I Fuel the Great Machine: Part XI

(Read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten!)

The Slanted crew of Senga, Ramona, Gabe, and Agnes hastily made their way to Ramona’s space ship as discreetly as possible. Although everyone at the Slanted satellite base seemed to be caught up in the agenda of their own missions on this highly anticipated Day of Action, Agnes felt tense and self-conscious about the possibility of suddenly being confronted by an authority, as they passed by other soldiers, who were heading with a jog in an opposite direction, or staring at a tablet’s screen as they walked by, or speaking into a watch as they bustled along the hallways.

On their way, Gabe had them take a quick side-route to his office work space, where he picked up a backpack’s worth of extra equipment and his super laptop, and within the next twenty minutes they were setting up in Ramona’s ship.

As Ramona was preparing the ship for take-off and checking the ship to make sure every window, latch, door, and valve were closed before departure, Senga approached her, looking like she had something to say.

“I’ve been thinking…” she began, “and I’m going to stay behind for this one,” she said, hands in her pockets, giving a somber nod. “I think it’s better.”

Ramona pulled hard on the lever to a window and turned to Senga. “What? Why?” Her face crumpled up inquisitively.

“I should go to Dispatch so I can monitor their activity and signal you. If I need to, I’ll stall them.” Senga said, in a level voice. “You need a woman on the inside, and as a prominent commander, it would be suspicious if I weren’t around for the Day of Action. It will be easier for you and Gabe to lay low, but I’m more conspicuous.”

Ramona’s eyes wandered to the ceiling as she considered this. “Okay, I see your point…” she said, and walked to the next window, pulling hard on its lever as well, then locking it shut. “I mean, I’m not happy about the idea, but it makes sense. I know how it goes.” Ramona approached a square screen on the wall and tapped it a few times before it beeped and she stepped back towards Senga. “I know how you can be in battle,” she added, raising her eyebrows at Senga and smiling endearingly.

“Yes, you do… And I know how you are. Please be careful,” Senga said, sighing and smiling at Ramona.

Ramona rolled her eyes and grinned. “What does one say before going separate ways to battle? Experience has not given me any answers; everything just sounds depressing or corny.”

Senga smiled, and her eyes twinkled as she intently beamed at Ramona. “See you on the other side,” she said. She held out a fist and Ramona bumped it with her own fist.

“See you on the winning side,” Ramona responded with a playful head bob, and after a pause, she leaned in and gave Senga a meaningful embrace, Senga’s head pressed to Ramona’s shoulder.

“What’s going on?” Agnes asked, emerging from the ship’s bathroom and seeing the two women hugging. Senga and Ramona separated as Agnes lightly shook her hands to dry them.

Ramona explained that Senga had decided to stay at the Slanted Satellite Base for the duration of the mission, and just as Ramona was wrapping up her sentence, Gabe entered the room from the cockpit, looking between everyone.

“What’s happening?” he asked impatiently. “Why are we standing around?”

“I just explained this!” Ramona groaned, and while she dramatically feigned exhaustion, Gabe interjected.

“Real quick though, we’re going to have to change our coordinates. Going to Earth won’t do us anything; we have to go to another base. I looked further into the matter and my intel implies that the the Slant’s source is actually located in space.”

“So let’s just blow that up,” Ramona said, excitedly. Then, as though a thought tapped her on the shoulder, she remembered. “Oh, dang it! I don’t have anymore rocket missiles on this thing.”

Raising her eyebrows, Senga suggested, “Well then you’ll just have to do your best to get that AI in there, and I’ll try to hijack one of our fighter ships. They’ve each got one super-powered silvovia missile.”

“You’re not coming with us?” Gabe asked, pointing at Senga and cocking his head.

Shaking her head, Senga replied that she was going to hang back to keep eyes on the Arthur.

As Ramona and Gabe quickly wrapped up their pre-flight rituals, Senga checked her watch and then looked up at Agnes. Would this be the last time they saw each other? Agnes wondered. She began to realize the real possibility that she could die on this adventure in any number of scary, unknown ways, and never see Senga again. While death had always felt somewhat imminent for Agnes, as she grew up in a regime that ruled over its people by striking fear into its obedient citizens, and then as she had embarked on this new adventure the past couple days, where the soldiers knew the risks of their choices, it was this moment that she finally settled with the idea of death, and how much she now had to lose. Before now, she had almost kind of dared death to steal her, but now, she felt a beating desire to live through this.

