Perfect Stride

“No!  It took me ages to find that Dino!”  The purple cowry shell broke the water’s surface and quickly sank, belching up two small bubbles from its interior.  A blue gloved hand tried to follow it but couldn’t catch the shell in time.  It was soon out of sight in the depths.  They were almost four miles offshore now, so there was little chance a sandbar had cushioned it in a shallow spot.  Gemini would have gladly dived in after it, even if the water was boiling, but if he broke stride he would surely perish.  Although far lighter than the military suits of twenty years ago, his armor would still be too heavy to keep him afloat.  Gemini pulled his wet hand back out of the water and stormed over to Dino.

While the two stared each other down and started a shoving match it was easy to see the family resemblance.  Aside from the same grimace, like an angry jaguar’s, they shared the same driftwood-brown skin and black hair.  Gemini was shorter and younger, with a smaller nose and bigger ears.  His face never dropped its pluckiness, making him always look like a young birthday cake snapshot of his brother Dino.

“I was going to give that to Veronica you jackass!”  Gemini continued to push his brother, trying to give his arms the force of pistons.  Dino spun away and let Gemini stumble.  Droplets of water flew up around his skates.  They had to be careful not to lose their balance.  If the surface tension broke they would be just like the cowry, sinking fast and losing their air in great bubbles like parachutes abandoning their owners.

“Oh relax,” Dino said smugly, “She wouldn’t have wanted it anyway.  Those cowries are too bulbous.  She likes the shells that can fit under her armor; otherwise she’ll look like some tumor-riddled fish out here.  Find her half a clam shell next time.”

“You know next time is two months away,” Gemini accused, “We won’t be near any shallows, or any sea shells soon.”  Dino shrugged and smiled as if he’d just pulled a practical joke that left his brother covered in egg yolk and glitter.  Gemini had dealt with that smile his whole life. He’d seen it every time his brother had pushed him into the ocean or put a layer of sea squirts and decorator crabs between his bed sheets.

They’d grown up as Oceanic Indians, only a mile or two off the coast of Maharashtra.  Their home, Samsara, was an ocean town consisting of houseboats, buoyed offices, and plastic docks all chained to the corpse of an oil rig far below.  The Americans were getting desperate for recruits by the time they were sending representatives to marine slums like Samsara.  When the Naval infantry passed through town Dino and Gemini always heard them complain about how their home was floating trash.  There were no hurricane shields.  Anything the water had ever touched had been biofouled by huge razor sharp barnacles.

The decent of the enlisted would tousle their hair and call the boys tadpoles.  The harsher of them would scowl and call them curry fish just over their breath.  The boys ignored this and stared at the boots of the soldiers.  Like metal corsets for the foot and ankle, the boots placed all the weight into one large spike emerging from the middle of the foot.  The tip of the curved spike connected to the water’s surface and released a wave of diamagnetic energy that strengthened the water’s surface tension enough to let the soldiers trek across the ocean surface.

The young boys remembered the one diamagnetic toy they’d had to share.  They remembered how their mother explained that everything, not just metal, had its own magnetic field.  With the right push water could float like iron shavings.  The boys used the diamagnetic pad to make sea spiders and fish fry hover as the water in their bodies was pushed and pulled around.  The two boys enlisted around the same time, eager to trade in the rusty pad toy for the army issued boots.  The first thing they did with them was race across the water and the second thing was argue over who won.

Now they were attached to a small scout unit headed by Captain Veronica Crest.  They were doing the same thing as the boats, the subs, the satellites, and all their enemies: searching for the gift.

“Attention!”  The Captain’s voice ended their shoving match and forced them to line up with their fellow enlisted.  Everyone’s height seemed to vary as the waves moved them up and down.  Even standing could make one seasick.

Captain Crest was an American very unhappy about forsaking the coasts of her Florida home for deep foreign waters.  Her hair was dyed a stormy sunset purple and gelled close to her scalp to prevent salt from nesting.  Such a color was not regulation but by the time a superior officer saw her unit again the sun would’ve bleached it away.  Her eyes were serious and half shut with focus, like lasers that never turned off or cooled down.  She paced in front of the line of men and women inspecting their posture, weapons, and expressions.  Good enough, but not perfect.  Never perfect.  She spoke with authority, occasionally stomping her foot and making a sizzle sound as the spike beneath her boot pushed the water down.

“We are not on an Easter egg hunt boys and girls.  You aren’t going to get stickers and chocolate for being good.  You keep your focus because that is what we are paying you to do.  Let’s go over it again.  The latest reports say we are looking for an island that moves on its own and occasionally sinks.  It is ringed with an unknown species of red coral.  There will be a silver ring suspended over the island that pulses with light and sounds like a finger across the rim of a champagne glass.  Not that many of you even know what champagne sounds like.  We now know these things because they finally released the information from the unit encounter two days ago.  Their cameraman recorded their entrance into the island through a small cave before the feed cut out.  Somehow, the data was scrambled to hide their location.  But we do have the direction they were heading in.  As we were the closest unit to them, we are now heading in that same direction.  You will know we are getting close when the island’s energy signature fries your coms and GPS guides.  It’s time for a field trip people.”

With that she took point and the line became a shapeless mass following behind her.  Dino and Gemini raced forward to walk just behind the Captain.  The two young cadets’ steps synched up.  She’s so young for a captain, they thought.  The waves frame her so well.  Gemini noticed her seashell necklace.  Dino was right, he was forced to admit.  Every shell on it was quite small and flat.  He sighed at his failure and tried not to notice his brother’s eyes acting as laser-like as the Captain’s, but in a very different way as his head followed her shape up and down the waves.

The island they searched for had only been come across twice, including the unit that had disappeared two days ago.  The first encounter’s video feed had revealed huge tablets set into the island like moai statues.  They were covered in an unknown language surrounding circular pictograms and after years of symbol analysis on the layers and layers of writing, basic translations were possible.  Unfortunately there was much confusion on the interpretation of certain ‘words’.

The brothers’ unit had one communications expert who carried a bulky camera, microphone, and Doppler setup.  Dino and Gemini were among the twenty grunts that carried assault rifles, pistols, and some with canteens nearly the size of spare tires on their backs.  Then there were two officers with long-range rifles that complemented the Captain, who chose to arm herself with a pistol and a submachine gun.

Apart from whatever dangers they might encounter inside the gift, they had to worry about enemy factions also seeking it out.  Alliances were as temperamental as the tides themselves but at the moment they needed to be wary of Chinese and African troops that were making their way north to search for the gift in the ice floes.  Gemini pictured dark-skinned people removing their boots and trekking across the ice sheets like grains of pepper.  Dino pictured the Captain’s ass, but only when the shape of an officer prevented him from seeing it.

