Chapter II: A Crisis of Faith

Thomas had left the party shortly after his cigarette with Toph.

He had made his way to his room in his battalion’s barracks and had done his best to fall asleep and ultimately failing spectacularly, as he was still awake when he heard Hampstead come back home in a drunken stupor in the late morning. The following evening at dinner, he realised that no one had even noticed his early departure. Everyone had just assumed that he was simply somewhere else in the Reacher Pub and that they simply hadn’t crossed paths.

The second night after the thoughts had come had not been much better than the first. Thomas had spent the day performing pointless tasks he could have easily left for a later time, whilst unsuccessfully trying to take his mind off what was bothering him. Clara had told him that he had finished a weeks’ worth of tasks in one day, yet she had not congratulated him, as she insisted he attempt to get some sleep and to relax, as eighteen registered panic attacks within twenty-four hours, some of which lasting for over half an hour of continuous palpitations, profuse sweating and hyperventilation, was in no way conducive to his health.

The next morning, he said his goodbyes to Motley, Liaco & Hampstead in a strange haze. Motley had insisted that, on his first vacation from the Allied Host intelligence wing, he would come visit him and Hampstead on Terra. Liaco’s goodbye was much more heartfelt, as she had insisted that they continue to keep in touch and continue their group chat, no matter the distance between them. She would be returning to Ersatz, where she would rejoin the martial society of her people, not unlike Thomas himself.

Hampstead accompanied Thomas on the flight back to Terra, as he would also enjoy a month-long vacation, before returning to Luna and the Host. He had been quiet the entire flight, much like Thomas himself, though the satisfied grin on his face told him that it was for completely different reasons.

He had tried to enjoy the view of Terra as they neared the planet, attempting to echo the childish wonder he had felt when he had first gazed upon the world of his birth years ago. His father had taken him with him during one of his assignments to Luna. This time, unlike all those years ago, he saw for the first time the fragility of his home. He now saw his world as the oldtimers saw it.

Very vulnerable before the capricious nature of the universe, no matter how hard they tried to turn it into an indestructible fortress.

Grey lines crisscrossed Terra’s surface along the ancient lines of longitude and latitude. From a distance they looked as though some cosmic giant had laid a steel mesh around the world, with two massive plates covering the two poles. Closer inspection revealed the lines and plates for what they were: the giant superstructures known as the Spines and Shields.

They were Terra’s most ostentatious line of defence. The Shields were gigantic fortresses which covered the entirety of both the lands beyond the Antarctic Circle, as well as the seas beyond the Arctic Circle. Rocket batteries, communication towers, weapons platforms, solar panels and more, littered the surface of the Shields. Beneath them, a vast network of hangars, bunkers, warehouses, factories and who-knew-what-else spread out along the entirety of the superstructures.

From each Shield, the twenty-six Shadow Spines jutted out at regular intervals only to be intersected by the nine Horizon Spines which circled the globe. The Spines served a variety of purposes.

They served as gigantic fortresses, in their own right.

They housed the tracks of the Terran train system.

They could provide emergency housing in the eventuality of an attack on Terra.

They also controlled the weather, which was one of the main reasons why they had been chosen, as opposed to other proposed defence systems. The technology employed by the Spines split the planet into two hundred and eighty different quadrants with each quadrant being, to a degree, separated from the others. If one quadrant was, say, devastated by a nuclear strike, the others would be insulated from the ensuing fallout and shockwave.

In the places where the Spines crossed Terra’s oceans, they doubled as gigantic filters, making sure that nothing passed from one quadrant to another without the Terrans’ approval.

This was a world born out of the trauma of the past. When the End Times began, the opening act had been a period of time known as the Fimbulwinter. This had not been, as the name might suggest, some new ice age but a series of global catastrophes, as the extraterrestrial invaders had employed geomancy to break both the world and its people. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides had torn the earth apart. The seas had spewed forth tsunamis, monsoons and hurricanes with unimaginable intensity and frequency. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, hailstorms and sandstorms had been commonplace. Fire had rained from the sky and wildfires had scorched the world, leaving behind the ashes of what had once been.

The Spines would prevent that from happening again. The Terrans would make sure of it.

Their ship docked at Prime North Station, where Thomas and Hampstead parted ways. Hampstead would take a train to Severnaya station, travelling along the rim of the Northern Shield, and from there he would take another train and travel south towards his parents’ estate in the Mongolian steppe. Thomas would just board the first train from Prime North to Aquitaine Station. From there, he would use one of the many public shuttles to get home.

Rosenheim had been a small German city before the End Times, located at the foot of the Alps, just south of Munich, in the land of Bavaria. More than fifty years later, Rosenheim was, by modern standards, a large German city, second only to Berlin, the recently rebuilt German Holdfast.

The northern European coast had suffered heavily in the End Times, with entire lands, such as the ancient lands of the Dutch, falling beneath the waves, as the dikes burst and sea levels rose rapidly. The lands south of the coast had also suffered, as never-ending storms had whipped the land for months on end. All the water pouring forth from the sky had led to mudslides and unimaginable flooding. Then, when the volcanoes of the Mediterranean had erupted, shockwaves shook the very roots of the Alps, which partially collapsed, leading to rockslides that buried entire countries. Many Terrans insisted that one could hear the rumble of tumbling mountains of rock all the way in the lands of old India.

What had remained of Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt had been completely destroyed when the invasion had begun in earnest and their Enemy, or ‘dushman’, as they were known in the early days of Ragnarok, was revealed. Munich had fared better, in part due to geography, but in no small measure due to the fact that Munich had been the place where half of the old Bundeswehr had chosen to regroup. The other half had joined up with surviving elements of other Eurasian armies and refugees in Prague. Though Prague had survived Doomsday, Munich had fallen in the waning hours of the Hour of Twilight, with the last pockets of human resistance managing to carry on fighting in the Bavarian countryside. Rosenheim itself had been the last true bastion of German resistance, holding out until the Hour of Twilight had passed and the day was won.

As a result, Rosenheim had become the Holdfast of the German Nation, meaning that it was viewed as a type of capital, a title held for over two decades, until Berlin had been rebuilt. Being a Holdfast mattered little from an administrative point-of-view, since the centres of power of Terra now lay beneath the two Polar Shields.

Holdfasts existed only as cultural artefacts, functioning only as symbolic cultural centres of the Nations of Terra. Some, like Moscow, Kampala and Jerusalem, had been the site of bitter fighting on Doomsday, with some, like Delhi, Gandhinagar and, most famously, Prague, even managing to hold out until the very end. Others, such as Berlin, Cairo and Mecca, had been completely destroyed during the Day of Reckoning, when the invaders made landfall. Many former capitals, such as Jakarta, Tokyo and Tenochtitlan had been completely destroyed during the Fimbulwinter, as many had been located on Terra’s coasts or other areas vulnerable to the wrath of nature.

