A Proper Pruning

by Riley O’Connor

-

Seth turned the small capsule over in his palm. Within the matte black exterior had been a small note with a typed command: wait in the field four miles northwest of the monastery at Hastings in precisely one week for further instructions. There was no greeting, for it had quite intentionally materialized several inches about Seth’s writing desk at his cottage in Dover. There was no signature, for only one organization in all of human history had the capability of sending it. Seth had packed up the provisions he would need for two weeks, made preparations with the lord for his absence, and departed Dover’s gleaming shores for the nameless field.

This hot, sultry, swelteringly boring field. Seth blinked sweat from his eyes and fanned at his long tunic as he scanned the long grasses from the relative comfort of the tree line. Aside from a few finches, he had seen nothing all morning. He grasped the capsule hard. The memory of its arrival was a slight comfort to him now. Not only was the cool air cascading over its frigid surface a pleasant sensation in the throes of midsummer, but it was a reminder of all the amenities he had given up by coming here in the first place.

A glint of light gleamed briefly across the meadow. Seth snapped his head to the right. It had appeared like a bright light gleaming off a metal surface. But there were no tin roofs this far out of town. The blade of a highwayman perhaps? The dazzling light returned and was accompanied by a percussive crack like thunder. Seth shielded his eyes but the radiant flare had momentarily bleached his vision. His ears rang. He staggered forward and cried out but was unable to hear even his own panicked voice. His right hand found the rough bark of a tree, and he steadied himself against it. He blinked, hoping his vision would return unimpaired. He had received corrective retinal surgery before his mission and he doubted anyone around today would be able to restore his perfect eyesight.

The tree he leaned against gradually revealed itself as an oak as it swam back into focus. Seth scoured the field but could see no signs of further activity, aside from the occasional spots that danced across his eyes. He drew his travel bag up around his shoulders and sauntered toward the opposite edge of the field where the light had flared. He broke into a sprint when he saw a figure prone in the tall grass. When he ground to a halt he nearly fell on top of the man laying before him.

“Agent Harding?” Seth’s eyes grew wide. “I never thought I’d see you alive again.”

Why would Hourglass send one of their top instructors back to this time, especially considering Seth had accomplished all of his objectives? The agent wore a navy-blue jumpsuit which glittered silver where it reflected the sunlight overhead. The suit was dotted with large, singed patches that revealed bright red skin beneath. Agent Harding was still. Perhaps he had spoken too soon. He swiftly shrugged off his pack and knelt down by Harding. He set two fingers to his former instructor’s throat. Good, he was still alive. He placed the back of his hand above the agent’s lips but felt no movement of air from them. He knelt over the body and began jamming his palms into the rib cage. After a half a dozen compressions Seth looked hopefully down as his former instructor gave a deep, hacking cough, and so was unprepared when the the man’s boot went swiftly sailing into the side of Seth’s head.

“Keep your hands off of me, peasant!” The man roared, staggering up to a standing position.

“Agent Harding, Sir, you see it’s, well…” Seth grasped the side of his head and stammered as he rose. The woods spun around him. He managed to balance himself and got a good look at Agent Harding. He was clean shaven with close-cropped, chestnut hair and stood roughly a head taller than Seth. His muscular physique was a stern reminder that Seth had not been to a gym in years. More due to a lack of availability than lack of motivation.

“Seth Mayberry! Fantastic! You found me remarkably quicker than I could have hoped. Not a moment too soon, either.”

“You’re welcome. Your foot found me quite swiftly.”

“Reflexes kicked in,” Harding said, “Never be unprepared. Didn’t I teach you that? That goes double when you’re unconscious.”

“Right.” Seth rubbed at his head. “What was that in your throat anyway? What are you doing here? Why did—”

“Slow down, slow down. One thing… at a…” Agent Harding glanced around his feet, stooped down, and rose with a gray fragment of something plastic. “…time. First off, it was a mouthpiece to prevent me from biting off my tongue during the jump. Somehow it broke in two during the process.”

“Where’s the other half?”

Harding shrugged.

“What year is it?” he asked.

“1349 A.D., Sir.”

“Then I suppose the other half is closer to the Napoleon Bonaparte’s mouth than mine. Where are we?”

“Northwest of Hastings about eight miles. Four miles away from the village by the monastery, Sir.”

“Do you see any Hourglass supervisors around, Seth?”

