Relic Hunters, Ep1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The surveillance around my apartment building has increased.”

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

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

I chuckled, accidentally subvocalizing a line of gibberish.

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

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

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

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

Zao gao, Jim. Focus.”

I was trying to focus on not creating an accident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“These people are dangerous,” Benji continued.

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

“What is it?”

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

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

“Jim? What the hell—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buddy, are you alright?”

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

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

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

“Cora, what on God’s green earth—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She chewed her lip and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cora creased her forehead but held her tongue.

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

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

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

I lowered my chin and raised my brows.

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

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

“But you didn’t—”

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

“What are you saying?” Cora grilled me.

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

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

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

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

I sputtered, at a loss.

“What if someone disrupted the signal on purpose?”

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

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

“Yes, Mr. Buckner,” Evie responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man, probably a teacher, nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I simply couldn’t process it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You old bastard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you saw it?”

“I saw something.”

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

“I was hoping you could contribute to that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you—”

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

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

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

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

“Sweetie? James? Can you hear me?”

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

She started crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not funny.” Cora withdrew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I, I don’t want you to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cora exited the room.

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

She turned an icy glare toward me.

It melted instantly. Not before I regretted my words.

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

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

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

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

“But I don’t need—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Buckner?”

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

She shut the door.

“Um, skipping school twice in one day?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But what—”

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

Slowly, I nodded.

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

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

She raised a brow.

I sighed. “Yes, but—”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re out of time. They’re coming.”

“Who’s coming?” I asked.

“The green ones.”

“The which ones?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you think I’m here?”

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

The door burst open, revealing an empty hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She breathed steadily, but remained unconscious.

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

She stirred, her eyes roving beneath closed lids.

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

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

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

I flinched. “You okay? Anything broken?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you park?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know my tablet wasn’t—”

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

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

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

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

“Did they see you?” She huffed.

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

“You don’t know who to trust.”

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

“It’ll come back to you,” Evie said.

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

“More like climbing a rock face.”

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

Evie caught me. “You okay?”

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

“Even the nose route at Yosemite?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” I said.

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

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

“What’s so funny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END Episode 1

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DMB Files, Ep1

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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.


“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.


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.


¿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.


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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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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Desert Gods continues the Buckner saga

DesertGodssmallThe much awaited continuation of the DMB Files has arrived! (Hey, me and at least 4 other people have been really awaiting it.) DESERT GODS (not to be confused with DESSERT GODS. That’s a whole different book entirely.) picks up where De Novo Syndrome leaves off and throws Buckner and Evie into a final showdown with Oleg and his minions of twitchers.

But, before they get to the desert they pick up my new favorite character, Dr. Petrosian. The crank of all cranks, this guy makes Buckner look downright cheery. Plus, he is keeping all kinds of secrets from when he used to be Buckner’s father’s partner and best friend.

Anywho, this book reveals all sorts of gems on Buckner’s past as well as some revelations about the nature of the twitch retrovirus. On top of that, I drop a bit of a bomb that will reinterpret the way Buckner sees his entire world. Ooolala. You sci-fi and twisty thriller fans won’t want to miss it. Expect the unexpected!

Now, as for calls to action from my legions of faithfuls (I love all four of you!):
1.) Go buy it! DESERT GODS is available from Amazon and Kobo Books and B&N.
2.) If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and Goodreads.
3.) If you haven’t read De Novo Syndrome yet, you will want to read it first. But, before you run out to buy De Novo…

DE NOVO SYNDROME will be on sale for $0.99 May 1st-3rd!!!

Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Kobo Books. If you still need to pick up a copy of De Novo, I recommend taking advantage of the sale. If you insist on paying the full $2.99, just pick it up now, or wait until May 4th! The sale is for ebooks only, but De Novo is available in paperback as well, from Amazon.

Finally, you can always spread the word to anyone else you think would be a fan. Above all, enjoy the show!

De Novo Syndrome… Unleashed!

Jim Buckner’s (aka me) first book has arrived, and here is what people are saying about it.

“The rabid, frothy pacing gripped me like the iron jaws of a junkyard dog and left me crying out for a literary tetanus shot! More please.”

“I only smoke after sex and reading a really good book. This novel had me lighting up before I could set it down.”

“My first thought: Good Lord, not another first person POV series. My last thought: Thank you, may I have another?”

Who exactly are these people? Well… I don’t know. But whoever they are, they’re certainly real. As real as Jim Buckner himself. (Why would you even ask?)

De Novo Syndrome coverThe mysterious universe alluded to by the Lost DMB Files comes into sharper focus with the DMB Files as Professor Buckner discovers how deep the rabbit hole goes. The year is 2025, and the nation of Texicas is over 100 years old. Those behind its founding preserve a secret 1000 years older. The truth is waiting. Read more

Meet Jim “Buck” Buckner

Today we here at the Green Porch are honored to have Professor Jim Buckner introducing himself and the work he has been doing to procure and edit the Lost DMB Files. Leading exploratory geologist and adventurer, I’ll let him speak for himself!

Why the Lost DMB Files matter

oil derricks Recently many good meaning folk have asked me why. Why risk my life and my reputation over some dusty old stories? Thanks for asking.

March 13th, 2000 my father led the last previously known expedition into the heart of the Arabian Oil Zone (AOZ). Two weeks later I emerged as the only survivor. I was twelve. Something happened to me in the desert, something I still don’t totally understand. Upon my daughter’s diagnosis with de novo syndrome, a hereditary disorder, I made it my life’s goal to uncover the mysteries of my lost past.

Who or what resides within the AOZ? Is the twitch retrovirus directly linked to the drilling and/or refining of petroleum? Or is it connected with some secondary or tertiary factor? Is de novo syndrome a natural evolution of the twitch, or a genetic manipulation made by human hands? Soon after accepting a teaching and research position at the University of Texicas, my quest took a surprising twist.

I received a copy of The Austin Job on the same day my daughter was kidnapped. But I’ll spare you the details of that story here, one you can read about in my book, De Novo Syndrome. For now, it will suffice to say I discovered a personal usefulness within the Lost DMB Files to help me along my life long quest.
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