The hours passed in near silent travel.  Every so often a shark fin snaked through their formation like a startled rabbit fleeing hunter’s footsteps.  The harsh sun baked their necks and forced them all to don protective glasses with blue lenses.  The brothers hated the glasses.  For their entirety of their lives, half of the world had been blue.  The ocean was the floor to them and its depths were hell.  Gemini recalled how Dino used to frighten him, saying if he swam too deep a spiny fish would swallow him and its spikes would prevent any rescue attempt.  The glasses turned everything blue, making escape impossible.

“Full stop!” the Captain exclaimed.  Escape seemed even less likely.  The ocean whispered as Veronica eyed the horizon intensely.  The water in the distance rose minutely, a change imperceptible to all eyes but hers.  “Waves!” She shouted, “Waves!  Everyone prepare to charge!  Weapons ready!”  The officers quickly readied their rifles and took aim into the distance.

The grunt with the tidal gun took point as the Captain strafed behind him and swept troops around with hand gestures and shouts.  Dino and Gemini prepared their feet while everyone else inspected their weapons.  So few of them seemed to understand a gun was much harder to use when standing on the shifting waters.  You had to get close.  You had to jump to get an accurate shot.  Distance was key.  If there was anything the boys were born to do, it was sprint across the sea.  The Captain eyed them with a slight snarl.  The fools always broke rank, but always got results.  It was stupid to reprimand them when their aggression ended half the skirmishes.

Invisible waves of compression shot out from the tidal gun.  At first the water in front of them turned into a speeding depression.  Then it collapsed into a crescent shape and began to rise off the surface.  In a few moments it would collide with the waves generated by the Chinese troops ahead of them and become an explosive cascade of froth.  The sound of the first collision reached their ears.  The boom of chaotic water drowned most of the troops in fear.  To the brothers it sounded only like the pistol shot starting the speedboat grand prix.  They took off at twenty waves a minute and prepared for the ground to rise up behind them.

Dino and Gemini took a few steps backward and looked over their shoulders as the wave caught up.  If they stood still the wave would drop down on them and snap their necks before drenching their corpses.  They had to reach its crest and run in place.  Gemini jumped to let the tip of the huge wave pass under his feet.  Lest he miss the perfect moment, he dug in his heel on the opposite side and sent a spray up behind him before taking position alongside Dino.  They felt the strange sensation of running on sea foam even through their boots.  To Gemini riding the liquid mountain was like besting every rider of every beast in history.  No horse, ox, or elephant carried that much power in their legs.  Their steed was naught but kinetic energy, keeping them afloat but exhausted as they sped towards the Chinese.  The brothers heard their fellows chattering over their coms.

“There they go again.”

“Hey at least we’re safe.”

“I wonder if those bastards’ fortune cookies warned them about those two!”

“Fortune cookies were invented in America you idiot!

“Shut up!  We need to catch up and help them out!”

The rest of the squadron jumped the wave that was fifth in line after the one Dino and Gemini took.  That meant it was just the two of them against an entire Chinese unit for about forty-five seconds.  That wasn’t the first problem though.  First they had to jump the collision point, where the two batteries of water met and turned everything dangerously unstable.  If they couldn’t stow away onto a Chinese wave quickly enough they might break the surface and experience what it was like to have their screams forced back into their mouths by rushing water.

The thunderous clap of the collision point drew closer.  To Gemini it sounded like a giant using two Olympic-sized swimming pools as cymbals.  Dino howled into the air and slung his rifle back across his shoulder.  They watched as the wave in front of them rushed to meet its opponent.  The two struck each other with such force that Gemini stumbled on their wave’s crest and fell a foot behind his brother.

“Damn it,” Dino fumed.  He leapt backwards and grabbed his little brother’s hand.  Then he dragged Gemini back up to the tip without looking at him any more than he had to.  Gemini groaned.  If they survived he would have to thank his sibling, which was often more painful than the sunburned battles themselves.  The waves under them exploded.  The sight was always astonishing, like seeing a racehorse break the sound barrier.  In five seconds the brother would be nothing more than detritus in the geyser if they didn’t jump.  The crest of another Chinese wave approached like a turning page and they waited for the perfect second where the gap was no more than four feet.  They leapt.  They broke through the now falling fan shape as if through tissue paper and skated down the back side of the Chinese wave.  Gravity was not quick enough so they pumped their feet to get off the Chinese wave before the collision broke its surface tension.

The two picked up speed and scaled the near vertical faces of three more Chinese waves before they reached the enemy.  They vaulted from the crest of the last wave and jumped down its length.  Gemini took the nanoseconds he could spare to look at the men’s faces.  They were burned and peeling like dried out onions.  Their uniforms were black and complemented only with red sashes across their chest.  The blob of fighters was disorganized.  There didn’t seem to be a commanding officer among them.  Storms and starvation had already whipped these men and women out of shape.  Their uniforms were torn and their canteens were dented from attempts to batter more fresh water out of them.  Two of them were busy dragging a corpse in a flotation bag.

Time was up.  Gemini raised his rifle and joined Dino in firing; all of this before the two had hit the surface behind the last wave.  Their boots connected with a strained sizzling sound as their weight forced the water into a funnel shape.  The Chinese trooper with the wave gun hefted his unwieldy weapon to the left and fired at the brothers.  Dino ripped what look like a small snow globe from his belt and clicked the switch on its bottom before tossing it into the rising wave.  The kinetic grenade went off and dissipated the assault into a harmless mist, which they then used as cover to disguise their movements.  Gemini ducked and weaved around bullet trails that tore through the mist.  He fired into the thick of it at different angles to further confuse his enemies.  If Gemini had had time to worry he might wonder why he though of them as enemies.  He’d never met them.  Other than their attack they’d insulted him less than most of the American infantry that had stopped in Samsara.

There was no moral argument dividing them.  No one had dropped any bombs to kick things off.  Nobody had slept with anybody else’s wife.  It was all just a difference of opinion.  A difference that made it absolutely vital that Dino and Gemini kill these men.  A difference that made half the human race insist on trekking across their blue planet in search of the gift.  The opinion of the Chinese could kill them all.  It could vaporize the oceans so fast that even the victors wouldn’t have ground to stand on.

The American unit caught up before the mist dissipated.  With rifles raised they opened fire and listened to the horrid sounds of men falling and sinking as soon as their backs hit the surface.  Outnumbered and wearier than the Americans could understand, the Chinese began to drop their weapons and declare their surrender.  The rifles sank hundreds of feet down and added to an artificial reef created by the war.  Fish, cnidarians, crustaceans, and kelp were busy creating a metropolis out of sunken speedboat caravans.

