Ross stared at the banana on his desk, steeling himself to eat this particularly overripe item when someone appeared at his door.
“Another banana?” Jill smirked at Ross. “Those things are gonna kill ya.”Continue reading
Ross stared at the banana on his desk, steeling himself to eat this particularly overripe item when someone appeared at his door.
“Another banana?” Jill smirked at Ross. “Those things are gonna kill ya.”Continue reading
Roger wasn’t much for animals. They didn’t like him and he didn’t like them. Every dog he’d ever tried to pet had either run or bit him. Cats clawed him and even birds pecked him.
Which is how he knew something was wrong when he woke up with a mouse sitting on his nightstand.
“Go away” he said. It didn’t move.
“Scram.” Roger sat up and waved at it. It washed its whiskers.
Roger eyed the clock and then looked out the window. It was past eight but still dark out. Odd. Roger watched the mouse carefully as he stayed outside arm’s reach of the mouse while getting up.
He grabbed his things and headed to the shower without taking his eyes off the creature until he left his bedroom. Stayed facing him the entire time.
When he came back, it was still there. He combed his hair in silence, still watching the mouse that moved only to rub its whiskers.
When he couldn’t take it any longer, Roger stepped forward, grabbing a book off his shelf. “Get out of here now or I’m going to smash you!”
The mouse paused for a moment, and then resumed rubbing its little face.
Roger moved to the bed, put the book down, and picked up a pen. When he poked the mouse, it squeaked and then continued washing its whiskers.
Roger bent over to look at it and whispered half to himself. “What the hell are you doing, little guy?”
“Distracting you” said a small voice behind him. By the time he started to spin around, the horde of mice was crashing over him.
The last thing he heard as darkness swallowed him was a small voice saying “At last, the prophesied hero has fallen. Soon, so will all the other Humans.”
“Thank you all for gathering on short notice.” Harry sat in his chair with the light of his monitor reflecting off his glasses. “I know these are hard times, but I’m glad we can still gather quickly as the need arises.”
Harry focused his eyes on his webcam, doing what that guide to video conferencing had told him to give the illusion of eye contact to the people on the call. It was tricky to maintain, but he’d had a lot of practice.
Grady was a simple man. He liked to hike, he liked his wife, and he liked his work. He merely tolerated their kids. Everyone had assured him that he’d eventually like them when they became little people instead of pink blobs, but they’d been wrong. He could be occasionally persuaded to do activities adjacent to hiking, such as rock climbing or camping, and did his best to avoid everything else.
I’ve rewritten this opening paragraph half a dozen times so far and I’m forced to confront one of the worst things a reviewer can face: There is nothing even remotely close to Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers for me to draw on for comparison or to reference as I describe the strengths and my favorite parts of this book. I’ve cycled through everything from my favorite stories to my favorite bits of metaphor and poetry from various sources to books that fall under the same “disease and rampant evil assholes bring about the end of civilization as we know it” umbrella but none of them works. I get about three sentences in and am forced to admit that, right now, in my experience as a reader, there’s nothing that can compare. Which isn’t to say that it is the best book ever written and this novel transcends literature to be the Perfect Story–that’s far too subjective of a claim for me to make. I’m just saying that any reference I make is going to wind up being such a pale shadow that all I can do is say they had a similar function or action. Like comparing a sunrise to an idea that slowly came to your attention. One is the actual dawn, to which nothing can truly compare, and the other is something that dawned on you simply because describing an idea as something that slowly rose before you is the easiest way to say that you thought something through in a way that gave rise to a new idea. This book was powerful on so many levels that I’m not sure I could really draw good comparisons without breaking it apart so much that there’s hardly anything left.
Eustace looked at the young man sitting across from him who was staring at the floor between his shoes. “I can’t spend a day in a warm office or house during the winter without getting bloodier knuckles than I’ve ever gotten from a fight.”
Eustace clenched his fist and watched the blood run from the split skin of his knuckles. “They say Humans are very adaptable, but really we’re just good at ignoring discomfort.”