Seth whipped his head around the field. He and Agent Harding were the only ones present.

“No, Sir.”

“Then stop calling me sir. My first name will do just fine.”

“Will do, Gabriel.”

“Gabe.” The agent stooped over and threw off his boots. He nodded at the woods behind Seth. “I take it that’s the way to town, judging by the top of that tower?”

“Yes, Si— Gabe. That’s part of the monastery fortifications.”

“Right.” Gabe reached into his jumpsuit and pulled out a large pouch. He threw it on the ground and proceeded to reach back into his jumpsuit, tenderly withdrawing something Seth couldn’t see. Then he yanked one sleeve off, then the other. Soon the suit was down around his waist and falling further. “So. How have been fairing here? Not too badly I see?”

Harding’s gaze lingered around Seth’s midsection. With access to a lord’s pantry and alehouse and none of Hourglass’s strict physical regulations holding him or his belly back, Seth had fallen far out of shape. He had also begun styling quite a prodigious beard.

“Quite well, actually. After finishing both my primary and secondary missions,” Seth emphasized with no small degree of smugness, “I’ve taken up residence with the lord of Dover as his chamberlain.”

“I’m not sure I want to know what that is.” Gabe took the remains of his tattered and burned jumpsuit and stuffed it into the large pouch. His undergarments followed.

“Managing the royal treasury, recording transactions, acting as a scribe when needed.” Seth glanced around awkwardly as Gabe did a funny dance trying to get his last sock off. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing too exciting.”

“That’s precisely why I don’t want to know about it. I’ll remind you that the final objective of every agent is to spread science, literacy, and reason wherever possible in a period appropriate manner.”

Seth needed no reminding. All agents underwent years-long courses to prepare for their first and only jump.

“It turns out there’s a fine line between sharing knowledge and spreading heresy here,” he said, “I do what I can. Mind you this is after I completed my primary and secondary missions.”

“Yes, you mentioned that.” Gabe fiddled with the pouch and took two large steps back to stand beside Seth. The pouch began to steam.

“Well, I mention it because, you’re well… you’re…”

“Naked?”

“No, I get that. You have to destroy any artifacts you came with. No, I mean why you’re here. Now. In Medieval England.”

“Ah, of course. Let’s work on the first problem, shall we? I assume you have another dress in your pack there?”

“Well, yes, but it’s a tunic, and you’re not exactly my size.”

“We’ll have to make do, and maybe set some fashion trends while we’re at it.” Gabe gestured for him to open the bag. Seth obliged, handing over a pair of trousers, a long tunic, and a thick belt. He glanced at Gabriel’s pouch, which had now turned itself completely to ash in the better part of a minute.

“I’m afraid I don’t have a second set of shoes, not that they’d fit you anyway,” Seth closed his pack.

“No trouble. My boots are synthetic leather, close enough to pass off.” Gabe put the garments on and crouched down to fasten his boots back on.

“What about removing future artifacts?” Seth gestured at the boots.

“Please, that’s hardly in our edict. You came back with a self-replicating antibiotic for both clades of Yersinia Pestis: Orientalis and Medievalis. Now come on, let’s get moving.” Gabe set off at a brisk pace across the field to the dirt road beyond.

“Of course. As ordered, I administered it to select portions of the population, and no more Black Death! Millions saved, humanity’s overall progress accelerated by at least—”

“Wrong. Not no more Black Death.”

“What?” Seth halted. “It’s 1349 and we haven’t had a case of the plague in months.”

“As the guy who’s coming from the future, let me assure you it’s not. It’s true your two clades died off in 1349, kudos by the way, but a third somehow mutated. Not only did it kill nearly twice as many people, but it took out every single one of our agents from now until 1453.  Scientists in the twentieth century dubbed it Yersinia Pestis Carnifex.”

“And that’s why you’re here.” Seth raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Indeed.” Gabe reached into his boot and extracted a small black case. He held it up to Seth. “The death knell for the Black Death.”

“We’d better hope this is the final clade of it, then. Third time’s the charm?”

“No room for error this time.” Gabe tucked the case back into his boot and they resumed their brisk pace down the road. Sunlight streamed through the branches of oak and ash. “We managed to trace back the origin of Carnifex to the village near the Hastings monastery around this time. We’re going to locate the original carrier of it and hit them with the self-replicating antibiotic. Just like the first two, it will gestate in their system and replicate, then when it’s ready it’ll spread through the air just like the disease would. Within a few months the world will be immune to the final strain.”

