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

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Lessons in Blade and Barrier

LESSONS IN BLADE AND BARRIER

by Siobhan Gallagher

The blade surged forward, more lightning than steel. The very air went dense with static. Izo tumbled more than dodged, leaped quickly to his feet, but found his balance off. There on the ground was his right forearm, clawed fingers clenching his katana.

“No,” he gasped, throat suddenly dry. This couldn’t be real, just couldn’t. He didn’t feel anything missing. Eyes squeezed shut, he used his left hand to probe where his right forearm should be. His hand came away wet. He put two clawtips to his mouth, tasted iron and salt.

Only then did he cry out.

“That was sloppy of you,” Master Takumi said, wiping his bladed forelimb on his hakama. He resumed his praying posture as if nothing had occurred; no expression on his mantis-face.

Izo clutched his stump. With the realization came a throbbing so intense it made him dizzy, took all his effort to keep standing. In the forest background something snickered.

“You should sit down,” Master Takumi said.

“Why?!” he yelled through clenched teeth.

Master Takumi tilted his head. “Why sit down?”

“No! My arm!”

Master Takumi took a moment to acknowledge the missing limb. “It’ll grow back.”

“Painfully,” Izo muttered.

“Better pain than death.” Master Takumi moved in slow, deliberate steps. The large sleeves of his kimono hid his deadly forelimbs. In less than a blink, he snatched up the fallen forearm, pried the katana from its grip and handed it to Izo, hilt first. “Now you can practice with your left arm.”

Izo wiped his hand on his chest before grudgingly accepting the sword. The snickering grew louder, more irritating, as if humiliation wasn’t enough.

“Your master has been too soft on you,” Master Takumi said. “No student of mine would stumble like that.”

Izo weighed the katana in his left hand, found his balance wanting. More than anything he wanted to cleave that mantis-face in two. His master had insisted he visit Master Takumi, that his swordsman training wouldn’t be complete without a mantis’ teachings. Ha! Now what good was he? It would be weeks before his arm grew back, and all he had was practice with his left arm. He hoped his master choked on his sake tonight.

And that damnable snickering… Why wouldn’t it stop?

“Shut up!” he yelled.

Silence, then– Blinding white. He stood petrified with fear, forgetting his lost arm as heat passed over him. Oh gods, don’t let it be an ill omen! He’d had enough bad luck for today.

The light died. Vision returned slowly through tears and black spots. A ball of white fire hovered over Master Takumi’s shoulder. Izo pointed with his katana, but found no words; his jaw worked around a tongue gone dry.

“It’s just an onibi,” Master Takumi said. “It likes to have its fun.”

Within the onibi’s sphere, shadowy faces flickered–a mournful expression, a look of terror. Izo took a step back, careful not to stare directly at the onibi. Rumor had it an onibi could suck a soul clean from a body that got too close, and in no way was he going to confirm this.

“Little lizardling doesn’t seem to like me,” the onibi said between chuckles.

Little?! The nerve of this ball of noxious spirits! If he had both his arms…

“That’s enough,” Master Takumi said. “If you will, please go to Izo’s village and inform Master Kenta that his pupil will be staying with me for the night.”

“What? I didn’t agree–” He winced at the stabbing pain, had to sheath his sword and clutch at the stump.

“Your wound needs to be cleaned and dressed. I won’t send you back bleeding all over.” This brought another wave of snickering. Master Takumi shooed the onibi. “Go on.”

“Very well, I’ll return shortly. You promised me tea, after all.”

“Only if you heat the water.”

The onibi winked out, leaving behind a burning afterimage.

As they walked to Master Takumi’s hut, avoiding rocks, fallen branches, or anything else that might trip him, Izo said: “You keep strange company.”

“All company is strange,” Master Takumi said, “yours included.”

*****

Izo nearly spilled his tea when he heard the news from the onibi.

“What do you mean it’s gone?” he hissed.

“Vanished. Gone. Nothing.” The onibi hovered over the tea pot, extended flame tendrils to lift the lid. “Oooh, lovely smelling green tea.”

“With jasmine.” Master Takumi sat across from Izo, tea cup held by fingers protruding from the joint above his bladed limb.

Izo slammed his cup down, sloshing hot liquid all over his hand. “Ah! Dammit!” He shook his hand. Bad luck indeed. An akuma must’ve  visited him in his sleep last night.

The onibi rolled around, laughing.

Izo threw his cup at the obnoxious fireball–missed, cup smashed on the back wall. “Shut up! I’m tired of you. You are either lying or the worse prankster ever.”

Master Takumi gently set his cup down, breathed a sigh. “I understand your concern, Izo. We’ll investigate in the morning.”

“In the morning?! That might be too late! We have to go–” A sharp pain erupted from his left shoulder. The world spun, blackened, came back into focus with an awful throb, as if his back was being massaged with hot coals.

Master Takumi stood over him in his prayer position. “You need to calm down. We’ll go in the morning. Right now, rest.”

Rest, ha. How could he rest with all this pain? Or with the thought that his village might be gone?

The onibi seemed to have a solution to this: it blew itself up to half his size, and within its flame was the silhouette of a female–he wasn’t certain what kind, but pleasing to the eye. The silhouette danced, rhythmic steps, curves swaying, arms spread, ready to embrace.

There was a girl with pretty ebony eyes and scales of teal back in his village, and he imagined being wrapped snug in her arms. It made the pain a bit more bearable as he daydreamed into sleep.

*****

As Master Takumi said, they set off in the morning. What Master Takumi didn’t say was that the onibi would be tagging along.

“Why is that coming?” Izo asked, pointing a claw at the soul-sucking fireball.

“Why not?” the onibi said, circling both him and Master Takumi. “I’m just as curious. After all, it’s not every day that a village disappears.”

“I see no harm in this,” Master Takumi said, and resumed their walk along the trail.

Izo gritted his teeth, but said nothing. He already hurt enough, didn’t want to start an argument that would end with him on his back.

The walk took the better part of the morning, but it already felt like afternoon with the sun bearing down. His grass hat didn’t provide enough shade to keep him cool. By late morning they’d made it to the hill that guarded his village. It was far too steep for him to climb with his one-armed balance, so they took the long way around.

“On any other day I would make you climb that hill,” Master Takumi said.

“Why does it have to be another day? Today is as good as any other,” the onibi chimed in, and Izo swore he saw a smirk in its flames.

“Don’t you have someone else to bother?” he growled at the onibi.

“You’re just grouchy.”

Maybe now would be a good time to practice with his left hand–the onibi was certainly within sword’s reach. How unfortunate that out of habit, he was wearing his katana on his left.

“Does it seem quiet?” Master Takumi said.

It did. Even on a day of prayer there were wheels grinding, trickling water, squawking chickens and grunting pigs. But now it was only the breeze and the rustling of grass. Izo charged ahead. It couldn’t be true, the onibi had to be lying.

Beyond the hill the ground was completely blank, as the village had been erased from existence. Izo ran; feet stomping, eyes watering, pain searing his side. As with his arm,  he had to reach out, to feel that his village  really wasn’t there.

He collapsed where once had been a barn, shuddering, gasping. Gone! All of it. Friends, family, even Master Kenta. What was he supposed to do? What–

A strong grip lifted him by his good arm, forced his mouth open to pour water down his throat. He gagged, coughed, sputtered most of it out. When he could stand straight again, Master Takumi was in his prayer posture.

“You were overheated.” Master Takumi indicated the empty water gourd at his feet.

Izo shook his head, gaze downcast. Couldn’t bear the sight of this barren land. Oh gods, why? The weight in his chest was too much, the pain too great. He sank to the ground, trying not to cry before Master Takumi. All he could do was hang his head between his drawn-up legs.

Master Takumi grabbed his left foot and jerked it up.

“Hey!” He struggled, flailing his arm to keep from falling over.

Master Takumi scraped some jelly residue from the sole of his foot, put it to his mandibles. “Slug magic,” he murmured, then released Izo’s foot.

“Slugs? Really?”

Master Takumi nodded. “They always leave a trail.”

“But why my village? We’ve never harmed them!”

“They’re the lowliest of life forms. They have no reason save spite.” Master Takumi straightened up, looked about. “We must go back for my salts.”

“But my village!”

“The slugs likely have it, them and their wicked sorcery. Only thing to overcome such taint is salt. I know.”

Izo sat there, speechless. Things were happening so fast. Just yesterday he had two arms! Now his village might be in the slimy hands of slugs, and Master Kenta hadn’t taught him how to fight mollusks. What good was he?

“Stop moping. Come.” Master Takumi reached out.

As much as he resented the words, they were true: sulking wouldn’t help. Still, he wanted this to be a dream, to wake up and find all his limbs intact and a village to go home to.

As he took the outstretched limb the onibi whizzed past, nearly knocking him over. Everything seemed intent on putting him down today. Grumbling, he stood with Master Takumi’s help.

The onibi bobbed frantically, intent expressions within its flame. “Something’s changed.”

“What do you mean?” Master Takumi asked.

The onibi didn’t answer, and in its silence, Izo became aware how still the air was, how the sun wasn’t as hot, that the day felt more late afternoon than late morning. What was going on?

“Come,” Master Takumi said with more urgency, tugging on Izo’s good arm.

Izo nodded, joined Master Takumi as they rounded the hill and–smack! He staggered back, felt like he’d been punched in the face and chest. Master Takumi recovered first, extended his forelimbs till some invisible barrier stopped him, then drew himself up, bladed forelimbs ready to attack. Slash-slash. Where he’d struck the barrier , shimmering slash marks soon faded.

“We’re trapped!” Izo cried.

“Shush. I’m thinking.” Master Takumi went into his prayer posture.

The onibi rammed full force into the barrier, and splattered into a hundred flaming fragments. The scattered flames crawled back together, squirmed into a ball. “That,” it muttered, “was a terrible idea.”

“So what are we to do?” Izo asked.

“Start digging,” the onibi grumbled.

“I wasn’t asking you.” He glared up at the stupid fireball. “Why don’t you try burning us a hole?”

“Quiet, you two,” Master Takumi said. He tapped along the barrier, seeking a gap. It was as good an idea as any and Izo joined in. His claws brushed against solid nothingness, sent a static shrill up his arm. What odd magic, and for what purpose? Why trap them?

And for that matter, why take his village?

He stopped to watch the onibi bounce along the barrier. This had all started with the onibi’s message–or was it bait? Then it had followed them for the weakest of reasons–or was it making sure they fell into the trap? Maybe it was waiting till he and Master Takumi were too tired and weak to fend off a soul-sucking fireball.

He side-stepped over to Master Takumi and whispered, “I think the onibi has tricked us.”

“Why would you say that?” Master Takumi didn’t turn his way, or even pause in his tapping.

“How can we trust the onibi? It eats souls.”

“And you think the onibi is working with the slugs.”

“Yes.”

“Possible, but…”

“What?”

Master Takumi touched his stump, making him wince. “Bandages are wet.”

“I don’t care.” He pulled away. “Could you at least take me seriously?”

“Your seriousness would divide us when we need to work together. Your master has failed to teach you this point.”

“At least Master Kenta never cut my arm off,” Izo said through gritted teeth, his remaining hand balled into a fist.

“If we ever get out of here and find your village, perhaps I’ll discuss teaching techniques with Master Kenta. Till then, let’s not fight each other.”

“I’m not fighting,” Izo hissed. “I just want to know. Tell me why the onibi can be trusted!”

“The onibi doesn’t require the help of slugs to suck our souls. It can do that whenever it wants.”

