Excerpt From “Keeper of the Flame”, a short novel
(In a nutshell, the book is about a girl looking for her grandmother who disappeared when she was a child. During her travels she meets a guy who knew her and had some writings from her. Thr granny is a bit of a shamnistic chick and has a piece about connecting with animal spirit. The following excerpt describes the girl's attempt to acheive this. Even though her approach is a bit ad hoc and fearful, she is sucessful. I am curious if this flows well and sounds believable enough. Basically does it work for what it is meant to be?)
Sitting on the rock breathing deliberately I stared straight ahead trying to lose myself like I had with the psychic net. But my conditioning was thick. This isn't possible it said. My stomach rumbled, hunger bringing me farther away from my goal and into the daily norm. Thoughts of scrambled eggs and thick slices of bread besieged my mind. I had a mint in my pocket and I placed it on my tongue. The intensity of the lone flavour occupied my focus and my breathing was able to steady and slow without mental interference. I lay back on the rock. A winter sun was beautiful on my skin. My breathing took on its own momentum, my mind reeling out odd, merging thoughts and images floating between dreams and this reality.
Had I slept? I sat up. The brightness had shifted into shades. Cold, I rubbed my arms and wiggled my legs while peering intently into the gloom, waiting and trying not to wait and trying not to think about what I was actually meant to be waiting for. I ignored that teasing sense of foolishness.
The eerie bark of a fox rebounded through the valley and a strong, tangy scent permeated the air. A fox appeared, his reddish tones accentuated by the white of his chest and tail tip. I could see he had an egg in his mouth. He leapt up onto another large, rock across from me and sat there, the egg gleaming in his jaw. I could hear the faint cackle of hens behind me. They were by the house nearing the coop and I would need to close them in soon. The fox must have discovered the wild nest where the hens secretly laid hoping to secure their eggs from our thieving hands.
Closing my eyes, I tried to sense the fox and envision the world from his perspective. I imagined how deeply succulent a hen must smell, how its calls hit my ears with crisp accuracy, and the noises beyond how I could hear them all effortlessly, instantly indentifying them, feeling them, danger, food. Dizziness rocked me. I opened my eyes. The fox was still there. Nausea rose, my head ached. I lay my head on my knees. My body seemed to whoosh one way then back, still a moment, then lurch forwards. Lifting my head again, I hoped that by using the fox as a focal point it would alleviate this awful nausea. I watched the fox greying in the settling gloom, this time concentrating on my breathing as a means to steady my head and free my stomach of the churning.
Aware my mind had enlivened, I considered when this quickening had occurred and then if it really had and I tried to remember my usual way of being. Maybe I'd always sensed things in this raw or rather lucid way, yes that was it, nothing to filter through. No this was definitely new. Immediately that thought frightened me. My focus recoiled, searching frantically for my own familiar way of thinking and detected a density tugging at the outskirts of my awareness. I resisted the tug and instead attempted to pull it to me, loathe to entirely let go of my new state of airiness. Maybe I could combine them. But I was unable to control anything, normality and oddness intermingled and spun through my brain bringing fear than relief and back to fear. I closed my eyes, felt normality, then knowing it wasn’t normal panic shot through me, I opened my eyes, closed them. Breathing, trying to calm myself, the entire time telling myself that my usual mode of perception was firmly in place, it had just receded to the edges to give my mind room to expand. Then I realised that although I missed my usual state of mind, the clarity of this new, overriding state of mind was like a reprieve from the complexity I could feel simmering at some distant reach of my awareness.
The tangy scent weighed heavily in the air preoccupying my thoughts. Then an onslaught of scents, sharp and keen. Aromas were all I was thinking about. Unnerved by my awareness of this olfactory obsession, I tried to focus on something else and the domination of scent receded. Panicked that I’d lost whatever connection with the fox I had achieved, the waiting and trying not to wait began anew. Scent sharpened and swelled through the moment. Was it me I was smelling? The earth? A scent so deep and rich. So pleasing. Yes, of the earth. And a luscious fur, wiry and warm.
Floaty yet dragging hard to the ground, again I got scared and tried to pull out, like out of a nightmare, but the sensual held me firmly. Everything is scent and now also sounds. Whiskers tingle and I taste fur, a rough tongue moving across a potent coat. And hunger, driven by hunger. We're starving. A story, it’s story, his story opens up to me, revealed from another mind, mine and its united.
When it’s dark, crisp stars crowding the black sky, I edge nearer to the lit up place. The cacklers scent is strong, my stomach grumbles, saliva seeps, I’m hungry. I’m not guaranteed success. Inside that darkened den, the cacklers sleep, quiet now. In the light time, I hear their language, tight rolling murmurs. Rising, dipping clucks and calls. I spot their red feathers flashing between trees. Low down inside me instinct instructs. This set-up is wrong. It’s too easy to catch them. Why do they not flap their wings up to the trees and roost like other birds.
Desire drives me forwards, not careless attack, but cunning, the potent need to eat merged with intention, pushing and mounting. The verge of hunger hysteria become stone cold calculation. Sounds, smells, funnelled into my progress. Only the prey in this pure moment. A passion for satiation. Absorbed with every step, one paw after another, I progress with silence, ancestral stealth guiding me. Fully connected with the solid earth under my toes. The pads pressing, feeling, moving, any approached terrain, weighed up and covered. The heat of the cacklers gathers and lifts, dispersing the aroma of their droppings, a delicious richness, wafting through the opening, spiced with aging straw.
Sometimes I sleep on old straw but always on alert for the lit-up place creatures. The canines that live with them often growl, bark and chase yet I have played with some of them. But the creatures that dwell within these lit-up places almost always radiate a jagged feeling towards me; they yell when we meet, hurtling cold rocks and sometimes fire ones. They have starlight inside their dens; they cannot see in the dark, nor smell or sense or hear. All is lit and loud and shut.
My dealings with other canine are mostly territorial. I accept their hold on their domain and leave if I’m sensed. Though they do not always follow the same rules. They invade my space sniffing and yapping, pursuing me through the undergrowth until defeat is undeniable and then they run back to the lit up place pretending they didn’t want to catch me anyway. As if those over fed, lazy, strange smelling canine could catch me. My ways and theirs are not quite the same, our paths run parallel then clash and diverge. But this jaggedness towards me. That only comes from the lit up place creatures.
I arrive at the den of the cacklers; they sit perfectly in reach of my snout. The barrier is open. The much larger den nearby is starless. I leap and my jaw closes on a warm, feathered neck. Instinct drives, instinct warns, the cackler vocals explode as does that roaring sound of the moving den. The sound heightens, stark light overpowers, pungent, choking scent, roaring cuts off, lit up creatures emerge, shout and chase. I let go of my catch feeling its life still pulsating. And run. Their hostility following me long after I have hidden. Enveloping me like a thick, grey cloud of foul air. I lay panting, a rough sensation this incessant hostility. I stand and shake my body down to the tip of my tail. Images flit through my brain, images sprung from a deep well of knowledge, an unshakable correctness. It is how it is, but now isn’t. Flowing order hitting corners. Instinct dictates, yet a natural state is topside down. This is part of the new way, the way of corners. It’s seeped into every root and soul. Dismal eyes of captured creatures and the stench of their despair. Creatures once like me, but I will never be like them. Some cacklers, the ones who live behind walls, never emerging into air, do not emit a succulence and though hardly alluring would do for a meal, if I could get to them. Their barricaders are consistent. These cacklers know no freedom.
I value my freedom. Value? When did this begin? This notion of freedom. Freedom was never questioned, it had no meaning, no substance to toy with, to take or give, to value. Because it had no opposite.
It’s opposite? Trapped, that’s it. That’s how I feel sometimes, trapped, but not like the cacklers and those other creatures behind walls, their minds must pace and bolt, their bodies in forced inertia. Even the ones stuck behind fences are trapped. I’ve only known hints of captivity and I do not like it. It extracts the wild from you, dulling your senses, denying your nature.
Sometimes I find scraps of strange concoctions left outside near the large den. The flavour delighting me with intense tang and savoury. One time in hiding I waited until the canine had gone inside then scurried over and finished his food. It filled me up, but not long after I’d cleaned the bowl a ferocious thirst overtook me, the moisture in my mouth sucked away like dried mud cracking during the long days of heat. I gorged on a puddle than another, until my stomach bulged and I threw up. Tainted.
Now the cackler barrier is open and the lit up den in darkness. I nab two cacklers and devour them with my mate and litter. Clean taste, thick wetness of blood. Guts and bone. Delicious.
Our communal devouring, our fur touching, our focus on feeding. A rich fulfilment not only in my stomach but my fatherly duties also achieved. This was the order flowing, a moment of perfection, only earth and sky and the soft, pulsating bodies around me. Satisfied, the wee ones sleep and my mate and I sit outside on a rock, our gazes drawn upwards our noses settled with gratified hunger, breathing and digesting. Sky puddles begin landing on us from above and we move back into our den snuggling up next to our kits, immersed in their steady breath and softness. Our thick tails encircling them.
Chapter 1: In Which a Light Bulb Explodes, My School Catches Fire, and Everyone Blames Me.
So, for those of you reading this, hearing this, or seeing this, I want to apologize in advance for almost causing doomsday. It was only indirectly my fault, I swear. Anyway, if you are listening to what I have to say, just pretend this is a fiction story. The less you know about these guys, the better off you’ll be.
Anyway, the nightmare began three days before my sixteenth birthday and it was a completely normal day at first. Guys glaring at me, pushing me around. Girls fawning over and falling for me, literally and figuratively. (It’s such a pain in the ass.) Teachers looked at me worriedly as I passed their classrooms in the hallway, ducking back inside as soon as I was within two feet of them. To sum it all up? All the guys hate me, all the girls love me, and all of the teachers fear me.
The main reason for all this is that I am, apparently, “Totes super gorge (Insert Girl Squeals here)” I personally believe I’m not much to look at, but whatever. I don’t really care. So, the guys hate me because the girls love me and they kind of think I’m a freak. Reasons for that will come later. The teachers fear me for a completely different reason. I’m too smart for my own good. I correct them constantly and my test scores are through the roof, so now they’re worried I’m making them look incompetent. (Which they do on a daily basis without my help, but whatever.) Crap, I got off track! Back to the story.
When everything went downhill the hard way, I was sitting in my math class and everything was perfectly normal. Some jackass at a nearby table hit me in the back of the head with a wad of paper, but I gave no response except a sigh. A scattering a snickers came from guys around the classroom as I did my level best to ignore them. I glared at the numbers and equations on my page, trying to focus on the work in front of me. A few problems seemed to swim before my eyes, making me shut my eyes tight and put my hand to my head.
“Not again…” I groaned, my palm against my forehead as a winced. Just to clarify what was happening here, I’d been getting headaches and having fainting spells for a few days now. I don’t have a clue why and the doctors are obviously clueless as well, but they say it’s something with my blood. Again, I don’t really know.
“Uh, Angelo? You okay amigo?” I opened my eyes and rotated my head staring into the minty green eyes of my best, and one of my only friends, Zach Aria. Zach was a scrawny Hispanic boy, who worries. A LOT. Also, yes. My name is Angelo, Angelo LeBronte. Yes, my name means Angel. Also, yes. I’m fairly certain I am not female, thank you very much. Anyway, if you’re done laughing, I’ll continue.
“Yeah, yeah. Everything's fine, Zach. Calm down.” I muttered as the headache and the dizziness passed.
“Are you sure?” Zach pressed, his eyes filled with concern as he stared at me.
“Yeah, just a little tired.” That was even a lie either. I had gotten like zero sleep last night. I had just felt so energized last night, but now I feel like I got hit by a bus.
“If you say so dude.” Zach murmured. That’s Zach for you, because like I said, he’s a worrier. (Panicker to be more honest.) Another paper ball smacked me in the head, bouncing onto the floor. This action induced another round of snickers from the kids around me, once again, mainly guys. This was my daily life, so I was pretty used to it. Unfortunately, today things went another route. As soon as the third paper wad hit me in the head, I was sleep deprived, tired, and in an even crappier mood than usual. So, I snapped my head around angrily, glaring in the direction of which the paper had come.