Seth nodded along with Gabe’s explanation.

“Good. I mean, I’m sorry though. That you had to come back.”

“Everyone at Hourglass has to be prepared to make the jump sometime. Even those of us doing the prepping. We’re a bit strained for personnel right now… or, will be at any rate.” Gabe gazed off into the woods. A gentle breeze carried the scent of dry earth and wildflowers. The laughing call of a robin chimed in the distance. The pair walked in silence through the sparse wood for a while.

“So, when did you make your jump?” Seth asked at last.

“Ten minutes ago,” Gabriel said flatly, “is your mind already slipping?”

Seth cast a sidelong glance at his former trainer.

“2114,” Gabriel replied.

“Hmm, seven years ahead of me. Did the Cubs ever end up winning the World Series again?”

“Nope.”

“Did Darcy…” Seth looked hard at Gabriel. “Did she ever—”

“Met a guy and remarried a couple years ago.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t be too upset, Seth. Nobody wants to stay alone forever. I broke it off with my wife before I even transferred to Hourglass.” Gabriel pointed at a small bird on a branch overhead. “What kind of bird is that?”

“European blackbird,” Seth said as he glanced up.

They kept their conversation to the local flora and fauna, and kept their boots to the road the rest of the way to town. The Hastings monastery loomed large to their left. Ahead, the road cut between two stone buildings. They passed through and into the main thoroughfare, Seth giving a familiar nod to the guard who leaned against the barracks. Dozens of people walked on both sides of the path, carrying loads or stopping at stands to speak with merchants.

Gabe grunted.

“Perfect, we come on the busiest day of the year.”

“Actually, this is typical for a weekend here. It’s a decent market and a popular place for merchants and farmers to convene. The monks brew a good ale. Easier to blend in this way, too,” Seth said.

“If you say so. We should start at wherever passes as a hospital in this shantytown.”

“Well there’s a group of monks in the monastery who probably have a decent knowledge of medicine, but a town this size ought to have an apothecary. We should try there first.”

“Lead on.”

Seth glanced down the road, then to the other for some sort of telling sign.

“I thought you were the Middle Ages expert?” Gabriel grumbled.

“I mean, I’m not intimately familiar with this particular English town at this point in history. The guard didn’t bother us because he saw our chamberlain tunics. Let’s try to find someone to—”

Seth cried out in surprise as he stumbled into the back of a big man in a red tunic. A longsword was sheathed in a scabbard at his waist.

“Watch out for the big thugs there in the chainmail, Seth,” Gabriel said quietly, “they look like they’re fresh from the Hundred Years War.”

“Eh? You talking to us?” The man spat and turned to the pair. Behind him, three other men in similar red tunics and chainmail hauberks turned their attention to Seth.

“Uh, no, just a bit lost. Forgive us.” Seth nodded politely.

“What this about one hundred years?” The soldier placed a mailed fist on the hilt of this longsword. “France will be finished after another campaign at the rate King Edward the Third is going.”

“Seven years tops, I say,” the man behind him proclaimed.

“Of course.” Seth held up his hands. “We were merely discussing some history. Caesar and all that.”

The guard puffed out his chin and began to turn back to his comrades.

“If it isn’t too much trouble,” Seth asserted,” could you please direct us to the town apothecary?”

The soldier huffed and stroked his chin for a moment.

“Go north down the street.” He pointed a thick finger past Seth’s head. “It’ll be on your right two or three lots past the Blind Hog Inn.”

“Thank you, Sir, and for your service.”

“Yes, God save the queen,” Gabriel chimed in as he turned north.

The soldier wrinkled his bushy eyebrows and gave him a lopsided frown. Seth walked beside Gabriel.

“Nobody says that for about four hundred years.”

“What can I say? I’ve always been a trendsetter.”

Seth looked around the market as he and Gabriel meandered through the throng. Milling around in the summer afternoon were men, women, and children. Eating, drinking, talking. People out living their lives. Lives he had thought he had already saved. He felt foolish. Ashamed. It was his job, and he had let them down. But know was his chance to set it right, and afterward he would redouble his efforts to reach out to educate folk like these.

