9:03 PM Derlian Time; BenCoCity; Uliat Rom Amusement Park

"Honey. You should see this view," Rosy Barnum commented in a soft voice.

"There's nothing to see; it's nighttime," Bryan countered in a know-it-all fashion. The dim light cast faint, encircling mirages into the eternal darkness of his walled vision.

"Oh, come on, you dooork. Scaredy cat; baby," she jeered, running a hand over his face roughly and then into his hair, pushing his entire head onto the left side of his neck.

"Stop it---."

"---open your eyes. This one's worth it."

"Stop it!" he whined. "I don't want to."

She continued to push him. "Aw, you cute little, bald-headed baby. Awww, do you need to be let down? Do ya? Do Ya? I'm suw yu do---"

"Knock it off, I'm not a baby."

Persistence had always been Rosy's admirable, if not annoying, qualities. She started to make kissing sounds, then followed it up with: "Com' here, com' here; open yor eyes, open yor eyes."

Under extreme distraught, Bryan opened his eyes, but only to cast a sour glance at his girlfriend. He loved to tease her. It was even better when he didn't say a thing; just stared. It usually got to people after a while. Even Rosy.

Which was why she was prepared this time. "Ah! Der ya go, der ya go." Her expression jumped up into a bright---fake---happy face, similar to a character in a toddler's television show. "Good boy!" she exclaimed, reaching over and patting him on the head.

"You do know we've gone from baby to dog here, right?" The distant glimmer of park-light and starlight mixed together glowed in the corner of his eyes, and the weariness that had for the moment disappeared came back again. Nevertheless, he kept his eyes open.

And Rosy just kept going. "What was zat? What was zat? Whaja say, boy?"

Bryan's face turned bland. "Timmy's in the well," he said dully, rolling his eyes to look ahead of him. They were almost at the top of the hill; only a little more to go. He sucked in a deep breath, then tilted his head back down to the floor and closed his eyes again.

He heard Rosy giggle a little then go silent. At last. Now I can get used to this and not panic.

The coaster crept up the track silently---

"Hey man, stop thinkin' about bangin' your girlfriend and enjoy the ride," said Evan's voice from behind him. A laugh soon followed.

Bryan snickered and grinned slightly. "I want you to know, Evan, that though I'm not moving right now---I want you to know that I'm flicking you off. With both fingers. Let me be!" he half-shouted.

"Your getting' a hard on, aren't ya?"

He lifted his head from the floor, opened his eyes slowly, and turned his head, to the inside, to stare at Evan, who was sitting in the seat across and behind him, while Kevin was opposite his brother in the seat directly behind Bryan.

Evan looked as if he was about to burst laughing. "Is she likin' it? Is she goin'—is she goin': 'uh, uh, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, I need to get off your rod, I need to get off the rod, God, lemme--"

"Evan!" Rosy interjected.

Evan finally laughed.

"Oh my God, Evan, what the fuck is the matter with you?" Maxie asked from in front of everyone. "Shut up!"

Evan laughed again, and sat back in his chair.

Rosy and Bryan exchanged blushing glances, secret images of their sex life reflecting off of each others eyes. They didn't do it often; in fact, two times in two-and-three-quarter years. It was going to be three times soon though. The night before the closing ceremonies, after the Cooperation Competition, was commonly named End-of-the-World Night(what word any species would call that event. Humans called it Armageddon Night).

Bryan checked back on the coaster. It was just getting to the top, so his eyes would now remain open. Here we go. The metal under his feet finally jolted and changed levels. It flattened out, and he felt some of tension disappear in his chest---and then simultaneously move to his legs, gripping his muscles in indifferent anticipation. He was on the biggest roller coaster in all of the galaxy, high off the ground, in the middle of a bay, looking down for nearly a mile, with the wind biting at his hair, and his fear of heights telling his heart to go faster and faster. Ahead now were only stars, glinting at him with dark intensity. They were so pretty tonight; only they were being somewhat overtaken by the intensity of the park's ambient light, especially the pink of the---

All of a sudden, the stars streaked wildly upwards, and Bryan's insides followed them. A silence that was similar to the vacuum of space gripped all the riders as they began first---fast---decent. Then, all at once, the silence broke into a thousand varied screams, much like Bryan's and Rosy's.

Adrenaline had little-to-zero success pumping through Bryan's systems, as it and his blood were entirely thrown against their respective organic walls. The drop yanked his floppy hair until the point of practically ripping it out. He had always been afraid to throw his arms up into the air because every time he had in the past, they too felt like they were going to ripped out, and it often hurt. Some habits went unbroken, and so Bryan's hands remained glued to the safety bar, as the force punched at his biceps and elbows. His stomach finally reached a new record height---the neck, and then the drop was over almost as fast as it had started; onto another flat track, which lasted a good three seconds before the coaster went down again, this time into a wide turn that arched so that everyone was thrown to the left side of the car, as far as able. Bryan again hardly gripped the safety bar, increasing the feel of the force by attempting to pull himself back in the other direction. This challenge, this conflict, was one of the of the extra things that one could do to make a roller coaster ride two times more intense. The track then reversed itself, curving down in the opposite direction, just as fast. Now everyone swung in the opposite direction, accompanied by a few miscellaneous yells. This part of the track was just a preparatory for the big finish---a warm-up. And it was coming up. The track then smoothed out again, and the cars were pushed onto an accelerator, rocketing them back up another spiral. This spiral continued to go up and up and up with occasional plateaus that the cars could pick up speed on; all the way to the top, which leveled out for about 200 feet, all of that length having accelerators. Bodies went backwards this time. And then were pushed even farther into the seats as the coaster zoomed up another steep hill---which led to open air. The track ended, and the car and all its passengers were pitched, standing up, into the deep black of the Derlian night. And, of course, there was loads and loads of screaming, and an "Oh my God" from Bryan. Mid-air, nothing for support under them anymore, the rest of the track a little distance away, seemingly out of reach…

The coasters tractor beams activated with a hum, and shot out at the distant track. The beams grabbed hold of it, and used only its leverage to pull the ride across the gap and onto the track, immediately entering a slanted tunnel that was lit by overhead, luminescent, indigo-and-sky-blue arches. After all the cars were successfully in the tunnel, the track once again was overrun by accelerators, that extend for the entire tunnel. The result: an imaginable burst of speed from the moment the coaster was on the track.

The speed became more intense with every meter, as accelerator after accelerator passed under the cars. The blue arches started to blur together, overlapping layer after layer into the passengers' spectrums. As the velocity picked up, the rings slowly continued to meld together, looking more like waves than arches. The colors splashed around each other in an oceanic spiral, and the ride suddenly became eerily quiet.

Then, the coaster's automatic adjustment system heightened the gravity shields, forcing the passenger into the backs of their seats. The coaster ran straight into another patch of accelerators---already going over 250 kilometers-per-hour, according to the meter.

Bryan screamed again as this happened, "woohoo!"ing as the rush hit him dead on. The eerie silence now subsided for more of the same screaming. Above his head, the arches started to blend even more, now barely discernable, swirling so fast that the color one had at first changed almost immediately to the other. The tunnel was slowly becoming a tube, as the mixed blue stretched a thin existence above everyone's head.

"It's almost there!" Bryan shouted to no one.

401 kilometers-per-hour….Holy shit!

They had to be getting to the end of the tunnel soon…..maybe not.

The gravity shields re-adjusted again, and the coaster accelerated more. Now they had to be coming to the end of the tunnel……….or not.

625 kph, and steadily rising.

There it was. The blues had finally mixed together the right way. They were no longer thin, but huge, twirling around in a kaleidoscope fashion, as if the whole world was a bottle spinning on its top. Now it looked like it was supposed to---like hyperspace. Yes, it wasn't a perfect match, but it looked damn-close enough to what Bryan saw outside his cockpit every time he made a jump in his starfighter. Thus, the ride was named properly: "The Lightspeed". And luckily for the passengers, the shields were dropped just enough so they could feel a great deal of force pressuring their body; enough not to crush them, but let them gather in the spectacle around them and feel the exciting shove that roller coasters were all about.

"Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahaaaa!" Rosy screamed from next to him.

Don't wear your voice out hon, Bryan teased in his mind, keeping his grin established.

The stars finally broke through, as the tube ended and the ride burst back out into the open air, practically grinding on the sturdy track. In the distance was nothing, as the ride ventured so far into the lake that the mainland disappeared for a while, but at nearly 700 kph, it quickly came on the horizon. Everyone soon felt the car slowing down, and many began to cheer. Maxie clapped her hands above her head, as far as gravity would let them go. Next to her, Muletta Vun-poj-ahr, this being her first time on a roller coaster, was screaming—but in terror. This ride wasn't exactly a beginner's ride. Rosy remained glued in her seat, her hair whipping in the wind behind her, and her naturally flush cheeks turning into a dark shade of pink. Meanwhile, Bryan just closed his eyes and enjoyed this feeling; of open air, of thrill rides, of good company, and great memories, as he said a silent, unformed ode to the Valiance Tours in the back of his mind.