All of this history mattered little to Thomas now though, as all he could see now, flying over the verdant countryside, was a reminder of how vulnerable life was. He had learned that before the End Times this corner of Europe, over which he was flying, had been home to over twenty million Terrans. At one point in the last fifty years, there had been less than twenty million Terrans alive in the whole universe.

Official records stated that over 99% of all Terrans had died during the events of the End Times and the War of Vengeance. The tragedy had continued, as many had died in the years after in the other conflicts Terra had taken part in. It so was that, in the year 45 BT, less than twenty million Terrans born before the End Times remained alive. Of these, less than a quarter were true oldtimers, men and women who remembered Terra before the apocalyptic events of the invasion of their world, with the rest being the Yin, babies and children that had been stowed away in the dark places under the world, as their parents, and humanity as a whole, did battle for the fate of their world.

Terra’s current population was just about to surpass one hundred million, in part due to the Gardener Corps and its many programs. This was the name given to the policy of repopulation instated by the Terran High Command during the War of Vengeance and was not a single program, but an entire family of programs. Terran couples could pursue the path of becoming gardeners, if they so chose, like Hampstead’s parents had done. The Gardener Corps, though still part of the Terran military, consisted of couples which raised large groups of children with the help of the Terran High Command. However, only a small percentage of these children were usually the biological offspring of their parent guardians, with most of them being conceived and gestated in Terran breeding pods, to be then distributed to gardener families upon birth.

Many of them were clones of dead Terrans, whose genes had been ‘reused’ (usually at the request of friends or family). Others were ‘salvaged’: humans produced by splicing together various gene codes by whatever means had proven possible in each specific case. The genetic material involved belonged to either Terrans who had died in the End Times (whose genetic material had somehow been preserved) or to oldtimers that had donated their gene code to the Gardener programs. Many more were orphans and a large number were cyborgs placed in the care of human parents, to raise them as their own and to help grow their own human identity.

Thomas did not come from a gardener family. However, this did not mean that he had no experience of being part of one. When Terran parents were away offworld on duty, they left their children as wards to gardener families. Thomas had spent a total of around five years of his own childhood as a ward in various foster families, at first in Germany, then in Bulgaria, America, Nguni, Brazil and Melanesia.

He had been lucky. First, to have had his parents be away for so little time and, secondly, to have them return at all. His parents, both of them Yin, had been away on their first war when he had been only eight years old, returning only three years later. He had kept in contact via the Terran messaging system, yet it had been a rough period of time for him. He loved his parents and they loved him. Their absence had caused much turmoil within him, despite the excellent treatment he had received from his foster families.

How would they take their news that their son had a broken mind?

This was the dark conclusion he had reached. That must have been what was happening. He must be going insane. He wasn’t able to focus on anything else, other than an extreme and continuous fear of death. That first night on Luna, he had fought with the thoughts for the first time in his life. They all boiled down to one simple hope.

Was there any way for him not to die?

The answer – though remarkably difficult to comprehend –he had at least accepted. No, there was no way not for him to experience death. Even if he managed to die and be resurrected, like some had succeeded in the past, his luck would eventually run out. Whether it be by explosion or vaporisation or a gunshot to the head or even just having his brain rot out in the dirt for too long, he would eventually die in the classical sense. Even if Terra managed to stay out of any war from then to the end of time, death would certainly claim him in the end. There was simply no way he could be certain that he would live forever and that, in itself was proof enough of the certainty of your own death.

The next question had come almost immediately after he had acknowledged this inevitability of the first. Is there a way around that?

Having his consciousness transferred to some server was, also, not going to guarantee his eternal existence, because the server itself would be located in the physical world. It would be just as exposed to the chaos of the universe as his current body of flesh and bone was.

No. That wouldn’t work.

Perhaps there was another way?

Perhaps there was a way to live forever while still dying here, in this world.

The ways of Old Earth had shifted into something very different, yet still somewhat recognizable, when it came to religion. True believers of the faith (whichever that faith may be) were few and far between. Those that still clung to the old ways frequently did so in a type of open secrecy. They had to, since religion was partially outlawed.

The Terran legal code split the definition of religion in two.

There was cultural religion, which was mostly unchanged and recognizable. Terrans still celebrated events such as Christmas, Ramadan or Diwali. Mosques, churches, temples and shrines of all faiths still dotted the Terran landscape. Though most had been rebuilt upon the foundations of lost temples of Old Earth, a few had been built upon grounds where no religious edifice had ever stood before. People still wore religious symbols, such as crosses or karas. Most Terrans still had at least one religious icon in their house, whether it be a menorah, a kamidana or an ikon. Religious words still permeated modern Terran languages, as people frequently took the Lord’s name in vain. In its most extreme form, cultural religion included even the acknowledgement of the existence of historical religious figures, such as all the Buddhas, Jesus Christ or even Hercules. Albeit, with the strict insistence that there was nothing divine about these people. They were just special thinkers and doers of long gone times, who had been confused with gods, demigods and prophets.

Cultural religion was not just tolerated, but celebrated in the otherwise pragmatic world of Terra. Yet, a certain aspect of it did tend to walk the thin line between accepted practice and forbidden dogma, when historical context was taken into account. Oldtimers in particular were often guilty of flirting with certain ideas and beliefs which they themselves would usually decry as problematic, to say the least. The issue, in question, had to do with the dead, of which there were many.

Cemeteries were everywhere on Terra. Pictures of long gone loved ones littered rooms and screens in houses all across this post-apocalyptic world, as oldtimers fought vehemently to keep the memory of the dead alive. A subtle, yet palpable, type of ancestor worship had emerged in this society that struggled to cope with the overwhelming grief whose sombre shadow stood engraved deep within the Terran psyche.

It had been by way of such thinking, that the colour of mourning had become the colour of Terra.

Thomas was reminded of this as he passed over Rosenheim, during his descent towards madness and his parents’ place. Alongside the black, gold and crimson of the German tricolour, the black flag of Terra flew, a small white circle, symbolising Terra itself, laying in the centre of a sea of darkness. His was a society of black-and-white, of death and of life, and of right and wrong. The trauma of past suffering had become the foundation of their very identity and was now inextricably linked to their vision of the future.

Never again.

Those words, written in a thousand Terran languages, lay etched on uniforms, weapons, door frames... everywhere Terran hands had claimed something as their own, they left the mark of their worldview. Every aspect of this society was a result of what they had been through, what they had lost and what they had discovered as their world had collapsed around them. The days of the End Times were legend, particularly to sunrisers such as Thomas, who had learned of the many great deeds, bloody battles and untold suffering endured by their forefathers, not just in classrooms, but also during many a fireside chat.