“Then why us? Why my village?”

“Not us. Me.”

“What?”

“I suspect this was a trap for me. They knew you had come to me for training, so they kidnapped your village to draw me out.”

“So this is your fault?!”

“Calm–”

Izo rammed his fist into the barrier, instead of into Master Takumi. Searing agony seized his arm. He lost all awareness of his body, just him and his arm floating in a fiery abyss. Senses returned slowly, his screaming became a hoarse croak. The barrier had gelled around his fist and it was crawling quickly up his arm.

Master Takumi was poised to chop his arm off.

“No!” Izo pulled and yanked, but his arm was trapped.

He didn’t see it happen–maybe he blinked–but now Master Takumi’s forelimbs were caught in the gunk. Worse, Master Takumi was pushing into it. Izo struggled back as Master Takumi was drawn in, then through. Master Takumi popped from the barrier in his own isolated bubble, posed in prayer. Master Takumi was brave, Izo would give the mantis that much.

A dark form emerged from the nearby forest, moving with all the slowness of a dead mule. Of course it was a slug, the slimy bastard. Master Takumi’s bubble rolled to face the slug, and the slug’s black maw flapped open and closed as it laughed.

When the slug threw back its cloak, Izo saw that it wore a medallion around its fat no-neck. No, not a medallion. A globe with a miniature village–his village!

He pushed with his right side against the barrier, as if his very rage could break through, but all he did was twist his stuck arm. His bloody bandages smeared the barrier, stump bleeding anew. A dizziness fell over him.

“What are you doing making a mess when Master Takumi is in trouble?” the onibi said from above.

“Shut up!” He leaned his forehead against the barrier, now oddly cool, trying to keep from passing out. The barrier was sizzling where his blood had touched it. He felt the faintest breeze… was his blood weakening the barrier? He pressed his stump against it–a wave of heat, sound of a thousand hornets buzzing in his ear–he pressed and bled and bled some more. The barrier spit and popped like water on hot coals. A breeze! He could feel it on the other side.

The onibi flicked a tendril out to capture a drop of blood, withdrew both tendril and blood into itself. “Salty.”

“How about helping?” Izo grumbled, wiggling his trapped arm.

“Oh, all right.”

The onibi lapped up blood directly from his stump–Izo cringed, expecting it to burn, but it tickled like goose feathers. Then the onibi spat the blood all over the gunk around his arm, and within moments the gunk sizzled off, and he was free!

Izo shook melting gunk from his left arm, and switched his sheathed sword to his right side.

“Better hurry, before the slug notices us,” the onibi said.

Izo looked up to see the slug’s tentacle eyes staring at them from over Master Takumi’s bubble. Crap! He clumsily drew his sword and winced as he touched the blade to his stump. A cry bubbled at the back of his throat; he choked it down, blinked back tears. His red-stained sword slashed the barrier, two, three, four times, hard and harder.

The slashes shimmered, sizzled, fell away. Fresh air blew in. Sword raised, he charged.

The slug muttered something unintelligible and threw up its arms. Izo tripped, sword went flying, his chin smacked the dusty ground . Couldn’t pull his legs apart. The gunk was around his ankles!

Quick!–he needed to hack it off. But his sword was out of reach. The slug oozed closer.

Fireball and sword flashed before him. The slug screeched and split right down the middle.

*****

Exhaustion weighed Izo like a heavy blanket. He had to be jarred awake by Master Takumi, who helped him up.

“Well done,” Master Takumi said, and Izo’s heart lifted. “Sloppy, but resourceful.”

The onibi delivered him his sword and Izo asked, “Why didn’t you suck the slug’s soul?”

“Slug souls? Eck! No thanks.”

Then he remembered. “Did you see the slug wearing a globe around its neck?”

Master Takumi nodded and produced the globe from his sleeve. “Not sure how they shrunk your village. Their sorcery seems to be getting stronger.”

“Let me see that,” the onibi said, tendrils extended.

Izo was about to object–handing an entire village-worth of souls to that thing?!–but the onibi had saved him; and besides, it probably couldn’t get at the souls inside.

The onibi examined the globe and said, “Ah, I know of a yōkai who knows a yōkai who could reverse this. Free of charge if I call in a favor.”

“That would be appreciated,” Master Takumi said, bowing. And after a stern look from the mantis, Izo also bowed.

“Only if you make more tea.”

“There’ll always be a pot reserved for you.” Master Takumi then turned to Izo. “I could also reserve a spot to train you, Izo. You would make an excellent slug slayer.”

Slug Slayer… The title had a catchy ring to it, though he wasn’t sure if he’d even survive Master Takumi’s training.

“I’m honored, Master Takumi. But, uh, let me think on it after my arm grows back.”

“Very well. Let’s head back before anymore damnable slugs appear.”

The onibi raced on ahead while Master Takumi half-carried Izo. Slug Slayer, he thought dreamily. The girl with the teal scales would probably find that attractive, the sort of thing a lizard could carve a legacy out of. Yes, he looked forward to that, along with his right arm.

END

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Teenage Badass

TEENAGE BADASS

by Kostas Paradias

Finn is a Helfwir, a monster hunter born. At the age of 8, Finn was capable of destroying a vampire with a plastic spoon. By the time she was 10, Finn knew a hundred ways of killing pretty much everything that went bump in the night.

Now, on her 14th birthday, Finn decides she wants to try living a normal life. She leaves home for Orsonville and enrolls in its high school. There, Finn will have to learn to deal with petty bullies, tenuous friendships , the hardships of teenage love and a werewolf cult that’s hell-bent on world domination, all without revealing her true identity.

This is shaping up to be a long, tough school year for Finn.


Episode One: At the End of the Whole Mess

So here I am, aboard a burning zeppelin that’s been ripped right out of time, fighting off a pack of snarling Nazi werewolves. There’s a hole in my sides; the only thing that’s keeping me from bleeding out is the spear-head that’s lodged against my ribs. The altimeter alarm is screaming from the cockpit and there’s a chill wind blowing against my back, tousling up my hair.

The balloon beneath me quakes like two metric tons of jello. Something below screams, as whatever’s left of the passenger hull grazes against the Edgarhorn, shedding glass and bits of its support-frame as it goes. A mass of packed snow and century-old ice becomes dislodged from the top; comes cascading down the mountain range, burying the derelict church on Bloch Hill under a couple metric tons of ice, come winter time. The way things are looking at the moment, I will either be torn apart by werewolves, drop 3 kilometers down to a messy death, burn to a crisp, bleed out or all of the above.

Dad would be so proud of me.

I am told there are worse ways to die: Mom always told me she was afraid she might waste away at that nothing little desk job she had before she met Dad, pushing buttons on keyboards according to on-screen instructions from 9 to 5. Sometimes, when my dad was gone for a long time hunting some creepy-crawly across the Urals, she would have nightmares. She would dream that faceless accountants would drag her kicking and screaming back to her cubicle, to serve until the end of her days.

One of the werewolves pounces on me so I whack him with my silver-plated baseball bat to the side of the head, send him flying down a two-kilometer drop all the way down to splat against the rusted, rotted remains of the ancient railway tracks that snake out of the mountain range. The ground might not be silver, but it’s going to be a while before he’s up and running again. Another one of the werewolves lunges at me, goes for a feint and swipes at my face, so I wheel around and land a blow to his chest with my reinforced elbow-guard, knocking the wind out of him. The force of the blow sends me sliding down across the balloon’s metal-clad envelope.

The fingers on my right hand flop down like wet hot dogs, so I switch the bat to my left arm. Won’t make for much of a swing, but it’s definitely going to sting. Somewhere ahead of me, in the bowels of the zeppelin an engine explodes, adding to the conflagration that is consuming the Hindenburg. Smelted, burning engine parts pitter-patter over house roofs. An axle smashes that ghastly gypsum cat statue on top of Mister Landsdale’s pet shop.  The entire zeppelin takes a sharp forty-five degree downward incline. I click my heels together and Mister Nomura’s patented AdhereAll™ smart-spikes shoot out from the soles of my shoes, grip the surface below me.

One of the werewolf braves moves in, thinking he’s up for an easy kill. This one’s a little bit smarter; he fixes his claws down into the wooden planks, digs in deep to steady himself, tries to bite my neck. The following explosion, which destroys the zeppelin’s auxiliary tanks makes him stumble; turns his killing blow into a mighty miss. So I crack him one in the ribs, another in the jaw and watch the teeth scatter in the high-velocity wind. We’re dropping like a meteor straight out of a disaster movie now, as big as the sky and wreathed in a halo of flame. Orsonville rises up to meet us.

Time seems to slow down, like a dream. I wonder if anyone below is seeing this. Maybe they’ll all just shrug and move on, unless the Hindenburg crashes into the school or totals the library. Even then, one of the residents in the Valente Old Folk’s home will tell you how they got it worse in ’65 and how young people got it easy these days.

I hear something wailing below, over the roar of the flames. The altimeter’s gone quiet, probably reduced to a mass of boiling glass and melted metal by now. I make out the distant, mournful wailing of an air raid siren. Looks like Uriah finally found some use for it. All those weeks, months, years of watching the skies finally paid off. He’s probably cackling like mad down there, screaming I Tol’ You So’s and Who’s Crazy Now’s at Skeptic Jane and Cynic Cleetus down below.

The Hull finally sheds off the Hindenburg, lands on Mister Guttierez’s convenience store, reducing it to rubble. I think of all the rows of stale donuts and the creaking, cranky Slurry™ machines and the comic books and the cheap Zippo knockoff lighters going up in flames and his cash stall, filled to the brim with all the change he short-charged me every day of every week during this entire year that I’ve visited his store. The loss of all that dead weight causes us to gain a little bit of altitude, just enough so we won’t end up crashing into Ellison Street.

Two of the werewolves skitter by and grasp my jeans to hold on. One of them tries to pull himself up, get a cheap shot in. I bring the baseball bat handle down on his face again and again until he lets go. The fur on his face sizzles where the silver has landed. After another couple of hits, he lets go. I don’t even notice my pants leg is ripping until I feel the wind against my calves. When I turn to look, the other werewolf’s gone. They’ve probably landed all over the Orsonville Mall roof by now.

I chance a glance behind me and see that we’re heading toward Henderson Lake. There’s enough industrial waste and runoff petrol from frakking operations there to turn the entire mass into a fireball as soon as the flame hits, but at least it’s a long way away from Orsonville. There shouldn’t be too much damage. Mission accomplished. The world is as good as saved.

I don’t dare say it out loud, but I’m feeling pretty damn invincible right now. Like Major Steele and Jean LeFevre the parkour champ all rolled into one. I feel ten feet tall and my heart is pumping fast; like I could chew steel and breathe fire. But when I see Gunda stomping out of the flames, fur bristling, claws at the ready, a row of teeth so long and sharp they could tear strips off a battleship’s hull, so angry she could tear down the Moon and eat it, I remind myself that it’s time to get the hell out.

“Finn! You bastard!” she howls like the Bad Wolf in the picture books Mom used to read to me, when I was four and scared of the dark. Time to go. Putting pressure on my heels to activate the pressure switch that retracts the spikes, I let myself slide down the incline just a little bit, turn my body to brake my descent. If I do it the way Dad showed me, I should be able to jump over the tip, do a flip and then let the wind carry me behind the zeppelin just in time to control my fall enough to maybe break only a couple of bones on landing.

