Like all humans, Ace dreamt in his sleep. More often than not, his dreams took place on alien worlds which he either visited or saw and read about in ancient alien archives. On his first night on Earth in a millennium and a half, he fell asleep in a warm, soft bed with Dot’s body in his arms.
Ace saw himself standing on a dark desert world of broken rocks and sand dunes. In the sky, a monstrous moon loomed over this dark planet, reflecting its gray, cold light on the desert floor. As far as his eyes could see, regularly spaced towers rose high into the sky. These towers were thick, twisted structures, a mess of metal cords with bizarre markings that were connected into a chaotic river of wiring.
Floating within inches of the towers were innumerable computer chips, each with the mark of the Shadow Nation on its black, featureless core. A faint red charge ran between the dozens of connectors that sprouted from each side, painted dark chrome for contrast. Ace knew each microchip he saw was a person because those chips looked identical to the AI chips used by the Nation’s robotic ships.
He slowly and carefully walked through this dark landscape. Old trees trapped in this technological maze looked like corpses watching his every move, their claw-like branches ready to tear his body apart. As he stepped into a strange clearing in this forest of twisted towers created from minds recorded on microchips, and a network of thick metal cords that formed a mind-bendingly complex web around everything he saw, the ground began to rumble. Something woke up, a creature that clearly didn’t want him there. When the alien monster broke through the ground and set its giant, red glowing eyes at him, a chill ran down Ace’s spine.
It looked like a Dark God, but the two jagged runes under its big eyes gave away the identity of his creature. The cheek runes of every Shadow Demon were unique, like fingerprints. Although they looked the same at first, each pair of runes had slightly different indentations that could never be repeated. The runes on the face of this dark alien monster were an exact match to someone he knew very well.
This monster was him.
Ace jumped up in the bed, his eyes wide open, his body freezing from the inside. If Ace still had a heart, it would’ve been beating like crazy. For some reason, he saw just himself as an alien monster, an unholy fusion of a cyborg and an enormous Dark God, an alien species he saw only a few times in his life. Until he encountered them face to face, he thought that the giant red eyes he saw in the Martian netherworld were wild exaggerations designed to scare him into thinking of the Dark Gods as space faring leviathans. As it turned out, that’s exactly what they were. Giant, scaly monsters whose eyes glowed with a sinister flame.
With a sigh, Ace got out of bed and pulled back the thick drapes from the giant window. Sunlight that struggled to pierce the fabric of the drapes all morning, rushed in to fill the cavernous bedroom. Outside, cars zoomed down the wide, palm tree lined highways below and giant screens showed ads and silent, subtitled broadcasts of morning news shows drivers could tune into as their cars drove them to their destinations. In the sky, a space plane was blasting off into orbit, its aggressive angle of attack making it look like a triangular missile. As it reached a high enough altitude, its rockets propelled it up into the sky with a swift push, leaving thick contrails in the plane’s wake.
Dot squirmed around in bed and opened her eyes. She sat up and stretched as she always did when she was ready to get out of bed.
“How did you sleep?” she asked rubbing her eyes.
“Fine,” replied Ace looking out at the city.
“How’s the weather outside?”
“Nice and sunny. Very light breeze and…”
Ace paused to put the tip of his claw on the glass.
“It’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit, or 20 Centigrade, whatever you want to use to measure it,” he added.
He glanced at the clock on his nightstand. It was 9:47 AM and in the last hour, the Nation’s money went on the global exchange market which traded all seven currencies of the global trading blocks for the last thousand years. Each global trading block encompassed a continent and every continent had its own currency except for Antarctica, which was currently being transformed into a jungle in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In a few years, it would become the eighth trading block. Today the Nation became the seventh.
“News. Channel 358,” Ace commanded to the house’s computer which immediately brought up a holographic screen ten feet across, a high definition widescreen projection generated by lasers. As the picture appeared, Ace plopped down on the bed on top of the sheets next to Dot, stretched out and propped his head up.
