There was no tunnel. No white lights. No dead relatives waiting for her, amidst a beautiful utopia reeking of love and warmth. She was cold, and kind of hungry.
Do dead people really get hungry? Laney thought, sitting inside of her own head. Nothing to keep her company but the pitch black.
Laney sat in the darkness of her mind, replaying the events of the last six months of her life. The last six months that ended with her six feet under. She wanted to reach out. Stop herself from making the mistakes over and over again.
Is this hell? I wasn’t the greatest person in the world but I didn’t think I deserved hell.
Her memory self falls to the floor in a puddle of blood.
They always met in that motel. The Stardust Motel. Room 218. It’s one of those motels where you don’t need a credit card. Cash up front, rooms by the hour. Boasting of an outdoor pool that no one could use, because it was always coated in a thick layer of green slime. The scent of mildew, and bad decisions drifting casually in the air. The dust fell from the post sixties mod style curtains, floating in the air like the seeds blown from a dandelion.
She remembered the gun shot. The thunderous force of its cargo ripping through her chest like Velcro. Her body hitting the musty floor of the motel room. The final bad decision in a never-ending stream of bad decisions.
She moved out of her parents house at fifteen, and in with her abusive boyfriend. Cocaine is a hell of a drug, and her parents enjoyed plenty. She ran through a train of abusive men and developed a thirst for amounts of alcohol typically reserved for two.
It wasn’t like I wanted to be an alcoholic. It’s not like college was an option, and my parents didn’t set the worlds best example.
She had been working part time in The Outpost, a dive bar in the rundown side of town. You know the one. Every town has one. The one that people avoid, and yet it still stands. The one that reeks of alcohol, and the cigarette smoke of the past.
But it was home. She sold her soul to the company store. Drowning herself in her tips.
Why did I decide to meet up with him? That’s right I needed money.
Laney had only met up with that man for a quickie and some cash. She wasn’t the town bicycle, but he was lonely, and she wasn’t seeing anyone so, no harm no foul.
How was I supposed to know that he was a psychopath?
She met Simon six months ago, when she had turned twenty. His face was sad and lonely, but his brooding eyes had a glimmer of charm hiding in them. He sat in the corner of The Outpost, where she remained after her shift to finish off a bottle of Jack Daniels and celebrate the poor excuse of her birthday. The cigarette smoke clung to the air, like a child holding onto their mother. The faint sound of pool balls, drowned out by Journey, playing on the juke box.
As they sat talking, she pulled her hair into a high, loose bun with shorter pieces of hair falling around her face. One drink led to another, which led to a bathroom stall. He wasn’t looking for a relationship, which was fine with her. The past six months had been nothing more than a quickie here and there, and him asking if he was the only one, and giving her money to get by. To which she always replied with of course.
They never bothered to talk to each other about anything deep. No philosophical late-night discussions.
How did that night go?
Simon texted her that morning. He wanted to meet up like usual. Laney got in the shower, letting hot steam open her pores, the alcohol she consumed the night before running out of her body. She fixed her face, using the makeup that Simon had bought her to cover up her breakouts, and hiding her racoon eyes.
Laney got dressed, put on her yellow sundress, showing off her tan shoulders, and headed out the door of her apartment. Getting into her beat up Jetta, she drove the twelve blocks north, towards The Stardust Motel.
Pulling into the parking lot, she did her best to avoid the needles some of the other patrons politely left behind in their endless chase of the dragon. She got out of the car, and quickly went up to the door of room 218.
“Hey” Simon greeted her; eyes averted like they were doing something bad.
“What’s good?” she smiled quickly kissing him on the cheek, kicking her heels off in the corner of the room.
He didn’t look right. He was always reserved, but he had worry in his eyes, instead of the charm that normally nestled in them. His face pale, his hair greasy and unkempt. When they met up, her clothes were almost off by the time they got into the motel room. Instead he stared at her, like he was looking through her. His behavior should have been the first red flag, but Laney chalked it up to a lack of sleep, he was always so busy doing... well Laney didn’t really know what he did for work.
“Is everything okay?” She stammered, starting to unzip her dress.
“Don’t!” He commanded. A fierceness in his eyes she had never seen before.
Laney froze, zipping back up the side of her dress. She had walked to her shoes, so she could put them on as well. “I’m just gonna go. I thought we were gonna meet up like normal but if you’re not feeling it, I’m gonna pick up a shift.”
“Sit the fuck down!” he yelled, his voice shaking. “Who else have you been meeting here? “His voice the thunder to the lightning flashing in his eyes.
“No one!” she shouted. Even though they were just fuck buddies, she wasn’t looking for love in any place. Simon was the only one she has had any sort of relations with, carnal or otherwise. Her blood was boiling.
“Don’t fucking lie to me!” he snapped, pacing across the small room. From the bathroom at the far end to the door. “The guy at the front desk said he saw you with three other people!”
The boiling blood, finally reaching the tip of her tongue, “We aren’t even together Simon! I haven’t been here since last time we were together!” She caught her breath, “And even if I was, it’s none of your goddamn business!”
She felt the sting of his hand right across her mouth. Hot tears rolled down her face, “Fuck you!” She screamed pushing by him to get to the front door.
He grabbed her by the hair, dropping her to the floor with a thud. Bells ringing in her ears. “We aren’t together!” She insisted, “Simon we aren’t together!”
“I thought this was more.” His eye’s dancing around the room, “I thought I meant more to you Laney.”
She let out gut wrenching sobs, “Simon we barely say more than three words to each other every time we meet! How could you possibly think we were more than this?”
He cocked his foot back and released. Digging the toe of his boot into the left side of her rib cage. She could hear the crack, just like the wishbone at Thanksgiving.
She began pulling herself up onto the bed, when she heard the hammer of the pistol click behind her.
The bullet shredding through her like a piece of paper, leaving her to float on a pool of her own blood.
Snapping back into her now reality, she remained in the darkness. When do I get my fucking tunnel? When do I get whisked off to the angels? This sucks. She sat in the darkness, waiting for the bright lights to sweep her off to heaven. Or hell. She didn’t care which, but the damn darkness was beginning to feel unnerving.
Title: Purgatory (working title)
Age Range: Adult
Word Count: 1,362
Author Name: Ashley Casaus
Why it's a good fit: This is the start of the first chapter of the book that I'm working on. I think that it is going to have a lot of potential, and is something I am really excited about once it gets flushed out a little more.
The Hook: A story about a girl who dies violently, and is left to traverse the galaxy.
Synopsis: This first chapter follows Laney, and how she meets her demise. However, the rest of the book is going to follow her on a journey around the galaxy, in her attempt to finally find eternal happiness.
I am a 29 year old woman. I have loved writing from a very young age but typically focus on poetry. I have a few different mental illnesses and writing has always been an outlet for me. I was initially a nursing major, but after a mental breakdown, I decided that nursing wasn't for me, and that I wanted to go back to something I loved: English. I am currently an undergraduate and Colorado State University - Pueblo, working towards my English degree with my secondary teaching license. I play a lot of videogames and love cosplays and comic cons. I work full time, mom full time, and go to school full time. I have had multiple pieces published in our campus literary magazine, and am really excited about trying something new instead of poetry!
May I suggest you check out my self-published book on Amazon under the title "Stationary Limbs" by Burman Sage?
Finch- Chapter 11
The following morning, six o’clock, someone knocks on the door. No pause was given before a guard opened the door and turned on the lights, which woke up both the boys, Rachael paid no mind as she had gotten used to sleeping with her pillow over her face.
“Get up Mark. Your training starts now.”
Mark slowly sat up and rubbed his eyes, he had slept in his gym uniform and slid out of bed to put on his shoes, “I’ll be out in a second.”
The guard nodded, as he closed the door, Sam yelled out, “Wait! Can I come with him?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
He glanced down at his notes, “Yes, come with him. Get ready, you two have five minutes to meet General MacNeil at the back gate near the busses.”
The door shut and Sam excitedly jumped out of bed. He was dressed and ready to go so fast that they were out the door within a minute. The walk down to the bus ramp was full of Sam’s plans to impress the General. Mark was too caught up in his preconceptions for the day to pay attention.
“… Just you watch, the General will have me as his go-to guy before you know it.”
Mark pushed the door open and started walking down the stairs, “Maybe. He didn’t tell you anything though.”
“He probably didn’t get the chance to. A busy guy I bet. I bested most of these guys in the hallways so why not have me? Plus, I think with some training my skin can get even stronger!”
“The doctor explained that my skin hardens on impact, such that I can absorb blows better. I bet with the right training I could take a knife and bullets no problem.”
Mark shook his head, realizing the conversation, “Please don’t try that.”
“It’ll happen. He saw my potential and I will work to gain his favor.”
“You watch too many movies.”
As they walked along the fence, they saw the gathering crowd of students and quickened their pace.
With it being six in the morning, they had to largely rely on the lights from the watchtowers to see the group. The horizon just barely had the sun’s rays shining through it, with only the tops of the trees in the forest being able to graze the sun’s light. The boys walked through the gate and close to the bus ramp to get to the group.
The Bus ramp typically had dozens of school buses to take the students home at the end of the day, but the buses had been replaced with tents that acted as quarters for the soldiers. The General and the students were standing far off to the side in the grass. The General stood next to a gate that led to the forest behind the school.
About twenty or so students clustered together, all chattering amongst themselves while the General talked to a few of his subordinates. Sam excitedly continued his plans to impress the General up until the time limit. Mark scanned the crowd, looking at each of the students for recognizable faces. Clara was upfront, not talking to anyone, but standing firm with her arms at her side waiting for instruction. Much to his horror, Griffin stood tall with a sneer on his face near the front as well. Mark shrank a little in his shirt and hoped that he wouldn’t be noticed.
“Sharp! Sanchez! Front and center!”, The General hollered. He had stepped forward and confronted the crowd of kids, they all stopped talking on a dime as soon as he started yelling.
Clara stepped in front of the crowd, “Here!”
Mark quickly ran around the group of kids and stopped next to Clara, “Here, sir!”
“Excellent. You two will be training with me today, the rest of you will be completing exercises with my men over here. I may ask some of you to assist me as I see fit.”, the General opened the gate into the woods before walking and motioned for the two kids to follow him. Both obliged, without a word.
Mark glanced behind at the group receiving instructions. Sam’s excitement had died down and his eyes fell to his feet as he stepped forward to receive the orders for the day. Mark’s eyes drifted and he locked eyes with Griffin, who stared right through him. Mark jerked his head back forward and kept his eyes focused on the General.
The path they were walking down was somewhat illuminated by the sky as well as lights set up every couple dozen feet. As they walked, stations were set up in small, cleared areas with some having pads down while others had pull-up bars. Some areas seemed to exist for checkpoints more than anything.
MacNeil, without looking back, pulled a small-cap out of his back pocket and tossed it towards Mark who caught it. It was dark green with ‘army’ in yellow wording. There was a small battery pack on the back. He ran his fingers along the inside and felt the wires and sensors inside. A couple of electrodes stuck out from the front.
“Portable brain scanner. Not as accurate as an MRI machine but will help Doctor Chen get a general idea of how your brain works when you do that speedy thing.”
“You described the world as slowing down when you fought, I’m not going to name your ability for you.”
Mark looked over at Clara who offered little more than an eyebrow raise and a shrug as she kept her head forward. He slid the hat on his head and popped the electrodes to his forehead as they walked
“Sir, why are we going into the woods? I kind of need electricity for my ability to work.”, Clara asked.
“We have battery packs for you to use. They store a little more energy than you can currently keep in your body safely.”
“Why not use the outlets?”
“Do you want another seizure?”
“That one ONE TIME.”
Mark raised an eyebrow, “seizure?”
Clara ignored him but the General clarified, “While her power is amazing, overuse has some downsides. We found out the hard way, didn’t we?”
Clara sighed and he continued, “That’s also why we gave you that hat. If using your speedy thing causes you to have a stroke or some other medical issue with extreme usage, we have to be careful.”
Mark secured the hat a little more tightly on his head, “Good to know that’s a possibility.”
“You’ll be fine. Clara, to start you will be warming up your body with those battery packs I mentioned. Slowly take in as much energy as you can, and then release it back into the battery full charge. Do not rely on your gloves. You can build up voltage without it.”
He stopped at a wide clearing with large structures for power lines. The lines cut a line through the entire forest, allowing for the structures to be seen beyond a mile in either direction. Lights were set up along the concrete base of the nearest structure with a table full of electrical equipment. Clara stepped forward and looked at the table and began her warmups.
“Sanchez, you’re going to warm up as you would for any workout, light jog, stretch, but do what you did in your fight with Griffin.”
Mark’s face went pale, “The speedy thing?”
“Yes, your speedy thing. What’s wrong?”
He bit his lip, “I don’t know-how. When I did it the first time it just kind of happened during the fight.”
The General rubbed his chin, “It wasn’t like a conscious thought?”
Mark shook his head, and the General threw his hands down, “That’s disappointing. You can-”
Those words were all he heard. Mark’s stomach sank at their sound, and he desperately thought back to how it was that he used his ability. How did it work? But remembering the thought processes you had in a fight like that is… difficult.
Before he knew it he was completing a run to the abandoned water treatment plant half a mile away and back. It wasn’t until he made it to the fence of the water treatment plant that he shook his head and thought about the situation. But with no idea on how to get his abilities to work, his mind began to wonder. Most notably, why were they here?
The fresh air, the wind, it was nice to be sure. Not that Mark was ever one to appreciate the outside. But why would the kids be let out like this? The General was oddly trusting that he wouldn’t run away.
The hat was uncomfortable, the stickers on his forehead were itchy, and had trouble staying on as he began to sweat. There was a light beeping sound that it emitted every so often, with no clues as to what caused it. His hair uncomfortably rubbed across his skin.
He stopped to catch his breath. Why wasn’t he running away? The other side of the forest was right there, in less than a mile the forest ended and went straight into a nearby neighborhood. From there, it was a ten-minute walk to his neighborhood, another five minutes to get to his house. His eyes skimmed the other side. No, leaving wasn’t an option. Not yet anyway.
When he got back to where The General and Clara were, she was working on making arcs of electricity between each of her hands and under the General’s careful instruction. His speed died down as he stared at the pure energy jumping between the palms of her hands. Her eyes were focused solely on the task at hand.
She let out a large sigh and took a deep breath, “How was that?”
“Excellent, Clara. Are you feeling alright?”
“I feel great, sir.”
He pointed at her blackened and calloused hands, “those say otherwise. Apply the crème and then go on a run, same as Sanchez here.”
Disgruntled, but compliant, she stepped off and did as she was told.
Mark stood alone with the General, who pulled out a small notepad, “You should be warmed up now, I was thinking about the circumstances around what happened last time. You do remember well, don’t you?”
“I, I think I know what you mean.”, Mark clenched his fist and lined it up with his jaw.
“NO! Sanchez. I meant, think about how you were feeling. Your mindset. You were focused on that boy, right?”
“Focus now, on my pen.” The General twiddled the small piece of metal between his fingers. He moved it back and forth and presented it to the boy. “Think about its dimensions, the shape, more importantly, how it moves.”
“Okay, I’m focused. Now what?”
The General nodded and quickly launched the pen towards Mark’s face.
Time slowed to a crawl. The pen stopped in mid-air with its point directed between his eyes. In this state, Mark tried to move. He jerked his head to the side and shifted his body, feeling each muscle respond as he did so. Every slight adjustment his body made was instinct.
