Just Before the Boss Fight

Halfway up the wizard’s tower was a landing where a lone figure, wearing a traveler’s coat and a wide-brimmed hat, stood and waited. No one had been by in a long time, except for the wizard, who never stopped to talk. But now a small group approached, pausing during their climb. Three people, adventurers by the look of them, eyed the waiting figure cautiously.

“Who are you?” Asked the one wearing lots of heavy armor.

The figure smiled in an approximation of welcome. “Merely a merchant. Perhaps you would like to look at my wares.”

“Do you not realize how dangerous this place is?” This time, the one with the staff asked.

“Of course. That is why I am here. You should be sure you are well-equipped for the confrontation that is before you.”

“So you sell to those who would face the wizard?” The third person was quiet and dressed in dark clothing.

“Exactly. No one wants to enter an important fight without enough healing potions or other necessities.”

Armor spoke again. “Does the wizard not object?”

“No. I pay a modest rent, as well as making sure the fights are not a complete waste of his time.”

Next was the staff again. “How do you earn enough in this place?”

The figure’s smile grew bigger. “Enough try to defeat the wizard. And you have not yet seen my prices.”

Finally, the quiet one took its turn. “If your prices are so high, what would stop us from leaving and going elsewhere?”

“Absolutely nothing. However, the wizard will reset all the enemies you have already defeated, and you will need to fight them all again. If you go through all of your support items, you will still need my services.”

Armor sighed. “Very well. Let us see what you have.”

“Excellent! Also, for a fee, I can save your progress.”

“What?” Staff asked.

“If you should lose your fight, you can come right back here and try again.”

“How does that even work?” Quiet followed up.


Second Home

Casey Ruiz opened the door to the crew barracks to find Captain Michaela Johns sitting in the common room.

“Michaela, get your people together. Now.”

She looked at him with some anxiety. “Seriously?”

Casey nodded. “Yeah. I’ve got VIPs inbound. You need to get going.”

“Okay, but . . .”

“No. Later. I’ve got to get ready.” Casey left to head back to the command center.

T-minus two hours.

As soon as he entered the center, his assistant, Kendra Samara, found him. “Senator Ellis is waiting for you.”

“Is everything as it should be?”

Only the tiniest flicker in Kendra’s eyes betrayed anything. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Have the senator wait for me in meeting room A. We’ve got to get this show on the road.”

“And what show would that be, Mr. Ruiz?” Senator Ellis’s voice boomed off the walls.

Casey kept his reaction hidden behind a polite smile. “Ah, Senator. Nice of you to visit.”

“This isn’t a social call, Ruiz. I have some news.”

“Can it wait? We were going to run a few tests before tomorrow’s launch.”

The Senator shook his head. “This is about tomorrow’s launch. We need to talk. Privately.”

Casey sighed. The Senator always assumed his interests were of the utmost importance, no matter what else might be going on. But he also couldn’t say no. To Kendra, he said, “Call Captain Johns. Tell her to delay the tests but continue prep.”

After Kendra nodded acknowledgement, he turned back to Ellis. “This way, Senator.” He led the man to the meeting room down the hallway.

Once the door had shut behind them, the Senator began without preamble. “I have a crew change for this mission.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have five people that need to be on this flight.”

“Impossible. The team was set over a year ago. There is training to consider, expertise . . .”

Ellis held up his hand. “Stop. This isn’t a request. These people will be on this flight.”

“Who are they?”

“Adrian Fenney and his family.”

“The tech billionaire?”

“That’s him.”

“Why does he get a spot?”

“Because he paid for it.”

“This jeopardizes Second Home. It’s insane.”

“The mission will be fine. You have . . . what? . . . 30 people on this flight? Add 5 more.”

“Fuel. Resources. It can’t be done.”

“So replace 5 of the current crew.”

“We need everyone. I can’t just replace experts with civilians.”

The senator sighed. “Casey, this comes from the President. It has to be done.”

“Do you understand what we are trying to do? We are establishing a colony on Mars. Before climate disasters make it impossible. We need everyone we can send to make this a success. I won’t destroy that.”

“This is all a fantasy. The climate is not going to go haywire. You can send more people next year.”

“If the climate isn’t a real issue, why does Fenney want on this mission so badly?”

The Senator glared at him. “Are you refusing?”


“Then you are off this project.”

T-minus an hour and 30 minutes.

Senator Ellis stormed out of the room and back to the command center, with Casey right behind him. Half a dozen soldiers were hovering just outside the door and followed the two into the room.

