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Even he doesn't know why he keeps staring out over the sea, it only hurts him. He'd never let it show, though. He puts on a good show for his men. The rocking of the ship rolls pens on his desk. It sets a dull metronome. He likes it. Quiet ticking sets a fragile backdrop. It suits his fancy. You would never think the captain a soft man, not unless you knew him. Not unless you could look in his eyes and truly see him. But there was no one around to see his face. Dirty, shaggy, wrinkled. In some ways, it's exactly as you'd expect. He was sea-worn, heavily weathered, grimy. That's how his men would pin him, at least. In need of repair. Maybe that's better. More right, at least. If you knew to look, you'd see the streak. A slightly muddled blemish on his mask. Exactly one, from his right eye to the corner of his mouth. Maybe tonight it would grow. Each day it could. The ship rocked rather violently. Maybe something spilled in the kitchen. Captain thought he could hear the cook shouting something nasty. Nasty by any standards. Any other time, that might bring a smile to Captain's face. He wasn't in the mood though, and thought he might never be. For now it was just him and the sea. Him and the horizon. And her.

It's a struggle to knock. She knows what's going on in there, and the last thing she'd want to do is make him scurry to hide his emotions. This is important though. Not for the crew, not for her, no. For him. Before she musters her courage, the door is opened. Captain looks her in the eye, and she looks back. His white hair, so clean and cared for. Most people would think it odd, such a weathered old sea-dog with hair that flows like a cotton sheet. Even more curious was its contrast with his beard. All gray and matted, more knotty than you'd think a lifetime of neglect could result in. More dirty than you'd think possible for a man who spends so much time away from dirt. It was strange, you could see the sharp outline of his jaw even through his thick coat, even through his years of age and stress. He was a beautiful man once. Some might say he still is, but in a different way. A deep man, with many lifetimes lived. His eyes did no work to betray his structure. Dark and violent as the storms that make him feel at home on the sea. Only a handful of people could see through it, perceive the man behind those eyes.

His streak grew last tonight, he really did need this. She stepped forward, her face in his, almost touching. He could feel her trembling. Fear? In part at least. She was certainly nervous. He was too, but to be sure he would never show it. His eyes went straight to her hands. They were clasped around a roll of paper. Old and moth-bitten. Indistinct from any other forgotten clipping. But he was expecting this, had been for years. He knew exactly what was about to happen. It almost made him shudder. Perhaps if the door were still closed, he would have.

"It's not too late." He could hear the telltale vibrato of her stutter. This was bad, she never got this nervous. "You and I can burn this, right here. Right now. It'll all be over. We can just forget about all this. Who's going to find us out here?" He smiled. They both knew her words were empty. It was sweet of her to try, though.

"One day, Mal. One day, you'll grow old and jaded. Just like your old man. You'll know what this means to me. You'll know why I died for this." She already knew. He already knew she knew. At this point, no words could have meaning. They were in each other's minds. A perfect understanding. What else could you expect from a lifetime together? These days, she was the only one he could open up to. He liked it that way though, and deep down, so did she. Mal opened her mouth, almost involuntarily. What did she even want to say? What was she even able to say? Nothing. There was no turning back at this point. No, they were past that point for a long time now. Mal turned and left. The door closes behind her.

Captain sat for a long time, gripping his roll of paper. His mind was made up, had been for years. He knew tonight was the night, but. But what? He was frightful. He often was. From day one, his gut turns at the slightest hint of danger. It kept him alert, alive. But today he no longer needed that. He calmed himself down, unraveled his scroll, and read. For the first time in his life, he refused to hold back his tears. As he read, the passages he finished were blotted away. The last memories he had of her, the only thing tying him to this world. Soon it would be gone forever. Soon. It was all over.

Mal hardly slept that night. She put it off as long as she could, but midday came and there was no longer any time to wait. It had to be now. The walk to the Captain's quarters is the longest it's ever been. She raises her fist, stops herself. She opens the door. Empty. Silently, she weeps. Bites her tongue. This can't happen anymore, she thinks. And she hides her tears. And she goes out to her men.


Donny Felt Hurt

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“Have ya seen the news article about those scientists in Sweden who put a sheep’s brain in a monkey’s body?” Dozens of questions sprung up in Donny’s mind, but he knew his friend wouldn’t be able to answer them. All he knew on the subject, he had learned from some sensationalized daytime news broadcast. The anchors probably said something about the philosophical implications of the procedure, but without getting into any real depth. Enough to let the masses feel like they had a grasp on the subject, but not so much they would need to hire a decent writer. “Somehow the sheep brain knew how to use its monkey body. Isn’t that unbelievable? It makes you wonder how much of what we do is really in our control.” Donny thought that his friend’s story probably didn’t hold much water, but he played along regardless. It was fun to pretend he was falling for it, to finally be interested in something for once. Donny smiled and nodded and asked simple follow-up questions with obvious answers, being sure not to force his friend to come up with his own opinions. That might scare him away. “You know I bet one day those scientists are gonna put a sheep’s brain in a person’s body. Do ya think the sheep-person would have rights?” Donny said he didn’t know and that was true. Someone else may have followed that up with theories. Then they’d go back and forth with Donny about what made sense and what didn’t, and maybe they’d come to some sort of reasonable conclusion. But this friend wouldn’t be interested in that. “Yeah, me neither. It’s kinda scary how smart some people are.”

Donny went for a walk that night to clear his mind. He really enjoyed the dark and quiet of an evening in the suburbs. It was past the children’s bedtimes and most of the parents were already passed out drunk. Donny felt isolated. The streetlights were on as always, but their soft twinkle was a welcome substitute for the stars. These days it was hard to see more than a handful on a given night. Donny thought that was a shame. He remembered when he was younger and learning about the ancient Greeks in school. “To the Greeks, the night sky was like a storybook. Each star had its own history”. Donny always thought the night sky was nothing special. He would look up at night and see a few pitiful speckles hidden in the dark gray expanse. “How on earth is that a story book”, he would ask. “There isn’t anything there.”

Donny usually walked until he was tired and then hated himself for it on the walk back. Tonight would be different, he thought. Then he thought there was no good reason for that, and kept walking until he was tired. On the walk back, he hated himself for it. Donny woke up to a soreness in his legs. “I guess that walk was longer than I thought”. Donny got up and made himself some breakfast. As he did he wondered when the last time he went grocery shopping was. It must have been at least a couple of weeks. Donny was out of milk, so he had his cereal with water. He thought the whole situation was a little sad.