But the air, moving through it felt much more difficult. He was moving through jelly at this state, the body not fast enough to keep up with the mind it carried.
As the pen soared, it reached where Mark’s head was a just split-second before. He reached out with his arm, feeling the air’s resistance as he did so. He pinched the pen between his two fingers, and time sped up to normal.
His body was now in an awkward position, dramatically to the side, accounted from the speed at which he moved. He stumbled before falling flat on his back, keeping the pen up above his head.
“Heh. Good work, landing wasn’t well done. But I’ve never seen a normal human go that fast before. So, you may improve. How did it feel?”
“Amazing, but a lot. I felt every muscle, every movement. Even though things felt slower, there was too much to take in at once.”, he looked at the pen, “everything feels stiff.”
“That’ll happen, muscle strands can contract and stiffen in response to kinds of stress. Your body will adjust to these kinds of stress in time.”
He went over to the table and opened a chest on the floor to pull out a ball, “I’ll throw this and I want you to catch it. Understand?”
Mark nodded, “Alright, I’m ready.”
The General gave Mark a moment before gently tossing the ball in his direction. He was unresponsive until the last second it was going to pass his body and within the blink of an eye, his arm extended to his side and caught it. His arm seized and he let the ball fall.
“Okay, I think I pulled my arm that time.”
The General pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, “I meant that you catch it normally. You’re moving faster than you did yesterday. Calm down. Try again.”
Mark picked up the ball and tossed it back, only to have the General throw it back again. This time, as Mark caught the ball his movements ceased any sign of their incredible speed.
“Did you do it?”
Mark nodded and the General continued, “Good, I want you to continue doing simple tasks while in that state. Think like walking, talking, maybe some simple exercises in the next few minutes. I’ll work with you to get your body up to par, sound good?”
“Yeah, That sounds great. I-“, in the background, Mark saw some rustling in the bushes. Mark peered over the General’s shoulder to get a look at the cause. From behind a far-off tree, Mark saw Sam peer his head from around the corner.
“-I need to use the restroom really quick. If that’s okay.”
“Go on, but when we get into more intense training you won’t be able to be as free with your bathroom breaks. You don’t need to run to the buildings, right?”
“I’ll just find some isolated bushes don’t worry.”, he awkwardly laughed before dashing off towards the direction he saw Sam in. He discretely walked around bushes and past a couple of dozen trees before Sam revealed himself with a huge smile on his face.
Mark kept his voice low, “Why aren’t you with your assigned guard?”
“I told him I had to use the can. I wanted to see what the big bad General was teaching you, didn’t know what I was expecting. But it sure wasn’t a game of catch.”
“It’s more than that.”
“Sam, what’re you doing here? The guards will be looking for you once they realize you’re not in the bathroom.”
“We can go Mark, right now. I was in these woods as a kid. My neighborhood is less than a mile away. Once we run past the clearing, we’re basically home free.”
“No, we’re not. There’s-“
Sam cupped his hands over Mark’s mouth, “Mark, shut up. This isn’t the time to think. This isn’t time to debate. It’s time to act. Are you in or out?”
Mark yanked Sam’s hand off his face, “Out. The guards will see you. They are literally waiting for us to try something.”
“You’re being paranoid. I’m running, with or without you.”
He took one step towards the fields, but Mark grabbed his arm, “I’m warning you. They’re waiting for you to try something.”
Sam tried to swat Mark’s hand away, and within a blink of an eye, Mark had his entire hand wrapped around Sam’s thumb and yanked him downwards, all the pressure put on the small bone. Before Sam could yelp in pain Mark wrapped his other hand over his mouth.
“This grip is something I learned from my older brother. I may not be stronger than you, but you try anything, and the bone will break in half. I’m telling you-“
The General called out, “Sanchez! Where are you?”
Mark motioned for Sam to be quiet as he yelled back,” I just need a minute!” He turned back to Sam, “Do not try anything. Go back to your group. I’ll explain everything back in our room. Understand”
With Mark’s hand still over his mouth, he nodded. Mark let go and he scowled as he rubbed his thumb and walked off.
A couple of moments later Mark emerged from behind the bushes and apologized to the General. He paid no attention as he moved on and explained what Mark would be doing for the remainder of their session. It was around this time that Clara returned from her run and met up with the two.
“Clara, good. I just finished explaining to Mark what he needs to do. I want you to work on the exercises we put together the other day. You remember them all?”
“Yes, I do General.”
“Good, I’m going to check in on the other stations and see how those kids are holding up. I’ll be back to check in on each of y’all’s progress in a few minutes.”
Mark and Clara watched as he walked off down the path and out of sight. The two exchanged glances before quietly going about their movements. After a couple of minutes, Clara broke the silence.
“Why don’t you leave right now?”
“We’re out in the open. I know you’ve thought about it. Especially with your little… nighttime activities.”
He shook his head and tried to regain his focus, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re going to pretend like I didn’t hear you talk to Katie the other night?”
“Can we talk about this later?”, he snapped.
Clara shrugged as she stepped off to continue her exercises. The wires connected her hands as she carried batteries in each hand. Out of the corner of his eye, Mark noticed the redness around her hands from the electrical burns.
“Can I ask about your ability?”
She kept her eyes steady on the wire, “So you do want to talk?”
“I do, just not about that thing.”
She grits her teeth, “So you just get to pick what we talk about? MacNeil isn’t here you know.”
“Clara”, she kept her eyes focused on the wire, “Clara.”
She looked at him, “What!?”
“You’re right, HE isn’t here.”, as he spoke, Mark’s eyes darted across to the other side of the forest. Clara’s head jerked in the direction he was looking and as she did, the bushes rustled ever so slightly.
“I see what you mean. Either way, why do you want to know about my ability? Do you want to fight me next? That didn’t work out so well for your friend.”
“No! I’m just curious. And a little concerned.”, he motioned towards her hands.
She tightened her grip, “Ignore that.”
“Alright, you know Katie?”
“Her bed is next to mine.”
“Gotcha, so since she does heat and you do electricity are your powers similar or...?”
“I’m going to focus on my wire from here on out.”
“Okay, sorry to distract you. You just seem familiar for some reason.”
When she didn’t respond he returned to his exercises. Push-ups, squats, movements that when done too fast, caused him to come off the ground. Even when the execution of the movements felt painfully slow, it was still possible that he ended up jumping or his arms jumping up from the ground.
Eventually, as he kept his focus up, a quiet rumbling permeated through his ears, a weird, low noise that seemed to persist and break in frequency. Ignoring it, a few minutes later it returned and his focus broke. The noise was coming from Clara.
“Is that your stomach?”
She was focusing on a battery, “Please stop talking.”
“Do you want some gummies? They’re kind of gross but they help me deal with some of the effects of using my ability. Like my body can’t handle-“
“I don’t care. It won’t work on me, plus, my ability works better on an empty stomach.”
Gentle rustling was heard and the two stopped their speaking immediately to return to what they were doing. General MacNeil appeared from beyond the path. Clara was focusing on her exercises while Mark was using a jump rope.
Without a word, he stepped forward and watched the kids with approval. Clara was instructed to do various physical activities related to her ability and physical strength, while Mark was instructed to keep his ability active while doing various menial tasks. After an hour of exercise, the two kids were exhausted.
Clara’s skin grew from irritated to burned, with her fingertips growing puffy and painful. Every so often her muscles began to twitch.
Mark’s head became light, and he struggled to maintain his balance as time went on. Eventually, a small pain in the back of his head came front and center, and he had to stop using his ability for a while.
The General worked with Clara during this time, Mark sat down against the tree and watched as the two worked through more exercises. Eventually, he laid his head back and closed his eyes for a moment.
His head jerked up, “I’m awake!” He jumped to his feet to meet face-to-face with the General.
“You stay awake while we’re out here. Understood?”
“Good, we’re about done for the day. But before we leave, I want to show you something.”
The General pulled a small book out of the side of his pocket, it was slightly bigger than his hand but very thick and dense. “These are the memoirs of soldiers. It tells their stories; includes leadership strategies, training regimens, etc. I thought you might enjoy this as a read.”
He took the book from the General’s hand and looked it over, a smile grew across his face, “I think I would. My dad likes to send me books like these every so often. Interesting reads about the Army. Learning about tactics, approaches, personal development. Did you know that in training-“, he looked up and remembered who he was talking to, “Thank you, sir. I’ll get to reading it right away.”
The General nodded and proceeded to lead Clara and Mark down the path to get back to the school. Mark walked beside the General and the two talked about previous reads while Clara trailed behind. Unable to join in on the conversation, she was only able to trail behind. Her discontent only grew as she caught Mark’s occasional glance behind them.
Genre: Science Fiction
Age range: 15+
word count: Approx. 85,000 words
Author Name: Nicholas Verastegui
Why my project is a good fit: I believe my project is a good fit due to the unique premise mixed with a strong coming-of-age story
Hook: While being very character-driven, my story also provides an interesting magic system (what I'll call the virus) where the abilities the characters get are examined through a realistic lens
Synopsis: A virus with the ability to improve the people it infects is accidentally released into a high school. The changes it induces in people vary, but a small portion of those infected gained notable abilities, an even smaller portion gained superpowers. The story follows Mark, a timid teenager who learns how to use his new abilities and how to navigate a new life under military mandated quarantine.
Target audience: Young Adults
My bio: I am a 20-year-old college student. I was born in Texas, raised in Florida, and study at Purdue in Indiana. I was always interested in creative writing from a young age. But I had a strong fascination with the sciences as well. I stuck to engineering and decided to major in Computer Engineering when I went off to University. Once the pandemic hit, I rekindled my love for creative writing and began writing Finch. Since then, I have rewritten the story three times and work on it alongside my engineering coursework.
Experience: No professional experience beyond writing research papers and abstracts
Personality/writing style: I'm a very reserved character in real life, so I like to reflect that in the characters I write, while also throwing in fun and quirky dialogue.
A Golden Hoax (sample)
I grasped the gloved hands of that spoiled little brat as if they were a lifeline, perfectly timed tears brimming in my eyes. “Oh, I simply cannot wait until you come to visit us in Metzel,” I declared tearily, voice lilted in the accented manner I’d heard a hundred times growing up near the king’s court.
Marie Laurentius bobbed her head like a broken doll, squeezing the life out of my own gloved fingers. “Of course, my dear cousin. It is truly tragic to say goodbye so soon after finding each other again after all this time, but—”
“I agree, of course,” I interrupted, sick to my bones of her moping and whining. “It is so sad we must leave with such haste, but you understand the dire circumstances,” I tilted my head back dramatically as if in prayer and made an exaggerated gesture to wipe the tears from my eyes with my newly forged Laurentius family handkerchief. “My parents need a proper funeral before the festival of the pink moon, or their souls will be forever lost to the wastelands.”
Marie’s expressive face was drawn tight in pity, her cherry lips puckering. “Oh, dear Victoria, of course. Please, don’t let me hold you back any longer. Again, I am ever so sorry I’ll have to miss the funeral, but I’m afraid I’m leaving you with just about all the pocket money father gave me for this trip.”
I lurched forward to give her an aggressively familiar embrace, making sure to really lay on the snuffles and watery quality to my voice. “Thank you so much for everything, cousin. Without your kindness, I’m not sure where we would be,” I said, nodding to Claudia and Tristan, who stood near the carriage, looking nearly as anxious as I felt to be leaving.
Marie released me from the embrace with a small, proud smile that curdled my stomach. “Any time, my dear Victoria. I’m sure father will be so excited to hear of your escape from such a horrible tragedy.” Her eyes flickered over my shoulder. “And the escape of your brother and governess, of course. Doubtless father and I will be off to visit you in Metzel as soon as I return home.”
With a warm parting smile and a wave of my handkerchief, I boarded the carriage, Claudia and Tristan in tow. We waved excitedly through the window until Marie Laurentius faded from view, and then the energy in the small, cushioned cabin crumpled like a tent without supports. Tristan slumped in his seat, his cherubic features drooping into his characteristic cynicism as he discarded the guise of the eager younger brother like an old festival mask. Even Claudia, sitting as ramrod straight as a governess before us, let her lined face relax a bit.
I sighed in relief as I tore off my gloves, rubbing appreciative fingers up and down the upholstered seating and elaborate doors. “This is a fine carriage,” I remarked, feeling under the seat for the bottle of expensive foamberry wine I’d stashed there earlier. “It’ll be a shame to leave it behind.”
Claudia leaned forward in her seat, hands in a death grip on her cane, voice pitched barely above a whisper. “The con is not yet complete, girl. There is a driver just on the other side of that wall, and I would advise you not give us away to his strained gossip-seeking ears.”
I rolled my eyes, pulling free the wine and ripping out the cork with my teeth. “It’s fine. I doubt the driver can hear anything over the noise of the horse.”
Claudia sniffed, taking the offered bottle of wine, just another unwitting gift from the Laurentius family. I planned to sell it the first chance I got, of course, but no one would notice if a few sips were missing. Claudia needed to calm herself. “Regardless. You could do to be less flippant, Kallista.”
I grinned, nodding to the wall at her back. “Don’t you mean Lady Victoria Laurentius, Governess?”
Claudia took a long swig more fitting of a jug of ale than an expensive wine from the Cottelle foothills, and I winced. She just knocked several bronze from the retail price. When she passed the bottle back to me, I swirled the liquid around contemplatively and raised the bottle to my nose as if I were a fancy connoisseur. Truthfully, I didn’t care much for alcohol at all. I would take a Spubace any day. I passed it to Tristan, who accepted it eagerly and raised it to his lips.
“You can’t drink that,” snapped Claudia, snatching the bottle from his clawing grasp. “Alcohol is bad for children.”
Tristan growled like a wild animal and yanked hard on the bottle, succeeding only in sloshing it on the carriage floor. “You’re not my mother, Claudia.”
“I don’t care,” she said through gritted teeth. “You’re no good to me as an adolescent drunkard.”
“I’m only three years younger than Kalli,” he argued, and I intervened before they spilled the wine.
“Which is still too young,” I said, slapping both of their hands away and muscling the cork back into the bottle.
“Alright, I see. Thirteen is old enough for me to provide for my family by conning rich people out of their money, but Spirits forbid I want a sip of wine.”
“Exactly,” I said, stashing the bottle back beneath the seat.
“Thirteen was young enough for you to run away from home, Kalli. Why can’t I have some wine?”
My hands stilled on the edge of the seat. “Shut up, Tristan.”
“Why can’t I have some wine?” he demanded, arms crossed over his chest.
“I don’t know, it’s bad for your brain or something. Ask Claudia.”
“What does Claudia know? Just because she’s old doesn’t mean she’s wise.”
“I’m not old,” objected Claudia, false hurt flooding her sharp features. No one could ever be quite sure how old Claudia Jacobi was; she had that sort of inscrutable air around her that made her seem barely old enough to be my mother at times and at others ancient. It was exceedingly useful in this line of work. I knew she had to be at the very least in her late thirties, to have spent a decade in the military before she returned home injured after the war overseas.
I pushed aside the curtains to survey the hills rolling past. The plan was to wait until the carriage stopped for the night in Cortaz, nearly halfway to Metzel, where the charred Laurentius estate awaited. Marie Laurentius expected us to return to repair the estate and finally host the proper funeral of Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Laurentius, who had died in the fire five months ago. To my knowledge, Victoria and Blaise Laurentius, along with their governess, died with them, never having met their cousin Marie.
