The Blockbuster Experiments

Working steadfast into the night, Professor Friday hunched over an ornate lab table riddled with devices. His lab coat was stained with butter and salt from his weekly binges after hours. Glasses hung from his neck while he watched a thin strand of black fiber weave itself into a bigger band. A computer printer fed a near-endless stream of paper with zeros and ones to the white laminate tile floor below.

“That's right... That's it... You just keep spinning my thread little one. You have no idea how important you will be to the future of humanity!”

He cackled lightly to himself as he sat hunched over the table. A knocking on the full pane window behind startled him and he sat up straight. Looking behind him, a red haired boy about fourteen was waving a movie in the air.

“Hey, since you're here can I return this now so I don't get the late fee?”

Mike instantly put his glasses up on his face and blushed. Nodding, he pointed towards the main door of the video store he owned. He had simply hoped that no one caught him turning it into a lab at night.

Opening the door for the boy, Mike grabbed the VCR tape from him and looked at the rental code on it.

“Ah, yes, Total Recall. I'll be sure to put a note on this one. Thanks for bringing it back.”

Mike and the boy stood there awkwardly for a moment, until finally the boy spoke up.

“So what were you doing in here?” he glared over at the counter's plethora of strange instruments. “You own the place I'm assuming?”

Mike cocked an eyebrow and opened the door a bit for him.

“What are you kid, a cop? Yeah I own the place.” motioning inside the store If you really wanna know I'll show ya. You like movies I take it?”

Straightening his light brown and balding hair, Mike cleared his throat. He had been itching to tell someone about his experiment. Goodness knows his ex-wife isn't going to give a hoot.

The boy seemed reluctant to enter the corner blockbuster store at eleven-thirty at night with a strange man. Despite what was likely his better judgment, he entered the store. It reeked of popcorn and fresh printer paper. Mike walked him over to the counter and opened the small door for employees only. Beckoning him over, the boy walked over to the black thread weaving back and forth.

His jaw was dropping at how quickly the thread was being so precisely woven.

“Beautiful isn't it?”

Mike smirked as the boy looked up in wonder at him.

“Wow! My Mom would love one of these! She always talks about how it'd be so much cheaper if she could weave her own fabric and-”

Placing a hand lightly on the boy's shoulder, Mike chuckled.

“No no, kid. You don't understand. This isn't your typical fabric. It's a DNA storage fabric!”

The boy hit him in the leg lightly.

“Don't touch me!” Mike immediately withdrew his hand and cleared his throat.

“Sorry, didn't mean anything by it. Anyway, this fabric has every movie ever made recorded into the very DNA of the fabric! Right now it's weaving the tape I'll need to put it inside a special VCR and I can watch every movie ever made!”

He looked at the weaving with a renewed curiosity. It clearly intrigued him.

“Whooooaaahhh....”

Mike looked at his watch and realized he should probably get the boy home. He likely was sent on a short run to drop it off to avoid the fee.

“Neat huh? Listen, you should probably get going. I don't imagine your parents want you out for too long this time of night huh?”

The boy's face grew grim with fear.

“Crap! My Mom is gonna be pissed!”

Mike watched as the boy started for the door, and shouted to offer another idea.

“Hey hold on buddy! I can walk ya home and just explain we got caught up with you insisting on the fee being waived. It'll earn you brownie points trust me.”

The boy stopped and thought for a moment.

“Well, then I wouldn't have to run twelve blocks...”

Mike was amazed his parents let him walk that this far this late. He may not be in downtown proper, but he's close enough. Especially with all of the Condiment Killer commotion at the Unleaded Zeppelin across the street.

“That just tells me I should be walking you home. Cmon, this'll be fine by itself.”

Tossing off his lab coat on the counter, he locked up the store behind him. The night was warm in the late summer, if a bit muggy. Still, he was glad at least the weather wasn't a danger to the boy. Now it was just getting through the city without the very wrong person around.

They walked in relative quiet the first five blocks, until the boy finally opened up to him.

“So, you're telling me once that thing is finished and a full tape, you can just pick which movie you want to watch?”

Mike nodded with a smile.

“That's right. It's amazing what technology can do kid.”

Their steps echoed in the quiet night as they passed beneath the street lights. Small apartments and a couple houses between them, he led them to a small older house in the nicer neighborhood.

“So, what are you going to do when they make new movies?” asked the boy as he went to put his hand on the door.

“I guess I'll just make new tapes. New editions with each genre on them. They'll be huge kid I'm telling ya!”

Opening the door, the boy shouted to his Mom that he was home. Mike heard her begin to yell at him for taking so long, until she walked up to the door and saw Mike standing there.

“Hi, ma'am. I own the Blockbuster, my name is Mike Friday. I wanted to walk him home to make sure he got here safe.”

The sounds of sirens began blaring and she looked up in fear. Turning his head around, a massive stack of black smoke billowed into the sky amid a bright orange glow. A building close by was burning. At that moment Mike remembered a critical piece of information he had forgotten before leaving the store.

He had originally been making another batch of popcorn in the maker upstairs while he checked on his VCR experiment.

“No! No No no!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.

Mike ran the full twelve blocks faster than he ever thought he could. As he approached the main street where his store lay, he knew by then it was already too late. The whole store and building was up in flames, including the apartments next to his shop. A crowd of people stood on the opposite street, most of them in their pajamas.

