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Luminore

Maelin flew spectacularly through the air, landing in the water. Allen laughed. She glared at him.

“That’s not funny.” She growled as she struggled free of the clinging mud. He had tripped her. She knew it. Just like she knew he was the one who kept hiding her stuffed giraffe. Sleeping with a stuffed animal did not make her a baby.

Allen laughed again. “Ah, don’t be a pansy. I was just joking.”

Maelin gulped down her tears as she stomped toward drier ground. Allen kept laughing, following her as if he meant to do it again. Maelin shoved him. He landed in the lake muck with a splat. Maelin ran toward the woods. She did not want to see anybody. Not Tanner, or Summer, and especially not Allen.

Only after she had to stop running in order to catch her breath did she realize that she was out-of-bounds. Nuts. Her parents would ground her for eternity and beyond. That would be the icing on the already crumbly mess of summer.

She kicked a pine cone. It bounced off a tree and flew back toward her. She ducked and followed the pine cone’s trajectory, her adrenalin slowing.

“Stupid Allen. It’s your fault that I’m out of bounds.” She kicked the pine cone again. “Stupid camp. I wish we’d never come.” She followed the pine cone and kicked it a third time. It flew through a tunnel of trees, missing all of them, and landing beyond her sight.

Impressed, she chased after it. The trees opened onto a small clearing, overgrown with bushes, a trailing vine climbing the remnants of a rotting fence. The fence cozied up to an ancient pile of junk, a gorilla’s face haughtily laughing at her. Maelin hesitantly stepped closer. The gorilla didn’t move.

She took another step and released her held breath. It was a painted life-sized sculpture. She ran a finger over his face. There was no dust, though it felt as if she were the first visitor in ages. There should be dust. The climbing vine had wrapped around most of his body. Maelin tugged at the greenery. It held fast to its prize.

She flipped open her pocket knife and carefully cut the vine away from the gorilla. The plant reluctantly released its prize. The gorilla was whole, the paint slightly faded without any chips or damage. A pole pierced the gorilla through the middle of his back, pinning him to a plank of painted wood beneath his feet and a moving metal arm above his head. The tarnished metal glinted as she moved, the pole shivering slightly.

Curious, Maelin took a step back, tugging at the vine as she walked.

Unbelievably, the rest of the plant slid off of their treasure as if every grasping tendril had been cut, revealing an ancient carousel with six animals poised as if they were ready to run or fly. The gorilla seemed, if anything, haughtier in his observation of the young girl. Maelin walked past him, running her hands over the ostrich, polar bear, badger, bullfrog, and dragon. It was the oddest group of animals she had ever seen on a carousel.

She backed away from the carousel. The integrity seemed intact. The fence stopped her backward progression with a shower of wood dust.  

Beyond the carousel she could see the remains of other fair attractions. She ventured near a crumbling booth. One figure remained semi-upright at the back of the wooden structure, waiting for a ball or pellet gun to knock it over. The wood crumbled where she touched it, the paint worn away by years of moisture and abuse.

The carousel creaked. Maelin jumped, but no one was there. She brushed the dust from her hands and returned to the whole carousel.

Had someone abandoned the carousel more recently than the rest of the fair attractions? Was that how it looked so good compared to the rest of the fair cemetery?

She carefully stepped onto the platform. The wood groaned, but held. For a moment, she smelled popcorn and cotton candy. She took a second whiff, but it had passed. A light flickered in the corner of her vision. She turned, but the bulbs decorating the inner pole of the carousel were mostly broken. She touched them, her fingers coming away clean, again. Odd.

She walked the circumference of the carousel platform and stopped in front of the gorilla. He hadn’t shifted, or moved. That would be impossible, but his expression seemed content somehow. She ran her fingers across his back. Each hair felt as if it had been individually carved and intricately painted. Several strands switched color midway through, as real hair often did.

Maelin peeked around the small clearing. She was the only person there, not even the birds dared peep as she climbed onto the gorilla. Eyes closed, the fair grew around her.

Music and laughter twined through the air. Children ran around adults, sticky and giggly. Women wore elegant dresses, their hair coiffed, and makeup perfect. Men tugged at suit jackets, offering their arms to the women around them as they waited in lines for the rides and booths. A breeze lifted Maelin’s hair, almost as if the carousel were slowly shivering to life.

She opened her eyes to bones and mud. “Thanks for the ride.” She patted the gorilla on the shoulder. “It was nice.”  

Maelin walked a little deeper into the dead fairgrounds. Mud sucked at her shoes and her clothes crinkled, reminding her of her unfortunate lake-bath.

“Dagnammit!” She exclaimed as she looked up and realized the sky had turned pink. She did not want to be grounded for the rest of this miserable trip. Maelin raced back to camp, the knife slipping from her pocket to land in a patch of overgrown grass on the outer edge of the clearing.

 

###

 

Maelin sat on the log near the fire. Summer passed her a bag of marshmallows and a stick. “You missed dinner,” Summer whispered. “Where were you?”

Maelin popped three marshmallows onto the pokey end of the stick. “Nowhere.” She lied.

“Huh,” Summer grunted while she stabbed her marshmallow into the fire. “Allen apparently went swimming today.” Summer turned the marshmallow, burning the underside as thoroughly as the top. “By himself.” She turned the stick a third time, then grinned as the marshmallow caught fire. “In his clothes.”

Maelin ignored Summer, holding her own marshmallows just close enough to the flame to grow warm. She preferred them crisp and brown, not crisp and black.

“Tanner said you had gone to the lake with Allen, and that he was going to meet up with both of you there,” Summer did not give up. “But when Tanner got there, you’d already gone and Allen was covered in muck.” Summer plucked the crusted black shell from her marshmallow, ate it with a flourish, and stuck the remaining gooey center back into the flame until it bubbled and crusted.

“He didn’t bother you, did he?”

“Nah,” Maelin finally responded. “He was just being a spaz.”

Bracken cracked as Tanner walked up behind them, dust and branches clinging to his clothes, the bottom half of his pants caked in mud. “Where’d you go?” He demanded as he sat on Maelin’s left, stealing one of her perfectly brown marshmallows. She whomped him on the head with the handle of her roasting stick. “Ouch!” he ducked away from her. “What was that for?”

“Buzz off.” Maelin snapped. Tanner looked hurt as he scooted to the opposite end of the log. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

Maelin felt as if she might cry again. It was bad enough that Allen thought he was being funny, her friends did not need to know what happened by the lake today. She popped her last marshmallow off the stick and thunked it against the log hard enough that it snapped in half before she marched away from the fire.

Tanner followed her. She barely acknowledged his presence with a growl and a glare. “You don’t have to tell me anything, but I thought you might want this back.” He stuck his hand in front of Maelin, a small knife in his palm.

Maelin snatched her knife from Tanner and shoved it into her pocket. “Where’d you get it?” She asked as she reversed direction walked toward the lake. The nearly-full moon lit the path well enough that she didn’t even miss the flashlight she usually carried around after dark. Tanner followed.

“What were you doing out of bounds?” He asked instead of answering.

Did Tanner want to get punched?

“None of your business.” Maelin growled.

Tanner whistled a cheery tune and pointed to the stars. “Look, it’s Orion.”

Tanner chatted as if Maelin hadn’t been snapping at him since he arrived at the fire. She felt a pinch of guilt. She stopped walking, the pocket knife thumping to a halt against her leg.

With a gasp, she turned to her friend. “What were you doing out of bounds!?”

Tanner gaped. “It took you that long to figure it out?”

Maelin straightened defensively, taking a deep breath to better her argument.

Tanner held up a hand. “I was looking for you! When Allen said you ran off in a huff, I knew that you wouldn’t pay attention to where you were going. You barely pay attention when a clearly paved road points you in a specific direction.” He was right. She was skilled at getting lost.

“I was not in a huff.” Maelin said, though her tone lost its bite.

“I know better than to believe everything Allen spews.” Tanner agreed. “But I had to find you before we lost you to the forest sprites.”

Maelin giggled. They had made up the sprites when they were six, the very first year their families had started traveling together. Every state they visited had a different sprite. West Virginia had forest sprites, vindictive little beings that bit like mosquitos, but left welts the size of Texas. Allen insisted that they were too old for sprites. Maelin and Tanner believed in them anyway.

“I found the knife about a mile from camp.” He smirked. “Must have been a forest sprite that led me to it. I never would have found it otherwise.” Maelin shifted uncomfortably.

“I found something else.” He hinted.

“Yeah?” Maelin asked.

“A dragon.” He whispered dramatically. Maelin jumped.

“Woah, it wasn’t a real dragon.” He put a hand on her arm as if she might take flight. Maelin wasn’t so sure that the possibility had passed. “It was a carousel. Strangest carousel I’ve ever seen.”

“With a gorilla?” Maelin asked.

“Yeah. And a badger…” Tanner started to say.

“Ostrich, polar bear, and bullfrog.” They finished together, listing the animals in order. “You saw it too!” They both pointed. “I didn’t make it up!” It was a real possibility since they both spoke with forest sprites every day.

Without conferring, they both ran into the woods. Tanner took the lead, guiding them back to the clearing without error.

Maelin immediately climbed onto the gorilla. Tanner leapt aboard the dragon, whistling shrilly.

“And now we soar!” He cheered and whooped as his imagination carried him over the land.

“Children.” Maelin grumbled in a tone she imagined the gorilla would use. “Always thinking they need to be showy.” She tightened her grip on the pole and squeezed her knees together. “We’ll show them!” In her imagination the gorilla dove into the trees, climbing and leaping with the agility of a much smaller monkey. She looked into the sky.

“Look out Tanner! There’s a flying sprite coming for you!” It was an orange sprite from New Mexico.

“He’ll never catch me.” Tanner ducked and hissed as if the dragon had released a throat full of flame. “But the gutter sprite might get you!”

“Drat. It must have stowed away from our trip through New York.” Maelin swerved and thumped the gutter sprite with her knife.

“Maelin! Tanner! Get down from there!” Summer broke the illusion with her mad stomping through the battle grounds. Maelin slid off the gorilla and leapt to the ground, her heart pounding three-thousand miles an hour. Tanner landed beside her. “That cannot be safe.” Summer nudged them away from the carousel before circling it.

“Why’d you follow us?” Tanner demanded.

“So you wouldn’t get into trouble.” Summer mumbled, her focus elsewhere. She stared at the ostrich as if she hadn’t seen anything so elegant in her life.

“You want to ride her, don’t you?” Maelin asked.

“No.” Summer glared at her friends. “I came to take you back to camp before our parents notice we are gone.”

“You just wanted to snoop.” Maelin nudged her friend closer to the ostrich. It was easy to stop Summer from tattling, just capture her imagination. “Sit on her.”

“No.” Summer shook her head, quite emphatically, but the sparkle in her eyes gave away her fascination.

“You can feel the feathers.” Tanner edged toward Summer, trapping her in front of the large bird.

“Ostriches are fast, you know.” Maelin said. “And fierce.”

Summer looked at Tanner, then Maelin. She laughed. “Alright, alright.” She hesitantly stepped onto the carousel platform. It creaked. She stopped.

“It hasn’t broken yet.” Maelin encouraged.

“Not helping.” Summer cautiously placed both of her hands on the large bird. Her eyes widened with wonder. “She’s incredible.”

Maelin laughed and climbed back onto the gorilla while Tanner mounted the dragon.

“Do you think we could get this up and running?” Summer asked after they had played for a while.

“No idea.” Tanner hopped off the dragon and walked around the carousel, looking under the platform. “There doesn’t seem to be any sort of plug.” He stopped. “Wait. There might have been one here, once.”

Summer passed him a flashlight. He shone it on the dark hole.

Maelin stuck her tongue out at him. “You won’t see anything in the dark. We’ll have to come back in the morning.”

“No…” Summer interjected.

“It was your idea to get it working.” Tanner reminded her. She shut her yap.

“Fine. I’ll come back with you tomorrow.” Summer pulled Tanner up by the back of his shirt. “Now let’s get back to camp before they realize we are gone.”

 

###

 

“Where were you last night?” Marley plopped onto the fireside log next to Summer. He tipped half his eggs onto her plate. She gobbled them down without answering his question. “Fine. Don’t tell me. I’ll just ask Tanner. He was up early this morning, rummaging through the van. I swear I saw several wires and tools sticking out of his pockets.” He slowly chewed a bite of toast. “I’m sure dad won’t mind, when I tell him…”

“Fine.” Summer slapped her hand over his mouth. “Shut up and I’ll show you later.”

“Oooh, show. Must be something good.” He spoke through her hand and raised his bread as if he meant to eat it through her palm. She removed her hand with a disgusted grunt and wandered off. He ate the rest of his breakfast with glee, snuck from camp before he could be roped into washing dishes, and found Summer on the path to the lake. Tanner and Maelin argued with her, falling silent when he approached.

“I bullied her into it.” Marley copped up to his behavior. “Had to see where you went off to.”

“Fine. But no one else knows.” Maelin insisted.

“I won’t tell.” Marley said. “Summer’s the weak link.”

Maelin glared at Summer.

“Aah, don’t put too much blame on her. I’ve had lots of practice pushing my little cousin’s buttons.”

“You are only three days older than me.” Summer protested.

“Still older. Now where is this mystery you were going to show me?”

Marley followed his friends down the path. They turned off of it when the lake became visible and walked through the forest until everyone was hot and sweaty. Anticipation caught his breath as his friends stopped walking. “Remember, this is top secret.” Maelin was so cute when she got all irate and commanding on them. He ruffled her hair. She swatted his hand and he ducked before she could deck him.

“I know. I know.” He pushed her through the last layer of trees and stopped as soon as he entered the clearing, his jaw falling to the ground.

“A carousel? You found a whole freaking carousel?” He bounced up to the carousel, stopping in front of the bullfrog. “Who puts a frog on a carousel?” He ran both hands over the carved animal, the skin smooth and warm beneath his touch.

“The same person who puts an ostrich on a carousel.” Summer jumped onto the platform and patted the Ostrich on the head. Maelin was already climbing onto the gorilla while Tanner straddled the dragon.

Marley walked around the frog three times. He felt as if it might leap off the platform the moment a proper breeze came up. He stopped behind the frog, ready to slide onto its back when he heard a crunch of branches. Everyone froze, silent and wary.

Katherine stepped into the clearing, her eyes snapping between the children and the broken ride. “You are going to be in so much trouble.”

Marley bounded off the platform and tucked an arm around her shoulders. “But you aren’t going to be the one to tell on us, now are you?”

Katherine plucked his arm off of her shoulders with a shake of her head. “You are out of bounds.”

“It’s a carousel.” Marley argued. “This is the best thing we’ve found since our parents decided that a week on dry land would be worth the cost of a crappy motel three weeks ago when it wouldn’t stop raining.”

“That motel had bugs.” Katherine said.

“See. The carousel is much better.” Marley tugged her toward the carousel. “Which one would you like to ride on?”

“It doesn’t work.” Katherine took two steps, then stopped.

“So?” Marley shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time our adventures were solely imaginary.”

Katherine looked from one eager face to another. “Alright. As long as we are careful.” She climbed onto the carousel, slowly circling the inner platform before settling on the badger with a decisive huff.