This next area of the ride was sided by a particle pool---an evozen-particle field, if Bryan remembered correctly. Evozen was a paint-like substance used by the Derlians for the 3D HoloFilms they were famous for making; movies where you didn't need the funny blue-and-red goggles. Evozen evaporated when agitated, so when the coaster glided down the track, now slowed to just above 250 kph, the friction's pressure shocked the evozen, and like a spout straight from a rainbow itself, the evozen evaporated majestically into the air, curving into a wave of nothing but pure color. Outer space and the stars disappeared again behind this swift curtain, as did the lights of the amusement park, which was now close enough to see in good detail. All the people in the coaster cheered on-and-on in the warmth of this picaresque painting.

The cars soon passed through the little field of dreams, and the gravity shields adjusted to their top setting, their full intensity. As the passengers were practically crushed into their seatbacks, the ride went from 209 kph to 10 kph in six seconds, as it gently rolled back into the park grounds.

"Welcome back riders!" came the translated voice of the manager over the loudspeaker. "How was your ride?"

The passengers up-roared in a cheer that would have drowned out anything the manager would've said.

"All right. Ladies and gentlemen, you can pick up your valuables on the way out. Thank you for riding 'The Lightspeed', and enjoy the rest of your night here at Uliat Rom."

The riders cheered one more time as the ride pulled around into the launching station.

Bryan, Rosy, Maxie, Muletta, and the twins picked up their valuables and, a little shaken on their feet, trod towards the nearest bench to rest for a little bit. It was now 9:13, and the park was going to be open to the pilots until 2:00 AM, and there was plenty left to do, as this was the biggest amusement park in history. It was ten times the size of Cedar Point on Earth, taking up an entire island that was the size of Catalina Island, which was off of the California coast.

"So what's next?" Bryan asked after a while.

No answer for a few hanging moments.

"I dunno," Maxie finally answered, exhausted. "What's there to do?"

"At this place?" Bryan responded. "Anything, almost," he huffed.

"I'm hungry," Muletta chimed in. "Let's get some food."

Bryan gazed at her out of the corner of his eye. He wasn't that hungry, and eating now would mean it would be a while before they could ride anything without throwing up. He was in the mood for another thrill. However, selfishness was one part of him he frequently had to deny for the good of his friends, so he didn't say anything.

"I second that," Rosy said, her head falling onto her boyfriends shoulder. He scooted into her weight and slid his arm around her shoulder.

"I'm up for some food," Evan added.

"Me too," Kevin agreed.

"Maxie?" Bryan said.

"I don't care, I just wanna sit down somewhere."

"All right," Evan said. "We can go to Janlar; maybe play a few games. Free credits, you know."

"For a while anyway," Bryan commented.

"Oh well," Kevin responded. "Free credits anyway."

Bryan grinned in humor.

"Boys," Rosy said into the fabric of Bryan's shirt, sounding like she was dying. Lifting her head, she gently pushed his arm off her and stood up. "Come on, let's go."

"All right," Bryan said, thrusting himself up, followed soon by Maxie and Muletta. "What do you like to eat, Muletta?"

The Pyfrellin thought for a moment, walking rather fast. "Muska sounds good right now," came the translated response. "Do they serve that at amusement parks?"

"Is that the orange-like lumped meat; with that ink-like stuff on it?"

"That's it." She laughed.

"What?"

"I hope you never become a waiter at any multi-culture restaurants. You'd scare the customers."

"Excuse me—?"

"---'Sir, what's this?' 'Oh, that's muska, it's this orangish, lumped meat with this like ink-sauce on top of it.' Customers will look at you like you're insane; like this:" with that, she turned at looked at him with eyeballs popping, and mouth half-dropped open.

Bryan chuckled at the look. "Shut up," he said to her. "I wouldn't do that. It's a restaurant; I'd learn how to properly describe an entré before they put me out there."

"Well, I don't kn---"

"---and besides, I don't plan on working at a restaurant anyway, not for a while, and not if I don't have to."

"Well, I don't know. Could happen, and you better know your shit when it does."

"If it does."

"If it does--of course."

"Of course. As for the amusement park, I don't know if they serve it or not. They might. Is it usually fancy, or more of a common road-meal?"

"It's informal. It should be here."

"Good." He paused. "So how was your first roller coaster ride, my dear?"

Muletta took in a long breath, then let it out as a pleasurable sigh. "Terrifying then, wonderful now."

Bryan smiled delightfully.

"I feel like I just worked out for two hours," she said , her voice like melting butter.

"I feel like I just did five thousand push-ups," Maxie said dully. "And that doesn't feel good."

"That should feel amazing," Evan countered.

"What the hell? Have you ever done five hundred push-ups before?" she asked defensively.

"Hell no. I ain't done no five hundred push-ups. Nobody can do that. But I wasn't---"

"Well, there ya go, shut up," Maxie finished.

"I wasn't saying I could do 'em, I was just sayin' if I did 'em, my muscles would prolly feel like they're in heaven."

The magic "if", Bryan thought, as the two-letter word triggered memories of his college life…..and acting class that had everything to do with the magic "if"; living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.

"What?" Maxie countered. "You'd kill yourself."

"Ahhh! Will yall shut up already," Kevin said irritably. "None a'ya can do five hundred push-ups so shut up please. I'm hungry."

---

9:27 PM Janlar Zone; Uliat Rom Amusement Park

"---right. Bye man," Bryan replied, shutting off the comrod. At first, the music felt welcoming, like walking into a bunkroom for the first time. It offered a new atmosphere--- because it was a new song---in an already fun and adventurous environment. And the song was actually good too, a rare pleasure in an amusement park soundtrack: The Planetarium by Spitfire to Sparks. A good song, with amazing vocals and a gripping melody that had put Spitfire to Sparks at the top of many of the New Age charts. It seemed like the perfect song to go along with the news Bryan had just received from Justin; interesting, but somewhat dark, mysterious, and talking about sailing into the unknown---(of one woman's command capabilities).

And there they were, laughing up a good time at a table in the middle of the sports arena. Thanks to the card game Egyptian Ratscrew, the night was passing by pretty quickly. That game never really got old. Bryan traded the comrod with his own hand of cards and promptly sat down at his vacant seat, immediately rejoining the game as Kevin piled on his three cards in response to Muletta's King of Spades. He lost the pile, and Muletta scooped up the whole thing. She started off with a nine-of-hearts.

Kevin dropped a ten-of-clubs.

"Well this is somewhat exciting," Bryan announced as he threw down a seven-of-clubs.

Siyyen, a Caldoran tech from the Cruiser Bor, put down an ace-of-hearts.

"What?" Rosy asked from across the table as John Hollyer, whom they had found with Siyyen, set down a queen-of-clubs.

Evan began to put down his two cards as Bryan answered: "Best friend's wife just got promoted to Commodore out in the Eskeko sector." Rosy put down a two in response to Evan's Jack. "She's gonna command the field units." Evan scooped up the cards, and slapped down a Jack, which Rosy combated with another Jack. And the race was on. Faster than light, everybody's hands struck out at the pile, trying to be the palm that landed first.

Bryan won, and laughed victoriously. Merging this new pile with the smaller deck in his hand, he calmly put down a seven-of-hearts. "I'm kinda worried about her though, even though I shouldn't be." Five-of-spades. "She's never handled this much command power before."

Queen-of-spades.

Ten-of-diamonds, two-of-hearts; John's pile.

"Is that the depressive girl?" Rosy asked. Her and Bryan often traded stories of their childhood and their friends, and since Justin and Sam were both close to him, he often had plenty of stories tell, both public and secret. Sam had suffered from manic depression for nearly all her life, and every time a spell had come up, Bryan was usually the first Justin called.

"Yeah," Bryan answered, sounding empty, as John put down a three-of-hearts. "Former depressive girl." Rosy's Eight-of-diamonds. "Hasn't had a spell in two-and-a-half years." Maxie's King-of-clubs. "And she is counting the days," he said with a laugh.

Muletta snapped down a three-of-spades and a six-of-hearts before ending her turn with an ace-of-clubs.

Kevin revealed an ace-of-diamonds.

ThudTHUDthud! (Maxie gave a little battle cry as well).

Rosy won this time.

"Damn," Bryan muttered.

Rosy started off with a Jack-of-spades.

Maxie lost her four-of-diamonds.

Rosy started again, this time with a nine-of-hearts.

Maxie passed, this time, with a ten-of-clubs.

Muletta set down her six-of-diamonds.

Kevin had a eight-of-clubs.

And Bryan had a six-of-clubs.

"Ah!" Maxie exclaimed---thudTHUD! Kevin this time. "Fuck!" Maxie screamed as her blonde hair swooshed to and fro. "You suck," she told Kevin.