If I don’t, at least I’ll make a pretty corpse. Glancing back, I see Gunda stomping down across the incline. She moves like something out of a nightmare, deceptively fast. Her every step is calculated, seems to ignore gravity and the steepness of the incline. I tell myself that she’s not as close or as fast as she seems and that I’m going to make it. I guess that’s the same thing all those stumbling, doomed cheerleaders tell themselves in slasher movies, just before they turn around and see the man in the bloody coveralls standing right in front of them.

Skidding across the bobbing polyester surface of the balloon, approaching maximum velocity, I jump up in the air. True to form, Gunda slams into me like a steam-hammer. Her moon-mad face fills my field of vision, her eyes as wide as saucers.

“You ruined everything!” she snarls as we bounce off the railing, across the balloon, down the nose. Her claws dig into my back. I hear her tearing my backpack across the seams, reducing it to canvass ribbons and useless lengths of zipper. It all happens in the span of a couple of instants, almost too fast for the eye to see. My tools rain down, a hail of  vials full of wolfsbane concentrate and mandrake root powder and mercury, strewn across the forest floor. If I make it out of this alive, Mister Pettus is going to be so pissed. He will probably berate my corpse at my own funeral. Grab me by the neck and just beat the living tar out of me, ordering me to get up so he can chew me out some more. Provided there’s enough of me left after the drop.

“Die!” she howls.

“After you,” I say.

Gunda opens her mouth so wide that she could fit my entire head between her jaws. I push the tip of my baseball bat up against her wide open mouth, let her taste silver. She bites into it anyway; grazes the plating, reduces the shaft to splinters. Her gums and tongue sizzle where the silver lingers, but she’s too mad to care. She spits at my face, grazes my cheeks with her front teeth looking for a vein or a patch of flesh that she can peel clean off. She rakes her claws across my back, tearing up the spider-silk layers of armor underneath. I’m too terrified to scream, settling instead for twisting my bat handle and the mess that’s left of the shaft into her mouth. It cracks and I drive the jagged edge against her palate.

Tree-branches whip at the back of my head, my ears and eyes. Shifting my weight slightly, I turn both of us in mid-air so she’s below me, hoping that her body can break my fall. I mutter a quick, garbled mess of a prayer. Gunda finishes off my bat, moves in for my throat. I feel her teeth grazing my jugular, piercing the skin. I’m perhaps three seconds away from dying and all I can think of is how pissed Anton is going to be if he finds out I stood him up on our date because I’m dead.

We crash into the ground at thirty meters a second just as the hijacked Hindenburg falls into Henderson Lake, turning its surface into a pillar of fire a hundred meters tall.

END

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Fly Red Fox

FLY RED FOX

by Desmond Fox

Red Fox circled the coyote, tossing cold Mojave sand with her jagged steps. Sweat beaded on her face, painting streaks of dirt and blood down her blunted features with each salty drip crawling down her skin in rivulets. Half of her head was freshly shaved, the other half was ornamented with long black dreadlocks. The rest of her was only clothed in decorative hempen ropes and animal-blood warpaint. The coyote stared back with its one blue eye, bearing a toothy snarl.

This was not how she intended to use her head start, and she truly hoped the coyote would back away and run off as soon as it identified her scent, but it was hungry. She could see it in the creature’s lean body and hear the hunger pangs in her head. It was nervous too, too anxious to pounce first.

Red Fox seized the opportunity. She leapt forward into the air; her body took a shape not its own. Her jaw extended, amber hair packed her dark skin as she reconstructed herself into the shape of a diminutive kit fox. She snapped at the creature’s neck with her comparably meager muzzle, crushing its windpipe in a cloud of flesh-musk. Surprise was the last thing the animal felt before it died.

Red Fox turned back into her human shape, dipped a finger in the dead animal’s wound and painted a small mark on her face in the shape of a spiral. Suddenly she was aware of how much time she had wasted, and set back to her gait, deeper into the desert in search of civilization.
There was nowhere to hide here, everything was flat and sparse. Her only way out was to find someone willing to protect her and hide her from her tribe, but outlanders usually kept their hands clean of local traditions.

The other option was to hide as an animal, take refuge in a warren or den, but she would ultimately be rejected by the indigenous families, and use of her shapeshifting only made her easier to find.
Others had fought. She had been with the hunting parties before as a child, and watched skinwalkers chased down until they turned and bore their teeth in defiance. She had seen throats ripped out of strong men by fierce wolf-women, but in the end they were slain the same. They were painfully skinned alive then burned as a tribute to their nuclear gods.

She wished she had ran sooner. She wished she could sprout feathers and take to the sky like a sparrow, but she could not. Like all hunted, she had been hexed, feet bound to the earth. She would only fly again in her death.
On the wind she could hear the trot of horses and the calls of their riders. She had been careless, slow and now she would die for it. She ran hard. She barreled through dirt and sand, past yuccas, juniper and white firs, when she saw her only hope.

In the distance she saw a tent and a fire. There was a man with skin the color of hematite feeding oats to an elderly painted horse. If the gods were kind and their bellies full, she would find some sort of sanctity here. She raced onward, allowing her arms to become legs, and her feet to become paws. Her muzzle stretched and her body-hair thickened into a red coat. She barreled between the man’s legs into the tent, hiding in his fox furs, twitching in fear.

*****

Osiah watched a naked woman turn into a fox, then race into his tent. He stared at the whisky bottle in his hand incredulously before he heard the roar of horse hooves beating in thunderous rhythm.

A wise man once said speak softly and carry a big stick, and Osiah’s ICS-191 GLM grenade launcher was about the biggest stick he had found so far, so he picked it up from beside his tent and prepared to wave it around a little. The weight of it always surprised him. He did a few curls, until it was as natural in his hand as the bottle.

With his other hand, he took the switchblade style comb from his pocket, brushed out his grey moustache to an appropriate bushiness, before sheathing and popping it back into the pocket from whence it came.

Osiah stepped into the tent just long enough to grab his white stetson from the pile of whimpering furs, placing it on his head.
The roar finally caught up with him, a party of ten Mojave warriors and a young female shaman were at his figurative doorstep, twenty-feet or so from his little cookfire and pot of beans.

The men wore long black braids, with coal streaks across their eyes. They wore axes slung from their hips and stared unblinkingly into the dirt-filled void beyond. The woman who rode with them wore feathers in her hair and on the ropey black rags that hung around her shoulders and waist. In her hands she held a round bottle, roiling with green liquid that seemed to jump and boil in the direction of Osiah’s tent.

“She’s in there.” The shaman muttered just loud enough for Osiah’s ears, holding her bottle high for the warriors to see.

“Should I kill this man?” one of the men asked.

“No, he won’t be a problem,” the woman responded coolly. “Our prey is in your tent, outlander. Allow my men to retrieve what is ours and you will not be harmed.”

Osiah smiled, twitching his moustache back and forth. He peered from under his hat and spoke with authority.

“Now, I ain’t normally one to tread on ceremony, or get in the way of local tradition, but I know a fair fight when I see one. And this, little lady is anything but fair.”

“There’s more to her than you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure, but ten armed men against one naked woman ain’t much better than ten armed men against one little fox in my book.”

“Then we’ll take her,” the woman snapped. Her eyes smiled, without a twitch in her lips.

“Now, I figured you’d say something like that, so-” Osiah heaved his grenade launcher in front of him, trying not to let its weight show as he put his other hand on the secondary handle. “so maybe today’s the day I get to fire this thing.”  

“You wouldn’t.” The woman contested, keeping her face the image of placidity.

“No, I would. So what are you gonna do? What’s your hunt worth?”

“It’s worth the lives of our people. She had her chance to escape, she failed. She belongs to our gods now.”

“Fine.” Osiah replied. “Let them come get her then.”

 

*****

“You hungry miss?” Osiah held a spoonful of baked beans out to his guest. Red Fox was in her human form, wearing an old military canvass blanket. She shook her head.

“I’ve eaten. What you did was very kind. Most outlanders wouldn’t involve themselves.”

“Most outlanders ain’t Osiah Warren. A wise man once said, courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.

“Wisdom, courtesy and courage are uncommon today.”

“That they are miss. That they are.” Osiah finished the pot of beans by himself, paying attention not to get any sauce in his moustache.

“They’ll be back.” Red Fox suggested, staring into the cookfire.

“Mmhmm. They want to kill you I suppose.”

“Yes.”

“And why’s that? You seem a perfectly moral young woman.”

“It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice you’re not too keen on then huh?”

“I want to live.”

“We all want to live sweetheart, it’s what you die for that counts. What do they want you to die for?”

“For our people. They would feed me to our gods to barter a year of harvests and game, free of plague and murder. My suffering would promise healthy babes and rain water that doesn’t burn or make ill. My death would protect my people from violent outlanders and the hulking beasts that lurk in the night sands.

“And they let you leave?”

“The ceremony is in the hunt.” Red Fox wiped a tear from the side of her bulb nose, then scratched it as if to conceal the behavior.

Osiah plucked a bottle of whisky from the dirt and gravel at his feet offering it to Red Fox with a gesture. She declined, so Osiah took a swig himself. “Ain’t that something. So you tell me then sweetheart, if you really believe all that, you’re being selfish ain’t ya? Fatman and Little Boy are popular gods these days, yours aint the first people I seen out cuttin’ each other up for ‘em. You’re hunted for what you are, not what you ain’t. You’re a shape changer and you ain’t selfless, so why not just fly away?”

“I can’t fly.” Red Fox muttered with a wavering voice. “I’m cursed.”

“Mmm. Could’ve fooled me. I don’t know much about magic or what it is that you people do, but if that’s the way of it… What about when you were young? You knew what’s in store, why didn’t you fly then?”

“The Bleeding Ceremony.”

Osiah cocked an eyebrow in response, toying with the whiskey bottle in his hand.“Bleeding ceremony?”

“When a girl’s first blood comes, there is a ceremony. The priestesses and crowmen come to your home, drawing in intoxicating spirits with sage and feather. They sing to the gods and the phases of the moon, then a sacrifice is made by the child. If she turns, she is a skinwalker, made to live life in a cage, awaiting her turn to be sacrificed.

A cage is all I’ve known. I’ve never flown up to meet the sky, to kiss the clouds and scoff at the earth below.”

Osiah twisted his seat in discomfort.

“So what, they’ll just send more men with bigger sticks till they get what they want, huh?”

“Yes.”

“So I guess all that really does is put the pressure on. You gotta find something good to die for little miss,’fore someone decides for you.” Red Fox was silent. “What’s the blood about, all that paint?”

“It’s a promise.”

“What kind of promise?”

“It’s a promise to the animals whose forms I take, that their deaths were not in vain. It’s a promise that I will use everything that they have given to me, that I carry the weight of their deaths everywhere I go.”
“Mmm. Now, that woman with the bottle in the black rags, she the one who cursed you?” Red Fox nodded. “Bet it’s her kind brought Fatman and Little Boy to ya’ll in the first place. Them death worshippin’ types with their nuclear gods, they know how to play a crowd.”

Osiah shared the bottle of whiskey with himself for a while as Red Fox stared into nothing before he asked. “So, from how you understand it, how’s this curse supposed to work? What’re the rules?”

 

******

Osiah rode into town on an elderly painted horse, trotting down what used to be an asphalt road between what used to be concrete buildings. Time had worn down the rough edges, and everything looked like stone now, almost natural in their desecrated glory.