“Good luck,” Senga said to Agnes, and Agnes’s face relaxed into a smile and she replied, “You, too.” They both exhaled their weighty thoughts, and fell into a natural hug, their bodies like a reversed image of one another, borne from two separate lives. Agnes felt Senga’s heart thumping steadily in her chest and opened herself up to the connection they shared.

“Thank you,” Agnes whispered to Senga, as they pulled away. “I’ve learned so much about myself, and about life…” Agnes hoped that she would see Senga again, and that she could learn more of who she was and what she had been through, and have the chance to share her own life with Senga.

“No, thank you,” Senga said, almost quietly. “For coming here, and meeting me, and embracing me, and Ramona.” They shared a silent moment of gazing at each other, and then Senga nodded slowly, and moved on. Turning to Gabe, and she gave him a few words and a hug, and he set his tablet down on the nearby couch to hug back.

It was like something bittersweet hung in the air, something sentimental from the comradery among them, and something eerily tragic about the inability to know what would come of their mission. With as much optimistic yet meaningful energy they could muster, they waved and gave words of love to Senga, who left the ship a moment later.

“Well,” Ramona said, sighing and facing Agnes and Gabe in the common room. “Everyone ready?”

“I guess so,” Agnes said, grinning nervously. The three of them entered the cockpit of the ship and took their seats, strapping themselves in to the chairs that faced the nose of the ship. The cockpit was a hollow bullet-shaped room with a large windshield wrapping around the front, and not nearly as many buttons and levers as Agnes would have suspected. There was a small control panel in front of Ramona, in addition to a steering device, but other than that, it was a tight, minimalistic compartment, save for a few band posters taped up in there, and a few screens, and some plants.

“Okay, Gabe. Tell me where to take this thing,” Ramona commanded, powering up the ship’s engine.

Half an hour later, Ramona set the ship to Predator mode, where the ship powered down and camouflaged its shiny exterior to deflect light and assume discretion. They loomed closer to the Slant’s space base, a large teal-colored nuclear sphere with mechanical rings around it like Saturn’s halo, blue lights flashing between the multiple rings and the orb like forks of lightning, and Ramona released the accelerator, allowing the ship to float stationary.

Studying the Slant’s space base apprehensively, Agnes felt uncertain about being so close to it. She wondered if it could sense them, or see them out here in plain space, where there wasn’t anything to hide behind.

“So how the heck are we going to do this?” Ramona asked, spinning her chair in the cockpit towards Gabe. “Somehow we gotta get your AI into this AI and send that AI back to hell.”

Senga interrupted the thought as her voice text arrived at Ramona’s watch. Ramona tapped it, and they heard Senga, distorted through some static, “The target is in the control room at Dispatch… He’s laughing and smiling.”

Concentrated solely on the remarkable super computer before them, Gabe said incredulously, “This thing’s amazing.” He stared at the Slant’s space base and zoomed in on the screen in his lap, which depicted a live image of the satellite. “No wonder it’s okay destroying Earth; it’s gone totally remote. It went from underground to outer space.”

Agnes also stared at the satellite, squinting a little at its brightness. “Is there a jump drive we have to stick into it?” she asked, putting a hand up to her eyes and rubbing them, bright spots splattering across her vision.

Laughing at Agnes’s suggestion, Gabe replied, “No, there’s no jump drive.”

Ramona noticed Agnes’s eyes watering as she blinked rapidly, and frowned. “Are you okay Agnes?”

Brushing away some moisture from her face, Agnes replied, “Yes, the Slant base is just messing with my eyes. It’s really bright.”

While Gabe’s focus remained on his laptop, he commented, “It is incredibly bright. The energy force around this thing is incredible. I’m trying to introduce my AI through the network… Hopefully the proximity allows it…”

“I might have some spare goggles lying around here,” Ramona offered, and unbuckled herself, standing up and brushing past Agnes. Her voice retreated into the common room as she added, “It’s just a matter of where I left them last!”

The cockpit was a little stuffy and Agnes’s nose felt a little congested as she tried to take a few deep breaths. There weren’t any plants in here, and she had grown somewhat used to the refreshing oxygen that the vegetation provided, so by comparison the cockpit was a little unpleasant. She thought about how when she lived in Slantia, it was rare for her to see any natural growth—-trees, grass, plants, anything. As she looked around, Agnes hypothesized that now, the absence of plants was due to a lack of space in the cockpit for extraneous objects. She thought about how it would be inconvenient to be hit upon the head with a planter pot tumbling loosely about while trying to drive a whole space ship.