As he signalled the Muller Estate’s security system that he had arrived and would be landing in front of his parents’ hangar, he gazed over the woodland that covered the mountains behind his parent’s house. Thomas remembered those woodlands. He remembered them as they had been when he was but a small child: a vast sea of saplings atop a bed of endless broken rock, a testament to the days when the Alps had been torn asunder. Now he could see an actual mature forest behind him, different from the one he had last seen over five years before. The colour was a deeper and darker shade of green than he had ever seen on Terra before. The trees themselves seemed to have grown enormously in the last few years, as acorns littered the forest floor. Acorns which seemed… different, not just in size, but in colour and somewhat in shape.

Where have I seen those before?

Oh...  

He realised what had happened.

These trees had received Askr treatments, like the trees of the Aesir and Vanir worlds. He had heard that this would be done. He had even helped load the necessary reagents, manuals, machinery and… ‘workers’ required onto cargo ships himself. Sure enough, as he landed and looked into the distance, he could see one of those little hard-working cunts.

Askr squirrels were much larger than Terran squirrels, reaching about half a meter in size. They weren’t even truly squirrels, being more akin to emaciated beavers in appearance and temperament. They were only called squirrels due to their great bushy tales and were comical creatures to behold both in body and behaviour. They had skinny limbs and walked upright, seemingly caught in a continuous drunken wobble as they always appeared to struggle to keep their balance. One might even find them pitiful, were it not for the absolutely astonishing athletic feats they were capable of in their preferred environment: the canopies of forests. While their limbs were hilariously skinny, their belly was spectacularly bloated, since it held within the reason why these squirrels were such good caretakers of the woods.

Askr squirrels were scavengers, with their ideal diet consisting of dried leaves, pests, weak plants and anything else not serving any purpose at any given time. They would take the forest’s waste and quickly transform it into their own nutritious fertilizer.

They also helped spread the seeds of a myriad of trees, brushes and grasses. Some, such as the acorns of oaks (like the ones before him now) they would compulsively hide in areas where no other oaks stood, whilst only attempting to be discrete in the most superficial of ways.

The particular squirrel before him was exhibiting one of the main behaviours that made them so annoying: they felt compelled to bury acorns in places no one wanted acorns to be buried. This one was somewhat atypical, since it was light outside and Askr squirrels usually preferred doing their ‘gardening’ at night. Many an Askr squirrel had been shot by a startled Allied Host soldier during their tenures on the worlds of the Aesir and Vanir. Yet, their obsessive night-time activities were nothing in comparison to their absolutely maniacal reaction to pollen, which was when their annoying nature was truly made manifest.

When exposed to any type of pollen, they would be overcome by a compulsion to cover themselves in as much pollen as possible, then run around maniacally looking for new places to spread said pollen. They also seemed to be aroused by the pollen, as two speeding balls of furry pollen would always find themselves on a collision course, from whence they would only disentangle after joining together into the most psychotic copulation presented by the entire animal kingdoms of several planetary ecosystems. The noises they made during such entanglements were horrifying, especially at night, when they were most likely to occur. When Thomas had first heard them back in the Triangulum Galaxy, he had pictured a gorilla beating a horse to death.

He found the idea of hearing the same noises through the open window of his childhood bedroom to be in no small part dreadful and depressing.

After all, he was now looking at one in his own backyard, seemingly scouting out a future dig site, right in the middle of his parents’ lawn. It seemed to have decided upon a place where neither the shade of the house nor that of the hangar would ever reach it. It was likely thinking about its midnight digging session when Yeats bit its head off.

Yeats was a two hundred kilogram direwolf who enjoyed playing fetch, humping shuttles and decapitating average-sized members of invasive species in single bites. At least, Thomas hoped the squirrel had been decapitated, since that would have guaranteed a quick death. Thus, it would have spared it of the trauma inflicted by Yeats, as he began bashing its convulsing body over the rocks and tree trunks of the forest’s edge, jaw clasped on its torso, as it head dangled from a mangled neck.

All of this happened as Thomas waited for the public shuttle to leave and as he prepared himself for the task of hiding his existential dread from his father and mother. Then, the latter opened her living room door and rushed across her lawn to hug her son. His father followed her out and strolled towards them, with a bright, big smile on his face.

Thomas could tell his mother was about to cry. ‘Welcome home, my boy! I was worried! I knew you were on Luna and were almost home and safe and sound and yet I still worried. For a week!’ she managed to blurt out.

‘Hello, mom!’ He hugged her. Tightly. Tighter than he could ever remember hugging her. How he wished it could have been for the longing for her presence alone! How many times had he worried that he might never see her again? How many times had he wished he could have told her he loved her? How many more had he wished he could have said his ‘goodbyes’ to her better? He found himself holding onto her as a small child: clinging to her, knowing – or at least hoping – that she would make the bad go away.

She’ll know something is wrong. Stop!

He let go of her to see that she was, indeed, weeping. He smiled, trying to act normally. As normally as one could act when seeing loved ones after returning from war.

His father said something clever as he clasped his hand and hugged him.

Thomas believed he said something back. Yet, he couldn’t be sure, as he could hear Yeats beginning to feast upon the squirrel. He had to say something.

‘I see you’ve done some gardening!’ Because that’s what parents walk to talk about when they have not hugged their child in five years.

‘What? Oh, yes, we askered the forest.’ His mother replied, while looking him up-and-down, as if checking that he had returned in one piece.

‘I… I see Yeats doesn’t seem to agree with the change in scenery.’ Yeats broke one of the squirrel's thin arms and proceeded to lick the bone shards, likely looking for marrow.

His father had also noticed Yeats snacking on the poor little woodland creature. ‘What are you talking about? Look at him! He loves hunting those things.’ Maximillian Muller seemed very pleased with Yeats’ ferocity, as he gestured towards his beloved pet as it currently enjoyed a snack.

Thomas had shot several Askr squirrels himself on several occasions. Yet, whether due to Yeats’ brutal glee or his own current mental state, he was definitely disturbed by the carnage of nature on full display right in his family’s backyard.

He figured out a way to walk inside with his parents. All the while they bombarded him with a thousand questions. To most, they already knew the answer to, as they had many calls together, linked across the vastness of space through Greyspace communication. Thomas could tell that they just wanted to talk to him, in the flesh again, for so they had missed his actual presence, as he had theirs.

Thomas felt a deep shame inside of him throughout the entire day and into the evening. He had missed them so much. He tried really hard to show them how much he had missed them, yet he did not feel the joy of seeing them now. Such was the turmoil of his mind, that he did not even remember most of the day. They had dinner together and he believed that his mother had made for him his favourite beef pho, yet he could not guarantee that had been the case. It could have been schnitzel or shrimp fried rice, he couldn’t really remember.

