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LEARNING TO FLY – BOOK II

May 26, 2010

LEARNING TO FLY

{a post-apocalyptic homo/hetero-social/sexual love story with zombies and shit}

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Copyright 2010, Christopher C. Knall

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CONTENTS

BOOK I – GENE POOL

BOOK II – ABOVE THE PLANET

Chapter 12 – Ground Control

Chapter 13 – Cluckerfust

Chapter 14 – The Raven

Chapter 15 – The Cavalry

Chapter 16 – The Hunter

Chapter 17 – Indian Night Noises

Chapter 18 – Moving Target

Chapter 19 – Ravenpecked

Chapter 20 – Unbalanced

Chapter 21 – Fatal Attaction

Chapter 22 – Gotcha!

BOOK III – ROUGH BEASTS
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For no one in particular.

For the “dirty dozen” from the north, who braved the road and kicked ass, and the creature they saved.
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BOOK II – ABOVE THE PLANET

Chapter 12: Ground Control

“We shall lose our time, And all
be turn’d to barnacles.”
—Caliban,
The Tempest,
Act III, scene i
“I have a very bad feeling about this.”
—Anonymous
“Oh. Shit.”
—Aron

As the Solar Flare lifted from the runway and Spider, as he always did out of some heldover notion of superstition, rubbed the rabbit’s foot that hung from the left side of his headset. Another uneventful take-off, another load of pressure off of the man on the ground responsible for seeing Aron up and down safely.

“Come in, Qromeo. How’s it hangin’?”

“Smooth as silk.”

Things had quieted down since the Babry incident two months ago and were returning to normal, which was relative in Bear Butte. Four of the seven wounded had survived, including Bilny, though he lost his right hand.

The animal population in and around the area continued to increase, which was great for hunting and eating, but as an apparent aberration, a problem for calculating supply and demand down the road. Today’s flight was more about seeing if there was something obvious in the way of explanation. The cameras and sensory equipment had been removed in order to make the plane lighter to fly a bit further out.

Still, the preprogrammed flight plan was within a safe margin of error for return. Both the pilot and the plane were an important part of the Enclave’s future.

Despite the fact that his medical issue had subsided and the return to routine, Spider found the next communication from Aron more that he could handle.

“Um. Ground control. I got a bird.”

“A plane? What kind? Describe it, Qromeo.”

“No, I mean a real fucking bird! It’s a big one. All black. Black beak and, like, a beard. It’s on the plane! It’s pulling on the red—”

Communications were cut off at that point. Spider tried in vain to call up the Solar Flare while waving to the mechanics to contact the Council.

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Chapter 13: Cluckerfust

“The ousel cock so black of hue,
With orange tawny bill.”
—Bottom,
A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
Act III, scene i
“There is an upstart crow…”
—Robert Greene
“It appears to be gangrenous. We may have to amputate.”
—Dona

The Doc stared grim-faced at the holomap. He seemed to be waiting for it to reveal something beyond the topography of the area around the Solar Flare’s descent.

“The red blip is the last known location of… the Solar Flare.”

He swallowed hard before continuing.

“Unfortunately, as you can see, it’s a mountainous area. Travel will be difficult and search will be even more so. The plane probably touched down within the blue hemispherical area…here.”

A blue egg-shape appeared wrapping itself above the ground on the map. The AI had made a best guess based on simulations, wind direction and speed, etc. that the plane should be within the area shown.

“It’s a large area and we have little time to cover it. Aporon.”

The young soldier appeared uncharacteristically humble today, almost crestfallen. His training and natural leadership ability took over as he spoke, “We’ll find him, Doc.”

Ken watched the proceedings dispassionately as one would expect. Aporon merely spared him a sideways glance as he and his four squad members gathered their gear.

The five packed maps, canteens, weapons, survival devices and left the hall. They spared no time getting out of town.

The Council, Mel, Spider sat quietly as Ken stood in a corner.

The Doc began spinning and zooming on the area, attempting to outwit the AI and discover where, if it were likely, the plane could have landed with some degree of safety for the pilot. Discovering the most likely place to search first could save a lot of time and Aron’s life.

