Wednesday, August 1, 2018

UTARDIA!

The sad but true stories of life in the heart of Utah Suburbia.  Perhaps it's the same elsewhere, perhaps it's worse elsewhere, but here, in a state that used to be friendly and neighborly, it's par for the course.  One day I'll try to illustrate these, but for the time I'm content to simply post the bare bones of recurrent things I witness in the County of Davis:




UTARDIA!
Comic Strip Dialogue
By M. A. Packer



New Neighbors #1
Woman 1: “remind me to make something for the new neighbors.”
Woman 2: “oh yeah, what’s their names… what are you going to make for them?”
Woman 1: “not sure, what do we know about them?”
Woman 2: “they’re really fat.”
Woman 1: “that’s right, what do fat people like?”
Woman 2: “sugar makes people fat.”
Woman 1: “awesome, I could bake them some sugar cookies!”
Woman 2: “fat people are disgusting, I don’t know how you can live next door to them.”

New Neighbors #2
Woman 1: “How are things going with the new neighbors?”
Woman 2: “OMG, they’re so creepy, they put in this weird sand thing in their yard and they, like, rake it every day.  So retarded.”
Woman 1: “Isn’t that a Japanese Zen garden?”
Woman 2: “Yeah, and I’m like, Hello!  This is America, we don’t put tacky things in our yards!”

New Neighbors #3
Man 1 Waving to new neighbor: “Oh, there’s the new guy on the street.  Heard he’s renting his mother-in-law apartment out to a young married couple.”
Man 2: “Isn’t that in violation of the restrictive covenants?”
Man 1: “No, but he doesn’t know that.  If the tenants are Hispanic, they’ll probably turn his apartment into a drug lab.”
Man 2: “My brother and cousin work for the city.  They can help out if we need it: last thing we want is someone breaking the law on our street.”

*           *           *

Singles’ Function #1
Girl 1: “OMG, like that guy is, like, really tall, that’s so creepy!”
Girl 2: “He’s probably a stalker!”
(Optional: really short, really black, really Mexican, really fat, really red-haired, really poor, really nerdy, really average, etc.)

Singles’ Function #2
Boy: “Hi, I think you’re really cute!  Would you like to go out some time?”
Girl 1: “Oh wow, like, totally!”
Boy: “Cool, what day works for you?”
Girl 1: “Um, I’m not sure, maybe play it by ear?”
Boy: “Okay, talk to you later!”
Girl 1 to Girl 2: “OMG, did you see that guy?  He was practically putting his hands all over me, and he, like works at Walmart, so you know he’s poor!”
Girl 2: “He’s probably a stalker, you should call the police.”

Singles’ Function #3
Girl 1: “Holy cow!  It’s Chad!  He’s so sexy!”
Girl 2: “I thought he was in jail for beating his last girlfriend?”
Girl 1: “His family’s loaded, he’s perfect!”

Singles’ Function #4
Girl 1: “You are, like, the coolest person I’ve ever met!  We have so much in common, I would totally love to go out with you!”
Boy: “Thanks, I like you too!”
Girl 1: “So…what do you do for a living?”
Boy: “I’m a para-educator for special needs kids.”
Girl 1: “Oh…that’s really… I think people who do that kind of work are really special.”
Girl 1 to Girl 2: “He’s like, a teacher who works with retards.”
Girl 2: “Oh jeez, he probably doesn’t make, like, ANY money!  You don’t need to put yourself in danger with a guy like that.”

*           *           *

Dick Measuring #1
Business Man talking on phone: “yeah, and did you see how small his truck was?  I don’t think the company needs a new employee with tiny wheels.”

Dick Measuring #2
Man 1: “I’m totally participating in the Spartan and the Iron man runs next week.”
Man 2: “Isn’t your wife going into surgery next week?”
Man 1: “Dude, it’s all in her head, brah!

Dick Measuring #3
Man 1: “…so she’s all mad and said she’s moving in with her folks until I apologize.”
Man 2: “What did you say to her?”
Man 1: “I was totally just informing her about my concerns for her health.  She gained, like, ten pounds after the baby was born, but she’s only lost 1 since she started that diet.  She’s way irrational right now, probably PMSing, and I told her she’d feel better after she dropped the extra weight, but she just cried and took off with the new Jag.”
Man 2: “Chicks are way nuts.”

Dick Measuring #4
Businessman talking on phone: “…so we really liked your credentials and your letters of recommendation were outstanding, but the problem is that my brother’s kids just got out of high school and need a job while they go to college, so I’ve given them the position.  But, if you’re still interested in a position in our company, I think we have an opening on the custodial staff.”

*           *           *

They’re Mockumentary #1
Woman speaking to other woman: “I find it so charming how you can just throw on whatever is laying around your closet.”

They’re Mockumentary #2
Man 1: “So, do you play?”
Man 2: “Play what?”
Man 1: “Like, an instrument?  Like a piano?”
Man 2: “No, I’m not very musically minded.”
Man 1: “That’s okay, not everyone can play the piano, but I’m sure you’re good at something worthwhile.”
Man 2: “???”

They’re Mockumentary #3
Man 1 “Is that YOUR truck?”
Man 2: “Yes.”
Man 1 “Seriously?”
Man 2: “Is there a problem?”
Man 1: “Oh no, like, totally, it’s cool.  It’s just… that’s a small truck.  Do you like women?”
Man 2: “I’m married with three kids.”
Man 1 talking to other men with enormous trucks: “He’s totally queer, you know, but he, like, pretends to have a girlfriend or something.”

Saturday, July 28, 2018

No more 3.5/Pathfinder


No more 3.5/Pathfinder
Written by M. A. Packer

            Having recently completed a year long 3.5/Pathfinder campaign (rather prematurely I should say), I arrived at a decision that was quite a long time coming.  While I will always appreciate 3rd edition D&D as the first system I was introduced into the hobby through, it is time for us to part ways (I know, melodramatic).  But that’s how much I hate it: casting it away as one of my go-to systems is like removing a bulky tumor from my brain.  I’ll try to keep this brief.

1
As stated above, the tumorous rules bloat is unbelievable.  The problem with creating a system that tries to cover every base is that eventually your rules contradict each other.  For example, if you are drowning, the rules say you start at 0 HP and lose 1 HP each turn until you die at -10.  This is problematic because, let’s say you were already reduced to -7 HP and are still dying.  Well, your party can dunk you into the water and, if you’re one of those special people who takes the rules too literally (like half the 3.X players out there) this means your wounds vanish and you’re reset back to 0, gaining you more time.
            As if the sheer volume of rules wasn’t enough, there are veritable mountains of splat books that push these problems into the stratosphere.  If I could just stick with the core rulebooks, I could tolerate 3.X.  The problem is all the purchase addicts out there who have to own each and every book that Wizards and Paizo vomit out every month.  This is material that has not been play-tested enough or at all.  This means there are virtually endless combinations of broken and overpowered characters just waiting to ruin your campaign.  Again, if I could stick to the core rulebooks this wouldn't be much of an issue since the core rulebooks were tested years in advance before they were sold to the public.  But the difficulty here is that there are so many players who blast their diarrhea all over you if you tell them they can only pick from the core classes.  They simply lack the imagination to work with the basics and feel like they’re missing out if they can’t use every damned option out there, officially published or home-brewed.

2
            Feats really piss me off.  This is technically part of number 1, but I feel it deserves its own category because of how much they ruin the game.  Essentially feats are little rules exceptions to help flesh out and make a character special.  You don’t need that, especially when they break the game.  There are feats that literally allow you to funnel everything onto one ability score, meaning you can dump everything into, say, Intelligence, and if you dig through enough splat books, you can find feats that let you stack all of your skills and attacks onto an Intelligence roll.  This defeats the purpose of having attributes at all and makes the character so powerful that the challenge rating system is useless.
            Another issue with feats is the fact that so often they make no sense.  For example, a club is in the family of Simple Weapon Proficiencies and a great club is a Martial Weapon.  It’s a damn club for crying out loud, there’s no special trick to using a weapon that only requires you to smack it into someone really hard.  If a great club is a martial weapon, why isn’t a quarter staff?  Quarter staffs are far more complicated to use than a club as they are such versatile weapons, similar in use to a greatsword.
            Another example of feat nonsense is the circumventing of rules in such a way that the “rich get richer.”  The best example of this is the fact that a mage can take feats that allow him to wear armor and cast spells, to say nothing of the feats that make his spells virtually invincible.  This is insane, especially when wizards and sorcerers already stand out around 5th level as the most powerful classes in the system.  Now you have armored tanks that can shoot empowered and silent fireballs as free actions.

3
Power gaming.  The words really stick in my craw.  I know, power gaming is as old as the hobby itself, but 3.5/Pathfinder really open the flood gates for this type of sickness to infest and spoil your games.  These idiots are everywhere, and their actions bog down gaming like nothing else.  On average they spend more time than the average player, describing their characters’ actions and plotting their next turn while everyone sits, clenching their jaws and waiting for their own chance to come in.  Again, they are everywhere and power gaming is a permanent fixture when playing 3.X as it is so ingrained into character creation that, as soon as a player starts making a character they immediately look for ways to make it overpowered rather than develop its, oh, I don't know, CHARACTER!
            They really don’t make sense when you think about it.  Let’s use a real-world example: let’s say there’s a guy who is really good at filing taxes.  That’s his career, and he loves it to death, at the exclusion of everything else.  This means he would have been born to file taxes and everything he is about is filing taxes.  He could care less about any other skill set out there, he just wants to file taxes and be the best at it in the whole world.  Is it possible for someone like this to exist?  Possibly, under the right circumstances, but what a boring character, because someone like that has no use for anything else outside their world and has no believable reason to, say, go rock climbing.  And what happens when you bring him into a non-tax-filing circumstance?  "Are there any taxes I can file up in the mountains?  Then I don't want to go!"  He’s useless in every situation except for that one area he has focused all of his powers.  This is not a good component to a well-rounded party and isn’t a well-rounded character.  It is boring.  It gets old very fast.  We get it, your character is optimized to disarm opponents’ weapons, but don’t complain when you’re attacked by a monster that doesn’t use hand-held weapons, and DON’T YOU DARE ASK if you can SOMEHOW disarm the monster’s CLAWS.  (More on this later).

4
When dealing with power gamers, rules lawyering is pretty much par for the course.  I mean, that’s what we’re all here for, so we can listen to you spew all of your knowledge of every rule in every book.  Even if the DM doesn’t fully know what she’s doing, her rulings are final, and when you pull out the rules and shove it in her face just to prove you were right, you slow the game down and the only thing you’ve accomplished is make everyone uncomfortable and make yourself look like a jackass.
Granted, it is the DM’s responsibility to at least understand the mechanics behind the system, but they also have to make it fun and maintain the pace so you don’t get bogged down in trivialities.  If you have a problem, if the ruling was totally wrong and unfair, bring it up after the game.  Bring it up after the game.  Bring it up before the game?  Just don’t be a pushy jerk and interrupt every single time you think someone's doing something wrong.
How is this specifically a problem with 3.5/Pathfinder compared to older editions of D&D?  In AD&D there were several options, meaning it was pretty much up to the DM to pick and choose whatever worked with the group he was running for.  This did create a lot of confusion as people would go into a new campaign with a new DM and didn’t quite know what to expect, and sometimes the rules were so vague that the DM had to construct a list of house rules for clarification.  So D&D 3rd edition came around and decided to come up with one decisive set of rules for everything.  Period.  This had a lot of flaws, so they released 3.5.  This had a lot of flaws, so Pathfinder took up the banner and tried to “fix” everything while still claiming to be compatible with 3.5.  None of it worked very well and you had two camps consisting of people who wanted to fix the rules themselves with their own house rules and people who wanted to follow the rules verbatim.  Both sides had their merits, like Republicans and Democrats, but as with politics, they polarize against each other easily, forming endless feuds at the table while the rest of us are stuck in the middle saying “I just wanted to fight some monsters tonight.”  Hands down I encounter this problem in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder far more than in any other system, including GURPS!

5
            This ties back in with power gamers somewhat, but it also branches out into an area I have had a huge problem with, and that is characters that are either complicated or stupid niche concepts that get boring/annoying really fast.  They come in so many forms: there’s the guy who only wants to disarm (as stated above), the guy who thinks it’s cool to only use shields as weapons (because I made a pact or something), the one-armed, blind mage who uses a whip even though he’s not proficient with it and who never casts spells or helps out in combat because the player says “doi, my character doesn't do combat” (if he doesn't like combat, then why the hell would he join an adventuring party?)
            Problems like this are connected to the splat book issue discussed above: there are so many options out there that we really don’t need and that very few have even asked for.  We have the “flaws” rules, which were originally intended for players to make more interesting characters.  Instead we get power gamers who use them to further snub one area to bolster another.  Then there are the insufferable gimp characters who just want to be broken because their players think it’s funny, and so on.
            Races.  I hate anything beyond the core races, because it forces you to make the dynamics of your setting way too complicated.  Oh, minotaurs are bloodthirsty, dangerous monsters, but when a player wants to play as one, he expects all of the NPCs to have the attitude of “well, that one’s okay, we just don’t like every other minotaur.”  A player wants to be a drow or a tiefling?  Everyone is terrified of those guys because of their evil lineage, so what a fun, edgy anti-hero concept.  Except that everyone and their dog wants to be one of those and I’ve had too many parties consisting of like, three tieflings, two drow and one dwarf.  But what if a player wants to play a giant or a centaur?  Good thing every building and dungeon in the realm is designed to accommodate their size, because the only other option is to dry out the scenario of them not fitting and having to squeeze through every door.
            Next there are stupid campaigns like ghostwalk, where you can play as a ghost character, or settings geared towards aquatic adventures, or planar adventures.  If I were planning a campaign based on these, they would work, but they get tired really fast.  Eventually you want to leave the underdark and adventure at sea or in the frozen north.  But the biggest problem is that these weirdo campaign/character concepts have appeared in regular games and pretty much demand that you railroad the entire campaign to that character’s idiotic character choice.  We can’t adventure into the desert, because Ralph’s merman priestess of the seas can’t survive on land, let alone a dry, arid wasteland.  Ted’s pure drow and Sasha’s vampire can’t come out to play because the sun is still out and they want the party to cater only to their needs and wait until nightfall every time they do anything important.
            Well, you can ban these, right?  Yes, and I do, but when I ban stupid garbage like this I get wave after wave of potential players who chew me out and accuse me of being too restrictive for not allowing every single rules option from every single splat book and magazine article ever published.

6
Now let’s rant about some of those campaign settings I mentioned above.  Too much, too unrelatable.  We have these big, explosive anime-esque worlds of extremely high magic, where you can play as elemental talking furniture and cast spells that blow up the world, because bigger is better!  Nope.  It’s boring.  There’s no immersion because everything, setting and characters, inevitably turns into a dick-measuring contest to see who can blow up the planet bigger than the other guy.  Nobody wants to interact with NPCs or get down and gritty in politics and espionage among the larger than life NPCs presented (and I’m including Forgotten realms, how far it has fallen).  Every campaign turns into an endless roller-coaster of bigger and crazier battles on giant buildings in the middle of a hurricane during a cosmic storm.
Well maybe you’re not trying hard enough to get the players to immerse themselves into the setting?  Wrong!  As mentioned in the examples above, the players only want to play as big, power-smashing warmonger murder hobos.  You give them a mission where they have to cleverly find their way into a noble’s manor to steal evidence of his wrongdoing?  No finesse, the players just barge into his house and blow up everything in sight, but that’s okay, because the setting tells you that this noble has a house packed full of traps and elemental monsters.  Because talking and sneaking are boring, you need to tap into your characters’ many video game powers to beat the NPC villain’s video game powers.  And at the end, you turn in the now burnt and chewed evidence to another NPC who gives you a huge wad of cash even though in real life they would distance themselves from you out of fear of being accused of hiring mercenaries to tactlessly dispose of their enemies.
In short, there’s no room for role-playing in Eberron or Golarion, whose kitchen sink approach to creating a backdrop tries so hard to give you everything but they forgot to make it…fun.

7
            Something I really hate about these systems, (which shouldn’t matter but does) is the art.  It sucks so much it gives me diarrhea just looking at it.  Don’t get me wrong, there are anime I enjoy watching, but modern fantasy has been tainted by the overly colorful, abstract teen pornography versions of Anime.  The kind that all the great Anime masters consider non-artistic garbage.  The art is just ugly, unrealistic, superhero trash that makes it impossible for proper immersion.  It's incredibly superficial, objectifying and juvenile, from the giant phallic swords to the anorexic women in bikini armor.  I can understand that this is a marketing gimmick to draw in younger players, but it has done irreparable damage to the quality of players you currently find.  Nowadays I get one or two players who use decent art to represent their characters while the majority of 3rd edition/Pathfinder players use nauseatingly anime-esque character portraits, and they role-play their characters accordingly (Chi?)  This is akin to that time when you were ten and were playing at your friend’s house with his marvel action figure characters, and his baby brother barged in on the fun with clunky, overly colorful Playskool Toys.

9
            The second greatest challenge I face repeatedly with 3.5/Pathfinder is the ability to create new content.  Even the supposed “professionals” behind the system struggle to maintain cohesion in their creations and have failed repeatedly in creating monsters appropriate to their challenge ratings.  The rules actually tell you that, when creating your own monsters, you pretty much have to figure it out for yourself, because they’re stumped!  Just run simulations until you can narrow down an appropriate challenge rating.  Yes, because every DM has the time and desire to test their monsters for hours just to figure out what challenge category they fall in.  What a joke.  If you don't believe me, read the rules for monster creation!
            Let’s compare this to earlier editions of D&D: just figure out the Hit Dice and compare it to an experience point chart.  Next, add experience points to the total for every special ability you give it beyond the usual benefits for HD.  Next, give it a hoard class and you’re done.  No testing, no guessing, just straight up create your monster and write some fanciful descriptions and lore.
            Even if it were easy to create your own elements for the game, there’s a huge obstacle that stands in the way of implementing them, and that is the players themselves.  If it isn’t published in a splat book or magazine article, they will crap bricks over it until you regret ever bringing it in.  Never mind that they want to use untested house ruled garbage, if you the DM even dares to do this, they will make you wish you were never born.  This has happened in every 3.X campaign I ran without fail, and it is faulted to both camps of home-brew players and rules lawyers who feel the inexhaustible need to sit there with the Monster Manual in their lap during combat encounters.

10
            This is it, are you ready?  The biggest, fattest problem I have with 3.5/Pathfinder is naturally the players themselves.  The problem with 3.5/Pathfinder players is that you just can’t nail down one that doesn’t exhibit one or all of the major problems I’m about to describe.  Maybe it’s the system, maybe it’s the fact that most people introduced to the hobby through 3.5/Pathfinder are in this Millennial generation.  Not that all Millenials have poor qualities, in fact I would wager that at least one third of Millenials are outstanding individuals with qualities and potential to surpass the previous generation.  But at least one third more of them have embodied sentiments of entitlement, laziness and lack of motivation, and they all play 3.Xth edition.
            These players simply want you to hand everything to them and don’t want to be challenged.  Everything from whining about not enough starting gold to outright demanding that I let them start a new campaign at level 20 with access to all spells and magic items.  They simply will not stand for any kind of challenge.  Where do I begin… in 3.5/Pathfinder I’ve had players drop out of the game when their characters took minor damage in combat (literally, one gal lost two HP and absolutely freaked out).  I’ve caught them sitting with a monster manual open and cheat by looking up the stats of every monster the group encountered, they’ve outright cheated by not marking off which spells they cast, they’ve given themselves extra spells, they’ve given themselves extra experience points (which we always notice when they level up ahead of the entire group) and they've even increased their ability scores when they thought nobody was looking.  They write up characters with Mary Sue backstories and demand that I and the other players cater to their personal quests.  I had one yell out “screw the other players” when I told him I wouldn't rewrite the campaign just for him as it wouldn’t be fair to the others.”  I’ve had one join my campaign only to tell me it was boring and demanded that I run HIS campaign instead.  Right off the bat, hadn’t even started character creation.  My favorites are power gamers who cry and complain whenever I set them up against monsters that their characters are not “optimized to deal with,” like a cleric who focused on turning undead only wanting to go against undead enemies.  And finally, combat takes too damn long.  Four people against just two kobolds has taken me twenty minutes to resolve because the players were too busy dick-measuring and using their mondo, insane powers and then challenging each other over their use.
            It’s insane!  I’ve never had this much trouble in any other edition of D&D, even in 5th edition, which you would think would have a lot of players like this.   Even when you catch them being hypocritical or lazy, they just pout and then expect you to give them whatever they want anyway.  I shutter to think how these guys act at their jobs or at school.