The dropping of the weapons was still a hostile gesture.  To the Chinese it was better that they sink instead of wind up in the hands of the people who would resist the gift’s perfection.

Over the next few minutes the squad busied themselves by cuffing the eight remaining Chinese soldiers and connecting them all with rubber rope so they could be marched along like a dejected centipede.  Gemini was connecting the last prisoner, a woman who looked even younger than he was, when the stress of battle finally gave way to curiosity.

“So where’s your CO?” he whispered to her.  He heard his own voice, this time speaking Mandarin, as the translator in the woman’s helmet delivered his question.  She glared at him and responded in a tone that needed no translation.  It was cold and determined, but also as violent as a hundred year rockslide.  The woman glared at him with complete focus, despite the sun shining right beside his head.  Gemini’s helmet translated and did him the favor of removing the hostility from the tone of voice and replacing it with a vacuous buzz as if the voice had just spent hours calmly reading a car’s owner’s manual.

“Our commanding officer is about to end this war.  Assuming he can make up his mind that is.  We got separated while inside it.  We had to run from the security but the last thing I saw was him, hovering over the switch with indecision.  He’ll make the right choice.  He’ll wipe you out.  All of you.  There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Gemini swallowed hard.  Captain Veronica ordered everyone to move out while there was still a little daylight left.  The rubber rope pulled on the woman who was last in line.  She begrudgingly started to walk forward, but kept her head turned to stare at Gemini.  Everyone was moving except for the little tadpole from Samsara.  The woman’s glare had locked him in place.  To him it felt as if the water had stopped as well.  The hate in her voice was nothing compared to her statement.  Inside? Thought Gemini.  Inside what?  When the woman finally took her eyes off him she chose to yell into the sky instead.  Gemini’s helmet chose to censor many of her words.  He reported what the woman had said to Veronica.  Here eyes bugged at the information and she ordered everyone to double their pace.  Then she quietly radioed their superiors and whispered to them while they ran.

A few hours later as the sky continued to darken and turn the surface a hypothermic purple, the Captain called a halt.  Apparently she had decided that particular featureless patch of saltwater was the best for camping on that night.  Lacking any aqua blankets, the Chinese prisoners would have to sleep standing up.  Dino volunteered to tie them all into one big cluster.  He knotted the rubber rope around them four times and smirked at them every time he pulled it tighter.  A few of them were still furious but the group was mostly silent.  They just stared fathoms down as if watching all their hope freefall away from them.

Dino pulled a small latch off a pouch on his belt.  An incredibly thin gray blanket launched out of its compressed storage pocket.  He tried to catch the blanket but it sliced its way back and forth through the air like a piece of paper.  Gemini started to laugh so Dino quickly unlatched his sibling’s pouch and guffawed as he chased down the wind-caught blanket.

Lucky enough to not get stuck with the first watch, both brothers placed their blankets down beside their Captain.  Veronica gave an annoyed sigh at the sight of Gemini and rolled over, only to see Dino propping his head up with one hand and displaying the rest of his body like a warm stick of butter in the middle of a dinner table.  He had removed his shirt.

Gemini observed her shell necklace, which she had pulled out from under her armor.  Every shell was flat.  How could Dino be so right when he was so stupid generally?  Even the blind could sense his idiot’s grin.  Veronica switched to lying on her back, choosing to see nothing over either of them.  The quiet of the ocean set in as the last of the group stopped making jokes about their Chinese prisoners.  The last one the three of them heard was something like, “Tying them up is great payback for that Chinese finger trap I got stuck in that once.”

The prisoners on the outside of the bundle had to keep awake so their limbs wouldn’t buckle and sink all of them.  Only a few in the middle were packed in tightly enough to let themselves hang, supported only by their fellow captives.  Gemini saw them as a whirlpool: angry and active at the edges while defeated and unconscious at the center.  He wondered which ones felt better.  Where had they been?  A small wave raised Veronica’s body into his sight, effectively distracting him.  Using his shoulders he inched his way closer to her side as quietly as he could.

“I can feel you moving you idiot,” the Captain said plainly.  Gemini, channeling his brother’s IQ, had failed to notice each movement created waves.

“Sorry Captain,” he responded dejectedly.  She was fed up with these two.  Alternately flirting and disobeying orders, they clearly didn’t see her authority.  After battling her way across three oceans to get it, their disrespect had her ready to send them on a ‘special mission’ to find Atlantis or the mysteries of the Bermuda triangle.  She gritted her teeth and asked herself why she was bothering to protect this world anyway.  She hadn’t been happy even before she started worrying about what the gift could do.

“Captain,” Dino began, “What did you think of my performance today?  I thought I was pretty on my game but what’s your opinion?”  Veronica smiled and brushed a few strands of purple hair out of her face.

“I’m cold,” she said absently, “Soldier I need your blanket.”  Dino’s face flushed.

“But captain… I can’t float without one… I’ll have to stand…”

“No don’t be absurd,” she replied.  Dino relaxed. “You can share with your brother.”  She felt small waves on both sides of her, the sensation of spines stiffening.  A few minutes later the Captain was sweating thanks to the unnecessary blanket, but she was sleeping well now.  Gemini and Dino struggled to stay on the one blanket.  Forced into spooning, Gemini was busy ranking that night among the worst in his life.  What had he done to deserve this?  Dino was the screw-up.  A perfect ass.  Yet people treated him so… equally.  He was given every consideration Gemini was.  Now here he was trying to steal Veronica from him, before he’d even managed to interest her.  People saw them as one.  Gemini felt emotionally conjoined to his sibling.  Somehow, against his will, the stigma of his genes had wrapped him to Dino for his entire life.  There was only one time where that was more obvious than that moment where the Captain ordered them to bunk in each other’s personal space.  Gemini recalled that horrible day and huffed bubbles into the water like a grouchy child blowing down a straw and erupting milk across a dinner table.

            They weren’t quite teenagers yet, but the opportunity had them feeling like comic book adventurers with five o’ clock shadow.  Some European troops had accepted the hospitality of the only motel in Samsara and were busy stuffing their faces with spicy tuna fillets and fake sausage patties unconvincingly sculpted from algae and flavored with grease.  The splintering hardwood floor bit at the brothers’ knees as they silently crawled into the building and then the storage closet where the feasting unit had removed their skimmer boots.  The metal on them shined even in the dark of the closet.  Gemini reverently lifted a rain coat off the pile of shoes to get a better look.  Dino swatted his hand away when he reached out to touch them and chastised, “No, stupid!  I’ll steal them.  You go be lookout.  Go go go!” He put his arm up to his younger brother and swept him out of the closet.