"Damn Maxie," John commented.

Kevin started with a King-of-hearts.

Bryan put down a five-of-diamonds, and then a five-of-spades.

(No screams this time) thudthud! This time, most of the other players weren't even aware of the pair of fives until everyone else had slapped their hands down.

Muletta won, though, and immediately re-started the game with a four-of-clubs.

Kevin added with a six-of-spades.

Bryan, a three-of-spades.

Siyyen casually threw down a seven-of-clubs.

John had a ten-of-diamonds.

Evan had an eight-of-spades.

---John's hand went towards the middle, but he pulled it back, temporarily pausing the game.

"Calm down, John," Bryan teased as Rosy threw in a Queen-of-hearts.

"Shut up!" John countered.

Maxie immediately put down an ace-of-spades.

Muletta had a ten, an eight, a two, and a four, and the pile went to an excited Maxie Linwood. As she scooped her winnings, Muletta received a call on her comrod.

"Uh-oh," Bryan grinned playfully. "I think it's Vigel calling."

The comrod halfway up to her ear, Muletta stuck her long tongue out at him and sat back in her chair, clasping her cards in her hand. "Hello?" she said in her native Pyfrellin language.

Meanwhile, the game continued. Maxie started with a seven-of-diamonds.

Skipping Muletta for now, Kevin set down a two-of-diamonds.

Bryan went with a ten-of-spades.

And Muletta's face froze as Siyyen dropped his last card, a nine-of-hearts.

"Somethin' wrong dear?" Bryan asked her.

John put down a five-of-clubs.

The game paused as all eyes went to Muletta's shocked and saddened face. She was staring at the middle of the table, but clearly wasn't focusing on it. Her eyes played an image of heartbreak and a battle raged in the irises. The gray blood draining from her, the slender Pyfrellin nearly fell getting out of her chair. Tears had begun forming in her eyes, and her escape from the table and her friends was a quick one.

Bryan and Rosy immediately exchanged worried glances, as did the twins. Maxie bit her lip in concern, then looked over at Bryan as if asking permission to go after her. He gave her the signal by looking over his shoulder at the retreating pilot. Soon enough, Maxie bounded into his vision and away from the table, giving chase. Go get her, Bryan thought.

The card game soon died afterward.

---

Maxie trailed the fine-textured, hand-sewn cloak that was swimming through the bodies walking around in the ocean. The current pushed against her, its mass and foam washing its weight onto her. Pushing hair out of her eyes, Maxie pushed forward even more, shoving her way a few steps closer to the cloak. Suddenly, the patterns bent in colliding directions, and the body shifted goals, and whatever the new goal was, it took the figure in a new direction across the ocean.

Maxie flew after her, her arm reaching out like a wing, fingers stretching to grab hold of the cloak. However, when her fingers snared the inside of a Fedrellon's shirt collar, and ripped part of the cloth's lining, her mind subconsciously decided to vocalize the chase. "Muletta!"

The rope of sound latched on to Muletta's right shoulder and harmlessly pulled it back, grabbing her attention. But the Pyfrellin denied the reaction, and stormed on through the sea.

Maxie increased her pace to a jog, pushing against the tide with all her might. This had to end now; Muletta clearly had something she wanted to say, though she seemed afraid to say it. Normally quiet, the long-haired loner usually sat at the bar drinking her native liquors, sometimes for hours at a time. She never once got up, never once socialized in these intoxicated endurances. Plus, she never once got drunk off of her own liquor, only alien substances. She was rich in culture and in the history of her people, but would only teach a lesson or recite a story when asked. Deep down, everyone the Faith knew she had a personality that wanted to scream out loud, but it was kept quiet with a resolve as terrible as Darth Vader's could be. This tyrannical resistance hardened Muletta, so seeing her run away like this with tears nearly pouring themselves down her face had to make any friend wonder how deep this wound was; perhaps to the very spot in her that she had yet to show people. This was so mysterious.

"Come back here, Muletta, I want to talk to you. What's wrong?" Maxie yelled, grateful to see the crowd thinning out.

"You've tried this before, Maxie; don't," the pale, whiny voice replied.

Nevertheless, Maxie jogged faster, until she came very close to the Pyfrellin's shoulder. She was about when speak when Muletta made a sudden turn in the perpendicular direction, shutting Maxie up before she could even start. The hesitation didn't last long. "Talk to me Muletta, what---what's wrong?" she said through slightly gritted teeth as she changed direction to follow her target.

"Go away, I need to be alone."

"Like hell you do. You spend a lot of your time alone, whether you're going through issues or not. What's wrong?"

"My feelings are my business, not yours, all right?!" Muletta replied, increasing her speed. "You're already annoying enough during the day."

Shut the fuck up, you ugly little bitch, was the response that immediately played, but only in Maxie's head. She used to be like that, respond like that. Something had changed though; her mentality was now different. The Alliance had done something to her, like Bryan had said years back. She was better than that answer.

"Honey, I wanna listen, now talk. What's going on?" She reached out and took hold of the woman's shoulder. "Stop, and---"

"Don't touch me!" Muletta spat, wrenching her shoulder free and plowing on.

"Girl, you better watch it," said Maxie's reflex, this time not going ignored.

"Jinde forbid…"

"No, wait, I'm sorry Muletta. Come back here please."

She finally stopped at a junction between three of the park paths, and looked confused as her eyes darted from direction to direction. In no time, Maxie curved around her figure and planted herself directly in front of the gray, distraught Pyfrellin face. "Stop following me," she squeaked, weakened. Then she doubled-back in the direction she had come, head down again.

This time, Maxie stood still as a tree. "If you don't tell me what's wrong, then you're gonna have to tell Bryan, because you know he won't give up until he finds out what's wrong."

Furious, she roped all attention to herself, gripping her side in her pure anger "Nothing is wrong!" she screamed so loud that all eyes found themselves turning to her. "Everything is fine! I'll get over it myself if I can only grieve---I must grieve, Jinde won't forgive---me if I don't."

"If you don't, then you don't! I doubt Jinde will be angered if you tell someone what's going on, Muletta. You know I'm only trying to help."

""Don't tell me what I know and what I don't!" she screeched, stopping in her tracks and storming back towards Maxie. The crucifixion of her god poured salty tears into her eyes, and the scent of death overcame her. The fear of death drove her to hunt Maxie down like the dog she now believed the human was. Not even guessing where to grab, she latched onto Maxie's shirt and whip lashed her once, roughly. Maxie grunted but held in the urge to fight back; slashing her friend was not going to help. Treat those how you want to be treated, she thought, Treat those how you want to be treated.

"Muletta, you're gonna get us in trouble, knock it off," she said testily, looking the Pyfrellin right in the eye. Her species religious beliefs were deep, but a human's determination was always deeper, and Maxie loved to use it in situations like this. It was what made her a good second-in-command to a man who was already famous for his iron will, both at a common level and a political one. At times she wondered if the reason she even got used to acting this way was because she wanted to trump Bryan somehow. He was good at what he did, but she just couldn't forget the old him, the shy, nervous, dorky high school boy who always sat around staring at everyone as if they were all about to eat him alive. The guy had been an amazing actor from what Maxie had scene. That's what usually got him off the hook from being a complete weirdo. What he lacked in social skills, he made up for in theater. Bryan Rawling 2.0(the new, confident and daring version that now represented the Alliance Pilot Corps) was unfamiliar to Maxie.

It was sad, sometimes, seeing him like he was now. Although she never admitted it to him, she missed the old Bryan. When one goes to high school for four years with a guy who's always there but never seems to be included, it's hard to imagine him as anything else. Nevertheless, she did owe him a lot in the past two-and-a-half years. Ever since she got on board, he treated her no different than he always used to, despite the fact that she hadn't reached out to him much back in high school. They had barely been friends---more like just acquaintances, yet he was still as nice to her as he was back then, as if nothing had changed, which helped when it came down to flight training. He was an amazing teacher, one that actually looked like he cared about the people he was teaching. Maybe she was trying to live up to his standards in some way….which was strange because she'd never done that before. Then again, she never thought he would have ever had the guts to tell a Senator to "fire your hooker and go live out in the real world for once."

Muletta's burning eyes burst with anxiety, and Maxie thought the tall alien was about to rip her limb from limb. The crowd around them was still paused, staring intently at the showdown. Without much more reason, there was nothing that would send this situation any further, and both people mutually understood that. Muletta's fire lasted barely moments, and then she calmly doused the flames and let Maxie go gently. Flustered to a gray, she fearfully took in the crowd, glancing around eye-by-eye to tell an end to the fight.

Maxie tried to ignore them. "Next time, please talk to me instead of running away from me, all right? I'm not trying to generate a scene here, unless you want that." Vigilantly, Maxie stared Muletta down, getting the upper hand while the walls were down. "Come on, let's go talk somewhere else, okay? Get out of the street here…." She let the sentence trail off, taking Muletta by the hand and slowly walking across the path to a little outdoor picnic area that was empty. Nothing would disturb the quiet hopefully, and maybe Maxie could finally get some answers.

