Serial Ablation

Robert "Admiral" Coeyman

Dedication: To God who made me, the Lord who saved me and the one alone whom I have loved. Thanks to the multitude which sustained me when I could not have gone on alone.

My eyes came open in a dark place. The light at the end of the passage was brighter than my eyes were accustomed to, yet the brightness did not bother me. I was bothered only by my separation from 8. Why had she gone on without me? Had I failed to make the grade and been cursed to an eternity of isolation where Godís face would not shine?

Sitting up, I began to feel things around me. I had been placed on a hard wooden bench. Stretching the sleep from my tired body, I was not surprised to see both arms restored to full utility. Seeing things was the last thought on my mind. My arms closed on the thin air hoping that soon they would again clasp shut behind 8's back.

A momentís absence was as an eternity in my mind. If the depths of 8's eyes did not give me warmth and comfort in their gaze, then neither of these things was to be mine. I knew that she had to be missing me as much as I needed her. Logic told me to stay in my place where 8 would know to find me. My mind shook with a symphony of doubts so loud that it was hard for me to think any thought.

In the eons of time that I spent waiting for my belovedís embrace, my eyes began to clear to things that I did not want to see. The scenes were familiar to a part of me and frightening to the rest. Uniformed men were patrolling the end of the passage. Ordinary people scampered about in the light speaking a language that I remembered speaking but not understanding. My surroundings resolved to an ordinary hallway.

Tears washed the last of the sleep from my eyes. I had been abandoned, utterly alone, in the same alien place where I had lived my previous life. As people walked by to public rooms at the end of the hall, I cradled my head in my hands. They spoke to me and I could not reply. Nothing they said had meaning to me. Even the tones of their words seemed like the remnants of forgotten dreams to me. It took me time to recognize their speech as such.

I walked to the end of the hall, out into the light that I had once seen as salvation. The light was bright although not as bright as it had once seemed to me. Within the light was a memory. It was a place that I had been to in the only life that I could accept as real.

5, my old friend and mentor within the team, brushed by me when he took up his position on the other side of the main entrance. We had no need of speech. I knew my place at 5's side and went to it immediately. Both 6 and 8 depended on our doing the job assigned to us. Failure meant death for the civilians as well as the people we cared most about.

My eyes caught a glance of 1 moving into position at the end of the hallway and then slipped to the slender form of 14 slipping into the crowd. Soon, 8 would come into sight. I knew that she would be there amongst the ignorant masses. It was an uneasy run and focus was foremost on my mind. All the energy that I had went into keeping my mind clear of everything but the run.

Even breathing was a distraction that I tried to avoid. The crowd was big enough to endanger us if we spooked it. Null didnít like the run, so none of us was happy. It was not our place to have feelings about the job at hand. Our place was keeping the civilians safe.

Every controlled breath caused time to elongate. Each second was longer than the one before it. I could not afford to break my focus to ask why Null had not called first point. Question was not in my job. Honor is what shadows are.

My call to action did not come. I waited as patiently and obediently as I had it in me to be. Outside of the run, I had nothing. As long as I was a shadow, I was 8's husband. Being a shadow meant being alive to me.

Then a form came to me and everything collapsed. Joe L., a man who has given me no permission to include his last name, found me. He came along side of me and spoke words that I could not understand. I knew that he had been looking for me since my life as a shadow had begun. We had gone to the mall together that fateful day.

5 had died on the run all those years ago and it was no fault but my own. I had to live with that. 8's death was still unreal in my mind and I did not want to deal with that. My life as 9 was over. Tyraques A.S.I.C. U-9 Epsilon was as dead as all that he had loved.

The next curse that Null had placed on my head was that I would have to face again all the people whom I had chosen to leave behind all those years ago. 8 had sacrificed herself in choosing me and I will never think of my choice to go with her as a mistake. I may never understand my own reasons, yet I will not question that one choice. Balancing the equation meant facing up to my choice with the people I had chosen to leave behind.

Joe L. had found me just before the mall reached closing time. Maybe that is what Special Command had in mind. God was with me in that Joe L. had driven us both to the mall on that day. I was in no shape to drive.

Darkness was an additional blessing. It was a fragment of home that I could keep with me. Looking to my rebuilt arm, I noticed that I had been left another gift. My ring was just where 8 had placed it on my finger. Darkness was a blessing because nobody could see me cry.

I am sure that Joe L. noticed my silence. It would not have been logical for him to presume that I had forgotten how to speak English in the length of one trip to the mall. Maybe he even saw me crying in the shadows. He had never been married so he did not know the loss I had inside of me.

Joe walked the path of a saint. He cared a bit about everybody and I never saw him in love. His chats, when we had met online, spoke of one or two girls who had once owned his eye. None of them had been privy to the secret. It was not his way to form relationships so he held his tongue indefinitely.

Truthfully, I almost envied him. I could not envy him without branding the time that 8 and I had spent together as a mistake so I did not go that far. She had gone outside of protocol only once, when she chose me, and I feel confident in stating that I was all that she had ever wanted. Joe would never know the things I had learned in 8's arms. He would never know the joy that our child had given us in the short time that we were allowed with him. It was not worth giving those treasures up to escape the pain of the loss.

So much time had passed that I did not recognize my home on Earth when I arrived. It could have been any house on any street that we traversed. I had grown accustomed to not worrying about anything but the runs. My confidence in Joe L. was that of a child.

Somehow, I managed. Joe got me close to the walkway to the front door and I accepted that it led to where I was to be. There were no questions or doubts in my mind. My friend said goodbye in earthly words which were just so many sounds to me at that point. I mumbled a reply in similar tones. Aruri would have sounded odd enough to draw attention to me. At the time, it was all that I knew how to speak.

The thought did cross my mind that I was now an alien invader on this planet. I was a monster that these people could fear enough to exterminate. It would have been easy enough for me to arrange my own death. If not for my desire to rest only where my 8 found peace, I probably would have done so.

Instead, I opened the unlocked door and walked inside. I closed the door behind me, however, I did not lock it. Shadows are not allowed privacy. My father was quick to remind me of my oversight and I do not know how I got the point. Maybe English wasnít as foreign to me as I wanted it to be.

Night had been my work time. There are fewer interruptions when the dwellers of the outer world slumbered. It was a time that I could find peace. I longed to be alone with 8 again. Maybe Null would return to send me back to her.

My parents said their goodnights about ninety minutes later. Ninety minutes seems like a good time to say, even though I could not read a clock. I simply repeated their own words back to them and got away with it. Either I got it right that time or nobody thought ill enough to question me.

It took time for me to locate my own part of the house. Down the stairs, I had a large amount of space in the basement. There was a network of three computers sitting under a long table at one end of the room. At the other end of the room was an unmade bed. I didnít use a chair so the keyboards and monitor were all mounted high enough for me to use while standing.

Before 8, these toys had been my greatest prize. I had studied their workings from childhood and built my own systems. My skills were adequate to earn a living online. Online was where my former self had lived. Reading had been my only escape and was all that I ever wanted. It was like visiting a museum of another manís life. His feelings were numb in my head.

