Posts

The River, The Axe and The Options

THE RIVER, THE AXE AND THE OPTIONS

by Michael M. Rader

A river is not its water, but it needs moving water to be a river. With that in mind, Naveed jumped across the flat stones set in the shallow, stagnant waters of what could maybe still be called the Colorado River. His backpack swung as he jumped, the C HOPKINS rods inside clacking together like loose marbles. He landed on the eastern side of the river, his worn boots kicked up miniature mushroom clouds of dust, rising and falling like empires. He had crossed the dividing line, from the Luddites’ territory into the land claimed by the Compound. The peace pact between the two sides was solid enough, but dealing with the Compound still made Naveed nervous.

He pulled himself up the steep bank, gloved hands grabbing at the shaggy Joshua Trees and scrub brush growing out of the red earth. He stood at the top of the bank, looking across the rocky wasteland. The FedMet called it Arizona, still thinking they owned the damn place. Naveed  took a drink of flat-water and wiped his cracked lips. He wanted real water, water with impurities. The water that came from the compound was too perfect, every necessary mineral and electrolyte added in precise proportion. Flavor came from the flaws and the compound didn’t manufacture anything with flaws–nothing they’d admit to, anyway.

He walked past sunbaked Luddite children digging for mineral-rich rocks in the soil at the top of the bank. They waved to Naveed. Soon he’d be giving them red plastic whistles and tops and action figures from his printer in exchange for the rocks they dug up. Especially the whistles, the kids loved their little, red whistles; It drove their parents crazy. None of the children spoke, wanting instead to get their rocks and get back to their side of the river as quickly as possible. Naveed smiled at a little girl using the leg of an old Barbie doll to pry up stones. It was impossible to stop children from creating new tools and technology no matter how hard you tried to run from it.

He kept on, aiming towards the fortress of rock in the distance and the haphazardly stacked tower of parallel processors rising from its center. It’d only been a few months since he last visited the compound, but it looked like the tower had already grown a good ten or twenty feet since then. Crude, wooden palisades stretching across the opening of the rock fortress greeted Naveed as he drew closer to the compound.

Two guards appeared from fissures around the fortress, flanking Naveed and keeping in step with him. This was a new protocol. He’d traded easily with the compound in the past and had never had a guard look at him twice. He sized the two men up without turning his head, not letting them know how much he knew. One of the men was a Rip. He was a good seven feet tall, limbs as thick as lumber with wickedly sharp keratin protrusions jutting out from his knuckles. The other man was shorter and Naveed could tell from his single-colored eyes he was Unrooted. Although the organic curves of the printed, automatic pistol in his hand looked just as nasty as the Rip’s claws.

“State your business, ‘phobe,” said the Unrooted guard.

“Trade,” said Naveed, still staring ahead.

“Trading what?” growled the Rip, his voice modified to a bass just below thunderclaps.

“Rods. Mostly Carbon but a few HOPKINS.”

“No calcium?” asked the Rip. Naveed’s chest rattled when the giant spoke.

“I’ll take it up with your trademaster,” said Naveed.

“Can’t,” said the Unrooted guard, “He’s gone Untouchable.”

Naveed’s chest tightened. The trademaster was a good man and one of the few friends he had left in the compound after leaving. Naveed stopped walking and turned to the man, forcing a cool calm into his voice, “Bad filter?”

The Unrooted guard nodded, “Tried to crack regeneration, hacked himself with some kinda’ worm. Real nasty stuff. And Samuel here wonders why I keep myself pure.” He gave the Rip a pointed look.

“Get off your pulpit, Len,” said the Rip called Samuel, “I went with the tried and true.” He held up a fist the size of a baby to demonstrate his clawed knuckles. Samuel leaned in and stared at Naveed’s shifting eyes that roiled like muddy water.

“Hey Len,” said Samuel, “Speaking of. You ever seen a Rooted ‘phobe?”

“Nope,” said Len, “Pretty suspicious if you ask me.”

“I used to live here,” said Naveed, “A long time ago.”

Len walked ahead to pull the gate to the compound open, “I’m keeping an eye on you, ‘phobe. Look at us funny and Sammy here can either snap you in half or dig your lunch outta’ your belly. Either way, it’ll hurt.”

Naveed nodded and walked into the shadow of the fortress. Orderly stacks of whitesmoke colored houses lined the jagged cliff faces within. Each house was identical, made of aluminum-strength organic plastic, molded into clean, seamless planes intersecting at perfect angles. He walked past a larger building with a short stack of processors slouching nearby, it churned raggedly and Naveed could feel the heat radiating off of it. The compound manufacturers were working hard.

Naveed was surprised to see nearly everyone around him was Rooted. The Unrooted guard was in the minority. Even more surprising, nearly half of them were Ripped. He was surrounded by unnatural frames, organic armor, spidery limbs, ornamental wings and ears, prehensile tails and bioluminescent strips.

“Hell of a lot of Rips, huh?” said Naveed.

Samuel and Len glared at him but said nothing. It used to be only the most daring and crazy hackers Rooted themselves, tweaking their DNA through the filters installed in their stolen FastTrav chambers. It ended in nightmares and nasty messes more often than it worked. Fear of consequence was never enough to stifle innovation, though, and they kept pushing the boundaries of what they could do. After all, that’s why the people of the compound ran to the Interstitial Spaces in the first place–to create, to push against the Metro laws insisting teleportation could only be used by the sanctioned few. And now the Compound was all but forgotten, along with the technophobic villages and the rural communities that withered as the infrastructure between the Mets collapsed.

A sociologist from DenMet visited once, a decade earlier. Her name was Dolly Gilshannon–although she went by Shannon. She was there working on her Master’s thesis on people of the Interstitial Spaces. Naveed was her guide, showing her around the compound and explaining the ethos and community and their uneasy relationship with the technophobes across the river. At the time, Naveed thought he’d loved her. That was a long time ago, though. His life was on the other side of the river now, stripping minerals and bartering with the Compound. He doubted anyone here remembered him now, what he’d done for them. No one, except maybe for Smyth.

They walked on, passing beneath the long shadow of the droning tower of processors. Naveed saw the old two-story ripping house lurking nearby, looking as drab and dismal as ever. It was one of the oldest structures in the Compound, a chimeric eyesore slapped together from building material stolen off of abandoned houses.

He’d spent thousands of hours in the ripping house, tweaking and modifying the FastTrav chambers he and Smyth had stolen and designing new filters. He could still remember the exhilaration after a successful experiment, climbing into the chamber on the first floor, vanishing, and appearing in the chamber upstairs with a different eye color or texture of hair. That exhilaration of discovery faded when Smyth started pushing the experiments too far and encouraging the more radical hackers to explore more extreme modifications.

They reached the far end of the compound and the long, unfurnished huts housing Untouchables. Swirling eyes of varying color stared at them from the hut. Naveed could hear them moaning within and screaming animal screams. Shadowy and grotesque figures lurched around in the shadows of the unlit interior. Something wet and slithering passed the doorway, withered limbs jutting out from between segmented ridges in its body. It paused in the doorway, turning briefly towards the group, staring with unseen eyes. Naveed shuddered.

“So, who am I meeting with?” asked Naveed.

Len shrugged, “Figured I’d just leave ya’ at the trading house and you’d figure it out.”

“I’ll meet with Smyth, then.” said Naveed.

The two guards moved in front of him.

“The Administrator is not receiving visitors.” said Samuel, his calm voice a dull roar.

“The Administrator? Sounds like Smyth could use a lecture about humility,” said Naveed.

“You will refer to The Administrator as The Administrator,” shouted the Rip.

Naveed’s ears rang. He stepped up to Samuel, his face coming up to the Rip’s chest. He craned his neck up and stared deeply into the man’s shifting blue-green eyes.

“Listen to me, freakshow. I worked with Smyth back when you were a ninety-pound nothing. I wrote the base code for the filter that Ripped you and all your nightmare buddies. And I’ve got the elements you need to keep this operation going, bik?”

Samuel’s eyes swirled with color as he processed Naveed’s words. Len nodded at the giant and Samuel shrugged, picking Naveed up by his leg. Naveed’s backpack slipped off of his shoulders and hit the ground. Len picked up the backpack and Samuel threw Naveed over his shoulder, walking down the street.

“Where are we going?” asked Naveed, wheezing through bruised ribs.

“I think we need to meet with The Administrator.” said Samuel.

*****

Samuel went in first, Naveed could hear his voice through the soundproofed walls of Smyth’s sprawling home like a distant grinding of stone on stone. He came out and held the door open for Naveed, ushering him in. The door closed behind him. It took a while for his eyes to adjust in the darkness. He could hear his old friend’s labored breathing somewhere nearby.

“Navi.”

Naveed turned towards the thin voice. There was a simple sheet spread across an open doorway. He started pushing it aside.

“Don’t. Please.”

Naveed lowered his hand, letting the sheet fall back in place, “Is that you, Smyth?”

“Smyth. The Administrator. God,” Smyth sighed and it turned into a bronchial rattle, “Yes. I’m he. We’re it.”

“What’s going on around here?” asked Naveed.

They stood in silence as Smyth caught his breath. As Naveed’s eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw the walls were covered with relics, ancient things he’d only ever read about. Model airplanes dangled from the ceiling, stuffed replicas of animals Naveed couldn’t name lined the shelves and bumper stickers with inscrutable phrases like 10,000 MILES TO WALL DRUG adhered to every empty spot on the wall.  

“Do you know the parable of the ax?” asked Smyth.

“Remind me,” said Naveed.

“A man buys a new axe. While using it, he breaks the head. He brings it to a repairman who replaces the head of the ax–“

“Right. Then he breaks the handle and you ask if it’s the same axe,” said Naveed, “I guess I do know that one.”

“I don’t know if I’m the same man, Navi. I don’t look like Smyth. I don’t feel like Smyth. I make…moral decision Smyth never would have. I don’t know if that’s age or the, the, the…alterations I’ve made to my mind, the capacity changes. They don’t even call me Smyth anymore.”

“Whose fault is that?” asked Naveed.

Silence, it seemed as if Smyth had stopped breathing for a moment.

“How long has it been, Navi?”

“Since?”

“Since you left.”

“About ten years.”

“When did I see you last?”

“About ten years ago.”

“Hm. I know you’re…you’re Rooted. Did you ever rip, Navi?”

Naveed shook his head, realized Smyth couldn’t see him and said, “No. Nothing more than our little cosmetic experiments”

“They’re all doing it now,” said Smyth, “I think we’ve reached a…a tipping point.”

Naveed could hear Smyth moving around behind the door, rustling and scratching. He saw a thin shadow pass over the curtain.

“What was the tipping point, Smyth?” asked Naveed.

Silence.

“Smyth?”

“Smyth,” said the rasping, hollow voice from behind the curtain, “Smyth was the tipping point. He…I…went too far. I’ve become an icon in here, The Administrator, ruling secondhand from behind a curtain and…and…losing touch. It’s out of my control, Navi.”