Donny worked in an office doing something he didn’t care about with people he couldn’t stand. It wasn’t so bad, though. Everyone has to do something, otherwise they can’t afford milk for their cereal. As Donny sat at his chair and wrote some kind of report for one of his bosses, he started thinking about how different his life was when he was a little kid. He used to worry about his future a lot and that always stopped him from enjoying the moment. Donny smiled at the irony of the situation. Then he stopped smiling because he realized the joke was at his expense. Then he smiled again because he didn’t care. It was nice to feel above someone else, he thought, even if that other person is you.

Donny worked through lunch because he had nothing better to do. He then left work an hour early because he couldn’t stand being there another minute. On his way out, the smelly guy who sat a few feet away from him stopped Donny for a chat. “Hey did ya see the email that Bill sent out to the office? I think he forwarded it to everyone.” Donny never read any emails from his coworkers, but he nodded and said it was hilarious. “Yeah I don’t think it was a joke.” Donny didn’t really care so he just said “Well it was funny anyway”, and then left.

Donny walked to the park trying to find something to do. It was pretty empty since most people were still at work. This happened to Donny a lot. He knew he didn’t want to be working, but he also didn’t want to do anything else. It was kind of sad being so empty. He almost wanted to cry. As Donny walked through the park, he tried playing little games in his head to pass the time. Imaginary conversations with fake people explained the secret history of the Pleasanton City Park. It used to be a forest, before the settlers arrived, and a haunted one at that. Adventurers would go in to free the trapped souls, but no one would ever return. It gave Donny the chills. Before he knew it, Donny reached the other end of the park and decided without thinking to just double back. Eventually night fell and Donny was still lost in his imagination. People were pointing and talking about him, but Donny didn’t even notice. “That guy has just been walking back and forth for like an hour, I wonder if he’s ok.” “It’s probably best not to get involved”

The next day, Donny realized he had still forgotten to get milk. He felt like he could get used to cereal and water, though.

At work people were treating Donny a little strangely. They shot him disapproving looks and stopped their conversations when he got close by. Donny never talked to them anyway, so he didn’t care much. But he thought it was odd. On a whim, Donny checked that email the smelly guy was talking about. It was an invitation to Bill’s pet dog’s funeral. “Well that explains it”, thought Donny. That day Donny had a meeting with HR about his callous behavior. He asked if it really mattered how he treated his coworkers as long as he got his work done. “You don’t have to all be friends, but try to at least get along.” Donny didn’t think he was going to get anywhere in this conversation, so he promised to be more considerate and left.

“It turns out that whole sheep brain thing was a big hoax.” Part of Donny wished it had been true “Looks like the whole world just got played for a sucker.” Donny didn’t know why he hung out with this guy. He didn’t like him all that much. “You know what”, said Donny, “I don’t like you. I’m just going to stop talking to you now.” Donny's friend thought that was a harsh reaction, but everyone deals with being made a fool of differently.



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I know this feeling all too well. Dread. I can count on one hand the number of times it's struck me, but each of those affected me so greatly. They're burned into my memory, as vivid as the day it happened. With little effort, I can bring that feeling back. I see the rooms I was in, the clothes I was wearing. I see the faces of those who were around me, hear their voices. And in the pit of my stomach, up through my throat and piercing straight through my skull where it leaves my mind throbbing, I bring back those emotions. At first it was scary, then unpleasant. Now it's just a part of who I am. So mundane, so unextraordinary.

The leaves were especially green today, which was weird since the tree trunks seemed somehow lackluster. A bit gray. The last time I saw the world this way, I was running for my life from an imagined man. A hallucination. I was afraid I would die, my heart was racing, but all I could notice was how strange the forest around me looked. And as I slowed and marveled and forgot about where I was and why I was there, I noticed something. I wasn't really afraid to die. In fact, I wouldn't much mind it. The man was a no-show. Perhaps the thrill of the hunt wears off when your prey refuses to show you fear. Where's the fun in murder if the guy you're killing wants to die?

Yesterday was fairly average. I didn't really feel up to anything. I got a call from one of my creditors, the third this week. It woke me up. I feel so tired lately. Well I have nearly my whole life, but generally it was broken up with bouts of energy. A week or two feeling like the world could collapse around me and I wouldn't be bothered to wake up and run. A sad state of nothingness, completely idle and only experiencing what the world forces onto me. And then just like that, I'm back to normal. No, not quite normal. Full of energy, but still just as apathetic. Living truly in the moment. I get the urge to smash a window? It happens before I realize what I'm doing. And suddenly I'm far away and out of breath. I guess I was running from whoever owned that poor window. Oh well, back to my walk. But not in the past few months. It's just been a slump. And here I am, lying in bed feeling sorry for myself when suddenly there's this piercing ring, and a bodiless, robotic voice on the answering machine. Call back at your earliest convenience. As if that's going to happen. I should just unplug the phone, I don't use it anyway.

Have you ever wondered how you'd face your own death? I'm sure it depends on the circumstance. Say you've been ill for weeks and you know you only have days, or hours left. Then suddenly you get this feeling. You know it's time. What do you do? Can you really know that? How you'd feel, what you'd say. If those you love weren't around, would you cry? Would you cry if they were? I've wondered that since I was a young child. I always figured, I'd be ok with it. A little disappointed, but I would accept death as inevitable. I was going to have to go eventually, might as well be now. Well some years have passed, and I've since found out the answer. See, I've been at death's door. I've known I was dying, for a fact. I've felt that feeling. At first it's subtle. You try and push it down, but it's no use. It comes up stronger and stronger, until you hear a little voice in your head, and it tells you what's going on. You don't want to hear it, but you do. And then you know you've only got a minute, maybe less. And you know how I felt? I was afraid. I had dreamed of death as a sweet release for years at that point, but I was wrong. Incredible fear, and dread. Every nerve in my body was trying to get me as far away from my current situation as possible. I just wanted to bolt, even knowing it wouldn't do anything. I was looking around the room, trying to find a way out. Trying to see where death was coming from, maybe I could hide. I would do anything to live at that point. And then it passed, and I went back to wishing I was dead.