He was thankful to see that at least it appeared his neighbors made it out of the building. Sadly, the building was ablaze in a way he'd never seen before. It burned so bright and hot it was almost taunting him. Somewhere in his heart he knew this was his fault.

Not only had he managed to burn down his home and all of his neighbor's homes, he also burned the only device capable of creating the DNA thread that took his entire retirement fund to specially fabricate. That device was the reason he now lived above a Blockbuster while managing it.

“Well... Crap.” was all he could manage to say as his heart broke in two.

So Much Knowledge, So Little Intelligence

Words zipped past Reg's view in his augmented reality as he read an eBook in class. He'd managed to program in his reading speed which allowed him to speed read through just about any book.

“Reggie, are you paying attention?”

Miss Hooper, a tall blonde woman who looks about ready for a mid-life crisis by wearing jeans and a really tacky turtle neck sweater to a high school. Reg turned off his book feed of Advanced Survival Techniques: Deserts and cocked an eyebrow.

“Yeah, I guess so.” sighed Reg. Last time he spoke his mind it ended up making him look like an idiot in front of his entire class.

Miss Hooper smiled dryly and turned back to the LED screen wall she was delicately writing on with a stylus. A lesson plan on beginning Calculus. Reg rolled his eyes and thought “Already read two books on Calculus, and even theoretical physics”.

Bored after a moment with the lesson plan, he straightened himself in his classroom integration chair. All he'd have to do to learn anything he wanted to know was use his neural up-link to sync with the school's galactic internet connection, key in a couple search terms, and upload the information to his brain.

Hell he could learn to be a five star chef in under a week if he really wanted to be. Reading was just something to keep occupied while he had to be forced to dredge himself to school every day. Most days he doesn't even learn anything from the classes.

“You're not actually paying attention, are you Reggie?”

Putting his hands on his temple, his frustration showed. Reg had always been ahead of the curve but for some reason the adults who were somehow in charge of him felt the need to drag him slowly through this muck of social awkwardness.

He could have taken an apprenticeship for building matter manipulators, but no. This washed up old hag wants to teach him about something he's known about since twelve.

“I'm sorry Miss Hooper but I'm not. I can't. Everything you're covering was in two lesson plans I uploaded already, and I've even read two books on Calculus, and another on theoretical physics. I'm racking my brain trying to figure out why you won't let me skip high school altogether. Hell, what's the point of it at all?”

Looking around the room, he realized he was one of three kids sitting a room of twenty CIC's. One girl sat with her eyes glued to the floor, while the other was a boy who looked like he was filling out a worksheet on his augmented reality by waving his hand in the air as if to write out the problem.

Miss Hooper stood up straight and sighed. Shaking her head, she put her hand on Reg's black hair and ruffled it.

“There is a point of you being here Reggie. No one doubts that you can learn whatever you want. You're here because you refuse to apply that knowledge in any functional manner.”

Reg held his breath a moment and tried to hold back the anger within him. There were so many holes in her argument he had to try not to laugh. It wasn't hard.

“Apply the knowledge? How am I applying knowledge by repeating problems over and over again just so you can say I know how to apply it? I never asked for your opinion of my ability, now did I?”

Miss Hooper pushed down on his head and really ruffled his hair.

“You have no idea what life is like. We put you here because we've seen more life than you, and we know what you'll need to be a functional part of society.”

Reg had heard enough. Grabbing his brown messenger bag, he swatted her hand away from his head and stood up. Without a word, he made his way out of the room.

“Where are you going?! Class is not dismissed mister!”

Placing the strap over his shoulder, he stuck his hands in his white cotton hoodie and stormed out. Automatic doors beeped over and over as he passed. A clean white hallway with small black square projectors jutting out from the walls. Classroom numbers with information on class currently in session appeared next to the doors on his augmented reality feed.

“Reginald Bower you get back here this instant!”

A scowl washed over Reg's face. He'd had just about enough of adults telling him what to do. Loading the school's main server hub, he bypassed the firewall and installed a small virus file to the school's speaker system. Immediately the lights dimmed and the halls filled with a slow and somber violin solo. Turning back to Miss Hooper, she looked at him in surprise.

Reg whipped around and walked backwards, mocking her by pretending to play the world's smallest violin. Her slender face filled with rage as she stormed back into the classroom. Laughing and righting himself, turned back around to head towards the elevator. As he reached the end of the hall where he would make his descent he pulled up a feed of the school's suborbital camera.

Every week he had to take a shuttle out of the atmosphere to take classes on the Glasgow Federation Space Station. Staying there Monday through Friday was as awful as it sounds. At least on the weekends he could explore worlds with his virtual reality.

Titan IV had the most beautiful jungles. Thankfully in virtual reality bugs and diseases aren't an issue. Since the Glasgow Federation began terraforming planets for habitation they learned to scan the environments with pinpoint precision. This drove a whole host of tourism-themed VR games that basically let you explore their world sans people for free.

Most people would travel there to see more of the culture, but Reg was more interested in the evolution of plant and animal life on terraformed planets. A species of deer that could camouflage itself based on it's surroundings evolved on Titan IV. They say Legacy Prime could evolve a neanderthal type species over the next millennia.

The elevator dinged and pulled Reg out of his reverie. Sixteen and he had already explored so much in life through the wonders of technology. Stepping into the elevator he signaled it towards the hangar bay. His friend Germain ran cargo to the space station every day and would gladly give him a ride back whenever. Beats waiting for the weekend shuttle.