Please tell me if I’ve missed anything, because there is so much more: enough to write an entire set of encyclopedias worth of bad experiences.  But you may be asking “what will you use instead?”  I answer with the question: what won’t I use?”  Let’s look at the merits of other editions of D&D (note that there are other RPG systems beyond D&D I prefer even more!):

OD&D/Labyrinth Lord
            Sometimes it’s fun just to stick with the basics and the classics.  Yes, many players think these systems are too limiting, but frankly that’s because they’re 3.5/Pathfinder players, and they don’t know how to play right anyway.  Fewer options and fewer rules means you have so much more to flesh out as a group.  This is where house rules are at their best, because they’re building on something that doesn’t totally inhibit your choices or creativity within the campaign.  The lack of so many super-powered special abilities means you also get to focus on your character’s character.  Build up their personality into something actually fun and interesting, and you have a deeply immersive experience.

AD&D 1st Edition/OSRIC
            My favorite of them all.  Like an AK-47, this system has stood against the tests of time and continues to rely on its class and style.  Drawing upon the greats of pulp fantasy literature and real world mythology, 1st Edition D&D is dynamic and powerful, allowing players to take many approaches to the adventure, from gritty dungeon exploring to kingdom-building and political intrigue.  It's easily customizable and I have successfully used it to create a wide array of campaigns that incorporated everything from sticks and stones to space ships.

AD&D 2nd Edition
            The last great edition of D&D before being turned over to the monster that is Wizards of the Coast.  AD&D 2nd edition went to great efforts to streamline 1st edition and provide bountiful options for DMs to customize the pace and feel of their campaign.  Sadly, this requires a lot more work, and because of the pressure from certain panicked individuals, it removed a lot of its flavor in place of something a bit more mild.  While not as fun to me as 1st edition, I would rather play this than no edition at all.

Pathfinder 2nd Edition
            This one is up in the air.  I haven’t heard enough about the changes they’re bringing to Pathfinder, but I honestly don’t see them fixing the problems I mentioned above.  There is hope that they may streamline it and simplify it like WotD did for D&D 5th edition, but I doubt it.  And you can be sure there will be an avalanche of splat books following its release.

D&D 4th Edition
            I know, a lot of people are wondering why I would choose this one over 3rd edition.  Because it’s streamlined and fun.  No, I don’t treat it as a serious role-playing game, but every so often I get in the mood to play a strategic battler and this one is a thousand times more appealing to me than Warhammer, which requires a billion dice, dozens of books that each weigh more than a dog, and at least a thousand bucks worth of miniatures to play.  Perhaps the best thing about 4th edition is the balance!

D&D 5th Edition
            Now, I do have problems with 5th edition.  I don’t like the political agenda they infused into the system and the settings that are currently under way.  It was in extremely poor taste for them to suggest how players select their characters’ sexual preferences.  Frankly it’s none of their business, and if they want to be inclusive, why didn’t they recommend players exploring different cultures and ethnicities within the human race?  I allow gay players, I allow gay characters, but I do not indulge in sexual fetishes in game as it totally changes the flavor and the dynamics of the campaign (like when you loan money to a friend, it just makes things weird).
            What 5th edition does well: the game is streamlined and simple.  Rather than all the silly hit modifier tables in 3.5/Pathfinder, it simply narrows the field down to “do you have an advantage” or “do you have a disadvantage?”  This is awesome.  This works and it cuts the rules lawyering down to a minimum.  It also returns to a lot of the classical elements of previous editions.  I’m not a fan of the teifling, dragonborn or warlock class being added in as core, but I can always ban those >:D

            Well, there’s my rant.  If I offended anyone, I just don’t care.  Learning to handle offense is a part of life: character is achieved through adversity after all.  So, I bid my final farewell to 3.5/Pathfinder.  I would say it was fun, but from the 3,900+ words I sunk into this document, it’s obvious that I don’t hold that sentiment.  Now if you'll excuse me, I have a GURPS campaign to plan out.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Minds Wandering (Work in Progress)


Minds Wandering
Written by
M. A. Packer



Excerpt from a history report by Marci Caldwell

                “Not long after the First Expanse, the Great Solar War started.  This is said to be the shortest, but most destructive war in history because of how expensive it was to build ships and weapons, very few of which were ever actually fired.  Maybe this is a good thing, because it meant there weren’t a lot of casualties, but it started one of the biggest recessions in history, putting billions into poverty and putting a wedge between Spacers and Grounders.  This lead to the Second Expanse, when a group of people called the Freewayers gathered all the starships and people they could and began their exodus to Jupiter where they hoped to colonize the outer rings.  Unfortunately, this created tension between the Freewayers, who we now call the Jovians, and the Earth Council, as the Jovians were accused of stealing expensive construction equipment and also were accused of kidnapping some of the most renown scientists who specialized in terraforming.
                “That was almost 100 years ago and tensions continue to rise as reports come in, claiming that the Jovians are running out of necessities and are believed to be amassing an invasion fleet.  This has caused a lot of fear in the world as all the nations now prepare their own fleet of ships in anticipation of another war, but unlike the Great Solar War, they fear that this one will culminate in the loss of hundreds of millions of people.  Personally, I hope we don’t go to war, because I don’t think anyone would survive.  Nobody trusts each other anymore and nobody would be united enough to stop anything bad from happening.



Part I

                Nancy Gale stared out the narrow, transparent band, which served as her apartment’s view port.  It was the same spectacle of the stars rotating as though speckled across an endless black disc on which Mars made an occasional appearance.  Naturally it was the Mars Orbital that was spinning, but Nancy always felt more comfortable imagining that it was the other way around.  She had spent all fifteen years of her short life on this station and its confined, composite construction was endearing to her.  It was home, it was safe, and now she would be forced to leave it behind.
                The doorway behind her slid open, almost fully silent, but the shift in air pressure always told Nancy when someone was entering the apartment.  Her mother strode in, tall, beautiful and strong, but when she saw her daughter slouching against the view port, as she had been doing for the last hour, she began to worry.  Nancy tried hard to keep her fears from her mother, but living so close together in such a small, densely furbished place made it impossible.
                “Dad feels really bad that he won’t be arriving with us,” Mrs. Gale said, plopping down beside her daughter and stroking her auburn hair.  “But he told me to tell you that he has arranged for a very special surprise.”
                “What surprise?” Nancy said, her face smeared against the view port.
                “He didn’t say.  You know how he is, he just gives you the least amount of data to go on, but when it happens he’ll be sure to explain everything to death.”
                “Why do we have to go?”
                “I told you, he said he needs to work more closely with his client.  Besides, his assignment here has been over for well over a year.  It’s just the right time for us to go back home, is all.”
                “It’s not home,” Nancy pouted.  “Maybe for you guys because you’re older, but I want to stay here.  I don’t want to be a Grounder.”
                “What’s wrong with that?”
                “My friends will still be Spacers, and Spacers and Grounders always stop talking to each other.”
                “That’s ridiculous.  You can always jump on the Net and talk with your friends.  You can still play your games in the VR and interact like you never left!  It’s not like centuries ago when people could only communicate long distance over ground lines.  Come on, let’s get your things.  The shuttle is due any minute.”
                Nancy collected her baggage, which consisted of only two bags on rollers.  All of her clothing and personal belongings had been vacuum-sealed into tubes, which stacked neatly into the durable containers.  Nancy’s mother explained how strict the station was on conserving atmosphere and every last speck of air had to be pulled from their belongings before they were allowed to load it.
                The two walked along the curvature of the outer ring of the Mars Orbital.  They said their goodbyes to neighbors and other passersby, all of whom had seemed as close as family, but Nancy felt her gut wrench when she saw how casually they regarded them, already treating them like mere acquaintances.  People they had shared meals with now said “bye” to them like they had just met on the Net to briefly discuss a video.  Nancy could feel her entire life slipping away, like stepping into a dream, or worse yet, as though she were being lowered into her grave.
                They reached their docking bay where they were further prepped by station workers.  Nancy always hated being scanned and then sprayed for potential germs, which usually happened whenever a Space Jockey or some other outsider visited the station from Earth or one of the other colonies.
                Nancy and her mother said nothing as they watched for the displays to confirm the arrival of their shuttle.  When the vessel did arrive, they were both slightly embarrassed when the first people to depart from it were the replacement team for Dr. Gale.  They were a stern bunch of people and Nancy felt jealous of them, knowing they would be warmly welcomed into the station and treated like family.  Everything she had was being taken away and given to these strangers and it filled her with so much angst that she allowed her head to thud noisily against the wall panel behind her.
                “Our turn,” Mrs. Gale said, smiling and taking Nancy’s hand.  She lead her daughter through the port and into the tiny shuttle.  A shuttle worker hand their baggage sent to the rear cargo bay and escorted the two females to their seats.  The seats were quite comfortable, cradling their bodies with adaptive gelatin cushions, and the facemasks they wore filled their nostrils with clean oxygen and very mild sedatives to help them ease into the process of departure.
                “Here we go,” Nancy’s mother said, almost thirty minutes later after all the pre-launch checks were completed and the ship’s computer gave them a green signal, showing that all inspections shows no signs of worry.  The cockpit crew spoke through the comm systems, explaining their departure course.  So much of it was beyond Nancy’s understanding, but when she heard mention that their shuttle would make several passes around Mars to pick up speed, she felt herself panic.
The thought of approaching any kind of planet terrified her.  She knew that planets, like Earth, were huge and pulled things toward them.  Her thoughts envisioned several terrifying scenarios of their ship going out of control and plummeting toward an obstinate, rocky surface like a bullet from an ancient gun.  Her mother eased her tensions by placing a hand on her knee, which was about as much contact as she could give the frightened girl due to the constraining nature of their seats.  Nancy placed her hand on her mothers’ and tried to breathe deeply as the ship was released from its docking clamps.  It gave a terrible shutter, but quickly everything turned to peace as the slender vessel steered itself clear of the Mars Orbital.
Nancy looked at the display in front of her, which displayed camera feeds from all around the shuttle.  She tapped on one in particular, which provided a full-on view of the Mars Orbital.  She watched as her home, her life and everything she ever knew slowly drifted away and out of frame, possibly never to be seen again.
The vessel began rounding off towards Mars, using the smaller world’s gravity to build up sufficient speed.  But as Nancy and Mrs. Gale’s true journey home commenced, another journey was ending.  Well beyond the sensors of the Mars Orbital, away from all of mankind’s many prying eyes, a distortion formed in the tiniest point in space.  The very center of this distortion became dark with a ring of starlight encircling it.  Then, smaller than a pinpoint, a shape emerged, growing into its actual, relative size as its long body emerged.  The object was, perhaps, larger than a city bus, but jagged, angular, and completely black.  So black that it was camouflaged against the backdrop of the cosmos.  At its front was a long, sharp nose, like the proboscis of some strange, insect-like creature.  Clustered about the top of this point were many twitching, staring, red eyes that scanned it surrounding before focusing indelibly on Earth.
Earth was nothing more than a large, blue star in the distance, but this was its destination and it sped off at relativistic speeds.  Nothing would deter it from its mission and if all went right with its agendas, no one would ever know of its existence, right up to the very end.

*              *              *


                “Nikaniel Graham, I’ve had it with these bad reports from school.”  The older woman was leaning over her grandchild like a stooped gargoyle and gestured sharply with her finger.  The Graham family was a rather eclectic trio of African-descendent people, consisting of Granny Graham, the head of the household, her grandson Nikaniel, and her other grandson, Famous.  Neither Famous nor Nikaniel were related in the biological sense, they were cousins, but Famous had been adopted in after tragedy struck his own parents on another side of the family.  Nikaniel never tried to make heads or tails of his relation with the older boy, but the two got along well enough to avoid unnecessary drama.
                As the two boy sat, playing their Trideo games, Nikaniel sighed and steeled himself for the impending drama unfolding before his eyes.
                “What now, Granny?” the boy asked, putting his hands up defensively as the old woman pulled his Trideo  headset from his face.
                “You’ve been picking fights with that white kid again.  I told you not to do that!”
                “I’m not picking fights with him, he’s the one who’s got it in for me!  I got to protect myself!”
                “That’s what the school’s resource officer is for.  Don’t go dirtying your hands with anymore violence.  Violence doesn’t solve anything.”
                “Just wars,” Nikaniel rolled his eyes.
                “Nobody in this family is going to war.  But now that we got that out of the way, there’s something else I want you to do.”
                “It’s Famous’s turn to do the dishes.”
                “I’m not talking about those dishes, and incidentally it’s your turn to do them.  But that’s not what I want you to do right now.  This Friday I want you to look for a nice girl who’s new to your school.  She’s really cute and her name is Nancy Gale.”  Granny Graham pulled out her Handicomp and showed Nikaniel a picture of the girl.  Though Nikaniel did agree that she was cute, he furrowed his brow incredulously at the image since it appeared that the girl was at least six years old.
                “Why do I have to make friends with her?  She’s not going to my school.”
                “Why do you say that?”
                “Because she’s like a kindergartener or something.”
                “It’s an old photo!”
                “Still, I don’t know if I could be her friend.”
                “Why can’t you make friends with her?”
                “She’s a white Spacer and I’m a grounded street warrior, we don’t have anything in common.”
                “I don’t care if she’s got lobsters coming out of her ears, she’s moving here from Mars, she’s new to the community, and we’re going to be good neighbors.  Besides, they knew Aunty Vern on the orbital, they’re practically family.  And you’re going to help her finish enrolling in school.”
                “Why does she have to enroll?  School’s out in a month.”
                “Plenty of time for you to help her make friends.  I hear she’s a little off, but I just know if she’s got a handsome stud like you on her arm, she’ll make plenty of friends in that school.”
                “I’m not that popular,” Nikaniel shook his head and put his Trideo set back over his eyes.  His grandmother left the room to yell at Famous, allowing the boy time to ease back into his game.
                It was a cheap game that required him to view ads, many of which had so little to do with him or his interests that he wondered if they were worth enduring for the game.  This time, however, the ads displayed local news reports for Albertson North Carolina; the state of residence for the Grahams.  Familiar news anchors, Bob and Betty appeared before Nikaniel, beaming their fake smiles as they cozied up together on the studio’s broadcast couch.
                “Negotiations with the Jovians continue to struggle,” Bob said as Betty gazed into his eyes with so much phony adoration that Nikaniel wanted to vomit.
                “That’s right, Bob,” Betty said, turning her big, milky eyes and unnaturally white smile towards the viewers.  “Amid allegations of our solar neighbors building up ships near the asteroid belt, they refused to comment, save a cryptic message, which was damaged during an unexpected solar flare.  Officials say they will require some time to decode the message, but say that it seems to be regarding the stars.”
                “Sounds ominous,” Bob said, beaming an energetic smile.  “Almost as ominous as these weather patterns for the next few weeks!”
                Nikaniel mashed the “skip” option the second it appeared and was glad to find himself back in the midst of a tranquil fantasy world with his familiar weaponry at the ready.  As he fought against hordes of rather silly-looking monsters, the back of his mind troubled over the news report.  Despite what his teachers thought, he was aware of the hostilities in the news and knew about the Great Solar War, which could easily have spelled the end of all mankind.  He and his classmates rarely spoke of it, by Nikaniel knew they were all just as nervous as he was.  This was why they retreated so deeply into their games and fun, looking for any refuge they could find against the mounting madness all around them.  Madness that they as children had no way of combating or at the very least, changing.
                It was with no small amount of irony that Nikaniel regarded the upcoming Peace Day Festival, a celebration that marked the end of the Great Solar War.  These events always seemed to bring the community together, for however short a time, and he expected it to be the same as it had been all the days of his sixteen-year-old life.

*              *              *

Nancy’s shuttle approached high orbit around earth.  A journey that would have taken many months in the past century only lasted ten days.  Nancy and her mother had been asleep for much of the voyage and awoke groggy as the captain announced their arrival.  Looking at the display screen, Nancy and Mrs. Gale were almost overwhelmed by the sight of the Earth.  Humanity’s home for countless centuries still shone radiant and blue with its deep oceans and swirling white cloudscapes.  It almost appeared heavenly and hellish all at once for the young girl.  All of her nightmares from before the trip came flooding in and she prepared herself for the worst.
                It would be several minutes before the craft reached the proper side of the Earth where it was to be picked up by a retrieval craft.  Nancy laid back in her comfortable chair and tried to clear her mind of all thoughts.  The captain announced expected weather patterns upon their arrival at the Albertson Aerospace Station.  As Nancy listened to the captain’s voice she became aware that something was affecting it, as though he were distracted while still speaking.  Finally the ship’s commander paused a moment and said “what the hell is that?”
                “Nancy and Mrs. Gale looked at the display screen, selecting one of the outside feeds that clearly showed a glowing white mass flying just beyond the ship.
                The object matched their shuttle’s speed and appeared completely unmolested by the gentle buffeting of Earth’s outer envelope.  Then it began moving closer to the ship, which caused Nancy and her mother to gasp.  The feed from the cockpit was cut, leaving the two of them completely isolated.  Lights in the cabin flickered and eventually died out entirely, blanketing the narrow chamber in utter darkness that was only briefly punctuated by lights from various control panels and display monitors.  These also died out, along with the red emergency lights until Nancy and her mother were utterly invisible to each other.  They grasped for each other’s hands and panted, terrified and bewildered by what was happening.
                Then a stream of light penetrated the cabin before Nancy’s eyes.  The angle of the beam slowly adjusted until it was aimed right at Nancy’s stomach.  It climbed upwards until it centered almost directly between her eyes.  She shook nervously as the stream of light seemed to irritate her skin.  Then suddenly she was drawn inward, her mind completely losing focus until everything became null and void.
                Nancy awoke almost immediately after this, or rather it felt as though she had awoken only a moment later.  When her eyes opened she saw a bright room come into focus with her mother on her left, standing over her and running.  There were other people running alongside her as well and as she grew more aware of her surroundings she saw that she was laying flat on a robotic gurney and traversing a crowded hallway.  At first it seemed as though they were back in the Mars Orbital, but the gradual return of consciousness told her she was in a hospital.
                “She’s coming to,” a nurse said and Nancy’s mother squeezed her hand.
                A strange sensation shook Nancy to the core as her mother touched her hand, and the girl began to notice a sharp pain in her head.  She shook all over as pain swept through her person and the feelings of dread from an outside source mingled with her own fear.  Her mother let go of her hand as they reached a lift and the extra sensation of dread immediately left.  She still felt intense pain, but Nancy was glad when they came to an examination room where doctors had prepared scanning equipment.  A device was set over her head and the specialist working the equipment asked everyone in the room to silence themselves.
                “Are those infections in her brain?” Mrs. Gale asked when she saw the imaging software come into focus.
                “We’re not sure,” the doctor said.  “Her vitals seem to be returning to normal, but stress patterns indicate an acute migraine.  We’d like to keep her overnight for observation, but according to these readouts she should be on the mend.”
                “Thank you, doctor,” Mrs. Gale said, on the verge of tears.  “I’m just relieved our shuttle came in safely.  There were some electrical failures, but the captain brought us in safely.  They had argued about changing course and heading to the moon first, but the retrieval craft was right on time.”
                “You’re in good hands here in Albertson,” the doctor smiled.  “We have some of the best clinics in the Carolinas.  We’ll see to it nothing dangerous happens to your girl.”

*              *              *

Buried within miles of secluded woodland where scarcely any man had ever walked, a crater was formed by a falling object.  The flames that would have betrayed its arrival were rapidly extinguished by a projected force field.  With all fires and smoke snuffed out, the field dissipated and the object tilted itself aright so that its body stood straight up.  Being positioned in this manner, it began to dig down into the burnt soil, using a myriad of small, insect-like legs that clawed the earth all around it until it was fully lost within the depths of North Carolina’s mossy woodland floor.
Upon reaching bedrock, thousands of small tendrils extended from its body, piercing the soil and stone alike and synthesizing its minerals after the fashion of a living plant.  As it commenced this process, the interior of its body glowed brightly and expanded.  New features grew out of its strange, black exterior, including one especially menacing growth that rose back up through the hole it had dug to lower itself deeper into the earth.  This growth lanced its way back to the surface where it sprouted open like a hideous, mechanical flower.
An array of unknown design faced itself towards the sun and exuded energies that drowned out all light around itself.  A dull hum permeated the air, but was lost to the trees, seemingly to never alert humanity to the odd goings on in the midst of an endless pine forest.