Minerva and Minister King shared a printed copy of the radio chatter between Aron and Spider from take off until the power died on the plane. Any clue as to what Aron might have done after that might be an improvement over searching such a large area randomly.

Dona spoke up, “Anyone know what kind of bird it was?”

“Sounds like a crow or, more likely, a raven. We have both in South Dakota,” Mel offered.

“A beard,” Minerva read.

The blue-skinned man corrected himself, “Ah, then a definitely a raven. A common raven. They have a tuft of black feathers resembling a beard.”

Dona would push until they got something to go on, however slim, “Could a bird, a raven, really disable the plane like that?”

Spider, who had sat zombie-like through most of the meeting after having been pulled away from the radio practically by force, perked up slightly at the prospect of being even slightly useful, “We had to make certain modifications; make the plane lighter for longer flights, make room for the cameras and such, and wire those things in to the power. That means, yeah, sure, could happen. What what were the chances? The thing would just about have to know exactly which wire to gank to disconnect from the batteries, otherwise it would just disable a camera or a sensor. And it would have to pull really, really hard! Made most of those connections myself.

“But it’s a slow-flying plane, running on sunlight and all. A bird hitching a ride, that could happen.”

No one noticed Ken walking out. There were no birds on his trophy wall. Perhaps it was time to add one was his only thought.

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Chapter 14: The Raven

“I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou
squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not
love. Read thou this challenge; mark the penning of it.”
—Lear,
King Lear,
Act IV, scene vi
“If man were meant to fly, he would have been born with wings.”
—Long-Forgotten Doubter of the Wright Brothers
“A body of mass (m) experiencing a force (F)
experiences an acceleration (a), so F equals
m times a. Aron, are you paying attention?”
—The Doc

When the Solar Flare lost power and Aron could do little but watch the indicator lights, the viewscreens and the controls go dark, he immediately began bracing for impact, or should the opportunity present itself, to jump out in as soft an area as possible as he could find. Spider had talked him through the process numerous times and it was not a wasted effort.

What Aron was not prepared for, however, was just how difficult trying to control the plane with manual controls would be. It seemed simpler on the ground, but now with a crash imminent, wind, momentum and gravity to contend with, he found it much harder to pull up than expected. The Flare hit some trees which ripped the left wing clean off. Aron’s head hit the windshield and he was only at first vaguely aware of the sound of wind as the left door came off.

Looking down, he could see the tops of trees going by a few feet below him. Without thinking, he disengaged the safety belt and jumped. His momentum carried him forward, but he managed to grab a branch as he tumbled past the first tree, which slowed—but did not stop—his motion. The branch was ripped from his now bloody hands and he fell toward the deep canyon overlooking the Moreau River.

His descent was halted abruptly when he found himself wedged in a large crack between a pair of outcropping rocks. Probably at one time it had been one large piece, but time, wind, erosion and sun had all conspired to break it into pieces over millenia.

It was over a minute before he could force air back into his lungs after the force of being squashed between two rocks knocked the wind out of him. Worse, his right ankle was clearly broken. It was not yet giving him pain. Breathing again and finding that other than cuts, bruises and scrapes there appeared to be no other broken bones, he took note of his surroundings. He knew he had little time before the adrenaline would wear off and his ankle would be throbbing and swelling.

He could not see the tops of the rocks above him. Looking up, it seemed impossible that he had even passed through the crack; it seemed too small, as if, like a rabbit or mouse, he had passed through a tiny hole just big enough for his head to pass through, escaping whatever predator it was thought him a meal. Had he missed the crack, he probably would have hit rock, had more broken bones and then bounced right into the canyon, which, now, looking down he saw all too well.

It appeared as if his only way out was down, but there was no wall to cling to, no stone steps to try for, no ledge below he could see that he could possibly hope to jump down to. He was literally dangling above an abyss.

Aron stopped looking down and grit his teeth, but it was too late. The realization had come: there was no escape. He suddenly felt sick, but decided it would be best not to make his grip on the stone any more precarious. The only direction he could go was out over the river and then down. Gravity seemed to be pulling him in that direction even now.