As Ramona shuffled around in the other room, rifling through storage drawers, Agnes glanced at Gabe’s screen, which was filled with numbers and words as he typed, then paused, and then input more. He then cursed and sighed, looking at Agnes exasperatedly, throwing his hands up, as though she would understand his dilemma.

He groaned. “It’s completely fortified,” he said, running a hand through his hair and then taking off his glasses so he could rub his temple. “I don’t know how…” His voice trailed off as he sat there defeatedly, blankly staring at his laptop.

“Oh, here they are!” Ramona’s voice called in delight, from across the ship. “Oh wow—-there’s all kinds of crap in here! My fuzzy slippers!”

Agnes had been looking away from the Slant’s space base while Ramona searched the goggles, but as she patiently sat in the cockpit, looking around her and studying some of the buttons and levers on the dashboard, a particularly bright flash caught the peripheral of her vision. Although she was attempting to protect her eyes, her instincts made her glance up to see what it was, and she let out a shout.

“What is that?” Agnes exclaimed, and pointed at a flaring missile quickly approaching their exact location.

Gabe’s eyes jerked up and he cried out. “Ramona!” Gabe screamed, jumping up but his seatbelt halted his spring and he was hugged tightly to his seat. “Ramona get back here right NOW!”

As they heard shuffling and Ramona’s footsteps tracking towards them, Gabe leaned over and pressed a couple buttons on the dashboard.

“Agnes, pull the controller!” Gabe commanded, pointing at the steering device. Agnes leaned forward as far as her seat belt would allow her and her fingers just barely able to reach it, she pulled the controller back all the way and the ship was suddenly summersaulting upwards.

Ramona let out a cry with some shattering ceramic and tumbling objects from behind them, and Agnes was tempted to close her eyes and just brace herself, but as the flare spun out of sight, she punched the controller forwards and the ship steadied. She looked over at Gabe, who was clutching his laptop, his hair sticking up on one side.

“What the—-oh sh—-” Ramona said, having peeked her head into the cockpit, and then seeing the flare, she hopped over the back of her seat as Agnes leaned back to relinquish control to Ramona. Ramona pulled the goggles that were hanging around her neck up to her eyes and brought up a couple images on the bottom of the front windshield so she could view the angles surrounding the ship, and lurched the ship upwards, attempting to avoid the trajectory of the rocket that was trailing them.

“I don’t know if now is the best time to break the news, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to introduce my AI to the Slant without direct contact,” Gabe said loudly over the sound of the ship’s engine roaring and whining.

Ramona scowled as the rocket closely tailed them, despite her spinning and dodging. She approached an asteroid as they flew away from the Slant’s space base, but the rocket was close behind, dipping out of the asteroid’s path. She cursed, and replied, “Well, no, this isn’t the best time, but that’s okay; that’s what we do—-we roll with the punches. Direct contact you say?”

“Where did this thing come from?” Agnes asked, referring to the rocket. She felt much better now that Ramona was in control of piloting the ship, but this was still her first outer space battle, so her nerves were frantic.

“Oh—-here you go,” Ramona said, ignoring her question while digging around in her cargo pocket. She found what she was looking for and handed back to Agnes a pair of brown goggles, the leathery strap worn and cracking a little, but the lenses large and slightly tinted. Agnes took them quickly and slipped them over her head. They were a little loose and sagged around her face, but she pulled the strap to tighten them and they were snug and large on her face.

“We have a problem,” Senga’s voice cut through Ramona’s watch. “The target is boarding a fighter ship. I think Agnes was right about him. I’m going to follow. Keep sharp.”

Ramona ignored Senga’s update as she continued to steer the space ship, attempting to navigate away from the course of the rocket, but despite all her rapid turns and zig-zagging patterns, the rocket followed them closely.

“Well shit,” Ramona said, and then double-backed towards the Slant’s space base. She accelerated directly at it, narrowing her focus and steadying her steering device.

As the Slant’s space base grew larger before them, Agnes covered her eyes and braced her body, tensing all her muscles. She felt that she might explode from a heart attack, and her stomach sunk low into her abdomen. At the very last moment, just as Agnes thought her world was going to shatter, Ramona yanked on the steering device and Agnes was thrown so hard against the back of her seat that for a second, she concussed and faded out of consciousness.

The rocket, however, attempted to follow Ramona’s path, but instead nicked the top of the nuclear satellite and burned up in a miniature explosion, taking a chunk of the satellite with it.

