The Crucible

sci_fi2_by_0800

By: Dawniel Kupsch

Tiber System

Tiber Orbital Space

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

They harried the enemy in lightning quick sorties that would draw Vanduul fighters out of the pack, then pick off those too eager or too slow to return to the larger group. They sewed confusion into the large congregation of alien craft, breaking their concerted attacks on the troop carriers and battlecruisers of the Empire.

They worked together like a perfectly engineered machine- one always knowing what the other would do, the accompanying groups of volunteers from the Squadron brutally efficient at culling targets of opportunity.

Gunslinger and Capm worked together in what seemed explosive acts of god- the human gods of Old Earth; violent and staggering in reprisal and power. Nothing could touch them as they dove and strafed and spun in the clusters of enemy ships hovering like gnats over the blue-green planet. It was beautiful and breathtaking and deadly, and soon the enemy squadrons fell back to their own destroyers to regroup and gain the protection of the primary swarm. Many soldiers that would have otherwise perished won free of the falling warzone and made the jump to safer space.

Spirits that had fallen as comrades had died rallied in fierce joy as fighter pilots attached to the remaining Empire fleets recognized the legendary presence of the famous ‘Gunslinger’ amongst them, and their own efforts redoubled.

Xander bared his teeth at his partner on the comms display in a fierce grin. Another troop carrier shielding a Hospital ship won free as the Midnight Squadron flight and UEEAF wing closed behind them to fend off any thoughts of pursuit.  Frank spoke up on the personal frequency.

How about we take a break and let these boys and girls catch their breath, Capm?

Xander looked over his screens, studying the activity surrounding the planet. He registered that despite their heroic effort, the UEE was still taking a pounding, and their small corner of the battlefield was the only place to be seen where a relative calm was evident. He noticed a cluster of engagement several minutes away where a limping Corvette and a couple desperate fighters were struggling to break free of a pursuing group of Vanduul. He considered only for few seconds before responding.

“Negative Gunslinger- once more into the breach dear friend…then we head home. First round on you, of course,”Xander grinned.

He watched as his friend gave him a one finger salute, laughing as he switched to team comms and directed his wing to fall in for a final run.

 

* * *

Tiber System

Fringe of Tiber Orbital Space

Midnight Squadron Mercenary Group Command Carrier ‘MSS Parallax Descent

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

She pulled herself slowly along the exterior of the vessel, the mottled grey space excursion suit molded tightly to her body, the face shield dark and obscuring her features. Arriving at her shrouded vehicle, she slipped into the pod where it clung to the outside of the Midnight Squadron command ship. Even a discerning eye would have written the rounded lump off as a sensor modification- one of the advantages of targeting a group like Midnight Enterprises, where no ship profile resembled the factory specs, and most of the personnel would not have access to the particulars of how a ship was modded out. Hundreds of eyes had likely scanned over her pod, and none had seen anything amiss. The ship itself had simply accepted the pod as yet another specialized accessory thanks to a certain little program she had access to.

She paused for a moment after she was secured. Enforcer Richard von Blucher was more brutal and efficient than she had expected even for an individual trained by the Advocacy. He had forced her to alter her timeline considerably by apprehending her dupe so quickly. Of course it had worked out beautifully when Xander Morgan and Frank LeBlanc opted for an unscheduled excursion to the battlefront.  She smiled at the perfection of it as she entered the code to activate both packages, then disengaged after setting her nav computer to the rendezvous  point. She was confident her small pod would simply register as debris floating off into space from the warzone. Once far enough away from the ship sensors, the pod’s dampened propulsion system would set her course. She relaxed into her seat, a smile curving her lips.

***

On the flight deck, the security scanning crew was coming up empty. The signatures from the various types of armament made it impossible to identify any alien residue that would indicate sabotage to the ships within an immediate timeframe. Sifting through the billions of chemical particle layers would take time he just didn’t have right now. Of course he had no proof that anything further was amiss, yet his instincts were screaming at him that there was something to that brief flash of expression he had seen on the spy’s face.

There was no help for it. He was going to issue the priority mission cancellation code and have all fighters return from wherever Xander had taken them. It was better to be safe and arouse Xander’s ire than the alternative. As he turned to relay the order to Lothar, he found the Turk frowning slightly as he stared at his glas.