Fear turned to hope as he heard a distant splash. He glanced down again and saw that what was left of the Flare was now, miraculously, in the river. Even better it wasn’t moving, some protruding rock holding it in place. Now it was just a matter of waiting for a search party (surely, they would send one!) and shouting, or perhaps dropping his left shoe (the right one gone when whatever blow broke his ankle) as a signal. He even had a flare somewhere in his jacket he could drop. Just let them find the plane…

Optimism soon again fled, this time upstream. Aron watched in horror as the Flare’s fuselage came unstuck and floated away. Why did it have to be made of such light material? Why didn’t the damn thing just sink right there? Even when they find the plane, it might be hours away.

He suppressed tears as best he could. The ship called Hope had just sailed without her pilot.

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Chapter 15: The Cavalry

“What is it you would see?
If aught of use or wonder, cease your search.”
—Horatio
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,
Act V, scene ii
“God save me from my friends—I can
protect myself from my enemies.”
—Claude Louis Hector de Villars
“Who…DARES?!?”
—Mr. Stone

“We’ll have to split up.”

Aporon looked at his four companions attempting to discern who should be paired with whom for this task. Jena clearly was the most responsible. So, put her with the least responsible and trust that she could keep him in line, or assume one of the three search parties would be less effective.

“Wallo. Go with Jena.”

She could handle him. She’d probably threaten to shoot him if he lagged too far behind.

Stone watched from the privacy of his quarters as they split the canteens and divvied up the maps with pre-routed search plans on them. Stone had access to a couple of still functioning spy satellites and, fortunately for him, one was in position for the next hour to watch this part of the rescue.

Though he couldn’t hear the conversation via satellite, the radios that the soldiers carried allowed him to hear them whether or not the talk key was depressed. In fact, he could hear them when he wanted even if the radio was switched off. Being the supplier of devices and weapons had its benefits.

Mr. Stone was still extremely miffed about this latest development. That damn bird was ruining everything. It was to be Stone’s pleasure, and his alone, to destroy Aron when and if he decided it was to be done. This was not only too soon, it really put a dent in his future plans and spoiled any entertainment value such events that he might or might not set in motion had to offer.

No, he’d have to make sure that Aporon found Aron, if he was still alive, though he only had an hour to do so from here. Yes, that would put the Council at ease, since they had recently come to doubt Stone’s good will. He started searching the area for any sign.

As for the bird, well, Ken was on that. It had been easy enough to slip the idea into his head during the meeting earlier. And Ken always got what he went after. He was practically a force of nature unto himself.

Stone smiled and stroked the long blond hair that was not attached to any living thing. He’d get things back on his track soon enough.

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Chapter 16: The Hunter

“You may as well say, that’s a valiant flea
that dare eat its breakfast on the lip of a lion.”
—Orlean,
The Life of King Henry the Fifth,
Act III, scene vii
“Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs, —
To the silent wilderness,
Where the soul need not repress its music.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
“To Jane, The Invitation”
“What was that noise?”
—Minerva

“You are aiming at… a tree!” said the M45A1 rocket launcher in a voice far too ironic for Ken to grasp. It had been top of the line before the Expocalypse and a favorite among those who talked to their weapons. Now they could talk back.

“Shut up.”

“Muting…”

Ken spent an hour and a half in the top of a tree looking for it. Of course there was no guarantee that what he stared at now was the same exact raven that disabled the Solar Flare, but Ken didn’t care as far as he could tell. He had spotted it and followed it, so it was as good as hung on the wall.

His current problem was he expected there would be nothing left of the bird if he fired at it with this weapon. Perhaps he’d find a few stray burnt feathers, but he didn’t want a repeat of the prairie dog incident.

He needed to goose the thing out of the tree or wait until it flew off and catch it at just the right time in order to kill but not obliterate it. He set the bazooka down and picked up the sniper rifle. He pressed a button and the covers lifted off of the sight. He carefully switched the safety off and started to line up the shot.

Just as he had the bird in his sights, it flit just a few feet away, in the same tree, to another branch.

He again started to line up the shot. The bird repeated its previous behavior.

Deciding this was not going to work in this situation, he flipped the safety and the caps back into the closed positions and picked up the rocket launcher again. Just as he lined it up to fire, the bird took off.