He believed that he had answered their questions. Questions about the war – his war, the Ayve War of the Triangulum Galaxy – must have been answered by Thomas, of that he was sure of. The memories those answers brought back had come forth naked into his mind, their regalia of glory & gore, valour & violence, trickery & tribulation now removed. Only the cold darkness of their true nature remained, revealed to him now for what the experience had actually been: a mad dance at the edge of death.

It didn’t help when his father would interject to bring up his own war, the Senoyu War of the Andromeda Galaxy. Thomas had heard the tales before. Whilst his had been a war of planetary invasions and naval engagements in the deep void, his father’s war had been much different. It had been a war of shadows. Sabotage, ambush, assassination, reconnaissance and partisan warfare had been the staple of that conflict. His father had always spoken with much awe of his time spent fighting alongside the likes of Djibril al Sayid and Kimmie Jimmel. Yet, he had never hesitated to insist that the Senoyu War had been little more than one prolonged skirmish, when compared to the War of Vengeance fought by the oldtimers.

This insistence on the grandeur of the War of Vengeance now continued as he spoke of his opinion of his son’s Ayve War. Normally, he might have been annoyed by his father’s thinly veiled hints that the titanic galactic conflict that had seen him travel to the Triangulum Galaxy to do battle against demigods was little more than a small strategic move on a much broader chessboard. However, he found himself unable to entertain himself with such petty concerns. He wasn’t even saddened by his father’s refusal to acknowledge the fulfilment of his rite of passage as a man. He couldn’t even feel joy at the fact that his mother did acknowledge it.

His father had insisted that he join him on a stroll through their garden to see his newest crops. Yet, Thomas had discovered that the presentation of his father’s agricultural skills had been little more than a ruse to get him outside alone, so that he could lecture him as to what the next steps of his military career should be. Usually, Thomas would’ve paid attention to his father’s words, since they tended to be an unpredictable mix of profound wisdom and general ignorance. Yet, though he recalled participating in the discussion and being both congratulated for his decisions and berated for his choices, he couldn’t really remember that much of it. His father seemed to both agree and disagree with his decision to join the Terran Logistics Corps, likening it with his own decision to join the newly formed Engineering Corps over twenty years before, as well as his mother’s decision to join the Gardener Corps. This similarity seemed to be both the reason why he disapproved of his decision and why he applauded it.

He could have confronted, or at least pursued, this idiosyncratic view. Yet, his mind and heart weren’t in it. After exchanging a few pleasantries with both of them, he returned, at last, to his childhood bedroom, seemingly left untouched by his parent’s recent renovation spree. Whilst the rest of the house had seemingly grown, accumulating new, unfamiliar tools and decorations, his own room had remained just as he had left it. He passed by his old bookcase, filled with his beloved collection of tomes and tales.

He dropped his suitcases and backpack next to his wardrobe before walking back towards the stacked shelves and running his hand across his favourite titles. These were but a fraction of his collection, with the majority being located on data drives neatly stacked underneath his desk and uploaded onto his internet server. Yet, he had always enjoyed the feeling of having a real book in his hand. He used to love running his fingers across the rows of books. He did so now and his fingers slid across books whose names he knew not by the words printed on their backs but by the colours of their covers.

The favoured books of his childhood: Freeglader, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Lion, the Witch & the Cupboard.

Then came the books of his youth: The Chronicles of the Black Company, Magician and Dune.

Then came the books of his adolescence, when his curiosity had shifted to the real world of Old Earth, as opposed to the imaginary worlds of the days of old: Guns, Germs and Steel, Imagined Communities and the Fall of the Ottomans.

Further on down the line were the books he had collected before going off to join the Allied Host: 1984, Brave New World & Slaughterhouse Five.

And those were just the Terran books. The other shelves were littered with original copies of goblin and troll literature, as well as printed versions of orcish & elven literature.

It was only then that he remembered that he had brought home books from the war. Some had been gifts from comrades. Some had been bartered for on the worlds he had visited. A few were even stolen from the Aesir libraries he had passed through. He placed these new additions on one of the lower shelves and stopped, stepped back, and looked over his library as a whole, rather than as a collection of individual texts.

How many nights had he spent reading away into the wee hours of the morning, only to have to wake up for school the next day? How much had they nurtured him over the years? How much comforting energy had he drawn from these tales in hard times?

How little comfort they would offer him that night.

That night was dark and so were many others after it. That first night had been the most restless though, for he was visited by ghosts.

Ghosts he had realised would visit him from the moment he had seen Yeats savage the Askr squirrel at the forest’s edge.

His first kill had been a human boy, likely not much older than himself. He had shot him in the back of the head as the young Aesir warrior had charged at one of Thomas’ comrades, after exhausting his ammunition reserves in one swift detonation of energy towards the Allied Host position. He had seen his eyes as the body hit the ground.

His second had been another boy, albeit this one was of higher rank. He had also shot him – this time in the ear – during an ambush.

The third, fourth, fifth and sixth he didn’t know much of. That was quite a typical outcome of a successful grenade toss into a bunker.

The next eight he had been quite proud of, since they had been earned during a real battle. He had slain three of them during actual melee combat, with the other five falling to his rifle rounds within the chasms of Musspellheim.

He had slain seven more by the time of Battle of Astarte, the climatic peak of the Ayve War.

It was at Astarte where he had, as the orcs would say, ‘crossed the veil of presence’. There were four he remembered, in the early stage of the fight, then who knows how many during the bloody fracas that had formed during the battle’s main phase. In the last stage of the battle, after the King of the Aesir was felled by the blade of Quentyn Andromander, the surviving Aesir had collapsed into those who would surrender alive and those would surrender only in death. Thomas and his platoon and had gunned down dozens of their number. He remembered only his last kill clearly, for it had been his mightiest.

The proud Aesir Einherjar had stood atop the corpses of a dozen of his companions and a score of Thomas’ comrades, his force shield still active and his physical shield still intact. A great warhammer lay in his right hand, seemingly so heavy that only the strongest of Terrans might have been able to wield it two-handed, yet this Aesir would swing it with only one as he hewed humans, orcs, elves and goblins alike into the ground. In the end, his warband had been obliterated, with only he remaining, his back now against the wreckage of an Aesir gunship. The Allied Host soldiers before him had fallen trying to bring him and his Einherjar down. It was now Thomas’ platoon which stood against him.

Thomas hadn’t understood then, as he did not understand now, how he had stayed so calm. He had been trained to strive for such clarity, thought he did sometimes fail and lose his focus during moments of extreme violence. Yet, in his mind, in that moment, all that was present was standard military tactical guidelines. Specifically, his mind had narrowed down on the fact that there was only one reaction he could have when faced with such a clearly fearsome, yet enticingly lone, opponent. Without thinking, he had executed what he had assessed to be the proper approach to the issue before him.