Passing under a red, wooden sign featuring a blind-folded pig, Seth snapped back to the task at hand. The two wooden buildings to the right were houses. The third building was larger and surrounded by a high, stone wall. Seth strode the wall’s arch in the front, which prominently featured a stone carving of the crucifixion. The building within was two stories tall, and looked to be some kind of store front tacked onto a residence. Seth saw rows of vegetables: tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, and more between the wall and the building. Even more numerable were the spices: rosemary, lavender, ginger, clove, and cinnamon. There were countless more he could not recognize. Beyond this were rose bushes. They formed a wall of verdant green dotted with blood-red blooming flowers.

“This seems to be the place,” Gabriel said.

Seth stepped forward into the garden, making the sign of the cross as he did so.

“What are you doing?” Gabriel said.

“Paying my respects. It’s only polite— a religious gesture to show we’re good people.”

“Being religious makes you a good person in the same way that using a flamethrower to remove weeds makes you a good gardener. You’re probably going to hurt somebody and are better off without it.”

Seth ignored him and set off down the path. As they neared the house they spotted a woman tending to the bushes. She wore a long, black dress which must have been blazing in the summer heat, mitigated slightly by the crimson cloak she wore over her shoulders and head. Gabriel took the lead and approached her.

“Excuse me, madam, we are looking for the town apothecary,” he stated, “have we come to the right place?”

The woman turned and lowered her hood. Sunlight fell on her soft features. Many wrinkles were etched along her fair face. Her thick auburn hair, graying in places, was braided in the back. She grasped a small pair of shears in her hands.

“You have,” she stated simply.

“Wonderful. I apologize for interrupting your… gardening?” Gabriel asked.

“Yes,” the woman offered a slight smile as she looked Seth and his partner up and down. “Have either of you gentlemen ever tended a garden?”

Gabriel shook his head impatiently.

“I’ve grown some tomatoes, and a few spices before,” Seth said, “nothing like this though.

“It is a pleasure to watch a living thing grow, don’t you think? To reach up to the heavens and attain its true potential. Crops are one thing, but a rose is quite another.” The woman turned to inspect the bush she presided over and turned a bud delicately in her pale hand. “It requires sustenance and light, of course, but such careful tending. There are so many things that can bring it to ruin.” She brought up the shears and snipped away a small branch. “Weeds infesting the soil, insects feasting at its leaves, errant offshoots taking precious resources…” The shears snipped, and another branch fell. “Weak branches must be culled so that only the most promising buds may thrive.”

“Fascinating,” Gabriel said, “listen, we really do need to speak with the apothecary. Is the man about the house?”

“You are about four months late, I’m afraid, and six feet too high.” The woman lowered her shears. “My husband was claimed by the plague this spring. However, I worked with him for much of his life and am quite capable myself in the arts of healing. I have been acting apothecary for the town and indeed many others since his passing. Perhaps I can interest you in a health tonic? Or perhaps a tincture for indigestion?”

“We come with questions closer to that of your husband’s passing, I am afraid,” Gabriel said, “may we speak more inside?”

The woman bowed her head and ascended the stoop. Gabriel and Seth followed.

“Please, make yourselves comfortable in the dining room adjacent. You both looked parched. Allow me to fetch some water.” The woman disappeared into a back room.

Seth passed through the store front. Shelves lined the walls, covered in jars full of leaves and powders. Herbs hung from the ceiling in rows. Still more spices grew in pots in adjacent rooms. The entire domicile had a pungent aroma from the mélange of spices. To Seth’s surprise, two men sat on stools in the corner. They looked at him intently but did not rise or greet them. They carried short swords in scabbards at their waists. Seth passed through a threshold and into a small dining room. He took up a seat next to Gabriel at the old oak table. He saw the room adjacent was a library, filled with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of books.

“Hopefully she can shed some light on the plague in this area,” Seth said, “at least she seems to consider us fairly distinguished guests.”

“I guess being a chambermaid isn’t so bad,” Gabriel mused as he inspected the dining room. Seth noted his eyes occasionally darted back to the armed men.

“That’s chamberlain.”

“Whatever.”

The pair sat in silence until the rattling of a tray heralded the apothecary’s return. She sat the tray of two goblets in front of Seth and Gabriel. The chair legs screeched as she pulled up a seat opposite them.

“You’ll forgive the need for guards,” she said, “though the plague has diminished greatly in the last year, many people are still desperate enough to break into a local shop in search of certain countermeasures. Though in the course of the plague of course none exist.” Grave concern was etched on her face.