He watched as the rocket hissed through the air toward the tree. This was going to work!

The tree exploded in a thousand wood chips, splinters and branches. Smoke and fire erupted in a great cloud as the incendiary payload did its business.

It was a few seconds before the air cleared enough so he could barely see a small black shape flying away, eventually soaring to Ken’s right, toward a mesa.

Ken packed up and started moving after it. No bird was going to stop the inevitable.

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Chapter 17: Indian Night Noises

“When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze for the
death of princes”
—Calpurnia
Julius Caesar,
Act II, scene ii
“Our death is not an end if we can live on in our
children and the younger generation. For
they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves
on the tree of life.”
—Albert Einstein
“Maybe we cannot avoid our fate. Maybe dangers
are real and even fatal. But we cannot live
in fear of them. That…is not living.”
—Minister King

Six hours of hanging between the rocks was causing almost as much discomfort as his broken ankle. Aron’s legs and arms, alternately as he put the most stress on them, were falling asleep from lack of circulation. It was becoming more difficult to switch as they seemed to stay numb longer than before.

He had neither seen nor heard any sign of a rescue effort. He had stopped sobbing, in part because he was tired, in part because it inhibited his vision and wasted moisture, and in part because it became more difficult and dangerous to wipe his runny nose in his current position. Falling because of a scratched itch seemed ironic but a cruel end somehow.

He very nearly did fall when a voice spoke nearby.

“Hey. How’s it hangin’?”

Aron looked wide-eyed at a man—certainly looked like a man—standing in mid-air, at his level, though out away from the rocks, above the river far below. He had bushy black hair, wore jeans, cowboy boots, sunglasses and a hat with a grayish-brown feather in it. His shirt was white though the hat was black. He must be Namrican.

“Uh…hi.”

“Kind of in a predicament, aren’t ya, Kele?”

“My name is Aron.”

“Sure, sure. Right now you’re just a sparrow caught in a trap. You catch my meaning?”

“Not really. Are you going to help me down?”

“Be my guest,” the man indicated Aron could drop any time.

“That’s not what I meant! I mean, you got a hoverbelt or something, right? Suspended by wires from above!”

“Nah. I’m not actually here…”

The Namrican turned his head as if listening to something somewhere else.

Aron shifted a bit on the rock, trying to get a better look at the man, “You’re not real?”

“I know,” the man treated Aron’s question as a statement.

“Well, why are you here, goddammit, if not to help?”

“I’m here to help you conquer your fear.”

“Fear of what?!? Having my guts splattered all over the rocks below?”

The man looked at Aron grimly for a moment.

“Yep, that’s pretty much it,” the Indian smiled.

“Thanks for nothing, asshole! Of all the hallucinations I have to get a useless turd!”

“Watch it now, love!”

“Sorry? That sounded…”

“Hm? I’ll be back later. Must hunt and provide for the family.”

The man faded away.

At least now Aron had something to do other than feel sorry for himself. Now, he could wonder what the fuck that was all about. And why, for a moment, did that Namrican sound like he had an English accent?

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Chapter 18: Moving Target

“So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.”
—Romeo,
Romeo and Juliet,
Act I, scene v
“Like a poor marksman, you keep missing the target.”
—Anonymous
“Bullseye!”
—Mel

Ken tried to control his breathing. The uphill trek, after climbing several rocky crags, was harsh in the hot sun even for someone in the kind of shape he kept in.

Now, he sat in a tree, one arm wrapped around the thin upper portion of the trunk to maintain balance. He held the sniper rifle in the other. A pair of night vision goggles that also served as binoculars were attached to his head. The device was busy scanning for his quarry.

After several minutes, the device found it. It was about three hundred meters away, sitting idly as it had done before, on a tree branch.

Carefully and slowly, Ken readied the rifle for the kill. He shifted cautiously a few centimeters to the right to be closer to the trunk.

The bird was motionless. Ken lined the reticule up and the digital readout highlighted the target. The onboard computer even added text, CORVUS CORAX, COMMON RAVEN. He put his finger on the trigger and began slowly squeezing.