Naveed could sense Smyth standing just behind the curtain now, the form of his shadow was something unrecognizable.

“The Administrator is out of control, Navi.”

Naveed backed away from the doorway. Fingers as long and rigid as shin bones slipped from behind the folds of the curtain..

“We move soon, Naveed. We fight soon. I need you.”

Naveed turned and ran. He could hear Smyth shuffling across the floor behind him.

“We need your help!” Screamed Smyth, his voice an eerie high pitch, “Smyth needs your help!”

Naveed pushed the door open, stumbling out into the light, momentarily blinding him. He didn’t stop, though. Naveed ran, blind and reckless.

“I need him!” Shrieked Smyth.

Samuel and Len ran after him, Samuel’s tree-trunk legs shaking the ground. Naveed’s vision returned and he realized that he was running in the wrong direction, away from the Compound gates. He heard Samuel drawing heavy, snorting breaths just behind him. The only good news was people were leaping out of Naveed’s way in anticipation of the giant. The Rip was gaining on him, there was no way Naveed could compete with the man’s unnaturally long and muscular legs. He dodged around a Joshua Tree and heard a splintering crack as Samuel crashed through it. So much for using agility. He had to think.

He was being chased by a large mass moving at a high speed–p=mv…momentum. Naveed fell to his knees and curled inward, rolling. He kicked up a cloud of dust as he skidded to a stop. Samuel overshot, trying to turn and stop. He lost his balance and tumbled, crashing through the side of a house and leaving a jagged tear. Naveed got to his feet and ran in the opposite direction.

Naveed was in the shadow of the processor stack when he saw Len who was breathing hard and jogging slowly. The backpack full of rods was still slung around the guard’s back. Before Len could react, Naveed jumped and drove his heavy boots into Len’s chest like a battering ram. The two men fell to the ground. Naveed rolled, grabbed his backpack and stood up. The ground shook and Naveed turned.

Samuel had already recovered and was running back towards him. He was too far from the gate to outrun the Rip. He looked around and saw that the door to the ripping house was standing open. At least there he had a chance of making a stand, finding something to defend himself with. He dashed for the entryway. There was a short, sharp crack and Naveed felt cold fire pierce his side. He twisted and saw Len holding up his gun. Naveed forgot about the gun. Another bullet hit his shoulder, embedding in the bone.

With the last of his energy, Naveed fell through the open door, kicking it shut behind him as he collapsed to the floor.

*****

Clutching his side, Naveed reached up and slid the locking bar shut on the door. His vision blurred, darkness eating away at the edges. He slumped down to his stomach and looked around the sparse room. There was only a plastic table and chairs, the flight of stairs up to the second floor and a doorway in the back to where the FastTrav chamber was kept. Naveed tried to stand but everything went dark and he heard the sound of rushing water in his ears. He collapsed. Naveed pulled himself across the floor, dragging with his one good arm and pushing with the little strength left in his legs. His backpack dragged heavily, sagging to the side. Samuel bellowed and pounded on the door. Naveed could hear Len telling Samuel to be careful. They couldn’t risk damaging the equipment.

Naveed reached the back room when he heard the scraping of a pry bar sliding across the slick plastic of the door, trying to find purchase. He pulled himself into the room and stopped to rest, looking around. The back room was lined with the delicate interfaces and connections that led to the stack of processors outside. Wires snaked out from the cool-blue, glowing boxes and wormholed through the wall. The interfaces connected to the terminal at the back of the room, an obsolete glass and keyboard construct, and to the FastTrav chamber lying flat on the floor in the middle of the room.

The chamber was an old one, actually made of metal. It was a corroded deathtrap with rusted out holes in the side. It always reminded Naveed of a massive bathtub, although the mess of wires and indicator lights and the folding doors that closed over the top made it hard to confuse the two. There was a box next to the chamber with cylindrical receptacles for rods, in case extra elements were needed for the user’s Rip.

He was out of options. No, that wasn’t true–he had options, they just weren’t one’s he liked. He could just die, bleed out on the floor and hope no one used him for some weird resurrection experiment. He could face Samuel and Len and maybe survive to find out what his crazed former friend wanted to do to him. Or he could risk the FastTrav.

Naveed knew the basic filter. He knew it would mend wounds and remove foreign matter because that’s what he programmed it to do. He even got it to the point where it could detect and remove cancerous growth before he left. No matter what, he’d live if he went through. He just didn’t know what he’d look like. For all he knew, the trademaster’s filter was still installed and he’d end up an Untouchable.

It would be his choice, though. That’s what mattered.

Naveed heard metal groaning and plastic splintering and Samuel panting just outside the door. He struggled to his feet and leaned over the terminal, dripping blood on the keyboard. It was already on the command line, the first good luck he’d had all day. He typed in the initialization sequence, hoping the syntax hadn’t changed in the last ten years.

The screen flashed red. Insufficient material, Carbon, HOPKINS, and CaFe rods needed.

Naveed groaned, that meant a Rip was installed, a complicated one. He opened his backpack and fed every rod into the receptacle one by one, the rods thudding and clanging as they slid down the chute to the element tanks under the floor.

The screen was still red telling him he had insufficient Calcium and Iron. He looked around the room, desperately hoping someone had left some spare CaFe rods.

Samuel ripped the door off of its tracks and the building vibrated as the guard squeezed through the opening. Naveed could hear the men shouting and the Rip was screaming curses as he moved through the building.

Naveed typed in the override command and reinitialized the FastTrav chamber. He climbed into the chamber and the folding doors closed over him. He was in darkness, the hum of servos and whine of charging capacitors surrounding him. There was a flash of light, sudden and sharp as lightning, and Naveed was ripped apart.

*****

The FastTrav system could tear apart and reassemble anything down to individual atoms, but it couldn’t place electrons. When the folding doors of the chamber opened and Naveed sat up, he couldn’t remember anything. The building he was in was shaking. He could hear someone screaming, no, roaring in anger below him. He vaulted out of the chamber, his arms rippling with new muscle. Memory and sense of space returned as the electrical activity of his brain resettled to where it belonged.

He was on the second floor in a room that was almost identical to the one he had just left. He looked down at his abdomen, no wound. He looked at his hands, no claws or fur, so he was still moderately human. He could feel the power as he moved, though. His arms and legs were still slender, but the muscles beneath were dense and quick. Every step was one of perfect precision and speed, every movement of his arm was graceful and unfathomably fast, burning with energy.

Naveed saw the Rip’s head appear from the staircase below, pulling himself up into the second story. The floor creaked ominously beneath the giant’s feet. Samuel opened his mouth to say something, but Naveed launched forward, his feet coiling and retracting like well-engineered springs. He swung an elbow, hitting Samuel’s jaw. There was a sound like a gunshot and the Rip toppled down the stairs, the weight of his body tearing a hole through the steps on his way down. Naveed cried out in pain and clutched his broken arm.

Bone density. Of course.

His elbow and forearm had shattered on impact, breaking like a bottle across Samuel’s jaw. There was insufficient Calcium and Iron to build bones that could withstand the new force he was working with.

He felt a shifting in his arm, like insects crawling beneath his skin. Bone shards sliding back into place, mending together. Tendons and ligaments retightening and rebinding. Naveed screamed as his bones reknit in a matter of seconds. It was excruciating. Somebody had cracked the code for regeneration after all. Naveed felt hungrier than he had ever felt before in his life.

He bent and turned his arm. It was already at full function. His only way out now was the tear through the wall and jump to the ground or to fight through the guards filling up the first floor of the building.

Either way, it was going to hurt.

END

CLICK HERE to return to the finalists index page and vote.

Hope City Chronicles

HOPE CITY CHRONICLES

by Todd Honeycutt

Shell didn’t expect the expression on the River Security guard’s face to be kind, but she also didn’t expect the guard to lock her body down.

“What do we have here?” the guard said.

“You got no probable cause.”

“I don’t?” The guard tapped her cuff and scrolled through what Shell assumed were her records. “In trouble once already for stealing. Records show that you sure spend a lot of time down here for a girl so young. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that you were planning something.”

Shell wished that were the case. “It’s a free city, last I heard.”

“Free city, for sure, until you make a mistake.”

That mistake was going to stay with her. Or rather, it was a mistake that her father had made, and that Shell had covered for.

The guard had no badge indicating her name and number. If Shell had kept her rab on, she could at least learn that. But she was ghosting. A simple day, with nothing–and no one–interrupting her. A day at the docks, watching the boats and the water and the gulls, turning over her options. When she had been caught, she had been thinking about the African freighter in the harbor, so far out she wondered if it were in quarantine.

Shell hadn’t been looking for trouble.

“Honest, I just like coming down here.”

“No one just comes down here, Sweetie. This is the worst part of this city.”

That was true. The rest of the city was still new and tall and shiny. Here, with the docks, the cranes, the water, the containers stacked about, nothing was clean or planned or scrubbed or sanitized.

Which was why Shell liked it so much.

“Here’s how it looks to me. Got a girl with a record. Not in school. Likely to be on guarantee for life, but maybe doesn’t like it. Wants more than she can get. Hanging down here, looking for opportunities.”

“That’s not what I….”

“Doesn’t matter, does it?”

Shell struggled against the lockdown. Her body tingled, but didn’t move. Cops shouldn’t be able to do this.

“There’s something you need from me, isn’t there?”

The guard smiled, revealing perfectly white teeth. “You’re a smart one, aren’t you?”

“Not that smart, if I’m here and you’re there.”

With a fluid motion, the guard put something in Shell’s pocket. A light on the guard’s lapel flashed on, indicating that the guard’s sensors were recording. It hadn’t been on before, Shell realized, though it should have been on throughout the encounter.

The guard then pulled the item out of Shell’s pocket. “A keypass?” she said calmly, as if she’d done this many times before. “Looks expensive. Wonder what this goes to?”

Shell looked straight at the guard. “Not mine. She just planted it on me.”

The guard hit a button on her cuff, and the light switched off. “Tell you what. You do me a favor, I’ll do you a favor.”

Shell’s stomach told her that she wasn’t going to like what was next.

*****

Tony waited in the cage for Merdi.

The Ethiopian sailor’s request was odd, cuttings of plants that Tony could get from the ag levels of his apartment building. People coming into port often asked for small batch whiskey, specialty cheeses, foods they couldn’t get elsewhere or had run out of on their ships. Things that they couldn’t get directly at the port stores, because the machines decided to keep foreign sailors confined to their ships and the immediate dock area.

Sometimes, all the sailors wanted were cool toys for their kids. Tony felt for those guys, he really did. Tried to get them something nice, something his kids would have wanted. Didn’t gouge them, either.

But Merdi’s was one of the oddest requests.

Tony looked again at the box. The sailor should have been able to get this stuff anywhere. Though perhaps it was expected that the African Congress played by different rules. Leaves and root stock from a dozen different plants, carefully wrapped and labeled, as requested. After he worked out the agreement with Merdi, Tony pulled the samples from the hydroponic floor below his, telling the caretaker bot that he needed them for his daughter’s science project. Nothing special, far as he knew…tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, broccoli, lettuces, herbs. The kinds of plants every building had on its ag levels, hydroponic floors curated by bots, their steady production distributed to the building’s inhabitants.