"So what's up?" she asked carefully as they sat down. Muletta had mentioned grieving, so Maxie feared the worst of the news to come.

Her friend couldn't look her in the eye. "I'm supposed to grieve alone," she said stubbornly.

Maxie moaned. "Muletta….look, you can grieve alone if you really want to, okay? I know your beliefs. But I at least want to know what's wrong or who died or what---what happened? You can tell me." Upon seeing the tears re-pour themselves out of Muletta's eyes, Maxie leaned in and hugged her friend closely, motherly. For a while, she just sat there, rocking her gently.

"My mother had another baby die," Muletta managed to force out in between sobs. "Right in her arms, right after her birth. She just stopped breathing, some lung problem that the scanners didn't pick up during the pregnancy. The technology couldn't detect it, and…..my mother tries so hard everytime…."

"Is she all right?"

Muletta nodded. "She fine physically as usual, but…."

"She'll be fine." Maxie tried to force herself to say something else, something better to top that, but there was no water in the desert.

"Everything she does fails. I have tried to convince her to just keep it simple and just try again, but no. She has to try on another planet, she has to try in another city, she has to try with….this stupid artificial implant that…ugh, Jinde," she said in disgust.

Maxie didn't really want to know what she was going to say; anything to get off the subject of death. When one was fighting a war, death was usually the last thing one wanted to talk about, especially with all the memories between the Faith shipmates. "So, tell me, who's this Jinde?I mean, I know he's a god, but you've never really explained your….isn't there like one religion on your entire planet?"

Muletta sniffed. "What?"

"You amaze me," Maxie said. "Because you have such a strong belief in Jinde. I don't think I've ever see you rest during that…one holiday your…religion has---what's it called?"

"Cosma Sharwe, and I'm not allowed to sleep through it."

"Of course. That kind of holiday would suck. Nothing to do, nothing to get."

"The law says I'm not allowed to sleep during it at all. It's forbidden on my planet."

Maxie was about to ask another question, but her curiosity got to her. Hesitantly, she asked, "Your planet's run by a theocracy?"

Muletta paused for a moment, then nodded. "Took hold about fifty years ago. Saved a lot of lives."

And how many more lives were killed to save those? Maxie almost asked. She suddenly felt the urge to leave, but that would have been too easy.

"What do they think about your mother?"

Muletta hesitated. "What?"

"Every theocracy I've ever seen has childbirth laws. I'm asking what yours are?"

"She's allowed to have as many children as she wants," Muletta said quickly.

"Really---?"

"However, when a child reaches the age of twenty-five, he's ordered by law to change his name and then cut relations off with his family. My friend Voro had to do that. All of his memories—it was terrible to watch him deteriorate to Moderate Sonsru Supervisor."

"Sonsru?"

"It's like a church," she answered quickly. "A mother is allowed to have as many children as she wants, but after the first one, at a certain age they have to change their name and leave, because the family of the gods, Jinde's family, had only one child, Borez, and no others, so every family is only allowed to have one child."

"Okay. So why do the mothers ever bother to have more than one child if they know they have to get rid of them eventually?"

"They don't get rid of them!"

"Well if they have to make them change their and banish them, I'd think---"

She stopped. That was not the right thing to say. Maxie suddenly became aware, in that moment, of several moments in the past where the wrong thing bluntly was thrown out her mouth, viciously and non-thoughtful. She was not trying to hurt this woman at all, she was trying to be her friend and…..nothing seemed to work anymore. This involvement in the Alliance seemed to be weakening her in some way, and though she liked it, like part of her missed the old Bryan, part of her was definitely not getting used to the new her that was slowly taking over her mind. "I'm sorry," she apologized.

"That was very rude," Muletta said stubbornly. "Even though you're right."

"I know, I'm sorry. I've read about theocracies at their worst so….did you leave because of their laws? Something they do piss you off too much? Come on, talk to me."

"I left because I couldn't go back to my family. I had to change my name and I just….wanted to find another career."

"You're kidding me. I didn't even think of that. What kind of mother would let you go? God…"

"I love my mother, and she loves me, no matter what the law says, and don't take your creators name in vain! That's a damned action, and not to be taken lightly!"

"Hey," Maxie said darkly. "Don't go Christian on me here okay?"

"It's crazy not to respect your creator. I've seen your religion. You treat it like a keyboard. Delete, enter, escape. You make everything a choice in your religion. There is never any decisive choice. A game has rules, but aren't they broken a lot, and isn't it always one person that upholds them? One person; one person who upholds what the group created? That is what God is. He is a creator of people, he makes the rules for them, and the people should follow those rules, plain and simple. It's nothing huge, just a little worship."

"You see this smile?" Maxie asked.

"Yes," Muletta replied, puzzled.

"I am smiling like this because I have made myself what I am from the moment I knew I could. Every choice, every decision has been mine. I can't go back and change the past. That's one reason why I don't believe in God. He's omnipotent, right? Why can't he change the past? People make mistakes all the time to justify God's interference. We've made enough, so where is he? Its sounds stupid, but a million people and more believe that he is our savior. Then what? What happens when we need him to save us? He does nothing. I can't believe he's real, and I won't. People make the rules of the game, and people have to uphold them and take responsibility for them, not---"

"Now you sound like Commander Rawling. Shut up!"

"Calm down, I have to a right to say that!"

"Jinde is real, you unfaithful little bitch. I hope your God scolds the life out of you. Now please leave me alone."

If the urge to smack her had been great before, it was even stronger now. The slightly-strange feeling got so intense that the nerves in Maxie's arm twitched. "I'm trying to help you. If you love your mother, you should throw off your religion and go be with her---"

"It's against the law! I'd be killed! By public execution! You want to send me to my death, do you?!" she shouted, eyes ablaze.

"No, of course not. But if you love your own mother---"

"Then I will not put her safety in jeopardy by going back!" she said, now quickly giving way to tears.

"Maybe she can come back with you. We'd love to have her, on board, we would---"

"---I don't want her to meet you!" Muletta glared. "Or Bryan. You'd insult her faster than you've insulted me."

"Hey, shut up, all right, we're good people, and we've worked our asses off to make you feel comfortable on our ship. You're a loner, Muletta, by choice and by law apparently. Don't you want help? Don't you want anything out of this experience? How many planets have you visited since you left? How many foreign oceans have you swam in? How many things have you explored since leaving your theocracy and your mother?

"I---" the Pyfrellin stopped mid-sentence, and then shut her mouth and got up, swimming on towards the ocean again.

And Maxie wasn't about to lose her again. She got up, stepped in front of her, and jammed her hands into Muletta's shoulders, freezing her. Nothing happened though. The tears just streamed down Muletta's face, and she stood still, eyes frozen by ice to the ground.

"Look, I'm not trying to be a bitch, okay? We know all about Bryan's opinions, we know all about your beliefs---or at least I do. Everything I'm telling you is me trying to help you. Here's why; because I don't want you to feel like you're worthless. Hate makes people worthless; makes them feel worthless. So they do exactly that---hate, because they think it makes them feel like their beliefs are important, and that they are important. Your beliefs should be whatever you want to be, okay? You're always important, no matter who you believe in. You clearly don't like Bryan's opinions on religion, and you know what, nobody religious does, though they never say it to his face. He's a hothead. And it scares the hell out of me. Every time I see him start preaching about how stupid he thinks religion is, I always cringe inside because I think it's going to get him killed. Every comment he makes would offend someone, and not all of them are going to forgive and forget that easily. You remember what happened to him when we went to Torcoris?"

Muletta nodded silently.

"It's his job to monitor what he says and shut the hell up when he starts going off on some tangent. He doesn't mean to be insulting, but he is. And by hating that, Muletta, you're no better than him when he starts running off his mouth. Your comments come off just as insulting. And if you keep this up, you're going to hurt yourself because that's what hate does---it hurts." Maxie ducked her head into Muletta's vision, and smiled slowly until it built up to a bright beam. "Now did you here me before? We want you here. We want you to feel comfortable on this ship---on the Faith. Okay honey?"

Muletta didn't respond, but her shoulders had shrunk in by this time, and she was done defying Maxie's medicine. She wiped some tears out of her eyes and sniffed once, but didn't nod, and didn't say anything.

"We love you, Muletta," Maxie said, pulling the taller woman into a hug. "We want you here. And I'm sorry about what happened to you back home. They shouldn't have done it. I hope your mother has another chance to raise a child, because she's a good mother if she bring this much love out of someone."

"I thought you said I hate?" Muletta said shakily.

Maxie snickered. "No, I said Bryan hates."

Muletta finally chuckled. "You said he was a hothead."

"If you can tell an Alliance senator to fire his hooker---"

Muletta burst into a laugh.

"---then you are a hothead. He'll recover from his problems. Somehow. He always finds a way somehow."