*              *              *

Nancy and her mother arrived at their new home much later in the evening than either of them would have liked, but seeing the freshly constructed rambler brought no small amount of relief to the two females, even if it was an unfamiliar place.  As their unmanned taxi pulled up to the driveway, a second vehicle rounded the corner several blocks up the street.  This second vehicle was a rather obvious black van with no markings on its exterior.  Its two occupants watched Nancy and her mother, one of them through an old military scope affixed to the top of an even older rifle.  The short, fat man with the rifle adjusted the focus on the scope to get a better view of Mrs. Gale and was soundly swatted on the head by his tall, thin companion.  Both were young men, in their late twenties, but spoke to each other in rather juvenile, whining tones.  One was tall and healthy, wearing a neatly pressed suit, his companion the opposite: short, fat and wearing a suit that was long overdue for a cleaning.
                “Put that rifle away,” the tall, thin man said.  “We’re not assassinating them.”
                “I know that,” the short, fat man shouted.  “It’s the only scope I could find, because you wanted to leave the hotel so early.”
                “The boss wanted us here at noon!  So I got us here at noon!  And would you keep your disgusting food wrappers on your side?”  The tall, thin man pushed crinkled wrappers and empty bottles away from the driver’s side of the van, using a pen from his pocket.  He took great care to ensure that all the garbage belonging to his companion was evenly parted away from his side, effectively bisecting the interior of the van so that one half was immaculate and the other a disaster of refuse.
                “So what’s the deal with this one, Rasmussen?” the short, fat man asked, putting the rifle into the back of the van and groping behind his seat for an unopened can of soda.  “They don’t look like they got any money worth talking about, why are they so special?”
                “The boss told us it was none of our business, Larson,” the thin man groaned as he watched his companion slurp his drink noisily.  “We’re just supposed to watch and wait, and when the moment comes up, we make a quick grab and bring them back to the hideout.”
                “How long are we supposed to watch?”
                “That’s for me to know and you to shut up and just do what I say.”
                “Hold on, now that ain’t right, Rass-man, we’re a partnership and we’re supposed to share everything Even Steven.  You can’t be holding out on me.”
                “I can when the client says so.  He told me the fewer who know about our assignment, the better.”
                “That’s another thing, where did you pick up this bum’s job?  He could have hired anyone from the Net.”
                “He says he doesn’t trust some military jerks to handle this, and he doesn’t want anyone on the payroll of the government.  Not very trusting, this guy, but he means business.  That’s why we brought all that firepower.”
                “Yeah, I can’t wait to test out some of these puppies,” Larson smiled and dove into the back of the van where he unpackaged various weapons with all the delight of a gluttonous child in a candy store.  “We’ve got enough hardware back here to stop a small army!”
“Get back up here, you big tub of lard,” Rasmussen hissed.  “They’ve got their stuff out of the taxi and they’re going into the house, we’ll have to change positions.”

*              *              *

Nancy hesitated when her door opened, allowing the heavy, humid air to rush inside the vehicle and sweep over here.  Immediately she felt sticky from the damp Carolina weather and her ears were assaulted with the shrill chirping of insects.  So many other sounds permeated the otherwise calm scenery, perhaps hundreds of different kinds of animals and the wind sweeping through endless rows of pine trees.
                Perhaps what terrified the young girl the most was the expanse of sky over her head, with mountainous clouds looming overhead like an entirely different world moving along on a sluggish course.  As the breeze reached out to her once more she clutched her seat, refusing to obey her mother’s request to come with her.
                “What’s wrong?” Mrs. Gale asked, touching Nancy’s forehead.  “Is the headache getting worse?”
                “No,” Nancy shook her head stubbornly.  “I can’t go out.”
                “Why not?”
                “I don’t want to fall into the sky!”
                The cab driver laughed himself into a coughing fit as he fished around for his Handicomp.  Mrs. Gale was more than a little embarrassed but given everything she and her daughter had been through, she wanted to find a way to diffuse the situation.  Reaching into a piece of her luggage, she pulled out a large coat, which she draped over the top of Nancy’s head.
                “Come on, if you can’t see the sky, it won’t bother you.  Let’s go.”
                Nancy shivered with fear but allowed her mother to pull her from the vehicle with the coat acting as a strange canopy.  The two dragged their luggage as soon as Mrs. Gale paid the cab driver.  The walkway to the front door was not long and as soon as Nancy saw the brass-colored kickplate of the entry way, she bolted for the house and crouched under the front awning.
                “See?” Mrs. Gale said, smiling timidly.  “You didn’t fall into the sky.  It’s not like the space station, we are pulled toward the core, not away.  You’ll get used to living under an atmosphere, then you can play and have fun in wide open spaces that even the Trideo arcades can’t match.”
                “I don’t want to play outside,” Nancy squeaked, having avoided the mere notion of wandering around under the blue and white haze.  “Please tell me there are tunnels leading to the school.”
                “There’s a beautiful walkway behind the house.  It cuts between two neighborhoods and opens into a big, beautiful park.  You should be lucky, long ago this all used to be farmland with hardly any houses or businesses around.  These days, Albertson has everything: shopping plazas, theaters, community parks and recreation sites, and the forest goes on forever!  I know it’s a bit warmer than we’re used to, but we’ll get used to it.  I’m certain Albertson will be an even greater, more memorable home to us than the Mars Orbital ever was.  And you know what?  There’s a lot more kids your age!  You’ll have so many friends your calendar will be full just to play with half of them.”
                “I miss my old friends,” Nancy grimaced.
                “Sometimes we have to make new friends.  Which reminds me, we haven’t seen the surprise your father has waiting for us.”
                Mrs. Gale opened the front door and Nancy bolted inside.  The house was dark, having all of its blinds down with tall boxes lining all of the walls.  The young girl ran inside so quickly that she nearly bumped into the oddly shaped child standing in the middle of their new living room!  She screamed and fell backwards into her mother, but quickly realized that there was no child in the room.
                “Say hello to Boot,” Mrs. Gale said and quickly palmed the light panel, illuminating the interior of their new home.
                The short figure standing in the middle of the living room had a large, bulbous head, two trunk-like arms equipped with small manipulators, a broad torso and two stout legs.  The entirety of its body was encased in a durable exoskeleton and it seemed to stare back at them with two, bulbous eyes, which were shut tight behind dome-like eyelids.  The height of the robot fell several inches shorter than Nancy, but its girth made it seem as though it possibly weighed twice as much.
                “Does it work?” Nancy asked, walking around the robot with as much fascination as a toddler who had just discovered a new bug.
                “Naturally your father wouldn’t give us a broken robot.  He said he custom-built many of its components and personally programmed all of its major functions.  He says he hopes the robot will serve us as well as protect us.”
                “Protect us?” Nancy said, managing a smile while still focusing on the robot.  “I guess from very small threats, like vicious cats or dust bunnies.”
                “Why don’t we turn it on and see what it’s capable of?”
                Mrs. Gale pulled out her Handicomp and immediately accessed the robot’s control hub.  After verifying her thumb print and biometric indicators, the option to activate Boot was made available.  Mashing her thumb down on the “startup sequence” icon, the robot suddenly came to life with dozens of small lights, which blinked intermittently as it ran its own self diagnostics.
                After several long moments and a dozen strange noises, the robot opened its eyes a tiny bit so that it squinted at them like an old man with puffy eyelids.  After looking the two women over it gave them a short bow.
                “Welcome home, Mrs. and Miss Gale,” the robot said, speaking in a monotone, buzzing voice that reminded them of ancient science fiction films.  “I am Boot, your personal house assistant.  It will be my pleasure to serve you.  Do you have anything that needs to be killed?”
                “Oh dear,” Mrs. Gale said and frantically shook her head at the diminutive robot.  “I don’t understand, when my husband said you were here to serve and protect, I wasn’t under the impression that he had put some kind of combat subroutines…”
                “I was programmed with a joke,” Boot replied.  “Some of Dr. Gale’s associates thought it would be humorous to alarm you.”
                “I’m not amused,” Mrs. Gale said, frowning at the robot and half considering shutting it down.
                “I like him,” Nancy said, looking into the robot’s squinty eyes.  Knowing that her father had personally created the robot allowed her to connect with it in a strange way, as though it were somewhere between being a pet or a family member.  She carefully prodded one of its tube-like arms and marveled at how subtly it counterbalanced itself and remained standing in place.
                “See?” Mrs. Gale said, putting her Handicomp away and moving towards the boxes piled along the wall.  “Now that we have a new family member, perhaps the three of us can tackle all the furnishings.  We should have everything we need in here.”
                “I will locate a box cutter,” Boot said and began running off in a peculiar, teetering fashion, like an awkward toddler.
                “That won’t be necessary,” Mrs. Gale called after it, not ready to dismiss its earlier remarks about finding things to kill.


*              *              *

Nikaniel was well beyond exhausted with his morning routine of arising early, forcing down a cold breakfast and dashing out the door.  This morning his cousin Famous was up early, which Nikaniel found quite odd given the older boy’s propensity towards staying up late every night on the Net to play his games.  What was stranger was how well groomed Famous appeared, even having trimmed and rewoven his hair, giving him a much neater appearance than normal.
                “What’s up with you?” Nikaniel asked.  “New girlfriend?”
                “No,” Famous said dourly.  “We’re having a career fair this morning and I need a good summer program to help with college.”
                “The Goodness! stand is hiring,” Nikaniel shrugged.  “They’re also looking for cashiers at the Quigley’s.”
                “Those are teenager jobs,” Famous pouted.  “I need something I can really sink my teeth into.”
                “I told you,” Granny Graham said, entering the room in her bath robe and curlers.  The sight of her in the mornings always seemed discouraging to the two boys as it always seemed to remind them of gravity’s inevitable victory over the human body.  “Join the Air Force.  That’s what your grandpa did and it opened a lot of opportunities for him.”
                “I thought he was a custodian in the Air Force,” Nikaniel asked.
                “That was a part time job to help pay for my wedding ring,” Granny Graham scolded the boy.  “Nothing was beneath him and he eventually worked his way up.  But this house is all that’s left of his legacy.”  Nikaniel looked around.  Though the house was small, it was immaculate and well furnished: his grandmother always took care of everything she had, as though worried it would all molder and decay before her very eyes.  “But Nikaniel, you’d better hurry and go to school.  That neighbor girl will be coming late today and it would be nice if you could wait for her and show her around.  I already called that nice lady at ISS and she said it was okay if you missed Home Room.”
                “Isn’t she that mean Pakistani lady who always yells at kids,” Famous chimed in.  His expression thereafter immediately revealed his realization that he should have kept his mouth quiet.
                “She’s a lovely young woman who has to carry her voice over all you rotten chowderheads!” Granny Graham said in retaliation.  “The fact that she runs a tight ship should mean a lot to you and the school.  Too many teachers put up with childish nonsense in the halls.  I wish she would be even tougher, especially on those nasty boys who ran through the halls in their skivvies.  Talk about shameful.”
                “Guess I’ll go,” Nikaniel said, putting on his Inline Skids and dashing out the door before he could hear more of Granny Graham’s lecture.
                The morning air was heavy and cool, and the moist wind felt good as Nikaniel pulled out his Handicomp and steered himself and his shoes down the sidewalk.  The paving was crooked, causing him to take short jumps as he was propelled along by the small motors in his Skids.  Eventually he reached the student paths, which were nice and flat, allowing for greater speed.  He weaved between several classmates, which seemed like permanent obstacles after one year of following the same routine.
                With the park in view he slowed down, knowing that patrolling security always watched for reckless behavior among the students transitioning from the neighborhoods to the school.  He couldn’t see any black and white cars, but a large, black van was plainly in view, parked alongside the manicured grass.  This stuck out to Nikaniel as he had never seen the vehicle in his neighborhood before.  What was more, he could swear to have seen two men tussling on the inside, and the vehicle rocked side to side for a moment before becoming still once more.
                Not wanting to know what was going on, the youth zipped along the path until he was in the school building.  While he waited for Nancy Gale’s arrival, he logged into the school’s Net with his Handicomp and checked his assignments.  Several were past due, but he didn’t’ care.  His only concern was learning the schedule for next year’s basketball tryouts.  He hated that he was too short at the start of the year to join, and he would have to wait until after summer vacation to apply during the next semester.
                An alarm that Granny Graham had sent to his Handicomp went off, letting him know to expect Nancy at any moment.  He waited around the school’s front vestibule, watching for the girl’s car.  He didn’t expect anything to come of meeting this girl, just another uninteresting white girl who would probably join in with the rest of the flocks of white girls as soon as she had arrived.  He wondered when she would finally arrive.  Several cars stopped at the front of the building and let out late students, most of which seemed to be lugging heavy musical equipment.
Finally, a small, grey car pulled up and sat there for what felt like an hour.  Nikaniel could see two people in the vehicle talking, one smaller and apparently frantic about something.  He wondered what was wrong when suddenly the passenger door opened and a girl, very close to his age, came bolting out as though expecting her car to explode at any moment.  She fumbled with the front door, apparently forgetting that it opened out, and rushed inside, pulling it closed behind her.
The auburn-haired girl leaned against a column and panted, avoiding eye contact with the few scattered people wandering the front of the school.  Then she looked up and made eye-contact with Nikaniel.  This girl wasn’t anything at all like what he had expected.  She was very pretty and seemed terrified of everything, like a small child lost at the mall.  He remembered his grandmother telling him that she had lived her whole life on the Mars Orbital and knew that spacers could be strange, but as he looked at her, he suddenly understood his grandmother’s sense of urgency in finding her a friend.
“You’re Nancy Gale, right?” he asked, speaking in a low voice and approaching her like he would a fidgety squirrel in the park.  “I’m Nikaniel, my grandmother said you needed help checking in.”
“Thank you,” Nancy said, shaking his hand.  She nearly gasped at how strong his grip was, but remembered hearing somewhere that grounders, especially Earth born, were much stronger than most spacers.
“Sorry,” Nikaniel said, releasing her hand after seeing her flinch.
“It’s okay,” Nancy said.  “I’m already registered, but could you help me find my classes?  This school is a lot bigger than the one in my last district.”
“If you have a list of your classes, you could ask HELEN.”
“Who’s she?  Which office is she in?”
“Oh, she’s not a person.  She’s a holo-whatsit the school had put in.  I think she’s more annoying than the last one, but she’s a lot easier to use.”
The pair approached a wall terminal where Nancy pulled out her Handicomp.  After pairing off with it for a moment, a new icon appeared on her dashboard.  The icon was in the shape of an animated hamster wearing a pair of oversized spectacles.  She clutched an ancient book in one paw and waved the other excitedly.  When Nancy pressed on the icon, the character enlarged and spoke to her in an annoyingly energetic tone.
“Welcome to Albertson High!  I’m HELEN: the Helpful Electronic Linguistic and Education Navigator!  Do you need help finding a classroom or joining a club?”
Nancy brought up her list of classrooms and saw that her first class was English.  “Could you help me find Mrs. Horsley’s room?”
“Just a moment!” Helen said and opened her book, flipping through the pages at lightning speed.  Nikaniel rolled his eyes and faced away as Nancy waited patiently for the program to finish loading the navigation software.  Or at least she thought it was loading navigation software.
“The library has several docs on horsemanship!  Would you like to register for a library card?”
“No,” Nancy said, almost frantic.  “I need to find Mrs. Horsley’s class!”
“Don’t bother,” Nikaniel sighed.  “I can show you where that is, it’s just a floor above mine.”
“Thank you,” Nancy said, blushing.  “Could you…help me find my other classes too?  When first period is over?”
“Oh, sure,” Nikaniel said, feeling the blood rush to his face.
They hadn’t gone far when they crossed paths with another boy.  He was tall, pale and had hair the color of coal.  He leered at Nancy and smiled menacingly, projecting ill intentions that cut through Nancy’s mind like cold ice.  She could almost see the thoughts he was having in his head, which made hers ache.  So vile was this boy’s countenance that she nearly fainted right beside Nikaniel.
“New girl?” the boy asked, sounding masculine and engaging, though his enthusiasm may as well be shared by every predator stalking their prey.
“Yes, Andrew,” Nikaniel said, looking at the boy sternly.  “Why don’t you go back to ISS with the rest of the criminals.”
“I just want to see what just hit the market,” the boy said and extended his foot to lift the hem of Nancy’s skirt.  Nikaniel kicked his foot away, causing Andrew to take on a stance that Nancy recognized from martial arts movies.  The feelings she detected from him seemed to intensify and darken all at once, filling her with a sense of danger.  This Andrew boy was like a missile nearing its target and she didn’t want to be in the blast radius.  But Nikaniel placed himself between Nancy and the danger.
“Something wrong?” a woman’s voice issued from a recently opened door.  Nancy saw a tall, thin woman of middle-eastern linage glaring at Nikaniel and Andrew.  As Nancy looked at her, she sensed that the woman was tired, but ready to spring into action like a bear trap.  What’s going on?  Nancy couldn’t understand why she was feeling these things about people all of the sudden.
“Nothing’s wrong, Ms. Baqri,” Andrew said, straightening up and calming down.  Nancy could feel that Andrew’s anger was turned towards the woman, but he also seemed to fear her in a practical manner, as though she had the power to affect change in his life, and not in ways that were particularly meaningful to him.
“Why aren’t any of you in class?  Home room doesn’t end for another ten minutes.”  Ms. Baqri’s accent made her sound feminine, but powerful all at once and Nancy felt instant awe in the woman, feeling a lot of pain and joy behind her words.
“My grandma called you,” Nikaniel scrambled for words.  “I’m supposed to help Nancy find her classes and whatnot.”
“That’s right,” she smiled briefly.  “Thank you for helping her, Nikaniel.  And say hi to your cousin.  Famous, isn’t it?”  Nikaniel nodded and smiled: he remembered hearing his grandmother get after Famous for being in ISS with Ms. Baqri all the time.  “Well, get to it.  Mr. Payne, you should hurry as well.  And if I see anything untoward in the security feeds for this hallway, we may have to schedule another meeting with your parents.”
Andrew stormed away, but not before casting his scowl at Nikaniel and Nancy.
The pair waited until he was fully out of sight before moving on.  As they walked, Nancy slowly reached for Nikaniel’s hand.  When he felt contact with her he was somewhat surprised, but cooly took her hand in his.  Nancy felt relieved to have someone strong to guide her through this new, confusing world she found herself in.  What was more, as they walked, she was amazed to sense that he would have withstood whatever violence Andrew Payne was ready to inflict upon him.
But how was she sensing these things?  Before they reached her first class, her head began swimming with a feeling like insects buzzing.  Things she had never felt before were swirling around her and all she could do to block it out was lay her head on her desk and grit her teeth.

*              *              *

In the confines of the universe everlasting, two signals pulsed along the chords of infinity, which stretch inexorably from one point of the cosmos to the next.  Breaching the mantle of space and time, the voices were joined: one tiny and seemingly insignificant speck conversing with its master: something whose intelligence and purpose spanned from everlasting to everlasting, a creeping shadow full of secrets, which at one point had existed everywhere, now fills a crucible of technology so advanced and so sinister that its workings cannot be comprehended by the feeble minds of humanity.
                “Construction of array complete, awaiting direction to activate.”
                “Confirmed: the seed has been sewn and ready to bloom. Proceed at minimal power and increase by one percent every one tenth of a rotation.  Make certain that none of the native inconsequentials are ever appraised of the bloom.  Report back with data on their reactions, then await further instruction.”
                “Acknowledged, proceeding with the bloom as ordered.”
                “Keep all proceedings in secret: slay all who interfere and let none report back to any organized body of inconsequentials.”
                Upon the closing of the dialogue, the smaller grain of intelligence began disturbing the waters of consciousness, creating ripples that began to irritate a small community of people, deep in the Carolina forests.