“Well that didn’t explode the way I wanted it to,” Ramona said disappointedly, although still heaved a relieved sigh and petting her Mohawk and combing it back with her fingers. “Ya’ll okay?”

“Agnes has blacked out,” Gabe said flatly, glancing back at Agnes, whose head hung a little limply from her neck, the bug-eyed goggles tight around her head, her white hair mussed up. “This is her first space rodeo, after all.”

When Agnes regained consciousness a few minutes later, she thought at first she may have been dead, and in a heavenly place, as her eyes blinked open and saw the completely black sky, speckled with twinkling splatters of light, and in the distance, a small orb with brilliant blues and greens, white clouds blowing across it. As her neck swung with the weight of her head, the rest of the cockpit came into focus, and her mind began processing Gabe’s typing activity and Ramona’s incoherent speaking. In a moment, the words began to make sense again and Agnes felt a throbbing in the back of her head.

“Oh good! You’re back!” Ramona said, turning and beaming widely at Agnes.

Agnes held up a limp thumbs up, and continued to look about her, blinking back into this awakened state. Part of her desperately wanted to go home—-to ask if they could drop her off, somewhere, anywhere, and get her off this crazy ride. This is what she had wanted, yes, but she had not expected it to be nearly this intense, and she chastised herself for not simply staying at Ramona’s place and watching television and snacking, while the Slanted soldiers took care of all of this.

But then she remembered that if she had left it up to them, they would have destroyed Earth, all according to the Slant’s master plan, and while Agnes could almost have made peace with that now, in this moment, that she would pass away from old age sooner rather than later and so it would be posterity’s problem to deal with this galactic AI regime, she was here now, in the thick of it, whether she liked it or not, and so she resolved to see through exactly what she had started.

“What’s our next move?” Agnes asked quietly, which was all the energy she could muster.

“Well, there will probably be more attacks on us,” Ramona said so casually, “but we’re going to try to insert this AI into the Slant’s space base directly. I’m circling it now so Gabe can get a better line of vision.”

“There,” Gabe said, pointing to an exposed panel on one of the rings of the base, the panel’s outer shell burned up from where the rocket scraped it. “We can get in there.”

“Remember how Gabe laughed at your jump drive question?” Ramona asked, moving the ship in closer to where Gabe pointed. “Yeah, that’s his plan now.” Ramona laughed ironically, and Gabe rolled his eyes.

“Except we don’t call it a jump drive anymore,” he clarified defensively. “It’s a micro plug.”

Laughing again, Ramona lifted her goggles so the effect of her mischievous wink could be seen by Agnes, over her shoulder, then Ramona steadied the ship close to the panel. “All right,” she started, talking through her smile, “Agnes, you’re going to stay here and hold down the cockpit while Gabe and I go insert this fancy micro plug.”

“It shouldn’t take too long,” Gabe said, unbuckling himself and standing up. He set his laptop down on his seat and shook himself out where his clothes were bunched up from sitting and being jostled about.

Ramona also unbuckled and stretched her arms up, bending backwards slightly.

“So all I’m doing is sitting here? Keeping an eye out?” Agnes asked, feeling a little nervous. “And you guys are going to be okay out there?” She wasn’t sure if Ramona was being foolishly cavalier about this situation, given the fact that they were almost killed by a rocket that came out of nowhere.

“Like I said, we’ll try to be quick,” Gabe said, shuffling out of the cockpit.

Ramona looked at Agnes, whose face was drained of all blood, completely pale, with the large goggles on her like how movie stars wore sunglasses. It looked like she wanted to giggle at Agnes, but restrained herself. “We’ll be fine. Just keep an eye out for any rockets, and if you see something, hit the alarm button to get our attention. And drink some water!” She handed Agnes a large gray hydro flask that was strapped to Ramona’s chair before patting Agnes on the shoulder and following Gabe out.

Uncapping the hydro flask, Agnes took a few hefty gulps of the water, which rolled coolly along her tongue and down her throat. She capped it and stuck it back in the strap on Ramona’s seat, then unbuckled herself so she could move to the captain’s chair to get a better view out the front window. It took a few starts for her to finally heave herself out of her chair, and her legs felt like jelly. She quietly browsed the dashboard, searching for the alarm button Ramona had mentioned.