Picking up a book from the floor, I realized that I could still read some words. I suppose that it would have been different if I had been able to read Aruri. Aruri seemed to be a language made to be written by machines and I never saw anybody writing in it. In fact, I had seen characters in Aruri, without ever seeing a single word of the language.

Turning back to my once favorite toys, I activated a word processing program that I had. Then, I sat down to type out my story in the hope that I could re-learn English in one night. The spell checker beeped like the Bible in Morse code. Words did appear on the screen and I could still read some of them. Having never really learned how to type, I could not say that I had lost that skill.

The beeps came further and further apart as the time passed. Full sentences, then paragraphs, poured from my head onto the screen by way of my nimble fingers. My time as a shadow gave me very nimble reflexes. I saved the file to my disk before trying to get to bed. At the time, the file was for me alone.

Between my covers, I said a prayer on my own for the first time in as long as my memory would go. I knew that 8 would not be there with me and I tried hard not to look to her place in our bed. My mind replayed gentle touches from memory. Any movement I made evoked a memorized response from my history with 8. She was still there in my mind, where I wanted her to stay. Without her, there would be no life for me.

It was the loneliest night of my life. I sat in the moonlight, shivering alone between my own empty arms. Language, my link with the people around me, was a chasm that I could no longer cross. The light from the window in the top of the far wall seemed to form a bridge from where I had known life to the place where I had been dumped for the loss of 8. Such a prize was 8 that I had been cursed for living on without her. My blankets formed a hollow counterfeit for my cold arms to embrace. Yet, it was not enough for me.

If I held my breath silent, I could hear echoes of 8's heartbeat at my side. She seemed to draw long, restful drinks of air while I held silent. While I lay still, she seemed to be there for me. We wanted to be together no matter the cost. Then I gasped out the breath that I could no longer contain and the illusion shattered like light passing through a crystal. Why could I not go without hateful breath that cost me so much to give me so little?

By morning, it seemed that I would catch my death of cold and I welcomed it. I almost dared it to claim me. Nothing retained its meaning when I had lost all that I held so dear. My room held the memories and loves of a lifetime, yet it was another lifetime, thus devoid of meaning to me.

The sun came up the next morning. It surprises me how frightful those few words, that simple, commonplace concept, can be. How precious are the things I would not have given to truthfully state that this had not been the case. Darkness was the only home that 8 and I had shared. Light seemed to blind my memory.

The only advantage that I can see to being a recluse is that nobody expects you to have many social skills. Few people realize that you can barely speak English after getting back from an alien world that had been home to you. You are already an alien to the people closest to you. Even if you wish that they would rise up against you with pitch forks and torches, sending you to your doom, they notice nothing. I think I resented that.

It was three days before I again saw Joe L. He wanted some changes to the website that I had coded for him and they were simple enough for me to do in my mental state. I know that it upsets him when I refer to him as Joe L., but that is an old habit with me. His biggest complaint was that I referred to him as Joe L. on the front page. By then I could work the simplest of my old tools.

Then I showed him the file that I had been typing. It was fictional as far as he knew and I did nothing to shatter the illusion. However, he did notice that nothing I had written on my first night back on Earth made any sense. I had forgotten to re-read the file in the two additional days I had put into typing out the tale.

Joe had never told me that he tutored English at his church. He had just been the contact who had ordered the page and given me the file of information to restate in html. If I had known that English was so important to him, then I would not have shown him the file at all. Yet, if I had not shown him the file, you would never have been given the opportunity to read my story. My friend had seen promise in my weak typing.

Maybe Null and Special Command had positioned Joe to be there for me. Without help, English would take a long time for me to relearn. Somebody would notice my alien nature before I was ready to again call Earth home. My old masters could not afford to be exposed by me.

In an italic font, I added the paragraph which defined the opening of my tale. There I apologized for having forgotten so much of earthly life in my stay with the other shadows. It wasnít meant to be an opening to my tale. My honest intent in typing those lines had been to excuse my own frailty. Taken in the context of fiction, the lines take on a completely new gloss and Joe insisted that I release the text with that paragraph included.

Although he insisted that I keep what I had added, he also demanded that I lose the gibberish that came before it. He congratulated me on the concept and how alien the characters seemed to be. That was the first time that I actually questioned my own actions. In response, all that I can say for myself is that the Seven Grand Masters who rule the Aruri must have used their skills to read the writing in my heart. 8 was all that I knew how to love.

My story came together in short bursts of inspiration. I could talk at three words per minute and type at fifteen. When I spoke, I spoke alone. However, when I wrote, 8 was alive and with me. Each word on the screen was another breath tacked on to her life. Any memory I poured out through my fingers was a moment that 8 was not dead to me. As I could not live on forward, I relived the moments in which I had known life.

People began to miss me. Even the few moments that I had once spent with the people around me had slipped away. Part of me had refused to live on without 8 and I found myself giving in to it. I was a pitiful wreck where I had once been a man.

There were times that I had to wander past the world where 8 and I could still share time. In those times I was still the boy whom 8 had taken away to her world. Not all of the words I said made sense, yet I did speak to people. There were times that I walked to the end of my block.

By the end of a week, I could no longer hold back and stay out of the world around me. There were things that I had to get and it was my duty to get them. Honor is what shadows are.

My car was a glass oven in ways that I had never before noticed. The seat warmed me with a single touch. I allowed its energy to pass through me. It seemed that I needed the heat in order to maintain my focus. Every so many minutes, the heat became too much to handle.

It had been the providence of my new living in my old life that I left earlier in the day than I would have driven in my earlier incarnation. I tried to live enough in my memory to not feel the strangeness of my position. My previous life had experience behind the steering wheel. His mind was still more of a ghost than 8.

Lane positions were hard to maintain with all the gages I had to watch. Making a turn, I looked both ways down a one way street to avoid oncoming traffic. I couldnít recall which way to check when crossing traffic lanes, so I checked both ways. And I didnít like the use of the brake.

I tried to drift to a stop at every street corner, drawing the ire of my fellow motorists. Speed did not bother me. A shadow can sprint in excess of mach two. The speed of my reflexes was a temptation I fought hard to resist. Overcompensating, my movements impeded the flow of traffic.

Watching for cars at one street corner, I drifted most of the way around a turn. Another car moved to cross my path and I was in a quandary. I chose to complete my turn, getting out of the other guyís way. My reflexes were so used to moving at high speed for short bursts of time that I didnít know how to handle sustained motion at low speed.

More than habit took me to the mall where I had left the Earth a decade earlier in my life. It was connected to the life that I was compelled to return to. A mall is not the place I would have chosen to pick up the simple household items that I had been sent for. My election actually seemed stupid to me while I pulled into the parking lot.

My tail followed me in. Shadows know when weíre being followed. It is more than just the fact that somebody is always watching us. Our jobs, and our lives, depend on knowing the world around us. People die when we close our eyes.

Even my delusional state--paining for the loss of my love--did not cloud my trained perception. It would have noticed my assailant even if I had not. Awareness gave me a choice in the matter and I acted as a shadow acts. I pretended not to notice anything.