Then, the lights exploded in a shower of sparks all over the room. Girls shrieked in terror, guys yelled in confusion, and everyone ducked underneath the tables to take cover from the falling shards. The fragments from the light bulbs fell down to the floor, still burning hot from the explosion and the heats of the coils inside them. One shard barely glanced my leg and I could feel the searing heat as I rolled out of the way and under a table with Zach.
“What the Hell just happened there?” I yelled, still shook from the loud bang the explosion had caused when it occurred.
“Don’t know. Maybe a fuse blew? An overload?” Zach speculated, cautiously peering out from under the table, looking a little skittish.
“I don’t think a blown fuse would cause THAT, Zach.” I replied as I slowly clambered out from underneath the table now that glass seemed to have stopped falling.
“That may be true.” Zach murmured, seeming a little calmer than before. He stood up besides me, stepping around the glass carefully so he didn’t burn or stab himself. “But it seems the most likely and logical answer to the situation.”
“You’re probably right Zach.” I shrugged, but something in the back of my mind kept nagging at me. Something about what had just happened felt… unnatural. Before I could put any more thought into everything, my math teacher, Mr. Sheree hurried us out into the hallway.
“Just remain calm, stay here, stay together, and everything will be just fine children!” Mr Sheree instructed us with forced cheerfulness as he rushed off down the hallway to the office. After Mr. Sheree vanished around a corner, I turned to Zach with my eyebrow raised.
“Feel like hitting the teachers lounge with me, dude?” I asked him, not bothering to keep my voice down. No one for some reason ever had the guts to rat me out, much less stop me.
“Angelo, no. Don’t do it, think about what you’re doing!” Zach warned me, shaking his head slowly. “Do you even remember what happened last time to pulled a stunt like this? Trying to sneak into a employees only area? Please tell me you aren’t going to prank anyone this time...” Pfft, who didn’t remember what happened last time? (Long story short, I got suspended for three days, grounded for a week, and the incident involved a frog, the fire suppressors, and several pounds Barbie heads.) But that’s another story for another time.
“I’ll be more careful this time and I’m not going to prank anyone! I promise. Also. I already apologized for catching your hair on fire.” Zach gave me a look. “Okay, fine. Twice.” Zach still glared at me. “ OKAY, GEEZ! Three times, but the third time wasn’t my fault! Louise knocked the match out of my hand and onto her nail polish remover!” I whined, trying to make him relax.
“Why did you have a lit match in the first-place, Angelo? Also, I had a bald spot for the longest time!”
“First of all, it was all for the sake of science and it was only a month! So, get over yourself.”
“But my glorious, glorious hair Angelo!”
“It’s JUST HAIR, DUDE!” I cried, throwing my hands in the hair as I started to walk in the direction of the lounge. “Since you’re not coming, if you need me, I’ll be eating Mrs. MacFluers cheetos.”
“IF YOU GET SUSPENDED AGAIN, DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU!” Zach yelled after me. I turned, walking backwards and cheerfully flipped him off with a grin on my face. Then, I pivoted on my heel and turned a corner towards the land of Cheetos and recliners.
A few minutes later, I was doing exactly what I told Zach I would be when he found me. I was relaxing in one of the teachers Laz-E-Boy recliners as I ate Mrs. MacFluers Cheetos from a jumbo bag. Zach groaned and rushed in when he saw what I was doing.
“I didn’t think you were actually serious about this, Angelo! You can’t just be eating someone else Cheetos, let alone Mrs. MacFluers!” My friend hissed, ripping the bag out of my hands angrily.
“So? Why not?” I asked Zach serenely, licking the cheesy Cheeto powder from my fingers, “I’m technically doing her a favor if you ask me. Mrs. MacFluers the one always complaining how she can never stick to a diet or routine. So, by eating all of her junk food, I’m helping her and getting rid of temptation.” I shrugged and Zach put his head in his hands, shaking his head.
“Just come on. We need to hurry back to the class now, Mr. Sheree will coming back soon.” Zach snapped, as he tried and failed to unsuccessfully pull me out of my very comfortable seat.
“Calm down, dude. We’ll be just fine!” I assured him with a wave of my hand, brushing him off. “You always worry too much man, try to live a little!” I let myself sink a little further into the recliner.
“Seriously, Angelo. We need to get out of here NOW!” Zach was getting angry, which was unusual, but not unheard of. His mint green eyes look like pieces of stained glass as he half-glared, half-stared at me. “So, stop acting like a stubborn, spoiled, ridiculous child and get out of that chair!”
“Zach, if you want to be a good little boy and sit in classes for the rest of the day, be my guest. I won’t stop you, but I’m fine right where I am.” Now should be the time to tell you I am just a wee bit temperamental. “Or, here’s my favorite option! Why don’t you just go to Hell instead?” I said, my voice filled with fake cheer, and a cheesy grin plastered on my face. An emotion flashed across Zach’s face for a split second. It had looked like terror, but why would he be afraid? Then Zach’s face set in a stony glare, which unsettled me.
“Oh, don’t you worry Angelo. I think I’m going there real soon.” Zach replied, his voice suddenly stripped of practically all emotion. Turning, his scrawny arms tense and shaking, Zach prepared to stalk out the door when we heard the screams of students and then the shrill, piercing sound of the fire alarm. These were both followed by the sound of running feet and the next thing we knew, a hoard of students sprinted by the room, not noticing the two teenage boys who stared in confusion.
“What’s happening around here today?” I yelled, finally rising to my feet, my hands over my ears, and quickly walked across the lounge to the door. I opened the door wide and was blindsided by the intense smell of smoke which began to sting my now watering eyes. “Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire…”
“Angelo, what did you DO?” Zach wheeled on me, his face showing that he was done with me today.
“I didn’t do anything! It wasn’t me this time, I swear!” I yelped, making the quick X over my heart, and then throwing my hands up like I was surrounded by cops. Zach turned his head away, staring out the door with a far-off look on his face as he muttered indistinctly. “What what was that Zach? I couldn’t quite hear you.”
“Oh,I just said that you’re right. There’s no way way you could’ve done it.” Zach clarified as he snapped back to reality. However, I could’ve sworn he’d actually said, “You don’t think you did.” My ears had to playing tricks on me, still ringing from the sound of the alarm. Zach wouldn’t have said that, a comment like that made no sense.
“Let’s just get our asses out of here. I don’t particularly feel like dying a fiery death today or anytime soon.” I murmured, still a little wary as well as spooked from the days events. Together, Zach and I sprinted out the door of the lounge, down the hall, until we joined the throng of students, and pushed into the daylight.
Ganymede (Book Start)
Chapter 1 : World Zero, 2088
Standing in the kitchen, her preparations complete, Mary knew she should take a moment to enjoy the calm before the storm. Elizabeth was in her bedroom playing with her toys, the presents were wrapped, and the cake was cooling on the counter. Mary was pointedly ignoring the fact that there was a swarm of news-drones at the end of the block. She would take this moment for herself. She would try to relax.
She knew she was too old to be the mother of a seven-year-old, but that was the whole point wasn’t it? It was because she couldn’t conceive that she’d chosen to take this route. The protests, the blaring headlines, the violence in the streets, none of that mattered, not when compared with the miracle of her daughter – her perfect seven-year-old girl. And how could she not be perfect? She was a marvel of science, the shining outcome of the largest research project conducted in the history of mankind.
Mary placed her palms flat on the countertop, looked out the window over her garden, and smiled. She was content. More than content. She was for all intents and purposes immortal. If that wasn’t satisfying, she didn’t know what was. When she’d been chosen as a participant in the human trials, she had felt unbelievably lucky. She could finally have the child she so desperately wanted. It seemed impossible that seven years had already flown by. All she knew was she loved her daughter with all her heart.
She had almost given her daughter the same name as herself, but it had seemed like a step too far, an expression of arrogance that might tempt fate and tip them both into disaster. She’d decided that clones shouldn’t be named after their parents, so Elizabeth had been given her own name. Mary was determined that Elizabeth would be her own, unique person.
As she was thinking these thoughts, the view out the window flickered, a panorama of dense, grey buildings bleeding through the fruit trees and garden in her backyard. Mary was surprised by the sudden failure. She hadn’t ever been shown the unfiltered view without having chosen it. She triggered her interface, reinstating her preferred filter. The buildings blurred and fuzzed, then blinked out of existence, her backyard returning to greenery.
She watched for a moment longer to see if it would happen again. When the filter seemed stable, she turned away from the window. “Elizabeth! Come down! Are you ready for the party?”
When Elizabeth didn’t respond, Mary’s face creased into an unaccustomed frown. She walked through the dining room to the long, white-carpeted stairs, and called up toward her daughter’s room. “Elizabeth, can you hear me?”
Still no response.
This silence was unlike her. Elizabeth was usually so responsive. Maybe it had to do with turning seven? Mary thought back to her own seventh birthday. Had she been worried about turning seven? She honestly couldn’t remember. Raising a clone was so confusing at times. It was hard to stay inside her own head.
Mary checked her watch. There was still thirty minutes until the first guests would arrive. She walked up the stairs to the second floor, trailing her fingers along the hand-rail. She stopped at Elizabeth’s room, placing one hand gently on the door. “Elizabeth, can I come in?”
The room was silent.
A sharp pang of anxiety spiked through her. The feeling was there and gone in an instant, a liquid flutter in her stomach. Surely she was overreacting, but there was something about the dense silence emanating from her daughter’s room that seemed particularly ominous.
“Elizabeth?” she called through the door. Even as she said it, she realized that her voice had come out louder and more frantic than she’d meant for it to.
She waited a moment longer, and when there was still no response, she made up her mind. Mary pushed the door open and entered the room to find her daughter sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, a doll in each hand, head down, her hair falling in a loose cascade over her face.
Mary took a deep breath, one hand on her chest to cover the frightened beating of her heart.
“Honey, is everything ok?”
Elizabeth was oddly still, nothing like her usual boisterous self. Mary tried to tell herself that it was a normal seven-year-old thing. It couldn’t be anything too serious. She forced herself to calm down as she crouched in front of Elizabeth. When there was still no response, she pushed her daughter’s thick brown hair back over her forehead, revealing her eyes, surreptitiously checking for a fever with the palm of her hand.
“Are you nervous about your birthday party?”
Elizabeth didn’t respond. For a long, pregnant moment the room was utterly silent, a frozen tableau of worry and doubt. Then Elizabeth lifted her head in one smooth movement and looked Mary in the eye. “Who are you?” Elizabeth asked, her face twisted with some intense emotion.
It was an expression Mary had never seen on her daughter’s face before. The anxiety returned, sharp and cruel, twisting within her. Something was wrong. She knew it. Elizabeth wasn’t well.
“Honey, listen to me, do you feel sick?” Mary asked, tripping over her words in her concern.
Elizabeth’s eyes darted around the room, as if she was trying to figure out where she was, before landing back on Mary. “Why are you doing this to me?” she asked.
“It’s time to get ready for your friends. Everyone is coming for your party,” Mary said, trying to return a sense of normalcy back to the conversation.
“Party? Where the hell am I?” Elizabeth asked, her voice rising.
Mary pressed her hand to Elizabeth’s forehead. It was still cool to the touch, but it wasn’t enough to steady her nerves. Taking a deep breath, she picked Elizabeth up. It was time to talk to the doctors at the lab. They had told her that if anything unusual happened she needed to bring Elizabeth in to them immediately. This definitely qualified as unusual.
As soon as Mary picked her up, Elizabeth started to struggle, kicking and twisting to get free. Mary rushed toward the stairs, one hand gripping Elizabeth around the middle, the other grasping the hand-rail as she fought for control. Partway down the stairs, Elizabeth suddenly went limp. It was such a surprising change that Mary stopped in her tracks, fearing the worst, the animal part of her brain crying out in shock and alarm. But she found that Elizabeth was looking at her calmly now, her eyes flat as she spoke.
“Mother?” she asked.
“What is it darling?” Mary responded, trying desperately to keep the rising panic out of her voice.
“Put me down,” Elizabeth demanded.
“We need to see the doctor, honey. It’s important.”
“Put me down,” Elizabeth repeated, her voice taking a deeper tone. Commanding.