But Marie Laurentius was naive, foolish, and very rich, and we’d made a small fortune from the pocket money she’d given us to help with the funeral.
I caught a flicker of movement in my peripheral vision, and I frowned. Were we being followed? Pushing Tristan out of my way, I clambered up on our seat to peer through the back window of the carriage. With a groan, I let the curtain fall from my fingers and collapsed into my seat, head falling into my hands.
“What is it?” asked Claudia, leaning forward in her seat.
“That idiot sent her guardsmen with us,” I said, voice muffled by my fingers.
“Two. Riding behind the carriage on horseback.”
The wrinkle between Claudia’s brows deepened substantially as she pondered our dilemma.
“Well, Cortaz is out of the question. If we disappear there, the guards will doubtless make a fuss and assume the foolish nobles got themselves kidnapped. Too much risk, too much noise, and all three of us would have to lay low for a while before they figured out the con. Then they’d be hunting for the conmen… we don’t have time for this.”
“Do you think we could pay off the guards to look the other way?”
Claudia shook her head. “We didn’t make nearly enough to afford that kind of hush money.”
“Well, you’re the mastermind. What’s the plan?”
“Think faster,” said Tristan, cleaning imaginary dirt from beneath his chewed and torn fingernails.
Claudia leveled him with a glare, and he flinched back, biting his words.
We spent close to two hours, I would estimate, sitting in tense silence as the path rumbled past beneath the carriage wheels. When she finally spoke again, I was deep into a Luc Delortes novel, one I’d stolen from the extensive library at Marie Laurentius’ summer home. Claudia would berate me extensively if she’d known I’d jeopardized all of our meticulous preparation by nabbing a book on our first meeting, but I couldn’t resist a book I hadn’t read from my favorite author.
Claudia rapped loudly on the wall at her back, signaling the driver to stop.
“What are we doing?” I hissed.
Claudia’s smile was dangerous, like a predator baring its teeth. “It’s time for Victoria, Blaise, and their governess to die in fiery glory. Again.”
I sighed, reaching for my bag. “I really do wish every now and then you would tell us your plans before launching them into action.”
In typical Claudia fashion, she ignored me completely. “Do you still have that disassembled crossbow from last year?”
“Of course,” I replied instantly, reaching into my inner coat pocket for the key to my luggage.
“Good. The tar and flint too? I want flaming arrows.”
I raised a speculative eyebrow as the carriage rumbled to a stop. “Won’t it be considered just the slightest bit odd if I burn my own carriage to the ground? How are they to pronounce us dead if we’re outside the carriage when it burns?”
“Leave that to me.” Claudia straightened out her skirts, then hesitated. “Oh, and Kallista? Use the Tallack Fishers this time.”
The carriage door swung outward to reveal a stout man in full livery and the Laurentius family crest holding a riding crop.
“Yes, my lady? My lord? Madam governess?”
“I require accompaniment into the forest to deal with my private matters,” Claudia said in that clipped tone of hers that allowed for no argument, sticking her cane out the carriage door and brushing past the driver.
“I shall accompany you, my lady.”
Claudia brought a hand to her mouth in faux scandal. “Only you, sir? But these woods are so dangerous alone. I do believe I require both guards as well.”
“Who will stay back to guard the children, then?”
Claudia waved a dismissive hand. “On the road, it isn’t nearly as dangerous as in the dark woods. Just lock the carriage door and the children will be quite alright.”
The driver sighed and gestured to the woods. “If you insist, my lady. The guards will accompany you.”
“I believe I would be of little assistance in a fight, my lady, and my conscience forbids me from leaving the children alone.”
Claudia exchanged a loaded glance with me over her shoulder before slamming the carriage door shut in my face. The driver locked it shut with a click, and I peered through the window as he slipped the key back into his coat. Claudia stalked off confidently into the woods, the two guards at her back, leaving Tristan and I alone in a locked carriage to figure out her genius plan for ourselves
If she even had a plan at all.
I immediately launched into assembling the crossbow and notching one of the five remaining arrows I carried, shifting out of the way so Tristan could begin picking the lock on the carriage door. Only a few heartbeats later, the innards of the lock clunked into place with a muted click, and Tristan slowly began to ease the door open. The second the opening was wide enough for my decidedly stockier frame, I slipped past Tristan and scaled the side of the carriage, behind the driver.
As Tristan shut the door as quietly as possible and wordlessly began fitting his picks back into the lock, I darted forward like a snake to curl my arm around the driver’s neck. He made a gurgling noise of alarm and flailed weakly against my forearm for a few rapid heartbeats before he went limp.
I didn’t waste any time, immediately pulling a red cotton scarf marked with the crowned fish emblem of a rapidly growing rebel band, the Tallack Fishers, from my bag and tying it around his eyes. Though the Tallack Fishers had spread all around the kingdom in recent years, I still found it odd that Claudia would choose a group that had originated all the way across the kingdom, in the small fishing town from which they took their name.
I proceeded to loop yet another red scarf around his wrists, and used it to drag him from his perch and a good distance from the carriage. As he spluttered back to consciousness, I dumped him facedown on the packed earth and jogged towards the woods, Tristan at my back. I made sure to stomp around a lot and murmur in a deeply pitched voice, for the driver’s benefit.
The horses tied to the carriage were spooked, and the guard’s horses had already disappeared. I made sure to cut the carriage horses free before ducking into the woods with my crossbow.
As I began to coat the tip of my notched arrow in tar, Claudia’s voice cut through the thick undergrowth of the forest, loud and trembling. How could I ever doubt that the miraculous Claudia Jacobi had a plan?
“Help! We’ve been ambushed! It’s the rebels, they’ve—” She dramatically cut herself off with a brief scream, accentuated by the dwindling shouts of the guards.
I raised the crossbow and took aim, steadying my breathing. It had been a while since I’d fired a crossbow, and I’d never claimed to be an expert, but at least the ostentatious carriage was a sizable target. With a deep exhale, I used my flint to strike a spark, the tar on the tip of my arrow roaring into flame mere inches from my face. Without wasting another second on hesitation, I sent the arrow whistling towards the carriage.
Claudia made a disapproving noise behind me, and I had to stifle the urge to flinch. I refused to let her see that she had startled me. I barely turned my head to glimpse her frowning over my shoulder, how heavily she leaned on her cane the only sign she was in the least winding from disposing of two well-trained noble guards.
“What?” I asked defensively, beginning the practiced process of disassembling the crossbow and fitting it back into my elaborate noble luggage. That would need to change. With the crossbow safely stored, I pulled a large duffel bag made from a thick, brown, worn material out of an interior pocket and fitted it over the stolen blue luggage.
“We’ll need to work on your marksmanship.”
I frowned, standing up and brushing the dirt and leaves from my also-stolen noble’s traveling dress. “I hit the carriage, didn’t I? What’s the problem?”
“Your form is poor, that’s the problem.”
I gave up the argument, instead gesturing in the direction she’d come from. “The guards?”
Claudia lifted her sleeve to scrub daintily at the fresh blood dotting the rich plum velvet, face apathetic. “No need to worry. I took care of them.”
I shuddered. I had no doubts Claudia had been abrupt and violent as ever in dealing with the guards, but she was smart, too. She would have branded the scene somehow with the image of the crowned fish to seal our story.
“What are you waiting for?” chided Claudia. “Quick, the both of you, go bang on the door before there’s no door left to bang on. Make it sound as if you’re truly burning alive. Sell it.”
I scowled, pulling out my Laurentius family handkerchief to smear in the ash. Just in case. “What was the point in shooting it if we’re just going to go back over there anyway?”
Claudia leveled me with her iciest glare. “Do not doubt me, Kallista. Now go. Our next mark awaits.”
TITLE: A Golden Hoax
GENRE: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
AGE RANGE: 13+
WORD COUNT: 90,000 words
AUTHOR NAME: G. N. Solomon
WHY YOUR PROJECT IS A GOOD FIT: Trident Media Group represents newly emerging authors, and this project has the potential to be a bestselling debut. With intrigue, tension, a surprising amount of depth, and just plain old fun, this project represents everything you are looking for.
THE HOOK: A con artist struggling with her own values.
SYNOPSIS: Desperate to find her missing family, a con artist stumbles across a prince with a bounty on his head. But as he comes closer to discovering she’s manipulating him, she must confront the painful truths of her past before they ruin her future.
TARGET AUDIENCE: Teens and adults who enjoy Young Adult fiction, and anyone with a flair for adventure.
YOUR BIO: G. N. Solomon was born and raised in Virginia, though she spent most of her childhood in daydreams instead. She has always had a passion for everything fiction, publishing Blood So Black, her debut novel, August 29, 2021. When she isn’t writing or reading, she enjoys art, tea, and oxford commas.
PLATFORM: An expansive following of readers and writers on Instagram.
EDUCATION: A high school education, everything the internet can teach about writing, and a lot of practice teaching myself.
EXPERIENCE: I have written two novels, quite a few short stories published in literary magazines, and a seemingly infinite number of poems.
PERSONALITY/WRITING STYLE: Fun, alternative, snarky, tongue-in-cheek, but also pensive and introspective at times.
LIKES/HOBBIES: Writing, reading, doodling, laughing, listening to music, judging people, arguing, studying
HOMETOWN: Virginia Beach
Jester’s Oath Excerpt
I hate the cold, but I hate the hot more.
Sweat clings to my back as I lean onto the crooked tree, languid arms and legs tangling in the dew-wet grass. Back in Salea, snowflakes settled onto rough-hewn peaks from September till March. Mother used to say the snow was the universe's way of telling us that it was sad and it was tired. The flakes were tears, she said. Maybe the universe needed a hug.
The clammy stickiness is foreign, strange. Maybe if the sweat came to life - it would be blond, with droopy eyes and a droopier mouth - we could have a conversation about how much it sucks to be completely alien, to utterly and truly not belong in a brand new place where nothing makes sense.
The trek from Salea to here, to Fer, took multiple sundowns and even more sunrises. We ventured through looming forests where my legs itched and bled, bustling towns where we snatched morsels of bread under the cloak of night, and scattered cottages interspersed through dying farmland. Rolling hills sang along with us as we hummed the Pauper's March; bellowing moos scared us from stealing bits of stunted corn from sallow fields. The Earth, like us, felt starved and drained. Babies wailed, mothers cried. Bodies stacked in scattered heaps lined the sides of the streets.
Life back in Salea was good, or at least as good as it could be. Teo and I went to school every morning and learned what we could. Useless tidbits like the history of the royal lineage inflated our brains, only to be popped like a lifeless balloon once we walked out the doors each afternoon. We dedicated the majority of our focus and effort to salvaging fish at the frozen creek, or climbing the massive tree near our disheveled hut. Mother prepared hearty soups in the winter and light veggies in the summer, and we were happy. But the happiness betrayed us. Like a too-hot ray of sun, it blinded us, because while our naive selves were scaling towering bark or sneaking up on thrashing fish, Mother fell ill. She wasn't the only one; the baker down the road, the family across the street, all coughed and flailed and burned with scalding fever. Sickness was spreading its dirty claws like a pungent phantom, and it snagged too many in its grasp.
So did the baker, and the family. After that, it was our teacher, the seamstress, the fruit-seller across the way. Businesses boarded up their windows. The streets, normally bustling, settled into a ghastly silence.
The sickness was not the end. Two months after Mother's death, the snow, and the rain, stopped falling. The corn crops failed first. Then the potatoes. After that, the drought drove out everything until only shells of mummified kernels remained in yellowed fields. People starved, and people died. Salea was no longer safe for Teo and I. So we began our journey here - to Fer - the promised land of lore and wealth whose towering, gold rimmed buildings Mother would whisper about at night, eyes ridden with misty longing.
"Lyra, you finished all the water," Teo mutters, lowering onto the wet grass. He pulls at his too-long curls and struggles to summon a drop from the - decidedly empty - wooden canteen. I exhale, the puff of breath moving a wisp of ratty hair away from my eye. Frustrated with his whining, and with our newfound lack of water, I spit back, "We split it evenly. I took my share, you took yours. We'll find more later."
Rather than responding, Teo simply stretches and yawns. "It's weird, not being at home. Here, the trees feel like they're watching you. Look, you see that one? Doesn't that piece of bark look like an eye?"
I suppress the urge to laugh at Teo's overactive imagination. Two years younger than me, he always manages to find hidden meanings in the ordinary. In Salea, he claimed a fish we caught held a conversation with him. Another time, he promised me that while relieving himself in the forest, a cluster of frogs encircled him 'with the intent to maim him.' To his credit, however, he can make light of the darkest situations. Times like now, his imagination feels like a welcome distraction. I decide to amuse myself.
"Teo! I think the tree just blinked."
He jumps up, a yelp accidentally falling out of his mouth. I laugh and clutch my stomach. "You're too gullible. It'll bite you in the back one day."
Huffing and puffing (Teo, for some reason, thinks this is intimidating. In reality, he resembles a winded, out-of-shape old man), he yanks at his curls once more and sits back down. I rake my fingers through the dewy grass, picking out clumps of dampened dirt.
I know we need to get up. I know we need to leave, need to keep walking. The city gates, according to the number of carriages passing through, must not be more than a few miles off. But already, I'm scared. Scared that we won't be able to find work, scared that somebody will discover we come from plague-ridden Salea, scared that Teo won't be able to eat and his terra-cotta skin will stain with the pallor of sickness. Times are hard. But I can't give up. Not because I'm brave, or noble, or fearless. I can't give up because if I do, we'll die.
I funnel energy from my brain into my heavy limbs, forcing my legs to hold me upright. My voice wavers as I turn towards Teo, whose tousled dark curls cover his eyes like an opaque curtain. I take a deep breath.
"Come on, Teo. We're going to Fer."
CHAPTER 1: Not in Kansas Anymore
"Ow." Dylan Engstrom opened his eyes and found himself on a hard metal surface. "What … the hell?"
The last thing he remembered was sitting at his desk, sipping a cup of coffee, and preparing to join his buddies for a few hours of mayhem in Grand Theft Auto Online. At some point after that, everything had simply … faded out.
I'm dreaming. That's gotta be it.
He rolled over, stood, and fought off a wave of dizziness. He staggered, rubbed his hands over his face, took a few breaths, and waited for his vision to clear. When it did, he took a slow look around and realized he was in a chamber the size of a gymnasium, with metal walls, ceiling, and floor. No windows. Several doors at the far end. And filled with … aliens? Or something.
Sure, why the hell not? Since this is a dream, I might as well just roll with it.
One a few feet to his left looked like a bipedal, wingless dragon, easily ten feet tall, with muscular arms and powerful thighs and small but noticeable breasts under a tunic that appeared to be made from the skin of an animal. She glanced around quickly, confusion and fear in her reptilian eyes, and he guessed she had also awakened moments ago.
Huh. Doesn't make sense for reptiles to have boobs. But then, I guess an alien wouldn't have an exact correlation to life forms on Earth. He chuckled. More likely it's teenage hormones causing me to dream about tits. I can barely stop thinking about 'em when I'm awake.
Past the dragon was what appeared to be an orc, of all things. Also female, dressed in leather and furs, like a barbarian, sporting huge muscles but somehow managing to still look feminine. Her burgundy hair was tied into a long ponytail with a few locks hanging past either side of her face. Her dark green skin looked kind of leathery, and her face … well, she certainly wouldn't have won any beauty contests even without the two big, parallel scars running from her forehead down and across her right cheek.