“What is it?”

Lothar glanced at his boss and stroked his beard. “Maybe nothing.  It’s just…well, there was a signal burst- it was tiny…barely detectable. In fact without your security protocols it would not have been detectable. At the same moment AI logged a sensor array went dead on the exterior of the ship with diagnostics stating it no longer existed- that it had never actually been there. It could be a glitch…coincidence…,” he conceded dubiously.

Jaeger scowled and snapped out an order. “Override executive orders via security prioritization and bring all fighters back NOW!” He was already running for his ship, bellowing for a security team to mount up. Lothar cursed as the recall failed to ping any Midnight Squadron command craft on the battlefield, and turned to sprint after his boss.

***

gabriel_loves_to_crash_by_tituslunter-d5yvx9x

Tiber System

Tiber Orbital Space

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

Pain.

He didn’t know how it was possible to continue breathing with this much pain stabbing into him. Yet he fought the oblivion of unconsciousness, as merciful as it would have been. He clung to the rage as waves of anguish and agony washed over him, clawing at the darkness that had become his world as he drifted in the cold, debris strewn space. He focused on one thought: Whoever had done this would pay.

He could hear his men dying as they threw themselves valiantly against the Vanduul while trying to save him, but all other communications chatter had gone dead the moment the small explosion had gone off. By some miracle, there had been no breach, but his controls had been reduced to slag and his fighter was floating space junk.

He cursed and wept at the brave sons of bitches shielding him from the Vanduul fighters, begging them to leave him, ordering them to fall back to the command ship. But no sound could reach them with his outgoing comms melted into slag. In some distant corner of his brain, he registered that it was a small mercy that he did not have to watch.  In a desperate measure, he had even attempted to eject in order to save his people the need to protect him. But even that mechanism had failed, leaving him entirely helpless in the prison of his fighter cockpit.

And so he sat and raged and wept and yelled in turn, his pain secondary to the images blasted into his memory as his best friend had died before his eyes.  Gunslinger had died the way he had lived; fighting to the last, the most heroic bastard he had ever known. Whatever insidious damage had been done to the ships of both flight leaders, Gunslinger had seen the effects first. He had been intentionally crippled though, where Xander’s ship seemed to have been rigged to explode. Whoever had concocted this death sentence had seemed intent on killing Gunslinger’s legend by simply handicapping him enough to be taken out by random, unremarkable contact; a move calculated to kill morale on the UEE armed forces side. He filed all of this away in his head even as he mentally watched it happen over and over.

The final look Frank had given him. The wistful smile. His gloved hand pressed to his cockpit window towards his friend as he directed his ship in front of Xander’s after his final words.

“Take care of my little girl.”

And then he was gone, his fighter taking the hit and knocked aside like a toy; a fiery comet descending to the roiling, war torn surface of the planet below. A heartbeat later the detonation took his sight and destroyed the interior of his fighter. A clinical part of his mind wondered at the delay, and considered the faulty result of the tampering done to his fighter. Intentional or accidental?

The smoke made it hard to breathe as the scrubbers in the fighter limped along attempting to recycle oxygen. He wondered if he would simply suffocate. He coughed, the spasm awakening a fresh onslaught of agony from his burns and acid seared face.

He was losing the struggle to remain aware, and then dimly he registered a shout on the short wave and a ragged chorus of cheers from far too few remaining voices. Cries of “Jaeger!” overrode the sounds of engagement and he was confused further; men cheering Jaeger? Was he delusional?

He felt a vibration and faintly heard the grate of metal. There was a terrible static on his comms and then the deep, intense voice of the Enforcer came through as if from a vast distance.

“Damn it Lothar, I’m right on top of him, get those comms open!”

The signal was lost then swung wide again, this time clear as a bell. “Lothbrok to Capm, can you hear me? Sir…. I have you… Xander…hang in there.

Vaguely Xander decided he was hallucinating…his Enforcer had never called him by his first name. He was far too regimented for such familiarity. And that gruffness in his voice sounded like concern. The sounds of fighting had died away and there was silence. He sighed and slipped into a deeper darkness that blessedly made the pain go away.

