“Oh my God!” cried Leon. “It’s Metaphor Man!”

Indeed it was; Metaphor Man streaked down to the city jungle, a comet across dark clouds. The impact was a tiny tsunami, the superhero a wall between Leon and Nöel and evil.

“Who’s this chump?” said the lead mugger, deftly juggling his pistol between two hands. “It’s not Mondo Man. Think he’s bulletproof?”

“Your bullets are hollowpoint insults, raindrops on oilskin,” growled Metaphor Man, a pitbull in his element as he baited large, dumb bovines.

“Huh?” The mugger said, looking down the barrel of his pistol, which he had learned how to use from TV shows.

Metaphor Man glowered, a judge at an execution. “Your death is your birth, an unfortunate accident.”

The gun went off and the mugger crumpled to the ground. His companion, visibly shaken held his gun on the superhero. “Stay back!”

“You are a simpering kitten, the slightest sound blowing away the mirage,” sneered Metaphor Man, his voice deep and imposing whiskey-soaked gravel from a bar parking lot. “The ground, a magnet, draws your failure to it…just as the horizon is a siren’s call for the cowardly.”

Mugger #2 dropped his gun and ran.

“The police are flies, drawn to a stench you cannot conceal,” Metaphor Man cried after him. “A dog to its vomit, you return to them soon.”

“Thank you,” said Nöel, as a weak and weeping Leon cried on her shoulder. “You were like an angel. How can we ever thank you?”

“Your gratitude is sweet nectar, but your simile is a bitter salve,” grunted Metaphor Man. “You make your thanks palpable by sending the latter to its grave an unmourned corpse.”

“Huh?” Leon said through the sobs.

“He wants us to use more metaphors, sweetie,” said Nöel. “Thank you, Metaphor Man. You were manna from heaven on a day otherwise marked by biblical blood rain.”

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The tank’s heater burbled ominously. The first fish, the yellow one, was floating close to the surface.

“What do you think’s wrong?”

“No idea.”

The green fish was floating lower but steadier, its fins twitchier but still keeping it level.

“This one doesn’t seem quite right too. You think the heater’s broken?”

“It is making a kind of a sinister noise.”

The fish continued to swim about, the humans beyond them standing stock-still.

“I tell you, they shouldn’t be doing that,” said the yellow fish. “Just standing like that.”

“I know, I know,” the green fish agreed. “Let me turn down the heater and see if the humans get less lethargic.”

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“You think they got pilots in there?” Rube said, looking up. A skimmer was docking at the local tower as a second one pulled away.

“Nah, they’s probably got computers,” said Jon. “I mean look at ’em. No place for pilots.”

Rube squinted at the skimmer, its blocky and asymetrical form a familiar enough sight that he hadn’t really thought about it in years. “Maybe they’s small, or funny-shaped,” he said. “Somethin’s in ’em, because they pay us mind when they’d crash.”

A walker, its cargo container fully loaded and sealed, walked by bound for the tower. It paused a moment, scanned over Rube and Jon, and they both froze. Then, satisfied that they weren’t about to interfere, it continued on toward the tower.

“What about them?” said Rube after relaxing. “You think they got pilots? They sure do pay us mind when it looks like we might get in the way.”

“Didn’t even get its guns out, that one,” sniffed Jon. “An’ no, they gots computers too I think. They’s just got ’em fixed up to come down here, build towers, and haul stuff out of the ground to send up there. Cheaper that way I bet, and it means they don’t need to do anything to us if we don’t bug ’em.”

“Maybe,” Rube said. “Maybe. Whaddaya think they’ll do with that stuff up there? Whaddaya think they’ll do when there’s nothing else to haul outta the dirt?

“All I know,” Jon said, “is I don’t wanna know. They shoot us if we get in the way, so it’s no nevermind to them either.”

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Very kept her spear at the ready; the bow lay where it had fallen. If the last sound of scuttling through the underbrush had been what she thought, the bow was no more use than a twig on the ground.

She set the spear into the ground, burying the end to absorb the force of the coming charge. It was made of yew, like the bow, flexible yet strong, and the tip was fine steel, unsharpened except at the point. The bow was usually enough to take down all but the strongest prey, and the spear could turn the momentum of any charging thing against itself. But, just in case, Very kept two more weapons hanging on the hide belt Uncle Mostly had made for her ceremony.

A hunting knife, all-sharp and all-steel, and her pistol, with the two bullets she’d been allotted. One for whatever prey might overcome her defenses, and one for Very herself if it ever came to that.

The forest parted, and Very’s spear took the full brunt of the attack. A Forestman, his pale skin caked with grime, writhes out his last few breaths at the end of the spear.

Very clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Long pork again,” she said. “I’m so sick of that.”

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The question on everyone’s mind was what purpose to put the great raskter to. As both a male and the last of its kind, there was no question of breeding, but the raskter had been raised from an egg by humans and was therefore docile and relatively domesticated.

But at nearly 100 feet tall and almost as wide, it was too expensive and expansive an endling to simply allow to roam free. And no one had the resources to keep it as a curiosity, as raskter were voracious and migratory in their eating habits.

An eventual solution was as impresside as it was elegant: the raskter was hitched to an enourmous movable fortress and accompanied the king and his retinue on campaign.

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The disfiguration produced by the Ague was extreme, compared by those who had seen it to severe burns with the addition of inky black pustules. No one ever established a definitive cause, nor a method of transmission, nor why the disease seemed to prefer women to men in a ratio of 3:1 or more.

Most mysterious of all was the Ague’s sudden disappearance, leaving in its wake hundreds if not thousands of disfigured people, mostly young women.

Moved by their suffering, and under more than a little pressure from the local lords, the Sepulcher of the Creator created the Cloister of the Veil for them. Sufferers of the Ague were given a castle, abandoned during the Late Period, which they were able to renovate into a convent of sorts. Given land to till and animals to care for, the many women and few men were all sworn to the Sepulcher’s rules for convents, celibacy foremost among them.

They were also provided with clear linen uniforms that draped in such a way as to shield their ravaged bodies from view. The few males were ordained priests of the Sepulcher and tended to wear metal or wooden masks as a sign of their rank.

But even as the Cloister of the Veil was hailed as a success, it was full of people from all walks of life. The Ague had claimed plenty who desired nothing like a monastic life, and rumors soon began of broken vows and promiscuous behavior among the sufferers there.

And that is why an Inspector of the Sepulcher was dispatched: the rumor and fear that one of the sisters had become pregnant, and the possibility of what an Ague-borne child might bring unto the world.

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The Sani-Cola mantra was hung above the cube farm for all to see:

90% of customers won’t lose money
90% of customers who lose money won’t contact us
90% of customers who contact us won’t accept a voucher
90% of customers who accept a voucher will never use it
90% of customers who use vouchers won’t find a place to take it
90% of customers who get vouchers accepted will be satisfied

And that was the genius of the operation, the sheer mad genius. By staffing a call center with starving college students, they kept costs down. India would be cheaper but Sani-Cola wanted to “hire American.” Then, by making te above–correct–assumptions against human nature, Sani-Cola all but ensured that your money never left the system.

I could send you a voucher, bulk mail, good for one bottle of cola. The mailing, and the voucher, and my time, all cost less than a bottle of swill. If you didn’t complain, they kept your money. If you complained, they kept your money and let you select a bottle to make up for the one you didn’t get. And you would most likely never use that since machines wouldn’t accept it.

In a way, I was like one of those dollar bills. Sani-Cola had taken me in, and I wasn’t getting out of the system anytime soon. Not with my tattoos or rap sheet.

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