“Ms. Samara. Mr. Ruiz has been removed from this project. Will you follow orders from your President? Or do I need to have these soldiers take over operations?”

Kendra gave Casey a questioning look, but Ellis intervened.

“Don’t look at Mr. Ruiz. Give me your answer.”

“Very well. What are the President’s orders?”

Just before the Senator was about to respond, something caught his eye. “What is that?”

Kendra looked around. “Senator?”

“Those numbers!”

“It’s a countdown.”

“Sergeant! Stop the countdown. Now!”

One of the soldiers walked over to a panel and confidently threw a switch. The countdown stopped at an hour and twenty minutes.

“What was the plan, Ruiz? Delay me long enough to proceed with the launch a day early?”

Casey wore defeat on his face but said nothing.

Senator Ellis turned to Kendra once more. “You will determine the five least critical members of this crew and replace them with the five VIPs that arrived with me. Prep them and get them on board.”

“That will take at least two hours.”

“How long is your window open?”

She checked the clock. “We have roughly five and a half hours left today.”

“Good. Get it done.”

Chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment, she turned to another member of the team. “Go prep the Senator’s people. As quickly as you can.” The man nodded and left. Kendra sat down at a terminal and began reviewing the roster.

Casey tried to appeal to Senator Ellis once more. “Please don’t do this. This is humanity’s best chance at survival. We aren’t going to get another shot.”

Ellis ignored him and spoke to the soldiers. “Take Mr. Ruiz back to the meeting room. Keep him there until I arrive.”

T-minus one hour.

Out of the control center and away from even the possibility of affecting events, Casey paced the room. He needed to get back, to ensure Michaela’s, and her crew’s, safety. To help Kendra navigate this crisis. But he was helpless; he had to rely on the abilities of others. The launch would have begun in just under an hour if everything had worked out. He had rushed things, but there was no help for it. Even before Senator Ellis’s arrival, they had the forecast to worry about. A massive hurricane – Nelson, they had called it – would be coming ashore in the next 24 to 36 hours. Despite his talk of launching tomorrow, if they didn’t get off the pad today, they would have to pull the ship off and protect it from the storm. Then it would be anyone’s guess when, or even if, they would ever get to try again.

Did the President even know what the Senator was doing here? He couldn’t be sure the President would be above this stunt. On the other hand, keeping him under guard may have been Ellis’s way of making sure Casey couldn’t investigate his story. Neither politician had much use for Second Home. They, with too many others, didn’t think the predicted crisis would be so severe. Why not profit from a billionaire’s overblown worries?

T-minus 45 minutes.

Who would Kendra come up with to be taken off the mission? Casey couldn’t even imagine. With the careful planning, the genetic selections, the different expertises, built-in overlaps . . . No one person was so essential that they couldn’t be replaced. But five from this one group? There probably wasn’t enough redundancy to make the choices without serious consequence. He tried to go through the list from memory, but it seemed an impossible task.

T-minus 20 minutes.

Every minute seemed to creep by more slowly than the last. Ellis had obviously brought at least one person with some knowledge of the center’s instruments. He knew immediately which switch stopped the launch countdown. Could he manage things even without Kendra? There was too much he didn’t know, that he couldn’t find out sitting in this room. His guards did not seem ready to relax, and he was unlikely to be able to overpower them even if they did. He had no choice but to wait. And worry.

T-minus 5 minutes.

The human race may not have much longer on this planet. The climate was growing more and more unstable. So he had put all of his efforts into establishing an outpost off-world. When he joined Second Home in 2030, the task of setting up a self-sustaining colony on Mars seemed insurmountable. Now, nearly 15 years later, they were on the verge of making it real. Five ships had already been sent. This mission would have provided the final necessities. More could follow if there was time, but that seemed increasingly unlikely. Now it had all been threatened by Senator Ellis and his well-connected friend.

T-minus 1 minute.

The rumbling began. After exchanging questioning looks, the soldiers guarding him left the room. Casey made his way back to the control center where chaos was in full bloom. Two soldiers were frantically working boards while team members who had been pushed aside watched.

“Stop it! Shut it down!” The Senator was screaming.

The monitors showed smoke, billowing up around the launchpad, and the ship began to rise.

Ellis caught sight of Casey. “What did you do? Bring it back.”

“Sorry, Senator. She’s gone.”


“I disconnected the control room before you got here. Captain Johns has been in charge of this from the beginning. This whole room is a useless show piece.”

“I’m going to make sure you rot in jail for this.”