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Of Heroes, Villains and the Parts In-between…

Image

By: Dawniel Kupsch

Tiber System

Fringe of Tiber Orbital Space

Midnight Squadron Mercenary Group Command Carrier ‘MSS Parallax Descent

March 6, 2937

Fall of Tiber

 

In the way of old friends, there wasn’t really a need to discuss it. They already knew each other’s hearts in this, and ultimately the end result was as inevitable as starlight. Yet they spoke of it anyway.

The Destroyer was in night mode with most nonessential crew bunked for the next several hours, and lighting reduced to a muted luminescence. They watched the fight on the forward array, far enough distant to be ignored by the enemy but close enough that the desperation of those fighting and dying weighed on their souls.

One of the men leaned against the railing of the observation deck over the commander’s station, a steaming mug of coffee loosely grasped in hand. The other stood tall, feet braced as if on an ancient Earth maritime vessel, watching the multitude of distant explosions on the screen. Cigarette smoke swirled in accompaniment to the steam venting from the insul-mug held by his companion. The taller of the two men with dark hair and a lean frame clad in a dark blue flight suit with a Midnight Squadron badge on the shoulder, glanced sideways and spoke the words he knew should be voiced. “We are under orders to stay out of it…” he offered casually. “Civilian corporate entity…private sector…yada yada…”

The other man clad in a matching uniform nodded, not taking his eyes from the screen. “Yup…we are,” he agreed.

The first man took a sip of his coffee then pursed his lips, head canting to the side slightly. “Of course there’s nothing says we can’t work more than one contract at a time…take the occasional government job…,” he speculated.

His friend glanced at him for the first time, a slight smile touching his lips and faded blue eyes. “Technically that contract is almost fulfilled anyway…they took the bait. Now we just take care of loose threads. Besides- we already have another non combat mission going.  Reese is planet-side with a salvage crew grabbing components to subsidise the cost of our presence here. ”

The taller man grunted and stretched his back as he stood to his full height, then rolled his neck. “Hmm…of course we’d have to work up the figures on contractual fees, tally resources, prepare a plan…and we haven’t actually been asked to that particular party out there…we can’t violate the conditions and bylaws of our Mercenary status…” He glanced sideways at his friend, a gleam of mischief in his hazel eyes. “Say Xander…you think maybe you might know a guy out in that mess might wanna hire a couple old space pirates like us..?”

Xander Morgan, CEO of Midnight Enterprises and Officer in Command of the mercenary squadron detachment grinned. “Why Frank, I do believe I might know one or two folks with the authority to make a contract with us.”

Frank LeBlanc scratched at the back of his head thoughtfully.  “Of course, a couple hack pilots like us…can’t ask too much. Only fair. Let’s say…a credit?”

Xander laughed, shaking his head as Frank grinned at him. “Sounds about right to me. A single credit for two old dogs that should know better and are probably going to get themselves killed. Let me make it official. I’ll have Senator Willoby approve it and we can drum up a couple volunteers.”

Frank saluted Xander with his mug held high, then quaffed the contents and turned to the portal. “Meet you at the ships, bossman!” he teased, his energy subtly changing as the promise of a fight flipped some hidden internal switch that instantly changed the man’s energy. He strode through the exit as the door slid open, a fierce light shining from his eyes and purpose evident in the spring in his step. His smile was grim as he mentally switched gears to a state that had earned him the reputation of being one of the most dangerous men in the ‘verse when behind the controls of a fighter.  If Xander had not seen the transformation countless times before, he might have been startled. As it was, he felt an answering intensity stir in his own breast.

Xander pressed a button on the console in front of him. The portal opened again, this time admitting the hulking form of his Security Chief and Enforcer. Richard stepped forward and then waited, his hands crossed in front of him, his stony gaze alert despite the late hour as he looked at his boss. “Yes sir?” came the rumbling question.

“The game is afoot, Jaeger. The trap is sprung and you are now free to find and question our turncoat. I will be allowing you the wherewithal to deal with this issue as Frank and I have other business to attend to. The transmissions we captured should lead you right to our man, and from him to the Senators working against the Imperator, and ultimately identify the corporations involved. I don’t need to tell you how important it is that we glean any and all information from the source here on the ship in order to follow the trail back to the source.”

Pale eyes narrowed slightly. “I may see to this person in a manner I choose?”

Xander met his Enforcer’s eyes, a matching hardness there that lent truth to his reputation as a ruthless and dangerous man that was not crossed without consequence. “Yes.”