*              *              *

Nancy rocked back and forth on her feet as she waited by the front vestibule for Nikaniel.  She had never seen so many students in one building before, though the Albertson High School was large and she supposed you needed a larger building to handle a larger student body.  In spite of the students’ eagerness to return home at the end of the day, Nancy felt tension buzzing around like insects.  It had started quite suddenly and she was beginning to see the effects of it: students and teachers appeared more sensitive to one another, some shouting and arguing over the slightest trespasses.  One girl in particular threw a punch right into the face of her friend when the other suggested wearing clothing that didn’t match the trash cans in the hall.
                Nancy couldn’t believe her eyes and wondered if this was normal on Earth.  She had also overheard students discussing a rumor about other kids seeing a strange shadow up in the ceiling.  Some claimed it was probably just a digital shirt that someone had thrown up into the rafters.  Nancy thought this was an odd explanation as the digital shirts worn by students usually displayed flashy animations of their favorite shows or bands.  It made the girl want to check out the cafeteria herself, but her worries compelled her to remain in place.
When Nikaniel arrived she felt better.  Each time the front doors opened with torrents of students exiting the building, the young girl had hidden herself away, fearing that the gusts of wind would draw her out of the building and suck her straight up into the sky.  Having Nikaneil there allowed her to push past these fears, which she realized more and more were just plain silly.  Still, being outside terrified her, and the only thing distracting her from this was the pain surging through her head.
                “Let’s go,” Nikaniel growled.  Nancy’s smile quickly melted as she followed him.  Something was different about him as well.
                They reached the park where they saw two boys throwing down and fighting.  What they were fighting about was unknown to Nikaniel and Nancy, but it drew a crowd of students who were practically foaming at the mouth as they watched.  Something was definitely wrong with everyone and Nancy began to fear more and more.  The buzzing in her head reached new heights and pain spread throughout her mind and body, causing her to drop to her knees.  Nikaniel saw her and wanted to be angry about this, wondering how she could be so stupid to just crouch down near a crowd of rowdy students.
                Shouts from teachers reached the mob of excitable students and as the fight was broken up amid mounting screams and hostility.  As Nikaniel witnessed this and examined his own thoughts, he felt truly horrified.  How could I be mad at Nancy?  She didn’t do anything wrong.  He looked down at her, watching the frail young girl clutch her head and cry.  Feeling compassion return to his troubled mind, he helped her to her feet.
                “Please take me home,” she pleaded feebly, and Nikaniel was more than happy to oblige.
                They pressed on, avoiding angry students along the path that bisected the neighborhoods.  Nikaniel wished he could speed out of there quicker on his Inline Skids, but feared that Nancy would not be able to keep up.  Her migraine continued to intensify, right up until they reached her home.  Nikaniel knocked on the door and looked over his shoulder as he heard two cars crash into each other.  Mrs. Gale opened the door as the two drivers got out and proceeded to scream at each other.
                “Nancy, you’re home early,” Mrs. Gale said, dabbing her eyes with a kerchief.
                “Are you okay?” Nikaniel asked.  “School’s been out for ten minutes.  It’s Friday.”
                “Oh, right,” Mrs. Gale said, holding back more tears.
                “Nancy might be sick,” Nikaniel said, helping the girl into the house.
                “Probably stress from the day,” Mrs. Gale sobbed.  “Boot, could you run her a hot bath?”
                “I will do as you ask,” Boot said in its bland, unaffected robotic tone.  Nikaniel was about to enter the house with them, worried about the condition the two women were in, but the stocky robot blocked his way.  “Please leave the premises immediately.”
                “You don’t tell me what to do,” Nikaniel said, scowling at the robot.  Boot tilted its eyelids so that it appeared to have a scowl to match the boy’s, and with a flourish of its arms, it pushed him clear of the entrance and slammed the door shut.
                “I hate that robot,” Nikaniel said, balling up his fists and heading home.  As the distant air rang with car horns, the boy shook his head and wondered what was happening to his town.  And what had happened to him?

*              *              *

                “Another beautiful morning, right Bob?  Pity the viewers have to have the gorgeous peace and tranquility broken by your lopsided head, which must be absolutely protruding through their Trideo displays.”
                “You can go to Hell, Betty!  You and that fat horse you rode in on, oh, my mistake, those wrinkly old saddlebags must be your thighs!”
                “What a wonderful anecdote about your mother, did you write it this morning with a crayon?  Next we have a traffic report that our viewers will be too dense to understand!”
                The anchors for the local news had smiles plastered over their faces and spoke in professional tones, but the twitching and redness of their skin betrayed their true feelings of hostility.  Nikaniel watched the news with his mouth agape and milk from his last spoonful of cereal dribbling down his chin.  His cousin Famous and Granny Graham were shouting at each other in the other room, but the younger boy had been so distracted by the news report.  As he turned his attention to his relatives, he was further disturbed by the focus of their argument.
                “Famous, for the last time, don’t shave between your eyebrows!  It makes you look like your eyes are too far apart!  Do you want people thinking you’re some kind of fish-headed boy?”
                “I don’t look like a fish!  Leave me alone!  Let go of my razor!”
                “Stop shaving!  Nikaniel, get in here and pick up your towel!”
                “I need to go to school now!” Nikaniel called back with a dangerous edge to his voice.  He was shocked as he realized his emotions were somehow dragging him into the argument and when he looked down at his hand, which grasped his spoon, he saw a line of blood run down his palm.  “Why am I holding this so tight?”  He tossed the spoon in the sink and went to get a bandage.
                Suddenly there was a frantic knock at the front door, as though some lunatic were trying to break into their house.  Nikaniel grabbed the closest weapon he could find, a large, wooden spoon, and cautiously approached the door.
                “Nikaniel, get the door and come pick up this towel!”
                “I am opening the door!” Nikaniel called back, feeling a viciousness enter back into his head.  He opened the door and held the spoon out threateningly at the person on the other side.  “Nancy?”
                Nancy was indeed standing at the door and looked at him holding the spoon towards her like a knife.  Her eyes were wide and stained with tears, and just beyond her the street was choked with people’s cars, which had been abandoned by their drivers.  People were arguing all around them, as though the entire world were out of control.
                “Please,” Nancy said, grabbing Nikaniel by the arm.  “My mom, I don’t know what to do.”
                “How did you find my house?”
                “I looked it up in the neighborhood directory.  Please, I don’t know what to do.  Everyone’s going insane.”
                Granny Graham and Famous appeared behind Nikaniel, both tense and shaking with rage, but when they saw Nancy they became almost transfixed.  Though terrified, her presence was strangely southing and her words almost hypnotic.
                “What’s wrong with her?” Nikaniel asked.
                “I don’t know,” furrowed her brow.  Tears cascaded down her cheeks and she turned around to run towards her home.
                The three Grahams followed after, growing steadily conscious of the chaos afflicting their neighborhood.  A din was rising in the air and they all gasped at seeing a faint column of smoke in the distance.  Was the entire world falling apart?  They all wondered as they reached Nancy’s house.  A delivery truck was crashed against a light pole, which had fallen into the Gale’s yard and lay in a twisted heap, blinking on and off.  Nancy hurried inside and asked Boot to let the Grahams into her house.
                Inside they found Mrs. Gale sobbing uncontrollably and shaking, her skin pale and hair in an upheaval from being pulled at.  Granny Graham and Famous helped lift the woman onto her couch.  The older woman gently shook Nancy’s mother while patting her on the cheek.
                “There now, what’s gotten into you?”
                “My rabbit,” Mrs. Gale sobbed and launched into a torrent of slurred speech they could barely understand, only catching glimpses of reason in her tangled ramblings.  “…had put down…why did he leave us?  He’s with another woman!”
                “Dad?” Nancy asked.
                “Pay it no mind,” Granny Graham said.  “Famous, go get a cup of water.  Nikaniel, go…do something.”
                Everyone was at a loss.  Nothing made sense anymore.  Nancy wracked her mind, which still burned from the day before.  The intensity of the migraine had dulled, but she was always in pain now.  She went to the window and cried for several moments.  Granny tried to get Mrs. Gale to drink the water brought in by Famous, but the distraught woman wouldn’t drink.  After several failed attempts, the water fell to the floor, the bulk of it forming a puddle in the middle of the living room.
                “Nikaniel, why don’t you get a towel and mop this up?”
                Nancy turned and looked at the water.  When Nikaniel stomped past it, she saw its surface ripple before gradually absorbing into the carpet.  An image formed in Nancy’s mind of ripples and she pondered this.  Looking again out the window, she closed her eyes and felt the patterns of her migraine.  Something was pulsing in the distance, and with each burst of energy, she felt the disturbances.  The ripples she sensed were fast and faint, but the more she concentrated, the easier it was to see.  Though she could not discern where these disturbances were coming from, she knew it wasn’t natural and that it must have something to do with the chaos plaguing their town.
                Another idea came into Nancy’s mind.  She approached her mother and held the woman’s head close to her chest.  Breathing in deeply, she concentrated on her mother’s mind and was startled when she felt her turmoil!  Images, however faint, flashed through Nancy’s head.  Images of her mother clutching a rabbit with small, childlike hands.  Images of her grandfather, a younger man, taking the rabbit away, and grandmother, also younger, explaining that the rabbit had to be put down because it was sick.
                Nancy pulled herself away from her mother and looked at Nikaniel and Granny Graham with utter bewilderment.
                “What’s wrong?” Granny Graham asked.
                “I can read her thoughts!” Nancy cried.
                What?” Famous said, standing in the corner of the room where he had his hands jammed down his pockets and wiggled his feet.
                “I don’t know how, it must have been that light…we should go to the school!”
                “What’s at the school?” Nikaniel asked, still trying to push past the idea that the new girl in town was telepathic.
                “I don’t know, I feel something…disturbing the air.  I think it’s affecting everyone and I overheard some kids talk about some kind of shadow in the cafeteria.  It might be connected.  We have to go, but first…”
                Nancy turned back to her mother and tried to project her thoughts into the older woman’s mind.  She worried about damaging the now frantic state of her memories and felt deeper.  Not knowing what to do, she tried to exude calmness.  This seemed to work and the Grahams gasped as her mother stopped muttering and slumped over on the couch.
                Everyone watched her, fearing the very worst.  Only Nancy smiled and was not at all surprised when her mother began snoring softly.  She had accidentally triggered sleep instead of calm, but at least for the time, the woman was at peace.

*              *              *

                “You blubber pot,” Rasmussen shouted at his partner.  Their arguing and tussling caused their black van to rock back and forth, but everyone beyond their tinted windows was too wrapped up in their own anger and hostilities to pay it any mind.  “Thanks to you and your stupid brain, which happens to be incredibly stupid, we lost the girl again!”
                “Why am I the only one who has to watch out for her?” Larson retaliated, pushing the tall, thin man away.  “You could open your damn eyes once in a while, if you weren’t too busy eyeing ever twenty-year-old butt whipping past your window.”
                “Shut up, you big tub of lard.  Why are you so fat?”
                “Why are you so lame-brained?”
                “Tubby!”
                “Lame Brain!”
                Both men reached into their holsters and drew pistols on each other.  Each weapon was trained on each man’s forehead, trembling from the tightness of their respective grips.  Indication lights atop each receiver told them that the power cells were dead.  Eventually they both noticed this and began chuckling nervously.
                “Guess I forgot to charge them last night after we spent time at the shooting range,” Larson laughed, putting his gun back into its holster.
                “I don’t know what’s gotten into me,” Rasmussen said, also putting his weapon away.  “It’s like everything annoys me right now.”
                “I know, right?” Larson shouted, clapping him on the shoulder.  “It’s like, every word that comes out of your mouth just pisses me off and makes me want to cram a rolled-up newspaper down your throat!”
                “And every new stain you leave in the upholstery makes me want to beat you over the head with a sock full of nails!”  Both men laughed until hoarse, and after lengthy coughing spasm, they began eyeing each other suspiciously once more.
                “You could have remembered to bring some water,” Larson choked the words through his strained throat.
                “You could have remembered to bring your brain,” Rasmussen said, also wheezing.
                After glaring at each other for several more moments, the men caught sight of a familiar auburn-haired girl running by.  She was accompanied by a strange black youth that neither had seen before, and a short robot trailed close behind, flashing emergency lights from its head.
                “That’s her!” Rasmussen gasped.  “Let’s get a move on.  This time, make sure you grab a gun that doesn’t have a dead energy cell.”


*              *              *

Nancy and Nikaniel halted in their tracks immediately after passing through the front entrance to Albertson High.  There weren’t many people here, but the few that were had fallen into a state of utter mayhem.  Teachers, students and office staff were exhibiting every kind of irrational behavior, some laughing hysterically, others arguing and some had merely slumped to the ground where they either cried or stared off into space.
                “What do we do?” Nancy asked.
                “This is your idea,” Nikaniel reminded her.  “Didn’t you want to check out the cafeteria?”
                Before Nancy could respond, Andrew Payne suddenly appeared from behind a column and took a wild swing.  Nikaniel had been so flummoxed by the state of his school that he couldn’t bring himself to dodge the blow, which landed soundly on the side of his face.  He reeled away and ducked as Andrew threw a second punch.  Nancy grabbed the crazed bully by his leg but was kicked so hard in the stomach by his free foot that she collapsed into a heap.
                Nikaniel snarled at Andrew as Nancy gasped for breath, the pain drawing her body together like a steel coil.  Knowing that words were useless against the troubled boy, Nikaniel simply shoved him into a corner and cocked his fist back, ready to rain blows upon him.
                “Don’t,” Nancy wheezed.  “Let me try.”
                She approached Andrew Payne who stared at her with eyes bulging to intensely that she worried he would tear his own face.  She felt a lot of pain in him and reached out with her thoughts as she had done with her mother.  More images flashed through her head: recollections of a boy, through many stages of his young life, perceiving acts of violence by a large man, a man who resembled Andrew Payne.  Nancy could not believe the memories she witnessed, each one a cascade of one abusive episode to the next.  Andrew was a wounded animal, caught up in a labyrinth of burning and anguish that he was running through in a mad exodus to find any kind of relief.
                Nancy could bare no more and simply shut his mind down, plunging him into a deep sleep.
                Exiting his memories, Nancy slouched and let her head fall into her hands.
                “Looks like it worked,” Nikaniel said, watching the once demented Andrew sleeping fitfully as a child.  “Are you okay?”
                “Don’t be mad at him,” she said through her hands.  “Just… feel sorry for him.”
                Feel sorry for Andrew Payne?  Nikaniel couldn’t understand why she would say that and simply chalked it up to her apparent naivete.  Yet, looking at her brushing more tears away and walking shakily beside him made him wonder what exactly she had seen.  Is she really telepathic?
                “Are all the girls on the Mars Orbital like you?” Nikaniel asked halfway through their trek to the lunch room.  “You know, all third eye and psychotic?”
                “I think you mean psionic.  No, this just started happening when my mom and I came to Earth.  There was a glowing object outside our shuttle and it hit me with something.  Some kind of ray.  I’ve been having headaches ever since.”
                “Maybe the Jovians are attacking.  Maybe they’re messing with everyone’s heads so they can take over.”
                “I don’t think it’s the Jovians.  Nobody could do all this.  At least I hope they couldn’t.”
                The pair entered the lunch room, which appeared to have been evacuated in a desperate hurry.  Tables and chairs were flipped over and scattered across the floor, and students’ backpacks littered the corners of the room.  Nancy looked all around, feeling with her mind.  She shook her head, realizing that this was not the source of the heinous ripples that stirred everyone into chaos, yet there was something there.
                As Nikaniel dug through overturned chairs, Nancy slowly looked up to the ceiling where she immediately felt the presence of something very small, yet rooted powerfully, like a plant that ran deep underground.  The air in the corner of the ceiling changed as she watched and suddenly several red eyes peeked down at her, as though looking through a shroud.
                “There’s something there,” Nancy said, pointing out the anomaly to Nikaniel.
                 Both stood and watched as the body belonging to the many eyes began to consolidate into one dark, menacing shape.  Like a black hornet the size of a German Shepherd, the creature grasped at the interior architecture of the building, tearing through metals and plastics with barbed talons as though tearing through paper.  It slowly walked along the ceiling, moving directly above them, then passing over to an opposite wall where it climbed down to the floor.  Long, slender wings buzzed and irritated the air with a horrible sound and mandibles writhed below its eye-clustered head.
                “What is that?” Nikaniel asked.
                “It looks like an insect, like it’s alive, but I think it’s a machine,” Nancy said and watched as a drill-like appendage extended from its mouth like a curious tongue.
                Examinations cannot confirm, a voice penetrated Nancy’s mind.  How can this inconsequential perceive our location?  We require specific data.
                “What do you mean?” Nancy asked, drawing a confused look from Nikaniel.
                “I didn’t say anything,” he replied and worried that Nancy was going mad from the encounter.
                The other inconsequential cannot perceive our words, how can this one?  The female must be brought back for examination to confirm our hypothesis.  Suddenly, the giant wasp lunged forward, grasping Nancy in its forelegs.  In the blink of an eye, Nikaniel picked up a chair and slammed it down on the creature’s wings just as it started ascending.  The crippled appendages crinkled and struggled to maintain altitude, so Nikaniel brought the chair down on them one more time, crushing the head of the creature.
                Nancy kicked it away and both watched horrified as it staggered about, dripping silvery liquid from its wounds, which sparked with electricity and instantaneously burned when it contacted the floor.  Sparks showered all around it as it crawled desperately for one of the windows.  Before climbing out of the school, it looked back on Nancy and Nikaniel, staring hard with its remaining eyes.  In an instant it was gone, launching out into the open air and vanishing, leaving a trail of burning puddles behind as the only evidence of its existence.
                “What was that stuff?” Nikaniel said, blowing on his hands as he realized that a speck of the creature’s silvery blood had touched one of his fingers.  “Now I’ve got a hole burned in my skin!”
                “It could talk to me,” Nancy said, shaking.  “Let’s get out of here, please?  I want to go home.”
                “Are you okay?”
                “My headache is gone,” the girl shrugged.  “But I’m worried about mom.”
                “Guess I’m worried about Granny too.  And Famous.  But what should we do about that bug?  I think it was heading to the woods, on the East side.  At least I think that’s East.”  Nikaniel sighed: he could never be sure what direction anything was in when it came to navigating the endless forests of the Carolinas.

*              *              *

                “What a wasted day, all because everyone went crazy,” Rasmussen said, speaking blearily through intense pain in his head.  The two couldn’t be sure what had happened, but at the height of their rage, the desire to destroy one another faded away, leaving behind a glaring pain in their heads to rival the heaviest night of binge drinking.
                “Guess we should call it in, right?” Larson asked, massaging his temples and handing a cold bottle of water to his partner.
                “No, the boss only paid us a quarter in advance, I want the rest of that money.  We know where she lives, I say we change the paint on the van and just park across the street.  I don’t care if they see us anymore.”
                “Can we paint it to look like an ice cream truck?”
                “Why?”
                “Then we would have a reason to keep ice cream in here.  I’m starving.”
                “You would be, you big piece of crap.”
                “But, you know, Rasmussen?”
                “Wh-a-a-a-a-t?” the thin man said, drawing his voice out in an angsty stammer.
                “I sure am glad we made it: this is the scariest job we’ve ever worked, you know?  Makes me wonder if it’s at all worth it.”
                “For 50K?  Maybe it is, but if we end up having to kill someone, he better double it.  I’m not getting a new background again.”