I've been anxious my whole life. Not about anything in particular, I would just feel anxiety. When I was very young, I would turn to my mother for comfort. I'd tell her I was afraid, and she would get worried. She'd ask what was wrong, and I'd tell her the truth. I don't know. I'm just afraid. I learned very quickly that wasn't good enough. She'd yell at me, frustrated. What do you mean? How can you not know? What are you hiding from me? Is this just for attention? That made it so much worse. I couldn't bear it. I would hide behind the couch. But I wasn't hiding from my mother. All I wanted, more than anything in the world, was for her to find me. And understand. And she would see that I'm scared and alone and that I need her. And she'd hold me, and tell me it's ok. That it didn't matter what was bothering me, that she was there for me no matter what, and it would get better. But that never happened.

Sometimes I wonder what's wrong with me. Nowadays, I don't wonder so much. I've never seen a shrink, or talked at all about what's going on in my head. But I have these voices, these separate parts of me. And they help me experience the world. There's the logical me, the emotional me, and the happy me. And all together, we form a pretty normal person. You see, as a kid I never really felt much of anything. Never sad, never happy, never angry. Sort of empty. But I realized that was strange. I never had many friends, all the other kids were just freaked out by me. I was the weird kid who sat alone, who never talked to anyone. Isolated. And I'm sure you know how these things go. I'm alone because people think I'm strange, then they think I'm strange because I'm always alone. Meanwhile I have no one to grow up with, I can't learn how to be normal, how to read those subtle social cues. I can't learn how to laugh at a joke, how to smile, how to comfort a sad friend. But I watched, observed from afar. Eventually I was able to reason through being social, but it wasn't like I was really reasoning through anything. It was all happening in the back of my head. Not subconscious like a normal person, but as a separate being. Happy me. I knew how to make people laugh, make them like me. But I couldn't really connect with anyone. All my charm was surface level. That's where emotional me comes in. I don't really remember either of them joining my mind, but they're here now. They help me, when they can. Sometimes they take over for me, and I'm just along for the ride. It makes you wonder what's different about my brain that lets it fit three separate minds. If you ask me, it makes a lot more sense that everyone has these voices, they just aren't as loud. It seems like less of a stretch, that the difference is in the strength of the other mes, rather than their existence.


It's a Job

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Cut, press, fold, place, next. A mantra, of sorts. Maybe for an hour at a time, you could keep that going in your head, in a loop. Maybe add a little melody to it, some rhythm. Cut, press, fold, place, next. Cut, press, fold, place, next. Yeah, you could get used to it, with a numb-enough mind. Every so often you'd wake up though, that's kinda inevitable. Come to the realization that your life sucks, at least in this moment. But it's so hard to think of anything else when you're so beaten by your current situation. Whatever happened to the good old days? Well actually that trap never got me. You see, when I was a little kid, I made a connection. People always talked about the good old days, enjoying youth. I was always so confused. These were the best years of my life? No way. Life can't be that terrible. Humanity never would have lasted if this was the peak of human joy. But as I grew up, I started having those feelings too. Ahh, remember the good old days? Yeah actually, I do. They sucked just as bad, if not worse. And yet, nostalgia still grips me. I'm convinced I was somehow happier, more innocent back then. Despite clear memories I have from that time, considering what about these old days made them good. It's a strange position to be in. I almost wish I hadn't worried so much about it as a kid. Then maybe I'd be able to fool myself into thinking there's some attainable happiness, if only I can regain some part of my youth. Cut, press, fold, place, next. What would younger me have done, had he known about that? Come up with hundreds of fun little variations. CUT, two, three, press-fold PLACE, three, four, Next! Nah, I can't see it. Younger me would have just spend all his time bemoaning the fact that his future was so bleak. Besides, I would have just tired myself of those variations before I even got to the point in life where I needed them.

Cut, press, fold, place, next. How long has it been? Five hours, including fifteen minutes for lunch. Well I'm more than halfway there, at least. But it is only Tuesday, so I'm not quite halfway done with the week. Halfway done with my life? No, not by a long shot. Oh god, is this really what I'll be doing my whole life. Maybe one day they'll get a machine to do this for me. Sure, I'll be out of a job, but starving on the streets might not be so bad as this. At least I wouldn't have to suffer through it for as long. Eh, maybe that's a bit morbid. Then again, maybe that's a sign of how unhealthy this place is for me. I joke about my own death because that actually lightens the mood. Cut, press, fold, place, next. Or maybe it's just to have something to break up the monotony. Who knows, who cares. I was never much one for philosophy, and that question seems awfully close to something philosophical. But then again, maybe every question has its roots in philosophy. I mean isn't that one of the big questions "why do we ask questions". Ugh, this place has me so down I'm becoming an amateur philosopher. That machine can't come soon enough.

Cut, press, fold-... stop. Day's over. Place. No next, but I still say it. After years, it's become something of a compulsion. Whenever I hear the word "cut" in conversation, or if I read it, though I honestly don't read all that much, my mind goes straight back to that cursed mantra. I even mouth the words sometimes. Pressfoldplacenext. People think I'm weird for it, but they usually forget about it pretty quickly. Really they forget about me pretty quickly. I'm not very memorable. Don't feel bad for me though, I try not to be. I have no real interest in making friends, or second conversations. I just want to be alone most of the time. It's so relaxing, spending time with yourself. Just sitting there, in my big comfy chair. Sipping a nice cup of tea. Or vodka, depending on the mood. I have a fireplace. That was one thing I couldn't do without, when looking for a place to live. I needed a fire to sit by, stare into it. A live fire is so beautiful, so calming. Mesmerizing. You can really forget about everything else when you stare into its flickering incandescence. Sparks pop up, fall down. Sometimes they land near you, giving off a small, hopeless glow before wearing themselves out and finishing their lives as ash. Sometimes they are taken right back up by the fire proper, reinvigorated, fed by the energy of what may as well be its god, then flung right back out by the turbulence created by the ravenous consumption of that god. Sometimes I wish I could be like those sparks. So full of life and energy. And passion. Flying about, not knowing where they'll land. Not knowing if this will be their last flight, their longest and best. Ending up far from home, but not really minding. Knowing that it was all worth it, that everyone dies eventually so you may as well take it as it comes, not worry too much about it until then. Sure, they may die young. But what's the point of growing old if each day is the same?


