Written by Kevin W. Schaefer
Wisps of morning air pierced John's face as he trod down the steps of the subway station. Still groggy after having been rudely awaken in the middle of the night by a ferocious thunderstorm, it was as though the last two months of vacation had been nothing more than a long weekend. Nevertheless, John did long for a taste of Jersulan autumn, and to see the silver sparks emanating from the planet's crescent moons once more. After three years in the program, Earth became increasingly alien to him; while the world he would soon return to was the one he called home.
It had been three years since his old life had vanished in the blink of an eye. John could still remember the tears on Anne's frazzled face on that dismal day as he said goodbye to her. She couldn't fathom why he called off the engagement, as he had already been in the Marines for over two years at the time. She knew the risks. He had been overseas and she knew very well he'd be gone for long periods of time.
John don't do this to me! I know the sacrifices you'll be making. I know the risks and I wanna take them with you. Please don't leave me!
But she didn't know what she was talking about. Nor was there a way John could tell her. He was forbidden to. The minute he had enlisted in the Alliance he had sworn to never tell anyone back home what he was doing. The world simply wasn't ready to know that there was life out there. Sector 91 had been government classified since its formation, and would remain that way unless Earth was threatened.
John was assigned to defend an extraterrestrial civilization, as a means for the humans to build relations with various species. They had already acquired numerous allies and were continuing to gain support across the galaxy. And they couldn't have done it without John.
Before Sector 91, the idea of a superhuman wasn't thought possible. Yet all that was needed for it to become a reality were the proper resources and exactly the right DNA structure. Once the technology was developed, the government had been searching relentlessly for the one person who could handle the transfusion. Thousands of chemicals entering a person's cellular system, transforming every layer of their biogenetic structure.
John remembered the overwhelmingness and the surge of energy flowing through his veins the first time he flew. Gushes of wind brushed past his face as he soared across the ferocious skies. The spirit of a lion's roar echoed inside of him when he first exercised his super strength. His soul ran free as his childhood fantasies were at last realized. All those summer nights he'd spent stargazing, longing for a glimpse of the world above, his was now greater than anything he had ever imagined.
The memory of his first time stepping foot on Jersula's surface was as vivid and crisp as the day it happened. He could feel the briskness of the wind upon his body as he gazed upon the vast expanse of landscapes and starlit palaces. It was as though the planet was an unending display of magnificence and beauty, that resonated with John in an almost spiritual manner. Jaded by his humanity and sheer ignorance of otherworldly affairs, John Mathis was once a foreigner to the Jersulan people. Only now did he at last feel a sense of belonging among them.
As the herds of bustling citizens brushed past one another, frantically trying to get to their jobs or wherever it was that they were compelled to go, John could not help but wish that they knew what was out there. It was not that they were limited by their humanity, but rather that many of them had forgotten or simply didn't know how to truly live.
John pitied this swarm of middle-class citizens and street wanderers deeply, for he could still remember when he was once one of them; bound to endure the same realm of mediocrity as those who had come before him. It was only until Jersula when a breath of intoxicating fragrance renewed his inner senses, transforming the washed up soldier into a warrior for the very first time.
And though he enjoyed reuniting with his elderly mother and younger brother these past few months, experiencing feelings of nostalgia and comfort along the way, he could not deny that Earth simply didn't compare with the sense of awe he felt on Jersula. He had missed the sight of a thousand sunsets glistening in the sky, juxtaposed with the array of colors from the surrounding systems. He had missed that inexplicable jolt of energy as he entered the deepest layers of space, naming the countless stars as he made his way across. Now as he passed a flustered businessman in his mid-forties who was too busy to look up from his smartphone, John found himself quite ready for another adventure. But most of all, he missed Dea.
Three months without seeing her had felt like an eternity, each day longer than the one before. Dea's beauty was as pure and angelic as it had always been, evoking the essence of Aphrodite in all the goddess' glory. John could almost feel her gentle touch enrapturing his senses as he felt the warmth of her sweet embrace. He remembered the inexplicable joy he felt as he gazed into her bluish eyes and stroked her long hair, which rested at the edges of her shoulders. Though as he continued to reminisce, he was once again reminded of why they couldn't be together. The painful truth stared him in the face, despite his best efforts to deny it. Not only did Inara hail from the planet Tybylon as a representative to the Federation, but she was like John bound to her duties. While relations were not forbidden among its members, they were highly dis-encouraged; particularly inter-species ones. Nevertheless, John had thought about her much these past few months, and was eager to break past these barriers. As he envisioned her greenish skin glowing in the midst of a cluster of otherworldly beings, John had at last resolved to tell her how he felt upon his return.
John took advantage of the morning rush as the distracted citizens made it easier for him to teleport unnoticed.
The only difficulty with the Jersulan method of teleportation was that it couldn't be done from any location. Specified coordinates in secluded areas nonetheless made it harder for enemies to obtain and use the technology. In this case, a vacant section of a subway was the perfect setting in which to execute this form of transportation.