Luke placed the trophy on the shelf and took a moment to straighten it so the plaque faced outward. After a quick scan of shapes and words he’d long ago memorized, he sighed and turned to his wife. “One day.”
She nodded. “One day.”
Luke looked around the room at all of his trophies and led Mariah out of the trophy room, leaving the lights to her. Instead of checking on the kids, he moved into the living room and sat down on the couch.
A moment later, Mariah sat down next to him. “You’ll get one eventually. I know it.”
“I guess.” Luke raised and lowered a shoulder. “I’ve been playing sports for almost thirty years and I’ve never won. I’m getting a little tired of second and third place trophies.”
“Yeah, but you have more trophies than anyone I’ve met. That counts for something.”
“Tons of second and third place trophies aren’t an accomplishment.”
“Luke, you play a dozen sports a year. You’re an amazing coach to the kids and none of your teams would have come close to placing without you.”
Luke looked away from Mariah.“It doesn’t feel like anything worth celebrating.” Mariah pushed herself up to kiss him on the cheek and was settling back again when there was a crash from the den. Luke was in the room before she could get up.
When she arrived, she found him standing next to a fallen trophy case, broken trophies scattered on the floor.
Luke looked up to her. “Well, shit.”
Mariah smirked. “You had enough trophies to pull your trophy case off the wall. You don’t think that’s an accomplishment?”
Luke look at her for a moment before busting out laughing. “I guess I’ve come in first when it comes to having too many trophies.”
Ben stepped through the door into his small office and collapse into his chair as it automatically adjusted itself to his profile. As he rubbed his eyes and waved at the coffeemaker on his desk, the lights flickered on, adjusted to his morning profile, and powered up his workstation. The surface flowed into the shape of a keyboard and the screen projects started through their power-on routine, cycling through every color and configuration. It was pleasant to watch, but made his head hurt, so he turned to his wall.
One light on the wall, positioned where there should be a window, slowly changed from the standard full-spectrum white to a square of his favorite vista back on Earth, a section of the Grand Canyon that glowed as the sun rose over the rim. The sun in the picture he’d used to create the Smart Window warmed to a bright ten thousand lumens, helping to push the sleep from his eyes and mind while he waited for the gurgling coffee maker to finish it’s job.
While he waited for what his coworkers called his “old-fashioned dirty bean water,” Ben tapped through the log-in on his desktop and cycled through his team’s off-hours messages. There wasn’t much of interest, just the usual memes and links to YouTube videos for research ideas, so he spun himself around in his chair a few times before switching to his internet browser and checking out a couple of forums. Once the coffee was done, he poured it into the ceramic mug on his desk and set it aside to cool.
He sent a few follow-up messages to one of his coworkers who’d sent him some direct messages and was just about to start digging into one the issues he’d been assigned when someone rapped on his wall. Ben lazily spun around, grabbing his now-drinkable coffee as he went. “What’s up, Christine?”
“Hey, Ben. We’ve got a conference call coming up in ten. Lewis scheduled it half an hour ago but forgot to invite anyone but me, Vince, and Landon. I’m going to need you on that.”
“Really?” Ben sipped his coffee and arched his eyebrows at his senior coworker. “Did he ‘forget’ to include anyone else, or did he actually forget?”
“The universe will never know.” Christine shrugged and leaned against the wall. “But you need to do your thing today. He’s got something to drop on us.”
“Yeah?” Ben sighed and put his coffee down. “You sure? I’d love to not need to be a part of this today. I’d really like to do something else with my first hour of work today.”
“Yeah. He managed to include the right manager and the two people who he’d be able to override, so he’s got something he wants done.”
“You’re too nice, Christine.”
“I mean, he is my boss. I can’t exactly tell him no.”
“Fine, then Vince is being too nice.”
“Landon isn’t going to like it, but no one is listening to him about Lewis anymore. They all think he’s got a vendetta at this point.”
“Yeah, but he’s our manager. It’s his job to represent us to everyone up the chain.”
Christine shrugged and pushed away from the wall. “You’ve got ten minutes now. Best get yourself ready.”
“Fine.” Ben shifted in his chair and it molded to his new position. “I’ll do it.”