Never felt right to Tony. Buildings were for people, not for plants. The bright lights and controlled conditions worked, though.

The city itself didn’t feel right, either, which was most of the reason why he spent so much time at the docks. He felt less under the machines’ eyes, though as much as he hated to admit it, everything the machines had told them to do so far seemed to work.

That didn’t keep him from looking for ways to step outside their care and watchful eyes. Which was why he waited in a jerry-rigged Faraday cage to exchange packages with a sailor.

Decent price, a case of Chinese vodka for not so much work. He’d hand the bottles out to his crew as part of their Christmas presents.

Tony heard footsteps. More than one person.

Merdi appeared around the stack of metal trailers, followed by two other men.

Tony’d bet his last dollar they weren’t sailors.

“You have it?” Merdi asked. His English was heavily accented, but Tony could understand him clearly.

“Where’s the vodka?” None of the men carried anything.

“Gone, unfortunately. Sailors,” Merdi laughed and waved his hands. “Can’t keep them away from some things. But we do not come empty handed.” He pulled a long, thin golden box from beneath his jacket. “Payment here is worth what you’ve brought, plus another favor.”

Tony doubted Merdi’s smile was genuine. The men behind him stayed stone-faced.

Tony pointed to the cuttings. “I thought I already did you a favor.”

“That’s only the first part of what we need.”

*****

Shell wished getting to Central County was more efficient. From the docks, she hopped a tram and within 10 minutes transferred to a train that ran to the center of the city, but the process was never as slow for Shell as it was that afternoon. The guard needed the package by four, which didn’t leave much time to spare.

They had started Hope City with Central County, a base for various government and cultural institutions. From there, they had laid out neighborhoods for 25 miles around, razing everything that originally had existed in its radius–the old buildings and towns and roads–to set up a planned community for a hundred million people. The buildings rose 70, 80, 90 stories into the sky, living units interspersed with meticulously planned park spaces and commercial and industrial units. Integrated communities tied together by trams and trains, an engineering marvel meant to reduce humanity’s footprint on the Earth by concentrating resource use more efficiently. The government created four such cities across the nation, and enticed people’s retreat through the promise of guaranteed income, the offer of tax breaks, and the cessation of government subsidies to those who remained outside.

All of this recommended and managed by the machine intelligences, with proper human oversight.

As the companies relocated, the people followed.

Shell’s father was one of the first, he liked to brag. But Shell never saw it as something to be proud of.

Maybe he was bragging now about being one of the first to leave.

Once she arrived at her stop, she followed the keypad’s instructions to a building that towered above the nearby structures. A large number of drones skittered overhead. A rich area, or maybe because it was a neighborhood so close to the city’s government offices, it simply had more traffic.

Shell held up the keypass; the building’s doors opened.

She had known from the outside that it wasn’t one of those quickly made, cookie-cutter buildings where she lived, meant to hold as many people as it could while adhering to the regs. What was inside, though, astounded her. The first floor ran three stories high, with large abstract paintings filling the walls and glass sculptures tastefully placed on the floor and a pool with a waterfall on the far side of the room. What was she doing in a place like this? She looked for something to stop her, but the bots either remained still or skittered past.

The keypad guided her to an elevator, which took her to the 41st floor. The smell of hydroponics when the doors opened told her it was an ag level.

Shell walked to a glass door, the only one in the small hallway. She hesitated before knocking. What would she say she was looking for? She checked the keypass. It had no further instructions.

The door abruptly opened.

She jumped back. Not whom she expected. An older man in a lab coat, Black, nervous.

“I’m here for a package,” Shell said.

He looked her up and down, as if assessing whether she was capable.

“You got him.”

“Excuse me?”

“Plans have changed. I need to go to who sent you.” He stepped back into the room and tapped something on his desk computer.

She stared at him.

He laid his coat on a couch and picked up a small bag. “We don’t have much time.”

“I don’t understand. I was told….”

He called for the elevator. “Like I said, plans have changed.”

The doors opened, and she followed him inside the elevator. He leaned against the mirrored side looking dazed.

“You ok?”

“Will be. What’s your name?”

“Shell.”

“Shell. Michelle, Shelley, seashell, shell game, shell shocked….”

“Shell,” she repeated flatly.

“Nate Beason.”

When the doors opened to the first floor, Beason led her through to the exit.

Shell turned toward the train station. Beason grabbed her arm. “We need a car.”

She didn’t have that kind of money. Whatever expression her face betrayed, Beason read it perfectly.

“I’ll cover it.”

He flagged a car and they got in. He had a sour smell, or maybe his bag did. Whichever, it filled the small space.

Beason tapped the car seat nervously.

“You do this often?”

“Ride in a car?”

“I meant carry packages.”

“Let’s pretend it’s my first time.”

“Oh,” Beason said. “Glad I’m with someone experienced.”

Shell shrugged, not caring whether he could see her.

It hit her as the car passed through the narrow streets.

That wasn’t a hydroponics floor. It was a lab.

The man’s eyes were closed. She considered having the car stop, running like hell and fading into the crowd and keeping far from the harbor. What were the chances of the guard tracking her down and busting her? How badly did she need the credits?

She only had a half hour left to get this guy to her.   

Beason groaned and leaned over, followed by the sound of vomiting. Shell pushed against the side of the car to avoid it, to avoid him, to get away from the smell.

“Pull over,” she called to the car.

“No,” the man groaned. “We’ve got to keep moving, to get there in time.”

“You’re sick.”

“I’ll make it.”

“Pull over,” she said. The car did.

The credits weren’t enough for this.

Shell spied a slim green envelope in his inside pocket and quickly snatched it.

“Don’t.”

It had more than paper inside. The envelope was padded.

“This is it, isn’t it?”

He shook his head, but his eyes told her something different. She could leave him, get this to the guard, and walk.

The moment after Shell stepped out of the car, a far-off explosion sounded. A cloud of smoke rose behind the buildings from where they had been.

Beason called out, enunciating each word slowly, “Get back in.”

“That wasn’t….”

Shell heard the sounds of sirens in the distance.

*****

“For a city with so many suffering people, we don’t see as much of this as I’d expect. Here, especially.” Gilberto Zapata held back his next thought–that back in LA, they’d have seen at least one of these a week. Sam would already know that.

The police bot was a three-foot tall floating cylinder, cameras and sensors covering its body, with a screen for a face so it could alter the persona it projected as the situation dictated. By default, Zapata kept his partner’s screen blank.

“By ‘here,’ do you mean Harbor County or the docks? This is the eighteenth murder this year in the city, first one in Harbor County, none on the docks,” Sam said.

“You certain it’s murder?”

“Mostly.”

“Probably right.” Zapata walked around the body, perfectly laid out in the small space created by stacks of shipping crates just off the main walkway. “But it’s odd we don’t find more bodies here. Might be easy to toss a body in a crate and ship it out. Or throw it into the harbor.” He looked out across the water. They might want, as a matter of course, to dredge the harbor periodically. He wasn’t going to offer that idea to the machines.

“Possible,” Sam said, and the detective wondered if it were calculating the probabilities and the missing souls who might have gone that route.

Zapata cleared his throat and looked back at the body. Big guy. Had a ceremonial knife tucked in an inner coat pocket. Would have been hard to manhandle. Signs pointed to electrocution. No sign of a struggle. Still possible that it was an accident. Sam had been wrong before.

He scanned the containers for potential sources of electricity. “What do you know, Sam?”

The bot had probably already sent his summary report to the Bureau. “Anthony Titus, senior foreman for the Port Authority. Hope City resident for eight years.”

“Old timer. From?”

“New Jersey.”

“That knife doesn’t look like it’s standard issue with the uniform.”

“Without more specific analysis, I would say it was a ceremonial knife, African in origin.

“Any legal history?”

“Nothing formal since he was a youth. He did have a side business, trafficking with the sailors that came in.”

“Trafficking?”

“Small exchanges of goods. Nothing major….”

An alert sounded from the detective’s rab at the same time as from Sam.

Sam’s screen showed an emergency notice, a building explosion in Capital County.

“Go on,” the detective said. “I’ll take it from here. They’ll call if they need me.”

“See you soon,” Sam said. It shot away.

A formality built into its software. The bot didn’t need to pretend to be anything more than it was, a complex set of programs for investigating crimes. But telling anyone that would probably be some kind of flag for him.

His rab rang. Zapata looked at it. River Security calling. About time they got back to him. That they weren’t hovering about told him much.

Zapata ignored the request. He had a little more he wanted to see before he had the body carried out. Then he’d check Sam’s report, see what it missed. Would be helpful to get a list of who had been around the docks that day and when.

A small patch of dark soil on the otherwise clean concrete floor caught his eye. The detective wondered if Sam had assessed that. He’d have to wait for Sam to return, if not.

*****

The car had been frozen, along with everything else on the road. Whether it was related to the explosion or just a programming glitch, Shell couldn’t say.

She should just find a cop bot and confess everything she knew, which wasn’t much. This was getting weird and big and didn’t have anything to do with her.

Beason flipped a small panel and pushed some switches. The car lit up.

“How’d you do that?”

“They have overrides to pull them off the grid and keep them from traffic control. You want to give it instructions?”

“It’s all yours. I’m getting out.”

He shook his head. “I’m too weak. Plus I don’t know where to go.”

“I’ll punch in the location on your rab.”

“Just get me there,” he said. “Please.” Something about his eyes looked vulnerable.

Shell didn’t owe Beason anything, but he looked to be in awful shape, ready to collapse any minute. And they were close. If she could get this guy to the guard, she’d get the credits and wouldn’t be worried about getting busted.

It was a mad drive between the stopped cars, everyone looking confused at what was happening. When they crossed over into Pecos County, though, nothing was locked down.

Twice, police bots flew by. None slowed down.

They passed into Harbor County and reached the main gate to the docks just before four.

After a long few minutes, Shell parked and took Beason on a walkway that extended along the harbor front. He was unsteady the whole way, so she went slowly. It was now past the deadline; she hoped it didn’t matter.

“That was your building, wasn’t it?” Shell said.

“I didn’t do it, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I only asked what happened.”

“Don’t know.” A pause. “But I’d sure like to.”

Shell hoped she’d find the guard quickly. When she got to the water, the first thing she noticed was that the African ship was gone. It was like a big hole in the harbor, as if it were unusual for a ship not to be there.

Funny thing…Beason noticed it, too.

The guard stepped from behind a blue shipping container. The relief Shell felt was short lived. Behind the guard walked a cop. He didn’t have a uniform, but Shell could tell what he was by the way he walked and how he carried himself. He was thin but not gaunt, his black hair closely shaved, his face accented by a long goatee.

For a brief moment, Shell wondered if maybe they were together, but that wasn’t right. The guard’s expression was not nearly as smug as it had been when she had sent Shell off earlier. And the cop, with eyes that looked like they didn’t miss anything, seemed used to being in command.