Marley grinned and returned to the carousel.

“Ouch!” A familiar voice yelped.

“Allen?” Marley looked under the carousel platform. Allen lay flat beneath it, barely fitting. If had been any less stick-like he never would have been able to wiggle under there.

“You stepped on my fingers, you big dolt.” Allen wriggled out of his hiding place.

“What are you doing here?” Maelin asked darkly.

“I followed Summer last night. Came out early this morning. Then you lot showed up and ruined a perfectly good adventure.” Allen pushed past Marley and plopped onto the large white polar bear.

“I found it first!” Maelin said.

“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have found it without me.” Allen argued.

“Guys, cut it out!” Summer interrupted. “There’s enough animals for all of us.”

Allen and Maelin cut a tense peace by ignoring each other entirely. It was enough for Marley. He climbed onto the frog with a grin.

Summer hummed a short tune. Tanner whooshed. Katherine whipped her head around, staring at the center column of the carousel. “Did you see that?” She asked.

“See what?” Summer said, her tune receding with the light breeze that had picked up only a moment before.

“The lights.” Katherine said.

“It’s broken.” Tanner also looked at the lights. “We already looked.”

Marley saw a glint of light behind on the edges of his own vision, a low tune carried on the now stronger breeze. He glanced at his friends. They each held the pole in front of themselves with both hands.

“Mmm, popcorn.” Allen broke his silence with a rumble of his belly. Marley could smell it too, buttery and warm.

The tune grew louder. “Summer?” he asked.

“Not singing.” She sounded less certain of herself than she had when they first arrived.

“Me neither.” Katherine was the second-best singer in their group.

“And nobody sings the piano.” Maelin added.

Marley closed his eyes, lights flashing across his lids. He opened his eyes, broken lights dancing in the sunlight. The flashing stopped as the platform shivered. He clung to the pole in front of him. “Guys?” He asked. Nobody said anything.

The world shivered and bent. The music rose loud and clear as if it played through car speakers. The bulbs sparkled with light and the carousel creaked to life. “Guys?” Marley asked again.

The frog rattled upward as Katherine’s Badger went down. Over and over the animals moved, the carousel spun in tune to the music.

“I think I’m going to be sick.” Tanner groaned.

“Don’t puke!” Maelin sounded a little freaked.

“I think we should get off.” Summer tried to slide off of the Ostrich. The carousel sped up and she clutched the pole instead, pale and shaken.

Marley closed his eyes and clung to the giant frog. The frog was a comforting solid mass beneath his butt as the rest of the carousel shivered and creaked. Somebody screamed, but the wind immediately whisked away the sound.

Just as Marley feared he would be thrown from his seat, the carousel thumped, then slowed. Marley opened one eye. The carousel slid to a smooth stop. He was too rubbery to slide from the frog’s back, but he managed to coax the fingers of one hand open when the creature beneath him moved. “Interloper!” The frog yelled.

“What?” Marley gasped as he fell from the frog’s back.

“Intruder! Stupid hairless monkey. You come from the same land as the sorcerers apprentices— come to Luminore catch us with your evil magic. I won’t fall for it.” The frog stood on his hind legs, his front legs held out as if he were preparing to hit Marley.

A very large, very angry gorilla approached the frog from behind. “They don’t smell of the sorcerers magic.” His voice rumbled through the clearing, pausing the chaos, if only for a moment. “Let us hear their tale.”

In-mortals, Ep. 1

Prologue

CAPRICE LEAPT FROM THE top of the boulder. Daria gasped and caught her daughter. “Baby, you gotta warn me before you jump.”

Caprice giggled with pure four-year-old belly laughs, her entire body quivering with each heaving breath. “I’m serious baby…”

Caprice ignored her mom, climbed back up the boulder, and jumped again. Ready this time, Daria caught her daughter and swung her through the air until they were both too dizzy to stand. They flopped onto their backs in the damp sand until they stopped laughing long enough to breath.

“Again!” Caprice leapt to her feet and monkey-crawled her way up the boulder. Daria groaned, but stood up. She swung her baby again, then distracted Caprice before she could climb up the boulder another time.

“Let’s go rock hunting!”

“Rocks, rocks, rocks!” Caprice chanted as she flung handfuls of sand into the air. She skipped away from her mother, now singing, “Need a Mamma Rock, and a Baby Rock, and a Doggy Rock, and a Birdie Rock.”

Daria stuck close to her daughter as they meandered around boulders and climbed over small hills with sharp, water carved edges. Waves pounded against the shore around them, a symphony of wind, tides, and laughter.

“Bad Guy!” Caprice yelled as she pointed at a dark pink sea shell poking out of the sand. She dug the shell out in furious swipes. Triumphant, she raised the perfect spire above her head and zoomed around her mom three times before shoving the seashell in Daria’s hands and continuing the search for the perfect family of rocks.

Before long, Daria carried Bad Guy, Baby, Doggy, and three Birdies, but they still needed Momma Rock.

“What about over here?” Daria asked before Caprice could wander off a sharp drop into wave-covered rocks.

Caprice bounced to the inland treasure trove of stones her mother had found. Daria knelt beside her and tugged a lemon-sized pink and grey stone out of the sand. “What about this one?”

“Momma Rock!” Caprice clapped her hands in glee and took all of the rocks from her mom. With careful precision, Caprice stacked each of her rocks on the flat top of a short boulder. Once they were all situated, she flew Bad Guy through the air. “Shhhhrooooom. Vroooom. Shhhhhhrooooooom. Bad Guy’s going to get Baby Rock.” She narrated as the stones and sea shell acted out her words.

Caprice clutched Baby Rock and Bad Guy in the same hand with a vicious Bad Guy roar.

“No you don’t!” Momma Rock yelled at Bad Guy. “You leave my baby alone Bad Guy!”

Momma Rock leapt through the air with an impressive eight turn flip, two zooooooooms, and a satisfied plop as she squashed Bad Guy. Pink sea shell bits shattered across the boulder and fell to the sand. Caprice cheered and giggled. Momma Rock and Baby Rock hugged while all the Birdie Rocks cawed and pooped.

Satisfied, Caprice handed her mom the rocks, though she kept Momma Rock safely clenched in her fist. Hand in hand, mother and daughter meandered toward the parking lot.

“Mamma?” Caprice asked.

“Yes, Baby?”

“You won’t leave me, right?” Caprice squeezed Daria’s hand with a tight desperation.

Daria stopped walking and knelt beside her daughter. “No, Sweetie, I’m not going anywhere.”

“But Bad Guy said you was gonna leave me,” Caprice said with a sniffle.

“When did Bad Guy tell you that?” Daria’s heart thumped and her breath quickened. It wasn’t the first time Caprice had said such piercing words. Most chalked it up to preschool imagination, but Daria knew how real such things could be.

“Before Momma Rock squashed him.” Caprice brushed her fist across her cheeks, leaving a streak of dirt on her face, and a splotch of tears on the stone.

“Oh Baby, I’m not going to leave you.” Daria wrapped her hands around Caprice’s tense fists. Clutched in Caprice’s tight grip, Momma Rock felt hotter than it should have.

“You don’t want to leave me,” Caprice corrected before melting into her mother’s chest as if she were still an infant, soft and malleable.

“No, I don’t want to leave you. And I’m not going to,” Daria almost promised, a catch in her spirit. She shook off the fear and added, “I will always be with you.” Daria rocked her baby back and forth, breathing in the scent of childhood, salt, and sun.

Caprice pressed Momma Rock against her mom’s chest. The stone pulsed against her flesh. “Just like Momma Rock squashed Bad Guy and saved Baby rock?” Caprice asked.  

“That’s right. And I’ll always protect you from the Bad Guys until you are big enough to protect yourself.” Daria brushed tangles of sand-soaked hair away from Caprice’s face. “Always.” Against Daria’s skin, the stone flashed hot, like a coal fresh from a fire, then instantly cooled back to warm. Caprice didn’t seem to notice.

“Okay, Momma.”

Daria carried her baby to the car, buckled her into the car seat.

Caprice fell asleep almost as soon as the car started. Daria flipped on the radio, quiet music floating through the vehicle. “I’ll be theeere,” Daria sang as she drove down the twisty, empty road. “I’ll be there to protect you, yeah baby.”

Suddenly, Daria felt a familiar shiver of fear race down her spine as she sang. She stomped on the brakes. The car sped up instead of stopping. An icy voice cut through the lyrics. “Daria, Darling, what are you doing?”

How had he found them? Daria twisted at the steering wheel to no effect. The tires squealed, then everything went dark as metal crunched around her. In eerie, wavering notes, the music continued. “Just call my name, and I’ll be there.

Daria struggled, a strained gurgle the only sound she could manage.

“Shhhhhh, she’ll be alright. She’ll be safe. I’ll take marvelous care of her. You are somewhere in Oregon, correct?”

“Momma!” Caprice’s voice cut through the nightmare. “Momma!”

Daria gasped and choked.

“Mom! Mommy!”

“It’s okay, Sweetie, I’ve got you.” A new, gentler voice broke through the nightmare.

“What’s wrong with my mommy?” Caprice asked.

“She’s hurt,” the voice sounded vaguely female.

“Momma Rock will protect her.” Small, warm hands touched Daria’s arms and chest, Momma Rock pressed between daughter and mother. Daria gasped, suddenly able to breathe.

“You won’t get her.” Daria thought as loud as she could, forcing the words at the cloying presence still wrapped around her body. It shuddered and faltered. She repeated the words out loud and in her head. “She is not yours.”  

“You can’t stop me,” the icy voice whispered.

Daria didn’t bother to respond. Instead she focused on her daughter.

“Mommy?” Caprice asked in a small voice.

Daria shuddered, then spoke, “Baby, it’s okay. You are going to be okay.” Daria’s arm moved, though she couldn’t feel it. She held her daughter against her dying body and whispered several unintelligible syllables, a lullaby she had sung every day since she learned of Caprice’s existence. It was protection and life, love and peace. She poured all of her hope, all of her life into the song. Into Caprice.

“It’s okay Momma, I big enough now,” Caprice said with four-year-old jauntiness, and a couple stifled sobs. “I big enough to protect myself against the Bad Guys.” The rock seared Daria’s flesh. For a moment, all feeling returned and they were both warm, and real, and safe.

Miraculously, almost magically, the voice was gone, along with his presence and Daria only had a moment to wonder how much her daughter knew about the man that pursued them.

The rock pulsed with her daughter’s heartbeat. Daria’s breathing faltered. Her words failed her. I love you, Caprice.

“I love you too, Mommy,” Caprice curled against her mommy’s body until the police arrived.

###

8 WEEKS 1 DAY

I curled around the meticulously scrubbed porcelain bowl and released what little breakfast I’d managed to consume. The luxury of money meant I wasn’t the one to have to clean the toilet and it was always clean for my frequent use. Shaky from the effort, I stood, rinsed my mouth, and straightened my hair and clothes before rejoining the mess of people in the dining room. Family brunch was a monthly occurrence and not even horrid morning sickness could call me away from my duty. I pasted the smile back on my face as I took my seat and carefully maneuvered the food around my plate so that it appeared as if I was eating.

Chatter wrapped around me, flowing through the exhaustion of first trimester baby-growing to lull me nearly to sleep before my husband caught my hand in his, drawing me fully to awareness.

“Yes, Caprice is doing well. Your babe is sure to be strong and lively,” Wilson told our guests in that friendly, but formal manner of speaking indicative of his role.

I inwardly groaned at his assumptions. It was the same tale he told to each of the families we adopted. While there was truth to the words, it was too soon for any such confidence. If we lost the babe… I hated to think the words, let alone ponder the implications. Wilson placed a comforting hand on my back, almost as if he knew my thoughts. I relaxed and smiled at the couple sitting across from us.

I’d met them last year, from Wilson’s work. My husband’s associate, Richard Ingersall, was rather intimidating, but he was kind to his wife and they desperately wanted a child. I placed a hand over my belly.

“Things are progressing well,” I assured them. They believed me. After all, this was my fifth time doing this.

Molly Ingersall grasped my hand in both of hers, tears in her eyes. “Thank you.”

“You are most welcome.” I squeezed her hand in return.

“Molly, it’s time to go.” Richard rose and offered an arm to his wife.

We walked with them to the front door and said our good-byes. We’d do this again next month, if we didn’t add an additional dinner or outing later this month.

The front door shut and I retreated to the bathroom. Wilson followed me and rubbed my back until I was done puking the few remnants of breakfast I’d forced down.

“I’m getting Evan.” He paged the doctor. “This is the second time you’ve thrown up in the last hour.” Third. I didn’t say anything. If he hadn’t noticed, I wasn’t going to point it out.

Besides, Evan would only tell him the same thing as before, that there hadn’t been enough time between the last baby and this one. I needed time to recover. Five babies is hard on anyone’s body and I’d had them nearly back to back. I leaned against the cool marble wall. Wilson placed a wet cloth across the back of my neck. I took a deep breath as my stomach settled.

I must have dozed off because it seemed like only seconds had passed before Wilson was helping me into a wheelchair, Evan at the handles.

“Come on, Honey, let’s get you to bed.” Wilson said as he gently tucked a blanket around me. Evan pushed me through the double doors that opened onto the deck and down the ramp to the guest house.

It was our compromise—I participate in the family brunches in the main house and recover in the guest house where no offending aromas could send me back to the bathroom. I was asleep before I’d registered that I was in bed.

###

Evan clattered around my room, apologizing profusely, as if it were his fault I woke up. There was an IV in my arm, again. I hated that it was necessary to keep me functioning. Five pregnancies. Each progressively worse, but this baby took the cake, with fluids nearly every day since the test said positive.

“We need to talk medication again.” Evan said, but he wasn’t speaking to me. I had no say in whether I got medication or not.  

Wilson shifted in his chair by my bed. “No, it’s not an option. Fluids only.” He tapped his fingers against the wooden side table, ice clinking in the cup of water at his elbow. My stomach curled at the thought of drinking the water, or anything else. There was a tray ready for me. Evan whisked it away with a dark look toward my husband. Evan was one of the few people to get away with such behavior. There was no other doctor as qualified to care for me and the gifts I carried.

Bile rose with my ire. Gifts indeed.

“Leave it be.” I lightly touched Evan’s arm, calming my own irritation more than his. “It will get better, it always does.”

It was a lie and we all knew it, but the lie knit us together. There was too much risk for medication. “Alternative” type treatments, such as teas and massage, were allowed, within reason. Medication was an absolute no. I’d be put on a constant fluid drip before Wilson allowed any possible harm to the child.

“I’m sorry Love, but I’ve business to attend,” Wilson said before Evan could protest any further. Dr. Wilson S. Krathur left with the formal brevity we were accustomed to—work mode, he called it.

My husband wasn’t the sort of doctor who could give medical care. He was the type of doctor that had earned six degrees by the time he was thirty, a man who meddled in the personal affairs of every official in the city and beyond. No one knew the full extent of his subtle interference. Few knew that he interfered at all. His law firm was the pinnacle of discretion and care. Before he advanced to head of the company, he was the chief in-house psychologist. His acuity at reading people and solving challenges made him an obvious choice for leadership when Louis had passed.