“Thanks, Ben. You’re the best.”
Ben waved a hand and the room’s light changed so his face stood out as the chair raised itself, pushing him into a standing position in the open corner of his office. When he turned around to look, Christine was gone so he waved the door closed. As the glass pane sealed with the rubber frame, there was a hiss of air from the corner as his temperature preferences got priority over the lab settings. Dropping everything else from his mind, he focused on preparing the right attitude for a call with Lewis.
It was a mixture of frustration, weariness, and assertive stubbornness. Lewis could talk circles around almost anyone and those he couldn’t talk his way past would eventually give up because he was more willing to waste time in a pointless argument than anyone else. Except Ben. Ben was the only person on the team who was more stubborn than Lewis and could keep up with him. Which means he got pulled into meetings sometimes just to tag in for people during long discussions or arguments when Lewis wouldn’t stop talking over people.
As he prepared himself for his least favorite part of his job, he straightened his tie, adjusted his top button, and took a deep breath. Two minutes of organizing his thoughts later, the wall in front of him beeped as it was fed into the conference call Christine was managing. The display showed everyone standing awkwardly as they self-consciously preened in front of the camera. As the youngest by two decades, Ben was the only one who’d never known a phone call that didn’t involve video, so he locked eyes with Lewis and smiled in greeting just as he began to talk.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m glad to see you all today and I wanted to share some good news. We’ve made a new sale to a big customer, TerraFirm, so we’re supporting their first launch to the Mars colony.”
There were a lot of shocked faces on the screen and Ben’s was among them. The first person to speak was Landon, who started very slowly. “Lewis, that’s incredible.” He paused for a moment, clearly searching for words, and then carried on. “But who authorized you to make a sale?”
“No one, Landon. I merely facilitated two people communicating.”
“Grace would have said something to me about a sale that high profile. Who gave you the authorization to make a sale?”
“I just said no one authorized me, but I didn’t make a sale.”
“If I call Grace right now, she’ll tell me you didn’t make the sale?”
Landon made a few gestures, typed on the light keyboard that appeared in front of him, and then a new person was added to the call. Grace, the head of sales, was still climbing out of her chair when Landon started talking. “Grace. Sorry to interrupt your morning, but Lewis says you did a sale with TerraFirm for a Mars colony run.”
“What?” Grace’s face went slack in shock. “No! I think I’d know if there was something that high-profile in the works.”
“Could you make sure nothing slipped through the cracks.” While everyone waited for Grace to return to her computer and start cycling through the sales database, Ben kept his attention on Lewis, watching him keep the same placidly neutral face he wore whenever he was lying out his ass about something. Lewis noticed and gave Ben a small smile, throwing in a cocked eyebrow when Ben didn’t react. Just when Ben was about to say something, Grace turned back to the call.
“I don’t understand. We got a payment today from TerraFirm but I didn’t make any sales.”
“I managed that conversation.” Lewis nodded his head and Grace stared at him. After no one said anything, he continued. “Richard was on the email change when negotiations because, so sales was involved.”
“Lewis…” Ben shook his head and stared at the floor for a moment. “Richard died two years ago. You attended his memorial.”
“So I did, but the deal had his blessing.” Lewis gave the entire call his small, placid smile and Grace abruptly vanished. “I don’t see what the issue is. Dealing with customers is part of my job.”
“No, Lewis.” Landon emphatically shook his head and stepped closer to the camera. “You job is to figure out what they want and bring it to the project team for approval.”
“TerraFirm wanted us as their guidance system for their Mars colony trip and here’s the project team plus several extra people. I don’t see how this is a problem.”
“The problem is, Lewis, that you’re not allowed to make decisions or commitments on behalf of the guidance team!” Landon’s face was almost as red as Ben’s tie as he shook a finger at the camera, now less than an arm’s length from Landon’s red face. “This is the last straw, Lewis.”
Landon’s camera shut off and everyone but Ben and Lewis quickly followed suit. Ben stood where he was, eye’s still locked onto Lewis’ face as Lewis looked around at where each of the other callers would have been as they hung up. After the last of them had disappeared, Lewis pursed his lips in bewilderment. “I don’t see what has everyone so upset.”