Like a Sick Dream

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It's been staying dark a lot later. Days seem fuzzy, like they almost never happen. Maybe in the moment they're clear. Maybe those hours are spent in crazed confusion. What's so special about today? What makes it clear while the past weeks, months, years exist in solely in a haze? Moments of clarity, that's the real torture. Realizing your own mind is against you. Looking back, horrifying yourself. Like waking up from a nightmare, in a cold sweat, and seconds later it starts all over. The fear, panic, paranoia. You can't trust your senses, you can't even trust your thoughts. It's better, maybe, to forget all that. No, to never have made the memories. But in the moment, you're not thinking about that. There's no way you could be. If you thought you were dying. If you were sure, more than anything, that today was your last. That every detail of your surroundings seems so familiar, like you've experienced it a thousand times. At first you try to keep the thoughts out. They're too dark. Too scary. Too sad. But they creep in, they always do. Soon enough you're sure. This is what death is. Just repeating your last moments. Endlessly, in a loop. There's no other way it'd all be so familiar. How many times have you felt this sinking feeling, and never remembered. How many times have you died?

At a certain point, you can't fight it. Your body moves on its own. You scream, on the inside. You bring yourself to tears. But you can't stop. Walking forward, playing the part. Repeating your steps, well-worn at this point. Walking solemnly the the next scene. You can't fight it, it's already happened. And now you have to do it over, and over. Endlessly, you're trapped. What did I do? What's so special about tonight? You always like to think you'll die old and happy, or if you're young at least you would see it coming. You'd know you were in danger, it wouldn't come out of the blue. But tonight. It's all so normal. Make a sandwich, eat it. Take a piss. Flush. So ordinary, what could have happened? What did I do to myself.

And then it hits you. I really am crazy. I kill myself tonight. I drive myself to it, so caught up in the moment. I know I die, but how? I can't stand to watch. It's too much. Every second that passes builds the anticipation. It has to happen soon. A minute passes. But how soon? An hour passes. What could happen? What's going to happen to me? What did I do to myself. And then it hits you. You really are crazy. You kill yourself tonight. No I'd never do that. I love my life, it can't be that. And then you go back to the start of the night. Performing your steps, unable to stop yourself. Because it already happened. Your body moves on its own. You scream, on the inside. You bring yourself to tears. But you can't stop. Walking forward, playing the part. And then it hits you. I really am crazy. I kill myself tonight.

And that sure doesn't help, saying it to yourself. Out loud. I kill myself tonight. Can you imagine, wanting nothing more than to live, but being convinced that tonight, you die. And you could have stopped it, at any time. But you didn't. It already happened. All you can do now is watch. Everything you do, feels so right. You'd almost be proud, you're repeating yourself perfectly. But how could you be. You're scared. So scared. Trembling, physically. How would you even do it? There's a knife in the kitchen, razors in the bathroom. Bags, windows. Maybe I jump, maybe I just wanted to fly. I wanted to feel the wind on my face, experience the beauty of being on top of the world. I thought I'd be fine. Invincible. I thought I'd soar, somehow. Impossibly. I just wanted to fly. I wanted to feel the wind on my face. To be like a bird, experience the beauty of being on top of the world. I thought I'd sore, somehow. Impossibly. I jump. I just want to fly. I really am crazy, after all.

It's been staying dark a lot later. Days seem fuzzy, like they almost never happen. Maybe in the moment they're clear. Maybe those hours are spent in crazed confusion. What's so special about today?


Shaky Hands

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"My hands were shaking. I can't remember another time that's happened to me. I was just so... I don't know what I was. I want to say scared, but that wasn't quite it. It was like some new feeling I'd never felt before. Imagine you met someone who had never been happy. Not once in their life. The idea of happiness is completely foreign to them. Or maybe someone who had never smelled a flower, never tasted something sweet. How do you describe it? You can't really. Words just don't cut it, it's something you have to feel, you just have to go through it to understand. At first they it wasn't so bad, the shaking. Anyone watching would have thought I was just antsy. And with good reason. But then, as time went on and the sounds of creeping death got louder and louder... It got to the point I couldn't take a drink of water without splashing most of my canteen all over myself. I still wake up in a cold sweat some nights. Most nights. My hands are shaking just as bad as they were then. Seeing all that death and destruction, and being completely helpless to stop it, even to slow it down... I'm not myself anymore. It changed me, fucked me up. Some nights I thank god I made it out of there. Some nights I curse him for it."

"I guess you could say I thrive in a war-like situation. You know, guns blazing, smell of napalm in the morning, all that. Yeah, I'm pretty fucked up. This shit was on a whole new level though, and most of us couldn't handle it. I mean really, it's like some shit outta some sci-fi movie. You're fighting for your brothers and meanwhile it's like your enemy doesn't care for their own life. How do you fight that? You can't scare a bunch of soulless husks. All they do is kill, that's all they're programmed for. Just kill, and maim, and torture until you get shot enough times you bleed out. Fuckin' savages. I'm not gonna lie, it messed with me for a while, but. I mean at the end of the day, war's war. You just gotta figure out what makes the other guys tick."

"Yeah war's war all right. It's always ugly, it always fucks you up. New level my ass. You say this time it's different and then it's like you're putting up the old days on a pedestal. Nah, good by comparison sure as shit doesn't mean good. When you're dealing with this kinda atrocity, it stops really meaning anything to say one thing's twice as bad as the next. They call that diminishing returns. This guy's never used a word that big, but we can't blame him. Can't read for shit but he shoots like a..."

These men weren't soldiers. None of us were. That first one, he's Tommy. He grew up playing too many video games and now he thinks he's some war-god mastermind. To be fair, he's a great shot. The guys love him, they'd follow him anywhere. And he takes to leading quite well. The other guy's Min. He's Tommy's number 2, always by his side. When Tommy gets some stupid idea about bum-rushing into some enemy territory, Min's gotta be his voice of reason. Min was an accountant who never worked out a day in his life. In fact, he rarely left his house. He went to highschool with Tommy though, and they were fast friends even then. Sure, they fell out of touch over the years, but the apocalypse tends to bring people together, and when everyone's trying to find someone to trust, history really matters.

Tommy really did take well to this new lifestyle. It was like a dream come true to him, living underground, leading a small group of rebels. There was always a twinkle in his eye when he ordered the scavenging party out to find scrap metal, or the hunting team to find new grounds. And then a big smile on his face when they accomplished their tasks. He felt like he was really running a little microcosm of society, and it felt great how smoothly things went.