“A shame that such measures must be taken, but we shall not mind their vital presence.” Gabriel reached for a goblet, raised it in appreciation, and drank deep. He let out a satisfied breath. Seth reached out and politely took a sip of his own goblet. He savored the cool sensation of the water trickling down his throat.

“My name is Gabriel, by the way.” Gabriel set down the goblet. “This is my colleague, Seth.”

“Charmed. I am Alice,” the woman stated plainly, “Alice Blackwell.”

“To the matter at hand, Madam Blackwell.” Seth leaned in. “We are curious to hear if you have dealt with any cases of the plague recently. Within the last few days.”

Alice raised her thin eyebrows

“By the grace of God we have not had a death from that malady in three months.”

“Yes, we are truly blessed.” Gabriel waved his hand dismissively. “But we are looking for somewhere very recent. Not yet diagnosed, even.”

“If I may ask, why do you gentlemen seek such an individual? I took you for low nobility, though I may have been mistaken.”

“We are. Men of the lord of Dover, in fact,” Seth replied quickly, “we are recording instances of plague deaths and need a current tally for our lord.”

“How intriguing. I reported directly to the apothecary in Dover regarding such matters just last week, and he mentioned nothing of this.”

“We seek to independently verify his findings,” Seth interjected, “so that future, preventable deaths may be averted. Deaths like your husband’s.”

“My husband’s death, preventable or not, was the will of God,” Alice’s lips paled as she pursed them.

“A satisfying thought, Madam Blackwell,” Gabriel said, “but surely as an apothecary you would agree that we should aim to cure people of any and all afflictions.”

Madam Blackwell opened her mouth as if to speak, then hesitated. She glanced down. Seth leaned forward. Was she holding something back from them? Gabriel took another deep gulp from his goblet. The woman’s eyes flicked back up.

“Gentlemen, at this moment I have three men in my infirmary. One is a merchant from Ravenna, one a soldier returning from France, and one a simple cobbler from this village. All three of these men came in within the last two days with fever and chills. Two collapsed in the summer heat. All have had severe abdominal pain, with either diarrhea or vomiting.”

Seth and Gabriel looked at each other.

“All common plague symptoms,” Gabriel said, “has there been any necrosis of extremities? Any bleeding of orifices?”

“The local man has some slight bleeding around the mouth, yes.” Alice frowned. “Seth, you have hardly touched your water. It will grow warm quickly. You should drink.”

Seth had been too enraptured in the conversation to think of refreshment, and now there was proof that the plague he had worked so hard to eliminate was in fact here. Under his own nose. He grasped the goblet, but did not drink as suggested.

“We need to see these men immediately,” Seth said.

“Why?” Madam Blackwell asked. “How would this benefit your tally for the dead? Unless you are not here for the mission of which you speak.”

“We are indeed here for the tally, but at this astounding development we merely wish to inspect the men.” Gabriel coughed into his elbow.

“No.” Madam Blackwell clasped her hands together. “You are here to cure them. You are the ones who the council has spoken of. You damn them with your actions. Your very existence is damnation.”

Seth’s mind churned to come up with a reply. How could she possibly know they were here to administer an antibiotic? What was all this talk about damnation?

“What are…” Gabriel began, but instead issued up a series of hacking coughs. “What are you talking about? This is nonsense. Show us to your infirmary.”

Madam Blackwell did not respond to Gabriel. She gave a flick of her left wrist. Boots pounded on the wooden floors. In a moment the two guards had entered, hands on the hilts of their swords.

“How did you know?” was all Seth could muster. His stomach was beginning to feel uneasy.

“I have encountered your kind before, you who are not of this time,” Madam Blackwell said calmly, “your ilk is often the advisors to lords and bishops. You have a particular way about your gait, your speech. It is practiced, rehearsed. Especially your friend here.”

“We are simply foreigners,” Gabriel managed to reply.

“You deceive us to further your own malignant ends.” Blackwell looked on to Gabriel’s struggling with indifference. “It is God’s will that the demons who take human form be extinguished. If the only way to ensure this is done is to send others to heaven, then this is what must be done.”

“Millions dying from the Black Death to kill a handful of us?” Seth asked. “How is that his will?”