A rustling sound behind him switched him automatically into survival mode. Unable to swing the rifle around to the threat, he let go of the tree for a split second and pulled his 9mm pistol. As he did, the branch swayed and he lost his balance.

Though he only hit one branch on the way down, it was in the face. Mercifully, it was thinnish and his nose and cheek broke it when they made contact rather than the other way around.

The rifle did not fare so well. It was stuck, barrel down, in the dirt, like a sword of a fallen warrior left as a grave marker. It would be useless until he could get it back to the shop to clean, repair and properly oil it, if there was no permanent damage he couldn’t repair with the parts on hand back there.

He quickly looked around for the source of the noise, his face still stinging. There was the culprit: as he slowly attempted to identify the mammal’s species, something in the back of his mind told him to move quickly. Black-furred with a pair of white stripes down its back, the creature was in the odd position of standing on its head as Ken dove away from the tree and into a thicket.

The smell was overwhelming as he peeked through the bushes. The skunk, apparently satisfied that whatever had frightened it was now gone, waddled away the other direction. Ken had to suppress fit of retching at the scent it left behind.

After waiting a moment for the skunk to get safely away, Ken stepped out of the shrubbery and knocked twigs and leaves off of his clothing.

“Caw!”

Without thinking he pointed the pistol at the sound and let out four quick rounds. Only fronds from the tree above him fell as the raven once again somehow escaped the Grim Reaper’s aim and glided away with the tree as cover.

Undeterred, Ken watched where the bird went. It was approaching nightfall and he believed he had at last traced it to its nest within the rock wall ahead. He picked up most of his gear. Some had been hit by skunkmusk and had to be left behind.

At least he’d have less to carry once he reached the nest. It was just a matter of time.

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Chapter 19: Ravenpecked

“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To gainful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold.”
—Katharina,
The Taming of the Shrew,
Act V, scene ii
“Universal manhood suffrage, by establishing an
aristocracy of sex, imposes upon the women of
this nation a more absolute and cruel despotism
than monarchy; in that, a woman finds a politic-
al master in her father, husband, brother, son.”
—Susan B. Anthony
“Clean it up. Now.”
—Palana

Gregory continued to sweep up and bag the shredded cotton. Moments before, he had instead been laughing himself silly watching a man try to kill an android raven that was under his control. Now, it seemed, he was paying dearly for the entertainment under the watchful eye of his supreme commander.

“Who has goddam rats as pets anyway?”

“Palana, my love, my goddess, my…everything—“

“Shove it, Greg. I lose one more tie-dyed t-shirt or—” she was on the verge of tears, which was the local equivalent of Defcon 3, “Now I’m thinking of my canvas shoes. I loved those fucking shoes, Greg!”

“Sweetness, soon we’ll be able to rejoin civilization, such as it is. We’ll have all sorts of—“

“Just keep your goddam mice in their cages where they belong or I’ll be having mouse soup! What the hell were you doing in there anyway, laughing like a hyena?”

Palana stormed out of her room (actually one of her many rooms) before Gregory could answer. She didn’t really care that he was trying to talk a young man into jumping to his death. She didn’t even care what that meant. Oh, well.

“Puss!”

Gregory was having so much fun at Ken’s expense that he just left Aron hanging. He really needed to get back to the Avatron room and have another chat with the little bugger before he fell. First, he should probably patch the controls for the raven in there so he can do a little bit of both at once.

Crazy toys he had access to since coming here. That was the advantage of living in an abandoned secret military complex under all this rock.

“Oops. Nearly forgot me sunglasses,” he said to the mice, who were still making a nest under Palana’s bed with pieces of multi-colored t-shirt. He put on his shades and black cowboy hat and whistled as he walked back to the Avatron room.

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Chapter 20: Unbalanced

“We cannot hold mortality’s strong hand.”
—John,
The Life and Death of King John,
Act IV, scene ii
“He that is down need fear no fall.”
—John Bunyan
“That’s really rather unusual. And different.”
—Gregory

Aporon stopped and watched the sun dip below the trees. This act was not out of some wonder of nature’s beauty, nor some romantic notion that, somewhere, hopefully not far away, Aron was watching it too.