"Some of us are too lucky," Muletta said, her eyes rekindling almost unnoticeably.

Maxie nodded, hiding her anxiousness, and placed one arm all the way around Muletta's tall neck. Together, the two started walking back through the park to the Janlar Zone. Even as they conversed some more, Maxie's head couldn't push one thought back out of her mind.

It's going to get him killed….It's going to get him killed….

Muletta would not kill him, Maxie knew for certain. But why couldn't she expel that thought? Danger was everywhere, even in the most secure places of the universe. No one ever truly wanted to die for their beliefs. They would brush a fire when their hand, burn every once of opinion in them before trading their life-stock in for a tomb and a cold bed. Hate bred the belly of the beast, and burned away all goodness in life. Damage ten times worse than that of religion always dealt the cruel a bad hand. But hate would always be there to rub one's face into. It's the choice of what to do with hate that was so hard. Choice had everything to do with it, though the sky was bright everyday. It was baffling how quickly one's mind barred all fairness in the difference of men, and ignored how fortunate people truly are.

Ten times more damage, as easy as one could slice a loaf of bread…

--

9:57 P.M. Janlar Zone

The buzz of the tiny dash of alcohol in the Datzyl ferregrino felt more like a refreshing drink of water. Yes, it wasn't like Bryan to have an alcoholic drink these days, but one every now and then never killed; and for some reason a Glazer didn't seem to entice him tonight; at least not yet. The craving was coming though, he could feel it on his tongue blade.

"I did not have sex with that Pollasir woman!" John said defensively, staring wild-eyed at Maxie.

"Fresh, delicious fucking," Maxie continued fruitfully.

"It's not all that!" John bellowed.

"She was unforgettable," Bryan commented passively, taking another sip.

"I'd do miracles for her," Rosy said flatly. "A good picnic," she said, suddenly imaginative, day-dreaming. "Eat and---no." She then took a sip of her drink, as Bryan eyed her lamely. "To think I could do that to my boyfriend." She paused, then grinned deviously.

"I hate you," Bryan replied.

"Good, you can take the Milky Way's back then. Evan, where'd you put those?"

"You gave them to Evan?"

"Tune him out, guys," Rosy said. "Evan?"

"I got 'em in my room, next to that rippin' fender I picked up on Samd Ave."

"You're still bitchin' over that thing?" Bryan asked.

"I'm not bitchin' about anything. That thing ain't no brain fart. You got some rich people behind that shit."

"Yeah, and right now they're probably looking for it," Maxie said.

"You're Jewish; negotiate with them, Maxie."

An awkward silence took hold of the table, as Bryan flashed his eyes around for any sincerity and got none. "Okay, bad joke."

"Naw, it was funny," Kevin said, chewing on some chips. "In a gray type of way."

"'In a gray type of way,'" Bryan mocked. "Shut up. Go and kiss your brothers priceless piece of shit he calls a fender."

"Don't start no attitude with me, bitch," Evan said. "Go get me some popcorn," he gestured over to the snack bar.

"You get your own popcorn." Bryan turned to his left. "John, go buy me some Rocko slips." Before John could answer, he jumped back to Evan. "And it's not called popcorn, its called carid."

Evan rolled his eyes. "Its looks the same, man, who can tell the fucking difference?"

"The little voice in Bryan's head," John chuckled. "If it shouted 'Fire!' he'd probably stand around so long thinking 'hey I just heard a voice in my head' he'd get scalded to death."

Kevin and Siyyen laughed while Evan grinned and popped some candy into his mouth.

"What's that have to do with popcorn and carid?" Bryan asked.

"Who knows and who cares?" John responded. "Bamac is better anyway."

"No, you know the best food we've encountered so far this trip?" Bryan asked. "Ruul cream back on Hident. It's almost exactly like ice cream."

"Mmm," Rosy agreed. "That stuff was delicious. Did you ever try the bilax flavor I asked you to?"

"No, because you asked me to do it."

Rosy had lifted her glass, but now put it down, and stared back at her boyfriend as he stared her down in return.

"You gonna drink that?" Bryan said flatly. "Or do I have to continue to stare at your ugly face for the rest of this argument?"

Rosy blankly sized him up, but didn't move a muscle.

Bryan cancelled out all reality except for her, and picked a weak spot where he could hit her for fun, but still kept their eyes locked.

Rosy didn't let his eyes get a hold of her. She raised her glass to her lips and stared down at the buttermilk-colored liquid.

"And thus, she's out, and I win again," Bryan said victoriously, giving himself a rewarding drink and that wonderful tingle of alcohol. Now the Glazer was really calling to him, but he personally didn't feel like leaving and risk not hearing the conversation that might have followed. That was a mean sentence he had directed at Rosy, and was a risk around certain people who had witnessed first hand how cruel he could truly be. Of course he hadn't meant what he said in reality, but nothing could stop him from being weary of the fact that so many people who he cared about just might think he meant more. Rosy was his girlfriend, he loved her; she loved him. She knew; they had a common bond when it came to jokes like that. They had had one argument in three years so they knew each other very well, knew the secrets behind their humor, and what their humor really hid behind it. If only Armageddon Night could come sooner, so that they could whisper to the other closely that they had meant nothing by any of the playful shots they had taken at each other, none of the sarcastic jokes, and none of the fake insults, and nothing that could mean not being this close to each other ever again. No humor in the universe could ever change that.

The thought cut through his spine and pulled a sizzling shiver down its full length; a very tantalizing shiver, and it held all the anticipation he could ever remember having. For some reason, he knew that this was going to be a memorable tournament, and not just the usual blockbuster that it was.

"I can see what you're thinking," Rosy said with a zest of restrained warmth. "Cool it." Her powerful, fruitful brown eyes bulged in comparison to her body, the sleek drug grabbing and playing on his temptations.

The rash, intimate laughs came from every end of the dining table. There was no perfect direction though, and only with a limited amount of criticism. The group's goal was to enjoy the night that they were spending together. It wasn't a time to mourn for the dead, or attack the living, but a night to look out at the horizon in front of you and just wish on a star, or a million of them.

"So who's topping off Armageddon Night this year?" Maxie asked, actually looking at Evan directly. "Any reason to think you're gonna have another PG-13 ride?"

"Is there ever a reason why you don't stop being a bitch?" Evan countered.

"You know he's gonna bang his fender," Bryan remarked.

"Shut up Bryan," John retorted.

"What are you worried about? You have a Pollasir angel waiting for you," he said, risking a glance at his girlfriend.

"I didn't have sex with that woman!" John exclaimed, his face in a wild, exasperated stretch. "What---!"

"We're talking about future relations, so what if you haven't had sex with her yet?" Bryan said coolly, taking what looked to be a penultimate sip of his ferregrino.

John inhaled a chest-full of air, then let it out in a rippling scream. "Ahhhhhhhhhhh!"

Bryan sat back with a nice, toothy smile. He always used to do that to John when they were kids, and John always repeated it back at him; the same type of annoying remark or persistent pestilage that would make either one scream in annoyance. There were very few people who scream in public like that. Took a lot of courage and a lot of security, and anyone who looked at John could see that he was about as secure as a metal door, and if one wanted to question that, they were welcome to try and topple the mountain.

"Damn man, calm down," Kevin said in mild shock. "Do you have any idea how annoying that is?"

John gestured to Bryan grandly. "He won't shut up! What do you expect me to do?

"I don't know. Anything but that though. Damn…"

Bryan slowly grinned. "Easy, Kevin, this is something I'm familiar with. We used to do it a lot when we were kids. We'd say something and it would annoy the other so much that he'd scream his guts out. Ignore it; John just hasn't grown up."

"Shut up ya monkey," John responded.

"John, you haven't called me that in years; I'm not a monkey."

"Yes you are!"

"No I'm not. Go hit up your Pollasir woman---calm yourself down."

"Shut up with the Pollasir woman!"

"Yeah, seriously," Maxie added. "It's getting old."

"No, wait, why don't you man? She's Pollasir, and they don't often hook up with humans. The whole inter-species thing isn't popular yet."

""Cause I don't want to. I just met her."

"Yeah, but Armageddon Night's coming soon," Bryan reminded him.

"Is it me, or does think this 'holiday' is stupid?" Muleta interrupted loudly.

All eyes swam over to her.

"Something wrong, dear?" Bryan asked casually.

"I can't understand the logic behind this 'holiday,' she said in disgusted puzzlement. "It's a bunch of running, screaming, drinking, disgusting behavior, not to mention the sex."

"For starters, it's not a 'holiday', though many people probably wish it was," Bryan said. "And it's just a fun night."

"What about the people it isn't fun for? What price do they always pay?"

"The price they got themselves into usually," Siyyen piped up.

"Well, not all of them agree to consentual sex," Bryan argued. "Rape is the highest committed crime at the Valiance Tours every year; it's no wonder they haven't been shut down yet. Then again, we wouldn't be here enjoying each others company if that happened so…I don't know what to tell ya Muletta. Armageddon Night is one of the reasons why the Tours are so famous."