Still, there was something about her -- the angles of her cheeks and her wide jaw and chin -- that exuded an air of great strength. But then, he gazed into her yellow eyes as she glanced around. She appeared to be in her forties, but there was far more mileage in those eyes than on her face. They were the eyes of someone who had all but given up on life.
He looked away reluctantly. She may have been as ugly as hell, but goddamn, what a body. He ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair and decided to check out some of the other life forms. His eyes passed over a large number of creatures he couldn't quite get his brain around -- translucent things walking on tentacles, something that resembled a millipede the size of a horse, an eight-foot-tall cross between a pig and an ogre -- and locked on to another female.
He almost laughed at that. Mind always in the gutter, even now.
This one was around six feet tall and might be described as somewhere between chubby and burly. Her eyes glowed white in contrast to her obsidian skin, but aside from that, her face was mostly human. And quite lovely, in fact. A pair of horns curved up from under her wild mane of silver hair, like a ram. She wore a dark blue cloak with a hood hanging over her back, and from what he was able to glimpse, she didn't appear to be wearing anything under it. Each hand had two big fingers and a thumb, just like the orc and the dragon-woman, and her digitigrade legs ended in large hooves.
Not bad at all. He guessed her age to be close to his, or maybe a few years older, and the extra weight was perfectly proportioned.
Huh. Usually, my dreams aren't this detailed. But there's no way this can be real. I'm probably slumped over my desk and drooling on my keyboard. He shrugged to himself again. I just hope I remember all this when I wake up.
His eyes opened a little wider as a realization hit him and he drew in a quick breath.
Shit, I hope I wasn't looking at porn when I fell asleep. If Mom or Dad barges into my room like they always do, I'm hosed.
The alien girl caught him staring at her and smiled, but it was shaky and faded fast.
Well, I can't do anything about it until I wake up. Might as well just see where this goes.
He smiled back before she turned away, and continued examining the people around him. Over to the right was a trio of bipedal creatures that looked like a cross between horses and cows wearing some sort of tribal attire.
Huh. More aliens that kinda-sorta resemble terrestrial animals. How would that even happen?
Past them was a quartet of thirty-foot-long snake people with four arms, wearing only skirts made of glowing multicolored beads roughly where the naughty bits on a human would be.
Dylan's eyes, once again, automatically locked onto the lone female in the group. Her skin was dark brown with a red and black diamond pattern running down her back. Her hands, like the orc and the chunky hooved girl and the rest, had three digits, only hers ended in claws. The top of her head swept back into a curving, three-pointed crest. Her bare chest sported two pairs of breasts. Her face was close enough to human, though covered with scales, and she was actually kind of cute.
Hah. I can't dream about a human with four tits, of course. It's got to be some weird creature. And why would an alien based on a snake have any at all? He realized he was staring and turned away. Again, though, she's an alien, so I guess there's no reason she can't be a mix of mammal and snake. What the hell, you can't go wrong with four of 'em.
He grinned and glanced around again, trying to find other humans. If any were in this chamber, they weren't close enough for him to pick out of the crowd. But his gaze did pass across something that was close enough, at least in size and shape.
The robot stood with her arms crossed over her chest, leaning against the wall behind him, about ten feet away. She had apparently been designed to look like an athletic woman, with a face of flexible metal carrying a friendly -- albeit bewildered -- expression and softly glowing red optics. Her gunmetal body was covered by a pair of cargo pants, boots, a T-shirt, and a long black coat.
Interesting. He wondered if she was anatomically correct.
Before he could check out anyone else, something nudged his shoulder. He turned and found a nine-foot humanoid wearing copper armor and a helmet with an opaque visor. It grasped his shoulder, pointed at one of the doors at the far end of the chamber, and pushed him toward it. He stumbled, regained his balance, and hurried ahead of the whatever-it-was.
In the corner of his eye, another hulking armored figure shoved the orc woman in the same direction. She snarled half-heartedly but headed for the door. She ended up walking alongside Dylan.
"I don't suppose you have any idea how we ended up here or what's going on?" He doubted she would even understand him.
"Nope. I was hoping someone around here could tell me that." Her accent was an odd mixture of Russian and Scottish.
"You speak English. You've met humans before?"
"A fair number of them, yes." She smiled at him, but it was tinged with sadness. "You remind me of one of them, a little. Someone I knew long ago."
"Ah. Decent guy, I hope."
"The best." Her smile grew ever so slightly, and so did the sorrow. "I miss him a great deal."
Dylan wondered what had happened but assumed it was a sensitive matter and didn't pry.
When they reached the door, she sighed and motioned at her clothes. "The one time I put on this old outfit instead of what I usually wear, which includes several guns, and look where I end up. Though I suppose any weapons would've been taken away before I woke up."
The nine-foot goons shoved both of them through the door and onto a large platform. He stumbled and the orc reached out to catch him before he fell. He regained his balance and found himself inches away from her face for a moment, gazing into her eyes, until she looked away and steadied herself. Her face turned a slightly darker green.
Huh. The goon's hand had felt solid enough. And the woman's breath briefly on his lips had been just as real as the three times in his life that he'd gotten this close to a girl. Dylan caught himself blushing and looked away.
He glanced around and noted the others who'd been separated from the main group -- the snake-girl, the three horse-cow people, the burly obsidian girl, the giant bipedal dragon, the robot chick, and about a dozen others. Two of them were human.
Finally! He grinned, but before he could greet them, something else caught his attention.
The goons who'd herded them onto the platform remained behind as the door closed, separating them from Dylan and the others. A bright light washed over everything and his whole body tingled.
Oh, this can't be good.
The light faded and he blinked a few times. His vision cleared and he looked around.
His mouth fell open.
He no longer stood in a room. He and the others were still on a platform, but now it was surrounded by an enormous metal structure made up of sets of stairs, ramps, platforms, and partial walls seemingly placed at random. If he had to give the architecture style a name, it would be … scaffold-chic.
"What the hell is this?" One of the other humans whimpered. "What's going on?"
"Sorcery," a woman's voice came from behind Dylan, barely above a whisper. He turned to find the obsidian-skinned girl glancing around with wide, terrified eyes and trembling.
"No." The orc shook her head. "I've seen enough to know there's no such thing. This is technology, but nothing I'm familiar with."
In the corner of his eye, the snake girl slithered past, put her upper hands on a nearby wall, pulled herself up and leaned over the edge.
"Look at this." Her voice was slightly raspy.
Uh-oh. Dylan walked slowly to the wall, jumped to grasp the top, and pulled himself up.
One of the other humans found a lower wall, leaned over, and drew in a slow breath. "Oh, hell." Her face turned pale.
Dylan glanced at her, frowned, and peered over the edge.
We're in the sky. He couldn't see the ground from here. Below the structure, there was nothing but a sea of red and orange clouds. And off to the right, he could make out two distinct suns, one larger -- closer -- than the other.
Then he realized the metal under his palms felt quite real for something in a dream. In fact, everything around him was as vivid and detailed as everyday life. His dreams were never even remotely like this, at least not the bits he could remember.
What if this is real?
"Oh, fuck me," he muttered.
"Now?" the snake girl said. "Or can it wait?"
"What?" He turned and caught a glimpse of her smirking at him before lowering herself back to the ground. He shook his head and dropped back to the floor.
"This is not a good tactical position," the orc said, flicking her eyes over the structure. "We're out in the open. We should move to an area that's less exposed to …"
Movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention. Hers, too. She snapped her head around to scowl in the same direction before he finished turning. More of the armored, helmeted, blank-visored guys appeared from behind several walls on the far side of the structure. She swept her steely gaze over them and backed up a step. "Find cover."
Dylan squinted, trying to get a clear look at the things the copper-armored goons were carrying.
"They have rifles," the orc said. "Get behind something."
A thin, yellow bolt of energy lanced out from the business end of one of the weapons and crossed the distance between the two groups in an instant.
Behind Dylan, a woman screamed. His pulse jumped and he cried out as he spun around. The human woman staggered backward, bumped into the wall, and collapsed. Her eyes stared straight ahead without seeing anything. Smoke rose from a hole that had been burned through her chest.
"Sarah!" The man rushed to her and fell to his knees. He stared disbelievingly at her, grasped her shoulders, and shook her. "Get up! Come on, baby, please get up!"
A hand grabbed Dylan's arm and he spun around to find the orc woman dragging him away.
"Get to cover!" She shoved him ahead of her just as another beam appeared for a split-second and drilled through the back of the other human's head.
A silvery thing about the size and shape of a hockey puck landed behind Dylan and bounced past him before coming to a stop.
"Grenade!" The orc pushed him again, drew in a deep breath, and yelled, "Run!"
The explosion flung bodies into the air and sent others tumbling across the ground -- more than Grishnag had time to count. She shoved the young human ahead of her and ran until both of them reached a wall. She ducked behind it, grasped his shoulder, and held him down. She turned to see if anyone else had survived the blast and found four bodies bleeding all over the metal surface and another -- one of the equine-bovine people -- teetering over the edge of the platform.
"Jesus Christ," the human moaned, hunching over and tucking his head under his arms. "This can't be happening!"
The snake-woman zipped over to the horse-man just as he rolled over the edge. She dived at him and missed his left ankle by a centimeter. She stared in shock as he plummeted out of sight.
One of the armored attackers appeared, crept up behind her, and aimed its rifle at the back of her head.
Grishnag glanced at the human and said, "Stay here." Remaining in a crouch, she moved one step forward -- and suddenly the robot blurred out from behind one of the other walls and tackled the larger humanoid from behind. Her momentum carried both of them into the wall and slammed the enemy into it with bone-crushing force. She drove her foot into its left knee, folding its leg the wrong way, and clamped her arms around its head as it fell. One quick twist snapped its neck, and she snatched the huge rifle out of the air before the body hit the ground.
The robot opened fire on the armored figures. Grishnag risked a quick peek around the corner just in time to see one of them catch a shot clean through the visor and out the back of the helmet. The others ran for whatever cover they could find.
Nice! Grishnag waited until all of them had ducked behind something, and then she glanced at the robot and said, "Cover me!" She sprinted over to the fallen humanoid while the robot continued firing.
In the corner of her eye, one of them swung its rifle around toward her as she picked up the dead one's weapon. She leaped and rolled, and the shot drilled through the space she'd already vacated. She came up in a crouch and put five shots through her opponent's chest. It slumped over and she lunged forward to grab its rifle, and then she ran back to the human.
He was where she'd left him, curled into a fetal position and rocking back and forth.
Okay, giving him the gun wouldn't be a good idea. She glanced around, found the snake girl, and tossed the gun to her. "Do you know how to use that?"
"I can figure it out." She pointed the rifle away from everyone and pulled the trigger, firing a blast into the floor. She squeaked and twitched, pulled herself together, and rose above the wall to fire at their attackers.
Grishnag took a quick look around for more survivors and found only a horse-woman, the burly woman, and the giant humanoid dragon.
"What is happening to us?" The obsidian-skinned female whimpered, huddled against the wall behind the human. "Why is this happening?"
Grishnag noticed the girl's mouth movements didn't match the words she spoke. Something is translating her speech. What the hell is going on?
"We can worry about that later if we survive the next few minutes." Grishnag popped out from behind cover long enough to shoot another of their attackers.
An enemy shot punched through the wall and searing heat on her right cheek made her lunge to her left.
"I want to wake up," the human moaned. "Why can't I wake up?"
"This isn't a dream." Grishnag gunned down another one. Before she could duck back under cover, a movement caught her eye. She turned and found another grenade spinning through the air toward her. She sucked in a breath to shout a warning to everyone else, but suddenly a beam struck the disc-shaped device in midair. It vanished in a flash and an expanding cloud of shrapnel. Grishnag glanced to the left and found the robot shifting her aim from the blown grenade to another pair of attackers.
Grishnag sighed and looked up at the platforms above them. "We'll be better off if we can get to higher ground. We need to …"
Behind the dragon, another of the armored men stepped into the open and lobbed a grenade. It arched over everyone's head and came down straight toward her. The human looked up, spotted it, and his face turned white.
Grishnag rose to her feet as the grenade reached her, caught it in her right hand, and hurled it straight back to the enemy humanoid. It threw itself to the right but wasn't fast enough. Grishnag turned away from the sudden flash and winced at the sharp bang, but laughed when she saw the body flopping off the edge of the platform.
She only had a moment to celebrate, though. Another humanoid hopped over the top of the wall they'd been using as cover and dropped down in front of the dragon. It raised its rifle, but the dragon swatted it aside, braced her hand on the side of his head, and shoved it into the wall with enough force to leave a dent. The gun fell from its suddenly limp hand.
"Hold on." Grishnag hurried over and searched the pouches and compartments on the body's belt. She found three stubby cylinders she guessed were spare power cells for the guns and a rectangular box that might be a communication device or a control system. After finding nothing else on him, she nodded at the edge of the platform.
The dragon flashed a predatory grin and gave the body a casual toss, sending it plunging through the fiery clouds under the structure. She looked the gun over, glanced at Grishnag, and mimicked her pose, holding the rifle in one hand and propping it on her shoulder.
Grishnag found the rest of the survivors gathering behind her. The robot pointed ahead before popping off a few more shots.
"Clear the road. I'll cover our rear."
Grishnag took the lead and made her way to the nearest ramp. She rounded a corner -- and caught a split-second glimpse at the stock of a rifle before it rammed into the side of her head. When she regained her senses, she found the business end of the rifle inches from her face. She tried to ignore the pain lancing through her head and shifted her eyes from the rifle to the humanoid pointing it at her.
A brown blur came in from the right and plowed into the figure, knocking it off its feet and sending the rifle clattering across the floor. Grishnag pushed herself upright and found the snake-girl coiling her body around the enemy. The serpentoid rolled, twisted, and wrenched her body to the right, flinging the humanoid across the floor to the edge of the platform.
As it tumbled over the edge, it lashed out and clamped onto the end of her tail, dragging her along with it as it fell. All four arms flailed, her claws scraping across the metal, trying to find a handhold.
The human leaped after her and managed to grab her upper-left hand, but the combined weight of her and the goon dragged both of them closer to the edge.
The dragon clamped her talons around the human's right ankle, and that was enough to hold them in place.
The snake grunted and contorted her face, and from her movements, Grishnag guessed she was swinging her tail around, trying to dislodge the enemy.
"Pull her back up." Grishnag picked up her rifle and glancing around for more of their attackers. "One of us will be able to pick it off as soon as it reappears."
"Wait," the snake grunted. She took the human's other hand to hold herself steady, gave her tail another swing, then another, and Grishnag saw the enemy appear momentarily before gravity pulled it back down.
One more swing hurled it into full view -- and a rapid series of bolts from the robot's gun drilled through its head. It loosened its grip on the snake girl's tail. Grishnag and the dragon blasted it several more times before it dropped out of sight for the last time.
The human pulled her away from the edge. When she was no longer dangling above the clouds, she threw all four arms around him and just held him for a moment. He looked startled, but recovered after a few seconds and put his arms around her.
"Thank you," she finally whispered.
"Uh … sure, any time."