Richard nodded, accepting the glas Xander handed to him. He saluted sharply and turned on his heel, joined by his security team as he strode out the door.

Ten To Midnight

the_magi___space_port_by_bradwright-d33fe4m
(Written by Robert Michaud (Rizman), edited by Dawniel Kupsch (Guardianwulf)- Work In Progress)

14 June 2942
Terra System
Argos III

Xander stood with his back to the room, looking through the holographic observation window that panned out over the blinking lights of Argos III’s external docking bays, apparently absorbed by the endless cycle of embarking spacecraft. He was dressed in a finely tailored suit from the evening’s engagement, his tie and cuffs loosened and his coat unbuttoned. A lit cigarette dangled from his fingers and the electric blue glow of his augmented eyes reflected in the thick observation glass. The room was quiet for what seemed like minutes, save for an occasional muted remark from a crew person on the security footage array that monitored the bridge.

Marcus was sitting patiently as he carefully watched Xander Morgan, CEO of Midnight Enterprises and Commander of the Squadron, gauging his response. The husky voice was quiet as usual when he spoke, the hint of a drawl indicating his fatigue. “We have several engineers, bio-mechs, and techs for you to choose from. Why Ursula?” He glanced back at Marcus with an inscrutable expression. “You know putting her at risk needlessly would have given Frank every reason to kick your a s s.” A slight, almost wistful smile touched the thin lips as he mentioned Ursula’s father, and his old friend.

Marcus shifted in his chair and leaned forward. “Commander,” he spoke, his voice intent on getting to the point, “When was the last time this squadron had a big score? I mean you said yourself with the UEE spread thin, the DoD is scraping the bottom of the war chest and can’t pay us what we’re worth. Renting out parts of this station to the corporations looking to ‘skirt’ a few laws here and there to keep us profitable in this system is not going to result much in shares that will maintain our roster. People are gonna start leaving. Some have already taken off looking for a better gig.”

Xander’s gaze thinned toward Marcus, “You still have not answered my question. Why Ursula?” he asked again, a thin ribbon of smoke curling from the cherry tip of his cigarette and casting a haze across his rugged features.
“Because she’s the best,” Marcus replied. “When it comes to tech and the ships, she can deal with any situation on this mission on the fly. That is what I need. Anyone else will freeze up, or say something can’t be done- but she always manages somehow. With Ursula you never hear how it’s impossible. That girl has never seen the box she is supposed to think inside of that the rest of the lot are stuck in.” His lips quirked. “ That’s her special ingredient..her mojo…which makes her just as essential as the rest of the lot I have in mind. Each of them has something that makes them perfect…a perfect team to pull this off.” He took a deep breath and shifted his shoulders slightly, glancing aside from his watchful commander and looking briefly uncomfortable. “And, well, she also, er…told me she was coming along…,” he trailed off.

The commander turned away from the window and crossed his arms as he leaned against it. One brow rose questioningly. “What?” he drawled, a tinge of amusement hinted in his voice.

Marcus took another breath and straightened his posture. “She found out about it and said we had to take her so she could keep an eye on ‘her’ ships” he said in a low tone, knowing this is not what the commander wanted for an answer. But before Xander could object, Marcus continued, “Look, it’s been months since the poor girl has been able to do anything but ship evaluations, modifications, retrofits and all the usual Vanduul crap from this squadron as well as the corporate side-gigs.” He pointed to the large imaging window and the vastness of space beyond the docking bays and blinking lights it showed, “God only knows what Sapper and his merry band are going to bring home to her on a given day.”

Marcus softened his voice, tilted his head slightly and then cocked a smile as he leaned forward again and tapped a finger on the desk as he spoke, “Sir. You know this is what she needs. A few weeks away from the grind, a few weeks of a different view…kind of…well…a vacation. Before you know it, she’s back safe and sound, arguing with Ninety-nine about the proper hydraulic settings for a Jansonite armature rod.”

Commander Morgan gestured to the Glas containing the details of the proposed mission where it rested on his desk. “But this mission?” he said with emphasis, “This is not a milk run Marcus. This can get far more dangerous than an average escort or supply run. That’s not even considering what could happen if the UEE or one of our rivals ever got wind of it.” He exhaled a cloud of smoke after a hit on his cigarette and shook his head, “I just don’t see an equitable ratio between risk and profit.”