Quiet soothing music played over the elevator speaker as Reg pondered his next move. It was still only ten o' clock standard time so he probably had a while before Germain even showed up with his daily delivery. His AR feed signaled a hint at possible suggestions in text out of the corner of his eye.

[\Suggestions/]

1) Contact Germain to find his delivery schedule, then decide next course of action

2) Wait for Germain at the hangar, consume various media

3) Order Pizza, Win at Life

That last one was programmed to always show up for a giggle. Although contacting Germain wouldn't be terribly difficult... thought Reg. If it weren't for the school then hearing our every word and sending security to detain me before I could leave. Maybe two and three are appropriate.

With the decision made, Reg continued his course towards the shuttle hangar. There he could ask where the delivery bay was so he could wait for a non-existent package from Germain's shipment. Maybe he can even get a time from someone so he can go check out the arcade. Credits weren't an issue when you knew how to just bypass the payment system altogether to play.

At least he didn't take tickets out for prizes if he did it that way. Reg was an honest hacker. The elevator dinged and doors opened to a dirty looking hallway. Grease marks littered the steel floors and walls. Two men in overalls stood talking over coffee at a gravity manipulation machine.

“Excuse me gentlemen, I'm looking for...” Grabbing a piece of paper out of his pocket, Reg pretended to read something from it. “Shuttle 8221, Germain Lasko... They didn't give me a time but the package is a condenser for robotics class and my teacher says I need it today. Can you help?”

An Independent Celebration

Standing with a vitamin water in one hand, playing with her curly brown hair in the other, Cheryl leaned on the cubicle wall. Sitting in the chair that occupied the cubicle, Laurie sat with a magazine in her hands as the two chatted for a quick break.

“Can you believe this? The new guy is skipping the work fourth party to uphold a camping tradition? Who the hell goes camping on the fourth of July?!”

Cheryl opened the bottle in her hand and took a drink. Laurie looked up at her, her golden blonde hair straightened and in a ponytail. Resting the magazine on her leg, she looked up and gave a strange look.

“Right?! How did he even manage to get out of it? Isn't the company picnic kind of a mandatory thing?”

Pointing at her with the bottle of water, Cheryl's face distorted to a level of annoyance that Laurie had never seen.

Seriously! I've got at least two other parties I could be going to, not even to mention how we have to plan our family get together around me having to work. Twenty other people all have it off and I'm stuck here because Tom thinks it's 'Good for work cohesion' or whatever.”

Laurie set the magazine down on the desk to pick up a nail file.

“Don't we normally make the newbies bring the potluck stuff? We're gonna be down a dish for all of us thanks to that. What an ass hole!”

As she filed her nail a door opened on the other side of the cubicle and a man poked his head out. With a grin on his face, he spoke in condescending tones.

“Well girls, he wrote on his resume this is something he does every year. And if you wonder why he gets it off and not you, is because he's far more qualified for his job and definitely delivers as such. What are you earning yourself by bitching about someone else's life?”

Both girls scowled at him. Cheryl rolled her eyes and walked away like she had better things to do. Laurie also rolled her eyes as she placed her nail file down and swiveled her chair back to her desktop computer.

“Yeah, that's what I thought. Oh, and Laurie, why don't you bring something for the potluck if you're so worried about us being short on food for everyone.”

Laurie cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Sir, I've been here so long I haven't brought anything for the potluck in three years.”

The man thought to himself a moment and gave another cocky smile.

“Well, then I suppose it's time you contributed more than whine.”

Giving an audible grunt in disgust, she scrunched her face in anger and began typing.

“And make sure it's home made. None of that store bought stuff. Everyone just brings store bought stuff nowadays. It's maddening!”

Laughing as he shut the door, Laurie scowled at him.

#####

Sitting on a camping chair, Marty ran his hands through his sun bleached short hair. Dirt smeared his light complexion and ran with sweat in the mid day sun. Laughing as he reached down for a cooler, he opened it up and popped open a cold beer. His campground was now set. Tent had been erected. Campfire pit was dug and a fire started. Food was hung from the tree. How much better could Independence Day get?

“Honey, do you remember where I put my book?”

A woman called from inside the two room tent. Fabric crinkled beneath her feet as she sifted through her bag. Marty took a sip of his beer and thought for a moment.

“It should be in your bag. Did you take it out for the road trip at all?”

A zipper whizzed open and a tall curvy blonde stepped out of the mesh. She gasped and crumpled her nose in annoyance.

“Damnit! I left it in the car didn't I? I really don't want to hike any more.”

Marty chuckled and placed his beer in the cup holder of his chair. Standing up, he approached her with a grin on his face.

“Oh come now dear. We can go get it later. Just be thankful you didn't leave your gunpowder there when you were preparing for an ambush on the red coats.”

Smiling lightly, she leaned in towards Marty.

“Yes, yes. I get it. Please spare me your patriotic rant. You already got me out here didn't you?”

Grabbing her in his arms, he looked up slyly at her. She was still a good two inches taller than him. It was strange when they started dating, but he had gotten used to it.

“Alright, I know you get the point. At least I'm not at that work picnic today. Every work picnic I've ever gone to is people half-assedly trying to get along with each other. Wasting a bunch of food and making far too much unnecessary noise. Trying far too hard to impress people who are only there to judge their every move.”

She rolled her eyes and squished him in her arms. He smiled as his face dove into her plentiful cleavage. She knew how to get him to shut up.

“I know I know, hon. We've been through this. Just because you don't celebrate it that way doesn't make them wrong for doing it that way.”