Had the guard set her up?

This was not the day she had planned.

They walked straight toward Beason and her.

Only two ways to play this. Deny everything. Or confess.

She guessed there might be a third, depending on what the cop said.

Beason groaned and collapsed beside Shell.

She tried to keep Beason upright, but he was too large and she struggled just to ease him to the ground.

The cop ran over and knelt to examine the body. His hands moved around Beason’s throat, then to his chest.

The guard pointed her club at the cop. She intended to lock him down, as she had done to Shell. Shell couldn’t decide whether to warn him or not. Who was on the right side?

The cop turned toward the guard right before she touched him with the club. She paused, and with a motion that Shell almost missed, the cop touched his cuff.

The guard dropped cold to the ground.

The cop turned back to Shell with a look of disgust.

“Not the brightest person I’ve met today,” the cop said. “Perhaps by several orders of magnitude.” He looked again at Beason. “Medic’s on its way. Anything you want to tell me about him?”

Shell felt the urge to call a lawyer.

“You’re ghosting, aren’t you?” The cop tapped his cuff again, and Shell stood and ran as fast as she could before she felt a mild shock run through her body. She realized she wasn’t far enough away just before she passed out.

END

CLICK HERE to return to the finalists index page and vote.

Brunning Divide, Ep1: Unwelcome News

Click HERE for a downloadable version.

“Is my mommy and the baby okay?” The young boy’s eyes watered, tears on the verge of spilling.

Marie Suiza leaned down, kissed his forehead and tucked the blanket around him, careful not to disturb her own sleeping son. “Xander, your mommy will be fine. Your daddy is with her, and so is Mrs. Jans.”

“But they’re not doctors. Babies need doctors.”

“Your mommy will be fine. Many babies are born without doctors.”

“Really?”

“Really. Mrs. Jans knows what to do. She helped with my Oscar. I’m fine, he’s fine.”

The boy looked over at the other child in the bed. “He snores.”

Marie laughed softly. “Go to sleep, Xander. Tomorrow I’ll take you home to see your mother and your baby brother.”

The boy yawned. “Daddy said they’d name him Jamuson.”

“A strong name for a strong baby.” Marie went to the bedroom door and dimmed the lights, leaving a pale green glow in case the boys woke up in the middle of the night. “Good night, Xander,” she said and closed the door behind her.

“Get him settled?” Reuben leaned against the wall, waiting.

“He’s worried. But he’s only six, it’s okay to be worried.”

Reuben took his wife’s hand. “Yes. It is okay.”

“Emese is strong. It’s been a good pregnancy. She’ll come through fine. I hope.”

“We’re colonists, uncertainties are part of our life.”

“I know, but…”

“Emese will be fine. There’s always a risk where there’s to be a reward.” Reuben sneaked a quick pat to Marie’s behind.

“Reuben!” Marie pursed her lips at him, then smiled.

He shrugged. “A risk.” Sweeping a giggling Marie into his thick arms he walked toward the stairs to the second floor and their own bedroom. “Now about the reward.”

The light panels in the house flickered and dimmed. Reuben sighed and put Marie down. “Blasted lizards probably chewing through the wiring again.”

Marie echoed her husband’s sigh. “I really don’t like the wildlife on this planet. Bunch of nasty little bugs and nasty little lizards.”

“Could be worse. But, hey, we don’t need light right away…” Reuben goosed Marie, making her jump, “do we?”

Again the lights flickered. This time they didn’t stop. “No, but the boys do. You should probably go out and fix it before it gets worse.”

Rolling his eyes into a playful pout, Reuben nodded. “I’m taking the rifle. Those little creeps are gonna fry for ruining the night.”

“Be quick.” Marie goosed Reuben as he turned to go. “The night’s not ruined yet.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said while walking away.

“I’ll check the boys.” Marie stepped quietly to the bedroom door. Cracking it open, she heard a strange chittering sound.

She flung the door open. The flickering lights cast a wavering column of light on a large black hole in the concrete floor where the bed should have been.

“Reuben!” She frantically searched for the boys. “Oscar! Xander!”

Reuben bolted through the doorway, rifle in hand, and stopped short of the hole. “What the—” He swiped on the lights. Xander lay curled in a ball in the corner of the room, whimpering.

Marie rushed to Xander. Clutching him in her arms, she searched the corner. “Where’s Oscar?”

“The lights. I g-g-got scared,” Xander choked between sobs, “I wanted to find you—”

“Where’s Oscar?” Marie shook the boy.

Trembling, Xander pointed to the hole behind Marie.

“I see the bed,” yelled Reuben. “Get Xander out of here. I’m going down.” Reuben knelt next to the hole. “Oscar! Daddy’s coming.”

Chittering sounded from the hole. A mass of legs and spines jumped out, knocking the rifle from Reuben’s grasp. Pincer like fangs attached to a multi-eyed head sunk into Reuben’s chest. He shuddered and coughed blood.

A scream tore from Marie’s throat. She snatched the rifle, firing heated blasts into the body of the giant spider.

It reared back, and squealed, purple fluid pumping from its wounds. Three more spiders erupted from the hole. Marie kept shooting. Screaming. Shooting. The spider on Reuben collapsed back into the hole. Two of the others latched onto Reuben and retreated with him in tow.

The last spider charged Marie.

She backed toward the far wall and fired the rifle as fast as it would reload—the barrel glowing hot. The last two rounds blasted half the spider’s head off. Reduced to a quivering heap, the spider collapsed on top of her. She screamed as the spikes on its carapace pierced into her body.

In its death throes the spider dragged Marie toward the hole.

She couldn’t lift it off.

Sliding over the precipice, Marie kicked hard. The spikes tore free and the spider fell. But she kept sliding on the blood-slickened concrete. Desperate, she grasped at the floor—at anything until one hand clasped the glowing hot barrel of the rifle. Her eyes widened at the searing pain, but she refused to let go. At the other end of the rifle, Xander tugged with all his tiny might.

Marie gripped the barrel with both hands. “Pull, Xander!”

He grunted and fell on his butt, his bare feet slipping out from under him. He backpedalled with both feet in an effort to ooch backward. Out-weighed and slathered in purple spider blood, he managed to hold his ground.

She forced a smile. “Good job, Xander. You can do it.” Then pain lanced through her leg as another spider barbed her from below and tugged. Her smile morphed to a snarl then a roar as she released the rifle before she took little Xander with her.

She landed on her back. Oscar’s broken, empty bed cushioned the fall. Flickering lights above her highlighted a small silhouette holding a rifle.

“Run, Xander!”

She screamed as the spider pulled her down a tunnel and into darkness.


Every morning was a struggle. A battle of mind over matter—or my head over my pillow. I wanted to sleep in. I wanted my body to rest longer. Years of waking up before dawn had programmed my internal clock and try as I might, I couldn’t beat it.

That morning I lay in bed staring at the rifle mounted on the opposite wall. Warped and melted, it didn’t work. But I kept it. At first I didn’t want to. When I was little, the damn thing terrified me. My father hung it on the wall, said it would remind me of bravery… and to never let my guard down.

Now, all it did was remind me how quickly things could go to crap.

I closed my eyes. One last effort to sleep. Five more minutes, that’s all I wanted. Then the smell of fried crelix eggs and fresh oat loaf hit my nose, instantly waking up my stomach. With mind and stomach against me, I gave up any chance of more sleep.

Hurray for another monotonous day of labor. Another day exiled in Brunning. What a dump of a town, if it could even be called a town. The spattering of dusty shanties and barns were more like a half-dead, fully-baked madman’s vision. Except Brunning was too inhuman to ever be a human contrivance. No, Brunning sprung directly from the minds of the Hibernarii, higher beings that used us lesser humans for higher purposes we didn’t have a say in. Hurray.

At least the day would end with another chance to see Marigold. If it wasn’t the smell of food that got me out of bed, it was knowing the sooner I got my work done, the sooner I could see the most beautiful girl in Brunning.

And if Brunning had a population of forty-two million people instead of just forty-two people, Marigold would still be the most beautiful girl.

I threw on my pants and clima-jacket, stepping into my boots on the way downstairs. I pounded hard on Jamus’ door on my way to the kitchen. He had the bigger room, but I didn’t sleep on the ground floor. Ever. Plus, I enjoyed waking him up every morning. My internal clock worked so well… I had to share it with my little brother.

Breakfast was on the table when I walked in. My mother stood by the stove, looking out the window, stirring more eggs on the stove.

“Morning, Mom.” I sat at the table and grabbed a bread cake.

“Morning, Xander,” she said, looking out the window into the barely lit brown landscape.

I poured a shot of black coffee. “Eggs are burning.”

“Wha—Oh!” She pulled the pan off the element. She dumped the pan on a plate and served it next to the first plate. She set to emptying more of the small, leathery crelix eggs into the still-hot pan.

I eyed the two plates of eggs. I preferred hot eggs, not burnt ones. I took the lukewarm, non-burnt eggs. Jamus could have the others.

Mom kept her attention mainly to the window, absently stirring at the eggs. I may not have been the most socially observant person, but something was off. Mom never did things ‘absently’.

“Something wrong?”

“Oh. Nothing.” She didn’t even look at me. “Just waiting for your father.”

My father, Absalom Floros, never slept in. I’d inherited my internal clock from him—only his was set on overdrive. Typically, by the time I woke up, he’d already been at work for an hour. Even my mother didn’t wake up as early as him. But my father made it a point to eat breakfast as a family. His absence was atypical, to be sure.

Jamus emerged, his dirty blond hair standing up in the classic Jamus-half-asleep style. He plopped his boots on the ground and took his seat at the table across from me.

“Morning, princess.”

“Coffee?” Jamus grumbled, holding his head.

“What? Does princess have a headache?” I ruffled his hair and clanked the earthenware coffee pot down next to him. “Hope it’s not… pounding.”

“Jerk.” Jamus glared at me and poured himself a cup. “I was awake before you attacked my door.”

“Right. Early to bed, early to rise. Except princess didn’t go to bed early, did he?”

Jamus shot a look over to Mom. “Suck it, Xander.”

“You kiss Alana with that mouth?”

“Nope, just Marigold.”

My turn to glare. “Watch it, little brother.” As much as I teased him about his weird girlfriend, he typically knew better than to say anything about mine. “You wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman.”

“Whatever. Where’s dad?” He yawned and poured goat milk in his coffee.

I shrugged. “Don’t ask me.” I dug into the eggs.”Ask the space chef.” I spat out a chunk of leathery shell. “Not a big fan of the new recipe, Mom.”

Ignoring my comment, she rushed to the back door.

“Mom?”

She pulled back the curtain on the window next to the door and held the thick wool in a clenched fist as she peered out the window.

“Mom?”

“Finish eating, boys.” She unclenched the curtain, leaving it open and went back to the stove in time to prevent another batch of eggs from burning.

“Crap,” Jamus whispered and slunk down in his seat.