At that moment, Mary’s mother, Elizabeth’s grandmother, opened the front door and bustled in. “Hello, sweetheart! Happy Birthday!” she called out. She was carrying a bag of presents, beaming up at them where they were standing on the stairs, unaware that anything unusual was going on.
“Mother! Thank God you’re here,” Mary began, but she didn’t get a chance to finish, because at that moment Elizabeth grabbed the metal chopstick from her mother’s stylish bun and stabbed it into the exposed flesh between Mary’s neck and shoulder.
For one long moment, Mary gawked at the end of the chopstick sticking out just above her dress line, blood welling up and starting to run down her chest. And then her legs gave out and she toppled forward, falling down the stairs toward Grandma who stood at the bottom, eyes shocked, mouth open, a scream stuck in her throat.
Chapter 2 : World Zero, 2080
The lab was quiet, all of the typical noise and movement and energy having faded with the end of the day. Nearly everyone had gone home to their families, to their dinners and their feeds, each scientist reverting back to ordinary life once the lab coat came off and the pressures of work faded. Those who stayed behind were the most dedicated, or the ones without family, or the ones who stayed at work to avoid facing something even more painful waiting for them back home.
Jill rubbed her eyes and looked at the analysis one more time. She knew she could find a pattern in it if she looked long enough. With enough time, she’d start to see the connections that had been eluding her. Then she could figure out the right questions to ask of the data-set; the correct paths to follow through the massive maze of information that her team had been collecting.
`The tip of her tongue pushed up against the back of her teeth and there was a deep crease between her brows as she leaned in toward the data-model projected in the space over her desk – as if getting closer to the data would make any difference. A few strands of her brown hair had sprung out of her ponytail and were hanging over her eyes. She pushed them back behind an ear, her mind totally focused on what she was doing.
With a sharp, percussive exhale of pent in breath, she leaned back in her chair and stared at the ceiling, her dark eyes focused out to infinity. What was she missing? She felt so close. Something was prickling in the back of her mind, and she knew from experience that if she could let it germinate, some beautiful new idea would flower forth. And this one felt like a doozy. Like the breakthrough she’d been waiting for.
“Burning the midnight oil again, Jill?” a man’s voice asked from just behind her.
Jill let out an undignified squeak and shot straight up out of her chair, her fight or flight instincts on full display, balanced precariously between sprinting toward the exit and striking out at the source of the voice. But it was just Matt, sneaking up on her. Again. She forced her arms down to her sides, hoping Matt hadn’t noticed both her hands balled up into fists.
He stood with his feet planted confidently shoulder-width apart, hands crossed over an excessively fit chest, his green eyes appraising her with smug satisfaction. She noticed that his hair was starting to grey again. A sign, she thought, that he couldn’t afford to keep up with his treatments. Nobody went grey on purpose these days.
Matt was the closest thing she had to an enemy at the lab. She didn’t have enemies. Not normally. But she had a sneaking suspicion that he was trying to steal her research and claim it as his own. He was on the cleared team, working in the cleared facility. Something for the Department of Defense, or maybe it was Homeland Security. She didn’t care. They were all the same to her. A bunch of ethically suspect sell-outs conducting research that would be turned against humanity, either as weapons or as a better way to spy, subvert, or manipulate other human beings. She hated it. Matt wasn’t a scientist. He was a hack. And he had a bad habit of looking over her shoulder and showing up when she least expected him. He was a creep.
“Hi, Matt. Yeah, I’m working late tonight. I, uh, have something I need to finish up,” she said.
“What are you working on? Maybe I can help,” he responded with obvious enthusiasm.
“No, that’s ok, I was just getting ready to leave. Thanks anyway.”
“Maybe next time,” he said, disappointment coloring his reply. “We really should work together more, you know.”
“No Matt, I don’t think so. Not in this lifetime.”
He looked genuinely chagrined, and for a moment she almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Then she remembered the time she’d found him looking through her data-node. Or the time he’d come instead of IT when she’d needed someone to deal with an upgrade procedure, and she’d caught him inside her research folders. No, she didn’t feel sorry for him at all. Creep.
She turned her back on him, shut down her lab-station and started stuffing her things into her bag. She could hear him breathing behind her. Breathing, and shuffling his feet. She turned slowly, her hands full, and gave him as much of a glare as she thought she could get away with. “Do you need something Matt? I would think you’d want to get back to work, or you know, go home.”
“Well yeah, it’s just…” he trailed off.
She didn’t need this. She really didn’t want to be dealing with Matt right now. Whatever was germinating in her mind required time and space, and what she didn’t need was to be stuck here dealing with this crap.
“Whatever it is, it can wait, right? I need to leave.”
“Yeah, ok, it can wait. But tomorrow, first thing, come to my office, will you? There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
When she looked hesitant, he leaned forward, crowding into her personal space. “Promise me, ok? You’ll come to my office? It can wait till tomorrow, but it’s important. It’s something you need to know.”
“Whatever, Matt,” she said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “Yes, I’ll come by in the morning. But right now… I just need to get home.”
Matt stepped aside. He still looked hesitant, but he seemed willing to let the conversation end. Jill took one last look at him and walked away from her desk, down the hall, and toward the elevators. There were a few lights on in other parts of the lab, and she could hear other people working, but it wasn’t enough to make her feel completely comfortable. She could feel the pressure of his eyes on the back of her head all the way out. Even after she’d turned the corner and knew she was out of sight, she still had an uncomfortable feeling in her gut, telling her that something wasn’t right.
Back in the lab, Matt stared at the last spot Jill had occupied before she’d turned the corner and disappeared. The look on his face was intense, his hands were clenched, and he was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. He took a moment to moderate his breathing and settled back down onto his heels. He ground his teeth, jaw muscles standing out in ropy cords. A flash of what might have been anger, but just as easily could have been fear, crossed his face. Then he settled his expression into the bland placidity of a professional poker player. His bluffing face. His lying face. Commander Tros was waiting for him to report back and he would have to play it carefully. Very carefully.
When Matt left the room it was quiet except for a slight clicking emanating from the lab equipment as it sorted, classified, and labeled genetic material. In the next room machines were using advanced gene editing techniques to enumerate small changes to the DNA, one allele at a time. They incubated the combinations, documented the results, and then destroyed each sample of generated tissue in turn.
Every combination tried, each classification made, every single data point gathered, took the project one step closer to its ultimate goal of creating a fully reprogrammable human. A human who could be modified to be anything wanted of it. Stronger, smarter, healthier. A human that would not be held back by doubts or worries. A human that would do what it was told without question or complaint.
First, the scientists needed to figure out how to create a viable human clone. Once that breakthrough was complete, the rest would come in due time. Matt knew that this was true; like knowing that the sun would rise in the east tomorrow morning. His whole team knew it was true. It’s what they were all waiting for.
Jill allowed her thoughts to wander during the ride home. As the car carried her through the wet streets of Seattle, the steady beat of rain on the roof and windshield soothed her. Once she was on the small roads near her apartment, she let the car turn its headlights off. It didn’t need them to drive safely and she preferred the feeling of being in a warm, dark cocoon as she was carried toward the comfort of her home. She could see a faint reflection in the window, the outside lights glowing through her as if she was a ghost.
She had been working on the problems surrounding human genetic engineering for so long now. The lack of progress was frustrating. It had been nearly one-hundred years since the first mammal had been cloned. Contrary to every expectation, human cloning hadn’t followed. The automated, AI-driven techniques that she used to perform genetics research were far more advanced than her ancestors had ever dreamed of, but they still hadn’t led to a breakthrough.
Every time her team got close, they would hit a new roadblock. Sometimes it felt as if there was a malicious ‘something’ that was actively blocking progress. She wasn’t normally superstitious, but on a cold dark night like this it was easy to let her imagination get away from her. She let her eyes lose their focus, looking past the raindrops streaming by, past the subtly glowing guide-lights flashing by, out toward a dark horizon, struggling to see what it was she’d missed. Something they’d all missed.
She had gotten her start in computer science, and because of that she had a certain way of thinking. Sometimes it helped her, sometimes it hurt. She tended to think algorithmically, as if everything was at its root just information. As if the very passage of time was in essence a vast computation. She viewed the universe as a massive computer working toward an unknowable final solution, the algorithms playing out in breathtaking beauty and complexity.
She had received a Masters Degree in Molecular Biology and a Ph.D. in Genetics, but she didn’t conceptualize DNA the way she’d been taught at university. She had been trained to think of biology in terms of proteins unfolding and chemical equations to be solved, but when she looked at DNA she saw code. It was like looking at the world’s messiest, most poorly written program, created by a madman and lacking any comments whatsoever to explain itself.
Evolution had taken what had started as a simple, elegant biological system and had layered on so much crap that the result was an incredible mess that was nearly impossible to make any sense of. Early genetics research had operated on the assumption that every human trait was controlled by one or two genes. If a dominant gene overruled a recessive gene, the trait would manifest. Early in the 21st century it was discovered that this was not the case. To their horror, researchers found that most traits were expressed across the entire genetic structure. Height, for instance, was expressed across ninety percent of the active DNA sequence. There was no tall gene. No short gene. It didn’t work that way. If you wanted to change someone’s height, you would need to make an exacting set of changes across tens of thousands of alleles.
Then there was RNA. If DNA was the code, then RNA was the runtime interpreter. It was the mechanism by which DNA was interpreted into physical structures and traits. The exact same DNA sequence could result in a bewildering variety of outcomes depending upon the RNA it was processed by. If that wasn’t enough, the RNA could change continuously as a result of environmental and behavioral factors. It had taken one of the most powerful AI constructs in the world two full years to create a working model of a single DNA/RNA combination that accounted for any sort of environmental variability.
She knew the answer had to be out there somewhere, and she wanted to be the one to find it. Somewhere in that mess of DNA and RNA was the key that would unlock unlimited genetic engineering.
The ability to genetically modify humans had grown in leaps and bounds over the past century. Most of the symptoms of aging had been pushed back to the very end of life. Teeth didn’t decay, wrinkles didn’t form, and muscles didn’t weaken; humanity was experiencing a golden age of health and vitality. Genetic engineering was what primed the brain stem for the neural implant that everyone was now given at birth. Without the progress that had been made in the past decades, implant tech wouldn’t have been possible. It was hard to imagine what life had been like before everyone had access to an interface.
A wide variety of genetic engineering modifications were possible on human subjects, but if a threshold was passed the result was inevitably catastrophic failure. Genetic researchers were like a group of hackers nibbling at the edges of a system they didn’t fully understand. Some unknown factor was preventing them from making progress beyond a certain point. Jill dreamed of a future in which unlimited genetic engineering truly unlocked human potential. The possibilities were so much greater than what had been achieved so far.
There were some who opted out of the entire idea, who lived ‘close to the genome’ as they called it. They believed in staying true to what they saw as the original human form, living close to nature, choosing to suffer and die like their ancestors. They tended to be cult-like in their belief in the purity of the human genome. The percentage of people who took it that far was minuscule, but there were many who sympathized.
She had to admit that there had been some negative side-effects to genetic engineering. People lived longer, healthier lives, but overpopulation on this depleted planet had become an issue again. It was hard to get used to. Not since the Great Unrest had anyone had to worry about there being too many people. The die-off during that time had been so large that the human race had experienced a measurable reduction in genetic diversity. It was one of the reasons Jill had decided to enter the field. She not only wanted to improve individual lives, she wanted to ensure the species as a whole survived and thrived.
Unfortunately, the ability to engineer the genome had resulted in less diversity, not more. Giving parents the ability to engineer their children had resulted in a convergence toward what society determined was the ideal child. One of the unexpected results was that there weren’t enough men left in the world. Not only were a huge number of men killed during the Great Unrest, once the world regained stability it had become a cultural assumption that boys were less desirable than girls. After all, men had led the human race to the very precipice of extinction. No one had the desire to repeat that particular experiment in self-destruction.
There had even been talk of legislating a solution – requiring each state to meet a male quota for instance – but so far there hadn’t been any significant progress. The upshot was that for every male there were now three females. The world had long given up on an even ratio between the sexes. The battle now was merely to preserve what was left.