"Let's keep moving." Grishnag rubbed the side of her head, winced at the pain, and made sure to keep checking in every direction as she resumed the lead. Everyone followed her up the ramp to the next platform, and then on past two more. The next ramp led to a long, narrow level with waist-high walls. She lowered herself to her left hand and her knees, holding the gun in her right hand, and crawled forward, keeping her body below the top of the wall.
The others followed, crawling along close behind her.
Once she reached the end, she found herself in a larger chamber. Fortunately, this one had a solid wall between them and the attackers' last known position. Everyone stood and rushed across to the door and the huge window at the far end. They paused to look out the window before moving on to the door.
"What is that?" the girl with the glowing eyes whispered.
"Looks like a city," the human muttered.
Grishnag nodded. In front of her sat several kilometers of metal buildings, domes, and spires colored in varying shades of gray with streaks and splotches of brown all over. She cocked her head. Is that rust?
"A … city?" The horse-cow woman shook her head in disbelief.
"Like a village, but larger." Grishnag pointed at the nearest structures. "Those buildings are basically … tents? Huts? I've never met any of your people before, so I don't know what you're familiar with." She shrugged. "People live in some of those, work in others. Theoretically, at least."
"Ah. I think I understand."
"Maybe there's someone here who will help us out." The human glanced around at the others.
"I doubt it," the dragon said. "Would they have brought us within reach of someone willing to help us?"
"I … I guess not." He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. "So what do we do, now?"
"Most cities have vehicles in them. There's probably something there we can use." Grishnag patted his shoulder and smiled. "So, we keep going until we find a way out." She opened the door. "Let's move."
CHAPTER 2: Waking Up Dead
"So," the male said after they'd been traveling through the city streets for a while, "we've faced death together, but we don't even know each other's names."
The muscular green woman chuckled. "I'm Grishnag."
"Pleased to meet you, Dylan."
"And I'm Nishara." She slithered closer to him, smiled, put her upper hands on his shoulders, and touched her forehead briefly to his.
"Uh, hi." He smiled but clearly wasn't sure what else to say or do.
The tall reptile woman bowed, first to him, then to the rest. "Ayastal."
"I am Zilaka," the furry one with hooves, muzzle, and horns said.
"My name's Cora," the machine-woman said, turning to keep watch for more of the helmeted people.
"Syala," the thick one with glowing eyes and hooves murmured.
"Okay." Grishnag stopped at the next street corner and glanced around. "We haven't seen anyone else here. This part of the city appears empty." She sighed. "I hope the rest isn't empty as well."
"The buildings are rusting away." Cora stopped at a wall and looked it over, but was careful not to touch anything. "Looks like it hasn't been occupied in a long time."
"Probably just used for training exercises or something like that," Grishnag said. "Or whatever it is they're doing with us."
"I don't suppose any of you have seen a place like this before?" Dylan mumbled.
Everyone shook their heads.
"I've seen metal buildings before," Ayastal said, "but none like these. When I was a child, there was a settlement of 'sky-people' not far from where my tribe lived. Buildings made of metal, but the …" She took a moment to find the right word. "The shapes were different."
"You're familiar with other worlds, then?"
"No. My people are aware of those who came from the sky, but none of us have been there. Well, until now. When I was a child, I would often sneak away from home and spend most of the day simply watching their flying machines." Ayastal smiled. "I've always wanted to ride one of those machines into the sky."
"Well, you may get your chance yet," Grishnag said as they continued on their way. "If we can find our way out of here."
"Maybe if we investigate some of the buildings," Dylan said. "If there's a computer in one of 'em that's hooked up to the inter -- uh, a global network, if this planet has one, we might be able to find a map."
"I haven't detected any wireless networks." Cora shook her head. "I'm not picking up any power sources, either."
"Damn. We should keep moving, then." Grishnag sighed and walked on.
The rest followed her, glancing around every few seconds to be sure no one was pursuing them. Nishara wasn't sure how much time passed as they made their way across the empty city, everyone remaining silent as they took random turns every now and then, until she'd lost any sense of the direction from which they had come.
Not that there was anything back that way except death if the metal people were still pursuing them.
Finally, they emerged onto an enormous platform, easily bigger than her clan's largest encampment back home. And on it sat large metal structures of varying sizes and shapes. They looked different from the buildings they'd passed by earlier, resting on sets of large things that looked like feet, or in some cases, wheels.
"Flying machines?" Ayastal cocked her head and smiled slightly.
"Looks like it." Dylan turned to Grishnag and Cora. "Any of these look familiar?"
"Some are similar to technology I'm used to." Grishnag walked slowly past one, brushing her hand over the lettering on its side. "But not exactly. I don't recognize any of the insignia or the names."
"Huh," Dylan muttered, stopping to stare at the letters painted on one flying machine's side. "These are all in English. Hell of a coincidence."
"I'm seeing these in my native language." Grishnag moved on to the next ship. "I noticed during the battle that when some of you spoke, your mouth movements didn't match what you were saying, and the same is probably happening for all of you when I speak. Something has been translating us, and I assume the same thing is happening with the writing on these ships."
"Ah. I was wondering how we could understand each other." Nishara slid past Dylan and stopped to examine the ships beyond the one he stood beside. "I don't understand how it's done, though."
"Were you all unconscious when you were brought here?" Dylan glanced around at each of them. "Did you fall asleep back home and then wake up in that huge room where we met?"
Everyone else nodded or murmured an affirmative response. Dylan suddenly looked uneasy.
"I bet they implanted something in us. Hardware that interfaces with our brains and translates what we see and hear." He shivered. "And if that's what they did, then what else did they do to us while we were asleep?"
Syala shuddered and her lower lip quivered. Nishara slithered over to her and put her left arms around her.
Cora looked unsettled for a moment, and then she pulled herself together and marched across the platform. "We'll have to worry about that after we get out of here. We need to take one of these ships, assuming any of them are still functional. A shuttle wouldn't do us much good. Too short-range. We'll need a ship that has a hyperspace vortex generator in case there are no jumpgates nearby."
"But isn't the ability to understand other languages a benefit?" Syala patted Nishara's hand and walked alongside her. "Why would they give us an advantage if they simply want to kill us?"
"For the challenge," Grishnag said, her eyes opening wider at the realization. "They're hunting us for sport."
Dylan grimaced. "Why'd you have to put that idea in my head?"
"Sorry, but it just fits. They give us a way to communicate and work together when they could've just shot us dead. So, they're either hunting us, or this is a test. Evaluating specimens to decide which planet to invade, possibly."
"That's even worse."
"Yeah." Grishnag sighed and moved on to the next ship.
"Whatever the reason they brought us here," Ayastal said, "they paid a terrible price for it. I didn't take the time to make an exact count, but I believe we reduced them by at least half."
"Assuming they haven't brought in reinforcements." Cora walked over to a sleek, black ship that looked like a saucer that had been stretched out to twice its original length.
Zilaka crossed her arms tightly over her chest. "This is a nightmare. It has to be."
"That's what I thought at first." Dylan walked around the front of another ship, shook his head at the buckled strut that had once held it up, and moved on. "It's too detailed and too linear to be a dream. And it just feels too real."
"Even if it were a dream or hallucination," Cora said, "we can't afford to assume it's not real with those assholes trying to kill us."
"Yeah, guess we don't have much choice. We have to keep playing along, just in case." Dylan turned to look at another ship -- and one of those yellow beams came out of nowhere and pierced his chest. A startled look crossed his face, then was replaced by a grimace of pain as he collapsed.
Everyone stared in shock.
"Dylan?" Nishara whispered. Her hearts pounded.
Grishnag and Cora were the first to recover. They threw themselves behind the nearest ship and tried to find where the bolt had come from without exposing themselves to more.
Ayastal pulled Syala and Zilaka behind another ship. Syala stared at Dylan's body and burst into tears.
"Damn it," Grishnag snarled. "He was just a kid."
"What the hell?" Cora aimed her weapon in the distance, but couldn't find a target. "I should've been able to detect them. Why couldn't I detect them?"
Nishara sucked in a deep breath and screamed, "Dylan!" She slid over to him, hoping he was only wounded as she rolled him over.
His eyes stared blankly into the sky and smoke curled up from the hole in his chest.
Still, she put her upper hands on his shoulders and shook him gently. "Dylan! You can't …"
"I'm sorry, Nishara," Grishnag said. "He's gone. Get under cover."
Nishara wiped the tears from her eyes and lifted her head to glare at the place from which the shot had come. She could make out movement among the metal structures in the distance.
Ayastal turned suddenly to face something behind everyone. More of those damned beams drilled into her chest. Her legs buckled and she slumped over on top of Syala.
Nishara turned to find a dozen more metal men charging them. She drew in another breath and let it out in a shriek that caused everyone around her to stop in their tracks for a moment, even the murdering bastards who had taken poor Dylan from them. She raised her weapon, surged forward, and pulled the trigger. The nearest of their enemies stumbled backward and fell, smoke pouring from all the holes she'd blasted through his torso.
A series of flashes came from the others' weapons and sudden, searing pains lanced through her chest as if white-hot knives were being plunged into her. Before she even understood what had happened, she found herself sprawled face down on the metal ground, unable to move, barely able to breathe.
"M … monsters," she whimpered before blackness engulfed her.
"What the --" Dylan flailed, gasped, and clutched his chest. Before he realized he was on a raised platform, he lost his balance, fell off, dropped several feet, and landed face down. Groaning, he pushed himself up slowly and looked around. "What the hell?"
More platforms filled the room, almost like metal beds.
No. More like autopsy tables. A shiver rippled through him.
All the tables were occupied by the alien women who'd surrounded him just before …
Just before I died. He glanced down at the front of his shirt, but couldn't find the hole that had been burned through him. The shirt hadn't been repaired -- it was exactly as it had been before that fatal shot.
Just to be sure, he lifted his shirt and slid his hand over his chest. There was no sign of a wound.
How am I alive? He leaned on the platform and tried to take deep breaths and slow his pounding heart. He looked around again and a chill rushed through him.
They're not breathing. He held his breath for a moment, trying not to let a sudden burst of tears out. The only familiar faces in this goddamn place, and they were all dead.
But he wasn't. Why?
Suddenly, Ayastal inhaled. She twitched and lurched upright, glanced around, and her eyes locked on to him.
"What …? How …?"
"I don't know." He ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Did you, uh … ?"
"Die? Yes." Ayastal shuddered. Even though her face wasn't human at all, Dylan could still read her confusion and fear in her wide eyes, twitchy movements, and rapid breathing. Maybe some things were universal. "I felt my heart stop! And yet …"
"Here we are. I know. I think …"
Nishara suddenly sucked in a deep breath and screamed. She convulsed and rolled off the platform.
Dylan let out a quick scream of his own and backed away from her, but pulled himself together and approached her slowly. "N … Nishara?"
She glanced around frantically, found him, and stared. "Dylan?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Yeah, I noticed that. So did Ayastal." He motioned at the dragon woman, and Nishara glanced over her shoulder. Ayastal nodded at her. Nishara stared, took a few breaths, looked as if she were about to say something, then she turned back to Dylan.
"As did I." Nishara stared down at herself and ran her hands slowly over her chest. "The wounds are gone."
"Mine, too." He lifted his shirt. "See?"
She slithered up to him, stared for a moment, then reached out hesitantly and touched his chest. Her skin was softer and warmer than he'd expected. She moved her hand slowly over his chest for several more seconds, looked up and met his gaze, and finally pulled him into a tight embrace.
"I don't know. Maybe whoever brought us here is able to heal wounds like these." Or maybe we're clones and the originals really are dead. He didn't mention that one to either of them, not just because he would've had to explain what clones were.
"But why?" Tears trickled from Nishara's eyes and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. "Why are they doing this to us?"
"I wish I knew." He pulled the bottom edge of his shirt out to wipe away her tears. "I wish I knew how to even begin to find out."
She put her upper-left hand over his, held it to her cheek, raised her lower-left hand to his cheek, and stroked it softly. She gazed into his eyes for a moment, and then she leaned forward slowly and kissed him.
What the hell? Though it caught him by surprise, it was also quite nice, so he let it continue as long as Nishara wanted. When she finally pulled back from him, her face turned slightly darker, and she couldn't look him in the eye again.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled.
"I'm not." He smiled.
Ayastal managed a chuckle, though she was still visibly unsettled. She stood and ran a hand over her chest as if still looking for her wounds, and finally glanced around at the other bodies.
"Since the rest of us are here, I think we can assume they were killed, as well, and will wake up soon."
"Yeah. Well, I hope they will." Dylan turned slowly, looking around at the others, but kept his left arm around Nishara. "I wonder which one of them died next."
"I wouldn't know." Ayastal's muzzle quirked slightly into what might've been an attempt at a smile. "I was unable to observe anything, being dead at the time, myself."
"Right. Heh." Dylan managed a shaky smile and waited silently to see if anyone else woke up.
The others woke one by one. Dylan, Nishara, and Ayastal took turns explaining what had happened -- or what they thought happened. Cora and Grishnag understood instantly, but Syala and Zilaka took a bit longer.
"We died," Syala whimpered. She remained on her platform, pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and rocked slowly. "How can we be alive if we died?"
"Whoever's doing this to us," Grishnag said, "if they're able to abduct us and bring us who knows how many light-years to this place, then repairing fatal wounds might be child's play for them."
"So, this is what our lives will be from now on?" Tears trickled down Syala's cheeks again. "Dying, waking up here, and being killed again? Over and over, perhaps forever?"
"I don't know." Dylan walked over to her, and Nishara joined him. At the same time, they each put an arm around Syala. "But that means we might have a chance to get out of here. As long as we survive, there's hope. Right?"
Syala didn't answer. After staring at nothing in particular for more than a full minute, she put her arms around him and cried into his shirt. He glanced at Nishara, who smiled and nodded. He embraced Syala and rubbed her back slowly.
"And maybe not," Grishnag finally said. "Maybe they'll leave us alone for a while."
A door at the end of the room slid open and two of those damned nine-foot humanoids entered.
"Fuck," Grishnag snapped.
"Jinxed it," Cora muttered, and Grishnag sighed.
Everyone stood and faced them except Syala. She gripped the front of Dylan's shirt, twisting the fabric in her clenched fists as if terrified he was about to move away from her. He and Nishara remained by her side.
A third humanoid followed the first two, pushing a large cart. They stopped in front of Dylan and the females, and the two in front stepped aside. The third pointed into the cart.
Grishnag peeked into the cart. "Guns. They're arming us, this time?"
"Oh, shit," Dylan moaned. "What the hell are we gonna be facing?"
"Doesn't matter." Grishnag shook her head and backed away from the cart. "I'm not fighting for someone else's entertainment."
The humanoid pointed into the cart again. Grishnag growled.
"Fuck you. I'm not playing your games."
The one on the right turned its blank faceplate toward her and raised its left hand, pointing its palm at her.
She hunched over suddenly, clutched her head, and screamed. Everyone else gasped, and Syala clamped a hand over her mouth and began crying again.
Grishnag stumbled to the right, toppled over, curled up on the floor, and continued screaming.
"Stop it!" Dylan pried himself away from Syala and rushed over to Grishnag. The goon on the left pointed its palm at him. He ignored it, reached out to touch Grishnag's shoulder, but hesitated. He glared at the humanoid on the right and shouted, "Stop it! We'll do whatever you want, just stop!"
Both figures lowered their hands back to their sides. Grishnag suddenly went limp, still holding her head and weeping, but no longer screaming. She rolled onto her back, sobbed, and tried to pull herself together.
