Crystalline Flames

by Alexander Burns

It happened again this morning.  This time I was there, I saw the destruction.  In a way, I feel somehow responsible; perhaps this is what they call survivor guilt.
          It was a normal day, a routine morning filled with commuters on the streets, in their cars, on the trains.  I was about a block away, coming out of the Quick Stop with tonight's dinner.  None of us saw it coming.

I read the description in the newspapers without actually reading it.  The black and white words don't do the calamity justice.  The journalists make it seem so...ugly.

The explosion was the biggest this month.  It started at the Cafe De'Nario on 7th, but blossomed out to envelop the shoe store and gift shop to either side.  The invisible wave of concussion swept into the street, shoving cars and pedestrians away, breaking windows for a mile in every direction.  It shattered the el-track running over the buildings across the street.  And just as the train was coming.

Then the flames followed an instant later, incinerating what was left of the three shops at the center and licking at the train just as it careened into the chaos, crushing the stores below and breaking apart.  The cars disconnected, clattering to the pavement, terrified and dying passengers spilling into the awaiting flames and shattered glass.

It was one of the most beautiful displays I've ever seen.

I'm not a monster.  I find the deaths...regretful.  But they should've been more careful in this day and age.  It's the explosion itself I admire, that carefully crafted flowering of light and fire.

The emergency 'bots showed up as quickly as always, flyers swooping in to grab the survivors and transport them to the hospitals as large, tracked 'bots rumbled in to begin fighting the fires and settling debris.  The 'bots converged from all across the city to deal with the crisis, cordoning off the area and starting the clean up less than five minutes after the explosion.

I was hustled off by some of the brusque robots, just before the second bomb went off.  The papers say over 80% of the REF was demolished.  The city says it won't be back up for weeks.  Until then, the police and other less-efficient forces will handle these disasters.

I scoff at the thought of humans fighting fires.  The whole idea is obviously just a PR stunt to calm the panicky citizenry.

I focus on the next paragraph of the story.  As yet no one had claimed responsibility for the bombing, it said, but officials suspect the VFF.  Formerly the planetary militia, General Hargrove and a battalion of his troops decided that the government here was too corrupt to continue and rose up against it.  For about a week they controlled the planet, and all of that corruption was exposed.  It turned out that the General was a very observant fellow. Most of the Council was arrested, along with a number of bureaucratic officials and the chief of police.  Our own miniature Inquisition.  Then the Earth Army arrived and more or less obliterated the resistance.  For the past six years the Vega Freedom Force has been little more than a group of misguided punks led by a few of the former militia officers.  Occasionally they firebomb an Army convoy or attack a bunker, but overall they're pretty useless. Of course, the old administration promptly moved back in and used the rebellion as an excuse to tighten security.  There hasn't been an election since.

I stare at the line, furious. Those fools couldn't build a bomb if I personally showed them how.  I know because I had tried, a couple years ago.  They almost shot me on the spot when I suggested bombing the city.  "Freedom Fighters," pfah!  That mismatched group of morons isn't going to free a hair on their asses before the Army catches up with them.

I lay the paper down on my large wooden table, filling in the gap.  Now the surface of the table is covered completely with newspaper.  I don't want to scratch that polished surface.

I grab the open panel of exposed wires and circuits from the chair beside me and lay it over the photo of the wreckage of 7th street.  I scoop up the tools and set to work, carefully manipulating the fine surfaces and thin microfilaments.  Very few people realize that making a bomb is just as incredible and soul-filled as any painting.  Except a bomb actually does something, and has the potential for evolving into something greater.

The phone rings.  I flip the magnifying glass attached to my helmet down over my left eye and peer at the circuit.  The phone rings.  Without looking I grasp the micro-tool from my breast pocket and carefully insert it between the tiny sides of the circuit.  The phone rings again, seeming to grow as agitated as the caller undoubtedly is.

I ignore it.  I already know it will just be those fools complaining that the bomb only got 80% and not 100% of the robots.  Like I'm infallible or something.

I continue to work until 3 a.m.  The phone rings most of that time.  Finally, as I slide the plastic cover in place with that always satisfying click, the phone goes quiet.  Fools.

I pull my helmet off and gaze at my newest work.  It's about the same size as the one presently buried under the toy store at the mall, but with a much greater yield.  I pick up the phone and hit their number.  It picks up immediately.