He had walked, calmly, towards the Einherjar. When he had been close enough, he had lunged at his opponent's feet, rifle first. Once he had passed through the force shield, he shot through his opponent’s ankle, severing his foot from his leg. He had then dropped his rifle, stabbed the Aesir in the groin in the place where he had seen his force generator connect to his belt and thus destroyed his force shield. The Aesir warrior had thrown his physical shield and swung his axe, missing him by a hair’s breadth with both. Thomas had rolled away, brought out his pistol and shot him in the temples until the jarl collapsed. He finished him off with his dagger.

They had promoted him to Lieutenant that night. His pride had overwhelmed any ability to reflect on how close he had come to dying that day – not just with the Einherjar, but on all the other occasions presented by the Battle of Astarte. It would appear that he had kept that terror within him and it flowed over him now, together with another felling.

Shame.

Shame at his own lack of empathy. Shame of not ever pausing to think – for just one second – how he had ended so many lives. Warriors they had all been, yes. Humans just like him. Individuals just like him.

And he had sent them to the void that lies beyond; the great sleep from whence none came back.

It was in the wee hours of the morning that the god of sleep took mercy on him and allowed him a rest, only for Thomas to find himself visited by the god of nightmares.

In the dream, he was once more a child at his old school and he played a game with his fellow pupils. Yet, this was not some innocent children’s game. His classmates were in some kind of death cult, with Thomas himself being a member. They would dance with knives in their hands. Whoever would stop dancing would be stabbed to death by the others. The victim would try to defend himself, yet the dancers would always overwhelm him. In the end, it came down to a dance of two of which Thomas was one and a girl – whose face he recognized and whose name he did not remember – was the other.

He had pleaded with the girl to stop dancing and their torment, yet she had refused. In the end, Thomas had stopped and insisted that the girl not fight him. None of the stabbing was even necessary. They could stop and end this strange death cult game. The girl had refused and attacked him. He defended himself, accidentally slicing the girl’s neck open. Thomas dreamt of rivers of blood gushing through a tiny cut on her neck and, at that moment, the school bell rang and Thomas knew that within the mad world of the dream the next recess would see another dance.

It had been then that he had woken up in a cold sweat. Such were most of his nights that first week back in Rosenheim. His waking hours were merely visions of a clear nightmare. During the day, he alternated between avoiding his parents and attempting to think his way out of his problem, which refused to limit itself to simply being a case of overthinking things. He had scoured the Terran internet for answer to his questions, for that is how the thoughts (as he had taken to calling them) presented themselves.

What happens after death?

What if there is nothing after death?

If there is something, is it permanent or only for a further limited time?

Would that ‘something’ be a ‘good something’ or a ‘bad something’?

Each question would have an answer which, Thomas found, had to be a fact, not a belief. He knew this, for his mind appeared to refuse to believe anything. ‘Belief that there was life after death’ was met only by the wailing winds of his mind, as they screamed for the justice of a truth, not a hope. Thomas had obliged himself to honour this demand.

He knew not what came after true death, when a person’s brain had gone past the point of recoverability. Many claimed they did. Yet, none could provide proof for their beliefs. At least, not proof Thomas found convincing.

If there was nothing after death, then the only way to avoid the nothingness was to avoid death. Many had attempted this. A few were still alive. None could truly guarantee that they could keep it up forever.

If there was something after death, then spiritual immortality was almost certain, at least while this universe still existed. It did not matter whether or not they would die after their afterlife, since the cycle would likely commence once more, if the first death was little more than a door to another place. If no ‘afterdeath’, as it were, occurred, one could expect to be immortal in the afterlife.

Yet, what if life after death was a terrible thing? What if the afterlife was simply one continuous tortuous existence? It mattered not if one would come to experience ‘hell’ as a result of his own actions or by the whims of some cosmic entity. The thought that a hell could even exist was terrible to behold in its dreadful entirety, even if he could count himself as one of the lucky few to be spared such a fate. After all, what kind of ‘virtuous’ person could enjoy heaven if they knew their brethren burned in hell? With what type of people is heaven populated with, exactly?

Every time he would answer a question, he would gain some relief for the slightest of moments, before another thought would come and a new question had to be answered. All the while, it would feel as if his mind was a flimsy wooden house in the midst of the fiercest storm imaginable. The howling gales would threaten to tear the very structures of his house out of the ground and scatter them away on crazed winds and Thomas did not want that to happen.

So, he had to make his house stronger, find another house or build a new one.

He poured over vast amounts of literature, as he treated each question as an assignment, for which he would have to acquire new knowledge in order to complete. He started out by reading about physics and how the universe worked, only to realise that the rules of the universe allow for infinite possibilities and almost no certainties. Then he switched to rigid philosophy, as well as its more flexible brother: theology. While philosophical arguments were very much like encountering different people dressed in the same clothes, theological beliefs were much more akin to encountering the same person dressed in different clothes.

Philosophy had a million schools and theology a million sects. Philosophers and priests, it appeared to Thomas, attempted to behold the same darkness, yet saw two completely different things lurking beyond and within it. The philosopher seemed to be obsessed with wondering what the darkness was. The priest, on the other hand, seemed to focus much more on where the darkness came from. In the end, the philosopher would provide a definition of the darkness, just as the priest would begin to tell the tale of the birth of the darkness.

Religion frightened Thomas deeply.

How could it not? He had no religion.

It was not as if he had never thought of himself as religious. He somehow believed in God – or at least had believed– in some form. He had always taken the existence of a higher power for granted. Sure, no one went to church, no one truly believed the tales of the old holy books and no one claimed any faith in any deity anymore. At least not on Terra.

Yet, somehow, among his people, he had always felt an unspoken agreement that some ‘God’ existed. Most wouldn’t even describe it as such; rather, they would use terms like ‘higher power’, ‘spirit of the universe’ or ‘an energy’.

Ancestor worship required at least some degree of belief in the supernatural. In any of the Shrines of the Lost on Terra, did anyone question those mourning within? Did anyone ask them if they were simply remembering the dead or praying to some god or another? Their whole society was based on this unspoken agreement that they would be secular in public and religious in private. Believing in ‘God’, though publicly denied, was privately taken for granted.

His parents were not Christians and yet they celebrated Christmas. His mother had told him that she would pray for him before he left to join the Host. His father always spoke about how only ‘God’ knows some things. Thomas himself had never questioned whether he had a religion or not. He had just assumed that his religion was the unspoken religion of Terra.

His exploration on the internet had revealed to him that this religion even had a name, with some scholars now referring to it as ‘Ambiguous Terran Monotheism’ (or ATM, for short).

The core tenets of this religious movement apparently were:

(1) Belief in the existence of an afterlife where one would be reunited with lost loved ones,

(2) Belief in the existence of an intelligent being that was omniscient,

(3) Belief that all life is actually one single entity, and

(4) Belief that the survival of the Terran people was an act of religious duty.