No. Aporon watched the last glimmer extinguish itself because it reflected precisely what he was feeling. Blind, lost and now with less optimism than he had begun the search. He had, in his mind, failed utterly. A positive attitude had done nothing that he could perceive to set the world right again.

He had in all honesty covered a lot of ground. His voice was almost gone from calling out. Still, he saw that he had barely put a divot in the great blue tear drop in which, somewhere, the Solar Flare and Aron the pilot were. The odds of finding Aron alive tomorrow were less than they were today. Tomorrow evening, the same would be true again until the odds were negligible.

One day, someone would spot the plane and find the remains of a fine young man, full of hope and a lust for adventure that surpassed anything Aporon himself ever felt. A set of bones, or whatever was left from the scavengers…

Aporon stopped himself from thinking further on that and pulled out his inflatable Habitent. He cleared an area for it, but could not bring himself to push the button to let the device do its job. Instead he went over and leaned against a tree for a moment.

His knees buckled under him. Failing to save Aron would mean that he could never compensate for taking a life. He was doomed to be a murderer as momentary despair turned to practicality which turned to self-pity. There was no chance of redemption now. He was a murderer even though the killing of Len, Len the Bull, had been the right thing to do, for the greater good.

Aporon, alone and no one to lead or be strong for, began to weep like he hadn’t allowed himself to do for years. Strangely, he imagined a very gentle Len sitting next to him and doing likewise.

It began to rain.

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Chapter 21: Fatal Attraction

“What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger,
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble.”
—Macbeth,
Macbeth,
Act III, scene iv
“No thought of flight,
None of retreat, no unbecoming deed
That argued fear; each on himself relied,
As only in his arm the moment lay
Of victory.”
—John Milton,
Paradise Lost: The Sixth Book
“I’m so sorry, Doc.”
—Aporon

Aron shook uncontrollably. The third hallucinatory visit of the Namrican (or whatever Aron’s imagination was trying to tell him he was) had been the most disturbing of all.

The second had been friendlier, but it hadn’t been raining then. Nor had he talked of dying that time, just courage and stories of those who won the day against all odds and found something better once their troubles were done.

Aron’s fingers were tired. The rain was not making that any easier. The rocks were becoming slippery, requiring more strength from them to prevent himself falling out of the tight space and into the larger one, and finally the larger one beyond that.

This third visit, the Indian (that was what Aron recalled people used to call them long ago) had told him that death was merely change. Though Aron understood that on some level, he was also battling instinct that predated home sapien form. Survival, fear, was telling him that someone might find him eventually if he merely hung on for long enough.

But how long could he do that? What were the chances of finding him? Now? In this rainstorm? Hidden from everywhere in an impossible position, so impossible that no one would even think to look up to find him here.

His mind turned to gravity. Could it be defied? The theories he recalled said no, though as far as forces go, gravity was considered a relatively weak one based on some mathematics. First there was the belief that objects with mass were attracted to one another. The smaller one would do most of the traveling because it took less energy to move it, or something like that.

The other theory was that, no, actually objects were being pushed together by unseen gravitons that either only entered our reality for short periods of time or weren’t here at all, merely influencing our Universe from their own nearby.

Aron was surprised at how much he remembered. Far more than he would have ever thought. If only he could tell Minerva and the Doc that apparently he paid more attention than even he was aware.

But gravity could not be defied. Weak or no, it was a deadly force at this height.

Aron’s shaking continued. The blood was leaving his arms and legs. He wanted to think it was the rain, but he knew better from Spider’s wartime tales. He was going into shock. Despite that, his memory seemed to be never better. Aron found that strange.

Then a larger wave of fear shook him. The realization that there was no escape now, that soon he would be dead, gripped him with icy fingers that worked their way through his skin and into his limbs. Death was embracing him.

Aron tried unsuccessfully to suppress a moan, but the involuntary vocalization formed in his throat and escaped his quivering lips despite his desire for that not to happen. Fear was winning and Death would be there to reap the reward.

