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Phish and Sparks, Ep1

Episode 1: Preacher at Xanadu

The living eddies within the sweating glass of red rebyl mimicked the dust storms engulfing the Martian port city of Lachish. Guido Sparks pressed the glass to the scar transecting his cheek for a long breath. Finally he downed the bottom third of the whisky in a single gulp.

“Another round?” Phish, his Venusian companion, snatched the glass from Sparks’ hand before he could slam it down.

The grit beneath Sparks’ collar, combined with his growing unease from being in one place too long said yes. The jangle of his diminishing credits said no. He nodded. The two of them would simply have to ensure the next lead panned out, unlike the last several.

Phish had already risen and started toward the bar in his typical Venusian gate—a long-strided movement chewing up distances deceptively and without hitch. The shorter of the two men, Phish could outstrip Sparks in a footrace—something Sparks never incorporated into plan A, or any plan.

Sparks surveyed the unusual crush of patrons seeking shelter from the red clouds of dust that blew in the day before. A clash of languages battered his ears. Taken alone he could understand each. At the moment he had no interest in doing so. The Bloody Bucket remained a safe haven for space rangers, smugglers and the like. Even the rankest of outlaws, if intent on continued survival, honored the varied patronage’s shared need for discreet anonymity.

Sparks also respected the unwritten rule, despite the fact such anonymity remained possible for himself in scarcely a corner of the galaxy. Lazily, he noted the entrance of a lone woman amidst of maelstrom of red dust. Stirring up no shortage of curious half-glances, the woman made directly for his corner of the establishment.

Phish returned balancing three glasses of rebyl.

Sparks’s pale-grey gaze flicked from the woman, dressed in spacer’s leather similar to his own, to his partner’s crooked grin. “Expecting company?”

“Employ.” Phish whisked into his seat and distributed the glasses of rebyl while shoving out an empty chair with his foot.

Without dropping the Venusian’s gaze, Sparks watched the woman weave through the crowded bar. He could tell already her clothes were props. Not that she didn’t wear them well, or that the grip of the leather hadn’t been accustomed to the curves it concealed. But something about her posture and movement didn’t match the outfit.

Not waiting for their undisclosed guest, Sparks tipped back his glass. Surely the woman’s lack of wariness, something developed as a natural byproduct of lurking within the galaxy’s shiftiest shadows, hadn’t escaped Phish’s seasoned eye. If anywhere in the galaxy there was a man as worthy Sparks’s respect as the man sitting across from him now, Sparks had yet to meet him.

The woman must have impressed his companion via some other means, but Phish wasn’t letting on. At last Sparks disengaged his cloud-grey eyes from his partner’s turbid black ones in order to address the woman.

She stood before them wordlessly, returning Sparks’s stare without waver—something few accomplished. In a sudden movement that brought Sparks’s hand instinctively to the well-worn grip of the heat gun strapped to his hip, the woman whisked off her visor-less helmet.

An incredible amount of untamed, fire-orange hair spilled out from the helmet’s cramped confines. The radiant tussle lit her face and sparked an instant contrast with her emerald eyes. Sparks’s tense surprise registered in the woman’s awareness, proving she’d achieved the response she’d aimed for. The slightest of grins curled the corner of her lips as she turned toward Phish and nodded while filling the empty seat.

“Guy, meet Persephone,” Phish did the introductions. “Persephone, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, this is Guido Sparks.”

###

After Sparks had confirmed Persephone’s ledger, it had taken all of forty-five minutes to load the necessary supplies and clear the Tempest for launch. Even before that, both men knew they would take the job. As confident as the woman had been confronting nefarious outlaws, she’d been equally as terrified discussing the job—a bounty. And on a preacher no less.

Boring, conceited, sure. But a preacher capable of talking folk to death? Sparks’ curiosity had been indelibly impressed.

Of course not everything was on the up and up. The woman had strived too laboriously to weave a lavish false backstory. Most people who found themselves in need of the likes of Guido Sparks had long relinquished propriety.

As the Tempest cleared the thin Martian atmosphere, Sparks jettisoned the exhausted burn tanks and turned to discuss the matter openly with Phish. “What do you think?”

Phish removed his headset and reclined his seat. “She’s money.”

Sparks nodded. He understood what the cunning Venusian meant in both senses of the word. “Makes sense. She sure thinks highly enough of herself.”

“Only Black Pharol thinks higher.”

“What does that make the preacher? A runaway slave?”

Phish shook his head before riveting Sparks with his hungry black eyes, betraying his cherubic golden locks and pale skin with a deeper savagery. “You saw the terror when she spoke of him. I’ve no idea whether the preacher be slave or free, but I’ll bet the next case of rebyl he’s not a man like you or I.”

“Hardly seems like a fair bet,” Sparks locked course for Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and deployed the sails. “I suppose I’ll take it. In that case, how many do you think she’s sent before us?”

“Does it matter?”

“It’s just that, well you saw how she talked more about herself than the job.”

“As if it were her first time.”

“And she seemed to be more interested in hiding her own identity than describing the preacher’s.”

“As long as the money’s real,” Phish shrugged as he stood. “I’m going to get some rest.” With two long strides he exited the bridge and slipped into the tiny living quarters. “Wake me if you spot Patrol. It’s been over a week since I’ve gotten my blood up. I could use a good drill.”

“You and me both.” Sparks stretched and watched the nearer stars rush past. After a mesmerizing few minutes he lowered the blast shields and drifted off to sleep fully expecting to dream of a sun-haired woman and the terrifyingly sweet-tongued preacher who’d incurred her rancor.

###

Sparks awoke to an orchestra of tiny plinks and larger thunks against the hull as the Tempest plowed a path through unexpected debris.

Instantly blinking away the fog of sleep, Sparks slammed his hand into the controls and retracted the sails.

“Where are we?” Phish flowed into his copilot chair. He switched on the display to answer his own question.

“Right where we’re supposed to be, as far as I know.” Perturbed, Sparks fired thrusters in reverse. The tempo of metallic music playing against the blast shield slowed, then stopped.

“The Tempest agrees. Supposedly we’re one click outside of Titan’s orbit.”

Sparks retracted the blast-shield for a visual and scratched his head. The blue-green haze of Titan filled nearly half their view. “And we’re on course?”

Phish nodded.

“Why hasn’t the shipping channel been cleared?”

“Maybe they’re all at church,” Phish grinned.

“Including Patrol?”

Phish shrugged.

“This guy I gotta hear. Just as soon as he collects an offering to repair my sails.” Unamused, Sparks gripped the joystick and fired all thrusters into full descent toward Titan’s heavy atmosphere.

###

The bumpy ride intensified as they transitioned through blue swirling gases into green ones and finally a faded yellow, like that of the exhausted fields of wheat Sparks remembered from his childhood on Earth. He leveled their descent and corrected course according to Phish’s instructions until they punched through the dense clouds.

Visibility improved marginally as they emerged into a dry blizzard typical for Titan this time of year, or at least Sparks assumed. “What season is it here?”

“Summer, for another thirty-two days.”

“And the temperature?”

“Negative two degrees, or 28 of your precious Fahrenheit.”

The ground appeared suddenly. “Please, spare me the lecture on Earthmen hubris.” Sparks yanked the controls, assuming a course parallel to and no more than a hundred meters above the rugged, snow-covered terrain spanning much of the moon’s surface.

Phish yawned and stretched.

“How far to Xanadu?” Sparks queried.

Phish jumped forward, pressing his forehead against the windshield. “Did you see that?”

Without questioning, Sparks banked hard to port in order to come around for another look at whatever the keen-eyed Venusian had seen.

“By Black Pharol, nothing good has happened here.”

Sparks caught his breath at the sight. He banked into a low circle around the consumed ruins of what he assumed had been a mining outpost. “What does the map say?”

“New Rutan, a decade old settlement along the main vein of guarganite, home to 1,734 souls.”

“Not anymore.” Sparks righted the Tempest and followed the spiny ridge of mountains southwest toward the mining center of Xanadu. “Could have been an explosion from the mines.”

“I didn’t see a crater,” Phish frowned. “I did see bodies, dead but intact.”

“Raiders? Disease? Natural disaster?”

“Preacher.”

Sparks scratched the back of his neck. “Curious.”

The two partners completed the last minutes of their trip in silence, passing over another ruined settlement along the way. Finally, they arrived at Xanadu, a fortress of a town hunkered into the side of the mountain and overlooking the equatorial plains of Titan.

Near the equator, and only near the equator, Titan sheltered a small indigenous population. Tribal folk from a forgotten origin and forgotten time, they sustained themselves by raising herds of Gaugan along the narrow band of Titan tundra. Humans only dealt with them to improve their Gaugan breeding stock.

Here at Xanadu, the two commodities Titan had to offer merged: Gaugan, the cold-planet beast of burden and Guarganite, a volatile mineral used in space combat and interplanetary missiles due to its explosive properties when in liquid form. Concern over military use of the stuff typically rendered criminal access to Titan tricky, to say the least.

Patrol regulations should have dictated the Tempest be intercepted in orbit. While Xanadu appeared intact, no welcoming party had extended a hand of greeting, friendly or not. Sparks opened the com to all frequencies. He eyed Phish before clearing his throat, “Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry.”

No response was forthcoming.

“Hello? Smugglers and outlaws with a warrant here.”

Sniggering, Phish bit his lip.

Sparks continued, “We’d like permission to kill one of your citizens and return him for cash payment.”

Static popped over the connection, “Could you repeat that?”

With raised brow, Sparks stroked the stubble on his chin.

Phish shrugged.

“Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry,” Sparks repeated himself.

Static filled the connection for a full three seconds before, “Oh, yes. Sure thing, right after I send you back to the void from whence you came, you barbarous devils!”

Sparks’ eyes widened as a Patrol gunner ship plummeted out of orbit and streaked straight for them, a plume of entry smoke trailing in its wake.

“Black Pharol squats!” Phish swore.

Sparks jammed the stick forward and dove for the surface with little hope of outracing a gunner at full decent. The Tempest was fast, but—

“Weapons’ lock!”

Sparks jerked his eyes toward the Patrol vessel. It was falling at suicide speed. “There’s no way.” With the Tempest still descending toward the tundra at full thrusters, Sparks slammed his hand down to deploy the blast shield.

“What are you—” before Phish could finish, the Tempest sheered suddenly to starboard and down. Sparks stiffened as he wrestled to regain control of the stick. A moment later a deafening roar washed past the ship and the hull began to glow red-hot.

“Horizon?” Sparks forced the word through clenched teeth.

Phish snapped into action. “Fifty meters, ten degrees.”

Sparks continued his tug-of-war with the controls. “Little help.”

“Right,” Phish reached across. With his hands on top of Sparks’, he joined in the fight. “Nine degrees. Eight. Impact imma—”

The Tempest struck down hard, but didn’t tumble. Slowing rapidly, she listed slightly to port before coming to a complete stop, apparently in one piece.

“Damage?” Sparks cautiously reached for the button to retract the blast shield.

“As Pharol lives,” Phish scrolled through the readout. He breathed deeply and turned to Sparks. “She’ll take off when we need her.”

Sparks raised the shield with little effect. Instead of the sky or even the surface of the Titanian tundra, the two stared into a wall of ice and alluvial deposits. “Altitude?” Sparks questioned.

“Three meters beneath the surface,” Phish grinned.

###

The partners stood in the aft of the tiny ship, waiting for the heat of the Tempest’s hull to melt enough snow and ice for the hatch to open.

Phish stashed a knife in his boot. “How did you know the Patrol vessel had armed itself with gaurganite missiles?”

“I didn’t. Not for sure anyway. Something about their suicidal approach.”

“I’m surprised they even got a missile armed before it went off, as hot as their entry was. What do you think they were going on about with that barbarous devils bit?”

“Sounded like preacher talk to me.”

Phish cinched his gloves tight around his wrists and checked the hatch, finding it clear enough. “My thoughts exactly.”

###

The two men scrambled out the entry path the Tempest had left in the tundra and took their first look around from ground level. A small herd of guagan sniffed around the scene curiously.

“Wait here, I got an idea.” Phish disappeared back down the short tunnel.

A half hour later, and with a lot of coaxing, the rangers managed to mimic ranchers and herdsman effectively enough to hitch a half dozen of the beasts to the Tempest and tow her to the surface.

As the last of the guagan lumbered away, Sparks turned his attention to the fortress city of Xanadu. “What do you think?”

Phish shrugged. “Things have gone pretty smooth so far. Getting in shouldn’t be too bad.”

“Actually, I was wondering what the chances were of getting a bath. Otherwise I’m gonna smell like guagan leavings until the calendar switches.”

“The beasts were indeed a bit more pungent up close than I had imagined.”

Sparks rubbed filth from his gloves using relatively clean snow. “Still, it was a good plan. Now to find us a bath and a preacher.”

“Clean inside and out? Guy, what’s happened to you?”

Sparks set off at a fast clip for the walls of Xanadu, a few kilometers distant. “Don’t you worry, friend. Nothing a little rebyl won’t cure after this is all over.”

“About that, still think I’m gonna be buying?” Phish caught up and clapped Sparks on the shoulder.

“I hope not.”

###

After twenty minutes of hiking, the two mercenaries stared up at the towering gates built into the abrupt start of the mountain. Sparks had worked up a sweat and wasn’t fond to let it freeze between his parka and skin.

“How does one go about knocking at a place like this?” Phish stepped within reach of the looming metal doors.

Sparks eased his heat gun from the holster and stood ready beside his partner. “Try your fist first.”

Shrugging, Phish pounded three times. The cold metal creaked inward, revealing the doors hadn’t be locked or even latched. Knife in hand, the Venusian stepped aside and offered Sparks the lead.

As the Earthman stepped passed the threshold, a timid voice arrested him.

“Where would my masters wish to go?”

Sparks spun in the direction of the thickly-accented English, keeping his firearm lowered. “Who’s asking?”

A short, ruddy man, lessor in years than Sparks, advanced from the shadows. “Your servant does not deserve name, only task.”

Phish leaned close, “He’s a native.”

Sparks nodded. “Are you the doorman?

The queer man with ruddy oversized limbs and small torso bowed low. “At your service, my masters.”

“First off, stop calling me that,” Sparks demanded.

“As you wish, my—” the man stopped short, leaving an awkward silence.

Phish filled it. “By Pharol what has happened here?”

The native lowered his gaze further. “Much has happened in Xanadu for many—”

Holstering his heat gun, Sparks put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Wrong answer.”

Trembling beneath Sparks’s touch, the native quickly changed tactic. “The preacher comes. He brings truth with him. He speaks it to us, like in Charlton and—”

“New Rutan?” Phish finished for him.

The native nodded.

“What kind of truth tears down a city from the inside out?”

“I—” the man shook his head. “I am only servant.”

“Never mind.” Sparks cocked his head in the direction of a shuffling sound above them. He didn’t like how vulnerable they were at the base of a long set of stairs leading further up into the city. “Just take us to this preacher fellow.”

The native shrank back, spasming with tremors. “Would my masters not rather—”

“Preacher, now.” Sparks drew his heat gun.

“As you wish.” The man scurried ahead of Sparks and Phish. But rather than up the stairs, he hurried into a darkened tunnel at their base.

“What, no bath first?” Phish breathed in Sparks’s ear as he fetched a light from his pack.

Sparks ignited his own chemical stick while loping to catch up with the oddly long-limbed native. “I changed my mind. This place stinks worse than the gaugan leavings.”

###

The temperature inside the tunnel rose several degrees. Sparks had just unzipped the front of his parka when the native man stopped in front of a dimly lit lift carved into the rock. The man ran his fingers over a number pad until a bright red light shone from the ceiling.

Through the dispersing, eery glow Sparks glimpsed a moving shadow several meters further along the passage. He gestured to the native. “What else is down here?”

“Tunnel is direct connection to mines.” The man shook his head. “Few workers remain after preacher speak truth to us.” The red light turned green and the elevator door opened. Phish followed the native onboard.

Sparks stood a moment longer in the tunnel. He swore he heard human speech, but in a tongue he hadn’t heard in years. He understood a few echoing words despite not recalling the language from which they came—something about a mom and dad. Slowly, he backed onto the lift.

As the doors closed in front of him, a snatch of a children’s song rang in his head: “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” It was a Gaelic tune sung to children in the mining town near the farm where he’d been raised.

Pale faces smeared black haunted him until the lift jolted to a stop. The lights flickered once, then expired. Instinctively, Sparks’s fingers found themselves wrapped around the grip of his heat gun. “Doorman?”

“Nothing to worry yourselves, my—” he caught himself. “Is only electricity outage. Every lift is equipped with manual crank.”

A panel cracked open somewhere in the dark. Sparks placed his back against the doors and relaxed his grip on the heat gun.

The native man grunted. Slowly, the lift began again to rise. Rhythmically, the man grunted and cranked, and the lift rose.

After a few minutes, the extent of the distance they had yet to go along with the elevator car’s similarities to a coffin settled over Sparks. “Step aside.”

“But—” the native attempted to object.

“We’ll rotate the duty until we reach the top.” Sparks found the crank handle. Figuring the rotation, he started raising the lift and double the pace. A few minutes later, he recognized why the native had chosen the slower one.

As his muscles began to quiver, Phish stepped in. “My turn.”

The three men kept the rotation for nearly twenty minutes. When the car clicked against it’s moorings at the top of the run, Sparks had never been more grateful to exit a lift. But after the native pried the doors open and Sparks’s eyes adjusted to the light, the thrill abated. Drawing his heat gun, he swept the ruddy man aside and darted for the nearest cover.

Phish leapt to his partner’s side, cracking the skull of an attacker with a vicious elbow. Sparks sent another reeling with a steely-fist. Then, just as quickly as the attack had begun, it abated.

The two who’d been bloodied, tumbled into a drift of powdery snow at the feet of a half-dozen others. “Good show, you dim-wit.” A third man laughed as he bent over to assist one of the fallen. The moment he stabilized the man he delivered a hardy headbut, and both men fell down to the great amusement of the others.

“What the—?” Sparks helped the toppled native to his feet.

“It is true for these to act as such.” The man swept dry snow from his tattered cloak. “Now, unless you have changed your minds—”

“Not a chance. Take us to your precious preacher.”

Phish joined the two, a snarl on his lips. “And things were just about to get fun.”

Sparks scoffed as the three men resumed a quick pace along a cobbled street, “Nothing’s fun about killing a pack of brainwashed idiots.”

Phish wiped the glistening sweat from his face, a disturbing lust still lingering within the dark night of his eyes. “Says you.”

Sparks shivered, both from the cold wind and the reminder of the animal instinct just beneath the pale skin of every Venusian. Quickly, he shifted his focus to their surroundings.

The towering tops of stone buildings disappeared and reappeared as howling skiffs of snow coursed through the deep-cut arteries of the mountain city. Sparks knew the visible portion of Xanadu represented only a small fraction of the total, the portion inside the belly of the mountain certainly the greater.

That so much of his surroundings remained hidden made him uncomfortable. And though the ground beneath his boots felt solid enough, he knew it to be anything but.

For several minutes, they progressed smoothly through the city, seeing little signs of life, but many of decay. Shops had been abandoned, homes barricaded. Sparks gave up counting after they passed three dozen lifeless bodies, the cold preserving them from decay.

They passed a fire in an alley where several natives warmed themselves. A woman ran past them screaming about pursuers. Sparks raised his heat gun, scanning the dark doorways and windows in the direction from which she’d come. Nothing emerged.

It was then he noticed a grinning face amidst a heap of rags several feet in front of him. He lowered his weapon. The hairless face grinned wider, revealing a few isolated teeth, the last cogs on rusty and forgotten gears.

The man, at least Sparks believed it to be a man, smacked his lips and appeared to laugh silently. He raised a disembodied hand from the shifting pile of rags and beckoned Sparks closer.

Out of curiosity, Sparks did so. The closer he got, the more the beggar’s eyes roved over his body, growing wider all the time. From a few feet away, Sparks recognized the pile of rags contained various pilfered items: a cookstove, chemical sticks, full liquor bottles, an empty holster.

At this, Sparks jerked upright.

Again, the beggar shook with silent laughter. Then he nodded, and with a point of his chin directed Sparks’s attention to a darkened alley opening behind his pile.

As if he’d been watching the interaction, the doorman spoke, “Here is home of preacher.”

Phish stepped forward, “What, this guy?”

The doorman shook his head, “At end of alley.”

“No fancy temple?”

The doorman lowered his gaze straight down. “Is only humble messenger of truth.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.” Sparks strode toward the alley opening.

The doorman whimpered and fell to his knees.

Sparks turned toward the native and then his partner.

Phish nodded.

Sparks lifted the doorman to his feet and forced the man to look him in the eyes. “You’ve fulfilled your duties. Now go home, back to your family if you’ve got one.”

“But—”

“Go!” Sparks released the man, and he shot away from them aether in a jet wash. With a nod of his head, Sparks signaled Phish. The partners entered the alley shoulder to shoulder, one side of the two-headed mercenary armed with a heat gun, the other a crystal-sharpened, Venusian blade.

###

“So,” a withered voice rose from a darkened corner of the ground-level flat, “you come from across the system to wrestle with the truth?”

The door had been wide open. Sparks moved to his right on silent boots. Phish disappeared into the darkness at his left.

“There is no need for stealth. The truth is always free for the taking.” The voice paused for a long, raspy breath. “As a matter of fact, it seeks out those willing to accept it. To embrace it.”

“Like all the cold, lifeless bodies I stepped over to get here?” Sparks scanned the dark with his steel-grey eyes for any signs of movement. “Is that what happens to folk when they accept your version of the truth?”

“Oh, the truth is not mine. It belongs individually to those who grasp it. To each his own, Mr. Sparks.”

The earthman shivered at the sound of his name spilling from the preacher’s lips.

“Are you surprised I know your name? And that of your Venusian friend? Would not the truth be aware of such trivial details?” The preacher’s voice rose in timbre and steadiness, as if the man himself were aging in reverse. “Phish and Guido, no two men past or present have matched your lust for adventure or your thirst for violence.”

Sparks misstepped, his boot crunching something brittle beneath it. At the same time, his mind began to swim. He used his off-hand to steady his heat gun. He should just fire, slash the darkness wide open and burn the man until he pulverized the stone wall behind him. But he didn’t know where to aim, and he couldn’t fire without aim.

The voice grew more intense and angry. It vibrated inside Sparks’s head. “Haughty, arrogant, you consider every other form of life beneath your own.”

An aurora burst to life before Sparks’s eyes. Shaking his head, he couldn’t shake the swimming light that burned images of his own violent acts into his sight. He lowered his gun and pressed the heal of his palm to his sockets.

The preacher continued, “Oh, you have strength of will! An iron strength that crushes all else! Death in your wake!” The preacher’s voice rose to a tumultuous fever pitch as he began to sing. “Respecter of none, sower of chaos, you shall reap what you have sown. From boy to killer you have grown! Liquor your drink and violence your food, on nothing else you shall brood.”

Sparks jerked. “Shut up! Shut your cursed face!” His arm spasmed and a dazzling flame burst from the end of the barrel in his hand. Ripped open, the dark dispersed as Sparks flailed to the ground, lashing a beam of energy wildly across the room.

“Watch it, earthling!” Phish snapped as he danced clear of the errant ray.

Sparks only released the trigger when the cold blade of Phish’s knife pinned his wrist to an overturned chair. In the bubble of silence that followed, Sparks heard the preacher laughing quietly. Lost to his pain and confusion, Sparks freed his hand by removing the knife.

As he did so, the voice continued, once again withered and weak, “I have spoken all that truth has to say. Go. If in a day’s time you still desire to kill me, I will offer my life willingly.”

At the mention of killing, Sparks leapt at a thought as if a distant memory. He had come here to kill someone, but who? Killing. It was the only thing that felt right. He should do so now.

“Go!” The voice commanded.

Sparks jumped to his feet. Unthinking, he backed toward the door.

“Come back tomorrow,” the voice paused as its owner heaved a deep sigh.

Sparks wasn’t sure why, but the words seemed full of sorrow and pain.

“If you can.” The voice finished with these final foreboding words.

To Sparks they didn’t seem sufficient. He grasped at a question that seemed to be fleeing his mind  more quickly than he could ask it. He needed to know more. He needed some answer to a question he forgot.

“Out of the way, earthling, before you bleed on me.”

Sparks had reached the door, but before he could back through it, an angry Venusian barreled him over. Tumbling into a drift of snow in the alley, Sparks rebounded quickly. Leaping forward, he swept the Venusian’s legs and shoved him headlong.

A moment later the two men clambered into the street while exchanging blows.

“Out of my way! I’m thirsty!” Getting the better of him, the Venusian clapped a two-fisted hammer against Sparks’s jaw.

Sprawling to the street, Sparks struck the cobblestones and rolled to a hard stop. The punishment severed the final tether his mind had been grasping, and whatever it was he’d been attempting to realize sank into the cold stone beneath his cheek.

###

Sparks awoke to something tugging gently at his side. Reflex guided his hand to the grip of his heat gun where he fought off a frail, bony hand already in the process of removing the pistol from its holster. His other hand shot out just as quickly to grip the throat of the intruder.

Sitting up and blinking snow out of his eyes, he finally focused on the toothless grimace of a beggar. The man choked and sputtered. Sparks squeezed. “You’re not even worth the charge it would take to fry you.

The man attempted to shake his head, his eyes bulging. He slapped his ears repeatedly with open palms and again tried to shake his head.

Sparks squeezed. He didn’t know where he was, or who this man was before him. But he knew the taste and touch of killing intimately. The act of it warmed his insides.

The man slapped his own ears until they bled, his eyes now rolled into his head.

One last twitch and it would be done. Then it struck him. As bright red drops of blood stained the drift of white snow gathered where Sparks had lain on the cold cobbles, it struck him. The beggar was deaf.

Sparks released his grip, dropping the pitiful creature facedown in the street. Why should it matter? Who cared if the man was deaf. He had tried to steal another man’s pistol. For that, it was Sparks’s right to kill him, deaf or otherwise.

But for some reason it mattered.

Cold and sore all over, Sparks let it go. His stomach rumbled. His throat ached. He needed something to sooth it. He needed a drink. Wobbly, he rose to his feet and kicked the beggar out of the way.

A natural instinct for finding taverns and a vague recollection of his surroundings led him in short time to a doorway lit by flame and buzzing with laughter. Scattered chords of a familiar ditty played on a strange tonal percussion instrument greeted Sparks as he ambled across the threshold.

“About time you show up, slowpoke.” A gold-haired cherub of a Venusian called to him from the back corner. “I was beginning to think that beggar slit your throat.”

Sparks grinned, “Fat chance.” He turned aside to the bar. “What is there to drink in this shinta hole.”

“Why don’t you start with your own blood, you foul-mouthed devil!” A lumbering minor rose from his stool and slashed at Sparks with a roughly fashioned shiv.

Sparks casually drew his heat gun and burned a hole through the man’s chest. As the man slumped to the ground, Sparks slammed his pistol on the bar. “I said get me a drink!”

“Better make that two.”

Sparks spun to face the devious black-eyes of the Venusian.

For a split second, the confidence buoying the two terrible windows into a dark time before history deflated. “I seem to recall something about you owing me one.”

Sparks nodded. “You know, I think you’re right.” He pounded the bar again. “Two drinks!”

A ruddy-skinned, long-limbed bartender shook as he attempted to pour the drinks.

Sparks snatched the bottle and shoved the man against the shelves behind the bar. As the bartender struggled to catch bottles of turbid liquor before they shattered against the stone floor, the bar song rose in volume and intensity. An alien voice took up the tune.

Sparks seized, his muscles jerking, his consciousness dancing like a needle across the grooved surface an ancient vinyl record—the kind his grandmother kept on her high shelf. Something familiar resided in those grooves, but his mind couldn’t settle into them.

The musician sang the chorus with lilting tremolo as if from dual throats, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.”

In hostile resistance, Sparks’s mind skipped completely, returning control of his body to a baser instinct. He licked his cracked lips. Half swaggering and half dizzy, he sidled to the table where the Venusian sat. “The service around here stinks.”

“I think it’s you that stinks, my friend.”

Sparks slammed the bottle on the table and lunged with a slow haymaker.

The Venusian caught it while pulling a knife from his boot.

Sparks jabbed his heat gun into the Venusian’s ribs at the same time he felt the knife against his own. Both men looked down and laughed.

“This calls for a drink!”

Sparks attempted to cork the bottle after pouring two glasses of nose-curdling, blue liquid. He stopped short at a sharp pain.

“What happened to your wrist?” The Venusian pointed with his glass before knocking back a third of it and grimacing.

Sparks held up his hand, a curious look on his face. In the background, the harpsichord-like music plinked and plucked at a tune Sparks felt he could hum to if he were so inclined. Gritting his teeth, he dug his thumb into the wound. His hand twitched, but all the fingers still worked.

A memory flashed through his mind alongside the pain. The injury was recent. Why couldn’t he remember it? He battered the door of his mind in attempt to break it down, but failed. The earliest thing he could recall was the beggar. He hummed a bar or two of music. “Did you know that beggar is deaf?”

“Deaf? Why in the name of Pharol should I care about that?”

Sparks used his good hand to tip back his drink. The odor was like wet dog, and the taste diesel. But the burn. The burn took his breath away. Blinking through the fumes, he finally managed to gulp air into his lungs.

The Venusian laughed before taking a swig himself. When both men recovered, he continued, “How can a moon with so much snow be so dry?”

They clinked glasses and Sparks licked his lips in anticipation of that blessed burn.

###

Everything began to blur together. Hours passed, possibly days. Sparks couldn’t be sure. At first he thought it a nasty side effect of the booze, then something else. Possibly the Venusian had poisoned him. He couldn’t remember how many times they had fought, or why.

A strong heat brushed against his face. Laughter filled his ears. Suddenly he rolled onto his side and puked. The bile stripped the inside of his throat, leaving behind nothing but pain. Through the pain, he recognized the sound in his ears as fire rather than laughter. The burn in his throat became a combination of bile and smoke.

He rolled onto his stomach and pushed against the floor, heat radiating from the cobbled stones. His muscles trembled at the effort. What was wrong with him?

Finally, he reached his knees. He coughed in the thickening smoke and froze as a familiar tune tickled his ears. Chords of music rose over the cracks and pops of the fire, then an alien voice, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” A clot of fear lodged in his chest. His parents. He had to save them, but where were they?

On unsteady feet he plodded and stumbled through a maze of overturned tables searching for family to pull from the flames. With each uncertain step, the farmhouse and hay barn of his youth transformed into a tavern of stone and rough-hewn wooden beams.

With each rasping breath, his murderous lust evolved into duty, loyalty. But to what? And to who? The music grew off-tune, skipping notes and plucking dead strings. Sparks took up the tune himself. Mouthing breathless words, he continued the song. While his muscles deteriorated with each effort, his mind strengthened.

Xanadu. The bar, the city where he found himself. He remembered.

He caught a flicker of movement through the corner of his eye. Behind a wall of smoke, at the back of the bar, someone else struggled to survive. Hacking, choking, stumbling, Sparks wrenched a table off of a gold-haired Venusian. “Phish,” his throat constricted around the word.

His friend was burned, but angry—the anger a good indicator of life.

“Help me up, earthman.”

Sparks tugged with every dying ember of his strength and the two rose together. The music had stopped altogether and Sparks had lost the tune, but he remembered where he was and why he’d come—to kill a preacher for money.

The purpose lent him new resolve. As the mammoth timbers girding the tavern ceiling snapped and gave way to the hunger of the flames, Sparks and his Venusian partner rolled gratefully into the welcoming cold of a snow drift.

###

A cold trickle worked its way down the back of Sparks’s throat. His swallow reflex jolted him awake as the constriction of his burning throat shot pain up and down his spine. With difficulty he raised his head. A dazzling aurora swam in the sky above him. He watched the colors morph and dance in amazement. A trickle of melted snow ran down his nose and pooled at his lips.

As he licked the water, a thirst reared within him. How long had it been since he had drank anything but booze?

A quick movement caught his eye just before a cold puff of snow struck his head. He blinked away the dry flakes and focused on a man, a Titanian native with long ruddy arms and legs.

The native dusted snow from his hands and cocked his head.

“Do I know you?” Sparks whispered the words as loud as he could.

“Where would my masters wish for me to take them today?”

The accented English combined with the subservient tone sparked a memory in a dormant section of Sparks’s brain. “The doorman?”

“At my masters’ service.”

A rustling at Sparks’s elbow diverted his attention. “Phish, about time you wake up.” Sparks tugged his partner into a sitting position and helped dust off the snow that had drifted around them.

“Guy?” The Venusian’s voice cracked. He grimaced and attempted to swallow. Finally he whispered, “Where are we?”

Sparks smiled broadly enough to make his lips bleed. “Xanadu.” He turned toward the doorman and continued, “I think we came here on a bounty.”

“I remember. Something about a preacher.” Phish gripped Sparks’s hand, and they helped each other up on wobbly legs.

Sparks nodded. “A preacher we’re supposed to kill.”

The doorman drew cautiously near, “Would my masters like me to take them to preacher?”

Breathing shallow, Sparks rested his hands on his knees in an effort to stop the world from spinning. “First, stop calling me that. Second, yes, take us to this preacher. But could we get something to drink first?”

The doorman stepped back glancing nervously between the two men and the smoldering remains of the tavern.

Sparks understood his concern and shook his head. “Not booze. Water.”

The doorman smiled, his lips rising in the middle as well as both corners. His voice warmed and grew an added dimension, “As you wish.”

###

Slowly, the small party worked its way along cobblestone streets—one block, then two, and finally a third. The only visible bodies remaining in Xanadu not belonging to the three of them were dead ones. Sparks didn’t miss the fact that not one of the dead were natives. They stopped in front of large and luxuriously-one-storied building. The wooden shutters were shattered and listing, but the rest of the structure remained intact.

The doorman led them inside the abandoned structure and seated them near a window.

Sparks caught the doorman’s shoulder. “How long—” He fumbled over how to formulate his question, unsure of exactly what he was asking. “How long ago did we first meet?”

Without lifting his gaze, the native responded, “Five days have passed since first I serve my—” he caught himself, “since first we meet.” The man scurried off before Sparks could detain him further.

“Five days?” Phish grilled Sparks with black eyes and furrowed brows. “What have we been doing for five days? I barely remember arriving.”

Sparks met the Venusian’s intensity and raised it. “What are we?”

Phish cocked his head and raised a brow.

“I mean, what dictates who we are?”

“A man’s no better than his actions, why?”

Sparks nodded. “So we’re drunks and hooligans.”

Phish narrowed his eyes, a flare of anger sparking beneath their polished black surface. “We’re mercenaries and smugglers.” He straightened. “At least I think we are.”

The doorman returned with two metal mugs filled with water and two hard loaves of bread that clanked nearly as loud as the mugs when he placed them on the table. “I shall show you to preacher at your leisure.” He bowed and withdrew.

The two partners ate their meager meal in silence, finishing it as quickly as their parched throats allowed. Fifteen minutes later they followed the doorman’s lead as the three of them pushed through a newly invigorated northern wind carrying with it blinding skiffs of snow.

###

“You’re late,” a shriveled voice spoke from the shadows.

A dizzying sense of deja vu struck Sparks between the eyes. “Time flies.”

“For some,” the preacher wheezed, “but truth is eternal.”

Sparks closed his eyes, stabilizing himself with Phish’s shoulder. Slowly but surely his memory of their previous encounter with the preacher returned. “You,” he released Phish, “you on the other hand, are not.” He gripped an unlit chemical stick in one hand and his heat gun in the other.

“Despite your tardiness, I will honor our agreement. You’ve no need to fear.”

“Fear?” Phish interrupted. “As if we were afraid of an old man hiding in the shadows?”

“Oh you are afraid, my Venusian warrior. Do not mistake the willingness to die as lack of fear. Your fear stems from lack of necessity.” The man wheezed in an effort to catch his breath, his audience unable to override him. “But as I have said, you fear needlessly, for Guido Sparks has need of you, as have I.”

Sparks blinked a drop of sweat from an eyelash and grew suddenly aware that he’d raised his heat gun. He gripped it so tight, his hand shook. His chest heaved and his brow ran with sweat despite the cold. “Who are you?”

“Does it matter? You have come to kill me, and I have surrendered myself into your hand.”

Phish nudged Sparks.

Sparks shook his head.

Impatiently, Phish tugged the chemical stick from Sparks’s left hand and activated it. The pale, blue-green glow burst to life, pushing back the shadows and revealing a hunched figure no more than ten paces in front of them. The Venusian sheathed his knife and drew his own heat gun. “Burn him, or I will.”

“Not yet,” Sparks barked through gritted teeth. He fought against his own urge to squeeze the trigger, to vent the building urge to sever the preacher’s connection to this world, to fulfill his word with the taking of a life. With quivering lips, he continued, “You speak of the truth as if you’re incapable of telling a lie.”

“Telling the truth and speaking it are two different things.”

Sparks shook his head, his hand cramping around the grip of his gun. “No. A man is more than what he does.”

“So Guido Sparks wants to be more than a killer? A killer for pay perhaps?”

“Guy, what are you doing? We can’t wait any longer.” Phish squeezed the trigger.

Sparks sensed the moment coming. Colliding into his partner’s shoulder, he forced the Venusian’s energy beam high. The stone ceiling crackled and burst into a spray of shattered rock as Sparks attempted to wrest the gun from Phish’s grip. “Who are you?!” Sparks continued to grill the preacher even as the ray from Phish’s heat gun slashed across the far wall. “I need to know!”

The preacher’s voice rose again in timbre and richness. He bellowed above the crackling thunder of the superheated rock exploding from the ceiling and walls. “One day you will find what you seek, Guido Sparks. I am not truth, but merely an unholy messenger, brought about through unrighteous means and unleashed as a weapon. Now, I beg of you, end me!”

Surrendering both to his own impulses and the strength of his Venusian companion, Sparks and Phish directed the beam of sizzling energy together. Four hands gripping the gun, and in singularity of action, the hunched figure of the preacher toppled and fell beneath the ray of unquenchable thirst.

Sparks blinked through the smoke of sizzling rock and burning clothes. Absent was the stink of scalded flesh. Clambering to his feet, he witnessed the collapse and consumption of the preacher’s cloak, but the old man’s body had gone. If ever he had possessed one, nothing now remained. No stink, no ash, nothing.

Phish rose and holstered his weapon. “What was that about?”

Sparks shook his head. “I wanted an explanation for the past five days.”

Phish raised a brow. “Explanation for what? The dust storms on Mars? For why we had such a long row of bad luck? And why in Pharol’s name would this guy know about any of that?”

Sparks stood dazed. “You don’t remember?”

Phish rolled his black eyes. “Fine, I owe you a case of rebyl. As soon as we find a tavern, I’ll pay up.” He wiped the sweat from his brow. “First why don’t we follow up on that bath you mentioned?”

 

###

 

On their way out of Xanadu, Sparks did his best to explain what he could remember of the five day gap between the first time they confronted the preacher and the last. Part of him had hoped to run into the doorman, but the only living soul they encountered had been the deaf beggar.

Sparks had grilled him with narrow eyes and the beggar had merely shrugged and given him a toothless grin, as if to say “it was worth a try.”

