6

Because ten billion

Year's time is so fragile,

So ephemeral…

It arouses such a

Bittersweet,

Almost heartbreaking fondness.

Prolong

"Cover me!" Tabool shouted, loading a fresh clip into his assault rifle.

"I've got your back," replied Nahrim.

"Good, one, two…"

Tabool dashed out of the giant crater they were using as cover. Two defenders went down as Nahrim unleashed a hail of bullets on their defensive line. Both held their heads low as two Tatsu War Dragons fired a series of unguided rockets on the town. Behind them three mechanized soldiers slowly made their way towards the front lines spitting death from their giant machine guns. Slow motherfuckers, the battle would probably be over before they ever reached the town, but their cover fire was much appreciated.

"Alright, now you cover me!" Nahrim shouted above the noise of the battle.

"Well hurry your fat ass up!"

Cries of dismay from the opposing forces could be heard over the dim of battle. Through the streets dozens of women and children, caught by surprise by the sudden and overwhelming attack, fled aimlessly in every direction while their men hopelessly tried to by them time. It was too late for that. Hellywood's armies had achieved complete surprise. When the bombs fell only a handful of armed guards stood watch over their boarders and they'd been dealt with quickly by Hellywoods superior soldiers.

Now, as Tabool and Nahrim made their way up the hill towards the center of town with ridiculous ease, few remained to stand in their way.

Tabool looked around. They were too far ahead. The rest of the squad was a good hundred yards back still trying to crawl their way out of the trenches and up the hill. Tatsu's and Mechanized Soldiers charged ahead of his position, punching fresh holes in the defenders already broken lines, but they would simply pass over a lot of the defending troops leaving the infantry to mop up whoever remained.

This was not good.

"Hey Nahrim, I think we may have gone too far!"

Nahrim quickly looked over his shoulder and saw for himself that they were all alone on top of the hill.

"Fuck me! What the hell are they doing way back there!?"

"Hell if I know!"

"Well get over here!"

A series of explosions tore through the ground separating Tabool from the squad that'd fallen behind. Mortars. He hadn't know Crestview had fucking mortars!

"Hey Tabool, mother fuckers have mortars!"
"No shit!"

The fire stopped. Taking advantage of the time Tabool looked over the rim of his crater and saw the mortar team that was keeping his squad mates down concealed by a camouflage net and hidden from the Tatsu's line of sight by a large wooden building.

If I only had a fucking radio right now I'd just get the Tatsu's to take them out. Guess I'll have to do it the old fashioned way.

Seeing his opportunity he stood quickly and ran towards Nahrims position, keeping his head low and dodging several bullets which whipped past his head and kicked up dirt at his feet. Thankfully his friend had the frame of mind to provide at least a little cover fire for his movements.

"We're going to take out those mortars."

His friend took a look for himself and smiled.

"You really have your heart set on being a hero don't you?"

"Don't be an idiot."

"Too late for that I'm afraid."

"Right," he stuck his head out of their crater, trained his rifle on a teenage boy keeping watch over the mortar team, and squeezed the trigger. Three bullets flew from the barrel. Three bullets missed their target, but the boys head was down.

"Go!" Nahrim burst from cover and sprinted forward toward the enemy lines.

NOWandTHEN,HEREandTHERE.

Episode 21:

The Lost Return.

The streets were crowded today, no surprise there, they were almost every day this early in the morning. Rats scurried around in the wet gutters unnoticed by the men who walk above them decked out in their suits and ties. It sickened him sometimes to see their phony smiles and their expensive watches purchased overseas. In a world where most people went to bed each night starving what right did they have to luxury? What right had they to privilege and wealth? He wanted to run up and grab them by their necks, PEOPLE ARE DIEING YOUR ARROGENT BASTARD!

But he didn't, he knew better. Why? Because he'd done it before. Nothing changed; the rich stayed rich while the poor huddled together in the sewers with the rats. There was no use worrying about it now, he was already late for school.