Marcus pulled up his own Glas from his lap and touched the screen a few times. The commander’s Glas beeped in response and the readout flickered with images from several ID pictures flashing onto the screen. “That is why I’ve requested our dear Mother Goose to bring back a few of her ducklings to the fold. With these particular pilots and their specializations the risk becomes negligible and the profit becomes substantial. With any other group you would be right.”

The commander reached down and picked up the Glas unit once again, studying the proposed personnel list as he pursed his lips. The icy blue gaze flickered back up to Marcus after a moment. “Go on,” he commented, a faint gleam of interest sparking his expression. “Let’s hear your take on it.”

Knowing this was his final chance to convince his boss, Marcus looked at his Glas and began to go down the list, “Well we will need to start with a tactical team. Where we are going, small group tactics are key. So let’s start with Deckard Knyghte. He’s been out of the game for quite some time, but his particular flavor of tactical knowledge is perfect for this. He’s as old school and as level headed as they come. I’m going to need that to counteract Laloric and his perfectionist manner.”

He acknowledged the look his commander gave him at the thought of those two together and nodded. “I know, intuition versus perfectionism. But we’ve seen them do this all the time; they get into their arguments and somehow end up with this bizarre compromise of a tactical conclusion that beats any UEE Action Advisory Committee in the ‘verse.”

He slid his finger down the Glas to the next name. “Kieran Sloane. Aside from being a long time friend to Ursula, which I believe ensures he’s going be looking out for her, his record on recon is superb to say the least. We need a man of his talents to scout ahead if we are to succeed.”

“Worried about UEE and corporate rival run ins?” Marcus continued, holding up his Glas to display the next profile image on the list. “I give you Tyven Daalus. If it wasn’t for offline data files and paper, this man would be nothing but a ghost in the machine. His multitude of talents, trades and connections can get us through most Advocacy interference.” He paused as he looked at the long record that scrolled thru his Glas, lips quirking. “This guy’s life story has been steering clear of the ‘all seeing eye’, and he knows the blind spots better than anyone.”

“And you know I need ‘Crazy’,” Marcus added with a smirk. The commander just looked resigned as he glanced over the next crew profile portrait, though there may have been the ghost of a smile touching his lips. “Robbie Burgundy. His unorthodox piloting skill makes him a wild card ace. Not to mention, he’s an expert demolitions man. He’s a two-for-one! He’ll come in handy once we put down on the surface and find what we’re looking for.”

“Then there’s the not so crazy and the dangerous,” he went on, “Bellisaria Romanov and Richard Von Blucher, aka ‘Jaeger’- your Enforcer. Excellent pilots and soldiers in their own right. Bell somehow manages to keep Sapper alive, and Jaeger well…Jaeger has just enough menace to keep him in line. Besides that….I know you keep him as a clean-up guy and his connections to the Advocacy won’t hurt. If it goes sideways, well…nothing ever comes back to you. He’s the assurance it either works out or…. we both know the deal.” Marcus grimaced slightly as he stared at the austere, unsmiling face of the Squadron’s Enforcer reflected in his Glas.

“And of course, though not officially employed by Midnight Enterprises, Ursula’s Basque Aitaxchi will manage to invite himself along to ‘update his maps’ though we all know he will be keeping an eye on her ….and far be it from me to object to having the old man and his star charts along. One never knows when one might need a jump point that doesn’t exist on any UEE registry. . .or a genuine bottle of mahatsamo from his winery.” Marcus half mumbled the last part, lowering his voice so his words could only barely be heard, and scratching his nose to cover the motion of his lips. Xander just grunted at him in response, making it clear he had heard the comment about the wine- well aware that the old navigator was rarely without a bottle or two no matter what the mission might be.

Marcus placed his Glas down on the desk and stood up as he continued to talk, “There are a few other members I have in mind. Most are either semi-retired, on leave, or of course on missions. Ursula is still waiting for Cav to get back to her, but this here is the core unit. Regardless of who comes and who stays, the uniting factor for this crew, aside from individual talent, is two things, the loyalty to this squadron, and loyalty for you beyond the standard casual affiliation.”