Sparks couldn’t help but wonder why the natives seemed unaffected and if they had been what prevented Xanadu from descending down the same path of complete destruction that the other settlements had. Was their truth that different from his and Phish’s and the rest of the off-world miners’? Perhaps the recent century of oppression had been their salvation. Perhaps his experience simply couldn’t understand theirs.

After they did what they could to repair the Tempest’s solar sails and succeeded in punching through Titan’s thick atmosphere to establish orbit, Phish turned to Sparks with a question revealing what had been occupying his more practically keen mind, “Before we killed him, the preacher mentioned being unleashed as a weapon. If that’s the case, who do you think unleashed him and why?”

Before Sparks could respond, the Tempest’s com bleeped with an incoming message. Sparks hesitated, his finger hovering over the button. “Time to collect payment?”

Phish shrugged, “You’re gonna have to buy me a case of rebyl somehow.”

Sparks opened the connection and cleared his voice.

“About time you boys poked your head up through the clouds.” It was the cocky-smooth voice of Persephone. “I’ve been looking for your signal for some time. I hope everything went smoothly?”

“Your preacher’s dead, if that’s what you’re asking.” Sparks ran a hand across his face, realizing his stubble had nearly grown into a beard.

“Oh I never doubted that.”

“Trouble?” Phish laughed. “Oh no trouble, just transfer the ledger and we’ll be fine.”

Sparks detected the slightest of hesitations on the other end. He hated wrapping up deals of this magnitude via such impersonal means. People made dumb decisions from the anonymity and perceived security of great distances.

“Will do,” she finally continued. “Just give me a minute, and you’ll see it appear.” She sighed audibly. “I’m sorry we couldn’t share another drink together, Sparks.” She cut the connection.

Sparks exchanged uncomfortable glances with Phish and his skin began to crawl. “Did something about that sound—”

Phish nodded before he could finish.

Without even checking their ledger, Sparks fired full thrusters to break orbit. Sitting still had once again become intolerable.

A slim three seconds later, the coordinates where they would have been, had they not altered trajectory, collapsed and then expanded exponentially as a interplanetary ordinate tipped with gaurginite detonated less than a click off their port side. The ripple flipped the Tempest before Sparks could respond.

Held fast by his harness, he mashed his palm into the controls in effort to deploy the single-use, emergency sail. Succeeding, the Tempest tumbled even more violently to face the source of the explosion, as the sail worked like a pillowcase in a hurricane.

Bucking against his restraints and struggling to hold his chin off his chest, Sparks managed to ride the surge without blacking out. The moment they dropped from the wash, he fired full thrusters and manually steered for a course somewhere far away from Titan. “Coordinates.”

“For where?” Phish rubbed his bleary eyes in an attempt to focus.

“Surprise me!”

Phish punched in their destination and without wasting a heart beat, Sparks deployed what was left of their solar sails. Without looking back, he opened up the Tempest’s full capabilities, and to anyone who might still be looking for them, they became a blur streaking across the swirling backdrop of Saturn.

 

END of Episode One

Adventures of Cosmo and Chancho, Ep1

Episode One: Things That Go Boom

A line of dark-skinned Africans zig-zagged out of sight behind mountains of bituminous coal. Coaling a behemoth the size of the Royal Edward was a monumental and dirty task. Cosmo gathered a bird’s eye view of the process from his favorite spot on the afterdeck of the five-level passenger steamer.

Shielding his face with his hand, Cosmo peered upward at the sun through the slits between his fingers. The temperature and humidity created an oppressive heat as bad as anything he had grown up with in the jungles of Northeast India.

Watching the coal porters dump precious coal into the ship’s hopper a basketful at a time renewed Cosmo’s gratitude for his current job—bodyguard to the less-than noble Sir Rendel Wrightwick. Technically, Cosmo’s title was porter and baggage boy, a position more typical for a low caste, tribal boy. However, one of Wrightwick’s colleagues had jokingly referred to him as an esquire.

After sneaking a peek at his boss’s English/Hindi dictionary, Cosmo learned an esquire had once been the title for a knight in training. He liked it. Cosmo Zimik, Esquire.

“Cosmo? Is that you?”

Without acknowledging the voice, Cosmo attempted to identify it. By the accent Cosmo could tell the voice belonged to a white man, American. That could mean only one thing—a missionary. Cosmo faced him.

“I wouldn’t of believed it, but Laura insisted it was you.”

Cosmo recognized the man, but couldn’t recall the name. “Pastor…”

“Pettigrew.”

Cosmo nodded. The Baptist missionary and his wife had been working throughout the Naga Hills for several years. Cosmo had met them during his father’s ordination. What were the chances someone connected with his home village would end up on the Royal Edward? The last thing Cosmo needed was for his father to learn he had left the boarding school in Calcutta.

Pettigrew frowned. “What are you doing out here in the middle of the Arabian Sea?”

Cosmo turned the tables with a question of his own. “Are you and your wife heading home on sabbatical?”

“A bit of a fundraising junket, I’m afraid. We hope to travel back to India soon.” Pettigrew raised his brimmed hat long enough to run his fingers through his hair. “It’s only been a week, and I miss your Naga Hills already. But enough about me and Laura.”

Cosmo dodged the matter. “I miss home, too. You must be looking forward to seeing your home in the States.”

“Well yes, I suppose Virginia will always be home. But for heaven’s sake, you must tell me how you’ve ended up—”

“You there! Bag boy.”

Cosmo blinked slowly and faced Wrightwick’s personal assistant, Barnard. He was an overly scrupulous and annoying man stuffed in stuffy clothes. But at that moment, his appearance served as a welcome interruption.

“Stop your lolly-gagging, you goldbricker. The boss has a meeting in Aden in fifteen minutes. You’ve got fifteen seconds to meet him on the dock, or start swimming back to India.” Barnard glared through his circular spectacles at Pettigrew.

Apparently, Cosmo didn’t need to introduce the two men.

Pettigrew sputtered before finding his tongue. “You’re working for Sir Wrightwick?”

Cosmo had no idea how an American Baptist missionary knew a disreputable business man like Wrightwick, but the unfortunate coincidences were adding up. Instead of answering the question, Cosmo leapt on top of the railing.

Pettigrew gasped. “What would your father think?”

Nearly three feet over Cosmo’s head, a guy wire tethered the Royal Edward to a concrete anchor amidst the coal piles. Cosmo glanced down at Barnard. “Can I borrow a kerchief?”

Barnard scoffed. “A kerchief? Boy, you’d better be worried more about your hide than a runny nose.” Despite his grumbling, Barnard fetched the cloth from his pocket. Reaching up, he slapped it into Cosmo’s outstretched hand. “Now you’ve got ten seconds, so I suggest you get down and stop—”

Cosmo doubled the cloth in his hand, bent his knees and jumped. With an inch to spare, he clutched the cable, which turned out to be as big around as a rupee coin. The kerchief smoked in Cosmo’s hand as he zipped down the steep angle—perhaps too steep.

Imagining the flesh of his hand smoking next, Cosmo scanned for a safe place to land. Heat seared his palm. Swinging toward a less trafficked stretch of boardwalk, Cosmo released his grip and plummeted the last several yards to the dock. Despite tucking his feet on contact, his knees struck his chest harder than he would have liked.

After tumbling into a shocked laborer, Cosmo stood with a stupid grin on his face. “Nine seconds to spare.” He spoke to no one in particular.

Pettigrew called a parting shot after him. “It would kill your father to find out how you’re using your skills!”

Cosmo ground his teeth and pushed through the snaking line of coal porters. Hundreds of miles from India, and his father’s watchful eye still pursued him. Cosmo would simply have to travel further. He didn’t expect his father or any of his people to understand why he’d taken a job protecting a representative of Colonial Britain.

Then again, as an American and a missionary, of course Pettigrew had been referring to Cosmo’s neglect of his spiritual gifting. Of all the stupid things his father could have handed down to his youngest son… Cosmo shook it off. Somehow, he would have to avoid Pettigrew for the remainder of their time aboard the Royal Edward.

Covered in coal dust and several seconds late, Cosmo located his boss. Lateness and untidiness were two things Wrightwick typically did not tolerate in his associates or employees. For some reason, Cosmo’s contempt for his boss exempted him from severe punishment.

Currently, Sir Wrightwick looked undecided between rage and amusement. He tucked his gold pocket watch into his waistcoat. “The landing could have been better.” He sucked the toothpick in his teeth before flicking it off the dock and into the water below.

Cosmo slapped coal dust off of his baggy dhoti pants. “I’ll work on it. No problem.”

###

The settlement of Aden existed for one purpose, the coaling of ships. Decades earlier, a Sultanate of Yemen had surrendered the volcanic spit to the British East India Company and a battalion of Royal Marines. Built inside an extinct volcano, the town was perfectly sheltered against storms and pirates alike. Unfortunately, the walls of dark, igneous rock protected the town from any and all breeze as well.

On full alert, Cosmo rode shotgun next to the coach’s driver. After a series of switchbacks, the horse-drawn carriage arrived at the locals’ version of a house of spirits. Cosmo had no use for alcohol or any adult who imbibed it. His people, the Naga, didn’t touch the stuff.

While Wrightwick didn’t drink excessively, his business appointments convened in such places. Cosmo jumped down and opened the door of the carriage for his boss.

Wrightwick flushed from the carriage like a flock of birds from the jungle canopy. Always in a hurry without looking hurried, that was Wrightwick’s manner. As a result, the man came across as angry and intimidating. He knew what he wanted, and he expected others to keep up.

Usually Cosmo’s young age forced him to work twice as hard to overcome initial impressions. But Wrightwick had seemed pleased by Cosmo’s youth. He had recognized Cosmo’s abilities immediately and hired him after a fifteen minute interview during which Cosmo revealed no personal information.

Handing Cosmo his satchel, Wrightwick flung open the saloon doors. He paused only long enough for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting.

Cosmo flowed past Wrightwick without brushing the man’s elbow. He sized up every individual inside the drinking house in a matter of seconds. By the time Wrightwick proceeded to a table in the far corner, Cosmo had eliminated all but two of the patrons as potential threats.

Cosmo followed his boss while keeping one eye glued on the backs of the two burly fellows seated at the bar. Cosmo didn’t like the fact their turbans and flowing robes could conceal swords or even rifles.

“Sir Wrightwick, I presume.” A portly gentlemen rose from the corner table.

Wrightwick sat without shaking the man’s hand. “I’ve no time for such unscheduled diversions. You have information for me, Mr. Crampton?”

Crampton attempted to brush his hair from his face. Excessive sweating had pasted it to his forehead. The man was nervous, slovenly and alone—a stark contrast to the clean and collected Wrightwick. Obviously, Crampton lacked the confidence to pose any serious threat.

Cosmo turned his back to the meeting. Tensing, he realized the two men at the bar had gone. He swept the establishment with his eyes. How could such men disappear so quickly and so quietly? At the very least, Cosmo should have heard them upsetting a chair or a table.

“Right you are.” Crampton worked up the nerve to speak. “Terribly sorry for the interruption.”

“Then get to it, man.” Wrightwick snapped.

Cosmo observed the remaining patrons for clues to the mystery mens’ disappearance. None of them stared toward the exit or acted as if anything strange had occurred. Cosmo knew he had turned his head for only a second.

“Right, right.” Crampton stammered. “A scurrilous lot filtered through here the better of two days ago asking after the Royal Edward in a roundabout manner, if you know what I mean.”

“Similar to your current manner?” Wrightwick asked through clenched teeth.

“I see. Indeed, you’re right.” Crampton gulped. “Straight to the point then. There’s no doubt in my mind they were pirates, sir. Mercenaries hired with the specific charge of finding your ship.”

Cosmo didn’t like the mention of pirates, especially after losing the two men at the bar. He reasoned the men could have been waiting for Wrightwick’s arrival before setting some devious plot into action.

“Mercenaries and pirates. Hmmm.” Wrightwick scratched his chin. “I apologize for my brash behavior, Mr. Crampton. You were right for initiating this aside. You’ve provided useful information indeed. It’s possible the Ottoman Empire has caught wind of our movements in the area.”

While maintaining vigilance, Cosmo focused on the conversation. He’d undertaken a crash course on Middle Eastern current events after learning of the Royal Edward’s destination. An English newspaper had revealed the Ottomans were currently engaged in a localized war with neighboring countries. Cosmo surmised on his own that Wrightwick’s interest in the area pivoted on the warfare.

“Think closely, Mr. Crampton.” Wrightwick leaned forward. “Did these dastards pronounce the name of the Royal Edward specifically?”

Crampton shook his head. “Nay, sir. But they inquired after large steamers en route to the Suez Canal. You know, asking whether one had been by. Only three boats this week fit that description.”

“Indeed, the coincidence is suspicious. I agree.”

Both men fell silent. A wooden chair scraped the floorboards as a patron rose to pay his bill. Cosmo wondered again of the mystery men, then dismissed them as paranoia. Coincidence. Probably nothing. The alien environment had set Cosmo on edge.

Crampton cleared his voice. “Should I inform her Majesty of any changes in the plan?”

“No no.” Wrightwick stood. This time he extended his hand.

Crampton shook it.

“Everything will proceed as planned. I’ll double the watch, that’s all. Nothing will prevent the Edward from landing intact with its cargo. Certainly no band of clumsy pirates.” Wrightwick glanced at his pocket watch and gestured for Cosmo to take the lead.

With his boss’s satchel still in hand, Cosmo moved swiftly toward the exit. If Wrightwick was deferring to Cosmo’s lead, it meant he was concerned enough for his safety to throw convention out the window. Not that anyone in the saloon would care that a British gentleman had deferred to his bag boy. But Cosmo knew Wrightwick cared.

That meant Cosmo should care. Throwing open the saloon doors, Cosmo leapt aside and held one open for his boss. He blinked rapidly in the harsh midday sun. Two blurs in the shapes of men flashed to his left.

Cosmo shielded the sun with his free hand. His bleary eyes focused on an empty street. No men, no nothing. He whistled for the carriage parked across the way. The driver started as if he’d been asleep beneath the brim of his hat. Straightening, he shook the reins and stirred the horses to life.

Cosmo opened the door of the carriage. After Wrightwick boarded, Cosmo resumed shotgun. He scanned both sides of the street for the mysterious men or anything suspicious. A couple of women shrouded in black burkas emerged from a bakery and immediately scurried from the presence of the strangers.

Cosmo rubbed his eyes—maybe he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Determined to execute his duty with honor, he’d get less sleep in the coming days due to Wrightwick’s heightened security needs.

Before abandoning boarding school, Cosmo had been exposed to Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the imperative to “know your enemy.” Thus, Cosmo’s motivations in protecting the corrupt and dishonorable Sir Wrightwick might have been less than pure. But there was no reason Cosmo couldn’t study his enemy while maintaining his honor and his contract.

Besides, if pirates were targeting the Royal Edward, everyone onboard would be in equal danger. Including Cosmo.

###

Cosmo inhaled the mixture of salt air and coal smoke from his favorite spot on the afterdeck. The clock in his head told him it was nearly midnight—almost halfway through his vigil. Seventy-two hours after striking out from Aden, the Royal Edward had reached the Mediterranean Sea intact and without event.

Wrightwick’s meeting in Aden with a fellow named Crampton had revealed a pirate plot to seize the Royal Edward before she could dock in Salonika, Greece. Crampton had brought up the possibility of informing her Majesty of changes to the plan. But Wrightwick had insisted nothing would prevent the Edward from landing intact with its cargo. Cosmo still had no idea what that cargo was.

During the three days’ journey, Cosmo had overheard Wrightwick talking softly in his quarters. At first, Cosmo assumed Wrightwick was talking to himself. Later, he heard Barnard referring to something called a ‘wireless.’ Cosmo deduced the technology to be some sort of telephone without wires. Never during the countless conversations did Wrightwick mention the nature of the Royal Edward’s cargo.

It bothered Cosmo. Out of curiosity, he stole a glance at the Royal Edward’s passenger roster: 435 civilian passengers, 58 crew. Yet the Edward’s full capacity was listed at 1,114 souls. Cosmo was good at mathematics. No manner of number twisting could take 435 plus 58 and come up with anything close to 1,114.

More than half the boat was officially empty. That meant wasted space and wasted fuel, which meant wasted money. Wrightwick didn’t waste money.

Cosmo rubbed his bare arms. Despite it being July, the Mediterranean breeze chilled him. Worse, the boundless night worried him. It didn’t take an expert in piracy to know the open ocean provided less cover during the day than at night. If a much smaller pirate crew on a much smaller boat intended to seize control of the Royal Edward, they would use the cover of night.

Cosmo intended to make sure no such thing happened.

He stretched his eyes across the vast darkness of the choppy sea. The fractured reflection of the moon spread out in every direction. To the south and east, Cosmo imagined the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and Ottoman controlled Palestine—the lands of the Bible.

During his father’s youth, American missionaries had penetrated his homeland. Great numbers of Naga converted to Baptist Christianity. Cosmo’s parents believed. Cosmo wasn’t so sure.

The thought of his homeland filled him with loneliness until he shook off the distraction. He had a job to do. A strange job at that. Here he was in a body of water surrounded by Africa, the Middle East and Europe, on a boat supposedly half empty and yet precious enough to attract mercenary pirates.

Cosmo knew Wrightwick was hiding something below decks—something valuable enough to risk the lives of 493 people.

The resonance of the night air suddenly shifted. Cosmo closed his eyes and swiveled his neck. He listened to the sounds of the water as if he were a bat. For the last several hours, the slap of water against the Royal Edward’s hull had fled outward and dissipated.

Now the sound rebounded off of an invisible object to port. Something was out there. Cosmo opened his eyes and stood on tiptoe. The night acted like a black curtain. He couldn’t see the water at the base of the ship, except for the moon’s reflection.

The moon’s reflection, of course. He searched the surface of the water for evidence of something large enough to block the moon’s reflection. After several seconds of frantic searching, he found it—a dark spot large enough to be a ship.

It wasn’t much to go on, but he’d rather wake the crew for nothing than fight pirates by himself. Slipping off his sandals, he sprinted barefoot for the emergency box outside the back door of the cabin. Seconds later, he threw himself against the glass window and shattered it with his elbow.

Reaching inside, he removed the flare gun with one hand and snatched two flares with the other. He loaded the gun on the run, aimed it high over the bridge, and fired. The pilot would have to see it.

Back on the afterdeck, he cracked open the flare gun and ejected the shell of the spent flare. He loaded the second flare, burning himself in the process. Ignoring the pain, he scanned the surface of the water for the shadow he’d seen before. Nothing.

He chided himself for assuming a pirate vessel wouldn’t change trajectory. He shifted his gaze to directly behind the boat. There, in the wake, a growing darkness.

He aimed the flare gun again. This time, he fired directly at the approaching shadow. Instantly, the flare revealed a low profile, iron-clad steamer in the Royal Edward’s wake. And it was catching them up.

A metal ping struck the hull of the Edward below Cosmo. A split second later, the pop of gunfire reached his ears. Dancing backward, Cosmo sounded the alarm. “Pirates! Directly aftward! Pirates!” He turned at the sound of approaching footsteps and collided with the ship’s Captain.

“What’s all this then?”

Before Cosmo could explain, another bullet ricocheted off the cabin wall.

“For the love of Saint Nicholas!” The captain held the rest of his men back. “Pirates! Sound the alarm! Dole out the munitions! If they aim to board the Royal Edward, we’ll make them pay with their own blood!”

Cosmo had already pushed past the others on his way toward Sir Wrightwick’s personal cabin. While he’d assist in defending the boat by any means necessary, Wrightwick was his personal responsibility.

###

The Royal Edward shuttered as Cosmo pounded on the door of Wrightwick’s cabin.

Wrightwick greeted Chancho with a snarl on his lips. “Report.”

“Pirates.” Cosmo exhaled the world between deep breaths.

“So they’ve found us have they?” Wrightwick disappeared inside his cabin. Seconds later he joined Cosmo in the passageway with his sword-cane in hand. “Do you require a weapon?”

Cosmo found it odd the question had never come up before. He shook his head. “I’ll use my surroundings.”

Wrightwick nodded approvingly. “The pirates will have been instructed to kill on sight.”

“And my instructions?” Cosmo asked.

“The same.”

With Wrightwick right behind him, Cosmo darted along the narrow passageway. He slid down the stairs railings without touching the steps and landed on the main deck. He knew the best way to keep his employer safe would be on deck. There, he could defend the ship and Wrightwick at the same time.

The lifeboats would be a last resort. Considering he couldn’t swim, Cosmo hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

The sounds of gunfire and men giving orders filled the deck. Cosmo peered up and down the length of the starboard gangway. All he saw were the ship’s crew darting in and out of doorways.

The moment Wrightwick hit the main deck, he pushed past Cosmo and barked orders to everyone within earshot. “Report. What’s our status?”

Barnard, a short-barrel shotgun in hand, slid up beside Wrightwick and Cosmo. “The afterdeck is on fire.”

“Jiminey F. Cripes.” Wrightwick slapped the cabin wall.

“Some sort of incendiary.” Barnard wiped soot from his brow. “The pirates are using the flames and smoke to mask their boarding.”

“What are we doing to stop them?” Wrightwick demanded.

“We’re positioning the retardant pump and firing blind.”

Wrightwick ground his teeth. “Release the cargo.”

“Sir?” Barnard hesitated.

“Do it now, man! The last thing we need is to lose everything in a fiery inferno! Most of the crates will float!”

“Yes sir.” Barnard leveled his shotgun and charged around the corner.

Wrightwick shouted after him. “For the love of God, don’t open them!”

Cosmo peered through the thick dark of night toward the stern of the ship. The blackness had grown thicker with smoke. Occasionally a flicker of fire pierced the veil. “Do I get to know now what exactly our cargo is?”

“Not what. Who.”

The captain’s voice boomed over a loudspeaker, preventing Wrightwick from explaining further. “This is your captain. All civilians, please stay in your cabins. We’ve encountered a small band of hostile forces. I repeat, remain in your cabins.”

The Royal Edward shuddered beneath their feet. Wrightwick braced himself against the railing.

Cosmo clutched his employer’s sleeve to prevent him from tumbling overboard.

“We need to launch a lifeboat.”

Cosmo frowned. “We’re not going to fight?”

Wrightwick scanned for the nearest boat. “No one is attempting to board this ship.” He shook his head. “They’re trying to sink it.”

“But don’t pirates usually want—”

“Shut up and find me a dingy!” Wrightwick snapped.

“This way.” Cosmo had studied the entire layout of the ship in detail. He reached the lifeboat in seconds and tore off the canvas tarp covering it. “Climb in while I pull the release.”

“We’ll need rope.”

“There’s a fifty foot coil inside.”

“Good.” Wrightwick leapt into the boat.

Cosmo unlocked the pulley system holding the boat in place. A woman’s scream pierced the raucous. “Should we wait for others? There won’t be enough boats—”

“We’re not giving up the Edward, we’re protecting the bloody thing. Now cast off.”

Obediently, Cosmo jumped onboard the boat. Protecting his hands with his shirt, he let the coarse hemp rope slide through his grip until the boat slapped against the water.

The surface of the Mediterranean was even choppier than Cosmo had imagined. Waves broke over the side of the wooden dingy and pounded it against the hull of the Royal Edward. The water chilled him to the bone.

“Hold on until we reach the pirate vessel!” Wrightwick yelled over the churning water and the chugging of the Edward’s steam engines. “I’ll rope the bloody thing. Then I’m afraid the rest will be up to you!”

Cosmo finally deduced that Wrightwick planned to board the pirate vessel. At the speed the Edward was gliding past them, their window of opportunity would come and go in a few seconds. If they missed, they’d be stranded at sea.

“Did you get a count of their crew?” Wrightwick created a loose knot in the end of the rope and coiled the rest in the bottom of the dingy.

“At least six.” Cosmo replayed the image of the iron clad he’d seen in the red light of the flare. “But there could be more.”

Wrightwick tossed Cosmo an oar as the Edward slid past on their right. “Paddle! We need to get close if this is going to work!”

The noise increased as they neared the iron-clad. Cosmo plunged the wooden oar into the water and steered the dingy toward the pirate vessel. But it was gliding past them too quickly.

“Ram the bloody thing!” Wrightwick stood with the lasso in his hand. “Bloody maritime rodeo.” Widening his stance, he struggled to maintain balance against the tossing sea.

Cosmo gritted his teeth and lifted the oar out of the water for another stroke. The pirate vessel rose less than a dozen feet above the water. It wouldn’t be hard to climb, if only they could catch her up. Still twenty feet away, the stern of the pirate ship had drawn even with the dingy.

“Now or never.” Wrightwick heaved the rope toward the shadow of a hooded vent pipe protruding from the afterdeck. “Grab the other end!”

Cosmo stashed the oar and clutched the end of the rope as it jerked taut.

“Bedbugs and Ballyhoo!” Wrightwick wrapped his arms around Cosmo’s waist before the momentum of the iron-clad could yank him overboard. In a series of violent readjustments, the lifeboat jerked in line with the ironclads’ wake.

Cosmo reeled them closer, hand over hand.

Meanwhile, Wrightwick tied off the rope. “We don’t have much time. If the fire on the Edward spreads to the coal hopper—”

He didn’t have to finish. Cosmo knew exactly what would happen if the coal hopper went up in flames. “I’ll help you up the rope in front of me!”

“Forget it, boy. It’ll take too much time. I can take care of myself.” Wrightwick put a hand on Cosmo’s shoulder. “Just tell me honestly, do you think you can do this?”

“I will.” Cosmo believed it one hundred percent. Reaching forward for another foot of rope, he pulled them as close as he could without capsizing the dingy.

“Good. I’ll follow if I can. Remember, you’re not killing pirates. You’re saving everyone onboard the Edward.”

Cosmo looped off the slack in the rope and peered at Wrightwick’s face, barely visible in the darkness. “I’ll do both and be back to get you in less than five minutes.” Without waiting for a response, he scurried up the rope as quick as a monkey and threw his legs over the railing.

###

Cosmo found the low-slung afterdeck of the ironclad unguarded. He scrambled up a slimy metal slope to the main deck using a careful mixture of speed and stealth.

On the foredeck, pirates were silhouetted against the flames of the Royal Edward. To avoid the many invisible guy wires running from the main coal stack to the forward and aft masts, Cosmo stuck to the starboard gangway. The surface of the floating hunk of metal felt greasy beneath his bare feet. Its steady vibration made his eyes dance.

Cosmo froze when a metal hatch burst open a few feet away. A single man leapt out and rushed toward the bow, leaving the hatch open.

Cosmo’s next move became obvious. In a single movement, he plunged below deck. Gripping the sides of a metal ladder with his feet and hands, he slid into the stifling hot belly of the ironclad. As Cosmo shuffled along a narrow corridor illuminated by red bulbs, two voices echoed in the distance. Increasing his pace, Cosmo reached an open doorway as a pirate emerged.

“What—”

Cosmo jammed the palm of his hand into the man’s jaw and shoved him back into the cabin with his shoulder. Before the second man could respond, Cosmo struck him upside the head with a backward roundhouse. The force of the kick bounced the pirate off an iron bulkhead.

Swearing through broken teeth, the first man threw a sloppy punch.

Cosmo countered with a knife punch to the man’s throat and monkey knuckles to his solar plexus.

Both pirates dropped without another sound.

Cosmo assessed his surroundings. Everything around him was outmoded except two pieces of modern equipment. One had a handset resting in a cradle covered with dials. Cosmo knew it instantly to be what Barnard had called a ‘wireless.’

The second piece of modern equipment revealed its purpose by spitting out a constant stream of narrow paper printed with a language Cosmo couldn’t read. Combined, the machines told Cosmo the pirates were not working alone. Not only had someone given them orders, but that someone required direct communication.

Cosmo checked the corridor. He hesitated. If this was a coordinated attack, with whom were the pirates working? And how closely?

An explosion thundered in the distance. The Edward. Cosmo checked the rest of the cabins below deck in a matter of seconds without finding anyone or anything of interest.

Above deck, Cosmo encountered a pirate immediately. During the man’s momentary hesitation, Cosmo climbed his massive frame like a tree. From behind, Cosmo wrapped both arms around the man’s neck and forced his chin against his chest until he blacked out. As the pirate crumpled, Cosmo flipped his limp body over the railing and into the sea.

“We’ve been boarded!”

Cosmo’s shoulders sagged as yet another pirate ruined his element of surprise. Stealth now worthless, speed was all that mattered. If Cosmo could catch the man or reach the foredeck first…

Cosmo burst into an adrenaline-fueled sprint. Swinging around a guy wire, he planted both feet and leapt over the main deck railing. He struck the forty-five degree slope of the armor with his backside and slid to the lower foredeck on the heels of the fleeing pirate.

As Cosmo bounded after him, a plume of blinding flame filled the night sky. Another explosion, larger than those before it, rocked the Royal Edward. The shockwave threw Cosmo to his hands and knees. “No.”

He couldn’t accept the possibility of failure. Yet, the dying faces of the Edward’s passengers crowded his mind’s eye. His grim imagination focused on the face of Pettigrew, the missionary.

Cosmo opened his eyes. His head swam. His ears rang. Beside him, the pirate he’d been pursuing was shaking off his own stupor. Cosmo knew he had to recover quickly. If he could seize control of the ironclad, he could rescue the survivors of the Edward. It wasn’t too late.

“You’re too late, boy.” Strong hands gripped Cosmo’s ankles and yanked his knees out from under him. Before he could counter, two more men grabbed his arms and bound them behind his back. The leader punched Cosmo in the back of the head, causing his chin to bounce off the surface of the ironclad. “You managed to mess up two of my crew, but I’m putting an end to that now. Whoever you are.”

Cosmo couldn’t see straight, but he could talk. “Three men.”

“What was that?” The leader gripped Cosmo’s short hair and wrenched his head back.

Cosmo struggled to swallow. “I threw one of them overboard.”

“Did you?” The man drove a fist into Cosmo’s kidney. “There’s something I want you to see before I slit your throat.”

“What’s that?”

“I want you to see the sinking of the ship you died to protect.”

The two men holding Cosmo yanked him to his feet.

Cosmo focused his eyes on the Royal Edward. It was still afloat.

“As you can see, she hasn’t sunk yet.” They proceeded to the foremost railing. The leader slipped to the side of Cosmo and pointed port side of the burning Edward. “But she soon will.”

Cosmo couldn’t see what the pirate was pointing at, but he heard bloodlust in the man’s voice. Something terrible was about to happen. He struggled against his captors. They pinned his legs against the railing and nearly wrenched his arms from their sockets.

“Can’t see it? The foam rising? The swirls of diesel floating on the water’s surface, sparkling just so in the light of the flames?” The pirate captain lowered his voice, as if he were in a temple dedicated to the worship of violence. “Just watch. You’ll see what happens next.”

Before the words had left the Captain’s mouth, Cosmo saw a sleek metal rod protrude from the surface of the frothing sea—only thirty yards away. Then a larger and flatter surface parted the water in a surge of foam. A submarine.

###

Cosmo’s mind raced. He didn’t understand.

As if answering his thoughts, the pirate captain continued. “We only had to make it look like a pirate attack. You know, incase of survivors. We’re the only ones who’ll know the truth.”

Cosmo lunged at the captain with his head, but the pirate pulled away. He laughed. “I like you, kid. Whoever you are.” He returned his gaze to the water. “Now pay attention, here comes the best part. Probably no more than a few hundred men have witnessed what you’re about to, and survived to tell the tale.”

Cosmo didn’t want to watch, but his curiosity was too great, the situation too terrible. In a rush of bubbles, a torpedo burst from the nose of the submarine and sped toward the Edward. Only feet below the surface of the choppy water, the rise and wake of the self-propelled bomb was clearly visible in the firelight.

As the torpedo struck the hull of the Royal Edward, a series of events unfolded too quickly for Cosmo to react. The men securing Cosmo dropped flat against the deck of the ironclad, temporarily forgetting their captive. A spray of water struck Cosmo. A blast of heat evaporated the moisture and threw Cosmo backward.

The roar of the explosion caught up with Cosmo as he slammed into the main coal stack. He groped the side of his body, checking for broken or protruding bones. The iron clad bucked and rose on the waves caused by the exploding torpedo.

Convinced he would survive his injuries, Cosmo staggered to his feet using handholds welded into the coal stack. The first thing he saw was the pirate captain buckled at the waist. Cosmo steeled his will and pushed his pain down deep. This could be his last chance.

“That was even better than I had hoped!” The captain straightened, his fists clenched at his side. “Have you ever experienced such a thing?”

Cosmo froze. The captain had gotten as close as possible to the explosion on purpose. He was mad, and his madness made him unpredictable. Plus, with the submarine to worry about, Cosmo couldn’t simply seize control of the ironclad.

He could no longer hope to save the Edward or its passengers. Drowning in doubt, Cosmo wondered if he could save himself. Where would he go?

He scanned the main deck of the ironclad and located an emergency box, like the one onboard the Edward. This one was metal, rather than glass. He couldn’t be sure of its contents. But if it contained a flare gun and flares…

He sized-up the nearest exhaust pipe leading to and from the engine room below deck. It’s head-high opening was large enough for Cosmo to force a flare gun into it. He stopped himself short of action. This was the stupidest plan he’d ever concocted. Worse than the time he’d tried to sell vipers as pets.

Maybe he should jump overboard and hope for the best. A dozen large wooden crates, the mysterious cargo from the Edward, were floating nearby. He stepped closer to the starboard gangway and its railing.

“Hold on there, kid.” The pirate captain held his hands up palms outward. “No need to bellyflop into the big blue. I was only kidding earlier about that whole slit-your-throat thing.”

Cosmo shifted his eyes from the railing to the emergency box to the captain.

The captain’s back was to the burning and sinking wreckage of the Royal Edward, his face enshrouded in darkness. “Hey, I tell you what.” The captain held his ground a dozen yards away. “Seeing how you’ve played a part in me being short staffed, the least you can do is fill a vacancy here on the Rochambeau. I already seen you can fight.”

A third possibility blossomed. If the captain could be trusted, joining the pirates might be Cosmo’s best chance of setting foot on solid ground. Whatever the decision, Cosmo had to decide quickly.

END of Episode 1

 

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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DMB Files, Ep1

Click HERE for a downloadable version

Rub’ al Khali, 1996

Smoke and sand and blood. Handhold over handhold, I scrambled into a cleft. The echo of my father’s voice had succumbed to a wash of indistinguishable terror—worse than the two tomcats I’d locked in the garage. Worse than the sobs at my mother’s wake. Worse, God. Just simply worse.

I froze, clinging to the rock, midway up the face. I couldn’t look back. The gentle ticking of claws on rock gave way to heavy breathing from lungs thick with blood as black as oil. My pulse ripped through my extremities. Dropping onto the tiny ledge, I drew my pocket knife and flicked it open in a single movement.

Screaming, I lunged at the twitcher, determined to silence the nightmare looping through my brain. His ruddy skin stretched across his face like dried leather split by two rows of jagged, yellow teeth. His eyes were closed or gone, stitched shut against the blinding desert sun.

Well-oiled blade clutched in trembling hand, I dove for the beast’s neck—the spot my father had shown me. Right here, Buck. Cut the carotid and not even a twitcher will get up. He didn’t make the slightest effort to move. I closed my eyes, expecting the impact, expecting a burst of blood, expecting the slash of his claws across my face.

Instead there was nothing. I had died without even feeling it.

With effort I swallowed the lump in my throat. I opened my eyes, shocked to find the twitcher still there, the tip of my blade lightly dimpling the weather-worn flesh of his neck. Then the right half his body slumped and fell away from the rock face, followed shortly by the rest of him. In the twitcher’s place stood a man—a man so wrinkled his flesh looked cut and stacked, layer upon layer, and finally stitched together with catgut or fishing twine. He held the largest scimitar I’d ever seen. From tip to hilt, it was longer than I was tall.

The man grinned, a gesture I would’ve found terrifying hours earlier. With an upturned palm, he gestured toward the ledge upon which we stood. I looked down. As my body gently lowered, I realized I’d been levitating. He closed his hand, and my body became my own again.

“Who—”

“In time, Little Buck. In time.”


University of Texicas, Present Day

Seventeen confirmed dead. The newscast had been relevant enough to bypass the stringent filters I kept in place on my augmented reality glasses. With my eyes, I swept the report of the latest attack by the Truth in History Society from the top left of the lens view and filed it in the stop-freaking-bothering-me folder. As per habit, I ensured my background mind remained safely engaged with my student pass/fail routine.

More than a few of my students’ fingers had wandered upward toward the temple buttons of their ubiquitous augmented reality glasses. Obviously the news had completely interrupting my lecture on lateral transmission by an archaic viral particle. I switched my own glasses to sleep mode, but the damage had been done. The incessant ARGs and repugnant THS had combined to necessitate a departure from my syllabus. What the hell, the semester was all but over.

I kicked the flimsy metal podium from the dais. The crash resounded off the two-foot-thick stone walls of the main building. The 150-year-old structure at the center of the University of Texicas campus predated Texas’s secession in 1922 by almost fifty years. Attempts to increase the security of the building, including affixing all the windows, had resulted in an intolerable sweat box assigned to the professors with the lowest class enrollment. Since my arrival two years earlier, that title had belonged to me—Jim “Buck” Buckner, son of Doc “Snipe Hunt” Buckner.

During the collective gasp, I formed a mental image of my fifteen-year-old daughter, Evie. She shook her head disapprovingly. As I opened my mouth to speak, her reprimand rattled in my head. You don’t always have to be right, Daddy. No, I didn’t have to be right. I simply was.

“Change of topic. We’ll call it applied genetics.” I wiped sweat from my forehead, and ran my fingers through my hair. “What does the Truth in History Society want you to believe?”

After several seconds, one of my back-row, gifted underachievers spoke up. “That we’re all gonna die.”

“Cogent and pithy as usual. Now can someone help Mr. Carson elaborate?” Total silence followed. The class had been conditioned to skirt the controversial issue I now confronted them with directly. “Rodger, care to get the ball rolling?” I turned toward my least-annoying teaching assistant.

Rodger cleared his throat. “Uh, the THS’s central message is that the twitch constitutes the largest threat humanity has ever faced.”

“Very good. I see you’ve been paying attention to the recruitment rhetoric.” I turned toward the class. “But what do they want us to believe?”

Samantha, one of my brighter students, raised her hand part way before hesitating. She was an attractive girl not unlike how my daughter could look in another few years.

“Yes, Samantha?”

“They want us to believe that agents within the Texicas government designed the twitch as a biological weapon, that these agents have deployed it across the world to kill hundreds of thousands, and that even research from our own campus has contributed.”

“Exactly right. Now let me tell you exactly why the THS are wrong.” It embarrassed me that science majors could know so little about a retrovirus that had ravaged the breadbasket of their own continent a hundred years ago. Teaching them this one thing could be worth the entire semester.

“Whether you believe them to be activists or terrorists, in reality the THS are fear mongers perpetuating ignorance.” I unclenched my fists and softened my tone before continuing. “A profound and dangerous ignorance of which I do not wish my students to be victim.”

I glanced at the reduced readout of my ARGs. Only a few minutes of class remained, yet the students were erect, attentive, desperate even. I knew at least one of them was providing the administration with a direct link, so they could monitor my every word. I also knew even Evie would support my next move.

“It has been well-documented among the scientific community that the twitch is an aggressive retrovirus. It’s dangerous. The Truth in History Society has gotten that much right. But the twitch is not a modern bioweapon. It’s an echo of an ancient human broadcast—Darwin’s radio, if you will.”