Louis Montgomery had been a good man. I’d come to love him in the few years I’d known him. Wilson and Louis had been inseparable from the first time they’d met, long before Wilson and I had met. He was the best man at our wedding, and often whisked us from the house for wild adventures—weekends in Vegas, camping in the mountains, and barbecues in his backyard. Wilson had been so happy back then, lighter and less troubled. That had all changed when Louis died. I rubbed my belly. Perhaps the worry would dissipate as the pregnancy progressed. I hated that Wilson worried so deeply.

“Are you alright?” Evan’s soft question drew me from my memories.

“What?” Why would he ask me that? He touched his cheek. I shadowed the motion and drew away wet fingers. Briskly wiping away the tears, I settled deeper into the pillows as Evan put the lovely vibrating cuffs on my legs to keep the blood flowing properly.

“Shall I get you anything else?” He passed me the remote.

“No thank you.”

I clicked on the TV, browsing the numerous channels for something that wouldn’t make me cry. Pregnancy hormones made TV a dangerous pastime. I flicked past a puppy commercial that got me sobbing nearly every time I saw it. Just the brief glimpse had me repeating the rapid eye rubbing.

He checked his notes. “Hormone levels are good.”

I chuckled dryly. Yup. Good enough to make me cry during puppy commercials. He glanced up from his notes, clearly wondering why I was suddenly giggling.

“Your timing.” I said. He stifled a quick bark of laughter and returned to his notes.

“Your iron is a little low, but blood counts are good.”

I tuned him out. It wasn’t that I didn’t care if the child did well or not—out of self-preservation I cared immensely—but I wasn’t emotionally attached to the baby. He, or she, was not mine. I’m an incubator, a lavishly kept piece of flesh capable of keeping the baby alive until the day he or she could meet the world.

He checked my pulse and blood pressure. “I’m worried about you. You’ve lost five pounds already. Wilson says you threw up twice during breakfast and you haven’t kept anything down for a couple weeks now.”

I shrugged. We’d been through this before. There wasn’t anything to do beyond rest and constant watch. Barfing by myself during family brunches was the only alone time I was ever allotted, a ruse to keep the parents from knowing the extent of my morning-all-day-all-night-sickness. I watched Evan write his notes on the clipboard. It was more interesting than anything the TV had to offer.

“No medication.” I repeated. “It might hurt the baby.”

“I know.” Evan drew a small vial of blood from the IV, filled out a slip of paper, and wrapped it around the blood vial before sliding it into a pre-addressed box with an ice pack. “I’ll be right back.”

Enjoying my brief moment of solitude, I stared at the spot on the ceiling that looked as if a bear were taking off a kneeling man’s head. Today, the man had Wilson’s face. It was oddly satisfying. I laughed, a deep, cleansing sort of laugh. I loved my husband, at least most days, but today it was all I could do not to blame him for the puking misery that was my life. Perhaps if another surrogate could carry children to term for our families then I would get a rest, but that was not the case, so here I puked and slept at the mercy of my team of caregivers.

###

13 WEEKS 4 DAYS

In the vision, the child watches me with large golden eyes.

“I won’t come,” she tells me, and I know that I carry a girl.

“What do you mean you won’t come?”

The visions had never spoken directly with me, nor had they come before the second trimester. At most, the visions contained bits of memory, almost like a broken excerpt from an audiobook. Usually, there was nothing more than a momentary impression. This vision is different, so clear, so immersive.

“I won’t come,” says the child, following me with her large golden eyes. She doesn’t appear any older than eight. “They want me to come, but they aren’t right for me.”

She hands me a wilted golden flower, the same shade as her eyes. I sniff it and she laughs. Her giggle like heaven, her joy immense and addictive. I need to make her laugh again. I tuck the flower into my hair and spin a circle. The giggles grow and grow until she can’t even stand. I catch her hands to keep her from falling. The laughter slows as we both gasp for breath.

She kisses me on the cheek.

An electric burst of pleasure zips through me, and for the first time in my five pregnancies, I wish the child were my own and not meant for another.

“I must go now,” she tells me suddenly, and her body melts into cascade of mist.

I reach into the mist to catch her, the cool moisture leaving me slightly damp.

“You can’t go!” I call after her. “You can’t leave!”

I place a hand on my belly as the skin tenses and releases.

“No, you can’t do this!”

I desperately race after her, determined to reason with an eight year old. My belly tightens with a true contraction. Right, you can’t reason with a fetus, let alone the memory of an eight year old.

###

“Wake up. Caprice, wake up!” Wilson’s urgency drew me out of the dream.  

Please don’t do this. Tell me what it is you need. I poured all of my focus into my thoughts, hoping beyond all hope that they would reach the baby. Please, give me a little more time. I begged and pleaded as more pressure filled my body. Fire pressed against my eyes as I refused to cry. I won’t give up. I can’t give up. The contractions intensified for a breath then slowly backed off.

There was a collective sigh of relief before Evan turned to my husband and whispered, “I am putting her on bedrest.”

Wilson didn’t argue, but neither was he pleased. I cringed, thinking about how this would affect our plans. We couldn’t worry the baby’s parents.

“I’m sorry,” I whimpered.

“No, no, sweetie.” Wilson brushed my sweat-soaked bangs from my eyes. “It’s not your fault.”

Thank you.

I poured out my thoughts and worries, wondering if the child really heard my plea and had responded. A hint of gold caught my eye. The edge of a petal rested under the pillow. I picked up the wilted flower. The stem was bent as if it had been tucked behind my ear when Evan rolled me onto my side. I carefully wrapped my fingers around it, my mind lost in thoughts of the girl with magical laughter.

###

17 WEEKS 4 DAYS

“You really think they would be good parents for me?”

The eight year old appeared at the table across from me. Four weeks without any contractions or visions meant that I was able to join the family for brunch, in a wheelchair, of course.

I tried not to appear surprised. At least this vision was closer to the normal timeframe for crazy. She indicated Molly with a tilt of her head, golden eyes agleam.

“What’s her deal anyway? Is she positively nutso or is it just me?” the child asked. She turned her head the other direction and watched Richard for a moment. “He’s as stiff as a starched potato. How’d he end up with her anyhow?”

The child reached for her father’s plate and plucked a berry from the edge. A shadow of fruit rose with her hand, a little less colorful than the original. “Must have been sheer dumb luck.” She turned those brilliant golden eyes on me. “Have you had enough time yet?”

Fear struck me hard enough to send the bite I was pretending to eat flying. All eyes turned on me as the child laughed with pure magic.

“What’s wrong?” Wilson lay a hand across my back.

“Nothing.” I shook my head. “I thought I heard something, it startled me is all.”

The child’s eyes squinted in glee. “You are an excellent liar,” she assured me. “I would expect nothing else from someone capable of bearing and nurturing my human form.”

I started again, but didn’t show it this time.

“Much better,” she told me. “If we are to continue this relationship you’ll need to be better practiced at this.”

So, you’ll stay? I let the thought dangle.

“I’ll think about it.” She plucked another berry from her mother’s plate, leaving the pale version behind. “I might stick around just for these.” She waved her berry in the air. “They weren’t so easy to get the last time I was here.”

The last time you were here? But she was already gone with only a warning cramp to keep me in my wheelchair.

The rest of brunch was bland compared to the life that filled the child. I finished my pretense of eating and made it to the bathroom in time to throw up the two whole berries the child had eaten. How was that even possible?

I returned to the dining room where Molly hugged me, tears in her eyes. Richard shook everyone’s hands. I grimaced at the strength of his cologne, eager to rinse the scent of life off and crawl back into bed.

Wilson had other ideas.

“It’s such a lovely day. We should take a walk.”

He pushed my wheelchair to the back door. Warm sun soaked into my skin as he pushed me along the path that ran through the grounds. We bypassed a small pond and several cultivated garden spaces. He stopped by the little creek, the calming sound of moving water surrounding us.

“This pregnancy is harder than the last,” he said.

Yes, you obvious bull. I politely nodded.

A breeze carried childlike laughter past my ear. I tried not to grimace, but Wilson hadn’t noticed anything off.

“Do you still get the crazy pregnancy dreams that plagued you in the past?”

It was an innocent question, but my gut squirmed.

I shrugged. “Hormones tend to do that.” I didn’t speak of the visions. They seemed a dangerous thing to speak of.

He nodded. “Any fun ones to share?”

I had told him about strange pregnancy dreams in the past, but seeing as I was pregnant almost all of the last seven years, that or pumping milk for the babies, I had grown tired of sharing the weirdness of hormones. I wanted my body and imagination back as my own. Images of my mostly unused art studio filled me with longing.

“I gave birth to a bird the other day,” I lied. “A small yellow canary. It came out smooth and clean, and when it saw me, it bit me on the nose and flew away, for I was not its mamma.”

He laughed, as I knew he would. It was close enough to several of the dreams I’d had, but this pregnancy lent itself to a different type of dream that were mine alone to ponder.

The child dangled upside down from the sturdy branch of the oak tree nearest us. She asked with a quirk of her lips and mischief in her eyes, “Is he usually more pleasant or was he born without a bend to his back? How horrible for his mother to have to hold a board-stiff child all the time.”

It was all I could not to laugh as I thought back to our early days together when Wilson had been more fluid and energetic than anyone I knew. We’d play hooky to climb a mountain, stay out all night to watch the sunrise, and store snowballs in the freezer to bombard our friends in the middle of summer. I hadn’t married a board, but that had changed. Everything had changed when Louis died.

The girl twisted her body and flipped from the tree. I caught my breath. Wilson looked at me and placed a hand on my back.

“What’s wrong?”

I looked down, my hand splayed across my belly. The baby was wiggling furiously.

“The baby is moving,” I told him. I placed his hand where he could feel her kick. “A strong baby.”

The child laughed, placing her hand over my own.

“Strong, stubborn, willful, obstinate. You take your pick,” she said playfully, and her eyes gleamed as she caught my other hand. “The choice is yours, if I stay or if I go.” Foreboding rode her whisper. “But choose with care, for I won’t be raised by a board or a bore.”

I felt my belly tense. She disappeared.

“Time to get you back to bed.” Wilson took his hand from my belly and pushed me down the path toward the guest house.

I couldn’t agree more. A bath and bed were just what I needed to try and puzzle the meaning of the child’s words.

###

18 WEEKS 2 DAYS

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I stared at the IV line. Something tedious droned on the TV. Wilson graciously sat beside me, half focused on the show, half focused on me. He pretended this was interesting. So generous. I growled. I wanted to be up and moving. I wanted my body back. I wanted to paint and wade, knee deep, in clay.

“Do you need anything?” he asked.

Wilson’s voice grated on me. The deep tones that used to talk me into skinny dipping in the middle of winter now pecked at my final nerve.

“Out. I need out.” I might have snapped, but it had been long enough since the last time that I was due for a thorough snap. “I need out of the bed, and out of the house, and out of my friggin body.” I tried to push away from the bed, but the strength wasn’t there. I would need to increase my physical therapy sessions.

“You can’t do that.”

I know that. It would hurt the baby. Everything could hurt the baby. But she isn’t even my baby!

“Are you sure?” The child sat at the foot of the bed, golden eyes seeking deep into my own. The world tightened until all I could see was her.

“What do you want from me!?”

“He can hear you,” the child warned.

Why bother? You wanted to leave? You’ve threatened to more than once. You’ve bound me to this bed…

“Have I?”

She cut off my mental rant. The small girl crawled up the coverlet and a soft hand reached out to lightly brush my cheek. A shock of energy moved between us. I felt myself gasp, but I was no longer aware of the world around me. The child held all of my focus. The hand moved away from my skin to grab the IV line. “Are you sure?” She spoke into my ear as the line crimped closed. The constant drip of fluid slowed and stopped. I shivered.

I’ve been sicker than sick with this pregnancy.

“And you place that on me?” The child sounded sad.

I am carrying you.

“Which shouldn’t be possible.” The child mumbled as if I weren’t supposed to hear, but her words were as clear in my head as my own angry thoughts. “I suppose it is my doing that you are ill, but if you released all the blocks you’ve placed, it might go easier.”

Blocks?

“You should paint,” she told me.

I would love to. My heart cried with the thought of color and light.

The child grabbed my chin. “Do it. No matter how you feel. Paint.” She vanished as multiple pairs of hands filled the space that used to belong to golden eyes and ebony hair. I cried. I didn’t want her to leave.

“Caprice, can you speak?” Evan sounded worried. He repeated the question four more times.

“Yes,” I sputtered. “Please stop talking.” My head pounded a sorrowful tune to the beat of my heart.

Wilson leaned in close. “What did you see?” The words were clear and dark.

I jerked back. “What did you say?” I asked.

His eyes spoke of worry though his voice was as smooth as glass. “Nothing.”

I pulled the arm he was holding away from his grasp, the feeling of slime following his touch. What on earth? I love my husband.

Evan placed his own hands on my arm. “I need you to calm down.” His tone was serious. I didn’t flinch from his touch. “Tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know.” I could feel the child’s pleasure at my lie. That’s new. “I was watching TV with Wilson and now you are all here… What are you doing?” I noticed the number of hands keeping my body still upon the bed. The blankets were a tangled mess, the IV line bearing three true knots.

“Keeping you from injury.” Wilson said.

I grit my teeth together so that I wouldn’t hit Wilson… for his perfectly reasonable response to my question.

“I’m going to be sick,” I told them.

A tray was offered and then whisked away. I groaned and rested back into the pillows.

Once we were all certain I was done with whatever fit had come over me, Evan banished everyone from the room. He sat in Wilson’s chair. I had the sudden urge to light the thing on fire.

“What happened?” he asked me again.

I squinted at him. How was I supposed to answer? There was no way to explain dreams and visions of a golden-eyed child with laughter so marvelous that I would do anything to hear its sound again.

“I don’t know,” I honestly said.

“I don’t believe you.” Evan had been my doctor for a long time. He’d been with us since midway through the first pregnancy, when my original doctor didn’t agree with Wilson’s care plan. “You’ve spoken in confidence with me before. I offer the same opportunity now.”

He was the only one I had told about the visions. His were words of caution, and they kept me from speaking the same words to others, even Wilson.

I shook my head. I didn’t dare speak of the child I carried. Not a soul could know that I had met or spoken with her. Where had that knowledge come from? I looked around for the girl, but she was nowhere in sight. The baby in my belly was still.

“I see,” Evan responded.

What do you see? What do you know?

Wait. What does he know?

I watched my belly for any affirmation or sign. The thoughts in my mind were only partially my own.

He put a new drip into my IV. It offered him the chance to lean in close and whisper in my ear. “When the time is come, I’ll be ready.”

“For what?” I whispered back.

He watched me with eagle eyes. “You’ll know.” He patted my arm. “Get some rest. I’ll have the others leave you alone for a while. Is there anything I can get for you?”

Paint! The child’s thought rang about my mind.

“Paint,” I whispered, fearful that someone might scorn me for my desire. They all knew that even the smell of paint made me ill.

He nodded, a small smile gleaming in his eyes, his mouth studiously still. “I’ll be sure to provide what you need.”