"Fucking monsters," Nishara practically hissed before slithering over to help Grishnag sit up.
Dylan clasped Grishnag's right hand in both of his and just held it while she took deep breaths and regained control of herself. Finally, she gazed into Dylan's eyes, reached out and caressed his cheek. Then her eyes widened and she pulled her hand back as if shocked by her own actions.
Okay, what is it with me and alien women, anyway? Have I turned into Captain Kirk or something?
"You gonna be okay?" Cora leaned over to touch Grishnag's shoulder.
Grishnag shuddered before answering. "Eventually." She pushed herself back to her feet and staggered over to the cart. "Fine. I'll go along with whatever insanity you've got planned." Glaring at the helmeted humanoid in front of her, she picked up one of the huge, long-barreled rifles. Then she snarled, "How do you know I won't kill you with it?"
The armored alien stared blankly at her. She held its "gaze" for a long moment and finally sighed and turned away. Her shoulders sagged ever so slightly.
Dylan sighed and picked up one of the guns. He thought it over for a few seconds and then turned to the humanoid on the right. "This is for hurting my friend."
He aimed his gun square at the bastard's chest and pulled the trigger.
Trembling, he sagged and stared at the gun. "Fuckin' hell!"
Grishnag patted his shoulder, smiled shakily, propped the gun on her shoulder, and strode out the door.
"I can't do this," Syala mumbled.
"You saw what will happen if you don't." Nishara hugged her and rubbed her back, then took her hand and led her to the cart.
"We'll be right there with you," Dylan said. "We'll all get through this together."
Zilaka nodded, patted Syala's back, and picked up one of the guns. Holding it uncertainly, she sighed and clopped past the guards.
Dylan smiled one more time at Syala, took a step past the humanoid who'd tortured Grishnag -- then he spun around and slammed the stock of his rifle into the bastard's visor. The impact knocked the alien off its feet and sprawled it on the floor.
Holy shit, that actually worked?
The other guards stepped toward him and pointed their hands at him. He propped the rifle on his shoulder and glared at them.
"What?" he snapped. When he made no further moves against them, they stepped back but kept their palms aimed at him. He realized suddenly how close he'd just come to being subjected to the same punishment that had been inflicted on Grishnag, but tried to cover up his fear by pushing past the guards and grumbling, "Get the fuck out of my way."
As he turned the corner to follow Grishnag, he caught a glimpse of Syala staring at him with an awestruck grin -- then picking up one of the guns and marching after him.
He caught up with Grishnag at the end of the corridor, which widened out and ended with what looked like a hangar door. The sounds of boots and hooves approaching from behind told him the rest of the women had armed themselves and joined him and Grishnag.
"I just realized something," Zilaka said, obviously struggling to keep her voice steady. "There were many others sent with us onto the first battlefield, but we're the only ones who woke up in that room back there."
"The others were killed almost immediately." A troubled look crossed Cora's face. "Maybe they were rejected."
All the confidence Dylan had just built up drained away as her meaning sank in over the next few seconds.
"Wonderful." Grishnag turned back to the door. "Well, let's get this over with."
CHAPTER 3: Wheels of Fire
"Huh. That's not what I expected." Dylan turned around slowly and took in their surroundings. He and the alien females stood in the middle of a street with a set of vehicles in front of them. Wheeled vehicles, but none of them familiar to him. Each was about the size of a four-door sedan but ranged from sleek lozenge shapes to something that looked like a cross between a sports car and a SWAT tank.
The city itself was unlike anything Dylan had seen on Earth, but it reminded him of any number of futuristic cityscapes in movies, video games, and TV shows. Lots of gleaming metal, concrete, glass, bridges, overpasses, and skyscrapers. In the distance, vehicles zipped around and equally sci-fi aircraft traced paths across the sky here and there.
I wonder if we're still on the same planet as the place we were killed a while ago? The sky was tinted red instead of the familiar blue and the air felt different -- thinner, with a sharp odor of overheated wiring filling his nose with every breath. If the assholes who abducted us can teleport us to other planets, what fucking chance do we have of ever escaping?
"I know how this works," Syala clopped over to one of the cars, her mouth hanging open and her glowing eyes opening wide. "I've never seen any of these before, never even imagined such things, but I know how to drive them."
"So do I." Ayastal leaned over the nearest car, placed her hand on its roof, and peered in through the windshield. "The knowledge just appeared in my mind. But I can't fit into any of these."
"How is this happening?" Syala drew in several ragged breaths and glanced around until her terrified gaze locked onto Dylan. "How do I suddenly know things I could never have even dreamed of before?"
"I don't know." He hurried over to her and held her hands. "Maybe we'll find out sooner or later, or maybe we'll never know. Right now, all that matters is that we get through this."
She took a few more breaths, pulled herself together, and nodded.
Cora walked over to them and rested a hand on each of their shoulders. "Whoever is doing this, we can't let them break us. Don't give them the satisfaction."
Syala nodded again, smiled, closed her eyes for a moment, and sucked in another long, slow breath to help calm herself.
"I also know what we must do," Zilaka muttered, turning to stare in shock at the others. "Just like the cars -- I didn't know a moment ago, and now I do."
"Same here." Dylan nodded slowly. "There's a package we have to pick up and take somewhere."
"And there will be someone trying to stop us." Nishara turned to gaze out over the city and shivered. "Someone trying to kill us."
"Again." Grishnag sighed. "No matter why our captors are doing this -- to test us, or just for their entertainment -- I don't want to submit to it."
"You know what'll happen if we don't." Dylan tried to give her a reassuring smile, but couldn't hold it for more than a second. "The longer we survive, the more time we have to figure out what's going on and how to stop it."
"True enough." A smile tugged at the corner of Grishnag's mouth. "Well, I guess we should get on with it."
Nishara cupped Dylan's face in her upper hands and held his hands with her lower ones.
"For luck." She leaned in and kissed him.
Uh … wow. He let the kiss continue until she pulled back, gazed into his eyes, and smiled. He stroked her cheek and she gave his hands and shoulders a gentle squeeze before turning to slither over to one of the cars.
Another hand brushed his arm. He turned to the left and found Syala leaning toward him. He met her halfway, thinking she wanted to say something to him without the others overhearing.
Instead, she slid her right hand behind his neck, pulled him closer, and kissed him.
Huh? His heart began to pound, but he went along with it. When Syala finally pulled back, she smiled and glanced away.
"For luck," she mumbled.
"Thanks." His face turned hot and he glanced around and caught Grishnag grinning and chuckling in the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat and tugged on his shirt collar. "So. Uh. Anybody else want a good-luck kiss?"
After everyone flicked a few glances at each other, Cora shrugged and walked over to him.
"What the hell. I don't believe it'll tilt the odds in our favor, but I'm all for finding a moment of pleasure in this nightmare we're all in." She pressed her cool metal lips gently against his and the faint smell of mechanical lubricants and polish filled his nose. Neither the kiss nor the scent was at all unpleasant.
When they parted, the other females approached him. Before he could get his brain around what was happening, each of them kissed him. In the corner of his eye, he found several of them kissing each other.
Okay, this is getting weird. The only possibility he could think of was that maybe humans were the only species that had any sexual hangups, and it simply didn't occur to any of these females to think there was anything strange about this. Hah. Getting weird. Good one.
Finally, Grishnag was the only one who hadn't kissed him or any of the others. She shrugged and put her arms around him.
"I suppose I shouldn't buck the trend," she said softly, chuckling. Her breath brushed across his lips and his heartbeat revved up again. "It has been a while since I've done this, so maybe it's about time, anyway."
Their mouths met and he closed his eyes and lost himself in the moment. It was a little odd, with those big fangs sticking up from her lower teeth, but no more so than any of the others.
When they parted, they gazed into each other's eyes for a moment, smiled, and then Grishnag walked off to choose a vehicle. She picked one of the sporty-SWAT tank-looking things, opened the door, and settled into the seat. Her eyes flicked over its control panel and she pushed a button. The engine started -- not the familiar sound of the car engines Dylan had heard all his life, but more of a throbbing hum.
The others chose their cars, except Ayastal. Grishnag glanced over at her, smiled, and pointed a thumb at the roof of her vehicle.
"This one looks sturdy enough for you to ride on top. You won't have any protection, but at least you'll be able to participate. I mean, if you want."
"Thank you. After seeing what they did to you when you refused to play their games, I'm probably better off not appearing to be uncooperative." Ayastal crouched on top of the car, braced her feet on the rear end, and found handholds on the roof.
Dylan picked another hotrod-tank, got in, and glanced around. All the controls were on the dashboard, including the brakes and accelerator. At least that meant Nishara could drive one despite having no legs. He glanced over at her in time to watch her try to enter one of the lozenge-shaped cars. She ducked in through the driver's side door, pulled back out, entered again, extracted herself again. She grumbled something, opened the back door, slid in and between the front seats, took her position awkwardly at the controls, and pulled the rest of her body in.
Syala closed the back door for her.
"Thank you." Nishara spent the next few moments trying to coil her body around the interior and find a comfortable position.
Dylan started his engine as Syala and Zilaka picked out their cars.
Grishnag's voice came from a speaker in the dashboard. "Okay. Let's do this."
"Almost there." Grishnag glanced at the mini-map on her dashboard and noted the position of the waypoint. She returned her attention to the road ahead and slowed as they passed through a gate and entered an area filled with what appeared to be warehouses.
As they approached the waypoint, a dozen red blips appeared around it. Grishnag noted their positions on her mini-map and grumbled.
"Well, here we go." Dylan's voice quivered slightly.
Before Grishnag could offer any reassuring words, she eased around the corner of a large, rectangular building and found a dozen males and females of varying species spinning toward her and snapping their guns up.
"What the hell?" Dylan said. "I was expecting more of the goons we fought last time."
"So was I." Grishnag steered toward the nearest three and accelerated. "No matter. Just focus on getting through this."
"R-right." Dylan's vehicle surged forward, plowed into two of the "enemies," and sent them tumbling across the pavement.
"Nice." Grishnag flashed a feral grin. "Ayastal, you may want to …"
"Dismounting." The huge reptile woman leaped off the top of Grishnag's vehicle and slammed into a pair of humans who'd opened fire a split-second before. The impact flattened them and she made sure they stayed put with a solid punch to each of their faces. She rolled off them, crouched, and sprang over the head of a pig-ogre as he tried to target her. She hit the ground, rolled forward, and came to a halt with her legs braced under her, ready to launch at another enemy.
The pig-ogre whipped his rifle around and lined up a shot at her chest.
Dylan's tank-car shot into view. He turned sharply to the left and the car skidded. The rear end swung around and slammed into the pig-ogre like a bat knocking a baseball out of the park. He rocketed into the side of a parked cargo truck, crumpled to the ground, and came to a stop with his neck twisted at an unnatural angle.
"Nice moves, kid," Grishnag said with an arched eyebrow.
"Thanks. I just now realized this reminds me of a game I played a lot back home. This was one of the moves I used on opposing players."
"This reminds you of a game?" Nishara steered her car around the back of a nearby warehouse and flinched as four enemies concentrated their fire on her.
"Yeah, a video game. It's a -- actually, never mind. I'll try to explain it later." Dylan whipped his car to the right and shoved his rifle through his open window. He pulled the trigger and perforated the human and three bovine males. They twitched and collapsed, fingers convulsing on their triggers and firing random shots until the life finished draining from them.
"Video games," Cora muttered. "I'm familiar with them. They're sort of like simulations."
"Yeah, kind of. You okay, Nishara?"
"For now." Nishara changed course again and accelerated. "I'm near the … whatever we're here to take. I'm going for it."
"I'll cover you," Dylan said.
"As will I," Syala added.
"Simulations. Hmm." Cora veered off to join the other three.
"What?" Grishnag caught up with them, glanced at the waypoint, and followed them toward a building that appeared to be an aircraft hangar.
"Just a suspicion I have. I don't want to distract everyone with it now."
"Sounds good." Dylan mowed down another opponent with his car and continued on to the hangar. "You can tell us after we finish this. Or the next time we wake up dead." He chuckled.
Hah. He has my kind of sense of humor. Grishnag grinned and parked in front of the hangar's massive open door. "Make a barricade with your vehicles while Nishara picks up the package."
Dylan backed his car up until his rear bumper nudged her front. The others followed suit, keeping their driver-side doors facing into the hangar. Everyone except Nishara jumped out and aimed their guns at the remaining enemies, using their vehicles as cover. Nishara extracted herself from her car and surged forward, slithering deeper into the building so fast she became a blur.
Dylan and Syala charged after her, flicking their wide eyes all around the interior, searching for more enemies.
Grishnag glanced at the mini-map on her dashboard. Only three enemies remained … until ten more red blips appeared at the edge of the map and approached her team's position with alarming speed. Grishnag snarled. "More enemies incoming."
"That's what I was afraid of," Dylan grumbled. "It works the same way in that game I mentioned. No matter how many bad guys we take out, more keep teleporting in."
"It's hopeless," Syala whimpered.
"No, it's not." Grishnag drilled a beam through the forehead of each of the three approaching them. "It'll end when we complete our task."
"Yeah." Dylan tried to smile at Syala. "Maybe then we'll get to sit out the next round of fighting. Y'know, as a reward."
Grishnag glanced at her mini-map again. The new red blips were almost on top of her and the others. She frowned, realizing a hissing sound had been growing louder over the last few moments.
That's inside the hangar. But … She gasped and raised her gun to aim at the ceiling.
"They're above us!"
Thumps of multiple feet hitting the roof echoed through the cavernous room.
Cora spun and snapped her gun up toward the ceiling. "I see their heat signatures." She opened fire, burning dozens of holes through the metal. Several voices cried out, and then a guttural roar overwhelmed them. More thumps echoed from the ceiling, the sound of bodies rolling down the angled roof.
"I've got the pilots," Ayastal snarled before opening fire.
The hissing sound revved, sputtered, and turned into a rattling whine. A stubby aircraft with two huge, ducted fans spun into view, a dozen holes melted through the canopy and a mixture of red and yellow blood splattered all over the cockpit. The aircraft continued its spin, tipped to the left, and crashed into the ground. It continued sliding and shedding parts, finally rolled over and ground to a stop upside-down.
"Good work, Ayastal," Grishnag said.
A deafening, sharp bang of a grenade slammed into the side of the building, almost drowning out a truncated scream. Grishnag staggered, shook her head, and a cold sensation rose up in her chest. "Ayastal?"
Nishara, Dylan, and Syala stopped in their tracks. Nishara fumbled and nearly dropped the brick-shaped, crystalline object in her hands.
"Ayastal!" Grishnag rushed to the rear of her car, peeked around the doorway, and found her sprawled on the ground with her chest blasted open.
Past her, two more large vehicles rumbled toward the hangar.
Grishnag winced and turned away. She met the others' gazes and shook her head.
Syala sobbed and covered her mouth with her hand.
"She'll be okay," Dylan whispered, reaching out to rub her back.
"How do we know?"
"She'll probably wake up in the same room we found ourselves in after the first time we were killed."
"He's right." Grishnag took a deep breath and waved a hand around the inside of the hangar. "Take a quick look around. Maybe we can find something useful. Bigger guns, or armor."
"On it." Cora rushed over to the wall to inspect the shelves and crates.
Nishara handed the golden crystal brick to Dylan. "Take this. You seem to know what you're doing."