As I had hoped, he was armed. He was also not aware that I could see his reflection in the window of the car in front of me. In any event, he had to make the first move. It would have been dishonorable for me to attack him. Honor is what shadows are.

The run was unworthy of a shadow. Just one jack and he had a handgun that he didnít really know how to use. Itís easy to assume that you just point and pull the trigger. I had never handled a firearm, however, I knew that the rules of tactical engagement still applied. He was an amateur.

When he made his move, he pulled the weapon from his coat and held it sideways. Maybe he thought that it would reduce my ability to see it. He also failed to understand that small firearms are medium short range weapons and he was too close to me when he drew down on me. I believe that he wanted to face me.

While he was placing his free hand on my left shoulder, I heard the phrase Ďfirst pointí in my mind. The term Ďpointí was in English and it startled me for a moment. A momentís delay allowed him to pull back three steps before I turned to face him. One yard would make no difference to me. This was my job and I was good at it.

My skills were there. I was toying with him when I chose two blows to finish him. With one quick thrust, I had him on his back before he knew what had hit him. Then I looked toward his eyes to land my finishing blow. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses.

The sun was bright and the sky was clear that day. Birds sung in the trees left standing around the urban island that was the mall. Clouds stretched out in the blue sky overhead. Children giggled, playing in the distance. Then I shed a tear in memory of the fact that I was no longer a shadow.

8 was still dead. Null was not keeping the times for the records in Special Command and I was never going home again. My time as a shadow, although I doubt that I shall ever see a time in which I am anything but a shadow, had come to an end. I had been abandoned to carry on alone. There was no going home again.

Startled as he was, my assailant forgot any though of attacking me. He used the time I spent scanning the world around me to his own defense and ran away. I do not even remember standing up, getting off of him. It stands to reason that I had done my job as a shadow and saved civilian lives by my actions. This man would not strike again.

Winds of thought carried me all around the parking lot. This was the life that I had preserved for others while I had been a shadow. These are the simple things that a shadow is denied while he secures them for others. Without these people, living their lives in ignorance of what we had to do for them, the battle would have been all vanity. Honor is what shadows are.

Should I not have felt that there was a world outside of the hangar where we were housed, Iíd have been unable to do the job assigned to 8 and I. What these people did to preserve the things that I lost 8 protecting was another part of the fight. The fight ends when the objective is lost. We lose the war if everybody was on the front lines and nobody remained to preserve our way of life. Maybe there is honor in that as well.

Time has no meaning to shadows, yet I know that it passed while I contemplated my new place in creation. I got back into my car and went to a more reasonable store to complete my task. My driving may not have been better, but it was more deliberate. Some battles are won in the ring and others are lost just by entering it. One battle that I could not win was enough for a day, if not a lifetime.

Daylight was still uncomfortable to me. My eyes hurt when I stepped from the sunny daylight to the artificial indoor light at my destination. It had to be the light because I could not have been crying like that. I do not remember crying enough to hurt my eyes like that.

Shopping came back to me as though it had never been away. Reasonably, I may just have blinded myself to the feeling of being lost in the alien world that I had once called home. It was a drone action more than anything. I had to get the items on the list without deviation. My ability to read had improved enough to find what I was after.

Then I found a skill that I had not recognized the loss of. I could not handle the change at the cash register. As a shadow, I knew the cost of panic and held my cool. It was natural for me to trust the people around me without question or hesitation. That made it easy for me to accept whatever the cashier came up with.

There is an advantage that shadows have when shopping. We do not lose our transport. Special Command doesnít want us to get lost. All that I had to do was match my original reasoning and my training would always come to the same conclusion. I chose to park where the car I drove would not stick out.

My trip had been longer than any run and I still felt uncomfortable about that. I was out of my safe environment. Without 8, I felt it more acutely than at any point in the past. The feeling kept shadows from wanting to run from our masters. It just got in the way now that they had scrapped me.

The drive home was unsteady. My eyes didnít always see the cars at intersections so I drove slowly. Other motorists seemed to be in a great hurry and not pleased with my caution. Shadows usually travel as cargo.

I made it home without a tail. My nerves were on edge from my conditioning as much as from the feeling that I had displeased the people around me. There was nobody left to tell me that I had done a good job at anything. All that I heard was the complaints.

Before I actually went in, I focused on the task at hand. My mind was splintering with the confusion around me. It was disrespectful to my comrades in arms that I failed to handle the world around me. They put their lives on the line, risking all that has meaning to them, in order to provide this world to the civilians. Honor is what shadows are.

I knew that I needed to belong to something larger than myself as I had in my time as a shadow. It was my duty to serve a higher purpose than myself. If Special Command would not spend mercy to end my suffering, then maybe God would have me. Faith was all the reality that I had left.

Joe L., who keeps telling me to refer to him just as Joe, had invited me to the church. My mind was vulnerable to domination and I had to be sure that I served a good master. Shadows live a life of service and God is the only friend that I had left from my time with the team. I was hopeful that my destiny would lead me while my mind was lost.

My story still flowed from my mind onto the page when I was bothered, yet it would not last forever. The words had to be preserved on the screen before they were lost in my mind. Each instant was a memory threatening to leave me behind--alone in the alien reality surrounding me. I spent the rest of my day living in the shadowy world of recorded moments that I longed to return to.

The airless, antiseptic environment of my online life took me back in. I longed for a discipline that would take the confusion from my hands. All the world was represented at my fingertips. In all the world, there were no answers for me. That shadow world contained only anarchists seeking to see perfection by embracing blindness.

That was not enough for me. I required meaning as much as I demanded it. The thought that my sacrifices may not have been worth it almost entered my mind. Just the knifeís edge of those ideas hurt more than the blast that had claimed my beloved 8. Honor is what shadows are.

My mind may have been in better shape than it had ever been in, yet my spirit was broken. I reread the pages of my story just to grasp the memory of where I had once been and I found the reality of those events slowly slipping away. It was all a long dream. Every fiber of my being seized with the thought that I as losing the record of the only time that I had ever been alive. Nothing else mattered to me.

On the next day, I drove by Joeís church. Shadows do not realize just how spiritual we are until that light is cut off from us. I saw Joeís car in the parking lot and decided to pull in beside him. If the lot had been full, I never would have attempted that. My turns were still not what they should have been.

I sat in the car a few moments, thinking about my next step. My feet were firmly planted on a path that no shadow had ever walked. Nobody was going to lift the burden from my shoulders with a command to move in or fall out. As strange as it seems, I said a prayer before moving toward the main doors.

While I held my breath, I opened the main chapel door. Inside, it was welcomingly dark. That seemed odd to me since the doors were such large panes of glass. Maybe my perception was a divine word of welcome spoken only to me. There had to be somewhere that I belonged.

A voice from beside me welcomed me to the fold.

I replied without thinking. "Thank you, very kindly"

"All are welcome in the House of God."

The greeter was a man whom I did not know. I felt his warm presence, but fixed my eyes only on the simple altar. It was not an ornate church. That alone made me feel welcome. All the sanctity of the place was in its spirit and not in its decoration.