He smiled and tipped his hat as he came upon some children playing hide and seek in the ruins. They ran in fear as scared children are like to do and he followed them deeper into the city’s corpse to find the new life growing from within.
Homes had been raised where there were none before. Cornfields replaced empty plots of irradiated earth. People lived and laughed where before there were only ghosts. Osiah’s presence gave to alarm as he met with large men; spears and black face paint.

“Slow down now fellas, I ain’t here to cause any trouble. I got your little girlie here, I’m just bringin’ her back. Go on, git yer shaman, she’ll confirm it.”

“He’s not lying.” The shaman stepped from her pavilion. Smoke poured from her lungs as she spoke. She ashed her pipe with one hand and lifted the bottle of green liquid with the other. The liquid inside jumped with agitated vigor in Osiah’s direction. “Where is she?”

Osiah moved forward, ignoring the impatient gladiators who surrounded him. He reached into his bag as he rode, moving his hand over the grenade launcher, grabbing a small handful of cloth. He unfolded it, revealing a dead black-throated sparrow.

“She turned into this after ya’ll left. Her little heart stopped right then. Wasn’t hard to pick up yer trail, all the mess you made.”

“Why are you bringing her back to us?” The woman’s face was still and emotionless.

“Well it ain’t my place to argue with tradition. I had a knee-jerk reaction, I’ll admit it, don’t mean I can’t be cordial an’ bring the poor girl back home.” Osiah thought about his grenade launcher, then he thought about all the children playing hide and seek staring on at him, like he was some folkloric beast.

“Well we appreciate it. Our gods are not patient ones. Would you like something for your troubles? We could provide you with a fresh horse, this one looks as though it has one hoof in the rot already.” The woman placed a hand on the horse’s neck as Osiah dismounted.

Osiah replaced the bird and pulled the grenade launcher from his bag, swinging it towards the warrior men who greeted him at the village’s mouth. At the same time, Red Fox changed shape from the elderly horse to a half-blind coyote and leapt for the shaman’s throat.

Women and children screamed and the men looked on in disbelief as their priestess died silently in the red dirt. Her face was unflinching, showing neither surprise nor terror as the life left her body through her neck.

Red Fox turned back to her human shape and spoke to Osiah in a low voice as she crouched over her victim. “What do we do now? We’re surrounded, we won’t make it out of here alive.”

“I won’t. You can fly.”

“What if I can’t? What if the curse isn’t lifted? It’s only a rumor, whispered between branchwood bars.”

“No no, you made a promise. You made a promise to that little bird and to my horse, you owe him one, you owe him your life.”

“Your stick, you can shoot-”

“No no, too much collateral damage. My life ain’t worth theirs, it’s that witch what’s the problem and she’s taken care of now.”

“The curse-”

“Don’t matter now. You don’t try you ain’t gonna live anyway, ain’t got nothin to lose.”

“You’ll die.”

“I’ll die for somethin’ I believe in, that’s better than the alternative.”

The warriors were moving in slowly, disbelief becoming overwhelmed by rage.

“Go. Git!” Osiah shouted.

Red Fox sprouted feathers from her arms. Her feet curled up into talons and her mouth turned into a beak. She shrank into a little sparrow and fluttered up towards the sun.

Osiah smiled up at her as she disappeared into the enveloping light of the blue sky. His smile faded when he heard, “No, don’t. She’s gone, we’ll use him for the ceremony. Skinwalker or not, we’ll have a sacrifice for the gods.”

*****

The days blurred together, flickering away in the wind as Osiah was starved, naked in his wooden cage. He could see that the shaman had not named a predecessor, and those who remained seemed to be making things up as they went along.

There was no magic, there were no spells or potions or promises. They only prayed to their nuclear gods, that they might accept this sacrilegious sacrifice.

Men would visit him day and night just to explain again in detail how his skin would be flayed and his pink body seared, so that Fatman might feast upon his soul. They joked that Fatman preferred skinwalkers because they taste of every animal they had ever been. They joked that Osiah would be a filthy, tasteless morsel, that Fatman might destroy them just as he destroyed the world before theirs in response to such an insult.

Osiah only smiled wishing for his comb and a bottle of whiskey, twitching his whiskers in a starved delusion. Some nights as he stared into the bleakness beyond his cell, he thought he saw a dog, or coyote with one eye looking back at him.

A thought cycled through his mind as he was captured, a quote, something someone wise once said. It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move onto better things. The words kept Osiah at peace as the nights passed, until the evening of his execution.

Osiah was strapped down to a stone slab in the shaman’s pavilion. Four old men surrounded him, each looking down at his face with a thin flaying knife in their hand.

“Stop you fools.” A still voice disturbed them, unwavering despite urgent words.

“Priestess! No, this is not possible, we watched you die.”

“And the gods gave me back. You cannot sacrifice this man, to do so would call down a reckoning from the gods our people would not survive.”

“But my lady, we must give them something.”

“And we will.”

Osiah sat up as soon as he was unstrapped, turning to see the shaman Red Fox had killed. In her hand she held a black-throated sparrow, the same one Osiah had presented to the shaman days ago. He held his breath as he snapped out of his stupor by the incredible circumstance he found himself in.

“I did not truly die. When the gods gave me back, my curse returned as well. The skinwalker died in a tree not far from here. I retrieved her body to save us from the gods’ wrath.

“My lady, you are truly wise and all-powerful, but this man attacked us, what would you have done with him?”

“He did not attack us. The skinwalker did. He could have destroyed our village with his weapon, but he chose not to. He acted justly to his nature, he’s not at fault for his misunderstanding of our traditions and culture.”

“But he deceived you!”

“He also brought us the skinwalker. That, he did not lie about. Were it not for his blundering, we might all be irradiated ash tomorrow. Instead we are saved. Would you argue with my judgment?” The men were silent. “Give him his things and a fresh horse. See he leaves the village alive. Tonight’s sacrifice is very important, the gods shall impart with me new knowledge. I’ll not have his blood soiling their wisdom. And you-”

The shaman stepped towards Osiah, face placid and still as she spoke. “It has been said that courtesy is as much a mark of a lady as courage, but you’ll find no such courtesy should you intrude on my land again. Is that understood?”

Osiah tried not to smile. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good. Now get out of my sight.”

*****

Osiah sat by his cookfire, feeding handfuls of oats to his horse. Slowly, a fox crept up to his camp. He smiled at it and stirred the contents of his pot. The fox trotted up to him, then transformed into a young woman, dressed in hempen ropes and red paint.

“Hello friend.” she said with a smile.

“Good to see you again miss, I wasn’t sure if I would. Now, you never told me your little trick worked with people.”

“I didn’t know. I’d never had to kill someone before.”

“No one else knew either?”

“No. They knew only what they were told by the priestess. They trusted her implicitly, with all aspects of their lives.”

“How about now? They still trust her implicitly?”

“Yes. More so even now that she’s survived death.”

“And what do the gods have planned for those poor people? What great wisdom did they impart on their shaman?”

“No more sacrifices. Skinwalkers are to be embraced, used to hunt, help us survive, not chained under lock and key.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Slowly, the god’s protection will fade, and the people will have to protect themselves.”

“Mmm.”

“They will know peace, and eventually memory of the shamen and their nuclear gods will fade away.”

“Peace through deception eh?”

“Is there any other kind?” They smiled at each other for a moment. “I’m sorry about your horse.”

“Yeah. Well, Sterling was a good horse. He was sick though, and old. There was no gettin’ around it. That night you found us, that was sorta our last hurrah. I was gonna have to put him down either way. He woulda’ liked how things turned out.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just glad it’ll all work out.”

“You taught me how to fly, Osiah.”

Osiah took a drink of his whiskey and made a face as it went down, showing his teeth. He stared into the cookfire and said, “Then fly, Red Fox.”

END

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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

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Brunning Divide, Ep1: Unwelcome News

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“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

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Blighted Aura, Ep1: Stonewalled

Click HERE for a Downloadable version.

The sky ruptures. Rays of the setting sun fracture into scintillating shards of color as a stone flashes into existence in the upper atmosphere. It plummets toward the ground, gaining speed. Light warps around it, forming a dark penumbra. A trail of flame follows its tortured path until the stone impacts the ground at the edge of a lake. The shockwave flattens trees in every direction and sends clouds of mist and dust into the air.

In the silent aftermath, muddy water falls like false rain. The fractured pieces of the stone tremble unnaturally as smoky tendrils ebb outward. Plants wither. Animals flee, or else they sicken and die.


The morning sun parted the clouds and stirred the village of Hiber to life. Yuan stepped out of the home in which he’d lived his entire life. His father had built it for his mother, and although Yuan was of age, building a home of his own seemed another hopeless dream. His father called him a late bloomer. They both knew it to be more complicated than that.

The air was clean and crisp, exactly the kind of morning Yuan liked best. Despite his shortcomings, he would find ways to contribute. With a deep breath he called to a nearby stone mason.

“Bergan! I would be pleased to work with you today.” He bowed slightly, careful to keep his clasped hands the right height to designate respect for an elder.

The burly stone worker bowed in return and shook his head. “Thank you, Yuan. May the Ancestral Light attend you, but I have plenty of help today.”

Yuan watched Bergan walk away. Three young men went with him, each of which Yuan knew he could outlift.

Next he caught the eye of Londer, the woodworker, and bowed. “Londer! Do you need assistance this fine morning?”

Londer returned his greeting and then hoisted a satchel over his shoulder. “No thank you Yuan, I have all the help I need.”

With practiced effort, Yuan hid his disappointment. It wouldn’t do for neighbors to see his emotions too vividly so early in the morning, but everyday it was the same. Most of the villagers gently refused his offer to work with them. They thought him flawed, broken because he couldn’t do what they could. But he would find a way to serve the people of his village. One way or another, he would prove his worth. He just wasn’t sure how…yet.

Londer turned suddenly. “Yuan, I could use you later, carrying some of the finished furniture back from the forest. Could you help me after midday?”

Nodding, Yuan smiled. “Of course, Londer. I would be grateful to assist.”

“Yuan! Where are you?” Yuan’s father, an elderly man with gray hair and bright eyes called from the threshold of their home.

“I am here, father.” Yuan answered.

“I almost forgot to tell you, the Widow Helmslee could use your help. She can’t clear the patch behind her cottage by herself.”

Yuan smiled. The Widow Helmslee could probably clear the patch twice over by herself, but this would give him a small means to contribute. He thanked his father and left.

The widow’s home sat among the forest as if it had grown there, like all the homes of Hiber. He knocked at the door, noting how well the stones of the wall fit together. Her husband had been a skilled builder, perhaps as skilled as his father, Aita, before he had stopped working stone. Yuan pushed down the painful memories of how he had caused his father to retire early. He called out, “Widow Helmslee! Are you at home?”

“Out back! Come around.”

Yuan followed the stone walkway that bordered her home. Each stone in the walk fit perfectly with its neighbors. Yuan wished again he could mold stone that well, or at all.

The Widow Helmslee looked up from tending her flowers. She remained spry considering she was the oldest resident of the village, not counting those who had already Ascended. With a small bow she said, “Aita! I didn’t know you were coming to help me!”

“No, Widow Helmslee, it’s Yuan. Aita is my father.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, Widow Helmslee. I’m sure.” Yuan smiled as he bowed deeply, indicating most respect.

“Well don’t stand there all day. Move those stones.” She motioned towards a pile of rocks almost as tall as Yuan.

Yuan walked around the pile, wondering how long it would take him to move it. “Most of the villagers don’t have a pile of stones like this in their flower bed. Why are they here?” he asked her.