"I don't know how long this is gonna last. I mean things have been going alright for now, but we really haven't had to fight through any tough times yet. Hey I mean, if anyone can bounce back, it's us, but. I don't know man, words been getting around and I don't know if we can survive being found out. And sooner or later, we're gonna run out of resources here. We're gonna have to move or spread out and either way, there's a risk we get caught out. Look I'm just saying, it's something we gotta think about"

It really was. But it was hard to think about. No one in the camp had any real experience with anything like this. Everything they did had to be guesswork, a gamble. And when the lives of your friends are on the line, it truly is hard to gamble.


The Drive

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"I mean, maybe it's just me, you know? Maybe like, I'm the one with the problem. But I don't think so. Shit no one thinks so, I guess, but it's just so obvious to me, you know? I mean... I don't know. To me it's just like, if you're not happy then just explain that to me. I mean, Jesus. What's so hard about that? Like obviously you're fine with opening your mouth to fuckin scream in my face, so how about you just... I don't know, man... Because-"

He's still going on. And he has been for... oh god, only 10 minutes. This is gonna be a long drive. Don't these people work for tips? How the hell does he stay in business like this. Who in their right mind would show appreciation for hearing some zit-faced, smelly, no-neck loser vent about his shitty relationship. Maybe he's relying on me to pay him off just to shut his damn mouth.

"... and then it's another week, then another and another. Pretty soon I'm sure it's been a fuckin month since she even looked at me. Meanwhile, I'm just lyin there like holy shit, man. This has been the most relaxing couple weeks of my life. Fuck man, I don't need this. I don't know what the hell I did to piss off god so bad, but Jesus has he got it in for me. I can't remember the last time anything went my way, man. I mean anything. Just this morning I found out my fuckin gas meter is broken. Said I was half full and all the sudden my damn car just up and dies on me. And I got a passenger who starts flippin out. Like he's never been in a fuckin' car that ran out of gas before. Please. You ever stop and think how I feel man? Damn right I feel shitty, I don't wanna be runnin outta gas on a fuckin' freeway with some lunatic passenger breathin down my neck. You gotta make it that much worse? Is that just your sick idea of fun? Holy shit, man. I tell ya-"

I won't give him the satisfaction though. My morals are actually pretty strong. I'm not about to feed into this psycho's disgusting business model. You want to torture some poor guy who just wants to get from point-a to point-b? Is that really much more effective than like, I don't know, not being a total dick? He'd probably get more tips if he just kept his damn mouth shut. Ugh. I wonder if It would kill me to jump out of this moving car. I wonder if it would still be worth it if it would. This is torture. This is worse than torture. Maybe this guy could quit the cab business and find some government work. Special ops, just stick him in a room with some foreign spy and they'll give up any secret you want. That'd be nice. No poor civilian would have to put up with his shit ever again. No wonder his girlfriend hates his guts. I've known him for all of 20 minutes and this ride would have been enough to undo years of good memories. God what would a good memory of this guy even be like? Him shutting his damn mouth for a minute?

"... Yeah man, it's been rough. And I got bills, man, so many fuckin bills. You know cab drivin doesn't actually put that much bread on the table. Shit I gotta just fuckin rely on the grace of strangers. Some days I get no fuckin tips man, not a penny."

Oh god...

"And how am I supposed to live off that, man? You know I gotta pay for my own gas? Can you believe that shit? My fuckin job is to drive around all day for pennies while my scumbag boss laughs his ass off to the bank. Meanwhile half of everything I earn is going to just being able to keep up this shitty job. Fuck man. And my mom, bless her soul. Man she can't even see anymore. Cataracts."

Oh sweet Jesus...

"She can't afford to get em fixed, God knows I can't afford it. So I gotta take care of her, and I mean. I love my mother, don't you fuckin think for a second I don't. But it's hard man, it's real hard. It's like I'm either fuckin. Pissed at my girlfriend, worried sick about takin care of mom, or tryin to deal with the fact that one day, this shitty job is just not gonna fuckin cut it anymore. I mean can you imagine what's going through my head? What happens if there's a fuckin emergency, like if mom falls down the fuckin stairs. What the hell am I gonna do? I can barely afford food, man. Am I gonna have to choose between eating and, you know, keeping my own mother, my own fuckin mother who gave up everything for me. Fuckin fat lotta good that did, by the way. All the shit she went through to try and keep me happy and I end up a fuckin mess. And I can't even take care of her in her last fuckin years, man."

Is he crying? Holy shit what is wrong with this guy. Why the hell does he think I give a damn about his sob story. We get it, you fucked everything up, didn't think about the consequences. Oh no, now everything is shitty? Caught you off-guard? Deal with it. You think it's my problem now? I gotta give you some charity to make up for a whole wasted life? Fat chance, guy. You're the one who fucked everything up, now you either unfuck it or shut up and take the beating.

"... I just. Look man I know I've been talkin your ear off. That's not really fair"


"But it's just. Sometimes I feel like there's no one left in my life who I can really talk to, you know. Like... "

Oh god, is he going to start crying?

"Like my girlfriend, you know, she's so distant. And I know that's my fault but... I just.. I guess sometimes I really need to believe it's not. Like I've fucked up everything else and... maybe this is the last straw, you know? Like I just can't bring myself to believe that I'm that big a loser. And my mom. I can't bring this shit up with her. You know how bad she'd worry? Shit I might just give her a heart attack if I dumped all this on her."

"Hey could you do me a favor and shut up for the rest of the ride?"

And he did.


The Knight and Princess

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"It was a bright and sunny day. And then... disaster struck. Oh man, was it bad. People were all like "Oh man, maybe if it was like dark and stormy out or something, we'd at least be like prepared. But like, this is totally unexpected!" And they were all screaming and yelling and no one knew what was going on. But then, out of the blue there was this dude that came outta the sky. Like he was flying and all that. And he shouted out "Hey, uh, guys! I'm the- I'm the guy who's gonna... who's, I'm gonna save you all!" And people were all like "Wow how's this guy supposed to save us from a tornado" Oh yeah, it was a tornado, that was the disaster that struck. But anyway the guy, you know the one from the sky who's like flying all around, he just starts flying in the opposite direction of the tornado! But not like.. He doesn't run away from the tornado, he's right next to it but like the tornado is spinning clockwise and he's flying counterclockwise. Or something. Anyway, he saves the day and everyone is happy. The end."