Jill shifted her body so her back was up against the side of the car and she was looking out the opposite side window. Her head was cocked to the side, her index finger tapping her lips. Maybe she hadn’t taken the computer science analogy far enough. There was something about thinking like a hacker that was making the itch in her mind grow stronger. She could feel it intensifying, like a solution on the verge of revealing itself to her.
So far she’d been conducting her research as if the system she was studying was acting in good faith. She had assumed that the obfuscation in the genome was caused by the chaos inherent in natural selection. She had always believed that her failures were because she hadn’t understood the interactions between the genes well enough, and so her strategy had been focused on cataloging the result of every individual genetic change. At the lab they applied a brute force approach to testing each combination in turn, moving toward a critical mass of knowledge, hoping for an ‘Aha!’ moment that would open the floodgates of understanding. Meanwhile, the horizon moved steadily further away.
Every other animal in the world could be engineered in extraordinary ways. Entirely new species of animals had been created in the lab and optimized for human consumption. There was clearly something special about human genetic code that was blocking their progress.
She closed her eyes and triggered her interface, focusing it on her biological parameters. The interface sprung to life in front of her, displaying a glowing representation of her body. She focused on her limbic system and the interface zoomed in, the limbus of her brain highlighted. She paused for a moment, thinking it through. Then she nudged her entorhinal cortex, modifying her associative memory system’s response to cortisol and epinephrine. The color of her brain changed, shading closer toward blue. Her attachment to past ideas fell away. Her willingness to accept novel solutions increased. She found herself in the center of a radius of calm, the world around her muted and subdued.
And then it unfurled like an exquisite flower, the realization blooming in her mind. She knew what she’d been missing. She finally understood what they’d all been missing.
“Joining me in the studio today are two of the leading voices of our time. On my left is Megan Duncan, a bio-ethicist from the Berkeley school of Reason. On my right is Lisa Albright, a Senior Mentor at the Sunrise Congregation in Livingston, Virginia. Lisa is also a Distinguished Fellow of the Pure Genome Project and a repeat guest on this show. I’d like to extend a warm welcome to you both and thank you for joining me tonight.”
Holly turned toward Megan with a well-practiced, serious expression. “Today we are talking about the ongoing efforts to clone a human. Let’s dig into the reasons why the attempts have been unsuccessful so far. Do you, like many, believe that this is a technology we are not meant to have?”
Megan raised one eyebrow and smiled into the camera, “No Holly, I don’t believe that. When I look at the history of our species, I see an unbroken track record of exploration and discovery, starting with the invention of language and fire, culminating in the highly advanced society that we enjoy today. Without technology, this planet’s limited carrying capacity wouldn’t be capable of sustaining our current quality of life. We should never forget the dark years during the Great Unrest. We owe a huge thanks to our ancestors for getting us back on our feet and to where we are today. We have an obligation to future generations to push the frontiers of science ever forward.”
Holly smiled prettily and turned to Lisa. “What would you say to that Lisa? Should we hurtle ourselves forward into a golden technological future, or are there boundaries we should fear to cross?”
Lisa’s face crinkled into a smile, charisma oozing from every pore. “Megan raises a good point. I would like to start by saying I truly respect and honor all the achievements of the scientific community, but we should understand that technology is nothing more than a tool. It is a means of achieving that which will bring further glory to God. Technology should never become an end in and of itself. It only takes a brief review of humanity’s sorry history of war and conflict to see the twisted ways in which scientific achievement has been used to destroy and condemn our fellow man.”
Megan leaned forward, a glossy braid falling over her shoulder. “Lisa, you are ignoring a critical fact. All of that historic bloodshed was caused by men in the pursuit of power and conquest. There are so few men left and we’ve moved beyond that stage in our history. Our species has matured. We’ve grown up. We can be trusted now to advance our technology, without the need for prior restraints. We no longer need to set the kind of limits on progress that may have made sense in the past. Can you imagine a woman leading the Khmer Rouge to commit genocide? A woman in charge of the Nazi holocaust? A woman starting a nuclear war over religious misunderstandings? I know I can’t imagine it.”
Lisa crossed her arms, looking thoughtful, before she replied, “I’ve heard this argument before and I find it unconvincing. Aren’t we all human? Maybe we can’t imagine a woman committing these types of atrocities because we simply haven’t witnessed it yet?”
“That’s a circular argument, Lisa. It’s a fact that women are less aggressive than men and we know they are more willing to resolve conflicts verbally rather than physically. This is exactly why we’ve enjoyed such unprecedented peace over the past few decades,” Megan responded.
Holly cut in, “We are wandering away from the subject of tonight’s program. Let’s get back to that specific example of human cloning that we started with. Why hasn’t human cloning been successful? Should we even attempt to create a human clone?”
“The lack of success is a fascinating question,” noted Megan, “one that is being investigated in many labs around the world. We’ve all seen how powerful genetic engineering can be. Our entire post-capitalist system is tied to our ability to modify the human genome. What we don’t yet understand is why we’ve run into hard limits in our quest for generalized genetic modifications, including human cloning.”
Lisa broke in, “But what about the ethical question? Cloning leads us to question the very idea of a soul. Is it right for us to make copies of something as precious and singular as a human being? By doing so, do we devalue the result? Do we devalue the rest of humanity? Will cloning result in humans becoming disposable?”
“You are breaking in on my territory,” Megan said with a laugh. “These are all excellent questions, and they are exactly the right questions to be asking in my opinion. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward in our research, but we should do so very carefully while considering these important issues from every possible angle.”
Lisa broke in, looking solemn. “Consider from every angle? Forgive me for saying so, but that is an extremely patronizing attitude toward those of us who have grave concerns about this entire endeavor. What about the roadblocks that scientists have encountered? Many in my congregation believe that God is actively blocking our progress. Maybe we aren’t meant to advance our knowledge past a certain point. The Tower of Babel is an ancient lesson that holds important lessons for us even today. At what price will we realize the cost of human arrogance and the dire consequences of reaching too far.”
Holly swiveled her head back and forth as the guests spoke, her interest piqued beyond what could be expected from gracious professionalism. “I’d be very interested in hearing your response to that question Megan, but first let’s take a break and hear from our sponsors.”
Jill twitched her finger in the air to trigger the controls for the virtual screen and turned off the live-cast. It was all crap. The talking heads could blather on for a hundred years and still no progress would be made. The debates made for good entertainment, but they didn’t bring anybody closer to the answers. In the end, it didn’t matter. She was doing what she was doing for the good of mankind. She imagined a future free of disease. A future in which people could choose who they wanted to be, in a multitude of physical forms. A future free of pain and suffering. That’s why she had devoted her life to this problem. She had always dreamed of setting humanity free.
This line of thinking brought up painful memories for Jill. It always did. She hadn’t lived through the Great Unrest, but she lived with its consequences. She had never gotten to meet her grandfather. He had died in the firestorm that had swept San Diego. All that was left of him were the stories that Grandma Annie had shared with her before she too had died. Jill had sat beside her bed as she had coughed out her last breaths, the cancers having spread through every part of her body. Another legacy of the Great Unrest, a sickness so pervasive that nothing could be done to stop it.
If Jill had her way, it would all be a thing of the past. Not only the cancers and diseases of the body that had afflicted her grandmother, but the tendencies toward war and violence that had afflicted her grandfather and so many other millions like him. That was the oath she had sworn on her grandmother’s deathbed, and she had dedicated the rest of her life to fulfilling it.
She stood up and padded from her bedroom into the communal kitchen. Pepe followed her, purring and brushing up against the doorframe with his fluffy grey back, his tail waving back and forth in excitement.
“Hey Pepe, are you hungry too?” Jill spoke quietly so she wouldn’t wake anyone up.
Pepe looked up at her and meowed, his tiny teeth sharp and translucent.
“Hold on, I’ll get some milk for you. Warm I suppose?”
Once they were in the kitchen, Jill bent down and triggered her interface to place a bowl of warm milk on the floor in front of Pepe. He meowed once more and then plunged his head into the bowl, lapping up the creamy milk with gusto.
Jill sighed. She wasn’t actually in the mood for this right now. Her ideas from earlier in the night still hung in her mind. The more she toyed with them, the more they unraveled around the edges. She was trying to hold it all together, but she just wasn’t sure. She had felt so excited, but was this line of research going to get her any closer to a solution? She’d start her investigation first thing in the morning, but right now, she just needed to relax. She needed to let her mind settle. She triggered her interface again and both Pepe and the bowl of milk disappeared. She walked to the food synthesizer and requested a cup of chamomile tea.
She was sitting at the table nursing her cup when Jacob walked in. “Hey Jill, need some company?”
When she didn’t respond, he sat down next to her and put a foot up on the chair next to him. “Tough day at work?”
“I don’t feel like talking about it,” she said, her hand wrapped around the comforting warmth of the mug. She stared through the steam curling off the top of the hot liquid, her eyes losing their focus.
“Sorry Jill, I didn’t mean to intrude.” He shut himself down, the space where he was sitting flickering back into emptiness.
What she wouldn’t give for a real person to talk to right now.
Jill lifted her head, peeling her face off the slick surface of the table. She must have fallen asleep, her cup of tea now cold beside her. “Huh, that was weird,” she said to the empty room. She checked her internal self-diagnostics and saw that she’d gotten a full four hours of sleep. Falling asleep at the kitchen table? She hadn’t done that for years. The stress at work must be getting to her.
The light was shimmering behind the auto-blinds, so she gave them the command for transparency and took a moment to look outside. It was windy this morning, the tree limbs shaking, billows of yellow leaves blowing past in cascades of color. Occasionally, a small stick would bounce silently off the window, the sound of it failing to penetrate through the thick pane.
She asked the synthesizer to get started on her breakfast while she kept her eyes on the scene outside. No animals of course, but she could see to the horizon where land met sea, small clouds scudding prettily across the sky. She adjusted the filter and buildings filled the view. They were huddled close together, dark and forbidding, the closest just ten feet across the lane from her. As always, they were grim and grey, massive, dirty, and depressing to look at. They were not maintained for aesthetics. All that mattered was that they kept the elements out and the humans in.
She made it a habit of looking at the real world once in a while. It was easier to keep the filters on, and it was certainly more pleasant, but there was no substitute for reality. She raised her hands up over her head, stretching once to the left, once to the right, feeling the pull all the way into her legs. A ball of conglomerated rubbish bounced down the lane and stuck itself to a wall. Jill ignored it. A cleaning drone would get to it eventually, and in the meantime no one else would even notice it was there. Most people kept their filters up all the time.
The synthesizer informed her that her meal was ready. She took a few minutes to finish a set of deep knee bends and then she re-activated the filters. A scene of pastoral beauty replaced the buildings. What she was looking at was real in a sense. It was what the area had looked like 150 years ago, before it had been developed and incorporated into the city. In the scene outside, the wind continued to blow and yellow leaves continued to fly past. She turned on the animal filter and a couple of deer appeared, grazing in the distance. A squirrel chattered in a tree branch, holding on for dear life as the branch swayed violently in the wind. Below the squirrel a dog wandered past, his nose down, following a scent that only he could smell.
Jill smiled and turned back to the table. Her plate was piled high and a cup of coffee awaited her, doctored with precisely the right amount of cream and sugar.
Jill was lost in thought, the drive downtown to the lab passing easily. She had her head pressed back into the seat cushions, an astronomical chart projected in front of her. She was watching the progression of the stars as seen from Earth, accelerated one hundred thousand times faster than normal. It was a habit she’d formed as a child, memorizing the changes to the constellations over time. It had started when she’d watched a bad horror feed involving a time machine, and she’d decided that if she were ever involuntarily transported in time she would want to know, at the very least, what century she was in. So she’d started studying the stars from millennia in the past and far into the future, memorizing their patterns. She was old enough now to see it as a funny side-effect of a child’s over-active imagination, but she kept at it. It was comforting, and it brought her back to her roots.
The car jolted to a stop and she was shaken out of her reverie. In front of the car someone had projected a wide band of yellow tape, and beyond that there were armed military personnel swarming her lab building.
“This is a restricted area, you may not travel beyond this point,” an automated voice informed her.