I gazed across a sea of glazed eyes, victims of my scientific fustigation. I doubled back in effort to explain myself. “Look, twenty years ago we considered over 80% of human DNA to be what we irreverently labeled ‘junk.’ Even after realizing our overstep, we were forced to fumble about with a tremendous amount of noncoding DNA.”

I flicked a quick doodle on the imaging board without turning my back to the class. “If this strand of human DNA were a mile long, this much,” I circled and jabbed at the board behind and above me, “a section the length of this building, would contain the total amount currently expressing itself as human. What about the rest?” I demurred in the direction of my TA. “Rodger? Any ideas?”

He shrugged. “Dead ends. Replication errors that were bound to happen after trillions and trillions of—”

I waved my hand to cut him off. “We’ve forgotten ourselves.” I started the pass/fail loop in my background brain again so as not to spoil my focus. “But not completely. These dormant or non-expressive genes cluttering up our DNA aren’t all dead. They aren’t junk, or mistakes. They are files storing away a record of human evolution.”

Momentarily, I wished I still had my podium to pound. Instead I held my curled fingers upward as if grasping an ethereal truth. “In case…” I swallowed. Evie’s anxious look played across my mind, the one that indicated my adolescent daughter worried about me as much as I did her. “In case we need to go back.”

No es posible. Why would we need to go back?” Mr. Carson, upset at being stuck with a professor ridiculed by mainstream science, croaked from the top row of the lecture hall.

I paused. More than a few of the students were fidgeting with their ARGs. Maybe I still wasn’t getting through to them. Or maybe…

“Uh, excuse me, Professor Buckner—” Rodger hailed me.

“What is it now?” I templed my ARGs back to life. Instantly, a staff-level message flashed in the lens view. Campus-wide security threat level has been raised to orange. Requesting all students be kept in class until threat level reduced to yellow. “All right, all right. Assuming half of you have already hacked the threat-level warning, I’ll go ahead and inform the other half that class will be going long today.”

Muttering erupted across the room.

“Freedom to speak freely is granted.”

Mr. Carson burst out immediately. “It’s a bunch of mierda. The administration just doesn’t want a protest on their hands.”

“Protesting what? The development of a bioweapon or the killing of seventeen innocent people this morning?” Silence ensued. I nodded. “Before you decide, you should have all the facts. As I was saying, the twitch is a retrovirus, but unlike human immunodeficiency virus or other commonly known retroviruses, the twitch carries with it a key to unlocking a portion of our genetic history. The symptoms you recognize as twitch infection are reactivated pseudogenes which, for God knows how long, have been noncoding. For all we know the virus could be nature’s way of saving us.”

I clutched my fist in the air as if wrapping my fingers around an invisible dagger. “Or, indeed, killing us. Why is this important?” Silence floated upon the humidity. “As long as we continue to vilify geopolitical entities, as the THS would have us do, we fail to recognize and respond to the true threat.”

“Which is?” Mr. Carson had leaned forward, betraying his interest.

We were heading for choppy waters, ones that could compromise me. But we were stuck together until the all-clear, and I wanted them to think at least one independent thought this term. Even if it scared the hell out of them, and me. “De novo syndrome.”

Several students sat straight in their chairs. Even those playing with their ARGs returned their attention. Samantha offered, “Isn’t that just another name for the twitch?”

I flinched, clenching my eyes shut as the pass/fail routine self-corrected based on this new bit of ignorance and my considerable disappointment. “No, Samantha, it is most certainly not.”

“But the THS—”

I cut her off. “The THS does not differentiate where you should.”

Mr. Carson interjected. “I thought de novo was an invention of the conservatives to convince us to keep our wangs in our pants.”

“While I’m sure everyone in this room would appreciate any and all efforts to keep your wang out of the public arena, Mr. Carson—”

He smiled broadly.

“—de novo is a much more serious threat to humanity’s survival than the twitch. Who can tell me the meaning of the Latin words de novo?”

The now dejected Samantha offered the answer directly, “Fresh start, or to begin anew.”

I nodded, wondering whether my rebuke of her earlier had been too brash. “The syndrome of continually starting over.” I swallowed a swelling tide of ever-fresh grief. “It’s as if someone jammed the accelerator of a vactrain and supercharged the electromagnetic field without extending the track.” Gritting my teeth, I slammed my fist into my palm. “The ride comes to an end pretty damn fast.”

“That’s horrible.” Samantha mumbled the words out loud unintentionally before staring at the floor.

“Yes,” I nodded. “Yes, it is. De novo syndrome is an autosomal dominant genetic disorder passed on to the progeny of an unexpressive carrier of the twitch.” I paused to steady my voice. “Essentially, every other child of someone carrying the twitch virus will contract de novo syndrome, meaning by the year 2030, in less than a decade, upwards of 40% of the human population will have a 50/50 chance of surviving their twenties.”

“Professor Buckner,” Rodger, my ever-annoying TA, found his voice again. “Would you mind explaining how exactly someone who has spent most of his career chasing down the tree of life knows so much about the twitch?”

There it was, the ace of trump. “Cleverly played, Rodger. In a single question you have managed to simultaneously insult, disparage and accuse.”

He narrowed his eyes, unwilling to feel remorse.

While impressed with his gonads, I had no intention of jeopardizing my continued research or university funding to satisfy a quibble with a bunch of jóvenes sin pelo. My pilfering of ancient DNA to rediscover the lost gene for encoding immortal chromosome replication would not only save my Evie, it would change the game forever. Stepping back from the edge of the dais, I blotted the sweat from my brow and gathered myself emotionally.

“All right then, since you asked and we’ve nowhere else to go, I’ll address each of the three in order. First, the insult means nothing coming from you seeing how you know less than nothing about the work I’ve dedicated my career to. Second, I could share with you the importance of my work, but then someone would most likely kill both of us.”

A few snickers bubbled around the room.

“And as for the accusation, I can assure everyone in the class, my work has absolutely nothing to do with the twitch. None of my colleagues’ work pertains to the twitch.” I took a deep breath. “There is absolutely no truth behind the accusations of the THS.”

My last statement had been interrupted by a staff-level bulletin flashing in the corner of my lens view. Before I could announce the threat level being lifted to yellow, the bell rang, causing several students to jump. By the time the bell’s echo leached into the porous stone, the class had risen from their chairs en masse. They were happy to be exiting the least secure building on campus during a time of fear and uncertainty.

“Think for yourself.” While eye-clicking my ARGs to bring up the filtered briefing of the morning attack, I moved toward the door to preside over the students’ departure.

Seventeen confirmed dead, possibly several dozen casualties, in a medium-sized skirmish across the border from Texarkana. Both military and civilian targets, soft and hard. THS has claimed responsibility, restating their intent to strike a campus of higher education next in order to “gain the full attention of the next generation.”


Ignoring the trickle of sweat running down the curve of my spine, I continued to nod and smile as the students filed out the door. Despite what the newscast had said, I found it hard to believe the THS would risk alienating the very audience most sympathetic to their cause.

“Your work,” Samantha bumped into me amidst the flood of students, “to find the tree of life…” her eyes fluttered before locking mine in a gaze somewhere between rage and urgency, maybe passion, “…to lengthen the track indefinitely. I don’t think it’s a joke.”

I frowned. Had she made the connection between my quest for ancient plant DNA and de novo? My breathing hitched. Did she know about Evie?

Before the crush swept her past me, she grasped my wrist. “Just be careful.”

Moments later, the sweltering lecture hall had emptied of all but me and the humidity. Even my students were taking a guardian role in my life—wasted sentiment, all of it. My confidence in my theory remained unwavering. Somewhere in the past, whether 50,000 years ago or 250,000—I didn’t know how far back I’d have to travel—at some point in human history the lost gene had not only been a part of the human genome, but interwoven within the fabric of creation. I only needed one preserved sample.

But I needed it soon.

With a sigh, I palmed my tablet and flung my book bag over my shoulder. Fleeing the oppressive swell of humidity and  stink of human sweat, I hoofed it for my office at the other end of the building. I intended to make the most of my short break before being required in the lab.

On the way down the hall, my standard background routine of counting floor tiles and searching for new cracks in the plaster ceiling succumbed to worries about Evie. My regimented world of mental discipline fractured, sparking off my first unintentional cascade in months.

Nearly running, I slammed into my office door too hard and lost my books and tablet in the process. After rebounding off the corridor wall, I gripped my wrist in an effort to steady my hand for the palm scan beside the door.

Images, algorithms, potential outcomes and scenarios tumbled through my mind, bursting from the background subconscious like propellant in search of a spark. I stumbled toward the palm scan. My eyes twitched and blurred, sending confused signals to the ARGs I had neglected to hibernate.

Missing the scan, my spasming hand pounded against the wall as my ARGs brought up recent voice messages. Unwillingly, my gaze fell on one name: Evelyn Buckner. Evie’s message from a week earlier began vibrating in my head.

Your selfishness never ceases to amaze me, Dad. That you could even consider a field trip to one of your dusty digs an appropriate celebration of your daughter’s fifteenth birthday! For the love of Leone! I only came because I thought you were going to surprise me. Surprise. You put your work ahead of your daughter, again. Congratulations. I fell for it.

The message ended, then repeated, but only as a hum in the back of my mind. Both subconscious and conscious were already revisiting the scene from a week earlier—I sat with Evie in a dingy, small-town diner near my latest dig.


The waitress left with our order—cheeseburger and fries for Evie, chicken-fried steak for me. As a recent Texicas transplant, the dish held a degree of novelty for me. I bounced playfully on the worn-out springs of the brown, naugahyde booth.

“Pretty.” Evie raised a brow as if expecting me to finish her thought.

“Thank you. I do my best.” I ran my hand across my bristled cheek.

“The waitress.”

I hadn’t failed to notice how the waitress’s seductive southern drawl and graceful swagger matched the plunge of her neckline for their lack of subtlety. “Today I’m thinking only of you.”

Evie feigned a smile. “Mmm, I never get tired of the smell of grease.”

“No, this place is good. You’ll like it.” I reached for her hand.

She used it to take a drink of water before continuing. “Oh, not the restaurant. I was referring to you.” She put the drink down in order to pinch her nose.

“Funny.” I removed my Indiana Jones-style hat to run my hand through my hair. “Hmm, you have a point.”

She rolled her eyes. “I always have a point, Dad. The question is, do you?” She glanced around indicating the entirety of the situation. “Please say you do.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but she wasn’t finished.

“A good one.”

I waited a second longer.

“Well?”

Moments earlier I had felt confident about spending my daughter’s fifteenth birthday in the field—a chance to get out of the city, get some fresh air, just the two of us. I thought that had been the point. In a blink I interrupted my background routine on calculating the daily caloric intake of an average Texicas citizen and reassigned the process to analyzing the quality and quantity of time spent with Evie throughout the two-day trip.

“The point is to spend quality time with my favorite daughter.”

She deflated instantly.

“What?”

¿Todo existe, nada más? What you see is what you get?”

“It’s an adventure.”

“It’s a working lunch, Dad. My friends are getting quinceañeras, and I’m getting written off as an expense.”

“Honey,” I shook my head, “that’s not fair. We’re not even—”

“It’s not the quinceañera, not the formal celebration anyway. It’s us. It’s this…” she motioned her hand back and forth between us, “…this act.”

“It’s never been an act. Not with you.”

“Dad, I’m dying and you can’t even spend my birthday without working on the cure. How is that not an act?”

My lungs seized as if I’d inhaled a hornets’ nest. “I’m not. This isn’t—”

She gave me her look—her characteristic mixture of pity and sadness. “I’m sure by now your calculations have clarified you’ve spent the majority of the last two days interacting directly with me. And you have.” She reached across the table and took my hand—a gesture I should have initiated.

“I love you, Dad, but you have to understand that it’s not the same. Saving me, and being with me—you can’t do both at the same time.”

“But all of this—”

“No.” She slapped the table, her curly, long hair bouncing with sudden anger. “I don’t want it. Don’t you get it?”

I objected. “It’s important.”

“You’re damn right it’s important.”

Her swearing surprised me further. She had so much passion, despite her usual efforts to keep it beneath the surface of her swimming, brown eyes.

“It’s too important for just me. Your work should be for everyone. It’s for the human race, Dad. I don’t want it or need it.”

I swallowed hard, turning briefly toward the counter where the waitress stared back with a pained expression on her face. We locked eyes, neither of us making an effort to disguise the moment. Normally I would have winked and made a note to give her my number later. Instead she nodded slowly and resumed a rhythmic wiping of the counter.

Meanwhile, I’d forgotten Evie. The digression shocked me. I checked my background routine, surprisingly still on task. Without thinking further, I assigned it to a general five-sense recon of the diner before forcing my wet eyes toward Evie. I had no response.

Exasperated, she exhaled all her tiresome efforts to reform me in a single breath. “I just want you.”

Nothing, no mental or emotional challenge during my entire life, had made any less sense. I was trying my hardest, and failing. “I’m giving you everything I have.”

“No. No, you’re not.” She rose from the booth, her emotional shield back in place. On cue the waitress appeared with our lunches. Oddly, Evie’s was in a paper bag. She took it without hesitation. “I’m eating my lunch outside. I suggest you finish yours here while using your overactive mind to figure out the difference between dedicating your work and your heart.”

I stared at the plate of smoldering hot beef—tenderized, battered and fried. Behind me the diner door tinkled as the bells above it indicated Evie had exited. I stabbed my fork into the meat and angrily sawed it with my wooden-handled steak knife. My work and my heart were one in the same. I had to make Evie understand that. Failure was not an option.


Evie’s voice swirled in the current of my thoughts, rising to the surface amid smells of greasy diner and snatches of fear.

“Daddy?”

The flashback had focused the unbridled cascade of thoughts on a sensory experience multilayered enough to lure my subconscious mind into its proper place. Something more solid had set the hook.

“Daddy, it’s me.”

“Evie.” Blinking, I surfaced to Evie’s concerned face inches from my own. “Help me up.”

She tugged me to my feet, and propped me against the wall of the corridor. To steady my transition, I left the memory scenario of the diner running in the background. From experience I knew I’d been incapacitated for less than a minute, possibly as little as a dozen seconds.

The cascades were like seizures without the residual effect on my mental processes. Quite the opposite, they often brought a new clarity to my conscious thought via a sort of mental branding. But the experiences were equally terrifying and humbling. I struggled to focus my eyes down the length of the hall.

“No one else saw, but some students are coming.” Evie held my wrist.

With her help I palmed the lock to my office. If a colleague witnessed a full-fledged cascade it could mean my job and my research. My Evie. For years I’d held my mind together with discipline and duct tape. “You were right.”

The door clicked open. Together we stepped into my office. “About what?”

“At the diner, you were right about a lot of things.”

“I was angry.” She caught the door with her foot. “Here’s your desk.” She waited for me to place my hands on its surface. “You got it?”

I nodded.

She whisked into the hall to gather my bag and tablet.

I slumped into my chair and rested my elbows on the desk. Reality had forced me to grow accustomed to being weak and vulnerable in front of Evie. It hurt that she took the brunt of my condition, but I’d ceased fighting what I could do nothing about. “Most of my life is an act. The whole professor bit. The turned-down collar and lab coat. Even the ladies’ man. You were right about that.”

“Dad.” Shaking her head, she set my things on the desk in between us.

“One thing will always betray the reality.” I held my hand in front of my face and stated what should have been obvious to everyone. “I have dirt under my nails.” Dirt and duct tape, and Evie. Those were the only honest things about me.

“You’re not making any sense.”

I rested my hands on the desk, palms up. I shifted my gaze to the tablet. Instead of the display, I focused on the face reflecting back at me in the blackened screen. The skin revealed nothing of the inner mileage. Outside, my confident symmetry and muscled ruggedness hinted at the variety of experiences I’d tackled and mastered in life.

Evie tried to understand, but I alone bore the tiredness from straining at the reins of a mind that could not rest. The way I figured it, and I’d spent 8,962 hours figuring it, my grey matter would be turning 1,000 years old by summer.

I continued, “Not you. Never my relationship with you. Since the first day, you and I,” I slid my hand across the desk, “that’s been real.”

She pulled up a chair, sat across from me, and took my hand in hers. “I know, Daddy.”

My vision returned to normal, save a halo shimmering around the idyllic image of my teenage daughter sitting across from me—rambunctious hair and Jewish nose like her mother’s. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier she’d picked up almost nothing from me. Almost nothing. Unfortunately, in that moment I saw again my tiredness, my melancholy. She must have seen the same things staring back at her.

“I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t said those things.”

“No, you meant them and had full right to speak your mind.” I squeezed her hand, doing my best to smile. “And how is it you are always the first to apologize? I’m the one who is sorry. A crusty old dig was a horrible way to spend your fifteenth birthday. I want to make it up to you.”

“With a movie night featuring two of my all-time favorite Spaghetti Westerns, 100 Rifles and Duck, You Sucker?”

“How did you—”

She cleared her throat and nodded toward the contents of my bag, now scattered across the surface of my desk. “You sort of dropped your things.” She smiled, the tip of her nose dipping slightly and her eyes twinkling.

“You’re the most beautiful daughter a father could have.”

“Da-ad.” After drawing the word into two syllables, she punctuated the reprimand by punching me in the shoulder.

“Okay, okay.” I held up my hands. “Not that I’m ungrateful for the save, but why aren’t you in school?”

“Friday?” She lowered a brow. “Early release? Did you hit your head in the hallway?”

I slapped my forehead. “Sorry, of course. I knew that.”

“I just thought I’d help my old man unlock his office before I marched home to dutifully start my homework.”

“But it’s a Friday.”

“Uh,” she interrupted me. “The more important question is, why are you carrying this around in your book bag, today of all days?” She held up an old book without its cover and handed it to me.

I quickly ascertained it was an old dime serial published as a single novel—exactly the sort of thing Evie and I collected together. “It’s not mine.”

She stared at me without changing expression.

“I get it. So you’re getting me gifts on your birthday now.”

“Nice try. I’m not buying it. Come on, Dad. It’s not like it’s pornography or something.”

I resisted the urge to shift awkwardly in my chair.

“You don’t have to hide it.”

“Hide?” I genuinely didn’t understand what she was getting at.

She rolled her eyes before thumping the back of the book.

I turned it over in my hands, finally noticing a stamp on the back of the last page—two round columns, one on either side of the letters, T H and S. “Good God.” I flipped to the second page, “The Austin Job, a Western by David Mark Brown.” I dropped the book, foolishly, as if reading the title could conjure a deathly hex.

“Really. Really?” My daughter was all business. “So we aren’t going to discuss this like adults?”

Shaking my head, I took the book up again. One of the rarer lost DMB files, and the first one I’d ever physically seen, the slight paperback represented one of over three dozen stories the Truth in History Society claimed to preserve the secret truth about the origins of the twitch and the people behind it.

The people behind it. As if a secret society of ancient scientists intentionally designed the retrovirus almost a hundred years before modern medicine managed to come to grips with it. “Honey, I know they’re just stories. But the Truth in History Society isn’t fiction. They’re dangerous. You of all people should know that.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Okay, strike that.” I placed the book down in front of me. “I know you’re curious. That’s a good thing. I’ll read it.” I tried to regain the playfulness from a moment earlier. “It’ll be fun. We can read it together.”

“Gee, that’d be swell, Dad.” She feigned excitement. “That still doesn’t explain where you got it.”

“Come on, Evie. I know you got it for me. Really, I like it. I’m sorry I overreacted.”

For the first time she seemed genuinely perplexed. “No, I didn’t. I promise.”

“Wait. If you didn’t—” a thought flashed. Yanking open the bottom drawer of my desk, I removed an accordion folder and fetched the first letter I came across. Already in the heap atop my desk was a paper-clipped pile of midterms. Twice a term I still demanded the students put actual pen to paper.

I removed the midterm I wanted and placed it immediately next to the letter, I huffed. The handwriting was different. Samantha had not been the one sending me solicitous letters, claiming to be a member of the THS in dire need of my expertise. Still, the attack, the threat level, her bumping into me, and finding this book in my bag could not all be coincidence. Exhausted of sending letters, the radical conspiracist organization had felt it necessary to prove they could touch me directly at the place of my work.

“Dad, you’re freaking me out.”

I templed my ARGs. Several minutes remained until I was expected at the lab, and no calls had come through. “Sorry, honey. It’s just that, after the attack today, and,” I slid her the folder of letters, “I’ve been getting letters from someone within the THS for months now.”

“What?” She snatched up a letter and scanned it. “That’s so cool!”

“Evelyn Buckner.” I scowled.

She fumbled over her enthusiasm. “Not what they did today, that was horrible. Killing civilians?” Genuine sorrow transformed her to a much older person. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not their style.”

“Not their style? So you’ve been doing research, have you?”

She rolled her eyes, all teenager again. “But this, you have to admit, it’s totally cloak and dagger.”

I struggled to remember being her age, able to embrace adventure with innocent fervor. The memory wasn’t so far removed as I might have thought. “Yeah. I suppose you’re right.”

“Darn right I’m right.” She snatched the book. “That means this book contains a hidden message.”

I tried to take it back, but she fended me off.

“Wait.” She paced. “Let’s just see what we’ve got here.” She thumbed a few pages into the story and began reading out loud:

The heat and stench licked Oleg’s skin, beads of sweat forming on his forehead, dripping down the ridge of his nose. He split the herd. Stepping over bodies spent of fuel, crushing brittle skulls with his heel, retarding tongues of flame through sheer discipline—he imposed an angry contrast from the corrupt chattel of government and the slaves to wealth surrounding him. Their own predictable indulgence forfeited them to the flames. Tonight he freed them from the illusion of a happiness found in others’ misery.

“Sheesh, a bit on the melodramatic side even for pulp.”

“Not bad for a beginning.” I joined her. “Here, my turn.” She relented, and I skimmed several chapters until a handwritten note in red ink caught my attention. “Hello.”

“What is it?”

I lowered the book so we could both see it. Then I read the simple note out loud. “You are here.” The three words had been underlined and connected to a section of circled text. I read the text:

Tired as he was, he knew this to be the game. Moves and countermoves. He had thrown the gambit, and one of his knights had fallen. He hoped to get her back. Taking another drink of purified water, he closed his eyes. His memories the only intoxicant he allowed himself, he stumbled briefly into the past. But with a twitch his lip curled as the memory turned unpleasant. He opened his eyes, shaking the image from his mind.

Placing the flask back in the desk, he shuffled to the bookcase where he studied the narrow spine of a nondescript book reading, “What is to be Done?” Tipping the top corner, he opened the hidden passageway from his office to his lab. This sour time will soon pass.


“Creepy.” Evie resumed her pacing. “What do you think it means? You are here?”

Quickly I scanned the rest of the text for similar notes. Finding none, I returned to the puzzling passage. “I’m not sure.” Someone within the THS had gone through considerable effort to send me the message, and I wasn’t even sure if it was meant to threaten or comfort.

You are here. I considered memorizing the passage so I could run a background routine on it later, but decided the mystery wasn’t worth the effort. I glanced at the time in my lens view. “I hate to be a party pooper, but if we’re gonna have that movie night I need to get over to the lab.

Evie slumped, emphasizing her disappointment with a long sigh.

“Here, you can take the book with you.” I handed it over. “I’ve got an afternoon meeting, a few things to tidy up, and I’ll be home before dinner.”

“Wait!” Evie jumped. “What if it means physically, you are here?” She tossed the book at me while scampering toward the nearest book shelf. “Have you even looked at these musty old things?”

I shrugged. “Most of them were here when I assumed the office. Academic volumes—history, science, a bit of everything.”

“How about a ditty called, What is to be Done?” She blinked at me while making Bambi eyes.

“An early Marxist pamphlet by Lenin, if I recall.”

If you recall? Oh, Dad. Your false modesty can be so cute.” She stared at me. “Well?”

I stared back, shifted my gaze to the bookshelf, then to my daughter. “You win.” Without thinking further about the ramifications of the current trajectory of my actions, I proceeded to run my finger along the several hundred book spines crowding my office. Most of them were dusty volumes as dry on the inside as out. Or so I had assumed.

Evie watched for almost a fruitless minute before chiding me. “You’re doing it again.”

“What?”

“The old man way. Here,” she gently tapped the temple of my ARGs, “repeat after me.”

“So this is what being lectured feels like.”

“It’s for your own good.”

Maybe my daughter was more like me than I thought. “I’m ready.”

She spoke slowly, relishing the reversal. “ISBN scan, What is to be Done? by Vladimir Lenin.”

I repeated the words verbatim.

“Now stand back and scan the entire length of the shelf.”

In less than ten seconds I had followed Evie’s instructions. Sorry, there were no results matching your query. The words flashed three times and then disappeared. “It says there are no matching results.”

“Really?”

“Sorry.” What had she expected? A secret passageway? As I turned toward my desk something on the shelf caught my eye—Russian script. “Hmmm.”

“You see something?”

I tapped my ARGs again. “Translate into English.” Stopping less than a foot from the binding of the book, the lens view flashed, What is to be Done, Nikolay Chernyshevsky. “Of course.”

“Stop holding out on me.” Evie stamped.

“Lenin based his pamphlet on a novel by the same name.” I laughed, less about the discovery than to cover the awkwardness of what I was about to do. A secret passage leading to a clandestine lab revealed by tipping a book on a bookshelf. I had enacted the same exact scenario as a boy dozens of times, but without actually expecting the wall to open.

Evie clutched my arm, bouncing up and down. “Oh my God, I see it. Just like in The Austin Job.”

I smirked. Of course I didn’t expect it to open this time either. Still, as I reached for the unassuming cloth binding, I couldn’t deny my accelerated heart rate.


With a single finger, I tugged down on the top of the binding. It held fast. Evie clung to me tighter. I licked my lips. “These books probably haven’t been disturbed for over a decade. The greases from my finger have already decreased the value of the antiquity by a few bucks.”

“Have I ever told you scientists can be a drag?”

“I believe so, yes.” Damn, she was right. I wasn’t thinking like a man with dirt under my nails. “Stand back.”

Evie backed away reluctantly.

Prepared to either tear the binding clean off or open a portal to hell, I squared my feet and yanked downward.

The book tipped forty-five degrees and stuck solid. A loud click reverberated from behind the wall or above the ceiling. The book shelf jolted in place as a creak gave way to a snap. For a few seconds I heard nothing except Evie’s gasp and the pounding of my heart.

In the pause, I unintentionally severed the background memory loop of my fight with Evie. Staving off another cascade, I assigned the mental static with the task of sorting every observation I’d ever made about my office while taking into consideration the new discovery.

A violent reverberation shook the floor. It felt like a collision from a great distance, like a wrecking ball slamming into the outer wall. Or… a heavy ballast slamming into a floor several stories below.

Mierda. I had broken it. Wait. I’d broken a secret passageway leading to a clandestine lab opening off of my own Sergio Leone office. Wide eyed, I gripped Evie by the shoulders. Simultaneously, we burst into an awkward jig.

“What just happened?” Evie asked.

Before we could finish dancing, my subconscious interrupted with a myriad of red flags. “I don’t know.” Why was my office the only room in the main building with an upgraded palm scanner? Why had I been given this office, and who else knew what I had just discovered? Those were among the first red flags I deemed important.

As much as the moment felt like a childhood adventure come to life, I forced myself to recognize the potential for real danger. “I don’t know, but we have to remember where this book came from. Seventeen lives were taken just this morning.”

“Hopeless. Really. Now give me a hand.” Evie ran her fingers along the edge of the bookshelf.

“I’m serious. For all we know, the THS wants me opening up a forgotten access route to the heart of campus just in time for a surprise attack.”

“Listen to yourself, professor. You can’t possibly believe that.” She put her ear to the spine of a large volume on theoretical physics.

I swallowed and ran my hands through my hair. “I think this is the part that shifted the most.” I joined her in the search for cracks around the perimeter of the shelf while reassuring myself the THS couldn’t possibly benefit from attacking the campus. Still…

I templed my ARGs. “List all devices streaming or capable of streaming data from this location, five meter radius.”

“Oooh, good idea.” Evie paused her search.

In less than a second the lens view scrolled a short list: my ARGs, my tablet, my console…and an unknown source coming from behind the bookshelf, archaic.

“What does it say?” Evie tugged a section of shelf, rocking it back and forth.

I drew a deep breath, “devices currently streaming.” The response appeared immediately. None.

She stopped. “You found something!”

“No, nothing. False alarm.” Keeping my fingers moving around the edges of the shelf, I tried to shake off my paranoia. But for weeks I’d been stirring it into my morning coffee.

The administration had no doubt been keeping an eye on their loose cannon of a professor since they hired me. For the past month the main firewall at the lab had been routinely compromised. Nothing more than low level routines and mundane assays. As a measure of counter intelligence, I never bothered raising the alarm—If people were intent on keeping an eye on me, I wanted them to think I didn’t know.

Evie resumed the search. “You’re a terrible liar.”

“Only with you.”

“Oh thanks, I guess.”

“Here.” The middle section of the bookshelf had shifted outward a fraction of an inch before the ballast snapped free. I scavenged a metal straightedge from the top drawer of my desk and jammed it into the crack. After prying the entire middle section of the shelves outward a few inches, we discovered little resistance. The weight which had held the charade in place had broken free. What had been a bookshelf became a door unhinged.

Lost in the thrill, we savored the moment. Finally, she gripped the shelf low, and I gripped it high. Together, we threw it open.


No rush of damp air. No bats. No kerosene torches flickering to life. Other than that, the scene was exactly how I had envisioned it as a boy. Behind the secret door, a narrow, stone stairway spiraled down out of view.

“There,” Evie pointed.

Tucked into the top corner was a first-gen video recording device, apparently motion sensitive. I waved my hand in front of it.

“Doesn’t look like it’s worked in a while.”

I shrugged. It had either already done its job or it wasn’t going to. Team Buckner, on the other hand, had just started. I tapped my ARGs. “Video on. Illumination on.” A tiny red indicator flashed as the LED rims illuminated my peripheral vision.

“Having both functions on at once will halo the footage.” Evie nudged past me to look down the stairs.

“You have a flashlight?”

She shook her head.

“Then it’ll have to do. Besides,” I squeezed her tight, barely containing my own giddiness, “you can filter it out later.”

“Yes. Yes, I can.”

One foot in front of the other, we wrapped our way down the spiraling stair. Mercifully, the temperature fell without a rise in humidity. The relative chill, combined with my sweat-soaked shirt, rose goose bumps on my flesh. I assigned my background brain to a general five-sense recon. With my senses on overload already, it seemed the safest means of ensuring the river of my mental processes stay within its bounds.

Evie whispered into my ear. “How many steps so far?”

I responded without thinking. “Thirty-nine.”

“I love that you know that.” She enjoyed testing my background routines, trying to get a fuller picture of how my brain worked, with or without my permission.

“We’ve got to be nearing the water table by now.” The campus had been built on a slight hill, not more than sixty feet above the level of the Little Colorado River that snaked around three sides of greater downtown.

The air grew acrid, like touching the tip of your tongue to a nine-volt battery. I supposed all sorts of heavy minerals could have leached through the rock…or gasses. Great. I hadn’t installed any kind of atmospheric sampling app on my ARGs, if such a thing was even available.

In my mind, I could see Evie rolling her eyes at me. Dad, your augmented reality glasses are only as good as the apps you install on them, she reminded me at least once a week. For now I hoped I wasn’t leading her on a toxic freak-out. I made a mental note to listen to her more in the future.

Finally the bottom appeared. Another step, just like all the rest, and we stood at the edge of a yawning underground chasm. The overwhelmed LEDs of my ARGs struggled to stretch twenty feet into the inky blackness. My ears strained to fill the void left by my eyes.

Evie crowded into me. “What is this place?”

We were exposed. The dark lapped against us like surf on the beach. “A top secret lab, old school.” The realization hit me, this moment hadn’t happened of my own volition. The THS willed it. Possibly others. I felt manipulated, stranded, alone, over fifty feet below the floor of my office… my office? The only thing that made it mine was the fact someone within the administration willed it. “Close your eyes.”

“What—”

“Illumination off.” As soon as I spoke the words, I wished I hadn’t. The LEDs blanked, and we disappeared completely. The world vanished, save our echoing voices. Rationally, I knew the light did me no good. On or off, I couldn’t see where I was. I had to feel it. Yet, a part of me screamed for the comfort of those tiny suns.

I brought my background brain to the surface as much as I dared. At the time, I had known the offer too good to be true. All of it. When everyone else laughed, when no one would fund my research, University of Texicas offered me everything on a silver platter. They paid to move me and Evie. They bought us a home, put me in charge of the world’s most advanced paleobotany lab, and wrote me a blank check.

I landed on the lynchpin question as concretely as I felt Evie’s nails digging into my arm. Why me? What did this place have to do with my work?

A scurrying echoed out of the darkness, impossible to tell its distance. I froze. Fear temporarily focused both brains on survival, unifying my stream of awareness.

The sound multiplied and grew. Finally, there was no mistaking that it surrounded us. “Illumination on.”

Evie squeaked as dozens of reflective gems blinked out and dispersed in every direction.

“Rats.” My minds diverged. The background mind began counting the number of vermin, cataloguing their species, food and water requirements, etc. With my conscious mind, I pondered where the rats had come from and where they were going.

“Fun’s fun,” Evie shivered, “but maybe we should come back with a couple of lanterns.”

I turned quickly, intending to pursue the rodents, but my LED caught a glimpse of a head projecting from the wall. Gasping, I nearly struck my arm against it.

“Holy frosting, that scared me.” Evie swallowed. “What is it?”

Both of us backed away. “A metallic bull’s head—Texas Longhorn.” Before I could investigate further, a flashing in my lens view stopped me dead. A split second later a whistle blared from my office above.

Core security breach at the lab. Potential: catastrophic.

END of Episode 1

Read more DMB Files at http://www.fictionvortex.com

The Green Ones, Ep1

Click HERE for downloadable episode

THE ODDS FAVORED BOTH my brother and me manifesting symptoms of the twitch virus. Odds. Statistical probabilities. Since testing positive at puberty, it’s become my belief one makes one’s own odds, and I say ours are good.

Lying flat on my back in the perimeter garden, I coil my blue-black braid around my head like a snake. From this angle, the concave mesh of the shield dome above me appears as a solid surface. Hanging from it by a single screw, a faded sign commemorates New Teo’s millennium.

If I didn’t know what it said, I’d no longer be able to read it. New Teotihuacan’s twin cities, a thousand years of building a brighter future together. It’s hard to imagine cramming more irony into thirteen words.

A thousand years of the twitch virus and the telekinesis it unleashes, and this is the best we’ve done? Thinking in years, or even weeks, is a luxury I can no longer afford. Five more days as a citizen of New Teo’s Worker City, I recite to myself. Five days until registration for Masa Academy—me and my little brother’s only hope for a future, bright or not.

The earth tremors as the 7:36 security detail passes through the mind pits ten meters beneath me. I’m not privy to the official Masa call-sign for the mid-level assignment, but I recognize its timing. I know the rhythm and flow of masazin through the mind pits better than the coursing of blood through my own extremities.

“If you’re done figuring what the masazin had for breakfast today, could we get some?”

The ozone from the daily identification burn still lingers in the air, and my brother, Olin, has already mentioned breakfast twice. I lie perfectly still, anticipating the deep-level Masa car sliding north toward the heart of Worker City. There. The rumble registers in my gut. “Can’t you sit quietly for five minutes?” I breathe deeply through my nose, inviting the scent of flowering hibiscus to erase the tingling sensation of the ID burn.

“I once sat quietly for two straight weeks, or so I’ve been told.” Olin ensures a cold bite to his speech whenever he references his time spent in a coma. It irritates him that I haven’t spoken the whole truth surrounding the event that killed our parents, and put him under for two weeks.

Our parents had anticipated us being actively infected. Only around 40% of Worker City’s population remains passive carriers of the twitch. Unfortunately, none of their planning accounted for being killed in a telekinetic outburst from their own son.

“What do you have against the quiet?” I sit up. Peeling the cotton fabric of my tzotzomatli from my sticky back, I work it like a bellows in effort to expel the humidity. Midway through the rainy season, there is nowhere for the moisture to go.

Olin shivers in preparation for one of his melodramatic speeches. “I will share the ingesting of my meals. I will share their expelling. I will share everything within this gods-forsaken cage,” he gestures toward the shield dome less than twenty meters distant, his eyes like slits, “but quiet is one thing I will not share, and there simply isn’t enough in New Teo for a scraggly chadzitzin boy to have his own.”

I chew the inside of my cheek until I taste blood. “Enough.” Digging my fingers into the loose soil, I find a pinyon cone completely by accident. In a swift movement, I thunk it off my brother’s head.

Xoxochueyi!” He barks the expletive and eyes me. Instantly, his look lingers somewhere between pouting and apology.

The violent outburst doesn’t solve anything, but it makes me feel better, briefly. Until I too am sorry. Olin is partially right. The copper and nickel mesh of the shield dome does not cut us off from the sounds and smells of the forest, or its gentle breeze. But in exchange for protection from the constant threat of telekinetic attack, the working class of New Teo surrender their autonomy.

Olin’s wrong about the rest—I will not let him die a hopeless chadzitzin, even if I have to force the academy to accept us. The two years since our parents’ death have been hard on him. I’ve been hard on him to make him stronger.

We both know he is the more telekinetically gifted, but if he can’t control it…I dismiss the thought. We’re too close to our goal to dwell on the negative. Wrapping my braid loosely around my neck, I contemplate how to apologize. When I make eye contact, I see by his watery eyes I’ve waited too long.

He starts into it before I can stop him. “Let’s spend the day outside the dome. We could hunt.” His words spill into each other. “Fresh peccary cooked over an open fire, just the two of us.” He’s pleading. “We’ve almost a full twenty-four hours until the next ID burn. We could just—”

I have been shaking my head since he spoke the first word. Finally, I cut him off. “Olin, we can’t. We’d miss the—”

“The busiest day of the market.” He slumps. “I know.” His gaze falls to his purple hands as he holds them in his lap.

I look at my own hands, dyed a rich purple from a late night of working in a logwood dye bath. It’s our trademark—my blue-black hair, our purple fabrics. Over a practical pair of trousers, I’m wearing my favorite tzotzomatli made by alternating streaks of acidic-purple and basic-blue logwood dyes. The garment always draws plenty of attention to our booth.

It would draw more if I had larger breasts to fill it out. I work the best I can with what I have. I’m tall, and if I let the garment list slightly over a shoulder, I get favorable deals from most of the working-class men.

As the 7:41 Masa security detail rumbles beneath me, I remind myself our situation is not Olin’s fault. And we’re not as desperate as some. Despite our active infection with the twitch, our homelessness, our orphan status, and our phony license for dye trading, we technically lack the most important qualifiers for chadzitzin classification. Neither of us is yet sixteen, and we’ve never missed an ID burn. We’re still citizens.

With any luck, we will have the money for our academy uniforms, forged papers, and bribes by the closing of today’s market. In five days my brother and I will take our first step in defeating the odds by forcing our way into the academy.

The odds of surviving five years as masazin in order to become ometeotl, one of the immortal class, have been put at one in ten. That’s something I can work with. As chadzitzin, the odds of a nasty death from the twitch by age twenty-four are absolute.

I stand, cross the path to the bench where Olin is sitting, and plop down beside him. “Xoxo?” I use the shortened colloquialism for the word green, despite finding it base and lazy, in hopes of lifting his spirits.