“And all the flesh died that moved on the earth. All in whose nostrils moved the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on dry land, died. So He destroyed all living things which were on the face of the ground: both man and cattle, creeping thing and bird of the air. They were destroyed from the earth,” Blackwell said, “it has been done before, and will be done again. Thanks to our knowledge of medicine and healing, however, all He asks of us now is but a small tithe.”

“You have killed thousands so far,” Seth stammered, hardly able to contain his rising anger, “and millions more before this plague runs its course.”

“Those who walk in the light will go with God.”

“You would sacrifice millions based on faith alone?” Seth stared at Blackwell, astonished.

“No,” the apothecary said flatly, “you speak of humans as numbers, as though they were mere coins to be placed and balanced on the scale. To save a soul, and innumerable future souls, from damnation by your beguiling maledictions is worth any sacrifice I could be called upon to make. My allies and I have taken in his plague and honed it, crafted it to your particular demonic constitution. We could not succeed in targeting you exclusively, but this is the price we must pay.”

Gabriel hacked out another cough and staggered to his feet. His chair clattered against the floor.

“Fine! You want the truth? We are everything you say,” Gabriel shouted. He paused to take in another raspy breath of air. “Hourglass agents have been instrumental in changing human history, back before anyone was even writing it down. We have played the silver of Judas, the shears of Delilah, and the honeyed tongue of Lucifer. We have both manipulated and deceived. But we are so much more. We are the burning bush that bade Moses to free his people. We are the voice that stayed Abraham’s hand. All we do is to speed along humanity’s progress and limit the extent of plagues, war, and ignorance. Our past actions give the future precious years to act. There is a terror lurking in the future beyond all our own understanding and capabilities. If you could even comprehend our mission to save—”

Seth looked at Gabriel in horror. His face was bright red, his eyes wide with anger before were now agape in panic. The only breaths he took were short and rasping. He exhaled only in wracking coughs. He must have been poisoned. Seth looked down at his own cup. He had taken only a small sip and was mostly unaffected. The guards took a step forward.

Seth leapt backward and braced himself against the table, and with all his might upturned it. Madame Blackwell shrieked and fell backward. As the guards stepped back to avoid the crash, Seth grabbed Gabriel and darted out into the library. As he passed the threshold he sent one of the great shelves laden with books down to the floor. Still grabbing Gabriel by the wrist, he ran out the rear door. Gabriel cried out and fell to the ground. He was bleeding where his arm had scraped against the rose bushes.

“She knew.” Gabriel coughed. “She knew from the beginning if she had poisoned the water.”

“Our operations haven’t been as secret as we would’ve hoped,” Seth said, “now get up, we have to go.”

“They’ll fix it. Hourglass will fix everything. They’ll do their job.” Gabriel breathed heavily and reached into his boot. “We just have to do ours.”

“What? No, come on. You’re coming with me.” Seth tugged at Gabriel’s tunic.

“The antibiotic takes thirty-six hours, minimum, to develop in the body before it can replicate and go airborne.” Gabriel opened the case and withdrew a glass vial filled with amber liquid. He carefully emptied it into a small syringe. “Take it, use it. Rid the world of this plague Blackwell is about to unleash.”

“But—”

“Go!” Gabriel thrust the syringe into Seth’s hand.

“Thank you, Gabe, for everything you’ve done.”

“Go, you idiot!”

One guard burst from the door, sword in hand, and leapt down the steps. Seth rounded the corner of the building to make a mad dash for the street. If he could make it out and inject himself, avoiding Blackwell and her coalition long enough, the antibiotic could do its work. As he sprinted to the garden he heard the second guard crashing through the plants already.

Seth rounded the corner and lunged at the guard. The man brought his sword to bear too quickly and caught Seth in the stomach. He fell into the dirt, grasping at the guard’s tunic. Raising his right hand, he jammed the syringe into the man’s thigh and pressed down on the plunger. The man cried out in surprise and stepped back. Seth grunted and hit the ground. His breath came in shallow gasps. On the ground beside him lay several shriveling roses cut at the stem. Above, the bush flourished with many blood-red blossoms. His limbs were numb, and his eyelids grew heavy. He let them ease shut. He gave one last deep breath. He could not recall smelling roses so lovely.

-

Riley O’Connor grew up on a healthy diet of Heinlein and Herbert, and has been enthralled by science fiction and fantasy ever since. A degree in electrical engineering managed to keep him grounded, if only slightly. He has written several works of military science fiction, seeking to explore worlds both violent and vibrant.

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