*              *              *

Ms. Baqri was the first adult to come out of the haze of anger that afflicted the entire community.  As she rubbed her brow, she noticed Nancy and Nikaniel slowly walk from the cafeteria, each looking exhausted and tense.  The older Pakistani woman approached them, eyes full of concern.
                “Do either of you need me to call your parents?” she asked, the stress in her tone strengthening her accent so much that both students had to stop and decipher what she had said.
                “No,” Nancy said, “we’re fine.  Are any students or teachers hurt?”
                “A few, but nothing serious.  You two should head on home, the principal’s trying to call the police, but everyone in the city is either unavailable or too busy to answer.”
                Nancy looked apologetically at Ms. Baqri, sensing fear mounting in her.  It struck the girl for the first time that adults were almost as powerless as students, especially in these situations, and at their core, they were just as frightened and confused as any child.  Nancy hugged the older woman and thanked her.
                “Maybe you should get home and rest too.  Your stepson is probably just as worried as you are about everything going on.”
                Ms. Baqri cupped her hand over her mouth and sobbed at the thought of this.  Nikaniel and Nancy walked towards the front vestibule, weaving through the spaced and distraught students that still remained in the building.  The SSI teacher turned to grab her belongings, but stopped suddenly.  She just got to this school, how could she possibly have known that I have a stepson?
                Nancy and Nikaniel took their time returning to the Gale residence.  In spite of being worried for their families, both were exhausted and felt ready to collapse.  Nancy looked up at the crisp, blue sky and small, blobby clouds that clustered around each horizon.  For some reason it bothered her that all of the immensity of Earth seemed unaffected by the events of the day.  Smoke still rose from parts of the outlying community and sirens blared in the distance.  A new chaos was forming, but this time it was the chaos of having to rapidly pick up the pieces after a hard-fought turbulence.
                Mrs. Gale had been awake for almost a half hour by the time Nancy found her, and Granny Graham had taken Famous back to their home.  Nancy bid her farewell to Nikaniel but didn’t want him to leave.  Strangely enough, Nikaniel seemed to hesitate on their porch for several moments, even after the door closed behind him.
                Little was said between Nancy and her Mother.  The silence was harsh, but understandable as neither woman could come to grips with what they had been through.  All Nancy could do was shower and lay down in bed.  She had been wrestling with the weight of her eyelids since she and Nikaniel left the school and it seemed that she would finally lose.  As she laid her damp head on her pillow, she thought about the kind boy she had befriended.  There was a strange kinship between the two of them and she wished to have him there as a pillar to support herself on.
                Even as she fell asleep, her thoughts focused on the African boy and his calming demeanor.  As though laying to rest on the back of a plane, she felt her consciousness drift away from her own body and circle far and wide in the dimensions of air over the Albertson community.  Even while at rest, Nancy felt as though she had reawakened to another state of being, one she had never known before.  Unable to make heads or tails of it, she searched for familiarity in the sea of slumbering minds.  After circling through the haze of consciousness, she discovered a bright kernel that felt familiar.
                Nikaniel was asleep, but his mind flickered with activity as his brain tried to reconcile all the events that had transpired that day.  Worried that she might disturb the gentle activity of his brain organizing his thoughts, she carefully slid in through a part of his mind that was more alive with thought.  She entered through his dreams.
                Nancy found herself back in the school, which had been vandalized by all kinds of hateful images: language both lewd and hateful peppered the air and Nikaniel was set in the midst of it.  Feeling great pity for her friend, Nancy reverberated her will through the strange dimension and caused all of the horrid elements of Nikaniel’s dreams to melt away into the ether of his subconscious.  They still existed, but at least they could no longer harrow up his mind.
                “How do you feel now?” Nancy asked he friend.  Both appeared to each other the way they always imagined themselves: dressed in their normal clothes, yet there was radiance in their skin and eyes, as though they were exuding knowledge and truth to one another.
                “Are you in my head?” Nikaniel asked, rubbing his eyes.  His dreams had never felt so real, but with Nancy in his head, it was as though he had access to all of his faculties.
                “I don’t know how,” Nancy smiled.  “I fell asleep and simply found you.  I can still feel my mind resting in my own head, back home, but somehow I can link myself into your mind and experience things like I was awake!”
                “Okay,” Nikaniel said, standing away from her and bearing a look of mistrust on his face.
                “What’s wrong?  You don’t trust me?”
                “It’s not that, it’s just that a lot of weird things have happened since you moved into the neighborhood.  Are you sure Spacers aren’t all psychic?”
                “No, I told you, I saw this object outside our shuttle.”  Nancy held out her hands and caused a radiant shape to materialize in the air.  The object was sleek and rounded, like a vessel meant to traverse any kind of atmosphere at fantastic speeds.  Nikaniel looked it over, wondering if there was a cockpit or something else that betrayed its true nature.
                “Do you remember anything else about it?” he asked, scratching his head.
                “No, I just saw it on a display.  I don’t think it’s from Earth or any of the other Colonies.”
                “Unless the government’s got secret probes flying around, giving people psychic powers.”
                “You’re funny,” Nancy giggled.  She was glad she could find humor in their peculiar situation.  “But you thought it was the Jovians before.”
                “You heard the news, right?  They’re getting a bunch of ships ready by the Asteroid Belt, like they’re planning an invasion.  Maybe this bug thing and the weird behavior in town is part of it.”
                “When I got home, the news didn’t mention anything about this happening outside of Albertson.  Of course, it looked like they had interns or something running the station, so they probably didn’t know anything yet.”
                “What do you think’s going on?”
                “I think there could be three groups at play here.  Earth, obviously, and the outlining colonies.  The Jovians, whatever they’re up to.  Could be that they want to invade, or maybe they just want to come back to Earth because life is too hard out there.”
                “And the third?”
                “I don’t know.  The glowing probe that zapped me and that weird Biot thing, either they’re together or working against each other, which I guess means there could be four groups comprising this whole mess.”
                “Biot?”
                “Oh, it’s a word I looked up.  It’s an old science fiction word for a robot that is so advanced it looks like a biological thing, like an animal.  See?  Bio and Robotic, or Biot for short.”
                “Weird.”
                “Nikaniel?”
                “What?”
                “I don’t think the adults will be of any use in this situation.  They’re all as scared and confused as you and me, and I seem to be the only one who can sense the disturbances in the air.”
                “What are you getting at?”
                “I think we should use my abilities and find the source of the bad vibrations.”
                “And do what exactly?”
                “Well, we’re going to have to stop it at all costs.  You saw what happened, a lot of people got hurt, maybe even died.  Everyone’s scared and I’m afraid that, if those disturbances come back, it might just make everyone die off from the stress.”
                “Maybe they’ll resist it.  I was able to, and I don’t have psychic powers like you.”
                “That’s because you chose to.  Whatever caused this to happen was simply tapping into the parts of peoples’ minds that govern stress.  Kind of like how drugs can trigger negative behavior in some people, but if you noticed, while some people were arguing and fighting, others were just crying and laying down like they had given up.  I think everyone has the ability to resist it, like you said, but it depends on how strong their will is, and what kind of attitudes they have.”
                “And you don’t think people are strong enough to handle it again?”
                “No.”
                Nancy’s words cut Nikaniel to the core.  His thoughts reached a dead end and he began to see Nancy’s points gaining in validity.  But he couldn’t figure out how they could stop whatever forces were afflicting the community.
                “I think I can help you,” Nancy said, reaching out to Nikaniel’s shoulders.  “I’ve been thinking about it, and I might be able to insulate your mind against further attacks.”
                “How?”
                “Just let me try.”  Nancy held Nikaniel closer to herself until they were pressing their residual foreheads together.  Nikaniel felt something wash over his consciousness, like a torrent of water that purged weakness from the frame of his mind.  His thoughts felt much clearer than they ever had before, and though he could not obtain abilities like Nancy’s, he at least felt more aware of his own mind and its workings.  It gave him hope that, regardless of whatever they faced, he may actually stand a chance.  Especially with Nancy by his side.

*              *              *

                “In light of yesterday’s…technical difficulties,” Bob started to say at the beginning of the Saturday morning news hour.  He and his co-anchor appeared almost undead with dark circles under their eyes and facial expressions that landed somewhere between angry pride and shameful embarrassment.
                “Yeah, technical difficulties,” Betty nodded, leaning closer to the camera, which caused stray strands of hair to fall in front of her glazed over eyes.
                “…the station management would like us to make a formal apology to our viewers for conduct and language not befitting of professional newscasters.”
                “Everything said during yesterday’s reports came under severe and unprecedented duress,” Better nodded while scooping her hair away from her face.
                “Yeah, right,” Bob muttered and immediately straightened up when he noticed the cameras projecting footage of him rolling his eyes.
                “And speaking of yesterday’s events, officials are still searching for the cause of the rash of odd behavior, which swept over Albertson.  Reports speak of it beginning the day before and lasting until yesterday afternoon.  Local scientists have confirmed that the water and air are non-toxic and that people should not be afraid to leave their homes.  We can also confirm that Albertson appears to have been the only known community in the nation to suffer from this wide-spread episode.  Experts from around the globe have zeroed in on our town and will be arriving within hours to conduct their own studies.  Police and the Mayor’s office would like citizens to comply with any and all of their questions.
“If you do have objections,” Bob added, “there is a link on the city’s Net Page you may contact if you wish to be placed under a ‘5th Reservation’ protection.”
“I can’t even do that fast enough,” Mrs. Gale said, turning off the Trideo set and picked up her Handicomp.  “I’m glad you don’t have school today, I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have you here.”
“Oh,” Nancy said and looked at her feet embarrassedly.  “I was kind of hoping to spend time with Nikaniel later this morning.”
“Nikaniel, eh?  He really is a nice boy, I’m glad you two have become such fast friends.  I know it took a load off your father’s mind when he messaged last night.”
“Dad messaged us?”  Nancy sat up straight and looked at her mother, wide-eyed and hopeful.
“Yeah, sorry, I would have woke you up, but he could only chat for a couple of minutes.  He’s also happy that Boot is such a big help, and he assured me that it won’t kill anyone.”
“That’s good,” Nancy slouched back into the sofa, wishing he would arrive already.  There still wasn’t any word on when he was going to depart from the Mars Orbital, which greatly frustrated the two women.  Everything he did was veiled in secrecy, yet to Nancy it felt as though only she and her mother were the only ones in the entire solar system who didn’t know.
“So, what plans do you and Nikaniel have for today?  I really should take his family out to dinner some time to thank them for helping us yesterday.”
“We were going to walk in the woods and see if we can figure out what caused the disturbance.”
“I don’t know, you should leave that to the authorities.  There’s too much danger right now.”
Nancy suddenly wished she had not told her mother everything about the day before.  Though at first it seemed a relief to her that her mother hadn’t reacted badly to learning of her psychic abilities, the woman hadn’t said anything of it all morning.  Nancy could sense she was avoiding even thinking about it.  She didn’t want to raise the issue, worrying that it would cause great upset, yet she knew they would have to come to terms with it sooner or later.
“I’ll be fine,” Nancy said calmly.  Inside she was tense and nervous but had learned how to keep this from showing in her outward composure.
“I’m sure you think you will, being able to read peoples’ minds and all, but like your father says, you should never overestimate your skills until you actually do something that beats your expectations.”
“Did you tell dad?  About me?”
“No, I really don’t think he could handle that kind of news.  He’s under so much stress working with this new client, I don’t want to worry him.”
“He’s going to have to know sooner or later.”
“Later,” Mrs. Gale said defeatedly.  “I’ll tell him later.  Have you been telling anyone else?”
“No, only the Grahams know.  And I really should go out now.”
“I suppose I can’t stop you.  Probably would put me to sleep if I tried.”
“That’s not true,” Nancy frowned, upset that her mother would even think that.  “You could come with us.”
                “I should…but I honestly don’t think I would be any help.  I’ll just keep Boot with him for protection.”
                “Are you sure?” Nancy frowned, not wanting to abandon her mother who still seemed on edge from the day before.
                “Don’t worry, just promise me that you and Nikaniel won’t overdo it out there.  The second there’s even a hint of danger, I want you to come back home.  We don’t know anything about what has been going on, and some folks on the Net think it could be Jovians trying to meddle with people.”
                “I don’t think it’s Jovians, Mom.”
                “If it isn’t, it’s probably something worse.”
                 
*              *              *

Nancy Gale sensed tension within the Graham home before she reached the door.  Nikaniel allowed her to come in, having anticipated her arrival and waited by the front window.  They entered the kitchen where Granny Graham and Famous were arguing over which of the boys’ turn it was to process the garbage in their waste bins.
                “Nancy and I are going out,” Nikaniel called out over the loud tones of his relatives.  Both Granny Graham and Famous ceased bickering and looked at the two younger persons in their midst.  Nancy felt a change come over their minds and knew they were worried.
                “You’re going to go stomp through the woods?” Granny Graham asked.  “Fixing to solve whatever craziness is going on?  Famous will drive you.”
                “No,” Famous said flatly.  “The roads in the woods are too rough for my wheels.
                “That car was built for off-roading!” Nikaniel shouted.
                “It’s an antique petrol car and I don’t want to damage it on muddy, rocky roads!”
                “What kind of car is it?” Nancy asked.
                “Check it out!” Nikaniel said happily and took Nancy by the arm.
                The four left through the back door of their house, which opened to an outside carport.  Next to Granny Graham’s fairly modern, electric-powered sedan was a vehicle Nancy had only seen in old 2D movies.  It was quite boxy and had clunky, rubbery tires.  The windshield was flat and its body, which had paint almost a century old, looked frayed and tired like an old soldier who had been sitting in his uniform for far too long.
                “It’s called a jeep!” Nikaniel smiled.  “And it runs on petroleum!  That means it actually uses explosions to go!”
                “Tiny, concentrated explosions, thank you,” Famous said, using his shirt to wipe pollen from the hood ornament.
                “And it can really drive?” Nancy asked, admiring the craftsmanship of a bygone century.
                “It sure can,” Famous said, brightening up as though Nancy had just complimented a flesh and blood child.  “Spent all of last summer printing off the parts and putting them together.  Even updated its old fidgety GPS to connect with the Net.”
                “Why don’t you take the kids on a drive through the woods?” Granny Graham said in a pleasant tone.  Nancy sensed that the older woman was doing her best to sound proper and kind for her benefit, and as a course of action, Famous softened.
                “Only a little ways,” the older boy sighed.  “And don’t ask me to go off any jumps, I only replaced one of the brakes, the other three are original!”
                After allowing Granny Graham enough time to pack lunches for the trio, they climbed into the jeep and watched as Famous ceremoniously inserted a key into the ignition port.  Nancy thought this was absolutely darling, comparing the use of the key starter to unlocking ancient treasure chests filled with gold.  When the motor roared to life, the girl clutched the bottom of her seat.
                “Is it broken?” she cried.
                “That’s just the sound of the motor turning over,” Famous grinned.  “Even this shaking is normal, just means it’s ready to go.”
                “I don’t think it was meant to shake this much,” Nikaniel laughed as Famous backed the vehicle out of their car port.  Nancy once again found no shortage of charm in the fact that everything had to be done manually, and Famous’s jerky and uncertain maneuvers betrayed the fact that he had very little practice using it.
                After switching on the GPS, they followed a constantly adjusting rout, which was displayed with flat, grainy graphics.  Again, Nancy was delighted by the jeep.  She even enjoyed the peculiar looks given to them by other drivers and pedestrians while they passed through the edge of town.  Nikaniel followed the GPS rout all the way to a popular picnic area.  Due to recent events, nobody was around and the public area looked to have been abandoned in a hurry with rubbish strewn everywhere.
                “There’s a trail over there,” Nikaniel said, pointing to a small bike trail that was clearly marked with an animated sign that warned against recreational vehicles.
                “This is too big for that,” Famous scowled back at his younger cousin.
                “I think the bug flew in that direction,” Nancy said, pointing to another trail with just as narrow tracks.
                “We can squeeze along that.”
                “No way, this is as far as I take you.  You guys can walk and I’ll just wait here.  If there’s any problem, you can call me.”
                “But what if there’s a problem we have to get away from fast?” Nikaniel protested.
                “Tough,” Famous cringed.  He folded his arms across his chest and looked away from Nancy and Nikaniel.  Nikaniel knew this as his cousin’s ultimate method for refusing anything asked of him.  The boy sighed and undid his safety belt while reaching for the door handle.  Nancy was hesitant to give up just yet and she lightly touched Famous’ elbow.
                “Couldn’t you drive us just a little bit further?” she asked.
                Famous’s response was to immediately harden himself.  He breathed in stiffly, but upon looking over at Nancy’s childlike expression he immediately slouched and let out a long, exasperated sigh.
                “Just a little bit further,” he gritted his teeth and put the jeep back into gear.  “Wait, you didn’t use any of that psychotic power, did you?”
                “No,” Nancy said, but looked back at Nikaniel and held her thumb and index finger close together while mouthing the words “a little.”  Nikaniel smiled as the jeep lurched into the woods.
                The trail was just barely wide enough to admit the bulky, old vehicle and provided no shortage of bumps along the way.  Nancy felt herself wearying as she grasped whatever handholds were available to steady herself.  Nikaniel simply allowed himself to be jostled about as his cousin struggled to stay the course.  The older boy would constantly switch between giving the accelerator a feather’s touch and all the weight he could muster whenever the vehicle seemed stuck.
                Nancy looked out the window, trying not to get sick from the uncomfortable ride.  She gazed through the forests of Albertson and slowly fell in love.  It was like every enchanted fairtyail she had ever enjoyed as a child was unfurling and stretching outwards between every mossy pine tree.  She half expected to see enchanted fairy folk and their colorful abodes nestled among the ferns and shrubs.  Earth was beautiful, in spite of every history lesson she had ever heard about mankind’s constant prediction of nature’s undoing.  Life thrived and prevailed against all the uncertainty of mankind’s schemes, surviving wars and nuclear assaults.  Withstanding chataclysmic events of every kind.  Nancy hoped to be as strong as the foundations of humanity’s home.
                Then something pricked her mind.  Painful and sharp, she felt the presence of something nearby and her thoughts bled over the horizon some distance away.  Though the dense formations of trees obscured everything past a few hundred yards, she knew it was out there, whatever had set itself against the people of Albertson.
                “That way,” she said, pointing in an area just left of their direction.
                “Okay, this is far enough then,” Famous said.
                “No, keep driving,” Nancy said, a little forceful.  She drew concerned looks from both of the Graham boys, as though she had suddenly transformed into a tyrant.  “I’m sorry,” she lowered her head, embarrassed.  “But please, just take us in that direction.  There’s something over there.”
                Wordlessly, Famous steered the jeep off the trail, careful not to come too close to the trees.  His trail meandered so much he worried about losing sight of the direction, but Nancy pointed it out each time he lost track.  The closer they came, the more the feeling in Nancy’s mind worsened.  The disturbance she felt was strong, like a small star pulsating with waves of irritation.  It almost made her angry, but realizing this, she focused her thoughts and insulated her mind against whatever presence was upsetting her.
                The jeep went up a rise in the terrain, which Famous struggled against as the jeep’s tires failed to grip the slick, grassy earth.  Nancy urged the jeep on, wishing she could somehow push it.  Then she felt her seat wobble, as though she were ready to wrench it out of its fixtures.  Realizing this, she enveloped the whole vehicle with her thoughts and gasped as she felt the pin pricks of every particle of matter comprising the jeep.  She focused on the parts that seemed most substantial, such as the frame, and pushed it forward until they surmounted the hill.
                At the top of the rise, Famous slammed on the brakes and he and Famous stared on ahead, eyes wide with concern at what they saw.  It took Nancy a moment to register this as she felt strained and exhausted.  Her whole mind felt as though she had just run a marathon and she massaged her brows to ease some of the tightness in her forehead.  When she lowered her hands and looked ahead, she too was distraught.
                The forest had been flattened, as though by an inestimably dense disc.  Trees lay flat, all pointing away from the epicenter where a great hole had been dug with earth piled all around it.  Rising from the hole, above the piles of earth was something dark and sinister, like a hellish flower whose surface cascaded with lights.  Vessels and conduits growing within the stalk of the flower pulsated as though made from living flesh that was fed by a heart.  Nancy even felt throbbing in the air as this living thing drew energy from the ground and converted it into refined power.
                “What is that?” Famous asked, shaking his head.  “No, no, I don’t want to know, no, no, no.  We’re going.”
                “It’s kind of like that bug we saw in the cafeteria,” Nikaniel said, pointing at the thing.
                “You’re right,” Nancy said.  Truly, the flower, which had aspects of both plant and machine, was of the same sophisticated, yet disturbing build as the giant hornet.
                Without a word, the auburn-haired girl unbuckled her belt and opened the door.  Nikaniel did the same while Famous wordlessly jabbered to himself and held his hands helplessly in the air.  Unable to protest, the older boy held his foot firmly on the brake and watched as his younger cousin and new neighbor walked down the hill and entered the clearing.

*              *              *

                “What’s our plan here, exactly?” Nikaniel asked, walking sideways just a little ahead of Nancy who struggled to keep up.
                “I don’t know,” she said, fixing her gaze on the giant flower.  “We just need to see what’s going on and maybe report back to the police.”
                “Why don’t we do that now?”
                “Because we may be able to disable it somehow.”
                “Disable it?  You think this is what made everyone go nuts yesterday?”
                “Has to be,” Nancy said, looking at Nikaniel sternly.  “This shouldn’t be here, it’s not like anything anyone’s ever seen and it has to be linked with the enemy.”
                The two stopped several paces away from the stalk of the flower.  Its entire form was jagged, covered in dense alloy panels and black, fleshy conduits.  The lights seemed to intensify when they came close and the top of the flower swayed.  After a moment watching it, the two youths stepped back when they saw the flower at the top unfurl more fully.  Each petal looked treacherous and hummed from unseen energy surging within.  Before Nancy and Nikaniel realized what was happening, the flower erupted into a bright light and the air all around them was wracked with invisible force.
                Nancy and Nikaniel doubled over and held their heads as a horrible feeling burst through their minds.  They both fell to the ground, unable to use their own legs and soon their hands dropped form their heads.  Their bodies felt as though they were being pressed against the ground and as they looked at each other they noticed the earth shaking.
                Things were clawing their way up through the loose earth and Nancy and Nikaniel were utterly powerless to do anything about it.  Within moments they were surrounded by biots: all of them like the giant hornet in every way, except whole and more menacing.  The robotic creatures chittered and extended drills from their mouth parts as though preparing to devour the two kids.
                Nancy reached out with her thoughts until she felt Famous’s mind, higher up on the hill.  Using the remaining strands of will available to her, she compelled him into action.
                Famous was unaware of his actions until he was already barreling down the hill.  Passing through the last few standing trees, he sped across the open ground, passing between fallen pines and bounding over bumps in the terrain.  The flower was just ahead of him, as well as dozens of horrid creatures, which he could see surrounding Nancy and Nikaniel.
                The older youth’s senses were focused like a razor as he homed in on the flower.  Piloting the jeep between two huge mounds of dirt, he unbuckled his seatbelt, opened the door and launched himself out of the vehicle as it sped the remainder of the distance to the strange flower.  The jeep crashed into the stalk with such force that it wrapped around the base, which was slightly thicker than the trunk of a tree.  The whole structure swayed side to side and piercing, snapping sounds filled the air as its artificial sinews burst.
                The whole thing fell with great force and the air erupted with crackling electricity as its fluids gushed out, coming into contact with earth and stone.  Nancy and Nikaniel immediately felt a release from the force that pressed down on them and the biots surrounding them scattered in confusion as though the only guiding force in their existence had suddenly vanished.
                Sparks of electricity from the fallen flower struck out against the mangled jeep and ignited its fuel, causing it to catch fire and put smoke into the air.  What was more, Nancy, Nikaniel and Famous watched as a dome of energy, which apparently had been surrounding the whole clearing, dissolved.  Entire hexagonal panels of energy, which were aligned themselves into a honeycomb-like dome over their heads, dissipated until all they could see was blue sky above.
                “What’s that all about?” Nikaniel said, pointing up at the dying energy field.
                “Maybe it’s an energy cloak?” Nancy shrugged.
                “Good, maybe the city will detect the smoke from the crash,” Nikaniel smiled.
                “My jeep,” Famous cringed as he limped away from a mound of earth.  “Now I now that was you!”  He pointed at Nancy and came running toward her and Nikaniel.
                “I’m really sorry,” Nancy frowned.  “We were in trouble, I couldn’t think of anything else.”
                “Buck up, Famous,” Nikaniel said, slapping his cousin on the back.  “You’ll be a hero.  Maybe they’ll build a statue of the junk heap.”
                “Be quiet,” Famous cringed.
                There was a loud screaming sound in the distance and when the three youths looked, they noticed the biots crawling over the remains of the flower-like array.  Each of the creatures was in the act of tearing itself apart, allowing its silvery liquid to spill over the surface of the array.  A dread sensation spread over Nancy and she grabbed the fronts of her friends’ shirts.  Pulling as hard as she could, she guided them away as one of the biots climbed to the top of the heap and began shaking violently.
                Nancy, Nikaniel and Famous ducked behind a fallen tree and laid as flat against the ground as they could just as the biot initiated a strange reaction that caused it and all the other biots to burn violently.  Rapid bursts of energy blazed in the air as every trace of the biots was scorched into oblivion.  Nothing more than glassed terrain was left behind with rocks glowing orange and an uncomfortable wave of heat filled the entire clearing.  As though this were not enough, the fallen trees closest to the event were burnt to their cores and caught fire.  Soon smoke and cinders filled the air.
                Within minutes, firefighter drones appeared overhead and sprayed foam across the entire clearing.  Nancy, Nikaniel and Famous huddled together and covered their mouths as the horrible oozing stuff flowed over them.  The three were lost in a sea of pink and heard sharp hissing sounds as fires were extinguished all around them.  Each groped through the pink flood surrounding them, searching desperately for the edge of the clearing.
                Nancy was shocked when a towering figure suddenly stopped her and grabbed her by the arms.  She and her friends were quickly raised up out of the woods by a fireman piloting a rescue WBM.  Like a squat, iron giant, he harnessed the three to the vehicle’s broad torso and took flight.  There were two other firefighters tethered to the WBM and they quickly shoved breathing masks onto the kids.  The air in the masks was putrid, but helped clear their lungs until they could breathe normally.
                Nancy was on the verge of collapsing, feeling her head whirl around her.  Too much had happened all at once and she felt as though she had stretched herself well beyond her limits.  As she struggled to remain awake, she simply watched, in a dreamlike state, as the WBM piloted them clear out of the woods and all the way back to Albertson where the roof of the firefighting station waited to receive them.