Moments later, Gemini was standing outside in the setting sun and waiting for his brother to emerge.  They wouldn’t have had to steal if their mother had let them enlist.  They wouldn’t see combat until they were seventeen but training with skimmer boots started right away.  It was so enticing to picture his own boots sitting atop a freshly pressed and folded uniform with no salt stains.  They would be shining, not because they were high tech, expensive, or finely crafted, but because they were new.  They were not hand-me-downs.  They would not be handed over by his brother wearing a smug smile that said Now that I’m done with them…

Dino emerged toting two pairs of borrowed skimmer boots.  He handed the more beat-up pair to his younger brother and ordered him to hurry up so they wouldn’t get caught.  Both boys hobbled awkwardly towards the water.  The boots were much too large and with the skim spike hanging down it was like trying to walk with broomstick legs.  Dino once again put his arm up to fence his little brother in.

“Hold on.  I’m going in first.”  Gemini pouted as his brother rocked his arms back and forth preparing for a jump.  He leapt with one foot outstretched so he could start running immediately.  His first foot made a mighty splash and sank.  Dino panicked.  His second foot sank and he screamed.  He whipped around as his torso hit the surface and grabbed back onto the dock with his arms.  His chin smacked into the edge and chipped a tooth far back in his mouth.  He spit out the white chip and stared at Gemini laughing hysterically.  “Shut up!  Get me out of here!”  Gemini reached out and pulled his brother’s arms.  As he emerged, Dino accidentally kicked his tooth piece and it fell through a crack and sank with a near silent plink.

“Your tooth,” Gemini muttered.

“It’s okay,” Dino replied, “It’s payment.  I got hurt taking these boots, so that means they’re ours now.  It’s called investing.”  Gemini frowned.

“No it’s called stealing.  If we keep them we’re thieves.”  Even though Dino had stolen them, Gemini felt the guilt.  He pictured an oblivious soldier walking barefoot into the sea and looking startled as he gulped down mouthfuls of his death.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dino explained, “If we keep the boots, enlist, and find the gift we can start it up and it’ll make everything perfect.  That way us stealing some boots will never have meant anything.”

“But I thought the gift was going to blow everything up,” Gemini questioned.

“Well it depends which side you’re on,” Dino delineated.  “One side thinks it’ll set even the ocean on fire and the other thinks it’ll make everybody happy for the rest of forever.”

“Dino… which side are we on?”

“That’s easy brother, whichever side gives us our own boots first.  Now help me figure out why these ones don’t work.”  Dino fiddled with one of the boots and eventually found the small on switch on the heel.  He pressed it in and recoiled as it hissed to life…

            Gemini’s memory was interrupted by an unusual feeling.  A large bubble of air had risen from the deep and hit the flotation blanket, forming a saucepan sized bulge between the brothers.  Gemini rolled over to find Dino already poking at it with the tip of his gun.  They used their hands to direct the bubble to an edge.  It made a nauseating blorp sound as it ruptured the surface tension.  As if it hadn’t been unpleasant enough, the two heard an instant replay.  Others began to wake up as the sounds became more prevalent.  Bubbles were soon rising everywhere, as if a pod of whales were simultaneously exhaling beneath them.  Veronica was already on her feet, visor down and voice angry.

“Everyone on your feet!  Helmets on!  Weapons at the ready!”  The biggest bubble yet, the size of a trampoline, erupted in the middle of the group.  One man was flung from his blanket and into the water head first.  With his boots inactive, he sank with terrible quickness and barely managed to remove enough gear to return to the surface.

Gemini rushed towards the imprisoned Chinese and pulled them away from the froth by the rubber rope.  Their arms flailed wildly and they cried out in despair.  His helmet translated everything but the emotion.  It calmly told Gemini things like “It’s come back for us” and “No, no, no, no, no, please no”.  Soon the massive circle of bubbles expanded to encompass everyone.  They all stood on the flotation blankets like surfers trapped on a boiling wave.  The angry sea raged as its gift approached the surface.  Several of the men began to fire wildly downward into the chaotic broth of fear and tumult.  Two huge geysers of steam added to the panic.  The water fell back down in thick ropes.

Gemini looked around for Dino but found no sign of him.  Usually he would see his brother staring back at him with the same panicked stare of a familial bond that is about to snap.  Not this time.  Dino was lost somewhere in the storm of yells and rain.  Gemini called out to his brother but his voice was drowned by everyone else’s and the surge of water.  His flotation blanket began to fold under him so he crouched down and stretched it back out.  He was also afraid that floating too near one of the mighty geysers would turn his blanket into a flying carpet.  He dropped the rope and let the mass of prisoners disappear into the mist.  That move might have doomed them, but what did it matter?  After all, they were stupid enough to believe the gift was a device designed to create utopia.  He didn’t even have time to make that rationalization.  He stared over the edge of the blanket into the surging waters.  For a brief moment he saw something rising at an incredible speed.  Its identity was unclear, but its peculiarity was not.  No object released air in order to surface.  It didn’t make sense.

Veronica landed on Gemini’s blanket, out of breath.  A huge bubble had caved in the area supporting her blanket and it had begun wafting through the water like a playing card in the wind.  She had half-danced and half-floundered across the chaos to the first soldier she found, who was coincidentally her second least favorite.

Gemini, with all the bravery he could muster, refrained from hugging her as if she was his mother and weeping.  Without Dino leading the charge he was nothing.  Veronica saw this in his shocked eyes and realized Gemini’s twisted view of himself.  He couldn’t accomplish anything without someone’s shadow shielding him.  With no one to draw fire, he was just a little curry fish again, with striders walking by him and sharing only contemptuous grimaces.

Gemini’s ankles nearly cracked under the burst of solidity now supporting him.  The rising object turned out to be ground.  It continued to rush upwards, sending Gemini and Veronica to their hands and knees.  Even as the rushing air pushed him down, Gemini again noted something peculiar.  This wasn’t the metal hull of a submarine.  It was actual soil.  Small rich clods of it rolled around his fingers as he dug them in and squeezed the ground.  All the water rushed away unnaturally quick, as if bouncing off an opened umbrella.

The rising stopped and Veronica raised her now sore neck.  Instead of examining the ground she had stayed alert and done her best to keep watch for enemy targets.  As the two geysers finally quit, she caught perhaps the most unusual sight in human history.  The sea was gone.  It was as if an elevator had simply taken them to a different floor of some multi-layered nature preserve.  She was surrounded by a dense tropical forest.  The gentle hills of dark brown earth were mostly carpeted in lush green moss.  Translucent ferns waved in the delicate breeze.  She was in the shade of a small grove of trees just to her left.  If she had been a few feet in either direction they might have skewered her like an olive on a toothpick.  Red and purple pitcher plants hung like doorknockers from most of them.  The only clear spot she could see ended, a distance away, in tall red crags of rock.  No… they were much too tall… too organic.  Coral.  That meant…  Veronica looked up and spun in a circle.  She had to in order to view the entirety of the metal halo that hung suspended over them.