"Where the fuck you been, man?  We've been callin' all night!"

"Shut up, Reever," I say irritably.  "Give me Aldin."

I hear cursing in the background as the phone changes hands.

"You said it would take out the 'bots, Bomber Man," Aldin's deep voice intones threateningly.

"It did," I snap, "80% is more than enough.  You can read the paper, or at least I assume you can.  The Force is out for weeks."

"Yeah, well..." Aldin pauses.  "You got another one for us?"

"Yes, but my conditions have changed," I say, licking my lips.  This was dangerous, playing with them.  Aldin and his followers were dedicated fanatics, intent on cleansing the city of what they consider inferior populations.  Normally, they could cleanse all they want, as long as I get paid and wasn't on their list.

"What do you mean conditions?" Aldin asks slowly, dangerously.  "We pay you for the bomb, you tell us how to set it up.  There are no conditions."

"There are this time," I say quickly.  "This time I dictate the target.  As compensation, the next one you want is free if you place this device where I want it."

"Why should you care about the target?" the goon asks.  "You just make the stuff.  We have the agenda, not you."

True.  In all honesty, I don't care who you morons bomb.  But I need to find out if you have another supplier.

"Now I have one," I tell him.  "If you don't like it, too bad."

Aldin was quiet a moment.  I can hear the others bugging him for info, but he curses them away.  "We aren't your hench-men, B-Man.  We're not a bunch of thugs to do your bidding."

Damn his pride!  "I'll tell you the toy store bomb code if you do this.  No money involved here.  You set my bomb, I tell you how to set off the toy store."

Vega's only toy store has had a bomb under it for the past, oh, seven years probably.  By some odd quirk of the magnetic field the same shield that detected guns at the door kept the routine police scans from finding its hiding spot under the action figure aisle.  The former governor had contracted me for it, but then was arrested for fraud before he activated it, the dumb bastard.  Fortunately for me he did the universe a favor and blew his own head off before they could wring the information out of him.

"What's the target?" he asks after only a brief pause.  I smile.

"The fabrics facility on the Way."  This is the test, my dear, poor Aldin.  We both know the people working at that facility are mostly your own "pure" peoples, employed from the slums around the starport.  But a true soldier, and one with no where else to turn, would accept the losses to further the cause.

There was a long silence.  "Why?" he finally asks.  He's going for it!  I try not to let the triumph slip into my voice.

"It doesn't matter, you fool," I snap in feigned anger.  "I don't like toe socks, okay!  Just do it!"

I can almost feel Aldin seething over the phone.  "Usual exchange spot," he says abruptly, and he hangs up.

I hadn't walked ten feet from the exchange when I saw her.

The exchange went as usual, except I got no case full of cash.  I gave them the large steel lunchbox containing the bomb and a disc with encrypted information on the toy-store bomb.  I'll send them the encryption sequence once the fabrics facility is dust, though I expect they'll have their own hackers crack it by then.  It doesn't really matter; they failed the test, I know I'm their only supplier.

She is sitting at an outdoor cafe, a morning cup of coffee in front of her.  Her long, bright red hair is tied up at the back of her head, exposing the fine lines of her beautiful face and sensuous neck.  Her delicate brow is furrowed slightly as she looks at a notebook laid on the table in front of her.  Long, slender fingers tap a pen to some unheard beat on the table.  She is wearing a white, sleeveless blouse and a short dark green skirt over her slim form.  Her slender legs are crossed and bouncing unconsciously to the same rhythm as her pen.  She is the most gorgeous creature I've ever seen.

I blink and snap out of my reverie, and force myself to think logically.  No rings or other signs of attachment, and about my age, late twenties or early thirties.  I run a hand through my hair and head that way.  It takes a special woman to catch my attention like this.  As I get closer, the realization that I want to spend the rest of my life with this strange woman sets in.  It is an odd feeling, one I don't believe I've ever quite experienced.

She doesn't look up as I approach, and now I can see the tiny receivers plugged into her ears, undoubtedly the source of whatever music she was tapping to.

"Excuse me," I say, but she doesn't hear me.  I clear my throat and say again, louder, "Excuse me."

She looks up in surprise, and her large, startlingly blue eyes lock onto mine for one glorious moment.  I just stand there, entranced.  After a moment she reaches up and pulls out the receivers.

"Hi..." she says hesitantly.  "Can I help you?"