"What the heck was that?"

Johnny broke into laughter

"No really, that's gotta be like, the worst story anyone's ever heard in their life. Ugh, I'm going to bed"

Johnny lay back down. It wasn't really his fault. After a few weeks, he ran out of stories he'd read. At this point he was just having to make things up off the top of his head. At first he'd try to think of them throughout the day, gather his thoughts. Then come bedtime, he'd have something at least passable. Sarah wasn't exactly a tough crowd to please. What little kid was? But these days, he had to work longer and harder just to keep them fed. Johnny felt tears welling up. It was hard. He wasn't ready to be taking care of himself, let alone another person. All he cared about was keeping his sister happy, driving away all the bad feelings she was probably working hard to keep down herself. He shifted his weight. Johnny liked to sleep on his face. He'd grown used to his side though. So he could watch his sister. Make sure she was safe, that she didn't fall out of her hammock. That no wild animals came by looking for a free snack. He pushed those thoughts down. She was safe. They were both safe. There were no predators on this island, he'd explored nearly the whole thing. Plus there's not enough prey for them to live off of. He was hardly comforted by that, though. For all he knew, there were jungle cats prowling around, and they were just hiding in the daytime, out of sight. He pushed those thoughts down too. He lay there, awake, watching over Sarah for nearly an hour. But he knew, he had to get some sleep. Tomorrow was another big day. Every day was another big day. He wasn't getting enough food, if he didn't get enough sleep either... He didn't even really care about his own health though, except because he needed it to protect his sister. Johnny closed his eyes.

Morning came. Johnny was up first, as always. Another rough night, he was barely rested at all. But he had chores to do. He woke up Sarah, told her he was going to check the traps. She sighed, and nodded, and went back to sleep. Despite himself, Johnny enjoyed the mornings. Paranoia aside, it was nice to be alone for a little while. He went down to the bay and checked his nets. No fish. He knew he was doing something wrong, they hadn't caught a single fish in weeks. But no one ever taught him what to do. He never thought one day his life, and the life of his sister, would depend on him being a hunter. He sat down on a jetty-like boulder about 10 feet from shore. Watching the sunrise over the horizon, his feet in the water. It made him homesick. He set his net again, and came back ashore, to check his other traps. He made his rounds. All his traps were primitive, and fairly ineffective. Holes in the ground with stakes at the bottom, leaves to cover them up. He was honestly surprised every time one of them worked. Today he caught a hare. The biggest yet. He also found a bird's nest. He knew his sister would never eat a fetal bird, and she'd be pretty mad at him for eating it too. But he was starving. He took the eggs and hid them in his shirt. He'd have them for breakfast tomorrow. He cleaned and gutted the hare in the woods. Chopped it up, too. It's the only way his sister would eat it, if it looked like something from a grocery store, and not a bunny.

By the time he had got back to camp, Sarah had started a fire. She was pretty good at it. Mom always called her a pyro, only half jokingly. Of course dad was proud, he's the one who taught her. Johnny couldn't start one to save his life. He knew that from experience.

"What's for breakfast, John" "Chicken" "Again?" "Well, there's not much else on this island. Some berries and nuts, maybe, but I never learned what's poison and what's safe." "No fish again?"

Johnny skewered the meat, handed his sister a few pieces.

"No fish. They must be pretty smart" "Smarter than you-", she smiled "-but that doesn't mean pretty smart". Johnny cracked a smile as well. They ate.

Johnny had decided that if they were going to keep surviving, he'd have to start growing a garden. Only problem was, he really didn't know what was poison and what was safe. He found some yams one day, figured they were probably good to eat. He cooked some up one day, in secret. Tested them out on himself. That was last week and he was feeling fine. That meant today was the day. He told his sister he was going out foraging. She told him she was going to play in the water. He had a little bag he'd made out of one of his shirts. It was going to be useful.

The island was surprisingly large. Well, it was still small for an island, but it took a good two hours to get from one side to the other. Johnny wasn't good at much, but he could find his way around the island with ease. Somehow, he noticed all the little landmarks in that impossibly similar forest. Each tree, to him, was like an old friend. And they told him the way to wherever he needed to be. After about an hour, he found the patch of yams. Some animal had got to them, but not all of them. He picked about a half dozen, and started looking around for more. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a little bush. An all-too familiar bush. He had known it was somewhere around here. Not that close though. Johnny stood in place for a long time. Should he visit them? Would it be too hard? Eventually, he decided it was the right thing to do. To let them know everything was fine, so they could stop worrying.

With each step closer, he could feel his heart pounding louder, and louder. He felt the blood rushing throughout his body, from his chest to his neck, up into his ears. Then back down to his gut, through his legs, and feet. His head was throbbing, his knees felt like they might give out at any time. The smell hit him long before they were in sight. He expected it, the climate was hot and wet. He could do the math. That didn't make it any less horrible. He couldn't stop now though. At a certain point, he was no longer in control of his own body. And then he saw them. But not as they were before. Mom was still holding dad's arm tight, but they had been dragged. Dad's arm, his arm he held Sarah with in his last minutes, was gone. Little scraps of Johnny's parents had left a skidmark tracing back to the plane. It was enough to make him nearly faint. Tears clouded his vision, but he saw a shadow move. And soon, it was no longer a shadow. It was a killing machine. Its muscles writhed under its skin. It licked its chops as it stared Johnny down. They looked into each other's eyes. Johnny couldn't move. The creature let out an awful roar. If Johnny had any control over his body, he would have dropped his yams and ran. But he was petrified.