He tried to pull away to give a rebuttal. She didn't let him. Keeping his face dug into her chest, she grabbed the back of his head and pushed it in. Marty started laughing and grinning like a fool as he motor-boated her breasts.

“Just remember it's not about what they're doing. If you want to celebrate independence, then celebrate it by having your desires being independent of theirs. And there's one thing I know that even they would agree would be a good way to celebrate today.”

She let her hand off his head and held him lightly. His hair in the front was ruffled so bad it made him look like he'd just escaped the loony bin. Pulling his head up and laying it on the top of her chest, he smiled at her.

“What would that be?”

Giving him bedroom eyes, she looked slyly back at the tent.

“Getting super high and having hot tent sex with your girlfriend!”

His eyes grew wide and the smile on his face somehow grew even wider. She felt exactly what he thought of that idea the moment she said it. It was poking her in the thigh as it was. He stepped back and he bowed to her, waving her into the tent.

“Well I can't argue with that. After you m'lady!”

With a swing of her hips, she booped him on the nose with her finger and entered the tent. Taking a deep breath and admiring the trees around him, he smiled and nodded.

“God bless America.”

Taking his shirt off, he entered the tent and zipped it shut.

 

A Wake Up Call With A Snooze Button

Staring at the TV, Gary scratched his belly. Laying down across the couch was all he could do to keep from falling asleep. Life had gotten so dull lately. Everything was generally the same day to day. Work at the office was always boring. Being a pencil pusher made it difficult to get in the right mindset to spice up your life.

In other news, a local gas station is under investigation for a string of murders-”

Grabbing the remote, he turned off the TV. It clicked silent to leave his mind to wander. Here he was, thirty-two with a steady job, bills are paid, fun money is there. Yet something just doesn't feel right. How could he have all of this opportunity of the world at large in front of him with no desire to explore it. Where did all the drive go?

Is work really that soul sucking? Should we rally to automate everything so people never have to work again? More people would get behind that than you'd think. Although perhaps thinking was the problem. You can spend all day thinking about what you want to do but it never really gets you doing it. Sitting up on the couch, Gary straightened his shirt to cover his slight beer belly. His brown hair was mussed up like he'd just rubbed a balloon to create static.

It may as well have been static with the cloth the old couch was made of. Looking around the room, he realized there was something he hadn't done in a very long time. Pictures of him in hiking gear out at Boulder Hill Trail. It had taken him three hours to find his way back from the vantage point he finally decided on for the picture.

Standing up he walked over to the small bookshelf with pictures of his various escapades. Somewhere something went dull and made these things less interesting. Or did it? Does the rut of work life truly take the joy out of home life? It seems to be a likely explanation. You only have to spend all day entering numbers and printing documents once to realize it becomes a very dull and lifeless kind of job.

Inhaling through his nose, he smelled everything around him. It was a pretty neutral smell considering it was his own living room. Reaching for his phone on the floor by the couch made him realize what day it was. Saturday was really the only day he had to lounge like this. He checked the weather and his calendar. There was nothing going on, and sifting through texts from his friends reminded him they were all gone for the weekend.

Scratching his chin as he pondered what he could do. There was rain due in a few hours, but that left at least three or four hours of sun to enjoy. A list of local parks and some gas in the car was all he needed. Yet something felt... off. Like he wasn't supposed to be leaving the house for some reason. It wasn't every day one had an ominous feeling like this. Could it mean something? Nah. Gary wasn't one for superstition.

Running upstairs he changed into some loose khakis and a thin v-neck shirt. Patting down his pockets to make sure he had his wallet and keys was the last thing before leaving. Yet as he put his hand on the door knob, that ominous feeling grew stronger still.

Every fiber of his being told him this was a bad idea. Come to think of it, he hadn't even looked outside himself. Light shone through the window next to the front door as if it were a bright sunny day. Looking out, the clouds were light and fluffy. Nothing out of the ordinary. There must not be much of a reason for the feeling if everything checks out.

Turning the handle on the door made the feeling go away completely. Beholding what was on the other side however, made different feelings arise within Gary. Confusion mostly. A hint of fear, but mostly confusion. His neighbors were standing in front of their house talking like they were friends. The sky was more akin to the top of a warehouse with beams stretching across to hold flood lights illuminating the area. Large clumps of white fluff hung from the ceiling by small strings.

A large light blue tarp was rolled up on the back side of the warehouse. Looking to his right to inspect the window by his door, a thin television screen was attached to the other side to fit the window perfectly. Looking back into the house, he tried to look out the window again. It looked just like a real sunny day from the other side.

His mind raced with questions. Jim, his neighbor, spotted him from the yard next to him and walked over with a smile on his face and a beer in his hand.

“Hey Gary! Wanna join us for a couple beers?”

Gary looked at Jim with a sigh and a highly confused look on his face. Gary couldn't find the words he needed to express his disbelief. Luckily Jim picked up on it.

“Oh! That's right! You haven't been out of the house on a weekend in a while. So this happened about six months ago actually-”

Jim went on to explain that aliens had arrived at some point and royally messed up the atmosphere somehow. So in order to protect humanity from it's mistake, it built a housing for every major city and urban area that protected them from the radiation emanating from the alien's reactor core. They were here to help supposedly. Gary pointed at the clouds and the tarp, and began to speak but was promptly cut off.

“Oh that? That's just a little something we've been doing. Makes things feel more... normal during the week ya know? Created a lot of jobs at least.”