“My husband Brael intended to build a wall along the edge of the garden. To discourage rabbits from sneaking in. Could you make it for me? I want the stones out of my way so I can extend my vegetable patch.”

“Yuan hefted a stone the size of his head. “Where do you want it?”

“Here,” she motioned to an open space where a small rose bush with a single red bloom sat alone. The others had all been cleared. “Oops, I missed one.”

The Widow reached down and placed a hand on the stem of the rose. Yuan almost stopped her; fearful she would tear out such a beautiful flower. But her hand rested lightly on the rose as she whispered to it. Slowly the rose bush flowed through the soil until it rested with the other roses at the end of the bed.

“That should do it.” She surveyed her handiwork. “There should be enough stone to make a wall about knee high all along here.”

Yuan nodded dumbly, still holding the first stone in front of him. A yearning seized him as he marveled at the ease of the Widow’s work, but he stifled the jealous desire before she could see. He focused on building the wall the only way he knew how—by hand, one stone at a time. By stacking and interlocking the stones carefully, he soon had the beginning of a wall that would stand for many years.

The widow watched at him quizzically. After many minutes she asked, “Aren’t you going to shape them?”

Yuan gritted his teeth and set down the stone he carried. He hadn’t expected such a question from the Widow Helmslee. Then he realized she must be confusing him with his father. Careful to contain his emotions, he replied, “I’m not Aita, Widow. I’m Yuan.”

Widow Helmslee clasped both hands over her mouth. She stepped to Yuan and hugged him. “I’m so sorry, Yuan. Of course you may stack the stones as they are. I prefer a natural look to a wall anyway. Let me help you move them.”

She spoke to the air beside her. “Yes Brael, I know he’s not Aita.” She lifted a small stone and brought it to the wall Yuan had started.

“Let me do it, Widow Helmslee. Carrying stones is the kind of thing I’m good at.” Yuan tried to keep any bitterness out of his words, but he heard it loud and clear. If the widow noticed she said nothing.

Yuan continued carrying the stones and stacking them for the rest of the morning, until the original pile was gone. He regarded his work with a smile. Not bad for someone who couldn’t mold stone.

Widow Helmslee emerged from her cottage, carrying a large mug. “Here you are Yuan, you look thirsty.”

Yuan accepted the mug of cool water gratefully.

“And don’t worry about the wall, your father can stop by and mold it properly anytime.”

Yuan choked in mid-swallow. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and handed the mug to the widow. He bowed, his hands clasped at eye level to indicate most respect. A cauldron of emotions roiled within him. “I must be going, Widow. I’ve agreed to meet Laraki for lunch.”

Tremendous discipline and years of practice were all that hid his extreme hurt from the widow. If he allowed himself to feel the anger or pain threatening to explode within him, she would read it in his aura. They all would.

Yuan left the widow quickly, bound for his favorite tree.


In minutes Yuan reached the huge oak, close enough to the village to be accessible yet far enough away to feel private. He pounded the trunk once with his fist before swallowing his frustration and sitting on a bench made from the living wood. It had taken many sessions with Londer to convince him to make it.

Individual rays of sunlight filtered through the forest, orchestrated by a cool breeze that carried the scent of flowers and green grass. Yuan breathed it in. He closed his eyes and asked the calm to replace the storm inside him.

An insect buzzed slowly by—a bee, heavy laden with pollen. Opening his eyes, Yuan swatted it out of the air. The bee thunked against the trunk of the tree and fell stunned to the ground. A gasp of astonishment caught Yuan off guard.

“Yuan! How could you?” Laraki darted forward. Gracefully, she knelt and lifted the insect in her hands. She held it close to her mouth and whispered to it. Yuan leaned forward, trying to catch the words, but they were too quiet. After a moment, Laraki opened her hands and the bee flew away.

“Why did you do that?” Yuan asked her. “It was only a bee.”

Laraki stood, hands on her hips, and faced him. Her long hair framed her face. A green tunic of silk fell to her knees. The color perfectly matched her left eye. Yuan thought her mismatched, right eye resembled the color of rich soil. A white wool belt tied at her waist completed her attire. She tilted her head to the side in a way he found entrancing. He prepared himself for another of her lectures.

“Yuan! You are impossible! Bees are among the most reverent of all creatures. They provide a service and make food for themselves and us while doing it.” She shook her head, unable to disguise the faint smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Her smile changed to a frown as she regarded Yuan more closely. “What happened to you? Your aura is… wild.”

He was careful to keep a tight rein on his feelings. “I helped the Widow Helmslee today. She thought I was my father. It was strange.”

“Is there more?”

Yuan shook his head, but had to look away.

Laraki sat next to him. “Yuan, if you could only see yourself the way I do. You have more capacity for grief and self-sacrifice than all the rest of the villagers put together. Your aura…” she studied him for a moment. “It’s captivating and devastating at the same time.”

“I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”

“It’s why the others struggle to relate to you.”

“The others pity me.” He picked up a pebble and tossed it away. “Nothing more.”

“That’s not true. They’re frightened…and maybe even a little jealous.”

Yuan snorted derisively. “How could you think that? I’m the crippled one, remember?” Only in Laraki’s presence did he dare let his emotions run their course. Currently, he uncorked the morning’s frustrations. “The one who can’t see auras!”

Laraki gasped.

Confused by her response to something she’d known for years, Yuan finally looked her in the face. “What is it?”

“I hadn’t realized your desperation had grown so bleak. That you would even consider…” her words faded into tears.

“What? What did I do? If it’s about the bee, I’m sorry.”

“Were you going to tell me before you left the village? Or were you just planning to disappear?” She choked out the words between sobs.

There was no use in disguising the truth with Laraki. She often knew things he hadn’t admitted to himself. He looked away. “Yes, I’ve decided to leave the village.”

“How can you leave your home, especially with your father getting weaker…” She struggled for words. “How could you leave me?”

Yuan refused to look at her. For some dumb reason he felt that if he didn’t see her, she wouldn’t see him. Or at least she wouldn’t see the truth of him—the darkness he battled constantly. “I have to go. I’m tired of everyone thinking I’m some kind of cripple.” How could she understand it was for her sake he must leave?

“When will you go?” she asked softly.

Another bee buzzed past, filling the silence. “Tomorrow morning.” Yuan decided on the spot.

“Where…”

“I don’t know. One of the other villages. Maybe try and see how far away a man can go.”

Laraki stood, took his hands, and raised him up to join her. “Then you must go to my father and ask for my hand.”

The breeze stirred her long red hair. Yuan’s blood raised even as his heart sank. “Your father hates me.”

She lifted his chin until his eyes met hers. “He doesn’t hate you.”

Yuan pulled away. “I don’t know where I’m going or when I’m coming back. I may never come back. It might be too dangerous. You should stay here.”

Laraki shook her head. “I am going with you. If you leave without me, I will follow alone. When my father knows that, he will grant your request for my hand.” She hugged him, painfully reminding him of how strong yet soft she was.

He ran his fingers through her red hair, amazed she allowed one such as him to touch it.

“You should go right now.”

“Yes, I should.” He backed away while considering his next words carefully. She would see it if he lied. Why did her father have to be the Village Elder?

Laraki stood her ground. “Don’t you want me to go with you?”

“More than anything,” he said softly.

“Then ask my father for my hand.”

“I will.” He uttered the words as if a great stone crushed down on his chest. The simple statement was all he could muster.

She kissed him and retreated, moving as lightly as a dancer until she disappeared through the trees.

He collapsed onto the bench. What he had promised her was true. He would ask her father. Someday. At the moment, he wasn’t good enough for her. If her father denied his request, tradition dictated he couldn’t ask again. She would be lost to him forever.

Even worse, her father could say yes, and she would be stuck with an unworthy husband. He stood and ran his fingers through his hair. He would have to leave tonight.


Yuan returned to the village, hatching his plan in his heart. It would require great care to allay Laraki’s suspicions. She had just proved how well she could read his mind by observing his aura. Perhaps he could go to the woods to help Londer and simply not come back. Yuan needed only to inform his father. At least the elderly Aita would understand.

As the village cropped into view through the fringe of the forest, Yuan was surprised to find half the villagers clogging the trail. Curious, he felt his way through the crowd until he saw what held their attention. The sight stunned him.

Derrin, Laraki’s younger brother, sat in the dust of the crossroads, his clothes rent. Blood oozed from cuts on his face and dripped from his nose. Mouth agape, he stared at the ground while drool coursed down his chin. His boots were gone, his feet bloodied. Despite his clear need of assistance, the nearest villagers stood twenty feet away. Most were steadily retreating.

Yuan stepped forward, bewildered that no one helped. He bowed quickly, hands held chest high, the correct height for an equal. “Derrin, are you well?”

“Don’t touch him!” Someone shouted.

Yuan stopped, his hands inches from Derrin’s head. “Why?”

Derrin seemed oblivious to the conversation.

Bergan grabbed Yuan’s arm and pulled him away. “There is something wrong with him.”

Yuan struggled to free himself from the mason’s iron grip. “He’s hurt! Why is no one helping him?”

“You can’t see his aura,” Bergan whispered. “It’s…” he shook his head, at a loss for words.

“It’s what?” Yuan demanded.

“It’s…gone.”

“Every living thing has an aura!” Yuan snapped.

“Yes, but, his is… gone.”

Yuan’s eyes widened in surprise. “But,” he couldn’t voice what they must all be thinking. “How is that possible?”

Bergan shrugged and stepped back further.

Yuan wrenched away from Bergan and darted to Laraki’s brother. “Derrin, are you okay?” He touched the boy’s shoulder. The crowd gasped.

Derrin turned his head and focused his eyes. “Yuan?” He staggered to his feet and stared at the villagers surrounding him at a distance. “Am I home? Is it over?” He glanced at his torn clothes and the cuts on his hands. “I’m, I’m hurt.”

“Derrin!” Laraki slipped gracefully through the crowd, her father, Pashun close behind her. “Come with me, I’ll help you.” She took Derrin’s hand, attempting to lead him away.

“Let go of me!” Derrin backhanded his sister, knocking her to the ground.

She stared up at him in shock, tears in her eyes.

Yuan hesitated only a second before pinning Derrin’s arms to his sides. He had never seen anyone strike another person in all his years. “Why did you do that?” Only after asking the question did Yuan realize how much he yearned for the answer. Only then did he realize how close to the surface his own violent nature lurked.

Derrin struggled against Yuan’s grip then appeared to snap out of his trance. He stuttered and blinked. “What, what did I do?”

Yuan’s anger flared. “You hit Laraki!”

“What? I would never…” Derrin continued to blink and twitch.

Laraki slowly picked herself up from the ground—grief and horror etched across her face.

Yuan suppressed his anger while Pashun aided Laraki. “Are you all right, my daughter?”

“Yes, father.” She dabbed at the puffy skin beneath her eye.

“My son is ill. Take him to our home.” Pashun ordered the crowd at large.

Yuan wrapped Derrin’s arm over his shoulder and tried to walk him by himself, but Derrin’s feet were too badly injured. Yuan gazed into the crowd of blank faces, waiting, but no one offered. “Someone has to help.”

After several seconds, Junstan stepped forward—the one person in the village Yuan hoped would’ve stayed back. Pashun favored him as a match for Laraki. With a nod, Junstan hooked Derrin’s other arm over his shoulders.

Together, the two of them carried Derrin through a rapidly widening gap in the crowd until they reached the Elder’s home and placed Derrin in a bed. Cautiously, Laraki bandaged her brother’s cuts and scrapes.