Xander took the last drag of his cigarette and took a seat, allowing the chair to mold to his form. He leaned forward after discarding his butt, stretching his legs out beneath the desk. He rested his chin in his left palm and pointed at the information on his Glas in front of him. “The Orion system is a restricted area for good reason. And once on Armitage, how do you even know if what you are looking for hasn’t been bombarded into space dust?” He eyed Marcus closely, noting the confident grin. “Did I mention the Vanduul raiding parties, or the Void Pirates?” He said dryly, one eyebrow rising slightly as Marcus’s grin widened.

“I understand your concerns,” Marcus replied, with a placating gesture of his hand and doing his best to reign in his enthusiasm slightly. “Getting to the Orion system and landing is actually the easy part. The Vanduul sightings in the Armitage quadrant have decreased greatly of late. We time it right, with the right intel, chances are slim to none that we’ll even see a Vanduul raiding party. As for the Void Pirates,” Marcus paused for effect to let the commander know he had something in mind for them, “we do have ways to keep them busy and off our trail.”

“As for the package in question,” He leaned down and pressed the glas on the desk, “They may have destroyed the surface, but what we are looking for is far deeper.” First an image of the Orion system displayed and then the Glas zoomed in on the Armitage and then onto one of the hollowed out cities. In the middle of the city, a bright red X marked the spot where Marcus intended to go.

Silence filled the room as Xander considered the presentation. “I’ll be honest. I still have reservations about Ursula going along on this excursion.” He leaned back and let his breath out in a sigh as he regarded Marcus somberly. “But I also know if she said she was going already, I won’t have much of a chance of stopping her.” He grimaced and rubbed at his scalp, then let his hand slide over his face before he grunted. “I’m intrigued. And d a mn it, I know she is too.”

“I’ll bring her back without a scratch,” Marcus said with an assuring smile. he knew that was his chief concern. “We’ll be back with the goods before anyone even notices we are gone.”

Decision made, Xander frowned as he picked up Marcus’ Glas and signed off on the mission. He slid it back across the desk to a still smiling Marcus. “Just one thing,” he noted, “I’ll be seeing Ursula at dinner tomorrow, and I’ll inform her after I lay out some ground rules for her.”

As he took the Glas, Marcus nodded in agreement. He gave Xander a salute and headed to the door. As the door slid open, Marcus paused and looked over his shoulder at Xander, a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “You still trying to do that whole…old Earth, real food cooking…thing?”

“I am,” Xander replied, narrowing his eyes.

“Ah, got it.” Marcus mused as he continued to the door, laughter coloring his parting shot, “I’ll tell her to eat before she gets to your place then. You know how you get when she comments on your food. We wouldn’t want her honesty to alter your decision.”

Marcus ducked and hurried out, chortling as the closing door whooshed behind him, the soft snick from the airlock cut off the sound of his merriment and returning the subdued office to its usual late evening quiet.

Again silence returned to the room, only the muted images showing the bridge command deck on his security screens keeping him company. For a few moments Xander sat in contemplation, his faint smile at the parting joke fading. He stood up from his desk and strode to a side table, pouring himself a glass of scotch. He turned to the observation window as he lit himself a new cigarette, then took a sip from his glass, letting the burn slide soothingly down his throat and into his belly. Electric blue eyes glowed softly in the darkened room as he watched the stars beyond the habitat and cargo rings. “Well Frank,” he muttered to himself, “I can’t keep her locked away and safe forever.” He lifted his glass to the memory of his old friend, the pain of his loss as sharp as ever, and then drank down his last swallow.

He turned, placed the empty glass on the desk and noted the time. It was ten to midnight. He smiled at that before his thoughts turned to bed and he considered making it an early night. Then he remembered, What was her name? Debbie? He hoped she had decided to go home and wasn’t waiting to surprise him in his bed again. He thought maybe it was time to move on before this one got too attached. He weighed his options as he turned to leave the office, slipping his Glas into his suit pocket as he went. The door opened as he approached, then snicked closed behind him.

The sensors registered the emptiness of the executive suite and turned off the dim lighting and the overhead monitors. Only the clear image of the holographic observation window looming large against the back wall remained active. The view encompassed the bustling activity of the space station that never slept, as well as the cold vastness of waiting space spangled with stars that seductively promised endless wonders to those who spent their lives reaching for them.