He nods. “You throw like a girl.”

“You squeal like one.”

He shoves me in effort to conceal the smirk on his face. We sit in silence for nearly a minute, Olin’s way of hugging and making up. Finally, he rubs his stomach. “I know where we can get some roasted tapir.”

I’m about to remind him of our budget when I sense something out of place. The forest canopy of the perimeter park has fallen quiet. It takes a full second for me to realize the 7:43 shift through the mind pits is at least five seconds late. It’s the worst discrepancy I’ve ever noted.

The constantly rotating shifts of telekinetic youth beneath the city provide the only means of stabilizing the mental charge of the shield dome against potential telekinetic attack from outside. I’m torn between the impulse to push my brother away from the perimeter and the need to put my ear to the ground.

Gripping Olin’s hand, I choose the former. “We should g—” before I finish, my words are incinerated along with the air overhead.


I tear at the skin on Olin’s wrists until we are ripped apart by the trunk of an ojé tree. I lose track of him as I crash into the underbrush and tumble to a stop face down. I lift my head in time to watch a second large section of shield dome sheer off and implode—crushed into a nugget of ore too small for me to see.

“Olin!” This can’t be happening, not today—not that any day would be a fitting time to disintegrate. Meters away, the ground explodes. A Masa defense car births from the crater. Cracked open like an egg, its five person crew is dead and gone instantly.

Gods, we’ve gotta get out of here. “Olin!” I scramble to the bench where we were sitting. The forest canopy that sheltered us moments earlier is gone. The remaining shield dome shimmers with telekinetic energy both coming and going. I tumble off the bench and roll clear as the expanding crater swallows it. Finally, I spot Olin half buried in leaves.

There hasn’t been an attack of this magnitude on Worker City during my lifetime. I’ve only heard stories. The most frightening ended with Masa withdrawing the telekinetic defenses from an entire district, leaving everyone inside to be killed. On hands and knees, I reach Olin.

Trembling and ashy white, his skin is clammy to the touch. “Xoxochueyi!” I slap him. “Not now, not again.” His eyes have gone empty, like when our parents died. I try to yank him up by the arm, but my feet slip as the ground beneath us disintegrates. I stop breathing as the air dissipates. My braid unfurls from around my neck and floats in the space between my brother and me, both of us also floating.

My little brother becomes light as air, and for a moment I feel that way too. I clutch him to my chest. Our troubles are over now, little Olintl. Don’t worry, wherever you go, this time I’ll go there with you.

The tear struggling from the corner of my eye evaporates. My heart shudders. My world goes dark, despite my eyes being open. I think about how the other kids and I were wrong when we were little. Telekinetic disintegration is actually a wonderful way to die.

Then my lungs spasm. A hot blast scours my face, whipping my braid out behind me as the void transforms into a ball of fire. I dig my nails into Olin’s back and hold on. I call his name, the sound of my voice consumed. For the first time in my life, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I’m scared—helpless and scared.

I’m screaming at the top of my voice when the firestorm disappears as suddenly as it began. Olin and I fall. Together, we strike the soft, pulverized soil at the bottom of the crater and slide to a stop.

Only after I register that Olin has placed his hands over his ears do I realize I’m still screaming. Embarrassed, I stop. The faint hum of the restored shield dome is interrupted by a fluttering sound followed by a thud as the sign commemorating the millennium lands beside us.

“Olin.” I brush the dirt from his face.

His closed eyes flicker at my touch. “Calli.” He whispers my name.

I hold back tears of joy.

“Why are you screaming?” he continues.

I start to laugh. Then it strikes me he’s not joking. He’s confused. He doesn’t realize he’s lost control of his telekinesis again. “Oh, no.” I shake him. “Oh, no. Olin, wake up.”

“I’m tired.”

I lift his head and shoulders in an effort to drag him out of the crater, but we’re several meters down. It’s happening again, like last time. Now we’ve nowhere to go, no one to pay the medical expenses if he slips into another coma. And we’ve only five days. “Olin, stay awake, please. Something terrible has happened.” I drag him another meter. “We have to go.”

On the verge of panic, I shake him. “You have to help me!”

“What do you think I’m trying to do?”

I flinch at the voice coming from overhead before identifying it. “Neca.” Of all the people to be first on the scene. “It’s my brother, he needs help.”

“I’ll say.”

Xoxochueyi,” I swear. “Please, just—”

“Hold on.”

Olin begins to float. I clasp my hands around his stomach. Quickly, the two of us rise from the crater. Neca is smirking as usual, but at least it’s his concerned smirk. Using an illegal demonstration of telekinesis, he sets us down away from the crater. I gasp at the widespread totality of the destruction. The attack from outside the city couldn’t have possibly caused it all. Reluctantly, I admit Olin must have contributed.

“Calli, is that you?”

I turn toward my brother. “I’m right here.”

“You look different.”

His eyes are shut. I can’t see whatever it is he is seeing. I panic, remembering the backpack Olin had on earlier. “Your medicine.” I turn toward Neca. “He needs the medicine from his backpack, quickly.”

Neca shakes his head. “Honey, there’s no backpack. There’s barely a perimeter. And besides that, we’re missing a whole block.”

I scan for the bench where we had been sitting. Of course, he’s right.

“I can’t figure how the two of you weren’t turned to pink mist.”

His words spark an unfocused rage within me. I don’t know how we survived. Or maybe I do, and I can’t swallow the implications. “Well, here we are.” I growl. “Are you going to help us or not?”

He scowls. “I could throw you back in the hole if you’d like.”

“Just shut up. I need to think.” I’m being unfair. The whole situation is unfair. After people comb the rubble for survivors, their eyes will fall on us. I know what it will look like, but none of this is Olin’s fault. He isn’t responsible for the discrepancy in the mind pits that left Worker City vulnerable, and he hadn’t been the enemy who took advantage of the lapse.

“I’m getting dizzy.” Olin tugs my sleeve as he stumbles.

Neca catches him and stares at me. A few seconds later, the self-absorbed, dark-skinned, psychokinetic cage-fighting chadzitzin clears his throat.

I bare my teeth, even while nodding my head. Not knowing where to go is a poor excuse to stay put. Carrying Olin between us, Neca and I weave our way through the jumble of shattered adobe and sheared iron foam until we reach the shelter of a mostly intact building.

After Olin barely survived the last coma, the doctor said the next one would kill him. The medicine I made from my mother’s garden had been the only thing that helped. But the last of it had disintegrated with Olin’s backpack. I’ll need time to make more.

As if reading my mind, Neca interrupts. “Time is a luxury we don’t have, honey.”

In the distance I hear the wind-up siren clearing the way for District Four’s Justice of the Peace. That means New Teo’s lead detective, a retired immortal general called Huatiani, has already arrived. “We’ve nowhere to go.”

A glimmer dances in Neca’s eye, as if he’d been waiting for those exact words. “There’s one place, but you’re not going to like it.”

In Neca-speak, this means I will hate it only slightly less than watching my brother die in holding while Huatiani grills me about the morning’s attack.


Off-balance, we lope downhill. Neca’s legs are longer than mine, despite my above-average height. His endurance is equally impressive. My lungs are on the verge of exploding when he ducks behind a three-story iron foam building I don’t recognize.

“Have we,” I spit the words out between gulps of air, “crossed into—”

“District Six.” Neca nods. “It’s the fastest way on foot.”

I’m pleased to note he seems winded, although not as severely as me.

After a few short breaths, he starts moving again.

“I can’t—”

“How about a lift?” He nods toward a cable platform.

I offer weak objection as we cross the walking thoroughfare between the two districts, “A cable? Do you think that’s safe?”

“We’ve gone far enough. Huatiani is too systematic to jump his search randomly about the city.”

I shiver at the mention of Huatiani’s name out loud. So few within Worker City refer openly to the legendary retired general of the Ometeotl Guard. Neca does so with a flourish, as if he knows every intimate detail about the immortal. I’m sure he intends it as part of his bad boy act, but it paints him in a self-conscious light. I imagine him, tucked under the covers at night, practicing the name quietly.

We reach the stairs without anyone taking special notice of us. Most people working outside the shield dome as farmers or beneath the city as miners leave within minutes of the ID burn, ensuring the longest amount of time until the next one. Just in case. No one talks about it, but missing a burn is the worst nightmare of everyone in Worker City. Except for those who’ve already given up.

Olin mumbles under his breath as we carry him up to the platform.

Gently, I slap his cheek. “Olintl, can you hear me?”

His eyes dart back and forth beneath his closed lids. “I’m not afraid of Huatiani just because he knows the truth.”

“The truth?” Neca looks at me with questioning eyes. “What truth?”

As we reach the top of the exposed platform, Olin is mumbling unintelligibly again. I glance upward before closing my eyes to the dizziness. Too many of the buildings in District Six are squat, adobe structures despite the dome being stories above us.

Neca reaches the activation pad first and straddles it. A mild electrical current transfers between his bare feet, indicating a rider is waiting. Awkwardly, I shift closer to his muscular frame until Olin is sandwiched between us.

On cue, the two halves of the bench sprout from beneath the platform and lock in place using powerful electromagnets. Squished together, I end up with Olin on my lap and Neca’s arm around my back. We ratchet upward until the wench drops us onto the cable itself. With the circuit completed, the chair rushes forward.

Whipping through the subtropical breeze, I realize I’ve soaked my tzotzomatli in sweat. Worse yet, the wind has plastered it against me. Subtly, I situate Olin’s head on my chest to avoid indecency. At least the dark purples and blues of my garment are more modest than white. And with the size of my chest, it’s not like Neca would notice. I grit my teeth, angry I even care what Neca does or doesn’t notice.

Then it hits me, like diving from a cliff into crystal clear water. I know where we’re going. “Oh, no.”

“You forget to turn off the stove?”

I try to wrench my arm to punch Neca, but I can’t. “This is not a joke.”

“No one’s saying it is.”

“Everything’s a joke to you. But this is my brother’s life.”

Neca nods thoughtfully. He looks me in the eyes.

I see something I’m unprepared for—sympathy. Suddenly, I’m unsure of how to refuse his assistance without hurting him. And yet, I’ve never thought of someone like Neca being vulnerable to pain—neither emotional nor physical. I’ve never thought of him as anything more than a chadzitzin psych-fighter. “Look, my brother and I, we’re not like you.”

“Really?” Neca interrupts. “Is it the black skin or the complete lack of moral fortitude?”

I chew the inside of my cheek and shake my head. “I’m not gonna let you turn this into some kind of personal attack. Deal with your insecurities on your own time.”

“Oh, wow. So this is what a thank you sounds like coming from the great Calli Bluehair. Well, hey, don’t sweat it, honey.”

Olin’s head lolls. Reflexively, I clutch at my shirt, pulling it away from my chest.

Neca laughs at this, continuing before I recover. “No one is forcing you to accept my help. I was on my way home anyway. You wanna get off at the next platform, no harm. You won’t owe me a thing.”

“So you admit you’re helping me to get something in return?”

He rolls his eyes. “I’m saying I am not even helping you. Matter of fact, why don’t I get off at the next platform?”

I squeeze the bridge of my nose, focusing my anger. “Now what? I’m supposed to feel bad for you? Simply because you had nothing better to do than witness me and my brother nearly killed in a telekinetic attack that continues to threaten my brother’s life?”

“Sounds like you’ve got everyone figured out.” He clucks his tongue. “And you’re absolutely right. Your brother is the real victim here. Who am I to argue that his sister might not know what’s best for him in every aspect of his life?”

Olin moans, and I realize I’m clutching him tightly enough to bruise his pale skin. I’ve chewed my cheek so much, I’m guessing when I open my mouth I’ll spit blood. But I can’t formulate the words.

I’m too angry—and scared. The sudden realization humiliates me, so I bury my face in Olin’s hair.

“Wait, I didn’t mean that.” Neca backpedals, making me feel worse.

I shake my head without looking up. “No, you’re right. I’ve been a total cheche.”

The razor-sharp-witted Neca hesitates. Finally he emits one simple word, “Yeah.” He accompanies it with a slight squeeze of my shoulder, just enough to shoot sparks up my spine.

I’m too confused to respond. In the moment, I want comfort. I don’t know how to ask, and I don’t want to feel any weaker than I already do. So I shut it out. “I’m sorry.” I gaze into the distance where the government complex and Palace Tower, along with the ridge separating the immortal half of New Teo from the worker half, gradually grow closer. “I’ve no right to take my feelings out on you.”

He shoots me his trademark smirk, the one that makes me want to slap his face. “You’re welcome.” He winks, and I’m sure I’m going to lose it all over again. “Now we’ve gotta get your brother the help he needs.”

Before I can scream, the bench locks in place and ratchets downward toward the terminus platform. Tipping, the bench deposits us on our feet, splits in half and swooshes out of sight. With Olin suspended between us, Neca and I descend the steep stairs carefully. At the bottom, I realize how tired I am, because I genuinely wish I could accept the help Neca is offering.

“I’m grateful, really I am, but you’ve helped us enough.”

“Calli,” Neca glances first to one side and then the other, possibly checking to make sure General Huatiani hasn’t caught up to us, “he’s not who you think he is.”

I sigh and try to remain patient, try not to panic at the thought of my little brother falling asleep and never waking up. “Is he, or is he not, the most infamous criminal element of the underground, wanted for insurrection, among a dozen other less-nefarious charges?”

Neca grins. “Well, there’s that, but—”

“But nothing.” I collect my words before popping off. “I need a place to keep my brother safe while I brew up his medicine. I won’t save his life just to condemn him to death a few years down the road. In five days the both of us are registering for Masa Academy. I don’t plan on remaining a chadzitzin.” I reassert my grip on Olin and attempt to tug him away.

Neca refuses to let go. “And what chance does your brother have in five days if he’s dead or still in a coma? There is no future without a present.”

I start to wonder why he won’t leave us alone. Again, he glances over his shoulder, and my impatience shifts to paranoia. “Wait. Why were you there at the perimeter park? How did you get to us so quickly?” Maybe the underground wants my brother—my eyes flare at the thought—as a weapon or a fighter.

“What?” His brief confusion quickly morphs to anger. A spark bursts behind his eyes, startling me.

For the first time since the attack, I feel I’m in mortal danger.

Xoxochueyi.” Swearing under his breath, he sloughs the full weight of my brother onto me. “Fine, have it your way, Calli Bluehair. You’re on your own.” He stomps off, mumbling as he goes. “Last thing I need is some—”

That’s all I can understand before he’s out of earshot. Wobbling under my brother’s dead weight, I scan the loose-knit crowd swimming around us. Their faces are simultaneously empty and menacing.

What if someone recognizes us from the perimeter park? What if they watched us rise out of the crater telekinetically? Why had we waited around so long afterwards? Bearing Olin’s entire weight, I realize I won’t make it fifty meters. Yet, I can’t just leave him. I cry out, unable to stop myself. “Wait!”

Neca stops in his tracks, but he doesn’t turn around. He doesn’t come back for us.

I wonder if he appreciates how completely this one decision jeopardizes everything for my brother and me. He’s right about one thing—if my brother doesn’t survive the night, there’s no point in tomorrow. I kiss the top of Olin’s head. He’s completely unresponsive. I doubt he can hear me, but that’s never stopped me before. “Come on, Olintl. We’re finally going to meet Centavo Huehue.”


Without a word, Neca drapes Olin over his back like a jacket and shoulders his entire weight. I can’t decide if the act is intended as a kindness or a final jab, pointing out the fact I need him. It doesn’t matter. I’m exhausted both physically and emotionally. So for now, Neca leads and I follow.

For several minutes we trudge through chadzitzin alleys I’ve made a point to avoid. We pass yoalzoah—girls exhausted from leasing themselves out in hopes of becoming pregnant, and thus more valuable in the eyes of society. On the surface, they don’t look any different from me.

We pass male occetahtli, both high class and low. Neca nods greeting to several of them, confirming my speculation he makes a living as more than a psych-fighter. But who am I to judge? If my parents hadn’t left us the garden? If I hadn’t found my mother’s notes and figured out how to make dyes? And besides, isn’t there more to me than a flat-chested, chadzitzin dye-trader?

Reputation is important. Priorities are critical. My father taught me that. Set your priorities, and do what it takes to keep them. That’s exactly what I plan on doing. I just hope Neca is right about there being more to Centavo than his reputation. Because every kindness in the underground comes with strings attached, and connections to a man like Centavo won’t make registering for the academy any easier.

We reach a haphazard complex of adobe apartments piled in the downhill corner of District Four as if a mudslide deposited them there. This is how building additions are made in Worker City—with little consideration for past or future.

“This is the place.”

I nod my head, ready to get my brother somewhere safe, whatever the cost.

“What, no quip about the architecture?”

“My bedroom is a public market during the day.”

He nods while appraising me anew.

The gesture starts my blood boiling, as if his approval means grease marks from banana peels. To avoid another confrontation, I scan the exterior of the building. “Where’s the front door?”

“This way.” Grinning, Neca leads the way toward a set of stairs leading down.

The existence of the basement reveals the building to be genuinely old. Underground construction in Worker City has been reserved for official Masa projects and city defense for over a hundred years.

Again, Neca responds as if reading my mind. “Don’t worry, he’s not that old. But he is the oldest person I’ve ever met. And grumpy too, so for the love of your brother, don’t say anything stupid.”

We enter a long hallway, dimly lit by a strand of electric lights running along the ceiling. Neca turns a sharp corner and descends more stairs before ascending others. I want to ask him if he’s intentionally leading us into a maze from which there is no escape. Instead, I carefully craft an alternative. “Are you sure you don’t need help with Olin? He must be getting heavy with all these stairs.”

“Light as a feather. Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” Neca faces me. “Oh, and don’t act like you remember the way out, even if you do. He hates that.”

Slowly, I nod. “Is there some secret greeting I should know of?” I’m half joking.

Neca thinks it over. “Just don’t make any quick movements or try to touch him.”

I can tell he is smiling, but the light is too dim to determine if the smile is ironic or genuine. “Okay.”

Moments later, he stops at the twelfth unmarked door we’ve passed.

Before he can open it, I place a hand on his arm. “All I’m looking for is a safe place to hide Olin while I make more of his medicine.”

Neca nods.

I chew the inside of my cheek, reopening the wound from earlier. “And maybe a place for both of us. Just until he’s well enough to leave.” I force myself to relax. “Four days at the very most.” Somewhere deep inside, I’m terrified Olin won’t come back to me; that four days won’t be enough; that I’m about to make a deal with the devil to dictate the rest of my desperate life.


“Neca, I hope you’ve got good reason to invite your new companions into my home, conscious or not.”

The lighting inside Centavo’s apartment is barely brighter than the hallway. The crumbling adobe walls absorb what little there is. I can’t even see the old man until he turns to face us.

Totahtzin—” Neca fumbles with the formal title before starting again. “Centavo, I—” he exhales through his nose, “let me introduce you to Calli Bluehair.”

“Ah.” The old man advances on us slowly, pulling a pipe from his pocket with one hand while secreting tobacco from a pouch with the other.

Upon seeing the herb, I realize the room is thick with the smell of it. I know the plant because it grows in my mother’s garden. The lighting of the pipe must be a good sign. Through the corner of my eye, I notice Neca relaxing under Olin’s weight. I suspect Centavo relies on the fragrance to mask the stink of sweat and stale food.

“You will pardon my cold greeting. In the poor lighting that my lifestyle affords, I was unable to decipher the blue hue of your hair.” Centavo puffs three times, each drag violently threatening to extinguish the match’s flame before allowing it to revive. The dance of shadow and light cast by the small fire reveals a lopsided grin, warmer than I had expected.

Satisfied the bowl is lit, he flicks the match. The gesture seems sloppy until I hear the slight ting of the spent matchstick striking a nearby waste can.

Neca clears his throat.

“Oh, uh, Centavo Huehue, it is my honor. Thank you so much for having me into your home.” I catch myself fumbling with my braid and sheepishly return it to the small of my back.

“Certainly. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he says.

I bite my lip, hoping I haven’t already committed the worst possible of insults. He is the one who mentioned my hair. Still, I didn’t have to draw attention to it. Now that it’s been done, I can’t think of anything else.

I’ve never seen anyone without long hair, and Centavo is as bald as a cantaloupe. Of course he would be. Citizen status within the walls of New Teo is based on the continuous record of ID burns maintained within the strands of one’s hair. To shave it is the ultimate in rebellion, a total rejection of the authorities. To have it forcibly cut is the highest form of punishment. Without a braid, a person has no rights in the eyes of the government.

Neca nudges me out of my stunned silence by depositing Olin on a cushioned wicker couch.

“I’m sorry, Centavo Huehue, that it has to be under circumstances such as these. But,” I hesitate. This is it, a few simple words and I’ll be entangled. “I need your help.”

“I see. This must be your brother.” The old man slips quietly to the side of the couch, somehow covering the distance with barely a movement. The closer he gets, the smaller I realize he is.

From behind the couch, Neca stares at me, perhaps trying to encourage me onward.

“Yes,” I continue with more determination, “he’s been injured. By no fault of our own, it is unsafe for us to remain in plain sight. Yet, I need time to brew his medicine.” Carefully I continue, not wanting to insult the old man by implying he’s my last resort. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

Centavo whisks a hand to Olin’s forehead. “Injured, you say? He appears quite healthy.”

I fumble, not wanting to say too much, but doubting I can hide anything from the likes of Centavo. “It’s his mind.”

Centavo nods and puffs his pipe. “Then it was the two of you at the site of the attack.”

I gasp before quickly confessing, “Yes. We were there, but only as bystanders.”

“Yet you survived. That much was quite fortunate.”

“Not really.” Unsuccessfully, I attempt to suck the words back into my mouth.

Centavo snorts, dislodging a rattle of phlegm in his throat. “Indeed, it was this young man, not fortune, that saved your life.”

At first I wonder if he is referring to Neca. Then I know he means Olin. I swallow blood from the raw spot on the inside of my cheek. “My brother is gifted, yes.”

“But he cannot control it.”

“He has medicine. It was destroyed. I need time to make more.” I can’t keep the words from tumbling across my lips. All my urgency spills out. Unchecked telekinesis is just short of outright rebellion in the government’s eyes. “He’ll be fine. He’ll get better, and the two of us will register for Masa Academy in five days. We’ll be out of your hair—” I catch myself too late, having inflicted a sure insult this time.

And yet Centavo ignores my thoughtless comment. “I’ve no doubt your brother will be fine, and in less time than you think. He is not in need of any medication. As you have already said, his condition is one of the mind, and thus can be remedied accordingly.”

Unexpected on multiple levels, his response disarms me. “I don’t—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, I wouldn’t imagine so. It’s a cure not readily available to the working class.” He gestures to a matching wicker chair. “Please, have a seat.”

I hesitate.

Neca widens his eyes, as if asking me what in the world I’m waiting for.

Waiting is exactly what I’m exhausted of. Since it seems imprudent to change course, I sit.

Two chairs form a crescent together with the couch. Centavo offers me the one closest to my brother before taking the other. Neca assumes a position in front of the door, either to make sure I can’t escape or to ensure we are not interrupted.

Centavo continues after puffing his pipe. “Do dye traders make a habit of brewing medicines these days?”

“Only remedies I know of.”

“And how does a young dye trader learn such things?”

I’m tempted to tell the old man it is none of his business, but I bite my tongue, literally. “I’m observant of the natural world.”

“After harvesting cochineal from the Ferocactus, how much grape precipitate do you use to precipitate carmine?”

“Cochineal only live on the Opuntia genus.” My victory lasts a second, until I realize he has baited me.

Centavo taps his pipe to his chin. “Why, Calli Bluehair, it appears you have made me look lazy indeed. How long have you known the whereabouts of your mother’s garden?”

I shake my head.

“And her notes, she lied to me about destroying them.” He stands. I raise my hands to defend myself, but he is already strolling toward a desk against the far wall. “We were writing a book together, before you came along.” He pulls something from a desk drawer.

My mind spins, churning up Centavo’s every word. I track his movement across the room, desperately seeking explanation for his comments about my mother. I’m able to distinguish a wall lined with books. A corner functioning as a kitchen is littered with dishes and racks of liquor bottles. None of this helps.

“What? No, sorry, I don’t know—”

He tosses a pile of parchment bound with twine into my lap. “I knew your parents. I was there when they were killed.”

These words knock the wind out of me, as if I’ve fallen from a tree and landed flat on my back.

Centavo sits and waits politely for me to recover.

Dizzy, I concentrate on the book in my lap. It’s an unfinished product. In bold purple lettering, I recognize my mother’s script, “The Divine Garden: Herbal Recipes for a Better Life.” I hover on the word “Divine” for long seconds. It cannot mean what I think it means. Wait, what did he say about my parents? He knew them before they were killed? No. He was there. I lean forward, narrowing my eyes. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”


Centavo smiles.

At least I think it’s a grim smile. “I mean, this isn’t the first time we’ve met, is it?”

He shakes his head. “I have tried to stay away, out of respect for your parents’ wishes.” He puffs his pipe. “As you realize, my presence hinders the likelihood of reaching your full potential via the path you have chosen.”

“You mean Masa.”

“Yes, Masa. The ever-rising dough of the people.” He blows smoke from his nose.

His speech is so subtle I can’t read whether he is being facetious or genuine. But it is hard to imagine a man like Centavo being a true believer in Masa. “You believe there to be another path?”

“Better than Masa?” He shrugs.

A long silence passes between us. Each lost second makes it more difficult for me to reach my mother’s garden and return inside the shield dome before tomorrow morning’s ID burn. Maybe Centavo plans on holding us here. Could there be something in my mother’s notes more valuable than dye? As much as I hate the thought, I am sure I would give anything to the old man if it meant saving my brother.

Finally, he continues, “I believe the first time you will recall us meeting was at the clinic.”

“You!” I jump to my feet in disbelief.

Neca starts.

Centavo doesn’t flinch.

“That was you! But you had hair.”

The old man wags his finger. “Please, sit.”

Begrudgingly, I do so. But I have already decided if I don’t like what I hear next, I will attempt to kill this man.

“A prosthetic, I assure you.” He runs his hand over his bald head. “Since I can see our time is short, I will cut to the chase.”

I give him no acknowledgement other than a hard stare.

“Your medication, whatever folk remedy you have devised, did not save your brother before. It will not save him now. He is in a state of telekinetic shock—the current has overwhelmed his remaining senses. He is, in a manner of speaking, lost within his own mind. It is rare that someone with such little training has such natural ability. A few simple lessons, and your brother will know how to avoid this state in the future.”

“And I suppose you’re the one to give him those lessons? Is that it? You’ll save my brother’s life if he agrees to become one of your playthings?” Instantly, I regret the implication that Neca is a toy. The mistep doesn’t reduce my protective instinct for my brother. And that instinct says Centavo is a threat.

“Careful, Calli Bluehair, lest your tongue run away with your reason.”

One look into his eyes, and I know the tobacco in his pipe is not the only thing smoldering. No matter his reputation, I will not let this man manipulate my brother.

“I would have given your brother his first lesson then, if you had not interrupted us.”

My eyes widen. “You did something to him!” I spot a shiny object lying on the table between us. Snatching a discarded skewer, still retaining a chunk of shriveled carrot, I lunge for him.

“Calli, no!”

I hear Neca cry out as the air in front of me solidifies and slams me backward. Before I crumple against the wall, my tumbling is arrested. For the second time in as many hours, I feel utterly helpless. Please, gods, give me a searing pain. Anything would be better than this.

Instead, I slowly turn in the air, completely apart from my own will, and return to my chair. Even after I’m seated, my muscles remain paralyzed. I hear Centavo clear his throat. He snaps his fingers and my eyes are able to focus. I do so on him, frightened, but no less angry.

“Fine, you are right to be angry. I violated the privacy and sanctity of your brother’s mind without asking permission. It was, at the very least, disrespectful.” He leans forward. “For this overstep—and I want you to listen very closely because I will say this only once—I apologize. Now, if this conversation is to go any further, I request the same in kind for your impulsive attempt to join last night’s leftover carrot with my right eye.”

My jaw and tongue unstick. With considerable effort, I swallow the pasty saliva pooling in my mouth.

“Calli.” Neca dares the one word exhortation from his station at the door.

I hear Centavo’s teeth grinding. Clearly, the old man could squeeze my brain through my ears and do whatever he wanted to my brother. I hear my father in my head, Choose your fights, Cal. Obviously, this is not one I can win. “I’m sorry. I apologize for trying to kill you.”

Instantly, my muscles are my own. A brief euphoria sweeps over me. I wonder for the first time if Centavo is telling the truth about my brother’s condition. But some things still don’t make sense. “Olin got better that same day, the day I chased you from his room.”

“Your brother’s condition was so easily treatable. Your parents would not have objected to such a subtle level of influence. If my involvement were to become public…” he flips the bowl of his pipe upside down and taps it on his hand.

“We would have been put at risk.” It makes sense. “But wait. You’re saying the logwood tea I started giving him that morning had no effect on his recovery?”

“Logwood tea?” Centavo scoffs. “Is that the boy’s precious medication?”

“Yes,” I stammer, “it coincided with his recovery. And since, I thought—” I huff at the idea of this old man making light of my efforts to nurse my brother back to health. “He’s been taking it every day since, and he’s been just—”

“What?” Centavo interrupts, jumping to his feet. “You’ve been dosing him with logwood tea daily for almost two years?”

Finding my anger again, I stand and confirm my suspicion that I’m several centimeters taller than the old man. “Yes. What of it?”

For the first time since entering Centavo’s home, he touches me physically, gripping my arms. “When was the last dose?”

His proximity stuns me. “I don’t—”

“When, dammit?” He shakes me.

I close my eyes to think. “Yesterday afternoon, 2:00.”

“And manganese?”

“It’s in the soil, so it’s in the tea.”

“Then it’s no good.” He places an ear to Olin’s lips before shaking his head and pacing the room.

“What? What in gods’ names? Say something.” This sudden panic for someone previously so restrained convinces me I’ve killed my little brother. Me. It’s all been my fault.

Centavo turns on me. “Didn’t you know logwood tea is addictive?”

“Of course it’s addictive. He needed it!” I shout much louder than necessary. “Or at least your meddling made me think he did.”

“Fine. Nothing to be done for it now. And you wouldn’t have been completely off, not at first.” Centavo continues to pace the center of the room, talking to no one in particular. “The tea no doubt soothed his rough edges. Logwood absorbs manganese. It would have calmed his residual telekinesis. Not a completely false diagnosis. After that,” he shakes his head, “all it did was bottle up his abilities. I’m surprised he didn’t take half the district with him this morning. He needs control, not suppression.”

I can’t take any more of the old man’s rambling. “So can you help him or not?”

Centavo gathers himself, looks at me, then Neca, then back at me, then at Olin lying unresponsive on the couch. “No, I cannot. Not without risking the lives of everyone in Worker City.”


My heart pounds in my chest. It’s midmorning by the time we reach the dump.

Neca catches up to me the second I stop inside the workers’ gate. “You’re sure this is the only way?”

“You afraid of a little garbage?” I’m not about to admit the smell would have brought up my breakfast if I had eaten any. “Besides, if Centavo’s plan is half as stupid as I think it is, the dump is the least of our worries.”

“All right, the faster the better.”

I stretch my neck for a glimpse of the control tower. I can’t see anyone on the catwalk or behind the glass. Good enough. With a final deep breath through my nose, I dart toward the backside of a mountain of food waste. Even if someone sees us, they might not care. No one is that uptight about garbage security.

The main concern is to avoid piles scheduled for compacting. Masa is in charge of that part, and it’s done with telekinesis. In the blink of an eye, a whole mound of scrap metal can become nothing but a chunk of ore. When Olin and I were little, my parents worked in the yard. My father told me about a coworker who wandered too far during his break. He had misread the compacting schedule, or decided to try to reclaim something of value.

Anyway, it had taken my father and the others eight hours to figure out the general vicinity of his remains. This was the sort of life lesson my father liked to instill in us. The result was to make the dump an instant source of forbidden mystery. Olin and I spent an entire rainy season imagining it as an underwater kingdom forgotten by the annals of time only to be rediscovered by a brother/sister team of renowned explorers.

The garbage piles are an ever-shifting sea, and at one point I loop around the same pile twice. After a few minutes, I locate the fenced-off sinkhole I’ve been looking for.

“This keeps getting better.” Neca has covered his mouth and nose with his collar.

“If you know a better way into the caves—”

“Let’s just do this.”

I’m already hurdling the fence. Three long strides, and I’m sliding down a pulpy pile of paper products in varying states of decay. Nothing is dumped here anymore, but plenty of garbage blows into the pit before it’s compacted. Luckily, none of it is too disgusting. Although once I landed squarely on the carcass of a decaying vulture. Not my best day.

In a matter of seconds, we’re underground, and I’m leading the way through the system of natural caves to a spot outside the shield dome—the most sacred place in my confined world, my mother’s garden.

Behind me, Neca’s feet fall softly on the smooth floor of the cave. He’s as graceful as he is strong. The fact does nothing to lessen my anger at his presence. There is zero chance I’m leading Centavo’s errand boy to my mother’s garden.

Sure, the trip was originally my idea. That involved me alone making more logwood tea. Now Centavo has me fetching buds from a weed I nearly killed off due to it overgrowing half the garden during the time it took Olin and me to rediscover it.

Centavo had known the plant would be there, describing it down to its serrated leaflets and sticky resin. He swore he’d never been to the garden, that he didn’t know where it was and didn’t want to. You don’t have to trust me. Hell, I don’t even trust you. But you’re taking Neca. Those had been his exact words. When I asked him why, the whole plan got ridiculous.

At least locating a plant in my mother’s garden is something I can work with. Adaptations are inevitable—with plants, with people. So I’ll figure out what to do with Neca along the way.

The hazards of running in the dark force me to slow my pace. I’m intimately familiar with my surroundings, and due to the occasional distant opening, the caves aren’t pitch black. Still, I’m not accustomed to navigating them at high speeds.

Neca sighs in relief.

Calming my urge to punch his chiseled face, I remind myself no real harm has been done. I’ve only shown him an entrance into a maze of caves, an entrance the authorities certainly know of.

Thinking of the authorities circles me back to the one thing that’s bugged me about Centavo since the moment he foiled my attempt to shish kebab his brain. I break the silence. “How is it that Centavo has avoided execution or exile all these years? He’s openly telekinetic and yet he doesn’t seem to have any security at all.”

“He knows his place. Rule number one of the underground.”

“Oh, really? And what about you? What’s your place, Nightmare Neca?”

He hesitates. “So you’ve seen me fight?”

“No,” I lie. “I’ve seen the posters.”

“Then you know my place. It’s there in the cage. I’m a psych-fighter.”

“You don’t stay in the cage. You don’t live there.”

“Oh, but I do.” His words drip with swagger.

I feel the claws spring out, and I say the words despite not meaning them. “That sounds pretty pathetic.”

He’s quiet for several seconds.

I hear nothing except our footfalls and breathing. Should I feel guilty? Who else will deflate his super-sized ego?

“What about you, Calli Bluehair? What’s your place?”

I know the answer instantly. “I don’t have one.”

“Well, then, maybe we’re both pathetic.”

I don’t agree with Neca’s assessment for one second. To have a place is to act according to the world’s expectations, to fit inside someone else’s definition of who you should and shouldn’t be. That’ll never be me. “You know what I think?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”

“I think Centavo doesn’t have to hide because he’s in charge.”

“Of course he’s in charge. He’s been virtually synonymous with the underground for—”

“He’s an immortal, for gods’ sake.” I shout the words, rousing some bats in the distance. “He doesn’t have to hide from them, because he’s one of them.”

We’ve stopped moving, and Neca leans close as if he has the guts to pound the revelation out of me. “That’s ridiculous. You shouldn’t talk of things you know nothing about.”

I shove him out of my face even though it’s too dark for me to see anything except the whites of his eyes. “Really? How is it he’s a master of telekinesis, at least sixty years old, and not dead from the twitch? There’s not another soul in town who’s lived with the active infection past twenty-five, and you know it. Never.”

“He’s in exceptional health.”

“He lives off of steak and neuhtli by the looks of it.”

Mexcalli.” Neca sighs. “He drinks mostly mexcalli, not neuhtli. Look, you don’t know him. He’s not some monster preying on helpless chadzitzin.”

For the first time since I’ve known him, Neca seems genuinely rattled. “I’m not saying he is.” I start walking briskly, aware we don’t have the luxury of standing still. “I’m saying he’s an immortal governing the underground from the inside.”

“Fine, maybe he’s an immortal. I don’t know. Even if he is, that doesn’t mean he isn’t one of us.”

“Neca.” I turn and grab him by the shoulders, almost sorry for him. “Think about it. Why would an immortal want to be one of us, unless it was to control us?”

“What do you know about it? You’re the one who’s so desperate to become an ometeotl.” There is real venom in his words. “You’d just as well be one of them.”

I start moving again, this time at a slow jog. “If by ‘one of them’ you mean in charge of my fate, yes. If you mean refusing to give up and die, yes. I choose to be one of them.”

“Now it all makes sense.”

“What?” I do my best to slap Neca with the word.

“The way you look at me. The way you talk about chadzitzin. You think we’re all quitters.”

Well, of course I do. Doesn’t he? How else could anyone possibly see them? Lazy, undisciplined, thrill-seeking quitters who would rather live a short, selfish life and die of the twitch than put in the hard work to ensure a future society and the possibility of a future for themselves. I don’t say any of this. Instead, I resume my defensive posture. “What?”

“Nothing. Just an observation. Besides, aren’t we getting close to this garden yet?”

We’ve still a ways to go, but the question reminds me of my earlier train of thought. “About that,” I reach into my pocket and clutch the smooth, elongated rock I’ve been carrying since the sinkhole—small enough for me to curl my fingers around, yet heavy enough to compensate for my girl-like upper-body strength. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

“What?”

In one swift movement I spin and punch him in the side of the jaw. Never once knocked out in the cage, Nightmare Neca turns out to be human after all. Catching him under the arms, I ease him to the cave floor and prop him up as comfortably as I can. There’s no way I’m taking him to my mother’s garden, but I need him for what comes next.

I shiver just thinking about it. Ridiculous. Impossible. When Centavo looked me in the eyes and told me we’d have to sneak into Immortal City, I knew without a shadow of a doubt he was one of them. What I can’t figure is his interest in me and my brother.


I pick up my pace for the final stretch of cave. At its cavernous mouth I’ll find the spring-fed garden planted by my mother. An overland route uses a slot canyon to access the small valley where the garden is nestled. But it takes three times as long and leaves one exposed to lines of sight from New Teo, as well as wild animals and roving gangs of twitchers. In the caves, the worst threat is vampire bats.

I flex my sore knuckles. After all Neca’s done to help, I feel bad about punching him. As a psych-fighter, he should be used to it. On the other hand, getting sucker punched by a girl isn’t exactly a cage bout. Briefly, I worry he’ll refuse to help, but he’s put up with so much already. If he wasn’t so cocky, he might be a nice guy.

Then there’s Centavo, and how Neca gushes at the mentioning of the old man. Centavo’s connection to my parents bothers me most. I can think of a dozen different scenarios: he was blackmailing them, they were blackmailing him, they were working together (but on what?), he and my mother were having an affair (not likely). Maybe they simply shared a common interest in plants. Or he wanted my brother for his abilities, and my parents refused.