“Can you recall what happened to you?” Pashun asked his youngest.

Derrin lay back against his pillow and closed his eyes. “I wish you would all stop looking at me that way.”

“What way?” Pashun asked.

“Like I’m some kind of monster.”

“We’re not trying to make you feel uncomfortable,” Pashun said.

“Well you are!” Derrin sat up, his eyes still closed. His head turned as though he looked at each of them in turn. Everyone shrunk from the outburst, everyone save Yuan.

Yuan stood between Derrin and Laraki, determined to prevent her further harm.

“The only one of you who seems normal right now is Yuan. And I think we all know why.”

Yuan’s face reddened.

“What happened to you?” Pashun repeated the question while raising a hand to silence Yuan’s response.

Derrin breathed deeply. “I saw something fall from the sky this morning; something that burned as it fell. It landed near Juniper Lake. I’d never seen anything like it before, so I went to investigate. But when I got close to the lake, I saw the forest dying; trees, animals, everything.”

Trembling, Derrin continued. “I stopped at the edge of a… a patch of death, hundreds of yards across. There were these things… writhing, dark, like long fingers of smoke. Like snakes of death. Everything they touched wilted or died. Before I could understand what I saw, they were wrapping around my feet, sucking at my boots. Sick to my stomach, I kicked off my boots and ran.”

“Did anything else happen?” Pashun asked.

“I just kept running.” Derrin shook his head and laid back. “The next thing I knew, Yuan was talking to me.”

Yuan noticed how Laraki avoided Derrin’s eerie closed-eye gaze. Her eyes revealed her panic. Yuan didn’t need to see her aura to understand how she felt.

“This thing, this patch of death, was it expanding?” Pashun asked.

Derrin laughed, eyes still closed. “You can’t stop it.” He spoke with a voice not his own. “No one can stop it. It’s coming, and it will eat you all.” The laughter morphed to giggling. Then Derrin wept.

It felt as if the air had gone out of the room. Yuan looked to Pashun, hoping the elder had some wisdom to offer. Surely, he understood what was happening to his own son.

Finally Pashun spoke. “Yuan, Junstan, gather as many of the people together as you can. Send messages to warn anyone outside the village about this… this blight. The elders will discuss what to do. Go,” Pashun ordered.

Yuan turned toward Laraki before leaving. A red hand mark had sprung up across her cheek. “Be careful.”

She nodded. Sadness framed her face as she looked to her still weeping brother. “I will.” She seemed distant, closed off.

Yuan feared she had read his intentions. Worse yet, she had seen into his darkness. He dismissed the thoughts. Her response was no doubt due to concern for her brother, nothing more.


Yuan and Junstan did as Pashun had asked. On the way to the village meeting, Yuan related everything to his father.

“It still surprises me that Derrin would strike Laraki. Such a thing…and from such a pleasant young man,” Aita said.

“I am worried about him, and about her.”

“But more about her. Am I right?” Aita smiled. “She would be a good match for you. I’ve seen how she watches you. I would approve if you decided to seek her hand.”

“This is no time to think of such things. In fact, before this happened I had decided to leave the village.”

“Were you going to tell me?”

Yuan kicked a stone further along the path. “Yes, of course.”

“And are you going to tell her?”

“I already did.”

His father raised one eyebrow like he always did when annoyed. “You told her before me? Hmph, figures. What did she say?”

Yuan rubbed the grit from his forehead. “She wants me to ask her father for her hand so she can go with me.”

Aita winked. “I knew she was a smart girl. So you asked?”

“No! I couldn’t ask for her hand now.”

“Of course, of course.” Aita steadied himself with Yuan’s arm and they resumed an old man’s pace toward the village center. As if sensing Yuan’s impatience, Aita continued. “I am an old man now. I can feel my time drawing close. It would be nice to know my only son had someone to share his life with.”

“Even if I could make myself do it, now is not the time. Our village may be in danger.”

“I know.” Aita gripped Yuan’s arm tighter. “Don’t put it off too long, or she’ll be gone.”

Yuan thought of Junstan and scowled. He knew Pashun favored Junstan more than the only man in the village who couldn’t see auras. “I’ll consider it.”

“My son, you have more to offer than you think. Weren’t you the first one of all the village to help Derrin?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t see what everyone else could.”

“Perhaps,” Aita nodded.

A large crowd gathered outside the Elder’s home. Every able-bodied villager was there. Pashun greeted them individually while Laraki emerged from the family home to stand by her father’s side. Pashun asked his daughter something privately. Yuan overheard her response. “He’s sleeping quietly. A hint of his aura has returned.”

After hearing the good news, Pashun addressed the villagers from a stump. “My fellow residents of Hiber, you surely have heard what has happened to my son and how he acted uncharacteristically. I fear the mysterious blight he encountered may be spreading toward our village. We may need to flee.”

Mumbling ran around the crowd like quiet thunder. Someone asked, “Are you sure we need to leave our homes?”

“No, I am not. It may be like a forest fire to be run from and it may not. Until we learn otherwise, I suggest we prepare to leave, immediately.”

Londer asked, “Do we know how close it is?”

Pashun shook his head. “No. That’s why I need a volunteer to serve as scout.”

Amidst the mutters of the villagers, Yuan stepped forward. “I will go, Elder. Send me.”

“I will go as well,” Junstan chimed in.

Yuan clenched his jaw. It figured Junstan would volunteer.

“Good, the two of you will go together, but go quickly. Don’t touch the blight or let it touch you. May the Ancestral Light attend you.” Pashun bowed, his hands held at the height designating deep respect.

Yuan and Junstan returned the bow before trotting off together in search of a blight that had driven Laraki’s brother mad. On the bright side, if Yuan went crazy, at least he’d take Junstan with him.


Yuan had fished Juniper Lake many times. He knew the path well, so Junstan allowed him to lead the way. The further they jogged, the stranger it felt to anticipate finding something Yuan wasn’t sure he wanted to see.

Within a mile of the lake, they slowed to catch their breath. Their surroundings seemed normal, yet Yuan felt the need to whisper. “Have you seen any hint of the blight?” It suddenly occurred to Yuan that he might not even be able to see the blight.

Junstan laced his fingers behind his head. “Has it occurred to you that there might not be a blight?”

“If Derrin was lying, you would have seen it. Everyone would have seen it.” Everyone except me, Yuan thought.

Junstan shook his head. “You don’t understand. He had no aura to read. He could have been lying, or even delusional.”

“Then I guess we need to go all the way to the lake.” Before Yuan could resume their pace, a rabbit streaked past them and smacked into a tree. It rebounded several feet.

Junstan backed away immediately.

“That was odd.” Yuan moved to take a closer look at the stunned animal.

“Don’t touch it,” Junstan hissed. “Its aura is…”

“Gone?” Yuan asked.

“Not exactly.” Junstan swallowed. “I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s warped.”

As Yuan considered what to do next, two more rabbits pounced on the unconscious one and began to eat it. “Ancestor’s Light! Is their aura normal?”

Junstan staggered backwards. “Let’s go. Theirs are worse than the first.”

Yuan led the way through the trees at a steady run, urgent but not reckless. He felt familiar enough with the area to find his way off the trail.

“Yuan! Stop!”

Yuan froze. “What is it?”

“You can’t see that?”

A single drop of sweat rolled down Yuan’s forehead and into his eye. He blinked in effort to see what Junstan saw. He noticed only trees and brush until one tree seemed to wilt before his very eyes. He pointed at the sick tree.

“Yes,” Junstan hissed. “It’s covered in snakes without eyes—all bound together as one. You don’t see them?”

“No.” Conflicted, Yuan couldn’t decide if his disability was an advantage in this situation or not. He strained his eyes, but all he saw was a sick tree. He glanced at Junstan and nearly jumped.

Junstan’s eyes bulged. He gasped for air as if something had wrapped around his throat. “You can’t see it? You can’t see it!”

“Calm down and breathe.” Yuan shook him.

Junstan couldn’t unglue his eyes from the tree.

Yuan focused his emotions, the same way he had trained himself to remain unreadable to the others. The discipline allowed him to stay calm. “Tell me what you see.”

“I don’t know, but I think I’m going to throw up.” Junstan put a hand to his mouth. “It’s like a ball of snakes trying to devour the same mouse. How far are we from the lake?”

Yuan looked for a landmark. “I don’t know for sure. Less than a mile.”

“Let’s go back. No wonder Derrin went crazy.”

“We still don’t know for sure how far it’s spread.” Yuan objected.

“We know it’s here and it’s moving toward the village. That’s what we came to find out. Let’s go back.” Junstan staggered and would have fallen if Yuan hadn’t have stabilized him. “I can feel it. It’s as if…”

“What?” Yuan stared at the tree. It looked more wilted than it had a few moments before. “If the blight is moving this way, then we should be able to go around it to the south. The view from the hill above the lake will let us see how far it’s gone in all directions.”

“No! We need to warn the village. They must leave immediately.”

Yuan smiled. “You can go back without me if you want, but I’m going to the hill that overlooks the lake. I think I can manage without you.”

Junstan struggled with the matter for several seconds. “Fine. But you would have turned back already if you could see what I see.”


Yuan led the way, skirting several trees that looked sick. Junstan said nothing, so Yuan couldn’t be sure the trees were infected. More than once he heard Junstan gag, indicating the blight couldn’t be too far off.

The slope of the ground increased and Yuan recognized the hill by a familiar outcropping of rock. He knew a small clearing at the top would grant a view of nearly the entire lake. Panting and out of breath, he and Junstan crested the hill.

Where once a small lake of clear water and silver fish had shimmered in the sun, there existed nothing but smoking mud. For the first time since seeing Derrin, Yuan felt a keen sense of the evil that threatened them. A crater on the eastern edge of the lake revealed where the thing from the sky had struck.

Blackness radiated outward from the crater, leaving an uneven line of dead and decaying plant and animal life. The blight extended for at least a mile in every direction, except for the hill where they stood. Yuan wondered if the blight flowed like water, seeking the easiest paths first. Even without seeing the aura of the blight, the destruction alone filled him with dread.

He heard Junstan fall to the ground behind him.The hairs on the back of Yuan’s neck rose. “Junstan, what is it?”

Tears flowed down Junstan’s cheeks as he cried freely. “It’s too much to see. We’ll die. We’re all dead!”

As much as Yuan wanted to dislike Junstan, he regretted bringing him this far. No one deserved to suffer like this. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Can you walk?”

Junstan nodded weakly. “If it’s away from here.”

Yuan helped him to his feet. Together they retraced their path down the hill.

No sooner than Junstan had regained enough strength to walk on his own, he cried out. “Stop!”

Yuan nearly jumped out of his skin. “What is it?”

Junstan scanned the forest in dismay. “It’s moving up the hill fast. We’re cut off!”

Yuan shook his head. None of the trees seemed wilted or sick yet. “I don’t see anything.”

“That’s the problem! You’ve never been able to see anything!” Junstan ducked as if dodging a blow. “Run!”

Yuan dashed up the hill with the feeling of something nipping at his heels. He had no idea what they would do when they reached the top. If Junstan was right, they were trapped. After minutes that felt like hours they reached the crest of the hill, both of them gasping for breath.

“There’s nowhere else to run! You did this! You’ve killed us both!”

“We’re not dead yet,” Yuan growled. “Be quiet and let me think.”

“Ancestor’s Light,” Junstan gasped. “It comes.” His eyes darted from tree to tree.