She had found it.  Technically it had found her but that was a minor distinction to the Captain, except in the manner of its timing.  “I’m not ready,” she whispered.  Only one of her men was in sight and he was doubled over trying to hide his tears in the dirt.  He was probably convinced his brother was dead.  The rest of her unit was probably dead.  Here she was, alive and alert on the scalp of the gift itself, without anyone to respect her accomplishment.  She felt a little like crying herself. Instead she hoisted Gemini up by his collar.  He stood there weakly with his legs shaking.  She ordered him to take off his boots so he could walk better and then showed him by removing hers just in case his grief-soaked brain wasn’t registering.  She forgave his lack of verbal response.  He did take the boots off even if he didn’t say ‘Yes Captain’.

Aware that her one soldier wasn’t in peak form at the moment, she took a few minutes to confirm their predicament.  The radio in her helmet was dead.  The GPS screen was black.  All her other systems still seemed operational.  The helmet could still give her a read-out on its small lens situated over her eyes like a rear-view mirror.  The temperature was a comfortable sixty-six degrees.  Humidity was high.  She didn’t need the lens to tell her that the sun was rising.  Everything was becoming slowly more-defined.  The colors on the plants were making her reel a little.  After spending months with a constant flat blue horizon, this new jungle felt like an instant labyrinth.  Every pitcher and fruit with a burst of color felt like a road sign written in a language she couldn’t read.  Her eyes darted back and forth for any sort of path.  She chose a direction and started walking, boots slung over her shoulder.  Gemini followed closely behind, confident that if his brother was truly dead, he would join him shortly.

            Deep in the heart of the island, an ungloved hand hovered over half of a blinking green orb embedded into a metal panel.  It was clearly the ignition.  Its every facet had been designed to indicate that to even the most untrained operative.  One push… or perhaps a roll… and all of the world’s problems would vanish.  But in what manner? Wondered the person connected to the hovering hand.  The water beneath the hand and the panel sat still as if frozen in anticipation.  There were no ripples to interrupt the train of thought.  Everything waited for a decision.  The owner of the hand was sweating, growing nervous in indecision.

Veronica made sure her submachine gun was always looking in the same direction she was.  It wasn’t much help at the moment since the trees didn’t feel threatened at all.  Regardless, she kept alert.  She strafed around every thick trunk and dashed to cover when it was available.  Gemini plodded solemnly behind her, practically volunteering to be cover himself.  His Captain did not appreciate the attitude.

“Get your guard up soldier, that’s an order.  This place could be crawling with aliens for all we know.  Or worse, the Chinese!  I need you to stay aler…  oof!”  Veronica tripped over a tree root, accidentally firing her gun at a mass of fruit that exploded into a fireworks display of pulp.  Mad at herself before she even hit the ground, Veronica stayed down to hide her reddening face.  Fish out of water, she thought.

Embarrassing as it was, the fall snapped Gemini back into his body.  He rushed to help her up and almost tripped on the same object she did.  They both stared at it in confusion.  It looked like a root but it was clearly made of metal.  One end of it was fused into the actual roots of a nearby tree and the other end disappeared into the soil.  Closer examination revealed that they were surrounded by these organic-looking pipes, all plugged into the surrounding trees.

“What is this stuff Captain?”  Silence stood in the question’s wake.  Veronica followed the line where one of the pipes connected to a root with her fingertip.  She put her ear to it half-expecting to hear flowing water.  Again, silence.  Suddenly she snapped her fingers, bolted up to her full height, and resolutely pointed at the massive metal halo floating above them.

“I’ve got it.  These aren’t irrigation, otherwise they would just empty into the dirt around the tree.  They’re wires.  They ferry power from the trees to the mechanisms that move this island.  Whatever built this thing was probably ugly as Hell but it was definitely clever.  It uses the trees like solar panels.  The leaves take in the sun and the wires move it!  So there’s no generator or nuclear reactor or anything.  I bet it uses the coral too… it takes the food energy that the coral gets from filter feeding.” Gemini would’ve been impressed even if he didn’t find the Captain ravishing.  He nearly ruined her sense of victory by asking the next obvious question.

“How did the trees survive underwater though?”  Veronica concentrated intensely, trying to use the energy from the last realization to fuel a new one.

“Simple… It’s simple… Just give me a second I know it’s simple.  The Captain knows.  It’s…  Ah!  An atmosphere!  A contained atmosphere!  Haha yes that’s it!  That’s where all the bubbles came from as it was rising.  It was venting the stale atmosphere and rising to get some fresh air and sunshine for the plants.  That’s why it surfaces instead of just lying on the bottom.  Oh that has to be the explanation; it’s just too perfect.  And this ring thing over our heads,” she gestured in wide exaggerated circles, “It holds the air in somehow… creates some kind of chamber that can withstand the pressure of the ocean.  It somehow makes this island into a giant diving bell.  And it’s all to drive the gift…” her voice trailed off as she though about the device that had to be somewhere on the island, a train of thought which inexorably led to images of the world burning.

At the same time Gemini thought about the other possibility.  He thought about the perfect world the Chinese believed the device would create.  If it truly was perfect, it would bring his brother back. As the excitement of the realizations faded, the two began to walk again in hopes of finding help, the device, or anything alive that wasn’t rooted down.  Gemini’s mind wandered back to the memory that the emerging island had interrupted.

With only the fading lights of Samsara’s docks to guide them, the two brothers had set off into the dark waves to try out their borrowed boots.  Walking on them was at first difficult.  Gemini imagined it was like walking across a spider web that undulated in a fall breeze.  Every few steps they had to pinwheel their arms wildly to keep from falling forward or back.  Both of them hurried to get the hang of it; the whole reason they had taken the boots was to race.  Within about an hour, Dino was running ripples around his little brother, who still pinwheeled every now and then.  Dino forced his foot to the side in a sweeping motion that created a spray of water.  He quickly mastered the technique and shouted, “Patent!”  That was something he frequently did to declare his sole rights to an action.  If Gemini tried it he would receive a mild beating for breaking what Dino assumed to be the rules of the patent office.

Gemini started running in response and yelled, “Race!” over his shoulder.  Dino quickly caught up despite the head start.  Suddenly Gemini felt himself gaining an edge.  He didn’t understand how but he was slowly gaining inches between himself and Dino.  Dino huffed and puffed and pumped his arms to try and catch up.  What the two didn’t understand was that heavier individuals always wound up slower than their lighter teammates because the surface tension created a depression that increased with weight when the boots hit it.  At full speed it became more like skipping a stone than running.  Gemini ran all the more sincerely, sensing his brother’s anger at second place status.  Sensing a closing opportunity, Gemini decided to place the finish line just ten feet in front of his current position and not inform the other contestant.  He would be the winner, the top dog, the king of the hill, in ten… eight… six…  He became snagged and cartwheeled into the water.  He gulped and wailed for help as the finish line wrapped around him.