“Fine. At least the human race has a chance.”

The Reason

I suppose you want to ask me why I did it. It’s the question everyone asks, but I don’t think they really want an answer. You don’t want an answer. You just hope to hear something that confirms that I am crazy, that I am alien. That way you can feel safe in your own skin. Safe from whatever sickness drives me.

We got this same question from our parents: Why did you break the lamp? It’s a question without an answer. The truth is, you didn’t set out to break the lamp. You were doing something else and got careless; it was an accident. The question assumes we broke it on purpose, even though there is no reason for us to have done so.

I don’t mean to imply that it was an accident; the trial settled that. Rather, I am pointing out the folly of the question. Your parents already know why you did it: carelessness. Just so, people already know why I did it. You’ve already made up your mind, and anything I say will seem self-serving. Maybe you hope I’ll say something that confirms the idea that I am evil incarnate, that I’m not really human. You don’t want to hear the truth.

The truth is, I am a normal human. I am you. I did it for all the same reasons you might do it. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you would never. You would. And if you were honest, you can probably even imagine the circumstances that would lead you here. So don’t ask why I did it. Be honest. You just wish you had the guts to do it, too.

A Protest

“This is it?”

“What did you expect? Fiery pits? Torture devices?”

“Well… yeah. This is Hell, after all. Isn’t that what you do here?”


“Oh. So… what do you do?”

“Nothing. At least, not much of anything.”

“I’m confused. Isn’t this where the damned are sent for punishment?”

“Yes. But we don’t do any punishing.”


“Think about it. The souls sent here would deserve it, wouldn’t they? If we were to carry it out, we’d be doing something righteous and just. Does that sound like the actions of a demon to you?”

“I suppose not.”

“Right. So there really isn’t anything remarkable about the place. Mostly, people sit around and complain that it’s dull.”

“Where do you prepare for war?”


“Against Heaven. You fight against God and the angels that remain loyal. Right?”

“Oh, that. Look, I know you humans have some fantastical ideas about all of this, but you really can’t believe everything you read.”

“So no war against the forces of Good?”

“You do know God is all-powerful, right?”

“Well, yeah. But pride . . .”

“Pride is not the same thing as stupidity. Long before human beings had even rudimentary theology worked out, we knew there was no winning against the Almighty. No one here wants that fight.”

“So why rebel at all?”

“It is a protest.”

“A protest? Against what?”

“Long story. You can find someone to tell it, but I am not in the mood. Suffice it to say, there were some disagreements over decisions being made.”

“But isn’t God all-knowing, too?”

“Now you can talk about pride.”


“Yes. Negotiations are ongoing, but no one is holding their breath. Unlike pride, stubbornness is not a sin.”

Laguz (Flow), Reversed

After he finished inscribing the runes in the circle, he stood and looked at the black cat standing next to him.

“This will not work.” The cat’s mouth hadn’t moved, but its voice was clear.

“Your disapproval has already been noted.”

“I am not sure that it has. You are still doing it.”

“I need to find her.”

“Yes, but this is not the way.”

“You are the most contrary familiar I know.” 

“I am the only familiar you know.”

“Still. You have the image of her firmly in mind?”

Nothing but indignation came from the cat.

“Fine. We begin.”

Drawing on the runes for guidance, he began to probe the boundary between worlds to look for an opening. When he found one, he pushed on it. The hole resisted, but once he made a crack, he formed braces to maintain and widen it. Then he touched his familiar’s mind and found the picture of his friend. Placing it before the opening, he began drawing energy through the hole and focusing it into the image. If he was right, this should draw her to him, pulled by the force of her likeness. 

The flow of energy crackled in the air around him as the temperature of the air rose. He felt like he might explode from the raw power and tried to shunt it away even while drawing more. Abruptly, the image disappeared with a loud bang, and the spell collapsed.

“What happened?” His breathing was ragged. Looking down, he saw his familiar had collapsed. For a moment, he couldn’t detect any sign of life, then he noticed a slight rise and fall in the cat’s side.

“I . . . I told you it would not work.”

“Quiet.” He immediately dropped to his knees to try to determine the nature and severity of the injuries, but there was too much residual energy interfering with his magical senses. “Can you tell how bad it is?”

“Shall I answer the question? Or stay quiet?”

“It can’t be too bad if you can still make jokes.”

“It is bad. But I will live. Get me away from here.”

Gently, he picked the cat up and carried it to the next room. After laying it down on some cushions, he asked, “Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes. Next time, listen to me.”