She stepped out of the car and walked down the block, parallel to the tape, trying to get a better look. At the end of the block, she saw a group of scientists standing in a clump looking worried. As she approached, Joanne, from the classification department noticed her and waved her over.
“What’s going on? Why did they close the lab?” Jill asked.
Joanne looked upset, one of her hands tapping her leg, the other fidgeting with a virtual cigarette. “They locked it down earlier this morning. No one’s talking, but I’ve heard some ugly rumors.”
“What kind of rumors?”
“They’re saying that Matt’s dead.”
“Yeah,” Joanne leaned in close, “suicide.”
“What?” Jill repeated, dumbfounded. “How could that be? I just saw him last night. He looked fine.”
“You know what they say about looking for the signs, right? It’s all bullshit. I had a friend who committed suicide, and I had no clue. He told me he was going to meet me for lunch and then his wife found him dead. He left a note and everything. Ranting and raving about the state of the world and how hopeless he felt. Fucking men, right?”
“Wait, how do they know it was suicide? With Matt I mean.”
“I shouldn’t be telling you this. I mean the body isn’t even cold yet, if you know what I mean. But what the hell.” Joanne took a drag on her fake cigarette, drawing out the drama. “They found him in his office. Neural overload. They also found stim packs and simulators. The whole nine yards. Nasty, right?”
Jill forced down a wave of nausea and looked back toward the lab building while she collected her emotions. “What’s going on over there? Why did they lock it down?”
“Oh, that? They’ve nationalized the lab.”
“They what?” Jill gasped. That was impossible. That meant the entire building would be converted into a cleared facility. She would never be able to set foot in there again. Her professional-node would be locked down. All her research. Her notes. Her… everything. Shit!
Before she knew what she was doing, she found herself running toward the lab, hoping she could somehow make it through the door.
“This is a terrible idea,” the rational part of her brain told her, “this will end badly.”
She made it to the edge of the tape before they shut her down. Her nervous system spiked, sending a massive jolt through her body, and then she collapsed, arms and legs jelly, her head thumping against the street.
Her last thought, before she completely lost consciousness, was that she didn’t believe a single word that Joanne had told her. Matt could not have committed suicide. And the lockdown could not be a coincidence. She was going to find out what the hell was going on.
Isolon (Chapter 1)
I only scavenge at the Hole after dark. I take no risks, not with my baby brother waiting for me.
Tonight, the Hole is quiet when I arrive. Only two other Sweepers have dirty, canvas bags slung over their shoulders and are picking through rubbish in search of a tin of creamed corn or string beans. The air is ripe with rotting fruit and mouldy cheese—promises of a good haul—which is why it should be busier here. My taut muscles scream that something’s wrong, but the thought of facing my starving brother in the morning forces me on.
I readjust my filthy, knit cap, make sure my hair is tucked in, then stick an aluminium micro light between my teeth. Sweeping used to twist my guts with anxiety, and while it’s still not something I look forward to, after two years I’m at least proficient. And hey, I’m still alive.
I bend over and dig into the freshest-looking trash pile. A plug-in lamp, complete with an intact bulb, I shove aside in favor of a flashlight missing its glass. You can never have enough of these coveted, battery-operated lights in Isolon. Electricity is a past luxury. The trick is to find enough usable batteries to trade and keep.
Two dented cans of peas and a mystery jar of something orange I shove in my bag then take two steps to the left to begin again. Every few seconds I stop and glance around; a self-protection habit I learned the hard way.
The humid, night air coats my skin and has what I call ‘air-disturbance.’ New, pungent smells that mean Avalon—the sky city directly above us—had dumped their refuse earlier in the day which makes evenings like this the best for sweeping before everything becomes picked over or rotten. But few venture out at night to sweep because it could cost you your life. For me and others like me, sweeping with less competition means I have a better chance at finding the unopened tins of food that sympathetic Avalonites threw into the trash for us down here.
A few feet to my right I spot the fuzzy brown ear of a stuffed animal with both its eyes intact. In less than a minute I unearth it, shake it free of most of the dirt and crap sticking to it, and push it in my bag for Lake. Maybe he’ll give up his tattered old bear.
Nearby, the two other Sweepers are joined by someone else. I can tell who it is by the limp and intimidating voice. It’s Slate. I don’t like him.
Slate isn’t technically a Sweeper, although I suppose he gets his food and supplies from the Hole too. He’s the leader of the Nights, an underground community who think it’s their business to protect the Hole from the rest of Isolon. Despite my apprehension, I focus on scavenging for at least one more meal and something to trade before I let myself go home to my little brother. I thumb the scar above my right eyebrow, then put my head down and keep picking. If you mind your own business at the Hole you’re more likely to go home with all your limbs attached.
Sounds of an argument erupt from the little group, which isn’t uncommon at the Hole, but I can tell they aren’t arguing about food or grunge to trade. I catch the words ‘contest’ and ‘Avalon’ and I know they’re talking about the competition Avalon puts on every five years where the prize is a new life in the beautiful sky city. But then I hear the word ‘culling,’ and I almost run home. I dig faster and unearth a plate with a small chip I can trade. Another tin of veggies or two and I can be on my way.
I’m toeing the dirt off something metallic, when I notice an eerie silence. In a fraction of a second, I drop my bag, grab the dagger I keep strapped to my thigh and swing around. Slate’s hair shines silvery in the beam of my micro light.
“Well, who do we have here.” He picks his way through the rubble with more grace than a spider, and I marvel at his silence, especially with a bad leg.
My jaw aches from holding the micro light in my mouth but I keep the beam trained on him, knowing he’s unable to see me. If only I had been more aware. I’d stupidly allowed my attention to wander, a mistake I almost paid for with my life once before.
“What’s your name, boy?” Slate shields his eyes and squints. I keep my eyes on his other hand, the one twitching at his side like he might grab a weapon any second. “Shadows got your tongue?” He steps closer but I wave my dagger at him. I know how to use it, even if I still want to hurl at the sight of blood.
My eyes flick from his twitchy hand to his feet. The shift of his weight from his bad leg to his good one is slight but I see it, and brace myself. Quick as a silverfish, his arm swings up. His solid forearm hits my wrist in an attempt to knock the dagger out of my hand. But my grip is iron. With my other hand, I grab a two inch blade from its sheath on my wrist and slash downwards. I feel the blade connect with soft tissue. He cries out and stumbles back. I grab my bag and run. No one cuts Slate and lives.
After several minutes of panicked running, weaving between crumbling apartment buildings and jumping over broken fences, I duck into an alley. I sheath my blades, cut the light, then pull off my cap and let my hair loose. No one expects a girl to be sweeping, especially at night when the Shadows are out stalking their next victims. But it’s not the Shadows I fear, it’s the Cullers. Population control cops who arrive in Isolon every morning and return to Avalon before dark when they’ve filled their quota. They’re the reason my little brother Lake and I are surviving alone.
I exit the alley and keep my pace at a brisk walk, eager to make it home before Slate discovers who I really am.
Outbreak: Proud Soldiers
[This is from a series of short stories I’m writing.]
Church bells blared into the ears of the people singing along to a hymn. Three bells would sound off at the same time, then there’d be a short pause, then they’d be hit again. Each time the ringer yanked the bell pull, there’d be a brief moment where the sound from the clappers inside would drown out the singing. The sound would eventually spill out of one’s eas and then be filled up with the singing of the churchgoers. All of them sang passionately, swaying their bodies side to side like they were taking in each and every beat and note. Wide smiles were plastered across everyone’s faces.
Everyone except Joanna.
Her smile fell flat each time she entered the church and her voice would give out halfway through service. It always surprised her how her mother never noticed her behavior. Part of Joanna felt relief knowing her mother was too busy with her new baby sister to notice. That would mean no scornful looks, no whisper-shouting, and best of all, she wouldn’t be smacked into the outside walls of the church and forced to walk home with blood on her face. Her seven year old brother Lucas, on the other hand, sang like his life was depending on it. Quite frankly, it did.
Joanna couldn’t help but snicker at how off key her younger brother sang, the defiant smile she wore made her feel powerful. But, after the moment was over, she grew impatient and couldn’t wait until everyone stopped singing and sat back down. The priest would close the small Bible in his hands and offer everyone a warm smile as he’d begin to speak about different verses and how they applied to people in the modern world. Then Joanna could leave to find her friends, she could escape for a moment before being confined in her home. Her daydreams of leaving were interrupted by a baby crying.
She looked up to find her mother carefully bouncing her little sister, Diana, up and down to try and get her to calm down. The people in front of them turned around and Joanna watched as their smiles quickly disappeared and were replaced with looks of malice and judgment.
“Woman,” a blonde man said to her mother. “Don’t you know how to discipline your own child?”
Joanna’s mother, instead of answering, yanked her sisters hair until individual strands were plucked off and clenched between her mother’s fingers. This only made her baby sister cry harder and grab onto her mother’s button up white shirt harder. Joanna kept her head down because looking only made her heart tear faster.
“Shut that disrespectful child up!” Another woman hissed. People on the opposite end of the church were still singing, but the hymn was beginning to come to an end. Diana’s crying, on the other hand, wouldn’t cease. Joanna’s father stepped up and took the baby out of her mother’s arms. Her father was a large man, broad shouldered, and muscular. He wore a scornful frown everywhere he went, making it known that nothing made him happy. Diana didn’t seem to want to obey her parents and that greatly upset him.
Joanna watched out of the corners of her eyes as her father took the wailing child out of the room. Her hands began to tremble when the door to the room shut, there was no getting Diana back then. The hymn ended and with that so did the hateful stares of the people in front of them. Joanna, her brother, and her mother sat back down onto the long, polished, wooden benches. The priest closed the small Bible he held and smiled at everyone. As Joanna kept her eyes on him, she fiddled with the material of her white dress.
She desperately felt the urge to kick her feet back and forth, but her white flats would only cause a disruption, and she wanted anything but that. The door to the room opened and her father walked inside carrying Diana, whose eyes and cheeks were flushed a bright red. He walked back to where her family sat and handed Diana back to her mother. Joanna glanced at her to find the bottom of her white dress slightly torn. This sent a terrifying chill down Joanna’s back, but she forced her mouth to remain shut. She also noticed marks on her sisters legs, large red welts in the shape of a hand and what appeared to be a stick.
Joanna quickly turned away before her mother took notice of her staring. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, even when she buried them under her bottom and applied pressure to make it stop. For one moment, Joanna even considered breaking the fragile bones in her hands, maybe she would be taken away to a hospital. Away from the church, from her family, from the town, from everything she had ever known. But before she could ponder her decision any further, everyone stood up and began the closing prayer. She murmured it under her breath and crossed herself like everybody else at the end of it. Finally, Joanna could leave.
[to be continued]
SECRET SOCIETY UNVEILED
“Hey didn’t you have a dog?” Lucas pulls out his phone and begins moving his fingers along the keypad.
“I do have a dog, idiot. It’s in the backyard.” I get off the couch and open the screen door as the large german-husky bolts through the door.
“Geez!” Lucas jumps on the couch as Chase runs into the kitchen. “That thing is not a dog. That dog is three times the size the one you used to have.”
“Nope. That’s Chase.”
“Well take it outside before it eats someone.” Lucas frowns and returns to his phone. I whistle and Chase sits at my feet. “Seriously, out.” Lucas grits. I laugh and signal for Chase to lay down.
“You know dogs can sense fear right?”
“Shut up.” Lucas smirks. He clicks his phone shut and grins at me.
“Oh nothing. Just payback for your little ‘Chase’ stunt.” Chase’s head comes up at the sound of his name. Lucas hesitantly looks down but keeps the grin on his face. “Party at your house.”
I frown as Lucas hustles in another barrel of beer.
“You know this stuff is illegal right?”
“Hey. I'm the one paying.” Lucas grins.
“Yeah, and this is my house. C’mon. Are you that mad about the dog?” Lucas snickers and signs off on the last shipment. That's five kegs of beer. Illegal, prison worthy, beer.
“Zander. It's not the first time that you've had beer.” He throws in a few extra bucks to bribe the delivery guy.
“Yeah, and you're supposed to be clean, remember?”