Yuan shook Junstan. “Where is it the thinnest?”

Junstan doubled over and retched.

“Where is it the thinnest?” Yuan yelled.

“There’s no chance. We’re dead.” Junstan collapsed to the ground in a heap.

Yuan thought he felt the blight coming like heavy air before a storm. Of its own volition, his gaze returned to the crater on the edge of where Juniper Lake had been. If the blight was spreading outward from there, it stood to reason the greatest concentrations would be at the outward fringe where everything was dying. Right?

He tugged on Junstan, but his unwilling companion had passed out. Growling low in his throat, Yuan heaved Junstan over his shoulder. At a reckless and burdened pace, he barreled down the hill, straight toward the crater where the blight had begun.


Laraki watched the two young men leave to scout the blight. She knew they represented her future. She would spend her life and her devotion on one or the other. She also knew her heart to be wild. A tear trailed down her cheek. Her unfettered desire ached for Yuan and his intensity, even though she knew grief would come of it. Was she crazy to trust him?

She pushed the selfish thoughts aside. She couldn’t let her father shoulder the entire weight of the village on his own. He needed her help. Faithfully, she remained by his side, handling what small burdens she could.

In the midst of the evacuation planning, Widow Helmslee approached and bowed reverently. “Elder Pashun, I haven’t seen my Brael for the last few hours.”

Pashun answered her politely. “I am sorry, Widow Helmslee. There are times when the Ascended leave our plane of existence.”

The widow shook her head. “Not my Brael. He’s stayed close by ever since he Ascended more than five years ago.”

As her father attempted to comfort the widow, Laraki pondered the matter. Brael had been the only villager to Ascend during her lifetime. Many had died. Only Brael had Ascended. While Laraki knew Ascension to be rare, she had no idea how many of her kindred had ascended before her time.

Most of the Ascended came and went at will, often passing down knowledge from hundreds of years before. The Ascended brought the village continuity and memory. She didn’t know any personally, but she had witnessed their interactions with loved ones many times. She caught the widow’s attention before she could leave. Bowing low, Laraki asked when Brael had first gone missing.

“It’s not as much when as how. I would have sworn when he left he was running away.” The widow teared up and Laraki comforted he while seeing her home. On the way back to the village center and to her father’s side, Laraki decided to visit her friend, Talia.

Talia’s young son often visited with an Ascended Great-Grandfather who came to check on his family. Laraki knocked loudly on the door.

“Come in!” Talia called. “Oh Laraki, it’s you! Is your brother any better?” She greeted Laraki without interrupting her preparations to leave the village. A chuffy toddler followed at her hip.

Laraki winced at the unwelcome reminder of her brother’s condition. “I left him sleeping peacefully. His aura seems to be returning.”

“I am glad to hear it. My Leron saw him come in to the village and is still shaken up about it.”

Laraki smiled wanly. “Talia, I wanted to ask you about something else. Have you seen your Ascended Grandfather recently?”

Talia stopped what she was doing. “It’s odd you should ask. He was here this morning, making little Taliron laugh.” She hefted her boy in her arms. “But then he left suddenly. I’ve never seen him leave like that before.”

“Was it… about the time Derrin returned to the village? About midday?”

Talia nodded. “Do you think there’s a connection?”

Laraki said, “There might be.”

“What does it mean?”

Laraki shrugged. “I wish I knew.”

After saying goodbye to Talia, Laraki returned to her father’s side to help as she could. She waited patiently as he attempted to assuage the villagers fears even while instructing them to prepare to leave their homes, possibly forever.

A breeze blew gently, stirring her hair and cooling her as it brought the smell of flowers. In happier times she would have followed the smell of the flowers until she found them and identified them, maybe even picked a few.

“And what is my daughter waiting so patiently to speak to me about?” Pashun asked.

Laraki looked around. Everyone had been sent away to prepare. She and her father were alone, a rarity. She beheld him for a long few seconds. He looked more tired than she had seen him in many years, maybe ever. “I think all the Ascended have fled from the blight.”

Pashun sat on the stump at the center of the village. “I think you are right.”

Few things he might have said would have surprised her, but that did. “How could you know?”

He massaged his forehead. “I didn’t really know until you asked the Widow Helmslee about the matter. I trust you found another to confirm your suspicions?”

“Yes, Talia’s grandfather.”

He sighed. “We can’t evacuate everyone until tomorrow morning. Even that soon will be difficult.”

“What about Yuan and Junstan?” Laraki asked, her voice breaking.

Pashun followed the path to Juniper Lake with his eyes. He shivered as if he could see the blight through the miles of forest. “Whether they return or not, we cannot risk the rest of our village. Not returning will confirm the blight to be even worse than we feared. If they do return, perhaps it will be with good news. Either way, we will prepare for the worst. Hiber must survive.”

She stood straight. “I will wait for them here, even if you must leave with the rest of the village.”

Her father exhaled long and slow. But in the end, he smiled. “You remind me of your mother when you talk like that. She would have waited for me.”

Laraki missed her mother. Mention of her brought a fresh mixture of joy and grief to the surface. Her mother had been from the village of Nash. She asked, “Will you take us to Nash?”

Her father nodded. “It is in the right direction; away from the blight. We have relatives among them. They will help us, and we will warn them at the same time.”

Shocked, Laraki had not considered the blight would press so far. “How big do you expect the blight to grow?”

“I hope it will die out soon of its own accord. I plan for the worst. I try not to expect anything when dealing with the unknown.” He rubbed his eyes. “How long has it been since you checked on your brother?”

Laraki glanced at the sun. “Not long. I’ll go now.”

“I’ll come with you.”

He took her arm and they walked the short distance home together. He opened the door, bowed, and waved her in. She smiled, bowed in return, and stepped through the door he held for her. Then she began to scream. And scream. And scream.


Yuan slid as much as walked down the steep hill. Multiple times, he even sat in effort to keep their combined weight from tipping too far forward. And Junstan weighed a lot.

Halfway down, they crossed the transition zone; one moment in green trees and the next in blackened, rotting stumps. Black dust like ash rose with each footfall. It coated his skin and invaded his lungs. Yuan cringed at every sound, whether a whisper of the wind or cracking of the crusted earth. His paranoia grew with each breath, as if the blight pervaded him from within.

He had to focus his thoughts on something, anything to keep down the panic. He found himself wondering what it would be like to become infected. Would he know? Had he already succumbed? And what of Junstan?

The memory of the rabbits surfaced in his mind. Could a human lose his mind so completely he would try to eat another? Could Junstan? Could he? He didn’t think so. Derrin, on the other hand, had seemed more disturbed.

Yuan dropped Junstan in a puff of black dust. Laraki. His protectiveness of Laraki took over his body, and he began to run toward the village to warn her—forgetting about Junstan, forgetting about himself, forgetting he was still in the midst of the blight.

He only took a few steps before coming to himself and stopping. Leaving Junstan would be the same as killing him. Yuan groaned out loud. He clenched his fists in frustration as he fought the desire to run madly back to the village. Laraki wasn’t alone. Her father would protect her, wouldn’t he? Could he?

“Light of my ancestors!” he swore. Finally, he picked up Junstan and trotted as fast as he could. The base of the hill touched the lake and he found himself slipping in mud. It clung to his legs and sucked at his boots. But he continued to slog forward at a determined pace.

No living things remained within the desolation of the blight. Not even a fly buzzed. He wondered what he would see if he could see auras. Maybe there was nothing—it had all moved on like he hoped. Or perhaps he was the only living thing blind enough, therefore stupid enough, to court death.

At the end of what used to be the lake, he staggered onto firm ground with relief. He set Junstan down and collapsed onto all fours. He drew in great ragged breaths while fighting off the urge to retch. Drenched in cold sweat and trembling, he regained his feet after several seconds of trying.

That was when he saw the crater, only yards away. Curiosity seized him. He had to know what had fallen from the sky. What had brought the blight?

Leaving Junstan where he lay, Yuan slowly approached the crater. Huge gouts of dust and mud had splayed out from the impact. One end of the crater had washed away as water had poured in from the lake. Where had all the water gone?

Noises emanated from the crater, like small clicks and clacks. He crouched low, then crawled the last few feet on hands and knees. He hesitated just shy of the lip of the crater. What was he doing? He battled internally. This is crazy. Just another foot.

A rock hit him in the back. He whipped around to see Junstan waving both arms wildly.

“Run!”

The single word triggered a coil inside Yuan, and he ran.

Junstan staggered on his feet. Yuan caught Junstan under the arm and shouldered his weight, barely slowing down. “Faster!” Junstan squeaked as he glanced over his shoulder.

Yuan didn’t bother to look. He knew he wouldn’t see anything, and he didn’t want to waste the energy trying.


Yuan’s breathing grew more strained. The black dusty residue left in the wake of the blight covered them both from head to toe, inside and out. He couldn’t keep going forever, not with Junstan in tow. Junstan looked worse than Yuan felt. The thought occurred to Yuan, he might still escape, alone.

Junstan staggered and fell, dragging Yuan to the ground with him. Yuan swore while picking himself up. He kicked Junstan in the side. “Get up.” Yuan blinked and shook his head until the world stopped spinning. Finally he realized Junstan had passed out again. What now?

A menace thickened in the air. The hair on the back of Yuan’s neck tingled. Slowly, he rotated his head. He couldn’t see anything other than the ashy landscape. Pressure grew within his eardrums as if a storm were about to break all around. Unseen forces pushed and pulled at him, whispering of death and decay.

“Enough!” Yuan screamed into the emptiness that was the Blight, one fist raised high.

A sound, almost like thunder in the distance hissed in response then disappeared suddenly, leaving him wondering if he had heard anything at all.

Rain fell softly, each drop raising puffs of dust. Yuan looked up into the cloud-filled sky, stumped as to when the clouds had appeared or where they’d come from. All he knew was his breath came easier. The feeling of menace dissipated as the ash settled. He knelt by Junstan and slapped him lightly on the cheek. Nothing. Begrudgingly, Yuan heaved him over his shoulders and continued toward the village.

After what seemed like hours, Yuan reached the edge of the blight. Rain and sweat dripped off his nose and transformed his clothing to mud hanging from his body. Thirst plagued him. By the time he found the trail that led to the village he had resigned himself to carrying Junstan the entire way. At least he had the shelter of the trees, many of them wilted but still living.

“Put me down.”

Yuan stumbled, and Junstan rolled off his shoulders in a heap.

“Are we… still… in the blight?” Junstan sat up and strained to focus his eyes.

“I don’t think so. What do you see?”

Junstan stood up, leaned weakly against a tree and looked around. “Nothing… out of the ordinary. Did the rain stop the blight?”

Yuan shrugged. “I don’t know. It seems to have helped. I haven’t seen or felt anything unusual since it started.” Rain dripped from a branch. Yuan opened his mouth and savored the taste of the water. After a deep breath he started walking.

“Wait! I need to rest a moment more.”

Yuan shook his head. “You’ll have to catch up. I fear for Laraki.”

“Her father is there.”

Yuan began a slow dogtrot that would get him to the village as quickly as his weariness would allow. He spoke over his shoulder. “Her father doesn’t know about the rabbits.”


When Yuan reached the village, he saw Bergan and a few of his apprentices standing in front of Laraki’s house like guards. A small crowd stood nearby, despite the rain. They let Yuan pass without a sound. Their eery silence filled him with dread.

Bergan held up a hand, signaling him to stop. “You don’t need to see what’s in there, Yuan.”