A gaping tunnel stood before the Captain and Dino.  In their wandering they had reunited with the two surviving officers from their unit.  Now all four of them gaped at the hole in the island.  Three of them hoped their Captain wouldn’t order them inside.

“Well boys it looks like we’re going,” Veronica declared.  She heard armor clink as shoulders slumped around her.  “No choice boys.  If we have a shot at destroying that machine before some African or Chinese nut job fires it, we have to go for it.”  The soft sounds of the jungle faded behind them as they cautiously walked inside.  Small white lights on their helmets clicked on to guide the way.

The tunnel almost immediately angled downward.  If it were any steeper they would’ve been forced to slide down.  Gemini pictured Dino gladly dropping onto his ass and using his rifle like a rudder as he slid down into the darkness.  He almost thought he heard Are you coming slowpoke? echo back to him.  He finally got around to raising his rifle and focusing about half as well as Veronica.

The tunnel grew damp.  Drops of moisture appeared on the smooth, rounded stone walls, the sounds of dripping joining their heavy footfalls.  The loamy Earth from the tunnel’s opening gave way to solid polished rock that was getting very slippery.            Veronica ordered a halt and one of the officers stopped so suddenly that he slipped and fell.  Luckily the other grabbed his arm and pulled him back up.  The man looked deeply frightened, as if he had just been pulled from a crocodile’s jaws a quarter-moment before they snapped shut.  Veronica had to refrain from rolling her eyes.  Fear was understandable, but to show it was unbecoming.  Fear was nothing but a paranoid form of focus, a breakdown of control.  What happens happens, she thought. Being observant helps a lot more than whimpering.  “Alright boys, put your boots back on.  Something tells me we’re about to hit some blue.”  As instructed, they re-donned their boots and switched them on.  Gemini dwelled on the hum sound of them starting for a moment.  Images of races shoved their way into his mind, reminding him.

They came upon a silent and still body of water.  Veronica placed the spike of her boot on it to test its surface.  It remained unnaturally calm, with no ripples at all.  Gemini nearly broke out into stereotypical phrases from the story-time cowards of his childhood. Yikes!  It could be curs-id!  Let’s hightail it out of here!

Veronica placed both feet on the placid water.  She began to move forward without asking her soldiers if they were coming.  Thinking it only marginally better to follow her than stand still, the other three followed.  The only sounds were their footsteps on the water.  They were light and clinking, like two magnets allowed to touch only for a moment and then pulled apart.

The tunnel continued for a quarter of a mile before it showed signs of opening up.  It got a little wider and the walls became uneven, then crystalline.  They stopped.  The walls were nearly transparent, with only a few lines in the crystal skewing the light.  Gemini and Veronica removed their gloves and placed their hands on it.  It was cold and damp.  Gemini wiped at it with his hands and then looked as deep as he could.  There were shapes behind the crystal wall, in the next chamber over.  One of the officers rushed over and took a look.  He spoke in disbelieving pants.

“Yeah you can… see those behind the other wall too… what… are they?”  He rushed back over to the other wall to compare them again.  The shapes were massive and hollow metal gourds, some of them turned over and dented against the ground.  Most of them had cracks.  Remnants of a thick fluid had frozen into red icicles off the sides of some of the cracks.  Whatever they were, they had been emptied.  The group once again stood in silent awe, with Veronica sternly waiting for them to come back to attention.  You can’t expect much from surprised men, she reminded herself.

When their interest once again waned into uneasy fear, they continued to move forward.  The tunnel returned to its original width and texture for one last stretch.  Then it opened in a much grander way.  Veronica clenched her jaw as the other three swallowed hard.  They knew they were entering the core of an alien device, the likes of which had only been seen once or twice before, by men who did not live to tell the tale.

The striders once again readied their weapons and warily entered the next chamber.  It was large and bubble shaped, with one branched structure dominating its center.  It looked almost like one of the pitcher plants outside, but its color scheme was a series of blue and white stripes.  Just enough sunlight filtered in from a grate above to cast ominous patterned shadows over it.  Twenty foot long triangular prisms of black stone, or perhaps metal, fastened the structure to the walls of the chamber.  There was a small platform at its front, fifteen feet off of the water’s surface.  There didn’t appear to be any obvious means of getting up there but it was clear that someone had figured it out.  After all, he was still standing there.  His hand still hovered over the blinking orb but the face was staring, shocked, at the new arrivals.  Veronica ordered them to aim and a millisecond later four weapons were focused on him.  Gemini squinted to get the best look he could.  He looked to be in his mid-forties and had a large red sash across his chest.  He spouted something in angry, frightened Cantonese and Gemini’s helmet translated.

“Back off or I’ll do it!  I swear I’ll activate it!  Drop your weapons.”  It appeared that the Chinese leader had lost his own weapons somewhere along the line, probably when he got separated from the rest of the unit they had captured.  China as a nation had decided that the gift was a blessing from a race far more advanced than humanity.  They believed that activating it would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for the species.  Yet here was a Chinese commander, too afraid and unsure to be the agent of that change.  He had stood in that spot for nearly two days now, locked in place.  His legs and sides were cramped and he was badly dehydrated.  Simply by waiting so long he had committed treason in his country.  Of course there was the possibility that his country was right.  That would mean his treason would vanish.  His dehydration would be instantly solved.  He would be able to afford a decent home for his family.  That little ingrown hair on the back of his neck would poof out of existence if he could just find the courage to lower his hand seven inches.

“Don’t do it,” Veronica warned.  “You’ll destroy all of us.”  The Chinese commander lifted his hand slightly.  He was considering just rooting himself to the spot and living in that state of limbo, with no more responsibility than the trees outside.

Gemini considered just shooting the man and hoping his body fell away from the trigger.  A knot of thoughts in his head suggested if the Chinese hadn’t shown up, his brother would be by his side making him feel that special brand of sibling misery again.

The standoff was interrupted by a slight crumbling sound.  Everyone watched as a small pebble broke off from the stone wall, next to one of the prism supports, and tumbled to the still water.  The moment it hit, it created a ripple astonishing for the pebble’s size.  All of a sudden the water was violent.  White foam appeared as waves came to life from nowhere and smacked the walls.  Gemini had to dance to keep from falling over.  More pebbles rained down as the four triangular prisms came to life.  They broke away from the device and levitated into a vertical position over the water.  The device itself hovered effortlessly, with one terrified Chinese commander gripping it for dear life.