“Relax. I'm not drinking any. This is all for the guests. Speaking of which, I invited Sky. And Crystal.”
“What the heck man. Sky I get, but Crystal? Really?”
“She begged me. You know how she can be.” Lucas sighs. I place a pillow over my face and let my body sink to the floor only to be jolted back up by Chase’s welcoming licks.
“Whatever, can't be helped. There's a reason I dated her last year.” I sit on the floor, legs spread outward. I pick up a tennis ball and lightly toss it across the room. Chase darts off after it. Lucas picks up three boxes of pizza and places one in the kitchen, living room, and on the mahogany, dining room table.
“Hey. No dogs allowed. Especially not with the guests.”
I stand and remove the pizza box from my parents priceless Italian furniture. I point my finger to the ground and Chase removes himself from his chewing frenzy and stands at my feet. Setting the pizza box down on the ground, I point towards a large doorway. Obediently, Chase picks it up and walks past Lucas, and into the living room.
“Dude! You’re dead. You are literally dead.” I smirk as Lucas pulls at his caramel-brown hair.
“He’s not going to eat it.”
“It was in the mutt’s mouth!”
“Lucas, that’s not very nice. Chase is a purebred.” I frown.
“The freakin’ dog had the pizza, in. His. Mouth. Everyone’s going to get rabies.”
“Ok. Seriously Luc- You gotta chill man.” The doorbell rings and after a brief debate, I succumb to Lucas and set Chase outside.
“Let’s get this party started,” He rubs his hands together and digs in his pocket for something.
“Hey. If anything breaks, You’re going to be the one that’s dead.” I glare at Lucas.
“Gesh. You really pull off that death stare, but no problem.” He smiles.
Lucas wastes no time in inviting the guests in. He collects cash at the door and I guide them towards the kitchen and the living room, where the least expensive items were located.Within the first five minutes, at least twenty-three bodies were in my house. Some of them definitely did not look like kids from our school, but Lucas has connections, so it’s sort of to be expected. Eight-thirty, I’ve lost track of how many people are in my house, and Crystal, my ex, is at the door.
“Good to see you!” Lucas calls over the loud music. He glances back at me and that’s my que. I duck behind some drunk dude and step outside through the back door. Chase is nowhere in sight, so I continue my way around the back of the three story mansion. I look up, and to my relief, all the lights on the third floor are off. I turn another corner and find Chase, with the box of pizza. I grin and open the box, toss him and piece, and take one for myself. He continues to follow me to a white door with four sets of locks. I pull at a chain attached to my pants. Each corner of the chain is bent in a different direction. I insert one side at a time. The sound of metal lightly grazing copper is heard as each key easily slides out. I hear Chase’s panting and smile.
“You’ll have to wait for more pizza boy.” I open the door and a ringtone is set off in the room. I switch on the lights and turn off the silent alarm. Three Bentley's, one Aston Martin, two Corvettes, a Bugatti Veyron...I silently count off the cars in our garage. An elevator stands off in the corner and Chase takes his place in his bed. There are a total of five rooms in our garage, not including a kitchen, as well as a hidden elevator leading to every floor in the house. I turn the corner and place the pizza box on the counter. I pull out some dog food and another piece of pizza. I head to the family game room, take a seat, and flip through the channels on the fifty-six inch television. The music upstairs booms through my ears, and I regret not telling dad to make the room a soundproof one. I end up watching some comedy movie starring Kevin Hart and eat my pizza.
“So, is this your hideout?”
I turn and come face to face with Sky. I set my plate down and frown.
“The, door was open.” Crap. I whistle and Chase gallops in.
“Escort our guest out please.” I look at Chase. He forces his nose into Sky’s leg and that’s when I notice what she’s wearing: A pearl necklace, a dark pink flowy dress shirt, and pitch black shorts cut low, her shirt practically covering it. I bring my eyes back to hers, and I notice that she’s looking me down as well. I smirk.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Was open. Yeah, I heard you the first time.” I cross my arms. “I mean what are you doing all the way out here. Party’s inside.”
“Lucas told me that you went outside, so, I went looking.”
“Which brings me to question number two, why aren't you with Lucas?” I can’t help but notice the terrible taste that bounces around my tongue as I say my best friend's name.
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“What about.” Sky rests her hand on Chase’s muzzle and he sits down beside her.
“I know your little secret.” I can’t help but laugh.
“Oh? And what would that be.”
“You’re an assassin.”
The Flower of the West (excerpt)
(The beginning of "The Flower of the West"--a fantasy story that began as a short story for a class which I took and developed from there. I haven't divided it into chapters, but I suppose this would be Chapter One...)
On the day the King died, I was buried in books up to my knees, choking on the dust of my failure to create a better way to grind chalkberries for the castle’s medicine store.
Neither I nor any of the people of Tyrmari had much time or inclination to grieve. The whole of the month behind us was a trail of grief, and as for me, my eyes were becoming painfully dry. There was altogether too much to be sad about to continue in mourning. And there was a great deal too much to fear that kept us on our feet, blazing about our days with a fevered desire to survive and save as many others as we could.
My only hope to do so was to grind chalkberries, and faster. Though young, I was one among six other castle healers, each specialized in an area of medicine. I was the herbalist, and generally the one who treated the majority of the cases that came to us--a scrape, a rash, an ache in the bones, a common cold. But there were fewer and fewer of those cases as the castle and its surrounding land became the base and medical station for Tyrmari’s armies.
The news of the King’s death came to me in the form of a wounded captain, far beyond saving. They led him into my messy workroom, choking a bit, as I did, on the dust and laying him flat on the low, cushioned table where I could look him over. I didn’t really need to though. I could tell from across the room that the vicious, jagged wounds that oozed in fetid brown all over his body could not be cleansed from the poison and sealed up in time--not by the chalkish salve that was my only remedy, and a poor one at that.
But my job was not to give people up for dead--it was to save them if I could. So I stepped over the piles of books at my feet and greeted the weary men who’d carried him to me.
“Can you save him, Miss?” one asked me with a pained face. I gathered from all their faces that they were loyal subordinates.
“I can only try,” I answered. No need to dash their hopes all at once. I could and would indeed, try, after all. “Get yourselves some water from the pitcher over there--cups are above the cabinet--and tell me what’s happening on the plains.” I tugged an apron over my head and rolled up my sleeves, dusting my exposed skin in chalkberry powder and doing the same with a clean cloth. The men had taken the captain’s armor off, so all I had to do was remove his tunic to see just how bad the wounds were and wipe them with the cloth.
“You’re not going to wash him off?” A curious question I’d received more than once before.
“No,” I intoned without looking up to see who asked, “Water will make the poison spread faster. The only hope is to let the powder suck up the poison and then wash that off. If it works, I’ll cover the wounds in salve and that should remove the rest of the poison and seal them.”
“And if it doesn’t work?”
I dabbed the largest slash in the chest with the powder. The answer wasn’t necessary. If it didn’t work, the captain would bleed out, the poison would continue to spread, and then he would die.
“Tell me what is happening on the plains,” I commanded again, hoping both to distract them and to know exactly how close my own demise was.
“Have you heard nothing?” I glanced up at the surprised query and shook my head. “The King was killed early this morning--you didn’t hear?” I sucked in a breath and shook my head again slowly.
“I haven’t had anyone come in these two days. Few men come back from the battlefield, and the other healers are as busy as I am,” I paused, wondering what steps would be taken next, “How did the people react?”
“Badly, of course. But Piotr, the King’s nephew, has stepped up to command. They’ll crown him quickly tomorrow so we don’t have to wait for a new King.”
“A wise decision,” I let out a breath and continued working on the captain. He groaned once or twice in his unconscious state, but I couldn’t find it in myself to hope for him. “And what news of the rest of the Kingdom? How bad is it?”
“The Scissa continue to wipe out most of the armies sent against them. You were right in saying few men return. We’ve heard tell of entire regions devastated and up in flames. The Scissa’s efforts are focused on the plains now, though, where the King fell.”
“Thank goodness they only travel in one pack,” one of the other men muttered.
“Aye, let’s hope they keep it that way,” another answered, “It’s a hopeless enough business as it is, fighting creatures like that.”
I let them talk a little more, glad to hear some of the tension that had been focused on the captain’s fate turning in a different direction. I, too, had seen the Scissa before. A memory that still turned my stomach, a month later.
When the Scissa appeared from the north, the creature Tyrmari had known as myth suddenly stood at the threshold of the Kingdom. The “black demons” were ugly constructs of ashen bone and acidic flesh, hanging off of them like liquid, clothed in black shadows and armed with two-pronged swords that sported serrated, poisonous edges. An acrid smell followed wherever they roamed. Researchers had immediately delved into the depths of the castle archives, searching for any note of the legends surrounding the Scissa. Surprisingly unintelligent in every account, it was found that the creatures swarmed in a sort of mob mentality, burning the ground with every step, and leaving behind massacred homes and villages. Legend stated that the Scissa were controlled by an outside force--the same as supplied the demonic swords they swung about with all the skill of locusts.
I turned the whole of my attention back toward the captain, but after an hour of treatment, he died on my table. The men who’d brought him were asleep, exhausted by the efforts of the day and week and month. I didn’t have the heart to wake them yet, so I called in a few guards to take the captain’s body.
“Hana, you can’t let them sleep there,” one of the other healers came in to borrow some of my powder and commented as she eyed the disheveled group. I shrugged.
“This is a room where people come to get well. Let them sleep. They probably haven’t slept so soundly for days.” Rolling her eyes, the other healer left and I stepped once again over my pile of books, reached for another stalk of chalkberries and grabbed my old-fashioned mortar and pestle. Sighing, I went back to work.
Days passed yet again before any news came to me. The other healers would dash in to grab more salve or powder and then duck out again to treat the men down in the tents. I had become a last resort--the herbalist healer who would treat the worst wounds, or other serious ailments, and thus the healer who would bury the most patients.
On the day the King visited, I stood behind my pile of books, swirled about by chalky dust yet again. However, it was a living King that tapped softly on my door and entered the room.
“Your Majesty,” I murmured and dipped into a clumsy curtsy.
“Just Piotr,” the young King said with a tired smile, “I imagine I’m as mortal as any other man who comes to you.” As if I would call a King by his first name.
“Are you injured?” I avoided the address altogether, though I noted he was probably near my age. I had never actually seen him before, but that wasn’t surprising since my life in the castle was centralized in the very room in which we stood, and I ventured out of it but rarely--and only then to meet with the past King to report, or to collect books for research, or to gather more herbs and plants from the forest nearby.
“No, no. I have a favor actually to ask of you.”
“You might, perhaps, wish to ask one of the more experienced healers for anything involved,” I suggested, squashing my piqued interest for the sake of the favor being done right. The King laughed.
“Experienced or no, I need an herbalist--and preferably an energetic one. And I have been informed that you are the best in the castle, if not in all of Tyrmari.” I blushed at the praise--I’d worked hard to enter the castle as a healer, and even if the praise was exaggerated, I was certainly a capable herbalist. Though energetic was not a word I would ever have used to describe myself. Dour, maybe, on a bad day. Calm, serious, dry? Sure. Energetic? No. But my curiosity was greater than my desire to enlighten the new King about the finer points of my personality.
“What is it you are looking to have me do?” I asked. He smiled gladly now.
“Come with me,” he said, and I stumbled out of the room after him, hastily tearing off a dirty apron and wiping my hands on it, throwing it in a pile of other such articles before I exited.
I refrained from speaking as he led me down into the heart of the castle, where the library and archives were tucked away, directly under the throne room. I think it was a ploy of whoever built the castle, hoping the knowledge of ages would seep up into the important room and wizen the King in all his decisions.
As we entered, the overwhelming scent of vanilla and wood musk filled me with a secret joy. I loved the archives, and anywhere else where books and scrolls could be found. The dim lighting, the looming shelves colored with parchments and aged book covers, the exciting lure of the depths of the large room--all of these drew me. So much so that I failed to notice King Piotr speaking with another young man until he called my name--I suppose Kings must know the names of their castle healers--and gestured for me to approach the candlelit, book covered table over which he held his conversation.
My eyes darted to the tall, lean man next to him and I cringed inwardly while sighing outwardly for him to see.