Sometimes he didn't know why he bothered to go anymore. They could teach him all the math and literature they wanted but it wouldn't make him a better person. It wouldn't fill the gaping hole he felt every day deep inside his chest gnawing away at his soul and his sanity.

When he returned he knew from the beginning that things were different. He thought he'd be able to cope with the change, to re-assimilate to a normal life. This was a normal life. Hellywood wasn't normal.

At least, he used to think that. It didn't take long to find out how wrong he was. Hellywood was normal.

He saw it in the evening news.

He heard it in the crowded allies and back roads, could smell it in the dense city air, feel its oppressive weight pressing down on him everywhere he went. He saw it when he slept, when he ate a fine meal, as he dressed for school, when he brushed his teeth. It was a part of him now, maybe more a part of him then his old beliefs ever were.

Most people were good? Deep down where it really mattered most everyone was a decent person? What a joke! People weren't good. People were horrible, nasty, brutish, evil little animals who cared about no one but themselves.

All the good people of this world were now dead. Nothing to do now but except that.

People avoided him as he walked up the steps to class. They were scared. Understandable considering the massive beatings he used to deal to his Kendo opponents before finally being banned from the sport, and just when he was getting good too. At first his teachers praised his newly found skill. He was far more creative, cunning, and thoughtful in his approach then he ever was before. As the weeks and the months went on, however, his aggression grew. It wasn't long before he landed someone in the hospital; it wasn't long after that before he almost killed another.

Life, it seemed, wasn't so precious to him after all.

***

Two months. For two months he'd been missing. Gone without a trace, and then back without a warning. His parents thought he was dead, his closest friends all moved on. But one day, like nothing had happened, he walked into his house wearing the same cloths he wore when he disappeared, with a big stupid grin on his face.

An investigation followed. Naturally, he told the truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God. At first they dismissed his claims as absurd, but when he mentioned Sara and they did a little fact checking things got a little interesting. Turns out she was a real person (surprise, surprise) who'd been kidnapped from her home in Florida (yup, American, just like she said) not long before he disappeared. They never found any trace of her.

Strange how this random kid from Japan just happened to go missing around the same time she did, then show's up two months later knowing details about her kidnapping he couldn't possibly know, and then to top it all off claims to have known her in some alternate universe where they were both kidnapped and made in to slaves. A mystery! Call in the detectives!
In the end, however, they couldn't accept his story, nor could they deny the startling truth of what he knew. He went through counseling. Doctors dressed up all nice and pretty pried into his mind trying to find the truth as they saw it; a truth they could come to accept without leaving their safe little world and believe something they'd been preprogrammed to dismiss as nonsense. They dug and they pried and they manipulated trying their absolute best to come up with an answer that made sense to them but it all boiled down to the same old thing.

After a time, though, even he started to doubt his story. It really was too wild to believe, wasn't it? That he'd been kidnapped by soldiers from an alternate universe who drove giant snake machines and robots? That all they were after the whole time was some girl who could manipulate water called Lala Ru? Absurd, insane, preposterous, and a million other words they used to describe his story when he wasn't looking. Besides, if this Hamdo character really wanted water so badly, why not just take it from this world? Doh!

So he began to doubt.

A little at first, just the details and specifics of his ordeal. Then, as the counseling continued in earnest and his parents and what few friends he had left begged him to tell them the truth, his whole ordeal came into question.

One thing was for sure though. No matter what it was that had happened to him, he wasn't the same light hearted carefree person he was almost a year ago. Things had changed. He had changed. There was no going back to the way things were, his eyes had been opened and there was no closing them again.

"Welcome home Shu," his mom said as he walked through the front door into his house, "how was school today?"

"It was okay," he sulked, grabbing a drink from the cupboard and sitting down at the table.

"Anything interesting happen?"

"No," he suddenly lost interest in the drink and set it down untouched, "not really."

"Well," she tried to continue, but couldn't think of anything new to say. She tried to smile in his direction, but even that was too hard for her. Typical. Even his own mother thought him a monster now.