They stood there, staring each other down for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly, the creature leapt at the boy. Johnny doesn't know what happened. In that moment that last thing on his mind was making memories. But when he came to, the creature was gone, his hand was bloodied, and his parents were still there. Johnny approached them. He stood silent for a little while, he didn't know what to say. But once he started, the words flowed from his mind, almost without the aid of his mouth.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't keep you guys safer. I know you don't want me worrying about that kind of thing but... It's hard. Taking care of Sarah by myself. She's doing great by the way, we both are." Somehow, a grin found its way onto Johnny's face "She's actually been a big help. You know sometimes I wonder who's taking care of who. She starts the fires. Dad, you'd be proud. And I think you would too, mom. I know I am." He paused. "I just wanted you guys to know that we're doing great. Look, here. See these? I'm gonna start a garden with these. Just like you used to have, mom. We're growing yams. At least I think they're yams. They sure taste like them. I hope you're not too mad at me, trying them out on myself. But I was just thinking... There's no way we can survive without them anyway. So if they're poison then I guess, you know. We're kinda screwed either way. I've been hunting, too. All I've caught so far are squirrels and a few hares. I'm not very good, but I'm getting better." Another pause, this one longer "I tell Sarah it's chicken. Maybe that's wrong, but I don't want to risk her not eating. You know how picky she can get. Boy is she stubborn when it comes to that stuff. I'd like to think she understands what kinda situation we're in. That it's life or death. But she's just so young." Johnny needed a deep breath. He took one. "She doesn't know about you guys. She thinks you landed on some different island. And one day you're gonna build a boat and come find us. I wish I could believe that too. I have dreams about it. That you guys are all right. That you really did wind up somewhere else, and all you're thinking about is being with us again. Your little knight and princess... I'll tell her, one day. If we make it home, I'm gonna have to. Maybe she'll never forgive me, but. I... I can't even handle knowing. I hate to think what it would do to her. To find out... I know I'm doing a lot of things you guys would do different. But please just believe me. I'm trying my hardest to make you guys proud."

It was nearly sundown when Johnny got back. He and Sarah spend the next hour building the garden. They found a nice clearing not too far from where they slept. Weeded it, build a little moat to water the plants with. They chopped up the yams into bits, except for two of them, and planted the little chunks. Those other two were going to be dinner. Soon enough, bedtime came. Sarah was going to need a story.

"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful Princess. Her father was the King of all the land and her mother was the Queen of beauty. The King and Queen loved each other very much, but that was nothing compared to how much they loved the Princess. She was their little girl, and more important to them than anything else. Each night, the King and Queen would have their bravest, strongest Knight come to the castle, up all the stairs to the top of the tallest tower. That's where the Princess was. And they had the Knight tell her about all of his adventures. The time he slew the evil witch, the time he fought off an entire army all by himself, the time he won a horse riding competition against a band of centaurs... And each night the Princess listened, in perfect silence. In awe. And then she fell asleep. But one day, they King and Queen didn't send the Knight. When the Princess asked why this was, the Queen held her hand and told her the Knight was out on an adventure. She told her there was an great dragon that was terrorizing the town, and it was the Knight's job to stop it. Well the Knight was very strong, and he was very brave. But he was no match for this dragon. The dragon didn't eat the Knight. No, it wasn't interested. Instead, it grabbed the Knight in its claws and flew straight to the castle. The dragon let out a terrible scream as it knocked the tower down. The princess was lying in bed, the King and Queen there with her. The Queen was holding tightly onto the King's arm. And the King was holding tightly onto the Princess. But the dragon didn't care about any of that. He grabbed the whole lot up together, and started to fly them back to the cave. The Knight had to act quick. He sliced the dragon's feet with his sword, and made it drop them. They landed in the water. You'd think with all that armor on, the Knight would just sink. But he found the strength to carry the Princess back to shore. The King and Queen were nowhere in sight. When the Princess woke up, she asked where they were. "I'm not sure", said the Knight. But he was sure. He just couldn't make himself tell the Princess "Perhaps, they ended up just like us. And one day they'll find us, or we'll find them" The Princess didn't really believe the Knight, but she wanted to. She really did. And the Knight, he felt bad about lying to the Princess. But he would make it up to her. He'd take care of her. And he did. And after a few weeks, a fishing boat came to the island. The Princess and Knight were so happy to finally be saved. They made it back to the castle. And it was hard, but they tried their best to live happily ever after. The end."


The Showdown

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This wasn't the kind of showdown you would've expected there to be a massive, cheering crowd to be present for. Just a friendly duel between two fanatics, each each other's only worthy foe in the area. And there wasn't. In fact, the arcade was quite empty. Despite being on the complete opposite side of the building, Amy the clerk could hear the distinct whoosh and clinks of the air hockey table. None of the bells and whistles that ordinarily polluted the soundspace were sounding off, no one's attention would have been grabbed by them anyway. Amy reclined in her seat, feet on the counter. She wasn't really allowed to have a seat, but management almost never came along, especially not at 2 p.m. on a school night. She often occupied herself with one of those wooden ring-and-rope puzzles. For the past few days she'd been stumped by a particularly hard one. She was close to a breakthrough though.

The game was neck-and-neck, as always. The boys often played to 51. They figured it was the only way to reduce variance enough to ensure that each game was won deservedly. You really had to be on top of your game that day to win by more than a few points. That or the other guy had to be in a major slump. The score was 40 - 12. Givi was crushing. Or was he? He could tell something was up with Mark, even before they started playing. They weren't really close friends, all they had was air hockey. It was sort of a necessity for them to hang out. Not many people were into the game and those who were didn't take it seriously. Well, maybe that's to be expected. I mean, if you've ever been to an arcade, I'm sure you try and stop by the air hockey table. It's fun to play a game or two, but it gets old fast, doesn't it? Not for these guys. They see the game on a whole different level. It's little intricacies pop out to them, the dozens of possible angles of attack, each with its own optimal defense. Trying to position your paddle just right, so you can get to all of those defenses as quickly as possible. Predicting your opponent's moves since sometimes the puck whizzes by way too fast to defend on reaction. It was like an art, to see these two play.

"Hey are you ok?"

Mark just frowned and ignored him. 47 - 13. The rounds were going longer than usual. Mark was on the defensive. He wasn't taking any risks, wasn't going for his signature trick shots, his fast-and-loose style. Ordinarily, Givi's only hope was to cover as many options as possibly and quickly counterattack on Mark's open side after his shot. Their rounds were often only two or three hits. Today though, Mark was volleying, hitting back Givi's shots pretty slowly, with tons of rebounds. You know the style, hitting the puck as hard as you can nearly perpendicular to the side, so it bounces back and forth dozens of times while it inches forward. It was a rookie shot, really easy to return with no chance of scoring in the goal. The air hockey version of a tennis lob. Something was definitely off.