“Hugh,” I greeted him. He scrunched his nose up at me enigmatically.
“Hana,” he returned with a sort of distaste. I glared and nearly bared my teeth before remembering the King was present. Hugh had entered the castle at the same time as I, though as a researcher. Unfortunately our topics of research often intersected in the need for a book or two. He took absolutely forever to read. Well, so did I, for that matter. Nevertheless it led to a great deal of tension between us on more than one occasion, and so often had we fought that simply meeting anymore was a battle in the making.
“Good, you seem to know each other,” King Piotr said cheerfully, completely ignoring the spark of conflict between us with a rather mischievous smile. Oh, yes, I was quite sure he’d noticed it.
“What did you bring me here for, Sire?” I asked. He nodded to Hugh and Hugh picked up a book and held it out--though not before raising an eyebrow at me. I took it.
”The Flower of the West,” I read off the cover and peeked into the pages.
“Have you heard of it?” the King asked. I gave him a half shrug, half nod.
“Yes, but only as a rather fantastic fairytale.” King Piotr and Hugh exchanged a look. I didn’t like it.
“We have reason to believe it is the only way for us to fight against the Scissa and prevail,” the King said bluntly. I opened my mouth and then snapped it shut. A fairytale. Really? He was expecting what of me exactly? To comment on its likelihood? Or to say I could use the plant, or...something?
“It doesn’t exist,” I finally said, just as bluntly.
“All historical accounts are against you on that one, Hana,” Hugh said smugly, “I’ve been researching for a while now. It seems the Flower of the West does exist, though only in a secluded valley, on the far end of the continent, just before the ocean shore.” Putting the book down on Hugh’s table, I took a deep breath and made the two of them wait for a moment as I stopped the sarcastic reply of “Oh, so that’s all” that was threatening to burst from me.
“So, here’s what I’m hearing,” I went with instead, “One, the Scissa can only be defeated by this plant, presuming it does exist; and two, someone has to be crazy enough to travel over the plains, where the Scissa currently are--in case you forgot--, and then over the Eksil Mountains. Which are practically a death trap. I think my questions regarding the second point are probably obvious, but please enlighten me--how exactly would this mythical plant defeat the Scissa in the first place?”
“The accounts are vague,” Hugh admitted in annoyance. I would have shot a smirk at him, but the King interjected.
“You may not know this, Hana, but there are no records of the Scissa ever actually being defeated,” he began. I didn’t know. It took me aback.
“It seems in every instance they continued to scourge the land, until suddenly they disappeared,” King Piotr continued, “They would reappear in a century or two and do the same. In the end, Tyrmari suffered excruciatingly for months and sometimes years before they would disappear. The people were decimated every time and the land was unfarmable for at least another year after the Scissa left, causing even more deaths. There is no explanation for why the Scissa leave, and we have no hope that they’ll leave anytime soon. In some accounts, it was a decade before they disappeared.”
“But why look for the solution in a myth?” I asked, sobered by his words but unconvinced nonetheless.
“I’m telling you, Hana, it isn’t a myth,” Hugh said again, “I’ve been researching it since before the Scissa attacked, and was sure even then that it was real. There are so many different descriptions of the place where the Flower of the West can be found--and every last one of them correlates somehow. It wasn’t until King Piotr came to ask about possible ways to fight that I thought of the Flower. It’s a brief mention in only two of the accounts of the Scissa. They say the researchers of the time were reading about the Flower of the West, hoping to uncover its whereabouts.”
“And you think it means that the Flower could possibly be a way, or present a way, to fight against the Scissa?” I asked. Hugh nodded.
“It’s unlikely that something insignificant would show up twice and specifically in accounts like these.”
“It isn’t much to go on,” I pressed, “And why are you certain you can find the Flower of the West, when these other researchers couldn’t?”
“The majority of the archives were still hidden at those points in history. You know how they were uncovered only centuries ago during King Eliron’s rule? The accounts that mention the Flower are before his rule, but after the time the archives are believed to have been lost.”
I sighed, ready to let him have his moment. If the Flower of the West wasn’t a myth, so much the better. Whether it was actually something that could be helpful against the Scissa or not, I couldn’t say. I wouldn’t believe it until the Flower was in my own two hands and had actually proven itself.
“And what is the favor you brought me here for, King Piotr?” I asked, suddenly on edge at the way the King’s eyes pierced me. He wouldn’t...?
“I would like you to find the Flower of the West.”
Dash it all, I wasn’t about to go on a mission of self-impending death for a plant that might literally just be another pretty flower.
But this King looked at me so earnestly, I felt bested by his love for his people--of whom I was one.
And only Heaven knows how I ended up asking, “Who’s coming with me?” instead of refusing point blank.
“If I was not suddenly King, I would be with you every step of the way,” he said, and I saw the sadness in his eyes and I felt at once that it came from his unwillingness to send others into danger that he himself would not be entering, “but,” he continued, “I am sending two of my most loyal guards with you. And Hugh will accompany you as well.”
Hugh started at that, looking at the King in shock. After an initial moment of irritation, I was pretty pleased with the announcement myself, as Hugh was completely and utterly taken aback to hear it.
“M-m-me, Sire?” he stuttered out. King Piotr nodded.
“Of course. You will lead them. It would be silly to send just a map when you can also send a man who can read the map better than anyone.” Hugh gulped nervously, but nodded in spite of his reluctance. It was just that way with this King. His intensity of purpose and his sincerity made it impossible but to respond in kind.
“Yes, Sire,” Hugh said aloud after composing himself a bit better.
“Excellent. You leave tomorrow,” King Piotr smiled gratefully at us both, “Pack whatever personal supplies you need, and I’ll have food packed for you tonight. You’ll come to the throne room at dawn and I’ll send you off with my two guards.”
“Tomorrow?” I blinked in surprise. So soon? Wasn’t this a thing you had to prepare months in advance for? Or at least weeks?
“Tomorrow,” the King said firmly, “It looks as though it will rain—and we should hope it does. The Scissa do not like the rain, and your best chances of crossing the plain without worry is to do it in the rain.”
“I need to go prepare then,” I said, mostly to myself, ticking off the things that would need to be done in my head. I needed to tell the other healers, show them the best way to grind the chalkberries, run through again with at least one of them how to make the salve...
“Please do,” King Piotr said, “You are both dismissed. Do what you must.”
What I must, he said. I scurried through the halls, powders and salves and a mess of laundry tucked into a corner all running through my mind. What I must, he said.
“Must I go, then?” I muttered to myself. I was quite surprised when my heart clenched and answered for me.
“Yes,” it declared, “you must.”
Not for me
Once there was a little spoilt girl trapped inside the will of a crone.
She had always been spoilt and had never learnt to overcome the urge to rage at the injustices and ills of being young and not mature.
She railed at the injustice of no power, for children are always expected to be seen and not heard.
In time she aged in body but not in mind. Spoilt as her spirit was, she grew stunted and gnarled. She lost the innocent shell of youth and became disfigured, all the while raging and ranting at the woes of development and the slowness of ripening.
Years flowed, and the spoilt girl flowered as a thorn. She was taken by a man and begat two children for him. She soured him with her childish tantrums and spoilt ways. He ran off to the foreign legion never to return.
Of course this riled the petulance of the girl crone and the more she twisted herself with anger and curses of injustice.
Alone with two children and a raging anger she found herself unfit for work and useless to the beauties of life around her. She took to the street begging for small coins and scraps of whatever was on offer. She learnt to live and grew more dark in spirit and thought.
Her two children when of an age conspired to run away for a cloud of gloom followed their mother and this was effecting them. They fled under the cover of darkness one bleak eve.
Bitter and spoilt was the girl trapped in a crone.
She learnt not to smile nor weep nor groan but to beg and be glad that this talent, as she saw it, had not fled her as her children and husband. Her pains became her refuge and her ills her blanket.
Time waltzed and nothing changed for the girl trapped in a crone. Then one noon upon a busy market a messiah was passing and unto the girl trapped in a crone he extended his grace for he was keen to her plight.
Gnarled and twisted she was with scars of pain and tragedy. The messiah revealed a miracle unto her and released the girl trapped within the crone.
There was a joyous cry from the throng of people around the miracle. They cheered and wept in happiness for all had seen the hideousness of the crone disappear.
Yet amongst the joy there was a wail. A wail so pitiful and spoilt that all were silenced by its sorrow. They turned to see the spoilt young thing screeching in spite. “This is not what I want This is not what I prayed for; I prayed for vengeance on my husband and wretchedness for my miserable children that abandoned me.
Why have you done this to me you do-gooder why have you taken away my only means of getting money and scraps? How can I beg now? They will laugh and tell me to go away and grow up.”
All were stunned at the ungratefulness of the girl crone. Yet none could answer her question, not even the messiah, for he saw then the folly of his deed.
There is no place for light when shutters bar the day; and no day can pass where noon does not shine. So is the way of nature.
Burying a loved one is never easy. Tears are expected, condolences anticipated. You spend days thinking about the person you just buried six feet below the ground, reliving every moment spent with them. But burying four loved ones?
It was unimaginable.
Years could pass, but the pain would always be there. It would never truly go away.
And that’s what worried Nicole and Kevin Aldrich as they stared at their nieces sleeping form. It was only a matter of time before she woke up from a nightmare, the rude awakening by her subconscious a routine the past two weeks.
The older couple moved away from the bedroom, softly closing the door behind them. Boxes littered the hallway, the young girl putting off unpacking her belongings.
“She’s starting to lose weight.” Nicole commented, chewing on her lower lip worriedly. “She needs to eat. This isn’t healthy.”
“We can’t force food down her throat, honey.”
“But we can’t let her starve.”
“She’s not starving,” he assured her. She gave him a look that clearly said she didn’t believe him, and he leaned forward to place a soft kiss on her forehead. Nicole wrapped her arms around her husband, needing the warmth of his hold. “She’s gonna be okay, Nic. She’ll get through this.” He gently ran his hand over her hair. “So will you.”
Tears welled up in her eyes, her emotions bubbling over as she allowed them to roll freely down her cheeks. “I still can’t believe they’re gone. My big sister is gone. And John, he was like my brother.” A sob escaped her throat. “Anna and Ben...they were just children. Who would want to hurt innocent kids?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed, his heart breaking for his wife. “I just don’t know.”
Tears stained his white t-shirt as Nicole buried her face in his chest, continuing to break down. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
Kevin hated seeing his wife like this. When they had gotten the call about her sister and their family...he had never seen her cry like that. She had fallen to the floor, the phone beside her as tears continuously rolled down her cheeks. Her cheeks had taken a pale tint, and her lungs had struggled to take in oxygen.
He knew something terrible had happened just from the sight before him.
“Maybe you two should talk to a therapist.” He suggested, gauging her reaction.
He wasn’t surprised when she immediately shook her head. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt, hands slightly trembling. “Talking won’t help, Kev. If she won’t talk to us, her own family, there’s no way in hell she’ll talk to a stranger. And we can’t force her to do something she doesn’t want.”
“Maybe starting school will help,” he shrugged. “She’ll meet new people, make some new friends.”
“She stopped talking to her best friend back home.” Nicole pointed out. “It breaks my heart to say it, but I don’t think she’ll ever be the same.”
Charlotte, North Carolina was different than the Big Apple. While New York was always bustling with people at ungodly hours, Charlotte was the opposite. Erin Clayton never needed the sound of an alarm to wake her up, not until she moved. She enjoyed the loud noises, as odd as that sounded.
But as of two weeks ago, she didn’t enjoy much of anything.
Reaching over to shut her blaring alarm, Erin slowly sat up, using her palms to rub her bleary eyes. Like clock work, she had woken up in the middle of the night to her usual nightmare, leaving her panting and dripping in sweat.
Glancing at the time, she internally groaned, the urge to crawl back under the covers and sleep the day away strong. But that’s all she ever wanted to do; sleep. And cry. Sleep, cry, sleep, cry...that had been her routine since the day her whole life changed.
Dragging her body out of bed she trudged to the bathroom, turning on the water of the shower and allowing steam to fill up the small space. She stared at her reflection in the mirror, barely able to recognize herself. Her eyes that practically sparkled were now lifeless, empty. The smile that she always had painted on her face was gone, erased from existence.