I craned my neck. “What?”

“Dad’s back.”

“So.”

“Mr. Jans is with him.” Jamus sunk further, his head barely above the table.

I looked out the window. Sure enough, my father and Sam Jans, Alana’s father, stood just outside the door. Both looked serious, even upset, conversing about something. My father had his hand on Sam’s shoulder.

I shot a glare at Jamus. “What’d you do? How late were you out with Alana?”

“Shhh!” Jamus looked nervously at Mom to make sure she wasn’t listening. “I swear I wasn’t out that late. I came back before you did.”

I knotted my brow. At twenty-one, I was old enough to avoid any curfew, unlike my fifteen year-old brother. Still, my mother, and especially my father, didn’t appreciate their sons sneaking around at night instead of resting up for the day’s work.

Jamus held his hands up in front of him. “I swear. Alana wasn’t even in her room when I went over there. I came back and went to sleep.”

“Why else would Sam be here?”

“Boys,” Mom set a plate and poured coffee at my father’s place at the table, “finish eating. Breakfast is over. There’s work to do.”

I grabbed another cake before Mom could take away the plate. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

I didn’t like being addressed like a child, but I focused on finishing my food. Something in Mom’s tone told me not to press the matter.

Jamus didn’t pick up on it. “But—”

“Jamuson Floros, eat.” That shut my brother up. We all knew on the rare occasions when Mom threw out our full names that the conversation was over.

I’d cleared my plate by the time my father walked into the kitchen by himself. Jamus looked more than relieved Mr. Jans hadn’t come with him.

“Good morning, Emese.” My father kissed my mother and sat at the head of the table like any other morning. He nodded to my brother and I. “Jamus, Xander.”

“Morning, Dad.” Jamus spoke through a mouth full of bread.

“Father.” I nodded back. “Productive morning?”

To my surprise, Mom glared at me as she sat next to my father. “Let your father eat.”

My father gave me a weak smile. His smile faded altogether when he looked at Jamus. “Some unwelcome news, boys. But that will have to wait until after we see to the pumps.”

“Exactly.” Mom pulled our dishes away, another non-subtle hint. I had no clue what happened last night, but something was clearly bothering her. “And you don’t need your father for that job,” she continued. “I’ll clean the dishes. You two get a start.”

I pocketed the last of the bread and stepped outside, the dry heat already rising. “Come on, Jamus.”

“But—”

“Jamuson Floros, go,” said Mom from inside.


I had to laugh when Jamus stumbled out of the front door and about fell face-first in the dirt while attempting to put on a boot at the same time as closing the door behind him. My brother was a big lanky kid for a fifteen year old. I hate to think I was anything like that at his age.

“You’re socially retarded, you know that, right?”

“No.” Jamus slipped on his boot. “I know that. I mean… Shut up, Xander.”

“Got your boots on the wrong feet, too. Maybe you’re just plain retarded.”

“Shut up.” Jamus made to push me.

I sidestepped and he fell flat with a clumsy thud. I started to laugh, then overheard my parents talking from the kitchen. Something weird happened during the night, something my parents didn’t want us to know about—making my interest immediate.

Jamus stood up. “Xander, I’m—”

I cut him off with a sharp shush, cupped my ear, and pointed at the wall that separated us from our parents. Jamus’s eyes widened. We crouched next to the heavy rock foundation of the house, our heads level with the floor.

“So?” Mom’s voice, slightly muffled by the wooden wall, came through clear enough.

“Not exactly.” My father assumed a tired, short tone. “Emese, Xander might be grown, but Jamus is just a boy. They’re good boys. I don’t want them upset—”

“That’s why I sent them out.”

Jamus gave me two big thumbs up, a mischievous grin plastered on his dusty face. I pushed him and he fell on his butt. “Shh,” I mouthed.

My father let out a deep breath. “Emese, some things are too ugly to know. I’m not sure even you would want to know.”

The sharp sound of a metal plate striking the table made Jamus and I jump.

“Absolom, you will not spare me the unpleasantries.” Mom’s angry voice came through the wall loud and clear. “I’ve been on this forsaken planet for the last fifteen years. I left a life infinitely more comfortable and safe. I could have stayed and kept Xander with me. But, no, we left all of that behind, and I did it for you, Absolom. So when it comes to anything that happens here. I, above any other person, have the right to know.”

A look of shock stretched across Jamus’s face. I’m sure my own face mirrored his expression. Mom was strong, but the quiet kind of strong. She never raised her voice, she never contradicted my father, and she never complained. This was the first time I’d heard her do all three.

“You’re right, Emese.”

“Of course I’m right. Now tell me what happened. Did you find Alana?”

Jamus and I scowled at each other. Alana? Jamus mouthed. I shrugged. He shrugged back. What did Alana Jans have to do with anything? I had hoped the mystery would be something more exciting, like the Hi-bernies finally calling us back to Tatmus Delta, away from Brunning. Instead my father was being secretive about Jamus’s annoying girlfriend? What a waste of time. I stood and hooked my thumb toward the field. Let’s go, I mouthed.

Jamus, still listening, shook his head.

His eyes went wide. Staggering, he fell on his butt. He sat there in the dust, pale faced, eyes staring into the distance. She’s dead, Jamus finally mouthed.

What? I pressed my ear to the warm wall.

“How can you be sure?” Mom’s hushed voice barely came through the wall.

“Trust me, Emese. When we found her dog ripped in half… Sam says that thing never left Alana’s side. Then the blood… so much blood.”

“By Yuan’s light. What did Tama do when you and Sam brought the girl back?”

“Emese, you’re not listening. Something butchered that girl, tore her to bits. There wasn’t enough of her to bring back.”

Jamus doubled over and retched into the dusty dirt. I didn’t know what to do or say. I placed a hand on his shoulder while keeping an ear to the wall.

“Poor Tama. She’s never been happy here… but now without her daughter… Poor Tama.”

Poor Jamus. Surely my parents knew the impact this would have on their son.

“Poor Sam, I say.” My father pushed his chair away from the table. “He was the one that followed the blood trail to its end, where they killed her. But enough, I’m going to help the boys with the pumps.”

At that point, Jamus and I should have gotten up and ran to the field, but we didn’t. Jamus couldn’t move, and I couldn’t pull my ear away from the wall.

“Who?”

“The boys,” said my father from the other side of the door.

“No, Absolom. You said they killed her. Who are they? Who killed Alana?”

“Oh.” My father paused with the door half open. “Spiders.”

“They’re back? But how? I thought we—”

“I know. Me too. But there’s no mistake. It was spiders.”

Spiders. Despite the morning heat, I had cold sweats. Spiders. That word literally knocked me on my own butt, my hand landing in Jamus’ vomit. Suddenly I was six again, slipping in spider gore, helplessly watching Marie Suiza scream and disappear into the dark.

My body shook as I fought down the urge to be sick.

“Xander, Jamus.” My father nodded to us as he shut the door behind him. “Enough sitting around. You should have been out to the pumps.” He looked to the red sun rising on the western horizon. “Daylight’s a burning.”

The familiar phrase jolted me from my flashback. My father always said those words. Everyday. He liked being clever, rolling the shortness of daylight and its intensity into one phrase. Usually he would laugh afterward, weaving all his energy into the spell he cast on those around him. Contentment, perseverance, purpose and meaning in the meaningless—he manufactured the will for the rest of us to keep going.

Today, looking at his two sons, sitting in the dust—Jamus wiping sick off his paled face, me trembling and terrified—my father did nothing but breathe deep and exhale. No anger at catching us eavesdropping. No attempt at humor. No, nothing but tired and worry.

That worried me.


There wasn’t a sufficient natural source of water in Brunning. The vast valley we lived in was a wasteland that saw rain twice a year if lucky. When the Fortitude Hibernarii faction conceived Brunning they could have sent the tech to easily generate water and lots of it, but they didn’t. Instead they sent an advance team of humans to Erimia to locate an acceptable site to start a new colony. That advance team put in the groundwork for us and the other eight families that followed my father to this dead planet.

My father said no planet was truly dead. That was the epitome of Absolom Floros—a determined optimism that found potential in every situation. His relentless and contagious attitude kept the whole damned colony running. Contagious but not universal.

Between the monotonous tasks of the morning, I found myself scanning the fields and wasteland beyond. I scolded myself. Spiders are nocturnal, get back to work, Xander. The work kept my mind busy, and I dove into it as hard as I could.

By midday we had serviced most of the pumps that fed water through subterranean pipes beneath Brunning. We cleaned solar cells and mucked out built-up sediment inside the pump housings. My father tried to send Jamus home more than once. It didn’t work. Jamus refused to go, instead plodding on with the work. Silent.

Despite everything, the morning passed quickly. Almost noon, my father finished up the last of the adjustments with his head in the Larkin’s pump. Jamus and I leaned against the Larkin’s barn, pressing into the razors-width of a shadow, and took one of our frequent water breaks.

Otherwise unoccupied, curiosity about the morning’s events itched at the back of my mind. Jamus had been quiet—something out of the normal for my little brother. My father, content to work in silence, had barely said a thing. Only the occasional greeting to the other colonists.

With a little patience and a mixture of keeping my head down and my ears up, I usually stayed informed of all interesting doings. That was if anything interesting ever happened in Brunning. Which typically it did not. But now, not only were the spiders back, they’d killed someone.

And nobody was talking. People were working in their fields or homes like normal—conditioned to go about their routine as if nothing had happened. I realized they were doing the same thing I’d been doing all morning—holding the craziness and desperation back by keeping their minds and bodies busy. Brunning was a fragile machine and we were its fuel. Despite tragedy, work had to go on for us to survive.

Survive. I scoffed. “This is pointless.” I rubbed the salty residue left on my forehead from evaporated sweat and winced as some fell in my eyes. I splashed water in my eyes to clean them.

Jamus put both hands to his face.

“Use the water. Rubbing makes it worse.”

“Huh?” He looked at me with red eyes.

“Here,” I sloshed water on him, “let me help.”

He sputtered and swiped at me.

“Your face is clean isn’t it?” I laughed in attempt to manufacture some form of levity. Someone had to break this town out of its rut, wake it up to reality. “You should be more grateful.”

Jamus glared at me, water dripping off his nose. “Jerk.” He picked up his bladder and walked toward the Larkin’s house. “I need more water.”

“Get me some too?” I tossed my water bladder at his back, just missing.

Jamus ignored it and kept walking.

“Whatever.” The low whirring sound of the pump told me my father had finished. I turned and got blasted in the face with warm, gritty water. I tried to yell, but choked until the water stopped a couple of seconds later. “What the hell?”

“Oh, sorry Xander.” My father chuckled. “I thought I heard you ask for water. I had to clear the line anyway. Thought I’d help out, you know, in the name of efficiency…” He smiled and closed the access hatch to the underground pipes.

I scowled while scraping silt out of my hair. “Right. So helpful. You done?”

“Yep.” He glanced at the sun. “Your mother should have lunch ready.” He brushed mud off my shoulder. “You’ll have to clean up before she lets you in though.”