Then he suddenly began laughing before he could even figure out at what. A memory, suddenly, unbidden, unsought, popped into his head from what seemed like nowhere. It was as though a lighthouse had suddenly been lit on a dark, stormy sea, a black turbulent ocean, providing solace to those who were cold, wet and tossed upon it.

He saw a ridiculous—yet wonderful!—porcupine head being hung (crookedly) on a wall in the gym. He saw the individual who, despite what other people thought of him as being strange or oblivious to the danger and horrors around him, look at it quizzically as if it should be hanging straight but for some reason wasn’t. He heard two simple sentences being spoken, one from himself followed by one from the other like a greeting being given and returned. He saw, for the first time, what he now thought of as a god. The personification of Hope. There was something more comforting in his simplicity, his catlike grace, and his inner light than anything Aron had ever experienced.

Yes, dammit, Aron loved Ken.

Seizing that moment of certainty, Aron finally let go and dropped into the open air.

At first he thought maybe he actually was defying gravity. Lightning above revealed his shadow along the rock wall, a silhouette of someone not dying but rather living for the first time.

A tear exited one eye, not sadness for his own imminent demise, but that now he might not ever be able to tell the crazy-carpenter-turned-warrior (or was it the other way around?) that he loved him. His inability to concentrate while Ken was in the gym, his rejection of the obvious pairing with Aporon, his preoccupation with trying to understand what it was that made Ken Ken, were all suddenly explained.

Aron hurtled toward his inevitable doom but did not despair. That, he thought, must surely be worth something.

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Chapter 22: Gotcha!

“And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth,
With carrion men, groaning for burial.”
—Mark Antony,
Julius Caesar,
Act III, scene i
“It is mine to avenge; I will repay.”
—God
“I’d have that bird roasting on a spit!”
—Spider

Ken lay in a prone position as he had for the last forty-five minutes. Prior to that, he was crawling on his belly through labyrinthine tunnels and squeezing, jumping, even swimming at one point, just to get to that damn bird. Six hours and five useless weapons later, he was nearly home.

It was a mere three meters from him now. Still unaware that, at last, the predator had caught up with his prey and was about to leap to strike. It was just his bare hands versus the bird now, but he had a few advantages.

First, it was now raining. The bird was currently standing on a dry ledge and showed no signs of wanting to brave the rain and thunder. Every time the there was a thunder clap, it stirred a bit, but did not take flight.

Next, due to the sound of the rain and thunder, the bird had not heard him approach. This gave him not only the ability to get this close, but to get into a perfect crouching position to be able to snatch the thing with a single, well-executed jump.

Finally, it was man against a bird. Surely that counted for something.

He waited until the raven’s head was turned toward the storm and waited for lightning and counted for the coupled thunder he knew would follow.

He smiled grimly. Finally!

Ken pushed off the sides of the tunnel with his legs as he planned. He flew through the air toward the feathered pest that had driven him to this extreme with a fury he found unexpected.

Say ‘nevermore’ motherf—

The bird, in one motion, flapped its wings and threw back its claws, sending sand and grit into Ken’s face. One of the man’s hands went to his eyes, while the other was still reaching for the bird’s scrawny neck.

“Ahfuck!”

Blind and slipping on the sandy ledge, Ken stumbled into the air. His left arm swung forward to the bird’s expected location anyway and made contact.

“Got you!”

Ken fell straight down. Still unable to see, he worried that this might not be as high as he estimated and that he might, at any moment, splat all over a rock. The distant sound of water rushing told him he was far higher than he had guessed.

“Twanggg!”

The bungee cord pulled tight and began to reverse Ken’s direction as he was propelled upward. The difficult part would be, of course, landing back on the ledge instead of going up and down like a yo-yo.

He managed to swing his weight backwards onto the ledge but rather than winding up on his feet with a victorious shout, he landed on his ass with a thud. Then there was a second thud on top of him.

The rain washing away the dirt from his eyes, he saw Aron laying on top of him with a rather peculiar smile which turned to laughter as the young man hugged him tightly.

“I love you, Ken!”

“I got you, Aron.”

Aron cried tears of joy and clung to Ken, who did not resist. In the rain it was not possible to tell if Ken was crying as well but his hands were shaking as he embraced the bird he caught.

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