This last one chills me to the bone. What if he’d been trying to take my brother the night of the outburst that killed my parents? And came back for him at the clinic? None of that explains the book. He showed me the pages they had done together—my mother’s words and his art.

As the cave slopes down, opening into the garden, I’m still wondering why the simple collaboration means so much to me. I slide down a slick section of rock. Landing on spongy moss, I stop to inhale the lush fragrances of jasmine and honeysuckle. Finally, the truth hits me.

Beauty was paramount in everything my mother did. I close my eyes, overwhelmed by memory. I’m a little girl, sitting at the kitchen table. My mother is kneeling behind me, working her magic into my braid and teaching me. Ask yourself before you do anything: Will it make the world more beautiful? If the answer is yes, and the thing is within your ability, you’re obligated to try.

I open my eyes. This garden is living proof. I’m living proof. Olin, at least for the time being, is living proof. I scamper past the ferns and into the larger section of the garden. Over the last sixteen months I’ve memorized every plant. Within seconds I’m holding in my quivering hand the leaf Centavo described.

It doesn’t look like much, but my mother planted it here. That is all I need to know. If she shared the knowledge of it with Centavo, there must be something beautiful about him as well. This one fact is not enough for me to trust him. It’s enough for me to trust his plan.

I pluck three ripe buds oozing with resin, wrap them in a large leaf and stuff them in my pants pocket. Behind a hedge of cleyera, the ceiling of the cave converges with a rock shelf to create a narrow cleft. I shimmy into the crack and breathe out. Reaching as far as I can, I tweeze a leather pouch between two fingers.

Sitting on the edge of the shelf, I hold the package on my lap. The leather is beautifully worn and oiled. I rub my fingers across its surface and hold them to my nose. Surprised, I discover the leather is seasoned with the resin from the ugly plant. I wonder how much more my mother has yet to teach me.

Untying the pouch, I flip through the pages until I find the one I’m looking for. My mother never sketched the ugly plant. As Centavo suggested, she had taken notes so rushed and disjointed I failed to correlate them, until now.

Near the top of the page she describes the resin. Midway down, a string of unfamiliar numbers and symbols form some sort of equation. Then I spot something else, an insertion scrawled in my father’s hand. Nowhere else in the notes does his writing appear. On this one ugly plant, they worked together.

My heart leaps. Something is special about the ugly plant after all. Centavo has to be telling the truth. The old man could kill Olin by simpler means than this. And if he’s really entrusting me with his contact within Immortal City, I can trust him with this ugly-looking plant.

I slip the notes into the pouch and return it to its hiding place. When I stand, I’m too dizzy to walk straight. I realize I haven’t eaten in over sixteen hours. Foolishly, I didn’t bring water either.

Raindrops slap the broad leaves of the garden outside the shelter of the cave, and I realize it must be afternoon. Urgency crowds me. Centavo wasn’t sure how long it would take his contact in Immortal City to brew the medication. He also wasn’t sure how long Olin would last before destroying Worker City in a telekinetic storm of unfathomable power. Menacingly, the old man had asserted he wouldn’t let that happen.

In less than a minute I’m hurrying back the way I came, burdened with spring water and fresh papaya. With any luck, the simple offering, along with my humble apologies, will buy Neca’s forgiveness. I make a mental note to stop taking my frustrations out on him. Hopefully, he hasn’t been awake long enough to stew over my hitting him, or to have gotten lost.


I hear Neca long before I see him. While he hasn’t wandered off, he certainly doesn’t sound happy. I slink against the wall and wish I had some chocolates to go along with the papaya. That and maybe a bottle of mexcalli.

After listening to him curse the day he met me using a string of swears that would kill my mother all over again, I figure the situation isn’t going to get any better. Shuffling forward loudly, I call his name. The cursing stops. “Uh, Neca? You okay?” Instantly, I regret the idiotic question.

“If by ‘okay’ you mean hopping mad about being sucker punched by the most ridiculously annoying girl in Worker City who for the life of me I can’t figure out why I’m trying to help, then, yes, I’m fine.”

His outline is now visible. “About that, I’m really sorry.”

“So now you’re going to tell me that you slipped? That you accidentally hit me with a brick?”

“That wasn’t a brick, it was my fist.” The words slip out.

“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Obviously, I’ve been hit harder.”

“Oh, obviously.” I slap my hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I just—”

“Yes?”

“You’re right. It wasn’t an accident. It’s just—” exasperated, I don’t know what else to say. “I’m sorry, okay?”

“Why didn’t you try asking me to wait here?”

“Wait. I—” the question catches me completely off guard. “I thought—”

“Look, I get it. You don’t want anyone to know the location of your mother’s garden. It’s a special place.” He steps forward until I can make out the edges of his face. “If we’re going to work together, we need to trust each other. Right now I trust fellow psych-fighters more than you. At least in the cage there are rules.”

Even though I know he is right, I struggle with the impulse to argue. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ve been assuming the worst of you even though you’ve given me the best.” It stings me slightly to be so vulnerable with this boy, but the business of trading has taught me that admitting a few wrongs is the fastest means to repairing a broken relationship. And Neca is right, we need to work together. It’s equally obvious I need him more than he needs me.

“I know it’s not much,” I hold out the gifts, “but I brought you some water and a papaya.”

He whistles through his teeth. “How did you know?”

“What?”

“Papaya’s my favorite.”

“Oh, that’s easy. Papaya’s everyone’s favorite.” I lead us into a section of cave I’ve not frequently traveled, one that will open outside the shield dome protecting the Immortal City half of New Teo.

“Is it yours?”

“Nah, not me. I’m more of a kiwi girl.”

“You’ve got kiwi?”

I nod, my mouth full of papaya and my chin stuck out in front of me in attempt to keep the juice from dribbling onto my tzotzomatli. I swallow enough to talk. “My mother planted everything.”

“No wonder you want to keep it a secret.”

Gradually, I speed up the pace, and for several minutes we continue through the dark confines of the cave without a word.

Eventually, Neca breaks the silence. “That wasn’t really your fist, was it?”

“Well, I was holding a rock.”

He nods. “That explains it.”

“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.”

“What secret?”

“That Nightmare Neca’s no longer undefeated.”

“Oh.” He clucks his tongue. “Outside of the cage, I’ve lost plenty of fights.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Family. Friends. Personal ghosts. You know, the ones that count the most.”

“Oh.” I swallow, baffled by how easily Neca switches from annoying to tragic. “Why do you do that?”

“What?”

“You know, share such personal information like that?”

“I’m sorry. It makes you uncomfortable.” He places a hand on my shoulder. “I can stop. It’s just—”

“And that.” I shirk my shoulder away from his touch.

He laughs. “Again, I apologize.”

I regret acting so cold, but the instinct has kept Olin and me safe. “It’s not that I don’t like it. Wait, I mean—”

“No need to explain.”

In my discomfort, I’ve increased our pace just short of jogging. I slow down to ensure I don’t clip my head on a low-hanging rock.

“I forget that we come from different places.”

His words are so close, I’m surprised we aren’t bumping into each other with every step. “What does that mean?”

“No offense, but you and your brother aren’t chadzitzin, not really.”

“None taken.” I’m relieved we agree on at least one thing. “But I still don’t understand.”

“It’s hard to explain.” We duck and weave our way along the passage in silence for several minutes before he picks up where he left off. “There’s little want for secrets in the underground. When people know they haven’t long to live, the thing they want the most is to be known. Everyone wants to be remembered. I think most want to be remembered for the truth rather than some lie.”

“Is that why you fight? To be remembered?”

“In so many words, yes.”

“But psych-fighting? Don’t take this the wrong way, isn’t it all an act?”

“I think of it as more of a story, a true one.”

“I’m sorry, you lost me.” I dodge a jagged overhang. “Watch your head.”

Neca shuffles his feet, adjusting at the last second to avoid cracking his skull. After he breathes deeply, he continues. “The cage is a place to bare it all. Sure, beforehand you try to conceal your strategy, mask your strengths and weaknesses. But each move is another page in the story, a story that must be finished. And the best ones are the ones that don’t hold back.

“The crowd knows it, and so do the fighters. You can feel the epic ones unfolding—the pain and fear and triumph and loss that will teach you something new about yourself. I’m indebted to the cage. It has helped me take all the lessons in life I’ll never get a chance to live and compact them into raw, bloody bursts.”

On that note, we fall silent for several minutes. Having become slightly disoriented during our conversation, I’m not a hundred percent sure we’ve taken all the right turns. On top of that, my heart is hurting. Maybe more so than I want to admit. Listening to Neca bare his soul has made it worse.

Why didn’t he join Masa Academy before he got too old? With his natural talents, his chances of survival would have been better than most. He doesn’t talk like someone who has given up on life. If that’s really the case, why has he chosen certain death?

I have to admit I don’t understand Nightmare Neca at all. The smirk and confidence I saw yesterday as ego now seem more like honest enthusiasm. But I can’t get sucked in, not now. Neca has been right about lots of things, including the fact Olin and I are not chadzitzin. In less than five days, the two of us will be leaving Neca and the underground behind forever.

About the time I’m convinced we’ve taken a wrong turn, I recognize telltale signs of a large bat roost, including the squish of guano between my toes. Bats never roost far from an opening. I crouch, pulling Neca down beside me.

I gesture toward the ceiling. He follows my gaze. As we sit, it becomes evident there is a mote more light. Several meters into an expanding chamber, the surface of the gently sloping rock above us pulses with life. One wrong move, and we could be in real trouble.

The bats themselves aren’t the immediate threat. The furthest back are most likely small fruit bats. The larger vampires occupy the best spots, closest to the exit. But causing a mass exodus will announce our presence to anyone on the outside who might happen to be looking in our general direction.

I hold my finger to my lips and then touch it to his to ensure he understands the situation. He nods. Slowly, I lead the way, using the wall to stabilize our progress across the slippery floor. I’ve found in times like these, it’s best not to see what you’re stepping in, or what you’re walking beneath.

Looking straight ahead, I proceed steadily and breathe as little as possible. We turn a corner and the light improves. This is where the omnivores and bloodsuckers will be, big hairy things. It’s still raining outside. I hear the hush before I see it, and the white noise masks our progress. Glimpsing a fragment of gray sky, I relax. The first sight of the outside world is always breathtaking after spending an hour or more in near pitch black, even if the outside world is dismal and wet.

Turning to smile at Neca, I slip. I bang my knee on the wall. Scrambling to regain my balance, I plant my second foot too quickly. It shoots out from under me along with the other. Just before my head impacts the wall, I feel a barrier of hot wind blow across my brow. Strong hands clutch my sides, and I’m flying.

The empty black turns to dizzying gray. Finally, I’m on hands and knees, sliding down a muddy slope. I roll onto my back, and Neca’s arm shoots across to steady me. Gradually, we slide to a stop, rivulets of water snaking past. Below, nothing except green forest runs downhill into the vast farmland south of New Teo. Several meters above, I spot the opening of the cave—no bats pouring out of it.

I lie back in the mud and breathe deeply. I’m so giddy with relief, and yet overwhelmed at the same time, I start to laugh. Perhaps it’s my version of one of the cage moments Neca described—a moment when experiences collide to teach me something about myself. Only I’m not sure what I’m supposed to learn.

Either way, Neca joins in, and the two of us lie there laughing in the mud.


My tzotzomatli, along with the pants beneath it, are no longer purple or blue. They are brown, as brown as my skin. If anything, the mud has lightened Neca’s complexion. Steadying each other, we creep uphill toward the crest above the mouth of the cave.

This is where Centavo’s plan gets foggy. “Won’t we be visible to the immortals? I mean, please tell me we aren’t planning on walking up to the shield dome and knocking until someone lets us in.”

“Not exactly, but I don’t think you need to worry about anyone seeing us.”

Not seeing how that could be possible, I decide to display an effort at trust. Besides, I’m shivering with anticipation. Six years ago my brother and I caught a glimpse of the immortal side of New Teo from the farmland kilometers below. Never have I or anyone I know been this close. Except for Neca. We stop shy of the crest. “All right, lead the way.” I sound nonchalant.

“Let’s do it together.”

Before I can object, he tugs me up and over. I freeze in wonder. Just as quickly, wonder turns to confusion and disbelief. “That’s Immortal City? But it—”

“Looks pretty much the same. Yeah. That was my first thought too.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Hey, it’s just the other side of the coin. One side’s always gotta be tails.”

I gape, staring back and forth between Neca and the underwhelming Immortal City. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Never mind. Besides, don’t freak out completely. The dome is the dome, right?”

Slowly, I nod my head. Of course Immortal City would look the same from this perspective.

“On the inside it’s…different, sorta.”

“Now you’re confusing me for fun.”

He jogs fluidly toward the shield dome. “Well, yeah. Sorta.” Just like that, Neca returns to his exasperating self.

“Stop it already.” Still, it’s a struggle to look at something other than his backside as he strides up the gentle slope ahead of me. Luckily, the closer we get to the metal mesh of the shield dome, the more detail I have to distract myself. Most of the buildings appear to be metal foam rather than adobe. No surprise there. The structures are taller on average, but not as grand as I had imagined.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamt of Immortal City: the buildings, the streets, the shops. Especially the shops. Yet with each step closer, I can’t escape the fact Immortal City looks like a cleaner, nicer version of the working-class half of New Teo. I know I shouldn’t be disappointed, but I am. After all, why should the immortals be treated so differently from the rest of us?

By the time we reach the shield, I’ve yet to see anything moving on the other side. No cable chairs, no shuttles, no people. “Now what?” I try to disguise that I’m out of breath and my side aches from eating nothing except fruit.

“We knock.”

“Wait, I thought—”

“Shhh.” He holds his finger to my lips and winks.

Somehow I’ve let on that his winking infuriates me. Now he’s doing it to excess. I’m about to see if I can land another punch, this one duly deserved, when he embraces me.

He’s so hot to the touch, his hand on my back must be burning through my clothes. As my spine begins to vibrate, I struggle to draw a complete breath, to resist him. Instead, I melt. Then, to my shock, I realize we’re both melting right through the shield wall. The space of a few meters shimmers with telekinesis like butterflies swarming the branches of an Oyamel.

The surface ripples as we pass through it. And everything is humming. I close my eyes as the light and heat washes up my chest and across my face. Finally, I gulp down air, my lungs expanding into a new-found freedom. Limp, I cling to Neca. With a final shiver, I open my eyes. The impossible has happened: I’m inside Immortal City.

Read More Schism 8 Episodes

 

Lost DMB Files, Ep1: Reefer Ranger

Click HERE for downloadable episode

Greetings From the Editor: A Note About the Ranger

History has been unkind to John Tilly McCutchen III. Remembered as J.T. Flat Top, The Branding Iron, Johnny McDeath and other more colorful nicknames, the infamous Texas Ranger turned chief of Texicas Homeland Security undoubtedly played a central role in the early expansion and stabilization of the infant nation.

What is less certain is the nature of his influence. While common mythology has held McCutchen was a brutal strongman, dishing out unmetered violence efficiently and punitively to any and all opponents of the early Texicas, the Lost DMB Files paint a more complex portrait. At times he’s portrayed as righteous, loyal, and even sympathetic. Some would go so far to claim him a subversive and opponent to the early expansionism of Texicas despite his prominent position.

Throughout his pulp fiction career, David Mark Brown’s published works uniformly referred to McCutchen as McCormick. Not until my recent discovery of a field journal kept by Brown was McCormick’s identity matched with the historical McCutchen. This critical find has accelerated the authentication of Brown’s stories as historical accounts in disguise.

Reefer Ranger, an early lost file (#9), is believed to be Brown’s first depiction of McCutchen. Set in Matamoros, Tamaulipas during early 1914, the historic background of the gory tale depicts, among other things, a Germany more heavily involved in North America than currently believed by most. But Brown’s vivid use of detail demands the possibility be considered.

On an obscure note, I should also mention Brown’s use of ‘reefer’ appears to be the earliest on record, casting even further doubt upon its etymology, but favoring the idea of Mexican Spanish origins. It must be remarked that Brown’s depiction (and in fact highlighting) of McCutchen smoking marihuana strikes a bold contrast with everything else known about the man.

In my humble opinion I should think this an appropriate instance to apply the old saying, truth is stranger than fiction. Since marihuana was not yet well known in much of North America and the American era of “Reefer Madness” remained a dozen years away, it seems strange indeed that Brown should focus on such a detail lest it serve some historical significance. What that significance may be, we are left to merely speculate. (Oh, the professorial sport!)

For any student of history or seeker of truth, I recommend beginning your journey into the complicated mind of John Tilly McCutchen III with Reefer Ranger. Whatever you decide about the “goodness” or “badness” of this immoveable human force, let me introduce you to a central figure in the lost file universe. Reader, meet J.T. McCutchen.

Earnestly,

Professor Jim “Buck” Buckner

Reefer Ranger

Dark fell quickly and without contest during late winter in Matamoros. Striding across an alley ripe with urine and decay, Ranger J.T. McCutchen leaned against an adobe wall. Once situated, he stilled his breathing and listened for the echoing voices of the three men he’d tracked to this unmarked cantina. Soon he heard a familiar chorus buoyed into the night air by shots of cloudy mescal.

“La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar porque no tiene, porque le falta marihuana pa’ fumar.”

It was a revolutionary verse, one he had heard before. Unclear about the reference to marihuana, he knew the song to be sung often by Poncho Villa supporters. The following verse could indicate something important about the men he sought.

“Cuando uno quiere a una y esta una no lo quiere, es lo mismo como si un calvo en calle encuentra un peine.”

It was nonsense, a farce. Something about unrequited love being as ridiculous as a bald man with a comb. No matter, he hadn’t suspected these men were Villistas anyhow, nor the rivaling Huertistas. The actions of Villa and Huerta only mattered to him when they spilled across the border, which after three years of revolution was happening more often.

These were most likely simple bandits, cattle rustlers, but he hadn’t followed them across the border for a good night kiss. He sniffed the air, the end of his nose curling. As his eyes adjusted to the scant light, he spotted a crate of rotting cabbages across the way. Covering his nose with the crook of his elbow, he breathed deeply.

It seemed unlikely he’d take the men into custody without bloodshed. For a second he regretted not jumping them before they reached town.

Realizing the singing had stopped, he instinctively reached for one of his Colt .45 Flat Tops. The crunch of a boot on gravel sparked the silence. He spun to confront it, but for the first time during his ten years of service with the Texas Rangers, he was too slow. The business end of a shovel struck his brow, his skull compacting with the force of the blow. Popping lights blinded him. Spasming, he dropped his .45.

Strange, but he thought first about the condition of his hat, rather than his head. He listed and would have fallen, but another attacker shoved him hard against the adobe wall. He smacked the back of his head against the mud brick, bracing himself and wondering where his hat had gone. His vision rolled left and right as if he pitched on a boat.

“Un rinche solitario. Usted debe haber permanecido el hogar, el diablo tejano.”

McCutchen steeled himself against the coming onslaught. Bloodshed was a certainty now, most likely his own. “Wherever I’m standing is my home, you dirty Mexican bastard.”

With that a fist shot out of the shadows, connecting with his jaw. Briefly he thanked God for the support of the adobe wall. Stay on your feet, he thought. Reaching beneath his duster with his left, he drew his second Colt Flat Top. Now or never. Before he could focus and aim, the shovel swept back into view. As the shovel smashed into his hand, he forced off a round early. Then he forgot about God altogether.

“¡Dammit, el tiro híbrido yo!”

A din of angry voices rattled in his head like bees in a tin can before a fury of blows broke against him. Desperately he tried to whistle, to call, anything, but his jaw had swollen shut. He covered his face the best he could. Finally someone pulled him from the wall and threw him to the ground, where a boot to his temple ended the nightmare.


Two gun shots brought a sudden end to the violence.

“La prisa, el Villistas está viniendo. ¡De nuevo a la hacienda! ¡Viva Huerta!”

Men scurried down the darkened alley echoing the refrain, “¡Viva Huerta!” But the man who gave the orders paused at McCutchen’s body, limp and lifeless. He holstered his gun before stooping to pick up a single Colt .45, the second smothered by the Ranger’s body.

¡Rápidamente!” He followed the others, leaving a stillness behind.

Filthy water trickled down the center of the alley mixing with McCutchen’s blood. A black cat pounced from a stack of crates, chasing cockroaches past where he lay face down in the dirt. An hour later a slumped, old lady exited the cantina carrying a table cloth full of rags slung over her shoulder like a sack. So diminutive was her stature, the bundle settled behind her knees. When she turned, there in her path lay the rinche.

Ay, dios mio,” the lady whispered as she bent to check for a pulse. Her wrinkled face, round eyes peering from deep furrowed caves, was dark and ruddy like blood and chocolate. She straightened. Muttering to herself, her sack still over her shoulder, she scuttled away.

Thirty minutes later she returned with two goats dragging a litter. Grunting, she rolled his upper body into the makeshift basket of rope and clicked her tongue. The goats obediently tugged the limp body of the Ranger, cowboy hat now resting on his chest, to her house on the edge of town. Without slowing, they pushed through the heavy fabric hanging over her doorway.

Glancing over her shoulder, the old woman followed them in. Amidst the stillness a chill settled into the trough of night beneath winking stars. Moments later the goats reemerged to scavenge for scraps of garbage.

Slits of greasy light poured into the street from around the curtain door. Inside, the bent lady wrung a rag into a basin of water. Humming to herself, she dabbed crusted dirt and blood from the Ranger’s face. Unconscious, he rested upright in the basket of the litter. In the flickering light of an oil lamp the woman crossed herself in the Catholic manner while growing more rhythmic in her tune.

She lifted McCutchen’s eyelids. His eyes had rolled back into his head. She bent close to his face to block the wavering light. His eyes and the corner of his mouth twitched. She pulled down on his chin to open his airway and listened intently as his breath came in raspy, labored draws punctuated with irregular shudders. Finally she massaged his face and neck before feeling again for his pulse.

Instead of beating slow as it should, it increased in tempo, his muscles tensing. Nimbly she jumped onto the bed and rummaged on a high shelf tucked under the thatched roof. On finding a small bowl of crushed leaves, she returned to McCutchen’s side. Transferring flame from the lamp to the leaves, she breathed it briefly to life before allowing the fire to turn to smoke.

She placed the Ranger’s hat on his forehead and draped a wet rag over its brim to cover his entire face and chest. She sat close to him, holding the bowl, allowing the smoke to rise alongside his neck up into the tent she had created. The Ranger snorted and coughed. As she kept the smoke rising steadily with her breath, his quaking muscles relaxed.

Ah, marihuana sagrada.” Sacred marijuana.


McCutchen groaned. He felt he’d awoken in the back of a dark, pulsing cave. He wrestled with his senses until he heard a soft chittering, like quail hiding in brush. The sounds were incoherent.

He focused on smells, quickly wishing he hadn’t—manure and smoke the only two odors he could distinguish. What the hell? He tried to open his eyes. At first they refused, as if sewn together. Gradually a thick crust cracked and broke.

For several blinks, he saw nothing but a flickering blur. Finally the scales fell away, and he recognized his surroundings as the inside of a chink house. Plaster had fallen in several areas, revealing the wooden structure packed with gravel and mud. It wasn’t a jacal or adobe, common housing for poor Tejanos and Mexicans. It was the traditional housing for Indians.

The realization seized him with panic. He jerked, reaching for his Colts, but they were gone. Pieces of memory returned in random order. He remembered hearing the chorus to La Cucaracha, discovering the trail of two horse thieves at the edge of a thicket, and finally the dark shape of a shovel cracking him in the skull. He remembered the scrape but had no way of knowing a full 24 hours had passed.

The chittering sounds returned. Lurching, he realized his arms were tangled, or tied down. He swore, his eye and mouth twitching. His headache throbbed with his increasing pulse.

Usted no debe maldecir tanto, cursing no good por tu health.”

He flinched as an old woman, bearing no signs of fear or menace on her ancient face, pushed through a curtain that served as a front door. He flashed his eyes around the room. Nothing jumped out at him. Nothing seemed to indicate any sort of danger. His arms had only been laced through the ropes of a rudimentary litter, which, upon closer inspection appeared to be the source of the manure smell infusing him.

“Pardon my French,” he said as he freed himself and sat up.

Français?” The woman looked puzzled.

“No, no. Never you mind. English will be fine. Now if you don’t mind me asking, where the hell am I? And what happened?”

En mi casa. Los bandidos le dejaron para los muertos, pero dios sonrió en usted. ¿Entienda?” The old woman paused to let him catch up.

“Bandits. Yeah, I understand.” He slowly looked himself over. Everything appeared to be intact. He was cut, bruised and bloodied, but not so bad off, considering. His left hand had swollen stiff, most of his face an ill-fitting mask. Two thoughts occurred to him. “My hat? My guns?” She nodded her head, but stood there silently. He tried again, “Mi pistolas? Ah, sombrero?

Si.” She pointed with her lips to his right side.

He looked down. His hat, his grandfather’s Stetson, rested beside him. Crushed in the front and dirty, it was no worse off than him. He popped his neck, reached down and took the hat to straighten it. A cockroach scurried from beneath the brim.

Mi pistolas?

The woman smiled and nodded in the affirmative.

Before he could try again he caught a whiff of something strange coming from his hat. “What’s that smell?”

“Marihuana.”

He narrowed his eyes at the old woman and waited for her to continue.


Marihuana para sus asimientos y su asma. Le ayudó a curar. Marihuana, good medicine.”

McCutchen bolted upright, pain shooting along his spine. “You pumped me full of loco weed? To make me better?”

Si.”

“You crazy old hag! What the hell did you do that for?” He could hear his grandfather’s words echoing in his brain, lecturing him about the limitations of men who depend on stimulants and alcohol for courage.

He’d taken a vow when he first became a Ranger that nothing stronger than a good glass of wine would violate the sanctity of his body—temperance seeming more reasonable than prohibition considering his Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian upbringing. His father may have been a spineless, religious nut, but he made a dang good wine.

As he tore into the woman again, the muscles in his face jerked and twitched worse than before. “Not now.” He pressed his fingers to his face, breathing deep. Nervous tics had affected him since youth and were intensified by stress. While studying the latest criminal justice methods in Austin he’d developed successful means to discipline and control his body. He lost them among his alien surroundings.

He tried to stand. “Look, woman. I need my damn guns, and I’ll get out of your hair.”

The woman clucked softly and shook her head, positioning herself to support him. Struggling to fend the old woman off and stand without her help, McCutchen flopped backward into the litter. Suddenly she shushed him with a slashing gesture across her throat. He didn’t argue. He heard it too.

Stilling himself, he struggled to slow his heart rate and control the spasms in his face and throat. Swallowing came hard while a humming rose in his ears. Relax, dammit. But it was no use. The old woman reached under the mattress to pull out a slick Winchester rifle, lever action. She eased a bullet into the chamber.

“What the—”

She held a single finger to her lips.

He heard it again, the sound of boots scuffling in the dirt outside the chink house. He gestured for the woman’s attention, mouthing the same question from before, “pistolas?” But she stared intently at the heavy curtain hanging in her doorway, as a shallow bleat from a goat ended in gurgling.

Santa María, Madre de Dios.” She kissed an amulet hanging from her neck and steadied the rifle. It would’ve been comedic, if his life hadn’t depended on this shriveled old woman leveling a rifle longer than she was tall.

Still trying to regulate his breathing, McCutchen scanned the room for his pistols. He heard more movement outside. The edge of the curtain bulged inward. This is crazy, he thought. I’m being hunted by bandits in Mexico with only a raisin and some goats to protect me. The only thing he could find within reach to fight with was a kettle. Cast iron, it would have to do. The curtain moved again.

A goat poked his head through the opening and bleated, blood dripping from its muzzle. A roar and flash ripped the stillness in two as the old woman pulled the trigger on the .30-30, working the lever action to reload.


¡Diablo en infierno!

The shack danced with the impact of hot lead. McCutchen slammed onto the earthen floor, abandoning the idea of the kettle. Plaster ripped off the walls and shattered in clouds of rock and dust in the air above him. “Son of a bitch!”

The old woman still stood in the middle of the room. “¡Dios en cielo, trae su fuego para quemar Huerta y a sus diablos!” She shoved the barrel of the rifle into a hole in the wall and worked the lever, burning the night air with gunpowder and lead.

McCutchen dragged himself through an increasing pile of rubble, searching for his Colts while his throat continued to tighten. His right eye twitched so rapidly he could barely use it. Smoke filled the upper half of the room, the thatched roof on fire. In another few minutes the fight would be over one way or the other.

The woman stomped next to his right hand, and he looked up. “¡Pistola!” She pulled one of his Colt .45’s out from under her skirts, handing it to him.

“I’ll be a son of a—” He spun the cylinder. It was fully loaded. Outside, the gunfire lulled as the bandits waited for the flames to do their work. With nimble fingers the old woman reloaded the Winchester. She pulled a tin out from under rubble on her bed and threw it to McCutchen.

“You take. Good medicine.”

He ignored her. Twitching, he leveled his Colt toward the door where the torn curtain dangled in the opening. But it was little use. He couldn’t steady his aim. His face and neck yanked to the left. He’d be able to kill a man at ten feet, maybe. At least it was night. But the fire would make it easy for the bandits to see him and the old woman when they stepped from the burning house.

The woman bent down and took the tin. She shoved it into McCutchen’s chest. “Okay, Okay.” He tucked the tin into an inner pocket of his duster.

Without waiting longer, she surged through the curtain and into the night air before McCutchen could respond. Gunfire blazed from all around. McCutchen lurched toward the opening, chapped he was following an old woman’s lead. But a bullet struck the door post.

As shards of wood and rock knocked him off balance, he hit the jam hard. Quaking, the remains of the burning roof collapsed inward.

In a shower of sparks, a roof support struck him on the shoulder and drove him to the ground. The smoldering support pinned his left hand, cooking the flesh. Smoke burned his lungs. Rolling onto his back, he heaved the beam off. Above, he saw night sky where the roof had been.

Unbelievably, gunshots continued as the old woman called down fire from heaven while the Winchester delivered it. He pulled himself into the chill night air on his belly, bear-crawling away from the illumination of the flames. A hot slug struck him in the thigh like a hornet. He gritted his teeth and rolled onto his back.

A flash, followed quickly by a pop, originated from the brush beyond the clearing the goats had grazed. Dirt kicked up next to the Ranger’s boot. He steadied his aim toward the source of the flash and let his Colt roar. After tearing off three quick shots, he continued toward the shadow of a cement trough.

He threw his back against the cold cement, gasping for breath. His head spun. Lights danced and popped in his vision as the night suddenly fell quiet. The gunfire ceased, but he couldn’t stop the spasms. Finally, overwhelmed by pain and unable to breath, he passed out.


McCutchen awoke to several sensations at once. Scattered drops of rain chilled his exposed skin and hissed among the burning embers of rubble. Numbness alternated with electricity throughout his extremities. An orange sun brushed the belly of the clouds on the horizon. Finally, a snuffling beside his head jerked him totally awake.

A goat, one of the twins belonging to the old woman, nuzzled at the crusted blood in his hair. Snorting along his shoulder, the animal tugged his duster open and sniffed the tin in his pocket.

“Alright, that’s enough. Shoo.” Lying flat on his back, McCutchen tried to wave the animal off, but even the slightest movement was difficult. He found his hat lying next to his head, brim down and relatively dry. Well that’s a stroke of luck. He propped himself up and discovered his Colt digging into his back. “Hello pretty.”

He checked the cylinder. Three bullets. No sooner than the blood returned to its normal circuits, his nervous tics began. He could breathe, but his right eye flickered as his neck jerked his whole head to the left worse than as a child. A crackling sensation returned in his shoulder and hand, like his frame had been shoved into skin three sizes too small.

He’d forgotten about the burn. Picking at the charred edges of his duster, he glimpsed the white puss forming in and around the wound. His left hand had swollen and cracked, first degree burns covering the back of it. The flesh trapped under his ring blistered and continued to cook. He tried to spin it, but it stuck fast, his meaty hand much too swollen. He shook his head. Elizabeth, why can’t I let you go?

Finally he remembered the gun shot to his thigh. Cringing, he checked behind the torn flap of bloodied denim. “Hot damn, I’ll live yet.” It had merely scratched him, taking nothing more than a bite of flesh. Coming full circle, he remembered what had brought him to Mexico in the first place. Grinding his teeth, the poison of the night’s events flowed through his veins, strengthening him with hatred.

The goat lapped water from the trough, and the need of drink gave McCutchen immediate purpose. “Mind if I join you?” Sweeping flotsam aside, he cupped his hands. After several scoops he steeled himself against the pain and rose to his full 6’3” height. He had some killing to attend to, but first.

He scanned the senseless carnage around him. A warm slice of sun burned the gap between cloud and horizon, blinding him as he peered toward the remains of the old woman’s house. He shaded his eyes and moved closer. Remnants of a pool of blood and drag marks in the dirt indicated where the old croon’s first shot had struck home, most likely a kill.

He refused to think about the woman herself. There could’ve been only one outcome for her, and thinking about it made his eye spasm.

He skirted the edge of the rubble into the clearing between the woman’s house and the wilderness beyond. The first grisly sight he encountered was the companion goat, throat slit from ear to ear, his side half charred. Pattering rain drops dappled the thick dust, disguising the blood trails. But he found one that started in the center of the clearing and worked its way toward the brush.


He didn’t want to finish analyzing the scene, but he had no choice. He owed her that much and more. Drawing his Colt, he left the blood trail and swung wide to search the edge of the brush. He recognized the prickly pear he’d loosed three rounds into the night before. At least one of the slugs had not been wasted. Blood spatter covered several pads. The trail led south toward a cluster of large mesquites, probably where the horses had been tied up. He would check that later.

Moving more quickly, he steeled himself for the inevitable.

“Good God.” In an opening surrounded by acacia shrubs McCutchen found the remains of the old woman’s body. She hadn’t just been killed. She had been desecrated. He swallowed and took a deep breath before bending over the grisly scene. The woman had been shot several times. By the looks of it, more than a few of them before she fell, and some after. In anger, one of the bandits had carved her with a knife.

He coughed, finding it harder to breathe. About to stand, he noticed something clenched in the woman’s hand. Prying back her fingers revealed the amulet she had kissed the night before. Too much unfinished business, he thought, as he rubbed the amulet between his thumb and finger. It looked Aztec. He recognized the grotesque face of the sun god at the center.

On wobbly legs he stood while slipping the amulet inside his duster next to the tin. He reached the smoldering chink house and the blood stained dirt at its entrance before his curiosity got the better of him. After confirming all tracks led toward the stand of mesquites, he opened the rusty tin.

“Crazy old bitty.” The tin contained a dozen tightly rolled marihuana cigarettes. He clenched the busted and swollen fingers of his left hand, listening to the voices of his grandfather and the old woman in competition. But his grandfather, a Ranger to the end, had gone to rest a long time ago. This woman’s body was barely cold, and she had died, in part, because of him. “Good medicine.” It was the least he could do for a woman whose name he would never know.

He pulled out a single cigarette. Stooping over the burning coals of a roof beam, he puffed it to life and took a slow drag. He coughed at first, hacking up a loogie, then settled into the familiar routine of inspecting the scene. By the time he reached the mesquites where the horses had been tied, his breathing came easier.

There had been five of them. One dead, one wounded. Out of the three remaining, one was heavy while the other two where slight. They rode away toward the south. The woman had mentioned Huerta. If these were Huertistas operating this far north they needed protection against the roving Villistas, the infamous peon cavalry of Pancho Villa. Only one place for twenty miles could provide that sort of protection. First he had to fetch his horse.

The remaining goat followed him half way to the cantina before turning around. He felt affection for the little loner, but a half-chewed up gringo rinche wandering Matamoros by himself was conspicuous enough without a goat trailing him. On the other hand, there was no point in being furtive now. No longer quietly tracking prey, his next move would be offensive. Soon enough his enemies would know exactly where he was.

By the time he reached the northern edge of town, his gate had quickened and his tic had completely gone. “I’ll be damned.” He patted the tin in his duster.

After reaching the riverbank of the Rio Grande, he pursed his lips and pierced the morning air with a sharp two-toned whistle. He bent the pitch upward and added a trill at the end. Repeating it twice, he crouched behind a yucca. It didn’t pay to be a visible target anywhere along the river these days, on either bank. In less than a minute he heard a familiar whinny as his horse, Chester the IV, trotted up from the river bottom.

Sleek and happy, Chester snorted. Not in the least perturbed it had been thirty-six hours since McCutchen left him by the river, he mulled green grass around the bit in his mouth.

“No, no. I’m fine. You?” McCutchen gritted his teeth as he swung himself into the saddle. In no hurry, and not particularly desirous of agitating his wounds further, he led Chester at a comfortable walk around the western edge of town. Having been spotted heading north toward the river, he carefully remained out of view. He wanted watching eyes to assume he had returned to Texas soil. Good riddance. But he wasn’t going home yet. He had work to do.

The two-story stone hacienda jutted from the horizon, visible from miles away. Dismounting on the backside of a knob, he indicated for Chester to stay close. With his Colt reloaded, he carried jerky, dried apricots and a canteen to the top of the rise. After making himself comfortable, he watched the comings and goings while devising his night raid.

The property for miles around belonged to Hacienda Nuevo Santander. As well, the hacienda operated over seventy acres of farmland and a mill. It wasn’t cotton, but McCutchen couldn’t tell from his perch what the mill processed. A cluster of low adobe houses crouched at the near corner of the fields. That would be the first place he’d be spotted, if he wasn’t careful.

On a slight rise to the east perched the hacienda proper. The lessor brick buildings surrounding the original stone mansion included a store, cantina, blacksmith, kitchen and whatever else the hacendado deemed necessary to live according to proper standards.

A damn waste. Extravagance leading to laziness and weakness, as far as McCutchen was concerned. Many of the Mexicans felt the same way, disassembling or crushing most of the haciendas at the beginning of the revolution.

The fact this one still prospered fit with the notion that Huerta had taken a liking to it personally. But that was none of his business. His concern was that vaqueros from this hacienda had rustled cattle from Texas ranches, including the Corona, and had recently tried to kill him, twice.

Stealing cattle and threatening the life of a Ranger were both killing offenses. That meant the law stated he could kill them twice, and he intended to. Justice was coming, but it would have to wait until nightfall. Only one thing troubled him. He’d never gotten a good look at the men, neither at the cantina nor at the old woman’s.

Gambling, an affliction of the pathetic, was beneath him. All the same, McCutchen reckoned it a safe bet the bastard that carved the woman had the Winchester. That was something. And with any luck, he’d reclaim his lost Colt too. His .45 would no doubt be gripped by the man who organized the ambush at the cantina. He’d put down whichever hijo de puta he found with his pistola, and be doing the world some good.

His plan more or less in place, he turned to his relaxation regimen to pass the time. Maybe later he’d take a nap before heading down for reconnaissance at dusk. He grunted as he crossed his legs and placed his feet on his thighs, careful to avoid the gunshot wound. Opening his palms upward, he cleared his mind.


McCutchen observed several sentinels setting up watch around the periphery of the hacienda, including one dang near the knob where he’d spent the heat of the day. When darkness fell, he slipped easily through the first line of defense.