“We had a meeting less than twenty-four hours ago about our development plans for the next year and you didn’t bring this sale or customer up. You even agreed to our plan. And now you’ve go-”
“We can still do all that stuff you wanted yesterday.” Lewis’ brow furrowed as he looked away from the wall, toward his computer. “There’s no reason we can’t do both.”
Ben’s face was still pleasantly neutral but he had his hands behind his back and they were clenched so tightly it looked like his tendons were about to break. “You’ve gone and not only made a commitment we aren’t prepared to meet, but you’ve given us less than six months to meet it. TerraFirm’s launch is in one hundred forty days and we have no idea what systems we’ll be integrated, let alone what hardware they’re working with.”
“We do launches all the time. This is just one more.” Lewis waved his hand dismissively and the camera switched to a head-only view for a moment before he remembered to set it back to the full-body picture. “What is so difficult about that?”
“We do low-Earth orbit launches and the occasional lunar mission. Mars is a different beast entirely and we haven’t even run simulations on how to manage something like that. We have no test data and we literally just powered down half of our supercomputers to do firmware and hardware upgrades. It’ll be another month before we have them back up and running again.”
“That’s all development time. Vince is already working on it.” Lewis took a seat in his chair, clearly signalling that he’d like to end the call.
Ben sighed and shook his head. “You’ve got no idea how this works, do you?”
“I used to be a developer, Ben. Of course I know how the process works.”
Ben laughed and smiled. “You’re so out of touch you don’t even know you’re out of touch. Good luck digging yourself out of this one, Lewis. It’s been awful working with you.”
Lewis was pulling himself out of his chair, a startled expression on his face, as Ben waved to terminate the call. Once he’s sat down, grabbed his coffee, and swapped his office back to its standard settings, he saw Christine appear on the other side of the glass as it went transparent again. She nodded to him and swiped the door open.
“I heard that.”
Ben shrugged and took another sip of his coffee. “That’s fine. I’ll say it to anyone.”
“Yeah, but he’s worked here for twenty-five years. You’re on year three. Do you think they’d listen to you or to him?”
“I don’t really care. I don’t want to work for a company that’d pick an employee with an HR record like Lewis’ over a new, promising employee who has had three glowing reviews and several commendations from his peers.”
“Okay.” Christine sighed and leaned on the door frame. “Whatever you say, Ben.”
“Can you really believe he sold a Mars mission?” Ben drained the last of his coffee and set his mug aside. “It’s impressive, considering we’ve only done local traffic.”
“Sure.” Christine folded her arms across her chest and looked down the row of offices to our asset management area with a giant “Mission Control” sign floating over it. “It’ll be a fun project to test, I suppose. I just can’t believe he expects us to have it ready to go in four months.”
“It’ll be awful.” Ben nodded and then turned to face his wall as the call-waiting chime rang in his office. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
As Christine closed the door, Ben rose to his feet and gestured to take the call. Landon appeared before him, still red. “I don’t know what you said to him, Ben, but he’s pissed.”
“Lewis always is, after one of our talks.”
“Well, good job. You got him to quit.”
“Oh.” Ben’s eyebrows rose and Landon laughed.
“Congratulations, there’s a new opening in project management and I know you’ve been looking for a chance to move up.”
“I mean, sure.” Ben shrugged, trying to regain control of his face and failing. “But I’d rather do any other job than this.”
“That’s good.” Landon nodded. “Lewis hasn’t formally tendered his resignation, so I imagine we’ll still see him tomorrow.”
“Ah.” Ben’s was no longer struggling to control his face.
“Yeah. I suggest preparing a timeline for the development he wants since it seems like we’re going to need to do it. Grace says we automatically processed their money as it came in since no one can send us money without a signed contract, so we’re stuck doing the dev and support.”
“That’s it? I had a lot more colorful words than that.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Landon. That’s all I’ve got right now.” Ben lowered himself into his chair and put his head in his hands. “I can’t believe this.”