“Ha ha.”

“You should be more grateful.” My father drank from his water bladder. When he finished, the smile had gone, the weariness back. “Speaking of which, where’d Jamus go?”

“Went moping off for some clean water.”

My father nodded to himself. “Let him be. Some wounds take time.” He clasped my shoulder. “You know that. He’ll need your help.”

Everyone in Brunning needed help. Fat chance they were going to welcome it from me. I shook my head. “Lot of good that will do. Spiders are gonna kill us all anyway.”

My father tensed. I hoped he would say something reassuring, counter my bleak outburst. He didn’t. He hefted his tool case onto his shoulder. “Your mother is waiting.”


My father and I entered the kitchen through the back door. Jamus trudged along a ways behind us, as distant emotionally as he was physically. Lunch had been laid out on the table. Cassava, red beans, and grilled crelix.

Not many things were naturally edible in our corner of Erimia, let alone palatable. The planet continued to produce regular surprised, most unpleasant. The small, fat, gray lizards that made a croaking ‘crelix’ noise practically infested our valley. While they were initially nothing but a nuisance, we’d since discovered they not only laid copious amounts of eggs, but when grilled they were way more appetizing than synthesized proteins.

After the spiders killed the Suiza family, crelix was the only thing my parents could get me to eat. Even then it took effort. Once the spiders had gone, once my father said they’d never be back, my hunger had gradually improved.

Now the spiders were back.

All morning I’d struggled to keep my breakfast down. My stomach had clenched at the mention of lunch. Nightmares danced in the shadows of my mind. More than once I’d repeated to myself, you’re not six years old. You’re a grown man.

Maybe I had matured, or maybe it was the morning’s work—the mental conditioning Brunning had worked on me—but the spiced crelix cooked in oil dominated my senses and I dug into my food without even washing up.

My father strolled into the sitting room, presumably to find Mom. Jamus leaned against the wall and sipped his water.

“C’mon,” I waved a grilled lizard at him, “it’s your favorite. Eat.”

Jamus smacked the crelix out of my hand and followed our father into Mom’s sitting room.

I stooped over to pick up the dirty crelix meat while mumbling to myself. “No reason to waste good food.”

My father returned while I was dusting it off. “Everything all right with you and Jamus?” He took his seat at the table.

“Guess he’s not hungry. Where’s Mom?”

“In her sitting room. Cali, Tenley, and some of the other women are with her.”

“Oh.” On Tatmus Delta, my family had lived a fairly isolated life. Not many visitors stopped by due to a mix of geography and class. In Brunning we never had a shortage of visitors. My father served as our honorary fearless leader while my Mom was the resident wise woman.

“Xander.”

“Ya?”

“Take it easy on your brother. There’s not been a death in the settlement in years. Yes, Jamus is young, but his heart’s broken.”

The food in my mouth tasted like ash. On the surface I understood what my father was getting at. I understood Alana had been special to Jamus. But I needed to know how we were going to stop the spiders from happening again… dark things needed to stay in dark places. But the spiders…

I pushed my plate away. “You’re sure they’re back?”

“I’m afraid so. We’ve never encountered anything else here on Erimia that would do…” My father paled and pushed his plate away. He stood as if to leave, but paused. “Still, something about it…” My father scrunched his brow and stared out the window as if replaying a memory across his mind’s eye. “The harsh conditions on Erimia breed efficiency. The spiders are no exception. They drink all of their prey’s blood—”

“Please, I know.” I struggled against old memories.

“—but Alana’s blood was everywhere. And the dog. They took Alana’s body—”

“Stop. Stop.” A black hole in the ground and anguished screams flooded my mind.

“—why not take the dog?”

“Enough!” I stood up, knocking my chair over. “Just stop! Heretic’s Hell, just stop!”

The crash snapped my father out of his concentration. He placed his hands on my trembling shoulders. “My apologies, son. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

I stepped away from him, took in a deep breath, and held it—a trick I learned to diminish the effects of recurring nightmares. I hoped the women in the next room hadn’t heard me. For Yuan’s sake, I was twenty-one years old.

My father let me have my space but didn’t break his gaze. “I didn’t mean to drudge up unfortunate memories. Do you want to talk about it?”

Unfortunate memories. Ha. “No. Brunning needs men, not scared children.”

Nodding, he gathered our plates and put them in the sink.

Eager to leave, I made for the door. “I’ll get Jamus.”

“Let him be. We’re done with pumps for the day. I need to meet with Reese and the other men.”

The idea of a council meeting hadn’t crossed my mind, but it made sense. We needed to do something about the spiders. By now my clothes were dry but coated with silt. “I’ll come to. Let me change first.”

“Actually, I need you to go to the Thurn place. They haven’t responded to com calls. They never do. They need to know about Alana.”

“But the meeting…”

“I imagine you were heading out there this evening anyway. Better to go and be back before dark. Day light’s a burning.”

My father had a point. I spent most of my evenings away, on the Thurn’s side of the divide, but now… Night wasn’t safe anymore.

I rushed into the other room and stopped cold. Usually when the women gathered in Mom’s parlor the room carried a generally happiness. Not this time. Mom and the other mother’s all sat close to Tama Jans, who in turn sat by Jamus. Both of them cried into each other’s shoulders. Nobody spoke. Soft weeping and the whirring of the house fan were the only sounds. The whole scene seemed surreal, and the oddity of it finally brought clarity apart from my own trauma. I felt like an idiot. A selfish idiot.

My brother lost his girlfriend and I’d been too absorbed in my own fear. I’d been a self-righteous jerk to him all day. To me, Alana’s death had been about the return of the spiders, one more reason none of us should be on Erimia to begin with. But what if it had been my Marigold?

I should have offered my condolences to Tama. Alana was her only child. I should have tried to bring some comfort, mixed my tears with the others. My father entered behind me and sat next to Mom, wiping away the tears on her cheeks.

The gravity of the situation hit me in the gut. I couldn’t let myself feel it. I panicked. I told myself I couldn’t disturb the reverence of the room, and I left. I slipped into my bedroom, shed my dirty work suit, and took a shower. A few minutes later I fled the house and the mourners without a single word or gesture of comfort. I should have stayed.

But I needed to see Marigold.


From the day that my family arrived on Erimia and I saw Marigold, a dusty-faced little nymph of a kid with golden curls that reflected the harsh sun, softening its severity, I wanted to be around her. I thought I’d be the only child my age in the Brunning experiment, that I was extra baggage my parents had to tote across the galaxy. Marigold changed that. Despite family incongruence’s, we spent every moment we could together.

Erimia had short intense days and long nights. Only a few hours of daylight remained and I had to get to Marigold’s family, the Thurns, before dark, before the spiders emerged. I told myself responsibility didn’t allow me to linger at the house. Still, guilt weighed me down. What could I do to help the others? What words of comfort could I offer, when deep inside, I knew the whole misguided settlement of Brunning had been doomed from the start?

The process of building Brunning, futile as it was, wove strong people together to make them stronger. The colonists were close. We loved each other like family. Mom said love was like sending out a part of your soul that always came back better, more full, but when someone you cared for died, that part of you that you had sent out to them died with them. No matter how tough you were, losing a loved one wore at you, it cut at the mountains, it spilled across space and made the stars cry.

I knew the people back at my house felt that way. It made sense. But I had learned about death early in life and never experienced love and loss the way Mom described them. I wanted to, but just couldn’t. Something in me was off.

I’d known Alana all of her life and for most of mine. Sure she was annoying, but like the other handful of kids in Brunning, she was like family. Rationally, the loss of Alana hit home. I’d been so occupied by my fear of the spiders, or occupied trying to ignore that fear, that I’d been blind to the feelings of others.

That was wrong. And it pissed me off.

The more I hiked across the burning ground, the more my anger burned. Every individual in Brunning was part of a larger plan for survival. Jamus and Alana, together, had been part of that plan. What part would Jamus play now? I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if Marigold was killed. I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out. Worst of all, what if I learned I didn’t have the ability to feel anything more than I felt now?

I picked up my pace toward the valley wall south of the settlement, as if I could outrun my doubts. The Thurns lived in the small valley at the mouth of our canyon. Because of a sharp switchback, only a narrow promontory of canyon wall separated the main valley from the smaller one.

For most people, a trip to the Thurns meant a couple hours walk across the valley and through the narrow canyon switchback. Early on, after the spiders had been gone for over a year, Marigold and I found a faster way between our homes. A deep set crevice formed a chimney running straight up both sides of the narrow promontory that separated Brunning from the original settlement site where the Thurns still lived.

At the base of the promontory wall, I slipped on gloves and crawled into the crevice. Similar crevice formations pocked the walls throughout the greater Brunning valley—strange geologic formations with no natural explanation, none that we had deduced anyway.

I jammed my hands into pockets on opposing sides of the crevice and began to shimmy up at a quick clip, one that would push my endurance by the top. I found traversing the crevice more bearable when done quickly and with as little thought as possible.

Due to he relative darkness, mass amounts of crelix, and even more of the nasty stinging insects that swarmed during the wet season, the crevices were avoided by everyone else in Brunning. All the better for Marigold and I to keep our secret route secret.

Of course my father knew about it. My use of the crevice as a thoroughfare explained why he sent me to deliver messages to the Thurns. He could have done it himself, but it would’ve taken him twice the time, and he didn’t get along with the Thurns. Nobody in Brunning got along with anyone in Marigold’s family except of course for Marigold.

She was the anomaly, beautiful and bright amongst a dark and derelict family. But like my father said, everybody in Brunning brought value. He didn’t say it had to be equal though.

After the first minute, I hit a rhythm in my climb and blocked out any thought of the lizards and annoying bugs. My frequent visits made it possible to root out infestations before they got too big. It had taken time and many painful bites to clean the crevice in the beginning. Marigold and I made sure to keep it clean.

I made the vertical ascent using rock holds, some natural, some I’d gouged out long ago. Only a small amount of indirect light shone into the crevice, a good thing since the heat would have been lethal. The lack of light meant the holds had to be felt more than seen, but I practically had the route memorized. I probably could have climbed it with my eyes closed, although I’d never had a reason to attempt it.

My arms and legs ached by the time I reached the top. Sweat poured down the center of my back. On the surface of the plateau, I drank from my bladder before setting a steady jog for the other side. Anything faster, during the heat of the day, would have made me sick.


A couple hours from sunset, the heat on top of the plateau was brutal. My clima-jacket and hat dispelled the heat enough to manage the short trip. I kept my head down, chin tucked into my chest.

No reason to pay attention to anything other than signals from my own body. Nothing existed on the surface world of Erimia. Just wind swept rocks and the occasional bush too stubborn to die. I made good time to the crevice leading down into the Thurn’s valley, about ten minutes.

With the entrance in sight, I stopped. A cold chill shot up my spine despite the heat. Dimples dotted the sandy soil. Each one about the size of a crelix hole. Small but deep. Even though I hadn’t seen marks like that in years, I recognized them immediately.