"Ah..." I quickly recover my composure, "I was hoping you wouldn't mind if I sit here," I say, gesturing to the chair opposite her.  "The tables seem to be full."  I gesture helplessly around the restaurant, hoping she won't notice the empty tables.

"Um, sure," she says.  She watches me, smiling politely, as I slide into the seat.  The wire frame bites into my back, and I'm reminded why I never visit this place.  But I ignore it and motion to the waiter for a cappuccino.

"What were you listening to?" I ask after the usual awkward moment of silence.  "It certainly had you going."

She smiles, and it lights up the-well, the day (I'm a mechanic, not a poet).  "It's a band called Victory at Yavin, a Denebian rock group my cousin plays in.  It helps me write."

I've never heard of them, so I plunge on.  "Oh, you're a writer?" I ask, looking down at the notebook.  The page was full of words and scribbled out sentences.  Near the bottom of the mess it looks like a poem is taking shape.

"Well, I try," she looks sheepishly down at the page.  "Actually, I'm a secretary at the REF plant."  She points down the street to the massive, omnipresent domescraper towering above the city.  "After the bombings yesterday, there's not much of an REF left for me to work for, so I have some free time until they get everything back online."

I almost laugh, but manage to put on a somber face.  "Yeah, terrible about all these bombings.  City just isn't safe anymore."

She leans over close.  "Did you notice how planned it was yesterday?  They timed it perfectly, catching the el-train like that, and then the second's obvious they were just after the robots.  I can't believe the Vega Fighters would do that."

I nod gravely, but am finding it harder not to laugh.  This woman had already outsmarted the police and the media.  "It's terrible," I say, "killing all those people, just to hit at a bunch of automatons."

"Well, now that the robots are gone, it'll just get worse," she says, almost whispering.  "I won't be surprised if this whole city is in flames by the end of the week."

I start getting a little uncomfortable, I have to admit.  While I admire a well-placed and executed explosion, I don't particularly like the idea of my entire city turning to ashes.  Especially the bars downtown.  I'll have to be careful about how many bombs I give those idiots over the next few weeks.  I clear my throat and change the subject.

"What are you writing?" I ask, looking at the notebook.  "A poem?"

"Yes, well, it's really not very good..."

"No, no, here, let me see it."  I reach over and twist the notebook around and try to see the poem amongst the scribbles and scrawled notes.  I'm not even sure what to look for.  I've never written a poem in my life, and don't know a thing about them.  It always seemed pretty stupid and pointless to me.

I guess she sees that I can't find it, so she leans over and uses her pen to draw some lines on the paper, carving out a set of lines from the chaos.  I am briefly intoxicated by the scent of her perfume and hair, but manage to focus:

The Shade rules here,
blocking out the sun,
its enemy and scourge.
The darkness falls on
the mud and the leaves;
bits of limp green
tattoos on the earth.
We huddle in the shade
and mark our joy with
caps and butts, while
the bright grass grows beyond.

It is crap, I think, having no clue what the thing is about.  "It's wonderful," I say, looking up at her with what I hope is a look of wonder.

She smiles. "You really like it?  I've been working on it for weeks."

Gods, get a life woman.  "It really is good," I say emphatically.  "It really makes the reader look back on their life and..." I pause, searching for the right words to make this load of BS sound better, "...realize what we've missed."  Isn't that what all poems are about?

She looks down and flushes slightly, clearly falling for it.  "Yeah, I like to point things out that people may not have noticed."

"Well you do it very well," I say, and I casually lay a hand across hers.  We gaze into each others eyes for a moment, then my coffee arrives, breaking the moment.  She blinks and snatches her hand back, and I barely manage to keep from pummeling the waiter right there.  Instead I wait for him to leave and move on to the introductions.

"I'm Ian, by the way," I say, then impulsively make a leap: "And I suppose I should call you...She for Whom the Sun Doth Shine?"  I smile my best smile and hope she doesn't gag.  Where the hell did that come from?  That's right, Jack Sutton, he wrote his girlfriend cheesy poetry all the time in college.  What else was there?  Something about the moon and stars probably.

She laughs, and its the most beautiful, lyrical laugh; it reminds me of shards of glass tinkling together in the aftermath of a truly brilliant fire-bomb.  "Crystal, actually," she says, "and it looks like there's a little poet in you, too, Ian."