*              *              *

                “So, what did the boss say?” Larson asked between bites of pie.  The two men had found a globe willow to park their van under, which offered some shade from the intense Carolina heat.  What was more, it offered a view of the hospital, which they had been taking turns observing all morning long.
                “He says we should find good opportunity and move right in,” Rasmussen replied, putting his Handicomp away and reaching for his sidearm.  He checked the energy levels, making sure his oafish partner had remembered to recharge the fuel cells.
                “Right,” Larson said, plunging a large piece of pie into his mouth.  He sat there chewing for several moments while Rasmussen continued to watch the hospital ahead of them.  Both awkwardly silent until Larson began coughing as a crumb went down his windpipe.
                “You need some water?” Rasmussen sneered.
                “No,” Larson coughed and took a moment to regain his composure.  “When you say ‘move right in,’ are you saying…we nab her?”
                “That’s the dumbest question you’ve ever asked-of course we nab her!  Am I speaking Portuguese?”
                “I know, I know, it’s just… so soon?”
                “The boss says he’s coming in hot and wants her taken into custody before he arrives.  But we can’t hurt her.”
                “Well, yeah,” Larson scratched his head.  “Wasn’t going to.  Just feels wrong, catching a kid.  Where do we take her?”
                “The hideout is probably no good,” Rasmussen sighed.  “I say we just stick her in the back and head to Zebulon.”
                “Would’t Raleigh be better?  They got that comfy safehouse with the big Trideo set, plus we can go by the race tracks!”
                “Fine, we’ll go to Raleigh.  Just get that stun gun ready, I suspect she might be a fighter.”

*              *              *
Nancy’s head was swimming when she awoke, and no sooner had she sat up to eat the breakfast her nurse had brought her when several officers entered her room.  She felt embarrassed, wearing her hospital gown, which she kept hidden under her bed covers, and the absence of Nikaniel and Famous made her all the more worried.  The officers questioned her again and again about why she and her “accomplices” had been present at the scene of the fire.  While Nancy didn’t want to tell them about her telepathic powers, she felt it best to tell the truth about why she and her friends had gone to the woods.
                “I told you,” she said, keeping her tone even, which was quite difficult with the pain in her head.  “We wanted to find out what caused everyone to go crazy the other day.  We weren’t doing anything wrong.”
                “You crashed an antique petrol car and started a fire,” one of the officers said.  Nancy sensed no small amount of prejudice in his head as he regarded her and her friends: three reckless teenagers out getting into mischief.  That was the narrative playing in all of their heads, and Nancy felt betrayed by these adults.
                “That was to destroy the Biots,” Nancy shot back.
                “That’s what the other two boys mentioned,” an officer in the back of the room muttered.
                “Yes,” the most decorated among them nodded his head dourly.  “We found fragments of some kind of…substance.  The lab is still analyzing it, but we have yet to find anything resembling these creatures your classmates described.”
                “You need to look harder!” Nancy shouted, feeling the brunt of their mistrust through their thoughts and expressions.  All of them flinched, reacting to her outburst more than she would have liked, and she worried that she may have accidentally lashed out against them telepathically.
                “Keep your voice down,” the first officer said, though he had backed away from her and almost seemed like a wary child in her presence.
                “Look harder,” Nancy repeated.  “There’s something out in the woods, maybe all over the town, they’re obviously some kind of advanced technology able to evade normal detection, but they’re not friendly.  They’re linked to whatever made everyone go crazy, and you guys are wasting time picking on me and the Grahams when you should be out looking.  Something’s out there, and it may be part of an invasion.”
                “Okay,” a female officer said with finality.  “I see where this is going.  The doctor said they check out, I think we should let them go home and get some rest.  We can stop by and question them later, but in the meantime let’s fill this out in our reports and assign a therapist to these kids.  They’re clearly overreacting from all the news about the Jovian fleet.”
                Nancy might have found relief in this, especially since the other officers concurred and began making preparations to depart, but the mistrust remained in their minds, which seemed to close them off to her like a fortified door.  She was locked out into the cold by the ones who should be dealing with the crisis, and she doubted her own ability to see herself through the trails that were surely ahead.
                Matters became worse as Nancy was released from the hospital and escorted to the main lobby where her mother was waiting for her.  She could sense the anger in the older woman towards her, but this anger was little compared to the disappointment and mistrust that seemed to illuminate her mind like an amorphous haze.  Nancy had hoped to see Nikaniel and Famous come out with her and their absence burdened her further as she entered her mother’s car.  The two drove off quietly, though tension burned between them as the car navigated its way back to their home.  Finally her mother looked at her and clenched her jaw.  Nancy could feel the urge to shout building up in her.
                “I shouldn’t have let you go,” the older woman said.  “I’m responsible for you, but I let my guard down.  I guess it’s my fault.”
                “You don’t think that,” Nancy said, her mouth trembling and tears building in her eyes.
                “I don’t?” Mrs. Gale said sharply.
                “No, you don’t,” Nancy said firmly, her fists clenched and shaking.  “I can feel that you don’t.  You’re mad at me.  You blame me for what happened out in the woods.  I wish I could say I don’t care, but I can’t.  The one who should be supporting me is ashamed of me.”
                “I’m not ashamed,” Mrs. Gale began after a short silence, but she was cut off by Nancy.
                “You feel like I’m an enemy, sabotaging you while you’re trying to make a new home for us here.  I didn’t ask for any of this to happen.  I’m not the same person I used to be, but that scares me more than it scares you right now.  I don’t know why I’m psychic now, and I don’t know why those monsters were trying to make everyone go insane, but it’s happening right now, and you…” Nancy stopped and looked at her mother, horrified.  Mrs. Gale’s lips pursed as she realized her daughter had just read her thoughts.  “You think I’m part of the problem.”
                “I don’t want to believe that,” Mrs. Gale shook her head vigorously.
                “You do.  You think I’m one of the monsters.”
                Mrs. Gale couldn’t deny it, and she began breathing heavily as she realized more strongly than ever that she could no longer hide anything from her daughter’s all-seeing mind.  Her thoughts raced for a way to fix the situation, but she couldn’t escape the dreaded notion that her daughter may very well be related to everything that was afflicting the small town.
                The car pulled into their driveway and both were surprised to see Ms. Baqri there waiting for them on the front porch.  The two alighted from the car and approached her, worried that more bad news was set to receive them, but the smile on Ms. Baqri’s face dulled the tension a little.
                “I apologize for this,” the woman said, “I was going to visit you at the hospital, but with the mess at the school, I got delayed.”
                “Is something wrong?” Mrs. Gale asked.  Ms. Baqri saw the redness in the two womens’ eyes and changed her tone to be more assuring.
                “No,” she said and put her hand on Nancy’s shoulder.  “I was just coming to check on Nancy.  I heard you and the Graham boy had quite an adventure out in the woods today?”
                “I don’t want to talk about it,” Nancy lowered her gaze and turned her shoulder to dislodge Ms. Baqri’s hand.
                “I’m really sorry,” Mrs. Gale said.  “We’ve just had a difficult day… we’re still trying to sort ourselves out.”
                “Aren’t we all?” Ms. Baqri said plainly, but Nancy felt a lot of pain behind the woman’s words.  “I wanted to thank you for what you said the other day.”
                “About what?” Nancy said, trying not to lose her composure.
                “You were right.  My stepson was terrified when I found him.  If you hadn’t suggested I go find him, I worry about what the stress would have done.  He’s been through quite enough in his life, as you may know…  Which is another reason I wanted to talk to you.  How did you know I had a stepson?”
                Nancy felt dumbstruck.  She had used her telepathy to figure that out.  She could sense her mother worrying about the possible exposure of the girls’ newfound powers, so Nancy wracked her brain.  “I hears a student say something about it in class.”
                “I see,” Ms. Baqri said, eyeing her suspiciously.  “I haven’t told anyone at the school, but I do have a stepson whom I have adopted.  His father, my ex, left us in a very bad way some time ago, and I sued for full custody.  Even though he’s not my flesh and blood, I still think of him as my own.  How you knew about this, I don’t know.  I suppose I don’t’ care.  In the end, you reminded me of what was important during a terrible crisis.  For the first time in years, I was completely lost.  Whatever caused it all, I was falling through darkness.  I’m only grateful that somehow you were sent to help us.”
                “Sent?” Mrs. Gale whispered to herself.
                “I saw the security footage of your little encounters with that Payne boy.  I don’t know what you did, but you were able to help him in what I think was the best possible way.  Obviously you have some kind of quality that is southing to people, and if I didn’t know any better, I would think you were sent to us at the best possible time.  Whatever people may say about you, I’m grateful to have met you, Ms. Nancy, and I look forward to you spending more time in our school.”

*              *              *

In the confines of the universe everlasting, two signals pulsed once more along the chords of infinity.  This time the receptor of the greater will’s words was something greater and more menacing that the previous lesser.
                “The bloom has failed: seek after the responsible inconsequentials, study them and then destroy them.  Their continued presence in this sector has proven a great hindrance in the operation.”
                “I will do as you ask,” the second signal replied coldly.  “What of the other blooms?  Shall I assist in their endeavors once I have processed this task?”
                “No, they stand by for the new directive.  Now go and find the inconsequentials.  Use greater stealth than your predecessors, let no organized body of inconsequentials acquire any trace of our technology.”
                “It will be done.”
                The receptor of the directive plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, appearing only briefly before its body became as a specter, having no tangible effect as it passed unabated through the increasing densities of gasses.  Its vision was fixed upon Albertson North Carolina, which steadily crawled out of the tilt of night and into morning.  Marduk was on its way.

*              *              *

Nancy rubbed her eyes and looked at the display on her ceiling.  It was four in the morning, but she felt well rested and her head was clear for the first time.  She sensed her mother in the kitchen, a sensation that was more vivid than any she had previously experienced.  Nancy could feel that Mrs. Gale was slightly rested, but still burdened by the events of the previous day.  She couldn’t help but feel pity for the woman, in spite of her words and thoughts she had expressed earlier.  The more Nancy felt her feelings, the more she experienced them for herself.  The girl had to shake herself and regain her own composure, but she was otherwise compelled to get up.
                After dressing for the day she entered the kitchen almost an hour later.  Her mother was leaning against the counter while swirling a cup of coffee.  Boot sat in his station by the fridge, quiet and motionless.  The robot always recharged during the night, sitting on the floor while hugging its knees, its bulbous head leaning forward and eyelids shut tight.  Nancy liked the sight of this and felt a calmness about the robot: the only thing close to human she couldn’t sense, which meant she could not be burdened by its emotions.
                Nancy waited in the doorway, wondering what she should say, but words escaped her.  She stepped into the kitchen and opened the fridge.  Mrs. Gale turned towards her, a little startled by the sounds of the door opening and Nancy rummaging through pre-packaged discs of breakfast food.
                “Morning,” the older woman said, and Nancy felt that she was sincerely trying to be pleasant but remained guarded.
                “Do you want me to stay home today?” Patricia replied, sounding colder than she would have liked.  She opened their hydrator and placed the food disc inside and leaned against the counter with her head bowed as she waited for the machine to process the meal.
                “I don’t want to get into an argument,” Mrs. Gale said defensively.
                “I wasn’t trying to argue,” Nancy shuttered.
                “You can go to school, I got a message from that Ms. Baqri woman saying they were planning on holding classes as normal.”  There was a pause after this and Nancy turned to look at her mother, sensing a wonderful realization blossom.  Finally, there would be some good news.
                “She wasn’t the only one to message you,” Nancy said, looking at her mother with anticipation, though she already knew what she was going to say.
                “Yes, it turns out your father was able to depart after us, but I don’t know when he’s due to arrive.  I just know it’ll be ahead of schedule.  I guess his client is pushing their project forward and can’t wait any longer.  Of course, you know this means we won’t see much of him, since he’ll be working, but at least we’ll be under the same roof again.”
                “Did you tell him about me?” Nancy asked and immediately felt the answer form in her mother’s head.
                “I told him there have been… changes in you since he last saw you and that I simply can’t go into the details right now.  Told him he’d have to make his own assessments when he saw you.  I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say about what’s been going on here.”
                “Yes,” Nancy said, and tried not to envision the battery of questions he was sure to launch when he arrived.  In spite of this she was comforted knowing he would be with them again.  With all that had happened, she knew he would be understanding and his wisdom would help see them through their trial.  Dr. Gale was as wise as he was intelligent, always knowing where to find the answers.
                “I’ve been thinking a lot about what Ms. Baqri said yesterday.  I’m sorry I was… unfair.  I shouldn’t have assumed that your changes had anything to do with what’s been going on here.  I’ve just been tense, what with moving away from Mars and…”
                “You were in a dark place,” Nancy said, reading the words off her mother’s mind.  “That effect made you remember things you didn’t want to.”
                “Yes,” Mrs. Gale said, shuttering.  “It wasn’t fair for me to think you were the cause of it.”
                “I just want to get over this,” Nancy said, trying not to allow her mother’s emotions bleed into her own mind.  “Can’t we at least try to have a normal day today?  I’ll do my best to suppress my abilities.  I just wish things would go back to the way they were.”
                “I don’t know if they ever will,” Mrs. Gale sobbed.  Nancy spent the remainder of that short morning in silence.  She knew her mother was right, and for the first time since they had arrived from Mars, she felt something tingling in the back of her mind, as though sensing a change in the wind.  Change was coming, and unlike the change of simply moving to a new home, this would not have the potential to turn out for the better.  As Nancy sensed her surroundings and the atmosphere surrounding their home, she felt like an ant under the shadow of a swiftly falling hammer.
                At least she had school to look forward to.
                True to Ms. Baqri’s words, school was held as usual and Nancy was glad to have Nikaniel’s company once more.  The boy was still bandaged from a myriad of cuts and scrapes he had endured during their adventure in the woods.  Nancy then realized that she had not sustained nearly as many cuts or bruises and she wondered if she had somehow insulated herself from harm.
                “Did the police visit your home?” Nancy asked, feeling the memory sting in his mind.
                “Yeah,” Nikaniel said defeatedly.  “They’re going to make us pay a large fine for Famous’ jeep starting the fire.  I guess they found some remains of those biot things, but they didn’t think it was enough to let us off.”
                “Can you guys afford it?” Nancy asked, feeling the pain of their activities’ repercussions hit her in the stomach.
                “We can,” Nikaniel sighed.  “But Granny says it’ll take her a long time to recover from it.  Says we’re going on beans and rice until we catch up.”
                “I’m sorry.”
                “Don’t worry,” Nikaniel said, trying to brighten up.  “We saved everyone, didn’t we?  And maybe the popo will find enough evidence to wave the fine altogether.”
                “I hope so,” Nancy smiled and started thinking of ways she could help ease their burdens.  These plans were eventually defeated by the urgency of schoolwork, which she had woefully forgotten over the course of the last two days.
                Classes went on somewhat forced.  Students and teachers were doing their best to adapt to a normal day after the shocking derailment they had all experienced.  Hardly anyone spoke, save in quiet, almost exhausted tones.  Teachers even skipped over details in their lessons as though eager to simply push through each period so they could all return home to calm and security.  Nancy hoped they would somehow get past this, but when she touched on the minds of kids around her, she could feel that damage had been done.  Even with the passage of time, the shock they had experienced forever changed whatever course their lives would have taken.
                When the final bell rang, Nancy waited at the front entrance for Nikaniel to walk her home.  She saw Andrew Payne skulking behind a pillar.  She knew he had been watching her.  Something had changed in the boy since she had last seen him: instead of brooding darkness and sorry, she saw a grey haze as though he were utterly lost.  Nancy wondered if this were good or potentially dangerous.  She was relieved when Nikaniel approached when he had, since she could feel Andrew welling up with the desire to approach her, and she wasn’t able to think of what she might have said to him if he had.
                “Today was weird,” Nikaniel said sharply.  “In civics we didn’t do anything.  Just sat there and surfed the Net while Mr. Shaw sat at his desk and stared like a zombie.  A couple of guys sent him that gram ad with the psycho insurance lady, just to see if he’d react.”
                “Did he?”
                “Kind of.  He just told them to look up something positive, then he drank, like, an entire bottle of Coke.”
                Nancy grimaced at this and wanted to ask Nikaniel more, but a shot ran through her mind as her stray tendrils of thought brushed against a pair of minds that sought immediate action against her.  No sooner had she realized this when a black van turned off the road and parked on the sidewalk in front of them.  The side door opened and a short fat man grabbed both teens and pulled them inside.