"That doesn't make what happens here right. There should be more police," she said, looking down stubbornly.

Bryan exchanged glances with Maxie. What's with her, what happened? He signaled to her.

Not now, she signaled back by thinly expanding her eyes.

"Your right, there should be, but it should also be the responsibility of individual people that should be helping. Sadly, I don't think the galaxy is sophisticated enough yet for that to happen, so…we're screwed until then." He shrugged. "But hey, we're all responsible here, right?" He forked his wrist around his glass and raised it, with one swig left.

The oval table stretched their arms up in a salute, and swayed them to everyone else. Muletta eventually joined as well, though she still looked skeptical.

"May we all survive Armageddon Night unharmed, unviolated, uncorrupted, alive, safe and sound. To us, to responsibility."

"To us, to responsibility."

The glasses preciously "klinked" in the middle of the table, then swayed again, and were shoved to the mouths, taking with them and securing the bonds of affection and care, sealed in the drink, the swallow, the drop, and the glance to take in the memory.

--

10:19 P.M. Janlar Zone

The light cast the watery shadows in four different directions, all converging on one center body, like a star split in fourths. Each shadow took small steps in one direction, then bounded in leaps to another, sucking in more action as they went.

"Get her!" Bryan shouted.

Rosy's shadow simmered in the artificial light, then split as she landed, with the football gripped firmly in her locked hands.

Bryan turned to face her and reached out to try and nab her shirt, but she was too fast. With a burst of energy, Rosy pulled the ball into her body, tucked her arm under her ribs, and darted up towards the top of the endzone. Securely planting his foot into the turf, Bryan pivoted and stormed up the field after her, roaring over the ground. The chase was on.

Up ahead, Evan rocketed across the field as if he was falling from the sky, with John trailing him, desperately trying to catch up and block him. Rosy split to the left to try and dodge him, and was converged on. Evan swooped past her, two-hand-touching her on her arm and waist. As he rushed past, Bryan came up from behind her and got her on her shoulders, a good fifteen yards from the collage endzone.

After landing, Bryan stopped his full weight into her body, encircling her into his arms. "Got you, you witch."

"Grrr," Rosy knashed her teeth.

He giggled and twirled her around to face the other direction, placing his head into her neck curve. Releasing her, he tightly stretched his voice out across the field. "Nice pass, Maxie."

"Thanks. I'm getting better I think."

"Looks like it." The urge to follow that up with something came and vanished.

The humans lined up across from each other, the light of the endzone standing over them. Evan was on John, Bryan got Rosy, and Kevin stayed on Maxie.

"You all dared us to pit two girls and guy against three guys; now we're gonna kick your ass," Rosy taunted, face contorting deviously. Rosy's knees clawed at the air near her shoulders needlessly, adding onto the strange hunched position she was already in.

Bryan snickered. "What the hell do you call that?"

Rosy just widened her evil smirk, and then braced herself on the ground.

Bryan charitably back-peddled away from her, giving some cushion. He used to idolize 20-year NFL veteran Darrell Green, a cornerback for the Washington Redskins. The fast, charming athlete could easily outrun any wide receiver; he once ran sixty yards to catch up and then tackle a guy before he reached the endzone. Even in his last year in the NFL, he could still outrun almost any of the younger guys on the field. With his speed came agility, of course, but also skill at swatting the ball away, reading routes expertly, and hands that probably secreted glue. So many fun years watching him shut down receivers and basically be Mr. Redskin both on and off the field.

Early on in his childhood, Bryan loved to play cornerback just like him. He hadn't really learned the ropes, or was even a good amateur, but this wasn't a professional game, and so far, Rosy had only caught one ball.

Well…two, Bryan thought as his ears zeroed in on Maxie's distinct "Hike!"

The sudden action almost made him suffer as Rosy jumped off the line and charged towards him. Luckily, the cushion he had set up prevented a bomb from being exploded in his face. Keeping his body erect, Bryan turned on his right shoulder and back-peddled sideways, ending any chance Rosy would have to get to the outside, and forcing her to take the inside route. She countered by cutting inside then straightening her course again, five yards from the endzone. Bryan matched her step-by-step, nudging her lightly as she passed him. Then, she again cut to the inside, more steeply. Now they were past the first two chairs and cutting across the turf in the endzone. Bryan made sure to stay in front of her, letting himself trailing lightly to coax Maxie into throwing it to Rosy. She was good, but she wasn't lucky. Just one interception would end this drive with nothing to say for itself. And it also included bragging rights.

He risked a glance back at the blonde quarterback, and saw her sidestepping in his direction, Evan matching softly, subtly. Bryan's eyes predatorily switched from Rosy's hair bun to Maxie's unsure, anxious eyes. Then suddenly, it was no longer a split-decision. Maxie shimmied to her left and tossed the ball over Evan's head, but it was too light of a throw to be directed at Rosy.

Bryan found John in an instant, cutting across the field horizontally in front of him. Without even hesitating, he hopped off his feet and scurried towards him. The ball, meanwhile, floated up, but was too high for John, and roughly squeezed through the tops of his fingers. Behind him, Evan tripped over his own feet, and lunged down onto the turf. His legs recoiled, and hit the ball on one of its ends, knocking it back up into the air. "Ahh! Somebody get it!" he shouted.

Bryan's face glittered in excitement, and the thought of intercepting the ball empowered his body into faster movement, and he bent down low to grab it.

"NO!" Maxie shouted excitedly. She was already on the way to stop him.

"Ha, ha!" Bryan exclaimed, as his hands scooped up the ball before it hit the ground. Picking up his staggered weight, the Commander beamed triumphantly and regained balance, keeping his eyes on the prize in between the four chairs at the other end of the "field." His skinny, muscular legs weren't fast enough though. Maxie caught him before he could dodge her, and stopped him at almost exactly the spot where they had lined up at. His momentum wasn't slowed though. He continued, back-peddling part of the way, down the field, grinning mockingly at his opponents, giving Rosy the mother-load. "He, he, he! You lose dis time."

---

Muletta sighed deeply as she reached around her body and grabbed hold of her glass again, the second time in the past seven seconds. With an empty mind and zero thoughts, she pushed the glass onto the rim of her lips and sloshed the liquid down across her tongue and into the back of her mouth reluctantly. Nothing had told her to take that sip, nothing had provoked her at all. This was so stupid. Why am I drinking again? She thought, even as she swallowed and then took another quick sip.

Siyyen arrived then, humming a tuneless song to himself and spinning his glass carelessly on his index finger. All was quiet on the sidelines of the "football" game, as the humans enjoyed their sport and the other two sat out, watching this largely entertaining game unfold vehemently.

"Go!" shouted Bryan as he dropped back with the cone-shaped ball in his hand. The cluttered mass of players shot out at each other in response to the call and began running long-windedly down the "field". So much about this game was confusing; humans chasing other humans; a species chasing itself just to gain possession of a small, immaterial-looking playing ball.

Bryan moved towards the sidelines, coming towards her, as John Hollyer cried out mercilessly and started chasing him. Muletta heard Bryan scream in a very high-pitched voice, and hurriedly tried to run away from John's hulking mass. She couldn't help but smile at how mismatched the two were in size and speed. John had his arms wide open, looking like he was about to bind Bryan and suck the air out of him. Meanwhile, Bryan bounded away fast from his friend, a mixed look of determination and fear strewn about his face. He kept getting closer and closer to the out-of-bounds line, then finally released the ball down the field towards Evan, who was running parallel to him with Rosy trailing. Muletta's eyes calmly followed the brown projectile as it sailed up and then down, blazing a path above Evan's head and landing several feet behind him.

Still wanting to show off, John shoved Bryan a whole two meters, finishing the momentum he'd built up.

Siyyen finally sat down after standing nervously, watching the game, still twirling his glass on his finger. "Didn't want another one. I'm having way too much "treatment" for a case like mine."

Muletta narrowed her eyebrows in annoyance. "What do you have again?"

"Cliex. It's kind of like a human cold, Don't know what the term is in Pyfrellin."

"It's all right," Muletta responded quickly. She didn't want this conversation to take off any farther than necessary. She found Siyyen to be a bit of breast-mongrel, especially with non-humans. Human females were considered, amongst non-humans, to be the most bounteous prizes in the galaxy, and the most beautiful. In terms of body sculpture, Pyfrellins and humans were very similar, yet rarely did any Pyfrellin girl catch the eye of the Alliance's most dominant species. Muletta didn't want it though. What was the point of diversity if one got too much attention?

"Have you ever played this game before?" asked Siyyen, nodding out at the "football" players.

"No. Doesn't look that interesting. It's kind of like a bunch of buzzards throwing a rock around."

Siyyen hesitated, almost winced. "That was forward," he commented.