“Not again,” he muttered.  He had been there days earlier when those prisms had first detached and destroyed half his unit. The other half had run with their collective tails between their legs.  Who could blame them?  The device’s security system was sleek, violent, and without mercy.  None of them were aware it was the weapons they clung to so dearly that activated it.

Veronica started to fire at one of the levitating pillars.  Its obsidian surface didn’t respond to the assault at all.  The pillar itself aimed to face her and shot forward like a piston, trying to crush her against the wall.  She hopped over it and dashed away, yelling orders to fire at will over her shoulder.  Meanwhile the other three prisms sank into the water to come at the intruders from below.

Gemini tried to look for the hidden prisms but the water had become too choppy.  A horrible grating noise filled his ears and he looked up to see the pillar that had barely missed the Captain was now scraping one of its ends along the wall and coming towards him.  Gemini crouched and waited.  Timing it as best he could, he hurdled over the speeding prism and landed back on the water.  His ankles wobbled painfully and he once again resorted to pinwheeling to stay on his feet.

One of the officers was rushing towards him, with one arm outstretched in hopes of stabilizing Gemini.  Before he even reached his fellow soldier two of the hidden prisms burst forth on either side of him.  The two rushed towards each other and had their edges collide like clashing swords.  The resulting pincer cut the officer in half.  The two portions of his body fell, sank, and were gone in an instant.  The shock of it pushed Gemini back up against the wall.  He fired wildly at the twenty foot black prisms in vain.  The tip of the fourth emerged to his side and rose up like the cover a closing book, attempting to crush him against the wall, or perhaps slice him at such an angle that the two halves could look at each other.  Sensing the end, Gemini dropped his weapon and threw his hands up in a useless defensive gesture.

A figure rocketed forth from another tunnel that opened into the chamber.  It landed right on the rising tip of the prism and forced it back into the water in a seesawing motion.  Gemini recognized the back of the head; he’d certainly lost enough races with it in sight.  He also recognized the stupidity of the move that had just saved his life.

“Dino!” He cried out in relief.  His brother was too busy to respond though.  He ran along the length of the seesawing prism and jumped just as its edge started to rise again, managing to grab onto the device’s platform where the Chinese commander still stood motionless.  He hoisted himself up as quickly as he could, but not before the pillar’s other edge caught up with him.  Its corner sliced down the length of his back, opening his armor so that it resembled a butterfly’s split chrysalis.  Dino howled in pain but continued pulling himself up.  He stood up, ignoring the blood now pouring down his back, and slapped the Chinese commander’s hand away from the trigger.

“I hope everybody’s watching!” he yelled.  Then he smacked the trigger himself and the device came roaring to life.

            Gemini couldn’t believe it.  He had just gotten ahead of his brother for the first time in his life but couldn’t gloat about it.  He was too busy drowning.  He wished he’d never asked Dino to steal the boots with him.  Something fibrous and slimy had ensnared him.  It hung over his face, tangled his arms, and wrapped painfully around his waist.  Something else was tangled as well.  It felt like some large and oddly shaped smooth tuber.  Gemini tried to push it away but the netting brought it right back.  He coughed and sputtered for help from the race’s runner-up.

Dino quickly closed the distance between them and wrenched his brother up from the water and set him back on his feet.  The cold had Gemini’s legs shaking but his boots held on to the surface firmly.  They couldn’t see much in the dark but it was obvious that Gemini had snagged an old fishing net that had been floating around and growing a crop of algae for quite some time.  They still couldn’t identify the small animal caught alongside Gemini, though the lack of motion marked it as lifeless.  Gemini snorted and coughed weakly a few times.  “Get me out of this stuff,” he pleaded, fighting back tears.  None of the jeers he expected came.  His brother’s hands silently started testing the spots in the line for weakness.  Every time he pulled one spot loose another one seemed to get a little tighter.  Dino grunted in exasperation as he yanked on a piece near his brother’s collar, which in turn stretched a piece on his forearm and tore his skin painfully.  Gemini bit his lip.  He didn’t want to tell Dino he was making it worse, lest he appear ungrateful for perhaps the only genuinely compassionate act his brother might offer.  He tugged, yanked, pulled, bit, spat, examined, and fiddled to no avail.  The net was staying put.  Not only that, the jetsam had quietly expanded its territory and knotted itself around Dino’s bicep.  In his efforts to free Gemini he’d gotten himself stuck in a knot that was already cutting off the circulation to his arm.  They both took deep breaths, trying to exhale the shame of stupidity.  There they were, caught like sea gulls in plastic soda binders.  Samsara’s lights still shone dimly in the distance.  The siblings headed towards it stoically with the dead animal bobbing between them.

Dino forced his fingers in between the rope and his bicep to allow some blood into his arm.  As a result Gemini felt the portion around his waist tighten even more and grate across his hip bone.  The fibers of the rope irritated his skin and the salt crusting on him only made it worse.  Some of it draped around his legs and threatened to trip him again, so he shuffled along in flat strides, sending little jets of water out in front of him like dry soil off a baseball diamond.  His physical misery couldn’t keep him entirely distracted from his brother’s reactions.  No jokes, no anger, no smugness.  Could it be that Dino had actually been worried he might perish?  Did the actual danger shock him into silence, into a kind of fraternal reverence?

When they reached the nearest dock they sat on it, removed the boots, and dangled their feet off the edge.  Dino used his free arm and the spike on the bottom of one of the boots to cut through the bit that bound him and then proceeded to free his brother.  When disentangled Gemini rubbed his sore arms, waist, and shoulders vigorously.  Dino waited for Gemini to thank him while Gemini waited for Dino to sarcastically say you’re welcome.

Instead Dino eventually reached down into the water and pulled up the tail of the dead animal.  It was surprisingly heavy.  Gemini pulled up the head and they sat there holding the beast, which hadn’t yet begun to rot.  It was a baby dolphin.  Its eyes were open and milky.  Thanks to the naturally upturned mouth it sported a frozen smile.  It looked as if its spirit had been pushed out during its moment of greatest joy, leaving behind the body as a monument to the memory.

Dino stroked its gray tail, his hand stopping every few moments as he considered something.  Then he picked up the boot again and used it to cut the cetacean’s body free.  He looked over at his brother in the pale light of the street lamps and said, “You know… if we ever find the gift I just might start it up no matter what side we’re on.”  Gemini cocked his head to the side.

“Why?  Aren’t you worried we’ll die?”  Dino pursed his lips and leaned back.

“A little, but it doesn’t matter what happens.  Either way, this shouldn’t exist.”  He gestured to the mournful sight of the lifeless creature.  Then he slowly dropped the tail back into the water and helped his brother ease the head in as well.  They both watched intently to see if it would float.