Yuan shoved past him and threw open the door. Less than five feet away, Derrin dangled from a rafter, a rope around his neck, his feet dangling above the floor. Yuan gagged, but remained long enough to scan the room. No one else was in the home.

“Where is she?” Yuan shut the door behind him. “Where’s Laraki?”

“She and Pashun are at your father’s home, waiting for you,” Bergan replied stiffly.

Yuan shot him a quizzical look.

Bergan softened. “Go, they will explain.”

As Yuan turned to leave, Junstan staggered in from the forest. Yuan ignored him while mustering the last of his strength to sprint home. So much had happened this day already. Too much. How much more could there be?

Exhausted in every way, Yuan reached his home. He leaned on the knob as he opened the door. Laraki sat on the floor in the center of the room, weeping. Her hair draped over her face. Pashun waited nearby.

Yuan opened his mouth to speak, but his dry throat cracked and nothing came out.

Laraki sensed his arrival all the same. She leapt to her feet and hugged him, still crying.

He held her in silence before whispering in her ear. “I’m so sorry, Laraki.”

She leaned back far enough to look him in the eyes. “That’s not all, Yuan. Your father is passing.”

Yuan looked past Laraki to where his father lie in bed.

“She couldn’t stay at our home after…” Pashun’s voice faltered. “And she wanted to be here, to be with your father.”

Yuan knelt by his father’s bed. “Did something happen?”

Aita smiled weakly. “I am sorry, my son. My time has come.”

“Were you hurt, Father? I should have stayed to protect you.”

Aita shook his head. “No, Yuan. It is simply my time. I’ve known it was coming for many days but… I guess it surprises us all when it… happens.”

“How long?” Yuan asked while trying not to think of a world without his father.

“Hours at most. I had asked Pashun to give me my funeral rites, but… you came back. I want you to do it.”

Tears sprang to Yuan’s eyes. “I can’t see your aura, Father. I can’t do the rites.”

“You’ll do fine.” Aita closed his eyes and smiled.

Pashun bowed to Yuan, displaying the bow of deepest respect and catching Yuan off guard. “Please forgive me for asking at a time like this, but for the sake of the whole village I must know what you’ve learned of the blight. How far away is it?”

Drying his eyes, Yuan flipped a switch inside himself, reengaging the standard discipline he used when communicating with anyone other than Laraki or his father. “A few miles. Its expanse seemed to stop with the rain.”

“Is it possible the rain killed it off?”

Yuan shrugged. “Maybe. Either way, Junstan and I walked right through it unaffected. Well, I walked through it. Junstan road upon my shoulders most of the way.”

“And Junstan? Is he now in his right mind as you are?”

“As far as I know. I saw him walking of his own on my way here. Of course he could see the auras when I could not. The blight had a greater effect on him.”

Pashun nodded. “You give me hope, Yuan. We will take care of the things we need to do before we make any more decisions for the village.”

Laraki joined Yuan beside his father’s bed. Yuan asked, “What of Derrin?”

“Bergan and his apprentices will take him to the burial ground.” Pashun walked to the door. “There are many who will wish to accompany your father there. I will go and bring them.”

“Now? Right now?” Yuan asked.

Pashun nodded and left without another word.

“It is… okay, my son.” Aita placed a weak hand on Yuan’s head. “Death is part of life. I will soon see your mother again.”

Yuan held his father’s hand until the old man seemed to drift into a light sleep. Yuan stood and walked to the door. He opened it to watch the rain. Laraki stood by his side, quietly holding his hand. He turned to her, “What of the rites for your brother?”

Fresh tears appeared in her eyes. “He had no aura, and he died when he… he…”

“I know.” Yuan gathered her in his arms and let the sound of the rain ease their grief.


The funeral procession made its way up the hill to the burial grounds. The rain had ceased. Yuan followed the six bearers as they carried his father. Laraki walked beside him, assuming the role typically reserved for a wife. He couldn’t turn her away, not when she experienced such fresh grief herself. Her presence only intensified his desire to be normal—to provide for her what she deserved, a whole husband.

She tried to smile through her tears, but he knew his father’s passing would always be marred in her memory.

His heart jumped in his throat as he struggled to contain his emotions.

The procession topped the hill and wound among trees until they reached two stones. Larger than a house and originally a single block, the two rocks had been split and weathered by nature long ago. Now they served as gates. The path between them was well worn by the passage of those who cared for the dead. Beyond them lay a cave where the bodies of everyone who passed in the village were interred.

The bearers laid the bier on the ground and motioned for Yuan to come forward. He knelt in the mud by his father. Aita cracked his filmy eyes open and struggled to speak. He smiled weakly and whispered, “It will be okay.”

Tears burst from Yuan’s eyes as he took his father’s hand. He couldn’t refuse his father’s request, and he couldn’t allow him to see his doubt.

All of the people of the village who had accompanied them joined hands and formed a circle around Yuan and his father. Pashun stepped forward and whispered into Yuan’s ear. “His aura is leaving his body. You must perform the ritual now.”

Unable to stop the tears, Yuan took his father’s hands in his own. He breathed deeply and willed his heart to slow. “Just this once,” he whispered fiercely to himself, “allow me to see the aura.”

His father squeezed his hands and closed his eyes as his body went limp. Yuan let his father’s hands slip away from his own. He panicked. He saw nothing. There was no way to direct the essence escaping his father’s body. His father’s memories and knowledge would be lost forever.

He held his hands over his father’s body and tried blindly to direct the escaping aura like he had seen others do. “Aita, my father, I see you.” His voice cracked and faltered as he waved his hands, trying to gather the aura. Surprised looks of those in the circle revealed he was doing it wrong. Anger and frustration filled him to the point of despair. This tragedy would be one final proof of his defectiveness.

“You will be remembered.” His voice broke again as he spoke words he knew to be lies. He made the motions with his hands as if gently spreading his father’s essence towards the people in the circle.

“Those you leave behind…” He couldn’t say it. The worst part of this charade was that his father’s memories and experiences would be lost. Not only would his father pass, he would be dead forever. The shocked whispers of the mourners pierced his back as he dropped his head in shame.

Soft hands grasped his. He looked up. Laraki crouched at his side, directing his hands. How could she do this for him when her own brother was lost?

She spoke the rites. “Those you leave behind will forever be grateful to you for your memories and strength that you share.” Her hands swept the air around him, leading his hands to gather in his father’s essence and then toss it to the mourners in the circle.

Yuan closed his eyes and wept. He joined his voice to hers as she said, “Go now, Aita, in peace. I see you no more but remember you forever.”

Directed by Laraki, he swept the air a final time and held both his hands over his chest. Although he couldn’t see the aura, he felt the warmth of his father’s smile enter his heart. He bowed his head.

Laraki stiffened next to him. “He’s Ascending Yuan, he’s Ascending!”

All the people in the circle stood silent with awe, their eyes locked on a point just above their heads.

Yuan asked Laraki, “What is it? What’s happening?”

“Your father. His aura was strong enough that he endures beyond death. He is waving to us, smiling. He is one of the Ascended now.”

Yuan envied the excitement in her voice. The air still smelt like rain. He watched the people around him as their eyes lifted higher and higher, following his father’s essence upwards. He could see nothing.

Laraki screamed.

The people surrounding him gave a collective gasp before scattering into the forest.

“What is it?” Yuan asked. “Laraki! What’s happening?”

Terror filled her eyes. Fresh tears flowed down her cheeks. “Derrin attacked him.”

“What? Derrin’s dead. His aura—”

“He drove your father away! He comes for me!” She screamed and clung to Yuan.

He wrapped his arms around her instinctively. “Enough!”

END of Episode 1

Read more Blighted Aura at https://www.fictionvortex.com

Relic Hunters, Ep1

Click HERE for a downloadable version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The surveillance around my apartment building has increased.”

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

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

I chuckled, accidentally subvocalizing a line of gibberish.

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

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

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

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

Zao gao, Jim. Focus.”

I was trying to focus on not creating an accident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“These people are dangerous,” Benji continued.

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


“What is it?”

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

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

“Jim? What the hell—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buddy, are you alright?”

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

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

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

“Cora, what on God’s green earth—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She chewed her lip and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cora creased her forehead but held her tongue.

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

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

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

I lowered my chin and raised my brows.

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

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

“But you didn’t—”

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

“What are you saying?” Cora grilled me.

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

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

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

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

I sputtered, at a loss.

“What if someone disrupted the signal on purpose?”

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

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

“Yes, Mr. Buckner,” Evie responded.

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

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


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

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

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

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

The man, probably a teacher, nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I simply couldn’t process it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“You old bastard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you saw it?”

“I saw something.”

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

“I was hoping you could contribute to that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you—”

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


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

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

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

“Sweetie? James? Can you hear me?”

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

She started crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not funny.” Cora withdrew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I, I don’t want you to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cora exited the room.

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

She turned an icy glare toward me.

It melted instantly. Not before I regretted my words.

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

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

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


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

“But I don’t need—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Buckner?”

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

She shut the door.

“Um, skipping school twice in one day?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But what—”

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

Slowly, I nodded.

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

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

She raised a brow.

I sighed. “Yes, but—”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re out of time. They’re coming.”


“Who’s coming?” I asked.

“The green ones.”

“The which ones?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you think I’m here?”

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

The door burst open, revealing an empty hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

She breathed steadily, but remained unconscious.

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

She stirred, her eyes roving beneath closed lids.

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

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

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

I flinched. “You okay? Anything broken?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mission?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you park?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know my tablet wasn’t—”

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

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

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

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


“Did they see you?” She huffed.

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

“You don’t know who to trust.”

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

“It’ll come back to you,” Evie said.

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

“More like climbing a rock face.”

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

Evie caught me. “You okay?”

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

“Even the nose route at Yosemite?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” I said.

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

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

“What’s so funny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END Episode 1

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DMB Files, Ep1

Click HERE for a downloadable version

Rub’ al Khali, 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who—”

“In time, Little Buck. In time.”


University of Texicas, Present Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Samantha?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muttering erupted across the room.

“Freedom to speak freely is granted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the THS—”

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

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

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

He smiled broadly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He narrowed his eyes, unwilling to feel remorse.

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

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

A few snickers bubbled around the room.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

But I needed it soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“The waitress.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A good one.”

I waited a second longer.

“Well?”

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

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

She deflated instantly.

“What?”

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

“It’s an adventure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But all of this—”

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

I objected. “It’s important.”

“You’re damn right it’s important.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Daddy?”

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

“Daddy, it’s me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

“You’re not making any sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it’s a Friday.”

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

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

She stared at me without changing expression.

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

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

I resisted the urge to shift awkwardly in my chair.

“You don’t have to hide it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dad, you’re freaking me out.”

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

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

“Evelyn Buckner.” I scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

Evie slumped, emphasizing her disappointment with a long sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“So this is what being lectured feels like.”

“It’s for your own good.”

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

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

I repeated the words verbatim.

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

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

“Really?”

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

“You see something?”

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

“Stop holding out on me.” Evie stamped.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Evie backed away reluctantly.

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

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

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

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

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

“What just happened?” Evie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stopped. “You found something!”

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

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

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

“Only with you.”

“Oh thanks, I guess.”

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

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


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

“There,” Evie pointed.

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

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

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

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

“You have a flashlight?”

She shook her head.

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

“Yes. Yes, I can.”

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

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

I responded without thinking. “Thirty-nine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Core security breach at the lab. Potential: catastrophic.

END of Episode 1

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