Guessing they would switch the watch around midnight, and anxious to get the job done sooner rather than later, he moved quickly. He couldn’t have hoped for a better situation. Some of the hacendado’s men started a large bonfire to fend off the damp chill blowing inland from the Gulf of Mexico. McCutchen knew their line of sight would be diminished by the flames. The peons remained the only wildcard.

He and Chester steered clear of the fire and the buildings, choosing the spot safest from stray eyes. For several minutes McCutchen sat quietly in the saddle, observing the scene. Six to eight men sat on benches around the edge of the fire whooping and hollering while peons milled nervously across from them.

McCutchen shook his head. For amusement the vaqueros had chosen to humiliate peons by making them dance. The breeze shifted, carrying their voices toward him.

“This is some good stuff, yes?”

“Why don’t you have some?”

“Oh that’s right, I forgot.”

“You’re too busy dancing.” The vaqueros cackled with laughter, firing off rounds in the air and at the peons’ feet. The raucous startled the horses tied up opposite McCutchen’s position. Dumb bastards. Villa could ride in with an army, and they’d never hear it. Finally they quieted down as the leader picked up where he’d left off.

“Besides, you’re too poor and ugly to smoke the General’s personal marihuana.” A vaquero choked and blew smoke, the others laughing at him.

Finally the pieces started to fit. The crop McCutchen had seen during the day was cañamo, marihuana. Even if Huerta smoked incessantly, the only reason to grow this much this far north was for trade along the border to obtain information, weapons and favors.

Whatever benefit McCutchen experienced from the plant, these men were obviously too boorish and undisciplined to enjoy. It spurred an evil inside them. Intoxicated and cruel, the jackals turned violent on the huddle of peons. A burst of gunfire scattered the workers toward the adobes. The image of the eviscerated old woman flashed in his mind. Marihuana had been responsible.

McCutchen thought a couple vaqueros had broken out in a scuffle until realizing the one who seemed to be el Jefe had snuggled up with a peon woman. She tried to defend herself, and he turned rough. Slapping her, she fell back, almost tumbling into the fire. A cry came from one of the adobes. So the were watching. If he could take out the first few vaqueros maybe the peons would help, or at least not get in the way.

El Jefe stood and spat on the girl while she squirmed on the ground. Then McCutchen noticed it. On the bench beside the man rested a rifle, the old woman’s Winchester. As el Jefe approached the girl, he chose to draw a knife, rather than a gun. He threatened her with it lewdly.

That left no more than six men against the six bullets in his Colt. He lashed Chester with the reins. The two of them, horse and rider, drew within yards of the fire before the vaqueros realized a terrible apparition bore down on them.

Gazing dumbly into the darkness they first spotted Chester’s flaring nostrils, then McCutchen, as he swung his right leg backwards over Chester’s rump. He spun around completely to make a running dismount. The Ranger needed every bullet to count.


With his momentum carrying him toward the vaqueros, McCutchen focused on the first among them to respond and squeezed the trigger. The cylinder rolled, the hammer fell, gunpowder ignited and a singular hole appeared in the man’s forehead. Again, McCutchen squeezed the trigger. Fire lit the end of his barrel. A second man fell with a sudden hole to the forehead.

Chester continued at full bore. Leaping over the fire, he clipped a burning branch and showered sparks on the retreating men. McCutchen slowed to a steady walk, mechanically working both hands as if he held the second .45 in his left. In reality the right had to work twice as fast. He pulled the trigger a third time, and a fourth.  Two more men fell, skulls vented to the night. But it wasn’t enough.

A bullet whizzed past McCutchen’s head. The immediate crack, like axe on wood, meant it’d been all too close. He whistled for Chester and bolted toward the adobe buildings, putting the bonfire between him and the remaining vaqueros, including the son of a bitch with the knife.

Only two more rounds came close. Reaching for horn and stirrup, McCutchen snagged Chester at full gallop. But as he shifted his weight into the saddle, Chester slumped and dove headfirst into the ground. The sudden change of momentum flung McCutchen sprawling over the horse’s head.

He hit hard with no time for pain. Dirt pelted him in the face as a bullet missed low. To make things worse, he heard el Jefe ordering someone to go for help.

McCutchen scurried back to the fallen horse who rasped up a mixture of blood and foam with every labored breath. “Dammit. I’m sorry, boy.” He took shelter behind the horse and felt the animal’s warm body jerk with fresh bullet wounds. Now he was in for it. No horse, no element of surprise and only two more bullets.

Angry at himself for stupidly losing precious seconds, he reloaded his Colt with rounds from his belt. He tried to think. If one vaquero rode for help only two remained. If he could get them and find a horse…

A slug tore through the meat of his calf, interrupting his thoughts. His body hummed with pain. Every nerve fought to override his ability to reason. But he had to think. Something was wrong. He wasn’t in their line of fire. Like a shotgun blast, it came to him.

The glint of fire light on steel flickered in an adobe window. He rolled to his left as another flare revealed a rifle barrel spewing hot lead. The bullet struck Chester mercifully in the head. With no cover and no choice McCutchen pumped his good leg, hobbling toward a narrow opening between adobe homes.

Only a couple of stray shots pursued him, the vaqueros possibly reloading. He braced himself against the cold adobe and tried to think clearly, but he was losing the battle. The peons had turned against him. Stupid Mexicans were all alike—willing to shoot the guy helping them just because he’s a gringo. Or did they know he was a rinche? How could they know? But who the hell else would charge in here alone?

His line of thought wasn’t helping. Furious, he couldn’t stop. All the piss poor treatment he’d taken from Mexicans over the years. Even the children hissed, “Rinche, pinche, cara de chinche,” calling him a mean Ranger with the face of a bug.

He was only doing his job. And a damn fine job at that, protecting worthless, ungrateful trash. And now Chester. The best damn horse he had ridden, shot down by some snot-nosed peasant. Not even a hardened bandito, but a peon who couldn’t recognize help when he saw it—a peon growing marihuana and spreading it into his Texas! An encroaching darkness absorbed him.

The gravel crunched behind him. Faster than God, he spun and pulled the trigger.


¡Maria! ¡No, Maria!” A woman’s wailing echoed off the adobe walls.

He inched closer to the body he’d just shot, now slumped on the ground. He kicked the head out of the shadows. It listed into a sliver of moonlight in the narrow alley. McCutchen made out the shape of a woman’s face, a woman’s hair. He knelt down. It was the girl el Jeffe had threatened with his knife, no more than 13 years old. Her dress torn, a dark stain spread across her chest.

“Jesus.” McCutchen stood woozily. He’d never shot a woman. Never in all his years of bringing justice to these God-forsaken borderlands. And only a girl at that. Sobs came from a nearby adobe.

“Shut up! Shut the hell up, you hear me? Comprende English?” McCutchen limped around the back of the adobe into the open night air. “I ain’t no bug. I ain’t no badman. I’m the God-damned law! You hear me?” He fired into an open window. “You caused this, not me!”

Something behind him caused him to turn. The hair on the back of his neck bristled. Something big moved in the dark a hundred yards off, or a lot of somethings. A single shot echoed from the direction of the sentry on the knoll. He flinched, but it hadn’t been aimed at him.

Suddenly the night air boiled with angry voices. “¡Viva la revolucion! ¡Viva Villa!

“Son of a bitch.” Of all the nights for Villa to attack the Huerta stronghold, it had to be tonight. Of all the dumb luck. McCutchen limped as fast as he could toward the last adobe in the row of buildings, a large square structure standing thirty yards apart from the others. In the daylight it appeared to be the best built, and in this case, the most likely to stop bullets. It also had no windows, only huge double doors.

War whoops shattered the quiet like church bells on a Sunday morning. Momentarily he thought about bolting, simply running into the brush and letting the Mexicans kill each other. But he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t scurry into the desert like a bug. Sons a bitches, he still had a job to do.

He shot the lock off the heavy wooden doors and swung them open enough to see inside. A stack of kerosene lanterns sat next to a bucket of lighters. Good enough. He shut the heavy doors behind him, drowning in the pitch blackness. Shouts from outside grew louder. Groping in the dark, he found a four by four beam meant to barricade the doors from the inside, and dropped it into place just as bodies slammed against its callous surface.

He turned toward the lanterns, found one and lit it. “What in the name of all things holy?” He held the lantern high until it revealed an armored vehicle and crate upon crate of weapons. Several of the crates open, he didn’t even recognize some of what he saw. They were guns, he just hadn’t seen their sort before.


A large pile of rifles lay spilled at his feet. Behind and to the right, several boxes originally reading “Vasićka” had been scratched out and relabeled, “granada.” He pulled off one of the lids.

“Bombs.” The box was filled with handheld bombs. He’d heard of these, explosives with a fuse or that detonated on contact. He stepped away slowly. The auto loomed to his left. Beyond that, a stack of machine guns, like the ones the cavalry carried, but newer. German. Overwhelmingly, the crates where imprinted with German. He’d seen enough of the language in the hill country around Austin to recognize it without a doubt.

The pounding on the doors grew louder before coming to a stop. Gunshots splintered the wood. The heavy doors would take a battering, but they wouldn’t last forever. He jumped onto the runner of the truck.

A large machine gun had been mounted to its bed with coils of ammunition ready-fed through the device. He’d never driven an auto or fired a machine gun, but he’d driven a tractor since he was twelve and seen the military work the contraptions several times. “This is crazy.”

Snatching two granadas, he scurried back to the truck. To his relief it started. He put out the lantern and stood behind the wheel, waiting for the doors to give way. Within seconds, the beam splintered and fell to the ground. As the two giant doors swung outward, the low rumble of the gasoline engine greeted the confused mob.

McCutchen chucked one granada and then the other as hard as he could. Both exploded simultaneously, knocking him back into the driver’s seat and deafening him. He jammed the truck into gear and shoved his foot down on the pedal. Spitting gravel against the back wall of the adobe, he shot out a short distance before slamming on the brakes as soon as he cleared the doors. Groans and swears filled the immediate darkness while shooting and yelling filled the further distances like coyotes calling to each other.

With his good leg he leapt into the back of the truck to wield the machine gun. Here goes. He depressed the trigger slightly. The recoil shook him to the bone. Holding on, he clinched his jaw to keep the teeth from rattling out of his head.

Anything that moved, he lit it up, until finally nothing moved. He released the trigger, giving the gun a chance to cool and taking the opportunity to untangle several more feet of ammunition. From his vantage he saw directly across the fields to the old hacienda.

Foolishly, every lamp in every room had been lit, or perhaps the lights were electric. The Huertistas had pulled back, retreating across the field toward the stone walls of the hacienda. The Villistas, on the other hand, had responded to the machine gun fire, thinking it was intended for them.

A cluster of horses pulled away from the main regiment, riding around the field toward McCutchen’s position. “Come and get me, boys.” As the lead horses got within fifty yards, he opened it up. The pealing thunder of the gun erased all sounds of life. His eyes, rattling in their sockets, saw nothing but death.

Then a click and a whirring buzzed around his head as the barrel spun but the ammunition jammed. Amazed it had lasted this long, he jumped down and took one last granada from behind the seat. As several Villistas regrouped and bore down on him with guns blazing, he chucked the bomb into the yawning darkness of the munitions shed and worked his good leg as fast as he could toward the fields.


This time the explosion rippled like a chain of firecrackers, until eventually fumes from the kerosene combusted into a fireball that lit up the night like high noon. The concussion, followed by a wave of heat, launched him headlong into the furrows of marihuana.

Santa Maria.” The lead rider, tossed by the explosion, landed yards away from McCutchen. Shock registered on the dazed revolutionary’s face as he realized a chewed up gringo leveled a pistol directly at him.

Without another thought the Ranger dispatched him. “Mary can’t help you. The time for prayer is over. Judgment has come.”

McCutchen picked up a burning splinter of the wooden doors and limped around the edge of the field, lighting the last stalk of each row on fire as he went. He arrived at the bonfire, pleased to see the Winchester waiting for him. Holstering his Colt, he clutched the rifle in his hands.

“No gods. No prayers. Only justice.” He reached inside his duster and clutched the old woman’s amulet. He’d intended to throw it into the fire, but thought against it.

He continued his uneven progress through the blazing field of cañamo, a single, sinister silhouette cutout against the flames he left behind him. Halfway across the field the alarm sounded for retreat. The remaining Villistas gathered in clumps along the road and lashed their horses toward the west and south.

McCutchen reached the great stone gates as the surviving Huertistas scattered, gathering whatever horses they could. Right inside the gate, barking orders, stood the man the Ranger had hoped to find. While the man waited impatiently for his horse to be brought to him, McCutchen limped steadily forward.

His clouded thoughts could think only one thing. Justice demanded to be paid in blood. The marihuana-fueled lawlessness of Mexico would not reach Texas while he still drew breath, and he was breathing now.

At thirty paces, the bandit turned to face him. A charred rinche recently back from the grave several times over was the last thing he expected, and the sight clearly unnerved him. McCutchen wanted to be sure before he shot the man down, so he let him draw first.

Steel flashed and gunpowder flared, but the bullet went wide. More importantly, as McCutchen drew his .45 he knew with a certainty he’d been fired on with his own gun. From twenty-five paces he pulled the trigger, putting one bullet in the Mexican bandit’s eye.

He took his stolen Colt from the dead man’s grip, using it to shoot the man who finally delivered the ringleader’s horse. The horse snorted but didn’t bolt. McCutchen recognized a mutual spark burning in the beast’s eyes.

“Whoa there,” he calmed the animal. “You’ve got a new boss now.” Hoisting himself up with the horn until he could swing his injured leg over the horse’s rump, he stroked the animal’s neck. “Chester V, that’s what I’ll call you. Now hyaw!” He lashed the animal with the reins and galloped out the front gate, heading toward home.

As he mounted the little knoll, he stopped to look back at the carnage outstretched below him. “La Cucaracha indeed. Everybody knows it’s the roach that lives in the end.” He spat and turned to go, now at a walk. The next day reports would reach Brownsville of a great battle at Nuevo Santander. Many dead and many wounded. But nobody would ever know a rinche had started it, or that a rinche had finished it.

END

Read More Schism 8 Episodes

Extinction Force, Ep1: Contamination

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The Tyranny bucked as its aft sloughed from the gate. Otto Jaeger breathed deeply while patting himself down, starting with his head. Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch. Everything remained in its proper place after another successful jump.

Sheer probability would catch up with him eventually. Someone could only be disintegrated and reassembled so many times before coming together out of order. Most of his men thought his pre and post jump litany a joke, but he’d seen scramble first hand. Messy stuff.

“Better acquire a visual, Commander, just in case.” Kade jostled Jaeger as he pushed past.

“Find a seat and strap in, XMO Christiansen.” Jaeger growled. “Half a nut would be enough to command this motley crew.”

Brista “Brick” Jenkins stood between the two and corralled Jaeger toward the bridge. “For Yuan’s sake, someone toss his grumpy highness the com so he can talk to his daughter before we pop the eye.”

“Mind your place, Brick.”

“Give it up, Otto, and admit you’re worried about her.” Ariza tossed a portable to Brick. She jammed it into Jaeger’s hand. “Ping the poor girl. She’s worried about you, even if you’re too pig headed to worry about her.” Brick leaned close. “We gonna be a month before extraction. She’ll be a roughhide on another squad by then. Show her you care, you prickly old frendol.”

Jaeger raised the com but hesitated to ping XLO Dalia Jaeger, his daughter and youngest child.

“If you don’t, I will.” Brick threatened.

Jaeger entered the coordinates on the handheld and pinged.

A response came seconds later. “EEF Ravager requesting authenticate.”

“It’s Commander Jaeger, I wanna talk to XLO Dalia—” he caught himself before he used the name she’d run off to escape, “Raven.”

“Your identification, Command—”

“Wilkes, you twit, I swear I’ll plug your pie hole with your protocol if you don’t—”

“ID authenticated. Roger that, Tyranny.” The connection fell quiet. Moments later Jaeger heard his daughter’s voice, rigid with formality.

“Commander?”

“Dalia.” A shadow of tension lifted from Jaeger’s shoulders. “We’re about to pop the eye on the Primal Instinct job.”

“Congratulations, sir.”

Jaeger gritted his teeth and checked to ensure the rest of his squad couldn’t overhear. “Baby girl, it’s me.”

Silence greeted him from the other end.

“Dalia?”

“Daddy?”

Jaeger allowed the familial title to nourish his heart. “I’m proud of you. I want you to know that. I still wish you could have spread your wings under my command, but I understand why you requested the transfer.”

“You’re not still angry?”

“A little, but mostly at myself. I can’t stay mad at you.”

“You always were a softy when it came to your baby girl.”

Jaeger changed the subject. “How’s the new squad treating you?”

“Fine. It’s different. Not bad, just different. I’m still figuring out the rules.”

“You’ll do fine.”

“I know.”

Jaeger laughed. “And your partner? The one with the deuce on his record?”

“You mean XMO Cruz?”

Jaeger could see his daughter’s expression despite the distance between them. “Don’t roll your eyes at me, missy.”

“Same old Commander, same old father. You know as well as anyone that reprimands are handed down for bogus reasons as often as legit.”

“He’s a pretty boy. I don’t trust pretty boys. Especially when they’re cheeks to cheeks with my—”

“Dad!” Dalia cut him off. “You like Tagg just fine.”

Jaeger hemmed and hawed. “Tagg’s an egghead who happens to look like a pretty boy.”

“Oh, so you admit looks can be deceiving?”

“Fine, you win. Just keep your guard, for now.”

“Don’t worry about me. Like father like daughter. Besides, we’re still two days out from babysitting some S&Es on a frickin’ explore and bore. I’m starting to realize how spoiled I got on your squad.”

“Hey, never forget the first rule.”

“I know, surprises kill.”

“And what causes surprises?”

“Unchecked expectations.”

“Exactly. No mission is ever as it seems. So keep your guard.”

“Speaking of keeping your guard, you’re the one heading into the cauldron. Primal Instinct for Yuan’s sake.”

“Just some big lizards.” Jaeger scanned the troop hold for any signs of the Client Representative. He knew they had to be nearing the Dyson Sphere’s fisheye portal. “I don’t have long before the eye severs the connection. I want you to know, I love you.”

“I know you do, daddy. I love you too.”

“Promise me you won’t get too many accommodations over the next month.”

Dalia was laughing when the connection turned to static.

“Baby girl?” Jaeger waited three seconds and sighed. It had been four years since he’d gone more than a week without seeing his youngest child.

Brick called out from the neck of the bridge. “We’ve popped the eye, ladies and gentlemen. Get ‘dem girdles on ‘cause we about to flush.”

Jaeger lowered the handheld and swore. “Where the shyet is that CR? Now the weasel’s got no choice but to spill the rest of the intel on this headache of a job.”


“The CR’s on the bridge. Our boyo looks a bit green around the gils.” Kade smirked.

“He’s gonna be black and blue around the eyes if he isn’t forthcoming with my intel, that smarmy little—” Jaeger’s rant faded to a mumble as he palmed open the door leading to the bridge. “Mr. Sigel!”

Sigel turned with a start. “Commander Jaeger, no need for—”

“Can the niceties. We’re inside the HC. You owe me full intel on this mission. Without it, none of my men are getting off this ship. But you might.”

Sigel swallowed. “I’m sure there’s no need for—”

“That wasn’t a threat. When I threaten you, you’ll know it. Now make with the intel.”

A large winged lizard flashed in front of the Tyranny’s viewfinder, jostling the ship in its wash. Sigel clutched a panic bar. “What was that?”

Forrester answered from the pilot’s chair. “Nothing to worry about. Just a welcoming party. They’re keeping safe distance.”

“Safe distance? Something just hit the ship!”

Jaeger shook Sigel by the shoulders. “I’m about to hit you if you don’t focus, Mr. Sigel.”

The Client Representative blinked several times before recognition settled in his eyes. He glanced toward the pilot. “Not here.”

“By Yuan’s light, what could possibly be so precious?” Jaeger allowed Sigel to slip past him into the neck of the ship. He closed the blast door to the bridge. “This is the last time I’m going to ask nicely. The mission.”

Satisfied no one could overhear, Sigel started in a low voice. “There’s a second Hibernaculated Culture, a secret HC concealed entirely inside Primal Instinct.” Sigel raised a brow suggestively as if this amount of information would impress the commander.

Jaeger leaned closer.

Sigel cringed and pressed into the hull.

“The mission, Mr. Sigel.”

Sigel sputtered. “A breach. There’s been a breach between the two HCs.”

“Contamination?”

“Unknown.” Sigel loosened his collar. “You must understand, Commander, the smaller HC is extremely remote. Completely isolated. Even the designer biomimetic dark matter is collected only twice a year. It has been four months since last contact, and at that time all indicators were nominal.”

“The imperatives?” Jaeger asked.

Sigel activated a holo-cube and offered it to the commander. “We have the coordinates of the containment breach.” Locate the breach. Assess, contain and cleanse possible contamination of the internal HC. Repair the breach.”

Jaeger’s lip twitched. “Is that it?”

“The integrity of the internal HC is paramount.”

The Tyranny bucked then banked hard to starboard. Jaeger braced himself and prevented Sigel from tumbling to the floor. “You mind telling me what I can expect to find inside this mysterious HC?”

Sigel panicked. “Shouldn’t someone be doing something!?”

“Just what sort of something do you suggest?” Jaeger smiled.

“I don’t know, like shoot those damn things down before they kill us!”

“I thought the mission was to preserve your precious HC.”

“Shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em all!”

Jaeger lifted Sigel by the collar and crammed him into a crash seat.

Forrester barked over the intercom as the turbulence increased. “One thousand meters from the surface. Less than two minutes until flush. You might have noticed, but we’re drawing some attention. Happy hunting, ladies and gents.”

“You heard the man!” Brick called out over the rattle and hum. “Strap in, cheeks to cheeks! Safeties locked until touchdown. After that, triggers green at your discretion!”

Jaeger leaned over until he was face to face with Sigel. “You’ve got exactly sixty seconds to tell me what’s inside the internal HC, or I’m strapping you into the spare exo and you can tell me on the surface.”

Sigel squirmed. “I can’t say! I don’t have clearance.”

“Either tell me or show me, Mr. Sigel.”

“It’s a cloud city. There are ancestral humans, a small population—seclusive, contained. They might not even be aware of the breach. You have to keep it that way, for Yuan’s sake. Each life is priceless.”

“Since when has an ancestral human been worth a pirate’s credit?” Jaeger clutched the CR’s collar and threatened him with a fist. “If you guys are hiding something that gets one of my men killed, I’ll burn down your entire pharmaceutical empire. That’s a threat.”

“Please, I’ve told you everything.”

Jaeger turned to go in disgust.

“Commander!”

Jaeger stopped.

“If you come across anything or anyone that doesn’t belong, kill it.”

“And what the hell is that supposed to—” The ship lurched violently as something slammed into it from above. Jaeger hovered in free fall until a second strike ripped away a section of the starboard hull. Jaeger clutched for a panic bar with one hand while clutching for Sigel with the other. The force of the ship’s spin tore the crash seat lose, and in the blink of an eye the screaming Sigel was sucked into the blue sky and gone.

Alarms blared. Jaeger clutched the bar with both hands. He tried to walk himself along the hull, but the centripetal force was too great. The Tyranny was in a flat spin.

“Commander!” A meaty hand clamped around Jaeger’s wrist and pulled him clear of the hull breach. It was Brick.

“The others!?” Jaeger yelled in her ear.

“They’re strapped in, but we’ve got a loose Exo—the Babiks in Gamma 2.”

“We need to flush now!”

Brick nodded. “Forrester’s not responding.”

Jaeger swore. The bridge door was closed. By the way the ship was spiraling out of control, they had to assume Forrester was gone.

“I can reach the manual lever.”

Jaeger wanted to object, but he knew Brick was the only one with a chance of success. “Do it, but set a ten second delay. I’ll see to the Babiks.”

“That gives you twenty. Ready?” Brick widened her stance.

Jaeger gripped her arm with his free hand and nodded.

“This is gonna hurt!” Brick roared as she threw Jaeger toward the troop hold in an arc against the centripetal spin.

The pull of the spin instantly dragged him down. Twisting his body just in time, he slammed into the untethered exoskeleton hands and feet first.

Maddy jolted at his sudden appearance. “Commander! Krystof’s unresponsive and my hatch is stuck!”

“Stay put! We flush in twenty!”

“But the tether!”

“We’re gonna piggyback. But you gotta get me to Alpha 1!”

She clenched her jaw.

“This is all you, Maddy!”

She jabbed her hands into the controls and ignited Gamma 2’s interactive matrix. Her eyes rolled into her head as the pure BDM entered her system. The right arm of the exo shot outward. Punching finger holes in the hull, she climbed the ladder hand over hand while Jaeger held on for the ride.

Within seconds, the Gamma 2 reached the tether that secured Alpha 1. “Tighten up!” Maddy gave a moment’s notice.

Jaeger tightened his core muscles as Gamma 2 gripped him around the waist and thrust him toward his own cockpit. As he popped the hatch, alarms blared throughout Tyranny’s troop hold. “Ten seconds!”

“We have to get Brick!”

“After the flush! Don’t worry, I’ll find her.” Jaeger heaved himself into the cockpit, slammed the hatch shut and ignited his matrix. As his awareness expanded beyond simple sight, Jaeger saw his first blurry snatches of the surface of Primal Instinct alternating with blue sky. The flat spin had begun to tilt sideways. “Grab ahold! We’re going in three! Two! One!”

The bottom of the ship fell open, releasing an array of jetsam that had broken loose from the impact. A second later the tether arms projected downward and released the exoskeletons in a staggered pattern—1.4 seconds apart. Jaeger’s was the first—with the Gamma 2 riding piggyback.


As soon as they cleared the tether, Jaeger spun the torso so his cockpit faced aft. He fired thrusters at full in effort to climb over the other exos and reach Brick before they hit the ground. He hailed Maddy on her personal channel. “Give me all your thrust. Match my trajectory.”

“Wilco. Thrust engaged at full.”

The jolt was immediate. Combined thrust slowed their decent to ten meters per second. The other exos dropped out of site on their way to the crash site—one that fortunately looked like a meadow. After twelve seconds, the last exo cleared the drop ship safely.

Jaeger magnified the view and scanned the belly of the Tyranny as it spun further away. Brick, where are you? Even the combined thrust couldn’t match the ship’s velocity. He hailed her. “You’ve gotta jump, Brick. Time’s up.”

“Glad to hear you made it alright, Otto. But I got a different plan.”

“For Yuan’s sake, you won’t survive in there. Jump, I’ll catch you.” But it was too late. Jaeger’s proximity alarm blared as the ground rose up to meet him. He shifted his focus. “Maddy, disengage in three, two, one.” He felt her exo push off from his the same moment he realized the meadow was actually a swamp. “Prepare for impact. I’m rolling right.”

“Roger. I’ll take left.”

The blue sky disappeared, swallowed by blurs of green and brown. The stench of decaying organic matter greeted him. Feet first, his exo crashed into the bog. He tucked in attempt to roll, but his legs stuck tight and slammed the rest of his exo into the mud face-first.

Other than sucking sounds, everything fell eerily quiet, and dark. He spun the torso. To his relief, he discovered he hadn’t embedded completely. “Report.”

One by one, the rest of his squad responded—all six twin-manned exoskeletons had reached the surface more or less intact.

“Krystof’s still not responding,” Maddy reported. “Any sign of Brick?”

The ground shook with a nearby explosion—the Tyranny. Jaeger pushed the thought out of his mind. “Anyone have a free line of sight? I’ve got nothing but sky.”

“Yes sir.” It was Tagg, XMO of exo call sign Echo 2. “Bao and I landed on a tuft of semi-solid ground. But, uh, you might want to stay buried in the mud. At least, I suggest no sudden movements.”

“Out with it.”

“We’ve got incoming, Commander, from every direction.”

Jules chimed in. “Unless I miss my guess, their Deinonychus. Nasty buggers, about the size of a person.”

“They’ve got wings.”

“Flightless, but I suppose it helps them tread lightly.”

“Numbers?” Jaeger asked.

“Seventy-three, give or take.” Tagg responded without hesitation. “Probably more waiting beyond the tree line to see what happens.”

“Threat assessment?”

“I suppose they could bite through hydraulics if they could get their beak in the joints.”

Jules added, “I wager the boney ridge on their head could spider a viewfinder.”

“Triggers free.” Jaeger gave the order. “Just remember, what you’re carrying is what you’ve got for the next month. Tagg, you cover Maddy. Kade?”

“Aye?”

“You and Zip good for lead on this one?”

“Give the word.”

“I’m giving it. Gamma 1, take the lead. First line of business is the crash site.”

“But Krystof,” Maddy interrupted.

“Tyrrany’s wreckage should provide enough cover to dismount. We’ll tend to Krystof there.”

Silence.

“Maddy?”

“Commander.”

“Your brother’s a survivor. You know that better than anyone.”

Bolshoe spasibo.”

“Now move out, and keep your eyes open for Brick.” Working double duty in Brick’s absence, Jaeger armed the flame thrower and baked the mud beneath him, intensifying the stench in the process. After a few seconds, he dug his feet into the crust and climbed out of the impact crater.

His squad had already engaged the Deinonychus raptors. Tagg laid down sporadic fire for the exos mired in the mud while Zip and Kade stretched their legs with close quarters combat. Jaeger rolled his eyes. There had to be better ways to discourage a man-sized dinosaur from trying to eat you, but he supposed the alternatives weren’t half as fun.

“It’s time to stop acting the maggot, boyos, and start sucking diesel!” Kade cackled over the open channel.

Jaeger tuned out the chatter and joined Shasta and Ariza, the rest of his Alpha fireteam, on the left flank. He fired thrusters on a limited basis to keep himself from bogging down. An occasional flame kept the dozens of Deinonychus at bay as the squad worked their way toward the edge of the swamp.

One curious Deinonychus didn’t mind his distance, and Jaeger lit it up. Flames consumed the reddish-orange plumage and sent the raptor crashing into three others. Moments later, a domino effect spread the fire to two dozen feather-covered lizards.

“Crikey! That showed ‘em a thing or two,” Kade chimed. “Ground’s solid over here, gang. Crash site’s two clicks beyond the trees. I’m reading lots of action over there.”

“More Deinonychus?” Jaeger fired thrusters hard enough to clear the edge of the swamp and land next to Echo 2 and Gamma 1. He helped Jules and Sable’s exo out of the edge of the muck.

“Something’s cheesed ‘em off good. Looks like a bloody feeding frenzy.”

“Brick.”

“If you’re right, boss, we better bolt.”

Jaeger had already taken off at a sprint. “Keep up if you can. Call out if you’re in trouble. Otherwise mouths shut and eyes open.” He slammed his exo’s fist into the jaw of an angry Deinonychus and burst into the dense stand of trees. Thrusters in skate mode and forearm blades fully extended, he slashed Alpha 1’s arms back and forth to clear a path through the vines and branches. At five meters a second, he scorched a hole through the jungle and burst into the clearing beyond in under a minute.

Still in skate mode, he broadsided a large, stampeding dinosaur and wedged a blade between two scales in order to hitch a ride. Behind him, Gamma 1 emerged from the tree line, followed quickly by the others. Shasta piloted Alpha 2 gracefully onto the back of a passing Stegosaurus while the others chose to remain on foot.

“Brick, do you read?” Jaeger hailed.

“You know me, keeping them home fires burning.” Brick responded over a thunderous hail of ballistics.

Jaeger should have known better than to worry. “Report.”

“Whenever I drop one, a dozen others stop to pick its bones as if they starving.”

“Roger. Can you hold the crash site?”

“Affirmative.”

“We’re bringing in casualties. Mark my position. Pinging now.” Jaeger pinpointed his location via radar.

“Copy that. Redirecting fire. You’re clear for approach, Otto.”

“Roger. Coming in hot.” Jaeger engaged a forearm chainsaw and plunged it into the meat of the dinosaur he’d been riding. The animal screeched as it plunged headfirst into the young, rocky soil. Jaeger rolled before regaining full skate-stride. As Brick had predicted, several stampeding dinosaurs pulled up to devour the wounded one.

Jaeger switched to the common channel. “Triggers free, men. Give these things something to eat other than us.”

Within seconds over a hundred dinosaurs had been killed or occupied with a kill. For the first time, Jaeger secured a visual of Brick and understood how she’d touched down safely—by detaching the cannon pod moments before impact. Having parachuted safely to the ground within thirty meters from the crash site, she was currently using the 75mm cannon to generate a ring of carnage.

“‘Bout time you lolygaggers got here. I need a snack pie break.”

“No breaks yet.” Jaeger vaulted over the snapping jaws of a feasting dinosaur and landed within the protected zone Brick had laid down. “Krystof’s unresponsive.”

“Hell’s gist. Get that boy over here. I got med supplies in the pod.”

“Maddy?”

“ETA right now, boss.” Gamma 2 smashed its way through the pile by slicing off the head and neck of a large raptor and swinging it like a club. The rest of the squad fanned out to assume Brick’s defense of the perimeter.

“Bollocks, these things are bloodthirsty.” Jules and Sable plowed a dead dinosaur out of the protected zone while punching two others that were attempting to eat it.

“Keep ‘em busy. I’ll play goalkeeper while Brick and Maddy tend to Krystof.” Jaeger switched to his flame thrower.

Maddy parked Gamma 2 next to the cannon pod and blew both hatches.”

“Maddy’s in the breeze.” Brick relayed. “I’m joining her.”

“Got you covered.” Jaeger flanked the cannon pod to ensure nothing bigger than a butterfly got close to his exposed crewmen. He glanced their way long enough to see Brick hoist a bloodied Krystof from his cockpit as Maddy supported her brother’s head and neck. Jaeger swore. If Krystof had been bleeding that much the whole time, and this early into the mission…

He focused on the perimeter and toasted a raptor that leapt onto the growing pile of carcasses. Several more followed that one, each oblivious to the fate of the last. Something had shifted their instincts. “This should be enough dead meat for weeks. Why do they keep coming over?”

Tag responded. “Call me crazy, but they’re acting like they’re trying to get away.”

“They doing a shite job of it,” Kade replied.

“Not from us, from something worse.”

The ground shook beneath Jaeger’s feet. “Anyone been watching the long range?”

“Uh, boss, we got trouble.”


Jaeger climbed the pile of dead meat to gain a visual. What he saw was a dinosaur three times the size of anything they’d encountered so far. And the beast wasn’t slowing down for any of the roadkill they’d left behind.

“Brick, we’ve got a problem, ETA thirty seconds.”

“Fat wallop, I got problems of my own.” Brick fired back.

“Jules?”

“Client’s gonna be pissed if we kill something like that. We’ve already set ‘em back a pretty penny.”

Kade interrupted. “Fetch that! I’m wondering if killing that bloody monster’s even possible.”

“Can we outrun it?” Jaeger asked.

“Not if it pursues.”

Jaeger checked the distance of the Gigantisaur and corrected his earlier estimation. “Fifteen seconds! Brick, we gotta go!”

She grunted as she held Krystof over her head so Maddy could load him in Gamma 2. “I’ve stopped external bleeding and administered a slo-mo, but it ain’t gonna do much on Immunity Faction. Best option’s to fall back outta the fire and let his core take over.”

“Fine, get in.”

“Hold on, I gotta get more supplies from the pod.”

Jaeger swore. “Brick’s still in the breeze. Bao, Shasta, Zip, form a wedge and head for the genitals. The rest focus ballistics on the face. Stay out from under it.”

“Boss, your six!”

Without turning to look, Jaeger activated his forearm blades, took a knee and plunged an arm backward. His gears ground as the hibernaculated steel blade buried wrist deep in the jaw of the beast that had intended to bite off his head. With a violent lashing, the dinosaur swung its neck and slammed Alpha 1 into the ground. “Focus on the big one!”

The beast jerked Jaeger off the ground. Before it could slam him down again, he spun in midair and scissored his arm blades together. Crunching through bone and sinew, the blades severed the neck and Alpha 1 promptly tumbled back to earth.

Chatter crowded the common channel.

“Watch the teeth!”

“I’m out. I’ve lost visual!”

“Ballistics are bouncing off!”

“Get your sorry asses out a the way!” Brick bellowed. “Get down!”

Jaeger rolled onto his side in time to glimpse Brick braced against the cannon pod with a slag humper draped over her shoulder. It was a weapon intended only for air to air combat.

“Slag humper!” he yelled while flipping onto his stomach.

“Fire in the hole!” Brick screamed.

A moment later, the wash tossed Alpha 1 head over heels. A bath of carnage rained down the moment Jaeger came to rest. After that, nothing but a ringing in his ears. “Report.”

“Bollocks, Echo team’s good.”

“Alpha 2 is in one piece, mostly.”

“Crikey, Zip and I are still here. Maddy?”

Silence.

“Maddy?” Jaeger pushed his exo onto its feet. He spotted the Gamma 2 on top of the Tyranny wreckage and under a giant slab of dinosaur meat. “Shasta, get her down from there. The rest of you secure the perimeter.”

“I’m here. I’m good.” Maddy finally responded. “My exo’s damaged. I think the hydro for one of the legs is cut.” She pushed the carcass off and struggled to maneuver her exo clear of the Tyranny wreckage. “Should Krystof and I dismount?”

Jaeger swore. “Stay put. We’ll drag you out of here if we have to.” He scanned the debris field for signs of Brick. All he saw were oversized chunks of grizzle, meat and bone. And blood. Lots of blood. “Brick?”

“Little help.” Her hand waved from underneath the overturned cannon pod.

Jaeger hurried to her side. “This is a first.”

“What’s that?”

Me lifting something heavy off of you.” He carefully flipped over the pod.

Brick slowly stood. “You calling me fat?”

“I have no response to that.”

“Well then, blow the hatch, ‘cause I’m climbing in.”

“Wilco.” Jaeger blew the hatch and Brick bounded into her cockpit.

“The natives are regrouping, hungry as ever.” Echo 2 had stabilized the Gamma 2—three good legs between the two machines.

“Where to, boss?” Kade asked.

Jaeger remembered the holo-cube Siegel had handed him. He found it still secured in his vest and plugged it into the dash of his exo. “Uploading coordinates now.”

Kade paused momentarily as he processed the 3D imagery.“Stop the lights! This whole manky operation has been about a bloody secret HC?”

“That’s right, so pull up your socks and take us there.”

“You heard the man. Get up outta this fire!” Brick roared.

“Wilco, boss.” Gamma 1 blasted a path through the ring as the other exos followed in a spear formation. “I don’t mean no offense, Commander,” came Kade, “but if this holo’s the only intel we got, how do you know—”

“The frying pan from the fire?” Jaeger interrupted. “We don’t, and yes, the whole thing’s gone arseways. But we can’t stay here, so hoe the row—lips shut and cheeks tight.”

“Roger that.”

The channel went dark as the squad bolted in a straight line for what looked like three lifetime’s worth of jungle primeval. With any luck, Primal Instinct would afford them a tiny window to catch their breath. If not…either way, Jaeger supposed the heat had just begun.


Jaeger hailed Brick over the internal com. “You had me going for a minute.”

“Even surprised myself.” Brick chuckled. “Hell, I’m just glad I packed my snack pies in advance.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission.”

“Can’t say it’s sitting friendly so far.”

“How’s Maddy dealing? You know, with Krystof.”

“That girl done blanched worse than her brother. But I reckon she’ll push the fear down deep, like always. No telling what those two went through together before EEF found ‘em on that toxic popsicle planet.”