Twit, Muletta thought.

"Do you not like them?" Siyyen asked.

Muletta had to stop herself from walking away.

"Or are you just in a bad mood?"

Again, she didn't answer him immediately. After a moment of pause, she looked from the ground and back out into the field.

Siyyen remained silent, no follow-up questions. However, that only lasted for a short time. "If you don't mind me saying this, ma'am, you look awfully jealous of them right now."

Muletta couldn't resist a snort this time. "What? What did you say?"

"I said—"

"Jealous?" she interrupted sharply. "I'm sitting here drinking my favorite form of Pyfrellin liquor, trying to relax, and you think I'm jealous of a bunch of buzzards?" Her shoulder muscles flexed in anticipation of getting up and leaving, but the rest of her body stopped, wondering how the twit would respond.

"You haven't stopped drinking that stuff since we got here, and you've barely talked to anyone. Where I come from, that's considered very rude, especially at parties and gatherings."

Muletta snickered. "Look whose talking. How many cities did you say your family owned? And when was the last time you spoke to them again?"

Siyyen hesitated, abused, staring ahead stubbornly. "My family owns a lot, but they haven't spoiled me, ma'am. I am not a guarded child. If you're friends with someone or a group of people, you at least talk to them."

"I've had a bad day; let it go away please. Oh wait, is that too 'commoner' for you to understand?"

"I am not a rich man, ma'am. I made sure of that. You can talk to me however you want. I want that, as a matter of fact. Just because we're different species doesn't mean we can't communicate."

"You talk too much. Has anyone ever told you that?"

"Has anyone ever told you that the question you just asked is a major human cliché?"

"I am not human. Stop it!"

"With implications skills like that? You're as close to human as you can be."

"What?"

"Implication skills," he repeated with a dusty grin on his face. "Every human has them. To use your terms, the 'buzzards' use them to make quick judgments about people, including how they talk and act and what they're thinking."

"You're weird. What do---"

"You see? You just used them, pulled your ego over your eyes to hide from respect. Very clever, Ms. Vun-poj-ahr."

Muletta didn't move. Her eyes, brown and blazing like a hawk, stared across and deep into Siyyen's own abyss. "Let me make it clear to you how unhuman I am." She paused, with a thin smirk laced over her lips. Dropping her glass to the bench, she turned her body to face her opponent. "You grew up with respect, didn't you? You know all about it. I write about it a lot, because I haven't gotten much, and neither did my mother when my planet's government threw the old laws into the trash." She cocked her head once over at the "football" game. "Why do you think they call us aliens?"

Siyyen followed her gesture for a moment. The stadium light behind him created a corona over the top of his head, so Muletta was barely able to see his eyes darting around in their sockets. "What's this have to do with respect? They---"

"---don't be an idiot. Answer the question."

Siyyen hesitated again.

"You've heard them use it."

"Yes. I haven't heard any of these use it yet. These….humans."

"I don't care what these humans have done. They haven't said it yet, like you said. But you've heard it before. Why do you think they call us aliens?"

"They have a reason, I'm sure."

Muletta's expression darkened. "You don't see darkness in anything. There is a reason, think about it. Why do you think they call us aliens?"

Another hesitation.

"You're a good one to talk about respect, especially when you can't recognize it. They call us aliens because that's what we are to them. New products. New…colors to try on, new shopping material. Old values is what they see in us. Human history; stories of ancient battles between civilizations that are millions of years old; primitive. We're different from them, and where we should be proud of that is…" Muletta sighed, mostly to undue the knots her muscles were forming in her arms. "They think we should be below them, so they treat us like rats."

Siyyen remained quiet, blistering in her heat.

"Where was the respect when the Juliks needed help? Where was the respect when the Autrellians were denied membership to the Alliance, by humans? Where is the respect in that Congress is made up of mostly humans even though 'alien' Senators promise much more reform to the current policies? Where is the respect when Commander Vulture over there decides to voice his opinions about gods and religion?"

"He has a right to have his own opinions. You don't know him very well."

Muletta groaned in exasperation. "I wish people would stop telling me that. I know enough about him."

"You know about his opinions on some things."

"I have lived on the same ship with him for two years---"

"---and he's been happy enough to have you on board. He seemed proud that you were able to make the Tours on you first try---"

"Proud of his rat for his own disgusting pride!"

"Implication skills," Siyyen said casually.

"Would you be quiet, you spoiled little quat? You haven't lived with him in those same disgusting halls for three years. You met him tonight."

"Exactly, and I've also been able to observe him a little bit this evening. Like when you went storming out of here a while ago, and he stopped the game because he couldn't stop thinking about what was wrong with you and wanted to know if you were all right."

"Your exaggerating."

"Being truthful."

"And stupid."

"Does it really take that much effort to deny the truth? You can't stand the fact that he likes you, can you?"

"Going to answer my question or not?" Muletta glared at him. "I don't care what your opinions of Commander Rawling are. That wasn't what I asked. I asked…why you think they call us aliens. Respect my question please."

"There's too grand a scale to answer that question, ma'am. Not everybody calls us aliens. The ones that do I don't like. The ones that don't can eat dinner with me anytime they want."

"That's nice. That's very nice. A nice person. Now that I know that again, answer the fucking question!"

"You hit it right on the head already," Siyyen said painfully, getting up and walking away towards the snack bar again.

--

1:37 AM Frial Hotel

There are also images in stationary movement. I just have to find them. I only hope it's not too late. I always find myself pulling through at the end, which is why I love theater in the first place. I feel so behind now, like I've learned something or bought an antique that nobody cares about. I feel behind everyone else, trying to fight my way back. I must remember, process is more important than result.

I am fed up with being the smart, ideal man. I am fed up with being careful. I have no childhood memories that are daring, bold, or vaguely interesting. I was supposed to be the smart one, the intelligent one; I couldn't get Cs, I couldn't try drugs, I couldn't risk getting hurt, I couldn't lie, I couldn't be anything short of the ideal, great son. I made up a suicide attempt just so it would look like I hadn't always been smarter than that. No length of years has ever gotten rid of that.

Then I come to college and I have to sit and listen to all these kids tell me about their lives and about all the whacky and traumatic memories they had; all the conflict, all the heartbreak, all the trouble, all the fun and I can do nothing but sit there and wish, sit there and cry, wishing to have been able to be a child and have all the fun children have instead of having to be the grown up one.

I want to open their eyes to so much, so much they don't know. I hate being this grown up. I hate having to sit here and be the mature, thoughtful one who gives out advice and information about other people. I'm tired of being a babysitter, people come running to me instead of dealing with their own problems. They expect me to kiss their scrapes, heal their wounds and then lay the blame on me when it goes wrong.

There it is again, coming again, to my memory, that poem about my childhood and how I miss it. Every time I think about this, there is a certain image that always pops up. It's like a turntable under a bright sun. On it, I first see Vanessa, then the smiling faces of Jackie, Rachel, Chelsea, and Christianne. Then I see them get pushed away, and time passes and the sunset darkens a little bit as the sun creeps lower to the horizon. Now they are gone, and I become aware of the passage of time. Their smiles remain behind, an echo and a shadow, haunting my existence as if never to be seen again. Home is passing. Soon all that I know of it will be gone on the turntable, and will become just another happy memory to make me sad whenever I watch another sunset. She'll be gone soon. She'll be gone soon…

Time is such a monster. It's watching me with eyes in every clock and watch I see. It prowls and prey's on me, hunting me down with the speed of a cheetah and agility of a spider. It is my predator, though I should love it. Yet time is running out for more than just school. Everywhere, time is being drained. People are going away, traveling far off, having adventures, and eventually I will not included in those, so time is running out, last check-in, after this there's no turning back.

I want all or nothing. No settlements, nothing worse. I want love, pure and real, tender, caring, nurturing, hugging, kissing, relaxing, feeling, remember, missing; I will settle for nothing less. I don't want a safe spot, I don't want something to fall back on, I don't want safety in love. This isn't about the sex and the physicalness, this is about finding a girl who is fearless as I am. She doesn't have to give her all from the moment the relationship starts, but gradually be able to start down the path to that point. So many are afraid not to have safe spots because if it blows up in your face, the consequences are almost unbearable. That's life though. Bad things are going to happen, no matter what. Pain, hurt, embarrassment, looking stupid, realizing that you were wrong; Those are all painful things, and they're all part of life, and we only get one life to deal with them…

…….Bryan flexed his fingers, building the tension in his shoulders, only to release it a moment later with a loving, warm sigh, as his muscles relaxed down into the soft body beneath him. His body hair played guinea pig to the wind, shifting with every calm gust, sending fuzzy chills up and down his arms and legs and body, calmly sending him out to sea once more, only this time in the moment.