"That means a lot to me, brother."

Within the vast room, I felt at peace for the first time in a long time. There is a feeling deep within Christians that makes them different from anybody else on the planet. That is not to say that all people who professed being Christian had the feeling. It was like being a shadow in that respect. You must be true in your conviction to make the grade.

Something moved in the shadows off to my right side. I did not look up to see what it was, however, it felt like 8. There were nearly a dozen people in the room and only that single figure had that feeling to it. It felt like something that I should follow.

We left the chapel through a side door leading into the interior of the building. I followed the shadowy form in the way that I had followed 8 through a thousand and more runs. She moved with poetic grace through the public halls of the building with clumsy me in tow. It is a feeling that I would not have traded for all the worlds. Honor is what shadows are.

Our journey ended in some kind of a gymnasium. The large room was lit more brightly than the rest of the building, like the hangar where our transport landed. I relaxed without my own volition. It felt like the place where my team had trained for the runs.

There I lost sight of the shadow who had been leading me. Maybe 8's ghost had taken me to a place that she knew would be like home to me. I had been with 8 when 8 was alive and my loyalty was unshaken. 8 would have taken me home if she had another chance. She had taken me home when she had that chance.

Joe was playing basketball on one of the far courts. I know too little of the game to say if he was doing well or not. Standing in the darkest corner of the room, I absorbed the atmosphere. Part of me wanted to play with the others. My friend would not refuse me that privilege, although I would have been the worst player on the court.

It was enough for me, just at that time, to stay in the shadows where I had known life. I seemed to have found a place where I could again belong. Letting go of all the alien feelings that had built up in the days since I had been dumped back on Earth, I relaxed. Although I chose to stay out of sight, I felt that these people had already accepted me.

I stayed out of the way as much as I could. It was in my nature to hit targets and I always knew where the balls were going to land when they came close to me. Sprinting past mach 2 would definitely have impressed my compatriots in the room. Of course, I cannot breathe at that speed, which is why we only sprint that fast. The air pressure would be too great for my lungs.

Every so many moments, I had to gain control over my reflexes. I did not know that game well enough to play. Getting to the ball before it hit the ground was not enough. For all of my abilities as a shadow, I would have let my team down on that court. It would have been unacceptable for me to jump in since honor is what shadows are.

Somebody on the court did see me. Many people probably saw me there. Being a shadow is about nobody ever knowing that you existed. But amongst our own, shadows can relax and allow ourselves to be seen. There I could allow myself to be seen and known.

One of the players approached me. "Hi. My name is Ryan."

A few moments passed, seeming longer to me than it actually was, while I tried to recall my name. "I am Bob."

"I donít think Iíve seen you before. You new to the area?"

The truth was that I felt like this was the only part of the Earth to which I was not new. However, I could not tell him that. "I was contracted to do the webpage by Joe L., over on the far court."

"Thatís cool." He turned his eyes back to the court, standing against the wall beside me.

"Iím sort of seeking my place in the world."

"Jump in anytime. All are welcome in the House of God."

"Thank you for the kind offer, but I do not know this game."

"Thatís cool, Bob. Youíll always be welcome."

I answered his remark with a smile. Although he did not turn to face me, I honestly believe that he saw it. It was like being back amongst the shadows again. There is one place in the universe where each of us belongs, where everybody knows you even in the absence of your name, and that place is home.

Joe came over to me as his game broke up. He was sweaty and seeing that reminded me of how much I missed the feeling of a good training period. His world held much promise for me. The sweatshirt he wore, marked with the name of his church, looked like a uniform to me. Joe was dressed in all dark blue.

I let him speak to me first. This was his home turf even though it felt so much like home to me. Honor is what shadows are, after all. He had invited me into his domain. If he invited me, then I could belong as well.

"It is good to see you here, Bob."

"You asked me by and I was looking for a spiritual recharge."

"A couple of the guys from the class I teach here like to play a game or two after class. Itís the grown up version of recess, I suppose."

"I didnít know that you were a teacher."

"The church has a few classes to teach adult literacy to the community and Iím a volunteer in the program. Most of the people on the North American continent used to learn how to read from the Bible."

"Itís good to see a community working together."

"Faith lies in the things you do more than in the things you say. Religion is a way of life."

"How are the classes coming?"

"English is a hard language to learn. Iíve got good students and theyíre doing very well. God is with us."

"I should have known that for your website."

"Speaking of websites, how is your book coming?"

"Itís actually just a single story and itís doing well."

"Iím pleased to hear that."

"That story means a great deal to me."

"It has the potential to get bloody."

"Actually, it wasnít like that at all."

By that time, the room was clearing. Joe started toward the nearest exit and I followed behind him. The lights went out behind us just as they had in the hangar. It was almost like we were going out on a run.

"Iíd like to see that story when youíre finished. It has potential if you can keep it going."

I smiled in the darkness. "I think that there will be more material than I can use."

"Just get it all on paper first. Edit it when you have been away from it for awhile. You will not see the weakness in it if you edit it too soon."

"Iíll keep that in mind."

"You have a gift and Iíd hate to see you waste it."

We parted company as the doors behind us locked shut. The night air was warm and stale from a day spent in uncomfortable heat. I could feel the other shadows in the shades of night surrounding me. It had been a long time since I had felt that I was not alone.

It was a warm night and the warmth was comforting. I rolled down my window to let the steamy air bathe me. The wind was cold if I tried to go too fast, so I took the slower roads home. Darkness was a friend to me.

Stopping at a corner, a weapon slipped in through my open window. It was a new feeling. As a shadow, I had never been attacked inside of a confining transport. Shadows do not get attacked in any location. With a smile, I chose my response from the things 5 had taught me.

8 seemed to dance in a distance, although only in my mind. I saw bits of her in the night, but I could not feel her. Without her, my strength ran no deeper than muscle and bone. Still a shadow, I honored 5 by applying his lessons well.

I do not recall what the man said. I heard, "First point."

In a single, flowing motion, I got my left hand against the back of my seat and delivered a forward thrust. I felt the bones in his arm shatter as they hit the front support of my window. My right hand was already in position for the finishing blow when the weapon discharged. It could only have been a reflex on his part.

The projectile seemed to stand in the air to me. Time distorts when you move at the full speed that a shadow can achieve. My right hand reached out and grasped the metal fragment as it flew across the inside of my car. It was like nothing that I had ever felt in the past. If only the shrapnel that killed 8 had been moving like this bullet.

A second or more passed before I realized that the bullet was hot. I had actually burned my hand on the small projectile before I knew it. My reflexes acted to throw the bullet out the window, into a tree on the side of the road. It bounced from the tree and broke the window of a parked car down an alley. All I knew was the pain in my hand.

Healing my hand came before anything else. In a run, the mission came before anything. My run was over when the assailant fell to the side of the road. If he hadnít startled me, he would have been dead before hitting the street. It was not that I wanted to kill anybody.

When the light changed, I drove away as though nothing had happened. To me, nothing had happened. First point to fall out and then I went home. Another jack had been neutralized before civilians had been killed. Honor is what shadows are.