Soon, she saw movement outside the ship and noticed Ramona and Gabe in little space suits, floating towards the damaged panel on the space base while tethered to the ship. Ramona guided Gabe, leading the way with confident, easy movements, while Gabe moved more apprehensively, making short, jerky actions. Ramona kicked off part of the space base and swam through space towards the panel, while Gabe needed a little extra pull from her so he could make it all the way over.

Agnes’s heart began beating faster as she hoped this could be it for their share of the work; the best case scenario would be if Gabe and Ramona plugged in this jump drive and got the heck out of there, without anymore confrontations or life-threatening risks. She remembered that Senga had reported that Arthur was on his way and that she planned to follow, and Agnes crossed her fingers that Gabe’s AI would destroy everything about the Slant and the people it maybe controlled before any altercation occurred. But her heart raced on as she began to ponder all the ways this could go dreadfully wrong.

She could see Ramona handing Gabe a couple tools, and he hunched over the damaged panel, working at something. Agnes scanned the space around them for shooting stars or missiles, wondering how she would know the difference between the two if she saw something, the difference between the good and the bad. Every few seconds, her eyes would glance towards Earth, nervously checking to see if it was being attacked yet, anticipating the plumes of smoke and fire that would be visible on its surface from space.

Finally, Gabe and Ramona turned back and headed towards the ship, pulling on their tether to propel them in the direction of the ship. Agnes heaved a sigh of relief that seemed to expel her of so much anxiety she had been clinging to, preemptively moving back to her own chair behind the other two seats for when Ramona and Gabe returned to the cockpit. She could hear their voices again enter the ship, from a few rooms away.

“See, that wasn’t so bad!” Ramona shouted for Agnes’s sake, the sounds of their gear dropping and being stowed away.

But then Senga’s voice came over the watch. “Eyes up. We’re headed right for you.”

Agnes had thought it was terrifying trying to navigate away from a single rocket, but now they were navigating away from several rockets and it was this situation that informed Agnes what true terror felt like.

Clinging to his laptop perilously, Gabe closely tracked the development of his AI growing within the Slant. The image on his screen was a hollow polygon figure repeated several times over itself, rotating and turning about. It kept a steady pace in its stationary somersaulting, and Gabe intently watched the image as it gradually began to form additional edges, spinning about quicker. “I think it’s working,” he reported, eyes locked on his computer. “It’s learning and growing.”

While this was generally good news, Agnes could only focus on the bad news, which seemed more pertinent at the moment: five rockets had been deployed to kill them in the same anonymous fashion they had been earlier, moments after Senga’s message. Ramona skillfully flew the space ship, dodging asteroids and weaving among random space shrapnel as she headed for an asteroid patch, in which she hoped to destroy them by out-navigating the rocky space terrain.

“Senga, where are these rockets coming from?” Ramona asked over her watch, her voice deep and commanding, her demeanor transformed into Slanted soldier mode.

Replying a moment later, Senga said, “I think they’re the base’s defense sequence. I just passed a satellite along the way that I saw deploy them. Those suckers are fast.”

“That makes sense,” Ramona commented to Gabe and Agnes. When the Slant’s space base detected Ramona’s ship despite its being in Predator mode, it deployed a rocket; when it nicked the base and exploded, the super computer was injured and had to re-configure, until it realized the threat still existed and signaled additional defenses.

“The target got a head start, so I’m a few hundred space-miles away, but I’ll be there soon for back-up,” Senga reported, her last few words almost fading out.

Agnes’s hands gripped her arm rests tightly and she flinched as they dodged another giant asteroid narrowly. “Do you think Arthur is coming for us too?” she asked.

Ramona curved around another asteroid and a booming explosion sounded behind them as they sped on; Ramona cheered for a brief moment at the success of losing one of the rockets, but quickly she resumed her stoic pilot’s concentration. “Uhh, my guess is that he’s going to make sure we’re dead and then try to repair the Slant. It probably knows it’s being infected by now.”

Gabe interpreted the chaotic, twisting mandala on his screen and concurred. “It definitely knows it has some sort of disease.” The ship twisted and Gabe clutched his laptop closer.

Carefully and swiftly, Ramona picked off another two rockets, losing them in blazing explosions along their route. Every rocket that went down was another excited celebration inside Agnes, and gave her a little more hope that they would accomplish killing the Slant and making it out alive, together. Agnes tried not to think about what it would feel like to experience an explosion, and die from any number of ways out in space, either from jagged metal, or engulfed in the flames, or from asphyxiation. She willed herself to trust Ramona, who had kept her from harm so far, and who had proven herself somewhat of a guardian to Agnes, and she was inspired by Ramona’s fearless determination.