            “No!” Veronica screamed with the roar of the device drowning her out.  The four attacking prisms stopped in mid-attack and returned to their places at the machine’s side.  Its leaf-shaped lid popped open and hissed out jets of a bluish gas.  White bolts of lightning traveled from the walls, through the prisms, and into the gift.  She and the remaining officer fired at the base of the gift to try and shut it down but the bullets ricocheted off with no effect.  Gemini saw his brother laughing over the sounds of electricity crackling in the air.  There was another surge of electricity as the prisms started glowing so brightly that they disappeared in their own light.  The Chinese commander hit the platform with his head buried in his arms, as if he were certain a bomb was about to go off.

Gemini had a petrifying thought that he might be the brother of the man who ended civilization.  At least he wouldn’t be around to experience the guilt.  Some of his brother’s blood was dripping from the edge of the platform, conducting small bolts of white electricity in between drops.  Gemini held up his hand and watched as painless bolts leapt between his fingertips and then raced for the device.  More of the bluish gas flowed over the lid of the device, making it look like a witch’s cauldron.  The green trigger finally stopped flashing and turned a deep shade of blue.  A low sound, like a combination of whale song and the deepest note on a bassoon, rose to an incredible volume.

Two empty ammunition clips fell into the water and sank as Veronica and the remaining officer ran out of ammo.  Veronica switched to her submachine gun and continued trying to bring it down.  The membrane of bluish gas at the gift’s peak swelled up in a bubble shape.  There was one more rush of lightning and sound.  Then the bubble burst, transforming into a towering skyward beam of blue vapor.  It rushed up and out of the chamber with a powerful hiss and into the sky surrounding the island.  And just then, as Gemini expected every particle he’d ever known to explode, the beam stopped.  The chamber quieted down as one last wisp of gas curled away from the gift.  The device still sputtered, making sucking and whining sounds like a vacuum stuck on a wet article of clothing.  It groaned and shook for barely a second more, then went silent.  The water at their feet returned to its freakishly calm state in an instant.

Everyone was panting and whirling around in confusion.  The Chinese commander had still not lifted his head up.  In fact he had assumed he was dead.  Dino dropped to his stomach and let his head hang over the edge of the platform.  The wound on his back was beginning to make him feel woozy, but he smiled widely.

Veronica had never been so angry.  She stomped (which elicited little response from the water), waved her arms, and shouted until the air was filled with echoes of her fury.  “You blazing idiot!  What the Hell did you do?  You’ve killed us all you insolent, moronic pile of…”

“No I didn’t,” Dino responded coolly.  He looked down to his brother and continued to smile.  “Tell me… did you guys happen to pass a series of tanks on the way down here?”  Gemini recalled the empty vessels behind the crystal walls they had marveled at.  He nodded dumbly.  “Really?” Dino continued, “Then I can’t believe you didn’t figure it out too.”  Veronica fumed and blew strands of hair out of her face, still ready to try Dino for treason right then and there with her own fist acting as executioner.  Regardless, since he was suspended out of her reach she just had to listen for the moment.  “It really was easy, you guys are oblivious.  Of course what can I expect since I wasn’t there to guide you?  That’s alright I’ll walk you through it.  What does any machine need to work?”  He paused for dramatic effect and interrupted Gemini’s first syllable as he tried to answer.  “That’s right, fuel.  Say it with me: few-ool.  Fuel is stored in tanks because… well you can’t really store it anywhere else can you?  So what does that mean… hmmm…  The gift was surrounded by a series of empty tanks.”  Veronica’s jaw dropped.  Her anger vanished as realization flooded in.  She felt like someone had just whirled her around to show her that she had been onstage performing in front of a live audience without realizing it.  What Dino was suggesting was so nuts, so impossible, that considering it meant turning understanding itself on its head.

“No.  Can’t be,” she said.

“That’s right,” Dino hooted. “The Chinese, the Africans, and whoever the hell else we were fighting were one hundred percent right!  The gift is designed to create a perfect world.”  The Chinese commander finally lifted his head, now expecting a garden of flowers and rainbows of colors he had never seen before.  What he got was the same old chamber.  “Unfortunately for them, their timing was a bit off.  This thing has already been fired.  Judging by the state of those tanks it was probably an awful long time ago too.  Lady and gentlemen… and Gemini… welcome to utopia!”  His hands flung out wide to show them the glory of the world they had already known.  Dino winced a little from the pain in his back but it didn’t stop him from laughing.  The force of it almost bounced him up and down on the platform.

The news hit everyone with an incomprehensible impact.  The officer was leaning against the wall and staring into the chamber’s grated roof silently.  Veronica’s thoughts raced to puzzle out the details of the explanation.  She didn’t have to get it right, just right enough to satisfy her mind.  It’s already been fired.  That has to be true.  Nothing happened when he activated it and the ‘fuel’ tanks are all empty.  So… this is utopia?  This is perfection?  How?  What’s so perfect about it?  Take a step back… what did the gift do to make this utopia?  It didn’t create the planet because it uses advanced forms of Earth life to power itself.  So it had to get here only a few million years ago.  So what did it give us?  Engineered luck?  Has the very idea of ‘opportunity’ been inserted into the laws of physics?

She couldn’t decide.  Nothing had gone wrong.  Their civilization was somehow already perfection: the finished product. Everything had turned out as planned.  That was the perfection.

Gemini took the news more personally.  Perfection meant he had never lost any race.  He had gotten the place he was supposed to every time.  The races, the games, the battles… they were all perfect.  All at once their stigmas were gone.  He had never lost anything.  And with those hang-ups gone he saw his brother, lying above him like an injured angel, for what he had always been.  He was the protector.  He ran faster to scout for danger.  He forced Gemini to stay behind to keep him safe.  His endless flirting prevented broken hearts.  Even with this in mind he wasn’t ready for what his brother caused next.

Dino, growing bored with everyone’s shock, prodded them into activity.  “Hey Captain.  I’d do this myself but I’m a little hung up at the moment.  Can you think of any greater crime than wasting the perfect moment?  Do you catch my drift?”  Veronica did.  She knew no moment would ever be like this again.  She raced across the water to Gemini and kissed him passionately.  Almost exhausted from shock, Gemini managed to kiss back.  Veronica knew that within hours, possibly minutes, she would be back to hating these two.  They would be annoying disobedient fools again.  There would never be a romantic relationship with either of them.  She knew better than to let the moment pass though.  Nothing would ever be so organized in any human mind ever again.  It was a moment for happiness, for raw human energy.

Dino smiled at the fleeting happiness he had created.  “As it should be,” he whispered.

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