Grishnag glanced over her shoulder at the mini-map on her dashboard. A new waypoint had appeared at the northern edge.
"We have a new destination."
"Good." Dylan carried the faintly glowing crystal back to his car. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Oh, look what we have here." Cora had just opened one of the metal crates in a corner behind a shuttle and grinned at what she'd found. "Grenades, sticky bombs, and rocket launchers."
"I don't know what those are," Zilaka muttered, "but if they keep us alive, I'll be happy with them."
"They should definitely give us a chance." Cora passed the grenades and sticky bombs to the others, grabbed two rocket launchers, and handed one to Grishnag. "You seem to know how to use stuff like this more than the others. I think we'll have a better chance of holding the goons off while the others escape."
Dylan whipped his head around to stare at her and Grishnag.
"Don't worry." Cora strode toward the space between the door frame and Grishnag's car. "I'm planning on both of us catching up with you. Now, get moving."
Dylan sighed, nodded, and started his engine. Syala, Zilaka, and Nishara returned to their vehicles.
Cora peeked around the corner, found the two vehicles still fifty meters away but approaching rapidly, and nodded at Grishnag. Cora lined up a shot on the nearer van and fired. A fist-size rocket streaked toward her target. The second van veered off and accelerated, while three people bailed out of the first. Cora's rocket struck the front of the van, ripped it apart in a split-second, and the shrapnel shredded the three who'd tried to escape.
Grishnag stepped around Cora and took her own shot while Cora reloaded. The van swerved, but couldn't avoid the rocket. Shrapnel and body parts scattered in every direction. Grishnag smirked, turned toward her car, and stopped suddenly.
"Cora told you to take off."
Cora turned and found the others waiting with their engines running. "Yeah. What she said."
"We're not leaving you here." Syala aimed a stern stare at her, couldn't hold it, and faced forward again. "We finish this together."
Cora almost rolled her optics, canceled the action, and ran to her vehicle. "Fine. Let's all get the hell out of here before anyone else starts shooting at us."
"Dylan," Grishnag said as she climbed into her car, "we'll surround you and escort you to the next waypoint. Stay in the center."
"I'll do my best." He gripped the controls and waited.
"I'll take the lead. Cora, bring up the rear." Grishnag moved her car into position.
Four red, car-shaped icons appeared on Cora's mini-map, approaching rapidly from the rear. She leaned out the window, glanced around, and zoomed in on a distant motion.
"Guys, we've got more --"
"I see them on my map," Syala said, almost whimpering. "Let's go!"
Cora grabbed her rocket launcher, climbed through her window, and perched her ass on the lower edge. She lined up a shot and squeezed the trigger. The rocket streaked away and she zoomed in to watch the impact.
One of the four vans exploded and the shockwave knocked two others off course.
What the hell was that? Cora pulled the last few seconds from her optics' buffer and replayed it in slow motion. Parts of the van flickered and broke into tiny cube shapes for a split second as it exploded, as did the air around the shockwave. She scowled and lined up another shot. Voxels. Damn, I was right.
"Dylan, what?" Her proximity sensors picked up a sudden movement to her left before he could respond. She snapped her head around in time to catch a glimpse of a rocket before it drilled into the side of her car.
The roar of the explosion overwhelmed her auditory sensors and the flash overloaded her optics for a few seconds. When her sight returned, the entire world was spinning around her -- until the pavement slammed into her back. She glanced around, found parts of her legs and other debris scattered all around her, and her internal sensors detected various lubricants and other fluids spraying out of what was left of her torso.
"Cora!" Dylan shrieked again.
"Keep going! I'll do what I can from here." She found her rifle several meters away and dragged herself toward it while running a diagnostic. Primary systems failing, main power cell breached and heading for a critical overload. Whatever I do, I have to do it soon.
"Go!" She clamped onto the rifle and tried to line up a shot on the approaching vans, but her targeting system was offline. "I'll see you all on the next go-around."
"Shit," Dylan moaned before accelerating away.
The others hesitated another few seconds but finally followed him.
The remaining three vans reached Cora.
Fuck it. She rolled onto her back, jammed her rifle's barrel against her exposed power cell, and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the detonation tore her body apart too quickly for her sensors to detect any damage.
The blast was enormous -- far bigger than anything Nishara had ever experienced. It deafened her and shook her vehicle. Both hearts pounded as she glanced over her shoulder and found parts of Cora's body and two of the vans raining down. The remaining van swerved around the debris and continued its pursuit.
"No," Dylan groaned.
"Take it easy," Grishnag said, clearly straining to remain calm, herself. "She'll be okay. She's probably in that same room we woke up in before, with Ayastal."
"I hope so." Dylan took a deep breath. "Alright. Let's get this over with." He accelerated.
Six more blips appeared on Nishara's mini-map, directly ahead. "No …"
"Where are they coming from?" Syala's voice quivered.
"Stay focused," Grishnag said.
A beam from one of the van's occupants drilled Nishara's rear window, the passenger-side headrest, and the windshield. She flinched and her hearts beat even faster.
Must try something. Must do something before we're all killed again. She took several deep breaths. "I … I have an idea."
She twisted her tail into position, gripped her weapon, and slid through her window. She kept her lower-left hand on the controls, kept the accelerator pressed down with the tip of her tail, and held on to the roof with her upper-left hand. With her two right hands, she raised the gun awkwardly and tried to aim it at the approaching van.
A male that appeared to be Zilaka's species leaned out one of the van's windows with his own rifle.
Nishara clamped her mouth shut to prevent a horrified whimper from escaping and fired her weapon. Half of her shots struck the ground or pierced empty air, but the rest punched into the front of the van.
The male fired and a familiar searing pain lanced through Nishara's upper-right shoulder. The gun almost slipped from her hands, but she managed to keep her grip on it and continue shooting.
Finally, one of her beams drilled through the van's windshield and vaporized part of the driver's head. He flopped over and the van swerved off to the right and crashed into a stack of red metal barrels. Nishara shifted her aim to the barrels without understanding how she knew what was about to happen, and continued firing. Whatever was in the barrels ignited violently, and engulfed the van in flames.
Nishara sighed, faced forward, and grimaced at the pain spreading out from her wounded shoulder.
Grishnag veered off to a curving ramp leading to an overpass that wove among dozens of gleaming metal skyscrapers. The rest followed her. Wincing and trying not to cry out, Nishara steered her vehicle in the same direction.
Three more enemy vans appeared directly ahead, swerving through the oncoming traffic.
"Damn it," Grishnag snarled. "Too many innocent people are in the way."
"There's nothing we can do about that," Dylan said with a sigh. "We'll just have to do the best we can to avoid hitting any of them."
A human leaned out of the lead van and began firing. Nishara groaned, shifted her grip on her weapon, and returned fire.
A beam pierced her upper-left arm and another hit her chest, just below her lower heart. She screamed and dropped her gun.
"Nishara!" Syala shrieked. "Oh, no!"
Another shot burned through Nishara's abdomen, and yet another drilled her upper heart. She flailed, screamed again, and her car began to turn sideways and skid.
"No!" Dylan bellowed.
Nishara caught a glimpse of a hail of enemy shots slamming through his windshield and multiple bursts of red blood filling the inside of his car, and suddenly she turned cold inside.
"No …" She coughed as everything around her began to fade away. "Dyl … Dylan …"
Her car struck the divider between lanes and rolled. The last thing Nishara saw was the road rushing up toward her, and the last things she felt were her body twisting and the car crushing her beneath it.
Title: Game Over
Genre: Science Fiction
Age range: adult
Word count: 80,000 words
Author: Fred T. Kerns
Why the book is a good fit: I tend to write the kinds of stories I wish I could find on bookshelves. As TMG has an eye toward innovation, my work would bring them something new and fresh to pass along to the world. TMG also works with a range of genres and my novels and stories are primarily science fiction but also include elements of action, humor, and an often hopeful vision of the future despite the villainous characters standing in the heroes' way.
The Hook: On this planet, "fun and games" is a matter of life and death.
Synopsis: Dylan Engstrom wakes up in a strange place and is thrown into a series of combat scenarios with a handful of aliens. Together, they must figure out what's going on and how to escape before they're all killed. And killed again. And again. And again ...
Target audience: Readers who enjoy action, adventure, humor, spaceships, aliens, and fun characters in a story that leans toward the harder end of the SF scale.
Bio: Sci-fi writer, semi-competent gamer (on a good day), and a huge geek. Born in a small town in Oregon, lived on the Oregon coast until 2013, then moved to Tucson, Arizona, and has lived there ever since.
Platform: My blog has links to most of the stuff I'm up to: https://fredtkerns.blogspot.com/
Education: High school diploma, followed by life in general
Experience: Started writing and submitting short stories at 17 and have never stopped writing since then. I've finished five novels and have another in-progress, and have written a number of shorter works and ongoing serialized stories.
Personality/writing style: Usually pretty mellow. Able to roll with the punches thanks to life being a very long stretch of bad luck. Able to face each setback by immediately going to work on possible solutions almost like a reflex. Writing style tends to be to-the-point with characters who are often a little off-kilter. I've been told that I'm particularly good at writing action scenes. I also like to research specific scientific concepts to attempt to get them right (for instance, hull breaches in my writing won't result in an endless rush of venting air) without bogging the story down with details regarding physics and whatnot.
Likes/hobbies: Writing, video games, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. Have been a lifelong fan of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and others. More recent like/influences include the Mass Effect series, Babylon 5, Star Trek Online, Red vs. Blue, gen:LOCK, among others.
Hometown: Tucson, AZ
Who They Scream For.
the pitch black took hold of me. Like rough hands on a slender frame. The sheer breeze gave me goosebumps.
"Same as last time"
I got moving. same path. same footsteps. Same sounds. Same old darkness.
"14 Mississippi, 15 Mississippi, 16 Mississippi"
My body tensed in anticipation
An inhuman defiling scream bellowed out of the pitch unwavering darkness. It was just the same as last time and every time before that. They always scream at 17, 43, 51, and once more. Right at the end. The nearest of them all. I've been through it a bajillion times and still, my hair raises on my neck before each scream. It's not any old scream. It's like if you threw a loud fat old man in a wood chipper and then distorted it and added deep guttural inhumanity.
"the same old shit. well, at least the pay is good."
I keep moving forward and gaze down at my legs. Barely visible yet still very much there. My legs drift in and out of the black marshy mist with each step.
"44 mississippi, 45 misss iiisss ip--pi"
If before my body was tensed at a 3/10 I was now at a 300.
" SORRY MACK, TEST BUGGED, DID WE SCARE YA? "
" Uh yeah ya did, fuck you asshole I want a bonus"
what the hell do they even want to know with all these dumb tests.
"BET THAT FELT LIKE YOUR FIRST TIME HUH MACK? I TELL YOU WHAT IF YOU CAN FIND YOUR WAY OUT ON YOUR OWN WE'LL MAKE IT WORTH YOUR WHILE."
"nah pull me out I'm tired of this shit I need a cigarette after that"
"I'm not doing your dumb fucking tests no more pull me out now!"
"Hello?! Quit the shit I'm not kidding I'm gonna raise hell when I get out of this thing if you don't unplug me right now damnit"
What the hell is going on up there. These guys joke around outside the sim, but they're always pretty serious when it comes time to run the tests
"Alright fine I'll do it, but I'm expecting some serious compensation for this crap"
" GOOD GIRL MACKKKY"
Heart pounded double. Blood rushing from my shoulder down to my tightly clenched fists. eyes widen. hair stands up all over body. What is this. Something is wrong.
Two red eyes appear far away and sway slightly back and forth, up and down. Like they are on someone or something's face. Attached to someone walking hunched over slightly. Head bobbling slightly in a predictable pattern.
They are moving closer. I begin to step back but my heel is instantly met by something blocking its way. I turn to see and as I whip my head I hit it against the solid wall. Solid as concrete. Cold. the impact knocked me off my feet. I hear its footsteps now. closer. closer. closer.
I pull myself up off the ground and frantically feel my way around me. Nothing. Wall. Wall again. A box. With one side open. The side it's coming toward.
It's right in front of me.
Who They Scream For, Horror/Suspense, 12+, 533, Conor Robbins, There is more to unfold within the story and much more to be developed from the idea (cliche, but I feel the timing is good for a nice virtual reality type horror or suspense story), the pitch black took hold of me. Like rough hands on a slender frame. The sheer breeze gave me goosebumps."Same as last time", character Mack is running a test for a corporation that is studying something classified and she finds herself wihtin what seems to be the same old test as always but things take a turn early on, teens who love science fiction with a dark twist, I'm an 18 year old aspiring writer with a severe case of "notice me I'm different" syndrome, no platform (who knows, take a chance) , undergrad at tulsa community college, If you haven't guessed already I have 0 professional experience in fact I typed this on a whim at 2am, Extroverted Introvert I love to flow in my writing and let it take me where it wants also lots of imagery, sports/rockclimbing/being outside/being seated at a desk anywhere with a view, Tulsa Oklahoma, 18
Third Square | Chapter One
East London’s mist-tilled skies reluctantly made way for two men as they walked south-bound atop the crosswalk. The momentary break in the weather did little for the scattered bits of conversation attempting to be exchanged through hasty breathes and quick trials to push-a-hat-back or pull-a-scarf-up as the mid-winter weather transitions eddied about the gentlemen. Opposites, as previously said, could not have better been seen, for their faces were as cracks in a mirror, one looking calmly settled into his state of mind and the other looking anything but.
The first gentleman, for that he appeared to be, was tall, stately, eloquent in emotion and manner, and otherwise everything expected of a young and pompous London money monger. His name was well known, his reputation creditable, and his enterprises safely settled far beyond the reach of erratic, fickle street-rats. Doctor Martin Braxton, of South Courtney Street, was as reputable as he was professional, and nothing less than the current desperate circumstances, and the prominence of his honor, would have brought him to the slums of East Side to consult our latter focus.
Thus said focus was Mr. Daniel Lawrence, or Dr. Lawrence, whenever he wished to appear professional, as he did on such an occasion as this. At other times he would appear as Lawrence Search-Them-All, if he wished to appear little more than the hobo he was and agree with his friend’s teasing spirits, or Lord Daniel la Caltan whenever he wished to claim to be related to Charlemagne or Alfred the Great or some other extinct figure he knew nothing about. All such remarkable titles he drew from the books he devoured, the newspapers he collected, or his own fantasies which he strung together whenever his endless scour of missing persons was exhausted.
Daniel Laurence, fat, torpid, toad-like man that he was, possessed few enjoyments in this world besides his unethical research of unfortunate souls that had lost their stability in life and had concluded, at last, to result to the unfortunate fate of disappearing from the face of the earth. Death did not grip these souls, nor life either, but some abductive force drove them away to some solitary cave or workhouse where they were not recovered from for years. Most of these disappearances were self-consciously committed, though the occasional sleepwalker or drunkard will wander to a copse or river and never be heard from again.
These singular cases allured the slatternly Mr. Laurence, and the unmaintained rurals of London would have been in much worse condition should it not have been for his assistance on several remarkable occasions. These instances built him some sort of reputation, neither stable nor well-respected, but whenever the funds were tight or the public unappealing, misfortunate individuals brought their stories to this man who dwelt thirty paces west of the Gaither and Foxlord intersection. No great competitor was he to Doyle’s or Poe’s heroes, but was some inferior detective of his own, though he did it in such a leisurely, singular way that no profession was made out of his excursions, only fuel for his enjoyment and a flame for his time.