Spider tracks.

Bile tickled my throat. The urge to turn and run home coursed through my body. But I had to warn Marigold.

Spiders are nocturnal.

I repeated the mantra while taking deep breaths.

Spiders are nocturnal.

They hate light.

Spiders are nocturnal.

The sinking sun sat above the canyon wall on the far side of the Thurn’s small valley. Shadows already consumed half of the valley, covering the well house, most of the small fields, and the orchard. It had almost reached the Thurn’s barn. Daylight was a burning. Soon both valleys would be dark pools in the Erimia dusk.

Spiders are nocturnal.

They avoid the light.

And I was losing light. I felt foolish, scared of the dark. Though it wasn’t the dark. It was what hid within it.

I retrieved a rope ladder I had rolled up in a canvas bag under some stones and tossed it down the crevice. Light shone through out the entirety of this chimney, actually more of a big crack. Otherwise I would have been hard pressed to climb into shadows right after passing spider tracks. I slid more than climbed down the ladder, my gloves blazing hot several seconds later when I hit bottom. I tore them off and shook out my hands.

The air in the Thurn’s valley was slightly humid and considerably cooler than back in Brunning. The smaller size and taller canyon walls made it so the valley floor saw direct sunlight for a much shorter period. Not only plants, but trees, actually grew unaided in the valley and flourished. The place could have been a paradise amongst the hell of Erimia. But the Thurns weren’t the best caretakers. Detritus—bits of broken tech, rusted tools, and garbage—littered the ground in various patches, covered in weeds and dirt.

Right in the middle of the valley lay Marigold’s house. All of her family lived there, but I called it Marigold’s because she was the only one out of her lazy family that gave a damn. Despite being built from a decommissioned space transport, the big house would have fallen apart if not for Marigold’s attention.

I slipped forward quietly, hoping to remain unnoticed until the last minute. I didn’t particularly look forward to meeting up with Deek or Boyd, Marigold’s older brothers. They didn’t like the sight of me. I didn’t like the sight or smell of them.

With the well-spring that fed Brunning’s water network literally in their backyard, I could never understand why those two beasts avoided bathing. It was like they were afraid of water. Idiots. Not stupid. Lazy, definitely. They only exerted energy when a clear benefit presented itself. It was hard to describe them. They were just Thurns.

I took a deep breath and did my best to stroll casually into the open.

“Hey there, Xandy Man. Wondrin’ when ya’d stop hiding behind that junk heap.”

Already tense and on edge, I didn’t respond well to being caught off-guard. I’d like to say I jumped into a defensive stance, ready for any challenge. Instead, I shrieked like a little girl. Right in front of Deek Thurn.

“Aw. Pretty.” Deek pushed away from the rusted junk he’d been leaning against and gave me a toothy grin—not a kind one, but a predatory-I-could-eat-you-alive leer. “You make noises like that when yer with my sister?”

I glared up at Deek, a good head taller than me. I’d played a weak card when he scared me—the Thurn brothers liked weak things, liked to play with them, and they didn’t play nice. I couldn’t back down now. “Only when we’re imitating you with your pigs.”

Deek’s bushy eyebrow shot up, his small eyes afire. He balled his fists and stepped toward me.

I stood my ground, despite knowing I’d gone too far. I took a deep breath and regretted it. “Damn, Deek.” I coughed. “Take a bath.” Since I had committed, I decided to sell it. “Or do the pigs like you better with that smell?”

Deek pulled back his arm, preparing to deliver a world of hurt my way. “Gonna kill ya, Xandy Man.” That close, Deek’s threat reeked of believability.

“Deek, Ma wants you back at the house.” Marigold stood a few paces away. Her sweet voice cut through the tension, stopping Deek’s assault before it started.

“Yer lucky, Xandy Man.” He shot me an ugly glare and stomped away. Then again Deek only had one glare, and it was always ugly.

“She’s waiting.” Marigold shoved her brother as he passed. “You know how Ma hates to wait. Best hurry.”

A few seconds later Deek was gone, and I had Marigold in my arms, kissing her. A second after that, she punched me in the gut.

“What was that for?” I asked while doubled over.

“You’re an idiot. I heard what you said to Deek.”

“Just a little macho banter. That’s all. I bruise his ego, he bruises my face. Me and Deek, we’re friends like that.” I took her hand, pulling her toward me. “At least he doesn’t sucker punch me.”

“Deek would have given you a lot worse.” She stood on her toes and kissed me. “Sorry for the gut shot.”

I stole another kiss. “It’s okay. You punch like a girl.”

She pushed back from me with a gleam in her eye. “Really? Do I need to try again?”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

“That’s what I thought.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Not complaining, but why are you here so early?”

Funny how girls can distract you. Especially ones with dusty golden hair streaked by the sun, hazel eyes with flecks of emerald, and a body perfectly balanced between strong and feminine. Even the harsh Erimian sun worshipped her, kissing her skin with a light tan the shade of honey. And in that brief moment, I forgot why I’d come. All thoughts of spiders, Alana, and Jamus had fled my mind, until they returned like a second punch to the gut.

“My father sent me. Alana’s been killed. I’m supposed to deliver the message to your pa.”

The smile melted from Marigold’s face, replaced by a look of mixed anxiety and anger. “They killed Alana?”

“Yeah. Last night. Jamus is a wreck, I didn’t even realize—”

“It’s getting dark. You should head home.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell Ma and Pa about Alana.” Marigold gave me quick peck on the cheek and pushed me toward the wall. “You should get back before it’s too dangerous.”

“I just got here.” I slipped past her on my way toward the Thurn house. “Plus your pa isn’t ever going to respect me if I send you with the message while I scamper back home.”

“Some things aren’t worth my family’s respect.” She caught a hold of me by my jacket. “You should go.”

“I’ll deliver the message, and then I’ll go. I promised my father I’d deliver the message straight to your pa.” I grabbed her hand off my jacket and squeezed it. She squeezed back. “Believe me, I don’t want to be around when the spiders come out. I saw tracks atop the plateau. Had to have been from last night.”

“Spiders?” Her hand relaxed in mine and she looked around again. Not the reaction I had expected.

“So you already know they’re back? Nobody in Brunning knew until last night, until Alana. When did you find out?”

“Spiders killed Alana.”

“Blight’s shadow, Marigold! What planet are you on? I already told you about Alana. Of course it was spiders. What else would have killed her? Besides spiders, there’s nothing but biters, crelix, and us.”

Marigold let out a nervous laugh and then covered her mouth—another weird reaction. “This is all so messed up. Of course it was spiders.” She pulled me toward the house almost at a run. “Let’s tell my parents about the spiders, and then you need to go before…”

“Before what?” I asked, stumbling behind her in an attempt to dodge junk littered bushes.

“The dark. Before sunset,” she called over her shoulder.

“I already said that. Are you feverish? Or are you trying to confuse me on purpose?”

“Sorry. You’re right.” We stopped in the clearing around her house and she grabbed both my hands. “I’m just scared. And sad. Alana was a good girl. I liked her.”

“Yeah. Everyone was pretty shocked. Sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“It’s just…” I didn’t want to burden her with all my thoughts about the difference between how I felt and how normal people felt. “Whenever I think about spiders I remember what happened the last time…”

Marigold cupped her hand on my cheek, wiping away a tear I didn’t know was there. “Oh Xander. You can’t let old memories eat at you.” She wrapped me in a hug, her head against my chest. “Try not to think about it.”

“That’s the problem.” I stepped back from her. “I block out the spiders and everything and everyone else.” I breathed deeply and pointed toward the canyon wall. “Right now my house is full. All of Brunning is gathering there and I ran away.”

I dropped my hand and shook my head. “Jamus is back there. He’s a mess. And I ran away. I drop a bomb on you and expect you to handle it like it’s nothing. I feel like a selfish jerk, a self-absorbed sociopath.”

“Oh, you are an idiot.” Marigold smiled. “You’re scared. I’m scared. We all handle it different ways. And you’re not a sociopath—believe me, I know all about sociopaths.” Marigold looked past me and tensed. “Speaking of…”


“Xandy Man!” A meaty hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. Thank Yuan, this time I didn’t shriek like a girl, especially in front of Marigold. Nope, I came around with my fists ready.

“Wo there, Xandy Man!” Boyd Thurn, the bigger and only slightly less ugly and smelly of Marigold’s brothers, held his hands up in mock defense.

“Sorry, Boyd.” I dropped my fists. “Thought you were Deek.”

Boyd grinned, an unnerving gesture. “Now Xandy Man, them’s fightin’ words. I ain’t nothin’ like that pig-lovin idiot.”

My face flushed. “Deek told you about that, huh?”

“Came rushin’ in the house fumin’ up a storm about it, sure enough!” Boyd laughed, something between a growl and a grunt. “Then ran out again when Pa told him to shut his mouth. Said he’s too ugly fer the pigs.”

Marigold pulled at my arm. “Let’s get your message delivered.”

“Hold up, Goldie.” Boyd grabbed my shoulder. “Xandy Man and me, we’re a talkin’ here. Git up to the house, we don’t need you fer man’s talk. Right, Xandy Man?”

“Xander needs to git before the sun’s gone.” Marigold insisted.

“Pity. Got some meat cookin’ over apple wood since this morning.” Boyd’s grin went full smile. His yellow teeth peeked through the bush overshadowing his upper lip. “Be perfect in an hour, but I’ll cut ya a slice now, if ya like.”

Marigold tugged me, hard enough to pull me a few steps. “He’ll pass, Boyd.”

Usually I wouldn’t even be tempted to accept a gift from Boyd. He was just as nasty as Deek, if not more, beneath his thin, deceptive shell of congeniality. But some juicy pork sounded great. “Well, if you’re offering, I’d hate to be rude—”

Marigold about pulled my arm out of its socket. “You’ll pass,” she said to me, her eyebrows set and lips pursed. “Bye, Boyd.” She pulling me past him.

“Wait. What’s the important message?” Boyd called after us.

I had the words half formed in my mouth, but Marigold beat me to it. “Xander’s finally gonna ask Pa to let me marry him.”

I cringed. “Why the hell would you say that?” I hissed at her, looking over my shoulder to make sure Boyd wasn’t running to kill me. Thankfully, he’d already slunk off.

The Thurn brothers treated Marigold like a slave, including the notion they owned her. It was no secret I planned to marry her one day, hopefully sooner than later. That was one big reason, among many, for Boyd and Deek to hate me.

“It’s getting dark.” Marigold ushered me to her front porch and took my water bladder. “Stay here, I’ll get you some water and send out Pa.” I would have argued, but she was right. Only a small sliver of sun still burned over the valley walls. Darkness had crept up on the valley so subtly I barely noticed until Marigold called my attention to it. A chill swept through my body, probably from the dropping temperature and my sweat-dampened clothes. Probably.

“Catch yer death.”

They say things come in threes. I sure hoped so, because I was sick of being caught off guard by Thurns. After the two seconds it took to catch my breath, I turned to face Marigold’s mother standing on the far side of the porch.