"Very little," I insist modestly and truthfully.  "Nothing like this, though," I say with another glance at her poem.

"Then what do you do for a living, Ian?" she asks, still smiling.

"Ah, well, I-"

I'm interrupted by a sudden beeping from her purse.  Crystal starts, then pulls a small beeper from the purse.  After a glance at the tiny computer screen she grimaces.

"Looks like something has come up at the office," she says.  "I have to go.  It was nice meeting you Ian."  She stands, throwing the purse over her shoulder after dropping a couple of dollars on the table.

Son of a-!  I watch my hopes falling with the green bills.  It was going so well!  I can't let her go this easily.  "Well, I'd love to...see more of your poetry sometime," I say, trying not to look desperate.  "I know some publishers who might be interested."  Actually, the closest I knew to a publisher was the militant off-shoot of the Libertarian Communes Political Party, all five of them, who liked a flashy pyrotechnics display to distribute their badly-written newsletters and leaflets; I knew of untrained butler monkeys that could spell better.

Crystal hesitates a moment, then smiles and nods.  She quickly scribbles a number on the notebook paper and tears out the whole page, poem and all.  "Here," she says, "give me a call sometime, or just drop by here most mornings, if you're not busy."

"Great!" I take the page and stand to shake her hand.  "I'll see you later then."

"Sure, bye."  She turns and hurries off down the street, the notebook tucked securely under one arm.  I watch her, fascinated at how the sunlight seems to follow her alone down the crowded sidewalk.  Soon, she disappears into the crowds, and I stare down at the paper.  The words may be worthless to me, but those numbers...those numbers are gold.  Isn't that a metaphor?  Maybe there is a little poet in me...

The last couple of days since I met Crystal have been unexpectedly busy with job orders; the Purists have demanded a dozen more bombs, but I tell them they don't get jack until they place the fabrics bomb.  The militant Communes want another fireworks display, this one to scatter a huge stack of brochures when it goes off.  A couple of small-time hoods want something to blow through-hypothetically speaking of course-an armored transport ship; their intention and target are so obvious (the next transport, due in a week from today, is the years biggest) that I know they'll be caught.  I design them something that will dissolve itself completely on exposure to oxygen, so it won't be traced.  It means they'll have to do the job outside the city, where they will most certainly be killed, but that's their problem.  A woman with an obvious Anteres accent wants a flame-thrower rigged with a special particle generator, probably for the Anteres-based Moc Nozama terrorist group. While I normally stick to domestic clients, the concept she presents is too fascinating to pass up.  That and she bought me a great lunch.

I eventually take a break, deciding the Libertarian Communes can pack their own damn leaflets about the "Evils of Cabel Television," and pick up the phone.  I hesitate a moment before dialing.  I can't remember the last time I'd called a woman about something other than the fragmentation rate of a level three hover-bomb or the wiring in a cheating husbands car.  I've nearly forgotten how to have a normal conversation.

Suddenly the phone rings in my hand, and I'm so startled I almost drop it.  I allow my heart to calm a moment before answering.

"It's set," Aldin says simply, darkly.  I blink, having briefly forgotten what he's talking about.  Oh, right, the fabrics bomb.

"Er, good," I say.  "It's about time!"

"One hour," he says, and he hangs up.  Not the best conversationalist; he didn't even ask about the code for the toy-store bomb.  I shrug and return my thoughts to calling Crystal.  Well it's probably better if I don't think too much about it beforehand.  I quickly dial her number before my anxieties take over.

It rings five or six times, and I start to put the phone down, disappointed and a little relieved, when it suddenly picks up.  "Hello?" she says.

"Ah..." I freeze for an instant, and suddenly regret not thinking about it beforehand.  "Hi, Crystal?"


"Ah, hey, this is Ian, from the cafe the other day."

"Oh, hello Ian."  I imagine her brilliant smile on the other end and I smile.  "I've been expecting to see you at the cafe."

"Ah, well, I've been busy these last couple of days," I answer, fidgeting with a power line on the particle accelerator.  There's a moment of awkward silence.

"I don't mean to be rude," she says, "but you caught me in the shower, and I'm dripping all over the floor here..."

