimi picked up her gimlet and drained her glass. She held the glass up and wriggled it in Caleb’s direction. The bartender nodded slowly and then set about making her another drink. It took him a long time, as if the play of space/time in his vicinity was catching and he was caught in a time vortex.

She was re-building a hand made of stars when he put a new drink in front of her and took her old glass. Kimi looked up, sucking the pain into the back of her mind until later.

Kimi smiled at Caleb as he paused, looking confused.

“Do you want to ask me something?” she asked.

“About what?” Caleb asked.

“About what you just saw,” she suggested.

“I … I saw nothing.”

Kimi nodded. “Nothing. Exactly. Thank you, Caleb.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, turning away.

Nothing. That was what his brain told him to see. A mech-warrior and a dismembered body had been here and then they had not. The human brain was a wondrous thing. If it needed to erase memories to keep the being inside sane, then erase it would. Caleb’s brain, along with everyone else in the bar, had just edited reality. The last few minutes had been replaced with a loop of memory from the moments before the Reaper had appeared at her table.

It was why the humans would never watch the starships burn up in the upper atmo and think anything but There goes another piece of space debris. It was just not possible for them to imagine anything else.

Kimi contemplated the last thing the Reaper had said.

Surely, you must realize that your garden needs tending. … What purpose does it serve, keeping your spawn in such dire straights?”

“Too late.” she said. “You have come too late. Six billion minds, linked, not by the twists and turns of space-time, but by the network of electronic devices that mimic my mind well enough. Linked, they become a weapon. When they are ready, I will use them to hunt you out and destroy you once and for all.”

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