As he entered the dusty and confined space, John could smell puffs of smoke fuming out of an old bum's cigar from just a few yards away. The subway reeked of beer cans, cigarettes and half empty pizza boxes. And to think, John's time on Earth was intended to be a vacation. The filthy sights and smells that were currently enrapturing his senses made him all the more anxious to leave the planet at once.
Connecting his wristband to a wired circuit at the edge of a slightly concealed outlet, John whispered a password into the wristband's implanted receiver.
Instantly, a bluish light emanated from John's exterior as waves of electromagnetic energy pulsated through every layer of his body. Feeling the surgical force coursing through his veins, John simply watched as his arms vanished from sight until his entire self had disappeared. The other passengers barely looked up from their newspapers and cellular devices to witness the marvel that had just occurred.
It was only a matter of seconds before John found himself standing on the edge of Jersula's capital city, eager to absorb the radiance of its crystal palace. How he had longed these past two months to abide in this realm of angelic magnitude once more, and to be merely touched by the shimmers of light emanating from the central moon.
Yet as a gust of wind pinched the edges of his raggedy beard, John could not help but notice an eery mist entering the atmosphere. This was not the world he remembered. Surely there was a malfunction with his teleportation device.
Opening his eyes, he saw shades of gray eroding from the depths of a murky surface. Screams echoed in the distance as swarms of shadowy figures lurked beneath the edge of an elaborate precipice. Gazing into the exterior of Jersula's central palace from afar, shivers of fear rolled down the man's spine as he could not fathom what lay before his eyes.
Instead of a fine display of Jersulan architecture gleaming in the midst of the twilit landscape, the palace was now a militaristic fortitude, enhanced by its blackened walls and the multitude of stormtroopers filing in and out. Illuminated by the darkened skies and encircled by a vast display of towering skyscrapers, it was as though a series of clandestine events had taken place during the superhuman's absence.
Yet what was even more strange were the numerous signs John saw dispersed throughout the city. Each bore the face of what appeared to be some sort of militaristic leader, marked by an exceedingly stern expression and a brutal scar which extended from just above his right eye down to the tip of his lower lip. Although he had ascertained that the figure was not of Jersulan descent, John could not quite identify his exact species. He knew of the Tybylonian system which neighbored this planet, though it inhabited a multitude of extraterrestrial races. Yet as he gazed into the fiery eyes of this figure's monstrous face, and examined its ogre-like features protruding its skin, horrific thoughts entered John's mind as he considered where this being may have hailed from.
As he recalled memories of the extensive training he underwent several years before, one regarding the fearsome Zinevite Empire came to mind. Stories had been told to him of the Federation's war with this savage civilization long ago, and how all relations between them had been diminished for decades. Yet as John considered the transformed city before his eyes and the vicious face which was displayed at every turn, a terrible revelation came to him swiftly and without warning. Unable to admit it, the thought merely lingered for a moment as a question in his mind.
Was it really possible the planet had suffered an invasion in just a few months time?
John was aware of the time bridge between Earth and Jersula; two months on Earth was the equivalent of six on this world. And there had already been a series of attacks by unknown forces prior to his departure.
Maybe I shouldn't have gone after all.
But he was compelled to. The government had to ensure that John's loved ones thought he was still a Marine. As such he could only be deployed at one time for so long.
Before he could contemplate this any longer or dwell upon the guilt he was feeling, a hushed voice called to him from a few yards away, trying not to attract any unwanted attention.
"John Mathis! This way!"
Unsure of whether or not to trust this stranger, he quickly deduced that there were few other options at his dispense. He decided that were it an enemy, they'd have attacked without hesitation. Resolving to move towards the shadowy figure, he removed his plasma blaster from its holster and kept it at the ready.
As he reached the street corner where this voice had called from, John stood before a shroud of a figure, hunchbacked and with elaborate horns emanating from each side of its furry head. Although possessing a pair of beastly eyes and wearing a fine display of war-torn armor, the creature nonetheless struck John as a gentle being at first glance, even before he uttered another word from his enchantingly soft voice.
"John Mathis of Earth, I am Igor, a refuge of the planet Zineveh, sent to protect you from Imperial forces. Come with me and we shall talk more."
With nowhere else to turn, John instinctively followed Igor through a series of bleak alleys and abandoned streets, until at last they reached the edge of a sewage system at the end of an elongated pathway.
Prior to descending a ladder as part of an elaborate network of tunnels and sewers, and venturing into the depths of an underground base, Igor had confirmed John's suspicions of an invasion at the hands of the Zinevite Empire. Though they had not yet occupied the entire planet, they had acquired control of its capital city, causing the Federation great distress. And once they had done this, they had access to the Jersulan council's communication system. By the time this had happened, it was too late for the Federation to contact Earth and summon John.
"Emperor Manasseh is perhaps the most vicious of the planet's leaders, and you are currently his greatest threat."