That night seemed special to me as though I was being rewarded for my obedience. 8 seemed to be there with me as our masters had planned. The Seven Grand Masters of the Aruri race knew that we would bond so completely as to have no will against the union. As long as the two of us were together, both of us were controlled. We wanted nothing more and had nothing more.

I danced in the shallow moonlight through my small window with my love, my life now gone to me. My love was my life and both returned to me in the shades of my half waking state. She was in my empty arms as the music played on in my head. As long as there was music, we would dance as one. Being one with my lost prize was the only being I knew how to do.

Time passed in the void where the living and the dead could be united. It came time for the music to die down. As much as I wanted the music to last as long as I had to live on the wrong side of the mortal divide, it had to fade into silence. The passing was gentle with the softer tones passing from the rhythm first. Rest came to the band as gently as the moon sets at the dawn of a new day.

But, as dawn had not yet broken, 8 was not gone with the last notes of the phantom song to which we had danced. She stayed with me as we said our prayers, wishing for a long life together, and slipped between the covers. It had been about a two weeks since 8 had said her last word to me. The feeling of the two of us huddling together beneath the covers in preparation for whatever the next day would bring was enough reason for me to live on.

Maybe the dream ended when the sun rose to vanquish the darkness in which shadows live their lives. My dream may have ended when sleep began. All I know is that the echoes of memory that gave me the illusion of 8's presence were not with me when I awoke. A tear stained my pillow when my eyes opened to face the new day alone. It did no good to cry, however, I was no more than a man. Feelings that give us pleasure also allow us pain. I was allowed the better of these only at the cost of the other.

Honor is what shadows are. Those words pass through my mind at least twice an hour to give me the strength of my team. They held us together in a single belief and toward a single goal. As long as we hold that one thought in common, none of us is alone in the absence of the others. Five words were all I had left to hold now that 8 was gone.

Special Command watched over us. I was not used to actions having consequences. It was more than a day later, when my actions on the street corner appeared in the back of the newspaper, that I realized that something was wrong. 8 was not there to clean up the fallen jacks and Null didnít have a sweep team waiting to cover my tracks.

Reality did not come in with the flash of realization. Part of me still wanted to die so that I could return to 8. The rest of me was still thinking like a shadow. Honor, obedient and efficient, is what shadows are.

Nobody around me knew of my transgressions. I kept my tongue to myself. Reading the story from the back pages of the paper, I gave no hint of involvement. My shadow nature was proud of fighting the enemies of civilian life. Should I have died for as much, I would feel my life well lived and my destiny fulfilled. Denied that much, I would feel ill used.

Another important point in time came on the same day. I had to get back to work after my layover. English was still weak for me, although I was gaining proficiency in written text. The task seemed hollow and shallow compared to the runs. It felt better for me to train for runs that would never come than to get back into the graphical world of the internet.

My customer was hard on me, which did not help. He wanted me to position the text on the screen precisely as he had it on his printed pages. Every character on the screen had to be aligned to the pixel on the screen. As simple as it was, I found my mind wandering with every item on the list. Another paragraph of my story came into being between each pair of instructions on the page. Even the drive of a shadow was not strong enough to overcome the drag of boredom. I even tried to bribe myself with a training break at the end of every page I completed.

Somehow, by the grace of God alone, I got through it. It was more work than I had ever done for such a small contract sum. Yet, it was the only vocation I knew. My writing had never gained me a paycheck. Life on Earth required money.

Training exercises raised the temperature in my living space by a few measurable degrees before I put the finished project on the web server. I knew that I would soon have to seek an alternate source of income. Ideas did not come to me the way that they once had. Inspiration hid from my thoughts. It was hard for me to imagine that I had ever done this job well.

I went back to the church after the upload. Driving the route was automatic for me, even though I had only been to the church one time. The building had the homey feel of the hangar. In all the world, it was the one place that I felt I could go to when I was troubled. There, I could feel the presence of my own people.

Joe was again in the gym. This time he was involved in a game that I could play. My friend was helping a another man teach self defense to a small group. I stood out of the way, watching, just as I had done earlier. It was not my place to interfere.

Some of the students were good, although none of them would ever be a shadow. Killing was not the goal of this class. Sparring was a game that I could play if anybody asked me. Nobody asked me.

The class noticed my presence. My presence didnít make anybody nervous. It was a good feeling for people to know that I was there without fearing me. 8 did not appear to me while I was in the church on that night, yet I felt that it was still a place where I belonged.

Afterwards, I helped clean up the equipment. It felt like the kind of a job that shadows would do. Clean up was orderly even in the absence of a clear leader. We were a natural team within the group. This was the fold that I had been sent to watch over.

Joe spoke to me again as we left the gymnasium for the outer world. He was acting for my new life as 5 had in my real life. There were many things that I could have taught him in return, however, like 5, nothing I had was of any use to Joe. It seemed that my only repayment for the debt would be to live well the lessons that he would teach me.

"Doing a little research for your book?"

"Actually, Iím doing a little research for my life."

"A battlefield is a poor place to build a house, my friend."

I almost giggled at his remark. "I lived there long enough, brother."

"I just donít want you to get into the martial arts for the wrong reason."

"That is not the path that God has placed my feet upon."

"Iím glad to hear that, Bob."

"Iíve always turned to God when my spirit was tired."

"Is there something that you would like to talk about?"

"I feel lost and in need of guidance. I just need a shepherd that I can trust."

"This is the right place to come."

"Thank you for being there. You are a godsend."

"Thatís why weíre all here, brother. None of us can make it alone."

"I didnít know that I needed people until quite recently. It came on suddenly."

"Your faith is strong and God is with you. You will pull through this. Weíre all here for you."

"My story is almost finished, if youíd like to see it."

"Sure," he replied. "Iíd like to see how you handled it."

"Come by tomorrow and Iíll show you the first draft."

All of the other cars in the parking lot cleared out before I left. I did not wish to cause trouble by bumping into a car on the lot. My driving could not have been as bad as I felt that it was or I would not have been able to stay on the road. Part of me resented anything to do with the world to which I had been born and just adopted back into. That part of me blamed all of me for fitting in anywhere on Earth.

Somewhere along the drive home, I had put my wedding ring back on. I had returned home and returned to my quarters before noticing it. It hurt that my parents had taken their leave of me that evening and not noticed the little band of alien metal on my finger. The most significant part of my life was outside of their desire to know about.

The people who should have been closest to me barely spoke to me. It seemed that I would not have been missed if I had never returned and that is how much of me wanted it to be. My vows to 8 had been true when I made them and I was still ready to live up to them. Nothing meant more to me. Honor is what shadows are.

At the breaking of the next day, the sun came out to mock me. Another day without 8 had been born to celebrate its life. The birds in the sky serenaded it as though all was well in the universe. A gentle breeze danced through the leaves around the world I had been shamed back to. Light picked out the ring on my finger at the end of an arm that I did not know the origin of.

I looked over the arm that special command had designed for me. It appeared to be a part of my body, yet I knew that my real arm was gone. The ring seemed to glow from the sunlight, however, my synthetic arm denied me feeling. My nerves had been replaced and everything worked except for my perception of myself.