I nearly drop the phone, but pull my suddenly distracted thoughts back together and realize this may be my only chance.  Hoping I don't sound like a fool, I rush to say, "Oh, well, before you go, I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner tomorrow night."  A thousand better ways to ask flash through my mind, milli-seconds too late, but I hold my course, stumbling along clumsily.  "Ah, if you aren't busy, of course."  I stop and force myself to wait for an answer.  I prepare for a rejection.

"Oh, sure, I'd like that," she says.  I'm caught off-guard, not expecting an acceptance so easily.  Why did Sutton bother coming up with all that crap?

"Really?" I blurt, but then I quickly recover my composure, such as it was.  "That's great, uh..."  I hesitate; should we meet somewhere?  No, I should pick her up, right?  Where does she live?  If she's dripping water all over the place she probably doesn't want to take the time to give directions.  Damn it, stop thinking like an idiot!  "I guess I'll pick you up, then, around six?"

"That'd be great," she says affably, apparently not noticing my nervousness.  "You know the Mina-Cammilde Apartments?"

Hah!  Know them?  I'd cracked their security code three years ago, allowing the infamous cat burglar Vance Agle virtually unlimited access to the richest condos in the system.  Of course, that didn't help him much when he accidentally woke up an asteroid tycoon from Texas with a extensive collection of ancient shotguns.  Idiot.

"Yes I do," I say confidently.  "North side right?  By the mall?"

"That's it," she confirms.  "apartment 1115."

"Great, see ya then," I say, grinning broadly.

After we hang up, I sit for a few moments, reveling in my victory.  I look at Crystal's poem, sitting there in front of me, and push the Commune papers away to see it more clearly.  It's the first poem I've read since that stuff they forced on us in college.  I stare at it a long time, then pick the phone up again to make an anonymous call.

Her apartment is one of the smaller ones at Mina-Cammilde, but is still pretty luxurious, especially compared to my place on the other end of town.  Besides the nice plush couch and large entertainment center, I see that here they have a nice environmental shielding; if the wall between us and the harsh surface of Vega IV goes out she won't instantly implode.  At my place they claim that air masks will pop down from the ceiling.

On her coffee table is a copy of today's paper.  On the front screen, in large blocky letters, is the headline FABRICS FACILITY BOMBED.  Underneath was the secondary line, "300 Workers saved by anonymous tip."  I smile, feeling more than a little proud that I had done such a good deed.  It's another odd feeling I'm unaccustomed to.

I sit on the couch, waiting for Crystal to finish getting ready.  She has real art on the walls, not tattered (and probably stolen, now that I think about it) old movie posters and maps and schematics.  I vaguely recognize the Monet print, and the huge Stroud that dominates the wall behind the couch (even I recognize his paintings), but the rest are unfamiliar.  They're mostly nature scenes, pastoral forests and swamps that won't be seen on Vega IV for decades.  She must've been born somewhere else; no Vegan would care for that crap.  I'm not even sure a person can buy art like that here.

Her stereo is bigger than the vidscreen, and I see numerous speakers scattered all around the apartment, buried in the walls and ceiling.  She obviously spends far more time with music than most of the brainwashed feebs on this planet.  Then it hits me:  Crystal and I are from completely different worlds, literally and figuratively.  She is an artist, spending her spare time reading and listening to music; I an engineer, building mechanical things with wires and numbers.  How can we possibly be attracted to each other?

She walks in and smiles at me, and I know exactly how I'm attracted to her.  She's let her hair down, and it flows down her back in fiery waves.  She's wearing a long red dress that hugs her curves perfectly and leaves her arms and shoulders bare.  She flushes and looks down sheepishly, and I realize I must be staring like an idiot.  Crystal looks a little hesitant, making me wonder if she's gone several years without a date as well.

But it's more than just her beauty that is so compelling, I think as I hastily stand and return her smile.  She's unique.  In a dark and dirty city full of  greedy, self-deluded losers, she's completely different, the exact opposite of everyone else.  I must've noticed it when I first saw her.

"You look fantastic," I say, realizing as I do that it's the lamest and most predictable dialogue I could come up with.  I mean it though.  The bright red fabric of her dress, I think it's silk, is much brighter than most of the clothes I see in Vega's stores.  Something else she must've brought from off planet.  I pluck self-consciously at my dark slacks and black jacket.

"Thank you," Crystal says with a slight bow of her head.  "You're looking quite handsome yourself."  She steps close and slips an arm around mine, and a breeze of sweet perfume waves over me.  As we walk toward the door, she looks into my eyes, and I see hers glittering brilliantly.  "So where are we off to?"