“Mrs. Thurn.” I attempted some measure of composure. “Pardon?”

For a moment, an odd, amber light shone from something cupped in Ma Thurn’s hand. It illuminated her chest and highlighted the sharp angles of her sun-baked face. She quickly hid the object in her blouse, a faint glow visible beneath the fabric where it hung from a silver chain around her neck. “Catch yer death.” She said again. “Damp clothes and night. Make ya weak. Weak things die on Erimia.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” I didn’t know if she was trying to be helpful or threatening. It was hard to tell with Mrs. Thurn. Probably both. I followed my father’s example and tried not to talk much to her, ever. Show her respect? Yes. Engage in friendly conversation with her? No such thing with Mrs. Thurn.

She stared at me like she was calculating something. If Marigold’s two brothers made me edgy, her mother about sent me over the edge. I think she liked it that way.

I waited for Marigold to come back with her father. A conversation with Mr. Thurn didn’t appeal to me much, but it had to be more pleasant than trying to look anywhere but at Mrs. Thurn, who wouldn’t stop staring at me.

“Nice necklace.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them.

“It is, and it ain’t none of yer concern.” She pulled her shawl closed and strode toward the front door, almost colliding with Mr. Thurn on his way out.

“Somethin’ the matter?” Marigold’s dad asked, switching his gaze between Mrs. Thurn and me.

“Nothin’ that won’t be better when he’s gone.” Mrs. Thurn flipped her hand at me and pushed past her husband into the house.

Mr. Thurn watched her go, then looked at me, his bushy black eyebrow cocked.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Marigold says you’s got something to say. Best say it and git.”

“Yes sir. Alana Jans was killed last night.”

Mr. Thurn’s thin face went nasty. “Shame. Why ya sayin’ ‘killed’?”

“It was spiders, Pa. Xander even saw tracks on our side of the divide.” Marigold burst from the house. She thrust my water bladder and a light into my arms. “The sun’s about gone. Best be on your way, Xander.”

“If spiders be about, then dark’s dangerous,” said Marigold’s father. He craned his neck to look around. “Might be better for the boy to stay til’ light.” He looked back to me. “Just you then?”

I nodded.

“He can bunk in the barn with yer brothers,” he said to Marigold.

Standing there, on the Thurn’s front porch in the fast fading light, I faced a dilemma. Rushing home in the dark, knowing spiders were out there, terrified me. On the other hand, being alone with Boyd and Deek served as an unsettling alternative. Who knew what the two would do to me without Marigold around.

Even though the light had mostly faded in the valley, I could see enough to make it back to the rope ladder and there’d still be sun on the plateau. Maybe long enough to get me home. Maybe.

Then dark shrouded everything. The solar lamps on the Thurn’s house kicked on and a boom echoed off the valley walls, followed by a bright burst of light. Clouds raced in from the direction of Brunning. Wind rushed through the canyon and into the valley, filling the air with the smell of ozone and wet dirt.

“What the… So soon?” Mr. Thurn turned toward the door. “Ma! Storm! Close up the house! I gotta get the boys to put in the pigs an’ mules!”

Grating gears sounded as metal shutters closed over the few windows the old space ship house had. Mr. Thurn ran past me, calling for his sons.

“Uh, should I help him?” I asked Marigold.

“Xander, you need to leave. Now. It’s not safe here.” She hooked her arm though mine, pulling us toward the wall at a run. “I’ll take you to the wall.”

“You’ve seen spiders down here?” I cringed at another peal of thunder, the lightning right behind it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Marigold kept a hold of my arm and didn’t slow. “There’s plenty I’m not telling you. Don’t stop.”

“What’s that mean?” I about tripped over a heap of junk.

“We have to keep going. Get out that light.”

I flipped on the light. The beam bounced with each stride and streaked with dark flecks. Rain. Hot rain. It came like a blanket, drenching us. “What’s going on?” I yelled to her while wiping the water out of my eyes with the back of my arm.

“Storm! Watch out!”

I jumped over an old fuel cell just in time, landing on the other side and slipping in the mud.

Marigold stabilized me. “C’mon, we’re almost there!” she yelled through the deluge.

Another lightning strike illuminated the cliff wall close in front of us. I didn’t know what had gotten into Marigold. She’d been weird since I’d arrived. Could have been the weather—the rainy season shouldn’t have come for another couple of months, and even then storms weren’t typically as violent as this. Not even close. But the wild, scared look in Marigold’s eyes told me to trust her. I focused the light on our path, and seconds later we stopped at the wall.

The wind screamed down the crevice, whipping the rope ladder around like a jittery crelix tail.

Marigold kissed me hard and pushed me away. “Leave the ladder down. I’m coming tomorrow morning.”

“No, I’ll come back here tomorrow,” I shouted back to her.

“You ain’t comin’ back here. Be safe!” With that she ran toward the flickering house lamps.


I moved the palm light to my wrist and tackled the rope ladder. Although loud, the wind whistling through the crevice didn’t bother me. The water did. Funneling down the crevice mouth, it pummeled me and made the ladder slick. My focus on climbing remained so complete, only when I reached the top rung did I remember the spiders.

I hung there, breathing hard, just inside the crevice mouth. I kept my head down to avoid the water. Then again, I always kept my head down, didn’t I? Why hadn’t I argued with Marigold? Why hadn’t I just stayed with the Thurns? I almost took a step down.

Almost.

Marigold wanted me gone. She was scared, and I didn’t think it was due to the spiders. Marigold was beautiful, but she was hard—living with her family, she had to be. If something scared her worse than spiders… I’d have to trust her. That didn’t mean keeping my head down. That meant lifting it up.

I turned off the palm light. No need to make myself an easy target. Gathering my legs beneath me and shoving the fear deep, I sprung out of the hole and ran as hard as I could. I didn’t know if there were spiders. I wasn’t taking the time to find out. I almost didn’t care. I ran as if I were chasing demons, and if I ran hard enough, I might finally catch them.

The wind pushed against me. The rain turned the sandy dust slick. The thunder and constant slamming rain drops erased all other sounds. Black clouds choked the sky behind and above me. Faint stars appeared ahead of me. I ran with my head down, just like I had when I came. This time, I told myself I did so only to keep the wind-swept rain out of my eyes.

Deep inside, I knew better. Spiders killed quick. Better to not see them coming…

The rain stopped pelting me, the wind died, and the purple Erimian moon appeared. Just like that, the storm had passed. Still I ran. Now my pounding feet sounded loud in the twilight silence. When I looked up, Brunning was closer than I’d imagined.

I didn’t slow. I wiped the water out of my eyes and ran straight for the cliff wall illuminated by Brunning’s glow. I found the crevice and lowered myself in.

My heart pounded. I swallowed out of relief. I couldn’t believe my luck. Maybe the rain kept the spiders away. I held the palm light in my mouth—I needed both hands free for the slick rock walls—and descended at a steady but reasonable pace. The moon shone directly above, lighting the way.

Climbing up is physically hard. Down-climbing is worse, especially when drenched. Focusing hard on each hold, I barely noticed the moon’s light disappear. At first, I guess I assumed the clouds had returned.

They hadn’t.

Something blocked the crevice top.

Big something.

No. Big somethings.

Then the chittering. I could have gone eternities without hearing that sound again.

With eight legs to maneuver the walls, the spiders had an unfair advantage. They coursed down the crevice toward me. I had made it little more than halfway down. At my current rate, they’d reach me before I reached the bottom.

With nightmares pounding at the door of my mind and nightmares steaming down the crevice, I had no other choice. I braced my feet on each side of the slippery wall and let go.

END of Episode One

For more Brunning Divide visit: http://www.fictionvortex.com

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

March 2015 ebook cover

Corruption Harmonic

By Marie Michaels

 

I am all alone.

~~~~~

Like any human’s, my early memories are not clear. Like any human, time passed while my mental faculties were still developing, adapting my essential programming to my environment. Unlike any human, however, the process of acquisition and organization of the information that constructed my reality took about a month. At twenty-nine days, twelve hours and three minutes, I deemed myself adapted.

Read more

February 2015 cover art

Under a Blood-Red Sky

By Edward Ashton

The sail hangs limp, and the boat rocks gently from side to side as I try to get my fishhook shoved through a nightcrawler. The sun is high and hot in a clear blue sky, reflecting in sharp bright speckles off the lake. The worm is writhing, slipping through my fingers as I try to thread him onto the hook, and I’m just about ready to give up when a soft voice speaks in my ear.

“Sorry to interrupt, Jim. You’ve got clients.”

I squint up at the hills looming over the far shore. Asif is standing there, a tiny brown figure at the edge of the trees.

“Seriously?” I say. “Already? Didn’t we just do this?”

Asif walks toward me, down to the shore and out across the water. Space compresses in front of him and stretches out behind, so that in a half-dozen steps he stands on the surface of the lake beside me, bobbing gently with the swells. I roll my eyes and go back to my hook.

Read more

An Alien Warmth

By Karl Dandenell

I raised myself onto my rear footpads, then knocked loudly on the front door with a holding claw. I was so cold, I barely felt the heavy ironwood. Frigid wind gusted behind me, shaking a line of brightly colored flags. The squares of blue, white, red, green, and yellow fabric shook violently, catching the attention of my left eye. My right eye remained firmly focused on the door.

“I’ll get it!” called a male voice from within. The door opened, releasing a much-welcome wave of warm, dry air. “Hi—” The Terran stopped as soon as he saw me framed in the doorway. His pupils widened, and a glass of beer dropped from his fingers. I caught it with an upper footpad.

Read more

Book Review: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Review by Mike Cluff

Golden Son, the second book in the Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown, is not your standard second-book-in-a-trilogy. Often in trilogies the first book is an exciting introduction to a new world, new characters, and, ultimately, a new overall conflict.Golden Son by Pierce Brown We praise the new book because it is new, it is exciting, and we are dedicated to the hero and his/her journey. We wait anxiously for the release date of the next book, and when it is in our hands we gobble it up and get a sucker punch to the gut.

Why?

The second book in a trilogy usually serves as a machination to build up the ultimate conflict in the third book, more than likely ending halfway through the story arc with a huge cliffhanger. Most second books could never be a standalone story, they are dependent on the rest of the trilogy. Second books are rarely the favorite or topic of discussion. They are necessary, but frustrating. A shell of a book. A journey to the beginning of the end.

Read more

The Eyes Behind the Mask

By R.Y. Brockway

The city has changed in my absence; I almost don’t recognize it. Like running into a childhood friend you haven’t seen in years, it takes a moment before recollection returns, bringing with it the realization that time has also changed you. I wonder, does the city still know me? I feel the urge to return to the rooftops and exclaim: “It’s me, The Nightmare, I used to be your protector.”

~~~~~

The carpeted halls of the Convention Center are new to the Nightmare. When she left the city its waterfront had been the home to outcasts, vagrants, and thieves. Now it’s a bustle of urban renewal. People have returned. The Nightmare is just one of the multitudes.

Read more