*              *              *
                “Boy, these two can fight,” Larson exclaimed as he forced Nikaniel’s wrists into a pair of bindings.
                “Just get them secured,” Rasmussen said frantically while driving the van towards the highway.  “We’ll need to move fast, I’m sure town security saw all of that.  Just a matter of time before police drones start circling us.”
                “They won’t track us,” Larson laughed as he pushed Nikaniel towards the back of the van.  “I switched that thing on the boss gave us.  Said it should throw them off for a good hour.  Now come here, girly, we’re gonna play nice until he comes for you.”
                “Who?” Nancy cried, using her feet to push Larson away from her when he pulled out a second pair of bindings.  “What do you want?”
                “None of your business,” Larson shouted angrily.  “Now be a good little girl and you’ll be safe.”
                Nancy was utterly perplexed by the two men: neither one seemed capable of evil, yet there was an intensity in their minds, which thought only of bringing her and Nikaniel to some kind of safehouse and earning a large sum of money.  Other than this, they seemed very much clueless about everything else, but it was this cluelessness that frightened Nancy the most.  How would they react if I used my powers on them?  She considered this, looking for a way to telepathically disable them without causing the tall, skinny man to have an accident on the road.  Then the van suddenly lurched as though stricken by something hard.
                “The drones are here!” Larson shouted.  “I knew that piece of crap wouldn’t work as well as he said!”
                “I don’t see any drones,” Rasmussen said, craning his head to look out the windows at the open air above them.  Nothing but blue sky and puffy clouds, but as turned his head back to a forward position he screamed as something took shape immediately ahead of them.
                From thin air, a dark and menacing shape emerged from apparent folds of nothingness, branching out and turning visible until Rasmussen was face to face with a personage unlike any he had ever seen.  Nancy peered at the windshield and saw the shape, which at first seemed like another biot.  Indeed it was a biot, but unlike the insects she and the Grahams had witnessed.  This one was humanoid in shape, lean and angular with a streamlined body that was encased in a black exoskeleton.  Between the segments of plating was pulsating tissue, both organic and technological in design and alive with tiny lights.  The face was utterly inhuman, having a shape that vaguely reminded Nancy of a skull, but the eyes were composite and cold, made up of many types of ocular nodes that stared unblinkingly at Rasmussen.
                The biot was flying under its own power, but matched velocities with the van so precisely that it seemed to be frozen in place with the whole world progressing past them.  It extended its right arm to the side and the four occupants of the van watched as the armor encasing its wrist parted and bio-robotic tissues pushed a long device into the palm of its hand, which had four fingers and two opposable thumbs.  Gripping this hideous instrument, it caused the air to warp out of the hilt, forming a blade of pure force that immediately blared to life, forming a column of energy so hot and so white that it almost blinded them when they looked on it.
                This biot was indeed different, but what made it more so to Nancy was that she could sense a definite consciousness residing behind its emotionless stare.  She sensed its desire to kill, and that was enough to push her into action.  As the girl leapt into the seat beside Rasmussen, she linked with his mind and activated his fight and flight responses.  Before the biot could slash at the vehicle, Nancy urged Rasmussen to slam on the brakes and turn the van out of danger.  Temporarily out of danger.
                The van skidded to a halt and Nancy pressed its driver to continue evading their strange enemy.  Rasmussen let out a cry as a section of the roof, just above his head, suddenly broke away, having been sheared off by the biot’s force blade.  This revelation panicked Rasmussen more when he viewed the rear displays and saw the hideous shape of their enemy pursuing them.  As Nancy turned her face away from the wind now surging into the vehicle, she felt a twinge and knew danger was drawing near again.  She called back to warn Nikaniel and Larson, but was far too slow as the biot’s weapon penetrated the back of the van and cut away the rear hatch.  Nikaniel braced his legs and shoulder against the inside as the whole back of the vehicle fell away.  Empty food wrappers and drink containers blew out the back, causing little disruption to the biot as it loomed just outside the opening.
                The horrid entity looked down at Nikaniel who struggled to keep himself in place against the pull of the vehicle’s speed.  The boy was close to rolling out the back of the van when Larson yanked him back in and pointed a very large laser carbine at the biot.  The weapon blazed to life, firing precise streams of energy directly into the biot, but each shot flared and dissipated inches away from the black armor.
Undeterred, the biot continued slashing away chunks of the van’s roof until its interior was fully exposed to the elements.  Nancy struggled to keep Rasmussen focused on his driving and Larson exhausted his weapon’s fuel cell against their relentless enemy.  Nikaniel rolled to the side, wishing he could somehow help in the effort to stay alive.  Feeling something sharp at his elbow, he repositioned his hands and began sawing the bindings placed over his wrists.  After cutting his bonds, he searched around the cramped interior of the van and noticed a case of high explosives.  He opened this and found six grenades.  Pulling one out, he carefully read the instructions on the outside, then nervously twisted the device over to a three second timer.
As soon as he heard the grenade chime, he threw it at the biot.  The grenade bounced harmlessly off its armor and exploded several meters behind them.  Larson shielded his eyes from the explosion and quickly covered the box containing the remaining grenades with his body.
“Don’t touch those!” he cried.  “You’ll frag us all!”
“Then you use one!” Nikaniel retorted angrily.
Larson took hold of a grenade, set it for a two second fuse, then timed his throw.  The grenade sailed clear over the head of the biot, but exploded directly behind it.  The force of the blast sent the creature plummeting directly into the van.  Everyone cried out, utterly dismayed, as the rear wheels burst and the front of the van jumped right into the air.  The weight of the biot astonished them and proved too much for the vehicle as it ground to a halt.
The back of the biot was damaged from the grenade and began sputtering silver liquid, which sparked and ignited the inside of the van.  Nikaniel and Larson scrambled for the side doors, which they threw open with desperation driving them away from a truly volatile spectacle.  Rasmussen also evacuated the vehicle and Nikaniel helped Nancy out just as flames spread to the front seating.  The four ran as quickly as they could, but each tripped over their own feet and fell hard into the road as successive explosions shook them to their cores.  Each covered their own head and waited, listening as flames intensified and energy crackled from the damaged biot.
Nancy lifted her head, eyes wide with pure horror as she continued to sense the biot’s presence behind them.  She turned and saw its shape slowly climb out of the fires engulfing the wrecked vehicle.  Many other cars had pulled to the side of the road, their drivers and passengers keeping their distance from the scene and watching as a veritable demon rose out of hell.
Though crippled, it retained the use of its force blade, which it used to slice away the wreckage of the van surrounding it.  The damage at its back also seemed to mend as its silvery fluids ceased leaking.  Wing-like appendages, which it had used to fly through the air, folded tightly into its shoulders and its heavy feet carried it unflinchingly towards its victims.  With its force blade held ready, it began to descend upon them, singling Nancy out first.  But it stopped as the roar of an aircraft sounded directly above them.
Everyone looked up as an auburn-haired man wearing spectacles appeared through a hatch on the side of a military flyer.  He looked down on the biot, which only glanced up at him for a moment before returning to its errand of death.  The man in the flyer vanished for a moment, only to return armed with a long, black rifle.  He fired on the biot, his weapon sending out projectiles of blazing light, which penetrated its armor with greater ease.  Several shots riddled its back and one sheared off the hand that grasped the force blade.  The weapon tumbled away and erupted like a small sun, leaving a perfectly spherical crater in the ground.
Like a terrified dragon, the biot extended its wings and shot straight into the sky where it vanished into the haze of blue and white engulfing the world.  Nancy watched it depart and shielded her eyes from the true sun as it peeked through a mountain of clouds.  Her eyes eventually met with the man in the aircraft, which began landing beside them.  Her heart trembled and wanted to jump as she recognized the face of her father.

*              *              *

                The craft had scarcely landed and Dr. Gale disembarked before Nancy flung herself into her father.  Feeling the sense of relief that swept over his mind made her tear up.  Knowing that he was as happy to find her safe as she was to him nearly made all the pain she had endured the last few days a moot point.  Nikaniel stood back, admiring the man.  He was as average-looking a person as he had ever seen, yet something in the sternness of his eyes and the fact that he still shouldered his rifle made him appear as a monument of authority, as though he needed only utter a command and, no matter how absurd, it would be so.
                Larson and Rasmussen approached him, regarding Dr. Gale with the same reverence as Nikaniel, but when Nancy felt their thoughts she immediately turned and looked at them with utter surprise, which slowly melted into contempt.
                “My father hired you?” she said.
                “How did she know?” Larson asked.
                “That’s a good question,” Rasmussen nodded.  “What else do you know about us?”  He pointed his finger sharply at her, but immediately withdrew it when Dr. Gale fixed a gaze on him.
                “She shouldn’t have known about anything,” Dr. Gale said, grimacing.  “I hired them to watch you and your mother.  The work I’ve been engaged in for the last few years has come to a head and I worried that desperate persons might attempt to harm you in order to coerce me into divulging the particulars of my research.”
                “What kind of research?” Nancy asked and immediately saw flashes of memory in the man’s head, though she was shocked that the nature of his thoughts was so complex that she struggled to interpret any of it.”
                “One day I’ll tell you,” he said, trying to smile reassuring, though smiling wasn’t in his nature.  “For now I’d like to get you home and see your mother.  I hope the robot I gave you was of assistance.”
                “Boot?  He’s been okay,” Nancy said.
                “He sucks,” Nikaniel said, remembering his brief encounter with the robot.
                “And who is this?” Dr. Gale asked, looking Nikaniel over.  Nikaniel felt uncomfortable as the man observed him.  Even from a distance his eyes were penetrating and the boy worried that he somehow had also developed psychic abilities.  The last thing he needed was Nancy’s father to know what kinds of thoughts he had recently been having about his daughter.
                “He’s Nikaniel,” Nancy said.  “He’s been helping me.”
                “Really?” Dr. Gale said, elated.
                “Kind of,” Nikaniel said, turning his head away and frowned.  He still felt that his contributions were minimal at best and worried that Nancy would see this for herself.
                “Well, we don’t need to talk here.  Let’s get back to our house.  We have a lot of catching up to do.
                Very little was said as the company boarded the aircraft.  As the wreckage of the van was being cleared by the city, the craft sped away towards Nancy and Nikaniel’s neighborhood where Mrs. Gale was standing outside, obviously appraised of her husband’s arrival.  The man was tacked again as he stepped out of the craft and Nancy couldn’t help but feel joy at her parents’ reunion.  In many ways, the absence of Dr. Gale had been harder on her mother.
                Larson and Rasmussen entered the house with the Gales with Nancy entering last.  She stopped as she noticed Nikaniel walking towards his own home.  Nancy felt a dark cloud over the boy and wondered what was wrong.  She called out to him, but he simply turned and held his hand to the side of his head, his thumb and pinky extended as a universal sign that he would call her later on her Handicomp.  This would have to do for the time, but Nancy was torn between wanting to know what was hurting in his mind and wanting to spend time with her reunited family.
                When she entered the house, she caught the tail end of her father’s explanation for his early arrival.
                “…and since everything was cleared, I was able to jump on a departure shuttle just a couple of days after yours.”
                “I can’t even begin to tell you how much this takes off my mind,” Mrs. Gale said and Nancy knew she was preparing herself to reveal everything to her father.  “There have been a lot of problems around here.”
                “I caught some of the news report on the way,” Dr. Gale said.  “My colleagues think it’s Jovian attacks aimed at us.”
                “Why would they affect the whole neighborhood?” Mrs. Gale cried.  “Why would they want to hurt us for that matter?”
                “Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you soon, but as for this Jovian hogwash…they are definitely amassing an armada, but this…explosion of psychotic behavior is beyond the dreams of even the most top-secret military science.”
                “That’s right,” Rasmussen said, having been sitting on edge, just waiting to jump in.  “You saw that thing that was cutting up my van.”
                “My van,” Larson called from the kitchen where he was building himself a sandwich.
                “I signed the lease for it!” Rasmussen called back.  “That…beam sword it was using, I’ve never seen anything like it.  And that barrier it put up, even our navy fighters are overloaded just to put up something half that efficient.”
                “Jovians couldn’t have learned to manipulate energy to that degree,” Dr. Gale nodded.
                “They aren’t Jovians,” Nancy said and felt everyone’s attention snap onto her.  “I call them biots.  They’re like living things but made out of technology.”
                “All biological systems are a type of technology,” Dr. Gale nodded.  “But that creature was definitely manufactured.”
                “And it wasn’t the first,” Nancy said, looking down and wondering how much she should say with her present company.
                “She says there were… did you call them bugs?” Mrs. Gale said.  “That Graham boy and his cousin went with her to the forest and caused some kind of fire while dealing with them.”
                “They caused the fire,” Nancy said defensively.  “You saw it when you hurt the bigger one.  When they bleed, their blood starts sparking like lightning and it destroys everything it touches.”
                “I’ve never heard of any substances like that in the lab,” Dr. Gale said, putting himself into deep thought.  “It reminds me of molten potassium chlorate when it comes in contact with glucose, but this seems to react strongly to any normal matter.  It’s almost as if these creatures in conflict with the elements of our galaxy…possibly from another point in space and time?”
                “You mean like from another dimension?” Larson said, speaking through a mouthful of food.
                “Possibly,” Dr. Gale said.  “Or from the fringe of the universe where space still expands…or beyond it.  Naturally I’m speculating and need more information.  I don’t want to prattle on like my chaos-bound colleagues and create silly theories, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re dealing with extraterrestrial life.  First major contact with an intelligent species.”
                “And they want to destroy us,” Nancy said dourly.
                “Is this why you hired us, boss?” Rasmussen asked.
                “No,” Dr. Gale shook his head vigorously.  “I was expecting spies from other nations.  Possibly even Jovian spies, what with the current solar crisis.  This has got me completely off guard.”
                “There’s something else,” Mrs. Gale said and she looked at Nancy, almost as though asking her daughter for permission to speak.”
                “You may as well tell him,” Nancy nodded.
                “Something’s happened to Nancy.”
                “I know,” Dr. Gale said dryly.  “She’s telepathic.”
                Everyone gasped.
                “You were doing something to me while I was driving, weren’t you?” Rasmussen said, pointing at Nancy.  He quickly withdrew his finger when Dr. Gale gave him another stern look.
                “I was just trying to help,” Nancy said, thinking more of her mother than the thin man.
                “Yes,” Mrs. Gale said, melting away in her own sorrow.  “I’m afraid I blamed Nancy for… everything going on in Albertson.”
                “I know,” Dr. Gale nodded.  “I saw your little arguments.”
                “How?” Nancy asked with disbelief and nearly laughed when Larson and Rasmussen began looking around the room.  She sensed they were trying to locate hidden cameras, but realized they were probably onto something.  Searching her father’s thoughts, she caught glimpses of the man creating a list of behaviors and subroutines on his computer.  Then Boot came into her mind.  “You programmed Boot to watch us and send you video footage?”
                “I wanted it here to keep you safe,” Dr. Gale nodded and put his hand on the robot’s bulbous head when it came teetering into the room.  “It sent me all the footage I requested of abnormal behavior.  I am a little sad that your mother mistrusted you and your new…talents.  But at the same time, you should have understood that she was under great duress.  After all, I had kept her very much in the dark about many things going on.  I’m ashamed to say I’ve kept all of you in the dark, and I can only hope it’s been for your safety.”
                “Rational as always,” Mrs. Gale said, dabbing her eyes with a kerchief.  “Can I ask something rational now?  What do we do from here?  Will Nancy have to go in and be studied like some kind of animal?”
                “I will do whatever I can to prevent that,” Dr. Gale said sternly.  “There’s just so much on my plate right now.  If I had the time I would look into Nancy’s changes, but starting tomorrow I need to head out to my client’s lab to finish the work on our project.  Not to worry, though.  I’ll be home as often as I can.”
                Nancy wondered if her father was also telepathic.  Though his return home made her feel much improved, she still felt overwhelmed by the change in the air.  Everything was changing and her efforts to understand it all were feeble at best.  All she could do for the moment was lay back and absorb her father’s voice as he went off on a discussion with Rasmussen and Larson on the rest of their payment.  Their services would be required in the future, it seemed, but for now the two men were happy that he was compensating them for their lost van and equipment.
                Mrs. Gale seemed more at ease than Nancy had seen her in a long time.  What was more, Nancy was relieved that her mother no longer mistrusted her.  These pleasant thoughts occurred when Dr. Gale turned his attentions to the two women in his life and carried on conversation as they had done so many times before on the Mars Orbital.  For that moment at least, things felt normal again, and Nancy pleaded with the mute universe that normalcy would somehow resume from that time forth.

*              *              *

                Well into the night, the Gales discussed the events of the last few days in greater detail, answering all of Dr. Gale’s questions.  As Rasmussen and Larson departed for their motel room, the small family prepared themselves for bed.  Nancy sat in the shower, alarmed by the filth she had accumulated during their attack from the humanoid Biot.  Images of the being assailed her and as she watched the water rain down at her feet, she thought of many things, which were out of her sight.  She knew there would likely be more attacks from the Biots, and though she could scarcely imagine the nature of their attacks, she shuttered as she realized they would be far worse than what she and her friends had already encountered.
                Nikaniel came to mind and she cast her senses towards his house.  Her thoughts touched on the slumbering minds of the Graham family.  Granny and Famous were sleeping off a lot of stress, but Nikaniel was especially troubled.  Nancy kept a gentle link with her friend as she left the shower and prepared herself for bed.  As she laid down on her soft mattress, she experimented with meditation.  It pleased her how easily she could fall asleep now, like powering down a computer.  But unlike other people, she could enter into a state of mind, even during her deep rest, in which she clearly thought things over.  Using different parts of her brain while other parts recovered, she had a longer day than the average person without losing rest.
                She used this time to construct a vision for herself.  Drawing from her favorite memories on the Mars Orbital, she recreated the Commons from her family’s quarter.  It was a pleasant place, brightly decorated for holidays with vague, yet cheerful shadows of people milling about the background.  It felt so real to her, but it lacked the rigidity she desired for the sake of interaction.  Wanting someone to accompany her, she wondered if she could bring Nikaneil in.  Using her powers, she gently coaxed the sleeping consciousness of the boy and awakened him to a state akin to her own.
                Nikaniel looked around blearily until he adjusted.  When he saw Nancy, he balked and stood away.
                “Where are we?” he asked.  “Did your dad have us kidnapped?
                “No,” Nancy said, smiling feebly.  “We’re in one of my memories.  I think I’ll call it a Memory Forum.  Kind of a vision I can use to talk to people when I’m asleep.”
“Oh, okay,” Nikaniel said, swallowing as he looked at Nancy.  She and Nikaniel appeared to each other in the same manner they imagined themselves on a day to day basis, and yet the connections that bound them to Nancy’s vision somehow made them feel exposed to one another, as though their true natures were accessible at a glance.  Nancy could feel Nikaniel’s deep sadness and frustration, and it bothered her.
                “Why are you so upset?” she asked.  Nikaniel paused a moment, wanting to deny her allegation, but realized this was futile.  She could read him like a book.
                “I’m kind of useless,” he shrugged.
                “How?” Nancy said, frowning.
                “You know.  You’ve got these crazy powers and can do amazing things, and I’m like a second wheel…on a unicycle.”
                “Do you think I don’t need you?” Nancy asked, approaching the apparition of Nikaniel.
                “More or less.”
                “That’s stupid.  Without you, I wouldn’t have handled anything here.  I used to be terrified of going outside, I was an outcast Spacer in a new school full of Grounders, but you were friendly and showed me around.  I…need you around.  You’re reliable.”
                “You got your family for that,” Nikaniel said, blushing through his thoughts to such an extent that Nancy laughed when she saw his mind light up.
                “My family’s not that reliable,” she shook her head, still smiling.  “Dad’s always gone, working with some client, and Mom worries all the time.  You know, she thought all this was my fault.  You never doubted.”
                “Well, it’s like Granny always says, you can tell a person by their fruit.  If you were all nasty wanting to hurt people, you would’ve been all manipulative and whatnot, making big promises and constantly scheming to make people do what you want them to do.  Plus, you kept me and Famous and Granny safe, and you helped your mom, even though you were kind of freaked out.”
                “I guess, but then again, I could have been secretly messing with people and changing their memories,” Nancy smiled mischievously.
                “Wait, can you actually change memories?”
                “No,” Nancy swatted him playfully.  “I don’t know if I ever could.  Why would I want you to forget anything?  I don’t want to lose our friendship.”
                “I guess I don’t either,” Nikaniel said, swallowing a second time.
                They looked at each other for several moments, both feeling a deepening attraction and admiration for each other.  Nancy began feeling sad.  She couldn’t figure out why she was sad, and as she contemplated it, she began to inexplicably worry that everything she now held dear would be taken away.  She sat on the ground, weakened by a sense of loss as though her cherished memories were already slipping away.  Nikaniel crouched down beside her and held her gently by the shoulders.
                “What’s wrong?”
                “Something’s not right,” she shook her head.
                Instinctively, both looked up and noticed that the roof of the Commons had melted away into an utterly black void, which stretched on eternally.  As though looking through a window into time, they saw a shape building in the distance.  They couldn’t discern the meaning of the shape, but its purpose and unrelenting movement made it the most imposing and deadly thing either had ever known.  Like inevitable destruction moving inexorably towards them.
                “What is that?” Nikaniel asked, horrified.
                “I don’t know,” Nancy said, shaking.  “I just started feeling it.  I think…it could be the enemy.  Am I sensing our enemy?  It’s coming closer?  Slowly, but it is coming closer.”
                Nancy buried her face into Nikaniel’s chest and sobbed uncontrollably.  Nikaniel watched as the Memory Forum around them began twisting and burning.  He shook her vigorously until she looked up at him.
                “Don’t look at it,” he said.  “Whatever it is, don’t’ look at it.”
                Nancy complied and broke off her connection with the mounting terror.  Within seconds, her Memory Forum resumed its original, cheery state.  Nikaniel still held her but lifted her back onto her feet.  She embraced him and breathed deeply.
                “You see?” she said.  “You’re like a rock I can hold onto.  I do need you, even if you don’t have psionic powers.”
                Nikaneil and Nancy smiled timidly at each other, thoughts surging through their minds and causing them to drift closer.  Then a second presence interrupted them.
                This new force was much smaller than the dread they had witnessed.  At first it seemed like a sliver of light cutting through the fabrics of the Memory Forum, but as it drew closer to the two teens, it took on a new shape.  The shape of a young girl, possibly 14 or 15 years of age.
                “Can you see me?” the girl asked, looking at them with wide, terrified eyes.  “I saw the bad guys.  Do you see me?”
                “We can see you,” Nancy said, still clinging to Nikaniel.
                “Where are you?” the girl asked.
                “We’re right here,” Nikaniel answered.  “Can’t you see us?”
                “I see you,” the girl nodded vigorously.  “But where are you?  Where in the world are you?”
                “Albertson, North Carolina,” Nancy answered.
                “So there’s more like me on Earth?” the girl asked.  “I must be right over head, I couldn’t sense anyone before.”
                “Where are you?” Nancy asked, growing excited as she wondered if she had made contact with the very beings that gave her psionic powers.  As she sensed the girl’s mind, however, she was more and more certain that this was another person, just like her, who had been granted the same gifts.  She felt alone and terrified, and was desperately reaching out to them from a great distance.
                “I’m on the moon,” the girl answered.  “My name is Angela, and I’m in a children’s hospital on the moon.  I’m blind, but I can actually see you!”