Jaeger shook his head. “I’m more worried about what we’re going to go through on this adrenaline-steeped hellhole.”

“You and I both know it’s the people pulling the strings that are dangerous.”

“That’s a lesson Siegel should’ve seen coming.”

“Poor expendable fool. He ain’t had a clue.”

Jaeger scanned his peripherals for incoming dinosaurs. All but a few curious sorts had abandoned the caravan of exos in preference for the dead meat they left in their wake. The jungle lay another click ahead. The density of the growth would protect them from any predator bigger than their exos. But in Jaeger’s experience, jungle flora usually sheltered threats of its own.

He thought about the last thing Brick had said. “That’s what troubles me. Siegel was a low-level pawn, too expendable for a mission this important.”

“You saying his fate wasn’t no accident?”

“Dangerous secrets tend not to leave survivors, Brick. I’m saying I wouldn’t put it past the benevolent people of Crystalline Magic Co. to eliminate a few loose ends to preserve their bottom line.”

“If that’s true, life just ain’t worth what it used to be.”

Jaeger sighed. “For now we’re in the driver’s seat. They need us, and we’re about to know more than they do. We’ll carry out the mission, like always. In the process we gotta make sure we find the right leverage to guarantee extraction when the time comes.”

“You ever get tired of thinking three steps ahead?”

“All the time.”

“When are we gonna give up this fool game?”

Jaeger gazed overhead. Through the clear blue sky, he saw a glint of the Dyson sphere that caged them together with countless prehistoric specimens that had been brought back to life for the singular purpose of generating a drug-fueled profit. “After the next mission.” He steeled his will toward the mission at hand. “Always after the next mission.”


At the edge of the grassland, the jungle greeted them with menace. Its clutching tendrils, choking branches and thick trunks seemed to enslave the land it claimed and terrify the rest—even threatening the sky.

Jaeger craned his neck upward and gawked at the sheer scope of it. If the jungle hadn’t of dwarfed them, their exos never would have fit through the dense foliage. As it was, they’d have to battle the underbrush and whatever they encountered living on the jungle floor.

Kade broke the silence. “Looks like the meat eaters have broken chase.”

“This looks like as good of a breather as we’re gonna get,” Jaeger said. “Full diagnostics. Dismount in fireteams, starting with Gamma.” He knew the Baliks needed immediate attention. “Breathe the air and taste the soil. Bao, I want you and Tagg to scout the best way forward.”

“Roger that.” The squad echoed in chorus.

“Oh, and make sure all injured check in with Brick. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you what happened to Kade last time he overlooked a scratch.”

“Oy, I thought I’d never shite all those buggers out.”

The internal com activated. Jaeger could hear the rustling of a wrapper as Brick shoved one of her repellant snack cakes in her mouth. He’d never understood what she found appealing about their combination of spongy, processed ingredients.

“You gonna be alright without me?” She spoke with a full mouth.

“No, but we can’t let our feelings for each other get in the way.”

Brick snorted and choked for several seconds before managing to swallow the snack cake. “Dang it all, I think some of the filling went up my nose.”

“I saw my advantage and took it.” Jaeger laughed.

“You win this time, Otto. But we gonna be on this rock for a long time. You better watch your back.”

“I thought that was your job.”

“Of all the dirty tactics…messing with a girl’s snack break. Just for that, I hope you get a parasite.” Brick blew her hatch and bailed, leaving Jaeger alone with his thoughts.

He recalled the last thing he’d said to Dalia. No mission is ever as it seems. So far this mission seemed like a salt-za-da-gin bresz-nyet. If they had only uncovered the half of it, they were going to be in for a deep burial at the end of long ride.


Bao and Tagg took point in Echo 2 as the squad carved a tedious path through the jungle. At least Tagg had managed to patch the hydraulics on Gamma 2 enough for the machine to hobble forward without assistance. After an hour of trekking, the density of the massive tree trunks forced the squad to halt while Bao used his chainsaws to remove a trunk one meter in diameter and create a gap wide enough for the exos to fit.

Jaeger maneuvered Alpha 1 next to the only husband and wife pilot duo on his squad and sat. Jules Barnes and Morgan Sable piloted Echo 1, and they were a complicated couple. Not only had they married inter-factionally, but rarer still, Sable was Chaos—a Hibernarii faction that disavowed any and all attempts to manipulate or harness the forces of nature. According to Chaos, nature itself was the highest form of intelligence in the universe, and any attempts to control it would ultimately prove futile.

At moments like this, Jaeger keenly felt the futility. He needed perspective. And more often than not, he found that perspective in the tandem of Jules and Sable. Jules had become the black sheep of a noble Fortitude family even before his rebellious act of marrying a Chaos woman with skin as black as his own wool. Together they provided the squad with an intuitive thoughtfulness.

Jaeger hailed Echo 1 privately. “A penny for your thoughts.”

“That might prove a high price in today’s market, my friend.” Jules sighed.

“So you feel it too?”

“Aye. I get the distinct feeling that independent thought was not the quality our clients were after when hiring us for this job.”

“Then they hired the wrong squad,” Jaeger asserted.

Sable interrupted. “Either that or our nuisance has surpassed our usefulness within the Exploration and Extinction Force.”

“You think someone within the EEF has it in for us?” Jaeger rolled the thought around in his head.

“Wouldn’t you?” Jules laughed. “Just look at us. The Babiks are targeted outcasts who have recently worked off their debt. Bao would have been discharged multiple times for insubordination if you hadn’t of protected him. As Equality faction, Ariza has made command nervous from day one. Shasta’s a borderline BDM heretic. Kade and Zip are loose cannons at best.”

“And yourselves?”

“Well, that goes without saying—a Chaos and Fortitude in union. I suppose my beliefs have offended more than a few.”

“Command would have to be drunk to think they could get away with outright eliminating us.”

“When has command ever been sober?”

“Good point.” Jaeger acquiesced. “Sable, your take on Primal Instinct?”

“Atrocity. Gross atrocity. Nothing good will happen here. Nature has been poisoned to the level of self-destruction.”

“That good, huh?”

“Nothing on this planet should be trusted. Death is its only release.”

Jaeger exhaled. “I was afraid you would say that. Have either one of you seen any animal life larger than your fist since we entered this forest?”

“Nothing dares to enter by design,” Sable replied.

Out of breath, Bao hailed the squad. “I have cut through the trunk, but it is held in place by neighbors. I recommend shoving the base out of the way, but the canopy could destabilize in the process.”

Jaeger stood. “Give it a try. Everyone else, standby to assist. We move as soon as we can fit through. I don’t like sitting still.”

“On three, two, one.” Bao fired Echo 2’s thrusters while shouldering the massive tree. Gradually, he shoved the trunk aside while the other exos skirted it. Alpha 1 passed through last and supported the weight of the wedged-in trunk while Echo 2 cleared the gap. They let go together and the trunk fell into place, as if it had never been cut.

“Mark these coordinates, incase this proves to be the only way out,” Jaeger ordered.

“Roger.”

“We’ve got movement, two o’clock.” Sable alerted the squad.

“I saw it too,” Tagg confirmed. “Something ropey, less than a dozen meters away.”

“Spread out. Sable and Jules take the lead,” Jaeger ordered. “Stay within reach of each other, but no bunching up. The forest’s roomier on this side. Maybe we can reach the breach without further delays.”

They squad progressed another hundred meters in radio silence until Ariza spoke up. “I’m reading increased levels of nitrous oxide and sulfur in the air. Still breathable, but—”

“Did you see that?”

“We’ve got movement to the southeast.”

“And the north.”

“It’s everywhere!”

“Does anyone have a positive ID?” Jaeger attempted to steady their nerves, but he felt it too.

“It’s the trees themselves. They’re getting closer!” Zip swung a forearm chainsaw and severed an encroaching vine. The act of aggression sparked the jungle into writhing life. Green tendrils and wooded vines encircled the squad.

A large vine slashed across the front of Alpha 1 and spun it off balance. “Fire!” Jaeger ordered.

Brick had already ignited the flame thrower on Alpha 1’s shoulder and unleashed a river of burning fuel.

The trees screamed in response. A dozen green tendrils attacked the exo, confining its movement. Jaeger spun his arm blades, dipped and dodged in attempt to sever them all. But they were too many.

A thick vine entwined Alpha 1 around the neck and slammed it into a tree. Jaeger severed it with a quick swipe, but not before three more had lashed the exo to the trunk. An impact alarm blared. “They’re squeezing us!”

“Ground yourself! I’m gonna give ‘em a spark!”

Jaeger yanked his hands out of the control docks and detached his mind from the interactive matrix. “Clear.”

Brick crossed the fusion drive in order to electrically charge the exterior of the exo. The machine jolted as its gears locked tight. Smoke and fire blocked out what little light pierced the dense jungle canopy. “That’s all she can take. Clear to reintegrate.”

“I’m in.” Jaeger resumed control of Alpha 1’s locomotion. “That did the trick. We’re free, but I can’t see the others.”

“Switching to night vision.”

Jaeger and Brick leapt into action, combining blades with fire to fight back the angry vines and untangle the other members of the squad. “Has anyone seen Echo 2?” Jaeger had lost sight of Tagg and Bao.

“Coming down, Commander. Watch your nine.” Tagg replied.

Jaeger stepped aside as Echo 2 landed gracefully next to him. “What was that about?” The commander asked.

“The canopy is the source of the vine,” Tagg replied. “We climbed all the way to the top.”

Bao said, “It’s parasitic. No way to sever at its base.”

Another wave of tendrils attempted to overtake the squad, but now that they had clumped together they burned the vines back on all sides.

“Stop!” Sable commanded without explanation.

The squad responded immediately by shutting down their flamethrowers.

The vines moved to surround them, but remained outside of the small clearing.

“Shut down all systems,” Sable continued. “Completely black.”

“Are you bloody crazy?” Kade protested.

“Commander, there’s no time to explain.”

Jaeger knew better than to question Sable. She never intruded unless she sensed something strongly. “Do it. Everyone, disengage.” Jaeger detached from the interactive matrix and left the exo completely powered down. If Sable was wrong, the machines would be torn limb from limb by the vines before they could power up again. Without power, they couldn’t even communicate via radio.

Everything fell eerily quiet. Jaeger spoke over his shoulder loud enough for Brick to hear him. “You seeing anything?”

“A couple dem vines creeping around the perimeter, but so far nothing’s encroached on this side.”

“Nothing over here either.”

“You reckon it was our aggression that set ‘em off?”

“Possibly, but if that’s the case, how are we going to—” a wrapping on Jaeger’s viewfinder startled him. Through the blackness, he identified the whites of Sable’s eyes—her large brown irises attentive on him.

“It is safe to dismount.”

Jules waved for Jaeger and Brick to join them on the ground. “What she means is we’re on foot from here on out.”

Jaeger and Brick blew their hatches and dismounted. Jaeger covered his nose and mouth.

Brick gasped. “Lordy, that’s a gaudy stench.”

“I recommend you don’t rub your eyes.” Jules pulled Jaeger’s hand away from his face. “The oxide and sulfur that Ariza detected just before the attack has intensified since. The plants seem to emit a sort of toxin. Look at the exterior of your exo.”

Jaeger turned around. “Yuan’s Light.”

“Indeed.”

Deep etchings had burned into the hibernaculated platinum exterior of Alpha 1’s breastplate. “It’s a miracle we didn’t lose hydraulics.”

“Yes, well, god must favor you. We lost our right arm midway through the conflict. That’s how I noticed the toxin.” Jules motioned toward the other exos, their pilots still oblivious that anyone had dismounted. “We better get the others before someone decides to do something rash. I’ll start with Kade and Zip.”

Jaeger smiled despite the desperate nature of their circumstances. He wrapped on Shasta’s viewfinder and indicated for her and Ariza to dismount Alpha 2. The thought of venturing across the surface of Primal Instinct without the protection of their exos should have made Jaeger cry. But Jules’ dry British wit always comforted him when things were their darkest. At the moment, he couldn’t imagine things getting much darker. That thought wiped the smile off his face.


After giving the orders to attach breathers and night vision masks and to pack everything useful they could carry, Jaeger strapped on his own breather and stood watch from the center of the small clearing. The preparations took less than a minute.

Brick crept to Jaeger’s side and proffered his favorite sidearm, a Stieg 270 sonic thumper.

Jaeger gladly strapped the weapon to his thigh.

Jules and Sable joined them, followed quickly by the rest of the squad. Krystof groaned as Maddy and Kade attempted to distribute his weight evenly between them.

Brick tutted. “Hand the boy over before you tear him in half.”

Maddy wanted to resist, but she knew it would be fruitless. Brick never allowed such duties to fall on anyone else in the squad. As a member of the Might Faction, her body had been bred and built for ten times the strength as a normal Hibernari. She hefted Krystof gently over her shoulder and carried him as if he were no heavier than a modstock rifle.

Jaeger led the way while picking up the conversation with Jules and Sable from earlier. “You still haven’t explained how we’re safe out here.” He nodded at a vine less than a meter distant. It seemed to raise its tendrils in response to his comment. Jaeger held his breath, but none of the vines advanced.

“They are a defense, like everything else in this jungle, meant to protect the inner HC.” Sable answered through her breather.

“Then why aren’t they attacking us now?”

“Without the bulk and might of the exos, we are no longer a threat.”

“Speak for yourself, honey.” Brick chuckled.

Tagg butted in from behind. “How on earth did you figure that out?”

“The vines did not appear until after we breached the tree wall. It made sense anything small enough to fit through the trees would be safe from the vines.”

“But I haven’t seen any animal life save a few creepy crawlies.”

Brick made a face. “I hate bugs.”

Jaeger nodded. “If the vines aren’t dangerous to small creatures, how come this place isn’t crawling with them. There’s food. There’s water. Plenty of shelter. It doesn’t make sense.”

“She said the vines weren’t a threat. She didn’t say nothing was a threat.” Jules explained. “Speaking of bugs. Has anyone seen anything dead or decaying since we cut our way past the tree?”

“Negative.”

Jules glanced from side to side. “Exactly. Keeping the forest floor clean of decay is the insect’s duty, and this is the cleanest forest I’ve ever seen.”

“Hell’s gist, I wish you hadn’t said that.” Brick flipped down her night vision mask.

Jaeger decided it wise to do the same.

“One click to the coordinates.” Kade called up to the others. “We should be there within the hour. Not that we have any idea whether being there is gonna be any better than being here.”

“Being there is about completing this mission,” Jaeger responded, “and that’s all you need to—”

Jules held up his fist, stopping the squad dead in their tracks, sidearms drawn.

Jaeger couldn’t see anything. He strained his ears for any sign of life outside his line of sight. The breather deadened his sense of smell, but Jaeger thought he detected something sickly sweet.

Jules gestured the squad forward in fireteams, one left, one right, one center. Jules, Sable, Bao and Tagg—Echo team—formed the tip of the wedge, shuttling forward as a seamless unit. Jules held up his fist. Without a sound, the squad froze. Slowly Jules removed a flare stick from his pack, crushed it to ignite the chemicals, and tossed it twenty meters ahead. Before the flare hit the ground, the forest floor swarmed with movement.


“I’m out! I’m out!” Shasta screamed while scrounging in her pack for another fuel cell.

Jaeger covered her with his sonic thumper, fragmenting the over-sized roaches as fast as the weapon could recharge. “They’ve gotta be coming from somewhere. There’s too many of them. We need a clear path!”

The darkness all around them blazed sporadically with muzzle fire from the members of the squad using ballistics. Each fighter called out in turn.

“No good!”

“They’re everywhere.”

“We’re surrounded.” They screamed over the incessant hissing of the roaches and the concussive bursts of ammo.

“Their blood burns!”

“Zip’s down!” Kade yelled. “Boss, we’re getting eaten alive in here!”

A meter-long flying roach blind-sided Jaeger, knocking him to the ground and spraying the side of his face with a burning toxin. He rolled and fired, splattering the bug with focused sound waves.

Resisting the urge to wipe his face with his hand, Jaeger buried it in the dirt instead. After a quick swipe back and forth, he jumped to his feet. Their best hope at this point was the inner HC. Anything had to be better than this.

“Converge on the coordinates. Stay in fireteams. Keep moving!” He tugged Brick’s arm. She grunted and followed. “Put down fire to cover our retreat!” Jaeger commanded, but no fire followed. “Shasta? Shasta, report!”

Brick stumbled over the discarded flamethrower. “Otto.” She kicked the flamethrower to Jaeger.

He holstered his thumper and created a curtain of flames. The massive bugs cooked and popped. “Where’s Shasta?”

“We gotta go, Otto. If we get stretched out—”

“Over here!” Ariza called. “I’ve got her, let’s go!”

“Go! Go!” Jaeger kept the nozzle open, trailing continuous flame with one hand while firing his sonic with the other. Both Brick and Ariza were weighed down with wounded. Between the three of them, they had four arms, and it took all four to beat back the encroaching waves of roaches.

They covered the rough ground as fast as they could. Eventually Jaeger ran out of flame. At this rate, half a click seemed an endless span. Jaeger’s heart thumped in his chest. Blood surged in his ears. His breather clogged and his breath came in ragged gulps.

The forest closed in around him. Finally the canopy began to spin. He couldn’t go on, and if he needed to catch his breath, so did the others. Dropping the flamethrower, he gripped his sonic thumper in both hands. What did he have to lose? He widened the field, spun the weapon up to full, and waited for the hissing to overtake him. When it did, he fired.


The closeness of the jungle absorbed and defrayed the worst of the reverb, but the kick was ample enough to wash Jaeger backwards several meters. His body plowed a path through the bracken and brush until he slammed into a massive trunk and rolled over onto a cool, metallic surface.

He rested his face against the smooth metal for several seconds before his mind made the connection between metal and manmade. He shook off his daze and sat up. The hissing had temporarily subsided, but so had the sounds of his squad. He brushed aside the leaves to reveal what appeared to be a secure tunnel entrance. But how? And who? Primal Instinct was supposed to be lower life forms only. No mission is ever as it seems.

He fumbled in his pack for a handheld and hailed the others. “Echo, Gamma, this is Jaeger. I’ve found a manmade hatch. Converge on my location. Pinging now.” He dropped the radio and scanned the area for his lost thumper. “Now I just need to find a way to get this thing open.”

“Stand aside you crazy fool.” Brick laid Krystof down gently and positioned her feet on either side of the hatch. Rather than sit around and look stupid, Jaeger continued the search for his thumper, eventually finding it.

He turned in time to see Brick give up her efforts to open the hatch. That was when he spotted the release mechanism behind her right foot. “Those snack cakes have made you weak. Give me a try.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll just waste our—”

Jaeger kicked the lever with his boot and tugged the hatch open.

Brick grunted in disgust.

Jaeger threw the hatch back and aimed his sonic thumper downward into the pitch black. “See anything?”

“Just a second.” Brick crushed a flare and dropped it down. It bounced off a metal stair rung once before landing on the bottom, some ten meters below.

“Nothing’s moving down there.”

“That’s better than up here.”

“Commander.” Ariza huffed as he emerged out of the jungle with an unconscious Shasta over his shoulder. “I got your message.” He stopped when he saw the opened hatch. “What in Yuan’s name?”

Ballistics echoed in the distance.

“Sounds like Kade and Zip.”

“Let’s hope Echo team is with them.”

Jaeger nodded. “I’ll head down to check it out. When I give the all clear, bring the injured.” Jaeger took the first few steps carefully before placing his boots on the outside of the rails and sliding the rest of the way. He dismounted next to the flare, crouched, and leveled his sonic thumper.

The steady, blue chemical light revealed no movement—just an empty, hand-carved tunnel. “Bring ‘em down!” He activated a second flare. Using it as a torch, he shuffled along the tunnel, searching the walls for signs of bugs or cracks.

The rapid pop of ballistics intensified until the rest of the squad reached the hatch in a state of distress. After a moment of shouting, Ariza slid down the stairs too quickly with Shasta over his shoulder. He crumpled onto the tunnel floor and rolled out of the way moments before Brick and Krystof landed.

Jaeger holstered his thumper and helped Brick lay Krystof next to Shasta. The chaos overhead ended with the hatch slamming shut. Without warning, a roach dropped down the shaft and landed on Brick’s back.

Whipping out his thumper, Jaeger whacked the bug off.

“Not in the tunnel!” She yelled.

Aware of the close quarters, Jaeger used his pistol as a hammer. He cracked the armored shell with the first blow, but the hissing beast scrambled to get away until Jaeger brought the butt of the pistol down a second time. The meter-long monster bled a viscous ooze.

As the rest of the squad dropped into the already cramped quarters, they forced Jaeger’s hand into the pool of stinging blood. He pulled it away and clutched his wrist.

“Sorry, Command—”

“Forget it,” Jaeger growled. “We’ve got worse injuries to deal with. Did everybody make it?”

“Echo’s all here.”

“Gamma accounted for.”

“Frozen gods! What happened to Shasta?” Krystof sat up, his sudden resurrection catching the squad off guard.

Maddy knelt beside her brother and hugged his neck. “Brother, good to hear your voice.”

Krystof shook his head and pointed at Shasta.

Jaeger picked up the nearest flare and illuminated Shasta’s face. “Yuan’s Shadow.” It was gone. He stooped to check her pulse. “She’s dead.”


Too many questions rattled inside Jaeger’s head. He defaulted to protecting his remaining men. Ariza insisted on remaining by Shasta to guide her BDM into it’s next assimilation. Jaeger didn’t believe in the ritual himself, but Shasta had. It seemed she’d converted Ariza. Jaeger would never begrudge anyone anything that brought them comfort during or after this hellish life.

Bao and Kade came through the ordeal relatively unscathed, so Jaeger sent them to scout the extent of the underground complex. He knew better than to assume they were secure, but the temporary calm allowed them to tend their wounds and mourn their loss. At least Krystof seemed to be on the mend.

“Alright, Otto, you’re next.”

“I’m fine. Tend to the—”

“You’re last, so shut up and let me have a look,” Brick demanded.

Obediently, Jaeger held out his arms and turned a circle. He was Integrity Faction. He and Brick both knew it would take more than acid blood to chew through his nearly impervious skin. As long as he watched what he put inside his body, he fared well. Nothing was going to get in else ways.

None the less, Brick shined an electric torch on his face. “Hold still.” She swabbed him with a sterile.

The stinging caused Jaeger’s eye to water. “What was that for?”

“Still had some of that bug blood burning a hole in ya.” She showed him the sterile. The black ooze smoked for another few seconds until fully neutralized. “Now your face is healing.”

Jaeger touched the damaged spot on his cheek where the ooze had burned to the bone. He lowered his voice. “Is this what got Shasta?”

“Best I can tell.” Brick shook her head. “Zip nearly lost some fingers. I put his hand in a bath. Looks like it’s gonna regenerate, more or less.”

“If we just would have cleaned her off quicker.”

Brick took Jaeger aside. “You need to get your mind right. Start thinking about your next three moves. We’re stuck down here until we figure a way out. Back up them steps ain’t an option anyone’s gonna embrace.”

Jaeger nodded. “It all starts with this hole.”

“You mean the hole that ain’t supposed to exist?”

“Exactly. If we figure out the who and what-for of this tunnel, that might be the leverage we need. At this point, I’m sure of one thing.” Jaeger nodded.

“Other than the steadfast and mountainous beauty of your partner?”

“Yes, other than that.”

“Well, don’t let me get in the way of your moment.”

“Our ticket out of here is learning the one thing no one wants us to learn.”

“Boss, do you read?” Kade hailed him on the handheld.

“This is Jaeger. Go ahead.”

“We’ve found something you need to see.”

“What is it?” Jaeger raised a brow.

“I’ll let you decide.”

“Roger that. Brick and I are on our way. Over and out.” Jaeger stuffed the radio in his pack, drank a slug of water and handed the canteen to Brick. “Let’s hope this is a significant clue.”


After a lengthy jaunt through the never tarrying tunnel, Jaeger and Brick encountered Kade standing sentry in front of a metal door. He checked them over with his torch as they approached.

“Just us.”

“Sorry, boss. This place is giving me the sour willies.”

“Can’t blame you for that.” Jaeger pointed with his chin. “What’ve you got?”

“A Catholic crazy house, that’s what.” The heavy door creaked as Kade pushed it open and led the others inside. “Make your own interpretations. Careful, Bao’s in here somewhere, checking for breaches topside.”

Brick and Kade pointed both torches into an underground base of operations that looked as if it had recently endured a skirmish. “Any signs of life?” Jaeger asked.

“Um,” Kade stalled, “yes?”

“Was that an affirmative?”

“Why don’t we start with the dead guy.” Navigating carefully through the overturned mess, Kade led them across the room by the light of his torch. “Looks like he bled out.” He stood aside while shining his torch on a mildly deteriorated corpse.

Brick squatted for a closer view. “Don’t stink hardly at all, I suppose due to the dry, cool conditions down here.”

“And he ain’t been eaten,” Kade said.

Jaeger nodded. “No bugs.”

“These lacerations look almost like claw marks.”

“Could he have gotten torn up topside before making his way to safety?” Jaeger asked.

“Anything’s possible.” Brick scanned the dented metal storage locker behind the body with her torch. “But then what slammed the poor fella into this locker?”

“Concussion grenade?”

Brick stood up. “Why we poking around in the dark? Ain’t there lights in here?”

“What, like a light switch?” Kade asked.

“Power, you nitwit. You know, electricity from a generator or solar panels.”

“Hey, I only look. Touching stuff is above my pay grade.”

“I’m gonna touch you if you don’t find the power,” Brick threatened.

“Roger. One light switch coming up.” Kade scampered away. “There’s a conduit over here. Shouldn’t be hard to track it to the source.” His torch worked its way quickly along the wall. “Here we are.” He stopped next to a panel with two big levers. One had been flipped off. “Still think I should—”

“Flip the lever already,” Jaeger commanded.

Kade shoved it upward and stood aside. A nearby shattered console showered them with sparks as lights flickered on across the entire room.

Brick mused, “Looks like a research station.”

“Manned by a single individual?” Jaeger looked to Kade.

“Not quite.” Kade led them toward another tunnel entrance, this one without a metal door. “The other, uh, less substantial sign of life is over here.”

Jaeger focused on the dark opening until Kade pointed down. Finally Jaeger spotted the object of curiosity—a severed, extremely hairy leg, bisected just above the knee.

“What the hell is that?” Brick knelt for a closer look. “This thing been cut clean off.”

“I think that much is obvious,” Kade said.

“Not that, you smart ass. I mean the cut’s almost surgical, like it was made with an energy beam a some sort.”

“Maybe while trying to escape into the inner HC.” Jaeger removed the holo-cube from his pack.

“What you thinking?”

He activated the cube and pointed at the blinking green light visible inside the three dimensional holographic schematic. “That’s us.”

“I’ll be jiggered.”

“Yep, we’re right on top of the breach.” Jaeger pointed down the tunnel. “Which means this leads to the inner HC.” He stepped forward, but Brick yanked him back.

“Hold on.”

“What? This is it. Sooner or later, we’re gonna have to find out what Crystalline Magic Co. is hiding in there.”

She shook her head. “The leg. Why you think it’s laying right there, cut clean the way it is?”

Jaeger didn’t make the connection.

“Come on, Otto, think. Where you seen that kind a cut before?”

It clicked. “Energized barriers.”

Brick nodded while stooping to pick up a loose rock. She tossed it down the tunnel. Less than a meter away, it shattered. Tiny, rainbow-colored ripples temporarily revealed the location of the barrier.

Jaeger scratched his forehead. “Huh, look at that. I wonder if this means we fixed the breach?”

“It means you’re a dunderhead who’d be toast right now if not for me.” Brick shook her head. “Hold on a minute. I think I seen something else I recognize.” She scooted over to a nearby console and dusted it off. Yup, right here. She flipped open a guard and clicked a red button. A nearly imperceptible hum cut off. “Toss something else down the hole.”

Jaeger reached for Kade who promptly jumped back. “Ha ha, ya wanker.”

Jaeger shrugged before tossing a dirt clod down the tunnel. “Nothing.”

Brick entered the tunnel a short way and ran her hand over the transition where the wall turned from smooth metal to rough rock. “There’s a diverter built into the circumference of the tunnel. Turn it on, and you fool the barrier into thinking it’s intact when it ain’t.”

“Enough of the yammering. Kade, you stay here. Report to the others and wait for Bao,” Jaeger ordered. “Brick and I are gonna scout the inner HC. I’ll report in fifteen minutes. If you haven’t heard anything in twenty, close the barrier and assume the worst.”

“Delightful.” Brick shook her head. “We better not find any more a dem roaches.”


The rock tunnel continued straight for twenty meters before bending ninety degrees and continuing another twenty meters. At the end, Jaeger found a metal ladder like the one they’d descended a half hour earlier. “Here we go.” He started up the ladder. “Whaddaya think we’ll find up there?”

“For our client’s sake, it better be something worth Shasta’s life.”

“Not possible.” Jaeger reached the top and slid back a bolt to release the hatch.

“You don’t believe in what we’re doing anymore, do you?”

“I haven’t for nearly a hundred years.”

“Then why we still doing it?” Brick tutted.

Jaeger wiped the sweat from his brow. “Who’s gonna take care of these guys if it ain’t us?”

“So you and I is guardian angels, is that it?”

Jaeger laughed. “Only you would think of calling me an angel.”

Brick shrugged. “I read some a them angels were nasty buggers. Killed a whole lot a people.”

“That sounds about right.” Jaeger gripped the hatch handle. “You ready?”

Brick nodded.

“On three, two, one.” Jaeger pushed the hatch open without a sound and nimbly leapt topside.

Brick followed with a little less grace but equal stealth.

Jaeger stood and turned three hundred and sixty degrees. A dense fog bank muffled all sound and limited vision to a few meters. The temperature was moderate. Light filtered from overhead.

Jaeger took a cautious step forward. Something crunched beneath his boot. When he lowered his gaze, he realized the ground had been strewn with bones. Bleached white, moderate sized—human.

The size of Brick’s eyes confirmed his speculation. But how could a small HC cycle through so many people? More importantly, what was killing them? No mission is ever as it seems. Jaeger drew his sonic thumper.

Something whistled toward them from overhead. Brick shoved Jaeger out of the way a split second before a human body slammed into the ground between them. “Hell’s gist.” She craned her neck upward. “Where do you think they’re coming from?”

Jaeger knelt over the body. “You ready for things to get even stranger?”

“Not even remotely.”

“Then you better not look down.”

Of course Brick looked. “Tell me that ain’t the same fella we just found in the bunker.”

“Oh, it most certainly is.”

END of Episode One

Read More Schism 8 Episodes

Ranger’s War, Ep0: Duel

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The hollow beneath the bandage radiates more questions than pain. I depress the empty socket in effort to see something I missed on the surface of Sizlack Prime. The revelation is there somewhere, even if my eye’s gone.

A proximity alarm buzzes.

I pound the release for manual navigation. Nothing happens. A quick reference to my skin temperature, -54 degrees celsius, reveals my grag-level mistake. Too much belly-button gazing.

The proximity alarm intensifies. I close my good eye, engage sub-thermal survival protocols, and spin them up all the way. As the frost covering the backs of my hands sublimates, I slam my burning hot palms onto the frozen controls.

The proximity alarm counts down the distance until collision with what appears to be a significant scrap of debris—2500 meters, 1400 meters, 300 meters. A slight tremor throughout the vessel reveals manual controls are active before the OnBoard Artificial Intelligence announces the fact—thanks for nothing, Pearl. I flick a booster in time to narrowly avoid a breach in the stasis ring I’m relying on to return me and my dead partner to Core Space. The last thing I need right now is another hole to patch.

I deactivate my sub-therm and chew out Pearl. “At this rate, we won’t even reach the Torriad Medical Ring, much less return Ranger 799’s body to Al-Aqsa. When were you gonna help? After my frozen body floated out the viewfinder?” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Pearl?”

“Awaiting your most precious instructions.”

“How about, don’t let us die out here.”

“Am I correct in assuming you desire to authorize proactive engagement protocols on the behalf of your OnBoard Artificial Intelligence unit?”

“Oh for the love, I said I was sorry. How many times do I have to explain it? It’s standard protocol to leave one OBAI in charge of a ring vessel in absence of a Templar. Ranger 799 had seniority. I deferred, for Yuan’s sake.”

The thought of my terminated Templar partner tempts me toward a fresh cycle of naval gazing. I busy myself by manually computing and setting a new course for the Torriad Medical Ring, named after the Mid-Hibernal doctor who first discovered how to diversify an entire slave population from the genetic material of a single ancestral human.

I spin my chair to face aft and throw of my harness. “Forget it. I’m going for a walk.” I manually climb up through the docking shaft and into the ring.

Ironically, I suppose I owe Doc Torriad a debt of gratitude. His technique was the basis for the creation of myself and all my Templar kin. Unfortunately, the renegade Technocrat Riarin manipulated the same technology to infest the universe with his Chromiums. Heterochromia iridum—one green eye and one brown eye—has become the calling sign for chaos and insurrection throughout all of the Hiberverse.

But without Chromes there would be no Templar. And for twenty years, I’ve found what I suppose primitive humanity would have called satisfaction in killing Chromes.

Not that the killing itself is satisfying, although I suppose it could be for some. I find satisfaction in being effective at my designed purpose—highly effective. Even with ninety-three weeks of STL travel interspersed throughout my span as Templar, I’ve logged 6,322 kills.

Each of them individually, by hand. No cowardly orbital attacks, no collateral damage. Not a single innocent killed. Never a Chrome surviver, until Sizlack Prime.

My perfect record destroyed. I search my catalogue of primitive human languages until arriving at French—my favorite for expressing melancholy. C’est la vie. The French must have been an interesting people.

The immortal words of my combat instructor interrupt my introspection. No matter the circumstance, he had the same three words—shake it off. A poked out eyeball? Shake it off. I dead partner? Shake it off. No problem. I can shake all that off and more. But my gnarled thought process, that’s another matter entirely.

With arms stretched overhead, I drag my knuckles along the smooth membrane of the ring as I walk. The hibernaculated steel of the ring is only three millimeters thick and yet strong enough to repel most advanced ballistic weaponry.

Now a slag humper, as old-school and nasty as they are, no hiber-steel barrier will protect against one of those. And of course no amount of armor will defend against a black hole. The downside of detonating black holes is of course the inquiries and reports—that is, unless you’re a pirate.

Ah, fringe space. Allez savoir pourquoi.

Slag humpers, pirates, and black holes are all part of the change of pace made possible by jaunty rambles into fringe space. I enjoy all those things, truly. It’s the days and months of introspection that weigh down a man’s soul—if he has a soul to start with.

I’ll leave the debate over the metaphysical and spiritual status of the Templar up to the Technocracy. Those sorts of academic debates have little value when making split second, life or death decisions. Besides, during the 450 years since the conception of the Templar Cloning Program no definitive answer has been provided. And I doubt an answer’s coming during my fifty.

A full diagnostic on the ring shows no further degradation. Operational efficiency remains at 82.6%—a surprisingly high number considering the three months of STL travel. I optimize climate controls for mechanical systems and high step back to my Razor-class vessel. “Pearl, synthesize and replay all visual feedback from the mission on Sizlack Prime.”

“I’m gonna need a little more relevant information, slick, unless you want me to begin with your space dive?”

“Sarcasm parameters?”

“35%. A full 36% higher than yours.”

“Hilarious. Start sixty seconds before engaging the zealots.”

“There isn’t much to look at. Your left eye was responsible for visual recording.”

“It hadn’t dumped the footage into my brain?”

“Defaults are set to dump every twenty minutes. First dump came eighteen seconds into your engagement with the zealots, and your eye was damaged before the next one.”

“Peaceful fifty.” I press the heels of my hands into my eyes. Green streaks of lightning radiate across the blackness of my closed right eye. Nothing but frustration radiates from the empty socket on the left. I find it intolerable that my long-anticipated trip to Sizlack Prime ended in chaos and failure. “Display the eighteen seconds you’ve got.”

“Will do, boss. Starting sixty seconds before engagement.”

I settle into the command chair to relive the 3D projection within the cramped space of my Razor. The visual of the water-slicked stone courtyard of the temple is immediately accompanied by the humidity against my skin and the ever-present scent of blossoming mosses and flowering vines—decay balanced with cimarron honey.


The grounds are too quiet. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. Ranger 799 pushes the brim of his hat further over his eyes. From across the courtyard, he nods at my silent inquiry. He feels it too. The temple grounds are pregnant with conflict before the engagement has begun.

Our mission dossier lists one Chrome, a zealot assassin, dwelling at this location. Known combat training: Krazlin martial arts culminating with mastery of the water dagger. I struggle to subdue my excitement over finally deploying the most brutally graceful weapon in all the Hiberverse in hand to hand combat with the most mysterious and long-standing sect in any hibernaculated culture.

Krazlin zealots had not been scripted in the original architecture of the HC. Their sudden appearance early in the development of Sizlack Prime had never been explained. And until now, never have the Templar been deployed to the remote HC. Never has a Ranger fought a Krazlin zealot. For thirty years, I’ve longed to be the first.

I glance at the charged water dagger in my hand. I flex my fingers on the hilt. As a result, the blade of water widens into a razor sharp fan. With a subtle adjustment and a mild movement of my wrist, the blade returns to a blunt dagger designed to impact on the downstroke and tear with the up. When it comes to blade fighting, I like my opponent to know they’ve been cut.

I reach a small channel in the stone floor of the temple courtyard. Crystal-clear water accelerates through the channel until it reaches the edge of the continent-sized hibernaculum—an invisible barrier less than a meter to my right. For the cloned human chattel that dwell within Sizlack Prime, all of existence and knowledge ends at the edge of their hibernaculated culture. Nothing exists beyond the invisible barrier except forbidden ocean.

The barrier itself, in this particular instance, is visible only by the uprising curtain of water. Despite my water dagger being fully charged, I run it and my hand through the tiny river curtain. The uprising water glimmers with replete designer biomimetic dark matter—the sole purpose for this continent-sized charade. The DBDM swims and eddies around my flesh, repelled by Templar design.

A very different strain of designer biomimetic dark matter powers over one hundred hibernaculated augmentations to my human body. Contamination between the two could not only kill me, but destroy decades of fine-tuning for Sizlack Prime.

I leap the channel. As my boots touch down, the silent glint of water daggers from across the courtyard indicate my partner and I have stumbled into a choreographed assault from zealots capable of curtain swimming.

I flare my fingers on the hilt of my dagger. With a flick of my wrist, I lash out with the weapon more as a razor-sharp tendril than a blade. My whip slashes through the uprising water as I take a knee to avoid the incoming assault.

A boot collides with my back and sends me head over heals. I squeeze the hilt of my weapon to project the water of my blade into a long sword. The moment I spin to face my attackers, the blade unfurls, giving me four feet of reach.

Even that length isn’t enough to engage the three zealots that have danced into a cautious semi-circle while backing me against the invisible hibernaculum barrier. Bred to believe in the taboo of the barrier, they can’t understand that it means nothing to a Templar from outside their pathetic world. Still, plunging into the ocean would provide little to no strategical advantage.

I focus all sensory perception on identifying the Chrome from among the attackers. Radical BDM swarms the temple grounds preventing an accurate scan, and the zealots’ hoods shield their eyes. The window to determine innocents from targets closes as a zealot clothed in a red robe fans his dagger into a sail and leaps overhead.