***

The sun set behind the smokestacks in the distance casting large shadows streaking across the ground. Shu picked up his backpack and looked on as the huge orange sun disappeared over the mountains, and laughed. He was home.

"Home," he said to no one, basking in sights and smells of the city, "YAHOO!!!"

He took off running. Through alleys he once knew well, past well lit buildings housing families sitting down for dinner, over the bridge that spanned the Haku River, towards his home. Towards his family.

"Mom!" he cried, turning the corner that would take him to his home, "
hey mom, dad, I'm home!"

"Shu?" his next door neighbor said as he passed her on the street.

"Mom, dad, I'm home!" he cried bursting through the front door. Around their kitchen table his mother, father, and little sister, Lavi, sat eating dinner. A picture of him in his Kendo gear, smiling goofily at the camera, stood in the middle of the table.

"Shu?"

"It's Shu!" Lavi sprang to her feet and rushed him, "I knew you weren't dead, didn't I mom? I told you! I told you Shu couldn't die!"

"Oh my God, Shu, your home!" his mother stood slowly and walked to her son, unbelieving. She touched his face, felt the scares on his cheeks, smelled the death lingering still on his clothing.

"Son, where were you? We thought you were dead," father came and wrapped his arms around his son.

"It was weird, there was this mean lady, Abelia, and she came with these big machines and kidnapped me. She took me to her world. It was awful. They did terrible things there, but everything's okay now, I stopped them…"

"Whow, stop Shu, your rambling."

"You're not real," his mother said suddenly, backing away from him and clasping her hands to her chest, "you're not my son, you can't be. You can't be."

"Mom, it's me, I know I've been gone a while, but… hey, how long was I gone?"

"You were gone two months," Lavi exclaimed, "everyone thought you were dead, I told them you weren't but they wouldn't believe me!"

"Lavi, come over here," his mother said, still standing against the wall.

"Mom, it's okay, it's just Shu."

"Get away from him!"

"Mom it's just me! Look at me, I'm real!"

"No you're not, you're not my son! My son is dead!"

"But I'm not dead mom…"

"You're fucking dead! My son died, so who the hell are you!?"

In hindsight maybe she was right. He wasn't Shu anymore, at least not the Shu she knew before his kidnapping. Sure he may look the same but everything else about him had changed. It wasn't readily apparent that first night when he'd come rushing through his front door rambling on about robots, strange girls, and mad kings, but insanity has an odd way of sneaking up on people when they're not looking, and most certainly was not looking. Lavish gifts were bestowed upon him those first few days by well wishers, friends of the family, even a couple of his own friends, but they all went home talking about how depressing he was.

Oh well, nothing to do about all that now, he was late for another one of those oh so fun psychiatric evaluation appointments they still made him go to, and it wouldn't do him any good to be late.

Suddenly a bright flashing light appeared overhead, blinding him momentarily. Time seemed to stop; birds froze in midair, children playing in the river suddenly stopped as if someone had pressed the pause button on a TV.

Oh no, oh no no no no no no! Not again, not again!

As suddenly as it appeared the light was gone. Time returned to normal; the birds continued on their course, the children fell from the sky and splashed merrily in the water, laughing and giggling like nothing had happened. He was still here though. Nothing was missing that he could see, no giant robots or snakes fell from the sky. Nothing happened. Perhaps he really was going crazy. Crazy people sometimes black out, don't they? Maybe that's what just happened.

"Hello Shu," a familiar voice said behind him. For a moment time seemed to pause again, only this time without the blinding light. He knew that voice; how could he not? It haunted his dreams every night he managed to close his eyes (which wasn't often anymore), it followed him in the streets, to school, in his home. Yes, he knew that voice.

Turning around he looked into the eyes of someone he never thought he'd see again, and smiled.

"Hey Sara."

Ending Lullaby.

Always, all the time, I will be watching you.

So put your mind at ease and go to sleep.

This world, where we've grown accustomed to hurting each other—

This is where we were born and grew up.