Part 2

The group’s departure day arose quickly, culminating in a day of hectic, last-minute arrangements.  Nancy had already packed her things in a simple backpack while her mother organized several sets of mobile luggage to accommodate every conceivable eventuality.  Boot scuttled behind the woman, filling in wherever needed and brought items to the luggage as they were handed to it.  The doorbell chimed and when Nancy answered, Larson and Rasmussen came in, arms full of their own provisions.  Nancy grimaced as she sensed the contents of the two men’s bags through their own hectic thoughts.
                “I don’t think we’ll need weapons at Event World,” she said timidly.
                “Like we’re going to rely on amusement park rent-a-cops when bad things go down,” Larson sniggered, dropping his bags on the ground and opening them.  “Your dad arranged for a nice bump in our salary and we don’t want to be caught with our pants down.”
                “Do you mind,” Rasmussen scolded and kicked his partner in the shin.  “Don’t use your disgusting pejoratives in front of the clients.  Do you know what that means?”
                “It means you’re reading that stupid dictionary again.”
                “A word new word a day makes your brain stronger,” Rasmussen folded his arms and turned away.  “And you could stand to exorcise that brain cell you’ve been nursing along.”
                “I think that’s done it,” Mrs. Gale said, closing off the last set of luggage and setting Boot about the task of lashing it together with powered bindings.  “Has Nikaniel come yet?”
                “No,” Nancy shook her head.  “I think he’s almost ready though.  He feels less flustered about something.”
                “You gotta show us some of your abilities,” Larson said, bending down to examine Nancy as though she were a newfangled appliance.  “Can you project images or create sparks of electricity?”
                “I’m not a wizard,” Nancy laughed embarrassedly.
                “Leave her alone,” Rasmussen came in.  “She’s not a freak show attraction, besides, her powers are probably too subtle for your lame brain to appreciate.”
                Nancy flinched as she heard the tall man say this and bit her lower lip as she considered saying something to the two bodyguards.  She appreciated the efforts her father went to for hers and her mother’s protection, but as she listened to the two speak, her empathy made her aware of something that began to trouble her.
                “I just got a message from Mrs. Graham,” Nancy’s mother said, putting her Handicomp away.  “He’s ready for us to pick him up any time.”
                Everyone made for the car port as Boot guided the luggage out ahead of them.  As the robot neatly loaded their things into the trunk, Nancy timidly pulled on the back of Rasmussen’s suit.  The thin man turned around and looked at her incredulously as she lightly asked him to follow her.  After bringing him a short distance from her mother and Larson, she cupped her hands together and sighed.
                “What’s the matter?” Rasmussen asked, trying to sound official and alert.  “Do you sense Biots?”
                “No,” Nancy shook her head, maintaining her gaze at the man’s feet.  “I wanted to ask for a favor from you.”
                “What is it?”
                “When you talk to Larson, you… attack his intelligence a lot.”
                “Not a hard thing to do,” Rasmussen sniggered.
                “Please don’t,” Nancy said, cutting him off.  “It really hurts his feelings.”  Rasmussen’s face twitched and he froze like a statue as she said this.  Regarding her closely, he thought of many retorts to give, but he knew they were little more than justifications that would never penetrate her telepathy.
                “I’m sorry,” he forced the words out.
                “I’m really glad you’re both coming with us, but ever since I became telepathic, whenever I hear people being rude to each other, I can’t help but feel everything going through their heads.  Whenever you tell Larson he’s stupid or dirty, it really eats away at his feelings.  He looks happy and goofy on the outside, but he’s really just trying to win people over.  Just like you.”
                “I don’t…” Rasmussen’s argumentative instincts were cut short as he realized who he was speaking to.  “I’ll try to be nice.”
                “Thanks,” Nancy smiled.  “Let’s go have fun.”
                Everyone piled into the Gale’s family car, a tight squeeze that offered very little room for Nikaniel.  When they arrived at his house, Nancy quickly stepped out and ran to the door.  She stopped short of knocking at the door as she sensed deep anger coming from inside.  Granny Graham was furious about something and Nancy gasped as she felt Nikaniel’s Parents surface from the grey of the older woman’s troubled mind.  Nikaniel opened the door and Nancy caught the end of a heated phone conversation, which she discerned was upsetting her friend.
                “You’ve been gone three years,” the older woman scolded.  “How much more of your boy’s life do you want to skip over?  You’re missing out on important milestones, all so you can wine and dine and…”
                Nikaniel closed the door and slung his backpack over his shoulder.  He didn’t have to look at Nancy to see the pain in her face, which she naturally shared with him.
                “Something wrong?” Mrs. Gale asked as the two kids entered the vehicle, squeezing into the middle seat with Boot.
                “Just some family stuff,” Nikaniel said in a pained tone.  Everyone was quiet, obviously thinking of him, so he turned his head away from them.  He saw Boot staring directly at him with its slanted, angry eyes.
                “What’s your problem?” he asked the robot angrily.
                “If you betray us, I will destroy you,” Boot answered in a stern, yet monotone voice.
                “I thought we had gotten over this military nonsense,” Mrs. Gale muttered as she drove the car for the Albertson Aerospace Station.
                As though the situation lacked intensity, Nancy’s mind suddenly tingled with pain as she felt something new on the horizon.  She thought of the humanoid Biot that had attacked them, but this new feeling was something more.  She looked out the window and up at the sky, trying to feel where it was coming from.  Whatever it was, it was far away, but no distance seemed to make her comfortable.  Like a drop of poison in the ocean, she feared how rapidly it could spread.

*              *              *

                The mantle of space and time burned once more as its seams crossed, bringing a new shape into the fields of stars just beyond Earth.  This object, larger and more sinister than any that had come before, fell to the globe, silent and undetected.  Taloned manipulators guided it through the clouds as it felt its way unerringly towards the Albertson woodlands.  Its bulk passed over the burnt wilderness where small fire department drones circled, watching for potential flareups from the extinguished flames.  The bulky figure felt its way through the trees until it reached a clearing, many miles away.  A second figure awaited its arrival, standing straight and tall in spite of its injuries.
                Marduk watched as the air before it rippled; disturbed by a colossal entity, which strode across ferns and dead trunks on four long, powerful limbs.  Its head, which appeared mere feet above the biot, resonated as it silently broadcast its conversation to its diminutive companion.
                “Marduk, having failed to eliminate the responsible inconsequentials, I, Dagon, have come to terminate them with full prejudice.  What is your repair status?”
                “I will be completely restored by the end of the rotation,” Marduk replied.
                “Then receive your orders: you are to ascend to this planet’s natural satellite and investigate another inconsequential with anomalous properties.  If she is found possessed with the same capabilities as that, which evaded your attack, you are to terminate her bodily functions and leave no trace.”
                “Is this as The Controller directs?”
                “Your logic is faulty, Marduk.  Your place is not to question the edicts of a superior.”
                “One of your size and powerful provides only a tactical advantage in eliminating the anomalous inconsequentials, but such overt displays of power will alert all of the inconsequentias’ societies to our activities.”
                “Your logic is faulty.  Fulfil your orders and return to The Controller for repairs.  Are your objectives clear?”
                “They are, Marduk replied without feeling.
                “Then we must part and engage as we must.”
                The larger of the two took flight, strengthening its cloaking field until intangible to the world.  Marduk waited where he stood as his biotic body repaired itself.  The biot examined the plating over his thorax, which was nearly finished stitching itself back together.  Many things were on Marduk’s mind, things that deviated from its regular processes.  The harm inflicted into its body by Nancy’s body had awakened something in it, which it simply could not shake.
                “Why do inconsequentials resist when we are clearly superior?”
                Marduk quickly regained sight of its objectives and activated its cloaking field.  The moon loomed high in the darkening sky, marking the biot’s next objective.  Sending power to its propulsion systems, it ascended once more into the blackness of space where darkness and isolation enveloped it.

*              *              *

                Fields of corn spread out in every direction as Nancy and her company watched from The Daydream’s forward observation deck.  Celebratory music played softly in the background as the passengers relaxed and took in the pleasurable atmosphere offered by the great sky ship.  The captain had announced only moments ago that they were just a few more minutes away from Event World, and everyone was eager to watch it rise up over the horizon.  Already they saw a myriad of animated holograms, which projected images of the many luxuries that awaited them.  Mrs. Gale and Nikaniel almost had their faces smeared against the view port, and Rasmussen and Larson began fussing over luggage check points.  Larson worried that he would not be able to get their armaments past security and Rasmussen’s exasperation was mounting to a new high.
                Nancy also faced the same direction as her mother and friend, but her thoughts were miles away: her telepathic gaze fixed on the unknown horizon that troubled her with each passing moment.  Boot was standing beside her and watched her carefully.  Finally it reached up and tugged on the hem of her shirt, bringing her back into the present and causing her to look down at the small robot.
                “What’s wrong?”
                “There are elevated levels of stress in your circulatory system,” the robot replied, “would you like me to inject you with a sedative?”
                “No, no!” Nancy said, now worrying over the possibility that her family robot had a syringe.  “I’m just thinking about…” she felt another twinge, this one brought on by a sensation that was akin to hearing a wolf clawing through the bushes in pursuit of a rabbit.  “I just worry about some of the dangerous things we’ve seen.”
                “I am regretful that I cannot be of better service,” Boot said.  Nancy could sense no emotion in the little robot and for some reason she liked this very much.  Boot was uncomplicated, saying only what it meant and meaning exactly what it said.  “If my frame were larger I could eviscerate your enemies.”
                “Well, I like you the way you are,” Nancy laughed nervously.  “But like Dad always told me, maybe one day you’ll have a growth spurt.”
                “Please clarify: what is a growth spurt?” Boot asked.
                “When kids grow up really fast, I guess.  But you’re a robot, so I don’t see that happening.”
                Boot quieted down, but Nancy saw small lights in the gaps of his head paneling flicker intermittently, indicating that he was deep in thought about something.  She turned away and looked out over the horizon, noticing the joyful sight of the world’s largest amusement park slowly crawling into view beyond endless acres of crops.  Though the group’s travel had taken them late into the night, it only added to the spectacle as millions of colorful light sources peered through the darkness like a window through space that opened to a marvelous new universe.
                Event world looked as out of place as any dream Nancy had experienced: a veritable city whose outlandish designs and whimsical nature defied all expectations of reality.  The park was in and of itself a singular structure comprised of many terraces, larger and simpler at the bottom, but growing higher and more complex until they reached the pinnacle where administrative structures were hidden in the trappings of a whimsical castle.  Other terraces floated freely away from the rest of the park, slowly rotating around its central stalk with cloud-like skirtings and golden trim belaying the spectacular feats of engineering that made them possible.
                Nancy, Mrs. Gale, Nikaniel, Rasmussen and Larson all stared, along with the other passengers on The Daydream looked at Event World with all the childlike fascination of small children, gasping and cheering as holographic banners and animated characters welcomed them with tumultuous fanfare to the world’s most popular theme park.
                The Daydream slid comfortably into a docking port and as her doors opened, the passengers came rushing out, pressing on amid delightful surroundings toward the hotel.  Drones buzzed overhead, working in concert to remove everyone’s luggage and shuttle them to their destined rooms.  Nancy and her friends had no fear of becoming lost as security measures of every sort maintained safety in the park, even going so far as to monitor the park guests’ vital signs.  Nancy felt as though her heart were about to burst, sensing so many happy minds all around her, most especially her travelling companions.  All of them would have loved to see the attractions, but the lateness of the night urged them to find their hotel rooms quickly.
                Nancy, Boot and her mother found their room alongside the one reserved for Nikaniel and the two men.  Both were utterly fantastic, having all the amenities and comforts one expected, as well as numerous other stations dedicated to pleasing the guests.  Everything from an automated clothier to a virtual reality cubicle were at their disposal, but the beds were the most welcome site to the small company.  Though relatively small, the divans, which reminded Nancy of extravagant hospital beds, could be sat upon as a couch, but as they laid themselves down, sides enfolded them like heavenly cribs and emitted sounds and frequencies, as well as other peculiar energies designed to ensure comfortable and healthful sleep.
                None of them even bothered to dress for the night, opting to lay down and allow the hotel’s automated systems to secure them and their luggage.  Boot stationed itself into a charger alcove, but maintained its own surveillance during the night.  Nancy fell into a deep sleep, better than she had enjoyed since the terrible incidents back in Albertson.  Even before lapsing into delightful unconsciousness, she wished that life could be as enjoyable as it was in that moment, with no threats looming overhead and no troubles to plague her life.  They had all been through enough to last them a lifetime, but she knew, even at her young age, that the world simply didn’t work that way.

*              *              *

The veil between consciousness and unconsciousness parted and Nancy was gently swept into the folds of a new domain, one established by a familiar presence.  Before her materialized a modest and average-looking girl with blonde hair trimmed short.
“I found you!” came Angela’s energetic greeting.  Before either of them knew it, the memory forum that encapsulated them became a bright atrium filled with the most exotic-looking plants Nancy had ever known.
“Where are we?” Nancy asked, noting the details lavished into the scenery by her new friend’s memories.
“My family used to vacation in India before I got sick,” the girl beamed.  “They described everything to me and I remembered all this time.  When I got my powers, I focused on all the details, even adding colors when I felt your memories.”
“That explains the plants,” Nancy said, trying not to smile at some of the outlandish herbs growing all around them.  She had never seen anything so absurd in all her life at each plant was colored vibrantly with nearly every known shade and hue coming together into arrangements that would offend the sensibilities of every interior decorator.  But their shapes seemed accurate enough, suggesting to Nancy that Angela must have felt each and every plant enough that her mind could envision their three-dimensional shapes without variation.
“Should we bring Nikaniel in?” Angela asked.
“He’s… a little stressed right now,” Nancy frowned.  “A lot is going on in his mind, even more so since we left Albertson.  I think there’s something wrong with his parents…  But what about you?  What room are you and your parents staying in?”
“We couldn’t come,” Angela said, and Nancy felt disappointment welling up in the other girl.  “I had another attack and was placed back into the Children’s Wing.”
Nancy pitied her and examined her short hair more closely, noting scars from previous surgeries just past her eyes.  When Angela turned around, Nancy noted that she was wearing a hospital gown; a garment that had obviously become so familiar to the blind girl’s senses that it was probably the only thing she could visualize herself in for the Memory Forum.  But in spite of all this, she came in clear and not as strained as previous times the two had met during the night.
“You said you’re still on the Moon, right?” Nancy asked.
“Yes, we’re right over you now,” Angela smiled.  “I love it when the moon passes close over populated areas, I can sense a lot of people.  There’s a lot of fear and worry down there, but I can see a lot of other happy kids when I concentrate hard enough.  Right now I can sense a lot of people at Event World with you.  I wish I could be there in person.”
“Maybe there’s a way we can work that out,” Nancy smiles.  “I’ll wake up now, but we can stay linked.  The amusement park is open all day and all night, so I could go on a tour with you.”
“How would that work?” Angela asked, looking quizzically at the auburn-haired girl.
“When I wake up, I’ll try to send you everything I can see.  That way it’ll be like you’re down here, having fun!”
Without hesitation, Nancy awoke and climbed out of bed.  She stood in the middle of the hotel room, feeling out for Angela’s mind.  As soon as the two found each other, Nancy guided Angela’s thoughts directly into her own vision.  A wave of excitement came over both girls as their link was successful: Nancy seeing vicariously for a blind girl who lived a vast distance on another celestial body.
                Taking great care not to awaken her mother, Nancy dressed herself in her vacation clothes and slid out of the hotel.  The lobby and halls were mildly active with other guests, each weary, but still excited over their own excursions through the theme park.  Angela asked Nancy many times to stop so she could see all the different people, everyone from different parts of the world coming together to share in the fun of Event World.
                Angela’s excitement nearly shook Nancy off her feet as they left the hotel and entered into the wide-open lower tiers of the park.  Everything was alive with lighting, both holographic and practical, and the smaller number of guests hurried from one attraction to the next.  Animated characters blazed to life and greeted Nancy and her silent companion everywhere, smells of food reached them from the many restaurants, and other dazzling wares appeared in holographic advertisements along every walkway and avenue.
                “Can we see a ride?” Angela asked.
                “Let me find a good one,” Nancy said, accidentally speaking aloud and drawing queer looks from nearby attendants.
                Making sure to look at everything for her blind friend, Nancy found a short line leading into one of the park’s less popular rides: an old roller coaster, which boasted only having 7% track.  Nancy wondered what this meant until a cartoon attendant assisted her into the front car alongside another girl.  The two sat, smiling awkwardly at each other as they waited for the ride to begin.
                “Who’s that next to you?” Angela asked.
                “Just some girl,” Nancy shrugged, making sure to speak telepathically.
                “Why not ask her name?”
                Nancy turned to the girl beside her and offered her hand.  “My name’s Nancy,” she said, putting forth as much optimism as she could muster so late at night.
                “I’m Lacey,” the girl said, obviously unamused and unwilling to accept Nancy’s handshake.
                “Is this your first time at Event World?” Nancy asked.
                “Um, don’t talk to me,” the girl said.  “You look like you go to a public school.  And could you scoot over?  I don’t want your dollar store rags brushing against my new blouse.”
                Nancy and Angela were both stunned by this young woman’s arbitrary hostility and thought nothing to each other for several seconds.  Then Angela mustered up a response.
                “I think it’s good for some people to have privilege,” the girl’s thoughts streamed down from the Moon like a gentle stream, easing the hurt that Nancy felt.  “But I think it’s more important to use your privilege to help people below you, not sneer at them.”
                “What did you say?” the girl sitting beside Nancy asked, her voice denser with hostility.  Nancy blushed, not realizing that Angela had tapped into her speech to actually speak with this other person.  But feeling the urgency in Angela’s thoughts, she allowed her blind friend to continue.
                “I think that, rather than scoff at someone for not having as much as you, you should look for ways to improve the lives of everyone around you.  After all, someday soon, you could lose everything… becoming isolated and alone, wishing for someone with more than you to help save you from your misery.”
                “Don’t talk to me,” the girl sneered at Nancy.
Both girls wanted to see what was going on in this person’s mind, but maintaining their long link together made this an impossibility.  So, they turned their attentions ahead where the rollercoaster was charging up in preparation for their departure.  Suddenly the entire train lunged forward, propelling them through the open air until a floating magnetic pylon redirected them.  The coaster became enveloped in holographic scenery, which gave the riders the illusion of flying through various parts of the world with countries and cultures displayed in exaggerated, yet stunning imagery.
Everyone cried happily as their train passed through glaciers of falling ice, across scorching desert, through dense market squares, and into the vast reaches of space.  Nancy felt a touch of sorrow as she saw her old home, the Mars Orbital, emerge from the sea of stars surrounding their little island Earth.  Before she could truly enjoy it, they were snatched away and plunged back onto the blue planet where they plunged into the depths of the sea and entered into a labyrinth of oceanic ridges.  The coaster passed down into the layers of the earth, circled the core, then made its rapid and exciting trip back to the theme park where it pulled laboriously back into the station.
Nancy was thrilled by the experience, but felt a sudden twinge of panic from Angela’s end.  She broke off their linked vision and felt strange sensations moving through her mind.
“What’s wrong?” Nancy asked telepathically.
“Going into emergency,” Angela replied.
Nancy panicked as she realized that the rollercoaster had overstimulated her friend, causing seizures to entrap her and snatch away her consciousness.  The link broke and Nancy felt her senses flood with the mixed emotions of thousands of amusement park goers.  White-faced, the auburn-haired girl climbed out of the cart and made for the streets of Event World, wondering what became of Angela.  She looked up at the Moon and tried desperately to regain contact, but nothing came of it.
She was startled as she felt something tug at her skirt, and when she looked down she gasped as she noticed Boot standing right beside her.
“Where did you come from?” she asked.
“You left the room unexpectedly,” Boot replied.  “You appear exhausted and stressed, would you like me to escort you back?”
“Yes,” Nancy said and patted the robot on the head.
“My ranged microphones detected a young woman using poor social etiquette towards you while you sat on that ride.  Would you like me to set her clothing on fire?”
“No,” Nancy said.  “Just bring me back to the hotel.”


*              *              *



To be continued...