Brown Robe lunges forward. Morphing his weapon from short sword to trident, he jabs directly at my face. I slice through the prongs of the trident with my sword, dispelling a fair portion of his water. Dipping to one knee, I spin toward the only zealot in black.

Black Robe repels my strike by bounding his forearm off the broad side of my blade. The brazen counter catches me off guard. More importantly, his tactic leaves his dagger free to attack.

I release my index finger and squeeze my pinkie on the hilt of my weapon. While reversing the momentum of my swing, the water blade coils around my arm just in time to block a strike that would have cut my in twain.

A fluttering overhead reminds me of Red Robe. I tap my fingers on the hilt in succession and slam a javelin of razor sharp water upward. Slicing flesh and bone the same as air, a scream is the only indication that my water weapon has hit home.

Brown Robe attacks with a new level of vigor, perhaps acknowledging his dying comrade. Black Robe positions himself to block my easiest retreat. Dead or alive, Red is a split second from falling on top of me.

The projection blanks.


“The end, slick. The rest is nothing but thermal imaging recorded by your intact eyeball.”

Peaceful fifty! I didn’t even record a single face?”

“You didn’t die either. Small victories, or so they say.”

“Who says that? Under multiple circumstances, survival doesn’t even constitute as victory. I can’t even—”

“It’s an expression, you twit.”

“Scale back hostility parameters 15%.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”

I lace my fingers behind my head and rack my brain. “Show me the view.”

“One-hundred and eighty degree external view, coming up.”

The top and front portion of my ship disappear suddenly, leaving nothing but the expanse of space. The experience catches my stomach in my throat, even after all these years. I feel the captain’s chair beneath me. I know the ship’s hull still cocoons me. But my heart thrills for just a moment at something fleeting. Before I can identify the sensation, it’s gone. Full awareness of my confounding situation returns.

Nothing about my encounter on Sizlack Prime makes sense. Then again, the whole process had been muddled from the moment the report reached Templar Central on Al-Aqsa.

Within seconds of noticing the report, I had logged my interest. Minutes after that, the report from Sizlack Prime had been flagged as potentially erroneous. Even when reinstated, the priority had been lowered. As a low priority, fringe space assignment, the report languished for months.

During the wait I redoubled my regular sparring routines with the water dagger. I reread the entire file on Krazlin zealots. I appealed my higher-priority assignments a dozen times, until forcing the matter before Lord Porcilous himself. Three months ago, I’d been ushered into his chambers for a rare face-to-face.

“I’m fully aware of your private obsession with Sizlack Prime, Ranger 878.”

As an Apex Lord of the Remembrance Faction, Porcilous’ physical appearance, as well as his chambers, reflects his belief in mind over matter. Though I know his habit of maintaining one physical artifact on or near his person, his abilities are too flawless for me to identify the real from projection. I stop within three paces of his desk, not daring to draw nearer.

“While your behavior thus far has been deemed negligible divergence, I find the regularity of your appeals over these last few months highly disturbing.”

“I’m by far the most qualified for a mission that has been inexplicably marginalized for over six months.”

“Sizlack Prime is on a fringe world three months removed from the nearest jump gate. Do you challenge my strategic leadership of the Templar?”

“Never, my Lord. You know such a thing is an impossibility for me.”

“I know, my son. I shouldn’t speak such words.” Porcilous turns away from me. “You know how stretched the Templar have been these last months. With the rise of the Immunity and Chaos Factions, we must play our cards even more cautiously, lest they remove unanimous Council support of the Templar and our efforts.”

“No High Race would dare. The Hiberverse would bleed green within a dozen years without the Templar.”

“You and I know this to be true. The newer Apex Lords take our work for granted. They’ve not been exposed to the Chromium plagues, nor grappled face to face with the warrior infested.”

I step closer to Lord Porcilous, risking his ire. From this close, his two-and-a-half-meter projected frame towers over me. “You and I both know the immense value of Sizlack Prime. During the centuries that the Templar have eradicated Chromes, never has there been a report involving Sizlack’s first and most prized hibernaculated culture. For these past six months, we’ve risked corruption there. What do you think the Fortitude would do if Sizlack Prime were to erode beyond viable parameters?”

Porcilous bends down and leans forward until our foreheads nearly touch. “There would be war among the seven.” He blinks, turns away, and exhales. “Very well, your request is granted. But you must take another Ranger of Grand Master status and a ring ship.”

“Thank you, my Lord.” I retreat toward the door.

“Ranger 878.” Porcilous hails me.

“Yes?”

“Do not let your enthusiasm for the culture of Sizlack Prime fog your judgment.”

“Wise words, my Lord. I will act by them.”

  I let the stars blur out of focus in an attempt to regain the sensation of floating. “Pearl?”

“Ranger?”

“Is it possible the zealots could have known we were coming?”

“After three months of floating out here, they probably could have smelled you.”

“Dial back sarcasm by—”

“No offense, boss, but there are multiple ways they could have known you were coming. The one with the highest probability of 1.8% presumes you unknowingly triggered a perimeter alarm.”

“That’s not what I mean.” I thump my fist against my forehead. My empty eye socket pulses with each pounding. “I’ve studied everything known about Krazlin zealots. Unannounced strangers should be openly challenged, not attacked without warning. The one thing I respect the most about Krazlin zealots is their adherence to protocol and discipline—just like the Templar.”

“Um, would you like to provide a more detailed inquiry?”

Pardonne moi, I don’t mean to be rude.”

“I find it one of your most endearing qualities.”

“Pearl, don’t make me alter your—”

“Your inquiry, boss?”

I stare intently at a shimmering blue star in a part of the sky I’m familiar with. It’s Arcturus, the closest sun to Al-Aqsa, the moon-base of the Templar. When all the distance in the universe can be spanned instantaneously, home never seems like much of a concept. Certainly not to a Ranger. But this far from the nearest jump gate, I feel the unfamiliar ache for a more familiar space.

“What is the probability that the zealots knew we were Templar?”

“Sir?”

“Answer the question, you confounding knot of circuits.”

“Analyzing all known data on said inquiry.” The span of a few seconds pass. “0.0023%.”

“So it’s possible?”

“All things are possible, boss. This one is highly improbable. I see no evidence from any other recorded behavior on Sizlack Prime that anyone within any of the mainstream societies has deciphered the reality behind their enslavement.”

“Pirates are rampant in this quadrant. You’re telling me you actually believe they haven’t compromised Sizlack Prime?”

“Thus the 0.0023% chance. Boss, pirates are notoriously cautious about tipping their hand by compromising hibernaculated cultures. As dumb as they might be, they’re smart enough to know any hint of their presence will bring down the full thunderous arm of the High Council.”

“The only contamination the Council are concerned over is that of their precious DBDM. Cultural knowledge of smugglers, or Templars for that matter, beyond Sizlack’s dyson sphere wouldn’t disrupt the DBDM strain in the slightest.”

“Boss, are you suggesting that the zealots where fully aware of the timing and nature of your mission?”

“I don’t know. If I were?”

“The probability of such a thing is significantly lower than the percentage I gave you before.”


Brown Robe attacks with a new level of vigor, perhaps acknowledging his dying comrade. Black Robe positions himself to block my easiest retreat. Dead or alive, Red is a split second from falling on top of me. A grunt from Ranger 799 ratchets my urgency higher. Red’s weapon will only retain its charge for a heartbeat once he releases it. But if I can reach it in time…

A pulse rushes outward from the palm star BDM fission reactor in my chest as I steal seconds of my future for my present. Call it a hack if you must, I call it survival. Templar Central has labeled it negligible divergence.

Before Brown Robe’s attack can reach home, I reshape my weapon into a squat dagger, thrust it into his stomach and release its full charge at a speed faster than his eyes can transfer signals to his mind. Before he’s aware of his death, the rising water released into his stomach rips his body upward with no more sound than the fluttering of his robes.

As sure as Brown Robe rises, Red Robe falls.

Weaponless, I’ve got two options: go for Red’s or recharge my own. I decide to attempt both. The moment I reach upward I feel the wash of time retaking me—my cheat having run its course. Slogging back into realtime is always hell. But doing so in the midst of such a delicate procedure…

My hand slams into Red’s just as it releases the hilt of his water dagger. A quarter of the water discharges before I manage a full grip. Simultaneously, I stab my fully discharged hilt into the nearby river curtain and shed Red’s limp body off my back.

Black Robe seizes the opportunity. I barely fend off his driving downstroke by forming Red’s dagger into a round shield. My own weapon needs another second to charge from the rising water.

Black Robe’s Katana lurches to life and wraps around my round shield in a manner I’ve never witnessed—as if it were sentient rather than an extension of the zealot’s own movements. With a tug, the water serpent wrests Red’s weapon from my grip. The hilt clacks to the stone pavement as its water whisks skyward. Twice, Black Robe’s water serpent lunges for my eyes.

Fully charged or not, I jerk my dagger from the curtain and unleash a sail in time to lift me over Black Robe’s furious attack. The wind from his assault chases me as I flick my sail to sword and hit the pavement running. My attention now shifts from Black Robe to my Ranger partner.

In the nearly thirty seconds we’ve engaged the enemy he’s felled only one of his three attackers. The two remaining are both robed in brown and are simultaneously attacking from forward and rear.

“Ranger.” I hail him on the run.

“I made a mistake.”

“We both did.” Catching the rear attacker off balance with a bull rush, I knock him from his feet and slide to a stop with my knee in his chest, his weapon in my grip, and my water dagger in his throat. His hood falls open to reveal one green eye, one brown—the Chromium.

That’s when I notice that 799 is trailing a crimson thread across the stones. He’s injured.

Recklessly, Black Robe caroms into the fray with too much emotion. I slash the blades of my twin water daggers together, discharging a small amount of water like razor-sharp flak. The spray slashes across Black Robe’s face, knocking his attack off course and momentarily stilling his assault.

“How bad is it?” I ask my partner.

“Bad enough.” 799 coughs and a spurt of blood fans across the pavement at his side. “But I can finish.”

“It’s done.” I move in close until we’re back to back. “I’ve terminated the Chrome.”

“They’re all Chromes.” He growls through clenched teeth. “And I’ll warrant there’s more. We’ve gotta kill ever last one.”

I’m surprised I hadn’t considered the possibility that all the attackers where Chromes, except that we’ve never engaged such a coordinated resistance. And the report mentioned only one. “But in your state.”

“I’m dead meat.” He covers his side before coughing again.

Most likely, it’s true. On the surface of an HC we’re limited to the same healing arts as the slaves we protect. And in his condition, 799 would never survive the elevator back to his orbiting Razor.

“I’ve lived forty-eight of my fifty. All that’s left is to finish.”

I observe the remaining zealots. Black Robe is the more talented assassin, but his movements are tentative in the presence of the remaining brown robe. Brown is in command. Both of them seem to be waiting for 799 to die. I face Brown Robe and mask my voice. “I’ve already terminated three of your assassins, and disfigured your best.”

Black Robe gargles in disgust.

Brown Robe whistles a single tone through his teeth. It’s the Krazlin equivalent of “mind your place.”

I’m proficient enough in the assassin language to whistle my response. “A trade. My man for yours.”

Brown Robe whistles. “One for one?”

“You must die,” I whistle while nodding.

Brown whistles his command to Black. “Flee unashamed.” He follows it up with an imperative and an expletive for good measure.

“What the hell you two going on about?” 799 grunts.

Brown Robe lowers his weapon and steps forward.

“Just kill that one quickly.”

Without hesitation, 799 dispatches Brown Robe with a clean stroke through the midsection, but he’s forced to take a knee in the process.

By the time I turn, Black Robe is gone without a trace.

“Get the last one. I’ll hold on long enough to make sure no one discovers me.” Droplets of blood have formed on his forehead and neck. He’s already begun the process of shutting down his most volatile augmentations before they destabilize. “Go!”

Without a word, I leave my partner slumped against a stone column to pursue the remaining Chrome zealot.


A buzzer cuts through the closeness and intensity of the dream.

Pearl attempts her least abrasive manner. “Dream cycle’s over, boss. You’ve been regenerating for exactly forty-eight hours, just as requested. Nothing out of the ordinary to report during your, uh, absence.”

“It’s called sleep. And just because I don’t need it, doesn’t mean it’s a waste.” I wipe the film from my eyes, confirm the proximity of the medical ring, and initiate the parking process. Gravity reduces to next to nothing. “You recorded everything, right?”

“I suppose redundancy is something I can understand, but boss?”

“Yes?”

“Dreams aren’t like visual data, even the dreams of such an astute flesh pot as yourself.”

“Clear to disengage?”

“Disengage clear.”

“Disengaging and setting trajectory.” I unlock the clamps on my Razor and thrust clear of the stasis ring. “No, I suppose not. Still, dream data is better than no data at all. Plus, you can compare it to the heat vision recording I got with my right eye.”

“Done and awaiting your oh-so-infallible human evaluation.”

I lock the controls, unlatch my harness and push off into the gravity free environment. “Can you simulate the gravity of the medical ring?” My feet touch down under the EM simulated gravity, and I start my calisthenics. “Now if you can tell me how long until the docking sequence with the Torriad Medical Ring, and without your infernal sarcasm.”

“You know you love it.”

I sigh. Puzzlingly, I do in fact love it.

“Heads up.”

“What is it this time?”

We’re being pinged again. Text only.”

“Same channel as before?”

“Same exact message: Urgent—return to Al-Aqsa for medical procedure.”

I proceed with my regimen of pull-ups. “An unaddressed message via an unofficial channel. What are the chances it could be someone trying to phish?”

“The likelihood that smugglers intercepted your original transmission and fabricated a response in order to gain your exact location is somewhere between piss poor and crazy like a fox.”

I chuckle despite trying to hide my amusement. “What culture and era does that last bit of color stem from?”

“Twentieth century Earth. You like that one, do you?”

“It’s interesting, considering what I know of the mammal, the most solitary of the Canidae.” I flip upside down and grip the overhead bar with my feet in order to do sit-ups.

“Many earth cultures considered the fox to be cunning, sometimes to the point of complex deception.”

“Employing unorthodoxy to his advantage.” I belch as I adjust my internal pressure to match the gravity on the medical ring. “I like it. Maybe I’m the fox.”

“That’s why you insist on receiving medical attention on Torriad?”

“Receiving medical attention from the nearest Hibernal facility in this quadrant is well within protocol. The six month round trip to Al-Aqsa and back to finish my mission would be impractical, to say the least.”

“You plan to return to Sizlack Prime?”

“I believe you still owe me a count down for the docking procedure.”

“Two minutes, twenty-eight seconds.”


The corridor leading from the docking bay to surgery seems extravagantly oversized. With two transparent walls, it boasts a sweeping view. But I suppose the design is intended to offset the fact there’s no planetarium or herbarium onboard a relatively small yet permanent station.

Upon docking, the registry listed a crew of twenty four souls and an equal number of bots. One doctor, two medical assistants—the rest all support crew—no doubt serving an undesirable stint in a festering backwash of space. Two other patients were listed for procedures ahead of me, but my clearance automatically demoted their status.

The thinking behind small medical stations such as the Torriad is to keep them underwhelming enough to avoid interest from local pirates. Since most pirates operate under varying degrees of permission from at least one of the High Hibernarii Races, any direct attack on a station protected by the Council must involve a valuable prize—one worth dying for.

During my stay, Torriad’s most valuable asset will undoubtedly be the palm star locked in my chest. Twice, pirates have made the mistake of trying to cut it out. I believe the Fortitude Faction is still harvesting the ship graveyard left over from the last attempt. That was three years ago. Pirates.

The corridor is lined with green runway lights all the way to the preparation chamber. I don’t spot the medical assistant until the last second, a Clarity female. She’s clothed in nothing but ebbing, luminescent gasses. Her projection is some sort of organic spirit I vaguely recognize from Ortlacian lore—more humanoid than necessary, perhaps in anticipation of caring for me as a patient.

“Ranger 878, my name is Clarisandra. I’m here to ensure that every aspect of your medical procedure is flawless and contributes fully to your overall healing experience.” She whisks her arms around me and places them lightly on my back. While her exterior is cold, the touch is warm.

Fully aware of the suggestive intent behind the swirling placement and shifting nature of Clarisandra’s etherial coverings, I keep my good eye squarely locked on her face. “Clarisandra, while I’m grateful that anyone would consider my overall healing experience, I’m here for a new eyeball—a left eyeball to be specific. I assure you, I don’t intend to be rude, but my OBAI insists I can’t help it.” I smile as kindly as I can manage.

Undeterred, Clarisandra dips a shoulder and leads me toward the preparation chamber.

I sigh. I don’t deal with Hibernarii females very often, but when I do, it’s not unusual to fend off sexual curiosities. Ancestral humans are rare outside of Hibernaculated Cultures—the intramural races they’re called. The majority of those you find on the outside are desexed slaves. Since Templar have to blend in on HCs across the Hiberverse, we have all the standard plumbing. The pipes just don’t go anywhere, so to speak.

“Please, for your health we require all clothing and possessions be removed before surgery.”

“I’m sure you do.” I tear the seal at the neck of my bio-mimitating reclamation suit. “Just point me toward the locker.”

“Clarisandra bats what I suppose must be eyelashes, although they look more like electric filaments. “I will personally transfer your possessions to the place of your recovery.”

“Of course.” I roll my remaining eye while tearing off the rest of my suit. I make sure to keep it in one piece, just so she doesn’t lose any of it between here and there. Next to my BDM reactor heart, my BMR suit is the most irreplaceable part of me.

I remove the last section from around my foot and hesitate to hold the suit out to Clarisandra. She probably assumes I’m demonstrating some sort of bashfulness. She has no idea how naked I am without my suit. It’s my ticket into the 561 Hibernaculated Cultures across the Hiberverse. Without it, altering my appearance and coverings to adapt to each one would be virtually impossible.

I can’t afford any misunderstanding. “This suit is worth more to me than all the left eyeballs in the Hiberverse.” I soften the effort. “Value it with your life.”

The color storm of gasses surrounding Clarisandra’s torso shutter and thin nearly to nothing before she regains her composure. “Your life is mine, Mr. Ranger.”

I suppress a chuckle at her throaty melodrama. Naked as the day I sloughed from my birth pod, I slap my thighs and step into the preparation chamber. “See you on the other side, nurse.”

Clarisandra nods slowly and gracefully while floating toward the controls. Her fluid movements resemble willow branches in the wind. “To your healing.”

Finally, the door slides shut. As inert gasses swirl around the chamber, I take the opportunity to scratch in several places. After all, I haven’t taken off my BMR suit in ninety-three days.


The drifting clouds of Clarisandra’s chest make a convenient and effective distraction for my right eye as Doc clamps the empty socket of my left into position for the regenerative surgery. The worst part is always the scaffolding, which is just pretty talk for scraping out the goo in order to find a solid foundation to start the regeneration. But I do my best to never get in a doctor’s way.

Legend has it a squeamish Ranger once influenced a doctor to start the regeneration of his thumb before the doc had removed all the foreign debris. Some of that debris hadn’t been human. Supposedly, as a result, the Ranger grew back half the torso of a field mouse instead of a thumb. They had to cut off his hand and start over—now that’s some serious scaffolding.

“You’re sure you’re okay with my beginning the scaffolding before you’re fully anesthetized?” The Doc’s dubious eye and furrowed brow hovers above me, up side down from my perspective. The Integrity Faction male doctor is clearly hesitant to scrape the eye goo of a conditioned killer under the banner of the Council while said killer is still awake.

Integrity publicly disavows projection, instead stressing the value of the flesh, so the doc is corporeal for the surgery. His frame is older than mine, but that’s not saying much for a Hibernari, especially considering that Templar are programmed with exactly fifty years before our tickers pop. Overall, Doc’s augmentations haven’t altered his humanoid appearance significantly—not nearly as bulky as most Integrity males.

“This isn’t my first rodeo, Doc.” I pause for breath—the drugs already setting in. “Scrape the eye and get on with it.”

Doc looks unamused. The gasses swirling around Clarisandra’s chest pulse between vermilion and purple as she finishes clamping my head in place. Doc retreats to his command console to drive the procedure. I feel the laser grid activate. I try to stiffen, but that’s already been done for me. I focus on the wisps of colored gas twining around Clarisandra’s neck.

When the scaffolding starts in earnest, I’m grateful for the rapidly accelerating effects of the anesthesia.


I’ve left the zealot compound, still hot on the trail of the black robe. I jog across a cobblestone and mud street in front of an oxen drawn cart. The sucking mud would have claimed a boot, had it not been a seamless part of my BMR suit.

I filter the cacophonous racket of the logging and fishing village in order to reduce the possible paths of my Chrome zealot. Out of a mixture of disgust and fear, normal life on Sizlack Prime pauses every time a zealot passes.

There. The fish market—an unnatural wave of silence progressing from the south end of the street toward the north. I tip my hat to an elderly lady on the front porch of the apothecary and use an alley to cut across from Main Street to the Fish Walk. I resist the urge to plug my nose from the reek of the local fish—a brackish breed by the name of Foishtervallgn.

I stride northward along the boardwalk and finger the hilt of my discharged water dagger through the fabric of my duster. Strictly taboo outside the temple compound, I had to dump the rising water. At least I got to use it once outside the training simulator on Al-Aqsa.

A bucket flies out of the shadows. I shatter the wood slats with my forearm, only to be slathered in tepid fish. Through the scales and slime, I spot Black Robe disappear along a narrow boardwalk plunging unsteadily into the heart of a brine forest.

A Chrome will die the same among rotten timber grown from sewage, decay and salt water as he will in the pristine courtyards of the Krazlin zealots. And yet, my disappointment reveals I had been clinging to the hope of a second round with daggers.

Five steps into the forest and a foul humidity creeps into my clothing. Ten steps and the light of the sun flees. I feel for the irregular progress of the boardwalk with my feet. Even less permanent trails finger into the floating wood along every gap or width broad enough for a child to squeeze through sideways. Without the robe, my opponent might very well be slimmer than me—a problem I had not factored.

I stand still and close my eyes. Why had the black robe tarried in the fish market if his plan had been to hide here? Had he merely thought of it last second? Or had he lured me? This latter thought shoots my eyes wide open. How could such a thing be fathomable? Of course he couldn’t know I’d been created for his destruction.

I check the time stamp in my peripheral vision—58 minutes until my elevator window. It’d take twenty-six to scrub the temple courtyard and remove Ranger 799 to the safe zone. And that meant humping it the whole way.

Out of completely irrational frustration, I pursue a gap through the brine forest at random. No more than two steps along the way, I notice a small scrap of black cloth dancing from a sharp snag on a slimy trunk.

Rhythmically the boardwalk rises and falls with the ocean, allowing the forest to expand and contract ever so slightly. Like human lungs, the brine forest breathes. Except with each expansion it sucks my breath involuntarily from within me.

It’s hypnotic. I nearly stumble from the boardwalk at the spot of a fresh tree removal. Shocked fully awake, I check my time stamp. Seven minutes have gone by. I’ve waisted enough—

A misplaced crack draws my eyes downward just as a thrusting shard of boardwalk rises upward. Mired in the humidity and the stench, inexplicably, I see the shank coming and yet fail to respond before it embeds into the socket of my left eye.

Black Robe squeals as I shatter his forearm and heft him upward through the remains of the splintered boardwalk. With my right eye, I stare intently into the spent expression of my attacker. I see her face for the first time—a pale skinned female mottled with pink scars from the spray of my water dagger. A matt of black hair clings diagonally across her face, bisecting her two eyes—one brown, one green.


I wake lying on my back, a star scape unfurled above me. With my right eye, I scan from horizon to horizon. Beneath the bandages, I feel my left eyeball tracking with the right. So far so good. I sit up and slide my legs over the edge of the steri-mold table. Autonomically, I attempt to rub my eyes. I succeed in clubbing myself in the face with a rubber mitt. “What the—”

“Good morning, Brown Eye.” Clarisandra’s disembodied voice projects into the empty space right next to me—close enough for her to lay her hands across my still bare back. “Apologies for the protective measures, but due to your unusual physiology, we couldn’t be sure how long you would remain asleep.”

I stare at the two seamless rubber mitts baked onto my hands. “How long exactly have I been asleep, nurse?”

“Please, call me Clarisandra.”

“Okay, Clarisandra, how long have I been counting sheep?”

“I’m not privy to what you do in your sleep, Ranger, but the duration has been a little over five hours.”

“Seems long enough. I gotta itch I need to scratch. A little help?”

“I’m afraid removal of your bandages would be premature for another thirty-eight minutes.”

I bite into one of the rubber mitts. It’s spongy, but not so much that I can’t get a grip with my teeth. I tear a small chunk off and spit it across the room. “And how long do you think it’ll take me to chew through these mitts and scratch it myself?”

“I see. I suppose less than fifteen minutes. You’re more naughty than I had expected, Ranger.”

A blush runs up my spine at the tone and word choice Clarisandra choses. “Pardon me, Ma’am. But where I’m from, directness and impatience are usually virtues.”

“In that case, I’ll hail the doctor immediately. In the meantime, I highly suggest you refrain from tampering with your bandages. Premature exposure to the air, even sterile air, can result in loss of sight and the deformation of the soft tissue surrounding the regenerated area.”

I remove the mitt from my mouth and swallow. “Ah, gotcha loud and clear, nurse.”

“We can only hope reason is also a virtue on Al-Aqsa.”

“Ouch. You don’t have to get nasty.” I attempt a bit of friendly banter, but I can tell that Clarisandra has already redrawn her presence. Not sure how the human mind learns to detect such a thing, but you figure it out after a while. I attempt to scratch my head and bounce the blasted mitt off my skull. “Of all the confounding… Remove a man’s BMR suit, leave him in a loincloth and take away his only means of satisfaction. This constitutes cruel and unusual if I’ve ever experienced it.”

A flash of a lost thought scurries across the surface of my brain. I clutch at it but miss. I come close enough to remember I’d been dreaming about something before I’d woken up on the steri-mold table. Something to do with my mission on Sizlack Prime.

I can still smell the brine forest, so I must have been dreaming about the black robe. There was something unusual, something new in my dream that I hadn’t registered about her the first—wait. Her? How could I have missed something like that in real time? I catch another glimpse of my resurfacing dream. I’m holding her shattered arm in my right hand. Her face in full focus—pale skin, dark hair, pink scars.

No. I shake off the image. Pearl’s right. Dream imagery can’t be trusted, especially when induced by anesthesia. Clarisandra’s got my brain sexed up to the point where my subconscious would probably project femininity onto anything.

My mind floats back to the image involuntarily. I find more proof that the whole thing is a fabrication—Black Robe’s expression. It doesn’t make sense. If I’d just shattered her arm and removed any defensive posture she had left, why would she be staring at me with anticipation? Victory even? Her eye, her terrible green eye, stares up at me in something akin to mirth. But that’s unreasonable, unnatural. When confronted with death, humans don’t deviate from one of three possible responses: anger, fear or resignation. Even zealots, even Templar, can’t avoid their nature at the very end.

Then again, I hadn’t killed the black robe, had I? Female or not, how could the zealot have foreseen an unforeseeable outcome? From the beginning the zealots had known things they shouldn’t have.

The door whooshes open and the doc strides into my recovery chamber. “Good, I see you’ve abstained from chewing off your protective gloves.”

I growl beneath a half smile, enough to keep the doc on edge. “Just a touch of cabin fever, Doc. That’s all.”

“Cabin fever, eh? I suppose that’s how you got a sliver of brackish timber embedded deep enough into your brain to effect your gross motor functions and possibly even a portion of your longterm memory?”

I make a show of twitching my head to the side. “I got a what now embedded in my whozit? Slow down there, Doc.”

Doc grills me with the same dubious eye from earlier. This time he’s right side up so the translation is a bit less comical. “Nothing to be concerned over at this point. It took a bit of extra scaffolding, and I had to widen the laser grid after you were unconscious, but everything should have regenerated nicely.”

The doctor steps forward. A stool materializes and he seats himself in order to scrutinize my good eye. “You aren’t suffering any loss of memory surrounding the moment of the injury are you? Not that you need to recall it for my sake.” He trails off with a mumbling comment about the less he knows the better.

The first thing that comes to mind is the dream. With a second effort, I’m able to pull up the direct memory—or at least portions of it. The more I try to pin down the specifics, the more they blur together with the dream.

Luckily, Clarisandra’s bodily projection enters the room just in time for a splendid distraction. The Doc gestures to the space by his side. Clarisandra fills it while keeping her pouty eyes affixed on my nonbandaged one.

“Sure thing, Doc. I remember it all just fine.” I smile.

His expression doesn’t change.

“Now that you mention the whole gross motor thing, that makes a lot of sense. It took me a whole second longer to respond in the moment than would have been normal.”

“Yes, well.” The doc takes a deep breath. “Muscle memory can be effected temporarily by shocking injuries of this nature. That’s all totally normal.” He checks his time stamp. “Now then, I suppose we’ve waited long enough to take off the bandage. And now that Clarisandra is here to assist.” He starts with the wrap on my head.

“It’s these things that are bothering me the most.” I hold up the mitts. “I got itches all over, Doc. And unless you want Clarisandra here to scratch them.”

“Very well, hold still.” He removes a tiny instrument from his frock and touches it to each glove. They disintegrate immediately, the dust gone before it can hit the sterile, seamless floor.

The first thing I scratch is the back of my head. Then my thigh and that little, hard-to-reach spot in the middle of my back.

All the while, the doc does his best to remove the bandage around my eye without displaying his frustration. Overall, he seems like an overqualified candidate for this far-flung outpost. Perhaps he crossed the wrong Technocrat. He removes the last of the gauze and hands it to Clarisandra. Immediately, he taps the soft tissue of my cheek with his finger and checks the elasticity of my forehead. “Everything’s consolidated perfectly. Now would you mind opening your eye?”

Only then do I realize I’ve been holding it shut. “Sure thing, Doc.” The eyelids are gooped together slightly, but with a little effort I blink them apart. Gloriously, everything seems to work as it should. But my extra sensory perceptions tell me that’s not the case. The balance in the room has shattered. Clarisandra’s exterior is the clearest tell. She loses complete control over her coloration.

The doctor comes to the realization second, perhaps less perceptive than his Clarity Faction nurse. But he sees it now too, and his response is one of horror and self preservation. It’s a response that typically doesn’t bode well in close quarters.

I’m the one currently at the disadvantage. A flick of my restored eyesight discovers the reflective surface of the wall behind the doc. In the time it has taken Clarisandra to drop the gauze in her hand—in the time it has taken Doc’s jaw to gape—I sharpen my mind around the sight that has tipped the moment from jovial to deadly.

Reflecting back at me from across the room, I see my left eye as clearly as I see the doctor’s off-hand gripping the instrument he had used to disintegrate the rubber mitts. As I watch him plunge it upward toward the meat of my thigh, I’ve already determined my immediate course of action—seen it spiderweb to the next and the next. In a fraction of a second, I’ve interpreted all of this through the emerald green iris of my regenerated left eye.


I seize Doc’s wrist and turn his weapon on himself. One stab to the chest and his nervous system crashes. Before his body can topple from the stool, I leap from the examination table and sweep Clarisandra from her feet.

With my mouth pressed to her ear, I delay her impulse to withdraw her projection via emergency severance. “No matter what anyone says,” I press into her, “death is always personal, and you can only do it once. It’s best to make it special.”

She shudders beneath my grip as I twist her neck and drop her bodily projection limply to the floor. Pearl taught me that little trick—when dealing with projections, making it intimate delays the mind’s ability to sever the cascading sensation of physical death. Pull it off perfectly, and the mind crashes before it can convince itself nothing’s happened.

I slide to a stop near the door, scoop up my BMR suit, and slap it on. The nano tendrils activate and pull the skin-tight suit together. The snap at the neck completes the circuit, and I project a fire retardant flight suit. “Pearl.”

“Awaiting your directives.”

“Activate Torriad’s contamination protocols and elevate to critical.”

“Boss?”

“No time for explanations. Key on my location and open a path. I’m coming in hot.” The moment I sweep out the door and into the corridor, the lighting shifts to red and a siren blares. Contamination barriers slam shut to my right. I dial my flight response to full and push my at-once-blanched and sweating body full tilt toward the docking bay.

Pearl’s voice is muffled by the blood pounding in my ears. “Destination in T-48 and counting. Forty-six. Forty-four.”

“Enough of the play by play!” I momentarily take a wrong turn and slam into the corridor wall before I can correct. In less than two seconds I’ve returned to my max foot speed—72 km/h. I pass two mechanics before they can ask what’s happening.

I smash a bot around the final turn. The sound distracts the docking attendant who had undoubtedly been trying to figure out why contamination protocols had failed to lock out my ship and my ship only. He looks up the moment my arm strikes his throat, lifts him from the ground and snaps his neck against the corridor wall.

“Boss?”

“I’m in.”

Immediately the barrier between the Torriad docking bay #3 and my ship slams shut behind me. “Disengage! Thrusters 100%!”

“Which direction?”

“Away from the impending fire ball!” The ship rocks free. I steady myself with a handhold as the thrusters fire.

“Detonation in eighteen.”

“How far do we need to be?” I wrap my legs around my captain’s chair and pull myself into the seat.

“Further than thrusters can take us.”

“Is the stasis ring safe?”

“Unlikely. I wish you would have given me a little more notice—”

“Can it. Heads—shielding. Tails—speed.”

“Come again?”

“Shielding or speed? Which is it?”

“Shielding has a higher probability of—”

“Shielding it is. I’m about to phase the hull, you better hide yourself as deep as you can.”

“I hate it when you—”

“Go now!” I pause for the count of three seconds just to make sure Pearl has enough time to double and triple firewall herself inside the safest systems of the onboard computer. What I’m about to do is considered borderline behavior for anyone other than a pirate. But phasing partway into extra-dimensional space is the best way I can think of slipping past a catastrophe in the three dimensions we call home.

Unfortunately, it gives you one hell of a headache.

I grip the dash, squeeze my eyes shut, clench my teeth, and pour my thoughts into overload. Phasing is a matter of remembering every nightmare and close call of an entire career’s worth of killing. The trick is to convince yourself that they’re all happing at once, and yet to keep from destroying yourself and everything within a ten meter radius by initiating a black hole.

I just need a black wave.

The attacks come in unthinkable proximity—men, women, children—all of them one eye green, one eye brown. My mind spins down a tangent I can’t control. I see the dead doctor, Clarisandra, Ranger 799, Porcilous, followed by everyone I work closely with. All of them die at my hand.

This isn’t real. It’s not real. None of this has happened.

Technocrats I barely know, Hibernarii I’ve never seen. One after the other, I pile the bodies high. No one can stop me. Not even the Apex Lords. I thunder into the Council.

No. None of this is real. My breathing spikes, I can’t catch my breath. My grip on the dash slips. None of this is possible. As I crush the dust-brittle trachea of an eon’s old Apex Lord, his face disappears—replaced by Black Robe’s. She laughs at me. Her green eye sparkles with laughter.

A shockwave washes over the ship, slamming my forehead into the dash. The cascading thoughts seize and then disappear. I pick myself up, scan the proximity for incoming debris, and quickly pilot into a green zone. I check for visual evidence of the Torriad through the rear viewfinder. It’s gone completely—nothing bigger than my captain’s chair.

“Pearl?” I smear sweat and blood from my brow. I swallow and check to make sure my tongue is where I left it. “Pearl? You can come out now. Looks like we made it. Can you analyze the condition of the stasis ring?”

“Um, boss.”

“There you are.” I breathe a sigh of relief. “You had me worried for a second. I was just wondering if we were stuck out here.”

“You’re eye is green.”


I gaze at my reflection in the polished hiber-steel of the console beside me. I haven’t had time to consider an official explanation. I haven’t an unofficial one either. “My eye is green.” I repeat Pearl’s simple statement of fact in hopes it will trigger the rest of the truth. “And the doc said no one would notice.”

“Should I be concerned?”

“About us being stranded three months STL travel from the nearest jump gate? I would be.”

“I was referring to the fact I just detonated a medical facility under the protection of the High Hibernal Council based on what I can only assume are false pretenses. I found no failure in the Torriad’s contamination protocols.”

The hair on the back of my neck rises. Of all the close shaves I’ve experienced in the last few days, this could be the most precarious. If I lose the trust of Pearl, I’m as good as dead. Not only can she detonate the palm star in my chest with a simple frequency emission, but she’s my lifeline. She’s my protector. She’s my companion.

“About that, sorry I couldn’t bring you in before hand. It appears my pirate theory—”

“Incoming ping, highest priority.”

I catch my breath. “Authentication?”

“Classified, but it’s an official channel.”

“Classified? I’ve got the highest clearance.”

“Would you like the message?”

“Visual.” The projection scrolls past my face as I read: Distress signal received from Torriad Medical Ring—apparent catastrophic loss due to contamination containment failure. Requesting confirmation on eye regeneration procedure… I roll with the unexpected message from Templar Central without hesitation. “Response: Eye regeneration procedure complete.”

Pearl pings central with my response. Moments later we receive the incoming: While total loss of Torriad Medical Ring is deemed unfortunate, the outcome is acceptable considering the station’s duplicity. Proceed with infiltration of pirate operation suspected for illicit transportation of chromiums. Mission: leverage illegal framework to terminate indeterminate population of chromiums dwelling outside of hibernaculated cultures. Activation: Immediately. Closure: open ended…

“Response: Mission accepted, Ranger 878. Pearl, can you authenticate?”

“Authenticating. Mission confirmed.”

I rock back in my captain’s chair and mask my thoughts for Pearl’s sake. Her mollification is still pending. I can feel her tension. But I can hardly stomach the multiple maddening implications of the mission just handed down to me personally—anonymously no less.

“Boss?”

“Pearl?”

“You gotta cut back on the theatrics.”

“Oh? What part didn’t you like.” I feel a plan amorphously coming together.

“You couldn’t simply tell me you had to look like a Chrome to hunt Chromes?”

I shrug and smile.

“And when did all of this come about? I’ve never seen our new mission on the roster, even at low priority.”

I nod my head slowly and scratch the three day’s growth on my chin. “You dismissed it as paranoia, but I didn’t like the unofficial pings we’ve been soliciting since the botched mission on Sizlack Prime.”

“Along with the zealots’ apparent awareness of your identity?” Pearl seems anxious to assist my explanation.

“Exactly. I knew something fishy was going on, so I opened a secure channel from the Torriad and shared my suspicions. Word came back that pirates have been suspected of a massive Chromium smuggling operation in this quarter. But Central needed confirmation. Even the doctor himself had been under suspicion of providing cosmetic eye regeneration for Chromes able to pay, or pirates willing to pay for them.” The ease with which the pieces fall into place rattles me.

“Thus the phony contamination protocol.”

I nod. “I pressed the doc into confirming that a steady stream of Chromes have been pouring through his clinic. I conveyed the information, and Central deemed it important enough to activate us immediately. Lacking a plan to secure the Torriad, I deemed it acceptable to eliminate the station before word of our mission could spook nearby smugglers.”

“And your eye?”

“That was my idea. What? Too much?”

“I suppose it will take some getting used to, slick.”

I breathe deeply. Pearl’s onboard, for now. Hell, I’ve almost convinced myself. It’s all part of the plan. “Right. Down to business then. Status of our stasis ring?”

“Inoperable. Barely better than space junk, I’d dare say.”

“Hmmm. All the more reason we need to find us some pirates, sooner rather than later.”

END

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