What the hell is she talking about?  The idea that a woman like this would go anywhere with me is temporarily incomprehensible.

"Oh, look out for the-"  Crystal starts to say, pointing up ahead of us.

;"Huh?"  I tear away from her face and look up just in time to catch a forehead full of her entryway arch.  "Oh!" I say, more in surprise than in pain, and I step back to rub my forehead and glare at the oddly low-hanging wall.

"I'm so sorry.  That's the only thing I don't like about this place," she says, but the mirth is so obvious in her voice that I can't help but smile and shrug it off.

"Bah, no harm done.  It's just my head after all."  She laughs a little and again loops her arm in mine, and we head out into the evening.

We make for the Mall, just a couple blocks from her apartment complex.  The cops actually patrol this part of the city, so it's safe enough for us to take a leisurely stroll there.  At night the domes go transparent, and whatever else I may say about this place, the night view is spectacular.  Well, as long as you ignore the ravaged landscape of Vega itself.  Crystal looks up at the field of stars with wonder, like she's never seen it before.  Now that I think about it, I don't think I've looked at the sky in years.

"I've been here for three years," she says, "but I've never to ceased to be amazed at how different the sky looks here compared to home."

I nod and start trying to remember a few constellations from my school days.  "Where is home?" I ask.

"Luna," she says, and by the tone of her voice I gather she doesn't miss it much.  "If you think Vega is boring, try living there.  At least here we don't have Earth in the sky, constantly tempting us."  She pauses and looks a little puzzled.  "Where are Vega's moons?"

"Oh, it's eclipsed tonight," I answer, though I can't recall why I know that particular fact.  "The second moon is actually just a big asteroid which orbits the real moon.  Every couple years or so they come into alignment and-" I stop, feeling foolish.  "I'm sorry, I sound like a dictionary."

"No, no, it's interesting," she quickly says, and she presses a little closer to me, gazing up at the night.  "On Luna, Earth was always there, filling up the sky.  It was so beautiful.  It's the only thing I miss, I think."

"How is the old homeworld?" I ask absently.  My attention is suddenly focused on the black gap in the stars where the Moon lurks, temporarily invisible.  Something about it tugs at me, but I can't quite place...ah, screw it.  If it's important enough it'll come to me.

"My parents took me there a couple times when I was young," she says.  "It was the greatest place I've ever seen.  Away from the cities anyway.  I'd never felt real wind like that, or grass, or seen wild animals.  We visited Africa mostly, since it's still fairly untamed, at least compared to Europe and the Americas."

"Pretty crowded are they?"

"Oh, they're awful.  If you ever visit Earth, take my advice and don't land at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Space Port.  The traffic is terrible."

I smirk, and she chats on, describing some of her adventures on Earth, some mountain or other in Africa that is so big that the top is always shrouded in clouds, but at night offers the greatest view of the sky she's ever seen, and the wonderfully green hills and valleys of some place called Ireland.  My knowledge of Earth geography is pretty limited, but I manage to offer up an opinion of the Grand Canyon.

Just then we walk through the front gates of the Mall.  The Mall is, unfortunately, the center of activity in the nicer part of the city.  Most of the nicer restaurants and more fashionable stores are here, as well as some of the small, locally owned places; most of the latter sold pretty junk at exorbitant prices to the rich upper crust of Vega IV.  I'd been here once or twice, usually on business...and that vague sense of discomfort and annoyance at having forgotten something important comes over me again.

But I'm shaken out of it by Crystal, as she suddenly pulls me to the side, into one of the small, artsy-type shops.

"Aren't they beautiful?" she says.  I look around, hoping my "bored/skeptical" look isn't showing too much.  The store is full of carvings and sculptures, mostly wood, but some stone or glass.  One wall was full of wooden plaques with stock phrases on them, like 'God Bless this Mess' and 'Gone Fishin' (of course, there wouldn't be water on this planet for at least fifteen years, and none of the natives have even seen a live fish in their life, but I guess that's beside the point.).

"Oh, yeah, they're great," I say, and I reach over to pet a small wooden tiger.  Amazing!  It's actually real wood, and tiny imperfections suggest that these weren't mass produced by a laser cutter.  Crystal wanders over to the plaques, and I hear her snickering at some of the more humorous ones.  I leave the tiger behind and join her.