"Hey if you're not gonna put up a fight why am I even here. You're just wasting my time and money"

Mark slammed his paddle into the table and looked up. He wasn't crying, but he was close. Givi had no idea what was up with his friend, but he decided it would be cruel of him to leave. Obviously, for one reason or another, Mark needed this right now. They went back at it. 51 - 18. Game goes to Givi. They start again. 31 - 19, Mark was picking it back up. GIvi noticed some of the fire back in his opponent. But more importantly, he noticed how hard it was to score his points. Sure, he wasn't getting scored on much, but it took him a few tries each round to get the puck even close to Mark's goal. His defense was pretty impressive. Givi had never noticed that before. He figured if Mark played like this more often, but added in his fiery attacks... Well he didn't think he stood much of a chance against a Mark that played like that. 33 - 27. That was more like it! An actual fight! GIvi could get behind this. Sure, it was frustrating, like playing against a brick wall. But it was really just another puzzle to solve. A new strategy he had to learn how to crack. This was what he loved about the game. 36 - 36. An amazing comeback. Givi couldn't help but smile. 41 - 51. Mark closed it out.

"I don't want you to let me win." Givi was caught by surprise "I wasn't! You played really well." Mark looked down. "Don't feel sorry for me. Just play the game." Givi looked at Mark. He was going to say something but decided it wasn't worth it. They started a new game. 0 - 12. 0 - 19. 1 - 21. Mark placed his paddle on the table and walked away. Givi was speechless.

"Heading home early?"

Mark stopped, but didn't respond. He didn't look up.

"It sounded like things got a little heated back there. I mean, I know you guys take that game pretty seriously, but... It seemed personal." Mark looked up. He was crying "Oh shit, I'm sorry. Hey you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to." Mark did want to talk about it, but he couldn't find the words. He just stood there and stared at her. He wished he could talk, but his mouth was sealed shut. Even if it weren't, his throat was. As were his lungs, his stomach. There was just no way for him to let it out. He felt an arm around him, then another.

"Hey Mark, we should get some lunch. You look like shit, but I bet a hotdog would help. We can go to Joe's and get the footlongs. I really love that place." Mark didn't have many friends. He didn't really think of Givi as one, more like an adversary. Acquaintance at best. But he was hungry, and he didn't want to be alone. And he wanted to make a friend. He needed that.


When Different Isn't So

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It was approaching 8 at night, but the sun was only just starting to set. Summer days were getting longer each year, it seemed. And colder, which was even more disconcerting. The nights were still silent as ever, though. On the one hand, that was relaxing, peaceful. But on some nights, when paranoia was liable to creep in like unwanted vermin through cracks and holes in the walls, silence was more frightening than any sound could have been. The wandering mind is likely responsible for many of this world's greatest innovations, but more often an unoccupied mind is akin to a small child playing in traffic. When the senses leave blank spaces to be filled, perhaps they will become occupied by great revelations. Perhaps, though, they instead are taken up by an endless stream of possible evils. Crazy, wild thoughts, fantasies. Nonetheless, very real in the moment, and terrifying as any true threat or spectre would have been.

She hadn't had dinner yet, Ada. She had been too busy gathering wood. Not firewood, but wood for carving, though unbeknownst to her some of it would indeed end up being burned. In fact, if it weren't for her staying out so late, gathering more wood than she knew she needed despite her better judgment... Well really it was because she needed to occupy her mind somehow. That and she figured too much was always better than too little. But if she hadn't spent that time to gather that extra wood, and therefore had it to burn, she might have ended up dying for it. She needed the wood for dinner, actually. Her wooden spoon which she'd been using to turn her food in its pan had broken. It would take at least another day for her to carve another, but she didn't need anything nice for now. Just a stick long enough that she wouldn't get burned while cooking. Dinner tonight was fish. Trout, Ada thought, though she had no way of knowing if that was right. Nor did she really care, for that matter.

It was lonely up in the mountains. Not many visitors. Those who came were strangers. Lost strangers, though, and lost strangers are about as close to friends as strangers can get, especially in the middle of nowhere. People will be remarkably friendly in exchange for food and lodging in the best of conditions. Up here, where being lost and alone meant nearly certain death, you can imagine it only really exaggerated that willingness to connect. That need, even. "I don't know what we would've done if, you know. So you just live out here, all by yourself? Must get lonely..." Always the same conversation with these hikers. Ada liked these questions though. Years of practice made them so easy to answer, so familiar they were like family. Sometimes she thought about that at night, how the closest thing she had to family was questions of pleasantry. That's all she really wanted, though. Perhaps not all she needed, but who was to say.

The ceiling was constantly rotting. Sometimes, usually during a particularly violent snowstorm, a small portion of the roof would collapse. That was always miserable. Snow and freezing cold would come rushing in. It would be a scramble to patch up the hole as quickly as possible, followed by the whole next day spend cleaning up, creating a more stable fix, all that. If she wanted, Ada could check up on the state of her cabin as a matter of routine. Find any weak spots, reinforce them before they gave in. That thought had come to her many times. Every time the roof gave in, actually, but even more often it was just prompted by the howling of strong winds. She never would, though. Despite herself, she enjoyed the breaks from monotony.

Ada often ran out of food. The longest she went was three days. It was torturous. Most often she ate fish. There was a lake about a mile away, frozen over. But in terrible weather, when she couldn't leave for days at a time, she had to rely on canned food from the town about 30 miles south. Getting there was a real pain, she had to hike. And she couldn't exactly bring much back with her, since she had to carry it all back. Money was in short supply. She knew she only had enough cash to last her maybe another year or two. What then? Was it back to her old life? No, things would never be as they were before. A new life though, similar to her old one. That wouldn't be so bad, she thought. But it would have to be something she was forced into. Until it became impossible to live up here alone, she would keep it up. Sometimes she wondered why she was so resolved in it. She never had a good answer.

It was only about 3 in the afternoon. The sun was already setting, though. Wintertime was a real pain, there was hardly a chance to get any real work done. Daylight burnt out so quickly. The winters were warming up though, at least that's the way it seemed. Perhaps everything was normalizing. Soon there would be no light, no dark. Just go straight from sunrise to sunset, then back to sunrise. Back and forth, endlessly. Never fully day nor night. The temperature would stay constant, never fluctuate. There would be no more snowstorms, but also no clear weather. Just a constant, cool breeze. Ada wondered if she could get used to that, and decided she could. The world was already in a constant state of transition. Some consistency would be nice, for a change.