It was then that a Slanted fighter ship appeared on Ramona’s radar, and she communicated to Senga that Arthur had finally reached them.

“He’s in a Slanted fighter ship, so I don’t know know if he has any ammo. He might just have the one silvovia missile, and it’d be stupid to waste that on us if its goal is to destroy the planet,” Ramona reasoned, frowning in thought. She made another sharp turn and ducked underneath a lopsided chunk of metal, while a few small particles bounced off the windshield, tcking by.

Arthur’s fighter ship was quickly gaining on them, so Ramona steadied her ship and steered in a more direct path so she could punch the acceleration, rather than bobbing and weaving about. He followed on the far right, swinging out a little bit.

“All right, what’s he doing—-” Ramona muttered to herself, her eyes checking the screens on the windshield, surveying the space around her. He slowly moved in closer, and accelerated his fighter ship so they were almost flying beside each other. Then Arthur hugged closer to them, and Ramona called out.

“Oh! That dirty—-” she narrowed her eyes and gripped the controlled tighter.

“He’s trying to mess you up!” Agnes realized, as Arthur’s fighter ship cut Ramona off, and she swerved to the left, where an asteroid was hovering, and Ramona effectively lurched the ship upwards to avoid a collision.

“Exactly,” Ramona replied, and behind them another rocket crashed into the asteroid they had just missed. “But no one can ruin my flow.”

Soon after, last rocket was taken out by a passing asteroid and the cockpit of Ramona’s ship was briefly full of cheers that they had shaken off all the rockets, until Arthur’s ship began firing at them.

“Dammit!” Ramona shouted, steering away from the asteroid patch. “How does he have—-Ugh, I wish I wasn’t out of missiles…” Her voice became inaudible as she grumbled foul names at Arthur, and then Senga’s voice cut her off.

“Approaching the base!” Senga announced.

“Good, we’re going to need back-up,” Ramona responded, pulling her ship back on trajectory towards the Slant’s space base. “Target’s firing at us.”

As the electric blue orb came into sight, Ramona could see Senga’s fighter ship approaching from a different angle, growing closer and bigger as they homed in on the base. Gabe’s computer screen was going haywire, the polygons distorting and churning so quickly it formed a grotesque blob.

“I’ve never seen it like this…. I have no idea what’s happening inside the AI anymore,” he confessed, looking a little skeptical.

“Well we’re on the same page now,” Agnes said, with her first smile since the rockets had revisited them. She felt almost sure that they would be successful, now that it was Senga and Ramona versus Arthur.

Having detected Senga nearby, Arthur’s ship kicked into hyper speed and quickly closed the gap between Ramona’s ship and Arthur’s, almost as though he were racing her to the base, knowing that the threat of their intentions were dire to the AI. As Senga neared the Slant’s base, she saw how close his ship was to Ramona’s, still firing at her, small rockets blazing by them or colliding into their ship. Inside Ramona’s cockpit, they could hear the ricocheting of metal and feel the ship quake with each rocket’s connection.

“I just had this baby painted last month!” Ramona growled, weaving the ship a little in vain.

“Could those rockets really take this thing down?” Agnes asked, holding her face with her hands and starting to rub her neck anxiously.

“With enough of them, yeah,” Gabe replied. “But I think we’ll be all right from them.”

Quite close now, Senga had a clear shot of the Slant’s base.

“Senga, take the shot!” Ramona shouted. If Senga destroyed the Slant’s space base now, Arthur wouldn’t have enough time to interfere with Senga’s shot; however, his ship was quickly gaining on Ramona’s ship and looked like he was about to rear-end her.

In the briefest moment of her life, Senga made a decision.

“Okay, brace yourselves! I’m blowing her up!” Senga announced, and aimed steadily, pulling the lever in her ship, releasing the atomic silvovia missile directly at the Slant’s space base. A small, thin missile, it was barely visible as it shot towards the base, a small burst of streaking light—-almost like a shooting star.

The explosion was gradual but catastrophic, and to avoid being engulfed by its powerful force, Ramona quickly cut her ship left, heading away from it.

“Senga, you’re a BAD ASS!” Ramona whooped. “Wait, what are you—-”

Arthur’s ship was so near Ramona’s ship, moving at a velocity too dangerously quick, that as Ramona dodged the explosion, so did Arthur, and his ship was just about to overcome Ramona’s speed and fly into her space ship; however, just as Ramona ducked left, Senga swooped in and used her ship to shield Ramona’s from the collision of Arthur’s ship.