It was a religion with neither a church, nor a text, nor even a congregation yet, it now occurred to him, Ambiguous Terran Monotheism was a religion with a state, a law and an army.

And what a petty religion it was.

Time had given the Humans of Terra many friends and those friends had granted them the tools needed to traverse the vast darkness of the most distant stars. To eradicate illness and disease. To harness energy on a scale that was truly cosmic. To dream of survival in a Universe that had decided that they were a threat to the natural order of things.

They lived in an age of heroes, as the Humans of Terra showered themselves in glory in battle against gods, emperors, monsters and men. Yet, why did they fight? Just to survive? Could they only survive if they fought?

Did any people do more than just fight to survive? What had happened to the great arts of Old Earth? What had happened to music? Thomas knew of no songs sung by Terrans that were not of Old Earth’s making, except those taken from other peoples, or birthed by the carnage of one conflict or another.

Their allies fared no better.

Orcs believed in a Great Free Will, a type of energy that flows through all things, bending the flow of time into ways only it understood and which one would be wise to accept.

The elves believed in nothing more than the pursuit of a continuous existence of vast cycles of reinvention, until one individual was either truly dead, confined to a soulkeeper or if they succeeded in the impossible task of being the same ideal person over and over again.

The demani pretended to hide their belief in some Infinite Architect of Infinity whose works were the entirety of creation, akin to how their ancient ancestors could boast that their galaxy was their own creation.

The remani believed in a Great Pride that lay behind the tapestry of our own universe, free to roam wherever it pleased, in much the same way as they themselves aspired to within our own universe.

For the trolls, God had better be dead, for if he were not, he had a lot to answer for.

The same person in different clothes, each one opting to favour one accessory over another, yet all bearing the same body beneath. All were beautiful outfits in their own way.

Yet, not all fashion choices were so tasteful.

The Continuum of Humanity lay across the table from the Humans of Terra and their Republican Alliance; one single leviathan shadowing over the united front presented by the ants before it and the dwarves around it. In the Alliance, they liked to tell themselves that the giant was kept in check by the dwarves that stood ready to lay into the goliath with blades the size of the giant’s cutlery. A death by a thousand dwarven cuts would end the behemoth if it dared overextend itself to crush the ants across from it.

In truth, the giant hadn’t really bothered itself with something as small, distant and benign as their little alliance. It was the Continuum’s complacency and self-absorption which kept the Terrans safe, not some wondrous alignment of intergalactic geopolitics. For that is what the Continuum did: it sought to make all of humanity within its borders the same and it did so in ways which the harshest communist of Old Earth recoil in horror.

Thomas had heard the stories and seen the tapes. After all, what empire had ever existed that did not have propaganda? It was the madness of all empires to reach a point where they assumed that life within the empire was by default better than life outside of it. Surely all those beyond the empire’s borders would envy what the empire was if they saw how amazing life was within its borders?

That’s how they knew what life in the Continuum of Humanity was like: they boasted about it. They could all witness the boring world where everyone was the same, for nature ‘wanted’ everyone to be the same. Nature had produced perfection when it had produced the human body and one could not improve upon perfection, hence all artificial change was only the malevolent degradation of the human body and mind.

Yet, each human body was part of the greater body of humanity and in every body there are many organs and tissues. Some tissues provide the body with nourishment, others keep it pure and immune, while others – not too many though – direct the body’s actions. All of these tissues had to be made of many separate cells and each of these cells had to be of the same quality. After all, was that not how things were within the human body? If the body of humanity was to be as perfect as the human body, each cell was to be produced over-and-over again, aspiring to fulfil exactly the same function as the expired cell it had been made to replace.

How convenient it was that the Emperor of Humanity and his family had achieved immortality, for the Emperor himself had to be perfect in the execution of his role within the body of Humanity. The obvious conclusion that followed from this line of thinking was that the only perfect Emperor is He who is also a God and God is immortal.

He did have heirs though – just in case. After all, shouldn’t the perfect system of government come with spare parts?

If ever there was a cell within the body of humanity that chose to pursue any activity other than the one chosen for it, the cell would be ‘recalibrated’. If that didn’t work, the cell would be recycled, for the perfect system was also perfectly efficient, with nothing ever going to waste.

Mind control was one thing, yet mental recalibration was another entirely, particularly when one could not disturb the perfection of the human body. The only way the ‘thought police’, as Terrans referred to it, could recalibrate the mind of a cancerous cell was to make the citizen understand, accept and shun his own morbidity as an aberration. What was terrifying was not the fact that some minds found themselves beyond the point of repentance and were simply extinguished.

No, what was terrifying was the fact that the thought police almost always got the job done!

They had to. It was their divine duty to. They were not just immune cells of the living human body, but also of the human body that lay beyond the veil of death.

So it was that the Continuum of Humanity had something the Humans of Terra didn’t: an afterlife.

Aeons in the distant past, in a time before elves, orcs, trolls, goblins or many other branches of the Tree of Man, all of humanity allegedly stood together in the Old Realm. Among all the recorded histories of mankind tracing back to the twilight years of the Age of Bliss, the Old Realm was described as truly being Heaven-on-Earth.

The only thing missing from this paradise were the dead that had passed away before the last brick of the kingdom of Heaven-on-Earth had been set. So it was that work commenced on a Great Plan: a plan for all of humanity, from all times, past, present and future, to be reunited in one true heaven, beyond the borders of our own universe.

Much has been lost and even more is debated of what transpired next. What was known was that the Old Realm was torn asunder as conversations turned to debates, debates turned to arguments, arguments turned to fighting, and fighting turned to war. This War at the Gates of Heaven, as it came to be called, had resulted in both the birth of the orcish race and the Schism of Mankind, as the two major surviving sides of this great conflict would be the Continuum of Humanity and the newly arisen Others Unaligned, with the latter factions continuing to fracture and grow into the various branches of the Tree of Man. History, however, begrudgingly admits that it was the Humans of the Continuum which managed to carry the Great Plan to fruition.

Yet, this was not the Great Plan that was laid out at first, in the times before horrors of war had twisted the souls of men into demons of intolerance.

No, this was an abomination.

The Continuum’s afterlife was a horrid place, where no individuality truly existed, for individuality would breed selfishness and selfishness would sow chaos and chaos is anathema to heaven. It was merely an infinite continuation of the same repetitive hell that was life within the Continuum of Humanity itself.

Thankfully, the Humans of Terra, of which he was one, had been deemed heretical and beyond repentance almost immediately upon their discovery. Hence, Thomas could hope, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that he would not be cursed with such an afterlife, if such an afterlife indeed existed. According to Continuum dogma, Thomas’ soul would be given over to the cold void of inexistence.