Erin could spend hours in the shower, letting the hot water hit her skin. It was her sanctuary, the one place no one would bother her. It left her alone with her thoughts. She would sit on the tiled floor, her head bent, and just let the water cascade over her naked body. Then she would cry. Cry her eyes out and allow her tears to mix with the water as it traveled down the drain.
She desperately wanted to follow after it.
Today was her first day at her new school, thanks to her aunt and uncle. They believed that getting out of the house and meeting new people would help her deal with things. It had barely been three weeks since she lost her family. How could they think she would move on so quickly? She wasn’t so sure she would move on at all.
She reluctantly climbed out of the shower, grabbing the fluffy towel off the hook to wrap around her body. Grabbing another one for her hair, she wrapped it around her head. Her movements felt robotic as she reached for her toothbrush, dropping a glob of toothpaste onto the bristles.
Going to school and being dubbed the new student was the last thing she wanted to do. She didn’t want to meet new people, make new friends. All she wanted to do was stay home and sleep. And yet she forced herself to get dressed, not bothering to put in any effort in her outfit. She settled on sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt, finishing her ensemble off with her worn out converses. She wasn’t looking to make a first impression; she didn’t care what anyone thought of her.
Grabbing her nearly empty backpack, she hiked it over her shoulder and stepped out of her room. She glanced at her barren walls, the emptiness of her room matching her soul. In New York, her bedroom was covered with photos of her friends and family, the walls painted a nice shade of blue.
Her new bedroom had taken a drastic change, but so had she.
Erin bounded down the stairs, the smell of fresh pancakes and bacon immediately wafting up her nose. Normally the aroma of delicious breakfast would have her mouth salivating and her stomach growling, but her appetite had disappeared. She would occasionally nibble on a piece of fruit or some toast, but couldn’t will herself to eat an actual meal.
“Hey, honey.” Her aunt smiled warmly at her as she entered the kitchen, apron wrapped around her waist as she stood in front of the stove. “Are you hungry? Your uncle had to go to work early, so there’s plenty of food.”
“Not hungry,” Erin muttered.
Nicole’s smile faltered, and she let out a small sigh. She placed the last pancake onto a plate beside her, shutting off the stove’s fire. Untying the apron, she set it down on the counter and grabbed the plate of pancakes, placing it on the kitchen table as she took a seat. “Erin, you need to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.” She repeated.
Her voice was filled with finality, ending the discussion then and there. Her gaze was rested on the floor, but she could still feel her aunt’s eyes on her. They were filled with worry and concern, and she hated it. She didn’t want anyone looking at her like she was glass and could break at any moment. That’s all that anyone did from the moment the incident hit the news and she became an orphan.
She couldn’t even step outside without someone recognizing her, giving her those damn eyes that she had become accustomed to. She absolutely despised those that looked at her. And the ones that had the audacity to ask how she was doing? She screamed at them. She screamed until her throat burned, until her face turned red.
She didn’t have the energy to scream anymore.
Clearing her throat, Nicole forced herself to smile again. “Well, you better get going to school. Don’t want to be late on your first day.”
Erin nodded, getting to her feet. They felt like lead, heavy and unwilling to move.
“Do you want to borrow my car? I don’t plan on leaving the house today, so it’s no problem.”
“I’m just gonna take the bus.” Erin simply replied.
Nicole nodded, and leaned forward to kiss her niece’s cheek. “Try to have a good day, okay? I know this is hard for you, it’s hard for me too, but just try.” She gently brushed the back of her finger against her cheekbone. “Your parents would want you to have a good day and make new friends.”
Erin’s eyes immediately filled with tears at the mention of her parents. Unwilling to let them fall, she rapidly blinked and ripped herself out of her aunt’s grip, storming out of the house. Her chest rapidly rose and fell as she tried to control her breathing, wanting to prevent an anxiety attack. She had been terrified when she first experienced one, but they had become a regular occurrence that she almost expected them.
She was able to calm down by the time the bus arrived to take her to school. Gripping her bag a little tighter, she stepped onto the large vehicle. Eyes immediately fell on her as she walked down the tight aisle and grabbed the nearest empty seat, the bus driver barely giving her a chance to do so before he was speeding off down the street.
Having lived just a few minutes from her high school in New York, she had never ridden a school bus, always walking with her friends or her mom when she was little. She felt almost out of place, something she would be feeling all day.
Despite living in North Carolina for two weeks, she had yet to explore anything outside her bedroom. As she stared out the window of the bus, she noted how many trees there were, blurs of green whipping past. She couldn’t stop herself from cracking the smallest smile, her love of nature coming through. No matter where she went, she would always have nature.
It would never abandon her.
Lost in her own little world, Erin hadn’t noticed when the bus stopped at Providence high school. She waited for everyone to exit the bus before getting up herself, releasing a shaky breath. When the bus driver gave her a warm smile as she walked down the narrow aisle, she did her best to smile back.
Her lips barely twitched upwards.
You’ll be fine, she thought to herself, staring at the intimidating building in front of her. She didn’t understand why she was so nervous. It was just school, she could handle it. Yet her heart was hammering in her chest, a thin layer of sweat forming on her trembling hands.
She quickly glanced up at the sky, noting that there wasn’t a single cloud in sight. Was the beautiful weather a sign that her family was looking after her? She hoped so.
Providence high school was a pretty large school, over two thousand students attending. And as she walked through the double doors, the chatter hitting her ears instantaneously, she couldn’t help but agree. The school she had attended in New York was half the size, and she had known everyone in her senior class. She knew no one here, and that was terrifying.
Her aunt had informed her that she would have to report to the office once she got to school, but she found herself getting lost, student after student bumping into her. She felt so out of place, so lost. She could feel eyes on her as she maneuvered her way down the hall, desperately searching for the office. The last thing she wanted to do was ask for directions.
But then she found herself bumping into a hard chest, her nose making contact with the soft fabric of a shirt. Her gaze had been so focused on the tile floor that she hadn’t been paying attention as she walked. And as she looked up to meet the face of the person she had bumped into, her cheeks flushed, her ears burning with embarrassment.
Brown eyes stared down at Erin, eyebrows furrowed in a mixture of concern and amusement. “Are you okay?” The stranger asked.
Erin rubbed her nose, her face scrunching up in slight discomfort. She gave a quick nod, trying to not look at the random guy. She had gotten a quick glance at him when she backed away, and oh my. There was only one word processing through her head. Damn.
“I haven’t seen you around before,” the nameless guy commented, tilting his head to the side slightly. “First day?”Another nod. “Where are you headed?”
“Um, the office.” She mumbled, finally gaining her voice. She couldn’t believe she bumped into this guy, a complete stranger, because she couldn’t bother to pay attention.
“Oh, then you’re actually going the wrong way. Go back a little and then make a right. The office will be on your left.” He took a pause, then shrugged. “How about I walk you there so you don’t get lost again?”
Erin cleared her throat, hiking her backup higher up on her shoulder. “No, that’s okay. I can manage on my own.”
Before he could utter a reply, she turned on her heel and walked away. A sliver of guilt hit her, and she turned her head slightly to see him standing in the same spot. Rather than walk back over and apologize, she continued her trek to the office.
The day had barely begun, yet she wished it was over.
Redemption from Bullies?
We lived in Melbourne from when I was 7 until I was 11. Coming from Sydney, I felt like a fish out of water. It got colder than I could ever remember and we had to start wearing thermals and skivvys under our clothes, which I hated. At school, the first question I was asked by the kids was “who do you barrack for?” Embarrassed, I said I don’t know, which made them tease me.
Mum told me to just say I went for Collingswood, the Magpies, because her father had played for them. She taught me they wore black and white, and explained that in Victoria they had different football, VFL it was then, and it was taken very seriously. My confidence boosted, the next day at school I proudly informed the third grade of my heritage, which invoked a certain awe from the boys.
Overall, I found it all very confusing and overwhelming. The kids were often excited about going to the footy on the weekend, and soon it was discovered I never went and could not go. The footy was on the Sabbath (Saturday) and therefore was off the menu completely. The Sabbath lasted from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset and during that time there was to be no work, no play, it was holy time. Poor little me tried to explain this to the kids, believing entirely in honesty, but was horrified to learn this turned them against me. Thus began the taunting and bullying that took me 2 years to overcome.
“You’re so posh! Why do you talk like that?”
“Ooooh look at Miss Goody-Two-Shoes all prim and proper in her full uniform, she’s from Syd-ney, she’s too good for us”
I pleaded and begged with my mother to allow me to wear a more casual form of the uniform, and no uniform at times too, so I could fit in. She wouldn’t have a bar of it. We had standards to uphold, she told me, and were here to set a good example. Would God want you to dress like a slob? Would you see the Queen dressing like that? I gave up in the futility of my quest.
Fortunately for me, I developed two friendsships, Narelle and Lisa, and they were not like the other girls. We thought the other girls were boring. I sat with them in class sometimes and played with them sometimes. Later they would become my best friends, but meantime I was often on my own, running away from the boys taunting and threatening me.
I refused to cry when they caught me. No matter what they did, they were not going to get the satisfaction of seeing me cry. They hit me, pulled my hair, and kicked me. I’d eventually escape to their peels of cruel laughter and find a teacher to dob them in to. But nobody ever did anything about them.
At night I couldn’t sleep, reliving the horrors of the day and dreading tomorrow. I started to take a book and a torch to bed with me to read until I fell asleep. Months later, things had deteriorated so much, I cried every night instead. Pleading every night with my parents not to send to school anymore, I was beyond desolate.
One day, the bullies decided they were sick of getting no reaction from me, no crying. After a particularly brutal beating at lunch time this day, Trevor grabbed me by my long blonde hair, and bragged that this will make me cry. With a forceful tug of his fist, I began to be dragged along the asphalt. I still didn’t make a sound. He kept going, kept going, until tears stung my eyes and my grazed body wept with degradation.
“Stop!!!” I yelled. “Stop doing this to me!!!”
Shocked, he dropped me. Speechless, he held my gaze for a moment, then scampered away with all his mates.
Mum was enraged. That was it for her, she would sort this ratbag kid out and he won’t DARE touch her daughter again. Suddenly everyone was taking me seriously and it felt strange.
The very next morning, Mum walked to school with me, her confident hip-swinging stride giving my heart a faint glow of hope. Not knowing what Mum would do or how she would do it, but hoping fervently that she could magically make this bullying stop, I felt nervous and scared and excited all at once.
We got to the school, and as usual in the front yard there they were.
“Which one is he? The ringleader, the one who dragged you by your hair?” Mum asked me. I pointed to him. Mum marched boldly up to Trevor and addressed him firmly and loudly by his full name. Turning around and caught off guard, Trevor looked scared. Mum grabbed his shirt collar and hoisted him up in the air so he was level with her eyes. She shook him, then said loudly, “Don’t you EVER touch my daughter again, do you understand?” He got the look in her eyes and quivered, saying “Yes, Mrs Wilson”. She tossed him back on the ground and glared at his open mouthed mates. “The same goes for the rest of you. Don’t let me find out any of you hurt my daughter again!” she growled. Then she turned on her heel, and stalked back to me to say goodbye, and leaving bewilderment in her wake.
Suddenly everything was different. Trevor’s mates turned on him, and teased him for being scared of my Mummy. The terrifying Trevor existed no longer. Without his pack, he was nothing. He never was let back in, and I was not bullied again at that school.
Next in store for me, was a real surprise. Trevor wanted to “go out” with me. Oh I laughed at that, after all he did to me how dare he? Having noticed his long curly black eyelashes that I envied, I realised this would be a weakness to him. I started telling everyone he was the “King of Mascara Man”. It worked, and from now til 6th grade he came to know how alienating he had been, he knew how it had made me felt, and he became a sad looking boy.
By 6th grade, I’d felt it was wrong that I’d done that to him, thinking two wrongs don’t make a right, but it was too late to do anything about it now. I just hoped when he had a new start in highschool, he wouldn’t forget this lesson, and never hurt a defenceless girl again.
#Bully #redemption #schoolbullying #stopthebullying #mystory #nonfiction #