Relic Hunters, Ep1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The surveillance around my apartment building has increased.”

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

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

I chuckled, accidentally subvocalizing a line of gibberish.

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

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

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

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

Zao gao, Jim. Focus.”

I was trying to focus on not creating an accident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“These people are dangerous,” Benji continued.

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

“What is it?”

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

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

“Jim? What the hell—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buddy, are you alright?”

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

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

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

“Cora, what on God’s green earth—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She chewed her lip and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cora creased her forehead but held her tongue.

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

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

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

I lowered my chin and raised my brows.

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

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

“But you didn’t—”

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

“What are you saying?” Cora grilled me.

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

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

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

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

I sputtered, at a loss.

“What if someone disrupted the signal on purpose?”

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

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

“Yes, Mr. Buckner,” Evie responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man, probably a teacher, nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I simply couldn’t process it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You old bastard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you saw it?”

“I saw something.”

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

“I was hoping you could contribute to that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you—”

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

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

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

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

“Sweetie? James? Can you hear me?”

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

She started crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not funny.” Cora withdrew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I, I don’t want you to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cora exited the room.

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

She turned an icy glare toward me.

It melted instantly. Not before I regretted my words.

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

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

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

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

“But I don’t need—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Buckner?”

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

She shut the door.

“Um, skipping school twice in one day?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But what—”

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

Slowly, I nodded.

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

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

She raised a brow.

I sighed. “Yes, but—”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re out of time. They’re coming.”

“Who’s coming?” I asked.

“The green ones.”

“The which ones?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you think I’m here?”

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

The door burst open, revealing an empty hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She breathed steadily, but remained unconscious.

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

She stirred, her eyes roving beneath closed lids.

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

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

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

I flinched. “You okay? Anything broken?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you park?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know my tablet wasn’t—”

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

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

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

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

“Did they see you?” She huffed.

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

“You don’t know who to trust.”

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

“It’ll come back to you,” Evie said.

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

“More like climbing a rock face.”

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

Evie caught me. “You okay?”

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

“Even the nose route at Yosemite?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” I said.

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

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

“What’s so funny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END Episode 1

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