But what if there had been a Heaven before the Old Realm? What if there had been a heaven built for all mankind before there had ever been humans to speak of anywhere in the universe? What if there was a greater heaven which would save them all from both the empty void and the Continuum’s hell? A true heaven, for lack of a better term?

What could a true heaven, even be?

This question had been what had brought Thomas to the minds of Terra’s past: the Humans of Old Earth. Thomas’ reasoning was that, if a true heaven did exist, then the bloodlines of Terra would link up with the bloodlines of the people of Old Earth. It was the only way in which all the people of both Old Earth and Terra could meet their lost loved ones. This bloodline would also have to lead into the future, seeking out a potential infinite line of descendants.

Yet, Thomas did not know the future. But, he did know the past. That was his art: chronicling. His specialty was Terran history; specifically the lives lived by those humans of Old Earth centuries before the End Times. If the lines of love went back far enough, which they did, in this scenario, there would be thinkers on Old Earth who would’ve struggled to comprehend a heaven. Such attempts would yield different images of heaven, not all of which would overlap with his.

Yet some would and these ones he could grant more attention to.

His research revealed many results of such attempts to visualise an afterlife. Some were better than others. None satisfied his mind’s hunger for certainty on the matter. What was worse was that, along the way, he had come to realise that a truly rational conclusion would be that heaven itself, might be inherently unattainable.

At least a heaven for truly everyone seemed to be unattainable. Thomas’ thinking was that several levels of heavens and hells might be a more pragmatic visualisation (an idea he got from reading Dante’s Inferno). Yet, even this was a flawed idea, for a bad man might suffer adequately in hell, while a good man would never be capable of enjoying absolute heaven whilst knowing that others suffered in hell. After all, wasn’t empathy a virtue one might expect of their neighbours in heaven?

His mind spun back to death and wondered why life itself existed. If heaven was to exist forever, why bother with this short thing called life? Was something happening now? Was this existence necessary? A quote from Mark Twain haunted him from the moment he first read it.

‘I do not fear death. I was dead for billions of years before I was born and suffered no inconvenience from it.’

His quest eventually led him to read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. He recalled opening the book on the first page, then closing it after finishing the last. What transpired in between those two moments was not clear to him, though Clara informed him that three days had passed. It was an astounding text, but what bothered Thomas about it had been that he hadn’t understood why the author had felt the need to present his views on existence over the backdrop of what was, essentially, a whodunit detective novel.

He found himself on the porch outside the living room, patting Yeats’ on the head, as they both sat at the top of the steps leading down towards the garden. It had been a week since his arrival in Rosenheim. At one point during the day, the dread had grown too restless for him and he found himself unable to abide within his room any longer. So, he had come outside for some fresh air. Yeats had been waiting for him there. The direwolf had been bred from Rottweiler genetic stock and still possessed the boxed head of its lineage, which now rested in his lap.

He used to despair when Yeats would do this, for he would excessively drool when excited or comfortable. Thomas could already feel a pool of wet slob begin to seep through the fabric of his trousers and onto his leg. Though he would normally be grossed out, he now cared very little for the goo pooling in his lap as Yeats happily grunted in joy at being petted. Once, Thomas had enjoyed scratching him behind the ears, pulling at his jaw or wrestling with the direwolf on the lawn before him. He had done so ever since Yeats had been a puppy. Yet, now, just as he did not care for the drool, he did not care for the satisfied grunts either.

He felt as though he couldn’t enjoy anything. All was terror. Terror at the vast array of likely horrors that might wait beyond the certain horror of death.

It was in this state that his mother found him.

‘Oh, I didn’t know you were here,’ she said, a plate of leftovers in her hand, which Yeats immediately detected, lifting his head from Thomas’ lap and licking his snout in excitement.

She moved to throw the contents of her plate out onto the grass of the yard, as the direwolf sprinted towards his dinner.

She smiled, though she avoided eye contact with him. ‘I left a few bites for you as well. We made schnitzel and kimchi. It's very good. I thought you might like it.’

He realised he had missed today’s dinner, just as he had likely missed the dinner of the night before. Or did he have dinner then, but not three days before? Had he even been having lunch with them? Were they even home the whole time? Where was his father now? Could he be away with work? Had his mother been away with work?

They had spoken since his arrival, yet Thomas had not really been... there for most of the time.

All of a sudden, yet not unexpectedly, waves of shame and loneliness came over him. They began as a longing. A pull. A need to share with another that which he was going through in the hopes that perhaps the other could do for him what he could not do for himself. Bring him the peace he had somehow lost.

‘Thank you, mom. I’ll come have a bite later,’ was all the profoundness he could utter at that moment.

Again, his mother smiled a half-smile, not bearing herself to look at him directly; though Thomas did feel her eyes following his when he was not looking at her. She turned and made her way back towards the inside. It was just when she had crossed the threshold that Thomas could take it no longer.

‘Mom! Wait…’ He didn’t know what he wanted to say to her.

Neither did she, yet she swiftly took a seat on a chair next to him. ‘Of course, Thomas!’

He paused, at a loss of words. Where could he even begin?

‘I… I am unwell, mom.’ Might as well start with the truth.

‘I noticed, my son. Talk to me. What is wrong?’

Thomas looked at her, not knowing if he was supposed to feel shock, panic or relief.

Of course she knew. She must have noticed how absent he had been the whole week. If she knew though, then how bad was it? How bad was he that it was noticeable from the outside? At least he wouldn’t have to explain how he felt, thus he could focus on trying to explain why he felt the way he did.

‘After we came back to Luna, there was a party to celebrate the end of our service’.

‘Yes. Yes you told us, with Hampstead, Motley and…. What was the name of that girl –’

‘Yes. That one.’ He cut her off.

‘Did something happen at the party?’

‘No. But, before it…’

He choked up. He felt a lump in his throat and choked. He felt so happy to finally share his struggle with someone that he started to weep. He told her as much as he could, as coherently as he could. He told her about the first thought that had gripped him. He told her about those that came after. He told her about the feeling of impending doom that haunted him now. He told her of his searches through his books and across the internet. He told her everything. The whole damned incoherent mess.

He had done all of this while crying and ranting away into the darkness of the woods beyond. In the end, after exhausting his words – but not his besieged mind – he remembered that she was there and turned to look at her.

He knew his mother’s face well, yet he had never before seen it formed the way it was at that moment. It was definitely a look of concern, albeit her confusion was also palpable. Right as he had turned to see her, she had seemed to have been piecing together thoughts of her own. Yet, the look had changed somewhat as she saw him look at her.

Tears still lay in his eyes. It was only then that Thomas realised that she had likely not seen him cry since he had been a small child. Moreover, he realised that the last time his mother had seen him cry had likely been the last time he had ever cried.