###

18 WEEKS 3 DAYS

The colors flowed without conscious input. True to his word, Evan had brought a selection of paint, brushes, and a lap-sized canvas. I closed my eyes. There was no need for me to see as I painted, the images in my mind were strong enough to guide my hand by feel alone. Lost in the world of texture and sound, I was startled when a hand brushed across my shoulder.

“Please, put it away quick!” The voice was frantic.

I blinked away the vision before me and looked at the colorful canvas. It was the flower that the child had given me, light sprouting behind and before it in a slew of colors I hadn’t been given to paint with. I shook my head and the colors returned to the ones I had placed on the canvas. Evan was shoving brushes and bottles into an empty pillowcase. He tried to take the painting. I clutched it to my chest.

“Caprice, please.” His eyes pleaded with deeper desperation than his words. “He must not see this.” There was fear in his words.

I released my treasure.

He quickly helped me into a clean gown and added the paint covered gown and blankets to the pillowcase. He shoved them into the closet just before Wilson knocked and peeked his head into the room with a grin that promised an afternoon of fun.

“I have a surprise for you.” His gaze sparkled as it had when we were dating and life was nothing but wonder and magic.

“Okay.” I feigned excitement. He believed me.

“Can she be in her wheelchair for a spell?” he asked Evan. The doctor nodded. “You’ll come as well,” Wilson commanded. He leaned in to whisper his plans to the doctor before leaving.

Evan relaxed when Wilson had gone. “We have a little time to get ready. Come on, let’s put you in something other than a medical gown.”

I picked a sunny red dress, one of the colors woven through the background of my painting.

Bathed and ready to go, we waited for Wilson to come to the door. He arrived in a spiffy getup that included dress pants and my favorite of his shirts. I hadn’t been aware that he had stolen it back from me. I’d taken to keeping it in my bedside table for the times when I was missing him.

A mischievous grin tugged at his lips. “Come on.” He took charge of the wheelchair.

A limo was waiting in the curved driveway. He helped me into the backseat as the driver packed up the wheelchair. Evan slid into the back next to me. He checked my pulse before trading seats with Wilson.

“I’m fine,” I insisted, though nobody cared to listen.

We took the most scenic route from our hillside home into the city. I watched the water below the cliff with bated breath. It was always a fearful thing to drive along the sharp drop to certain doom.

The child appeared in the seat next to me. Her hand clutched my own with the strength of a vice.

“He’s showing you how good you have it. He’s afraid he’s losing you.” The child filled the still air with thoughts I certainly didn’t want expressed. Once the words were spoken, I could not deny their veracity.

How do you know this?

“He’s expected this since the first pregnancy, but I didn’t come then. Neither did I come for the second. He almost had me with the third, but didn’t do it right. The fourth… pffft. This time, he caught me.” Her words were forlorn and distant.

My vision blurred with the strength of her emotions. An overlay of a foreign land filled with rainbow trees and plants I could not name replaced reality. My heart longed for that land.

“You’ve changed,” she told me. “He’s noticed.”

My breath caught in my chest. Surely I wasn’t that different?

“I can still escape, you know. I can leave and go back.”

The words dangled, tempting me that I might stay in the comfort of my life, but it would mean losing her and never hearing her laughter again.

“I thought so.” She responded to the wave of emotions I hadn’t sorted through. “Things will move fast.” She tightened her grip on my hand. “Don’t be afraid.”

I blinked and she was gone. The baby rolled and moved within my belly as a practice contraction moved between us. I placed a hand over her, loving her.

The car pulled to a stop at my favorite museum. The chauffeur pulled out the wheelchair and opened the door. Evan and Wilson aided me into my seat. My husband certainly knew how to make me happy. We chatted of innocent things, art and artists of days past. There was a new exhibit from an up-and-coming artist who lived just down the hill from us. She had an interesting view of color and lines. Wilson wasn’t too thrilled, though Evan seemed intrigued by the works.

“Meh. I’ve seen better.” The child spoke as she leapt from the arm of my wheelchair to get a closer look at the monochromatic piece, her commentary for my ears alone. For a brief moment I felt as if the blue were suddenly clearer and fuller. When I blinked again the portrait seemed rather dull. She turned to watch Wilson as he moved us deeper into the museum. She spoke over his words. “Really, what do you see in him?”

I glared at her. She brushed off my offense.

“Must have been something grande, a facade worthy of an award to get you so deeply connected to him that you would put yourself through this more than once. Was it your idea or his?”

Both… no, his. I hadn’t wanted to be pregnant again. The first was enough, but the parents had wanted a sibling for their baby. I couldn’t say no, just like I couldn’t refuse to carry babies for the next three families…

“Do you still love him?” she asked.

Yes. Very much. The last part held more hesitation than I was comfortable with, but things had drastically changed from the wild passion that had drawn us together. He was still the beautiful and generous man I had fallen for as a younger student giving her first art show. I was still… well, I was hardly an artist anymore. Seven years of all-day-sickness or pumping milk would do that to a person. We no longer had the spunk and spontaneity we had enjoyed in our younger days together. But I still loved him. Wilson took my hand as we moved on to the next exhibit. He cared for me and loved me. My thoughts trailed as we entered the hall of statues, the baby kicking away. No. It wasn’t a facade that drew us together. It was love or lust or something equally addictive. We were good together.

“Just keep telling yourself that.” The child ran off before I could respond.

###

19 WEEKS 4 DAYS

Evan measured my growing belly. The child wiggled as he worked. He laughed.

“A lively little being,” he commented quietly. I nodded. She was the wiggliest of all the babies I had carried. He took my pulse through my failed attempts at creating the proper shade of blue. No matter how I tried, I could not capture the hue I had seen in the museum. The paintings of the child’s land were not right without that blue. Evan moved a blue-coated canvas off the bed and set it next to three others, each wrong in a way that made my stomach curl.  

“Blue period?” he teased.

I frowned. “Can you get me more paint?”

“You’ve used all the blue already?” He opened the closet and dug out two fresh tubes, one turqouise and the other Payne’s Grey. I’d already mixed those two as many ways as I could imagine. “It’s all that’s left,” he said, noticing my disappointment. Then, with an indication to the pile of mispainted forests, he asked, “May I take these?”

The question was nothing more than good manners. I couldn’t keep them here. I wasn’t sure why I believed this, but I did. I shrugged. Evan hurriedly added them to the basket of dirty laundry he was planning to take to the housekeeper. He left me alone with the blue failures.

“Evan’s waited for me longer than anyone else has.” The child picked up the nearest mistake. She squinted at it and for a breath it was the correct shade of blue.

“How’d you do that?” I reached for the painting as the doorknob turned.

“Hello, Caprice.” A nurse entered the room as the painting clattered to the ground outside of my reach. She bustled over and picked it up.

“Interesting work,” she said, arranging the paintings across the top of my desk. “I’m sure they’ll spruce up the room. Just need to get some nails and a hammer.” The walls were already covered by my failed attempts to get the correct shades of red, orange and gold.

“You are trying too hard,” the child told me, as my nurse started hanging the monochromatic canvases. “You have to relax and let it come to you.” The baby crimped the IV line and took my hands in her own. “Close your eyes and breathe with me.”

I obeyed.

“Now open your eyes.”

Her breath floated across my face. The first thing I saw were her golden eyes, liquid-rich with shades of amber and coal in their depths. A forest filled her vision. She backed away. The forest filled my room. Animal noises and fresh air washed over me. I took a step forward, fully embracing the vision she offered. My legs had the strength to function. Tears blurred my overwhelmed vision.

“Keep practicing.” She told me as the immersive vision disappeared.

My nurses worry broke through my wonder. “Are you uncomfortable? Is something wrong?” She was next to the bed, my hand clasped in both of hers. An alert light flashed in the corner of my vision. Evan would be there shortly. No doubt Wilson wouldn’t be far behind. He kept a close eye on the emergency call line.

“Did I black out?” I asked instead. It was a good excuse that I juiced for all its worth.  

She shook her head. “Not fully. You were just gone.” She brushed a hand across my forehead and checked my pulse and blood pressure. “That’s odd.” She examined the IV line. “It’s not working.” She removed the little plastic bit that kept it crimped. I grimaced as the cool liquid flowed into my body.

Evan blew into the room. For a moment it appeared as if he were wearing strange clothing reminiscent of ancient lore or even a few modern-day fairy tales. His strange clothing was gone as quickly as it had appeared, replaced once more by his usual button up shirt and black pants. His skin no longer carrying the slight green undertone it had borne a moment before. Weird. Must have been some leftover vision-voodoo.

“It’s time,” Evan whispered, just before Wilson joined us in the room, his work clothes rumpled from his quick jog over.

Time, for what?

“Your final decision,” the child explained. “Do I stay or do I go?”

I couldn’t let her go. Not now, not ever. The world needed the life and beauty that she carried. I needed her.

She laughed, and I melted. Wilson took my hand. I wrenched it from his grasp, the feeling of a thousand needles in his touch.

“Shhhh, it’s okay.” Evan pressed me back against the pillows though I couldn’t recall an attempt to get up.

Wilson watched with a mournful sigh. I relaxed my vision and my breathing evened out. For a moment, Wilson was no longer with us, rather a dark facsimile stood in his place. My mind added flames to the imagining and I hid my smile. Wilson, the one I had loved and married, took a step back.

“I just hurt,” I expressed with the deepest sorrow I could muster, offering my husband my hand. He took it with the light touch of a feather. There was no prick or burn. He looked at me with liquid love in his gaze and a soft smile on his face.

“Maybe we’ll take a break after this baby,” he suggested.

I nodded. That would be nice.

“About time,” Evan mumbled, as he readjusted my bedding.

Wilson bent to whisper to the nurse. She left and returned with a movie in her hands. It was the newest in the superhero series I had grown to love. The movie wasn’t even out of theaters yet.

“How did you get it?” I gasped in excitement.

“I pulled a few strings.” His grin grew to match my own. “I thought I’d play hooky on the rest of work today and we could watch Attack of the Mora Beast together.”

I nodded in genuine excitement.

See, he is the man I fell in love with. The child simply laughed at me. I ignored her and settled in to watch the movie that I had wanted to see since the first trailer came out.

###

19 WEEKS 5 DAYS

In the dream, I follow the child through the forest as she moves between the rainbow world that she knows and the dull green that is my reality.

My fingers itch to paint what I see or even attempt a sculpture of the marvelous flowers that scent the air with heady, earthy aromas that miraculously do not trigger my puking reflex.

“Not yet,” the child whispers. “We have a ways to go.”

She tugs at my arm. I follow her into a clearing. The colors of our two worlds mix until everything is muddy and swirled. I clutch my belly as I struggle not to puke. It is wrong. Everything about this place is wrong. I squeeze the child’s hand. She looks back at me as tears stream down her face.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” I ask, kneeling before her and brushing the tears away.

She shakes her head. “Not hurt in the way that you know pain.”

Her explanation makes no sense, the words too grown up for the eight year old frame I’ve grown accustomed to. I hug her, offering comfort and safety. She smells of the glorious flowers and rain, not the polluted rain of my reality, the fresh rain of a place that doesn’t know environmental devastation.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Why are you fighting me?”

My breath freezes in my lungs. “I’m not.” I hear the pretense of the words before they even leave my lips.

“I will miss you.”

She walks away.

“NO!” I place my hands on her shoulders, barely keeping pace with her.

“Then open your eyes!” she yells at me. “Open your eyes and quit shutting out the things that you wish were false. Or have you become so comfortable with your reality that you would know nothing else?”

The clearing transforms from the swirl of brown to the beauty of what had been there before travesty hit, deep red earth growing yellow, orange, and green trees with a sparkling purple river rippling green, gold, and turquoise as it bubbles through the fertile earth.

“I’ve shown you the truth, but you refuse to listen!”

The clearing dulls to mud and muck. The thick river struggles, gurgling against the sheen of oil that shimmers on its surface, a distorted beauty born of pollution instead of life.

“I’ve been listening,” I insist.

“You’ve made a valiant effort to listen, but you’ve been dulled for far too long.” She brushes at my tears this time.

Footsteps sound behind me. The unfamiliar image I had seen beneath Evan’s skin the day before stands behind me. He is taller than the Evan I know, younger and older, all at once. His skin ripples green, brown, gold and amber. His hair weaves about his head like the bark of a tree. However different he seems, I knew that it is Evan, the Evan I feel I should already know.

He speaks then, his voice sharp and clear. “Child, be patient with her. There are forces working on her that you have not touched in many generations. She has done better than any before her has done and lasted longer than any other.”

The child listens to his words with an intensity that sends my gut to quivering.

“She is the first to bear your form in how many years?” Evan asks the child.

I do not expect to hear an answer. My curiosity is stifled by a force beyond myself. Instead, I try to grasp the form Evan wears. It isn’t possible. It can’t be possible!

“She knows nothing of our world,” he explains to the child. “Surely you have gathered that much.”

The child shrugs. “I know much, but my interest lies in her getting away, escaping those that had trapped me within her.”

“Trapped you?” I sputter.

She nods. “How else was I to be caught if they didn’t work their vile magic and call to me? What do you think the others you bore are?” She glares at Evan, keeping him silent, though he obviously wants to speak. “There is no time to be careful or gentle. She must make her final decision instead of this waffling junk she keeps pulling. You do know how to make up your own mind, don’t you?” she asks me sharply.

I open my mouth to insist that I can, but in reality, it has been a long time since I’ve had to make any decision beyond what I might wear or watch on TV. Those are not the type of decisions she cares about.

“I thought as much,” the child groans “It would have been easier if I hadn’t been placed in someone so lulled into complacency.”

For a moment, she appears ageless and ancient, wisdom beyond human years in her eyes. Then she is eight again. It is too much. I flee the clearing. Two sets of footsteps keep pace with me. Evan catches me and waits until I’ve calmed before speaking.

“She is right.” He catches my wrist before I can hit him, my reaction startling me more than his speed.  

“I am not complacent.” I force my fears into the deepest reaches of my mind, for I can not admit what they might lead to.

“I wasn’t your idea.” The child arrives at a more reasonable pace. “Neither were the other four.” She waits for me to protest, and when I say nothing, continues, “You didn’t want to have the family dinners and chat about children you would never know. As the sickness grew worse, you wished for drugs and sleep… perhaps maybe death?”

I shake my head, but her words are true, and she knows it.

“What sort of veil did he place upon you for you to love him so?” she leers,  piercing straight into the heart of my fears. The image of my dear husband shatters until all I can see is the stranger of the day before, darkness clothed in flawless human flesh, searing, joyless eyes stare into my soul. My desire to light him on fire increases.

“I’m sorry,” the child whisperes softly, as Evan cradles me against his chest. The smell of freshly turned earth and sunlight suit him better than the chemical smell of soap and laundry detergent. “We’d hoped that you would come to the realization on your own and escape, but you are too close to the day where I must leave if you didn’t fully accept your role.”

“My role?” I hiccup between the words.

“As my mother.” The child beams. “Once I am viable we will no longer be able to speak as we do now. I’ve only three weeks to teach you what you need to know.”

I shake my head. “No, the visions last the entire pregnancy.”

The girl rolls her eyes in full childish obstinance. “I am not your normal pregnancy, remember?”