Igor's words pierced John in a manner unlike he had ever felt before. Though he had been assigned to protect an extraterrestrial civilization three years ago, it wasn't until now that he felt the tremendous burden of that responsibility crashing down upon him. Even with a resistance forming here, John knew that the magnitude of this conflict would continue to escalate long before they could put a dent in the imperial conquest.
As they pushed through swarms of cobwebs and a series of crevices speckled with blood, John and Igor then entered a narrow corridor. At the edge of it lay a series of dusty chambers, each intertwined by one another.
Pivoting himself against one of the middle chambers, Igor announced their arrival as he opened its wooden door.
"I have brought with me the human John Mathis."
His voice echoed across the corridor as they entered into a confined and dimly lit space where a crowd of refugees gathered. Peering into the eyes of the Jersulans who were huddled together here in a state of pure desperation, John saw everything from broken families and orphaned children, to widowed mothers and warriors with shattered souls. These images penetrated him even further.
Yet amidst the herds of broken spirits who were now looking to John for a mere shred of hope, the weary warrior was at last uplifted at the sight of his two dearest companions.
John shouted their names in ecstasy as they ran toward one another.
As their eyes met, John could sense an abundance of emotion swelling within Dea's heart. No words were said between them as they embraced.
"Your presence is most welcome sir."
Though robotic in its delivery, Charles' voice possessed a certain essence of humanity that made the creature all the more intriguing. Bearing a military like stature which dictated the principles of his functioning, the android was without a doubt John's most trusted and faithful servant. Having aided him in dozens of assignments and supplied him with a wealth of intelligence, Charles had the privilege of not being subjugated to the complexities of human emotion. Though overtly logical, the manner in which he was programmed was exactly what John needed.
"I am delighted to see you as well my friend, though I do wish it were under better circumstances."
At this, Igor was quick to assume the crowd's attention.
"As do all of us here John. Though now is not the time for dwelling upon our current circumstances. Now we must act swiftly if we are to repel this invasion."
Meeting the eyes of the distressed victims within this cavernous hideout, John was forced to accept the truth of what had transpired. The lights had gone out and the spirit of liberty had vanquished, overshadowed by an eery mist steadily creeping upon those who opposed its power. And for John there was no turning back. Ensnared within the ghostly realm laid down by this villain, his only means of return was to fight for these people. Eroded by the flames of war, Jersula's fate now hinged upon the bewildered spirit of this one guardian from afar.
"We break at Dawn. If we are to repel this invasion we must assault the capital as soon as possible. General Abachadnezzar is already preparing a fleet to strike from the North. John and I will lead our squadrons to the gate. We can reduce Manasseh's forces if we keep them contained inside the city."
Igor's determination and ability to lead were essential to their victory. John was grateful to have the Minotaur-like beast at his side.
As night fell, John stationed himself in a secluded corner of the base, anxiously preparing for battle. Smells emanating from a nearby campfire enraptured his senses, enabling him to preserve the fragmented portions of energy remaining within him. As fumes of smoke rose, protruding his bloodshot eyes, John realized he had been up for close to eighteen hours. It would've been well past midnight on Earth. Though he had arisen just after Dawn, the day's events were no more than a blur jumbling through the layers of his subconscious.
Dea approached the weary warrior from behind, her footsteps quieter than the softest whisper; though her cunningness was no match for John's training and expertise. He could've heard her coming from a mile behind.
"I know why you're here. You know me well enough to know what I'm thinking."
"I know your thoughts because my race has telepathic abilities. I just don't use them often."
"I'd prefer you didn't at all."
"John let's be real. I know how you've felt about me for a long time. And you've known my answer for just as long."
Now the two were facing one another. John gazed into Inara's eyes as waves of emotion overtook him, ready to be unleashed. The alien had come to acquire an understanding of human nature, as she could sense his yearning for her to understand and his resentment toward her for putting him in this situation.
"You don't know what could happen! Dea just give me a chance!"
"John you and I both know how it would end for us. What future could we possibly have together?"
"We could be together Dea! That's the point! I won't be a soldier forever. We could go away together, one day."
"One day John, you won't be here any longer. And I will."
Her words punctured his heart in a manner that was as sharp and brutal as they were delivered. What made it even harder to bear was the fact that they were true. John would be long gone before Dea reached the early stages of her youth. She had a lifespan in the thousands, one that was hardly befitting for a mere mortal such as John.
There wasn't much left to say after that. Though Dea did her best to conceal the tears streaming down her cheeks, neither her nor John could bear the heartbreak each were experiencing.
The alien lowered her head in deep remorse as she walked away from the shattered spirit of her would be lover. Though she could not feel the same way he did, she sensed the same emptiness within her soul as the distance between them remained heavy upon her heart.
John thought to call after her; but to what avail? Though she stood only a few yards away, they were worlds apart. A love between them was as much a fantasy as John acquiring eternal youth. If their lifespans didn't keep them apart, their duties would. There would always be another mission, another planet to save, another warlord to vanquish; while the only unresolved conflict that would remain was John's lonely soul.
Eclipsed by Dea's in fathomable otherworldliness, John was merely a speck in this jungle of a universe.