“Well, just make sure to get the software proposal done in the next couple days and maybe trick the weight sensors so it’ll not notice an extra two hundred pounds of tall asshole.”
Ben chuckled and smiled at Landon. “I’ll get right on it, bossman.” Landon smiled back, nodded, and hung up. Ben leaned his chair back and closed his eyes, already feeling like it was time to go to bed. After a few minutes of that, he got up from his chair, walked out of his office, and strolled down the row to Christine’s office.
“So, I’ve got an idea.”
“Yeah?” Christine spun her chair around to face Ben.
“I’ll need you to help me get Vince to go along with it, but I think the three of us can pull it off.”
“Pull what off?”
Ben winked and smirked. “I’ve got a new mission for us. Operation ‘Lose Lewis.’”
Christine groaned and slapped a hand to her face. “That’s a terrible name. Why would you do that.”
“If we absolutely knock this project out of the park and point out every single instance of Lewis trying to mess up the project, I think we can finally make a strong enough case to have him removed.” Ben pulled out his phone and started tapping notes into the company’s app. “I just need Vince to set up a few things for our daily calls with Lewis and I think he’ll do it if you ask him.”
“Okay, sure.” Christine pulled up her phone and looked at the notes Ben was writing on her virtual wall. “This all seems pretty straight-forward, but how do we get it to stick?”
“We threaten to quit less than an hour before launch. Hold the whole thing hostage until he’s removed.” Ben glanced over his shoulder at Landon’s office on the mezzanine above. “I think Landon would love a reason to do it and no amount of screw-ups is enough to overcome everything Lewis did before he started on his current streak of assholery.”
“I suppose.” Christine starting adding notes to her wall and then waved Ben away. “You get the speeches and proposals ready. I’ll get Vince started.”
Ben gave her a thumbs up and walked back to his office. Once he was inside, he dimmed his lights to his preferred working level, shut the door, put on his favorite synth-rock album, and pulled out his personal phone. It took a moment for it to connect to the satellite network through the metal building, but he was able to open a few personal files when it did.
He set his phone down on the desk and set it to projector more. Once it popped the document up on front of him, he started adding a couple of notes, crossing out items in a list, and humming along to the music. Once all his updates were done, he saved the file and reviewed the events and notes listed in the document.
He scrolled through it a couple of times before checking the box next to a line item that read “Lewis makes a sale he wasn’t authorized to make,” Once the animation finished it’s run, he checked the next three. “Provoke Lewis into threatening to quit,” “Turn down joke job offer from Landon,” and “Convince Christine and Vince to help set up Lewis for launch-day ousting” all had a line drawn through them before fading until they were almost transparent. Lewis looked through the last few items, ending on “Lewis quits job and you are in a position to become a line manager” as he smiled and muttered “all according to plan.”
Howie sighed for the fifth time,
“I get it, Howie. It’s a tough call.”
“If you did, that wouldn’t be sarcasm, Len.”
I shrugged. “It’s not like we can do anything about it.”
Howie’s brow furrowed and he looked at me. “What?”
“We pass data along, not make decisions.”
“Sure we do!” Howie glared at me. “We have experience they need to make decisions!”
“Howie… We work in a cube in orbit around a distant star, collecting data. No one cares.”
“If we’re the only people reading these reports, then it’s our job to provide analysis. Why do you think we needed to have doctorates?”
“To justify launching us into space?” I shrugged. “It pays well and that’s all I care about.”
“No, you moron.” Howie tossed the tablet to me and I grabbed it. “We’re supposed to think about the data.”
I ran my eyes over the readouts and then did it again while running calculations in my head. Howie smirked and crossed his arms. “Told you.”
There was a huge fluctuation in the energy in the local star system heading straight for the Sol system or the system’s star was acting up. It would take a few days to run the test to know for sure. If we waited, it’d be a month before we could transmit again. If it was something coming out of the star system, the data said it’d get to Earth in two weeks.
“So we have to make a call. Spend billions preparing for whatever this is, or don’t.”
“Oh.” I started chewing on a fingernail. A few minutes later, I was out of fingernails but still couldn’t decide what to do.
“Not so easy, is it.”
“So much for retiring.”