Senga’s voice came over Ramona’s watch in a staticky blip, then cut out.

“NO!” cried Ramona, as she frantically checked her rear-view screens, frowning profusely, her eyes wide and begging. Gabe and Agnes quietly watched in horror as the explosions rippled behind them, consuming all hope they may have had for a miracle for Senga.

Now at a safe distance away from the flaring destruction, Ramona stopped the ship and sat in the uncomfortable silence, processing what this meant. Agnes removed her goggles, and she and Gabe glanced at each other with teary-eyed looks, and after a moment, Ramona burst out in a sob as her head fell into her hands, her shoulders shaking as she expelled a heartbreaking wail. It had happened so quick…

“Nooo…” she pleaded, her face contorting in agony, fists balling in frustrated denial.

Triggered by Ramona’s reaction, Agnes couldn’t hold on to her strength anymore and began crying as well, while Gabe let a few tears slip down his face, doing his best to remain his composure. He watched in horror as the lights from the explosion began to dim, fading out into a foggy blackness, a small, burning ember that used to be the Slant’s nuclear orb all that remained.

Ramona threw off her seatbelt and rocked recklessly in her seat, tears pouring wildly down her cheeks. “Why? Why?” she begged, and then cursed, groaning miserably. After a moment, Agnes quieted her own crying, and stared out of the windshield of the ship with Gabe, thoughtlessly observing the space before them, numbed.

In the far left corner of the windshield was Earth. Bright, brilliant Earth, shining colors of the ocean, land, desert, and clouds. Agnes looked at it somewhat longingly, missing its homey simplicity; although she despised the life she had on it, she felt an inexplicable loyalty towards it, towards preserving its potential for beauty and goodness. She sighed deeply, and as the ghost of the Slant’s space base fizzled out, she felt peace—-not a peace wrought from perfection, because her heart ached for Senga’s death, and for Ramona who loved Senga like a mother, but a peace formed in the belly of chaos and confusion, of noticing among everything that there is a balance in all things, and that it takes and gives at random will; she felt this peace as the most complicated and wondrous abstraction composed in her heart, that Earth was alive and beautiful, and she could appreciate it from a detached, yet intimate perspective.

“You should call off the Slanted soldiers,” Agnes commented quietly, as though she were speaking from far away, in a dream.

Ramona’s cries had settled into silent tears, and she nodded solemnly. She slowly tapped at her watch, finding the correct channel to send her message to, and then said into her watch, “Cancel Day of Action. We took down the Slant. I repeat, we have taken down the Slant.”

Dropping her wrist, Ramona whimpered a little more, and Gabe reached over and put his hand on her knee, squeezing it gently. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, and Ramona sniffled and nodded, blinking back more of her pain.

“I could just really use a hug right now,” she said, and Gabe and Agnes picked themselves up so that they could pile around Ramona, who stood up and wrapped her arms around both of them. They remained like that for a moment, until Ramona’s watch began receiving messages from various Slanted soldiers asking for more details, and they rallied themselves and got back to business, kicking the ship back into gear.

“To hell with the great machine,” Ramona said, as they headed back to the Slanted Soldiers’ base. She sighed, and bit her lip, her face swollen and sad.

“To hell with the great machine.”


“Be right there!”

Agnes set down her voice recorder and stood up from her round wooden kitchen table, hobbling over to the front door in a flowy, floral dress. As she opened it, her face broke into a huge smile as her eyes met a familiar beaming face, with a red Mohawk beautifully braided.

“Ramona!” Agnes greeted, and Ramona stooped a little so she could hug Agnes at face-level. “I love the red hair!”

“It’s so good to see you!” Ramona said, swaying with the hug a little before letting go of Agnes. “And I have a surprise—-” She stepped to the side and behind Ramona was a small man with dark hair and glasses.

“Gabe!” Agnes cried out, and he smiled kindly and waved, not quite the affectionate greeter that Ramona was.

“Hello! This is a nice spot for you,” Gabe said, glancing about him at the grassy fields surrounding Agnes’s house, and the thin forests in the distance.

Agnes thanked him and explained, “After our adventure, I just craved the plant life. Come in, come in!”