It was unusual for me to eat breakfast. I usually slept through that meal, not seeing the face of the sun arise in its full vibrant attire. We had never been friends. Each of us tolerated the other in an uneasy peace. Tolerance is always an uneasy peace.

Nearly an hour passed while I sat up in bed contemplating the dayís actions. When I finally got up, lacking any decision on my own direction, I chose to put the ring away. It was never far from me because of the value that it held for me. I slipped it into my pocket before changing into my clothes.

Joe was true to his word and right on his schedule. I believe that it was a Monday when I invited him back into my sanctuary. Without 8, it did not feel safe to me and I know that Joe L. had to see that in my actions. He was the one person that I would have trusted to see my ring, thus I kept it in my pocket.

Before we did anything, I placed a glass of iced tea on the desk for each of us. I just did not want to sit still. Joeís eyes got tired of trying to keep up with my actions, and soon stopped trying. Knowing why he had come, I opened the file for him to see. He did not go directly to reading it.

"The new page is an improvement over the old one. Thank you."

"You are very welcome. Iím just happy that I could help."

"If youíd like to learn, weíre giving basketball lessons to some of the kids this evening. Youíre welcome to attend."

"Sure, Joe. I donít have anything on my schedule."

"Iím sure that youíll do fine."

"Iíd like to thank you for your help with this story. It means a great deal to me."

"Are you sure that this isnít a book? There are a lot of pages here."

"Itís almost 8 years of my life."

He looked to the screen and I withdrew into my anxious pacing. Those precious words on the screen were almost sacred to me. Every paragraph he read was another moment that 8 and I had together. I had given Joe access to my most precious memories. It was like he was reading my diary and he didnít even know it.

In retrospect, his assertion was perfectly logical. It was only me that would not have seen that. He would have thought me insane if he had noticed the nuances and slipped words in which I implied that it was anything other than a story I had envisioned. These are things that I had to explain to myself while he gave me his report.

"The story is a bit long."

His words wounded differently to me than they did to him. "It hasnít been edited yet. I plan to edit out the repetition when I prepare it for posting."

"Your characters speak in cliches, however, it seems to be part of the alien charm of the environment."

"I hadnít noticed that."

Drinking down a few mouthfuls from his cup, he formulated his next words deliberately. English was his stock and trade. It was the pigment of his art.

"You might also want to concentrate more on the runs. It gets a bit claustrophobic with all the time you have scenes in the hangar."

There was no way that he could know that the runs were the times that I had not spent close to 8. I reminded myself of how much sense he made while calculating my own response. This man was my only friend on Earth. "I see what you mean, however, I donít want to change the focus of the story."

"Youíve got a book worth of material here. This is well written and plotted out very well. Most of the problems are very minor."

Each word he spoke burned deep into me. I had written my life out and he wanted to edit my memories. Events that I was afraid of losing would soon end up on his cutting room floor. It was the cost of art, although it was not easy to swallow.

Before doing another thing, I backed up the original file to my private archive. Even the meaningless pages that I knew could not be used were set to be backed up to a CD on that Friday. Changing the original would have been sacrilege. But, I couldnít expect Joe to know or understand.

"Iíll start editing it in a few days."

"This story isnít like anything youíve ever written. You touched on some strong concepts and handled them with respect. I wish you luck."

"Thank you for you assistance."

"Iíd still like to look this over when you finish up the editing."

"Okay," I said. "I hope to have it ready in two weeks."

"Thereís no hurry."

"This is not a story that I want to forget. I want it down while itís still fresh for me."

"Itís your schedule."

He stood up when he finished the last of his tea. It seemed that nothing remained to be said at that time. The silence between us lasted only seconds although it seemed to drag on for hours. Looking to his watch, he moved slowly toward my door.

"Iíll take care of the glasses," I said.

"Okay. Will I see you at the church later tonight?"

"I have every intention of being there. Iíll leave after dinner."

"Weíll be in the gymnasium. You know where that is."

No more words were necessary as those spoken were more than either of us needed said. I walked out onto the lawn with Joe, taking him to his car almost as though I was afraid that he would get lost without me. We did not say good bye as he drove away, although I did wave to him as he pulled off. Then I turned and went back to my crypt.

It was about two hours until we ate our evening meal. That gave me enough time to begin proofing the file on my computer. Once I started reading, reliving the only life that I accepted as real, time seemed to evaporate. Each time I looked at the computerís clock, time seemed to have jumped more than passed.

As grace was said, my eyes wandered across the table with a slow glance. There, I saw 8 sitting in her place across from me. She ate with me about half of the time now that I had been back on Earth more than half a month. Nobody else at the table seemed to see her. We could be alone in any crowd.

Over ham and green beans, I tried to make a study of 8's eyes. The image was weak as my memory was fading. Eyes, as windows into the mind, are important to me. They are part of what always drew me back to 8.

I ate in near silence, taking no part in the conversation around me. Interaction with the world around me would take 8 away from me because she was not a part of the world around me. But it was not to last.

As a radio overheard by a sleeper injects phrases into a dream, I heard my parents talking about me not being too old to have a family of my own. I closed my eyes to shield the tears from sight. Special Command had taken my only child from 8 and I. 8 was the wife who they could never meet.

It would have done no good to tell them about the family that I had lost in returning to Earth. My best explanations would have seemed as rationalizations of insanity. They would never meet their grandson. The truth hurt me.

More than anything, the fact that nobody asked about the truth hurt me. I wanted to tell all of the people around me who I had become, yet, nobody seemed to notice the change. There was no home left where I belonged. Living on was my way of dealing with the fact that there was no legal alternative.

To me, speaking in the conversation would have been an unwarranted intrusion. It actually felt as thought I had no right to speak on my own behalf concerning my own life. The truth was that I did not want to speak. My secrets were the most precious thing that remained to me.

And I had to consider what Special Command would do. If I could prove my statements enough not to appear insane, then I would be exposing people who did not want to be seen. Anybody who knew about them was a threat to their security. Letting me live at all was a security risk. Yet, honor is what shadows are.

My mother finally addressed me. "Did you hear that Marty Bouche pled temporary insanity?"

"I read something about it online. Names have never been my strong suit."

"He shot the crossing guard," responded my father. "You remember him claiming that the guard had egged his house."

"Thatís hardly a good reason to try killing a man."

To which my father responded, "especially in front of those schoolchildren."

"Youíve got to be insane to pull a stunt like that."

Replying to my mother, I wasnít sure if my thoughts were my own or those of a shadow. "He was sane enough to load the gun and use it."

A moment passed before my mother spoke again. "Something has got to be done about all these guns."

"There is nothing you can take from a manís hand that takes murder from his heart." The words flowed as though they had been scripted for me, and yet I believed them enough for them to be my own ideas.

"Still," injected my father. "This is getting out of hand. Something must be done about it."

There was no tactful way for me to say that I knew killers a thousand times more effective who never used guns. I could hardly admit to being one of them. Countries exist with fewer people than my team had taken down. Null may have had a kill count that high on his own.