Gary cocked an eyebrow and began to rub his temple. How could he have missed something this major? He knew the rut cut him off from what's happening in the world but... He watches the news every day to make up for that. It's a shame that just usually turns in to nap time. If it wasn't, he might have seen this happen.

At that moment his phone buzzed with a text from his friends. It was a group picture of them with a strange blue humanoid figure wearing a backwards ball cap and holding a joint in it's pincer. All the text said was With love from Colorado.

Taking a deep breath, Gary looked around trying to find in his mind what to do next. Thoughts and questions swirled in his mind. Not just about how ridiculous life had apparently gotten in his mental absence. How could he have possibly gotten so absent-minded? How could he have missed all of this? Jim looked at him with concern and patted him on the shoulder.

“Hey, I get it. We all had our moments that made it difficult to accept. Aliens? Really? We'd seen so many movies about it and expected something more... grand. A war. Economic and philosophical prosperity. But honestly, what we got was basically some really smart drinking buddies.”

Gary couldn't help but laugh at that. Alien drinking buddies? I mean, sure. It was bound to happen at some point. But there must be more to this than meets the eye. The world had just gotten infinitely more interesting.

“Like, the other week they announced subterranean tunnels to travel from major cities. Give em another year or two they'll have atmospheric levels back to normal to where we can just start living on Earth like normal again.”

Jim's eyes were alight with wonder and passion. This man was wildly ecstatic that aliens were now a part of his life. Gary realized this may not be nearly as bad as he thought if all of it were true. It was easy to think that these promises can be kept by a species so advanced we couldn't possibly understand what kind of reach they have.

“You know, it's enough to make ya not care their reactor core radiation leaks sterilized 95% of the population. They can always make test tube babies, and once we find out who are the last fertile ones we can begin to rebuild from there.”

Gary thought on this for a moment. Every time Jim talks it adds another layer to this extreme new reality Gary had been thrown in to. No doubt there were countless other angles to this alien coexistence thing. Turning into his house, Gary waved goodbye to Jim and shut the door behind him. Lying back down on the couch, he continued to stare at the ceiling. He needed more time to think on this alone.

Edward and the Raven

Lilac. That's the smell that always brought Ed out to this nature trail. Dirt whispered beneath his feet as a soft breeze tickled the leaves of the oak trees. A small lilac bush grew wild amid the trail, surrounded by various other plants of all kinds. Trekking through the thinly beaten path of dirt and grass led him exactly where he wanted to go.

He trudged this path wearing a new pair of brown cargo pants, a thin t-shirt with the logo of his favorite beer "Shweitzer", and some basic sneakers. The week had been crazy working behind the bar. Being a bartender downtown meant an inordinate amount of people every night. It was a good living for sure. But hardly an ideal one for an introvert.

Wind blew and reminded him again of the smell of lilacs. This time it was accompanied by a smell he was entirely unfamiliar with. Musty. Earthy. Moldy. Mixing with the lilac creating a strange bitter-sweetness in his mind. Pulling out his phone, he checked the map he kept pulled up for long hikes.

This park had miles of trails. All of them were mapped, mind you. So even if he had no idea where he really was, he could check at any time. GPS was faltering, and couldn't pinpoint his location. No matter. It's not like he'd never been around this trail before. Rustling of a bush caught his attention, and he looked quickly to his right to see a deer prancing out of view.

Strange. He had never seen a trail branch off to the side. The tree line grew thick, and unfamiliar. Though he'd seen this trail before, this looked new. A small, incredibly worn down wood sign had a crude steel square on it, marked in sharpie with the words "Trail Closed". That's all Ed needed to see. Any time there's a trail closed sign he was sure to follow it down all the way to the end.

More often than not, it led to another trail that led to the main circuit. Sometimes it led to a dead end, and he simply followed it back. Not much to lose really. The grass grew taller and scattered between the gnarled oak branches. Something felt strange about them. Ed had never seen Oak trees grow with their branches entwined like that.

This trail must be something terribly special. The smell of tall grass and lilac faded, as a neutral smell of bark and mold permeated from the trail. Ahead of him the trail continued on a beaten path while oak branches gnarled even tighter and began to limit the light getting through.

It bent and curved for what felt like a good mile. Filled with the same plants, same trees. The only difference in scenery was the smell. Things started to smell cleaner. Fresher. More open. With a hint of musty mildew. Not long after noticing the smell, a cave appeared on the trail ahead. As he approached, the rustling of leaves startled him.

A raven flew out from the trees and landed on the path in front of him. It looked right at him. Stopping dead in his tracks, Ed felt a strange tinge of anxiety creep into his mind. Something didn't feel right. Yet it felt like if he didn't investigate, it would feel even worse. Cawing once, the raven picked at the ground. It picked up a small stone, round and neatly polished.

It looked back at Ed, and lifted it's wings to take off. Gracefully it flew up and back around into the cave behind it.

"Well then..." Ed muttered to himself.

It only felt proper to follow after it. Sure it was kinda scary, but that's part of the allure. What could be on the other side? Knowing this world, probably just a dead end. Or a bear. That's a possibility too. Feeling unsure of himself, Ed began to take that first shaky step. In the war against curiosity, Ed frequently lost.

The earth beneath his feet started to feel heavier. More real. It gave way like it was moist and fertile. Until he came to the cave. The smell of mold filled his nostrils, and he had to take his phone out to use as a light. Thankfully he had a flashlight app. Flashing it from wall to wall, it was difficult to really get a good picture of what the cave looked like.