Panic flooded him, filling the space only recently relieved of anxiety by the outpouring of tears. He was a Terran, a warrior citizen of the Bastion of Terra. Furthermore, he was an officer now, a commander of men. He had seen war. He stood now not just before his mother Lisa Muller, but also before Master Sergeant Lisa Muller and she had seen war also. Likely somewhere in the house was Master Sergeant Maximillian Muller. They had seen war, just as him. They showed in themselves the resilience blossomed into strength by adversity which was the expected norm of all their people.

Weaklings cried at the foot of things not worth the attention of warriors. He did not want to be a weakling. He did not want his parents to think their son was a weakling. Yet, perhaps this was how weaklings showed themselves. Perhaps all weaklings had been brave before they had been able to see the world for the horrifying place it truly was. Perhaps that is why weaklings feared death so much…

‘Mother, I am sorry!’ he burst out.

His mother stood up. ‘Thomas! No!’ She didn’t come to hug him though. She somehow seemed too shocked to show affection through touch. However, she seemed to still be able to show it through a smile.

‘Thomas, you don’t understand! This is horrible. What is happening to you is horrible. But… darling…’ She choked up now also and Thomas saw in amazement and terror that she had tears swelling into her eyes.

‘Thomas, darling, I am so sorry for you. But – please understand – I am also happy. I thought you were... I thought you were stuck. I thought the war… Never mind, Thomas!’ She paced around the porch now. ‘My darling son… The thoughts you are having now... I have had as well.’

Thomas’ felt his heart skip a beat and so did his mother.

‘No! Wait! No! Thomas, my darling, I do not know the answers to your questions!’ She was sobbing now, yet she fought hard to say her words properly. ‘I do not have a cure. No one does! But, I… I understand and – Thomas, listen to me!’

She walked over to him now, Yeats had returned to lie next to Thomas, yet as she neared he sat at attention, likely expecting another snack.

She sat down next to him. ‘I’ve had these thoughts… and so did your father. I was younger than you, though, and your father was younger still, but we had them. I know they are terrible!’

Thomas, for one instant, felt the flicker of hope inside of him grow into a promising flame. ‘They… they are. Do you still have them?’ he asked.

‘No. No, I don’t. I mean I still do sometimes, but they’re mostly gone now…’ she confessed.

‘How did they go away?’ he begged.

‘Oh, but I don’t know!’ Her voice had turned to rage. Motherly rage. As if she was angry that she had not recorded the tools with which the thoughts were defeated, since she could have given them to her son now in his hour of need.

‘Your father’s thoughts just… just went away one day. He has no idea how. With me… I just forced myself to not think about it. In the end, it worked.’

And that’s what he tried to do for a few days, before all the bottled-up existential dread exploded and almost pushed him towards the precipice.

For three whole days he tried doing everything he could to push the thoughts away. He helped his parents around the house. He travelled to the Northern Polar Shield to arrange his future service with the Logistics Corps. He then went too Berlin to formally join the Army of Germany. He taught Yeats how to play fetch. He even tried to finish watching Game of Thrones.

Ultimately, while training with his sword and rifle in the woods, he broke down. Yeats had been his only witness, as the direwolf had joined him on his trek through the woods of his youth, towards a great meadow he remembered from his childhood. He had found that the Askr squirrels had made short work of it, transforming it into little more than just a collection of small clearings. Instead of the sweet pain of nostalgia, he felt only the cold stab of entropy. He realised that nothing would last forever. Just as the forest had changed now, the forest would change again in the future, as it had before in ages past. The old trees would, in the end, die, as new trees would take their place.

In the end, death would claim all.

In the silence of the woods, he broke down and cried for the second time since his childhood. He had failed in keeping the thoughts away. If anything, the suppression had built up pressure inside of him. A pressure he now released by weeping on the forest floor, as Yeats went from brutally murdering Askr squirrels, to tenderly licking away Thomas’ tears.

When twilight had neared, his father had called him to ask if he was alright. Furthermore, he had insisted that Thomas not shoot himself in the face, since his mother would be disappointed if he didn’t look good at his own funeral. Thomas had laughed nervously at Maximillian Muller’s morbid humour. Truthfully, he had enjoyed it as a child. Yet, now, he could definitely understand why his mother often thought it to be a bit off-colour.

He was reminded that evening that his father was undeniably a peculiar man. He had arrived home to find his mother worried, untouched food lying in front of her, whilst his father gorged on a roast lamb with couscous.

‘You alright, son?’ He asked Thomas as he took a seat at the table.

‘What? Yes!’ he lied.

‘Huh? You sure you’re not rattled by what you told us about a few nights ago?’ He had told his father, albeit in a more composed manner, what he had told his mother, after Maximillian Muller had arrived on the porch to ask what all the weeping noises were about. Lisa had made her husband confess that he had eavesdropped on the entire conversation.

It would appear that it had been his father that had noticed that something was wrong with him before his mother. Whilst Lisa had feared PTSD, Max had put his money on heartbreak. Suffice to say, they had agreed that they had both been wrong.

His father had given the same instruction as his mother. ‘Try not to think about it. Some people even go a little mad if they think about it too much!’ his father had said before insisting that they make some fondue for dinner the next day.

Now his father asked him if he was still rattled. What could he do? Lie? Could he pull it off? No! Not in the state he was in.

‘Yes. Yes, I am,’ he confessed.

‘I understand, son. When I had them, I would wail and scream into the night at the horror of it all. I guess it helped, though I don’t advise you to startle the neighbours! The squirrels do enough wailing!’ He paused to giggle.

Thomas pretended to find him humorous.

‘But, you do need some help. Help you won’t find by reading shit online. Help we can’t provide. Help someone else might provide.’

They’re going to do it. They’re sending me away to the crazy house to get mental reconditioning like the people who get stuck get at the Medical Corps.

‘I told you about Ronan, right? You know who he is?’

Thomas was puzzled. He knew who Ronan was and he was pretty sure that he did not work for the Medical Corps. He had never met Ronan. Yet he knew much of him, for Ronan had been his father’s commanding officer during the Senoyu War. His father often spoke of how the Irishman was the greatest warrior he had ever seen, rivalling the likes of Djibril al Sayid and Thomas Ashaver. Many a time his father had castigated Thomas’ failings, yet he had never given himself as the ideal to which his son should aspire towards. He had, however, at least during Thomas’ early childhood, given Ronan O’Malley as an example.

Then, one day, the stories stopped and Maximillian Muller had replaced Ronan with other oldtimers as his chosen examples of paragons of Terran valour. Quite frankly, Thomas wasn’t sure if he had heard the name in over ten years. Nevertheless, remembering his father regaling the great deeds of Ronan O’Malley was one of his fondest childhood memories, as he remembered not only the awe he felt hearing his father’s stories, but also the awe his father had felt while reliving through the times he spoke of.

‘Yes. I remember you telling me stories about him.’

‘Me too… I… I think it would help if you were to meet with him.’
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