She pushes something hard and worn into the palm of my hand. I run my finger over the smooth surface of the stone as my heart flutters. It is the stone I’d carried with me all through my childhood, the only memory I have left of my mother. I fit my finger into the groove I’ve worn into it over the years. It had gotten lost not long after I’d met Wilson, but I hadn’t needed it so desperately with him by my side.

Memories wash over me. Colors and thoughts that had led me to pursue art at the university. My hands itch with the memory of forming clay flowers and fairy homes that come straight from the visions that the child grants me.

“What a grand facade, a wondrous tale, and a lovely life he created just for you.” The child’s words bite into me with a piercing truth.

“So, what will it be?” Evan asks.

I look between him and the child. “Who are you? Both of you.”

“I am your guardian,” Evan explains with a bow, “though there was little I could do until you discovered me for yourself.”

“No.” I clutch the stone to my chest. It can’t be realthis, them, my lost stone. The stone goes hot, then cold right as Evan speaks.

“Your abilities hide you so well that even my people had no way to find you until the first baby became viable.”  

“No!” I repeat. I don’t have abilities. Just stupid, crappy, bottom of the dung barrel morning sickness…

The child catches my hands and my attention. I sink into her golden gaze. “It’s all true,” she says, and her words mesmerize and promise adventure and life unlike anything I’ve ever known. Who are you? I think the words, but cannot speak them.  

The child grins. She carefully draws me back to the clearing, to the place where wrong and right are at such odds that the very earth can not determine which to obey. She releases my hand and walks away as my mind freezes in terror. I have to choose…

“Wait! Please don’t go!” I chase after her as the world tilts. She blows into my arms. Her magical laughter wraps us in a warm embrace.

“She’s your daughter,” Evan explains in her stead. The ground grows solid again, green, brown and fertile. I relax my vision, the overlay of color as glorious as before, though not nearly as overwhelming. The child, my child, does not change, her golden eyes and ebony hair blow on the same wind that carries me from my dream.

###

I sat up with a gasp. The smooth stone was tucked into my right hand. Fear drove me to get out and away while I could.

My night nurse was dozing in the chair near the bed. I carefully pulled back the covers and tugged at my IV. The thin tube came out with a pop of blood. Oops. I nabbed a nearby towel and held it against my arm.

My nurse grunted in her sleep. I barely breathed, waiting until she settled before I climbed out of bed. The floor was cold and my muscles watery, but I tiptoed to the front door of the guest house. The door was locked from the outside.

The child stood at my elbow, watching with interest. “You seem surprised,” she told me. She didn’t seem surprised to find the door locked from the outside.

“He’s afraid that he’s losing you.” She laughed, breaking through my fear with the joy she carried. “What do you think, can he win you back?” She tilted her head toward the main house where a shadow jogged our way.

Wilson unlocked the door and wrapped me in a hug. I didn’t push away, despite the icy chill of his touch. My mind dreamt up fire. I shoved the idea away.

“Caprice, what’s wrong?” He led me to the couch, urging me to sit while he pulled the cloth away from my arm, the laughter lines around his eyes furrowed with worry. There was only a little blood on the white fabric. It resembled a flower or a monster. I couldn’t decide.

“Why was the door locked?” I asked. I needed the truth from him, for once.

“I didn’t want anything to happen to you.” Wilson, always my protector, my knight in shining armor, only had the best in mind for me.

“No, that’s not it.” I said. As I spoke those words, not even a shadow of the image I had grown to love in the man before me remained. His dark eyes held none of the warmth and love that I knew. I relaxed my vision, perhaps it would work the other way around?

For a breath, I saw Wilson, my Wilson, with adoration in his warm brown eyes. Then it was gone and his dark eyes watched me in anger… and fear? I placed my hand on his cheek, the sensation beneath my fingers did not match the image my eyes knew. Wilson’s eyes widened briefly as the angles beneath my fingers shifted to match my sight. I pulled my hand away before I could give away my secret. Too late.

“Caprice.” I felt like a child in trouble when he spoke. There was no warmth, comfort, or familiarity in his words. “What aren’t you telling me?”

I hid my desire to flee. He softened.

“You are safe here, you know.”

I nodded. He placed his hands over the top of mine. I closed my eyes, a catch to my breathing that I was having trouble controlling.

“Where were you trying to go?”

“My studio,” I lied.

“It’s three in the morning.”

His concern was nothing but a lie. I squeezed my eyes closed as tears burned behind my eyelids. He tried to twine his fingers through mine, I ripped them away from him.

“Caprice, what is this?” He caught my wrist and forced my right hand open, the stone lying across my palm. There was no imagining the fear this time. “Where did you get that?!” He knew of the stone. My stone.

“You took it?” I accused, certain of his guilt. He didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. “It was the only thing I had from my mother!” I scrambled away from him with the stone clutched to my chest.

“Caprice.” My name stretched into two sorrowful syllables. “Please give me back the stone.”

“What does it matter to you?” I demanded.

Wilson stopped, my body already pressed against the floor length window furthest from the door. There was no emotion in the unfamiliar dark eyes.

“You weren’t trying to go to your studio.” He pulled a small silver device out of his pocket. Fear choked me. What was he doing? He stepped toward me. “I need the stone back.”

“You can’t have it.”

I tried to slide along the windows toward the door. Wilson gently grabbed my shoulders. I ducked and failed to escape his hold. Stupid constant pregnancies! My limbs were as weak as wet bath towels. I struggled uselessly as he took my hand in a tender lover’s grasp.

“Give me the rock, Caprice.” He said, a sharp edge to the words.

Why hadn’t he just taken it? He was obviously much stronger than me.

The door interrupted my refusal. Evan took in the scene without a lick of emotion on his face. I wrenched against Wilson’s grasp on my wrists. Evan shook his head with an almost imperceptible frown.

“Doctor, good timing. I could use your help. My wife is awfully distressed tonight, distraught, really. Perhaps there is something we can do to help ease her mind a touch?” I gulped.

Evan tucked his hand under my elbow. “Let me get Caprice settled and then we will discuss our options.”

I froze. I didn’t want to go back to bed. I didn’t want to be drugged into complacency. The stone grew warm against the palm of my hand. I feared that it would slip from my sweaty grip.

Wilson’s hold on me relaxed. Evan smiled encouragingly. I leaned against my doctor. Evan wouldn’t drug me into complacency.

The door clicked closed behind us, the lock catching with a thud that sank into my body and mind like ice.

I gasped as Evan shoved me behind himself and spun toward Wilson. A shield of light blocked the zip of power that roared out of Wilson’s silver device. Where had Evan gotten a shield?

“You can stop him,” Evan whispered to me as the shield wavered. Another wave of energy popped against the shield.

Wilson sank into his true form, his shadowed body hard and black eyes expressionless as he advanced with the oblong silver device held before him.

“Give me the stone!”

No matter how I screwed my eyes, there was no vestige of the man I knew left.

Evan was steady as he held the shield between us and Wilson. I sank to the floor with a shiver. This couldn’t be happening. I pinched myself and yelped, awake, alert, and wishing that it were only a nightmare.  

“Caprice, stay with me!” Evan commanded, as his form shifted into the woodman from the dream, complete with a glowing sword.

Wilson laughed. “You are the guard they snuck into my presence?”

He drew his own blade, light sucked into its depths as if it were made of the same darkness that shone from the holes where eyes normally resided.

Evan bowed with an added flourish of sword and shield. “And you never suspected me.”

Wilson swung his blade, betrayal in every line of his face. Evan parried. I covered my ears as my bones rang with the attack.

“Please, stop!” I cried out.

“You can stop this.” It was the child, kneeling by my elbow.

“No, I can’t even stand,” I told her, watching as the men fought.

“Evan can’t stop him.” she told me. “He isn’t powerful enough or he might have tried something before now. You are the only one here who can stop him.”

“I don’t know how,” I mumbled as Evan’s shield shattered. I covered my face as burning shards fell over me.

Evan glanced toward me in worry.

“No, don’t!” I screamed, but my warning was too late.

Wilson’s sword slashed down across Evan’s arm. Evan winced as blood dripped onto the white carpet and switched his blade to his other hand.

“Close your eyes,” the child instructed. I obeyed. There was no other option. “Deep breaths.” She covered my eyes with her hands. “Now, open them.”

I obeyed, seeing as if there were nothing over my eyes. Everything slowed. I could see the energy that each man gathered before they struck, the energy they poured into their shields, and the energy that Evan wasted in his attempt to protect me.

“The stone?” she prompted.

I lifted my hand. The rock glowed with the magnificent red I could never replicate. I held it in front of me as if it were a shield. It pulsed in the palm of my hand.

“Now,” the child whispered.

I released the heat in my palm, the red glow flowing over the room. Wilson faltered.

“Again,” the child urged.

I poured my focus into the stone, waiting for the red to be just right. I could feel it before I could see it. I held it a beat longer and released just as Wilson came at me, his focus on the stone in my hand. He stumbled at the release of power and Evan struck him from behind. Wilson fell in a puddle of rancid blood.

Evan scooped me from the ground as his sword disappeared to whatever realm he had pulled it from.

“We have to leave, now!” Evan ran from the guesthouse faster than any person I had ever seen. A car was waiting at the edge of the long driveway, an unfamiliar figure in the driver’s seat. Evan slid into the backseat without releasing me. “Go!”

The driver obeyed.

Evan carefully placed me beside him, procuring a bag just as my stomach released its contents. Fear and exhaustion battled with the crazy that my mind had no way to process. I shivered as cold washed over me. “Is he… dead?” I asked.

“Not dead, no.” Evan pulled blankets from a bag that was on the floor of the car. He stopped me from falling over and wrapped the fabric around me. “It would take more than that to kill a hem-netjer.”

“A hem-netjer?”

I could feel my awareness slipping. The air around me wavered between reality and the strange world that the child knew. I couldn’t make sense of either.

“A servant of the gods,” Evan said, as he mixed some sort of powder into a bottle of water. “Drink.” He held the bottle to my lips. I hesitantly sipped and found that my body could tolerate the mixture, at least for the moment. Warmth flowed through my limbs and into my mind. “Just a little more and then you can sleep.”

I didn’t want to sleep. The chill dissipated entirely. My mind broke free of the fear that had claimed it so strongly. I opened my mouth to demand answers. I could have sworn Evan just told me that my husband was a servant of the gods. My stomach heaved a warning.  

“All in good time,” the child assured me, and she curled up on the seat next to me, her head in my lap. “All in good time.”

I placed a hand over my belly in sudden fear. The baby kicked and I relaxed. She was fine. I tightened my hold on the smooth old stone and held the image of a shield in my mind as the car smoothly slid through traffic.

 

 

Relic Hunters, Ep1

Click HERE for a downloadable version

Seconds after backing out of my drive, the SCADA interface on my steering wheel display flickered with an incoming message. It said, “Lord of Kobol calls all who are faithful to restore balance to The ‘Verse.”

“For the love of…” I hadn’t even engaged the autonomic driving system on my company Prius, and Benji had already hacked the network with his daily effort to get me fired. No aspect of my life remained secure. Even sleep had run amuck with a series of bizarre dreams leaving me less and less comfortable in my own skin.

I never should have relented to Benji’s pressure. Returning to the online role playing game we built in college had advertised how intolerable my life had become. And Benji, alias Lord of Kobol, had always been the first to compound the tectonic forces already at work in the fissures of my life.

I rolled my eyes as a 3D stellar map of The ‘Verse filled the screen on my steering wheel. A red light blipped in the Blue Sun System. Exhaling deeply, I tapped the start button on the Prius, temporarily stalling the entire car and rebooting the system along with the battery-powered engine.

While waiting for the steering display to return to its start-up screen, I noticed the street lamps in my neighborhood were still on despite the sunny morning. I tried ignoring the oddity, but as a systems integrator, awareness of such mundane details proved an occupational hazard.

Even more disturbing, the lights shut off one by one as I drove beneath them. Lights had been flickering off and burning out around me at a suspicious rate. Combined with my reoccurring déjà vu and weird dreams, the phenomena took on sinister connotations. Spending more time talking to Benji certainly didn’t help.

By the time I reached the onramp for I-215, my tablet had accessed my office workstation and the Prius had given me the green light to go “hands off.” The SCADA interface once again filled the steering display. Without any solid reason to check in at the office, I decided to work from the field.

My company had recently launched an expansion of Google’s Autonomous Traffic System (ATS) to cover the entire northern foothills of Salt Lake City, including the Avenues and University of Utah campus. But the system was having trouble integrating the unregulated intersections and steep slopes.

I had proposed Salt Lake as a beta city for the project. After securing the contract, my boss put me in charge of the whole kit and caboodle. Lately, my job consisted of helping the smart system continue to grow smarter.

Only a few hundred autonomous vehicles had been licensed in Salt Lake so far. They were already overwhelming my team with raw trend logs on local driving behavior. From my traveling access point, I could monitor Google’s ATS and correct inefficiencies or risky behavior on the spot. The practice saved us days of crunching second-hand data.

After setting a course and itinerary for the next hour, the lure of distraction became too great. I activated the processor tape across the back of my hands—a cool mobile office gizmo capable of transforming my muscle movements into specific keystrokes—and used my fingers on the dash to launch The ‘Verse on split screen.

Beyond the gaming aspect, Benji and I used the construct to talk. Despite continuous efforts to change over the last fifteen years, vulnerability remained easier for me online. With the rest of my life on the verge of going super nova, I needed a safe place to talk. For that, Benji had always been there—even if he insisted on peppering every conversation with Chinese expletives.

I logged in as Captain Jim. Instantly, the coordinates from the Blue Sun System flashed across the top of the screen. I tapped them. My point of view on the stellar map magnified until all I could see was the beige surface of the southwestern hemisphere of Deadwood, a rocky planet orbiting the Blue Dragon.

The game glitched, and my point of view shifted from bird’s eye to first person. My character stood in the derelict bar Benji and I had created for private conversations. We had never finished coding much of the Blue Sun System. None of the other techno-geeks who had fumbled onto our underground construct over the years tended to hang out there. Besides, Benji fire-walled the bar with what I referred to as his code-red paranoia.

God himself couldn’t access the stuff we talked about in the bar. Which was fortunate, seeing how much of it would have gotten me kicked out of the church.

“Dude, when are you going to stop slaving to the man?” Benji already knew my response.

“As soon as you fleece him.” I subvocalized the words, allowing the processor tape across my throat to wirelessly relay the message. The delay between my speech and the words scrolling across the screen was negligible.

“About that…” a long pause indicated Benji was worried about sounding too crazy this early in the morning.

I sipped my red rooibos tea while waiting for him to decide the direction of our conversation.

“…promise me you’ll be careful out there.”

I frowned at the screen before subvocalizing, “What’s wrong?”

An immediate response scrolled across the steering display, “I’m worried about you, that’s all. I know it’s gotta be tough with Jo busting your balls.”

I leaned back in the driver’s seat and stared at the foothills as my car exited the interstate at the Parley’s Canyon interchange. I hesitated. My concerns were unfounded. What was said in the bar, stayed in the bar. “She’s threatening divorce if I don’t leave the church and pull up stakes.”

During the pause that followed, I checked the traffic report, finding no incidents within the scope of the ATS project area. As I scanned the report, I wondered if Jo had the right to leave me. My dream from the previous night leapt to mind.