He decided instead of trying to get a full picture, he'd just make sure he had firm footing ahead of him. Pointing the flashlight in front of him, he walked slowly but surely ahead. The steady hum of air moving through the stagnant cave made it difficult to concentrate. Still, he moved forward.

The sound of moving water made his heart jump. There was a river in this cave somehow. There weren't any rivers nearby. Hell, there weren't even any lakes nearby. He was really unsure of himself now, considering that was a sure fire sign that he'd stumbled on something no one else had before. Someone would have noticed a cave with an underground river in a heavy traffic state park by now, right?

He pushed forward, checking the battery on his phone. It was getting low, but it was enough to get him through and back. Hopefully. The sound of a rock skipping on the hard floor startled him. A caw echoed much louder than he'd care for, and the raven stood in front of him again. It bounced and cocked it's head, hopping towards him curiously. 

Ed stared at it quizzically. It made it's way to his feet and looked up at him. Cawing again, he reached for his ear with his free hand.

"That's a bit loud, don't you think?"

It let loose a quiet squawk, and pecked at his feet a moment. Hopping around back over to it's pebble, picking it up and taking off into the air again. Shining the flashlight on it, Ed watched to try and see where it went. It flew forward a few feet, then dove downward. A caw echoed again after a few seconds. As if to beckon Ed forward.

His heart began to beat quickly, and he walked carefully forward. A few feet ahead he came to the ledge of a steep decline. It looked dangerous to try and walk down, but he could slide down slowly without any harm. Kneeling down on the ground, he sat near where the decline started and began to slowly put his leg over to start the descent.

Another caw echoed through the cave, reminding him to push forward. Slowly he descended down the rocky hill, trying to not rip his pants. The smell of water overwhelmed his nose, leading him to believe that there was an underground pool nearby. Something strange hinted in the air too. The smell of lilacs, but different in a way.

It smelled like lilacs, but it must be another type of flower he'd never seen before. The decline started to get slippery, and he began to slide involuntarily down. His phone gripped tightly in his hand, he pointed it downward a bit more to see where he was going. Directly towards a cliff. The rush of water started to fill the cave, and slowly he realized he could be descending towards an underwater ravine.

That did not bode well. He tried to no avail to grip the rock face he now slid awkwardly down at a much more alarming rate. His heart beat intensely, and fear began to grip him. This could end very poorly. A caw echoed through the cave, and calm entered him again. It was like the raven was telling him everything will end well. 

He tried to dig his foot into the rock regardless. His sense started to overcome his curiosity. Unfortunately, as his sense beckoned him to turn back, he was now too far into his adventure. The rock face grew slippery from the moisture, and even his clothes started to dampen. At this point, he knew that he would continue downward whether he liked it or not.

Placing his phone back into his cargo pocket as quickly as he could, he hugged the rock face. He was only feet away from the cliff face now. It was right there. A caw came again, and he took a deep breath. Closing his eyes, he loosened his grip on the rock face and let himself slide.

Fear quickly overcame him as he slid quickly down and over the side. Vertigo kicked in as he tried to tell his body to straighten out for the water. Thankfully the fall wasn't that far. Although if it had, he probably wouldn't have slammed his leg on the water's surface. The current was strong, and pulled him along at an alarming rate. Rushing back to the surface, all he could hear was water rushing by.

A caw echoed through as strong as the water, and he was pulled under again by the current. For a moment, he wondered how his curiosity could have possibly gotten him into this much trouble. Then he realized he didn't have time to think about what happened. He had to think of what is happening now.

He fought as hard as he could to stay above water. It was difficult, and the current pulled him under one more time. Water pulled him along like a rag doll until finally he felt himself free of the water again. Free of water, and of solid ground beneath him. Light filled his eyes, and it took a moment for them to adjust. He felt like he was falling, and a caw came to his side again.

A heavy breeze blew past him, causing his wet clothes to give him chills. His eyes adjusted quickly. What he saw, he couldn't even begin to comprehend. A massive red crystal illuminated in the distance. Towering above the trees with massive stone structures floating around it. Looking down, he realized he was slowly falling through the air. Not like normal. Safely falling.

A raven flew by with it's wings outstretched and it circled around towards him again. There was no sound from it, only the pebble in its mouth. What had to have been hundreds of feet below him was a structure like he'd never seen before. It was a shrine built around the basin of a waterfall. The one he had just been thrown out of.

The raven circled around him, and he felt his body tug slightly forward. As it flew back in front of him, this time he followed. An exhilarating feeling overwhelmed him as he glided on the air towards the ground. It led him swiftly away from the waterfall towards the woods below. Trees colored with greens of all colors, and even some reds.

The raven flew towards the ground, and the trees creaked and moved to greet them. A small evenly grassed clearing below rushed up to him, as he floated slowly down towards it. Falling awkwardly on his side as it let him down, he looked up to see the raven hopping up to him on the ground. A giggle came from behind him, as it placed the pebble in front of him.

This cannot possibly be happening. Ravens cawed from all around him. Swarms of them were circling above. 

"Welcome Ed." The voice of a sultry woman was behind him. It was accompanied by the strange smell similar to lilac.