“Better safe than stuck forever.”
I nodded and Howie made the call.
“I suppose I don’t really know what I am doing.”
“Sure, but you’ve never denied that. You just always followed it up by saying no one else did, either, and thus success goes to those who act first.”
“Sure, but I feel like that doesn’t really apply in this scenario. There is so very little I know that is directly applicable to the problems at hand, so action isn’t the problem solver I once thought it was.”
“It still solves more problems than it doesn’t.”
“That’s very true.”
“It would have solved our problems, if you had acted.”
The professor smiled as he surveyed the patch of dirt he’d cleared. The smile was a shallow uptick of his mouth that left his eyes as mirthless and barren as the ground around him. This was one of the first things he’d been taught when they started exploring. Find an opening in the brush, clear a circle of plants, use fire to char anything still sticking out of the ground, and then turn the dirt over until every trace of color but black was gone. A safe, semi-permanent campsite that would stay clear of plants until long after you’d left and clear of bugs or animals until the last of the scent of smoke had faded.
“Acting got us here, though, so I’m still not convinced my old philosophy was truly as sound as I made it seem back in Sargava.” The professor looked up from the campsite he’d cleared to the face of his towering companion, the empty smile still on his face. “Acting has led to far more ruin than success, once the gravity of each has been taken into account.”
The tall man standing off to the side folded his arms over his chest, a familiar action accompanied by the familiar creak of stiffened hide trying to stretch as the pensive warrior measured his words. “That’s the way it seems now, but our journey isn’t finished. If you are correct, and the ruins are out here, then it will all have been worth it.”
“Do you really think so, Amgoroth?”
Amgoroth nodded, his beard and long hair spilling over his face. “I do, Alleck.”
“I told you not to call me that.”
“It’s your name. I’ve known you for too long to call you ‘Professor Quiston,’ fancy degree or not.”
The professor dropped to his knees besides his pack and started pulling out his camping gear, smile sliding off his face so smoothly it left no trace it’d ever been there. Amgoroth stayed where he was, watching as he chewed at a bit of his mustache that spilled into his mouth. In the silence, the sounds of distant primates chattering in the trees cut through the ceaseless din of insect and bird calls. The professor had once found them comforting, in a way, but now they reminded him of the frequent silences he endured on a daily basis.
In a desperate bid to chase them away for a while long, he turned back to his companion. “Amg, I really wish you’d call me by my title. I’ve studied long enough to deserve the recognition.”
The big man broke into grin that showed his several missing teeth and pulled at the thin, silver scars covering on side of his face. “But you will always be my friend, Alleck, playing music for us as we romped through the jungles outside our village, looking for monsters to slay.”
“We both moved on from those days.” The professor’s smile came back, but this one was smaller and clearly showed the sadness hiding beneath it. “You became a champion of the wrestling rings and coliseum. I found a benefactor to put me through university. I can literally change the way the world works using my magic and you are an unstoppable juggernaut whose terrifying rages can send even a pack of jaguars running in fear.” He turned back to his bag and finished laying out all the parts of his tent.
“True, but we are still the same where it counts.” Amgoroth walked to the center of the clearing and spread his arms out to soak in the last rays of sunlight coming down through the dense canopy. “I am still looking for dragons to kill and you are still playing music as we go looking for them.”
The professor looked up at his friend and then back down at the disassembled tent, trying to let his hands take over the process of setting it up despite knowing they couldn’t. This was only his second time setting it up, after all. He’d need his full attention for that. Instead, he sat back on his heels and put his hands in his lap. “We’ve a long ways from those children, Amg.”
“We are a long way from where they lived, but we carry them inside us always, so long as we don’t let their dreams go out.” Amgoroth turned his face up to the light and the professor looked over the constellation of scars covering his arms and shoulders, remnants of the one time they’d found a monster as children and the price Amgoroth had paid to save them both from it. After a moment, Amgoroth turned to face his childhood friend and smiled again. “I still want to find dragons and you still want to see what no one else has. That’s why you spent so much time studying ruined cities and digging up old stuff.”
“It’s called Archaeology, Amg.”