One can not guess why such a man as Dr. Braxton would wish to consult such a man with such a practice, but this he did on the date of February 15th, 1953, over twenty years since the incident, in which these gentlemen are now engaged, occurred. It took two decades and the death of a prodigious individual to begin the chain of events which you will now have the honor of reviewing, the mixture of facts and fiction separated in their right proportions, and perhaps a life lost revived to some old glory.
1) A Very Small Case of Thievery
Look, I didn’t steal the book. Okay, so all signs point in that direction. But I promise you, the thievery of Universe had nothing to do with Ren Northwood.
I was slinking along the metal shelves of the Wray Public Library when it happened. I breathed in the scent of old paperbacks, running a finger along the side of the wall. I snagged a book off one of the shelves, frowned at the tattered cover, and started to put it back.
″Ren,” a voice said from behind me. I whipped around to see a little girl staring at me with wide gray eyes, holding a book under one arm.
“Um, yeah?” I said, slipping my own book back on the shelf. “Do I know you?”
“Not yet,” she replied.
What kind of answer was that?
“Does one of your parents work here?” I said. “Do you need help finding them?”
She rolled her eyes and stalked past me. “Alright, listen up, because I’m only telling you this once.”
I shook my head, looking at her closer. She seemed to be only six or seven years old, with pale skin and dark, choppy hair. I guessed that she had cut it herself.
“Okay, kid, can you at least tell me how you know my name?”
“I’m not a—nevermind. Do you see this?” She waved the book in my face, and I sneezed.
The girl leaned over to place it in my hands, her breath smelling of oranges.
“This . . . is something very special, and very dangerous.” She glanced behind her, looking apprehensive. “I have to go soon. Please be careful with it, okay?”
I looked down at the book in my hands. The plain green cover was fraying at the seams, and its riveted pages dug into my palms. The title was written in peeling gold, so covered in dust that I could barely see it. I could just make out the letters. Universe. I hooked a thumb under the cover, but the girl took in a sharp breath, and I quickly pulled away my hand.
“Not yet!” she repeated. “You’ll know. When the time is right.”
I glanced back up at her. “You’re letting me keep this?”
“Yes, yes.” She waved my question away.
“But . . . why me?” I said. I shouldn’t have let hope rise in my chest, the thought that maybe I had been chosen for some sort of great adventure.
The girl squashed that hope with one withering look. “In fact, no one else wanted it. I’ve been walking around this library for the past half an hour trying to get someone to take it.
“I can’t stay any longer. If you spill anything on the book, it’ll be the last thing you ever do. Leave it on your windowsill at full moon. That should . . . recharge it.”
“Um,” I said. “What exactly do you mean, recharge it?”
“Recharge its powers,” the girl said in a soft voice. She must have caught my doubtful expression, because she added, “You can believe me or not, I don’t really care which. At least the book will be gone.”
The little girl turned to leave, but I grabbed her arm before she could disappear.
“Wait—can you tell me why no one wanted it? And where are you going?”
She just shrugged me off with a smile. “Fate has many places to be at this hour. It’s such a big, big universe and souls are such small, small things.”
“Ask for Fate— for me—in an emergency,” said the girl. “Emergency only, you hear me?”
She turned the corner of the bookshelf and disappeared. When I poked my head around the corner, I saw nothing but dust and books.
. . .
I stood there for a while with Universe in my hand. I stared at it, and got a faint sensation something in there was staring right back at me. I decided the logical thing to do would be to leave the book, forget about talking to the strange little girl, and go back home with a different novel.
Before I could put the book back, I heard a familiar voice from the other side of the library. I looked over to see my older brother, Chance, talking to a librarian.
“I’m looking for my brother. His name is Ren . . . he’s thirteen, curly red-brown hair, kinda short—”
“Chance?” I said, and he turned around with a sigh of relief. “There you are. I’ve been looking for you for the past half an hour.”
I frowned. I was sure I had only been talking to Fate for a couple of minutes.
“What were you doing?” Chance asked. He ran his hand through his hair—dyed black for as long as I could remember.
“Picking cherries. What do you think I was doing?”
I suppose I got my sarcasm from him.
Chance rolled his eyes. “I’m glad you found a book. Though it looks rather . . . well loved.”
“I got it from this little girl,” I said. “I think her name was Fate. She wasn’t very nice.”
“Lovely.” He wasn’t listening. Chance traced the scar that ran from the bottom of his left eye to his cheek. He was seven years older than me, but he never seemed a whole lot smarter. He always invented different stories when I would ask how he got the scar, so I always assumed he had done something stupid and cut himself.
“Are we leaving now?” I tried to put the book back on a shelf but couldn’t find a way to wedge it in.
“You’re not taking it? Don’t you need more books?” Chance said.
I didn’t respond as I tried to find a place to put the book.
“What’s it about?” he said.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t supposed to open it.”
At this, Chance gave a little frown and leaned in to look at the book. A look of dread flitted across his face and he pulled away, glancing at me.
“What is it?”
He was a terrible liar, but I didn’t say anything. Mostly to spite him, and a little bit because I felt strangely drawn to the book, I grabbed it from the top of the shelf and brought it with me. When we reached the library’s desk, Chance turned around to look at me.
“You’re checking it out after all?” he said, glancing down at Universe.
“Yes.” I stared at him, waiting for Chance to object. But all he did was take the book from my hands and bring it to the desk.
Strangely enough, the book did not seem to belong to the library. After quite a bit of confusion, a librarian finally concluded that it must have been left by someone—which was the truth—and therefore could not be checked out. I suppose I should have been expecting such a thing. Fate had not been so kind as to fix all of the little details of taking her book out of the library after getting it in, so now I would have to solve the issue on my own. Hopefully without becoming a book fugitive.
I tuned back into what the librarian was saying. “So we’ll have to take the book for now. It must be somewhat rare—I looked up the title and couldn’t find anything. Otherwise I would let you keep it. When it’s all fixed up, it will go through the process of being catalogued and marked before it’s available to loan. If you’d like, we can mark you down on a waiting list.”
“Are you sure I can’t have it now?” I said. “I’d be really careful.”
“Not yet, sorry.”
Chance cleared his throat and gave a nervous little smile, sliding the book across the table toward him. “Thank you for your help, though. Where should we put it?”
The librarian waved her hand in the direction of a heavy metal cart. “Just on that shelf, please.”
She hurried off and Chance stared after her with narrowed eyes. When he was satisfied that she was gone, he took my hand and began to walk in the direction the librarian had pointed. After we passed the cart in question, however, I tugged on the yellow and red sleeve of his sweatshirt and looked him in the eye.
“Where are we going?”
“Where do you think, Ren? Home.”
“What about the book?” I asked.
He smiled again, tugging me along as we walked out the door. “It doesn’t belong to the library. It’s yours, now. Merry Christmas.”
“It’s probably worth a lot of money,” I said. I wanted the book, but stealing it seemed . . . wrong, I guess.
“I’d hate to see our faces in the paper,” I said instead.
“You’re too modest.” Chance was walking faster now. He held the book as if it was a small child about to throw a fit, and he had to get it out before a tantrum would erupt and screaming ensued.
We reached the car, and I slipped into the passenger seat. Chance began to drive home, past sloping hills and withered yucca, with the mountains looming in the distance.
“Can I have Universe?” I said, turning away from the familiar scenery.
“Not yet.” Chance tightened his grip on the steering wheel. I forced myself not to point out those two words had been used far too much in the past few minutes. I made a face at him before grabbing a school notebook and a pencil from the dashboard.
I, Renwyn Northwood, am officially dying of boredom. Two years of living in the Nowhere Town of Wray, Colorado, can do that to you. Especially if you live in a falling-apart house, next to a mountain that spontaneously blocks your wifi, and can go to only one library in the whole town. And the only interesting thing that ever happens, your brother has to go and take away.
My pencil snapped, and I looked up.
Chance had turned to read over my shoulder. At my glance, he said, “What are you writing?”
“My death note,” I told him. “I’ve discovered my diagnosis. The people that own our house next will discover it beside my dead body.”
“Well, I’d give you the book, but I’m driving.”
“What kind of excuse is that? You’re not even driving right now.”
He glanced back at the road and swerved to avoid a truck spitting up an unreasonable amount of smoke. The driver yelled something over the wind at him.
“They say it will snow soon. A big storm,” Chance said to distract my glare.
I squinted out at the horizon. It did seem like a storm was approaching. It snowed too much in Colorado.
“Who says?” I asked.
“You know.” Chance shrugged. “The weather people.”
“It’s only December.”
“Maybe we’ll get snow for Christmas.”
We pulled into our driveway. In the middle of nowhere, as usual. I closed my eyes and wished I was anywhere else, then opened them. My wish had not been granted.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” I said
“Should I have kept driving?” He stepped out of the car and walked toward the house. I had to run to catch up with him, grabbing his arm.
“I mean stolen the book,” I said. Chance kept walking, face emotionless, the book under his arm. He opened the door, then slammed it shut behind him. I stared at the flaking wood for a minute, before finally easing open the door. It creaked, and chips of peeling paint fluttered off of it. Chance stood at the counter, unleashing his irritation upon a loaf of bread. A wedge of cheese sat beside him, heralding the telltale arrival of the only meal he could cook without utter failure.
“Grilled cheese. Something new and different,” I said.
Chance looked up, cutting his finger with a knife. He cursed. “Why did you do that?”
I watched a trickle of blood seep into the bread, which I could now see was whole grain. This day was just getting worse and worse.
“You’re getting blood all over my sandwich,” I said. “Besides, how am I supposed to eat it if we don’t have any ketchup?”
“That’s disgusting. Nobody puts ketchup on grilled cheese,” Chance said, wiping the blood off his finger with an old towel.
“I do.” I grabbed the bread from his hands. “I’m going to bike to the gas station to get some.”
“I wouldn’t. I already told you, there’s a storm brewing.”
I walked into the living room and opened the window. Sure enough, a freezing wind blew my hair into my face as I poked my head out, frowning up at enormous, ice-heavy clouds. It was unnatural. Storms didn’t come that fast.
“Close that window!” Chance shouted from the other room. I closed the window and stomped past him.
“I’m going out anyway,” I said. “You can have my sandwich if I die.”
“Fine! Get struck by lightning for all I care.” In a smaller voice, he said, “at least wear your helmet.”
Opening the door, I stepped out into the snowstorm. I tried to take a breath and got only a mouthful of frigid snow. Coughing the snow out, I turned myself right back around. The door slammed shut behind me, the house a welcome relief from the cold, and I collapsed on a chair to thaw.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in, Ren. That ketchup sure came fast.” Chance set the burnt grilled cheese in front of me.
“I’m not going out in that,” I told him. The grilled cheese was still smoking, but I ate it anyway.
“What did I tell you? Want some apple cider?”
“Yes, but I’ll make it.”
. . .
We sat at the table, watching the snowstorm and sipping cider. I stared down into my mug pensively.
“Hey, Ren?” Chance said. I looked up as he tugged something crumpled and white out of his pocket.
“I was digging around the filing cabinet while you were at school today and I found—” he unfolded the object and smoothed it out— “this.”
It was a photograph, a black and white picture dusted with age. The picture was a shot of Chance holding a toddler up on his shoulders, laughter frozen on both of their faces.
“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to the little boy.
Chance smiled. “That’s you.”
“Yeah, really. I think our dad took it.” Chance held the photograph out to me. “Here. You should keep it.”
I hesitated. “Maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t want to lose it.”
“Please, Ren? Just in case,” he said.
Just in case . . . what? I wondered. Something happened to Chance? Something happened to the house? What did he mean? I started to open my mouth, but Chance was already putting the photograph into my hands. I took it and rubbed a smear off with my sleeve, noticing a signature on the back that must have been my dad’s.
“I wish they were here,” I said, touching the signature.
“Me too, Ren. Me too.” Chance glanced at the clock. “You have school tomorrow. You should get to bed.” Then, with a little smile, my brother handed me Universe. “For good dreams.”
Genre/Age range: Middle Grade Fantasy (11-14 age range)
Author: L. B. Houston
Word count: 60,000
Why project is a good fit: My project is a good fit for Trident because I see your agency represents sci fi and fantasy.
Ren Northwood hasn’t stolen the book. Well...he may have helped steal it, just a little, but it’s mostly his older brother Chance’s fault. And to be fair, this isn’t a regular book. It has a whole world within--literally.
But before the two can find out what the book really is, Chance is sucked INSIDE, and it’s up to Ren to rescue him. Even worse, the world within the book, called the Haven, needs saving from an ancient evil. Ren will need the help of two almost human friends and a whole lot of courage to save Chance and the rest of the Haven, before whatever created the evil spreading across the planet catches up to them.
But like, no pressure or anything.
Your bio: I’m a writer and illustrator of middle grade fantasy. I’ve been writing and painting most of my life. My artwork has been featured in galleries and shows across the state, including Artstreet, Appleton’s Art in The Park, UWGB’s Lawton Gallery, and the Art Garage. I am also part of the Visual Arts strand at East High School. In 2018, I won second place in the Delta Kappa Gamma writing contest.
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Education: East High School
Personality / writing style: I write funny, dark, MG books, with a strong character voice and high stakes. I like to sneak in the occasional pop culture reference, though most of my themes have an environmental aspect.
Likes/hobbies: writing (of course), painting and illustrating my novels, being in nature
Hometown: Green Bay
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested!
Feeling like waiting for something amazing or terrible to happen but it is too far out there. Beyond my comprehension. Tickling the edges of my mind. Something. Somewhere. Some answer out there I just can’t find.
I can’t wrap my brain around who or what or when that’s keeping me in such a state of emotional chaos. I meditate, walk, wait, pray. No answer.
I wish the sky would just open up and the answer to whatever it is my soul is searching for would be clear.
I listen. I hear distant rumbles of thunder and the constant low hum of the neighbors ac unit pumping away. No voice. No answer.
The clouds roll by in a grand show. A mix of deep gray clouds that hint at rain and a brilliant pink and orange sky that frame the puffy white clouds, almost animating them. They swim across each other like two oceans flowing across one another in an everlasting battle that neither will win.
But no big sign in the sky saying “do this” or “search here” or “the answer is this ...”
I don’t know the exact word to describe this feeling. Not happy, not sad, not indifferent. Maybe expectant? But not with a sense of hope or despair. Just expectant. It tortures me, this inability to comprehend or describe this emotion.
The sun has ended it’s descent. The night is pitch black save the twinkling of neighbors porch lights. The air is fresh with the promise of autumn weather. The answer won’t be found today . . .
Genre: Women's Literature
Age Range: Mid-life
Good Fit: Good fit for gen x women who are now mid life and wondering why they are where they are in life at this point.
Synopsis: Now that the independent, sarcastic, rebellious, gen x "superwoman" who could be whatever she wanted has lived half her life . . , what's next? and what the heck happened to bring her to where she is now.
I am a 49 year old wife (married 29 years, husband is a very patient man!) and mom of two adult children. One who is an engineer and one in college for theatre and writing. I live in Houston, TX (I must hate myself to live here, lol! Not the prettiest place.) Literature major, but ended up running my own small businesses. Covid helped end the most recent business, so now taking a beat to figure out what's next. Dealing with first bouts of depression in my life. Crazy, loving, funny, sarcastic and an amazing cook!