The Valhalla Protocol - Labyrinth of Daetheria

A crystal explosion had broken the silence within the massive mossy stone halls of the ruins of Daetheria. It was the home of a notorious Minotaur that resided below his home of the Valhalla Rise. Jericho had grown up there, unknowing of the vast world that lay beyond the endless seas that raged hundreds of feet below the edge of the Rise's bluffs. There was only one way in, or out. A tunnel that had been sealed ages ago to protect us from the world's dangers.

A cough came out of nowhere, as he felt his lungs were filling with blood. He never thought he would even be beyond that tunnel, let alone running for his life from a Minotaur. Feeling his side for the shard, he concentrated on the point that felt worst, and imagined it healing all the way through. A green light emanated from his well worn leather gloves. He wasn't much of a fighter, but he knew a trick or two to stay alive. Tremors pounded like thunder and assaulted the very ruins with the Minotaur's rage.

“Your people's gall never ceases to amaze me. First, you tell me that you require aid. Then, you tell me you are of Valhallan descent. I've had interactions with humans many times in my day young one, but my axe has had many, many more!”

Looking back, Jericho picked up the pace as his wound healed. The beast was five times his size, and he wasn't exactly scrawny. The roar of a massive stone axe dragging through the labyrinth made his ears begin to lose the ability to hear anything but. It was grinding away at his very core. Nervously, he tried his best to come up with something to diffuse the situation.

“I'm terribly sorry if I disturbed you! I assure you I meant no harm! If you are unwilling to render aid, I will gladly leave!”

The noise of the beast's laughter nearly knocked him over. A tribal cloth was all that covered the furred beast. His horns had rings pierced through them, many with skulls attached. A necklace adorned with what must have been dragon teeth and a large uncut ruby left Jericho wondering if it was functional. Hoof after hoof battered the stone beneath, growing ever closer to it's prey. Looking around, All he could see were lines of separate tunnels in front of him.

He had a feeling the beast wouldn't allow him to make it that far. All he had left were his wits, and he wasn't sure what good those would do. Still, something must be done. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small vial of glittering white dust. Popping the lid off, he poured the entirety of it into his hands and let it fall loose. Readying his legs, he grasped the hand full of dust and turned to face the Minotaur.

Throwing it as hard as he could, each grain exploded into a blinding burst of light. The beast began to run forward and covered his eyes, believing it to be a simple illusion. Unfortunately for him, Jericho had picked up a trick or two during his experimenting with magic.

The dust covered the Minotaur and as it made contact, each little grain exploded with a burst of air and threw him forcefully onto his back. Jericho wondered how long that would keep him down.

Four Oh... Four - This Means Something...

"All I have to do now is connect the motor and..." Reaching down to my freshly built quad-copter UAV, I connected a wire directly to the motor. It bypasses the usual safeties on small motors like this, so I could overclock it for a bit more speed from the rotors. That means steadier and quicker height control. Whirring came from the motor, and the small plastic blades all started to spin in sync with each other. 

It's a piece of art, really. It looks like a regular quad-UAV, but it had one slight difference. Not only did it have a fully rotational camera on both the top and bottom, but it also had a high quality miniature microphone that could filter out the reverberation coming from the blades for a pretty solid clear sound. Speakers around the bottom of the chassis let me broadcast any sounds I wanted from my phone. Like my voice, or a silly sound, or a bird call to lure out certain species of birds.

The sink is still running in the kitchen. My small apartment living room wasn't really the place to be building my masterpiece, but I didn't have much to work with. Most of my money went into the three-dimensional printer I bought to build it. That was a lot of my grant money for the lab though... Ah still! If this thing works the way I made it to, I'll be waving the patent in their faces and getting a partnership! 

Think of the uses! Probably the best part for me is seeing exactly how the AI reacts to change in stimulus, and how it will learn to scan it's surroundings more efficiently. Oh the glory of robotics! "Peter! Did you leave the sink on in the other room again?" Libby is my late wife's sister. Ah, little background might help I guess... I got married about four years ago to a very lovely woman by the name of Abigail Kingsly. Our two year anniversary was a very special one for both of us, in that I got a phone call, and she got in a terrible car accident.

Save the sob story though, I've heard it enough. Yes, real tragic, awful stuff. But life happens. I loved her, and still very much do, and that's all there is to it. Now I have Libby, her sister, though not in a romantic sense. I just live with her, since they were twins and Abby and I got along so well, naturally Libby and I did too. Only difference really, is that Abby had no issues dating a small person.

Yeah, I'm four foot five inches tall. It's not so bad really, I just have to find other tools to live life with. Hence, my invention here is an exploration drone. Long story short, I live with Libby now because it's hard to take care of some household stuff living alone. Anyway, I used to have a wife, I live with her sister now. Now that that's taken care of, let's get this faucet turned off.

Hopping with joy into the other room, I turned the faucet off. "Do you hear that Libby?" A moment of silence passed, and you could hear the motor and the blades from the drone. "Did you finally finish it?" She walked into the living room, a fit, solid girl in her mid thirties, much like me. Except she was average sized, and looked like she could literally throw me across the room. Strong girl would be an understatement. I hopped back into the living room with a grin right between my black goatee. 

"You're damn right I finished it! Now he just needs a name, and a test run. I think I know what I want to call him." Libby was all smiles on that pretty face of hers. Her blonde hair was tied in a bun behind her head, and she was wearing some comfortable lounge clothes. She wore some pretty intimate stuff sometimes. Told me that since she was twins with Abby, and I'd seen Abby naked plenty of times, it's not like she has anything to hide.