She took them into the kitchen and invited them to sit down. It was old-fashioned, and had a counter spanning across the width of the room, with a sink, a stove, and a refrigerator—-a true refrigerator—-built into the cupboards and cabinets. The counters were mostly bare, save for a toaster and a tablet, as Agnes was still used to owning minimal material possessions, and on the fridge was a magnet of a UFO with bubble letter writing, “I went to space and all I got was this lousy magnet” that Ramona had given her as a parting gift a couple years before, when Agnes returned to Earth.

“This is quaint,” Gabe commented, looking around curiously.

“Would you like some coffee?” Agnes asked, getting up from her seat and opening a cupboard above the sink. She pulled out three coffee mugs and went over to the coffee maker next to the refrigerator. “I’m telling you, there’s nothing like fresh ground coffee.”

Gabe passed, but Ramona eagerly accepted, and Agnes put away the third mug.

As Agnes got the coffee going, Ramona shared updates about her latest travels. She had retired from the Slanted soldier army after their last battle; although the Slanted soldiers had achieved their goal of dismantling Slantia, they remained an organization for defending the rights of citizens in countries across the galaxy, but Ramona had lived out enough of that lifestyle. She now traveled the universe, picking up odd jobs here and there as she went. She had run into Gabe at a galactic breakfast diner and invited him to tag along while she visited Agnes and caught up.

“I love retirement… Mostly these days, I read and meditate, and sometimes I write stories,” Agnes said, bringing over the steaming cup of coffee and setting it down in front of Ramona. Then Agnes sat down herself, with her own coffee. “I use a voice recorder and it changes it into text. I just can’t type—-arthritis.”

Ramona nodded, and contentedly inhaled the smell of her coffee. “I better be in your stories,” she said, sticking her tongue out at Agnes.

“Please,” Agnes countered, “Of course you’re in them! Every story has to have a jest in it!”

They laughed, and even Gabe chuckled. Ramona began to drink her coffee, and Gabe asked how Agnes had come to live there.

“Well, this is actually the land of what used to be Spinen,” Agnes explained, nodding towards Ramona. “The locals have been regrowing the landscape since Slantia burned it down, and while it’s not what it used to be, it’s still beautiful. They have such an old-fashioned way of living. It’s more work than I was used to—-like making my own food—-but at the same time, it’s not like I have a job anymore…”

“That’s for sure,” Ramona interjected, and smiled. “By the way, this coffee is so delicious. Definitely worth the commute.”

Agnes smiled, her eyes light, so that the shimmer in her soul shone through.

“You look really good,” Ramona said, smiling.

“You actually look younger than when I met you,” Gabe offered, nodding.

Agnes thanked them, and Ramona kept staring at Agnes dreamily. “It’s almost unsettling… ” Ramona began, and then shook her head and sipped her coffee again. “You really look like her. I mean, obviously, but… You do.”

Nodding, Agnes smiled into her coffee, the steam curling around her face. “Thank you,” she said, looking up at Ramona. “I feel really good.”

Something caught Ramona’s eye in Agnes’s kitchen and she suddenly changed topic. “Is that—-is that a second oven?”

Agnes looked over to see where Ramona was looking, and then burst out laughing. “No, it’s not—-it’s a dish washer!”

They all began giggling again, and Agnes had to force herself to take deep breaths to shake off the laughing fit. They continued to reminisce and make fun of each other until their coffees were gone, refilled, and gone again.

As the sunset poured through Agnes’s kitchen window, warmly shining through her white lace curtains, Gabe reminded Ramona that they had to be going so she could drop him off for a meeting. He was a board member for a Galactic Tech government agency that oversaw the civil usage of technology, and he wanted to arrive in his most fashionably early sense.

It was hard to say goodbye, but as Ramona and Gabe were about to step off her front porch step, Agnes called out—- “Oh, wait!” She disappeared into her house and reappeared with a rectangular contraption in her hands.

“It’s a Polaroid!” Agnes exclaimed, and explained that it spat out images. She asked Ramona to point it at themselves and click the button because she was the one with the longest arms, and they gathered close to each other and smiled at the toy; with a flash, it was emitting the token image.

“I’m really excited about this,” Agnes said, holding the square picture as the black image began to lighten. “Thank you.”

“Thank you for everything,” Ramona said, heartfelt, as she stepped off Agnes’s porch. “I’ll be back soon to see how the Polaroid turned out!”

And then Ramona and Gabe were boarding her space ship, which was parked in a nearby field. Agnes watched them take off into the sky and disappear into the evening, as she stood on the ground, on Earth, exhaling contentedly, into the peaceful, still night.


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