The ocean lay ahead of him, standing fast against the gravity of the world. Dark sunlight poured down onto the sails, reflecting their light a thousand miles into the distance, on to distant lands and seas, showing barely a textbook echo of his journey to sea and back, and all the adventures and treasures of the Mystic Islands, a chain of sprouts that could barely be called a nation. Elders had talked of it in legend, but no man had ever seen the walls of their temples or survived the gauntlets beneath their dirt. Explorers had been baffled, slaves fearful, and the people of the Mystics had lay the mystery of the Islands to bed a long time ago in fear of retribution from the Islands themselves. They were an enigma, back and front, up and down, side to side. This time, they were foiled though. An explorer never gives up his treasures or his will to find them. Exploration leads to knowledge, but not of material origin. The forming of the mind was not to dawdle on what is front of one, but to find out what is beyond the front. Resistance to the will to learn is futile; it will eventually consume a person. Those who resist will be swept away by their own sanity.

The ocean lay ahead still, even after the mystery of the Mystic Islands was found and dissolved within the temple walls. Just because one thing is over doesn't mean the next exploration is worthless. Time contains all mysteries, and they will all be never solved. But exploring one is a start….

The beautiful music that cascaded along the threads of his hair and then wisped off into the night suddenly peaked and stopped its even flow. A dark, throaty groan strafed near his ears, snapping him out of his trance. Below, the warm, squishy body squirmed uncomfortably, trying to move the body parts around into a more relaxed position, but with another body on top of it, the thought of such a movement was the only real comfort.

"I think it's time for bed."

The sound was all in Rosy's throat, a tired vibration that could have sucked the death out of a zombie.

Bryan answered with an even more mortifying groan, followed by the slip of the word: "No."

Rosy gripped her breath up for a moment, and Bryan moved his body up hers more, tucking his head in just under her neck. As if he had triggered it, Rosy finally let go of her breath and allowed him to sink her body a little more, letting the deck chair take most of the weight. "We've got games tomorrow."

"In the afternoon."

"Still. A new day is a new day."

Bryan paused a moment to try and wrap his head around that comment. He was used to making offbeat comments like that, but half the time did he ever actually understand what was meant by other people's comments. "What the hell does that mean?" His brain was still in a time crunch; a time crunch for excitement, discovery, pleasure, the sweet taste of victory, which he was always shy to admit that he loved.

"That means get up so I can enjoy the new day."

She didn't move.

"You're going to have to get me up if you want me to go anywhere. The new day can wait."

"Hey n---"

"Besides, it's in the morning."

Rosy brought her hand up and swiped him across the head.

Bryan sucked in his face and moaned loudly. "Hey." He lifted his head and planted a kiss just below her collar bone, then quickly cushioned his head back on her soft skin. " "I'm not going anywhere," he whined.

She took in another hard breath, then released it again. "Okay, a little longer."

The small muscles along her bone pushed and pulled against themselves as they comfortably snuggled into his weight, bringing her welcome arms up onto his back, and tenderly hugging him tighter.

Feeling like he was in his old bed back home, Bryan relaxed even more. "Now that's more like it."

Rosy shuffled some air through her nose in a laugh, then calmly brushed her hand up onto the back of his head. "Whose says you're not like my little doggie?"

Dramatic hesitation. "Me."

"Oh," she cooed. "How cute."

"Shhh."

Rosy smacked her lips.

Bryan sighed. "O.K." He promptly lifted his big back up, unlocking her arms, and moving himself only slightly more up, to just above her chin.

Turning her head into perfect alignment, she managed to get off three words before he brought his lips onto hers like a dinosaur taking its first bite into a kill.

Finally, he felt it; the zest. It fumbled it's way down his whole body, and then back up his bloodstream, a reflection in a watery mirror where he saw his Rosy, grinning slyly back at him with that strawberry glint on her lips.

The image caressed him tenderly as he let it float into every center of his body---

Then suddenly it was over, as Rosy gently lifted his head away from her, playing with the mop of hair on his head. "I didn't ask for that."

"Eh, well, what you coo is what you get." He grabbed her wrists and twisted them off his hair, and let his lips fall on hers for a second time. This zest lasted only a couple moments before Rosy started laughing and was forced to breath for a little more air. Upon her laughing, Bryan couldn't help but chuckle himself, knowing exactly what she was making fun of.

"That was terrible," Rosy said in between giggles.

"Yeah," Bryan agreed. "That was pretty horrible."

Rosy bit her bottom lip and ruffled her hand through his hair once more, but stopped abruptly. "Can we go to bed now?"

Bryan exhaled reluctantly. "Yes." He scooted back and up, and then rolled off of her.

Holding hands, they made their back into the room, leaving the starry balcony behind.

Bryan couldn't help but be in a spellbinding mood now. His curiousness was at a peak tonight, and he was washed inside out with a thought that characterized his childhood, his education, his old camp; all of his old memories went out to sea and brought back treasured memories and traumatic ones as well, his experiences wrapped up as presents being handed to him one-by-one. One triggered a deep love, and he turned to Rosy to try and focus it, its immortality, its deepest desires, its jewels and diamonds, its purr.

Without even realizing it, he found himself magically fixed on her, particularly on her face. There were the same delicate curves, the same soft, polished skin, with the strawberry lips and the distant, painful, and beautiful brown eyes; the same innocent, starry body, with the same sculpted chest and the cutest butt Bryan had ever seen in his life, and a slender arch from scalp to toes. The sunken, overwhelmed shoulders that had endured a childhood of confusion and abuse; the barely visible blood-veins that carried her life, the slim waist that stuck out ever so slightly above her lean pelvis; and the long legs that propped her up at Bryan's eye level, muscle and power hidden in their depth.

These touches of perfect craftsmanship were matched only by a pure and simple heart-of-gold, with an agile and witty sense of humor, warmth that could overheat a star, a passion that could light any fire, a spirit that could survive the end of time, a innovative and inspirational drive that very few could keep up with, a professionalism and discipline of an actor, an essence that was as light and sensitive as crystal glass, and a soul that any god couldn't touch.

Her love couldn't be described, unless it was by the fairies that lit the stars every night.

"What are you on tonight?" Rosy's voice suddenly asked, snapping Bryan out of his trance.

"Nothing as of yet," Bryan spoke innocently.

"You're starting to freak me out a little bit. I hope you're not sick."

"Hey, ya know, if you keep breathing on me, ya know, you never know what might happen."

"Ha ha."

"I'm just looking at you. Should I shield my eyes; are you, like, gonna curse me or something?" he asked playfully.

"I just might. Some Fedrellon roses are considered cursed you know."

Bryan smiled. Her awareness and intelligence were intergalactic in every way. "I was just thinking about kids, that's all. What'd they look like I mean."

Rosy narrowed her eyebrows in the blink of an eye, and stopped. "Kids?"

"Yeah. Trying to imagine what they'd look like. Hopefully more like you then me."

"Our kids, you little…" she let the sentence trail off, then blushed and laughed.

"What?"

"Buddy, you kinda have to marry me first."

"No I don't," he said, looking somewhat disgusted by the image of a formal ceremony, with every rule in place and every guideline fulfilled to the T.

"Yeah…you do. I've always had a dream about having a kid, in the back of my mind of course. I used to imagine conceptualizing it in my college lounge," she added with a laugh.

"Mmm," Bryan said, staring at the thought. "On the floor or the chairs?"

"Couch."

"Mm. You've never told me about this one before."

"Well, you never told me about how many girls you dated when you were a kid."

"That's because half the girls you've met from my childhood, I never dated. You just keep assuming I've dated them all and I'm a manwhore which, believe me, I'm not."

Rosy giggled again, and Bryan felt it was time to have her closer again. "What do you think?" he asked, his face shadowed by hers. "After the war, maybe we could…if at possible…?"

"Honey, you're thinking way too far into the future here. Emperor's long from being defeated, and who knows what might happen after he's taken out of the picture. The bad guys always live on."

"Well hey, I'm not jumping to conclusions here, I'm just asking---"

"And you're very nervous about it," Rosy said, teasing but with love.

Bryan hesitated, eyes darting in his sockets as he struggled to find the right words. "Would you like to have them; I don't care when, or where," he added with a snicker, "but would you like to have them?"

"What do you want?"

"I don't know, that's why I'm asking you."

Her face exploded into a smile. "Not on Armageddon Night, I know that, but I don't really know either. All I know is that if we do and our friends tell me that the baby has his father's features," she said, touching her forehead to his, "I'll tell them that that's what makes him perfect."

The emotion bombarded Bryan's feelings, and he felt his heart catch fire like a torch. His old habit in these cases was to blush and look away, too shy and overwhelmed to maintain eye contact.

This time, he blushed again, but didn't let his habit kick in. He kept his eyes deadest on hers, letting go of all of his emotion barriers and walls, letting go of all his security, and letting his vulnerability flourish in her sweet light. "I love you," was all he could simply muster, before sealing it with the deepest kiss he could reward her.

Then, they both climbed into bed, and this time he hugged her close to him as time passed the night slowly overhead, silhouetting the way into the next day.