On a business news channel, a roundtable of financial analysts were talking about the strong debut of the astro on the global market, holding up a card decorated with an elegant celestial theme. It was a currency instituted by the Nation as soon as the military plants which built fighters, bombers, destroyers and other weapons were spun off into private corporations and some wise guy called the then nameless monetary unit “astro bucks.” The silly name stuck and the currency would forever be known as the astro.
After recounting the history of the astro, the analysts praised the bankers and economists of the Nation for allowing the astro to enter the global money market.
“I’m telling you, this is the most exciting investment as far as the currency market goes,” cheered one analyst. “The potential of viable alien currencies is pretty much unlimited.”
“Well, no matter how good it is, the market will have to stop and bring it down to a reasonable level,” noted another analyst. “But now as the market is starting out, I agree, the astro has to go up.”
“I’m gonna make a prediction,” smiled the show’s host, “that by the end of the trading day, there’s going to be a 70%… that’s right… don’t laugh, I said it… 70% rise for the astro. If the Nation’s bankers are watching this show, you guys should be breaking out the bubbly and celebrating.”
“Mute,” said Ace with a smirk.
“Yeah, right 70%,” grimaced Dot.
“It’s all hype anyways,” agreed Ace, “but it’s good hype.”
“Eh… whatever sells.”
Dot brushed Ace’s bare stomach with her hand, her soft fingertips circling around his scar. She let her fingers roam down the sides of his obliques and just as she reached his hips, she stopped teasingly, looking at Ace with a sly smirk on her lips.
Ace softly growled and pinned her to the bed, raising himself on his knees right above her. Holding her arms back, he licked the black jagged rune on the top of Dot’s breast. She gasped and blushed with a faint, white patch of gel glowing around her nose.
“Oh my Gods,” she moaned, “you how sensitive that is!”
“Oh yeah,” chuckled Ace.
He licked the rune again with his soft, human-like tongue which had tiny bumps all over its surface. As he licked, he could taste Dot’s warm carbon skin. Slowly, Dot positioned her knees right under Ace and with one good thrust toppled him over and pinned him down just like he pinned her. She gave one of the runes on his chest a long, slow, sensual lick as she watched Ace’s face relax in pleasure.
Suddenly, she bit his chest with her razor sharp, blade-like teeth. Even though her bite couldn’t tear through the tough carbon gel, the pain from the bite in this sensitive area made Ace flinch like he was zapped with a high voltage current. Dot leaned down to his face, her nose only an inch away from his. Her blue eyes flashed with an intense surge of energy.
“Next time you fuck Rie when you’re not on a mission,” warned Dot, “you better have me with you or else. Got it?”
“Sure thing,” surrendered Ace. “Whatever you say dear.”
They stayed like this for a few moments, noses almost touching. Dot pulled away and let Ace go.
“We need to get something to eat and go shopping,” said Ace.
“Shopping for what?” asked Dot.
“Human clothes. Uniforms will look tacky. We’re already going to stick out, let’s not make it worse.”
“Are we going out tonight?”
“Yes. For a little exploratory stroll by the harbor.”
They turned off the holographic screen, got dressed and went out to the building’s 10th private floor garden for VIPs where their chef prepared exquisite omelets with fresh fruit much to the delight of Ace’s taste buds.
Steve and Christine sat in the living room of their new condo reading online news archives and watching video clips, trying to catch up with what was happening on Earth. As humans fine-tuned their methods of instant communication, the news began to travel at the speed of light. The term current events changed to mean “events happening now” rather than just recent events. Just five months away from Earth created a stunning backlog of articles and news clips leaving Steve and Christine scrambling to get on top of things.
The doorbell rang and almost instantly, the butler attached to the soldiers by Grey’s order opened the door for Nelson and led him into the living room. With a solemn, dignified bow, the butler vanished; a trick that all robots who served dignitaries were designed to perform.
“Nice to be back on Earth, isn’t it?” asked Nelson smiling. “Nice weather, clean air, no radioactive storms. And the food is fantastic!”
“Well I’m glad you’re happy Nelson,” growled Christine.
“Something wrong?” wondered Nelson.
“I would say so, yes,” replied Steve.
“Is this about Newman?” smiled Nelson.