It had been the most recent featuring the new best friend of our daughter, Cora. Her friend’s name was Evie, and I could swear she seemed familiar for a reason I couldn’t pin down. Last night she beckoned me to “look inside.” None of the dreams had been overtly sexual. Still, dreaming about teenage girls wasn’t going to help save my marriage.

Finally Benji’s words scrolled in response, “How come Jo won’t log on anymore?”

I smiled while subvocalizing, “She says you whine too much.”

Da xiang bao zha shi de la du zi,” he typed back, using pinyin to express his vulgar Chinese swearing.

“I asked her once, and she gave me some crap about trying to relive college.”

Benji responded, “Isn’t that what she wants?”

I stretched and put my hands behind my head. Benji had hit upon something I had recently asked myself. How could Jo and I go back to the days before our son’s death, before the fruitless decade of trying to have a second child just to watch him die in our hands. It was what both of us wanted. I subvocalized, “It’s what I want. But how?”

Gou huang tang. You guys gotta wake up and drink the coffee.”

“Funny.” I watched campus roll past on my right. “So you want me to leave the church too?”

“Hell, I’ve wanted that since we were eighteen. That’s not what I mean. You need to open your eyes to the zao gao going down in your neighborhood. If not for your sake, for Cora’s.”

I shook my head as my car stopped at a TRAX crossing. A few tram cars full of students passed in front of me. So far, the ATS had executed perfectly. “I’m touched by your concern for me and my daughter, but it’s for her sake I don’t want to—”

Benji cut me off, “Fei fei de pi yan, Jim. I know you think I’m crazy, but this niu shi is real. The industrial block southwest of downtown has gone nuts this morning. My spectrum analyzer picked up enough microwaves in the Sugarhouse district to keep Denny’s going for a week. The news is calling it a grease fire at some bar and grill. Two casualties.”

“Accidents happen.” Paying more attention to my SCADA readout than Benji’s rant, I switched on The ‘Verse’s vocalization so I could hear him rather than watch the screen.

“I don’t know what these people are up to, mind control or something…”

I tried to focus on my job. My Prius had reached its first major incline on Virginia Street. As the hybrid motor kicked over to combustion, the speed exceeded safety protocol. Using the touch screen I scrolled down the gas and recorded the correction.

“…I’m not always going to be here to bail you out.” Benji’s words jerked my attention away from work.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I subvocalized.

“The surveillance around my apartment building has increased.”

I relaxed. Benji had been yapping about being surveilled for months. “Benji—”

“You realize if anyone else called me that, I would have them on the FBI watch list in minutes, right?”

I chuckled, accidentally subvocalizing a line of gibberish.

Shen sheng de gao wan!” Benji types his response instantly. “Verily, verily I say unto you!” He mocked my religion, something he felt he had the right to do since it used to be his. “These guys are real and they aren’t government agents. They’re qing wa cao de liu mang missionaries!”

“You wouldn’t be the first to be staked out by missionaries. They’re probably working up the nerve to knock on your door.” My car blasted through an unprotected intersection, cutting off another motorist attempting to do the same. “Whoa.” I busied myself with the correction.

“I watched them via satellite after they left my place.”

“Watched them what? Head to the laundromat on their bikes?”

Zao gao, Jim. Focus.”

I was trying to focus on not creating an accident.

“These missionaries weren’t on bikes. They were thirty years old, and they drove straight to your house after leaving mine.”

“What?” I jerked upright in the driver’s seat. “Why would they do that?” Heading downhill on H Street, the Prius stopped at a four-way. As I waited for Benji’s response, my eyes wandered to the car stopped perpendicular to mine on 1st Ave.

A rather old missionary sat behind the wheel, his equally old companion in the passenger seat. Both of them were closer to age thirty than the standard eighteen. After a brief pause, they accelerated through the intersection in front of me. My Prius waited a second more before heading downhill toward the next major intersection at South Temple Blvd.

Finally Benji responded, “I don’t know, man. I don’t know if they found me through you, or the other way around. But it’s the same guys.”

“What same guys?” I checked the SCADA for the TRAX schedule, confirming the tram to be on time. The new section of track running east/west along South Temple integrated rock solid programmable logic controllers at every intersection. The entire TRAX system had been without mishap since their installation.

Coordination with emergency vehicles was now flawless, and use of the tram system had gone up threefold. Human operators still sat behind the tram controls but almost entirely for show.

“From the industrial district downtown,” Benji’s automated voice interrupted my concentration. “Don’t you get it? What kind of missionaries work out of a secret compound inside a cement factory?”

My Prius gained too much speed downhill toward the intersection. I dialed it back. “I always wondered why that place hadn’t been included in the gentrification of downtown.”

Shen sheng de gao wan, you’re not listening to me!”

I scanned the intersection through the windshield. The light was green. Instead of speeding up, my Prius stopped completely, acting as if the light was red. A horn blared from behind.

I checked the SCADA on my steering display. The GPS located me at the correct intersection, and the light was clearly red via the ATS. The Prius was obeying orders.

“These people are dangerous,” Benji continued.

“Hold on,” I barked out loud as cars pulled around me to accelerate through the intersection. “Wait,” a thought suddenly struck me. I glanced left. The tram was coming. I glanced right. The indicator for the tracks displayed a green vertical line. “Son of a—”


“What is it?”

I ignored Benji. Using both hands, I typed a flurry of overrides onto the dash. The train was coming fast, and only a few motorists had even noticed. Horns blared. Traffic backed up on the other side of the tracks, stranding multiple cars in harm’s way.

No time for protocol, I hacked the transit authority and searched an impossible list for the appropriate tram controls. “Dammit, where is it.”

“Jim? What the hell—”

“Not now.” My car jolted. I lost my place in the tram listings, as one of the cars stranded on the tracks reversed into me in an effort to get out of the tram’s way. “Hold on!” I yelled, despite the idiocy of the effort.

There wasn’t time. The train hadn’t slowed—the damn operator probably fast asleep. Jabbing at the steering display, I punched in my password and killed the entire quadrant. Two things happened simultaneously. The autonomous controls to my Prius shut down, and the tram brakes screeched against the steel rails.

Before the car stranded in front of me could ram me again, I shifted into reverse and jammed my foot on the pedal. Jerking the wheel, I shot sideways and bucked over the curb into a parking lot.

From only yards away, a thunderous collision shook me in my seat. I turned to see the lead tram car detach from the others and tumble over the top of an SUV. In a shower of sparks, the whole pile continued across the intersection. The tram finally stopped when it slammed into the vacated passenger platform.

“Jim! Where the hell are you? Did you see what I just saw?”

Benji’s automated voice shattered my state of shock. “Good God yes, I gotta go.” After fumbling with my seatbelt, I threw open the door and rushed toward the wreckage. The tram remained mostly intact. The SUV was a mess, along with whoever had been inside. For the level of visual chaos, the scene seemed oddly quiet, as if calamity were taking a deep breath.

Before I reached the SUV, tram passengers began exiting the upright cars. Their panicked voices filled the dead space. Someone barked orders for everybody to get clear. Despite the order, two men joined me as I knelt to peer inside the crumpled SUV.

I placed my hand on the hot asphalt next to a growing puddle of blood. The driver remained motionless. The passenger scratched at her seatbelt while mumbling about groceries. I tried to recall my decade-old CPR training. “Ma’am, can you hear me? You’ve been in an accident. Help is on the way.”

She blinked, her empty eyes staring past me. “I told him to get the right kind of milk, none of that whole crap.”

Screams intensified from the overturned tram car. The ATS was my responsibility. I had to help. I turned to the guys behind me, “Do you think you can wait—” I froze in mid-sentence as my daughter, Cora, stepped off an upright tram car. “I—”

“Buddy, are you alright?”

I shook myself out of it. “Yeah, fine.” Staring inside the wrecked SUV, I gripped the shoulders of the other two good Samaritans and lowered my voice to a whisper. “I think the driver’s gone. Can you guys wait here with the woman until the paramedics arrive?” They nodded, grim expressions on their faces.

Dismissing myself, I leapt the tracks and galloped toward the gathering crowd north of South Temple Blvd. “Cora!”

She turned at the sound of my voice. “Dad?”

“Cora, what on God’s green earth—”

We met at the curb, her standing on it and me in the street. I held her head to my chest and forgot what I was going to say.

“We were just, I was gonna—I don’t understand what happened,” she sobbed into my shirt.

“It’s alright, baby. Don’t worry about it.” I joined her on the sidewalk as a half dozen police cruisers arrived from different directions. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Cora brushed the hair from her face and wiped her eyes. “Wait, what about Evie?”

Mention of Cora’s best friend jolted me with temporary panic. I recovered as I noticed Evie standing quietly beside us. “Of course,” I narrowed my eyes, “you girls were heading downtown on official school business, right?”

Cora ignored the veiled accusation, instead tightening her grip around my waist. “Shouldn’t we wait here for questioning or something?”

I sighed. “I’ll be answering plenty of questions soon enough. First I’ll make sure you two get back to school.” I squeezed Cora. “Unless you’d rather go home.”

She shook her head. “And risk explaining this to mother?”

Through the growing crowd, I ushered the girls toward my car, the driver-side door wide open. We climbed in and closed the doors. I turned toward Cora. “I suppose we don’t have to tell your mother. I’d hate for her to worry after the fact. In return, I don’t wanna catch you skipping school again, got it?”

She chewed her lip and nodded.

I put my arm behind Cora’s headrest and turned to check on Evie. Her eyes were as red-rimmed as Cora’s. Both girls were frightened teenagers. It was unfair to ignore Evie simply because of my own insecurities. I smiled, feeling genuinely sympathetic. “You gonna be okay?”

She nodded. “Fine, Mr. Buckner. Just a little shaken up. I’m sorry we were skipping school.”

I breathed deeply and looked Cora in the eyes. “I’m not naive enough to believe it’s the first time. After all this, maybe it’ll be the last.”

Cora grimaced, shrugging her shoulders. “Good thing I’ve only got two years of high school left.”

I rolled my eyes. “You girls sit tight for two minutes. I’ve got a few things to unsnarl before we can get moving.” More like a few dozen things.

I closed my eyes and said a brief prayer for the driver of the SUV. If he was indeed dead, I might end up joining him by the time the investigation wrapped up. If I avoided criminal negligence charges, I’d probably lose my job at the very least. Maybe Jo would get her wish after all. Except, instead of simply leaving town, we might leave it on a rail.

When I opened my eyes, I noticed Benji’s final communication across the top of my steering display. Having long since logged off, his words remained. “Huge microwave burst. Not an accident!”


A few minutes later, I threaded out of the cordoned off area and charted a path toward Cora’s school. For the time being, I thought it best to leave the autonomic driving system off, along with the quadrant I had shut down. It would take my entire team the rest of the day to relaunch the system by the book. Even then, the police or the governor’s office might insist we hold off.

I tried not to think of the money the company would hemorrhage in the meantime. Human lives were certainly more important. At least one had already been lost, and that responsibility fell in part on me. If Cora had boarded the front car, she could’ve been trapped, or worse.

I placed a call through to my assistant, explaining my timeline. While the team was clearly freaking out, they seemed to understand my head was the one on the chopping block. I terminated the call and stared at the foothills as I manually steered the Prius past the university campus. I felt surprisingly calm, or perhaps resigned.

Over the last several weeks, I had been grasping at the familiar in effort to hold my world together. Yet, the tighter I clung to routine, the more I lost control. Maybe this was God’s way of getting through to me. Circumstances beyond my control had removed any question of holding on to the status quo, so I could finally let go. Maybe Jo was right, and we needed a new adventure.

On the other hand, maybe I was a religious nut having a nervous breakdown.

“Mr. Buckner?” Evie prodded gently from the backseat.

“Huh?” I rubbed my eyes. “What is it, honey?” I caught myself too late. “I mean, yes?”

Cora creased her forehead but held her tongue.

Evie continued, “I don’t mean to pry, but I noticed the message on your steering display when we got in the car—the one about the microwaves. I was just curious and all. If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Um, about that,” I breathed deeply. “Well, honestly you could end up having to testify in court. And the less you know is probably the better.”

“Dad,” Cora used the two syllable version of the word, spreading her teenage incredulity like butter on bread, “don’t be so melodramatic. It’s not like you were driving the train.”

I lowered my chin and raised my brows.

“Oh,” her shoulders sagged, “right.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “So you were controlling the train? I don’t understand—”

I put my hand on hers. “That’s for me to worry about, not you.” She started to open her mouth, unsatisfied with my dismissal. I cut her off. “It’s a complicated system. Something went wrong, and both signals showed green.”

“But you didn’t—”

“I’m in charge. The responsibility stops with me.”

“What are you saying?” Cora grilled me.

I gripped the wheel and stared ahead as we merged onto I-215 southbound. Mesmerized, I watched the gently curving asphalt rush beneath the tires. “Nothing. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot to straighten out.” I held up a hand to stop the argument. “Someone very well may have been killed this morning. I’m just glad the two of you are okay.”

Evie interjected from the backseat. “What if it wasn’t an accident?”

The intensity of her question surprised me. “It certainly didn’t happen on—”

“You don’t know that.” Evie responded abruptly, her voice taking on the same desperate tone from my dreams.

I sputtered, at a loss.

“What if someone disrupted the signal on purpose?”

Cora turned around in her seat. “You mean like a terrorist attack?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s stop right there.” I raised my voice. “Let’s not make this any worse than it is. The last thing the city needs is unfounded rumors about terrorist attacks.” I exited the interstate on 3900 South, the girls’ high school in sight. “The two of you are going to head back to class without saying a word about any of this, and I’m going straight to my office to sort it all out. Clear?”

“Yes, Mr. Buckner,” Evie responded.

Cora thudded her forehead against the window before mumbling, “you’re the boss.”

I sighed as I pulled into the school drive. “Good enough.”


I had been watching the girls enter the school building, when the next thing I knew I was being blasted by hot wind and sand. Blood pounded in my ears and swam in my eyes. The image of a ghastly, inhuman beast blurred past my vision, giving way to sudden pain.

I started at the sound of a car horn. As I yanked my head up, the sound stopped. Blinking through blurry eyes, I realized the horn had been my own.

“Sir? Are you alright?” A man wrapped on my window.

I rolled it down. I was still in the school parking lot. “Whew, sorry about that.” I forced a smile. “Just took my daughter to the doctor after working a nightshift.”

The man, probably a teacher, nodded.

“Good thing I don’t live too far.” I rolled the window up and the man backed away. As I exited the school parking lot, I concentrated on lowering my pulse and getting a grip.

The dreams were invading my waking life. Without having studied the matter in detail, the argument supporting nervous breakdown was gaining strength. Either that, or God indeed worked in mysterious ways.

More immediately, I needed to figure out everything I could about the accident before stepping into the office. Further lives could depend on it, and only ten minutes of commute stood between me and a flurry of questions I had no means of answering. Before hitting 1-215, I accessed the ATS and located the traffic light in question.

First, I had to determine if the error had come from outside, or whether it had stemmed from the programmable logic controller in that signal. While watching the road, I punched up a diagnostic on the PLC. It tested fully functional. So unless it had gone haywire and then self-corrected…I dismissed the thought.