"These problems never used to come into the suburbs."

That allowed me an opening to state my point. "A nation is as it is because its people are the way that they are. Itís not the weapons killing people. Our hearts have just become full of homicide and life itself has lost its meaning."

My father said, "I suppose thatís true."

Then we droned on about the world around us. It was the kind of polite preaching to the choir that the world around us did all day long. Nothing important was discussed. I agree that anything of substance would have been too heavy for dinner conversation.

Directly after dinner, I left for the church. Since my return to Earth, I had been spending less time at home. It didnít hurt that I felt less at home in my former abode. I was spending more time out in a week than I had been spending amongst friends in a year before my service. That was just another thing that I resented not being questioned about.

Five cars were in the back lot of the church before I arrived. Being an even numbered entry into the lot upset what was left of my former self. That was a bad omen to him. I couldnít understand how I had once been the child within me who thought of even numbers as bad omens.

It was the first time that I had entered the church through the back doors, closer to the gymnasium. I had departed through them at least twice, but never gone in through them. Getting lost had been on my mind when I chose to enter the building, to that point, through the same front door. Shadows live by reflexes, which are faster than reason. My shadow self was vulnerable to getting into ruts.

Joe greeted me about in the center of the gym. "Hey, Bob. Glad you could make it."

"I try to live up to my word. Honor is what shadows are."

He giggled at my remark, not knowing the significance of it. "Around here, we ask Ďwhat would Jesus do.í"

"Can I give you a hand setting up?"

"Thatís a good Christian attitude. Jump right in."

At the back of the room, several other people were getting chairs from a closet. I picked up a stack of chairs and sat them along one wall, just beside another row of seats. The closet was closed before I returned. We didnít need too many chairs. They would have been in the way.

I noticed Joe at the other closet and went to help him get a few balls and a table. The others were more familiar with the setup than I was, however, I still wanted to be useful. Logically, I could be of use carrying things even if somebody else had to handle the setup. It was the shadow thing to do.

"Thank you." The words came from somebody I didnít know, yet had seen each time that I had been in the gym. Those words just felt odd to me. Nobody said thank you to a shadow. We were workers and owed our labors to our masters.

A few moments of thought went into my reply. "You are welcome."

Common courtesy should not have been so alien to me, yet it was. I was embarrassed to reply so slowly, but I had forgotten the words. These people were my new team and I was as awkward as I had been when 8 had first taken me in. Without 8, I was always uncomfortable. The feeling of belonging was like betraying my team in my mind.

Holding back in the lessons on the court felt right. I do not mean to state or imply that I was good enough to become a professional athlete. Using the skills that I had, as a shadow, would not have been fair to the rest of the players. It was more honorable for the better players to beat me by skill alone. Losing did not bother me.

The balance to this was that I always wanted to please my teacher. I did not know the guy who was coaching my group. He didnít seem to mind that I was older than his other students. His mind worked through the tactics of the court as Null worked through battle plans.

It was an oddly familiar feeling for me. I was again the outsider being brought into a group. They did not know my skills, nor did they know how I would react when they depended on me. Had we not all been students, then I would have been back at my first day on the strike team.

8 stood in the shadows we had known as home in order to watch over me. Her phantom presence relaxed me. She had often watched 5 train me in the hangar where I had grown comfortable with my new life. Neither of us was ready to let go. I saw her face clearly enough to see her perfect teeth as she smiled at me.

I longed to leave the field and go back to her. Her eyes glowed with a warmth that soothed every atom of my being. We spoke only in sheltered glances where the others could not see what the two of us were doing. My accursed mind forbade me to leave the task at hand in order to hold her one more time. Even my beloved 8 had told me that honor is what shadows are and, for her, I would try to live up to those words.

My mind was not on the game at hand and I was quickly knocked to the floor by two other players. Looking up, my eyes quickly gazed into our coachís thoughts. His glance was friendly, one tenth the warmth of 8's, but his left cheek winced into a concealed frown. He helped me to my feet in front of the other students. It was the kind of thing I would have expected from 5.

Then I looked back to 8's ghost. She rolled her eyes, although I still read her love for me in her face. I looked back to the floor, pleading forgiveness from the one soul I wanted to give everything for. But, she was no longer there when my eyes returned to her place. A tear rolled down my cheek and I tried hard to hide it.

From then on, I watched every motion on the court. I told myself that I had to do better for 8. My teacher saw the improvement, looking on with a smile. He shook his head to show approval of my better movements.

After the game, we came together in fellowship to pray. I went down onto my knees for the prayer. Without Godís grace, I would never go to where 8 awaited me. The promise of being with her again was the only hope that I had left in my life.

When the meeting at the gymnasium concluded, the warm night air took its toll on me. It was not unusual for me to dehydrate myself without realizing it. I was not alone in taking a trip to the convenience store at the end of the road. Most of the group reassembled in the parking lot. Even my beloved 8 seemed to join the gathering where she could only be seen with the corner of my eye.

My group was not the only group collected on the blacktop moat that surrounded the brick and glass building. Several tight groups seemed to exist within the mass of people bathing in the steam of the feverish Earth at the end of the day. I knew my group and stuck within it. By the same pack attraction, I could spot the other tight units in the crowd. The need to belong is the strongest social attraction within groups.

When I got my drink within the store, I chose to stand within the line of people that I knew and felt comfortable with. I still could not handle change, however, I didnít worry about it. It was the closest that I had come to being at home since being removed from my strike team. Within me, I almost felt guilt at being at home outside of the group to which I had sworn allegiance.

Outside, I stood close to Joe. He was the mentor I had lost when my weakness had caused 5's death. 8 taught me how to live and 5 trained me for my job. In time, I knew that I would require the return of the intimacy I had enjoyed with 8 as well as the guidance offered by Joe. I would never again be able to live alone.

I had no words to say to Joe. Nobody actually spoke to me in the parking lot. As with 5, I would be an outsider until I proved myself to Joe and then the group. Joe lived in the world that I had to belong to. Hopefully, he would find me to be as good a student as 5 had found me to be.

Our reunion did not last long as the time of night was passing fast. Night would be no trouble for me, although the others would have to start their days earlier. Joe was amongst the last to leave, like a good shepherd holding his post until after the flock had been put away for the night. The group broke up fast.

Something was wrong and I could feel it. 8 made an appearance in the shades between light and darkness where movement in the trees caused the overhead lights to cast moving shadows. Shadows are only felt. We are never seen.

My mind saw the knife before my eyes did. I doubt that the assailant was after me, however, it was not my place to worry about who the target was. Shadows are not the targets in a run although we act to prevent the attack. All that I needed to know is that lives were at stake.

As the blade came by me, my right hand clasped onto the jack's wrist, just behind the knife in his hand while I maneuvered the rest of my body around behind the jack. With my left hand placed into the back of his neck, I slammed him against the brick wall in front of me. I actually made sure that he did not lose the knife. Being a shadow meant making sure that my jack was a legal kill. Something within me had chosen to let the jack live on.