It's true, I guess. I'm still a man though, and that can be kind of problematic. "What's on your mind?" She leaned against the hallway wall, and watched it hover in the air for a moment. "Ed. For Exploration Drone. Pretty simple, but still a name. I think he's booting up his subroutines. I started the bootup process before I finished the rotors since I know it takes a good long time." I excitedly watched as it floated in the air, and Libby cocked her head to the side. "Ed huh? Not bad. Simple. I guess I can appreciate that."

Bootup Sequence Alpha is complete. Status: Charlie. 

Libby looked weirded out by the fact that it played it's status message in my voice. "What? Who else was supposed to record his status messages?" She nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I guess. That's pretty cool there Pete. What's it for again?" Checking my phone, I pulled up the status UI on the app that linked directly to Ed. It streamed it's camera and microphone data directly to my phone, which then bounced that data to a cloud on my desktop at home, and also a backup on my computer at work.

"It's an exploration drone! It's basically so I can just explore cities and parks and stuff and see what I wouldn't normally be able to see." It's easy to see why I'm excited about this right? Is that not something most people want? "So you're gonna use this thing in the city? What are you looking for? People hookin' up with the blinds open? That's a helluva lot of nerding out for a voyeur website startup." I couldn't help but laugh really hard at that. I know that's not what I'm using it for. In fact, I had never even thought that it could be used for something like that.

I guess it could. "No, I built it so I could see your 'hot yoga' sessions out in the city with that guy Terry you keep telling me does such a great class. I've been meaning to get down there but it's just such a hassle, so I built a robot that could be there in my stead while I stream it here and take the class in the privacy of my own home. Genius, no?" That one caught her off guard. We have this thing, where we try to say the least sensible answer we can think of. We've gotten good at it.

"I gotta admit, you had me going with the quoted 'hot yoga' sessions. Thought you were insinuating something else. Which hey, you're a smart guy. Maybe one day you'll learn what some of this subtle talk about hooking up is all about. That is, if your nerdiness doesn't keep you from developing anxiety over the subject." Ouch. That one dug deep. "You're mean. That was a low blow and you know it. Are we really gonna play this dirty?" 

"Like pigs rolling in the mud." Oh, she's feeling feisty today. "Ah, no wonder you're so good at it. You've been doing that for a while now I suppose. I'm still new to this, so thanks for holding my hand with it." That one hit pretty good. "No problem. I'm used to holding your hand too, by the way." She turned around with a smirk on her face, and slapped her toned butt with her hand. "Oh wow. That is a new low." She just laughed, and I realized I set myself up again so bad she didn't even have to say it.

Oh god. At least I have Ed. Wait, where did Ed go? I hear the whirring, but he's not here anymore. Did I miss him go off on his first exploration? He's in the kitchen probably! Rushing into the kitchen, I found Ed hovering above the sink. The camera was scanning the counter, but it kept getting stuck on the faucet. What's wrong buddy? Pulling out my phone, I could tell that the faucet position was causing it to glitch and have to re-scan the entire counter again for a proper picture.

Except it was in an infinite loop because it kept hitting the faucet snag each time. Moving the faucet head so it centered between the sinks, Ed finally got to finish his scan. He started to move back out towards the living room, but instead I made him land on the kitchen counter and shut down. I had to review the programming for the faucet handle and figure out what caused the glitch before I moved on, considering if he wanted to really explore he couldn't have snags like that.

He's still in development stage, and there's lots of kinks to work out, but once I get him fully calibrated he'll be able to show me some pretty awesome corners of the world. So let's see here... First I'll review the footage, see where it glitched, and go from there. 

In Between Moments - The Strangeness of Quiet

It's strange. This quiet calm. It's like a momentary reprieve from what our lives have become. Explosions. Gun fire. Men shouting out orders. I live in a war zone. Why are people fighting here? I honestly can't tell you. I don't fight for either side, I just live here. My home land has become ragged and worn down, if not destroyed in many places. Asphalt lay littered in the streets, along with the garbage both sides bring. Explosions from either side have torn holes in our favorite restaurants. Have made us find another grocery store to provide food for our families. And even made our families find other ways to educate and keep our kids safe during the day. 

Despite the destruction, there is peace yet to be found here. In moments like this. Where regardless of the reasons, both sides cease to destroy. Here I sit, in my bullet ridden car, trying to get into town to pick up groceries on the safer side of town. Everyone is quiet. No one says a word. Why? Because it's not often we get quiet like this. The serene stillness of the air. Hearing with wind blow, without the smell of gunpowder. It's strange, but it's moments like these that keep us going. The hope that our lives may once again return to the normal quiet. Watching the trees slowly sway in the breeze, and actually hearing the clatter of leaves.

Hearing a stranger on the side walk crinkle a bag as they walk home from the store. A couple enjoying small talk on their door steps, while the rest of us just enjoy the peace. We all know it will continue again, and perhaps that's for the best. Perhaps there is a reason there is fighting here, perhaps there isn't. Regardless of the reasons, this is what we have for the moment. Peace and quiet. And perhaps all that fighting, all that destruction and loss, is exactly the reason we appreciate that peace and quiet. I know our struggles are more directly life threatening than most. But the concept is the same.

We do not appreciate the peace and quiet without the chaos and the noise. So while the breeze still blows, and the quiet still remains, I will enjoy it. Because I know once the fighting begins again, we will not have the time to look back on this moment until we have another like it again. Thank you moment. While you may be a small shred of peace in between all the chaos, I will appreciate you regardless.