Merging onto I-215, I remained in the slow lane and subvocalized a series of directions to my networked tablet computer. The only thing I could think of doing next was checking the real-time data feed to and from the PLC at the exact time of the malfunction.

I knew almost exactly what time it had happened based on the itinerary I had punched into the Prius earlier that morning. Additionally, the log had ceased recording at 8:16am. I scrolled through the data to 8:14am. Rumble strips under my right tires jerked my focus back to the interstate. I had nearly reached Parley’s Canyon—not a good spot to run off the road.

Man, what had I done before autonomic driving? I laughed at the thought. I’d only been driving a semi-autonomous vehicle for a year. In shorter glimpses, I checked the data log for anomalies.

“What the hell?” An error code flashed at the top of the screen, unable to execute my last voice command. “Ignore.” The error message disappeared. I double-checked the impossibility the data presented. What else could it mean? A complex packet of foreign coding had invaded the PLC at exactly fifteen seconds before 8:15 that morning. It had to be a virus. But why?

An unexpected blotch of color in my peripheral vision drew my attention to the road. Without time to grasp what I saw, I jammed on the brakes and jerked the wheel, sending the car instantly into a skid. Frame by frame, as the inevitable collision drew nearer, my eyes continued to transfer data to my brain.

I simply couldn’t process it.


Lost to the power of physics, I had no choice but to passively let the event unfold. Bug-eyed, I watched a teenage-boy, no older than Cora, fall from the sky and land on both feet in the middle of my lane. Without hesitation, he swept his hand in front of him.

As if caught in the motion of it, the Prius lifted from the road. During the tumbling roll, I kept my eyes on the windshield. Through it, I watched the boy pass beneath me—his feet planted on the road, his hand outstretched. A long, dark braid flailed in the windstorm surrounding him as he locked his eyes on mine. Blinking them shut, he finished the downward motion of his arm.

That was the last thing I saw clearly. The squeal of crumpling metal pressed in as the car struck the guardrail. Multiple airbags deployed. The windshield exploded in a deafening roar. Slapped with wind and glass and buffeted by airbags, I screamed through gritted teeth.

Yanked from one side to the other, my head collided with something hard before slamming forward into an airbag and then the roof of the cabin. The space surrounding me shrank with each impact until their was nothing except falling.

I knew instantly I had gone off the edge of the canyon. Nothing would stop me until I hit the bottom. One word lodged in my brain, “Why?”

Surprisingly, an answer echoed from an unknown corner of my mind—“The relic.” A burst of swirling blue-purple light engulfed me. Sounds disappeared. Even the depth and quality of silence seemed a forgotten memory. Touch vanished until something grabbed my hand. Or someone.

Blinking back the maelstrom of living color, I stared into the eyes of Evie. “Who are you?”

“More importantly,” she reached out and touched my heart with a finger, “who are you?” She grabbed my hand. “Look inside.” Digging her nails into my skin she screamed, “Now!”

I jerked taut as electricity flowed through me and exited my throat and fingers. I saw the ground approaching without opening my eyes. Somehow I saw everything through the crumpled shell of the Prius. Involuntarily, I did what I had been commanded. I opened the recesses of my mind and dared to look within.


“Jim? Gao yang zhong de gu yang. For the love of God, say something.”

At first I thought the voice emanated from inside my own skull. I latched onto the only word I remembered clearly, “God?” I couldn’t see anything through closed eyelids. Opening them seemed a Herculean feet.

“You old bastard.”

The voice vibrated inside my head but didn’t originate there.

“Please tell me it’s not as bad as it looks. Everything looks worse from satellite.”

“Benji?” It felt like I was upside down. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure why. “Where are you?”

“Who are you, the FEDs? More importantly, how are you?”

The question jolted my memory. Someone had recently asked me something similar, but not the same. Not how, but who. Seizing upon the linchpin of the experience, everything flooded back in. “I—I’ve been in an accident.” I jerked a hand up to my neck and felt for the processor tape behind my ear and across my throat. I had left the voice command on.

“Accident? Is that what you’re calling it? Ti wo de pi gu. I got no idea how you survived. From where I’m sitting it didn’t look like no damn accident.”

Slowly I ran my hands around my neck and shoulders. Blood rushed to my head. I was definitely upside down. Nothing seemed immobilized. “Wait, you watched it?”

“And I ain’t even gonna apologize. Somebody’s gotta keep an eye on your dumb disbelieving ass.”

“So you saw it?”

“I saw something.”

“What? What exactly did you see?” Slowly I reached for me seatbelt and jimmied it in an attempt to reestablish a proper orientation with gravity.

“I was hoping you could contribute to that.”

“You first.” I knew what I saw, but out of the blue it would sound crazy even to someone like Benji.

“You sure you’re okay? You’re not gonna die on me before we finish building The ‘Verse?”

“Finish The ‘Verse? You sure this isn’t God?”

“Okay, smart ass.” Benji paused. “I wasn’t really paying attention, but I noticed another huge spike in microwaves. The next thing I know, your car’s hurtling to the bottom of Parley’s Canyon.” He paused again. “Life Flight’s about fifteen seconds out by the way. I hope you don’t mind, I called them from your number.”

I heard the helicopter approaching. “That would have looked odd if I had turned out something less than alive.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t about to use any of my own. Not with all the niu shi going down lately.”

“Ah shucks, you really know how to make a guy feel special.”

“Say what you want, my friend. Someone just made two attempts on your life in a single morning.”

I Finally jerked my belt free and fell to the crumpled ceiling of the Prius with a thud. After doing so, I took my first real look at my lower body. Blood covered much of it. I bit my lip and closed my eyes, fighting the urge to pass out. I focused on the conversation. “That’s the craziest thing you’ve said all day.”

“How can you—”

“Relax,” I cut him off, “for the first time today, I think I believe you.”


I opened my eyes to the worried face of Joann, my wife. I closed them in an effort to orientate myself, or perhaps to call on reserves of emotional strength. Why was every moment with her a struggle? A cacophony of beeps and whirrs and humming indicated I was in the hospital.

I remembered everything before smashing through the railing. I remembered the conversation with Benji at the bottom of the canyon. I remembered clutching my tablet to my chest as the paramedics insisted I let go. I remembered one of them finally agreeing to take it for me. For a brief time I swung from the end of a cable. The rest blurred together.

A single overriding awareness continued through it all—not an accident. None of it had been an accident.

“Sweetie? James? Can you hear me?”

I opened my eyes and smiled. “Hey, baby.”

She started crying.

Despite the miles of tilled deadness inside me, the endless furrows of bitter seeds, I teared up. “Hey, don’t cry. I’m fine.” I took her hand in mine. “I’m as healthy as a targ.”

She smiled through her tears at the extreme geekiness of the reference. “That one gets an eight.” She wiped her eyes with her free hand.

“Only an eight?” It was a game we had played during the early years, competing to integrate the most obscure sci-fi references seamlessly into everyday life.

“While the usage was perfect, the obscurity was low.”

Squeezing her hand, I granted her the point. Every sci-fi simpleton knew about the wild boar-like creature from the Klingon home planet. For the first time in years, I felt relaxed in Jo’s presence. Her face blossomed with beauty and life.

“Dad?” Cora whisked into the room, and instantly a shadow fell over my wife. “Oh my God, Dad, what were you thinking?” She threw her head and shoulders on my chest.

After catching my breath, I put a hand on the back of her head. “I suppose I thought I’d give flying a try.”

“Not funny.” Cora withdrew.

I looked from my daughter to my wife. They both waited for me to say something more. “I must have gotten distracted with work.” I shrugged. “I shut down the autonomic system because of the TRAX accident. I guess I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the road.” I gave them my best smile.

Something flashed behind my wife’s eyes—like sorrow and guilt tinged with anger. She suspected I was lying, but she couldn’t have possibly known what really happened. Then it hit me. She thought I had done it on purpose. She thought at least some part of me had wanted to die.

I almost screamed. I wanted to strike her. I wanted to lash out. How could my own wife doubt my integrity like this? In sudden lucidity, I realized she was right. Not about attempting suicide, but about lying. I had been lying to her for years. The truth had become too painful after Joss’ death.

She had no means of knowing what kind of man I was inside. To be completely honest, I no longer knew myself. At some point along the way, even before Joss, I had lost my zeal and fallen asleep to the possibilities.

Jo squeezed my hand. A pained smile hid her despair. “I heard about the TRAX. I know you must feel responsible—”

I tugged her hand onto my chest and held it there while shaking my head. “Jo, baby, I’ll tell you the same thing I told Cora. That’s not for you to worry about. It’s work. It’s just a job—my job. And I’ll take care of it.”

“But I, I don’t want you to—”

I clenched my teeth and squeezed my eyes tight. “There’s a good chance I’ll get fired over this.”

“Dad,” Cora tried per her usual to defuse the drama.

I continued. “Hey, my fault or not, I’m just being honest so you’ll believe what I’m about to say next.”

Cora held her tongue. Jo stared at her own hand resting on my medical gown. Behind them, a nurse slipped into the room and glanced at the clock.

I focused on my fragmenting family. “I’m not worried about my job. It’s not nearly as important to me as my family. I love you both.” I waited for Jo’s timid eyes to meet mine. They did for a split second.

The nurse cleared her throat. “Sorry, folks. Mr. Buckner needs to get some rest.” She focused on me. “You’ve been through a traumatic event. The doctor says you’re lucky to be alive.”

“I feel fine, a little cut and bruised.”

She was all bubbles and unicorns. “Wonderful. We’ve got a few more test results to get back before we can dismiss you.”

I squeezed Jo’s hand a final time. “I’ll get out of here soon, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

Cora exited the room.

As Jo reached the door, I blurted out a final comment. “God works all things for the—”

She turned an icy glare toward me.

It melted instantly. Not before I regretted my words.

“Get some rest, sweetie. I’ve got a lecture this afternoon, but I’ll see you for dinner.”

I nodded. “Maybe smuggle me some Chick-fil-A from the Union?”

She feigned a smile, “Sure thing,” and she was gone.


The nurse straightened a few things and checked a readout before stopping on the way out. “The doctor will be in shortly to perform a psychological evaluation.”

“But I don’t need—”

“Standard procedure after trauma like yours, Mr. Buckner. Nothing to worry about.” She wagged her finger and scowled as if I were a naughty toddler. “Do try to get some rest.”

Whisking out the door, she left me alone with my thoughts. In a single sweep I took in the contents of my private room. It seemed odd I wasn’t in the emergency room or somewhere near it. They must have moved me after realizing I hadn’t sustained major injury. By the looks of the fancy accommodations, they had moved me to the new expansion.

At a loss for further distraction, I accepted the fact I had a lot of weird to work out and might as well get to it. Of everything that had been said, what stuck in my mind most were the nurse’s bubbly words from earlier, “You’re lucky to be alive.”

It didn’t feel like luck. If the accident hadn’t been an accident, then surviving it couldn’t have been good fortune. I stared at the blank flatscreen on the wall while checking the functionality of my fingers and toes.

Even more puzzling, if someone had tried to kill me twice, why wasn’t I worried about them trying again? I was pretty sure I didn’t have a death wish. As a programmer and systems integrator, people didn’t often try to kill me.

I should have been soiling my armor. Then I recalled the last thing the nurse had said, about the standard psychological evaluation. It always came back to that. I had to admit, it really was the cleanest solution. A psychotic break would explain everything so neatly. And who could blame me? After all the grief from Jo, Cora’s degenerating behavior, and increasing pressure from work?

Even my wife thought I had tried to kill myself. Finally I put two and two together: the forced smiles, the overly accommodating responses from my family, the nurse’s condescending treatment, the private room. A good chunk of the hospital expansion had been set aside to house the new psych ward. Awesome.

So on the one hand, I could be going crazy. On the other hand…well considering the second option seemed to confirm the first. I focused on what I could remember after smashing into the guardrail. I shut my eyes in effort to recreate the disorientation.

Instantly the blue-purple light burst to life beneath my closed lids. It swam outward, invading the private hospital room. Through closed eyes I could see every machine, the potted plant, the flatscreen, the horrible art hanging on the wall. Was I remembering them? Or—

“Mr. Buckner?”

I jolted in bed and shot open my eyes. Somehow I’d seen Evie enter the room before I physically saw her.

She shut the door.

“Um, skipping school twice in one day?”

She smirked as she walked past the bed and closed the blinds. “Sorry about the timing of this. Circumstances have forced the matter, and I’m afraid we may not have the luxury of doing this properly.” She stopped a few feet from my bedside.

“You’re not a military brat from Texas are you?” I asked.

She closed her eyes and stood motionless. Her lips never moved, and yet I heard a response. “I think you know the answer to that.”

I jerked my head around the room, searching for the source of the voice. It hadn’t come from any single direction. I checked the back of my ear. The processor tape had been removed. “How did you do that? What’s happening to me?”

“I’m sorry, I haven’t time to explain.”

“But what—”

“Do you believe your life to be in jeopardy?” Evie interrupted.

Slowly, I nodded.

“Do you believe my intention is to help you?”

I thought back to the moment after smashing through the guardrail. This strange teenage girl had been there in my mind. If I was going crazy, probably none of this was real. But within the context of the madness, I somehow knew she was the reason the plummet hadn’t killed me. “I don’t—”

She raised a brow.

I sighed. “Yes, but—”

Suddenly she snatched a vase of flowers from an end table and hurled them at my head.

I hadn’t even time to raise a hand in defense. Clenching my eyes shut, the room burst to life with blue-purple light. In a spasm of panic, a tangible wave of liquid air pulsed outward from my thoughts and collided with the vase.

The ceramic shattered into sand. The water vaporized while the flowers exploded into organic mist. The damp and dust buffeted my face. “What the hell was that?” I blinked open my eyes.

“One more thing.” Evie had drawn within arm’s reach. “Do you believe that I love you?” Tears formed in the corners of her eyes.

I shoved myself further up in bed, stupidly trying to distance myself from my daughter’s best friend and her unrelenting eyes. “I, you’re just—”

“We’re out of time. They’re coming.”


“Who’s coming?” I asked.

“The green ones.”

“The which ones?”

“The ones who are trying to kill you.” The lights flickered. Evie glanced toward the door. “They’re looking for you.” She turned toward me, panic etched in her face. “I can’t fight them. You have to open your mind to the truth.”

“What truth?” Hysteria closed around me, pressing on my chest. “What are you talking about?”

Evie rushed to my side and grabbed my hand. “The traffic light, your car leaving the road, the vase. You know how they happened.”

I stammered and pulled away from her intensity. “It’s, it’s too crazy! If there’s someone coming, let’s just go. We can leave.”

I tried to get out of bed. With surprising strength, Evie held me in place. “It’s no good. You have to tell me why your car left the road. You have to say it!”

I shuddered as I pictured the dark-skinned boy and his black braid whipping about his head. “You won’t believe me!”

“Why do you think I’m here?”

Both of us verged on madness. I struggled to work my mouth. “But you’re talking about telekin—”

The door burst open, revealing an empty hall.

“I’m sorry.” Evie thrust a cold, hard object into my hand.

The hospital room disappeared, replaced by a whirlwind of liquid light. In the midst of the crackling rush, gravity yielded. Light pulsed outward infinitely, before shrinking to fit inside my clenched palm.