“Did you read some of the articles his friends published about you and the Nation?” asked Christine. “They’re after Steve and me now.”
Nelson shook his head with a sad, understanding scoff.
“Yes Christine. On the ride here, that Newman character was staring at me like I had some horrible disease or something. I got the feeling something was rotten around here and spent the night digging through the news archives.”
“What do you think about it?” asked Steve.
“Could be worse…” shrugged Nelson.
“But they’re just bashing you like there’s no tomorrow!”
“You know the old axiom don’t you guys? It’s not what you say but how loud and often you say it. The people who badmouth Ace or me or the Nation have a job to do and their job is to make us look as bad as possible. By constantly repeating the same garbage over and over again with a lot of emotion, it seems like they’re believable and since they have a lot of power in the media, they seem reputable. I should probably say the same thing about those presenting us as the nice guys from space with a bag of alien goodies for all.”
“About that…” cringed Christine. “I just think it’s right to warn you. Gray’s advisor is pressing us to go on global news to talk about our stay with you and what we did in your military.”
“Sure,” nodded Nelson. “Go for it. You can tell them that you’ve earned praise from the Child High Council and the High Command.”
“What about you guys?” asked Steve.
“Oh, don’t worry about us,” smirked Nelson. “I’m thinking about putting Ace in a nice suit and letting him loose on global TV.”
“Oh, dear Lord…” laughed Christine.
“You gotta be kidding me,” snorted Steve. “He’s as subtle and as gentle as a freaking tank. He’ll tear them all a new asshole.”
“That’s the point,” said Nelson. “Ace can smell bullshit six miles in any direction. He had a special sensor installed just for that. I’m just thinking that a boyish straight shooter with a cute girlfriend who has a long record of interstellar military service… It’s lighting in a bottle!”
“And you?” wondered Christine.
“Oh, me? Well I’m just the old fart who does some negotiations. Boring pencil pushing and form stamping no one wants to discuss. I am definitely not going to be a media darling.”
He winked at the humans with a wicked chuckle.
“You gotta know how to play the game,” he said, “and I’ve been playing this game for the last thousand years. We’re not trading with Earth and working with humans to raise some pundit’s ratings. They hate us for our unlimited life spans and advanced technology? They think we’re going to try and enslave the human race? And people are listening to them? Of course they are, we weren’t here to try and defend ourselves. In a few weeks, we’ll undo the damage.”
Nelson’s eyes shone with cool confidence as he addressed Steve and Christine as if they were part of the Nation. Just as Ace said, the humans would be great allies. It was time to tap this resource. But to Nelson, these two humans weren’t just pawns in a PR campaign. They were slowly but surely becoming Children of the Stars, and one day, they could be some of the best commanders the Nation had. It would take just a little more practice and a little more time. Yes, these two humans were destined for great things even if they didn’t know it yet…
In his dark chamber, the Reaper toyed with a small glass cube which had an eerie three-dimensional scene frozen inside. Towering over a charred, broken landscape were twisting spires lined with dark microchips built to preserve the memories and skills of any sentient being. These spires were connected by a network of thick, metallic wires with strange markings. In this metallic web, dead trees reminiscent of ghosts with clawed, desiccated branches looked as if they waited for someone to get close so they could grab him and tear him apart.
In a clearing somewhere in this city of the dead and synthetically preserved, Ace stood face to face with an alien monster, a hybrid of a Shadow Demon and a Dark God. For added effect, the Reaper added Ace’s distinctive and individual rune marks under the creature’s red, glowing eyes. Had Ace stayed asleep just a little longer, he would’ve seen that the monster also had his chest and ankle runes.
The Reaper placed the cube on a shelf carved into a wall next to an entire library of cubes. As soon as the cube touched the shelf, red tribal markings lit up and floated over it, letting the Reaper know the cube had a dream intended for Ace, designed to be beamed down and projected into his mind during sleep by a special deep space probe able to communicate with the robotic parts of his brain.
As he left the chamber to tend to some business, the Reaper kept wondering whether Ace would figure out what the message meant, or if he would just dismiss it as a random dream cooked up by his overactive imagination and overstressed mind.