“That’s more syllables than I’m willing to say in one word, Alleck.”
“Professor Quiston, please.”
“I may be your guard on this trip for some lost city, Alleck, but I won’t call you “professor” anything.”
“I’ll dock you a month’s pay.”
“You’re not paying me anything. We left as soon as you heard the rumors. Neither of us is getting paid unless we find the city.” Amgoroth turned away from the light and came over to the professor, sitting down beside him. “We’ve been wandering through this jungle for months, now, and we haven’t found anything.”
“Sure, but you know how to live off the land. We can do this indefinitely.”
“No.” Amgoroth shook his head, temporarily clearing the hair from his face. “You packed food, but it will run out soon. I will not always be able to find food. You’ve been eating your supplies a lot lately and there might not be enough to get home again, even if we knew how to find it.”
“I said I was sorry.” The professor looked down at his hands again, trying to focus on them as he fought to keep his emotions in check. “And I meant it. I still mean it.”
“That does not change the facts, Alleck.”
“What do you want from me, Amg?”
“I just want to keep you safe and alive.” Amgoroth leaned forward and started pointing to the parts of the tent in the order the professor would need them to set it up. After he was done, he gently touched the professor shoulder, so lightly it didn’t even stir his clothing. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. To go on adventures and keep you safe. More than dragons.”
The professor nodded, not trusting his voice at that moment. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the first of the tent supports. Without looking back at his friend, he quickly set the tent up, playing the memory of Amgoroth setting his tent up every night for four months in his head as he followed along. By the time he had finished, Amgoroth was gone. The professor stared at the place Amgoroth had occupied and then turned his attention to gathering wood for a fire.
By the time night fell, he’d managed to get a good fire going, set up his tent, and even find a few edible roots Amgoroth had fed them almost every day they’d been trying to find the lost city of Saventh-Yhi. He roasted them over the fire and set a two aside. After he’d eaten his and washed them down with the last of his water, he glanced at the roots as if only then noticing they were there. He turned his head away, back to the place Amgoroth had been, and reached for the harp case leaning against his pack.
He pulled his harp out, tuned it without really noticing what he was doing and, once that routine task was finished, strummed a few chords. He added a couple of words in some ancient tongue and watched Amgoroth shimmer back to life.
“Sorry, Amg. I can’t keep it going if I don’t focus on it.” The professor tucked his hard away and watched his friend, stand up, walk over to the fire, and sit down by the two roots he’d set aside. Amgoroth didn’t say anything as he moved. His leather didn’t creak. He sat without the usual thump of a three hundred pound man hitting the ground, even if the little cloud of charred plants still gusted out. Even as he picked up a root and ate it, he was silent.
After watching for a few moments, the professor sighed and let the magic go. Amgoroth froze in place and, a few seconds later, vanished. The professor stared into the flames and at the campsite Amgoroth had taught him to make. Unable to stand it any longer, he climbed to his feet, harp still in his hands, and started playing a song as he walked out of the clearing. He wandered through the jungle, playing his harp to cut through the noise of the jungle and give him something to think about other than his friend’s death.
The music never really stopped it, but it softened the memories as they washed over him. The morning they’d woken up to find tracks of some large cat around their campsite. Hungry and eager for fresh meat, they’d packed up and chased after it. Right into the den of some kind of plant monster that had snatched Amgoroth off the ground. Amgoroth had been confident he could break free, but there had been so many vines… It pulled him up into the treetops and there was nothing Alleck could do but watch in horror his friend had disappeared.
Half a minute later, as he was looking for a tree to climb, Amgoroth’s shouts fell silent. Alleck had stood there, eyes and ears straining, for any sign of his friend of their attacker. When he’d found nothing, when the noise of the jungle and the silence became too much to bear, he’d pulled out his hard and walked away, playing as loudly as he could.
Once the tide of memory had receded, the professor put away memories of Amgoroth and Alleck. He turned around, retraced his steps, and went back to his camp. He packed up his tent, put out his fire, and wandered off into the jungle again, softly playing his harp as he went in search of the lost civilization he’d lost everything trying to find.