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Mid-Flight Crisis Miles above Death Valley, CA April 7th, 2031 A.D. Here I am, sitting comfortably in paradise.

A vibrant expanse of grassy meadow rolls out into the distance to meet a nearly cloudless sky, with not a single blemish or trace of destruction to be seen. A gentle breeze stirs the tall grass, giving a pleasant motion to the small hills and mounds so perfectly carved into the earth. It tenderly brushes against my skin, the feeling so free and exhilarating. My eyes trail along the red plaid blanket Ive been resting on, only to realize Im not alone. Sarah. The love of my life sits just to my left, her legs curled up on the blanket. The tips of her lengthy brown hair flutter delicately in the wind, long enough to drape down the shoulders of a soft green summer dress shes wearing. A camouflage bandana is tied neatly on her head, complimenting the dress flawlessly in its shades of olive, brown, and black. Her stomach protrudes slightly through her dress, and she appears at least four months into pregnancy. She glances up from the blanket, her careful eyes meeting my own deep brown pools of unending description; so resolute, so strong, and yet so understanding. A gentle smile forms upon her lips, and my teeth bare a genuine grin. Happiness. It seems so hard to accept, but I cant imagine anything more perfect. All the conflict in the world can be put to rest, all the struggles Ive had coming to terms with myself. Regrets would cease to invade my thoughts, and I could once again live in peace. Now it was time to submit But something changes. At first I cant place what an unnatural separation, from both Sarah and the grassy meadow. The world seems to fade from its original vibrant hue, losing its vivacity, reducing to a pale grainy landscape. Slowly, I feel my vision begin to fracture, like an irreparable crack rippling through a windshield. The feeling pierces my heart, and although the meadow has become a massive fading blur, an evident disappoint is carried on Sarahs lips. Her dress is torn, hair in a tangled mess, and fingernails resembling claws more so than the pretty ovals they were before. I try to reach out to her for reconciliation, to put the pieces back together, and to get back the grassy meadow. But its futile, and every movement I make is like swimming neck-deep in mud. My eyes travel down to her pregnant stomach. I nearly heave up my insides at the sight. A single, neatly perforated bullet hole is cut through her dress, a trail of blood and entrails gushes from her deflated belly. I dont want to accept what Im seeing, but I cant help it. Ironically, my mind seems to latch onto this fact quicker than a chance at happiness. The fact that my child is dead. The fact that the only hope I ever had at being happy left fleeting from me like an ice cube on an open flame. I cant bear to look any longer, and I frantically search for comfort in her glossy brown eyes. But I'm not prepared for what I see next. Her eyes fragment, rippling in a crack just as my vision had, only to shatter apart. What once were brown pools of such depth so resolute, and so utterly human now glow a bright red, like little bulbs in her sockets. The eyes of death itself. I had seen it

many times before, either staring down the end of a gun barrel, or from afar in the darkness. But none of that prepared me for this moment. The person I trusted with everything, lost to me by the other side. The epitome of my sad little life, and on both accounts, the reason I had always fought. A reason to fight. The thought of facing Sarah or whatever sits before me becomes so terrifying that I immediately jerk backward on impulse. I try to scramble to my feet, wanting nothing else but to run, but I cant. Im stuck, lodged in time, as if fate was forcing me to endure this moment for as long as it could possibly keep me its hostage. My head starts pounding, each throbbing pulse expected with excruciating punctuality. Its pace quickens, and the sound of buzzing blades seems to fill my eardrums. A swarm of insect-like machines grows ever louder behind me as I fail to move, unable to escape an inevitable death. I can hear nothing else but the pounding in my head, chest, and ears, my body consumed by an unbearable grinding of metal daggers When it all goes black. The throbbing in my head persists, but the buzzing of the machines has dropped to a steady, flat pace. I attempt to move, but Im secured in place, and I realize where I am as I gather the courage to open my eyes. I find myself strapped a battered leather seat, just across an aisle from Dante in the cramped cabin of a propeller plane. He appears to be asleep, and Im glad for it, as it means he wouldnt have noticed Then it hits me. It was all just a dream. Sarah, the grassy meadow, and everything that followed: all just a nightmare conjured up by my imagination. Of course it was, I tell myself. Sarah would never wear a dress. This dose of reality helps to calm me, but while I try to take my mind off the dream, the scene seems to keep working its way back into my mind. The utter happiness, losing the child and everything I cared for, and consequentially the will to fight. Was this some metaphor for my life? I try to disperse the thought, but the obvious is too blatant to ignore. Even the details, like the thought of facing her after this transformation, were all just too perfect. But then, what about her eyes? Those glowing red eyes still haunt me, even though its perfectly light outside, and Im certain that Im awake. I shudder at the implications, though they seem just a culmination of my fears, and Im content with this conclusion. Though as my mind drifts onto the road ahead our flight to Vegas, and what I even plan on doing there a guilty thought itches in the back of my mind. When I tried to run, rather than putting aside my fears, and tackling the problem. I wasnt scared; at least, not of death. No, it was more than that. It was my resolution to go on. Ive been running from my problems, not fixing them. I cant recall when it started, but I have been questioning my will to fight for as long as I can remember losing Sarah. Losing what mattered most, trying to pick up the pieces but having them slip from my grasp. I could hardly the face the woman, and my resolve wavered. And it eventually came down to this. Running away, like a coward. It wasnt planned that way, of course I had never meant to be trapped by a T-888, or double-crossed by a pair of luddites in the middle of the wastes. But those long days trapped underground, waiting out the stomping footsteps with Dante It brought my mind back to Belmont. The endless marching of the machines, crushing all beneath their weight, only leaving us alone after our supplies and morale seemed to dwindle painfully

low. The thing I wanted most was to go back. Back to how things were, before the destruction and the chaos, when all that troubled my mind were the punctuality of hunting parties, or how well our caravan routes were concealed. The machines seemed a distant threat back then. Now my life hung in the balance like a daily affair, just as normal as breathing. Losing my dignity and my place as a Sergeant just pushed me over the edge. I decided I didnt want Tech-Com anymore. I obviously wasnt the leader they wanted, so why should I bother waiting for any more from them? Instead, I headed farther North with Dante, with the intention of finding the remains of my old caravan the last remnants of Belmont I could fathom to exist. And here I am, aimlessly flying to the ruins of Las Vegas, which is probably as much of a machine-plagued hell as Los Angeles. But its my only chance at reconnecting with an old friend. Someone Ive been meaning to make amends with something sincere to break this illegitimate vacation that Ill never return from. Ironic that Im heading to Sin City for something like that, but its something Ive convinced myself I must do. A resolve to go on. And then its there again, that itching thought at the back of my mind. An idea begins to form, and a hint of excitement sends adrenaline racing through my body only to be interrupted by the sound of sputtering propellers. Were making our descent into Vegas with fresh motivation. Ive got a plan.