"Oh, look at this one," she says with a grin.  I turn away from the one utilizing the always popular boxer short slogan that reads, 'Log Riding Teacher-First Lesson Free' and peer at the one she is holding, from the Famous Quotes section:  '"It sucks to be a tortured artist." -Wally Pleasant'  I don't recognize the name, but she evidently does, explaining that he was an Earth musician from a couple centuries back.  She's so taken with it that I can't help but buy it for her, and after an embarrassing stomach rumble on my part, she suggests that we find a place to eat.

I had already selected the restaurant, the Northeast Aurora, the only one in the Mall that I'd ever eaten at before (the proprietor had once contracted me for some work).  As we approach, I realize I should've cased the joint beforehand, to see how busy it would get.  The waiting line stretched out four people into the promenade.  I glance across the way to the Bar & Grill, but it's pretty busy too, and not exactly the most romantic place for a date. Then someone brushes past me.

"Hey B-Man," he says.

"Hey Reever," I say back distractedly as the big guy keeps walking.

"A friend of yours?" Crystal asks curiously looking after him.

I shrug.  "Just a business associate."  I look helplessly at the line into the Aurora, then at Crystal.  "You know, we could go somewhere else..." I say.

"No, I've never eaten here, and I've heard it's really good," she says, "I'm okay with the wait, if you think you can survive it."  She chuckles and pats my stomach.  I can't help but smile back, and I roll my eyes before I realize it.  Good God, I just rolled my eyes, what a gimp!

"Why don't you go check us in," she says, "I need to run and grab a birthday present for my nephew, okay?"

"A what?"  I ask, confused.

"My nephew Matt, his birthday is next week," she explains.  "I forgot about it until this afternoon.  It has to be sent with the transport tomorrow if it's going to reach Mars in time.  It'll just take a minute."

"Oh, well, okay," I say, and she hurries down toward the other end of the mall where most of the sporting goods stores, gift shops and toy stores.  I sigh and face the line again, motioning to the hostess to put me down on the-

Toy stores!?  Reever, a member of a militant anti-establishment supremacists group, in The Mall, the very symbol of everything he stands against!?  The dark image of the eclipsed moon pops back into my head, and I remember that the Purists consider the rare event a time of cleansing, punishment of the oppressors, all the usual cultist mumbo jumbo; the eclipse is the closest thing they have to a holy day.  Shit!

I spin toward the direction she was going, my heart leaping into my throat, my eyes roving over the crowds.  It's too late, she's already disappeared into the throng, though I can't imagine losing something so bright and recognizable in this bunch.  I run forward, shouting her name, pushing past the shoppers and the loiterers, shoving aside the gawking teen-agers.  I can feel myself panicking as the crowds of materially-obsessed fools press in around me, most of them ignoring the mad-man in their midst.  How did she navigate this so quickly?  Women!

I run forward as quickly as I can, ignoring the insulted looks I get as I push people out of my way.  I spot the bright sign of The Toy Box, and make my way as best I can for it.  The Mall seems to grow more crowded with every step I take.  The bomb in the Toy Box wasn't large, but it would take out the Box and the hot dog stand next door, at least, and most of these people would likely end up in comas for awhile.  I don't know how old her nephew is, but judging by her age, he's probably young enough to get a present from the toy store.  If she's anywhere near there when it goes, she'll be as dead as the rest of us.  I find myself worrying more about her than myself, but don't take time to ponder it.

I break free of the crowd right in front of the toy store, and desperately scan for her through the windows, shouting her name.  I run to the door and step inside, still shouting for her.  I don't see her, but there's so many people, and she could be behind those displays...I wipe sweat away from my face with my coat sleeve and start to move forward.

"Ian?"  I spin around, hearing her shout.  By chance, the traffic thins across the promenade, and my eyes immediately find her.  She is standing in front of the sporting goods store across from the toy store, waving and looking puzzled.  I smile, relieved beyond words, and flushing a little.  I take a step back toward her.

Then the bomb explodes.  The concussion sweeps over me, and it feels like my back snaps in two.  I jerk forward, and barely have time to feel my eardrums burst before the flames wash over and past.  Before the orange paint obliterates my vision, I see her one last time.  Despite the look of horror on her face, she is the most beautiful thing...person, I've ever seen.

©1999 Alexander Burns