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And now, without further delay ... here is AGE OF AETHER!  Enjoy!

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THE DAY Benjamin Bantam had waited for all his life was here at last.

And what a day it was! Crisp navy-blue skies were filled with marbled clouds that drifted in small whirls here and there — with just the right amount of sun-soaked wind keening off nearby Mirror Lake.

Ah, perfect. It was exactly as he recalled.

As Bantam sat on the park bench, he glanced over his shoulder at the massive Army base behind him. Fort MacLaren. Somewhere beyond the barbed wire was the top secret Gaultier-Ross Supercollider. It would be charging by now, he thought. The very thought made his scalp tingle.

No, he corrected himself: it would actually have been charging for weeks at this point. Remember?

He laughed at his faded memories. Ah, well. That was inevitable for a man of his very advanced age.

Somewhere very close, but beneath the ground, a great circular chamber several miles in diameter was purring with enriched tachyon energy, building up to release a Volzstrang Wave in a single massive detonation…

“Excuse me. Is your name Benjamin Bantam?”

Bantam looked up. A young woman in her early twenties stared down at him. Even though her Facebook photos had prepared him for the resemblance (which was obvious, even beneath her surgical mask), he had never heard her voice before. It was uncanny: she even sounded the same!

For a long moment, Bantam simply could not speak. His mind tumbled with split-second jabs and cross-cuts of another time, another place. Emotions that he had assumed were long-forgotten suddenly came rushing to the surface. They were an overwhelming geyser in equal parts love and pain. Or aether and iron, as she would have said.

Still, he didn’t dare falter now. Not with so much at stake. He couldn’t afford to spook her, have her run away.

Bantam stood and held out his hand. “Yes, I’m Benjamin. Thank you for coming.”

The girl recoiled from his outstretched hand. Ah yes, Bantam recalled. Germs. The phobia was understandable, of course: the BlackPox had savaged off a third of the planet by this time.

‘The Shadow’, as the BlackPox was commonly known, was an especially violent strain of smallpox. The fleshy boils it produced were huge — and black. They also soiled the blood of the infected, turning it from bright and healthy red to dark ink. The dead would have a viscous flow from their mouth, as if they’d vomited oil right before expiring.

The Shadow was extremely lethal and contagious: whole continents had been depopulated within weeks. China had been especially hard-hit: endless miles of ghost cities now existed, without a single soul occupying a single building. India was likewise nearly empty. And in the United States, the Shadow had wreaked a trail of black blood from Washington State down through Oregon.  In San Francisco, the death toll had been in the high eighty percentile figures. Texas and Florida were also hit hard. The Northeast was largely spared — but there was as of late a fresh bloom of outbreaks in New York City, and another eruption of death was expected imminently.

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