Gripped by darkness, I sat up. A solid surface lay beneath me—not my hospital bed. I sniffed. The air was dank and musty. I stared into nothingness until finally my eyes adjusted. Dimly lit monitors and LED’s suggested I might still be in a hospital, but not any part of the University of Utah Hospital I’d ever seen.

Beyond the whirring of machinery, the room was completely quiet—no outside noise, no outside light. During my effort to stand, I remembered the object Evie had placed in my hand. I clutched it so tightly the muscles seized.

Finding my legs reasonably steady and my footing secure, I turned my attention to the object. Prying open my fingers, I found what looked like a crystal, except without angular facets. It’s glowing insides ebbed as if it were alive. I stared, unable to look away. Gradually, I became aware of another source of light.

I dislodged my attention from the object in my hand and focused on a green glow across the room. Cautiously, I stepped toward a horizontal display surrounded by darkness. From several feet away, I recognized the dark outlines of a large, cigar-shaped object. The green screen was embedded at the far end.

I ran a hand over its smooth surface and realized, along with a creeping sense of unease, it must be a container. At least six feet long, it was the perfect size for—I arrested the thought. I stared directly into the glowing screen but couldn’t make out any legible display. Its surface remained blank, and yet not exactly empty.

All at once, I realized I wasn’t looking at a screen, but through a window. The swirling mist inside the container parted long enough for me to stare into strangely familiar human eyes. My own eyes. Stumbling backwards and gasping, I released my grip on the object in my hand. Reality fell away with it.

The crackling storm of liquid light returned. It flooded my ears, then the rest of my body and then the rest of the universe. The storm stretched impossibly thin until it disappeared into nothing.

In a blink, my senses returned. Unfortunately, the information they relayed seemed less reliable than ever.


My eyes focused first on the floor, despite the fact I remained in bed. The floor quickly spun out of sight, replaced by an advancing entourage of teenagers, all with braids snaked around their necks.

My arms lifted from my sides, and I realized my body, along the entire hospital bed, was on a collision course with the wall. Evie screamed. An attacker thrust an arm in her direction. My view shifted to the ceiling and then the window.

With bone jarring force, the bed collided against the wall. My body’s momentum continued unchecked. I gripped the sheets, and yanked them in front of my face the moment I struck the window. Through shattered glass and torn blinds, I exploded from an upper story of the hospital.

Tumbling into the blue in a tattered hospital gown, I clung to the sheets as they snagged and yanked taut. I closed my eyes and focused on not letting go. When the moment came, the cotton fabric yanked cleanly through my hands, leaving me completely unfettered.

I clenched my jaw and nearly severed the tip of my tongue. The quickening pain unleashed a fury of blue-purple light. In the torrent came a voice. Swelling within the luminescent tide, it burst into my mind with a single explosive word, “Now!”

Battered by its force, I shot out a foot and blindly trusted I’d find traction. Like a climber on a muddy slope, solid ground slid away beneath me. Without opening my eyes, I thrust down my second foot and stopped the descent completely.

As if sprouting from a 3D drafting table, the side of the hospital sprang to life in front of me. Eyes squeezed shut, I studied the shimmering light that flowed from my hands. Above me, the torn sheet and broken blinds fluttered from the window. Beneath my feet, thirty yards remained to the top of the parking garage.

“Save Evie!” A voice echoed inside my brain. I felt the immediacy of the words despite not owning them. I pushed against solid nothingness and sprang upward toward the flailing sheets.

A sturdy teenage boy appeared in the yawning chasm of the window the moment I reached it. Shock spread across his face as I shoved my forearm into his throat. Lifting him from the ground, I tossed him backward and landed inside the room.

Visible on a second plane of reality, dazzling displays of light flared toward me from the remaining teens. I spun out of reach of the first and slammed my palm into the second. Its force reversed my progress, rattling my teeth and burning hot against my hand.

I dropped flat to the floor as a blinding blue assault whiffed through my hair. I slapped my palms flat on the vinyl tile. A green ripple burst outward in every direction.

“Daddy!” The voice was Evie’s, not Cora’s, but it activated the same protective instinct within me. Without understanding my movements, I spun upward off of all fours. Shooting toward a motionless Evie pinned in the far corner of the ceiling, I eclipsed the shockwave I’d just created.

The sounds and sights of the hospital room distorted. The air thinned. I moved through it untouched and slammed into the corner on hands and knees. I buried Evie in my embrace until the buffeting wave washed past. In the closeness of the moment, something gnawed at the cord stretched tight between my heart and mind.

Somehow I knew this girl. I remembered her awkward question from earlier, and yes, I knew she loved me. While cradling her in my arms, I dropped to the floor to assess the situation. There were four of them—whatever Evie had called them—green ones. All of them alive, but unconscious.

Alarms blared throughout the hospital. Fists pounded on the other side of the closed door, temporarily barricaded with debris and teenage bodies. I blinked and the vision of the strange overlay disappeared.

None of the recent events convinced me of my sanity. Sane or not, I believed when reality repeatedly tried to kill you, the only reasonable response was to kick it in the face.

With Evie in my arms, I turned and leapt out the window.


After an initial panic, I landed softly in the middle of North Medical Drive and sprinted toward the parking garage of the cancer institute. Convinced no one had seen us, I knelt in a concealed corner near the staff entrance. I propped Evie against the wall and collapsed next to her.

She breathed steadily, but remained unconscious.

“Evie.” I shook her. “Time to wake up. For the love of God, wake up.”

She stirred, her eyes roving beneath closed lids.

I squeezed her hand and rested my head against the cement wall. “You gotta tell me what the hell’s going on. I feel like I’m going crazy.” I stared at the side of a white, Ford van. “You’ve gotta help me.”

I had awoken that morning as a glorified programmer in a dying marriage. I had my share of problems, but they had all made sense. Not anymore. Now kids with telekinetic abilities wanted to kill me. And how had I become one of them? A number of questions rattled inside my head like a multi-sided dice. One kept coming up the most. “What’s happening to me?”

“You’re waking up.” Evie spoke with her eyes closed.

I flinched. “You okay? Anything broken?”

She blinked open her eyes and focused on me. “I’m fine, thanks to you.”

I flushed with heat, uncomfortable with her gaze from this close. “I didn’t, I don’t—” I shook my head. “None of this makes any sense. It’s a science fiction movie, and not even a believable one.”

“Sometimes science fiction is simply science we don’t yet understand.”

I squeezed my head between my palms. “I flew for cripe’s sake.”

Evie smiled. “Thank goodness you did, or our mission would have ended before it began.”

“Mission?”

“This was supposed to be the easiest one, the perfect place to start.” She breathed deeply. Tires squealed elsewhere in the garage and her breath caught in her throat. “We don’t have much time to chat.”

“Wait, you said I was waking up, but I feel like I’m still dreaming. Why are a bunch of strange teenagers trying to kill me?”

Evie glared at me. “You’ve been having dreams? What about?”

I crossed my arms. “I’m not comfortable going into that.”

She smirked. “It makes sense. I’m your only connection to both realities.”

I sputtered in an attempt to address this latest fantastical statement but failed completely.

She continued. “I’m sorry, Dad—” she caught herself too late.

An overwhelming sense of déjà vu punched the back of my brain, blurring my vision with its immediacy.

“Mr. Buckner, there really isn’t time. If the green ones know of our presence, it’s likely the guardians do as well.”

I cut her off. “Green ones? Guardians? I don’t even know who you are. I’ve gathered you’re a bit more than my daughter’s best—” a sudden thought struck me. “My wife and daughter,” I sat up as a nearby car door slammed, “are they in any danger?”

Evie tried to rise. “No, they should be fine.”

I steadied her, and we both stood. “How do you know?”

“The green ones want you dead, and they believe they have the ability to do it.” She tested her balance. “They’ll keep coming at you directly.”

“Jo and Cora are going to freak out when the hospital tells them I’ve gone missing. I have to at least let them know I’m okay.” Tires squealed again, this time near by. The sound wasn’t out of place in a parking garage, but the simple reminder we weren’t alone rattled my fraying nerves.

Evie leaned against the van and peeked through the passenger side window. “First priority is your safety.” She glanced at me. “That and getting you some clothes.”

I looked down. I had forgotten about the hospital gown. “I’m all for minimizing public indecency, but—”

“Get back.” Evie tugged me against the side of the van. Less than twenty yards away a gold, late-model sedan squealed as it turned sharply to head up to the next level. “Recognize them?”

I caught a glimpse of the driver before the car rose out of view. “The missionaries?”

“Yep, except they’re not missionaries. They’re guardians.”

“This isn’t going to get any better, is it?”

“Nothing I can say will clarify any of this. I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to make the connections yourself. The best I can do is speed up the process.” Evie stepped timidly into the open. “Come on, we’ve gotta get out of here before they turn around.”

“Where did you park?”

She rolled her eyes and doubled back toward the stairs. “I’m fifteen. With the TRAX offline, I had to ride the bus.”

“Right. My car’s out of the question, so where are we going, and how do we get there?”

“Away from here anyway we can.” She headed for the stairs. “When dealing with the green ones, I find down better than up.”

“I’ll call my wife. She’s probably taking Cora home.” With the mention of calling Jo, I realized I didn’t have either my processor tape or my tablet. I swore.

“What is it?” Evie asked without looking back.

I stopped. “My tablet must have been fried in the hospital room.”

Evie continued down half a flight before looking up. “Your tablet wasn’t in the room.” She watched me eye the exit. “Underground is safer.” She pointed at something I couldn’t see. “We can take the tunnel between the hospitals.”

“How do you know my tablet wasn’t—”

“I saw the nurse hand it to your wife. She said something about it being a distraction to your recovery.” Evie continued down a few more steps. “Please, it isn’t safe.”

I refused to budge. “You’ve gotta have a phone of some kind. It won’t work down there. I’ll give Jo a call and tell her to pick us up at Primary Children’s. Then we’ll go underground.”

Evie rubbed her eyes. “You’re not thinking. Directly involving your wife only puts her in—”

A sudden tire squeal jerked my attention from Evie to the interior of the garage. The missionaries accelerated in my direction. Jumping down several steps in a single bound, I rushed past Evie on my way toward the bottom level.


“Did they see you?” She huffed.

“I don’t know. Probably. I’m sorry, it’s just—”

“You don’t know who to trust.”

As I reached the bottom of the parking structure, the sound of squealing tires intensified. Bolting toward the hospital entrance, I became acutely aware of the awkwardness of running in nothing except a gown. “I’m not used to people trying to kill me.” The glass doors opened automatically.

“It’ll come back to you,” Evie said.

I turned right down an underground hall connecting the Huntsman Cancer Institute to the University Hospital and then eventually Primary Children’s. The passage was completely empty. “What, like riding a bike?”

“More like climbing a rock face.”

Midway along the football-field-length hall, my vision flickered with the 3D overlay. I stumbled amidst the confusing signals.

Evie caught me. “You okay?”

“But I’ve never been rock climbing.” Regaining my orientation, I resumed running as fast as I could safely manage.

“Even the nose route at Yosemite?”

A déjà vu so strong it felt like recent memory reared within my mind. I focused on the end of the hall while thoughts of climbing El Capitan clamored for my attention. “How?” I stopped shy of the double doors, gasping for breath. “I can see the first pitch—every handhold. I don’t even, I’ve never even been there. How are you doing this? Who are you?”

“It’s not me. It’s you, sorta.” Evie laced her fingers behind her head and gulped down air. “How’s your vision?”

I held open the door leading into the next facility. “Why?” We entered the hospital two stories above ground due to the steep hillside the medical campus had been built into. I led the way across the building until we reached the correct set of elevators. Medical staff streamed past more harried than normal, possibly due to recent theatrics in a certain private room in the new extension.

While waiting for the lift among a small clump of medical personnel, Evie continued. “You seemed a little disoriented back there.”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“No shifting perception? No unexplained planes of reality?” Evie jabbed me with an elbow.

A young woman in a lab coat eyed the two of us dubiously. She must have been waiting to go up, because when our lift arrived she and the others ignored it. After the doors shut I started to bark at Evie, but she was already laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“You are.” She struggled to contain herself. “I’m sorry, you’re just so damned serious. It’s hard for me to adjust.”

“Adjust to what? What are you adjusting from?”

The elevator slowed. The indicator for the bottom level of the parking garage lit up. It was also the level for the tunnel to the children’s hospital.

“Never mind, it’s not important yet. Maybe after we put a couple of miles between us and—”

The doors slid open. Instead of opening on an empty lobby, they opened on two middle-aged men in cheap suits—both of them with a hand inside their jacket.

The 3D overlay sprang outward at the front edge of a blinding pulse of light that emanated involuntarily from my own hand. Omnidirectional and uncontrolled, the pulse exploded between the four of us, tossing us backward.

I stretched out a protective arm to buffer Evie’s impact. The lights overhead shattered as the two of us lodged into the faux wood and stainless steel of the lift. A sharp pain emanated from my pinned arm, and my eyes swam.

The creaking of the damaged elevator gave way to an orchestra of car alarms from both levels of the garage. I realized the force of the explosion had been all light and heat, no sound. “Evie?”

She moaned.

“Stay with me.” Panic thickened in my chest. I tugged my shoulder free, ripping my medical gown in the process. At this rate, I’d soon be in the buff. After dislodging the rest of me, I caught Evie under both arms and dragged her into the lobby. The bodies of the two men had spidered the glass partition between the elevators and the parking garage. They weren’t moving.

As I laid Evie down, I noticed something wrong with my left arm. I could see a bone where I hadn’t remembered seeing one earlier. On second thought, I decided seeing any bone without skin covering it couldn’t be good.

My breathing accelerated. The 3D overlay blinked in and out, confusing the situation further.

The second elevator dinged, indicating its doors were about to open. I tried to jerk my head toward the sound, but suddenly felt burdened by a thickening of time and space, as if trying to run at the bottom of a pool. The same voice from outside the hospital window resonated inside my brain. “Slow down. See what’s happening before it happens.”

A vibration crept outward from the surface of the closed elevator doors. I unfurled my fingers and matched the radiating energy with identical force. The elevator doors stuck tight. The voice spoke the same words as earlier. “Save Evie.”

This time I felt I owned the words. Perhaps I had said them, I couldn’t be sure. Swallowing my own pain, I ignored the bone jutting from my fractured arm and checked on Evie. She was breathing, but barely conscious. Protecting me seemed to be bad for people’s health.

“Evie? Can you hear me? It’s Mr. Buckner.” The formal title felt odd. “I need you to open your eyes.” As I searched for injury, I saw something odd protruding from her thigh. “Ah crap.” With a gentle tug I removed a dart, complete with vial and internal plunger.

Fear surged inside me. Using my good arm and both knees, I scurried toward the suits. Now that I knew what to look for, they were obvious. Each had been carrying a small weapon—smaller than a Saturday night special. I clutched the nearest one. There was no way to tell whether the darts were intended to kill or immobilize.

I scurried back to Evie. Completely motionless, she was still breathing. Surely a lethal dart would have killed her already, and why not just use a gun? Okay, so she’d been tranquilized. That still left one insurmountable question—what now?

END Episode 1

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