The thought that Joe was with me never crossed my mind. I do not know why I had spared the first jack that I had come across in the parking lot. My first two jacks, earlier in my time back on Earth, would have been legal kills for a shadow. Maybe it was simply that I had nothing left to fight for.

In taking the first jack to the wall, I had turned my back to one of his compatriots. That jack was a coward and came at me from behind. He didnít know the training of a shadow. I had already been slashed in the back by a jack, on one of my early runs, and was ready for this jack when he came. It just felt good to have the rush of a run again.

He saw nothing until I had him pinned. I stepped back, grabbing his weapon with my right hand and thrusting him against his comrade. Both jacks were stacked against the brick wall and I felt like a shadow again. In another second, I would have dropped both jacks.

But, then I saw Joe. I needed to belong and he was the key to the door of my future. He did not live in a world where he could kill with impunity. If he saw me as a shadow, acting on the protocol, then he might lock me out of the place I had to go. Even if I lost his friendship, I needed his acceptance.

Joe was surprised. His eyes scanned the surrounding parking lot to find me again after my run. He could not keep up with my actions. The speed of my actions, to him, was the difference between Bob the delusional and 9 the shadow. However, he did not want to believe the things that his eyes testified to.

His lips mouthed the first few syllables of a few dozen words, although he made no sound toward me. He shook the fixed gaze from his eyes before really looking at me. It was the first time that he had seen me as more than the physical manifestation of my online persona. I became real to him in the flash of an action that I should have known better than to commit to.

I lost my interest in the jacks, although I held my grip on them. They were still dangerous and I would have been dishonored before all that I hold dear if I allowed them to take lives. Dealing with Joe, and all that I needed from him, was secondary to honor. Honor is what shadows are.

"Honor is what shadows are." It startled me to see him mouthing that article of faith to me. I took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. If he had acted in any other way, then I may very well have completed my run and terminated the jacks. They would have paid if they had cost me the remnant of life that I retained.

As it was, I had to hold the jacks until local authorities took control of them. There was nothing that I could do to explain myself to Joe before he left. He was the last of my group to leave and, when he pulled off, I was left alone with the jacks.

My night was hard without 8 to share my troubles.

Sleep denied me an audience. Again, I shivered in the moonlight at the top of my bed wishing that I could hold 8 for the rest of time. If I was disgraced, then I would be unworthy of burial where 8's ashes had been spread. I had to earn Godís favor or he would forever deny me the only prize that my heart desired.

Tears stained my pillow. 8 was never coming home with me to meet my parents. We would never see an Earth sunrise together. The two of us would not now be able to lay together on the grass and look up at the moon. Our only son had been taken from us and I could not undo that for 8.

I would have given all of my life to 8. Life itself mocked me in leaving me only faded memories of what it was like to have once lived. Folding my legs up against my chest, I wept on for my loss. There is nothing that I would not have given to 8. There was nothing that I had that I could give to 8.

Time passed like two snails racing. It did no good for me to sit up in bed. There was nothing that I actually wanted to do. I went to my main computer and looked over my file. Parts of it had begun to feel as unreal to me as they were to Joe L.

Fate decreed that my friend would not sleep that night either. He too had chosen to wander the endless halls of the digital world in place of resting. Maybe neither of us had a choice in the things that were to pass. My friend had been thrown into the world of shadows as suddenly as I had.

A message flashed up onto my screen while I read. "I see youíre still up."

"I do not believe in sleep. Itís a myth of childhood."

"Nonetheless, some of us try to pursue it."

His words brought a smile to my face. "It hasnít been easy for me since I got back."

"Have you been trying to tell me that you didnít make up that story?"

I took a deep breath as though I was actually speaking to Joe. "I didnít realize how crazy it sounded until after the fact."

"So these people are really out there?"

"I was one of them. Once upon a time."

"How are they going to react to you telling the world about them?"

"Who is going to believe me? You found out the hard way."

"Please forgive me, but I still donít believe you."

"An option that you should cherish."

"These cannot be nice people. They kill their own."

"You werenít there, Joe. Iíve been in an endless nightmare because they let me live. If they come for me, I will be where they can find me."

"Youíve got to hang on to life, Bob. You cannot give up like this."

"Is this living? Iíve got nothing left."

"Would that be why youíre writing this story? You want them to come after you."

"The story is my way of remembering 8. I need my memories."

"And it doesnít hurt that youíll attract the attention of these killers."

"They would have come for me if they were going to. I thought that they had just forgotten about me and I waited for them."

"How many people have you killed?"

"Those records are not for me to see. I did that because I believed in what I was doing."

"You cannot kill people on Earth. Just promise me that much."

"The truth is that I do not know why I havenít. There have been opportunities and legal jacks."

"God was with you, dude. Donít throw your new life away."

"I wonder if all soldiers have this crisis of conscience."

"I suppose that they do, Bob. We all fall short of the mark. That doesnít mean that there is something wrong with the mark. Satan is just a strong enemy."

"My time as a shadow made me need people. Can you accept me knowing what I am?"

"I believe that Jesus forgave Judas. Itís not easy, but Iíll try. Itís the Christian thing to do."

"Thank you, Joe L."

"Just call me Joe. That I will not forgive. (Grin)"

"Maybe you can catch some of that mythical sleep with your new bait."

"What new bait?"

"A clear conscience. Do not go to bed angry."

"Good night and God bless you."

"God bless you too, Joe."

Rest did not come to me, although I did capture sleep. Not as fictional as I had made it sound, a few hours of sleep prepared me to face the newly risen sun. Sunlight warms the world and creates shadows of its own. Only the sleep where I could return to 8 would make me something other than a shadow.

My family did not take it as unusual when I decided to go to breakfast. I chose to wear my wedding ring in hopes that I would be questioned on that account. God only knows how much I needed to get that out in the open. Nobody asked me anything about it.

Joe, although he had never been a shadow, had become a brother in arms by giving me aid and comfort with an online chat. If only the people around me had been so kind to me, then I would not have felt that I was living in a vacuum. Maybe the ring just wasnít that noticeable. It could also have been my own fault in not trying to bring it up on my own.

Honor is what shadows are. That does not mean that weíre brave.

With a deep breath, I got up from the table and went back into the crypt of my former life. It had been the place where I had spent most of my time, yet it was no longer enough for me. The people who should have known me the best were the hardest people to face. My former home was a place where I could no longer stay.

I spent the rest of the day quietly packing up the remnants of my half lived life. The questions that I would have to face in light of the truth were not at all easy. They were some of the hardest explanations that I had ever contemplated. Not having the option of trying to explain myself made me uncomfortable.

There had to be somewhere on the Earth where I belonged and I aimed to find it. Nothing in my old life could stay with me. None of it had meaning. I looked through the memories in each page, the images and words that sketched the borders of who I had once been were meaningless to me. Yet, I could not bring myself to throw my mementoes away.

The boy that I had once been deserved to keep his memories as much as I had the right to mine. My memories were threatened, so his had value to me. I knew how it felt to have a life ripped away from me. Even as I could never be that boy again, I had to protect him from the horrors I had still to face.

Votes for: Serial Ablation.


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